HC Deb 26 April 2001 vol 367 cc518-41

'In section 324 of the Education Act 1996 (statement of special educational needs) after subsection (4) insert— (4A) In drawing up any specification of provision for a child's special educational needs the local education authority shall so far as is practicable have regard to the need for adequacy and quantifiability of such provision".'.—[Mr. Hayes.] Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Hayes

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am delighted to move new clause 4, which draws our attention to the important issues of statements and statementing. It is probably fair to say that the business of statementing, which was conceived by Baroness Warnock in her report, given life by the Education Act 1981 and reinforced by subsequent Acts, has, more than any other measure, given status to special needs education and to children with special educational needs.

Statements also give a feeling of power to parents. They give parents the feeling that they have rights over their choices in respect of their children and the treatment that their children are likely to receive. However, statements do a great deal more than that. They are a tool for the detailed analysis of individual needs and the implementation of appropriate education to fit those needs. That is why the suggestion that statementing was to be diluted was greeted with such horror. That suggestion was given its head in the Government's Green Paper, some of whose implications many Labour Members, possibly including some on the Front Bench, probably regret.

In Committee, I think that it was the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) who referred to the Green Paper as a green light for the closure of special schools. She said that some local authorities had even taken the Green Paper as a stimulus for the closure of special schools. However, we have moved on from there, and one does not want to be too critical. The Government have learned their lessons, and they listened to the wiser heads, many of which were to be found on the Conservative Benches. The Government amended their proposals and we are pleased to see that statements are not now going to go the way that we thought they might.

It is important for us to understand that statements need to be sufficiently specific, particular and well targeted, so that they can deliver the sort of educational opportunities that will allow each child to fulfil their potential regardless of their particular special need or disability. There is an issue here about the willingness of local authorities to offer a statement. There is also an issue about the marriage between statements and the real provision available to turn those statements into an educational reality, in terms of the choice and experience enjoyed by the individual child or student.

I think that the House knows about most of our problems with statementing, but they are worth amplifying. First, parents and others often see the system as complex, esoteric and confusing. I believe that, in Committee, I said that parents were frequently bamboozled. Moreover, local education authorities are not always as humane and sensitive as they might be when parents are going through the difficult business of obtaining a statement.

Secondly, local education authorities are often variable in their willingness to offer children statements. We know of that variability from a brief study of the position across Britain. I have Government statistics here that give the details, and although I do not propose to quote them exhaustively—I am sure you would not let me do that, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House certainly would not tolerate it—I think it worth considering one or two. Some relate to London boroughs.

In Bromley, 2.9 per cent. of children have statements, whereas down the road in Croydon the percentage is only 1.4 per cent. In Stockport the figure is 3 per cent., while in Oldham it is just 1 per cent. In Doncaster it is also 3 per cent.; in nearby Sheffield, it is 2.2 per cent. It is clear that some authorities are rather keener than others to issue statements.

The third problem is the time scale. Local education authorities are obliged by statute to provide statements within 26 weeks, although the Audit Commission measures performance on the basis of an 18-week period, which seems perfectly reasonable. There is enormous variation between local education authorities in terms of not just the issuing of statements, but the time that it takes them to do so. According to the official statistics, in Conservative-controlled Wandsworth 100 per cent. of statements are prepared within 18 weeks—a record that I am sure we all wish to celebrate and be proud of—while in Greenwich the figure is 75 per cent., in Liverpool it is 41 per cent., and in Rotherham it is 56 per cent. For some reason, Stoke-on-Trent can only produce statements within 18 weeks on about 4 per cent. of occasions. I do not want to speculate on what is happening in Stoke-on-Trent, but it is clearly not good news for children with special needs or for their parents.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend is making his point with the eloquence and panache with which we customarily associate him. He has made a semi-political point. I do not wish to do so on this occasion, but does he not agree that of the essence—whether or not a statement is decided on—is the privacy of the interests of the child? Surely what should be regarded as intrinsically objectionable in any local education authority is any notion that foot-dragging is taking place for the purpose of saving costs.

Mr. Hayes

Eloquence is my stock-in-trade; I struggle a bit more with panache, but I manage to achieve it occasionally. I am delighted that my hon. Friend recognises that.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the reasons for the variability to which I refer. He is right to suggest that some authorities may be pursuing the matter lethargically not just because of inefficiency, and that there may be a more sinister cause. I shall deal with that shortly, when I refer to the insistence in the new clause that local education authorities deal with specificity. It does not merely ask for that; it insists on it.

5.30 pm

I also wish to pick up the implied point that my hon. Friend made about the balance between statements and real provision. It may be that the reason why local authorities are not producing statements in sufficient number and are dragging their heels is that they do not have the provision to match the statements. Without the matching provision, a statement is not only a worthless document but a major embarrassment to the local authority.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I apologise for not being in my place at the start of the hon. Gentleman's contribution, but I have studied the new clause and heard the thrust of his argument and I wonder what is the point of drawing attention to the long time that some authorities take to draw up statements, other than to decry the practice. The new clause says nothing about the time that a statement should take, but that is what I would have liked it to do.

Mr. Hayes

On that basis, I shall rush to the point in my speech that deals much more closely and specifically with the content of the new clause. I wondered how long it would take the hon. Gentleman, who is always astute about such matters, to recognise that I was speaking rather broadly to the new clause to put the matter into its proper context.

The new clause addresses the need to ensure that statements are specific and target the needs of the child precisely, and that the provision that ensues is equally well targeted. The problem is not only that the provision of statements is patchy, but that the provision of special needs education is patchy. The Minister said, with typical sincerity and the plain speaking for which she is renowned—

Jacqui Smith

How charming.

Mr. Hayes

I am charming as well as being eloquent and possessing panache. The Minister said that the number of special schools is stable. That is true. There have been some closures since 1997, but the trend started before that date and may be partly due to the greater number of children being integrated into the mainstream. We cannot argue simply that closures have happened unjustifiably or without proper explanation. However, it is true that provision is by no means uniform, and that is highly relevant to the matter of statements. If a child needs a specific sort of educational provision that cannot be met locally—or sufficiently near to the child's home to allow real access to it—that may be an incentive for a local authority to fail to provide the statement or to make it so vague and woolly that almost any provision will do in response to it. Statements must be closely tied to the breadth and diversity of provision that predicates proper choice, because without that statementing will be diluted.

From a close look at how special schools are situated across the country, we know that some local authorities have particular problems. The problem may not be so great in London, where it could be argued that people can travel easily across borough boundaries. However, it is worth pointing out that Barking and Dagenham has 58 schools in total but only one special school, while Redbridge has 89 schools in total and five special schools. There may be local reasons for that—

Ms Hodge

Yes, there are.

