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Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 213A:


Page 64, line 15, at end insert--
("(1A) Where--
(a) admission arrangements have been determined by an admission authority under section 84(4), but
(b) any parent of a prescribed description wishes to make an objection about those arrangements, and
the objection falls within any description of objections prescribed for the purposes of this paragraph,
that person may refer the objection to the adjudicator.").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 213A, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 213B to 213G. I hope that these amendments will be welcomed because they give the parent a right to object direct to the adjudicator in certain circumstances.

8 Jun 1998 : Column 821

Perhaps I can say to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that I hope I never either feel or express irritation. I certainly did not express any irritation about references to the adjudicator because, though the adjudicator is a long-stop, he is an important part of the new admissions procedures. I was merely somewhat puzzled when on occasion the noble Baroness referred to the school organisation committees when I thought we were concerned with admission authorities.

In Wales--I say this safely in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas--objections will go direct to the Secretary of State, in effect, the National Assembly for Wales from May 1999.

The principal amendment giving effect to this intention is Amendment No. 213A. The subsequent amendments are consequential and bring parents' objections within the existing framework governing consideration of objections by the adjudicator or the Secretary of State. I shall leave out Wales from now on to simplify matters.

We were prompted to bring forward this amendment by the situation in Wandsworth where almost all secondary schools have selective admission arrangements of some sort, contrary to the wishes of many parents. There is concern that the Bill does not at the moment provide for a situation where parents in an area are unhappy with the arrangements that an admission authority is proposing to adopt, but other admission authorities may be content and so would not object. Without this amendment the adjudicator would not be able to consider the issue and parents' concerns would not be addressed.

We will be setting out in regulations those arrangements against which parents will have a right to object. At present we envisage that this will apply only to partial selection. But regulations allow us the flexibility to respond in the event of parents raising other major issues of concern where they have significant local impact. We certainly do not envisage bringing routine matters--such as the way an individual school prioritises its over-subscription criteria or the date by which admissions have to be submitted--within the scope of the regulations.

We will also be defining in regulations the term "parent" for the purposes of this provision. The general definition--someone who has parental responsibility for a child or who has care of it--is obviously too wide for these purposes. We do not want parents in Cumbria to be able to object to admission arrangements in Devon, for example. And we will be specifying the conditions that will have to be met before the adjudicator has to consider parents' objections. It is arguable, for instance, that admission arrangements are not causing problems if only one or a very few parents in an area object.

These amendments provide an important safeguard for parents. I hope that they will be welcomed.

Baroness Blatch: I apologise to the noble Lord if I used the word "irritation". I should not have done so.

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I remember clearly the noble Lord saying that we do not want to return to the whole subject of organisational committees and I heard a discernible voice from my right on the Liberal Democrat Benches saying "Hear, hear!". All I am saying is that we cannot discuss these issues in this context without thinking about organisational committees and the working of the adjudicator. However, I am sorry if I used the word wrongly. The noble Lord is not usually irritable; he is usually extremely accommodating across the Dispatch Box.

In a spirit of conciliation, as the noble Lord is so concerned about parents in these amendments and is giving them a right to object to the adjudicator, will he not go one step further? Will he give the same parents, where they are dissatisfied, an opportunity to appeal against the adjudicator's decision, not on purely procedural grounds--that is the only way in which they can appeal in court to prove that there has been a breach of the way in which the adjudicator has procedurally arrived at the decision--but to appeal as they would have done to the Secretary of State if the Secretary of State had made a decision, for example, about a school closure, a merger or some form of reorganisation? If the noble Lord uses arguments to say that the parents have a right to object when they are unhappy I also believe that when they are unhappy they have right to appeal to the adjudicator.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Without in the slightest degree feeling or expressing irritation, the issue of whether there should be an appeal from the adjudicator to the Secretary of State is a theme which, shall we say, runs through a number of parts of the Bill, including this part. Therefore, it is entirely legitimate for the noble Baroness to raise it. The answer will be, as it has been in all cases, that the adjudicator is an independent person, appointed, of course, by the Secretary of State on a part-time sessional basis. It is our firm intention that we should refrain from the centralising tendency of having ultimate appeals back to the Secretary of State so that in the end we are departing from the whole theme of the Bill, which is local decision-making. The idea of an adjudicator is because we know that in certain limited circumstances local decision-making will come to an impasse. Therefore, there must be something behind it. But to go beyond that to reinstate the role of the Secretary of State would be entirely wrong.

Lord Lucas: I should be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, could confirm or deny the impression that I am arriving at as to how this whole arrangement will work. It seems to me that various people will be charged with putting together the policies--the schools, the local education authority, the FEFC, local Churches, and so on--and they will interact with various other bodies which I shall refrain from mentioning. The Government are saying that those bodies must jolly well sit down and work it out together and arrive at a co-operative solution; if not, off it goes to the adjudicator. Am I right in saying that the adjudicator will be a totally unknown quantity

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to these parties, that he will not be given any bias in the guidance which the Government are thinking of giving him, and that there will be nothing in the guidance under Clause 79 to say, "You have to give priority to this, that or the other party to this discussion priority"; but rather, "You sit down, you look at everything, you arrive at a reasonable decision and you have no restraints on you as to on which side of the argument you come down"? In other words, will it be for all parties an unknown process rather than being something which one party will come to believe favours its case?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The adjudicator will have to act in accordance with the code of practice in exactly the same way as the other local participants in the admission process. Therefore, in that sense, whether or not the adjudicator is personally known to any of the participants is something I cannot anticipate. But I can say that he will be working to the same rules.

Baroness Blatch: The noble Lord keeps using the code of practice as a kind of backstop that the adjudicator will act in accordance with. Under the way the provision is placed in the Bill the adjudicator is obliged under the law to have regard to the code of practice. The adjudicator can dismiss the advice of the code of practice. As long as procedurally the adjudicator can prove that in coming to a decision he had regard to the code of practice but, nevertheless, on balance he reached a view that was inconsistent with the code of practice, it is perfectly all right. It is a procedural matter only and it is only about statutorily having to have regard. That is all that needs to be proved in a court of law.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The noble Baroness is right in saying that he has to have regard to it. But the only way in which, under those circumstances, he is going to do something which is in conflict with the code of practice--which to me is inconceivable anyway--is if the code of practice turns out in the end to be inapplicable to the local circumstances on which the adjudicator is being required to adjudicate. That is what "having regard" means.

Lord Lucas: I was a little unclear in what I said to the noble Lord. I know that I am not going to hear what will be in the code of practice. Can the Minister give some indication of what sort of things will be in it as far as the adjudicator is concerned? Is he going to be told that there is a menu for him with particular attitudes and ideas that he will have to bear in mind, or will he simply say that he has to act fairly and take all sides into account? In other words, in the code of practice is he to be given a set of biases or will he be allowed a reasonable man's free rein?


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