Baroness Blatch defends the Tories' record and asks what ministers will do with proposed powers of intervention. Warwick Mansell reports
A MINISTER'S claim that the previous government allowed "sleaze and mismanagement" to flourish in further education has been branded as "deeply offensive" to the vast majority of colleges.
Baroness Blatch, Conservative education spokeswoman in the Lords, told the House that several colleges had contacted her because they were outraged by last week's comments by education minister Baroness Blackstone.
Speaking in defence of the Learning and Skills Bill during its Lords' committee stage, Lady Blackstone said: "Our inheritance on taking office was one of sleaze and mismanagement in the further education sector, allowed to flourish by a government which took a back seat whenever it could."
But as the committee stage entered its second day last Thursday, Lady Blatch hit back, calling her opposite number's attack an unjustified "sweeping statement". She said: "For every college that went wrong, many more colleges had no problems at all and served their local communities and students extremely well."
Lady Blatch claimed that where problems were not acted upon, this was the fault of the Further Education Funding Council, not the previous government.
She said: "They had the powers to intervene; they had the knowledge of what was going on and in fact they did not use the powers as they might have used them, or indeed in the way that they should have used them."
But Lady Blackstone described this attack on the FEFC as "grossly unfair". She said the sweeping new powers of intervention in colleges the Bill allows had been put forward following consultation with the FEFC's chairman and chief executive.
She added: "The vast majority of colleges do a very good job. But unfortunately, a small minority has not done so and ithas been able to get away with that partly because the structures were not in place to allow the FEFC to intervene as quickly as it needs to."
Lady Blackstone had detailed cases of mismanagement at Halton and Gwent Tertiary College, and Bilston College.
One extra power afforded to the Learning and Skills Council, which under the Bill is to replace the FEFC, is the ability to make up to two appointments to any college's governing body. The council would not have to specify a reason. Currently, the FEFC can only nominate governors.
Lady Blatch moved an amendment that the council could only make such appointments when it had "reasonable cause" for concern about the quality of the institution's education or financial management. Liberal Democrat Baroness Sharp of Guildford concurred that the council's proposed powers were too "open-ended".
Lady Blatch said: "If there is to be intervention, it should not be subjective. If the Government is minded not to include the suggested clause then one really has to wonder what it is planning in terms of the use of powers."
But Lady Blackstone said that the effect of such a clause would be to make early intervention in a college more difficult.
"The council must be able to act flexibly and responsibly if concerns arise at a college," she said.
The impact on any college's autonomy would be limited because only two governors could be appointed within a minimum of 12 on a governing body. Lady Blackstone promised that its power to appoint would be used "sparingly", while judicial review was available to colleges unhappy with their treatment by the council.
She did, however, put forward one concession to Lady Blatch - a proposed amendment to the Bill allowing colleges the right of appeal if they felt they had been treated unreasonably. This right of appeal, however, would be to the Secretary of State.