HC Deb 10 June 1999 vol 332 cc776-7
9. Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

If he will make a statement on the regulations to govern the purchase of provision by local education authorities from non-maintained schools. [85406]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

The legislation that the Government introduced last year enables the Secretary of State to prevent the introduction of a new locally funded assisted places scheme. We shall publish draft regulations in due course.

Mr. St. Aubyn

During the proceedings on the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the Minister's predecessor told the Standing Committee: We shall begin the consultation after Report and Third Reading, when the House has expressed a view on new clause 12. That is part of the conventions of Parliament, and that is how we shall conduct our business."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 3 March 1998; c. 786.] The Minister did not conduct his business in that manner. In February, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) tabled a written question to the present Minister, asking when draft regulations would be published for consultation. She replied:

It is planned to issue draft regulations for consultation in May 1999."—[Official Report, 22 February 1999; Vol. 326, c. 20.] We now hear from the Minister that she refuses to give any date for those regulations.

When individual schools and education action zones have the power, without regulations, to buy places at independent schools, why are such regulations needed? Conservative-run Surrey local education authority, which has already shown the Government a lead by bringing in the private sector to manage a maintained school, is ready and willing to show the Government a lead in building new bridges with the independent sector. Give us the tools and we shall do the work.

Ms Morris

The hon. Gentleman is getting very exercised on this issue. My predecessor said that we would publish regulations after Report and Third Reading, and we shall do so. It is a matter of prioritising.

As far as we know, no local authority has plans to reproduce the assisted places scheme at a local level. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have introduced many regulations since the passage of the school standards legislation. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), and I feel, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleagues do, that we spend much of our time in Committee discussing statutory instruments. We have discussed and laid statutory instruments on admissions, parental appeal, funding and the new standards framework. It was a greater priority for us to implement for the start of the next school term the new framework and the new funding, admission and appeal arrangements. We shall come to further secondary legislation in due time, as I said.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

On the Secretary of State's comments about citizenship and the European elections, may I invite the Minister to congratulate our education Whip, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), on already having done three hours' telling in the European elections? Ministers are worried about turnout; it helps if one fights an election campaign. We find such telling quite a good way of increasing turnout.

On the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), there is a serious problem. Guildford had to follow cumbersome rules, which were set by the European Union procurement policy in the absence of any regulations guiding procedures in the area. How come Islington can do a quick deal with one company for the private management of some education service virtually overnight, but education authorities that want responsibly to consider purchasing private management of schools must undergo time-consuming procedures? That is why the regulations are needed. LEAs have been kept waiting for far too long.

Ms Morris

I wonder which group of Conservatives the Whip was counting—those who are pro-European or those who are anti-European—and at which school she was doing so.

More seriously, the point raised by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) relates to our fear that assisted places schemes would be reproduced locally. We do not want that; we have made that clear. We want the private sector to be involved properly in the education service, where that is appropriate. We shall ensure that ways of enabling that to happen are implemented.

The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) should realise that much of what we heard from his Government about the relationship with the private sector did not transpire. Over the past two years since we have taken power, we have been very carefully building up contacts and establishing rules and regulations to enable a relationship with the private sector, in order that it may contribute to the wider agenda of raising standards. That has happened in both Guildford and Islington. We shall reflect on those processes and, if need be, simplify them. We have no intention of allowing local authorities to reproduce assisted places schemes locally.

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