Education Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Timms: The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough has made a good part of my argument for me. It would be an odd arrangement if the Secretary of State, who is elected, were required to have regard to guidance issued by the chief inspector, who is appointed on her recommendation. I cannot think of a precedent for that, and it would make the arrangements unduly bureaucratic. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West said that he does not want that. As he has already pointed out, clause 2(3) provides that, if the Secretary of State thinks it appropriate, she may consult the chief inspector.

Mr. Willis: One purpose of the amendment that was not selected was that, when Ofsted had instigated special measures for a school, the Secretary of State should take cognisance of the chief inspector's comments. Most schools would accept that set of circumstances. If a school had serious weaknesses or was subject to special measures, and was applying for innovative powers under the legislation, the chief inspector would have a duty to tell the Secretary of State. What does the Minister think about that?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point, and it would be likely in those circumstances that the Secretary of State would consult the chief inspector before granting an innovation. That also helps to make the point that schools in those circumstances may apply for use of the powers. There was debate earlier around the fear that that would not be case. However, such schools will be able apply and, in that situation, the Secretary of State would consult the chief inspector. The Committee should not support the amendment.

Mr. Brady: I am far from happy with the Minister's remarks. Many amendments tabled to date would not have been necessary had Ministers been prepared to include more detail about how they propose to use the powers to allow innovation. The Minister is still not giving the Committee any real answers on that. This probing amendment seeks to draw out more information from the Minister about the Government's real intentions.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: In responding to the many concerns about the clauses, especially this one, the Minister seeks valiantly to claim that this is not a centralising and controlling measure. However, no account is taken of the fact that if no more details are introduced, the only guidance that many schools will have will be the body of precedence as to whether it is likely to be worth their while applying. Some of those schools may be under special measures to which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough referred, and there is a sense that a school will be deterred if the hurdles become too difficult, especially for a school that has some innovation but is otherwise struggling. The Government have neither highlighted nor taken into account that deterrence, which also

Column Number: 61

operates as control. That is why Opposition Members suspect that the measure is much more controlling and centralising than the Government like to admit.

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend is right when he talks about schools having to take precedence into account—what Ministers have been prepared to grant in the past. The corollary of that is that the indications emanating from the office of the Secretary of State would vary according to the holder of that office. My amendment seeks to make the decision-making process more stable and consistent, so that the decision to proceed is not taken at the whim of the Secretary of State, which is too much the case in the Bill. Such decisions must be taken after a rational assessment of the ability to raise standards in schools, but instead we have an assessment that is based on the personal views, or the ''opinion'', of the Secretary of State. I am not happy with the Minister's assurances, but I do not want to press the matter to a Division and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 6, page 2, line 38, at end insert—

    '(3B)Before making an order under this section, the Secretary of State or the National Assembly shall, if he or it considers it appropriate to do so, consult, the local education authority'.

It will not have escaped the Minister's attention that the wording of this probing amendment echoes wording elsewhere in clause 2. Subsection (3) states clearly:

    ''Before making an order...the Secretary of State or the National Assembly shall, if he or it considers it appropriate to do so, consult the Chief Inspector.''

When we contemplate such a broad and enabling Bill, we contemplate the odd occasions on which Ministers have been prepared to include specific detail, and we assume that there is a reason. If subsection (3) were not in the Bill, I might be happy to take the Minister's assurance that the Secretary of State will consult all sorts of people, that any sensible person would do so and that it would always be common sense to consult the chief inspector and countless other interested bodies. Instead, Ministers have chosen to specify that the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales will consult the chief inspector if they consider it appropriate to do so.

Amendment No. 6 echoes that wording in order to draw out from the Minister the role he sees for local education authorities. We do not seek to require the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales to consult local education authorities, but I propose that we include in the Bill a provision for consulting the local education authority equivalent to that made if it is considered appropriate to consult the chief inspector.

If the Minister has compelling reasons why the power to consult the chief inspector and not the local education authority should be written into the Bill, I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee would be most interested to hear them.

Column Number: 62

Mr. Willis: I strongly support the amendments and the comments of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. It echoes the point made this morning on which the Minister gave us assurances. On reflection, he would probably agree that it is right and proper to include in the Bill the need to consult local authorities. Perhaps I may refer the Minister to the White Paper published this afternoon, ''Strong Local Leadership-Quality Public Services''. The statement made by the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and indeed much of the White Paper—I have not read it all, but I have read a great deal of it—gives a new emphasis to partnerships with local authorities and the way in which local authorities should be used as innovative organisations rather than in their traditional role as simply providers of services. We strongly support that view.

In the light of that, to try to achieve joined-up government—

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene precisely on cue. Does he believe that if the Government were in any sense joined-up, we would have seen the publication of the White Paper on local government reform during the Committee stage of a Bill with which it is inextricably bound, and in which the role of the local education authority is being considered? It should have been published before we commenced.

Mr. Willis: I, too, find this sad as someone very committed to the process of local democracy. The White Paper emphasises a new role for local democracy and puts it at the heart of things. We have a set of regulations, but the Secretary of State does not see fit even to refer to local authorities in this part of the Bill. Those are conflicting messages. I am sure that that was an oversight when the Bill was drafted, rather than a deliberate policy.

Mr. David Miliband (South Shields): Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that local education authorities are able to make the application themselves under this provision? We are hoping that local authorities will be innovators, not merely consultees on other people's innovation.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. We would like to see local authorities doing exactly that. We shall support the amendment if it is forced to a Division.

Mr. Timms: I am pleased that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough supports the excellent White Paper that has been produced today. I hope that his views will be echoed throughout the House.

Mr. Willis: I did not say that it was excellent.

Mr. Timms: I thought I heard him say that it was excellent. He supported its ideas, and I welcome that. I indicate our strong support for partnership with LEAs. That is the basis of clause 4. Clause 4(2) states:

    ''Before making such an application, the qualifying body shall consult such persons as appear to the body to be appropriate, having regard to any guidance given from time to time''.

Column Number: 63

I made it clear this morning that the guidance would include consulting the LEA. That arrangement of schools consulting LEAs and obtaining their opinions is consistent with the partnership model because we want partnership between schools and LEAs. It would not be appropriate for the school to approach the Secretary of State without consulting the LEA, as the Secretary of State would have to consult the LEA about the proposal. The Bill is more consistent with the partnership model in the White Paper, which is the procedure that I described this morning.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: If the Minister is praying in aid clause 4(2), it would be helpful if the draft guidance could be made available to the Committee. It could affect a raft of amendments, some of which are probing. In spite of the Minister's obvious enjoyment in suggesting that our amendments went in two directions, one cannot probe without looking at the full canvas of options.That is highlighted by clause 4(2), because it has been prayed in aid to the debate on clause 2. Although the Minister's word is trustworthy, it is difficult, without a copy of the guidance, to understand the motivations and eventual practice of the Bill.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 11 December 2001