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Lord Waddington: My Lords, is not the noble Lord overlooking the fact that the difference between the present situation and the situation which has appertained over the past few centuries is that if the hereditary Peers' right to vote and to sit is abolished and nothing else is done it will only need the Prime Minister to recommend the creation of quite a few Peers for the government of the day to dominate this House absolutely?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that is of course the position, and over the past 18 years incumbent prime ministers have used their power of party patronage to increase their representation in this House. It has been the fact that, numerically, Conservative Peers have always formed the largest segment. That does not seem just, it does not seem rational and it ought not necessarily to be tolerated for all time.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that the answer to the Opposition was actually given to this House last Tuesday in the debate and the decision on Scottish education fees when the existing Government were defeated, and would have been whether or not hereditary Peers had voted?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that is factually correct. Whether that is the answer to the noble Lord's question, I am not quite sure.

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Industrial Action: Extent of Controls

2.58 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether disproportionate industrial action in the public sector will be proscribed as unlawful unless submitted to mandatory arbitration with binding effect.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, the Government see no justification for adding to the existing controls on industrial action.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Do the Government not believe that it is high time some steps were taken to deal with the sporadic and persistent strikes on the London Underground, which are disproportionate and which cause excessive damage and disturbance? Can he recall that when in opposition his party rejected every proposal in the Green Paper, No. 3470, to deal with such strikes in public sector services but that his right honourable friend, now the Prime Minister, then appeared to favour some form of mandatory arbitration?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I shall not comment on an industrial dispute which is taking place at present. The United Kingdom has some of the tightest controls on industrial action. Some groups such as the police and prison officers are prohibited from taking action and secondary action is banned. It would be unnecessary and unfair and almost certainly contrary to our undertakings under the ILO, of which we are members, to increase restrictions on industrial action.

As regards the Green Paper referred to by the noble Lord, yes, that was published in November 1996. I seem to remember that almost everyone felt that its recommendations were both unnecessary and undemocratic. In particular, the CBI and the Institute of Directors felt that way.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the term "disproportionate industrial action" could be used to describe any form of industrial action? Secondly, does he agree that employers, as much as trade unions, are reluctant to be subjected to compulsory or mandatory arbitration? Finally, will he confirm that trade unions are still subjected to industrial action ballots which were introduced by the government supported by noble Lords opposite?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I can confirm that trade unions are subjected to industrial ballots introduced by the previous government. I confirm also that this Government have no intention of changing that at this time. As regards my noble friend's other question, we

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certainly encourage employers and employees to make greater use of conciliation and arbitration, pay review bodies and early recourse to ACAS.

Lord Rochester: My Lords, following that question and answer, will the Government actively encourage employers and trade unions to reach voluntary no-strike agreements with a commitment to arbitration if a dispute cannot otherwise be settled?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, certainly it is the Government's view, that employers, employees and trade unions should reach voluntary arrangements. If they believe that no-strike agreements are right for them, then the Government are quite satisfied with that. But it is not for the Government to say what those arrangements should be.

Lord McCarthy: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is no need for any imposition of statutory binding arbitration agreements because the trade union movement would like to return to the situation which existed in 1979, before the previous government abolished voluntary arbitration agreements? Would it not be a good idea if the present Government were to reintroduce them, particularly in the public sector?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, certainly in 1979 arrangements were in force in relation to arbitration. I believe that they were called ex parte agreements where one side or the other could insist on arbitration. However, those agreements have ceased since privatisation. As regards my noble friend's last recommendation, I repeat that it is a matter for the employer and employee. It is not for the Government to say what those arrangements should be.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, from a wealth of practical experience, makes a lot of sense and that his proposals warrant serious consideration? Is the noble Lord also aware that he did not answer my first Question, did not answer either of my supplementary questions, and that it is virtually a waste of time asking some questions in your Lordships' House?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, certainly my noble friend Lord McCarthy speaks sense and I know that he is highly regarded in the Labour Party. I am sorry that the noble Lord feels that my responses to his questions were unsatisfactory. I have tried to respond in a practical manner as far as the circumstances will allow.

