Education Bill

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Mrs. Laing: I agree with the Under-Secretary's comments. Given that commitment and that we all agree on its importance, why will he not make the commitment in the Bill?

Mr. Lewis: I do not want to have a ping-pong discussion such as that before Christmas, when we agreed on objectives but disagreed about the mechanisms to achieve them. That would not be the best use of the Committee's time. Anyone who considers the issues objectively will accept that the Government have a very good and positive record. Legitimising the enhanced involvement of schools in a broader range of activities will support, assist and facilitate the Government's existing commitment to child care and early-years education. The definition and prescription in the amendment is not desirable or necessary.

We should remember that we are giving the governing body a power, not a duty. School governors will decide whether their school is best placed to provide child care or any other form of community provision. The governing body might decide to do that directly or through a third party, such as a voluntary sector or community-based organisation. We all know of community organisations in our constituencies, often run by young mums, that do an excellent job of providing child-care services. That takes us back to the point made by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West about unfair competition. In many areas, community-based and voluntary sector organisations will benefit from the opportunities presented by enhancing the role of schools to provide a broader range of community activities.

I have not given the hon. Member for Epping Forest exactly what she wanted, although it is the new year and I would have liked to be able to do so, but I hope that I have reassured her about the Government's genuine intentions, commitment and track record in this policy area. On that basis, I ask her to withdraw the amendment.

Mrs. Laing: I listened carefully to the Minister's reiteration of the Government's commitment, which we wanted to hear. If we cannot have that commitment in the Bill, at least it will appear in the record of the Committee's debate, which is better than nothing. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 265, in page 16, line 6, after 'education)', insert 'except section 450'.

I make no apology for the fact that the amendment is designed to open a can of worms. Clause 25 applies

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the requirements and terms of chapter 3 of the Education Act 1996 to the charging for the provision of services and facilities. The Government's decision is interesting, first and foremost because the Minister of State acknowledged earlier in our proceedings that the Government did not intend to apply the terms of that chapter to schools that were allowed flexibility through the innovation provisions.

I shall not go to the unnecessary length of reading out the relevant provisions of the 1996 Act, but the scope of the legislation was quite considerable. It made a real attempt to encompass all the circumstances in which it may be appropriate for a school to charge for facilities. It prohibited charges for the provision of education. We had an interesting exchange early in our proceedings where the Minister of State agreed with me that neither side of the Committee wanted to introduce charges for the provision of education in maintained schools, yet he vigorously resisted the suggestion that we might include such a requirement in the Bill.

The 1996 Act contains detailed provisions about when charges may and may not be applied. They relate to charges for provision that is made outside school hours, incidental charges, charges for public examinations, permitted charges of various sorts and the regulation thereof, charges for board and lodging at boarding schools, provision of information and contributions and charges that are not affected by the chapter. It is interesting that the Government did not consider any of them to be appropriate to apply to schools granted freedom to innovate under the early clauses of the Bill. Yet here, under the clause 25 powers to provide community facilities, they believe that all those legislative provisions must apply.

Part of my purpose in tabling amendment No. 265 is to seek an explanation from the Minister about why it is more important to place those requirements on the provision of community facilities in clause 25 than on the provision of educational facilities in clauses 1 and 2. It seems rather odd that the Government are taking great care to protect the public from the imposition of charges in relation to community facilities such as the use of a school swimming pool or hockey pitch yet when it comes to educational innovation none of that protection is deemed appropriate. I wonder why.

Specifically, the amendment seeks to draw out one aspect of the provisions in the 1996 Act. Section 450 is a fairly simple provision that states:

    ''(1) No charge shall be made in respect of admission to a maintained school.

    (2) Subsection (1) does not apply to the admission of any person to any maintained school for the purpose of—

    (a) part-time education . . . (b) full-time education . . . or (c) teacher training.''

It is not clear whether the term ''admission'' applies simply to admission to be a pupil at the school or to the school premises. Do the Government see it as appropriate to apply the relevant sections of the 1996 Act to the clause 25 powers to provide community facilities in such a way as to limit the scope of the governing body to charge for its provision? The Minister may reply immediately that it applies only to admission to the school roll. Will the governing

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body be restricted in charging members of the community for the use of services? Will charging for admission to the premises be treated differently from charging for the use of facilities, training or coaching? The crucial point is not the detail of section 450, but to hear Ministers explain why the protection in the 1996 Act should apply more to the provision of community facilities than educational services.

