Academies Bill [HL] — Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 7th July 2010.

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Photo of Lord Low of Dalston Lord Low of Dalston Crossbench 6:45 pm, 7th July 2010

My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendments 12 to 14 and to Amendment 39, all of which are in my name. I very much welcome government Amendment 11, to which the Minister has just spoken. In Committee, there was a widespread concern throughout the Chamber to ensure that academies were put on the same footing as maintained schools as regards admitting and meeting the needs of pupils with special educational needs. The Minister said then that he would reflect and come back with proposals on how parity could be achieved. As we have heard, he has been as good as his word. I am very grateful to him for this and for the time and trouble that he has taken to meet Peers to discuss their concerns. I am also most grateful to officials for the time that they have taken to make sure that we get this absolutely right.

For my part, I think that we have very nearly got it right, but not quite. That is why I have put down the amendments to which I am speaking this evening. I spoke on this at some length in Committee, so I shall not weary the House by going over the same ground all over again. The Minister has met very many of the concerns that I raised in Committee, but one or two issues still remain. The first is whether the new provisions will relate to existing as well as new academies. In moving his amendment, the Minister has clarified that because he has said that they will do so. However, I think he said that they would apply to existing academies when they entered into a new agreement. That could be some years away. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that steps will be taken to apply the new provisions to existing academies at the earliest possible date and not necessarily waiting several years before doing so.

Secondly, there is the question of whether obligations that are equivalent to the SEN obligations in the Minister's amendment are the same in their effect as the SEN obligations. If not, it will be argued in court that Parliament's decision not to make these obligations direct statutory obligations must indicate an intention to permit variation from the statutory framework. I should therefore be grateful if the Minister could confirm that the intention is for academies to be subject to exactly the same obligations as maintained schools as regards admitting and meeting the needs of pupils with special educational needs, which the notion of parity would imply.

My main concern is with the enforceability of the rights implied by these obligations. The Minister has chosen to confer the obligations by importing the statutory SEN framework into the contractual framework of academy arrangements. There are contractual agreements between the Secretary of State and an academy to which parents and pupils are not a party. There is a complex legal argument as to whether the duties imported into academy arrangements by this means are enforceable by parents or pupils. I shall spare the House all the legal technicalities, but there are essentially three ways that one might seek to ensure that the duties were enforceable.

The first is by laying on academies the same statutory obligations as those laid on maintained schools directly by statute, not by statutorily importing them into a contract. That is what my Amendment 14 would do and I still think that it is the simplest and surest way to achieve my aim, which is why I have tabled that amendment again and why it would save a lot of bother by putting everything beyond doubt, if the Minister agreed to it.

Assuming that the Minister's preference is to proceed by the contractual route and to maintain the contractual relationship with academies, there are two further ways that one might seek to enforce the contractual obligations. One is through a complaints procedure and the other is by making it clear that pupils and parents can enforce their rights by judicial review.

As for complaints procedures, complaints would presumably be made to the Secretary of State, but there is nothing that establishes such a procedure and nothing is proposed. Even if there were, it would need to be clear that if the Secretary of State found that an academy had not complied with the relevant provisions of the academy arrangements, he would require the academy to comply, and the arrangements would need to make clear that he could compel compliance. This would place a considerable additional burden on the Secretary of State, whose process for dealing with complaints is already widely perceived to be slow and ineffective-as is illustrated by the fact that it is never suggested by defendants in proceedings for judicial review that the court should decline jurisdiction because a complaint to the Secretary of State would provide an effective alternative remedy.

As for judicial review, the availability of this remedy could be put beyond doubt simply by making clear that the rights accorded to pupils and parents under academy arrangements could be enforced through judicial review. This could be done on a narrow basis relating to SEN only, as is provided for in Amendment 12, or on a wider basis covering all rights given to parents and pupils, as provided for in Amendment 13. Amendment 12 would sort out the problem relating to special educational needs, but would, if anything, weaken the position in relation to other rights-say, those relating to admissions-because it would imply that those rights could not be enforced through judicial review.

The Minister has shown himself to be very accommodating of our concerns in the quest to achieve full parity between academies and maintained schools. I hope that further discussion may be possible before Third Reading, with a view to finding a formula which would ensure that enforceability was not only a reality, but was seen to be a reality, either through a robust complaints procedure or by putting it beyond doubt that judicial review is available as a remedy.

Something along the lines of Amendments 12 or 13 would do the job for judicial review, and I have suggestions for a robust complaints procedure that I would be happy to put to the Minister. Amendment 39 begins the job, but even that requires fleshing out in some respects to reflect the ingredients of a robust complaints procedure. If the Minister would be happy to proceed along these lines, I am sure that we could reach an arrangement that would put enforceability beyond doubt and would be satisfactory to everyone. If full parity is the Minister's aim, I cannot see a reason not to do this.