Education Bill

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Mr. Brady: The Minister was speaking about a balance between primary and secondary legislation, but we are not discussing that. We know that the regulations will be a matter of secondary legislation; we are debating whether the Government should guarantee that the House of Commons will be able to debate that secondary legislation. The Minister has refused to give that assurance, so we are left with the assumption that he intends orders to be introduced in such a way that regulations can be made without reference to or debate in the House of Commons. We are not talking about the balance of primary and secondary legislation, but whether hon. Members have an ability and a right to discuss Government proposals.

Mr. Lewis: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I return to the one that I have been making for a while. The Bill contains sufficient safeguards for adequate scrutiny, involvement and transparency, as well as for our desire to free up governing bodies to make the right decisions in the interests of their schools. We are not simply granting infinite powers with no scrutiny or accountability. We have already demonstrated our willingness to consult, consult and consult again.

Chris Grayling: I really do have to catch the Minister short on that. The reality is that there is provision after provision throughout the legislation that allows the Secretary of State to take decisions without reference to anyone else. Whatever Ministers may say during the debate—that they will publish consultation, guidelines and procedures, or this, that and the other—the legal reality is that they are taking absolute powers in far too many matters. Does the Minister believe that, as we are in a parliamentary democracy, Parliament has a scrutinising right over key issues of policy?

Mr. Lewis: Of course we believe that Parliament has that right, but legislation has always featured the balance that I have mentioned. The question is, in the context of the Bill and our objectives, what is the most appropriate way to present the provisions that allow individual schools to make the right decisions pertaining to governance for their pupils and their communities. The Government have not attempted to conceal their intentions or proposals on governance. We have gone out of our way to consult widely, and demonstrated a willingness to respond to the concerns expressed. Before the Bill is passed, we will present to the House a clear statement of principles underpinning the regulations. Additionally, we are committed to further consult on any regulations that are produced.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Lewis: I just want to make one final point. It has been suggested that hon. Members have no mechanism through which they can secure a debate. That is not the case. If any hon. Member prays against regulations, there could be a debate under negative procedures. That is part of the scrutiny and accountability that exists within the House.

Mrs. Laing: I believe that the Minister is honest when he says that he wants to be open about the Government's actions and I commend him for asserting that consultation is good. Why are the Government so afraid that they feel they must insist on negative rather than affirmative resolution? The Minister said that any hon. Member could pray against the regulations and secure a debate. If that is so, regulations should be considered under affirmative resolution. If the Government are open about the regulations—which they have not put before the Committee—instead of saying ''Uh-oh, if anyone notices what we are doing, they might ask us about it'', they should accept that regulations should be introduced via affirmative procedure. That is all we ask; we are not preventing the Government from implementing what they want. We are not opposed to consultation or assuming that the regulations will be bad. In a democracy, we should have an opportunity on behalf of our constituents—

The Chairman: Order. We want interventions, not speeches.

Mr. Ivan Lewis: That was a fine intervention, and an even finer speech. We should consider the procedures available to hon. Members when they have difficulty with regulations. It is general practice in the House that an hon. Member can pray against a regulation and any hon. Member who presses for a debate usually secures one. There are numerous safeguards, and I am not quite sure why the hon. Members are concerned about the Government's intentions—

Mrs. Laing: We do not know what they are.

Mr. Lewis: We know what they are because they are outlined in several consultation documents.

The Chairman: Order. I will introduce the rules of ''Just a Minute'' shortly. I have heard every argument at least four times now.

Mr. Andrew Turner rose—

Mr. Lewis: I will not give way any more.

There is no mystery about the Government's proposals to free up governing bodies and help them organise themselves in accordance with their needs and in the best interests of the key people in a school and its community. Debate about the detail remains, which is why we are committed to further consultation on regulations. If hon. Members had followed the debate, the work of the group and the consultation process, they would realise that people are not unaware of the Government's intentions. The argument has been exhausted on both sides and, I believe that we should proceed to a Division, if that is what Opposition Members want.

Chris Grayling: Let me explain the problem that Ministers are presenting to Opposition Members. As we progress through the Bill, Ministers make high-sounding words about clauses that will allow them, in strict legal terms, to take decisions themselves. This clause, for example, is about allowing the Government to set the constitution of governing bodies rather than allowing schools to take decisions in the best interest of governing bodies. The Minister has made all the right noises about the Government's desire to be open, to consult, to take on the views of others and to publish regulations and guidelines. However, let me provide one example of how much credence should be given to such high-sounding words.

A couple of weeks ago, the Minister for School Standards referred to the PricewaterhouseCoopers report on teachers' work loads, which he said was published in an ''open and honest way'' last week. In fact, it was published in the most obscure part of the DFES website and was unfindable by any of the search engines. I discovered its existence only as result of asking a written question. If ever there were an attempt to bury a report, that was it. How can we have any confidence in the Government's protestations of openness about the Bill? It beggars belief that a Government could approach legislation in this way, leaving so many I's undotted and T's uncrossed. The Committee is given promises of guidelines, consultations and so forth before the Bill leaves the House, but why cannot the Government build all these elements into the legislation? Why, as we debate the issues, is it necessary to leave so many avenues unclosed, so many questions open?

Mr. Andrew Turner: I echo the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell and applaud him for searching through the website to find the report.

The Minister's lack of concern was clear when he said that scrutiny and consultation have been adequate. Consultation is not the same as scrutiny. Consultation takes place prior to the drafting of regulations and prior to the passage of legislation. Scrutiny is what happens as the legislation passes through this House. I am amazed that the Minister can come to this Committee with such an inadequate basis on which to rest his case.

Only three years ago in 1998, the Government legislated on the composition of governing bodies. Of course we understand that themes change and we applaud the objective of making governing bodies more suitable for the particular needs of individual schools. However, the Minister seems to believe that the recent consultation is the only one necessary and that the policy document that will emerge in response during the passage of the Bill through this House is an adequate basis for us to approve these clauses. He does not seem to envisage the Government changing their mind or that there may be controversial demands for changes to the composition of governing bodies. If such controversial demands were pushed through by legislation and supported by Government in a change of policy or in regulation, they should be approved by affirmative resolution of this House.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough may have been out of order in saying that the majority of the members of the governing body should be appointed by a private company. The Chairman will tell us whether or not he was.

8.30 pm

The Chairman: I have already ruled that he was.

Mr. Turner: Then of course I bow to your ruling.

The Chairman: Thank you, Mr. Turner.

Mr. Turner: The use of an affirmative resolution to confirm that the Government were right to agree that the majority of members of a governing body should be appointed by a private company would surely protect the membership of governing bodies in general.

I am not clear on all the issues because the Government have not yet come up with a statement of policy. Also, forgive me if I have not read every detail of the response to the consultation; I am human like everyone else on the Opposition Benches. I doubt whether the Minister has read every detail. He would be an extraordinary Minister if he had.

Chris Grayling: He is.

Mr. Turner: He is indeed, but not necessarily in that way. We are not clear what the Government's policy is, so how can we be happy to put it into legislation without at least the possibility of affirmative resolution?

Caroline Flint: I refer to the report of the Select Committee on Education and Skills from the time when I was on the Education Sub-Committee that considered school governors. One of the difficulties identified in that extensive inquiry, to which the Department for Education and Skills responded, was how bound governing bodies were by inflexible structures that prevented recruitment. It must be recognised that in the course of a year or a term of office, a situation within a community can change. A number of schools in my constituency have difficulty encouraging parents to become governors. There are problems with developing community partnerships which well-off communities are able to take advantage of; for example, with lottery funding—

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