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Lord Tope moved Amendment No. 1:

("(1) There shall be nine bodies corporate called Regional Learning and Skills Councils.").

The noble Lord said: At Second Reading my noble friend Lady Sharp and I gave a broad welcome to the Bill, which I am happy to repeat. We also said that we had some serious concerns about the Bill. This first amendment, and the other amendments grouped with it, seek to address those concerns and to suggest some improvement.

Our principal concern was that the structure being proposed in the Bill is centralising and unnecessarily complex. Above all, there is a huge democratic deficit at the heart of the Bill. The Bill proposes the establishment of a national learning and skills council, together with 47 local learning and skills councils. The term "local" is something of a misnomer because in reality they are sub-regional rather than what I would understand to be local. It is still far from clear to me how these so-called "local" learning and skills councils will relate to the relatively new regional development agencies; how they will relate to the local education authorities in their areas; and, above all, how they will relate to the lifelong learning partnerships in those areas. I name only a few of the bodies which will continue if and when the Bill is enacted and do not mention any that will be discontinued. There are many others.

Perhaps I may turn to a particular interest of mine, which is the relationship between the local learning and skills councils and the lifelong learning partnerships, which I continue to be unsure about. However, I am sure that when the Minister replies she will have another attempt to help me with this. I have looked at the policy statement from the DfEE on the role of learning partnerships. It states:

    "Learning Partnerships and local LSCs will be distinct but complementary. The local LSCs will cover relatively large areas and their work will need to be informed by an understanding of local labour market needs. Learning Partnerships are ideally placed to provide that understanding".

I then look to my own local area in south London. The area of our recently created lifelong learning partnership covers the London boroughs of Richmond upon Thames, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Croydon, Bromley and my own borough of Sutton. That is exactly the same area as is proposed for our local learning and skills council. Why cannot the role of the two bodies be combined in one? Why are we creating this unnecessarily complex structure? I am all in favour of coterminosity, but this does seem to be rather extreme.

Perhaps I may turn now to the democratic deficit. The Bill creates another 48 quangos. It proposes that approximately 700 people be appointed to those quangos; none of them elected, most of them not even appointed by any elected body. In total the body will be responsible for in the region of £6 billion of public money and will have considerable powers, most of which are yet to be decided by the Secretary of State. Yet there is to be no democratic accountability at all.

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All that comes from a party which I had always understood to be opposed to quangos; or perhaps, as I sometimes suspected, their concern was more about who was being appointed to quangos under the previous government rather then the existence of those quangos.

I have an anxiety about democratic accountability. I want to be clear that I am not trying to thrust on an anxious public the task of going out each year and electing their local learning and skills councillor. I suspect I know what the turnout would be in any such election. The issue of accountability is important. In saying that, I compare and contrast the local authorities and the health authorities. Local authorities are accountable locally, perhaps imperfectly. We are trying to improve that. As the leader of a local authority, I have to stand up before the local population and be accountable for what my authority says and does.

Health authorities are accountable primarily to the Secretary of State. They look to him for their accountability, their funding and all resources. I have seen so often in a local context that that lack of democratic accountability makes a big difference. I worry that we are setting up a whole new "quangocracy" which will similarly look in the wrong direction. One of the most important roles of further education is its role and purpose in the local community. We should be strengthening that and not weakening it, as I believe the Bill does.

I now turn to the amendments and the proposals from the Liberal Democrat Benches. Perhaps I may say at the start that I recognise that the amendments are not perfect. We have to start from what we have and from where we are, not from what we want and where we would like to be. Ideally, we would like to see elected regional assemblies in England with the learning and skills councils, or whatever names they are given, firmly within that democratic structure. This is very similar to what the Bill proposes for Wales, where the members of the single council in Wales will be appointed by the Welsh Assembly. As I said, we start from where we are rather than from where we would like to be. That is why in these amendments we are proposing a simple structure of nine regional learning and skill councils, based on the government regions, as part of, and working with, each of the regional development agencies. Those regional bodies would have a clear relationship with the lifelong learning partnerships and, crucially, with local education authorities in their area. Instead of around 700 quango members we would have between 100 and 150.

We have thought about the appointment of those members. Ideally we would like them to be appointed by an elected regional assembly. Such bodies do not yet exist. We will have to await the election of a Liberal Democrat government before we can achieve that. In the meantime we have to propose that they are appointed by the Secretary of State, who is at least somewhat democratically accountable, if only at a distance and somewhat imperfectly. Also, we say that

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before those appointments are made there should be full and close consultation with the RDAs, the local authorities and other interested bodies.

Finally, Amendment No. 101 gives to the local authorities the functions and the guidance which is suggested for the local LSCs, as proposed in Clauses 20 and 21.

