HL Deb 06 July 1988 vol 499 cc327-30

7.41 p.m.

The Earl of Arran rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th June be approved [29th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, 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. The assistance is on a sliding scale depending on parental income, and the amending regulations before your Lordships are mainly concerned with the annual revision of those scales.

In the past we have also taken this opportunity to make various small amendments for which experience of the scheme has suggested a need. This year such an amendment takes account of cases where court orders for payment of school fees are in force. I venture to suggest, however, that all of the amendments—which I shall describe in a moment—are relatively straightforward.

Regulation I is concerned with title and timing and will not require any detailed comment from me. Regulation 1(2) allows bursars to use the new parental income scales ahead of the start of term for determining a child's eligibility and assessing fee remission questions for existing assisted pupils.

Regulation 2 introduces a new condition of eligibility for the assisted places scheme. This is that a child, all of whose school fees are required to be paid under a court order, may not be selected for an assisted place. It also removes entitlement to remission of any part of school fees required to be paid under a court order. The latter provision will apply in the case of a child who is about to join the APS or is already the holder of an assisted place. Any portion of fees which is required to be paid under a court order will no longer attract fee remission.

Regulation 3 arises from the Finance Act 1987 and the Finance (No.2) Act 1987 and brings up to date the references to the relevant income tax legislation in Schedule I to the principal assisted places regulations. Deductions from total income in respect of increased personal reliefs for those aged 80 or over and contributions to personal pension schemes are not to be made in calculating relevant income for the purposes of assessing fee remission.

Draft Regulation 4 provides for the updating of the income scale used for assessing the amount of parents' contributions towards the fees. The threshold at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees is raised from £6,972 to £7,258.

The amendments I have just described are essentially necessary revisions for the continued smooth running of this successful scheme. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th June be approved [29th Report from the Joint Committee.]—(The Earl of Arran.)

Lord Peston

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his explanation of the technical side of the amendments and the regulations. As he has himself taken the opportunity to say a few words about the assisted places scheme generally, I shall also take the opportunity to say a few—words although, they will be of a different kind—to remind the noble Lord that those of us on this side of the House do not approve of the scheme. We regard it as divisive and damaging to the maintained sector. Since we see no public good resulting from the scheme, we also regard it as a misuse of public money. We would certainly feel able to outline higher priorities for the use of such public money if it were available for education more generally. As I believe the noble Earl is well aware, we would ease out the scheme if we were in a position to do so.

Perhaps I may ask a question about the scheme to which I do not necessarily require an answer at the moment. I should like to know whether any study has been undertaken on the effects of the scheme, in particular whether there is any research that shows that it raises standards. I should also like the noble Earl to remind your Lordships what the current total cost of the scheme is and what the total number of pupils involved is; moreover, within that, what share of the total intake to the independent schools the assisted places scheme now comprises and what share of their total income public expenditure now comprises.

On the technicalities of the amending order, I entirely accept the noble Earl's remarks. However, there is one thing that intrigues me a little as regards Paragraph 4—which is the updating of, as it were, the nominal amounts of money—and in particular in relation to the figures for the level at which there is total remission of fees. If those figures are characteristic of all the updating then that seems to be an updating of just over 4 per cent. which is, if anything, slightly lower than the rate of inflation. In my view it is certainly lower than the rate of inflation which will pertain when the regulations come into force. I wonder whether it is the Government's view that this slightly less than inflation-proofing was intended.

I can do no better than conclude my remarks generally by quoting my noble friend Lady David, who to my great regret is not here at this moment, when she said that this is yet another example of the Government's practice of loading the dice against the maintained system, it is certainly a practice we do not approve of.

Lord McNair

My Lords, I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Peston, in thanking the noble Earl for explaining the scheme to us. On the assisted places scheme in general, I have very little disagreement with the noble Lord. When this order was thrust into my hands not very long ago and I read it quickly, I was rather puzzled about the court orders. It may be obvious to everybody else, but I should like to know what kind of court orders they are, and in what circumstances they are made. Are they likely to be made in the matrimonial courts, or is it a matter of juvenile delinquency? I am still in doubt about that. But, apart from that, I have no doubt that the order makes sense.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am not totally surprised that the reception from the Opposition Benches is not exactly exhilarating. But I just want to put once again the Government's point of view about the assisted places scheme and at the same time answer some of the questions raised by the noble Lords, Lord Peston and Lord McNair.

The assisted places scheme is now in its seventh successful year. I can assure noble Lords opposite that any doubts which they may have about it are not shared by the many parents whose children have benefited and will continue to benefit from it.

I think I am right in saying that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, was asking whether we have any evidence about the success or popularity of such a scheme. I can inform him that a survey conducted in 1986 showed that 72 per cent. of the public approved of the APS. When broken down by voting intentions, support for the scheme was as follows: Conservative voters 86 per cent. SDP/Liberal voters 74 per cent., Labour voters 60 per cent., and 70 per cent. of trade unionists also expressed approval. The sample size was 1,907.

There are now more than 27,000 pupils in the assisted places scheme, of whom about three-quarters come from families with incomes under £11,500 per annum. The scale for determining the amount of fee remission is an intentionally demanding one. Only those families with incomes currently below £6,972 qualify for completely free places. Even so, in the current school year 37 per cent. of all assisted pupils are eligible for full remission of fees.

It is clear that the scheme is working to the advantage of those less well off families for whom it is intended. Furthermore, the scheme is not a means of supporting those families 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 all their assisted pupils attended state schools immediately before taking up their assisted place. In practice and with a few exceptions, that requirement has been easily met.

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 to the nation's advantage.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, asked about the cost of an assisted pupil and of the scheme. The cost of the scheme in the current financial year is likely to be about £55 million. While not an insignificant sum, it should perhaps be noted that the Government's planned local authority spending on the secondary sector in 1988–89, as announced in the public expenditure White Paper is over £5,000 million. The cost of the assisted places scheme is, in my view, more than justified by the significant increase in opportunities for able children from less well-off families which it has brought about.

The average cost of an assisted pupil in the current academic year is £1,952, made up of £1,867 on fees and £85 on incidental expenses (uniform and travel grants). In addition, the average parental contribution towards fees is £479.

The noble Lord, Lord McNair, asked about the situation surrounding court orders. We think it important that taxpayers' money should not be used to discharge an obligation which already rests with one of the parents as the result of a court order. There may be cases where one parent cannot persuade the other to discharge his or her legal obligation to pay school fees; but if the scheme is allowed to act as a safety net in those circumstances, such default is only encouraged.

In the case of a stable family, the child depends upon the willingness of both parents to meet the cost if he is to enjoy the benefit of an assisted place. It is equally reasonable in the case of divorced parents to expect both to meet their basic obligations before the question of an assisted place or of fee remission can be considered. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until five minutes past eight.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.53 to 8.5 p.m.].