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School Standards And Framework Bill

Volume 590: debated on Monday 1 June 1998

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6.20 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Schedule 4 [ School organisation committees]:

[ Amendment No. 106 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Page 117, line 11, at end insert ("of those voting").

The noble Lord said: These amendments clarify some points of detail in relation to the voting arrangements for school organisation committees. They are all government amendments. Amendment No. 106A would put beyond doubt the ability of a school organisation committee to reach a unanimous decision in the absence from a particular meeting of one or more groups or if one or more groups abstains. The Bill as drafted left the matter in some doubt. For the avoidance of paranoia, we shall also specify in regulations that there should be a minimum period of notice which those convening meetings of the committee should give to members so that they are not excluded through lack of notice. The amendment also clarifies that, where a group on a school organisation committee has reservations about a proposal, it may express them by abstaining. That is a third option for groups on the committee.

I shall also speak to Amendment No. 106B and the remaining government amendments in this group. Amendment No. 106B follows from discussions that took place between my noble friend the Minister and her ministerial colleagues and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon, who originally tabled Amendment No. 106 for this group.

It has always been our intention that there should be two Church groups on each school organisation committee, one representing the Church of England and one the Roman Catholic Church. We have always intended, too, that decisions on school organisation plans should require the unanimous vote of the school organisation committee. We had intended that those points of detail would be set out in regulations; however, we have no intention of drawing back on the commitments that we have already made in relation to the Churches. On that basis, and following discussion with the right reverend Prelate, we propose that the provision should now be on the face of the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 107A and 109A make important statements about maintaining equal opportunities in the organisation of school places and admissions. They secure that decisions taken by school organisation committees or adjudicators take full account of the non-discrimination duties placed on schools and local education authorities under the Sex Discrimination Act or the Race Relations Act. The Equal Opportunities Commission has argued strongly for such a specific duty in the Bill. We share the commission's view that it is important to draw particular attention to the vital need to avoid discrimination in this way. These amendments therefore provide an important safeguard to ensure equal opportunities in practice. I beg to move.

In the previous debate we heard much about unanimous decisions. We now understand that a decision does not in fact have to be unanimous, but unanimous only in relation to those attending the meeting. In other words, if there is a group who for some unavoidable reason cannot be present, even given the minimum period of notice—which is not that long—that group's views can be disregarded for the purposes of reaching what is technically now called a unanimous decision. Will the noble Lord confirm my understanding?

I did not understand the noble Lord's remarks about abstaining. If a decision—short of referring it to an adjudicator—has to be unanimous, and if one of the groups around the table abstains, my understanding is that the decision is not unanimous. However, in the light of the noble Lord's remarks, I do not now understand the intention.

Thirdly, in relation to equal opportunities and discrimination on grounds of either sex or race, this is not the first time that I have objected to these provisions appearing on the face of a Bill—not on the ground that I believe they are not necessary, but on the ground that they are Acts of law with which we are all obliged to conform: if we do not conform, we are in breach of the law. It seems extraordinary that we continue to have to repeat the provision and place specific duties in statute—which is a double positive, not a double negative. Knowing that the committee will have to act in compliance with the law of the land, whatever that law is (certainly both measures referred to are approved statutes), why should this specific duty have to be included in this Bill when the committee or the adjudicator has no option but to obey the law? I should be grateful for clarification of my understanding in regard to the absent group, for some clarification as to what is meant by "abstaining" in relation to whether or not there is a consensus, and clarification as to why the amendments are necessary in relation to discrimination on grounds of sex and/or race.

On the second point, it is true that all such bodies would be subject to the general provisions of the Race Relations Act and the Sex Discrimination Act. However, those two Acts place specific duties on local education authorities and governing bodies of schools not to discriminate. These amendments would ensure that the decisions of an organisation committee or an adjudicator would not have the effect of placing local authorities or schools in default of those duties. In other words, the provision squares the circle. It is so that schools, governing bodies or local education authorities are not placed in jeopardy as the result of a decision by a body not explicitly covered by the Race Relations Act or the Sex Discrimination Act.

In relation to the question of abstention, the noble Baroness is right. We are, in effect, by these clauses defining "unanimous" to include nem. con. That is a usual procedure. Indeed, if any one of the groups wishes to oppose a proposal and therefore trigger a reference to an adjudicator, that group has the right to do so. As regards absence from a particular meeting, the absence would follow an adequate period of notice. If that adequate period of notice were not observed, or if in any other way the absence had been contrived, then there would be redress. However, if the group were simply not there, or decided to abstain, then the decision of the rest would stand as a unanimous decision. I hope that provides clarification.

No, it does not. Will the noble Lord explain why the Health and Safety Act is not included? It is equally an obligation on the part of local authorities. They have a specific obligation under the law in relation to health and safety matters. I imagine that, dealing with provision in schools and with the safety of children, if one accepts the reasoning put forward by the noble Lord, that Act ought also to be included in the Bill. This illustrates the nonsense of having chosen two statutes to be placed on the face of the Bill. I have singled out only one other; there are many more to which local government is specifically obliged to conform, and yet they are not on the face of the Bill. I find the reasoning extraordinary.

