Higher Education Bill

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Mr. Thomas: I strongly support the hon. Gentleman's argument. However, we should point out that new clause 4 seeks to apply the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to the body set up by the

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Welsh Assembly that his amendments to clause 13, particularly amendment No. 33, seek to abolish. Does that not undermine his case?

Mr. Collins: It is very kind of the hon. Gentleman to assume that not only that one of my amendments would be accepted by the Committee, but that we would reach a slew of amendments tabled by me that would be accepted. On these matters, he is slightly more optimistic than I am, and we will consider each group of amendments as we come to them.

I am slightly more hopeful than normal here because this amendment has cross-party support and has been tabled in precisely the terms advanced by a legitimate, well respected and well supported set of disability groups. I am optimistic that it may be possible to persuade the Under-Secretary to accept it. I am rather less optimistic about the latter group, but we will deal with it in due course, Mr. Gale, otherwise you might rebuke me for straying out of order.

The Chairman: Correct.

Mr. Collins: I was trying to explain the details of new clause 4, which seeks to extend by an additional two months the six-month appeal period provided under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. The organisations that asked us to table and consider these amendments in Committee make it clear that they welcome the new complaints procedure. They feel that it offers an additional route outside the costs, complications and various other difficulties associated with taking matters to court. They stress that they would prefer not to advise people to go to court because of the problems that often result when they do so, which is a sensible proposition for us all.

The groups explain, however, that there is a slight inconsistency in the way that the procedures might work. At the moment, students have only six months to take cases of disability discrimination to court, so that by the time they have exhausted both the university's internal complaints mechanism and the independent students complaint mechanism, the six months allowed for making appeals might have passed. If new clause 4 were to be written into the Bill, the same two-month extension would be added to the time limit that is already available to students who take a complaint to conciliation through the Disability Rights Commission.

In other words, Parliament has already legislated to reflect the fact that there should be, as it were, penalty time—additional time added so that one does not lose the right to go to court because one has chosen to go through a conciliation mechanism instead. All of us want to avoid overburdening the courts and to spare a group of people—because of their nature, they are necessarily disadvantaged and unlikely in most cases to be particularly well-off—the costs and difficulties of going to court. If they choose to go through a route that is an alternative to a court case, surely they should not be penalised for doing so, but given an extra two months. That is a reasonable request, which reflects what is already in place under existing legislation in a similar context. They are not asking for a 12-month extension, merely two months.

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It is my hope that the Under-Secretary will, on reflection—and, I am sure, having taken considerable advice—be able to conclude that although the amendments happen to be tabled in my name and that of the official Opposition, they are not tabled as a party political matter; they have the support of the hon. Member for Cambridge and we have heard that they are likely to attract the support of a number of other parties here. It would be to the Government's credit if, having reflected on the purpose behind the amendments, they were able to say that although their original view was that the legislation as first drafted was fine in all its respects, they were prepared to listen on the matter.

I would be delighted if the Under-Secretary could accept the amendments as they are. If we cannot quite persuade him, I hope that he will undertake to reconsider the matter and consider tabling similar amendments at a later stage. Many vulnerable people outside would welcome that and believe that the legislation would be improved if the Government could move in the direction that I have suggested.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): As this is my first contribution to the Committee may I welcome you, Mr. Gale, and say how much I look forward to working with you? I do not want to add much to what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, but it is worth pointing out, as he remarked, that the amendments were requested by the Royal National Institute of the Blind and by Skill, the organisation that deals with students with disabilities.

10.30 am

As I was reading the example provided by the Royal National Institute of the Blind—of a blind student not being able to complete an examination properly because of the failure of the university to supply appropriate materials—it occurred to me that a far more common case is probably of that of a student suffering from dyslexia. In my experience it is very common for students with dyslexia not to have their disability recognised and also for institutions on occasions to fail to provide either the extra time that a dyslexic student needs or some facility to enable them to complete their examination. It would be very useful to have some kind of clarification from the Under-Secretary on this issue. Would the whole process of academic judgment preclude that kind of complaint from a student who failed the examination because of the university's failure to provide proper materials, time or facilities to cater for that disability?

On new clause 4, one of my experiences of helping students with a complaint about their academic institution—it was not related to disabilities in this case—dragged on for months and months. I know that the internal university complaints procedures are often not as efficient as they might be and if added to the independent complaints procedure could take a great deal longer than six months. Therefore, this is a sensible amendment. It is sensible to add at least two months to the time before which a student can go to the special educational needs and disability tribunal and take action under the Disability Discrimination Act

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1995. I hope the Under-Secretary will support these amendments or at least clarify what the situation is and how the law should be interpreted.