Earl Russell: My Lords, as I am a member of the Association of University Teachers, I must declare an interest in this Question. Is the Minister aware that in the case of many trade unions, certainly my own, we

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have no objection to the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway? The objection comes entirely from H.M. Treasury.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that observation.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, if the Minister thinks so highly of the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, do I take it that he considers that industrial relations in the winter of 1978-79 were perfect?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I certainly do not consider them perfect. However, at present the industrial relations situation is very good. We have the lowest number of days lost due to strikes since 1891.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, does the noble Lord understand that his tribute to the legislation of the previous government is extremely welcome? Also, I offer him a word of congratulation on the answer he gave to the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, although it was a disappointing answer for the noble Lord.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comments.


3.5 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, in view of the grouping of amendments this afternoon on the Third Reading of the School Standards and Framework Bill, it has been agreed through the usual channels that the stages of that Bill will be completed before the dinner break this evening. As a result of that, the Unstarred Question in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, will be taken at the end of business. The Question will be allowed one-and-a-half hours instead of the usual one hour in the dinner break. Information on the timing of speeches in that debate is displayed on the speakers' list.

Landmines Bill

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and to be printed.

Statute Law (Repeals) Bill [H.L.]

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee (on re-commitment). Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of re-commitment be discharged.

13 Jul 1998 : Column 12

Moved, That the order of re-commitment be discharged.--(The Lord Chancellor.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

School Standards and Framework Bill

3.7 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 24 [School organisation committees]:

Lord Tope moved Amendment No. 1:

Leave out Clause 24.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we start today by returning to the school organisation committees and the role of the adjudicator. As it is some time since we discussed this very fully in Committee--it having been raised on Report at a particularly crucial time with regard to events in France--I thought it may be helpful to outline briefly again the role of a school organisation committee and its composition; to deal with the reasons why we on these Benches object so strongly to it; and, indeed, why I felt in Committee that there was widespread concern throughout your Lordships' House about it.

The intended role of a school organisation committee is to approve, amend or certainly to consider a school organisation plan to be prepared by the local education authority. The committee is to be composed of a number of groups--the LEA, the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the Further Education Funding Council and a number of others. The membership of each group can comprise a one-person group or one with up to seven members. However, the crucial point is that each group has only one vote on the school organisation committee, including the LEA. That, too, will have only one vote.

The final point is perhaps the most important one as regards our concern about school organisation committees; namely, any decision by such a committee has to be unanimous. One dissenting voice or one dissenting group--it could, indeed, be one individual voice if it is a group of one--would be enough to prevent the committee from making a decision. In the event of the committee being unable to make a unanimous decision, the matter would be referred to an adjudicator to be appointed by the Secretary of State. After due process, the adjudicator would make the final decision on the school organisation plan, but there will be no right of appeal from the adjudicator's decision.

I hope that that is a very brief but accurate description of the position. I intended it to be so, even though it is one about which I am most unhappy. I have no doubt that the Minister will correct any factual inaccuracies that I may have made in that brief summary. The reasons behind our objection to the process are that it is cumbersome, bureaucratic and, in the end, it is fundamentally undemocratic. It is either a 10 or an 11-stage process in full, depending on how the stages are allocated. But it begins with the LEA drawing up the school organisation plan.

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I should like to spend a few moments outlining how that will happen. The plan is not something which will appear mystically and magically from the office of the director of education and be seen for the first time when it is delivered to the school organisation committee.

In drawing up the plan, any LEA--and most certainly a good one--will consult widely with all the partners and providers in local education. I am sure that the plan will be subject to widespread discussion and debate before it reaches the education committee of the LEA where it will again be debated and discussed in public, not only by the elected members of the LEA but also by the other people who are represented on education committees; namely, the Churches, the soon-to-be parent governors, and so on. It is to be hoped that the education committee will then agree the plan unanimously. I am sure that it will have to be formally agreed by the full council. That is normal practice in such major policy matters.

Therefore, before a school organisation plan is agreed by an LEA, it will have been subjected to very considerable informal and formal consultation with all the players in the local education scene. It will have been debated and discussed and it will finally have been decided upon by a democratically elected body. Then it will be referred to the school organisation committee for further consideration.

