Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boswell: My remarks are purely supplementary to those of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). I do not need to rehearse his arguments, or those of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, as they made them with considerable eloquence.

I want to touch on a couple of specific issues, the first of which is about the wording at the start of the amendment. It states that, in drawing up guidance to LEAs or other providers,

    ``the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales, as the case may be, shall—'',

and it then itemises their duties. In your wisdom, Mr. O'Brien, you were not able to select an amendment—I do not seek to subvert that decision—that we tabled specifically on cross-border issues resulting from the responsibilities of the Secretary of State in England and the National Assembly in Wales. The principality is represented on the Committee.

One or two of us are veterans of debates on what is now the Learning and Skills Act 2000. For what might loosely be termed parliamentary exigencies, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) and I had to deal with the Welsh clauses of that legislation. My wife is a Welsh teacher, and my hon. Friend's redoubtable Welsh mother, Baroness Brooke of Ystradfellte, was alive at the time, but I am sad to say is not now. It is important that we bear cross-border issues in mind, as they are relevant for two reasons.

The Chairman: Order. Amendment No. 5 has not been called, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to return to the amendment that we are discussing.

Mr. Boswell: That is my intention, Mr. O'Brien. We are concerned with the guidance that the National Assembly or the Secretary of State might give. I wanted to put down a marker by saying that schools close to the Anglo-Welsh border may draw pupils from either side of it. In such cases, the two authorities should get their act together and give broadly consistent advice and guidance. That is entirely relevant. They need to consider local provision and the nature of guidance.

I shall say no more than that. We must respect the autonomy of the National Assembly for Wales. However, it would be unfortunate if a certain provider found itself with wildly different sets of guidance from either side of Offa's dyke, or if the Bill somehow miscarried because the two authorities did not operate together. I have a certain sensitivity on this matter as I live only a few hundred yards from a county and LEA boundary. Much of my time in my constituency is spent brokering out-of-county provision or considering cross-border problems, so I am sensitive to such problems between England and Wales. I do not want to continue on that issue, but it is important that the Committee should think about it a little.

My second point regards the amendment. Again, I assure the Committee that I do not intend to rehearse arguments that have been made extremely well. Even if others do not like our wording, I think that there is consensus in the Committee. We want balance and genuine choice.

Dr. Harris: I would be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's guidance on the meaning of the words ``genuine choice''. Does he think that that choice is best reflected when parents and their children choose schools, or when schools choose the children that they admit?

Mr. Boswell: I think that I can understand the drift of what the hon. Gentleman is trying to say to me.

Mr. Hayes: Barely.

Mr. Boswell: No, I can understand precisely. My hon. Friend is misguided on that. I think that the hon. Gentleman wants to open a debate about free schools, which may be of some concern, but is perhaps not relevant here.

I would have thought that what is required is a mutuality, in which the school was anxious to take the pupil and the parents, on behalf of the child, were anxious for the school to take the pupil. That is the normal relationship in the non-maintained sector, though not necessarily in terms of special education. Much of this is determined by whether the money follows the child. We need more debate. We should consider how resources can be delivered in a transparent way to institutions. In that sense, I find the hon. Gentleman's intervention helpful.

We want an open relationship, more arm's-length in one sense, but more consensual in another, in which parents and children are not steered to a particular type of school because that is the only provision available. Nor should schools provide just to make up their numbers, or according to whatever funding package has been provided. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) implied that, bearing in mind that they would remain maintained schools in the public sector, schools would need a clear, consistent and justifiable admissions policy, even if the LEA did not set those policies.

The two requirements are not incompatible. However, it is important that the principles of parental choice and of schools being able to specialise and set their own admissions policy are seen as consistent.

Dr. Harris: The amendment refers to affording parents a genuine choice, not to having a balance of choice between schools and parents. It seems to me, and I want to check that this is the hon. Gentleman's understanding, that if a school does not select a child, that limits choice for parents. The wording of the amendment is incompatible with selection.

Mr. Boswell: I explained at some length that I saw the matter as being one of mutuality. If a school was unable to accept a child because it was felt that that child would not fit in, it would be the continuing duty of the local authority to secure provision elsewhere, be it in the maintained, non-maintained, special or mainstream sector. That duty continues and should not be taken away from the democratic local authority. The hon. Gentleman seeks to make a distinction, perhaps in order to conduct a wider debate.

I did not intend to spend long answering the hon. Gentleman's intervention. He is, in effect, resisting the right of any school to reject any child, whether through selection by aptitude or for some other reason. If that right creates a difficulty for Conservative policy, it also creates difficulties for the Government's policy on specialist technology colleges. The hon. Gentleman is nodding at that. Once one begins to consider differentiation, almost by definition one considers a measure of selectivity. That leaves aside the wider issue of whether one supports comprehensive education, and I am mindful of an interesting television programme on exactly that point that some of us may have watched recently. We may no longer select through the front door. It has been said that we no longer select by ability; we have replaced that with selection by mortgage. The hon. Gentleman tempts us into an extraordinarily wide debate, but I shall not follow him.

I return to the substance of the amendment. The Minister may wish to comment on the interaction between what is proposed and the general duties in the Education Act 1996. We could have a fruitful discussion about that. One delight of considering a Bill that alludes so heavily to earlier and, if I may say so, good Conservative legislation, is that one has to refresh one's memory from source.

I draw the Committee's attention section 11 of the 1996 Act, which prescribes that the Secretary of State

    ``shall . . . exercise his powers . . . with a view to (among other things) improving standards, encouraging diversity and increasing opportunities for choice.''

Our words then were diversity and choice. In the new Green Paper, the Government call it choice and diversity. In whatever they come, those words are at the heart of our amendment. People should be able to make informed decisions, and they should have a choice. I emphasise what I said on Second Reading without rehearsing it now.

I invite the Minister to consider sections 500 and 501 of the 1996 Act. I have a feeling at the back of my mind that there is an even more general section, but those sections allow the Secretary of State to review the provision of education—in section 500, if provision is seen as excessive and needs to be rationalised; and in section 501, if a case can be made for new or additional provision. I wish to draw the Minister on how those various sections might interact, and I hope that she will respond positively.

I close by mentioning two matters of genuine concern. Although the 1996 Act has been place for a number of years, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury has told us that certain local authorities honour it more in the breach than the observance. Whatever the law says, they are not too keen on putting its provisions into practice, and parents may have to go though the difficult and rather objectionable process of going to law to obtain their legal rights. It is a pity that they should have to do so in relation to a public authority.

The second problem is the extent to which local authorities are reviewing their education provision. I say that neutrally; I do not mean that they are necessarily in pursuit of a hidden agenda to wipe out special schools, although my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury has eloquently rehearsed his concerns to the Committee. A local study is being undertaken in Northamptonshire. I do not know what it will come up with, but it is not a bad idea to look. We do not suggest that existing provision is perfect for all time, in all places and for all children. It should not be set in stone, but it should not be seen as an agenda that drives towards either end of the theological spectrum. We are interested in a breadth of provision.

Concern was expressed earlier that the Government's original Green Paper had set off one or two lines of thought, inquiry and review; but we have rowed back a lot from that, because the role of special schools in providing for special educational needs is now better understood in all quarters. However, we must ensure that such reviews are not driven by particular bits of theology, and that they come up with broad and balanced provisions. The amendment was meant to ensure that, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings argued the case with much eloquence.

10.30 am

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