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Session 1999-2000
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Standing Committee Debates
Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 9 May 2000

(Morning)

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Clause 19

Local councils

10.30 am

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I beg to move amendment No. 157, in page 9, line 6, at end insert—

    `—(1A) The Secretary of State may, by an order subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses of Parliament, after consultation with such persons as may seem to him to have an interest,

    (a) amalgamate,

    (b) divide, or

    (c) vary the area of operations of

    one or more of such local learning and skills councils.'.

On a lovely late spring morning, we do not want to raise the temperature unduly. On casual perusal, the amendments tabled my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and myself for debate today might seem to be technical probing amendments that apply only to the nuts and bolts of the Bill. In a sense, they are technical, but they are no less significant for that. It is important for us to tease out of the Minister some of the Government's thinking on the balance between the Learning and Skills Council and its local committees with regard to the organisation, administration and delivery of educational resources. That is the serious and real-world issue that is at stake, although many of the Opposition amendments that will be debated today deal with more specific matters.

We are still concerned that the broad parameters set by the Government will reduce the role of local discretion in the provision and delivery of educational services. That risk is well illustrated by the Government's indicator figure of 10 to 15 per cent. as the proportion of the budget that will be used for local activities within the discretion of local learning and skills councils, although I appreciate that that figure may be subject to consultation and modification. The most generous interpretation of the total spend post-16 is approximately £6 billion. The maximum percentage specified would produce a total local spend of some £900 million. That must be set against a current total spend by the training and enterprise council movement of some £1.4 billion, plus local authority spend, either on adult and community education or on the youth and guidance services.

We shall discuss those figures in more detail later, but they show that there is something of a funding gap in relation to local discretion. Will the Ministers explain their intentions on funding and tell us how it will work? As I understand it, the broad intention is that most funding will be allocated by formula. That is important; for example, it could be a means of avoiding interference with the day-to-day business of further education colleges that have a reasonably certain means of obtaining funding. At the margin, however, a degree of discretion and flexibility for LLSCs will matter quite a lot, and, if such discretion is to mean anything, the funds must be adequate.

The amendment is, in a sense, a dry run for the wider argument. Ministers are faced with two options. On the one hand, they can argue that local learning and skills councils are a branch of the national Learning and Skills Council, although I was berated by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), for describing them as such. On the other hand, they can tell us that they are wonderfully autonomous, free standing and lively local agencies. Whichever they are, we need to know more about their role. The Minister can be allowed some latitude in expressing the Government's intentions in that respect. We do not want to give people who reply to LLSC advertisements the impression that they have nothing to do. None of us believes that—they will have a great deal to do. The amendment seems to go to the heart of the relationship The clause states:

    The Council must establish a committee (to be called a local learning and skills council) for each area of England specified by the Secretary of State.

Of course, the Secretary of State has now, albeit after consultation, specified 47 such areas. The Learning and Skills Council is responsible for establishing the committee for each area. Ministers have made a great deal of the change from 72 TECs to 47 LLSCs, but they decided that.

In parenthesis, and given that inevitably we carry our constituency and local experience with us, I have no objection to the Minister's decision about Northamptonshire. It is very helpful that there is to be a single local learning and skills council, coterminous with the local education authority and, indeed, the existing TEC operations. In my view that was the right decision, although it was not an easy one. However, there will be other places where the relationship is less clear and the fit less perfect.

I expect that we shall several times discuss what is to happen in London. I understand the difficulties for Ministers. They could have adopted a London-wide solution with a single local learning and skills council, which would have been disproportionate to the rest of the country; a segment solution, with each one flowing to the centre; or a compromise, which is what they did. I do not say that their compromise is the least suitable. It was probably the best that they could reach, but they may want to explain their thinking about that. However, it is very much a top-down solution. The Secretary of State picks the areas and the Learning and Skills Council establishes the committee and, in effect, selects the membership. All that is within the general remit of the Secretary of State.

The amendment is designed to act as a fallback should the Secretary of State have made a wrong decision about the areas, or should his decision be overtaken by events. I defer to greater ministerial knowledge of the Bill if I have overlooked something, but I can see no provision in it to alter the areas, yet in local education authorities or almost any administrative structure, things change over time.

The amendment would enable the Secretary of State to make such changes. Probably—perhaps the Minister will confirm this—he would have the power to do that under the Bill. If he took the view that he had made a mistake, or if circumstances changed, he could, for the sake of argument, decide that instead of allowing Northamptonshire to stand alone, fewer areas, with an east midlands designation, would be preferable. That would not be welcome to me but perhaps it would be welcome to the regional development agency. I think that he could by fiat change the areas, although it is not clear from the Bill that he would have that power once they were established. Like the law of the Medes and the Persians they might not be alterable.

