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Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: The Minister made a number of points and by the time she reached

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the end I had forgotten some of the import of what she said at the beginning. However, perhaps I may pick out one or two points.

Of course, diocesan representatives have voting rights. But the diocese provides a considerable input into church schools in the area. Therefore they have a financial responsibility for what they do and local authorities are obliged to consult and work with diocesan representatives about proposals for reorganising, closing, opening or changing the character of schools. In all those matters we are obliged to consult the diocese. The diocesan representatives therefore play a totally different role as providers of education from anybody else. They are more akin to local authorities than anybody else and I suspect that that is why they have voting rights in committees. It is a totally different matter to parent governor representatives having voting rights.

In relation to teachers, all we want to do is ensure that what is going through Parliament now does not prevent the existing arrangements whereby teachers are co-opted on to education committees. I believe that I received that assurance from the Minister. Most people who have served on education committees know how valuable the advice from those teacher representatives can be. They often know things which we do not know and, in particular, they know about education theory and how things work in practice in the classroom, which many members of education authorities do not know. I believe therefore that we have cleared up that point.

Perhaps I may return to parent governors. What we are suggesting is not that parent governor representatives on local authority education committees should be able to consult parents, but that they should be able to consult the parent governors who put them where they are. That is what the clause says. The amendment inserts,

    "the way in which such persons"--

parent governor representatives--

    "are required to consult parent governors whom they represent".

Members of a committee of an education authority or a committee of any local authority can usually get assistance from the local authority in getting back to the people who put them where they are now. He or she very often has the right to dictate letters or to have free postage. There are a whole series of accommodations which local authorities make for their elected members in order that they may keep in touch with their local electorate. If one has on the education committee of a county council, a borough council or a city council parent governors who are sitting as members, particularly if they are voting members--the matter becomes a little less acute if they are not voting members--they should be assisted in getting back to the people who elected them.

I do not agree that this is such a tremendously difficult thing to do. It depends on how big the local education authority is. If one is talking about matters which affect secondary schools, there will not be that many secondary schools--perhaps 50 at the most--in any major local education authority; and probably fewer

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because the number of secondary schools has been falling over recent years as they have been combined. It does not seem to be an intolerable thing to do to draft a letter to the parent governors in those schools who are listed in information available at county hall, the town hall or wherever it is and for them to get assistance in making sure that the letter gets to the place that it needs to get to.

That is the kind of thing we have in mind. How can representatives play a representative role if they are not assisted in getting back to the people whom they represent? Members of education committees who are county councillors, borough councillors, London borough councillors or metropolitan borough councillors are so assisted. Why should not parent governors be assisted in the same way? Why cannot we say something about that either in regulations or on the face of the Bill. This is quite an important point. I hope that the Minister will give it some consideration.

Baroness Blackstone: We have selected parent governors to be representatives and to take part in the election process because they already have a mandate from parents in their schools. That is something which the Liberal Democrat Benches both here and in another place have welcomed. But I must stress that parent governors will not go on to education committees just to represent the interests of other parent governors or of schools of which they are governors. They will be elected to represent the interests of parents whose children are being educated by the authority. Their introduction on to education committees, and with a vote, will give them a strong voice in discussions and rightly enable them to take part in decisions which affect the quality of provision and the range of provision in that local education authority. I am not sure why the noble Baroness is shaking her head.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: I hate interrupting Ministers when they are speaking, but the quality and range of education that is offered by a local education authority involves decisions which affect finance. Therefore, under the very principles which Mr. Byers put forward in another place, the parent governors will not be able to vote on the matter.

Baroness Blackstone: I do not really accept that. Parent governors are elected in their own schools to take many decisions of a financial kind. They play a very important role. Those who are elected to come on to an education committee should be able to do exactly the same on an education committee. We want parents to have a genuine voice and a right to participate in decisions through being able to vote. That has been welcomed by many parents around the country.

As regards consultation, I do not believe that I can add very much to what I have already said. Of course, we would expect that parent governors do their very best to consult, as appropriate, but we do not believe that it is right to specify in regulations exactly how they should do that. That would be over-prescriptive and over-centralist in the way in which they perform their

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role. That is as far as I can go. In the light of what I have said, I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Young: This debate raises quite a number of rather important constitutional issues. I very much support what my noble friend Lady Blatch said. Whereas I am a complete supporter of parents on governing bodies, I am sceptical about the idea of elected parents, which, if I have understood it correctly, arises from indirect elections from parents who are already parent governors.

So there are three groups of people on an education committee: the directly elected councillors, the diocesan representatives, who, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, explained quite correctly, have a very real role to play, and teachers, who are there by co-option. Now there will be parents through indirect election.

Everyone in local government knows that education committees are the biggest spenders. Therefore, in financial terms they are extremely important. They spend a lot of money. There will be people on the committee who are there by indirect election and not direct election from the community. That is rather curious because I thought that the Labour Party believed in that as a matter of principle.

If I understood the noble Baroness correctly, if the parent governors were in a position to hold sway on an education committee because there was a very narrow political balance, the council would have to put more councillors on that committee. My experience of local government goes back some time, but under our standing orders the number of people on committees was laid down. The idea that one could top up a committee because it suited one's purposes simply was not possible. I would have thought that it was a very undesirable constitutional arrangement.

The noble Baroness should look seriously at what the committee will look like. It would be helpful to have a letter setting out a committee of, say, 18 members, pointing out how the Government see the 18 split, or whatever is the appropriate number of members for the committee. I was in an authority in which there was always a very narrow political balance. So this is not an academic issue. This narrow balance could be represented by parent governors and it could be in relation to the biggest spending committee. Within the council there would be the committee putting up something which, if it proved to be difficult or impossible, would be overruled by the whole council. The problems that are being created are not academic but very real. They need to be looked at. It was helpful of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, to raise the issue.

Lord Lucas: I share the concerns of my noble friend Lady Young. I want to raise again the much smaller issue which the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, raised; namely, how the parent governor representatives pay their way. If they are to talk to, say, a thousand parent governors throughout the authority on even a quarterly basis, that will cost them the best part of £3,000 to £4,000 each out of their own pockets unless they have the right to have this kind of communication

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handled by the council. That is not a question which the Minister addressed at all. Therefore I ask her directly: will the parent governor representatives have the right to use council facilities to communicate with the people who elected them when that is necessary, if only to give a progress report on how things are going?

9.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: Before the noble Baroness comes back on those points, perhaps I may respond to a matter raised by my noble friend Lady Young about the balance of a council and the number of people serving on committees. In an earlier response to this amendment the Minister said--if I understood her correctly--that the majority party would always hold sway because it could top up its numbers in order to counter-balance the number of parent governors. Many councils now are hung councils. One has only to consider the knife-edge balance on Islington Council, on which the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, serves, to know that when the majority party increases by one, that has to be counterbalanced by an increase of two in the minor parties; otherwise one creates an imbalance. By "majority party", I mean not only the majority party itself but also the largest single party within a hung authority. If its numbers are increased in order to counterbalance the parent governors, an even greater imbalance is created for the minor parties because not only are they outnumbered by the majority party, but they are outnumbered to an even greater extent by the additional parent governors. My noble friend Lady Young is right. Messing around with the balance of membership on committees is not a simple matter.

In addition, it is not simply a question of looking for more councillors to serve on more committees, although that is not easy to do. County councils are very busy. They have many committees and many other departments. Trying to find more people to serve who are there only as a top-up to counterbalance the parent governors presents some real logistical problems. As my noble friend Lady Young said, they are not academic problems; they are very real, practical problems.

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