HC Deb 08 June 1981 vol 6 cc222-4
Mr. Millan

I beg to move amendment No. 67, in page 31, line 13, leave out clause 6.

In the circumstances, I wish only to make a brief comment on the clause. I wish, however, to reiterate that the whole clause is misconceived. The Government have behaved in a hypocritical way over school closures. They want school closures. They encourage local authorities to close schools. At the same time, they do not wish to take their proper share of responsibility for a situation produced not only by falling school rolls but by the Government's determination to cut education expenditure and by their treatment of local authorities through the rate support grant and in other ways.

The Government have got themselves into a considerable tangle in relation to denominational schools. On the one hand, an elaborate series of provisions provide for closures, while on the other Roman Catholic schools, principally, are given certain powers and opportunities to appeal to the Secretary of State that will not be available to non-denominational schools. That is a potential source of considerable difficulty and bitterness between one section of the community and another. It is a misconceived approach.

A more sensible answer would be to leave school closures to require the approval of the Secretary of State. The provisions in regard to consultation with parents and other persons who may be involved would continue to work as they now work in practice. Even without legislative provision, consultation already takes place. The Government have been determined to press ahead with their proposals. We believe that the proposals are misconceived and that they will cause considerable difficulty when the distinction between denominational and non-denominational schools becomes apparent locally.

Mr. Robert Hughes

The Minister and I have been involved in considerable correspondence about school closures proposed in the city of Aberdeen by Grampian education authority. The Minister has also had correspondence direct with a group of parents opposed to the Grampian regional council's proposals. I do not intend to traverse all the argument about the closures. I seek clarification on the position regarding school closures at present before the Secretary of State for consent. Can the Government give an assurance that discussions with education authorities will not simply continue until after the Bill reaches the statute book, at which time the Minister will be able to say that his consent is no longer needed?

In other words, may we have an assurance that specific proposals to close schools, which are now before him, will still have to go through the present procedure? Will consent for closure be given or withdrawn on the basis of the existing statute? Will the Minister confirm and reiterate the promise that he gave me in correspondence to the effect that he will see me and a deputation from the parents' organisations to discuss the proposed closures before he consents to any closure?

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

On both the hon. Gentleman's points, until the Bill is enacted the present procedures will apply. Neither the Scottish Office nor I will filibuster or create artificial delays to prevent the carrying out of normal procedures. However, when the Bill is enacted the new procedures will come into being. Some cases may fall on the margin. At present I cannot say when the Bill will be enacted. That is the best answer that I can give the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hughes

I accept in good faith the Minister's assurance that there will not be any artificial delays. Will he confirm that he will press education authorities to submit the information as soon as possible, so that there is no incentive for a recalcitrant education authority to delay until the Bill has been enacted?

Mr. Fletcher

I shall do that. Government policy is to leave the final decision on closures as much as possible to the local authorities. They are responsible for initiating school closures. There are two exceptions that particularly affect rural schools. Where the distance between a school that is closed and the receiving schools is above a certain limit—which will be prescribed in regulations—the matter will automatically be referred to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Secondly, an exception will be made in relation to denominational education.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to mislead the House or anyone else. Roman Catholic parents will not have rights that are not available to the parents of children who attend non-denominational schools. The Bill's provisions apply to the Roman Catholic hierarchy and to the hierarchy of any religious order. They will not protest against a specific closure but they will have the right to protest to my right hon. Friend if they believe, or think that they have reason to believe, that a local authority is using the school closure procedures to abolish denominational education altogether in the area. It is a safeguard provision, but it does not put Roman Catholic parents in a different or advantageous position compared with those whose children go to non-denominational schools.

Amendment negatived.

Amendments made: No. 68, in page 31, line 13, leave out '30' and insert '22' .

No. 69, in page 31, line 14, at end insert—

'Consultation on, and consent for, changes in certain educational matters'

No. 70, in page 31, line 15, leave out '30A' and insert '22A'.

No. 71, in page 31, line 29, leave out '30B' and insert '22B'.

No. 73, in page 31, line 38, leave out '30C' and insert '22C'.

No. 74, in page 33, line 5, leave out '30D' and insert '22D'.—[Mr. Alexander Fletcher.]

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