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School Standards And Framework Bill

Volume 590: debated on Monday 1 June 1998

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3.5 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment
(Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—( Baroness Blackstone.)

My Lords, before we move into Committee, I wonder whether it would be helpful for the consideration of the Bill in Committee if the Minister were prepared to make a statement to clarify the speech made last week by Mr. Byers at the head teachers' conference in which he said that in future schools were to receive 100 per cent. delegation of their budgets. I ask her that because in Committee we shall be dealing with organisational committees, adjudication, school organisation plans, new schools, special schools, which were mentioned by Mr. Byers in his speech, and the activities of governing bodies.

Clearly Mr. Byers' speech was an important speech which I welcome strongly, because in effect he was saying that in future schools, whether they are called foundation schools or community schools, according to the Bill, will be given control of 100 per cent. of their budgets, and virtually be given the advantages that old grant-maintained schools had. That represents a considerable change of heart by the Government, not since they were in Opposition, but since they were in government, because the Bill is not drafted along those lines. It is drafted on the assumption that LEAs will still have a considerable role to play.

It is clear from Mr. Byers' speech last week that the LEAs' role will be residual. I happen to welcome that strongly. I do not revel in the fact that it is a 100 per cent. change by the Labour Party. It voted against those measures when I introduced them in 1988 and it has been opposed to them consistently. I do not revel in that. I welcome the fact that it has accepted it. It would be immodest of me to suggest that it must have read a speech that I made two years ago, recommending that. I am sure that it never passed over its desk, but, nonetheless, the Government have reached the right conclusion. I hope therefore that the Minister will be able to clarify the details: how much will be left to LEAs; and how much will be delegated. I suspect that on this side of the House we shall want as much as possible to be delegated. We want the schools to be in charge of their budgets. Grant-maintained schools have shown that they can produce magnificent results. The Government are almost there. Well done!

My Lords, as I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, is saying that the Government have come to the right conclusion. That being so, could not we discuss this matter when we reach the appropriate amendments?

My Lords, first, I strongly support the importance of this speech and the paper to the debate that we are having today. It does not relate just to Clauses 45 to 52 but also to the organisational committees, the work of the adjudicator and the work on standards and improvements in schools. That is all money that will be deducted before the 100 per cent. We are all in favour of 100 per cent. delegation to schools. We should like to see that. It would be helpful if the noble Baroness would explain that the 100 per cent. is 100 per cent. of what is left after the four issues are addressed: access, improvement of schools, strategic management, and all the matters that are listed in the paper.

We are again discussing amendments—it is not the first time—in a vacuum. Nothing in the Bill makes provision for the proposals in the paper that we understand was released on Friday. If 100 per cent. delegation is to be delivered, and schools are to receive that money, there needs to be considerable enabling amendment to Clauses 44 to 52. Have the Government any plans to bring forward amendments; or will they accept amendments from this side of the Committee to ensure that the proposals in the Statement made by the Minister in another place are delivered to schools? Expectations by schools are now very high. However, as one reads the detail of the paper, the scope for withholding money is very considerable indeed.

Before the Minister replies, it would be unfair for the noble Lord, Lord Baker, to receive all the credit. The noble Lord may recall that in the 1970s I had the privilege of chairing a committee which recommended more delegation to managers and governors of schools, and 100 per cent. responsibility. Does the noble Lord, Lord Baker, remember that that was during the time of a Labour Government?

I am grateful for my noble friend's interjection. He reminds the noble Lord, Lord Baker, that during the late 1970s and 1980s many people thought about greater delegation to schools.

The Opposition requested that we delay discussion on local management of schools (LMS) until Thursday. The Government have acceded to that request to give the Opposition a little more time to go through the document published on Thursday on local management of schools. It takes further what we had said earlier; and takes further a document that was put into the Library of both Houses when the issue was discussed in another place.

It would be foolish to start a discussion now on the subject before we have reached the right part of the Bill, which must be the right time to discuss it. I am sure that that is what my noble friends, and noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches, would think was right. It would be wholly in accordance with our procedures to wait until then.

In reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I shall be happy to consider any amendments that the Government may decide to put down on this part of the Bill. Amendments that we are bringing forward are already tabled for Thursday. I do not believe that we should go further on this matter, but should get on with the Committee stage of the Bill and move to the agreed business for this afternoon.

Before the Minister sits down, perhaps the noble Baroness will accept a word of congratulation on the calm with which she has just spoken, and on her complete detachment, almost failure to recognise, the marvellous conversion that she and her colleagues have undergone.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 23 [ School organisation committees]:

3.15 p.m.

Page 22, line 20, at end insert ("to act in an advisory capacity for the local education authority").

The noble Lord said: I forbore to join in the previous exchanges because I agreed with the Minister that this was not the proper time for such discussion. However, I cannot resist saying that I and my colleagues are a little less wholehearted in our congratulations to the Government on their conversion.

The amendment deals with one of the areas about which we are less content: school organisation committees; and, in Clause 24, the issue of adjudicators. It will become clear that we are uneasy about the concept of school organisation committees. They impose another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy with all the cost and administrative complexities of running such a body. The body will be unbelievably cumbersome, comprising of a number of groups. Those groups may comprise of representation of between one and seven. Each group has only one vote. I am unclear—perhaps the Minister will make clear—how that group vote is to be exercised where there is not unanimity in that group, as I fear will be the case on many occasions. The body is cumbersome because even assuming that the group has a unanimously agreed vote, there has to be unanimity within the school organisation committee. The Minister has said elsewhere that he expects that in the majority of cases school organisation committees will be unanimous. I can only think that that Minister has had little to do with education and local education authorities if he believes that all those interested parties in education will be unanimous in the majority of cases. We all hope so, but it may be a triumph of optimism over realism.

The most telling point against the concept of school organisation committees is that it is one further step in undermining the democratic legitimacy of local education authorities. Let me be the first to say that the democratic legitimacy of local government is rightly under question. A few weeks after the turnout at the last local elections, no one can stand here and proclaim that too strongly. The Government are attempting to address that issue in other ways, although we do not believe that they are going far enough.

Nevertheless, the local education authority and its members are the democratically elected representatives of the local communities. They have that responsibility. The appointment of a school organisation committee, composed as it will be, can only be a further nail in the coffin of the local education authority. If that is the Government's ultimate intention, as many of us are coming to believe, I wish that they would now clearly and openly say so.

The Government are missing an opportunity to deal with the many important aspects of school organisation and administration arrangements within the context of a light touch LEA framework. I shall return to that point more strongly in a later amendment. I accept that bringing together partners which will form a school organisation committee can perform a useful role. It is important that it is an advisory role for the LEA, does not supersede the LEA, and is not a statutory role which overrides the LEA.

The amendment suggests that school organisation committees—it is a concept about which I am not keen—should act in an advisory role. In many good local education authorities—dare I include my own?—such bodies exist. They are not usually given the title of school organisation committee; they exist as consultative forums. In many cases they work extremely well, as in my own LEA. The views and representations made are valued. They are listened to and debated, but the accountability is clear. It rests with the democratically elected local education authority which is, and should be, properly accountable for the decisions so reached.

We move the amendment, not out of great enthusiasm for school organisation committees, but recognising that if they are to exist they can have a valuable role. However, that role should be advisory. I beg to move.

I preface my strong support for the amendment with a question in order to make sense of the funding paper. Will the money for this aspect of activity for LEAs, school organisation committees and the adjudicators be deducted from the budget for local education authorities before the 100 per cent. figure is delegated to schools? Is it a matter for deduction? From my brief reading of the paper, I believe that it is.

While I strongly support the amendment, I would rather not have organisation committees or adjudicators. Local authorities are made up of members served by officers. Those members are elected democratically by the local community. If the local community loses its confidence in the work done by those local authority members it can exercise its choice about that at the ballot box.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, speaks of more recent experience than I do, having been a member of a local authority. Before coming here, I spent my formative years as a member of a local authority and as a member of its education authority. I have knowledge of the pain and the anguish that councillors experience when dealing with difficult issues, for example, closing schools. I cannot recall more anxious moments than when we were trying to do our best by the local community, looking that community in the eye, talking with the parents and the grandparents, the friends, the staff and the governors of schools when we were going through the process of closure. It would have been quite wrong for me to pass on responsibility for taking that decision to someone else—the unelected placemen of any government in the future. I believe that having initiated the process and having consulted all the relevant people, it is absolutely incumbent on the elected members to face the responsibility of taking the decision.

I have always thought it right and a good test of whether or not we have done the job properly that there should be a long-stop. In my view, that should be the Secretary of State. At the end of this process with the local communities, after all the work and consultation required by statute, you come to a conclusion. But that conclusion is further tested by an appeal to the Secretary of State. Parents and their supporters can put their case to the Secretary of State who takes into account the objectors' case, the case put by the local authority and the work done by the elected council of that authority. The Secretary of State comes to a view whether the case should be upheld or overruled. I believe that that procedure has worked very well in the past.

To superimpose on the system another body of placemen, the organisation committee, with the absolutist powers given in this Bill to the adjudicator, frankly, I believe, is wholly abhorrent. There is nothing democratic about it at all. It sidelines the responsibility that councillors should have and it passes the buck from the Secretary of State who simply says, "It's not me guv, go through your organisational committee or correspond with your adjudicator." There is not even an appeal on the adjudicator's position.

My preferred position would be not to have an organisation committee at all but as a halfway-house I support very strongly, on democratic grounds alone, that if there has to be this body it should be advisory only. My preferred position is that advisory bodies are different in different circumstances and there are occasions where local authorities should discuss with head teachers, local communities, other minor local authorities and other interest groups, and those will be different on different occasions.

Once this organisation committee is set in tablets of stone, as of course it will be, it is a single body with set representation which may or may not be appropriate. It seems to me wholly inappropriate. I support very strongly what I regard as a halfway-house amendment, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Tope. This proposal flies in the face of democratic accountability. It will emasculate local government which, as we know, is the hidden agenda behind much of the Bill. Certainly, more overt statements are being made almost daily by Ministers about the sidelining of local government in these matters. At the end of the day, I believe that the Secretary of State, in addition to local elected councillors, should stand up and be counted. I strongly support the amendment.