My understanding of the Bill now becomes quite alarmist. Is the noble Lord saying that if—after all its deliberations and the pursuit of healthy partnerships with all those with whom it enjoys relationships—a local authority comes to a view which is agreed by the local council within which that local education authority resides, the local authority decision passes to the organisation committee, from which one group or more could be absent for avoidable or unavoidable reasons, or one group or more could abstain, and the remaining groups could vote for a decision that was different from that of the local authority, the decision would be deemed unanimous and thereby overrule that of the local authority? Is that right?

6.30 p.m.

I assume that that would be right only in the case where the local authority were absent. In that case, the situation is no different from the position where a unanimous decision is reached. Clearly, the organisation committee can take a different decision from that taken by the local authority, whatever its voting mechanism.

The noble Lord misunderstands my point. The local authority may be the group that is present. I wish to go through my hypothesis again. If the noble Lord is saying that the groups which are absent have no sway one way or the other and the groups present which choose to abstain have no sway one way or the other, is my hypothesis correct that a local education authority could come to a view about a proposal and pass it to the organisation committee at a time when one or more groups, although properly notified of the meeting, are, for avoidable or unavoidable reasons, absent, when one or more groups could abstain, when the remaining groups could vote for a proposal which was different from that arrived at by the local authority, and when, in order to make sure that my hypothesis works and to remove the argument that the noble Lord was trying to deploy, the LEA could be one of the local groups remaining? Is the noble Lord saying that those voting, whether or not they include the local authority, give rise to a so-called unanimous decision?

I suppose the short answer to the noble Baroness is yes because the organisation committee can take a different view from that of the local education authority. Clearly, if people choose not to cast their vote and a decision is therefore deemed unanimous, there could be a decision different from that of the local authority. In cases of unavoidable absence, the committee must be held to have acted irresponsibly in going ahead with the meeting in the absence of one of the parties. However, subject to that, the noble Baroness is right.

Is substitution allowed? If so, can the noble Lord point me to the part of the Bill that allows for substitution? I am thinking now, in a practical way, about a grouping which may, as the noble Lord said earlier to my noble friend Lord Belstead, be as small as one person—in other words, members could be ill on the day of the meeting or simply not be present—or it could be as large as several people. Does the noble Lord still argue that, if one of the groupings is not present, that is the situation that pertains and a substitution would not be allowed?

There is no part of the Bill where substitution is allowed, but I suspect that it would be the intention to cover the question of substitution in reasonable circumstances in regulations.

It is important that we know whether or not substitution is allowed. Will it be covered in regulations?

I fully suspect that it will be covered by regulations. If the noble Baroness wishes further clarification, I undertake to write to her.

I apologise for not being in my place when the Minister introduced the amendment. Amendments Nos. 106A and 106B replace an amendment in my name and result from conversations we have had. In the light of the earlier debate about the place of school organisation committees, perhaps I may again make the point about why the Churches regard the committees as being so important. There was a good deal of talk, when we were considering Clause 23, about the place of the local education authority and the fact that those authorities have power to make decisions. That is not the case at the moment. In relation to voluntary aided schools, whether we are talking about closure or major changes which might include enlargement or the provision of nursery places, the local education authority has no power to make a decision. It is the Secretary of State to whom that decision has to go. At the moment, therefore, it is not a question of disagreement. What normally happens is that the appropriate Church body will reach agreement with the local education authority that, for example, nursery provision is right. That then has to go to the Secretary of State.

The school organisation committee is in place of the former arrangement. No longer will such a decision go to the Secretary of State. It is not that he was regarded as a court of appeal but that he should be required to give his consent to any such provision. There was inevitably a delay on proposals brought forward by voluntary aided schools. Sometimes that could put us in a position of disadvantage. For instance, in relation to nursery classes, a long delay could mean that by the time the decision was made, the financial year was over and the finance was no longer available. This provision for local decision-making is of considerable importance to the voluntary aided sector. The major providers in that sector are the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, for both of whom I speak. We welcome the proposal but feel that it is necessary that the regulations should specify the issue of unanimity. We take unanimity to mean nemine contradicente; that is to say, that those who are voting vote in favour and those who abstain and those who are not present are not regarded as voting against. We are happy with that arrangement.

Perhaps I may clarify a point which arose in an earlier debate. I made reference to providers and the reasons why I believe that providers are the proper people to be represented on school organisation committees. By "providers" we mean the group of those who provide finance. I made reference to the Further Education Funding Council. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, picked me up on that. I still believe that I was right in making that comment. I am aware that the Further Education Funding Council does not appear on the face of the Bill, but my understanding is that normally it will be part of the school organisation committee. It is, of course, a provider of education for those in the sixth-form age group. Sixth forms may be provided through schools but may also be provided through the further education sector. It therefore seems to me proper that the council should be regarded as a provider and should be represented on the committee.