Mr. Hayes

I have no doubt that the Minister could tell me what those reasons are, but I presume that she does not wish to prolong the debate unnecessarily.

Let us look at the north-west of England where my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) has taken a particular interest in these matters. He has been a doughty defender of the interests of special needs pupils, parents and special schools. I hope that I may beg your indulgence for a moment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to pay tribute to my hon. Friend. He has played a key role in defending the interests of Brook Farm school and its pupils. It was kept open for a year due, almost entirely, to his efforts and those in the community whom he backed. I was lucky enough to visit that school, as was my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on one occasion.

In Cheshire, which has 380 schools, there are 17 special schools. In the Wirral, which has 154 schools, there are 13 special schools. These percentages, or ratios, suggest that the provision of special education, or, certainly, special education in special schools, is by no means uniform.

Mr. O'Brien


Mr. Bercow


Mr. Hayes

I shall give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury and then once again to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

Mr. O'Brien

The Minister is familiar with Brook Farm school because we have had a number of meetings and a lot of correspondence about it. Following the school adjudicators' adjudication, the school has been confirmed for closure. I have a letter from the chairman of the governors of Brook Farm school saying how disappointed and saddened they all are by the decision.

There has been great concern in Cheshire—quite a widespread county geographically that does not have a huge number of schools—that many parents were having to drive children 20 miles to that school from the other side of the county. If parents have to accept the school that is being offered as an alternative—and there are many reasons why we do not believe that it is a good alternative—they will have a further 20 miles to travel, resulting in a major cost, time and dislocation disadvantage. The adequacy issue in new clause 4 would help to address that problem.

Mr. Hayes

I do not want to be taken to Cheshire for the whole of my speech, although that would be a happy journey and a pleasant experience. My hon. Friend is right to give that example as an illustration of a bigger problem. It is true, as the hon. Member for Colne Valley said in Committee, that some local authorities have assumed that they have a green light to close special schools. The closure of special schools, like their survival, is a patchy matter. In certain parts of the country it is difficult, in practical terms, to gain access to the sort of special school that parents might choose if they thought that that was in the interest of their child and if the child's statement specified that it would provide the most appropriate education for them.

Mr. Bercow

I say nothing to detract from the perspicacity of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien). However, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) said that he did not want to spend the whole of his speech in or around Cheshire, so may I take this opportunity to put on the record a fact of which I think that my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings is aware? The Furzedown special school in Winslow in my Buckingham constituency, whose head teacher is Mr. Norman Ward, does an outstanding job. It receives relatively little credit or attention and I wonder whether it could have the pleasure of a tribute from my hon. Friend.

Mr. Hayes

I do not hand out tributes lightly but I am always happy to pay a tribute to anyone recommended by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham), for any friend of my hon. Friend is a friend of mine. I know that he would not advertise the good work of that school unless it were entirely justified.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

I am listening closely to the hon. Gentleman, and I think that we are in the realm of red herrings. To talk about the number of schools per authority implies that we need X number of schools for X number of statements. Does he agree that a statement requires a provision that matches its needs and that such a provision can be offered just as well in a non-special needs school as in a special needs school? I am hoping that there will be a time when no authority will have special needs schools and all children, regardless of ability, will be integrated into one school.

Mr. Hayes

I do not share that view: I think that there is a need for a diversity of provision, by which I mean a mix of children who have been properly and well integrated into mainstream schools, of special units attached to mainstream schools and of special schools which exist, for example, for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. There will always be a number of EBD children who may be better educated outside the mainstream.

Different children have different disabilities. The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) is not present at the moment, but he said in Committee, and again today, that he considers that children with profound hearing problems are often educated better in special schools. The same will be true of children with other problems.

A point made in Committee is worth repeating today—that we should remember that special needs are dynamic. There may therefore be a need for children to move in and out of mainstream schools as their special need changes. I am thinking particularly about children with acquired brain injury, which is a special interest of mine. The special need of such children is hard to define, and it will change and have to be redefined. The skills to teach those children are difficult to impart to teachers. Those children may at some times receive better education outside the mainstream, although they may be moved back into the mainstream at certain points in their educational progress and personal development.

I therefore do not entirely share the view expressed by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), but I acknowledge—I thought I had done so already but I shall repeat the point—that it is not enough to say that patchy provision means that all children do not receive a good education. Education delivery may depend on the relative success of integration strategy: authorities that took such a strategy seriously early on are probably further down the road to the successful integration of special needs children into mainstream schools. That will have an effect on the number of special schools that remain in existence in those authorities.

However, it is not possible to assume that that will always be the case. I do not mean that as a partisan statement. Some local authorities give greater priority and emphasis to special educational needs than others, and some have integrated children into the mainstream much more successfully than others. Some allocate greater resources for the task, and place greater emphasis on good special schools than others.

The word that I used earlier to describe that variable provision was "patchiness", which affects detrimentally the availability for many children of appropriate education that is in line with statements. The new clause would strengthen the rights of parents and children to have statements that are appropriate and quantifiable. It would ensure that statements were sufficiently specific to allow proper education to be provided in line with children's needs.

Mr. Andrew George

The hon. Gentleman's primary criticisms of the statementing process are that it is esoteric and resource-driven. It is in parents' interest to seek a statement for their child, as it brings further focus and resources to that child's education. I hope that the hon. Gentleman—with his characteristic charm, panache and eloquence—will say to what extent this rather esoteric new clause would deal with the esoteric nature of statementing. How will it deal with the problem that the statementing process is fundamentally resource-driven?

Mr. Hayes

I invite the hon. Gentleman to look closely at the new clause, which deals with adequacy and quantifiability. If a statement is made more specific, and is tied more closely to proper provision, questions of adequacy and quantif[...]ability are unavoidable.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien

On the particular point about specificity, I have received letters from my constituents, Mrs. Pritchard and Mr. Nicol, both of whom have children with special needs. It is clear from their letters that they are deeply concerned about the specifics of the Bill, especially as the final proposed code of conduct was not available in advance of this debate. They are worried that the new statementing regime could be watered down. What matters to them is to know how many hours of extra educational support their children will receive. Unfortunately, it is thought that the new code of conduct will mean that statements need describe only what is necessary, and that they will not quantify what is to be provided, nor demonstrate its adequacy.

I fully support the new clause, for the reasons that my constituents have highlighted so cogently.

