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Meaning Of Special Educational Needs" And Special Educational Provision"

Volume 10: debated on Thursday 22 October 1981

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 1, line 12, leave out "suffers from" and insert "has"

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

This is a drafting amendment. It was included to avoid misunderstanding over the wording of clause 1 (2)(b) and to avoid giving any possible offence to disabled persons. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will accept those explanations.

First, the Lords considered that the term "suffers from" was antiquated and also that it could possibly offend disabled persons who did not regard themselves as "suffering" in that sense. Secondly, as the clause stands, there could be a risk that an unpleasant person—I am sure no hon. Member would ever be that—may say that unless an individual had "suffered from" a disability a local authority could not help him. Many people who have special educational needs may not be "suffering" a disability but may have a handicap that they would like the authority to cater for.

For those reasons, I hope that the House will agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

I listened with interest to the Minister. However, the amendment does not meet the points that were made both in this Chamber and in another place. The complaint voiced in both Houses was that a person should not have a learning difficulty by virtue of the inadaquacy of the building itself. The fact that a person in a wheelchair cannot get into a building does not mean that he has a learning difficulty. The difficulty is getting into the place of learning and not the learning itself. That point was reiterated in this House and in another place.

The matter was summed up in an amendment moved by Lady Darcy de Knayth in another place. It said:
"A child with a disability is not to be taken as having a learning difficulty solely because the buildings and other premises of ordinary schools are unsuitable for the needs of the child or because the child has not been provided with the aids, equipment and other help he needs because of his disability to make use of the educational facilities provided in schools, within the area of the local authority concerned, for children of his age."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 July 1981; Vol. 422, c. 467.]
That point was accepted by their Lordships on both sides of the House and was pressed strongly upon the Government. In reply, Baroness Young stated that she would consider the matter further, and the amendment was withdrawn on the basis that further consideration would be given to the matter.

This amendment does not meet the criticisms. It simply changes one word. I accept the narrow interpretation that no one should be given a means test on whether he is suffering. That in itself is to be welcomed. However, the substantive point made in both Houses was that no one should be regarded as having a learning difficulty because of the nature of the building. Children or adults may be capable of taking a Ph.D examination but may not be able to enter a school or college because there is a step outside, the corridor is too narrow for their wheelchair or they are deaf and there is no loop system. There may be many reasons all of which create difficulties for people in obtaining the required learning, but difficulties in no way related to a learning difficulty.

We are worried by the earlier comments of the Minister when he said:
"If such children cannot be accommodated in a normal school it becomes a special educational need."—[Official Report, 10 June 1981; Vol. 6, c. 444.]
That is not an acceptable definition. The child does not have a special educational need. The building requires to be adapted to the needs of the child.

Sweden has excellent policies on disablement. One publication states that a disabled person is handicapped because of the relationship between that person and his environment. The environment causes the handicap, although the individual may be disabled. Unless the Bill is changed, we shall be accepting the handicap caused by the environment.

The amendment does not meet the substantive criticisms made in both Chambers. The Government undertook to reconsider the matter, but have come forward only with this amendment. They have missed the opportunity and possibly deliberately avoided dealing with a matter that should be dealt with in the Bill.

The difficulty is that we must either accept or reject the amendment. May we suggest a middle course to the Minister? The seventh amendment that we shall be considering talks of bringing in the Bill by statutory instrument. Could we not use that instrument to make good the promises that we believe were given in this House and in another place?

To summarise the debate on this most important topic, we feared that many students would be denied access to normal education—the Warnock report was concerned with integrating students into the one system, if possible—not because of their disability but because of the structure of the educational institution. The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) mentioned steps and the width of doors. In a nutshell, the Government's response was that they would meet us fully if the money was there for local authorities to adapt the premises. They fear putting measures in the Bill that require expenditure, and that is why the Minister was cautious.

Regulations will be used to bring the measure into effect. Even at this late stage, will not the Government consider including in them the proposal that local education committees should regularly collect information on why pupils cannot attend normal educational establishments?

The hon. Gentleman is widening the debate far beyond the scope of the amendment. I was tolerant with the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) and I wish also to be tolerant with the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), but there are limits. He is going much further than even the statutory instrument is likely to go.

I shall come back immediately to the very small amendment that their Lordships propose. Given the undertakings that we believed had been given it is a considerable disappointment.

You have been kind enough, Mr. Speaker, to allow me to make my points. I hope that the Minister will respond positively.

I do not believe that the amendment was put down for the reason mentioned by the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley). The matter was brought up on 19 October to meet a specific point, which did not concern access to buildings, although I appreciate the importance of that. I recall another Bill recently proposed by the Opposition on the same matter.

The amendment is concerned purely with defining educational need. The hon. Gentleman may argue that there is an educational need if the facilities of the school do not allow the individual to get to or about it properly, but no Bill could enable children with all sorts of disabilities to attend any school in the United Kingdom. The cost of equipment for deaf children, children in wheelchairs, and so on, would be so great that even the Labour Party in its most glorious moments would not say that the money could be made available. We shall continue to remind local authorities that the facilities in a school cannot be used unless the individual can get to them, but chat is not why the amendment was proposed.

4.15 pm

We are up against a fundamental problem that we have faced in the House for many years. I am glad to see the Secretary of State in his place. We have argued the matter for many years. Access to a building is not enough. When inside the individual must be able to use it and live with it, which requires educational equipment, toilets and other facilities. The amendment does not go far enough.

The amendment is not intended to meet the points that are being raised. I recognise the problem. Indeed, I recently spoke at an Open University conference about access to buildings, which is important. The hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) is right in saying that it is important to be able to use the building once the individual is inside. The amendment was put down on 19 October purely to ensure that there was no chance of the wording being seen as a casual slight to the handicapped, and also so that no litigious person could sue the local authority for not helping someone who was not suffering from the disability at the time.

