HC Deb 18 July 1988 vol 137 cc877-906

Lords amendment: No. 89, in page 36, line 22, after "Chapter" insert 'and the granting of approval to proposals submitted under section 52(2) below in accordance with the provisions of that section'

Mr. Kenneth Baker

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following:

Lords amendment: No. 113, clause 52, in page 46, line 31, after "majority" insert 'of parents eligible to vote'

Amendment (a) to the proposed Lords amendment, in page 45, line 9, leave out from 'is' to 'is' in line 10 and insert `eligible to vote in the ballot'.

Amendment (b) to the proposed Lords amendment, in page 45, line 19, leave out subsection (4).

Amendment (c) to the proposed Lords amendment, in page 46, line 11, at end insert— '(7A) Where in the case of any ballot held in repect of a school in accordance with this section other than one held by virtue of this subsection ("the first ballot") the total number of votes cast in the ballot by persons eligible to vote in the ballot is less than fifty per cent. of the number of persons so eligible, it shall be the duty of the governing body to secure that another ballot ("the second ballot") is held before the end of the period of fourteen days beginning with the date immediately following that on which the result of the first ballot is determined.

(7B) In any case to which subsection (7A) above applies—

  1. (a) the result of the first ballot shall be disregarded for the purposes of section 52(1) of this Act; and
  2. (b) subject to subsection (7C) below, the provisions of this section shall apply as they apply in a case where the governing body of a school is under a duty by virtue of section 50 of this Act to secure that a ballot is held in accordance with this section.

(7C) In any such case—

  1. (a) those provisions shall apply with the omission of subsections (3)(a) and (5); and
  2. (b) subsection (5A) above shall be read as if the information there referred to were the information given for the purposes of the first ballot.'.

Amendment (d) to the proposed Lords amendment, in page 46, line 28, at end insert— '(10A) For the purposes of this section, a person is eligible to vote in any ballot held in respect of a school in accordance with this section if he is—

  1. (a) known to the governing body to be a parent of a registered pupil at the school; and
  2. (b) named as a parent of such a pupil in the register kept in accordance with the requirements of the 1944 Act in the case of the school, as that register has effect on the date immediately following the end of the period of fourteen days beginning with the date on which the relevant resolution or request was passed or received by the governing body.

(10B) For the purposes of paragraph (a) of subsection (10A) above, it shall be for the governing body to determine any question whether a person is a parent of a registered pupil at the school; and in paragraph (b) of that subsection the reference to the relevant resolution or request is a reference to the resolution or request (mentioned in section 50(4) of this Act) by reference to which the ballot is required to be held or, where the ballot is a second ballot under subsection (7A) above, by reference to which the first ballot was required to be held.'.

Amendment (e) to the proposed Lords amendment, in page 46, line 31, after 'majority', insert `of votes cast in the ballot by persons eligible to vote in the ballot (within the meaning of that section)'.

Amendment (f) to the proposed Lords amendment, in page 62, line 16, at end insert— 'Where section 51(7A) of this Act applies in the case of any such ballot, the references in sub-paragraphs (i) and (ii) of paragraph (b) above to the result of that ballot shall be read as references to the result of the second ballot required by that subsection.'.

Amendment (g) to the proposed Lords amendment, in page 90, line 40, leave out from 'given' to 'and' in line 41, and insert `for the purposes of the originating ballot to persons eligible to vote in that ballot (within the meaning of section 51)'.

Amendment (h) to the proposed Lords amendment, in page 206, line 26, at end insert— '50A. In section 80 of that Act (registration of pupils at schools), after subsection (1) there shall be inserted the following subsection— (1A) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section, the prescribed particulars shall include particulars of the name and address of every person known to the proprietor of the school to be a parent of a pupil at the school.".'.

Mr. Baker

As my noble Friend, Lord Trefgarne, said in another place, we see no need for amendment No. 89. No school may become grant maintained unless it has followed all the procedures set out in the Bill. The amendment adds nothing to these requirements. However, if the House wishes the amendment to remain, I do not intend to press the matter. The substantive amendment is amendment No. 113. I am asking the House to agree not with that Lords amendment but with the amendments that we have tabled.

We have spent many hours in the House and in another place debating the proposals for grant-maintained schools. Curiously, perhaps, the Opposition have used much of that time not to consider the concept of grant-maintained schools or their financing and staffing but to concentrate on the proposed testing of parental opinion. They have argued about who is a parent, although we have stated the Government's position many times. They have tried to invent fancy franchises that would ensure that few applications come forward, and they have implied that the ballot of parents somehow decides whether a school becomes grant-maintained instead of simply being part of a process whereby an application is submitted for my consideration.

What has all the fuss been about? It has been about our proposal that a simple majority of the parents voting in a ballot should determine the outcome of that ballot. Our system of democracy has surely survived on the principle that the majority derives its legitimacy from voting. Any other approach will always be open to challenge. A simple majority of those voting is a clear, comprehensible and straightforward way of testing opinion. The arrangements for a secret postal ballot—which in these circumstances will be organised by the Electoral Reform Society—and for the distribution of fact-sheets with ballot papers will ensure that every parent has the chance to cast an informed vote.

Mr. Cormack

My right hon. Friend will remember that when the House dealt with referendums for Ireland, Scotland and Wales it built in certain requirements for majorities.

Mr. Baker

I am aware of that point. Someone reminded me of the Division record on the qualifed majority on the Scottish referendum. Apparently I was not present in the House. If I had been, I probably would have supported it. On the European referendum, there was not a qualified majority but a straightforward majority.

Mr. Straw

What about a qualified majority?

Mr. Baker

The hon. Gentleman asked me that question in Committee, and I shall answer it in exactly the same terms as I did then. I do not favour a qualified majority. A better way of solving most of these matters is with a simple majority, as I have said consistently.

Mr. Straw

As the right hon. Gentleman does not favour a qualified majority, will he explain why in the Employment Bill 1982 he voted for what was not just a qualified majority but an overwhelming majority of 80 per cent. before a closed shop could be accepted?

9.15 pm
Mr. Baker

The answer is straightforward. I voted that way because that ballot was very decisive and men's and women's jobs were at risk. There is no risk of anyone's job being put at risk as a result of these ballots.

In another place the view has been expressed that a majority of those eligible to vote should endorse the making of an application. In other words, if 1,000 parents are eligible to vote, 501 must be in favour of an application before it can go forward. To put it another way, if 499 vote and they are all in favour, no application results. The prime effect of this approach would be to enfranchise apathy and to give the abstainers equal weight with the opponents in blocking changes which others want. In my example, the 501 parents who chose not to vote would be assumed to be opposed to an application for grant-maintained status. I see no reason why that should be so. I therefore invite the House to disagree with Lords amendment No. 113.

I accept that those who supported the amendment in the other place were not all totally hostile to the concept of grant-maintained status. I accept that in some cases there were worries that a well-organised minority group from one or other end of the political spectrum might, so to speak, hijack a school before the majority of parents fully appreciated the importance of what was happening. That point was made not only in the House but by several speakers in the other place. I think it most unlikely that parents will have the wool pulled over their eyes in that way, but, as the concern is such a real one for some people, I have given considerable thought to ways of meeting it.

I am willing to build in some further safeguards, and that is why I have tabled the amendments to the proposed Lords amendment. Those amendments will ensure that the process by which an application for grant-maintained status is initiated will be fully legitimised by the involvement of the whole parent body. With the permission of the House, I shall explain my amendments in more detail.

The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that all parents enjoy every possible opportunity to express a view on the proposition that their child's school should become grant maintained—whether that view is for or against. Not one parent should be able to say, once the dust has settled, that he or she did not fully understand that it was important to vote in the ballot. Not one parent should be left feeling that he or she had been misled into thinking that the ballot was somebody else's business. As I have said before, I am confident that there will always be tremendous public debate and parental interest in the run-up to a ballot. I do not believe that parents will not bother to vote. I am sure that many LEAs will campaign strongly against the proposal and will urge a big turnout. Just to be quite sure, I propose to introduce a new dual-ballot arrangement.

