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Lord Campbell of Croy: Before my noble friend replies, I wish to ask for clarification about government Amendments 90, 91 and 92. Amendment No. 92 applies to higher education in Scotland. Amendment No. 90 refers to the Education Act 1993, but I am not sure whether that covers Scotland for the purposes of that amendment.

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Baroness Park of Monmouth: I only wish to say in a very brief intervention that I very much welcome what the Government have done in going so far to try to meet the concerns that we all have. I also very much support what the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), has said. We need both her amendments and the Government's central proposal. I hope it will be agreed that if there is a very big difference between giving people encouragement to do something and requiring them to do something that will make a big difference to what happens to students. From what I have heard it seems that the cost would not be unreasonable. I hope that that is true. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Lord Rix: We have moved a long way in a short time in that we can now be debating discrimination within further education against students with a severe learning disability. It therefore seems not unreasonable that, having got this far, we should want to go further.

The remit given to the further education funding council under the 1992 Act is to fund what I might call basic courses where such courses are specifically designed to lead on to further things. That causes difficulties in the case of someone with severe learning disabilities whose current need is to build on the incomplete basic education provided by school and who may or may not be able to move on to other things as other students are. A great deal of energy and imagination has been invested in designing basic courses which come within the terms of Schedule 2. The energy can be much better invested in concentrating on the needs of the students and the ability of the teaching staff to deliver what the students need. The unfair discrimination lies in putting in hurdles under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 which impede students with severe learning disabilities and do not impede students without severe learning disabilities. The Government's amendments do not resolve this problem because they do not override a barrier which is written in statute.

Earl Russell: I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), on the way she has moved the amendment. The cases she has recited cause concern inside universities as well as outside. Something must be done to make sure that we do not get too many of these cases turning up in future.

In anything involving higher education I must declare an interest. I am concerned here particularly with government Amendment No. 91 and particularly with subsection (6) of that amendment. We are offered these amendments on the understanding that they are two competing amendments. It really rather seems to put me in the position of Paris; but I may say that in that contest the Minister is at a disadvantage for whatever his many and great virtues he is undoubtedly not a goddess.

There is something of a history which I am afraid that I shall have to tell the Committee in some of its detail. There is as much concern in the universities as anywhere else to try to do things to help people with disabilities. We are quite used to the idea that academic freedom is subject to the law of the land. It has been that way in cases of racial discrimination and of sexual discrimination. I have never heard any academic voice argue that it should not be so. I hope that that point is

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clear. However, what tends to cause us concern is any intervention by outside authority in matters of specific curriculum and academic content. I am not talking only of the Government. There are many things in matters relating to the curriculum that I would not alter on the demand of my own college principal unless he happened to be in my subject, and on at least one occasion I have had to tell him so and he has accepted it.

Universities rely heavily on Section 68(3) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which was carried in the Lobbies on the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. It lays down that terms and conditions imposed by the Secretary of State:

    "may not be framed by reference to particular courses of study or programmes of research (including the contents of such courses or programmes and the manner in which they are taught, supervised or assessed) or to the criteria for the selection and appointment of academic staff and for the admission of students".

I hope that your Lordships understand why that is crucial. We were extremely grateful to hear it reaffirmed in pretty well the same words by Mr. Boswell speaking in another place on the 7th of this month. It therefore caused us some concern that initially the wording of the government amendment involved an amendment to Section 68(3). That has disappeared and we are extremely grateful for that, but because we do not understand, and have never understood, why it was there in the first place, we inevitably look the amendment slightly more carefully in the mouth than we would do otherwise. I think that that is understood and accepted.

I am extremely grateful to both Ministers, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and through them to their officials, for a great deal of consultation over the past week which has produced a great deal of improvement. If the final stage of that consultation—or what I hope is the final stage—is taking place on the Floor of that Chamber, I am afraid that that is because we started a little late. On 4th April we gave a warning to Mr. Boswell that there was a problem, and serious consultation began on 5th June, after which we had three different forms of amendment within four days. No wonder we have not quite kept up with each other, although I know that we have all tried extremely hard, for which I am grateful.

I want to ask, with the case of Pepper v. Hart in mind, a few detailed questions about the meaning of the disability statements. First, what is meant in new subsection (4B) by,

    "information of a specified description"?

What is meant by "the provision of facilities"? There are two ways in which one could understand that. One could understand that it means information which is crucial to people with disabilities, such as that relating to ramps, lifts, induction loops for the deaf and the provision of braille facilities. All of those things cause no problems. If policy statements on those are wanted, that is entirely agreeable and entirely right and proper. What would concern us more would be if policy statements asked how far each individual course was suitable for disabled students because, of course, we all understand that there is no such thing as a course which is suitable for disabled students, fullstop. It depends on the nature of the course and the nature of the disability—

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Lord Addington: And the student.

Earl Russell: Yes, as my noble friend Lord Addington reminds me, no doubt on the nature of the student too. But that I think is beside the purposes of the Bill.

For example, one might be entirely happy about a deaf student working with sulphuric acid. One might not be quite so happy about a blind student doing the same. So, if what is being asked for is a list of which courses are suitable for disabled students, the vice-chancellor will have to list 100 courses, cross-referenced to 100 disabilities, and he will forget at least 100 other disabilities. Because we all know every time we go through a list of briefs on disability in every one we pick up several disabilities which we had never previously imagined; we had never heard of them. So that by itself would be a considerable body of work.

But when we get into the curriculum and specific courses, especially specific courses, there is a rather bigger problem. We of course understand, and we accept, the assurances given by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, writing to me on 8th June:

    "It is not the intention that the higher education amendments will have the effect of compelling institutions to make changes. Institutions will continue to decide themselves what provision they wish and are able to offer".

