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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Education Bill

Education Bill

Standing Committee G

Thursday 13 December 2001

(Afternoon)

Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Education Bill

Clause 6

Exemptions available to qualifying schools

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 10, in page 5, line 9, at end insert—

    '(2A) Regulations containing the prescribed criteria relating to the performance of, or the quality of leadership in, the school must be approved by resolution of each House of Parliament in England or by agreement of the National Assembly in Wales'.—[Mr. Brady.]

2.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I am not remotely satisfied by the Minister's response. I hope that other members of the Committee are also disappointed that once again the Government are resisting the opportunity to allow Parliament a greater say, and are instead arrogating power solely to Ministers. That said, we have had a worthwhile exchange on the subject, and I shall not detain the Committee further on the amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I beg to move amendment No. 96, in page 5, line 19, after 'shall', insert 'within 28 days'.

This is perhaps the simplest amendment to explain. It sets targets for the Government's response to requests for orders from schools that qualify automatically for earned autonomy. Like many hon. Members, I have had the privilege of working in Government Departments and other places where the need for urgent action is sometimes overcome by the sense of risk inherent in taking any such action. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) recognises that situation. I am setting a target of 28 days for the Government to lay the necessary orders to enable schools to benefit from the autonomy that they have earned.

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): I welcome you and other hon. Members back to the Committee, Mr. Griffiths.

The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point. On Tuesday, we discussed the Government's intention to make as many exemptions available as possible as of right, although I gave the assurance that we shall consult widely before deciding which flexibilities should be available as of right and which should be discretionary.

I can reassure the Committee that we shall do everything possible to make sure that qualifying schools earn autonomy as quickly as possible. We intend to issue the orders in batches, perhaps monthly. Although we want to make the orders as quickly as possible, it would not be right to require in law that orders be granted within a fixed 28-day period. In practice, we hope to make orders more quickly than 28 days, but if, for example, several hundred applications were received at once, or if applications were sent in during a holiday period, that might not be possible.

I underline my assurance that the Department will act as quickly as possible in all circumstances. It would not be appropriate for our hands to be tied as tightly as they would be under the amendment, but I readily recognise the importance of the hon. Gentleman's point that the orders need to be made quickly.

Mr. Turner: I am grateful for that commitment. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) promised that we would not delay business unnecessarily, and to be consistent with that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Turner: I beg to move amendment No. 95, in page 5, line 29, leave out

    'without the consent of the Secretary of State'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 65, in page 5, line 30, at end insert

    'unless they replicate those which the Secretary of State has designated as attracting exemption or modification as of right in England'.

Mr. Turner: The amendment goes to the heart of the devolution debate. The Government propose that the National Assembly for Wales, which to a great extent has autonomy on the introduction of the Bill's provisions, should not enjoy such autonomy on matters that relate to teachers' pay and conditions. The Secretary of State is required to agree any such proposal by the Assembly. Indeed, subsection (5) states:

    ''No regulations . . . which relate to a pay and conditions provision may be made by the National Assembly for Wales without the consent of the Secretary of State.''

That is inconsistent with the Government's policy on the autonomy of decisions in Wales. I recognise that there is one national pay and conditions document for teachers, which affects England and Wales. However, it is inconsistent that a Minister acting for England has the power to prevent the National Assembly from reaching a decision that is entirely sensible for Wales, or that it judges to be so. I should very much like to hear the Minister's defence as to why the holder of the office of Secretary of State needs to have that veto over the Assembly's decisions.

Mr. Brady: I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). These complementary amendments offer the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who may think that he has been earning his living by sitting listening to us at the last few sittings, an opportunity to earn his living by enlightening us on some of his views on appropriate limitations of decision-making power in Wales.

My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out the limits that the Bill places on the discretion and decision-making powers of the National Assembly for Wales. Devolution and the devolved settlement are thereby constrained. With amendment No. 65, I do not seek to go quite so far as to remove the Secretary of State's influence altogether, but I do seek to draw out the reasons why the Secretary of State might want to exercise that restraint on decisions at which the National Assembly might arrive.

This specific circumstance is difficult to justify. There is an unwarranted restraint on the ability of the people of Wales, the National Assembly and schools in Wales to exercise the freedoms that we would wish them to have. The Secretary of State can designate certain categories of freedom and flexibility as available to schools in England as of right.

We assume that a school in England that meets the criteria for earned autonomy set out by the Secretary of State—regrettably, following the withdrawal of amendment No. 10, they will not be approved by Parliament or the National Assembly—and that seeks freedoms and autonomy that are allowed as of right will have them as of right.

However, a school in Wales that meets the criteria; that is in the same circumstances; whose achievements are every bit as good; and that is successful as show by its leadership and results will not enjoy the freedom as of right that a comparable school in England will. My amendment would correct that unfairness and allow greater freedom for schools in Wales. It would not allow greater freedom than that given to schools in England, or extend the devolved settlement to give new powers and discretions for Wales that do not exist at present. It would merely ensure that the freedom that is a right for a school in England would also be a right for a school in Wales. Advantage would not have to be taken of it, and it would place no obligation, but it would provide a right that may be taken advantage of in order to benefit pupils and raise educational standards in Welsh schools, just as is provided for English schools.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Griffiths. I have, as the hon. Gentleman points out, a chance to earn my corn and participate in the debate.

The Government intend to resist the amendments. Under the devolution settlement, to which the House signed up in passing the Government of Wales Act 1998, discretion for teachers' pay and conditions is not devolved to the Assembly in Cardiff. That remains true regardless of whether the Assembly chooses to use earned autonomy powers in relation to pay and conditions in the same way as England or differently.

The Bill is designed not to unsettle the devolution settlement, which is why National Assembly regulations on the matter will require the consent of the Secretary of State regardless of whether the Secretary of State has made a similar order in England. Clearly, if provisions were proposed for schools in Wales that mirrored those already agreed in England, it would be highly unlikely that the Secretary of State would want to disagree.

On the same basis as I would resist amendment No. 65, I would also resist amendment No. 95. Far from doing what Opposition Members claim, amendment No. 95 would remove the autonomy that the Bill allows the Assembly. As the power is not devolved, removing the Secretary of State's power to give consent would mean that schools in England would have the autonomy to vary pay and conditions under the earned autonomy proposals but schools in Wales would not. The amendment would have quite the opposite effect to that which Opposition Members argue. I therefore urge the Committee to resist the amendments.

Mr. Andrew Turner: In that case, why is the Under-Secretary inserting an additional level of bureaucracy, to use a pejorative term, in a decision relating to schools in Wales? If the Assembly has no standing in decisions about teachers' pay and conditions, why is he inserting a standing in the Bill, admittedly in a different part of the clause? Why is he not simply reserving the whole power to the Secretary of State, as is the case for England?

Mr. Touhig: That is precisely what is being done in the Bill: matters relating to pay and conditions are reserved to the Secretary of State.

Mr. Brady: I am almost satisfied by the Minister's remarks, and I am pleased that he has had an opportunity to stretch his legs and exercise his vocal chords a little. However, I should like to press him just a little further. In relation to the extent of the devolution settlement as it stands, he says that it is highly unlikely that the Secretary of State would try to veto a provision for Wales that is available as of right for England. Will he go slightly further and say that, if it is available as of right for English schools, the Secretary of State would not exercise the right of veto for Welsh schools in those tightly defined circumstances?

 
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Prepared 13 December 2001