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Standing Committee Debates
Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee F

Thursday 18 May 2000

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Clause 85

Preliminary transfers: FEFC for England

1.30 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I beg to move amendment No. 328, in page 38, line 5, at end insert

    `in connection with the discharge of their duties under this Act'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take new clause 21—Further Education Funding Council: transfer of property—

    `.—No action in connection with the distribution of the property, rights and liabilities of the Further Education Funding Council for England or any related scheme for the transfer of property shall be taken to affect the interests of further education corporations.'.

Mr. Boswell: I am conscious that we concluded our proceedings this morning in some haste. Although that is often commendable, especially when education questions are pressing, it can lead to consideration being ragged. We found ourselves having to register our dissent before receiving assurances from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), in relation to further considerations that he wants to bring to the Committee about how the new regime might be more economical and efficient than its predecessor.

I seek not to reopen those matters, but perhaps I wound up the debate without doing justice to the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). At one point, I thought that there was to be a low-level outbreak—a skirmish—into the class war, as the Under-Secretary seemed to take exception about the idea that we were obsessed with the affairs of Oxbridge. I assure him, although my right hon. Friend can speak tellingly for himself, that we did not intend to appear so. Many of us attach the greatest possible importance to further education, and the relevance of my right hon. Friend's comments was that, even with the best will in the world, it is possible to acquire and hold assets almost by accident. That is why we made the case for an asset appraisal before transfer.

The clause qualifies the simple transfer of undertakings from one body to its successor body. There are three bodies, and not all are successors. One of them—the long-established chief inspector of schools—is not set up by the Bill but has important new responsibilities, and the Bill establishes the adult learning inspectorate and the Learning and Skills Council. They all do slightly different jobs; we do not argue about that. It appears to make sense in terms of the amendment that the appropriate assets should be attached to those jobs. I do not object to the principle of the clause.

The thought behind this probing amendment is that there should not be an automatic transfer if assets come to light, whether as a result of a formal study or in some other mechanism that the Under-Secretary has canvassed the Committee about introducing, which have no relevance to the subsequent activities of any of the three bodies.

I do not want to put the matter contentiously. Suppose that one of them inherited an ice cream van, a spare domestic television or something like that because it was the property of the Further Education Funding Council. Through the amendment, we suggest that transfer would not be allowed if such items were not for the purposes for which the bodies were created or given new powers under the Bill. If the asset was contingent and had nothing whatever to do with the discharge of duties, the Secretary of State would be entitled to say, ``An asset has been acquired that had nothing to do with further education. We'll have it, thank you, as it is a public asset.'' Transfer would not be a natural event. In any case, any scheme of transfer should be related to the duties of the Bill and should not simply arise through some general beneficence of the Minister.

I did not earlier raise future receivables for the FEFC or the successor bodies. We had a rather jocular discussion about compiling codicils for the local learning and skills councils but someone who had given long and dedicated service to the FEFC might have decided to leave it some money in his will. It would be quite useful to have the Minister's clarification as to how that money would be receivable and by whom.

The essential point is that the Bill reshuffles and reassigns new duties. Assets will transfer as the result of the dissolution of one body and its disposition among successor bodies. If the Minister changes those assets, he must have regard to the fact that the assets relate to the discharge of those duties. The amendment is perhaps a way of exploring and probing the nature of the relationship and how it will work in practice. We do not suggest that there is anything malign about this. We are anxious to see the smooth transfer of business to cover all reasonable eventualities and to ensure that they are handled in a businesslike way.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): The hon. Gentleman seeks an assurance that the schemes provided for in the clause could not enable the Secretary of State to transfer property or other assets from the FEFC to my Department, Ofsted or the adult learning inspectorate that were irrelevant to their functions. Let me give him that assurance immediately. It would be a misuse of the Secretary of State's power if he did so. I find it hard to think of an asset that the FEFC holds that could not be made use of by any of the bodies listed. Indeed, I understand that the FEFC has already undertaken an inventory. We are confident that there are no such assets but if, in a garage somewhere, an ice cream van is found, we will think diligently about its use. A parliamentary committee would carry out a study into why it was purchased in the first place, and I would seek the Speaker's permission to share its contents with the Committee on a suitable occasion.

