Having witnessed today's display by Labour Members, I do not suppose that they will be very interested in amendments Nos. 9 and 24. They have shown that they are not interested in stopping and thinking about the Bill's implications and, sadly, I do not believe that they will take any notice of the points that we are attempting to make by tabling this group of amendments. Although our amendments affect only a very few people, I urge the Minister to consider them very carefully. Nevertheless, I expect that the Government will treat those few people with the same contempt as they are treating all the other families whose children could have been part of the assisted places scheme, had it been allowed to continue.
The Bill will deprive brothers and sisters of the opportunity to attend the same school and of continue their education in the secondary school that they could reasonably have expected to attend. Our amendments, however, would allow siblings to take an assisted place if one is offered, which would be the fair and equitable action of a generous and fair minded Government.
In the Government's offerings to date, it has been obvious to the Opposition that Ministers are remote from the people who will be affected by the Bill. In moving amendment No. 9, I shall attempt to bring Ministers a little closer to the people they will be hurting, because, in their arrogant rush to introduce this very poor legislation, they are hurting families across the United Kingdom.
I have spoken to people associated with the assisted places scheme, and they have provided me with several examples of families who will be bitterly affected by the Bill. I have permission, with one or two exceptions, to use the names of those families, because I think that the Government must answer directly to the citizens who will be so badly disadvantaged by the Bill. I will, therefore, cite some case histories. They are not fictitious case histories, but stories of real people who will suffer because of this Bill.
Mrs. Penny Brayley is a single parent with two daughters, aged 12 and 15, on assisted places at Edgehill college in Devon. There has been a massive improvement in their academic performance since they took up their assisted places. Mrs. Brayley has also a 10-year-old son, called Benjamin, who, possibly in September 1998, would have taken up an assisted place at the same school as his sisters. Under the Bill, there will be no possibility of Benjamin joining his sisters. I hope that the Minister will think about Benjamin as this Bill is rammed through the House in a quite undemocratic way.
Another citizen of this country has two daughters on assisted places at Talbot Heath school, one aged 12 and the other 10. The 12-year-old will be able to continue at the school until she finishes her A-levels at 18. The 10-year-old, who had a difficult time at her state primary school, has now taken up her assisted place at Talbot Heath and is extremely happy. She will be forced to make a painful and traumatic return to the state sector in one year's time. I ask the Minister to think about that child as she takes the Bill through.
Mrs. Anna James has a son on an assisted place, studying for his GCSEs at Haberdasher's Aske's boys school. She has a daughter aged 10 who has set her heart on attending the sister school, Haberdasher's Aske's girls school, in September 1998. I hope that the Minister will be able to look that child in the eye and explain to her why she cannot join her brother. That is the effect of this Bill. [Interruption.] The Ministers are sitting there laughing. That is the arrogance of this Government, who could not care less what happens to those children as a result of the Bill.
My hon. Friend is talking about my constituents. They are not alone. There are a number of such cases at Haberdasher's Aske's school. My constituents and other parents at the school will be listening to this debate with great interest. They will want to hear a serious response from the Minister.
I am glad that my hon. Friend intervened. It is obvious from the smug look on the Minister's face that he could not care less about these children. I find that appalling.
Mr. James Tester has a seven-year-old son, Miles, who will start at Ardingly college on an assisted place this September—thanks to the Labour party agreeing, before the election, that I could continue with the programme. When Mr. Tester's son was offered the place, he had no hesitation in accepting, because his understanding was that his son could retain his assisted place at Ardingly until the age of 18 or, at the very least, 13. The Bill will prevent that. If Mr. Tester had known that his son would have to suffer the disruption of a return to the state sector at the age of 11, he would hot have accepted the assisted place.
The Government have already rejected our amendments to take more time in abolishing the scheme because they do not care what happens to Miles or about the disruption they are causing children and their families.
My hon. Friend is aware of the Ursuline college in my constituency. She has been helpful to the school in the past. She knows that it has a modest number of assisted places. As a convent school, it takes children from quite large families. It will be a bitter disappointment to them that their brothers and sisters will not be able to attend the same school. Surely a fundamental principle of our education system is that siblings are enabled to be educated together. Is not the Government's attitude disgraceful and sheer spite?
I know of the school. My hon. Friend has made an excellent point. Families do not consist of just 2.4 children plus a dog, but of perhaps three, four or five siblings. The implementation of the Bill will set brother against brother and sister against sister.
I do not want to delay the Committee for too long, but I feel strongly that Ministers have taken the Bill as a bit of a joke so far. The Minister who replied to the debate on the previous group of amendments took little notice of our reasonable questions, and did not answer them. A responsible Minister would have taken the issues that we have raised into consideration before introducing the Bill. I do not hold out much hope that the Minister—a different Minister—who is to reply to this group of amendments will take the debate any more seriously.
I should like to read a letter sent to my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment from Mrs. Ann Nourse. She writes:
My personal big concern about this Government is the discontinuance of new Assisted Places after the September 1997 intake. Mr. Blunkett has given no thought to the effect this action will inevitably have on the siblings of Assisted Place holders.
My elder son Philip is a shining example of what Assisted Places were introduced for. He is predicted to achieve straight As at GCSE this summer. My other son is 5½ years younger and wants nothing more than to attend the same school as Philip. Matthew goes to everything with us at school. He sees the high standard of concerts and drama and sports events. He even helps out at the Nearly-news and Christmas Fairs. He's involved with the school already. He was going to start in year 1 in September '98.
Ministers are not evening listening to the letter. They are just chatting away to each other. Mrs. Nourse goes on:
It seems very likely that I will have to explain that his hopes will be dashed. That he won't get an equal opportunity to Philip. He's going to be very upset and disappointed and could carry it with him for the rest of his life.
Many siblings up and down the country are going to feel like Matthew. I can see it breeding ill-will, envy and resentment in families between brothers and sisters.
My elder son Philip thinks it's so unfair on his younger brother.
Labour are ignoring the 3 years notice that should have been given which would have given more chance for siblings to be treated equally. This is all being introduced so rapidly it doesn't seem right.
She goes on to say:
Please would it be possible for you to table an amendment to the Education Bill whereby siblings of Assisted Place holders would also be offered Assisted Places beyond September 1997. Even if it was only for the next three years—the length of time that schools should receive in notice, should either side want to opt out … This would help a lot of children and families.
Even if these unfortunate children could be allowed a grant equivalent to the cost of their education in the state system, it would help some children to gain an equal education to their siblings.
The feelings of these children are being totally disregarded by Mr. Blunkett, could you not appeal to his better nature?
I should be so grateful if you could take up the plight of the siblings of Assisted Place holders please, Mrs. Shephard.
We have taken up the amendment that Mrs. Nourse asked for. Now is the chance for the Government to prove that they are not so arrogant and can listen to the voices of Mrs. Nourse, Mr. Tester, Mrs. James and Mrs. Brayley. They should think hard about the children they will affect with the Bill, but I see no sign of it and I am deeply worried about the future of a Government who can disregard children in such a cavalier fashion.
I find it hard to believe that the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), who I know to be a kind and understanding person, can sit there and let the clause go through without the amendment being accepted. I hope that she will accept the amendment in the spirit in which it was tabled. I firmly believe that any Minister who had any regard for the welfare of children would accept that it is a reasonable amendment, tabled with the best intentions to ensure that the very examples that I have laid before the Committee do not become a reality. That is a horror story for the families involved. I have no children, but I can imagine having two who are—
|Division No. 18]||[10 pm|
|Ainger, Nick||Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)|
|Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)||Clelland, David|
|Allen, Graham (Nottingham N)||Clwyd, Mrs Ann|
|Armstrong, Ms Hilary||Coaker, Vernon|
|Atkins, Ms Charlotte||Cohen, Harry|
|Austin, John||Coleman, Iain|
|Banks, Tony||(Hammersmith & Fulham)|
|Barnes, Harry||Colman, Anthony (Putney)|
|Battle, John||Connarty, Michael|
|Bayley, Hugh||Cook, Frank (Stockton N)|
|Beard, Nigel||Cooper, Ms Yvette|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Corbyn, Jeremy|
|Benton, Joe||Corston, Ms Jean|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Cousins, Jim|
|Berry, Roger||Cranston, Ross|
|Betts, Clive||Crausby, David|
|Blackman, Mrs Liz||Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)|
|Blears, Ms Hazel||Cryer, John (Hornchurch)|
|Blizzard, Robert||Darling, Rt Hon Alistair|
|Borrow, David||Darvill, Keith|
|Bradley, Keith (Withington)||Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)|
|Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)||Davidson, Ian|
|Bradshaw, Ben||Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)|
|Brinton, Mrs Helen||Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)|
|Brown, Rt Hon Gordon||Dawson, Hilton|
|(Dunfermline E)||Dobbin, Jim|
|Brown, Rt Hon Nick||Doran, Frank|
|(Newcastle E & Wallsend)||Drew, David|
|Browne, Desmond (Kilmarnock)||Drown, Ms Julia|
|Buck, Ms Karen||Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth|
|Burden, Richard||Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)|
|Burgon, Colin||Eagle, Ms Maria (L'pool Garston)|
|Byers, Stephen||Edwards, Huw|
|Caborn, Richard||Efford, Clive|
|Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)||Ellman, Ms Louise|
|Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)||Ennis, Jeff|
|Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)||Field, Rt Hon Frank|
|Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)||Fitzpatrick, Jim|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Fitzsimons, Ms Lorna|
|Cann, Jamie||Flint, Ms Caroline|
|Caplin, Ivor||Flynn, Paul|
|Casale, Roger||Foster, Rt Hon Derek|
|Caton, Martin||Foster, Don (Bath)|
|Cawsey, Ian||Foster, Michael John (Worcester)|
|Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)||Foulkes, George|
|Chaytor, David||Galloway, George|
|Chisholm, Malcolm||Gapes, Mike|
|Clapham, Michael||George, Bruce (Walsall S)|
|Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)||Gerrard, Neil|
|Clark, Dr Lynda||Gibson, Dr Ian|
|(Edinburgh Pentlands)||Gilroy, Mrs Linda|
|Clark, Paul (Gillingham)||Godsiff, Roger|
|Clarke. Charles (Norwich S)||Goaains. Paul|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||McIsaac, Ms Shona|
|Gordon, Mrs Eileen||McKenna, Ms Rosemary|
|Graham, Thomas||Mackinlay, Andrew|
|Grant, Bernie||McNutty, Tony|
|Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)||MacShane, Denis|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||Mactaggart, Fiona|
|Grogan, John||McWalter, Tony|
|Gunnell, John||McWilliam, John|
|Hain, Peter||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)||Mallaber, Ms Judy|
|Hall, Patrick (Bedford)||Marsden, Gorton (Blackpool S)|
|Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)||Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)|
|Hanson, David||Marshall-Andrews, Robert|
|Heal, Mrs Sylvia||Maxton, John|
|Healey, John||Meale, Alan|
|Heath, David (Somerton)||Merron, Ms Gillian|
|Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)||Milburn, Alan|
|Hepburn, Stephen||Moffatt, Laura|
|Heppell, John||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Hesford, Stephen||Moran, Ms Margaret|
|Hill, Keith||Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)|
|Hinchliffe, David||Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)|
|Hodge, Ms Margaret||Morley, Elliot|
|Hoon, Geoffrey||Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)|
|Hope, Philip||Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)|
|Hopkins, Kelvin||Mudie, George|
|Howarth, Alan (Newport E)||Mullin, Chris|
|Howells, Dr Kim||Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)|
|Hoyle, Lindsay||Murphy, Paul (Torfaen)|
|Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)||Naysmith, Dr Doug|
|Humble, Mrs Joan||Norris, Dan|
|Hurst, Alan||Olner, Bill|
|Hutton, John||O'Neill, Martin|
|Illsley, Eric||Opik, Lembft|
|Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampst'd)||Osborne, Mrs Sandra|
|Jamieson, David||Palmer, Dr Nick|
|Jenkins, Brian (Tamworth)||Pearson, Ian|
|Johnson, Alan (Hull W)||Pendry, Tom|
|Johnson, Ms Melanie||Perham, Ms Linda|
|(Welwyn Hatfield)||Pickthall, Colin|
|Jones, Ms Fiona (Newark)||Pike, Peter L|
|Jones, Helen (Warrington N)||Plaskitt, James|
|Jones, Ms Jenny||Pollard, Kerry|
|(Wolverh'ton SW)||Pond, Chris|
|Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)||Pope, Greg|
|Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)||Pound, Stephen|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)||Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)|
|Keeble, Ms Sally||Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)|
|Keen, Alan (Feltham)||Primarolo, Dawn|
|Keen, Mrs Ann (Brentford)||Prosser, Gwyn|
|Kemp, Fraser||Purchase, Ken|
|Khabra, Piara S||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Kidney, David||Quinn, Lawrie|
|Kilfoyle, Peter||Radice, Giles|
|Kingham, Tessa||Rammell, Bill|
|Kumar, Dr Ashok||Rapson, Syd|
|Ladyman, Dr Stephen||Raynsford, Nick|
|Lawrence, Ms Jackie||Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)|
|Laxton, Bob||Reid, Dr John (Hamilton N)|
|Lepper, David||Robertson, Rt Hon George|
|Levitt, Tom||(Hamilton S)|
|Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)||Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)|
|Lewis, Terry (Worsley)||Rooker, Jeff|
|Linton, Martin||Rooney, Terry|
|Livingstone, Ken||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)||Rowlands, Ted|
|Lock, David||Roy, Frank|
|Love, Andy||Ruddock, Ms Joan|
|McAvoy, Thomas||Ryan, Ms Joan|
|McCabe, Stephen||Savidge, Malcolm|
|McCafferty, Ms Chris||Sawford, Phil|
|McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)||Sedgemore, Brian|
|McDonagh, Ms Siobhain||Shaw, Jonathan|
|Macdonald, Calum||Shipley, Ms Debra|
|McDonnell, John||Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)|
|McGuire, Mrs Anne||Singh, Marsha|
|Skinner, Dennis||Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)|
|Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)||Vaz, Keith|
|Smith, Ms Angela (Basildon)||Vis, Dr Rudi|
|Smith, Miss Geraldine||Walley, Ms Joan|
|(Morecambe & Lunesdale)||Ward, Ms Claire|
|Smith, Ms Jacqui (Redditch)||Watts, David|
|Smith, John (Glamorgan)||Welsh, Andrew|
|Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)||White, Brian|
|Southworth, Ms Helen||Whitehead, Alan|
|Squire, Ms Rachel||Wicks, Malcolm|
|Starkey, Dr Phyllis||Williams, Rt Hon Alan|
|Stevenson, George||(Swansea W)|
|Stewart, Ian (Eccles)||Williams, Dr Alan W|
|Stinchcombe, Paul||(E Carmarthen)|
|Stoate, Dr Howard||Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)|
|Stuart, Mrs Gisela (Edgbaston)||Willis, Phil|
|Sutcliffe, Gerry||Winnick, David|
|Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann||Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)|
|Taylor, David (NW Leics)||Wood, Mike|
|Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)||Woolas, Phil|
|Timms, Stephen||Worthington, Tony|
|Tipping, Paddy||Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)|
|Todd, Mark||Wright, Tony (Gt Yarmouth)|
|Truswell, Paul||Wyatt, Derek|
|Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)|
|Turner, Desmond (Kemptown)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)||Mr. Jim Dowd and Jane Kennedy.|
|Twigg, Derek (Halton)|
|Bercow, John||Lansley, Andrew|
|Brady, Graham||Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)|
|Browning, Mrs Angela||Loughton, Tim|
|Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)||Luff, Peter|
|Cash, William||Maude, Rt Hon Francis|
|Clappison, James||May, Mrs Theresa|
|Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey||Merchant, Piers|
|Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen||Ottaway, Richard|
|Duncan, Alan||Paterson, Owen|
|St Aubyn, Nick|
|Duncan Smith, Iain||Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)|
|Fallon, Michael||Steen, Anthony|
|Forth, Eric||Swayne, Desmond|
|Gillan, Mrs Cheryl||Walter, Robert|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||Whittjngdale, John|
|Green, Damian||Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann|
|Gummer, Rt Hon John||Woodward, Shaun|
|Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Hunter, Andrew||Mr. David Lidington and Mr. David Wilshire.|
|Jack, Rt Hon Michael|
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have an office in Dean's yard, which you know is about half a mile from here as the crow flies. I have worked in the Dean's yard vicinity for many years, and I rely on the television monitor to let me know when a Division takes place. Since the general election, however, that monitor seems to have been working differently.
