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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, yet again I give my enthusiastic support to these amendments. I do not know where the support for the Government's proposals is coming from. It is certainly not coming from local authorities. That is the case whether one talks to a Labour councillor, a Liberal councillor, an Independent councillor or a Tory councillor. They are all of one mind. They believe they were elected to make these decisions and to be accountable to their local population. They feel that the bodies we are discussing constitute unelected placemen and women appointed at the whim of the Secretary of State. They are not accountable. As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has explained so clearly, when a decision is referred to the adjudicator, there is no right of appeal. One only has to read the interim guidance on school admissions to appreciate the kind of power this body will have. I refer to all the decisions that flow from the school organisation plans and from education development plans.

I now discuss what I consider the unkindest cut of all. A number of decisions that come before a council are supported by all the parties on the council. Those decisions are now no more than recommendations. Decisions may be referred to a panel of unelected people who may take a different view on them. If they do not reach a unanimous decision, the matter is referred to the adjudicator, who can--this has now been confirmed by Written Answer--accept the majority recommendation from the organisation committee. He can also reject that and accept the minority view, which may represent the minority view of only one block vote on the organisation committee. He can also reject both of those views and propose a solution that is different from both of them. There is nothing democratic about that.

As regards admissions policies, there has been a real misunderstanding on the part of grant-maintained schools. They believed that when they became foundation schools they would be their own admissions authority. The Government have said that those schools will be free to determine their own

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admissions arrangements. However, they will not be free to determine their own admissions arrangements because, if any other admissions authority disagrees with that--including the local education authority--that matter also is referred to the adjudicator, who finally makes the determination, which could be in conflict with that of the so-called admissions authority of the school.

Partial selection can be ended by the adjudicator, as can priority by aptitude. There is no accountability whatsoever. The power of the organisation committee and the adjudicator is unacceptable in a world that is supposed to be more democratic. The Government talk about democracy, open government, accountability and even about sharpening up accountability as regards local authorities. But, in practice, the Government do something quite different. I support these amendments extremely enthusiastically because we are discussing what is probably the most undemocratic proposition that has come from the Government in this past year.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I apologise as I did not manage to enter the Chamber in time to hear the first sentences of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, when moving this amendment. Everything happened slightly more quickly than I thought it would. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in speaking for the main Opposition, said that no one supported this measure. I thought it would be useful if I repeated what I said at an earlier stage of the proceedings; namely, that I certainly support this measure.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Peston: My Lords, occasionally people inside this Chamber like to have their views heard. I support the measure because I view it as an experimental procedure. I can envisage that some of the difficulties that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has mentioned, could arise. However, it was, and remains my view, that the Government in endeavouring to devolve decision making in this area are doing the right thing. If we look at the matter positively, there is every reason to believe that the committees and/or the adjudicators will behave reasonably.

The whole point of arguing for devolving decision making--I do not take it for granted that local authorities will act in a totally barmy way, although on occasion they have done so--is that I believe it is reasonable for us to give this measure a fair wind to see whether local people at local level can reach some kind of agreement on this matter. I repeat the point--I hope that when my noble friend the Minister responds to the amendment she will also repeat this point--that the adjudicator is subject to all kinds of rules and regulations. At the very least he is subject to all the tradition and philosophy of administrative law, which means that he has to be reasonable. When he gives reasons, those reasons have to make sense. The idea that this is somehow a diktat flies in the face of all similar decision makers who act within administrative law.

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The noble Lord, Lord Tope, may give us some examples of that philosophy not working. As an economist I suppose I am bound to take the view that one should always plan bearing in mind the worst case. However, I am convinced that it is sensible to take the final say away from the Secretary of State in settling this kind of dispute and to ask the local education authority to prepare the organisation plan. That is then examined by the body we are discussing, which tries to reach agreement on it, and only in the last resort, if it cannot reach agreement, the adjudicator is asked to determine the matter. We have every reason to believe that the adjudicator will be a reasonable, sensible person. I believe we should at least give that procedure a try.

