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Standing Committee G
Tuesday 8 January 2002
[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]
Power of governing body to provide
community facilities etc.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I beg to move amendment No. 243, in page 15, line 38, at beginning insert:
'Subject to subsection (1A) below'.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 244, in page 15, line 42, at end insert:
'(1A) Each local education authority shall report annually on the funding of services provided by its maintained schools under subsection (1) above.'
Mr. Brady: I hope that you will permit me sufficient latitude, Mr. Griffiths, to wish you and Committee members a happy new year, and I hope that proceedings will continue in a good-natured way.
Amendment No. 243 would oblige local education authorities to report on the provision of community facilities. That would take account of the considerable new powers that are provided under clause 25, which include the power to incur expenditure in the provision of community facilities, to enter into agreement with outside bodies to provide staff, goods and services, and to provide accommodation for those purposes. The considerable scope of those powers requires protection for the public purse. We must ensure that we know how the powers are used and what the expenditure implications are. Given the powers over governing bodies that the Bill will grant to local education authorities, we must ensure that public funds are not used improperly, either in individual schools or within a local education authority.
The clause is an odd mixture of responsibilities and functions, which subsequent amendments will tease out and clarify. It does appear that the Government intend a mixed burden of responsibility for the provision of community facilities by schools. Local education authorities will be responsible in some cases for health and safety matters, thus giving the final go-ahead to new ventures, but in others the decision will lie with the school and the governing body. The new scheme will develop in an unpredictable manner, and the amendments would ensure that the public have sufficient information about the financial implications.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): May I take this opportunity to add that I am delighted that you are in the Chair, Mr. Griffiths, at the beginning of this new year? I also wish Committee members a very happy and healthy new year.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I share the
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objectives of his amendment: probity, accountability and transparency in expenditure on community activities. However, the hon. Gentleman should withdraw the amendment, which would require the local education authority to publish all expenditure on community activities in which schools may be involved. That would place an onerous burden on LEAs, which is unnecessary in view of other safeguards.
Other clauses will ensure that information on expenditure for the provision of community services is available and transparent, and LEAs will be able to report on that if they believe that to be the best way forward. Provisions under clause 42 will require financial statements to capture all expenditure by governing bodies, which will include expenditure involved in exercising the powers to provide community facilities. The clause also makes it clear that regulations may require governing bodies to keep records on accounts and to send copies to the LEA. Schedule 3 provides another safeguard by allowing LEAs to seek specific information on the funding of community services.
There are sufficient safeguards to deal with the concerns about accountability, transparency, openness and financial probity that were raised by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), and I ask the hon. Gentleman again to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Brady: The Under-Secretary's response was helpful. Clause 42 may provide a requirement for proper financial reporting, but will that extend to the financial implications of the provision of accommodation? Will that be accounted for as it would in proper commercial accounts?
Mr. Lewis: I understand that any use of community facilities for community activities would be part of the accounting processes. That includes accommodation, which would be integral to many of the financial consequences of extending a school's role to include a variety of community activities. That information would be gathered as part of the accounting process.
Mr. Brady: The Under-Secretary has gone almost as far as I would like him to. Will he confirm that the financial value of the accommodation provided should be accounted for at a commercial value, and that it will be reported on in the financial reports that are expected under clause 42?
Mr. Lewis: Governing bodies will be responsible for ensuring that accounts accurately reflect income and expenditure, part of which relates to community activities. We want to see a significant extension of schools' involvement in community activities, provided that that relates directly to raising standards. We expect governing bodies to maintain an accurate record of that income and expenditure, but it is up to governing bodies to decide an appropriate charge to a third party if they wish to allow their premises to be used for a purpose that is consistent with community use. In view of my assurances, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
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Mr. Brady: I am grateful for that clarification. As I understand the Under-Secretary, the governing body's financial reporting obligations are confined merely to direct income from, and expenditure for, the provision of community facilities. It is not required to account for the value of public property and resources—effectively, the capital—that is deployed. Our useful exchange has drawn out the Government's thinking about the extent of financial reporting that will be required.
