HC Deb 02 November 1976 vol 918 cc1182-4
6. Mr. Bryan Davies

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she is satisfied that the process of policy formulation in her Department is sufficiently open to public participation.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

In its Tenth Report this Session the Expenditure Committee made some recommendations about public participation in policy making in my Department, to which the Government will respond shortly in their reply to the report. The Prime Minister and I have already proposed a major public debate on the curriculum.

Mr. Davies

I thank my right hon. Friend for that heartening reply, but will she accept that public debate will scarcely get oil the ground unless great efforts are made to improve public participation in fundamental planning decisions by the Department? Does she accept that it is necessary to define the word "shortly", as used in her reply, in the hope that responses to reports of the Expenditure Committee will be made in a sharper manner than precedents in the last 18 months to two years have illustrated?

Mrs. Williams

In reply to the last part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question, I hope to give a reply this month, which will be a period of only three months after the Committee reported.

I hope that my hon. Friend will recall that I have already published not only my answer to the Schools Council's proposals for an examination at 16-plus and for the CEE but also a full appendix and my reasons, and have laid the papers before Parliament. I intend to continue this style of open government. It is much better to do that than to have government by "leak", especially an irresponsible leak, such as that in The Guardian this morning, suggesting that the Government are planning something in terms of a document that Ministers have not yet seen.

Mr. George Gardiner

Does the right hon. Lady recognise that, ideally, consultations should go beyond professional bodies and embrace spokesmen for the great consuming public? Will she consider the Expenditure Committee's proposal that membership of the Schools Council should be opened up to include many more lay members?

Mrs. Williams

The subject of the Schools Council composition was raised in the Expenditure Committee's Report, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will await my considered reply. It would be unwise to give that reply in bits and pieces.

Mr. Christopher Price

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us regard the consultation procedure in the Department of Education and Science as a little better than some of the procedures adopted in other great Departments of State? Is she further aware that, however much one may deplore the "leak", as she calls it, in The Guardian today, it raises profound issues about the function of our educational institutions? Is she aware that many Labour Members would gravely deplore our educational institutions being brought into a policing role in regard to immigrants?

Mrs. Williams

I share some of the concern expressed by my hon. Friend but, as I have already made clear, Ministers in the Department have not finally approved the document; nor, indeed, have they seen it. Therefore, I believe that the material published in The Guardian this morning is very misleading and could create a great deal of worry and alarm among those concerned. It will not be of assistance to good international relations or to good race relations in this country.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Has the Secretary of State not revealed a grave situation in her Department if documents of this importance can be obtained by the Press before Ministers have even seen them? Will she instigate an inquiry within her Department to see how this situation came about? It is clear that not only the Home Office is concerned; her Department is, too.

Mrs. Williams

The hon. Gentleman is barking slightly up the wrong tree. The document was first issued for consultation in 1973, and consultations have been taking place since that time. What has now appeared is an updated version of the 1973 draft circular—which, as I said, was never issued—without any fresh policy decisions contained within it. It will have to come before Ministers—as, indeed do all circulars—before it is finally issued. Before that happens, it is normally the case with updated documents that we engage in a round of consultations with those concerned. I wish to make it clear that the Government have made no decision, though no objective person who read The Guardian report would have come to that conclusion. I think that he or she would have come to the conclusion that a decision had been made by the Government on the circular. That is not so.

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