HC Deb 17 August 1991 vol 195 cc457-70 10.55 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Michael Fallon)

I beg to move, That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1991, which were laid before this House on 2nd July, be approved. The draft regulations provide for the uprating of the parental contribution tables, which set out how much parents must pay towards their child's assisted place and certain other amendments, which I will describe, to be made to the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1989.

As the House will know, the assisted places scheme is now in its 10th year. It was established in 1981 for the prime purpose of opening up the education opportunities of able children from less well-off families. It provides their parents with assistance towards the fees at some of the best independent schools in the country. That assistance is on a sliding scale based on parental income and the principal changes embodied in the amending regulations are concerned with the annual revision of those scales.

The other amendments are technical amendments to keep the definition of "total parental income" for the purposes of the scheme constant as tax legislation changes, and to take account of the position of any assisted place scheme parents who are eligible for relief on single gifts made by individuals to charities in pursuance of section 25 of the Finance Act 1990.

I shall single out only two or three of the regulations for comment. Regulation 3 uprates the amount of the allowance that can be deducted from parents' total relevant income for each dependant, other than the assisted place holder, in the family. That amount is raised from £1,000 to £1,065; that is, by the same percentage which applies to the uprating of the income scales—to which I shall speak in a moment. This allowance is helpful to parents with large families and uprating it will ensure that their position is not worsened.

Regulation 4 amends regulation 19 of the principal regulations, which is concerned with recruitment to assisted places. Regulation 19 requires schools to select at least 60 per cent. of their assisted pupils from publicly-maintained schools. This requirement lies at the heart of the scheme and reflects the main aim to give priority to those children from less well-off families who would otherwise have gone to maintained schools and would not have had the opportunity of an independent school education.

The amendment will allow a pupil at the school who is initially not on an assisted place to have the benefit of an assisted place later in his school career, if that becomes necessary, provided that he or she originally came from a publicly-maintained school. That will help in those few cases of hardship which arise from time to time where parents have made considerable sacrifice to move their child to an independent school for secondary education.

Regulation 6, the principal regulation of those with which we are dealing, sets out the income scale used for assessing parents' contributions towards fees. This year, the tables have been uprated to take account of the movement in the retail prices index to April this year. That figure is 6.4 per cent. In former years, in uprating these tables, we have looked to the retail prices index figure for the June of the previous year. If we had done that again this year we would have uprated the parental contribution tables by 9.8 per cent. However, at a time of rapidly falling inflation, combined with the necessity for the Government's scheme to live within its means, we have decided that this year the parental contribution tables should be uplifted by the current level of inflation rather than the higher level prevailing in June of last year.

The effect of that amendment will be to call for a slightly larger contribution from parents. It ensures that a proper balance is struck between the contributions that parents can reasonably be expected to afford and the need for taxpayers' money to be used prudently and with maximum effect. This revaluation of the income bands therefore represents an equitable measure to ensure that that balance is even. The threshold at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees is therefore raised from £8,200 to £8,714 and will mean that approximately one third of all parents will still qualify for full fee remission.

It will also mean that some parents must find extra resources, but we have ensured that this will not be too burdensome for those on smaller incomes. For example, a parent earning £11,000 per annum will be required to pay an extra £45 in the coming academic year and a parent earning £18,000 per year will be required to pay an extra £129. The threshold is set deliberately low so that the least well-off benefit most. In cases where there are more than three assisted pupils in a family, provision is made for fees in respect of the fourth and subsequent child to be wholly remitted.

We have also ensured that at a time when it is necessary to keep a close eye on public expenditure on education and to limit the resources which can be made available for this scheme, any burden occasioned by necessary economies is shared fairly between the schools and parents. We have decided for the first time that for this coming academic year the Department should not sanction fee increases exceeding 12 per cent. for assisted place pupils other than in very exceptional circumstances. Our objective is to secure an average increase for all schools not exceeding 12 per cent. in the academic year 1991–92.

After 10 years, it should hardly be necessary to explain again to the House the value and benefit of the assisted places scheme, but as the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) is with us tonight, I will have to restate our belief in its value. The reason why we have supported the scheme from the outset is that we are interested in encouraging high standards of education wherever they are to be found. We want parents to be able to choose the education that they think best for their children, regardless of their income. Our best independent schools—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. In broadening matters somewhat, I am sure that the Minister will relate his remarks to the context of the regulations, which is comparatively narrow. It is not about the whole assisted places scheme.

