HL Deb 26 October 1976 vol 376 cc318-42

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.

Clause 2 [Submission of proposals for giving effect to comprehensive principle]:

Lord ELTON moved Amendment No. 5: Page 2, line 42, after ("specify") insert ("not being less than 12 months").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it may be to the convenience of the House if we consider Amendments Nos.5 and 6 together. They are both concerned with the length of time which a local authority or school may be granted in which to prepare or revise plans for comprehensive reorganisation. On Committee we had a brisk and useful debate on the matter of imposing on the Secretary of State a minimum period of time which she must allow to a local education authority to prepare plans in the first instance under subsection (2). Our debate took place at about 11 o'clock at night, late enough for us to be anxious to get on, but not so late that weariness had reduced our ability to do so. It was therefore brief.

Two Amendments were considered together: a Liberal Amendment requiring the Secretary of State to allow a reasonable period for the preparation of plans, and our own specifiying a period of a minimum of 18 months. The noble Baroness said to the Liberals it was settled law that all actions of the Secretary of State had to be reasonable. To us the noble Baroness said that six months to 12 months—or I think in fact up to 12 months—would be more reasonable than the 18 months we proposed. In the event your Lordships, having recently had a case of unreasonable conduct by a Secretary of State brought to your notice, opted in a Division for the longer period of 18 months.

That is the period allowed for the preparation of a plan by the local education authority for submission to the Secretary of State at the command of the Secretary of State under Clause 2(1). Under Clause 2(2) there is a requirement that the local education authority should consult with the governors or managers of any affected voluntary school in their area before finalising their" plan, and to forward to the Secretary of State, should the managers or governors so request, plans that the managers or governors have themselves drawn up to meet the case of their school.

The Secretary of State may, and quite probably will, therefore, be faced by not one but two or more conflicting plans. Your Lordships will appreciate that the governors or managers will not request the local education authority to forward their plan to the Secretary of State unless the plan of the local education authority in their view is unsatisfactory. It is not necessarily the case that there will be only one alternative plan, because there will not necessarily be only one voluntary school involved. Each of the several other plans will necessarily be in conflict with the local education authority and may possibly also be in conflict with each other. The Secretary of State will have to rule upon each of the plans, and if it seems fit to him he will reject them, severally or jointly, under subsection (3).

Therefore, there is a variety of circumstances in which the Secretary of State may see fit to throw back plans drawn up by either a local education authority or the governors of a voluntary school. To take a third case, it may happen that the governors of the voluntary school in the area make no such request, but that the local education authority plan, none the less, makes insufficient provision for their school. Your Lordships will observe from the drafting of subsection (2) that it is open to a local education authority to submit a plan after consultation with voluntary schools, unaccompanied by any submission from the voluntary schools.

My Lords, under Clause 3(3) it is open to the Secretary of State to set aside these plans, and to call for alternative plans for a voluntary school that is affected by them, but for which they do not adequately provide. I wish later to return briefly to that situation, but at this stage I refer your Lordships to page 2, lines 40 to 43, which empower the Secretary of State in these circumstances to require the managers or governors of the school to prepare and submit to him, within such time as he may specify, proposals for that purpose.

This requirement is going to fall on the governors out of a clear sky. They will have been consulted by the local education authority, they will have acceded to its plan, and they will consider themselves to be right with the world, and to have no further duty in the matter but to comply with the request of the local education authority to carry out the plan in due time. They then will receive this injunction to prepare and submit to the Secretary of State plans of their own, and to do so in such a time as the Secretary of State may suggest is reasonable. For reasons to which I shall allude later, we feel the minimum period in these circumstances would be 12 months.

That takes care of the voluntary schools being asked for the first time to prepare and submit plans of their own. Let us now revert to cases under subsection (4), where we are concerned not with new proposals, but the reviewing and redrawing of old proposals. That there will be instances of such circumstances arising I am confident. Comprehensive reorganisation is a complex and, indeed, a controversial matter, and has a lasting effect on both the schools and the children in them, so it must be got right. Let us not forget also that comprehensive reorganisation has a considerable effect on the career structures and lives of the staff in the schools.

The Bill as now drawn up lays down a procedure to be followed when either the plans of the local education authority or those of the governors of a school are referred back by the Secretary of State. The Bill states quite baldly in Clause 2(4) on page 3 that they shall prepare and submit to him further proposals within such time as he may specify. It seems to us that the reluctance of Her Majesty's Government to accept the minimum time requirement imposed by our Amendment on Committee was so great, and the suggestion that a reorganisation plan for an entire area could be hatched, fledged and flown in as little as 12 months as suggested in column 1472 seemed to us unrealistic, that there is every symptom that the Government have the intention to press this forward at an unrealistic and therefore damaging speed.

