Clause 5 - Unopposed Appeals

Part of Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:45 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) 1:45 pm, 29th March 2001

I do not want to detain the Committee at length but it may be useful to have a short debate about unopposed appeals. When the conciliation procedures and the parent partnership have not worked in resolving disputes and the parents have availed themselves of their right to apply to the tribunal, the tribunal will make a determination because the local authority no longer offers evidence. That is an unfortunate situation and not ideal. It suggests that the authority, with its own resources and expertise, will go to the courtroom door and then walk away from it. The parents and the child in question will have been exposed to all the hassle of such a contentious approach until then. I am not suggesting that there is a way of removing that, or that there should not be a provision for the procedure to take place. Clearly, it is sensible if the local authority is prepared to withdraw. It is a lot better than having to go through the fiction of a hearing in order to make a determination, which is, as it were, a foregone conclusion.

It is worth the Committee taking time to pause and examine the circumstances of statementing. I do not think that I need to make a long speech about it. Indeed, I regret the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who has another engagement this afternoon, because he has had a great deal of hands-on experience about the matter. However, most hon. Members have experience from their constituencies. Statements are not always as specific as we may hope and I suspect that that is the main contention between parents and LEAs. The core business that the tribunal must do relates to the amount of specification that takes place.

At the beginning of my remarks this morning, I averted to the continuing concerns of the Action on Entitlement consortium. It is clear from the consortium's submission to members of the Committee that it is not happy about the matter, in terms of professional reports and how and what part 3 of a statement should specify—I think that is the retained phrase after the Government had second thoughts about altering it to ``setting out''—and contain. The consortium suggests, in relation to a particular case, that the statement may simply and vaguely specify therapy from a speech and language therapist. As has been said, a child could get only 10 minutes a term.

I am aware that the matter was debated in another place by two heavyweights, Lord Baker of Dorking on our side, and Lord Davies of Oldham for the Government and that the latter said:

``the hours of speech therapy will be specified''.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 February 2001; Vol. 622, c. 631.]

That does not appear to be precisely tied down, and the Minister may not be able to do that now. It may have to be introduced by guidance and the final version of the code. However, it is important for the Committee to have a sense of the matter because it is probably the area of greatest contention between parents and LEAs. It is the type of matter that will reach tribunal, and an LEA might fight hard until it got to a tribunal before withdrawing its objection and allowing the tribunal to determine to the suit of one party. We should ensure that parents get their rights and have a process that is reasonably specific. That is clearly how parents feel, and it is a matter of good practice for the local authorities.

With these general considerations in mind, I hope that the Minister will be able to respond, not by speaking substantively about the concept of the unopposed appeals that clause 5 prescribes—unopposed appeals are better than opposed appeals—but to try to cut out the problem at an even earlier stage, ideally by conciliation. There should be a determination all round by parties, including the LEA and its professional advisers, to make the matter reasonably straightforward. They should say what they mean, and what they say must mean something, and amount to a meaningful provision. Members of the Committee without a party handle will be concerned about the matter, and at this stage, if not later, it would useful to have a statement from the Minister.