Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Jacqui Smith: The amendment would create an additional duty for the Secretary of State to ensure that the welfare needs of children in care were met. I do not underestimate the importance of the points made by Opposition Members about the needs of children in care, but the amendment is unnecessary because children's welfare is safeguarded by legislation and, perhaps more importantly, by action that we are taking through the Quality Protects programme, which ensures that local authorities take seriously their responsibilities as corporate parents. Under legislation, once a child is in care, it is the local authority's duty to safeguard and promote his welfare. That is laid out in the Children Act 1989, which emphasises the importance of assessment, planning and reviews for children and young people who are looked after by local authorities. It is a statutory requirement that a care plan for each child is drawn up by social services.

However, the Government are not complacent about promoting the welfare of children in care. We introduced Quality Protects in September 1998, which is a major programme to overhaul children's services. It sets out key national objectives for improving children's services, including an objective to ensure that children who are looked after should gain maximum life-chance benefits from educational opportunities, health care and social care.

6.30 pm

Mr. St. Aubyn: The Minister will forgive me if she is about to come to this point, but under the clause, parents are envisaged as the advocates for their child. Who will act as advocate for the child in care?

Jacqui Smith: I will forgive the hon. Gentleman, because I intend to refer to that question.

Under the Quality Protects programme, my Department and the Department of Health have worked closely together to improve the education of children and young people in public care. The hon. Gentleman mentioned one of the features of our joint guidance on the education of children and young people in public care, published in May 2000. That guidance is supported by statutory guidance in the Department of Health circular LAC (2000) 13. As part of a national policy, the guidance is aimed at ensuring that the educational needs of children and young people in public care will be upheld by vigorous corporate parents applying principles of good parenting.

Mr. Levitt: Browsing in the Vote Office earlier today, I came across ``Valuing People: a new strategy for learning disability for the 21st century'', which was published this month by the Department of Health. References to the Carers and Disabled Children Act 2000 and references in the Bill to carers and links with education surely answer all the Opposition's questions about the clause and render the amendment unnecessary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and her colleagues on an excellent act of joined-up government, which, in combination with the Bill, that reflects.

Jacqui Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, although we have done even more than that. In addition to the designated teachers in schools highlighted by the hon. Member for Guildford, the guidance stipulates that children need personal education plans, that there should be time limits within which to secure educational placements, that local authorities must place a child within 20 days and that there should be reliable data. The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that Ofsted highlighted the poorer levels of attainment among children in care—that is why the Government have taken the action that I have described.

Like their peers, young people in care may at some time in their education have special educational needs. It is estimated that young people in care are six to eight times as likely to have a statement of special educational needs than pupils in the general school population. The guidance makes it clear that such pupils need the support and advocacy of a vigorous parent, as the hon. Member for Guildford said. In their case, the vigorous parent would be the corporate parent—that is, the local authority. The code of practice on the identification and assessment of special educational needs applies equally to children in care as to those not in care. Special educational provision should be made for children in care in line with legislation and the code of practice within the time scales prescribed.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister may either have covered my question or be about to do so. Will she confirm that, if a local authority is responsible for both advocating the interests of the child as parent in loco parentis and securing provision against a budget, for example, there will be some kind of Chinese wall ensuring that the person acting as the parent makes the case as the parent and that the local authority as the provider and budget holder is separate from that consideration? Natural justice requires that those two functions are seen as separate.

Jacqui Smith: I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the guidance specifically states that, where a parental advocate is needed to access any service or support, the local authority, as corporate parent, must ensure that all children in its care have an effective champion. The hon. Gentleman suggests that the local authority has two hats—two separate duties, probably pursued by two separate departments—but I recognise his point and that made by the hon. Member for Guildford that children in care who have special educational needs must have strong advocates.

I reassure the Committee that guidance on the education of young people in care makes it clear that, in their policies on the education of children and young people in care, local authorities must set out clear lines of responsibility relating to the assessment of special needs, and state, for example, who will support residential and foster carers during the assessment process and who, if necessary, will appeal to the special educational needs tribunal. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Member for Guildford and that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am somewhat reassured by the Minister's comments, but according to Ofsted, the idea of a named teacher has been developed successfully only in some authorities. The practice is not yet universal and, until it is, that excellent idea will not be relevant to all cases. If, when the child's statement is being reviewed, the named teacher is the person who should say whether the child should not remain in maintained education and should go to a special school, will that opinion have the same authority in the deliberations of the experts as it would have if it had been expressed by the child's parents? Will the Minister answer that one point? It appears that the Minister is unable to answer that point, unless she is about to have some inspiration on the matter, in which case I will be happy to give way.

