|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mrs May: The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that I would not want to comment on the ongoing investigations into the recent work of Northumbria police in relation to Raoul Moat. I would say, however, that that was a good example of how a police force can bring in resources from elsewhere. It brought in resources from across the country, including from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Met and other local forces, in response to a very difficult situation involving a callous murderer, Raoul Moat. I would say to the hon. Lady that we are not imposing a top-down reorganisation; we are talking about restoring democratic accountability, which will enable the link between the police and the public to be restored.
Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): What effect does my right hon. Friend expect the national crime agency's border police force to have on the number of illegal immigrants, which the previous Government estimated to be around 700,000?
Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. It has been a long-standing concern of ours that we need to strengthen our border protection through the introduction of a border police force. We will do that within the national crime agency, which will enable the work of border police force, bringing together the work of the UK Border Agency, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and other agencies, to link in with the work of the serious organised crime command. That will not only strengthen our ability to protect our borders in the way that she suggests, but will enable us to protect this country against serious organised crime.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): What is the point of the Home Secretary giving a paean to police community support officers when she is overseeing a programme of cuts that has resulted in Durham constabulary announcing last week that it would have to remove 200 such officers?
Mrs May: I believe neighbourhood policing to be an important part of our police landscape. The work that can be done at local level by warranted officers and PCSOs forms an important part of the golden thread that runs from neighbourhood policing through to national issues. The hon. Lady mentioned cuts in police budgets. The in-year cut in police budgets this year is less than 1.5% across the country, and we all know why. This will probably be a cause for groans from Labour Members because they know what the answer is: those budgets have been made necessary by the legacy of economic mismanagement by the previous Labour Government.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Last week, Staffordshire police authority announced the appointment of its first full-time chief executive, with a salary of £85,000. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Staffordshire would rather have more influence over policing priorities than see the appointment of another unelected, unaccountable and expensive bureaucrat?
The whole point of the structure that we are proposing is that, after May 2012, there will be directly elected police and crime commissioners who will set the budget and the strategic plan for the police, and ensure that the decisions being taken are in line with the interests of the people and with fighting crime.
Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): Given the amount of sensitive information to which the elected commissioners will have access, will they undergo security clearance before standing for election? What would happen after the election if they were elected without the appropriate level of clearance?
Mrs May: If the hon. Lady is implying that people who wish to stand for election should somehow be required to have security clearance, that is a new and interesting thought, but it is not one that I intend to pursue.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Is the Home Secretary aware that the chief constable of Essex has said in a written statement that the opportunities presented by elected police commissioners include the potential for less cost, less bureaucracy and greater public clarity? Will she agree to meet the chief constable with me, and to support local people who believe in local democracy for local policing?
Mrs May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reporting to the House the comments of the chief constable of Essex, whom I would be delighted to meet. We have been meeting chief constables across England and Wales to discuss the proposals, but I would be happy to hear what he has been able to do to fight crime and reduce bureaucracy in Essex.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): The Home Secretary has not addressed the effect of police budget cuts on her ideas. Does she not agree that elected commissioners are already doomed to fail, as thousands of neighbourhood police and thousands more police community support officers, for instance in the Cleveland police force, are removed from the communities they have served so well?
Mrs May: No, I do not agree that that is the implication of what we are doing. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman speaks to the shadow Home Secretary, who, when challenged during the general election campaign to guarantee that there would be no cuts to the number of police officers under a Labour Government, simply said that he could not make such a guarantee.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I thank the Home Secretary for making the statement now, because in past years such announcements were made during the recess when the House could not question a Minister. The UK Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield is closed and has been incorporated into SOCA, which is now being closed and will become the NCA. Are the Government still committed to combating human trafficking?
Mrs May: Yes, we are indeed still committed to combating human trafficking. Setting up the national crime agency, with not only the serious organised crime command but the border police force and increasing broader protection, will, I believe, enable our fight against trafficking to be even stronger.
Mrs May: I have already referred to that question, which was raised by the shadow Home Secretary. We will in due course publish figures about the cost of directly elected commissioners. As I have said elsewhere, the introduction of directly elected commissioners is not an attempt to make savings; it is a long-standing commitment, which we believe is necessary to reconnect policing and the public.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that these commissioners will not have a new paid bureaucracy created around them? Instead, might they be assisted by an unpaid advisory board?
Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): Did the Tory party not claim to be the party of law and order in the past? Is the Home Secretary not embarrassed to be the first Tory Home Secretary to set out to undermine the police with the proposed cuts? Does she agree that gimmicks are no substitute for substance?
Mrs May: The police have been undermined by the way in which Whitehall has set them targets, and by having to look constantly to Whitehall in relation to what they do. Instead, they should respond to the needs of people in their local area. We are strengthening the ability of police to fight crime, slashing bureaucracy and enabling police officers to get out on to the streets, where the public want to see them.
Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): Does the Home Secretary agree that the 101 phone number is an important tool in understanding real levels of crime, and that it is also effective in helping police officers to know where to tackle the problem areas in the community?
Mrs May: My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. The 101 phone number is important, and that is why we are considering introducing it nationally. The information that we will make available about crime at street level will also be important in helping people to tackle crime locally.
Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): Does the Home Secretary accept that there will have to be a reduction in the number of front-line police officers as a result of the additional cost of directly electing police commissioners?
Given that half of all crime is committed by 10% of criminals, may I urge my right hon. Friend to consider that one of the best ways of promoting policing in the 21st century would be to ensure that persistent and prolific offenders served their full time in jail?
Mrs May: I commend my hon. Friend for his work as a special constable with the British Transport police. The work that they do is often forgotten, but it is an important part of the fight against crime and the job of keeping people safe.
Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): Is the Home Secretary embarrassed about the fact that she has not even had time to figure out the cost of the separate police commissioner apparatus? What on earth has she got against good old-fashioned democratic local government as the best way of holding the police to account?
Mrs May: I have absolutely no embarrassment in coming to the House and making it clear that what we will do is restore democratic accountability to the police through the direct election of commissioners. The hon. Gentleman speaks of local government. As a former councillor, I believe that local government is an important part of the strength of government in this country, but I also believe that most people do not know what their police authority is, or that they can consult it with a problem relating to their policing. Now they will have an opportunity to vote directly for the individual who will be their police commissioner.
David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on going for it and introducing directly elected commissioners. They have been very successful in other parts of the world, particularly the United States. However, has she thought about the situation that might arise if a directly elected commissioner had one policy and she had another, based on the national interest? How would that situation be resolved?
Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that prospect. One of the purposes of directly elected commissioners is to be responsive to local needs. Of course it will be necessary to ensure that the collaboration between police forces that I referred to earlier can be undertaken when necessary, and that will also involve ensuring that national policing issues are addressed properly. However, it is not the Home Secretary who should determine what happens in regard to local policing-which is what happened under the Labour Government-but the directly elected commissioners.
Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): The cost of elections in Lancashire is expected to be at least £1 million. Given that the Home Secretary has just said that there is no money, can she tell us whether they will be paid for by the Treasury or by Lancashire taxpayers?
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Now that her right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary has explained that crime fell under Labour because of a rise in living standards, by what measure does the Home Secretary estimate that crime will rise as a result of cuts in public services, the rise in VAT and rising unemployment? Will the direct election of commissioners mean higher living standards for anyone other than the commissioners themselves?
Mrs May: That was a slightly convoluted question, if I may say so. I believe that directly elected commissioners will ensure that the police forces in their areas are responsive to local needs rather than being responsive simply to the bureaucratic imposition from Whitehall, as they were under the Labour Government.
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): Notwithstanding the Home Secretary's response to her hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick), who gave the example of directly elected commissioners in the United States, is it not the case that, far from crime falling there, the United States has vastly larger crime totals than we do and vastly overcrowded prisons? Is it not also the case that once elected, the directly elected police commissioner tends to spend the next three years campaigning for re-election rather than tackling crime? Is that really the model that the Home Secretary wishes to introduce to this country?
Mrs May: I neither accept nor recognise the picture the hon. Lady paints of what happens with directly elected commissioners in other parts of the world. Labour Members who are so against directly elected commissioners should ask themselves two questions. First, why then do they support the arrangements we have in London, where the Mayor is directly accountable? Secondly, why was it, therefore, that in 2008 the then Labour Home Secretary brought forward proposals for directly elected police representatives?
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): If the Home Secretary will not tell us how much this is going to cost or where the money is coming from, will she at least tell my constituents in Selly Oak that she is not planning to pinch it from their hard-pressed police budgets?
Mrs May: I have answered the question about- [ Interruption.] No, I have made it clear that we will publish figures in due course. As the hon. Gentleman will know, all Departments are going through the spending review at the moment and the budgets and other figures will be revealed later this year.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP):
Given that 80% of the Northern Ireland public are aware of their police authority and Policing Board, has the Home Secretary any plans to replicate the mechanisms adopted in respect of the Policing Board for holding a chief police officer to account, namely having elected, as well as appointed,
officials on the board who have regular monthly public meetings holding the chief of police to account? Is that not a better way forward than directly electing commissioners?
Mrs May: We did, of course, look at the arrangements in Northern Ireland, but what we propose to introduce in England and Wales will include a directly elected commissioner and a police and crime panel, which will be drawn from local authority representatives and independent people who will be able to ask the commissioner of police to appear before them and explain what has been happening in their area.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The inevitable logic of what the Home Secretary has said this afternoon is that we should be electing not only police commissioners but the local chief prosecuting officer. Indeed, it seemed from what she was saying earlier that she was moving in that direction. Surely the last thing people want in any of our constituencies is more party political interference in the policing of this country.
Mrs May: We are not talking about party political interference in policing. The picture the hon. Gentleman has painted does not accurately portray what I was saying earlier about directly elected commissioners. The directly elected commissioners will be called police and crime commissioners and they will have a wider role than simply looking at what is happening in relation to their police force; they will be looking at crime more generally and working with community safety partners. We are, however, absolutely clear that the operational independence of the police will remain.
Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): As I am the final questioner, may I take the opportunity to ask two central questions? First, how much will these initiatives cost and, secondly, by how much will they cut crime?
Mrs May: As I said in response to a number of earlier questions, we will publish figures on cost and the business case for the national crime agency in due course-and I am sorry the hon. Lady had to wait such a long time to ask that question.
Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will be aware of the recent Westminster Hall debate in which we were reminded that one party with representatives elected to this House still refuses to take up its seats yet claims its allowances and expenses. May I ask you to make a ruling as to how we can bring this shameful activity to an end? Do you not agree that it is an affront to Members who believe that it is a privilege to serve and debate in this House, and that it is not, as some others believe, possible to be an associated Member of the Houses of Parliament?
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and I respect the fact that there is concern about this issue in some sections of the House. First, I am of course aware that there has recently been a Westminster Hall debate on the subject-on 30 June if memory serves me correctly. Secondly, this is a matter for the House. The hon. Gentleman might be aware-and other Members will certainly be conscious of this-that a resolution of the House regarding the use of facilities and the ability to claim expenses that touched on precisely the matter that is of concern to him was passed on 18 December 2001. If the House wishes at any stage to consider this matter again and to debate and vote upon a resolution, it will, of course, be entirely open to the House to do so. This is, therefore, a matter not for the Speaker but for the House. I hope that is helpful.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I welcome what you have just said, which clarifies matters. It might be worth my pointing out that there are Members on both sides of the House who share this concern and would like to see this measure come back to the House, as those of us who voted against it last time might find ourselves in the majority this time.
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. As she is well aware, she has helpfully underlined and reinforced the point that the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) has just made. It is always a pleasure to be in agreement with the hon. Lady.
Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 8 July, I received a written answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), assuring me that this week a report would be published on research and statistics
"relating both to false allegations of rape and to other relevant issues."-[ Official Report, 8 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 428W.]
"MoJ source said: 'We will certainly not be legislating'"
on this issue, and that the Government do not plan to publish the evidence, about which they certainly responded in their answer of 8 July to my question. Although I welcome a U-turn by the Government on this issue, is it in order that they have failed to come to the House to tell us comprehensively what they intend to do on this proposal and how they intend to move forward and let Members on both sides of the House receive information at first hand, rather than through the press?
Mr Speaker: What I would say in response to the right hon. Lady is that the timing of Government statements to the House is a matter specifically for the Government. I hope that I have understood the right hon. Lady correctly with reference to the questions that she has tabled, and what I would say is that if she has not received answers-or, at any rate, substantive answers-to questions, I would very much hope that substantive answers will be forthcoming before the House rises for the summer recess. I very much hope that Ministers from the Ministry of Justice have heard-if they have not heard, I hope that they will hear shortly-precisely what I have just said. That approach seems to me to be conducive to the good conduct of business of the House.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During questions the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport made reference, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), to the political affiliations of the chairman of the BBC Trust and the chairman of Ofcom. Subsequently, in answer to a supplementary question from me asking whether or not he was calling into question their impartiality, he went on to claim that a number of appointments to non-departmental public bodies under the previous Administration had been made in a politically biased way, despite the fact that proper procedures had been put in place for public appointments during the previous Parliament. Given your ruling that when Ministers speak from the Dispatch Box they are speaking on behalf of the Government, can we have a statement from the Government on whether or not they believe that public appointments made under the previous Administration were made for political reasons and were not made through the proper public appointments procedures, which were set up and in place, and on whether they have confidence in those public appointments?
Mr Speaker: It is always a pleasure to hear points of order from the hon. Gentleman. Something tells me that at least in part of his point of order-I will be generous and say "in part"-he was seeking to continue an earlier argument. That in itself would not constitute a point of order and might almost risk becoming disorderly. What I would say, which may be of interest to him and to others in the House, is that when reference is made to individuals outside this place, such reference should be made with care, restraint and circumspection. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.
'(1A) In the case of a member or members of a governing body objecting to an application under subsection (1), there shall be a ballot of the parents of children enrolled at the school, subject to regulations laid down by the Secretary of State.'.
(1B) The Secretary of State shall issue guidance as to how governing bodies should conduct such a consultation with parents, pupils, teaching and non-teaching staff and their representatives, neighbouring schools and the local authority and such other parties as he may think appropriate and such guidance must also specify the information to be made available to consultees in relation to the proposed arrangements for Academy status.'.
'(4) Consultation on Academy status should not be led by any member of a governing body who may benefit financially as a result of conversion to Academy status or whose salary, terms or conditions may be affected by such conversion.'.
Dr Pugh: When were elected this May-God, it seems years ago-we all knew that there was some prospect that politics in this place might never be quite the same again. Many of us, frankly, welcomed that. The huge and welcome influx of new Members gave us all hope that things could possibly be different. That, along with the odd arithmetic of this place and the challenging nature of the country's problems, seemed to dictate that the way ahead would be through rational consensus and for a while-all too short a while-it appeared that tribalism and command-and-control politics were dead; the Chamber and Committees would be important and policy would have to be evidence-led, much to the disappointment of the media, whose preference is always for a good scrap.
What do we have with amendments to the Bill, however? We have the spectacle of Ministers who have already told us that they will accept no amendment, period, and the sight of Whips new and old cracking their knuckles off-stage and perfecting basilisk-like stares in the mirror, persuading people not to vote for amendments such as amendment 8 and others that, it could be argued, align with the spirit and improve the detail of the Bill. Paradoxically, they are doing that because they assume that is how coalition politics work. I say paradoxically, because the amendment-denying Ministers in front of us, whose agents the Whips are, seem to be the most mature, civilised and benign advocates of the new politics. I personally cannot associate myself with the recent comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron); nor can I afford to drink in the Boot and Flogger. I am simply moving an amendment with which the Committee should be comfortable and, frankly, which any Member of any party can and should be free to support.
In the event of a governing body being divided, amendment 8 obliges a school to hold a ballot if a governor or a minority of governors object to an application for academy status. It therefore provides a restraint on a motivated group of governors misrepresenting or riding roughshod over parents' wishes.
Mr Evans, you might recall that under Mrs Thatcher, in the Education Reform Act 1988, a parental ballot was an essential precondition of the change to grant-maintained status in any school. There were votes across the country on those matters. Sadly, subsequent Governments seem to have lost interest in the views of parents and, in my view, have disempowered parents, with one exception. Tony Blair insisted that the change from grammar school status required a parental ballot and that condition survives and is effectively incorporated in this Bill.
Can anyone in this Chamber give me an argument for why grammar school parents should be balloted before the status of their school changes and parents of children at other schools should not? I am at a loss to find such an argument. Why should grammar school parents have
a right that primary school parents, comprehensive school parents and special school parents do not have? Will anyone agree with the former and present me with a good argument for voting against the latter?
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): Presumably, the reason is that a change from grammar school to non-grammar school involves a change in admission arrangements for the cohort coming in the new year. With an academy, the admissions code remains the same and all that effectively happens is that the school organisation changes.
Mr Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) (LD): Does my hon. Friend accept the suggestion that there are to be no ballots because most of them might be lost if parents knew all the facts? That situation is being avoided simply by not making provision for a ballot in the first place.
Is anyone going to give hon. Members a good reason to vote against my amendment, which would not even give parents the same rights as the parents of children at grammar schools but would be conditional on a governor objecting to proposals? I cannot for the life of me see why anyone would vote against it, but I suspect that nearly 300 will.
Let me be clear that I have no prejudice against grammar schools. I went to three of them-expelled from none, I hasten to add-and I taught happily at an ex-direct grant, independent school for 15 years. I am agnostic about educational structure and this is just a matter of logical consistency. In our debates on this issue, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) has called on the Opposition to
"acknowledge that parents should be the people who have the greatest say in their children's education".-[ Official Report, 19 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 43.]
"with the education of their own children."-[ Official Report, 19 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 118.]
"the Conservative Front-Bench team takes the view that parents should have more choice".-[ Official Report, 21 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 444.]
They are all wise and experienced politicians who must know, as we all do, that governing bodies can sometimes splinter, be out of touch or be monopolised or taken over by cliques, particularly given the current chronic shortage of governors nationally; it is quite difficult to get people to become governors. Governing bodies also can and might misread parental opinion.
There is a general concern, which I share, about people who are temporarily and contingently nominated as the governors of a state school being entitled unilaterally to change the status of an asset that is paid for and financed by the whole community without the consent of that community or its elected representatives. Setting that concern aside, however, changing the status of a school without allowing the parents of children at the school a decisive voice is extraordinarily hard to justify, especially given the discretionary and entirely unspecific nature of the consultation arrangements in the Bill. The only motive that I can see for opposing my amendment, other than the dishonourable motive that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) has suggested, is a relative indifference to parental wishes.
Mr Hancock: Does my hon. Friend agree that if the possibility of a ballot taking place arose, it should not be just the parents of children at the existing school who were allowed to vote? It would have to be wider than that and take in the parents of children in feeder schools, as they would be the major beneficiaries, and if not them, the wider community as a whole. As we have argued time and again in our debates on this issue, secondary schools are a focal point in many communities and offer more than the teaching of children.
Dr Pugh: I am arguing simply that we should be at least as permissive as Baroness Thatcher was in 1988. My hon. Friend argues that we should be more permissive, but the Government are arguing, and anyone who votes against my amendment will clearly be convinced by that argument, that we should be less permissive.
Amendment 9 would delete the words "an Academy order, or", the effect of which would be to ensure that consultation on academy status would have to occur prior to the order being made. It is good common sense and, in essence, it is supported by the Chair of the Education Committee. As he said on Second Reading:
"The Government's concession in clause 5 at least makes governing bodies consult those whom they deem appropriate, but it is blunted by the fact that they do not have to do so prior to applying to the Secretary of State and because they can do so even after they have been issued with an academy order. Those consulted in such circumstances would have good grounds for feeling that they were participating in a charade."-[ Official Report, 19 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 49.]
