Education Bill

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Mr. Lewis: If somebody fell under a Clapham omnibus, they would be unlikely to be able to pursue their application, and if somebody died the relevant authorities would have to be informed immediately that there was going to be a change and the proprietor was no longer there.

We are talking about an application for registration and the proprietor could be an individual or a company. It has to be right that that individual or the directors of that company have to apply for registration.

The hon. Member may be referring to the fact that in many cases, lawyers, accountants and other such professionals have to do the processing, administration and a lot of the background work. Everyone on the Committee accepts that that is legitimate support for an individual or a company that was seeking to open a school. However, application for registration has to be fully the responsibility of either the individual proprietor or the directors of the company that is the proprietor. There can be no ambiguity about who is ultimately responsible for applying. If an application were made by someone else and it was accepted—if we had the flexibility that the hon. Gentleman seeks—we could enter into all sorts of litigation about who is or is not responsible.

The hon. Gentleman has not presented one scenario that justifies his amendment. The Clapham bus was one; the death of the proprietor was another. He did not refer to someone being admitted to prison—the word ''admitted'' is probably not appropriate. He gave the example of somebody who was chronically, or terminally, ill. When we are developing legislation, we have to use an element of common sense. I do not imagine that someone who was terminally ill would want to put in an application to start a new school.

There is an even more fundamental issue, if we are going to get silly about this. If someone is not in a fit state to put in an application because they have a chronic health problem, they are not a fit person. If their health was so bad that they could not make intellectually cogent decisions, they would not be in a fit state to put in an application. When the inspection came, prior to day one—the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight does not want us to have the inspection prior to day one—it would be patently clear that the proprietor is so ill that they cannot even make the application. Yet the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West wants us to accept an application made on that person's behalf and allow the person to take

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responsibility for a school. I am not being disrespectful to the hon. Gentleman, but surely common sense should prevail in legislation.

Mr. Brady: The Minister's response is hopelessly inadequate. The one thing that legislation cannot exhibit is common sense. Common sense can come only through the interpretation of legislation, and that is precisely what the Committee is trying to draw out from Ministers.

The Minister can sit there, as I am sure that Ministers for centuries have done, considering Bills and claiming that it is not possible for a set of circumstances that he has not foreseen to arise. Like Ministers over the centuries, he will be proved wrong. It would be helpful to the Committee and to those who, through the courts or otherwise, may have recourse to our deliberations in interpreting this legislation to know what the Government's thinking is.

So far, it seems that the Minister believes that if the proprietor of a school becomes incapacitated for whatever reason, or indeed dies during the process, no other body will be considered fit to take the application forward. That leaves open the possibility that there will be an indeterminate period while the estate is being administered in the event of a death or while somebody is ill and incapacitated during which no further steps can be taken.

I ask the Minister to be slightly less flippant and to attempt to engage with the point. At some point in the future, should the Bill become law, a situation may arise that he does not envisage today. The legislation will have to be interpreted by the courts or otherwise. It would be helpful if the Minister would give a more considered response.

Mr. Lewis: It was not a flippant response. When I use the word common sense, which used to be a term that was endearing to the former Leader of the Opposition, I did so in the context of an application for registration as an independent school. It is surely common sense that the person or the corporate entity required to make the application is either the individual or the corporate entity that seeks to run that school. I do not think that that is complicated.

It is very dangerous to answer no to any question in this context. I envisage no circumstances in which it would be unreasonable, impractical or impossible to require the person or corporate entity that wants to create a new independent school to sign on the dotted line of the application. I will no doubt regret this at some stage in the future, but I ask the hon. Gentleman, on that basis, to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Brady: All that Opposition members of the Committee seek to do is to minimise the number of occasions when Ministers regret their actions in introducing legislation. The Minister says that he knows what he is doing, so we will leave him to face the consequences. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 156 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 157 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Clause 158

Changes to registered details

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 545, in page 91, line 28, at beginning insert

    'Save as under sub-sections 158(8) and (9)'

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 546, in page 92, line 13, at end insert—

    '(8) Subsection 158(1) shall not apply—

    (a) for twelve months following the death of a proprietor;

    (b) for twelve months where a school has changed address in circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen by the proprietor;

    (c) where a change referred to in subsection 156(2)(a) to (c) would not constitute a significant alteration to the school;

    (d) where the registration authority has received an application under section 150(3) proposing a material change but the application has not been determined in time for that change to take effect.'.

No. 547, in page 92, line 13, at end insert—

    '(9) Where other evidence (under subsection (7) (b) above) has been taken into account, until the applicant has had the opportunity to consider that evidence and the registration authority has considered any representations made.'.

Mr. Brady: I hesitate because these amendments also deal with what might be regarded as the unforeseen, which the Minister refuses to accept as a possibility. The clause states that

    ''The registration authority may remove a school from the register if . . . there is a material change in relation to the school, and . . . the change has not been approved''.

We seek to probe the Minister on whether additional flexibility is required in the legislation. We seek to allow a period of grace after unforeseen circumstances such as the death of the proprietor or a change of address of the school. One instance that comes to mind is a school by the coast that is forced to move to other premises as a result of coastal erosion.

No member of the Committee is old enough to remember directly, but we know from our knowledge of history and conversations with others that many independent schools were forced to relocate in the war. Only recently a constituent told me how her school was forced to relocate into the Chatsworth estate, not a fate for which we need show huge sympathy, as I imagine that it was a rather pleasant place be. In a more mundane state of affairs, the delay in registration or in processing a change may be the fault not of the proprietor but of the registration authority. There may have been an undue delay in dealing with an application. A school may not be registered or it may be deemed that appropriate action has not been taken. I do not intend to delay the Committee unduly in this regard, but I ask for the Minister's thoughts on the matter.

Mr. Turner: I support the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. The amendments are not as fanciful as hon. Members may have thought. In the past 12 months two hotels in my constituency were closed as a result of cliff falls and one large, highly commodious house which would have been suitable for a preparatory school was closed by order of the authorities because

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of land slip. None of those buildings happened to contain schools, but they might have done. We have all seen the film ''Blue Murder at St. Trinian's'', in which a school was evacuated in wartime in circumstances that could not reasonably have been foreseen by the proprietor.

My hon. Friend dealt with paragraph (d) of amendment No. 546, and I should like to refer briefly to paragraph (c). I am concerned that clause 156(2) is so tightly drawn that an application would be required even for an insignificant alteration, such as the age range of pupils or whether a school is for male or female pupils or both. We have all heard the case of the housemaster's daughter who, for convenience, was educated in a boy's school from time to time. That should not require an application under clause 156(2)(c). In the previous legislation—I am not sure whether it was amended by the School Standards and Framework Act 1998—it was recognised that the change in character of a maintained school had to be significant before the Secretary of State got involved. We should not impose a more onerous requirement now.

5.15 pm

Amendment No. 547 refers to an important question of natural justice. Subsection (7)(b) allows the registration authority to take into account not only the inspector's report but

    ''any other evidence relating to the independent school standards'',

and makes no provision for the proprietor to see or comment on that evidence before the Secretary of State or the National Assembly makes a decision. The importance of amendment No. 547 is that it would provide that a school could not be removed from the register under subsection (1) if the evidence for doing so included any evidence under subsection (7)(b) until the applicant had the opportunity to consider the evidence and the registration authority had considered any representation made. That is an important question of natural justice and should be taken into account in the Bill.

 
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