HL Deb 13 March 1984 vol 449 cc640-9

3.19 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 3 [Regulations]:

Baroness David moved the following amendment: Page 4, line 10, leave out from ("shall") to end of line 1 and insert ("have regard to the advice as to priorities for expenditure to be assisted by education support grants of an advisory body to be established by him and including persons nominated by the Secretary of State and by such bodies representing local education authorities as appear to him to be appropriate.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we are having a third try to get the consultation procedure more firmly written into the Bill. But this time this is a new amendment and different from the ones which we tabled in Committee and on Report. We are asking for a good deal less than we asked for at the Committee and Report stages. We are not asking that parents, teachers and industry should, of necessity, be on the advisory board, but the amendment leaves the way open for the Secretary of State to nominate such people if he thinks it appropriate. The door is not finally closed.

We ask for an advisory board with representatives from local authority associations on it. Not surprisingly, local education authorities are suspicious of what Ministers may do after some of the surprises and shocks which have been given to them by this Government. I cannot agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who said at the Report stage: On the question of seeking advice, I think that the Secretary of State is already committed, and has already shown himself to be committed, to widespread consultation."—[Official Report, 5/3/84; col. 99.]

After the Training for Jobs White Paper was published and, indeed, after the technical vocational education initiative was announced—and there was no consultation in either case—we are not altogether happy about the arrangement unless consultation is written into the Bill. Therefore, local authorities would be much happier if a body was set up which would ensure that consultations would be full and that their points of view about activities, regulations and allocation of grant could be expressed. Their anxieties about expense in bidding, financial arrangements, and so on, could be brought into the open.

I very much hope that this much more modest amendment, which does not ask for a quango—it asks for nothing like that—will find favour with the Minister and that there will be a bit of give here. If the intentions of the Government are as the noble Earl has said, I can see no reason why he should turn down this amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, we on these Benches support this amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady David. As she said, it is the third attempt to introduce an element of consultation into the Secretary of State's proceedings. I think that the noble Earl will probably recall that in the consultation paper, which was issued by the Department of Education on 24th March 1983, the Secretary of State made it quite clear that, with regard to special education initiatives, the proposals were intended to forge a new partnership between central and local government. I hope that that intention has not been lost sight of. It seems to me that the amendment of the noble Baroness goes some way towards achieving that. It is a somewhat weaker amendment than those that were moved at previous stages. But I think that it fulfils that recommendation on partnership which actually formed part of the Government's own consultative document.

I should like to make one other point. Again from the consultative document it was clear that there were a great many candidates for help under this type of scheme, and it would therefore seem only prudent of the Secretary of State to provide himself with an advisory body which would enable him to sift all these various claims on the funds that he is proposing to use for this purpose. Therefore, on those grounds I very much hope that the noble Earl will see his way to accepting this relatively modest, but I think helpful, amendment which the noble Baroness has moved.

Lord Alexander of Potterhill

My Lords, I find some difficulty in accepting this amendment, for a very simple reason. So far as the education service is concerned, the concept of partnership between central and local government was very greatly affected by what happened in 1958. In fact, it was no longer a partnership; it was complete control on the part of the local authorities. That is the position which has obtained from 1958 until now.

As I understand it, this Bill has one very simple purpose. Where the Secretary of State believes that something of national importance should be done in the education service, the Bill gives him a very limited power to invite authorities to take part in such an engagement and to provide the money for that purpose. I can find no reasonable justification for having an advisory body to tell him what is in the national interest. If he needs advice, he is able to take it at any time. It seems to me that this amendment is designed to prevent the Secretary of State from having even the very limited power which this Bill seeks to provide.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend in this amendment. As she has said, it has been considerably changed since the discussion at Report stage. For example, we have taken aboard some of the comments of the noble Earl the Minister at that stage when he referred to the fact that evaluation will be an on-going concern and will be built into the mechanism of the system. In the light of that we have confined this amendment purely to the question of advice on the projects themselves and advice on the priority subject.

