Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I come to the consideration of the Local Government Bill somewhat late in its passage, but I hope that hon. Members will forgive me, given that I have been dealing with the issue under discussion for a little longer, having served as a Back Bencher on the Committee for the Schools Standards and Framework Bill in 1998, and a Front Bencher on the Committee on the Education Bill last year.

This business is just another chapter in the sorry saga of the Government's mishandling of school funding this year. In spite of the Minister's emollient words—in his usual reasonable tone, he presented this as merely the product of coincidences of various changes in procedure—it is a great shame that hon. Members and schools in our various constituencies have little reason to be confident that this will be the final chapter in that sorry saga.

This year, the Department for Education and Skills guaranteed a minimum increase in education formula allocations for each local education authority area. None the less, we have seen the worst schools funding

15 Sept 2003 : Column 683

crisis in decades. On 17 July, the Secretary of State sought a guarantee at the level of the individual school. He said:

We must ask whether this year's guarantee will prove any more durable than that which went before it.

The crisis that has afflicted schools this year was all the worse because it was unnecessary. The Department for Education and Skills was warned in good time by heads and by hon. Members, but was too arrogant or too intransigent to act. Ministers ignored repeated warnings about the effect of increases in employers' national insurance contributions, increases in the superannuation contributions for teachers, and the removal of elements of the standards fund. They did nothing.

It is also true that the specific proposals in the amendment could have been dealt with much earlier. On 8 January 2002, in Standing Committee G on the Education Bill, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and I moved amendments that sought to deal with this precise problem. The hon. Gentleman sought to fix a later end date for the budget round, and suggested that 15 February would be appropriate. I tried to fix the end date as a period of not more than 21 days after the teachers pay review had reported. Either arrangement might have helped had Ministers been prepared to listen to the arguments being advanced. The proposal was one of the unfortunate casualties of the heavy-handed, unnecessary timetabling of our considerations in Committee.

The perfectly sensible arguments that were advanced by members of the Committee on behalf of outside interest groups that had seen clearly what would happen as a result of the arrangements that the Government were implementing were not fully considered. Had they been, it might have obviated the need for these exchanges. Sadly, Ministers would not listen. As a consequence, they have presided over utter chaos in school funding this year.

This measure is a belated attempt to resolve a problem that we foresaw and about which we warned Ministers almost two years ago. The House should turn its attention to whether this belated attempt to solve the problem will work. On 17 July, the Secretary of State set out an approach that depends on a number of different strands: a two-year teachers' pay settlement, an earlier provisional local government settlement and how local authorities choose to fund their local schools. Even so, on 17 July, the Secretary of State accepted that there may be exceptional circumstances in which local education authorities would not be expected to—in the jargon—passport 100 per cent. of the increase in schools formula spending share to the schools budget. That was confirmed in a written answer to me on 8 September from the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education. I asked for clarification of those exceptional circumstances. I received the following response:

15 Sept 2003 : Column 684

So we already have from the Secretary of State an acceptance that there may be exceptional circumstances in which 100 per cent. passporting may not be appropriate or necessary, but no indication as yet of the circumstances in which that judgment would be made.

9.30 pm

What would happen in that event? Would the minimum percentage per pupil increase in the school budget be honoured if, it being considered an exceptional circumstance, the powers to require the 100 per cent. passporting were not implemented? If so, would it be done through direct payment? Is the Minister confident that the amendment would allow sufficient time for the school to be notified if such measures were taken?

On 8 January, I attempted to give Ministers powers to do precisely what they now say they want to do. My amendments would have allowed minimum per pupil funding to be specified for each school or category of schools. It is not clear to me how, without those powers, Ministers will fulfil the aspiration set out in the statement of 17 July of a minimum per pupil increase.

As can be seen from a written answer that I received last week, Ministers do not know how they will fulfil their aspirations either. When I asked the Secretary of State whether the guaranteed minimum per pupil increase would take account of the restoration of standards funds payments or would apply only to the age-weighted per pupil funding, I was told:

Ministers do not yet know how they will achieve their aim in procedural terms; nor do they even yet know on what baseline the guaranteed increased school funding figure will begin. Another written answer from the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education stated:

One would have thought it a fairly simple matter to look at a pledge to increase per pupil school funding from one year to the next, and that the baseline must necessarily be the sum per pupil spent the previous year. I have half the answer so far. I do not criticise the Department, because I think that it was impossible to print the other half of the figures that I asked for. I am talking about the per pupil expenditure figure for every school in the country for the current financial year. It is contained in a fairly substantial document, which is in the Library of the House. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will want to hurry there to consult it. They will find interesting variations in not only the per pupil funding of schools in different parts of the country and different constituencies, but per pupil funding in different parts of the same LEA area.

15 Sept 2003 : Column 685

The remarkable thing is that those figures are not the baseline on which the pledge to increase per pupil funding is to be based. I do not understand how anything other than per pupil funding in the present year can be used as the baseline. We have the guarantee of 17 July but, as yet, no methodology, no regulations and no guidance. We do not even know the baseline funding figure on which a school's guaranteed increase will build.

The measures before us are a belated attempt to deal with the problems that have afflicted schools during the current financial year. If the Government had perhaps been a little more willing to listen to rational argument and to be open-minded in their consideration of previous legislation, the measures might already have been in place, or indeed been unnecessary because more effective measures could have been enacted already. We are left with an attempt to improve the position, which is an honest attempt that we welcome. I give full credit to the Minister for that but it leaves us with some serious questions.

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): The hon. Gentleman is still on the Committee of the 1998 Bill.

Mr. Brady: The Minister comments that he thinks that I am still on the Committee of the 1998 Bill. If Ministers at the time had got more right in the passage of the School Standards and Framework Bill and had listened to argument, schools would be the better for it and we would not be picking up the pieces many years on.

We have had an assurance from the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire that everything possible will be done by the Government to ensure that the local government settlement will be brought forward by mid-November. That is extremely welcome. We will, of course, seek to hold the Government to that. I ask for further assurances or clarification on the exact status of the provisional settlement, and how certain schools can be that they are working from a solid foundation in looking at the provisional figures. Can he give the House a clearer idea of the status of negotiations regarding the teachers' pay settlement? I would welcome some further assurance on those points and look forward to the Minister's comments.

Next Section

IndexHome Page