Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman makes sensible suggestions that highlight my point, which is that we need a common-sense approach on how institutions deal with such problems. I shall move on to how we might support them, but first I shall respond to his earlier question about whether institutions will be held responsible for everything that happens to disabled students during their work experience or placements. If an institution takes the steps that I have outlined, it will not be responsible. As I emphasised, it will have a duty not to discriminate against disabled students in the work experience services that it provides.

Given the serious issues raised on work experience, it is worth saying that, in another place, we made a firm commitment to make a regulation to define what institutions do in respect of work experience as a student service. Officials in my Department are working on a statement of the practical steps that we think the duty should involve. We will work together to ensure that that shared understanding is reflected in the Disability Rights Commission's code, which will also inform what institutions do.

In the meantime, we will work with the Association of Colleges and the Learning and Skills Council to develop good practice guidance for further education institutions on work experience placements for disabled students. It will be published in the late spring, which will be in time to influence action on the arrangement of placements for students that start in the autumn. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education has produced a code of practice that covers students with disabilities. It contains a paragraph on academic and vocational placements, including those linked to language courses. Once the Bill has been enacted and the accompanying codes are in place, the QAA will undoubtedly want to revise its own guidance. Until then, we will keep it in touch with our emerging thinking, which I am sure will be inspired by our debate today.

I shall move on to a point that concerns the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings—and others, I suspect—about transport. The provision of transport is exempted from the provisions of the DDA, but I think that I can help the hon. Members on some other specific issues.

A further education college in my constituency is on two sites about 10 miles apart, and a bus takes students from one site to the other. That service, which is provided for students by the institution, will be covered under the definition of student services. The Bill will also place a duty on education providers to make reasonable adjustments to policies, practices and procedures or any arrangements for services that place the disabled person at a substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled people.

In operating their transport policies, institutions will have to be sure that they do not treat disabled students less favourably than non-disabled students. They will also have to consider making reasonable adjustments. For example, a college with a policy to provide all students eligible for access funds with the same financial support for transport, regardless of whether they have a disability, will need to consider the impact of that policy on disabled students with transport needs which, as hon. Members have pointed out, are more significant than those of eligible non-disabled students, especially if the only accessible form of transport is a taxi. In that case, it will probably be appropriate to adjust the policy to ensure that the extra costs for disabled students are taken into consideration.

With those reassurances and points of information, and given the cross-party recognition that clause 26 is the start of an important section of the Bill that broadens the scope for students and people engaged in post-16 learning, I hope that the Committee will agree to the clause standing part.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 27

Meaning of ``discrimination''

Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 22, in page 26, line 33, leave out subsection (6).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 24, in page 26, leave out lines 37 to 41.

Mr. Boswell: We have had a good discussion on earlier clauses. I assure the Minister, the hon. Member for Barking, that I do not intend to replicate the length of previous exchanges, because we have been given important assurances. It is nothing personal if we are now more perfunctory when speaking to the hon. Lady than when speaking to the Under Secretary, the hon. Member for Redditch.

The purpose of my amendment and, I suspect, of the Liberal Democrat amendment—it is geographically challenged, which is why it comes after mine—is to probe the meaning of discrimination. Given the consensus that has emerged in Committee that we do not want discrimination of any sort, we now need to discover in what circumstances less favourable treatment might be justified.

Ministers clearly think that there may be such circumstances. This may be a get-out clause, rather like the famous section of the Army Act that catches anyone who has not thought of anything else. It would enable Ministers to exempt something that they thought was reasonable or even something unreasonable that might give rise to undesirable consequences. I am sure that Ministers do not intend it as a means of subverting their intentions, but it would help if the Minister could tell us something about it. On the other hand, there will not be many members of the Committee who are against academic standards, or any other prescribed standards.

On the whole, we are in favour of standards, but we need to know how the clause will work and what the potential difficulties might be. Thinking ahead to a later amendment tabled in the name of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George), I can see that the Committee would be interested in the matter of academic qualifications. Hon. Members will share the view of Lord Dearing on the importance of bite-sized chunks. Some Committee members might have heard me make impassioned speeches about my preference for glasses that are half full rather than half empty. That is particularly relevant to people with learning difficulties. If we want them to achieve something—it is important that they should be able to do so—we must offer them achievable qualifications, even if those qualifications are not available to other people in that institution. That difficulty must be considered—perhaps that is what the Minister has in mind. As it is a probing amendment, I rest my case and await the Minister's response.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): In welcoming you to the Chair, Sir David, I offer my commiserations to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) who, as we heard this morning, has had an accident and is unable to be with us. I add my name to the list of those who wish her a speedy recovery.

The hon. Member for Daventry is probably right to say that my amendment is geographically challenged if he means that it is the second amendment on the page; perhaps it is sequentially challenged given where it has fallen in the scheme of things. Subsection (6) attempts to define when less favourable treatment is legitimate.

Mr. Boswell: I should have said that it is possible that there is a link between this provision and the provision of efficient education for other pupils, which we debated in the context of schools on clause 1.

Mr. George: I am grateful for that intervention. We are attempting to tease out further amplification of an earlier debate, but in a different context. Amendment No. 24 would limit the justification for discrimination to the need to maintain academic and other standards, and not simply to give the Minister the leeway to introduce regulations that would allow a wider spread of less favourable or discriminatory treatment of students. Sometimes it is necessary and proper for colleges and universities to give less favourable treatment to disabled applicants and students—for instance, when the academic and other requirements of a course necessitate that disabled students are not admitted, or that adjustments are not made. I am sure that hon. Members would agree that medical and dental students need good vision, and that students with a visual challenge might not be able to meet the academic or professional standards necessary to complete the course. Perhaps we could debate the matter.

Although it might be possible to justify subsection (6) in tightly defined circumstances, it is less easy to justify subsection (7). That subsection refers to prescribed treatments, and to less favourable treatment in prescribed circumstances that have to be justified. What are those discriminatory treatments? What are the circumstances in which discrimination is justifiable? The Bill gives no indication, nor do the explanatory notes. Once the needs of a particular course have been allowed, what other possible justifications are there for discrimination, if the reason for less favourable treatment cannot be justified in terms of academic standards? Can it be justified because the efficient education of other students will be affected, or because the student or other students might be put in some danger? We need examples of justifications for less favourable treatment that are not encompassed in subsection (6).

5.45 pm

The leeway given for discrimination in subsection 7 is far too broad and leaves too much to the whim of those who write the regulations. Perish the thought that anyone would doubt the good intentions of the present Administration, but there is no certainty that some future Administration will not write regulations that are unhelpful and clearly discriminatory towards disabled people. Why leave it to chance? There is no need for subsection (7); subsection (6) does everything that is necessary, unless the Minister is able to elucidate the circumstances in which subsection (6) does not encompass all other possible circumstances. I cannot envisage them. Will the Minister give the Committee one example—or several, if possible—to elucidate why it is necessary to provide such a widely drawn right through regulation to allow less favourable treatment to disabled people?

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