House of Lords
Monday, 21 June 2010.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.
Introduction: Lord Liddle
Roger John Liddle, having been created Baron Liddle, of Carlisle in the County of Cumbria, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank and Lord Mandelson, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Lord Deben
John Selwyn Gummer, having been created Baron Deben, of Winston in the County of Suffolk, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Chadlington and Lord Lloyd-Webber, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct
Several noble Lords took the oath or affirmed.
Death of a Member: Lord Quinton
My Lords, I regret that I have to inform the House of the death of the noble Lord, Lord Quinton, on June 19th. On behalf of the House, I extend our condolences to the noble Lord’s family and friends.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have proposals to use photodynamic therapy (PDT) for the treatment of cancer, particularly oral cancer.
My Lords, it is for clinicians to decide on the suitability of treating a patient with photodynamic therapy—PDT. It is then for primary care trusts to consider whether to fund that treatment, taking into account the available evidence. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has issued interventional procedure guidance on photodynamic therapy for nine cancer indications, including oral cancer.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree with me that the most important thing, whatever the type of cancer, is early detection? Will he encourage the research that I hear is being done and which we read about in all the newspapers, which entails a very simple blood test that detects cancer at the earliest stage?
My noble friend is absolutely correct. It is now generally agreed that the most important reasons for the lower survival rates in England compared with other European countries are: low public awareness of the signs and symptoms of cancer, delays in people presenting to their doctors, and patients having more advanced disease at the time of diagnosis. We are looking very carefully at how best to achieve earlier diagnosis. There are some key messages on the NHS Choices website and the national awareness and early diagnosis initiative has been under way since 2008. As for my noble friend’s second question, on the blood test, the newspaper reports in recent days have been extremely exciting in terms of the potential. However, it is clear that researchers will have to demonstrate improved clinical outcomes for patients before any large-scale rollout can be applied.
My Lords, given the Minister’s reply, does he agree that targeted screening remains the best way to prevent growth of oral cancer? Given the success of the previous Government in cutting the overall rates of cancer deaths, is he prepared to guarantee that the current investment and screening programme will continue?
The noble Baroness is quite right that screening plays a very important part in the detection of cancer. However, it is not universally applicable to every cancer. In terms of oral cancer, which was the particular subject of my noble friend’s Question, there are difficulties. For example, there is considerable uncertainty about how the disease progresses—its natural history—and we cannot predict which lesions will be malignant and which will not. We need clear guidelines—for dentists, for example—and we do not have those. There is also no clear evidence base for the management of malignant lesions when we find them. However, the National Screening Committee will review its position again in about three years’ time and will no doubt take all the current evidence into account.
My Lords, does my noble friend accept that when we are trying to improve treatments for cancer, we are looking for non-invasive approaches and specific and, so far as possible, less expensive approaches? Photodynamic therapy has been very useful not just for oral cancer but for skin cancers of various kinds, particularly squamous cell carcinoma. Does he accept that encouraging not just dermatologists but also general practitioners to move in this direction will mean that we can have specific, non-invasive and generally quite efficient treatment, and that that is to be encouraged by the Government?
I am very grateful to my noble friend. It may help the House if I briefly explain what PDT is. It is a technique that uses laser or other light sources combined with a light-sensitive drug, which in combination destroy cancer cells. When the light is directed in the area of the cancer, the drug is activated. As my noble friend indicated, although this is an invasive procedure, it is minimally so; and its advantage is that, unlike radiotherapy, no cumulative toxicity is involved, so someone can be treated with PDT repeatedly. However, there are difficulties, one of which is that there is no obvious clinical leadership in this field, and that has to be addressed. There need to be centres of excellence in order for the right lessons to be learnt and the right research to be done.
My Lords, there is no doubt that, once patients are at the hospital, they are likely to get the treatment, but can the Minister assure us that GPs will be encouraged to make speedy referrals? In the cases that I know of, the difficulty has been in getting from the GP to the centre of excellence in order to get the treatment.
The noble Baroness is quite right, which is why in the NHS there is such an emphasis on speed of referral when a GP first suspects that cancer may be present in a patient. This is an area to which we are very alive, and I hope that we will be able to make further announcements about it in due course.
Does the Minister accept that new cancer treatments such as PDT have benefited both from crucial investment by the Government and from partnership with leading cancer research charities? Is he prepared to guarantee that this crucial research will continue to be funded by the Government so that more deaths from cancer can be prevented in the future?
The noble Baroness is quite right. This is a partnership effort, and she may know that a systematic review of PDT has been undertaken as part of the Health Technology Assessment programme, which is an element of the National Institute for Health Research. The final report on that will be published in August, but the institute has already identified that there are not enough high-quality research studies in this area. We know from experts in the field that there are at least three or four areas where further research should be prioritised.
Is the Minister aware that this month is the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser? At that time its use in medicine could not have been foreseen. Does he therefore accept how important it is to enable universities to continue to do research in this field, in the hope that there will be future inventions, and not to cut them back in this area?
The noble Baroness makes a crucial point. I am sure she will agree that neither basic research nor translational research should be neglected when we look at the research effort. Indeed, my own department is looking carefully at how the barriers to clinical research can be reduced. Therefore, she is absolutely right to focus our attention on the importance of continuing research.
Dangerous Dogs Act 1991
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to amend or to improve the operation of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.
My Lords, on 1 June a wide-ranging public consultation on dangerous dogs laws closed. This consultation received 4,250 responses, which will need to be analysed before any action relating to dangerous dogs legislation is considered.
My Lords, given the explosion in the number of attack dogs in London, with the number seized by the Metropolitan Police—I declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority—rising 22-fold in five years and with the Met having to budget £10.5 million for kennelling costs alone, when can we expect the Government to complete this review of the legislation? What, in the shorter term, is going to be done to expedite the processes that can often mean that dogs have to be held for many months before a final decision can be taken by the courts on their disposal?
My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the growth in such attacks and in the number of people who have to seek hospital treatment as a result of attacks by dogs. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is not the only piece of legislation available to local authorities and others dealing with those matters. There is the Dogs Act 1871, the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006. We will certainly consider carefully the consultation started by the previous Administration and make appropriate decisions afterwards.
Is not one of the problems of the Dangerous Dogs Act the unintended consequences of listing four types of dangerous dogs? Thousands of responsible owners have had their pets destroyed not because of how they behave but because of how they look. Surely new legislation should concentrate on irresponsible dog owners rather than on only the breed.
My Lords, we will certainly look at the problems of irresponsible owners, but there are certain advantages in breed-specific legislation. The police are of the view that without the restriction that that legislation gives, particularly on pit bulls, there would be many more serious dog attacks.
Does the Minister agree that many of the dangerous dogs are imported from overseas, especially from Europe? They are imported into Ireland initially, and from there go to Northern Ireland and then to the mainland. If the dogs were microchipped, as they are under the Pet Travel Scheme on the importation of dogs, it would be known to whom they belonged and whether people were training them to be attack dogs. The ownership and movement of those dogs could be followed by a simple procedure of microchipping. It would also help to identify, as has been mentioned, whether the dogs are dangerous.
My Lords, compulsory microchipping was considered in the consultation. I do not think that it would necessarily solve all the problems because those who possess such dogs might not bother to get them microchipped and they would still be in breach of the law. The evidence from abroad is that where there is compulsory microchipping only 50 per cent of the dogs are microchipped.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that one of the problems facing the police in dealing with dogs which they suspect to be pit bulls is the pit-bull-type dog? It can take many months for the police to establish exactly the breed or the type of dog and at enormous cost to public funds. Some of the dogs’ homes are considering refusing to take these dogs because of the time taken and the cost to the charities. Is that part of the consultation?
My Lords, there have been problems with dogs being kept in kennels for rather a long time as a result of the legal processes. We will certainly want to talk to colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about whether the legal processes can be speeded up so that the dogs need not be kept in kennels for so long. We have heard from the Metropolitan Police in particular that the costs are very high and rising.
My Lords, what action is available to the courts for disposal of dangerous dogs and prohibited breeds? While the owners await decisions of the court, is it the case that a number of the dogs disappear?
My Lords, I am not aware that any have disappeared from kennels while waiting for the court’s decision. If my noble friend has any evidence of that, we would be grateful if he would pass it on to us. The Dangerous Dogs Act deals not only with specific breeds but, under Section 3, allows action against a dog of any type or breed if it is deemed to be behaving dangerously.
My Lords, following my noble friend’s point about timing, can the Minister tell us when the Government will respond to the consultation and whether they will publish the results?
My Lords, as regards timing, I do not think that I can help the noble Baroness much more than by saying that we will do that as soon as is possible—we have all said that before—but we will certainly publish the results of our consultation when we make the appropriate decisions about how we should respond to it.
My Lords, I asked my noble friend what disposals were available to the courts respectively for dangerous dogs and prohibited breeds. Perhaps he could remind me.
My Lords, the courts can order the dog to be put down if they find that it is a prohibited breed or if it is dangerous, but that will be done in the most humane manner possible.
My Lords, has the noble Lord considered that resources and the number of people trained to deal with the Act might be one of the most important factors in whether this or any other piece of legislation works?
My Lords, Defra offers guidance to police forces, and all police forces have to have a designated dog legislation officer who knows what the law is and how it can be used to best effect. We certainly assist in providing training for those dog legislation officers, so that local authorities can enforce the law in the most appropriate manner.
Justice: Legal Fees
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to exercise the power conferred by section 58(4)(a) of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 to reduce the maximum success fee chargeable under a conditional fee agreement in defamation proceedings.
The Government are currently considering the recommendations from Lord Justice Jackson’s report, Review of Civil Litigation Costs, published in January 2010. The Government’s analysis of Sir Rupert’s recommendations, once completed, will determine the next steps on the success fee in defamation proceedings.
My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and the right honourable Jack Straw, who began to focus on the abuses created by conditional fee agreements with 100 per cent success fees. I urge the Minister and his colleagues not to wait for consideration of the vast Jackson report before taking urgent action to deal with what I think is a scandal, where some fellow members of my profession charge inordinate fees through the conditional fee agreement so that the costs far outweigh any damages that NGOs, individuals or the press may have to pay. That is a very urgent matter.
My Lords, we recognise the sense of urgency, but also the complexity of the issue. As my noble friend will know, the proposals made by the previous Government ran into trouble at the other end of the building. We are looking at the Jackson report and we will treat the matter with the urgency that my noble friend said that it deserves.
My Lords, the Minister knows that on 25 March last, this House agreed the statutory instrument that would have given effect to the intention of his noble friend Lord Lester. Will he please use his undoubted great influence in government to ensure that that intention is fulfilled and that that happens soon? It needs to. This is a bit of a scandal. We cannot wait for Jackson. We look forward to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in due course but this needs quick government action. Can the Minister please do his best to ensure that that happens?
I can give assurances that we will treat the matter with all due seriousness. Whether we will follow the same path as the previous Administration is more questionable. As the noble Lord will know, Lord Justice Jackson has made a different recommendation about how to deal with this problem. We will weigh up what he has argued in his report and consider the debate in this House and other views on what the previous Administration was proposing to do.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that a very large proportion of success fees are paid in defamation cases brought by claimants who are sufficiently wealthy themselves to pay a proper professional fee for their action? Therefore, success fees make no contribution whatsoever to proper access to justice. In asking that question, I declare an interest as I act for Mirror Group Newspapers, which is bringing proceedings in the European Court of Human Rights relating to success fees in the case of Naomi Campbell and her privacy complaint.
Having spent some years treading the line between public relations clients and what I could say in the House, I am always very envious of how my learned friends manage to tread that line so well. This defamation area produces great scandals, and I think that the balance of Lord Justice Jackson’s report will point us in the direction of urgent action. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who has made available to my department his not inconsiderable research and preparation for a Defamation Bill, which will, I hope, enable us to move forward very quickly on this. I do not think I will say any more about the Mirror Group case.
Can the Minister confirm whether this change in success fees would apply to cases heard in the High Court? If so, is he aware of a ruling in the High Court this morning that the decision of the previous Government to impose unitary authorities on Norwich and Exeter was unlawful? Given that this is a victory for common sense, will he ensure that there is no maximum in the success fee available to counsel?
I thank the noble Lord for bringing me up to date on that saga. I think there should be a limit on success fees or, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, suggested, that the success fee should be borne by the successful claimant.
What are the views of the Bar Council and the Law Society about this issue? Do they think it can wait or do they demand urgent action?
We are taking the advice of the Bar Council and the Law Society. Nobody has suggested that the issue should wait. Lord Justice Jackson has produced a 500-page report which even due courtesy would suggest should be studied before the Government proceed to action.
Would my noble friend look more widely at the conditional fee situation now prevailing? As he may know, there are large commercial purchasers of cases from the public—they are not subject to any Law Society or Bar Council rules—who then sell them in bulk to solicitors for a fee per case plus a proportion of the conditional fee gathered in the course of it. Would he not accept that that is a gross problem for justice today?
The way the conditional fee regime has grown up has produced a number of abuses and anomalies. Right from the beginning, from those Benches across there, I raised some of the actions of the companies to which my noble friend referred. I know that Lord Justice Jackson has looked at the actions of those companies in his report and has made some recommendations. I think that right across the House, there is a general feeling that there are abuses in the conditional fee system. We have to get the balance right between the access to justice that conditional fees give and some of the anomalies and, indeed, abuses that have grown up in practice. We will do so after consideration of Jackson, but with all due urgency.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to members of the European Union to protect the British economy from the financial situation in the eurozone.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer and Treasury Ministers attend regular meetings of EU Ministers, including the Council of Economic and Finance Ministers—ECOFIN. These discussions cover a wide range of issues, including the ongoing situation in sovereign debt markets.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer, and I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests. I have two points to raise with him. Funds have been established to try and help countries in the EU that are in difficulties, but one of the underlying causes of those difficulties is the loss of competitiveness. Is that likely to be solved before the money and time run out? If it is not solved by then, what then happens?
Secondly, I draw my noble friend’s attention to the alternative investment fund managers directive that is currently being imposed on us. The European Parliament estimated that that directive would cost the European Union as a whole roughly 0.2 per cent of its GDP, but, as most of the alternative investment funds are in the United Kingdom, the potential cost to us is much greater. Have the Government managed to draw any of this directive’s teeth? If not, how much is it likely to cost the United Kingdom?
My Lords, I will deal first with the question of competitiveness. The UK Government, the European Council and the Union well recognise that competitiveness must be improved in parallel with steps that are being taken to deal with the immediate financial situation of a number of member states. I draw my noble friend’s attention to the EU economic taskforce under the leadership of the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, which will report to the October Council. As well as dealing with crisis resolution matters, it has competitiveness indicators very much on its agenda. Indeed, it considers competitiveness absolutely in parallel with crisis resolution issues, as well as more broadly as part of the Europe 2020 exercise.
On the alternative investment fund managers directive, the European Council and the European Parliament have each taken positions that do not agree with each other, so the UK Government and the industry have a short window up to the end of July in which to make final representations and attempt to make sure that we get the best deal for what is a very important industry for the City of London out of this trialogue process.
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that a good way in which to protect the British economy would be to refuse to underwrite massive sums for Brussels, such as the £8 billion mentioned by his noble friend Lord De Mauley on 8 June, which are illegal under the treaties? How many billions are we going to be exposed to through the illegal breach of Article 125, which forbids member states to bail out others?
I thank the noble Lord for his questions. First, to be clear, it is the view of the UK Government that no illegal action has been taken under Article 125 or any of the other relevant articles. On the UK’s exposure, we have not as a country participated in the €440 billion special purpose vehicle for assistance. We do, however, participate in the €60 billion finance facility, which is available to any member state under Article 122.2 and which we think strikes an appropriate balance between the eurozone taking primary responsibility for stabilisation within the eurozone and the important part that we have to play as part of the wider EU 27. For completeness, we participate in the IMF standby facilities.
Can the Minister confirm categorically to the House that the Government will in no circumstances divulge to European institutions the thinking behind or the detail of proposed Budgets or the work of the OBR? Does he agree that if that categoric assurance cannot be given, there are grounds for a referendum?
My Lords, I can give an assurance that any request to submit the UK Budget to Europe will not be completed until the Budget has been submitted to and approved by the UK Parliament.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we want to see growth in Europe and businesses growing, expanding and being given the opportunity to borrow money from the banks? Is it therefore a sensible time to think about taxing the banks and reducing their ability to make that money available?
My Lords, I think that we will probably come back to the question of bank levies tomorrow after my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget. He has made it completely clear that the UK supports bank levies. We will take unilateral action, but we want to seek international agreement to make sure that the bank levies are, as far as possible, introduced on a common basis.
My Lords, the noble Lord will have noticed that he did not answer the Question on the Order Paper. Does he recognise that there are serious consequences for the UK if there is any major collapse in the economy in the eurozone, not least to the UK banks which have large numbers of debts owing from many countries within the eurozone? In those circumstances, should we not seek to help rather than hinder them and gloat over their difficulties?
My Lords, I am grateful for the reminder that not only are 40 per cent of the UK’s exports exposed to the eurozone—so we want to see a stable eurozone—but that through financial linkages the whole financial system, including the banking system, is exposed. That is why we believe that the forthcoming publication of bank stress tests is an important part of the support going forward.
Allhallows Staining Church Bill [HL]
Kent County Council (Filming on Highways) Bill [HL]
That the Commons message of 16 June be now considered; and that the promoters of the Allhallows Staining Church Bill [HL], which was originally introduced in this House in Session 2009–10 on 25 January 2010, should have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 150B (Revival of Bills).
That the Commons message of 16 June be now considered; and that the promoters of the Kent County Council (Filming on Highways) Bill [HL], which was originally introduced in this House in Session 2009–10 on 25 January 2010, should have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 150B (Revival of Bills).
Works of Art Committee
That Baroness Maddock be appointed a member of the Select Committee in place of Lord Smith of Clifton, resigned, and that Lord Roberts of Llandudno be appointed a member of the Select Committee.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
That leave be given to advance the Motion in the name of Baroness Verma from Monday 28 June to Tuesday 22 June.
My Lords, in moving the Motion, it may be helpful if I say a few words about the scheduling of business in the next few weeks. The Motion on the Order Paper today seeks leave to bring forward from next week to tomorrow the debate in the name of my noble friend Lady Verma on progress towards meeting the millennium development goal on universal primary education. This proposed change has come about as a result of discussions on the Academies Bill, which the House will begin considering in Committee today.
