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Lord Addington: My Lords, I want to make one or two brief points about the position that we on these Benches are adopting.

We entered into discussions with the rest of the educational needs consortium about our position with an open mind and we did not expect to emerge in the position that we have adopted. Our minds were changed by open discussion. To be perfectly honest, that was rather tougher than what we are going through today. It is not pleasant to be told that you have got it wrong, even if one is told that by a knowledgeable group of people.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, said that he had not come across people who said, "I do not want my child to be entered into a special school". My experience is the other way round. I do not claim to have had that experience for as long a period as the noble Lord mentioned and it may have been in relation to other disabilities. However, I suggest to him that we are arguing over inches; but such fights are always some of the dirtiest and nastiest, because one is in close, using elbows and teeth.

The fact is that we adopted our position in response to the arguments. My noble friend said that there were reservations and doubts in this context. This is probably one of the most honest positions that we have ever found ourselves adopting. It is uncomfortable. I hope that noble Lords appreciate that we did not adopt this position to get a short-term political advantage.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, has the noble Lord the Minister or one of his Front Bench colleagues had a meeting since Report with the Minister?

Lord Addington: My Lords, I am not sure about being promoted to Minister at such short notice!

We have had meetings but not on this subject; I certainly have not.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, "The best interests of the child count for nothing"; that is a pretty extraordinary statement to make, but that is exactly what the Bill currently maintains. If a local authority and an army of wonderful, well qualified and well intentioned advisers say that the best thing for a child is to go to a

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particular special school but the parents say no, the best interests of that child will count for nothing. This Bill is absolutely explicit about that. There can be as much as one wants in the code but it cannot stand against Section 316(3). There can be as much as one wants in Schedule 27 but Section 316(3) stands in its way. I find it an astonishing proposition that a piece of legislation allows the parent to say, "No, that is absolute", whatever the best interests of the child may be.

Complaint has been made that local authorities abused the earlier provision. Perhaps they did. If the best interests of the child are abused, then the tribunal is there to set it right. There are mechanisms in this Bill beyond the tribunal for settling such things by calm discussion. There are plenty of ways in which the best interests of the child can be enforced by someone other than the local education authority which may be dragging its heels because of financial interests.

To put ourselves in the position where the best interests of the child count for nothing and where a parental whim stands in the way of proper education of a child is breathtaking. I am not astonished that the Liberal Party espouses it. I have been involved in Bills before where the Liberal Party has sold its principles, such as they are, extremely cheaply to the Government. I suspect that we will see many other occasions when that happens.

I am saddened that the Government are taking this attitude. I had a greater regard for the attitude and sincerity of the Government in respect of educational needs and their care for the child. I know that they are plagued by the bad behaviour of local education authorities from time to time. We should not take that out on the child. What we do for the child should come first. If local education authorities behave badly, there must be a mechanism--and there is a mechanism in this Bill--for things to be set right. To provide no way out if parents behave badly and choose some course other than what is clearly best for their child--just in case authorities behave badly or because it may take a month or two to set things right through the tribunal--is truly regrettable. I hope that the noble Baroness has reconsidered and will find herself able to support the amendment.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: My Lords, I have not spoken on Clause 1 before. My excuse for speaking now is that, having been in at the birth of Section 2 of the 1981 Act, I feel a certain concern about its progress.

The 1981 Act was to ensure that, where possible, a child with special educational needs should be educated in a mainstream school. I acknowledge that my noble friend Lord Northbourne has said that he is totally supportive of the principle of inclusion. The caveats in Section 2 were that a child, where possible, should be educated in a mainstream school provided that this was compatible with the efficient education of that child, the efficient education of other children and the efficient use of resources.

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It was in the 1993 Act--piloted through by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in response to the Private Member's Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway--that the wishes of the parents were introduced. When the noble Baroness, Lady Young, explained Clause 2 at the Second Reading of what became the 1981 Act, she said:

    "The pace of integration will continue to be gradual but I have every hope that the provisions in this clause will give it added impetus, for in the longer term it is only through educating children together that society's attitudes towards the handicapped will be fundamentally changed". [Official Report 23/6/81; cols 980-981.]

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has already spoken about the views of the Special Educational Consortium, which feels that there has been 20 years' experience rather than impetus. This caveat relating to the needs of the child has been a significant obstacle in obtaining a mainstream place. It has been used by LEAs as an excuse. Equally, it has been used by LEAs as an excuse to send children to special schools when parents preferred a mainstream placement. It contributes to the postcode lottery whereby it is much easier for a child in one LEA area to attend a mainstream school when their parents so wish it than in another. We all feel that the postcode lottery is very wrong. I stress that in no way is the Special Educational Consortium against special schools where appropriate and where the parents wish it. We all want the individual needs of children to be met more closely within the educational system.

Many large organisations are part of the Special Educational Consortium. Many of those organisations, for example Barnardo's, are concerned with the welfare of the child primarily even before education. They are convinced that the legal framework is already in place; that it is sufficiently clear; and that the caveat provides a sticking point. The raison d'etre of those organisations, surely, is the needs of the child.

I respect my noble friend Lord Northbourne and his knowledge and commitment. The problem is that special educational needs cover a hugely disparate group of people. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, knows more than anyone about special educational law. So do the noble Lords, Lord Baker of Dorking and Lord Campbell of Alloway. I hope that the Minister can convince my noble friend that his amendment is not necessary; that putting the needs of the child in that particular place is not a good thing; and that there is provision elsewhere. I hope that my noble friend will not insist upon his amendment.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the noble Baroness not agree that if there is a legal obligation on the face of the Bill to meet the best interests of the child, and that that can be challenged at the tribunal if there were abuse, there would be no scope for abuse? It would be a legal obligation to do no more or no less than meet the best interests of the child.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: My Lords, as I understand it, that is provided for elsewhere in the Bill.

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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is not.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, we have heard some strong language and a great deal of laughter. I suggest that we pause for thought before we accept the strong words and the laughter at face value. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, spoke extremely well. The purpose of his amendment is admirable. I congratulate him and those who have made such an outstanding contribution to this Bill--the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lords, Lord Baker of Dorking and Lord Renton. There have been significant contributions from people who know what they are talking about. Those contributions have been very helpful. I have not always agreed with them and I have often disagreed with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. The easy phrase,

    "the best interests of the child",

sounds great. Is it necessarily so? There has been incredulity expressed about how people can change their minds. In a democracy people can change their minds. How can one argue with the phrase,

    "the best interests of the child"?

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, made a very brave speech. I disagree with all the mockery. It takes a lot of courage to come to this Chamber and say, "I have been persuaded. I was wrong. I have changed my mind". I admire what the noble Baroness said and what she has done.

The noble Baroness was persuaded by the Special Educational Consortium. The consortium consists of a group of people who have practically devoted their lives to disability. They know the problems intimately and are deeply concerned. They have briefed Members on both sides of the House in order to help with this Bill. If the consortium, in its considered view, believes that this amendment is not the right way forward, we should at least consider that view carefully, without the laughter, the mockery and the derision.

If the phrase,

    "the best interests of the child",

has been abused by local authorities and others, we should be extremely careful and pause for thought on this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, more or less said, "so be it". But if children are discriminated against by local authorities through the abuse of that phrase, then that should be a matter of serious concern to this House.

My conclusion is that there is no point in being upset and indignant about an amendment, attacking the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, as though they are doing something wrong. The whole thrust of this Bill is to help disabled children. It is an admirable Bill. It has been welcomed on all sides of the House. So those allegations that the Bill attacks disabled children are preposterous. I shall give way to the noble Lord.

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