Education Bill

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Mr. Willis: A few sentences ago, the Minister said that the procedure is fundamentally administrative. I posit a scenario based on what he said last Thursday. If a local education authority placed its schools in the hands of a single company, which it could do under existing legislation, and the Secretary of State gave the company a grant under clause 12, there would be no need for any parliamentary scrutiny. All that would be scrutinised is the amount of money and the annual estimates. Does the Minister agree that that is serious?

Mr. Timms: As the hon. Gentleman explained, he was not able to be with us this morning. We debated companies and schools, which caused some confusion, and I emphasised that we do not envisage companies taking over schools. Governing bodies will continue to have responsibility for managing schools. They will be able to call on companies to help them in that role. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Under existing powers, Parliament cannot fully scrutinise the payment of a sum to a party. Once that power is in place, it can be used for ever and a day to make those payments. The situation that applies at the moment is not much different from that under the new arrangement. The provisions are not that different from those that apply elsewhere. In particular, we are following closely the example of section 2 of the Employment and Training Act 1973, which has operated successfully for nearly 30 years. That provides similar broad powers to support training programmes, and I know that my hon. Friends will be interested to know that that power made possible the establishment of the new deal. If a broad power had not been available, it would have been necessary to go through a whole procedure before the new deal was introduced. As Members know, we were able to establish the new deal quickly. I am not aware of problems that have arisen because of the availability of that power since 1973. Similarly, the powers under which the Higher Education Funding Council and the learning and skills councils are funded do not require secondary legislation either.

The proposals in the Bill are not without precedent. About 60 per cent. of all education funding in England flows through standard spending assessments into the local government finance system. About 25 per cent. of that funding is for higher education and the learning and skills councils, which is paid without the need for secondary legislation. The remaining 15 per cent. of the Department's budget goes on direct support for schools, pre-school education and child care—approximately £5.5 billion rather than the much larger sum mentioned by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. The change brings that sum into line with our support for education at the 16-plus level. The power thus puts a major strand of support for education on the same footing as that already agreed by Parliament elsewhere.

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Relying on secondary legislation leads to complexity and delays in the Government's ability to provide financial support, especially when a precise need cannot be anticipated and existing regulations do not allow for a particular payment.

Mr. Brady: May I remind the Minister that at an earlier stage in our deliberations he said that it was precisely the Government's policy to shift from primary legislation to secondary legislation? Now he claims that even secondary legislation imposes too great a burden of scrutiny on the Government, and he wants to move from secondary legislation to a simple sweeping power for Ministers to do precisely as they please. Will he be consistent, work out what level of scrutiny is appropriate when public money is being spent, and not befuddle the Committee by suggesting that secondary legislation is adequate one day and an impediment to proper government the next?

Mr. Timms: The answer is that primary legislation is appropriate in some circumstances and secondary legislation in others. In the circumstances described here, I argue that arrangements under the Employment and Training Act 1973 are appropriate for the payments requisite under the clause. My argument—that we need significantly to deregulate in several sectors and that these powers will assist us to do so—is completely consistent.

Apart from the complexity—its removal will be welcome—delay is another concern. It would be an obvious consequence of the amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough—particularly the 40-day period. Delays can make it difficult to respond to urgent requests for support, not because such support is outside the scope of primary legislation but because secondary legislation needs to be amended and agreed. We must be able to move quickly to provide support where it is needed. A further advantage of avoiding regulations will be the simplifying and streamlining of funding structures for schools and governors.

We are all aware of the concerns of governors—who are, after all, volunteers—about the complexity of the regulations through which they have to apply for funding for their schools. We will replace existing regulations with a simpler, more comprehensive system governing the funding that they receive under a single set of rules and procedures. That will further reduce the work loads of those managing our schools.

Mr. Andrew Turner: I was struck earlier by the idea, ''Physician, deregulate thyself'' when the Minister was applauding himself for deregulating. He says that the provisions are necessary because of the need to act urgently. Can he provide some examples of where the absence of these provisions from the statute book has caused real harm or injustice?

Mr. Timms: I gave a good example to the Committee earlier, and that was the delay in paying threshold payments to teachers working in care homes because they had to be employed in social service departments rather than local education authorities. There is no

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justification for that delay: it was a consequence of the arcane, byzantine regulatory framework in which payments have to be made. I believe that the hon. Gentleman would accept that that is not how things should be.

