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23 May 2006 : Column 1373

Ann Winterton: I assure the hon. Gentleman that a consultation costs nothing if not many people are consulted. The recent so-called consultation about the future of a school in my constituency, to which I referred earlier, was almost meaningless. However, while I disagree with him on that point, I assure him that I agree with some of his other points.

Mr. Grogan: I thank the hon. Lady for that. Clearly, these radical, reforming, modernising ideas are spreading like wildfire across the House, even as we speak.

Ministers have said that there might be ballots in certain circumstances. In some cases, they would simply be inappropriate. However, where there was a significant body of opinion, according to one Minister, there might be a case for a ballot. There is a real possibility of sheer confusion, with governing bodies not knowing whether they are meant to hold a ballot. Will Ministers have guidelines as to how they should hold a ballot, if they decide to hold one? It could be very confusing. Surely it would be much simpler to have ballots in all cases.

Some people say that such a proposal is designed as a hindrance to the creation of trusts. I must admit that, with the two Front Benches thinking as they do, it is likely that the Bill will carry the House tomorrow, and that there will be trusts. However, the question is: should trusts ultimately be set up by perhaps three or four governors, on a wet December evening, after having engaged in some form of consultation? Would not it be more legitimate to have one parent, one vote?

Barbara Keeley: On that point, I used to be responsible for education in Trafford, which was a complicated authority because it retained grammar schools and had difficult structures. I have been involved in ballots previously in relation to grant- maintained schools and so on. My experience in education suggests to me that the most important thing in such consultations is to involve all those who need to be involved in the change of status of a school—other local schools, schools in other local authority areas and, often, dioceses, learning and skills councils and further education colleges. Just consulting parents, and even a small group of parents, and letting them decide, is not appropriate, as far too many other stakeholders are involved. I believe that these things ought to be settled locally, as there are so many different situations pertaining up and down the country. I think that it is wrong—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Lady has gone beyond the bounds of an intervention.

Mr. Grogan: Many of those stakeholders are, of course, represented on the governing body, which will come to a decision as to whether to make a trust proposal. Clearly, the consultation can be wider. Ultimately, however, the simplest way to decide matters of controversy in our democracy is one person, one vote. A general election is not a hindrance to forming a Government; it is a way of stopping a Government being formed by tanks rolling down Whitehall.

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Paul Farrelly: I warmly welcome my hon. Friend’s amendment, which is a good start. In relation to the necessity of ballots in grammar schools, should their lordships wish to build on his good start—if the amendment carries the House—would he welcome extending a secondary school’s ballot to parents of primary feeder schools? That would make the provisions relating to foundations symmetrical with those relating to the removal of grammar schools.

Mr. Grogan: I am delighted that my hon. Friend thinks that I have made a good start. Should Ministers want to hold discussions behind the Speaker’s Chair about how to improve these proposals, I would be delighted. Now, however, I want to address the Opposition’s argument against ballots.

It is in the finest traditions of the Conservative party over 300 years to try to think of arguments against democracy. It said that we have made a mistake. In the ballots that it held under the Education Reform Act 1988, however, it was interesting how many people voted. On average, in the first two years, 67.5 per cent. voted, and by 1995, 84 per cent. voted. I understand that about 2,000 ballots took place, and more of those rejected the proposals, but a substantial number supported the creation of grant- maintained schools. I think it a little tortuous to suggest that local left-wing elements would take over our democracy. It would be equally ridiculous for Conservative Front-Benchers to suggest that there should not be union ballots for that reason.

Helen Jones: The argument from the Conservative Front Bench seemed to be that parents would be so overwhelmed by all the various types of propaganda that they would be incapable of deciding for themselves. That is an insult to most parents.

Mr. Grogan: I agree. The beauty of one person, one vote is that it does not give the loudest voice the final say, whether that loudest voice be a left-wing element or two or three governors promoting a pet scheme. The beauty of one person, one vote is that everyone, whoever they are, can assess the arguments and—in the privacy of a booth, at home or by means of a postal vote—can vote in the way that they think best. That is a tremendous thing.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend has put his finger on the heart of the debate. He says that democracy is important. I believe—and I think my hon. Friend shares my view—that democracy has been the greatest force for progress that the world has ever known.

