HC Deb 18 March 1965 vol 708 cc1465-7
27. Mr. Peyton

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he is aware of the concern felt by local education authorities in the South-West by his recent decision to cease to give them discretion as to minor works; and what action he will take.

Mr. Prentice

The minor works programme in the South-West as a whole next year is at the 1963–64 level and slightly below the 1965–65 level. The arrangements have been revised in order to ensure a fair national distribution of the limited resources available.

Mr. Peyton

Is the Minister of State aware that this proposal is regarded by many local authorities as a quite gratuitous fettering of their discretion by the bureaucratic apron strings of his Department?

Mr. Prentice

Yes, Sir. A number of local authorities are disappointed because they will be allowed to spend less in the coming year than they have been this year. A number of others are very grateful because they will be spending more. I think that the discrepancy arises from the fact that the former Government put the so-called "mini-minor" works, those costing less than £2,000, off the ration for local authorities but had to keep them on the ration nationally and had to take out of the total minor works programme an amount to cover those mini-minor works. They got their sums wrong. In the current year they estimated some £3 million, but approximately £7 million will have been spent by the end of the financial year. This was a situation which was getting out of hand. Any Government had to ensure that control of capital expenditure was real control. This is why we have had to take away a freedom which, I quite appreciate, was something the local authorities would have preferred to keep.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Does the Minister of State realise that he has taken away in the City of Bristol the freedom of the local education authority to spend its own money, and this practice is condemned by every Member representing a Bristol constituency, from whichever side of the House?

Mr. Prentice

Yes, Sir, but the position is that, having brought the system under a more rational control than the late Government had it, it has now been possible out of the £21 million to which I have referred to allocate to the local authorities in England and Wales £17 million for their minor works programme. There are certain other deductions for voluntary schools, and the like. If we had not made this unpopular change, the amount left this year would have been only £7 million, instead of £17 million, and there would have been practically nothing for the bulk of the minor works programme—projects between £2,000 and £20,000—which are so important throughout the country.

Sir E. Boyle

Is it not a fact that decontrol of mini-minor works was greatly appreciated by education authorities, as my hon. Friends have said, and that the decision of the former Secretary of State that the limit should be raised to £2,500 was very widely welcomed at last year's conference of the Association of Education Committees? Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me that we would, had we remained in power, have adopted a realistic figure for "mini-minor" works? [Laughter.] Certainly we would, and in reaching a final decision on the total of minor works we would have borne this in mind and would certainly not have been committed to the £7 million which the hon. Gentleman has stated?

Mr. Prentice

I am glad to have some clarification of just what would have been done by hon. Members opposite. They would, therefore, have allowed the situation to have become distorted in two respects. On the one hand, far more would have been spent on projects costing less than £2,000 than on the whole range from £2,000 to £20,000, which would have meant that many very important improvements would have been postponed for years and years, improvements which will take place this year. Further, there would have been distortion between authorities, between those which had been using the "mini-minor" concession up to the hilt and those who had not. A number of enterprising authorities—I put it on record that I admire their enterprise—have been for a number of years taking a disproportionate share of the limited sum available. This is something which the right hon. Gentleman has made clear he would have carried on. This would be a great disadvantage in relation, particularly, to the north of England.