Mr. Fallon

Certainly, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The assisted places scheme, which we are amending tonight, helps to redress the balance for parents of humble means who would be denied the ability to choose from all the types of education that this country offers if they had to meet the full cost of their children's education at an independent school. I could give many examples of those who have benefited in the past year and will benefit from the amended regulations which the House is being asked to approve tonight.

The scheme as amended would be unreasonable to the House only if the cost involved was disproportionate to what is being achieved. I should like to say a word or two about the current cost of the scheme. Most people would find the cost rather surprising. In 1989–90, the last year for which we have figures, the average cost to the taxpayer of each assisted pupil was £2,364. The average cost of a pupil in the maintained sector for that year is estimated to be £2,135—a relatively small difference.

But in considering even that small difference, we must take into account the fact that sixth form education is about 60 per cent. more expensive than 11 to 16 education. Whereas three quarters of children at independent schools stay on after 16, the corresponding figure for the maintained sector is only one quarter.

That narrows even further the margin between the cost of an assisted place and that of a maintained place, and proves that there is no appreciable difference between the two systems. The value for money that is obtained from expenditure on the assisted places scheme is beyond question.

I need hardly say that all the schools in the scheme, including those added to it in the past academic year, have been carefully selected on the basis of their proven records of academic achievement. The breadth and quality of the curriculum that each school offers is first rate, and their records of success in public examinations are outstanding. Last year, 90 per cent. of A-level entries by assisted-place pupils resulted in A to E pass grades. Of these, nearly 29 per cent. achieved grade A, and nearly 25 per cent. grade B. In addition, 90 per cent. of GCSE entries by assisted-place pupils resulted in A to C pass grades.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

Given the small marginal cost of the scheme to the taxpayer, can my hon. Friend account for the Opposition's wish to destroy it? Can the explanation be only that they are not interested in helping children from poorer backgrounds to attain high standards and to fulfil their potential, an opportunity that the scheme has amply demonstrates it affords?

Mr. Fallon


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the House that we are discussing not the merits of the assisted places scheme but comparatively narrow regulations that deal with only certain aspects of the scheme.

Mr. Fallon

You are absolutely right, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We must wait for the hon. Member for Durham, North-West to explain the motivation behind the Opposition's decision to oppose the scheme and to phase it out, if they form a Government, for the 27,000 pupils and their parents who are currently taking advantage of it.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

The Minister knows that the scheme and the regulations involve considerable cost to the public purse. He has said that assisted-place pupils achieve good results. Would he argue that those results were achieved only by enabling the pupils to go to private schools? If so, that is surely some condemnation of the state system and the teachers within it. Does he believe that they cannot deliver the same education as that which is provided in private schools?

Mr. Fallon

There are many excellent maintained schools in the state system. The important point, however, is that parents have the right to choose to send their children to independent schools and to be supported under the assisted places scheme.

You have correctly restricted us, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the amendments to the scheme that are set out in the regulations. Despite the limited resources that are available for the scheme and the need to keep it within budget, the Government firmly believe in the principle that parents in every part of the country should have access to the opportunities that such a scheme offers. We continue to support it by amending it as part of our policy of widening choice in education. Along with many parents throughout the country, we are immensely encouraged by the successes—in music, the arts and sport, as well as in academic subjects—that assisted pupils have recorded. Over the 10 years that we have been debating the scheme and amendments to it, 48,750 children have benefited from education at some of the best independent schools in the country, of whom 19,140 have benefited by enjoying entirely free education at schools in the scheme.

Our vision has been, is and always will be to open up opportunity for as many as are able to benefit from excellence. This country has always had a long history of good independent schools, and we are committed to their continuity and to the principle that their doors should always be open to those of ability and merit if it is their wish to attend. That is a far cry from the policy of the Opposition, who would close those doors of opportunity. I commend the regulations to the House.

11.9 pm

Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

As the Minister said, I have spoken on the previous regulations on this subject. This is the third year that I have opposed such regulations, but each time I have faced a different Minister. That says something about the Government's commitment, or lack of it, to continuity of excellence.

The regulations are necessary for the Government to spend any money next year on the assisted places scheme, and that is why we oppose them. We feel that that leads the Government, as the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) has said, into a blind alley, which does neither the Government nor the education system any credit. We will oppose the regulations specifically because of that.