I am aware that, from time to time, it suits Members to parody, simplify and stereotype their opponents. The last Government are characteristically portrayed by the current Government as an unmitigated disaster and, in return, Labour Members portray the Government as an unmitigated evil. If people want to live in a world of hyperbole, that is fine-if a little wearisome-but let us conduct a simple thought experiment. Let us imagine a Government-any Government-different from ours, who propose to allow a public institution to change its character. They agree that the institution must consult people about the change, but they allow consultation only after the irreversible change has happened. Would Members back such a Government? Would they applaud them? What would be the point of consultation? What would that process do for public cynicism about public service consultation-already significantly eroded by
the pseudo and sham consultations organised by the previous Government? But on the coalition side of the Chamber, how many quotes-showing our previous attacks, time and again, on sham consultation-do we want dragged up and used against us? At least those consultations did not take place after the event. Why do we want to invite comparison with the twisted politics of a communist plebiscite?
Is the only reason why we support the provision that the Government are proposing it? I notice that no one has said that post-hoc consultation is a cracking idea. It cannot be a case of "my Government right or wrong". That is not a good basis for a working democracy. It will not help the Government if we vote for indefensible nonsense. It will not help the Government if we vote, but compromise our beliefs in the process. Inconsistency and duff arguments will not help the coalition in the long or short term.
Amendment 10 is genuinely probing. It makes the obvious and, for me, slightly unkind point that the last time schools were given greater financial freedoms under local financial management, which I have always supported, nearly every governing body was presented with a paper from the headmaster showing that his salary should go up because the headmaster down the road would be getting a significant increase. We saw salary inflation across the headmaster class, so headmasters may have something to look forward to from new academy status. Of course, they may not think in those terms, and I am sure that the majority do not, but the point is pretty obvious to all of us-imagine asking MPs to consult on a change that might possibly result in improved salaries. The concept of declaration of interest has some relevance in these provisions, so it is important that consultation is led by those who have none.
I acknowledge that I have not shown a lot of enthusiasm for the Bill, but despite that and despite my doubts as to its cost and effects, I am not seeking to derail it. I do not wish to cause trouble. Free schools and academies are in the coalition agreement. All I hope I have done is to make a case for good sense, which I think most people are up for, the primacy of the Commons Chamber, which I think most of us support, and the right of parents to be taken seriously. I hope rational beings on both sides of the Committee will see their way to supporting the amendment.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I want to speak to new clause 1, on the reversion of academies to maintained status, and amendment 4, on consultation on conversion to an academy. I shall concentrate the majority of my remarks on new clause 1, and will speak only briefly to amendment 4, as consultation has been pretty much covered in our previous debates.
I tabled new clause 1 because there is no provision in the Bill for academies to revert to maintained status. That means that all the potential problems that the Bill would permit-such as restrictive curriculum, discriminatory admissions and employment policies-would be made permanent at the point of conversion. The Government admit that problems are likely. I have cited this before, but it bears repeating that the Minister responding for the Government in a debate in the other place stated:
"I fully accept that if you trust people things do go wrong, but that is the direction that we want to try to go in."-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 7 July 2010; Vol. 720, c. 299.]
It beggars belief that the Government would not want to guard against certain things going wrong, so is it really necessary to give schools complete freedom over admissions, curriculum and employment just to show that the dedicated people running our schools are trusted? I would argue not. The public are funding these schools, so on their behalf we must ensure that children are protected from indoctrination, that they are taught key subjects and that their staff are fairly treated. But given the Bill's failure to make proper consultation mandatory when schools convert to academy status, it is crucial to have a mechanism for parents to say that they want their schools to revert to maintained status if, as an academy, things do go wrong.
The Government want academies to be like private schools funded by the state, yet if things go wrong at a private school, parents have more recourse than parents of children at an academy as envisaged in the Bill. For example, if a private school behaves in a way that a parent does not like, the parent can stop paying the fees, withdraw their child or pay for their child to go somewhere else. There is no comparable control in the Bill for parents of children in academies. For example, it may well not be practical or possible for there to be the surplus capacity necessary for children to be pulled out of one academy and be sent to the next state-funded school of choice.
If parents see things going wrong in schools and believe that the Government's complete trust has been misplaced, surely they should be able to do something about it. The amendment is designed to provide a remedy to parents as a group-if, for example, an academy failed to teach key subjects or sought to impose religious beliefs on pupils. The amendment means that where 10% of the parents of pupils at an academy request it, the governing body must make arrangements for the holding of a ballot of parents to determine whether they want the academy to be converted back into a maintained school. If the Government are in favour of decentralising, as they constantly say they are with their big society rhetoric, why do they not want to let parents have the power to act if they decide that an academy is not better and if they want the school to go back to being a maintained school?
Mr Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): On the practical aspects of the amendment, as opposed to the principle that the hon. Lady has already articulated, will she explain why she arrived at the 10% figure as a threshold before a ballot is triggered? As to the ballot itself, once the mechanism is in place, what majority would apply to the ballot-50% or more-before academy status could be withdrawn?
Caroline Lucas: I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman takes the amendment sufficiently seriously to want to know such a level of detail, which is very encouraging. It seemed to me that 10% was a reasonable threshold, but I would be delighted to discuss the issue in more detail with other Members who might want a slightly higher threshold-I would not have thought we would want to make it lower- and I am equally open to suggestions as to the necessary majority. Perhaps a simple majority would not be enough and a two thirds majority might be better. At the moment, however, I am using the amendment to set out a basic principle.
Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): I think that the hon. Lady's amendment puts forward a good point. However, does not the intervention from the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson) highlight the problem with the process that we have to go through in that the hon. Lady could have the most brilliant idea ever and be like Cicero in presenting it, but it would make no difference at all because there is no Report stage for the Government to consider her point and table appropriate amendments?
Caroline Lucas: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for coming to the rescue. That was an exceedingly good point, which completely reinforces the fact that we are being forced to rush the Bill through at breakneck speed for no better reason than, presumably, the Secretary of State wanting to put a notch up and say that he has managed to achieve something before September. That is not a good way to make decisions. We should be going through the Bill line by line, making proposals and hearing the Government's response so that we are able to create the best possible legislation. We are being railroaded into a charade that is not designed to get the best piece of legislation on to the statute book, and that is what we should be getting.
Amendment 4, in my name, seeks to make real consultation mandatory before funding arrangements are signed for schools converting to academy status. Again, the lack of consultation in the Bill demonstrates that the legislation is about centralisation, not about empowerment. Rather than power to parents and pupils, the actuality will be the Secretary of State and his civil servants managing thousands of funding agreements with individual schools at the expense of local accountability.
An amendment in the other place means that the governing body of a converting school has to consult those persons whom it thinks appropriate, but there is nothing to prevent a school that is eager to convert from missing out key stakeholders. Proper consultation would enable reflection on accountability and governance, and on whether the freedoms that academy status will bring can be used without disadvantaging other parts of the community. Members will know from what I have said so far that I do not believe that that is possible.
I am sure that most parents would want a direct say over the removal, by severing the local authority link, of their right to democratic influence. The ramifications of so many schools becoming independent are enormous, and children, local parents, teachers, trade unions and the wider local community are surely entitled to have their voices heard. The point, which was made in the other place and by Members of this House last week but not adequately answered, is that article 12 of the UN convention on the rights of the child gives children the right to express views on all matters affecting them. Failure to consult students on matters that might significantly alter the ethos and curriculum of a school is a retrograde step, and it makes a mockery of the Secretary of State's empowerment claims.
Consultation should be central to the Bill. It is not sufficient to rely on the role of parent governors or TUPE regulations for staff, because they do not adequately equate to proper consultation on abandoning the education
system as we know it. For example, I have no doubt that, on the conversion to academy status, many staff will have well-informed views that go well beyond the question of the transfer of their terms and conditions.
To sum up, on reversion to maintained status, why does the Minister want to deny parents the power to trigger a ballot? And on consultation, why is he in such a hurry? Why does he not have time to listen to those affected?
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): It was a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Southport (Dr Pugh) looking back with such fond nostalgia to those democratic, halcyon days of the Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. I did not know that he cared quite as much, but it was a wonderful trip down memory lane. I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman in usually favouring democratic solutions and thinking that consultation is good and voting better, but sometimes the best can be the enemy of the good. What we have from Ministers is the opportunity for schools that so wish to obtain greater freedom to serve their pupils, parents and the wider community by having more to spend of the money that is properly theirs in the educational budget, and greater freedom to decide who they employ and how, and what they do in the classroom.
The Bill does not, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) suggests, set up some kind of complete freedom, whereby iconoclasts can seize control of a school and ignore all kinds of standards and requirements; those schools will still be within the state sector, monitored and regulated, and they will still need to achieve standards. There will be a great deal of interest from the local community, but there will still be the national regulatory scheme, too, so the hon. Lady was just trying to shock the Committee and is not living in the real world.
Caroline Lucas: Is it not the case that, if one gives academies the right to choose their own curriculum and opt out in so many respects from the local authority, one is giving them exactly those freedoms? I do not think that anything that I have said is designed to shock; my remarks exactly reflect the Bill. It will give academies incredible freedoms that other schools do not enjoy, and it will have huge ramifications for the rest of the local authority, as academies drain resources from it and from other schools. That is why consultation is so important.
Mr Redwood: That is a completely different argument from the one that the hon. Lady made in her speech, in which she said that these schools would be free of all checks, balances, regulation, inspection and control, and that they would go wrong. She seemed to be implying that we were giving schools the freedom to do badly. That is a particularly fatuous argument, because parents have considerable influence through governors and through their own voice, and they would take a great deal of interest. The number of pupils applying to go to the school would drop off very rapidly if the kind of disaster that she envisaged in her remarks came true, so I do not see that happening. I think that a combination of national regulation, the framework of law and local pressure would, on the whole, be benign.
