Standing Committee F
Tuesday 18 April 2000
[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]
The Chairman: I wish to announce that, to be selected for debates, amendments must be tabled two sitting days before they are to be debated. Because the House is not returning from the Easter break until a Tuesday rather than the more usual Monday, the arrangement whereby amendments tabled right up to 4.30 pm on the Friday of the recess can be selected for debate on the next Tuesday do not apply. Members should thus be alerted to the need to table amendments before 4.30 pm on the Thursday to be capable of being selected for Tuesday 2 May. It may help members of the Committee to bear that in mind to save there being any confusion over the issue.
It gives me great pleasure to be co-Chairman of the Committee. I am sure that it will be a delight for us over the coming weeks to get to know each other more, and to do justice to the Bill.
Learning and Skills Council for England
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I beg to move amendment No. 68 page 59, line 28, at end insert—
I welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Hancock. It will be a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
We come now to the delegation of authority from the Learning and Skills Council. Schedule 1 sets up the council's structure, its chief executive and the terms and conditions of those who serve on it. Paragraph 7 deals with the delegation of functions under which the Learning and Skills Council may authorise the chairman or the chief executive to exercise its functions.
The amendment reflects the fact that that delegation of authority may be important in all cases; indeed, it may be very important in some cases. We believe that it would be sensible to seek the greatest possible certainty about what is being delegated and to whom. The Committee will be aware that questions are often asked about whether authority has been granted properly or whether it has been acceded to by those to whom it has been granted. To avoid such questions arising for the Learning and Skills Council, it would desirable to have the greatest certainty possible. One way in which to achieve that would be to set out in writing the delegation of functions. We cannot see any reason why the council should not be prepared to put it in writing, when making the important decision of delegating authority.
The amendment recognises, however, that it may not always be practicable for the delegation of functions to be writing, but it would generally be desirable. It would remove many difficulties that may result from questions arising about the delegation of authority. It would be a sensible and practical step. It is often taken in similar circumstances, and it is often a requirement when authority is being delegated. It makes common sense for the delegation of authority to be in writing whenever possible.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): Good morning, Mr. Hancock, and welcome to the Chair. We look forward to working with you in the coming weeks. I should explain that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), who would have dealt with some of the amendments, is unwell. He will join us as soon as possible, perhaps later in the week.
Amendment No. 68 would require the council, chair and chief executive to record in writing, whenever practicable, any delegations made under the provision. It also suggests that delegation should not alter the council's accountability for its responsibilities. I welcome the amendment's intention of promoting good practice. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) described it as common sense, of which we are always in favour. I hope that that attitude spreads among other Opposition parties.
The amendment perhaps seeks reassurance that the council, chair and chief executive will take full responsibility for their functions and will not, for example, casually delegate duties to staff who may not have the appropriate tools or experience to carry them out effectively. It also seeks assurance that the council will not abdicate its responsibilities through inappropriate use of delegation.
I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we would expect delegation of functions by the LSC to be properly recorded in writing whenever practicable. That is good management practice. However, the amendment is unnecessary. The LSC's management statement and financial memorandum, which will be agreed with the Department for Education and Employment as part of the normal relations between a Department and a non-departmental public body, will set out agreed arrangements for the LSC's internal management and control, among other things. It will include the financial regime in which the LSC will operate, which will involve financial authority and delegation.
One of the council's early priorities will be to determine, within the framework that it has agreed with the Department, the level of management delegation that will apply within the LSC, and in what circumstances it will apply. It is only right that decisions taken should be recorded in appropriate documentation. I can therefore assure the hon. Member for Hertsmere that we will convey to the LSC our expectation that the details should be documented, and that the management statement should reflect that. As I hope he would agree, legislation is not the best medium for enshrining good business and management practice.
The amendment also seeks to underline the fact that delegation cannot be a way for the council to abdicate its responsibilities. I assure hon. Members that the current provision relates only to the exercising of functions, not to the accountability or responsibility for them. The council is and will remain accountable for all its responsibilities set out in the Bill, whether it exercises them directly or delegates them.
We do not feel that anything will be gained by including the amendment in the Bill. Given the assurances that I have provided, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Clappison: I have listened carefully to the response made by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks). The debate has been short but worth while, and has served to promote good practice. I am pleased that the Minister has given us those assurances, which take matters a step forward. I am tempted to say that this is a victory for common sense, and also tempted to say that this the first of many, but I shall not go too far down that road this morning. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdraw.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 60, line 14, at end insert—
`(9) Notwithstanding the declaration of specific interests in connection with the proceedings of the Council as required by this paragraph, members of the Council shall within three months of their appointment furnish such details of their interests as the Council may specify.'.
I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hancock, for what I think will be an absorbing Committee. I hope that there will be a good deal of common sense on both sides of the Committee in how we act to tie down the sector, especially the new council, so that it can do its job as effectively as possible. I express our condolences to the Minister for the indisposition of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for North Swindon, which I hope shall soon be repaired. I am sure that the Minister will step admirably into the breach on the clauses for which his hon. Friend was briefed.
The amendment, which follows that moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere, is another relatively gentle introduction to the morning. It seeks to enshrine good practice and ensure that the council conducts itself to the highest modern standards. In the eight years since the enactment of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, developments have centred around the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), who got Nolan to examine our procedures. A series of recommendations flowed from that investigation across wide areas of public administration. It is important to ensure not only that members of public bodies—and, latterly, of the House—declare their interests, as they have long had to do, but that anything that could be seen as relevant to membership or activity on behalf of a non-departmental public body should be declared for all to see.
There is a good deal in the schedule on the declaration of a specific interest and, if necessary, withdrawal from consideration if there is a direct and immediate interest. There is nothing about having to declare the wider range of business interests that might be seen to bear on a person's membership of the council. In accordance with Nolan principles, all such bodies, including the Further Education Funding Council, have for several years had provision for a register to declare interests at large, and without prejudice to the issue under discussion. If the council discusses an issue in which someone has a direct interest, that individual is obliged to declare it and, if necessary, seek dispensation from the Secretary of State who would consider the matter.
All we seek in this probing amendment is to get the Minister's assurance that a general register of interests should be available. It does not derogate from the intention of the schedule that specific interests should be declarable as and when appropriate, but reinforces what the Minister called good practice. I look forward to his response.