The Secretary of State should have the power to make changes, but not an unfettered power. It should require local consultation—or, strictly, consultation with such persons as may seem to him to have an interest—and should be subject to affirmative resolution of both Houses, which would provide an important democratic filter. Whatever people may feel about established institutions, they often acquire an affection and commitment that is not justified by the facts. People become used to the arrangements and reluctant to change. We are not suggesting that a Secretary of State would say, ``I am going to cut all this out and I am only going to have 10. There it is, I am going to re-assign councils''. We are suggesting that the Secretary of State should have to act by consultation and with the approval of Parliament. If he goes through the relevant processes, then he should be able to alter the designation of the area.

Also covered in the group of amendments are a number of detailed points in relation to local learning and skills councils, including situations in which they operate cross border or in conjunction with other authorities. The specific amendment provides a procedure to allow the Secretary of State to change the designation of an area after consultation and democratic scrutiny. That would be a helpful power for the Secretary of State. The present difficulty goes to the heart of the problem I raised in my introduction. Either the LLSCs are the tool of the national council and ultimately the Secretary of State—and he may do with them as he wills—or they have a degree of local autonomy and local identity. If they are to have the latter, it is only right that the areas should be established and alterable only though a democratic process.

The amendment addresses this issue. We do not intend it as a wrecking amendment. It enables the Minister on behalf of the Secretary of State to define his powers and to give the Committee some idea of his thinking on this important, sensitive and potentially difficult relationship. This relationship is essential if this measure is to succeed. If it is not well thought out or is over centralised, and if the local learning and skills councils are merely adjuncts to the national agenda without an important local interest and discretion, then it will fail. That would be to the regret of the Committee.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): Good morning, Mr. Benton.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has introduced a specific amendment that raises an important issue. He has talked in general about the local learning and skills councils. In his argument, he touched on themes that were discussed on Second Reading and that will arise at different stages during the Bill.

On the more general points, we emphasise that the learning and skills councils will have local discretion. I stress that that does not mean merely a 10 to 15 per cent. discretion. Local learning and skills council, will have a great deal of influence over the whole volume of business to be transacted. For that reason, we seek the very best men and women in local communities to serve on those bodies. There is much work to be done and many local decisions need to be taken. No public body—and certainly not this one—has to be at one end of the continuum or the other. The hon. Member was asking us to compare and contrast. A body does not have to be either fully autonomous or merely a branch of a national bureaucracy. Many bodies are neither one nor the other. I do not want to draw any comparisons with local government. However, anyone studying local government will realise that it is not a branch office of national government; nor is it fully autonomous, as it is subject to Government powers. It is important to emphasise that local learning and skills councils will be stronger, just as we want strength from the national strategy.

I sympathise with those hon. Members who seek reassurance that changes to LLSC boundaries, however small, will not be taken lightly and that they should come about only after extensive consultation with all interested parties. We have powers under clause 19(1) to make changes. I shall not be tempted into discussing the selection of particular areas. Such matters will always be difficult. The hon. Gentleman mentioned London as being a particular difficulty. Making local decisions was the subject of controversy in some localities. However, all my hon. Friends are now talking to me again, despite one or two of the decisions that were taken.

10.45 am

I am happy to give an assurance about consultation. Indeed, we expect it to be normal practice for the LSC to propose changes to local boundaries if shortcomings in the current structure became evident. The Secretary of State would doubtless look favourably on all reasonable and considered proposals.

In earlier debates we repeatedly stressed the importance that we attach to the new arrangements being a partnership. That will mean a close and continuing dialogue with the full range or stakeholders in the new framework. It has always been our intention that the LSC should consult others when proposing structural changes to its method of operation, including decisions relating to LLSC boundaries. It is good practice and we expect it to happen as a matter of course.

I am happy to give the clear commitment that we expect the LSC to consult key partners, including RDAs and local authorities, before proposing changes to the local LSC boundaries. That expectation will be reflected in the LSC's management statement. However, we do not believe that parliamentary scrutiny of the internal boundaries of a single unitary non-departmental public body is appropriate. Regional development agencies produced the recommendations on which almost all the local LSC boundary decisions were based. It is entirely in keeping with that initial approach that we should expect proposed changes to local LSC areas to emanate from local concerns via the LSC itself.

The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to an important matter, but I hope, in the light of those assurances, that he will agree to withdraw the amendment.

 
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