The amendment can only be of help, and I ask the House to approve it.

The amendment should be welcomed. We are considering a matter of definition. The change from "suffers from" to "has" improves the definition.

The Under-Secretary of State said that no legislation could guarantee a place in a normal school for every child with a special educational need.

There is no chance, under whichever Government, of equipping every normal school so that children with every sort of disability can attend. "Selection" is not a popular word on the Opposition Benches when discussing education. However, authorities that desire to integrate children with special educational needs into normal schools know that no one school can absorb every child with a severe handicap.

I am grateful for that helpful intervention, which enlightens the House and abbreviates what I have to say. The fact remains that beyond the point at which the hon. Gentleman and I would agree that we want to promote integration so far as it is possible to do so, we recognise that it is not possible to guarantee a place for every child in an integrated classroom or school.

The real test of this definition and of the Bill is whether it does anything to impede children who would have no educational difficulties of integration from being able to gain from integration. We are talking about the definition of a learning difficulty as specified in clause 1. The problem is that clause 2 contains stipulations that restrict the right of access of the individual child and his parents and gives powers to local education authorities to interpret the definition in such a way as to make access unnecessarily restrictive.

The argument has been put at all stages of the Bill, including during its progress through the other place and during the thorough Committee consideration here, that the reason for including that definition, given the further qualification in clause 2 was that it was not possible to hope that the kind of resources that would be required to extend the definition and to extend the access could be forthcoming either in the light of present financial difficulties or, indeed, at any other time. Since then, however, there has been an announcement from the Government—it was made on 27 July by no less a person than the Prime Minister herself—that £60 million is to be made available to improve the education of young people over 16.

It will be within the recall of the House and of hon. Members who have taken a particular interest in these matters that one of the target areas of the Warnock committee on special educational needs was the improvement of educational access and educational and training facilities for 16 to 19-year-olds. The Bill does not effectively cover that requirement or go in any way to meet it, yet this sum of £60 million is to be made available without specifying its purpose or target, the young people who are intended to benefit or the manner in which local education authorities should spend it.

As the Government are accepting this Lords amendment and are prepared to accept adjustments to the definition, no matter how small or apparently semantic, I should like to know whether they are prepared to be equally constructive in their approach to the qualification, and restrictions that are applied to the definitions in the rest of the Bill, to divert the money that they have offered for an unspecified purpose and to use those resources to satisfy one of the targets set by the Warnock committee.

If that were done the Opposition could accept with greater generosity the Government's view that they are integrationists and that they are anxious and willing to accept amendments to the definition of learning difficulty that will permit them to move towards acceptance of the target areas that Warnock had in mind, that is to say the under-fives, improvement in teacher training and the improvement of provision for youngsters of 16 to 19.

I realise that no help will be forthcoming from those who favour voucher schemes as a means of financing these matters. However, there is £60 million not yet earmarked. Will the Under-Secretary of State say whether it is likely to be spent to assist disabled, handicapped and other youngsters with learning difficulties or difficulties of access to enable them to enjoy the full benefits, which we are told is the intention behind the Bill?

I have a funny feeling that the Government, in a cunning way, have given the game away. The Bill uses the phrase:

"he suffers from a disability"
and the amendment says
"he has a disability".
Throughout the Committee stage I tried to convince the Government that where a child has a disability but can gain access to the building, intelligent use of technology to overcome the handicap means that it no longer remains a disability. I am inclined to say that I accept the amendment. I shall, however, expect the hon. Gentleman, with his command of the English language, to use his influence in the drafting of the regulations so that the will of the House is clearly understood, because he changed—

To change the wording from "suffers from" to "has" implies that it is definitive and cannot be helped. It is an attempt to use soft words. It is pussy-footing. If this had happened 40 years ago, it might have been true. The word "crippled" would have been changed to something softer. In making this concession, the hon. Gentleman has given way to my argument. If there is access, and if within the school there is the technical equipment, the disability is overcome in the sense that the child can be educated and can compete equally. I welcome the amendment.

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a brief comment. I shall not argue with the hon. Member for Eccles, to whose knowledge of the subject I bow. I shall not throw myself on his mercy. I shall only say that it seems to me, as it seemed to Baroness Young in another place, that the Bill is improved. I understand that there was no Division in the other place, where it was accepted on both sides. One cannot push the argument too far. In many cases I could have stated that what we were considering was literally a drafting amendment. I should like, however, to think that this is more than a drafting amendment and that it indicates an attitude of mind on both sides of the House. I must not get dragged into the question of resources, which I am sure the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock)—

Before the hon. Gentleman makes an effort to answer the points that I made, may I say that I agree that this is much more than a drafting amendment. On the basis of the argument put by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones), if an individual suffers from an ailment, that is a matter of medical information and proof. It may or may not inhibit his education, but he suffers from it. If he has it, and if the severity of it is diminished or abolished by proper technological amendment to the premises, that change is found not in the wording of the Bill or in the sensitivity of the drafting of the Bill, but in the meaning of the Bill in terms of resources that an individual can command to be present in an educational institution so that he need not have a disability in respect of that building. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that interpretation?

I agree entirely with that interpretation. Hon. Members on both sides of the House look forward to the time when more resources are devoted to this issue. I am sure that when that happens that will give pleasure to both sides. Meanwhile, we cannot let the matter rest. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me about that. He is an active individual, who goes around busily everywhere. We cannot rest on our laurels. The hon. Member for Eccles might agree also. We must do something. The Bill increases parental choice. It encourages integration into a normal school so far as possible. It seems to me that those two great aims of the Bill are worthy of commendation from both sides of the House.

Question put and agreed to.