I wonder whether the Minister can help me on this amendment. As I understand it, in relation to voluntary aided schools it is the Secretary of State who at present takes a range of decisions such as, for example, whether a new school should be opened or a school should be closed, whether a school should be significantly enlarged or whether it should have a nursery class added.

It seems to me that what is laid out in the Bill is that that power in relation to voluntary aided schools, which at present lies with the Secretary of State, should pass to the school organisation committee. If I have understood that incorrectly, perhaps the noble Baroness will put me right. However, if that is the case, clearly the advantage of the school organisation committee is that decisions will be made in relation both to voluntary and to county schools by the same body. That seems to me a step forward.

It is clear that Clause 23 mentions only three categories: members of the local education authority, a person nominated by the diocesan board of education for a diocese of the Church of England, and a person nominated by the bishop of any Roman Catholic church. Those are the three parties which have to agree. It seems to me that the question of how many should be in each of those groups is in a sense not germane to the thrust of this intention, which is that representatives of those three bodies should agree policy in relation both to maintained schools and voluntary schools.

The Churches are major providers of schools and have been for nearly two centuries. Twenty five per cent. of primary schools in England have been provided by the Church of England. We have a significant investment in the education service of which the Church is rightly proud. We are particularly aware that many of these schools are popular and over-subscribed schools. What is true for the Church of England is also true for the Roman Catholic Church.

If decisions affecting the future of church provision, whether Church of England or Roman Catholic, are to be taken locally—it seems to me that that is the thrust of the clause—then it is surely right that both Churches locally should have a voice and a decisive voice.

The Church of England and other Churches want to have a positive partnership with local education authorities. It would seem to me that that is exactly what the school organisation committee provides. Far from giving less responsibility to local education authority representatives, in fact, it gives them a say in the future of Church schools. It is surely the case that an effective school organisation committee must depend upon each of the partners having an effective voice. I would be grateful if the Minister, in reply, would indicate whether I have the right understanding and whether my support for school organisation committees is on sound grounds.

The Government respect, understand and fully appreciate the role of local education authorities, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. However, the proposals for a school organisation committee reflect the fact, as the right reverend Prelate has just said, that in each LEA area the provision of school places is a matter of a partnership between different providers, the LEA, the schools and other voluntary and charitable providers and currently grant-maintained schools.

The existing arrangements for deciding proposals for change to school organisation maintain a balance between all the partners. Local education authorities can currently decide any of their own proposals unless they attract objections, in which case, again as the right reverend Prelate said, they are referred to the Secretary of Sate, or the Secretary of State decides to call them in for his own decision. All proposals for change to voluntary and to grant-maintained schools must currently come to the Secretary of State for decision.

The proposal in this clause is to ensure that that decision is kept locally. The noble Baroness, as I understand her position, wishes to maintain the position that all appeals go, in effect, into the stratosphere or at least to the Secretary of State, whereas our proposals keep those decisions local. Changes in school organisation are local. It is the Government's view that the decisions must be taken at local level and we are developing new ways in which that can be achieved. That is the central purpose of the school organisation committee. It will take on, in effect, the role in the process currently taken by the Secretary of State. It will therefore be an element of decentralisation, not of centralisation or bureaucracy in the sense that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, claimed.

The school organisation committees give formal effect to the existing partnership which is at the heart of these provisions. A fundamental element of any genuine partnership is that the views of all the partners have force. Therefore, it is not sensible that the local education authority over-rules the views of the other partners. If we are to retain balance, one partner cannot be more equal than the others. The school organisation committees which we propose will consist of representatives from local groups involved in the provision of education in the area. The committees' voting arrangement will mean that no decision can be made on the school organisation committee unless all groups, including the LEA, agree. That reflects the local authority's role as a partner in the process.

In reference to the schools' representation, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked whether their views would be by unanimity and if not how would the system operate. There is still some element of consultation on that matter, but we assume that we shall reach a consensus in the schools' group which will be reflected in the unanimity of the school organisation committee when it reaches a decision.

In order to reach that decision, all groups, not only the LEA, must make their views count. Those objectives would not be met by giving the LEA the power to take decisions on all statutory proposals. Others have significant parts to play. The amendment would give the final decision-making power to the LEAs. They will continue to have a vital role in maintaining standards in schools, but because they are not the only local providers we must have other representatives within that process. Local decision-making is about partnership and about reaching a consensus whenever possible.

In terms of how the decision will be reached, we propose that each group represented on the committee will have a single vote and that all votes cast on the final decision must be unanimous. If not, and only after exhaustive discussion between all the partners involved, the decision will be passed to an adjudicator. Later today we shall discuss amendments which make that clear.

Local education authorities and the other groups will effectively have the opportunity to secure that any proposals to which they are opposed are considered by the adjudicator. We believe that that is the best way of ensuring a balance of views and of "putting the pressure on" to ensure that in most cases a consensus is reached. A local education authority will remain free to determine most of its own uncontested proposals for changes to individual schools—

3.30 p.m.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He has made some very conflicting statements. He said that local authorities will make the final decision. Nowhere in the consultation papers, the background papers to the debate or in the Bill is it stated that local authorities will make the final decision. The noble Lord will need to read Hansard tomorrow. I believe that he did say that; I was listening carefully to what he said.

Secondly, the noble Lord said that it is a matter of partnership. It is difficult to disagree with that; partnerships at local level are essential. Local authorities are engaged in creating partnerships with their local community in all its forms. We are talking about when things go wrong, when partnerships do not work and when the organisation committee has one dissenting voice. The local authority might agree on something which is then sent to the organisation committee for approval. One dissenting voice on that committee will mean that the matter must go to the adjudicator. The idea that there must be a consensus decision does not hold water. The adjudicator is a single, arm's length, unelected placeman and that person will have the power to make the decision.

The strength of the case being put by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and by Members on these Benches is that the elected people in the group making the decision will be the councillors at local level and the Secretary of State and his Ministers at national level. We say that the people who have been superimposed in between are wholly unaccountable and there is no appeal against their decision. Presumably, if they make a procedural mistake one can take them to court.

The Minister said that the Government wanted the views of all parties. That is good. He also said that they wanted strong partnerships and that has great force. But the views of all parties count for not one fig. If there is a dissenting voice on the organisation committee the matter will go to the adjudicator who has the power to accept or reject the majority view and to modify or overrule the decision. Part of what the noble Lord is saying in response to the amendment is inconsistent and part of it is simply wrong.

Perhaps I may clarify the position. I said that if the amendment were passed the local education authorities would be left to make the final decision. The circumstances on which I touched before the noble Baroness intervened related to unopposed proposals. In that case, the local education authority has the final decision.

The whole purpose of the school organisation committees is to ensure that the partnership which already exists and usually operates well in the area is institutionalised and reaches its own decisions. All partners should engage in negotiation and in a little give and take and reach a decision with which they can live. If in, it is to be hoped, the rare circumstances that that fails to emerge from a school organisation committee, the decision will be referred to the adjudicator. His powers will be discussed at a later stage in the Committee.

The whole intention of establishing school organisation committees is to ensure that there is maximum and institutionalised pressure to ensure that, as far as possible, the partners reach an agreement among themselves and that one partner—if the amendment were followed that would be the LEA—does not have the ability to overrule the others.

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.

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 delegations from the local education authority, from the parents involved and, if it is a voluntary aided school, from the Church itself. That is now to be delegated, first, to an organisational committee because there is a variety of schools. Then there will be an adjudicator, a sort of Deus ex machina, who suddenly comes in and makes his own decision. I cannot make out whether the Government are creating a system which will make it easier to close schools or more difficult.

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.

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—

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.

3.45 p.m.

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.

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.

I am sorry to come back again but there are two questions, one of which the noble Lord has not answered. First, will the resources that will be needed to service the organisation committees, the adjudicators and all the attending costs be a matter for deduction from the funding for local education authorities? Secondly, the noble Lord a moment ago said that the adjudicator would be appointed by a local committee. The Bill says the adjudicator will be appointed by the Secretary of State.

On the second point, I think I said that they would be appointed by the Secretary of State through an open process of application. We will both check Hansard tomorrow. Whether or not I said that, I certainly intended to say it, and that is in fact the case.

As far as the funding is concerned, the estimate of any additional funding in this puts the cost relatively low, below £1 million, against which has to be set the current cost of what are, in effect, appeals to the Secretary of State. I stress that that is £1 million in total, but against it has to be set the current costs of appeals to the Secretary of State. The whole point of this process, to answer the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, is that clearly the local education authority is the constitutionally responsible body. But its position will be subject to the views of the school organisation committee in the sense that it is already subject to the Secretary of State under the present arrangements. We intend to push that responsibility back to the local level to the school organisation committees.

The noble Lord is now saying that these school organisation committees will be exercising the powers of the Secretary of State. But how can they do so in conflict with local authorities, which are also exercising their powers under statute? It seems to me that the internal inconsistencies of these clauses are not fully apparent to those sitting on the government Benches. We shall really get ourselves into a muddle on the ground in trying to work out who does what under the system. As I understand the decision-taking process, there are no fewer than 10 potential stages in the school organisation plan alone. That already is many more stages in decision taking than most local authorities ever become involved in. It will mean increased bureaucracy, which is very dangerous, time consuming and expensive; but, above all, it means that we are moving into internal inconsistencies in the legislation.

In response to an earlier intervention, the noble Lord said that what he wanted to do was institutionalise existing systems of consultation. Again, that wish could be satisfied if we were to agree, as set out in my noble friend's amendment, that these committees would work "in an advisory capacity". The fact that they appear to be decision-taking committees is causing the difficulty.

