Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: Perhaps I may intervene briefly to support these amendments. In doing so, I should declare an interest as the father of a 19 year-old daughter with Down's syndrome who, therefore, has learning disabilities, or mental handicap (as some of us still prefer to call it). At the moment, very often there is a gap, or trap, into which children like my daughter fall when they leave school and should go on to educational provision provided by the FEFC. It is not surprising that there is no tremendous enthusiasm on the part of the FEFC or social services to take over this function completely. Therefore, such young people fall into this very unfortunate gap.

I am glad that Amendment No. 27 spells out the fact that we are dealing also with young people with learning disabilities as opposed to learning difficulties, the former being very much more severe (in the jargon). Can the Minister say whether I am right in assuming that the social services content of the provision for these young people will continue under the new system in the same way as it should do--although it does not always--under the present system? In other words, what happens to the social provision in a young person's life when he or she leaves a course at, say, three o'clock in the afternoon, perhaps being in accommodation nearby, and all the rest of it? At the moment, this is a difficult area that is not working well. I hasten to add that my daughter aged 19 has not yet encountered the difficulties to which I refer, but I have heard of very many such cases over the past dozen years or so. I support the amendments and ask the Government to do what they can to meet them.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Rix: I am grateful to all Members of the Committee for the support that they have given. I should like to speak to Amendments Nos. 38, 47 and so on; in other words, I wish to speak to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, which are separate from mine.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Strabolgi): The noble Lord is perfectly entitled to speak to other amendments, although he cannot move them. Although it is not my business, I suggest that it would be tidier if at this stage the Minister replied to the first amendment.

Lord Rix: I shall give way.

Baroness Blackstone: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for allowing me to reply to this group of amendments. I am perfectly content if, following my reply, the noble Lord wishes to raise issues related to

8 Feb 2000 : Column 579

other amendments in the group. A good deal of support for these amendments has been voiced in all parts of Chamber. I hope that what I am about to say is not misconstrued. Once again, it is not that we do not sympathise with and support a great deal of the thinking that underlies the amendments. However, there is a more specific difficulty with the amendments.

Clauses 2, 3, 31 and 32 place the councils under clear duties in respect of persons aged 16 and over. They include persons with learning difficulties or disabilities for whom the councils must have particular regard because of Clauses 13 and 40 respectively. Further, as part of the councils' duties they must take account of the varying abilities and aptitudes of different persons. The Government recognise that those needs, abilities and aptitudes do not suddenly change overnight on a person's 19th birthday. No one would expect a young person who is part-way through a GNVQ not to be allowed to complete his or her course. Likewise, nothing in these provisions prevents learners from continuing their education, whether it is secured under Clauses 2 or 3 or Clauses 31 or 32.

Where a person over the age of 19 has learning difficulties which have delayed his progress or ability to complete a course we do not want his or her opportunities for learning to be diminished; far from it. We want that person's opportunities to continue to learn to be enhanced and supported. We want to build on existing good practice. In further education, many adult students with learning difficulties already successfully undertake courses in a range of areas. Currently, arrangements enable effective support to be provided to students, including carers of various kinds and signers, material in alternative formats and so on. Students are also supported to attend specialist institutions where their needs can best be met in that environment. That will continue and will provide the basis for the LSC's work in this area.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, the LSC is to be set up to meet the needs of those with learning difficulties as a priority, and so it should be. Unlike existing arrangements under the FE Acts, this Bill does not require consideration to be given to mainstream provision before a specialist place can be sought. It is not the intention that young people should be required to take provision that does not meet their needs. We shall consult on the arrangements that the LSC will develop in this area. That said, where possible we wish young people with learning difficulties to learn with their peers. I am sure the noble Lord agrees that, where possible, that should be encouraged.

I accept that Members of the Committee can cite instances where individual learners such as I have described have not had the opportunity either to complete or to undertake the course of their choice. However, the arrangements that we propose in the Bill enable the LSC to provide effective support for them. I am in no doubt about the importance of the LSC exercising its duties under Clauses 2 and 3 in a way which reflects the need for students with learning difficulties to be able to complete their courses, perhaps having started at a later age than some of their

8 Feb 2000 : Column 580

fellow students or needing a little longer to complete them. I intend to issue guidance to the LSC to underline and reinforce that point.

We do not, however, believe that Amendments Nos. 27 and 156 are required to ensure that the needs of such learners are met. Their effect would be to give everybody up to the age of 25 who has learning difficulties an entitlement to post-16 education and training. As many Members of the Committee will be aware, some people have relatively minor learning difficulties and their ability to learn is not significantly impaired. The consequence of the amendments would be to give them priority at the expense of other learners, some of whom may have much more significant problems due to terrible past experiences in their lives. These people come from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds of one kind or another.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 38, 47, 159 and 160. I recognise the concern of noble Lords that persons with learning difficulties should have access to the full range of educational opportunities that is available to other students.

One of the changes introduced by this Bill is an end to the unfortunate and artificial divide created by Schedule 2 to the FHE Act 1992. The duties of the LSC and the CETW are not hindered by this divide. Indeed Schedule 2 will be abolished: it is going. The duties extend to all forms of post-16 education and indeed throughout this Bill we have sought to define education so as to have the widest possible meaning.

To qualify the definition in this way may possibly call into question that wideness of interpretation elsewhere. Clauses 2, 3, 31 and 32 place the councils under clear duties in respect of all persons aged 16 and over. I want to reinforce what I said earlier. That will include persons with learning difficulties, for whom the councils must have particular regard because of Clauses 13 and 40 respectively. There really should be no doubt that the education to be procured by the councils include both vocational and non- vocational education, not just for those with learning difficulties but for everyone.

Of course I accept what has been said by the noble Baronesses, Lady Blatch and Lady Darcy de Knayth, that vocational education can be especially important for those with learning difficulties and indeed also with other disabilities. But while sympathising, as I said earlier, with what lies behind these amendments, I do not actually think they are necessary. I hope that, in the light of the reassurances that I have been able to give, those with their names to these amendments will feel able to withdraw them.

Baroness Blatch: I thank the noble Baroness, but may I just remind her that my noble friend Lord Roberts reserved the right to speak quite independently to the Welsh amendments. The noble Baroness has not referred to them in responding to this group of amendments but my noble friend will in fact come to them fresh, and of course given that the Welsh

8 Feb 2000 : Column 581

system is different anyway it will give him an opportunity to deal with these matters in the context of the Welsh Assembly.

Baroness Blackstone: I am sorry that I did not pick up that point, but there will be absolutely no problem about that.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: May I ask the noble Baroness the Minister to confirm the point that I put to her--that social services will be encouraged to deal with the social part of the costs of a child or a young person at least as enthusiastically as they do at the moment: perhaps even more so? Secondly, will the LSC be able to fund young people with severe learning difficulties in special schools that may be suitable to their needs and in accordance with their parents' wishes?

Baroness Blackstone: On the first point, this Bill is not really about social service provision and so perhaps it would be inappropriate for me to give any commitment in the context of the Committee stage of this Bill, other than to say that of course we are trying to do everything possible to improve social services provision in this particular area. As to specialist provision, I believe I referred to that earlier in responding to the noble Lord, Lord Rix. Yes, we wish to make it possible for young people with severe learning difficulties to have the specialist provision that will be more appropriate to their needs.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page