HL Deb 13 March 1997 vol 579 cc491-5

7.33 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th February be approved [17th Report from the Deregulation Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this draft order is a response to representations from some schools that there is at present an unreasonable burden on them following their statutory inspection. The School Inspections Act 1996 requires maintained schools in England and Wales, following their inspection, to prepare an action plan and distribute copies to the parents of all pupils at the school.

Action plans have often turned out in practice to be longer and more detailed than was originally envisaged. They may focus on the detailed internal management of the school. As a result, they are often not easily intelligible to parents. We agree that distribution of the full text is often an unnecessary burden on schools and that parents would be better served by a short summary informing them how the school proposes to address points made in the inspection report. This would replicate what already happens with inspection reports, where only a summary is sent automatically to parents.

The draft order therefore allows schools the option—I stress it must be an option—of distributing instead to each parent a summary of their action plan. Parents would still have the right to ask for a copy and schools would be obliged to inform parents of that right.

The proposed order would be made under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. The procedures laid down in that Act ensure that there is full public consultation on any proposal before it is brought forward as a draft order, and detailed scrutiny by Committees in both Houses thereafter. The House of Lords Delegated Powers Scrunity Committee and its counterpart in another place are satisfied that the proposal for the draft order meets the requirements of the 1994 Act and is appropriate to he made without amendment.

I commend this order to the House, so that it may be signed by my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Employment and for Wales as soon as possible. It will come into effect 14 days thereafter. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th February be approved [17th Report from the Deregulation Committee].—(Lord Henley.)

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for explaining this order, which proposes a change that no one would describe as of an earth-shaking significance or magnitude. I would rate it as approximately .005 on the education Richter scale of importance.

Lord Byron, in his epic poem Don Juan, describes his contemporary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: explaining metaphysics to the nation, I wish he would explain his explanation". If I may, I would presume to suggest to the Minister that his explanatory note to this simple order attracts the same request from me. Paragraph 2 of the explanatory note opens with the following sentence, which takes up 10 lines: By virtue of section 17(1) of the 1996 Act the governing bodies of county, voluntary and maintained special schools which have delegated budgets and the governing bodies of grant-maintained and grant-maintained special schools are required to prepare a statement of action which they propose to take in the light of either any report of an inspection of the school by a registered inspector under section 10 of that Act or a report of an inspection of the school by OFSTED (or in Wales, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector) which states that special measures are required in relation to the school". It is not only unmemorable, it is ambiguous because of its lack of punctuation. It can mean two quite separate things. The order, by comparison, is a model of perspicuity.

However, all is not lost. We may also enjoy a second paper entitled "Explanatory Document", as distinct from "Explanatory Note", which is five and a half times as long as the order itself, and is supported by two annexes. The first of those lists the consultees, which at a conservative estimate total well over 200 persons and bodies; and the second divides them up into those who agree with the proposals, those who agree but propose amendments, and those who do not agree. That third group is made up of two members: the local education authorities in Lincolnshire and Pembrokeshire.

Paragraph 4 of the explanatory document indicates clearly the level of importance of what is proposed. Its title is "Expected costs savings", and it says: Schools which distribute a summary instead of the full action plan will have lower reprographic and stationery costs. Any postage costs they incur may also be reduced. Stationery and reprographic costs quoted by respondents mostly vary between 2p - 5p per sheet. Buckinghamshire LEA note that for an average secondary school with a distribution of 800 a two-page summary in place of a typical ten page action plan would save the printing of some 6,400 A4 sheets. Schools with a number of significant key issues to address have longer action plans and therefore larger potential savings". What that means is that the local LEA secondary school in Buckinghamshire, and presumably elsewhere, will be able, once every four or five years, to save approximately £224, which is the cost of 6,400 A.4 sheets being reprographically reproduced—every four years, £224!

I have three questions to ask. First, Setting aside all questions of the percentage of officials' time, heat, light, premises cost and so on, how much, what order of magnitude, did it cost to produce this tiny order and to run a massive consultation on it? Secondly, why was that obvious omission not seen and obviated in the preparation of the School Inspection Act 1996? Failure to foresee the implications of paragraph 57 of that Act has resulted in this wasteful expenditure.

Thirdly, why was the error not corrected simply by amending Schedule 8 to the Education Bill currently before this House? It could have been done for nothing. The School Inspection Act is already varied several times in that schedule. I assure the House that, if a suitable amendment had been proposed on school action plans, we on these Benches would not have prepared a midnight ambush against it. I should be grateful for the Minister's answers to those three questions.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I appreciate that, as the noble Lord said, the provision is not exactly earth-shaking. He described it as being .005 on the Richter scale of education Acts. He then moved on to the regulation itself. He quoted from the first sentence of paragraph 2. It is a first sentence of which Henry James himself would have been proud. The noble Lord, probably a great reader of Henry James, would be able to understand it perfectly well and, even given the lack of punctuation that he addresses, it is one that makes clear and sense.

The noble Lord then moved on to the explanatory document, and complained to some extent that the document is too long. I believe the explanatory document is the very model of what explanatory documents ought to be. I believe that it received some praise in Committee in another place in relation to how it is set out, what we had done, and how and whom we had consulted. I take great pride in the fact that we list at enormous length those whom we did have to consult. Because I do not have to emulate my noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate in his activities of a night or two ago, I shall not take the trouble to read out the whole list of consultees in Annex 1. It stretches from page 7 to halfway down page 9. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, might like me to do so on some other occasion; should he wish it I will send him a copy.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, asked a number of questions relating to the cost, all of which can be addressed in a similar way. He asked first what was the cost of the order. I do not know; however, it was right that we should have proceeded on that basis. There was a burden on schools. Having done that, it was also quite right that we should have consulted. Having consulted, it was quite right that we should then have taken the opportunity to reduce the costs and burdens on schools, which is exactly what we are doing.

Quoting from paragraph 4 of the explanatory document, the noble Lord says that the savings will be minuscule. But he talked only about savings in the cost of reproducing paper. The noble Lord should also remember that there are enormous savings in staff time. The noble Lord knows how long it takes to photocopy a large number of documents. That staff time could probably be used in other ways.

Also, the noble Lord, as someone who is as "green" as myself, will also recognise that we should encourage schools to do their bit to reduce the number of forests that we have to chop down purely to produce these documents when they are not always so necessary.

The noble Lord then went on to ask why this provision was not included in the 1996 Act. The 1996 Act was a consolidation measure relating back to the 1993 and 1994 Acts. As Members of this House, the noble Lord and his noble friend Lady Farrington also had a duty at that time to remind us that this might impose an unfair burden on this House in that it is a revising Chamber. I am sure they would have "done their bit" if this proposal had been suggested at the time.

The noble Lord then went on to say that we could have saved an awful lot more money had we used Schedule 8 rather than this measure. I take the noble Lord's point. I do not know whether that is the case or not; but we have still to get that Act on to the statute book. I understand that the noble Lord and I will discuss that matter further on Monday. Nevertheless, the opportunity was available to us.

Even had we decided to follow the Schedule 8 route as the noble Lord suggested, I believe he would also agree with me, as I believe would the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, that it would have been right to consult on this matter. So we should not have saved the costs of the consultation even had we pursued the Schedule 8 route rather than the deregulation Act route. For that reason, and having answered all three of his points, I hope that the noble Lord will accept that this order, though not a major one, is a worthy one and that he will he prepared to support it. I commend it to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.