My Lords, when we come back to this, we come back to our old friend the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and its second report of the 2022-23 Session. The report is all about the Bill and the things that are wrong with it. Primarily, this amendment is inspired by the last paragraph, which states that
That is as damming an indictment to any piece of legislation as I have seen in three and a half decades here; it says that the Government have this horribly wrong. Nobody thinks that this is the right way to go about things.
The title of the clause—“Academies: power to apply or disapply education legislation”—is an incredibly wide starting point. Could the Minister give us a little more clarity and justification about why the Government think something like this is needed? We have not got much else on this first part of the Bill. We cannot really disagree with the Government because we are disagreeing with assumptions about things that might happen. That is where we start from. If the Minister—I wish her the best of British on this one—can convince us that we have got this wrong and there is nothing to worry about with it, then half of us can go home.
I hope—because hope empowers more than expectation—that we will get some reply here. I am calling to leave out Clause 3(1), but you could take a knife to any part of this and it would improve the Bill. The whole thing probably should go and, indeed, if someone were to ask me and it were the appropriate time, I would be voting for that to happen. However, I give the Minister one chance here to finally say why we need Clause 3—or any bits of it. I could jump up and down, make longer speeches and read out the report to noble Lords, but I think that this is enough. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak in place of my noble colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who cannot be here today, to his Amendment 33 and to declare his interest as chair of the National Society, and also to speak against Amendment 34A.
Amendment 33 to Clause 3
“ensures that the religious designation of church schools could not be removed by secondary legislation.”
The Church of England provides 4,700 schools, so we take seriously our vision that we are deeply Christian and serving the common good. This vision is for the whole community but is built on the firm foundation of the character of our church schools, which is central to that vision. I again pay tribute to the Minister for the way that her department has valued this character and worked with us to ensure that it is safeguarded in this legislation. We believe that this amendment strengthens that intention and provides a further safeguard.
A necessarily broad approach is undertaken in this Bill in applying legislation for maintained schools to academies through amending regulations. While we can appreciate the need to do this, it is unusual to see primary legislation which enables power to be applied or disapplied by secondary legislation. This short amendment would ensure that the “religious designation” of
“schools could not be removed by secondary legislation.”
I appreciate that Clause 3(3) provides for the protection of the status of an academy “with a religious character” by prohibiting regulations for
“arrangements for collective worship and the provision of religious education”.
However, these are just some of the outworkings of the religious character of a school, and we believe that this additional safeguard is necessary to safeguard the very designation of its character. It would be inappropriate to allow secondary legislation to have such impact on the designation of character of so many schools. This is a significant issue for our schools, and I will be listening with interest to any assurances on this topic that the Minister can provide.
I want also to speak against Amendment 34A. While I support this amendment in principle, as drafted it does not include stakeholders in the list of relevant bodies for consultation. Church schools are not included, but they represent a third of the sector and therefore should be included in the consultation.
We see that this group concerns the Secretary of State’s power to make regulations for any education legislation to apply to academies. Thus, some may see this as redressing the balance between academies and the maintained sector.
“powers to apply or disapply education legislation” until they have been consulted on with
“headteachers, governors, academies, and pupils”.
I will pick up the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol’s point, which could be a useful addition, so I thank her for raising it with us. Of course, consultation is the key to good governance and, if there is a sense of imposition from a distant central source, then legislation will never be as good as it could be or implemented in the way it should be.
Furthermore, our Amendment 35 removes the Secretary of State’s power to apply legislation
“relating to further education colleges to academies” by removing “further education” from “the definition of ‘educational institution’”. As it stands, these clauses signal a further power grab, empowering a future Secretary of State unilaterally to remove religious designation from a faith school, as noted in the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham’s Amendment 33.
In line with previous approaches, the Bill is silent on what education legislation they would like academies to be subject to. Despite the Minister’s attempts to reassure the House, we continue to be unclear why the Secretary of State is taking these powers. If the Government listed which Acts they are considering, we would be able to have a debate. That is why so much of what we are hearing has a déjà vu aspect to it. We are struggling to find areas of discussion and scrutiny because there is so little evidence of this in this wafer-thin Bill. Where is the legislation, for example, on teachers’ pay, which does not currently apply to academies? National terms and conditions should be a prerequisite for the profession, so that teachers can once again have the security of moving between schools and sectors without a serious dilution of rights, as noted by my noble friend Lady Blower in last week’s Committee debate. As it stands, these powers are not justified and should be amended. I will say no more because, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, noted, there is very little else to say.
