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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 27 March 2001


[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): I beg to move,


    (1) during proceedings of the Standing Committee on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords], the Committee do meet—

    (a) on Mondays, at half-past Four o'clock;

    (b) on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, at half-past Ten o'clock and half-past Four o'clock; and

    (c) on Thursdays, at Nine o'clock and half-past One o'clock;

    (2) if not previously concluded, the proceedings of the Committee shall be brought to a conclusion at Five o'clock on Thursday 5th April.

I look forward to your chairmanship of the Committee, Mr. O'Brien. I have no doubt—I am sure that all hon. Members share this view—that your extensive experience as a Member of the House and as a Chairman of Standing Committees will be invaluable. We also look forward to your co-Chairman Sir David Madel taking the Chair when appropriate. I am sure that we shall all benefit from your guidance. I shall certainly benefit from your wisdom, fairness and firmness, although I hope to gain more from the first two than the last.

I look forward to working with the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) and my hon. Friend the Government Whip. They both bring considerable experience to the Committee, as does the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell)—and all other members of the Committee. A fine group of people is gathered here—[Hon. Members: ``Hear, hear.'']. Perhaps I should stop while I am ahead.

I am delighted to be taking forward this vital legislation. It builds on and improves the existing legislative framework for children with special educational needs, and it outlaws discrimination on the ground of disability in the provision of education. I am particularly pleased that we are announcing today a new £10 million initiative to provide high-tech aid and associated support to pupils with significant communication difficulties. Great advances have been made in communication technology in recent years.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): Will the Minister give way?

The Chairman: Order. I draw the Committee's attention to the fact that we are debating the motion of the Programming Sub-Committee; it would be inappropriate to broaden the debate. Does the hon. Member wish to continue?

Mr. Griffiths: I intended to raise an issue connected with what the Minister said, Mr. O'Brien, but it has nothing to do with the programming motion, and I might be out of order. I shall therefore take your advice.

The Chairman: I thank the hon. Member.

Jacqui Smith: Thank you, Mr. O'Brien. I have experienced your firmness already. I shall therefore stick to the programming motion.

The Bill is widely welcomed. Although our debates will be spirited, I am sure that they will be constructive and focused. I am confident that the motion of the Programming Sub-Committee will give us ample opportunity to scrutinise the Bill, and I commend it to the Committee.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I am delighted that you, Mr. O'Brien, are taking the Chair, and that our good friend Sir David Madel may participate as your co-Chairman when required. One of the nice things about the House is that one builds up friendships irrespective of party; it is good to have a senior Member in the Chair who has much experience and who, when necessary, will point us in the right direction.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), who leads for the Government, and the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Barking. We look forward to their contributions. Indeed, the hon. Member for Redditch has already made a good start.

I shall not detain the Committee on the programming motion. As the Minister is aware, my daughter teaches in a girls school, and on Saturday night I attended a performance of HMS Pinafore, because she was playing in the orchestra. When the hon. Lady, in her speech on Second Reading, said that she would not contemplate any amendments, she rather put herself in the position of Captain Corcoran in that operetta. When we were considering the programming motion--those discussions are not recorded--I noticed that she had reflected on her position, and it became a matter of ``What never? Well, hardly ever.'' That was a sign of welcome, if glacial, movement. We do not seek to pull down the temples of the Bill, or its edifice, but we want to discuss some of the issues that have already been rehearsed in the other place, and to improve the Bill. We shall proceed in that spirit.

Turning from one naval personage in HMS Pinafore to another, the Minister will remember that Sir Joseph Porter KCB became the ruler of the Queen's Navy. I anticipate for the hon. Lady—though we will not debate it today—a long spell in Opposition, beginning shortly. Nevertheless, she may return to government, so she may be minded to act in these proceedings with a view to being able to say, ``I resisted that amendment so carefully, that now they have made me the ruler of the Queen's Navy.'' I would point out that it is just as easy, and it scans just as well, to say, ``I accepted that amendment so carefully.'' I hope that she will treat our comments on their merits, and that we will have a serious and friendly discussion about a Bill with which, in principle, we have no difficulty.

There are three things that I want to say before I conclude my remarks on the programming motion. First, there is no assent among Opposition Members to a procedure that truncates our arrangements so much. If we do not speak at length, it is in order to accommodate a proper debate, or as near to one as we can get. It is not because we think that programming Committees in such a way is a wonderful idea or because we want to run away from debate.

Secondly, we need to pick out the outstanding issues of concern, and we shall endeavour to do so. The Bill has been well scrutinised in the other place. However, that does not mean that there is enough time to get it right. A Bill needs a period of refinement, reflection, consultation and, if necessary, amendment, to get it right. We will do our best to proceed in that spirit.

The hon. Lady has spoken about her team, but the Opposition have a dream team. I include the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) in my comments, if he will allow me to do so, because we work well together on disability issues. Across the House, disability issues are well understood by perhaps 10 per cent. of Members, and a broad consensus exists among them. It is the other 90 per cent. of Members who worry me: they do not interest themselves in such issues. That particular compliment to the hon. Member for St. Ives aside, some Conservative Members take a great interest in education—special education in particular--so I am sure that they will want to make lively contributions to all our debates, and we are lucky to have them on the Committee.

Thirdly, their Lordships have examined the Bill thoroughly. As my old tutor used to say, one should always start an essay with a question, answer it, and then pose another question in the last paragraph. When the other place considered the Bill, it tackled some issues, and the Government responded to them. However, other issues have not been wholly dealt with, and we want to focus on them. The Government should treat them as important, and take them more seriously than they did in the other place. There was more time in the Lords: more amendments were proposed, and they were pursued redoubtably by my noble Friends, notably Lady Blatch. If the Government take those issues seriously, we will be satisfied. The issue is not the principle or even the architecture of the Bill. It is to ensure that we get it right and that the balance of safeguards is appropriate.

I need say no more, Mr. O'Brien. We look forward to constructive debates. They will be compressed and short, but I hope that they will be perfectly formed and will lead to a good outcome.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): I echo the words of the hon. Member for Daventry in saying that our intention is to deal with the Bill as efficiently and properly as possible in the time allowed. We shall not have any patience with unnecessary delay. The House of Lords did a good job in introducing revisions: many amendments were accepted by Ministers in the Lords to our satisfaction. We broadly support the Bill, and do not want to see it fall as a result of unnecessary delays. We shall be open to suggested alterations and shall listen to the arguments, but by and large we are pretty happy with the Bill as it is.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is, unfortunately, detained in his constituency, but will join us during this sitting. He is anxious to play a full part in these deliberations. Having been involved in the Programming Sub-Committee, he is happy with its motion. I hope that we shall not need to sit next Monday or as late as 5 o'clock next Thursday, and that we can deal with the Bill more efficiently than that.


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Prepared 27 March 2001