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Bridget Prentice: First, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole rightly said that I had not responded to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk about the number of witnesses, so I want to begin by doing so.
As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said, in the past, the number of witnesses was restricted. That restriction has not been replicated in the health, education and social care rules, because the Tribunal Procedure Committee, which makes the rules, believes that the rules should not be arbitrarily limited in terms of the number of witnesses, as that could work against the interests of justice.
I also want to reassure the Committee that parents will not be put at a disadvantage as a result of that. It does not mean that parents will have to try to produce more witnesses, nor does it mean that an unlimited number of witnesses will be called. In fact, the reverse will happen, because the tribunal can limit the number of witnesses that either party calls.
The case management process will help the tribunal to identify what witness evidence is needed and then ensure that the appropriate witnesses are called to support each party’s case and test evidence, as appropriate, before it. The tribunals consulted on that through the user groups and at training events. It was decided then that it would be inappropriate to set a specific formal limit on the number of witnesses, because a blanket limit could be contrary to article 6 of the European convention on human rights. As I said, case management will identify the witnesses required in any given case, and the tribunal will keep that under review in consultation with users and members.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole is concerned about forcing children to attend hearings. The child or young person’s right will remain exactly as it has been. They will not be required to attend hearings. Their current rights remain the same; they have just been incorporated within the new rules. Tribunals will not force children to undergo assessments against their or their parents’ wishes.
Under the previous regulations that applied to SENDIST, the tribunal could only encourage parents to provide the most up-to-date evidence possible from assessments by professionals. If one party refused to co-operate, the tribunal was faced with having to base its decision on incomplete evidence, which could distort the decision making.
Rule 15(4) altered that, so that the tribunal can, where it considers it appropriate, require the parent to make the child available for assessment by an appropriate professional and/or require a school to allow a professional instructed by the parent into the school to assess the child’s functioning in a school environment. That new rule is designed to ensure that the tribunal can have complete and up-to-date evidence, which will help it to come to the right decision.
The hon. Lady also asked about case management. The tribunal proposes that, from April, all cases will receive either automatic directions or a paper hearing. Only if the judge decides at the paper hearing that a further telephone or face-to-face case management hearing is required will a direction be given that one should take place. That should make the process simpler and ensure that judicial time is focused on the more complex cases that need greater case management. As we speak, the tribunal is consulting on that process.
The hon. Lady asked about more information for parents. A parent will still lodge an appeal against a decision of their local authority by filling in an appeal form, setting out the information and sending it to the tribunal. What has changed is that, under the previous rules, a parallel case statement process was adopted. That meant that both the parent and the local authority were asked to comment on the decision at the heart of the appeal independently of each other.
Under the new rules, the local authority will be asked to respond directly to the issue that the parent raises. The amount of information that parents need to provide has not changed, although they are now asked to provide as much information as possible at the beginning of the appeal.
The hon. Member for Woking asked about delegation to staff. That rule applies across the chamber of the first and the upper-tier tribunals; it does not apply just to the chamber under discussion. It means that some minor administrative decisions, as he said, can be dealt with without taking up judicial time. However, any such delegation must be approved by the senior president of a tribunal, and in any event it can be referred back only to a tribunal judge.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole was concerned that some of the organisations that I cited as supportive are perhaps not as supportive as I said. The National Autistic Society, the Special Educational Consortium, the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice and the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools asked that the rules be laid when we laid them, rather than delay it. A number of them have said publicly that this is a better forum for parents to get the best possible outcome for their children.
3.25 pm
Mr. Bellingham: I apologise for promoting you earlier, Mr. Jones, and thank the Minister for explaining the complex points and answering our questions in her usual courteous and professional manner.
The Minister made two key points. First, the rules will be kept under constant review. Secondly, the Tribunal Procedure Committee will go on looking at the rules as they bed down. She also mentioned the Lamb report. The commissioning of that report suggested to me that the Government had severe concerns about some of the rules. She said that if the rules were not voted through today, complete chaos would emerge. I say to her simply that this has not been well handled.
The explanatory memorandum is extraordinarily candid. Paragraph 3.1 states:
“Ministers judged that there was a serious risk of Parliament not approving the affirmative statutory instruments if all the concerns of some key interest groups had not been met.”
It is quite extraordinary that Ministers are prepared to say that. Getting a vote on measures such as these relies on opposition parties praying against them. If the Government had brought these rules before the House in the normal way, they would simply have gone through.
My concern is simple. The Minister has answered a number of points, but a number of key concerns remain outstanding. I take on board what she said about organisations such as the National Autistic Society, but other groups have contacted me to say that they are still concerned about what is going on. Although the last thing the Opposition want to do is create confusion or chaos, we are not happy with the situation as it stands.
Question put.
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 7.
Division No. 1]
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye)
Gardiner, Barry
Hesford, Stephen
Hill, rh Keith
Lucas, Ian
McGuire, rh Mrs. Anne
Plaskitt, Mr. James
Prentice, Bridget
Slaughter, Mr. Andy
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Brooke, Annette
Gray, Mr. James
Howell, John
Kramer, Susan
Malins, Mr. Humfrey
Wright, Jeremy
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal) (Health, Education and Social Care Chamber) Rules 2008 (S.I. 2008, No. 2699).
3.29 pm
Committee rose.
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