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Business

3.9 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, after the Business Statement last Thursday and further discussions by the usual channels, it has been agreed that two full days will now be set aside for the Second Reading of the Scotland Bill. Those two days will be tomorrow and Thursday. The draft of the list of speakers, produced after consultation within the usual channels, is now available in the Government Whips' Office. It had been hoped to accommodate on Thursday the debate set down in the name of my noble friend Lord Barnett, but, given the number of Peers who now wish to speak on the Scotland Bill, that is no longer realistic and a further date will be found for that debate.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, perhaps I may say how grateful I am that the Government Chief Whip has come to that conclusion. It shows admirable wisdom on his part. On the question of the debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, as the House will know, the noble Lord had the prime slot on Thursday afternoon immediately after Questions, so will the Government try to find an equally prominent slot as quickly as possible for that important debate on the report on the European Central Bank, produced by the Select Committee on the European Communities?

Lord Carter: My Lords, all reports from your Lordships' Select Committees are important, not least

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when they are on a topic such as the European Central Bank. The chairman of the Select Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, has today written to my noble friend the Leader of the House asking for time to be found to debate that report. Every effort will be made in that regard. The points that the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip has just made will certainly be taken into account.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, perhaps I may express my appreciation of the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I know that he did not press any noble Lord to put down his name to speak on the Scotland Bill! Indeed, I wondered whether I should speak on the Barnett formula on Second Reading, but decided against that. Perhaps I may advise my noble friend Lord Carter that I recognise that he has problems with the timetable. However, there has not been a debate on the European Central Bank in your Lordships' House for a very long time, if ever, and it is an important issue. I hope that my noble friend will be able to assure us of an early debate in prime time on that vital subject on which I know that many noble Lords on all sides of the House would like to speak.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I always listen with very great interest to everything that my noble friend Lord Barnett says. I shall read Hansard very carefully and bear in mind all that he has said.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, will the noble Lord accept my congratulations on having come to that decision? The document in question is the finest piece of speculative soothsaying since the first publication of Old Moore's Almanac and ought to be studied with great care by all Members of your Lordships' House.

Lord Carter: My Lords, if I have managed to please both the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, I am not doing too badly.

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, from what the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, said, it was not clear whether he was referring to the report produced by my noble friend or to the Scotland Bill.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, on behalf of at least six Peers on these Benches, perhaps I may express what I hope will not prove to be premature appreciation of the consideration presently being given to our modest request for an alternative day for the Northern Ireland release of terrorists Bill, which was scheduled, I understand, for consideration on what is polling day for the assembly. On those grounds, I am afraid that our absence from the polling stations might have been misunderstood.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I am aware of that. In fact, I have taken fully into account the points made last Thursday. Active discussions are proceeding through the usual channels to see whether we can resolve the situation.

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School Standards and Framework Bill

3.12 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Baroness Blackstone.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]

Clause 119 [Code of practice for securing effective relationships between LEAs and maintained schools]:

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 241N:


Page 90, line 37, leave out subsection (3) and insert--
("(3) Section 80 shall apply in relation to the code as it applies in relation to a code of practice under section 79.").

The noble Lord said: Government Amendment No. 241N provides for the code of practice on LEA-school relations to be subject to parliamentary approval. This meets the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee which suggested that the code be subject to approval by the House.

I am happy to accept the recommendation of the committee. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, for tabling Amendment No. 243, which would have the same effect as this amendment.

It is vitally important that all the partners in the education service work together effectively if we are to achieve the challenging targets we have set ourselves for raising standards. The code will play a key role in establishing and maintaining a positive relationship between local education authorities and schools in the new framework. Getting this relationship right will be essential to our success.

Making the code subject to parliamentary approval will allow a further opportunity to ensure that the detail of the code is right. The government amendment achieves this by applying the procedure set out for the parliamentary scrutiny of the code of practice on admissions to any codes made under Clause 119. This will allow Parliament a full opportunity to comment on the draft of the code--as revised following our current wide consultation exercise--before it can be put into force.

