Clause 25 - Interpretation

Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 3rd April 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) 12:30 pm, 3rd April 2001

I beg to move, amendment No. 21, in page 23, line 24, leave out from beginning to end of line 25.

This is a probing amendment to deal with a King Charles's head, or friendly obsession that I have had throughout our proceedings, that the Bill should deal as comprehensively as possible with different types of schools. We have not talked much about the independent sector, but the explanatory notes confirm that the independent sector will be covered. It is estimated that a comparatively small compliance cost of less than £1 million a year will apply to the independent sector, although the sector feels the impact of various other costs, including boarding and housekeeping costs in boarding schools. Perhaps the Minister will say whether the independent sector has made any representations to her on its inclusion in the Bill. It would be inappropriate to exclude independent schools, because, as I know from my experience of several such schools, their ability to demonstrate disability-friendly policies is a positive selling point.

The purpose of the amendment is to tease out from the Government whether the legislation will include all kinds of schools. More specifically, it seeks to discover whether it will include all kinds of maintained schools that might be established in the future. It would be nice if a different Minister could give exactly the same assurances—

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

It is the same Minister, who, I hope, will give me precisely the same assurances, in her charming way, that if the Labour Government—or a Conservative Government, in due course—invent a new sort of school, we will not have to legislate especially for that situation. I am sure that she does not want to spare my labours, and we look forward to long debates in Committee on that matter, but will she clarify the situation?

My third point relates to Scotland. I notice that proposed new section 28Q(4) provides for an exception relating to Scotland—or does my proposal amend the section that relates to Scotland? One always reads these clauses upside down. Will the Minister give us the following assurances: first, about the situation regarding independent schools; secondly, about the position regarding new types of school that do not yet exist; and, thirdly, will she say whether the interpretation section is comprehensive as between England and Wales and Scotland? It is the common interest of the Committee that we should show a united front towards the component parts of Great Britain, although not, as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) reminded us, Northern Ireland, which is handled slightly differently.

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

I can, I hope, reassure the hon. Member for Daventry on all three of his points. It is probably worth while saying that the purpose of the interpretation provisions under proposed new section 28Q is to help the reader to interpret the new chapter I of part IV of the Disability Discrimination Act. That is why his questions are justified. We place duties on schools in chapter I and therefore need to be specific about the types of schools to which they apply. Otherwise there would be confusion, which would undermine the Bill's intentions.

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

I do not like to derail the Minister so early in her remarks, but I want to mention something that I did not raise previously, which is information to schools. She rightly points out that the provisions will impose duties on schools. School staff are not sophisticates in the details of discrimination legislation, and they will not have the human resources back-up of local authorities, although they will be able to draw on it. Will the Minister assure us that a simple, user-friendly, intelligible guide will be sent out to head teachers and governors—not another piece of bureaucracy but something that will make them go about doing what is needed effectively?

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

Of course, codes are to be prepared by the Disability Rights Commission, and I am sure that those will be accessible and easily readable, but we shall also ensure that information to schools sets out clearly what is expected of them under the relevant provisions. It will not be bureaucratic or difficult to understand. Furthermore, the Disability Rights Commission will be able to provide advice to providers who have specific questions about how the duties relate to them.

The hon. Gentleman is right to think that in our view—with which he seems to agree—independent schools should be covered by the same provisions as other schools. Several organisations have responded to our consultation. Most independent schools organisations have raised queries about the Bill's application to them, but in general we are reassured about the notion of reasonableness. That is important with respect to the hon. Gentleman's point about costs. I agree that it is a positive selling point for any school if it can show that it is accessible and does not discriminate against students on grounds of disability. However, we expect that to fall within the notion of reasonableness.

I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that if any future Government were to determine new forms and categories of schools, the appropriate way to apply these duties to those schools would be through the legislation passed at the time. I am sure that, given the hon. Gentleman's diligence in pursuing this matter in Committee, officials will make even more sure in future that that is so.

As to Scotland, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the definitions in the proposed new section are, regardless of the legal frameworks of England and Wales or Scotland, intended to ensure full coverage in Great Britain for the relevant duties in all schools.

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

The Minister has given a helpful assurance. My only reservation is that it will be for the Scottish Parliament to determine whether it wants to restructure or re-title schools in Scotland. The Minister will have to ensure that it is aware of that, if it legislates on the matter.

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

I feel sure that splendid officials deal with the legislation before both this Parliament and the Scottish Parliament.

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

I hope that the Committee will adjourn in a moment, so let us end on a conciliatory note. Before we descend into consensus, we are obliged to have a rattle on such matters, but we do not want the Bill to fail because someone has slipped up. It is important to have the Minister's assurances, which on this occasion have been entirely satisfactory, although I am sad to say that they have not been so on all occasions. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Betts.]

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to One o'clock till this day at half-past Four o'clock.