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29 January 2001
Volume 621

(" . In the 1966 Act, after section 316, insert—"

"Expense.

316AA. In the exercise of any functions under this Part, provision is not to be considered as giving rise to disproportionate expenditure only because that provision is more expensive than comparable provision."").

The noble Lord said: I regret to say that Amendment No. 41 was decoupled in our proceedings on 23rd January from Amendment No. 21, with which it was erroneously grouped. If I may, I will speak to Amendment No. 41 now. I should start by apologising for a typographical error in its wording: the 1966 Act should of course refer to the 1996 Act

I can be very brief. This amendment merely seeks to pick up on our amendments last year to the Learning and Skills Bill and to replicate what became Section 2(4) of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 into this Bill. It may be that this provision is already in the Bill, in which case I apologise to the Committee for not having been able to find it. If it is not, I submit that it should be, especially given the words of the Minister at col. 778 on 18th July last, when we considered Commons amendments to the Learnings and Skills Bill, and when she said that the new Section 2(4) of that Bill would apply to provision for both sixth forms and for students with learning difficulties and disabilities. This amendment merely assumes that the same policy will apply to schools.

The effect of this amendment would be to prevent an LEA from refusing to fund either a mainstream place or a place at a special school merely because that provision appeared more expensive than comparable provision, perhaps nearer to home, or perhaps not, but in any case, merely on the grounds that it appeared more expensive.

I am as usual batting largely for special schools which at first sight can appear more expensive than mainstream schools. LEAs have in the past clearly refused to fund places in special schools because they have thought them to be more expensive than mainstream places. However, this has often been a false premise, especially if SEN children are to be provided with adequate support in mainstream schools. If the aims of this Bill are met, and all SEN children who go to mainstream schools are indeed properly supported, then any per capita cost differential which may have been thought to exist in the past ought to disappear in future. Let us not forget that special schools benefit from economies of scale and from a concentration of personnel and facilities for SEN children in a way which cannot be matched in the necessarily more dispersed environment of a mainstream school. I submit that this amendment is likely to cut both ways and I trust that the Government can accept it. I beg to move.

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I am a little puzzled because the groupings list states that Amendment No. 41 has already been debated. That was the understanding of my advisers and I therefore have no speaking notes for this amendment. All I can say to the noble Lord is that this Bill does not in any way affect the current arrangements for the funding of places in the independent sector where the school is named in the statement. Therefore, it is my view that this amendment is not necessary and I hope that the noble Lord is able to withdraw it. I am sorry about the confusion but I was under the impression that this amendment had already been debated; the groupings list states that it has already been debated. However, if it was degrouped last time, I apologise.

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It was actually degrouped in col. CWH 57, when I said that I would not be speaking to Amendment No. 41 because it involved a different subject and that perhaps it should wait its turn on the Marshalled List, which is what it has done. I am sorry about that but I did not see the grouping until I came in at the start of the proceedings, otherwise I would have objected in the Whips' Office this morning. I do not quite know how to take the matter forward, except that I understand the Minister to be saying that the amendment is not necessary because local education authorities will not do what I hoped this amendment would stop them doing. All I can say is that they have certainly been doing it quite a lot in the past. It may be that we will have to look again at this amendment and have a better prepared go at the next stage.

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I am happy to write at greater length to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, setting out exactly what happens at present and why we do not feel that the amendment is necessary. The Bill does not affect the way in which funding for a place in the independent sector is provided where an independent school is named in the statement, and the LEA is then obliged to fund it.

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This amendment does not deal only with the independent sector or anything of that kind. It merely says that provision cannot be considered to be unsuitable just because it is more expensive than comparable provision. That provision is often nearby and, for one reason or another, the local authority does not have a suitable place in it and does not want to send a child further away because it is more expensive. Therefore, they shove them into what is going nearest at hand. That is a common abuse that I seek to correct with this amendment.

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In response, I do not think it an abuse by the local education authority to take into account cost if there is good, available provision provided by that authority. We all believe that the taxpayer must be considered in these circumstances. That, of course, happens. Cost therefore may sometimes be given as one of the reasons why it would be wrong to send a child away, for example, to a residential independent school which would cost much more than the local provision which the LEA considers appropriate to meet the special needs of a particular child.