The only defence against such an aggressive attitude coming into the open once the original plan is submitted under the protection of our 18 months Amendment is at present a very flimsy and devastatingly slow and costly one of a recourse to the law, and a rerun of the recent case about the interpretation of the word "reasonably". That recourse is in itself unreasonable and, in the light of the Government's attitude, we feel it necessary to extend the protection of this Bill to the process of planning beyond the stages embodied in Clause 2(1) and (2). If the Secretary of State is to turn upon some hapless voluntary school, a very small and weak institution in comparison with a Secretary of State flanked by Ministers and serviced by a vast Department and, indeed, in comparison with the local authority with its own bureaucracy, that, too, must be given time to give proper thought, care and above all, consultation before it commits itself to a plan that may become binding.

My Lords, there is an anomaly which occurred to me in my studies when preparing this Amendment. I said, when I was discussing the case of a voluntary school, that I wished to refer again to the position it would find itself in if required under Clause 2(3) to prepare for the first time plans for its own future. The position then would be that a local education authority had submitted a plan and not had it rejected, that the voluntary school had been asked for a plan which might merely be an extension of it, but which might be in conflict with it. It is an oddity of the procedure set out in this clause, and I hope the Minister will be able to explain it, that it permits an authority's plan to be then shelved, and if there is to be a reference back of the authority's plan, it takes place separately, not under Clause 2(3) but under Clause 2(4). A voluntary school will already have set about planning under Clause 2(3) when the local education authority will come along to consult it again under the rerun of Clause 2(2) procedure precipitated under the implication of Clause 2(4).

I should be much obliged if the noble Lord, when he comes to rep y, would explain that. It seems to me that it could well result in a resubmission of the local education authority plans being: required at an even later stage when it became clear that the acceptable plays of the voluntary school did not match the unacceptable plans of the local authority. This would seem to be an ungainly procedure. I suspect the noble Lord has something else in mind, but it is not clear from the drafting of the Bill. Whatever the circumstances in which the new or revised plans are required, time for consultation is of importance. Such affairs are often matters of great civic concern to the community as well as to the specifically parental concern of those whose children are at the schools in question. Where a local education authority's plans, including provisions for a voluntary school which the governors have found acceptable, have been thrown out, the governors will at least have the support of 2. friendly authority in their search for a new formula.

In such circumstances, Amendment No. 6 allows a minimum of only six months in which to come up with an alternative. Where it is a voluntary school's plan only that is called for, as can be the case from scratch, under subsection (3) procedure, we regard 12 months as the recessary minimum. If your Lordships will consider the complexity and controversiality of the matters coming under review at the planning stage and the magnitude of the effect of the final decisions upon the institutions and the pattern of life of the community immediately affected, I do not see how you can regard these periods as being in any way too long a time. We have to remember that in practical terms it is not only a question of bricks and mortar, playing fields and changing rooms, timetables and dinner accommodation; it is also a question of careers and contracts of employment for the staff, adjustment of the burdens upon the rates, provision of transport, and in many cases the hearing of planning applications as well.

My own feeling is that in setting the minimum time limits in these cases we may have set them too short. If the noble Lord agrees with me, then he will have no cause to resist these Amendments. If he does resist them, then he is providing us with evidence that the Government intend to allow less time than this for the planning process, and in our view that is entirely inadequate provision and is in itself evidence of the necessity for the Amendment. I beg to move.

5.22 p.m.


My Lords, I must confess to a certain mild dose of impatience over these two Amendments, which seem to me to illustrate very well the persistence and at the same time the ambivalence of the Opposition's approach to the Bill. May I take first Amendment No. 5, which would require the Secretary of State to give the governors of voluntary schools not less than 12 months to submit their proposals. In Committee the Opposition put down Amendments designed to take voluntary schools out of the Bill altogether. They were sternly rebuked by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, who pointed out that this was the last thing that the Churches wanted; so the Opposition withdrew in some confusion. Now they return with this Amendment, designed simply to delay the whole process of reorganisation of voluntary schools, of which, may I say, some 80 per cent. are Church schools. Does the Opposition realise that all the Roman Catholic schools and all but a handful of the Church of England schools have already accepted the comprehensive principle? What, then, is the point of this delaying tactic except as a naked delaying tactic? This Amendment is intended simply to delay the reorganisation of a handful of non-denominational voluntary grammar schools.

Amendment No. 6 is even harder for a simple man to understand. In Committee the Opposition carried an Amendment requiring the Secretary of State to give local authorities not less than 18 months for submission of their proposals. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, told us, at Col.1474, that this was needed to ensure that people shall be able to collect themselves; that he wanted to defend schools which are being peppered with grapeshot from Transport House. My Lords, it was late; I say no more.

Having got their 18 months on the first round, the Opposition want six months more on the second round for the submission of revised proposals. They tell us that the local authorities, harried to distraction by the unreasonable demands of central Government, need two years in all before they can be ready with a second set of proposals. The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, who has served both as a Minister and as a member of a local authority, knows full well that in a fraction of two years the local authorities are perfectly capable of preparing proposals, consulting on them, and submitting them to the Secretary of State.

