Clause 12 - Qualifying complaints

Part of Higher Education Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 12th February 2004.

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Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education) 10:30 am, 12th February 2004

May I welcome the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge to the debate? It has been some time since we worked together. I think that there was a time when she, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and I ran the Department of Trade and Industry—at least, we were Parliamentary Private Secretaries in that Department, but my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge knows what I mean.

I would also like to pay tribute to the work done over many years for students with special needs by the hon. Member for Daventry. He genuinely cares about protecting their interests at every opportunity. I think that every member of the Committee feels strongly that individual institutions and the higher education sector as a whole have a responsibility to ensure that disabled people do not experience any discrimination in those institutions and, further, have the equality of opportunity to demonstrate their talent and potential. It is important that we consider the amendments in that context.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made some important, salient points on amendment No. 184. The difficulty is that we have debated a range of specific and tangible examples where judgments will have to be made about the difference between cases of academic freedom and academic judgment and legitimate sources for consideration by the independent complaints process. It is therefore difficult, even on an issue such as this on which we all agree, to make specific provisions in the Bill to single out the issue. Where does one draw the parameters? In each example, the ambiguity might cause some confusion and lack of clarity.

The Government are sympathetic to considering the issue in order to ensure that disabled students are not discriminated against and that it is not possible to hide the discrimination of disabled students behind the fig leaf of academic judgment. In asking the hon. Gentleman to withdraw amendment No. 184, I also ask him to accept that the Government are willing to go away and consider the objective and purpose behind it.

I move on to new clause 4. Anything called clause 4 is always a difficult one for us; I might not be able to accept new clause 4 and continue to have a career in this Government. The serious point is that there is perhaps a need for clarification rather than a need to accept the new clause. First, the six-month time limit under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 starts once the institution's internal procedure has been totally exhausted. Secondly, it is not generally understood that paragraph 3 of schedule 2 makes it clear that when students have lost a case with a court but asked for proceedings to be stayed, it does not prevent access to the scheme. In other words, the six-month period for submitting a case to court will not be exhausted while the OIA considers the student's complaint. That should give the organisations that are concerned, and hon. Members too, the guarantee and protection that if the individual makes it absolutely clear to the court that the matter is being considered by the OIA, the court has the capacity to hold on to the

case and not to say that the complaint under the Disability Discrimination Act should fall because the time period has lapsed.