Education Bill

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Mr. Willis: I apologise to the Committee for not being here this morning.

Amendments Nos. 211 and 212 should be considered together, because 211 is consequential on 212. Once we start to examine the clauses in part 2, we see that, like many other clauses, they are extremely significant. I must congratulate the Government on the way in which the Bill has been presented. They have hidden many things that we cannot understand until we start to get under the skin of the Bill.

There is a seduction about the title of part 2, which is ''Financial assistance for education and childcare''. The clauses were sold on the need for more imaginative funding arrangements for childcare and its providers, which the Liberal Democrats accept and support. Our amendments try to curtail the powers of the Secretary of State. If we take the clause literally, it says that the Secretary of State can, by sleight of hand, switch some £23 billion or £24 billion that is currently spent by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to the Department for Education and Skills. That is the reality of the powers provided by the clause. Although clause 17 contains some provisions for giving up powers, including specific examples, clause 13 gives the Secretary of State the power to fund education from her office.

It may be that that is the Government's intention and that, with the reform of local government funding, it wants to ring-fence education funding and send it directly from Sanctuary house. If that is the case, it is a legitimate objective for which they can argue their case. To be fair to the Government—I always try to be fair—it was the Conservatives' policy at the previous election to fund education directly from the centre, with local authorities having no responsibility. The free schools proposal would have done exactly that, and the Conservatives may want to support these proposals.

From 1958 onwards when the revenue support grant was introduced, an important principle was established. Through various Departments, which have now become the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the Government have distributed a block grant, so that local authorities can mix and match funding raised locally with that of the grant to provide services, including education. That has worked reasonably well; even after the reforms of 1974 and the introduction of standard spending assessments, that has not been attacked other than by the charge capping of the previous Government and the increased ring fencing of the present one.

4.45 pm

The clause gives powers to the Secretary of State, who does not have to be accountable for the way in which he or she distributes the grant. The amendment would allow the Secretary of State those greater powers, but he or she would be accountable for the

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way in which the grant was distributed. The amendment would establish a process, through an affirmative resolution of both Houses, whereby the Secretary of State was held to account for the large sums of money distributed. If my Machiavellian thoughts on the clause are wrong, the Minister will accept these simple amendments in the spirit in which they are offered, and I will go home a happy man.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Amendments Nos. 139 and 140 have the same broad objective as that of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), but instead of requiring post hoc approval, they require more notice from the Secretary of State in advance of the terms under which he will offer assistance.

One of the great difficulties that people have in dealing with Departments is that they feel that they are operating in a fog of uncertainty. That fog is not lifted by some elements of the Bill. Indeed, this clause is one of the foggiest of all, because it is so broadly drawn. The Secretary of State should set out by order what the schemes are, so that they could be considered in more detail. Any scheme should set out criteria: how financial assistance is applied for, the means by which applications can be made and the criteria against which allocations of assistance will be made. I accept that that reduces the Secretary of State's discretion, but it also reduces his capacity to behave arbitrarily. It requires him to be clear about his objectives and to set out testable criteria for judging whether they have been achieved. That is a matter of good management. It certainly would be in the private sector, and I see no reason why it should not be a matter of good governance in the public sector.

The amendments would not put the Secretary of State in a straitjacket. They are designed to assist those seeking support from the Secretary of State, and to ensure that he does not devise a scheme so carefully that it will only suit one applicant. If the criteria for a scheme must be set out in advance, the Secretary of State can entertain any number of applicants who come forward on a fair, free and equal basis, rather than dream up a scheme and hand over money to the applicant for whom the scheme may have been dreamt up in the first place.

Mr. Brady: I am pleased to comment briefly on the first group of amendments under clause 13, particularly amendments Nos. 170 and 174. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) was driving in the same direction with his amendment.

The import of all the amendments is to try to give back to Parliament an element of control over the process and over the enormous freedom that Ministers seek to disburse public funds for educational purposes. With amendment No. 170, we seek to make that subject to affirmative resolution. Amendment No. 174 states that such expenditure

    ''shall be specified in an order under section 13(1)''.

Similarly, amendment No. 139 suggests that that should be done by order.

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It is clear that all hon. Members who have spoken, including the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, are deeply concerned about the degree of latitude that Ministers seek under the clause. They have the ability to expend public money in virtually any way connected in whatever tangential manner with education not only in the United Kingdom, but wherever in the world they wish. The proposal is dramatic, effectively removing the ability of the House of Commons to keep any control over the Government's expenditure on education matters. They can do almost anything. We shall discuss those matters in greater detail when we deal with later amendments, but it is clear that a future Secretary of State, of whatever party, may use the clause to drive education policy in a very different direction from that to which we have been used in the past.

For that reason, the Minister must first give some detail about how the Government envisage that money being spent using powers taken under the clause. Secondly, I urge him strongly to consider ways in which Parliament can be given a say and some control over the proposals. Looking to the future and a Conservative Secretary of State for Education and Skills, I might welcome the purposes to which the clause may be put; the Minister might not. I hope that we agree that in the event of a Secretary of State's seeking to use these wide powers to spend public money in whatever way, the House should be able to scrutinise what is being done and should have some right to approve whatever policy is being undertaken.

The Minister is listening intently. I hope that I am striking a chord and that, rather than all power to spend public funds in this respect being taken as a matter of discretion, he will agree, on reflection, that there is a way to bring proper democratic control and accountability to clause 13.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: On a point of order, Mr. Griffiths. May we have some guidance? A feature of the Bill—I do not understand how this came about—is that rafts of it were printed using italics rather than the normal typeface. We would have tested that if we had had a chance to discuss clause 12, but it is clearly germane to clause 13. There was an instruction on the manuscript copy of amendment No. 17, which relates to clause 12, to leave out the italics. That has been translated on the Order Paper as ''leave out subsection (1)(b)'', as though the whole subsection was intended to be left out. That was not the Opposition's intention, and it will pertain to later amendments.

The purpose of the amendment was to probe whether the italicised typeface means anything. If it does not, were the Government in such a rush to publish the Bill that they could not get the typing correct? If I can use this point of order, that may explain the earlier sotto voce and rather cheap comment from a Government Member that suggested that Opposition Members had not talked to each other properly. I respect the independence of Back Benchers in scrutinising legislation, but the speed with which amendments have to be tabled so that they are in order

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meant that it was not possible to have a full series of meetings that might have helped to avoid the problem that I have just cited. I would appreciate your guidance, Mr. Griffiths.

The Chairman: Italics are printed in the Bill where there are expenditure implications, not because someone has made a mistake or has a fancy to do something different. So the hon. Gentleman's amendment to leave out the subsection in italics—

Mr. O'Brien: To remove the italics.

The Chairman: Yes. That amendment is not in order. I hope that that puts the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest.

Mr. O'Brien: That is an interesting point. I had not come across the use of italics to signify an expenditure commitment. Is that common practice?

The Chairman: Apparently it is.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Further to that point of order, Mr. Griffiths. I am concerned that we have not dealt with clause 12(1)(b), which is in italics and cannot now be scrutinised in the other place. If I had known that we were to be the only Members to scrutinise clause 12(1)(b), I might have paid it more attention when we debated the programming motion on Thursday. Can you make any arrangement, Mr. Griffiths, to ensure that we properly scrutinise at least those aspects of the Bill that cannot be scrutinised in another place?

 
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