Now the hon. Lady is arguing a rather different case-that these academies are going to be so successful, because they have all these excellent freedoms, that they will attract more and more people from the local community at the expense of the other schools in the area. I wish it were so. I do not think they will be that successful and take all the pupils from the local area, but if they are very good, I welcome the fact that more people will want to send their children there. That is a benign pressure to place on the other schools in the local area. It may be, however, that some of the more traditionally maintained schools act as the beacon that she would like to see.
Caroline Lucas: To clarify my point, I am talking about the fact that these schools will drain resources away from other schools. That is already happening in my constituency with the existing academies established under the previous Government, and it will happen even more under the new Government's proposals. I am talking about resources coming out of other schools because academies will essentially outsource things such as special educational needs provision and other co-ordinating methods that were usually undertaken by the local authority. That means that the local authority will have less money to perform those same roles.
Mr Redwood: The main mechanism by which academies could take more of the money would be by their being extremely popular and attracting more pupils, because most of the money follows the pupils. That is a thoroughly benign pressure. If these academies are going to take off and develop extremely good standards and reputations, they will attract more pupils and get more money, which they will need because they are teaching more pupils, and the other schools will need to pull their socks up. If the outcome is not as successful as that, the hon. Lady's worries should fall away. Surely she must accept, however, that we need some challenge and improvement in the system, and that there is nothing wrong with choice.
Why is it that someone like the hon. Lady does not trust anybody other than the state and is never prepared to give anybody any freedom to initiate, innovate, change and improve? Cannot she see that we desperately need to raise school standards, and that we need to do something to try to make that happen? Her system was tried for 13 years, and it did not work.
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman's point about trust is unfortunate, to say the least. Governing bodies do not always get these things right, and that is why some kind of mechanism needs to be in place. The amendments are trying to achieve that and to remedy some of the problems caused by our not having enough time to do the job properly in Committee.
Mr Redwood: I have said that I love democracy, and it is often a good idea to give more people more votes. However, let me deal directly with the issue. Parents are not without powers or influence in this situation; if they were, I would immediately sign up to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Southport. I suspect, however, that Ministers will argue, like me, that it would be a nice addition but is unnecessary because there are other checks and balances in the system.
Let us consider those elements. First, there is an elected local authority that will have a lot of influence and control over these schools. Its voice will be heard because it has considerable influence over the appointments of the very people who will be making this proposal or decision for each school. The local authority often has members on the governing body, and the governing body has parent representatives. If the parents became alarmed by the way in which the head teacher and the senior governors were moving, they would presumably make their voice heard through the parent governors or use their ability to change those governors to make the point.
Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): The evidence suggests that it takes seven years for a school to gain or lose a reputation, so it is not correct to say that the parents have this power to change things immediately. That is not going to happen-it will take a long time, and in the meantime children will lose out.
Mr Redwood: That may well be the case generally, but not in this situation. Changing to an academy is a one-off event of some significance in a school's life, so parents would be well aware of it and the school would communicate with them. If the parents were alarmed, I am sure they would make their views known. I know that parents of children in my local area are well attuned to what is happening in their local school, and if they are alarmed by something that is going on, they soon raise it. They can do so directly with their councillors, with their MP or with the school's governors.
Mr Mike Hancock: I understand and accept entirely the right hon. Gentleman's point about the checks and balances being in place once a school is created, but the amendment is about whether people should have a choice about such a school being set up. Is he saying that the parents of potential pupils at such a school should not have a say in whether it should change its status? He is perfectly right about what happens after the event, but this is about what happens before the change.
Mr Redwood: If an entirely new school is being set up, it is up to the people putting forward that proposition to make their own decisions and canvass the marketplace to see whether people are likely to go to it. If there is a proposal to change a school's status, parental opinion is very important, but I suggest that under the system set out in the Bill, which develops the current system, there will be plenty of opportunity for parents to make their views known. They can do that directly by talking or writing to the head teacher or governors, or they can get different people on to the governing body if they are really worried.
My experience is that people care desperately about the education of their children, and if they thought that the head teacher and the small group in the governing body who were trying to steer a change through were getting it wrong, they would make their views known very strongly. I suspect that the head and the governing body would moderate their stance or back off if they felt they had lost the confidence of their pupils and parents.
Dr Pugh: The right hon. Gentleman is sketching out various alternatives to a more democratic arrangement. I understand his argument, but is he not also making an overwhelming argument not to proceed in September? All the things that he asks parents to do cannot be done, because the parents are on holiday and the school is shut.
Mr Redwood: It cannot be done on that short a time scale-these things will take a bit of time to go through. As soon as schools want to make a proposal, they will have to put in an application, and of course they will notify parents at that time. It is quite possible for them to do so by e-mail or post in the school holidays, and the schools will be back in September, when there will be opportunities for the dialogue to continue.
"The Secretary of State expects that a significant number of Academies will open in September 2010 and for the number to continue to grow each year."
Mr Redwood: I think hon. Members are making obstacles where none need occur. Changes will go speedily only if the local community is happy. As soon as it gets out that a school is considering academy status, the local community will be engaged. There are local newspapers, local websites and all sorts of ways to do so, and the usual school grapevines will be in operation.
Opposition Members protest far too much-we all know they hate freedom, and they do not believe that free people can mobilise themselves in a good cause. I can assure them that people can do so very quickly if need arises. They should not be so afraid of the idea that their local schools might want a bit more freedom and a bit more of their own money to spend. It is dreadful that they believe that all their local schools need so much control from the centre that they want ever more regulation and control from Whitehall of the kind that Labour Governments meted out, and continued or increased control from local education authorities in the hope that one day there will be more Labour authorities to exercise it.
Surely it is high time that we set free the schools that wish to be set free. I can assure the Committee that should groups of parents not wish a change to academy status to happen, they will mobilise quickly and democracy will work. It is still alive and kicking.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I, too, would like to consider the serious lack of consultation required before establishing an academy, as outlined in clauses 3 and 5. I share the concern of not only other hon. Members, but teachers, parents and other stakeholders, who fear that they could be excluded from the whole process at the whim of just over half a governing body-that could be five, six, seven or eight people-intent on establishing an academy.
I know that there was much debate in the other place about consultation, but the resulting amendment, which allows the governing body to choose to consult after the academy order is made, does not go far enough. To say that the academy can consult after the event is nonsense, as is the provision that it must
"consult such persons as they think appropriate."
When the previous Conservative Government attempted to persuade schools to opt out of local authority links under the grant-maintained status legislation, parents were not only given the right to be consulted but allowed to vote on whether the school should opt out. That vote was binding on the governors, who had to accept the parents' will. Parent power ruled, and I, for one, trust parents.
Neither the original Bill nor the amendments passed in the other place give parents a guaranteed voice in the process. I can envisage, in many cases, governing bodies riding roughshod over parents and the community and making the changes that they want regardless. I say that because I witnessed the behaviour and the blind ambition of some governors and head teachers in the days of the former Cleveland county council, when the grant-maintained legislation was in place. A majority of governors and a few governing bodies favoured opting out, but the parents rejected that approach and their decision was final. Under the Government's current proposals, such governing bodies could-and, I believe, would-make the decisions and ignore the parents.
Mr Redwood: Why does the hon. Gentleman think that there will be so many schools with governing bodies and head teachers that are completely out of touch with their local parents and want to ride roughshod over them?
Alex Cunningham: That is straightforward. Parents have always made good decisions when electing parent governors, but they have to be able to make bigger decisions, and I believe that they should be consulted.
The Government have chosen to ignore genuine concerns about the Bill. That is not new politics, but old politics of the worst type. Rushed legislation makes bad law. In the words of the National Association of Head Teachers, legislate in haste, repent at leisure. I therefore hope that the amendments that would compel governing bodies to consult parents, among others, will be supported.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr Pugh) presented a strong argument, which the Minister clearly needs to answer, on whether the Bill currently goes far enough in giving those who care about the future of their school the opportunity to be involved in determining it. My hon. Friend set out the case for a ballot and looked back to the previous Conservative Government's decisions about grant-maintained status, which he looked to as a model. Like other hon. Members, he acknowledged that our noble Friends in another place debated consultation at length, hence the provision, which should have been included from the outset, for consultation. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) mentioned it, and it has improved the Bill a great deal.
My hon. Friend referred to the parents of children who currently attend the school as the electorate in such a ballot. As my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) pointed out, many other interested parties may wish to be part of it. I therefore think that amendment 8 is a very useful tool for prompting a discussion on who should be consulted and how.
We are considering a series of amendments, which examine consultation and votes in detail. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) tabled a new clause, which would allow for a reversion to maintained status if there were a trigger. She set out a 10% threshold on that. We could make some sort of hybrid amendment that sets out a 10% threshold of parents to trigger the kind of ballot that my hon. Friend the Member for Southport mentioned, or adopt a model based on the amendments tabled by the Opposition, which are more specific on who should be consulted and how that should happen. The debate is therefore important.
Vernon Coaker: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point, but the problem is that we cannot amend the Bill unless we win a vote. That is the problem with this process. Frankly, we all feel immense frustration. His point is exactly right, but we cannot amend the Bill.
Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman has made that point on a number of occasions-this afternoon and previously-but the fact remains that it is a question not just of whether we amend the Bill, but how we do so. That is what we are debating. When the Minister responds, he might say what the guidelines are for consultation on aspects of the Bill following debates in another place.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I take the point that the hon. Gentleman and others have made on the importance of consulting parents, but surely the Bill already ensures that they will be consulted. Clause 5 is clear that people "must" be consulted. It is also clear that people refers to "such persons as" the governors "think appropriate". Surely to goodness no one would suggest that parents do not fall under the phrase,
"persons as they think appropriate".
Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman made that point in an earlier debate on another group of amendments. He is absolutely right that the Bill, as amended-amendments that were pressed for by my noble Friends in another place-would highlight parents as an obvious, key group for consultation. The question asked in amendment 8 by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport is whether there should be a ballot.