Last Wednesday, the Chief Whip published Forthcoming Business, which set out three consecutive days for Committee stage on the Academies Bill. I must confess that there was a misunderstanding as to how this came about, which led to some feeling that this was not the optimum way to proceed. As a result, there were further and very constructive discussions between the usual channels, which led to the republication of Forthcoming Business. This revised edition sets out three days for Committee stage on the Academies Bill—today, Wednesday 23 June and Monday 28 June. I am sure that these revised dates will be welcomed by all sides of the House. Furthermore, the usual channels have agreed to take Report stage on Wednesday 7 July.
The usual channels are a vital part of self-regulation in this House and we remain committed to ensuring that they work effectively on behalf of the whole House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I warmly welcome the statement and the clarification from the Leader of the House. The usual channels provide a very important function for and within this House, although sometimes some noble Lords think that perhaps the system is too opaque. However, I believe that it works very well. For the smooth running of business and the well-being of the House as a whole, it is crucial that the whole House has confidence in the system. The noble Lord’s statement demonstrates that we agree on the importance of a fair system which respects the role of the Government and the Opposition. I thank the noble Lord.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, at a convenient point after 4 pm today my noble friend Lord Hill of Oareford will repeat an Urgent Question as a Statement on the free schools policy, followed immediately by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, who will repeat a Statement on the European Council.
Academies Bill [HL]
Committee (1st Day)
Clause 1 [Academy arrangements]:
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 3, leave out “Academy” and insert “Direct Maintained School”
We begin today the first scrutiny in Committee of the first Bill from the new coalition Government. The Government have tried to present the Academies Bill now before us as non-controversial, as an extension of Labour policy on academies, and so as something that should be easy for reasonable people on this side of the House to support. It is to be a decentralising measure, devolving more power to local people to run their schools and making a contribution to improving the quality of teaching and learning in schools, with all the benefits to children’s life chances and to our wider society that that implies. This Bill is also being presented as a contribution to the big society—the idea which the Conservatives promoted a little in the general election. I suspect that we will hear less about that as we go forward, but nevertheless it is a very interesting idea.
I believe that the Bill is nothing of the sort. We on this side recognise it for what it may well turn out to be—highly centralising, potentially damaging to children’s education, damaging to communities, and a device more to establish free schools by the back door. The Bill does not seek to improve our education system. Instead, it may well be shown that it seeks to make fundamental and damaging changes to it. The Government would not increase the number of Labour-designed academies, designed when we were in government; rather they seek to create a new class of school with a motive which is entirely different from the laudable aims behind the Labour academies. The schools that they would create are not necessarily appropriate to bear the name “academy”. That is why we seek to deny that name to these schools. They should be called what they will be: direct maintained schools.
Ministers have spent so many years attacking local government that they have forgotten something about which their own Conservative-controlled Local Government Association has reminded them:
“Councils don’t run schools and haven’t done for many years”.
That is a quotation from an LGA Bill briefing. Schools run themselves, which is how it should be, but councils do have a range of statutory duties to protect the welfare of children in their area, including a duty to promote,
“the fulfilment by every child concerned of his educational potential”.
Councils make sure that there are enough school places for all the children who need them, and their top priority is to make sure that the same high standards of education are offered to all students, whether they are taught in a community school or an academy. Councils make sure that the admissions process operates fairly so that every child gets a chance to go to a good local school. They oversee the distribution of funding in conjunction with local schools in a cost-effective way. They provide support for children with special educational needs, something I know that the Committee is concerned about, and they are the champions of children in care.
Far from being non-contentious, there are many issues in the Bill which deserve full scrutiny by the Committee. As the Bill progresses through your Lordships’ House, I hope we will be able to demonstrate how potentially retrograde it could be. For now, this group of amendments concentrates on only one issue. It is not a superficial or symbolic point but a very substantive one—that the schools established under the Bill will not be academies but something else entirely, and what they are called should reflect that fact.
The academy scheme put forward by this side of the Committee when we were in government was intended as a means by which schools which were failing too many pupils could be supported quickly, directly and effectively. Some Members of this Committee believe that the schools created under the provisions of the Bill will be comparable to Labour’s academies. Nothing could be further from the truth. We need a discussion on terminology in order to highlight what is proposed in the Bill. Is it so new? In reality, it could represent a return to something remarkably similar to the grant-maintained schools of the mid-1990s. So we must first establish what we mean by an academy.
Academies are all-ability, state-funded schools which have sponsors from a wide range of backgrounds, including universities, colleges, educational trusts, charities, the business sector and faith communities. I pay tribute to the contribution that the sponsors have made; it has been absolutely key. Sponsors establish a charity trust which appoints the majority of governors to the academy governing body. The academy’s programme targets areas of inadequate educational attainment and opportunity. Most academies replace existing weak or underperforming schools, and others are brand new schools in areas which need extra school places. They were a key element of the national challenge and took us to a position—from a very low start—where only one in 12 schools fell below the 30 per cent grade A to C benchmark, which half of all schools failed to do under the previous Conservative Government.
Academies are required by law to cater for children of all abilities. The school admissions code which came into force in 2007 applies to all maintained schools and academies when setting their admissions arrangements. Academies must also have regard to the SEN code of practice and statutory guidance on inclusion. An academy is established in collaboration, not confrontation, with the local authority as a means by which extra resources can be freed up to support the most disadvantaged and the weakest. Academies are given new leadership, and some of the best heads in the country have been attracted to run them.
Outside expertise brought in new ideas, new ways of working and a new focus on the best ways to change the culture of learning. Importantly, a role for innovation was acknowledged and, for this reason, academies were obliged to follow the national curriculum only in core subjects such as English, maths, science and information technology. With academy status came a new ethos, perhaps with a renewed focus on discipline, a new uniform and new ways of organising the school day. New buildings frequently provided the focus for this change of ethos and helped to deliver excellent discipline and the best facilities. However, just as important, academies helped to deliver to children a sense of pride in their education; that they should be proud of themselves and proud of their school in return.
The 63 academies which have been open long enough to produce results in both 2008 and 2009 have seen, at the end of key stage 4, an increase of 5 percentage points—up to 34.9 per cent—in pupils gaining five or more A* to C grades at GCSE and equivalent, including English and maths. On the five-plus A* to C measure, the 63 academies improved by 11.7 percentage points, compared with an improvement of 5.4 percentage points nationally. The Minister has recognised the importance of that achievement. A comparison of the 101 academies that had results in 2009 and predecessor results in 2001 shows a 16.4 percentage point improvement in the number of pupils achieving five-plus A* to C, including English and maths, from 17.8 per cent in 2001 to 34.2 per cent in 2009. This compares with an average 11.9 percentage point improvement nationally, from 38.8 per cent in 2001 to 50.7 per cent in 2009. The 101 academies and their predecessor schools have also more than doubled the percentage of pupils achieving five-plus A* to C, from 26.3 per cent in 2001 to 65.2 per cent in 2009. Nationally, the increase is 22 percentage points, from 47.8 per cent in 2001 to 69.8 per cent in 2009. It is important to put these figures on the record. We on this side of the Committee are proud of what was achieved through our academies programme, but to compare this with the free-for-all that is on the table is disingenuous and potentially misleading.
The most significant difference between the approach of the current Government and that of the previous Government relates to which kinds of school are given the greatest support to become academies. As a group, compared with the average for all state schools, academies have nearly two and a half times the proportion of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals. Academies have had a higher incidence of pupils with English as an additional language than other state-funded schools. By contrast, the present Government propose to implement a reform aimed not at improvements for these schools but at improvements for the 20 per cent of schools already rated as outstanding by Ofsted.
There are other key differences between these plans and Labour’s radical reforms aimed at turning schools around. The Bill offers no extra resources for schools bar a small contribution to the extra paperwork that the school will be required to carry out as a result of this process. It also makes it clear that schools that convert will have to make no changes whatever; they will have no requirement to bring in outside expertise in order to open themselves up to new ideas. They will simply be absolved of any responsibilities to co-operate with the schools around them through, for example, children’s trusts or behaviour partnerships, or any of the many other ways in which schools are entitled and encouraged to work together.
There will be no requirement of the schools to contribute their fair share of education budgets towards the education of children with special needs or behavioural difficulties in their community. Indeed, the funding allocated to educate those children will be cut back to give the academies additional funds to do with as they please. Under the approach adopted by this side of the Committee when in government, an academy was open to all, accessible to all, and intended to challenge and educate those who were most in need of support. Selection was anathema to that system, but some schools, as selective, old-style grammar schools, will now be allowed to convert to academies. By definition, their pupils will be the least likely to need the shared services of the local authority, but will still be in receipt of their share of the funding allocated to their local authority to fund these services. That does not add up. I look forward to being convinced that I have misunderstood all of this.
We on this side are proud of the achievements of academies. The class of school brought into being by the Bill would be free from “local authority control”—since, as I said, LEAs do not control schools now—but free also from the obligations to their local communities that all schools should have. That is why we do not wish the Bill to use “academies” in its title; it is not as clear as it should be.
If the Secretary of State would like to create and provide for thousands of schools that are independent of spirit and isolated in operation, he should find his own label for them. He should not use the name “academy”. In our amendments, we have suggested that he should use the term “direct maintained school”, because that is what he proposes to do—to maintain the schools directly. That is what is being proposed, and that—not academies—is an accurate description of these schools. These are not the type of school that we on these Benches made such a success. A significant and different approach has been used. That difference is significant and should be recognised in the name. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister's response.
My Lords, the noble Baroness rightly reminds the House of the accomplishments of the academies that were set up in the past decade. We pay generous tribute to the success of those academies. Because we have been able to observe how strongly they have raised the standards of so many young people, this Government have decided to build on that success and create even more academies and much more quickly.
I find it very sad that the noble Baroness, who played such a major part in the growth of the academies when her party was in power, should now seek to denigrate the attempt that is being made to spread that much more widely. I will not attempt for a moment to answer all of the very many questions that she asked and the very many criticisms that she directed at the policy, but at one point she asked whether she had misunderstood. I would like to pick on one particular area where she has misunderstood. It is perfectly true that the intention is to allow those schools that are rated outstanding by Ofsted to come through on a fast track, but the main thrust of the policy is exactly as it has been before: to establish academies in those places with the least successful schools—the most failing schools in the most deprived areas—so that the standards for those children who have been educationally so poorly served can be greatly improved. That is a misunderstanding.
I realise that it is a common misunderstanding because I have had it said to me by many people and many friends in the education service over the past few weeks. I am sure that my noble friend will underline the fact that it is important to recognise that just because there is a fast track for outstanding schools, it does not mean at all that schools that are educationally failing so many of their young people are not still the main focus of our policy in the Bill.
My Lords, I do not intend to make a Second Reading speech, but I understand why the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, did so. She makes a good case for keeping on academies. Even though one or two of them have not done quite so well, most of them have. However, she did not make any case for not allowing other schools to have the freedoms that her Government felt were so important to give to schools that needed to improve. That is what this Bill does. My breath was taken away to hear her comments about centralisation given the track record of the new Labour Government.
At first glance, the amendments look as though they are about labels. I have always been of the view that a label should say what is in the tin. Indeed, in the Liberal Democrat policy paper about our version of academies, we decided to call them exactly what was in the tin, which was “sponsor-managed schools”. Our version of academies was slightly different from the one that we are considering today, but now we are in coalition.
Indeed, the amendments would return us to the new Labour version of academies. In particular, Amendments 39 and 40 would remove the ability of outstanding schools to apply for academy status. When the Labour Government first introduced academies, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches asked why other schools should not have the same freedom to innovate as was being offered to these schools. We believe strongly in the importance of the professionalism of teachers, and schools have a duty to provide a curriculum that is appropriate to their particular cohort of students. Most schools actually do not use the range of freedoms to innovate that they were given in legislation passed under the previous Government. We are very much in favour of allowing professionals to innovate and provide appropriate education for their children. Those sort of freedoms should be given to all schools, but I can understand why my noble friend wants to approach first those schools that have already proved the professionalism of their leadership and their staff by becoming outstanding, to allow them to run with those freedoms and use them well in providing a good education for children. There is a lot of logic in adding to the cohort of what were failing schools, which will now get special attention under the academies scheme, those schools that have already demonstrated that they can provide an outstanding education, and in giving them the freedoms that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, introduced in the first place.
I do not support any of these amendments. They are not just about labels, of course. They are about removing a very important group of schools from the Bill.
My Lords, the Church of England has the largest family of academies under the existing provisions, as noble Lords will be aware, and is currently educating 34,000 children from relatively poor areas, so we are interested very much in the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, is making. As it stands, the Bill encourages her in the line that she has taken. However, as I look through the amendments tabled for us to debate in Committee, I see real potential—if the Minister is minded to accept some of them—for the Bill to enable us to recognise clearly the family resemblance between the new wave of academies and the ones that are now in existence. I await with interest the way that this debate develops. At the moment, I would find it quite easy to support the amendments, but I hope that I will find it very difficult by the end of this process.
I begin by paying tribute to the Church of England for the outstanding work that it does in promoting academies. As the right reverend Prelate said, the Church of England is the largest single sponsor of academies. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool and I worked closely on the development of academies in Liverpool and the area around, and they are making marvellous progress, extending opportunity in an area that has not had it in the past.
This is my first opportunity in the House to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hill, on his appointment, which I do very warmly indeed. I should also say how glad I am that my noble friends Lady Royall and Lady Morgan are leading on this Bill for the Opposition. They bring a wealth of talent and experience to the task.
My noble friend Lady Morgan raised a number of policy issues about the extension of academies, which I shall leave the Minister to respond to. However, on the specific issue about the legal name that should be given to a certain category of school, I find myself in surprising agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. She and I are survivors from the interminable debates on the Education Act 2005, on which our views did not coincide all the time, particularly on the issue of academies. But she is right that, in terms of legal category, the schools to which the Bill proposes to accord that status have all the essential characteristics of existing academies.
I know that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet but, for two reasons, I do not support this amendment on the name that it gives to a legal category of schools. First, the schools which we are talking about in this Bill are academies in all their essential legal characteristics. They are managed independently of the local authority, on a contract with the Secretary of State that regulates a whole host of their policies and funding and which will be similar to that of existing academies. My noble friend says that academies are schools largely in deprived or challenging circumstances, and she is correct, although I need to point out to the House that that is not the exclusive preserve of academies. A number of entirely new schools have been set up as academies in very mixed social areas and a number of successful schools, including successful independent schools, have come into the state system by using the legal category of academies.
The legal status is clearly set out in Section 65 of the Education Act 2002, which is cast in similar terms to Clause 1. I emphasise the fact that the 2002 Act, which was passed by the last Government, does not specify that academies, in legal terms, can only be schools that pass a threshold either of deprivation or of low achievement. On the contrary, I invite Members of the Committee to look at Section 65, which says:
“The Secretary of State may enter into an agreement with any person under which … that person undertakes to establish and maintain, and to carry on or provide for the carrying on of, an independent school in England with the characteristics mentioned in subsection (2)”.
Those characteristics are that the school,
“has a curriculum satisfying the requirements of section 78 of the Education Act 2002”,
and that it,
“provides education for pupils of different abilities who are wholly or mainly drawn from the area in which the school is situated”.
Those provisions are almost identical to those in the Bill.
If there is no legal distinction between the schools that we are talking about in this Bill and those referred to under the Education Act 2002, is there another public policy reason for us to give a different label to certain schools within a similar legal category? I urge your Lordships not to do so. We already have an alphabet soup of different names for schools within the state system: community schools, foundation schools with a foundation, foundation schools without a foundation, voluntary aided schools, voluntary controlled schools, trust schools, city technology colleges, grammar schools, maintained special schools and non-maintained special schools. If the schools that we are talking about are academies, as they are in their essential legal characteristics, the right thing to do is to call them academies and not to add to the alphabet soup.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, paid tribute to the right reverend Prelates, so I shall pay tribute to him. He was a most excellent Schools Minister and was largely responsible for the success of the academies programme. As the Minister said, the party opposite has every right to be proud of what it achieved. I also praise the noble Lord for starting off his life as a Back-Bencher exactly as I hope he will continue, feeling free to disagree with his Front Bench. As my noble friend Lord Hill will discover, feeling free to criticise one’s own side when one feels that it is getting it wrong is the mark of respect that every Back-Bencher seeks to attain.
I feel that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, although she was in turn an excellent Minister, is getting it wrong. It was always inevitable that the academies programme, once it had proved itself and gained momentum, would be open to existing schools. The idea that schools have to fail in order to become academies is not tenable. The substance of the amendment is political phooey and should be disregarded.
The noble Baroness raised a number of points that I suspect I will agree with later—or at least I will share her concerns. This is a new phase for the academy movement and it raises questions which were left in abeyance when the academies were few and had strong sponsors but which need examining now. However, a change of name, with further confusion for parents and everybody else, is not required.
My Lords, at Second Reading many noble Lords pointed out that most parents want a good local school, whatever it is called, and that good schools depend on good leadership, good teachers and good classroom practice, none of which I see mentioned in the Bill. My noble friend made some interesting points about academies, as did the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—I quite agree with him about the alphabet soup of schools. However, this is not just discussion about a name.
I have never particularly liked the name “academy” for a school, despite my respect and affection for my noble friend Lord Adonis. To me, the term has always meant a Scottish secondary school, the garden where Plato taught or, as in the Brixton Academy, a nightclub. As I understand it, we are talking about names that have legal and constitutional significance. No doubt we will tease out some of these legal and constitutional issues, such as buildings, charitable status, admissions, inspection, employment, VAT regulations, freedom of information and data protection, throughout the passage of the Bill. My noble friend is right. If these apply to what are called direct maintained schools—in other words, if they have to obey the rules I have just mentioned—the name should be looked at again. Could the noble Lord please spell out—I am sure he will—the differences between the name “academies”, as referred to in the Bill, and other kinds of school which now exist, and tell us why the name should not be changed?
I totally support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, about the name. The name “academies” followed from the creation of the city technology colleges. Although the city technology colleges were a wonderful idea in the Education Reform Act 1988, the name was a bit of a mouthful and did not describe well what those fine institutions sought to achieve. When the Learning and Skills Act 2000 first made provision for city academies, it was a clarification. In Greek learning, an academy is a place of high education and research. That is exactly the type of name and message that one wants in our education environment. However, the term “city academies” was then changed. The “city” part was dropped, which in many ways makes the point that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was presenting. At that point, in the 2002 Act, when city academies were replaced by the concept of academies, there was a distinct intention that the academy movement should be broadened. I think that is right. Therefore, what is being proposed by the Government is also right.