Mr. Hayes

With typical perspicacity my hon. Friend has anticipated the summary point that I was about to make. He will not, however, have anticipated that I have a copy of the letter to which he refers. He is right in saying that the lady who wrote to him and the two sets of parents with whom he has corresponded are anxious that the statement should be specific in detail and quantified in terms of the number of hours of ancillary or specialist teaching or support required in order to meet the statement, and that the statement will not be so vague or woolly as to allow the local authority to place a child in a school which would be unable—perhaps not unwilling—to meet the needs of the statement in terms of the education it provided. There are real doubts about that.

Earlier in today's proceedings organisations and umbrella groups were cited. Members may be familiar with Action on Entitlement, an umbrella organisation which includes Action Support for the Special Needs Child, the Advisory Centre for Education, All Children Together, the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, the Centre for Studies in Inclusive Education, the Child Growth Foundation, the National Deaf Childrens Society—I could go on. It makes the very point that my hon. Friend has made and which his constituents are anxious should be articulated in the Chamber today. They ask that the code of practice which will accompany the measure is absolutely specific on the nature of the child's educational needs and the amount and frequency of special educational provision required to meet them. The statement should specify the kind and quantity of special education provided. This is the quantifiable and adequacy point that we seek to reinforce through our new clause.

There are real worries about what the legislation will do in this respect and what the code of practice may not do to supplement it. Unless the code of practice reinforces the very points made by Action on Entitlement, my hon. Friend, his constituents and Committee members, it may be—to paraphrase the hon. Member for Colne Valley whom I only wish was here to hear herself quoted a third time—a green light for all sorts of measures which no hon. Member would wish to see in terms of watering down the quality and quantity of good special needs education, be it in mainstream or special schools.

In those interests and with that cause in mind I propose the new clause. It adds to and reinforces the good principles which lie behind much of this legislation and which certainly lie behind the intentions of hon. Members throughout the Chamber.

5.45 pm
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

I do not intend to detain the House for long. This has been one of my long-standing interests. I came in to listen and found myself becoming increasingly concerned about the tone of the debate.

We seem to be encouraging parents to use a statement as a weapon against the local education authority or other provider of services. I agree that this has been the only weapon that parents have had in the past. While resources were run down under the previous Government, local education authorities were finding it extremely difficult to provide for children with special educational needs. As a result, parents grasped the idea of statements as being a tool against local education authorities in the battle for resources. I feel uncomfortable about that. Local education authorities should be on the parents' side. They should be trying to raise standards and raising standards by giving children with special educational needs the resources that they need to meet those needs. So I feel uncomfortable about the tone of the debate. We should be encouraging much more co-operation and trying not to set up this rather confrontational position that we seem to have got ourselves into.

My main reason for attending the debate is that I, too, have received a letter from the parent of a child with Down's syndrome. She expresses concern about the proposed change in the code of practice for special education. Indeed, there must be a national campaign, because the quotation read out by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) equates closely to words in the letter from my constituent. However, there is obviously real concern that unless the statement is specific, parents will not receive the help and provision to meet their child's special educational needs.

My constituent tells me: There is a suggestion … from what the Department has written … that the wording might say provision should be quantified 'as necessary'. This gives the impression that often it will not be necessary to put the hours of help in the statement when in fact the reverse is true … I know a vague statement will not ensure the help my child requires. I am looking for an assurance from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that it is not the intention to remove that power—that tool—from parents. There should be a more co-operative attitude; local authorities should be on the side of parents and should recognise that the only way to raise standards is by providing the resources needed by individual children.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien

I do not want to pursue the matter too far, but there is clearly a coincidence of interest between the hon. Lady and me, given the respective letters that we received from our constituents. I shall put that into the context of her opening remarks, which slightly concerned me although I bow to her greater experience in these matters. Does she agree that, rather than a weapon against local authorities, what parents most want is confidence in circumstances that are often stressful, difficult and protracted, when ultimately it is they who have the best interests of their child at heart? If there can be partnership between the LEA and the parent, that is all well and good, but it may not apply in all cases. I should have preferred the hon. Lady to have put that gloss on her opening remarks.

Mrs. Campbell

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I agree that maximum partnership and co-operation between the LEA, the school and the parent are in the best interests of the child. That is the best way to meet those interests.

Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary assure us that the Government want to encourage that co-operation and partnership, and that the changes in the wording do not mean that children will be deprived of the resources that they need?

Jacqui Smith

I thank the contributors to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) on his self-proclaimed panache and charm. To show hon. Members how well informed I am, I wonder whether they might be interested to learn that "panache" is the name of a weak French beer—although I am sure that the 1958 vintage was splendid.

The hon. Gentleman outlined concerns about the whole issue of statements, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). I shall respond to some of the points that were made.

The first point relates to the different degrees of statementing in different local education authorities. It is, of course, impossible to set up hard and fast national criteria for SEN provision, when the nature, complexity and pattern of individual children's needs and the pattern of school provision vary so much. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) pointed out, a child might require an SEN statement in one area, but might not need one in another where, for example, there was more school-based provision. That does not necessarily mean, however, that there is a difference in the quality of provision made for each child.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge pointed out, the confidence of parents is crucial. In the past, parents believed that obtaining a statement was the way to get the provision that they wanted for their children. I hope that the improvements in parent partnerships and support for parents—not only in the revised SEN code of practice but in the Bill—will help to make parents feel more confident in the system.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings raised the issue of the different lengths of time that local education authorities take to issue statements. He quoted the Audit Commission figures, which actually show that there has been an improvement in the performance of authorities in England in recent years. In 1996, only 40 per cent. of draft statements were produced within the time limit, but in 2000 that figure was 77 per cent. None the less, we have asked, and continue to ask, poorer performing authorities to explain why their performance is disappointing, and for evidence of improved performance. We have provided good practice guidance and reported from the best performers to those whose performance could be improved, and we shall continue to take steps to help bring all authorities up to the standard of the best and to improve overall performance, not least in the improvements that we intend to make in the new code of practice.

The proposals represented in the new clause are unnecessary and would not necessarily serve the best interests of children with statements. Its requirement for the LEA to have regard to the need for adequacy of provision is unnecessary. Local education authorities are required to carry out a statutory assessment of the special educational needs of children for whom, effectively, they believe that they may need to maintain a statement. Those assessments are a thorough investigation of a child's learning difficulties. They involve a range of advice, and the LEA has a duty to seek and consider that advice before deciding whether to issue a statement for a child.

