Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Peston: I and other Members of the Committee are most sympathetic to what the noble Baroness is saying. However, does she at least agree that it would be better if the people involved at the local level sorted out such matters themselves? That is what the Bill is trying to do. It is trying to suggest to those concerned that they should sort it out without going all the way through the system to whoever the current Ministers may be. I understand the point that is being made, but it seems to me that there is rather less sympathy than there ought to be among noble Lords opposite as regards what the Government are trying to do on this matter.

Lord Rix: Perhaps I may ask a somewhat naive question. What will actually happen to the SOCs and the adjudicator if the schools opt out? Will they disappear, or will they still be effective bodies?

4 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: I am not sure whether I am answering for my noble friend when I say that we

1 Jun 1998 : Column 26

absolutely agree with the notion that these matters should be handled at local level. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, misunderstood the concept of the school organisation plan. This plan is drawn up by a local authority's elected councillors. Normally there is a great deal of discussion at local committee level and there is consultation with the community. The bones of the plan are then drawn up and eventually something more substantial is submitted to various education sub-committees and then to the full education committee.

Even then the plan is not finalised until it is submitted to the full council. The full council comprises elected people from every corner of the local education authority area. The full council draws up the final organisation plan.

However, it is proposed that the plan will then be submitted to an unelected body; namely, a school organisation committee. That unelected body can oppose the plan. If that occurs, the plan is submitted to an adjudicator who can disagree with the decision of the school organisation committee. The adjudicator can take the majority view; he can reject the majority view; he can accept a minority view; or he can submit a totally different plan.

At the end of the day the decision is not that of the local authority. We agree that these matters should be decided at local level. A school organisation plan comprises details on mergers, closures, the establishment of new schools, the organisation of new places and the demands arising from the demography of a local education authority area. Any decision is taken within the context of the plan, but it is proposed that the decision will be completely removed from a local authority; now a local authority is to comprise nothing more than a part of the process. Elected people will pass the responsibility for taking such decisions to the adjudicator, not even the elected Secretary of State.

I refer to the experiences of my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking as a former Secretary of State for Education and my noble friend Lady Young as an education Minister and my experience as a former Minister at the Department for Education. Decisions reached us after a great deal of deliberation on the part of local authorities. However, that process provided one more opportunity for an elected person to reconsider the decision that had been taken. Sometimes a Secretary of State reversed the decision of a local authority. However, that process enabled people to have their case heard one more time. However, we are talking now about an unelected body of placemen and placewomen and all powerful adjudicators. The adjudicators have the most draconian powers, more than any elected representative in the country, whether at national or local level, with no appeal. We shall discuss amendments later concerning an appeal to the adjudicator. However, this is the most undemocratic proposal. It may be consistent with what we believe is the hidden agenda; namely, the sidelining of local authorities.

Lord Whitty: I think we are all surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, has never been elected to any

1 Jun 1998 : Column 27

position. That must be due to his modesty in not putting himself forward rather than to any rejection on the part of the electorate. He has articulated more clearly than I, or any of the Government's guidance, the Government's intention; namely, that, as far as possible, these issues should be dealt with at local level. I respect the diligence with which the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Blatch, have pursued their duties as Ministers of the Crown. However, those decisions should not be taken at that level; they should be taken at local level. The intention of establishing school organisation committees is that, as far as is possible, such decisions will be taken at local level. The adjudicator is meant to act as a failsafe mechanism.

I believe that almost everyone who has contributed to the debate respects the view that these decisions should be taken at local level, as we propose. However, the amendment would allow the final decision to be taken by a local education authority, against the wishes of other partners in certain circumstances, without the existing appeal to the Secretary of State. That may not be the intention of the amendment but it would be its effect. We should recognise that it is the intention of the Government to return these decisions to local level. The adjudicator is not a draconian major general. He is to act as a failsafe mechanism in a situation where no unanimity can be reached even after lengthy deliberation by the partners involved at local level. This provision is not an anti-democratic device and it is no different from any other circumstance where local authorities are subject to final decision by an adjudicator.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: It is important to clarify one point. The Minister has repeatedly said that the decision should be taken at local level. Is it the intention that every local area should have an adjudicator in waiting, as it were; otherwise, how on earth can he be local? If he is not to cover a wide area, surely it will be most expensive to have an adjudicator in each local area to consider every possible closure that may arise.

Lord Whitty: It is not the intention to have an adjudicator for every LEA, if that is what the noble Baroness is suggesting. We hope that in the case of most local education authority areas, a decision will be reached unanimously by the school organisation committees. Therefore there will be no need for an adjudicator. I hope that Members of the Committee opposite recognise that the intention of this clause is to enable local providers and other interested parties to reach agreement at local level, and that the adjudicator--whose powers we shall discuss later--is to act as a failsafe mechanism. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in particular recognises that the amendment as it stands would give a local education authority the right to overrule all other partners without the existing

1 Jun 1998 : Column 28

appeal to the Secretary of State. In the light of that response I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment as it stands.

