HL Deb 07 December 1998 vol 595 cc716-8

2.57 p.m.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proposals they have which would affect the place of Church representatives on local authority education committees.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, as we made clear in our White Paper, Modern Local Government—In Touch with the People, under our proposals for new political structures Church and parent representatives will continue to be full voting members of any council committees concerned with education. This will safeguard and maintain the ability of Church representatives to contribute to decisions about the planning and provision of education services.

With the indulgence of the House and recalling that, for much of last year, the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, was my opposite number on some lengthy education legislation, perhaps I may record my personal regret that he has departed from that position. I wish him the very best in his future career as a loose cannon on the Back-Benches.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his kind words and for his courteous reply. Yes, indeed, I feel rather free. However, can the Minister say what the position of Church representatives would be if a local authority embarked upon an executive Cabinet-style of government? Would Church representatives be members of that cabinet and would they have voting rights?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord and perhaps others in the House misunderstand our proposals on local government. We would separate out the executive function in committee structures from the scrutiny function. However, the scrutiny function would remain of great importance. The Church representatives would have a vote on that. As the noble Lord will be aware, under the legislation passed last year, they will be equal partners in the school organising committees.

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham

My Lords, is the Minister aware how much the Churches—I speak not only for the Church of England—have valued the place which they have had, not merely in the scrutinising and oversight of decisions in the field of education but in their formation and execution? Will he accept that something of what he said just now fills me with some alarm as to whether the new proposals make provision for the same involvement in the formation and execution of policy as Church representatives have hitherto had?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the change in local government structure will ensure that Church representation on education committees, or whatever committees now cover education, will be at least as strong as it has been in the past. As I said, the legislation passed in the previous Session will ensure that the Churches will be represented in the school organising committees and, therefore, will act as true partners with local authorities in relation to school provision in their local authority areas.

Lord Tope

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, if local authorities adopt either of the cabinet models outlined in the White Paper to which he referred, there will not be any education committees for the Church or parent governors to be represented on? Does he envisage that parent representatives and Church representatives will be members of the cabinet? If so, what responsibility will they have as members of that cabinet?

Lord Whitty

No, my Lords, they will not be members of that cabinet. There will be successor committees which will scrutinise education. We will not have the committee structure as it currently exists. Precisely how they do it will vary from local authority to local authority; but those new committees which replace the current structure will be strong scrutiny committees. Church representatives from the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church will be strong and voting members of the committees.

Lord Elton

My Lords, will the noble Lord perhaps go a little further in describing the difference between scrutiny and executive action? As I hear what he is saying, the Churches, and, incidentally, parents, will be driven out of the executive function altogether and be reduced to making comments. That will cause alarm right around the House.

Lord Whitty

No, my Lords, the noble Lord misunderstands the proposition. The executive will require the agreement of the committees to most of its functions. The executive will propose courses of action to the committees and to the full council in a rather similar way to the way the Executive propose action to this House and to another place.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether there is any statutory provision for members of local education committees to sit on, for example, Church school governing bodies? If not, do the Government have any proposals to do something about that? Does he agree that some kind of cross-fertilisation between school governing bodies would be educationally very sound?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we are all in favour of cross-fertilisation in this area. Indeed, the new partnership signalled by the legislation passed in the previous Session will provide for that. My noble friend asked a specific question about representation on Church school governing bodies. There may well be experiments in that area. I shall consult my colleagues in the Department for Education and write to my noble friend.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, where there is a cabinet system, what proposals will the Government make for the presence of non-Christian representatives on scrutiny committees?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in terms of representation, the current position is that primary legislation provides for Roman Catholic and Church of England representation where those Churches provide education in the area. In relation to other schools which come within the local authority system, that would require special direction by the Secretary of State. That would apply to non-Christian schools as it would to other Christian denominations.

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