It seems to me that the Government must decide under which flag they are actually sailing. A moment ago the Minister said that this is a measure of devolution to the local community. However, a few moments later, he was forced to admit that the adjudicator is to be appointed by the Secretary of State on local advice. All of us who have served in government will know what that means as, indeed, will the noble Lord. In effect, the Secretary of State will largely decide who is to be the adjudicator.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, was chairman of the Surrey County Council, when I was a member, which introduced considerable changes in education, some of which were most controversial and some totally wrong. However, we will not go into that aspect of the matter. None the less, it all went through a democratic process and not to an adjudicator; indeed, I took delegations to my successors as Secretary of State. As far as I can see, that will not happen in the future. The adjudicator has been put forward and I have no idea whether or not he will receive delegations from councillors, local residents and local parents. Quite frankly, I do not believe that the Government have the remotest idea in that respect. This is actually administration on the hoof and the Government should recognise that fact.

Before I begin, perhaps I may declare an interest, or lack of one, in that I have never been elected to anything in my life. Indeed, I never deigned to place my future in the hands of any electorate and still would not dream of doing so. That is why I so much enjoy being a Member of this Chamber. However, I must admit that it seemed to me that what the Government proposed on this matter made some modicum of sense. As always, my confusion arises from the present debate in this Chamber.

As I see it, the local education authority still remains responsible for organising education in its area. Indeed, there is a section in the Bill which refers to drawing up an organisation plan. I have interpreted it as going in the following way; namely, to follow the example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that the plan will include the possibility that a school will be closed. Alternatively, it may include a provision stating that such an occurrence might happen in due course.

It seemed to me that the Government's intention was to try to find a way, when controversy arose, to ensure that the matter did not revert all the way back to the centre. That is my reading both of what the Bill says and what my noble friend the Minister said. In other words, they are trying to find a method of saying, "We agree that there is a problem here. We agree that you're rowing about it. We are trying to set up a structure that will still enable you to sort it out at the local level if you possibly can". I understand the role of the school organisation committee to be just that.

In saying that, I speak as someone who is as committed as anyone in this Chamber to local government—just to echo what the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said in his earlier intervention. Indeed, I am fully committed to local government. However, I do not see this as being necessarily antipathetic to local government; I see it as a way of trying to say to those concerned, "Can't you at your level possibly sort this out without it going to the Secretary of State?" If one objects to the non-democratic nature of the adjudicator, it seems to me, from my experience of advising Secretaries of State, that one should not believe—but perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Baker, will tell me that I am wrong—that they have actually looked in detail at such local matters. He or she would certainly have had the equivalent of a non-elected person saying, "This is a load of rubbish. If I were you I would do the following", but the Secretary of State would, of course, carry the can in such cases.

I have no great problem about the adjudicator, if such a process will work in practice; in other words, if we can persuade those concerned at the local level to move towards taking harsh decisions. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, is completely right. My experience as regards taking decisions about closing anything is that there will always be an objector. My favourite example is the case of trying to close a public lavatory, let alone a school or anything of that kind, where it becomes a matter of major constitutional importance. We should not doubt the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is right to point out that rows will occur.

What I am trying to say in support of the Government is that they are trying to introduce a process whereby they are saying to those concerned, "Can't you do it at your level? Can we not set up a structure so that you can do it at your level and get some agreement?" I do not believe that the proposal is quite such a mess as noble Lords have stated. However, having said that, I believe that Members of the Committee are right to express their fears as to whether or not it will work. But how do we know? Indeed, I should very much like to encourage my noble friend the Minister not to back down on this. It is certainly worth a try.

As the noble Lord mentioned me, perhaps I may point out that the actual receipt of suggestions for school closures is one of the matters which keeps Ministers and Secretaries of State for Education busy. In fact, the decision is not perfunctory; indeed, it is not taken lightly. As my noble friend Lady Young said, there is always an objection. One invariably sees delegations. They often nobble Ministers in the Lobby in the other place and demand to be seen. So Ministers see them and that means reading the case, as well as receiving one delegation in favour and one against. It is not perfunctory; it is actually part of our quaint democratic system working in practice.

When I was an education Minister the happy task of looking at school closures fell to me. I recall quite clearly the numbers of Red Boxes full of submissions on each school. I saw delegations both in favour of the school in question and against it. As my noble friend Lord Baker said, the difference is that, in those cases, you could get the intervention of an MP and the matter could actually be raised in Parliament. After all, Ministers are all responsible to Parliament in some way. It is a new constitutional principle to have an adjudicator appointed with, as far as one can see, unlimited power to make a decision without any kind of an appeal over and above the local authority and, presumably, without there being any opportunity to raise the matter in any other forum, such as Parliament. This really is a matter which is worthy of further consideration.

I and other Members of the Committee are most sympathetic to what the noble Baroness is saying. However, does she at least agree that it would be better if the people involved at the local level sorted out such matters themselves? That is what the Bill is trying to do. It is trying to suggest to those concerned that they should sort it out without going all the way through the system to whoever the current Ministers may be. I understand the point that is being made, but it seems to me that there is rather less sympathy than there ought to be among noble Lords opposite as regards what the Government are trying to do on this matter.

Perhaps I may ask a somewhat naïve question. What will actually happen to the SOCs and the adjudicator if the schools opt out? Will they disappear, or will they still be effective bodies?

4 p.m.

I am not sure whether I am answering for my noble friend when I say that we absolutely agree with the notion that these matters should be handled at local level. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, misunderstood the concept of the school organisation plan. This plan is drawn up by a local authority's elected councillors. Normally there is a great deal of discussion at local committee level and there is consultation with the community. The bones of the plan are then drawn up and eventually something more substantial is submitted to various education sub-committees and then to the full education committee.

Even then the plan is not finalised until it is submitted to the full council. The full council comprises elected people from every corner of the local education authority area. The full council draws up the final organisation plan.

However, it is proposed that the plan will then be submitted to an unelected body; namely, a school organisation committee. That unelected body can oppose the plan. If that occurs, the plan is submitted to an adjudicator who can disagree with the decision of the school organisation committee. The adjudicator can take the majority view; he can reject the majority view; he can accept a minority view; or he can submit a totally different plan.

At the end of the day the decision is not that of the local authority. We agree that these matters should be decided at local level. A school organisation plan comprises details on mergers, closures, the establishment of new schools, the organisation of new places and the demands arising from the demography of a local education authority area. Any decision is taken within the context of the plan, but it is proposed that the decision will be completely removed from a local authority; now a local authority is to comprise nothing more than a part of the process. Elected people will pass the responsibility for taking such decisions to the adjudicator, not even the elected Secretary of State.

I refer to the experiences of my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking as a former Secretary of State for Education and my noble friend Lady Young as an education Minister and my experience as a former Minister at the Department for Education. Decisions reached us after a great deal of deliberation on the part of local authorities. However, that process provided one more opportunity for an elected person to reconsider the decision that had been taken. Sometimes a Secretary of State reversed the decision of a local authority. However, that process enabled people to have their case heard one more time. However, we are talking now about an unelected body of placemen and placewomen and all powerful adjudicators. The adjudicators have the most draconian powers, more than any elected representative in the country, whether at national or local level, with no appeal. We shall discuss amendments later concerning an appeal to the adjudicator. However, this is the most undemocratic proposal. It may be consistent with what we believe is the hidden agenda; namely, the sidelining of local authorities.

I think we are all surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, has never been elected to any position. That must be due to his modesty in not putting himself forward rather than to any rejection on the part of the electorate. He has articulated more clearly than I, or any of the Government's guidance, the Government's intention; namely, that, as far as possible, these issues should be dealt with at local level. I respect the diligence with which the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Blatch, have pursued their duties as Ministers of the Crown. However, those decisions should not be taken at that level; they should be taken at local level. The intention of establishing school organisation committees is that, as far as is possible, such decisions will be taken at local level. The adjudicator is meant to act as a failsafe mechanism.

I believe that almost everyone who has contributed to the debate respects the view that these decisions should be taken at local level, as we propose. However, the amendment would allow the final decision to be taken by a local education authority, against the wishes of other partners in certain circumstances, without the existing appeal to the Secretary of State. That may not be the intention of the amendment but it would be its effect. We should recognise that it is the intention of the Government to return these decisions to local level. The adjudicator is not a draconian major general. He is to act as a failsafe mechanism in a situation where no unanimity can be reached even after lengthy deliberation by the partners involved at local level. This provision is not an anti-democratic device and it is no different from any other circumstance where local authorities are subject to final decision by an adjudicator.

It is important to clarify one point. The Minister has repeatedly said that the decision should be taken at local level. Is it the intention that every local area should have an adjudicator in waiting, as it were; otherwise, how on earth can he be local? If he is not to cover a wide area, surely it will be most expensive to have an adjudicator in each local area to consider every possible closure that may arise.

It is not the intention to have an adjudicator for every LEA, if that is what the noble Baroness is suggesting. We hope that in the case of most local education authority areas, a decision will be reached unanimously by the school organisation committees. Therefore there will be no need for an adjudicator. I hope that Members of the Committee opposite recognise that the intention of this clause is to enable local providers and other interested parties to reach agreement at local level, and that the adjudicator—whose powers we shall discuss later—is to act as a failsafe mechanism. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in particular recognises that the amendment as it stands would give a local education authority the right to overrule all other partners without the existing appeal to the Secretary of State. In the light of that response I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment as it stands.

Before I respond to the debate, which I have been itching to do, I wish to press the Minister on the question of costs which we have not discussed fully. As I understand it, the Government have estimated the cost to be £1 million. That can be only a rough estimate, because as the Minister said, none of us knows quite what will happen. Depending on one's point of view, that is an optimistic estimate based on the Government's apparent belief that consensus will rule; unanimity will be the norm; and we shall go through only half of the ten-stage process that this Bill envisages. As I understand it, the eventual cost is to be borne by LEAs in full. I hope that the Minister will confirm that. Given the Government's recently announced intention to delegate 100 per cent. of funding to schools, will the cost of this process then be met by the schools? Will they be compelled to opt into this process and to contribute, or will the funds be top-sliced from local authority money? How will it work, or is it yet another matter that the Government have not yet worked out?

