HL Deb 21 July 1998 vol 592 cc735-42

139 Clause 120, page 91, line 24, leave out ("Subject to subsection (2),").

The Commons disagreed to the amendment for the following reason—

139A Because the amendment would alter the financial arrangements made by the Commons, and the Commons do not offer any further reason, trusting that this reason may be deemed sufficient.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 139 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 139A. I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 140 and 140A.

The Government's position on independent schools is clear. We want to put aside the divisions of the past and to foster partnerships between the maintained and the independent sectors. Partnerships involve mutual benefit to both sectors. We are supporting pilot partnership schemes now. The regulations provided for under this clause will allow LEAs to foster similar partnerships, developed at genuinely local levels between schools. We shall be consulting on those regulations in due course. But buying full-time places for particular children in the independent sector is not a partnership. It should not be necessary for LEAs to ship out their most able children to the independent sector in order to fulfil those children's needs, and LEAs should be directing their resources towards ensuring that that is not necessary.

The Government's intention in introducing these provisions into the Bill, as I have said in previous debates and as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made clear in another place, is to prevent the replication of the assisted places scheme at a local level. Provision for pupils with special educational needs will not be affected by these proposals. We do not build partnerships between the maintained and independent sectors by funding places to take children wholly out of the state sector. A child does not need to take the whole of the curriculum at an independent school in order to benefit from its facilities for a particular activity, any more than a pupil at an independent school could only benefit from, say, language facilities at a maintained school by studying full time there. The partnerships that we have supported are based on precisely this sort of imaginative co-operation between the two sectors, and we shall look to see them flourish. I give noble Lords the example of a partnership of three schools in Kent—one maintained and two independent—in which all the schools will develop their modern language provision by building on the maintained school's excellent ICT facilities, and the independent schools' very good existing links with schools in Europe.

I repeat that the regulations we intend to make will do nothing to inhibit partnerships of that kind. I hope that noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches opposite in particular will be reassured that local education authorities will continue to have the discretion to develop such partnerships within the policy framework that I have outlined. They will have every opportunity to explore the detailed implications of this further with us when we consult on the regulations later on.

Having said that, I make no apologies for reiterating the Government's view, which I believe noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches share, that the thinking behind the assisted places scheme is divisive. The Education (Schools) Act 1997 provided for it to be phased out, in keeping with our manifesto commitment to do so. These provisions flow from that commitment: we are clear that local assisted places schemes would be equally divisive. I do not believe that it is appropriate for this House to revisit last year's debates in this way. LEAs should be, as the Government are, devoting their resources to the benefit of the many and not the few. That is what the regulations under this clause will secure, and why another place has offered privilege as its reason.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 139 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 139A.—(Baroness Blackstone.)

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, as the Minister said, the reason given by the other place for disagreeing to our amendment was that, the amendment would alter the financial arrangements made by the Commons", and no further reasons have been given. However, that is not so; indeed, there is no way at all in which the amendment would alter the financial arrangements made by the House of Commons, so it is not true. Moreover, there is an arrogance about producing that and no other reason. The Minister knows that that is not the case, and I shall explain why. This is not new Labour, this is true Labour: the mean-spirited politics of envy.

Perhaps I may tell the House the history of this sorry saga. The abolition of the assisted places scheme was approved by both Houses of Parliament. Local authorities, which are obliged to provide for all the children in their care from the least to the most able, turned their minds to ways of providing for bright children from low-income families where they could not provide a fast-track academic education. At least one enterprising local authority—namely, Surrey—created a partnership with the voluntary and the private sector and established a scheme which would not increase local government expenditure at all. But such was the blind prejudice of the government that a clause was inserted in the Bill to prevent local authorities introducing such a scheme.

My understanding is—it certainly was when I was a member of a local authority; and, indeed, has always been—that local authorities have an obligation to meet the educational needs, special or otherwise, of all children within their area of responsibility. The special needs of some children derive from learning difficulties, while those of high ability may benefit from a fast-track academic curriculum. Indeed, the schools Minister is supposedly seeking ways to address the educational needs of very bright children, even to the extent of saying that they should be treated differently. However, having attacked assisted places, grammar schools, grant-maintained schools and selection, I have to say that one has to take such intentions with a pinch of salt.

When the assisted places scheme was abolished, those of us who disagreed profoundly with the Government nevertheless had to accept that Parliament as a whole had endorsed that proposition. What was extremely disappointing was the totally cavalier way in which the Government reneged on their commitment to those families whose children were awarded places at schools which catered for primary through secondary age ranges. Reassuring letters were written by Ministers and reassuring public statements were made by Ministers and indeed by the Prime Minister, but still children were made to abandon an assisted place prematurely. That is another example of rhetoric not matching practice.

When the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, spoke on the last occasion when the matter was discussed, he said that 140 applications had been received and remained to be considered for keeping assisted places and that 100 applications had been acceded to. My understanding is that that is not correct. If the Minister cannot correct the situation today, I hope that he will write to me and say whether those 100 applications have been agreed to.

