HL Deb 27 March 2002 vol 633 cc324-8

8.43 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

rose to move, That the draft regulatory reform order laid before the House on 20th November 2001 be approved [15th Report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the second order standing in my name on the Order Paperֵ The order is the first from the Department for Education and Skills to be brought forward under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. It demonstrates the department's commitment to regulatory reform and, in so doing, allows us to reform fundamentally a system that has become increasingly bureaucratic and unworkable since the basic arrangements were introduced in the Education Act 1944.

The order is designed to simplify the arrangements for funding premises-related work at voluntary aided schools in England. Liability for funding such work is currently divided between the governing bodies of such schools and local education authorities in what is recognised to be a complicated way. It requires much detailed negotiation between the various parties, including departmental officials. That time could be better spent on more important matters such as continuing the drive to raise standards. The details are so complex that the relevant scrutiny committee in another place invited officials to make a presentation to help provide a better understanding of what is entailed. I am pleased to say that the presentation was well received by the committee.

The package of changes will place more responsibility on the governing bodies for all of the school buildings and playgrounds. It will enable the governors to have more involvement in decisions affecting those buildings. It will also mean that governing bodies can use the available funds for a wider range of purposes. That is particularly important at a time when the amount of capital grant that we are making available to the voluntary aided sector has increased fourfold from what it was in 1996. That level of investment has, of course, been matched for other schools. The additional responsibility brings an increased financial commitment for the governing bodies of voluntary aided schools.

It is an essential feature of the voluntary aided sector that its schools make a contribution towards the cost of work on their premises. That principle will be retained under the new arrangements. However, in recognition of the increased financial liabilities falling on the governing bodies, we have proposed that their normal contribution should be reduced from its current 15 per cent minimum rate to 10 per cent. That will ensure that the changes will be broadly cost-neutral, in overall terms, to voluntary aided governing, bodies. In order to help ensure cost neutrality, we are also introducing an option to pay grant at up to 100 per cent in exceptional cases.

I thank members of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform. They spent considerable time on scrutinising the proposals and were able to recommend the proposals to the House. The committee accepted that our proposal to increase the rate of grant support to governing bodies of voluntary aided schools relieved a burden, within the meaning of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. The committee noted that it would therefore appear to be possible to use the Act to change entitlement rules in a wide area of welfare funding. The vigilance of the appropriate committees in both Houses will guard against any improper use of the power.

As a consequence of the more simplified system that the order will introduce, we can also improve the way in which we fund routine repair and maintenance to voluntary aided school buildings. That will have two major benefits. First, it will enable us to place more of the funds directly into the budgets that are delegated to schools, giving greater local autonomy. Secondly, the processes will be more consistent with those for other types of school, although the essential characteristic of the voluntary aided sector would, of course, be retained.

We have also worked with the committee in the other place to reassure it on several issues, including the insurance implications and our ongoing commitment to pay grant at the normal rate in certain prescribed circumstances. We consulted widely on our proposals and received overwhelming support for them. The committees in both Houses commended us on the way in which we consulted on the reforms. We worked hard with the Churches, which have a key role in the greater part of the voluntary aided sector, and we are pleased that they asked us to introduce the changes as rapidly as possible. We also worked closely with the Local Government Association and the National Governors' Council to ensure that the proposals are workable and fair to all stakeholders. That extensive consultation has encouraged us to proceed with the proposal that the changes should be introduced with effect from 1st April this year.

I must emphasise that the changes have nothing to do with the wider debate on faith schools. They are about reducing the burden of bureaucracy, simplifying a complex system and, in so doing, introducing policies that bring about greater consistency with other categories of school. The scrutiny committees have recommended acceptance of the changes on that basis.

I realise that the timing of this debate does not give us much time to begin the process of implementing the changes. However, we have continued to keep all stakeholders—voluntary aided schools, the Churches, the National Governors' Council and the local education authorities—informed of our proposals. We have demonstrated to the committees that we are in a position to introduce the changes at short notice should the order be approved.

Finally, the order applies only in respect of England. The National Assembly for Wales was consulted on the proposals and following responses to its own consultation decided not to seek any change to the law. I confirm that the terms of the order are fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The order was approved in another place on 12th March and I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulatory reform order laid before the House on 20th November 2001 be approved. [15th Report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee].—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the purpose of the order. As the Minister outlined, the order comes to this House under the deregulation and regulatory reform procedure. Its purpose is to amend the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 to simplify the liability and funding arrangements for premises-related work at voluntary aided schools, which the Minister outlined in detail.

I noted that in the first report of the Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee of another place, the department was invited to amend the order extending the proposed amendments to Schedule 22 to the 1998 Act to include all "excepted buildings", which the department has since done.

The Minister also stated that submissions of the officials were received by the committee. However, I also noted that the committee took the department to task for poor drafting of the order and that it was not at all impressed by the plea from officials that they had to draft the order in a hurry. That excuse was, and remains, unacceptable. This is a serious point, for if the deregulation and regulatory reform procedure is to work, the accuracy and the quality of the drafting is critical.

