Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Jacqui Smith: I rise before we formally conclude the business of the Committee to express our thanks to you, Mr. O'Brien, and to Sir David Madel, for your chairmanship over the past two weeks. The hon. Member for Daventry established at the outset the aim of keeping the Committee good natured and constructive, and I think that it has been. That has been due in large part to the high standard of chairmanship.

I would also like to pass on the Committee's thanks to the Clerks for the way in which the Committee has proceeded. I would particularly like to thank my officials, who have done sterling work. Like all good officials, they help us to ensure that the legislation gets on to the statute book, is effective and can make the sort of difference that we hope it will.

I thank my fellow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking, who has made good use of her understanding of and commitment to disability rights in her contributions. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) who have helped to ensure that the Committee's progress has been civilised, but progress none the less.

10.30 am

My hon. Friends the Members for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire), for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Mr. Ennis) and for Southampton, Test have played a key role as Parliamentary Private Secretaries in the Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test has also been responsible this morning for providing some of the best lines of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking.

I thank Members on both sides of the Committee for their informed contributions and interventions. In particular, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) and for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), who brought educational experience to our discussions and highlighted the issues of particular relevance to Wales and Scotland. All of us wish my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South well in her recovery from her accident at the weekend.

On the Opposition Front Bench, the hon. Members for St. Ives (Mr. George) and Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) were supportive of the passage of the Bill. They were also creditably selective in the amendments that they chose to table. They raised important points that deserved discussion.

The hon. Members for Daventry and for South Holland and The Deepings brought good humour and important discussion to the Committee. With his classical allusions, the hon. Member for Daventry added to our understanding of Greek and Latin, although members of the Committee were disappointed to learn that his erudition had more to do with the names of his pets than with a deep interest in classical civilisations.

In the case of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, we learned something about his appreciation of wine. Hon. Members will remember that the hon. Gentleman returned from lunch last Tuesday having enjoyed half a bottle of Chateau Musar. Given my ministerial responsibility, I have a passion for education and teaching, so I thought that it would be useful very briefly to educate the Committee about that wine. According to the ``Which? Wine Guide 2001'', Chateau Musar is a Lebanese wine. It is

    ``well structured and not overblown. It is usually released...having undergone painstaking ageing and final blending.''

In that it is not unlike the Government's arguments.

In conclusion, the Committee has delivered, after detailed discussion, a Bill that will fulfil the Government's objectives. It will improve educational opportunities for those with special needs. It will represent a positive statement of inclusion while maintaining the excellence of provision and choice for parents. It will improve support for parents, and information and conciliation services that will enable parents to be more confident in the system and therefore more able to support their children. It will improve the processes of the special educational needs framework. The Bill's disability provisions are a major step in outlawing discrimination in education on the basis of disability. They will open up opportunities for disabled children in schools and promote a strategic approach to improving access in all our schools.

We heard on Second Reading and in Committee that that approach is important not only for individuals but for all children in our schools, and fundamental for the creation of an inclusive society. In its post-16 and lifelong provisions, the Bill recognises that education without discrimination is important throughout our lives. In opening up opportunities in further, higher and adult education, we create better chances for individuals and make our society and our economy more inclusive.

I thank you once again, Mr. O'Brien, and hope that the Bill makes good speed as it goes through the rest of its stages.

Mr. Boswell: I echo, not for the first time, the Minister's remarks, particularly those about you, Mr. O'Brien, and Sir David, who have chaired the Committee so well and contributed to the tone of proceedings. You have rebuked us when it has been necessary, but that has not, mercifully, been all the time. You have certainly not unnerved us with your sternness. I should also like to thank the Clerks—as is always important for Opposition Members—for their assistance in drafting amendments, and the Hansard writers who have had to cope with Greek and Assyrian, but fortunately not the Serbo-Croat of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge—although there is still time. Thanks are also due to the police, who have hardly been required to keep order, so far as I have noticed, and to everyone who has taken an interest in the proceedings.

Turning to my colleagues, I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings both for the substance of his contributions and for having relieved me of some of the burden, as well as for his knowledge of wine and his commitment to special education, particularly for those whose special and educational needs change over time. My thanks go to our Whip, the hon. Member for Uxbridge, and to his counterpart. We have had a pleasant and not inconvenient discussion, which has enabled us to get a great deal done.

My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) has a passionate commitment to choice in provision and my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford has intervened with a great general knowledge of education, and some interest in this particular area, convincing me from time to time. The hon. Members for St. Ives and for Oxford, West and Abingdon have kept to the spirit of these proceedings and have made useful and instructive contributions.

It is always nice when Government Back Benchers are allowed an outing and have something to say, which they do in this area. They have been authoritative and helpful, and sometimes challenging. I hope that I can say to the Ministers that it takes two to tango. We have had pleasant discussions. We have not agreed about everything, but we have agreed about objectives and have received some useful assurances. Without impropriety or invidiousness, might I also say that I am grateful, vicariously, to the Ministers' officials, who have provided them with good material, and to their draftspersons. There are Bills that one does not like to read, and there are those that one has an itch to amend technically all the way through. I do not mean to tease the Minister, the hon. Member for Redditch, about her propensity for occasional amendment, and I have felt that I am dealing with a Bill that has a shape and structure, and even an internal coherence, and that is welcome.

Drawing on my experience in the Department, I have always felt that it has been particularly strong on special educational needs and that some of its best people have addressed themselves to that, as is right. We would not be on the Committee if we were not committed to this area. It has given the lie to a purely instrumental or Benthamite view of education—that it is simply about productivity, competitiveness, national wealth or anything else. If my studies in the classics, or any of the indulgences that we have had in Committee, mean anything, it is the importance of the issue in itself. When we consider the interests of children with special educational needs, and further provision for them as they grow into adults, we must remember that they are not only special, but precious. That is why we are here, enjoying the Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. O'Brien. We look forward to further consideration of the Bill in due course.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): I do not want to detain the Committee any longer than necessary. I want to associate myself with all the remarks made by the hon. Member for Daventry and the Minister about how our debates have been conducted. They entirely reflected how I feel. I thank you, Mr. O'Brien, and through you Sir David, for the manner in which the Committee has been chaired.

Given the line taken by the Conservatives on Second Reading, I was concerned that the Committee would be more combative and difficult. I was encouraged by the nature of our discussions, and especially by how the hon. Member for Daventry presented his concerns about the Bill. As has emerged, his amendments were largely probing, as this is a good Bill and to be welcomed. We do not want to delay it finding its way on to the statute book. I did my best to contribute some of the classical allusions by using Antigone as a metaphor for disabled people. There will be less suffering from inappropriate dictat as a result of the Bill.

I congratulate the Government on the Bill. Our debates have helped to emphasise why it is broadly welcome, and the amendments have helped to tease out the elucidation of issues that have concerned us. They have also identified potential weaknesses that must be monitored, which has also been helpful.

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