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Baroness Blackstone: I have not suggested that the noble Baroness is guilty of anything whatever.

It is a time-honoured practice for officials to share information at an early stage when an innovation of this kind is being introduced. I do not think that there is

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anything particularly unusual about that. I believe that it has happened in the past. This is an important new policy development which I believe the noble Baroness and other Members of the Opposition welcome and think important. I shall return to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, in a moment. I believe that it is part of a mature administrative system that such information should sometimes be shared at officer level, and on that basis agreed confidences should not be breached. I do not think it should have been breached in these particular circumstances.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: Before the noble Baroness sits down, I should like to endorse the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. We are talking about open government. We are talking about education action zones. What has emerged in the course of letters going backwards and forwards, with courtesies being observed and so on, is Byzantine in its complexity.

I appreciate the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, about entering into a Committee stage when masses of people know certain things but they are not supposed to tell anyone else. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, on the Opposition Benches, knows nothing; I knew nothing until this morning beyond the vague rumours that were circulating. But, above all, this is a Government who believe in open government and this is the direct opposite of open government; and that is what concerns us. I am not interested in the letters exchanged by the noble Lord the Leader of the House and my noble friend Lord Cranborne. The concern on this side is that massive negotiations have been going on with your department--and I say this to the Minister, who is responsible, not to the Leader of the House. You are responsible for this: you did this--

Noble Lords: Order!

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: There is a convention in this House that noble Lords are referred to in the third person.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: I apologise. Indignation goes too far. Let me say calmly that open government demands a rather clearer explanation than this. I do not accept the Minister's explanation that this is the way officials in a department behave. Quite honestly, it perplexes us; it perplexes the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock; and I think it worries quite a number of us. I think it has to be faced in the directions.

Baroness Blackstone: Perhaps I might explain again what I thought I had explained earlier. The Government did not feel it was right to provide information about the promoters of all these individual applications without seeking their agreement first. I said earlier that I think this would have been breaching the trust of those private companies which had indicated that they wanted to support this initiative. For that reason we are now going to write to all the applicants for education action zone status to ask them whether they would be willing for us to make public their application.

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We have to remember that some of those applying for this status will fail, and I do not know whether they would feel it appropriate that their failed application should be published in the public domain. I think it is fair that we should ask them that first.

Baroness Blatch: Will the noble Baroness tell me whether they were asked if they minded their applications being seen by the DfEE administrators, by Ofsted, by government officers in the region, by the task force members, by the head teacher, by the directors of education of authorities, by business representatives--but not by me?

Lord Tope: I wonder whether I might intervene, although with some hesitation, because I do not want to delay your Lordships any longer since we have already spent about half-an-hour discussing private correspondence between two noble Lords, of which certainly I and my colleagues know nothing whatsoever. As this goes on I become more and more surprised, and so I must press the Minister on this.

I have many years' experience in local government and I have never known anything on this sort of basis. When companies apply and submit tenders, they know that the name of their company is going to be made public--not the amount, for obvious reasons, because that is commercial information--but they know that the name of the company is going to be made public. That is standard practice. It would be astonishing, and indeed the Government would come down on us like a ton of bricks, if we did not publish those names.

I would have expected that anyone applying to run an education action zone would assume that their application would become public knowledge. I would not have thought that they would have expected it to be confidential. Presumably they have some knowledge of how local government works and would expect that. I cannot understand why apparently the DfEE, when inviting those submissions did not tell people that this information was to be made public. It seems extraordinary that we should be here at this time of night making this sort of prolonged fuss to persuade the Minister, tomorrow, to ask those companies, individuals and organisations whether their names can be revealed. Why was that not done in the first place? Why is not standard practice? I find it quite astonishing.

Baroness Blackstone: I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that the private sector bodies involved in the education action zone applications are not tendering; they are joining in with a group of schools or a local education authority to bid for funding. That is totally different from tendering. I am sure that, on reflection, the noble Lord would agree.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, suggested that the applicants for education action zone status would not have known that there is a group of people, including DfEE officials, and a small number of advisers who have been selected because of their expertise in these matters to support DfEE officials in making judgments about the quality of these applications. I am sure that all the applicants would have thought, indeed did think,

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because it was made perfectly clear to them, that there would be a group of such people making those judgments. I do not think that the noble Baroness's remarks are in any way valid. She used words such as "Byzantine". I do not accept that.