Who should trigger such a ballot? There may be some sympathy for the proposal of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion for a reversal ballot-she suggests that 10% of parents could trigger such a ballot, but my hon. Friend said that an approval ballot should be triggered by one governor. However, one would have thought that even if a governing body, who might have signed up to academy status after a discussion lasting
for a considerable period, decides to go for academy status, people outside that group may want a ballot. There are therefore problems with his proposal.
Sammy Wilson: Whether the threshold of one governor or 10% of parents is used to trigger a ballot, does the hon. Gentleman see the danger of a type of guerrilla warfare against a school? Ten per cent. of parents or one governor are very low thresholds. They could keep the debate going on for ever, which only introduces uncertainty on the school's status.
Dr Pugh: I do not want to accuse the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) of complete nonsense, but the gist of amendment 8 is a procedure for dealing with an objection. If a governor disagrees, there would be a ballot. The ballot would decide on that objection, and that would be the end of the matter. The hon. Gentleman said that a governor could keep the debate going for ever, but they cannot do so. That is not what the amendment proposes.
Dan Rogerson: My hon. Friend is right that amendment 8 sets out such a procedure, but the question is whether we should adopt it and whether it will allow everybody who might want a ballot to trigger one.
The key question is this: do we feel that there is enough consultation provision in the Bill? There is also an issue of timing, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southport and others referred when speaking to amendment 9. Is it possible to have meaningful consultation after an application has been made to the Secretary of State? In the debate in the other place this issue was addressed, and, as I recall, it is the signing of the funding agreement that makes things final. Therefore, should consultation reveal that everyone in the wider community is horrified by the idea of the school becoming an academy, there would be the option not to proceed. In other words, before the final funding agreement is signed, the application could be withdrawn and the process stopped at that point. There is a misunderstanding about when the point of no return is reached. It is not when the application is approved, but when the funding agreement is signed.
Mr Mike Hancock: I hope that my hon. Friend does not find my intervention unhelpful, although he might- [ Laughter. ] Does he agree that the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr Pugh) go to the heart of the old Liberal adage about giving people a choice and a chance to have their say? Anything short of support for that would fly in the face of many of the things that we have stood for over the years.
Dan Rogerson: Against my hon. Friend's possible intention, that was a helpful intervention as it gives me the opportunity to repeat the point that the amendment is about one particular group of people who would be involved in the vote, not others who would also be affected-a point that he made in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Southport. It is therefore important that the consultation should be as wide-ranging as possible, but it should take place before the final funding agreement has been signed. It is in that period that a meaningful consultation can take place because there is something to consult on.
Mr Redwood: If there were a good head teacher in a good school who recommended a transition to academy status, a ballot called with a 40% turn-out and 21% of the parents said no to academy status and 19% said yes, would the head master have to resign? Could the head teacher be lost because his proposal had been rejected?
I hope that the Minister can tell us how the consultation process will be supported and how it can move forward. I hope that he can reassure the Committee-as those in the other place were reassured-that consultation will be meaningful and allow everyone to have their say. Hon. Members have already raised concerns about the time scale over the summer for those who wish to take early advantage of these measures, and there are schools which do want to take this route. I would be interested if the Minister could say how we can ensure that that consultation is meaningful in those instances.
Amendment 9 is an important one in the context of consultation. It is possible to have that consultation after the application has been made. Amendment 9 would require the consultation to take place between the application and approval by the Secretary of State. It is fair to say that there may have been some discussions already between the Secretary of State and the Department and the schools that started this process before the Bill was introduced. It is possible theoretically therefore that approval could be given quickly. The amendment would narrow the window for consultation between the application being made and being granted by the Secretary of State. If that happened in a short space of time, there would be no time for consultation. We need the consultation to be able to proceed until the signing of the final agreement, which is the agreement that creates the academy and concludes the process.
Dr Pugh: Does it not follow that trying to get academy status by September must be nonsense? Can my hon. Friend sketch out an indicative timetable that includes application, the funding agreement-which is irreversible-and, somewhere in the middle, consultation, bearing in mind that it is only six weeks until September?
Dan Rogerson: I suspect that my hon. Friend has posed a problem not for me, but for the Minister to answer when he replies to this debate. He is right: as I have already said, the Committee will need some reassurance that those consultations can take place over the summer for schools that wish to proceed quickly.
For the reasons that I have outlined, this is an important debate for the Committee to have. My hon. Friend is to be commended on moving the amendment in his customarily considered way. For that reason, it should be treated as a probing amendment by the Minister, rather than one on which the Committee should be divided, because it would not actually achieve the aspirations that many hon. Members have outlined, and which others will perhaps outline later in this debate.
I have grave concerns about the Bill. I cannot understand why the provisions are being rushed through for no identifiable reason other than political expediency. The Bill seems to seek completely to undermine the role of local authorities. It seems to be unaware of-indeed, antagonistic towards-the crucial role that those authorities play in planning for special educational needs, equalities, fair admissions, and so on. From my 25 years of being a governor, I know the importance of the local education authority in supporting schools, so it should be quite clear that I am not happy with the Bill. However, it is simply disgraceful to try to force through a re-designation of maintained schools to academies, bringing about a change in governance, curricula and admissions, and a possible loss of amenity to a local community, albeit without any meaningful consultation with them.
Amendment 4 seeks to outline a range of people and groups who should be consulted. They include-obviously-teachers, parents, other local authorities, pupils, potential partners to academies, and the wider community.
Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Proposed clause 5(1)(c) in amendment 4 lists the pupils. Would the hon. Lady not agree that consulting with pupils aged 11-or, if we give academy status to primary schools, five or six-might be a little stretching for them at that point in their educational cycle?
Roberta Blackman-Woods: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I have some experience of consulting on an academy-albeit not the sort of the academy proposed by the Bill-and I can assure him that pupils find it very easy to grasp what the change of their school to academy status would mean. However, his point is valid in that there must be a given length of time for a consultation to take place, so that the arguments for and against an academy in an area can be properly explained to everyone concerned. However, the Bill completely overrides any meaningful consultation process.
Bill Esterson: There are many professionals with good experience of how to consult effectively with children. Exactly the same point that the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) has just raised-the point about why children should not be consulted-was raised with me when I was dealing with the establishment of academies in Medway a couple of years ago. However, it is a completely spurious point, as I think my hon. Friend would agree, because even much younger children have good insights. The question is how we go about consulting them, not whether we should consult them.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which demonstrates the lack of seriousness among the Government parties about consulting those in the community. They simply have not thought through how to consult particular groups.
Mr Timpson: When talking about consultation in the education of children, does the hon. Lady recall that the previous Government introduced provisions in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010-which went through Parliament in the previous Session-relating to the education of home-educated children. Those provisions imposed far more draconian checks and balances on how parents who educated their children at home were to do so. However, there was no consultation by the previous Government when they introduced those provisions, so there has been no consistency from her party on the issue.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: I am quite sure that the previous Government were setting precise and specific standards for home education, because it is really important to ensure that children's education is protected when they are being educated at home.
I shall return to amendment 4. It is important that time should be given to consulting all the relevant groups in an area that will be affected by a new academy. I find the Liberal Democrats' position on this issue rather confusing. The academy that we were hoping to establish in my constituency has been stopped by the Government. It was supported by the local authority, in partnership, and backed by the university of Durham. It had huge support in the local community. It took some time to work through with the local community what the arrangements would mean, but once that had been adequately explained and they had asked their questions of the relevant partners and got the answers, everyone was clear about the way ahead. The parents and teachers were also very clear that they wanted an ongoing relationship with the local authority. If the Bill goes through unamended, as seems likely given the parliamentary process that is being adopted, it will be impossible for parents to have their points heard or to maintain their desired relationship with the local authority. I therefore urge hon. Members to support amendment 4 and amendment 78, so that proper consultation arrangements can be put in place.
I also want to speak to amendment 77, which relates to the timing of the consultation. When I first read clause 5, I thought that there must be something missing. Surely no one could be suggesting that it is appropriate to consult after an academy order has been made. That is clearly ludicrous. When I discussed this with people in my constituency at the weekend, they suggested that we should perhaps applaud the Government for being up front and honest about the fact that they were not going to hold consultations or pay any attention to any consultations that were held. Obviously, if a consultation takes place after an order has been made, they are not going to pay any attention to it. So perhaps the Government are just being honest in clause 5, and saying that, as they are not going to pay any attention to any consultation, it does not matter whether it takes place before or after an academy order is made.
The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb):
Did the hon. Lady not hear the answer given my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall
(Dan Rogerson), which is that the academy order is not the final moment in the conversion process? The final moment involves the funding agreement, which takes place after the academy order is made, so there will be plenty of time for the consultation to take place.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: I did hear that answer, but many of us fear that, at that point, the process will already have gone too far in a particular direction for it to be stopped. In any case, the Government should adopt best practice, but it is not best practice to carry out a consultation when all but the very last stages of a decision process have already been completed. It would be more honest of the Government to admit that this clause had been inserted in the other place, that they did not want it in the Bill in the first place, and that there is no intention whatever to consult outside the governing bodies. Significantly, they should also admit that no attention will be paid to the outcome of any consultation exercise. This is not what the Government should be doing; it is not good practice.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I should like to speak to amendments 8 and 9 and new clause 1. I shall possibly touch on amendment 4 as well. Over the past few weeks, it has been interesting for me, as a new Member, to listen to Labour Members telling us that a figure of 51% is the correct one in any decision. Today, however, I think it was the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) who told us that using a figure of 51% was an unacceptable way of coming to a decision. I am interested that their consistency on one argument does not necessarily carry over into another.
