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Lords Chamber

Volume 590: debated on Monday 1 June 1998

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House Of Lords

Monday, 1st June 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.

Overseas Aid

What progress they have made towards the objective of untying aid in overseas development co-operation programmes.

My Lords, we strongly support multilateral untying of aid. Some progress is being made. There is now agreement in the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD, which was endorsed by the G8, that we should work towards a recommendation on untying aid to the least developed countries. The intention is to propose a text to the 1999 high level meeting of the Development Assistance Committee.

My Lords, will my noble friend accept that we find that reply extremely encouraging? Has he seen the analysis which indicates that if all OECD donors were to untie their aid, that would amount to an increase in value of the total aid programme of some £2.5 billion? Is the Minister aware that there are good indications that if there were a general untying of aid there could be considerable benefits for the British economy and British jobs? Can we perhaps move ahead practically by starting with binding reciprocal agreements with like-minded governments—for example, the Netherlands—to ensure that at least we can start the process of phasing out mixed credits to follow up the move that has already been made on the aid-and-trade provision?

My Lords, as my noble friend indicates, the British Government have made some progress in ending the trade-for-aid arrangements. We are seeking as wide agreement as possible through the G8 and our partners in that group. I have seen figures indicating the benefit that would accrue were we to untie substantial amounts of aid. The UK has made more progress in that respect than many other countries. We are below the average for the OECD in terms of tied aid. We hope to make progress in that forum by the time of the 1999 high level meeting.

My Lords, I welcome the robust defence of the Secretary of State and of the noble Lord of the multilateral approach to untying aid and its repetition in the international development White Paper. This, alongside the eventual elimination of export subsidies, should have been one of the main items on the agenda of the group of industrialised nations when it met in Birmingham this May. I am sorry that greater progress was not possible. Can the Minister say when the Secretary of State will raise these matters with her German and Japanese counterparts, and whether we can expect a statement on tied aid to be included as part of Britain's EU presidency?

My Lords, these matters are being pursued from time to time in the Development Council of the EU. However, the main forum for reaching agreement is the OECD, which includes the Americans, the Japanese, the Canadians and so forth. As my main Answer indicated, it will be at the high level meeting next year that we expect the most progress to be made rather than through the EU, although we are attempting to get maximum agreement among our EU partners in this respect.

My Lords, in the light of my noble friend's answers, does he agree that if we are to be true to the commitment which the Secretary of State repeatedly emphasised—that our aid programme must be concentrated on the elimination of poverty—and if we accept that through having tied aid we may be building inconsistencies into the economies of developing countries which are compelled to purchase other than on sound market criteria, we should avoid waiting until everyone has agreed? As I asked in my earlier supplementary question, will he consider the possibility of moving ahead, with reciprocal agreements, with those governments who are prepared to do so?

My Lords, that may be an option which we can explore. However, our main effort at the moment is to try to reach agreement at the OECD. The total bilateral aid programme of the United Kingdom now is only 14 per cent., which is substantially ahead of most of the other countries that we hope to persuade to go down the same road. However, we see possibilities of extending the agreement, which has already been made in principle at the G8, to further countries and achieving a major step forward over the next 12 months in that respect.

My Lords, will the Minister take this opportunity to clarify the Secretary of State's attitude to emergency humanitarian aid? Unfortunate publicity was given to a recent speech which suggested that reaction to a public response to an emergency such as that in the Sudan was not the right approach. Does the Minister agree that for the people and the aid agencies concerned it was an emergency which had to be responded to and which could not to be caught up in longer-term aid planning?

My Lords, to some extent the remarks made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, and the response to them, were misrepresented in the press. The department has always supported the efforts made by NGOs in bringing urgently needed humanitarian aid to where it is required. Last week we announced a doubling of our assistance to NGOs working in southern Sudan, so our commitment is clear. The point that the Secretary of State was making was that television seems to show only negative pictures of the developing countries and, distressing though they may be, we ought to focus more on the positive aspects of development aid and the progress that is being made in terms of improving the lot of the people in developing countries, outside the crisis areas, as a result of government aid, private investment and NGOs. Notwithstanding that, we support the humanitarian appeals and should like others to support them also.

My Lords, will the noble Lord give the House some indication of whether, after due consideration of the G8 proposals, we can expect any detailed proposals from the European Commission?

My Lords, as regards the untying of aid, as my earlier answers indicated, we see the main forum for that as the OECD, which involves a wider range of donor countries. The whole question of the EU's development programme is shortly to be considered in the context of the new Lomé arrangements. Those negotiations will start shortly and there will be announcements on the progress that is made in the coming months.

Power Station Fuel: Short Rotation Coppice

2.44 p.m.

What measures they are taking to promote short rotation coppice as a fuel for power stations.

My Lords, short rotation coppice (SRC) is one of the country's key potential sources of renewable energy. Ten contracts have already been awarded under the non-fossil fuel obligation (NFFO) arrangements for renewables to generate power from SRC and forestry residues for a period of 15 years.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but is he aware that the general target of achieving 3 per cent. of our total energy requirement from renewables by 2010 is a very tough target to meet? Is the noble Lord also aware that the cost of establishing coppice is very high, at about £500 per acre, and that that is not attractive to farmers who might be attracted instead towards the softer option of set-aside? Is the Minister aware of what happens in Sweden, where there is a generous subsidy, resulting in the cost coming down to about £200 per acre and the planted area being a lot greater? Should we not do as the Swedes do?

