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Standing Committee Debates
Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee F

Thursday 20 April 2000

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Clause 3

Education and training for persons over 19

9 am

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I beg to move amendment No. 54, in page 2, line 33, leave out `reasonable'.

The Chairman: With this, we may take amendment No. 55, in page 2, line 43, leave out `reasonably'.

Mr. Boswell: I welcome you, Mr. Benton, and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), who was indisposed the other day, to the Committee. We are delighted to have a full ministerial clutch for the first time. Would that I could say the same for my own troops on this occasion and, at present, the Liberal Democrat Benches are not staffed—they obviously get up late and think hard when they get here. It is a jolly good job that some Opposition Members are here—the Bill's passage through Committee might otherwise be speedier than we had anticipated.

I have no intention of rehashing Tuesday's debates on clauses 2 and 3, which you may feel that you mercifully escaped, Mr. Benton. They were important, useful and constructive debates, but it would be redundant to repeat them, even if it were in order to do so. Before our sitting began, I was asked whether I intended to be reasonable about my amendment, which is about reasonability. I replied that I intended to be reasonably reasonable about it. However, it is important to tease out various issues.

Clause 3 is about what, for shorthand, we could call adult education. We discussed at length on Tuesday the fact that the duties that are placed on the Learning and Skills Council are less intense in this regard than they are for the education of young persons. The Liberal Democrats encapsulated the issue well, when they were present, by distinguishing between what might loosely be called an entitlement or a demand-led expenditure on young people, and a cash-limited aspiration for the education of older people. In fairness, bearing in mind the track record of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks) and many other Committee members, I should not caricature the Government's approach to adult education. We all recognise its importance and seek to realise it by securing the most appropriate wording and the most suitable balance of duties in the Bill.

The amendment is intended to establish what is reasonable. It is sometimes necessary to stand back from an issue—doing so shows one that what one had previously assumed to be the case was not necessarily so. The clause appears to impose no duties on the Secretary of State. He has general duties for education, but the duties in clauses 2 and 3 relate solely to the council. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who has the advantage of a year or two in age over me, were here, he would remind me of a remark of William Joyce, the late Lord Haw Haw, who features in this morning's newspapers. Apparently, he was tipped off and got out of the United Kingdom, although I am pleased to say that that did not do him a lot of good. During World War Two, which none of us remembers actively, he used to ask: ``Where is the Ark Royal?'' It was sunk, at least metaphorically on Germany's propaganda radio, at least nine times when it was really afloat, although it subsequently perished. [Interruption.] Indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) seeks to assist me in that regard.

We should reasonably ask: ``Where is the Secretary of State?'' I do not suggest that he or any of his successors will be highly antipathetic to adult education, but that is possible. He might say: ``I do not want to waste my time on that subject. I shall concentrate on schools, which is a subject that commands more votes.'' More legitimately, but perhaps more misguidedly, he might say that greater returns to the public purse could be made if the expenditure were restricted—[Interruption.] I am delighted to welcome the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) to the Committee—he almost made it here in time, and we shall not set him too many lines for his slightly tardy arrival.

The clause appears to place duties on the council but not on the Secretary of State. I may have overlooked that duty and the Under-Secretary may point out where in the Bill it can be found. If it exists, the Secretary of State will not be able to wash his hands of adult education. If I asked the Under-Secretary what constituted reasonable action by the council, he would probably reply: ``It depends on the circumstances at the time. It will be for the courts to decide whether the council has acted reasonably.'' I should enjoy it if he said that—I am sure that he is already sharpening his pencil in preparation for his answer—and, in a sense, he would be correct.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere will not take it amiss if I say that the tendency these days is very much towards suing people for what they do or do not do and challenging in the courts actions that would previously have been in the domain of the administrative sector. It would be tedious to discuss that at length, although the business of judicial review and the constraint of the Executive by the growth of administrative law is broadly a beneficial tendency, despite the fact that it may occasionally give Ministers sleepless nights and/or disappointment.

