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Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, after all the discussion we have had on the subject, I am surprised that it is still an issue. Our intention to include parent governor representatives on education committees has been clear for a long time. It was a manifesto commitment and was highlighted in our earlier consultation papers, Diversity and Excellence and Excellence in Schools. Last summer's White Paper, Excellence in Schools, stated our intention that these elected parent governor representatives would have voting rights. Furthermore, there was a very wide welcome to this proposal in responses to the White Paper.
I recognise that giving parent governor representatives voting rights will have implications for the way in which the relevant committee works. However, I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, may be exaggerating a little the complications that she sees arising. It seems to me that none of the issues which has been raised tonight or in earlier debates is insurmountable. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, pointed out that representatives of the Churches often decide not to vote when a political issue arises and is being argued between the parties. Parents can abstain in such circumstances, too, if they do not wish to become involved in political argy-bargy on education committees.
The noble Lord also said that he was aware that votes occur relatively rarely and he asked whether the Government were aware of that too. The Government certainly are aware and it is my own experience of education committees. In that case, it is all the more surprising that the noble Lord is so worried about the issue. We certainly accept that parent governor representatives should not vote on matters which relate to the determination of the overall budget for education or where there is a conflict of interest. It may be right to say, as was suggested in Committee, that this will apply to a good number of issues. I personally believe that this argument has been overstated. But if it is true, it will mean that parent governor representatives will be able to exercise their vote only in limited circumstances, to reiterate what I have said. That must surely mean that there are fewer concerns about how that vote is used.
Our intention is to provide guidelines, both through the regulations and through non-statutory guidance, on the circumstances in which it is appropriate and is not appropriate for parent governor representatives to exercise their vote.
I do not accept that giving parent governor representatives the right to vote will disrupt local democracy. That is a rather over-stated argument. Following the local government elections on 7th May, around two-thirds of councils still have sizeable majorities. Only 13 councils have a majority of less than five. There are 39 councils which have no overall control. It is for councils to decide what committees to set up and to determine the size of each committee, but they need to ensure that they reflect the requirements of local government legislation in respect of proportionality and maintaining the political majority. I wrote to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, about this point on 22nd May following our discussion in Committee. In short, where the relevant committee has a majority fewer than the number of diocesan representatives and parent governor representatives combined, the council will need to appoint additional members from the majority party to that committee in order to preserve the majority. If this proves difficult in practice, then it is always open to members of the committee to make pairing arrangements.
Where the committee has no overall control, then yes, the appointment of parent governor representatives will make a difference; but since they will be voting on issues rather than along political lines, this will ensure that the views of parents are properly represented and will count. This is precisely what we intend.
Noble Lords will know that the Government are encouraging authorities to look at ways of improving local accountability and of streamlining the decision-making process. Their committee structures are an important part of that, and I know that many are already contemplating changes. Ultimately, it is up to councils themselves to decide on their committee structure (subject to the legislative requirements) and the size of those committees, so the impact of the voting rights of parent governor representatives will rest in their hands.
We accept that there need to be safeguards built into the system; in exactly the same way as any amendments recommended by this House will be considered in the other place. In the case of decisions taken by a local authority committee, it will always be open to the full council to override any decision which they feel is not in the best interests of the local population as a whole. This is a more than ample safeguard against improper use of those voting rights.
We do think that parent governor representatives, along with diocesan representatives, are in a different position from other interests. We believe it is right that diocesan representatives should have a vote on decisions about education provision because of the significant part which they play in providing church schools. We believe also that parent governor representatives should have the right to vote on decisions about education because it is the children of the parents whom they represent who stand to succeed or fail because of those decisions. We believe that the voice of parent governor representatives will be much stronger if it is supported by voting rights. In the light of what I have said, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
Lord Tope: My Lords, the Minister has replied to a number of points that I did not make. I certainly did not make such an exaggerated claim that there would be a disruption of local democracy. It would not have enhanced my case to overstate the position to that extent. Nor did I even make reference to the effect that an additional two parent votes on a committee might have. However, the Minister was perhaps overstating her case when she suggested that they would have no effect on the relatively large numbers of councils where there is no majority.
I return to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and myself in support of this amendment. This is a matter of principle. People serving on local authority committees should be those who have been elected to the local authority. I do not believe that there is anything that the Minister can say which will convince me otherwise. I hope she will therefore concede that principle.
I am fully aware of the proposed changes and the moves which many local authorities, without prompting from the Government, are taking to modernise and streamline their committee systems and decision-making structures. In general, I welcome that. This measure seems to me to date back more to the 1960s and 1970s than to look forward to the new millennium.
One of the more serious concerns that I have--and the Minister referred to the support that has been received in some quarters--is that it gives parents and parent governors a false impression of the amount of influence which they will actually have by serving and voting on education committees. I stress that my colleagues and I are wholly and strongly in favour of the best possible involvement of parents, their representative governors and all governors in the decision-making process. I do not believe that the best way to achieve that is by having a place on an education committee.
The Minister has not only failed to convince but the more she spoke, the more I could hear her convincing my colleagues--although they do not need convincing--that we are right with this amendment. Therefore, I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.