The revised SEN code of practice will set out the expectation that LEAs will also seek and consider the ascertainable views of the child. If, having completed an assessment, they decide to issue a statement, they must set out the special educational needs of that child in light of the assessment, and they must specify the provision to meet those needs. By its very nature, the process requires the LEA to specify provision that is adequate: it must meet the child's needs.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings also raised the issue of quantification. If the new clause is designed to establish a need for local education authorities to quantify provision in statements, whatever the needs and circumstances of each individual child, I believe that it would not be in the best interests of individual children with statements of SEN. There will be occasions when it would not be appropriate to quantify provision. Given the shortness of time, I shall give only a brief example.

A child with a speech and language impairment could be expected to progress rapidly in some areas. The content and detail of speech therapy provision will therefore need to change, often weekly. A deaf child who needs help specifically with communication skills from a specialist teacher of the deaf for a certain time each week may have a statement that specifies access to such a teacher, perhaps for a minimum amount of time, which could be revised in light of progress towards the objectives set out in the statement. The key point is that we monitor progress toward objectives.

The point of the example is to illustrate the importance of the principle of specifying provision—which is not necessarily the same as quantifying it in all cases—for each child individually, according to their particular needs and circumstances. That principle is enshrined in the current statutory requirement in section 324 of the Education Act 1996, backed up by the requirements of the Education (Special Educational Needs) Regulations 1994.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said about the sincere views that are held on this issue, and I am aware of the responses to our consultation on the code, so I emphasise the fact that we considered the matter extremely carefully, and have responded by making changes to the guidance in the final version of the code. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have said many times that we have no intention of weakening the legal protection for children with statements, or of encouraging vague statements. Vague statements do nothing to secure the right sort of help for a child with SEN, and they do not help a school to know what is required of it in helping a child to learn and progress.

The right way forward is to make the guidance in the improved SEN code of practice better. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has outlined how we intend to do that, and said that we will retain the requirement in the SEN regulations for provision to be specified, matching the terms of the duty for LEAs set out in the Education Act 1996. On quantification, the code will make it clear that there may often be a need for provision—

It being Six o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put forthwith the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings on consideration, pursuant to Order [20 March].

Question put and negatived.

Order for Third Reading read.

6 pm

Mr. Blunkett

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I want to put on record my thanks to the Under-Secretaries, my hon. Friends the Members for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) and for Barking (Ms Hodge), and to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), who was the Whip in Committee, for the enormous amount of work that they, and other Members on both sides of the House, did in Committee, and for ensuring that we reached this stage this evening.

Perhaps such Bills do not receive the publicity that they deserve. Perhaps there is not the interest in the media—but there is enormous interest among our constituents and in the education service, and there is an enormous gain to be made in approving such Bills. I am very proud that—together and, I hope, with unanimity tonight—we have been able to take the Bill through the House and ensure that it becomes an Act, and to take sometimes modest, but important and valuable steps towards greater equality of opportunity.

Legislation can play a part, but only a part, in changing attitudes and restructuring the culture, and in ensuring that people think a little more about what is necessary and about how they can help. During the consideration of the Bill, there have been disagreements about certain points. The debates have been important. Some hon. Members have said things that they may regret when they read them in print, but that has happened very little. Most of the discussion has been about the nuances, and hon. Members have agreed to differ, rather than fundamentally opposing the Bill, and that is how it should be. Given the assurances that have been obtained during the passage of the Bill in the Lords and in Committee in the Commons, and given that people have been able to hear that there is unanimity on so many of the points that have been made, I hope that we can make progress tonight.

It is fair to say that there are times when people feel that others have different attitudes, when they have nothing of the sort. I am sure that the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) will forgive me for referring to the fact that on Second Reading, he implied that my experience of specialist residential provision for special needs had coloured my view. It certainly did so when I was a youngster and in my early political life, but I hope that we all mature to the point where we can balance our experiences with the needs of others.

On Second Reading, the hon. Gentleman said: It is on the record—and I am sure that the Minister will accept—that the Secretary of State did not entirely enjoy his experience at school."—[Official Report, 20 March 2001; Vol. 365, c. 271.] Well, I did enjoy some of it and I put that fact on the record, as some of my old teachers are still alive and they might have felt that they had been maligned.

The hon. Gentleman talked about his brother-in-law and his wife's sister, who have major sight problems. He said that their experience had been very different and that I had all the power and they had none. Let us forget all that. The Bill is not about power and different experiences; it is about getting the balance right between supporting inclusive education properly and making residential and specialist provision available where it is needed. It is about maintaining the right balance for the individual child, and about how that can be made acceptable to schools, by changing attitudes and practices. As was said at the beginning of our de bates this afternoon, there is a need to provide, in the classroom and the school, the support systems that make it possible for youngsters to experience genuine inclusion.

I shall conclude my remarks by recalling the case of a parent whose little five-year-old child could not see, but attended a school in my constituency. The policy of inclusion had resulted in that youngster being isolated in the school playground. He was desperately lonely, feeling that he had no future. His parent came to me and asked whether we could do anything about that. I said, "Yes. First he has been included inappropriately; secondly, he has not been supported; thirdly, his cry for help has not been heard; and fourthly, we need to get him into a setting where he can learn the skills, obtain she tactile provision and receive the support for mobility and confidence so that he can be re-included in future if that is right for him." We must get it right for every individual child. I am committed to that, and I sincerely believe that Members from all parties are too.

6.6 pm

Mrs. May

I join the Secretary of State in his congratulations to the members of the Committee on the thoughtful and careful way in which they considered the Bill. It was a good example of the way in which the House works at its best. As he suggested, such work is not always seen by those outside this building. I also include in my congratulations the Members of another place who started the work on this Bill; after all, much of the work was carried out there. They should be congratulated on the thoughtful consideration that they gave to the Bill.

As the Secretary of State said, we all have the same aim. It is to try to improve the educational opportunities for disabled children and to ensure that children with special educational needs have their needs properly provided for, so that they can develop to their full potential and in a way that is right for them.

It is unfortunate that some Labour Members have sometimes appeared to suggest that anyone who questioned any part of the Bill was against disabled children and wanted to destroy the concept of inclusion in mainstream schools. Nothing is further from the truth. It is essential that we get such a Bill right, and essential for the interests of children that their needs are met. We must ensure that what we do in the House, albeit with the best of intentions, does not, inadvertently or otherwise, act against the interests of children. That is why it was necessary to ensure that the Bill received careful scrutiny, and to consider the implications of its implementation.

There is no doubt that in the past, some children with special educational needs who would have benefited from education in a mainstream school setting have been denied such education. It is entirely right that we should attempt to ensure through legislation that no children lose out in that way in future. Those children for whom a mainstream education is right and appropriate and who would benefit from it should have such access. However, it is also true that education in mainstream schools for special educational needs children will often work only if the proper level of resources are provided to back up the support within the school. Otherwise, physical inclusion can become educational and social exclusion in the school—the Secretary of State provided an example.