In what circumstances could such an action be undertaken? Someone could come to the courts flippantly, unreasonably or factiously and say: ``I do not think that that is reasonable,'' and the court would have to decide whether that judgement was right. Would there be a test for success or failure?

The key to the matter lies in subsection (2), to which amendment No. 55 relates. That subsection states:

    Facilities are reasonable if (taking account of the Council's resources) the facilities are of such a quantity and quality that the Council can reasonably be expected to secure their provision.

That gives the council a let-out clause in relation to its resources. That is why I asked about the Secretary of State's and the Cabinet's responsibilities. I do not suggest that the present Secretary of State does not want to give money to adult education, but in comprehensive spending reviews, Chancellors of the Exchequer do not always give as much money to spending Departments as those Departments want. The Committee should be clear whether that is an absolute get-out for the council.

Adult education receives £2 billion. If Ministers collectively decided that subsequent annual expenditure should be £1 billion less than that, there would obviously be a rapid cutback in adult education provision. If that happened, someone might go to the courts to complain that that is unreasonable. This morning, I received a letter about special educational needs from a constituent who complained about a similar issue. If that person sued the council, I wonder whether the people at the council would simply say, ``I am terribly sorry because we would have liked to help, but we do not have the money. The Secretary of State has not given it to us, and that is Parliament's decision.'' Parliament is not subject to the courts, but the Government as the Executive are subject to their ability to convince the House. If the council is to have an absolute get-out for the provision of resources, its duties are, presumably, to use the resources that it has. If that is the case, we need to be clear about it.

Let us imagine that the council is awarded £2 billion, which is the sort of envelope figure that the Under-Secretary suggested, and completely mismanages its affairs so that it does not provide, or provides highly perversely. For instance, as someone flippantly suggested last week, it might provide for legal education alone and do nothing for other aspects of technical education. It might leave lacunae, geographically, so that some areas of the country are under-resourced and others over-resourced. If the council did anything of that order, I presume that it would be perceived as unreasonable and—in blunt English—not doing its job properly. I suspect that, in that case, a suit in the courts that suggested that it was failing in its duty might be successful. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the import of the words used in the Bill?

What I have said covers the legal fencing, which is important. Two other issues are involved, however, one of which we have already touched on and one that we shall consider further in our subsequent consideration of the Bill. How does the Under-Secretary propose to deliver adult education funding? The Government have given assurances on the matter in the funding consultation document and in their replies both in the House and another place. They have referred to a two-year guarantee of funding. I understand why Ministers are occasionally leery about committing themselves to a particular pattern of provision; they will nearly always go for flexibility unless there is a good reason not to. However, the hon. Gentleman owes the Committee a clearer explanation as to how the measures will work in practice.

Most adult and community education provision is delivered through local education authorities and, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is patchy because certain LEAs have failed to accept some of their responsibilities. Those LEAs have just about escaped punishment—at least, I am not aware of one that has fallen foul of a court judgment on its failure to discharge its statutory duties, although that may have occurred. Alongside that provision, safeguarded powers for the Further Education Funding Council are enshrined in the so-called schedule 2 provision for vocational and basic skills education. The hon. Gentleman said that he wants to abolish that distinction and I do not want to canvass for its retention. It was there to safeguard what were regarded as the more important courses, but not to prevent local authorities from doing other than they did. The hon. Gentleman needs to be clearer about how that abolition will work. As I understand it, the money will flow through the Learning and Skills Council and be delivered to the local providers, of which a significant proportion will be related to the local authority.

We need to be clearer about how the funding stream will work, especially in relation to the guarantee. I remain unclear from what the Under-Secretary said—forgive me if I have misunderstood or overlooked it—about whether the guarantee will bite on the individual local education authority provision, the individual institution or collectively throughout the sector. The degree of specificity will make a difference to how the guarantee will work.

