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Baroness Wilkins: I, too, wish to give strongest support to the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke, which would rectify what I perceive as one of the main weaknesses of the Bill. If we do not ensure that disabled pupils have enforceable rights to auxiliary aids and services and that the necessary alterations to the physical features of a school are made, discrimination against disabled children in education will continue largely unaffected. Schools and LEAs will continue to use those requirements as an excuse to hide their prejudice against disabled children and the main purpose of the Bill--to strengthen inclusion and put an end to discrimination in education--will be undermined.
How can disabled pupils and disabled prospective students not be placed at a substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled children if the exemption clause is not removed? At the very least, a time scale should be placed on its removal. Disabled children will continue to suffer rejection, frustration and clear discrimination as they make the transitions through their school lives.
The Explanatory Notes to the Bill make it clear that the exemption for auxiliary aids and services and changes to physical features relies on the fact that the 1996 Act makes provision for those through the statementing procedure. However, the statementing process can be stressful, time-consuming and wasteful of resources. In their 1997 Green Paper, the Government referred to the excessive prominence of statements of need in providing children with appropriate support and to their unwanted side effects. The exemption clause places undue pressure on families to use the statementing process to gain the necessary support for their child. Research by RNIB Scotland, which has already been referred to, shows that almost a third of pupils in Scotland with significant vision impairment are going through the education system with no statement. Some 8 per cent of pupils had to wait two years for their statement and one in 10 parents knew nothing about a statement of need.
Most importantly, the amendment would address the needs of the thousands of disabled pupils who are unable to obtain statements. They currently have no legally enforceable right of redress against a school's failure to provide the help they need. Unless the clause is removed, those now of school age will see scant change as a result of the Bill.
The Disability Rights Commission has argued that by 2004, the education service should be required to comply with the same duties to improve disability access to buildings and premises as will apply to other service providers under the DDA. If schools are under a duty to make adjustments to premises for disabled staff and to consider changing physical features for members of the public attending a function in a school, why should disabled pupils continue to suffer discrimination as a result of this exemption clause?
Baroness Darcy de Knayth: I also warmly support the amendment. However, I take a slightly different view of statements from my noble friend, as I shall call her, Baroness Wilkins, who has made a powerful speech. I believe that they are necessary at the moment and they need to be good statements. I understand that the Disability Rights Task Force recommended that the exemption was unnecessary because of the protection afforded by the statement. Yesterday we had much talk about bland, meaningless and woolly statements. It is welcome that the provision will be specified and not set out but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, highlighted, we understand that at times it will be quantified as necessary. There is therefore a question mark about the strength of the term, "where necessary" as well. So the protection of the statement is not that huge at the moment.
Lord Lucas: I add one trivial point. I am puzzled by the use of the word "that" at the beginning of subsection (2): I have never seen it used in that way before. The words I would expect to be there are, "subsection (1)". "That" seems very inexact and indefinite and, while I believe it means subsection (1), it does not say "subsection (1)". Can the noble Baroness produce any example where "that" has been used like that before?
Baroness Blackstone: Amendment No. 101 seeks to remove from Clause 12 the exception to the reasonable adjustments duty for adjustments to physical features and the provision of auxiliary aids and services. The Government want to remove barriers that disabled people face in accessing education and we believe that the Bill offers an effective means of achieving this without placing an additional duty on schools to provide auxiliary aids and services and make adjustments to physical features. Aids and services are often already provided through the SEN framework and we believe it is more effective to take a strategic approach to improving physical accessibility to premises and the curriculum. That was the position recommended by the Disability Rights Task Force and we have accepted its recommendation.
We expect children, whose special educational needs require them to have aids and services, to receive them under the SEN regime. Children with statements of SEN have an enforceable right to the provision specified in their statement, which may include auxiliary aids.
The issue of auxiliary aids should also be seen within the wider context of the duty on LEAs and schools, under Clauses 13 and 14 of the Bill, to plan systematically to increase physical accessibility to schools by disabled children. In meeting that duty, they will be required to plan and act strategically in order to make both school premises and the curriculum more physically accessible to disabled children. This is not just about lifts and ramps; schools and LEAs will also need to consider providing aids such as specialist furniture, induction loops and improved colour schemes and signs.
The Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff): A Division has been called in the House and therefore the Committee stands adjourned until 6.30 p.m. [The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 6.20 to 6.30 p.m.]
Baroness Blackstone: When the Division was called I was about to explain that, while in England and Wales, changes to physical features are done strategically through the planning duty, there is of course no such duty in Scotland. Auxiliary aids for specific pupils are done through the SEN framework, or what I think is called the record of needs in Scotland. I thought I should make that clear.
Noble Lords are aware that we are significantly increasing funding for this purpose through the schools access initiative. As I have already told the Committee, over the next three years we will invest £220 million in making school premises more accessible.
Clause 15 places a residual duty on LEAs. Amendment No. 135A would place a duty on LEAs to make physical adjustments and provide auxiliary aids and services where they would constitute reasonable adjustments, provided the LEA would not incur unreasonable expenditure in doing so. I understand that Clause 15 does not affect the planning duty. The LEA will have to plan to make physical alterations as part of that duty. That would overlap with the SEN framework that provides for auxiliary aids and services for children with special educational needs. As I have explained, we accepted the DRTF recommendations. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked about that in subsection (1). That does mean subsection (1) and we cannot provide any example.
I hope that my noble friend, Lord Morris of Manchester, feels able to withdraw his amendment and that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will not press her amendment.
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