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Clause 14

Ballot of parents on question of acquisition of self-governing status

Amendments made : No. 73, in page 8, line 2, after section', insert --(a)'.

No. 74, in page 8, line 3, leave out

the whole or any part of'.

No. 75, in page 8, line 4, at end insert--

(not being expenses mentioned in paragraph (b) below) ; and (

(b) the education authority shall pay, or reimburse the school board in respect of, any expenses incurred in connection with, or in contemplation of, legal proceedings (whether or not instituted) arising out of--

(i) the holding of the ballot ; or

(ii) the publication under section 16(2) of this Act, following the determination of the result of the ballot, of proposals for acquisition of self-governing status for the school.'.-- [Mr. Michael Forsyth.]

Schedule 3

Arrangements in Respect of Ballot of Parents Regarding Acquisition of Self-Governing Status

Amendments made : No. 115, in page 56, line 1, after (a)', insert

without prejudice to sub-paragraph (b) below,.'.

No. 116, in page 56, line 5, leave out other'.

No. 117, in page 56, line 6, leave out paragraph' and insert sub- paragraph'.

No. 118, in page 56, line 9, leave out required by a notice under' and insert held by virtue of'.

No. 119, in page 56, line 10, after which', insert

in the case of a ballot required by a notice under subsection (1) of that section'.

No. 120, in page 56, line 21, after 4', insert (a) and'.-- [Mr. Michael Forsyth.]

Clause 15

Fresh Ballot

5.45 pm

Mr. Michael Forsyth : I beg to move amendment No. 76, in page 8, line 7, after 15', insert-- (1)'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : With this we may take the following amendments : Government amendment No. 77.

No. 1, in clause 16, page 8, line 24 leave out simple' and insert two- thirds'.

No. 5, in page 8, line 24 leave out simple' and insert 75 per cent.'.

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No. 39, in page 8, line 24 leave out simple' and insert two-thirds'.

No. 59, in page 8, line 24, leave out simple' and insert 67 per cent'.

Government amendment No. 78.

No. 6, in page 8, line 24, at end insert,

provided that the majority represents at least two thirds of all parents eligible to vote.'.

No. 2, in clause 28, page 17, line 41, leave out simple' and insert two- thirds'.

No. 60, in page 17, line 41, leave out simple' and insert 67 per cent'.

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine and Deeside) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Obviously I accept your selection of amendments, but my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and I have put down our names to amendments Nos. 1 and 2. Will there be an opportunity for us to vote on those amendments, particularly amendment No. 1?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : The timing of the guillotine poses a difficulty. This debate must end at 6.30 ; after that, only Government amendments can be taken. I hope that I have given the right hon. Gentleman enough information for him to be able to judge what he should do.

Mr. Forsyth : These amendments take us over some very familiar territory. I feel that I should tell the House just how familiar it is to those of us who served on the Committee, where we discussed a similar group of amendments which had been tabled by the Opposition, providing that, when the turnout for the ballot was less than 50 per cent., there should be a second ballot. Other amendments proposed to replace the simple majority with various more or less sophisticated alternatives. The Opposition again moved that the simple majority be replaced by a two-thirds majority of parents eligible to vote. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) tabled an amendment that would have replaced the simple majority with a simple majority of those eligible to vote.

We had a brief but constructive discussion, on the basis of which the Government took on board the substance of the Opposition's amendments which would make provision for a second ballot if fewer than 50 per cent. voted. On that basis, the Committee was content to let the amendments be withdrawn. The amendments that we are discussing today honour our commitment in full. I am slightly surprised that various alternative formulae have been brought in. The new proposals in today's amendments are all variations on a theme. We must keep the matter of the ballot in proportion. I cannot emphasise too strongly that it is essentially a test of opinion, carrying no Executive decision.

The process of acquiring self-governing status involves several stages. First, there must be a decision to put the matter to a ballot. That is taken either by a resolution of the school board or by a request by a stated percentage of the parents involved. Then the ballot takes place. The question on which parents are asked to vote is not whether the school shall become self-governing ; neither they nor the school board will have the power to decide that. They are asked simply whether they are content that proposals for self-governing status should be put forward. If they are not content, that is the end of the matter. If, however, they return a majority in favour, the school board first has to

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draw up-- [Interruption.] I am smiling at the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) who, having spent so many hours in Committee, seems only now to have realised what these very important provisions are all about. If parents are not content, nothing further can happen. If, however, they return a majority in favour, the school board first has to draw up and publish proposals for self-governing status.

