§ The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Kenneth Baker)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.
In our White Paper on higher education, we gave notice of our intention to legislate to re-establish the polytechnics and certain local authority maintained colleges as freestanding corporate bodies outside local authority control. The White Paper indicated that the new funding arrangements would also apply to certain institutions assisted by local education authorities. We expressed confidence that the local authorities would, in the intervening period before the legislation was enacted, continue to act responsibly in the funding of the institutions due for transfer and the upkeep of their plant. I remain confident that the great majority of authorities will act responsibly, but it has come to my attention that a small number of local authorities are planning or taking steps which would either deprive the polytechnic or college concerned of assets which it needs for effective operation or would seriously encumber those assets.
Regrettably, that makes it necessary for me to take action to protect those institutions. I am not prepared to allow the interests of present and future students to be put at risk in this way. It is neither in the local nor the national interest that damage should be done to the education these institutions do and still continue to provide. I therefore propose to seek Parliament's approval in the forthcoming legislation to a measure whereby my specific consent will be required for all disposals by local education authorities of land or interests in land, including buildings, used or held or obtained for or in connection with the purposes of these institutions. These are the ones which I intend to be freestanding corporate bodies together with those institutions which are presently assisted by local education authorities and which I intend should become funded by the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council. The names of the institutions are set out in my separate written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery).
The disposals of land or interests in land requiring my consent will include outright sale, granting or otherwise disposing of any leasehold or other interest in land, direct sale and leaseback, any mortgage or other charge designed to raise capital on the security of the land. It will also include any disposal which is made in return for the supply of goods or services. In referring to disposals I include entering into any binding obligation to make a disposal of the kind in question.
Similarly, in relation to our proposals to allow inner London authorities to apply to take over from the inner London education authority the responsibilities of the local education authority for their areas, the Government have decided to include provisions within the legislation requiring ILEA to obtain my consent in advance to the following actions. The first is any disposal of land or interests in land including buildings—used or held or obtained for or in connection with their education functions. Disposals will he as in the case of polytechnics and colleges. The second is any contract for a consideration having a value in excess of £15,000. In 372 considering whether to give my consent, I may seek the views of parties affected, including any inner London authority with a potential interest in the transaction.
I shall seek Parliament's approval to the provisions both for the polytechnics and colleges and for ILEA having effect from midnight tonight. This statement does not affect enforceable obligations entered into before midnight tonight.
I shall also seek Parliament's approval for certain sanctions where my consent has not been obtained in advance. For the disposal of land or interests in land without my consent, there will he a power of compulsory purchase with a right of recovery from the local authority or from ILEA of any compensation payable. In the case of contracts, including contracts for disposal, which I have mentioned, entered into without my consent, there will be a right of repudiation, and such repudiation will be deemed to be a repudiation by ILEA or the relevant local authority, so that any liability in damages will remain with ILEA or the relevant local authority.
My Department is today writing to all local education authorities which currently maintain or assist polytechnics or colleges affected by the legislation and to ILEA and the inner London authorities to explain how these provisions will be applied.
I shall continue to monitor the activities of maintaining and assisting local authorities, and of ILEA in particular, and shall not hesitate to take whatever additional steps are necessary to prevent the interests of present and future pupils and students from being jeopardised.
§ Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I must apply the same rules. I shall take the hon. and learned Gentleman's point of Order after the statement.
§ Mr. Straw
The statement is a consequence of a Secretary of State who is trying to govern by gimmick, who acts first and listens only a little and much later, and who is making and changing policy on the hoof. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, last Friday at 4 o'clock, he said that schools that opted out of local authority control could not opt back, and that by midnight he had to say that they could? The Secretary of State complains of the actions of some local education authorities. Since he spoke so eloquently to the Council of Local Education Authorities about his commitment to a partnership with local education authorities, will he say whether he or his officials have have any contact with the local education authorities concerned—before the statement, not after?
Will he confirm that some authorities facing genuine difficulties over the division of colleges and polytechnic assets include some Conservative authorities such as Essex and Hampshire? Why is the Secretary of State now seeking retrospectively to control not only the disposal of land by 373 ILEA but every contract worth over £15,000? Is that not astonishing even by the Secretary of State's standards of megolmaniac centralisation? [Interruption.] Oh, yes.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that that will mean that the Secretary of State will have a veto not only over individual contracts for school meal supplies, books and equipment, but over the individual appointment of any teacher of head teacher earning over £15,000 a year?
