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Lord Baker of Dorking: It will be interesting to hear from the Minister exactly what adjudicators are to be trained in. As the situation has developed over the past few hours and we have learnt more about this system, it is clear that the close analogy is with the post of planning inspector. The Government are inserting into a system that has stood the test of many, many years a system of planning inspection in relation to the question of school closures.
The Government have sought to defend that approach on the grounds that it is somehow an improvement in local control. That argument has been used by both Ministers during the course of today's debates. The word "devolution" was heard. Any word that came to hand which is approved by the latest Demos pamphlet was used to demonstrate the impeccability of these proposals. The reference is to local devolution. But the one thing in which an adjudicator must not be trained is local geography. So if a school closure comes up in Lincolnshire, appoint a man from Birmingham--or, even better, from Devon! He has not got to know about Lincolnshire. So the Member of Parliament for Lincolnshire will have the fate of his school decided by a chap from Devon. That will go down very well with the Member for Lincolnshire, who has addressed a huge packed meeting in his school hall the night before, with people marching and holding up banners saying, "Save our school". No, the chap from Devon is going to do it. He is going to be immaculately trained. He will know tribunal procedure. He will be like an inspector--pure. That is the system we are being asked to approve.
The other phrase used by the Government is "democratic control". There is now a form of democratic control, as several noble Lords who have spoken today know perfectly well because they have been Members of Parliament and Ministers. When the question of school closures arises, the local Member of Parliament turns up and demands to see the Minister of the day. I dare say that the noble Baroness has received delegations involving people from the other place. I am sure that she has found time for that. She will know that that is a form of democratic accountability. That has totally gone out of the window with this proposal.
If I or my party had dared to introduce this proposal when in government, we should have been blown out of the water by the party opposite. It is a most bizarre and extraordinary proposal, to insert a form of planning
Baroness Maddock: Those who have followed the debate this evening will know that I and my noble friends, like the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, would rather not be discussing this amendment because we do not believe in the system of adjudicators. It is rare that I find myself in virtually complete agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Baker, but on this occasion I do.
Analogy has been made with a planning inspector. I wonder whether the Minister can let us know whether, as is the case with a planning inspector, the adjudicator will make a written report--"findings of fact", I believe it is called--which explains how the inspector reached his decision. If we are to have a system of adjudicators, they need to be trained; and one way to make them at least marginally accountable would be for there to be findings of fact as to the reason for the adjudicator's decision.
Baroness Blackstone: My noble and learned friend Lord Archer speaks from a position of considerable knowledge, in spite of his modesty, as chairman of the Council on Tribunals. I am delighted to have this opportunity to thank him and the council for agreeing that there should be provisions in the Bill which would put adjudicators under the supervision of the council. I emphasise that we take the supervision of the Council on Tribunals very seriously. The council's guidance and its recommendations as to best practice will inform the procedures that adjudicators will follow. That provides a considerable degree of assurance for those who will be affected by decisions made by adjudicators.
I thought that the somewhat sarcastic comments of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, were extraordinarily misplaced. I am sure that when my noble and learned friend replies to the debate he will put the noble Lord right and explain why it is that the Council on Tribunals will want to be involved in the training of adjudicators and what that training will involve. I acknowledge the concern that the council has, and which my noble and learned friend described very clearly, to ensure that there is appropriate training for adjudicators. We are committed to ensuring that all those appointed will be given appropriate guidance and training, both before they begin to consider cases and as part of a process of continuing development. I entirely agree with my noble friend that the job is certainly not a sinecure and that adjudicators will have to make judgments about complex matters dispassionately and objectively and ensure that locally people believe that they have had a fair hearing. That is extremely important.
However, we do not believe that a requirement for training is appropriate to the face of the Bill. We believe that provision for supervision by the Council on Tribunals provides a sufficient safeguard and will ensure that adjudicators have sound and fair procedures. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked whether it will be a condition of appointment that adjudicators will not operate in an area where they have worked in the education system or have been involved in it in some
The noble Baroness also asked whether the adjudicator will sit in public. He has the power to call a public inquiry, if he wishes, but he will do his work by examining evidence that is sent to him and by looking at all the papers. There will be a written report in which he will set out the reasons for his decision.
The department's officials will consult with the secretariat to the Council of Tribunals about the detail of the training programme and on guidance to adjudicators. In making that clear, and in the light of that reassurance, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: Before the noble Baroness sits down and following on from what my noble friend Lord Baker said--the noble Baroness easily brushed that aside--I pointed out that this is not a matter for the Council of Tribunals; it is a matter for the Government. Can the Minister say what are the criteria against which the decisions of adjudicators will be made? For example, in relation to a school closure the problem may well be the local authority's view on finance, educational opportunity or the preference and convenience of parents. What will be the criteria in such a case against which an adjudicator will judge? The adjudicator will need to know about such things before learning how to handle large meetings or quasi-judicial issues, which require a lot of training and are extremely difficult issues--I agree with everything the noble and learned Lord said. Have the Government decided what the criteria are? Perhaps I should know.
