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Lord Baker of Dorking: I should like to express my support for this amendment. I should also declare an interest as I am president of the Royal London Society for the Blind, which maintains a school for blind and visually-impaired children, and also a college for students aged 16 to 19 who are blind or visually
It does not really matter whether the education is adequate, sufficient or appropriate if it cannot actually be accessed. If a child under 16 has been statemented and goes to a school, the local authority has a statutory obligation to ensure that he or she gets to the appropriate school. However, that does not apply to those young persons aged 16 to 19.
I made some inquiries of our students to see how they coped with the situation. Some students are in residential boarding accommodation, so they have access to the college immediately. Others make a daily journey. For some it is hazardous and very difficult. In some cases parents or friends help out. For the most part, the students have to make their way themselves, often bearing the cost themselves. Some may benefit from the mobility allowance; others do not.
I hope very much that the Minister will recognise that this is an appropriate amendment. I congratulate her on both Clauses 13 and 14. Undoubtedly, they are a considerable improvement on the present arrangements. To have matters so clearly set out on the face of the Bill in statute is an enormous benefit for anyone aged 16 to 19 who has a learning difficulty. However, in the debates which took place last week the noble Lord, Lord Rix, wanted the age extended to age 25. I agree. But that is for another occasion. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the amendment. It will not have escaped her attention, because she is quite an astute Minister, that it has all-party support. However, she may have some hesitancy in welcoming subsection (1) which says very clearly,
I can assure my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch that this is an area in which the Treasury will be interested. The Treasury will pay great attention. The dead hand of the Treasury will settle upon it. I hope that the Minister resists that dead hand and welcomes the intention and spirit of the new clause. I am sure that she would not want to be embarrassed at a later stage of the Bill by this Chamber imposing its will on a reluctant government in this area.
Baroness David: As a member of the Labour Party whose name is to this amendment, I strongly support it. In speaking to education Bills throughout my many years in this Chamber, I have always tried to enable children to get to their place of education. The Government have moved a long way forward in helping with financial resources for over-16s. That is admirable. I hope that my noble friend can give some encouragement on the point we are discussing.
Baroness Blatch: My name is attached to the amendment. I want to make two points. First, the pressure will fall on local authorities for this head of expenditure. Therefore, it will present them with difficulties. The other point is that over-16s in many authorities are at present losing transport whether they have special needs or not.
I have had interesting discussions with Conservative colleagues in local government in different parts of the country where transport has been removed for those aged over 16. If a young person lives in a village some miles from the nearest town and they do not have transport, they simply cannot reach the college. It is too far to walk. The bus services do not operate at times that help them. The one car, if there is a car in the family, has usually been used in the morning by whoever is working in the household. There is an issue about transport for young people in the 16 to 19 age range. But for people with learning difficulties and people with disabilities, the problem is compounded. It does not end at age 19: we are talking here about people up to age 25. My noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking says that the obligation to provide is strengthened by the Bill. However, providing adequate provision for this age group will not be worth anything if they cannot physically arrive at the institution.
Baroness Blackstone: I am extremely sympathetic towards the sentiments that I believe lie behind the amendment. I do recognise, as the noble friend, Lord Baker, said, that there is all-party support for the amendment. Incidentally, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support of Clauses 13 and 14 and to my noble friend Lady David. I fully accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, says about the availability of suitable transport being fundamental to equal opportunities and enabling some people with learning difficulties to take part in post-16 education and training.
The problem about the amendment is that it goes much further. It would require the LSC to fund transport for all students with learning difficulties regardless of the nature of their difficulty and irrespective of whether assistance with transport was helpful in enabling them to participate in learning. Certainly, the Treasury would want to resist such a change. I would have some sympathy with that approach in the sense that this might not be the most sensible way of supporting some young people who have learning difficulties but who do not have a problem with transport.
The Government recognise that more needs to be done to improve transport for post-16 year-olds and are currently examining how this can be done. We have recently introduced measures, through the local authority standards fund, which will provide financial assistance for those on low incomes who remain at school after the age of 16. The fund will enable local education authorities to support a range of needs which include transport. Later this year we will begin a new pilot initiative to support 16 to 19 year-old students in full-time education with their transport costs. As with the education and maintenance allowance scheme, it will target support at young people from low income households. It will be piloted in both rural and urban areas. The pilot areas are currently being selected. Our intention is that the scheme should help those students living in areas with particular transport difficulties. We are also considering whether both the LEA pilots and the proposed new transport pilots should be extended to cater for circumstances where people with learning difficulties or disabilities may have finished compulsory education at a later age or have taken longer to complete a course, as is sometimes the case. We will consult the disability organisations before making a decision about whether and how this might be taken forward. Through these improvements in the general level of transport and support for students, I think we will increase the provision which can be used to help students with disabilities. The Government believe that this is a better way forward than identifying specific groups to be given an entitlement which would not be available to others in education and training.
These issues were discussed by the Disability Rights Task Force which, as the Committee is aware, recommended in its report at the end of last year that the transport exemption from the Disability Discrimination Act should end. The Government are considering how to respond to that recommendation.
I share the view of Members of the Committee that people whose learning difficulties or disabilities make travelling a difficult and stressful experience should have access to the transport they need. That is why we are strengthening our existing arrangements. However, I do not think that we can grant an entitlement to transport for all people with learning difficulties regardless of the nature of their learning difficulties. That would work directly at the expense of others such as those in deprived or rural areas who may also be dependent on assistance with transport to take up learning opportunities.
Moreover, the Bill includes powers to enable the LSC to fund institutions and to fund the provision of ancillary activities, such as transport, under Clause 5(3). The LSC planning framework will enable gaps to be identified. The LSC could also consider using discretionary funding. I hope that those who have spoken in the debate will accept that the Government are sympathetic to the intention behind the amendment. However, I hope that in the light of my explanation, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
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