I make this point because I feel that there has been much misunderstanding about the place of school organisation committees. I repeat that the Churches welcome the proposals. We stress that we believe the proposals to require the regulations to specify unanimity are right. I am very grateful to the Government for listening to our concerns and for putting forward this amendment, which I am delighted to support.

The right reverend Prelate rightly takes me to task on a point I made earlier about the FEFC. Although that council does not directly provide for schools, it does provide for some schoolchildren who are not statutory aged, who are post-16. Therefore I concede that point. May I ask the right reverend Prelate, through the normal conventions of the House, what part governors play in that? Governors are neither providers of education nor funders of schools. They have a management role but are not providers in the sense that FEFC would be and/or the LEA. How consistent is that with the points made by the right reverend Prelate?

I join with the right reverend Prelate in saying that we are pleased that diocesan authorities, both for the Anglican Church and the Church authorities for the Catholic schools, are to be represented on the committees. If there are to be such committees, that must be right. If they had not been included, we would have argued vigorously that they should be.

I should also like to support the noble Lord, Lord Rix, in that teachers, in some form or other, should be represented. It seems extraordinary that governors should be represented. They are not providers; they are not even deliverers of education and do not fall into the interpretation that the right reverend Prelate puts on the committee. Nevertheless, they will have a place over and above that of the very people in the classroom who provide education for children.

The noble Baroness and I have already had this conversation. I was using the language of "delivery" in relation to heads and teachers; that is, those who actually deliver the education. I used the term "provider" in the technical sense of those who provide the financial resources. That is a clarification of language.

The point of the school organisation committees is that those who provide the financial resources shall be those who are involved in the taking of decisions. Of course, they must listen to all kinds of other people and that is why it is important that there are others who can give them advice. Those others will include governors, teachers and all sorts of other groups, including those for whom the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is concerned. However, the decision is properly taken by those groups named on the face of the Bill.

Governors are to be part of this body and they are neither providers nor deliverers.

The debate between the noble Baroness and the right reverend Prelate could go on for some time. However, at this time we are not discussing membership of the committee, but the voting procedures.

The right reverend Prelate is right in relation to our use of the term "provider" and as to why they should be members of the committee. Governors have the corporate responsibility for the management of schools and, to a degree to which we shall come later, for managing the funds of the schools. That is why they or their representatives will be members of the committees.

The amendments deal with two issues. First, they deal with the voting procedure. The right reverend Prelate clearly indicated his support for our position that a nem. Con. position should account for these purposes; that is, unanimity. Secondly, they deal with the question of equality and the duties on the adjudicators and school organisation committees in that respect.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Page 117, line 11, at end insert—

("(3) Regulations under this paragraph must, however, include provision—
  • (a) for the members within each category of members of a committee to have collectively a single vote in relation to any decision to which this sub-paragraph applies;
  • (b) requiring any such decision which is taken by a committee to be a unanimous decision of those voting.
  • (4) Sub-paragraph (3) applies to any decision of a committee as to whether or not—

  • (a) to give any approval under section 25(4) or to prepare such a plan as is mentioned in section 25(5)(d)(ii);
  • (b) to give any approval under paragraph 3 of Schedule 6 or to—
  • (i) modify any proposals,
  • (ii) specify any date, or
  • (iii) make any determination,
  • under paragraph 5(2)(a) or (b) or (3) of that Schedule;
  • (c) to make, vary or revoke a transitional exemption order under paragraph 21 of that Schedule or paragraph 16 of Schedule 7;
  • (d) to give any approval under paragraph 8 of Schedule 7;
  • (e) to make any decision authorised by or by virtue of paragraph 6 of Schedule 23.
  • (5) Where regulations under paragraph 2(2) of Schedule 8 provide for either of the following provisions, namely paragraph 3 or 5(2)(a) of Schedule 6, to have effect in relation to proposals published under paragraph 2 or 2A of Schedule 8, the reference to that provision in sub-paragraph (4) above shall include a reference to it as it so has effect.").

    On Question, amendment agreed to.

    [ Amendment No. 107 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

    6.45 p.m.

    Page 117, line 15, at end insert—

    (" . When taking any decision a committee shall have regard (so far as relevant) to the obligations which, by virtue of—
  • (a) Part III of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, or
  • (b) Part III of the Race Relations Act 1976,
  • are owed by any local education authority or governing body which will be affected by the decision.").

    On Question, amendment agreed to.

    Schedule 4, as amended, agreed to.

    Clause 24 [ Adjudicators]:

    On Question, Whether Clause 24 shall stand part of the Bill?

    I am afraid that my noble friend Lord Tope cannot be with us for the rest of the evening, though I still have friends on the Bench here with me.

    The Minister will recognise that we have already had the majority of this debate this afternoon. We are unhappy with the undemocratic nature of the school organisation committees and, for similar reasons, with the role of the adjudicators. We are extremely unhappy—putting it mildly—given what we said earlier, that important local decisions over schools organisations can pass to a single, unelected, non-accountable individual who represents the Secretary of State.