To my knowledge what is proposed here is unusual in the realm of education. However, that does not necessarily mean that it is flawed. I accept that I speak as one poor soul inside the Chamber--it may be only myself in this Chamber who holds this view--but I think that this measure is worth supporting.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, the noble Lord has missed the point. As a distinguished scholar, he will be aware that many people have chosen between administrators, nominated bodies or democracies to decide matters. Many of us from this side of the House have criticised the working of local government. But at least you can chuck the rascals out! The Government have developed a double tier system. They have moved from local democracy--where you can chuck the rascals out--to an organisation committee, of which a substantial part is nominated, and, then, to an official, an intendant. That is a dirigiste policy, on which I have criticised the Government on many occasions. It is contrary to the tradition of English education. Local authorities have not always acted in the interests of either the Liberals, the Tories or the Labour Party. However, to implement this measure is contrary to everything that has happened in English education over the past 120 years.

I know that the noble Lord has a great regard for democracy. I am surprised that he has supported this measure. The adjudicator is appointed by the Crown and is subject to regulations issued by the Crown. We all know that he will be appointed to prevent the inconvenience experienced by the Secretary of State in the past when local MPs, local authorities and agitators protested when a school was closed. I admire the noble Lord, Lord Peston, in many ways, but I am surprised that he can defend such an authoritarian measure. That shocks me.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, in his "shock". Normally I am in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Peston. I wish to draw the attention of the House to some of the points made in defence of the proposal on 1st June. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, made much of the fact that, in setting up school organisation committees, the Government were concerned to ensure true partnership.

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He said that the provision of the committees was a matter of partnership between the different providers. He went on to say:

    "The school organisation committees give formal effect to the existing partnership which is at the heart of these provisions. A fundamental element of any genuine partnership is that the views of all the partners have force. Therefore, it is not sensible that the local education authority over-rules the views of the other partners. If we are to retain balance, one partner cannot be more equal than the others".--[Official Report, 1/6/98; col. 17.]

I suggest that in a democracy the democratically elected body has the right to overrule another party. The Government, last week and this week, have been doing just that in reference to other bodies, particularly in relation to school fees. The Government have said that the democratic body has the right to overrule all other bodies. That is what they have said in relation to the Scottish question on the Teaching and Higher Education Bill. Yet this Bill says something quite different; namely, that the undemocratic body, the school organisation committee, has the right to overrule a democratic body. The Government are very twisted in their interpretation of what is democratic. This matter is at the heart of the argument about school organisations and the adjudicator.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, went on to say that,

    "Local education authorities and the other groups will effectively have the opportunity to secure that any proposals to which they are opposed are considered by the adjudicator".--[Col. 18.]

The local education authority will be part of the organisation committee. If it objects, it can then go to the adjudicator.

The Government have spent a lot of time trying to persuade us that the adjudicator will be a local person. On questioning that a little further, we discovered that the adjudicator will not necessarily be a local person, and that he or she might deal with several areas in the same way as inspectors do under the planning system. It is a little rich of the Government to try to sell the proposal to us in this way on the basis that it represents decentralisation.

In a democratic system there is a hierarchy of democratically elected bodies. In this country we have parish councils; district and other councils; and Parliament. It may be the case that some of us in this Chamber would like to see a regional tier, but that does not exist at present. Democratic accountability goes right to the Minister at the top. That is how it has always been. The worst aspect is that not only will that democratic line of accountability go, but people who wish to object to the pronouncements of an adjudicator will have no right of appeal. That goes against everything that we have had in our democratic system in this country.

We do not dispute that it is important to have partnership between local authorities and those on behalf of whom they administer and who are affected by their decisions. No one disputes that. In many areas, local authorities implement that partnership very well, and we should like to see that approach enhanced. However, it cannot be enhanced by simply ignoring democratically elected bodies. That is our case. We must support the democratically elected bodies. You cannot,

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just because you do not like what is happening, suddenly try to introduce a committee that is not democratic and say that it can overrule a democratic body. That is not the way that we do it. That is the purpose of our amendments. They are forceful, and I hope that we shall have the support of the whole House on this important matter.

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