HL Deb 13 November 1998 vol 594 cc909-33

11.42 a.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 21st October be approved [46th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Education (Grammar School Ballots) Regulations 1998 be approved.

The regulations arise from provisions set out in Sections 104 to 108 of the School Standards and Framework Act. They were laid before the House on 21st October and have been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

As your Lordships will recall, the grammar school ballot provisions of the School Standards and Framework Act implement our manifesto commitment that any changes in the admission policies of grammar schools will be decided by local parents. I do not therefore want to go over old ground concerning the principle of giving parents an opportunity to decide on the future of selective admissions at grammar schools. That was very thoroughly debated during the passage of the Bill.

The principle underlying these regulations is that the ballots must be fair and workable. There would be no point in setting up a ballot system which favoured one side or the other. What we want is a fair test of parental opinion.

As a result of the recommendations of your Lordships' Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation, the Act specifies what the regulations should contain in considerable detail. So the major planks of the regulations are laid down by the Act. Most of the additions are mere detail on how to administer the process, though I shall mention significant points.

As far back as 20th March the Government made available a note indicating what they intended the regulations would cover. That was sent to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope. The arrangements set out in the note were reflected in the draft regulations issued for consultation on 3rd June, which were also made available before Committee stage of the Bill. These were sent to all grammar schools, local education authorities, and a range of national organisations. The revised regulations which we are debating today take account of their comments.

The regulations run to 14 pages and four schedules and I shall not go through them line by line. However, it might be helpful if I said a few words about their contents.

The regulations designate Electoral Reform (Ballot Services) Ltd. to take on the functions of the ballot administration, which the Act says shall be done by a designated body. This company was chosen by tender and, as many Members of the House know, is very experienced in running ballots.

The rest of the regulations set out the detail of how petitions and ballots will be organised. In particular they spell out which ballot arrangements laid down in the Act should apply to each of the 166 grammar schools which have been designated as such by order. Schedules 1, 2 and 3 specify which areas will be treated as whole areas for petitions and ballots, which schools will be grouped together, and which will stand alone. The only exception is the schools in Sutton and Nonsuch High School for Girls, which are referred to in the body of the regulations as being treated as a ballot for a prescribed area covering Sutton authority area and the ward of Nonsuch. This is because the school is just outside the border of Sutton but part of Sutton's selective system.

The Act laid down a specific distinction between the electorate for two sorts of ballot. In an area ballot all the parents resident in the area, whether or not their children are at any type of school, together with parents from outside the area who send their children to maintained schools in the area, will have a vote. However, in a "feeder school ballot" different arrangements will apply. Parents of children at primary schools which have sent a specific number of children to any of the schools in the group over a prescribed period will be able to petition and vote.

So, the question of which parents are eligible to petition or vote in the various arrangements was largely spelt out in Section 106 of the Act. The additional details of the numbers of pupils and period of time in the definition of a feeder school are the same as in the consultation draft of the regulations. A feeder school will be one from which a total of five pupils have transferred to the grammar schools concerned over the previous three years. To be clear, this is five children, not 15 over the three-year period. Consultation responses sought both a higher and a lower threshold of pupils for feeder schools. But we did not change the current draft regulation, because five pupils over three years seems a sensible minimum to constitute a strong link with a grammar school.

In line with the consultation draft, parents whose youngest children are in the sixth form will not be eligible to petition or vote, because these arrangements do not apply to selective admission arrangements at sixth-form level. This change from the note prepared in the spring was confirmed at Committee stage by my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey. It was because selection continues to be permitted for entry to the sixth form, and because in some areas pupils from comprehensive schools go to sixth-form colleges, while grammar schools in the same areas have sixth forms: the electorate would thus be biased.

During debates on the Bill the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, was very concerned about access to electoral lists. The regulations repeat what my noble friend said at the time, namely that only ERBS will have access to the complete list of eligible voters. Eligible parents of children at a particular school will be entitled to request to see that school's list of eligible parents—minus any of those parents who have indicated that they do not wish to have their details disclosed.

The regulations cover in detail how to set petition thresholds: the formula of 20 per cent. of eligible parents on relevant school lists was laid down in the Act as the number who need to sign a petition in order to trigger a ballot. The regulations explain how the figure for each petition is to be established, by finding out which schools need to be involved, and by writing to those schools for information on which parents fit the eligibility criteria. A significant change introduced as a result of consultation is that the ballot administration company will not need to start establishing the threshold until requested to do so by 10 people (rather than just one in the earlier draft). This should help to avoid burdening schools unnecessarily.

The regulations spell out that petitions can run for up to a school year, but cannot carry on into a second school year. The information to be entered on petitions is specified so that the ballot company has adequate information to check that signatures are eligible. The words to appear on the petitions are also specified.

The regulations spell out the ballot question, which we have simplified as a result of consultation; parents will be asked to tick yes or no to the statement, "Are you in favour of all the schools listed introducing admission arrangements which admit children of all abilities?". In the case of a stand-alone ballot, the grammar school's name will be inserted in the question; otherwise, the ballot paper will list the schools concerned.

We are planning an explanatory introduction to the ballot question which will ensure that it is clear that this is all about admissions to the schools concerned below the sixth form.

The regulations explain that ERBS will notify specific relevant people when there is to be a ballot. It will send out ballot papers for parents to return. A ballot will normally follow straight on from the declaration that a petition is valid, balloting the same set of eligible parents. The exception to this will be the first year, when no ballot will be held before September 1999. This is so that new admission consultation arrangements can be in place before any ballot results need to be implemented. In this first year, the electorate will be updated for the new school year before the ballot papers can be sent out.

The Act specified how a ballot result will be determined; namely, by simple majority of those voting, because the substantial petition threshold will already have demonstrated a significant degree of local feeling.

If a ballot results in a vote against change, there will be a five-year moratorium. In this period no further petitions can be raised or information about parents demanded from schools.

The regulations lay down the timescale within which new admission arrangements must be implemented if there is a ballot result in favour of change. This will depend on when the result is declared. Where ballot results are declared on or before 31st December, grammar schools will need to consult on revised admissions proposals in time to have them in their prospectus for the following September, for intakes the September after that. For ballot results declared between January and the end of the school year, the new arrangements will be required for the second September following the ballot, for intakes in the third September. This is a change resulting from consultation responses which said that the trigger date on which we consulted—31st March instead of 31st December—did not leave adequate time for consultation with other admissions authorities.