    It is clear from our debates earlier and those in another place that the Government wish to appoint around 20 adjudicators. It may be more; we are not sure. There were questions about this earlier this afternoon both here and in another place. We are also not sure what the cost will be. We understand that the adjudicators will be local, but we are told that they will not be local. They will be partly local, but there will not be enough for there to be one who understands each local area.

    The adjudicators will be appointed by the Secretary of State after open advertisement. We understand that they will be salaried and will also be paid on a daily rate. There was a great deal of discussion in this regard some time ago and I remember reading with horror in the newspaper that it was estimated that adjudicators may be paid £90,000 a year. I wondered whether I would be eligible for such a post; £90,000 would be helpful to someone in my position.

    We still do not know how much the Government intend to pay and how much it will cost. We do not know from where exactly the adjudicators will be drawn. We are told that a background in education will be welcome, but not necessarily a requirement. We feel that the requirement that school organisation committees should make unanimous decisions will lead to many decisions being referred to the adjudicator.

    Many of us know that trying to make decisions, particularly in relation to school closures, is not an easy job and often takes a great deal of time. Questions were asked in another place about how long committees would have to make a decision and the response was that they will be asked to reach a conclusion within two months. However, I worry about how the system will operate; how the adjudicators will deal with what will be a heavy workload.

    We have heard arguments about how this is devolution; that the Secretary of State is devolving power locally. Many of us do not recognise it as devolution because it will not be to a democratic body. We believe that democratically-elected local authorities should make those decisions. My noble friend Lord Tope made that point clear this afternoon.

    An issue we have discussed in this Chamber on other occasions is how local people do not turn out in local elections. We are now doing something which takes away even more power from local education authorities and locally-elected councillors, yet we continue to wonder why people do not want to vote. The reason is that decisions as to whether or not a school will remain open will not be made by local people; they will be made by an unelected body and an adjudicator.

    For all those reasons we are not happy that the clause should stand part of the Bill. I take this opportunity to say that a schedule goes with this, which raises serious questions about the role of the adjudicator. For example, the adjudicator can be dismissed by the Minister for misbehaviour. What does that mean? Does it mean when he disagrees with the Minister? Does it mean that he is not on message? We do not know how much adjudicators will be paid. We do not know what level of staff support they will receive.

    I suggest that there are people working in local authorities who already do very much the job that an adjudicator will be required to carry out, particularly when we are talking of school closures. I have been in a situation where the people working for the local education authority go out and consult with parents, going through the pros and cons of why they want to close a school and what the local authority want to do.

    I suspect that we shall not divide on Clause 24 tonight which is why I have spoken about Schedule 5 at this point. There is no point in talking about it if the clause is still in the Bill. Mentioning the schedule also raises very serious questions about the role of the adjudicator and it is important in this debate as we are looking to see whether we need the adjudicator. We have made it quite clear that we do not want to have the school organisation committee and therefore we do not want the adjudicator.

    We have made it clear also that we understand what the Government are trying to do. We believe in devolution and recognise that there is a problem with decisions being made at the centre. But the method that has been put forward is undemocratic and does not answer the problem. I and many others believe that it will only make matters worse. We have almost begged the Government to take this matter away and come back with something better. We want partnership and decisions to be made locally, but we want that done democratically and, above all, we want a system that will work. We have heard not just from these Benches but from around the Committee the views of people who have experience of how this measure will work in local government and how local government works now. We were not in favour of the committee and the adjudicator. The way in which the scheme is being set up is deeply flawed. For that reason, we do not wish to see this clause stand part of the Bill.

    We have discussed this matter at some length so I shall be brief and direct. The argument is that the adjudicator will play very little part because agreements will be reached in the school organisation committee. That raises great alarm in my mind because as many noble Lords who have served as Ministers in the department have said, in the past there has been a large number of appeals to the Secretary of State regarding the closure of schools and other matters.

    Therefore one must ask with some suspicion why it is that the school organisation committee is going to succeed where the local authority has conspicuously failed so that the adjudicator will not be used so much. I gain some suspicion from what the right reverend Prelate said. The professionals, who are the men from the diocesan boards, the picked local authority people, the Higher Education Funding Council and the governors—I say "picked", although I gather that the governors may be elected—are more likely, in smoke-filled rooms, as at an American convention, to reach agreement than will be the case in the more democratic forum of a local authority. So I believe that sometimes unanimous decisions might be suspect.

    I am more optimistic about human nature than that. Therefore I assume that the school organisation committees will not be as I described, but that there will be disagreement and that the adjudicator will play a part. In other words, I do not accept that only at the most dismal level the school organisation committee, if it performs properly, will reach unanimous agreement. That said, I agree with the noble Baroness in saying that I have great worries about the adjudicator.

