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Standards and Privileges (Independent Appeals Body)

Mrs. Teresa Gorman accordingly presented a Bill to implement the recommendations contained in the sixth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 6 April, and to be printed [Bill 69].

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Orders of the Day

Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

5.3 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I have never met anyone yet who has not paid lip service to the need for improvements in special educational needs or disability rights. However, sympathy is of little comfort to parents and children, or to adult men and women who have a disability, when discrimination and lack of rights undermine their efforts to achieve equality of opportunity.

I had hoped, therefore, that we might have been able to build on the consensus that was developing in the House of Lords. Regrettably, the Opposition have decided to table an amendment, which means that I shall have to go into greater detail on the issues on which the amendment touches that could undermine that consensus.

It is not that there are no differences of opinion when it comes to achieving disability rights or bringing about equality of opportunity for people with special educational needs. Those differences exist, but debates can be conducted in a way that ensures that we secure the improvement--the step change--that the Bill promises. We can ensure that anomalies are ironed out, that obstacles are removed and that interests that can be promoted without undermining others' well-being are so promoted. [Interruption.] I am being heckled already, even though I plead guilty to saying nothing offensive or controversial--

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Or meaningful.

Mr. Blunkett: Or meaningful--I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that remark. I am always in favour of listening to the Opposition, even when they mumble away from a sedentary position.

I want to pay tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Blackstone for the way in which she conducted the Bill's proceedings in the Lords and for being prepared to listen and respond to requests for amendments and alterations in the code and the guidance. It is on that basis that we shall proceed. There were 92 amendments in the House of Lords. Although two thirds of them were technical, 27 were in response to concerns. I intend to continue conducting the Bill and the debate on the code and regulations in the same spirit.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), who has been conducting discussions with the various groups, including the consortiums, to get this right. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the

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Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), led the disability rights taskforce towards finding a way forward through difficult areas in relation to further disability rights. We have been able to accept the taskforce's recommendations and can move forward on them.

The Bill builds on the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. It enhances disability rights and extends the role of the Disability Rights Commission and the rights established under the Learning and Skills Act 2000. However, there is still a long way to go. Securing rights, not simply through writing them into legislation, but through the changing of attitudes, will take time.

The Bill is about having an education service that is tailored to the needs of children and the wishes of parents. It squares the circle when one claim sometimes leads to accusations that another set of rights has been infringed. It will overcome the contradictions when words appear to mean one thing but actually mean something else entirely. It was Humpty Dumpty in "Alice Through the Looking-Glass" who said:

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): That is not original.

Mr. Blunkett: It is not original because it is from "Alice Through the Looking-Glass". [Laughter.] No wonder all the king's horses and all the king's men could not put them together again. What a silly intervention.

Mr. Bercow: It was a particularly silly quote.

Mr. Blunkett: It was not. I am all in favour of promoting English literature at its best. The reason I used the quote was very simple: today's reasoned amendment and the interventions of Baroness Blatch in the other place were predicated on a misunderstanding of terminology relating to the needs of the child. If the needs of the child, as put together in a statement, are used by schools to prevent that child from having access to the parents school of choice, words are turned on their head and have the very opposite effect on that child's needs. That is why the debate in the other place, and presumably this debate, need to be predicated on getting right the balance between parental wishes and the avoidance of damage to other children's education.

We must ensure that we protect others and that, if a school's ability to deliver education adequately is undermined, other facilities are found for youngsters with special educational needs. We must try our utmost to ensure that we have an integrated education service--not necessarily in terms of an individual being placed in a particular school or setting, but we must always try to integrate the opportunity of the child.

It is always difficult to match parents' needs and requirements to what is available, and it always will be because supply and demand are not perfect. However, all of us want to ensure that, through the maintenance of adequate special school facilities and through meeting specific--sometimes profound--needs, we get that balance right.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): I thank my right hon. Friend for the award of more than £16 million that has just been made to Kirklees for special educational needs.

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When considering how to use that money to enhance education for children with special needs, would it not be right for the local education authority to reflect carefully on the words that my right hon. Friend has just spoken and to ensure that the child is at the centre of policy? A range of provisions should be available in the area so that children with both mild and severe learning difficulties can be accommodated in the education system.

Mr. Blunkett: I agree with that. I am pleased that my hon. Friend's campaign to retain Lydgate school has, apparently, been so successful. I understand that the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) visited the school, in a truly non-partisan fashion, to try to secure its future. We were all grateful for her intervention--as was the local council--[Interruption.] That caused a little kerfuffle and stir.

Mr. Bercow: Get on with it.

Mr. Blunkett: I am getting on with it. The hon. Gentleman should not be so irritable--[Interruption.]--and irritating. I was about to say something that he would be interested to hear.

Some right-wing thinkers and commentators on special needs education have something sensible to say. There is a tendency to label youngsters as having special educational needs when all that has happened is that they were poorly assessed as youngsters and poorly taught in school. If we can put that right, neither individuals nor schools will feel that the special educational needs label is required.

Furthermore, through baseline assessment and the development of the literacy strategy, we can tackle specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, with which I have some familiarity. It is important to be able to identify and thus to address conditions such as dyspraxia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and, indeed, autism in ways that we have not done previously, to try to meet the needs of the child in both mainstream and special schools.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): I hope that my right hon. Friend does not mind being squeezed by both sides of Huddersfield in such quick succession. Although some Labour Members disagree with some of Baroness Blatch's comments in another place, some parts of her speeches were good. She put her finger on the fact that there is a lack of consistent research into assessment and long-term outcomes--to consider what we actually do for those children over time. We need such research to check that evaluation is right, that what we are doing is right and that it leads to a successful outcome.

Mr. Blunkett: I have not spoken to my hon. Friend on this matter, but he inadvertently throws me up an easy ball. I agree with that point. That is why we are putting another £100,000 into research into dyslexia--as I can announce today. That will help us investigate causes and apply best practice. We need to do much more than we did in the past to get that right.

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