I make another point in support of my noble friend Lady Perry, who spoke about the Bill’s role in tackling failing schools. Clause 4 covers academy orders, which are directly targeted at the failure which exists within many local authority areas. The noble Baroness may have mentioned from the Front Bench that it is almost a divine right that every child in a local authority area will have access to good quality education. However, we know for a fact that that is not happening. That is why the Bill is necessary.
I register an interest as a former director of four academies. The other point is that the existing academies were invariably quickly oversubscribed. The notion that they were open to all was, again, not true. That is why we need a big expansion of the programme. We also need new schools. The other point was about ability. As I recall, there was certainly a provision, which still exists, to say that the academies could select up to 10 per cent of their pupils on the basis of aptitude in the school’s specialism. Again, that element is there. I see that the Bill has merely continued that.
The amendment probably falls into the category of “brave try”. As a former Shadow Front Bench spokesman, I know that brave tries are our lot in life. However, the term “academy” is a sound one, which should continue and be extended.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that the diocese of Liverpool is a co-sponsor with the Catholic arch-diocese of three academies, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, mentioned. We have already seen remarkable progress being made in our first academy situated in an area of great deprivation. Within four years, the Academy of St Francis of Assisi has gone from 27 per cent to 66 per cent of its pupils gaining five GCSEs at Grades A to C. The one thing that I have learnt from the academy experiment—it is now more than an experiment as it is well established—is that children’s performance is improved through investing in the training and performance of teachers. There is a direct correlation between the performance of teachers and that of pupils. This surprised me, even though I began my professional career as a teacher. Investment in the head, the senior management team and the teachers in academies has made a remarkable contribution to improving people’s life chances, especially in deprived communities.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is right that under the previous Administration there was a shift from the original intention, which was to break the mould of education in deprived communities, but the policy has broadened out and schools have benefited. In the context of Liverpool, the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, made a powerful point. The Government may resist her amendment and stick with academies, but I hope that they will share the aspiration of the previous Administration to change the nature of education in our deprived communities—whatever name we choose, that is what is at stake—as the academy programme has shown that we can do that. If the Government persist with the title “academy”, I hope that they will also persist with the ambition to improve the life chances of young people in our most deprived areas.
My Lords, this is an interesting debate that has raised important issues. Legal status and legal titles are exactly that, but at the end of the day they are not the mark of success or failure in our education system. We may disagree on whether legal status is the measure that raises standards or whether it is something other than that. I very much agree with the previous speaker that standards are raised through the quality of teaching and of leadership rather than through legal status or title. However, whatever the relevant legal status was under the previous Government, the fact was that most of the effort and resources were put into the areas of greatest deprivation. I believe that is what academies should do. Once you spread the size of the club, you make it less special and you are not able to devote the same expertise to the schools that need it most. That is the decision that the Government have to make. In that respect, I wish to ask a very specific question about the impact assessment. On page two, it is estimated that over four years the net benefit will be £1.72 billion. I am surprised at that. The relevant figure is £282 million a year. The impact assessment states:
“Benefits are in terms of the increase in estimated lifetime earnings of the additional number of pupils attending academies and obtaining improved GCSE results … Evidence for impact of academies on pupil attainment is based on evidence from academies that opened before 2006”.
I find that very strange and would welcome an explanation of it. The schools that became academies before 2006 were situated in challenging areas. They were often failing schools that were letting down very bright students. The minute they got the chance, their grades improved, and over 12 to 24 months some schools went from fewer than 20 per cent of their pupils getting five A to C grades to as high a figure as 40, 50 or 60 per cent. The Government have decided to concentrate their effort, time and resources on outstanding schools, which may already have 90 per cent of their pupils getting five A to C grades, including English. Given that evidence, I am surprised at the impact assessment and the amount of money that is quoted. The maximum improvement that schools could make would be to increase from 90, 91 or 92 per cent to 100 per cent of all pupils. I like to think that I am an optimist in life, but I am surprised at how that could create a net benefit to the Exchequer and the nation of £1.72 billion over four years.
I have a further question on that. The figures relate to lifetime earnings. What measures or mechanisms are Ministers using, and in which years of these young peoples’ lives might that money accrue to the Treasury?
My Lords, I should like to make some points which are, I am afraid, against the group of amendments. I accept that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, has a certain logic on her side, but I do not like the logic. I rather take the point made by the right reverend Prelate—at least I think it was his point—that, whereas academies hitherto have been for underachieving and underprivileged communities, henceforth they will, as far as I can see, be at the other end of the educational spectrum. I actively dislike the prospect that they would be called something different, as if to emphasise that they are of a different “class”—a ghastly word. I like the idea of these posh new future academies being linked to the existing ones.
I endorse entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said. So often in this Chamber we underestimate or forget how our legislation will impact in the real world. We underestimate the effect of the mishmash of new names caused by our astonishing excess of legislation and constant wish to change and refine. For goodness’ sake, let us not create another category of schools.
My Lords, much as I admire—and I really do admire—the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and the considerable strides made on education by the previous Government, we all should admit that whichever Government have been in power—the previous Government and the Government immediately previous to them—we have not achieved the best education for all our children. That is the aim we should go for. I am delighted that we have had this debate. I did not consider that it would begin our debates on the Bill, but it has totally confirmed my view that, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said, we need to get away from this mishmash—this alphabet soup, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, called it—and stick to one name. Then we can get on with the business of looking at the many detailed amendments which will ensure that the Bill will achieve its purpose. We should vote here and now for the use of the name “academies”—and no other name for the way forward.
My Lords, from the diocese of Bath and Wells, I should point out that in Taunton we have just inaugurated an academy that will begin in September. It comprises two schools with a history of difficulty; we have spent a lot of time in preparation for them to become an academy, and we are very much looking forward to that.
Once the Bill was announced, one of our successful—indeed, our most successful—church secondary schools made a bid to become an academy. Listening to the reason given by the head of the school that it serves to produce an additional half-a-million pounds for his school budget made me a little cautious about motive. I have been a supporter of the academies since they began. I have no difficulty whatever with continuing with a single title, provided that we can ensure that none of this will make the more vulnerable in our schools less able to enjoy the benefit of full academy status.
My Lords, I have listened to the debate with great interest and am prompted to speak by what the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin, said about the independent, and possibly isolated, schools. I want to ask the Minister one quick question, which may well fall within the ambit of later amendments. I recently met a social worker, whose job is to work with and support a number of schools in the local area. I also spoke fairly recently to a head teacher, who said how helpful it was to have a social worker support her in what she does. Therefore, I would appreciate an assurance from the Minister that in this legislative process we are not going to make it any more difficult for that sort of set-up to carry on working.
My Lords, I shall start by speaking to Amendments 1, 5, 6, 8, 9, 65, 77, 86, 87, 93, 94, 194 and 195, which all seek to change the title and name of all existing and future academies to direct-maintained schools. Before I do so—perhaps with the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln ringing in my ears at the beginning—I should say that I know that the whole point of Committee stage is for us to tease out misunderstandings and to try to get clarity on various issues as we go forward. I am committed to doing that during this process and shall do my best to do so in the days ahead. I have already had lots of help and advice from all sides of the House over the past couple of weeks and I know that that will continue.
I am a little perplexed as to why the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, would want to turn her back on a policy and a name which, greatly to its credit, her party pioneered in government. I was even more perplexed when over the weekend I read the 2005 White Paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, which clearly argued for the extension of academy freedoms. As I think we mentioned at Second Reading, the day before the launch of the White Paper, the then Prime Minister was even more explicit. He said:
“We need to make it easier for every school to acquire the drive and essential freedoms of Academies ... We want every school to be able quickly and easily to become a self-governing independent state school ... All schools will be able to have Academy style freedom”.
That, in general terms, is what the Academies Bill makes possible.
I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, argued that using the name “academy” for all schools converting to the programme might in some way dilute the original intentions, and she specifically mentioned grant-maintained schools. These were quite different, not least because they got additional funding and operated effectively outside the system, which is not what is proposed with academies. She spoke about the policy now being for outstanding schools, rather than the original focus of the policy, which was, she said, on the most challenging schools. That point has already been picked up by my noble friend Lady Perry. I know that there has been a lot of comment about this and I am sorry if I did not do a better job in explaining it at Second Reading. The fact is that the focus on failing schools remains and, if anything, is strengthened because the Secretary of State will be able to act more decisively without local authority consent, should that be necessary.
Secondly, in line with what we believe was the previous Government’s intention, all schools will be able to apply for academy status, should they want to. In other words, the outstanding schools are simply a sub-set of all schools. I hope that that provides some reassurance on the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool. In what we propose, there is no intention that the generality of schools should be excluded from the chance to take part in this programme. Because those schools are outstanding, we believe that conversion for them should be relatively straightforward, and therefore we are saying that, if they want to convert, they should be able to go first. They would not have to have sponsors, but all other converting schools would.
My main argument in resisting the amendment has already been made for me by my noble friend Lady Walmsley and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I am particularly sympathetic to what was described as alphabet soup—what I think of as Alphabetti Spaghetti—in that, as a new Minister trying to get my head round the descriptions of all the different kinds of schools, the thought of having one more to learn would be almost intolerable.
The reason we believe the new wave of academies should be called academies is, precisely as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said, because they are set up on the same legal basis as an existing academy with the same freedoms, duties and responsibilities. Perhaps it would help if I set those out briefly. Academies are publicly funded independent schools which do not charge the pupils to attend the school. They are not maintained by the local education authority but receive funding directly from the Secretary of State. Their curriculum must be balanced and broadly based with an emphasis on their secondary curriculum on a particular subject area. They must provide education for pupils of different abilities drawn wholly or mainly from the local area of the school. They must not charge pupils to attend the school and they can be for any age range since the Education Act 2002.
I understand the intention behind Amendment 39: to ensure that only schools classed as failing could convert to academy status from September 2010. In fact, the way in which the amendment is drafted, listing it as a characteristic of an academy, would have the unintended consequence of making it an obligation on the academy proprietor to ensure that the academy met that characteristic, which I cannot believe was the noble Baroness’s intention. However, I shall address the substance behind the amendment. While our focus will remain on failing schools and narrowing the attainment gap, we want the best schools to have the freedom and flexibility to deliver an excellent education in the way that they see fit, within a broad framework where they are clearly accountable for the results that they deliver. These schools, as we have discussed before, will be expected to work with a weaker school to share expertise and best practice. Many school leaders have already shown a keen interest in their schools becoming academies. It is clear that they understand the benefits that that will bring and they want the liberation that comes from genuine independence.
While I understand the thinking behind the amendment, in order that the academy programme simply maintains its focus on failing schools, I hope that the noble Baroness will be reassured that our expansion of the academies programme will not dilute in any way our focus on failing schools. On the contrary, by saying that all outstanding schools will be expected to partner with a weaker school we hope to bring about further improvements for all concerned.
Amendment 40 would require all schools converting to academy status from 2010 to have a sponsor in place with whom to work. It is our intention that all maintained primary, secondary and special schools will be able to apply to become an academy, with schools rated outstanding being fast-tracked for approval. These outstanding schools will have a proven track record of success so will not be required to have a sponsor in place and will, in effect, be self-sponsoring. They will be able to work with a sponsor should they choose but there is no requirement to do so. Other primary, secondary and special schools which will be able to convert at a later stage will still be required to have a sponsor, with the final decision on which schools become academies resting with the Secretary of State.
Our focus remains on failing schools and narrowing the gap, but in our view it is also right that our best schools should have the freedom and flexibility to deliver an excellent education in the way they see fit within a broad framework where they are clearly accountable for the outcomes they deliver. I think that there has been general acceptance on all sides of this House that the definition of an academy and its legal status is broadly accepted. Academies set up by the noble Baroness’s party have done a great job. This is a logical next step in our view and an expansion of what has gone before. It was clearly the original intention in 2005 to move in the direction that this Government, five years late perhaps, are starting to do. I hope that that detail has clarified why the amendments are not necessary and I therefore urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Will the Minister please answer the specific question I asked?
I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, as I wrote myself a note to do so. The general point is related to the notion that all schools can apply for academy status, not just the outstanding ones. I can see the logic of the noble Baroness’s argument: that if a school is already highly performing, the ability to make the kinds of improvement that the original wave of academies have made may be slightly more reduced. Given the intention that in time all schools, not just those in the outstanding category, will be able to apply explains more broadly why there is the opportunity for that uplift. I will need to write to the noble Baroness on her specific question about the maths and how officials came up with that figure.
I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. I am happy to withdraw my amendment at the appropriate moment. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bates, for his comment, “Brave try”. As a Minister, being called brave was something I always used to worry about, but as an Opposition Front-Bencher, perhaps I will not mind that so much.
This debate has been helpful and interesting. I am interested in the point about academies as defined in the Bill being exactly the same as academies defined in previous legislation. Thinking about why we need the Bill focuses on the questions: what is the difference and what is the real motivation behind the Bill? Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, I want to be convinced, and hope that I will be as we go through Committee. I know that an awful lot of thought has gone into a wide range of amendments.
I have one question, which I hope I will learn more about in our debates today. If academy status will be exactly the same legally, I need to understand what Clause 1(2)(b) is all about. When we come to the Statement on free schools, I might understand that a bit more. Like all noble Lords, I do not see the benefit of increasing the number of letters in our alphabet soup. I am very interested in the comments that noble Lords have made. I have just learnt that outstanding schools will not be expected to have a sponsor, but those that come after will. That is a very interesting point.
I was also very interested in the point made by my noble friend Lady Morris about the focus of government policy. That highlights the challenge that we have when scrutinising legislation. We are looking at the Bill, but surrounding the Bill is government policy and how the Government promote their priorities. I am concerned that the Government continue to focus on poorly performing schools and coasting schools. I am very much comforted by the Minister's reassurances on that, but we will come back to the question of what the additional arrangements for academy financial assistance actually mean and whether that is a significant change in the legal instruments surrounding the legal definition of academies. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Free Schools Policy
My Lords, I beg leave to repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows.
“Thank you, Mr Speaker, for this opportunity to update the House on our progress in reducing centralised bureaucracy in the education system, giving more power to professionals on the front line and accelerating progress on the academies programme begun, with such distinction, under the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and Tony Blair.
During the Queen’s Speech debate, I outlined in detail our plans to extend academy freedoms. I mentioned then that we had more than 1,000 expressions of interest. I can now update the House by confirming that more than 1,700 schools have expressed an interest in acquiring academy freedoms, with more than 70 per cent of outstanding secondary schools contacting the department—a remarkable and heartening display of enthusiasm for our plans from front-line professionals.
As I have explained before, every new school acquiring academy freedoms will be expected to support at least one faltering or coasting school to improve. We are liberating the strong to help the weak—a key principle behind this coalition Government.
As well as showing enthusiasm for greater academy freedoms in existing schools, I can also report to the House that teachers are enthusiastic about the opportunities outlined in our coalition agreement to create more great new schools in areas of disadvantage. More than 700 expressions of interest in opening new free schools have been received by the charitable group the New Schools Network, the majority of them from serving teachers in the state system who want greater freedom to help the poorest children do better.
That action is all the more vital because we are inheriting a school system from the previous Government which was as segregated and stratified as any in the developed world. In the last year for which we have figures, out of a school cohort of 600,000 children, 80,000 children were in homes entirely reliant on benefits. Of those 80,000 children only 45 made it to Oxbridge—less than 0.1 per cent—and, tellingly, fewer than from the school attended by the Leader of the Opposition.
Given that scale of under-achievement and lack of social mobility, it is no surprise that so many idealistic teachers want to start new schools like those American charter schools backed by President Obama that have closed the achievement gap between black and white children. In order to help these teachers do here what has been achieved in America, and in order to help philanthropists, community groups and parents set up new schools, we announced last week that we would recreate the standards and diversity fund for schools started by Tony Blair and abandoned under his successor. We are devoting £50 million saved from low-priority IT spending to this fund, which is less than 1 per cent of all capital spend allocated for this year, and we are sweeping away the bureaucracy which stands in the way of new school creation with reform of planning laws and building regulations.
Five years ago, the Prime Minister said outside this House:
“What we must see now is a system of independent state schools, underpinned by fair admissions and fair funding, where teachers are equipped and enabled to drive improvement, driven by the aspirations of parents”.
We have pushed higher standards from the centre. For those standards to be maintained and built upon, they must now become self-sustaining to provide irreversible change for the better. That is the challenge Mr Blair laid down, and this coalition Government intend to meet it”.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to this Urgent Question from the other place. I have a number of questions to ask him, but before I do, I want to make the point that this Urgent Question followed a press release issued by the Minister’s department on Friday about the process for progressing the coalition Government’s free schools policy. Just a moment ago, we were in Committee looking at the Academies Bill, and it would be very helpful for the House if we could understand how the Government’s different policies and priorities fit together so that when we are scrutinising the legislation we have a full picture of what the Government are trying to achieve. It was therefore a bit of a disappointment that the Secretary of State for Education chose to announce the process for progressing the free schools policy in a press release on Friday when we could have heard more about it in this House. However, the Minister has repeated the Statement to the House, which I very much appreciate.
We have heard a great deal from the coalition Government about the challenging economic times that we are in. We on these Benches recognise that and the real challenge of having to make cuts in the near future. How will these new free schools be paid for? The Guardian suggested, possibly on Friday, that funding from the previous Government’s proposals to widen access to free school meals will be used to pay for the new free schools policy. Will the Minister explain what assessment has been made of surplus places? Surplus places might not be a very cost-effective way of funding school places. Indeed, creating surplus places through the development of a free schools policy could be quite an inefficient way of using what will be scarce resources.
I believe that the coalition Government are keen to broaden the number of providers that deliver education through the free schools model, and I am interested to know whether the coalition Government envisage new providers coming into education being able to make a profit from using public funds to develop free schools, or whether, under some enterprise model, any surplus that was generated through the use of public funds would be ploughed back into public benefit.
I was quite interested on Friday to see a little box on the form on the website that has enough space for 200 words that are designed to show what parental demand there is for a new free school. For the benefit of those who are interested in taking forward an idea such as this, will the Minister say what he is looking for in those 200 words that will give a really good picture of parental demand? Will there be published criteria? I know that the Secretary of State will have to look at each of these applications, and I understand that there have been many expressions of interest. When the Secretary of State looks at these 200 words, over breakfast on Sunday morning perhaps, what will he be looking for to assess parental demand?
