Clause 3 - Resolution of disputes

Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:15 am on 29th March 2001.

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Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

With this, it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 9, in page 4, line 27, at end insert

`and the authority must make that right clear to parents in advance of any procedure under this section.'.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

We are now motoring, as we should. The amendments are entirely consistent with our previous debate, albeit in a slightly different context. They concern the resolution of disputes. It must be right to look for mediation, not litigation—a simple answer—where possible. I need only make clear—as the Government have already suggested—that that should not remove parents' statutory rights. Amendment No. 9 makes it clear that there should be no attempt to cover up those rights. Amendment. No. 8 concerns an authority ``acting in good faith''—for precisely the reasons that I rehearsed in relation to advice and information.

To go back to Churchill's phrase, we want ``jaw-jaw'' rather than ``war-war''. Parents of children with special educational needs have enough difficulties without having to go through a protracted process. We have already said enough to suggest that the intervention of the lawyers, although occasionally necessary, is not always desirable. I hope that we will approach the matter in that spirit.

Let me refer to something a little more contemporary than a Prime Minister of more than 50 years ago. The experience of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service in dealing with industrial disputes and individual employment tribunals has been helpful and constructive. As the Minister will know, I have experience of legislation in that area. In the guidance, there may well be suggestion that LEAs and ACAS run alongside one another; they may learn lessons from each other. Of course, there are other exemplary mediation services. The Law Society is taking an interest in the matter. It is not always best for cases to come to tribunal or court, but that cuts both ways. There is not only an obligation on the parents to discuss the resolution of disputes but an obligation on the authority—which the amendments are intended to secure—to act in good faith. It contains the experts who deal with the matter day to day; the parents are not the experts, but are the lay party, directly involved, who must be properly treated and given all the information about their legal rights as well as the opportunity of a sensible and informal resolution of their problems.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I want to set my hon. Friend's remarks in context. First, for the sake of accuracy—I know that my hon. Friend would not want any inaccuracy to remain on the record—Winston Churchill ceased to be Prime Minister rather less than 50 years ago.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend was paying such close attention to my words. At the time of my reference, Winston Churchill was talking about the need to go to war, and I was thinking of his period as the wartime Prime Minister, rather than his post-war Government.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

Order. We seem to be drifting from the amendment.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Thank you, Mr. O'Brien. You have brought us back up to date, as you always do.

The context in which I want to place my hon. Friend's remarks is one that pervades much experience of hon. Members of the matter. It is best summed up by anecdote. I know of parents who feel bamboozled and disadvantaged. They feel that in trying to obtain the best deal for their special needs child they have entered an esoteric world in which they may feel that they are not always treated with appropriate sensitivity and where they may not always have the impression that their views are given sufficient weight. That is not uniformly true, and I do not think that anyone desires it. However, it is the experience of many parents of children with special needs.

We need, in a sense, to overcompensate in favour of parents when it comes to resolving disputes and disagreements about provision. The Committee has a responsibility to understand the vulnerability of not only the children but the whole family when faced with such difficult and life-changing choices. That is the context in which I want to place the very proper remarks of my hon. Friend.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

Does my hon. Friend accept that the parents who must try to find a way through the minefield are sometimes less well equipped to do so than other parents might be?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

It is fair to say that a disproportionate number of parents of special needs children are themselves disadvantaged. Some come from poor or deprived homes and may themselves have special needs. Some may be from broken families, in the case of statemented children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. I do not want to generalise, but there is a germ of truth in what my hon. Friend says. The process is difficult and complex, almost by definition. People feel vulnerable when they are going through it. There may be a sense in which people, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, are convinced by too little, and know too much—or at least are presented with too much, whether they know it or not. We must be aware of that in considering the amendment and my hon. Friend's remarks. I know that the Minister will be sensitive to those concerns and I hope that she will set her remarks in context.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Employment

There appears to be widespread support in the Committee for the objective of the clause, which is to place a duty on local education authorities to make arrangements to prevent and resolve disputes—both between parents and a wide range of schools over provision for a child's special education needs, and between parents and local education authorities or maintained schools over their carrying out of special educational needs functions. Of course we are sensitive to parents' different needs from the system. Our proposals are intended precisely to prevent parents from being bamboozled, in the words of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings.

The new arrangements should be informal. They are designed to be put into practice in a flexible way to ensure that they meet parents' needs. Their purpose is not to abolish parents' rights. Parents will, of course, enter voluntarily into the new arrangements. I hope that that point, and some others that I want to make, will convince the Opposition that the amendments are unnecessary.

The service will have to be neutral if it is to be successful. Its role will not be to apportion blame, to take one side over another or to act in a partisan manner. It is intended simply to bring together parties who are in disagreement, in pursuit of a solution acceptable to all. If it is to have credibility with parents, it must be independent. Parents want that, and the LEA and parents must feel that their views are being properly considered; or our objectives will not be achieved.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I simply want to put this point down as a marker, as we may be interrupted shortly. To what extent will the service in any local authority be run past anyone else; what advice or other support will be given in relation to practice in other authorities? No one suggests uniformity, but we need a common approach on some of the issues.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Employment

I hope to finish our discussions relatively quickly. On conciliation, we recognise that minimum standards for the function of dispute prevention and resolution services must be met. That is why, again, the code will set out the minimum standards that we expect—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past One o'clock.