Mr. McAllion : The Minister said that, if the majority of parents are not in favour of self-governing status, nothing further can happen, yet the Secretary of State for Education and Science for England and Wales has allowed a school in Birmingham to opt out, although fewer than half the parents at that school voted for it.

Mr. Forsyth : The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for pointing out that, contrary to what his party has been saying, the proposals that we have put forward for the reform of education in Scotland are not carbon copies of those for south of the border. He is well aware of the provisions that we have included in the Bill. The amendments that I have tabled provide that, where fewer than half the parents participate in the ballot, there must be a second ballot. I was explaining the procedure that has to be followed. If the parents return a majority in favour, their school board has to draw up and publish proposals for self-governing status. These are to be sent to the education authority and the Secretary of State for Scotland. They will have to be published in newspapers and otherwise made publicly available. It will then be open to the whole world to make its views known on the proposals. Their representations are to be directed to the Secretary of State. He has to receive them and consider them all. Only in the light of all the representations does he make a decision on whether the school should become


It is quite clear that in practice the representations made to the Secretary of State will have to weigh with him ; he is not bound to accept a positive ballot result. There will be cases where, notwithstanding the support of the majority in a ballot, the Secretary of State may decide, for good reasons, that the school is not to be allowed to become self governing. He may not be convinced that the school really has a future--for example, if its numbers are in decline. He will have to take those factors into account. He will also have to take account of representations that may be made by the education authority. It will want to apprise him of the full situation in the area--of the other schools and their pupil numbers, of its plans for them, of the implications for the education authority if the school in question should become self-governing. That, I hope, will begin to put the question of a ballot into some kind of perspective.

It is also relevant to look at the kind of ballot results that may be expected, the kind of psychological effect that they may have and the relative weight which the Secretary of State might give to a given result. The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) has obviously been studying the question. As he knows, some experience of these matters is building up under the English legislaton. I understand that 64 ballots have already been held on grant-maintained status under the Education Reform Act 1988. Of these, 15 were negative--in some cases quite

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decisively so--another 40 would have passed the two-thirds majority rule that is proposed by some of the amendments that are before us today. Of those, 36 would have passed the more stringent test of a 75 per cent. majority. It is quite clear that we may therefore expect that, whatever test is set, there will be a clear-cut result in the great majority of cases.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : Does my hon. Friend agree that the opposition of certain Labour Members to these proposals is very strange? Is he aware that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) opted into the private sector when he was a teacher?

Mr. Forsyth : My hon. Friend is quite right. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) says that that is very old. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman also says that he, too, is very old. We believe in choice in education. We also think that the hon. Member for Cathcart was entitled to teach in the independent sector, if that was his wish. It is a free society.

It is only on the other side of the House that, as we heard from the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) the doctrine applies that if it is good enough for Henry McLeish's children it is good enough for everyone else's children. It is only the Opposition who seek to deny choice. [Interruption.] I see that the hon. Member for Fife, Central is mouthing, "Privilege." He has made several attacks on the assisted places scheme. He has denounced it as privilege. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) is confirming that. Almost half the total number of pupils on the assisted places scheme come from families with an income of less than £8,500 a year. It is typical of the Labour party that it would limit choice and deny education of that sort to those who would otherwise be unable to afford it.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries) : My hon. Friend gave some interesting statistics, but is he able to say how many of the votes were cast in the face of the likely closure of the school?

Mr. Forsyth : I cannot give my hon. Friend the precise figure, but he is mistaken if he believes that the majority of the schools were facing closure. During our discussion of the last set of amendments my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) pointed out that the majority of the schools were not facing closure. The first school in the United Kingdom to go for self-governing status, Skegness grammar school, was not in that position. I commend to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) a very interesting article in The Daily Telegraph some months ago. I shall send a copy of the article to him. It analysed the schools in England that have gone for self-governing status and the reasons for them doing so. It also gave an analysis of the schools that intended to go for self-governing status and showed that the proportion of schools that were not facing some kind of organisational upheaval, such as closure, had been reduced. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle said that the principal motivation would be the belief that, by taking decisions at local level, free of the education authority, schools would be more responsive to the needs of parents and would provide a better service.

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That is why it is essential that parents in Scotland should have the same freedom and opportunity as is so clearly sought in England. It is a mark of the peculiarities of the Labour party in Scotland that it seems to take the view that there is something wrong with Scottish parents--that they are unable to exercise choice and bring about the kind of management of schools that appears to be working so successfully south of the border.