The arrangement will operate in the following way: a ballot will be held and, if 50 per cent. or more of the registered parents vote, the results will he determined by a simple majority of those voting. That is a straightforward ballot. If less than 50 per cent. of parents vote in the first ballot, a second ballot will have to be held within 14 days of the result of the first one being declared. Once again, all the parents will receive ballot papers from the Electoral Reform Society, this time with a statement explaining why the second ballot is necessary and reminding them what they are being asked to decide. The result of the second ballot will again be determined by a simple majority of those voting, but this time it will be conclusive, irrespective of the turnout.

Mr. Straw

I wonder whether the Secretary of State can answer an important point of detail. The first ballot might he held in mid-December—say, on 18 December—in which case the 14 days would fall in the Christmas and new year period. That is perfectly possible. Is there any provision to take account of that?

Mr. Baker

We intend to issue guidance and we shall try to encourage schools and governing bodies not to hold ballots on the last day of term. It is most unlikely that that will happen. The hon. Gentleman is looking for extreme cases. If that is the best criticism that he can find of our proposals, it is a pretty poor effort.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

My right hon. Friend has clearly stated that it will be a simple majority, but I cannot find specific reference to that in the amendment. Does the amendment specify that it will be a simple majority?

Mr. Baker

I shall give my hon. Friend the exact phrase when it is brought to my attention, but I assure her that I am satisfied that it will be done by simple majority.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Perhaps my right hon. Friend will clarify another matter. After all the procedures have been gone through, including the second ballot, if necessary, will the decision remain his? Will he be able to overturn the second ballot, if necessary?

Mr. Baker

Let me remind the House of the procedures for obtaining grant-maintained status. First, the governing body must meet to consider whether it wants to proceed. If it decides that it wishes to proceed, it must meet again within 28 days so that the governors can reflect upon the decision, as it is clearly an important matter. They must then ask the Electoral Reform Society to organise a postal ballot along the lines that I have described. The postal ballot will then be held, and on some occasions there may be a second postal ballot. However, the ballot itself does not determine whether a school becomes a grant-maintained school. It merely triggers the third process. The governors then have to put forward a proposal and publish it just as they do with a proposal under section 12 of the Education Act 1980 for the amalgamation, closure or expansion of a school. The proposal has to be advertised and will be the subject of public meetings. It will then be submitted to the Secretary of State, who has to decide whether it should go ahead. That is the procedure.

Sir Charles Morrison (Devizes)

The Government believe in the concept of parent power. Interpretation of parent power is up to the individual. I presume, however, that it implies a decision by a large proportion of parents. Under the Government's amendment to the Lords amendment, it would be possible in the first ballot for 25 per cent. of parents plus one to decide the future of the school. If the second ballot had to be held it would be possible for I per cent. of parents, or even one parent, to decide. If I am right, does that not mean that the Secretary of State, rather than the parents, is making the decision?

Mr. Baker

It has always been implicit in the arrangements that the Secretary of State must be the person who decides whether a school becomes grant maintained, just as the Secretary of State decides about school closures or expansions. That has not changed. It will always be the Secretary of State who decides. Under the dual-ballot procedure, a second ballot will be held if 50 per cent. of the parents do not vote. If more than 50 per cent. vote—whether it is 51 per cent. or 80 per cent.—the first ballot is conclusive and the next stage is triggered. If the turnout is lower, a simple majority is sufficient in the second ballot, and the second ballot will determine whether the trigger is pulled for the application.

Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)

As my right hon. Friend knows, I was reluctant to accept the Government's original proposal. I still find it difficult to understand how this convoluted and possibly expensive system of two ballots is preferable to the normal procedure for changing the constitution of an organisation, whether it be a cricket club or a building society. My right hon. Friend will recall from his lime at the Department of the Environment that 75 per cent. of members' votes are required before the constitution of a building society can be changed. I cannot understand why a simple proposition of the kind which requires a majority at least of those eligible to vote should not be sufficient to determine this matter.

Mr. Baker

I am afraid that I disagree with my hon. Friend. There are many constitutional issues, not least election of local authorities, which depend not on qualified majorities but on simple majorities. The argument that I have put forward consistently—in Committee, on Report and around the country—is that a simple majority is the right and appropriate way to do it. In these amendments, I have tried to recognise the views that have been put to me, specifically by some church members, and the anxiety that a small group of parents could hijack a school and rush through the change. I have met that anxiety by these changes.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

My right hon. Friend has accepted an important principle, for which we have been arguing. Will he make it clear that he would be unlikely to accept a decision taken by a simple majority of a 50 per cent. turnout on the first ballot? That would mean that about 25 per cent. plus one would carry the decision when the original trigger is 20 per cent., which would put him in a dilemma.

Mr. Baker

My hon. Friend is tempting me a little too far, as that would fetter not only my discretion but that of any holder of my office. I am sure that, legally, I would not be allowed to do so. In the same way, I cannot fetter the holder of my office by making commitments on grammar schools, comprehensives or reorganisations of schools. The extent of the turnout will be a material factor—material both to the parents and to the future of the school—and is bound to weigh heavily with the holder of my office. Before we had this dual system of 50 per cent. on the first round and then a conclusive decision on the second round, my argument was that if there were a derisory turnout—I do not accept that that would happen because, when the future of a school is at stake, parents are tremendously involved, as all hon. Members will know, and there is a huge turnout—and the holder of my office had taken a decision approving grant-maintained status, that may be a reason for setting aside that decision on judicial review. That is one of the factors that has to be taken into account. The reasonableness of the decision taken by the holder of my office would have to be apparent and patent. I have tried to explain, by question and answer, how this would be dealt with.

I emphasise that, in the procedure that I have outlined, no small group of committed parents would be able to bounce a school into an application for grant-maintained status, but those who are determined to be apathetic, however many opportunities they might be given to participate, will not be an obstacle to those who believe that grant-maintained status is right for the school, and are prepared to put their energies into making it a success.

Once again, I emphasise that the ballot procedure is only the start of a statutory process—a point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham). The holder of my office will still have to look at the resulting application on its merits, taking account of any objections that may be made, whether by parents or others concerned. The introduction of this two-stage procedure should put paid, once and for all, to anxieties about hijacks by well-organised minority groups.

The remaining amendments in this group are consequential. They may also clarify some points that have exercised hon. Members on both sides of the House. They establish once and for all that the electoral roll is the list of parents held on the admissions register at the school, and that it is for the governing body to make a determination in any case where a question is raised about a person's claim to be a parent. They also provide that parents should have 14 days to check that they are on the list once it has been formally decided that a ballot should be held that is to say, the governor's second meeting. Amendments to the later clause clarify references to first and second ballots.

The amendments demonstrate that we have listened to concerns expressed to us and done our best to meet them. I believe that these amendments finally remove any possible risk that a small group of parents could seek to determine the future of a school without the consequences being fully appreciated by all the parents.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

When the local authority is acting in loco parentis, because a child is in care, will the authority have a parent's vote for each child in care?

9.30 pm
Mr. Baker

That was made clear in Committee. The head of the home will be able to exercise the vote in the case of a child in care.

I have tried to make it clear that the amendment proposing a dual ballot is an attempt by the Government to meet the anxieties that have been expressed. It meets those anxieties, but I have no intention of yielding ground on the principle that a simple majority of those voting should determine the outcome of a ballot. That concept is well understood and conveys legitimacy. It has served us well over the years and will do so in the future.

Mr. Straw

The Secretary of State made clear, in the closing seconds of his speech, that the amendment is a concession without substance. The Government's original policy was to provide for a scheme by which a simple majority, however small the proportion of those voting, could trigger an application for opt-out status. That remains the position under these amendments, the only difference being that, where there is less than a 50 per cent. turnout in the first ballot, there may then be a second ballot. However, as the hon. Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) spelt out, there could, arithmetically, be a 1 per cent. turnout at the first ballot and a 1 per cent. turnout at the second ballot, which would still trigger an application for opt-out. As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) said, this is a convoluted and expensive arrangement written into the amendments which is designed to provide a veneer of democracy and legitimacy around a bad scheme.