We shall debate funding at a later stage. As the noble Lord surmises, the intention is that the money would form part of the administrative expenditure of a local education authority and would not be devolved to schools.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I shall now contribute to what has inevitably and rightly been a wide-ranging debate. In introducing the amendment I made little reference to the adjudicator because I realise that is the subject of the following clause. However, it is impossible to discuss the whole concept of a school organisation committee without also considering the role of the adjudicator. Although we have strayed a little wide of my amendment, I think it was right and inevitable that we should do so.

The Minister was absolutely right to say that the effect of the amendment is to leave the final decision with the LEA. However, what alarms me is that the Minister is putting that forward as an objection to the amendment. However, that is the purpose and intention of the amendment. The local education authority is the democratically elected and accountable body which should take local decisions. We appear to have struck an extraordinary unanimity in the Chamber today. We all want to see these decisions taken locally and democratically; and that requires a form of election. The local education authority is responsible for ensuring the provision of education for all children in an area. It is democratically elected and accountable. That is why we tabled the amendment. For the Minister now to put that forward as a reason for opposing the amendment alarms me almost more than anything else I have heard today.

We have had much discussion on consensus and the desire for unanimity. I hope that we all wish to see these matters resolved in a spirit of co-operation and consensus and rejoice when unanimity is arrived at. I do not doubt that, in numerical terms, many of the plans and proposals may be fortunate enough to go that way. Our concern relates to those cases where unanimity and consensus do not rule. I, too, have had some experience, albeit many years ago, of school closures. I have yet to hear of closures on the basis of unanimity among all concerned. Although it may have happened, it is certainly the exception rather than the rule.

Sometimes unanimity will not be achieved, and sometimes consensus, however hard sought, will not be achieved. Exhaustive discussions will sometimes fail in the end, though I hope not often. The question is: what happens then? My noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood stole my line. I had intended to offer some help to the Minister in his attempt to explain how this proposal would work. I have been provided with a flow chart explaining exactly how it would work. If it is a matter of consensus and unanimity, we can stop at stage six; if not, we can argue about how long the process is and whether it stops at stage 10, when the adjudicator decides, or stage 11 when the adjudicator's decision is accepted. The process is long, difficult and complex; and it will be expensive. But finally, when consensus does not rule, who makes the decision? The Minister has made much of the fact that decisions are to be taken locally. However, as other noble Lords have pointed out, the final decision is not made locally but by the adjudicator appointed by the Secretary of State. We do not know how many adjudicators there will be, but the number will certainly be fewer than one for each LEA. Nor will they be appointed locally, or be accountable locally; nor, under the Bill as presently drafted, will there be any right of appeal in relation to their decision.

I have long believed that the Secretary of State has far too much power and is acquiring more and more. If there is to be a right of appeal, the appeal goes to the Secretary of State. However inadequately and indirectly, the Secretary of State is democratically accountable. Ultimately, the Secretary of State can be questioned in Parliament. The adjudicator appointed by the Secretary of State, who will probably have no local connection and certainly no local accountability, cannot be questioned by anybody anywhere. How the Government can say that that is in accordance with local democratic decision-making, I really do not know.

Sometimes from these Benches I hear the Government's explanation of their proposals and think, "Yes, I hadn't thought of that; maybe there is something in it". The more I have heard of these proposals, the more convinced I am, not that this amendment should be passed, but that a later one should be passed to get rid of this proposal altogether.

We have talked about a dissenting voice and the unanimity of a school organisation committee. Each group on a committee has one vote. If I remember the consultation papers correctly, the membership of a group could comprise anything from one to seven people. So a situation could arise whereby a group of one exercises a dissenting vote. Some may say that is democratic; I suggest that it is a veto. A group, whether of one, two or seven, will exercise a veto over proposals that have been exhaustively discussed by the LEA and through LEA processes—which were well described by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch—and considered by the SOC and so on; and it could be a group of one. It is less likely; however, it is a possibility under this legislation. That is not right.

In moving the amendment I said that the advisory role has some merit. Many LEAs already have some sort of system, some sort of forum, wherein interested parties, such as those proposed for membership of the SOC, have an opportunity for input and discussion. Indeed, many are members of, and represented on, the elected education committee, which is where these decisions ought to be taken.

I am far from convinced by the Government's arguments. In fact, I have become increasingly convinced that, later, in moving that the clause do not stand part I shall be doing the right thing. I will consider further what needs to be done. In the meantime, I shall not press the amendment to a Division. This has been a useful, if alarming, discussion. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.15 p.m.

moved Amendment No. 98:

Page 22, line 24, leave out ("includes") and insert ("shall have a majority of members who are members of the local education authority and shall include").

The noble Baroness said: After that long debate, I am wondering whether there is any point in speaking to these amendments. They represent a fall-back position, an attempt to improve the organisation committees. We are not in agreement with them and do not believe they are the correct democratic way forward.

Amendment No. 98 would guarantee that the local education authority had majority control of the school organisation committee. It underwrites the points made earlier by my noble friend Lord Tope. It underwrites the principle that the LEA should have the final say over the recommendations from a school organisation committee. It should be for the LEA to decide whether the nominees were drawn from a range of political groupings, or whether they should represent the controlling group. The important point is that the LEA would remain in control of a school organisation committee. The proposal backs up our first amendment proposing that the SOC should be an advisory body. Amendment No. 99 is consequential on Amendment No. 98.

The purpose of Amendment No. 104 is, again, to make the best of a very bad job. It adds to the categories of representatives who must sit on a school organisation committee. It insists that the committee has members who are on the receiving end. At present, there is an absence of any requirement to include representatives from the schools involved. That highlights the general drift of this legislation; namely, that schools are to be organised by new, mini—or perhaps not even mini—quangos. We have put forward clear arguments today, supported not only by Members on these Benches but by many other noble Lords, and we shall shortly debate whether the clause should stand part of the Bill. I shall therefore not pursue points now that I shall make in that debate. I beg to move Amendment No. 98, also standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Tope.

On the assumption that there are to be school organisation committees—which seems in some doubt—I wish to speak to my Amendment No. 100; I spoke to Amendments Nos. 58 and 64 in Committee on 19th May. I am supported by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, and my noble friend Lady Darcy de Knayth.

Last time, I was alone and loitering in the Stygian gloom of midnight, when the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, added to my taedium vitae by turning aside my amendments to secure a clearer place for special educational needs on the face of the Bill. For noble Lords not present on that occasion, he used these words:
"the education action zone will bring together 10 or 20 schools. That could mean the membership of a forum swelling rapidly—if everyone were included—to 50 plus. That is unlikely to constitute an effective decision-making body".
I very much agree with that. Unfortunately, he continued a little later:
"It is therefore, in our view, not sensible to lay down that all these constituent bodies should always be members of an education action forum".—[Official Report, 19/5/98; col. 1585.]
I found that very difficult to understand. If 20 per cent. of all school populations have special educational needs—which is the accepted average—one can be certain that schools involved in education action zones have a percentage much higher than that of pupils with special educational needs—maybe 30, 40 or even 50 per cent. I would have thought that a guaranteed place could have been found for someone with expertise in special educational needs; but, alas, the witching time of night seemed to cause the noble Lord to turn a deaf ear. I am therefore trying again with school organisation committees and hope that, between the dark and the daylight, the Minister will see the need for a person with SEN experience to be on every school organisation committee. To borrow a phrase:
"You know it makes sense".

I wonder whether it would help the Minister if I speak to my Amendment No. 105 with this grouping. It is separately grouped, but I am happy to deal with it now if it saves the time of the Committee.

Like the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, Amendment No. 105 represents a fall-back position. We would rather not have school organisation committees at all. However, if there are to be such committees, we need to address ourselves to the question of composition. Very little is said in the Bill about the composition. The only three categories of membership mentioned are the LEA, the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Beyond that, there is nothing definitive at all. Amendments have been tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas, who is not here at present to speak to them. I believe that grant-maintained schools, if they exist, need to be represented. If, as is likely, the Government have their way and they do not exist, they will all become foundation or voluntary-aided schools. It seems to me important that foundation schools, which will be part of the family of schools, should be represented on that committee. I hope that when we come to Amendment No. 105 it will be accepted.

Like the noble Baroness, I do not understand why Amendments Nos. 101, 105 and 105A have not been grouped with the amendments which we are discussing. Perhaps I may speak for a moment on the groupings list. I looked for one this afternoon before the House sat. Eventually I was able to prise a list of the groupings out of the Government Whips' Office at 2.35 p.m., while the House was at Prayers; there had been none before then. I wonder whether the Government could make certain that groupings lists are available at a reasonable hour. Under the previous administration, groupings were supposed to be available at five minutes past two at the latest, which gives an opportunity to prepare for the debate. I know it is not the responsibility of the Ministers on the Front Bench, but it is a matter on which they should chase their friends. There were no lists in the Printed Paper Office, none in the Prince's Chamber and none in the Peers Lobby. Eventually I obtained one that was still hot off the photocopying machine from the Government Whips' Office while the House was at Prayers. I believe that the Government have let the House down in this respect.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said, my name is also to Amendment No. 100. I know that there are different areas of special educational needs and I accept that it may not be possible to have someone with expertise in all those areas on a school organisation committee, but I hope that the Minister can give an undertaking that there will be a member of the committee with special educational needs expertise. If the area of special educational need which has to be discussed is not within the member's narrow field, that member will at least know where to obtain the information. In this information age, it is a matter of knowing where to find the information that one requires rather than having it all at one's fingertips.

I wish to address primarily Amendment No. 100. As the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said, it would be ludicrous not to have direct advice when special educational needs are being dealt with. There are so many areas of special educational needs. If there is a delay in obtaining the right information, there will be a delay in obtaining the right help. Pupils with special educational needs within schools are in the process of catching up. If they do not receive the help they need quickly, they are ultimately doomed to fail, or at least will take far longer over their education. Unless there is someone who knows where to find the assistance needed, these pupils will be almost guaranteed to be failures, at least within their own age group. Unless there is some way of getting the relevant information, we shall fail in an important area—possibly the major area—which has brought this type of organisation into being.

