Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Renton: My Lords, this amendment fills in what is really a gap in Clause 3. The expression "independent persons" could mean almost anything. This amendment describes the people concerned as independents with responsibility given under subsection (3) in the resolution of disputes. It should be defined as people who are without any kind of commitment or prejudice. Therefore, I hope that the Government will consider my noble friend's amendment very sympathetically.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, this amendment calls for the independent person to have no previous connection with the parents and the child nor with any of the authorities involved in the dispute. Unfortunately, we believe that that would be unworkable. It would debar any independent person who had already dealt with a school or an authority from dealing with that school or authority again. It would create something of a nightmare scenario for the new services which would continually have to seek out and train new and independent persons to work with local authorities.

Parents responding to our consultations on the Green Paper and this Bill have already clearly signalled to us that they want a degree of independence in the new arrangements. We also want these persons to be independent and that is why the code of practice will set out the qualities an independent conciliator will need and the minimum standards we expect dispute resolution services to have.

20 Feb 2001 : Column 691

What is already clear is that in meeting these standards LEAs will have to ensure that the independent person has no role in the decision taken about a particular child's case nor any vested interest in the terms of the settlement, is unbiased, maintains confidentiality, carries out the disagreement resolution quickly and according to the timetable decided by the parties involved, and has the appropriate skills, knowledge and expertise, including a good understanding of SEN processes, procedures and legislation. Having said all that, I hope that that is of some help to the noble Baroness and that, having heard these reassurances, she will be able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, perhaps I may first thank my noble friend Lord Renton for reinforcing the importance of independents in these matters. I am prepared to concede to the Minister that my wording may not be right. I can to some extent accept the point that the noble Baroness made about there being absolutely no connection whatsoever with the parents and/or the child or with any of the authorities. Therefore, I am open to a change of wording, but the principle of qualifying independence on the face of the Bill seems to me to be such an important point that it should be addressed. I rather hoped that the Government would accept that principle and would bring forward an amendment that was workable.

The Minister said that LEAs would choose someone who had no role in the case. But that is not going to be a defence against partiality. One may well have someone who has absolutely nothing whatever to do with the case, but is partial generally to local authorities or may be partial on the other side of the argument; namely, towards the parents or the school and may have antipathy towards local authorities. It is independence that is needed from the local authority, the individual school and, as the noble Baroness has conceded, in respect of the case itself. It is a matter of principle.

I hope that the Government will reflect on what they have said. I shall certainly read again what the noble Baroness has said. Some qualification of independence for people doing this work should be established on the face of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 39 not moved.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 40:

    Page 4, line 44, after ("324",) insert--

("( ) an independent school named by the parents of the child,").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, when we last discussed this amendment the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, after some discussion, accepted the point that I made; namely, that if, as part of an existing dispute, the school in question is the independent school preferred by the parent, even if not named in the statement, then that is the relevant school in the context of Clause 3.

20 Feb 2001 : Column 692

However, the noble Lord continued by asserting that my amendment was defective because he could interpret it differently, but promised to look at the matter again. I now ask whether the noble Lord has done so and, if so, what is the outcome. It still seems to me that the amendment is not defective, and at Committee stage no-one else seemed to put any interpretation on the amendment other than the straightforward one defined in the clause as to what is meant by the relevant school in any dispute. That would be the school at the centre of the dispute, be it a maintained school or an independent school named in the statement or, as the amendment would have it, the independent school not named in the statement but chosen by the parents. It is still a dispute to be resolved by the LEA under the terms of the clause. I beg to move.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, Amendment No. 40 seeks to give parents who wanted an independent school named in their child's statement, but the LEA did not agree, access to the new dispute resolution arrangements. I can assure noble Lords that that will be the case. In these circumstances the dispute is between the parent and the LEA, not between the parent and the school. Disputes between parents and LEAs are provided for under Clause 3(1) of the Bill. There is no question of the parent in dispute with the LEA in these circumstances not having access to the new arrangements.

I believe that the noble Baroness was also concerned that where parents were in dispute with an LEA about an independent school placement for their child the school named by the parent should be part of the dispute resolution process. There is no need for independent schools to be involved at that stage because they will not have to take the child if named in the statement. Generally speaking, independent schools are free to refuse to admit any child. That is not the case for maintained schools, which therefore need access to the dispute resolution process at an earlier stage.

In the light of my comments, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment. Having reflected on the matter, the Government do not believe that there is a need for change in this context.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, there is nothing surprising in that response--it will be a repeated theme throughout the course of our debate.

There is a flaw in the noble Baroness's argument. She said that if a parent has named an independent school that is part--perhaps the central part--of a dispute, he or she will not have to negotiate with the school or even bring it into the conciliation process because it is not the school that is named in the statement. However, at that point in the negotiations, the parents are trying to resolve a problem. The resolution may be that the parents get their preference. The school that is preferred by the parents is as much a part of the process as is the school that is named in the statement.

20 Feb 2001 : Column 693

If the dispute centres on a preference that is expressed by the parents--the Government make it clear in the Bill that they wish to take parents' wishes into account--and if an LEA says, for example, that the placement is not available or appropriate, there would be a good reason for involving the independent school in part of those proceedings. Only in that way could a genuine judgment and assessment be made of the relevant provisions; namely, those involving the school, which may be a non-maintained school, that is preferred by the parents, and those involving the maintained school, which is, for the purposes of my hypothesis, a school in the maintained sector. The noble Baroness's argument simply does not hold water. Will she explain her statement that a non-maintained school that is preferred by the parents has no relevance?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the independent school could give evidence and support the parents, but that school will not be a party. I can only repeat what I have already said; namely, that, generally speaking, independent schools are free to refuse to admit any child.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Baroness appears to be determining the outcome of the resolution before the whys and wherefores have been examined. The decision appears to be pre-judged against the independent school. Is the noble Baroness happy about pre-judging an outcome when a parent has made a preference for a non-maintained place? Such pre-judgment appears to be extraordinary. If she is arguing that the school could give evidence, why cannot it be party to the whole resolution process, even if at the end of the day it is decided that the placement in the school that is preferred by the parents is not appropriate, for reasons that would be given by professionals, the LEA and/or other bodies that are party to the dispute? That could be part of the conciliation process.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the dispute is between the LEA and the parents, so there is no pre-judgment. I cannot be any clearer than that.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, that is deeply depressing. The dispute is between the parent and the LEA because the parent has made a choice, in the example that I gave, for an independent school. The noble Baroness said, "In relation to the conciliation service, we want to resolve disputes before they go to tribunal, but we shall keep out of the picture the very school that is central to the complaint that is being made by the parent". If that is what the noble Baroness is saying, it is quite wrong. I reserve my right to return to this matter at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

20 Feb 2001 : Column 694

Clause 4 [Compliance with orders]:

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page