11 am

Mr. Ivan Lewis: It was made clear in earlier debates that the suspension of charging would not apply to powers to innovate, which are not in question. However, there is no need to build it into the Bill because, under chapter 1, part I, no suspension will be allowed without the approval of the Secretary of State. No requirement to seek that approval is required in this instance, so the prohibition needs to be built into primary legislation. I repeat that there is no requirement to seek the Secretary of State's approval in these circumstances, but there is in respect of powers to innovate.

The lack of the requirement to seek approval explains the differences from the earlier debate to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The need for the prohibition to be built into primary legislation applies only in the one case, but that does not mean that we are taking the issues raised in the earlier debate less seriously. Different safeguards apply to decisions to engage in community activities.

My direct response to the hon. Gentleman is that the power to innovate requires the approval of the Secretary of State, who would consider the appropriateness of charging for services that contravened existing legislation or conflicted with the attainment of higher educational standards. Where an individual school or governing body seeks to provide community activities, the Secretary of State does not need to be consulted. In those circumstances, the safeguard needs to be built into primary legislation to ensure that the Government's policy—and the commitments and assurances of the Minister of State and myself—are not abused or undermined.

The amendment refers to charging for post-16 part-time education, post-19 full-time education and teacher training. The hon. Gentleman was honest enough to admit that the detail of the amendment is not important: it is a probing amendment. Schools already provide full and part-time education. Section 80 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 and section 450 of the Education Act 1996, already allows them to charge for that provision. Therefore, I assume that this is a probing amendment. The hon. Gentleman is not proposing that we remove from governing bodies the capacity to charge for services for which, in some circumstances, they already charge. There is a clear, objective justification for governing bodies feeling that it is legitimate to charge for services such as those to which the amendment refers.

For example, students are already charged for some further and adult education classes. It would not be right to prevent governing bodies from covering their

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costs for providing similar educational opportunities on a school, rather than a college or adult education site. If we were to deny governing bodies the opportunity to make those legitimate charges—the consensus is that charging for such provision is legitimate—it would contradict the purpose of the Bill to expand, encourage and facilitate enhanced involvement in community education activities. I therefore assume that the hon. Gentleman does not want to press the amendment to a vote.

We shall publish guidance that will offer advice to governors on adopting charging policies. As it is a complex matter, on which governors may be unfamiliar and inexperienced, the guidance will assist and support them by making clear what is legitimate and lawful and where they have discretion. We shall also advise governors on how to establish charges that are relevant and proportionate to individuals' ability to pay.

In the light of that explanation and my assurances, I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider withdrawing what appears to be a probing amendment.

Mr. Brady: I am interested in the Minister's response. He was not clear on the detail of the amendment, but I assume from the tenor of his remarks that the scope of the relevant sections of the 1996 Act relates only to admission to the school roll of a maintained school and cannot be construed as being admission to the school premises. Unless the Minister states otherwise, I shall accept that. However, I do not accept the attempt to differentiate between this and the situation in clause 2 relating to innovation and freedom simply because the approval of the Secretary of State must be sought. The Secretary of State and the Minister of State assure me that the Government have no desire to allow charging for education in maintained schools—and nor do future Conservative Secretaries of State. However, that is not a reason why such constraint should not be applied in primary legislation. It is perhaps the most important of all the legislative constraints that apply to the provisions for maintained schools and state education, but Ministers are prepared to do without it.

There is a false distinction between the refusal to apply chapter 3 of the 1996 Act to innovative matters because the Secretary of State's approval is necessary and the belief that statutory protection is necessary to the clause and the powers to provide community facilities. The distinction is false because, as the Minister mentioned, clause 26(4) provides almost the same protection. It states:

    ''a governing body shall have regard . . . to any guidance about the exercise of the power given . . . by the Secretary of State''.

It is difficult to envisage circumstances in which the Secretary of State would not be prepared to include the important issue of the validity of charging regimes in guidance. Governing bodies are required to have regard to guidance. Surely the protection provided under clause 26(4) is almost as strong as that which the Minister says is provided under an earlier clause that gives the Secretary of State an outright power of veto. I do not accept the Minister's distinction. We are discussing an important subject that raises the issue of the Bill's fundamental flaw, which is that Ministers are

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reluctant to include details in the Bill that might inform Members, the public, and those who will implement the powers and responsibilities created under the Bill.

I do not wish to press the amendment to a Division. However, the Minister should reflect on the Government's inconsistent approach. In some instances, they are prepared to allow detailed statutory safeguards to remain in primary legislation, but in others, they open the door wide, and say ''Go on, do as you like,'' and place no statutory restriction on what can be done, not even—in theory—on introducing charges for places in maintained schools. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the matter and will perhaps introduce some improvements later. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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