There are some sensible reasons behind amendment 9, in that one would probably want a consultation to have begun-and possibly even finished-before making an academy order. I suspect that as schools move along this route, that will indeed be the case. Today, however, I have been struck by the lack of confidence in our governing bodies and our head teachers. It has been staggering to listen to that. I sit as a school governor and I was until recently a school teacher. Perhaps I am judging hon. Members unfairly, but they seem to be giving the impression that governing bodies are educational asset strippers who want to move forward as quickly as possible without any consultation with parents. As a governor and someone who has worked as a teacher, I do not recognise that portrayal of governors as some kind of strange being.
Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I take the hon. Gentleman's point about Members not taking governors' commitment seriously. I want to reassure him that that is certainly not the argument that many of us are putting forward. The point about governors, of which I am one, is that they have a strong duty to take into consideration the impact of changes on the children in their school. They attach the utmost importance to that duty. We are also asking them to take into account the impact of the proposed changes on the wider community, but they will be able to do that only if they consult the wider community. Many of us are concerned that that will not happen unless such a requirement is incorporated in the Bill.
Andrew Percy: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Amendment 8 does not mention the wider community; it simply mentions parents. We also now have community governors to represent the interests of the wider community. So it is untrue-sorry, it is incorrect to suggest that governors do not take into account the role of their school in the community. In fact, over the past few years, one of the great moves forward for most schools is that they now recognise their position at the centre of the local community, and no longer see their responsibility ending at the school gate or the perimeter fence. Most schools now work incredibly hard to build links with their communities.
Lisa Nandy: I accept that most schools see their role as being at the heart of their community, and I am grateful for that. The problem arises when a school does not see that as its role, and that is what many of these amendments are seeking to address.
Andrew Percy: I suspect that the hon. Lady and I will have to agree to differ on this point, otherwise we will end up bouncing backwards and forwards. Head teachers, teachers, governors and those who have attended a governors' training course are generally well aware of their responsibilities beyond the boundary fence of their school.
Sammy Wilson: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that any school that wants a long-term future and wants to attract the necessary intake of pupils to maintain its position will have to take cognisance of what is going on in the community, because without community support it will not get a supply of pupils?
Andrew Percy: My hon. Friend makes that point better than I could. That is precisely why I am making the point today that governing bodies are not full of educational asset strippers. They consist of people who care deeply about their schools and communities and who will not change the governance arrangements of their school without proper consultation with parents, pupils and the wider community. We should pay respect to the people who serve as governors. They are dedicated individuals who understand their responsibilities full well, and they will not proceed without proper consultation.
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): There seems to be a view that a particular school serves a community, but in many areas the reality is that it serves different communities. A catchment area will include a range of different communities, not all of which might be represented on the governing body.
Andrew Percy: The hon. Gentleman makes the point that I was going to make about amendment 8, which limits consultation on the ballot to the parents at the school at the time, taking no account of the wider community or communities. One of the biggest problems that I have with the suggestion of a ballot for parents is this: given that orders can take up to a year to go through, who do we ballot? Do we ballot year 11 parents? Do we ballot year 6 parents from feeder schools? Do we ballot people who might be thinking of having a child at some point? The impossibility of drawing a correct boundary around those to be balloted is the weakness of the ballot process.
Having served as a local councillor who has been through the Building Schools for the Future process, I would like to ask Labour Members who propose ballots this question: where were our ballots on the proposal to merge schools? Where were our ballots on the proposal to close schools? Where were our ballots on the proposal to move ahead with academies, put forward by the previous Government? Such ballots did not exist, and the Government were right not to call for them. Proper consultation with the governing bodies, involving consultation with parents and schools, was the best course of action.
The same applies to health services. In my area, a number of health services have been lost. Trusts have become foundation trusts, and their governance arrangements have changed, but we had no ballots on those proposals either.
Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes a cogent argument for the retention and strengthening of the strategic role of the local authority in education provision, which seems to run against the logic of establishing academies across the piece.
Andrew Percy: The hon. Gentleman will probably be disappointed, as I was about to move on to that point. Labour Members have said a great deal about the role of the local authority, and of parents in relation to it, in control of schools. In the area I represented as a councillor, when parents were up in arms about proposals to close our primary schools, the local education authority was in no position to fight such proposals or to act as a guardian for our local schools, because there is no genuine control by the local authority over education. The surplus places legislation and the Ofsted framework come down from central Government. It is a fallacy that parents are continuously engaged with their LEA about the structure of education in their area. The theory might look and sound good, but the reality is different.
The Bill gives parents a choice-I limit my comments here to maintained schools that become academy schools-to vote with their feet. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr Pugh) wants parents to vote in some form, and I suggest that providing a range of different education facilities in an area enables parents to decide not with a tick in a box but with their feet.
My concerns about new clause 1 echo many of those put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson). We might end up with the strange situation in which 10% of parents are continually unhappy with the governance arrangements and go back for a second, third or fourth bite at the cherry. That is the problem with a 10% threshold, or a 30%, 40% or 49.9% threshold-
The hon. Gentleman's points underline the fact that we do not have time to discuss the amendments properly. He focuses not on the principle of providing
some way for academies to revert to maintained status, but on whether the threshold should be 10% and whether there will be vexatious uses. It is not beyond the wit of mankind to devise ways of further amending the proposal to ensure that it is not put to vexatious use. Will he focus on the principle of the amendment, and say whether he agrees with it?
Dan Rogerson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that such mechanisms are important, but would he be satisfied with the current provision that at the end of seven years, if the agreement is not renewed, the school would revert to maintained status?
Andrew Percy: My hon. Friend has, I hope, allayed some of the fears of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). Should the measures not succeed, or should the school not be happy with the position, the Bill would provide a route back.
We should trust governing bodies and governors to do their job. They are dedicated people, education professionals, well-intentioned parents, and well-intentioned people from local communities. They will not steamroller ahead against the wishes of parents and the wider community. They will take on board seriously the views and aspirations of local people. The weakness of not having a range of education provision is that we deny parents and pupils a choice over the curriculum that they want to follow. We end up with parents choosing between school A and school B, which are identical. There is nothing wrong with some competition, with giving parents the choice and with allowing them to vote with their feet. I urge the Committee to vote against the amendments.
Lisa Nandy: I want to speak particularly to my amendment 86, which is a probing amendment designed to understand the Government's reasons for not including in the Bill consultation with key groups, including the wider community, prior to a school seeking academy status.
Previously, when maintained schools converted to academies, the local authority was obliged to consult widely. Although there was no legal requirement for public consultation where a new academy was to be established, the local authority at least had to be consulted. I am worried that that is not being replicated in the Bill. Despite some progress, the current wording on consultation is inadequate, requiring consultation only with
"such persons as they think appropriate".
We have already talked a little about the importance of consulting children. I want also to draw attention to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which successive Governments have supported, and which sets the standard by which we expect children to be treated in this country. Part of that is about talking to children and listening to their views on matters that affect them. Few matters could affect children more than that currently under consideration by the Committee.
The changes will impact on all the groups to which I have referred, including the wider community, children who are not currently at school, children who are going on to school, and children who are at other schools. I will not rehearse the arguments that were advanced on Second Reading, but it is important to consider those in the context of the amendments.
The Government have said that they are committed to giving parents a greater voice. The National Governors Association has said that, in that case, it would like to see consultation with parents as part of that principle. I reiterate the point I made earlier that governors have a strong duty to put the children in their school first. I would like a provision for prior consultation with the wider community to be included in the Bill. That would mean that, before taking the decision to seek academy status, the governors were in command of the full facts. That cannot be controversial, and I cannot understand why the provision is not in the Bill.
Several groups have raised the concern with me that the wording of the Bill is so broad as to leave governing bodies open to legal action should they not carry out consultation with groups in a way that is considered proper. Will the Minister consider that in his response, as I would hate to see that happening to governing bodies? As a school governor, I would find it extremely worrying to find my school in that position.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does it not strike my hon. Friend as odd that, while the Government are proposing to allow local communities to engage in consultation and to vote on planning permission for residential developments, they are proposing no such consultation when it comes to the impact on the future of a school and the implications of that for the whole community?
Lisa Nandy: That brings me to a point that was raised with me by the TUC. The Government's concept of the big society appears to feature the involvement of more and more people in the services that they own as members of the community, but this proposal, like some of the other measures that have been pushed through, seems to be directly at odds with that principle.
Andrew Percy: Would the hon. Lady care to comment on the previous Government's conversion of schools to academies, and their school closures? Does she believe that there was proper consultation with parents and pupils then, and does she feel that there should have been ballots?
Lisa Nandy: I believe that we can always do better when it comes to consultation, but I also believe that the standard being set in the Committee today marks an extraordinarily low point in the history of consultation. I think that we should move on from what was done by the previous Government, and ensure that there is more consultation, not less.
Let me emphasise to the Minister that schools are at the heart of their local communities. If there is no consultation with the people who will be affected by the Bill, schools will drive a wedge between themselves and their communities, and I believe that we have an obligation
to prevent that from happening. My amendment seeks to establish why the Government do not wish to ensure that the views of the community inform the decisions of schools. I should be grateful if the Minister could answer that question.
Mr Mike Hancock: You will be pleased to know, Ms Primarolo, that I spent most of the weekend trying to pronounce your name without embarrassing myself or you. That is as near to pronouncing it correctly as I can get. I apologise for my rudeness to you last week when I could not pronounce it.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy). Is it Wigan? It was on the annunciator screen, but I missed it. It moved so quickly. You know how unaccustomed this place is to things moving quickly, Ms Primarolo, except on the annunciator screen. Anyway, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Lady, and I had more than a degree of sympathy for what she had to say.
I hope that Members will give serious consideration to some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr Pugh) and others, including the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). She made a very good point. The only point on which I disagreed with her was the percentage business: I did not think that that was helpful to the debate.
I am disappointed that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) has left the Chamber. He seemed to be digging himself gradually into a deeper and deeper hole, and taking interventions to save himself from burying himself. He appeared to be saying that everyone else could be right, but parents would have to be wrong. Parents could not be trusted to make a decision as important as this, because they might simply get it wrong. Well, who is to say that anyone else is going to get it right?
