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Lord Newby: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the full potential impact of the Government's contingent liabilities can be understood only if a proper risk assessment of the guarantees given by the Government is undertaken? Does he further agree that the appropriate body to undertake such a risk assessment might be the National Audit Office?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Yes, my Lords, but in the first instance the evidence has to be available. That evidence is available in the supplementary statements to the Consolidated Fund and National Loans Fund accounts which I am holding in my hand. Table B.14 of those accounts, which are published every year, sets out all the departmental contingent liabilities, including an assessment of the risk. Perhaps I may add that in the whole-of-government accounts, in line with Financial Reporting Standard 12, we shall report all contingent liabilities which fall within the definitions of United Kingdom generally accepted accounting practices. Furthermore, we shall also be reporting on more remote liabilities.

Lord Saatchi: My Lords, perhaps I may help the Minister to understand why my noble friends persist in asking him such uncomfortable questions about the Government's accounting treatment for debt. Can I take him back to 10th December last when, in response to a question not dissimilar to that tabled today by my noble friend Lady Wilcox, he said that our suggestions were, "wholly unfounded"? He has also said that,

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We persisted and on 16th December the Minister underlined that answer by saying,

    "in case there is any misunderstanding, the aggregate of contingent liabilities is contained in the Red Book".—[Official Report, 16/12/02; col. 451.]

On 18th December we visited the subject again. On that occasion the noble Lord wrote to me to say that his previous answer had been "mistaken", and that in fact the figures are not contained in the Red Book and are included only in the largely unknown document to which he has referred.

Does that help the Minister to understand why, when he responds to questions in this way, my noble friends do not automatically accept that his answers are as clear-cut as he might like?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, any discomfort is in the minds of the Opposition, not in my mind. The difference between the Red Book—which is constantly criticised by the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, for being too long and complicated—and the supplementary statements, which are published just as freely as the Red Book, is nothing like as significant as the failure of the Opposition to justify and give details of its constant asseveration—it is no more than that—that there is a 100 billion hole in the Government's accounts. When the Opposition can come forward with some justification for that, which can be answered as I responded to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, on 10th December, I will be a happy man.

Lord Desai: My Lords, is it not worth making the point that, whatever the numbers may be, overall the debt position of the Government is very sound indeed? It is far better than the position that we inherited.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Yes, my Lords. Not only is the position sound, but it is sound in a way that the debt position of the previous government was not. There has been a very significant reduction in public sector debt during the period of this Government.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that many private sector companies involved in PFI transactions record them as financial transactions; that is, as loans to the Government? Can the Minister therefore explain why the Government persist in asserting that the substance of these transactions is not loans to the Government in the Government accounts?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am not responsible for what private sector companies put in their accounts. Almost uniquely among developed countries, the Government adhere to generally accepted accounting practice in the presentation of their own accounts. I should have thought that, of all people, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, would appreciate the value of that.

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Teacher Recruitment

3.15 p.m.

Lord Campbell-Savours asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What consideration is being given to a national online teacher recruitment service run on a non-profit making, self-funding basis; and what potential savings would arise for the taxpayer.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, the Government do not recruit or employ teachers directly, but are interested in any measures which increase efficiency in the system. We are aware of some existing online recruitment activities. We will continue to maintain an interest in the market with a view to promoting measures which provide schools with good value for money. Meanwhile there is considerable government investment supporting the recent significant improvements in overall teacher supply, which should lead to efficiencies in advertising generally.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, is it not true that the Times Educational Supplement and other recruitment agencies are now picking up something in the order of 60 million per year to provide a service which could be offered online at a fraction of that cost, at perhaps 2 million or 3 million per year? Could we not save a good deal of money by promoting that approach?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, various estimates have been made of how much money is spent by schools on recruitment advertising, but of course we do not collect those figures centrally. That would place an inappropriate burden on schools. So I cannot comment on the figures cited by my noble friend with regard to the Times Educational Supplement. What I can say on behalf of the Government is that we want to stimulate and support what is a market in enabling schools to choose what works best for them.

Noble Lords will be aware that the basis of teacher recruitment is often regional rather than national, that it is still very much paper-based within classrooms and staffrooms and so forth, and that often it is led by local education authorities providing interesting work to support their schools. We want to support and promote all those different methods.

Baroness Perry of Southwark: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of an academic website that is extremely successful and on which almost all universities rely for advertising jobs? It certainly attracts a much wider range of applicants both from this country and from Europe than do most newspaper advertisements. Is she further aware that it would be very much easier for schools to recruit good quality applicants if they were free to advertise jobs at salaries which suited the cost of living in their geographical area rather than being tied to national scales?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, turning to the second point, the noble Baroness will know that we

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have done a good deal of work to ensure that schools do have flexibility within the offers that they wish to make to applicants. Those offers recognise experience and other features and factors within schools. I do not think that we are tied in the way that perhaps the question suggests.

I am aware of the academic website to which the noble Baroness referred. It is an extremely good and powerful medium. Hence the Government are looking across the market to ensure that we are able to support what is an emerging and flourishing market offering different alternatives for schools based, as I have said, on a regional understanding of what schools are looking for.

Lord Addington: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be dangerous to become too dependent on online recruitment? Many people, such as, for example, returning teachers who have been away for some time, may not have access to the Internet on a regular basis. The one computer in the family may be dominated by the children. We should not be drawn too deeply into the notion that the Internet is the answer to everything, or at least not in the short term.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Addington. As I said in my earlier response, we recognise that many teachers search the newspapers, whether it be the Times Educational Supplement, local and regional newspapers or other national papers, to meet their recruitment needs. Noble Lords who have served as school governors will know that it is important to consider a variety of mechanisms when seeking to recruit. That was certainly my experience.

As I have pointed out before, local education authorities often provide support by producing newsletters that are sent out across the education authority, because much recruitment is local.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, in the spirit of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, does the noble Baroness agree that one of the biggest wastes of money in the public sector at present is the endless production of colourful publications, many of them circulated to noble Lords, Members of Parliament and public bodies? Very few of them are read. Would it not be a good idea—I understand from the Printed Paper Office that one or two organisations are doing this now—if the publications were available online, and could be printed off if people actually wanted to read them? It has been a huge area of increasing government expenditure, and a very considerable waste.

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