There is also a space on the form to set out the premises that have been identified or to say what the premises would be like. The Minister mentioned planning requirements when he repeated the Statement, and I am interested to know how any legislation on this will work. Again, what is required in the box about premises? Will the new free school have disabled access, for example, or will a car park, office block or corner shop work just as well?
How will local authorities be involved? The Secretary of State for Education said very clearly in a letter that he sent to directors of children’s services that there would be a role for local authorities in that local authorities are central to the Government’s plans to improve education. It would be very helpful to understand what that vision is in relation to free schools.
It is also interesting that the coalition Government have made strong statements about a commitment to fairness in approach. How will the admissions code, which I think is all about fairness for children’s educational opportunities, work in the free school setting? How will vulnerable children and those with special educational needs, about whom this House cares very much, be catered for? I am aware that I have asked a lot of questions, but it is important that this House hears from the Minister the vision and the practicalities of how it will work.
My Lords, I will try to answer all the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin. On her first point, no disrespect to this House was intended. The view was taken that this was an announcement about practicalities. The principle of the policy had previously been announced and had been long trailed. Over many years it was in the Conservative Party manifesto and it features in the coalition agreement. As the noble Baroness knows—we will be discussing it in Committee over the next three days—free schools will be set up as academies under the Academies Bill. They will have the same framework, rights and responsibilities as the academies that we have just been discussing in our first group of amendments in Committee. The view was taken that this was a practical implementation and a first step of policy rather than a new policy announcement.
On the point fairly made by the noble Baroness about the challenging economic times, perhaps I may reassure her about the modest funding for what is, in effect, a series of pilots that we will look at over the next year to see how this policy works out. The £50 million will not come from free school meals pilot money. As the Statement in the other place made clear, the department is basically recreating a programme which the noble Baroness may know—the standards and diversity fund. The money has come from the harnessing technology grant. Therefore, as the Statement made clear, it has come from money that was put aside for IT, not from free school meals.
As regards the noble Baroness’s question about profit, the school or trust must be non-profit making. As now under existing legislation, a school can subcontract to a provider of a service, which, if a commercial operation is providing that service, will charge what it needs in order to make a profit and a living. As now, the school cannot make a profit. There is nothing here which will enable free schools to be profit-making schools.
As the noble Baroness will understand, parental demand, and the Secretary of State’s breakfast, is work in progress. We have made clear that a demonstration of parental demand might be, for example, a petition. An interested party can make the application and then work with an official in the department who will work up the detailed application. As part of that process, some of the noble Baroness’s fair questions on how these things will be demonstrated will be worked through.
On premises, revised planning guidance will be issued by CLG in due course, which should free up and remove a lot of the bureaucratic systems that currently make the establishment of a school for anyone extremely difficult to countenance. The noble Baroness’s point about precisely what the requirements will be needs to be worked through.
On the role of local authorities, I have somewhere another letter—we in the department are busy writing letters at the moment—written by the Secretary of State to local authorities specifically on the free schools announcement, which is subsequent to the previous letter to which the noble Baroness referred. It makes clear that part of the process under which he will judge the criteria for whether an application to be a free school should be able to go forward will include consultation with the local authority.
The admissions code for free schools will work just as the code for academies because the free schools will be set up under the academies legislation. All the safeguards and requirements that were put in place for academies will apply to free schools. That remark also applies to the noble Baroness’s final and extremely important point about vulnerable children. All the safeguards, particularly with regard to vulnerable children and SEN issues, which will be discussed at greater length as we go forward with the Academies Bill, will be in place.
I thank the Minister for the Statement and welcome the Government’s general thrust, reflected in their announcement, of giving head teachers much more control over the environment that they teach children in. If I may say so, that is a very good direction to be moving in. But can he offer me a reassurance on the issue of stratification? There is some risk that if a significant minority of schools opts neither for academy nor free school status, many teachers will vote with their feet and go to work in these good schools. That might mean that pupils who would most need and would benefit from good teaching will actually be denied the best teachers because they will be in these other schools.
Elsewhere, the Government have proposed the introduction of independent social work practices in the style of GP practices and legal firms. Although this has been warmly welcomed by social workers who like the idea of running their own business and not being interfered with by local authorities so much, a respectable and experienced director of social services pointed out to me that if there is one service only for children with care orders, there is a danger that all the best social workers from the surrounding fields will want to work in that area and would be creamed off. We need social workers to support families where the children are not taken into care.
My second question is brief. Can the Minister assure the House that the complexity of taking forward these new measures will not distract him from maintaining a strong focus on the continuing professional development of our teachers and introducing the master’s in teaching and learning? This point was stressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester.
I am grateful to the noble Earl and hope I can give him the reassurances he seeks. On the broad point about fears of stratification—which I am sure we will come back to as we debate the Academies Bill more generally—I understand the anxiety, but I think that quite a lot of it is misconceived. I say that because on Friday, when the department made the announcement on free schools, I was lucky enough to meet beforehand a number of the teachers and teacher groups who are most interested in taking free school status forward. I have to say that those teachers could not in any way be characterised as people who are looking for a quiet life and want to teach in a leafy suburb, or who want to turn their back on vulnerable children. They formed an extraordinarily impressive and passionately committed group of people whose reason for going into teaching—some through Teach First and some through the Future Leaders programme which, much to their credit, were set up by the previous Government, who I will load with laurels as often as I can as regards those two wonderful programmes on which we want very much to build—arises out of a strong sense of social commitment. I found it immensely reassuring that those teachers see this legislation as enabling them to do more for the neediest, most vulnerable and most left behind children.
On the issue of CPD and the master’s, as the noble Earl knows, we will have further legislation coming forward later in the year. This comes back to a point made previously by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, but I do not think that the choice is between structures and teachers. Sometimes it is caricatured that people who want structural change are crazed ideologues who do not understand people, but that is not my view at all. My view, which was confirmed by meeting those excellent teachers, is that the structural change can give them the freedom to enable them to do more for the neediest children, about whom I know the noble Earl cares most strongly.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be churlish for the Church of England, in particular, to object in principle to what is being proposed? We enjoy relative freedoms in some of our schools and we would encourage those freedoms being shared more widely. However, as the Minister will recognise and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, has indicated, we will need to see the workings.
In relation to accredited providers, am I right in understanding that any parents or community groups seeking to establish a free school will be expected to work with an accredited provider? If that is the case, will the Minister welcome an assurance from the Church of England and other faith groups that we will make available all the experience we have as quite long-standing providers in the field of education? If accredited providers are required to co-operate with such groups, will he bear in mind the readiness of the church to co-operate? Perhaps I may go further and suggest that any prospective group of parents might be encouraged to co-operate with an accredited church provider. There will always be one near to where they are.
I am grateful for those observations. I would be very keen to discuss further the role that the Church of England can play in this. The general approach to providers currently is to make the system as open as possible. However, I shall follow that up further in the future.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of Future Leaders. I share the Minister’s position on the enthusiasm displayed by many teachers who are interested in setting up free schools. I also share his belief that they are passionate about trying to deliver for the most disadvantaged children.
My question is about money. We have heard about the changes in the planning rules, but that does not answer the money question. When will we get real details about the setting-up costs of these new schools, particularly in relation to capital? I am clear how the running costs will be met but, particularly where there is a shortage of school places and there are not obviously empty old school buildings, there is a real challenge about finding suitable building space and meeting the capital costs. We need facilities to deliver a decent curriculum, particularly for older children taking GCSE and A-level sciences, and I am anxious to know when we will have a little more detail.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, in particular for the work that she does for Future Leaders. On the issue of detail, that is work in progress and I shall keep her informed and posted. We made the announcement about the outline shape of the process on Friday, and we recognise that we have to provide this kind of detail. I shall keep her closely informed.
My Lords, can my noble friend give me comfort on two aspects? First, will he reassure me that the existence of surplus places in the vicinity of a proposed free school will not be a bar to the establishment of a free school? Secondly, can he tell me whether virtual schools may be established under this legislation—that is, schools which are to ordinary schools as the Open University is to universities?
I can certainly give my noble friend Lord Lucas the reassurance that he seeks on his first point. I shall need to write to him on the second point.
My Lords, there is time.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his post. Can he be more specific on the issue of the creation of surplus places by the development of one of these free schools? I still bear the scars from dealing—in Lancashire County Council many years ago—with the issue of surplus places. It is no good saying that there will be the same per capita per pupil for existing schools, because if there are surplus places, the per capita will have to go up to protect the curriculum.
Can the Minister also be a little more forthcoming about the relationship between the teachers, who he says have very good motives in setting up these schools, and potential conflicts with parents? Major parts of special educational needs in our schools are to do with behavioural problems. In my long experience of governing bodies where parents served, the parents would quite frequently wish to exclude the children with behavioural problems. This could totally wipe out the aims of the teachers whom he has described.
I hope that I can give the noble Baroness some reassurance at least on her second point. The provisions which we will be discussing in the Academies Bill, particularly in regard to vulnerable children, and which will be delivered through the funding agreement and will give these children broadly the same protections as are delivered through maintained schools, will also have to be delivered by free schools, which will be set up as academies and governed by the same safeguards. A free school could not decide to take an approach towards vulnerable children—statemented children—that is different from the approach of any other kind of school.
On surplus places, it was recognised as long ago as the 2005 White Paper that one of the effects of the policy was that, in some places where there was not parental demand, there would be surplus places. The whole point of the policy is to try to create something new for parents where there are surplus places.
Will the new free schools be eligible for funding under the financial assistance provisions in Clause 1(2)(b) of the Academies Bill, which in turn looks to Section 14 of the Education Act 2002?
Perhaps I may also ask the Minister about the New Schools Network. Interested groups are directed by the website to contact the New Schools Network. Does the Department for Education have any contractual arrangement with the New Schools Network? Are there any alternatives for groups of people who wish to set up a new school, or do they have to go through that process? If so, are there any financial considerations that the House should know about?
Perhaps I may also press the Minister a little more on local authorities. Whenever a new school is set up, it will have an effect on other schools, as no school is an island. Will the Secretary of State publish the criteria for the weighting that will be given to various consultations with the local authority, and the points that the local authority makes to him when there is an application for a new school?
I shall respond to my noble friend’s questions in no particular order. The funding mechanism can apply to all academies; it could well apply to free schools. The point of having a grant rather than a seven-year funding arrangement is that, particularly with a free school, which is a new and untried school, the Secretary of State might not want to be bound into an agreement for seven years and might prefer something that gives him greater flexibility. The department has entered into a contractual arrangement with the New Schools Network to provide support and advice. I will happily send to the noble Baroness the letter that sets up that arrangement. Forgive me, but I have forgotten the third point.
As I said earlier, the Secretary of State has made it clear that he sees local authorities having a role in shaping his thinking. We will need to reflect precisely on the criteria, how we set them out and what is then done with those criteria.
My Lords, I apologise for missing the beginning of the proceedings, but I do not think that anything has been said so far about design standards. The Minister will know very well that the impact of the environment in which children study is extremely important from an educational point of view. What guarantee can he give that free schools will conform to acceptable design standards?
One point of the policy is to give schools greater freedom and flexibility over where schools are set up and in what kind of building. Overall, the department intends to look at the whole set of regulations around buildings for all schools because our view is that they are expensive and bureaucratic and the process of building schools takes too long. Some of the regulations do not seem to serve any particular purpose while others serve an extremely good purpose. We will look at them all and, as part of that, we will obviously need to take into account important points about design.
My Lords, I want to pick up the point about planning. Is the Minister saying, in a technical sense, that the Government will issue a new planning policy statement referring to schools? Will that therefore apply to all schools, since planning clearly has to be neutral with regard to the question of who applies for a particular type of planning permission? Is it not the case that when the Victorians built a large number of new schools—first the churches and then the state—they discovered that setting up schools in odd corners of mills, factories, barns and other buildings was entirely unsatisfactory and that schools actually needed purpose-built new premises designed as schools, with playgrounds, playing fields and all the other facilities that schools need? Is that not still the case?
The overriding imperative in this policy is to attempt, where there is poor provision, to give teachers’ groups and parents the chance to improve the quality of teaching as rapidly as possible. Our starting point in this is that every year that passes is another school year that has been missed out and another generation of children who are falling behind. I understand entirely the points that my noble friend Lord Greaves makes. However, in the balance between perfect provision, carefully planned, and giving groups greater opportunity to start the urgent work of improving the teaching for children who need it most in areas of greatest disadvantage, we come down on the side of more flexibility over premises rather than going for the full, perfect Monty.
My Lords, will the Minister say a little more about parent-led free schools? We all want parents to be involved in the education of their children, because the more involved they are the better, but I see two problems. If parents set up a school, the contract they let to a provider could be as long as seven years. Within that time, there could have been 100 per cent changeover of parents at the school. The further point is that the parents who are the original promoters of the school may not even get their children into the school if an oversubscription criterion of, for example, a ballot were used. So there could be a situation in which the original parent promoters do not have children in schools, and within three to four years the percentage of parents with any say or influence at all over how the school meets its contract is very low. Will the Minister explain his thoughts on that?
I am grateful for the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. The truth in this, as with a lot of these things, is that the announcement made on Friday kicked off the process. There will be all sorts of important practical considerations that that process will throw up. Officials in the department, assisted by the New Schools Network, will be thrashing through those considerations and coming to Ministers with recommendations on the back of the process. These kinds of points—which are extremely important; I do not belittle them in any way at all—will need to be thought through as part of the process.
This may be a useful point at which to hear a Statement made by the Prime Minister a few minutes ago in another place. The Statement was as follows:
“I am sure that the whole House will join with me in paying tribute to Trooper Ashley Smith from the Royal Dragoon Guards, who was killed in Afghanistan last week. He died serving our country and our thoughts are with his family and friends. We have also heard this morning news that a member of 40 Commando Royal Marines has died from his injuries. He is the 300th member of the British Armed Forces to lose his life as a result of the conflict in Afghanistan.
When such a tragic milestone is reached, we should re-emphasise our support for our Armed Forces, and for all that they do. Inevitably some will question our mission and purpose there, and we are paying a high price. Let me be clear that we are in Afghanistan because the Afghans are not yet capable of securing their own country from terrorists. It is for our own national security that we help them. When they can do it alone, we will leave. In the mean time, we will give our Armed Forces everything they need to get the job done.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on last Thursday's European Council. It was rightly focused on securing the economic recovery, and it was unanimous that this required early action on budget deficits. The Council also dealt with Europe's growth strategy, the need to sort out the problems in the eurozone, and our approach to the G20. It also delivered important progress on Iran.
Let me take each in turn. On deficits, the conclusions could not be clearer. Delaying action would entail ‘major risk’, and the Council called on member states to meet budgetary targets ‘without delay’. Since the last European Council, the problems in Greece and the scale of the sovereign debt crisis have become apparent to almost everyone. That is why there is such unanimity across the EU on early action, and it is why President Barroso paid tribute to the efforts that the UK coalition Government are taking and said:
‘Consolidation is necessary for confidence and without confidence there will be no growth’.
On growth, the Council agreed a new strategy called Europe 2020. This follows on from the Lisbon agenda, whose aim was to make Europe the most competitive market in the world. The document has some worthwhile objectives, including raising the level of research and development, and improving education. This should not interfere with national competencies. So I secured explicit agreement that the new strategy must be,
‘fully in line with the relevant treaty provisions and EU rules and shall not alter member states’ competences’.
We should be clear that all the strategies in the world should not conceal the fact that EU countries all need to get to grips with the real problems that harm our competitiveness, not by endlessly setting targets but by taking action. This includes action on the extent of our debts, the affordability of our pensions, and on the scale of our welfare dependency.
Europe has never lacked strategies, but European countries have frequently failed to deliver them. We will continue to press for the real stimulus that European economies need—more trade, more international investment and breaking down barriers to business. This means pushing for agreement on Doha, reforming and completing the single market and making the process of trade easier. Even without Doha, there is a huge amount that countries across the world can do to facilitate trade. I want Britain to be one of the driving forces in helping to bring this about.
Next, the eurozone: Britain is not in the euro and—let me be clear—we are not going to join the euro. However, a strong and successful eurozone is vital for the British national interest. Already about half our exports go to the EU, fourth-fifths of this to the eurozone. However, as this House is aware, with the situation in Greece and the need for a support package from other eurozone members, there is no doubt that the eurozone as a whole faces real challenges. I was generally supportive of the Council’s efforts to strengthen the eurozone governance arrangements, but I was equally determined to ensure that our national interests are protected.
On budget surveillance, let me be clear: the UK Budget will be shown to this House first and not to the Commission. Of course, we will share projections and forecasts, just as we do with the IMF and other international bodies. Co-ordination and consultation, yes; clearance, no—never. On sanctions for those who breach their economic obligations, the Council agreed that:
‘Member States’ respective obligations under the Treaties will be fully respected’.
Because of this and because of the special opt-out negotiated by the last Conservative Government, under the current framework sanctions cannot be applied to the UK.
Sorting out the eurozone and adding to its governance arrangements are clearly vital for Europe. There may well be significant changes coming down the track. Whether they require treaty changes or not, our position will be the same. We will back measures that help to sort out the eurozone. We will not back measures that pass power from the UK to Brussels and, as we are not a member of the euro, we will not back measures that draw Britain further into financial support for the euro area.
On the G20, the Council discussed our priorities for the upcoming meeting. As well as taking action on the deficit, the Council also agreed about the importance of reforming the financial system. It is vital that the meeting in Canada backs the right action on reserves and capital.
On the issue of a banking levy, the Council conclusions were helpful. We wanted the European Council to endorse the idea of countries introducing a levy on financial institutions to ensure that they make a contribution to rebuilding public finances. We did not want the Council to mandate a particular form of levy or how the money raised should be used. I am pleased to say that the Council conclusions reflect that approach.
On Iran, we have argued that it is time for actions, not just words. Following the UN Security Council’s recent adoption of Resolution 1929, the Council agreed to step up the pressure, issuing an unequivocal leaders’ declaration. This refers to measures including restrictions on trade, banking, transport and the oil and gas industry. Final agreement will be reached at the Foreign Ministers’ meeting.
The Council also reached important conclusions on Iceland’s application to join the EU. This country should be a good friend to Iceland and a strong supporter of EU enlargement, but Iceland owes the UK £2.3 billion in respect of compensation paid by the Government to UK investors following the collapse of its banking sector. We will use the application process to make sure that Iceland meets its obligations, because we want that money back.
Finally, it is important that, even in difficult times, we should be supporting people in the poorest countries suffering from severe poverty. The Council reaffirmed its commitment to achieve development aid targets by 2015 and, supported by the UK, to review this annually.
