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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Another Labour spat

Of course all parties have tensions, especially between elected politicians in different legislatures, but this little spat between the Labour MP, Don Touhig and Welsh Education Minister, Jane Davidson is one of the most entertaining ones.

At the heart of the disagreement is a long-running dispute over who exactly is responsible for the way that our schools are funded. The simple answer of course is that it is local Councils. They are the ones who manage education in their area, they distribute the resources and they set the organisational context in which headteachers and governors operate. They are also accountable to the local electorate for their actions. However, the Welsh Assembly Government has a role in this as well. They set policy and the curriculum. They determine the quantum of the resources available to local Councils and they use various mechanisms, including direct grants, audit, inspection and general political direction to influence the decisions of local education authorities.

When it comes to problems the Assembly Government cannot wait to pass the buck to local Councils. However, when it comes to successes it is Assembly Ministers who are first in front of the cameras, taking credit for a new school, visiting high performing classes or just putting out statements praising the success of O-Level and A-Level students.

The Committee that looked at the funding of schools considered that the Education Minister needed to be much more hands-on in many areas where she currently passes the buck. They wanted to see more transparency in funding, to have a distribution formula based on real costs not historical spending patterns, to have more sustainability when dishing out grants and to provide more funding certainty to headteachers. All of that is on the desk of Jane Davidson at the moment awaiting her decision and all of that would have a direct bearing on the plight of schools in the Caerphilly Council area.

Don Touhig therefore, has a very valid point when he complains at the fact that the Education Minister will not meet him. His wider point however goes to show that there is no love lost amongst political allies:

He added, "Secondary school heads in my constituency tell me that there is a growing disparity between what they receive and what schools in others parts of the United Kingdom receive.

"Given that the Assembly Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills refused to meet them, refuses to meet me and even refuses to meet the Assembly Member for Islwyn, Irene James, an annual debate will mean that those of us in the UK Parliament can scrutinise what is being done with the generous settlement that we provide."

Labour MPs have devolved power and responsibility from Westminster but they do not trust their party colleagues to exercise it and want a direct influence over how the money is spent. The worrying thing is that this may well presage wider disputes if the Governments in Cardiff and Westminster come under competing political control.

What bemused me about the demand for a debate on the Assembly's block grant was that it is apparently made in ignorance of how the cash is allocated now and what will happen in the future. There is a funding formula of sorts which means that Wales automatically gets 5.9% of expenditure on devolved matters in Westminster. There is no process by which the block grant is agreed, which can come under scrutiny as far as I am aware.

One way that this could change is if there is a reform of the Barnett formula so that a Commission of the States and Regions distributes the money according to a needs-based formula. That process may be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny and maybe this is one reason why the Assembly Government is so opposed to it. They do not trust their own colleagues to give them what Wales is due.

Once the Government of Wales Bill comes into force all of the money for the block grant will be paid into a consolidated fund and this cash will be distributed by resolution of the Assembly. I understand that other Government departments also work from a consolidated fund but I am not clear whether this new process will enable MPs to scrutinise the money more effectively or not. That is something Mr. Touhig may wish to explore. In the meantime his complaint is perfectly justified:

Mr Touhig told the Western Mail, "I was surprised my request for a meeting was rejected. In my time as a Minister I never refused a meeting with an MP or an AM."

He said he thought relations between AMs and MPs were generally good, and was not telling the Assembly Government how to spend its money.

Why didn't Jane Davidson just take the meeting?

Still the disagreement has brought out into the open one of the reasons why AMs wish to change the way that the Assembly Government passes down money to schools, that even we are unable to scrutinise it because the mechanisms are confused and opaque:

A spokeswoman said schools' funding was allocated from Cardiff Bay to local councils as part of their annual settlement, and was not ring-fenced.

She said, "The Finance Minister has overall responsibility in terms of how the local government settlement money is allocated, it does not fall to the Education Minister's portfolio.

"The Assembly Government does not set the education budgets - that responsibility falls to the local authorities and therefore discussions about levels in individual authorities is a matter between schools and the LEA. That is why the Minister does not meet individual groups of head teachers and always asks AMs and MPs to make their representations direct to the local authority."

The Education Committee cannot scrutinise school funding because it falls under local government and the Local Government Committee cannot do the job because they are not responsible for education. If either of us get close to asking difficult questions we are referred to the local Councils. No wonder Labour MPs and AMs are so frustrated.

Finally, I am utterly astonished at the parting remarks of the Leader of the Commons:

Leader of the Commons Jack Straw said, "We did not make a one-off decision to devolve power to the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.

"Although we devolved power to them, we continue to exercise a great deal of control over what they can do through the block grant."

In theory his claim that the Government continue to exercise control over the way that Wales and Scotland spend the money is absolute nonsense. Devolution means that they give us the money and we decide how it is allocated. How is it that such a senior member of the UK Government does not understand how the devolution process works?

However, a more suspicious mind than mine might think that such a statement poses other questions. Are Rhodri Morgan's strings really being pulled from London? Has Jack Straw let the cat out of the bag? I think we should be told.
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