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Baroness Blatch: When we have long debates in this place, at the end we have often cleared up what we understand by the words on the page. The longer this debate has gone on, the more confused I have become. I do not normally take issue with the right reverend Prelate, but I am sorry to say that I take issue with his interpretation of the Bill.

If we say the organisation committee is a group of people who are providers, and that providers are people who provide money, then the FEFC does not provide money for schools. Governors do not provide money or education for schools. So immediately the interpretation that the right reverend Prelate puts on this organisation committee, and his understanding of it, is wrong. They are not providers. The only groups on that body which could genuinely be told to put up money would be the Churches which provide 15 per cent. of the funding for schools and the LEAs which provide for schools.

The people who provide the money for schools come from the local community. The LEA has no money unless it comes from taxpayers at large, nationally, or the local

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community locally. That is the money that it has to spend. These committees do not have the very teachers for which they pay represented on them. There is nothing in the Bill about the groups which will advise the committee.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has said that the committees will be advised by specialists and special needs people, but there is nothing in the Bill about that. There is no requirement that they should be advised by these interest groups. There is no naming of these interest groups. Head teachers will have no part of this. The people who, in my book, provide education, are those who stand in the classroom and teach the children. I shall support the noble Lord, Lord Tope, at whatever stage of the proceedings he decides to put this issue to the vote. I should prefer to walk through the Lobby on this Motion rather than on the other amendments. This clause has no part in the Bill and in a democratic country.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Whitty: I do not want to reiterate what we said earlier. The deletion of the clause would remove a substantial part of the Government's strategy to achieve devolution, decision-making, and a new and clear partnership between LEAs and other providers.

I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for spelling out what, in these terms, providers of education are. They are the bodies that we have designated as members of the school organisation committees. The expertise to which the noble Baroness referred will be available to all of those providers and to the committee itself. We do not normally spell out in any education Bill precisely what expertise would be available. But the central role of the committee is clear.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, said that we need to be clear about how and where decisions are made. The how of these decisions is that they are made in partnership by consensus by the providers of education in the technical sense. The where is that they are made at the most local level available. Occasionally that will break down. It frequently breaks down at the moment. Appeals will have landed up on the desk of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and other Secretaries of State.

This is an attempt to push down the decision to the providers of education at the local level; to sit them down together in a new institution. It is for the LEA and the other providers to reach, as far as possible, through the stages to which the noble Lord referred, a unanimous position on what is best for the provision of education in their area, taking account of all the interests within that area. It is local; it is devolved; it is by consensus; and it is in partnership.

If the noble Lord wishes to persist with this opposition and delete the clause, we shall be deleting a substantial part of the Government's strategy to achieve those aims. I do not believe that that is what the Liberal Democrat Party wishes to do. It wishes to seek partnership, devolution of decisions and consensus among the public sector and other providers within the education system. Consultation on these proposals has revealed widespread

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support for devolving decisions. There is widespread support for the involvement of all the providers in a single decision-making process.

Baroness Blatch: Will the Minister tell the Committee what the Local Government Association thinks of the proposals?

Lord Whitty: The Local Government Association has expressed some concerns similar to those of the noble Lord, Lord Tope. There are differing views within local government and the teaching profession, and among those who advise the teaching profession. However, the key position of the Local Government Association and others involved in local education is that they wish to see decisions devolved.

Deletion of the clause would remove the element of partnership. It would reinstate the position that any disputed decision is referred back up to national level. That is not what the Local Government Association wants. It is not what I believe the education system of this country needs. We are instituting formal partnerships which in many cases build on good informal partnerships and consultation. We are building on a system which will require decisions to be made as far as possible at local level.

Clearly any such system will require a fail-safe device. That issue will be debated on a subsequent clause. The key issue on this clause, and the whole strategy of school organisation in the Bill, is that decisions will be devolved. The pressure will be on the providers of education to reach consensus on those decisions, and for the number of appeals above and beyond the local level to be as limited as possible, as my noble friend Lord Peston, indicated. At present there is no pressure to reach agreement. There is only pressure for decisions to be raised with the Secretary of State, often on a political basis.

The proposal is a sensible move. It will require some detailed regulations. It will require further consultation on precisely how it is carried out. But I urge the Committee to reject any move which deletes the clause and thereby deletes the concept of partnership and devolution of decisions on school organisation.

Baroness Byford: Before the Minister sits down, perhaps he will clarify this point for me. At present decisions are made at local level. Although I am a newcomer to this Chamber, and a comparative newcomer to the education field, I understand that at present unless a dispute at local level is sorted out locally the matter comes to the Secretary of State. The Bill proposes another level of bureaucracy over and above that in existence. The issue will not pass to someone who is democratically elected, the Secretary of State, but to an adjudicator. Are my assumptions correct?

Lord Whitty: In practice they are not exactly correct. At present the LEA makes its proposals. Then any interested group, other provider, or substantial element of the community can object, and those objections can be referred to the Secretary of State. In other words,

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there is no pressure to reach agreement at local level. This proposal institutionalises a pressure to reach agreement at local level. Our assumption is that eventually the number of references beyond that local level will be limited.

Baroness Maddock: I hear with interest what the Minister says. I understand that the majority of local authorities do not simply make decisions about closures of schools. There is considerable consultation. I have been involved in it. It does not matter which side one is on, it is painful. However, at the end of the day if one does not like the decision one can vote out the people who made that decision. That is the point we have been trying to bring home to the Government Benches all afternoon.

Lord Whitty: Clearly local education authorities involve themselves in substantial consultation. As the noble Baroness says, it is often lengthy and painful. That will remain the case. The local education authority and school organisation committee will continue to consult widely. The difference from the pre-existing situation is that the existence of the school organisation committee and the involvement in a structured partnership of all the providers will put the emphasis on reaching agreement at that level, not on appealing to the Secretary of State to take a decision over and above the local education authority and local views.

Baroness Young: What the Minister says is an absolute travesty of what happens in local government today. The points made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and my noble friend Lady Blatch, are important. It is an unbelievably muddled clause. We have not had a single straight answer to any of the questions raised. Instead we are given a string of New Labour words which are a substitute for thought--partnership, consultation, co-operation, or getting on well together.

Let us consider a future local authority in which there is a Conservative majority--there are plenty of them, and more will come, mark my words!--and the Labour people are in the minority. The Government Minister will say, "Of course you must all co-operate together and reach an agreement". That will be the day, unless the Labour Government at that stage have changed their minds on yet more issues and agree with everything that the Conservatives say. That of course is quite a possibility.

In the real world of this Bill, we have constitution-making on the hoof. We do not know the cost, the size of the committees, who will sit on those committees or the role of the advisers. We know nothing except that it is another layer of bureaucracy, and another cost which will come off the budgets of the schools. That is one of the matters that has emerged from the debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, is right to say that the clause should not stand part of the Bill. The Government should think the whole thing through properly and come back with another proposal at a later stage of the Bill.

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