Education Bill

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Mr. Timms: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that he suggested that we should not have given out the information because that was possible only early today. He suggested that it was unhelpful to provide the information because of the timing.

We felt that it was important for as much information as possible to be available to hon. Members by the time that we reached this point of the Committee's deliberations. It is possible for an hon. Member, even one who plays such a prominent part in our debates, to have the odd moment in which to examine additional information. As I said, we have

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ensured that copies are here for each member of the Committee.

I make it clear to the Committee that once we are back in the swing of things, we will ensure that information is provided as early as possible to allow hon. Members to read it before the Committee meets and to allow them to take account of that in their preparation for each sitting. I was anxious that the information should be available to every member of the Committee because it was available in the Department yesterday. That is why we took these steps.

Mr. Willis: The Minister is disingenuous to say the least. The information is not even on the Table and available to every member of the Committee, although it may be behind the desk. I understand that the document runs to 30 or 40 pages. It is unrealistic to ask us to read that during the Committee's sitting. The Minister reduces the Committee to a sideshow if he feels that we should not concentrate on the Minister's erudite comments in response to our equally erudite, demanding and compelling questions. [Interruption.] Oh, the papers are here. The least that we need is time to read the documents, or a reordering of the clauses, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West.

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Mr. Timms: I accept that the material should have been available this morning, and I apologise for the fact that it was not. Of course, the section dealing with clause 28 is not as lengthy as the hon. Gentleman suggests, and I hope that we can proceed. I was anxious that Members should be able to read information that was available in the Department yesterday, and I have taken steps to ensure that they can do so.

The Chairman: There is an issue of procedure here. I do not have the power to suspend the Committee to allow hon. Members to read the documents, which, admittedly, have been provided at the last minute. That was unavoidable, as this is the Committee's first sitting of the new year. I am aware of the timetable for our proceedings, and further delay will put pressure on the Committee. The appropriate way to deal with the issue is to proceed through the usual channels. As there has been no illegality, and ''Erskine May'' has not been flouted—this has happened more than once during the past 20 years, and sometimes regulations have not been available at all when clauses have been debated—I have no power to suspend the Committee. If the usual channels want to resolve the matter, that is up to them.

Clause 26

Limits on power to provide

community facilities

Mr. Willis: I beg to move amendment No. 224, in page 16, line 21, after 'they', insert 'and the maintaining LEA'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:

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No. 182, in page 16, line 25, leave out subsection (4).

No. 130, in page 16, line 25, after 'body', insert

    'of a community, voluntary controlled, community special or maintained nursery school'.

No. 131, in page 16, line 30, after 'and', insert

    '(in the case of a community, voluntary controlled, community special or maintained nursery school)'.

Mr. Willis: I should say, Mr. Griffiths, that my earlier remarks about Cardiff City and Leeds United did not refer to you. You are totally neutral on such matters.

In relation to this simple amendment, I refer hon. Members to chapter 2, section 5 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West and I were on the Committee that considered the Bill, and we appreciated the Government's inclusion in it of a direct responsibility for local education authorities to raise standards in schools. It seemed strange, but that was the first time that it had been spelt out that that was the duty of local education authorities. That was to be welcomed. In fact, the amendment would merely ensure that, as local authorities have the duty—[Interruption.] That is just my wife paging me to say that lunch is ready—we eat early in Yorkshire, because it gets dark at teatime.

The purpose of the amendment is to take cognisance of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 and ensure that local education authorities are consulted before actions are taken. The action of one governing body on community facilities or other facilities that it provides has a knock-on effect on others. Liberal Democrats have a problem with the fact that the Government are returning to the bad old days of 1988 and the previous Conservative Government, whereby competition between schools rather than co-operation is the name of the game. To achieve good community facilities so that a governing body can use its powers for the benefit of the broader community, not only for the school, it is important that the local education authority is consulted. We are proposing not that the local education authority should have the right to veto or that it must define what happens within governing bodies, but that the recommendations under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 are transferred to the Bill so that the LEA is consulted.