Lord Tope: Before I respond to the debate, which I have been itching to do, I wish to press the Minister on the question of costs which we have not discussed fully. As I understand it, the Government have estimated the cost to be £1 million. That can be only a rough estimate, because as the Minister said, none of us knows quite what will happen. Depending on one's point of view, that is an optimistic estimate based on the Government's apparent belief that consensus will rule; unanimity will be the norm; and we shall go through only half of the ten-stage process that this Bill envisages. As I understand it, the eventual cost is to be borne by LEAs in full. I hope that the Minister will confirm that. Given the Government's recently announced intention to delegate 100 per cent. of funding to schools, will the cost of this process then be met by the schools? Will they be compelled to opt into this process and to contribute, or will the funds be top-sliced from local authority money? How will it work, or is it yet another matter that the Government have not yet worked out?

Lord Whitty: We shall debate funding at a later stage. As the noble Lord surmises, the intention is that the money would form part of the administrative expenditure of a local education authority and would not be devolved to schools.

Lord Tope: I thank the Minister for that reply. I shall now contribute to what has inevitably and rightly been a wide-ranging debate. In introducing the amendment I made little reference to the adjudicator because I realise that is the subject of the following clause. However, it is impossible to discuss the whole concept of a school organisation committee without also considering the role of the adjudicator. Although we have strayed a little wide of my amendment, I think it was right and inevitable that we should do so.

The Minister was absolutely right to say that the effect of the amendment is to leave the final decision with the LEA. However, what alarms me is that the Minister is putting that forward as an objection to the amendment. However, that is the purpose and intention of the amendment. The local education authority is the democratically elected and accountable body which should take local decisions. We appear to have struck an extraordinary unanimity in the Chamber today. We all want to see these decisions taken locally and democratically; and that requires a form of election. The local education authority is responsible for ensuring the provision of education for all children in an area. It is democratically elected and accountable. That is why we tabled the amendment. For the Minister now to put that forward as a reason for opposing the amendment alarms me almost more than anything else I have heard today.

We have had much discussion on consensus and the desire for unanimity. I hope that we all wish to see these matters resolved in a spirit of co-operation and

1 Jun 1998 : Column 29

consensus and rejoice when unanimity is arrived at. I do not doubt that, in numerical terms, many of the plans and proposals may be fortunate enough to go that way. Our concern relates to those cases where unanimity and consensus do not rule. I, too, have had some experience, albeit many years ago, of school closures. I have yet to hear of closures on the basis of unanimity among all concerned. Although it may have happened, it is certainly the exception rather than the rule.

Sometimes unanimity will not be achieved, and sometimes consensus, however hard sought, will not be achieved. Exhaustive discussions will sometimes fail in the end, though I hope not often. The question is: what happens then? My noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood stole my line. I had intended to offer some help to the Minister in his attempt to explain how this proposal would work. I have been provided with a flow chart explaining exactly how it would work. If it is a matter of consensus and unanimity, we can stop at stage six; if not, we can argue about how long the process is and whether it stops at stage 10, when the adjudicator decides, or stage 11 when the adjudicator's decision is accepted. The process is long, difficult and complex; and it will be expensive. But finally, when consensus does not rule, who makes the decision? The Minister has made much of the fact that decisions are to be taken locally. However, as other noble Lords have pointed out, the final decision is not made locally but by the adjudicator appointed by the Secretary of State. We do not know how many adjudicators there will be, but the number will certainly be fewer than one for each LEA. Nor will they be appointed locally, or be accountable locally; nor, under the Bill as presently drafted, will there be any right of appeal in relation to their decision.

I have long believed that the Secretary of State has far too much power and is acquiring more and more. If there is to be a right of appeal, the appeal goes to the Secretary of State. However inadequately and indirectly, the Secretary of State is democratically accountable. Ultimately, the Secretary of State can be questioned in Parliament. The adjudicator appointed by the Secretary of State, who will probably have no local connection and certainly no local accountability, cannot be questioned by anybody anywhere. How the Government can say that that is in accordance with local democratic decision-making, I really do not know.

Sometimes from these Benches I hear the Government's explanation of their proposals and think, "Yes, I hadn't thought of that; maybe there is something in it". The more I have heard of these proposals, the more convinced I am, not that this amendment should be passed, but that a later one should be passed to get rid of this proposal altogether.

We have talked about a dissenting voice and the unanimity of a school organisation committee. Each group on a committee has one vote. If I remember the consultation papers correctly, the membership of a group could comprise anything from one to seven people. So a situation could arise whereby a group of one exercises a dissenting vote. Some may say that is democratic; I suggest that it is a veto. A group, whether of one, two or seven, will exercise a veto over proposals that have been exhaustively discussed by the LEA and

1 Jun 1998 : Column 30

through LEA processes--which were well described by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch--and considered by the SOC and so on; and it could be a group of one. It is less likely; however, it is a possibility under this legislation. That is not right.

In moving the amendment I said that the advisory role has some merit. Many LEAs already have some sort of system, some sort of forum, wherein interested parties, such as those proposed for membership of the SOC, have an opportunity for input and discussion. Indeed, many are members of, and represented on, the elected education committee, which is where these decisions ought to be taken.

I am far from convinced by the Government's arguments. In fact, I have become increasingly convinced that, later, in moving that the clause do not stand part I shall be doing the right thing. I will consider further what needs to be done. In the meantime, I shall not press the amendment to a Division. This has been a useful, if alarming, discussion. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 98:

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page