Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman referred to tactics as the subject of our debate. On Second Reading, I asked the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) whether clauses to address the needs of the child were necessary, because that is already covered by existing legislation and overarching duties. Some people suggest that a clause covering the needs of the child may be counterproductive and work against the child's best interest. I did not receive a response to that intervention; will the hon. Gentleman address that point?

11.15 am

Mr. Boswell: I can genuinely reassure the hon. Gentleman. I fear that this point is taking some time, but it will be a keynote of our debates, and I shall come to precisely those matters. I assure him that I am not trying to fob him off: I want to deal with those issues because they are important.

As I recall, the Minister made much of the capital spend programme to provide access, which would eventually, over some years, total about £625 million—I have not rechecked the figure, but it was a substantial sum. I do not know whether the Department has a conventional multiplier—I never found one myself—for the likely revenue consequences of a capital spend of a certain order. If we spend a pound in capital, is revenue spend likely to increase by one or two pounds in consequence? My gut feeling is that the multiplier is probably about two; whatever the capital sum, it has revenue consequences. To put it at its most simple, even ramps have to be maintained and kept safe. Educational equipment and software, about which we have already spoken, needs updating, renewing and replacing, which bears costs; it requires people's time to be trained on it and to use it in the classroom.

Policies based on inclusion, however commendable, are likely to be more expensive. My noble Friend Lord Baker of Dorking made the point extensively in the other place that the Bill will be expensive. Many of us may feel that that is money well spent, but there is no point saying that it has no consequences or that they will all come out in the wash. If money is to be spent in that area, it will deprive other areas of potential spend. We must be clear about the likely implications. At present, the Government are somewhat coy about that, even in areas such as further and higher education, which are more within my day-to-day expertise and remit.

Having put down those markers about efficient education, I turn to the general issue of the rights of the child, as the hon. Member for St. Ives invited me to do. That is addressed by amendment No. 1, to which we attach the greatest importance. Of course, that was debated extensively in the other place. My noble Friend's drafting is much more elegant than mine, but I am a simple man and I thought that I should present as simple a proposition as I could, for debate by the Committee. If the Government like the sentiment but not the wording, that is no skin off my nose, and I am sure that ingenuity could be applied to it, even in the truncated timetable available to us.

Essentially, amendment No. 1 would give the Secretary of State, rather than the educational provider,

    ``a duty to make arrangements to secure that the educational needs''

of a child are paramount. They should come first. However, by implication, that amendment would also bind educational providers. Why does that matter? One way to approach that question is to consider contemporary discussion of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. A document that thumped on my desk yesterday, with the signatures of the Secretary of State for International Development and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that no child should be left behind. A further special debate on children and their rights is to be held in the United Nations General Assembly in the autumn.

As I said on Second Reading, excluding children from the legislation seems an odd way of asserting the rights of the child. For about 40 years, since I was a student, I have been troubled by one of the college library rules—I think it was rule 6. It said that no person should mark, deface or otherwise alter any book or other property of the library. Alongside it, someone had inked in, very neatly, ``Hear, hear.'' For 40 years I have worried about who was in the right in that matter—those who asserted the rule or those who broke it in confirming it.

We accept that children have rights, and we want the Bill to uphold those rights. We want a sensible means of doing that. Perhaps I may avail myself of a brief indulgence and say that such an interest in children has a long pedigree. I am fond of quoting the Roman educationist Quintilian—this is not a classicist's ego trip—who said that in education maximum reverence should be owed to the child. He used the word ``reverentia'' as if it were almost a religious duty to follow his advice. That thinking runs through Piaget, child-centred education and the things that some of us learned in the 1960s. There is nothing wrong with that at all. It is an entirely proper human function and interest to put the child first. In educational terms, there is currently no contest on that.

How we put that way of thinking into practice may be another matter. Whether we need to legislate should be another matter. One of the few things that I learned as a student—apart from my worry about the library rules—was the important distinction between a good thing and something for which there is a need to legislate. When is there a need for a general provision? There is an historical aspect to this question. Declaratory legislation has been around for some years. I encountered my first example not long after my student days when I came to this place as a very junior researcher. It was in the late 1960s and we spent quite a lot of time thinking about foot and mouth then, too. In 1968, a general duties provision in agriculture legislation stated that, in pursuing their policies, Ministers had various duties that were wider in scope than just paying farmers lots of money. I shall not caricature that measure further. Since then, a pattern of declaratory legislation has developed. Clauses of Bills or sections of Acts set out the Government's priorities and what they think should come first. Our amendment is part of that process. What we think should come first—what the Secretary of State should promote above all--are the rights of the child in this matter. I shall return to the practicalities of that in a moment. I do not think that anybody would disagree with that. There was no sign of such disagreement on Second Reading, in the discussions in the other place or in the representations made by interested parties. We want to make progress on that.

Local education authority special needs officers have a terrible job in balancing resources. If they do not give statements and try to dither along, it is often because they are under pressure and are trying to do the best they can with the limited resources available. It is not because they are trying to subvert the individual parent, although that is how it can appear, and that is often how the parent sees it.

Do we need to have a commitment to such general principles enshrined in law? Would it help? Given that we are discussing an amendment to section 316 of the Education Act 1996, we should recall that some education authorities and some educationists have an agenda of forced inclusion. We have discussed that with Ministers, and the Secretary of State spoke about it on Second Reading, saying that he saw a need for balance. There are concerns, such as that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) with respect to the local education authority in his constituency, that people are trying to push inclusion in mainstream through, either on what might loosely be called accountancy grounds or on educational theology grounds. We know that inclusion in mainstream does not make sense unless it is done properly, and so we return, as we always will, to the issue of resources.

Generally speaking, we are in favour of inclusion—not forced, but as an option. That is what the Education Act 1996 was about, and that is what the Bill seeks to develop further, by relaxing some of the caveats. Ministers execute logical shifts on that issue from time to time, for their own reasons. I was interested to read a document from the children's and young people's unit. The Minister responsible for the unit now attaches himself to the Department for Education and Employment in order to lead it, and it is primarily, though not exclusively, a DFEE unit. There was not—and this is not, I am afraid, untypical of Government papers these days—a great deal of substance in the document. There were, however, a lot of words, and there was one phrase that I found particularly interesting, which I will share with the Committee. The document states:

    ``Our special educational needs strategy, an integral part of our overall education strategy, aims to develop skills for key workers in education to help deliver a service which focuses on Inclusivity for pupils of all ages.''

That, in itself, is unexceptionable, and I am not saying that there is anything wrong with it. However, there is a difference between saying that we are not against inclusion or we would like people to be included and saying that the only way of including people is by putting them into mainstream schools. That is a shift too far.

We then come to the questions that have properly been raised by the hon. Member for St. Ives. No doubt Governments are, like Alice, required to believe three impossible things before breakfast, but in this case the Government are attempting to sustain two contrary, if not formally contradictory, propositions at the same time. The first proposition--we anticipate that the Minister will respond on the matter in due course--is that it is not necessary to restate the paramountcy of the educational interests of the child, because they are secured elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman's point is that Ministers must clearly explain where that is secured. Various documents, including the United Nations convention, which, I understand, is not part of our law, the European human rights convention, which is part of our law, and other legislation relating to education and children, refer to the interests of the child. However, it is unclear to me whether a provision such as the one in the amendment is included in any law, and will leap off the page to help parents argue with a local authority about the rights of their child. I shall return to that central issue in a moment.

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