This Amendment is almost an insult to the local authorities. I am using strong words because in other Amendments the Opposition have sought to add to the burdens of these same local authorities by imposing on them new statutory requirements about parental appeals and about the publication of information about their schools. Yesterday, outside the House, the noble Lord, Lord Elton said, I think to a newspaper, in a moment of selfrevelation, "There are a lot of people in the Lords who speak rubbish". My Lords, who am Ito differ from him? These Amendments show what splendid sense he was talking. He knows, the House knows, that these are wrecking Amendments and are meant to be wrecking Amendments.

The noble Lord asked me a specific question about subsection (4). I think he has misunderstood the subsection. The voluntary aided school plan, to be acceptable, would have to fit into that of the local education authority, and it is highly improbable that an acceptable plan could be put forward by the voluntary school if at the same time the LEAs plan was unacceptable. I really believe these Amendments to be, if not wrecking Amendments, delaying Amendments, and I cannot for one moment recommend the House to accept them.


My Lords, I was a little surprised to hear the noble Lord "going to town", if I may put it that way, when he referred to an Amendment which I moved at the Committee stage with regard to voluntary aided schools. It is a fact that I moved an Amendment which would have deleted voluntary aided schools from this miserable Bill, but when I moved it I started off with these words: There is no desire, as far as I know, on the part of any of the voluntary schools to see this Amendment to the Bill. I explained that that was provided there could be some improvements made to the Bill on their behalf. I went on to explain that I was using that Amendment as a peg on which to hang a series of questions which I then put to the noble Lord. It is not the fact that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn—who, unfortunately, is not here today—then took me to task for this at all. He bore out what I said when I moved that Amendment, namely, that he did not wish to see the Church voluntary schools excluded from the Bill, and it was my impression that he listened with interest to the debate which ensued, which certainly cleared up certain points.

The position of the voluntary aided schools, despite the questions I asked on that occasion and the answers I received, still remains difficult under this Bill, and particularly so with regard to Clause 2. It is never easy for an authority to reach agreement with its voluntary schools about reorgnisation, if for no other reason because many of the voluntary schools are small; many of them are three-form entry or less. Unless the authority is prepared to try to change these very good schools which have large sixth forms into mini-comprehensives, as the Inner London Education Authority has been making a habit of trying to do, it is extremely difficult to know how such schools can accept non-selective intakes without radically changing the sort of schools that they are. My noble friend Lord Eccles gave a particularly clear example of this yesterday when he referred to a voluntary aided school in South London which had a thriving sixth form of, I think I remember him saying, some 200, but under proposals which Inner London wished to put forward, would become a mini-comprehensive with a sixth form of only about 60.

I ask the noble Lord to take on board that this is a problem, and that it may need time to work out between the voluntary school concerned and the authority. In addition to that, the latest projection of the child population figures for the whole country show a dramatic fall, as the noble Lord knows perfectly well, of 1½ to 2 million children over the next 12 years or so. With a falling school population, another problem is that an authority is always bound to be tempted to ensure, when reorganising, that if an) schools have to be closed they will not be their own schools. It is a perfectly natural thing for any local authority to want to ensure that their county schools are preserved. Therefore I am putting it to the noble Lord that it will be necessary for a period of time to be allowed for voluntary schools to consult with their local education authority when proposals are demanded by the Secretary of State under Clause 2. I would have thought that a period of 12 months could not be seen as a totally delaying or wrecking tactic but as a reasonable period of time, as my noble friend has tried to say.


My Lords, a reasonable period of time is what is already contained in the Bill under the law. What we are objecting to is the period of 12 months as a minimum.


My Lords, there is no reasonable period of time written into the Bill. The noble Lord is looking at the wrong subsection. Let me turn now to subsection (4) of this clause, the six month period for consultation when proposals have been rejected End the Secretary of State demands further proposals. Here again, I should not have thought that this would be an or unreasonable period of time. Once again there is no reasonable period of time written into subsection (4).

I have already had occasion on previous debates on this Bill to criticise due intentions of the Government for the procedure which is contained in Clause 2(4). It was in my view, as originally worded, a dictatorial procedure, because the noble Lord will remember that the wording of it was that the Secretary of State could specify conditions and could force the local education authority to adhere to those conditions. I put it to the noble Lord that I thought that this was an intolerable situation for a local authority.

How Ministers can get up from the Government Front Bench and suggest to the Opposition Front Bench that we are laying extra burdens on local education authorities, when this Bill is destroying in a way that has never been seen before, so far as I know, the partnership between local and central Government, defeats me. However, that aside, I should have thought that the Government could have agreed that a period of time not exceeding six months should have been allowed for consultations at that particular stage, even though I do not think that the consultations by that stage are going to be very genuine because it is the Government's intention that the proposals will be dictated as approved by the Secretary of State.

