HL Deb 21 July 1998 vol 592 cc717-23

34 Leave out Clause 23.

The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason—

34A Because the amendment is inconsistent with securing local decision-making on school organisation and a mechanism for resolving conflicts between the interests of admission authorities and wider community interests.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 34 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 34A. In speaking to those amendments, perhaps I may speak also to Amendments Nos. 35 and 35A, 198 and 198A-C, 199 and 199A.

As amended in this House at Third Reading, the Bill no longer provides for local decision-making on school organisation matters; nor for adjudication where there are objections to these or to local admissions arrangements. I invite the House to agree with the continuing view of another place that that is not the right way forward. I also invite the House to accept the words restored to the Bill, which comprise those amendments to these provisions previously agreed in Committee.

We have covered the ground on this issue in some detail on more than one occasion. We have listened carefully to the points made, both here and in another place. We have also sought to explain why we continue to believe that the Government's proposals are desirable and an improvement on the present arrangements, and how they will work in practice. There is, I hope, agreement between us that we are right to pursue local decision-making on school organisation. These are local issues and ought to be capable of being decided locally.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope—I see that he is not in his place—and his noble friend Lady Maddock have argued that such decisions should be taken by the democratically elected local authority. I entirely agree with them that LEAs are, and must continue to be, key players in school organisation matters. Nothing that we propose reduces their contribution to decision-making in this important area. Local education authorities can already decide their own proposals where they attract no objections. That will not change. But I must say to the noble Baroness that LEAs have never been the only decision-maker in the system, even at local level, and we do not believe that it would be right to make them so now. For example, LEAs cannot in the current arrangements decide their own proposals where they attract objections; nor can they decide any proposals made by voluntary or by grant-maintained schools, as the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Ripon and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, have reminded the House from time to time. At present those proposals must come to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. That external input is significant.

It helps to maintain the balance between local partners in providing places locally. It is because we want to maintain that balance that we believe that a school organisation committee is the way ahead.

School organisation committees will bring together all the main partners in school provision at local level to consider and, wherever possible, agree proposals to provide sufficient and appropriate school places. The committees will be able to disagree with LEA proposals, although they will not be able to reject them unless the LEA group on the committee itself agrees. That, too, demonstrates the balance between partners that our proposals secure; ensuring that all partners in local provision get an equal say. I have said before that I hope—indeed, that I expect—the new arrangements to make it more likely than now that final decisions, with which all parties are satisfied, can be reached at this stage. But whether or not we call it a veto, any group on the committee, where it feels sufficiently strongly, will be able to ensure that a proposal is referred to the adjudicator for decision.

The adjudicator will look again at proposals, comments and objections and the reasons for disagreement at local level. He will consider all cases in the light of principles set out in public guidance from the Secretary of State and, as appropriate, in the school organisation plan and the code of practice on school admissions. Adjudicators will be able to receive representations, including from Members of another place or this one; and will decide whether to take oral representations. But the key point is that the adjudicators will make an independent judgment on each case. They are a necessary part of the system. This may also be the right place to remind the House that without adjudicators there is no mechanism for securing final resolution of local disputes about school admission arrangements. Such a mechanism is essential to our manifesto commitment, implemented elsewhere in the Bill, to make school admissions arrangements at local level more coherent and transparent for parents and children.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State will issue guidance on the consideration of school organisation plans and school organisation proposals. Both school organisation committees and adjudicators will be required to take that guidance into account in reaching their decisions. Also, both school organisation committees and adjudicators will be required to be satisfied that adequate financial resources will be available to implement proposals if they are approved.

I do not accept, as some have argued, that these arrangements are more bureaucratic and less transparent than what we have now. There is always a balance to be struck between due process and equity on the one hand and speed on the other. The Government's proposals do the minimum necessary to ensure, first, that all the key players at local level are fully involved; secondly, that a context for decision-making is provided through a school organisation plan setting out in broad terms the future needs of the area; thirdly, that individual proposals are explored properly by those who have to implement and live with them; and, fourthly, that final decisions are made independently where it is not possible to resolve differences at local level.

These new arrangements are, in the Government's view, the right way to secure local decision-making on changes to school organisation. I hope, therefore, that the House will accept the view reiterated in another place, that these provisions on school organisation committees and adjudicators should be restored to the Bill. I commend the amendments to the House.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 34 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 34A.—(Baroness Blackstone.)