The Secretary of State, wanting, as ever, to have it both ways, said in an answer to the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson)—I am glad to see a wry smile on the hon. Gentleman's face—that the extent of the turnout would be a material factor to weigh in his mind when he came to decide whether to accept an application. If the extent of the turnout is to be a material factor in the mind of the Secretary of State when he comes to weigh up whether to accept or reject an application, is it not appropriate that it should be a material factor in the mind of the House in establishing the scheme of voting in the first place? We should not just leave it to the Secretary of State—not just this Secretary of State, but any Secretary of State—but should meet the legitimate concerns of all hon. Members and state what should be a minimum proportion before which an application could be triggered.

The Secretary of State sought to brush aside a history of complete inconsistency on the matter of his votes on franchises by dismissing any suggestion, from anyone who was seeking other than a simple majority on any turnout, that we were in favour of fancy franchises. The Secretary of State's history in this House is that of a man who picks a franchise to get a result. I would not mind that argument from the Secretary of State if, every time an issue of the franchise had come up, he had said that the simple majority of those voting is inviolable and fundamental to our democracy.

The Secretary of State admits, however, that in relation to the referendums for Scotland and Wales he supported the requirement for a 40 per cent. minimum vote in favour of assemblies in those countries before such powers could be triggered. On the Employment Bill, he voted with many of his right hon. and hon. Friends for a scheme requiring that before a closed shop could be established there must be an 85 per cent. majority of those voting or an 80 per cent. majority of those eligible to vote. The then Under-Secretary of State for Employment—the right hon. and learned Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Waddington), now the Government Patronage Secretary—justified that proposal by the argument that the closed shop must have the overwhelming support of the work force because of the immense importance for individual rights."—[Official Report. Standing Committee G, 30 March 1982; c. 775.] I do not agree with that argument, but I understand it. The present Secretary of State for Education and Science reflected that statement when he said that men's and women's jobs would be at stake in a closed shop. That may be so, but is not something quite important at stake if a school opts out of local authority control? Many parents will believe that their children's education is at stake when they consider the possibility of transfer from the local education authority to state nationalised education by the Secretary of State.

Mr. Pawsey

In that case, they will vote.

Mr. Straw

We used that argument in relation to the closed shop, but it was not accepted by the Minister in charge or by the present Secretary of State for Education and Science.

The Housing Bill has been going through the House at the same time as the Education Reform Bill. On the very day when the Secretary of State for Education and Science was asking the Standing Committee to accept this fancy franchise whereby a minority of parents could force a ballot through and trigger an opt-out application, he supported in the Cabinet what was then clause 96 of the Housing Bill whereby the absolute reverse obtained and tenants on a council estate could not prevent a private landlord from taking over their estate unless a majority of those eligible voted against the application. Were I outside the House, I should call that hyprocrisy. As I am in the House, I shall call it a double standard—the most excruciating, excoriating double standard on the part of a Government who do not understand the meaning of morality.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Does the hon. Gentleman realise how synthetic his indignation sounds—[Interruption.] I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) would not shout at me like some shrew. The Labour party supported unions which for more than 100 years had leaders elected to positions of great power and authority by less than 10 per cent. of their membership. The hon. Gentleman's party never complained about that.

Mr. Straw

If the hon. Gentleman is making a serious point, I should point out that there is a distinction between elections for office when someone has to be elected because otherwise there will be a vacancy and elections which determine major changes in the status quo of institutions when, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green pointed out, it is important to have the consent of everyone concerned.

I do not like low turnouts in any election. I want a high turnout in every election because that is how one achieves the maximum legitimacy for the decision reached. Incidentally, I remember hearing the Secretary of State pontificating in the House on the subject of challenging the legitimacy of local authorities on the basis of low turnouts in elections. There was no suggestion that, because local councillors had been elected on a plurality of the vote regardless of the turnout, somehow their position was not legitimate.

In respect of a closed shop, of tenants on a council estate or of members of building societies, or in respect of something that Conservative Members understand rather well, the status quo of shareholders of a company, there must be what the Secretary of State would call fancy franchises—arrangements for which he has always voted in the past. For example, there might have to be a 75 per cent. majority at a special general meeting of a company in order to change the articles of that company or to do other things that could affect minority rights. Sometimes a substantial turnout with majorities larger than 50 per cent. has to be written in to respect the rights of minorities. That is the key issue here.

Under these arrangements there will be two ballots. The hon. Member for Devizes has already blown a hole in the arithmetic of those two ballots. What is more, this is so ill-thought-out that the Secretary of State has not even given the parliamentary draftsmen time to draft amendments so that the 14 days runs through the school term and not through school holidays.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

I can give guidance.

Mr. Straw

The Secretary of State shakes his head and says that he can give guidance. He should know enough about the law to know that his guidance is not above the law or even equal to the law. If a ballot is held on, for example, 14 December—and that is not impossible to imagine—and turns out to be unsatisfactory, the next ballot has to be held within 14 days.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman.

The Secretary of State says that he will give guidance. What happens if that guidance is not accepted? It is possible for a ballot to be held at Christmas, and ballots could easily take place at Easter or in the summer. The Secretary of State might have given himself guidance last year when he chose to consult teachers and parents over the six weeks of the summer holidays, but he did not. He knows that it is perfectly possible for a group of parents who want to achieve a particular result to fix a ballot so that many parents are not able to vote. In that event, his guidance would not count for a row of beans.

The Secretary of State spoke about the definition of parents. That matter was rightly subjected to great debate in the other place. Under the definition that the Secretary of State is applying, which I understand is section 114 of the 1944 Act, which is the bedrock definition, a parent of any child or young person includes a guardian and every person who has the actual custody of the child or young person. I think that the Secretary of State acknowledges that. That means that the number of votes that can be cast in respect of a child can be anything from nil to four or five.

One third of marriages end in divorce. Some children live with grandparents during the week and with their parents at the weekend, or with one set of parents one week and another set the next week. We all know that such people exist: that is reality. In such cases four votes could be exercised on behalf of one child. At the other extreme a single parent mother, perhaps with three children at the same school, is able to exercise only one vote.

Mr. Cormack

Is that true?

Mr. Straw

It is true, but if the Secretary of State thinks otherwise I shall readily give way to him.

The mathematics are quite horrendous. Some children could have 12 times as much voting weight exercised on their behalf as other children. A single child at school may have four effective parents, staying with one set one week and another set the next, and all have custody of the child and can exercise four votes on his behalf. On the other hand, there might be a single parent who is the only parent with custody of the child. He or She may have three children in school. The child with four parents and no siblings will have 12 times the voting weight exercised on his behalf than the child with one parent and two other siblings in the school.

9.45 pm
Dr. Hampson

This is interesting and important. I do not read the provision in the same way as the hon. Gentleman. Surely there has to be a registered parent. It does not only matter how many parents, in theory, there might be. Only one will be registered with the school, and only he or she can vote. The governors have the final say on who the registered parent is.

Mr. Straw

Yes. There is a registered parent. It is within my knowledge, however, that there are children who have two sets of parents. All of them will be registered—[HON. MEMBERS: "No".] Let the Secretary of State deny this if he wishes. Section 114 provides the bedrock definition of the 1944 Act. The Minister of State referred to and quoted this passage: —Parent', in relation to any child or young person, includes a guardian and every person who has the actual custody of the child or young person. The issue was argued out in another place over some weeks, and, as I understand it, it was acknowledged that the arithmetic to which I have referred could apply. That was acknowledged also in Committee. There has never been any dubiety about this. I am sorry that it has taken until the closing hours of our consideration of the Bill for Conservative Members to appreciate the profound unfairness and arbitrary nature of the proposed arrangements. We proposed that the system should be one child, one vote. The interest of the parent arises out of the interest of the child. That seemed to be a simple, straightforward and fair arrangement which would be fairer between children and fairer between parents.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

On the definition of parent, the position is that which I have outlined. It is no different from the position that governing bodies have to resolve on the election of parental governors. They have to determine who the parent is. There are usually two parents and there might be one parent. In a few cases the courts have decided that there should be four parents. As I have said, the system is the same for parental governors.

The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has said that the Opposition favoured the system of-one parent to have one vote per child. That is a crazy system. How do we determine which parent votes when the mother and father think differently?

Mr. Straw

Every advantage has a disadvantage. Our proposal is much less crazy and much fairer than the Government's, under which one child could carry forward four votes.

Mr. Flannery

I intervene on a kindred point, not exactly the point that my hon. Friend has raised. Will my hon. Friend deal with the problem of feeder schools to a secondary school when it is the secondary school that will vote to opt out? There will probably be three or four feeder schools.

