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Mr. Speaker : I must say to the hon. Gentleman that what the Government intend to do is a matter for them. I repeat what I have said to Front-Bench spokesmen that whether the matter is ultra vires is a matter for the courts, not for me.
Mr. Pawsey : I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will reject the unfounded allegations by the hon. Member for Blackburn in the same way as the House will reject the vote of confidence motion tabled by the Leader of the Opposition. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that when we set colleges of
Column 439further education free from local education authorities they will be able to blossom in exactly the same way as polytechnics?
Mr. Clarke : I have certainly been assured of that by many of the principals of further education colleges who have been pressing us to make precisely this change. Given their head and the right financing regime, they will have every incentive to improve their efficiency, extend the range of their courses and, most importantly, attract an ever-rising proportion of our 16-year-olds into further education.
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : Once again the Secretary of State has managed to remove an element of local democracy without, as he admitted himself, tackling the problems of confusion or underfunding in this sector. Can he confirm that local people from whom power has been removed will see no financial benefit, as it is his intention to achieve the change entirely by removing Government grant without allowing any fall in local spending? Conservative Members who have argued for the centralisation of education are now faced with a measure of that centralisation, but with none of its expected benefits.
Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain to local people how they are to fare in future? In Truro, for instance, there is a proposal for a tertiary college on which we had expected a decision by the Minister next week. How are we to proceed? Is everything to come to a grinding halt until the Minister has published the White Paper and passed the legislation?
Mr. Clarke : The management of local further education colleges and polytechnics was not usually directly affected in the past by local democracy. They were not at the heart of the red meat of local politics-- indeed, the sector was sadly neglected. Tertiary education achieves a great deal, but it has never attracted the degree of attention that it deserves. The test of whether it is anti democratic is to talk to some of the principals of the polytechnics. So far I have not found any lecturer in or principal of a
polytechnic--including a number of the classic left-wing, bearded variety-- who believes that it is a good idea to go back to local government control. Such people have been liberated by the change and have acquired, not lost, freedom. That is what will happen to colleges under my proposals. In the White Paper we shall deal with the details of how new colleges are to develop, but I expect that we shall adopt a system in which the funding council will make proposals of that sort to me.
Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West) : Is my right hon. and learned Friend looking to members of the training and enterprise councils automatically to become governors of colleges of further education? Will he confirm that the choice facing an upper school now is to stay with the local education authority, to opt to become grant maintained, or to opt to become part of a college of further education?
Mr. Clarke : The answer to the first point is certainly yes. I would expect a member of the local TEC invariably to become a member of the governing body of these institutions. We are not talking about opting for the new status, because at the moment schools under local authority control can opt for grant-maintained status--although curiously further education colleges do not have
Column 440that choice. So they do not have a natural constituency that we can ballot ; their populations are more transitional ; so the parent body is not so closely connected with them.
My announcement today means that all further education colleges, all tertiary colleges and all sixth form colleges will transfer to the new sector and be independent of local government from April 1993.
Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) : The real danger of the Secretary of State's proposals is that they will entrench the division between sixth form FE colleges and sixth form colleges. The flaw in our secondary education system has always been the divide between the academic and the vocational, and these proposals will deepen that divide. We need to train all our young people together in a system in which vocational work and academic work are equally respected. This change will be destructive and will further entrench the divide.
Mr. Clarke : I assure the hon. Lady that I share her concern not to deepen that divide. My colleagues and I are working to ensure that vocational education acquires the same status as academic education, so that there are no artificial divisions between them. Sixth form colleges will enter the new sector as a result of my announcement. They tend to concentrate on traditional academic courses, so many of the young people in the colleges that I am talking about will study, for instance, for A-levels ; but many others will be doing vocational courses. I do not believe that she is correct to suspect that the proposals will widen the divide.
Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) : Will not my right hon. and learned Friend's statement represent a further enhancement of this important sector of education? Might it not also be an important step towards ensuring the universal involvement of 16 to 19-year-olds in some form of education and training?
Mr. Clarke : In our forthcoming White Paper we shall deal with the whole issue of how to increase participation by all 16 to 19-year-olds in some form of education or training. We shall set ourselves the aim of greatly increasing such participation. I share my hon. Friend's aim, and I trust that our White Paper will measure up to his expectations.
Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich) : Although I am persuaded that further education colleges will be better off independently funded than subject to the vagaries of local authority control, does the Secretary of State agree that there is a great danger in the proposals that local education authorities reconsidering the structure of their sixth form and 16 to 19- year-old provision will automatically turn their backs on the tertiary college or sixth form college solution in order to retain control over the education of this age group?
Mr. Clarke : If there is a risk of that it will show that the local authority in question is motivated more by a desire to keep its empire intact than by a desire to improve educational opportunities for young people in its area. I rather share the hon. Lady's fear that such councils exist--I encounter such attitudes frequently when I receive applications for grant-maintained status from schools. We shall have to consider ways in which the new funding council can make proposals to us for opening new colleges
Column 441in certain areas. A council that was neglecting to create more choice in its area might find that the new sector was beginning to offer parents some choice in that district.
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : I hope that I did not detect in one of my right hon. and learned Friend's answers that he is falling into the trap of beardism--that would be unfortunate and discriminatory. As a recent governor of a college of further education, may I say that it was crystal clear that it would be extremely desirable to do exactly what my right hon. and learned Friend has done--and that I welcome it. When he looks into the funding arrangements, will he ensure that the rundown state of much of the capital stock of these colleges is taken into account?
Mr. Clarke : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support, which is based on his experience. I am sure that he is not the only governor to have thought that colleges of this sort have been comparatively neglected by local authorities that attach far higher priority to other parts of the education system.
I take note of what my hon. Friend says about capital. Many of these colleges' revenue and capital have been comparatively neglected ; we shall consider capital arrangements and probably again use the funding council as our agent to distribute the necessary capital investment.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : Will the Secretary of State hesitate before proceeding rapidly on this course until he has considered the view that many people, bearded or otherwise, may express? It is that there is likely to be an excess of centralisation and a greater degree of bureaucracy. Whatever he may say, there will certainly be great anxiety in successful sixth forms. Will he subscribe to the view that education has suffered in recent years from undue turmoil and an excess of dogma?
Mr. Clarke : The universities receive their funds from the Universities Funding Council and are not centralised under the control of central Government. The polytechnics and higher education colleges receive their funds from a funding council and are not under my control or over- centralised. The same will apply to the new sector. The desirable pattern for education is not detailed control by either local or central government. More power should be devolved and delegated and responsibility for and control over funds go to those who work in the institutions themselves and serve on their governing bodies. That is the pattern that we are following. The hon. Gentleman says that we should not rush into it, but it is necessary to make an announcement and to outline the provisions that will come into effect from midnight tonight simply to ensure that certain local authorities do not start apostating. We have much experience-- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) is protesting but his hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) should know that we had to take that measure when the Greater London council began to take similar steps immediately after we announced that we would abolish it.
We are still sorting out problems in the case of the polytechnics. Only a week ago I met a principal who said that his local authority had accepted that the polytechnic
Column 442now owned the building but still insisted that it owned the grass in front of the building. Such disputes exist throughout the country. Had we not made such arrangements, I am sure that great pressure would be put on many colleges to enter into long-term contracts, binding them to their local authority, and their assets would be clawed back into local authority control. All the tricks of the trade, which many local authorities know only too well, would be used to keep their bureaucratic empires intact.
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's proposals. Ealing's higher education college is doing well independently of the local authority, which has been a perfect nuisance to it in the past.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State follow through the logic of his statement and consider the position of school sixth forms? Would not it be right for high schools and secondary schools to have arrangements made for them similar to those that he has announced for non- advanced and advanced further education and tertiary colleges?
Mr. Clarke : I am sure that the opinion of those involved with Ealing higher education college is shared by everyone in higher education colleges that have been given their independence. Whereas at present we are offering to secondary schools, including those with sixth forms, the opportunity to seek grant-maintained status, the first step is that the local management of all schools will be placed in the hands of the governors and the head teachers shortly, with 85 per cent. of the schools' budgets under their control by 1993. Beyond that, the best will rapidly move to full grant-maintained status, with 100 per cent. of their budgets under their control and comparative freedom and autonomy from local authority control. Thus, a parallel course is already set out. The pace at which schools are choosing grant-maintained status is accelerating at a remarkable rate, even in the few months that I have been in office.
Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) : Will the Secretary of State accept my party's welcome of the proposal for a White Paper on the 16 to 19-year-old sector? Will he also accept that there will, indeed, be wide-ranging support from those who work in the further education sector in England and Wales--similar proposals will be made by the Welsh Office--and that the funding council will provide an opportunity to combine central funding with flexibility of institutional control in the locality rather than control by the aldermanic tendency, which still exists in too many local authorities? In what ways does the Secretary of State intend to enhance the relationship of adult and continued education with the further education sector? What relationship does he see, if any, between the new funding council and the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council and the Universities Funding Council to improve access from further education to the rest of higher education?
Mr. Clarke : First, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome. He was a lecturer in his time, although I think it was in higher education, so he is knowledgeable on the subject. His opinion will be shared by professionals in education. As he rightly anticipated, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will
Column 443make a statement because there will be a separate Welsh funding council and arrangements for Wales which I am sure he will welcome. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked about adult education and access from further to higher education. Those matters are important and we are working on them as part of our White Paper. We shall address those problems directly when we return with our White Paper and our proposals for opportunities for young people of that age across the board.
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea) : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his statement will be widely welcomed in the further education sector, not least because it has been calling for precisely that measure? Those who work in that sector will not understand the Labour party hostility to the proposals. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one reason why his proposals are right is that the Government's funding of further education has not always been passed on by local education authorities to those institutions? At long last, it will go to them directly. Will he confirm that this is the clearest possible sign of the Government's commitment to the further education sector and its role in education and training?
Mr. Clarke : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right--we have had experience of approving capital for projects in further education, only to discover that when the local authority has obtained the capital approval for such projects the money was not spent in that sector. That shows the practical application of the way in which many colleges have been neglected vis-a -vis the schools sector. I agree that many people in further education will not understand why the Labour party has a blind commitment to keeping up the widest level of local authority bureaucracy and is instinctively hostile to a move that has been demanded by most people in further education for many years.
Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) : How can students and staff have any confidence in their courses in view of the experience of many people now on employment training courses who are being given less than a week's notice of the termination of their courses, ahead of time, as a result of the advent of training and enterprise councils, which the Secretary of State wants to make responsible for running colleges of further education?
Mr. Clarke : My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment assures me that arrangements are being made for people to continue their courses. The introduction of the TECs, which I warmly welcome, is not having the consequence that the hon. Gentleman fears.
Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood) : My right hon. and learned Friend is well aware of the valuable service of the Workers Education Association, not only in Nottinghamshire but in our rural communities. As he also knows, it had a raw deal from Nottinghamshire county council this year as regards funding. Will he assure me that it will be taken into consideration under the new funding arrangements?
Mr. Clarke : I have every possible reason for agreeing strongly with my hon. Friend's criticisms about Nottinghamshire county council's disgraceful behaviour this year. As I said, my announcement comprises certain
Column 444responsibilities for adult education and we shall outline them in more detail and explain the funding regime when we produce the White Paper. The funding of adult education, especially that which is closely related to career opportunities for people of that age, must be protected. We shall take it into account when drawing up our new arrangements.
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) : When opening his statement, the Secretary of State emphatically said that the arrangements were for England. In replying to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Dr. Thomas), he said that the Secretary of State for Wales would make a separate statement on further education. However, in the order of business, I understood that the statement was on local government finance. Are we now being told that the Welsh statement will be on poll tax mark 2 and further education in Wales?
Mr. Clarke : Wales and Scotland have devolved government. As an English politician, I can never understand the constant controversy on devolution in both the other countries on the United Kingdom mainland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is Education Minister for Wales and my writ does not run there. Similarly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland deals with education in Scotland. Their statements will cover both local government finance and further education.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : Will my right hon. and learned Friend point out to the House, especially to the Opposition, that on 11 June last year I brought a delegation from the Isle of Wight art and technology college to see the Minister of State, Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold)? The college principal and the governor-chairman urged my right hon. Friend to take that action because they were so fed up with the political shenanigans of the Liberal Democrats who have continually cut the budget and politicked with the courses at the college of art and technology. My right hon. and learned Friend's statement will be widely welcomed by the tutors, governors and students on the Isle of Wight. Taken together with the training enterprise councils, it marks a breathtaking revolution that will do us well in 1992.
