|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Baroness Young: I, too, support the amendment. I take the view that the committee is unnecessary. The proposal raises major constitutional issues about local government. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has ever served in local government. I believe not, but perhaps he will forgive me if I am wrong. We have local education committees and are to establish committees beneath them called school organisation committees. When I was a member of an LEA that is what I thought I was doing. The second committee will incur costs; the cost of meetings, offices, paper and all the work. Those costs will be deducted from money which might go to the schools.
My noble friend Lady Blatch raised an important point. We are told that the committee must reach an unanimous decision. Let us examine a practical example which it will have to face. Let us suppose that the LEA believes that it should close a small school which has only six or twelve pupils. For reasons of costs and so forth, the LEA decides that the school must close. That decision is bound to be very contentious and the idea that it will not is held only by people who have no concept of local government. All the parents will object. The school will probably be in the countryside and everyone living nearby will object. Naturally, someone on the committee will be found to take up the case which will be put very forcefully. There will be petitions; everyone will be visited; and all the members of the committee will be telephoned. Experience in local government shows exactly how it will work.
An agreement is supposed to be reached, but that is unlikely in such contentious issues. We are talking about the reality of the situation and not about a theory. There will be endless meetings and huge costs will be incurred. At the end of the day, the matter will go to the adjudicator about whom we know nothing. The appointment is left to regulations. Presumably, he will be appointed by the Secretary of State and will be a placeman or woman in the local authority. In making such decisions, he or she will have to have the wisdom of Solomon and will need to be paid well to do the job. That will add more cost to the local authority and will mean more money taken away from the schools.
I shall be interested to hear from some Members of the Labour Benches who have sat on LEAs whether they believe that in a real situation--not a theoretical situation--the proposal will work. Is it in the best interests of the pupils, which is what we are supposed to be discussing? Is it in the best interests of a local authority? I understand that local authorities will receive no extra money but will be capped. So we know perfectly well at the end of the day it will all come off schools.
It will be the pressure from the local education authority, which will say that school X or school Y, for perfectly explicable reasons--financial and educational--should close. I have heard myself argue that the proposition of a school with 12 pupils and only one teacher, who has to do everything, is all right if the teacher is excellent. However, that is not so if the teacher is not so good. There are all sorts of arguments about this that will have to be faced at local level. We are being asked to agree a clause in a Bill which is based on the assumption that in really contentious cases there will be unanimity.
Let me add one further constitutional point. I entirely support what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon said. But Church representatives, whether Church of England or Catholic, are not directly responsible to the electorate, and they will now have a major say in the spending of money on all this. Perhaps we think that that is now right. I am sufficiently old fashioned to think that local government was not quite run like that. Of course they should be part of the committee; of course they should be consulted. But at the end of the day the responsibility for how the money is spent should rest with elected councillors.
It seems to me that this proposition raises many serious constitutional issues. I feel quite sorry for the people who are to sit on this committee. They will have difficult decisions to take. I wonder whether the Government would not like to take all of this back. I do not know what local authorities have had to say about this in consultation. I think it raises serious issues and that it will not be in the best interests of the children within the authority.
Lord Baker of Dorking: This is a good example of where the Government are getting into a huge administrative muddle. The present procedure for the organisation of schools, which usually means the closure of a school, is, as the right reverend Prelate said, very clear. It goes to the Secretary of State; he receives
I think the Government are totally confused in this matter. I do not think they have a clear idea as to how this is to operate in practice. Then, on top of that, a hand grenade is lobbed in by Mr. Byers' speech, where there is to be delegation of 100 per cent. of the budgets and the LEAs will have residual responsibility. So the LEAs will have residual responsibility but still be responsible for some sort of planning. And then there are the organisational committees. Who is doing what to whom? It is a very muddled set-up.
The points raised by the Liberal Democrats who moved the amendment and by the right reverend Prelate have not effectively been answered. This aspect of the Bill is muddled. One would hope, even at this late stage, that the Government might take it away and reconsider it, because something approaching chaos will emerge.
Lord Whitty: Perhaps I may clarify two matters before I come to the point of principle. I fully accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, says, that many of these proposals will inevitably be contentious among the bodies represented on the school organisation committee. We shall on subsequent amendments discuss membership. But the proposals for membership that we have put both on the face of the Bill and in the document lodged in the Library indicate that we would expect the groups that are represented to have one vote each. Therefore, the providers would have one vote each and the schools group would have one vote. The question of unanimity, therefore, appears to be easier, although the problem of contested--
Baroness Blatch: I am grateful to the noble Lord. I did not say one person; I said a dissenting voice. The voice could be the Church, the teachers or any one of the groups on that body--one dissenting voice from the group. There is only one vote per group. As my noble friend Lady Young said, with something like a school closure there is always a dissenting voice. Therefore, it is likely that more decisions will go rather than only rarely, as the noble Lord suggested. The noble Lord, if he was in a local authority, would know that many of these decisions are very difficult for local councillors.
Lord Whitty: Of course, many of the decisions are difficult for local councils. But at the moment, if there is a dissenting voice, or the equivalent of what would be a dissenting voice in this context, the matter is referred to the Secretary of State. What this proposal for an organisation committee proposes is that as far as possible the decisions should be reached by discussion in an institutionalised arrangement among the partners of the providers of schools in the area to reach unanimous agreement.
Obviously they will not start from a position of unanimity in many cases. The intention is that this committee will provide a structure to ensure that in as many cases as possible unanimity eventually emerges. Where it does not, these issues will be referred to an adjudicator. That adjudicator will be appointed by an open appointment system from people who are experienced in school organisation--as we shall come to at a later stage in this Bill.
The whole point is that at the moment, where there is dissent, where there is a local problem, it is referred to the department and to the Secretary of State. The whole point of these proposals is to ensure that decisions as far as possible are made among the partners at local level. That seems to be an increase in devolution and democracy and not a centralisation or an increase in bureaucracy.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: Some of us are not any clearer in our minds than we were when this debate started. As far as I understand it, the education committee is still the responsible organisation, the elected authority in charge of education in its area in the broadest sense of the word. So my question is, who is taking the decisions? If it is not the responsible organisation, why is it not the responsible organisation? And if it is the responsible organisation, why is not the school organisation committee an advisory committee, as my noble friend suggested, rather than not an advisory committee but a decision-taking one? You cannot have two organisations which are separately constituted--one elected and one non-elected--with both of them having power of decision over something. It simply will not work on the ground. It is constitutionally absurd, and I use that word in the correct meaning of the term.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page