Sir Hector Monro : I gave my hon. Friend the figures on Second Reading. Of the 37 schools which, by 6 March, had voted to opt out, 27 faced closure.

Mr. Forsyth : I have not checked my hon. Friend's figures. [ Hon. Members-- : "Why not?"] However, he knows now that the measure is even more popular than he might have imagined. He quoted a figure of 37, but there have now been 64 ballots. A proportionately larger number of those schools are not faced with closure. I have just told my hon. Friend that all the evidence from the survey carried out by The Daily Telegraph showed that, as more schools came forward for self-governing status, the proportion of schools that were facing some kind of catastrophe had been reduced. I do not believe that there is any difference between the figures that my hon. Friend quoted and the point that I have just made to the House.

I am fairly certain that an opting-out ballot will, in almost all cases, be a matter of such acute interest that it will produce a high turnout and a decisive result. If there is a low turnout, our amendment, which picks up that tabled by the Opposition--I take it that the Oppposition tabled their amendment seriously and were committed to it--would give the board one more chance and that would have to be final. If the board failed to organise the second ballot, the matter would go no further, and rightly so. I understand that that has happened in one place in England.

We are concerned about the minority of cases in which there is a positive result but with a smallish majority. The fact that a majority might be relatively slender would have to be taken seriously into account by the Secretary of State. He would have to find out what other evidence there was of genuine parental support for the school and a genuine understanding by the parents of the implications of self-governing status and a genuine will to take on that responsibility. The Secretary of State would need some assurance on these matters in any case, but the strongly positive ballot result would tend to confirm that there was a will and understanding among the parents--but even in that case it would not be absolutely conclusive. Where the majority is more narrow, the Secretary of State will naturally attach proportionately less weight to it.

6 pm

I return to the point that the ballot result itself in no way determines the Secretary of State's decision. In many cases it will be only marginally persuasive to him. A ballot is simply a test, taken at a very early stage, to find out whether the idea of self-governing status should be taken any further. It is only after the ballot result that the school board has to get down to working out full proposals.

Against that background, the House should now consider what the reaction would be if the test were something higher than a simple majority. It would mean that a school might have a ballot in which there was a very high turnout and a majority of 60 per cent. Without

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further ado, we would then have to say to parents at that school, "I am sorry, but you cannot even apply for self- governing status--your application cannot be considered." In such a case there would be an absolute outcry. People simply would not understand the logic of a law under which, despite a clear majority support in a ballot for the proposition, that proposition could not even reach the stage of being published for wider public views to be sought upon it. That would be perceived as a negation of democracy.

Again, experience in England may be instructive. I am told that there have been nine ballots at which there was a majority for grant-maintained status of less than two thirds. Most of those cases are still pending, so I am not able to comment upon them. However, I note that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has rejected one and has approved two others. Are we to say that, when a school can bid for grant- maintained status in England and Wales on the basis of a 56 per cent. majority in a ballot, it can get approval--which is by no means automatic-- from the Secretary of State, the same right should be denied to parents of children in schools in Scotland?

Mr. Leigh : Does my hon. Friend know of any instance in parliamentary or local government procedure which requires a two-thirds majority?

Mr. Forsyth : Opposition Members are referring to constitutional arrangements, but my hon. Friend makes his point very well, and I support him.

The figures that my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries was seeking have magically come into my possession. I can tell him that, at 9 June, of the 46 schools that have voted in favour of self-governing status, there were 26 to which no change was proposed. Only 10 were facing closure and 10 were facing other significant changes. That updates the information that my hon. Friend reported to the House on Second Reading.

I know that there are fears that the legislation might be used by minority of parents to hijack a school into self-governing status. All such groups thrive on apathy. They rely on getting a vote pushed through when, so to speak, no one is noticing. In short, they rely on a low turnout. I am certainly not in favour of letting

unrepresentative groups take control of a school. The best test of that is to see what number of supporters they can muster in a high turnout. That is why we have taken on board the concern expressed by the Opposition and provided the safety net that, where there is a turnout of less than 50 per cent. of those entitled to vote in the ballot, there must be a second ballot forthwith if the matter is to go any further.

I am convinced that the amendments are sensible and are much readily intelligible to the public than any other formula. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle said, people understand a simple majority and we should stick to it. I commend the Government amendments to the House.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith : I am grateful for the opportunity to speak at this stage of the debate. The House will agree that the amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) relating to clauses 16 and 28 refer to crucial parts of the Bill. I shall be extremely brief, as I know that other Members wish to speak.