At earlier stages of the Bill, my noble friends and I moved amendments which suggested that there may be a useful advisory role here for school organisation committees which can bring together in a more formal way the partners who will already have been involved in the discussions. There is perhaps some use in having an advisory role. I am not wholly convinced in that respect, but I can envisage some scope for it. What I find hard to understand and accept is the fact that a school organisation committee set up statutorily should have the power to amend or, even worse, to override and reject a school organisation plan which will have been prepared in the way that I have described, and decided finally by the elected LEA.

However, school organisation committees will consider school organisation plans. The various groups that have an input will discuss it. No doubt all of them will have their own particular points of interest; indeed, one might say, their own agenda. The Government expressed the desire that that should be done in a spirit of co-operation and that consensus would be sought. As I have said before, I applaud that; and, indeed, I say it again. I very much hope that such matters will always be discussed in a spirit of co-operation and in an attempt to reach consensus and agreement. We will all be pleased where that succeeds. But after years of experience on an LEA--others with similar experience have said the same-- I know that that is not always the case in the education world. Unanimity does not always rule naturally; nor is it always easily achieved. As we have heard during our debates, there are sincerely and deeply held views which are diametrically opposed to each other. It is not always easy to achieve unanimity.

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We can speculate on how often a school organisation committee will reach unanimity, or fail to do so. I can bandy words with the Minister about whether or not the requirement for unanimity is, in effect, giving a veto to any one group. If one group can ensure that a school organisation committee is unable to reach a decision simply by withholding its vote, it seems to me that that amounts to a veto. When we discussed the matter previously, the Minister expressed some difficulty with that view, which I did not understand at the time. However, perhaps I will understand it when it is explained to me again. Is it the case that one group will have the ability to prevent such a committee reaching the required unanimous decision?

The Government have argued in favour of that process in that it devolves power and decision-making from the Secretary of State to a local level--namely; to a school organisation committee. But that is only true where agreement can be reached--and where agreement can be reached, a contentious issue is not usually involved. If there is a consensus, in a sense it matters a little less where the actual formal decision is taken. The crucial point is where a decision is taken if consensus does not reign and where unanimity cannot be achieved, however hard it is being sought. In that case, a decision does not pass onwards to the Secretary of State, who is perhaps imperfectly at a distance but is, at least to some extent, democratically accountable. He can be lobbied by Members of Parliament and others and is, albeit in a distant form, accountable for his decisions.

Under the proposals before us today, the final decision goes to an adjudicator. I have no doubt that the adjudicators will be given guidelines to follow in making their decisions. I do not doubt that it will be possible to talk to them and I am sure that interested parties will submit their cases. But, at the end of the day, the decision is not made by any democratically-elected or accountable person--however inadequate that democracy or that accountability may be--it is made by a person appointed by the Secretary of State who, incidentally, may or may not have any local connection. Indeed, he may have none.

Moreover, there is not even a right of appeal. When I first heard about these proposals, I compared them to the situation on planning where appeals against planning decisions usually go to an inspector appointed by the Secretary of State. At least in that case it is ultimately the Secretary of State who makes the decision and there is some right of appeal. However, there is no right of appeal as regards the decision made by appointed adjudicators who are, presumably, accountable only to the Secretary of State--should they wish to have their appointments renewed at some stage.

Assuming that agreement is not reached, we are talking about what is ultimately an 11-stage process, which I believe to be cumbersome and bureaucratic. The first step in that process--and only the first--is the extensive consultation and discussion carried out by the LEA in preparing its school organisation plan.

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The process ends with a decision taken by an adjudicator appointed by the Secretary of State and accountable to no one for that decision. That seems to me to be fundamentally undemocratic.

I would be the last to pretend that our present system is the ultimate in democracy; indeed, demonstrably it is not. I accept that there must be some LEAs which probably do not consult as fully, as widely or as co-operatively as I would certainly wish them to do. The right solution is to improve and enhance the democratic process and, if necessary, to require LEAs to carry out the proper and necessary consultation. The right way to deal with the matter is to enhance the democratic process, not subvert it. However, that is what the Government propose. That is why we are today moving amendments which would remove the clauses dealing with the setting up of school organisation committees and the appointing of adjudicators. I beg to move.

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