Mr. Miliband: I hope that we shall not lose the attendance of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), whose new-found interest in education has added a lot to our debate. I am disappointed that he does not perceive the legal aspects of the clauses with which we are about to deal.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt, but will Members who are not staying for the debate please leave quickly and quietly? Not to do so is a discourtesy to the Minister and to the House.
Mr. Miliband: I recognise that the amendment is well-intentioned, and the Government certainly support its underlying principle of reducing burdens on schools. However, as drafted it risks leaving schools in the dark
We all know that there are important matters in education about which schools require guidance and information. Unforeseen events can give rise to a need for such guidance. We must be able to move swiftly to protect the rights and needs of pupils and school staff. An important example has come to the fore during the passage of the Bill. I refer to the Government's response to pressure, not least from the Opposition in the House of Lords, to make statutory provision for the welfare of children. That will require more material to be sent to schools, something that would be jeopardised by the Lords amendment as it stands. That cannot be right. I think there was support for the Government's amendment throughout the House.
Such vital information is not the same as reams of red tape. Here we are in full agreement with the terms of the amendment: we are committed to removing bureaucratic burdens on our schools. Schools obviously exist to deliver high-quality education, and we wish to remove anything that frustrates them in performing that task. We have set out our programme for reducing burdens in the Government's regulatory reform action plan, and we have made radical changes to simplify the operation of the standards fund, making it easier for schools to gain access to a significant proportion of their budgets.
We said last year that we would implement this Bill according to best practice, aiming to reduce burdens on those in schools. We recognise that there must be some administration for schools to function properly, but teachers' paramount task is teaching. The greatly increased number of support staff in schools who can carry out administrative worksome 80,000 nowwill help schools to ensure that teachers can focus on their core tasks.
However, the Lords amendment as it stands could be counter-productive. In the Bill we move significant detailed prescription out of primary legislation. In place of that, we will make regulations that will be less detailed and less prescriptive. That will reduce burdens on schools. The unintended effect of the amendment would be to prevent us from doing that, because of its narrow focus.
If we imposed illogical constraints on that system, as would be the case if we were to adopt the Lords amendment, we could face the bizarre situation of being severely hampered in introducing a lighter touch schools framework, with more devolution and more decision making at school level. Surely we do not want to do that.
As I have said, we want to reduce burdens on schools. One aspect of that is reducing the flow of material from central Government. I believe, and the Government believe, that a requirement to report annually to Parliament listing the Department's direct communications with schools could reinforce our determination to do so. We would report at the end of each school year. The number of communications with different types of school will inevitably fluctuate from year to year according to policy needs. Since the school year 19992000, we have achieved a significant reductionof about a thirdin the number of documents sent to schools. We continue to monitor all proposed communications stringently so that schools receive only material necessary for legal or policy reasons.
Mr. Miliband: I used the word "documents" advisedly, but as the hon. Gentleman will know all documents we send to schools are also sent to them by e-mail so that they are available in electronic form if that is what schools want.
The Department has some internal controls allowing us to appraise critically what goes on in schools, how and when. The most important thing is for schools to receive the right information at the right time, and that it is easy to use. I believe, however, that an annual report to Parliament would establish the right incentives for both Ministers and civil servants, making them think not just twice or three times but perhaps four times about communications to schools. As I have said, we want to reduce the number of communications.
Mr. Willis: It is interesting that the Minister can now provide information that it has not been possible to provide in written answers in the past, and we welcome that. Does the Minister agree, however, that if the exercise is to be truly valuable there needs to be a way of debating the information that goes to schools in some forum in the House of Commons? We need to be able to decide objectively whether it has some value, or whether it is simply furthering the Government's political objectives.
Mr. Miliband: I am tempted to suggest that that is an uncharacteristically ungenerous response from the hon. Gentleman. Like him, I would like us to spend all our time debating education in the House, but there are many other matters to discuss, and I hesitate to trespass on the timetabling responsibilities of Members greatly senior to me. I think, however, that this is an indication of the Government's commitment to taking seriously the need to reduce the bureaucratic burdens imposed by communications. I think the establishment of an annual report is the right direction to take: it will provide much greater transparency in regard to the Government's communications with schools. We have proposed a new clause to achieve that.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I hope that I can put the Minister's mind at rest. He was obviously concerned about the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) was no longer present. I am sure that the amendments have legal aspects, so perhaps if the Minister repeats his entreaties, my hon. Friend could be prevailed on to return and give the House the benefit of his legal knowledge.
When speaking on the last group of amendments, the Minister made a little play of my enthusiasm for some of the Government's stated aims. I am not at all embarrassed by that: I stand by my support and enthusiasm for the Bill's aims of raising standards in education, increasing autonomy for schools and removing central control. Our concern throughout has been that what the Government have been doing is the opposite of what they have been saying.
Lords amendment No. 14 is another clear example of how it has been left to the Opposition to try to put into practice what the Government say they want to achieve. After many years of the Opposition's arguing that an intolerable burden of regulation and red tape is being placed on schools, the Government are increasingly prepared at least to echo our rhetoric. According to a Department for Education and Skills press release of 8 May, entitled "Tackling teacher workload and red tape will raise standards further", the Secretary of State said:
Perhaps above anything else, Lords amendment No. 14 crystallises the divide over how we should best proceed. In the light of recent disturbing evidence about the impact of excessive red tape and bureaucracy on the teaching professionand in particular on the Government's ability to attract and retain good peopleI hope that Ministers will reflect on this issue. Last Friday's edition of The Times Educational Supplement made the following encouraging point:
The extent to which our views are gaining currency, and to which the teaching profession is uniting behind the argument that we have advanced consistently in the past four or five yearsMinisters may consider this an unholy allianceis demonstrated by the latest edition of NUT News. That may not be an obvious source for me to quote, but I am pleased to do so because it gives credit to the splendid and noble Baronesses Blatch and Millera description with which the Under-Secretary would doubtless entirely agree. Under the heading, "The Lords protect us", NUT News states:
I should briefly point out to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis)I almost described him as my hon. Friend, as we worked together on the Bill rather wellthat I am slightly disappointed that the amendment was passed in the Lords by Conservative and Cross-Bench peers without the support of the Liberal Democrats. Liberal Democrat peersand, indeed, Government peerssaid that they supported the amendment in principle and the spirit behind it, so I hope that we can persuade the hon. Gentleman that it would be preferable to support it in more than spirit.
In passing, we should note the short exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and the Minister, in which the latter came clean and said that he was choosing his words advisedly, and that in counting documents, the Government do not include all directives, circulars and consultation papers that are submitted to schools by electronic means, for example. Such evidencethat the Government are already trying to get round some of these constraintsis not a sign of a Government acting entirely in good faith.