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Baroness Blackstone: In the interests of making progress, as the issue is raised directly in Amendments Nos. 34 and 35, I should be grateful if we could return to it when we debate those amendments.

Baroness Blatch: I am disappointed; however, I shall wait in anticipation for the explanation in response to Amendment No. 34. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 26 not moved.]

7 p.m.

Lord Rix moved Amendment No. 27:

    Page 1, line 23, at end insert--

("( ) education (other than higher education) suitable for the requirements of persons with learning difficulties or disabilities (or both) who are above compulsory school age but have not attained the age of 25,").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will speak to Amendments Nos. 38, 47, 159 and 160 dealing with vocational and non-vocational learning for people with learning difficulties and disabilities. I shall speak to those amendments at the appropriate time. For the present, I shall confine myself to Amendments Nos. 27 and 156, which seek to remedy a well-known inadequacy in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992; namely, the Act does not fully recognise the importance of learning opportunities for students with learning difficulties up to the age of 25.

The amendments are not designed to be dogmatic in awarding disabled students a stronger entitlement to further education than other students (who are of course entitled up to the age of 19). Rather, they seek to embrace in law the power to remedy a system which in practice fails a significant number of disabled young people.

At Second Reading, I spoke of the impact of learning difficulties on the learning process, recognising that disabled learners often take longer than their peers in terms of speed of learning. I spoke specifically of the impact on students with learning disabilities, but it is also true of students with other impairments, particularly progressive conditions. Young people with physical disabilities or health problems may lose study time while undergoing treatment, with a cumulative effect on their learning. Deaf or visually impaired students, like students with learning disabilities, may have problems accessing or processing information.

The law as it stands has had a direct adverse effect on students, often mid-way through their course as they have reached the critical age of 19. LEAs operating blanket policies of support have been known to withdraw critical support services once the age of 19 has been reached on the grounds that the students no longer fit the standard eligibility criteria. And of course, once such provisions as transport funding are withdrawn, courses are often untenable for students with disabilities.

It is something of an irony that the substantive point has been partially recognised. The DfEE extended entitlement to special training needs up to the age of 25, and in the residential further education sector there is also an entitlement up to the age of 25.

That creates anomalies of another kind, about which I spoke in some detail at Second Reading. Under the current dispensation, individuals have to be rejected by a number of mainstream colleges before being offered funding for residential provision. That is

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a substantial barrier to accessing education appropriate to the individual, which the new Learning and Skills Council Prospectus heralds as the ideal. I shall be delighted if the Minister will assure me that that barrier will be removed under new arrangements so that all students with disabilities will have the opportunity to extend their education to the age of 25 if that is necessary on account of their disability. I beg to move.

Lord Addington: My name appears on almost all the amendments in this group. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, has slightly understated the case. People have problems going through the educational process if they have disabilities because they "do not fit", or--probably the worst scenario--if their disabilities are not recognised in time. Anyone who has had contact in the field of education with those with disabilities must have heard the great mantra: the disability was not recognised on time or the person did not "fit the form" or the way matters were arranged. Such people may suddenly find themselves running into the problem of being too old to go through the education process that they have begun.

Different examples can be offered but they all come back to one thing: if the student has a parent or teacher who is on the ball and gets on to the right path quickly enough, most of the problems disappear. Certain groups need continued support, and these amendments cover them. But for many--I refer principally to dyslexics or those with mild autism, Asperger's syndrome--unless they get onto the treadmill of the right form of education and into the right set quickly enough, they will bump against the age limit of 19. For people from lower income backgrounds, especially those whose parents are not, for instance, good at paperwork, it becomes a major problem.

During a discussion on this issue at my party conference last year, someone said to me that he had a disabled child "who had chosen its parents terribly well". I think it was a case of a lawyer and a doctor. They knew how to fill out the forms and how to batter civil servants, minor officials and local education authorities into providing the right help at the right time. That is important. If--and it is a very big "if"--the age of 25 can be added to the provisions, suddenly the situation will start to fit people better. They will have a better chance of getting through their chosen educational process, and of obtaining training and support afterwards.

I know that many local authorities make provision afterwards, if possible; but it is a lottery. The outcome is dependent on where a person lives, the type of support that he or she has and on an organisation picking up the problems early enough. The amendment would prevent the difficulties in many cases. I hope that the Government will listen solidly to the proposal. I have made far too many speeches on this subject over the years and should like to stop!

Baroness Blatch: I support the amendments. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, that I

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thought, when we discussed groupings this morning with the officer dealing with the matter, that we were taking out the Welsh amendments, Amendments Nos. 156, 159 and 160--not because they are not important but because my noble friend Lord Roberts would like to deal with them. I know that he will deal with them supportively. Therefore, I wonder whether the noble Lord will agree that they will be dealt with under the Welsh clauses in the Bill.

The other amendments standing on my name repeat the theme that has been set out, and in my view understated, by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, with some passion.

The fundamental points are these. For many, non-vocational education is recreational. They can take it or leave it. Therefore, it can sometimes be seen as less important than vocational education. But for those with learning difficulties, non-vocational education is often important to them and to their lifestyles for developing self-confidence, independent living skills and the like. Therefore, to such people the importance is all the greater. The amendments would place on the face of the Bill a recognition of the importance of non-vocational education.

I know that people with learning disabilities would not wish to be singled out specifically in this way. For many others, non-vocational education is important. But there is a general feel about the Bill that non-vocational education does not receive a great deal of emphasis and will somehow end up subservient to narrowly focused education and training, mostly leading to vocational qualifications.

I make this appeal to the Minister. For a number of people, particularly those with learning difficulties, non-vocational education is special to their lives--and in a practical way, not simply a recreational way. I support the noble Lord, Lord Rix.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: My name is not attached to any of the amendments in these groups--I exclude the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for the moment. However, perhaps I may say briefly how strongly I support them. I very much hope that the divide between those up to 25 years old in the residential and non-residential sectors will go. What one needs is to follow the appropriate course. Obviously, if one is capable of going to a local non-residential college that is a further development in one's ability to manage. It is depressing that there are still instances in which support is withdrawn at the age of 19. We do not appear to have moved very far since the passing of the 1992 Act. I very much support the observations of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, about non-vocational courses, particularly for those with learning difficulties but also for the aged, the lonely and those who do not get out much. Such courses help their lives enormously.

Baroness David: My name is also added to these amendments, which I strongly support. I believe that the case for these amendments has been well made. Non-vocational courses provide a way in for a great many people. The noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de

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Knayth, has referred to the old. I believe that these courses provide people with the means to get started again. They may enjoy non-vocational courses that encourage them to move on to vocational courses. I very much hope that, if my noble friend cannot give way entirely, she will give some hope--I am sure that she will express understanding--that something will be done at some stage.

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