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Assessment Of Special Educational Needs

Volume 10: debated on Thursday 22 October 1981

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Lords amendment: No. 2, in page 5, leave out lines 3 to 6 and insert

"assess the educational needs of the child concerned.
(4A) Where a local education authority decide to make an assessment under this section they shall notify the child's parent in writing of their decision and of their reasons for making it."

4.30 pm

Amendment No. 2 has been included to make it clear that a parent must be notified if it is decided to make an assessment of his child. Hon. Members said time and again in Committee that parents should be notified of what is happening. We have tightened up the Bill so that there is no possibility of clause 5(4)(b) being misunderstood. Parents must be notified if a local authority decides to make an assessment of their child. The amendment fulfils the spirit and the letter of the Bill in accordance with the wishes of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Amendment No. 3 also increases parental rights, which is one of the basic purposes of the Bill. We have never put through a Bill affecting the handicapped that has included so many parental rights. Some hon. Members would have liked to go further and, although I am not necessarily encouraging them to do so, I would not be surprised if they raised that subject on a later amendment.

The amendments further strengthen parental choice. Clause 7 provides that a local education authority should notify parents of their right of appeal against the special provision specified in a statement. A parent may appeal and should know that he is able to appeal if he wishes to disagree with what is specified in the statement.

That is an additional power for the parent. It ties in with the right of appeal to the Secretary of State under clause 5 when a local education authority decides that it is not required to determine the special educational provision to be made. Just as there is a right of appeal if special provision is made in a statement, there must similarly be a right of appeal if a local education authority decides not to make a statement.

Amendment No. 5 makes it clear that parents have a right of appeal when a statement is made. We have accepted the spirit of Lady David's amendment in another place. Amendments Nos. 3 and 5 go together. A parent may appeal against a statement if he does not like it and will receive notification that he may also appeal against a local education authority's decision not to make a statement.

For the sake of the record and to demonstrate again the unanimity on the objectives, I should say that we strongly commend the Lords amendments.

I wish to raise a couple of points related to amendments Nos. 4 and 5, but so that I remain in order I shall direct them to amendment No. 5.

Last night I addressed a meeting in my constituency organised by the Commission for Racial Equality. Concern was expressed about the position of ethnic minority groups who have certain anxieties, some of which I share, about the appeal procedure. Having considered in depth how appeals are to be conducted, I consider that much well-intentioned bureaucracy is involved and I wonder whether everybody will be able to find a way through.

I note that the amendments allow the possibility of another person being present when the parent makes his or her appeal, but I am particularly interested in those whose first language is not English and, for example, West Indian parents who, although their children may have been born and bred here, may riot be able to cope with the problems involved in appeals.

I should like an assurance from the Minister that such people will be safeguarded, not just by being given the opportunity of being represented, but by being helped positively to obtain representation.

The difficulty is that, given the problems involved in filling out forms or being seen by someone from the local education authority, some parents may be inclined just to accept what they are told. I should like positive intervention, with parents being recommended to go to a local law center or get the help of someone from the multiethnic inspectorate to advise them on their appeal.

I appreciate the interest of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) and I understand that most authorities are aware of the problem that he has rightly raised. My constituency has a heavy immigrant component and I am certainly aware of the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

I believe that it has become the normal practice, which debates in the House can help to develop, that when parents do not speak English and the problems that we are discussing become almost an external exercise for them, any local authority worth its salt ensures that an interpreter is available. Indeed, he must be more than an interpreter, because he must understand what is involved. He should be almost an adviser.

The other problem to which the hon. Gentleman referred may affect other parts of the community as well as those that he specified. Understanding bureaucratic procedures is not a problem only for ethnic minorities. Many people are baffled by bureaucracy. Indeed, many hon. Members who have to battle with bureaucracy are baffled by it and have to get outside help to show them the way through the stuff.

The difficulty arises over specifying who should help parents in their appeals. Hon. Members who were privileged to serve on the Standing Committee on the Bill will remember our attempts to ensure that the definition in the clause covered the handicapped, but did not extend to, for example, those for whom English was a second language and who would rightly resent being included in that definition.

Advice will be given to local authorities. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has taken a keen interest in that aspect and I can tell him that we shall have to work out how full a statement should be and how much information should be included in it. I assure the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North that, if we can find a way of advising local authorities that what he wishes to see should be done, we shall do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 3 agreed to.