I am quite sure that the problem that the hon. Gentleman had did not interfere with the result of the debate, but I will have inquiries made.
On a point of order, Mr. Lord. A moment ago, when you were Deputy Speaker, I explained that I was suffering from a problem, but I did not quite get to the problem. The problem was that the television monitor did not show that a Division was taking place, and although the bell could be heard if one was not hard of hearing, the television monitor disclosed the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) was still on her feet. If I had not been the person that I am, and had not realised that a Division was taking place, I would have missed it.
It seems some time since I last spoke to this set of amendments but, despite the levity of the House in the past couple of minutes, I want to reiterate the seriousness of amendments Nos. 9 and 24 and ask the Minister to take on board the request that the Opposition are making: to ensure that there is not division between brother and brother, brother and sister, and sister and sister; to accept amendment No. 9; and to allow siblings to continue in an assisted places scheme.
The examples that I have given are not isolated. There are many families in such circumstances, although not all younger brothers and sisters would expect to take up an assisted place like their older brothers and sisters. I ask the Minister to investigate all the families currently in the assisted places scheme and at least to find out which families are affected by the Bill. If the Government truly care about the education of those children, they will look into the matter, and give hope to Mrs. Brayley, Mrs. Nourse, Mrs. James, Mr. Tester and many other families who will have to face the problem that the Government have caused for them.
I am not very hopeful, because, as I said earlier, and as was echoed around the Chamber from the Labour Benches, they are the Government for the many, not the few, and only a few children are affected by the Bill, so I would not expect the Government to take any notice.
Is not my hon. Friend being a trifle harsh on the Conservative party and current Conservative Members? After all, it was the Conservative party throughout the 19th century which looked after those who could not look after themselves. The Conservative party introduced a range of social reforms and benefits for working people in the face of opposition from the Liberals. When the Liberals were last in government, some of them were still willing to put boys up chimneys.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. If time allowed—and it may—and if it were in order, it would be instructive to go through the social and education legislation introduced by Conservative Governments over the past century and a half. One has only to think of Disraeli's great education Act to recognise that my hon. Friend's argument is correct.
I am saying that the Conservative party cares about minorities and cares also about children. That notwithstanding, the popular belief—it is certainly the belief of those on the Government Benches, as was made clear during our debates on the Bill—is that Labour Members have the monopoly of compassion.
With a sedentary interjection—unfortunately, not a maiden one—a Labour Member claims that monopoly of compassion.
There are times when it is possible to act and not merely use the rhetoric of compassion. When my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) was setting out a number of cases—not manufactured ones—involving individuals throughout the country who had written to her, stating in a direct and personal way the effect that the Government's proposed legislation would have on them, the Minister who I believe will reply laughed. I find that remarkable.
We have our exchanges and, to be fair, we sometimes laugh at one another's speeches. That is a great parliamentary tradition, and there we are. It was interesting, however, that the Minister was not laughing in a good-natured way about a Conservative Member's speech. The mere idea that a child who had had an unfortunate experience in the state sector was to be transferred back there was in some way funny.
We must all have examples of children who were bullied in the state sector and bullied in the private sector as well. It is appalling when that happens. Those of us who have experienced it, or with children who have gone through it, know that it is not a matter for levity.
The marvellous feature of a society such as ours is that there is diversity in education. We do not talk about education in our constituencies as that which relates to the maintained sector alone. Education is much more diverse than that. There are great state schools as there are great private schools. All schools in their way can make an individual contribution.
There will be times, however—this implies no criticism of the schools concerned—when a child will be deeply unhappy in one school and will want to go to another. It is inevitable that within the maintained sector there will not be that degree of choice. We can hardly say that for every school there should be another one next door, on the off-chance that a child does not settle down in one or the other. However, there are difficulties, and at present there is usually an alternative, and one that will lie within the independent sector.
Most of us in this place can afford the option of the independent sector. That is fine. The Prime Minister, for example, was brilliant enough to get a scholarship to an independent school. That, too, is fine. It is fine also for those who can afford that education. We should not be concerned about looking after people such as ourselves—after all, we are all on the same salary. But what about those who cannot afford to exercise the option of enabling their children to go to a school where they will be content, able to settle down and able to be happy and secure enough to achieve their best potential?
Because this pernicious legislation has not yet gone through the House, there is an option—the child can take up an assisted place. That choice produces no excessive expenditure for the state. Replying to the previous debate, which was long and thoughtful, the Minister for School Standards, in an extraordinarily short and cursory speech, never tried to justify the idea that there was some saving to be made, because there is no massive saving to be made. It costs to educate a child, whether that takes place in the independent sector or in the maintained sector.
At present, there is the option for an independent school to have a child on an assisted place. That is to go. We have heard no argument that that has anything to do with money. It is possible, because naivety is a tendency that can extend right to the Benches of the House of Commons, that some hon. Members drifting into the debate tonight might have thought that there were no arguments to be made against the measure, and that it was a straightforward piece of socialist legislation dressed up in Tory clothing, which could be brushed to one side and flurried through the House of Commons just in time for them to catch the 7 o'clock train to the north country.
There must have been hon. Members who did not realise what might be at stake for individual children. They come into the Chamber and find that the Bill has no financial consequences, there are no savings, and no overcrowded schools in any of our constituencies will benefit from the passage of the Bill. Instead, they hear straightforward accounts of people who have no greater aspiration than to go to the same school as their brothers and sisters. There can hardly be—or there will not be for much longer—an hon. Member who has not received a letter from a parent—
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not simply a matter of the time that children spend together in education? The choice of schools for siblings can affect the children and the relationships between them for the rest of their lives.
That is probably true. A school in the maintained sector may be particularly popular. The older child may go to that school, but the younger child will be offered another school because the first school is full. The natural response is to write to the local education authority, pointing out that the children are siblings.
Whatever disputes I sometimes have with my LEA, there have been several occasions when I have written to explain that, although the school of choice may be full and children are being sent to another nearby school, the children in question are brothers and sisters. To the credit of the LEA with which I have to deal, there has never been any difficulty with that. It has been perfectly understood. There is nothing irrational, wrong or misplaced in wanting to send a brother or sister to the same school as an older sibling.
That is how the present system works for the 95 or 96 per cent. of children who are educated in the maintained sector.
The children may come from an inner-city school that is failing. If the older child is offered an assisted place at another school, the younger brother or sister will not be able to join the older sibling, unless the amendment is passed. Is it not correct that if every child was sent out of that failing school and it was closed, the Exchequer would save money? It costs more on the SSA to send a child to an inner-city school than the average cost of the assisted places scheme.
My hon. Friend is right. As he is a gentle and fair-minded person, he does not mention the fact that the worst LEAs in the country are controlled by the Labour party.
One might have expected some contrition from Labour Members—although perhaps not from the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice), who is an old Wykehamist—about the fact that the schools that people flee from are overwhelmingly those provided by Labour LEAs. Although the position might be at its most graphic in inner cities, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) pointed out, it happens all over the country.
We are dealing with nothing more nor less than the aspiration of parents to have their children educated in the school to which their siblings go, and the aspiration of children to go to the same school as their siblings. That is a perfectly straightforward situation which exists for the 96 per cent. of the population whose children are educated within the state sector.
If there was a shred of principle behind the Bill—I freely accept that there is not—the Government would say, "Okay, perhaps we are simply not too good at figures, perhaps we really have not thought this through, but we have this vague waffly idea that in some way we might be able to release certain sums of money. However, when it comes to siblings, the siblings who are educated within the independent sector on the assisted places scheme should be treated in the same way as the siblings who are educated in the state sector."
Even if one accepted the so-called underlying premise of the Bill, that would be the position, but it is not. That is where the Bill's socialist credentials—to which the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) has already paid tribute—come shining through in all their nastiness. It does not matter about the individual aspirations of parents and children.
The hon. Gentleman wants to put it on the record that children's individual aspirations do not matter. It does not matter that they want to be educated with their brothers and sisters—
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not merely a matter of the aspirations of children and their parents, important though they are, but a matter of practicality? If one sibling already goes to a certain independent school, is not it a great practical problem for a hard-pressed working family to find a way of getting the other sibling to a school possibly very distant from that school when one child—
The Second Deputy Chairman:
Order. Hon. Members must resume their seat when I am on my feet. I take this opportunity to remind all hon. Members that interventions should be short and to the point. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) is a new Member, and I am not addressing just him.
I understand exactly my hon. Friend's point.
The spirit of Marie Antoinette is alive in this House. Once upon a time the cry was, "Let them eat cake." Now we have, "Let them take taxis." I did not know that the Labour party might be prepared to reconsider the case and provide taxis to take siblings to school. I had not expected that.
The point is perfectly straightforward. One could be in favour of the principle of the Bill while still saying that, out of sheer compassion, and practicality as well, for the few siblings—I shall come to the figures in a moment—an exception should be made.