This was a Council that delivered good outcomes for Britain. Our citizens do not want new structures to talk about things; they want a new resolve to actually do things, such as getting to grips with our massive budget deficits, developing the single market and building the conditions for strong, sustainable and balanced growth. That is what this Council was all about”.
I commend this Statement to the House.
My Lords, I join the Leader of the House, in repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister, in paying tribute to the two soldiers who lost their lives, Trooper Ashley Smith from the Royal Dragoon Guards and the Royal Marine from 40 Commando Royal Marines. As the Prime Minister said, 300 members of our forces have now given their lives in Afghanistan in the service of our country. We pay tribute to their bravery, we honour their sacrifice and our thoughts are with their families. I strongly agree with the Leader about the cause for which our soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan. They are fighting there to keep our streets safe here. That is why the Opposition are united with the Government in support of our troops and their mission. As we approach Armed Forces Day, let us remember all our service men and women, whether they are stationed abroad or at home. Their skill and courage are unsurpassed.
I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Prime Minister’s Statement. I start by welcoming the continued EU focus and government commitment on two important issues. First, on Iran, I endorse the support for the European Council’s declaration, which again shows that on issues of international concern, we who are EU member states have a bigger impact when we combine our efforts. Does the Leader of the House agree that while the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran remains a matter of utmost concern, the international community is now more united than ever before in searching for a peaceful solution; and that the very act of EU diplomacy that we have seen in recent years has played an important part in this? He says that the Prime Minister tells us that it is time for action, not just words; is there a timetable for further EU action on Iran? Can he confirm the importance, not only of sanctions and diplomatic pressure, but of international engagement with the people of Iran? Will he therefore give an undertaking that the BBC Farsi service will be protected from any cuts in the BBC World Service?
Secondly, I also welcome the strong commitment of the EU summit to meeting the millennium development goals by 2015. The terrible crisis of drought and food shortages in Niger is a vivid reason why there must be international action on development. Will the Prime Minister be a stronger voice in the EU for the whole EU to make development a priority, if his Government continue to prioritise development? Following our Government’s commitment, the European Commission recommended that all EU member states should consider legislating to enshrine the 0.7 per cent aid target, which we established. Will the Government now take forward, in this Session of Parliament, the Bill we introduced to make the 0.7 per cent legally binding?
Is it not the case that you can only be effective in Europe if what you say and do there is matched by what you do and say at home? In that regard, I commend the Leader on the Prime Minister’s reference in his pre-summit article to the shocking inequality of women in many parts of Europe, and the urgent need for change. If the Prime Minister recognises shocking inequality of women elsewhere in Europe, can the Government act on it here? Will the Prime Minister show the rest of Europe that he means at home what he says in Brussels by giving us a commitment that he will implement the Equality Act as soon as possible, and commit to pressing on with the plan to make employers publish their gender pay gap?
I welcome the fact that the summit adopted the European 2020 strategy for growth. The summit said:
“Priority should be given to growth-friendly budgetary consolidation strategies”.
It also said:
“Increasing the growth potential should be seen as paramount to ease fiscal adjustment in the long run”.
In other words, do not undermine growth when you are cutting borrowing and need growth to bring borrowing down. According to the official summit conclusions, one of its main objectives is to,
“unlock the EU’s growth potential, starting with innovation and energy policies”.
That is what the Prime Minister signed up to in Brussels. However, he is doing something rather different at home. On growth, the Leader of the House said that the Government will continue to press for the real stimulus that the European economies need, but the reality from the Government here is very different. How does it help growth to cut business investment support? How does it help unlock the EU’s growth, starting with energy, to cancel the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters to build the next generation of nuclear power stations? Does this not mean that Europe, as well as the UK, will lose out to South Korea and Japan as they take this work forward? On the important question of financial services, we welcome the intention to implement a new system of levies and taxes on financial institutions, and the intention to explore an international financial transactions tax. Will the Government commit to maintaining the UK’s strong leadership in advocating these reforms?
This was the Prime Minister’s first European Council. The Leader of the House, in repeating the Prime Minister’s Statement, says that the Prime Minister believes that this is a Council which delivered good outcomes for Britain. The Prime Minister is no longer the leader of the Opposition, grandstanding to his Back-Benchers. He is now representing our country in Europe, so perhaps it is time for him and the Government as a whole to have a sensible think about continuing to exclude themselves from the grouping of centre-right political leaders. The European People’s Party includes President Sarkozy, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Prime Ministers of Sweden, Italy and Poland. However, instead of meeting with them to prepare for the summit, the Prime Minister had a meeting with one Polish MEP to prepare for Britain’s contribution to the summit. The election is over. Will the Prime Minister now put aside his pandering to his Europhobic Back-Benchers and agree with his Lib-Dem coalition partners on this vital issue of Europe? That is in Britain’s interests and would be a good outcome for Europe and Britain. We on these Benches invite the Conservatives on the Benches opposite to join the Liberal Democrats on the Benches opposite—and, indeed, we on these Benches—by getting serious about Britain’s interests in Europe and putting practicalities and policies ahead of prejudices and politics. That is what Europe needs from Britain. That is what Britain needs to do in Europe.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for welcoming the Statement, at least in part as I accept that she became slightly less welcoming as she continued her speech. However, she started extremely well by congratulating the Government and the Council on our position on Iran. She was right to do that because our position on Iran is unequivocal. It underlines the clear view in Europe that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon is unacceptable. Europe has asked Iran to return to the negotiating table and has made clear that the alternative is further isolation. I am unable to give the noble Baroness the timetable that she sought, but my understanding is that we await the next Foreign Ministers’ Council, where final agreement will be reached. I am hopeful that there will then be quick action to put in place the various sanctions that have been recommended.
The noble Baroness asked me rather a good question about the BBC Farsi programme. If I had an answer to that, I would give it to her, but perhaps I can write to her on that point. The Government have rightly been congratulated on continuing with the millennium development goal commitments, as the noble Baroness recognised. In our view it is very important that these commitments talk about European countries meeting and achieving their targets by 2015. There has certainly been no slippage on that on our part. Even in difficult times when we are having to make tough decisions in our own economies, it is important that we should support people in the poorest areas of the world suffering severe poverty. It is important that we maintain that commitment. The European Council reaffirmed its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on development aid by 2015, and agreed to monitor progress towards this target annually. I cannot at this stage give a commitment on the legislative proposals that we will make as regards the 0.7 per cent target, but it is our intention so to do.
The new European 2020 strategy is focused on promoting conditions for growth and improving the single market. A stronger European economy is overwhelmingly in Britain’s interests, given that around half of the UK’s exports go to the EU. However, noble Lords will no doubt agree that action in Europe clearly needs to recognise the different circumstances faced by different member states and strike the right balance between European and national action. The conclusions that we came to at the Council thus make clear that the strategy will not affect member states’ competencies on, for example, education. However, it will help Europe recover from the crisis and come out stronger internally and at the international level by boosting competitiveness, productivity, growth potential, social cohesion and economic convergence. It was kind and thoughtful of the noble Baroness to show her concern about the EPP. I assure her that we are happy with the current arrangements.
My Lords, I welcome the forthright attitude taken by the Prime Minister regarding the eurozone, but clearly the situation there presents considerable risks to the United Kingdom, even though we are not a member of the euro. Are we to understand that there was no detailed discussion at the Council on the widespread discussions taking place outside on the possibility that some members of the eurozone might find themselves in a position whereby they have to withdraw? Indeed, it has recently been suggested that it might be disruptive in that context if Germany were to withdraw, rather than the countries in the weakest position. At all events, the scheme was designed to prevent people withdrawing and it is important that we should not hide our heads in the sand regarding that possibility and we should make contingency plans. In particular, there is a major practical problem. Is there not perhaps some case for setting up a contingency fund of what we might call euro-exit notes and coins, which would be used if a particular country had to withdraw? Surely it is better that we should plan for that possibility, whatever our position might be on whether it is likely to happen, rather than suddenly finding that we are in a situation where nothing can be done because of the practical point that I mentioned.
My Lords, my noble friend raises an important and interesting issue. The eurozone is of course extremely important to the British economy. We want a strong and competitive eurozone area, but it is clear to anyone who has been following this subject in recent months that there are substantial problems with the euro and, most notably, with Greece. However, I am not in a position to speculate in any way on what may or may not happen in any other eurozone country or, indeed, on what contingency plans are envisaged over the next few months. The G20 has recognised that countries with serious fiscal challenges need to accelerate the pace of consolidation. In that regard, we welcome the recent announcements of further consolidation plans by the Governments of Spain and Portugal. It is important that to rebuild confidence all Governments implement in a rigorous manner the measures that they have announced. It is that confidence which will provide strength again to the eurozone. That in the long term will be to all our benefits.
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Prime Minister’s Statement in the other place. He highlighted the fact that, on a number of occasions, the Prime Minister repeated that we were going to play an active and engaged role in working with our colleagues to solve the international financial and economic crisis that affects all countries. Even if, under the coalition agreement, we are not for the moment committed to joining the euro—and a lot depends of course on what happens to the euro—does the noble Lord agree that the logic of the single market means that a single currency is really necessary later on? Conservative Ministers frequently enunciated before 1997 that you could not have a genuine single market without a single currency. That reality prevails.
Does the noble Lord not agree that we in this country should be careful not to be too complacent or gleeful about the apparent crisis in the eurozone, given that we have the only currency that was driven out of the preliminary arrangements before the euro was created? A notable and spectacular devaluation ensued; in fact, we have had seven devaluations since the war. That was always the easy way out, rather than solving problems with a disciplined currency system. Does he agree that this is as much a crisis of the banking statistics and asset bases of the commercial and investment banks as it is of sovereign debt, and that we need to deal with both on an active basis? Will he therefore emphasise that the UK Government are supporting the suggestion of the Spanish Government that stress-test figures should be published in the second half of July showing the different states of various banks in the member states, within and without the eurozone, including, I think, five or six banks from the United Kingdom? Furthermore, as the Prime Minister was, quite rightly, warmly received in Brussels, does the noble Lord agree that that adds to the arguments for his party rejoining the EPP, as the shadow Leader of the House suggested?
My Lords, I can give my noble friend no encouragement whatever that we are about to join the euro any time soon—an answer that he may find rather disappointing. However, all the evidence over the past few years indicates that we were entirely right not to join the euro, as the former Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor, ensured would be the case. That was the right decision then, it is clearly the right decision now, and we shall continue with that. However, that does not mean that we should not play an active and engaged role, as my noble friend Lord Dykes said, and we will continue in the way that we started. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was very much welcomed in Brussels for his positive attitude and constructive approach to a whole range of extremely difficult issues that face Europe. I say to my noble friend, as I did to the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition, that the EPP issue is not one that we shall reopen.
My Lords, will the Minister accept my thanks for allowing a question from Benches other than the government Benches after six minutes?
I congratulate the Government on the confirmation of the millennium development goals, which I think is a very positive step. However, do they not recognise that some members of the European Union—not the United Kingdom—are not fulfilling their obligations to move to 0.7 per cent of GDP? To give an example, Italy is cutting back on its aid. Does that not demonstrate the necessity for proper co-ordination at the European level when these commitments are entered into and the need to ensure that they are followed? Simply saying all the time that we are not going to do this or that in co-ordination has its disadvantages when we are in the lead and other people do not follow.
The noble Lord mentioned education. Does he not recognise that our higher education sector is the leader in Europe, that we have four of the world’s top 10 higher education establishments and that we are extremely well placed to give the lead in this essential part of making Europe more competitive? I hope that the Government will take that to heart and will see how, without transgressing any transfer of powers, we can make more of a reality of co-operation in the higher education sector and make it a more competitive part of the European economy.
My Lords, with regard to the millennium development goals, the Council reaffirmed its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP by 2015. The important point that I think will encourage the noble Lord is that the Council also agreed to monitor progress towards this target annually. Therefore, if a country lags behind, no doubt this will be brought to the Council’s attention at the time and appropriate action will take place in that member country.
I agree with the noble Lord about the excellence of Britain’s university education system and that we have a lot to contribute to this debate, at least by example. That is why we believe that this matter should remain firmly as part of the national competencies and not be raised to a higher level through command and control and instruction by the European Commission and others. That is precisely why we got the conclusion in the final report with which we were happy—namely, that education would remain part of those national competencies.
I share with sorrow the sentiments expressed from the Front Benches about the two latest deaths in Afghanistan.
Turning to the Statement, does the noble Lord agree that it really is beyond belief that the EU should presume to examine our Budgets before Parliament debates them when its own internal auditors have been unable to sign off its own accounts for the past 15 years? Can he comment on that? Will he also comment on Mr Van Rompuy saying last week that the Government’s refusal to submit our Budget to Brussels is unfinished business? How will the Government react if they are outvoted on this in the autumn? Finally, and more widely, the Government’s protestations of their innocence do not exactly chime with the wording of the Council’s conclusions. I shall read three extremely briefly. First,
“we fully agree on the urgent need to reinforce the coordination of our economic policies”.
“All Member States are ready … to take additional measures to accelerate fiscal consolidation”.
“The crisis has revealed clear weaknesses in our economic governance, in particular as regards budgetary and broader macroecononmic surveillance. Reinforcing economic policy coordination therefore constitutes a crucial and urgent priority”.
Which one is right—the Government’s Statement or the Council’s conclusions?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is right when he says it is beyond belief that the EU should wish to inspect our Budget before it is presented to Parliament. He is entirely right. In that there is not a cigarette paper of difference between him and the Prime Minister, or I suspect even the Opposition. We would all agree that the EU has no role and no place to look at our budgetary arrangements and, indeed, our parliamentary procedures. That position has been made entirely implicit in the Statement that I repeated a few minutes ago. It is not unfinished business; it is firmly finished business and we will be leaving it entirely the way that it is currently.
The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, made great play of looking at the conclusions and the Statement that we made. This is an old game to play and the noble Lord does it with great skill. I assure him that again there is no difference between the conclusions and the Statement that we made. They can live together entirely side by side and there is no difficulty for the Government.
My Lords, I think we should hear from the Labour Party.
The Leader of the House has reported, quite rightly, that there were extensive discussions about the ongoing problem of Iran. Were there any discussions on the wider issue of the region and the ongoing problem of the blockade of Gaza? How can the suffering of the people of Gaza be relieved? How and when will there be discussions at some stage, as surely there must inevitably be, between representatives of the European Union and representatives of the current Administration in Gaza?
My Lords, there was a discussion on Gaza. Generally speaking, the conclusion was positive about the steps that have been taken and we very much hope that the measures taken by the Israeli Government will be part of reducing tension in the area.
Are the Government aware of the very delicate situation now existing in Kosovo? This is already sub judice at the European Court of Justice. In addition, it so happens that the new Patriarch of all the Orthodox Serbs will be enthroned in the historic monastery of Pecs in October. This event could be seen by the Albanian majority as provocation or an act of cultural assertion. Do the Government agree that this makes it urgent to normalise relations between all the Serb monasteries and their Albanian neighbours? These have been tense since 2000—10 years ago. Will the Government ask the European Union to commission and pay for an independent third-party attempt at conciliation, which has already, I am glad to say, been invited by both parties in the conflict? I conclude by declaring a non-financial interest in the NGO in question.
My Lords, I cannot confirm that there was a discussion at the European Council but clearly the situation in Kosovo is immensely tense and the noble Lord has great expertise on it. The words that he has spoken today will of course be taken fully into account by my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Further to the point made earlier by my noble friend Lord Higgins, I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to what happened under the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates whereby on occasions Germany revalued the deutschmark upwards, thus taking account of the changes between it and other countries on competitiveness. Surely what we need in the eurozone is some mechanism of that nature whereby one can adjust for changes in competitiveness rather than force countries, as is proposed to be done, through incredibly tough measures which they probably are incapable of sustaining.
My noble friend raises a point that we could debate and discuss for a very long time. He is right to mention the Bretton Woods arrangements. As to whether there should be an automatic mechanism to adjust for competitiveness, that is a matter not for the Government but the European Bank. It must take into account all the needs of all the economies within the eurozone and it is one of the reasons—only one—why we supported the view of the then Government that we should not join the euro in 1999.
I want to make two points. First, with regard to the reference to budget surveillance on page 4 of the Statement, this does not go far enough. It says that,
“the UK Budget will be shown to this House first—and not to the Commission”.
It is not a question of showing the Budget to the House; it is a question of the House of Commons agreeing the Budget before the Commission has its way. Surely that is right.
Secondly, why on earth do the Government continue to harp on about 40 per cent of our trade being with the European Union? The world is a much bigger place than that these days, so would it not be better if we expanded our trade with China, South America, India and indeed the Commonwealth, instead of concentrating on the backyard of Europe?
My Lords, on the question of the Budget, the noble Lord is in danger of tilting at windmills. We are not playing any verbal gymnastics that somehow when we say that it will be presented to Parliament first it means that round at the back door we are busily presenting it to the Commission. We are not. Tomorrow there will be a British Budget which will be presented to the British Parliament first. After it has been presented it will be a matter of public record and knowledge. I dare say that the Commission may be interested; it may indeed be very interested in looking at it before it is finally agreed by Parliament. Therefore, I do not think that there is a fundamental difference between the two of us on this issue. Neither, incidentally, is there about what the noble Lord Stoddart of Swindon, said about trade with the rest of the world. It is an important plank of British foreign policy to expand our trade beyond Europe. That is vital to our long-term prosperity and the creation of jobs in this country. We are using all the natural advantages that this country has built up over many decades—centuries even—with countries whose economies are growing extremely quickly. To ignore them would be an enormous mistake. So I hope that I can put a smile on the face of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, by saying that I very much agree with what he said.
My Lords, the Statement mentioned the banking sector. We all agree that, less than two years ago, young couples with children, first-time buyers, were sometimes offered a mortgage of more than 100 per cent. It is understandable that the banks have to tighten their belts—or, perhaps, to behave themselves—but young couples are now being required to find 25 per cent of their new mortgages. For young couples with children to find £25,000 to £30,000 is very difficult. Can the Prime Minister speak to the banking sector to make the point that if young couples can buy homes, that will help the building industry and relieve tension on community-based housing associations and local authorities?
My Lords, that may not have been quite a matter for the European Council, but the noble Lord, Lord Martin, raises an important point for young people and people starting families who are trying to purchase a house. The background against which we operate is now extremely different from what it was only two or three years ago vis-à-vis the whole question of mortgages and deposits. I assure the noble Lord that the President of the Board of Trade, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister himself are very involved in trying to ensure that lending is allowed and encouraged to people who can pay it back, not just in the commercial and business sector but in the domestic sector.
