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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.30 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.57 to 8.30 p.m.]

School Standards and Framework Bill

House again in Committee.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford moved Amendment No. 108:

After Clause 24, insert the following new clause--

Right of appeal against decision of adjudicator

(" . The governing body of any school or the parents of pupils at any school affected by decisions of the adjudicator with respect to matters referred to him concerning or in connection with--
(a) school organisation plans under section 25 below;
(b) directions given under Schedule 7 concerning rationalisation of school places; or
(c) admission arrangements under sections 84 and 85 below,
shall, in all cases, have a right of appeal to the Secretary of State.").

The noble Lord said: Optimism and pessimism have been thrown around in this Chamber but this is a lovely, kind amendment, and it is nice to begin after dinner with this.

As the noble Baroness knows, there has been enormous controversy throughout the whole of the afternoon about organisation committees and adjudicators. I somehow thought that that would occur and I thought of a nice democratic way out. I therefore propose this amendment which allows the structures of the organisation committee and the adjudicator to continue, but allows an appeal to a Secretary of State who is responsible to Parliament.

I do not wish to dwell on history but in these Chambers we have always fought for parliamentary responsibility. We have always avoided the official who makes decisions without responsibility. The reason for that is mainly related to those who have not the power nor resources to resort to judicial review.

I assure noble Lords that resorting to judicial review is an expensive and exhausting process. I mentioned earlier this afternoon my experience as chairman of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. None of the plaintiffs ever resorted to judicial review, only the rather rich corporations.

In this situation relating to the school organisation committee and the adjudicator, there will be, without a doubt, some aggrieved parents, people who possibly do not understand the processes of law. At the moment,

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they have no appeal. It is true that they could seek a judicial review and it is certainly true that some organisations which have the money--and it is very expensive--will resort to lawyers and seek judicial review. But this amendment is primarily designed for the parents of children who have found that their school is being closed; they object; and they have not found any satisfaction from the organisation committee or their representations to the adjudicator.

I suggest that following English constitutional tradition, there should be a right of appeal to the Secretary of State who can answer questions in Parliament about such a matter.

In a sense, this amendment sums up the whole of the debate this afternoon. I hope that as an optimist, and a smiling optimist like myself, and also, I know, a supporter of the constitutional traditions of our country, the noble Baroness might even find it in her heart to accept this amendment.

Lord Newby: Our initial response to this amendment is rather similar to that of my younger son when, as sometimes happens, he is asked to choose between two green vegetables. His answer is always "neither". He has an aversion to green vegetables and so it is that we have an aversion to the adjudicator. Therefore, whether or not his decisions are appealable to the Secretary of State is a decision with which, in principle, we should rather not face.

However, given that if the Bill passes there will be adjudicators, as the mover of the amendment has made clear, the question is whether they should be given virtually unappealable powers. It is undoubtedly the case, as the noble Lord has already said, that judicial review is an expensive and cumbersome process and, frankly, one that is ill understood by many of the people who could conceivably use it. To the extent that they understand it, it is worrying and too expensive for them to wish to proceed.

The question then is simply, if one wants to have the adjudicator's decisions appealable at all, in reality, should one be able to refer back to the Secretary of State?

We have looked in detail at the amendment and I think it is fair to say that we are not wholly happy with it. We do not regard it as ideally drafted. For example, there is a failure to define what constitutes "parents of pupils". Moreover, there is no suggestion of whether one is talking about a majority of pupils in a school and how such a situation would be balloted. That is a shortcoming.

Equally, paragraph (b) of the amendment concerns directions given under Schedule 7. In a sense, those directions will flow from directions given by the Minister. Therefore, one will be appealing to the Minister against decisions that flowed from the Minister in the first place. That clearly is not a satisfactory appeal procedure.

However, even with those shortcomings, on balance, we are concerned that the adjudicator should not, in effect, have carte blanche to take a decision and that

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there should be no right of appeal against that decision except in exceptional circumstances. That leads us to support the principle behind the amendment.

Baroness Blatch: Following on from the noble Lord, Lord Newby, there is another issue here. Under the present system, at the end of this very long process, a local authority reaches a decision. Parents do not argue that the decision was not arrived at properly and was not procedurally correct. They simply do not like the decision and they think it is the wrong decision for their school. They then take their case to the Secretary of State. So they do not need procedural grounds. It would help them if they had procedural grounds but they can go to the Secretary of State and say, "Our local authority has taken this case into account. This is the view that it has reached but we want, once more, to put our case before the Secretary of State".