My Lords, I am slightly confused about the order of this but I thought it was really important that we heard the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, introduce the amendments. I want very briefly to speak for the Green group and to agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on the desire to throw all these provisions out. I also very much want to commend the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Wilcox, for attempting to clarify and improve the Bill. In particular, Amendment 34A is terribly important.
In our debate last week, I highlighted the amazing lack of the words “parents”, “pupils” and “communities” in the Bill. I really commend the noble Baronesses for putting consultation with pupils in here—a principle that needs to run right through the Bill. We do not want the Secretary of State to have the power to make these decisions but if that were by some miracle to stay in the Bill, it is really important that we have consultation measures. The fact that pupils are included in this consultation is a really good principle to build into the Bill.
My Lords, Clause 3 was not passed. It is possible for the noble Lord to de-group and discuss Clause 3 stand part, but it is not part of the group of amendments we are discussing currently.
My Lords, I wonder whether I might assist the noble Lord and the Committee. I just want to make it clear, purely procedurally, that Clause 3 stand part will be put as a Question once this group of amendments has been discussed. It has not yet been put as a Question; however, it was discussed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, just said, as part of an earlier group on the first day in Committee.
My Lords, it may be the Marshalled List that is causing confusion. We have Amendment 35 on the Marshalled List, which we are discussing in this group, and then we reach Clause 3 stand part, which is separate to that. As I said, we debated it in a group on the previous day but as the Deputy Chairman said, we have not put the Question on that yet. I believe we will come to that after this group.
My Lords, I shall now speak to the group of amendments relating to Clause 3, ahead of the question being put on whether Clause 3 stands part of the Bill.
First, I shall speak to Amendment 31. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, I begin by reassuring the Committee again that I have fully heard the concerns that have been expressed about the Henry VIII power conferred on the Secretary of State by Clause 3, including those, importantly, from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. We are carefully reflecting on what noble Lords have said today on the matter, as well as on the report from the committee. Any use of the power in Clause 3 would be exercised by the affirmative procedure and, as we will cover in relation to Amendment 34, the Government will consult on any new regulations.
Academy trusts are already subject to many of the same requirements as maintained schools, set out in numerous pieces of primary legislation. We want to consolidate these requirements on trusts as much as possible into the academy standards regulations. This will be a gradual process, and we want to work with trusts on the implementation of the standards at a pace which is right for them. As we move towards a school system in which all schools are academies within strong trusts, we want to ensure that the legal framework is fit for purpose, including by removing requirements should they prove excessively onerous or unnecessary. Clause 3 enables the Secretary of State to make these adjustments, subject to the affirmative procedure, and to be responsive to the changing needs of the system.
I do not know whether it is the Committee’s problem, but it is my problem, as I do not understand how this enormous tidying-up process, if it should be called that, has any connection with improving the education of our children. We need some fundamental explanation as to what is perhaps marginally wrong, if I have heard right, and of why this has any real prospect of making any real improvement.
My noble friend is right—the thing we should principally be concerned about is improving the education of our children. I will be more than happy to meet my noble friend or any other noble Lord who wants to go through some more of the work that we are doing in relation to that, as was set out initially in the schools White Paper. As I said in the introduction to one of the groups on day one of Committee, this Bill needs to be seen in the context of the wider work that the department is doing and that Ministers are leading in relation to a commitment to improving outcomes for our children, which my noble friend absolutely rightly says should be pre-eminent.
The Minister said at the start of her summing up—and it was about the 20th time she had said it—that she had heard the concerns of Members, would reflect on them and would come back. To be honest, unless she gives us some indication as to when she is going to come back and what she is going to say, we are going to have this at every turn. The noble Viscount who has just spoken is right. My noble friend asked about this with the first amendment—and, since the statement at the end of the first day in Committee, I am sure that she has reflected on the views of the House. What conclusions did she come to? Is she able to tell us now? If not, when will she be able to tell us? Then we could perhaps use the time available to us much more constructively.
Tempting as it is to take power into my hands and give the noble Baroness the answer straightaway, she knows very well that this is something we need to agree more broadly within the department. As soon as that is done, of course I look forward—that is an understatement—to updating the House.
Before the Minister sits down, I just ask a simple question: when?
I must explain to the Committee that I am not able to give a firm date on that today, but as soon as I am able to, I will update the House.