In moving this amendment I recognise that our proposals are not perfect, not least because we do not yet live in a perfect world. But they do have the considerable benefit of being clear and straightforward; avoid duplication and they reduce bureaucracy. They also have some element of democratic accountability. I commend them to the Government. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch: I rise not specifically to support the amendments, but to say to the noble Baroness that many of the arguments employed by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in moving this amendment have great force. The democratic deficit in the Bill is colossal. There is a big hole. How that is filled will be a matter of debate as we go through the Bill. But I want to support very strongly that this is a top-down arrangement; it is a bureaucratic superstructure, and some of my amendments later will be bringing out those points in more detail.

It will be interesting to hear the response of the noble Baroness to the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I should like her to think of his argument in two parts: first, the amendment tabled by the noble Lord; secondly, the fundamental points he made in moving his amendment.

Baroness Blackstone: First, it would be wrong for me to anticipate later amendments in the Committee stage of this Bill. If I were to do so we would have the same debate many times over so I shall leave those issues until later.

I am a little sorry that we are starting this afternoon with a series of what are in effect wrecking amendments. They go to the heart of the Bill and destroy what the Government are proposing.

The Bill represents the foundation for a framework to help us identify our needs as a nation--I emphasise "as a nation"--for learning and skills development and to create an organisation fit to ensure that those needs are met. Important work in that area is already well in hand. For example, the National Skills Task Force identified crucial areas for improvement in basic and key skills, in intermediate technical and supervisory skills and in IT. The LSC, as a single organisation with a comprehensive remit to plan and fund post-16 learning provision across the board, will take forward that challenge.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, suggested that what has been created is 48 quangos; a top-down approach. But it is extraordinary that neither the noble Lord nor the noble Baroness seems to be aware of the fact that we are abolishing more quangos than we are creating. We are abolishing over 70 TECs in order to create a more

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coherent and sensible structure for the delivery of learning skills. We are abolishing the Further Education Funding Council and its regional committees to do the same. In doing that, we are saving £50 million and a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy.

It is surprising that the noble Baroness should make such an issue of quangos when it was her government that created the TECs in the first instance, created the Further Education Funding Council and its regional committees; and took further education out of local education authority control. It is surprising, therefore, to hear the noble Baroness, who was a minister in that government, arguing about the democratic deficit.

The amendments would remove the LSC's capacity to tackle those issues on a national basis. In providing for nine separate regional councils they would increase the number of NDPBs significantly, and so require the continuous re-inventing of wheels as the separate regional councils strive independently of each other--or indeed worse, in competition with each other--to identify ways of tackling common problems. That cannot make sense.

We will turn at a later point to amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and others in relation to the co-ordination of the five local LSCs which will serve London. That concern is understandable, though our solution of a non-statutory co-ordinating body is vastly more appropriate. It is surprising here, then, to find that the noble Lord has no such concern about the co-ordination, or lack of it, between the nine regional NDPBs which he proposes should serve England.

The arrangements we are proposing contain a significant regional dimension--I must emphasise that because it is important--with an influential role for RDAs and the regional skills strategies provided for in the Bill. In contrast, the noble Lord's amendments go much too far and would sweep away the significant benefits which will accrue from the more coherent national arrangements that we envisage.

The noble Lord referred to the perfect world of the Liberal Democratic Party with elected regional assemblies which would make the appointments. We do not have elected regional assemblies so I feel that that is a little bit of Liberal Democrat wishful thinking.

Our proposals also provide for local learning and skills councils with wide representation from outstanding local individuals with relevant expertise to ensure that government-supported learning meets the needs of individuals, businesses and their communities at a local level. The noble Lord's alternative to those proposals for local arms of a single integrated organisation appears to be secured in Amendments Nos. 101 and 144. The noble Lord proposes that there should be provision for his nine regional NDPBs to delegate their powers to local authorities and that, if the local authorities then fail to secure the agreed learning provision, they would be open to direction from the Secretary of State.

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It is far from clear that local authorities are best placed or would wish to deliver the full range of the LSCs' functions. Quite a lot has happened over the past decade to alter the role of local authorities in this area of education. Nor is it clear which organisation would do so if regional councils decided not to use local authorities. Local authorities already have a dual role in the new arrangements that this Bill will secure as key providers of adult and community learning in particular, and as bodies which have a vital strategic role to play in furthering the social and economic interests of their communities. Our arrangements reflect that dual role. Clauses 22 and 23 provide, as part of preparing their plans, how local LSCs will set out the provision which LEAs will be expected to secure and the resources to be made available for it. We are confident that local authorities will respond positively to those arrangements and prosper in this new learning environment. That is why we are guaranteeing two years of funding levels comparable to LEAs' current level of spend, provided that they maintain this level of spend and that they draw up and implement their lifelong learning plan.

I have already set out the Government's fundamental concerns in relation to the earlier amendments in this group. We must resist the later ones for the same reason. The noble Lord is proposing an inferior model to that being put forward by the Government, and I hope therefore that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

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