Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Laura Moffatt (Crawley): Will my hon. Friend give way?

The Chairman: I want to draw attention to the fact that we are still considering the amendment, which would delete subsection (3) of the clause. The hon. Gentleman has not yet addressed that. To broaden the debate would be a discourtesy to the Committee.

Mr. Levitt: I take your point, Mr. O'Brien. With respect, the kind of provisions that I was talking about may not be possible if the amendment is accepted, and if the power to set regulatory orders is successful. I want to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Barking a question, which I am sure that she will wish to answer in her wind-up: given that the Disability Discrimination Act had a timetable of implementation, where do these provisions fit into that timetable? When can we expect to see the provisions come into effect, should the Bill become law?

Another nice little phrase came into my mind—the Government are committed to comprehensive civil rights for disabled people, not just in comprehensive schools but comprehensively throughout the education process.

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

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13

Disabled Pupils not to be Substantially Disadvantaged

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

Mr. Boswell: I pause only briefly, as we are making good progress and there is an important debate to come. Will the Minister say what substantial disadvantage is? I suppose that insubstantial disadvantage is not a concept worth considering, except in a philosophical seminar. Does it, in effect, mean that disabled people are not to be disadvantaged at all, for all practical purposes? Alternatively, does it mean something else? Have I missed the point of it?

Ms Hodge: As a quasi-lawyer—or one who is pretending to be so for the afternoon—I must explain that the word ``substantial'' exists under the current DDA framework. Its technical legal definition is that it is more than minor or trivial. It is the trigger that should be used for reasonable adjustments. It is the trigger on employers that also exists under part II of the DAA. It is a relatively lower test than the trigger under part III, and deliberately so. We have been able to put together a good framework on discrimination in education. The test under part III is whether it would become impossible or unreasonably difficult for a disabled person to access a service. It is a better trigger in educational circumstances.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14

Accessibility Strategies and Plans

Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 18, in page 13, line 6, at end insert—

    `(c) an analysis of the cost of implementing such plans.'.

We are making good progress. We have had some lively debates on the matter. We should not necessarily wear out the sky if we receive satisfaction on the matter of needs. Reading the debates that took place in the other place, I gained the impression that Ministers were a little coy on that subject. The Minister will know what I mean from previous conversations. I shall not trespass on any confidences. I wish only to reproduce what I said to her. One factor that gave us pause in introducing the full import of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was the potential cost. Clause 14 is about preparing accessibility, strategies and plans. It is a local education authority and a schools clause, and it is welcome. However, it makes the point that there are important consequences for schools' finances if the DDA requirements are to be enacted.

In a sense—this is a precursor to discussions that we may have at a later stage on post-16 education—much of the loading may be post-16 and it would be inappropriate to bring in this measure at this point. It may well be more relevant later on. I am talking not only about further education colleges: universities also have problems. Nevertheless, considering the schools' budget alone, I notice a certain coyness on the part of the Government in coming clean about the cost of the measures.

On Second Reading, the Secretary of State and others spoke of the schools access initiative. I certainly welcome any additional funds that can be made available. As the Minister will know, an interesting analysis has been made of the work of the schools access initiative so far, and she may want to say a little about that. It was somewhat uneven. It was good if schools were already on the net and had access, but it was not so good if they had not heard of the system, had not done much with it or had not got round to participating in it. Part of the argument for the planning duty may be that, as all local authorities will have to produce such plans, they will even themselves up in relation to schools access.

I am sure that, were he present, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings would say that in his experience there is a huge disparity of need. Some LEAs have already worked hard at access, whereas others have not left first base. Assuming that plans are made on a reasonably coherent basis, we should know more about what needs to be done. In fairness, that can be done over a prescribed period—to use a word that appears in the clause. Ministers have helpfully suggested that resources would be available for much of that time.

I shall make two points in asking the Minister to be more explicit about what is available. First, let us suppose that LEAs complete their accessibility plans and find that the cost of implementation exceeds the solution figure--even the amount that the Government have put aside--so there is not enough money to go round. That is a likely scenario in terms of capital. Ministers must realise what they have done because they will have to decide how to scale back or re-phase the timing. That may be realistic for physical mobility problems, but Ministers will need to know what to do.

Secondly, there is the question of current spend. As I said to the Committee, in most cases, additional capital expenditure is likely to generate additional revenue costs, however welcome and supported by the schools access initiative and the standards fund. That is partly because of the physical maintenance of the new assets that have been acquired, as even something as simple as a ramp has to be kept shipshape when people have difficulty with mobility. If they are wheelchair users, they cannot have their position compromised.

The same is true of much of the software—I mean the softer items that are needed to achieve access. The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) referred to the importance of signage and lighting. I know from my own work in the disability area that those things are hugely important. However, they do not come for nothing, although that is not a cop-out or an excuse for not providing them. We need to bear in mind the fact that they are likely to have some revenue consequences.

The issues of employees and disabled teachers are not explicitly included in the Bill. People with disabilities such as we have referred to should not be excluded from teaching. Many of them would be good at it.

I am not suggesting that the Minister should not attempt to do the things I have outlined, but she knows what being a Minister is like and she will have regard to resources. Those matters are always complex in the context of schools—I except the post-16 sector for the moment—because they involve LEA resources, central Government resources and initiatives, elements of match funding and how one attracts it and whether it comes from within the public sector or from outside. The private finance initiative is another factor. All those things might go into the pot, especially on the capital side, but there are likely to be revenue implications about which the Government have not been clear. I am not implying that they are being disingenuous. It may simply be that we cannot know what is happening until we have had a chance to consider the matter.

Mr. Win Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman's amendment raises an important issue. However, to judge from the debate in the other place and the response from the various voluntary organisations and trade unions involved in this work in the schools, there seems to be a reasonable consensus that the Government have made financial commitments that would considerably improve and open out accessibility for people with disabilities. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman may be labouring the point a little, given that debate and the subsequent response from all those who will be directly involved in the work.

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman speaks from experience and we are not having a contentious debate—nor do I do intend to do so. We are conscious of what was said in the other place, but that does not absolve us from having a debate here. We are conscious, too, of the interests of other providers. The hon. Gentleman may have misinterpreted my remarks as suggesting that a barrier exists, that more resources will not be forthcoming and that, to put it in vulgar terms, it is all a big con on the part of the Government, but I am not arguing that. The Government will make some money available in pursuit of a laudable aim—to reduce disability discrimination, or introduce civil rights for disabled people, throughout the range of education. It is something of a voyage of discovery. We do not know how much it will cost, how far it will have to go or what the overall revenue consequences will be.

3.30 pm

Mr. Levitt: The hon. Gentleman must surely concede that, as with the Disability Discrimination Act, an awful lot can be done through spending very little money. People can learn about how to behave when their lips are being read, about deciding on decor with disability in mind when repainting the walls, or choosing books with a more accessible font.

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