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What my hon. Friend the Minister said is all right as far as it goes, and I welcome the change that he has made since Committee--that, in the case of a low turnout, there should be an opportunity to move to a second ballot. But my hon. Friend addressed only the problem of a small turnout. He is right to address that problem and I welcome it, but he has ignored two things : first, when there is a large turnout but only a small majority ; secondly, when there is a small turnout on a second ballot. My hon. Friend dealt with neither of those possibilities.

I am delighted that in England and Wales there has been evidence of a large turnout. If there is a large turnout, hopefully the problems will not be so great. However, if there is a small majority, there is the danger of a thoroughly divisive situation. My hon. Friend spoke of hijacking by small groups. That is one danger--if 51 per cent. were in favour and 49 per cent. were against, that would produce a divisive situation in the community served by that particular school. Equally, when there is a small turnout, it is even more important that it should be clear that a large percentage are in favour of the proposal.

That is important in the decision whether to opt out, and it is equally important, if not more so, in any decision to change the character of the school. If a school opted out it might continue in a similar way under different management. I shall not go into all the arguments, but amendment No. 2 in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries is even more relevant to any decision to change the character of a school.

My hon. Friend the Minister tried to play all that down. He pointed out that we are only triggering off a procedure. I accept that, but he must recognise that the ballot is the last real, open test of public opinion. After that, everything happens not exactly behind closed doors, but at people's discretion to consider one factor or another or to consider representations. It is the last real test of public opinion, and to that extent the numbers voting and the percentage of the vote are absolutely critical in deciding whether a school opts out.

My hon. Friend said that, if my amendment were accepted, and the vote were just below two thirds, it would be a negation of democracy if the proposals were turned down on that basis. That is nonsense. We are talking about a very big change, a total constitutional change as it affects a particular school, either in relation to opting out or in relation to the character of that school. It is not undemocratic to have a test higher than 51 per cent. in constitutional changes, whether they relate to public bodies or private organisations. It is nothing unusual, and it is certainly not a negation of democracy, to look for a test above 51 per cent.

If it is proposed to change the status quo--this is a major change from the status quo in Scottish education--we need a much higher test. Although I welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister proposes in relation to small turn outs, I do not believe that it addresses the main question. The ideal solution is my hon. Friend's amendments, which I welcome, and to have grafted into them the test of a two-thirds majority when the ballot takes place. Unless my hon. Friend the Minister can give some sign that he would be prepared to go further than he is tonight and write the two-thirds majority into the ballot, I shall certainly find it difficult to support it.

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Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden) : Hon. Members are in some difficulty because of the timetable motion. This is an important debate. The matter may have been well ventilated in Committee, but, for many hon. Members, it is the one, and unfortunately all too brief, opportunity to debate a central issue. It will be an embittering and unfortunate business if we cannot vote on the amendment moved by the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith). It would make a mockery of the procedures of the House and the way in which we conduct our business. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I can only have a very fast run at the arguments. I certainly cannot deploy the kind of case that I would normally wish to deploy in a matter of this importance.

Of course I welcome amendments Nos. 76 and 77. After all, they were originally Opposition amendments in Committee, and they were redrafted for technical reasons and accepted in principle by the Government, and, in response to the Government's promises, they now appear on the Amendment Paper. I welcome them because they ensure a second ballot if less than 50 per cent. of all those eligible to vote are the majority in the first ballot. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must look beyond that and the two-thirds provision. Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 do exactly that. It is simply common sense that, when something as fundamental and radical as opting out of the normal local authority system is suggested, there should be adequate safeguards to ensure a proper basis of support.

It is well known that the Opposition oppose the concept of opting out. We regard it as a fragmentation of the school system. In its wake, it may bring changes in fundamental characteristics that are based on the perceived interests of a small group of children rather than the advantage of the majority. That we are opposed in principle to the opting-out clauses does not mean that safeguards should not be built in where possible, and we should look for sensible improvements. I do not have a great deal of confidence that the Minister will agree with us, but at least he should have the opportunity positively to respond, and the House should have an opportunity to make a considered decision.

I was interested in what the Minister said. We hear a great deal about power to parents and trusting parents. Of course, the Minister is as capable of expediency as everyone else. When it comes to this argument, he hurries to tell us that the ballot is a triggering mechanism, that it does not matter very much and that the power does not lie with the parents, so we do not need to worry too much about how the ballot is conducted or what the safeguards are. He cannot have it both ways. The ballot is important, and it is essential that we get it right. I do not think that it would be safe to leave it as it is in the Bill at the moment, as a simple majority. That is why I support the two-thirds requirement proposed in amendments Nos. 1 and 2.