In the debate last week, I was delighted to commend the wisdom and clarity of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. If it is impossible for the Minister to say anything more about how this process is going to proceed, she may find herself with requests for any number of meetings with the noble Viscount, but also with any number of people from these Benches, because how we are proceeding does not really seem to be comprehensible or explicable. If we are actually interested in improving things for children and young people through the education system, there is something different we should be doing.
I apologise to the noble Baroness. I do not think there is much I can add beyond what I have already said, which is to underline that as soon as I can clarify further, I will.
Turning to Amendment 33, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol for moving this amendment on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. As she knows, the Government are a strong supporter of schools provided by the Church of England and by other religious bodies. We believe strongly that they bring great richness and diversity to our school system. That is why we have included measures in the Bill to ensure that statutory protections are in place for academy schools with a religious character, to ensure that their unique powers and freedoms are appropriately safeguarded. The power to designate a school with a religious character is already enshrined in existing legislation. I give a clear commitment that the Government will not use the powers in Clause 3 to affect the designation of academy schools with a religious character.
I appreciate that the right revered Prelate’s concern extends beyond the intentions and commitments of this Government. However, we are committed to ensuring that schools with a religious character remain an important element of our school system in the future. I offer my reassurance that we will give further consideration to ensuring that the powers in Clause 3 could not be used to undermine this.
On Amendment 34A, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, I am willing to make a commitment on the Floor of the House to your Lordships that the Government will always undertake a full consultation with representatives from the sector prior to any regulations being laid which exercise the power in Clause 3. Those regulations will also be subject to the affirmative procedure.
On Amendment 35, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Wilcox, by removing further education institutions from the scope of this power, we would lose the ability to make these adjustments in relation to 16 to 19 academies, with the possibility that we could introduce complexity to the regulatory framework rather than streamlining it. On that basis, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment and other noble Lords not to press theirs.
My Lords, really, this is something of a hangover from day one—something I think the noble Baroness, understandably, would best like forgotten. I am still not clear why, when Clause 3 has been so heavily condemned, we are not saying, “Let’s get rid of it and try something else.” The undertaking the Minister has just given about consultation is welcome, but we should not need it, because we should know what we are getting into: it should have been discussed in Parliament, in detail, going through the full process. Also, an undertaking to consult comes back to the old point: I am sure this Minister will stand by it—she is an honourable person, as she has shown in her conduct over this—but we do not know who is coming next; we do not know who is giving the orders next.
I refer noble Lords to my earlier comments that it is not this Secretary of State but the nasty one round the corner. This is why we have things in legislation that we can discuss and refer back to. Clause 3 in this Bill removes that safeguard and means that we do not actually know what we are doing. It also gives an awful lot of power to anybody who takes on that position.
If we are to continue in this way, the sittings of this House and indeed Parliament as a whole are going to get a lot shorter, because there will not be much to do. If it is all going to be by regulation, which they do not want us to vote against—I know I am repeating myself, but why not?—what else can we do? There will be a series of negative Motions, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, pointed out, to which the Government will say, “Oh well, never mind” and move on. We have got to get something more solid down here about what the Government’s intentions are. At the moment, we are in the position of not knowing whether we disagree with them or not. We suspect it, but we do not know, and we do not know what is coming next time.
When the Minister goes back to her department—and I think the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, going back to the Chief Whip may be even more applicable here—will she make sure that they know just how unsatisfactory we are finding this? Otherwise, we are just going to have a bit of a carve-up on Report, and then we will be accused of being unconstitutional, and then we can chase each other round the Houses, and then everybody remembers that the Bill is a Lords starter. I hope, if we are not going to be wasting our time, that we actually do have something solid that removes Clauses 1 and 3 from the Bill and replaces them with something sensible.
Having said that, observing the convention that we do not deal with these things now but on Report, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 31 withdrawn.
Amendments 32 to 35 not moved.
Debate on whether Clause 3 should stand part of the Bill.
I was reminded earlier by the Minister that there was a debate on Clause 3—I remember it very vividly—on the previous day. In fact, that was when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who is the Convenor of the Cross Benches, said it was outrageous and should be deleted from the Bill, but I do not remember an actual Motion being mentioned on Clause 3. I do not see Clause 3 mentioned in any of the amendments from 1 to 35. Clauses 1 and 2 were, and Clauses 1 and 4 were dealt with on Wednesday.