These amendments deal with school organisation committees and their membership. I do not wish to stray too far into the debate we had earlier about the role of those committees. The essence of the committees is clearly one of partnership. We wish the membership of the committees to reflect that partnership. As we said earlier, LEAs will retain key responsibilities. Amendments Nos. 98 and 99 provide for majority membership of the committees. Local education authorities may be the major providers of schools, but they are not the only providers, and there is therefore no reason for putting on the face of the Bill that local education authorities should have a built-in majority on the organisation committees.

All decisions have to be unanimous. There is no suggestion that any of the bodies referred to in these amendments should not be consulted, but we make clear on the face of the Bill that in all cases the diocesan authorities should be involved in the committees and we make clear in the note lodged in the Library that we would expect there to be a schools group, which would vary in its composition, authority by authority, and that for certain purposes there should be representation from the Further Education Funding Council.

As far as the schools group is concerned—and this touches in part on the question of special educational needs and on Amendment No. 105—the note sets out:
"The group should include governors from a primary, a secondary, and a special school (and a middle school where appropriate). It should also cover community, foundation and voluntary schools (other than those maintained by the Church of England or Roman Catholic dioceses). But the way in which it does so should vary according to circumstances, including the size of the authority and the proportions of schools within particular categories. We would normally expect community, foundation, and non-diocesan voluntary schools to be represented in the group in proportion to the number of pupils in the LEA that attend their schools."
That will allow for representation of a range of issues and it will be different as regards each authority.

I turn to Amendment No. 100 and the issue of special educational needs. We recognise the important responsibilities that school organisation committees will have in relation to provision for special educational needs both in mainstream and in special schools. Clearly it is important for school organisation committees to have access to appropriate SEN expertise and we are committed to achieving that.

It might be worth pausing to consider for a moment the range of issues that might arise, including the alteration and closure of special schools; the location of SEN special units in mainstream schools; the availability of appropriate facilities, including physical access; the availability of particular expertise in SEN amongst teaching staff; and the impact on transport of the location of SEN facilities, and any changes to their location.

As noble Lords will appreciate, it will be difficult to secure representation of SEN interests on the school organisation committee that can cover that wide range of issues. That is why we want to look at how best to ensure that SEN issues are taken into account as widely as possible in the consideration by the school organisation committee of school organisation plans and of individual proposals. There are a number of ways in which SEN expertise might be provided to school organisation committees. We are clear that SEN providers should be represented in the membership. But we might also want to explore other ways in which SEN expertise can be made available to the committee. That might include the appointment of experienced and expert practitioners as advisers to the committee in respect of specific proposals.

We are committed to getting right both the membership of the committee and the advice that is available to it. We shall seek specific views, when we consult, on how that might be achieved, particularly for special educational issues.

In relation to foundation schools and Amendment No. 105, the statement on school organisation makes it clear that we shall include foundation schools within the schools group and, where there are foundation schools in LEA areas, they will be represented broadly in proportion to the numbers for which they are responsible. We will consult on the detail of how that may be achieved, but it is a level of detail that is more appropriate to regulations than to the Bill. I note the amendments relating to the FEFC and neighbouring authorities which are in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. They have not been referred to, but they are grouped with this amendment. However, I shall not comment on those at this stage.

The intention is clear. We want not only the major providers but also a range of interests to be represented by the schools group and elsewhere on the organisation committees. Our intentions are clear in the document that is available in the Library and I hope that my words this afternoon will reassure those who are particularly concerned with special educational needs. We shall take fully into account in regulations and in practice the way in which SEN expertise can be brought, authority by authority to school organisation committees. In the light of those remarks, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment and that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, will consider his position when we reach that stage.

4.30 p.m.

Before the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, sits down, perhaps I may follow up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. The whole issue of special educational needs is extremely important.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, if I understood him correctly, listed at least six specific difficulties with regard to special schools or parts of mainstream schools which have units for special educational needs. It is true that specific difficulties can arise. However, if one chose to, one could make out specific difficulties for mainstream schools; for instance, those that may specialise in languages. Are those to be considered also?

I do not know what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, feels about the response of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. However, it is not satisfactory to leave it as it stands. The committee must have a unanimity of view. If there is a question of closure of a special school when there is no representative on the committee and it has, at best, an adviser, difficulties may arise. This is something which needs to be looked at. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, may not be able to give an answer today—I shall understand if he cannot—but it would be helpful if he will undertake to bring back an answer to this important point before we leave the Committee stage of the Bill.

Perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. He can then pick up on all our points and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, wants to respond to his amendment.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred to the background paper on the organisation committees that is in the Library. I understood him to say that foundation and community schools would be represented. However, in paragraph 8 of that document the only groups to which the Government refer are those appointed by the LEA elected members, the Church of England diocese, the Roman Catholic diocese, the members of the FEFC nominated by them, reflecting the council's statutory responsibilities, and schools drawn from serving school governors.

There are two omissions relating to the amendment which are inconsistent with the answer the noble Lord gave to Amendment No. 105. First, can we have an assurance that foundation schools, as a category, will be represented on the committee? Secondly, there is no mention anywhere of teachers or head teachers. It is inconceivable that an organisational committee should have only governors, members of the Church and members of the LEA but with no guaranteed member for special needs, no teachers and no mention of foundation schools as a category of school within the local area.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for her intervention, which said extremely well what I wanted to say.

I have a further question for the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. It arises from what arose in another place. A note on school organisation was circulated to members of the Standing Committee on the School Standards and Framework Bill in another place. From its discussion of that, the Government anticipate that the governors from primary, secondary and special schools will be represented on school organisation committees. That will be extremely welcome. It goes some way to meeting our concerns. However, we need a commitment on the record of the Government's intention regarding the issue of membership. I should like to consider what the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has said so far and come back to this matter at Report.

If special educational needs issues are to be represented on school organisation committees by the governor of a special school, clearly such membership needs to be balanced by having the membership of someone with an understanding of special educational needs in mainstream schools. It becomes a vicious circle.

Perhaps I may respond before the noble Baroness replies to the debate. In relation to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, about special schools in a local education authority area, where there is a special school within the area it would be a member of the schools' group. The paragraph to which I referred was not paragraph 8, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred; it was the expansion of paragraph 8 which goes into paragraph 10. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, referred to that.

We indicated that the schools' group would include governors from a primary, secondary and special school where there was one within the education area. We should expect schools to be represented in proportion to the number of pupils that attend them. In relation to special schools, there would be representation. The more complicated area is that to which the noble Lord, Lord Rix, referred; that is, representation on behalf of special educational needs within mainstream schools where we are looking at different ways of achieving that. It may be through membership of the schools' group or it may be through an adviser. We are prepared to seek further views in relation to that and I hope that that clarifies the position in relation to special educational needs.

I apologise to the noble Baroness for not covering the point relating to head teachers. We have considered the issue and feel that schools are best represented through their governors—the governors being the corporate authority within those schools. In certain circumstances head teachers can be governors. We would certainly not rule out a head teacher as a governor serving as a member of a school's group. In any case, we have no doubt that governors would wish to seek the views of head teachers on school organisation, plans and proposals. We might also seek views as to whether we should consult on the committee welcoming head teacher assessors offering a professional view from the frontline.

As regards the committee itself, we believe that schools are best represented only by governors and not by head teachers working with those governors. That is the position we have taken and it is a clear one. That does not mean that we are excluding the expertise of head teachers. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, is looking worried about that. The authoritative position within the schools is represented by the governors. They are the appropriate people to be represented on the school organisation committee. In the light of that answer I hope that for this stage at least the noble Baroness will consider withdrawing her amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, has already indicated that he might come back to this matter at a later stage in the light of what I have said.

I did not hear the discussion on the first amendment so I did not join in. However, my hair was standing on end in the light of what the noble Lord said on a couple of occasions. I believe that the Government are courting disaster. Members of the Committee should realise that for anyone who has been a councillor and engaged in the business of organising schools, and particularly as regards closures, there are technical aspects which only head teachers understand and they simply cannot be dealt with by governors. It is completely unrealistic to expect that.

It is not a question of being difficult or awkward or trying to undermine the Government in their strengthening of the position of governors: I am all in favour of that. The governors will not like the arrangement. The head teachers will be quite often put in a very difficult position because their point of view will not be understood. Usually, head teachers and governors do not disagree, but there is a different input and one needs both of them simultaneously when decisions are made. The Government should look at these issues and not simply brush them aside out of some macho desire to push through their policies. The Government have the very wise and experienced view of those who have done these things for years. There is a book called How to Close Your School. Everyone is buying it, but because of the Bill it will have to be re-written. It is not very easy to close a school. The adjudicator is just going to make trouble. The Government should look again at the question of head teachers.

In terms of the number of members, how large do the Government envisage the typical school organisation committee to be?

I am not sure that there is a typical answer. Local education authorities vary dramatically in size and in the number of schools that they cover. Therefore, there is not a typical pattern. As regards the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, I am not saying that there should be no head teacher input into the process. Clearly there will be both with the LEA and the school organisation committee. As regards particular schools, there will be the adjudicator as well. Therefore, that expertise will be available and that channel will be open to head teachers and not simply through the governors.

As regards the decision-making body, it is appropriate that the school should be represented by the governors and not by an employee of the school or of the education authority.

I admire the way in which the noble Lord has been handling the questions, but he cannot quite get away with the answer that he gave me just now. What do the Government envisage would be the smallest type of school organisation committee and what do they believe could be the largest?

Theoretically, I suppose that the smallest could be one representative for each of the groups indicated. That is extremely unlikely but, theoretically, in a very small local education authority that could be the case. We would be talking about five or six people. But in an authority such as Birmingham I would hesitate to say what the size of the school organisation committee would be. Even with the largest authorities we would wish to keep them to a manageable size for taking sensible decisions.

I do not wish to prolong this matter, but does the Minister really mean that in the smallest education authority each of the four groups would have one representative, each with the right to veto, and that there would be no headmaster representation? Does the Minister envisage that happening? My noble friend asked the question and the Minister replied that in a small education authority he could imagine one member for each of the four representative bodies. Surely the Minister would like to correct that?

