Clause 20 - Admissions

Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 3rd April 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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 moving into the territory of useful assurances on how the provisions will operate, but I want the Committee to pause briefly to consider three points on admissions. First, because the Minister, understandably, does not want to subvert the powers of appeal—either on admissions or exclusions, which, for this purpose, we can regard as raising similar issues—she has excluded them and left them to the competent authorities. I understand her reasoning, although that creates a strange situation, particularly in relation to exclusions, for which a temporary exclusion would be within the power of the tribunal and the more indelible permanent exclusion would be within the power of the appeals process. Will the Minister say something about that?

My second point is a juridical one. The arrangements for admissions and exclusions appeals will operate in a different context. They will operate not simply to make administrative decisions about admissions and exclusions, but to determine the operation of the Bill in relation to disability discrimination, which is a wide context. They are not, therefore, ancillary to the activities of the LEA and designed to provide an independent focus and natural justice, but will operate, in a sense, as a court of law. I doubt whether the persons involved in appeals are necessarily legally qualified. Nor am I sure whether they should be, because their normal traffic will not be in that area. I imagine that the Minister will say that the circumstances that I have outlined will be exceptional, but, sadly, they are neither unique nor inconceivable. People should, therefore, have access to legal advice.

Let me quote an anecdote from my experience on a tribunal. We once needed to subpoena someone, but the tribunal had never done so before, and we had to telephone the Lord Chancellor's Department to find out what to do. That raises the issue of training. The rules of evidence are extremely important in these matters. In other words, the appeals will take on a different character from that which they had previously, and they may be challenged in the High Court or referred eventually to the Secretary of State.

That raises the question of whether a decision will be reported and, if it has a wider implication, whether published and noted by other LEAs. A matter may not be just a one-off disappointment for an individual child, who feels that he or she has been unfairly excluded from a particular school—or not admitted, or excluded after admission. A case may have a bearing on the behaviour of the LEA. Although I do not propose to wrench specific powers from the LEA or from the new framework that has been set up to deal with local admission and exclusion policies, the Committee must ensure that those powers are being handled within the framework of natural justice and that the bodies concerned and their procedures are up to the job of handling these new, and rather onerous, duties.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Employment) (Employment and Equal Opportunities)

Again, I stress that we have gone for the existing appeals and exclusion procedures because we wish to retain a procedure that works well and is informed, quick and effective. Where we have considered the existing appeal mechanisms to be suitable and robust, we have put new duties in place within them. The simple reason why temporary exclusions have had to go elsewhere is that there is no existing mechanism for them. Most parents who submit an appeal against admission are likely to submit it on more grounds than just disability. That is why it seemed sensible to deal with the relevant matters together.

We shall provide appropriate training for members of the appeals panels to ensure that they are aware of their new duties. We intend to revisit the training pack currently provided to lay members of appeals panels, with a view to providing guidance on the new disability duties. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman as soon as I can about whether members of appeals panels have recourse to the advice of a qualified lawyer.

We had not thought about any circumstances in which wider dissemination of the information arising from the proceedings of an appeals panel would be necessary or would add value in terms of preventing discrimination in other situations. We certainly do not feel constrained, but if schools had to receive that advice, it would add to their bureaucratic burden, unless there was clear value in ensuring that more bits of paper reached head teachers' in-trays. I know how anxious Opposition Members are for us to minimise bureaucracy. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue the matter, perhaps he will come back to me.

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 gives me an unavoidable challenge by taunting me about the need not to create additional paperwork. She is right about that, but I am not as sanguine as she is about the wider implications. If a child is disruptive, the nature of the disruption and the damage caused to other pupils might be entirely germane to what happens. If, for example, the behaviour of a child in year 11, whose parents were worried about the conduct of GCSEs, became intolerable and prejudiced the performance of other children, the school might decide to exclude him or her. A sibling in year nine might display similar behaviour—there are often family rivalries; I have a local case in mind—and it would be entirely relevant to know something about it.

Against that—and I make the point only because the Minister needs to debate it in drawing up the regulations—we do not, of course, want to wash in public the dirty linen of the behaviour of individuals. In matters of exclusion, particularly in the context of discrimination, it must be shown to the satisfaction of the general public and of the individual minority communities that there is a fair and principled basis across the piece. That would be relevant if, in a local LEA with maintained schools, one school made many exclusions but had successful appeals, while another with a broadly similar population did not.

I am not asking for a weekly law report of every decision. Nor do I need a final answer on the training pack today, but the Minister might consider whether chairmen of appeals panels who think that something has a wider application—a phrase used already in one of today's amendments—might be encouraged to report it and share it with others.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Employment) (Employment and Equal Opportunities)

I can perhaps provide some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman. The DRC will produce guidance on how the appeals panels should operate. I am sure that he has seen our guidance so far on the DDA, which contains examples of good practice and possible discrimination issues to which members of the panel should have regard. That guidance is a helpful way to disseminate information on previous cases. An anonymous digest of decisions, not case reports, is published annually. That is a better way in which to disseminate knowledge from previous appeals.

Overall, we are giving new powers to the DRC and others to mount formal investigations if they feel it appropriate. If an institution's appeals are persistently overturned or if it persistently has children admitted through the appeals mechanism, there might be something wrong with the procedures undertaken by that school. Such a case could be subject to the appeals mechanism. Schools and LEAs have an anticipatory duty not to discriminate, and that duty is crucial. I hope that that will deal with many of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.