Finally, the regulations set out the circumstances in which a ballot result may be declared void. One of these circumstances is if someone has behaved in a manner which is not in accordance with the ballot information code at Schedule 4, and this is likely to have significantly affected the result of the ballot. This code is intended to set a standard for fairness and balance in the presentation of information to parents.

I am conscious that several noble Lords were concerned during the passage of the Bill about the level of information available to parents. The ballot code provides a standard for how information should be provided, but your Lordships need not fear that that is all the advice that will be available. Noble Lords will, of course, recall that Section 107 of the Act spells out that school governing bodies and local education authorities may use public funds to give out factual statements, fairly presented, and assessments that are fair and reasonable of what might happen in the event of a ballot for change, as well as statements of their own intentions in the event of such a ballot result. The Act provides for statutory guidance from the Secretary of State about interpretation of fairly presented and fair and reasonable. This will be provided in the guidance now being prepared.

The regulations provide the detail necessary to implement Sections 104 to 108 of the School Standards and Framework Act. They will establish a fair and workable mechanism for local parents to decide on the future admission arrangements to grammar schools. I therefore commend them to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 21st October be approved [46th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.)

Lord Hattersley

My Lords, I rarely detain the House so I hope that I may be allowed 30 seconds to offer my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath some rather belated congratulations on his promotion. We have known each other for a very long time. There was a time when I hoped that he would find a political career in another place—ideally, as the Member of Parliament for the Sparkbrook area. However, fate and fortune have brought him here and I congratulate him on his promotion. I look forward to it continuing for very many years.

However, saying that does not in any way inhibit me from saying that I so object to the regulations that he has just moved that, if it were not against the conventions of this House, I would seek to divide the House against the Motion. I would do so not least because in his opening remarks, quoting necessarily, properly and understandably from what the Secretary of State said in another place, my noble friend was diametrically wrong in two particulars. First, he said that the decision on the organisation of schools will be decided by local parents. In very many cases, that will not be true. My noble friend also said that, as a result of that decision, the scheme for balloting would be fair and workable. As on many occasions the question will not be decided by local parents, it will not be fair, and the complications for the ballots, as now laid down, are such that in some cases the scheme will literally not be workable.

In fact, what we have before us today is the oldest of all political tricks: the decision to legitimise a procedure by offering a ballot, but making sure that the ballot comes out in the direction wanted by those who organise it. I have no doubt at all that when the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, speaks, she will say, as she said outside the House, that the ballots are geared to ensure that grammar schools are destroyed. I have discovered that there is a relationship in these matters between the noble Baroness and myself. She always describes what she fears the Government are doing; I always describe what I hope the Government will do. What she fears and I hope are always the same but, unfortunately, neither her fears nor my hopes are ever realised. If the regulations go through in their present form, they will make it almost impossible for localities to make a genuine and open decision on the sort of educational organisation that they want.

The threshold—20 per cent. of appropriate parents—will in many cases be literally impossible to obtain. The idea that you cannot have a ballot until you overcome that immense hurdle seems wholly unreasonable to me and to every education authority which has been asked about it. It is particularly difficult to overcome when the second category of decision is being taken—that is, that relating to feeder schools. I ask my noble friend to consider the city which I once represented and in which he still lives. It might just be possible for feeder schools in Birmingham to obtain 20 per cent. of parents calling for a ballot, but it would be very nearly impossible.

Having said that, I make no major complaint about the 20 per cent. threshold for those areas where the ballot is to be organised in an entire local education authority area. My great complaint relates to those areas where the ballot is to be conducted through so-called "feeder schools". I put it to my noble friend that he and I both believe that the existence of grammar schools, of selective schools, prejudices the education of an entire area. The mirror image of that is held by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, who no doubt believes that the existence of grammar schools enhances the educational prospects of a whole area. I note that the noble Baroness nods, as I would have expected. She and I are united on the principle that the existence of grammar schools affects, in one way or another, a whole local education authority area.

However, in many cases, the ballot will not be conducted in a whole education authority area; it will be conducted through designated feeder schools which may have only the most tenuous relationship with the education in a specific town or county. Indeed, it may be possible that parents of children at a primary school in the shadow of a grammar school (who long to send their children to that grammar school) which is just across a footpath or on the other side of a road but which has not sent the requisite number of children there in the past three years, will be denied a vote. However, parents in a private crammer 10 miles away, where most of the pupils attend independent schools, will be allowed to vote on the nature of that grammar school. This is clearly preposterous. The County of Gloucestershire, replying to my noble friend's representations, was absolutely right about the principle. It said: The existence of selective education has an effect upon, and is of interest to, all parents and schools. It would therefore be more appropriate for ballots to be upon the basis of the whole areas even where the grammar schools are taken as groups or stand alone". Anything that disenfranchises—and that is the appropriate word—many parents who live in the area immediately around grammar schools is a clear breach of propriety where clear and legitimate interests are concerned. I do not believe that there is any way that my noble friend can refute the view that parents living near the school in the area affected by the school ought to be given a vote in this ballot.

It is not simply a matter of the principle that I have tried to set out, but the administrative complications are overwhelming. I will not read to my noble friend the submission from the Church of England which asks the Government to consider those schools which are fed by dozens of small schools throughout a county area, many of whom will be disenfranchised even though they are feeding the school, but only to a small degree, and are related to dozens of other small primary schools which will not be allowed a ballot at all. This is an extraordinary way of conducting a ballot. It requires me, at the end of my couple of minutes, to ask how it is that the Government have brought in a procedure that is so complex and, on the other hand, lacks so much natural justice?

There are two interpretations. One is that the entire senior staff of the Department for Education and Employment are nincompoops and have got it totally wrong. The other interpretation is that the Government wish to introduce ballots of such formidable complication that most education authorities and the pro-comprehensive factions within them would not initiate the ballot in the first place. On mature reflection, I support the second conclusion.

I want to tell my noble friend—this is why I have made the insufferable sacrifice of being in London on a Friday morning—that the Government's intention in this particular will not succeed. People will run the ballots, people will campaign to end the comprehensive rules and on many occasions—certainly where whole authority ballots are being held—they will succeed. The Secretary of State in another place is making himself absurd over his attitude towards grammar schools.

Only today we hear that the decision that the Government have taken to except the Church of England from the promise to have no selection interviews has been rejected by the Church of England. It says "We do not want to have interviews. Why is the Government insisting upon interviews?" The Government's position on secondary schools and secondary organisations becomes increasingly untenable, as demonstrated by the news from Bristol this morning that two grammar schools have decided—without ballots, as they are entitled to—on the decision of their governors to go comprehensive.

