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Mrs. May: That was not what the Minister implied when he made his statement before the countryside march. The assumption by the people who took part in that countryside march and others, which was raised in the House, was that, far from it being a case of having "due regard"--a phrase which the Government love to use on numerous occasions as a way of getting out of agreeing to do something--to the issue of rural schools and an assumption against school closure, the decisions would still be taken by the Secretary of State, not by the adjudicator.

Decisions will be taken by an unelected person, in the shape and form of an adjudicator appointed by the Secretary of State--an adjudicator who does not know the local area, but whose decision will be final. That is what causes people concern. They are worried about the fact that, by these proposals, far from encouraging local decision taking, as the Under-Secretary straightforwardly said when she opened the debate, far from giving precedence to local decision taking, the Government are taking powers from local decision takers in the local education authority, removing from constituency Members of Parliament any role or ability to make representations to the Secretary of State, and placing the power in the hands of the unelected official called the adjudicator.

When the Lords debated the issue, they were especially concerned about the adjudicator's role. As a result, and because of their anxieties about the structure of the school organisation committee, they agreed that clauses 23 and 24 and schedules 4 and 5 should be removed from the Bill. The Government should listen more carefully to the message that the Lords have given them on that issue, because it shows genuine concern about the proposals.

The Minister mentioned discussions that the Government had held with both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church on the way in which the decisions would be taken. However, as I understand it, it is possible that the final decision on, for example, whether a Church school should remain open will now rest with the adjudicator. The Churches will not have a final say; the final decision as to whether a Church school will remain open or will close will remain in the hands of an unelected official, appointed by the Secretary of State, who is not from the local area and knows less about the local area than those who serve on the local education authority do.

The Lords got it right. I sincerely hope that the House will get it right tonight and support the Lords amendments. The Under-Secretary is trying to pull the

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wool over the eyes of the House when she talks constantly about local decision taking. The Government make constant references to local decision taking. Their proposals in the Bill remove power from local decision takers and place them in the hands of people who are not from the local area and are not aware of local issues.

For those reasons, I trust that the House will see the importance of retaining accountability by involving elected representatives in the process of determining school organisation, and of making it possible for local interests to be well served by retaining the essential powers of decision taking on those issues within the local education authority, and then within the democratically elected processes of reference up to the Secretary of State. I hope that the House will realise how important it is that decisions are taken, not by placemen on a school organisation committee, and not by the Secretary of State's placeman in the form of the adjudicator, but by those who know the local area, know the interests of the local area and wish decisions to be taken in the interests of that local area.

5.45 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I am pleased to endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in support of the House of Lords and the decisions that it has taken. It is not the only time during the Bill's passage that the Government have sought to remove powers from the local decision-taking process. The most worrying aspect of that is not the increased aggregation of powers to the Secretary of State, but the loss of accountability. Not only may an unelected placeman take critical decisions of importance for local education, but that person is not answerable through the electoral process to the local population, and will not be accountable for the decisions taken.

I can well understand why Ministers may lack confidence in some Labour-controlled local education authorities taking reasonable decisions on those matters, and I suspect that that is among the things that have driven their thinking in formulating the Bill's wording. However, they are effectively removing the opportunity for local people to judge those very LEAs for the bad decisions that they may take. It is vital that the local democratic process should be able to operate in that area, and it should operate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead said, in co-ordination with the activities and views of the local Member of Parliament.

Mr. Don Foster: So that it is clearly on the record, can the hon. Gentleman confirm that he is of the opinion that the decision-taking body regarding school organisational arrangements should be the democratically elected local education authority?

Mr. Brady: I think the important thing is that local communities should run their schools and their schools' affairs. I have long supported that principle. Of course there are instances when it can be effective for decisions to be taken at an even more local level--one instance being in the case of the successful grant-maintained schools, which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman had in mind when he asked the question. A critical point is that local parents--local people in their communities--should

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decide how their schools are run, for the benefit of their children. They should have the critical say in how local schooling is organised.

Mr. Foster: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I apologise for interrupting twice, but he is now somewhat losing me in his argument. I was totally with him because he was arguing that the people who take those decisions should be democratically accountable bodies and organisations. The only such organisation that I know of that could take the decision is the LEA. The hon. Gentleman is now saying that parents should take the decision. I was not aware that it was possible to chuck parents out.

Mr. Brady: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that parents should be removed from their position on governing bodies of schools; perhaps he is now losing me in his argument. I am sure that it is a good one, but he may not be making it as well as he is accustomed to do.

We are witnessing a shift away from parents, away from local communities and away from elected politicians--local councillors and local Members of Parliament. The latter will lose the ability to represent the interests of the communities that they represent, and to represent the importance of those schools to them. That thread runs through the Bill. It gives the Secretary of State vastly increased powers over local schools and local education authorities. It will certainly have the effect of reducing the amount of local decision taking--the local input into the way in which schools and education are run.

The shift also has implications for the Church schools. The Bill has prompted the headmaster of a Roman Catholic school in my constituency to remark that the Bill would give the Secretary of State more powers over Roman Catholic schools than the trustees, the governors, the local diocese, the cardinal or even the Pope. The Roman Catholic community in my constituency is distinctly unhappy about that prospect, and is worried that the powers taken by the Secretary of State will result in a loss of choice to local communities.

Particular regard must be paid to the denominational schools and the rights of people representing those groups locally to have an input into the decision-making process. That is not to say that the Pope should not have an input, but the critical point is that the local Roman Catholic community feels that it is losing its say in the running of its schools, and fears that those schools will be less responsive to the community's needs.

The measure takes power away from local councils, the local Member of Parliament, local people and interested local groups. The adjudicator may have considerable powers and be answerable to no one except the Secretary of State. We are told that he will have powers in rural schools, but we hear little about how he will exercise his powers in relation to good, popular schools in suburban and urban areas.

In Standing Committee, I asked the Minister what consideration would be given in the school reorganisation and class sizes measures to the travel distance between schools. We await further details about what might be considered an unreasonable distance for a child to travel from one popular school to another in a suburban or urban area, and what travelling time would be considered

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reasonable, given that many of us represent congested areas where people may experience problems getting their children to and from school.

There is a related issue that will no doubt arise this evening in relation to amendments concerning grammar school ballots. If there is a ballot on the future of grammar schools and an area votes to end selection, considerable reorganisation of its education system will follow. There will not be same number of schools in an area that is currently selective and decides to go comprehensive.

In my constituency, I have eight secondary schools. It is a small area, and I find it hard to believe that, if it went comprehensive, we would still have eight secondary schools. Important decisions about school reorganisation would have to be taken, should that happen. It is a distressing prospect for the communities concerned that power would not be exercised through the local decision-making process or vested in those who are accountable to local people.


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