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House of Lords

Monday, 21st January 2002.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Education Act 1998: Performance of Adjudicators

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the adjudicators appointed under the Education Act 1998 are conducting their duties satisfactorily.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, the latest annual report from the Chief Schools Adjudicator, published in October 2001, provides a review of the performance of adjudicators. Adjudicators are independent of government as they operate in a quasi-judicial capacity. Any concern about their decisions would be pursued by judicial review. There were no applications for judicial review of adjudicator decisions in the past academic year.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. However, is she happy, even in the absence of judicial reviews, that adjudicators follow similar rules of procedure which should require consultation with schools and local communities before they make a decision? For example, they consulted immaculately in relation to the closure of a school at Gravesend in Kent, but there was no consultation with interested parties concerning preferences given to parents of potential grammar school pupils. That seems to me odd—even unjust—particularly as the adjudicators are appointed officials and are not responsible to the electorate as were their predecessors. I confess an interest as president of the National Grammar Schools Association.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am familiar with the three adjudication decisions made in Kent on 27th July, 12th October and 14th December. The adjudicators are able to consider only those matters put before them. It is up to school admission authorities to have regard to the effect on parents and children of any changes that they want to make after they have published their admission arrangements, particularly if they seek to vary them late in the admissions process. As I said previously, the adjudicators are independent of government and, of course, it is open to those who wish to do so to seek judicial review.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that at the time of the passing of the

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1998 Act many of us were unhappy about the position of the adjudicators because we believed that local decisions were involved which ultimately should be taken by local politicians? Can the Minister tell us to what extent she is happy with the experiment involving independent adjudicators?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the adjudicators' purpose is to deal with decisions on local school organisation matters which it has not been possible to resolve locally and to deal with objections and variations to school admission arrangements. We are happy with the process in that it behoves an adjudicator to become involved only when local difficulties arise which cannot be resolved in a local context. We hope that it will be possible for them to resolve matters in the vast majority of cases—if not all cases. The adjudicators are independent people who are brought in only at that point. We believe that the process is working satisfactorily.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, is there any machinery under which one can apply to the adjudicator to reconsider his decision in the light of evidence that was not before him; in other words, in the light of new evidence that at that time was not available?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as I said, those who are unhappy with an adjudicator's decision may seek judicial review. However, adjudicators keep abreast of the situation. In relation to the three adjudicator decisions in Kent, as I understand it, the chief adjudicator visited Kent last week in order to discuss the issues involved.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I am sorry to intervene again, but perhaps I may remind the Minister that judicial review is an enormously expensive process. Traditionally the Secretary of State was the final arbiter. He is an elected Member in an elected House and is, we are told, the best guardian of all our destinies. Why has the Secretary of State been deprived of participation in this exercise?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, there has long been a debate about where such decisions best lie. It is considered that the independent nature of the adjudication system is of benefit to all. The noble Lord is correct that judicial review can be an expensive process. However, it is worth noting that, in the course of the year 2000–01, the adjudicator process cost 442,000 and that, in that year, 107 cases were considered.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, can the Minister tell us who appoints the independent adjudicators?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Baroness has rather caught me with that question. My understanding is that appointments are put forward to the Secretary of State. If I am incorrect on that point, I shall of course write to the noble Baroness.

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Higher Education: Funding

2.41 p.m.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What studies they have undertaken of the additional resources which British universities will need if the Government's target of getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education by 2010 is to be achieved; and what proportion of those additional resources they contemplate providing from public funds.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the Government are considering these issues as part of the spending review, the outcome of which will be made public in the summer. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is consulting the sector on supply and demand for higher education over the coming years.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer and declare an interest as Pro-chancellor of the University of Birmingham. However, perhaps I may observe that her reply was a little light on substance. Does she not believe that it was somewhat feckless of the Government to set a very ambitious target, such as 50 per cent participation, and then to set off towards it on a wing and a prayer? Does she agree with the calculation made by the universities that the achievement of that target requires the creation of 30,000 additional places in our universities every year from now to 2010 and the allocation of 420 million of additional funds to provide the necessary resources?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I do not consider the decision to be feckless. Noble Lords will be aware of the higher education working group formed in 1999 to advise on expansion, achievement of participation rates and related funding issues. The forecast of the National Skills Task Force is that by 2010 there will be a growth of 1.73 million jobs in occupations that typically recruit graduates. That constitutes over 80 per cent of overall employment growth. It would be feckless not to take into account the needs of our graduates. As I have said, the Government are well aware and mindful of the issues relating to universities in terms of achieving this target and they form part of the spending review.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, bearing in mind the already high vacancy rate among senior teachers in higher education, is the Minister confident that we have adequate numbers of such teachers available to meet this new target?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I recognise the challenge for universities in relation to the target. The purpose of the target is to set a challenge for Government and universities which they should meet in partnership. I argue that that is also

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true for schools. Therefore, it is important to see the target as worth pursuing in the context of where we want to go and what we want to achieve. That must be done in collaboration with the universities, taking on board issues such as the ability to provide the teaching and the research that is needed.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe: My Lords, I declare an interest as chief executive of Universities UK. I remind the Minister how hard the universities are working in support of the Government's target to widen participation through summer schools, mentoring schemes and so on. Last week's NAO report indicated the lack of resources for such work. Does the Minister agree, at least as an initial measure, that the 5 per cent access premium currently available to universities should be increased to 20 per cent in line with the recommendation of the Education and Skills Select Committee so as to enable universities to maximise their efforts to meet the 50 per cent target?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: Yes, my Lords, I am aware that the universities are working hard. We are delighted with the progress that they are making, as is highlighted in the NAO report. As regards the postcode premium, I understand that it is the reimbursement to institutions for the additional resources that they have invested in recruiting and retaining students from lower socio-economic groups. It is not intended as an incentive payment. I understand that HEFC is currently evaluating the effectiveness of the postcode premium. I argue that it is sensible to await those findings before committing more funds through that route.

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