Education Bill

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Mr. Brady: Unlike the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough I was not remotely persuaded by what the Minister had to say. I rather suspect that the Minister was not persuaded either. Quite remarkably, he suggested that there is not much difference between the powers set out in clause 13 and what has gone before on the ability to spend money, make grants and disburse public funds in different ways. There is a vast difference between what has gone before and what the Minister wants to do in clause 13. The Minister added that there was adequate opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of the way in which funds might be spent. When I challenged him to point out where that provision was in the Bill, he was able to say only that the scrutiny is happening now.

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Therefore, this sitting is the only opportunity for the House of Commons to scrutinise what any future Secretary of State may do under the clause in spending funds on the provision of any educational services, payment to any person engaged in their provision, payment for the provision of child care services or education anywhere in the world, providing for maintenance, the promotion of learning or research, and provisions relating to teacher training or the retention of teachers. It could be anything that is envisaged in the subsection (2), including

    ''the remuneration of, or provision of other benefits to, teachers or non teaching staff.''

Any payment can be made using the powers in clause 13, and the Minister thinks that an hour and a half or two hours—whatever we had this afternoon—is sufficient scrutiny for perpetuity.

The logic of the Minister's position is that the only worthwhile act of scrutiny that the House of Commons will ever perform will be the annual finance Bill. He says that we will have an opportunity to vote money or not. Yes, we can decide whether to vote money to the Secretary of State to run the Department and the maintained sector, but we cannot scrutinise in detail what is done with it in the ways that are set out in the clause. Parliament is not something that sits once a year anymore to approve blanket, unlimited powers for the Executive before going away to put its feet up. The logic of the Minister's remarks is to render pointless everything done by the House of Commons.

We have heard a great deal about Henry VIII clauses in the Bill; I am tempted to observe that this would be more of a Charles I clause. He seems not to believe that Parliament has any purpose in the scrutiny of legislation. If we allow the Minister to take such massive powers, which Parliament has not granted to the Executive in recent history, no Member of any party in the House of Commons will have the right to

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express a view or preference about how the Government choose to disperse funds that are voted to it for educational purposes.

This has been a worthwhile debate. I would not press the amendments on the use of affirmative resolutions, but the Minister should understand that I am deeply unhappy about what the clause would do. It is wrong and something that Members on both sides of the House will come to regret in the future. I hope that he contemplates the scale of the powers that he is trying to take.

Mr. Timms: Let me say to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell that the Bill is unquestionably deregulatory. The clauses in part 2 are deregulatory, especially clause 17, which sets out the regulations elsewhere that are repealed. I welcome the initial points made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. I draw his attention to clause 16, which allows the power to provide financial assistance to be delegated. That addresses one of his points.

To answer the points made by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, it would be hard to argue that Parliament did not scrutinise the new deal; it undoubtedly did through Select Committees, debates on the Floor of the House and parliamentary questions. It would wrong to say that regulations to permit the establishment of the new deal were not considered by a Committee and to deduce from that omission that there was no parliamentary scrutiny, that the House of Commons did not know what was going on and that it was not given an opportunity for debate. The hon. Gentleman needs to consider the range of ways in which the House, rightly, undertakes parliamentary scrutiny. Those methods will continue to be available under the clause.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West may have given the wrong example, so perhaps the Minister will apply his mind to the threshold payments, which were introduced without debate in the House of Commons. It was not until after the National Union of Teachers had taken the Government to the High Court and won that we had an affirmative resolution. We prayed in aid against that and had a 10-minute debate around 11.30 one night. The issue was never brought back. If that is what the Minister means by parliamentary scrutiny, he has picked the wrong topic.

Mr. Timms: I gave the example of the new deal, which stands up well to that consideration. I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making about teachers' threshold payments. I should have thought that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee would have thought it right that those extra salary payments should be made to teachers. Such an arrangement should not be taken before the courts, and I regret the fact that it was.

Mr. Brady: I fear that the Minister's example of the new deal was little better. I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment in the last Parliament, which was intimately involved with scrutiny of that measure. The difference between

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the scrutiny that the House has a duty to apply to legislation and the scrutiny that the Select Committee could apply to a scheme such as the new deal is that one enables a scheme to move forward, whereas the other is retrospective.

The Select Committee could not scrutinise the establishment of the new deal. We could consider it only in hindsight to establish the lessons of one and two years on. When the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), who was then a Minister responsible for employment, came before that Committee, she did not even know whether the cost of the new deal at that point was £750 million or £900 million. That is not adequate scrutiny; it is not a substitute for proper scrutiny during the legislative phase of a scheme's establishment.

Mr. Willis: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 239, in page 9, line 12, after 'assistance' insert 'or other payment'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following: Amendment No. 153, in page 9, line 29, after 'staff.', insert—

    '(2A) The Secretary of State (in relation to England) or the National Assembly for Wales (in relation to Wales) shall make a scheme to give an education credit to any person in the circumstances mentioned in section [Education Credits].'.

