Baroness Blatch (Conservative)
The amendment poses the question whether an original jurisdiction should be allowed to exist, with no room for appeal—except by judicial review on procedural grounds only. It raises also the technical question of whether Section 86(7) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 makes it possible for the adjudicator to treat entry to a test as an expression of preference for a school.
We all know that organisation committees and adjudicators were set up to allow the Secretary of State to pass to an elected, unaccountable body the responsibility for making decisions that are tiresome for a Secretary of State, including the merging or closing of schools and the alteration of school structures at local level. That development wrote out of the loop the responsibility of local education authorities and put such decisions at arm's length from the Secretary of State. The most significant deficit is that parents, school communities and schools themselves are in no position to counter the adjudicators' absolute power.
If, when an organisation committee receives a proposal written in the organisational plan, one sector of the committee takes a different view, the proposal automatically goes to the adjudicator for determination. The adjudicator can uphold the majority or minority view, alter the proposition or substitute a wholly different decision. There is absolutely no appeal to the adjudicator. We and members on the Liberal Democrat Benches were extremely disquieted by the advent of organisation committees and adjudicators because they were unelected and unaccountable and adjudicators were given absolute power.
At least one adjudicator has already been taken to the courts and found wanting because he had exceeded his powers. The Government's answer was to extend the adjudicators' powers—so if the same decision were made today, it would not be against the law. It certainly would be against the interests of people locally and of schools.
The Government argued that committees and adjudicators would bring decision making closer to the people. Anyone who has examined the areas for which adjudicators are responsible will know that they are extremely wide—they extend far beyond local authority areas. In my area of Cambridgeshire and East Anglia, the adjudicator could not possibly know all the nursery, primary and secondary schools in Cambridgeshire because that individual is responsible for several county areas—yet that one person has absolute power.
Different adjudicators have different ways of working. There ought to be a test of fair process—not just correct process, in terms of judicial review. As I said, the only recourse open to a school community or parent body is to make an adjudication the subject of judicial review on the basis of process only, not its merits or demerits. That is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs.
My preference would be to see adjudicators removed from the 1998 Act, but if we must live with that unaccountable aspect of local decision-making, there ought to be a process of appeal. If the Minister argues that there was not previously the right of appeal to the Secretary of State, that is not true. There was a system of review and judicial review. Those of us with experience of local authorities, particularly on the Liberal Democrat Benches, know that they had to make judgments about the number of places available; and took views on mergers, closures and additional schools. Such propositions were considered at working party level and there would be road shows, talks to local communities; and discussions with governors, parents, and parish and district councils.
After the working party, a proposal would go before the primary and secondary sub-committees and the county council. Then the decision would go to the Secretary of State. If there was concern about a proposal before it reached the Secretary of State, parents could approach the Secretary of State—himself an elected individual—through their Members of Parliament and make their input. The people who submitted the proposal in the first place and the individual decision-maker were elected.
The Government should be generous with the amendment and at least allow appeals to the all-powerful, all-pervasive adjudicators. I beg to move.