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Lord Davies of Oldham: I begin by indicating that Amendment No. 71 is unnecessary. It gives parents as well as schools the right under this clause to refer children to local education authorities for statutory assessments. They already have that right under Section 329 of the Education Act 1996. Presumably
Amendment No. 72 would mean that the statutory interval between requests for assessment of children from schools and parents would be three months instead of six. The effect of Amendments Nos. 73, 74 and 77 would be that LEAs would always have to comply with requests for assessments, whether they came from schools or from parents.
Neither the proposal that the interval between requests for assessments following a previous assessment be reduced, nor that depriving LEAs of the right to decide whether to assess, can be accepted. Three months is just not long enough for any changes which there may have been to a child's special educational needs since a previous assessment to emerge properly.
For children whose previous assessments had led to statements, this amendment would mean that their parents could request reassessments within two weeks of receiving the final statement. Were three months to be accepted it would hold out the prospect of a constantly revolving door of requests for reassessment which LEAs would have to deal with. Surely the Committee would regard that as being an unreasonable use of LEA officers' time.
Depriving LEAs of the right to refuse to assess would also be a retrograde step. It cannot be accepted that every single request for assessment, either from parents or schools, is well-founded. LEAs, in consultation with parents and schools, can often show how a school working within its own budget can adequately meet a child's needs without going through the assessment and statementing process. Surely it is right that LEAs should continue to be allowed to exercise their judgement to decide whether an assessment is necessary. Of course, if they decide not to assess, either after a referral from schools or from parents, parents have the fundamental right to appeal to the SEN tribunal.
Turning to Amendment No. 75, we understand and sympathise with the aim behind the amendment of the noble Baroness Darcy de Knayth. It is to ensure that parents are informed of the LEA's decisions on whether or not to assess a child's special educational needs following a request from a school within the same six-week time limit as if the request had come from the parent. In fact, the consultation on the SEN regulations which has run alongside the consultation on the revised SEN code of practice proposed changes to the regulations which would ensure that this would happen. Changes to Schedule 26 of the 1996 Education Act to be brought about by Schedule 7 to the Bill already provide for regulations to prescribe time limits on the serving of notices related to the assessment process, including any notices under Section 329A. We will use this to ensure the same six-week time limit applies to school requests for assessment as applies to parental requests.
On Amendments Nos. 76 and 78, I sympathise with the intention of these amendments, which is to ensure that parents know whether LEAs will assess or not with all due speed after a request has been made by a school. However, they are unnecessary.
The amendments seek to limit the specified time in which parents can make representations and submit evidence and allow for parents who do so before the specified time to tell the LEA it can get on with deciding whether to assess straightaway. However, the crucial point for parents is not when the LEA starts making the decision but when they can be assured they will hear the decision. As I say, we have consulted on amendments to the 1994 SEN regulation which would ensure that LEAs will have to inform parents of their decision within the same six-week period as if the request had been made by the parents and we fully intend to put those changes into effect. This will ensure that parents are given the information they need within a reasonable period. It is the finishing date we are seeking to emphasise, not the starting date.
I sympathise with the argument that there are some parents who may not feel capable of appealing to the tribunal and would prefer schools to do so on their behalf. However, whereas in the case of an initial request for assessment parents may never have dealt with the LEA before and may well benefit from this being done for them, by the time it comes to decide whether to appeal to the tribunal, parents would already have been in contact with the LEA when making representations or submitting evidence, even where the school had made the request. Parents who would still value assistance could of course turn for support to the strengthened parent partnership arrangements we are putting in place.
Against this background, therefore, I ask those Members of the Committee who tabled these amendments to recognise that the crucial issue with regard to the timescale has been and shall be addressed under our arrangements, and that the amendments therefore are not necessary.
Lord Lucas: Returning briefly to Amendments Nos. 76 and 78, do I understand from the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, to the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, that the "specified period" mentioned in lines 18 and 19 is in fact covered by the regulations which he was describing, and that therefore there is some limit on that specified period? Is it the case that it is not a period which the LEA is free to make however long it wants, but that there will be statutory limits on what that specified period will be? That is what I understood the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, to say, and I see he is nodding his head in agreement.
What is the problem with my amendment to Clause 5? Suppose we have a position where the local authority has said, "Right, suspended for 29 days"; "This is what we are going to do"; "Do you want to make representations?" The parents then say, "Wonderful"; "No"; "At last"; "Go ahead". The local authority then has to wait 29 days doing nothing, twiddling its thumbs with no process taking place at all, merely because it is not allowed to do anything until the end of the 29-day period. What is the purpose of that?
Lord Davies of Oldham: On the first point, I can offer full assurance to the noble Lord that his interpretation of the position is exactly right. On the second point, what is being considered here is the proper notification and rights of parents. The reason for the 29 days is obvious. Ten days might seem reasonable for the average parent at home, but account has to be taken of holiday periods and people being abroad and so forth. That is why 29 days are stipulated. There is no question of the local authorities electing to, "wait and see". There is no reason why they should prepare and engage in consultations on other views with regard to such a case. In most circumstances, such preliminary work would not be wasted. The implication of the position is clearly there.
Lord Lucas: Suppose I am the parent of a child and for whatever reason the local authority comes to me under this clause asking to proceed with making a statement. I immediately agree and send them a letter signed in triplicate, witnessed in any way they wish. Under subsection (5) the authority cannot decide to go ahead with making the assessment until 29 days have expired. It cannot even decide to pass first base. It cannot call anyone in; it cannot get the assessment made; it cannot take advice; it cannot make a date with the educational psychologist. It is forbidden, under subsection (5), from doing anything at all until 29 days have passed even when everyone is agreed that things can proceed. I simply do not see the purpose of that. Nothing is happening in those 29 days, except delay.
Lord Davies of Oldham: I share with the noble Lord a hatred of the concept of any unnecessary delay when the signals have clearly gone forward for action to be taken. Obviously, we are concerned about the balance of parental rights in this respect but I shall look closely at the point just made and respond to it in due course.
Baroness Blatch: That was a useful exchange. I am grateful to the noble Lord for agreeing to reflect on the point raised by my noble friend. However, when the Minister responded to my first amendment saying that it was otiose, he said that parents had that right already. They definitely have the statutory right to ask but they do not have the right for the assessment to take place. Reading on, subsection (3)--the subject of another of my amendments--contains the words,
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