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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

Thursday 11 May 2000

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Clause 30

The Council

1.30 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I beg to move amendment No. 168, in page 13, line 19, at end add

    'or in association with the Learning and Skills Council for England'.

I am pleased to see Committee members flooding back to their places for what I hope will not be an extended sitting, although we have important matters to discuss.

The amendment is intended to probe the Government's intentions towards what might, for simplicity, be called cross-border activities. I hasten to say for the avoidance of doubt, that that is not intended to signal either a derogation of devolution or a Welsh takeover of the English education system. Those of us who have studied in England have seen and admired the tremendous contribution that Welsh teachers have made to teaching in Wales and England. It accords with the generally good spirits with which this Committee has conducted its proceedings to suggest that teachers should have the easiest interpenetration across the frontier.

I have three concerns in this context, to which I hope the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Wales Office will respond. My first concern relates to institutional co-operation. When the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) touched on that in an earlier debate about partnership and co-working, I was broadly satisfied by his remarks. I have previously discussed the quadrilateral that comprises: the two learning and skills councils, if I may use that summary phrase; the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and the Welsh Assembly; and the Wales Office and the Wales education department. He assured the Committee that those four elements would be able to work together and to exchange information and experience. We shall rehearse those matters further when we debate the inspectorates.

It is important for such practical institutional collaboration to continue. The clause states:

    The Council's functions will be carried out in relation to Wales only.

That implies that the remit stops at the border. I am sure that that wording was chosen to facilitate a wider understanding, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will give the appropriate reassurance.

My second concern involves the individual student, whose activities may be more sensibly conducted in another part of the United Kingdom or, if appropriate, abroad. For example, students with particular disabilities might receive better provision if they went to a specialist college in England. The converse might also apply--specialist provision might be available in Wales but not in England. The two learning and skills councils should be able to buy in to those services or to finance the activities of students who move cross the border to alternative provision, if that is appropriate.

My third concern involves institutional locations and the ability of a Welsh institution that is funded by the National Council for Education and Training in Wales to have an outstation in England, where it might serve the local community. Committee members may be familiar with what I believe is a piece of Austrian territory called the Kleinwalsertal, which is, in fact, part of the German customs area and uses German stamps, for the simple reason that it is inaccessible from Austria, except by climbing over a mountain. From my knowledge of them, that is not the case in the marches between Wales and England. However, there may be cases in which it is sensible for a Welsh college to have an outstation in England--or the reverse. It is not intended that this should be a unilateral provision.

There may also be outstations of educational establishments that exist for perfectly good reasons other than to serve the local community. Not far from my wife's family home in south Wales is Kilvrough manor, which was owned for many years by the Oxfordshire education authority. I do not know whether that is still the case. On the Gower peninsula, near the coast, it was used by students from Oxfordshire, near my own home. That kind of thing seems entirely sensible, and we should encourage such sensible collaboration across the frontier between schools.

We want an assurance from the Minister that there will be no artificial barriers to such exchanges put up by Government, learning and skills councils or individual educational institutions. We understand that there is a separate council for Wales with a separate remit, but people who wish, for educational purposes, to cross a boundary--which, I hope, is as invisible as possible--should be able to do so without let or hindrance.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has picked on the right chap. He may be aware that my constituency is adjacent to England, and my home is six miles from the English border. If I go to the cinema or to Sainsbury's, I go to England. The airport that I use is in Manchester and the train station to which I go for a connection to London is in England. An awareness of cross-border issues is, therefore, second nature to me. I hope that I can give him the assurances that he seeks.

Amendment No. 168 is unnecessary. Generally speaking, it is right that the council in Wales will deal with Wales and the council in England will deal with England. That will not, however, restrict students resident in England who want to use facilities in Wales or students resident in Wales who want to use facilities in England. Both bodies will ensure that participation in educational activities on each side of the border is possible.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister has made a good start. He has described the legal position, which is that people will be able to travel from one country to the other. It is important, however, that functional delivery is concerted between the various bodies. It is all very well to say that the Ritz is open to everyone, but, if there is no funding for a particular activity that it would be sensible to do elsewhere, the Minister's generous commitment will not matter.

Mr. Hanson: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that placing restrictions on the cross-border flow--the concern that lies behind the amendment--would be detrimental to the aim of offering learning opportunities according to where and when individuals wish to learn. That aim is shared by the Government and the National Assembly.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I am reassured by what the Minister is saying, but is he aware that there is a Judicial review case currently before the High Court about the Secretary of State's decision to impose the teachers' threshold arrangements on the National Assembly and, thus, on teachers in Wales? Does the Minister foresee a situation in which the Welsh council could decide on different arrangements for student support that would preclude students who, like him, live just across the border, from accessing some of the provision in Welsh institutions? That is part of the issue raised by the hon. Member for Daventry, and I should be grateful to hear the Minister's response.

Mr. Hanson: I understand what the hon. Gentleman said. Discussions are still going on in relation to teachers' pay and conditions. Regarding the amendment, I can reassure him that all students, from whatever side of the border and whatever institution, will be able to secure the proper provision and be funded accordingly. I hope that that clarifies the matter.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): The Minister has given an assurance that there will be no bar to students on either side of the English-Welsh border from travelling to institutions. I should like to return to the institutional point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry. Would it be possible under the arrangements in the Bill for a Welsh institution to have a branch on the English side of the border, or would that be precluded by this subsection of the clause?

Mr. Hanson: No. Should an English further education college wish to have, for example, an outward bound centre or a horticultural centre on the Welsh side of the border, we would welcome its participation. We would also joyously welcome the incoming students that it would bring. It would be funded by the Learning and Skills Council. The students might come from England or Wales and would be able to attend both branches.

We are discussing the institutional structures of accountability for funding, and the difference in policy implications for the Assembly and for the Learning and Skills Council. However, no student or institution will be prevented from receiving the tailored service that they require. I hope that that clarifies the hon. Gentleman's point.

In conclusion, when joint working by the LSC and the council in Wales is appropriate, the Bill already provides for the necessary powers in paragraph 15 of schedule 8. This carries forward section 82 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 which provides for the joint exercise of functions by the Further and Higher Education Councils for England and Wales. In practice, this covers joint working by, for example, the Higher and Further Education Funding Councils for England and Wales, and also the cross-border joint working currently being undertaken by the Further Education Funding Councils for England and Wales.

Finally, paragraph 15 of schedule 8, when properly informed by paragraph 17, will ensure that the provision in the 1992 Act is carried forward for both councils in England and Wales. I hope, in the light of my constituency background as well as my ministerial responsibilities, that the hon. Gentlemen will be reassured that we would not put anything into the Bill that would be detrimental to individuals or institutions on either side of the border.

 
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