HC Deb 27 January 1997 vol 289 cc87-91

'(1) In section 36 of the Education Act 1996 the following shall be inserted after subsection (3)—

"(3A) Where an authority has—

  1. (a) published proposals requiring the approval of the Secretary of State under section 37 below;
  2. (b) received objections exceeding in number a minimum specified in regulations; or
  3. (c) published proposals affecting more than a minimum number of educational institutions specified in regulations
it shall cause to take place a local public inquiry to be chaired by an independent person of suitable standing

(3B) A local public inquiry under this section shall after hearing such evidence and representations as it considers appropriate, prepare and publish a report making recommendations as to the proposals".

(2) In section 37(5) of the Education Act 1996 after the first "he" the following words shall be inserted—"shall have regard to the recommendations of any local public inquiry established under section 36(3A) and".'.—[Mr. Kilfoyle.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Kilfoyle

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

The purpose of new clause 8 is to require local public inquiries to be held when an authority proposes new schools, significant changes in their character or enlargement. It is consistent with the view that the House expressed earlier that planning should take place for the provision and character of school places. I am sure that once again the Government will agree with the Opposition.

Changes to schools always arouse public interest. Any hon. Member with experience of proposals to close schools will know that they invariably meet resistance. Indeed, in a recent attempt to remove surplus places in the authority in my constituency, I experienced both ends of the spectrum. As we all know and agree, the prudent use of public resources demands that the availability of school places should be kept in step with need. Therefore, where there are too many, some must be removed. At some point, removing surplus places must mean closing schools. Although everyone accepts the rationality of that argument, people very often find it hard to accept that their school should be closed.

In long and involved debates in Committee about the optimum number of surplus places that ought to be held in a given authority, the Minister and I did not disagree that the figure should be around the 10 per cent. mark. Nevertheless, national figures show that there are wide variations and large fluctuations between authorities and between primary and secondary sectors, which must be viewed rationally by the Government of the day and the local authority responsible.

Present procedures for deciding which schools need to be closed, and how, quite properly require public consultation—there we go, mentioning public consultation again. The present law requires local authorities to publish notices of their intention, to invite comment from interested parties and, after consideration of the consultation, to submit final proposals to the Secretary of State. Having taken into account any further representations, the Secretary of State must determine whether the proposal should go ahead or be modified, which was the essence of our argument against new clause 3, and against clause 3 in Committee. I make no apology for repeating that the House saw fit to remove the clause from the Bill.

The procedure is open, but because a local authority proposes the original plans and conducts the consultation and review process, it is open to the charge of being a judge in its own court or of being partial. Although the final decision rests with the Secretary of State, objectors sometimes suspect that the process is a sham because the outcome has been determined in advance. I am sure that LEAs are open and responsible public bodies and that such suspicion is invariably without foundation, but the structure of the process lends itself to such an interpretation. That is despite the fact that the lengthy process could require publication of the plans, consultation, revision of the plans and further consideration, as well as the Secretary of State being bound to give further careful consideration to the final plans that are submitted.

It is normally expected that the Secretary of State will require about six months to consider such proposals; on occasions, no doubt for good reasons, consideration by the Department for Education and Employment can extend considerably beyond that period. The new clause's purpose, therefore, is to address such a flaw in the present system. The substitution of a formal local public inquiry under the control of an independent person for the local authority's consideration of comments on its original proposals will enable objectors to feel that they have been given a fair hearing—certainly fairer than they feel they have now.

If the inquiry comes down in favour of the LEA's original proposals or if the authority accepts recommendations made to the inquiry, it is likely that further objection will be much reduced, if not removed completely. Such a process would not preclude the LEA from rejecting all or part of the inquiry's findings, but, if it chose to do so, that fact would be all the more obvious.