I do not expect my noble friend to accept some of my criticisms. He knows very well that I am not making them to him but through him to the Secretary of State. I want the Secretary of State to understand that the campaign, the ballots, will be pursued despite the complications, and a number of them will certainly be won.

12 noon

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, in his opening remarks the Minister said that the ballot company had been chosen by tender. Can he tell the House how long the contract is to run, and if there is provision in the contract to break the contract if the ballot company is not doing a proper job?

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for giving way. We were at cross-purposes there.

I would like to speak for a couple of minutes—probably a couple of minutes shorter than my noble friend Lord Hattersley—to support my noble friend on the Front Bench. I recognise the validity of some of the criticisms that my noble friend Lord Hattersley has raised this morning, but I think that we ought to celebrate the fact that the Government are introducing a mechanism, which is better than the old mechanism, to enable a change to take place with regard to grammar schools.

Twenty years ago, when my little daughter was five and at the local primary school, there was a proposal to amalgamate a boys' high school with a girls' high school, largely because of the pressures of economies and school places. The only people to be consulted about that change were the parents of the children at the high schools at the time. The process of change—if the two schools amalgamated—would have taken place only after all the children in those schools had left the schools. It seemed to me totally nonsensical to have a situation where you were asking people to make a judgment which, when it came about, they would have no involvement with at all.

I welcome the mechanism that the Government have determined in terms of asking the parents of children at the primary school level what their views are regarding the future education of their children. That is the key thing that we should hang on to. I am sorry that the mechanism is complicated and that there is the 20 per cent. hurdle, but at least we are setting out a system which is far better than the previous system. Once all the hurdles have been got over and all the complications—which are meant to ensure absolute fairness—are resolved and the determination is made, nobody will be in a position to question it. When an area decides to get rid of the grammar schools nobody will be in a position to say "Yes, but what about my particular school or this particular school? We are going to carry on campaigning".

I welcome this order on the basis that it will give us a helpful start to the future.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, I did not intend to speak in this discussion but I was so encouraged by what the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, said that I feel I do have something to say. If the noble Lord is right and it will be impossible for 20 per cent. of the appropriate parents to come together to call for a ballot, then I will feel very happy indeed. I am not at all convinced that the knock-on effects on the rest of the educational provision in an area are adversely affected by the presence of a grammar school.

I speak as one who was able to go to grammar school only because scholarships and free places existed. I am quite sure that my parents could not have afforded to pay for me to go to grammar school or, incidentally, to go to university, which I did through a government grant. Grants have now also disappeared. Girls like myself of the younger generation may be denied a lot of opportunities which my generation enjoyed—together with many Members of your Lordships' House and other people who have become prominent in British society—which is the privilege of a grammar school education.

My worry about the description of the order which the Minister so carefully gave us—and I appreciate that very much—was the wording of the ballot on which parents will be asked to vote. It would appear from what he said that parents will be asked a question which expects the answer "Yes", the num form of the question, as we used to be told in my Latin classes. If you are asked a very generous question such as, "Would it be nice to have the school"—which is a very good school and well known throughout the area—"open to children of all abilities?", of course you want to say, "Yes, how absolutely right that would be". If the question were put differently, for instance, "Do you want a change in the way in which this very good school currently selects its students?"—or any other form of words—I wonder if parents would automatically reply "Yes" to the question.

I did not intend to speak in the debate because I have an enormous admiration for the many good comprehensive schools which have done a very good job. In the 1960s and 1970s I was a passionate believer in comprehensive education. But it has not worked. An enormously high percentage of children from deprived areas who go to comprehensive schools fail to achieve their full potential. In universities we still find it extremely difficult to shift the social balance of those entering university from what it was in the 1930s. Therefore, I do not believe that we should attack and throw out, or give an opportunity to throw out, the remaining few highly successful grammar schools—there are only a few left—without much more consideration being given to the issue than so far has been the case.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I did not intend to speak either, but the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, raised one or two points to which I should like to respond. I have been involved in a number of primary school campaigns for my own children and I have to say to my noble friend Lord Hattersley that 20 per cent. is a very modest threshold to obtain. Certainly, in the campaigns in which I have been involved, mainly to do with school closures, we have had a huge level of interest from local parents. Therefore, I do not think that 20 per cent. is too high. Perhaps the position is different in Birmingham but in my area of London 20 per cent. is not ambitious at all.

In making my second point, I wish to reiterate what was said by my noble friend Lord Monkswell. We should welcome the principle of the ballot itself and the principle that those eligible to vote will be a far wider group than those sending their children to the school at that moment in time. It is appropriate that the ballot is being cast far more widely.

My third point relates to the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, about the wording of the ballot. The noble Baroness may have a point. But, whatever the wording of the ballot, parents understand the issue extremely well. It is somewhat patronising to think that the way a question is worded one way or another will get the response which the Government are trying to achieve. All the parents I know understand the issue of grammar schools extremely clearly. They know what they think and they will express it that way in a ballot, whatever the wording of the question.

12.15 p.m.

Lord Tope

My Lords, as the Minister made particular reference to the London Borough of Sutton and, indeed, as the London Borough of Sutton is singled out for particular reference in several places in the regulations, I suppose I should start by declaring an interest in that I am the leader of the council in the London Borough of Sutton, although I do not speak in that capacity in your Lordships' House. However, I may be tempted to do so before I sit down.

I enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, as I always do when he chooses to take part in our education debates. I suspect that I enjoy his speeches very much more than his own Front Bench does. I thought he made an extremely good and extremely eloquent case. I agreed with everything he said but for one thing. I thought his comments about London were superfluous. It is always a pleasure to be in London, whether on Friday or any other day. What is not a pleasure is trying to leave London on a Friday afternoon. But perhaps people should learn that they should not try.

I wish to return to what the Minister said in his opening remarks. He said that he did not want to get into a debate on the pros and cons of selective education. I am inclined to agree with him on that. Those of us who fought for many long hours through the Bill under which the regulations are brought forward argued those points fully, exhaustively and exhaustingly. We know where we all stand on that issue—at least we think we know where we all stand on that issue—but let me state that the Liberal Democrats remain clear and unequivocal in our opposition to selective education. I am less certain whether that is true of the Government Front Bench any more, but it is certainly true in our case. We accept that decisions about admission arrangements for schools should be taken in those local areas by local people in accordance with local circumstances. Therefore, I do not want to debate the pros and cons of selective education.