Ministers should read the research on the assisted places scheme that is put before them, because it all reveals that the arguments have not been fulfilled. It was argued that the scheme would offer opportunities to the children of parents who did not have the means. I must remind the Minister that more than 50 per cent. of those on the assisted places scheme come from professional or managerial backgrounds. Only 7 per cent. of the children come from a manual working background. Of the parents, 68 per cent. of mothers and 51 per cent. of fathers attended an independent or selective school. None of the criteria laid down by the Government 10 years ago has been met.

The research has demonstrated the failure of the scheme. The poor take-up rate in some parts of the country shows that the Government have not won overall support for the scheme. They have to come back continually to the House to amend the scheme, but they still face opposition to it. They also know that all the opposition parties intend to abolish the scheme. However, we are not vindictive and we will allow those children on the scheme to continue with it.

We have made that clear every year, but the Minister has again tried to perpetuate the myth that that will not happen. The Minister cannot claim that we will harm the 27,000 children on the scheme. We are not vindictive, and we will allow them to continue their education under that scheme. However, we will not perpetuate a scheme that does not meet the criteria that the Government promised the House it would follow. In the past 10 years, the Government have refused to meet those criteria.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)


Ms. Armstrong

I shall not give way.

I shall not say anything about fairness, except that the Government have abandoned that concept totally. It is 10 years since the introduction of the scheme, but the Government have still not won an educational consensus in favour of it. They have abandoned any semblance of fairness. The figures on the city technology college programme that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) analysed and broke down this week reveal how far down the road of seedy discrimination the Government have travelled.

We will oppose the regulations, because we believe that the continuation of the scheme represents the Government's recognition of the abject failure of the Education Reform Act 1988. That Act spelled out how the Government thought that education was going. Since the Act gave the Secretary of State 415 new powers, he has run away from his repsonsibility for the state sector. The Prime Minister is now joining in and saying that the only way forward for those parents who want a decent education system is to opt out of the state system. Money is therefore being given to assisted places—

Mr. Gerald Howarth

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that we were debating the amending regulations rather than the Education Reform Act, excellent though that Act is and widely welcomed though it is in my constituency.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I was becoming a little anxious myself. I am sure that the hon. Lady will realise that, as I had to call the Minister to order, I must also call her to order. We are dealing not with the broad issues of the scheme but with the aspects of the regulations before us.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The long experience that many of us have had in this Chamber teaches us that it is impossible to discuss in isolation what is happening in, for instance, an order. I have been involved in countless debates on Northern Ireland orders and other debates of that nature. It is fundamentally impossible to debate narrowly without referring to the background that makes these regulations necessary, so I hope that you will be a little more tolerant with us about it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Those on both Front Benches have responded to advice from the Chair. I am grateful to them for doing so, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will do likewise if he catches my eye.

Ms. Armstrong

I understand why Conservative Members do not want me to broaden the debate, but I also want to keep within your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I always attempt to do.

I understand that, if we reject the regulations tonight, the scheme will not be funded next year. If my supposition is right, the reasons for the Government wishing to continue the scheme need to be clarified. It is amazing that they want to put so much faith in providing "excellence" for youngsters but say that that cannot happen within the state system. They are really saying that any sensible parents who really care about their children would not seek to have them educated within the main stream of the state education system but would take them out of it.

Mr. Walden

Would the hon. Lady mind if I harked back for a moment to something she said which was new to me, although perhaps not to my hon. Friend the Minister? She said that a Labour Government would graciously allow children already receiving such education to finish their education before closing that door. But the Labour party plans to close many other doors, such as grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges and grammar schools. Would she extend her beneficence and allow children in grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges and grammar schools at least to finish their education before she closes the door on all those opportunities, which are open to people from more humble backgrounds than many in this country?

Ms. Armstrong

I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will allow me to answer that point, although it falls outside the remit of the regulations. We shall not close those schools, but will return them to local authority organisations, which is different. Far from closing doors, we will be opening them. We are determined to ensure that the state system should be able and effective to offer the highest standards to every child—that is where I think that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) and I are not so far apart. As long as the Government are determined to say that the only way to achieve excellence is by opting out, nobody will believe that the Government have any faith in the state system. How can we expect parents to have faith in that system?

