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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, because of the rules of the House, I shall leave the noble Lord, Lord Addington, to give his thanks when it comes to dealing

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with Amendment No. 25. I congratulate him. We have at least taken one small step forward for children with special needs; indeed, it is a very welcome one.

There is a genuine concern that teachers have to wait until someone goes to a tribunal before they know what is happening. They can take decisions in good faith, and can believe at the time that they are being entirely reasonable in the circumstances. Indeed, they can say, "We simply have no more funds available", "We simply do not have the staffing levels available", or, as in the example given by my noble friend Lady Young, "We simply do not have the expertise to cope with that range of ability within one classroom". It leaves teachers and head teachers--and, sometimes, even governors--extremely vulnerable, until someone takes the dramatic step of taking the matter to a tribunal and they are found to have acted unreasonably, albeit that, at the time, they may have acted in good faith.

I am sorry that it has not been possible to go a little further. However, if we are to have the steps spelt out in detail in guidance, that is a welcome step forward. Nevertheless, I believe that it would be preferable to have such provision on the face of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 25 not moved.]

6 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke moved Amendment No. 26:

    After Clause 1, insert the following new clause--


(" . A local education authority shall provide early intervention services to children under 2 from the time of diagnosis of the disability onwards, where it can be demonstrated that such intervention is necessary to promote the early development of speech and language.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, at first sight, it may seem that the extension of education to children aged from nought to two years of age is unimportant. When this proposition was first put to me, I must confess that I thought it was a little absurd because surely children of that age cannot absorb education in any meaningful way. However, the more that I have thought about it, the more reason there seems to be for my amendment.

The matter was first brought to my attention by David Livermore, the chairman of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will respond constructively. The amendment is mainly concerned with profoundly deaf children. We all know that hearing children learn to speak at the crucial age of between nought and two; they learn how to use their voices and it is easy for them to learn. However, the opposite is the case for deaf children. Indeed, it is not only difficult for some children, it can also be absolutely impossible when it is a case of total deafness. and that is because of the brain's plasticity that the hearing child can use. Surgeons speak of the brain's plasticity: it can absorb sounds. However, in the case of total deafness, children cannot take advantage of this very great asset.

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I am now a convert. I believe that helping young children at this very early age would really prove to be a major step forward. It would help them to develop their speech. It would mean a real change in the lives of deaf children. Surely that would be something very worth while. Most of all, I hope that my noble friend realises that it would reduce further education costs when the child is older. I am trying to save the Government money. Therefore, I cannot believe that my noble friend will not accept an amendment couched in those terms.

I want to anticipate what my noble friend the Minister may say. Currently, local education authorities can make provision for children aged up to two years. But the operative word is "can". There is no statutory obligation on them to do so. Any provision that they make can be, and is, very variable. Such provision is vulnerable to cuts by local authorities, which simply do not know, or care. It is not good enough to leave it to local authorities so that they can please themselves whether or not they meet this educational requirement for young children. There will be an increased demand when the Government's universal, neo-natal hearing screening gets under way. This amendment is vital because it would make the provision of education for such young children mandatory. That is the issue. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will go along with it. I beg to move.

Lord Rix: My Lords, for some inexplicable reason, Amendment No. 26 regarding early intervention services tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, has been coupled with my Amendment No. 66, which is about nursery education. I suppose that a certain osmosis is discernible, but I should like to join the noble Lord in stressing the importance of early intervention services for people with a range of disabilities.

An estimated 20 per cent of children with learning disabilities also have some form of hearing impairment, and could well benefit from interventions to promote the development of speech and language. However, I trust that noble Lords will forgive me if I dwell for a few moments on Amendment No. 66. I do not intend to detain the House for long, as I do not believe that the Government and I are divided over the general principle of this amendment. Rather, it is a question of delivery of their intentions.

In Grand Committee, the Minister expressed the Government's intention to make the publication of an SEN disability policy a full condition of grant in the 2001-02 nursery education providers' condition of grant. That is a very welcome move, and one which takes us considerably further than current arrangements. However, I am in favour of dealing with this issue via regulations, which have a greater degree of emphasis and permanence than something written on to the back of a funding document. I was under the impression that the Government were also of that view when draft regulations were published last July.

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I also believe that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools should have the power to inspect the implementation of that policy, so that we can be assured that the policy is more than something that is left to moulder in a filing cabinet and dusted off when a funding review takes place. I should be delighted if the Minister could confirm her intention to go ahead with that regulation; and, indeed, others that were published in July. I hope that she will also take this opportunity to explain how providers will be monitored and held to account in delivering their content.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I shall be brief in supporting Amendment No. 26, the case for which I raised in Grand Committee on 30th January. This Bill, aptly described by Linda Shaw of the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education as one of the most important anti-discrimination measures to have been considered by Parliament, needs to make urgent progress today; and I shall do all that I can to facilitate its progress.

One of the highest priorities in policy-making for disabled people is to reduce the handicapping effects of their disabilities. Failure to promote the early development of speech and language in deaf babies--much apart from reducing--hugely increases the handicapping effects of their disability, as well as exposing them to lifelong deprivation of the most cruel and punishing kind. Fundamentally, that is the case for this proposed new clause to the Bill.

My noble friend Lady Blackstone will recall the plea that I made in Grand Committee for early intervention services for children under two years of age where it can be demonstrated that it is necessary to promote language and speech. I argued then--and reiterate now--that such intervention can change lives. It can have a major impact on the development of a child's ability to communicate and this, in turn, increases her or his chances of successful mainstream education and reduces special educational needs. That makes good sense in cost terms as well as being more humane than a "do-as-you-please, when-you-please" approach to educational provision.

In responding to me in Grand Committee, my noble friend Lady Blackstone was not unsympathetic to my case for the purposes of this new clause. I very much hope she can go further today in accepting it. I am sure that she will want to be as helpful as she can.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, this is the first time that one has really had a chance to debate the problems of young children from nought to two years of age. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has tabled an amendment that concerns speech and language. But, tragically, some children are born with a severe visual impairment and some are born blind. I cannot imagine a greater affliction. Those children also have their problems. If the Minister is minded to accept the general tenor of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, which has been supported by the noble Lords, Lord Rix and Lord Morris of Manchester, she

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would have to extend provision to those with other disabilities as well and even to those with physical disabilities.

The school for blind children with which I am involved has a nursery section. I hope to raise ½ million to build a nursery wing. The school accepts children of two and two and a half years of age. Usually they are totally blind or severely visually impaired. As one can imagine, they often have emotional and psychological problems even at that early age. There is absolutely no doubt--I endorse everything that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, said in that regard--that a considerable influence to the good can be exerted in helping a child at that age. Their minds are growing and they are aware of sensory influences. If the Government are minded to make this provision available, I would welcome that.

If it is a question of making grants available to local education authorities and schools that provide education for those aged nought to two years, I should like to include in that provision the non-maintained schools, the special schools. Some of them are already making that provision available at their own cost from charitable funds.

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