Does my hon. Friend consider it perverse that a Labour Secretary of State—a Labour Secretary of State!—should propose the establishment of a commissar—sorry, commissioner—who would be able to override the decision of a properly and fully elected local authority? Does he not find that perverse and anti-democratic, as I do?

Mr. Grogan: I do find it sad. I have probably taken up too much of the House’s time—[Hon. Members: “More! More!”]—but I want to make one final point.

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Mr. Andrew Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grogan: I want to make this final point. Others may have an opportunity to speak later.

I think that this debate is about the whole nature of public service reform. Both Front Benches seem to argue that public service reform is entirely about involving private interests and different providers in public service. That is a very consumerist view of public service reform. I think there is a view of public service reform that favours the involvement of local people as citizens in deciding models of public service. We are suggesting a modest way of giving all parents the chance to vote—one parent, one vote—when a trust school is proposed. I urge Members on both sides of the House to back our proposals, and I give notice that if the possibility arises, I shall press new clause 16 to a vote.

Sarah Teather: It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who made an excellent and funny speech. I shall take up some of his points, but I want to focus on new clause 25, amendment No. 15 and new clause 26, tabled by me and my Liberal Democrat colleagues. They contain what are key aspects of principle for us, relating to accountability and the vetting of trusts. Had there been more time, we would have wanted to press all three proposals to the vote in order to test the opinion of the House. However, we are particularly anxious to test the House’s opinion on new clause 26.

As the Secretary of State said earlier, new clause 25—like new clause 48, tabled by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor)—proposes the establishment of a central register for those eligible to act as trusts, from which schools may then choose. The system would ensure that all on the register had met the basic standards in the guidance mentioned by the Secretary of State earlier in the debate. We like to think of it as an A-list for candidates. It would conform with the basic set of principles—perhaps diversity could be included—but, as is the case with the local party, schools would be able to choose from the list, while feeling confident that it met those basic standards. It would not set new standards. It would include the standards laid down in the Secretary of State’s guidance, but we want to link those standards with legislation.

Unlike the Secretary of State and those on the Conservative Front Bench, we believe that our proposal would make the system easier and simpler, and would remove a burden from schools. Surely if schools know that the basic checks have already been carried out, they can choose between the different ethoi—or whatever the plural of “ethos” is—in the trusts on offer, rather than having to establish whether a particular trust has a particular background. Someone on the trust could have a background in pornography or selling alcohol, or in any of the other examples laid out in the guidance. We are simply trying to establish a safeguard that would make it a lot easier for such schools to know what they are dealing with. The Government should be interested in building confidence in the system and in letting schools know that such checks have already been done.

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5.45 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I am not actually sure whether the hon. Lady is speaking in favour of trusts or against them; perhaps she can clarify that point at some stage. Has she considered what is likely to happen in constituencies such as mine? A local company might wish to partner up with a particular school but not with schools in other areas, so it would not want to go on a central register.

Sarah Teather: There is no reason why such a company should not meet the basic standards, or why someone should not check centrally that those standards are being met to enable the school in question to know what they are dealing with. That would take the load off the school, which would not then be required to carry out such checks.

The point is that all the safeguards laid out earlier by the Secretary of State are contained in guidance—they are not written into the Bill. As I understand it, the concession that he gave earlier concerning Ofsted would also not be included in the Bill; rather, guidance would simply be issued. So despite all the concessions that have been made, there are still no such safeguards in the Bill or in regulations. The regulatory framework remains that given to charities under the Charity Commission. As the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) pointed out earlier, that is hardly a body with a great record of efficiency. People do fall through the net.

Anyone setting up a charity to work with children or vulnerable adults is required to go through a Criminal Records Bureau check. However, as the Daily Mirror highlighted earlier this year, a charity that was set up in the name of a convicted paedophile fell through the net and did not get picked up by the Charity Commission. What kind of CRB check will be required for trust bodies? Will it be the standard check or an enhanced one? Of course, such issues were picked up following the Soham tragedy, which showed that those on the periphery of education are subject to the standard check, rather than an enhanced one. When the Minister winds up, I hope that he will say whether these trusts will be subject to the standard CRB check or an enhanced one. That is an important factor to be considered.

