I do not have a particular objection to the clause; I merely want to make sure that I have understood it properly. I prefaced my remarks on the previous clause with the suggestion that we did not need to worry too much as very few schools would be opening because of demographic trends. Plenty of schools will close because of demographic trends, and the process is often heart-rending and difficult. Their lordships have tried to qualify that process in later clauses.
Will the Minister assure me that my understanding of the procedure is correct? Essentially, I understand that he will recommend that the local authority take action where the Department for Education and Skills has identified excessive provision, examined the figures on surplus places and decided that it is time for action. The Department can then require the local authority to take action, and the authority will have the job of preparing a plan that will presumably go through the school organisation committee and possibly on to the adjudicator, with all the upset and upheaval that that customarily involves.
That is more or less the current procedure, and there is nothing novel about it. The Minister gives various signals or sometimes the local authority reaches conclusions for itself because of financial strictures and so on, and the process begins with that format. However, there seems to be one novel provision in the legislation. Where the local authority drags its feet and does not exercise its power, the Minister is given powers to intervene and do the job for it. In other words, if provision is not rationalised, the brave Secretary of State will step in and take all the odium upon himself. That is very noble of him, and local authorities will be pleased that he is playing backstop, although I understand that in the first instance he will not name particular schools.
At some point as the Secretary of State works through the process, however, the local authority may find it unbearable. Metropolitan authorities have particular problems with local elections every year, and nothing is more guaranteed to gain adverse publicity and an adverse reaction from constituents than going round the place deciding to close schools. It strikes me that many local authorities will be slightly pleased with the clause, and the Minister may live to regret it, but if I have not understood it correctly, that will not be the case.
Most of us will know that it takes a brave local authority to undertake rationalisation where there are small but popular schools. It has recently happened twice in my local education authority area, although, thankfully, not in my constituency. Schools have had falling rolls and have been down to barely one form at entry level, but they have still been extremely popular, and they have been defended to the death by local families, with vocal protest meetings and petitions. Such was the pressure put on the local authority it decided not to go ahead with school closures, despite the fact that the schools had more than 25 per cent. spare capacity. There may well be local authorities that welcome the intervention of the Secretary of State to take that responsibility off their shoulders.
We might be able to provide some useful information to enlighten the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Southport about the powers and what has happened in the past. That will give them a better understanding of where we are and what we are doing.
The reserve powers have not yet been used. In practice, we have found that LEAs are usually happy to work with the Department to explore the options for reducing wasteful surplus places. The powers have proved useful for demonstrating our commitment to the proper supply of certain school places and for requiring action if it is not taken voluntarily. It is not always the case that local authorities uniformly put in place best practice or that they will always do so in every area of their activities. It would be irresponsible not to have the powers if they were ever unfortunately needed. I stress that the provisions give the Secretary of State power not to decide the proposals, but only to require that they are brought forward. Even in extremis, if she were to bring forward the proposals, they would still be decided by the local school organisation committee, and if it could not agree, they would pass to the schools adjudicator.
Where a school has a seriously falling roll and is recommended for closure because it is no longer viable, but house building is about to take place in the vicinity, only children who are in the area at the time can currently be taken into consideration when calculating the need for places. When it is clear that new housing is going to mushroom in the vicinity and that school places will be needed again, can that be taken into consideration after the school has closed?
Having been involved myself over the years in a few school reorganisations and closures, I understand the hon. Lady’s point. The LEA can do that now and tell the council what future needs will be in its area.
The powers are firmly in the context of the existing structures: they do not impose any central control, but merely enable the Secretary of State to initiate the debate, with consultation in the area, the publication of a notice describing the proposed changes, and the opportunity for local people to comment or object. They are part of our approach to local decision making, which involves local people rather than sidelining them.
To come to a specific situation, let us suppose that there were no community consensus in a particular area about rationalisation. If various schools were spoken of, but it had not been decided which were the right ones for closure, there would be what one might call a “council paralysis”. If the council officers or the cabinet member for education failed to come to any conclusion, and therefore failed to put anything before the schools organisation committee, would the Secretary of State’s powers apply, so that the cabinet member of a particular local authority could be coerced into putting recommendations before the schools organisation committee? In that way, the committee would still have a role, but the missing step is not that it would be unwilling to decide, but that the council itself would duck out of the responsibility of producing a recommendation.
The hon. Gentleman suggests a hypothetical situation. I refer him to what I said a few moments earlier: clearly, we want to ensure that a local solution is found. Any responsible LEA working with its schools and the community would want to come forward with a solution. As hon. Members have explained, these are often difficult situations. In extremis, as I said before, the Secretary of State can intervene to bring forward our proposals, which would then be decided by the local schools organisation committee. It is difficult to give a clear answer to a hypothetical situation, and we would have to consider each case on its merits. As I said, the powers have not been used so far, and usually a solution is found. The fact that the Secretary of State has that power is usually good enough to ensure some movement in such difficult circumstances.
We think that that is the right approach to these problems, and we do not accept that there should be a free-for-all with schools able to take decisions in complete isolation from the local context of other schools and the LEA.