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Baroness Blatch: That was enjoyable. When the unitary authorities were first debated even in embryonic form and a long time ago, it was the policy of our Benches that there should be unitary authorities at local level--I am not talking about parish councils but district councils--and that the county should go and there should be regional, elected bodies. I can remember the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, saying that she supported that not only in this Chamber, but equally in my part of the world which is East Anglia. If it is not a written manifesto-type policy, it has certainly been a philosophy and policy which has been thought about. There was the idea that a move to unitary authority status would be messy and that it would be better to have a uniform approach at local level.
I did not expect a different answer. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, most warmly for what he said. He will know that I became extremely attached to the North-East. I still visit there and see many people in that area. The noble Lord made a good point in saying that I was supportive. I remain supportive of the way that the system worked. What I was particularly supportive of was the way in which all the bodies worked so co-operatively together. I refer, of course, to the non-elected bodies such as the development corporation and the local authorities. Indeed, local authorities served on the board of the development corporation and made an amazingly positive contribution. I was very supportive of that body and the way in which local authorities worked with it and became involved in the economic and social regeneration of the area. The local authority was very strong in that area and it still is. In the area for which I was responsible it has moved almost uniformly to the unitary authority and the county council has gone.
But I would not like to see a regional development agency in that area. As far as I understand it, at the moment there is a very good regional network of co-operation headed by many of the same people with whom I was involved when I was there. I still jealously believe that the North-East turned co-operative partnerships into an art form. They were practical, visionary and very effective. But that does not deter me from trying to persuade Members of the Committee, but very forlornly, that rural development agencies in this context should not be in the Bill with such a high
Lord Bach: Before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may ask her a question. I understand and appreciate her strong views on regional development agencies, but is she speaking for the official Opposition in moving these amendments?
Baroness Blatch: Certainly I have discussed the matter with my colleagues in the education team. It is uniformly supported that we do not like the Bill. We feel that if coherence is to be brought to 16-plus education, this is not the way to do it. In tying in all the partnerships--from the Secretary of State, down through the national council, local councils, RDAs and lifelong learning partnerships--the Government have been resistant to bringing in local education authorities. We do not think that the regional development agencies should appear in the context of this Bill. They are a fact of life; they have already been established by the Government and there is no way that one can take them out of existence, but that is not the point of my amendments.
My amendments provide that where regional development agencies are referred to in the Bill, local authorities should be in that position. I have tried hard, as have some noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches, to introduce local authorities specifically into the Bill. We are told that they will be consulted anyway, or they are part of the tapestry, or they will be influential. But why should they be less influential than the regional development agencies?
Lord Dormand of Easington: I do not have to remind the noble Baroness--I am sure she knows--that the reason is that on the regional development agencies there is strong local authority representation. That was the original intention when the Labour Government set them up.
Baroness Blatch: I do not argue with that. But I still think that local authorities in their own right are closest to the people. They should in the Bill have at least equal status--I would argue superior status--to the regional development agencies.
The noble Baroness said: The amendments in this group all deal with wider representation procedures within both the guidance drawn up by the national LSC for the local LSCs and in the plans which the local LSCs draw up for themselves.
With regard to the drawing up of plans, which concerns Amendments Nos. 136 to 138, gremlins seem to have got into the system somewhat in that Amendments Nos. 136 and 137 are almost exactly the same. They again seek that local learning partnerships are included within the consultees for the planning process.
In addition, we seek that a number of other local users and providers are included. Existing and potential learners, the voluntary and community organisations with an interest in education and training, the colleges themselves and workplace training providers should all be included at local level in the consultation process in drawing up the plans. Broadly speaking, this fits in with what we have been talking about; that is, the bottom-up nature of the whole process, the need for it to be inclusive and to pull in as many people as possible. We should like to see those people included on the face of the Bill.
We support from these Benches the amendments to be moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and also--perhaps in particular--the amendment to be moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick. We feel strongly that, if we are including these other providers, it is extremely important to include universities within this process. Universities are increasingly being pulled in in terms of non-degree, sub-degree and post-degree level qualifications, and certainly in terms of the adult learning provision, post experience provision and that kind of thing. It is extremely important that where they are there they can provide a key focus. Therefore, we greatly support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick. I beg to move.
The Lord Bishop of Lichfield: In the West Midlands we are looking forward eagerly to getting the very best out of the arrangements at all the different levels. In large parts of the Birmingham neighbourhood there are great expectations that the regional development agency will focus inward investment and give more direction to industrial development over the entire region. We look eagerly and hopefully at good developments at that level. In Stoke-on-Trent we rejoice in a new unitary authority at a sub-regional level, which is focusing on and diversifying the ceramic industry in that very needy community. That is encouraging.
Because we look forward eagerly to good things at all levels, we want them also--I speak very much for a wide cross-section of the Churches--on behalf of the lifelong learning partnerships at local level.
Recently, there was a report from regional offices to the Department for Education and Employment. It so happens that the Churches emerged as significant players in the work of lifelong learning partnerships. I am therefore right behind the amendments which refer to local learning. We believe that local learning partnerships are excellently placed to take account of the obvious and important differences between one community and another. I am glad and proud to say that the Churches have much experience of listening to people's needs in local communities.
However, we must not forget the regional dimension. The process of listening at local level cannot be rushed and must be tackled with a good deal of sensitivity. It is often seen as unimportant or unnecessarily time-consuming. There are times when speed is of the essence, but if one goes too fast in that area and account is not taken of local needs, speed can be counter-productive. We strongly support the Government in their recognition that the existing structures in many areas, including the local level, are failing to meet individuals' learning needs. We hope that the excellent experience that has developed with lifelong learning partnerships will be taken on board, developed and strengthened. I therefore support the group of amendments introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp.
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