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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I can understand the disappointment of the noble Lord, Lord Tope. This proposal by the Government is probably the most undemocratic suggestion that there has ever been. There is real disquiet about this proposition among our local government colleagues. The members of these committees will be unaccountable and will be placemen. They will be responsible for making decisions which affect the lives of children, parents and local communities. The absolute power of the adjudicator is unbelievable because there is no right of appeal. However we shall deal later with that.

I want the noble Lord, Lord Tope, to know that we support this amendment extremely strongly and if he were minded to call a Division, we should support him.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my attention is not elsewhere and I shall not talk about adjudicators, as the noble Baroness did. Indeed, so much is my attention not elsewhere that, as Alan Bennett once said, wild horses on their bended knees would not drag me to watch a football match under any circumstances.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, with the best of intentions and goodwill, misrepresents the existing situation and the Government's proposals. It is necessary to try to put that right.

First, as regards the present position, he gives the impression that the democratically elected local education authorities have full responsibility for the matters which are the subject of our proposed school organisation committees. Noble Lords and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, should know that many proposals for

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change to school organisation are currently considered not locally but by the Secretary of State. Legislation provides that all proposals published by the governors of voluntary schools, by grant-maintained schools and the promoters of new, voluntary or grant-maintained schools must come to the Secretary of State for a decision. Local authorities may decide their own proposals where they attract attention or are not called in by the Secretary of State. But where there are objections or where they are called in, a decision is made by the Secretary of State. Therefore, the present situation, which the noble Lord's amendments would retain, is profoundly centralist and quite different from that which he describes.

The Government believe that decisions on changes to school organisation should be taken at local level. When we consulted following the White Paper Excellence in Schools, there was widespread support for that principle. That is the basis for the proposals set out in Clause 23 because they aim to build also on the partnership which exists already at local level, reflecting in particular the significant contribution of the Churches over many years in the provision of schools.

What is being put forward in the Bill is still at a local level but extends the range of responsibility from the LEA to the other partners in the education process. The noble Lord speaks as though those other partners then have a veto. They do not have a veto unless an amendment which is to be considered later were to be carried. If they really need to, they have the power to say that the issue will be decided by an adjudicator and not on a local basis. That is not a veto; the matter has to be resolved. They have a veto only in the very limited sense that the matter cannot be resolved without further reference. Again, there are later amendments which would provide for an appeal from an adjudicator to the Secretary of State. That is also a centralising tendency with which we shall deal later. I cannot accept either the noble Lord's description of what happens now or his description of what we propose.

What would be the effect of Amendment No. 72; namely, for such a committee to be only advisory? The noble Lord drew attention to the consultation and discussion between partners that is already undertaken in the development of proposals for change to school organisation. The Government entirely support that and trust that it will continue. Our proposals seek to build on that partnership at local level, but the partnership is supported by the formal arrangements of Clause 23, in which proposals made by partners other than the LEA automatically come to the Secretary of State.

In giving effect to the principle of decisions at local level and building on the local partnership, we concluded that it was right to involve those other partners directly in the decision-making process. We also concluded that it was right to do so in such a way as to give their views the degree of force that they are given under this part of the Bill. So a school organisation committee, in which the key partners at local level are brought together to reach decisions at a local level, is the solution at which we have arrived.

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Our proposed new arrangements will not reduce the powers of LEAs in respect of proposals for change to school organisation. LEAs will be responsible for securing that there are sufficient school places in their area; and for that reason will draft the school organisation plan. LEAs will retain their powers to publish proposals for all types of change to community schools and to decide on any of their own proposals that do not attract objections. In that respect there is no change from the current arrangements.

Where they do introduce change is in the decision making on those proposals that local education authorities have never had the power to determine: proposals of their own that attract objections, proposals made by voluntary schools and proposals made by foundation schools. Those proposals are currently removed from the local arena to disappear for a while in the corridors of Whitehall. But in our proposed arrangements, these decisions will be made jointly by all the partners with each having a direct voice in the decisions on those proposals.

The noble Lord seemed implicitly to ask why decision-making could be devolved only to the local authority. In the provision of school places, the local education authority is only one partner. It makes decisions for only some of the schools in its area. Partnership works now because it is supported by the involvement of the Secretary of State. The school organisation committee, through its membership and its voting arrangements, maintains the balance in decision making between partners.

I simply do not accept that such a disagreement between any one of the statutory partners in the school organisation committee is an invitation for them to disagree. Psychologically, the reverse is the case. Because they know that it will be much easier if they can reach an agreement, they will be much more likely to make the necessary compromises in order to avoid going to the adjudicator. The noble Lord has misconceived both the existing situation and what is proposed in the Bill. I hope, therefore, that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Tope: My Lords, I must say that to be called a "centralist" by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, is almost a compliment. However, I wholeheartedly reject that statement. Indeed, it is actually a reverse of the use of language. Nevertheless, we are not going to agree on the issue. I talked deliberately--and I do not recant it--on the use of a veto. We require unanimity from a school organisation committee. If one member of that committee does not agree, the committee will be unable to reach a decision. In effect, that seems to me to be a veto.

In moving this amendment I studiously avoided talking about adjudicators as they are the subject of the next batch of amendments. As I said in Committee, it is difficult to talk about one without the other. However, the Minister has just done exactly that. I shall follow him in that regard. The Minister expresses great hope for this measure. I should like to join him in that, but I

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suspect that my comments are nearer to reality than to hope. When unanimity is reached--we all strive for that; as I said previously, I am a consensus politician--and there is agreement and everyone is content, that is fine. That is not what is at issue. One does not need a great structure to deal with matters on which everyone is agreed. One might need a procedure to encourage them to agree. Where we need a structure is when people do not agree.

In the case we are discussing a committee needs to be unanimous or it cannot reach a decision. But what happens then? The matter is then referred to an adjudicator. I do not see how that can be considered to be devolving decision making to a local level. The matter is handed to an adjudicator appointed by the Secretary of State. That adjudicator will not necessarily have any local connection. There is no right of appeal to anyone, anywhere. How that can be said to be devolving decision making and to be democratic defeats me. It is a perversion of language. It is easier to argue--as the Minister has just done--about school organisation committees in isolation. When agreement is not reached--and that will happen, although we all hope it will be on only a few occasions--one has to look at the other part of the package; namely, the adjudicators. Statutory school organisation committees, which are bureaucratic, expensive, cumbersome and require unanimity, and which have to refer decisions to an appointed and unaccountable adjudicator who does not necessarily have any local connections, are, to say the least, unnecessary. They are undemocratic and we strongly oppose them.

I recognise the perhaps not too serious edict from the Government Chief Whip, but more particularly the hour of the night and the fact that attention tonight is perhaps focused somewhere other than this Chamber. I shall have to withdraw this amendment. I do so with enormous regret. We shall undoubtedly return to the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 73:

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