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Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): Surely it is clear that the Conservative party welcomes the Bill in general terms, because it builds on our own success with the three Bills that we introduced in our time in government that dealt with special educational needs. However, we question certain aspects of the Bill, and the purpose of any amendment on Second Reading is to make those concerns concrete, which is exactly what we are doing.
Mr. Berry: Yes, the amendment gives reasons, but a little more effort would have made its terms slightly more persuasive. It does not say that the Conservatives welcome the Second Reading of the Bill and will propose amendments in Committee to improve it further.
Mr. Gale: I think that I am right in saying that every organisation that the hon. Gentleman has prayed in aid, while welcoming the Bill, has also sought amendments to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made a point relating to a school in my constituency. Conservative Members have learned the hard way that the Government do not listen and will not accept amendments, even intelligent amendments, to Bills, which is why we must go down a road that none of us would choose to go down. If the Government would listen, things would be different.
Mr. Berry: Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I had thought that this was a Second Reading debate. I shall show that in the other place the Government have listened on a number of matters, and I am pleased about that. I may even, if tempted, list areas where I think there is scope for modest refinement. [Hon. Members: "Ah".] My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at the outset of the debate that these are extremely important matters,
Mrs. May: The purpose of a Second Reading debate is to consider the principle behind a Bill. One of the key principles of the Bill that concerns us is that it does not put the best interests of the child at the heart of the legislation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the best interests of the child should be the aim of the Bill?
Mr. Berry: Education legislation should be clear on what education authorities are supposed to do, and of course the interests of the child are extremely important. Clearly, I have touched a raw nerve, and I was hoping to be non-political. I was slightly confused by the Opposition amendment. Perhaps they are now saying that they will support Second Reading.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): The hon. Gentleman went through a long list of charities that he reckons support the Bill. Not one of those charities has contacted me in Gloucestershire. Could it be because they are beginning to see the reality of the Government's policy through the wholesale closure--despite the Secretary of State's denial--of special schools in the county? Is that why those organisations in Gloucestershire do not support the Bill?
Mr. Berry: I was not "reckoning" that those organisations support the Bill: I was quoting what they had said to me in writing. I can let the hon. Gentleman have my file of letters. With respect, if the hon. Gentleman is not aware of the position taken on the Bill by those organisations that is his problem.
Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend forgets to tell Conservative Members that the special education consortium not only welcomes the Bill, but it is so anxious to get the legislation that it is seeking no further amendments to it.
Part I amends the current framework for special educational needs, and most of the debate has so far focused on that. I want to say a few words about part II, which amends the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): I can produce written evidence from two organisations that would not want to be missed off my hon. Friend's list. The Local Government Association and the National Association of Head Teachers have written to all Members supporting the Bill.
I am tempted to say--I cannot resist temptation--that the 1995 Act was not introduced because the Government of the day wanted it. Indeed, they had been assiduous in trying to prevent such legislation. They had blocked a previous Bill in such a ham-fisted and devious manner that it led to a massive public outcry, and the DDA was introduced on the hoof. It is frequently pointed out that when the Bill came back from the other place there were more pages of amendments tabled by the then Government to their own legislation than there were pages in the original Bill. I mention that merely to point out that the DDA was drafted on the hoof by a Government who did not want it. It is hardly surprising that the DDA is seriously flawed: it did not provide for a Disability Rights Commission; it contained a too narrow definition of disability and a small firm exemption under the employment provisions; and it excluded education.
After the election, the Government set up the taskforce to consider how best to proceed--initially, with the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission. That provision reached the statute book in 1999, and the commission opened its doors in April last year. The Government have recently responded to the taskforce's recommendations for further improvements in legislation. It is important to put this Bill in that context.
I am delighted that, on the definition of disability, the DDA is to be extended to provide legal protection to those with non-symptomatic cancer or HIV, that small employers are to be covered, and that, before Christmas, in the other place, the Government introduced this Bill on access to education. This is part of a wider and substantial disability agenda.
There is still a lot to do, as my right hon. Friend said, and we could all raise some issues for attention in the future. However, by any fair assessment, there is a dramatic contrast between the Government's policies on disability and those of their predecessor. I am proud to be a supporter of a Government with such a record. I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues, past and present, who have brought about these progressive changes. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), who is present, and her predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth), have worked on the disability rights agenda, and I am proud to be associated with them. They have done and are doing a fantastic job.
I want to refer to funding, and particularly the schools access initiative, which my right hon. Friend has already mentioned. Although we all know that the provision of more public money is not the only way in which to improve people's lives, on many occasions it makes a fair amount of difference, and this initiative is a classic example of that.
While I am in the mood for congratulation, let me congratulate Scope and the National Union of Teachers. Readers of the New Statesman--who, no doubt, include Members in all corners of the Chamber--will have observed an advertisement in this week's issue congratulating the Government on their spending programmes for the schools access initiative. One of the first documents that I read on becoming a Member of
The New Statesman advertisement reminds me that allocations have increased dramatically under the present Government. My right hon. Friend has already given the figures. The fact that we are currently spending five times more on the access initiative than the last Government spent during their last year in office, and that in two years' time we shall be spending 10 times as much, illustrates the priority that we have attached to the programme. It is a wonderful programme, which deals with key access issues. The standards fund for special educational needs has also been increased dramatically: this year it will be three times larger than it was during the final year of the last Government.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Conservatives also consider the report on schools access to be constructive and worth while? It is not merely a paean of praise for the past practice of either Government; it issues some interesting and pointed directions for the future, suggesting that there should be--as it were--better access to the access initiative, and that it should be distributed more equitably in that more schools should be made aware of it.