I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:
No. 19, in clause 16, page 11, line 10, leave out ‘and (2A)’ and insert ‘(2A) and (2B)’.
No. 20, in clause 16, page 11, line 16, at end insert—
‘(2B) The third requirement is that the council—
(a) has regard to any representation from a local authority which has children’s services and education responsibilities in the area in which the establishment or dissolution of a further education corporation is proposed, and
(b) provides such an authority with written reasons for any decision to establish or dissolve a corporation.’.
No. 36, in clause 16, page 11, line 16, at end insert—
‘(2B) The third requirement is that, when the councilis considering proposals to establish or dissolve furthereducation corporations, it must abide by guidance as set out in subsection (2C).
(2C) The council must, after considering representations, publish a policy statement which must include reference to—
(a) the preferred structure of provision of post-16 education;
(b) the need to ensure a choice of qualifications and courses at all levels;
(c) the impact of any new provision of post-16 education on existing providers of post-16 education;
(d) the procedure to be followed when two or more further education corporations are seeking to merge.’.
Thank you, Mr. Atkinson. We have all had a splendid lunch and have enjoyed the break from our deliberations, but we are now pleased to be back considering matters with the diligence for which members of this Committee are legendary. We are returning to clause 16, and I do not want to delay the Committee for long because we anticipate with excitement clause 17, which is very important, and I have no doubt that there will be long perorations upon it by all concerned.
Let me wrap up clause 16 by saying that I listened closely to what Ministers said about the Learningand Skills Council and its relationship with the Government and all the other agencies associated with funding and delivering skills in line with Government targets and popular expectations. I remain concerned about the relationship between the LSC and those partners, but Ministers have been immensely reassuring about their determination to ensure that there is accountability for the LSC’s work; that the powers that are invested in it will be used cautiously and moderately; and that, should there be any lack of reason about that, there will be safeguards in the form of the checks and balances that the Minister has described.
We have tried to probe Ministers on that, becausewe reflect what I think is a widespread concern thatit would be wrong to transfer powers unless such protections are built into the system. Having heard what the Minister said on the previous set of amendments, we look forward to hearing what more he has to say in response to my brief but important comments on this aspect of the Bill.
Our amendments Nos. 19 and 20 are probing amendments to test the relationship between the regional councils and local authorities rather than local area agreements. Local authorities are 14-to-19 strategy leaders, a point which was reaffirmed in the White Paper. They have duties to ensure the provision of courses for pupils aged 14 and above, to fulfil every child’s educational potential, to monitor admissions in the area, to plan the provision of school places and to co-ordinate building schools for the future funding. All those roles will be affected by any decision to close, open or merge FE colleges.
We would like a reassurance from the Minister that the Learning and Skills Council will not only consult local authorities but will actually take notice of what they say. There is a danger that when it is written intoa clause such as this, or the guidance that goes withit, that a body should consult a local authority, consultation is often about going through the motions. Obviously, if local authorities are to be the strategic lead for 14-to-19 education, we need to be quite clear what will happen if there is a conflict of interest. Will the Minister outline what would happen if a local authority were opposed to a merger of two colleges in an area, or to the closure of a college, because it believed that that would have a dramatic effect on the provision of places? What would happen if the council sought to override the local authority’s views?
Lunch has not dimmed my memory of the comments of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings in introducing his amendment. Other members of the Committee and I remember that he was describing the halcyon days of further education under his party’s Administration—days when, instead of £500 million, nothing was being spent on capital improvements in the sector.
Albeit not intentionally, the Minister has directly challenged me on my record of ministerial responsibility. Does he recall that one of the difficulties in those days was that all the money as a result of the Hunter recommendations was made available by central Government through the Further Education Funding Council in order to repair the failures of various local authorities—under different political control, no doubt—in the stewardship of their buildings? Money was needed just to meet basic health and safety requirements in the buildings, so that teachers could teach in them.
The hon. Gentleman was the Minister responsible at the time for aspects of the system. I presume that that is why he supports what we now have in place, which allows the Government to invest such huge amounts of capital and revenue in the system. I take his comments as support for our spending plans, and I will put that on the record as something that the Front-Bench spokesmen for his party might like to note when they come to producing their thoughts for the future.
I am also pleased that success rates are better and that more young people and adults are learning than in the halcyon days that the hon. Gentleman remembers. There is more innovation and greater self-regulation. In fact, the hon. Gentleman might regret his description of those days in introducing the amendment, giventhat FE colleges are now the engine driving skills attainment in this country. They have capital and revenue resources that they simply did not have before. Indeed, their funds were cut by some 14 per cent. in the five years in the run-up to 1997, as opposed to a 48 per cent. increase under this Government. When we see the record numbers of learners with level 2 and level 3 qualifications today, we can be very proud—on this side of the House, at least—of the record and achievements of the FE sector and the support that this Government have given to it.