Does not the sedentary intervention suggesting that children could take taxis demonstrate the real sentiment that drives the Government? They genuinely and sincerely believe that it is rich people who benefit from the assisted places scheme. They do not understand that it is the poor people who find it so difficult to meet the costs that will result from a refusal to accept the amendment.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. At this late hour, the problems of poor people and children who are suffering at school simply excite the insufferable arrogance of Labour Members.
I should like to know the numbers of children involved. We have heard nothing about that from the Minister; perhaps she will tell us when she winds up. I do not know how many children are involved, but I suspect that the numbers are small. If the numbers are small, the Government have even less justification for acting as they are doing. If, when the Minister winds up, she adopts the line that it is okay for people in the state sector to want to educate all their children together, but it is different for people who have chosen to use the independent sector— if she says that, when she does not even know what the numbers are—that will say a great deal about the legislation.
The Bill will obviously be driven through the House at some hour, but we have heard nothing in the non-existent contributions from Labour Back Benchers—even from the old Wykehamists on those Benches—that justifies this piece of legislation. We have laid down the charge, in the debates on the Bill so far, that it has nothing to do with the interests of parents, children or education itself. We have charged that dogma seems to matter more than doing something to help.
It is time that we heard speeches from the Labour Back Benches. Labour Members will help to drive through a rotten, squalid, pernicious Bill, which we have shown to be bare of any shred of decency. I should have thought that a Government who are arrogant enough to drive through such a Bill might have found somebody arrogant enough to stand up and try to justify it.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) moved the amendments, I thought that she spoke movingly about the examples of how the Bill would affect children and families. It was disgraceful that the Ministers and others on the Government Benches chose to ignore the cases that my hon. Friend advanced; indeed, they laughed and talked among themselves. That shows either that they do not want to know the implications of the Bill or that they do not care.
My hon. Friend is right. That is the point that we have tried to make throughout the debates on the Bill, but Labour Members fail to understand that it genuinely is people on low incomes, poor and less privileged people, who benefit from the assisted places scheme. Those families and those children will be hard hit by the Bill, if it is passed, and by the abolition of the assisted places scheme.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing those cases into the debate, because until now we have talked mostly about statistics and numbers of children who would be affected in different constituencies and counties. It is right that we think about the impact that the Bill will have on families, especially on brothers and sisters, and the divisions that will occur if our amendments are not accepted.
Those of us who have been involved in setting admissions criteria for schools, either through the local education authorities or as governors of schools, know the importance that is always placed on the siblings issue. After social needs—or, if the school is a Church school, after religious needs—the siblings issue comes next in the admissions criteria. That is not just a fluke; it does not just happen that way. It is put next because of a general recognition by people involved in education—teachers, governors and parents—that it is important for brothers and sisters to be able to go to the same school. That is always a priority in the setting of criteria for the admission of children to particular schools.
The issue is to do with the relationships between children and within families, but—as my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) pointed out—it is also a practical issue. Parents do not want to have to take their children to different schools. We are talking not only about schools that may be physically separate, but—in the case of children who may attend state schools when their brothers or sisters are attending independent schools—about schools whose holiday dates and arrangements may be very different. That is particularly difficult for working families, who must ensure that they provide coverage while their children are on holiday.
Does the hon. Lady think that, in areas where there is a high degree of selection, and entry is normally on the basis of academic attainment, siblings should be given preference even if they would not normally reach the academic standards required by the schools in those areas?
Admissions criteria in all schools are for those schools to set. I am saying that, normally, the sibling issue figures high on the admissions criteria, because of people's acceptance of the importance of, as far as possible, allowing brothers and sisters to go to the same school.
We accept that that is not always the case. Some children will go to single-sex schools, and their siblings—if they are of a different sex—will go to different schools. The criterion is, however, accepted as extremely important because of the impact on children within the family, and on the family as a whole. If the Government reject our amendments, they will be casting that to one side, and saying that they do not care about the impact on families. They will be saying that they do not care that families are divided in the way described so movingly by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham.
We know why that is. The reason for the legislation is nothing to do with the impact on children or the quality of the education offered to them. As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, this is a socialist Bill designed purely on the principle that, if everyone cannot have it, no one should.
What the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment said suggests that she has never seen children within a family. Surely children have the most direct belief in what is fair. If two children have an opportunity to go to grammar school, but one does not pass and the other does, they at least realise that the decision was fair. The hon. Lady seemed to be trying to ignore the fact that, if one child in a family has the opportunity to go to a separate school on an assisted places scheme, the denial of that opportunity must break up the belief in fairness within that family.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I saw the reaction of Ministers to the cases that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham mentioned earlier, I was reminded of something that I saw in the newspaper yesterday about a proposal by the Prime Minister to open the doors of No 10 for a party. He said that there would be a fair number of "real people" there. I thought that an extremely patronising comment, but I am afraid that it is the tone adopted by the Government and, increasingly, the attitude of the Prime Minister. Having seen the reaction to the cases that have been mentioned, I wonder whether Government Front Benchers understand anything about "real people".
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It showed that the Government had not thought through the implications of the Bill and, on this issue, they certainly have not thought through the impact that it will have within families. That was illustrated clearly by the cases that were cited. They are not made-up stories; they are actual cases of families who say that they will have difficulties.
My hon. Friend referred to admissions criteria. What will be the implication for siblings who are not able to follow their older brothers or sisters into a school on an assisted place? The younger siblings may not satisfy the admissions criteria of the school of their choice, so they may be doubly affected. They would not be able to exercise their choice by attending an independent school on an assisted place, and would not be able to enter the school of their choice in the maintained sector.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has raised the valid issue of the way in which the Bill will further restrict parental choice. It is not just parental choice; the Bill also restricts the choice of children who want to go to the same school as their siblings but will be unable to do so.
I am intrigued by the hon. Lady's argument. During the general election campaign, the then Prime Minister went to great lengths to say that education policy under a new Tory Government would have a grammar school in every town, which would be centres of excellence. He said that people would aspire to go to those grammar schools through examination. Would the siblings policy that she proposes have applied to those grammar schools?
I should like to get on to my next point, because I have raised it before and the Minister failed to address it.
Children are aided by assisted places if they have a social need to be given boarding school education. My question is particularly valid for families with two children with such social need. Under our amendment, if the first child already has an assisted place, the sibling would also be able to take an assisted place. I should be grateful for an answer to my question about social need.
The Minister for School Standards is no longer present. I was hopeful when he said earlier that he would deal with all the issues that had been raised, but he did not address any of them. My point is a valid one.
The only act of hypocrisy is the hypocrisy of a Labour Government who told people that they would reduce class sizes, but will not do so. People will have the wool pulled over their eyes. They will realise that, and we shall soon see how strongly they feel about this issue.
I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary, when she replies to this debate, would address the issue of social need. I know that the Minister has received written representations from charitable foundations that rely on the assisted places scheme to help children with family difficulties. That is especially relevant where one child has an assisted place and the other will not be able to take one up unless the amendment is accepted.
I was a schoolmaster for some years, and was in teaching when the assisted places scheme was introduced. We often provided an additional assisted place for a younger sibling who was being bullied at the school down the road because the elder sibling was at a posh school. We provided places so that families could be reunited and to remove a child from the curse of bullying.
If our amendment is not accepted, the legislation will retain or put in place the situation that my hon. Friend describes. A child could not be removed from the curse, as my hon. Friend puts it, and put in the same school as his sibling under the assisted places scheme. The wool is being pulled over the public's eyes.
The Committee fully understands the hon. Lady's passion about the sibling issue. She presents a powerful argument. Can she explain why it is that, in the 17 years or so of the operation of the assisted places scheme, the previous Administration did not give siblings an automatic opportunity to go to assisted places schools?
It is obvious that the hon. Gentleman has not been listening to what we have been saying for years about the importance of choice. The cases that have been mentioned were those in which parents chose the assisted places scheme for their children, and children wanted to join their siblings in the schools operating that scheme. We are not discussing imposition. It is typical of the Liberal Democrat party under its new colours to come out with such proposals and policies.
I trust that the Minister will respond to our points about social needs because they have brushed that valid issue to one side. It is important to respond to it. I know that the charitable foundations that have raised this matter with the Minister have not yet had a response. They have told me that they were having constructive discussions before the election with the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service. They spoke about the need to ensure that the children came first.
Unless the amendments are accepted, the Government's message will be that children do not come first, but that the paramount issue is the Government's interest in imposing the legislation. They are certainly not thinking about the interests of children or about their education.
I am in a dilemma about how to approach the amendment, because I hate the legislation with every fibre of my body. It is seriously misguided. It is a simple sop to the left wing of the Labour party, it lacks any intellectual coherence or credibility, it will not save money and it will not achieve any of the Government's hoped-for objectives. However, I sincerely want to improve the legislation where that can be done. For that reason, I shall have to move out of confrontational mode and be a supplicant by asking them to listen carefully to the power of the amendment's logic. They could and should accept it.
I speak from the experience of the general election campaign. In village after village and town after town, I stood on doorsteps in places such as Droitwich Spa, South Littleton and Drakes Broughton and met families in precisely the dilemma that we are debating. Worried mothers—they were, I think, always mothers—told me on the doorstep that their son or daughter already had an assisted place and that their younger son or daughter had ability that would enable them to gain admission to the same school.
This concerns the admissions policy point that the Minister tried to raise. Ability does tend to run in families. Children know that they can go to the same school as their elder sibling now. They will be denied that right unless the amendment is accepted. Parent after parent said to me, "Please, can you persuade Labour, if it wins, to take account of our position?" The point is genuine.
I know that the Under-Secretary is a reasonable woman and is listening carefully to the debate. I am sure that she will respond in depth, unlike her colleague the Minister for School Standards, who treated the Committee quite shamefully with his pathetic responses to serious debates. She is not of that mould.
The Government say that they want to govern for all the people. Actually, that was a slogan in the Conservative party's 1970 manifesto. It is a common theme; we all want to govern for all the people—although, apparently, under the Bill, the Government will not be governing for people who have the misfortune to live in areas with a high concentration of assisted places, such as Worcestershire, where the local education authority will have problems coping with the fall-out of the legislation.
The Government will not worry about parents who want to send their children to single-sex schools or schools with sixth forms and who have the option of doing so only through the assisted places scheme. They will not worry about those people—they are not all the people. I hope that the Government give a crumb of comfort to the very small group of people who have second and third children of the ability to go to the schools in question and who will be affected by amendment.
If the Minister does not give such people a crumb of comfort, she will be forgetting the doctrine of J. F. Kennedy, who said that the sum of all the minorities is a majority. The minorities must be cared for. The minority in question is important. The examples cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham are specific hard cases based in reality. They concern the real people of whom my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead spoke so ably—and scathingly—in her most excellent speech.
The amendment provides the Government with an opportunity to prove that they are indeed a Government of compassion, for that is what they need to exercise to accept the amendment. The amendment does not go to the heart of the legislation; it does not destroy the whole thrust of it. We tried doing that in amendments to clause 1, and we lost—and I am very sorry that we lost. The amendment is very narrow and affects a very small group of people. It will not affect the savings one jot or iota. We are talking about the odd few hundred pounds net here or there in individual LEAs. Accepting it will prove that the Government listen to people in real distress and concern.
There are three principal reasons why the Government should accept the amendment. First, there is the simple question of family tradition. It matters in a family that, wherever possible, the children go to the same school; it is a matter of pride. It is not a sexist point.
Yes, even grammar schools. The hon. Gentleman does not understand. If he had been listening earlier, he would know that I have already dealt with that point.
It matters, wherever possible, that siblings go to the same school. It will not always be possible. We live in the real world. Schools can be full, children may not have the required ability and individual problems may arise. However, when an elder child has gone to a school, the younger child of the family wants, if at all possible, to go to the same school.
The second good argument for accepting the amendment is the unfairness point with which my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham dealt so ably. I will not draw on new examples, although I could cite them in my constituency. The Minister should listen to the specific examples.
Thirdly, and most important given from what I understand of the Government's perspective, is the serious inconvenience caused to working families, especially single parents, in trying to deal with different schools and fitting things into their crowded lives. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead spoke of different holidays. We should not seek to create imperfections where they do not already exist.
Wherever possible—it will not always be possible, because we do not live in an ideal world—we should help the typically poorer families who cannot afford the taxis, about which there were so many disparaging remarks earlier, to take their children to the same school. The point is that there will not be many of them. This is not a fundamental attack on the heart of the Bill. It is an easy and simple thing for the Government to accept.
Having been a governor of maintained schools, I know of the priority that such schools have given to siblings in their admissions policy wherever possible. That is entirely right and honourable. When we set the admissions policies at the two schools at which I was governor, we gave that priority to siblings. It is a practice in the maintained sector, and the Government should find it in their heart to extend it to this limited area of the Bill.