My Lords, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord—I very much agree with the thrust of what he has said—I actually did have a Clause 3 stand part notice, to which the noble Lord signed his name, so I think we did debate it. Our problem is that we want to debate it again, and when we come to the fifth group, we shall want to debate it again and again and again.
I would like to. Clauses 1 and 3 are crucial parts of the Bill, and Clause 3 extends the power of the Secretary of State quite considerably. If I could draw attention to Clause 3, this allows the Secretary of State to apply or disapply education legislation almost at will, because the whole relationship between the Secretary of State and the school has now been changed. It has moved from a contract relationship, which we now have, where both sides can argue—and eventually, if necessary, go to law—to one of statutory imposition by the Secretary of State. That is why Clause 3 is very central; it is as important as Clause 1. That is why the noble and learned Lord on the Cross Benches spoke against it.
Obviously, I will not divide the House in Committee, but if the Government still come back with these sorts of clauses on Report—which I think they hope to take in July—my noble friends Lord Agnew and Lord Nash and I will table all these amendments again and will seek the opinion of the House on them, because this is essentially a constitutional Bill. That is what this comes down to. The power of the Secretary of State is being enhanced in a way that has not happened since 1870, and that has not been done with consultation or any sort of examination.
I am amazed, with the success that my noble friends Lord Agnew and Lord Nash had in dealing with failing schools, that I was at the receiving end—I had to defend my UTCs and all the rest of it, so I saw how well they worked. Actually, they were quite reasonable people to deal with. Some things we agreed on, some we did not, but at least I had a legal status. In fact, the Government changed their view only when I threatened them with a judicial review, because my trust could afford to pay for that. Then they changed their view, and I think as a matter of revenge the department has said, “Well, we’ll now take such powers that we’ll be able to use them willy-nilly, and make them completely our powers and not resistant to judicial review or anything.” This was only because my charity could afford go to judicial review, whereas an individual school that is threatened with closure under this Bill would not have the ability to do that, nor would a governing body take the Secretary of State to judicial review. This is really a sort of revenge act by the department for losing out against me in order to give it quite incredible statutory powers. I really do not think the House should accept this, but, of course, I will not divide the House today.
Since the noble Lord has raised the issue of Clause 3 standing part of the Bill, I wonder whether I might add a few remarks in the form of a question to the Minister. Unusually, the debates on this Bill in your Lordships’ House appear to be attracting the attention of the media, which very rarely happens, because people have suddenly noticed that these are extremely wide-ranging powers that have the potential to transform the whole educational landscape in England. One of the commentaries I read said that the person most frequently mentioned in the debates on this Bill so far has been Henry VIII. He has been much more frequently mentioned than the Secretary of State or any of us who are former Ministers, and so he appears to have been the principal author of this Bill. I think the remarks that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, made last week are what the media are latching on to.
In trying to understand the Bill, I have a question for the Minister. My understanding of Clause 3(1) is that it would give the Government the power to override any existing admissions arrangements for an academy by ministerial direction. This is quite significant, because, as those of us who have laboured in this territory know, there are 101 varieties of non-selective admissions, and in respect of academies there are different forms of banding and inner and outer catchment areas—all these things—which are hugely important to the relationship between the school and its community which are usually brokered. I know that some people think that academies operate in a vacuum, but they do not; these arrangements have generally been very intensely negotiated, including with local authorities, to see that there is fairness between schools and so on.
My reading of this clause is that it will give the Government the power to override all the funding agreements in respect of admissions, in a way that may be very ill-thought through, just because a particular Minister or Secretary of State takes against one form of banding and wants a different form of non-selective admissions. This would completely subvert arrangements which, for very good reason, have been entered into between sponsors, multi-academy trusts and previous Ministers and would effectively override the whole contractual basis on which sponsors have taken responsibility for the management of schools. That is my reading of Clause 3(1). I know that there are ongoing discussions, which I have not been party to, but could the Minister confirm that this would give the Government the power to override any existing admissions arrangements set out in a funding agreement? If that is the case, I think Henry VIII has made a dramatic reappearance in the affairs of the Committee this afternoon.
I thank your Lordships. I will keep my remarks extremely brief, because we covered many of the points raised this afternoon when we debated this clause on the first day of Committee. If I may, I will write to the noble Lord on his question regarding admissions arrangements and set that out in detail. I ask my noble friend if he will consider withdrawing his remarks about the department taking revenge. It does not take revenge on anybody or anything. It works to serve Ministers to the best of their ability.
Clause 3 agreed.
Schedule 1: Application of maintained school legislation to Academies