My Lords, perhaps I may allude generally to the measures which are being taken to give support to the use of traditional coppice in response to the points so reasonably made by the noble Viscount. Generators proposing to use existing coppice have been eligible to bid in the NFFO competitions for biomass (in NFFO 3 and 4) which have been held so far. The Woodland Grant Scheme offers both annual management grants for coppiced woodlands and a one-off woodland improvement grant to bring neglected woodlands back into management as coppiced woodlands. The Forestry Commission also promotes training courses in traditional coppicing skills and supports the publication of the sales magazine, Woodlots, which gives owners the opportunity to offer coppiced timber to potential buyers. In addition, the Woodland Grant Scheme is being reviewed by the umbrella organisation, British Biogen, which is hoping to make an announcement sometime in the summer. So, some considerable support is already being given, although not along the lines suggested by the noble Viscount in relation to Sweden.

My Lords, does the Minister intend to grant biomass power stations extra development time under future NFFO rounds in order to allow the first harvest to coincide with the power plant coming on-line?

My Lords, I believe that that matter will be dealt with under the review to which I have just alluded.

Directors' Remuneration: Disclosure

2.47 p.m.

What steps have been taken to implement Recommendations 3.8, 3.9 and 3.10 of the Greenbury Report on directors' remuneration.

My Lords, action has been taken to implement the recommendations made to the Government by the Greenbury Committee. In particular, Schedule 6 to the Companies Act 1985 has been amended so that the legal requirements relating to the disclosure of directors' emoluments are consistent with the disclosure provisions in the Greenbury code of best practice and the Stock Exchange listing rules.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. If I understood him correctly, he seemed to be saying that all three of Greenbury's recommendations have been implemented by successive governments. That prompts one to ask, "What about the 30-odd recommendations of the Greenbury Committee and other similar bodies which were directed at British industry?" Do the Government have any evidence of whether British industry has implemented the other recommendations?

My Lords, our information is that generally the recommendations are being applied. If my noble friend wishes to refer any specific cases to me, I hope that he will do so.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the recent flotation of Computacenter, following which 30 managers who helped their company to grow by taking shares and share options in lieu of salary increases became paper millionaires while about 700 other members of staff received shares with an average value of £314,000? Does the Minister regard those people as stakeholders or as fat cats whose loyalty to their companies will single them out for disadvantageous tax treatment?

My Lords, I do not know whether they are fat cats, or whatever. The fact is that they were advantaged by what happened. The Government's case in relation to all this is whether the advantage gained by share options or increased pay and remuneration is related to performance. Even if it is related to performance, is it excessive in all the circumstances having regard to the interests of the company concerned, its workforce and so on? Those are the essential criteria that we seek to apply in line with both Greenbury and the subsequent report.

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House whether he regards these individuals as stakeholders because their work benefited the company and they took shares or share options? Their value depended upon the work that they put into the company. Are they stakeholders or just fat cats?

My Lords, the noble Baroness can have her choice. I shall not go into the specifics of a particular company. I do not believe that that advances the argument other than when applying the criteria to which I have just alluded. It does not help to describe them in any way whatever. I should like to know more about the company, as indeed should the noble Baroness before embarking on this line of questioning.

My Lords, does my noble friend support the recommendation of both the Greenbury and Hampel committees that the reports of remuneration committees be voted upon each year by shareholders? Can my noble friend inform the House when the government paper on company law, whether white or green—perhaps my noble friend can clarify that—is to be published? Is there not now a compelling case for its early publication?

My Lords, the Government have just issued a Green Paper on the governance of companies. This matter is to be looked at. Representations will be made to the Government. We shall consider the position very carefully in due course. I regret that I have forgotten my noble friend's question.

My Lords, I asked whether the Government's paper was a Green or White Paper. I hear my noble friend say that it is to be a Green Paper. I am informed that it is the first question that he has forgotten. Do the Government support the recommendation of both the Greenbury and Hampel committees that reports of remuneration committees be voted upon each year by shareholders?

My Lords, those recommendations have been noted and there is a great deal of force in them. The Government are considering these matters. The Government prefer this aspect of governance to be dealt with on a voluntary basis rather than by enshrining it in legislation. I refer back to the somewhat confusing situation, for which I am entirely responsible. It was not a Green Paper; it was a consultation document.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the real problem that prompts this continuing debate, as the Minister indicated in his last answer, is that despite the fact that over a year has elapsed since the election and the publication of the Labour Party manifesto, the Government still have not made up their mind whether they wish these matters to be dealt with voluntarily by the Stock Exchange implementing its listing particulars or by the more restrictive legislation enshrined in the manifesto?

My Lords, I have already stated that the Government prefer the matter to be dealt with by way of the application of a voluntary code that is adhered to, not one to which people merely pay lip service, rather than go down the more restrictive route of legislation. We have made that very clear in this House and in the other place on a number of occasions.

My Lords, bearing in mind that the minimum wage will be determined on the basis of a rate per hour, can the Minister inform the House whether the Government have any intention of ensuring that directors' remuneration should also be reported on the basis of a rate per hour?