Mr. Straw

I take my hon. Friend's point entirely.

In the ILEA ballot there was one vote per child, and in many families there were two votes.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

What a fiddle.

Mr. Straw

No, it was not a fiddle. The only difficulty for the Secretary of State was when the result went the wrong way for him. There was no fiddle and there was no problem. The Secretary of State is wrong to draw an analogy with elections for parent governors. My experience—I think that it is shared by all my hon. Friends who have been involved in this process—is that the elections are informal and often take place by acclamation. They raise none of the deeply divisive issues—

Mr. Kenneth Baker

What of September?

Mr. Straw

Many local authorities have had parent governors for years. Some areas have had so many parent governors that they will have to reduce the number of parent governors this autumn, not increase it. There has been no problem so far because this has not been fundamentally divisive to the interests of the school or the community.

Mr. Latham

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

No, I will not give way, because I want to draw my remarks to a close. We are considering a different circumstance that might be deeply divisive to a school's interest.

I want to ask the Secretary of State about the register of the list of parents. He said that the list of parents would be drawn up by the governing body and that parents would have 14 days to check on the list after the election had been announced. If the Secretary of State wants a fair election, would it not be far better after the governing body had decided to trigger a ballot—if these are to be fair elections, and if there is to be a clear register—for the register to be published at the beginning of each academic year because it could be used for other purposes, for example, the election of parent governors and so could be checked, than for it to be made available in a period of considerable controversy, in the 14 days before a ballot takes place?

Throughout the debates there has been intense argument about what should he a legitimate vote to trigger an opt-out ballot. An opt-out ballot through which a school removes itself from local authority control and becomes a nationalised school is probably the most important decision that a school could make. We believe that, for that proposal to go forward, it must require the majority of the support of every parent in the school.

In the previous debate the Secretary of State was happy to praise the Bishop of London for what he had done in respect of religious education. Our amendment, which the Secretary of State wants to overturn, was proposed by the Bishop of London and supported by a majority of the Members of the House of Lords, who were in favour of the simple democratic principle that a major institutional change of this kind should be supported by an absolute majority.

Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

I want very briefly to define my attitude towards opting out, because this is a short debate. Opting out is an excellent scheme, particularly bearing in mind what has happened to education in certain parts of Brent. Many parents in Brent are waiting for the proposal to come into action. The sooner and easier it comes into action, the better.

I should have liked the Secretary of State to go further with a full voucher system which would have revolutionised education in the way that we have revolutionised industry by making the consumer stronger than the producer. I welcome the present proposal as a stepping stone to that glorious time and praise my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's move along the line.

If we start these fancy franchises, where do we stop? Will people be elected to this House only if they get 51 per cent. of a 98 per cent. poll? If so, hardly any of us would be here. If we stipulated 51 per cent. of the poll, two thirds of us would not be here now. Such a rule would obviously disfranchise the winner of the by-election in Kensington last week. Will we not allow the winner of that election to enter this House because there was only a 51 per cent. poll? Once we begin on this road, where do we stop?

In council elections, the turnout can be less than 30 per cent. That is often the case in Labour areas, although I hate to say so and risk upsetting Opposition Members. It is important to keep the few Labour Members there are in the Chamber. It is interesting to compare how many of my hon. Friends are present against the number of Opposition Members. Where is the Labour party's enthusiasm for opposing this measure? The fact is that Opposition Members know that their constituents will like it, and that parents will be going through the voting lists to see whether they will be free to do what they wish.

The more responsibility we give to parents, the better a society we shall have. In education, I have always supported the view of the parent against that of the so-called expert, who will always have a theory to defend and his future before him. The parent is the only person in education who is concerned purely for the education of his children. The more we put parents in charge, the better. There has been much talk recently about irresponsibility, and the only way to achieve responsibility among parents is to give them power. The state takes more and more power away from the family and then attacks parents for not doing their job.

I commend my right hon. Friend on the amendment. He is being very courageous and generous. Others might have ignored this aspect and would have driven on, saying that a 0.5 per cent. majority rather than a 1 per cent. majority should be sufficient. This is an act of great generosity, and I am amazed that any Opposition Member should oppose it. It just shows how much the Opposition are out of touch with the men and women of this country.

Mr. Morley

We should be clear that in this debate we are dealing with nothing more nor less than a form of institutionalised ballot rigging. The Secretary of State introduces this measure into the Bill and then makes an amendment that is of no credit to him or to the House. Every argument made by Conservative Members in support of this measure has been shot down by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench.

One point that has not been covered is that concerning the ballot for the closed shops, where there must be an 85 per cent. majority. Somebody commented, "It's a question of freedom". There is also a question of freedom in this respect. I refer to the freedom of parents with children in the feeder schools, but who will not be given a vote on the question of opting out. Nevertheless, the result of that vote may have far-reaching effects on those parents and on their children when they reach the school concerned.

Let us assume that in the first ballot, with 40 per cent. of parents voting, the majority goes against the school opting out. However, under the new amendment, because that percentage will be less than the majority of those eligible to vote, there would be a second vote, when 20 per cent. of eligible parents may vote to opt out. Which decision will influence the Secretary of State? He may argue that the ballot itself is simply a trigger mechanism. The argument against that is that the system will set parent against parent, will divide the community, and will drive a wedge between the schools and the local authorities. At best, it will cause confusion, and at worst it will be a constant, running sore that will disrupt the children's education and the schools themselves, and they will be the losers.

I turn to the definition of "parent". My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) is right in saying that there could be four parents with a right to vote. In another place, Lord Trefgarne, for the Government, said that the education Acts define a parent as including a guardian and every person who has the actual custody of the child or young person, so there may he circumstances where a child has more than two parents."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 May 1988; Vol. 496, c. 1326.] That confirms that, in some situations, four people may have a vote in respect of one child. Lord Trefgarne went on to say that there might be court actions to resolve who actually has the vote and the custody of the child. Do I take it that court actions could be triggered off simply to decide who is the registered parent, and who has the vote?

Such examples are not uncommon. I knov, of one family in which one child is living with its grandparents, who have custody. In another family the children have gone to a sister, who has custody of the children within her own family. That can cause all sorts of problems and potential humiliation for stepfathers and stepmothers, who may find that the natural parents argue with the governors that they too have the right to vote in the registering process.

10 pm

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the rather tortuous example that he has given would apply whatever the system of voting? Is it not about time that we started to live in the real world? If there is a contentious issue in a school, a large number of parents will become involved; it will not be a case of a small number coming in silently one night to vote clandestinely. Why should the votes of those who want the school to opt out be worth any more or any less than the votes of those who want it to stay in local authority control? Why should they not be of equal strength?

Mr. Morley

My point concerns the confusion and dissent that will result from the Secretary of State's amendment. I do not think that Conservative Members appreciate that in many institutions it is written into the constitution that any major constitutional change will require a majority of, say,75 per cent. or two thirds of those eligible.

Once the vote is taken, it is irreversible. Once the school has opted out, the parents cannot vote to opt in again the following year. That makes it all the more important that the decision is made by the majority. If the Government truly believe in parental involvement, and if they are genuinely concerned about the quality of education and the involvement of parents rather than with simple political doctrine, they will support the Lords amendment.

Dr. Hampson

Having started all this in Committee with a couple of attempted amendments that suggested either 50 per cent. or 40 per cent., let me first comment briefly on a couple of myths. It is a pity that my right hen. Friend continues to perpetuate them.

One myth is that this is somehow like a local government or parliamentary election. It is not an election; we are not in the business of 30, 40 or 50 per cent., as was suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson). We are talking about an expression of opinion about something of tremendous and fundamental importance which has the potential to cause an upheaval in the entire structure of education established in the 1944 Act.

Secondly, it is asked why 499 parents out of 1,000 should be denied their view. But we are talking about a vibrant, living community. The personal chemistry of parents, teachers and pupils is what makes it work, and if well over 50 per, cent. support cannot be achieved the school will be torn apart. The figure of 499 parents out of 1,000 essentially means that the decision will be taken by the parents of roughly 500 out of 2,000 pupils. If this is about the education of the children, as it should be, should we be changing the direction and future of the school on the basis of what the parents of 500 out of 2,000 would like to happen to their children?