Mr. Clarke : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for helping to mobilise representations to the Government which led us to take that decision. Several other such representations by my hon. Friends led us to our conclusions. As my hon. Friend made clear, had we not experienced difficulties with the community charge, and were we not changing the basis for local government finance, I am sure that I should have wanted to come before the House with a statement to rescue further education from the vagaries of people such as the Liberal Democrats on the Isle of Wight.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : May I remind the Secretary of State that at 3.30 pm the Secretary of State for the Environment announced major changes in local government structures, and said there would be a consultation period. However, within three hours, the Secretary of State for Education and Science comes along to the House and makes announcements that will radically affect local government structures and responsibilities. Education is one of the most important local authority functions. How dare he do that and talk about democracy?
Column 445He comes here like Hitler with a beer belly and says that changes will take place. Exactly what consultations are taking place with local education authorities on those proposals? As he is saying that legislation will be presented to the House in the autumn, does that mean that we are not going to have a June election?
Mr. Clarke : I am confident that educational opinion will support me, and any consultations carried out by the hon. Gentleman would confirm that. I prefer to base my judgment on the educational interests of colleges, not the advice of the hon. Gentleman, who clung like a limpet to his little chairmanship and little power in that completely useless organisation the Greater London council. It was a big car and a big platform for making statements, but he had no powers or responsibilities. Quite a few other spheres of local government would do well if subjected to the sort of scrutiny that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has said that he will give local government in the near future.
Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton) : I can fairly confirm the attitude of one further education college to my right hon. and learned Friend. Recently, the principal and a majority of the governors of Kingston college of further education said that they thought they had been ill done by when Kingston polytechnic was allowed to become free-standing.
May I press my right hon. and learned Friend further on the subject of adult education? He will realise that much of it is conducted in the same buildings as further education. Will the whole or part of further education move out of local education authority control? What about accommodation?
Mr. Clarke : The colleges will continue to make provision for adult education, and the extent to which they do so has been encompassed by my announcements today. We will in due course address the detail, which will certainly include the funding arrangements for that essential part of adult education, preparing young people for their careers. I agree that it forms an important part of our proposals ; we shall give more details in the White Paper.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : Does not the Secretary of State for Education and Science understand that these measures will be seen as accelerating the disintegration of the unitary system of education, which was introduced by a national Government and agreed to by all parties in the House in 1944? Will not it also mean that there will be three different types of institution competing for the education of 16 to 19-year-olds? What is the approximate proportion of local education authorities' current expenditure on education that the Secretary of State expects to be transferred by these measures? Do not the proposals mean that all existing sixth form colleges will achieve grant-maintained status by law? Were these proposals contained in the last Tory election manifesto?
Mr. Clarke : I will not debate the history with the hon. Gentleman, but the system of education that grew up did so rather by accident. The Education Act 1944 did not even impose a duty on local education authorities to provide schools. It was a matter of chance that they grew
Column 446up as they did. We reached the position where every school was under the detailed, day-to-day management of local authorities--some good, some not so good and some bad. My preferred method of management is one that distributes the money by a fair method and retains some ability to monitor standards, but puts the day-to-day responsibility firmly in the hands of the principal, head teacher or governing body--
As for the proportion of local government spending, £2 billion will be affected by my announcement today. Off the cuff, I believe that the total local government spending on education is about £17 billion. Those who have successfully reached the right standard according to the school curriculum will rapidly be able to work out what percentage that is.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher) : When making this welcome statement my right hon. and learned Friend was right to ignore the advice of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), whose asset-stripping instincts were in keeping with the old activities of the Inner London education authority, which laid to waste academic standards throughout London.
