HC Deb 28 February 1996 vol 272 cc883-4
11. Mrs. Ray Michie

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what plans he has to ensure continued funding for centres offering special education opportunities to children after local government reorganisation. [15795]

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson

Each new council will take over the existing statutory duty to secure adequate and efficient provision of school education and will, like their predecessors, have substantial resources available for all aspects of that education.

Mrs. Michie

Is the Minister aware that a real threat hangs over the educational residential outdoor centres in my constituency, particularly Achnamara, Castle Toward and Caol Ruadh? If they close, 60 more jobs will be lost in Argyll and underprivileged, deprived children with special needs from Glasgow, Lanark, Renfrew and Ayrshire will not have access to such places. Will he give an undertaking that those excellent centres will not be sacrificed on the altar of so-called cost efficiency savings?

Mr. Robertson

We announced arrangements for the transfer of property from the existing local authorities to the new councils last September. There is no reason why a smooth transfer of the ownership of the outdoor centres should not go ahead. If the hon. Lady has any cause for real concern or particular problems that she would like to discuss with me, my door is open to her. The Property Commission has been established to resolve any disputes. Where authorities value the facilities provided, I do not see why new authorities could not or would not make the appropriate arrangements to share them. I am sure that they will want to ensure that children from their areas have the widest opportunity to participate in the stimulating environment that such centres have provided and, I believe, will continue to provide.

Mr. Bill Walker

Will my hon. Friend confirm that there are some 300,000 surplus places in schools in Scotland? If so, is there not substantial room for reorganisation to provide a better service at a better price?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the Accounts Commission identified some 300,000 surplus school places in Scotland. It qualified that by saying that once geographic, denominational and other factors were considered, the figure would be lower. However, there is substantial scope for serious rationalisation of school places in Scotland. I hope that the new authorities that will come into force on 1 April will take the opportunity to consider the issue sensibly and realistically while at all times involving the parents of the children concerned.

Mr. Macdonald

Is the Minister aware of the concern that the special provision for Gaelic-medium education may be affected by local government reorganisation? When will the Government respond to the report of Her Majesty's inspectorate on Gaelic-medium education that came out two years ago? Will he undertake that payments under the specific grants scheme will continue to be made after reorganisation and into the foreseeable future?

Mr. Robertson

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are wholly committed to Gaelic education. I have had a series of meetings, as has my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland who is responsible for Gaelic language issues, with interested groups over the past few months. We are considering the HMI report on the future of Gaelic education and I hope to be able to announce positive recommendations in the near future. I can confirm that the specific grant for Gaelic education will continue and that next year it will be £1.9 million.

Mrs. Liddell

Will the Minister reconsider his reply to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) because he has addressed only part of the problem? A significant problem for Scotland's new local authorities will arise from the provision of pre-five special needs education. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy figures for provision of special needs places suggest that it costs £16,214 to provide a pre-five place for a child with special needs; the nursery voucher is for £1,100. Who is to pay the difference: is it to be the parent or the local council? Will he explain why on 25 November, officials of South Lanarkshire council were told by Scottish Office officials that the private sector would not be expected to make pre-five special needs provision because it would be too costly and that local authorities would have to provide for those needs? Is the local council tax payer being asked to subsidise that vital service to protect private sector profits?

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Lady should not write her questions before she comes into the Chamber. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) was talking about not special educational needs but the future of outdoor centres in her constituency. The hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) should know that the same funding mechanism for children with special educational needs will apply after 1 April. Where the fulfilment of their statutory duties to children with special educational needs requires the involvement of particular support services, the new authorities will be well placed to arrange it.