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I simply want to rise on a procedural matter to support my noble friend who said quite clearly the last time we discussed the measures of the Bill,

"I shall not speak to Amendment No. 41, because it is on a different subject. Perhaps it should wait its turn in the Marshalled List".—(Official Report. 23/01/01: col. CWH 57.)
Therefore I am very surprised that the noble Baroness said that officials believed it had been debated. My noble friend quite specifically said that he would not debate it with Amendment No. 21. To make sure that we do not have a repeat of that interpretation of what is being done, my noble friend Lord Lucas said today that he does not intend to discuss Amendment No. 96, which was grouped with Amendment No. 36, because he will do that when it comes to its normal place in the list.

My final point is on groupings. I am in the happy position of being given a draft copy of the groupings on each occasion. They come a little late and I should like to receive them much earlier. For example, I should like to have seen tomorrow's groupings before we went home tonight. However, it is important for other people who have tabled amendments that they too have an opportunity to say whether they believe that their own amendments are grouped in the right order. That would prevent us having this kind of debate now.

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I absolutely accept that the noble Lord degrouped his amendment last time and I have already apologised that that was missed. Perhaps I may say that groupings are available in the Whip's Office and when I was in the position of Members of the Committee opposite, as I was for many years, I used to go and have a look at them, not only the Front Bench spokesperson. It makes the procedure much more difficult if people do not let the department know that they want to degroup beforehand. It makes for a much more messy discussion and delays our procedures. Therefore, all I am saying is that I entirely accept that degrouping will take place; it is the absolute right of Members of the Committee to decide to do that. But it is extremely helpful if people can let us know what that they are going to do, rather than doing it when we arrive here. I am happy for tomorrow's groups to be available tonight, although that is not the normal procedure. It is usual for groupings to be provided in the morning, but on this occasion I have been through them all with officials and I am happy for the Committee to have them this evening.

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This is an important point. There is an informal agreement, which I have always accepted as fair for those in opposition, that when Bills are discussed on two consecutive days, the groupings work is done by the Department. That is what happened when I was a Minister. Therefore the groupings for tomorrow could be available to all of us before we go home this evening.

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I have just made that offer and we are very happy with that.

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We do not know what the procedure is for seeing them. In order for us to see them, somebody has to physically have the groupings.

The Minister says that it is up to everybody. I have the groupings brought to me. When the Clerk first gets them, they are brought to me and, I believe, to the Liberal Democrats, for approval. We are invited to comment on them. When we know which amendments are down, the noble Lords concerned should be given the opportunity to check whether they want them grouped as they have been, or would like them decoupled.

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An opportunity is available for that and I am happy for de-grouping to take place. Lists are available in the Whips' office. It is not reasonable to ask that the Whips should deliver them personally to every member of the Committee, but members can come to change them. It is right that the groupings should go to the main Opposition spokesman, as already happens.

I am sorry about what happened with amendment No. 41. I apologise for that, but it would be helpful if de-grouping could take place in advance, rather than in Committee.

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Moving away from procedural matters, I have a question for the Minister. Why was the new clause thought to be such a good idea for more senior colleges and for higher education, including pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, but not for schools?

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I do not quite follow what the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is asking. This part of the Bill is only about schools. The second part of the Bill relates to further and higher education as well. I am puzzled by his question.

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I am not making myself clear. This provision was inserted into the Learning and Skills Act 2000. It was accepted broadly by the Commons, then brought back and accepted here. The principle of the clause remains that provision should not be thought to be giving rise to disproportionate expenditure, whether it be for a more mature student or for a child in the school system. The clause would simply put in this Bill a provision that is in the Learning and Skills Act. I do not see why it should apply to more mature students covered by the Learning and Skills Act, but not to schoolchildren. I appreciate that the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, may want to re-gather her forces and maybe we will come back to it again at the next stage without taking more of the Committee's time, but that is a very simple question. Why is this provision necessary for, say, 19 to 22 year-olds, but not for 15 year-olds?

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I think it would be better if I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, as I have already offered, giving a fuller reply to the issues raised in the amendment and his more specific question about the Learning and Skills Act.

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I am most grateful to the Minister and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.45 p.m.

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moved Amendment No. 42:

After Clause 1, insert the following new clause—