Mr. Ivan Lewis: Again, I think that we agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman. However, what is puzzling is that we believe that, in such circumstances, clause 26(4) already requires the governing body to consult the LEA before it undertakes community activities and to have regard to its advice. As part of that process, the local education authority could raise any concerns that it has about the proposed activities of the governing body. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that the proposal is about not only the LEA considering whether an individual proposal would work, but it taking account of the strategic needs of a given community and ensuring, for example, that schools near to each other do not provide the same community

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activities. Under a more strategic corporate approach, there could be a better range of community activities that would benefit a particular community. Given the hon. Gentleman's spirit of open mindedness in the new year, I ask him to accept that amendment No. 224 is unnecessary because clause 26(4) contains the safeguards that he requests.

Mr. Willis: I hear what the Under-Secretary says. We tabled the amendment because clause 26(3) refers to

    ''the performance of any duty imposed on them by section 20(2) or by any other provision of the Education Acts.''

The inclusion of the local education authority in the provision would satisfy its requirements. However, given that the Under-Secretary will not accept our reasonable proposal, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: I shall put the question that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Brady: I thought that we would have an opportunity to debate the other amendments to the clause.

The Chairman: That opportunity has passed. If the hon. Gentleman wants to speak to clause 26 stand part, he may.

Mr. Brady: In that case, I have no option but to speak to the clause.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Brady: I wanted to explain amendment No. 182. It sits alongside amendment No. 224, which has just been withdrawn by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: For the sake of fairness, I wish to intervene on my hon. Friend. He was trying desperately to read the document that he has just received, hence the unusual procedure that he is now adopting. For the record, I want it to be known that my hon. Friend is trying to catch up with the document that the Minister distributed.

Mr. Brady: Ministers have encouraged us all to scrabble to understand the detail of the document that was distributed a few moments ago. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's concern for my reputation in the record of the Committee, such as it may be.

Amendment No. 182 has almost the opposite effect to amendment No. 224. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and I have agreed with each other for much of the proceedings. We will be more comfortable now that we are on different ground and more familiar territory. The hon. Gentleman sought to increase the role of LEAs in schools' provision of community facilities.

The Minister gave an interesting insight into his thinking when he said that clause 26 seeks in part to limit harmful competition between schools that provide community facilities. That suggests that it may be damaging if two neighbouring schools seek to

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provide the same facility, and is one reason why the hon. Gentleman seeks to constrain the freedom of schools to provide the facilities that the Minister seeks to allow them under clause 25. That runs the risk, in principle and in spirit, of being contrary to what Ministers claim is the aim of the Bill: the thrust towards innovation and experimentation, and the drive to maximise the potential of resources that are focused on educational provision. Better use may be made of those resources than is made at present by opening them up to wider community use.

Amendment No. 182 would remove the obligation to consult the LEA. That would not greatly increase the risk of unnecessary duplication of resources, but would protect the freedom of schools to innovate and to open up their facilities in new ways. The Minister must surely accept that under clause 25 schools that provide community facilities may be competitors with not only another school, but a local authority that may be a principal provider of community facilities. In some local authority areas, good facilities may be provided for sports and recreation, such as public swimming pools. The local community may not need schools to expand the provision of such facilities. In many other areas, there may be poor facilities, or the provision may be patchy. Clause 25 is welcome in that it seeks to extend the ability of schools, which are generally widely placed around the communities that they serve, to fill existing gaps in provision. Clause 26 would regrettably constrain that by obliging schools to consult LEAs when, as providers of those facilities, LEAs may not always act impartially as protectors of the interests of the communities that they serve.

A local authority that provides particular facilities—with which the local populace may be less than satisfied—might find it convenient to discourage, dissuade or block provision by schools, which may have something to offer the community. The local authority may be concerned about loss of custom in a poor local swimming baths, or that a poorly lit hockey pitch will no longer be used. It may be concerned about the impact on its current leisure facilities.

If Ministers want to increase the likelihood of communities having good recreational facilities through opening up existing school facilities and allowing schools to improve, enhance and expand facilities, we support that. However, the Government may constrain their positive objectives by placing a potential competitor in a strong position under clause 26.

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