Education Bill

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Mr. Lewis: We have heard a revelatory statement this morning: the new Tory party is the friend of local government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said from a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) is unlikely to serve in the Treasury on the basis of his proposal.

However, there is a serious point to be made about the historical funding of child care and early years provision. The Opposition are reluctant to discuss history, but before the Government were elected, the more progressive LEAs could only develop quality child care and early years provision largely because they consciously chose to prioritise nursery provision, and only if they had the necessary resources. Under the Government of the party represented by the hon. Gentleman, they received little statutory funding for the development of nursery provision, which was discretionary. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept the irony that the amendment relates to the provision of child care information services.

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There is always a debate about what proportion of the standard spending assessment is designed for what purpose. The Government provide LEAs with a ring-fenced, targeted sum of £15 million a year for those services through the standard spending assessment. That commitment runs from 2001 to 2004, and works out at about £100,000 per LEA for each early years partnership. The hon. Gentleman expressed a common concern about the relationship between central and local government, and the requirement that the Government place on local government to fulfil various responsibilities. Local government does not always believe that it gets a fair deal. Not only are the Government including the issue to which the amendment relates in the standard spending assessment, but there is also a ring-fenced tangible pot of money to fund this specific responsibility.

In a world where there are continued debates about priorities, pressure on resources and difficult decisions about finite resources, no Secretary of State or Government can make in a Bill an infinite commitment to fund a particular service. On the Government's commitment, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The track record is there for all to see. There is money for this purpose through a combination of the standard spending assessment and a ring-fenced provision.

Chris Grayling: May I ask one question? Is this responsibility on an LEA encompassed by that ring-fenced budget, or is the ring-fenced budget already allocated to other requirements, which would make this an additional requirement?

Mr. Lewis: That is a fair question. No, this money is being used now specifically for this purpose, and will run until 2004. It will be reviewed as part of the current expenditure review. It is not an aspiration; the pot of money is now being used specifically to fulfil this responsibility.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): The Minister may be surprised to hear that I was listening carefully to his argument. He said that, in the face of possible alternative priorities and constant difficult decisions about those priorities, he was unwilling to make in the Bill a commitment for the Government to provide a certain amount of money. Does he understand that this proposed clause and, in particular, this subsection, requires exactly that of local authorities? What is the qualitative difference between the Government making such a commitment and the local authority being required to make such a commitment?

Mr. Lewis: Very simply, there is a legitimate debate. The Government have announced a review of the amount of money given to local government through the standard spending assessment and the amount given in different ways, such as through ring-fenced standards funds. There is on-going consideration of the best way to allocate resources so that local authorities have a decent settlement and can deliver the kind of services that they have a statutory responsibility to deliver and that their communities expect. In that context it would be complete nonsense to place a requirement in the Bill for child care information services to be funded in a ring-fenced and specific way. That would not be appropriate, but it

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would be the consequence of accepting the amendment.

Mr. Turner: It is for my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell to defend the amendment, but I believe that the Minister objects to the ring-fenced nature of the obligation rather than the obligation on the Government to continue indefinitely to provide resources for this requirement on local authorities.

Mr. Lewis: The amendment would allow the local education authority to use its discretion as to how much it chose to spend for this purpose. The Government would then have to pick up the costs. That cannot be sensible or good legislation.

I understand the purpose of the amendment The debate about the relationship between the Government and local government is a legitimate one. The Government have announced a review of the balance between the allocation of resources to SSAs and to standards funds and ring-fenced budgets. Under any Government, it would be a bad piece of legislation that allowed local authorities to spend what they chose on any policy and then expect the Secretary of State to pick up the bill. That is not the intention of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, and on that basis I ask him to withdraw it.

Chris Grayling: I thank the Minister for that clarification. I am reassured that finance is available to enact the provision. I add one caveat, which is that the Government have a habit of introducing ring-fenced budgets. Last week, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) initiated a debate about threshold pay. We referred to the future of the allocation of funds for threshold pay. The Government have ring-fenced funds for the initial two years and intimated that after that, funds will be allocated through the SSA. However, they have not guaranteed that all the requirements will be funded in that fashion. It concerns us that a ring-fenced amount may exist for several years and then disappear. I hope that the Minister, as long as he retains his office, will ensure that funding continues to be—[Interruption.] I would not expect the Minister to give an assurance for the indefinite future. I hope that the Government continue to fund the provision. I am somewhat reassured by the Minister's comments, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 145 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 146

Early years development and childcare partnerships and plans

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

Mrs. Laing: No amendments have been tabled, but I have questions for the Minister concerning the Government's intentions. I welcome elements of the clause and—I almost said praise but perhaps that is going too far—endorse what the Government are trying to do. Clause 146(5), which requires the phrase ''and childcare'' to be added in every instance where legislation refers to early years development plans or

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partnerships, will ensure that we are now considering early years and childcare partnership plans. I welcome that, but we must also consider how the Government intend to implement it. I am concerned about the wording of subsection (3):

    ''The statement mentioned in subsection (2)(a) must deal with such matters, and relate to such period, as may be determined by or in accordance with regulations.''

That sort of phrase appears frequently in the Bill. I am concerned about its vagueness. It is perfectly reasonable to say that this shall be

    ''determined by or in accordance with regulations.''

I will slow down to allow the Minister to find the line to which I am referring. It is line 41 on page 86. There is no point in rushing through my remarks if the Minister does not have time to consider his answer.

11 am

Where will the regulations be published? As representatives who have been elected to legislate, when will we have a chance to consider them? Who will compile them, and will we have an opportunity to debate their contents? None of that is clear.

Mr. Lewis: The regulations will simply be a means of supporting and guiding the early years partnerships in conducting their annual review of the sufficiency of child care provision. We want to achieve the right balance, so that local partnerships can respond to the needs of their community in a flexible and sensitive way, yet welcome regulations from central Government that assist and guide them in carrying out their responsibilities. We have debated the relationship between primary legislation, regulation and guidance under several clauses. In this clause, regulations are the best way forward.

There would be an opportunity to consider the implications of any changes to regulations. However, the measure is, basically, a re-enactment of the law set out in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. In line with guidance already issued, existing regulations will be amended to cover the new duty. Thus, we are discussing not a significant change to the status quo, but the alignment in regulations of changes introduced by the Bill.

Mrs. Laing: Will Parliament have an opportunity to ask questions about the regulations?

Mr. Lewis: May I come back to the hon. Lady on that point?

Mrs. Laing: Of course, I eagerly await the Minister's answer. I acknowledge that I have sprung the question on him without notice; therefore, it is perfectly reasonable for him to give an answer at some later stage.

Mr. Lewis: The regulations would be the subject of a negative resolution procedure. The proposed changes are technical; thus, the regulations would not normally be debated in the House. Obviously, changes in regulation are made public in advance and are consulted on. The people at the sharp end—those involved in local partnerships—and Members of the House will have the opportunity to comment on and

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debate the issues, but there will not be a debate or a vote on the change in the regulations. I hope that the hon. Lady is satisfied by that response.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 146 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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