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School Standards and Framework Bill

8.43 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 8 [Reserve power of Secretary of State to secure proper performance of LEA's function]:

Lord Tope moved Amendment No. 45:

Page 6, line 46, at end insert--
("( ) The Secretary of State shall by regulations specify the circumstances in which a local education authority shall be deemed to be failing to perform a function to an adequate standard.").

The noble Lord said: The clause gives the Secretary of State wide powers to intervene in a local education authority. We all accept, perhaps with varying degrees of reluctance, that those powers may be necessary. But I hope and believe that the Minister will assure us that they will be used only as a last resort.

The clause specifies that the Secretary of State may intervene in a case where an LEA is deemed to be failing to perform to an adequate standard. Nowhere in the Bill does it suggest what an adequate standard might be. It is reasonable that LEAs should know--the amendment suggests that it should be through regulation--what is expected of them and what will be deemed to be failure.

These are important and extensive powers for the Secretary of State to intervene, in effect to take away powers from a democratically elected body. I have accepted that there could be circumstances where that is necessary. However, in agreeing to the power, it is important that the Government give us some indication of what they consider to be failing to perform to adequate standards.

It is not only the view that this Government might take. I am sure that this Government will take a benevolent view and will use those powers only as a last resort. However, difficult though they might find it to believe now, there is a possibility--I know that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, finds the concept hard to understand--that one day there might be another government who might possibly be less benevolent towards a Labour-controlled LEA, should there be such a body at that stage.

These powers are given to any Secretary of State. It is therefore beholden upon us to be clear what powers we are bestowing and what the Government have in mind when they refer to failing to perform to an adequate standard. I move the amendment in the hope that some light will be shed and to give the Minister an opportunity to explain exactly what the Government have in mind in seeking this power. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: As the noble Lord said, the clause gives the Secretary of State a reserve power to intervene to put matters right when he considers that a local education authority is failing in one or more of its education functions. Amendment No. 45 would require the Secretary of State to specify in regulations the circumstances in which an LEA may be judged by him to be failing to provide, in general or in particular, a function adequately. I understand what the noble Lord

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says. The amendment is no doubt intended to ensure that those powers would be exercised objectively with regard to proper criteria and with the fullest justification. We intend that to be the case. But perhaps I may give the noble Lord some reassurance about the kind of evidence which the Secretary of State would need to consider on those, it is to be hoped, rare occasions when he will need to decide on possible intervention in a local education authority.

When an LEA is thought to be failing, the Secretary of State may use his existing powers to order a full inspection of the LEA by the Office for Standards in Education before deciding whether or not to intervene. The evidence produced by Ofsted will provide an objective and comprehensive basis on which the Secretary of State may come to a decision on whether or not to intervene. Ofsted's report will be made public, making available to all the evidence on which any decision to intervene was taken. The example last year of Hackney LEA may be recalled. On that occasion on a voluntary basis the Secretary of State decided, with the agreement of the authority, to send in an improvement team to work with the LEA. That followed an Ofsted inspection that provided the Secretary of State with the evidence for making his decision. That was on a voluntary basis, but this gives it a power to do so without necessarily the co-operation of the local education authority. Nevertheless, Ofsted's criteria in all such situations are publicly available in the document and laid out in the framework for inspection of the LEAs.

Equally, the situation may arise where a seriously inadequate education development plan could trigger intervention in a failing LEA. Again there are published criteria for approval of education development plans and that again would provide some safeguards against undue interference such as the noble Lord fears. Also, to give a third example, the performance of an LEA could be questioned as a result of a complaint. Then the Secretary of State may decide to intervene, but only where the complainant can provide sufficient evidence. These powers are not new. Comparable powers already exist, and in those circumstances under Sections 496 and 497 of the 1996 Education Act.

If we were to attempt to specify all the circumstances under which an LEA could be deemed to be failing we would be faced with a substantial task. In each situation where there is failure there would be the possibility of intervention. In no case would the Secretary of State take his decision lightly and he would need to take account of all the available evidence, and much of that evidence, as I have said, would be made public. It is our contention that it would impede the Secretary of State in his responsibility to ensure that all children and all schools are receiving the education from the LEAs which they deserve if his power to intervene were to be limited to specific circumstances set down in regulations which would not be able to cover other circumstances which it may not be possible to foresee. We consider that we need the reserve power, but we cannot in regulations envisage all the circumstances where it might be required.

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I hope I have said enough to reassure the noble Lord, and that he will accept that in all those circumstances the Secretary of State would have regard to all published criteria and would give a full justification for his intervention. In the light of these reassurances I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Lucas: I am rather puzzled by what the Minister said. I do not see anything in Clause 8 which would allow a Secretary of State to send in a hit squad a la Hackney. The provisions in this clause are all to do with existing employees of the authority. I do not see how under this provision the Secretary of State could, when this is in force, do with the authority of an Act what has been done in a voluntary way now. I do not see anything here which would allow that to happen, and perhaps the noble Lord will enlighten me.

Secondly, I do not see how the procedure set out here gets round the problems of a place like Hackney, which has rightly been described as "a conspiracy of incompetence", where the procedures for promoting and recruiting people were such that they made sure that nobody who was capable of doing the job better than the people who were already there was recruited. You are not dealing with a collection of people who may be capable of doing what the Secretary of State wants them to do.

Thirdly, if you are instructing on a temporary basis some employee of a local authority to do something which may be greatly disliked by the elected members of the authority, where are the loyalties of this person going to lie? Are his loyalties going to lie with the Secretary of State who has instructed him to do something or with the elected members, who after a year or two of interregnum will be back in control and, if he has done what the Secretary of State wants, will ensure his rapid departure? Surely his long-term interests will be in keeping in with the local elected members. I share the concerns which the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has expressed but, listening to the explanation given by the Minister, I do not see how he thinks this clause is going to work at all.

Lord Whitty: In terms of the powers which are in the Act, the clause allows the Secretary of State to intervene to appoint persons to carry out functions which previously had been carried out by the LEA and to give directions to the officers of the LEA. Therefore, the powers are already there and there are also pre-existing powers, to which I have referred, under the 1996 Act. There is also the power to order a full inspection to provide the basis for intervention under Section 37 of the 1997 Education Act. So some of the powers are in this clause and others are in existing legislation.

The second half of what the noble Lord said referred to how officials of the local education authority, and presumably by extension schools, will react to that intervention. I think that if a local education authority were dealing with the Secretary of State in a serious way and was deemed to be failing in its function, then the responsibility of public officials, whether teachers or

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officials, must be to the Secretary of State's intervening measures in order to ensure that adequate education is provided within that local education area. Clearly we are hoping that in all such circumstances there would be co-operation from the local education authority, but there could be circumstances where there was a conflict. In such cases the powers are clear. The Secretary of State has the powers of direction and, if necessary, the powers of appointment within the LEA, and we would expect his directions to be carried out. Clearly the powers are there in this and existing legislation. I would hope that the conflict situation which the noble Lord outlines rarely arises but, if it does, the Secretary of State will take the necessary action.

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