I have many debates with my local education authority—Hereford and Worcester county council—about admissions policy when popular schools are full. I am not impressed by everything that the authority does—sadly it is in the wrong hands—but I am impressed by the sincerity with which it tries to deal with the problem of siblings. Although it often cannot be avoided, it tries to avoid separating them wherever possible. I pay tribute to the authority for that and I hope that the Government will follow that example.
To paraphrase the Prime Minister, it is a question of trust. What worries me is that the children who are not able to follow their siblings to the schools that they could have gone to will blame not the Minister, the Prime Minister, the Government or the Act—if it becomes an Act—but their parents. They will feel that their parents let them down in some way. They will not understand why they cannot go to the same school. I genuinely plead with the Minister, with every fibre of my body, to think most seriously about the amendment and to do something to help those families.
I wondered whether I should stand up at all after the earlier comments of the Minister for School Standards. He made it clear, in response to points I was making about the difficulties that the legislation will cause for my constituents, that he was not interested in the impact of the Bill on people in Guildford. He was concerned merely with his master plan for the country. What a slap in the face for my constituents and, above all, what a slap in the face for nearly 10,000 people in my constituency who voted Labour at the election. I cannot help wondering how many of them would have voted Labour if they knew that the Minister responsible for the education of their children did not care one bit about what the legislation would mean for people in my constituency. I hope that, if he has the grace to reappear this evening or before it is too late, the Minister will consider retracting his remarks and giving the apology that he ought to give.
I have sired five siblings, of whom four had the good fortune to be at the same school at the same time. There is no doubt that, when members of a family are at the same school, a bond develops between them, which will be a benefit to them throughout their lives. That is why I think that it is a measure of the mean-spirited minds behind the Bill that they will not even consider at least allowing that something should be paid for siblings by the local authority.
We all know that the extra cost of the scheme on average is £1,000 per child, but, for an individual family, the cost of replacing the entire fees paid to a school is a great deal more than £1,000. It would be entirely consistent with the Government's professed aims to say that, for siblings, a payment equivalent to the local authority's cost per head would carry on being paid. In those circumstances, even if the family were not able to come up with the money, the school might find it from general resources or a local charity or sponsor might be found, or, within the wider family, there might be an uncle, aunt or grandparent who could afford to pay the extra £1,000 a year, but could not afford to pay £4,000 a year, which is the average cost of the typical fees. The fact that Ministers have not considered the Bill's effects, which will means so much to siblings, is a measure of the mean-spiritedness and haste with which the Bill has been drafted.
Another factor to consider is the Bill's double whammy on siblings. I do not think that any hon. Member has yet mentioned that the proportion of fees that parents must pay per child decreases as the number of children attending under the scheme increases. For one child, no parental contribution is required from families earning up to £10,000 a year. If the family income is £18,000 a year, however, according to figures printed, in February, in The Guardian—
Yes, they must be right.
The parental contribution from such families for one child was £1,524, whereas the contribution for each of two children was £1,143, or a total of £2,286. The cost will rise under changes to the scheme. If one of those children is forced to leave his or her first preparatory school and is not allowed to continue independent school education, the parents will pay nearly as much—£1,524—to educate only one child. Almost the same exaction will be made from that family's budget, for the benefit of educating only one child and of dividing the family unit. The imposition of that double whammy on families that have two or more children but not much money is a good measure of the Bill's mean-spirited nature.
The Government should now halt further consideration of the Bill and allow matters to rest. They should not force a Division on the amendments to clause 2, but they should return with sensible proposals on how they will mitigate the real problems caused by the Bill for families with children who would like to attend the same school.
Mr. Lord, you will forgive me—as a fresh-faced, wet-behind-the-ears new boy—if I take up the point that was made earlier in the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) and say that I had had the impression, as I did when I spoke in the Second Reading debate, that this is a debating Chamber. Today, however, all the questions have been asked and all the points and arguments have been made by Conservative Members. It has been rather like trying to play frisbee with the Woodentops, because we have gotten nothing back. We have received no answers to our questions and there has been no consideration of the new points that we have raised.
It was real cheek for the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) to ask why there are not more Conservative Members in the Chamber. Even with my non-private school education, I can tell that there are rather more Conservative Members here than Labour Members.
At last, we may have some debate. If a few more of the colleagues of the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) had put down their crème de menthe frappés and pork scratchings in the bar and bothered to come into the Chamber, perhaps we might have had a proper debate, rather than relying all evening on Conservative Members to provide one.
When the hon. Gentleman's experience of this place stretches beyond four weeks, he might realise that the important events are the votes, rather than the debates—regrettable though that may be. The last vote was decided by 300 votes to 39. It is an utter disgrace that newly elected Tory Members play truant on such a vital Bill. It is hypocritical of the hon. Gentleman to say that they are sincere in their views when three quarters of his party are at home in bed.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that friendly advice. It confirms my point that 20 members of his party attend the debate, with the other 280-odd being Lobby fodder, when they put down their creme de menthe frappés and pork scratchings.
Labour Members have not come here to participate in the debate. I, too, am a new Member. I thought that the purpose of our coming here this evening was to debate the Bill, to determine whether it had merit and, if possible, to improve it. That is exactly what we are trying to do.
I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Lord. Perhaps, at this late hour, a certain fascination with crème de menthe frappés and pork scratchings may be forgiven.
I sought advice from the Minister without Portfolio. I gather that the formal reply will be appearing before long in e-mail from Excalibur.
I want to get on with the speech I am trying to make and to deal with the subject of siblings. Hon. Members should grow up and face the fact that the Bill has nothing to do with class sizes; it has nothing to do with providing better conditions for kids in maintained schools—but it has everything to do with the Government's insidious and spiteful agenda for private schools. It is the thin edge of the wedge.
I am sorry, Mr. Lord.
On the specific subject of siblings, I want to take up a couple of points ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I, too, served for many years on a local education authority appeals panel. As my hon. Friend rightly said, the single largest subject for objections was siblings not being able to attend the same schools—usually because the good schools were full. They had waiting lists, so even with such an important criterion as siblings, the schools could not help. That was why it was so necessary that the extra funds available from other parts of the education budget should be concentrated on the good schools. That is what the Conservative Government tried to do.
The debate has been filled with incongruities. There have been attacks on the private schools offering assisted places—from the Liberal Democrats, on the basis that their results were not very good. The argument was that their results did not match up to those of LEA schools. If that were the case, parents would not be so stupid as to want assisted places for their children in those schools and the scheme would have withered on the vine and been abandoned.
No mention has been made of the fact that one of the fastest growth areas in assisted places is among ethnic minorities, where siblings are an important consideration. Brothers and sisters from ethnic minorities may be attracted to a special education that they could achieve on assisted places but could not achieve in certain inner city schools, where they are not able to fit in and fulfil their potential.
The Government have made very little mention of anything during the debate, but particularly we have heard very little about the children. The debate seems to have been focused on the parents, as if they were social lepers trying a scam on the education system to get extra places for their selfish—
Given the structure of the Bill, there may be circumstances in which one sibling in a primary school that is linked to a secondary school attended by another sibling will be forced to leave their school while the other child proceeds in the secondary school through to 18. Siblings may be forced to move to separate schools in the middle of their school career.
That is an exceedingly valid point. My wife and her sister attended the same fee-paying school. Their parents worked overseas for the European Space Agency for many years. It was particularly important for those two young girls to be together in the same school. If girls in that situation were relying on the assisted places scheme now, it would be a traumatic experience at an impressionable time in their education.
Have the Government shown any concern about that? Have we heard a mention of the implications for brothers and sisters?
When I went to school as Swayne minimus, I received a great deal of attention and assistance from my elder brothers. That would not have been possible if we had been on assisted places in the environment that will be achieved by the Bill. I would have been unable to attend that school and would have had to go to another. The environment for a new pupil in any school is terrifying and unfamiliar. It is a great assistance to have the help and succour of one's elder brothers—I say elder brothers for it was a single-sex institution. The fact is, however—
The Second Deputy Chairman:
Order. [Interruption.] Order. Hon. Members must resume their seats when I am on my feet. The hon. Gentleman obviously did not hear me say earlier that interventions should be brief and to the point.
I am grateful for the important point that my hon. Friend was attempting to make. I hope that he will elaborate on it in his speech rather than pinching part of mine.
Perhaps we could put the debate and this flimsy, pathetic little Bill in the context of the Government's broader plans for education, which will affect many people. Not only are they endeavouring to deny pupils on assisted places and their siblings that choice; soon, an attack on grammar schools will also be on the agenda.
We know what the Government have said about grammar schools. They are not concerned about the few of the grammar schools; they are much more concerned with the many. The implication of that is that grammar schools must surely be under threat as well. Children who are currently on the assisted places scheme, and their siblings, will be forced off the scheme because their parents cannot afford to pay the full private school fees. As my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) said, 40 per cent. of children on the scheme receive the maximum help because their parents' income is well under the £10,000 ceiling.
The Government have made no mention of the sliding scale for the payment of fees. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford also made an important point about the discounts available for siblings, but such matters have not come up in the Ministers' flimsy arguments.
Not only will pupils currently on the assisted places scheme, and their siblings, be denied access to grammar schools as a possible alternative, but the Labour Government are going to attack the principle of grant-maintained schools. A further choice will therefore be denied to parents as Labour local education authorities install their placemen to undermine the principle of grant-maintained schools. The Government's principle is that nanny knows best—if it is not provided by the local education authority, it is not worth the paper it is written on.
What about the private schools that I began by mentioning? The Bill is the start of the slippery slope, because the Government will attack private education with VAT and then attack the charitable status of private schools. That is Labour's real agenda. I remind hon. Members to put that in the context of the range of choice currently available to children in this country.
Another issue, which I shall probably be pulled up short for mentioning, is that of nursery vouchers. The Government's approach to them is the most crass example of a complete stifling of choice for children at an early age.
The Government have used flawed figures and costs for sixth forms, among other things. They have not mentioned the fact that, in most cases, the assisted places scheme pays the boarding fees, not the full fees for pupils and their siblings.
A school in my constituency had hoped to be one of the next wave of go-ahead, exciting schools participating in the assisted places scheme. Lancing college, the major public school, works very closely with and gives a lot back to the community, and draws most of its pupils from that community. That school will now be denied the opportunity to broaden its appeal even further to the community that it serves and with which it has a very good relationship.
Is it not the case that the Bill—and this farce of a debate—is the result of an ill-thought-out and hasty vendetta by Labour against what it has misjudged as an issue of privilege? For the past 18 years, the Labour party has been straining at the leash to wage its misguided vendetta against private schools. The Bill amounts to the return of the nanny state and the stifling of choice for parents and their children. We broadened and extended that choice, but it is about to be stamped on with indecent haste.
As the Committee will have gathered, the amendment is of particular interest to many of my constituents. They and I realised that, when Labour set out in its manifesto its proposals to phase out the assisted places scheme, the problem of the sibling connection would arise. Of course, my constituents' fears were confirmed when the issue was included in the Queen's Speech and the Bill was then introduced as a priority.
I mentioned the sibling connection during the education debate on the Queen's Speech because I knew that many of my constituents would want me to do so. When I listened to that debate, I took heart from the words of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. I thought that I was being realistic in accepting that the Labour party had a mandate for its policy—
As the hon. Gentleman says, I am the first to have said that, and we have many questions to ask about the policy. I do not know whether he was present when I was making my earlier points in connection with the savings to be made from the abolition of the assisted places scheme and whether or not they would be sufficient to pay for the Labour party's aspirations. That was the basis on which the pledge was made. I know that the hon. Gentleman, who is an astute and experienced Member, will have been less than convinced by the explanation about the finances given by the Minister.
Surely my hon. Friend—like so many of my constituents—when reading a Bill that calls itself the Education (Schools) Bill and knowing that the Labour party's pledge is to reduce class sizes, would expect us at this late hour to be talking about increasing resources in order to do that. We would be expected to be talking about that subject as well as about siblings. Is there a single word in the Bill related to reducing class sizes? It is all about ensuring that siblings stay in the class.
Another important point has arisen: whether or not the savings will be transferred to schools through local authorities.
I want to be nice to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment because I want her to listen carefully to this debate. To her credit, she has listened patiently, and I hope that I shall be able to change her mind. I am going to remind her of the words of the Secretary of State when he was asked about the sibling connection and existing places in the debate on the Queen's Speech. The right hon. Gentleman said:
The hallmark of this Government will be to put children before dogma. It will be to ensure that the interests of our children come first on every occasion."—[Official Report, 15 May 1997; Vol. 294. c.183.]
[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I hear some support from Labour Members and I hope that the Minister will listen to it as well. I hope that the Government will be able to consider the interests of individual children and see whether it is necessary to do away with the sibling connection for pupils and whether the matter can be dealt with in a compassionate and flexible way that reflects the concerns that we have heard in so many contributions this evening.