I know that priorities lie at the heart of this particular Bill, but perhaps I may return to this whole question of partnership and follow the argument advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock. If Sir Keith was really serious in his Sheffield speech and in the consultative document about there being a partnership in education, then surely the partnership should operate in determining what the priorities should be. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, with all his experience, should once again take us back to 1958, because we are concerned with the present Bill, and it is the Secretary of State himself who has invoked this term "partnership". If it is to be a partnership, it means that the views of the local authorities have to be taken very seriously indeed.

We know that the Bill provides for consultation, but, in the light of recent history, I think that local authorities would feel much happier if formalised consultation was written into the Bill in the form of the establishment of an advisory body. Having said that, it is clear that in the long run the final decision will be taken by the Secretary of State himself. It will be he who determines the priorities, because the body will be advisory. But he will determine the priorities in the light of the advice that has been carefully given by a statutory body. In view of this, I hope that the noble Earl the Minister will see his way clear to accepting the amendment.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady David, said, this amendment differs from those moved at earlier stages, in that it defines more precisely the purposes of the advisory body; namely, to give advice to the Secretary of State about the areas of education to be supported by education support grants. However I have to say that I still do not regard an advisory committee as necessary or desirable. In explaining why this is so, I am afraid that I must once again cover ground which I covered at earlier stages.

When the noble Baroness, Lady David, moved a similar amendment at Report stage she said that she did not think that: informal meetings between the Secretary of State and the chairmen of the two associations' committees and possibly an officer are enough, which is all that might take place if something is not written into the Bill"—[Oflicial Report, 5/3/84; col. 98] I really do think that the noble Baroness was being a little unfair when she said this. In putting forward this Bill the Government have responded to the concerns expressed by the local authority associations. That is why the Bill included such provisions as the statutory limit on the level of expenditure that could be supported through ESGs. Education, the journal of the local education world, described the Bill as "bending over backwards" to meet concerns of the local authority interests. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has had three meetings with leaders of the local authority associations about the Bill when the chairmen of the AMA and ACC were accompanied by a number of their committee members and advisers. As I have said several times before, my right honourable friend looks forward to a further meeting when, as I hope, this Bill has received Royal Assent.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, spoke about an element of consultation being written into the Bill. I really do not think that this is necessary. Consultation has taken place and is going to continue to take place. The Bill already makes special provision for the interests of the local authority associations, by requiring the Secretary of State to consult them before laying regulations. This requirement respects the special position of the local authorities as it will be they who will be invited to incur expenditure supported by ESGs. The views of other interests will not be ignored. My right honourable friend meets the teaching unions regularly, his commitment to the importance of parental views and parental choice is well-known. I can give noble Lords and noble Baronesses opposite an assurance that views expressed about the activities which might be supported by education support grants will be carefully considered by my right honourable friend before regulations are laid here and in another place.

The noble Baronesses have spoken with feeling about the importance of local authorities' views. However, members of the party opposite have not always been noted for their defence of local authority freedom. The Education Act 1976 was not noted for its deference to the values of local authority choice and discretion. On the contrary, it imposed the comprehensive principle upon local authorities, regardless of their views and the wishes of the local electorate. That is why the repeal of that Act was one of the actions taken when the Government came to office in 1979. Indeed, we have had a more recent example of the weight placed by the Opposition on local authorities' views, in our debate on this Bill. To my regret, an amendment was made at the Report stage which would prevent local authorities from using these grants in selective schools for any purpose whatsoever, whether the local authority wished to do so or not. So much for the views of the local authorities.

Finally I should remind noble Lords and noble Baronesses of the example of the legislation introduced by the then Labour Government in 1969 under which grants are paid under the urban programme. That Act contains no advisory body; indeed, it includes none of the checks and safeguards which we have included in the present Bill. Yet the sums of money involved there are far greater—£150 million compared with, at most, £30 million to £35 million.