As the Government have acknowledged tonight, the issue is about turnout. We seem to be saying that it does not matter what the theory is or what the legislation will be: in practice it will turn out all right; because a highly controversial decision is to be taken, many people will turn out to vote.

Educationists and parents are essentially conservative. Many of them will not want to take this tremendous leap into the dark, but when that happens there will. I agree, be a tremendous row and the local authority and the newspapers will weigh in. But that does not justify putting my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his successors into an embarrassing position. He has acknowledged tonight that the courts may be asked to decide whether he is acting reasonably. Despite the compromise that my right hon. Friend has offered, it will ultimately be his decision.

These are just trigger mechanisms. Are we suggesting that on one occasion the Secretary of State should approve a vote that is tantamount to 40 per cent., while on another occasion he should say no to a vote that is tantamount to 36 per cent.? If the figure for one school is different from that for another school, parents who are determined to opt out will challenge my right hon. Friend's decision. Furthermore, the teachers' unions may not want a school to opt out and they, too, will challenge the decision. The purpose of my amendment in Committee was to establish a clear yardstick so that potential uncertainties and consequential judicial review were eliminated. My amendment would have meant that, if the number fell below a clear proportion, opting out would not be considered.

We have to decide whether the compromise is acceptable. If the principle of opting out is to be accepted by the public—I believe in it and I have advocated it for a number of schools—the Government must be seen to be acting fairly. Until now I did not believe that the formula made it look as though the Government were being fair. If we had nothing to worry about because there would be a huge turnout, what on earth did the Government have to lose by having a proportion enshrined in statute? It made it look as though we were deliberately trying to shove through any proposal that was put forward, regardless—in other words, as though we were trying to gerrymander the system. Therefore, I accept generously my right hon. Friend's proposals. He has tried to meet the central point of fairness having to be perceived.

I do not agree that the proposals are a recipe for a turnout on the second ballot that would be even smaller than the turnout on the first. If a second ballot has to take place, it will stimulate much more interest in the community and a very much larger turnout. That is at the heart of the compromise and I accept it.

As for the criteria, it might be better if my right hon. Friend were to extend his powers so that he could decide whether there are circumstances that warrant a second ballot. Only 51 or 52 per cent. may vote in the first ballot, which means that only 25 per cent. or 26 per cent. of the parents will carry the day and change the future direction of the school. As the process is initially triggered by 20 per cent., it is unacceptable that a school should be able to opt out on the basis of 25 or 26 per cent. If the vote is just over 50 per cent. in the first ballot, my right hon. Friend ought to have the power to ask for a second ballot.

I accept the spirit in which my right hon. Friend has offered the compromise. It meets the central problem and therefore should be accepted.

Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)

One cannot understand the Secretary of State's attitude to the voting procedures unless one understands the background to opting out. It has always been a confused proposal. The Secretary of State saw opting out as a safety valve, and a number of Conservative Members supported that view. However, the Prime Minister saw the opt-out as a kind of revolution, such as the proposal to buy council houses in the first and second Tory terms of office, and she overruled her Secretary of State.

Those Conservative Members who supported opt-out as a safety valve realised that it was important to ensure that a minority of parents did not hijack the proposals. They saw, too, that to bring about such a change they needed overwhelming support among parents. That is why in Committee and on Report Conservative Members tabled amendments to write such criteria into the Bill. They were very sensible proposals, but unfortunately they were defeated.

In another place, an amendment was carried against the wishes of the Government but with the backing of a number of Government supporters. It was moved by the Bishop of London. It is worth quoting a few points from his speech, as it was an excellent speech, and perhaps the Government have not taken it into account sufficiently. The bishop said: If the Government intend to establish the means by which schools are allowed to opt out of the local authority system, then it must be a fair system and one which serves the majority of parents … Why then are the Government not willing to accept the principle that the majority of those eligible to vote should be required to make the decision for a school to opt out? If the Government wish to provide parents with a choice in the education of their children, logically this should mean a greater choice for the majority of parents; yet the Bill does not ensure that choice for the majority in the opting out. The bishop also pointed out the parallel with the Housing Bill. He said: How can it be logical that where it is acceptable for a minority of parents at a school to decide its future, it is necessary for a majority of council tenants to decide to remain with the local authority? I am afraid one is driven to the point … that one purpose of the minority is to encourage schools to opt out"—[Official Report. House of Lords, 12 May 1988; Vol. 496, c. 1225–26.] That is basically the case. This Government suit the franchise to whatever case they have in mind. In the Housing Bill, they wanted to make it easy for things to happen and in this Bill they want to make it easy for schools to opt out, hence there will be just an ordinary majority.

The Secretary of State was faced with a dilemma, such as he has faced throughout the Bill. On the one hand, the Prime Minister would not allow the Secretary of State to accept the Lords amendments. On the other hand, he had to persuade the Conservative rebels and those in the other place. He had to come up with what he thought to be a clever wheeze which would be enough to disarm the rebels—after listening to the speeches that have been made I suspect he may have achieved that—without provoking an explosion from No. 10, and we have not heard that. Therefore, the Secretary of State might just have got away with it. However, the parents will be faced with a convoluted, cumbersome, confusing dual-ballot fudge which will still allow a well-organised minority to push through a grant-maintained school.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) rightly said, it is a concession without substance. I believe that it should be rejected and that instead we should accept the Lords amendment.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

It is indisputable that there has been a fair amount of unease about the qualifying procedure for opting out. I certainly welcome my right hon. Friend's willingness to make concessions. His concessions are not particularly radical, but they are helpful. However, I still wonder exactly how easy it will be to establish exactly who has the right to vote, and, even at this late stage, I wonder whether there is another way of looking at the matter.

Clause 50(2) seems to leave it to governors to decide which parents are to decide, and apparently that is the situation in other respects. My right hon. Friend's amendment to Lords amendment No. 113 confirms that. It says that the voter has to be known to the governing body to be a parent and must be named as a parent in the register.

10.15 pm

Having listened to the debate and thought about it, I am still bemused about exactly who can or cannot be a parent. Obviously, there are what one might call the natural and married parents and there would usually be no difficulty about that. However, what is the position of step parents? In what circumstances are they regarded as parents? What is the position of natural parents who are named on the birth certificate but are involved in a union where there has been no marriage? What is the position of natural parents who are not named on the birth certificate? How do we find out about that? In the world as we know it, it would be extremely difficult in many cases to compile a list of parents. It has been pointed out already that in many parts of the country there is a growing proportion of one-parent families. Will it be the duty of the governors to try to find out who the father is when a child is living with its mother? It will be a difficult process. To say simply that it is a matter for the guardians of a child or those looking after it does not seem to answer the case fully.

I want to press my right hon. Friend to explain things more fully and to ask him whether at this late stage there might be a different approach to the matter. My proposal to my right hon. Friend—if there is a chance to consider it in the other place when the Bill returns there—is to require that those voting for the proposal are equal in number to more than half the number of pupils registered at the school. I hope that my right hon. Friend will take some interest in that proposal. That would mean that in a school of 1,000 pupils, at least 501 parents would have to vote for the proposal. There would also have to be a majority.

It would be easier to peg the qualifying number to the number of pupils rather than the number of parents. I am not arguing—my right hon. Friend has referred to this already—that there should be only one parental vote for each child. I am simply saying that there should be a minimum. If more than one eligible parent votes, so be it. If we were to ensure that the total number required to achieve the qualifying stage was equivalent to one for each child, we would have a practical proposal. That is a way of facing a difficulty in my right hon. Friend's proposals as they stand and the difficulty in the proposals from the other place. I hope that my right hon. Friend, if he has a chance to think about the matter again, will follow my proposal.

Why have I not put my proposal forward as an amendment? The answer must be that I thought of it too late for it to be put on the Amendment Paper. I sent it for consideration but it arrived too late. Whether we adopt the proposal from the other place or my right hon. Friend's proposal we are still left with the difficult problem of defining who are the parents and in drawing up a list—there has to be a list to establish the qualifying majority. I hope that there will be a chance to look at the alternative approach. Having said that. I reiterate that I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has shown willingness to make a concession at this stage.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

We have been opposed to schools opting out. [HON. MEMBERS: "We?"] We work as a team—a relay perhaps, but as a team.