I should be interested to know what is wrong with giving people an opportunity to discuss and to make a decision. I shall explain shortly why I think that is important, but let me deal first with the notion that the amendment, or something like it, cannot be accepted because there is not enough time. Nothing in the rules of the House suggests that the business cannot be changed. If the Government were minded to accept the amendment, a Report stage could, if necessary, be arranged for tomorrow afternoon. Nothing in the rules states that the summer Adjournment debates must take place at a particular time on the last day before the recess, as long as they do take place. The business could be changed so that both Report and Third Reading could take place tomorrow. There would be nothing to prevent that, if good will existed in relation to bringing parents into the debate about academy status.
I think it important to spread the franchise. I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southport that one governor should be able to intercede, to object and to force a parental vote. I believe that the issue is more important than that. Although I personally oppose academy status, I wish existing academies all the best, and if people have a choice and decide in favour of academy status, so be it. However, a determined effort must then be made if the arrangement is to work, and it will not work if feeder schools, and the parents of children at those schools, are not involved in the process.
I believe that one of the ways to make an academy really work is to lock it into an all-through, all-embracing system involving the feeder schools and the secondary school, but those wishing to adopt such a system would have to carry a lot of parents with them.
The questions that we should be asking are "Is this really so good for education?" and "What will an academy do for children that a local authority working with a school cannot achieve today?" Those fundamental questions are lost time and again in our debates in the Chamber. There has been no proper analysis here of the direct benefits that academy status will apparently bring to schools. Will all academies be a success? Are we brazen enough to say that no academy will ever fail? I hope not; that is to say, I hope they will not fail, but I also hope our thinking is not so flawed that we believe every academy will succeed. The problem is, if an academy does fail, who will pick up the pieces afterwards? Parents must be able to engage in a proper, informed debate themselves.
Mr Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman is more deeply rooted in his community and his constituency than almost anyone I know, but I hope he will not mind my saying that he is slightly missing one point. Under the last Government, Building Schools for the Future and academies were not just about improving schools, but about transforming the communities in which they sat. That was at the heart of what the last Government were doing, and that is what the present Government seem to be missing. Transforming the community is what a great school does.
Mr Hancock: I agree. As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Southport, it is not just about the parents of children attending a school; it is about the wider community having a say. Academies were supposed to be at the very heart of the community, and they were supposed to be seven-days-a-week establishments offering a range of activities that the whole community could embrace. If that is what we will have, we should share it with the population and encourage them to become involved; but to suggest that we can create academies from scratch by September is pushing against a door that has already been slammed in our faces. It might be possible in the case of schools that have partly completed the process, but I think it highly unlikely that any academy created from scratch could succeed. I do not even know whether the governors would meet between the passing of the Bill and the time at which it would be possible to begin the process of setting up an academy.
How quickly will the Government be able to agree on the financial basis? What will happen to the role of local authorities that have already budgeted for the coming year? What will happen to the existing budgets in schools? That brings me to a point at which I have to declare an
interest yet again, Ms Primarolo-Primarolo- [Laughter.] It is difficult for a person who has had a speech impediment for 60 years and then mastered it when someone comes along with a name that contains a P and an R too close together, with an O at the end. I am trying to fight this as best I can. I hope you will bear with me, Ms Primarolo. Are you looking for inspiration from above?
I was thinking about a problem that local authorities face. I must declare an interest at this point: I am a member of a local authority that is a local education authority. This morning we were discussing what to do now. We already have one academy and, as I have said, it is a pleasure to see the transformation that is taking place particularly in the parents, who were heavily consulted, and the pupils. Everyone is optimistic and looking for an improvement in the school's academic record in one year. So even though I am against this measure, I have seen how it can start such a process.
As I said, this morning we on the Portsmouth executive were discussing what to do now in respect of the legislation before us. How will we deal with the other schools? Will we try to talk to them about having a federation? Should we think about helping one school? We have a very good single-sex girls' school but it is sometimes difficult to see where its future will lie. I would very much like for it be maintained, but we also have a single-sex boys' school that is not in such a good state of health, and the question therefore arises of how we work with them. I do not want local authorities to be left with a rump of schools that are difficult to manage.
We asked other questions, too. How do we cope with staff? How do we cope with low achievement in schools? How do we maintain parents' confidence that their children will get an equal share of the resources? The Government did not address that problem during our discussions last week but it is fundamental, because if parents are not going to be involved in the creation of an academy they really ought to be told what the effects will be on those children who will not be fortunate enough to get into an academy.
I ask the Minister to talk about the confidence that the Government have to be able to give to parents in order to be sure that all of them believe their children will get equal opportunities at school. Under the Bill in its current form, there is a degree of unfairness that could easily and very quickly be exposed in cities such as mine-densely populated urban areas with schools very close together where it is difficult to regulate catchment areas fairly and properly because people live so close by. Where schools are located is also an issue in this respect. Some of them came into existence as secondary schools somewhat late in the day. We had to build two new secondary schools in our city in the last 10 years to cope with the rising numbers of children, and we had to build them where we could, rather than in the right place, so to speak. We had to build them on the available sites which were not necessarily in the right areas. That also makes the catchment areas issue very difficult.
Parents therefore rightly have a number of fears, and teachers certainly do too. The amendments before us are about making sure that parents have the opportunity to know both a lot more than is currently available about what an academy can achieve and the downsides of academies. The Minister would be foolish in the extreme if he were to suggest that some parents would not want the downsides of an academy to be explained.
That is particularly the case in respect of parents of children who are not fortunate enough to get into them. What will happen to the rest of the children?
I hope the Minister will also respond to the points raised by the hon. Member for Wigan and my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson). My hon. Friend asked two or three questions that are worthy of a specific on-the-record comment from the Minister, because this Committee needs and demands that. We cannot allow legislation to be passed so quickly without proper scrutiny and with questions left unanswered. The Government cannot have it both ways. If they are not prepared to give us the time to scrutinise the Bill properly, they should be able to put a sustainable and maintainable position on the record by saying, "This is the way it's going to be." Anything short of that should be seen by this House and the country as totally unacceptable.
The Government are in a mess on consultation. There are all sorts of worries and concerns on both sides of the Committee about consultation and what it actually means in practice for both local communities and individual schools across the country. This is a live issue for the Government, because we are supposed to be in an era of new politics, which is about localism-involving, talking to and empowering local people and communities-yet the Government are unclear about what that means in respect of schools.
Under the Bill in its current form, a governing body and head teacher can, effectively, apply to become an academy and be fast-tracked through that process if they are outstanding, and it is the Secretary of State who makes the final decision. This is therefore a hugely centralising measure that completely bypasses the local community, the local authority and anyone of influence in a local area. The Government can state clearly in the Bill that that is not their intention and they do not wish that to happen.
I take on board the point that there are many good governing bodies and that we should not impinge on individual governors and head teachers who work extremely hard, but they operate on the basis of what they consider to be best for their individual school whereas it is incumbent upon us here to pass laws that not only look towards the interests of individual schools but address such issues within the context of the education system as a whole. The Government's intention is that thousands of schools will become academies and hundreds will be fast-tracked through the process but, as I said last week, I think we will simply be taking a leap in the dark, with no real idea where this will end up.
The Minister must tell us how many schools have applied to become academies and how many he anticipates will be academies in September 2010. The press release that the Department for Education sent out at the
beginning of this process on 2 June told us 1,000 schools had applied for academy freedoms, but that is not what it meant to say. It meant that 1,000 schools had expressed an interest in that, but where are we now in this regard? Where have those schools got to in respect of consultation? Who will they be talking to in August? Which governors are consulting which local authorities? Which governors are talking to which parents? Which governing bodies are talking to which communities? What consultation is going on, given that the Secretary of State has expressly told this House that he wants as many outstanding schools as possible to be fast-tracked to academy status in September? "Not a clue," is the answer from the Government. Any reasonable and rational person would say it is difficult to have such consultations when schools are on holiday. I accept that-we all accept that-but in that case the Government should not set out as one of the Bill's policy objectives that large numbers of schools will become academies.
The Government have not stated what consultation they expect the schools that are being fast-tracked to academy status to be involved in. They have not set before the Committee what the process will be by which they as a Government monitor that, other than to say that there is a point of contact at the Department for Education. What on earth does that mean-a phone call, perhaps, or the odd letter, or a couple of e-mail exchanges? What evidence will be collected to ensure that the measures in the Bill-even the measure on this limited consultation-are followed? The issue of legal challenge was rightly raised. There will be a legal challenge if the Department cannot give adequate explanations-other than what it has given so far, which is extremely woolly-in respect of even the limited consultative process in the Bill, with the pre-commencement later on in it. If it cannot do that, there is a real problem.
Pat Glass: I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees with me about what is happening in a school that is outside but close to my constituency, which may affect children in my constituency. The head teacher and a small number of governors have made an application for academy status and it is being fast-tracked, but the head teacher is retiring on 31 August. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is contemptuous, not only to children and to parents and to the local community, but to the new head teacher who is due to take over a school which is going to change in character and is not going to be the school to which he applied? That is what is happening as a result of this Bill being rushed through this House.
Vernon Coaker: I agree with that. The point that we have made on numerous occasions is that even if the Government think that this is a good Bill-they clearly do-and are determined to push forward with it, the rush to put the legislation in place will have unintended consequences of exactly the sort that my hon. Friend describes. I am not trying to be smart when I predict that individual Members from across the House will have individual schools coming to them about problems with this process and the adverse consequences that it is having for their area, and that will be as a result of having rushed this legislation through.
Mr Gibb: May I help the hon. Gentleman by saying that schools that do wish to convert this September must have submitted their applications by 30 June, so there will be time before the beginning of the schools' summer recess for consultation to take place? In addition, the consultation is not required to terminate by September; it can go on through the autumn until the funding agreement is signed. So there is plenty of time, both before the summer and after it, for this important consultation to take place.