With those few words I shall leave it to my noble friend Lord Elton to decide what to do with this Amendment. But I hope that we shall hear no more from the Government Front Bench about ambivalent attitudes from the Opposition side with regard to voluntary schools, and I hope we shall hear no more from the Government Front Bench, from the Minister of the Arts, about wrecking Amendments, when all we are trying to do is put reasonable periods of time into this miserable Bill.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Belstead has dealt so effecttively with most of what the noble Lord opposite has said that it is scarcely necessary for me to say more. The remark I made outside this House about your Lordships was taken at one remove from context there, and has been taken at another remove from here. I in fact said that some noble Lords do on occasion speak rubbish, and I am afraid that the noble Lord opposite would bear this out if he only quotes me as an example. I went on to say that your Lordships as a whole were a wise and excellent body of men, but that did not get into the column. I would leave it there. I think that the noble Lord has used rather strong words—words like "insult", and "tedium"—which I would rather not use so early in the night. They may after all accelerate the pace of exacerbation as we draw towards midnight. It is our intention to keep this cool.

Our feeling about the way this clause should be adminsitered is clear. It is quite clear that we are not convinced from what the noble Lord and the noble Baroness have already said, that it is going to be administered as it should be. But we should try to preserve an element of decorum about our exchanges, and I fear that if we were to put this very modest requirement into the Bill it would inevitably be seen by the noble Lord and his friends, both here and elsewhere, as being another wrongful exercise of a rightful privilege. I do not think it would be, but in the interests of good relations I would rather concentrate our fire on more important things and merely see that ombudsmen and others keep a very close eye on how this Bill is run. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.35 p.m.

Lord BEAUMONT of WHITLEY moved Amendment No. 7: Page 3, line 7, at end insert ("and if the Secretary of State does so require, he shall inform the local authority of his detailed reasons for finding the proposals unsatisfactory.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Amendment takes the place of one which I moved in your Lordships' House at Committee stage. There were then various detailed objections to it besides possibly the main ones of principle. I hope I have managed to deal with the detailed objections by redrafting the Amendment. However, its purpose is exactly the same. It is that when the Secretary of State shall disapprove of a scheme put to him by the local education authority he shall not at that stage just return it, nor shall he have the right to dictate in exactly what form the local education authority should return the amended scheme, but he should have an absolute duty to explain what it was that was wrong. That is very different from saying what should be done. If you say what the defects of the plan were, it is not equivalent to saying that you instruct the local education authority to solve them in a particular way. In fact, if you limit yourself to saying what the defects were you give the local education authority the maximum amount of discretion in drawing up new plans and finding new and different ways to circumvent the difficulties which they have.

We have decided in this Bill, certainly at this stage, that we are not having a situation where the Secretary of State in fact tells the local education authorities exactly what they should do, but I think it is for the help of everyone concerned that we should write in this duty for the Secretary of State to inform the local education authorities what the faults are. I know that one of the answers we shall he given is that this of course always happens, and I believe that to a certain extent that is true. As we said in rather loud voices on a previous occasion, there are such things as telephones and they are used, and there is such a thing as the mail and that is used too; but it is important that we get on record at that particular stage that if inadequate plans have been put forward it shall be publicly stated exactly what is wrong—not what should be done, because that is central dictation, but what is wrong and therefore the faults which the local education authority has to overcome in its original plan before it can put forward a new plan. I hope that this is a constructive Amendment to make the whole process rather more clear to the general public at large, to help people make up their minds and make decisions at this particular stage of the process. I beg to move.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I welcome the Amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont. When he moved a similar Amendment during Committee stage, I explained certain legal defects which he has now corrected. On that occasion I also pointed out that the Amendment was unnecessary in the light of the then Clause 2(4). That subsection, as originally worded, enabled the Secretary of State to require fresh proposals to fulfil such conditions as she may specify with respect to any matter in the previous proposals which she considered unsatisfactory. Clause 2(4) assumed that the Secretary of State would tell proposers what in her view was wrong with the original proposals and require them to avoid that error on the second attempt.

If the Bill were still as originally drafted I should have to tell the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, that his new Amendment, whilst no longer defective, was still unnecessary. However, during Committee stage your Lordships carried an Amendment to remove part of Clause 2(4) from the Bill, so the Secretary of State is now prevented from stating the reasons why proposals submitted under Clause 2 are unsatisfactory and requiring further proposals to avoid those unsatisfactory features. In order to show how conciliatory, helpful, moderate and flexible we are on these Benches, may I say that as the Bill now stands this Amendment improves Clause 2 and is therefore acceptable to the Government. Having said that, I must reserve the Government's position to consider the wording of Clause 2 when the Bill returns to another place, but in this House I am happy to accept it.


My Lords, I simply cannot understand why the Government cannot write into Clause 2 a requirement that proposals submitted or transmitted by LEAs should have to conform with the general principle of Clause 1. If that were written into the clause—that proposals under Clause 2 must conform with the general principle of Clause 1—and if this Liberal Amendment were accepted, then by the time local authorities came to the end of the procedures under Clause 2 they would be bound to have produced proposals which would then lead to the Section 13 procedure under Clause 3.