I understand the sincerity of those who hold different views. I hope they respect the sincerity of my views even though they profoundly disagree with them.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, said, the supporters of selective education believe that the proposals in the Act and in the regulations mean the destruction of grammar schools and the end of grammar schools. Those of us who do not support selective education believe, for all the reasons the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, expressed so eloquently, that almost the opposite is the case and that it will be extremely difficult to overcome the hurdles that are placed in our way. The Government may think, therefore, that, placed in the middle as they are, they probably have got it about right. All I would ask them to do is to consider who is holding which view and what views are held by their friends, or perhaps their former friends, before they decide to take too much comfort from sitting in the middle on this issue.

I want to raise some specific concerns arising from the regulations. As has been said, 72 of the 166 grammar schools could be the subject of feeder school ballots. I would welcome some comment from the Minister on some points about feeder schools. First, with regard to parents with children at key stage one, if those children are in a primary school those parents will be eligible to take part in a ballot. If those parents have children in an infants school, which will now be required to have its own governing body, they will not be eligible to take part in a ballot? I cannot see the logic of that. The interest of a parent of a child at key stage one in the future secondary system in their area is as great regardless of the nature of the school or the class their child is in. Why do the Government intend to exclude parents of pupils in infants schools when, had they been able to or had they chosen to send their child instead to a primary school, they could have taken part in the ballot? I cannot understand the logic of that position and I hope the Minister will be able to explain it to me.

Secondly, I wish to refer to the minimum limit of five pupils transferring. I am glad that the Minister made it clear that that is five pupils spread over three years. There has been some misunderstanding about this point and what he said is preferable to, as he put it. 15 pupils spread over three years. Nevertheless, there are a number of very small rural schools where they may well not achieve five pupils transferring over three years. There are schools with 30 or fewer pupils—never mind classes with 30 or fewer pupils. The parents of pupils at such a school do not, by definition, have any less interest in the future of secondary education in their area than if their children were able to go to a larger school where there would more likely be a greater number of pupils transferring. I still worry that there will be some small rural schools where parents who have a full and legitimate interest are excluded simply because they do not meet the threshold.

The noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, made the point, which was also made by the Church of England, that some grammar schools—indeed, some grammar schools in the London Borough of Sutton—draw their pupils from a very wide area indeed and, because of that, some of the feeder schools meet the threshold; and, therefore, again, parents with a legitimate interest may be excluded.

There is another category of parents who may be excluded. I refer to the parents of pupils transferring to a grammar school after the normal age of transfer—in many cases transferring from a secondary school into a grammar school. There may well be cases where that happens in a greater number of cases than five over a three-year period. I did not have time to check with my own authority but I suspect that it could well be the case. Not many manage to transfer into a grammar school, but some do, and there may well be more than five in one year. Yet although the parents of those pupils have a particular interest, they will be excluded from taking part in the ballot. That is unfair and unreasonable. Their interest is just as great as it would have been if the transfer had taken place at the normal time, or had their children been younger.

I now turn to the particular concern that I have in relation to the regulations; namely, the ballot information code. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that the code applies to everyone who will take part in the discussion and not merely the LEA or the school governing body, which are covered on the face of the Bill. Assuming that that is the case, there are matters in the regulations that cause great concern. On the face of it, all of us support fair, reasonable, unbiased campaigns—they will be campaigns—on this issue. All of us wish to see parents supplied with factual information. However, I worry that the ballot information code will make it very difficult those on for both sides of the argument. It is not a pro-comprehensive argument; it is an argument for all sides.

For instance, there is a statement in the regulations that meetings arranged for parents on the future of a grammar school need to be open. I hope that the guidance will make it clear that if a number of parents wish to organise a petition in support of a grammar school, or for that matter in favour of non-selective education, they will not necessarily need to invite to the meetings parents who take a different view. However, the regulations could be construed in that way.

I speak with 30 years' experience of campaigns for or against grammar schools. It has been an issue in the London Borough of Sutton throughout my political life. I can tell the Minister that merely a statement that a grammar school is likely to be changed is likely to cause alarm, concern and offence to a large number of people. I therefore wonder how the debates and discussions will be conducted if they are under the constraint that nothing can be said which is likely to cause alarm, concern and offence as suggested in paragraph 2.d of Schedule 4.

Subparagraph e goes on to state that the meetings, should not in content, tone or presentation be party-political". In one sense I can understand that. However, it will be remarkable if political parties have nothing to say on the issues involved in the ballot. Of course they will—on both sides, and strongly. But that must be interpreted as party-political. Although that situation has not occurred in my own borough, were it to occur, the Conservative Party has already well and truly fallen foul of this provision in the statements that it has made and, I suspect, statements that would be made were we to find ourselves in that situation. I therefore worry greatly about the contents of the ballot information code and as to how it will work in practice. I hope that the guidance will make it clearer. However, I fear that parents will either be acting in ignorance of what is meant in the code because they will not have easy access to the right legal advice, or—and this is probably more likely—the Secretary of State will be inundated with complaints from both sides of the argument that it has not been conducted fairly and will find himself in the seemingly impossible position of having to adjudicate on almost every ballot that takes place.

In conclusion, perhaps I may change to my role in this House as leader of the council in the London Borough of Sutton and make particular reference to Nonsuch. I see that the Minister is smiling, so it is my guess that this does not come entirely unexpectedly to him.

The reason why my borough is singled out for particular mention is that we have one grammar school which is literally a few yards outside the London borough and inside the county of Sutton. I have lived in the borough for all but two years of my life. I know it well. That school has always been, and is still, regarded very much as a Sutton school, albeit that it is now grant-maintained and most of its pupils come from outside the borough, as they do for all our grant-maintained grammar schools.

The Nonsuch ward is included in the regulation because of the geographical accident that I have mentioned. But it is a grant-maintained grammar school; it is not by any definition a neighbourhood school. There is no logical reason why that ward in the borough of Epsom and Ewell should be singled out to be part of a relevant area any more than any number of other wards in the borough, or in other London boroughs or elsewhere. The parents of pupils who happen to live in that ward will of course have a right to take part in the ballot. So they should have. But to include everyone who is eligible in the Nonsuch ward is a nonsense. I suggest that the provision is included merely because some civil servants without local knowledge have looked at a map and said that since that is the ward the school is in by a few yards, it must therefore be included in the relevant area. I hope the Minister will accept from someone who has local knowledge—not because I hold any particular view one way or the other; I have no idea how the residents of the Nonsuch ward may vote on this issue if they are given the chance—that it is a nonsense to include just one ward from the neighbouring borough because the school happens to be located there. I repeat: it is not a neighbourhood school, and that makes no sense.

The noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, said that, were it appropriate to be dividing on these regulations, he would do so. Had he been able to do so, I should have joined him in the Division Lobby.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, had it not been for the conventions of the House, I, too, should have walked into the Lobby—not, I hasten to say, the same Lobby as the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Hattersley. I should have gone through the other Lobby, and for very different reasons.

In his introduction to this short debate the Minister said that the Government wanted a fair and workable set of regulations. Again for different reasons, I do not believe that they are fair, and they are certainly not workable. They will result in chaos for local education authorities, parents and children, and, as we must not forget, for staff as well. They represent a war of attrition on some fine schools in our country.

I commend the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley. I have always had the highest respect for him. Throughout the whole of his career he has been politically honest, and on this subject particularly so. He makes no secret of the fact that, had he been master of the drafting of the Bill, it would probably have included a clause regarding the abolition of grammar schools, which would have been followed through by the necessary regulations to see that provision through. That might also have been the case for the noble Lord, Lord Tope. It is interesting that it is almost the policy of the noble Lord. Lord Hattersley, by stealth.

I do not share the noble Lord's pessimism about the threshold, as did the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and my noble friend Lady Perry. I am not at all sanguine about the 20 per cent. figure in terms of signatures to trigger a ballot. I believe that that is eminently achievable, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, also believed. Those of us who have been involved in campaigns know that one can gather the signatures over a long period; they can be gathered collectively by many groups of people. I therefore do not see this as an insuperable hurdle. I therefore put all vulnerable schools on notice that they need to be vigilant from the outset. The organisation with which the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, is involved is already active, and CASE is definitely active.

The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, agreed that franchises for the ballots are all right. He said that more or less anybody who is relevant and who needs to be consulted will be, and will be given a voice. However, many schools will be affected by these changes. The outcome will not be known until the ballot has taken place and the result is announced. Some schools will disappear as a result of these changes.

I have looked at the size of these schools. I shall run through the figures. One school has two forms of entry, two schools have one form of entry; five schools have two forms of entry, 53 schools have only three forms of entry and 76 schools, four forms of entry. Dealing with six forms of entry—and that is still a small school for a comprehensive—it is only seven schools out of 166. Thus almost all the schools are not viable as fully comprehensive schools. It means that they may, disappear completely, especially in those authorities with many spare places. I see that the noble Lord shakes his head, but it is a possibility. They could be taken out altogether and the children could be dispersed around the authority.

12.30 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. She is confusing the difference between a grammar school and a comprehensive school and a viable school based on its size. My understanding is that a comprehensive is a school which has a comprehensive intake of pupils without selection. Grammar schools in the secondary modern system effectively segregate pupils by some form of alchemy.

Whether a school is viable because of its size has nothing to do with whether it is grammar, comprehensive or secondary modern.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am not sure whether the noble Lord has examined the sizes of schools across the country. If he has, he will find that, where a school deals with a relatively narrow ability band, it tends to be smaller. Where a comprehensive school deals with a range of subjects and abilities, with the number of departments necessary to deal with every ability within an age group and with the small sizes of sixth form entry, more often there are seven, eight, nine, 10 and even 11 forms of entry. The truth is that many of the schools as comprehensives—which they will need to be within two or three years of a ballot—will not be viable. There will have to be a reorganisation. Some schools may disappear completely, some may be merged with other schools. I suspect that that will probably be the outcome. There may be all kinds of reorganisation problems, but that they will have to be reorganised is a certainty in many areas.

The Minister said that the guidance is not yet prepared or published; nor is the ballot information code. I believe that I am right—although I should like to think I am wrong—that the regulations will be implemented 14 days after some date next week when the regulations are passed in another place. If that is so, then signatures could legitimately be collected with a petition for what is left of this academic year ending in July 1999, with none of the advice and information that will be necessary. It would be helpful to have confirmation of that from the Minister when he replies.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, said that he and the Liberal Party stand four-square, behind the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, but, as a stepping stone to what the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, hoped for, they stand four-square behind the Front Bench. That is at national level. I have many Liberal colleagues who live in areas where there are grammar schools. They will be as active as many of the other people who support the continuance of their grammar schools. It is not enough to say, "We have a policy and it is unequivocal except at local level". It is at local level that it will matter.

On the point about Conservative, Liberal and other parties being active, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, is wrong. The guidance, regulations and law will prevent the grammar schools and the local authorities from acting in a particular way. But there will be no constraints on other bodies. There will be no constraints on CASE, for example, which will argue vociferously and actively and will be materially involved in ensuring that grammar schools do not exist at the end of the process. But other organisations outside LEAs and grammar schools will fight the other way. We know that grammar schools will not be allowed to produce anything other than factual information. But it would be helpful if the Minister could tell us the meaning and interpretation of the clauses in the Act on information to be provided by third parties.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, argued—and rightly presumed that I would join him in arguing—that there is an impact on an area where there are mixed schools, including grammar schools. However, it is not quite as he suggests. I hold here a table of the achievements of all local education authorities throughout the country. Where there is a mix of grammar schools, comprehensives and modern schools, those schools appear in the top 58 LEA achievers in the country. The bottom 71, with the exception of nine schools, contain authorities that are 100 per cent. comprehensive. It is clear from that that where there is a healthy mix of choice and diversity, all schools and the whole area of the LEA do better. The converse will apply. When we take out the high achieving schools, including many secondary modern schools which do extremely well because the staff deal with a relatively narrow ability band and are therefore able to be more effective in educating young people—

Lord Hattersley

My Lords, will the noble Baroness give way? I shall retain the self-denying ordinance in not arguing the merits of comprehensive versus selective education. The question I raised under this heading was the influence of the grammar schools on the whole local authority area. This debate needs the answer to a different question which the noble Baroness has not given. Does she believe that, since the grammar schools affect the education of the whole area—beneficially in her view and detrimentally in mine—the ballot should be in the whole education area? That is the nub of the argument which the noble Baroness has not addressed.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, we start from different points. I agree with the noble Lord that ballots have no basis in logic. There is no intellectual explanation for the difference between the franchises. My point is that I would not do what the Government seek to do, which is starting a war of attrition on such schools. I believe that they make a valuable contribution to the education of young people in this country. There are young people better suited to a fast-track academic education, just as there are children suited to a different type of education. I do not disagree with the Government's basic aim of raising standards in the country, but if I were the Government I would retain my fire, energy and resources for concentration on that part of the education system that does not work and is not delivering good education to our children.