Academies Bill [HL]
Committee (1st Day) (continued)
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 3, leave out “any person” and insert “the governing body of a school”
We turn now to the issue of free schools. As I said a moment ago, I am very grateful to the Minister for making the Statement repeating the Answer given to the Urgent Question asked in the other place, and for taking such a comprehensive set of questions. However, the Statement has generated more questions than answers. I am sure that as we go on in Committee we will learn a lot more.
Even the disinterested passer-by cannot help but notice that free schools are a flagship policy of the coalition Government—or at least of the Conservative part of the coalition Government. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State were clearly delighted to be photographed during the election campaign with parents celebrating their promise of a new school on demand. It was great campaigning, I am sure that noble Lords will agree. A whole page of the Conservative manifesto was devoted to a case study of the Swedish education system, the model for the Government’s free school proposals. Actually, when I looked at it, most of the page was taken up by photographs—very nice too—but at least nominally there was a page on the subject.
The Chancellor cited the reform as key to the Government’s plans to close the deficit, as it would see free schools use money more efficiently. The Secretary of State says that he has seen the future in Sweden and it works. The Government seem to want a great deal of attention focused on this policy, but considerably less scrutiny about the practicalities of it. We may be changing that today.
Nowhere, however, in the pronouncements of the Secretary of State in connection with the Swedish-style free school reform, of which we have heard so much, has the Academies Bill been mentioned—until today. The Bill was announced under the headline, “Legislation to give more schools opportunity to become academies”. The Department for Education website carries a document outlining the purpose of the Bill. It states:
“The Academies Bill will enable more schools to become Academies and give them the freedoms and flexibilities they need to continue to drive up standards”.
The document makes no mention whatever of new providers entering the school system. The Explanatory Notes to Clause 1 state:
“This clause replaces similar existing provisions in section 482 of the EA 1996. It enables the Secretary of State to make ‘Academy arrangements’ with another person, to establish and run an Academy. That person will be funded by the Secretary of State further to either a contractual agreement (an ‘Academy agreement’) or, by new subsection (2)(b), through grant funding under section 14 of the Education Act 2002”.
There is no mention of new providers here either, merely an oblique reference to previous legislation and “other persons”.
As the Minister pointed out just now during questions on the Statement, the clauses allow the Secretary of State to open a school, or to authorise anyone whom he sees fit to open a school, with almost no safeguards or undertakings. As the Secretary of State and the Minister know very well, that wholesale copy of the Swedish school model will not necessarily drive up standards in our schools. If the Minister has evidence that that is not the case, I would be very grateful to hear about it. I would also be interested to know where in the impact assessment evidence of the value of the Swedish model is set out.
When Sweden tried the reforms on which this proposal is based, standards fell sharply. The new schools founded under Sweden's reforms educate children of educated parents to a greater extent than those from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. They have opened in rented office blocks and former commercial properties. That is not just according to the critics of the scheme—that account came from the Swedish National Agency for Education, their equivalent of Ofsted.
On the financial side, creating new schools and deliberately generating surplus places—as you will have to do to make them work—costs money. Without additional funding being promised, that will take money from existing schools. We have heard about a very small amount of money, which may suggest that the scheme may be more modest than the election campaigning suggested. There is also the question of capital. We will not see great new schools coming into being without tackling the issues mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.
It is extraordinary that such a major change in approach to schooling in this country should be made in this way, where private companies will be invited to manage schools on behalf of groups of parents—although the message has now moved slightly to include groups of teachers—with no necessary regard to the well-being of children in nearby schools.
At the start of Committee, we had an interesting debate about the name. Given all the PR, positioning and developing of the free school brand, it would be very helpful if we could be consistent about names here. If free schools are academies, let us call them academies, as noble Lords argued persuasively earlier.
I am sure that we would all agree that there is no such thing as a free lunch or a free school. According to what I can glean from the Bill, the Explanatory Notes and so on, a free school is actually an academy without an academy agreement, so it is an exceptional academy. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain the intentions for free schools and the legislative process around the development of this flagship government policy. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 3 in this group is tabled in my name. It is similar to the amendment that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, has just moved. I tabled this amendment because I have read the Bill several times—more times than is good for me—and I cannot work out whether the Government intend to include free schools within this legislation, and this is meant to be the legislation that will apply to free schools, or whether it is just about converting existing schools. My confusion, which is similar to that of the noble Baroness, arises because all the Government’s statements about the Bill relate to converting existing schools into this new kind of academy. That is how the Bill was promoted. I read the Second Reading debate, and that was largely what it was about. So I was confused as to whether Clause 1, in particular subsections (1) and (2), could apply to free schools. The Bill states:
“The Secretary of State may enter into Academy arrangements with any person”.
That seemed to me to provide an ability to include any group of people who put themselves forward to set up a so-called free school.
Then there was the announcement at the weekend and the Statement that we have just had, and it now appears that the Bill includes free schools and that they will be set up within the terms of the Bill, if and when it becomes law. That is the real reason I put this amendment down for clarification. Will the Minister confirm that that is the case? Or do the Government think that free schools can be set up under existing legislation? In that case, they have a choice. If free schools are included in the Bill, a great deal of unanticipated extra discussion and debate is required, particularly in Committee.
I thank the Government and Ministers in both Houses for the amount of discussion they have been prepared to enter into with all Members of the House, and in particular with the Liberal Democrats, concerning the Bill. However, going over the notes I have made of meetings, I see that free schools have hardly been mentioned. The meetings have all been about conversions. Suddenly this weekend, the terms of the debate on the Bill seemed to change substantially. At this stage I do not want to enter into detailed debate about free schools. However, if there are to be free schools, the legislation and rules under which they are set up will need to be laid down at least as clearly as the rules for conversions are set out in the Bill. Given the quantity and detail of the amendments that have been tabled, we may feel that the detailed rules and regulations for conversions are insufficiently set out in the Bill and need improvement.
The system for setting up free schools does not exist in the Bill, as far as I can see, unless there is stuff that I have read without understanding what it means. This amendment is a means of getting from the Minister some clarification of these matters so that, in the rest of this debate in Committee and when the Bill goes back to the House, we can understand exactly what we are talking about. It may be that amendments that noble Lords might want to see in the Bill will be different according to the answer that the Minister gives. The basic questions are: do free schools need new legislation; can they be set up under old legislation so that the Bill does not apply to them; and, is the Bill necessary and fundamental to the setting up of free schools?
I hope the Minister will be able to confirm that entirely new schools can be set up, and indeed are set up at the moment, as academies. So, to the extent that that is true, free schools can be set up at the moment under existing academy legislation. I warmly welcome the suggestion made by my noble friend Lady Morgan that free schools should be called academies. I hope that the Minister is able to accept that suggestion, which my noble friend makes with great generosity of spirit, to make clear that we have a much more uniform nomenclature available. I am very keen to see all categories of schools that have the legal characteristics of academies called academies.
I shall speak to Amendments 13 and 76, which are tabled in my name. When we debated the Bill at Second Reading, there was widespread concern throughout the House that academies should have obligations to meet the needs of pupils with special educational needs that are no less rigorous than those which apply to maintained schools. The Minister was very clear that he was fully committed to this, and I am grateful to him for the trouble he has taken in meeting Peers with these concerns and also in writing to provide assurance that that is what the Bill achieves. However, there are still areas that remain unclear, where the commitment could do with being spelled out more fully or where gaps in the obligations to which academies are subject need to be plugged. These amendments are directed at remedying these deficiencies.
Amendment 13 is a probing amendment with two purposes: first, to ascertain whether academies receiving academy financial assistance will be required to have funding agreements in place; and, secondly, to ascertain whether meeting the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities will be included as a standard requirement within arrangements for academy financial assistance, just as it currently is in funding agreements.
Currently, academies are principally accountable through and governed by funding agreements signed with the Secretary of State. Clause 1(2)(b) introduces a new form of funding for academies—
“arrangements for academy financial assistance”.
These are not found in the original academies legislation. Arrangements for academy financial assistance are a form of direct funding from the Secretary of State granted through powers conferred by Section 14 of the Education Act 2002. Arrangements for academy financial assistance are an alternative to funding through an academy agreement so that it appears possible that, where arrangements for academy financial assistance are put in place, an academy may not be required to have a funding agreement.
While it is possible to have reservations regarding the scope and effectiveness of funding agreements as accountability mechanisms, there has none the less been clarity in funding agreements signed after 2007 that academies should have regard to the SEN code of practice and use their best endeavours to ensure that special educational needs are met. There are concerns that this new form of academy funding—arrangements for academy financial assistance—will bypass the safeguards contained in funding agreements in relation to SEN provision. This amendment gives the Minister an opportunity to make the position clear and to reassure us that academies receiving academy financial assistance will be required to have funding agreements, and that meeting the needs of children with SEN and disabilities will be included as a standard requirement within arrangements for academy financial assistance.
Amendment 76 seeks to ensure that academy funding agreements are comprehensive in their coverage of the requirements that are laid on maintained schools in relation to pupils with special educational needs in Part IV of the Education Act 1996. I recognise that the intention behind the academies programme is not to weaken the SEN legal framework. The Government have stated that one of the broad principles on which they have approached the academies programme is that there will be no change to, or weakening of, the requirements governing SEN provision.
In response to questions asked at Second Reading about the safeguards for children with SEN in funding agreements, the Minister made it clear that the provisions of these funding agreements mirror the legislative requirements on maintained schools. Since 2007, model funding agreements, which govern academies’ actions, have transposed measures from Part IV of the Education Act 1996 and made it clear that academies should have regard to the SEN code of practice. However, a contractual arrangement is one thing; a law is quite another. Contractual arrangements do not provide anything like the assurance provided by legislation. Even if we accept that funding agreements offer parents the same pathways to remedy as the law, which I question—I will have an opportunity to question this further when later amendments come up for discussion on Wednesday—existing funding agreements still do not refer to certain important aspects of SEN law that it is important not to lose.
It is true that existing funding agreements mirror some of the duties in Part IV of the Education Act 1996, but concerns remain that other aspects of Part IV are not covered. For example, no existing academies have the same duties as maintained schools under Section 317A of the Education Act 1996 to inform a child’s parents if they consider that child to have special educational needs, or to admit a pupil with a statement when both the parents and the local authority wish the child to attend that school as maintained schools are required to do by Section 324 of the Education Act 1996.
Amendment 76 therefore seeks further assurance that the academies programme will not result in a weakening of the requirements that govern SEN provision in schools and that all funding agreements will cover all the requirements of Part IV of the Education Act 1996. In particular, it would require academy agreements to contain provisions that set out the responsibilities of academies in meeting the needs of pupils with special educational needs or disabilities. In discharging these responsibilities, an academy should co-operate with the LEA in making provision for pupils with special educational needs or disabilities. An academy funding agreement should make provision to ensure that: academies use their best endeavours to ensure that an LEA can discharge its responsibilities in making arrangements for the provision of education for a pupil with a statement of SEN; academies have regard to the SEN code of practice; academies act as if they were a maintained school for the purposes of Part IV of the Education Act 1996; SEN co-ordinators are qualified teachers; and academies make arrangements to ensure that an independent appeals process is available to parents of pupils with SEN or a disability.
I hope very much that the Minister will be able to accept this provision. If he did so, that would put beyond doubt his desire to see that funding agreements are fully comprehensive in transposing the requirements of special educational legislation in Part IV of the Education Act 1996.
My Lords, I very much support the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Low as I follow his interest in special educational needs. I have tabled Amendment 24 in this group, and I intend throughout Committee to introduce amendments and to speak about a particular form of special educational needs: those of children who have grown up in severely disadvantaged and chaotic families and who so often end up being statemented with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
In that context, I ask who will govern these new academies. Who will make the decisions on the ground? I fully acknowledge that parents sponsoring and running a school may be a good idea, but I am not convinced that a whole or even a majority of the governing body composed of parents of children at the school is at all desirable. My own modest experience in the independent sector has certainly indicated that short-termism tends to dominate decisions that are taken when there are too many parents with children at a school. Parent governors will obviously want the best for their children and are right to do so. Indeed, we want the stimulus of parents who push to get the best for their child, but there is a real danger that, if we get the governance of academies wrong, they will end up with the same fate that has unfortunately befallen so many of the admirable Sure Start centres which the previous Government introduced. Money was put to serving the community, the community was encouraged to consider how it wanted the money to be spent and the money was then spent in that way. What has tended to happen is that the brighter, pushier and more intelligent parents have jumped on the bandwagon and got the kind of input and outcomes that they wanted, and the parents with disadvantaged children who have no experience of addressing leadership or influencing events—the hard-to-reach parents—have gone to the bottom of the pile and the funding that was intended to go to them, if it is not wasted, at least does not reach them.
What is the Government’s intention for governance? I refer to all the different kinds of school: free schools, parent-sponsored academies or academies sponsored by existing schools.
My Lords, I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Low, has set out the case for reconsidering special educational needs, as this is a very important and complex issue. I am also pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned governance, and that my noble friend Lady Morgan talked about standards, which are key. I understand that some academies have been allowed to opt out of publishing data on pupils’ achievement, which we will no doubt talk about later.
Amendments 2 and 3, in the names of my noble friend Lady Morgan and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, respectively, deal with consulting governors. I am a governor of a primary school in Wandsworth, and I think that school governors are important people in all this. I know that some later amendments deal with consultation, but for now I want to talk about governing bodies.
I understand that academies are required to have only one elected parent member on their governing body, while the existing principle is that a third of governing bodies should be parents. Parent governors are crucial. I am a governor at a school in a deprived area of Wandsworth, which attracts parent governors who are very helpful and useful to the school. This is particularly important in early years institutions if they are to become academies. Parents on those bodies will be essential. If parents are not involved in the early years, the children and the school suffer. I should like to ask the Minister about consultation with governing bodies. How is the future governance of schools foreseen?
I apologise for the misprint in my Amendment 33. For the word “roles” noble Lords should read “rules” and they will get a greater, if not absolute, idea of the sense of it. I am concerned about how the governing bodies of these academies will be dealt with when they go wrong. They can get into a mess from time to time when they are captured by strong individuals with very particular ideas. They can become at odds with parents and heads, and can contribute to poor performance in the school. I understand what happens under current academies with sponsors. But in an academy without a sponsor, what process will be gone through to set the governing body back on the right path? Who complains to whom? Who reaches a judgment as to what is happening? Who takes action under what powers?
What general powers will parents have to set things right if they see things going wrong? I do not think that there are any contractual arrangements with parents. So, if a school is failing to provide education, what is the route for the parent to enforce the right to education for their child? Finally, at Second Reading, I asked whether we might be circulated with a model funding agreement. I have not seen that yet and I am keen to do so while we are discussing these matters.
My Lords, the debate so far has been extremely interesting. It started with a clear indication that we will go down the academy route for all schools. I supported that direction very strongly before the break. To add free schools, when clearly they all fall within the same family, does not make any sense. I was slightly surprised at the amendment which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, addressed, to replace “person” with “governing body”. No noble Lord has said one word about the governing body and its role.
I must declare an interest as president of the National Governors Association. Therefore, all these areas interest me quite a bit. Given all that and the rather confusing and conflicting view that noble Lords around the Chamber seem to have about whether governors and parent governors are a good or a bad thing, it would be extremely helpful if the Minister—to whom I also add my thanks because he gave up a lot of time before we even began debating this Bill—could indicate how important he thinks that the role of the governing body is. It will have a hugely important role in seeing that these new academies—however many of them there are—come to the conclusion that I think many of us would see as an important step in British education.
My Lords, I support the amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Low. Rightly, they were narrowly focused. At Second Reading, he said:
“Academies are independent schools that are funded directly by the Secretary of State and are accountable mainly through the funding agreement, rather than”,—[Official Report, 7/6/10; col. 514.]
through educational legislation. I am interested in accountability. I strongly support Amendment 13 because it requires that any other—to me, rather mysterious—mode of supplying financial assistance to academies should be as equally open as the contracts that are agreements between the applicant and the Government. I entirely endorse the desire that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, expressed to see a copy of one of these model agreements.
The issue is about openness and accountability of how much money is being handed over—it will be a considerable amount—and exactly what the academy is committed to providing with that money. This is where I come to my noble friend’s main interest; namely, to seek an assurance that the money must be spent on provision for children with special educational needs. I think that we will come to more detail on that later. I share his feelings that the local authority must retain a good deal of responsibility for the provision of educational facilities for children with special needs, especially in very difficult cases of rare disabilities or multiple disabilities where individual academies could not afford to spend the money required.
There is a good deal of unclarity regarding special educational needs. Parents will be very much confused—perhaps more so if they read today’s Hansard than they were before. Amendment 13 would clarify the position with regard to the accountability of an academy, whatever way it receives its money from the Secretary of State.
My Lords, on this group of amendments, the issue about whether these free schools will be academies could be a trifle academic if the Government are saying that the point of the future trajectory is that all schools should at least have the opportunity to be academies. We need to see this debate within that context.
Much more seriously, I endorse the recommendations that the security of those with special educational needs be affirmed in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Low, referred to the avoidance of doubt, and bishops are always up for the avoidance of doubt. There are some issues where it is too risky to leave matters simply to good will or mutual understanding, and special educational needs is one of them. We need to ask the Minister if he will look at ways in which that dimension of academy life can be secured clearly in the Bill.
My third point is to do with governance—not with who can be a governor, but with the purpose of school governors in this brave new world. Many of us have lived through various recensions of governance. I go back to when I was first ordained in the early 1970s and I was a governor of a school. It seemed that the main purpose of the governors was to meet quarterly, hear the head teacher tell us how good the school was, and to pat the head teacher on the head saying, “Jolly good. Keep it up”. It was not long before we saw the development of teacher governors and parent governors. Governing bodies became representative bodies that articulated the range of interests of those with any connection with the school. The role of governors changed quite significantly. Then the most recent Bill of the last Government, just before the election, looked dangerously as though it was tipping towards having governors acting as the Government’s narks. There were going to be requirements for governors to be able to spill the beans and blow the whistle when they thought the head teacher or someone else was not quite up to it. I am sure it will be said that that was not the intention, but that was how it looked. Certainly there was a shift going on in our understanding of governance.
What I ask the Minister is this. Before we even start nailing down categories of people who should be governors, what will we be asking them to do? What will be the role of governors in this new world of academies that is now emerging on the back of the primary wave? I cannot make a decision about the issue of who until I have some understanding of what it is that the governance of academies will entail. What will be the function of the governors? What gifts and qualities will be required of them? We will then be able to answer the question of who might be the most competent people to fulfil that vital role.