Therefore, we should be cautious and take note of the resource implications of the Bill. If it is to work well and if children with special educational needs are genuinely to be given the opportunities in mainstream schools from which they will benefit, resource provision needs to be made to support them. Without it, their experience in the mainstream school may be far worse than it would be in alternative provision. I make that point because the issue of resources was not addressed in the debates in the Chamber as fully as it might have been. I recognise that it was considered in Committee, but the question of resources has not been brought to the fore as much as it should have been on Second Reading, or, for the obvious reason that we had to consider specific amendments and new clauses, on Report.

Some children with special educational needs will certainly benefit from the opportunity that the Bill provides to be in a mainstream school. However, we must accept that for others the special school environment is right and appropriate. Labour Members, including the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith)—in her response to new clause 2, I think—said that it was scaremongering to suggest that special schools were closing, and that that was not the intention. However, many local authorities are using the push for inclusion of SEN children in mainstream schools as a means of reducing numbers in special schools, which they then close.

I have met parents throughout the country who are worried that the intentions behind those decisions by some local authorities are not always driven by the best interests of children, but by the efficiency of being able to close a school, perhaps because the site can then be sold and the asset realised. That is unfortunate. We must send a clear message that what matters is providing for the needs of children. We must make it clear that we do not want local authorities or others to think that they are being pressed to meet a political agenda on inclusion instead of making decisions on inclusion that are in the best interests of children.

In the debate on new clause 2, I referred to Old House school in Twickenham, which I visited only yesterday. It is for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. In my experience, schools for EBD children and children with moderate learning difficulties find that the greatest pressure to close comes from local authorities. In the case of Old House school, the local authority has stopped statementing and referring children to the school in recent years. The numbers have dwindled to the point at which the authority can say, "Well, we need to do something about the school because it has such low numbers."

That practice is going on, and it puts pressure on special schools. Parents are concerned that their children are not being properly provided for. Teachers are worried not only about their situation, but about children for whom the particular expertise that they need is not available from teaching staff. They fear that children will not be able to make the best of their educational opportunities because of the closure of special schools.

Teacher training has been mentioned in various debates, although it did not receive much of an airing today. An important aspect of providing places in mainstream schools for children with special educational needs—notwithstanding additional support that they might receive from classroom or special needs assistants—is ensuring that teachers have the expertise necessary to encourage, help and support the children in their classes.

We need to examine the provision of special needs training within the teacher training curriculum. Some people have told me that only half a day was spent on special needs during their teacher training. That is wrong, and we need to ensure that teachers receive much more training so that they can meet the needs of children with special needs who are in their classes. If that is not done well, children with special needs will be in a class, but not receiving the education that they deserve and that we would wish them to have.

The whole point about providing extra access to mainstream schools is to enable children to have the best education. It must meet their needs and ensure that they develop their full potential. That has been the aim of the amendments and new clauses that we tabled in both Houses. The Bill aims to improve educational opportunities for children, and we have tried to ensure at all times that we do just that. We do not want clauses that can have a counterproductive interpretation or attitude taken towards them.

Attitude is of course very important, and I am sure that all hon. Members are struck by the experience of mainstream schools that have included children with special educational needs, in particular disabled children. Those schools say that inclusion is a benefit not only for individual children, in that it improves their educational opportunities, but for other children in the class. That experience benefits not only that educational environment, but society as a whole.

It is important that we improve opportunities for disabled children and provide for the needs of children with special educational needs, but in doing so we need to keep a balanced provision. We need to ensure that parents can choose between mainstream and special schools, and that special schools do not close because local authorities believe that they should meet a political agenda rather than the needs of children. In everything we do, we must ensure that we are genuinely improving educational opportunities for children and meeting their needs.

6.16 pm
Mr. Berry

I shall not detain the House for more than a few moments, but I should like to make three brief points.

Throughout Report, and so far on Third Reading, too, hon. Members have concentrated almost entirely on part 1, which deals with special educational needs. Part 2 is concerned with attacking discrimination in education on grounds of disability. How welcome it is that we finally have provision to make unfair discrimination unlawful not only in the schools sector but in further and higher education. The Bill corrects a major deficiency of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—the exclusion of education from part III of that Act, which outlaws discrimination in the provision of goods and services.

The previous Government's arguments were that education had to be excluded because it was dealt with in other legislation, and because the money would be spread too thinly. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to things in print that people might regret, and when I popped out for a sandwich half an hour ago, I read part of the report of the Committee proceedings on the Disability Discrimination Bill, during which some pretty strange arguments were given for excluding education. I am delighted that this Bill will ensure that disabled people have the same rights and opportunities in education as they have elsewhere in society.

Secondly, I congratulate the Government not only on the high priority that they have given the Bill, but on the extensive consultation that has taken place. I shall not labour the point because I did so on Second Reading. It is difficult—indeed, impossible—to find any organisation of disabled people, parents or teachers, inside and outside special education, who do not welcome the Bill. They want it to be enacted as soon as possible.

Before 3 May, some organisations asked me whether the Bill would be passed before the general election. I suggested that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State might have thought of that possibility and that provision might have been made to ensure that the Bill would be passed before any general election. The consultation exercise had been so extensive and had commanded such popular support that the Special Educational Consortium and other groups were afraid that the Bill might not get through. I am delighted that it looks as if it will be passed before the next general election.

Thirdly, the Bill is clearly part of the Government's policy to implement our commitment at the last general election to secure comprehensive, enforceable civil rights for disabled people. Part 2 is an absolutely fundamental part of meeting that commitment. That is welcome, and is part of the wider agenda on disability rights, including the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission, the new deal for disabled people, the disabled persons tax credit and so on.

Of course, there is still a lot to do. I have many concerns about charging disabled people for personal services—which perhaps the next Government will address more vigorously than has been done so far. By any fair assessment, the Bill and other measures introduced by the Government seeking to secure equal rights and opportunities for disabled people have made a break with history. Progress over the past four years has been dramatic and fundamental. I congratulate my right hon. Friend, his colleagues and all those who have helped to introduce the Bill and the other measures. Today, many disabled people will celebrate the fact that the Bill and the other Government measures have reached the statute book.

6.20 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

You will appreciate more than most, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that my parliamentary duties in other Committees prevented me from serving on the Committee that considered the Bill. However, I pay tribute to those on both sides of the House who did so, as it is clear that a great deal of hard work has gone into the Bill.

