Draft Contracting Out (Local Education Authority Functions) (England) Order 2002

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Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): May I welcome you to the Chair, Miss Widdecombe, and say what a pleasure it is to work with you? I have a sense of deja vu, not only because the Minister and the hon. Members for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and I spent the last several months together—[Hon. Members: Hear, Hear]—in a business sense, but because I remember the comments of the late Nicholas Ridley about the functions of local authorities. He said that they would meet once a year to hand out the contracts. I never expected that a Labour Government would move in that direction, nor did I imagine that we would see the leader of the Conservative party going in front of the local government conference—echoed by his education spokesperson—to defend the role of local education authorities. It is a strange world, but one in which we welcome sinners repenting and coming back to the fold.

When one examines the order—I am grateful, as ever, to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, for his detailed analysis of it—one has to ask why it is necessary at all. I thought that that was why we were going to have local elections on 1 May or whenever—to elect our local councillors to run our local authorities and take decisions of the type covered by the order. However, it seems that the Government, for some reason, must take the tortuous route of the order to deal with the matter.

I am fascinated by the account of Islington council given by the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. It shows that the right hon. Gentleman has suffered a memory lapse. He knows full well that one reason why the Labour party lost power in Islington was that it ran arguably the worst education service of any local authority in Britain. Even the Labour council members did not object to the services being privatised and contracted out to Cambridge Education Associates.

I am delighted to see that my Liberal Democrat colleagues in Islington are fighting back and are trying to provide quality services for young people. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, who is a committed local MP, will be delighted to witness the huge success of the Liberal Democrats in his constituency, even though it might stick in his throat.

Mr. Chris Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: I cannot help but be tempted.

Mr. Smith: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I would not demur from some of his analysis of the problems that have faced education in Islington during quite a number of years. The signs of improvement began under the previous Labour administration and are not the preserve of the Liberal Democrat administration, which will shortly be swept from office. My earlier point related specifically to the closure and sale of Angel school. That dirty deed was entirely done by the Liberal Democrats.

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Mr. Willis: It would be quite wrong for me to enter into that debate, and you would stop me straight away, Miss Widdecombe. It would be wrong of me to comment on a particular school on another hon. Member's patch. I have little understanding of that matter, but I intend to visit the area next week.

I am not terribly vexed by the arrangements in the order and I am surprised that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West should be. In 2001, the Conservative party, in its manifesto, wanted to do exactly what the Minister is doing, but with knobs on. It wanted to get rid of local education authorities in their entirety and devolve all their functions to schools or private contractors. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have been rejoicing today, saying, ''Hallelujah! Why aren't more services contracted out?''

Mr. Brady: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: I do not want to provoke the hon. Gentleman and I know that the Minister needs to make a major response—

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Frit!

Mr. Willis: Do not get excited.

The Chairman: Order. I am not at all excited.

Mr. Willis: I am very sorry that you are not, Miss Widdecombe.

I am not particularly vexed about the order because the Minister made the important statement during his opening remarks that the arrangements were voluntary. Local authorities will be able to enter into them if they so desire. The essence of local democracy is that local people should decide how their services are delivered and by whom. In most cases, the local authority can deliver the services perfectly well on behalf of its schools and its children. I nevertheless accept that local authorities have the right to decide, if they so wish, that a service is better dealt with by a private contractor, a not-for-profit company, a charity or some other organisation. For that reason, I find little in the schedules of major concern.

The problem comes when services are not given away voluntarily but contracted out because the Secretary of State, as a result of an inspection by Ofsted or the adult learning inspectorate, takes that decision for the local authority. I want the Minister to state that when a local authority is ordered under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 to outsource all its services, that will not apply only to the services outlined in schedules 1, 2 and 3, but that all services, including strategic planning, will go to the contractor.

Will the Minister comment on whether the voluntary arrangements contained in the schedules are the only ones into which local authorities can enter in terms of contracted-out services? Do they represent the total of what is available? If so, some gestures in the Education Bill—the 2002 Act, as it will be if it completes its passage through the other place—will be somewhat hollow. We were given to understand that

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local authorities would have greater powers to innovate than at present, and that that would include contracting out other services as well.

I welcome the fact that the Minister's comments are a far cry from those of previous Conservative Governments, who introduced compulsory competitive tendering for so many local services within local authorities. Locally elected members had no choice as to whether services went elsewhere, and matters were dealt with merely on price. There have been disasters in the quality of services in many local authorities as a result. I applaud the Minister for not going down that road but accepting that local authorities should decide on the issue.

May I, however, pick up on two issues to which the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West alluded? The first was that of complaints. Schedule 1(bb) is about redress in terms of complaints. I foresee a problem arising, and the Minister may have a simple response to it. A complaint about the quality of the service would inevitably go to the contractor. Schedule 1(bb) is on the

    ''duty of the local education authority to make arrangements for the consideration and disposal of complaints''.

If the complaint were about an admission or the quality of the product offered by the private contractor, and if the contractor's complaints process suggested that there was no complaint to answer, could people take the complaint to the local education authority? Would it die with the contractor once it had decided on any response, including one that suggested that there was no case to answer?

