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The Lord Bishop of Ripon: I wonder whether the Minister can help me on this amendment. As I understand it, in relation to voluntary aided schools it is the Secretary of State who at present takes a range of decisions such as, for example, whether a new school should be opened or a school should be closed, whether a school should be significantly enlarged or whether it should have a nursery class added.

It seems to me that what is laid out in the Bill is that that power in relation to voluntary aided schools, which at present lies with the Secretary of State, should pass to the school organisation committee. If I have understood that incorrectly, perhaps the noble Baroness will put me right. However, if that is the case, clearly the advantage of the school organisation committee is that decisions will be made in relation both to voluntary and to county schools by the same body. That seems to me a step forward.

It is clear that Clause 23 mentions only three categories: members of the local education authority, a person nominated by the diocesan board of education for a diocese of the Church of England, and a person nominated by the bishop of any Roman Catholic church. Those are the three parties which have to agree. It seems to me that the question of how many should be in each of those groups is in a sense not germane to the thrust of this intention, which is that representatives of those three bodies should agree policy in relation both to maintained schools and voluntary schools.

The Churches are major providers of schools and have been for nearly two centuries. Twenty five per cent. of primary schools in England have been provided by the Church of England. We have a significant investment in the education service of which the Church is rightly proud. We are particularly aware that many of these schools are popular and over-subscribed schools. What is true for the Church of England is also true for the Roman Catholic Church.

If decisions affecting the future of church provision, whether Church of England or Roman Catholic, are to be taken locally--it seems to me that that is the thrust of the clause--then it is surely right that both Churches locally should have a voice and a decisive voice.

The Church of England and other Churches want to have a positive partnership with local education authorities. It would seem to me that that is exactly what the school organisation committee provides. Far from giving less responsibility to local education authority representatives, in fact, it gives them a say in the future of Church schools. It is surely the case that an effective school organisation committee must depend upon each of the partners having an effective voice. I would be grateful if the Minister, in reply, would indicate whether I have the right understanding and whether my support for school organisation committees is on sound grounds.

Lord Whitty: The Government respect, understand and fully appreciate the role of local education

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authorities, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. However, the proposals for a school organisation committee reflect the fact, as the right reverend Prelate has just said, that in each LEA area the provision of school places is a matter of a partnership between different providers, the LEA, the schools and other voluntary and charitable providers and currently grant-maintained schools.

The existing arrangements for deciding proposals for change to school organisation maintain a balance between all the partners. Local education authorities can currently decide any of their own proposals unless they attract objections, in which case, again as the right reverend Prelate said, they are referred to the Secretary of Sate, or the Secretary of State decides to call them in for his own decision. All proposals for change to voluntary and to grant-maintained schools must currently come to the Secretary of State for decision.

The proposal in this clause is to ensure that that decision is kept locally. The noble Baroness, as I understand her position, wishes to maintain the position that all appeals go, in effect, into the stratosphere or at least to the Secretary of State, whereas our proposals keep those decisions local. Changes in school organisation are local. It is the Government's view that the decisions must be taken at local level and we are developing new ways in which that can be achieved. That is the central purpose of the school organisation committee. It will take on, in effect, the role in the process currently taken by the Secretary of State. It will therefore be an element of decentralisation, not of centralisation or bureaucracy in the sense that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, claimed.

The school organisation committees give formal effect to the existing partnership which is at the heart of these provisions. A fundamental element of any genuine partnership is that the views of all the partners have force. Therefore, it is not sensible that the local education authority over-rules the views of the other partners. If we are to retain balance, one partner cannot be more equal than the others. The school organisation committees which we propose will consist of representatives from local groups involved in the provision of education in the area. The committees' voting arrangement will mean that no decision can be made on the school organisation committee unless all groups, including the LEA, agree. That reflects the local authority's role as a partner in the process.

In reference to the schools' representation, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked whether their views would be by unanimity and if not how would the system operate. There is still some element of consultation on that matter, but we assume that we shall reach a consensus in the schools' group which will be reflected in the unanimity of the school organisation committee when it reaches a decision.

In order to reach that decision, all groups, not only the LEA, must make their views count. Those objectives would not be met by giving the LEA the power to take decisions on all statutory proposals. Others have significant parts to play. The amendment would give the final decision-making power to the LEAs. They will

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continue to have a vital role in maintaining standards in schools, but because they are not the only local providers we must have other representatives within that process. Local decision-making is about partnership and about reaching a consensus whenever possible.

In terms of how the decision will be reached, we propose that each group represented on the committee will have a single vote and that all votes cast on the final decision must be unanimous. If not, and only after exhaustive discussion between all the partners involved, the decision will be passed to an adjudicator. Later today we shall discuss amendments which make that clear.

Local education authorities and the other groups will effectively have the opportunity to secure that any proposals to which they are opposed are considered by the adjudicator. We believe that that is the best way of ensuring a balance of views and of "putting the pressure on" to ensure that in most cases a consensus is reached. A local education authority will remain free to determine most of its own uncontested proposals for changes to individual schools--

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He has made some very conflicting statements. He said that local authorities will make the final decision. Nowhere in the consultation papers, the background papers to the debate or in the Bill is it stated that local authorities will make the final decision. The noble Lord will need to read Hansard tomorrow. I believe that he did say that; I was listening carefully to what he said.

Secondly, the noble Lord said that it is a matter of partnership. It is difficult to disagree with that; partnerships at local level are essential. Local authorities are engaged in creating partnerships with their local community in all its forms. We are talking about when things go wrong, when partnerships do not work and when the organisation committee has one dissenting voice. The local authority might agree on something which is then sent to the organisation committee for approval. One dissenting voice on that committee will mean that the matter must go to the adjudicator. The idea that there must be a consensus decision does not hold water. The adjudicator is a single, arm's length, unelected placeman and that person will have the power to make the decision.

The strength of the case being put by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and by Members on these Benches is that the elected people in the group making the decision will be the councillors at local level and the Secretary of State and his Ministers at national level. We say that the people who have been superimposed in between are wholly unaccountable and there is no appeal against their decision. Presumably, if they make a procedural mistake one can take them to court.

The Minister said that the Government wanted the views of all parties. That is good. He also said that they wanted strong partnerships and that has great force. But the views of all parties count for not one fig. If there is a dissenting voice on the organisation committee the matter will go to the adjudicator who has the power to

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accept or reject the majority view and to modify or overrule the decision. Part of what the noble Lord is saying in response to the amendment is inconsistent and part of it is simply wrong.

Lord Whitty: Perhaps I may clarify the position. I said that if the amendment were passed the local education authorities would be left to make the final decision. The circumstances on which I touched before the noble Baroness intervened related to unopposed proposals. In that case, the local education authority has the final decision.

The whole purpose of the school organisation committees is to ensure that the partnership which already exists and usually operates well in the area is institutionalised and reaches its own decisions. All partners should engage in negotiation and in a little give and take and reach a decision with which they can live. If in, it is to be hoped, the rare circumstances that that fails to emerge from a school organisation committee, the decision will be referred to the adjudicator. His powers will be discussed at a later stage in the Committee.

The whole intention of establishing school organisation committees is to ensure that there is maximum and institutionalised pressure to ensure that, as far as possible, the partners reach an agreement among themselves and that one partner--if the amendment were followed that would be the LEA--does not have the ability to overrule the others.

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