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The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: I shall speak to Amendments No. 150 and 152, which are tabled in my name. I must apologise to Members of the Committee because when the discussion on this group of amendments began I was still sitting in a taxi-cab in Trafalgar Square, getting ever more anxious that I should not be here before the end of the debate.
I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, his fellow Ministers and officials at the department for listening to the concerns expressed on behalf of the Churches, both in this Chamber and elsewhere. As
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford spoke on Second Reading. My amendments would not have quite the same effect of making up what the Churches and parent-governor representatives lose by the abolition of education committees, but I believe that they go as far as can reasonably be expected in the present climate.
I now turn to the detail of my proposed amendments. I shall deal, first, with Amendment No. 152 because that is the more substantial of the two. Subsection (2) of the proposed new clause would have the effect of requiring a local authority with responsibility for education to establish one overview and scrutiny committee solely to oversee and scrutinise the work of education. I believe that there is great concern that this should be so; indeed, if I may say so, it is wider than the Churches' interest.
Education is the largest and, arguably, the most significant aspect of any local authority's work when it has that responsibility. This is not just a result of the high profile given to education under the present Government; it arises largely because of its cost. Half of a county council's expenditure is usually spent on education and related services. But the local education authority and its elected councillors do not bear their responsibilities for this service alone. There are significant partnerships within which they work in the field of education. The Churches are major players here, providing one in three schools across the country. Indeed, it is claimed that 50 per cent of primary school children in Lancashire attend an Anglican, Roman Catholic or Methodist-sponsored school.
In our view this partnership is of vital importance to the future of education in each local authority. The amendment means that the Church and parent-governor representatives would be members of a committee, with suitably defined responsibility, in which their voice and vote would take effect. The department's draft guidance, giving effect to the Bill when enacted, suggests that any local authority would wish to have more than one overview and scrutiny committee. That may be so, but my amendment would put that guidance, as it affects education, on to the face of the Bill.
Subsection (3) of the proposed new clause relates to the power of the overview and scrutiny committee. If it has no teeth--I believe that this is the point the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, was making--it cannot bite. So my amendment is designed to give it teeth; in other
Amendment No. 150, which proposes to insert an extra subsection in Clause 15, is also concerned with giving the committee some power. For that reason I refer to it now. There was a clear intention in the White Paper attached to the draft Bill to give any member of any overview and scrutiny committee the power to require an item within the range of the committee's responsibility to be included on an agenda. I do not believe that this amendment is in any way controversial. I hope that the Government will see it as being entirely helpful to their intentions.
Perhaps I may now revert to Amendment No. 152 and subsections (4), (5) and (6). The amendment clarifies who has the duty of nominating the Church representatives on these committees. In our view, Amendment No. 145, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is not drafted in the light of the most recent education legislation, the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which provided for the designation of schools of a religious character and therefore removes the necessity for the slightly elliptic reference in the Minister's amendment. Moreover some religious schools are not voluntary but foundation schools. My amendment refers directly to these as distinct from Church of England and Roman Catholic schools. As the Committee will be aware, they include not only Methodist and Jewish schools, which we have had for a long time, but also a small number of Muslim, Sikh and Seventh Day Adventist schools. They too should be represented on the appropriate scrutiny committee. Subsection (7) of the proposed new clause contains a direct reference to parent governors' representatives. I note the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, which has the same effect. I hope very much that the Minister will look sympathetically on the two amendments.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: I support both amendments of the right reverend Prelate. I ask the Minister to what extent, if any, these amendments, if carried into the Bill, would affect the exercise of absolute discretion under Clause 2(1)(b).
Baroness Hanham: I speak to Amendment No. 142 which stands in my name. This small amendment would enable members of the executive to sit on scrutiny committees rather than be totally excluded from them. One of my many worries is that this whole system of executive and scrutiny is adversarial. It has already been suggested that the executive and the
Lord King of West Bromwich: As a new Member of the Chamber I do not have extensive expertise in relation to many issues which come before it. However, as regards the particular matter of this Bill, I have current experience as the leader of a major metropolitan authority, Sandwell, and I feel able to support government Amendment No. 140 and associated amendments.
Nowhere in the Local Government Bill has there been so much misrepresentation as on the issue of delegation to executive members of councils and the "call in" power of scrutiny committees. Let us be clear what the current committee structure does. First, chairs of committees already have delegated power. Secondly, non-elected officers also have considerable delegation. Currently, many day-to-day decisions are made in keeping with the manifesto policy of a controlling political group which cannot be reversed.
Obviously any chair worth his or her salt will take contentious matters to his or her political group, but therein lies another problem. Group decisions are private, made behind closed doors and binding on all members of that group. In many cases to claim that they are debated in full committee or even full council is, to say the least, a charade and certainly offers no transparency for the electorate. At best, debates are academic; at worst, they constitute play acting.
No council can operate without delegated powers, most of which currently lie with non-elected officers, not elected members. The new executive arrangements will allow elected members to be much more involved in delegated decision-making. I suggest that that is a step in favour of democracy, not against it. Coupled with the executive is the scrutiny role which, for the first time, gives council members the right to examine and challenge decision-making without a party whip. That is refreshing transparency.
Obviously, it is not workable for every dot and comma of every decision to be called in. Such power would render a local authority unable to function. It is right and proper for scrutiny committees to ensure that council policy is being followed and best value achieved. Provided that delegation is carried out within the policy of the council and within financial and other standing orders, it streamlines local government fit for the 21st century. There may be occasional abuses but any officer or member can be dealt with by the controlling group or the standards committee.
It is right to limit the power of "call in" as such a power could be used to wreck the policies upon which a controlling group had been elected. The Government's intentions are both right and sensible. I believe that they should be supported by the Committee.
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