To use what I understand to be a familiar word in the teaching profession now, we do not want a capricious result. We do not want a situation in which parents, under pressure or in particular circumstances--perhaps in haste, to repent later at leisure--take a decision for the wrong reasons. There has been a statistical argument about the number of schools that have shown interest in the opting-out procedure because of the threat of closure or some other radical change in their boundaries or catchment areas, but I will not bandy statistics.

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When he replied to the Second Reading debate, the Minister rather derided my attempt to suggest that this was an important factor, and he produced figures to show that, out of 59 schools that had become, to use his phrase, involved in the process, about 33 were threatened by closure. The figures may have changed since then. No one can deny that that is the kind of situation that will suddenly make opting out look spuriously attractive in a particular set of circumstances. 6.15 pm

That underlines the dangers and the need to make sure that there is a proper basis of support among parents before we go down what we regard as an often dangerous road, and what we all agree is a significant road.

Next there is the technical, perhaps, but important electoral argument. The presence of one child can give rise to a different and varying franchise. I admit to using a little ingenuity, but I am told that one can find cases in which one child can produce--if that is the right word--six votes in the ballot, and certainly not uncommonly three or four votes. Again, 50 per cent. or a simple majority of 50 per cent. plus one, on examination, might turn out to be very different indeed.

I am sorry that I cannot put my argument rather more fully, but if we ignore the right hon. Gentleman's amendments Nos. 1 and 2, we will put an element of risk into the system, and that is unwise. I echo the slogan of another long-off, far-off, battle--there is certainly a case for full- hearted consent in these matters because of the tremendous implications of opting out for individual schools. Obviously, I did not serve on the Committee, but I can remember the exchanges on Second Reading. The Minister told us that we already have selection in local authority schools, and suggested that anyone who was worried about the introduction of selection because of opting out was jousting at windmills and raising false fears. The Minister went on to explain that what he meant by local authority selection was, for example, a school in my constituency, Knightswood, which has a specialist centre for dance. The more I thought about it, the more curious and odd I found the Minister's argument. The truth is that, in mainstream academic terms, the reintroduction of selection is a possibility further down the road, with an alteration in fundamental characteristics.

That merely underlines the need to make sure that, if parents are to accept this and try to trigger the process, there is a genuine basis on which to proceed. Given all the variations and uncertainties, I do not believe that a simple majority adequately does that. For that reason alone, I commend amendments Nos. 1 and 2 to the House in the genuine hope that we can be sensible enough about the conduct of our business to ensure that the House has a chance to vote on them.

Sir Hector Monro : I will add only a few words, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) has clearly put his case and is supported by the Opposition. It is disappointing that my hon. Friend the Minister has taken only a tiny step forward to the position in which he should be, bearing in mind that the Scottish Consumer Council, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, The Church of Scotland and a

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MORI poll are all firmly in favour of the two-thirds majority. My hon. Friend the Minister might have moved a great deal closer towards us.

I feel strongly about this matter. The Minister knows that I am not in favour of opting out. The present structure is perfectly adequate, and there is no need to introduce this measure. I agree with my right hon. Friend that, whatever my hon. Friend the Minister says about this being only a triggering mechanism, it is crucial. It is the key issue in respect of school views on opting out. As my right hon. Friend said, the character of schools is at risk--perhaps the denominational aspect, catchment areas or other issues. I refer in particular to primary school catchment areas, which my hon. Friend the Minister says will be taken into account by consultation. That is not good enough. One wants a clear-cut view. Do the schools actually want to opt out? The only way to get a firm opinion on such a crucial matter is to have a figure substantially above 50 per cent., and that is why my right hon. Friend and I have set two thirds as the required majority.

Mr. Leigh : My hon. Friend is on dangerous ground if he is suggesting that on all important constitutional changes, a two-thirds majority is required. For example, should we have a two-thirds majority in a referendum about a Scottish Parliament? He is also in difficulty in addressing his remarks to a situation where, say, six out of 10 parents have voted to govern their own school. He is saying, in effect, "No, under my amendment you cannot do that." My hon. Friend is putting himself in a difficult position.

Sir Hector Monro : My hon. Friend may think that ; I do not. I know where I stand, and we have had constitutional referendums with various percentages thrown in. My hon. Friend is not on to a good point, and I advise him to come to Scotland and speak to parents who want to opt out. As the Minister said, if they do not want to opt out, they need not do so. It is important that we have a substantial majority, far above 50 per cent., so that the true nature of the vote is brought home to those who must make these decisions.