I thank him for those words. We understand them. We accept them.

But of course there is inevitably a pressure. What concerns me is the possibility that the pressure which does, and ought to, exist to make courses more accessible to students with specific disabilities when we can do so might blend with the pressure which is there all the time to reduce costs. For example, if one discusses field trips for geologists, it might be argued, very much in the way medieval history suffers in the politically correct climate of California, that these things should be cut out because they are not quite suited to the people to whom they are to be offered.

If we get into that sort of territory, that will cause inside the universities considerable anxiety. If we do not get into the territory of exhaustive paperwork or the territory of pressure on curriculum content, then, if there is any curriculum element in these disability statements, I should like to know what it is for because I do not see it.

The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness raise different sorts of questions. If I may—I have given her notice of this—I should like to ask her a few questions about what is the effect of the amendments. If she cannot answer them instantly, if she says to me, like a Minister, that she will write to the noble Earl, that will be entirely acceptable to me.

First, there is no problem about our being subject in universities to the law of the land. When I wrote a book on academic freedom I put in a whole section arguing that that was the case. One of the reviewers asked whether I really needed to say it. It seemed that I did. Also, there is no problem about being subject to the courts, because the courts do not have an education policy. So that much is all right. But the question of costs, the noble Baroness herself said, is crucial. It is right that universities should be under pressure to spend money—we are under pressure internally whatever happens externally—on better facilities for the disabled.

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When we talk about access, we hope that we mean access in the physical sense rather than in the wider intellectual sense. The problem is one of priorities. If I could say what I think in equity ought to be the case, I would be glad to know whether it is the effect of the Bill that it will become the case. Let us take together four possible causes for spending money. First, there is asbestos in the roof; secondly, financial hardship: one has £2,000 and one might save four students from being unable to do their degree work properly. Thirdly, there is the library: 30 per cent. of students unable to complete essays because they cannot get the books; and, fourthly, a need for access by ramps to the main lecture theatre.

What I believe should in equity be the case is that the asbestos should come first on grounds of medical necessity and that the other three factors should count equally. Would it be the effect of coming within the Bill that those three factors would count equally and that they would have to work on the system of Buggins' turn or, by force of law, would one necessarily come above the others? If it is the first, that seems to me to be entirely reasonable and acceptable. If it is the second, that might be a little more worrying and would raise the question of who decides what is reasonable. Two of those three factors are in areas where the Department for Education tends to see no evil. So the question of who judges what is reasonable might be crucial.

Finally—and I am sorry to have taken so much of the Committee's time—I must ask the noble Baroness the same questions that I have asked the Government. Can she give an undertaking that coming within the Bill would not create any pressure to change the content of courses? There will be places where the content of courses may and should be changed in order to make the courses more accessible to disabled students. But that is a decision that must be taken by people qualified in the subject. It cannot be taken by anyone else either inside or outside the university.

If the noble Baroness can assure me that coming within the Bill would not threaten that principle, that would weigh very materially with me and I should feel happy with it.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: The Committee will be interested to hear the Government's response to the seminar. We look forward to hearing the Minister's views. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth) on the splendid way in which she introduced the amendments. I was convinced by them and I am certain that the Minister too will be convinced. He was listening to her so carefully.

I wish to focus on Amendments Nos. 69 and 70, which bring education into the scope of the Bill. The importance of the amendments relates to and reflects the importance of further and higher education. It is all too easy to overlook that. Of course, education is crucial because it enables people to develop their capabilities and to obtain jobs. That is important for the person and for the economy. However, we cannot afford to waste the talents of disabled people. The theme of all the political parties is

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training and it is especially important that disabled people, because of their physical limitations, train their minds.

Information technology is most significant for the future. There is little that disabled people cannot do in the field of information technology. We now have computers which can literally be controlled with the blinking of an eye. We see disabled people doing that; that is, winking at computers and having them open doors, operate typewriters and so forth. All that is incredible and it represents the kind of world into which we are moving.

But disabled people will require training if they are to take advantage of the great opportunities. They need specialist training in the same way as everyone else. However, despite those facts, education is omitted from the Bill. We know that discrimination is widespread in both further and higher education.

A few universities such as Staffordshire, in which I have declared an interest, have sparkling voluntary initiatives. Other universities such as Durham, Bristol and the Open University have special arrangements such as access schemes for deaf people. But that is patchwork provision throughout the country. Perhaps I may give one example. Deaf students are very under-represented in British universities; there are only 300 deaf students in higher education. Now that figure speaks volumes about the amount of unwitting or deliberate discrimination in British universities, because no one can convince me—and I hope that the Minister cannot be convinced—that all the other deaf people do not have the capacity for higher learning and are not good enough to go to university. Because of discrimination, there are only 300 deaf students in our universities. I hope that the Minister will address his mind to that.

The government amendments tabled by the Minister are merely inching forward at the speed of snails and are totally inadequate. We really need robust and radical change. That is not spelt out yet by the Government. We need to provide disabled people and disabled students especially with the protection of the law.

The universities which are concerned and considerate need appropriate funding. I know from my discussions with various officials of universities that currently they are so badly squeezed that making provision for disabled students is very difficult. No one suggests that there should be a massive investment programme overnight, and I am sure that the Minister is glad to hear that, but we are hoping for massive investment in due course and the sooner the Government can begin, the better. There is no difficulty about over-burdening the universities—I am sure that someone will raise that point—because colleges and universities are well protected by the "reasonable" clauses of the Bill.

I conclude by saying that, unless we include education in this Bill, gifted disabled students will suffer discrimination on the same monumental scale that they have been suffering for past decades. They will be denied the opportunities to which they have as much right as any other people.

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