HL Deb 17 January 1990 vol 514 cc641-3

3.2 p.m.

Lord Peston asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will amend the Education Reform Act 1988 to ensure fair representation of local opinion on school governing bodies.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, we have no plans to do so.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, albeit not one that pleases me very much. Does the Minister recall that I raised the matter in July, 1988, in connection with the Education Bill? Is he aware that noble Lords who debated the subject thought that the problem was serious but minor? Is he aware that the unattractive practice, to say the least, is now growing and may soon become widespread? Can he advise the House whether the business of local authorities appointing only governors of their own political persuasion is legal?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am aware of the noble Lord's participation in the debate when the subject was fully discussed. We remain opposed to legislation which will introduce political affiliation as an essential consideration in all local authority appointments to governing bodies.

Baroness David

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, which in Sections 15 to 17 and Schedule 1 provides for a political balance on local authority committees and other bodies, will apply to the governing bodies of schools?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, without notice I believe that the answer is no.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it has been considered to apply generally and that one of the few local authorities which has behaved in a contrary fashion is the Thatcherite Wandsworth Borough Council which in future proposes to appoint to educational bodies only people of its own political colour?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, LEAs appoint only a minority of governors and so cart no longer dominate governing bodies. I hope that authorities will see that their first priority must be to appoint the best governors for the good of their schools.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind the problem that we raised on Second Reading of finding people who have the time and are willing to serve as governors, and of the danger of appointing extremists and power seekers to a governing body? Does he agree that that is an ever present danger?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, yes, I agree that it is. I hope that local authorities will ensure that it does not happen.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, since the Minister has said that the Government are opposed to political bias in such appointments perhaps I may ask this question. Does it not cause him grave anxiety when he learns that some authorities are apparently exercising political bias because the only appointments they are making come from one party? If he has that anxiety, what does he propose to do about it?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I do not have that anxiety.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, the Minister has said that the Government will not amend the Education Reform Act to ensure fair representation. Assuming—and it must be a correct assumption —that the Government are anxious that there should be fair representation on governing bodies, what other action are they prepared to take to ensure that?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, we believe that there is fair representation now.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I am completely puzzled by the Minister's answers to the questions. I should like to read from Hansard of 8th July, 1988. His noble friend Lady Hooper said: the Government will take every opportunity to encourage local authorities in making appointments, and governing bodies themselves in making co-options, to follow the principle that governing bodies should consist of people who have the best interests of their school very much at heart". —[I Official Report, 8/7/88; col. 544.] Does the Minister agree that the very least he ought to be doing, or advising his right honourable friend the Secretary of State to do, is to issue a public statement? I do not make a party political point because I can think of at least one Labour authority which is behaving in exactly the same way. I regret to say that I am informed that one SLD authority is proposing to behave in that way. Would it not be at least a good idea for the Government to issue a public statement saying that this is a deplorable state of affairs?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that I shall draw his comments to the attention of my right honourable friend. Whether he will take my advice or that of the noble Lord is quite a different matter. There is a big difference between a general exhortation and effective law. For the balance to be enforceable appointees would have to be limited to those willing to declare their party political affiliations. Alternatively, all minorities on the council might be given the right to appoint governors with no control over their suitability. Neither of those approaches is acceptable. If the requirement is to be general and not enforceable there is no point in putting it into law.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in relation to the appointment of magistrates, the instruction from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is that a political balance should be maintained? If that is true, and if it is desirable in the case of the administration of justice, is it not equally desirable in the case of children's education?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I do not believe that the two are comparable.