My next point is that there is nothing in the regulations that refers to the kind of reorganisation that will have to take place as a result of the ballot. The question on the ballot paper is a rigged question. It is a rigged ballot. We all come at it from different angles. The noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, believes that it is rigged one way; I believe that it is rigged another. If a person is asked in a market square, "Do you believe that school X or a group of schools should accept children of all abilities?", that does not suggest that the school may not exist at all, following that ballot. It is a rigged question. My noble friend Lady Perry made a good point when she referred to parents who would wish their children to go to a highly popular, highly successful grammar school. When asked, "Would you like your children to go to the school, irrespective of their ability?", the answer will be "Yes".

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, made an important point. When a question is posed to which people are asked to give an answer, the result of which will be serious one way or another, as it will mean either the continuation of the school or its demise, it is important to understand the consequences of the answer. If the answer is "Yes, I should like my child to go to St. Olave's School", the chances are that it may not even exist as a school. Therefore the question is dishonest and misleading and I believe that from the outset the whole thing is rigged. I have received a letter only today from the Birmingham schools that the Minister will know well. The Minister has shown his prejudice against those very fine schools quite publicly. They, too, say that the question is misleading and does not clarify exactly what someone is voting for when he or she comes to vote. Therefore, even at this late stage—because there is no urgency about this matter—the noble Lord would do well to withdraw it and have a longer period of consultation.

Other noble Lords have already said that the catchment areas are very wide. Children will be dispersed equally widely if they cease to attend those schools. The notion that somehow it will raise standards in the area when one or two children at most will go into any class in a rather wide area is absurd. What will happen is that those children who enjoy a fast-track academic education suited to their abilities and aptitude will lose out.

I believe that the regulations come into force 14 days after the commencement of this order and that the order will commence as it passes through another place. I should be glad to know from the Minister whether I am reading that wrongly. But I believe that the initial period will be only a part year. One question that springs to mind is what happens if a petition is completed by the end of July during the school term and, at the end of the petition period (as it is known in the jargon), the ballot takes place either in the holidays or at the beginning of the new term. Some of the children whose parents were signatories to that ballot during the previous academic year may have moved on. There will be new parents who would not have been eligible to vote. It would be helpful to have clarification of where the eligibility of parents sits with all of that and what will happen in that situation.

Further, there is no definition of a parent. Perhaps I have missed the point and the matter is dealt with in the primary legislation, but I am fascinated by paragraph 4(3) on page 6 which provides: A parent of the following description is not an eligible parent— (a) a parent falling within paragraph (1)(a) or (2) who on the date in question is resident outside the United Kingdom"— I understand that— or (b) a parent who is not an individual". Can a parent be a group or more than one parent? What disqualifies a parent who is not an individual? What is a parent who is not an individual?

Reference is made to breaches of a ballot. I understand all of that. There must be some means of knowing whether the rules have been obeyed. If not, parents are given an opportunity one way or the other to appeal to the Secretary of State to make a judgment as to whether the ballot should be declared void. I should like the Minister to comment on an article in the Financial Times of 6th November which contains some very interesting coded messages. The usual senior government sources state that they cannot say that the decision of parents will be upheld in every case. Should parents vote to abolish the 11-plus Mr. Blunkett would recognise "that they had expressed a view" but he would use quasi-judicial powers to make the final judgment on the basis of academic standards, not on the basis of breaches or anything else. It would be helpful to have clarification of what decision would be taken where there had been a ballot with no breaches of the regulations and what it would mean.

Reference has been made to what would constitute fairness and reasonableness of information. We must await the information. It would be helpful to know when one is likely to see that information. Some grammar schools believe that as a result of their cessation there is likely to be a physical reorganisation of schools in particular areas. One has to think only of an authority like Kent where a very large number of grammar schools will go out of existence at the same time. One knows that there will be considerable reorganisation and that the local education authority is already working on some possible proposals and determining the costs. If the grammar schools concerned make intelligent estimates of the kind of reorganisation that follows such a ballot, is that deemed to be unfair or biased information? If its information is based on papers published by the local authority will that be considered fair or will it fall foul of the rules?

Referring to paragraph 16(1), as I understand it the five-year moratorium runs from the date when the ballot result is announced. I understand that the petitioning could start some time before the fifth year; it could start in the petitioning period, which would be in the previous academic year. It would be helpful to know when that would be.

For example, if a ballot result was announced in June 2000 my understanding of the regulations is that the next ballot could take place in June 2005. Therefore, petitioning could start in September 2004. Is that right? If a ballot was held in September 2000 and the next ballot could take place in September 2005, what would be the petition date? That would be the first few days of a new academic year. What would that mean for eligible parents, eligible schools and the petitioners, who would presumably want to be active as soon as possible? One knows that where a ballot is successful there will be a continuing war of attrition against those schools.

For the Minister to say that there has been a move from one signature to 10 signatures to trigger the requirement for all schools to prepare registers and LEAs to produce the information is not much of a concession. It would be helpful to know when we shall see this information, just how much bureaucracy would be involved and who would have to meet the costs of providing it. Suppose that all of the parents in Kent ask for the registered list. Will the schools or LEAs be reimbursed for the cost of that provision? I can envisage a large number of people wanting to see that list. What facilities will be made available for perusing those lists? It is very important for the schools themselves to make sure that those who sign do so legitimately and within the correct period. Can we have some idea of the cost of reorganisation and to what extent those plans will be made available to parents before they sign rather than when they sign?

I am sorry to refer again to the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley. Further, a very important point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. There is an interesting tension between those who want all of the grammar schools to go and those who do not. I am reading a little between the lines. Mr. Adonis at No. 10 appears to be slightly worried and has written about the continuation of grammar schools. I believe that he would like to see them continue and hopes that the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, is right that the hurdle is too high and the task too great to bring about the end of grammar schools. Yet the Secretary of State and his unreconstructed colleagues in the department want to see them go. It is helpful to know exactly where the department and the Government as a whole stand on this matter and what they want to see happen as a result of this policy.

I believe that the regulations only confirm that the Prime Minister's place, as I believe he would wish, will be secured in history but not for what he would like to be remembered. He will go down in history as a constitutional and educational vandal. I have no pleasure whatever in having to stand back and watch these regulations pass through this House today.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, this has been an interesting debate. I shall endeavour to respond to as many points raised as possible.