I have followed the progress of the Bill through all its stages in both Houses of Parliament with great interest and have participated on the rare occasions on which I have been able to do so. I did that because I have particular constituency interest in the Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate, in my constituency of North Thanet. I am therefore a parliamentary supporter of NASS—the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools—which has made representations to me and, through my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and me, to the Committee and Ministers.

After all that hard work, I am left with two areas of considerable unease. It was plain in exchanges earlier this afternoon on new clause 2 that, in spite of fine words, there is a hidden agenda which says "Mainstream good, special school bad", or at least, "Mainstream good and preferable, special school under some circumstances, if all else fails." That is unacceptable and I share the view expressed by the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Booth—as she liked to be known when she fought the North Thanet parliamentary seat in 1983—when she recently visited Gap House school in Thanet. After her visit, she told the local press that mainstream education was not suitable for every child.

I agree entirely, and I did not get the feeling from Government Members who responded to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) that they believed what they said. As I said, I have followed the debate very carefully indeed. Not every child is suited to mainstream education and not every mainstream school is suitable to provide for the needs of children with SEN. It is a case of horses for courses and using existing facilities, whether in the maintained or non-maintained sector. The hearing-impaired unit at Hampton primary school in my constituency, for example, provides in excellent facility; it is underused because there appears to be an imperative to send children to the school of parental choice which may, or may not, be able to provide for them and may not have the facilities that Hampton primary school can provide for hearing-impaired children.

A few moments ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said that special schools feel that they are under threat. Indeed they do Gap House school, which the Prime Minister's wife visited, feels under threat, as does Foreland school. Rightly or wrongly, they feel that the Bill sends out the message that mainstream education is preferable at all costs. Inevitably, that means that some special schools will close.

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Gale

It is no good the hon. Lady shaking her head; my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough read from teachers' letters this afternoon. Labour Members did not like what he said, but he merely expressed what teachers were saying. I am merely voicing concerns expressed by those who speak with practical experience on the ground. The fear is there. The Bill will go through, but we shall watch carefully. When in government, we shall change it if it has the effect that some of us fear it may have.

I shall deal briefly with the position of the non-maintained schools. There is a feeling on the part of NASS that their voice has not been properly heard. I hope and believe that, even at this stage, Ministers and particularly the Secretary of State will meet NASS to discuss its concerns.

I want to place on the record the comments made to me in a letter by David Bond, who is the absolutely excellent principal and director of the Royal School for Deaf Children. He states: There remains a danger that pupils with very low incidence disabilities will be overlooked, until it is too late. We"— that is, the Royal School for Deaf Children— continue to experience the aftermath of some apparently 'overlooked' and apparently unplanned and under-funded 'inclusive' provision for pupils with sensory impairments who have additional disabilities. This includes pupils who come to us with significant emotional behavioural problems, which in some cases might have been preventable". Mr. Bond continues: I am still seeing and hearing from parents who have not been advised about the existence of Non-Maintained Special Schools, when the Non-Maintained Special School may well have been the best provision available for their deaf child who has additional special needs. The letter goes on: Because of their deafness there is very often a delay in the verbal educational skills development of deaf people, and it is for this reason that they require specialist provision or support in ordinary education via facilities and services for deaf people. Settings which are not appropriate for deaf pupils and students will damage their linguistic, communication and verbal educational development if the support is inadequate or if the difference between the deaf child and his or her peers is too great, i.e. if the deaf child is unable to identify with or to communicate effectively with his or her peers. Mr. Bond continues: We also see damage to the deaf person's mental health—hence deaf pupils become more vulnerable in respect of their mental health (a deaf child is at least 1.5-2 times or more likely to develop mental health problems than a hearing child). The lifelong cost to the individual and to society is substantial, particularly when the risk can be reduced substantially by ensuring appropriate provision and support. Some of those issues highlight the importance of ensuring optimum use is made of expertise in the Non-Maintained sector. As I said, I have listened to the debates relating to the Bill and have participated in some of them. I remain of the view that the opinions expressed by NASS have not been taken on board, and that there is a bias against the non-maintained sector. I note in passing that there is a strong bias against parents who choose to send their special needs children to private schools. Those parents and those schools receive no support from the state.

I urge Ministers, when the Bill is on the statute book, to meet NASS and listen to its views. Instead of shunning the provisions offered by the non-maintained sector, they should recognise its value, harness its expertise, and use it to the benefit of the people who matter most, the special educational needs children—not the parents, not the local authority and not the Government.

6.28 pm
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

Most of us who have a long-term interest in special educational needs will look back to the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and realise that that was a time of great change. Children who would otherwise be relegated to their home were suddenly brought out by the Warnock report and offered an opportunity that they had not had before. The Warnock report was a great turning point and brought about important changes. Subsequently, there was a period of settling down. Since the inception of the present Government, there has been a great surge of provision for people with disability and for people with learning difficulties, and no more so than in education for children.

Reference was made earlier to statements being used rather like a weapon by parents. The Bill is not a weapon, but a tool whereby authorities will take forward an agenda and offer parents, families and communities provision for children, irrespective of their ability. Many of us were left with a deep anxiety that, during the 1990s, children with learning difficulties had to accept provision that was substantially poorer than that for other children.

The Bill is one of a series of steps towards redressing that imbalance. I think that a lot more needs to be done. The Bill allows children with learning difficulties to enter mainstream schools, but many of us will want to know that the quality of provision in those schools is as good for such children as it is for those without their needs. There is currently a great disparity. I look forward to the day when there is equal provision, when teachers receive appropriate training that can be measured and which parents understand and appreciate, and when there is greater inclusion, which is what the Bill provides.

6.31 pm
Dr. Harris

I, too, welcome the prospect of a successful Third Reading. The Secretary of State was right to say that the Bill was unlikely to have received much attention from the media and little general comment outside the House, but people whose lives are touched by the issues with which it deals will know that those issues are debated relatively rarely. In that respect, the Bill has been a good vehicle for debating many matters that are related to special educational needs provision. That was not least the case in the House of Lords, whose numbers meant that useful concessions were extracted from the Government on reviewing how some of the provisions would be put into practice. Fruitful negotiations were also pursued in the other place about the wording of the code of practice on special educational needs.

The Standing Committee was an enjoyable one on which to serve. The tone of the debate was made possible by the contributions of Ministers, Back Benchers and the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who is a model of courtesy and erudition—a word that I used when I did not understand some of his classical allusions.

A number of recurrent themes have arisen during debate on the Bill. They include the important point that was made earlier by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), who is no longer in his place. In a Third Reading-style contribution, he said that the Bill might be seen to lead to integration in the mainstream sector at a pace that was too quick to be tolerated by the people who were hostile to it. He spoke about a school with a relatively large number of children who have special educational needs. One has to be careful before basing policy on attempts to meet—"appease" is too strong a word—the concerns of those who might be hostile to it. We do not have to look far back in history to find analogies with racial integration and to see that Governments and legislators sometimes have to lead public opinion when the evidence shows that what is being done is right.

