Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

("( ) In preparing their accessibility strategy, each local education authority must include the estimated costs, at current prices, of the implementation of such improvements, and must if the cost cannot be found locally, forward to the Secretary of State these estimated costs with a request for capital grant to cover those costs for the years in question.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I speak to Amendments Nos. 23 and 25. This is still on the issue of planning for planning authorities. At Report stage the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, said he feared that the effect of my amendments would be to erect barriers to increased accessibility to schools for pupils with disabilities. I asked him what that meant and I did not receive an answer. It would be helpful to know what are the barriers. If one is to plan and validate the plan--in other words, for the plan to materialise, and it requires resources to do that--the only way in which it will happen is to have a realistic view about what those resources are and at the end of the day to have those resources.

1 Mar 2001 : Column 1460

The noble Lord, Lord Davies, went on to say:

    "The duty is to plan within the resources available to the responsible body".--[Official Report, 20/2/2001; col. 771.]

The very meaning of the word "plan" is that one is engaging in a planning duty to effect activity on into the future. It is not about the here and now. I know from my local authority experience and from colleagues who are still there grappling with so many issues that they do not know what their resources will be in the future. The noble Lord says that they do know. He went on to say that they have to plan within the resources available--although they do not know what they are--and that that is implicit in the Bill. It is not implicit in the Bill. There is nothing in the Bill that spells that out. The noble Lord said it did not need to be spelt out. To those who will have to implement the Bill in local authorities it does need to be spelled out.

The noble Lord also said that what was proposed would delay things and would be bureaucratic. That is not so. If the local authorities have to prepare plans and produce an accessibility strategy it is right that they should have some knowledge in order to be able to let parents know that this is what they intend over time. They ought to have some view as to what the costs are. If they do not know what the costs are, it becomes an aspirational plan only. If it is to be a realistic plan with a view to implementation, they ought to have a view about the costs. The noble Lord gives the game away by saying that they have to plan within the resources available. I believe the noble Lord is wrong. However, if he is right and is about to say it again, then the resources are known and they should be part of the information set out in the plan.

Finally, the noble Lord said at col. 771 that I had suggested in Committee that we were raising the hopes of people only to dash them. If we are only indulging in planning; if we disregard the actual costing of those plans; and if, at the end of the day, because they were not costed, they are not capable of being delivered because the resources are not there--I know we will have a reiteration of how much money is being made available but I am talking about the LEA's ability to plan and to deliver a plan--then hopes will be raised only to be dashed. I should like to think that it is consistent with what the noble Lord is saying; that what we are doing is creating a new duty and applying it in a commonsense way that reflects the reality of the schools. The reality of the schools is that they need to know that their local authorities are planning in such a way that they, as schools, can deliver. That means knowing the cost of what it is they are planning to do. I beg to move.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, clearly I did not persuade the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in Committee or on Report of the Government's case on this important issue. I will strive to do so today by indicating that she upbraided me for saying that the amendments would create a barrier.

1 Mar 2001 : Column 1461

Our problem with the amendments is straightforward. We were concerned that the amendments would offer an excuse to some LEAs and schools not to act. They could blame their lack of action or will on the fact that the Government had not made a direct payment to them to carry out the work. That would undercut the planning duty and work against the inclusion of disabled children in schools, which is the whole basis of the Bill before the House.

We have said a number of times that we want LEAs and schools to plan for increasing access to schools for disabled children and to implement those plans. But we have been realistic. We require LEAs and schools to plan to improve access over time and from within the resources available to them. That is surely the best way of securing access to schools for disabled children in a way which meets the recommendation of the Disability Rights Task Force.

LEAs and schools have a number of sources of funding available to them and it is from within the total funding available to them that they should plan. As was said on Report, and as has been repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, who graphically recounted the precise sum, we are making available 220 million through the Schools Access Initiative for improving access to maintained schools. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, seemed somewhat unimpressed by that sum. But we had no complaints from schools, LEAs, the lobby or their representatives. In fact, the level of our commitment has been warmly welcomed by all in the field. I must point out also that this money will be used strategically by LEAs in partnership with their schools--the burden of part of the noble Baroness's representation was that schools needed to know that the local authority was planning intelligently, sensibly and creating the opportunities for them to meet requirements.

