Mr. Brady: The Minister is making a genuine attempt to deal with our concerns. We are clearly talking about a proposed budget that may not even have gone to elected members of the LEA at that point. Could the Secretary of State be making decisions based on a proposed budget that may bear little relation to the final agreed budget?
Mr. Timms: I do not think so. There may be subsequent variation, but those who have been involved in the processes would recognise that by the end of January most decisions are in place and the room for manoeuvre is limited, given the need to send out council tax bills and to give certainty to various parts of the organisation.
Mr. Willis: The exchange has been good, and we have raised some important issues. However, I am not satisfied with what the Minister is saying. He is describing an unholy mess, and the clause will make it worse. The bottom line is that if the Minister examined his own records he would know that the anxieties to which he has often referred are not an issue. Passporting is a classic example. He knows that last year only eight LEAs—I think that it is only eight—failed to passport all their education money into the budget. Of those, seven spent significantly above the standard spending assessment.
What the Government were trying to do in relation to the passporting regulations was nonsense, because the LEAs could have passported all the money but cut school budgets by 10 per cent. We must get real, rather than create mythical dragons that must be slain. Only one authority did not passport all the money, but spent less than the SSA, and it had just received a brilliant Ofsted report and a report from the Audit Commission that said that it was delivering—
Mr. Brady: Which one?
Mr. Willis: I prefer not to say, because that is not my point. Passporting is not the big issue that the Government and the Minister think it is, because that dragon has already been slain. That was not a Welsh accusation, by the way, Mr. Griffiths.
We should abandon the idea of proposed and actual budgets. Schools need to know when the authority has completed its consultations, in which a school forum will now be involved. Once the consultations are concluded, the school requires to know the School Teachers Pay Review Board's recommendation. For most authorities, teachers' pay accounts for between 73 and 80 per cent. of the education budget. Once that amount is known, elected members can debate what the level of council tax will be and, ultimately, the level of resources allocated to schools. I prefer finality rather than lots of different processes. Authorities already have a process, as the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West pointed out, in which there is an elongated period of uncertainty between the provisional and the actual RSG. To extend that further would be unrealistic.
If the Minister will not agree to my proposals, despite the fact that the Local Government Association feel that my timetable is feasible and achievable, will he consider putting the STPRB conclusions back a month? That would allow local
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authorities to have the STPRB results while they were debating their RSG. If they had that information, it would not matter whether the Minister wanted a draft or a final version by the end of January.
I shall not press the amendment to a Division, but the Minister should be realistic about the certainties that schools need and about his expectations of local authorities. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 39, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Power of Secretary of State to set
minimum schools budget
Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 193, in page 25, line 38, leave out
'it appears to the Secretary of State that'
', according to criteria prescribed by order under the affirmative resolution procedure,'.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 269, in page 25, line 38, leave out
'it appears to the Secretary of State'
', according to a formula to be set out in regulations,'.
Amendment No. 266, in page 25, line 38, after 'circumstances', insert:
'having taken advice from the schools forum,'.
Amendment No. 270, in page 25, line 44, at end insert:
'(1A) Regulations under this section may also specify a formula to calculate the minimum per pupil funding for each category of school as a proportion of the schools budget for a given local education authority. Where the minimum funding level is not reached for a school or category of schools the Secretary of State may require that funding should be increased to that level as a condition under section 45A(4)(b)(ii).'
Mr. Brady: This is a quartet of amendments, but more properly should be considered as two couplets, although I cast no doubt on the ordering of their selection.
The Chairman: As long as they are rhyming ones.
Mr. Brady: You ask too much of me, Mr. Griffiths. I shall deal with the second couplet first. Amendment No. 266 is a probing amendment to establish what the Minister thinks about the role of the schools forum, and the scope of its activities and role in advisory matters. In particular, it would extend the advisory role of the schools forum beyond what Ministers have in mind, which they say will inform decisions taken by local authorities. It would require that, under new section 45B, if the Secretary of State exercised the power to set a minimum schools budget for the LEA, he, too, should have regard to the views of the schools forum. I do not wish to labour the point. Why should the schools forum have a valued role in advising the local education authority on budgetary measures if it does not have the competence to advise the Secretary
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of State on schools funding matters that relate to the locality?