The statement is particularly welcome to me. My right hon. and learned Friend knows that Esher sixth form college in my constituency was already considering applying for grant-maintained status, which shows that the system has been running longer than the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) suggested. That sixth form college was worried that it might have been alone, if it were one of the first and only ones to have applied for grant-maintained status. The proposals give a structure to post-16 education which is extremely welcome. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will now turn his attention to items such as inter-authority transfers, which sixth form colleges thought worked badly against them when attracting pupils from out of their areas.
Mr. Clarke : My hon. Friend's sixth form college will no longer be unique in its independence, but I am sure that it will be one of the best in the new sector. The problem of inter-authority transfers and their financing will disappear almost completely. The financing of the colleges will depend, first, on core funding, based on planning and judgments of quality by the funding council, then on their success in attracting young people from wherever in the surrounding area to come to good quality courses. That is a much better way of financing the expansion of colleges such as that in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor).
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of the Labour party's passionate defence of ILEA, that singularly useless and unlamented education body that used to control London. The only Labour education policy is the defence of bureaucracy and the dead hand of local government on the day-to-day management of schools.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Why does not the Secretary of State answer the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) about whether the proposals were contained in
Column 447the Tory party manifesto at the last election? The Secretary of State has no mandate for what he is doing here today. There is something sinister about a Government who take power away from people in local democracy and put it under the Government's jackboot. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), I think that the Secretary of State is like Mussolini, who was Hitler with a beer belly.
Mr. Clarke : I look forward to the next Labour party manifesto to see whether it contains a commitment to hand back polytechnics and colleges of higher and further education to local government control. If such a promise appears in the next Labour party manifesto, I promise the hon. Gentleman that he will face deputation after deputation of lecturers and pupils demanding that the policy should not be carried out. It is symptomatic of the way in which many of the left-wingers with whom I have to deal in local education authorities behave. When their arguments fail, they resort to personal abuse, a level to which the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has finally sunk.
Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South) : May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend about administrators and advisers who exist within the education departments of county councils? How will he ease the passage of reducing their numbers, which must clearly be done if their responsibility is taken away? After the removal of polytechnics from the control of education authorities, how many advisers and administrators were saved? That is a serious question and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will answer it. I know that Dorset county council already has some worries about losing various schools that want to opt out and reducing the burden of those administrators. Nothing will be saved unless those administrators move elsewhere or sell their services, thus taking the burden of expense away from the local taxpayer.
Mr. Clarke : My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. The changes that we have made, and the steady change to enabling authorities, gives local authorities the opportunity greatly to reduce their central staff, thereby reducing the burden on the community charge payer. I cannot give an off-the -cuff answer on Dorset, but the numbers of advisers should be reduced as a result of the decision that I have announced. Local education authorities are large enough to redeploy those people as they move from those duties. Far too many local authorities do not adequately reduce their central administration, even when they lose responsibilities. I shall not comment on Dorset--it is far away--but my local authority shows signs of having grown like Topsy for many years. Nottinghamshire combines extravagance and sometimes incompetence with poor supervision of its education services.
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central) : Does the Secretary of State recognise that the most important element of his statement is the acknowledgement that after 12 years of this Government we still lag behind other countries in education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds? Does not that show the Government's failure in providing for our young people?
Column 448Does the Secretary of State recognise that his statement will cause much anxiety among schools that have sixth forms? How will he use what he called his "additional powers" to protect and secure the future of sixth forms?
What is likely to happen to free-standing adult education centres? The Secretary of State did not refer to adult education centres in his statement, but in response to a question he said that they will be included under the funding council. Is that the intention, is the right hon. and learned Gentleman mistaken or must he obtain that information from the Minister of State? If so, will he give it to the House?
Does the Secretary of State recognise that adult education, which is important to thousands of people, will be put at risk by the statement and by the Government's approach to funding?
All hon. Members recognise the need for a statement on an integrated approach to the education and training of 16 to 19-year-olds. It would have had more credence if the Secretary of State had made that statement first and the institutional reforms had flowed from it, but the education arguments are to be advanced second and the institutional arguments to be made first. That is final confirmation and evidence that the statement is not about education but about the chaos that has been created by the poll tax.
Mr. Clarke : The proportion of our young people in higher and further education is increasing dramatically. I agree that we are behind many of our competitors, but we are catching them fast and making up for past deficiencies in the service. The number of students in polytechnics and higher education colleges is 54 per cent. higher--more than half as many again as when the Government took office.