The procedure would benefit the Secretary of State. Given that she is rather beleaguered these days, I think that she would welcome that. Instead of employing central Government officials to cover ground that had already been trodden locally in the review of the proposals and any complaints or objections, the Secretary of State would have to hand a separately published report from an independent source with the evidence recorded, analysed and set out. It is likely that that would save the time of DFEE officials and facilitate the Secretary of State's decision-making process.

When the open process of public inquiry had reached a conclusion and the authority was willing to act on it, the Secretary of State could give approval with some confidence. On the other hand, if there were conflict, it would be clear that the Secretary of State would need to consider carefully how any outstanding differences should be resolved.

The new clause makes it clear that the expense of a local public inquiry should be incurred only when the scope and seriousness of the proposed changes were of sufficient magnitude to warrant it. The Secretary of State's regulatory power to determine and modify in the light of experience what the threshold should be before an inquiry were triggered would afford some flexibility. It would be open to a local authority to invoke the procedure voluntarily if it believed that the seriousness of the case justified its doing so.

There is a legal precedent for the holding of public inquiries on school planning issues. It was introduced by the Education Act 1993, and it now forms section 503 of the Education Act 1996. I know that the Minister will be au fait with the details, line by line and word by word. The section provides for a public inquiry where the Secretary of State has proposed rationalisation or reorganisation against which objections have been laid. The new clause draws on that precedent and extends the value of the mechanism to more general cases.

In answer to those who may question whether a public inquiry would increase the cost—both in money and time—of the process of reorganisation, I would argue that it need not be so. First, the inquiry will be triggered only where there is a major reorganisation in prospect. Secondly, the cost of the proceedings would be offset against the cost of undertaking the internal consultation process currently required of LEAs, and would yield savings by avoiding repetition of the process by central Government officials. Although costs will obviously be incurred in supporting the new procedure, they should be offset by the savings in time of public officials and in the overall time taken to progress rationalisation.

Mr. Forth

I should say straight away that we are as concerned as anyone that, where statutory proposals are made by local education authorities, they should be considered with the greatest care and that the decisions made should take full account of the views of parents and other schools in the area. We are also conscious of the need for proposals to be dealt with as quickly as possible to avoid unnecessary uncertainty. That is surely particularly important where a school is proposed for closure, although since closure proposals require approval under section 169 of the Education Act 1996, and not section 37, they would not be affected by the proposed new clause. The proposals affected would therefore be those that are less controversial.

In our view, the existing statutory procedures ensure that full consideration is given to each proposal. LEAs are required to consult all interested parties before they bring forward proposals. There is then a two-month period, during which local people, other schools in the area, the Funding Agency for Schools and the Further Education Funding Council may submit objections to the LEA. There is a further statutory period of one month for those objections to be passed to the Secretary of State with the LEA's comments.

In considering the proposals, the Department has available not only the statutory notice but a detailed statement of case, any objections that have been made, the LEA's comments on those objections and any other comments or letters of support that may be sent to the Secretary of State. Specialist advice is then sought from Her Majesty's inspectorate. Where appropriate, Ministers may also receive delegations from opponents of a particular proposal. All the evidence is carefully considered before the Secretary of State reaches a decision.

Let me emphasise again that, through the existing procedures, all the concerned parties have an opportunity to make their views known at the consultation stage and, if they are still not satisfied, by objecting to the proposals.

In our view, the establishment of a public inquiry to deal with some proposals would be unnecessarily expensive, would duplicate the work done by the LEA at the consultation stage and would seriously delay consideration of the proposals. At the end of the day, the decision would still rest with the Secretary of State. For those reasons we do not consider that the new clause should be accepted.

8 pm

Mr. Kilfoyle

The Minister missed the point completely. I do not doubt one iota of what he said about the current procedures, but the point of the new clause is to lighten the load that those procedures create, not only for local authorities but for central Government. We believed that the Minister was an advocate of far less bureaucracy than currently obtains, and the new clause would facilitate the removal of bureaucracy—it would certainly facilitate the removal of the repetition within the current process. Nevertheless, given that the Minister has chosen to retain the current powers, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to