We are not opposed in principle to greater diversity in the provision of schools, but the Government's proposals are a charter for small groups of people to wreck a county's network of schools. Cornwall has relatively few schools—most of which are scattered with one per community—with shared arrangements for post-16 education. The loss of any one of those schools because of the interest of a temporary passing group of parents would be a permanent loss to the community that the school serves.

I represent a fast-growing county. As population pressures operate, schools that have opted out will have to take decisions about who can attend them. To take those decisions, they may ask for contributions, test pupils' ability or, given the nature of my county, decide them on whose family has been in the county for three generations. Whatever decision is taken, certain children will be prevented from attending the school in their community. There should be a county-based education structure—not one that depends on the whims and fancies of the community—which should not depend on a tiny minority of parents taking a decision that will affect not only children attending the school at that time, but all those who will attend it in the future.

Lords amendment No. 113 is a small but essential safeguard to ensure that there is a level of support for opting out before the proposal goes to the Secretary of State for his decision. It would have been better if the other amendments debated in the other place to require more widespread consultation with the community and feeder schools had also been carried. It is surely right to require in law a minimum level of parental support before allowing politicians to exercise a political judgment. The Secretary of State said that his vote on a closed shop would be different because it would affect people's jobs. These proposals affect the future of the community's children and those children's children and make a far greater impact than the closed shop ever could.

I hope that we will have time to debate the other amendments, including amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 111, which would help with the problem of defining a minimum level of parental support and would define who is a parent for the purposes of the ballot by setting an upper limit to the number of people who can participate in the ballot. We have already heard—the Secretary of State could not deny that this could happen—that 12 times as many votes could be cast on behalf of some children as of others. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) called a block vote.

Amendments (a) to (h) to Lords amendment No. 113 break away from the essential principle outlined in the other place about the minimum stated level of parental support, and should be rejected for that reason. That should not be forgotten, especially as the Bill will not and cannot contain a balancing provision for a school to opt back in again. The Bill provides only for a one-way street. Therefore, most demanding requirements should be met before an irreversible decision is taken.

The Government's proposals, which have been brought forward at the last moment to fend off an embarrassing defeat, are inadequate. The Secretary of State has not accepted the essential point that was carried in the other place, and the Bill is the worse for that. Hon. Members should stand by Lords amendment No. 113.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

This was always going to be one of the most controversial parts of the Bill, from the time it emerged in the election campaign, and so it has proved. Guidelines by the Secretary of State still remain. Clause 51(7) states: The Secretary of State shall publish any guidance given by him for the purposes of this section in such manner as he thinks fit. Under subsection (8), if it appears to the Secretary of State that the governing body of any school have acted unreasonably in the discharge of their duties", he can declare the ballot void. I assume that the power to declare a ballot void for that reason applies also to the second ballot. The Secretary of State has those reserve powers. I was glad to hear, following the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham), that the final decision on opting out remains with the Secretary of State. In the light of those two factors, there are plenty of safeguards against any unreasonable behaviour.

We do not know when the Bill will become law. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has on his desk a number of cases of possible school closures. People ask what will cause a group of parents or governors to wish to opt out. There are some overwhelming reasons: constant threats of closure or clumsy attempts to reorganise education in such a way as would render a school a candidate for closure.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has probably guessed the point to which I am coming. Four calendar months ago, on 18 March, he kindly saw me and a delegation. For the third time in six years we have been trying to save Queensbury upper school in Dunstable from closure. Today I learned from his Department that Bedfordshire county council has demanded that it should see my right hon. Friend to argue the case for the closure of the school. If the Bill does not become law until the autumn, will my right hon. Friend take into account the results of a consultative referendum of parents on the future of their school? In the knowledge that the Bill is about to become law, that school and others under the threat of closure may try to opt out of control by the LEA, because the LEA has been trying to close them. Will my right hon. Friend take into account the results of a consultative referendum to be held early next term—I would not advocate such a ballot during the school holidays—among parents and governors on Queensbury's future if that is what those governors and parents want?

I feel that it is appropriate to raise this matter now. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knows how contentious it is in Bedfordshire. It is my constitutional duty to raise it on behalf of Queensbury upper school, the parents, teachers and governors.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

The Government's amendments are an attempt to put a cloak of respectability over an act of political cowardice. During the general election, the Secretary of State made it clear that he thought that this would be a minority sport for parents. He was drawn up abruptly by the Prime Minister, who made it clear that she thought that parents would adopt the opting-out procedure in droves. If the Secretary of State is so confident about the interest of parents in the opting-out procedure, why does he not, instead of adopting a two-ballot procedure to quell rebellion among his party, state that a clear majority of parents of children attending a school should vote to opt out of the LEA's control and care?

10.30 pm

It has already been pointed out that for council tenants to exercise the right to stop a private landlord taking over their estate, more than half of them have to vote. For the closed shop, it was 80 per cent. At the time of the devolution debate, it was at least 40 per cent. However, under this proposal the decision can be made by the majority of those voting. Under the double ballot procedure, it is hoped that further interest will be excited and additional votes cast. But what will happen if neither ballot produces a clear decision, although a small majority are in favour of opting out?

The Secretary of State has been at pains to emphasise that the ballot procedure will not necessarily result in the opt-out provisions being made. He says that he will take account of the number of parents who vote and the majority that is achieved. He could have saved himself the pain of all this decision making. He has repeatedly told us that the Bill is not about taking powers to himself but about giving them to other people. Why did he not have the confidence to say that he would not decide whether a school should opt out but would leave that decision to a majority of parents who sent their children to the school? He has not done that.

Conservative Members have pointed out that we do not insist on such a procedure at general or local elections. We do not do so because we know that such elections are held regularly and that every three, four or five years the electorate has the opportunity to make a judgment on its previous decision about who to put into power. In this case, the parents will have no further opportunity. A school may be returned to local authority control and care only if there is a disaster in the management of the school, in which case the local authority will have to pick up the pieces.

I appeal to those Conservative Members who from the beginning have had doubts about the proposal that a majority of those voting should be sufficient not to accept this facade of a double vote to encourage parental interest but to stick to their guns and be honest about the need to provide that a majority of parents must be prepared to vote for such a proposal.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

I am a supporter of opting out, and the remarks of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) have not dissuaded me from that view. He seemed to me to be running around the periphery and pushing as hard as he could.

I support opting out for two reasons. First, it will shake local authorities' monopoly. They will never again be so complacent about educational standards. The second, associated, reason is that it will offer the parents of ordinary children a choice of education for the first time.

I know that the time is getting on, but I have three brief points to make. I have watched with interest the evolution of the Opposition's argument. They began by saying that parents would regard the very existence of the choice of opting out as so scandalous and unacceptable that there would be an overwhelming movement against it. The Opposition now say that the turnout might be too low to justify opting out. I invite Opposition Members to contemplate that contradiction.

I do not accept the argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) that we are involved in constitutional changes that have no connection with the position of local authorities.

Let us take, for example, Lancashire—the hon. Member for Blackburn will know what I am talking about—where the turnout in the last county election was 43.6 per cent. I am discussing not monopolies or closed shops, but education. In effect, there is, for those children in Lancashire, one education authority all of the time based on a less than 50 per cent. turnout. I am concerned about educational reality, and I want the children of Lancashire, like the children in other counties, to have a real choice in their schooling.

My third point relies on a hit of amateur sociological research. I looked carefully at the educational background of those in the other place who voted against my right hon. Friend's original intention. It is surprising that a large number of them had a de facto choice in their educational careers. They went either to opted out schools—by which I mean private schools—or to grammar schools. In other circumstances, our noble Friends are keen on the sporting interest. They should be encouraged to give a sporting chance to ordinary children, and let them have an educational choice as well.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Many people would be much more sympathetic to the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) about giving people choice if there were a choice of both opting in or opting out. He is saying that it must be a once and for all decision. The decision should be agreed by more than 50 per cent., because it cannot be reversed. The paradox of this debate is that Parliament is evading its responsibilities for education. The Bill should really be called the Evasion of Responsibility Bill, because we have spent a great deal of time talking about the opting out of schools when that has little relevance to what is going on in education. One finds that few teachers are concerned about opting out, so it is amazing that we should have spent hours in Committee and in the House dealing with that rather than with the real problems in education.

