HL Deb 10 July 1997 vol 581 cc799-801

House again in Committee on Clause 2.

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

Lord Henley moved Amendment No. 11: Page 2, line 10, at end insert ("or (c) unless the Secretary of State in exercising his discretion has particular regard for pupils in—

  1. (i) non-tied preparatory schools that finish at age 13; or
  2. (ii) schools situated in local education authorities with middle schools.
and deems otherwise.").

The noble Lord said: Perhaps I may start by offering my congratulations to the noble Baroness on the slick way in which she moved the House back into Committee and also the speed with which the noble Baroness, the Deputy Chairman of Committees, pre-empted her words.

Amendment No. 11, which I wish to speak to very briefly, is an alternative to what we were debating earlier. It is obvious that the Government at this stage are not prepared to move on the question of the broken promise. That is why I gave an assurance that I would be prepared to come back to the matter at Report stage. However, I probably will not be here; it may be someone else. Certainly, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, will want to come back to it on Report, as will my noble friends.

The Government should be ashamed of themselves to some extent in terms of the refusal to move on the broken promise. I offer this amendment as an alternative in terms of allowing them to move some small way.

The Bill itself as drafted, as the noble Baroness pointed out on the last amendment, offers a discretion to the Secretary of State to make provision for some of the 11 to 13 year-olds who will be affected by the broken promise. It is a discretion which I do not believe goes far enough. If I may speak for the noble Lord, Lord Tope, remembering what he said on the previous amendment, perhaps I may say that we believe it is wrong because we believe it is a matter properly left to the parents, whatever the rights or wrongs of moving at 11 or 13 years of age. I see perfectly the justness of the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that very often it is far more sensible to move at the age of 11 rather than at 13. That is a decision both I and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, believe is best made by the parents.

I appreciate that my amendment is probably not as well drafted as it might be. I do not have access to the draftsman that the Government have. No doubt we will try to improve it at a later stage. My amendment seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State himself, when exercising his discretion, should generally give the benefit of the doubt to the particular classes mentioned in the amendment rather than the other way around, which seems to be the case with Clause 2 as it now stands. I look forward to hearing what the noble Baroness has to say. I have no intention of pressing the amendment at this stage of the Bill but, subject to what she says, I may wish to return to the matter at a later stage. I beg to move.

Baroness Blackstone

Amendments Nos. 11 and 27 seek to incorporate into the Bill a requirement that the Secretary of State pays regard to the particular circumstances of children in non-tied preparatory schools and in areas where middle schools operate.

The amendments are unnecessary. The Bill as originally drafted provides a wide discretionary power. I have made clear that we shall have regard to the circumstances of children in preparatory schools and children in areas served by middle schools. I have given assurances that we shall use the discretionary power sympathetically and in a way that takes account of the particular circumstances of the child concerned.

Making specific provision in the Bill for discretion to be considered in particular circumstances would detract from the unfettered simplicity of the discretionary power and could cast doubt on its scope by specifying particular circumstances where discretion may apply. Examples not mentioned could be viewed as carrying less weight.

We have deliberately provided a wide discretionary power because we want the flexibility to be able to respond appropriately to all those cases that are presented to us. We do not want anything to be ruled out on a technicality when there are good reasons for extending support. I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, will withdraw the amendment.

Lord Henley

I gave an assurance to the noble Baroness that I did not intend to press the amendment. I still do not believe that she has addressed the crucial question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and myself. We feel that, in the end, it should be for the parents to make up their minds and not the Secretary of State. The amendment pushes the Secretary of State's discretion further because, obviously, when one is offering discretion to a Secretary of State, one must lay down guidelines as to how that discretion should be exercised. I do not believe that the noble Baroness has gone as far as we would wish but I do not wish to press the matter further this evening. I shall look carefully at what she said. I shall withdraw the amendment, but it may be that we shall need to return to the issue at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 12 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford moved Amendment No. 13: After Clause 2, insert the following new clause—