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Mr. Robertson: I said that that was happening in Gloucestershire. I cannot speak for what is happening in Lancashire or Yorkshire. As it is the Liberal Democrat and Labour alliance in Gloucestershire that is closing the schools, it is up to that alliance to explain why it is drawing the inference from the Government's actions that it is drawing. It is not for me, as a Conservative Member, to try to interpret the Bill or the reasons why the alliance is closing special schools in Gloucestershire. Bownham Park school in Stroud is under threat of closure. The notice has been served. I cannot explain why that is so, but that is the reality. Ministers have to accept that reality.
We have discussed whether resources will follow children, and whether sufficient resources will be put in. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made those important points. I have a further fear, also based on my experience in Gloucestershire. Rather than the resources following the pupils to the mainstream schools, quite the reverse can happen. Some local authorities are trying to close special schools to save money. Far from the resources following the children, the special schools are under threat of closure in Gloucestershire to save money.
To prove my point, the former director of education in Gloucestershire let slip a comment at a meeting that he had forgotten, for a moment, that I was attending. When challenged about saving money on the education budget, he said that, through the SEN programme, he was doing his damnedest. I rest my case.
Mr. Boswell: This has been--perhaps predictably, but certainly agreeably--a pleasant debate on a series of important issues involving parents, children with special educational needs and wider educational aspects. It has been very much in keeping with our earlier deliberations on the Bill.
The House may need to be reminded of what I consider to have been the most striking remark of the day. It was, I believe, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) who pointed out that this was a debating Chamber, that it was necessary for issues to be raised in it, and that, just occasionally, we might need to disagree.
I certainly consider it incumbent on those of us who have a reputation, however ill-justified, for being broadly in the consensus stream of politics to bear it in mind when we are passing what might be loosely described as consensus legislation--in an atmosphere of good will and general bonhomie--that, on certain occasions, that is not the right thing to do. The example of the Child Support Agency demonstrates that we must not take our eye off the ball, and must not forget our obligation to consider issues in detail.
I am now learning--not least from experience relating to what is now the Learning and Skills Act 2000--how to consider Bills that have already been considered in another place. Historically, we have tended to rely on the other place to tidy up after our mess; in some instances, especially that of this Bill, we are then faced with the task of validating the good work done there, which is perhaps more agreeable but is occasionally more inhibiting.
Consideration of the Bill has been, in a sense, politically anaesthetised from the start. That could have created an invidious situation, although I do not think it has done so in the event. Faced with the threat of the ultimate test outside this place--that of a general election--Ministers have put it about that if one jot or tittle of the Bill were altered, that might threaten its passage. I do not suggest that the SEN consortium is unduly credulous, but Ministers have certainly persuaded the consortium that that may happen.
On Second Reading--doing, I modestly hope, our job as Her Majesty's Opposition--we tabled a reasoned amendment expressing our main concerns about the Bill. The Government went around saying, "If you take any notice of these people, the whole thing will fall down flat." I think that on the whole we, as well as the Government, are relieved that that did not happen, that we have had proper discussions, and that we have made some progress.
I must add, however--in the spirit of our consideration--that the Opposition have not succeeded in amending the Bill. We have tried to do so, and we have had some interesting debates, but the Government have persisted in their policy of no change. One element--I acknowledged this in Committee, and I do so again--is that, in comparison with one or two other Bills that I may name later, this Bill is comparatively coherent and well drafted. I realise--I hope that Ministers do as well--that there may be some awful man trap in the detail, which we have not spotted so far. It is possible, for instance, that
Let me give encomiums where they are due. The Under-Secretaries the hon. Members for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) and for Barking (Ms Hodge)--the Ministers who handled the Bill in Committee--Labour Back Benchers, and Liberal Democrat Members have all done their best to be both conciliatory and, on the whole, receptive to points made by my hon. Friends and me and, indeed, by other Committee members. There has been a sense of a working session, in which serious assurances have been both sought and, in general, received. That is also a good omen for the way in which matters will proceed in the future.
I am also very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) for sharing the burden in Committee with me, and to my Back Bench colleagues for the way in which they made their points. That also applies to Back Benchers who have contributed to this debate, because it is important--even when we broadly agree on objectives and wish to be as conciliatory as we can--that we should have opportunities for Members to record, accommodate and consider their concerns so that they can be properly addressed and, if necessary, remedied. For example, this afternoon we had an interesting debate on the role of the inspectorate. The most important outcome of today's deliberations should not be our clucking about the great advance we have achieved--although we have done so--but a determination to make something of the matter in the future and to continue to attend to problems and difficulties as they arise.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) has a particular constituency, as well as personal, interest in non-maintained and special education, and he performed a valuable service by making his point. Indeed, one of the points that I had noted for mention tonight was my concern that the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools still had some outstanding problems with the Bill. I hope that the Minister will agree to the suggestion of a meeting with the association. A communication problem appears to have arisen with the eastern regional consortium, and concerns have been expressed that some local authorities may have hidden agendas--although no one alleges that the Minister shares them--to try to exclude the non-maintained sector from consideration. It is important that parents have a right to know about non-maintained schools and that such provision should be secured, if it is most appropriate for the child. That returns me to the particular and entirely proper insistence by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that the rights of the child should come first.
The hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) mentioned the civil rights aspect of the legislation, which we tend to overlook. When I was in government, we were aware of difficulties with that aspect--not least that of resources and, in some cases, of governance--but it is time to move on to include education in the civil rights agenda, given that the Disability Rights Commission and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 have now bedded
My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) expressed passionate reservations about the provision of special schools in his constituency and local education authority. We feel a certain unease in detail but generally accept the common aspiration to move towards inclusion wherever possible and to ensure that it works. However, therein lies the rub for the future. We can all get together in an atmosphere of consensus, but we must also recognise that we cannot achieve our aims just by aspiration and fine words. Much hard work and resources must go into achieving it. From the experience of the parents of children in special education, or those with special needs who are included, practitioners and some local education authorities, several problems still have not yet been ironed out and the Bill will not automatically remove them. There will have to be continuing work in looking at local authorities that do less well, individual schools that are failing or examples of inclusion that are not as good as they should be. Other specific areas of special need should be considered; Ofsted's current attention to the autism spectrum, for example, will need proper exploration. That work must be done; it cannot simply be wished through on the basis of our good will.
When we began considering the Bill in this place, after their Lordships had considered it, we had substantial reservations. There has been some progress in meeting those reservations, and we are glad about that. However, we continue to have some reservations about the practical delivery of this measure and its future resourcing.
Inclusion is a fine aspiration. I have often said that even if children with special educational needs are not included in school they are, by definition, included in life, and will have to come to terms with an adult world that is not always receptive to them. We have to find ways through this, but simply talking about inclusion as a kind of totem or as an aspiration that can be delivered automatically or on the cheap is not sufficient. We must ensure that it works.
I indicated earlier that I might have some news for the House. I am conscious of what the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has said, what has been said during the Bill's proceedings, the strong interest of the educational needs consortium and, indeed, the interest of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings in special education. That goes across the House. We are not in the business of making difficulties unnecessarily or of subverting legislation unless it is imperative to do so. We have a common objective, which is to serve the needs of children with special educational needs. In conclusion, we may be able, if not positively to assist the Government, at least not to resist them on Third Reading tonight.