My Lords, I shall not be led down the byways of the national minimum wage because that matter will be debated at Committee stage and perhaps in the course of a Statement to be made in the very near future. I do not believe that it is helpful to judge the matter in the way that my noble friend suggests. I have already set out what I believe to be the critical criteria which essentially are based on performance. That does not excuse totally excessive remuneration which has sometimes been the case.

My Lords, can the noble Lord expand slightly on his last answer? Who is to determine what is excessive? Is it the Minister?

My Lords, certainly it is not a matter for me. I have no responsibility within the department to do that. Mine is a collective responsibility. I do not decide this matter. We believe that the performance criteria should be judged by the companies themselves in the first place, applying objective standards which measure up to them. I believe that that is the right way to proceed. Companies know instinctively whether what they are doing is in their interests, the interests of the nation as a whole and their workforce. All these matters must be taken into account.

My Lords, do the Government agree that the aim of Cadbury, Greenbury and other committees was to try to arrest and control the ever-higher levels of bonuses and salaries and fiddles of various kinds being paid out to top executives? As the Minister accepts, we still do not have any information as to whether the recommendations have been carried out and whether the trend has been reversed. All the signs are that the trend is getting worse year by year.

My Lords, I do not accept the last assertion. These matters deeply concern the Government, the CBI and others in seeking to apply fairness. This matter is kept very firmly under review. I am perfectly happy to return to the House in due course and report on the matter when the Government have had reasonable time to make a proper assessment.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why he and his colleagues in the department are so exercised about the top salaries of business people who after all create economic activity and jobs when, for example, Geri Spice, who left the Spice Girls yesterday, is reputed to have earned £10 million in the past two years?

My Lords, I think that she has enough problems without my adding to them!

Prisons: Strategy For Tackling Drug Misuse

2.57 p.m.

What action they propose to take on drugs following the report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons on HM Prison Featherstone.

My Lords, the Prison Service published its new strategy Tackling Drugs in Prison on 12th May. The strategy has been informed by a full review, including independent research. The strategy builds on a record of success in reducing drug misuse in prison in recent years. It will maintain an appropriate balance between control measures and treatment and rehabilitation and will enable access to voluntary testing for all prisoners who request this.

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for his reply, I remind him that my Question is concerned with a report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons on Her Majesty's Prison Featherstone. Many of us have been reassured by the generally positive message contained in that report. Is the noble Lord aware that 96 per cent. of the staff of Featherstone, according to the Chief Inspector of Prisons, felt that the level of drug misuse in that establishment was either fairly or very high? Does the Minister agree that that is a very disturbing figure? Specifically what can be done to deal with that situation?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the level of drug misuse at Featherstone was higher than at most other establishments. I believe that at Featherstone the figure was 40 per cent. whereas at most establishments the figure was 20 per cent. I thank the noble Lord for referring to the good things that are taking place at Featherstone, for example the efficient running of the prison, the range of training provided, the level of healthcare and the good staff relationships at that establishment.

Referring to the noble Lord's comments on the chief inspector's claims, a good number of these are based on anecdotal evidence and not hard evidence. The independent research commissioned by the Prison Service in 1996 does not support the claim that widespread switching between soft drugs and hard drugs is taking place. Many of the recommendations that have been made are being implemented at Featherstone. The problem of drug misuse is being taken very seriously. Extra staff are being trained to deal with it. Special training is being given to staff. Special provision is being made for voluntary testing, including the setting up of a unit. HMP Featherstone and its governor are treating drug misuse very seriously.

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in offering congratulations to Her Majesty's Chief Inspector on his report. I make it clear that I agree with the noble Lord that the report is generally positive about the prison. It says that it is a good Category C establishment, with a sound industrial base and good relations between staff and prisoners. If that is the case, why are the Government cutting funding to that prison by some £600,000?

My Lords, that may be so, but we have to look at expenditure at all prison establishments. It would not be right to look at Featherstone in isolation. What is more important is what is being done at Featherstone, particularly in relation to the drug problem. As I said, it is setting up a multi-discipline team of officers to look at the problem. It has participated in projects in relation to drug information leaflets. It has issued information to prisoners. It is taking the matter extremely seriously. If there is any cut-back in expenditure in the prison, I do not believe that it will affect the effectiveness of this programme in relation to drug misuse.

My Lords, what is Home Office policy on the use of sniffer dogs to seek out drugs in prison? Are they not sometimes more successful than people at finding drugs?

My Lords, indeed they are. The use of dogs is taken seriously. At present 168 dogs are being used in prisons. In addition to those, as the noble Baroness will be aware, passive dogs are also being used. They are good at indicating whether visitors to prisons have drugs. Prisons, including Featherstone, are co-operating among themselves in the use of those dogs. We find that they are a useful instrument.

My Lords, will the noble Lord please explain what a passive dog is?

My Lords, it is not passive in the sense that it would attack, but in the sense that it is trained to detect whether people visiting the prisons are carrying drugs. That is what they are used for. In other words, they are in the visitors' centre, and if the dog believes that there are people with drugs it draws the attention of its attendant to that.

My Lords, do prison governors have discretion about whether or not to invite police to prosecute serious cases of drug misuse? How many successful police prosecutions have been brought, according to the latest available figures?

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have the evidence in relation to that question. The noble Lord asks a serious question. I hope that I may write to him with that information.