There are questions about the effective education of other children when those with severe disabilities or challenging behaviour are brought into a mainstream setting, but the enormous contribution of inclusivity to the social development of all children has far too often been lost in some of our debates. Of course, Front Benchers of all parties have raised that issue, but many Back Benchers, especially in the Conservative party, have stressed the problems rather than the opportunities that are created by integration.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made an important point about resources. She knows that the Liberal Democrats share her concern about the need for adequate resources. I say to Ministers that it will be important to ensure that the adequacy of resources is not judged by input and the recitation of figures, which can be seen as more or less impressive, depending on the analysis. They should try instead to judge the need for resources and then see whether it can be matched. Any shortfall in a cash-limited system should be acknowledged. Research into resource needs, outside a feverish pre-election setting in which we all debate tax and spend, will be useful.

The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) eloquently drew attention to the threat to special schools. I believe that it is important to provide enough special school places locally to meet need. That does not mean that every existing school, some with buildings that are perhaps unsatisfactory, will survive. Some special schools will close while others are built. Sufficient places are the main requirement. When we consider hospitals, the number of beds is more important than the number of buildings. We must be wedded to the concept of provision, not buildings.

The number of places has remained more or less the same in the past 10 years. That will also be the case after the Bill is enacted. Advances in medical science mean that more severely disabled children, who previously would not have survived, are included in the education system. Stable numbers therefore probably mean greater integration. However, integration is generally inadequate.

The Bill and the attendant resources will not be a panacea. It is important to acknowledge that local authorities that are not only cash strapped but capped will find it difficult to statement quickly and make adequate provision for special support. The reviews and research are therefore especially important. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) made the point that special schools—and mains ream schools that specialise in SEN provision—can be centres of research. We can learn from their experience.

I am grateful for the important clarification that resources will not be a barrier to integrating children or placing them in SEN settings, with the caveat that such provision must be efficient. Again, it will be important to monitor and collect data from tribunals to ascertain the way in which the measure is bedding down.

I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) on part 2. The Bill will be of great benefit and will be broadly welcomed. I welcome the constructive contributions by Members of all parties.

6.37 pm
Mr. Levitt

I shall make one of the briefest contributions to the debate. I want to take the opportunity to reassure the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) that, in Committee, I made many of the points that he raised about the education of deaf children. I reminded the Committee that the Government took action two years ago to save a school that educates deaf children in a sign language environment and was threatened with closure. The replies that Ministers gave in Committee satisfied me, and I speak as a trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People.

It has been a privilege to contribute to all stages of the Bill. I should like to thank the Government in the manner that some of my deaf friends would wish, in sign language. I am signing, "Thank you for the Special Needs and Disability Bill." Let us see how Hansard reports that!

6.38 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson

I cannot follow that, so I shall speak in the normal way, if that is acceptable.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), I feel a little uneasy about the Bill, as I have said previously. My unease is based partly on one or two words in the measure—and, indeed, on some matters that are not included—and partly on the Bill's tone. The assumptions in it are worrying.

The Bill depends heavily on statementing. This morning, I received a letter from the worried parent of a child with special needs that said that statementing was all very well, but that its effectiveness depended on the amount of detail in specifying the requirements of each child. Of course, that is extremely it important. It would be very easy for statements to be prepared for children that would give them the opportunity to go to special schools. However, if those statements were not properly prepared, the child would end up at the wrong school. That is an aspect of the Bill about which I am very concerned.

The tone of the Bill, and the motivation for it, also worry me. Having sat through the Second Reading debate, and been privileged to serve on the Standing Committee, I have been concerned about a number of its aspects. There has almost been an assumption that all children are clamouring and absolutely desperate to be included in mainstream schools. There is no doubt that some are. Many children are already included in mainstream schools and there is no doubt that there have been some, in the past, who should have gone to mainstream schools but did not.

There is, however, another side to that argument. An awful lot of children are desperately frightened of being sent to mainstream schools, and they will not be particularly reassured by the Bill. We have heard many sad examples, particularly in Committee, of children being excluded from mainstream schools and suffering as a result. We also heard of children with special needs going to mainstream schools and benefiting from it. Hon. Members have given very real examples, but there are also examples illustrating the other side of the argument, in which children have been sent to mainstream schools that have palpably failed them. I was surprised but pleased to hear the Secretary of State give an example of a child who was sent to a mainstream school but, at that point in his education, it was not right for him.

We can all quote examples such as that, but they are not all one-sided. Many people who have been to see me and other hon. Members are desperately frightened of being sent to a mainstream school because they and their parents know that they need to go to a special school.

On Second Reading, I rather unkindly, but probably accurately, described parts of the Bill as a triumph of theory over reality. I regret having had to say that, and I would not have said it, had not my experiences in Gloucestershire taught me that it is the case. It is no use Ministers saying that the Bill, and previous statements on it, are not a green light for the wholesale closure of special schools, because that is what is happening in Gloucestershire. There is a systematic closure of special schools. [Interruption.] Labour Members are speaking from sedentary positions. If they want to come to Gloucestershire to see what is going on, I would be delighted to pick them up at the station and take them to the schools, to show them the feeling there.

Laura Moffatt

If, as the hon. Gentleman states, the wholesale closure of special schools is happening now, how can he presume that the Bill will have the effect of causing that?

Mr. Robertson

I said that that was happening in Gloucestershire. I cannot speak for what is happening in Lancashire or Yorkshire. As it is the Liberal Democrat and Labour alliance in Gloucestershire that is closing the schools, it is up to that alliance to explain why it is drawing the inference from the Government's actions that it is drawing. It is not for me, as a Conservative Member, to try to interpret the Bill or the reasons why the alliance is closing special schools in Gloucestershire. Bownham Park school in Stroud is under threat of closure. The notice has been served. I cannot explain why that is so, but that is the reality. Ministers have to accept that reality.

We have discussed whether resources will follow children, and whether sufficient resources will be put in. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made those important points. I have a further fear, also based on my experience in Gloucestershire. Rather than the resources following the pupils to the mainstream schools, quite the reverse can happen. Some local authorities are trying to close special schools to save money. Far from the resources following the children, the special schools are under threat of closure in Gloucestershire to save money.

To prove my point, the former director of education in Gloucestershire let slip a comment at a meeting that he had forgotten, for a moment, that I was attending. When challenged about saving money on the education budget, he said that, through the SEN programme, he was doing his damnedest. I rest my case.

