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Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: From these Benches, I thank the right reverend Prelate for his support. He put his finger on the key requirement. As the noble Lord, Lord Carter, mentioned the Special Educational Consortium, I thought that I would quote its views briefly. It states:
"At the Second Reading of the . . . Bill, Government Ministers were equivocal about how far it was intended for the Public Duty to apply to schools . . . It is of the utmost importance to make clear, unequivocally, that schools have a duty to . . . ensure that they promote equality for disabled pupils in everything they do".
The consortium makes it clear that it strongly supports the amendment tabled by my noble friend and me. The Disability Rights Commission states that it strongly
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backs the amendment, as does the Children's Society, as the right reverend Prelate said. This is an occasion when, unequivocally, the amendment or something very like is the way to do things.
Lord Carter: I would like to come back on another point. I was remiss in not thanking the Minister at the beginning of the debate today for the Keeling print of the Bill, which was enormously helpful, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said. That print shows, at proposed new section 28M on page 100, thatit is a role for the Secretary of State and the National Assemblyif the appropriate authority is satisfied, whether on a complaint or otherwise, that the responsible body has acted or is preparing to act unreasonably in the discharge of a duty imposed by or under proposed new Sections 28D or 28E, or has failed to discharge a duty imposed by or under either of those sections, it may give the body such directions as in the discharge of the duty appear to it expedient. All the powers are clearly there if the Government are prepared to use them.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Yes. Amendments Nos. 23 and 27 would require the Government to place specific duties under the duty to promote equality in schools. Before I turn to the detail, I want to make a couple of broader remarks. To some extent, we are touching on the issue that we raised on Amendment No. 11, which was overlap. Schools have an extensive range of existing duties, under both disability law and education law. Those duties are significant and designed, for example, to ensure that disabled people are not discriminated against, and that schools plan to increase access to education for disabled pupils. Indeed, those duties go further than duties on other bodies. For example, schools already need to produce accessibility plans.
The recent Ofsted report, Special educational needs and disabilityTowards inclusive schools, found that the revised inclusion framework that we introduced through the Special Education Needs and Disability Act 2001 had contributed to a growing awareness of the benefits of inclusion and to some improvements in practice. The visits to the schools for the survey finished in November 2003, six months after schools' first accessibility plans were due to be published. It is therefore good news that 50 per cent of schools had already published their plans. The report went on to highlight the need for additional progress and to bed down that strategy, which is being pursued.
We are also developing, with the Disability Rights Commission, education experts and other disability organisations, a resource bank to help schools to make reasonable adjustments to their policies and practice to prevent discrimination against disabled pupils. As noble Lords will be aware, our consultation document, Delivering equality for disabled people, set out our proposals for using the powers to impose specific duties that would be granted by new Section 49D. We will respond to that consultation in due course.
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My noble friend Lord Carter is absolutely right. In the education sector, our priority is clear. We must ensure that SENDA and other existing measures bed down. We need to decide whether applying the full specific duties to schools is appropriate in that context. However, even if we decided that it was not appropriate to put the full weight of specific duties on schools, we are keeping the matter under constant review. As my noble friend rightly identified, new Section 49D would allow us to oppose further duties at a later date if that were necessary to achieve the outcomes for disabled children and teachers that we all wantin other words, if the SENDA moves do not deliver what we all want, hope and expect them to do.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, was right. Section 28D of the DDA, which was inserted by SENDA, requires schools to draw up accessibility plans and gives powers to the Secretary of State to prescribe further plans that schools must draw up.
With those reassurances, I hope that Members of the Committee will accept that we seek to bed SENDA down and avoid overlap provision. There are strong responsibilities placed on schools to meet their needs and promote equality for disabled children, but we have additional and further powers to amplify that if, in practice after we have bedded SENDA down, those powers are clearly seen to be needed. In that case, we can return to the issue then. I hope that the Committee feels that the Government are responding appropriately and are making education central to the matter, whether at school or adult level. Discrimination, whether on medical or social models, is as much about mindset as about physical or mental capacity. That is why education needs to be at the centre of our concerns.
Lord Lucas: Could the noble Baroness clarify which kinds of school are covered by existing powers? Do they cover city academies, fully private schools, and private special schools that provide largely for pupils paid for out of the public purse? Where is the line drawn in this complicated collection of styles of school that we now have?
Lord Addington: We could reminisce for a while. I thank Members of the Committee. The amendment was a genuine attempt to clarify a point of concern. I hope that it was taken on that basis. The Minister sounds to me, with my inexpertnessI have never hidden it from anyone; it always becomes apparentas though she has answered the questions. If tidying-up points have to be raised later, I shall come back to
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them, but I hope and suspect that most of the problems have been addressed by what the Minister said. In that light, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 24 and 25 are quite simple and not nearly as dramatic as the Marshalled List in conjunction with the Bill might perhaps tempt some noble Lords and observers to think. Clearly, if subsection (3) on the page 11 is left out, there is no point in having subsection (4), so we can dispense with the second amendment very easily indeed.
The first amendment covers a very simple point. While there is clearly no point in having compliance notices unless they are enforced, it is equally clear that the courts are the right people to enforce them. There were long discussions on the last Bill with which the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, the Minister and myself were concernedthe Pensions Billon the matter of compliance notices.
The problem in this Bill is that public authorities are given three months to respond to the compliance notice issued by the Disability Rights Commission, which is a thundering long time. I agree that that is the maximum, but these things tend to take up the maximum time in my experience. The three months given in the Bill is more than generous. If the response is inadequate in the view of the Disability Rights Commission, it may then take the matter to the courts for them to decide. The trouble is that there is no limit to the time that the courts may take, but it would be unusual for the courts to complete their review of the matter in less than another three months. That is a likely minimum of six months during which time the specified duty is not being conducted and discrimination is therefore continuing.
I believe that the process will take far too long. The intention of the amendments is to ask the MinisterI do not think that we can add anything useful to the Billwhat she can do to speed up the process from the first failure of a duty to its resolution by the courts. I beg to move.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The answer is that I do not know. I do not know whether there is anything that can be done to speed up the process. This is clearly a probing amendment. I was prepared to defend the need for the DRC's three months to get engaged and the way that the court processes work. However, the noble Lord understands that perfectly well and has described it perfectly adequately and accurately, so I do not need to go through all that material. The noble Lord is clearly concerned about whether the process that we have constructed is too elongated and drawn out and justice for the individual gets lost in the process.
I will take further advice on this matter but, as it stands, what we have done is model this procedure broadly on the lines of the CRE. The CRE has never
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had to proceed beyond the issuing of a compliance notice. In other words, the CRE's compliance notices have stuck and it has not had to go through to the second stage which indeed would elongate the process by going through to a court action. That is because the length of time for the CRE, which I understand is equivalent to the one proposed here, allows it to mediate, teach, explain, persuade and, if necessarybluntlyto hassle and bully people into compliance. That is why we have the three-month period.
I will check with the DRC that it feels that the time-scale is appropriate as modelled on the race relations Acts. In our judgment it seems to be, but that is based on the supposition that the time-scale is successful and court action does not need to follow. If I am wrong then we should reflect again, but I am happy to have the noble Lord on side to see expeditious justice.
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