My Lords, is not the Minister worried that, despite the evidence of the recent Home Office research study that mandatory drug testing resulted in some reduction in the level of drug misuse at the four prisons where the study was undertaken, nevertheless, the levels were still extraordinarily high? Has the Minister no further advice to give the House on how that is to be tackled, other than by the use of these multi-discipline teams that he mentioned? For example, could not the Government consider having separate drug-free prisons to which inmates could go if they undertook never to use drugs, so that they would be separated from the harmful influence of those who try to persuade them to indulge in those bad habits?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord's last point. If people agree to voluntary testing, it is important that they are placed in units which are, as far as possible, comparatively drug free. Indeed, that is what I said was happening at Featherstone Prison. It is a positive result. One unit is being set up there to which people who declare for voluntary testing can go. Mandatory testing was a great success. It brought down to 20 per cent. the number of prisoners using drugs. Nevertheless we must have these other positive measures alongside it.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that on an occasion such of this it is right to pay tribute to the outstanding work done by the Chief Inspector of Prisons who has made a major contribution towards improving conditions in Her Majesty's prisons?

My Lords, I join with the noble Lord in praising what has been done by the Chief Inspector of Prisons and what was done by his predecessor in relation to the Prison Service.


My Lords, at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m. today, my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is to be made in another place on the recent nuclear tests in India and Pakistan.

School Standards And Framework Bill

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.

Nuclear Tests In India And Pakistan

5.37 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
(Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement on India/Pakistan nuclear testing which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"The Government of Pakistan have declared that they carried out six nuclear tests—five on Thursday, and a further one on Saturday. We recognise that the Government of Pakistan were under immense pressure to conduct these tests to match those initiated by India. But we are dismayed by the decision to respond in kind and believe that the interests of Pakistan have been badly served by their decision to do so.

"Pakistan's foremost concern is its national security. That security has not been strengthened by these tests. Long-term security for Pakistan can only come from lowering tension with India and building mutual confidence within the region. It cannot be built on the unstable foundation of an arms race, which will only raise tensions. Already it can be seen from news reports from the region that the voices that have been encouraged by the recent confrontation are the voices of extremism.

"But Pakistan's loss is wider than its own reduced security. Pakistan had the chance to win international support and respect for its restraint. That opportunity has now been lost. As with India, the effect of the nuclear tests by Pakistan has been to diminish, not to enhance, the status of that country within the international community.

"We have made clear to the Government of Pakistan our dismay at their decision. The Pakistani High Commissioner was summoned to the Foreign Office the day after the first tests to receive a message for his Government of our concern. I have recalled the British High Commissioner from Islamabad for consultation in London.

"We have already taken a number of measures to bring home to the Government of India the strength of our concern at their nuclear test programme. Last week we cancelled the visit by the Indian Chief of Naval Staff and we have also cancelled a forthcoming visit by their Chief of Army Staff. At the meeting last week of the General Affairs Council of the European Union, we obtained agreement to a Presidency text which invited the Commission to review India's preferential trade treatment. Having taken such steps against India, I would expect comparable measures to be agreed by European partners against Pakistan for similar action by it.

"Britain's aid programme, unlike that of some other countries, is directly targeted on providing help to the poorest people in the poorest regions. We remain convinced that it would be wrong to penalize the most vulnerable citizens in either country by suspending that aid programme.

"However no one, least of all governments of both countries, should under-state the economic price that they will pay for isolation within the international community. Already the value of the Indian rupee has fallen. Last week, the Indian Government offered 1 billion dollars of government bonds and got no takers. In May, there was a net outflow of foreign institutional investment. And last week the World Bank deferred three loans to India for energy and highways projects of almost a billion dollars as a result of objections by member states including Britain.

"The adverse impact of these economic developments will make it more difficult for India or Pakistan to reduce poverty. That is why it would be a tragedy if both their governments were to persist in an arms race to acquire the most expensive of weapons, which will do nothing to help the millions of their citizens who live in poverty.

"A regional arms race would also have an impact which would stretch far beyond the region. Other states who have already demonstrated their interest in acquiring nuclear weapon technology will be watching closely how the international community now responds to the precedent set by India and Pakistan. Their nuclear programmes therefore are not merely an internal matter for the two countries, but are a legitimate matter of concern for the world.

"At the suggestion of the United States, the permanent five members of the Security Council will meet on Thursday in Geneva to discuss the security implications of the nuclear test programmes and the heightened tension in the region. As President of the G8, Britain has called a meeting of their Foreign Ministers in London next week. That meeting will co-ordinate the response of the leading economies to the nuclear test programmes and how we can best promote dialogue with India and Pakistan and between India and Pakistan. There must be two strategic objectives in our dialogue with those countries.

"First, we must press India and Pakistan to sign up to the global regime against nuclear proliferation. The best way to reduce tension in the region would be for both India and Pakistan now to sign up to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to join in the negotiations at Geneva without conditions and to halt the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. Neither the interests of Pakistan nor India, nor those of any other country in the world, are served by encouraging the spread of nuclear weapons.

"The second objective must be to tackle the roots of the tension between both countries. There needs to be a meaningful dialogue between India and Pakistan over the issues that at present threaten stability in the region. Their security would be much better promoted by confidence-building measures than by nuclear testing programmes.