6.45 pm
Mr. Boswell

This has been—perhaps predictably, but certainly agreeably—a pleasant debate on a series of important issues involving parents, children with special educational needs and wider educational aspects. It has been very much in keeping with our earlier deliberations on the Bill.

The House may need to be reminded of what I consider to have been the most striking remark of the day. It was, I believe, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) who pointed out that this was a debating Chamber, that it was necessary for issues to be raised in it, and that, just occasionally, we might need to disagree.

I certainly consider it incumbent on those of us who have a reputation, however ill-justified, for being broadly in the consensus stream of politics to bear it in mind when we are passing what might be loosely described as consensus legislation—in an atmosphere of good will and general bonhomie—that, on certain occasions, that is not the right thing to do. The example of the Child Support Agency demonstrates that we must not take our eye off the ball, and must not forget our obligation to consider issues in detail.

I am now learning—not least from experience relating to what is now the Learning and Skills Act 2000—how to consider Bills that have already been considered in another place. Historically, we have tended to rely on the other place to tidy up after our mess; in some instances, especially that of this Bill, we are then faced with the task of validating the good work done there, which is perhaps more agreeable but is occasionally more inhibiting.

Consideration of the Bill has been, in a sense, politically anaesthetised from the start. That could have created an invidious situation, although I do not think it has done so in the event. Faced with the threat of the ultimate test outside this place—that of a general election—Ministers have put it about that if one jot or tittle of the Bill were altered, that might threaten its passage. I do not suggest that the SEN consortium is unduly credulous, but Ministers have certainly persuaded the consortium that that may happen.

On Second Reading—doing, I modestly hope, our job as Her Majesty's Opposition—we tabled a reasoned amendment expressing our main concerns about the Bill. The Government went around saying, "If you take any notice of these people, the whole thing will fall down flat." I think that on the whole we, as well as the Government, are relieved that that did not happen, that we have had proper discussions, and that we have made some progress.

I must add, however—in the spirit of our consideration—that the Opposition have not succeeded in amending the Bill. We have tried to do so, and we have had some interesting debates, but the Government have persisted in their policy of no change. One element—I acknowledged this in Committee, and I do so again—is that, in comparison with one or two other Bills that I may name later, this Bill is comparatively coherent and well drafted. I realise—I hope that Ministers do as well—that there may be some awful man trap in the detail, which we have not spotted so far. It is possible, for instance, that the schedule in the Bill that amends schedule 27 to the 1996 Act will cause great grief later. As far as we can see, however, the Bill is coherent and sensible. I hope that that will speed the Bill's passage, and ease its implementation.

Let me give encomiums where they are due. The Under-Secretaries the hon. Members for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) and for Barking (Ms Hodge)—the Ministers who handled the Bill in Committee—Labour Back Benchers, and Liberal Democrat Members have all done their best to be both conciliatory and, on the whole, receptive to points made by my hon. Friends and me and, indeed, by other Committee members. There has been a sense of a working session, in which serious assurances have been both sought and, in general, received. That is also a good omen for the way in which matters will proceed in the future.

I am also very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) for sharing the burden in Committee with me, and to my Back Bench colleagues for the way in which they made their points. That also applies to Back Benchers who have contributed to this debate, because it is important—even when we broadly agree on objectives and wish to be as conciliatory as we can—that we should have opportunities for Members to record, accommodate and consider their concerns so that they can be properly addressed and, if necessary, remedied. For example, this afternoon we had an interesting debate on the role of the inspectorate. The most important outcome of today's deliberations should not be our clucking about the great advance we have achieved—although we have done so—but a determination to make something of the matter in the future and to continue to attend to problems and difficulties as they arise.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) has a particular constituency, as well as personal, interest in non-maintained and special education, and he performed a valuable service by making his point. Indeed, one of the points that I had noted for mention tonight was my concern that the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools still had some outstanding problems with the Bill. I hope that the Minister will agree to the suggestion of a meeting with the association. A communication problem appears to have arisen with the eastern regional consortium, and concerns have been expressed that some local authorities may have hidden agendas—although no one alleges that the Minister shares them—to try to exclude the non-maintained sector from consideration. It is important that parents have a right to know about non-maintained schools and that such provision should be secured, if it is most appropriate for the child. That returns me to the particular and entirely proper insistence by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that the rights of the child should come first.

The hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) mentioned the civil rights aspect of the legislation, which we tend to overlook. When I was in government, we were aware of difficulties with that aspect—not least that of resources and, in some cases, of governance—but it is time to move on to include education in the civil rights agenda, given that the Disability Rights Commission and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 have now bedded down. The Conservatives have no problem conceptually with that, we wish it well and we hope that it will work as well as it has done in other sectors so far.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) expressed passionate reservations about the provision of special schools in his constituency and local education authority. We feel a certain unease in detail but generally accept the common aspiration to move towards inclusion wherever possible and to ensure that it works. However, therein lies the rub for the future. We can all get together in an atmosphere of consensus, but we must also recognise that we cannot achieve our aims just by aspiration and fine words. Much hard work and resources must go into achieving it. From the experience of the parents of children in special education, or those with special needs who are included, practitioners and some local education authorities, several problems still have not yet been ironed out and the Bill will not automatically remove them. There will have to be continuing work in looking at local authorities that do less well, individual schools that are failing or examples of inclusion that are not as good as they should be. Other specific areas of special need should be considered; Of sted's current attention to the autism spectrum, for example, will need proper exploration. That work must be done; it cannot simply be wished that through on the basis of our good will.

When we began considering the Bill in this place, after their Lordships had considered it, we had substantial reservations. There has been some progress in meeting those reservations, and we are glad about that. However, we continue to have some reservations about the practical delivery of this measure and its future resourcing.

Inclusion is a fine aspiration. I have often said that even if children with special educational needs are not included in school they are, by definition, included in life, and will have to come to terms with an adult world that is not always receptive to them. We have to find ways through this, but simply talking about inclusion as a kind of totem or as an aspiration that can be delivered automatically or on the cheap is not sufficient. We must ensure that it works.

I indicated earlier that I might have some news for the House. I am conscious of what the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has said what has been said during the Bill's proceedings, the strong interest of the educational needs consortium and, indeed, the interest of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings in special education. That goes across the House. We are not in the business of making difficulties unnecessarily or of subverting legislation unless it is imperative to do so. We have a common objective, which is to serve the needs of children with special educational needs. In conclusion, we may be able, if not positively to assist the Government, at least not to resist them on Third Reading tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, with an amendment.