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Baroness Blatch: I am sorry to come back again but there are two questions, one of which the noble Lord has not answered. First, will the resources that will be needed to service the organisation committees, the adjudicators and all the attending costs be a matter for deduction from the funding for local education authorities? Secondly, the noble Lord a moment ago said that the adjudicator would be appointed by a local committee. The Bill says the adjudicator will be appointed by the Secretary of State.
Lord Whitty: On the second point, I think I said that they would be appointed by the Secretary of State through an open process of application. We will both check Hansard tomorrow. Whether or not I said that, I certainly intended to say it, and that is in fact the case.
As far as the funding is concerned, the estimate of any additional funding in this puts the cost relatively low, below £1 million, against which has to be set the current cost of what are, in effect, appeals to the Secretary of State. I stress that that is £1 million in total, but against it has to be set the current costs of appeals to the Secretary of State. The whole point of this process, to answer the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, is that clearly the local education authority is the constitutionally responsible body. But its position will
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: The noble Lord is now saying that these school organisation committees will be exercising the powers of the Secretary of State. But how can they do so in conflict with local authorities, which are also exercising their powers under statute? It seems to me that the internal inconsistencies of these clauses are not fully apparent to those sitting on the government Benches. We shall really get ourselves into a muddle on the ground in trying to work out who does what under the system. As I understand the decision-taking process, there are no fewer than 10 potential stages in the school organisation plan alone. That already is many more stages in decision taking than most local authorities ever become involved in. It will mean increased bureaucracy, which is very dangerous, time consuming and expensive; but, above all, it means that we are moving into internal inconsistencies in the legislation.
In response to an earlier intervention, the noble Lord said that what he wanted to do was institutionalise existing systems of consultation. Again, that wish could be satisfied if we were to agree, as set out in my noble friend's amendment, that these committees would work "in an advisory capacity". The fact that they appear to be decision-taking committees is causing the difficulty.
Lord Baker of Dorking: It seems to me that the Government must decide under which flag they are actually sailing. A moment ago the Minister said that this is a measure of devolution to the local community. However, a few moments later, he was forced to admit that the adjudicator is to be appointed by the Secretary of State on local advice. All of us who have served in government will know what that means as, indeed, will the noble Lord. In effect, the Secretary of State will largely decide who is to be the adjudicator.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, was chairman of the Surrey County Council, when I was a member, which introduced considerable changes in education, some of which were most controversial and some totally wrong. However, we will not go into that aspect of the matter. None the less, it all went through a democratic process and not to an adjudicator; indeed, I took delegations to my successors as Secretary of State. As far as I can see, that will not happen in the future. The adjudicator has been put forward and I have no idea whether or not he will receive delegations from councillors, local residents and local parents. Quite frankly, I do not believe that the Government have the remotest idea in that respect. This is actually administration on the hoof and the Government should recognise that fact.
As I see it, the local education authority still remains responsible for organising education in its area. Indeed, there is a section in the Bill which refers to drawing up an organisation plan. I have interpreted it as going in the following way; namely, to follow the example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that the plan will include the possibility that a school will be closed. Alternatively, it may include a provision stating that such an occurrence might happen in due course.
It seemed to me that the Government's intention was to try to find a way, when controversy arose, to ensure that the matter did not revert all the way back to the centre. That is my reading both of what the Bill says and what my noble friend the Minister said. In other words, they are trying to find a method of saying, "We agree that there is a problem here. We agree that you're rowing about it. We are trying to set up a structure that will still enable you to sort it out at the local level if you possibly can". I understand the role of the school organisation committee to be just that.
In saying that, I speak as someone who is as committed as anyone in this Chamber to local government--just to echo what the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said in his earlier intervention. Indeed, I am fully committed to local government. However, I do not see this as being necessarily antipathetic to local government; I see it as a way of trying to say to those concerned, "Can't you at your level possibly sort this out without it going to the Secretary of State?" If one objects to the non-democratic nature of the adjudicator, it seems to me, from my experience of advising Secretaries of State, that one should not believe--but perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Baker, will tell me that I am wrong--that they have actually looked in detail at such local matters. He or she would certainly have had the equivalent of a non-elected person saying, "This is a load of rubbish. If I were you I would do the following", but the Secretary of State would, of course, carry the can in such cases.
I have no great problem about the adjudicator, if such a process will work in practice; in other words, if we can persuade those concerned at the local level to move towards taking harsh decisions. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, is completely right. My experience as regards taking decisions about closing anything is that there will always be an objector. My favourite example is the case of trying to close a public lavatory, let alone a school or anything of that kind, where it becomes a matter of major constitutional importance. We should not doubt the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is right to point out that rows will occur.
What I am trying to say in support of the Government is that they are trying to introduce a process whereby they are saying to those concerned, "Can't you do it at your level? Can we not set up a structure so that you
Lord Baker of Dorking: As the noble Lord mentioned me, perhaps I may point out that the actual receipt of suggestions for school closures is one of the matters which keeps Ministers and Secretaries of State for Education busy. In fact, the decision is not perfunctory; indeed, it is not taken lightly. As my noble friend Lady Young said, there is always an objection. One invariably sees delegations. They often nobble Ministers in the Lobby in the other place and demand to be seen. So Ministers see them and that means reading the case, as well as receiving one delegation in favour and one against. It is not perfunctory; it is actually part of our quaint democratic system working in practice.
Baroness Young: When I was an education Minister the happy task of looking at school closures fell to me. I recall quite clearly the numbers of Red Boxes full of submissions on each school. I saw delegations both in favour of the school in question and against it. As my noble friend Lord Baker said, the difference is that, in those cases, you could get the intervention of an MP and the matter could actually be raised in Parliament. After all, Ministers are all responsible to Parliament in some way. It is a new constitutional principle to have an adjudicator appointed with, as far as one can see, unlimited power to make a decision without any kind of an appeal over and above the local authority and, presumably, without there being any opportunity to raise the matter in any other forum, such as Parliament. This really is a matter which is worthy of further consideration.
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