"The balance which we must seek in our approach to this issue is to confront firmly the dangers of nuclear proliferation, but without seeking confrontation with the peoples of India or Pakistan. Britain has a long history of close ties with both countries and millions of people in Britain have community links with relatives throughout the sub-continent. Britain therefore does not voice its dismay at the recent nuclear tests out of hostility. On the contrary, it is as a friend of both countries that Britain is appalled at the risks and costs to the peoples of the sub-continent from a nuclear arms race. I ask the whole House to show our united resolve in condemning the nuclear tests and in calling for the Governments of both India and Pakistan to stop testing and to start talking".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.44 p.m.

My Lords, on behalf of the Opposition, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. From these Benches, we share the Government's dismay and disappointment at the nuclear tests conducted last week by the Pakistani Government in a blatant show of disregard for international opinion. We share the sorrow and regret that Pakistan did not heed the international calls for restraint, since these tests fly in the face of worldwide efforts against testing and nuclear proliferation.

Pakistan's decision to conduct its nuclear tests in response to India's tests earlier in May has escalated the already considerable tension in the Indian sub-continent. These tests take Pakistan and India several steps beyond the sabre-rattling enmity that has existed between them for the past 50 years. The world has now openly been brought closer to the spectre of a deadly nuclear arms race in the region which could have grave ramifications for the international community, even though we have suspected this for some time.

Does the Minister believe that sufficient efforts were made by the international community at the G8 summit in Birmingham to induce Pakistan to exercise restraint? What security guarantees were offered to Pakistan in the event of an Indian attack and what assistance was offered to Pakistan? What efforts did the British Government, in particular, make to persuade Pakistan not to conduct its nuclear tests? What further representations do the Government propose to make to the Government of Pakistan following the withdrawal of our High Commissioner there?

From these Benches, we support the Government in their insistence that both Pakistan and India must adhere to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and that both countries must enter into negotiations on a global treaty to stop the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. What immediate action are the Government taking to ensure that these two nations refrain from further tests and from the deployment of nuclear warheads or ballistic missiles and that they abide by the global non-proliferation regime?

Does the Minister accept that if any kind of exception is made for India and Pakistan to become full nuclear powers it sets a precedent for other countries which lack the democratic credentials, but which wish to develop their own nuclear capability? Furthermore, what steps are the Government taking, together with our international partners, to ensure that the examples of India and Pakistan do not give the impression to other Asian and Middle Eastern powers that the possession of a nuclear arsenal is an effective short-cut route to a say at the world's negotiating tables? Does the Minister agree that the long-standing dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir will be a continuing cause of conflict between these two nations? What assessment have the Government made of recent reports in Indian newspapers that the Indian tests were in fact a response to a Chinese-Pakistan attempt to thwart its nuclear weapons programme?

Finally, can the Minister give the House further details about the summit she mentioned due to take place in London on 12th June to co-ordinate efforts to bring nuclear activities in India and Pakistan under international supervision, announced by the Foreign Secretary? What success does the Minister expect this meeting to have, given the failure of the G8 summit to prevent Pakistan's nuclear tests?

5.48 p.m.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. Perhaps I can echo the words of Secretary Cohen, the US Secretary for Defense, that this may be the most dangerous moment for the world since the Cuban missile crisis. It is important that we recognise how much could be at stake.

In that context, has there been any response to the call for both nations to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as soon as possible? Can the Minister comment on further international measures and sanctions which have been taken? I understand that the EBRD, for example, has suspended a loan to India and that the International Monetary Fund is reconsidering the next stage of its assistance to that country. Perhaps the Minister can bring us up to date on the steps which have been taken internationally.

Does she believe that there is a possibility that India and Pakistan might reconsider their unwillingness to discuss the situation in Kashmir, in view of the extreme escalation implied by the fact that they are both now nuclear powers? Does the Commonwealth offer any possible bridge to bring those two nations together with a view to a peaceful settlement?

Finally, perhaps I may ask her two questions with regard to the wider architecture of the world concerning nuclear proliferation and the attempts to try to bring about nuclear disarmament. It is easy for the nuclear powers, in a sense, to dismiss their own responsibility from the day when, in 1970, they first signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Under Article 6 of that treaty a clear responsibility rested upon them. It was a responsibility to seek forms of multilateral disarmament in the nuclear field and to take steps to limit the production of fissile materials, particularly uranium and plutonium. Virtually nothing has happened in the intervening 20 years, for which I certainly do not blame the present Government. But the truth of the matter is that nothing has happened.

I wonder whether the Minister can respond to us by saying whether the Security Council permanent members when they meet, followed by the G8 members when they meet, could look again at the possibility of considering a new initiative in the field of international nuclear disarmament and control over fissile materials globally.

I fear that unless we take much more dramatic steps than have so far been discussed, this may be the beginning of a long slide towards a world of nuclear powers where sooner or later nuclear weapons are almost bound to be used.

5.52 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for their support for the Statement which I have made to the House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, asked about sufficient efforts made at the G8. I believe that very considerable efforts were made, not only at the G8 conference itself but by various leaders following up the G8 in the approaches which were made to Pakistan at the highest levels.

We understand, as my right honourable friend's Statement made clear, the pressure under which Pakistan has been working, but we also understand that Pakistan had a considerable opportunity to earn credit over restraint and sadly did not take that opportunity. But no one left any stone unturned with Pakistan in trying to persuade them of the wisdom of that course of action rather than the one which they eventually decided to take.

