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7 Mar 2007 : Column 226

The Countess of Mar: My Lords—

Baroness Barker: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, it is time to hear from the Cross Benches.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am a food producer and before I even think about producing any cheese, I ensure that I am clean, that my premises are clean and that my equipment is clean—by clean, I mean spotlessly clean. The food industry has done wonders in reducing the amount of food poisoning over the past few years by improving cleanliness standards. Could not the National Health Service learn something from the environmental health inspectors—and others in the food industry—who are doing so well?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am sure that that is an excellent suggestion, but we must not forget that in the past few years, the NHS has improved appreciably the standards of cleanliness and the resources that have been put into cleaning. Of course, we cannot be complacent, but the independent service self-assessment has shown that, in general, standards of cleanliness are improving and have improved. I expect and hope that they will continue to improve.

Schools: Allocation of Places

3.23 pm

Lord Baker of Dorking asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Adonis): My Lords, this is a matter for the local authority after local consultation. It is a cardinal principle of admissions law that parents’ expression of a preference for a school should, where possible, be honoured. In case of oversubscription, there are a number of permissible criteria for allocating places fairly. Brighton’s policy is for siblings to have first priority. Ballots apply only thereafter, within defined catchment areas deemed to be fair by the local authority.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, can the Minister reconcile lotteries with the agreed, stated policy of the Government, which is choice agenda, of which there has been no more eloquent proponent than himself? Does he remember the arguments that he put to the House last summer to persuade us to vote for trust schools? He said that,

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As choice and lotteries are incompatible, would it not be fair to recognise that Brighton is engaged in social engineering? If it has poor-performing schools, those will be improved not by moving children from better schools to them, but only by better leadership, better teaching and better discipline. Surely the education of our children—all our children, including the Minister’s—merits more than a raffle.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord’s point about the quality of leadership and having effective teaching in schools. I am glad to say that leadership in schools has improved dramatically in recent years, as judged by Ofsted, which, of course, is important, so that we have more good schools. However, I do not understand his point about the incompatibility of random allocation and choice. The crucial point to understand is that the random allocation comes only after the parents have expressed a preference. The trouble with many schools is that there are more parents expressing a preference for them than there are places available. If I were a magician, I would be able to magic up the additional places, but I cannot—as the noble Lord could not when he was Secretary of State—provide more places in schools that are already full. There has to be some system for allocating places in cases of oversubscription. At the moment, the most common way of doing that is measuring the distance from the school gates. Brighton is proposing a random allocation with a defined catchment area. Neither approach is inherently more or less fair than the other.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, in countries such as Sweden, where the range of types of school is much narrower than it is here but the standard is consistently higher, parents rarely exercise their right to choose to send their child to a school other than the local one, yet satisfaction levels are much higher than they are in this country. Will the Minister therefore concentrate more on quality than on choice?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I concentrate all the time on quality; it is a very important theme. However, the noble Baroness may be aware that Sweden has also adopted a school choice policy; it allows independent suppliers to come into the system. The policy was started in the early 1990s and now 7 per cent of all schools in Sweden are operated by independent operators, which have a wide variety of educational practices in their schools. Sweden is going down precisely the road that we are and is subject to exactly the same pressures that we are in terms of parental preferences.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether the local authority in question accepts any responsibility for the fact that there are undersubscribed and presumably underperforming schools in its area? If it does, what is it doing about it?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I believe that the local authority accepts its responsibilities to improve the schools that are underperforming in Brighton. It has a set of measures in place to do so, including the proposal to turn one of its worst-performing schools into an

