Clause 14 - Accessibility Strategies and Plans

Part of Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 29th March 2001.

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Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment) 3:15 pm, 29th March 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 18, in page 13, line 6, at end insert—

`(c) an analysis of the cost of implementing such plans.'.

We are making good progress. We have had some lively debates on the matter. We should not necessarily wear out the sky if we receive satisfaction on the matter of needs. Reading the debates that took place in the other place, I gained the impression that Ministers were a little coy on that subject. The Minister will know what I mean from previous conversations. I shall not trespass on any confidences. I wish only to reproduce what I said to her. One factor that gave us pause in introducing the full import of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was the potential cost. Clause 14 is about preparing accessibility, strategies and plans. It is a local education authority and a schools clause, and it is welcome. However, it makes the point that there are important consequences for schools' finances if the DDA requirements are to be enacted.

In a sense—this is a precursor to discussions that we may have at a later stage on post-16 education—much of the loading may be post-16 and it would be inappropriate to bring in this measure at this point. It may well be more relevant later on. I am talking not only about further education colleges: universities also have problems. Nevertheless, considering the schools' budget alone, I notice a certain coyness on the part of the Government in coming clean about the cost of the measures.

On Second Reading, the Secretary of State and others spoke of the schools access initiative. I certainly welcome any additional funds that can be made available. As the Minister will know, an interesting analysis has been made of the work of the schools access initiative so far, and she may want to say a little about that. It was somewhat uneven. It was good if schools were already on the net and had access, but it was not so good if they had not heard of the system, had not done much with it or had not got round to participating in it. Part of the argument for the planning duty may be that, as all local authorities will have to produce such plans, they will even themselves up in relation to schools access.

I am sure that, were he present, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings would say that in his experience there is a huge disparity of need. Some LEAs have already worked hard at access, whereas others have not left first base. Assuming that plans are made on a reasonably coherent basis, we should know more about what needs to be done. In fairness, that can be done over a prescribed period—to use a word that appears in the clause. Ministers have helpfully suggested that resources would be available for much of that time.

I shall make two points in asking the Minister to be more explicit about what is available. First, let us suppose that LEAs complete their accessibility plans and find that the cost of implementation exceeds the solution figure--even the amount that the Government have put aside--so there is not enough money to go round. That is a likely scenario in terms of capital. Ministers must realise what they have done because they will have to decide how to scale back or re-phase the timing. That may be realistic for physical mobility problems, but Ministers will need to know what to do.

Secondly, there is the question of current spend. As I said to the Committee, in most cases, additional capital expenditure is likely to generate additional revenue costs, however welcome and supported by the schools access initiative and the standards fund. That is partly because of the physical maintenance of the new assets that have been acquired, as even something as simple as a ramp has to be kept shipshape when people have difficulty with mobility. If they are wheelchair users, they cannot have their position compromised.

The same is true of much of the software—I mean the softer items that are needed to achieve access. The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) referred to the importance of signage and lighting. I know from my own work in the disability area that those things are hugely important. However, they do not come for nothing, although that is not a cop-out or an excuse for not providing them. We need to bear in mind the fact that they are likely to have some revenue consequences.

The issues of employees and disabled teachers are not explicitly included in the Bill. People with disabilities such as we have referred to should not be excluded from teaching. Many of them would be good at it.

I am not suggesting that the Minister should not attempt to do the things I have outlined, but she knows what being a Minister is like and she will have regard to resources. Those matters are always complex in the context of schools—I except the post-16 sector for the moment—because they involve LEA resources, central Government resources and initiatives, elements of match funding and how one attracts it and whether it comes from within the public sector or from outside. The private finance initiative is another factor. All those things might go into the pot, especially on the capital side, but there are likely to be revenue implications about which the Government have not been clear. I am not implying that they are being disingenuous. It may simply be that we cannot know what is happening until we have had a chance to consider the matter.