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[The page and line refer to Bill (94) as first printed for the Lords.]
LORDS AMENDMENT

34

Leave out Clause 23.


The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason--
34A

Because the amendment is inconsistent with securing local decision-making on school organisation and a mechanism for resolving conflicts between the interests of admission authorities and wider community interests.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 34 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 34A. In speaking to those amendments, perhaps I may speak also to Amendments Nos. 35 and 35A, 198 and 198A-C, 199 and 199A.

As amended in this House at Third Reading, the Bill no longer provides for local decision-making on school organisation matters; nor for adjudication where there are objections to these or to local admissions arrangements. I invite the House to agree with the continuing view of another place that that is not the right way forward. I also invite the House to accept the words restored to the Bill, which comprise those amendments to these provisions previously agreed in Committee.

We have covered the ground on this issue in some detail on more than one occasion. We have listened carefully to the points made, both here and in another place. We have also sought to explain why we continue to believe that the Government's proposals are desirable and an improvement on the present arrangements, and how they will work in practice. There is, I hope, agreement between us that we are right to pursue local decision-making on school organisation. These are local issues and ought to be capable of being decided locally.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope--I see that he is not in his place--and his noble friend Lady Maddock have argued that such decisions should be taken by the democratically elected local authority. I entirely agree with them that LEAs are, and must continue to be, key players in school organisation matters. Nothing that we propose reduces their contribution to decision-making in this important area. Local education authorities can already decide their own proposals where they attract no objections. That will not change. But I must say to the noble Baroness that LEAs have never been the only decision-maker in the system, even at local level, and we do not believe that it would be right to make them so now. For example, LEAs cannot in the current arrangements decide their own proposals where they attract objections; nor can they decide any proposals made by voluntary or by grant-maintained schools, as the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Ripon and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, have reminded the House from time to time. At present those proposals must come to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. That external input is significant.

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It helps to maintain the balance between local partners in providing places locally. It is because we want to maintain that balance that we believe that a school organisation committee is the way ahead.

School organisation committees will bring together all the main partners in school provision at local level to consider and, wherever possible, agree proposals to provide sufficient and appropriate school places. The committees will be able to disagree with LEA proposals, although they will not be able to reject them unless the LEA group on the committee itself agrees. That, too, demonstrates the balance between partners that our proposals secure; ensuring that all partners in local provision get an equal say. I have said before that I hope--indeed, that I expect--the new arrangements to make it more likely than now that final decisions, with which all parties are satisfied, can be reached at this stage. But whether or not we call it a veto, any group on the committee, where it feels sufficiently strongly, will be able to ensure that a proposal is referred to the adjudicator for decision.

The adjudicator will look again at proposals, comments and objections and the reasons for disagreement at local level. He will consider all cases in the light of principles set out in public guidance from the Secretary of State and, as appropriate, in the school organisation plan and the code of practice on school admissions. Adjudicators will be able to receive representations, including from Members of another place or this one; and will decide whether to take oral representations. But the key point is that the adjudicators will make an independent judgment on each case. They are a necessary part of the system. This may also be the right place to remind the House that without adjudicators there is no mechanism for securing final resolution of local disputes about school admission arrangements. Such a mechanism is essential to our manifesto commitment, implemented elsewhere in the Bill, to make school admissions arrangements at local level more coherent and transparent for parents and children.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State will issue guidance on the consideration of school organisation plans and school organisation proposals. Both school organisation committees and adjudicators will be required to take that guidance into account in reaching their decisions. Also, both school organisation committees and adjudicators will be required to be satisfied that adequate financial resources will be available to implement proposals if they are approved.

I do not accept, as some have argued, that these arrangements are more bureaucratic and less transparent than what we have now. There is always a balance to be struck between due process and equity on the one hand and speed on the other. The Government's proposals do the minimum necessary to ensure, first, that all the key players at local level are fully involved; secondly, that a context for decision-making is provided through a school organisation plan setting out in broad terms the future needs of the area; thirdly, that individual proposals are explored properly by those who have to implement and live with them; and, fourthly, that final decisions are made independently where it is not possible to resolve differences at local level.

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These new arrangements are, in the Government's view, the right way to secure local decision-making on changes to school organisation. I hope, therefore, that the House will accept the view reiterated in another place, that these provisions on school organisation committees and adjudicators should be restored to the Bill. I commend the amendments to the House.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 34 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 34A.--(Baroness Blackstone.)

