Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boswell: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not feel embarrassed if I say that I could not agree more. I spend a good part of my time going around the country saying, ``You can do it; find a way'', which is true.

Some of the new 2004 duties under the Act relate to physical access, although not specifically to education. We do not get such provision for nothing. The proposal may be relatively expensive, and it will have revenue consequences. I am not saying that we shall not improve access--that would caricature the Government's position. We believe that the Bill will improve the position, and we welcome that. However, as local authorities and Governments have other priorities, we must have a slightly better sense of how it will all stack up.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): Is the hon. Gentleman not worried that the amendment might create a further barrier to improving access in schools? In my experience of working in the voluntary sector and as a school governor, different costs are involved for exactly the same work. Quotes are much more expensive for work for public and statutory organisations than for voluntary organisations, charities or village halls. The hon. Gentleman's proposal might result in an unrealistic demand for resources when, as the hon. Member for High Peak suggests, there might be more imaginative ways around the problems that have been identified.

Mr. Boswell: I do not want to suggest that there is a consensus throughout the Committee when there may not be, but I am sensitive to the hon. Gentleman's points. If he will accept it from me, I assure him that I am not trying to make difficulties for the Government. I am saying that, realistically, if the Government commit themselves to a policy, there is a price tag. It may be one that they fully appreciate, in which case they should say so now. It may be one that they need to work out with others and will need to know about later on. If it turns out to be more than they have anticipated and the policy becomes difficult to deliver, they will have to retime their expenditure, cut it back or take it from other priorities.

Laura Moffatt: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that an accessibility plan as proposed in the clause will help local authorities, especially with new build? Goodness knows plenty of opportunities are now available. Authorities will save plenty of money if due regard is given to accessibility when new buildings are developed, rather than having to spend a lot of money later trying to adapt buildings. Does he not consider that a great advantage?

Mr. Boswell: Again, at the risk of embarrassing the hon. Lady, I could not agree more. It is appropriate to do that when a new build is being considered. Reasonable adjustments and necessary adaptations can be introduced at very low cost. That is fine. I know that the hon. Lady's constituency is a new town, but parts of Crawley contain old buildings. Not so long ago, I visited a sixth form college in Stourbridge, which was founded in 1551. It is very reputable and has some modern buildings, but it has an historical ambience and old buildings that are more difficult to adapt. We need some idea of what can be done, and we need to take a realistic approach. That is not contentious. We want to smoke out the Government's views on the approach to take, and their likely strategy should the cost prove greater than they thought or are prepared to acknowledge.

I agree strongly that the need is for low-cost adjustments, and the hon. Member for High Peak is right to say that there is a danger that people will cop out, saying, ``It'll cost a fortune, guv, and it can't be done''. It usually can be done, and I welcome that. On occasion, my own local authority has been unwilling to provide disability access, even on rebuild within an existing shell, despite my fighting hard for it. It has got out of doing so because of the previous state of the building regulations. I also agree with the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) that the voluntary sector contains many examples of perfectly viable solutions at a much lower cost. That differs from the local authority mindset—I am not trying to be derogatory—that requires a Rolls-Royce solution to any problem, regardless of its nature.

We are approaching the matter with a degree of flexibility, and we want the legislation to work. We should pause a little to establish the Government's estimate of the cost, and whether they want to aggregate it on hearing of the local authorities' accessibility plans. We also want to know about their resourcing contingency plan. Were we to create a monster that we could not resource, and to undertake commitments that we could not fulfil, we would be failing to serve the interests of a process in which we are all engaged.

Mr. Win Griffiths: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about this issue. He mentioned that the previous Government shelved such a measure because they were afraid of the cost implications—particularly in respect of higher education. However, I should remind him that the National Union of Teachers and SCOPE, in association with Coopers Lybrand—given that accountancy firms change their names frequently, it may no longer be called by that name—initiated a study some five years ago. They have produced some excellent work and given good advice to local authorities and schools. Their most recent report ``Within Reach'' was launched only a few weeks ago at the Institute of Directors. Given the venue, I found it difficult to attend but I managed to steel myself. That work shows the considerable preparation that has gone into the Bill, and enabled the Government to introduce it confident that a real difference can be made.

Mr. Boswell: I have little difficulty with what the hon. Gentleman says: a tremendous amount has been done, and I welcome that. I have no ideological difficulty with attending the Institute of Directors or one or two other places that I could mention; nor do I have a problem with getting support for the provision. In fact, the hon. Gentleman performed a further service to the Committee by making the important point—which was embedded in other contributions—that it is vital to secure the understanding of the sector. I agree entirely that one needs the teachers at the front line, with the governors, LEAs, pupils and parents also engaged in taking matters forward.

A great deal of good work has been done, but we do not have the menu--in either euros or pounds--so it may be more expensive than we think. We must face up to the resource implications, which have to be managed. I hope that at the end of the process we can reach the Government's objectives on disability discrimination. However, I am anxious that we do not nod through a measure that we have not costed. There must be no recriminations because we have had to pay three times as much as we expected, or have had to commit to other priorities at the time. I hope that does not happen.

It is important that Ministers not only will the end—however good it may be—but the means to provide it. In a moment, the Minister will tell us that she is doing a great deal, which I accept and do not want to argue about. Nevertheless, do we know what is needed? Do we know how much the plans cost and can we ultimately sustain them?

Mr. Andrew George: I want to respond to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Daventry. I must say that there is probably a consensus in the Committee on the issue that he has raised. However, I am uncertain whether establishing that principle through the amendment as worded would help to improve access to schools.

I shall further elucidate the point that I made during my intervention on the hon. Gentleman. For many years, I have been concerned about the way in which LEAs tender for capital works in schools. From my experience working in the charitable sector, I know that it is possible to build small village halls or playgroup centres for £40,000 to £45,000, which includes bringing services on to a greenfield site. New single classrooms that are bolted on to existing sites cost a minimum of £100,000 to £110,000. I must therefore question whether we have a system that can obtain adequate value for money. I have deep concerns about the way in which local government operates given my experience of both sides of the equation in the charitable sector and local government,

I would be worried if LEAs—there are good LEAs and not so good LEAs—were given the task of establishing plans to calculate the cost of improving accessibility to schools in the local authority area. If that were the case, we could end up with frightening and unrealistic figures that would put LEAs off, and would lead to doubts about whether it would be right and appropriate to go ahead with the policy. Indeed, the timetables that we hope LEAs will meet would be called into question, and LEAs could appeal to the Government to phase the accessibility requirements that we want schools to establish over a longer period.

For those reasons, I have misgivings about the practicalities of inserting the amendment. I agree that a cautious approach and an understanding of the ball park figures in local authority areas is the correct way forward, but it would be wrong to include the amendment.

Mr. Randall: I have some experience of when accessibility was introduced into the retail sector. No one disputes that disabled people should have a right to equal accessibility, and that was implemented in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. However, no one bales out private companies, and they had to consider carefully how to implement the provisions. Better off companies could bring in builders to provide a Rolls-Royce version, but great ingenuity was applied and disability groups and interested parties were helpful. I know from experience that getting disability groups to discuss how to improve accessibility was very successful. It was also good business since, if a shop is more accessible, it is available to more customers.

3.45 pm

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