We wish to ensure that every child, whatever his or her background, gets the best opportunity. The Government have abandoned those youngsters. The Secretary of State told the Select Committee that he did not have responsibility for what went on in schools. He told Woman magazine that parents misunderstood when they came to him expecting him to be the one who knew what was going on in schools.

The Labour party will accept responsibility. We are so serious about making education work that we want everyone to want every child to suceed, and will put the resources and commitment into that. I think that some Conservative Members also want that. As long as we have a system that advocates that it is all right to invest a lot of money in a few youngsters and let the rest manage with crumbling schools, rotting buildings and demoralised teachers, parents will ask, "Who cares about our child? Who cares about our school? The Government certainly do not care."

Mr. Christopher Hawkins (High Peak)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have been listening carefully to the debate on this subject, in which I take a considerable interest. I have not yet heard one line of the hon. Lady's speech which relates to the regulations.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have already told the Minister and the Opposition spokesmen and women that the regulations are comparatively narrow. We cannot discuss all the merits or demerits of the assisted places scheme.

Ms. Armstrong


Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Before the hon. Lady was interrupted by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hawkins), she suggested that the Secretary of State should take responsibility for everything that goes on in schools. Would a Labour Secretary of State take responsibility for—for example—the picketing of a school for children with special learning difficulties, as happened in Liverpool recently?

Ms. Armstrong

As I understand it, that has not happened, and we certainly would not condone or support anything like that. The hon. Gentleman has been watching the fiction—and good fiction it is too.

The Minister said that the system was giving us value for money and the Government were selecting only schools with a proven record.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I am sure that our debate has been enhanced by the little forays that have taken place.

The hon. Lady said that a Labour Government would take complete responsibility for education, which is interesting. What responsibility will parents be left with?

Ms. Armstrong

Yet again, Conservative Members show their paucity of knowledge of the education system. We want a partnership between parents, local authorities, teachers and schools. One cannot pursue a partnership by saying, "I do not have any responsibility." The difference between the Government and the Opposition is that we accept that we have a responsibility. We shall not have full responsibility, but we shall not duck that which we have.

The Minister led us to believe that the Government knew enough about schools to support only those with a proven record. How were those schools monitored? How many inspections have taken place in the past year of schools that have assisted places? Has the Minister made sure that every child in those schools has had entitlement to the national curriculum laid down in the Education Reform Act 1988 as necessary for all schoolchildren? How does the Minister know about a school's proven record or that such schools would flourish without the assisted places scheme?

The Minister's answer to me yesterday shows that almost a third of the intake of many schools is being paid for by the taxpayer through the assisted places scheme. Those schools would probably not be viable if the scheme was removed. Those schools cannot prove that they are open and that they would maintain standards if they did not have assisted places.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

I am not quite clear about the trend of the hon. Lady's argument. She seems to be saying that the maintained system is better than independent schools with assisted places. That is a travesty of the truth. I and others who have taught assisted place pupils know that the quality of teaching in the scheme is excellent. If the hon. Lady is saying that the maintained system is better, that destroys her argument. Will she explain why her party will vote against this measure, because the reason is not clear?

Ms. Armstrong

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not understood my argument. I have said throughout my speech that I have faith in the state system. I want to put all my faith and resources into making sure that that system is as good as possible for every child, and I want to ensure that all children can get what they need within the system. As long as the Government maintain escape routes, they will not put their faith in the state system. They make sure that they do not send their children to the state system and have no investment in it. That does none of us any good.

I am concerned to ensure that state education is such that everyone will fight for it tooth and nail. The Government have shown that they are not prepared to do that by trying to perpetuate the get-out route of the assisted places scheme. They do not effectively monitor what is happening in assisted places schools. I accept that many of those schools may provide good, albeit often narrow, education for many of their youngsters.

The assisted places scheme will not uplift the education system and show people that Parliament is committed to seeing that the state system works—which would encourage people to put their all into it. The Government have shown at every stage that they run from the state system as quickly as possible. Britain needs a Government who will work for and with the state system, and who believe in it. The only salvation for the education system is a Labour Government.

11.28 pm
Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

In defending the regulations, the Minister touched on the essence of the problem when he said that the money involved was being well spent. Therefore, one needs to know something which the general public and Conservative Members do not seem to know, and that is the cost of the scheme, which is detailed in a Government publication.