I thought my noble friend was making the logical point that on the face of the Bill only three groups are mentioned whereas the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, mentioned four, so I have missed the fourth one.

4.45 p.m.

Logically, therefore, four is the minimum. I believe that is what my noble friend was saying. He then said that the number would be appropriate to the circumstances, or some such gobbledegook that the civil servants will write for him any minute.

What interests me is the initial position from which the Bill started; namely, the notion that the partners and providers would be getting together to do the job. That seemed to be the philosophy on which the clauses are based. I find the next phase very difficult. My noble friend seems to have accepted that beyond the partners and providers there is a concession, which slightly surprised me, that interest groups and experts come in as well. My original interpretation of the Bill was that they were not included. I thought the whole point was that the Bill would cause the heads of the local partners and providers to be knocked together and that they would have to make up their minds.

The moment my noble friend goes down the path of saying that headmasters should be included and why not this and that, he ends up not only with a large committee, but with one which is different from that which the Government had in mind in the first place. We have a classic case here where the interest groups declare their interests and try to influence the committee. It is by no means obvious to me that there should be interest groups on the committee. Normally, as regards anything which the noble Lord, Lord Rix, et al. say about special educational needs, I say yes to it, but in this case it is not obvious to me that they should be included in running the committee.

This matter goes back to an earlier debate. It depends on how we assume the committee will be run. I understood that the purpose was to concentrate our minds on practical cases. I am indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for mentioning that. What really matters is whether this or that practical case can be sorted out. In considering the needs of special education, if a school is closed, one has to be aware that a tough decision is being taken and that perhaps certain children with such needs will have to go further. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, is quite right in that if unanimity is the procedural method then everyone has a veto. Therefore, if a veto is exercised one has to be aware that power is placed in the hands of the adjudicator. All these are practical matters which will emerge. My view is that the committee ought to operate so that it works bearing those matters in mind.

I do not accept at all the view put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that the adjudicator has absolute power. He or she will have to operate according to all the rules of due process, reasonableness and all the other things. No adjudicator in any law that we have ever passed in your Lordships' House is in a position to say, "I decide it: it is decided". The matter could certainly be queried if it were portrayed as a frivolous decision. I am less worried about the absolute power of the adjudicator than the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. That does not mean that I am not worried because I am always worried, but that is another matter.

I see why my noble friend Lord Whitty is trying to respond to the interest groups, but it is not obvious to me that the Government should say that the heads of interest groups should be involved. For that matter, why not include professors of economics who know all about finance, choice and decision making? Why are they not represented as an interest group? The answer is that interest groups are endless. We should stick to the philosophy of partners and providers at the centre of the scheme who should really try to come to a conclusion and not exercise what used to be the easy way out of saying that it is a hard decision and the Secretary of State should decide. That is my attempt to be helpful.

Perhaps I may respond briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Peston. I am amazed that he dismisses special educational needs as a "special interest group" in a rather derisory tone, making those with special educational needs sound as though they comprise only a small body of people with most obscure objectives in view. Those with special educational needs account for one-fifth of the school population, so the noble Lord cannot possibly call them a "special interest group" and dismiss them as such. I was startled to hear the noble Lord use that term in what I believe to be a derogatory way and I must protest on behalf of children with special educational needs and on behalf of those authorities and schools which deal with their problems. They are, indeed, a special interest group of enormous special interest for government, education authorities, and local authorities. I would be most unhappy to leave the remarks just made by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, hanging in the air without some opposition.

It was certainly not my intention to take that view; quite the contrary. However, the fact is that those with special educational needs are a special group. That is why we use that word. They comprise a "special" group which many of us wish to see treated specially. The real point here is whether on the school organisation committee, or any other body, we should automatically say that they must be represented on every occasion. That is not my view, taking on board the obvious point that those elected to serve on a local education authority do not take special educational needs into account. It seems that one is always hearing that the world consists of two groups of people: those who speak up for those with special educational needs and the rest of us, as if the rest of us do not do that. However, many of us have personal experience of such matters and we do speak up, but we do not always take the view that it is necessary to have someone on the committee who can say, "I am the representative who can speak up for special educational needs".

I do not seek to denigrate those with special educational needs; quite the contrary. I have spent a great many years fighting for their interests, and I continue to do so. However, it is not obvious to me that we should approach the school organisation committee in that way. I am not saying that that is obviously wrong; I am saying that it is by no means obviously right. I certainly would not want anybody to believe that I speak of special educational needs in a derisory manner or regard them as unimportant. I do not, as my record proves. However, I do not believe that every decision should be taken on the basis of its impact on special educational needs.

I rise briefly to support the noble Lord, Lord Peston, because I understand his point entirely. It seems to me that the school organisation committees are composed of those who are providers. However important special educational needs are, it is not clear to me that that group comprises a "provider" of education. Once one starts to go down that road, one must take other groups into account. One could argue that the special educational needs group is among the most significant groups—or, indeed, that it is the most significant group—but, logically, it is not involved because it is not a provider of education. Those who are members of the committees are there simply because they are education providers. That is what I understand to be the logic of the provision. Once one passes beyond that logic, I am no longer sure what the committees are about. However, if you hold to the logic that you are requiring providers to reach agreement on any plans, it seems to me that there is a proper justification for such committees

I am startled equally by the contributions of the right reverend Prelate and of the noble Lord, Lord Peston. We are talking about "providers". In fact, the providers of education are the teachers in the classroom. Governors are not providers of education; they are managers of their schools. They comprise a school's governing body. Those who provide education are those who do the teaching.

Under the Government's proposals, school organisation committees are representative groups. The Government are not setting up panels of independent people who will collectively take into account all the different interests. The committees will include groups from the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, further education and school governors. The Government have left teachers outside those representative bodies, which are not collective panels simply taking on board collective interests. It seems extraordinary that headteachers will not be represented on school organisation committees although they are major providers of education in their areas. This discussion has become even more extraordinary.

In answer to a question from my noble friend Lord Belstead, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said that he found it difficult to give us some idea of the composition of a small or large authority. Perhaps I may put the question in a different way which the noble Lord will be able to answer. How many groups? The number of members of each group may change depending on whether the authority is small or large, and reflecting the number of children, the number of schools and the size of the area. However, the number of representative groups will not change—unless, of course, there is no church school (Anglican or Roman Catholic) in an LEA in which case the school organisation committee will not include a member from the church group. It should be possible to say how many groups will be represented on each committee. That would give us some idea of the numbers involved, depending on the area.

Perhaps I may return to the point about teachers, which is the import of my amendment, Amendment No. 105. As I understand it, the FEFC will be a group in its own right on the organisation committee. Almost inevitably, members of that group will comprise lecturers from the further education world. Lecturers serve on its council and boards, so lecturers are likely to form this group. We would understand the position if the Government stipulated that governors of further education colleges are to be involved. However, if they do not, those serving are likely to be lecturers. Are we to have the spectacle of an organisation committee comprising lecturers from further education colleges but not including headteachers or teachers from local schools? If that is the case, it seems rather strange.

Technically, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, was right about my reference to the adjudicator having absolute power. Ultimately, the power is not absolute because there is the judicial inquiry system. However, it seems extraordinary that a school or parents would have to go to the extent of invoking a judicial inquiry. The noble Lord knows as well as I do that a judicial inquiry will not make judgments about the quality of the decision taken or about the actual decision taken. A judicial inquiry will consider the procedure by which the adjudicator arrived at his decision—in other words, whether the adjudicator was wilful or vexatious in disregarding certain aspects of the case by, say, not properly listening to the case or by not following properly the procedural path laid out, probably in statute by regulations. However, if the adjudicator makes a decision which local parents believe is deeply unfair and in their view wrong, they have absolutely nowhere to go, so in that sense the power is absolute.

I agree very much with what the noble Baroness has just said. I suppose that the difference between us is that I hope that recourse to the adjudicator will be rare. I would have to accept, as in the end would the Government, that if more or less every decision went to the adjudicator, the system would have failed. The whole point of the system is that decisions should not be referred to the adjudicator.

I support the Bill as it stands and what the Government are trying to do precisely because I strongly believe that one should try to sort out such matters locally. That was my initial point. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch—this follows on from the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young—that if, on every single decision, one or other of the partners says, "I am going to the adjudicator", we would all have to accept that, although this was a good idea and a good experiment, it had failed. We would all have to accept that, including the Government.

The difference between us is that I think that for the most part the partners and providers at the local level will be capable of taking such decisions, including those of a very sensitive nature such as those relating to special educational needs. It is really a question of whether we are willing to see whether this will work or whether we are so certain a priori at this stage that it will fail. That is the difference between us. I fully accept the bona fides of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on such matters, but I believe that this is well worth doing as a step forward. The noble Baroness is, however, quite right that if every decision is referred to the adjudicator, the system will have failed. We shall have to wait and see. Some of us may not be around by then, but someone will certainly see.

5 p.m.

I rise to try to end this part of the proceedings, bearing in mind that we still have to debate whether this clause stand part of the Bill. We have ranged very wide in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, said this afternoon that he had never been elected to a local authority. Given the deftness with which he got to his feet when a note was passed to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, anyone in local government would have been delighted to have had the noble Lord on his benches. What is more, the noble Lord managed to speak for a considerable period which gave me even more time in which to deal with the amendment.

My point was not that I had not been elected, but that it would never have occurred to me to stand. I did not throw a six to start, if I may use that particular analogy.

I did not realise that. However, the noble Lord would probably have made a very good job of it.

I should like to touch on one or two points raised by the Minister in replying to the amendment. The debate about the composition of the committees demonstrates the muddle and the problem that the Government face with these proposals. We have spent a long time discussing what should be fairly simple amendments. A good number of interesting and useful contributions have been made by members of the Committee this afternoon. Some phrases have been used that frighten some more than others. For example, the Minister said that the Government's intentions were quite clear. It is precisely that which worries noble Lords sitting on these Benches. The intention is to set up a quango that is not democratically accountable. The Minister threw in the remark that of course the Government would take account of what head teachers said. Therefore, the local education authority which is the locally elected and democratically accountable body must defer to a quango but of course head teachers will be involved as well. The Government must have clearer thinking than that on something as important as this.