Setting up another advisory body would in fact mean another—I was tempted to say quango, but I shall say body. It would inevitably generate subcommittees and masses of paper. Its creation would run counter to the general concern, which I know is shared by local authority interests, to keep the amount of administration involved to a minimum. We do not judge that the advisory body would contribute significantly to the consideration of the activities to be supported. I can assure the noble Baronesses and the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, that my right honourable friend will consider carefully the views expressed to him about the activities to be supported. I hope that with the assurances I have given today, coupled with the assurances I have given on previous stages of the Bill the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw this amendment.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, may I ask whether he would not agree that the consultative document to which I referred described the proposals as a way of making the partnership between central and local government with regard to educational services more effective? Would he therefore not agree that it is reasonable to institute some modest machinery to make this possible?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I really do not think that I can go over all the arguments again. There have been many safeguards written into this Bill on all sorts of matters which were worrying local authorities and I do not think that it is necessary to have this extra body, and quite honestly I do not think that it would achieve anything.

Baroness David

My Lords, I am disappointed with the Minister's answer. It makes one wonder how real are the promises of partnership given by the Secretary of State. However, we have at least given the whole matter a good airing three times, and have received a number of assurances from the Minister about what is going to happen when this Bill becomes an Act. We shall watch with great interest to see whether the promises are kept, and the assurances given are respected. In the meantime, I will withdraw this amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(The Earl of Swinton.)

3.35 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I should just like to say a few words about this. At Second Reading I said that this Bill, though short and of limited aims, was important because of its implications for local authorities, their expenditure and their powers. It is a step in the direction that the Government are going. It is followed by the rate-capping Bill and the legislation promised in the White Paper, Streamlining the Cities—all depriving local government of powers they have traditionally held to manage their own affairs. They have been hurt by the imposition of the technical vocational education initiative thrust on them with no consultation, and they have been made really angry by the publication of the White Paper, Training for Jobs, again proposing taking education money from the rate support grant to be used for further education purposes, and no consultation at all.

The purpose of the Bill, to provide the Secretary of State with specific grant for innovation and experiment in the curriculum, we did not disagree with. What we did strongly object to was that the money for this purpose should be taken from the rate support grant—money local authorities looked on as theirs to choose how to spend. All opposition parties took this line, but unfortunately the amendments we all put down to rectify this were not passed.

We also attempted to press an amendment to prevent expenditure by local education authorities on projects that they had bid for under the terms of the Bill—the 30 per cent. to 50 per cent. of the cost they had to find—pushing them over the edge into the penalty area if spending targets were set again next year. So that they would, as it were, be fined for taking on the task the Government wanted them to take on.

We were unsuccessful in carrying the vote, but I should like to remind the Minister, and ask him to remind his ministerial colleagues—and I quote from col. 175 of Hansard of 14th February—of his words: If targets were set in 1985–86, the Government would consider carefully all representations that might be made by local authorities, including any about the treatment of expenditure supported by education support grants. Indeed, the law requires the Government to do so. So this question will not be overlooked: if local authorities are concerned and wish to raise it, it will be carefully considered. So there was some slight satisfaction from that, although his final words in col. 176 were: The grants are not intended to encourage an increase in the total amount spent by local authorities. Hence the Government have taken the view that it would be inconsistent to exempt, or disregard expenditure approved for education support grants from targets and hold-back. That was not quite so satisfactory. Government action, when the time comes, will be carefully watched.

However, I think that at both Committee and Report stages we cleared up a number of matters we were unsure about at Second Reading. I would say that we have a much better idea of what the programme and timetable will be: when the amount to be subtracted from the rate support grant will be decided, when the activities that will be chosen for experiment will be known, the proportion of grant to be paid by the department and the LEA respectively, and when LEAs will know whether their bids have been successful or not. So that is some slight advance.