Let us consider what we are in the process of amending. The scheme began in 1984–85 at a cost of £22 million. In the next year it received another £30 million, then another £38 million, then £46 million, then £51 million, then £59 million, then £62 million, then £60 million and then £70 million. That comes to £438 million. It is heading towards half a billion pounds. That is how much the scheme is costing. When I have given those figures in various statements that I have made, many people are appalled at the amount of money that the scheme is costing.

Amending the regulations will deepen and intensify the amount of money that is being spent on the scheme. That amount of money is being taken from the state sector which is in urgent need of money. If one were to add to that sum the £60 million spent on grant-maintained schools and the £187 million spent on city technology colleges, the total comes to £685 million—more than half a billion is being spent on these privatisation schemes.

Ministers go up and down the country telling various sections of the community in the big cities that they can have £5 million or £6 million, yet many of the schools which have assisted places are getting more than £1 million each, and there are 240 of them. The amounts of money are getting bigger and bigger and whole families are receiving such assistance.

Let us be clear that we are amending the regulations in the interests of those people who come not from the schools where there is poverty, but from middle-class areas. They are spawning on the public purse and taking money that should go to all our children in the state education system. That is what the Government are defending tonight.

Just think what could he done with that vast amount of money. Major debates have taken place in the Chamber about far less money than the amount being spent on this scheme. Conservative Members know that the figures that I have just read out are from the Government's expenditure plans for education for this year and next year. They are not our figures.

Our crumbling schools, short of books, teachers and equipment, could do with that money. That money is being taken away from needy children and given to children who do not need it. I hear the Minister telling us that it is money well spent, but well spent on whom? It is being reft from those who really need it who are in terrible crumbling schools. When the Minister visited Sheffield he himself described the schools are crumbling.

Most people have no knowledge of the vast amounts of public money that are being spent, and throughout his defence of the regulations the Minister never mentioned it; he merely used generalisations. I know that Conservative Members will he surprised at the amounts involved.

The assisted places scheme is now a flourishing and fundamental part of the private system. Whole schools rely on it and hundreds of children in those schools are being paid for by money taken from the children who need it.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

My hon. Friend the Minister quoted a number of modest salaries, where the parents will have to pay. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that affluent, middle-class people will benefit?

Mr. Flannery

I am saying that payment should not be made and that the children should attend ordinary schools. The Minister mentioned a figure of 60 per cent. in some cases. The regulations make such a tiny change that they appear to mean little or nothing, but now we have learnt for the first time that two, three, or four children from one family can be favoured by attending a school that has smaller classes and better equipment than other children enjoy. The poor children are not given a chance. Conservative Members laugh.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) wrote to the former Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor): I am writing to ask you whether you will cut the level of state subsidy to private schools to the levels of spending which you and the Environment Secretary have dictated are enough to run maintained schools. He went on to illustrate that in a rate-capped area two or three times more money was being allocated to children in private schools.

The amount of money involved in respect of city technology colleges is now vast and has already reached more than £700 million.

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, when Nottingham city technology college was started, Nottinghamshire was asked whether it expected any closures because of falling rolls? It replied in the negative, but the moment that the contract for the CTC was signed, the closure of three schools was announced. One of them could have been given to the CTC at a cost of £4 million, which could have been used to benefit the children of Nottingham.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is rather wide of the subject for debate. I am sure that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) will not stray down that path.

Mr. Flannery

I would love to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I know that I must not. However, I may point out that all the other schools combined received only as much money as that college, so I would keep quiet about that subject, if I were the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart).

The list of schools for which the regulations are being amended was published this morning. It runs to page after page of small print, and hundreds of millions of pounds are involved. It is clear from that list how dependent the private sector has become on that source of money. That is drastically wrong, but the Minister tries to convey the impression that he is doing the country a favour.

Only a few children will benefit from the changes. Should we entertain, at a time of slump and crisis, regulations that siphon off money from ordinary people—3 million are out of work and no doubt that figure will be shown tomorrow morning to have increased—to give a tiny group a special education? Is that the Minister's idea of fairness? How can anyone in all conscience support, especially at a time of slump and crisis, a rip-off that will affect 95 per cent. of children? That money is being siphoned into the private sector.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

The bonus is that the 95 per cent. of children who are of concern to the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to take advantage of the scheme and the schooling that it makes available. It is the 95 per cent. of pupils whom we are trying to support—not the 5 per cent. to whom the hon. Gentleman refers.