The noble Baroness rose to her feet more quickly than I did. To respond to my noble friend Lord Peston, we do not suggest that head teachers or other experts should be members of the committee but that their expertise should be available to the committee. I hope that is clear to all Members of the Committee.

That was my understanding. The Government's Benches were very confused about how the decision would be made. All noble Lords agree that partnership in educational matters, or any other matter in the community, is vitally important. We agree that a partnership of interested bodies should be consulted on such controversial issues as school closures and other matters to do with organising schools in particular areas. One of the reasons why we on these Benches were not in favour of grant-maintained schools was precisely that we wanted a true partnership that would enable proper strategic decisions to be made.

The Government propose that the partnership should be at a higher level than the democratically accountable body: the local education authority. That is precisely why we have moved amendments to improve what we consider to be an extremely bad set-up; namely school organisation committees.

This matter will run and run. We shall come back to it at a later stage. The Committee will in a moment consider whether this clause should stand part of the Bill. At this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[ Amendments Nos. 99 and 100 not moved.]

Page 22, line 31, at end insert ("; and

( ) a person nominated by the Free Church Council for an area any part of which is comprised in the authority's area.").

The noble and learned Lord said: I do not move Amendment No. 101. It may be of assistance to the Committee to know that I do not intend to move Amendment No. 105A.

[ Amendment No. 101 not moved.]

[ Amendments Nos. 102 to 105A not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 23 shall stand part of the Bill?

The Committee has spent about two hours demonstrating very effectively why this clause should not stand part of the Bill. The more I hear from the Government the more alarmed I become about these proposals and the clearer it becomes how unclear the Government are as to how they will work. I shall not take up more valuable time by repeating all that has already been said. Perhaps I may briefly summarise what I said when moving my first amendment in explaining why we are so much opposed to statutory school organisation committees. They are cumbersome and bureaucratic and will prove far more costly than the Government believe. That is an unnecessary cost that brings no added value.

The following flow chart demonstrates just how cumbersome and bureaucratic is the proposal. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said earlier, it begins with the LEA preparing a school organisation plan. As a proper part of that process the LEA will consult widely. It will consult all of the governing bodies and undoubtedly hold public meetings, probably attended primarily by parents. In addition, there will be formal and informal discussions. The authority will produce a draft plan. That will go to the education committee which meets in public. There it will be discussed not only by the elected representatives but by those who are co-opted on to the education committee: teachers, the churches and so on.

Eventually, the LEA and local authority will adopt a school organisation plan. That plan will be sent to the school organisation committee. If consensus rules and unanimity applies—I hope that in most cases it will, because I am a consensus politician (which is an approach that has come back into favour)—it will proceed on that basis. I hope that where there are concerns, even disagreements, there can be reconciliation and agreement. But if consensus rules and unanimity can be achieved it does not matter too much what structure one has. One needs a structure to deal with situations where unanimity is not achievable. It is that which concerns us here.

Therefore, the plan goes to the school organisation committee with its many perceived shortcomings in terms of its membership and rather unclear role. That committee will consider the plan. All the partners represented on the school organisation committee—I must not call them interest groups—must reach unanimity. If just one group dissents that is in effect a veto on the plan. If it is agreed unanimously that is fine and there is no problem, but where a group dissents—that is likely to occur in the more controversial cases, which we are concerned about today—the matter goes to the adjudicator.

Thus far, we have reached stage six in the 10 or 11-stage process. The role of the adjudicator is to be discussed next. That is an integral part of the process. However, this afternoon we must consider this matter in two separate parts. For the Minister to say that this is part of taking decision-making down to local level is a nonsense. The adjudicator is appointed by the Secretary of State and is not locally accountable; and he is not even subject to appeal, although the Committee shall debate that matter later on.

Coming as I do from a local authority background, inevitably I draw an analogy with the planning inspector. A planning applicant has the right to appeal to the Secretary of State against a planning decision. Normally, the Secretary of State will appoint an inspector to hear that appeal. But the analogy is not as close as I first thought it was. In that case the inspector is acting in the name of the Secretary of State. The inspector is acting and judging in accordance with planning guidance issued by the Secretary of State, and ultimately the Secretary of State is accountable to Parliament. However inadequate that may be, none of that applies to the adjudicator.

I do not understand the argument that this proposal is democratic or seeks to move decision-making down to local level. It is the decisions where there is dissent that matter. If there is consensus and unanimity no one will worry; everyone agrees. But the important decision must be taken where consensus cannot be achieved. What is important is how and where those decisions are taken. The Government's proposals are not that decisions should be taken locally by a democratically elected LEA or even by a local school organisation committee, however inadequate we believe that to be, but that they should be taken by an adjudicator appointed by the Secretary of State.

As I said earlier this afternoon, my principal concern over this is that it further weakens democratic accountability and the role of the LEA. A point on accountability that has not been mentioned this afternoon is the chart which the Audit Commission produced during the time of the previous government about the confused accountability of decision-making in schools now. I cannot remember it precisely, but it was a simple circular chart: the school, the teacher or the head blames the governors; the governors blame the LEA; the LEA blames the Government; the Government blame the LEA; and the LEA says that it is down to the governors. It goes around in a circle. All of that can be right. If we already have confused accountability, that accountability will be even more confused under the proposed system.

We have all these stages to go through. They will all require the production of more paper. They would all require, I hope, good professional advice. I fear that before too long we might be into the use of lawyers as well when we go to the adjudicator. The Government's estimate that the whole process nationwide will cost only £1 million is as optimistic as believing that unanimity in this process will reign. For all those reasons, and all the reasons that have been so well enunciated during the debates this afternoon, I oppose the Motion that the clause stand part of the Bill.

It is rare that I find myself speaking in opposition to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, or to his colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches. It is an even rarer occasion when I find myself speaking on the opposite side to the noble Lord, Lord Rix. I believe that there is some misunderstanding about the intention of the school organisation committees. There was a little exchange a moment ago between myself and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in which she talked about heads as being providers of education. We are using words in different ways here. By "providers of education", I am referring to providers of schools; that is, those who provide the money which enables schools to operate. Others might be described as deliverers of education—teachers, head teachers, and so on.

School organisation committees are a way of enabling those who are providers of education to meet to reach agreed decisions. There has been a great deal of talk this afternoon about quangos and unelected bodies. I think that there are four bodies concerned here: the LEA; the Diocesan Board of Education; those appointed by Roman Catholic bishops; and the FEFC. Diocesan boards of education are not quangos. They are elected bodies. They are elected by a system different from that which will elect an LEA. Each of those bodies is accountable for the way in which it uses the funds to provide schools for education.

The point of the school organisation committee is to enable those providers to meet to reach an agreed decision where there is any possibility of any disagreement. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peston: I do not see that happening too often with those bodies. They will not be open to all and sundry to be influenced by this or that consideration. They are accountable, as I have said, to their particular constituencies which provide the money for education.

A great deal of this afternoon's talk has been a little wide of the mark. I have been confused by it. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, has it right: we have here those who are responsible for providing finances; and we have a structure enabling them to meet to reach decisions in cases where there might be some disagreement. As each of those providers is significant, a unanimous vote is required. If one of them votes against a scheme, that will be regarded as a veto. I have no difficulty with that. Some of the difficulties have been due merely to a misunderstanding of the nature of this committee.

I think that I heard the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, talk about schools groups. By that I took him to mean groups of people with educational interests which would be advisors to the school organisation committee. That is entirely right. At the end of the day, those decisions lie with those bodies, all of which are accountable, many of which are elected, although not necessarily by the same process. It is a perfectly proper structure.

When we have long debates in this place, at the end we have often cleared up what we understand by the words on the page. The longer this debate has gone on, the more confused I have become. I do not normally take issue with the right reverend Prelate, but I am sorry to say that I take issue with his interpretation of the Bill.

If we say the organisation committee is a group of people who are providers, and that providers are people who provide money, then the FEFC does not provide money for schools. Governors do not provide money or education for schools. So immediately the interpretation that the right reverend Prelate puts on this organisation committee, and his understanding of it, is wrong. They are not providers. The only groups on that body which could genuinely be told to put up money would be the Churches which provide 15 per cent. of the funding for schools and the LEAs which provide for schools.

The people who provide the money for schools come from the local community. The LEA has no money unless it comes from taxpayers at large, nationally, or the local community locally. That is the money that it has to spend. These committees do not have the very teachers for which they pay represented on them. There is nothing in the Bill about the groups which will advise the committee.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has said that the committees will be advised by specialists and special needs people, but there is nothing in the Bill about that. There is no requirement that they should be advised by these interest groups. There is no naming of these interest groups. Head teachers will have no part of this. The people who, in my book, provide education, are those who stand in the classroom and teach the children. I shall support the noble Lord, Lord Tope, at whatever stage of the proceedings he decides to put this issue to the vote. I should prefer to walk through the Lobby on this Motion rather than on the other amendments. This clause has no part in the Bill and in a democratic country.

5.15 p.m.

I do not want to reiterate what we said earlier. The deletion of the clause would remove a substantial part of the Government's strategy to achieve devolution, decision-making, and a new and clear partnership between LEAs and other providers.

I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for spelling out what, in these terms, providers of education are. They are the bodies that we have designated as members of the school organisation committees. The expertise to which the noble Baroness referred will be available to all of those providers and to the committee itself. We do not normally spell out in any education Bill precisely what expertise would be available. But the central role of the committee is clear.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, said that we need to be clear about how and where decisions are made. The how of these decisions is that they are made in partnership by consensus by the providers of education in the technical sense. The where is that they are made at the most local level available. Occasionally that will break down. It frequently breaks down at the moment. Appeals will have landed up on the desk of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and other Secretaries of State.

This is an attempt to push down the decision to the providers of education at the local level; to sit them down together in a new institution. It is for the LEA and the other providers to reach, as far as possible, through the stages to which the noble Lord referred, a unanimous position on what is best for the provision of education in their area, taking account of all the interests within that area. It is local; it is devolved; it is by consensus; and it is in partnership.