Jacqui Smith: I think that I made it clear that two separate departments might deal with a child with special educational needs who is also in care. The named teacher does not have the role of corporate parent. In its responsibilities for children in public care, the local authority has the role of corporate parent. However, to reassure the hon. Gentleman on a point that he raised earlier, we intend to ensure—we are currently carrying out an implementation strategy—that the guidance that we have issued, which, among other provisions that I outlined, sets out the concept of the named teacher, is spread throughout all LEAs.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I have got as many pounds of flesh as I am likely to get this evening. With that reassurance from the Minister and given that we will continue to monitor the situation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 14, leave out from `parent' to end of line 15.

It is getting fairly late, although we could go on for a long time, but I must confess to the Committee, in the full hearing of both Whips, that I have two weaknesses. I will share them with the Committee because they are both germane to the amendment. The first is that I enjoy the process of considering legislation in Standing Committee. I hope that, even after my long foray this morning, colleagues may share that passion with me. It seems incredibly important that we should examine legislation and get it right. If we do not, those in the real world who have to discharge the legislation and meet the needs of special education for children may not be as well served as they should be. Like the man in the Bateman cartoon, I enjoy Standing Committees, as I am afraid that the Whips are probably wise to that already. I am delighted to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), the Opposition Whip, enjoys them too, as do, I hope, the Government Whip and the Minister.

The amendment may have caused some puzzlement in the Government, but it is primarily about trying to improve the Bill and make life a little more comfortable for them. I shall indulge briefly in a minor twitting of the Government. I remember the activities of education Ministers, other than the present ones, in relation to city academies during consideration of the Learning and Skills Bill. I shall not stray out of order by talking about the academies at length, although they are mentioned in the clause. We had to legislate very much on the hoof and at the last moment, to some embarrassment of Ministers. The Government suffer from a certain readiness to introduce new initiatives and to re-brand schools in the maintained sector.

With those considerations in mind, the amendment's purpose was to provide a degree of flexibility. I am not unaware that my hon. Friends and I have introduced proposals for free schools, which I am sure we shall shortly be putting into legislation. Entirely neutrally on the subject of the election, I say that this or a subsequent Government might want to slot another sort of state-maintained school into the categories. The clause is like the law of the Medes and the Persians when it specifies

    ``a special school, or . . . an independent school which is not . . . a city technology college . . . a city college for the technology of the arts, or . . . a city academy''.

Under that wording, there are grey areas between what is or is not a state school or a maintained school.

We sometimes find problems with the statistics, as schools move from one category to the other. Rather than having to legislate to include new categories that have not been thought of before, the amendment would enable us to agree that the Secretary of State could make an order to specify a new category. If the House thought that reasonable, he would not have to do more. Above all—I am sure that the Minister and her officials appreciate this—he would not have to have recourse to messy primary legislation because something had been left out.

I have been impressed by the fact that the drafting of the Bill seems rather better than such drafting sometimes is. I do not think that that is entirely due to the influence of another place. I shall give an example that would interest the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George), were he here, which is the specific reference to the Isles of Scilly. They are in an anomalous position and are treated as an LEA, so we have to legislate for them specially. I shudder to think what would have happened in practice if the draftsperson or we had overlooked that. Sometimes, Governments are grateful for an element of flexibility.

I give, as it were, a trailer for the fact that I want to raise in discussion of the interpretation clause a related point about what is and is not a maintained school—if it meets your approval for debate, Mr. O'Brien. We need not go on about that at length, but Ministers of different political colours at different times have ideas for schools that are branded in different ways.

The interesting emphasis on selection and what it might do has distressed at least one member of the Committee who is not on the Government or Conservative Benches: the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. The Government have an interesting philosophy that special schools should not select. I do not think that we should debate that tonight, and I am sure that you would not want us to, Mr. O'Brien. What is or is not in the maintained sector, or is or is not attached to it for the purposes of special education, is a rather protean concept, changing over time.

I tabled the amendment to be helpful. We do not want someone to be left out because the draftsperson forgot to include them, and we want Ministers to have a certain flexibility—a dangerous concept, but on this occasion we are attempting to be helpful.

6.45 pm

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 27 March 2001