Mr. Lewis: We have heard a revelatory statement this morning: the new Tory party is the friend of local government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said from a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) is unlikely to serve in the Treasury on the basis of his proposal.
However, there is a serious point to be made about the historical funding of child care and early years provision. The Opposition are reluctant to discuss history, but before the Government were elected, the more progressive LEAs could only develop quality child care and early years provision largely because they consciously chose to prioritise nursery provision, and only if they had the necessary resources. Under the Government of the party represented by the hon. Gentleman, they received little statutory funding for the development of nursery provision, which was discretionary. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept the irony that the amendment relates to the provision of child care information services.
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There is always a debate about what proportion of the standard spending assessment is designed for what purpose. The Government provide LEAs with a ring-fenced, targeted sum of £15 million a year for those services through the standard spending assessment. That commitment runs from 2001 to 2004, and works out at about £100,000 per LEA for each early years partnership. The hon. Gentleman expressed a common concern about the relationship between central and local government, and the requirement that the Government place on local government to fulfil various responsibilities. Local government does not always believe that it gets a fair deal. Not only are the Government including the issue to which the amendment relates in the standard spending assessment, but there is also a ring-fenced tangible pot of money to fund this specific responsibility.
In a world where there are continued debates about priorities, pressure on resources and difficult decisions about finite resources, no Secretary of State or Government can make in a Bill an infinite commitment to fund a particular service. On the Government's commitment, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The track record is there for all to see. There is money for this purpose through a combination of the standard spending assessment and a ring-fenced provision.
Chris Grayling: May I ask one question? Is this responsibility on an LEA encompassed by that ring-fenced budget, or is the ring-fenced budget already allocated to other requirements, which would make this an additional requirement?
Mr. Lewis: That is a fair question. No, this money is being used now specifically for this purpose, and will run until 2004. It will be reviewed as part of the current expenditure review. It is not an aspiration; the pot of money is now being used specifically to fulfil this responsibility.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): The Minister may be surprised to hear that I was listening carefully to his argument. He said that, in the face of possible alternative priorities and constant difficult decisions about those priorities, he was unwilling to make in the Bill a commitment for the Government to provide a certain amount of money. Does he understand that this proposed clause and, in particular, this subsection, requires exactly that of local authorities? What is the qualitative difference between the Government making such a commitment and the local authority being required to make such a commitment?
Mr. Lewis: Very simply, there is a legitimate debate. The Government have announced a review of the amount of money given to local government through the standard spending assessment and the amount given in different ways, such as through ring-fenced standards funds. There is on-going consideration of the best way to allocate resources so that local authorities have a decent settlement and can deliver the kind of services that they have a statutory responsibility to deliver and that their communities expect. In that context it would be complete nonsense to place a requirement in the Bill for child care information services to be funded in a ring-fenced and specific way. That would not be appropriate, but it
Column Number: 546would be the consequence of accepting the amendment.
Mr. Turner: It is for my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell to defend the amendment, but I believe that the Minister objects to the ring-fenced nature of the obligation rather than the obligation on the Government to continue indefinitely to provide resources for this requirement on local authorities.
Mr. Lewis: The amendment would allow the local education authority to use its discretion as to how much it chose to spend for this purpose. The Government would then have to pick up the costs. That cannot be sensible or good legislation.
I understand the purpose of the amendment The debate about the relationship between the Government and local government is a legitimate one. The Government have announced a review of the balance between the allocation of resources to SSAs and to standards funds and ring-fenced budgets. Under any Government, it would be a bad piece of legislation that allowed local authorities to spend what they chose on any policy and then expect the Secretary of State to pick up the bill. That is not the intention of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, and on that basis I ask him to withdraw it.
Chris Grayling: I thank the Minister for that clarification. I am reassured that finance is available to enact the provision. I add one caveat, which is that the Government have a habit of introducing ring-fenced budgets. Last week, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) initiated a debate about threshold pay. We referred to the future of the allocation of funds for threshold pay. The Government have ring-fenced funds for the initial two years and intimated that after that, funds will be allocated through the SSA. However, they have not guaranteed that all the requirements will be funded in that fashion. It concerns us that a ring-fenced amount may exist for several years and then disappear. I hope that the Minister, as long as he retains his office, will ensure that funding continues to be—[Interruption.] I would not expect the Minister to give an assurance for the indefinite future. I hope that the Government continue to fund the provision. I am somewhat reassured by the Minister's comments, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 145 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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