To repeat, it is a central government panel of the DfEE, Ofsted, government offices, and the standards task force. Those people are all involved, rightly and legitimately, in assessing the way in which public money should be spent. That is quite different from the LGA being involved in assessing applications from local authorities. It would put the LGA in a rather difficult and invidious position to involve it in the actual process of selection. I am sure that on reflection noble Lords opposite will agree.

I wonder whether, in the light of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, we may go on to consider the amendments on Clause 10. Perhaps I may then respond to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, about the purpose of education action zones. Indeed, perhaps I may do so now.

Education action zones are at the heart of our--

Baroness Blatch: If the noble Baroness is moving on, I am afraid that I must continue to press her on this matter. She did not mention all the people involved in the assessment panel as I understand it. She did not mention the government offices, the task force, the head teacher, the director of education of an LEA and business representatives.

The LGA was not part of the formal assessment panel. That was made clear by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. Therefore, were the applicants told, or asked for their permission, that their applications in total could be sent to the Local Government Association? If they were told, why was it that we could not have very modest information? I never at any stage asked to see all the detailed information--I am not making an assessment; it is being made by an assessment panel. As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has said, I simply asked whether an application had been made by the local education authorities, non-local education authority interest or by commercial and business interest. I was not even asking who the applicants were or which LEAs were involved. However, I was told that I could not have that information.

First, were the applicants asked whether the information could be passed to a non-assessment panel member--that is, the Local Government Association? What is the convention that now says that Local Government Association officials--not members, but officials--can have information from the DfEE that is denied to their members and denied to me? Will the noble Baroness say what was so secret about the names of the applicants, or merely whether they were LEA or non-LEA interests? What was so secret about that information that it could not be imparted to me?

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: I do not think there was anything particularly secret about the applications. As I said, there was a process of consideration and

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assessment of 60 applications, when only 25 could be successful. In the circumstances, the Government judged that it was right and proper to wait until that assessment had been completed and then make an announcement in an orderly way about who the successful applicants were.

The question was put by the noble Baroness about whether the bidders were asked whether bids could go to the LGA. The answer is no. As I said before, the bids were sent to the LGA in confidence. The panel entirely represented central government, if I may say so. I have already listed the groups that were represented or are represented on the panel, including government officers, whom the noble Baroness suggested I had omitted.

I hope that we can now move on to discuss the substantive amendments on Clause 10. Then I can explain to the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, the purpose of education action zones. We hope that they will bring additional support in areas which are facing particular social and economic challenges. In too many of those areas, existing strategies for improvement are simply not working quickly enough and we are determined further to empower local schools to put things right.

In finding new ways of working to respond to these challenges, action zones will become test beds for wide-ranging educational reform. The legislation we are debating today will provide an enabling framework for schools to do whatever works in order to raise standards. I have no doubt that a number of valuable lessons will be learned from the strategies we will see developed within action zones and we shall want to put these lessons to good use in designing the schools of the future.

For action zones to achieve their fullest potential, a great deal of work will need to be done. We shall be asking all those involved--both the schools and their partners--to give to this programme their creativity and their willingness to work together. The commitment we shall be asking for will come from all the sectors involved: from LEAs, businesses, parents, voluntary sector groups and, above all, from the schools themselves. No school will be forced to join an action zone. Indeed, schools must convince the Government of their determination to take full advantage of the funding and freedoms offered by the policy before a zone will be awarded to that area.

The recent application round produced a very healthy response from across the country and a wide range of exciting ideas for schools in zones. Indeed, in recognition of the quality of the applications we received, the Government recently decided to increase their contribution to each zone, I am pleased to say, to up to £750,000 (with up to £250,000 coming from the private sector). As well as additional funds, of course, schools in action zones will enjoy a number of additional freedoms. As the noble Lord will be aware, they will be able to vary teachers' pay and conditions in ways which will reward excellence and attract staff to consultancy posts or hard-to-fill existing vacancies. They will be able to use the forum creatively to co-ordinate the work of these consortia of schools. Some zone schools, for example, may choose to pass or

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formally to cede powers to the forum so that it becomes a kind of supra-governing body for all the schools involved. In other zones, governing bodies will choose to retain their existing powers but, through the forum, they will set joint targets for improvements across the zone. Finally, zone schools might opt to take advantage of the freedom to vary the national curriculum so that it better suits the needs of the local community.

I hope that that answers in some detail the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. I should now be grateful if Members of the Committee opposite were able to go forward and move their amendments.

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