There was a suggestion in his amendment that all payments should be subject to a published scheme. If a payment is made to a single body, which might not always be the case, for an amount agreed with that body, we should not be required to publish a scheme setting out who can and how to apply for funding. However, most payments would be made under a clear, published financial framework that sets out precisely who is eligible, how they can apply, how their funding will be determined and the conditions that apply to recipients.

Such frameworks already exist for the standards fund, school standards and teachers threshold pay grants, for example. We will continue to publish such information in the future, since it would be impossible to administer those grants without it, although some rationalisation may be possible. However, we should not stipulate in the Bill that schemes must be set out for all payments. In some circumstances, that would not be necessary.

I hope that the Committee agrees that the measure will improve the Department's ability to support education and child care efficiently while reducing the burdens on schools and LEAs, which have rightly been of concern to the Committee. Over a long period, we have developed a large, complex regulatory system. However, if one is determined to provide a payment to a particular institution, it is usually possible to find a regulation that allows it to be made, although it might involve a great deal of complexity. I believe that the Committee will recognise that greater simplicity, which will follow from clause 13, will be valuable not just to Government but to schools and LEAs.

Chris Grayling: The Minister should recognise that we are raising concerns about not only this clause but clauses throughout the legislation because, while the Minister makes right-sounding comments about his desire to deregulate and streamline, deregulation appears to be de facto giving the Secretary of State the power to do anything that he or she wants. One could replace the entire Bill with a single clause that gives the Secretary of State the power to do anything whatsoever in respect of education.

If we had seen evidence over the past five years that the Government are deregulatory—that their natural instinct is not to introduce additional hurdles—the Minister's reassurances might be more credible. Instead, endless streams of new regulations have made public servants' lives more difficult, not just in education but right across the public sector. The measure does not include clear signposts to remove hurdles but vaguely phrased and swingeingly powerful clauses that allow the Government to take decisions without reference to anyone else.

The nub of our concerns is that the legislation is vague. We are hearing plenty of reassurances from the Minister about guidelines that will be published and documents that will set out the Government's plans,

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but there is nothing tangible to get to grips with. I would like to be certain that the Minister's comments symbolise a major change of direction for the Government and that in the next few years we will see a deregulatory rather than a regulatory Government, but I will believe it when I see it.

Mr. Willis: This has been a useful debate. The record will show that the Minister has made a number of powerful comments about deregulation and simplifying the present bidding culture that has put huge burdens on to schools and LEAs. The trouble with bidding cultures is that not everyone wins. An enormous amount of time and energy is spent bidding for funds, first through the standards funds and then other grants.

I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). Since 1997 the standards fund has increased from roughly £500 million to £3.7 billion. While latterly the number of categories has declined, a huge resource is kept to the Secretary of State. While the Minister made it clear that he does not envisage the Secretary of State taking on greater and greater resources from local government and will ensure that the opposite is the case, clause 13 gives the Secretary of State exactly the powers that I outlined earlier if she wants to use them.

The Committee has simply asked for a way in which that can be scrutinised. The Minister said that they will need to make instant decisions, but he could not give an example where a decision should be so instant that it could not be made within 40 days. If we are talking about giving small sums of money to individuals, the Secretary of State should not be involved. Those decisions should be taken as locally as possible. Why cannot some of those powers and resources be devolved either to local authorities or to the learning and skills councils? The Minister made appropriate reference to the powers that the learning and skills councils have to hand out large sums of money without a great deal of parliamentary scrutiny. Once they have their budgets, the money is handed over and there is no democratic scrutiny of those resources at all. The same is true in higher education although clearly the Bill does not refer to higher education.

I welcome any deregulatory effects of the clauses. Most schools and LEAs would welcome greater control over baseline budgets. They would like to see much of the £3.7 billion that is currently held in the standards fund distributed through the block grant so that schools could plan ahead and have control over their budgets rather than having to wait for the Secretary of State to hand out the next goody. This power can be used disproportionately before a general election. This is a wonderful opportunity for a Secretary of State to buy votes. The Lady Porters of this world—sorry, I should not mention her. I should wash my mouth out. [Hon. Members: ''It is sub judice.''] Nothing is sub judice in this Committee.

I shall not stray too far down this road, but generous settlements have often been made before general elections. The clause gives the Secretary of State

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tremendous powers to do all sorts of things. It has been an interesting debate. We have had good assurances from the Minister, and we will hold him to them. It is rather sad that he does not feel that deregulating to the Secretary of State should not carry a greater level of scrutiny.

 
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