Mr. Bill Walker : While my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) may not be from Scotland, I am, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) will appreciate that, while I respect his point of view, it is important for him to understand that there are others who hold a contrary point of view. When schools in my constituency can be closed or fundamentally changed on a simple majority in local government, I cannot see why my hon. Friend is making such an issue of this matter.

Sir Hector Monro : My hon. Friend may have a point, but it is wrong in terms of what we are discussing. When, on a majority decision, it is decided to close a school, consider the position in which the Government find themselves in giving away the right for all school closures to be approved by the Secretary of State, albeit in this case in denominational schools and schools in rural areas. Had the Secretary of State retained that right, he could have looked at the whole issue and prevented a school from closing if the parent did not want it to close. Certainly he would have been in a position to prevent more closures than will be the case as the clause is drafted, simply

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because the option will not rest with him, except for denominational schools and special travelling arrangements applying to schools in rural areas.

Mr. Michael Forsyth : If my hon. Friend is arguing that a simple majority is all right for making closure decisions or changes to the character of schools where they are in the control of the education authority--on the basis that approval would be required by the Secretary of State--that is precisely what we have in the Bill for self-governing status, where a simple majority and the consent and approval of the Secretary of State is required. That is the position he is arguing should pertain in cases of school closures where a simple majority is required. There is nothing more fundamental to changing the character of a school than closing it.

Sir Hector Monro : I am being accused of adopting a wrong philosophy. My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) referred to a simple majority, and I presume he meant a simple majority among parents and in the education authority. I am saying that that whole issue need not have arisen had the Secretary of State retained the right to decide whether a school should or should not be closed, a right which he had until 1980, a right which I exercised frequently when I was a Minister. No school was closed except by the wish of the parents, which I do not think ever occurred.

In other words, hon. Members have been raising issues that are irrelevant to opting out, which is a fundamental and voluntary decision. It is not an action taken under compulsion, like a local authority school closure. For that reason, it is essential that more than 50 per cent. of parents are seen to be in favour.

I am disappointed that the Minister has not come a long way towards accepting the amendment. Unless he is willing to say that in another place he will go a great deal further, I shall not be able to support the Government in this matter.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber) : I will not delay the House on this matter. I plead with the Minister to take seriously what the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) said. The logic and force of the arguments that have been put by hon. Members have been powerful collectively and are important from the Minister's point of view if opting out is to be accepted in the community in which it occurs and is not to be regarded as divisive and narrow. I urge him to reconsider his attitude to the amendment.

Mr. Bill Walker : I speak more in sorrow than in anger, having found disappointing the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith). I appreciate how strongly they feel about the issue, but I cannot understand how they can be seen to be supporting, and be supported by, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), because what he said this evening will be quoted back at him every time he speaks about any sort of assembly in Edinburgh-- [Interruption.] --in relation to a two-thirds majority.

Equally, I hope that, whenever Labour Members speak in future to Ministers about closure proposals or changes

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to schools in their constituencies--changes proposed by a local authority based on a simple majority--they will remember the arguments that were adduced in this debate.

We have been asked to consider what would happen if there was a 51 to 49 per cent. split. Such a vote would cause a division in the local community, it has been said. In fact, divisions in the local community will be caused either way ; if it is 49 per cent. one way and 51 per cent. the other or the other way round, divisions will result.

It is important to recognise that an issue such as this cannot be looked at in isolation. It must be viewed against all other activities stemming from legislation that has been passed by this and previous Governments in which we have not stated that, at local authority level, where major decisions are made--not just in education but in many other areas--other than a simple majority basis should apply. To say that there must be a majority of two thirds in all cases, especially at the local level, would require us to change virtually all other legislation, and I doubt whether that is what Labour Members are after.

Mr. Dewar : The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the desire on both sides of the House to vote on amendments Nos. 1 and 2. That can happen only if he resumes his seat before 6.30 and allows that vote to take place. I hope he will do that.

Mr. Walker : It is not my intention to do anything that would frustrate the wishes of the House, but having listened to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries speak on this issue, I do not want the people of Scotland, in particular my constituents, to think that they are the only Members with a view in Scotland on this matter. That is vital to me, because I fear that some Members think that the message coming from me and others is not the message that the people of Scotland want to hear. I want to be certain that my voice is heard and that nobody is left in doubt about where I stand on matters requiring a two-thirds majority.

Mr. Canavan : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is there nothing you can do to stop this deliberate filibuster--


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