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Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. That is the problem with democracy, we all know that. One has to accept in a democracy that we do not always agree with those who make the decisions. It happens all the time. That is the point of what we are saying and of what I said before. The Minister has made my point for me.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the local education authority and its elected representatives will have every opportunity to express their views. It is not as if they are being shut out of the decision-making process, as was more or less implied by what the noble Baroness said.
Perhaps I may return to adjudicators. They must also be able to keep an objective perspective, be able to weigh competing arguments and be accepted for their ability to do so. Adjudicators will be assigned to cases on the basis of their availability and they will be excluded from considering cases in which they might be regarded as parti pris. They will also have to give reasons for their decisions and set them out in formal letters which give the decision and which indicate how, in balancing the information put forward, the individual decision has been reached. Since the adjudicator is the second stage of consideration, all the relevant information should already be available. However, if the adjudicator does exceptionally need to consider new information, naturally the parties concerned will have every opportunity to comment on it. That would only be right.
I ask the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington--who is holding another conversation--how can that be authoritarian? The focus of the arrangements is that there should be local decision making. I believe school organisation committees will reach decisions on the majority of proposals and that our objective will be achieved. Noble Lords opposite may accuse me of optimism. I prefer to think of it as trust in the ability of those responsible for providing school places locally to reach agreement on important issues.
However, we must of course provide a mechanism for resolution of those cases, which we hope will be very few, that cannot be decided by school organisation committees. We see greatest strength in there being an independent means of reaching the decision. That is what the clause is about.
Our proposed new arrangements secure decision-making on school organisation at local level; a principle for which there is wide support. They also provide, for those occasions where there is not local agreement, an independent means of reaching a decision. The Government believe that that is the right way to secure local decision-making. I hope that the reasons for that are now clear. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his opposition to these clauses and schedules.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister and to all who have taken part in this short debate. Perhaps I may speak first on the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, who has, in the past, described himself not as "old Labour" but as "Labour Gold". With that in mind, I was slightly less surprised at the views he was expressing. The noble Lord expressed the hope and the expectation that school organisation committees and adjudicators would act reasonably. Indeed, I think he said in parenthesis that it is not unknown for local education authorities to act reasonably.
All public bodies are under a legal duty to act reasonably. Sometimes a court has to determine what is "reasonable"--most of us regret that stage being reached, but that is the position. When it gets to that stage and a court has to decide what is and what is not "reasonable", it looks at the process and not at the policy decision. That is an important difference which is fundamental to our objections here. I have no doubt that the adjudicator or, indeed, the school organisation committee and, dare I say it, first of all the local education authority, will act and reach decisions in a way which they believe to be reasonable. But those decisions are seen to be reasonable only if you happen to agree with them. If you disagree with a decision, it may well appear to be unreasonable as a policy decision. We come back to the issue of where the final decision is made.
The Minister has said that aim is to reach agreement, to reach a consensus. I have said on every occasion that we have discussed this issue that that is the right approach. I am keen for that to happen. The Minister accused me of pessimism and claimed optimism for herself. One of us is being realistic; perhaps the other is not. Your Lordships will have to judge which of us is realistic and which is optimistic. However, there is common ground between us. There will be occasions--never mind how many--when try as it may, a school organisation committee will not reach the required unanimity and the matter will go to an adjudicator--an adjudicator who is not democratically elected, not accountable, but who is appointed by the Secretary of State.
It is said that the adjudicators will be wise persons--I am sure that they will be--that they will hear all the evidence that is put to them and make wise and balanced decisions. I am prepared to accept that until I hear or see otherwise. But one might just as well say that every decision by local government, or by central government for that matter, should go to a judge or--some of your Lordships may agree with this--to a permanent secretary who will weigh all the evidence, consider the matter carefully and make a balanced judgment. I am sure they would do so, but that is not what we describe as a "democratic" process. That is the heart of our objections to this process.
These matters are extremely important to people in any education area. We tend to talk about "local people", but everybody is a local person somewhere. These matters should be decided finally and ultimately after full consideration and consultation through a democratic process, not by a process involving appointees, however wise the appointed persons may be.
As the Minister mentioned, when we discussed school organisation committees, we did so during extra time on some event that was taking place in France. By the time we reached the question of adjudicators we were into penalty shoot-outs. I received a message from the Government Chief Whip--I hasten to say the Government Chief Whip, not my own--that on no account should we seek to call a Division. On that occasion at least, we concluded that the Government Chief Whip was correctly interpreting the wishes of the House and we did not call a Division. But these issues have, as the Minister rightly said, now been debated here three times. Considerable concern has been expressed. Indeed, I think it has grown each time the issue has been discussed.
Lord Tope: My Lords, as the Chief Whip knows only too well, we are always reasonable people, prepared to listen to a reasonable case. When the noble Lord suggested to me that calling a Division during extra time or during a penalty shoot-out was not a good thing to do, I thought that was a reasonable point and I acceded to it. If the noble Lord makes a similar suggestion to me
Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.