Standing Committee G
Tuesday 18 December 2001
[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]
[Continuation from column 232]
Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 240, in page 11, line 36, after 'regulations' insert
'which shall be approved under the affirmative resolution procedure'.
I am beginning to feel that I could move an amendment to this effect in my sleep. [Interruption.] At least one Labour Member is awake or there would not have been that sedentary intervention.
The purpose of the amendment is to highlight the Government's regrettable reluctance to allow any proper parliamentary control or scrutiny and to attempt to put it right. Once again I must impress upon the Minister and hon. Members on both sides of the Committee that only by ensuring that these regulations are determined by means of an affirmative resolution can we have some ongoing democratic accountability that will be carried out in a proper and structured way in the House, with a debate if the terms that the Government envisage for the regulations are to be changed.
At least Ministers say that the governing bodies will be constituted in accordance with regulations. In all too many parts of the Bill, they have not offered even that limited safeguard. To suggest that it be done by regulation, but without including the requirement that it should be under the affirmative resolution procedure, gives the House little protection. As the Minister well knows, unless it is under the affirmative resolution procedure, important changes could be made that will affect the composition of the governing bodies of maintained schools without reference to the House.
I have advanced that argument on other clauses, and some Labour Members may think that since it has already been made, it is unnecessary to continue making it. I hope that not only will I continue to make the argument for proper parliamentary scrutiny of the Bill and its subordinate legislation, but that when the Government find themselves on the Opposition Benches, they will continue to do so and will not have forgotten that there is a value and a purpose in Parliament and the House of Commons. I hope that they will have rediscovered a belief that there is a value in what we do here and that it is concerned with making better law and ensuring that there is genuine democratic accountability. It is an important point and it is one that I have made before. I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment.
Mr. Ivan Lewis: It is important to start consideration of this part of the Bill by briefly explaining the objectives of the changes that are proposed. First, we intend that the reforms of school governance should provide scope for schools to tailor governance arrangements to reflect their particular and unique circumstances, to ensure that there are adequate safeguards for representation and accountability and also to free governors from activities that are incidental to their primary strategic role. We want a governance framework that facilitates innovation. It is worth making the point that there has been a significant consultation exercise on the proposals, and it is therefore important that that coherent exercise hangs together and that we do not try to unpick it piece by piece. The proposals are in the public domain and were framed largely by the Way Forward Group, whose members include significant national bodies with an interest in governance.
There was a significant response to the consultation and a generally high level of support. I reiterate to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West a clear commitment to consult widely on the draft regulations and guidance, and to take account of the views and concerns that are expressed in that consultation exercise.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that that addresses some of his concerns. We intend to explain the proposed regulations on the constitution of governing bodies and other governance regulations in more detail in a policy statement before the Bill goes to the other place.
Mr. Brady: That is helpful. Will the Minister also give a commitment that the regulations will be considered under the affirmative procedure? If so, I will withdraw my amendment without further ado.
Mr. Lewis: I am afraid that I cannot give that guarantee. The broad outline of the proposals is in the public domain, and there will be an opportunity for a public consultation that builds on the consultation that has already taken place. As an additional safeguard, we will make our policy statement on the framework available to hon. Members before the Bill leaves the House of Commons.
Mrs. Laing: I have a quick question. Would not it have been more sensible for the Government to make such a policy statement available to hon. Members now, so that we could properly consider the question that the Committee should be scrutinising?
Mr. Lewis: The hon. Lady should have followed the consultation process, which involved a large number of organisations with a specific interest in governance. The process clearly outlined the Government's intentions, to which there has been a response. We have taken account of that response, and we are committed to further consultation on specific regulations that emerge from the process.
Mrs. Laing: The safeguards are not in place, and Committee Members want them for new laws that are passed by the House. I appreciate the Minister's remarks about wider consultation, which we welcome. However, if the Minister is saying that the regulations could not be published because of that consultation, why was the Committee not delayed until we could have the full information necessary to scrutinise what the Government are doing?
Mr. Lewis: The safeguards to which I referred should reassure the hon. Lady, but there is another safeguard that should also address her concern. The procedures of the House make it clear that if an Act further provides that an instrument is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House, any Member may move a prayer to annul the instrument, or to prevent it from coming into force, within 40 days. Hon. Members may use that opportunity if they have further concerns about the regulations.
There will always be a valid debate about the appropriate balance for prescribing detail in primary legislation, secondary legislation and guidance. We have proposed a package of safeguards and measures that will move school governance arrangements forward in as consensual a way as possible and, most importantly, provide flexibility at local level to enable schools to make governance arrangements that are appropriate to their needs.
Mr. Andrew Turner: The process is topsy-turvy, is it not? I am concerned that as recently as 1998, in schedule 9 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the Government legislated on the composition of school governing bodies. Three years later, the Government have a new policy on the issue, which they propose to announce before the Bill is enacted. The Minister thinks that it is adequate to wave through unamended clauses. What if he changes his mind again in three, four or five years? Opinions change, and it is the duty of the House to protect minorities caught up in the change process as well as to accommodate those who may be pushing for change.
Mr. Lewis: We acknowledge that there was some unease and unhappiness about the initial group of proposals. However, we amended them after extensive consultation with key stakeholder groups and have committed ourselves today to consult further on any regulations that we bring forward.
Perpetual change in school governance structures is not in anyone's interest. We have drawn up radical, flexible proposals which, for the first time, will allow schools to create a governance structure that best meets their needs and allows them to fulfil their responsibilities in an innovative and flexible way. Therefore, having produced regulations after extensive consultation, we do not envisage fundamental changes within the foreseeable future.
However, no Minister can say that the Government would not seek further change if it were discovered, for example, that obstacles were preventing the realisation of our objectives. The measure is designed to give governing bodies the strategic power to make decisions in the best interests of their schools. We believe that it is a welcome step forward and that school governing bodies and other key groups support it.
Mr. Willis: Will the Minister answer a simple question? If a school is taken over by a private sector for-profit company as a result of an agreement of the governors and with the support of the LEA, can the company appoint a majority of governors to run the new school?
Mr. Lewis: In that scenario, that school would still have to behave in accordance with the safeguards that apply to the appropriate balance of representation on the governing body. That school would be subject to the balance that we have outlined in the consultation process and which we will clarify in regulations.
Mr. Willis rose—
The Chairman: Order. I am listening attentively to the debate, as I sat on the Back Benches for the three big education Bills after 1987. We are discussing the affirmative resolution procedure. Although I can see why Members may want to speak on related matters, the next group of amendments, of which there are many, would be a more suitable place to discuss the issue raised by Mr. Willis. I propose that Minister should continue his defence of the Government's position and that any other interventions should relate specifically to the use of the affirmative resolution procedure.
Mr. Lewis: Thank you, Mr. Griffiths.
As I said, there is a legitimate debate about the appropriate balance between primary and secondary legislation. The various safeguards in the system, which we have explained today, mean that there will be several opportunities for people to express any authentic concern and to influence the regulations that are ultimately produced.