    Perhaps I may begin at a very practical level. I believe that the workload will be enormous. I served on the Parole Board and I was also chairman of the Broadcasting Complaints Committee. I realise the workload that falls on anybody who deals with appeals and makes such decisions. It has already emerged in this debate that in some cases, in the documents setting forth their powers, it may be necessary to hold an inquiry in public. Judgments will have to be submitted on paper. That is a time-consuming task and it will demand staff. We do not know how many adjudicators there will be, but one assumes from some of the things that were said in the other place that there will be 20 or so. I cannot say offhand at the moment how many local authorities there will be. I believe that there were 31 when the shire counties were responsible, but now we have the London boroughs and so much more. The number may well be 31 to 40 or possibly more.

    Many of the adjudicators will have to deal with two local authorities. I believe that they will find the workload very large. I also have some doubts as to whether £1 million will cover the cost. One is dealing with 20 people and staff. If the sum is insufficient then one is not going to have the right decisions and the scheme is not going to work.

    The noble Lord, Lord Peston, pointed out the problem of judicial review. Having served on the Parole Board and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, I can tell the Committee that for these kinds of bodies which hear appeals the judicial review is a hazard of life. It is expensive and also for the Government which will have to defend the case.

    I am saying that there is an element of doubt and uncertainty which has emerged in this debate. Unless the school organisation committee is going to be a government poodle, there will be disagreements. I do not believe that any Members of the Committee will want it to be a poodle and therefore the present situation may continue, if not in full, at least in part. The adjudicators will not be sufficient; they will be subject to judicial review; they will not be local; and there will be no appeal from their decisions. It is a flawed scheme and one which the Government will later regret. Therefore I and my friends on this side of the Committee are prepared to give considerable support to the Motion that this clause shall not stand part of the Bill.

    Before the Minister replies perhaps I may ask one or two questions. I shall be grateful to have some information as to how this body will work vis-à-vis action zone schools and with what are now called grant-maintained schools and what will be foundation schools. Do they all have the same powers? In that case, are they all subject to this undemocratic body of placemen and women?

    I put it on record that not only do I believe that partnership is the only way to operate in local government. It has certainly been a feature of my local authority in Cambridgeshire; it has also been a practical feature of my role as a Minister in government. It was my government that instituted a raft of policies which involved partnership at local level. The single regeneration budget exists because partnerships come together with a common aim. As the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, knows, I was concerned with the North-East and Teesside. It has a very great deal to teach the rest of the country about fruitful partnerships. Partnerships have been developed there to an extensive degree. The fruits of those partnerships can be seen right across Teesside. There was the Save the City programme; the City Action programme and the City Challenge programme. They all relied on partnerships. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, will not join with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in saying that we are against partnership as a way forward. That would be a great travesty because we believe that partnerships works best. I also believe quite fervently that partnership on a voluntary basis works even better because it works from the bottom up. It is an organic partnership and not one made by regulation which I find deeply offensive.

    The Secretary of State and Ministers are better known to the population of this country than will be an adjudicator. I hope that the noble Baroness will give us some idea or confirm what we believe through rumour and odd comments, that there are likely to be about 20 adjudicators. Plans are now so advanced that there should be some view in the department about the number of adjudicators.

    Let us say that there will be about 20. That means that there will be at least two or three local education authorities to each adjudicator. I go back to a point that I made during a previous debate when talking about organisation committees. If there were one adjudicator covering Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire or Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire or Cambridgeshire and Suffolk or Cambridgeshire and Norfolk or Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, with the tremendous powers as set out in this Bill, that adjudicator will not be known. It is quite difficult to find in the market square people who know the local Lord Lieutenant or the local High Sheriff. They are key figures in the area.

    The Government cannot have it both ways. If the Government say that the adjudicators will hardly be used because we shall have great harmony at the level of the local education authority and in the school organisation committee, that means that they will be even less known. The adjudicator will be brought into play when there is disagreement and that is the whole point of having an adjudicator. The argument that has been deployed so far in this debate that the rationale for what the Government are doing in setting up school organisation committees and adjudicators, is that they want to devolve decision-making to a local level, but in the case of an adjudicator that simply will not work.

    The adjudicators will not be local. I referred earlier to Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. In that area, we shall not only be closer geographically to the Secretary of State and his Ministers in London than to the adjudicator—if he or she is based in Norfolk, he or she will be very distant from Cambridgeshire—but we shall also know them. We know the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The populace of the country know the Ministers. They can take views of the Ministers and the quality of their judgments. Accountability is therefore much sharper.

    Much has been made of the argument that there will not be too much work for the committees to do. Using round figures, there are about 25,000 schools in the country, half a million teachers and goodness knows how many million pupils. Decisions are taken daily in local education authorities on reorganisation, on matters relating to demographic change, such as the establishment of new schools, changing the category of schools, enlarging, closing or merging schools. All of those are bread-and-butter decisions for most local authorities. They happen all the time. In my local authority we had what we called a "medium-term plan". Each year, we rolled it forward, constantly trying to match provision to the number of children in the area and their needs. It is wrong to say that the committees will not be working hard.

