Having started somewhat slowly, we are moving ahead with great speed. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, with her typical efficiency, has passed me the details of the amendment. It would delete the provision that states:
“An order under this section made by the Learning and Skills Council for England in respect of a further education corporation in England may provide for the transfer to the council of property, rights and liabilities of the corporation”,
and that the
“council must obtain the consent of the Secretary of State before making provision of a kind mentioned in subsection (3A).”
The gist of my argument is similar to that on the previous group of amendments: the subsection seems to transfer power to the Learning and Skills Council. We are concerned throughout our consideration of the Bill that the necessary accountability for decisions, which rests quite properly with Ministers through this place, should be maintained. Official Opposition Members have some reservations about the power of the Learning and Skills Council and the way in which it is exercised.
Let me lay my cards on the table in that respect because it is important that we are not seen to be dogmatic about this subject. Of course, we recognise that much of the work of the council is necessary and that much of the money that it spends would be spent under whichever structure were to ensue from changed considerations of policy in this area.
We do not believe that we will save all that the council spends simply by changing the structure. Heaven knows that the vast bulk of that money is spent for good purpose, but that does not mean that there is neither room for greater efficiency, nor scope for reducing bureaucracy, given that we are talking about a budget that is considerably bigger than that of the Royal Navy. The Government have acknowledged that in what they have said today and previously. The structural changes that they believe will make the body more lean and efficient have been advertised to the Committee and have been set out previously. Ministers say that they are determined to ensure that there is the kind of value for money that is bread and butter to Conservative Members because efficiency and effectiveness are our second names in the official Opposition.
We recognise that there has to be a management and funding structure and expenditure on such matters, but we want to test Ministers throughout the Committee to ensure that all the money that is expended is best spent for the best purpose. With this amendment, as with the last one, we want to be absolutely sure that, in transferring authority to the Learning and Skills Council, we do not embed a system that could be improved. I await with interest the Minister’s comments on those matters.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on coping so well with the pace of the Committee’s proceedings so far. The amendment would prevent the transfer of property rights and liabilities by the Learning and Skills Council to itself when a further education corporation is dissolved. Why do not we wish to support that amendment? Under the current arrangements, the Secretary of State may, by order, transfer to the LSC the property rights and liabilities of a dissolved further education corporation, where he deems it necessary and appropriate. In future, it is possible that the LSC might need temporarily—I emphasis that word—to transfer such rights and liabilities to itself, to achieve the best results for an area. In what circumstances might the LSC need to do that? It might happen if it were not possible to find a suitable alternative body to which to transfer the property when two colleges merge, for example.
A merger is a common reason for dissolving FE corporations—seven mergers of FE corporations will take effect during the summer, and more are under discussion. That is part of the process of developing the FE system. The mergers have been discussed and planned over time to ensure more effective local arrangements. It will be a temporary requirement in cases where we cannot find a suitable alternative body to which to transfer the property. In such cases, we will require the LSC to seek the prior agreement of the Secretary State before it transfers the assets to itself as part of the process of managing the merger. It is expected that the provision will be used rarely, if at all. However, we are trying to anticipate situations that might arise and provide contingency arrangements. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment, given my account of the purpose of the clause and the safeguards that we are putting in place.