Amendment No. 270 was tabled to tantalise the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, and he will be disappointed to know that it, too, is probing. It does not go anywhere near proposing the establishment of a national funding formula, which is what he would like, but it would set out a backstop on which schools could rely to provide a minimum share of the schools budget for each school or category of school. The way in which it would do that may not be close to Ministers' hearts. The Bill gives the Secretary of State unfettered discretion to decide on a minimum share, whereas the amendment would establish a formula by which a minimum budget share could be worked out.
I want to draw out the Minister's thinking on the overall level of the schools budget for an LEA area, and find out whether an important part of the ministerial decision-making process concerns the way in which that money is spent and divided between schools. Our earlier exchanges, which related to the timetabling for the decision-making process, might lead us to assume that he thinks that Ministers have an interest only in a global figure for a schools budget, but I want to draw out his thoughts a little further.
I now turn to the couplet that I suggested is more important. I am falling over myself to be helpful to Ministers and am offering them an à la carte menu. I am confident that they will accept the power of my argument that one or other of the amendments should be accepted. I leave it to them to decide which, and am happy to withdraw either if given appropriate assurances.
Amendment No. 193 is my preferred amendment. It would shift the definition of criteria for intervention away from the incredibly wide discretion that is allowed in new section 45B(1). The amendment would change that definition from what appears to be an entirely subjective decision-making process for the Secretary of State to fixed, transparent criteria that are agreed by affirmative resolution of the House. That would be not only of assistance to Ministers, who would not be in the invidious position of having to arrive at an entirely subjective decision on what might be a controversial matter, but of enormous benefit to local authorities. Instead of waiting for the Secretary of State to pronounce on whether their schools budget was adequate or inadequate, they would be able to consult using the clear published criteria, which would have been agreed following debate in this House. They would be able to ascertain Ministers' thinking, as they would be required to argue the case for their criteria. Local authorities would also be able to consult the regulations, and have certainty as to the likely treatment of a proposed budget settlement put to Ministers.
Mr. Andrew Turner: Does my hon. Friend not agree that such regulations or arrangements would save a huge amount of time for head teachers, governors and a whole host of the education community in many local education authorities? Without them, I am sure
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that there would be a temptation to lobby right hon. and hon. Members, Ministers and officials, to organise deputations to this place, and to spend a huge amount of money, time and effort coming to this place from distant parts of the kingdom. That would be overridden, perhaps by the Department, in due course. However, were there objective criteria to be consulted, that time and effort could be devoted to education.
Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend makes a useful point. Not only would that help to avoid unnecessary burdens of bureaucracy on head teachers, local authorities and governing bodies, it might help to avoid unnecessary and pointless activity by Members of Parliament, who, under the Bill, could go to Ministers in the role of supplicant without knowing what criteria the Secretary of State had in mind. Therefore, they would not know whether they were wasting their time and that of their constituents, or whether they were giving false hope to schools, schools forums or other bodies in their constituencies. A more open, transparent process would improve, on every count, the outcome that Ministers want to achieve. It would assist the budget process of local authorities, and it would be helpful to all concerned if there were particular criteria by which Ministers would arrive at a judgment.
I said that I was going to be helpful, and that I was offering Ministers a choice. Given that they loathe affirmative resolutions, do not like to be troubled to come to this House, and prefer to have untrammelled powers, I have also offered them a slightly lower hurdle over which to jump, in the form of amendment No. 269. It would play a similar role in establishing transparent regulations for those involved in the decision-making process, but would stop short of insisting on the affirmative resolution procedure. If Ministers accept that it is in everybody's interests that the criteria that are used to decide whether a school's budget is at an acceptable level should be readily available and clear to all concerned, but their stumbling block is that they do not want to have to come to this place to justify their views, and they do not want to be troubled with debate on them in all circumstances, they could opt for amendment No. 269. It would still provide for regulations to set out matters clearly, but would not require them to be approved by affirmative resolution.
I hope that the Minister accepts that it would be helpful in all stages of the decision-making process if the criteria used to make the judgment were available to all to be consulted on and not hidden behind closed doors in the Department for Education and Skills.