I hope too that we cleared up what will happen to any money not spent out of the grant. I take it that it will go back into the general rate support grant fund, and that money the local authorities may not have been able to spend fully by the end of the financial year can be carried over into the next one. I am not sure that local authorities will be quite so pleased about the grants being paid in arrears, as the noble Earl said in col. 78 at Report stage. However, the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, whose amendment dealt with that, may have some comments on that.

I believe that we have had useful discussions on the activities that might possibly be supported by the grants. We ranged widely. I hope that some attention will be paid to the views expressed. I am sorry that the one amendment we had today was not more favourably considered, so we have lost out on that too.

Finally, I should like to thank those on this side of the House who took part in the debates and supported amendments, and the noble Earl for his always courteous and good-humoured efforts to make the Bill, and how it is intended to work, clearer to us. He certainly had to battle very much on his own, as I believe the only voice to be raised from the Government Benches besides his own was that of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I hope that that does not signify an indifference to education on those Benches.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, I do not in fact intend to follow the noble Baroness's suggestion of reverting to the matter that I raised at Report stage in my amendment, which was designed to find out what might happen to any surplus money. I carefully read the noble Earl's reply, and I must say that on balance I thought that he largely satisfied my concern. He also clarified what would happen to the carry-over of any money which had not been spent. This was a useful exercise.

Those of us who have taken an interest in this Bill end where we began: on a note of lament that there is no new money available for these schemes and that it is simply being extracted from the totality of the rate support grant. Having said that, obviously we wish the scheme well. We hope that the Government—alas!, without the advisory body which the noble Baroness has proposed—will make a wise choice of schemes. I have read of some that they had in mind at the time of the consultative document, and all of them are such that we could support, such as curricula changes in mathematics, a more practical slant for the final years and various issues of that nature.

I hope that the Government will bear one thing in mind, regardless of what happens in another place to the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, and passed, on the restriction of expenditure under this scheme to non-selective schemes. I hope the Government will bear in mind and take on board that this money really should be used on experiments which are directed at the bottom 40 per cent. of the educational heap. The Government have already provided money for the higher flyers through the assisted places scheme. I am not sure that we are entirely against this idea of forging links between the maintained system and the private sector, but they have provided new money for the assisted places scheme, which is a scheme designed largely to help potential high flyers.

The worrying thing about the education system in this country at the moment is that we need to direct our attention to the bottom 40 per cent. of the heap, the people who leave school with one CSE or with no qualification at all. I hope that the Secretary of State, in selecting these schemes, will bear this in mind. I should like to think that the Bill has provided something of a quid pro quo to the assisted places scheme, but for the less advantaged and the less well-endowed children in our educational system. Having said that, we on these Benches wish the scheme well and hope that the Government will give some consideration to what we have said during the course of the debates on the Bill in your Lordships' House.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, is my noble friend answering?

3.43 p.m.

The Earl of Swinton

Yes, my Lords. This Bill has been carefully considered by the House. By my reckoning it had been the subject of debate for nearly nine hours before today's proceedings began. Three former Secretaries of State have participated in the debates, and for that we are grateful. I should express my thanks also, most warmly, to my noble friend Lady Cox, who have been such a staunch pillar of support at my back. I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Potterhill, from the Cross-Benches, who, with his enormous knowledge of matters educational, has lent his weight to the debate. It would be churlish of me not to thank the noble Lord. Lord Kilmarnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, on the Alliance Benches, who have taken part: and finally, and certainly not least. the two noble Baronesses on the Front Bench opposite who have been so courteous. Though we disagreed at times, as the noble Baroness, Lady David, said, we seem to have got on fairly amicably across the Table. My thanks and congratulations, too, to the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, on this her first effort on a Bill from the Dispatch Box opposite.

