HL Deb 20 February 1995 vol 561 cc914-6

2.58 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any proposals to recompense local education authorities which have suffered a loss in grant due to the new financing arrangements for pupils outside a local education authority's own area.

Lord Lucas

No, my Lords.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, perhaps I may explore the matter a little further. Do not the Government regard it as anomalous to consider a pupil to have different socio-economic characteristics—that is the basis of SSA and grants—just because he is educated in a neighbouring borough rather than in his home borough? Does the Minister agree that he is the same child with the same needs? Does she further agree that the new financing arrangements represent a penalty for an LEA running a successful education service and attracting pupils from other LEAs into its own service? How do the Government square that with their advocacy of market forces?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, it is a question of debate and there has been a great deal of it between the Government and local authorities as to how the standard spending assessment should be made up. There have been a number of authorities in the same camp as the noble Baroness saying that pupils who move from one local authority to another should bring with them the average characteristics of that authority. There have been many others who say that pupils who move tend not to carry with them the special educational needs other than the statemented typifications of the authority the child comes from—in other words, pupils who move tend not to have special needs. However, the Government have sided against the noble Baroness and decided that local education authorities, which have the responsibility for special educational needs in their area, should retain the funds to deal with such children in their area in the expectation that, in the main, those pupils will stay with them.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the noble Lord may not be aware that that decision caused considerable misgivings in this House when it was taken. However, is he aware that the problem that we are discussing centres not on special educational needs, but on additional educational needs—notably, the need for free school meals? Is the noble Lord further aware that since they are such a vital part of the income of families on benefit he risks being accused of exporting his problems to the Department of Social Security?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not think that we take any position of principle on standard spending assessments; it is merely a matter of practicality and what arrangements suit the facts best. If the noble Earl or the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, can produce evidence that the current arrangements are not in accordance with the way things are, I am sure that that will be taken into account next year.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that whenever the standard spending assessments are changed some authorities gain—and they are, of course, very pleased—but some authorities lose and they, quite naturally, feel aggrieved? I hope that my noble friend will agree that there would be considerable merit in stability, but, since the SSA is patently perceived to be a fallible formula, there is a constant need to adjust and improve it; hence the constant feelings of either glee or pain depending on which side of the adjustment an authority happens to fall.

Lord Lucas

My Lords. I agree with my noble friend who puts the matter very well. The world changes and SSAs have to change. We do not pretend that they are perfect, but we do think that they are the best that we can achieve.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that the SSA is a formula for the allocation of grant? Does he not also agree that because it varies, because it is unpredictable and because it is inevitably and ultimately a crude mechanism which cannot reflect the needs of each locality, it is therefore totally wrong for the Government to cap local authority expenditure and refuse to allow local authorities to adjust their spending to meet the real needs of their localities and the children in them? Does the noble Lord further agree that children should not have to suffer simply because the Government and Whitehall have a fixed formula approach to the needs of children and their education?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, whether a local authority runs up against its cap is a matter that relates to all of its expenditure, not just to education. It is to the totality of their expenditure that local authorities must look if they want to see how they can best serve the needs of their populace.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it ill behoves local education authorities—and, I have to say, their allies on the Labour Benches opposite—to complain about any loss of grant when they were largely responsible throughout the 1980s for so conducting and mismanaging our state system of education that there came to be 1.5 million empty places in our schools, with all the colossal waste that that involves?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am sure that I would not wish to put it as strongly as that, but there is certainly considerable opportunity for savings to be generated by removing surplus school places. A number of local authorities are achieving savings in just that way.

Baroness David

My Lords, reverting to an earlier answer from the noble Lord, will the department be willing to review the arrangements for pupils with special educational needs if the new arrangements appear to penalise LEAs which have more than an average number of those pupils?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, yes.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, it is a fact—is it not?—that LEAs will not be encouraged to provide nursery education near the border with another LEA as parents from the other LEA will have the right to send their pupils across the border to the providing LEA, but the home LEA can refuse to pay. Will Her Majesty's Government therefore introduce recoupment for children under five and, if not, why not?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am sure that all those matters will be taken into account in our general proposals on nursery education, for which I hope the noble Lord can wait.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it sometimes causes great inconvenience and family hardship if mentally handicapped people needing special education are sent long distances out of their own area in order to receive it elsewhere? Is it not therefore quite proper that the Government should be encouraging local education authorities to have their own arrangements, which pretty well all of them are capable of establishing?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, that is the sort of consideration which has weighed heavily with us and which, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has won the day with us. However, I recognise that there are other sides to the question.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that I shall spare the House the detail of the problems to which I alluded in my supplementary question, but that I shall accept with alacrity his offer to review the position further for next year? I shall pursue that with him, if I may.