We have made a démarche with Pakistan to try to persuade them that they should now desist from any further activity in this sphere. The High Commissioner in London was summoned to the Foreign Office and there has been a considerable amount of diplomatic action, as was made clear from my right honourable friend's Statement. We have withdrawn for consultation our High Commissioner in Islamabad.

The noble Baroness then went on to ask me what more was being done. The permanent members of the Security Council are meeting on Thursday of this week. The GAC will be meeting on Monday of next week and the G8 will be meeting on Friday of next week discussing these matters in particular. So I think that in all the arenas open to us at the moment we are making every effort to ensure that the international community is able to co-ordinate its response to the situation which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has rightly described as an extremely serious one and one which is acting against the interests of stability in what we understand is a very fragile part of the world.

Of course, we are also trying to persuade both countries to sign up to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, asked if we have had any indications of whether they might be willing to do so. I have not heard anything through official channels. All I can tell the noble Baroness is probably what she is aware of already, that there have been some reports that the Indians have indicated that they are willing to consider that, but with certain conditions. Of course, it is that conditionality which will probably prove to be extremely difficult. But I say that only as informed opinion at the moment rather than from any particular information that we have directly from the Indian Government.

The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, also asked about the continuing conflict in Kashmir. Of course, we know that this is the really neuralgic and difficult point between India and Pakistan. As regards a similar Statement that I made in your Lordships' House the other day we discussed the volatile situation in Kashmir.

The noble Baroness said that India claims that it had itself undergone nuclear tests because of the Chinese/Pakistan axis. She will also know that the Pakistanis have said that they undertook their nuclear tests because they believed that they were about to suffer some sort of attack from India. There can be endless speculation from both sides about who did what first and the reasons for it. But we are left with the inescapable position that, as a result of the nuclear testing in both countries, the stabilisation of that part of the world has been severely undermined. Undoubtedly, the position over Kashmir is one of the potent factors involved in that undermining.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, also asked about what further action was being taken. At the General Affairs Committee on 25th May there was a strong declaration issued. It was agreed that member states would work for deferral of the consideration of IFI loans in India. Partners also agreed to take all necessary measures should India not accede to and move swiftly to ratify the relevant non-proliferation agreements, including the CTBT.

The noble Baroness then went on to ask about what she described as the lack of action in relation to discussions over fissile materials. Her Majesty's Government are taking a leading part in the negotiations on fissile material in Geneva at the moment. We shall, of course, do everything we can to continue to encourage both India and Pakistan to sign up to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. I would remind your Lordships that currently 149 countries around the world have acceded to the test ban treaties and 186 to the non-proliferation treaty. So I think that despite these very considerable difficulties that we are now experiencing as regards the position of India and Pakistan, the position of the major countries of the world is that the nuclear test ban treaties should be supported and we must do everything we can, both bilaterally as a friend of India and Pakistan, and through the multilateral opportunities open to us, to persuade both countries that the wisdom of their position lies in signing those treaties too.

5.57 p.m.

My Lords, we must thank my noble friend for repeating the Statement from another place. What she has had to say to us would have been more than adequate had we been discussing any weapon other than the nuclear weapon. I think there is a tendency for us to shudder away from the reality of the nuclear weapon.

It is almost a condition of life that no one likes to contemplate his own death. I can remember that being so during the war. No pilot ever got into a cockpit without a firm belief that he would be the one to come back. If that was not so, he would not have been able to take off.

Humanity generally shudders against and refuses to consider the possibility of the elimination of his own species. Therefore, if one is discussing this, as we have been doing, in terms of talking about an ordinary weapon, we ignore the reality. I am not alone in this point of view, of course. The prestigious Oxford Research Group takes a similar view. I shall quote from a statement made by them on this subject.
"The choice is, quite starkly, between arranging for the elimination of nuclear weapons, or anticipating their proliferation to many other countries and sub-state groups".
The Government must have known that that would happen. I say that because, time and again, at the United Nations the Indian representative made the point that, unless the nuclear states were prepared to consider seriously becoming non-nuclear states and moving towards the elimination of such weapons, India would have no alternative but to develop a nuclear weapon.

My Lords, there is very limited time available. Several noble Lords wish to speak and my noble friend should really pose a question on the Statement.

My Lords, I trust that my noble friend has a question for the Minister.

My Lords, the question that I intended to ask my noble friend the Minister is this. Why do the Government refuse to take the step of bringing a certain amount of reality into our discussions on the matter? Why do the Government refuse to say that a nuclear conflict spreading throughout the world would probably result in the end of our civilisation and, indeed, in the extinction of humanity?

The Oxford Research Group has said that that is a possibility. Therefore, does not my noble friend the Minister recognise that to refuse to pay attention to the point I raised, actually avoids and fails to respond to the present situation by removing its gravity and its reality? Is that not the view of my noble friend?

My Lords, I am most dismayed to feel that my noble friend does not think that the Government are dealing with the matter with what he described as a certain amount of "reality". Of course, a nuclear conflict in any part of the world would be disastrous. Indeed, when repeating the Statement, I stated that Britain is appalled by the risks and the costs to the people of the sub-Continent from a nuclear arms race. The Statement also said very clearly and unequivocally that this is not just a regional matter for India and Pakistan; it is a matter for the peoples of the whole world. Other countries throughout the world, perhaps some who are thinking about acquiring nuclear weapons, will be watching very closely what we are doing. That is why there is unprecedented diplomatic activity, as I described in detail when responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, which will take place over the next 10 days to ensure that everything that can be done will be done to discourage both countries from continuing down this path.