Clause 16 sets out the arrangements for publishing proposals to establish and dissolve further education corporations. Amendment No. 29, which was tabled by the hon. Gentleman, proposes to leave out clause 16 (2), which is linked to clauses 14 and 15, and our plans to transfer powers to establish and dissolve FE corporations from the Secretary of State to the Learning and Skills Council. I set out our reasons for taking those steps when we debated clause 14.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises the difficulty with the amendment. It would introducean inconsistency within the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, such that legislation relating to the publication of proposals would simply become inoperable. The amendment would not work in practice, even were we to agree with it in principle, which we do not. Therefore, I hope that he will withdraw it simply because it will not work.
On amendments Nos. 19, 35 and 20, we are all rightly concerned about ensuring that the wider community, including the local authority, is consulted on proposals to establish or dissolve further education corporations. I want to reassure members of the Committee that consultation of that kind is already a key part of the process for establishing and dissolving further education corporations.
Regulations are in place—they have been circulated in advance to Committee members—that set out the process for publishing proposals to establish and dissolve corporations. Some minor amendments might have to be made to reflect the transfer of powers from the Secretary of State to the LSC. However, in effect, we intend to keep the current processes in place, so the hon. Member for Brent, East can be assured thatthe current system for publishing and consulting on proposals will continue.
The regulations set out the type of information that must be included in a proposal and the manner of publication. The regulations, which will be updated, require all proposals for mergers or new colleges to be sent to the local authority of the area in whichthe further education corporation is situated. That requirement will continue. Nothing will change and those safeguards will remain. Under clause 16, the LSC is required to take account of all representations made to it within a prescribed period—the very wording that the hon. Lady was seeking.
Local authorities will have information on the rationale behind the proposed action as well as the ability to make comments, which must be considered before a decision is made.
I thank the Under-Secretary for giving way. His comments are very helpful. However, may I return to the point that I made at the end of my remarks? What would happen if there was a conflictof interest? What would happen if a local authority opposed a regional council’s proposal for a merger, or opening or closure of a college, because it felt strongly that the provision of places for 14 to 19-year-olds would be affected? I understand that the council will have a wider remit, but who has the lead on 14 to 19-year-olds and what would happen if the local authority disagreed?
As we debated on earlier clauses, if the LSC is deemed to have acted unreasonably, the Secretary of State could intervene. However, it would have to be demonstrated that the LSC had acted unreasonably or had not pursued its duties as spelled out in clauses and regulations. If such circumstances were to arise, the local authority could ask the Secretary of State to intervene. However, that would not cover a straightforward disagreement aboutthe right way forward. Clearly, if there were a disagreement, the LSC could make its decision and take it forward.
This might be obvious to everyone else in the Committee, but I want to be sure: would the local authority apply in writing to the Secretary of State or is there a formal process to get him to intervene?
It would need to demonstrate—I suppose that this might be the process—that the LSC had acted unreasonably. It would have to demonstrate that the proposals are unreasonable, that the LSC published and took them forward in an unreasonable way, or that it used its powers under the Bill in a way that was ultra vires. That is the mechanism that the local authority would have to use in order to ask the Secretary of State to intervene. However, I am certain that those circumstances will not arise due to the nature of the Bill, which requires the LSC to publish and consult on all proposals and to take account of all representations. That means that the hypothetical situation described by the hon. Lady will not arise.
We believe that the appropriate vehicle for the procedures that I have described are the regulations, which set out the details of the process for establishing, dissolving and merging further education corporations. We do not think, therefore, that it is appropriate to write into primary legislation a requirement to inform local authorities of the reasons for establishing or dissolving an FE corporation. That would lead to unnecessary bureaucracy, because the rationale behind the reasons for opening or closing an FE corporation will have been set out in the original proposal, which would have been sent to the local authority and consulted on. When the LSC has made a decision, it will write to the FE corporation or new institution. That letter is then copied to key partners, including the local authority. The current arrangements, which we are not changing, are working very well and already provide for the requirements proposed.
Amendment No. 36 would impose a requirementon the LSC to publish a detailed policy statement following the statutory consultation period, which is undertaken for every proposal. It largely duplicates information included in the already published proposal and would lead to an unnecessary and burdensome increase in bureaucracy. The LSC will already have considered current provision in the local area, the need to ensure choice across the area and the impact of a new or alternative provider on existing provision.
In England, further education corporations work with the LSC to ensure that the right structures are in place locally, which might include a number of options for the future, merger being the most common reason for dissolving a further education college. Any merger option that emerges will have been discussed, developed and planned over a long period, all of which will ensure that more effective arrangements are in place locally. I emphasise that the local authority will play a key role, especially in relation to its duties in respect of 14-to-19 provision.
I hope that with those assurances, and those that I gave earlier on the guidance and regulations, thehon. Gentleman will accept that the amendment is unnecessary and ask leave to withdraw it.