Of course, in many other fields where we expect there to be a test of character, such a test is written into the relevant legislation. For example, a considerable test of character is included in the legislation governing those who ask for a personal licence to sell alcohol. However, there is no such character test in the Bill before us for those who will run our schools. That is not adequate.

Several hon. Members rose—

Sarah Teather: I give way first to the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier).

Meg Hillier: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She is making some interesting points. Does she think that locally elected councillors should be CRB checked?

Sarah Teather: That depends on the extent to which they are involved with children. Perhaps we can debate
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that issue on another occasion—I suspect that it is slightly outside the remit of the point that I am trying to make.

Several hon. Members rose—

Sarah Teather: I will give way to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) and then I will make some progress.

Mr. Andrew Turner: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) has rather made my point. Of course, local councillors may serve on governing bodies and trusts may appoint people to governing bodies. But it is the governors and trustees who are appointed to the governing bodies who—if they work with children—have to be CRB checked, not the people who make the appointments.

Sarah Teather: I suspect that the Minister will have to clarify this issue, because my understanding is that governors do have to be CRB checked, regardless of whether or not they are local councillors. I will allow the Minister, with the help of his civil servants, to answer that question.

I turn to amendment No. 15, which goes to the heart of the relationship between central Government and local government. In my view, this issue has very little to do with education—we could be discussing it in the context of almost any Bill that the Government introduce. For me, the proper place for taking decisions about the provision of local services is at the locally elected, locally accountable tier of government level closest to the area where the service is delivered: that is, local government. I cannot understand why we are going through the process of attempting to fetter and describe the Secretary of State’s veto when it should surely be a point of principle with which the Government agree.

In the 10-year plan for what used to be the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—I have entirely lost track of what it is called now—one of the stated objectives was to encourage more devolution and delegation to the front line, giving local leaders responsibility, accountability and the opportunity to design services around the needs of local people. Is not that precisely what we are dealing with here, giving the local authority the right to decide what provision is best for local people?

The real question is what the Government believe local government is for. Is it an arm of the central Government’s public service delivery or is it a separate, discrete, autonomous and directly elected tier of government able to take its own decisions, accountable to the community, free to pursue policies that are relevant to a local area and free to disagree with the central Government? Is not the central point about democracy and devolution the fact that a locally elected tier of government should be able to make political choices that are different from those of the central Government?

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Mr. Turner: The hon. Lady seems to be defending the White Paper as originally presented, which gave the local authority the power to decide in a competition. That power has been removed only because some people insisted on the local authority being able to enter the competition, so it obviously cannot be the judge as well.

Sarah Teather: I am making the point that authorities should be allowed to decide whether a community school is the best provision for the local area. I think that that is perfectly sensible and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has attempted to change the point.

Surely it is nonsense to suggest that the Secretary of State knows all of the local circumstances better than the local authority. If the Secretary of State assumes that he does, it profoundly changes the relationship between central and local government. New clause 33 attempts to describe when the veto will be used, but it is the Secretary of State who will describe when the Secretary of State will veto a decision, so it does not represent much of a step forward. I simply think that the Secretary of State should not be meddling at all.

Finally, new clause 26 is designed to prevent a trust from appointing a majority of the governing body. Specifically, it is intended to prevent trusts from appointing governors that would outnumber elected parent governors on the governing body. In the light of all the spin we have heard about parent power and about giving parents choice, it seems nonsensical to pursue a policy that would reduce the elected component of parents on the governing body. Simply saying that a school would have to set up a council is not enough: welcome as councils may be, they are advisory, and having an advisory role is a sop in exchange for taking away the power to vote on and take decisions. Accountability should go to the heart of our own democracy, and we elected politicians should view it as precious and try to preserve it. I would therefore like to test the House’s opinion on the new clause, which is very much a point of principle for us.

The Conservatives have tabled a range of amendments, but I am left rather confused about their position: they say that we should trust parents, but they will not accept ballots; they say that they believe in parent power, but they want to reduce the influence of elected parent governors on the governing body; and they say that they believe in localism, but they do not trust local government. There is a disjunction between one part of their rhetoric and another, which makes it difficult to understand.

We will support new clause 16, proposed by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), precisely because we support the principle of giving parents choice and power—

Ms Angela C. Smith rose—

Sarah Teather: I am finishing my speech now.

I am surprised that the Government will resist that new clause.

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