It is not the case that every school will receive a share of the money, regardless of need; it will depend on the plans that they put forward. For example, LEAs might plan each year to adapt another school in a particular area to allow children with a range of disabilities to attend; or they might adapt all their schools for a particular disability; or they might choose one of those approaches and also give themselves the flexibility to respond to emergencies; for example, when a child becomes disabled while at school and wishes to remain at their present school. They may decide to carry out access work on the back of other refurbishment at a school. That is a matter for each area and not for prescription.

It is wrong to say that LEAs cannot plan without first having the money in the bank. The Government are the first to have given LEAs notice of their future allocations. When we announce the breakdown of the 50 million School Access Initiative for 2001-02 later this month, we will give LEAs information about how we will allocate the grant for the subsequent two years when 70 million and 100 million become available. That will give LEAs an unprecedented forward view of the resources that they have to spend on access to their schools.

1 Mar 2001 : Column 1462

I understand that some will regard that amount as being inadequate. It cannot be adequate because the needs are enormous, and we all recognise that. But it is a clear basis upon which local authorities and schools can intelligently plan their improved access. We believe our planning duty will improve access by disabled children in every sector of schools education, and it will do so in a manageable way. That is the basis on which I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is not the first time, either today or on other occasions when we have been discussing this Bill, that the noble Lord ascribes to my amendments something which is not there.

First, in answer to my question on barriers, it was said that it would give the LEAs an excuse not to act. But they have no excuse not to act; they have a legal obligation to act. This Bill puts the LEAs under an obligation in law to produce plans. In fact Clause 14(4) also says that those plans will be inspected to monitor the degree to which they meet that obligation under the law. So there is no hiding place for LEAs in that respect and nothing in my amendment which will allow them to ignore their duty to provide an accessibility plan.

Secondly, accessibility is not only about ramps and means of accessing a building; if we accept the previous amendments, it is also about access to the curriculum and support staff. I have two points to make on that. The first is that paragraph 141 of the financial appraisal actually says that the special educational needs provisions of this Bill will have few manpower implications. So the Government already envisage that there will be practically no manpower implications.

I would argue that for children to be moved into mainstream schools they will need physical as well as financial support; they will need support staff; but there is no mention of that in the Bill. My noble friend asked the question in written form. He received a Written Answer. But the question still has not been fully answered. I ask formally at this Dispatch Box for the Minister to write to me, as the Opposition spokesman, with an estimate of the manpower implications of implementing the Bill. The plans will have to include the manpower implications.

The other point raised by the noble Lord is that LEAs will be given a period of time over which to achieve the plans. I accept that. That is what the Bill proposes. But the time is prescribed. At this moment LEAs have no idea what that prescription will be. I imagine that it will come from Whitehall and will therefore be Whitehall's view as to how long a school and an LEA will need to plan.

The noble Lord said that I am not impressed by additional resources. I have not said that at any stage of this Bill. I simply say that the noble Lord continually uses the extra finance as a defence. But he says it will not be spent on manpower because there are no manpower implications for meeting the special educational needs provisions in the Bill.

1 Mar 2001 : Column 1463

The noble Lord also talks about forward information to local authorities so that they will know on a school by school basis the precise sums of money they are to receive over the next two years. This is money that has been announced a number of times already and I have read all the information that went with each announcement. My understanding is that those announcements refer to physical alterations to buildings which will allow more access to people with special educational needs, particularly those with physical disabilities. So again I return to the point on manpower.

It was not a satisfactory answer. The plans should be costed in the interests of the LEAs themselves and certainly in the interests of the schools. It is in the interests of government to know what they want to happen at the community level for young people with special educational needs. Because the Government have set their face against the plans being costed, I believe that they are in the business of raising the hopes of young people, possibly only to be dashed because they cannot be realised. But I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page