    As I understand it, an organisation committee will receive every single local organisation plan. When that plan is developed, all of the smaller decisions flowing from it will go before the committee. Whenever there is a disagreement among the members of the committee—however small, whether involving one group or more—the matter will be passed to the adjudicator. Matters as painful as school closures, school mergers, the loss of a sixth form or the closing of a Church school will be passed without objection only very seldom—that is, unless the Government have it in mind to approve the sort of committee which will reach consensus decisions. That would mean that the will of those at the end of the decision—I refer to the parents of children attending small schools or city schools which may be merged and to parents whose children are being sent to a distant school not of their choice—would be overruled by the harmonious organisation committee of which we have heard so much.

    The adjudicator argument is as strong as that on organisation committees. The adjudicators will have absolutely unprecedented powers. They will be unaccountable placemen or women. They will be appointed by the Secretary of State and can be removed or replaced by the Secretary of State. However, they will have more powers than any elected councillors. Indeed, in this instance they will have more powers than the Secretary of State. This is a real buck-passing measure as far as the Secretary of State and the Department for Education and Employment are concerned.

    For that reason I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, will not seek to press this Motion this evening. However, she has our fullest support. If we return to this matter on another occasion, we shall certainly support such a Motion.

    7 p.m.

    I shall not go back over the same ground as was covered in the debate on school organisation committees. We had quite a discussion of adjudicators in our earlier debate. I shall try to stick to issues relating to adjudicators, which is what the clause is all about.

    Clause 24 provides that the Secretary of State shall appoint a number of adjudicators for England. I can confirm that the intention is to appoint about 20. Their job will be to take decisions where the school organisation committee has been unable to reach agreement on school organisation proposals and the school organisation plan to be established within each LEA, and to resolve certain admissions disputes.

    We have placed in the Library a statement on the adjudicators which describes in a little more detail our view on the functions, operation and appointment of adjudicators. That statement will provide a basis for consultation.

    I believe that it is understood that the adjudicators will be called into play only where it has not been possible to reach agreement at local level, either on school organisation or on admissions cases. The adjudicators will look again at the issues and concerns raised, taking account of proposals, comments and objections. The adjudicators will consider all cases in the light of principles set out in guidance from the Secretary of State and, as appropriate, in a school organisation plan and the code of practice on school admissions. The adjudicators will make an independent judgment on the relative merits of each case, based on the facts and against those principles.

    It is important that the adjudicators should be demonstrably independent, both from the Secretary of State and from the local authorities and other bodies. Their credibility will derive from their experience, independence and impartiality. I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, that we shall advertise the posts widely. We shall do so in accordance with the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

    Adjudicators will be part time. They will be called upon as cases are referred, and they will be paid on a daily basis. Perhaps I may advise the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, not to believe what she reads in the newspapers about salaries of £90,00 a year. So much in the newspapers is absolute nonsense and that is just another example. The exact amount of their daily rate is currently under review, so I cannot give a precise answer to that question yet.

    The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, referred to the Higher Education Funding Council. Perhaps that was a slip of the tongue. It is, of course, the Further Education Funding Council—

    I just wanted to be sure that we were clear about that.

    The noble Lord said that he was optimistic. I am glad that he is optimistic because the last time that we had a debate about optimism and pessimism, the noble Lord said that I was over-optimistic and that he was a pessimist. However, my optimism about this leads me to different conclusions from him. I believe that the school organisation committees will for the most part be able to reach agreement. I agree with what the right reverend Prelate said earlier. I very much hope that the number of occasions involving adjudicators will be relatively small because there will already have been a great deal of local discussion.

    In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, perhaps I may say that consensus will have been reached at local level. That is exactly what we hope will become commonplace once the new arrangements have been implemented. For those reasons, I hope that adjudicators will not have an enormous workload. The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, is right that they will have to be careful in their judgments and to put them in writing.

    I also hope that judicial review will be used only rarely. I hope that once the system is established people will accept the impartiality of the adjudicators and the fact that their procedures are totally above board. That is what is expected.

    I cannot remember which noble Lord referred to misbehaviour, but perhaps I may rebut any suggestion that this provision is all about being on-message. It is nothing like that. This is clearly about undertaking a job properly and having a decision-making process which can be seen to be fair and in which the right procedures are used. I hope that instances of dismissals among adjudicators will be extremely rare.

    The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to education action zone schools and foundation schools. Schools in education action zones will be treated in exactly the same way as any other schools where the issue of closure arises. As to foundation schools, they will be subject to exactly the same system, and proposals in respect of foundation schools which are not decided by the school organisation committee will go to the adjudicator if necessary.

    The clause also introduces Schedule 5. That gives practical detail as to how the adjudicator will operate. It also gives the Secretary of State power to make regulations about further details of the adjudicator's functions. This clause provides a vital mechanism to resolve school organisation and admission cases while safeguarding the interests of a range of local players. The noble Baroness indicated that she will not press her opposition to Clause 24 standing part of the Bill.