I start by making our position clear. It was made before the election. We do not support selection by ability at age 11; and we do not wish to see it extended. But we believe that it is right for the future of existing grammar schools to be decided by local parents. That was our position from day one. It was a commitment in the manifesto. It appeared in the White Paper, Excellence in Schools. It was carried forward to the School Standards and Framework Act. That Bill, and specifically the clauses relating to the ballots, were the subject of many hours' debate by both this House and another place before it became an Act. It probably is not worth while taking up your Lordships' time by going over old ground again. However, I thought my noble friends Lord Monkswell and Lord Ponsonby put the case well for the Government.

My noble friend Lord Hattersley expressed some doubts about the action being taken by the Government. As a former secretary of his constituency party, it is always a delight to hear my noble friend talk on educational matters. However, I think that he is wrong in this case. I believe that the Government have drawn a correct balance in the regulations that they have laid down and adapting those regulations to circumstances ranging from a local authority area where there is a complete selective educational system to areas where either individual schools or a small number of schools adopt a selective policy.

My noble friend also raised the issue of the 20 per cent. threshold. Sections 1 and 6 of the Act clearly state that the threshold must be at least 20 per cent., so regulations cannot introduce a lower figure. The Government believe that the 20 per cent. threshold is the best figure. It is sufficient to demonstrate clear support for the ballot while at the same time still being a realistic figure for those wishing to raise a petition.

My noble friend Lord Hattersley referred to the different types of ballots: an area ballot, and that for feeder schools. There are good reasons for those differences. Our original intention was to define electorates by feeder schools. That was because grammar schools draw from schools from a wide geographical area on the basis of the selective arrangements rather than the location of the pupils' homes. Choosing feeder schools as the basis for the electorate is the right approach because they have a tradition of sending pupils to the grammar schools. The parents at those schools would have some likelihood of their children being considered, or indeed rejected, as possible pupils for the grammar schools. However, we realised fairly soon that there was a fundamental difference between areas where the whole area is a part of a selective system and those where grammar schools exist within an otherwise comprehensive system. We therefore brought in the concept of area ballots to recognise the fact that in areas where a selective system operates, change in the admission arrangements of all grammar schools will affect the whole school system in that area.

My noble friend Lord Hattersley complained about the complexity of the regulations and said that they lacked natural justice. Following the regulations clear guidance will be produced which will enable the people involved to be clear about the rules and process under which those ballots and petitions operate.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, expressed concern that the current definition of a feeder school would be unfair to small schools, perhaps in particular those in rural areas. The definition of a feeder school was one of the subjects on which we received most comments during the recent consultation exercise. Those responses were not consistent. Some argued for the threshold to be lowered; others for it to be raised, suggesting that the current definition made the electorate unmanageable and enfranchised parents at schools which did not necessarily have strong links to the grammar school concerned. The Government considered the views expressed by both sides and decided that the proposed threshold struck the correct balance between demonstrating clear links to the grammar schools and not setting an unreasonable figure for schools to achieve.

The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, asked about the contract to run the provision for organising the petitions and ballots. I can assure the noble Lord that there is provision for the breaking of a contract if it is not going as it should.

The noble Baroness, Lady Perry, asked about the ballot question. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, suggested, to put it as its mildest, that the ballot question is open to misinterpretation. I can confirm that we have had many responses in the consultation about the ballot question. Our first principle was to make absolutely clear on the ballot paper what the question means. The formulation on which we consulted had two alternative statements. That was not popular and could have been confusing for parents. We decided that a single statement pointing to the possible change that might result from the ballot was best. Clearly it makes no sense to have a single statement proposing a status quo and not to mention the alternative. So it is intended that the ballot paper will contain introductory wording which makes clear that the ballot will determine whether or not the grammar schools concerned continue to select pupils for entry through examination of academic achievement—for example, using 11-plus type examinations—or whether admission arrangements are introduced which admit pupils of all abilities. In that context, the ballot question clearly means a change to the admission arrangements for all grammar schools. As my noble friend Lord Ponsonby said, parents will well understand the issue, as they understand it at present, and will be well able to make up their own minds.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked questions about the rules governing the campaigns that will necessarily take place in localities. I can confirm that the Government will shortly be making available guidance—documents on the petition and ballot mechanisms—which will provide further information on acceptable forms of information. The Secretary of State will expect all parties concerned with ballots to have regard to the ballot information code which appears at the back of the regulations. I remind your Lordships' House of the restrictions put in place by Section 107 of the Act, limiting expenditure of public funds by local education authorities and governing bodies. They may only publish factual information, assessment of consequences of a ballot, and statements of intent. I remind your Lordships of the Secretary of State's power to declare a ballot void where he is satisfied that misinformation has rendered the ballot result unsafe.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, raised the issue of meetings. He asked whether the ballot information code could be invoked to stop meetings being held to gather support for either side. That is unlikely if meetings are fairly conducted. The code is intended to set a standard. It is quite reasonable to expect that people running a meeting for parents will give both sides of the picture before urging people to support one or other view, and not to distort the facts.

The noble Lord asked why parents of children at infant schools were not included if there were a linked infant and junior school. Section 106 of the School Standards and Framework Act only allows those schools which have sent pupils directly to the grammar schools to be defined as feeder schools.

He also raised the question of Sutton with which, as he said, he is well acquainted. The Sutton LEA has 33 per cent. of its secondary pupils in grammar schools. The Nonsuch Girls High School has always been seen as part of the Sutton system, and indeed shares admission arrangements with one of the other grammar schools in Sutton. However, geographically it is just inside Surrey and the Sutton LEA wished for it to be part of the area ballot for the Sutton schools. In order to cater for Nonsuch High School being balloted with the Sutton schools, an area is being prescribed in the regulations made up of Sutton and the ward of Nonsuch. We have considered the options available to us. It is not considered that any area smaller than a ward such as Nonsuch can reasonably be specified as part of an area for ballot purposes. It would not be possible to include Nonsuch High School with the Sutton schools unless it is part of an area ballot.

1 p.m.

Lord Tope

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps he can clarify a point about the ballot information code because the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and I have a different view of it. For once, I hope that she is right. Does the ballot information code apply only to the LEA and the school governing body, in which case I am happier in some of my concerns, or does it apply to anyone taking part in the campaign on either side, as appears from the regulations? That is my real concern.

