Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Jacqui Smith: As the hon. Gentleman points out, the clause is designed to reinforce and strengthen parental rights in relation to appeals directed to the tribunal. It will require LEAs to comply with SEN tribunal orders within a prescribed timetable, and failure to do so will leave an LEA open to direction by the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales, as appropriate.

The amendment is unnecessary and potentially confusing. The regulations to be made under the clause are informed by detailed consultation with a wide range of interested parties—including parental and voluntary groups and LEAs—that was undertaken in late 1999. The correspondents all supported the introduction of specific time scales for the different types of orders, and were convinced that there was a need for them. The hon. Gentleman's amendment may stem from concern about those time scales. I assure him that they will be demanding and will ensure that LEAs carry out their duties without unnecessary delay. The time scales will not facilitate the idea that LEAs could, even if it was thought appropriate, put off action until later, which was one of the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

We are still considering the responses, but it might help if I set out our provisional plans. We envisage that the likely time scales for orders such as making or amending a statement, which is the most time-consuming, will not exceed five weeks. In some cases, orders must be carried out to a shorter timetable. For example, when starting the assessment or re-assessment process, we envisage a time scale of no more than a month. We intend to require that reinstatement of a statement takes place within a week, while ceasing to maintain a statement is carried out immediately or on the LEA's proposed date.

As I suggested earlier, those timetables are demanding. We have sought to strike a balance between the understandable wishes of parents for speedy compliance with tribunal orders, and the practicalities for LEAs of complying with those orders. The time scales were also informed by the views of the SEN tribunal about how long LEAs would realistically need to comply with an order.

The clause is clear and unambiguous. Parents will know the period in which LEAs must comply with orders. Any additional wording may lead to unnecessary arguments and confrontation about the definition of ``promptly'' and ``practicable''. To use the hon. Gentleman's analogy, to be told to produce something ``as promptly as practicable'' does not necessarily provide the clear idea that we believe the clause supplies about what the time scale should be. LEAs will, of course, be free to comply with tribunal orders as soon as is feasible, which may be faster than the time scales set out in regulations. Given that we envisage the likely time scales being as short as is reasonably practicable, I do not see anything further to be gained by adding to the clause, and potentially, doing so could lead to confusion and argumentation. For that reason, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. She started in a rather disappointing way and I was beginning to sharpen my axe for a potential vote, but she continued helpfully so I put away my axe, and I shall not press the amendment.

The relatively tight timetable is the important point. To be literary and archaic for a moment, we do not want a situation in which we put this off until the Greek kalends, or never. It wants to be done, it must be done and it is in the children's interests that it should be done. If the time scales are anything like those suggested by the Minister, they are acceptable. Even if a local authority were minded to play for time, there would not be much time to play for.

I shall try to draw the Minister on two points now, instead of dragging them into the clause stand part debate. First, what sanctions apply if a local authority—accidentally or deliberately—cocks a snook and does not comply? I should not ask a hypothetical question, but in what circumstances would the Secretary of State come down like a load of bricks, and what would be the result? It would be helpful to know that there are sanctions which, if necessary, could be enforced.

My second point—which, I confess, I had not noticed earlier—is consistent with some remarks made rather skimmingly this morning about the interaction with Wales. My reading is that subsection (2) implies that, as there will be regulations—to which the Minister helpfully referred—they would, in relation to Wales, require the agreement of the National Assembly. I fully understand that. Will the Minister tell the Committee—now or later—whether it is envisaged that the tribunal regulations will apply across the board, with the inference, subject only, for example, to provision about the Welsh language, that they will be available in England and Wales, and that they will not be different? The hon. Lady's comments are along the right lines, and I shall not press the amendment to a vote.

Jacqui Smith: I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. I believe that I said at the start not only that we will lay down time scales, but that failure to comply with an order will leave an LEA open to direction by the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales as appropriate. In the small number of cases in which parents feel that LEAs are slow in complying with an order, we would expect parents to return to the SEN tribunal for assistance. Currently, the tribunal can advise parents to refer their concern to the Department, which would certainly investigate LEAs that had been lax or slow in complying with an order. The clause will ensure that there are much stricter and more specific timetables, which will provide clarification for parents and local education authorities. First, LEAs will be less likely to fail to fulfil those timetables, and secondly, it will be clear to parents that if they do not fulfil those timetables, the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales will be able to direct as appropriate.

In relation to the hon. Gentleman's question about Wales, we would envisage that there would be the same content, which is clearly important, but that there would probably be two sets of regulations.

Mr. Boswell: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Unopposed Appeals

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Boswell: I do not want to detain the Committee at length but it may be useful to have a short debate about unopposed appeals. When the conciliation procedures and the parent partnership have not worked in resolving disputes and the parents have availed themselves of their right to apply to the tribunal, the tribunal will make a determination because the local authority no longer offers evidence. That is an unfortunate situation and not ideal. It suggests that the authority, with its own resources and expertise, will go to the courtroom door and then walk away from it. The parents and the child in question will have been exposed to all the hassle of such a contentious approach until then. I am not suggesting that there is a way of removing that, or that there should not be a provision for the procedure to take place. Clearly, it is sensible if the local authority is prepared to withdraw. It is a lot better than having to go through the fiction of a hearing in order to make a determination, which is, as it were, a foregone conclusion.

It is worth the Committee taking time to pause and examine the circumstances of statementing. I do not think that I need to make a long speech about it. Indeed, I regret the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who has another engagement this afternoon, because he has had a great deal of hands-on experience about the matter. However, most hon. Members have experience from their constituencies. Statements are not always as specific as we may hope and I suspect that that is the main contention between parents and LEAs. The core business that the tribunal must do relates to the amount of specification that takes place.

At the beginning of my remarks this morning, I averted to the continuing concerns of the Action on Entitlement consortium. It is clear from the consortium's submission to members of the Committee that it is not happy about the matter, in terms of professional reports and how and what part 3 of a statement should specify—I think that is the retained phrase after the Government had second thoughts about altering it to ``setting out''—and contain. The consortium suggests, in relation to a particular case, that the statement may simply and vaguely specify therapy from a speech and language therapist. As has been said, a child could get only 10 minutes a term.

I am aware that the matter was debated in another place by two heavyweights, Lord Baker of Dorking on our side, and Lord Davies of Oldham for the Government and that the latter said:

    ``the hours of speech therapy will be specified''.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 February 2001; Vol. 622, c. 631.]

That does not appear to be precisely tied down, and the Minister may not be able to do that now. It may have to be introduced by guidance and the final version of the code. However, it is important for the Committee to have a sense of the matter because it is probably the area of greatest contention between parents and LEAs. It is the type of matter that will reach tribunal, and an LEA might fight hard until it got to a tribunal before withdrawing its objection and allowing the tribunal to determine to the suit of one party. We should ensure that parents get their rights and have a process that is reasonably specific. That is clearly how parents feel, and it is a matter of good practice for the local authorities.

With these general considerations in mind, I hope that the Minister will be able to respond, not by speaking substantively about the concept of the unopposed appeals that clause 5 prescribes—unopposed appeals are better than opposed appeals—but to try to cut out the problem at an even earlier stage, ideally by conciliation. There should be a determination all round by parties, including the LEA and its professional advisers, to make the matter reasonably straightforward. They should say what they mean, and what they say must mean something, and amount to a meaningful provision. Members of the Committee without a party handle will be concerned about the matter, and at this stage, if not later, it would useful to have a statement from the Minister.

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