My Lords, I support, first, the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Low. It is important that special needs are recognised. I also support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I have been a governor of a girls’ school and am now a governor of a boys’ school. As a governor of the school to which my daughter went, I was not actually asked to take on the role until she had left. That seems to be the ideal situation because you then have a parent with a real interest in the school but without the rather special interest which is local and time-limited. To have a predominance of parent governors while their own children are in the school would be a retrograde step, so I strongly support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.
My Lords, I also support my noble friend Lord Northbourne’s amendment. I emphasise that there is much to do. Some children need smaller schools and special teachers to work with them, but others do not, even though they may face serious challenges at home. Good support can be offered in schools to include these children to the benefit of all. I give one example: the charity Voluntary Reading Help, which works in over 1,000 schools. It recruits volunteers to work for one or two lunch hours a week with particularly difficult or challenging children. I have seen for myself in a primary school nearby how the volunteer will sit down and read with a child for half an hour and then play a little game. The child chooses the book and they enjoy their time together. A significant number of these volunteers are men, which is particularly valuable given that we have so many young boys growing up without fathers. These are important relationships that can be built up over the course of a year, which is the minimum commitment. This is the sort of thing that helps to include children who might otherwise be challenging. It is important to consider who should make up the governing body and what its function is. It should take a strategic view and be able to adopt sensible approaches like the one I have outlined.
I was encouraged when Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, said last week that he intended to recruit more men into early years childcare. I hope that he will also look at primary schools and how initiatives like Voluntary Reading Help might be developed. The charity is keen to expand in order to be able to help more children.
My Lords, I follow directly on what the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has said, as well as what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. The House has been concerned about the position of children with special educational needs. It is one of the areas where a good governing body can make it very clear indeed that the school must make provision for children in this group. Indeed, the force of governing bodies has been one of the pressures that has encouraged the move towards children being educated at least partly in mainstream schools if they possibly can be. Not the least of this has taken place in primary schools, where the governing body is often a crucial factor in ensuring that these youngsters are given the education they need and deserve.
I do not want to detain the Committee for long. First, I ask the Minister whether more assurances can be given on the position of children with special educational needs, about which we have learnt a great deal more in the past 10 years. Far more children are now helped in schools, in some cases through one-to-one assistance, to overcome the obstacles they encountered as very young children so that they often catch up with their cohort. In the long term their special educational needs are not a handicap to them. We would like to associate ourselves closely with what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Low, and of course by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock.
I want to make one other point quite strongly. It was the former Secretary of State for Education who brought in the requirement that governing bodies had to include representatives of parents, teachers and non-teaching staff. Will the Government consider very carefully whether we should not consider, as is implied in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, widening somewhat the requirements in the Bill so that governing bodies are rather more representative than the single parent governor that is presently required for the academies? In the country as a whole, there are some 300,000 governors, or at least vacancies for governors. This seems to be a perfect example of what the Prime Minister meant when he talked about the importance of the big society, because these are men and women who volunteer their time and energy and make a fantastic commitment to ensuring that their schools are as good as they can be. I have seen it over and again, particularly in respect of smaller primary schools through what I should declare as an interest in my capacity as the chairman of the judges of the Teaching Awards. Among others, we give awards directly to the governors of schools. It has been striking to see governors from often deprived parts of the country committing themselves deeply to getting their communities involved in their school. It would be a tragedy to see that go.
With regard to special educational needs, can the Minister say a little more to ensure that such children get the care and attention they need? Given the large number of academies that are to be created, I also ask him to consider again whether we should not ensure, at the very least, representation of parents—I share the view that it should not be a majority—and staff, including non-teaching staff, on the governing body in order, to put it bluntly, to ensure that those non-teaching staff members are strongly committed to the successful outcome of the school. That is a very important part of making education responsible and responsive to the community and the country as a whole.
My Lords, I am sure that none of us wishes to extend the debate any longer, but I feel strongly that the support being shown for the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, may be misplaced or perhaps misunderstood. I say that because I am disappointed that we should in any sense offer support to the idea that a governing body with a majority of parents is not a delightful and wonderful thing. I hope that the free schools will include those started by groups of parents because surely parents more than anyone else care about the welfare of their children and know what they want for them.
The commitment that you get from parents involved in the running of a school where their own children are present is one of the solid gold threads of education in this country. Many years ago I was involved in the early days of the pre-school playgroup movement. This was established entirely by mothers for their children and it was absolutely wonderful. The way in which the mothers organised themselves and their children—they wanted the absolute best playgroups and so set up training courses for themselves—is exactly what the big society is about. I hope that some of the free schools will generate that excitement again.
The idea that it is only sharp-elbowed, middle class parents who have this kind of excitement is extraordinary. Many of the pre-school playgroups were—
Will the noble Baroness accept that I am prepared to withdraw the phrase “middle class”?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for that because, certainly, many of the parents came from different backgrounds. I have seen pre-school playgroups on council estates organised by single mothers and so on which were inspiring. So perhaps we should reconsider the idea that a governing body composed of a majority of parents is not necessarily a good thing.
My Lords, as the grandfather of a splendid little lad with Down’s Syndrome who is nine years’ old, perhaps I may say that the massive support that my noble friend Lord Low has received from around the Committee is music to my ears. I should like to add my support to the amendments.
My Lords, I hope that I am not going to spoil the party by referring to the first two or three amendments in this odd group. The debate seems to have become about the composition of school governing bodies which, as far as I can see, is the subject of a later group of amendments. Never mind; we soldier on.
The first two amendments in the group seek to amend the words at the start of the Bill:
“The Secretary of State may enter into Academy arrangements with any person”.
“Any person” seems an unambitious expression and one wonders why it should not, for example, say, “Any charity”. I understood the Minister to say earlier without equivocation—this is how I read the Bill—that only a charity can be “the other party” for the purposes of academy arrangements. If we were to get technical—which is what we are supposed to do in this House—we would consider the Interpretation Act, which states, I think I am right in saying, that “any person” is any corporate entity or any individual person. It does not, for example, cover unincorporated trusts—and a great many charities are just that.
If I had been kinder I would have raised these issues with the Minister before the debate, so I do not expect him to answer directly. However, I strongly recommend that the phrase “any charity” should be substituted for “any person”. That would be happier, clearer and avoid the technical argument I have touched on.
Following on from the previous speaker, I should like further clarification on the rules concerning the new schools. It is desirable that the Bill should encompass all three types of new schools. This would, first, allow the best schools to become better by freeing them up; secondly, tackle the failing schools through the academy orders in Clause 4; and, thirdly, make provision for the new schools so that they, too, can become academies. It would be tidy if those three elements could be within the Bill.
We do not need to be too anxious about the burden that this will place upon the Government. Taking things in context, the brief on the Bill pack prepared by the House of Commons includes two or three helpful sections on new schools. It states that currently 19 per cent of the 3,200 secondary schools are judged to be outstanding and will qualify for the fast track. So that is potentially 600 schools out of 20,000. At the other end, depending on how you define inadequate Ofsted reports for longer than a year, there are about 100 failing schools. So, added together, that makes approximately 700 schools out of 20,000.
In the document Raising the Bar; Narrowing the Gap, which was the discussion Green Paper of the Government when they were in opposition, it was anticipated that the total number of new schools—roughly about 300 to 400—would be equivalent to about 220,000 places. I mention this for two reasons. First, all of the proposed changes might touch upon, potentially, 5 per cent of the total cohort of schools within the country. Therefore, the sense that this will send shockwaves through the entire system is unfounded and it is perhaps unfair to concern people about that. Secondly, the catchment areas of the new schools—
When the noble Lord refers to “new schools”, does he mean free schools?
The terminology is getting to us all. I do mean that. I come from an inner city urban area on Tyneside and it happened quite regularly that, where you had a failing school in a suburban area, dissatisfied parents who could afford to, or opted to, would take over an old large Victorian terraced house and its grounds—we have all seen them—and set up a new independent fee-paying school. The parents who could afford to opt out of the system would then pay fees for their children to go to that school. This movement still exists and is happening within the private sector. I cannot understand how anyone who has a passion for narrowing the gap and giving greater opportunity could possibly object to it. We should do all of these things in inner city areas and make them free and available to everyone. That would be entirely laudable.
I wish to make two other brief points, the first of which relates to catchment areas. If there is going to be a greater number of schools, broadening catchment areas would be a good thing. When the city technology colleges were established, they covered not only one entire local education authority area but often encompassed two or three. In other words, if the parents were prepared to undertake the duty of getting their child to school and it was not going to damage the child’s education, it was deemed acceptable for the child to attend there. Where there is greater choice the catchment areas need to be broadened. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, rightly made the point that narrow catchment areas could have too severe an effect on neighbouring schools.
The final point on which I seek clarification from the Minister concerns the properties that could be used. There are many buildings in inner city areas—including, many educational buildings—under the control of local authorities. Indeed, where they have a surplus of places they are paying additional money for them. Does my noble friend agree that local authorities should look at their existing stock of prepared educational establishments, embrace this change and, where there is a surplus, hand over existing buildings to a new school provider? That would give the authority an additional income and would mean that the provider was not forced into premises that might not be suitable.
My Lords, it has been wide-ranging debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, pointed out, we have in some ways already got on to some of the issues that we will discuss in later groups of amendments. We can pursue them in greater detail then. Given how wide-ranging the debate has been, it would perhaps be helpful if I briefly restated the amendments and their purpose.
Amendments 2 and 3 would mean that academy arrangements could be made only with the governing body of an existing school rather than any other group. They are linked in this group to Amendment 24, which would mean that, for future academies, the academy proprietor would have to ensure that its governing body was not controlled by a majority of parents of pupils at the academy—which was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.
Amendment 13 seeks to ensure that the SEN annex of an academy agreement, which sets out the school’s detailed obligations in relation to pupils with SEN, would apply also to the arrangements for academy financial assistance. Amendment 33 seeks to prescribe in the Bill that the academy agreement includes details of the roles, composition and continuance of the governing body. Amendment 76 seeks to ensure that academy funding agreements include additional provisions on SEN, including a requirement to comply with special educational needs legislation and regulations as if it were a maintained school.
Perhaps I may start with Amendments 2 and 3. The Government want to make it easier for teachers, charities, educational groups and groups of parents to start new academies. As the 2005 White Paper stated:
“We believe parents should have greater power to drive the new system: it should be easier for them to replace the leadership or set up new schools where they are dissatisfied with existing schools”.
We debated that earlier. I do not feel that I need to go through much of it again.
I should make it clear to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan—I think that my noble friend Lord Greaves also raised the point—that a free school could be regulated either through a funding agreement or a grant under Section 14 of the 2002 Act. In both cases, similar requirements will be placed on free schools as are placed on academies which convert from a maintained school. The only difference would be more flexibility in relation to the length of the funding period, a point that I made in our earlier debate on the Urgent Question. The more flexible arrangement would be used mainly in cases where new providers did not have a previous track record.
It would be helpful if the Minister set out in greater detail in writing what he has just said. We received a letter from the Secretary of State today—I am scrambling around to find it among my papers—stating not only what he has just said but also that academies funded through grant would have the conditions of their grant outlined in a letter. It states that the provisions would be in line with those in the funding agreement, as the Minister has just said. However, there is anxiety that, for issues around SEN, vulnerable children and all the areas set out in the funding agreement, the provisions might well be “in line with” but not the same. The Minister has just made a strong statement. It would be helpful to have that more clearly set out. My noble friend Lord Adonis said that the Secretary of State can already fund schools in this manner under the 2002 Act. If that is the case, and all the instruments exist, why do we need this additional route? If all the instruments exist, are we not just confusing matters? Around the Chamber, we are starting to understand the importance of the academy agreement. If we introduce another way of doing things, will it not confuse things further? Perhaps a letter would be helpful.
I am very happy of course to write further and set out what the noble Baroness seeks, because it is absolutely our intention that the two forms of funding should be on a completely equal footing. I recognise that many Members of this Committee want as much reassurance as they can have on that. If I can help in making it clearer, I will be delighted to do so.
Amendment 13, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Low, seeks to ensure that the SEN annex of an academy agreement, which sets out the school’s detailed obligations in relation to pupils with SEN, would apply also to the arrangements for academy financial assistance. In a way, that is a variant of the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan. The amendment is unnecessary, because academies whose arrangements take the form of an academy agreement and those whose arrangements are for financial assistance will both be under the same obligations in relation to special educational needs. I shall pick up again on special educational needs in connection with Amendment 76, although I know that a later group of amendments has been tabled on SEN.
We have had a long and interesting discussion about the role of governors, with a wide range of views expressed. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln talked about concerns that governors would be the Government’s narks. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, approached concerns about the number and role of governors from one point of view, and my noble friend Lady Perry approached it from the other. She made it clear that, in thinking of all these issues, we need to strike a sensible balance. We can perhaps all think of our own examples of charities which may initially have been set up by someone who had a personal interest in an issue—one might have said, “Well, that person has a personal interest in this charitable issue, so I am not sure that he or she should have too much influence”—but which, over time, became completely self-sustaining. In principle, there is no reason to think that that should be any different in the case of the schools. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said that, from his experience of independent schools, that model has developed over a long period.
I turn to Amendment 24. We will require through the model funding agreement with academies that the governing bodies have at least one parent governor. I know that there are those in the Chamber who feel strongly that that number is not enough. A number of later amendments will allow us to discuss that at greater length.
Might the Minister perhaps think a little more about the composition of governing bodies and write to me and the Committee? Just to say that there will be more than one parent governor, but, apart from that, that it is a matter of chance, is not quite enough.
I am not sure that I would say to the noble Lord that it would be totally a matter of chance. Fundamental to the Bill are trust and the principle of freedom. Throughout the Bill, we are seeking to be as enabling, permissive and as little prescriptive as possible. That principle would obtain also in our attitude to the question of governance. Our starting point would be that people wanting to set up these schools and exercise these freedoms would have a view as to what the most sensible membership of a governing body would be. The noble Lord will know from his experience that the best kind of governing body has a broadly drawn membership, bringing in expertise and experience from many areas. I am happy to discuss with him outside this debate whether there is anything further I can do.
Notwithstanding that my Amendment 82 in a later group deals with this very matter and I would like to talk about it then, does the Minister not agree that if a school is set up on the demand of, and by the organisation of, a group of parents, it seems a little strange to have only one of them as a governor?
I am being helped by noble Lords opposite who know far more about this subject than I yet do, so I am grateful for their prompting. The proposal is that there should be at least one parent governor. In practice, if one were to draw up a list and look at what happens on the ground, one would find that academies tend to have varying numbers of parent governors, often many more than one. That is because academies have worked out for themselves that having those parents involved is a good thing. Parental involvement is a good principle. It is sometimes thought that academies are conspiracies against their local area and against local people, but I have seen no evidence of that whatever. In the academies that I have seen, it has been exactly the opposite. It would be wrong if I have given my noble friend the impression that I consider one parent is correct. The statutory requirement is for at least one, but in practice it would be many more than that. However, we will return to this debate later.
Picking up on that point, it is the Government's view that there should be broad representation on the governing body of academies. That is rightly a matter for academies. We are seeking not to be too prescriptive in setting down what those freedoms should be.
Free schools will have to have a fair and transparent admissions policy, just like other academies. They will have to provide places to pupils of different abilities drawn wholly or mainly from the local area and we would expect parent governors to reflect that intake. The arrangement for the election of parent governors will be set out in the articles of association of the academy company. It will make clear that the election of a parent governor should be by the parents or pupils attending the academy and, once elected, they will be appointed to the governing body of the academy trust.
On Amendment 33, moved by my noble friend Lord Lucas, I first apologise that we have not yet been able to circulate the model funding agreements. I want to do that as soon as possible. We are proposing to be able to circulate specifically the elements that deal with admissions, SEN and exclusions, which I know are of particular concern to many noble Lords. We will do that as soon as we can and I am sorry that we have not been able to do it in time for today.
On the question asked by my noble friend Lord Lucas about intervention powers, the Secretary of State has power to intervene when educational standards are in question, if health and safety is an issue, and where governance, including financial management, is at issue. Of course, parents can complain to the Secretary of State and ask him to intervene.
On the substance of Amendment 33, all academies are managed by an academy trust which, before it can enter the funding agreement with the Secretary of State, must have finalised and lodged at Companies House its governing documents, with the memorandum and articles of association which set out the governance arrangements and the governing body. That prompts me to respond to a question asked by my noble friend Lord Phillips. Because of the technical detail, I feel I should write to him to follow that point up.
In the case of outstanding schools converting, we will discuss and need to agree with the governing body of the converting school who will be responsible for establishing the academy trust and the proposed composition of the board of the governing trust. We envisage that the composition of the governing body of the trust may therefore be very similar to that of the governing body of the converting school. The effect of Amendments 2 and 3 would be to deny teachers, charities and parents the opportunity to set up new schools. It would be wrong to deny them that choice, which the previous Government themselves intended to give them and that the Conservative Party promised in its manifesto and restated in the coalition agreement.
I am still confused. Either free schools can be set up under the 2002 Act or they cannot. If they can, why do they also need to have provision in this legislation?
The point of having two ways of establishing an academy is that in addition to the current funding agreement route, it was thought to be sensible also to have a flexible way of approaching the subject, particularly in so far as the new free schools might be concerned. We believe that it is necessary to have that extra flexibility in the system.
So is it the Government’s intention to use this new legislation and not the 2002 Act for free schools? That is the clarity that we need.
I will need to make that clear subsequently to my noble friend Lord Greaves. I will do that as soon as I am able.
Amendment 76 in this group would ensure that academy funding agreements would include additional provisions on SEN, including a requirement to comply with special educational needs legislation and regulations as if it were a maintained school. Academy funding agreements already include and will continue to include, as will grant arrangements, provisions setting out the responsibilities of academies in relation to pupils with SEN and disabilities. These include the responsibility of the governing body of the academy trust to consult the local authority and the governing bodies of other schools in the area to the extent that that is necessary for co-ordinating provision for pupils with SEN.
Academy funding agreements also already include provisions that require academies to use best endeavours to meet any special needs of pupils, have regard to the SEN code of practice and have an SEN policy. Academies are already required to appoint a suitable person to co-ordinate SEN provision, but they currently have the freedom to decide who that should be. Nevertheless, academy funding agreements are clear that the key elements of this role are to ensure that the special educational needs of those pupils with such needs are met, including through the co-ordination of specialist provision within the local authority. Where an academy fails to meet its SEN funding agreement obligations, the Secretary of State has the role of ensuring that these obligations are met. Academy parents and pupils also have the same rights of access to the First-tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability).
