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The question that we have to ask is whether the amendment mandating balloting takes the cause of empowerment forward or back. Compulsory ballots are a cumbersome, time-consuming and rather intimidating procedure that is intended to slow down the pace of reform and to make genuine parental participation less likely rather than more. That is not to say that ballots should not be held if the governing body wishes to hold them; but it is to say that one-off, compulsory ballots do not help the cause of greater parental empowerment but are likely to slow it down. One-off compulsory ballots are not genuine participation; they are a device to get in the way of genuine participation, and they should be resisted.
The metaphor of politics has been used. Just as it is true to say that a general election every four to five years no longer represents participation and no longer represents involvement, it is true to say that a compulsory ballot, held possibly once in the life of a parent, does not begin to offer the participation that we need. This Bill is about real empowerment and real involvement over a period of time from the beginning to the end, as the noble Baroness said, and the compulsory balloting procedure is an attempt to get in the way of that, not to assist it.
Lord Baker of Dorking: I did not expect to agree so completely with the words of the noble Lord, who is one of the gurus of the Labour Party, but I do. I find the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness unconvincing. I thought that the amendments were confused, and I wanted to hear her explanation. I now am clear where she starts from; as I understand it, she wants the views of parents to predominate. That is her main consideration. I agree with that, but I do not think that this is the way to do it.
The Government clearly expect from this Bill something corresponding to the Scandinavian pattern where, as a result of allowing communities to come together, there will be a welling-up of the parental opinion saying that they want a new school. They will put forward their proposals, and the parents will be very committed. I do not think that there will be an absence of parental commitment to fulfilling the objectives of the Bill, and I support that.
Let us suppose the parents in a town such as south Bolton came together and said that they wanted a new school. Who should vote in that ballot? All the parents in south Bolton? All the parents of primary school children in south Bolton? All the parents of secondary school children in south Bolton? It is a totally impractical suggestion when you are considering a new school. You could not devise the electoral list on which a ballot could take place.
But what of a ballot in a school which already exists? This was the problem with which I was faced when I introduced grant-maintained schools. Back in 1988, if I had left it purely in the power of the governing body to create a grant-maintained school, I could not have got the Bill through. I could not have got it passed either by the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Many Conservative local education authorities would have burnt my effigy and said that it was absolutely unforgivable. So I introduced the complicated arrangements of ballots, and I did so to break the mould. I agree with the noble Lord who has just spoken. If they were introduced now, they would be used as a delaying device by the local education authorities, because in nearly all those grant-maintained-school ballots, pitched against the wishes of parents was the local education authority, which would spend vast sums of public money on publicity in an effort to prevent schools becoming grant maintained. Many local education authorities will not embrace the idea of new community schools being established. They like to maintain their hegemony and their monopoly. I do not believe that their attitudes have changed at all.
Therefore, the proposals of the Liberal Democrats in this matter are not at all feasible as regards new schools and are unnecessary as regards established schools. They would have a delaying effect. As I have said, I did what I did to break the mould. The mould is broken. Parents are now much more involved in the running of schools than they were back in the 1980s. They are very committed, not only in the leafy suburbs but also in the inner cities. The amendments are unnecessary and would be harmful to the Bill.
Baroness Walmsley: I rise in response to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Gould. If this Bill is really about empowering parents, why not give them a vote in the most important decision to be made about any school, which is its governance? Why are the Government frightened of parents? The noble Lord, Lord Gould, talked about one-off compulsory ballots as if they were the only way in which we on these Benches wanted to have parents involved in schools. Of course, that is not the case. There is no reason why a one-off compulsory ballot should preclude all the other, very desirable ways in which good schools should involve parents. It is like saying that you can have four or five years of focus groups, but that you cannot have a general election at the end of it. Does the noble Lord assume that the results of the ballots will get in the way of the expansion of trust schools? In objecting to the amendment of my noble friend Lady Williams, he seemed to be assuming that parents will vote against the establishment of trusts. If the Government really
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Lord Northbourne: It is encouraging to hear such unanimity across the Committee on the importance of parents. Let us be sure when we consult parents that we consult all parents and not merely those who are accustomed to public speaking and those who have a voice; we must listen also to those who are deprived and disadvantaged.
Lord Adonis: The amendments would amend the process by which schools are established and, in some cases, interpose another statutory layer, the parental ballot, into the local decision-making process.