    I should like to deal with one other issue raised by more than one speaker, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I was a little confused by the contribution of the noble Baroness. At one point she said that adjudicators would not be local but at another point she suggested that possibly they would have to cover two areas. She spoke about her own part of the country: Cambridgeshire and Norfolk or Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that the adjudicators will not be local; they will be nationally-appointed people. They will be appointed on the basis that they are the best people for the job rather than that they represent a particular area. I believe that it would be wrong for them to represent a particular area because in that event it is very likely that they would be parti pris in some respects. We want to have people of experience who will be impartial and independent in arriving at their judgment. I hope that I have answered all the points raised. I hope that the Committee accepts that this is a fundamental part of the new system and that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

    7.15 p.m.

    I thank the Minister for replying to a number of points. We shall not press the issue any further this evening but we hope to return to it at a later stage in the light of other proposals that may come from the Government on school organisation committees. A good number of questions have been asked today. The role of the adjudicator is very much tied up with what happens on the school organisation committees. The Minister was intent on driving home the independence of the adjudicators. I do not know whether it means that at the moment, when the Secretary of State makes a decision about a school closure, it is less than independent. There have been times in my life when I have believed that to be the case when dealing with school closures. That seems to be one of the main arguments in trying to convince the Committee that adjudicators are the correct way to go.

    I was pleased to hear the Minister say that adjudicators would not receive fat cat salaries. We shall see what happens. I am slightly confused. The Minister also said that adjudicators would be paid on a daily basis. In view of the comment of the Minister, Estelle Morris, in another place that it was likely they would be salaried, appointed on a part-time basis and paid a daily rate, is it the case that the decision has now been made that they will be paid only a daily rate? Perhaps the Minister can deal with that before we proceed further with the matter.

    We on these Benches believe that as many decisions as possible should be made locally by democratically elected local authorities. We are deeply concerned, knowing the kind of issues that will come forward, that adjudicators will have to make a good number of decisions. I hope that the Minister is right. If not, even more money will come off the education budget. Our main worry is that this bureaucracy will cost money and that the education budget will be top sliced. Some of us fear that given the number of decisions that adjudicators will have to make the amounts that they will be paid and the length of time that committees sit will go up. I do not believe that we have received a satisfactory answer to that.

    We shall not press the matter tonight. However, can the Minister clarify how exactly the adjudicators will be paid? Further, in light of the very serious concerns about how the system will operate, can the Minister give a commitment that should all of this go ahead there will be a review of what is happening and if our worst predictions turn out to be true the Government will do something about it? If the worst predictions happen it will not be in the interests of schools. We are all concerned about what happens in schools and want to ensure that the highest standards are achieved. We are not being party political about this; we are genuinely worried about what will happen. I hope that the Minister will take that into account and give a commitment that the Government will also be concerned if this turns out to be a huge bureaucracy that does not work properly.

    Before the noble Baroness replies, perhaps I may put two questions. The first, which I should have asked in the earlier debate, is whether the school committee is to meet in public so that all of its discussions can be heard by everyone. Will those discussions be fully recorded? Almost all of the decisions will be difficult and I suspect controversial. That will make a great deal of difference to the number of cases that go to the adjudicator.

    Secondly, I should like to deal with the question of cost. Earlier, we were informed that the scheme was expected to cost £1 million. If there are 20 adjudicators that will not leave much per adjudicator. We know from Schedule 5 that inevitably the adjudicator will require some staff if he or she is to consider the papers and write reports. The adjudicator will require an office, a secretary and so on. We are all aware of the add-on costs. I believe that £1 million is a complete under-estimate of the cost of this whole organisation. I hope that before we reach the next stage of the Bill noble Lords can be given a much clearer idea of the cost of the exercise.

    I should like to add to the questions. I ask the Minister to whom the adjudicator is accountable. As to cost, I understand that the figure to set up the system is £1.2 million and that revenue costs per annum thereafter will be £1 million. I also understand that the capital costs—the buildings where adjudicators sit, equipment and all the rest of it—will be additional to those figures and therefore will fall on the LEA. This appears to be an open-ended cheque for the LEAs. Allied to that, what is the mechanism for funding this money? Will it be top-sliced from the LEA budget or will it be a precept on the LEA or individual schools? The question was asked earlier but not answered. This is probably one cost that individual schools will not be able to opt out of. They will all be subject to the services of the organisation committee and adjudicator.

    Next, will the organisation committee and the adjudicator have a role to play over admissions to foundation schools? I understand that the foundation schools will be their own admissions authority. If that is the case, what is the relationship between admissions policy and admission issues vis-à-vis the organisation committee and adjudicator and foundation schools? That is quite an important point.

    On the point about the adjudicators not being local, I was not being inconsistent or trying to have my cake and eat it. I was trying to understand the arguments that were put forward strongly by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. Every time he came to the Dispatch Box he said that the whole rationale of what the Government were doing was to see that decisions were taken locally. The argument that I, the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and my colleagues on these Benches are putting forward is that the adjudicator will not be local to many people. He will not be known by many people. Confidence in the people who take the decisions will be important. I shall be interested to hear the answer to my noble friend Lady Young as to whether the meetings will be in public. Given that there is no other accountability, that would at least be some form of accountability.