The trouble with judicial review is that it is not only expensive--a point that has already been made--but it is not possible for the kind of judgment to be made that a Secretary of State can presently make. In other words the Secretary of State can look afresh at the decision and can come to a different view. If the adjudicator takes a decision, that is the end of it. Unless he has made a procedural "howler" along the way, there is nothing anybody can do about it. Parents can, if they do not like the decision, go through the process of judicial review but the judicial review is free to make a judgment only about the way in which the decision has been arrived at as opposed to the actual decision made.

Therefore, under this provision, parents and governors and children attending those schools that are the subject of those decisions lose a part of a process. It is on those grounds that I believe an appeal is very important. If the adjudicator makes a decision that is against the interests of the local people, the local people in any particular school should have the long-stop opportunity to take their case to the Secretary of State.

Baroness Blackstone: I am intrigued by the proposed new clause as I believe it represents a departure from the Opposition's usual criticism of any proposal to give powers to the Secretary of State.

The objective of the new arrangements that we are introducing, both for school organisation and for admissions, is to secure that decisions are taken at a local level. In the case of school organisation, we are requiring the establishment in each LEA area of a school organisation committee to bring together the partners, as we have already discussed. In the case of admissions, we shall require consultation on admissions arrangements at local level, and suggest that the establishment of a local admissions forum may be helpful. However, we shall deal with that aspect later when we debate the admissions part of the Bill. We recognise that in some circumstances local agreement will not be reached. As I said earlier, we hope that those will be rather rare occasions; indeed, the adjudicator exists for just such cases.

The adjudicator will review all the issues, taking full account of all objections and comments made, before reaching a decision. The adjudicator's decision will be

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final. As I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, recognised, any challenge to the adjudicator will be by judicial review.

Perhaps I may point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that the new system is one based on the principle that the adjudicator will undertake a review as regards any dispute which is taking place. Therefore, to add the Secretary of State to that process would further extend the whole system thus rendering it more time consuming. Moreover, it would also duplicate what the adjudicator was doing.

The amendment would re-introduce the Secretary of State as a further source of appeal. That would have two effects. First, it would involve the Secretary of State in decisions which are properly taken elsewhere; and, secondly, it would prolong consideration of the issues. We believe that the arrangements that we have put in place provide proper opportunities for schools and parents to make their views known. Where cases are referred to the adjudicator, he or she would be bound to take those views into account in a proper and reasonable consideration of the issues. Therefore, they will have every opportunity to put their case, as clearly as they are able, to the adjudicator.

I note with interest the inclusion of proposals flowing from a direction given under Schedule 7 in the proposed clause. Any such direction would have been given by the Secretary of State where he was of the opinion that the provision of places in any part of an LEA area was either excessive or insufficient. Schedule 7 also provides for the Secretary of State to bring forward his own proposals where he is not persuaded by those brought forward in response to the direction. In such a case, unless the school organisation committee approves the proposals, the adjudicator will be obliged to hold a local inquiry. That reflects arrangements introduced in the 1993 Act in which the Secretary of State was obliged to take account of the findings of a local inquiry in reaching a decision on his own proposals.

To provide for appeal to the Secretary of State in such cases seems particularly inappropriate when the adjudicator has already held a local inquiry. We believe that there are sufficient opportunities within the arrangements we propose for schools and parents to make their views known. I accept that that is important. Indeed, they should be able to make their views known and they will be able to do so under the system that we propose to introduce. Both school organisation committees and adjudicators will have to take full account of any comments and objections made in reaching reasonable decisions. We shall ensure that our guidance covers the procedures that both the committees and the adjudicators should be following.

I am afraid therefore that I shall have to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, who was optimistic that the Government might be able to accept his amendment. On this occasion, I believe that pessimism might perhaps have been the right emotion for him to express. Our objective is to ensure that these decisions are taken at a local level as far as is possible and not by the Secretary of State. We are introducing a system of adjudicators. If we were then to have an appeal process

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to the Secretary of State, it would really make the adjudicators redundant. So, against that background, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

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