I know the argument that is going through the Minister's mind. She has half canvassed the argument already, and it has also been echoed from the Liberal Benches. The argument advanced was that because there is a selection process for schools with assisted places, that invalidates the proposition that there has to be a sibling connection—it cannot be guaranteed that a sibling connection can be used if the sibling does not meet the necessary academic standard. I accept that that is a fair point and that it will take the Minister some way, but it will not take her far enough.
It may be the case—I believe that it is—that many siblings are sufficiently bright to have a highly academic education. Therefore, on the grounds that there is at least some prospect of a sibling connection being used, I hope that the Minister will think carefully about how she can preserve that connection.
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who has long experience in, and is an authority on, education, posed what I call the Liberal question. I do not know his views on selection, but I suspect that, being a Liberal, he will probably oppose it. He will know from his experience that, if a child who is not academic goes to an academic school, it does him no favours because he has to struggle all the way through his school career, is unable to keep up with the other pupils and has a difficult time. The situation would be different if the child were bright.
I shall put it in practical terms—this is an issue that we need to consider in that way. The hon. Gentleman should think of the issue in terms of Bradford grammar school, which has a number of assisted places and of which people in his part of the world are every bit as proud as people in my part of the world are proud of Haberdashers' Aske's. They are both highly academic schools, of great national prestige and kudos that achieve a great deal for their pupils.
The hon. Gentleman will know that it would not do a non-academic child any good to go to a school such as Bradford grammar; but if two brothers, say, are equally bright, that is an altogether different matter. It would be cruel not to allow the two children to go to the same school. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough will, I am sure, take the point, based on experience of his part of the world.
Thus the Minister's argument that because of selection there is no guarantee that siblings can attend the same school does not go far enough to answer our arguments. We believe that there are many siblings in bright families who can go to the same schools.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) mentioned Haberdashers' Aske's, and quoted letters from parents whose children attend the school. I conducted a little research and discovered that there are 230 children on assisted places at the school, out of a total of 1,300 pupils. I understand that that includes 14 pairs of brothers, as well as one family with three brothers at the school. There are also other children on assisted places at other schools in my constituency.
It would be well worth conducting some research to find out how many children may be affected by the loss of assisted places for siblings. I agree with all my hon. Friends' arguments as to why it is desirable for siblings to attend the same school whenever that is possible. There are social reasons, reasons of family convenience, reasons of mutual support. Children may be affected by these decisions for the rest of their lives.
I invite the Minister to consider the matter in personal terms. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham did the Committee a service by doing just that: she put it in terms of the Benjamin Brady question. These days we seem to attach names to many of these questions: the Gary McAllister question, the Paul Gascoigne question and so on.
Again I urge the Minister to consider the personal consequences for children who may be affected. The thought that a child did not have the same opportunity as its brother or sister even though it was equally bright might affect that child for the rest of its life. This is not to denigrate the other schools that such children might be forced to attend. They may be performing well on any objective test, but, as the Minister knows, the schools that we are talking about are highly academic. Many of them are the old direct grant schools—Bradford grammar, Manchester grammar, Leeds grammar; others are old foundations such as Haberdashers' Aske's in my constituency. For a long time those schools have been centres of national excellence and renown, highly competitive and achieving very good results.
I know that some families with one son at Haberdashers' Aske's will want to place younger brothers there too. Those younger brothers may confidently be expected to pass the entrance exam. These people are waiting to hear what the Government have to say this evening. The same applies to the parents of girls in the sister school and in other schools in my constituency.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), I invite the Minister to be flexible and to act compassionately. If she is prepared to consider the amendment or to accept it, it will not bring the Bill crashing down; it will not ruin the Government's policy. Relatively few people are involved, but they are extremely interested in the amendment.
I invite the Minister to think carefully and to be flexible. We do not know how many children will be affected. The Government might usefully carry out some research to ascertain whether there is a way of accommodating those families.
I understand that the Government want the Bill to be passed as soon as possible so that they can start phasing out assisted places, saving the money from the scheme and putting it towards reducing class sizes, but we have heard tonight that they are unsure about the financial picture. There may be a financial way of doing what the Government want to do and accommodating those families, so I ask the Minister to give the matter careful thought.
It would only take a little while for the Minister to think about the matter. I hope that the Government will not decide to steamroller the Bill through without considering amendments or listening to debates. I hope that in some cases they will be prepared to consider amendments, and I hope that the Minister can do so this time.
The Minister will remember many times, when she was in opposition, when we debated education Bills and other legislation, when she argued strongly with Ministers on behalf of constituents, and Ministers were prepared to listen to debates and take away—
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) was there on that occasion. We said that we would think about the amendments. We accepted some amendments outright and were criticized—to be fair, not by the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich but by some of his colleagues—for introducing legislation that was ill thought out and in a muddle and which needed to be amended.
If the Minister is prepared to take the matter away, think about it and speak to the Secretary of State about it, I promise that we shall not make any such suggestions or criticisms. I will be the first to praise the Government for listening to the arguments and for being prepared to be flexible and to accommodate individual cases.
I invite the Minister to consider the framework that already exists in the Bill, especially the transitional arrangements. Clause 3 describes the transitional arrangements. If the Government are unhappy with the amendment, they may be able to find a way of incorporating the sibling connection in the transitional arrangements in that clause.
I ask the hon. Lady to be flexible, because her conduct will say a great deal about the Government's approach. The Secretary of State used fine words about putting children before dogma and the interests of the child being paramount, but we need more than words: we want a practical, positive response. We want deeds to match those words. This would be a good place to start because of the individual cases involved—the possible suffering if no sibling connection is introduced. I urge the hon. Lady to take the matter away and find out whether there is a way to do justice to it.
Many Labour Back Benchers who have been silent tonight—I make no criticism of them—have constituents whose children have assisted places in such schools, with sibling connections, and those families will be very interested in this matter, like the constituents of Opposition Members, who have spoken with great force. I invite the hon. Lady to live up to the fine words and to take the matter away and think about it.
The Government will set a bad precedent if they are not prepared to consider such cases. A message will be sent to the country that the Government will steamroller legislation through Parliament in a rush, without considering how it may be improved, conducting research or devising ways to accommodate individual cases. The Minister would do the Government and herself a great favour if she were prepared to show flexibility and come some way to meet the concerns that we have expressed about the sibling connection.
Many arguments of principle have been advanced by my hon. Friends in the absence of any arguments from Labour Members. The few Labour Members who have agreed to attend this important debate have decided not to reinforce the general arguments advanced by the Government.
I wish to help the Minister by producing some specific examples that relate to siblings. If taken into account, they would greatly improve the Bill. My examples are based on experience in my constituency, and a school that is especially concerned with the effects of the Bill. I think that they will interest Labour Members because they concern an all girls school. We have heard this week that the Government have new proposals to improve, allegedly, the lot of women. I hope, therefore, that the Minister and her colleagues will be particularly concerned with girls' education and how to improve it.
The Ashford school for girls is an excellent independent school. For many years, it has dealt with the education of girls from many parts of Kent. It is extremely pleased to participate in the assisted places scheme precisely because it helps to preserve a social mix and to bring the benefits of the excellent education that it provides to those who could not otherwise afford it.
The school is slightly unusual in that it takes girls from the age of three right through to the age of 18. It will be especially badly hit by the Bill. The sisters of girls who are already there will be particularly badly hit by clause 2 if the amendment is not accepted.
We are talking not about siblings who might go to the school, but about girls who are already at the school who will not be allowed to continue beyond the age of 11. There is no dividing line now at that age because educations runs from age three to 18. The consequences for the school will be particularly disastrous because girls' sisters who already attend the school will not be allowed to continue under the APS after the age of 11. At an especially vulnerable age—an important age for the continuation of their education—they will be forcibly moved to other schools.
I invite the Minister and Labour Back Benchers to consider the effect that such a move would have on the girls in question. It would be psychologically scarring, it would damage their education, and many hundreds of girls would be affected over the years in a way that is not intended by those who support the Bill.
I accept the Government's good faith in introducing what I consider to be a misguided Bill, but I ask them to consider the amendment on its merits. Labour Members should not regard it—many of them seem to do so, I regret—as a piece of dogma that needs to be driven through the House of Commons with no arguments put behind it from the point of view of preserving ideological purity. Instead, they should consider the effects of the Bill on the education of individual girls.
The Bill will have an effect on siblings and it will introduce a degree of retrospection, which is bad in any legislation. In the full knowledge that, if a Labour Government were elected, they would introduce a Bill such as this, Ashford school obtained the Department's agreement that it could take girls on assisted places with the expectation that, having entered the school at the age of three, four, five, six or more, they would be able to go right through to the age of 18.
I wonder whether the Government and my hon. Friend have considered the possible effect on that school, and others, of their suddenly finding themselves non-viable and having to close as a result of the loss of siblings or the main assisted places. What would be the effect if all the children currently paying fees and not being assisted by the scheme were to go into local schools? Would that reduce class sizes, as the Government are pledged to do, or increase them?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I am happy to reassure him and the House that such an eventuality would not befall Ashford school, because it is such an excellent school that many hundreds of girls would still apply to attend.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, for two reasons. First, if pupils are withdrawn from schools, that may have a serious effect on the schools and cause them to close, thus damaging education in certain areas. Secondly, that would not only damage the independent schools in a particular area; it would have a serious and damaging effect on the state schools in the area. Pupils would be displaced and schools would have to take on a rush of new pupils. I beg the Minister to consider the fact that that would involve an increase in class sizes in the state schools. If the abolition of the APS caused the closure of independent schools, the effect would be to displace pupils into the state system—exactly the opposite effect to that which is intended. I urge the Government to consider that important point.
I am interested in my hon. Friend's observations from his constituency. Given that, in the circumstances that he described, younger siblings would be displaced into state schools, would parents be able to choose another single-sex school for their children? Is such a school readily available in my hon. Friend's constituency? Once the pupils were displaced out of the independent sector, would places be available, or would such schools be over-subscribed?
My hon. Friend makes two excellent points. In my constituency there would not be schools of a similar type. It is extremely important that as much choice as possible is available to parents, particularly to parents of girls. It has often been observed that all boys should go to mixed schools, but all girls should go to single-sex schools if their education is to be maximised. I agree with that saying.
The choice available to parents and pupils would be lessened, as my hon. Friend suggested. There would be a serious effect on class sizes and no doubt some schools would become overcrowded. That would negate what the Government intend as the main purpose of this spiteful little measure. The supposed benefit is that class sizes will be reduced, but one possible effect would be an increase in class sizes. That cannot be the Government's intention.
It is not only convenient for parents to send their children to the same school; it is environmentally beneficial, because it reduces the number of car journeys at peak hours at each end of the school day. Forcing siblings to go to different schools will increase the amount of peak-hour traffic on our roads. Interruption.] On a day when the Deputy Prime Minister has allegedly been making great strides towards reducing traffic, it is ironic that the Government are proposing a measure that will increase congestion. [Interruption.]
Society as a whole benefits from siblings going to the same school, because the number of car journeys at peak hours is reduced. If Labour Members do not take that point seriously, they should be careful to do so only from a sedentary position: otherwise, they will appear on Excalibur as being off message, and we know what effect that would have.
My hon. Friend's point has an environmental complexion. Labour Members may care to note that major campaigns have been launched by the Department of the Environment from time to time to persuade parents not to use their cars for short journeys to take their children to school, because that is when car emissions are most environmentally damaging. That is an important point.
Many parents whose children go to schools such as my hon. Friend has described are working mothers or lone parents who have to accept responsibility for delivering children to, and collecting children from, school. Labour Members may not want to hear this argument. In the past, their contention has been that they wish to help lone parents into work, but this kind of measure could place additional burdens on parents who have to deliver children to different schools in different areas and prevent them from undertaking the work of their choice.
That is an important point. We have heard much oratory from Labour Members about single mothers and how important it is that they should be allowed to work. One of the best ways to help single mothers, or working mothers of any kind, to get to work is to ensure that the journeys at each end of the school day are as simple and easy as possible, and the best way to do that is to ensure that in as many cases as possible all siblings go to the same school.
The Bill makes it more difficult for siblings to attend the same school, it will increase the journey time to schools and it will make it difficult for mothers to seek work, so making it more difficult to get them back into the labour force—an aim which Labour Members allegedly support.
There is yet another important point in which the Government have no interest. Does my hon. Friend appreciate that up to a half of all journeys in Britain are shorter than five miles? On the A27 through my constituency, the largest cause of traffic congestion is parents taking their children to school. That problem will be compounded further if children have to be taken to different schools as siblings are split up by the sheer vindictiveness of this measure.
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point.