In all seriousness it is difficult to imagine assets that would not be appropriately transferred. I hope that that assurance alone will persuade the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment. He obviously raises a serious issue but I hope to convince him further by explaining some of its unwelcome consequences. The amendment would limit the power so that it should be in connection with the discharge of the transferee's duties under the Bill. The Secretary of State has relatively few duties under the Bill, and Ofsted has many duties provided outside the Bill. It would severely limit the sensible use of public assets made available by the dissolution of the FEFC if the Department or Ofsted could use assets such as, for example, an empty office, only for its duties under the Bill rather than for its other functions. The objective of transfers must be the most effective and efficient use of public money and assets made available by the dissolution of the FEFC. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want to stand in the way of that process.

Turning to new clause 21, I must point out that the provisions dealing with the property, rights and liabilities of the FEFC allow for their transfer to successor bodies.

However, the Bill will not and is not intended to affect the property of individual EE corporations. It is useful to make that clear. A power to transfer property that belongs to the FEFC will not affect FE corporations. The new clause is therefore unnecessary, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider withdrawing the amendment.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for having helped the Committee by saying, no doubt following further advice, that the FEFC has already made an asset appraisal. No ice cream vans or any other inducements were found. I realise that, to ensure the good management of assets, the Bill would allow a schools inspection requirement to transfer an office block that might be used for both Her Majesty's chief inspector's new and enhanced remit and his existing remit in relation to schools. That might be a sensible use, and have probed that point effectively.

The Under-Secretary responded to new clause 21 in anticipation of my rising again to make one or two points about it, and did so entirely satisfactorily. I thought that it was important to make it clear that he is not trying to get his hands on the assets of further education corporations or to interfere with the discharge of their duties. Clearly, the Learning and Skills Council will affect them in other ways—that is the essence of the Bill—but property transfers should not be affected. The Under-Secretary's assurance on that matter is entirely satisfactory. I beg to ask leave withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 85 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 86 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 87

Transfers: England

Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 330, in page 38. line 36, at end insert

    `or after a recommendation by the Learning and Skills Council to such local not-for profit interests as he may deem appropriate and suitable for the advancement of education and training'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following: Government amendment No. 293.

Amendment No. 329, in page 39, line 8, leave out `3' and insert

    `6'.

Government amendments Nos. 294 and 295.

Government new clause 19—Contracts of employment.

New clause 22—Training and Enterprise Councils: transfer of property—

    `.—No action in connection with property transfers under the provision of this Act shall be taken to affect the assets of training and enterprise councils, where the assets are not derived from public funds.'.

Mr. Boswell: I am conscious of the fact that my amendment leads a group that contains several Government amendments. Again, our amendments are intended not to be malicious but to probe the minds of Ministers and to ensure good order in the important issue of transfers.

I shall reserve my fire on the Government amendments until the Under Secretary has spoken, although I do not anticipate having great difficulty with them unless a matter emerges that I had not previously noticed. I shall concentrate on amendments Nos. 330 and 329 and new clause 22.

As I understand it, the import of the clause goes wider than the mere transfer of what in shorthand we would call FEFC property to any successor bodies by enabling a scheme—it is not clear whether it would be the same scheme or a separate one—to allow the Secretary of State to transfer any of his property to any of the ``listed persons''. Presumably, therefore, the Secretary of State might, subject to his statutory duties, be able to transfer property that belongs to him for whatever reason—even the mythical ice cream van—to the successor bodies for their use. In doing so, he would provide a scheme for a transfer to ``listed persons'', who are, according to my reading of the provision, exactly the same as those specified in clause 85.

Amendment No. 330 would widen the Secretary of State's powers in making such a scheme so as to enable him to transfer property to another person who might have an educational interest. However, it is limited in several respects. We do not suggest that it should apply to any organisation that claims to be educationalist or person who wants pay personally for the education of his child. We have in mind local charitable organisations and educational trusts, for example.

 
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