I think that all hon. Members agree that, in many circumstances, there are advantages in schools providing community facilities. However, there may be implications for competition with services that the local authority provides by other means and for competition with outside providers. I merely flag up the possibility that other providers may have cause for complaint in that such use of public facilities is not accounted for in a comparable way. We have had a useful exchange in which the Under-Secretary has provided helpful assurances and information, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): I beg to move amendment No. 181, in page 15, line 42, at end insert—
'(c) children below school age in the form of pre-school education.'.
I should say at the outset that we support the intention of clause 25. It is commendable that the governing body should have the power to make the premises and facilities of the school available to others in the community who are not pupils at the school. The purpose of the amendment is to make the clause more specific.
Ministers and the Government have announced their commitment to early-years education and to pre-school places for children aged four, and even three. If the commitment is to be more than just words that make Ministers sound good when it suits them, there should be a commitment in the Bill to make provision for pre-school education for children below school age. Amendment No. 181 would provide for such a commitment.
We have often said, and undoubtedly will again, that much of the Bill is wide and general. It allows this or that body to do almost anything. I am seeking a specific commitment. If the Government are committed to providing pre-school places for early-years education, such a commitment should appear in the Bill—and not just in this clause. That is why there should be a paragraph (c) that mentions specifically children who are below school age.
Mr. Ivan Lewis: I thank the hon. Lady for saying that the Conservative party shares the broad objectives of the clause. There is a consensus that broadening the range of community activities that schools can offer and in which they can be involved is good for both the pupils and the wider community. Bringing the community into the school will benefit adult learners, for example, as well as help to tackle some of the
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antisocial behaviour problems that we all know exist in our communities. Young people sometimes hang around outside while schools are closed. Those schools, working with the local community, could play a far more central role in tackling some difficulties. I welcome that general support.
We can be particularly proud of the Government's record on child care and early-years education, and I do not believe that we should include any particular prescriptive commitment in the Bill. If we were failing to deliver our pledges, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) would have a more legitimate point, but we are not. Indeed, it may be helpful to quote several examples of where the Government are making significant progress on child care and early-years education.
When the Government came to office in 1997, about 34 per cent. of all three-year-olds had access to a free early-education place. As a result of funding since 1997, that number has risen to about 62 per cent., which is a significant increase in a relatively short time. By March this year, the Government will have achieved their public service agreement target to provide a free early-education place to 66 per cent. of all three-year-olds. Committee members would agree that that is a credible record.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): It is a proactive Liberal Democrat policy.
Mr. Lewis: I notice that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) was proactive during the holiday in response to my unfair comments on the status quo just before Christmas.
The Government made a commitment to provide a free early-education place to all three-year-olds from September 2004, and I repeat that commitment this morning. The funding for early-years education is expected to increase from £1 billion in 1996 to about £2 billion in 2002–03. The Government have a credible track record on their commitment to investment in child care and early-years education. I hope the Committee will agree that we do not need to put particular targets in the Bill in the way that is suggested by amendment No. 181.
When the Bill's provisions come into force, all maintained schools will have the opportunity to provide child care for children of any age. That will include child care for three and four-year-olds, and we would expect that when governing bodies choose to provide child care, they will provide early-years education as part of the experience. For example, within an eight to 10-hour child-care day, three and four-year-olds will benefit from, on average, two and a half hours of pre-school education. That will benefit parents, teachers and others in the community who use the facilities.
Significantly, we would also ensure that the quality of the care is of the highest order. I do not need to explain the importance of the quality, not just the quantity, of child care or why good pre-school education is extremely important to a child's development and subsequent chances in life. It is common sense that Governments invest as a priority in
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early-years education and child care. We know that the interventions made in those years can make the difference in a child and young person's development, particularly for those from disadvantaged families and communities, where there may be problems within the family unit. Early intervention through child care can make all the difference to the development of children and young people.