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Mr. Gummer : I perfectly understand the Minister, but as he is so comprehensive in what he is able to do, I wonder whether he has been the victim of his civil servants: I remember them well. I suspect that he probably wanted to put in the proposed change, but his civil servants said to him: "Better not, Ministerbetter leave it like this." I had not thought that he was susceptible to that, and I hope that he will not be so today, but will think again. It is better to do it; then all worries are allayed.
Mr. Twigg : In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) suggested that we place the prospectus on a statutory footing. I think that the initial advice from my officials was, "Better not", but my view was that we should do precisely that. I believe that through the amendment that we will discuss later we will achieve what the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members want to achieveto ensure that adequate consultation is at the heart of what we are seeking to achieve through the Bill.
: The Minister said that the prospectus is "binding" and mentioned the amendment that we will discuss later. Will he explain what he means by that in
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the context of consultation? The letter that he sent to members of the Committee on 14 December said that
Mr. Twigg : The reassurance that I sought to provide in Committeethe hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) mentioned thisis that many of the concerns that are being raised on consultation are addressed in the prospectus. It was said in Committee, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, that that reassurance would be strengthened were the prospectus itself placed on a statutory footing. We are doing so in order to ensure that the reassurance that we can provide through the prospectus is absolutely and without doubt there in the Bill.
Mr. Hoban : I am grateful to the Minister for that confirmation of the status of the prospectus. Will he confirm whether it will be a final document once the Bill is passed? Otherwise, how will we know that the reassurance that we have been given about it today will not be overridden by a prospectus that is published in a year or so, or in 10 years' time?
Mr. Twigg : We may return to this in more detail later. Once the Bill has completed its passage through both Houses, I want to have the best possible prospectus. That is why I certainly do not close the book on further changes to it as a consequence of today's debate or proceedings in the other place. There is then, under the terms of the amendments that we will discuss later, the possibility of its being revised in future to meet concerns as the pilots are developed. That is the sensible approach, because there may be aspects that we would not anticipate in the debates that we are having now but arise in future years. I am sure that we can return to some of those issues when we discuss those amendments.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I understand what the Minister is saying, but will he tell the House that any changes to the prospectus will be done by the normal statutory instrument process or will be done by the Minister and sent out to others for consultation?
Mr. Twigg : The intention is that this will be a consultative process by the Department. We need to consider whether it is possible to ensure some form of parliamentary engagement, possibly through the relevant Select Committee. I will take that suggestion away for further consideration and we will address it in the other place.
: This is a very important issue, because the status of the prospectus has that status only with this Minister at this particular time. Any Minister, including one of a Government of a different complexion, could write a prospectus that was completely contrary to the spirit of this one, and Parliament would have absolutely no say in that. There is enough power for the Secretary of State to make those agreements on his or her own say. That is a dangerous precedent, because if it is introduced
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for this Bill it could be used for any other piece of social legislation that Ministers wish to introduce in future. Will the Minister consider whether the prospectus should be backed up by a clear set of statutory instruments, which obviously cannot be brought in today, but could be committed to in another place?
Mr. Twigg : I am happy to take that suggestion away and look at it. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I emphasise that the schemes will not be imposed on local communities by central Governmentthe prospectus provides a basis for schemes that are developed at the local level, which can happen only if there is support for them at that local level. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concerns, and I give him the undertaking that we will consider whether legislative processes are required in addition to the traditional form of consultation. I think that it is unlikely that the scenario that he describes would happen in practice, but I am happy to consider his suggestion.
Mr. Gummer : Does the Minister understand that my original concern is now made worse? He has kindly made the prospectus binding. That means that if, for example, the consultation arrangements were significantly changed or watered down, that too would be binding. The consultation element should be in the Bill to ensure that whatever happens to the prospectus, at least that which is crucial for local democracy is in place.
Mr. Twigg : I understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern. It is hard in practice to imagine a future Government of any of the three major parties that would seek to move from a prospectus that has very wide and comprehensive consultation in it to abandon consultation altogether. It would be very difficult politically for a Government of any stripe to attempt that. It is important that we get this prospectus right so that the guidance that is being provided through it becomes the guidance upon which consultation happens for the first pilot schemes. Largely thanks to the contributions of Members in this House and the other place through pre-legislative scrutiny, in Committee and in other ways, we now have a strong prospectus that I will feel confident in taking forward as a basis for the set of proposals in the Bill.
Mr. Kidney : I am grateful and flattered that my hon. Friend should take my advice over and above that of his civil servants on this issue. However, I was concerned in Committee that we should identify the prospectus on which people will base their schemes. My hon. Friend's amendment does not do that. Is not that the issue that remains to be resolved?
Mr. Twigg : Let us revert to that matter when we consider the relevant amendment. At this point, I ask Opposition Members to withdraw the amendment and we can then proceed with the debates on other subjects.
: I congratulate the Minister on his appointmentI did not know about it at the beginning of the debate. I am also delighted that the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) has been promoted. I do not know how he will link education to his current
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obsession, which is a second crossing on the Runcorn bridge. I expect White Papers with titles such as "Bridging the Schools Gap" or "Spanning the Years".
It is fair to say that the Minister has made some concessions. There has been some movement and it would be churlish not to acknowledge that. In our view, the concessions as they stand are not enough and the reasons for his position are not sufficiently plausible. I place some faith in the Minister's commentshe speaks with more than a degree of sincerity. If denominational schools have further concerns, I invite them to express them to Opposition parties so that they can be raised in another place.
However, as the Minister expanded on his argument, many Liberal Democrat Members became unhappy about a system whereby a prospectus could be issued that was in no way subject to review by Parliament. Although we will withdraw amendment No. 6, we shall support amendment No. 12.
No discussion took place on the subject in Committee and I therefore raise it now. The amendment would be a sensible addendum and it was inspired by a sight that often confronts people not far from my constituency in the constituency of the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), where there is a road with no fewer than three large independent schools, a prep school and two state schools, including an infant school and a large comprehensive school. There is massive congestion. Many cars are parked there when school starts and finishes, but additionally there are many buses as most independent schools have complex bussing arrangements. If that happens in one constituency, it probably happens in many constituencies.
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