I expressed the importance that I attach to keeping good sixth forms and to giving parents the choice of a good sixth form where possible. My existing powers will enable me to protect sixth forms because any proposal to open or close one will continue to need my consent and because we can bear in mind the needs of sixth forms when constructing the standard spending assessments in the equalisation measures necessary to distribute grants to local authorities. We can thereby consider the weighting to be given to post-16 pupils. I did not say that adult education colleges--free-standing institutions that deliver solely adult education--would be covered by my statement, but that the adult education responsibilities of an FE college would be considered. The details of the provision for adult education were addressed in the White Paper, and nothing that I have announced will diminish the opportunities for adult education. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) came near to welcoming the proposal of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and myself for a comprehensive statement of policy on 16 to 19-year-olds. He is quite wrong in believing that my announcement today is inconsistent with such a statement. As I keep pointing out to him and to the hon. Member for Blackburn, they are obsessed with the structures. It is extraordinary that they are most shocked by the idea that colleges should be taken away from their friends in local government. The people about whom we are all concerned will benefit from our giving colleges the independence that I have announced today.
The Government have already explained to the House our new arrangements for further reductions in community charges. The people of Wales will be delighted to know that, although average charges in Wales were substantially lower than elsewhere in Britain, I have been able to secure exactly the same reductions as those offered to English and Scottish charge payers : Welsh charging authorities will reduce all charges by £140, and Wales will receive £300 million in additional resources.
The remarkable consequence is that, taken with my announcement last January on the community charge reduction scheme, the average charge in Wales before the award of community charge benefit will be £95. As nearly £1,170 per charge payer will be spent by Welsh local authorities in the forthcoming year, it is an astonishing good deal for Wales.
We abolished domestic rates and we intend, from the earliest possible moment, to abolish the community charge and replace it with a new local tax that will be linked to two essential elements of a household--the number of adults, and the value of the property. I propose to consult in Wales on the basis of that proposal. I should make it absolutely clear that I am prepared to consider a system whereby the balance between the two elements- -the property element and the element attributed to residents--may be different in Wales from that elsewhere. That balance, and other matters, will be the subject of consultation. I look forward to receiving the views of hon. Members, among others, and I very much hope that the Opposition can be persuaded to make a constructive contribution to the debate. I have received representations from Opposition Members and from the local authority associations that we should move towards a system of unitary authorities in Wales. I can see some advantages in such a structure, but before I could commend any new system to the House I would need to be satisfied that whatever is proposed represents the best deal possible for the people of Wales.
In reaching conclusions on that matter, I must pay particular regard to the views of the local authority associations. Both associations have pressed on me the case for unitary authorities, but as yet there is no agreement between them on the appropriate size or number of authorities. I have suggested that they should seek to establish common ground on the future structure of Welsh local government. I am therefore pleased to hear that they will meet on 5 April to consider that further, and I have informed the chairman of each association that I shall not reach final decisions until I have had the benefit of further discussions with them following that meeting.
I should, however, like to make two further points. First, community councils play an important role, especially in rural areas, and I shall need to consider the merits of any proposals for change. Secondly, I shall consult on how the decision-making process of local authorities can be improved. I shall try to build on the excellent work that Welsh authorities are undertaking with the efficiency initiative.
Column 450We must look at the problems of finance, functions and structure together. No institution, even one as important as local government, can remain unchanged for ever. I shall consider whether the present range of local government functions is appropriate and what should be the balance between central and local responsibility.
In that context, I can tell the House that I intend that the further education and sixth form colleges in Wales should become independent from their local authorities from 1 April 1993. The legislation which we will introduce for Parliament's approval will provide for the colleges to become independent corporations, owning their own assets and employing their own staff.
The colleges play a vital role in producing the well-educated and well- trained labour force which Wales needs. They will work closely with the training and enterprise councils. The colleges could, however, increase their contribution still further by recruiting more young people to their courses. The proposals which will be set out in the White Paper to be published shortly will give further details of how that can be achieved.