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academy. My department is in active discussions with it about academy status for that school precisely to deal with the issues of leadership, quality of teaching and ethos that will make the school more popular in its local community.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, for schooling to work well, we know that parents and children need to feel that they have chosen that school and that the school has chosen them. Surely a lottery, even for a very few pupils, while convenient for the local authority and evidently convenient for the Government, is absolutely wrecking that concept.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, there is a fundamental misunderstanding here. Parents express a preference for schools; that continues whether you have a lottery or any other oversubscription criteria. The issue that we are addressing is that, when more parents express a preference for a school than there are places in that school, there has to be some means of ensuring that the places in the school are allocated fairly. As I said, it is not clear that simply doing that on the basis of proximity to the school is inherently fairer than allowing a ballot to take place within a defined area around that school, which is what Brighton has allowed to happen. We think that this is properly a matter for local decision. As for parental confidence in the system and what actually happens, I should stress that, at the moment, 85 per cent of parents get their first choice of secondary school and 96 per cent of parents get one of their choices of secondary school. Moreover, the number of appeals against secondary admission is falling. We need to put this issue into perspective.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, is not banding a good answer?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, banding can be a very good answer. It is increasingly used in schools to ensure a proper cross-section of ability within a local area. Of course, when you have a banded system, you still have to decide how you are going to deal with oversubscription within the bands. A common form of dealing with it is now random allocation.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, the Minister knows that I approve of banding and indeed of ballots; I like the way in which they are being operated at Haberdashers’ Aske’s in Hatcham and in Hertfordshire. But the system where you can be living next to a school and, if you lose out, have to go four miles away to your second choice is causing immense pain to the people of Brighton. It is as if the places on the Brighton to London train were allocated by ballot at the station. It is causing immense difficulty in the town. Will he not tell Brighton that it is going about this in the wrong way?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, that is a matter for Brighton. It is not my job to substitute my judgment for that of the local authority on precisely how it should draw the boundaries of catchment areas, which is the issue at stake in the noble Lord’s remarks. It tends to be the case that, where some gain, some lose as well.

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Hereditary Peers’ By-Election

3.30 pm

The Clerk of the Parliaments: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I am now able to announce the result of the by-election to elect a Conservative hereditary Peer in accordance with Standing Order 10.

Forty-three Lords completed valid ballot papers. A paper setting out the complete results is being made available in the Printed Paper Office and the Library. That paper gives the number of votes cast for each candidate. The successful candidate was the Earl Cathcart.

Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. There is, however, a second Motion standing in my name today for an affirmative order. However, since it was debated, a drafting error has been discovered—by, I understand, a Clerk in the Journal Office of the House of Commons—wrongly cross-referencing a schedule in the previous Act. As a result, the order will have to be redrawn and re-laid today. I shall not, therefore, be moving the second Motion standing in my name. We will seek another date for that order to be approved in due course. I apologise to the House for that and beg to move the first Motion.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 18 December 2006 be approved. Considered in Grand Committee on 27 February.—(Lord Rooker.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Policing (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

Motion not moved.

Serious Crime Bill [HL]

3.31 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD SPEAKER in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Serious crime prevention orders]:

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 1:

The noble Baroness said: The objective of the amendment is to ask the Minister to clarify some of the confusion caused by the consultation paper that

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preceded the drafting of the Bill and which may have undermined the usefulness of some of the responses.

What kind of people have the Government decided the courts and police are no longer capable of tackling via the normal criminal justice system? I am aware that the Minister made it possible last night for noble Lords to hear a briefing by those in charge of the Serious Organised Crime Agency. I sent a representative to the meeting and I have seen a note of it. I am sure that the meeting was very helpful to those who were able to attend.

The director and the chairman of the Serious Organised Crime Agency gave their own views about what kind of people they might be able to target. I also understand that they gave the examples on the basis that they would be subject to Chatham House rules, because specifics were being given. Certainly against the background of some of the arguments with the BBC and the Guardian this week,I wholeheartedly support the proposal that we should not reveal any of those details on the Floor of the House. I would never myself wish to undermine a police operation and a successful criminal prosecution.

We need to know what kind of people the Government are giving up on in terms of criminal prosecutions: who, they feel, are suitable only for subjection to a serious crime prevention order. We will have debates later on what kinds of crimes are being considered; I am asking now, what kind of—we would say—criminals?

The consultation paper New Powers Against Organised and Financial Crime was published in July 2006. It was directed that responses be sent to the “organised crime consultation team”. The executive summary refers to plans to introduce a “serious crime prevention order”, but Chapter 3, which deals with consultation on this proposal, is suddenly headlined “Organised crime prevention orders”. We then switch back again, a page or so later, to the use of the term “serious crime prevention order”. But in the questions put to respondents—for example, questions 7 and 8—the Government return to the term “organised crime prevention orders”. What kind of criminals and crime are the Government really asking respondents to consider appropriate for this kind of order? It certainly did not appear crystal clear from the consultation paper. What are we expecting to deal with as we consider this Bill: serious crime, organised crime, or serious and organised crime?

