We are faced with yet another timetable motion on the Education (No. 2) Bill. It would be unseemly, if not a dereliction of the Opposition's duty, if we did not refer to the need for a deliberate and thorough debate on the issues which have been raised yet again in the House of Lords amendments. Since the Bill started its journey in November, it has not gained any friends. Indeed, it has lost some of the friends that it had at the beginning.
We regard gleefully the decisions made in the other place. In order to abridge my comments later, I must say that although the House of Lords decision on clause 23 is welcome in the House and in rural areas by parents of children who attend denominational schools, one swallow does not make a summer. One welcome and progressive vote by the House of Lords does not make it a necessary part of our democracy. I hope that we shall not desert the substance of tonight's debate or abandon any proposals for the reform of the British constitution through the abolition of the House of Lords. That remains firmly on my agenda.
The Government hoped that the Bill would have received Royal Assent before today. The Bill had a hasty delivery. It was one of the earliest to be debated on Second Reading this Session after we returned from the Summer Recess. We had a thorough but insufficiently long Committee stage. Two days were spent on Report and the Bill went to the House of Lords. In spite of the claims of my noble Friends, they failed to gain extra time for debate. As a result, not because of delaying tactics by the Opposition but because of the Bill's substance and the requirement for thorough discussion, whole areas failed to receive the scrutiny which they deserve. That is regrettable.
Responsible parliamentarians are aware of the facts of life involved in having a Government with a substantial majority. We acknowledge that the Government have the power and the right to secure their business. That is the essence of Parliament and its hallowed traditions. The Government had an excuse for trying to press the Education (No. 2) Bill through Parliament provided that they were trying to enact a Bill to permit the operation of their major and destructive reduction in expenditure for local education authorities.
Throughout the time the Bill was in the House and the other place, we claimed that the Government's haste was not only unseemly but unnecessary, and, because it was unnecessary and deliberate, that it was a conscious attempt to prevent the House from giving the kind of attention to the complex parts of the Bill that was required and justified. "That is not so", said the Government. "We are simply undertaking the conduct of business in a way that will afford debate and consideration of the Bill."
Now we find in The Times Educational Supplement of last Friday that the Department of Education and Science has informed those who wished to ask that the implementation of important parts of this Bill cannot occur for another 18 months. We are also informed in that paper that
Although the Bill will become an Act after the beginning of the new financial year—the Government's original deadline—this will not matter in practice. Local authorities are not planning to use their new discretion to charge for school meals and milk until the beginning of next term anyway.
So, despite the deadline that was set originally which dictated the progress of the Bill through the House, together with the sittings motions that the Government members on the Committee voted for and the guillotine motion that we debated a month or so ago, we have a bland and calm announcement that all that haste was unnecessary because some further weeks must elapse before the implementation of some parts of the Bill and a year and a half can be expected to elapse before the implementation of another part of the Bill.
Therefore, there was no justification for the kind of rush that has characterised the passage of the Bill through the House, with the Government using their majority to secure their business. Indeed, only that rush can explain the extraordinary circumstance revealed in the latest edition of the Bill which eventually emerged from the House of Lords. It will be seen that, while the Government accepted the will of the other place—and, indeed, did not even bother to press clause 23 or clause 25—we find in the explanatory and financial memorandum to the Bill as printed the following proposition:
Relaxation of the present restrictions on the powers of local education authorities to charge for providing home to school transport (clauses 23 and 25) is expected to lead to a reduction in annual rate of net public expenditure for this purpose of at least £30 million in England and Wales and £2 million in Scotland.
I wonder whether the Government are taking their responsibilities seriously or whether, in their haste, they are prepared to commit that kind of inefficiency.
I will say little about the changes that have come about which directly affect the education system and the Bill since we last debated the matter on Report and Third Reading, because we are anxious to move on and give the maximum possible time to consideration of the Lord's amendments and the amendments tabled by the Opposition and members of the Liberal Party. However, since those previous debates, we have seen a new public expenditure White Paper proposing cuts of nearly £1,000 million over the next few years on education. That will have a major effect on the implementation of the Bill. We have also seen the leak of the findings of the National Children's Bureau which would have had a major effect in supplementing the information available to hon. Members, and those interested outside the House, had they been published during the passage of the Bill, especially as regards clause 17, which deals with the assisted places scheme.
The assisted places scheme is based on the assumption that the non-selective maintained school system is incapable of meeting the needs of children of above-average ability. That proposition has been shot to pieces, as we understand it, by the National Children's Bureau, and I should have thought that the Secretary of State would have taken it upon himself to make those details available to the general public during the course of the months of debate on the Bill.
Finally, tonight we shall deliberate further on the public expenditure White Paper. We shall talk about cuts and the effect of those cuts on the implementation of the Bill and the way in which, in an arbitrary and varied fashion, those cuts will directly affect those affected by the various clauses of the Bill.
However, as with the annual conferences of the teachers' unions, this debate has taken place before the most crucial decision in this educational year has been made apparent to the public. I refer to the findings of the Clegg Commission. In that sense, we are debating these matters in the same way in which they will be debated at teachers' conferences this weekend, and in the same way in which they have already been debated at teachers' conferences in recent weeks.
This is an open-ended discussion which is without conclusion. It is taking place without the fullest information and without the most crucial and determining figure being made available—the recommendations that will be made by Professor Clegg about teachers' pay and conditions of service.
I wonder at the Secretary of State not trying to expedite the publication of the Clegg Commission report, so that it can either be debated in this House or, more importantly, so that the information it contains is made available to the teachers' conferences which will take place this weekend.
We have considered the Bill. We should like to give it mote consideration. We shall try to make up for some of the deficiencies of time by discussing some of those matters this evening. I hope that we can proceed speedily to undertake that task.