I intend establishing a Wales funding council through which the colleges will be funded. The council will be appointed by, and be responsible to, me. It is my intention that the land, buildings and plant currently used by the colleges should be vested in them on incorporation. The arrangements which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has said will be included in the legislation requiring local authorities to obtain specific consent for the disposal of assets currently used by the colleges will apply to local authorities in Wales ; so too will the measure he referred to preventing local authorities from entering into contracts which bind the colleges beyond 1 April 1993. As in England, these measures will be effective in Wales from midnight tonight, subject to Parliament's approval of the legislation. Further details of these measures are in the statement which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science placed in the Official Report today. My Department will write to all local education authorities in Wales to explain how those measures will be applied.
It is now in the interests of the whole of Wales that we create a lasting framework for local government to provide high-quality services effectively and efficiently. That is a goal to which we can all aspire.
Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside) : The Prime Minister said on Tuesday that we would get the details today, but the outcome of the Government's four-month review is a statement of dithering, delay and indecision. We still have no details or answers. Today's statement simply leaves Wales with many questions. How will the new system work? Will it be fair? How much will it cost? Will it improve local accountability? Will it improve local democracy? Will it improve the standard of local services? People in Wales do not just want a reduction in their bills ; they want the poll tax to end. The statement will not give them that. In effect, the poll tax lives on. Does the Secretary of State remember criticising the Labour party at the Conservative party's annual conference when, referring to the Labour party, he said :
"The party that loves tax wants two taxes to replace one, a twin tax torture for local people and a double disaster for responsible spending"?
Column 451Does not the statement in some respects show that the right hon. Gentleman has gone for a triple tax torture--a property tax, a 2.5 per cent. VAT increase and a poll tax? Again, the poll tax remains for the people of Wales.
The right hon. Gentleman boasts of the huge sums of money which he is throwing at the problem of the poll tax, but are not the Government bribing the people of Wales with their own VAT money? Is it not incredible to hear the right hon. Gentleman seeking plaudits for lessening the poll tax pain when he himself approved that hated tax? Did he not gain promotion to Cabinet by his devoted service to the poll tax? Never before in the history of local government in Wales has a Minister presided over such chaos.
Swansea city council has sent out 145,000 poll tax demands ; Ceredigion council has filled its vaults with tens of thousands of printed, and now useless, demands ; and our capital city of Cardiff has sent out its poll tax demands. This shambles invites nothing but contempt from the dedicated professionals in the Welsh local authorities, and the Secretary of State must carry responsibility for this chaos. I know of no Welsh Office Minister who has presided over such a humiliation. Is not an apology owed to the people and councils of Wales? I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give that apology here and now.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned structure and functions. He proposed consultation with local authority associations. That will create bitterness. I issue the right hon. Gentleman a warning : do not tamper carelessly with our education service. Does the right hon. Gentleman know that parents and teachers are weary of the upheavals and constant ideological changes? His proposal to make sixth form colleges independent of their LEAs is lamentable.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Opposition parties and consultation. The Labour party is interested in co-operation, but on the basis of ruling out the poll tax now and ruling in an efficient system of property tax, charged according to the ability to pay. The right hon. Gentleman's statement does not change the position one jot. Does he truly believe in consultation? For example, did he consult with the LEAs on sixth form colleges, or is it a diktat? The statement represents the final act of a Government gripped by poll tax panic, ready to throw local government into chaos in one last desperate bid to save their political skin. It will not work and it will not wash. To use the Prime Minister's phrase, it is a "bogus sham".
Mr. Hunt : I wish to move swiftly to answer seven points. First, there is a paradox in what the hon. Gentleman said. On the one hand, he accused me of delay and, on the other, he said that I acted too speedily and was arrogant. If he will reflect, he will see that the people guilty of delay are on the Labour Benches--they are still failing to publish details of their proposals.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman said that we now have two taxes to replace one. He quoted what I said. I was referring to the marvellous document "Local Services, Local Choices, Local Tax : Labour's approach to the Poll Tax". That document states :
"A combination of a reformed property tax and a local income tax would bring equity, flexibility, accountability and stability to local government finance."
The document is dated September 1988. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman wrote that, but he is just the sort of person to whom I am referring.