The House of Commons committee has been effective in securing improvements to, and clarification of, the order. For example, in paragraphs 22 and 23 of the report of 5th March, the committee was concerned about the definition of an "alteration" in order for a school to attract grant-in-aid. The committee was, however, satisfied with the Secretary of State's assurance that, for example, where a damaged roof has to be repaired, while it will constitute a necessary capital expenditure, it cannot be described as an "alteration" as such, but will nevertheless qualify for a grant at the maximum rate set out in the order because the underlying principles of the existing legislation will be retained.

I join the Minister in thanking the Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee of this House for its work on the order. As the order has proceeded through the various committees to this House, the Government have responded positively to the recommendations and I therefore agree that the order should be approved.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the order and agree to it being approved. As both noble Lords mentioned, it has been before the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and has been extensively examined by the Commons Select Committee on Deregulation and Regulatory Reform. As the Minister noted, it is to come into effect on 1st April 2002, so there is not much time for implementation.

However, as the Minister also noted, it has been extensively discussed in a number of places. In some senses, it is an interesting initiative because it is the first time that we have seen the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 applied to legislation from the DfES.

Anyone who has been a governor of a voluntary aided school will know that there are enormous problems in getting maintenance carried out and funded because of the difficulties of deciding who is responsible. Where governors find that they are responsible for an unexpected cost, even with the 85 per cent support—which will now rise to 90 per cent—coming from the Government, it can be difficult for them to find the necessary money. Stories abound of how badly damaged a window and its frame have to be before liability passes from the LEA to the governors, and when a minor repair to a roof becomes a major one with the ensuing change of responsibility. The evidence from both the Lords and Commons committees, which have worked on the order, indicates that by shifting responsibility for certain items from the LEA to the governors, and at the same time raising the threshold of support from 85 to 90 per cent, the system will be made better and more manageable. We greatly welcome that.

It is interesting also to look at the order in relation to the deregulation initiatives which are to come before us in the Education Bill. The Minister mentioned that. The Commons report indicates the way in which the regulatory reform order has worked. Rigorous consultation is required to meet the needs of the order. For example, the DfES—the DfEE as it then was— established a project board of interested parties some three years ago. A written detailed consultation document was produced nearly a year ago and sent to 1,654 recipients. All schools were told that the proposals were available. There had been previous consultation documents on aspects of the proposal. It has been a very good consultation process, setting an example of what one would like to see.

In that respect, the Education Bill is being sold as a deregulatory Bill. It shifts legislation from primary to secondary legislation. The Minister will know that some of us have doubts about whether that is a good idea. The DfES memorandum which we have been given with the order notes that the process—the consultation that took place within the regulatory reform order—helped to build awareness of our proposals and achieved strong consensus among key stakeholders.

The reason given for not tackling great swathes of the Education Bill through regulatory reform orders is that, it is quicker and less burdensome on the Department's resources to use primary legislation. Some of us wonder whether that is good enough. Is it not better to pass good legislation through the regulatory reform order procedure rather than to pass rushed and bad legislation through a Bill of which parliamentary procedures do not allow sufficient scrutiny?

Generally speaking, and despite those quibbles which perhaps relate more to the Education Bill than they do to the order, we welcome the order and would like to see it put into effect.

Lord Dearing

My Lords, earlier today the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester said that he had to leave to serve a higher authority. Therefore, I thought that it might be appropriate for me to ask him what he would have said had he been present. He confirmed that there has been detailed consultation, in particular with the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. The dioceses are geared up for implementation, if the order is passed, on 1st April and he warmly commends the order to the House.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions to our short debate. I shall not follow the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, in discussing the virtues of the Education Bill. We shall have an opportunity to do so in the near future. As we might be here for a somewhat protracted time if we talked about the advantages of the Bill in terms of deregulation, I shall confine myself to the order.

I thank the noble Baroness for producing the answer I would have given to the main point introduced by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman. I refer to the fact that at an early stage the committee criticised the order in terms of its draftsmanship. However, we have succeeded in carrying out the most extensive consultation exercise, to which the noble Baroness kindly made reference. Due to the length of the consultation, we were faced with the question of whether we could meet the tight deadline of making the changes on 1st April.

I entirely accept the criticism, evidenced elsewhere, to which the noble Viscount has every right to refer. I plead the obvious point that the consultation exercise having been so extensive things were somewhat hurried to meet the deadline. However, we have achieved the best of both worlds in that we have hit the deadline and been able to consult sufficiently widely to obtain the comments of the committees of both Houses with regard to the order.

On that basis, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, that on this occasion he can act as our messenger to higher places. It is not often that I feel that there is a higher place than your Lordships' House, but I recognise the force of the noble Lord's remarks. We greatly missed the contribution of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, but he had a more than adequate substitute and I thank hint for his commendations. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.