Mr. Flannery

The hon. Gentleman's thought processes are very convoluted. He seems to be saying that the Government are trying to help the children—95 per cent.—who attend terrible, crumbling schools, which are short of equipment and so short of teachers that they are bringing in foreigners to teach. If he thinks that that is a good thing, heaven help us: he will probably support anything in the regulations.

This is an evil measure, which grants special favours to a tiny group of children. If Conservative Members do not think that our wish for them to be taught along with others is honourable, I do not know what they want from education. We shall develop our philosophy shortly, when we have thrown out the Conservative Government.

11.40 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth

This has been an instructive debate for the House, and, I hope, for those outside.

As we have heard, the marginal cost of the scheme is infinitesimal. The interesting display that we witnessed from Opposition Members clearly demonstrates that their purpose in opposing the regulations is motivated by spite and malice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) pointed out, they want to deny choice to 93 per cent. of children who would then have no access to the private sector.

Ms. Armstrong

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Government's answer is for every child in the country to obtain an assisted place?

Mr. Howarth

I am supporting my hon. Friend the Minister's wish to upgrade a scheme that extends choice. The Opposition would deny that choice to the children who will benefit from the scheme.

The Opposition's spite is directed particularly towards those who come from poorer homes: it is they who would otherwise not have access to such education. I hope that this message will go out to the country. What Opposition Members offer is a denial of choice, and the same "take it or leave it" approach that they adopted in the 1970s, when they rammed compulsory comprehensive education down people's throats.

Let me give Opposition Members a warning. A recent opinion poll showed that 57 per cent. of Labour voters supported the assisted places scheme. If I were an Opposition Member, I would be very cautious about imagining that there was any electoral advantage in the Opposition's view.

Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I support everything that my hon. Friend has said. Is the scheme not, however, merely the precursor of another—the voucher scheme, which will allow all parents to choose how their children are educated?

Mr. Howarth

That is a subject for future debate.

I believe that the regulations will be popular throughout the country—

Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

No, I will not.

Mr. Fatchett


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) is not giving way.

Mr. Howarth

No, I will not give way: the hour is late. [Interruption.] I assure Opposition Members that my hon. Friend's policy will result in Cannock and Burntwood being not only held by the Tories, but held with a larger majority.

11.43 pm
Mr. Fallon

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall reply briefly to the debate. I sense that the House wishes to come to a decision on this matter.

To answer the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), the scheme was inaugurated in 1981, not 1984. There are just 295 schools in the scheme. Many schools would like to participate in the scheme and have applied to participate. So far, however, only 295 are in it.

Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that in the north of England, particularly in the north-east, the take-up is less? Will he look into that carefully so that parents in that part of the country have the opportunity to send their children to schools that participate in this excellent scheme?

Mr. Fallon

The matter has been reviewed. When the scheme was expanded slightly last May we were able to redress the regional imbalance in both the midlands and the north-east by adding some schools from those areas to the scheme.

May I point out to the hon. Member for Hillsborough that the amount involved in running the scheme is not money taken away from the state sector. The hon. Gentleman asked me for the total amount of money spent on the scheme. It is to be about £70 million. The £70 million will be spent on educating the same number of pupils in the maintained sector. The hon. Gentleman gave the game away. We heard him say clearly that these pupils should go to their local schools. That is compulsion, not choice. That is the Labour party's policy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) answered very effectively the question asked earlier in the debate by the hon. Member for Hillsborough. The Opposition want to rub out the scheme not because they want to save money—no money would be saved—but because of sheer, unadulterated, ideological spite. They want to take it out on the least well off in our society.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Fallon

No. I said that I would be brief.

The hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) began by complaining that she had had to face three different Ministers in our last three annual debates on these regulations. Perhaps that says something for job mobility and career prospects on this side of the House, as opposed to the Opposition side. What the hon. Lady did not tell the House, which I intend to do, is that she quoted large chunks of the speech that she made last year, on 18 July. She quoted exactly the same research that she quoted last year from a publication that is now over two years old.

The hon. Lady specifically asked me whether these schools are regularly inspected. Yes, they are regularly inspected. Many schools applied to be on the assisted places scheme. We turn down applications from schools whose academic record is not good enough to satisfy our criteria. Every year the schools on this scheme have to send us their examination results. We check constantly the academic standards of the schools on the assisted places scheme.

Ms. Armstrong

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Fallon

I am just about to conclude my speech.