When I was a state school governor, one of the basic tenets to which the school held in an attempt to improve the education of its children, like almost every school in Britain, was that priority should be given to siblings. Education is improved for individual children if sisters and brothers are allowed to go to the same school.
If that is good enough in the state sector, it should be good enough in the independent sector. The Government should be concerned with the education in all schools in Britain. They claim to be the Government for all, not just the few, so they should not impose discriminatory measures such as the Bill on children from relatively disadvantaged homes who benefit from the scheme. The Government will discriminate against those children by passing the Bill.
I appeal to the Minister and the Government to show some flexibility. Several of my right hon. and hon. Friends have made the point that the amendments would not wreck the central tenets of the Bill; they would simply improve it at the margin. That margin is extremely important, and I hope that the Government will take the argument seriously.
Conservative Members have tried to improve the Bill. Labour Members have sat here—not silently, but all their remarks have been made from a sedentary position—and contributed nothing to the debate. Many of them have returned to the Chamber from wherever they have been, but they have not advanced one argument all evening about how the central thrust of the Bill will improve education or, in particular, why the amendments we have been discussing for the past few hours are no good. Labour Members have not advanced one argument in favour of the Bill.
We have tried to improve the Bill for the Government by proposing the amendments. I appeal to the Minister to show some flexibility, to take the Bill away, to think again, to accept some of our amendments and to refuse to put through a measure that will damage the education of many thousands of children in my constituency and across the country.
This is the first opportunity that I have had to speak in the Chamber, Mr. Martin, since your appointment as Deputy Speaker. I wish to congratulate you and to note that we always seem to start a parliamentary Session by serving together on an education Bill in our respective roles. Long may that continue.
I listened to the comments made by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) when she moved the amendment. We heard crocodile tears from the hon. Lady, and I shall explain why later in my speech. If the issue of siblings being allowed to continue to take up assisted places is such a large issue—the most burning issue that we have discussed tonight—and if it provokes such tales of woe, as the hon. Lady suggested, I wonder why she and her colleagues marched into the Lobby some two hours ago to vote against the continuation of the debate. I am grateful that my hon. Friends allowed the debate to continue, so that we have had the opportunity to give a fair hearing to the issue.
I shall tell the Minister why we marched into the Lobby two hours ago against the 10 o'clock motion. We did so because it has been obvious from the behaviour of Labour Members during the debate that they are not interested in the details of the Bill. They are not interested in considering individual problems and they have arrogantly used their majority to railroad the Bill through the House. I wanted a more temperate debate on the Bill on another occasion, but the Government wanted to pass the Bill in a couple of hours. We went through the Lobby because we believe that the assisted places scheme is worth saving—the Government do not.
As I said, we have seen many crocodile tears from Opposition Members. No one in the Committee—not Labour Members nor Conservative Members—has a monopoly of concern for children's welfare and well-being. The hon. Lady claimed that for herself and her hon. Friends, but that can never be the case. The Tories were the party that left the education system with £3 billion of school repairs outstanding, with half our 11-year-olds failing to reach the necessary levels of literacy and numeracy and with many of our four, five and six-year-olds in classes of more than 30. How dare the hon. Lady claim that she is concerned about children's education and welfare—[Interruption]
I am concerned about Benjamin Brayley and the Mileses and Matthews—the individual cases that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham mentioned and to which I listened carefully. Is that the worst thing that is likely to happen to those children? The hon. Lady thinks that it is such a terrible thing that they will be educated in the maintained sector. I have more faith in the state education system than Opposition Members.
No, I am going to make some progress.
The hon. Lady talked about a young man called Philip who was on an assisted places scheme and was about to get straight As in his GCSE examinations this year. I wish him well; I hope that he gets those straight As. But he will join thousands of others Philips and Philippas who will also get straight As and will take their place with him, doing A-levels and studying at the finest universities in the country. They will have received their education and their life chances from the state education system that the hon. Lady seems to consider such a terrible thing.
I might give way later, if I am allowed to make some progress now.
Notwithstanding all the individual cases of which we have heard, all the names that have been bandied about by Opposition Members and all the letters from parents that have been read out, not once has any Opposition Member given the name of a child who is currently being educated in a class of more than 40 and is five years old. We have not been read a single letter from a parent who just wants the sort of teacher-pupil ratio that is enjoyed by many in the independent sector.
I wish that the hon. Lady—who now wants to intervene—would show as much concern for the 7,000 children in the area that is covered by her constituency who are currently in classes of more than 30 and are five, six and seven years old.
Before I give way to the hon. Lady, may I give the Committee one more statistic? In the local authority area covered by the hon. Lady's constituency, 35.8 per cent. of children are in classes of more than 30 in their infant years. Moreover, in the hon. Lady's constituency there is not one assisted place—but she can come to the Committee and make a speech with crocodile tears, presumably on behalf of her constituency, which has not one assisted place but in which more than a third of children are in classes of more than 30 at the ages of five, six and seven.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way.
First, my constituency has a first-class education committee. It does not matter what class sizes are in my constituency; the results that are being achieved for children are first-class. I should like the hon. Lady to repeat what she has said to Mrs. Brayley, Mrs. Nourse and Mrs. James, because she has made it clear tonight that she does not care what happens to those children. It is not true that several letters were read out; the hon. Lady was not even listening. One letter was read out, from Mrs. Nourse. I believe that the hon. Lady has shown that she does not care what children and parents think about the effect of the abolition of the scheme. It is disgusting.
The First Deputy Chairman:
Order. I remind both the Minister and the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) that the subject of the debate is an amendment about siblings. [Interruption.] Hon. Members must let me tell the Minister. Let me say to the Minister that hon. Members must discuss the amendment, which is about siblings.
As you will appreciate, Mr. Martin, the debate has been very wide-ranging, and I did not want to be accused of not answering the questions that were raised.
I agree with some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). Like him, I congratulate the local authorities and many schools that put siblings fairly high on their list when they allocate places. However, the system of selection on which the assisted places scheme is built does not give siblings a high priority when it is decided who should receive places where demand exceeds supply.
The Conservative party said in its manifesto—the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said that we would make this point, and I am making it—that it favoured selection and giving schools the right to select on aptitude or academic ability. It is that system and those criteria more than any other that have split brother from sister, brother from brother and sister from sister. Conservative Members cannot claim that that is the best way to allocate places at secondary school, and then claim that siblings should be given precedence.
I shall not give way at the moment.
The Conservative party's claims led me to make the remark about crocodile tears. The assisted places scheme was introduced not by this Government, but by the previous Government. Did they give priority to siblings? Does the scheme require schools to give siblings precedence over academic ability? No, it does not.
The hon. Gentleman has had a fair share of the Committee's time. I want to take my fair share of the time, to answer the queries that have been raised.
You read my mind correctly, Mr. Martin.
The shadow Minister is a great devotee of the assisted places scheme. What efforts did she make to ensure that, when places on the scheme were allocated, siblings were given precedence over children of higher academic ability? Can she tell the Committee what actions she took to ensure that siblings were at the top of the list of criteria in the allocation of places?
When I was responsible for the assisted places scheme, I ensured that the scheme expanded. The basis of tonight's argument is that by the removal of the scheme, the hon. Lady is denying siblings the opportunity to go to the assisted places schools that their older brothers and sisters attend. When I was the Minister responsible, they had that opportunity. She is removing that opportunity from those children immediately, and she could not care less.
As I thought, the hon. Lady took no action to ensure that siblings were put at the top of the list. That is what I mean by crocodile tears.
I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire that siblings should be given a high priority. I believe in a system that allows siblings to be put at the top of the list. Conservative Members advocate a system of selection and develop an assisted places scheme that does nothing to favour siblings at the expense of academic attainment, and then they want us to change the criteria.
If Conservative Members cared so much about siblings having the opportunity to join their brothers or sisters at assisted places schools, when they were in power they should have ensured that that was on the list of criteria.
On a point of order, Mr. Martin. As Ministers are new to their jobs, could you guide the Committee? There is no limitation on the time that the Minister has to respond to the debate. Therefore, in giving way, she is not reducing the time available to her to respond to what is being said.
As I was saying before I was interrupted by points of order, no case has been made for extending the assisted places scheme. We have made it clear both in our manifesto commitment and in speeches that we have no intention of extending the scheme beyond the intake at the start of the next academic year. The amendments would allow an extension of the scheme and that was not one of the pledges on which we fought the election. We have every intention of fulfilling those pledges. Children who are currently in the scheme and those who are taking up places in September at the start of the next academic year will not have their education disrupted.
The money saved will be used to ensure that the opportunities that under a Tory Government were offered only to the few will be offered to the many, and they include the thousands of infants in the constituency of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham who are currently in classes of more than 30. I have set out our priorities and we have covered the issue of the many and the few. Our determination to raise standards for all would not be furthered by giving resources to the few. We do not want to extend the assisted places scheme and I urge the Committee to reject the amendment.
|Division No. 19]||[12.10 am|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)|
|Ainger, Nick||Clark, Dr Lynda|
|Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)||(Edinburgh Pentlands)|
|Allen, Graham (Nottingham N)||Clark, Paul (Gillingham)|
|Armstrong, Ms Hilary||Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)|
|Atkins, Ms Charlotte||Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)|
|Austin, John||Clelland, David|
|Banks, Tony||Clwyd, Mrs Ann|
|Barnes, Harry||Coaker, Vernon|
|Battle, John||Cohen, Harry|
|Bayley, Hugh||Coleman, Iain|
|Beard, Nigel||(Hammersmith & Fulham)|
|Benton, Joe||Colman, Anthony (Putney)|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Connarty, Michael|
|Blackman, Mrs Liz||Cook, Frank (Stockton N)|
|Blears, Ms Hazel||Cooper, Ms Yvette|
|Borrow, David||Corbyn, Jeremy|
|Bradley, Keith (Withington)||Corston, Ms Jean|
|Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)||Cranston, Ross|
|Bradshaw, Ben||Crausby, David|
|Brinton, Mrs Helen||Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)|
|Brown, Rt Hon Nick||Cryer, John (Hornchurch)|
|(Newcastle E& Wallsend)||Darling, Rt Hon Alistair|
|Browne, Desmond (Kilmarnock)||Darvill, Keith|
|Buck, Ms Karen||Davidson, Ian|
|Burden, Richard||Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)|
|Burgon, Colin||Dawson, Hilton|
|Byers, Stephen||Dobbin, Jim|
|Caborn, Richard||Dobson, Rt Hon Frank|
|Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)||Drew, David|
|Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)||Drown, Ms Julia|
|Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)||Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Eagle, Ms Maria (L 'pool Garston)|
|Cann, Jamie||Edwards, Huw|
|Caplin, Ivor||Efford, Clive|
|Casale, Roger||Ellman, Ms Louise|
|Caton, Martin||Ennis, Jeff|
|Cawsey, Ian||Field, Rt Hon Frank|
|Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)||Fisher, Mark|
|Chisholm, Malcolm||Fitzpatrick, Jim|
|Clapham, Michael||Fitzsimons, Ms Lorna|
|Flint, Ms Caroline||Mactaggart, Fiona|
|Flynn, Paul||McWalter, Tony|
|Foster, Don (Bath)||McWilliam, John|
|Foster, Michael John (Worcester)||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|George, Bruce (Walsall S)||Mallaber, Ms Judy|
|Gerrard, Neil||Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)|
|Gibson, Dr Ian||Marshall-Andrews, Robert|
|Gilroy, Mrs Linda||Meacher, Rt Hon Michael|
|Goggins, Paul||Meale, Alan|
|Gordon, Mrs Eileen||Milbum, Alan|
|Grant, Bernie||Moffatt, Laura|
|Griffiths, Ms Jane (Reading E)||Moran, Ms Margaret|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)|
|Gunnell, John||Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)|
|Hain, Peter||Morley, Elliot|
|Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)||Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)|
|Hall, Patrick (Bedford)||Mudie, George|
|Hanson, David||Mullin, Chris|
|Heal, Mrs Sylvia||Murphy, Paul (Torfaen)|
|Healey, John||Olner, Bill|
|Heath, David (Somerton)||Opik, Lembit|
|Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)||Palmer, Dr Nick|
|Hepburn, Stephen||Perham, Ms Linda|
|Heppell, John||Pickthall, Colin|
|Hesford, Stephen||Pike, Peter L|
|Hill, Keith||Plaskitt, James|
|Hodge, Ms Margaret||Pollard, Kerry|
|Hoon, Geoffrey||Pond, Chris|
|Hope, Philip||Pope, Greg|
|Howells, Dr Kim||Pound, Stephen|
|Hoyle, Lindsay||Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)|
|Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)||Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)|
|Humble, Mrs Joan||Primarolo, Dawn|
|Hurst, Alan||Prosser, Gwyn|
|Hutton, John||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|lllsley, Eric||Quinn, Lawrie|
|Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampst'd)||Radice, Giles|
|Jamieson, David||Rapson, Syd|
|Jenkins, Brian (Tamworth)||Raynsford, Nick|
|Johnson, Alan (Hull W)||Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)|
|Johnson, Ms Melanie||Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)|
|(Welwyn Hatfield)||Rooker, Jeff|
|Jones, Helen (Warrington N)||Rooney, Terry|
|Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)||Rowlands, Ted|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)||Ryan, Ms Joan|
|Keeble, Ms Sally||Savidge, Malcolm|
|Keen, Alan (Feltham)||Sawford, Phil|
|Keen, Mrs Ann (Brentford)||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Kemp, Fraser||Shaw, Jonathan|
|Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)||Shipley, Ms Debra|
|Khabra, Piara S||Singh, Marsha|
|Kidney, David||Skinner, Dennis|
|Kilfoyle, Peter||Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Kingham, Tessa||Smith, Ms Angela (Basildon)|
|Kumar, Dr Ashok||Smith, Miss Geraldine|
|Ladyman, Dr Stephen||(Morecambe & Lunesdale)|
|Lawrence, Ms Jackie||Smith, Ms Jacqui (Redditch)|
|Laxton, Bob||Smith, John (Glamorgan)|
|Lepper, David||Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)|
|Levitt, Tom||Southworth, Ms Helen|
|Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)||Squire, Ms Rachel|
|Lewis, Terry (Worsley)||Stevenson, George|
|Linton, Martin||Stewart, Ian (Eccles)|
|Lock, David||Stinchcombe, Paul|
|Love, Andy||Stoate, Dr Howard|
|McAvoy, Thomas||Sutcliffe, Gerry|
|McCabe, Stephen||Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann|
|McCafferty, Ms Chris||(Dewsbury)|
|McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)||Taylor, David (NW Leics)|
|McDonagh, Ms Siobhain||Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)|
|Macdonald, Calum||Timms, Stephen|
|McDonnell, John||Tipping, Paddy|
|Mclsaac, Ms Shona||Todd, Mark|
|McNulty, Tony||Turner, Desmond (Kemptown)|
|MacShane, Denis||Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)|
|Twigg, Derek (Halton)||Willis, Phil|
|Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)||Wlls, Michael|
|Vis, Dr Rudi||Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)|
|Walley, Ms Joan||Wise, Audrey|
|Ward, Ms Claire||Wood, Mike|
|White, Brian||Woolas, Phil|
|Whitehead, Alan||Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)|
|Williams, Rt Hon Alan||Wright Tony (Gt Yarmouth)|
|Williams, Dr Alan W||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|(E Carmarthen)||Mr. Jim Dowd and Mr. Clive Betts.|
|Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)|
|Amess, David||Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)|
|Bercow, John||Loughton, Tim|
|Brady, Graham||Maude, Rt Hon Francis|
|Browning, Mrs Angela||May, Mrs Theresa|
|Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Cash, William||Ottaway, Richard|
|Clappison, James||Paice, James|
|Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey||Paterson, Owen|
|Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen||St Aubyn, Nick|
|Fallon, Michael||Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)|
|Forth, Eric||Swayne, Desmond|
|Gillan, Mrs Cheryl||Walter, Robert|
|Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair||Wells, Bowen|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann|
|Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Jack, Rt Hon Michael||Mr. Peter Luff and Mr. David Lidington.|
On a point of order, Mr. Martin. Once again the Government have sought to use a closure motion to stifle the debate of Conservation Member. Can you tell me whether that is right, when they have turned out in such large Numbers after showing no—[Interruption.]