There would be a world of difference between that sort of procedure—which I should not like because this is not my Bill; it is a miserable and horrible Bill—and having the procedure which I know perfectly well is what the Government want to insert in the Bill again when it goes back to the House of Commons; namely, the old wording of subsection (4) which was that the Secretary of State could stipulate exactly what the local authority had to put in any revised proposals. Have the Government really moved to the position where they are convinced that the Secretary of State should dictate to LEAs the details of how authorities are to provide their own educational services? If that is the Government's view, they have moved a very long way since Circular 10/65, which spelt out a variety of ways in which authorities could reorganise.

I welcome the Amendment for another reason. I cannot resist spelling out in a little more detail, to remind your Lordships of how unpleasant it was, the original wording of the subsection, a point to which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, referred in passing. Under the subsection as originally worded the Secretary of State could stipulate exactly what an authority was to propose under what we should call the second round, and of course that would put a local authority in an impossible position. They would have been dictated to by the Secretary of State so that when they came to consult under subsection (4) they would have been unable to explain that the proposals were the best they could devise, because the proposals would not be their own. The local authority would therefore be unable to recommend their acceptance to people because the proposals would clearly be at variance with what the authority originally thought would be the right policy for their schools.

I put this to the Government earlier and I am bound to tell them that it has been put to me by representatives of local authorities that the old wording of Clause 2(4) placed authorities in a very difficult position when they came to consult with parents, teachers, governors of schools and the general public in the way with which many noble Lords are familiar, when the chairman of an education committee, usually the chairman of the schools committee and the chief education officer or one of his representatives go to a variety of meetings. I therefore hope that the Government will think again on this issue. Here they have what I should have thought was a reasonable Amendment from the Liberal Front Bench. If they could tie that in with a requirement that proposals sub-mitted or transmitted by authorities should conform with the general principle of Clause 1, that would, in my view, do the trick under this clause, without having to do what I deprecate so strongly, namely, spell out in detail what the Government believe an authority should propose.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will turn to Clause 2(1) he may find that it states exactly what he is asking for: If at any time it appears to the Secretary of State that progress or further progress in giving effect to the principle stated in section 1 above"— That was the point the noble Lord was particularly making— is required in the area or any part of the area of any local education authority, he may require the authority to prepare …". It seems to me that that meets the noble Lord's case. I believe that it is totally unfair to suggest that if a local authority, a voluntary school or any body has to submit a scheme for the approval of the Secretary of State it should be regarded as detailed dictatorship to tell that authority in what respects the proposals put up fall short of what the Secretary of State would approve. Clearly, this could be used I suppose as a means of dictating. On the other hand, it is done everywhere wherever people have to put up schemes for approval; the approving body is almost always obliged to give reasons why the approval cannot be given. I think the noble Lord is on an entirely wrong tack. I am not saying that it is a tack which is in any sense a wrecking one, but it is not what this is about.


My Lords, perhaps I may intervene because if I make a speech the noble Lord will not have the right to reply. He seems to be defending exactly what the Amendment says, because it states that the Secretary of State may inform the local authority what the grounds for rejection are. There is no question about that. Specifying what the solution to the problem has to be is what the objection is about, and that is a different matter.


I agree entirely, my Lords, that I am defending the Amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, was, as I understood it, complaining that by giving reasons the Secretary of State was dictating. First, I do not agree with that, and secondly, I do not fully understand it. Perhaps I have misunderstood Lord Belstead, but if he is content with the Amendment, we are.


My Lords, I hope that we may have complete understanding about this. The clause as previously drafted entitled the Secretary of State to tell an authority virtually what they were to do and then to resubmit what he had told them to do, whereupon he would sit in judgment on them under Section 13. That seemed to us to be a very unusual procedure, to say the least, in that one should tell somebody what to do and then sit in judgment on one's own decision as to what should be done. As amended, I think that our people would find it entirely reasonable. If the Secretary of State finds the proposals submitted not acceptable—for whatever reason there may be, and there may be many—he will indicate why they are not acceptable, which is again reasonable. The authority will then resubmit their proposals for approval. That will enable the authority at least to submit plans which they believe meet the criticisms that have been made, but they are their plans. As previously drafted they would not have been their plans. I hope, therefore, that the Government will find it possible to leave the clause as amended and accept the Amendment, which I think would be helpful to my people.


My Lords, may I elucidate and confirm what has been said: that is, that we do not object to the Amendment and that we defend it very much in the terms that the noble Lord has done? My noble friend Lord Belstead was adding a rider to the effect that when this goes down the corridor and the noble Baroness's reservation is noted about the wording being considered in another place, they should not too keenly consider reinserting what was here before, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Potterhill, said, that was undemocratic, unusual and unacceptable. This is not, and I hope that if we were at cross purposes we no longer are.