There is, I believe, general support for the broad principles of the Bill. It gives effect to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Education, Science and Art in another place, that: The DES should have the ability, or use existing powers where it has them, to fund direct such new developments on a temporary basis as may seem to it to be desirable". During the debate on the Second Reading, the noble Baroness, Lady David, said that as regards the principle of the Bill there should be a power conferred on the Secretary of State to grant-aid developments which seem to him important. There are no powerful objections to that. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, described the Bill as a step in the right direction. The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, said that it is hard to disagree with the purposes for which the proposed grants might, in the Secretary of State's view, be used. My noble friend Lord Ridley told us that the Association of County Councils has no quarrel at all with the objectives of the Bill.

These expressions of general support for the Bill have been most welcome. Of course we have had our disagreements about particular aspects of the Bill, and these have been fully debated. One amendment has been made to the Bill, and that will now be considered in another place. I shall not comment on it here and now although I must tell your Lordships that since the same amendment was soundly defeated in another place at an earlier stage, and seeing that this is Budget Day and also the first day of the famous National Hunt Festival at Cheltenham, to use a racing term I certainly should not like to be the person to have my money on its chances there.

I can assure noble Lords and Baronesses that I have carefully noted the points which have been made about the operation of the grant and, in particular, the purposes for which the grant would be used. I am again grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady David, for pointing out what interesting debates we had on these matters: and these points will be taken into account when my right honourable friend the Secretary of State comes to discuss these proposals with the local authority associations and, subsequently, seeks the approval of this House and another place.

On the subject of new money, which was brought up in this debate on the Motion, That the Bill do now pass, both by the noble Baroness and by the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock. I should say that it has been suggested that the Government should explicitly make additional resources available to provide for education support grant. This suggestion has been made at various stages of the Bill and has been one of the disagreements between this and the other side of the House. As I have said on a number of occasions, the Government take the view that the grants should not in themselves lead to increased overall levels of expenditure, as the aim of the exercise is a limited influence over the deployment of resources. We are talking about grants totalling, at most. £33 million in 1983–84 terms. They will form part of total local authority grant, which in 1983–84 exceeds £11¾ billion.

The decision about the proportion of the Government's plans for expenditure to be met by aggregate Exchequer grant in 1985–86 will not be made until next autumn. I can assure the House that the Government will take a wide range of factors into account, including the expenditure to be supported by specific grants, before making a decision about the level of grant for 1985–86.

It might be of interest to your Lordships if I said a few words about the future timetable of this legislation.

Discussions have already started at official level with the local authority associations about the activities that might be supported by ESGs and the details of the Bill's implementation. My right honourable friend hopes to have a further meeting with the local authority associations shortly. Following the meeting at elected member level, draft regulations and a draft circular will be prepared which will be shown to the associations in draft. So there is even more consultation envisaged than I mentioned in the debate on the last amendment.

We would hope by late May or early June to be in a position to issue the promised statement setting out in some detail the activities to be supported through ESGs in 1985–86. and to lay the regulations. I hope that at about midsummer's day we will be debating those regulations.

We should ideally want to give local authorities the earliest possible notice of which activities are going to attract grants. The timing will depend on when regulations are made, but we would hope that a circular inviting bids would issue early in July inviting bids by the end of September. Our aim would be to announce what bids would be supported in November or December. The timetable I have mentioned as a possibility is provisional, but it reflects views expressed by the local authority associations at official level. We expect that individual local authorities would want to know as early as possible whether they should plan to receive education support grants in the, coming financial year. The clear impression we have gained so far from the associations is that it would be helpful to know which bids had been accepted prior to the settling of budgets.

Finally, I should remind your Lordships that this Bill will not affect the fundamental financial relationship between central and local government. Nor will it affect local authorities' continuing responsibilities for the education service. The Bill is a modest measure, but one which, I hope, will contribute towards the continuing improvement in the quality of our education services. Our education authorities over the years have pioneered many imaginative developments. Education support grants will enable the Secretary of State to help local authorities to innovate and to pursue practical developments in areas which are agreed to be of special importance.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with the amendment.

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