If the noble Lord wishes to persist with this opposition and delete the clause, we shall be deleting a substantial part of the Government's strategy to achieve those aims. I do not believe that that is what the Liberal Democrat Party wishes to do. It wishes to seek partnership, devolution of decisions and consensus among the public sector and other providers within the education system. Consultation on these proposals has revealed widespread support for devolving decisions. There is widespread support for the involvement of all the providers in a single decision-making process.

Will the Minister tell the Committee what the Local Government Association thinks of the proposals?

The Local Government Association has expressed some concerns similar to those of the noble Lord, Lord Tope. There are differing views within local government and the teaching profession, and among those who advise the teaching profession. However, the key position of the Local Government Association and others involved in local education is that they wish to see decisions devolved.

Deletion of the clause would remove the element of partnership. It would reinstate the position that any disputed decision is referred back up to national level. That is not what the Local Government Association wants. It is not what I believe the education system of this country needs. We are instituting formal partnerships which in many cases build on good informal partnerships and consultation. We are building on a system which will require decisions to be made as far as possible at local level.

Clearly any such system will require a fail-safe device. That issue will be debated on a subsequent clause. The key issue on this clause, and the whole strategy of school organisation in the Bill, is that decisions will be devolved. The pressure will be on the providers of education to reach consensus on those decisions, and for the number of appeals above and beyond the local level to be as limited as possible, as my noble friend Lord Peston, indicated. At present there is no pressure to reach agreement. There is only pressure for decisions to be raised with the Secretary of State, often on a political basis.

The proposal is a sensible move. It will require some detailed regulations. It will require further consultation on precisely how it is carried out. But I urge the Committee to reject any move which deletes the clause and thereby deletes the concept of partnership and devolution of decisions on school organisation.

Before the Minister sits down, perhaps he will clarify this point for me. At present decisions are made at local level. Although I am a newcomer to this Chamber, and a comparative newcomer to the education field, I understand that at present unless a dispute at local level is sorted out locally the matter comes to the Secretary of State. The Bill proposes another level of bureaucracy over and above that in existence. The issue will not pass to someone who is democratically elected, the Secretary of State, but to an adjudicator. Are my assumptions correct?

In practice they are not exactly correct. At present the LEA makes its proposals. Then any interested group, other provider, or substantial element of the community can object, and those objections can be referred to the Secretary of State. In other words, there is no pressure to reach agreement at local level. This proposal institutionalises a pressure to reach agreement at local level. Our assumption is that eventually the number of references beyond that local level will be limited.

I hear with interest what the Minister says. I understand that the majority of local authorities do not simply make decisions about closures of schools. There is considerable consultation. I have been involved in it. It does not matter which side one is on, it is painful. However, at the end of the day if one does not like the decision one can vote out the people who made that decision. That is the point we have been trying to bring home to the Government Benches all afternoon.

Clearly local education authorities involve themselves in substantial consultation. As the noble Baroness says, it is often lengthy and painful. That will remain the case. The local education authority and school organisation committee will continue to consult widely. The difference from the pre-existing situation is that the existence of the school organisation committee and the involvement in a structured partnership of all the providers will put the emphasis on reaching agreement at that level, not on appealing to the Secretary of State to take a decision over and above the local education authority and local views.

What the Minister says is an absolute travesty of what happens in local government today. The points made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and my noble friend Lady Blatch, are important. It is an unbelievably muddled clause. We have not had a single straight answer to any of the questions raised. Instead we are given a string of New Labour words which are a substitute for thought—partnership, consultation, co-operation, or getting on well together.

Let us consider a future local authority in which there is a Conservative majority—there are plenty of them, and more will come, mark my words!—and the Labour people are in the minority. The Government Minister will say, "Of course you must all co-operate together and reach an agreement". That will be the day, unless the Labour Government at that stage have changed their minds on yet more issues and agree with everything that the Conservatives say. That of course is quite a possibility.

In the real world of this Bill, we have constitution-making on the hoof. We do not know the cost, the size of the committees, who will sit on those committees or the role of the advisers. We know nothing except that it is another layer of bureaucracy, and another cost which will come off the budgets of the schools. That is one of the matters that has emerged from the debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, is right to say that the clause should not stand part of the Bill. The Government should think the whole thing through properly and come back with another proposal at a later stage of the Bill.

Perhaps I may add one small point to those made by my noble friend, with whom I agree. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is wrong. The organisation committee does not take on a decision when the local authority cannot reach a decision. As those of us who have served on local authorities know, local authorities come to a view at the end of a long process of consultation, meetings with people eyeball to eyeball, and discussions with a church authority, parents, teachers and head teachers.

The organisation committee, which is comprised of unelected placemen and women, second guesses that decision. If the committee agrees, that is the end of it. The local authority—the elected members—may have come to a view; the organisation committee which is unaccountable to the people affected by the decision may be unanimous and take a different view from the local authority; or one group on that body could disagree and go to the adjudicator.

When we discuss amendments as regards the adjudicator, I hope that the Minister will not do us the discourtesy of talking of local levels. If I were an adjudicator covering just two counties in my part of the country, I could not claim sufficient special knowledge of schools in Suffolk or Norfolk to be able to make judgments about whether they should open, close, merge, be enlarged, or be made smaller. That would not be a local decision. If there were a Norfolk adjudicator on a Cambridgeshire school committee, we would be closer geographically to the Secretary of State in London than to someone in Norwich. The noble Lord cannot use that argument as regards the amendments relating to the adjudicator.

This clause should not stand part of the Bill. It may well be part of government policy, but it has not been thought through.

It has been made clear that the membership of this committee consists of those people who make a financial contribution to the provision of education in the area. I believe that I am right in saying that those people already sit on the education committee. They do in the county where I was a member of the education committee for several years.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, the local education authority comes to a decision. That decision has involved the people who assist the LEA with the provision of education. That decision is then submitted to a second judgment. The same people sit in judgment upon the decision which has already been made with their co-operation. On the one hand one might ask why we have this clause because the Government's objective is already satisfied by the present construction of administration through the education committees. On the other hand, it may be that one of the parties is not entirely in accord with the decision that went through the normal processes.

In this context let us not talk about school closures, but let us talk about something less controversial: for example, the school plan. If a party is less satisfied than others, or not satisfied but accepts that there is a majority in favour of what they do not like, then the situation is that there is a veto on that decision which has been taken by the majority in the education committee. That introduces something which, to my way of thinking, is most unsatisfactory.

The second unsatisfactory point is that at present, even when the decision has been taken by the local representatives and the local providers of education the people to whom the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, who is not present, was referring,—namely, the parents,—still have a say. However, as I understand it, under this system they do not. The adjudicator is adjudicating between a committee which is composed of the LEA and the providers but the two are in different groups. That is a recipe for muddle, disaster and the exclusion of very important interests in the community who, up until now, have been able to challenge the education authority's decision. I include among those interests the ones represented by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and other people in this Chamber. That is a rotten substitute for what is now a reasonably well organised system.

5.30 p.m.

I shall reply briefly. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, accuses me of using new Labour phraseology. I am not often accused of that, so if the noble Baroness could put it in writing it could do me some good.

It seems to me that neither the noble Baroness nor the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has understood the concept of partnership between the providers. We keep talking about vetoes and we keep talking about the school organisation committee overriding the local education authority. We are talking about a new system of partnership, a new atmosphere which will prevail at local level so that we can at least have a good chance of reaching consensus.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, seems to think that there will always be somebody among the providers, who are clearly fairly determined, who will try to overturn what has otherwise been a rational decision, taken after consultation with all the parties concerned. That will not normally be the case.

I said clearly that either there will be agreement, in which case the committee is superfluous, or that if there is disagreement then the disagreement can overturn the previously made decision. I thought I had made myself perfectly clear on that point.

The disagreement will not overturn a previous position where all the providers have been equal parties. Certainly all the providers may have been consulted and may be represented on the local education committee, but they will not have been treated as equal partners in that decision. We are concerned with partnership, with consensus and with devolving decisions. That is what this clause is about. That is what would be removed from the Bill by the deletion of this clause. I would, therefore, ask the House to reject the noble Lord's Motion to delete this clause unless he is prepared to withdraw it at this point.

It is clear that consensus and unanimity has not broken out in the Chamber this afternoon. The Minister suggests that to oppose this clause is to oppose partnership and the devolution of power. That is absolute nonsense.

I object also to the suggestion that the concept of partnership is something either new or, even worse, new Labour. For many of us in local government in all parties—making a particular party point—it has been the way that good local government has worked for years and years. It was a central point of my own party's manifesto in 1986. It is not new. It is the way we work. It is essential to the committee basis of local government that it tries to work in that way.

I object strongly to it being suggested that to oppose this clause is to oppose partnership. The opposite is the truth. Here we are talking about an enforced, imposed partnership with statutory powers overriding those of the democratically elected body.

We are suggesting again that there should be devolution of decision making. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, properly recognised, my party has been pre-eminent in proclaiming for years the advantages as regards devolution of decision making. I strongly support that and to be accused of not doing so by somebody who, a moment ago, told us that he was really old Labour and of the old centralist style just about takes the biscuit.

We have been talking about the devolution of the real power. We had an exchange with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, about what happens with what will be called school organisation plans. Where agreement has been achieved, where there is consensus, where there is no dissent, it may well be that that plan or that proposal, has to go to the Secretary of State. It is extremely unlikely that the Secretary of State, having received no objections to it, is then going to throw it out or amend it. I doubt that has ever happened. It is extremely unlikely.

We are talking about the situation where consensus and agreement have not been reached and who makes that decision. That decision has not been devolved to anybody. It will be removed to an adjudicator, appointed by the Secretary of State, without even the accountability of a planning appeal inspector. That is not devolution. It is the opposite of devolution.

As the afternoon has worn on, I have become more and more tempted to press the issue to a vote. I shall not do so at this stage because I am aware that we have taken a lot of time. On this occasion, I shall withdraw my objection, but we shall certainly return to it at the next stage.

Clause 23 agreed to.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.