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6.16 pm

Mr. Berry: I shall not detain the House for more than a few moments, but I should like to make three brief points.

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Throughout Report, and so far on Third Reading, too, hon. Members have concentrated almost entirely on part 1, which deals with special educational needs. Part 2 is concerned with attacking discrimination in education on grounds of disability. How welcome it is that we finally have provision to make unfair discrimination unlawful not only in the schools sector but in further and higher education. The Bill corrects a major deficiency of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995--the exclusion of education from part III of that Act, which outlaws discrimination in the provision of goods and services.

The previous Government's arguments were that education had to be excluded because it was dealt with in other legislation, and because the money would be spread too thinly. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to things in print that people might regret, and when I popped out for a sandwich half an hour ago, I read part of the report of the Committee proceedings on the Disability Discrimination Bill, during which some pretty strange arguments were given for excluding education. I am delighted that this Bill will ensure that disabled people have the same rights and opportunities in education as they have elsewhere in society.

Secondly, I congratulate the Government not only on the high priority that they have given the Bill, but on the extensive consultation that has taken place. I shall not labour the point because I did so on Second Reading. It is difficult--indeed, impossible--to find any organisation of disabled people, parents or teachers, inside and outside special education, who do not welcome the Bill. They want it to be enacted as soon as possible.

Before 3 May, some organisations asked me whether the Bill would be passed before the general election. I suggested that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State might have thought of that possibility and that provision might have been made to ensure that the Bill would be passed before any general election. The consultation exercise had been so extensive and had commanded such popular support that the Special Educational Consortium and other groups were afraid that the Bill might not get through. I am delighted that it looks as if it will be passed before the next general election.

Thirdly, the Bill is clearly part of the Government's policy to implement our commitment at the last general election to secure comprehensive, enforceable civil rights for disabled people. Part 2 is an absolutely fundamental part of meeting that commitment. That is welcome, and is part of the wider agenda on disability rights, including the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission, the new deal for disabled people, the disabled persons tax credit and so on.

Of course, there is still a lot to do. I have many concerns about charging disabled people for personal services--which perhaps the next Government will address more vigorously than has been done so far. By any fair assessment, the Bill and other measures introduced by the Government seeking to secure equal rights and opportunities for disabled people have made a break with history. Progress over the past four years has been dramatic and fundamental. I congratulate my right hon. Friend, his colleagues and all those who have helped to introduce the Bill and the other measures. Today, many disabled people will celebrate the fact that the Bill and the other Government measures have reached the statute book.

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6.20 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): You will appreciate more than most, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that my parliamentary duties in other Committees prevented me from serving on the Committee that considered the Bill. However, I pay tribute to those on both sides of the House who did so, as it is clear that a great deal of hard work has gone into the Bill.

I have followed the progress of the Bill through all its stages in both Houses of Parliament with great interest and have participated on the rare occasions on which I have been able to do so. I did that because I have particular constituency interest in the Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate, in my constituency of North Thanet. I am therefore a parliamentary supporter of NASS--the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools--which has made representations to me and, through my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and me, to the Committee and Ministers.

After all that hard work, I am left with two areas of considerable unease. It was plain in exchanges earlier this afternoon on new clause 2 that, in spite of fine words, there is a hidden agenda which says, "Mainstream good, special school bad", or at least, "Mainstream good and preferable, special school under some circumstances, if all else fails." That is unacceptable and I share the view expressed by the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Booth--as she liked to be known when she fought the North Thanet parliamentary seat in 1983--when she recently visited Gap House school in Thanet. After her visit, she told the local press that mainstream education was not suitable for every child.

I agree entirely, and I did not get the feeling from Government Members who responded to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) that they believed what they said. As I said, I have followed the debate very carefully indeed. Not every child is suited to mainstream education and not every mainstream school is suitable to provide for the needs of children with SEN. It is a case of horses for courses and using existing facilities, whether in the maintained or non-maintained sector. The hearing- impaired unit at Hampton primary school in my constituency, for example, provides an excellent facility; it is underused because there appears to be an imperative to send children to the school of parental choice which may, or may not, be able to provide for them and may not have the facilities that Hampton primary school can provide for hearing-impaired children.

A few moments ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said that special schools feel that they are under threat. Indeed they do. Gap House school, which the Prime Minister's wife visited, feels under threat, as does Foreland school. Rightly or wrongly, they feel that the Bill sends out the message that mainstream education is preferable at all costs. Inevitably, that means that some special schools will close.

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West) indicated dissent.

Mr. Gale: It is no good the hon. Lady shaking her head; my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough read from teachers' letters this afternoon. Labour Members did not like what he said, but he merely expressed what

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teachers were saying. I am merely voicing concerns expressed by those who speak with practical experience on the ground. The fear is there. The Bill will go through, but we shall watch carefully. When in government, we shall change it if it has the effect that some of us fear it may have.

I shall deal briefly with the position of the non- maintained schools. There is a feeling on the part of NASS that their voice has not been properly heard. I hope and believe that, even at this stage, Ministers and particularly the Secretary of State will meet NASS to discuss its concerns.

I want to place on the record the comments made to me in a letter by David Bond, who is the absolutely excellent principal and director of the Royal School for Deaf Children. He states:

that is, the Royal School for Deaf Children--

Mr. Bond continues:

The letter goes on:

Mr. Bond continues:

As I said, I have listened to the debates relating to the Bill and have participated in some of them. I remain of the view that the opinions expressed by NASS have not been taken on board, and that there is a bias against the non-maintained sector. I note in passing that there is a strong bias against parents who choose to send their special needs children to private schools. Those parents and those schools receive no support from the state.

I urge Ministers, when the Bill is on the statute book, to meet NASS and listen to its views. Instead of shunning the provisions offered by the non-maintained sector, they should recognise its value, harness its expertise, and use it to the benefit of the people who matter most, the special educational needs children--not the parents, not the local authority and not the Government.

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