The real difference between the two sides of the House is that the hon. Member for Durham, North-West believes that the only way to excellence is through the uniform, monolithic monopoly of council schooling that we have seen since the war. We believe that the best way to promote excellence is to give choice. In the end it is choice that drives up standards—parents' choice, not that of education directors, or bureaucrats, or Ministers. We want parents to be able freely to choose.

The assisted places scheme that we are amending tonight is not the only way in which we have widened choice. Since 1981 we have encouraged a variety of different schools: city technology colleges, grant-maintained schools, council schools with fully delegated local budgets. We have widened choice in all sorts of ways, but this scheme remains good value for money and a guarantee of access to excellence for those few pupils who deserve to benefit from it. I commend the regulations to the House.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 143, Noes 52.

Division No. 222] [11.48 pm
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Garel-Jones, Tristan
Amess, David Goodlad, Alastair
Amos, Alan Gorst, John
Arbuthnot, James Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Ashby, David Gregory, Conal
Atkinson, David Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Baldry, Tony Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Hague, William
Bellingham, Henry Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Hanley, Jeremy
Bevan, David Gilroy Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Blackburn, Dr John G. Harris, David
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Hawkins, Christopher
Boswell, Tim Hayes, Jerry
Bottomley, Peter Hayward, Robert
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Heathcoat-Amory, David
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Hind, Kenneth
Bowis, John Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Brazier, Julian Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Bright, Graham Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Budgen, Nicholas Irvine, Michael
Carttiss, Michael Jack, Michael
Cash, William Janman, Tim
Chapman, Sydney Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Key, Robert
Couchman, James King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Currie, Mrs Edwina Kirkhope, Timothy
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Davis, David (Boothferry) Knowles, Michael
Dykes, Hugh Lawrence, Ivan
Emery, Sir Peter Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Fallon, Michael Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Favell, Tony Lightbown, David
Fenner, Dame Peggy Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Fishburn, John Dudley Lord, Michael
Fookes, Dame Janet Luce, Rt Hon Sir Richard
Forman, Nigel Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Maclean, David
Freeman, Roger McLoughlin, Patrick
French, Douglas Malins, Humfrey
Gale, Roger Mans, Keith
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Stern, Michael
Meyer, Sir Anthony Stevens, Lewis
Miller, Sir Hal Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Moate, Roger Summerson, Hugo
Monro, Sir Hector Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Morrison, Sir Charles Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Moss, Malcolm Taylor, Sir Teddy
Neale, Sir Gerrard Temple-Morris, Peter
Neubert, Sir Michael Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Nicholls, Patrick Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Norris, Steve Tredinnick, David
Oppenheim, Phillip Trippier, David
Page, Richard Twinn, Dr Ian
Paice, James Viggers, Peter
Patten, Rt Hon John Walden, George
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Porter, David (Waveney) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Price, Sir David Wells, Bowen
Raffan, Keith Wheeler, Sir John
Raison, Rt Hon Sir Timothy Whitney, Ray
Rowe, Andrew Widdecombe, Ann
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard Winterton, Mrs Ann
Sackville, Hon Tom Wood, Timothy
Shaw, David (Dover) Yeo, Tim
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Speed, Keith Tellers for the Ayes:
Speller, Tony Mr. Irvine Patrick and
Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W) Mr. Nicholas Baker.
Steen, Anthony
Armstrong, Hilary McWilliam, John
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Barron, Kevin Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Beggs, Roy Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Bermingham, Gerald Meale, Alan
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E) Michael, Alun
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Morley, Elliot
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g) Nellist, Dave
Clelland, David O'Hara, Edward
Cox, Tom Pike, Peter L.
Cryer, Bob Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Dixon, Don Primarolo, Dawn
Dunnachie, Jimmy Rogers, Allan
Fatchett, Derek Ross, William (Londonderry E)
Flannery, Martin Rowlands, Ted
Foster, Derek Salmond, Alex
Galloway, George Skinner, Dennis
Godman, Dr Norman A. Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Home Robertson, John Spearing, Nigel
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Illsley, Eric Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Turner, Dennis
Leadbitter, Ted Wise, Mrs Audrey
Lewis, Terry
Livsey, Richard Tellers for the Noes:
Loyden, Eddie Mr. Alien McKay and
McAvoy, Thomas Mr. Frank Haynes.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1991, which were laid before this House on 2nd July, be approved.