What consultation period is the Secretary of State allowing? Will it be the absurdly short period that he is allowing in respect of his other consultation documents? When will the main consultation documents on ILEA be issued? Will the statement not lead to further adminstrative chaos and uncertainty? Does it not show the need for him to withdraw today's proposals and to seek the partnership with education authorities that he says he wants?
On the matter of individual boroughs being allowed to opt out of ILEA, does the Secretary of State not recall that the report of a committee on ILEA, which he chaired, concluded that such opting outwould leave a rump of poorer deprived boroughs and lead to an increase in administrative costs."?If he was right then, how can he pursue this completely different policy now?
Is not this Secretary of State rapidly developing a reputation for a lethal mixture of arrogance and incompetence which is worse even than that of the Secretary of State for the Environment? While he is messing around with the education system, will he remember that he is putting children's futures at risk?
§ Mr. Baker
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the shadow education portfolio and wish him well with it. He will know that we have crossed swords in the past in relation to Department of the Environment matters, and this matter touches upon such matters.
The Government would be accused of gross negligence if, by the time the Education Bill is presented to Parliament, which has been clearly signalled, polytechnics and colleges were mortgaged or leased. That would be to the detriment of students. In the papers that I have seen there is evidence that certain polytechnics — [HON. MEMBERS: "Name them."] I have talked to the directors of polytechnics, some of whom have not been prominent supporters of my party in the past, who have expressed considerable concern about arrangements that might be being made and about which they have heard. It is right for me to take such action today.
The hon. Gentleman will know how ILEA contracts operate. I intend very shortly to issue a general consent, and it will not be my intention to cover contracts of employment. I hope to be able to give general consents through a wide range. It is not my intention to try to disrupt ILEA's educational activities. We are concerned about any arrangements, contracts or action that could be taken that would carry forward a heavy obligation either upon individual London boroughs that may wish to opt out or upon polytechnics or colleges. Such charges would have to be met before charges for teaching and education. It is a prudent and necessary act.
§ Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)
The Secretary of State knows that I oppose his proposals and will continue to do so strenuously as they pass through the House.
374 Nevertheless, although I can understand local education authorities and others seeking to "try it on", it is wrong that they should seek to subvert a decision of the House before it is taken. Is the Secretary of State aware, therefore, that, although I regard the £15,000 limit as far too low, if I were in his position I should have to consider taking very similar action to that which he is taking? If the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) were honest, I suspect that he would have to do the same.
§ Mr. Ashdown
I withdraw that inadvertent misuse of the word, Mr. Speaker. May I use the word "frank"?
§ Mr. Baker
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the support that he has given to the Government's proposals today. He said that he would probably have taken similar action if he had been in my position; I thought that he had rather higher ambitions than that. As the hon. Gentleman recognised, we have declared our intentions very clearly and are bringing forward legislation, so it would be wrong if action were taken to try to thwart that. The legislation will come before the House. This is not retrospective.
I have not set an earlier date but have declared my intention as from today.
§ Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that any exercise in petty spite or asset stripping will be vigorously opposed not just by Members of Parliament but by students and lecturers? Is he aware that his statement will be widely welcomed and will do a great deal to protect polytechnics and to ensure that the quality of the education that they provide remains enviable in this country and elsewhere?
§ Mr. Baker
I thank my hon. Friend for his support. He is quite right. Members in all parts of the House should take great pride in the polytechnics. They are highly successful institutions of higher education and they have expanded dramatically. As we said in the White Paper, in many cases they are now larger than universities and the number of students—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) will contain himself for a moment. I know that he has a great deal to contain. The polytechnics were established more than 21 years ago and they are highly successful. We have set out the reasons why we believe that they should become independent, freestanding institutions. That is the object of our legislation.
§ Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there has been a remarkable expansion in the number of polytechnic students in recent years and that he envisages a further expansion in the near future? Does he agree that it would be disgraceful and wrong if the assets available to those institutions in terms of buildings, land and facilities of every kind were diminished by the prospect of action by certain Labour authorities? Does he further agree that it is disgraceful that the Labour party in the House is supporting Labour authorities in those evil ambitions?
§ Mr. Baker
The action that I have taken today seeks to ensure that when those institutions become independent and free-standing they do not carry with them an unnecessarily high level of debt which could be engendered in the coming months. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who has great knowledge of education, that these institutions do a remarkably good job and contribute a 375 tremendous amount to the level of higher education in our country. I wish to ensure that that level of quality continues.
§ Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)
In view of the Minister's statement regarding ILEA, is he aware that what is really needed now is confidence among parent-teacher associations and among teachers themselves? Will he give an assurance that, in view of the critical decisions to be considered regarding ILEA there will be the fullest consultation with the people involved, rather than a repetition of what happened in Wandsworth in the previous attempt, when the people most directly involved were in no way consulted?
§ Mr. Baker
I think that I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is not my intention to interfere in the day-to-day operation of ILEA. As I have said, I intend to issue a series of consents in the next few days to ensure that the general running of ILEA continues. I wish to be assured, however, that obligations cannot be entered into which would be extremely onerous in coming years and would limit and bind individual boroughs which may wish to opt out of ILEA.
§ Mr. Irvine Patnick (Sheffield, Hallam)
Does my right hon. Friend's statement result from the fact that, during the abolition of metropolitan county councils, many councils not only did tombstone funding but prepared for life after death? What powers will he take unto himself to ensure that councils that try to burn the midnight oil are penalised? What action will he take against councillors who do a similar thing? What happens with legitimate sales of polytechnic assets, such as the sale at Sheffield polytechnic?
§ Mr. Baker
My hon. Friend speaks with considerable knowledge of those matters because he was a member of the South Yorkshire metropolitan county council at the time we brought in legislation to abolish it. He was a strong supporter of that. Since it has gone, hardly anybody has noticed that it was ever there. The same goes for the GLC. My consent will be required as from midnight tonight. If contracts are let or if assets are disposed of—in the case of polytechnics, colleges and ILEA councils —those that vote for disposals of land, and in the case of ILEA, for contracts without my consent should he aware that the sanctions available to the district auditor in respect of unlawful expenditure or loss arising from wilful misconduct may apply.
§ Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)
Will the Minister acknowledge that the continuing undermining of the relationship between polytechnics and local authorities is directly undermining and attacking the future of continuing education——
§ Ms. Armstrong
—and the opening up of access to a wider group of students, which I know that the Minister has urged polytechnics to become involved in? In many areas, the funding has come directly from local authorities. I hope that he will ensure and urge that the relationship continues, so that that very important aspect of higher education is able to develop.
§ Mr. Baker
The hon. Lady goes a little wider than my statement. In the legislation that we are preparing on polytechnics and colleges, I want to ensure that those 376 institutions retain strong local links. I agree with her that it is important that polytechnics open up wider access. I am glad to be able to tell the House that, in the past eight years, it is basically those institutes and other colleges of higher education that have increased the numbers of students by 157,000. Many people are now having access to a wider range of training than ever before.
§ Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)
Does my right hon. Friend remember the tricks that the GLC got up to in the last Parliament? Is he aware of the widespread support on the Government side of the House for the precautionary measures that he has just announced'? Can he say what safeguards there will be for colleges such as Ealing that bid for funds and secured them from his Department but where the local authority, as an act of spite, has now decided to switch the resources away to other purposes, denying the funds for the purpose for which the local authority originally sought them and his Department gave them?
§ Mr. Baker
No. I deplore that and I would have thought that anybody who was concerned with improving higher education in west London would also deplore that. I well remember the various tricks that the GLC and the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) got up to. I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) for the help he gave me in those days in the Department of the Environment to ensure that, at the end of the day, the assets were not stripped out of the GLC, which was a real danger. In the same way, I want to make quite sure that the assets of those polytechnics and colleges are protected.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
The Secretary of State is a member of a Government who came to power proclaiming that they were going to lake central Government off the backs of local government. How on earth, in morality, logic or decency, can he defend the sweeping centralisation of powers to him and to Whitehall?
§ Mr. Baker
Our intention is to set up polytechnics and colleges as much more independent institutions and much more in control of their own destiny than ever before. In my talks with the senior staff and the directors of polytechnics they were virtually unanimous — I think there was one against—in their support and approval of the action that we are taking. That is a measure of decentralisation.
§ Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be warmly welcomed by the students and staff of Middlesex polytechnic, which has suffered from having three local author: ties on its governing body, and the inability of Haringey—one of those authorities—to pursue a sane financial policy? He will be well aware that, by the end of June this year, three months into the current financial year, the polytechnic had no budget for the current financial year. Will he give a guarantee that next year he will not allow such financial nonsenses to occur?
§ Mr. Baker
I am aware of the problem. The delay in the budget is largely due to a dispute over the assets and the attitude that Haringey London borough council is taking. I can assure him that I know the views of the director of Middlesex polytechnic and he strongly supports the Government's policy in this matter.
§ Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)
Will my right hon. Friend take on board the concern for the indecision of his Department to raise Bolton institute of higher education to the level of a polytechnic? Does he realise that, because of the dithering of his Department, great damage has been done to Bolton metropolitan borough and council, to the students and to industry in the north-west that support that institution?
§ Mr. Baker
The Bolton institute of higher education is a distinguished college of higher education and, together with others, it has argued for the status of polytechnic. It was made clear in the White Paper that, as soon as legislation goes through, we do not envisage a change of status of any colleges of higher education to polytechnics. Others besides Bolton have wanted that change. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the colleges of higher education that do not have the status of polytechnics in many respects are not slighted or worse for that. The quality of the courses and the quality of higher education in Bolton is very high.
§ Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)
Does my right hon. Friend recall that, during the passage of the Education Bill 1986 those of us on the Standing Committee were the subject of heavy lobbying from polytechnic directors seeking further independence from local education authorities that were constantly interfering politically with the running of those institutions? When will my right hon. Friend give those institutions the chartered independence that so many of them seek.?
§ Mr. Baker
My hon. Friend is correct. That is exactly why we are bringing forward the legislation. There have been lots of comments from directors of polytechnics which, as I emphasised, have not been strong supporters of the Government in the past or of the Conservative party, who have found the control and the political interference by local authorities particularly irksome in the past few years. The legislation that we are bringing forward later this year will give the independence that was sought in 1976, requested, and we will deliver it.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
Does the Minister accept that his statement today concerning the ILEA will be met with consternation throughout ILEA as yet another example of the Government's continuing obsession—it is an obsession—with the destruction of unitary education throughout inner London? Does he not realise that, every time he makes a statement such as this, he increases administrative costs in his Department and in the ILEA; that his promise to break up the ILEA will result in worse education, at a higher cost, with fewer opportunities for the poorest children; and that, in the long term, all he will do is achieve a messy education system in London without the economies of scale or the benefits for the people of London that they have paid for through the building up of the ILEA over the years?
§ Mr. Baker
The hon. Gentleman anticipates debates that will take up the time of the House later this year. The three London boroughs that have indicated that they wish 378 to withdraw from ILEA—Wandsworth, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea—are absolutely clear that they will improve the quality of education in their boroughs when they are free from ILEA. The hon. Gentleman should not be surprised if, later this year, other London boroughs that are not Conservative-controlled also decide to opt out.
§ Mr. John Maples (Lewisham, West)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the vast majority of people in inner London are sick and tired of ILEA's obsession with playing politics rather than providing education and they thoroughly welcome his proposals for devolving power from it? Will he continue to do all that he can to ensure that ILEA cannot frustrate his proposals by the sort of devious subterfuge that we saw in the dying days of the GLC to which he has referred?
§ Mr. Baker
Yes, and many of the players in the game are much the same, apart from my hon. Friend and me, as those who were involved in the GLC. Many of the people involved in making these decisions know exactly what happened in the dying days of the GLC, and I want to ensure that decisions taken after the House has discussed them fully, and decisions taken by London local boroughs, will not be frustrated or thwarted by action which would imperil or encumber the assets, as could happen. That is why I have decided to take this action.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
The Secretary of State has earned himself a reputation for abandoning every previous principled position that he ever had in local government in pursuit of high office and he is a most unworthy member of the Government Front Bench.
Since the right hon. Gentleman came to the Dispatch Box and made a number of serious allegations about democratically elected local authorities, will he please name those local authorities that he understood were going to act irresponsibly? Does the right hon. Gentleman remember the paving legislation for the GLC and the administrative chaos that resulted from requiring consents to be obtained from the Department of the Environment? How many extra staff does he intend taking on in order to make sure that similar chaos is not repeated in ILEA?
§ Mr. Baker
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he will not have my consent for that, even after midnight.
I can also assure the hon. Gentleman that the action that I have taken is necessary. Since June, ILEA has been considering what action it could take over its assets. From papers that have been drawn to my attention, there is a clear implication that Nottinghamshire county council is moving against the interests of Trent polytechnic.
§ Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich)
My right hon. Friend will know the warm welcome given by polytechnics to the proposals, since not only does it get the local authorities off the backs of the polytechnics but it ensures that they retain their assets before they achieve independence. But 379 can my right hon. Friend assure us that those polytechnics —I instance those in London—that are reforming their courses and changing their structure in the interests of efficiency and better performance, and have in train, and wish to take, steps which may involve negotiations, disposals of buildings or the reorganisation of buildings, which are perfectly proper transactions, will not be impeded?
