We have decided to introduce more flexibility to the electoral arrangements that apply in circumstances where a ballot is declared void and the governing body is required to hold the ballot again. We have therefore included in the Education Bill a provision that will, in certain circumstances, enable the Secretary of State to specify the effective date for determining the electoral roll in a reballot. That will ensure that the ballot can proceed on the basis of an up-to-date electoral roll.
The Minister will be aware that there have been two ballots in my constituency where parents voted not to opt out. He will also know that those two thrusts for opting out were led by the head teacher and a small coterie of ill-motivated governors—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State and I have already clashed on the matter; he was wrong then and he would be wrong now. There is absolutely no need to point the finger at those involved with those successful ballots, which were conducted in an orderly and fair manner. The Secretary of State needs to look at the ballots that have been successful in his own terms. He will find that in those ballots the rules were bent, and it is to that fact that he should address his attention.
I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is being so sensitive about. He seems to be saying that he welcomes cases where parents have freely expressed in a ballot their desire to make the school grant maintained, but he also seems to say that he regrets those cases and would actively oppose that very procedure. That seems to be bordering on paranoia. The hon. Gentleman should lighten up a bit and accept the opinions of parents up and down the country, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are happy to do.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the blatant ballot rigging, harassment and double dealing carried out in Birmingham by some Labour supporters who are trying to ensure that a school in my constituency, Lordswood girls school, does not become grant maintained? May I give him the evidence that I have received from girls, who speak in chorus about what has happened to their homes, and ask him to investigate the matter?
My hon. Friend highlights a disgraceful and distressing trend which has emerged of late and of which we in the Department for Education are obtaining increasing evidence: the deplorable behaviour of people involved in local education authorities up and down the country, and particularly in Birmingham. They use extremely unfair and unacceptable methods to seek to influence parents in the free expression of their view of grant-maintained status through the balloting procedure. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it absolutely clear that he will not accept such conduct and will take all available steps within the existing law to deal with it. We will also look at the Education Bill now in Committee to make sure that every possible step is taken to ensure that all balloting procedures are fair and free.
Further to the Minister's remarks about grant-maintained schools, is he aware of the letter sent by the Department for Education on 3 November to chief education officers? Has he seen the replies to that letter, for instance, from the chief education officer of Manchester? He says that he finds the Department's letter most insulting and intimidating, and that he believes that some of the things that are going on with grant-maintained schools are quite unfair. In fact, we are not getting ballots at all, contrary to what the Minister says and contrary to the lies being told from the Dispatch Box. I shall publish the letter from the chief education officer—
Order. Did I understand the hon. Gentleman to use the phrase, "the lies being told from the Dispatch Box"? If so, I know that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw and refrain.
Order. The hon. Gentleman has been in this House a very long time, and he knows what I am getting at. He is an hon. Member, and I am sure that he will address the House correctly.
I apologise, Madam Speaker, if I caused grave offence—none was intended. All I am trying to do is clarify some points which are disbelieved by the general public. Given some of the remarks by Ministers it is my intention, with the approval of the chief education officer of Manchester, to publish his letter.
I did not hear the hon. Gentleman withdraw his remarks, Madam Speaker, but that is a matter for you.
I am sure that most chief education officers have nothing to fear in this matter and can regard the letter accordingly. Chief education officers who have something to fear—if people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) can bring evidence to the Secretary of State that unacceptable or illegal activities have taken place—will find the full rigour of my Department and of the Secretary of State descending on their shoulders—I can promise the hon. Gentleman that.