Clause 20 - Admissions

Part of Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 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) 12:00 pm, 3rd April 2001

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.