My Lords, there still seems to be some slight confusion, particularly on the Government Front Bench, about the difference between the Secretary of State's duty to diagnose and transmit the diagnosis of a problem, and her duty, if it should so exist, actually to prescribe how it should be dealt with. However, I think that there is a genuine difference and, if a change is made in the other place, we may come to discuss this matter a great deal more fully. In the meantime, it is a very rare pleasure to have put forward an Amendment that appears to be welcome on all four sides of the House, if I count the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Potterhill, on his own as a whole side.

Clause 3 [Approval and implementation of proposals submitted under s. 2]:

5.51 p.m.

Lord BELSTEAD moved Amendment No. 8: Page 3, line 35, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Amendment was discussed in Committee and, at the end of a debate, it was still not clear to me and to other noble Lords—I remember that my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn spoke on it—exactly what was the effect of Clause 3. To understand the importance of Clause 3, I hope I may remind your Lordships of the provisions of Clause 2. To establish a m w school or to close, enlarge or significantly change the character of an existing school, it is necessary for a local education authority or a voluntary school to publish notices under Section 13 of the Education Act 1944. There is then a two-month period allowed for objections by any local government elector and a final decision is given by the Secretary of State. It has always been accepted that this democratic process should be preceded by a period of consultation between the local education authority and governors, teachers, parents and the general public.

I know that Clause 2 does not deal with Section 13 proposals. However, it is dealing with proposals that will become Section 13 proposals and it is right that the House should take into account that Clause 2 provides for none of those democratic procedures. It is not the authority or the voluntary schools who initiate the procedure under Clause 2 to establish, close, enlarge or significantly change the character of schools. Under Clause 2(1) this will be done at the requirement and behest of the secretary of State. No notices are to be published. There is to be no statutory right of objection, although, curiously enough, there was a statutory right of objection under Section 11 of the 1944 Education Act which dealt with the proposal of general plans in the same way as this clause does. Nor was there any recognition of the need for consultation written into the clause until we wrote in the 18-month period for that purpose by an Amendment in Committee.

I therefore contend that Clause 2 does not represent a democratic procedure. Indeed, in the final analysis, if an authority or a voluntary school refuses to conform to the requirements of the Secretary of State, clearly, as the noble Lord, Lord Lord Alexander of Potterhill, has pointed out, it was the intention of the Government under the original wording to enforce compliance. However, as the Bill stands, we now have the excellent Liberal Amendment written into the Bill which gives a very much better procedure which I hope will be accepted in another place.

It might appear to your Lordships that there is little left to do after the procedures of Clause 2 have been completed, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, has said, one is tempted to believe that, if the Government are to have their way, the Secretary of State will be both the architect and the arbiter of the proposals when they come to Clause 3. None the less, I must be fair and record that the Government have all along, both in another place and in this House, made it clear that the proposals of Clause 2 are envisaged only as a "sketch map" for reorganisation. Those are the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, in Committee. Clearly, if such a sketch map is to be converted into detailed proposals under Section 13, school by school, it is still important that we should be certain that the democratic procedures of Section 13 will really be followed under Clause 3. It is the purpose of this Amendment to be assured on this point.

May I say immediately that I am aware of a point that the noble Baroness has made to me in a letter which she wrote, that Section 13(5) prohibits any alterations to schools for which proposals are required under Section 13. In other words, one cannot alter a school unless one has gone through the Section 13 procedure. But what I do not find clear is whether the wording of this clause really conveys that meaning into law, for it says that where any proposals are submitted to the Secretary of State by an authority or a voluntary school, being proposals that are to be wholly or partly carried into effect within five years, the Secretary of State may direct that those proposals (or any of them) shall be treated as if they had been submitted to him by the local education authority under Section 13 of the Education Act 1944.

I believe that two points arise from this wording. The first now gives me no very great worry and we raised it in Committee. Apparently the Secretary of State has discretion—for the word "may" is used—as to whether he will select the sketch maps to be subject to the Section 13 procedure. Following the debate in Committee and correspondence with the Minister, I understand that if "may" became "shall" it would mean that all the sketch map proposals under Clause 2 would, if they were to be implemented within five years, automatically have to go through the Section 13 procedure, though this might not be the wish of the authorities or the Secretary of State. I accept that, but there is a second point which I feel is far more obscure and perhaps more contentious. If the Secretary of State does pick out certain sketch map proposals for reorganisation, he may direct that they shall be treated as if they had been submitted to him under Section 13.

What does that wording mean? Those proposals have not been submitted under Section 13. None of the democratic procedures with which I have wearied your Lordships has been observed under Clause 2. There has been no publication of notices, no opportunity for objections, possibly no consultation. I contend that those words could mean that the Secretary of State would treat the proposals as if the Section 13 procedure had been gone through and all that would remain for him would be to give a decision. If that construction can be placed upon the words, as if they had been submitted to him by the local education authority under Section 13 of the Education Act 1944", I am bound to say that that is contrary to what we have been assured by the Government and that those words would be in essence a licence to bypass the Section 13 procedure.