Parental ballots were the subject of long debates and, indeed, a ballot in the elected House of Commons, which voted by a huge majority of 291that is, 412 votes against 121against proposals similar to these. The Governments arguments against these proposals have not changed: first, a ballot may be an appropriate form of consultation in some circumstancesI am strongly in favour of local ballots in appropriate cases, including local referendums conducted by local authoritiesbut both governing bodies and local authorities have powers to conduct such ballots at present. It would be disproportionate to require ballots for a change to trust status to take place. Secondly,if ballots are to be mandatory, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, the precise electorate for the ballots would need to be set out either in primary or secondary legislation. It would be highly problematic to do so and it is not attempted in any of the amendments before us.
Thirdly, it is fairly obvious from the debate so far that the essential motivation behind these amendments is one of antipathy to trusts and trust schools. This is shown by the fact that there is a whole range of other equallyif not morefundamental decisions affecting the character of schools and local educational provision, in respect of which no amendments requiring ballots have been tabled. For example, there are school closuresincluding the closure of special schools, the single most emotive issue for parents that crosses my desk as a Ministerchanges to admissions arrangements, the addition or subtraction of 6th formsanother highly emotive issue for parentsthe addition or subtraction of special needs provision, the change to specialist status, the choice of specialism, the relocation of a school and the move in a locality from a three-tier to a two-tier system.
All those are hugely difficult and often controversial issues of educational policy for individual schools and local provision, and there are no amendments down to ensure that these are subject to ballots. Nor do I recall the Liberal Democrat amendments to the Children Bill which would have required ballots on the setting up of children's centres, or the judging between, for example, proposals put forward by existing state schools as against those put forward by private and voluntary sector providers.
Fourthly, there are, however, substantial requirements as to consultation in all the changes of school status and organisations set out in the Bill, and on proposals
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Baroness Williams of Crosby: Briefly, I will not push these amendments at present, but I shall make a couple of points. First, we have specifically called for a ballot on the discontinuance of a school, one of the areas the Minister referred to. We have indicated that, where a school is to be discontinued, there should be a ballot of parents because they are profoundly affected by it. We proposed, in a new clause, that there should be a meeting of parents before any final decision is made. That goes some way to refute the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Gould of Brookwood, who suggested that we were only pressing for a single ballot once there was to be a change in the nature of a school, or the advancement of a new school. That is not the case: we specifically called for a parental meeting.
The Government are using the argument that this will delay everything in an extraordinary way. Surely what matters most, as has been central to our discussion of this education Bill, is that there should be the highest possible quality of schooling and that children should be secure in a well organised, accountable and responsible school. That is what concerns us. As we have often argued from these Benches, there should be a level playing field. Parents should have a strong voice in the choices to be made. Whatever our views may be on a particular trust school one way or the other, our crucial responsibility is to ensure that parents are given the choice of the kind of education they want for their child. Frankly, without a ballot or a requirement for a parents meeting, it is difficult to see why governing bodies should think they know what parents wishes might be better than the parents themselves. However, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the G8 Summit which took place on 15 to 17 July in St Petersburg. I pay tribute to President Putin's chairmanship and the Russian
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statementan unusually lengthy Statement and a very useful report back. We had a full Statement yesterday on the grave situation in the Middle East and the House will be grateful for the further update that we have just been given.
Do the Government agree with the view of the United States that much of the responsibility for the fomenting of terrorism I think that was the word President Bush was feeling forlies with Syria, whose president was recently feted by the Government in London? What leverage has that courting of President Assad given us in Damascus?
Do the Government also agree with the view of the United States that the greatest responsibility for the financing and arming of terrorism lies with Iran? Is it not essential that Damascus and Teheran get a united message, not only from the G8, but also from China and India, so recently tragically affected by terrorism, that the promotion of terrorism must stop?
How much could have been done to relieve the evils of poverty and suffering that we see in Gaza and in Lebanon if only one hundredth of the money poured into financing terrorist training guns and arms had gone into education, the fight against disease and the promotion of civil society, as the G8 rightly asked?
It is clear that a solution must include the release of Israeli hostages, the end of rocket attacks on Israel, the end of the bombardment of Gaza and Lebanon, whose governments were lawfully elected, and a future for Lebanon without armed militias, as so many of its people have shown they want.
The G8 brought together leaders of the worlds major powers. There were great declarations but what specifically will be done? Some people have the impression that the role of the Prime Minister is largely to act as a Sherpa for President Bush. Can the noble Baroness assure us that Britain will make a distinctive and independent contribution? How widespread is support for the Prime Ministers concept of an intervention force? How could it be injected when the level of violence is so high and without the consent of the contending parties? How could we make it more valuable than the existing UNIFIL? Would it have a potential combat role in restoring stability, that the British Army finds itself undertaking in Afghanistan? If so, who would take part? What undertakings were given in St Petersburg? How could our stretched Armed Forces help?
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