The point of the amendment passed by the House of Lords was to allow local authorities to address the educational needs of the full spectrum of children from the least to the most able by having the flexibility to use public and/or private provision. Indeed, the scheme advocated by Surrey Country Council was particularly enterprising. It brought together in partnership the voluntary, the private and the public sector at no extra cost or even at a lesser cost, thus producing a saving to the local authority. The idea was to establish a fund by voluntary contribution to provide bursaries for bright children from low-income families to attend independent schools. The cost to the local authority would in fact have been equal to or less than the cost of educating the child with the authority's own schools. So the Government's claim to financial privilege is simply misplaced.

When referring to local authorities' wishes to assist able pupils to receive education within the independent sector, the schools Minister claimed: Regulations made under Section 518 of the Education Act 1986 already give local education authorities the discretion to pay the whole or part of tuition fees … and other expenses relating to the attendance of a pupil at a fee-paying school". The schools Minister went on to say: If the local authority wants to use the money that it raises locally for this purpose, that is for it to decide. It"— that is to say, the local authority— will be held accountable by Surrey people, it that is how it wants to spend money from the education budget. The authority has the freedom to exercise that power". That is precisely what the House of Lords amendment would have achieved.

However, my honourable friend Nick St Aubyn in the other place referred in Committee to the partnership scheme in Surrey and invited comments from Ms. Estelle Morris, the schools Minister. She said, The department looks forward to receiving details of those plans and to hearing how children can be given more opportunities than at present. That is exactly the sort of co-operation that we want to see".—[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee A. 5/2/98; cols. 346-7.] The Minister went on to say at col. 351 on the same day, We welcome the partnership that is clearly being made in Surrey with the private sector, that is exactly what we want in the interests of children". How can the Minister endorse the enterprise of Surrey County Council and then insert a clause in the Bill to outlaw such a scheme? There are a number of authorities—I believe that Bromley and Surrey are among them—where it would be more tax efficient to purchase places in the independent sector than to build extra classrooms and provide extra teachers for these children coming back into the state system. As I said, the reason given is plainly wrong. I ask the Minister to reconsider the reasons given in another place.

At col. 505 of Hansard on 15th July the Secretary of State for Education referred to a "manifesto commitment". The manifesto commitment—with which I take no issue at all—was to abolish the assisted places scheme in order to pay for more teachers to meet a class size pledge for five, six and seven year-olds. That has been done and the money is being saved at the moment, although as we all now know from the comprehensive spending review, it will not be enough. However, the manifesto pledge did not state that no local authority will provide for bright young children from low income families within the private sector. That was not a manifesto commitment. The Secretary of State then said in the same column, The debate is not about reaching partnership agreements".—[Official Report, Commons, 15/7/98; col. 505.] It is precisely about reaching partnership agreements between local authorities, the voluntary sector, the private sector, the independent schools and the families. In the same column the Secretary of State said, we should not waste each other's time. Enough time has been wasted in this Session putting this and other Bills on the statute book". I do not regard considering and reconsidering Bills as they go through both Houses of Parliament as wasting time. I regard it as part of the democratic process. But as we know, that process irritates the present Government. They do not like it. They regard serious consideration of legislation as a waste of time. That is not a view I share.

My honourable friend Mr. St Aubyn in another place put it succinctly. I end my comments by quoting what he said at col. 506 on 15th July: Labour Members may ask what this has to do with the amendment. That is a very good point. The amendment does not ask the Government to rediscover or reproduce that £40 million a year. It simply asks the Government to accept that local councils, with the support of local schools, parents, charities and sponsors, should be allowed to take advantage of the chance to give some local children for whom the idea is appropriate their best opportunity in life. That chance should not be denied by the prejudice that Labour Members have displayed not only in this House but in another place". I disagree profoundly with the reasons given by another place; namely, that this is about financial privilege, when not one single extra penny of taxpayers' money at national or local level is to be spent as a result of meeting the terms of the House of Lords amendment.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, perhaps I might say a few words as this was my amendment which I was rather surprised to win at the time. I was also surprised at the reason the Commons have chosen to give for rejecting it. If this is the extent of financial privilege, which the Commons now claim, I suspect that any reformed House will wish to challenge them on it at an early stage. That seems to me an extraordinary extension of the idea of Commons' financial privilege, and in this context, as my noble friend has said, a considerable arrogance, which I am delighted to say was not shared by the Minister opposite who chose to give us, in her terms, a reasonable explanation of what lay behind the rejection of this amendment.

I start by being fairly positive in my reaction to most of what the noble Baroness said. I am delighted that the Government are promoting a series of partnerships between independent and state schools. I hope that much good may come of this. I see considerable scope for that. It is a way forward. But what has been done as a whole by this Government is to increase the apartheid between the state and the independent systems, to increase the gulf and to make it harder to achieve one system with slightly different ways of managing schools and slightly different ways of looking at schools, which is what one understands from the Government's election manifesto is their eventual ambition.

If a local authority were to purchase a place at an independent school for a pupil, it would be doing no more than it already does with state schools or foundation schools, or whatever they will become, in that it would provide education for a child at an appropriate school. Within the state system parents have a great deal of choice, which this Government support—and, I hope, are increasing in this Bill—to choose which school they send their child to. The local authority is obliged to respect that choice and to provide the funding to the school the child ends up at. I cannot see any fundamental difference in providing £2,500 a year to an independent school or to a state school, if that is the school the parents and child happen to choose.