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, these Lords amendments were moved originally from the Liberal Democrat Benches. We are extremely disappointed that the Government are not prepared to listen to the overwhelming view of this House on school organisation committees and adjudicators. The Minister has said that this is about local decision-making. Those are precisely the arguments that were advanced not only from the Liberal Democrat Benches, but also from the Conservative Benches. It is not often that I find myself with the Conservatives defending the right of local democracy, but in this case the Conservatives were wholeheartedly behind us.

I am not convinced by the arguments which the Minister has advanced today. The noble Baroness made great play of the fact that this is local decision-making. We believe that local decisions should be made by locally elected members of local councils. We have been told that in this place we cannot have a view about, for example, the issue of fees because we are not an elected body. Precisely the same argument is being used here in relation to local education authorities. The Minister said that no powers will be taken away from LEAs. However, the reality is that if somebody objects to the plan, it will not be the LEA which will make the decision on it because that decision will have to go to the local adjudicator. I am not convinced—I am sure that many others are not convinced—that the Government have listened carefully to our views on this matter.

The adjudicator is the subject of another amendment. We are told that those provisions involve the devolution of decision-making and that that decision-making will be independent. However, most of us are concerned above all lest the line of democratic accountability be lost. At present, decisions about school closures are made locally and, in good authorities, after much consultation. If there is still disagreement, the decision then comes up to the department and the Minister. Others have a democratic right to lobby their Member of Parliament and to meet Ministers. Admittedly, the Minister said today that Members of Parliament and your Lordships would have the right to lobby the adjudicator. That was not clear from our earlier discussions. However, I maintain that that is not the same as democratic accountability which runs right from the bottom to the top.

I know that others will be very disappointed that the Government have not listened on this matter. We had a good number of discussions earlier. The Government had the opportunity to make this advisory. The arguments put forward by the Minister today spell out why this should be an advisory body and not a body that in the end can override the decision of a democratically elected local body. That was our original objection and it remains our objection.

We do not intend to press this matter any further today. However, it will be interesting to see how matters turn out. If one person on the schools organisation committee objects, an enormous amount of bureaucracy will have to be gone through before a decision can be taken. I sincerely hope that for the sake of everyone in our schools the Minister was right when she said at earlier stages of the Bill that this would not happen very often. If it happens very often there will be total chaos. It is another layer of bureaucracy that will not achieve what the Government intend. We are with the Government in their intention to involve people other than the local council in best practice, but it should be advisory, and that is where we differ on this matter.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I stand up again enthusiastically to support all that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, has just said. In some ways I am sorry that the matter is not to be pressed any further because the arguments used by the Government here and in the other place are just plain wrong. The only defence that has been put up by the Government is that this proposal will improve local decision making.

Perhaps I may give an example with which I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, agrees. One considers all of the processes that a local education authority has to go through in order to come to a view about some form of reorganisation in its area, whether it be mergers, closures or whatever. There must be consultation and the matter goes through the appropriate sub-committee, working party, full education committee and then the full council. Normally, in the past the decision of the council has gone to the Secretary of State. Let us for a moment imagine what happens with the proposals in place. It will no longer be a decision but a recommendation. That will go to the organisation committee. If the organisation committee comes to a different view from that of the local authority and the one dissenting voice is the local authority itself the matter is then even further removed because it has to go to an adjudicator who cannot possibly be local to every single community in the country. There are to be only 20 adjudicators which means putting two or perhaps three local education authority areas together. Let us say that the adjudicator comes to a view that is consistent with the majority view of the organisation committee, not the minority view of the local education authority. The decision that is binding will not be the view of the most local democratically elected councillors. There is nothing more local than the local authority and the local authority must come to a decision. I find it deeply depressing.

I am sorry to invoke the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, who has given such distinguished service to local authorities but has not come to their defence in this matter. This is a second-guessing body which is undemocratic, unelected and not local. It cannot be argued that the FEFC is local. It may be that a rather remote person is put up by the FEFC to operate in a local area. The notion that this is done in the name of local democracy, transparency and openness cannot be argued by the Government. This is not a democratic proposition. This second-guessing, unelected body will be there at the expense of the budgets of local authorities which would be better spent in the classroom on our children. Those budgets will be top-sliced in order to pay for accommodation, membership, attendance and all the trappings that go with the setting up of the organisation committee and the office of the adjudicator. I do not find that consistent with good local government.