The Amendment has therefore been put down again purely to try to ascertain the exact effect of Clause 3(1). I am in no way trying to overturn what I believe to be the intention of the Government. As I understand it, the Government are definite in their belief that Clause 3 provides for a full Section 13 procedure. I hope that they will be able to confirm that their intention is borne out by the wording of Clause 3. I beg to move.


My Lords, I am absolutely happy with this probing Amendment. I believe that there was some misunder-standing before and I am grateful for the opportunity of clearing it up. The noble Lord has asked his question very clearly. He has asked whether the operation of Section 13 procedure means that that procedure can be skipped. The answer is that it does not. It means that the procedure begins and is then gone right through. I can give him an absolute assurance that, under these arrangements under the Bill, which is were the application of Section 13 is new, the whole consultation procedure, the publication and all the rest of it, is legally necessary when the procedure begins.

Clause 3(1) envisages that if short-term proposals are satisfactory to the Secretary of State they will be subject to the Section 13 procedure. There can be no question of the Secretary of State giving formal approval to proposals that would then have to be implemented by the proposers without the proposals having been through the Section 13 procedures. I believe that this was the point that was worrying the noble Lord. Such approval would be illegal under this Bill, as it would be under the provisions of the 1944 Education Act.

It is true that Clause 3(1) confers a power rather than imposes a duty, but, as I indicated during the Committee stage, it would be inconceivable that the Secretary of State would call for proposals but not direct that they undergo Section 13 procedure if they satisfied the necessary criteria and were, in her opinion, prima facie satisfactory. How else could the proposals she had called for be implemented? The answer is that they could not. So we do not consider that this this Amendment to Clause 3(1) would safeguard anything. It would result in the pointless Section 13 consideration—as the noble Lord admitted at the beginning of his speech—being brought into operation, and in quite unnecessary effort and equally unnecessary delay and expense. I hope that after what I have said, it will be felt that there is no difference between us on this matter and that the noble Lord will be satisfied and will withdraw the Amendment.


My Lords, the noble Lord said that he welcomed the opportunity to elucidate. He has elucdated one half of the problem very clearly. I apologise if I have not followed him to rough the other. But what exercises me is this: I still cannot quite define in my mind the junction between the procedures c f Clause 2 and Clause 3. As I see it, all proposals which are treated in Clause 3(1) are proposals which have already been taken through Clause 2. This is how it was explained to us at the Committee stage. We were told that Clause 2 proposals were to be outline proposals, and frequently they were referred to as the sketch-map proposals, but a sketch map is not something which one puts through a Section 13 procedure.

I wonder, therefore, whether what we are to have are Clause 2 proposals, which are woolly and imprecise aspirations studied with a few concrete, voluntary school-type proposals like lumps in tapoca, and only the lumps go through the Clause 3 to Section 13, because they are the only precisely drawn plans, whereas the others are aspirations as to how general problems are to be handled. If so, the remainder of Clause 2 plan escapes that clause. It relates presumably to busing and banding and matters such as that which do not require ministerial sanction under other legislation.

But if this is the case, why is it necessary under the Bill to submit plans in that grey area to the Secretary of State anyway? It would seem that without an Amendment she has the power only to reject and none to accept. I am puzzled by this, because I try to visualise a plan through Clause 2 into Clause 3, emerging at the end as a block of buildings, and I cannot quite get the tie up. I am sure that the noble Baroness has anticipated this point, because I tried to express this difficulty previously, though perhaps no more successfully than now. Bui I shall be grateful if she can tell me how it is that one can refer to Clause 2 as sketch-map plans only and then in Clause 3(1) all the plans that come for Section 13 are referred to as plans that have already gone through Clause 2, specifically in the first two lines of the clause. Perhaps the noble Baroness can elucidate this point.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, the effect of the Amendment at which we are now looking is one that will require the Secretary of State to direct that all the short-term proposals that are submitted under Clause 2 on the sketch-map procedure—whether they are to establish, to enlarge, or to change the character of the school or what-have-you, or even to cease to maintain schools—should all undergo Section 13 procedures, even if at first sight they appear to be unacceptable. It is quite unnecessary. If a proposal in a sketch map appears to be unacceptable, then surely the sensible thing is to send it back to the authority, saying why the Secretary of State feels it is unacceptable, and not to go through all the Section 13 procedure until the proposal is one that is likely to be accepted—