New clause 1—Education credits—

    '(1) In this section and section 13 ''education credit'' means the entitlement to a sum of money of a person in circumstances mentioned in sub-section (2) and calculated in accordance with subsection (3) which may only be used at an independent school in consideration of the education of a child in respect of whom the credit is provided;

    (2) Those circumstances are—

    (a) that the person is the parent or guardian of a child of statutory school age;

    (b) that the person has, in respect of the child, expressed and given reasons for a preference as to the school at which he wishes education to be provided for that child;

    (c) that a local authority or governing body has not complied with such preference;

    (d) that the child has been admitted to an independent school or will be admitted subject to the availability of an education credit; and

    (e) that the child has not been educated in an independent school, other than when his parent or guardian is entitled to an education credit, for more than six months in the preceding three years.

    (3) The education credit shall be calculated each year so far as reasonably practicable to reflect the amount by which the budget share of a school maintained by that local education authority would be adjusted were a child of that age to be admitted to that school;

    (4) The local education authority shall make arrangements

    (a) to publish information on the value of the education credit for children of each year of statutory school age;

    (b) to pay to each independent school at which a child in receipt of an education credit is educated a sum equivalent to the value of that education credit not more than six months after the child has completed each term at the school.'.

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Mr. Brady: Amendment No. 239 is a probing amendment. My hon. Friends and I seek to include after the term ''assistance'' the phrase ''or other payment'' to draw out from the Minister the true scope of clause 13, whether it be funded by income tax and other legitimate Government revenues or by ship money, following an analysis that I proposed earlier.

The scope of the clause is such that financial assistance can amount to virtually any type of payment. That is confirmed in clause 14(1), which states:

    ''financial assistance under section 13 may be given in any form.''

To put flesh on the bones, subsection (2) goes on to say that assistance may be given by way of

    ''(a) grants,

    (b) loans,

    (c) guarantees,

    (d) incurring expenditure on the provision of equipment for the benefit of the person assisted, or

    (e) incurring other expenditure for the benefit of the person assisted.''

Subsections (a) to (d) could almost be deleted because subsection (e), in a manner typical manner of the Bill, encompasses anything. As the clause is phrased, financial assistance can mean any payment for the benefit of any person.

Amendment No. 239 seeks to make the Bill more explicit. Instead of financial assistance being perceived as the occasional grant or a little help for child care for somebody who might not otherwise be able to take advantage of educational opportunities, the Bill should be more explicit and state that financial assistance can mean any disbursement of public funds for any educational or child care purpose.

The Bill, because of its enormous breadth, effectively provides a framework within which the Minister and his colleagues can take a wide spectrum of actions without coming to Parliament for approval or scrutiny of what is proposed. The expenditure of public money for educational purposes could be widely interpreted. In my maiden speech in 1997 I opposed the Government's first piece of legislation abolishing the assisted places scheme. When I first read the Bill, I realised that should this clause ever become law, the Secretary of State would effectively have the power either to recreate the assisted places scheme in its old form or to create a scheme somewhat similar in its effects. There are, of course, many admirable schemes on the table.

For example, the Minister will be aware of the Oasis proposal, which has been put forward by the Independent Schools Council. That scheme seeks to propose a way forward for the partnerships that the Government has rightly and admirably sought to foster in the maintained and independent sectors—a partnership involving private and charitable money, and voluntary and Government funds; a perfectly sensible proposal, not a detailed proposal, which the Independent Schools Council has made clear it is prepared to debate with the Minister to discover the best way forward to deal with Labour Members concern that the original assisted places scheme did not always go to the most deserving. It was a genuine attempt to deal with those concerns. Under clause 13,

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the Secretary of State would be able to take up its proposals and introduce such a scheme without any consultation with the House of Commons, any further legislative process or even secondary legislation, or any attempt or need to inform hon. Members of the Minister's intentions.

Other schemes could also come into the frame, such as those of the Sutton Trust, which has partnerships with the Government and which does some admirable work, notably funding places in the Belvedere school in Liverpool. Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust, a great educational philanthropist, has been prepared to put a considerable sum of his own money into helping people, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, to gain access to some of the best schools in the country.

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The Government have existing partnership arrangements with the Sutton Trust, and I applaud that. Under clause 13, we could see such partnerships taken much further. The Sutton Trust's proposal that leading academic independent schools should be made available, on an open-access basis, to anyone, regardless of their means to pay, might well appeal to the Minister or the Secretary of State. Clause 13 would allow them to take that idea forward.

We could also examine some of the Government's work in such matters. We could look at their discussions on partnership arrangements between independent and state schools. We could look at the splendid DFES document published in November 2001, ''Building Bridges for the New Millennium''. It even has an unfortunate picture of the millennium bridge, which I think might be the wobbly one, but I am sure that the Government do not intend to draw any analogy between their policies on partnership between the independent and maintained sector and their wobbly millennium bridge.

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