HL Deb 28 June 1974 vol 352 cc1736-41

11.51 a.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It comes to us with impeccable multi-Party antecedents. In its original form it was presented by a Labour Member in another place and supported by the then Conservative Government. Now it has been presented by my fellow-Scot, Mr. Hamish Gray, a Conservative, and again it has been given every assistance by the present Government. It is a small measure of two clauses and one Schedule and I shall try to be correspondingly brief in presenting it to the House.

Its scope is limited. Essentially, it brings Scotland into line with the English practice on the pattern of the Education (Handicapped Children) Act 1970. The number of children affected by the measure is about 2,000 in Scotland and about 100 staff in the day-care centres. The Bill seeks to implement the recommendation of last year's Melville Report on the Training of Staff for Centres for the Mentally Handicapped. It seeks to implement those measures which called for legislation. The main purpose is a simple one. It is to cease regarding very severely handicapped children as hopeless cases who have to be totally opted out of the education system and cared for in mental hospitals and in day centres. Instead it places a duty on local education authorities to make special provision for continuing efforts to be made to develop the minds of these unfortunate children.

Research into mental handicap indicates increasingly that personal development can be considerably enhanced by the skilful use of educational and training programmes, even for the severely mentally handicapped. I cannot do better than quote from the remarks made in another place during the Committee stage, when this was said: These children cannot he taught to read and they cannot he taught to write, but that does not mean that they must be written oil as incapable of any development. Programmes and techniques now exist and are being explored and extended, which can appreciably increase their awareness of themselves and their response to the world in which they live. This is no small matter. The gain can be very worth while relative to the child's condition. One does not need to be a specialist to appreciate the difference between a child who is lying staring at the ceiling when its name is spoken, and one which turns its head and even if the child cannot speak it smiles back. So one has to recognise, my Lords, that we are very far down in the educational scale when talking about children who are in this unfortunate position. It almost sounds unduly hopeful to be using expressions like "education", when you regard it as a major step forward if a child even recognises its name when spoken to by its own parents. But it is this area with which we are dealing and it is right that we should be clear about it.

The present situation for the severely mentally handicapped and the mentally ill in Scotland is that they can cease to be the responsibility of the education authority. This happens in two ways. In the case of the mentally ill, they end up in hospitals where the education authority at present has the power, but not the duty, to attend to any education that they may be capable of absorbing. Under the Bill, the education authority will not only have the power but will also have the duty—a duty which they are quite happy to take on. But in the case of children who have been what is called "ascertained" and allocated to day-care centres, the education authority at the present time has neither the duty nor the power to undertake education, even if it wants to. That is the major change that the Bill brings about.

I believe that the important point is that there is general acceptance of the need and the obligation to go further than the pure caring function which is currently offered in the day centres. It is only right at this point to pay tribute to the devoted staff who man these daycare centres, but it should be stressed that it is a purely caring function which they currently exercise. The suggestion is that it would be right to add modest educational and training effort, however restricted the level that is operated. As regards staff in these centres, they wil! be transferred from the social work authority to the education authority, and I understand that these proposals have the support of the Association of Directors of Social Work. The status and conditions of work of these staff will certainly not suffer. Indeed it is envisaged that they will gradually be upgraded by giving these nursing staff a training in the basic educational function.

Furthermore, I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that it is not envisaged that the additional demands on the education authority, in either manpower or money, will be unduly onerous. In any case, this will take some time. The appointed day for the new arrangement to come into operation is likely to be a year away, and it is envisaged that it will be about three years before the full effect of these new arrangements will be in full operation. I have already said that the number of children involved is small, but I am sure that the passage of the Bill will bring relief to parents who are placed in a distressing situation. It will reassure them that continuing efforts are being made to give a meaning to the lives of their children, rather than having the feeling that they have been abandoned as hopeless cases. One hopes that the most up-to-date techniques devised by psychologists and educationists will constantly be deployed to aid these sad cases. With those few words, my Lords, I hope that this Bill will commend itself to your Lordships' House. I beg to move that it be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.)

12 noon.


My Lords, I rise to express the Government's attitude to this Bill which, I may say, is one of unqualified approval. This is a Bill which has of course been contemplated for some time. There is much public support for it, and it has been the intention of successive Governments to see it placed on the Statute Book. We are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, for introducing it into this House, and I should like to congratulate him, if I may, on the clear way in which he has explained the purposes of the Bill and on his speech, which I think has moved us all. I hope, therefore, that the Bill will have a speedy passage through your Lordships' House.

My Lords, there are one or two points to which I should perhaps refer. First, as your Lordships are aware, the Bill is in the nature of an enabling measure, in the sense that it will begin to have an effect only on a day to be appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland. When consideration was being given to this measure in another place, it was announced that consultations were going on with the local authorities in Scotland to decide the most suitable date. I am now able to say that the decision has been taken, and that the intention is that the new arrangements should be brought into operation on May 16, 1975. This is, in fact, the earliest date that would be really practicable. It is the day on which the new system of local government in Scotland takes over.

If we had chosen an earlier date, not only would there have been insufficient time for the present local authorities to get ready and make the provision that will be necessary, but also there would have been a double change in many parts of Scotland, affecting many staff. The reason for this is that at present the children to whom this legislation applies are cared for by social work authorities, many of which are the present large burghs. If the change were made before local government reorganisation, the responsibility for this service would pass temporarily to the county councils and then, after reorganisation, to the regions. This double change would be unnecessarily complicated and upsetting to all concerned. We have therefore decided that the day on which the reorganisation comes into effect is the right moment for this legislation also to come into effect.

Perhaps, my Lords, I should also say something about the rate of implementation of the Bill. Naturally, we are anxious to see the fruits of this Bill as soon as possible, for the reasons which have been expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona. It is only realistic, however, to accept that progress will be gradual, especially at the beginning. What we expect is that after the appointed day the child guidance service will put in hand an investigation into the potential of the children in day-care centres, and teachers will begin to be assigned to them. It is bound to take some considerable time before either the child guidance service or the teachers can develop appropriate education and training programmes to meet the needs of the individual children, which of course vary very much. But we would expect the staff who are at present in charge to continue with the work that they are doing—and here I should like to associate myself with what the noble Lord has said in his tribute to them. The difference will be that they will become increasingly involved in the programmes devised and supervised by educational psychologists and teachers. There will, of course, be a good deal of empirical work to be done.

Your Lordships may also wish to know what calls the Bill will make on educational resources. What I have already said about the gradual build-up of the new service means that the implications will be relatively minor at first. Even when the service is fully implemented, however, the expenditure, whether in terms of money or of manpower, will not be unduly heavy. The noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, asked me to give some sort of figure. It is difficult to make any precise estimate, but we do not think that more than somewhere between 100 and 200 teachers will be required, and at most that represents a cost of less than £500,000, which is a very small factor in Scotland's total expenditure on teachers' salaries of more than £100 million. That, of course, is not a great sum. I venture to say, however, that in terms of the development of children who are perhaps at present receiving less from society than they are entitled to—in terms, in other words, of human happiness—the value to be obtained from this expenditure is out of all proportion to the amount of it. My Lords, I do not think I need detain your Lordships any longer, and I hope that this Bill will have a speedy passage through your Lordships' House.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.