HC Deb 14 July 1981 vol 8 cc960-2
2. Mr. Thornton

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what are the savings to public expenditure by the increase last year in the number of children joining independent preparatory schools.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

The number of pupils aged between 5 and 12 in independent schools of all kinds was 6,500 higher in January 1980 than a year previously. The average recurrent cost of educating that number of pupils in maintained schools this year is estimated to be about £4 million.

Mr. Thornton

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Has he had the doubtful privilege of reading a book called "Private Schools" issued by the Labour Party? Does he agree that the savings to the public purse that he has instanced are a tiny proportion of the estimate of at least £1,500 million that would be the cost if the Labour Party's plans were implemented? Does this not constitute a most vicious attack on parental choice?

Mr. Macfarlane

My hon. Friend is right. I have to disabuse him about my having read the document, but I have read press reports about it, as have my colleagues on the Government Front Bench. Everyone in the country has a right to be deeply concerned about this intrusion on freedom. My hon. Friend referred to the likely cost of £1,500 million if this so-called 10-year programme were to be implemented. It could be in excess of that figure. In addition, about £400 million is now saved to the taxpayer by parents who send their children to independent schools.

Mr. Freud

Even the £4 million, let alone the £400 million, that is saved would be useful to pay for the integrated education provisions which the Warnock report recommended and for which the Government have not voted any money.

Mr. Macfarlane

There are many purposes to which any savings in the education service could be directed. Those who have read press reports of the joint document issued by the Labour Party and the TUC will realise that it is thoroughly irresponsible. As usual, the Shadow spokesman on education is leading with his mouth rather than with his brain. In many cases he has not acknowledged the massive cost or the massive injection of money from overseas pupils at independent schools. About 35,000 pupils a year come to this country, representing a significant contribution to our balance of payments.

Mr. Field

If the Minister is so confident on this issue, will he accept the challenge by the Opposition and publish a detailed paper on the supposed savings to public funds? Will he detail in that paper the handsome subsidies that many parents who use the private sector of education get from the tax system? Will he also detail the large subsidies that local authorities give to the private sector through buying places in that sector? At a time when there is rioting in the streets of many of our cities, does the hon. gentleman not see the cost to the community of an education system which divides children on the basis of class rather than strengthens their common humanity?

Mr. Macfarlane

The only divisiveness comes from the Opposition Benches. On frequent occasions in the past 18 months my right hon. and learned Friend and I have published figures of the estimated savings and the estimated cost to the Government of pupils entering independent education. There is no question of the Government's publishing a paper. Those figures have always been readily available to the nearest approximation when requested by Opposition Members.

Mr. William Shelton

Does my hon. Friend agree that the increased number of students receiving private education must, unhappily, be a reflection on the maintained sector, since parents are prepared to pay so much to send their children to private schools?

Mr. Macfarlane

I wish to make it clear that the independent and the maintained sectors can help each other. There are no doubt many reasons why this figure has grown over the past 18 months to two years. We are the party of freedom of choice, and we believe that parents should be allowed to spend their money how they wish. In Committee last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) and I listened to the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) talking about compassion and freedom. That was pure claptrap and humbug.