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Lord Whitty: I understand why the Opposition Benches are concerned at this number of amendments. However, I can assure Members of the Committee that none of them raises the kind of anxieties which lie behind the questions of the noble Baroness. I offered to provide further information to give further reassurance between now and Report stage.
At Report stage we should be dealing with the central issues of the Bill. I do not believe that there will be sufficient additional information on the content of these amendments to erase anxieties among Members of the Committee. When there was no written information available earlier to noble Lords, it was sensible for me to withdraw my amendments and suggest that we come back to them at Report stage. On this block, it is not sensible. Far less central issues are involved than on many amendments we agreed earlier. The position was that the noble Baroness would not oppose the amendments at this stage but would reserve her opposition until Report stage. I hope that the noble Baroness will do the same for this set of amendments.
Baroness Blatch: I regard this situation as extremely serious. In practice we have had almost no sight of the explanation at all. I was lucky enough to come in an hour early and was able to skim through the amendments, although I have only just done so. The noble Lord has made no serious attempt to offer a satisfactory explanation. Like the noble Lord, Lord Tope, I am not making a personal criticism of the noble Lord. However, he made no attempt to answer my queries. We are asked to take the amendments on trust. We are told that we should not be anxious. Yet there has been no attempt to answer the points I raised.
The noble Lord cannot treat the Committee with that kind of contempt. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, has not even had an opportunity to read the amendments. To send a nine-page explanatory note on the day of the Bill when we are already busy--we do not have the back-up that the Minister has and are doing most of the work on our own--is not on. It is not part of our democratic process and is certainly not in keeping with the character of this Chamber to ask us to accept 30 amendments on trust with no proper explanation.
My questions are fairly detailed and concern eventualities that will happen after the Bill has gone through. For example, Section 28(2) says that it is intended that the options for designation should not be open for county or community schools. But they do not even exist at the moment. They are now part of a group of schools. Section 44 relates to voluntary schools within the meaning of the Bill which need to be included because a number of them will have entered the FE sector before 1st September 1999.
Lord Whitty: On the noble Baroness's final point, it is clear that any change of status of a school, whether by reorganisation, absorption or any other method, is protected by the earlier clause which relates to protection. That would include absorption in the extremely unlikely situation of absorption into an FE institution.
Most of the rest of the noble Baroness's questions will easily be clarified in written information, but not on the basis of exchanges across the Floor, either now or at Report stage. I accept that, in relation to the whole batch of provisions raised by Amendment No. 257AF, which relates to the further education sector, I was not able to follow all the noble Baroness's questions. Therefore, I would be content to withdraw that amendment and its implications and come back to it at Report. However, the rest of the points raised by the noble Baroness on the amendments are highly technical and hypothetical. I do not think it would be sensible for me to withdraw the amendments at this stage. I hope the Committee will accept those amendments on the basis of my withdrawing Amendment No. 257AF relating to the whole of the FE sector and the interface with that.
Baroness Blatch: I am grateful for that, because that is where my concerns lie and that is what I understand the noble Lord is going to write to us about. If Amendment No. 257AF, with all its sections, is remitted until the next stage of the Bill, I shall be happy. However, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has already said that he has not had an opportunity even to consider the other amendments. If he is happy with the proposition, we can move on.
Lord Tope: I would accept that, but I would do so unhappily. I asked the Minister directly why this cannot be deferred until Report stage. His only answer was that the purpose of Report stage is to consider the broader issues and matters of substance. Of course it is, but the situation we face now is not of our making; it is entirely of the Government's making. If the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is prepared to accept the Government's word on the matter, I am as well. However, we are supposed to be here to scrutinise a Bill and we are supposed to be scrutinising amendments. Frankly, we have not had an opportunity to do so on a large batch of government amendments. Although that is not the primary purpose of Report stage, I was suggesting that it would at least allow us the opportunity to do that.
I will accept, as others will, what the Minister is proposing. However, I still have not had an answer as to why the Government are not prepared to give us the two weeks--perhaps slightly more than that by the time
Baroness Blatch: Perhaps I may add to that because I think the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and his colleagues are at a disadvantage. What is the problem with delay? Once we have had an explanatory letter, this should have a fairly smooth passage at the next stage. What is to be lost between this stage of the Bill and Report stage? I really cannot see the Government's problem.
Lord Whitty: We would have a very distorted Report stage if we had to come back with these amendments at that stage. We are moving into a grave difficulty if we are not prepared to accept the technical amendments which appear on every Bill. They appeared on the previous government's Bills and they will appear on our Bills. Even if the noble Baroness was not personally responsible for some of those Bills, she will find that there were late amendments to a large number of Bills, both in this House and another place, during the previous 18 years. I fear that the draftsmanship of Whitehall has not dramatically improved in the past 12 months, for which I apologise, but it was not one of our early pledges. I hope it will improve over the course of this Parliament.
I believe it will be more sensible for the proceedings of the House if we study carefully the issue which the noble Baroness indicates is her major concern--the inadequacies of my answers and her main substantive concern which is the interface with the FE sector--and try to reassure her between now and Report stage. Clearly, she will still have the right to bring back issues at Report stage if she is still unhappy. The whole proceedings at Report stage would make more sense if we accepted the amendments now, subject to the commitments I have given and the withdrawal of Amendment No. 257AF. Then we can make some sensible progress at Report stage on what I think are the more substantive issues.
Baroness Blatch: This is becoming more absurd as we go on. If the noble Lord is really saying that we will have a distorted Report stage if these amendments are put on ice until then, that is just the most bizarre statement I have heard today. If the noble Lord is not prepared to give us, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and his colleagues, and indeed other Members of the Committee, a proper explanation of what the amendments are about and answer some of the questions I asked and perhaps some of the questions the noble Lord, Lord Tope, when he has read them, may also raise, the only course left for us would be to ask for a recommittal of this part of the Bill. That really would hold up the Report stage. To say that what I have proposed would distort the Report stage is nonsense. I overheard the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, saying from a sedentary position that the Report stage would not make sense. I have to say that I am not sure that the
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I did not say from a sedentary position that the Report stage would not make sense. I said that the Bill would not make sense. It would make more sense if noble Lords opposite saw the amendments in their place together with the explanation which will be provided. It will simply be easier at Report stage if we proceed in the way that my noble friend proposes.
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