Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. May: Like the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), I sincerely hope that the House will not pass the Government's motion to disagree with the Lords amendments. The Lords have done a good service to democracy in removing clauses 23 and 24 from the Bill and in proposing that there should be different arrangements in determining the structure of the school organisation within any particular area.

We had a lengthy debate on this issue in Committee, and several amendments were tabled and rejected by the Government. Those amendments aimed to improve the arrangements that the Government are proposing. I shall rehearse our concerns about the proposals for the school organisation committee and, in particular, the role of the adjudicator. Decisions on school organisation are made primarily by the local education authority, which knows the area and its requirements. There are processes for public consultation. Councillors are elected and, in debates on school organisation, they are able to put the views of the electorate whom they represent.

The decision is then taken by another elected person, the Secretary of State. Throughout that process, elected Members of Parliament may make representations to the Secretary of State regarding proposals for school organisation in their areas and lead constituency delegations to meet the Secretary of State in order to make further representations about the proposed structure. Although many people recognise that the present arrangements have some inadequacies, the emphasis is currently on elected representatives taking decisions and making representations about the proposals at every stage of the procedure.

The Government make much of the need for local accountability. In introducing this group of amendments, the Minister referred to local decision making and local accountability. In a note under cover of the Minister that was produced on 18 February during the Standing Committee's deliberations, the Minister referred to the school organisation and admissions adjudicator. She stated:

5.30 pm

I believe that we should agree with the Lords amendments and disagree with the Government on that issue because they propose taking decision making away

15 Jul 1998 : Column 445

from the local level and from those who are accountable to the general public, and placing it ultimately in the hands of an adjudicator who will be appointed by the Secretary of State and who, by definition, will not be local.

On 10 February in Standing Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) moved an amendment to allocate an adjudicator to a specific area. In rejecting that amendment, the Minister replied:

That comment appears to be contrary to the Minister's statement about the importance of local decision making. Adjudicator appointees will not know the local area. They will be appointed to cover several areas and will not have the local knowledge that is held by the local education authority, elected councillors, elected Members of Parliament and by those who live in the district and wish to make representations. The adjudicator will not be expected to take representations from local delegations.

The document issued by the Minister during the Standing Committee states:

That is what the Minister said: the adjudicator will look at the proposals that have been put forward.

Ms Estelle Morris: Would the hon. Lady care to refer back to the document from which she has quoted and complete paragraph 23? It states:

Mrs. May: I am grateful for the Minister's intervention, but she is looking at a different paragraph. The document to which I refer makes no mention of adjudicators receiving oral representations. However, I note the Minister's point in reference to another document. If adjudicators will take oral representations, that is a step forward. However, it does not get past the fact that the adjudicator will not be a local, elected person. The adjudicator will be appointed by the Secretary of State; he or she will not be from the local area and will not be familiar with it. That point was made clear in our discussions in Standing Committee.

Before the decision reaches the adjudicator, it will have passed through the school organisation committee. As the hon. Member for Bath pointed out, the structure of the school organisation committee runs counter to the Government's comments about the need for local accountability and democratic accountability. The school organisation committee will comprise one representative from the local education authority, and its other members will be appointed. Unlike the local education authority, its members will not be elected representatives of the people in that area.

The committee's process will duplicate that of the local education authority. Under that process, elected representatives examine the school organisation structure in their area and reach decisions based on what they believe is right for that area, applying their local knowledge. If there are objections, the matter will go to

15 Jul 1998 : Column 446

a school organisation committee, which--apart from one member from the local education authority--will not comprise elected representatives. Its members will represent different groupings, some of which are identified in the Bill.

In introducing her objections to the Lords amendments, the Minister referred to differences in the proposed structure of voting within school organisation committees. I listened to the Minister carefully in case her comments changed my understanding of that situation. Judging from those proposals and the Minister's comments about them, decisions must be unanimous, but it does not matter whether groups are absent from the committee meeting when the vote is taken or whether representatives choose to abstain.

Let us say that there are six groupings and each has a single vote within the school organisation committee. If two groupings are not represented, two abstain and two vote in favour of a proposal, the decision is considered to be unanimous. I am sure that most people would contend that two votes out of six is far from a unanimous decision. Rather than improving the situation, I suggest that the Government's proposals generate more concern about the definition of unanimous voting within school organisation committees. According to the nature of the voting structure that will be put in place, some groups may be significantly affected. If they are absent from a meeting for perfectly valid reasons, decisions may be taken that affect them, but they will not be able to make representations and contribute to the debate.

In Standing Committee, we discussed the role of Members of Parliament in school organisation committee decisions. Several hon. Members argued strongly that, under the current system, they are able to lead local delegations to meet the Secretary of State before a final decision is taken if there is considerable disagreement about what is proposed. That opportunity for Members of Parliament to assist and to represent the views of their constituents in that way will be removed.

However, we were led to believe that the process would be different in one area of decision making. At the time of the countryside march, the Minister for School Standards announced that the process for rural schools would be different. Far from suggesting that the Secretary of State would not take the final decision regarding rural schools, the Minister's statement implied that the Secretary of State would remain the final arbiter of such decisions. That was welcomed at the time. Since then, the Secretary of State and the Minister for School Standards have refused to put that proposal in the Bill and to prove their good intentions.

It appears, from the way in which the Minister and the Government have chosen to handle that issue, that the statement was made with no intention of improving the process for decision taking on the potential closure of rural schools, and with no intention of helping to restore to the process rather more democracy and an opportunity for elected representatives to comment on that proposal, having recognised the genuine needs and concerns of rural communities. Far from that, the Minister was simply trying to make a statement on television before the countryside march, to try to take the sting out of the representations that were being made by the people who were marching through London.

Mr. Byers: I remind the hon. Lady that I haveclarified the Government's position numerous times--

15 Jul 1998 : Column 447

most recently, in an Adjournment debate last week. The position is that, until the new framework is in place, there is a presumption against closure of rural schools, which applies at this moment--as a result, some schools have been saved that would not have been saved under the Conservative Government--and that, when the new framework is adopted, the adjudicator will need to comply with guidance set by the Secretary of State.

That code of guidance will include the crystal clear presumption against closure of rural schools serving their communities. If an adjudicator fails to follow that code of guidance, remedies will be available to the aggrieved rural community.

Next Section

IndexHome Page