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Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): Given what the Secretary of State says about the importance of special provision and the need to harness the undoubted expertise that is available, why does the Bill discriminate against non-maintained special schools such as the royal school for deaf children in my constituency? Why does he not want to harness that special expertise?

Mr. Blunkett: Not only are we not discriminating against non-maintained schools, but we have started to provide them with the devolved revenue and capital that we announced in the last two Budgets. That has not been a feature of any other Government, Labour or Conservative. We have reached out to the non-maintained sector and want to draw it into the regional planning process. If the hon. Gentleman feels that there is a specific problem concerning that school, I shall be happy to address it if he writes to me. We need to retain expertise in a range of provision that would otherwise not be available.

The Bill is designed to take us one step further on the road to getting this right; it is not the end of the story. I appeal to all hon. Members to ensure that it has a clear passage. I hope that, in the end, no one will be able to suggest that the Government or the Opposition sought party political gain. I certainly do not seek such gain, and I did not do so in the previous Session when mechanisms were used to delay the introduction of the measures under specific regulations.

The first 10 clauses apply only to England and Wales and cover special educational needs elements. Part II has 30 clauses and covers disability issues in education, with the exception of strategic planning and access functions in Scotland, which are dealt with by the Scottish Parliament. Otherwise, the measures in part II apply throughout Britain; they do not include Northern Ireland, because equality is a devolved function.

Clause 1 contains a commitment to strengthen the right to a mainstream place for children with special educational needs where parents wish it and where it is not incompatible with the education of other children.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): If there is one part of the Bill about which I have a slight concern, it is that second caveat about the impact on other children. I am concerned that it might be used to justify not placing the emphasis on parental choice which my right hon. Friend and I would like to see.

Mr. Blunkett: That is one reason for our rejection of the reasoned amendment. A school needs to be able to show that it has made an effort to provide access and to accommodate a youngster. By being inclusive and gaining a reputation for supporting particular needs, some schools have found themselves swamped, and admissions have resulted in them being unable to fulfil the second condition in clause 1. Getting that right is a matter not simply of common sense but of reasonableness on the part of all those who take part in delivering an inclusive service. I have faith that people will get it right, but we need to provide protection to ensure that it happens in practice.

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Clauses 2 and 3 place a duty on the education authority to provide parent partnership services and arrangements for resolving and preventing disputes, which are another important part of getting it right. Clauses 4 to 10 amend existing special educational needs frameworks to streamline the process for parents and to maximise the benefits for children. That means slimming down bureaucracy and administration and making access to rights easier.

Part II deals with disability discrimination in education. It covers discrimination in schools and in post-16 institutions--that aspect that was not dealt with in the Learning and Skills Act 2000--and contains miscellaneous supporting provisions. Clauses 11 to 16 place new duties on education authorities and schools, including independent and non-maintained special schools in England and Wales, and on local authorities, independent, self-governing and grant-aided schools in Scotland.

In England, as well as in Wales and Scotland, the new duties include not treating disabled pupils less favourably than pupils who are not disabled, unless there is justification. There is also a duty to make reasonable adjustments so that disabled pupils are not put at a substantial disadvantage.

Additionally, in England and Wales there is a new duty to plan strategically and to make progress in improving accessibility to premises and to the curriculum. I mentioned premises earlier, but access to the curriculum is also important. The development of information technology is making that possible in circumstances that did not exist a few years ago, and we should take full advantage of it.

Clauses 17 to 25 provide enforcement through the special educational needs and disability tribunal in England and Wales and through the sheriff court in Scotland. Clauses 26 to 29 place new duties on colleges, universities and local education authorities in relation to adult education, community education and youth services. Those duties did not exist before, and will be enforceable through the tribunal in England and Wales, and through the sheriff court in Scotland. For adults, enforcement will be through the county court, or its equivalent in Scotland.

It is important to change attitudes. We cannot bring about a step change in equality simply through legislation. We can set the framework, begin to change the way in which people see problems, and consider ways of overcoming them. We have sought to do so by extending part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, by developing the new deal for disabled people, and by creating greater inclusion through the changes in the work of Remploy introduced by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking.

