Education Bill

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Mr. Timms: I listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman. I am a little disappointed that we could not hear the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) introducing his amendment No. 39 because, not for the first time, it pushes in the opposite direction to his hon. Friend's amendments. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell would constrain and reduce the powers, whereas the hon. Gentleman's amendments would extend them.

I will comment on amendment No. 39 as it is on the amendment paper, although it has not been moved. In many instances, only a few schools will apply for an

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exemption. Any clash with legislative provisions will be small, and the privileges are largely a matter of detailed process.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: On a point of order, Mrs. Adams. I should be grateful for your guidance on whether it is in order to speak to an amendment that has not been moved.

The Chairman: The amendment was selected with amendment No. 4, so if the Minister wants to speak to it, he can do so under the rules.

Mr. Willis: Further to that point of order, Mrs. Adams. Your guidance this morning was that you would not accept starred or late amendments. Amendment No. 42 was placed with our other amendments in due time but, although it appears on the amendment paper, was not selected. It was pertinent to the question of how we limit schools or authorities that cannot get the full powers to innovate. I would be grateful for an explanation, Mrs. Adams. If the Minister can discuss an amendment that has not been moved, perhaps he could speak on an amendment that has not been selected.

The Chairman: If the amendment was not selected, the hon. Gentleman should have raised it at the beginning of the proceedings. If he wishes the Clerk to give him an explanation of why it was not selected, he will be happy to do that.

Mr. Willis: I would be enormously grateful for Mr. Lloyd's immense wisdom.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman will need to talk to the Clerk later. We cannot discuss it while the Committee is sitting.

5.15 pm

Mr. Timms: I was trying to be helpful to the Committee. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell was embarrassed about amendment No. 39, and I am beginning to wonder whether he is absent by design. Nevertheless, I will continue. It would be impractical and inappropriate to take up the House's time by insisting on a full debate every time a relatively modest proposal was received from a school.

Mr. Brady: To assist my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell, I must point out that the amendment would not necessarily provide for a full debate in the House. It would merely require the approval of each House, which would not necessarily have to be by affirmative resolution procedure.

Mr. Timms: It was my understanding of the wording that there would have to be a positive resolution of the House. That would be overly bureaucratic given that many proposals are likely to be modest.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) spoke to amendments Nos. 4 and 7. The Bill makes provision for innovative proposals to be introduced on a pilot basis, which is fundamental to

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the character of the proposals in this chapter. We will want to examine the success of the pilot project to see whether it could be extended, and in considering the application of a qualifying body to have an order extended for a further three years, the Secretary of State will want to take account of previous experience. If a pilot project is successful, there will be three ways in which we can progress to permanent change. The first is through a permanent change to the law in primary legislation for all schools. The second is through an extension of areas of earned autonomy in chapter 2, which again will be done by primary legislation. The third possibility is through a regulatory reform order, which will also allow us to make a permanent change.

The power in chapter 1 will be wide ranging and extremely valuable in testing flexibility as a first stage in the deregulation of education legislation. However, it is not appropriate as a permanent legislative tool, which is what the amendments imply by suggesting a power to extend it indefinitely. Permanent legislative change would require a greater degree of legislative scrutiny than is envisaged for the pilots that are possible under chapter 1. The amendments would move us away from the process of trying out innovative pilot projects to determine what works best, and instead allow for changes introduced on a pilot basis to be continued indefinitely without the need for making a more permanent change in the law. On reflection, I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that that is not a satisfactory basis on which to proceed, given that three other mechanisms will be available to make the change permanent if Parliament wishes.

The term ''innovation'' implies something new, and it would be a bit odd to talk about innovation carrying on for decades. By definition it would no longer be innovation, and should be dealt with in the ordinary legislative way. These powers are appropriate for trying out new things.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I listened carefully to the Minister's explanation for resisting the amendment. I suspect that he has taken the place of the Liberal Democrat Members on this notional tightrope. He now seems to be saying that innovation is a good thing, but that if we allow it to go on for too long it ceases to be innovation. He must undertake the Sisyphean task--if I may mix a metaphor--of pushing the innovation, which has ceased to be an innovation, up the mountain of difficulty if he is to achieve any kind of slot in the legislative timetable.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: Through the tightrope.

Mr. Turner: Indeed. I suspect that the Minister found this phrase in the Bill sometime after the amendment was tabled, and then had to cast around for a reason for resisting it. I doubt whether he decided on it well in advance when he was discussing the Bill and saying to his civil servants, ''We must have innovation, but innovation of three years deserves to be scrutinised once again by the Secretary of State, and innovation of six years would be more than flesh and blood can stand.'' It is absurd to say that innovation is

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so good that we want it to continue, but the only way to allow it to continue is via one of the three highly complex and difficult mechanisms that he described.

I have seen the papers associated with the only regulatory reform mechanism in the education field, and they are even thicker than the Bill. They amend the process of funding voluntary-aided schools. A regulatory reform mechanism requires a great deal. As for the queue for parliamentary time and slots, if the Minister thinks that hon. Members have not got enough legislating to do, he is right to ask for more legislation, but the Government are missing this opportunity.

What will happen if the Minister is unable to find a legislative slot? It is not unknown for Bills to be dropped at short notice because of matters entirely outwith the control of the Cabinet Legislation Committee. It happened this year. Does that mean that the innovation that has been so successful must cease? Does it mean that a project that delivers services to pupils with special educational needs in a particularly new and interesting way must cease for 12 months? What damage could that do to those pupils? Is it really necessary for such a project to be the subject of primary legislation when only two or three schools, regrettably, have adopted it? This is an unnecessary constraint not so much on the powers of the Secretary of State as on the ability of schools to innovate, which my hon. Friends so strongly support.

Mr. Brady: I am disappointed by the Minister's response which seemed to start from the premise that if change is to be permanent it requires proper parliamentary scrutiny. By implication, he does not believe that the measures in the Bill as it stands allow for proper parliamentary scrutiny. He has to decide whether the scrutiny provided for in this Bill is adequate. If he believes that it is not, he may be minded to support some of the amendments that Opposition Members have tabled or will table later.

The Minister says that if an innovation project were to be permanent, it would need more scrutiny, yet the provisions in the Bill would allow for such innovation to go on for six years. What exactly does the Minister think is permanent: in the life of a school, in the life of a child attending a school or for five years? If a school with a sixth form is able to retain its sixth form after the Government have had their way, six years would amount to a considerable degree of permanence.

The Minister further said that there are other mechanisms for meeting our objectives in amendments Nos. 4 and 7, such as resorting to primary legislation. He has already told us that the Government's whole drive and policy is to avoid primary legislation and to use delegated legislation, so he is already contradicting himself.

Unlike so many other aspects of Government policy, these measures involve pilot projects, and they will be given a chance to prove their worth over a period of three years or, if renewed, six years. Therefore, on this very limited aspect of the Bill, Opposition Members--I do not know whether I speak for the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and his hon. Friend the Member for

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Yeovil (Mr. Laws)--are willing to trust Ministers. Ministers will be able to see whether schemes that have been floated will work--I was going to refer to flying kites, but I thought it unwise to get into more tangled metaphors.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) rightly said, the recourse that the Minister hopes to have to primary legislation in future is a very dangerous path to chart.

 
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