In relation to schedule 3(s), what duties do local authorities have with regard to higher and further education under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995? It appears that the Learning and Skills Act 2000 takes away from local authorities the responsibilities for disability discrimination issues. As far as further education students are concerned, and with some reference to higher education, I can see nothing in that or any other piece of legislation that gives local authorities any duties. I should be grateful if the Minister would respond on those issues. We generally welcome the voluntary nature of the arrangements. Indeed, I hope that, in his closing remarks, the Minister will reassure the Committee and local authorities that the contracting-out arrangements are voluntary and that local authorities do not have to pay heed to them unless they so desire through their elected representatives.

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Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): At the risk of it becoming a surfeit, I add my welcome to you in the Chair, Miss Widdecombe. I do not intend to detain the Committee long. It was interesting that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned ''deja vu''. Indeed, we have spent many hours in Committee; not that I take issue with that. At the height of the rugby season, I should say that I feel somewhat blind-sided, as I sat in this position for weeks on end with the hon. Gentleman.

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I want to support and amplify the requests for information and clarification from the Minister made by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. There seem to be a few exceptions, particularly those functions conferred by or under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. We need clarification of why those functions are not regarded as central, core or strategic to the functions of an LEA, because they seem to get perilously close to being so, particularly in relation to retaining their final discretion in strategic directions for education provision and children under their responsibility.

I want to raise four specific provisions, and one general question that does not appear in the schedules. In relation to section 41 of the 1998 Act, which deals with responsibility for fixing dates of terms, holidays and times of sessions, there is a question about what the Government have in mind, who the LEAs' contractees might be and, therefore, who will set the dates, given that there is so much debate, especially in Cheshire at the moment, about whether to move from a three to a four, five or even six-term year. We need to know whether some offloading, even on a voluntary basis, is envisaged for what is undoubtedly a serious, and in parts controversial, issue, both among teachers and many ancillary staff who support schools. Many of those people, as well as parents and children, organise their lives around the way in which the term dates are currently fixed. That issue initially arose under a previous Labour-Liberal administration at Cheshire county hall, which, I am glad to say, has since become a Conservative-controlled council. However, the issue was put on the agenda and the debate continues rumbling through. We need clarification of whether a local administration, of whatever political colour, could contract out that strategic decision about fixing dates because, patently, one could fix dates for a six-term year.

Moving on—I shall just highlight the sections on which I seek answers, rather than making ardent submissions—section 62 relates to a local education authority's reserve power to prevent a breakdown of discipline. There is nothing more important to parents in Cheshire. Despite various arguments of which the Minister is well aware and a deep feeling of unfairness about how the standard spending assessment works on a per capita basis, the biggest issue is discipline.

Whereas we could have a long debate about what is meant by the all-encompassing and sometimes misused term ''inclusion'', a large number of parents on both sides of the argument are worried about the effect on their children of disruptive children continuing to be in schools, or being excluded from schools. When there is a breakdown in discipline, the teachers themselves are often the most concerned and vociferous about the pressure, stress and anxiety for the children in their charge having to cope with continually disruptive children who have not yet reached the point at which, under current thinking and practice, exclusion takes place.

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It is difficult to envisage how that reserve power could be contracted out. The use of the word ''reserve'' is especially worrying in this context, as it seems to imply that there is an intended removal of the final discretion for a strategic measure at school level. That would certainly be worrying for teachers, given their responsibilities and need to teach to the best of their abilities; the issue is one of strategic importance for their profession and career.

Section 69, which I shall couple with section 70, relates to the contracting out that is envisaged in relation to the provision of religious education and collective worship. Under the Education Bill that was considered for such a long time in Committee, many views were expressed on the question of faith schools. Her Majesty's official Opposition and the Government were in accord on the need to maintain faith schools, although the Liberal Democrats did not support that. None the less, if contracting out were allowed in relation to those matters—even in respect of a school in the maintained sector that was, for example, a Church of England primary school—would there not be a stealthy or subterranean move to reduce the religious element, which is of such importance to parents who send their children to such schools? If abused, the proposal could fly in the face of the Government's intentions for faith schools, with which the Opposition are in broad accord; it is a policy that I am happy to applaud.

There is one other item that does not seem to crop up in any of the schedules. Interestingly, I looked for it under section 77(2) of the 1998 Act and found that that was the same section number of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, under which the order is laid. We had some discussion related to the Education Bill of the following issue, of which I cite an example from my constituency that I have mentioned to the Minister before. After a great fight that earned only a year's stay of execution, Brook Farm school in Tarporley was closed. It was a special needs school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties and had been much supported by the community for decades. It was closed under the previous Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition administration at county hall and, despite the Prime Minister's assertion before the 1997 election that no special school would close on financial grounds alone, it was closed for that reason.

The buildings sit in a large area of playing fields that were used by those children; of course, there are no children any longer at Brook Farm school, but the playing fields lie in the heart of a village community that would be ideal an infill development opportunity. Under section 77(2) of the 1998 Act, there is a 10-year moratorium on that land, because it was used for playing fields by a maintained school.

I am worried that something may be hidden away in the provisions. Having read the schedules, I cannot be confident that I have understood the full import of every section that is cited, and I imagine that every member of the Committee other than the Minister probably shares that sentiment. That is why I am asking the Minister for the answers. There may be a danger that those playing fields will be used for

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development under the usual planning provisions, and not for recreational use for the benefit of the community, which would be the obvious solution. That example highlights the dangers of considering contracting out in general, when the specific instances are the ones that will make all the difference to communities and to education provision.

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