    I understand that the Minister cannot give us the salary figures at the moment, although it sounds as if there will be a daily rate for the job. The Minister has said that she does not know that at the moment because it is under review. Can we have a promise that when it is known we shall hear it. I hope that it will be before the Bill goes through Parliament, so that we will understand what it will be.

    Which body in government will determine the daily rate? Who thereafter will review it? Where will the responsibility for reviewing the salary lie? Will the members of the committee receive a fee per diem or expenses? What will be the form of recompense for disrupting the lives of the people who will serve on those committee? I do not believe it, but the Government say that the adjudicator will not have to do very much work. The organisation committee will have to do quite a deal of work. How will those people be reimbursed? Presumably LEA members will just receive their normal LEA expenses. They are already busy people, especially if they are on the education committee. It would be helpful to know what they will receive.

    It seems that the budget total is £50,000. There will be 20 committees covering wide areas. I have already asked about the capital costs. I hope that the Minister can enlighten us on that.

    I shall begin with the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. I can confirm that the adjudicators will be paid on the basis of a daily rate. They will be part time. They will not receive a salary. The noble Baroness asked about a review. There have been a number of gloomy predictions about the impact of this new system. It has been suggested that it will not work, that it will be incredibly expensive, and that there will be huge numbers of disagreements which will lead to the involvement of adjudicators. It would be reasonable to monitor and review the system as we go along. Of course if Members opposite turn out to be right in their gloom and pessimism about all this, the Government would naturally want to look at ways of improving the way in which the system operates. I have no difficulty in confirming that.

    The noble Baroness, Lady Young, asked whether the school organisation committees would meet in public. The answer is that they will. In that sense, there will be local accountability. People will have access to the way in which the decision was made and how the arguments were played out. I accept that that is important. So I am grateful to her for asking that question. I am pleased to clarify that point.

    The noble Baroness asked also about the cost of the system. Perhaps I may clarify something which may not have been sufficiently clear earlier. The system will cost £1 million over and above the cost of the existing system. There will obviously be substantial savings in the number of civil servants employed to deal with the 300 or 400 cases that come up to the Secretary of State at present.

    The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked a number of questions. She asked about the mechanisms of funding and whether the schools would have their budgets reduced. The answer is that the schools will not have their budgets reduced, the costs will have to come out of the local authority's budget.

    The noble Baroness asked who will review the adjudicator's daily rate. It will obviously be reviewed from time to time by the Secretary of State. Where inflation requires the daily rate to be increased, it will obviously have to be increased by central government. She asked also about the adjudicators' accountability. Adjudicators will be appointed by the Secretary of State. Once they have been appointed, they will be independent. Any decisions that they make will of course be subject to judicial review. That is the sense in which they will be accountable. They will be accountable to the courts for the way in which they make their decisions.

    We must remember that the Secretary of State currently considers each year 300 to 400 proposals for changes of one kind or another, where they have not been sorted out satisfactorily at local authority level. The existing system leads to a large number of referrals back to central government. Our hope is that we can avoid that kind of referral. Everyone knows that the existing system is far from perfect. It often, but not always, takes a long time. People in local government feel that it is not transparent. I hope that the way in which the adjudicators will operate will make the system rather more transparent, that there will be clarity about the way in which decisions are made, and that in the end we will have an improved system. The noble Baroness shakes her head.

    It is unbelievable to say that it takes a long time, and that it will take less time. There is nothing in the Bill to cut down the amount of time and trouble that local authorities will go through to come to a decision. That stays. It will take even longer, because once they have gone through all the procedures to come to a decision, they will be gone through all over again by the organisation committee. If there is one dissenting voice on the organisation committee, it then goes on to the adjudicator. The idea that it will take less time is absolutely absurd.

    Once again, I may not have made myself clear enough. The noble Baroness has misinterpreted what I was saying. I was suggesting that the system of going to the Secretary of State when agreement cannot be reached can often take a long time. The noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Blatch, may have been involved. When there is a large number of referrals to officials who have to advise the Secretary of State, it often takes a long time. The hope is that with the new system, through the 20 adjudicators who will be appointed, we shall be able rather more quickly to reach decisions where there has been disagreement.

    I have already said that if the Government are proved to be wrong about this, we will have to review the system. It is important that it is streamlined and that people are not kept waiting for months and months before a decision is made. In the light of what I have said, I hope that it will be accepted—

    The Minister has missed the point about admissions and foundation schools.

    As I understand it, foundation schools and their admissions will be subject to the agreement of school organisation committees.

    In the light of what we have discussed, I hope that we can now move on. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said that she does not wish to press that the clause should not stand part of the Bill, but that she may wish to come back to the matter at the next stage of the Bill. I look forward to further debate when we reach that stage.

    Clause 24 agreed to.

    I beg to move that the House be resumed. In moving the Motion, perhaps I may suggest that Committee stage begins again not before 8.30 p.m.

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

    House resumed.