I went to a function on Friday night at the school at which I used to teach to mark the retirement of two excellent teachers. I thought that I would be inundated with comments about the Bill, but almost all the conversation that I had with other teachers with whom I had worked, and who I knew to be excellent teachers, was about how lucky these colleagues were to be retiring, and how they were looking forward to getting out of teaching as quickly as possible because they did not want to have to implement the proposals in the Bill. They did not go into the details of it—they simply wanted to opt out. That is the real opting out—the opting out of teachers. The Secretary of State should have been using this legislation to build up the morale of those who work in the schools.

Opting out will mean 12 months of uncertainty for the schools involved. That is the worst possible thing for education. Instead of getting on with improving the quality of education in a school and being concerned with what is going on in the classroom and with the individuals, people will be talking about the organisation of the school next year or the year after. As a former teacher, I know that when things are going wrong in the classroom, it is easy to start thinking about how one will plan things next year. The key point in education is to bring home to people the fact that the quality of teaching now is important, riot future planning.

What a mess the Bill has got us into. There is now an extremely complicated problem with franchise. We start off with 20 per cent. support to request the ballot. There are then the two governors' meetings, which are useful for a cooling off period, and then there are the two polls. I wonder whether the Secretary of State has worked out how the voting will take place. It cannot happen in December, because, of the two following ballots, in one at least it would be difficult to return the forms over the Christmas period. It would also be difficult to have a vote over Easter, not just because of the problem of contacting parents over the holiday period but because some pupils leave school at Easter, so it will have to be decided whether those people remain on the electoral list between one date and the next. The same thing applies at Whitsun, when all the summer leavers come off the register, and there will be a problem with the franchise. There is a problem in August, because a new group comes on to the franchise. The Secretary of State now has a cumbersome procedure.

The number of parents who could be involved came as a surprise to Conservative Members. The simplest procedure is one vote per child. The Secretary of State asked us how parents decide. From his experience, he should realise that one of the responsibilities of being a parent is that one must take joint decisions. One has to decide which school the child attends. I am sure that he can think of many other examples. I assume that the Secretary of State manages to take such joint decisions in his household. Most parents have to make decisions. That may sometimes be a painful process, but parents have to take joint decisions, and it is ridiculous to suggest that that is impossible.

In the last few seconds available to me, I want to ask the Secretary of State how quickly he will carry out his part of the function. The procedure involves going through the school and holding two parents' ballots and the matter then returns to the Secretary of State to make a decision. How quickly will he make that decision? He said that he would have to take into account, for example, the number of people who voted. Presumably he will also have to take into account the views of local Conservatives in the area. He should give the House an undertaking that, within a month of his being asked to give a decision, he will do so. If he does not do that, uncertainty will continue in schools. We shall have a measure that will divide a school for over 12 months into those who want to opt out and those who do not, to the detriment of the education of children in the school. I ask the House to support the Lords amendments and to throw out the Government's proposals.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

This has been an interesting, short and important debate. I have always been aware that, while Opposition Members have opposed the concept of grant-maintained schools, some Conservative Members have expressed anxiety about the legitimacy of the voting. That is why I have proposed the changes. I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) who moved amendments in Committee and has argued strongly for the amendments that the Government have now tabled. I hope that he will recognise that we have tried to meet the anxiety that has been expressed and I am grateful to him for his support.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) raised the question of a different way of defining the electorate. That comes late in our deliberations and I cannot incorporate those changes, although I shall consider them carefully. It may be possible to take on board some of my right hon. Friend's points in the guidance that we shall issue.

"(7) Subject to subsection (8) below, it shall be the duty of the governing body of any school which is eligible for grant-maintained status, at the request of any parent of a registered pupil at the school, to make available to the parent for inspection (at all reasonable times and free of charge) at the school, and to supply the parent with a copy of, a list containing the name and address of every person who is known to the governing body to be such a parent if the request is made—

  1. (a) in connection with any proposal that a ballot should be held in accordance with section 51 of this Act; or
  2. (b) where the governing body are under a duty by virtue of this section to secure that such a ballot is held, in connection with the holding of the ballot.

(8) A governing body shall not disclose to a parent under subsection (7) above the name and address of any person who has requested the governing body in writing not to disclose that information under that subsection; and accordingly the name and address of that person shall be excluded from the list there mentioned.

(9) A governing body who in pursuance of subsection (7) above supply copies of the list there mentioned may charge such fee as they think fit (not exceeding the cost of supply) in respect of each copy so supplied.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel) raised an important constituency point. He will know that I cannot comment on a proposal concerning a particular school, but I shall explain the general position to him. If there is a proposal before me concerning the closure of a school, when the Bill receives Royal Assent, that decision will be put on ice for a time, probably for two or three months, so that the governers can decide whether they wish to proceed with grant-maintained status. If so, I must make the decision on that before dealing with section 12 closures.

We then had a contribution from the spokesman for the Liberal party. It was a typical Liberal contribution. In general, the Liberals are in favour of freedom of choice. They go up and down the country saying that they are in favour of choice, but when it comes to specific examples of choice for parents they run away. They then have the effrontery to talk of a qualifying majority. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) is engaged in the leadership election of his party, but he is in favour of a simple majority. Will we have 40 per cent. for the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and 40 per cent. for the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)?

The most extraordinary thing about the debate has been the absence of Labour Members. Opting-out is one of the main issues of the Bill. Labour Members were against that at the election. The hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) said that he was against that. There are scarcely any Labour Members here. The entire speech of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) was devoted to the technicalities of voting, not the issue of grant-maintained schools. After a year in post, supposedly determining Labour party policy, he has no policy save on one issue—for ballots, it is one vote per child. What a crazy idea that is. The hon. Gentleman has devised an electoral system that is likely to be in breach of the Equal Opportunities Act and will certainly divide husband and wife. After a year's constructive thought, the hon. Gentleman has no policy at all—

It being a quarter to Eleven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to the Order this day, to put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Lords amendment No. 89 agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Lords amendment No. 111: In page 44, line 48, at end insert—

(10) For the purposes of this section, it shall be for the governing body to determine any question whether a person is a parent of a registered pupil at the school."

Read a Second time.

Amendment made to the proposed Lords amendment: (c) in line 10, at end insert 'or section 51(7A) of this Ace'.—[Mr. Kenneth Baker.]

Lords amendment No. 111, as amended, agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 112, in page 46, line 4, at end insert— (5A) Where the governing body of any school are under a duty by virtue of section 50 of this Act to secure that a ballot is held in accordance with this section they shall make available to every person employed to work at the school for inspection (at all reasonable times and free of charge) at the school a document containing the information required by subsections (3)(a) and (5) above to be given to parents of registered pupils at the school.

Read a Second time.

Amendment made to the proposed Lords amendment: (a), in line 6, leave out 'parents of registered pupils at the school' and insert 'persons eligible to vote in the ballot'.—[Mr. Kenneth Baker.]

Lords amendment No. 112, as amended, agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 113, in page 46, line 31, after "majority" insert of parents eligible to vote

Question put, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 334, Noes 198.