If it is intended that the order should affect only those involved in organised crime, why not say so consistently? What was the rationale behind the confusing use of different terminology at different times? It is important to know that from the start, because the changes that the Government propose in Part 1 are significant.

I note, too, that the proposals relate to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. My noble friends Lady Carnegy of Lour and the Duke of Montrose may wish to ask questions about the potential impact on Scotland. As ever, I defer to them on matters relating to Scotland.

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The report of the Select Committee on the Constitution set out clearly the challenge that lies ahead as we scrutinise Part 1. It said:

a matter on which it expressed doubt—serious crime prevention orders, in its view, represented an incursion into the liberty of the subject and constituted a form of punishment that cannot be justified in the absence of a criminal conviction. That challenge has guided how we have approached our consideration of Part 1.

I made clear at Second Reading that it is vital that the Government—any Government—should protect the British public from those who do their utmost to encourage serious organised crime and profit from it, while taking great care to stay at arm’s length from those crimes. They are a danger to all of us but their hands never appear dirty in public. We know it is difficult to take measures to protect the public from such people, but we know it is vital that we should. However, the methods we adopt must be proportionate and effective, without undermining our system of law and justice.

The Select Committee’s report makes it clear that we should consider whether the Government’s proposals in Part 1 would undermine that system of law and justice. The best weapon against serious criminals is to track them down, charge them and prosecute them. My first reaction when I read Part 1 was that it looked like bad policy and bad law. We are sceptical about the Government’s proposals but we are concerned that we should give them a full, fair consideration. We have therefore tabled a significant number of amendments to Part 1 to give the House the opportunity to examine both the principle and the practice likely to underpin the imposition of serious crime prevention orders by our courts. Our objective is to give noble Lords the fullest opportunity at Committee stage to scrutinise whether these new civil injunctive orders are a step too far or whether there are grounds that can be put forward on which they should be tolerated.

The answers we will receive from the Minister during our deliberations on Part 1 will inform our approach on Report. I beg to move.

Lord Dholakia: I support particular amendments in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the noble Lord, Lord Henley. Our reasons are very straightforward. We are challenging the name “serious crime prevention order”. The recommended name “organised crime prevention order” is much more appropriate. If this part of the Bill arises out of the need to tackle serious organised crime, it should be described as such.

I thank the Minister for the briefing session yesterday. It was pretty clear that we were talking about serious organised crime, particularly relating to class A drugs, human trafficking and fraud. Serious crime encompasses a much wider bracket of offences than organised crime. Although serious crimes can be

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linked to organised crime, it is important that such orders are not extended to cover individual offences where there is no evidence that they are connected to organised crime.

Public perception is somewhat different. This amendment should be supported so that the clarification is there for all to see.

The Duke of Montrose: As we are discussing the scope of these measures, it is interesting to note that the Explanatory Notes kindly mention that,

I am familiar with the fact that we are perfectly at liberty to discuss at Second Reading issues that bear on Scotland. However, I am still not sure how far we can go in discussing these measures before a Sewel convention appears from the Scottish Parliament. I hope that the Minister will clarify that. I gather that the draft legislative consent Motion endorsing the principle of serious crime prevention orders will be lodged with the Minister of Justice in Scotland. Has that already been done?

Lord Burnett: The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, referred to the kind of criminals to be targeted. I wish to raise the matter of the qualifications of the individuals to be employed in the agency, the resources that will be made available to that agency and when they will be made available. I am grateful to the Minister for organising last night’s meeting with the chairman and director-general of the Serious Organised Crime Agency. The chairman has an outstanding record of public service, is highly respected and is a powerful advocate.

We owe it to our fellow countrymen to ensure that the police and these agencies have sufficient and proportionate powers to bring criminals to justice, but we must, of course, balance these with the freedoms and liberties that we should always enjoy. However, noble Lords on these Benches will ensure that the liberties and freedoms that we enjoy are not stretched too far.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for the way in which she introduced the amendment. It is clear that it is a probing amendment which seeks to understand how these issues are interpreted. I very much take on board her comments about the use of both “serious crime” and “organised crime” in the consultation document. I shall seek to explain why we settled on “serious” as the most appropriate description.

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