Mr. Boswell: I rise briefly in support of these amendments and am grateful for the hon. Lady's contribution, as well as to my hon. Friends for moving them. The background for my doing so is that I was the only Member who spoke on Second Reading who flagged up the particular sensitivities of disabled students. I do not claim to have done more than any other Member might have done, but I then received a briefing from Skill and the RNIB. Beyond that I can claim the credibility of having led for our party in relation to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. I have had an interest in this area for some time and a huge respect for both Skill and the RNIB and for the other leading disability institutions in their work for disabled students.

I need not return to the point, but individual disabled students have particular difficulties. The interface between their disability and academic judgement is one of the most sensitive of all. I would like to put on record that many institutions are sensitive to the interests of their students with a particular need—be it continuing or chronic conditions, including some such as dyslexia that are more difficult to tie down than a physical condition, or it may be a particular acute problem, such as migraine. They generally seek to meet those. The essence is that there should be proper address if they do not.

Above all, in cases where there is any suspicion—it has happened in the past and may happen from time to time in the future—that an institution has tried to dress up dealing with the inconvenience or expense of a disabled student under some kind of academic guise, it is entirely right that disabled students should have their rights observed like everyone else. It is equally desirable that they should not rush into court at the first drop of trouble. All reasonable opportunities to conciliate, to mediate and to use the internal and adjudicator procedures should be the preferred route.

My experience of the 2001 Act raises a particular problem, which the RNIB has drawn attention to in a wider context. It concerns the operation of the Act in further and higher—post-compulsory—education compared with its operation in statutory age education, where the special educational needs and disability tribunal, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) will well remember, has its remit. If there is a tribunal, people will use it. If they have to go to the courts to enforce their rights it is much more difficult, even with the assistance of Skill or the Disability Rights Commission.

I hope that the Under-Secretary can respond positively to the amendments: in respect of the issue of the interface with academic freedom and in particular the entirely reasonable point that there should be more time to exhaust the process. We are not asking for the time limit to be extended indefinitely, but a reasonable amount of time should be given for everything to be done before it is necessary to press the legal trigger.

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Mr. Lewis: May I welcome the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge to the debate? It has been some time since we worked together. I think that there was a time when she, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and I ran the Department of Trade and Industry—at least, we were Parliamentary Private Secretaries in that Department, but my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge knows what I mean.

I would also like to pay tribute to the work done over many years for students with special needs by the hon. Member for Daventry. He genuinely cares about protecting their interests at every opportunity. I think that every member of the Committee feels strongly that individual institutions and the higher education sector as a whole have a responsibility to ensure that disabled people do not experience any discrimination in those institutions and, further, have the equality of opportunity to demonstrate their talent and potential. It is important that we consider the amendments in that context.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made some important, salient points on amendment No. 184. The difficulty is that we have debated a range of specific and tangible examples where judgments will have to be made about the difference between cases of academic freedom and academic judgment and legitimate sources for consideration by the independent complaints process. It is therefore difficult, even on an issue such as this on which we all agree, to make specific provisions in the Bill to single out the issue. Where does one draw the parameters? In each example, the ambiguity might cause some confusion and lack of clarity.

The Government are sympathetic to considering the issue in order to ensure that disabled students are not discriminated against and that it is not possible to hide the discrimination of disabled students behind the fig leaf of academic judgment. In asking the hon. Gentleman to withdraw amendment No. 184, I also ask him to accept that the Government are willing to go away and consider the objective and purpose behind it.

I move on to new clause 4. Anything called clause 4 is always a difficult one for us; I might not be able to accept new clause 4 and continue to have a career in this Government. The serious point is that there is perhaps a need for clarification rather than a need to accept the new clause. First, the six-month time limit under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 starts once the institution's internal procedure has been totally exhausted. Secondly, it is not generally understood that paragraph 3 of schedule 2 makes it clear that when students have lost a case with a court but asked for proceedings to be stayed, it does not prevent access to the scheme. In other words, the six-month period for submitting a case to court will not be exhausted while the OIA considers the student's complaint. That should give the organisations that are concerned, and hon. Members too, the guarantee and protection that if the individual makes it absolutely clear to the court that the matter is being considered by the OIA, the court has the capacity to hold on to the

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case and not to say that the complaint under the Disability Discrimination Act should fall because the time period has lapsed.

 
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