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Learning and Skills Bill [H.L.]

5.7 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Baroness Blackstone.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Methuen) in the Chair.]

On Question, Whether Clause 11, as amended, shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Blatch: Not moved.

Baroness Blackstone: The Committee has previously divided on this issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has now decided not to move her Motion. Before we turn to the new amendments to be moved by the noble Baroness, perhaps she will deal with one matter. I note from the Official Report that the noble Baroness who called Tuesday night's Division in the first place did not see fit to vote herself. Perhaps she can tell the Committee why.

Baroness Blatch: It is not for me to account for my actions on that evening. I called the Division and, to the embarrassment of the Government, they did not even have the payroll vote in the Chamber to support the clause. The truth is that I sat here so bemused by what took place on the other side that I forgot to vote.

Clause 11, as amended, agreed to.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 79A:


SECTION 11: SUPPLEMENTARY

(". The Council may only exercise the power conferred by section 11 in a case where it has reasonable cause to believe that the governing body of the institution is managing the affairs of the institution or discharging any duty imposed on them by or for the purposes of the Education Acts or this Act in a way which is having, or is likely to have, an adverse effect on--
(a) the quality of education or training provided by the institution; or
(b) the proper use of public funds under the administration of the institution.").

The noble Baroness said: My embarrassment at not voting on Tuesday evening was greatly overshadowed by the Government's inability to produce even the payroll vote late that night. I remember waiting, with some anguish, night after night, for the House to adjourn in order that I could go home because it was always deemed necessary that at least the payroll vote, if not others interested in the Bill, should remain until the end of business. However, the noble Baroness not only offended some in this House who actually believe in further education, but also others outside the House. Since that evening, phone calls that I have had

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from further education colleges and people representing them have shown how deeply offended they were by the sweeping statement made by the noble Baroness when she said that the Government's inheritance on taking office was one of sleaze and mismanagement in the further education sector, that had been allowed to flourish by a government who took a back seat whenever they could--

Baroness Blackstone: Let there be no mistake about this. I was saying that the previous government totally failed to ensure that there was a proper system in existence, when there was a breakdown in the performance that we expect from colleges of further education, with respect both to the standards of educational provision being provided and to financial probity. I was referring to the previous government's total failure to create a system in which those problems could be dealt with. I was in no way suggesting that the entire further education system was performing inadequately or suffering from a failure to achieve the kinds of standards that we expect. I was suggesting that there were a number of colleges--and I will name them a little later during the debate--where sleaze, incompetence and financial mismanagement as well as poor educational standards were allowed to flourish because of the previous government's failure to institute a proper system to ensure that such things did not happen.

Baroness Blatch: The words used by the noble Baroness were "sleaze" and "mismanagement". I have gone back to the statute to look at this, and in fact the powers to deal with such situations were there and still are there. The people who did not take action were those on the Further Education Funding Council. They had the powers to intervene; they had the knowledge of what was going on and in fact they did not use the powers as early as they might have used them, or indeed in the way that they should have used them. Certainly the colleges themselves were very concerned at the way in which the noble Baroness referred to the further education sector at that time.

I have some sympathy with them, but they believe that the powers were there and could have been used by the Further Education Funding Council. However, those powers were not used by the council. Several speakers from the Liberal Democrat Benches also spoke of the powers that could have been used. Nevertheless, the noble Baroness will know that when I spoke on the evening in question I spoke of intervention, and especially of intervention at a point when it could either prevent trouble or prevent trouble getting worse in any college. That is important, and the noble Baroness will know that I have no objection whatsoever to the system that she described, of additional governors who could be put in place to help a college and either prevent difficulties arising or, if the intervention has come rather late, to prevent the situation getting worse. They could help a college in such a situation to get back on track.

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However, the powers in the Bill are open-ended. There is no trigger mechanism for them and there are no qualifying clauses which would dictate how the powers are to be used. There is no way in which the colleges could know what processes could be put in place if these powers were to be triggered. Therefore it is important that this power which, as I say, is open-ended at this moment, should be qualified in some way. The noble Baroness will notice that I have put forward a suggested clause which would follow Clause 11 which says that,


    "The Council may only exercise the power conferred by section 11 in a case where it has reasonable cause to believe that the governing body of the institution is managing the affairs of the institution or discharging any duty imposed on them by or for the purposes of the Education Acts or this Act in a way which is having, or is likely to have"--

which is what the noble Baroness was wanting the other evening--


    "an adverse effect on--


    (a) the quality of education or training provided by the institution; or


    (b) the proper use of public funds under the administration of the institution".

These are what the noble Baroness said were the conditions under which these powers would be used. I think it would be helpful to the colleges to have that on the face of the Bill, knowing the situation in which they would be used.

Another matter which is greatly troubling the colleges is that there have been discussions with the department for some time now regarding the limited liability of governors. They are in a very vulnerable position in this sort of situation, especially those governors who do act reasonably and in good faith. We all know that acting reasonably and in good faith is normally a defence. However, it is very important that in some way the Government are able to clarify the position and liability of governors. I have in fact put down an amendment today, which will be seen on the Marshalled List on Monday, that will attempt to help this situation.

The important thing is that if there is to be intervention in the colleges, it should not be subjective. It should be on the basis of having concerns either about the standards of education in a college or the administration of the college and the effective use of resources. These resources are, as the noble Baroness rightly said the other evening, public funds and the protection of public funds is important. I believe that this qualifying clause would help. If the Government are minded not to include the suggested clause, one really has to join the colleges and wonder what it is that the Government are planning in terms of the use of these powers.

Perhaps I might just say before the noble Baroness rises to speak that I am not speaking to Amendment No. 168A. I shall leave that amendment to my noble friend Lord Roberts when he comes to deal with the Welsh clauses. I beg to move.

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5.15 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I believe that there is real concern about the open-ended nature of the powers given to the LSC in Clause 11. It was for that reason that we from these Benches put forward Amendment No. 79, which was debated the other evening. Since that time I have reread in Hansard our debate, and have thought carefully about the amendments put forward by the noble Baroness the Minister.

As I said on Tuesday night, we were all disappointed at the attitude of the Government on this issue. The Minister made it clear that the power to appoint governors would be used only in the last resort when things are going badly wrong. It was in that spirit that Amendment No. 79 was put forward: that the powers granted under Section 27 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 were sufficient to cover the position. We objected that using these powers would be too cumbersome and would prevent action at an early stage when things were beginning to go wrong, arguing that the LSC should not operate by a ministerial fiat but should have powers of its own.

This new amendment put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, would seemingly overcome this obstacle, in the sense that it would give the Learning and Skills Council the power to intervene in its own right in these exceptional circumstances. From these Benches we have some reservations about the powers granted to the council, even under this amendment. For that reason, although we would support it in spirit, we are inclined to prefer to think further on it and perhaps return to the issue at Report stage.


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