§ Mr. Baker
Yes, it will not be my intention to cover such transactions. I want to make it clear that I want to ensure that there is an orderly control of assets. There will, of course, be changes of organisation over the next year or 18 months. However, the polytechnics in central London have a rather more distant relationship with ILEA. They are separate corporations. But, once again, if one talks to the directors of those polytechnics one realises why I have had to take this action.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
Is the Secretary of State seriously proposing that this draconian action based on legislation yet to come before the House is the result of his understanding from one or two polytechnics? The right hon. Gentleman has not given the House any further information. It is outrageous for him to talk about it not being retrospective legislation because if he is depending on future legislation before the House for his action today, starting at midnight, it must follow that the legislation to support his action will be retrospective. I thought that the Conservative Benches were against retrospective legislation. Is that sort of incursion and trampling of parliamentary powerss what the former Lord Chancellor meant by an elective dictatorship?
§ Mr. Baker
It is not retrospective. It would have been retrospective if I had said that it operated from a week, a fortnight or a month ago. I have declared my intention as from midnight tonight and I shall be taking powers to implement it. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that directors of several polytechnics have seen me in the course of the past few weeks—[HON. MEMBERS: "Which ones?"] — and have expressed great concern about possible changes in assets.
§ Dr. Ian Twinn (Edmonton)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that all those who have a genuine interest in caring for polytechnics will be disturbed to hear the news that he has brought to the House today of the irresponsible activities of local authorities?
§ Dr. Twinn
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that this is not a vindictive action against local authorities but one which stems from the Government's genuine concern for students because the polytechnics exist in the interests of the students, not the local authorities, or, indeed, the staff, of which I count myself one.
§ Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that many polytechnics are engaged in the economic and social development of their regions, amongy which my polytechnic in 380 Newcastle is a prominent example, and. indeed, is receiving additional resources from the local authority and various Departments of State to support activities such as the fashion centre, the small business centre, the regional technology centre and the development of industrial and technological activities arising out of the work of the polytechnic staff? Therefore, will he name those local authorities that he suspects of acting improperly with regard to the prospect of future legislation, and exempt all the other institutions that he does not suspect from all the restraints, inconvenience and red tape that will flow from his decision?
§ Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North West)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that declaratory legislation of this type is never popular but that the entire polytechnic world will welcome the action that he has announced today in order to protect the future of education in polytechnics? In the light of the cries from Opposition Members to name names, while he cannot name the authorities which might take action in future — [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] because he is not a prophet—is he prepared——
§ Mr. Baker
The directors of the polytechnics and some of the heads of colleges have made it clear to me that they are very anxious indeed about what might happen to assets which have been currently used for their students in their education and general recreation, so it is important that these powers are taken.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the staff and students of Harrow college of technology have expressed to me some concern about his proposals, but their concern is that they may not be included in his proposals? Can he give me and them any assurance today that they will be included and have the benefits of what he is proposing for the polytechnics today?
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
Will the Secretary of State please name the directors of polytechnics who have come to him to express such concern?
§ Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the students and staff at Edgehill college of higher education at Ormskirk, and at Lancashire polytechnic will welcome the action that he has taken to
381 protect them in these circumstances? Does he agree that what he has announced exposes the fact that many of the interests of institutes of higher education, polytechnics and local education authorities do not coincide and that the measure that he has announced today will be seen in many quarters as a preventive measure in the light of many of the activities of Labour local authorities throughout the country, particularly with regard to the abolition of the metropolitan county councils?
§ Mr. Baker
The action that I have taken today will ensure that when Edgehill college of higher education becomes a separate standing institution it will not carry with it an enormous incubus of debt which could be raised very quickly. That incubus of debt would have to be met before the educational requirements of the students and pupils of that college.
§ Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the irresponsible behaviour of some of those local authorities — [HON. MEMBERS: "Which ones?"] justifies not simply the action that he is taking today but the proposals that he will bring forward to protect the students and customers of the polytechnics from this appalling politicking in future? When are the new proposals likely to be brought before the House?
§ Mr. Baker
The Education Bill will come forward later this year. One of the advantages of the proposals is that the polytechnics and colleges of higher education, many of which have been subject to political bearing down over the past few years, will become independent institutions. I am sure that that will be a tremendous advantage. They are doing a very good job and they should concentrate on education and not be involved with party or local politicking.