While the Minister is waiting for the answer to my query, perhaps I may revert to another issue. I will not detain your Lordships' House on a particular Sutton point, but it might help the supply of the answer that I am seeking. The argument that has been raging between our director of education and the civil servants suggests that the Nonsuch ward is included because a slightly higher percentage of pupils in the first three years at Nonsuch High School happen to come from that ward. It is a little under 6 per cent. That was the reason we were given; not the reason the Minister has just given.

If that were the reason, as set out in the letter from his official which I happen to have with me, there happen to be at least three other grammar schools wholly within the London Borough of Sutton, some of which are, as it happens, close to the Croydon border. I wonder whether the department has checked where the pupils from those schools happen to come from. Do most of them come from outside Sutton? Does anything approaching 6 per cent. happen to come from, for instance, a Croydon ward? If so, why is that not included in the relevant area? I am not suggesting that it should be; I am suggesting that it should not be, and neither should the Nonsuch ward. I hope that by now the Minister has the answer to my question.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, perhaps as regards the Nonsuch ward it would be better if I wrote to the noble Lord giving him further information. I understand that the code applies to all parties involved in ballots—

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, will the Minister give way because this is a very important point? An independent third party with no links whatever with a grammar school or even another school in an area may perhaps with a group of people feel particularly strongly about the continuance of grammar schools in an area. CASE, which operates quite legitimately but does not have a physical or formal link with schools in an area, will be moving around the country. What happens to free speech under the law? What prevents them from gathering together and taking a view about whether grammar schools should be part of the tapestry of education? What in law would they be guilty of if they came together in a village hall to discuss the Government's proposals? There is nothing in the Act as I understand it. If the Government are going to give answers in this fairly cavalier way, it would be helpful if the Minister could explain the matter. It is a most important point.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my understanding is that anyone may campaign in relation to a ballot which is held, but that LEAs and school governing bodies may not use public funds to do so. Everyone who wishes to give information to parents should take account of the ballot information code.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, can I ask whether I shall be within the law? Tomorrow I am going to—

Lord Carter

My Lords, the Companion states that the interruption of speeches should be brief questions for clarification. We have already had two speeches and the noble Baroness in winding up took 24 minutes, as against the 20 minutes suggested in the Companion. If there are to be interruptions they should be brief questions for clarification in accordance with the Companion.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am entirely happy to live within that constraint. I have a brief question. Tomorrow I am going to Birmingham to talk to a group of people about the continuation of grammar schools there. Will I fall foul of the code? The noble Lord said that the code will apply to quite independent third parties. Would he like to explain what that means?

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I wonder whether I can help in this situation because—

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, the noble Lord is the Minister!

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, yes, but I wish to have clarification. Unfortunately, it appears that what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, are saying is that they want to have the ability to campaign by telling lies and causing all sorts of aggravation. That is the impression that is being given because the ballot information code which is being discussed and which appears on page 27 of the order—

Lord Carter

My Lords, that is not a question for clarification. Can we please get on with the debate?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I really must rise. The noble Lord has impugned my integrity and my intentions. I am not asking questions in order to be able to go out and tell lies. And I am certainly not asking questions in order to underwrite anyone who wishes to go out and campaign in a way which would be illegal or illicit. I am asking whether any third party who believes strongly one way or another about the future of selective education in this country is bound by the code and, if so, in what way.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the Minister will seek to abide by the recommendations in the Companion and to reply within the recommended time. I am sure that there will be questions he may wish to answer in writing. Further interruptions will make it more difficult for him to answer the questions that have already been asked.

Earl Russell

My Lords, perhaps I may ask a genuine question for clarification on behalf of my noble friend Lord Tope. Would the noble Lord, Lord Carter, accept that the rule which he quoted from the Companion perfectly correctly might allow for an exception to enable information to reach the Minister by what the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, once described as that "curious process of osmosis" by which information reaches Ministers in this House?

Lord Carter

My Lords, of course, another way of doing it is to keep on talking until the answer arrives and then give it.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, perhaps I may repeat what I said earlier. Anyone may campaign, of course, but LEAs and school governing bodies may not use public funds to do so—

Baroness Blatch


Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, that is what I said earlier. I am afraid that I did. Everyone who wishes to give information to parents should take account of the ballot and the information code. The significance for third parties of the code is that if it is breached the ballot can be voided if it significantly affects results.

Perhaps I may press on. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, raised the issue of whether there would be too much uncertainty about the future of grammar schools and she said that this would allow too much disruption for pupils and teachers currently at the school. The regulations make clear that petitions and ballots can be raised during any school year except when a five-year moratorium is in force. The Government have always intended to offer a five-year moratorium after a ballot in favour of the status quo, and the regulations will deliver that.

The Government believe that that will allow a period of stability for grammar schools which have had ballots. We recognise that grammar schools which have had no ballots may have concerns about the issue remaining open. However, it is important to balance their desire for certainty against giving parents the chance to express an opinion.

The issue of non-viability of grammar schools was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, if parents vote for change. There is no reason to assume that an end to selection must lead to large-scale organisation and school closures. There will still be the same number of children and the same number of places. It is a question of what needs to be done to adjust the different ability mixes. If wider changes are needed there will be time to develop and implement properly considered proposals as comprehensive intakes work their way up through the school. Of course, it is also important to recognise that the reorganisation of school provisions will have to be based on extensive consultation and co-operation between LEAs.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked about the costs flowing from the likely reorganisation of provision. The ballots impact only on the admission arrangements for the grammar schools concerned. They place no automatic requirement to consider reorganisation more widely. When the ballot is in favour of the removal of selection, LEAs and other admission authorities in the area will wish to consider the implications for their own arrangements.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, quoted a senior government figure in the Financial Times on 6th November. The article in question got its facts slightly confused. The Secretary of State does have the power under Section 105 of the School Standards and Framework Act to declare a grammar school ballot void but he can do that only when a complaint has been made to him by one or more of the parties listed in that section. It is not the case, as the article may lead readers to believe, that all decisions are referred to the Secretary of State for final approval. In addition, any ballot which is declared void must be re-run.

Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked about the definition of a parent who is not an individual. That has puzzled me too but I am advised that that would apply to children in care and to a local authority acting as the parent. I am sure that the noble Baroness will be glad that such bodies do not have a vote on behalf of those children in such elections.

I remind the House that the arrangements for grammar school ballots are specified in considerable detail in the School Standards and Framework Act, which, as I said before, were debated very thoroughly in this House and in another place. There are those who feel strongly that selective entry to grammar schools should end; others feel equally strongly that it should continue. Grammar school ballot arrangements are set out in the Act and these regulations favour neither party. However, they give local parents a fair opportunity to decide for themselves. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.