The amendment proposed by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord is slightly less economical in its approach and would require a couple of additional consequential amendments. I hope, therefore, that they feel able to withdraw their amendment in favour of the approach taken by the Government's amendment.

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Amendment No. 241G has been included in this group, but perhaps it will be for the convenience of the Committee if I speak to it after it has been spoken to by either the noble Lord, Lord Tope, or the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. I beg to move.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: The noble Lord has invited us to speak to our amendment now. If that is not thought to be the wrong way round, that is what I propose to do.

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the code of practice for securing effective relationships between LEAs and the maintained schools takes account of the functions of an LEA in relation to children with special educational needs. As it stands, the draft code of practice on LEA-school relations specifically excludes SEN responsibilities, indicating that they are covered elsewhere in the code of practice. However, the code of practice looks at special educational needs from the point of view of the process of the child's various stages of assessment. It does not look at the whole interface between the school and the LEA with regard to special educational needs.

In addition, in paragraph 8 of the draft code, one of the criteria for including particular functions in the code on LEA school relations is stated as its relevance to raising school standards with a reminder that that is government policy. In the debates on Clause 6 on the education development plan, repeated assurances were given about the importance attached to addressing special educational needs as part of the agenda on raising standards for all children. To omit SEN from the code would be to undermine those assurances.

In addition, the relationship between schools and LEAs on the subject of special educational needs and the curriculum is complex. Those are the three reasons why we thought it important to table our modest amendment.

Baroness Blatch: My amendment, Amendment No. 243, is grouped with Amendment No. 241N. I thank the noble Lord for what he said and for the fact that the Government have tabled their own amendment, which the noble Lord claims is more effective and more economic than mine.

I have one question. The penultimate part of my amendment asks that for the purposes of counting the 40 days no account should be taken of any period during which Parliament is dissolved or prorogued. In other words, the counting of the 40-day period should be frozen during that time. May I be assured that those provisions of subsection (7) are subsumed by the government amendment?

There are now a number of questions about the status of the code in relation to, for example, education action zones. It appears to cut across some of the rhetoric used about the establishment of the action zones. It seems extraordinary that there is not more mention of the roles of the school organisation committees and of the adjudicator. It seems extraordinary that a document, to which local authorities will have to have regard, is to be on the face of the Bill when that is not the case for the most undemocratic of the Government's proposals.

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I refer to the establishment of the school organisation committees and to the role of the adjudicator. They will take upon themselves a great deal of the work which has hitherto been the remit of the local authorities. It would be helpful if something could be said about the interaction of that and about the fact that nothing on the face of the Bill subsumes the interaction between the LEAs and the roles of the adjudicator and of the school organisation committees.

As to special needs, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, the functions of local authorities are enormously enhanced by the Bill. In almost every clause there is a new function for local education authorities, particularly in planning. We now have the interim admissions document. There are even more hares running in terms of the functions of local authorities and the way in which LEAs relate to schools and the education establishment generally. The code of practice will be a particularly important document.

My final point displays my depression about the whole of this matter. The code of practice is no more than exhortation. In reality, the law will require local education authorities only to have regard to the code of practice. There is no obligation upon them whatsoever to do anything other than have regard to the code. All one has is exhortation about a light touch, no intervention without good cause and what I would regard as a requirement about the way in which LEAs relate to their schools to achieve what the Government want; namely, to give as much autonomy at school level with as light a touch as possible at LEA level. It adds up to no more than exhortation, with some kind of threat that if the Secretary of State is not impressed with the way in which local education authorities behave he will not take power under this Bill but will rely on an old power. That will be invoked only if it can be proven that the LEA has no good reason for exercising its functions.

It will not take an LEA very long to realise that the scope for intervention and taking a slightly heavier hand as opposed to a light touch in approaching schools is considerable. All it must do is prove that it is concerned about a school on the grounds that people in the community may be complaining, or there are articles in the newspapers, or there is a hint that something is going on in a particular department, or perhaps a teacher is not marking work--the kinds of operational matters that should be for the governors and the school itself. I believe that the import of the code of practice, being no more than exhortation, is deeply worrying given the enormous number of new functions for LEAs and in particular the practice and work of the organisational committees and the adjudicator.


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