We have provided much better non-repayable grants and support for students with disabilities in post-16 and higher education, including part-time and postgraduate students. That provision did not exist before. We can ensure that we apply extra resources to make that happen, as we committed ourselves to do in the Green Paper. However, in the end, there must be a change in attitude and outlook. This will be about seeing ways round problems rather than seeing the problem, and about ensuring that when we talk about an inclusive society, we

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mean it for everyone. Let us all join together in taking yet one more step on the road to equality of opportunity, to inclusion and to social justice.

5.37 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I beg to move,

This is an important debate because the measures in the Bill will have a significant impact on the educational opportunities and development of children with special educational needs, and particularly those with disabilities. Because this issue is so important, we need to ensure that we get the Bill right, that we discuss it properly and fully, and that we consider its implications. In that connection, I am sorry about the tone that the Secretary of State took in some of his comments on the Bill.

I am happy to tell the Secretary of State that we support the principle of the Bill--that is, its desire to widen access to mainstream education and to ensure that no artificial barriers are put in the way of providing all children with the education that meets their needs. Much of the Bill builds on work done by the previous Government in the Education Acts of 1981, 1993 and 1996, all of which dealt with special educational needs.

When considering any legislation of this kind, it is essential to ensure that the needs of the child are paramount, and that the education provided genuinely meets the child's needs and is in their best interests. That focus on the child has driven the work of my colleagues in another place when scrutinising, and tabling amendments to, the Bill. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them and, in particular, to pay tribute to the work of Baroness Blatch, who has done sterling work in examining the detail of the Bill and suggesting improvements to it. In doing so, she has reflected the concerns and interests of parents of children with special educational needs, and the concerns and interests of disability organisations.

The Bill was initially promised in the Queen's Speech in 1999. We were then promised that the Government would publish a draft Bill, which did not materialise. That is a pity because a Bill such as this, which has a broad sweep of support in principle, is one where an early opportunity to consider a draft Bill would have been welcomed by many, including interest groups which, I know, regretted that they did not have that opportunity.

Now, however, we have a Bill to consider. As I have said, our approach is driven by the needs and interests of the child. Any approach to the issue must be characterised by a belief that the educational needs of all children must be accommodated; whatever the background, whatever the mental and physical needs or abilities of a child, our education system must be able to meet those needs and interests. It is important that the Bill ensures that schools, local education authorities and others act at all times in the best interests of the child.

At the moment, the Bill includes important provisions that ensure that the wishes of parents and the interests of other pupils in schools are heard. Indeed, it is necessary

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to consider other pupils in a school and the impact that the inclusion of a child with special educational needs will have on them. There are many examples showing that the inclusion of a disabled child in a mainstream school has enormous benefits for the child and his or her peers. I visit many schools that are already doing good work to include disabled children. Wessex infants school in my constituency has a unit for hearing-impaired children. On Monday, I was in Piggott secondary school in my constituency, which has a number of pupils who are wheelchair users.

When I visit such schools, I am struck above all by other pupils' attitude--or perhaps I should say their lack of attitude, as they treat disabled children as they do any other member of the class, which is as it should it be. The inclusion of those pupils therefore has a very positive benefit. However, situations will arise in which the inclusion of a child with special educational needs can have a deleterious impact on the education of others. That is most likely to occur when a child has behavioural problems. The inclusion of a particularly disruptive child in a mainstream class can damage the education of others.

It is therefore right that the Bill includes consideration of the provision of efficient education for other children as well as parents' wishes. However, it does not include a provision which would require action to be taken specifically either in accordance with the special educational needs of the child or in his or her best interests. In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State talked about having to balance competing needs and provide an education service tailored to the needs of children. I agree that we need a service tailored to children's needs and that we must balance competing needs. The Bill is flawed because it does not set out and balance those competing needs.

My colleagues in another place tried without success to insert the phrase

in the Bill. Indeed, on Third Reading in another place, my noble Friend Baroness Blatch said:

To most people, it is common sense that that should be the Bill's aim. So far, however, the Government have resisted pressure to include such a statement in the Bill, which is one reason why we tabled our amendment.

The importance of our approach is that it ensures that children with special educational needs are not compelled to attend a maintained school simply as part of some dogmatic drive that sets a target for inclusion above the needs of individual children. The needs of children must be assessed thoroughly, and then those children should be provided with the education that they need.

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