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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


[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Clause 21

Guidance to local councils

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 130, in page 9, line 26, at end insert

    `and in doing so must confirm the proportion of a local council budget which may be allocated at the discretion of the local council'.

4.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): In many ways it is too early to quote the words of London mayors but, as I was saying before I was interrupted, between 10 per cent. and 15 per cent. of local learning and skills councils' funds will be outside the national formula approach for activities where such a funding approach is not appropriate. That will include work force development and funding to support improvement in the standards and quality of local providers. For those funds, local LSCs will make decisions about pricing as well as allocations. Within that percentage band, there will also be a significant local initiatives fund. That will enable local LSCs to support important local learning and skills initiatives that would not otherwise be funded because they do not fit easily into the categories of activity that attract mainstream funding.

In January, we proposed, as a further area of local LSC discretion, the power to vary national prices within limits set by the national council. It is worth emphasising that, in terms of our discussion on local discretion, the ability to vary national prices means much more local discretion for the local councils than might at first sight appear to be the case. A local LSC might want to exercise discretion if, for example, it thought that that would help to tackle local shortages of good-quality training for skills that are in particular demand.

The second technical consultation paper on funding will be published shortly. It will set out in much greater depth than my brief overview the Government's proposals for the LSC's funding and allocations system and the flexibility and discretion that will rest with the local LSCs. I hope that, given those assurances, the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I have listened carefully to the Minister's response and am grateful for the way in which he framed it. I am still not entirely convinced that there will be sufficient discretion in local funding.

The Minister mentioned areas that could be funded from the 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. non-formula element, which will be at the discretion of the local LSCs. The Minister included adult and community learning and work force development. I do not think that he listed another item that could come within the ambit of non-formula funding, which is contained in the ``Learning to Succeed'' White Paper: pump priming initiative funding for small-scale local projects. If he did mention that, he certainly did not highlight it in his response. One wonders whether, after all the other calls upon the non-formula element mentioned by the Minister have been met, there will be sufficient money left for such pump priming.

Many training and enterprise councils value pump priming. I recently received news from Hertfordshire TEC, which has done much work in connection with the film industry. That industry is important in my constituency, which, as has been mentioned, includes Elstree studios. Other studios are near by and there is a need to meet the particular skills called for by the film industry. That is an example of the need for the local flexibility that Hertfordshire TEC has provided in helping to fund several local initiatives.

We wonder whether there will be sufficient money in the discretionary fund to meet all the calls on it. We will want to reflect carefully on what the Minister has said and perhaps look at the technical consultation document that he mentioned. The amendment was tabled to explore the issues.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): While we are on the subject, it would be immensely helpful if the Minister would arrange to send directly to members of the Committee a copy of the technical consultation document on its publication later this week.

Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend and I are jointly grateful for the Minister's assent to that suggestion. On the basis of the case that I have outlined, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 159, in page 9, line 27, after ``consult'', insert ``representatives of education providers,''.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 131, in page 9, line 27, leave out ``regional development agencies'' and insert

    `organisations which appear to it to represent business, including small businesses, in the areas covered by the local council'.

No. 138, in page 11, line 30, at end insert-

    `(1A) Before giving directions to the Council the Secretary of State must consult organisations which appear to him to represent the interests of business, including small businesses.'.

Mr. Boswell: The amendments relate to consultation on the preparation of guidance. I have no difficulty with them being grouped together although, strictly, they relate to slightly different duties and to different clauses. Amendments Nos. 159 and 131 relate to consultation by the council and the preparation of guidance for each local learning and skills council. Amendment No. 138 relates to guidance that the Secretary of State might wish to give by way of direction and the organisations to be consulted when doing so.

The issue concerns not the small print of form but the way in which action is to be taken. The proposals would be entirely consistent with the tenor of our discussions and fair to the all-party basis on which we have said that it would be much better to have as much consultation and co-operation as possible. I say that not to remove the possibility of dissent or a clash of interests but because, given the difficulties, the complexities and the needs of individual learners, it is important that people are seen to be working together.

Amendments Nos. 159 and 131 relate to guidance from the national council to the local councils. The objectives are unexceptionable and I shall not go on about them. The question is: who is to be consulted? Strangely, perhaps, the Bill provides for consultation with regional development agencies and local education authorities. In our earlier exchanges about membership, there was a specific commitment by Ministers to include a representative of the RDA and the suggestion that they would seek to involve representatives of local authorities. Those authorities would be at the top table anyway because they would have representatives on the national and local councils. I am not suggesting that Ministers should remove the requirement to consult the RDAs and LEAs about guidance-they could hardly avoid the process because of the anticipated membership.

However, the two interests referred to in the amendments are not explicitly covered. One matter that has not been featured enough in Committee is the representation of local education providers. There are sometimes difficulties with that representation, not least because there might be many such providers within an area and because, in certain cases, they might have interests that do not coincide or which are mutually opposed to those of the body. Generally, one would have thought it possible to pick further education representatives and consult them on the important matter of guidance, not least because the Association of Colleges conforms in its reference to regional committees. The regional committee for London has been instrumental in discussion and consultation with the Minister on the form of the local learning and skills councils in London and will no doubt wish to be consulted on aspects of continuing performance and on whether the model works satisfactorily.

I do not believe that Ministers would try to exclude consultations with further education providers. We are not in the business of pursuing paranoia, even if we may sometimes disagree, but why does the Bill not state that further education providers should participate in the council? How does the Minister intend the council to consult?

My second point relates to amendment No. 131 and small business interests. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) spoke eloquently about those matters in another context. I echo the emphasis that he placed on the importance of involving business. Business will be-to use a new Labour phrase-a stakeholder, and it is important that it is consulted on the guidance. I do not think that Ministers are wilfully trying to exclude business, not least because if their undertakings are to be honoured, representatives of the business sector will be members of the national council and the local LSCs. It is odd that business will not have the same handle on guidance as the regional development authorities and local education authorities.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying about small business, not least because I have emphasised the need for it to be consulted. However, why would it be appropriate to refer to small business but to exclude regional development agencies? There is no logic in that.

Mr. Boswell: I recognise the hon. Gentleman's involvement in small business, which is as important to his constituency as it is to many others that are represented by members of the Committee. The amendment does not specify RDAs, but they are not excludable because Ministers are committed to making them members. The purpose of the amendment is to provide a vehicle for a debate on who should be involved in the consultation process.

I am inclined to include everyone, but Ministers might be worried about the length of the list. The longer it becomes-we discussed this with regard to transport and child care-the more the legal cards could stack up against an unfortunate exclusion. We might want the council to consult trade union representatives. I have often said that trade unions have an important role in delivering education services to their members and in helping to promote the education agenda. I do not want to wipe anyone out and I am anxious to be told that, as far as possible, everyone will be in the business of consultation. By way of a happy accident, today is small business day. I hope that that has no significance for the resolution-albeit temporary-of the Rover difficulties. However, on the substantive point, we want people to be included in the consultation process.

Amendment No. 138 relates to the Secretary of State giving directions to the council. It suggests that he should bear in mind the importance of business, which is an important indirect consumer of the council's services.

There is no fixed agenda on who should be in or out of the business of consultation. We have a strong preference for the maximum involvement and wish to obtain an assurance on that.

4.45 pm


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