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First Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 15 July 2003
[Mrs. Irene Adams in the Chair]
(Additional Secondary School Proposals)
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Education (Additional Secondary School Proposals) Regulations 2003 (S.I. 2003, No. 1200).
I am slightly taken aback, because I had been very carefully briefed that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) would be praying against the regulations.
The Chairman: I have notes saying that the regulations are subject to the affirmative procedure and have not been prayed against.
Mr. Miliband: In that case, I am delighted to have the opportunity to explain the details of the regulations. I am grateful to you, Mrs. Adams, for giving me that opportunity, as hon. Members will want to know the details of these regulations. They may be flummoxed by a particular aspect of them. I do not know whether hon. Members have picked up on the fact that we are debating two sets of regulations today, the second of which may strike people as rather short. It involves substituting the words
''by the local education authority''
with the words
''from the local education authority''.
I assure the Committee that there is no great inner meaning to that, but it shows that we read our regulations and try to improve them as we go along.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington): Where is that second set of regulations? Do we have copies of them?
Mr. Miliband: They are the Education (Additional Secondary School Proposals) (Amendment) Regulations 2003 (S.I. No. 1421).
The Chairman: There seems to have been a mistake, because I think that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West prayed against the regulations. Is that right?
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I think that that may well be correct, Mrs. Adams, but I am happy to be guided by your wisdom as Chairman.
The Chairman: The regulations have been designated as requiring the affirmative procedure, but I understand now that the papers are wrong; they should be dealt with under the negative procedure. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West laid a prayer against them.
Mr. Miliband: I have been cut off in my prime.
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Mr. Brady: I did not want to let on that I had laid the prayer. It sometimes occurs to me that, even when we pray against regulations, it would be helpful if the Minister made a case for them before any other contributions are made in Committee He was doing well, so it is a great shame to see him cut off in his prime.
The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) raised was almost a point of order, or a house-keeping point, about the second provision to which the Minister referred. That was certainly something of which I was not aware. I received a card in respect of only one matter.
I was, in any case, going to raise the concern that I was unable to obtain a copy of the Education (Additional Secondary School Proposals) Regulations 2003 from the Vote Office until half-past 4 yesterday, which seems to be bizarre. That does not aid scrutiny of regulations or legislation in the House. I would welcome an explanation of that, or an assurance that steps can be taken to ensure that it does not happen again.
I know that it will be a source of disappointment to the Minister and to other hon. Members, and perhaps even to you, Mrs. Adams, that today is the last occasion until 17 September on which we can have such exchanges. That date is in my diary and may be in the Minister's as well. I wanted to raise questions about the additional secondary school regulations, albeit on a broadly consensual note—perhaps an appropriate tone on which to end before the House goes into recess.
These important matters concern all our constituents. We need adequate and appropriate provision of school places in all parts of the country. We are faced with a dynamic, developing situation. It is well known that the school population in the Minister's constituency is falling, resulting in the need to close schools. In other parts of the country, the population and school populations are rising. I am very much of the opinion that we need a new secondary school in my constituency, yet the local education authority is either unable or unwilling to take that suggestion on board. I am sure that that situation is reflected in countless other constituencies around the country. Such matters, and the need for proposals for new schools will become ever more pressing as demographic changes progress.
We welcome any measures that liberalise and free up the provision of additional secondary schools, providing greater diversity of secondary school places. That issue is being explored not only by us in opposition—we are looking at how we might wish to secure a wider and more diverse provision—but, quite properly, by Ministers.
The Minister may care to comment on the suggestion that found its way into The Sunday Times about three weeks ago that the Government were considering introducing a voucher scheme to allow people not just to set up a new secondary school, but to take the money that is currently being spent on their education to a private school. At the time, it was
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widely thought that the proposal had originated from Mr. Andrew Adonis in the policy unit. It appeared, I think, in early editions of The Sunday Times, and was fairly promptly removed. Those ideas need to be explored and I would welcome the Minister's comments on how such thinking, which is welcome, might tie in with these proposals.
If there is a difficulty in the regulations, it is that they are, in many ways, too bureaucratic and prescriptive, even though their purpose is to free up the provision of new secondary school places. I have several questions for the Minister on that, but I re-emphasise that I raise those issues supportively, given that I think that we both hope that policy will move in the same direction.
Why must the invitation to make proposals for a new secondary school come from a local education authority? What happens in a situation such as that in my constituency when the LEA perhaps fails to respond to a developing need or feels unable to do so? What provision is there in the regulations for parents to appeal or make a direct approach to the Secretary of State?
The regulations relate principally to section 70 of the Education Act 2002, of which section 71 provides for the Secretary of State to require an LEA to invite proposals. Will the Minister give an insight into the procedure by which that might take place and into the mechanism that might trigger such a decision by the Secretary of State? For example, if an LEA fails to take advantage of the regulations and the powers under section 70 of the Act, in what way and according to what criteria would the Secretary of State conclude that it would be appropriate to make use of his powers under section 71?
The regulations, as I read them, provide that the invitation to make proposals must come from the local education authority, and that the proposals will then be considered by the school organisation committee. The decision will then made by the Secretary of State. Again, although we welcome measures that may free up the provision of additional secondary schools, we are concerned that the mechanism through which that is to happen is highly centralised and ultimately dependent on the decision-making power of the Secretary of State rather than on any local or devolved power. Why, if it is considered appropriate for the local education authority to decide that it is necessary to seek proposals, is that authority not considered an appropriate forum in which to consider them? Why are they to be given to the school organisation committee instead?
What criteria will be used by Ministers to decide what type of school should be approved in the event that, following the issue of an invitation to make proposals, several different proposals are put forward? For instance, it is possible that a Church might propose a voluntary-aided school, and that, at the same time, a voluntary organisation or a commercial sponsor might propose an academy. What criteria will be used to decide between the different types of school, assuming that in all other relevant material ways the proposals are similar? Will the Minister confirm that if one of the proposals comes from the local education
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authority itself, it will have to compete on equal terms with other promoters, which may have made proposals for completely different types of school?
Will the capital costs that can be made available under the regulations be available equally to any provider, or will different rules apply depending on whether the proposed school is an academy or a voluntary-aided school? Will it be necessary, in the case of a voluntary-aided school, for the diocese, for instance, to make the contributions to the capital costs that are required for existing voluntary-aided schools, or will funding in such a case be on all fours with a proposal for a community school made by the local education authority?
The regulations may be unnecessarily prescriptive and bureaucratic. Schedule 1 lists information requirements, and the first one listed, at paragraph 4(a), is that information should be given on
''the number of pupil places the school should provide''.
Is not the Minister concerned about the possibility that a requirement to predict or stipulate the number of places to be provided would discourage innovative new proposals and act against the creativity and experimentation that might establish a new school in the hope that it would grow once it showed a record of success? The Opposition support greater diversity of school provision and are keen that difficulties should be resolved in the many communities in which new school provision is necessary. We have some concerns about the Government's approach, but I hope that the Minister will allay many of them when he resumes his remarks.