9.15 am

If the Under-Secretary is simply saying that the Government will not sandbag adult education by taking away funding—a couple of billion is involved—and can guarantee that funding will go through the Learning and Skills Council to adult education and that the Secretary of State will provide letters of guidance, for example, at least we shall understand that that is what he means. If he is saying that provision for each LEA and/or further education institution will be maintained for those purposes for a two-year period, we need to know. If he is saying that every course will continue—which I do not necessarily advocate—we need to know that, too. We need to know the flavour of the commitment by sector and by type and to be able to test how it will continue.

The Under-Secretary has a difficult task. I understand that he does not want to disturb the even flow and wants to smooth any future changes, which is well and good. However, we need to know more about how the system will work, especially as money will go through the Learning and Skills Council to local authorities as providers.

I sense that the Under-Secretary will be advised to tell us to wait for funding document No. 2. In my more cynical moments—on Thursday mornings it is always important to wake up the Committee—I am reminded of the prospectus for the South Sea Company. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster will advise me of the exact terms used, but I believe that people were invited to subscribe to a south seas operation or enterprise—the same has happened subsequently in relation to dot.com companies—of which further details were to be supplied in due course.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary will, as is necessary, supply the sector with further details in due course, but we have not received them yet, and the Committee is entitled to at least a dress rehearsal of what he has in mind at this stage. The issues involved are not trivial, because people who provide such commendable activities, whether in the further education sector or the more conventional and familiar adult and community education as delivered by LEAs, need to know where they stand and that the changes will not destabilise them.

The hon. Gentleman will know that anxiety has been expressed in the sector by organisations such as the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education, which has broadly accepted the principle of the Bill, about whether some turbulence will result and about the quality of the guarantees that he has given.

The final issue, which I trailed to the Committee as a matter on which we shall want to touch again—the hon. Gentleman might like to give us a dry run—is the balance between local and national institutions in delivering adult education activities, regardless of whether they are vocational. No doubt we shall tease out the matter when we examine the relationship between the national Learning and Skills Council and the local learning and skills councils. Some anxiety has been expressed about whether adequate provision will be made for national organisations and whether their funding and negotiation will involve the LSC or the 47 subordinate local learning and skills councils.

The Government have announced an integrated structure in which it is pretty clear that the local learning and skills councils will constitute branch activities of the national Learning and Skills Council, albeit with some local decision-making discretion. Ministers may have received representations from, for example, big businesses with a national spread and national training needs, and the national training organisations, expressing their concerns about national provision. The LSC will look at the supply of computer programmers, hairdressers, health and beauty care specialists and so on, and will have a view about what is required. A big business in one of those areas will find it handy to talk to the national Learning and Skills Council to examine how the national training and recruitment requirements can be met, but there will also be local delivery. My impression is that ministers seek to disintermediate decision-making in relation to a number of national organisations with which we are familiar, such as the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which fulfils an important training need for adults. Among the great virtues and blessings of the pre-school learning movement are the facts that its members undergo personal development and are trained to help in the educational process, as part of looking after their own or other children in a co-operative activity. If all such organisations have to go to local councils for funds, there may not be a national overview. There will also be much friction, complication and—dare I say—administrative costs; we are unconvinced by the Minister's figures on the process.

As I said, that is a dry run of debates we can have on later amendments. To summarise, we need first to know what, if any, duties inhere on the Secretary of State and the Government. Can they be sued for not finding the cash or in other ways failing to resource adult education? Secondly, we need to know the circumstances in which the LSC and its subordinate local learning councils could be tested on whether they are acting reasonably. It would be helpful if the Minister gave an indication of how the clause might bite. Thirdly, there are concerns about the way in which the funding mechanism will work. The more the Minister can tell us at this stage, the more helpful it will be. Finally, there is the issue of the need to strike a balance between on the one hand the funding, supervision and linking of the national organisations, which may have local delivery arms, and the national LSC, and the local councils on the other. The clause provides for a general duty but delivery will be local. The Minister needs to explain what that general duty means, how we will proceed from it and how he approaches the problem of delivery at the coal face, where it matters to the individual learner.

 
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