|Division No. 20]||[12.23 am|
|Amess, David||Maude, Rt Hon Francis|
|Bercow, John||May, Mrs Theresa|
|Brady, Graham||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Browning, Mrs Angela||Ottaway, Richard|
|Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)||Paice, James|
|Clappison, James||Paterson, Owen|
|Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen||St Aubyn, Nick|
|Fallon, Michael||Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)|
|Forth, Eric||Swayne, Desmond|
|Gillan, Mrs Cheryl||Walter, Robert|
|Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair||Wells, Bowen|
|Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)||Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann|
|Jack, Rt Hon Michael|
|Lansley, Andrew||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)||Mr. David Lidington and Mr. Peter Luff.|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Efford, Clive|
|Ainger, Nick||Ellman, Ms Louise|
|Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)||Ennis, Jeff|
|Allen, Graham (Nottingham N)||Field, Rt Hon Frank|
|Armstrong, Ms Hilary||Fisher, Mark|
|Atkins, Ms Charlotte||Fitzpatrick, Jim|
|Austin, John||Fitzsimons, Ms Loma|
|Banks, Tony||Hint, Ms Caroline|
|Barnes, Harry||Flynn, Paul|
|Battle, John||Foster, Don (Bath)|
|Bayley, Hugh||Foster, Michael John (Worcester)|
|Beard, Nigel||George, Bruce (Walsall S)|
|Benton, Joe||Gerrard, Neil|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Gibson, Dr Ian|
|Blackman, Mrs Liz||Gilroy, Mrs Linda|
|Blears, Ms Hazel||Goggins, Paul|
|Borrow, David||Gordon, Mrs Eileen|
|Bradley, Keith (Withington)||Grant, Bemie|
|Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)||Griffiths, Ms Jane (Reading E)|
|Bradshaw, Ben||Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)|
|Brinton, Mrs Helen||Gunnell, John|
|Brown, Rt Hon Nick||Hain, Peter|
|(Newcastle E & Wallsend)||Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)|
|Browne, Desmond (Kilmarnock)||Hall, Patrick (Bedford)|
|Buck, Ms Karen||Hanson, David|
|Burden, Richard||Heal, Mrs Sylvia|
|Burgon, Colin||Healey, John|
|Byers, Stephen||Heath, David (Somerton)|
|Caborn, Richard||Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)|
|Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)||Hepburn, Stephen|
|Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)||Heppell, John|
|Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)||Hesford, Stephen|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Hill, Keith|
|Cann, Jamie||Hodge, Ms Margaret|
|Caplin, Ivor||Hoon, Geoffrey|
|Casale, Roger||Hope, Philip|
|Caton, Martin||Howells, Dr Kim|
|Cawsey, Ian||Hoyle, Lindsay|
|Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)||Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)|
|Chisholm, Malcolm||Humble, Mrs Joan|
|Clapham, Michael||Hurst, Alan|
|Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)||Hutton, John|
|Clark, Dr Lynda||lllsley, Eric|
|(Edinburgh Pentlands)||Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampst'd)|
|Clark, Paul (Gillingham)||Jamieson, David|
|Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)||Jenkins, Brian (Tamworth)|
|Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)||Johnson, Alan (Hull W)|
|Clelland, David||Johnson, Ms Melanie|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||(Welwyn Hatfield)|
|Coaker, Vernon||Jones, Helen (Warrington N)|
|Cohen, Harry||Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)|
|Coleman, Iain||Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)|
|(Hammersmith & Fulham)||Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)|
|Colman, Anthony (Putney)||Keeble, Ms Sally|
|Connarty, Michael||Keen, Alan (Feltham)|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)||Keen, Mrs Ann (Brentford)|
|Cooper, Ms Yvette||Kemp, Fraser|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)|
|Corston, Ms Jean||Khabra, Piara S|
|Cranston, Ross||Kidney, David|
|Crausby, David||Kilfoyle, Peter|
|Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)||Kingham, Tessa|
|Cryer, John (Hornchurch)||Kumar, Dr Ashok|
|Darling, Rt Hon Alistair||Ladyman, Dr Stephen|
|Darvill, Keith||Lawrence, Ms Jackie|
|Davidson, Ian||Laxton, Bob|
|Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)||Lepper, David|
|Dawson, Hilton||Levitt, Tom|
|Dobbin, Jim||Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)|
|Dobson, Rt Hon Frank||Lewis, Terry (Worsley)|
|Drew, David||Linton, Martin|
|Drown, Ms Julia||Lock, David|
|Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)||Love, Andy|
|Eagle, Ms Maria (L'pool Garston)||McAvoy, Thomas|
|Edwards, Huw||McCabe, Stephen|
|McCafferty, Ms Chris||Savidge, Malcolm|
|McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)||Sawford, Phil|
|McDonagh, Ms Siobhain||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Macdonald, Calum||Shaw, Jonathan|
|McDonnell, John||Shipley, Ms Debra|
|Mclsaac, Ms Shona||Singh, Marsha|
|Mackinlay, Andrew||Skinner, Dennis|
|McNulty, Tony||Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)|
|MacShane, Denis||Smith, Ms Angela (Basildon)|
|Mactaggart, Fiona||Smith, Miss Geraldine|
|McWalter, Tony||(Morecambe & Lunesdale)|
|McWilliam, John||Smith, Ms Jacqui (Redditch)|
|Mahon, Mrs Alice||Smith, John (Glamorgan)|
|Mallaber, Ms Judy||Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)|
|Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)||Southworth, Ms Helen|
|Marshall-Andrews, Robert||Squire, Ms Rachel|
|Meale, Alan||Stevenson, George|
|Milbum, Alan||Stewart, Ian (Eccles)|
|Moffatt, Laura||Stinchcombe, Paul|
|Moran, Ms Margaret||Stoate, Dr Howard|
|Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)||Sutcliffe, Gerry|
|Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)||Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann|
|Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)||Taylor, David (NW Leics)|
|Mudie, George||Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)|
|Mullin, Chris||Timms, Stephen|
|Olner, Bill||Todd, Mark|
|Opik, Lembit||Turner, Desmond (Kemptown)|
|Palmer, Dr Nick||Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)|
|Perham, Ms Linda||Twigg, Derek (Halton)|
|Pickthall, Colin||Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)|
|Pike, Peter L||Vis, Dr Rudi|
|Plaskitt, James||Walley, Ms Joan|
|Pollard, Kerry||Ward, Ms Claire|
|Pond, Chris||White, Brian|
|Pope, Greg||Whitehead, Alan|
|Pound, Stephen||Williams, Rt Hon Alan|
|Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)||(Swansea W)|
|Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)||Williams, Dr Alan W|
|Primarolo, Dawn||(E Carmarthen)|
|Prosser, Gwyn||Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)|
|Quin, Ms Joyce||Willis, Phil|
|Quinn, Lawrie||Wills, Michael|
|Radice, Giles||Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)|
|Rapson, Syd||Wise, Audrey|
|Raynsford, Nick||Wood, Mike|
|Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)||Woolas, Phil|
|Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)||Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)|
|Rooker, Jeff||Wright, Tony (Gt Yarmouth)|
|Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Rowlands, Ted||Mr. Clive Betts and Mr. Jim Dowd.|
|Ryan, Ms Joan|
No. 28, in page 2, line 10, at end insert—
'(2A) Unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that the pupil in question will receive secondary education which is comparable to the primary education which he has received in regard to—
We come to a new aspect of the Bill. I can best sum it up in the words "trust" and "education". I say "trust" because, as the Committee is aware, that word was a key element in the election campaign and was much used by none other than the Prime Minister himself. He asked the electorate to trust him, his party and, presumably therefore, the Government. However, the question that we must ask is what trust parents who have committed their children to an education under the assisted places scheme can have in the Government.
In developing the argument, I want first to read a brief extract from a letter from the chairman of the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools, no less, to the Secretary of State, no less. It states:
I am writing to you as Chairman of the LAPS (Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools) to enquire whether there may have been an oversight in the plans for the phasing out of the Assisted Places Scheme. You have always made it quite clear that the Assisted Places would be removed and there has never been room for doubt about your intentions when elected. There was, however, room for doubt over the precise timings of the phasing out and, in particular, the arrangements as they applied to stand-alone preparatory schools. As you will know most preparatory schools take children up to the age of 13 and after that point most of our pupils transfer to secondary schools but some go to the maintained sector.
Here is the key point, The letter continues:
When the Labour Party's plans for Assisted Places were announced I wrote to Mr. Peter Kilfoyle in order to clarify the situation regarding the length of tenure of an Assisted Place for children in our schools. He wrote to me on 18th March with a letter that did not make clear the precise details that I was querying. I then heard again from him on 1st April and this letter clarified the situation completely—or so I thought. He states 'If a child has a place at a school which runs to 13 then that place will be honoured through to 13'.
As one of my right hon. Friend's predecessors who was in charge of the IAPS for two years, may I ask him whether the letter is not so important that a full text of it should be placed not only in the Library of the House, but before every member of the Committee before we proceed with further debate on the subject?
My hon. Friend makes a helpful and constructive suggestion. I wonder whether you, Mr. Martin, agree with my hon. Friend's point that the letter—and others that I shall submit to the Committee and to my hon. Friend—
No. I am simply addressing my remarks, through you Mr. Martin, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).
