Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boswell: I suppose that the Minister's response was all right as far as it went. It certainly elucidated several matters. First, it became clear, in the absence of provisions such as those embodied in the amendment, that the council would, after taking advice, have the power to change the boundaries at will. That suggests a certain democratic deficit.

I have made a mental note—I do not often do so—to congratulate myself on having avoided using the words ``control freak'', but control clearly remains at the centre. That was reinforced by the Minister's wondering whether Parliament should interest itself in demarcation within what he described as a single unitary non-departmental public body—that is, the Learning and Skills Council. It is clear that we are not dealing with a federation of bodies under the broad tutelage of a national council, but with a single body that happens to have local operating arms.

I understand the Minister's sensitivity about control being a continuum. There is not an absolute moment when a body is either completely autonomous and can do what it likes—not least because it is constrained by other Acts of Parliament—or is totally controlled from the centre. I had a brief and slightly disconcerting experience of control freakery when I recently gave a speech in the post-lunch slot to a group of political scientists on behalf of the British Council in Berlin. At the very moment I opened my mouth, the building works at the French embassy, which is next door, opened up with a pile driver. I had to say to the assembled group—the alternative was to walk out in a huff—that I knew that Alastair Campbell was good but not that good.

It is clear that the body has become central. Ministers are now saying that they would be happy to consult about changes in the local demarcation. The Minister said that he wanted great flexibility, and that there would be many important decisions for the local learning and skills councils to take. He would want to say that to encourage recruitment to membership. I am sure that there will be important decisions to be taken. However, there is a difficulty if we shrink the discretionary budget available to the LLSCs and compare it with the budgets available to the existing training and enterprise councils, let alone to the local authority moneys that will come through community education or guidance—[Interruption.]

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Mr. Campbell is at it again.

Mr. Boswell: Indeed, I am being overflown this time. As the man said, ``Just because you're not paranoid, it doesn't mean that they're not out to get you.''

Mr. Wicks: The hon. Gentleman has delusions of grandeur.

Mr. Boswell: I have been brought down to earth by the Minister. I will begin to close the point quickly.

The Minister said that there would be many important local decisions. We have shown the Committee—the Minister has not developed a contrary argument—that the sum of money with which discretion will be exercised is diminished. Although there are important decisions to be taken, not many can be taken because there is less money to finance them. I say to the Minister with the greatest respect that fine words butter no parsnips. His resistance to the amendment shows a readiness to countenance a democratic deficit in the Bill and insouciance about the importance of the local councils. I do not like that, and am minded to persist with the amendment.

Mr. Wicks: I should have intervened with regard to an earlier point at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech but was enjoying it so much that I did not want to interrupt the flow. I would certainly never want to separate the Minister from his parsnips, buttered or otherwise.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister?

Mr. Wicks: The Shadow Minister.

I should make one point clear because there was a misunderstanding. It will not be for the Learning and Skills Council to change the boundaries. Recommendations will flow from the locality, but the decision will rest with the Secretary of State. With regard to democratic deficits or the lack of them, I note that the Secretary of State is responsible to the House.

Mr. Boswell: I readily accept the Minister's correction just as he—possibly too readily—accepted my correction of his description of me as the Minister. In other circumstances I would say that that was a proleptic remark on his part.

We do not feel that the amendment is unreasonable. I am minded to test the mind of the Committee by persisting with it. Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 11.

Division No. 7]

AYES
Allan, Mr. Richard
Boswell, Mr. Tim
Clappison, Mr. James

NOES
Atkins, Charlotte
Benn, Mr. Hilary
Betts, Mr. Clive
Davey, Valerie
Foster, Mr. Michael
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Ruane, Mr. Chris
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Wicks, Mr. Malcolm
Wills, Mr. Michael

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Clappison: I beg to move amendment No. 128, in page 9, line 9, at end insert—

    `(2A) Not less than 40 per cent. of the members shall include persons who have current or recent non-public sector business or commercial experience.

    (2B) In making appointments to a local council the Council shall have regard to the desirability of ensuring that the interests of small businesses in the area are represented on the local council.

    (2C) No less than 25 per cent. of the members shall be nominated by the local authorities within the local council area.'.

The Chairman: With this we may also consider amendment No. 129, in page 9, line 11, at end insert—

    `(3A) Before appointing a Chairman of a local council the Secretary of State must consult organisations which appear to him to represent the interests of business in the area.'.

Mr. Clappison: The debate that we have just had helpfully foreshadows this one, which I hope will reach a more constructive conclusion.

Amendment No. 128 brings us back to the composition of local learning and skills councils, which is linked to the issue that we just debated about their autonomy. We have also touched on the issue of funding, to which we shall return in a moment, but it is important for the Minister to recognise that if the Government are to attract on to learning and skills councils businessmen and local leaders of the quality that they want, they will have to give them useful and important decisions to take. If I can put it this way without adopting wholeheartedly the approach of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry; the master chef will not come out of the kitchen from where he is preparing his piece de re´sistance in order to butter the parsnips. The Government must give learning and skills councils something important to do.

Turning to the composition of those councils, as the Bill stands, local learning and skills councils will be appointed by the central Learning and Skills Council, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. It would be helpful to know how the Government envisage using that power of approval and, perhaps, to have some idea of the circumstances in which approval might be withheld. Apart from that requirement to obtain the Secretary of State's approval, the Bill includes no other requirements relating to composition. We make no apology for returning to the issue of composition in order to emphasise the need for business experience. It is every bit as important, if not more important, that local learning and skills council should include members who have business experience as it is for the central Learning and Skills Council to include such members. Of course, the Committee will be aware that business leadership and representation is a key feature of the current system. Two thirds of the membership of training and enterprise councils at local level is made up of local business people. It seems all too likely to us that business leadership will be diluted under the new system. We hope that that does not prove to be the case, but it is our fear.

Amendment No. 128 offers Ministers another opportunity to give statutory backing to their assurances about business representation. Ministers have assured us that 40 per cent. of those committee members will have business experience—

Mr. Wicks indicated assent.

Mr. Clappison: The Minister is helpfully nodding. If that is the Government's approach, they should have no objection to including a minimum figure in the Bill. We are aware of the Government's reluctance to prescribe membership either of the central Learning and Skills Council or of the local learning and skills councils, but we believe that it is necessary to put the matter on a firmer footing. If the Government are prepared to give that assurance, why should they not include a provision in the Bill? That is not to say that we regard 40 per cent. as a satisfactory figure, but it is the minimum figure suggested by the Government, and we want that minimum figure to be entrenched in the Bill.

We are also concerned to ensure that the interests of small businesses are represented, which is the purpose of paragraph (2B) of the amendment. We also want to give more say to local authorities, which is the purpose of paragraph (2C). Local authorities seem to be frozen out of the new system in many ways, and the amendment would at least give them more of a say.

Amendment No. 129 is slightly different. We believe that it would introduce a modest requirement. The Secretary of State, rather than the central Learning and Skills Council, will appoint one of the local learning and skills council members as chairman. It is interesting that that decision is in the hands of the Secretary of State. On the face of it, the fact that that power is reserved to the Secretary of State rather than granted to the central LSC seems to be yet one more example of a top-down approach. If the Secretary of State is to take the decision and not delegate it to the central LSC, it will, at the very least, be worth while for him to consult local business organisations on the decision. Will the Government explain their thinking on the provision?

11 am

 
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