I cannot understand either the justification for the following. If, for example, there was a scheme in Winchester, Winchester schools could benefit from the facilities of the great independent school in that town. That would be nice for them, but there may be a child in Southampton who is peculiarly suited to the facilities which are on offer there to develop his own particular talent, but he would be denied that opportunity just because of where he lives. That is a philosophy which punishes the poor for being poor and living in poor areas which happen not to be next to good schools. Those children are denied the opportunity to attend schools which may not have great academic records but which offer facilities which are peculiarly suited to their talents. I pursue this much more from a basis of supporting what is best for the child rather than what is best for a political philosophy or what is best for a school and local authority system. I would like local authorities to have the discretion to look after the children in their area as best they see fit. I am sad that the Government oppose that but I suppose I must accept that there is a basic difference of political philosophy. I hope that the Government may one day come round to my way of thinking.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has mentioned political philosophy. I suggest that it is his political philosophy, which is clearly shared by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that set up a scheme that this Government consider is highly divisive and which supports a small number of children who occupy more expensive places—in terms of the taxpayers' commitment—in independent schools when LEAs have a duty and obligation to provide adequately for all children, including those who are very able.

However, I am grateful that the noble Lord. Lord Lucas, was at least able to support the idea of partnerships, although the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I am afraid, did not, or certainly did not comment on them. There is absolutely no intention by the Government to create an apartheid between the two systems. Indeed I believe the assisted places scheme contributed to an apartheid by removing bright and able children from state schools and thereby denying those schools the opportunity to educate them and to educate them well. No, our proposals are not about apartheid. They are about bringing the independent sector and the state sector closer together. The right way to do that is not by plucking out bright individual pupils, but by creating a genuine partnership within which large numbers of pupils can mix together and benefit from the best that the state system can provide and the best that independent schools can provide. I utterly refute the suggestion by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that this is the mean-spirited politics of envy. It certainly is not.

Nor can I accept that able children will suffer as a result of these proposals. LEAs can, and do, enable the brightest children to fulfil their potential. They would be insulted by some of the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

The objections that the Conservative Party has to these proposals are a clear attempt to undermine government policy on the abolition of the assisted places scheme and to undermine provision in the maintained sector. I invite noble Lords opposite to accept that this is not an appropriate issue on which to challenge further the clearly expressed views of the elected House.

I now turn to the issue of privilege. Perhaps I should explain that it is not the Government who decide whether an amendment passed in this House and then considered in another place is a matter of privilege. It is the Speaker of the House of Commons who has ruled that these amendments involve matters of privilege. That is because they are telling LEAs how they may or may not spend their money. So questions of public expenditure are involved. The convention is that, where privilege is used, it is the only reason used.

The noble Baroness referred to a scheme in Surrey which was commented on and described by her honourable friend Mr. Nick St Aubyn in another place. The Government have invited Mr. St Aubyn to provide further details of the scheme but up to now they have not been provided. A scheme will be outlawed only if it replicates the assisted places scheme. From the information that we have, it is a local assisted places scheme. I understand that the education committee in Surrey has delayed consideration of it for the time being until the legislative position is clear.

The noble Baroness also asked about individual applications. That point is not particularly relevant to this amendment, which relates to local APS schemes. However, I understand that 100 out of the 170 individual applications have been dealt with extremely flexibly and the Government have used their discretion in favour of the parents.

Our approach makes a clear distinction between the demands of national policy and the scope for local action. As I have said, the regulations that we have proposed will not inhibit LEAs which want to form genuine partnerships with the independent sector. We have a mandate based on a clear manifesto commitment to phase out the assisted places scheme. A local scheme is no less divisive than a national scheme. It is not an appropriate use of public money. Our firm intention is that the regulation should stop LEAs going via the back door and replicating the scheme locally. I therefore ask the House not to insist on their amendment to which the Commons have disagreed.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, it was my intention to insist on this amendment. I shall, however, bide by the Speaker's ruling in another place. I do not know whether there is now a mechanism for a Member of this House to ask a question. Where an amendment does not involve the extra spending of one single pound, how is it that financial privilege can be invoked? This scheme was intended to save, not spend, money. The noble Baroness gave another reason; namely, this would involve telling local authorities what to do. The amendment did not involve telling any local authority what to do. It was intended as an enabling power for the local authorities. So I—

Lord Carter

My Lords, the standing order is entirely clear. The noble Baroness is able to ask a question for clarification. My noble friend the Minister is not responsible for the Speaker's decision. I am absolutely staggered to hear that the noble Baroness proposed to divide the House on a question of financial privilege.

Baroness Blatch

No, my Lords, the noble Lord has got it wrong. I said that I do not intend to divide the House. I accept the Speaker's ruling that it is a matter of financial privilege. My understanding is that financial privilege is always invoked where extra funding is involved in an amendment. As I understand it, no money was involved in the amendment that was passed by this House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.