Vernon Coaker: I am afraid that the Minister is just asserting things; there is no fact in what he just said. How many schools are going through this process? What are they actually doing to consult? Are they sending a letter to every parent? Are they holding parents' meetings? Are they going out into the community? Are leaflets being sent round? Are other schools involved in this? Are other governing bodies involved? Is the local authority involved? What does what the Minister has just said mean? The reality is that none of us knows.
Mr Mike Hancock: In view of what the Minister has just said, is the hon. Gentleman not slightly mystified, as I am, why the Government cannot tell us the number of schools that have indicated since 30 June that they want to start this process? Surely the Department ought to be able to make that information available to the Committee.
Vernon Coaker: Absolutely. The point that the Minister missed was that the Secretary of State has made great play of the fact that some schools will become academies not by Christmas or through the autumn, when the consultation is going to be by, but by September 2010; the whole reason we are rushing this Bill through is that the Secretary of State was telling us that all these schools were queuing up to become academies by September 2010. The Minister may have been saying in his intervention that a lot of schools signed up by 30 June, because the process takes three months, and they have therefore started the consultation. We do not know what that involves, but it carries on in August and can go on "through the autumn"-those were the Minister's own words. So why are we rushing this legislation if the consultation can go on for longer? We could have slowed down a bit and improved the Bill, accepting some amendments that hon. Members have proposed. The Government would have thus achieved their objective with a much-improved Bill that would have allayed some of the concerns that have been raised, notwithstanding the fact that Labour Members would have opposed it in any case.
I hope that the Minister will tell us the exact number of schools that have applied, not the number that have expressed an interest-I hope he will give the exact number for primary schools and secondary schools. I know that this is not going to happen in special schools until 2011 and I cannot remember whether that is also the case for primary schools, but it certainly will happen in secondary schools. How many schools are actually applying? How many of that number does the Minister expect to open in September 2010? I hope he will outline for us exactly what consultation process those schools will be expected to have gone through and that he will explain to the Committee how the Department is ensuring that that has taken place, so that when the
Secretary of State decides whether to give an academy order he can say, "These are the criteria I used." The Committee deserves to know that, but we have so far been given no answer..
Mr Redwood: Can the shadow Minister explain why he thinks so many head teachers and governing bodies might want to drive something like this through against the wishes of the local community and parents or without bothering to find out what their views were? I would have thought that the first thing any head teacher would do when considering this would have been to ensure that they had support.
Vernon Coaker: What we are saying is that we are legislating for a process and we expect it to set out exactly what should happen. It is for the Government to determine what that process is. At the moment, they have no real idea about it. I also say to the right hon. Gentleman that what we are also trying to do-this is the point made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock)-is find out how many of the 1,000 schools that the press release says have applied will become academies in September. The Minister has failed last week and this to give a categorical answer to the question of how many academies the Department expects to open in September. I, too, will be interested to hear that answer.
Mr Redwood: I am sure that we will all be interested in that answer. However, the shadow Minister has given me no answer on the point that I asked. He is not saying that he knows of lots of head teachers and governing bodies foolish enough to try to drive this through against local opinion. Can he not understand that the whole idea of localism is that we need to trust these people more and give them more scope to act? They will decide how to consult and how widely they need to consult depending on the mood.
Vernon Coaker: But who will decide? It will be the head teacher and the governing body of the school. The right hon. Gentleman tells us not to worry because some consultation will take place, and he asks what head teacher would drive this through against local opposition. I just say to him that if parents-if all of them-are so important, why does the word "parents" not appear in the Bill? I ask him that to test him, because none of us can find a reference to them and I find that astonishing. He asks what head teacher would possibly go against the wishes of parents and against the wishes of anybody, but why is the word "parents", which the right hon. Gentleman has just prayed in aid when he said that the Government were all for localism and for people empowering the local neighbourhood, not contained in this Bill? There may be one or two such references but I cannot find them.
Mr Redwood: Sometimes things are so obvious that when one trusts people they will do the obvious thing. Of course these people will want to carry the local parents with them because otherwise they will lose their school.
Vernon Coaker: I make a prediction to the right hon. Gentleman and to some of the hon. Members on the Government Benches who are saying "Hear, hear". I predict that the Government will produce amendments in the Bill that they are introducing in the autumn to clarify the situation and that hon. Members will, at some point, be writing to the Minister asking whether he could intervene in respect of particular schools in their community where it looks as though the consultation has not taken place and other schools start complaining about the schools that have been fast-tracked to academy status. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, because he has been here longer than I have, when we legislate in this House, we do so in a way that lays out the process that we expect to be followed in order for a process to happen. The process in this Bill is confused, and people do not know what it is supposed to be. He knows as well as I do that confused legislation provides the opportunity for judicial review. All I am saying is that the fact that this reference is not in the Bill is astonishing.
Mr Ward: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is as concerned as I am about the proposals on consulting parents. Unless we receive some advice to the contrary, it appears that under clause 1(6)(d) up to 49% of the pupils in a new school do not have to be
"drawn from the area in which the school is situated."
Vernon Coaker: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about that. Of course what Lord Hill said in another place was that if we were to consider the grammar schools that become academies, we might find that that area is significantly broader. What that "area" meant was very difficult to define.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), the former Chair of the Select Committee, drew attention to the fact that the Government are not averse to ballots because they have introduced them for local planning decisions. Of course, the Minister will know, as we heard in the statement that took place before our discussions in Committee started today, the Government are introducing ballots for locally elected police commissioners. The principle of ballots, such as that proposed by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr Pugh), is something to which the Government are not opposed.
We think that we should lay out the details that are set out in amendment 78 rather simply leaving it to people to do what is appropriate. Parents should be consulted and, as many people have said, it is essential that the pupil voice should be heard. In answer to an earlier question from a Member on the Government Benches, of course that would be done in a way that is appropriate. The amendment refers to guidance that should be given to schools on how they should consult pupils.
What are the teachers and non-teaching staff going to come back to in September? The Minister needs to answer the question about what is happening with the TUPE negotiations about the transfer of teaching and non-teaching staff for those schools that want to become academies.
The shadow Minister is making a point about the form of the consultation. In fact, if he examines the remarks he is making now he will see just how difficult it will be to be prescriptive about the form
of consultation, even though that is what he seems to be seeking. One would consult pupils in a different way to teachers, and parents in a different way to teachers, too. It might not be possible to get them all under one roof. Is he seeking a prescriptive method of consultation or is the fact that the Bill makes it clear there should be consultation on a question mentioned in the Bill and that it must take place with the appropriate people not sufficient detail for him?
"The Secretary of State shall issue guidance as to how"
On the need for consultation with neighbouring schools, the Bill does not require good and outstanding schools that become academies to partner schools that are in difficulty or need support. I know that in the other place it was believed-many of my hon. Friends believe it too-that such a provision should be on the face of the Bill. Merely stating that they should engage in such consultation is not sufficient. Many of us have made the point time and again that the complete elimination of local authorities from this situation is not acceptable at all.
Let me talk about amendment 77. The Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), was quoted by the hon. Member for Southport. If hon. Members think that I am making too much of the idea that a consultation should take place before, not after, the giving of an academy order, they should listen to what the Chair of the Select Committee said during one of the debates last week-it bears repeating. On the subject of consultations that took place after an academy order was made, and not before, he said:
"Those consulted in such circumstances would have good grounds for feeling that they were participating in a charade. I ask those on the Government Front Bench to consider that."-[ Official Report, 19 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 49.]
In his reply, the Minister needs to explain why it is not a charade and why the Chair of the Select Committee is wrong or misguided in making that comment. Is he wrong? Has he got it wrong? Does he not understand the process? Of course he understands that the making of an academy order comes before an academy agreement is signed-everybody understands that, and we have all read the Bill. We are saying that the discussion of, and consultation on, an academy order-by the way, I can find no example of what an academy order would actually be-should take place before it is made and not afterwards. Perhaps the Minister-in answer to the Chair of the Select Committee, if not to me-can tell us what an academy order will contain. What will it look like? What will be in it? Will we have the opportunity for some sort of consultation on what an academy order should be?
I accept the points made in the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and for Wigan (Lisa Nandy),
but I hope that they agree that amendment 78, tabled in my name, pulls the amendments together in the way that we would all want.
Let me say something more about new clause 1. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) makes an important point about the fact that the whole process is one way. If we believe that head teachers and governing bodies will consult local people in their desire to become academies and if we believe in localism, why should not those people have the opportunity to revert back and say, "We don't want to stay as an academy. We've decided that it does not work for us, and we're concerned about the situation"? Let us take the Government's process as part of this example. If the head and the governing body make an application to the Secretary of State that they wish to be a local authority maintained school, what is wrong with that? I would be interested to hear the Minister's response. Does localism work as long as it agrees with Government policy or does localism really mean localism, even if it does not agree with Government policy? That is the point.
It is difficult to support new clause 1 to the extent of voting for it, because it has flaws, but the hon. Lady's point is nevertheless one of principle. There should be the opportunity for schools to revert from academy status back to being local authority maintained. As for the point about whether the limit should be 10% or whether some other procedures would have to be put in place for it to happen, if the Government agreed with the principle behind the proposal-of course, they would not say so if they did not agree-they would normally say in Committee, "This is an important point. We will take it away and consider whether there is a way in which it can be put into effect and we will come back with a Government amendment on Report." That cannot happen today, because of the process that we are going through.
That is a problem. I agree with the principle of the new clause and I await with interest the answer to the question that I posed about localism and what it means to the Minister. It is a fundamental question, so I shall repeat it. Do the Government support the localism agenda as long as people agree with them, or, as soon as those people disagree, will the Government say that they do not really agree with the localism agenda?
Andrew Percy: I agree with the shadow Minister that there should always be a way back, but I fail to understand the following fact. When his party were in government, there were plenty of forced mergers and forced school closures through the transforming our primary schools programme and the surplus places legislation. There were thousands of names on petitions against irreversible school closures. Where were the democracy and localism in those decisions?
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|