My Lords, if I may intervene it may reduce the length of this exchange. I see the force of what the noble Baroness says. She may feel, and she may strictly speaking be right, that I am not in order in asking her this question although it is analogous to the Amendment, but this is the last occasion on which we can have an explanation. It seems to me that the Bill provides for a sketch plan to be prepared under Clause 2 procedures, which we discussed at great length. Under Clause 3 everything has to go in order to get into bricks and mortar. We are told that everything in Clause 3 will go through a Section 13 procedure, and that is not of the nature of a sketch plan. Therefore I am asking the noble Baroness whether this requires an enormous amount of detail to be written into the plans which go through Clause 2, because they have to be the same plans which are taken through Clause 3. I will not go further on this point if the noble Baroness is not able to enlighten me. Perhaps she would like to write to me about it, but it seems to me that we are discussing a fairly complicated procedure—at least it appears more complicated to me than it does to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge; that I can see by his expression. But I am a sinful man, and there are many such, and perhaps the noble Baroness can help us.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, under the sketch-map procedure, if the plans come back with the general approval of the Secretary of State, they are then firmed up and are submitted as firm proposals, and then, when accepted, go through the Section 13 procedure. I will look in Hansard to see what we have all said, and if I can put the matter more clearly to the noble Lord I will write to him again.


My Lords, as I moved the Amendment may I, in with-drawing it, speak for a moment? I have one worry. I think that this is by way of being a complicated clause and as people talk about it so things come to mind. What is now worrying me is the wording of line 36 where Clause 3 provides that the Secretary of State may direct that those proposals"— that means sketch-map proposals from Clause 2— (or any of them) shall be treated as if they had been submitted to him by the local education authority under Section 13 of the Education Act 1944. The point I should like to put to the Government—and we still have a Third Reading to come—is that clearly the proposals from Clause 2 cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be treated as though they had been submitted to him under Section 13 because they are general sketch-map proposals on reorganisation, as the noble Baroness has pointed out to us in Committee on the Bill.

Section 13 proposals are a very different creature. They are individual proposals for individual schools, to enlarge them, or to establish them, or to change their character. All I am saying is this: I wonder whether the wording of line 36 is an accurate reflection of what the Government mean. I will not say any more on that, but I ask that the Government have one more look at the wording. I am not trying to persuade them to a different way of thinking. All I am trying to do is to say, is the Bill drafted accurately? With that, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord ELTON moved Amendment No. 9: Page 3, line 45, after ("Education") insert ("(Miscellaneous Provisions)").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, just as it is proper on a formal occasion to refer to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, as Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, so it is correct on formal occasions to refer to the Education Act 1953 as the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1953. I omitted to do this in drafting the words which now appear in the Bill, and therefore I beg leave to insert the words as shown in the Amendment. I beg to move.


My Lords, the Government will always be happy to accept any Amendment of the noble Lord's drafting, and I am happy to accept the Amendment in this case.


My Lords, if it is the will of the House, I think that this might be a convenient moment to adjourn the Report stage.


My Lords, I should like to register the strongest protest—I do not think that one does that in this House, but I will have a go—about cutting out this piece of the Education Bill. It seems typical of democratic procedures that we wasted two hours debating whether we should speak at shorter length. We could have usefully spent that two hours on this Bill. There seems to be some informal arrangement that consideration of the Bill was to cease at six o'clock. This was not noted on the Order Paper, and one can only assume that it was an arrangement between the two Front Benches. It is not even mentioned on our unofficial Whip. But we are defrauded of at least one and a half hours of the Education Bill.

We are supposed to reach another stage of the Education Bill on Friday morning. This cannot now be so, and I feel it is most deplorable in the case of a very important Bill of this kind. We so rarely get the opportunity to debate education. We debate almost everything else in this House, but very rarely education. There are many of us who feel very strongly about this, and I deplore the fact that we have been cheated out of 1½ hours of discussion on this very valuable Bill.


My Lords, I think it is worth saying that I hope we are not being cheated of any time at all. Of course, these arrangements arc made between the usual channels, but I cannot believe that the usual channels would think that we should curtail the debate on this Bill, and I was not under the impression that they had. But it would he very helpful to us and our Front Bench to know when it is proposed to take the next stage; and I do not doubt that the remedy which the noble Baroness seeks would assist us in this matter also.


My Lords, perhaps I can help there. I have a lot of sympathy with what my noble friend has said, but of course at the moment there is a great pressure on the timetable. It was agreed, I think, that three hours would be given to the Report stage of the Education Bill today, but that the Docks Bill would start at 6 o'clock, which must come on now and be completed today. Earlier today your Lordships agreed to pass a Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, with an Amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, the debate on which of course took until 5 o'clock, so that has, I am afraid, rather curtailed some of the time we were to spend on the Report stage of this particular Bill. But I think we have made some progress, and I can assure my noble friend that what she has said will be noted. Further consideration on this Bill, it is proposed, should be on Friday; and I may say that the fact that the Dock Work Regulation Bill was to come on at 6 o'clock was given in the advance notice of business when it was agreed between the usual channels. I hope that goes some way towards satisfying my noble friend.

Viscount ECCLES

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord to give us an assurance that we are not going to have the Third Reading as well on Friday?


No, my Lords; Friday will be given over to completing the Report stage.

Consideration on Report adjourned.