HC Deb 16 May 1978 vol 950 cc220-2
4. Mr. Jessel

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science when she expects to bring forward proposals relating to parental choice of schools.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

My proposals on school admissions were issued last October. I intend to introduce legislation drawn up in the light of my consultations on these proposals as soon as the parliamentary timetable permits.

Mr. Jessel

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the drop in the birth rate makes it much easier for local education authorities to let parents have more say in the placing of their children in schools than has sometimes been the case in the past? Can she now give a date on which she will introduce legislation, rather than merely saying "as soon as possible", to promote and encourage wider choice by parents in where their children go to school?

Mrs. Williams

The fall in the birth rate presents great difficulties as well as great opportunities to local authorities. It is extremely expensive to run a school persistently under capacity. On the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I can give him no fairer or more honest answer than "when the parliamentary timetable permits".

Mr. Gerry Fowler

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that, in a perversion and sullying of the fair name of parental choice, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) seems to have committed the Conservative Party to a voucher system of admissions? However, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) does not seem to speak with the same voice. Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on the effects of using such a system?

Mrs. Williams

I am delighted to notice that all those Conservative Members who care seriously about maintained education do not support the concept of the voucher system, which is a ludicrous waste of public money merely enhancing the power of the purse.

Mr. Flannery

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the slogan "parental choice" has been used by the Opposition to mean everybody, when we all know that they mean education for their own children and not for others? Does she agree that when Government supporters speak of parental choice we want the very best choice for all parents and children and that there is more parental choice now than there ever was before?

Mrs. Williams

My own view is that parents should be able to express their wishes as between schools. I want to make it absolutely clear that under the old selective system 80 per cent. of parents had no choice at all. We are not interested in a choice that is for only a small minority.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Would not the Secretary of State agree that if the Prime Minister wishes to be taken seriously in his new-found concern for the family—[HON. MEMBERS: "Cheap."] It is the truth—he will back up the right hon. Lady in her losing battle with Mrs. Caroline Benn and produce some legislation? Will she make it clear that in that legislation she will make it her first priority not to close anomalies in the law but to extend parental rights and influence?

Mrs. Williams

With regard to the first part of the question, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has consistently, throughout his ministerial career, concerned himself with the interests of the family. With regard to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, that horse will not run. As I have said to him on more than one occasion—and I say at the Dispatch Box today exactly word for word what I said in November 1977—we have always favoured the idea of parents being able to express their preferences within the comprehensive principle.