Baroness Young: Perhaps I can ask one further question because it is very relevant. The noble Baroness said that the adjudicator would not hold hearings in public, but that his decisions would be based on written representations. Is she saying that individuals, the authority or other interested parties cannot put their views to the adjudicator in an open session and that it must all be done in writing behind closed doors?
Baroness Blackstone: Perhaps I can deal with the second question first. It will be up to the adjudicator, depending on the nature of the dispute and who is involved, to decide how he or she wishes to reach their judgment. It will be open to the adjudicator to hold a
In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, adjudicators will need to take into account a whole range of criteria. For example, they will look at demography and projections of numbers of children in any one area; they will consider the views of parents as expressed and look at the viable alternatives. They will also consider the different cost of different approaches. There is a whole variety of such factors that an adjudicator will want to take into account in reaching a decision.
Baroness Blatch: The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in the course of responding to amendments throughout the day, have been saying conflicting things. The emphasis earlier was about the rationale for what the Government are doing; that is, devolving decision making locally. We now know that the decisions that go to the adjudicator will not be local.
The noble Baroness screws up her nose at that statement. The Minister should now stop hedging one way or the other. Is the noble Baroness prepared to give an assurance to the Committee--I believe she has already done this--that it will not be a condition of appointment that the person must not operate in an area in which they are familiar with the schools, the demography, the local people involved, the head teachers and LEA members?
Earlier the noble Baroness said that it would be of benefit if an adjudicator was not familiar with the area because that would dispel any notion of somebody being parti pris. That myth would be dispelled. Is the noble Baroness saying that somebody could be appointed in an area local to where they live, where they understand the demography, the geography and the local characters involved, but it may be a good thing if they are not? Surely by now the Department for Education and Employment has made up its mind about what are the criteria for making the appointments. Is the notion that it is better for everybody concerned--for those who may think adjudicators are parti pris--that they should not be familiar with the area in which they operate?
Another side effect of appointing somebody arises. Is the adjudicator to be responsible for one, two or three local education authority areas? If so, they may be familiar with one of them but not the other two. I have already given examples of how very different one county is from another and the vast differences that there are within counties. The distance between north Lincolnshire and south Cambridgeshire is very great indeed. So it is possible to have someone from one local education authority appointed responsible for that area plus the adjacent one or two areas. In that case they are familiar with one part of their area and not another. It is absolutely essential that the Government make up their mind whether the person should be familiar or unfamiliar with the area in which they are to operate or whether they believe it important in policy terms that they should not be familiar with an area or that it does not matter.
As regards local decision-making, we should have some consistency. Either the view of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, prevails or that of the noble Baroness that at the end of the day, it is possible that the little school in Devon will have its decision made by someone from another county. It is very difficult to convince the people concerned that the decision was made in the name of bringing decision-making closer to the people. Nothing could be closer to them than their own local authority. But if it is to be taken by the third or fourth bodies that makes the situation very difficult.
Perhaps I may now return to my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour who referred to the closing of a school. There is a philosophical and political bias against sixth forms in schools existing in many parts of the country. Many further education colleges are hungry to take the sixth-formers in schools. The decision to lose a sixth form in a school becomes very painful indeed. Where do such people go?
I link that point to one that was made by my noble friend Lady Young. We asked questions as to whether the adjudicator will operate in public, which arose in points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, when referring to the analogy with the planning inspector. I am not talking about formal inquiries rather along the lines on which the planning inspector operates. In this context we have to remember that the planning inspector is acting in the name of the Secretary of State. A very detailed report is produced which then goes to the Secretary of State and the decision is made by that Minister. I am referring to an adjudicator who makes a decision.
There are two questions about that. Will the report produced by the adjudicator be as detailed, full and public as the report produced by a planning inspector? When the adjudicator decides to take oral evidence from a body of parents, the local education authority or interested parties in the community and which falls short of a public inquiry, will those occasions be made public? Is it to be an ad hoc decision for the adjudicator so that those meetings can be made public where one side wishes to put an argument and have closed meetings for the other side which wishes to put its points orally to the adjudicator and where the adjudicator deems that to be appropriate? If at the end of the day we end up with an adjudicator, it is important that we know in some detail how the adjudicator will operate.
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