My noble friend said that the Government have not done enough and that we should condemn what has happened. I should point out to him that I condemned it unequivocally when repeating the Statement. Britain was the first nuclear power to ratify the CTBT in April of this year. We also withdrew our freefall bomb in March of this year. Our ambitions were clearly stated in the election manifesto in relation to eventual nuclear disarmament through a process of verification and balanced nuclear disarmament throughout the nuclear powers.

Our position is an ambitious but practical one. I am extraordinarily dismayed that my noble friend should think that we are in any way not dealing with the matter seriously or that we have not dealt with it in a realistic manner.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her generous words about friendship for both India and Pakistan. In view of that friendship, will the noble Baroness agree that there is a certain amount of hyping-up of the tension rather than actually trying to improve matters? Perhaps I may also take the liberty to say that I was dismayed to hear the Defence Secretary in the United States, Mr. Cohen, say that this was the same as the Bay of Pigs situation. I was in the US in 1961 and, at that time, China attacked India. It was extremely serious. I know that it was a long time ago and that perhaps the noble Baroness will not remember. However, everyone was absolutely immersed in the situation in the Bay of Pigs and no one in the international community was in the least bit interested in what was happening to India vis-à-vis China.

The Minister must accept the fact that India does not expect the international community to jump up and come to its aid if any other aggression takes place from outside—and that does not include Pakistan. Further, does the noble Baroness realise the true position of Pakistan? How could Pakistan not have followed that course of action? It needed to do so because of internal consumption. The Pakistani Government would have found it extremely difficult to cope with a situation where India had undertaken five nuclear tests while Pakistan had undertaken none. I hope that the noble Baroness will consider the internal situations and, indeed, the immediate situations in the surrounding countries and that she will try not to hype-up the situation to the extent that it has been hyped-up by the international community.

My Lords, in all these issues there is, as the noble Baroness suggests, a fine line to tread between, on the one hand, recognising that there is a grave situation as regards the nuclear testing that has just taken place, and, on the other, going over the top—if I may use a colloquialism—or hyping-up such situations.

The noble Baroness referred to the friendship that the UK has for both India and Pakistan. That means that we are in a position to put forward our views to both countries, but to do so as a friend and not in a spirit of hostility. We must remember that in this country we have large communities of Pakistani-British and Indian-British people with relatives and friends in Pakistan and India who will be most concerned about the heightening of tension between the two countries. The noble Baroness should be in no doubt that that tension has undoubtedly been heightened by the events of the past two or three weeks.

I turn now to whether or not we are overstating the case. It was extremely distressing to read reports of the celebrations which took place in both India and Pakistan in honour of the exploding of their nuclear weapons. The noble Baroness mentioned the comparison that the US Defence Secretary, Mr. Cohen, made, as indeed did the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and said that it was not necessarily helpful. We are where we are today. Therefore, trying to make comparisons with where we have been during the past 10, 20 or 30 years is probably not a very helpful comparison to make.

I can tell the noble Baroness that I do remember the Bay of Pigs incident. I remember it very clearly because I was a very frightened schoolgirl when it happened. In my view, anything that we can do to help lessen the tension between India and Pakistan at present by talking to them and by getting the international fora, which I described earlier, to put forward the views of a number of different nations and, indeed, by persuading them, if we can, to have a dialogue with each other to lessen the tension in that part of the world, will be enormously important.

My Lords, I, too, should like to welcome the Statement. Any nuclear test by anyone, anywhere, is an event that all peace-loving people profoundly regret. India and Pakistan may have had their policy compulsions—in some ways understandable—but nuclear testing is a defeat for peace, for compassion and for the ethic of goodwill between states and peoples.

Although I welcome the Government's approach—namely, to use diplomacy and not economic threats—can my noble friend the Minister tell me whether they will continue on that path? These situations underline the need for international co-operation and the co-ordination of diplomatic efforts. Economic threats, especially sanctions, achieve little in today's world; indeed, they alienate countries to such an extent that they often impede diplomacy. Sanctions will work only if they are universal, and where can universality be achieved in today's world? Moreover, sanctions give opportunities for various dubious business interests, especially those with shady international connections, to make sneak profits by circumventing the law. No government should encourage that. I hope the Government will make sure that it does not happen.

Will the Government sustain their efforts at multilateral diplomacy and work within the framework of the great goodwill that exists towards Britain in both India and Pakistan? That goodwill, which is almost unique in the context of history, must be nurtured. I welcome the Statement and I hope that the Government will pursue their policy of diplomacy.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his support. I remind my noble friend that the General Affairs Council of the European Union agreed on 25th May that member states should work for the deferral of consideration of IFI loans to India, and that partners should also agree to take necessary measures should India not accede to and move towards the relevant non-proliferation agreements. It is only fair to remind my noble friend of that point. As I have already indicated, we shall consult with our EU partners on any comparable measures that may have the same impact on Pakistan. Sanctions, of course, take a number of different forms. We must be clear that we are concerned that we do not start to undermine the aid effort to the poorest people in both countries. I hope that my right honourable friend's Statement made that clear. There are over 300 million desperately poor people in India who live on less than 1 US dollar a day. Cutting off aid would hurt them and not impair India's nuclear programme.

