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Baroness Blatch: In the previous debate we heard much about unanimous decisions. We now understand that a decision does not in fact have to be unanimous, but unanimous only in relation to those attending the meeting. In other words, if there is a group who for some unavoidable reason cannot be present, even given the minimum period of notice--which is not that long--that group's views can be disregarded for the purposes
I did not understand the noble Lord's remarks about abstaining. If a decision--short of referring it to an adjudicator--has to be unanimous, and if one of the groups around the table abstains, my understanding is that the decision is not unanimous. However, in the light of the noble Lord's remarks, I do not now understand the intention.
Thirdly, in relation to equal opportunities and discrimination on grounds of either sex or race, this is not the first time that I have objected to these provisions appearing on the face of a Bill--not on the ground that I believe they are not necessary, but on the ground that they are Acts of law with which we are all obliged to conform: if we do not conform, we are in breach of the law. It seems extraordinary that we continue to have to repeat the provision and place specific duties in statute--which is a double positive, not a double negative. Knowing that the committee will have to act in compliance with the law of the land, whatever that law is (certainly both measures referred to are approved statutes), why should this specific duty have to be included in this Bill when the committee or the adjudicator has no option but to obey the law? I should be grateful for clarification of my understanding in regard to the absent group, for some clarification as to what is meant by "abstaining" in relation to whether or not there is a consensus, and clarification as to why the amendments are necessary in relation to discrimination on grounds of sex and/or race.
Lord Whitty: On the second point, it is true that all such bodies would be subject to the general provisions of the Race Relations Act and the Sex Discrimination Act. However, those two Acts place specific duties on local education authorities and governing bodies of schools not to discriminate. These amendments would ensure that the decisions of an organisation committee or an adjudicator would not have the effect of placing local authorities or schools in default of those duties. In other words, the provision squares the circle. It is so that schools, governing bodies or local education authorities are not placed in jeopardy as the result of a decision by a body not explicitly covered by the Race Relations Act or the Sex Discrimination Act.
In relation to the question of abstention, the noble Baroness is right. We are, in effect, by these clauses defining "unanimous" to include nem. con. That is a usual procedure. Indeed, if any one of the groups wishes to oppose a proposal and therefore trigger a reference to an adjudicator, that group has the right to do so. As regards absence from a particular meeting, the absence would follow an adequate period of notice. If that adequate period of notice were not observed, or if in any other way the absence had been contrived, then there would be redress. However, if the group were simply not there, or decided to abstain, then the decision of the rest would stand as a unanimous decision. I hope that provides clarification.
My understanding of the Bill now becomes quite alarmist. Is the noble Lord saying that if--after all its deliberations and the pursuit of healthy partnerships with all those with whom it enjoys relationships--a local authority comes to a view which is agreed by the local council within which that local education authority resides, the local authority decision passes to the organisation committee, from which one group or more could be absent for avoidable or unavoidable reasons, or one group or more could abstain, and the remaining groups could vote for a decision that was different from that of the local authority, the decision would be deemed unanimous and thereby overrule that of the local authority? Is that right?
Lord Whitty: I assume that that would be right only in the case where the local authority were absent. In that case, the situation is no different from the position where a unanimous decision is reached. Clearly, the organisation committee can take a different decision from that taken by the local authority, whatever its voting mechanism.
Baroness Blatch: The noble Lord misunderstands my point. The local authority may be the group that is present. I wish to go through my hypothesis again. If the noble Lord is saying that the groups which are absent have no sway one way or the other and the groups present which choose to abstain have no sway one way or the other, is my hypothesis correct that a local education authority could come to a view about a proposal and pass it to the organisation committee at a time when one or more groups, although properly notified of the meeting, are, for avoidable or unavoidable reasons, absent, when one or more groups could abstain, when the remaining groups could vote for a proposal which was different from that arrived at by the local authority, and when, in order to make sure that my hypothesis works and to remove the argument that the noble Lord was trying to deploy, the LEA could be one of the local groups remaining? Is the noble Lord saying that those voting, whether or not they include the local authority, give rise to a so-called unanimous decision?
Lord Whitty: I suppose the short answer to the noble Baroness is yes because the organisation committee can take a different view from that of the local education authority. Clearly, if people choose not to cast their vote
Baroness Blatch: Is substitution allowed? If so, can the noble Lord point me to the part of the Bill that allows for substitution? I am thinking now, in a practical way, about a grouping which may, as the noble Lord said earlier to my noble friend Lord Belstead, be as small as one person--in other words, members could be ill on the day of the meeting or simply not be present--or it could be as large as several people. Does the noble Lord still argue that, if one of the groupings is not present, that is the situation that pertains and a substitution would not be allowed?
The Lord Bishop of Ripon: I apologise for not being in my place when the Minister introduced the amendment. Amendments Nos. 106A and 106B replace an amendment in my name and result from conversations we have had. In the light of the earlier debate about the place of school organisation committees, perhaps I may again make the point about why the Churches regard the committees as being so important. There was a good deal of talk, when we were considering Clause 23, about the place of the local education authority and the fact that those authorities have power to make decisions. That is not the case at the moment. In relation to voluntary aided schools, whether we are talking about closure or major changes which might include enlargement or the provision of nursery places, the local education authority has no power to make a decision. It is the Secretary of State to whom that decision has to go. At the moment, therefore, it is not a question of disagreement. What normally happens is that the appropriate Church body will reach agreement with the local education authority that, for example, nursery provision is right. That then has to go to the Secretary of State.
The school organisation committee is in place of the former arrangement. No longer will such a decision go to the Secretary of State. It is not that he was regarded as a court of appeal but that he should be required to give his consent to any such provision. There was inevitably a delay on proposals brought forward by voluntary aided schools. Sometimes that could put us in
Perhaps I may clarify a point which arose in an earlier debate. I made reference to providers and the reasons why I believe that providers are the proper people to be represented on school organisation committees. By "providers" we mean the group of those who provide finance. I made reference to the Further Education Funding Council. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, picked me up on that. I still believe that I was right in making that comment. I am aware that the Further Education Funding Council does not appear on the face of the Bill, but my understanding is that normally it will be part of the school organisation committee. It is, of course, a provider of education for those in the sixth-form age group. Sixth forms may be provided through schools but may also be provided through the further education sector. It therefore seems to me proper that the council should be regarded as a provider and should be represented on the committee.
I make this point because I feel that there has been much misunderstanding about the place of school organisation committees. I repeat that the Churches welcome the proposals. We stress that we believe the proposals to require the regulations to specify unanimity are right. I am very grateful to the Government for listening to our concerns and for putting forward this amendment, which I am delighted to support.
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