HL Deb 21 July 1987 vol 488 cc1279-82

3.30 p.m.

The Earl of Arran rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 25th June be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Hooper is currently attending a Commonwealth education Ministers' conference in Kenya, it is my pleasant task to explain to your Lordships the amending regulations governing the administration of the assisted places scheme.

They are on this occasion entirely concerned with good housekeeping and need not, I hope, detain your Lordships long. The assisted places scheme was established in 1981 for the purpose of widening the educational opportunities of able children from less well-off families. It provides their parents with assistance towards the fees of some of the best independent schools in the country. That assistance is on a sliding scale, depending on parental income, and the regulations before your Lordships are mainly concerned with annual revision of those scales. The amendments are therefore of a procedural rather than a susbtantial nature.

Regulation 1 is concerned with title and timing and does not, I judge, require detailed comment. Regulation 1(2) essentially allows school bursars to use parental income scales ahead of the start of term for determining a child's eligibility for the scheme and assessing fee remission questions for existing assisted pupils.

Regulation 2 increases the allowance for dependent relatives from £900 to £950. That is the amount which can be disregarded from gross income for the purposes of deciding the relevant income against which parental contributions towards fees are assessed. Regulation 3 arises from the Finance Act 1986 and brings up to date the references to the relevant income tax legislation in Schedule 1 to the principal assisted places regulations. Income applied on donations under a payroll deduction scheme and reinvested dividend income under personal equity plans are to be included in the computation of relevant income.

Regulation 4 provides for the updating of income scales used for assessing the amount of parents' contributions towards fees. The threshold at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees is raised from £6,806 to £6,972, with consequential rises in the other income bands.

The amendments which I have just described are essentially necessary revisions for the continued smooth running of this successful scheme. If any noble Lords require further clarification on any point, I shall do my best to answer them in closing. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 25th June be approved. [1st Report from the Joint Committee.]—(The Earl of Arran.)

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to face the noble Earl across the Table on this first occasion. I am sure that both he and I would rather be with the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, in Nairobi than here.

I accept the assurances given by the noble Earl and am convinced by the arguments which he has put forward that this is merely a housekeeping amendment. We have seen this amendment for the last couple of years and it is necessary to update the figures in the assisted places scheme every year. We entirely accept that and we shall not oppose the order.

However, it would not be right to let the occasion pass without saying that we still feel that the assisted places scheme encourages educational apartheid rather than the best educational system for all the school children in our country. Had we had the opportunity, we should have been seeking, without any detriment to the interests of those already taking part in the scheme, to run it down gradually to a close.

It is also necessary to say that when the Education Bill comes before us, as we understand it, there will be proposals to extend the numbers of children to benefit from the assisted places scheme. That will be a move which we shall certainly oppose. In the meantime, these regulations can be seen as consequential on existing legislation and we do not oppose them.

Lord Ritchie of Dundee

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for his particularly clear exposition of the new regulations, to which we on these Benches also have no objection. I have the impression that the only times at which I have had the honour to speak on this subject in your Lordships' House previously have been during the dinner hour or at some other time when attendance was a bit sparse. As the stalls are now a bit fuller, I should like to say from these Benches that we also regret the necessity for this scheme.

We feel that it was the first step in the process which will be carried further in the impending Education Bill, whereby the Government, instead of saying to the lower 40 per cent. in our education service, "This is our education service; we are attempting to make it the best in the world. We hope that you will benefit from it and that it will fulfil your needs", are saying to the top 40 per cent., "We know our education service is not good enough for you and here are some ways of getting out of it". I feel that the fortunate few tend to benefit and the less fortunate many will suffer proportionately. The scheme also tends to accentuate and perpetuate differences of which we already have too many in this country.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister three questions. If he cannot answer them now, perhaps he will be kind enough to write to me. First, I should be interested to know the estimated number of assisted places for the forthcoming year both in terms of those offered and those taken up. Secondly, can the Minister tell me the ultimate maximum? Perhaps I should know that but I hope that he will be kind enough to confirm the figure for my information. Thirdly, is he able to tell me the costing per child when compared with what that child's education would cost in the state sector? Perhaps the noble Earl will be kind enough to answer in due course if not immediately.

Lord Aldington

My Lords, may I intervene briefly and declare a small interest? I am chairman of the Independent Schools Joint Council. I welcome the regulations, as did the Opposition spokesman, as procedural or housekeeping. I had hoped that we should not get involved in the greater and more philosophical argument about the value of the assisted places scheme to the education system of this country.

I do not propose to involve myself in that argument. However, I must be allowed to express regret that Opposition spokesmen, having said that this is a housekeeping change, then proceed to make statements which in my opinion are absolutely wrong. I shall reserve my position, if I may, and say that I propose to counter those statements when we come to consider the Education Bill.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I find it somewhat distressing, and it now appears to have become traditional, that noble Lords opposite criticise such regulations. I must express disappointment that they continue their opposition to this obviously successful and popular scheme, which is now in its sixth year.

There are now over 24,000 pupils benefiting from it. Out of those, approximately three-quarters come from families with incomes under £10,500 per annum. The scale for determining the amount of fee remission is intentionally a stiff one and only those families with incomes currently below £6,807 qualify for completely free places. Even so, in the current school year, nearly 40 per cent. of all assisted pupils are eligible for full remission of fees.

It is quite clear that the scheme is squarely benefiting those lower income families for whom it was originally devised. Furthermore, the scheme is not a means of supporting those families, albeit of lower income, whose children would have entered the independent sector without the aid of an assisted place. Under the principal regulations, participating schools must ensure that at least 60 per cent. of their assisted pupils attended state schools immediately before taking up their assisted place. In practice, and with very few exceptions, this requirement has been met and with a good deal to spare.

The assisted places scheme is plainly achieving its objective of opening up some of the best independent schools to children who almost certainly would not otherwise have been able to look to them as an option. That can only be to their and this nation's advantage.

As regards the three questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie of Dundee, the estimated number of places is between 24,000 and 25,000; the estimated maximum is 35,000 places; and the cost per child is £1,759. I hope that I have answered the points which have been raised. If, when I have studied Hansard, I find that I have missed any, I trust noble Lords will allow me to write to them with the answer.

On Question, Motion agreed to.