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Mr. Willis: This was an important issue for Liberal Democrats in Committeein the Commons and in the Lordsand it remains important as we consider the amendment before us. When the Minister introduced this group of amendments, he referred to those who support the recommendations of schools forums. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) was right. I had intended to ask how many consultation documents were issued and how many replies were received. The Minister rightly pointed out that the organisations that were very supportive of schools forumsthey supported them as described in the original Bill, not in its amended formincluded the National Association of Head Teachers, the Secondary Heads Association and the National Association of Governors and Managers.
If I were still a practising head, I would be somewhat attracted to the concept of schools forums. I was often at odds with my local authority about my school's budget share, and during area meetings, local primary heads were at odds with me about how much money they were getting in comparison with the secondary school. In turn, the local special school argued that the primary and secondary schools were getting a greater share. It was very difficult to decide which of them was being disadvantaged. Of course, that is one reason why we elect local authorities, and why members of all political persuasionsand independentsput themselves up for election. Taking such decisions is a fundamental role of local authorities. I might disagree with certain of their decisions from time to time, but it is important that this House preserve local government's right to take decisions on matters for which it has a distinct responsibilitya point to which I shall return in due course.
The Minister mentioned Walesan issue on which I, too, have been lobbied. The National Assembly for Wales's Green Paper, "The Learning Country", was a very good document. I urge the Minister to reconsider separating schools forums for Wales and for England, because under the legislation it is possible to do so.
I am pleased to see that the Welsh Minister is in his place to answer these deep questions, if he is still a Minister in that Department[Interruption.] There have been so many changes recently that I did not know whether he was just sidling on to the Front Bench for a chat. One of the advantages of having an elected Assembly for Wales is that it has every right to say what it would like for its schools. The Minister is at leave to exclude schools forums for England and have them only for Wales. If that is what the Welsh Assembly wants, the Liberal Democrats would accept that, as is only right and proper.
I agree with the Minister and the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) about the need for better consultation with head teachers and governors about school budgets. That is said with due humility.
The schools forums proposed in the Bill now are very different from those originally intended by the Government. The original intention was for schools forums that would have considerable powers, if the Secretary of State decided to give them those powers. The forums would have had direct powers over local authority budgets and how they were devolved to schools. I am delighted that the Minister has agreed that those powers are not necessary. However, if the bodies will be merely consultative, why are we going to such great lengths?
I also agree with the Government that schools should have a right to petition the Secretary of State if they feel that they are being disadvantaged. That is right. Head teachers and governors have a duty to ensure that the resources that they get meet their school's needs, especially now that they will be held more and more responsible for what happens.
Mr. Willis: The Minister is so excited about the additional money. I am excited too, and I just wish that I was still leading my school as these resources were pouring in. However, I was in the House when the additional £19 billion was announced, but it turned out to be £6.1 billion.
The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West made a telling point. [Interruption.] It is always sad when Ministers cannot even be bothered to listen to the argument, because if they did they might be able to engage properly in the debate. The issue that the hon. Gentleman introduced was the new funding arrangements that are being proposed for schools and local authorities. If the budget for schoolsthe annual grant from the centreis to be ring-fenced, with a separate budget for local authorities for running the LEAs, we will have a very different beast from the one that we have now. We have major reservations about the new arrangement, and it will call into question the enormous top-up that local authorities give to schools over and above the standard spending assessment that the Government say that they should spend on their schools.
If we want to go down the road where everything is centrally controlled, where everything is decided in London and is simply imposed on schools and local authorities, I question whether local authorities have any future. On that basis, why do the Government not devolve all the money directly from the centre to each individual school? If that is what they want, let them say so. It seems that that is where we are going on this issue.
The jibe "one size fits all" has been made at our comprehensive system. It is a jibe that the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and other Cabinet members constantly make at the public sector. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West is right to say that before us is an example of one size fits all that is being foisted on local authorities and schools irrespective of whether they want it.
Under the Learning and Skills Council arrangements and the Learning and Skills Act 2000, funding for 16 to 19-year-olds is now provided by the Learning and Skills Councila wholly unelected quango. Yet there is no mention in the Bill, or in the 2000 Act, of the suggestion that there should be a schools forum for the Learning and Skills Council. It seems to me bizarre that a democratically elected body should have to have a schools forum to interject, but that a totally unelected quango can deal with £6 billion of taxpayers' money, without any say from elsewhere.
Mr. Brady: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is even more important a point given that the clear logic of the Government's position is to shift to a 14-to-19 phase of education and that the logical concomitant of that might be that the funding stream will go in the same direction, in which case even less of the money would go through the local authority route?
Mr. Willis: That is an area of genuine discussion with the Government and something that we need to have out with them. In an intervention during a recent debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), gave a definite no to the question. However, the issue remains on the table. I ask the Minister to explain why the Learning and Skills Council does not have to consult schools even though it is determining their budgets; nor, indeed, does it have to consult a further education college.