Local government will be deeply depressed by this proposal. As the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, has said, we shall also be watching very closely to see how it works out in practice. Local decisions particularly in relation to mergers, closures and reorganisation are always sensitive matters and lead to tension in local communities. The responsibility for making those decisions should remain with locally elected members with an appeal to an elected member of the Government. The decision should not lie with an adjudicator against whom there is no appeal whatever.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I am quite sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, intended no discourtesy in referring to me by name. I know that from her long experience as a member of the previous government she is fully aware that Ministers may not speak in support of government policy in departments for which they do not speak and for which they have no responsibility.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, can the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, tell the House of the essential difference between this matter which affects the education system and those matters dealt with by the many quangos which were instituted by the previous government, of which she was a member? I was a member of Teesside Urban Development Corporation. The noble Baroness played a very important part in those bodies. I believe that the noble Baroness is objecting to something that the previous government did dozens and dozens of times. Does the noble Baroness accept that she owes the House an explanation as to the essential difference between the matter that she is now pressing and the matter to which I have just referred?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I can provide the noble Lord with a precise answer. First, there was no other adjudicating body beyond the urban development corporation. The noble Lord will be aware that I served on the Peterborough Urban Development Corporation. I also served in the North-East of which the noble Lord is a well known and well respected resident. There was no second-guessing of the local authority. The area of responsibility of the urban development corporations was very clear. The corporations worked in co-operation with the local authorities and did not second-guess them in any sense. These are decisions taken by local authorities which do all of the spade work: they carry out the consultation work with local parent groups, local schools and governing bodies. After that work is done it is passed to another body that tries to come to a decision. If it does not come to a decision it goes to an adjudicator who is one removed. There is no comparison between this proposition and the way in which development corporations operated.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am very sorry that neither of the noble Baronesses on the Benches opposite has been convinced. I had hoped that I might have persuaded them—perhaps it was a forlorn hope—that the Government's proposals were the most effective way of securing local decision making on school organisation. However, I am surprised that anyone should seriously argue that the existing system—I emphasise that it is the only other option—is to be preferred. There is a local partnership in the provision of places and our proposals enable that partnership to make decisions in spite of the comments of the noble Baronesses, Lady Maddock and Lady Blatch.

Where agreement cannot be reached we believe that it is right that there should be an independent means by which a decision can be arrived at. That is what the adjudicators will provide. I suppose that there is just a difference between us as to how often agreement will be reached. Both noble Baronesses are exceedingly sceptical about it. The Government are rather more confident that these committees will be able to reach agreement for the most part. Where that is not possible it is important that the adjudicators who will be trained and expert people are able to reach decisions on the basis of the facts of each case and the principles set out in the guidance.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, made reference to the Further Education Funding Council. It might be right for me to clarify here that the FEFC will not have a vote on any matters relating to pre-16 issues. Post-16, the FEFC has a statutory duty to secure sufficient education, and it is therefore entitled to play its part in school organisation committees. The Government will endeavour to ensure, wherever they can, that any FEFC representative is knowledgeable about local matters—something about which the noble Baroness was concerned.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I listened to what the Minister just said. That has not been made clear during the course of the Bill. Does it mean that if a decision comes to the organisation committee, which has no bearing on the diocese, the Church does not have a vote? If it is a decision that does not involve governors, for example, does it mean that governors do not have a vote? I had not heard that interpretation of how the body will work. My understanding was that it is an organisation committee with a number of different interests represented, and that each section has one block vote. It is deemed to be a committee for all purposes flowing from the organisation development plans.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the FEFC obviously has a special role to play on school organisation committees, because it is concerned with post-16 education only. Therefore it would be right to restrict its voting power in a way that is different from all the other members of the school organisation committee.

As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, pointed out when summing up on Third Reading, everyone is a local person somewhere. The current arrangement provides that where there is an objection by a local person to a proposal for change to school organisation, the decision on that proposal is removed immediately from the local arena to my department in Sanctuary Buildings. Wherever possible, local decisions should be taken by local people. The arrangements we have put in place should encourage them to search for ways to build and secure agreement. That seems to us to be a sensible approach. The committees provide a way in which that can be achieved, with adjudicators as a necessary and responsible longstop, in what I believe will be a limited number of cases where it cannot be achieved. I invite the House to support that view by reinstating the relevant clauses and schedules in the Bill, and ask that the House does not insist on their amendment to which the Commons have disagreed.

On Question, Motion agreed to.