Division No. 420] [10.45 pm
Adley, Robert Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Aitken, Jonathan Browne, John (Winchester)
Alexander, Richard Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick
Allason, Rupert Buck, Sir Antony
Amos, Alan Burns, Simon
Arbuthnot, James Burt, Alistair
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Butcher, John
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Butler, Chris
Ashby, David Butterfill, John
Atkins, Robert Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Atkinson, David Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Carrington, Matthew
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Carttiss, Michael
Baldry, Tony Cash, William
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda
Batiste, Spencer Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Chapman, Sydney
Bellingham, Henry Chope, Christopher
Bendall, Vivian Churchill, Mr
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)
Benyon, W. Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Bevan, David Gilroy Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Biffen, Rt Hon John Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Colvin, Michael
Blackburn, Dr John G. Conway, Derek
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Body, Sir Richard Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Cope, Rt Hon John
Boswell, Tim Couchman, James
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Cran, James
Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n) Currie, Mrs Edwina
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Curry, David
Bowis, John Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes Davis, David (Boothferry)
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Day, Stephen
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Devlin, Tim
Brazier, Julian Dickens, Geoffrey
Bright, Graham Dicks, Terry
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Dorrell, Stephen
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Dover, Den Key, Robert
Dunn, Bob King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Durant, Tony Kirkhope, Timothy
Emery, Sir Peter Knapman, Roger
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd) Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Evennett, David Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Fallon, Michael Knowles, Michael
Farr, Sir John Knox, David
Favell, Tony Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Fenner, Dame Peggy Lang, Ian
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Latham, Michael
Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence, Ivan
Forman, Nigel Lee, John (Pendle)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Forth, Eric Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Fox, Sir Marcus Lightbown, David
Franks, Cecil Lilley, Peter
Freeman, Roger Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
French, Douglas Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Fry, Peter Lord, Michael
Gale, Roger Luce, Rt Hon Richard
Gardiner, George Lyell, Sir Nicholas
Gill, Christopher McCrindle, Robert
Goodlad, Alastair Macfarlane, Sir Neil
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Maclean, David
Gorst, John McLoughlin, Patrick
Gow, Ian McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael
Gower, Sir Raymond McNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)
Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW) Madel, David
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Major, Rt Hon John
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Malins, Humfrey
Gregory, Conal Mans, Keith
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Maples, John
Grist, Ian Marland, Paul
Ground, Patrick Marlow, Tony
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom) Marshall, Michael (Arundel)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Hampson, Dr Keith Mates, Michael
Hanley, Jeremy Maude, Hon Francis
Hannam, John Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr') Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Harris, David Meyer, Sir Anthony
Hawkins, Christopher Miller, Sir Hal
Hayes, Jerry Mills, Iain
Hayward, Robert Miscampbell, Norman
Heathcoat-Amory, David Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Heddle, John Mitchell, David (Hants NW)
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Moate, Roger
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Monro, Sir Hector
Hill, James Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hind, Kenneth Moore, Rt Hon John
Holt, Richard Morris, M (N'hampton S)
Hordern, Sir Peter Morrison, Sir Charles
Howard, Michael Morrison, Rt Hon P (Chester)
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A) Moss, Malcolm
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd) Moynihan, Hon Colin
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Mudd, David
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W) Neale, Gerrard
Hunt, David (Wirral W) Needham, Richard
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Nelson, Anthony
Hunter, Andrew Neubert, Michael
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Irvine, Michael Nicholls, Patrick
Irving, Charles Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Jack, Michael Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Jackson, Robert Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley
Janman, Tim Oppenheim, Phillip
Jessel, Toby Page, Richard
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Paice, James
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil
Jones, Robert B (Herts W) Patnick, Irvine
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Patten, Chris (Bath)
Patten, John (Oxford W) Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Sumberg, David
Pawsey, James Summerson, Hugo
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Tapsell, Sir Peter
Porter, David (Waveney) Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Portillo, Michael Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Powell, William (Corby) Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Price, Sir David Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Raison, Rt Hon Timothy Temple-Morris, Peter
Rathbone, Tim Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
Redwood, John Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Renton, Tim Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Rhodes James, Robert Thorne, Neil
Riddick, Graham Thornton, Malcolm
Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas Thurnham, Peter
Ridsdale, Sir Julian Townend, John (Bridlington)
Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy) Tracey, Richard
Roe, Mrs Marion Tredinnick, David
Rost, Peter Trippier, David
Rowe, Andrew Trotter, Neville
Rumbold, Mrs Angela Twinn, Dr Ian
Ryder, Richard Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Sackville, Hon Tom Viggers, Peter
Sainsbury, Hon Tim Waddington, Rt Hon David
Sayeed, Jonathan Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Scott, Nicholas Waldegrave, Hon William
Shaw, David (Dover) Walden, George
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Waller, Gary
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Ward, John
Shelton, William (Streatham) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW) Warren, Kenneth
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Watts, John
Shersby, Michael Wells, Bowen
Sims, Roger Wheeler, John
Skeet, Sir Trevor Whitney, Ray
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Widdecombe, Ann
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Wiggin, Jerry
Soames, Hon Nicholas Wilkinson, John
Speed, Keith Wilshire, David
Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W) Winterton, Mrs Ann
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Winterton, Nicholas
Squire, Robin Wolfson, Mark
Stanbrook, Ivor Wood, Timothy
Stanley, Rt Hon John Woodcock, Mike
Steen, Anthony Yeo, Tim
Stern, Michael Young, Sir George (Acton)
Stevens, Lewis Younger, Rt Hon George
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Stewart, Andy (Sherwood) Tellers for the Ayes:
Stewart, Ian (Hertfordshire N) Mr. Robert Boscawen and Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones.
Stokes, Sir John
Abbott, Ms Diane Callaghan, Jim
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Allen, Graham Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Alton, David Canavan, Dennis
Anderson, Donald Cartwright, John
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Armstrong, Hilary Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Clay, Bob
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Clelland, David
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich) Cohen, Harry
Barren, Kevin Coleman, Donald
Battle, John Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Beckett, Margaret Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Bell, Stuart Corbett, Robin
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Corbyn, Jeremy
Bidwell, Sydney Cousins, Jim
Blair, Tony Cryer, Bob
Boateng, Paul Cummings, John
Boyes, Roland Cunliffe, Lawrence
Bradley, Keith Cunningham, Dr John
Bray, Dr Jeremy Dalyell, Tam
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E) Darling, Alistair
Buchan, Norman Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Buckley, George J. Dewar, Donald
Caborn, Richard Dixon, Don
Dobson, Frank Martlew, Eric
Doran, Frank Maxton, John
Duffy, A. E. P. Meacher, Michael
Dunnachie, Jimmy Meale, Alan
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth Michael, Alun
Eadie, Alexander Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Eastham, Ken Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Evans, John (St Helens N) Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E) Morgan, Rhodri
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray) Morley, Elliott
Fatchett, Derek Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Faulds, Andrew Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Mullin, Chris
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n) Murphy, Paul
Fisher, Mark Nellist, Dave
Flannery, Martin Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Flynn, Paul O'Neill, Martin
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Parry, Robert
Foster, Derek Patchett, Terry
Foulkes, George Pike, Peter L.
Fraser, John Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Fyfe, Maria Prescott, John
Galbraith, Sam Primarolo, Dawn
Garrett, John (Norwich South) Quin, Ms Joyce
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend) Radice, Giles
George, Bruce Randall, Stuart
Godman, Dr Norman A. Redmond, Martin
Golding, Mrs Llin Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Gordon, Mildred Reid, Dr John
Gould, Bryan Richardson, Jo
Graham, Thomas Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Robertson, George
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Robinson, Geoffrey
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Rogers, Allan
Grocott, Bruce Rooker, Jeff
Harman, Ms Harriet Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Rowlands, Ted
Healey, Rt Hon Denis Ruddock, Joan
Hinchliffe, David Salmond, Alex
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Sedgemore, Brian
Holland, Stuart Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Home Robertson, John Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Hood, Jimmy Short, Clare
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Skinner, Dennis
Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath) Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Hughes, John (Coventry NE) Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S) Soley, Clive
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Spearing, Nigel
Illsley, Eric Steinberg, Gerry
Ingram, Adam Strang, Gavin
Janner, Greville Straw, Jack
John, Brynmor Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W) Turner, Dennis
Kennedy, Charles Vaz, Keith
Lambie, David Wall, Pat
Lamond, James Wallace, James
Leadbitter, Ted Walley, Joan
Leighton, Ron Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Litherland, Robert Wareing, Robert N.
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Loyden, Eddie Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
McAllion, John Wigley, Dafydd
McAvoy, Thomas Williams, Rt Hon Alan
McKelvey, William Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
McLeish, Henry Wilson, Brian
McNamara, Kevin Winnick, David
McTaggart, Bob Wise, Mrs Audrey
McWilliam, John Worthington, Tony
Madden, Max Wray, Jimmy
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Marek, Dr John Tellers for the Noes:
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Mr. Frank Haynes and Mr. Allen McKay.
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Amendments (a) to (h) made to the Bill in lieu of the Lords amendment last disagreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 135, 136, 138 to 141, 143, 144, 189 and 191 agreed to. [Special entry.]

Lords amendments Nos. 90 to 110, 114 to 134, 137, 142, 145, 146, 190 and 192 to 226 agreed to.

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