We are concerned that in both India and Pakistan the consequences of any renewed arms race may divert scarce resources from vital productive development and their efforts to reduce poverty and to improve their education provision. I can give my noble friend the assurance, at least in part, not necessarily that there will be no sanctions of any economic nature against either country, but that we shall do everything we can to sustain the diplomatic effort. We are enormously conscious of the importance of trying to sustain aid programmes which help the poorest people in those countries.

My Lords, I apologise that I was not present to hear the beginning of the Statement. I recognise the dangers in this situation. However, like my noble friend Lady Flather, I wonder whether this is the best time to talk of threats, sanctions and lectures and to indulge in handwringing. Have we all completely forgotten that the best outcome of the events in the region is the mutual deterrent effect and the stabilising effect, as we learnt in the cold war? Have we now forgotten that reality that we had to face in the past? Does the present situation not pose an opportunity as much as a danger; namely, for us to press ahead to put the whole non-proliferation regime on a far more effective, less disguised and covert basis? We must understand the position of both Islamabad and Delhi and try to bring them into the regime in an effort to establish a much better basis for non-proliferation in the future, and ultimately a test ban and a reduction in nuclear weapons worldwide.

My Lords, of course we want to bring both countries into the regime of the non-proliferation treaty and to persuade them to sign the test ban treaty. However, Her Majesty's Government would find it difficult to agree with the noble Lord's remarks on mutual deterrence. If that policy were pursued, it is inevitable that other countries, perhaps in the Middle East, may decide that they will develop their nuclear deterrence on the basis that it will constitute mutual deterrence between two countries. I believe that is the policy of despair as regards nuclear disarmament. I hope it is not a policy that commands a great deal of support in your Lordships' House.

However, I agree strongly with the noble Lord's remarks about not indulging in threats and handwringing. I hope that the Statement did not indulge in either threats or handwringing. I believe the Statement is rather well balanced, but then, "I would say that, wouldn't I?" I hope that if the noble Lord has the opportunity to read it in full, he will agree with me. We must do everything we can to persuade both countries that their best interests lie—now that they both have a nuclear deterrent—in not proceeding with their nuclear programmes and in considering the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. We must try to persuade them to sign the test ban treaty as quickly as possible.

My Lords, is not the situation much more urgent than the noble Baroness has indicated? We cannot wait until the test ban treaty is signed or until the sanctions become effective. Would it not be better to work towards a "no first use" agreement by both sides? Perhaps non-nuclear powers such as Canada and the Scandinavian countries should give a lead in this matter, as both India and Pakistan do not trust the nuclear powers to deal fairly with them.

My Lords, of course the situation can be described as urgent although I take the point made earlier about not "hyping-up" the situation to a point where we become more excited than the situation merits at present. The noble Lord is correct to say that we must do what we can to persuade both countries not to adopt a first strike position. I am reminded that Argentina and Brazil, for example, both stopped their nuclear programmes mutually at the same time through the agreement of both countries. There is also the example of the South African programme which was stopped. When countries decide that they are prepared to take a step away from developing nuclear weapons, there are encouraging examples of what can be achieved. We also have the encouraging examples of those countries which have already decided to sign the non-proliferation treaty and the test ban treaty.

My Lords, I have two brief questions for the Minister. First, will she inform the House whether it is the United States or Britain which has convened the G8 foreign ministers' conference and what is the objective of that conference? Will it be in the interests of the people of India and Pakistan not to develop any sanctions policies because, as the Minister rightly pointed out, that will affect the very people one wants to help? Secondly, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, asked about the role of the Commonwealth countries. Will the Minister take into account the role that the Commonwealth Secretariat can perform in trying to establish some kind of rapport between those two countries? India and Pakistan are more likely to listen to other Commonwealth countries than to the United States and Britain. Anyone who knows of the resolve of India and Pakistan at the time of independence will realise that sanctions or force will have no effect whatever on those countries.

My Lords, as president of the G8, Britain proposed a meeting in London on Friday of next week to discuss these matters. The United States proposed that the permanent five members of the Security Council should meet on Thursday of this week in Geneva. As I said, we hold the presidency of the G8 at the moment. Your Lordships may be interested to know that this matter is being discussed in the United Nations. Britain is doing everything it can to try to ensure that the discussion in the United Nations has some impact on both the countries concerned.

The noble Lord also asked about the position vis-à-vis the Commonwealth. I am sure that any international forum that can be used will be used in this situation. It is always a matter of striking a balance between what was described by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, as "hand-wringing" on the one hand, and being able to say something practical and useful on the other. I am sure that if there is any practical role that the Commonwealth can play it will be willing to do so.

My Lords, we have had the prescribed 20 minutes for Back-Bench questions on this Statement. I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.

My Lords, with respect, a noble Lord on the other side of the Chamber took five minutes on one question. Perhaps I may briefly ask one simple question—with permission—I am the only one who has been here for all—

My Lords, I think noble Lords are aware that 20 minutes is the tight timetable on a Statement. I believe that we should observe the normal convention. I therefore move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on the Bill.

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

School Standards And Framework Bill

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.