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Amendment No. 129DB is concerned with consultation provisions related to regulations applicable to child minders and day care providers. In particular, the amendment is designed to elicit from the Government the consultation mechanisms and the way in which they propose to introduce early years development and child care partnerships. Early years development and childcare partnerships were initiated in 1998 as a result of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. As I understand it, each local authority, at least in England, now has an operational partnership. All produced a comprehensive early years development and child care plan by the winter of 1999. I believe that a second plan is being prepared by all of them for 2000-2001.
The responsibilities which the local authorities share with the partnerships include not only the production of the required number of annual reports but also a complementary annual childcare audit and detailed development and expansion programmes to cover every aspect of early years and childcare services, including training and support for the development of quality. I understand that at least 25 of the 148 partnerships and their respective authorities have begun to produce local quality assurance schemes, such as the Sheffield Kitemark. Many others are in train.
I also understand that each partnership must have a chair and comprise local people who represent all groups of providers, employers and parents. They are beginning to develop as active local forums within which parents and other key stakeholders can formulate a local vision for the provision of services
Earl Howe: In rising to speak to Amendment No. 135, I associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. One of the inevitable consequences of this part of the Bill is that the role of local authorities will be considerably reduced. But it would be very foolish if the corporate wisdom, as it were, of local authority registration and inspection teams was allowed to evaporate. It is that element of local knowledge, and often considerable development and support work, which will be immensely valuable to Ofsted. If anything, I believe that the local dimension will be required even more than before with Ofsted operating, as inevitably it will be, on a somewhat less localised basis than the present inspection teams. Ofsted will need all the support that it can get in its regulatory role to ensure that it is as close as it can be to each of the many cultures that influence early years education and child care in various ways.
While the wording of my amendment is somewhat more general than that of Amendment No. 129DB, its intended purpose is very similar. I too am interested to learn from the Minister what role he sees for early years development and child care partnerships. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that they should be consulted from the outset not only for what they can bring to the table in terms of effective planning but for the advice that they can give from the perspective of quality assurance. Most people agree that these partnerships act as an effective channel to convey parental issues and concerns.
Lord Laming: I do not want to give the impression that I have lost hope on the fundamental point. I support the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, about ensuring that the current experience and philosophy of many, although not all, local authorities are available in whatever future arrangement is decided upon.
Lord Bach: I thank noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 134B in the name of my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. Obviously, partnerships are intended to play a very important role in the system that is developing.
We are sure that it will often be the case that partnerships prove a valuable source of expertise. However, it may not be appropriate to burden partnerships with the requirement to consider proposals for regulation in every case; for example, where the regulations under consideration relate to how Ofsted fulfils its regulatory functions. We therefore think it more sensible to allow the Secretary of State to use his discretion on a case by case basis.
The intention of the amendment in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, is to ensure that local authorities in England co-operate with the chief inspector. We believe that that is a desirable requirement. A similar provision already exists in the Children Act which requires authorities to assist each other under the present regulatory system. It is only sensible that this requirement should be carried forward when Ofsted assumes the role of regulator. However, we do not believe that it is necessary to amend Clause 68 as proposed. The objective of the amendment is achieved already in Schedule 2 to the Bill, which inserts a new Schedule 9A into the Children Act. Paragraph 8 of the new schedule enables the chief inspector and the National Assembly for Wales to ask for assistance from local authorities. In turn, authorities are required to provide the assistance requested where reasonable to do so. That is an important provision.
The Government's amendment, Amendment No. 134B, enables regulations to be laid in support of the general duty set out in new Section 79 concerning the provision of training, advice and guidance by local authorities. As drafted, new Section 79 would require each individual authority to determine how it might fulfil this function. That could lead to 150 different approaches across the country and precisely the kind of inconsistency we are seeking to do away with. Taking a regulation-making power would enable the Government to develop a more strategic approach, guided from the centre. For example, the regulations could set out the involvement of and interaction with those same partnerships which we in this House believe have an important role to play; namely, the early years development and childcare partnerships which draw up and agree early years development and childcare plans in each local authority area and which play a key role in the local delivery of the overall national childcare strategy.
Such an approach would allow for the proper allocation of the function between local authorities and early years development and childcare partnerships and ensure no unnecessary overlap and duplication locally. On that basis, I ask the noble Lord to consider withdrawing the amendment.
Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that considered reply, and in particular his words about early years and childcare partnerships. I liked the language on consultation as far as it went: that it would not be appropriate to burden the early years development and childcare partnership with consultation in certain circumstances. I am sure that by and large they would be more than happy to be burdened. However, that is ministerial language.
I understand the Minister's position as regards discretion for consultation being used on a case by case basis. However, I suggest that it would be preferable for the Minister, as agent for the Secretary of State, to set out the general circumstances in which he believes it would be right to consult. A more positive and specific provision at a later stage of the Bill would be helpful. The assurance that the Secretary of State will consult where appropriate is not good enough. Perhaps the Minister would consider a more concrete form of words. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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