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, these Lords amendments were moved originally from the Liberal Democrat Benches. We are extremely disappointed that the Government are not prepared to listen to the overwhelming view of this House on school organisation committees and adjudicators. The Minister has said that this is about local decision-making. Those are precisely the arguments that were advanced not only from the Liberal Democrat Benches, but also from the Conservative Benches. It is not often that I find myself with the Conservatives defending the right of local democracy, but in this case the Conservatives were wholeheartedly behind us.

I am not convinced by the arguments which the Minister has advanced today. The noble Baroness made great play of the fact that this is local decision-making. We believe that local decisions should be made by locally elected members of local councils. We have been told that in this place we cannot have a view about, for example, the issue of fees because we are not an elected body. Precisely the same argument is being used here in relation to local education authorities. The Minister said that no powers will be taken away from LEAs. However, the reality is that if somebody objects to the plan, it will not be the LEA which will make the decision on it because that decision will have to go to the local adjudicator. I am not convinced--I am sure that many others are not convinced--that the Government have listened carefully to our views on this matter.

The adjudicator is the subject of another amendment. We are told that those provisions involve the devolution of decision-making and that that decision-making will be independent. However, most of us are concerned above all lest the line of democratic accountability be lost. At present, decisions about school closures are made locally and, in good authorities, after much consultation. If there is still disagreement, the decision then comes up to the department and the Minister. Others have a democratic right to lobby their Member of Parliament and to meet Ministers. Admittedly, the Minister said today that Members of Parliament and your Lordships would have the right to lobby the adjudicator. That was not clear from our earlier discussions. However, I maintain that that is not the same as democratic accountability which runs right from the bottom to the top.

I know that others will be very disappointed that the Government have not listened on this matter. We had a good number of discussions earlier. The Government had the opportunity to make this advisory. The arguments put forward by the Minister today spell out why this should be an advisory body and not a body that in the end can

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override the decision of a democratically elected local body. That was our original objection and it remains our objection.

We do not intend to press this matter any further today. However, it will be interesting to see how matters turn out. If one person on the schools organisation committee objects, an enormous amount of bureaucracy will have to be gone through before a decision can be taken. I sincerely hope that for the sake of everyone in our schools the Minister was right when she said at earlier stages of the Bill that this would not happen very often. If it happens very often there will be total chaos. It is another layer of bureaucracy that will not achieve what the Government intend. We are with the Government in their intention to involve people other than the local council in best practice, but it should be advisory, and that is where we differ on this matter.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I stand up again enthusiastically to support all that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, has just said. In some ways I am sorry that the matter is not to be pressed any further because the arguments used by the Government here and in the other place are just plain wrong. The only defence that has been put up by the Government is that this proposal will improve local decision making.

Perhaps I may give an example with which I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, agrees. One considers all of the processes that a local education authority has to go through in order to come to a view about some form of reorganisation in its area, whether it be mergers, closures or whatever. There must be consultation and the matter goes through the appropriate sub-committee, working party, full education committee and then the full council. Normally, in the past the decision of the council has gone to the Secretary of State. Let us for a moment imagine what happens with the proposals in place. It will no longer be a decision but a recommendation. That will go to the organisation committee. If the organisation committee comes to a different view from that of the local authority and the one dissenting voice is the local authority itself the matter is then even further removed because it has to go to an adjudicator who cannot possibly be local to every single community in the country. There are to be only 20 adjudicators which means putting two or perhaps three local education authority areas together. Let us say that the adjudicator comes to a view that is consistent with the majority view of the organisation committee, not the minority view of the local education authority. The decision that is binding will not be the view of the most local democratically elected councillors. There is nothing more local than the local authority and the local authority must come to a decision. I find it deeply depressing.

I am sorry to invoke the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, who has given such distinguished service to local authorities but has not come to their defence in this matter. This is a second-guessing body which is undemocratic, unelected and not local. It cannot be argued that the FEFC is local. It may be that a rather remote person is put up by the FEFC to operate in a local area. The notion that this is done in the name of local democracy, transparency and openness cannot be argued

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by the Government. This is not a democratic proposition. This second-guessing, unelected body will be there at the expense of the budgets of local authorities which would be better spent in the classroom on our children. Those budgets will be top-sliced in order to pay for accommodation, membership, attendance and all the trappings that go with the setting up of the organisation committee and the office of the adjudicator. I do not find that consistent with good local government.

Local government will be deeply depressed by this proposal. As the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, has said, we shall also be watching very closely to see how it works out in practice. Local decisions particularly in relation to mergers, closures and reorganisation are always sensitive matters and lead to tension in local communities. The responsibility for making those decisions should remain with locally elected members with an appeal to an elected member of the Government. The decision should not lie with an adjudicator against whom there is no appeal whatever.


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