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The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): I hope that it was not mine.

Mr. Griffiths: I assure my right hon. Friend that it was not.

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That certainly brought home to me how disabling lack of sight and partial sight can be. I believe in the participation of the whole class and school.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): The hon. Gentleman's argument is persuasive and I believe that his new clause is reasonable. Has he or the organisations to which he spoke made any financial assessment of the impact on the DFEE of introducing such a provision?

Mr. Griffiths: I do not have such information, although I understand that it is available. I do not believe that the provision would be a great financial burden. I shall refer later, without specifying figures, to matters in Wales which show that the commitment would not account for a huge part of the education budget. The costs involved would be offset by the huge benefits that would be gained for partially sighted and sensorily impaired children.

Part of the problem is that mobility and independence needs are frequently not specified as special educational needs in part 2 of the statement, and consequently are not identified as educational provision that the LEA considers it necessary to make under part 3 of the statement. Instead, special educational needs may be included in part 5 of the statement, which deals with non-educational needs, and in part 6, as the non-educational provision agreed between the LEA and health and social services.

LEAs have a duty to arrange the special educational provision specified in part 3 of a statement, and parents have a right of appeal to the tribunal if they disagree with the description of needs, the provision or any plans to stop making the provision by ceasing to maintain the statement. However, none of that applies if mobility and independence training are included in parts 5 and 6 as non-educational provision. LEAs simply have the power to arrange provision. The RNIB considers that a significant factor in explaining why so many children are not gaining access to the training that they require.

Recognising mobility and independence training as educational needs within the statutory assessment and statementing process would provide LEAs with the necessary incentive to ensure that what is specified in the statement is carried out. If mobility and independence training becomes part of the specified provision, it will be possible for children who are visually impaired or have multi-sensory impairments to receive, under the statement, properly specified, the help that they need through mobility and independence education.

As I said, such training is fundamental to allow the children to play a full and proper part in their school. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will respond positively to the issues that I have raised, and that when the special educational needs code of practice is published it will take account of those needs.

I should be interested to know what other plans for action the Department has to meet the needs of children with visual and multi-sensory impairments so that they can participate fully in the schools that they attend, particularly when those are mainstream schools, in accordance with the Government's aim to make inclusion a reality for those children and their families.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Not for the first time, as we know from having heard his contributions in the

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Standing Committee, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) has performed a service by raising issues sensitively and with a good deal of perception. I agreed with a good deal of what he said, and it is right that Ministers should respond to it--although in view of the load of business that we have this afternoon, we will all have to keep our remarks as short as possible.

I share many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Bridgend and have had many of the same experiences. I, too, had a trial run with a guide dog, and found that interesting. At the edge of my constituency is the centre for dogs for the disabled. Those people do not necessarily have sensory impairment, although they may have various impairments. I have been able, through the work of the centre, to see the great skill required to train the dogs, and then the users of the dogs, to make the best of that partnership.

2.45 pm

I shall summarise the points set out by the hon. Gentleman. The first, to which we refer in other new clauses, is the importance of the setting in which any mainstream education is to be delivered, and the importance of induction and training for all the participants--that is, the pupil, the teachers and, as was mentioned in an intervention, the other pupils, so that the best is made of the situation and nothing creates a difficulty.

Secondly, a continuing motif of our debates has been our concern about the comparatively low overall attainments of children with special educational needs, in terms of their final outcomes. We need not dissect that in detail today, and I certainly do not want to give the House the signal that we expect children with one or other special educational need necessarily to do badly in their school, particularly if they have a sensory impairment. Indeed--this is the last time that I shall mention it--the Secretary of State gives the most eloquent possible lie to that.

It is essential that every child should be able to perform to the best of his or her ability, and that any difficulties are effectively overcome. That is the entirely proper motive for the new clause. There must be concern, especially in what may be termed straightforward cases of sensory impairment--blindness or deafness--that those give rise to underperformance, which should not have happened.

The third point, which the hon. Member for Bridgend was right to raise, is the importance of a holistic approach. It is not simply a matter of putting children into the classroom, telling them that they are now included and part of the mainstream, and expecting them, the school, the other pupils or anyone else simply to get on with it. All the various aspects must be brought together. As the hon. Gentleman reminded the House, the new clause brings together the special provision of an educational nature that is specified in the statement, and the other things that an LEA may do to support the child.

There is a detectable functional distinction between those two categories, which hinges on what is or is not educational. An analogous case is the fraught issue of what is nursing care and what is support or personal care in residential care or nursing homes. We will get into difficulties if we seek to draw absolute distinctions between categories, especially where, by implication,

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the funding streams are different. We do not have an immediate answer to those problems, and we need to focus rather more on finding our way through them.

If Ministers tell the House that that is all secured under present arrangements, we will be reassured, but we will retain a degree of scepticism, as does the RNIB, about whether that is the case in practice. We should explore the issues in the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman moved the new clause, as a probing measure, and listen carefully to the ministerial response. The problem deserves attention and will not go away.

Mr. Andrew George: The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) emphasised the fact that the new clause raises issues that we may have overlooked in Committee. The intervention by the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) highlighted the importance of ensuring that the needs of pupils with a severe sensory loss are taken into account in the wider school environment and among other pupils. That is essential.

In the spirit of the new clause, which is meant as a probing amendment, the key point is for the Under- Secretary to reassure those who believe that the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) has raised an important matter that our concerns are encompassed in the Bill or in some other way. It would be helpful if such clarification were put on the record. Will she also comment on the difficulty and additional ties that the new clause would create for local education authorities, the Department for Education and Employment and local schools?

Mr. Win Griffiths: I omitted to mention what the RNIB said about Wales, which is relevant to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. It believes that two or three centres could be established in Wales to provide a service to all local authorities. Obviously, not every local authority would have the expertise that is necessary to make the provision. The scale of the proposal in terms of Welsh local authorities would be extremely small.

Mr. George: I am grateful for that helpful clarification of the extra dimension in Wales.

The Liberal Democrats support the spirit and purpose of the new clause and we look forward to hearing the Under-Secretary's response.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): Like other hon. Members, I welcome the opportunity that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) has given us to discuss a crucial issue. The new clause deals with a matter that is of concern to many families with children who have a visual or multi-sensory impairment: the training that such children receive to enhance their mobility and independence.

All hon. Members accept that it is vital for children with a visual or multi-sensory impairment to learn how to get around independently and safely in the school or institution in which they are undertaking their learning. Without those basic skills, visually impaired children will not enjoy properly inclusive education and will be excluded from society as adults. If visually impaired

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children are not taught the basic life skills that make for independence, they will be excluded from life at school and from society as adults.

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