I hope that the setting out of those measures will go some way to reassuring noble Lords on this issue and I know that we will return to debate it further. However, I have listened to a whole range of noble Lords speak eloquently in this House and elsewhere about the need for absolute parity between academies and maintained schools and those points have been forcefully made again this evening. I have had meetings on SEN with a number of noble Lords from the Cross Benches and all sides and I have been particularly impressed by my noble friends of the Lib Dem Benches on this issue. I am conscious that the expertise in this House on special educational needs and vulnerable children is considerable, and I am certainly not an expert in these areas myself. I have tried to approach the question of parity from first principles rather than from having the depth of knowledge that many Members of this House have. Having thought about it from first principles and reflected on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Low, endorsed by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and underlined by my noble friend Lady Williams and many other Lib Dem noble friends, I can say to the House that I will commit to think about how best to achieve parity. In principle, that seems the right way to go, and I shall come back to the House on Report with proposals.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Will he also think in his deliberations about both routes for academy designation—through an agreement and through the grant letter?
One is approaching this from first principles, and first principles are first principles. I give an undertaking to come back at Report with proposals as to how one could put the principle of parity into effect.
I had intended to thank the Minister for the letter that he sent to many of the Peers who spoke at the Second Reading of the Bill and to ask that he at least acknowledge some of these points. The Minister has already done this, which means that he has shot our fox to a certain extent, because a lot of us have a lot more amendments to make. I trust that the Minister will take them in the spirit in which they are offered, consider them and perhaps meet us again before Report. If he could do that, we would be extremely grateful.
I would not like to deny the noble Lord, Lord Rix, the pleasure of the hunt. I had no intention in shooting his fox, but it struck me in listening to the debate that, given that was my view, it made sense to make that clear sooner rather than later. I know that the noble Lord and others who know huge amounts about this subject will want to make many points, and I am always happy to have them made to me.
I have just one small point. The Minister indicated that having given very full consideration to all these points he will come back at Report with proposals. There are strictish rules about the sort of questions that can be asked at Report. Given that the Minister will be making almost a Committee stage announcement, will it be acceptable if some of the questioning flows back into the allowance given to Committee stage?
We have two more days to debate these issues, and I am sure that we will come back to them. The answer to the noble Baroness’s question is, as much as it is possible, yes, of course.
Having concluded on Amendment 76, I urge the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, the noble Lords, Lord Greaves, Lord Lucas, Lord Northbourne and Lord Low, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, not to press their amendments.
I thank my noble friend for his reply and look forward to the model agreement, or the bits of it that we will get. Yes, charities do evolve, generally, a self-sustaining model for their governing body, but those that do not, die. Schools that do not either die, as many have this year, or the bursar very quickly puts other arrangements in place. It does not seem that those triggers are there for a straightforward maintained school with no sponsor. I shall return to this matter again in another context but, before the passing of the Bill, we need to know how we can stop schools getting into a real mess and how we can pick it up early and do something about it.
We have had a very helpful and full debate, and I thank the Minister for replying so comprehensively and in such a helpful way. To return to my earlier remarks, and picking up on the point that my noble friend Lord Adonis made, I think that it would be helpful—now that we know that free schools will be academies, and being in favour of reducing the alphabetti spaghetti, or soup, as the House was earlier—if the proposal forms for the free schools were called proposal forms for academies. We should get that clarity and consistency, so that those outside, who have not had the benefit of listening to the deliberations that we have had, can be clear about the relationship between new schools, free schools and academies. That would be very helpful.
I hesitate to prolong this debate, but after all that has been said on this group of amendments, is it not sensible to have the phrase “free school” somewhere reflected in the Bill? The Government themselves refer to these new academy schools as “free schools”. I should have thought that, in trying to make the legislation as helpful as possible to the poor devils who have to implement it hereafter, that would be a useful thing for the Government to contemplate—and I should be grateful if he would.
I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendment 3 not moved.
3A: Clause 1, page 1, line 3, leave out “person” and insert “individual or organisation”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 3A, I shall speak to Amendments 4A and 101. My noble friend Lord Adonis drew our attention to the similarity between Clause 1 of the Bill and the relevant Section of the Education Act 2002. However, the difference between this Bill and the section devoted to academies in the 2002 Act is the scale of the new initiative and the fact that this Bill will encompass so many new schools. Therefore, it is right that there are more safeguards and stringent checks than were perhaps required in the past.
Amendment 3A and the first part of Amendment 4A in some ways refer back to the debate on the previous group of amendments, but they are still pertinent. It is surprising that there is no provision in the Bill for any “fit and proper person” test to discern whether a board of governors or anyone to whom they may contract the running of a school are appropriate persons to take on the role of governing an autonomous school without local authority support—and, seemingly, much reduced inspections. This lack of safeguards would be concerning, but it might be understandable were there provision that the concerns of the community were taken into consideration in conferring this significantly increased responsibility or even power on existing boards of governors. This Bill appears to compound that lack of safeguards rather than tempering it by cutting out any right of these obviously vital stakeholders to be consulted. Amendments 3A and 4A are designed to address that crucial gap in the proposals.
The issue of consultation should be central to the Bill. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, said at Second Reading, consultation is a serious hole in the Bill. Amendment 101, in the name of my noble friend Lady Morgan, would ensure that the requirement to consult various interested groups in the community is in the Bill. This is not a delaying tactic—I am not attempting to put any delaying hurdles before the Bill—but I believe that consultation is an imperative.
The amendments are also intended to temper an effect that the Minister of State for Children and Families in the Department for Education identified some time ago, when she said:
“Unless you give local authorities that power to plan and unless you actually make sure that there is money available ... it’s just a gimmick”.
I am sure that this Bill is not a gimmick, but local authorities have a role in planning and delivering education in the community that remains far more democratically accountable and responsive than a system that relies on the Secretary of State sitting at his desk in Whitehall. As was pointed out at Second Reading, there is difference between political rhetoric and reality in relation to the Bill. The Prime Minister said some time ago:
“So we will take power from the central state and give it to individuals where possible—as with our school reforms that will put power directly in the hands of parents”.
The coalition programme—in section 4, on communities and local government—says:
“The Government believes that it is time for a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to people. We will promote decentralisation and democratic engagement”.
I believe that consultation is a vital part of democratic engagement. However, this Bill is not so much about decentralisation as about centralisation. Power is being taken away from the people and given to the Secretary of State.
Community cohesion is dealt with in the next group of amendments, but at Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made the important point that the wider views of the community should be taken into consideration in relation to decisions about schools, as the education system must serve the whole community. I believe that the community should be included in any consultation. Consultation, apart from being the right course of action, enables time for reflection about governance and accountability and about how schools can best use new freedoms to their advantage but without disadvantaging the rest of the community. Local authorities, parents, children and the staff—both teaching and non-teaching—see issues in the round and, unlike the Secretary of State, are aware of local circumstances and sensitivities. They are best placed to know the needs of the community and to express concerns that might not have been considered about the consequences of a conversion. They can reflect on the impact on neighbouring schools.
I also believe that there must be parental involvement from the first if the schools are to succeed. That means involvement in a parental consultation process. To have one or possibly two parents on the governing body that makes an application to the Secretary of State is not enough. Wider consultation with parents is needed.
The Secretary of State has said publicly that he hopes that some schools will be able to convert to academy status by the beginning of the new academic year this September. Some looking at this from the outside suspect that the haste and determination with which these schools are to be converted owe more to political considerations than to any particular urgency. I believe that there is more to this issue than politics. Introducing a proper measure of consultation would enable the Government to demonstrate that this Bill is not just about politics but about improving standards and improving our education system. However, time is needed for consultation. If that means that schools that are anxious to become academies have to wait a few more months before they can do so, so be it. Consultation is important for the schools and for communities.
In the Statement, I think that the Minister said—I may be mistaken—that there would be consultation on the setting up of free schools. Why is there to be consultation on free schools, which will then become academies, but no consultation on academies in relation to this Bill?
In my view, consultation is the key to the success of these new academies. Consultation, when properly undertaken, is a means of ensuring that the right policy for a particular school is pursued and of ensuring the wider ownership of this policy. It will engender the confidence of parents, pupils, staff and the community. This is a means of ensuring the success of the policy.
My Lords, my Amendment 104 is in this group. I am not quite sure why Amendment 3A is in the group—I think that it should have been in a previous one—but the rest of the amendments are all about consultation. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, that appropriate consultation, over a sufficient time, leads to good decision-making. The decision that schools have to make about conversion to academy status is terribly important, so I think that they should consult.
I have a few words to say about the amendments tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Royall and Lady Morgan. I am not sure why they felt the need to include CRB checks in Amendment 4A. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I thought that all those who had dealings with schools had to have CRB checks anyway. Indeed, I know a young teacher who does both paid and voluntary work in a number of schools and has had four CRB checks. I hope that the coalition Government will smooth out that totally unnecessary duplication. Also, surely the Government normally do due diligence on anyone with whom they intend to sign a contract, so I think that the second subsection in the amendment may be superfluous, too.
The main point of this debate is consultation. Of course schools should consult all the relevant people and provide them with the information that they need to be able to respond appropriately. To become an academy is an enormous change in the governance and funding of a school. Indeed, I think that it is very risky, as Clause 1(2)(b) and Clause 1(3)(b) give enormous power to the Secretary of State without any scrutiny by Parliament. Perhaps we will get that changed during the Bill’s passage through your Lordships’ House. We will discuss the merits of these arrangements later, but the fact remains that a school that becomes an academy under the Bill does so entirely at the whim of the Secretary of State, so it needs to be sure about the potential benefits of the change to the education that it provides to all the children in its locality.
Incidentally, I do not believe that these schools should be called “independent”, as they have been described. They will be totally dependent on the Secretary of State for their funding and the terms of their operation. My noble friend Lord Greaves referred to them as “autonomous”, which I believe is a better expression.
The difference between our amendment on consultation and those tabled by the Opposition is that we do not include the trade unions. I thought that I should explain why that is. Unions are national organisations, whereas we have proposed consulting local people or organisations that have a keen interest in the school. No national organisation can have a relevant view of the merits of the application of every individual school. The local people matter here and it is they who should be consulted.
That is especially true of the children. I have been in your Lordships’ House for 10 years. At the start, when the Labour Government brought legislation before us, we had to put down a lot of amendments about what I call the voice of the child. Gradually, the Government got the message and, I am glad to say, such provisions started to appear in Bills, so we did not need to put down those amendments. I hope that the Minister will take into account the fact that, when you consult children about things that affect them, you get better decision-making. I also hope that, if he cannot accept these amendments, he will at least put this in guidance, so that schools have to consult the appropriate people.
On the matter of the documents that should be sent out to the people who are being consulted, Amendments 101 and 102 are far too prescriptive. We would leave it to the schools to judge what material it is appropriate to send out. On these Benches we intended to add something much briefer and less prescriptive but it got lost and did not go down in the end. The period suggested for the consultation is six weeks by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and four weeks by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. However, the school will have to make the TUPE arrangements with staff, which requires 10 weeks and should not be during the school holidays. Schools will have to take a lot longer than four weeks, and so they should. I have already urged my right honourable friend Michael Gove to hasten slowly, and I shall do the same to my noble friend Lord Hill. That should be the watchword. The decision does not need to be fast but it needs to be right.
I support the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lady Royall. This is a very strange part of the Bill, and I am not sure what the rationale behind it is. The Bill purports to want to know the views of people in communities or schools where children’s lives are affected by what legislation says. However, it excludes from consultation at key points anybody outside the school. I wonder if this comes from the Government’s fears over what happened when they had ballots over grant-maintained schools. If so, I well understand that. That was a procedure that ended up causing terrible arguments and distrust between groups of people and communities who should have been working together. There is absolutely no way that I would want to return to that. Indeed, in my time at the department, we did not have ballots in that manner. I am sympathetic, but the Minister mentioned in the last debate that people are somehow suspicious of academies and free schools. There is no better way of making them more suspicious than to exclude them from being consulted. If the Minister accepts that that suspicion is already there, I am not sure why he wants to risk building it up by, as I say, excluding people from consultation.
I have two more points. When this issue was previously been raised in the course of the Bill, the Minister said that the previous Government did not have means of consulting anyway. Correct me if I am wrong, but the essential difference was that, under the legislation used by the previous Government, one school was closed and a new one was opened. The consultation took place as part of the school closure and opening. In the Bill, the conversion of a school—as far as I can see, there is no official closure and opening—excludes any consultation at all.
Finally, the amendments do not seek to take away from the Secretary of State the right to decide whether or not a school should be granted academy status. You might argue that they ought to, but they do not. I cannot see that they would delay any consideration. If I was the Secretary of State in this situation, I would want to put myself in a position where I took the community with me, just to give any new school the best possible start to its life. To load a school with potential suspicion when that need not be the case is really not acceptable. To accept amendments along these lines, if not in such detail, would be very good for any schools that become academies under this legislation.
My Lords, as a supporter of academies, I very much encourage the Government to accept the spirit of these amendments. I have been involved with three academies. I chaired the first and co-chaired the second. The first academy arose from community consultation. When there was anxiety in the community over the other two, there was consultation which allayed people’s fears. I put it to the Government that the people who are being proposed for consultation—young people, parents, governing bodies—are the constituent parts of the big society. It seems a contradiction that if you want to build the big society, you then exclude the very people who are the essence of it. Consultation is called for here.
My Lords, I refer to my Amendment 102. It is interesting that several differing groups have tabled more or less the same sort of amendments, calling for much greater consultation. The differences between us tend, perhaps, to reflect our own particular interests. The whole area of consultation is crucial and I agree entirely with what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said about consulting parents, children and young people. This is crucial in today’s world. They will certainly have a view. We can disagree about trade unions but they could be relevant on the ground in local areas.
The point I would like to stress in my amendment is that the governing bodies of other schools in the areas, which might reasonably be considered to be affected by the making of an academy order, should be consulted. This comes back to the wider issue of whether the academy will advantage or disadvantage the rest of the school population in the area. The Minister stressed that he is not disallowing consultation. He is no doubt encouraging it, but he is not giving the view that it should definitely happen. It is not compulsory. I would like to see in the Bill some degree of requiring that consultation take place. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, is not very keen on the second half of our amendment. Nevertheless, if you want to set out a range of issues that need to be looked at and thought about before deciding whether to apply to become an academy, that half is important too.
Finally, there is the letter to Peers dated 15 June from the noble Lord, Lord Hill, in which he wrote about understanding the importance of parental engagement with the conversion process. Everybody is very pleased to see him acknowledging this in the Committee. However, the Department for Education’s guidance to schools wishing to become academies suggests only that schools consider how they might wish to inform staff, pupils and parents of the intended conversion. That is not what I would call consultation before a decision is made by the governing body. It is about informing stakeholders once a decision has been made. I gather, too, that this guidance has not been changed since the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Hill, advising schools to engage with parents. I would have thought that this would be something that the department should include and send off to the various areas that need to consider this issue. On that basis, I would certainly support what the noble Baroness said in moving the first amendment. All the points that she made are very important in making a decision.
My Lords, I will not go through the full list of people to consult, but I will comment on two groups specifically. One is children, who were mentioned earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the other is schools in the area. On children, Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child so beloved of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, gives children the right to express views on all matters affecting them and to have these views given due weight. Failing to consult students on matters that may alter both the character and curriculum of their school is a backward step in implementing Article 12. The Government should seriously think about consulting children.
I believe that academies do not have to be part of the local family of schools and that there is no obligation to co-operate with other neighbourhood schools. Unfortunately, I cannot remember where the survey that I have in front of me came from. It was taken a few years ago and involved schools situated near academies. It appears that only 27 per cent of those schools were consulted about the academy proposals, 32 per cent said that the academy specialism was not shared with them, 23 per cent said that it had a negative impact on intake and 36 per cent said that it had a negative impact on the allocation of resources. In order to remove the suspicion about which my noble friend Lady Morris spoke, to get better decisions on these issues and to move slowly, we need to take communities along. Therefore, I urge the Minister to look again at involving local schools that may be affected by the development of an academy.
My Lords, there seem to me to be two distinct issues. The first is that of good practice in the establishment of academies, which was rightly raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool. It is clearly good practice that maximum efforts are made to engage the local community. Indeed, it is very unlikely that an academy proposal will be a success if it does not have a very wide measure of support from the parental body, the staff body and the wider community. As the right reverend Prelate rightly says, although the statutory consultation requirements are not present in the case of academies because very few statutory requirements apply in respect to academies, an elaborate process of consultation has taken place in relation to their establishment. In virtually every case consent has been given before an academy is established. I say “virtually” because, in the case of some failing schools, it is not possible to gain the consent of the parental body or sometimes even of the governing body. However, that is distinct from the precise provisions we propose to put in the law. As soon as you read Amendment 4A tabled by my noble friend Lady Morgan, you will see the difficulty of trying to put this into legislation. Having dealt with these issues at the Dispatch Box over a long period, I can say that they are only too clear to me. My noble friend’s amendment says that the groups to be consulted must include those it is perfectly reasonable to include, such as:
“(a) the parents of children of the school
(b) the children and young people of the school”.
I entirely agree with my noble friend Lady Massey about the importance of consulting pupils. One of the things the previous Government did which I think was a big step forward was strongly to encourage pupil engagement in schools, including with school councils, which were a very worthwhile development in schools in recent years. I would certainly expect to see school councils consulted before proposals of this kind came forward. However, paragraphs (f) and (g) of the amendment move into the land of the extremely subjective and difficult to determine. Paragraph (f) refers to,
“any local authority which sends a significant proportion of children to the school”.
What is “significant”? We shall be in the courts as soon as an application is challenged on the meaning of “significant”. Paragraph (g) refers to,
“the governing bodies of other schools in the area which might reasonably be considered to be affected by the arrangements”.
But who decides who might,
“reasonably be considered to be affected by the arrangements”?
Those who oppose proposals for schools to become academies will embark on months of litigation and will latch on to ambiguous wording in legislation that enables them to go to the courts.
While the spirit of these amendments is clearly correct and should be encouraged, as we want to see strong parental and community engagement in proposals for academies, I caution the Committee against seeking to put in primary legislation vague requirements which will open the floodgates to opponents to engage in litigation on the ground of ambiguous legal wording.