Lords attack new local authority funding power

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
`Complex' proposals to allow regional veto on skills strategies criticised for lacking consistency

Ministers have revealed that local authorities will have the final say on funding priorities for adult skills as their proposals for a new funding system came under attack in the House of Lords.

The news emerged in a Lords debate last week on the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. Peers had already criticised the Government for its late decision to give regional development agencies (RDAs) responsibility for determining skills strategies without first providing information to the parliamentary committees scrutinising the legislation or consulting with industry.

Lord Young, the business, innovation and skills minister, then revealed that local authorities would have a veto over skills strategies, forcing the RDAs to work with them to produce an agreed plan.

"It is not a question of the RDAs developing a regional skills strategy in isolation, which they impose on local authorities," he said. "It is a process of them working together.

"The regional skills strategy will form part of the single integrated regional strategy, which will be signed off by the local authority leader boards, thus making sure that local authority needs are fully reflected.

"I know that we will be accused of complexity and of adding layers of bureaucracy, but the proof of this particular pudding will be in the eating. These things were always complex. It is an illusion that in the past everything was simple."

Peers raised concerns that requiring each local authority to sign off plans would make it impossible to develop a consistent strategy where there were entrenched differences.

Lord de Mauley, the Conservative whip with responsibility for business, innovation and skills, criticised the late change of plan and the complexity of the proposed system.

"I am not much reassured," he said. "He seems to be telling me that more cooks will be involved in spoiling the broth."

He said the Tories would transfer responsibility for planning skills to the employer-run sector skills councils, in line with the preferences of industry bodies such as the Engineering Employers' Federation.

Along with the Confederation of British Industry, it has criticised the "mission creep" of RDAs, which have already been given responsibility for such varied tasks as urban design and sport.

The Liberal Democrats also criticised the proposal to expand the role of RDAs, arguing that they were too big and too remote.

Baroness Sharp, the party's education spokeswoman, said that despite claims of a greater say for local authorities, Lord Mandelson referred to RDAs as "the single body" charged with setting out funding priorities.

The ASCL Bill is coming under scrutiny ahead of its third reading in the Lords next month as opposition parties hope to stall its progress.

Even if the bill is passed, The TES has revealed how lawyers for the Conservatives are already working on an alternative proposal ahead of an election due next summer, expected to repeal the "overwhelming majority" of the bill.

Editorial, page 6.

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