We cannot keep debating letters that have not been laid before the Committee. We have now referred twice to a letter which, I understand, is of key importance to the Committee—a letter written by a then Opposition spokesman that refers directly to the contractual relationships involved in the scheme. Surely it is right that, if the Committee is to proceed—
I have much sympathy with what my hon. Friend is saying, and I think that he is trying to be helpful to the Committee. I shall, with your permission, Mr. Martin, read from this letter and one or two others, including a poignant letter from one of my constituents that I received only today. As my hon. Friend has perceptively pointed out, the letter is important. The letter that I quoted, although it was from the chairman of the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools to the Secretary of State, makes a point which was mentioned on Second Reading and which is highly pertinent to our current proceedings.
The letter in question was from no less a figure than the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), who, when he wrote the letter, was a senior member of the then shadow education team, and is now a member of Her Majesty's Government. He is not, however, a member of the Government education team. I suspect that one reason why he is not—I regret this, because he is a man for whom I have the most enormous respect and admiration—is that the undertaking he gave as an official Opposition spokesman on this important matter has now been completely reneged on by the Government.
On a point of order, Mr. Martin. Is it in order to adjourn the Committee at this stage, so that the important papers to which my right hon. Friend is referring can be made available to members of the Committee? We can then read them for ourselves and judge their importance.
The point at issue is a commitment to young children undergoing their education, and to the continuity of that education.
The IAPS had perfectly good reason to think, on receiving a letter from the Labour education team in April of this year, that the commitment it contained would be honoured. That letter said:
If a child has a place at a school which runs to age 13, then that place will be honoured through to 13".
It was perfectly reasonable to suppose that that pledge would be honoured were the Labour party to win the election.
I regret to say that it seems that the pledge will not be honoured—
Does my right hon. Friend agree that any parent receiving such an assurance would feel that it was such a cast-iron guarantee that it would be reasonable to act in reliance on it, and to place a child in a school or allow a child to remain at a school?
On a point of order, Mr. Martin. I apologise for troubling you with another point of order, but I am finding it increasingly difficult, owing to agitated conversations on the Treasury Bench and elsewhere in the Chamber, to follow what my right hon. Friend is saying.
I apologise to the Committee and to you, Mr. Martin, if the quality of my oratory is not as yet, at this early stage of my remarks, sufficient to capture the attention of all hon. Members who are present. I am laying the ground for my argument by producing some relevant material which, of necessity, I have to read out. I might try to liven it up a bit, if the Committee would prefer that. I hope, however, that Members are listening attentively.
Parents' reasonable expectations of what was to happen to their children, in respect of clauses 1 and 2, are clearly now not going to be fulfilled. What does my right hon. Friend believe the Government propose to do about that?
Tempted although I am to do so, it is not for me to answer on behalf of the Government. I am arguing that the Government are seriously damaging the education of several young children because an official Opposition spokesman led parents and schools to believe that one set of circumstances would apply if Labour won the general election and now, regrettably, a completely different set of circumstances apply.
May I draw attention to the serious nature of the change? By the nature of the fact that they are in receipt of assisted places, the families involved are of very limited income. They are making proportionately very large financial commitments for their children's education, which involve planning over several years and, all of a sudden, the rug from under which they made those assumptions has been pulled away.
Will my right hon. Friend yield to another temptation first? Is he certain that he is getting this right? As I understand it, he is saying that an assurance was given by an Opposition spokesman that is unfair, not only to the parents and child concerned but to schools. Presumably, it follows from what he said that some schools must have admitted children in the expectation that they could stay to the age of 13. If my right hon. Friend has evidence to support that proposition, the matter is so disgraceful that it will be remarkable if Labour Members do not make speeches, asking Ministers to reconsider. Does my right hon. Friend really think that he has got that right? It would be disgraceful.
If my hon. Friend is suggesting that my remarks will provoke a cacophony of speeches from Labour Members, I am in two minds about that. My hon. Friend may be surprised to hear that a part of me would welcome that. I would welcome some sign of life from Labour Members. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] We have had the disgraceful experience of considering this important Bill in proper detail, scrutinising it—[Interruption.] We have had several thoughtful and relevant contributions from Conservative Members. Labour Members appear to be capable of little more than baying, giggling, laughing and being inattentive to the Committee's proceedings; they have made no contribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) suggested that, were the line of argument that I was pursuing to be as I have set it out, he would expect Labour Members to respond. I wish that they would, so that we could hear what they think about the circumstances. Before the general election, one of their senior spokesmen gave a solemn undertaking to parents and schools, on which those parents and schools acted in all reasonableness, only to find that when the Labour party had won the election, having asked people to trust it, the first thing that it did was to break that trust appallingly.
As he is an attentive attender in the House, my right hon. Friend knows that every time that we challenge the Government on why they are doing something, they tell us that they have a mandate. They say that they set out clearly what they would do if elected and that they received an overwhelming vote, so they will implement the policy. Surely this is the policy for which they have the mandate—[Interruption.]
The First Deputy Chairman:
Order. There is far too much noise in the Committee. [Interruption.] I am glad that hon. Members agree that there is far too much noise. The Minister and those who intervene must address their remarks to the amendments before us. [Interruption.] Order. Talk of mandates or otherwise is not the subject before us at the moment; the amendments are before us, and I must be firm at this late hour.
Indeed, Mr. Martin.
We are discussing the age at which a child may be entitled to proper education within the assisted places scheme. The thrust of my argument so far, at this early stage, and the evidence that I am setting before the Committee are directed exactly to that point.
Having quoted a letter from the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools, which in turn quoted a letter from the hon. Member for Walton, the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, I move on to a letter from the Department of 4 June, a very recent letter. It was addressed to the chairman of the IAPS from a senior official. I shall not read the entire letter because you would not want me to delay the Committee, Mr. Martin.
The key element says:
essentially the Bill takes a different approach to that envisaged by Mr. Kilfoyle. The Bill's proposals have been framed deliberately by reference the pupil's age whereas Mr. Kilfoyle's letter implies the approach will take account of the age range of the school at which the pupil holds the place.
We have the remarkable phenomenon, unknown to me in my experience in the House or in government, that a senior official in the Department is, in terms, confirming that there is a complete difference between an undertaking given by a Labour party education spokesman before the general election and the approach that is now being taken by the Government in introducing the Bill. That is the essence of the breach of trust that we are now discussing.
Is my right hon. Friend taking up not simply a breach of trust but a breach of contract? Does not the subsection go to the heart of contractual law? We are talking not of a manifesto pledge or how that is interpreted but a breach of contract. Is that not so?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. At this stage in our proceedings, however, I do not believe that it is for me to judge whether he is correct. I believe that there is at least a question whether the difference to which I have been drawing attention involves not only a breach of trust, which I think that I have established beyond doubt, but a breach of contract. It may involve also, for all I know, breaches of the European convention on human rights. That will have to be taken into consideration.
The First Deputy Chairman:
Order. The Chamber must be quieter. That applies to right hon. and hon.
Members on both sides of the Committee. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) was a Minister, and he is well aware of the rules of the House of Commons. He will be aware that the Committee must talk about the amendment. I am not looking for Members to read letters into the record. There must be a discussion of the amendment.
I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Martin, and I will endeavour to adhere strictly to it. My amendments seek to put right the terrible wrong that is done in the Bill as drafted.
A number of children who are being excellently educated under the assisted places scheme had every reasonable expectation of being educated to the age of 13 in a school where that was the age at which pupils normally transferred to secondary education. As a result of the provisions of the Bill, and especially of clause 2, that is no longer the case. The difference that I was highlighting to the Committee confirms that.
None other than the hon. Member for Walton confirmed in his letter of 1 April confirmed that that was an issue and that he should give a reasonable undertaking to those concerned, to ensure that there was no doubt about the matter.
In our amendments, we seek to honour that undertaking, even if the hon. Gentleman's own colleagues will not do so. It is a matter of great regret that the hon. Gentleman is not a Minister in the Department for Education and Employment, where he might have been expected to honour his own pledge. He has been moved sideways, and we now know why. It was presumably hoped that we would not notice, but we have noticed. The Committee has noticed, and it is to our great regret that the hon. Gentleman is not in a position to honour his pledge.
Our amendments are designed to ensure not only that the children can receive the education, but that the schools concerned can provide the education to the age of 13 that they would have expected when they made the appropriate arrangements.
The next point that I want to take up flows from a comment made earlier by the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Wallsend —
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman—Tyneside, North. I made a note of his words, listening carefully as I always do to what he said. He said—almost incredibly in the light of the debate that we have had—that parents would rejoice at the measures in the Bill.
I have a letter that I received this morning from one of my constituents, who telephoned me in a state of distress about the proposals for the assisted places scheme. In the light of what the Minister of State said, it is pertinent for the Committee to understand what a real person with real children at a real school said. "Rejoice" is not a word which my constituent has used. She wrote:
Our daughter, aged 10, gained her assisted place in February 1996 and took up her place at Croydon High School in September 1996. She is particularly bright, and she has just proved in the last two sets of exams that she has enormous ability, being in the top four of her year, justifying her place. Moreover, she understands fully that she has an assisted place and like her brother is committed to working hard. Both children are very happy in their schools.
In the next paragraph of her letter, my constituent gives the lie to the flippant remarks made by Labour Members about those in receipt of assisted places help. She states:
We qualify under the assisted places scheme because my husband is severely disabled with manic depression, compounded by other physical disabilities including a skull and brain injury. He spends long periods of time in hospital and our only income is the disability living allowance and carer's allowance and incapacity benefit. Our only asset is our home and a dwindling amount of savings, left over from the days when he was able to work. I suffer from a neck injury which was the result of a car accident some three years ago… It is obviously very hard for me to find employment. Given the destructive nature of manic depression, my main aim is for our household to run as normally as possible and ensure that the children grow up"—
On a point of order, Mr. Martin. Many of us have been present for the debate all evening and take the matter extremely seriously. The debate is about the right of children to receive the education that has been contracted for. Is it appropriate for the Government Benches to be filled with hon. Members who have been brought in from all parts of the building in various states of refreshment, who clearly have no interest in the debate? It should be placed on the record that they are spending their time giggling, chatting to each other and taking no interest—
I am grateful to you, Mr. Martin, and I am truly grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude). I am attempting to bring to the Committee the real case of a constituent of mine who contacted me this morning to tell me of her desperate anxieties about the Bill.
The First Deputy Chairman:
Order. I want to hear about the amendments, not the Bill. [HON. MEMBERS: "That is what he is doing."] Order. It is all right for hon. Members to say that that is what the right hon. Gentleman is doing, but I can hear the right hon. Gentleman, and he is talking about the Bill. I want to hear about the amendments.
That is absolutely correct, Mr. Martin. The amendments concern the ability of parents to be confident that their children can receive an education through to the age of 13 and beyond where that is appropriate. That is the context in which I believe that a genuine individual case is relevant.
But I confess that I also wanted to take this opportunity to pick up a point made by none other than the Minister himself when earlier he said that parents would rejoice at the Bill. This individual case is very poignant. The next paragraph of the letter relates directly to the amendments. It says:
like most parents we thought that by taking up such a place, our children's education would be honoured as long as they continued to perform to a level which justified this place, ie until they reached 18 years. It has been with an increasing sense of frustration and anxiety that we learn that our second child is to lose this place … The toll that this additional stress is taking on my husband's health is incalculable.
The letter goes on, but I shall not read it all to the Committee.
To meet a point raised earlier, I am more than happy to put the letter on the record so that the Committee can consider it. As has been pointed out, for a party which often claims some monopoly of care and compassion, the Labour party is showing precious little sign of any of that in tonight's proceedings.
I have set the scene for that part of the case that I wanted to make and I shall now make the briefest reference to amendment No. 28. That amendment seeks to ensure, for avoidance of doubt, that
Unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that the pupil in question will receive secondary education which is comparable to the primary education which he has received in regard to … its religious content; … the curriculum provided; … opportunities for sport; … size of classes; and … single-sex provision, he"—
the Secretary of State—
shall determine that that pupil shall continue to hold that place during the period which he receives secondary education.
That amendment is crucial in one important respect, to which we shall return in later amendments because we want to develop the argument. It is simply that we must find a mechanism whereby even if the Bill ends the benefits of an assisted place to a young person, the alternative provision in the state sector, about which the tinder-Secretary of State spoke so proudly earlier, will be fully as good, and guaranteed to be fully as good, to every child who may lose his or her provision under the assisted places scheme. That is what we are asking, and what we hope that the amendments will achieve. I am sure that my arguments will be developed by my hon. Friends when they speak. We wish to provide a mechanism that will give the guarantee that parents deserve that the alternative provision will be every bit as good.
I have kept my remarks deliberately brief because I wish to allow my hon. Friends to develop the arguments. I hope, however, that I have given the Committee enough of a flavour of the thrust of our amendments and that the arguments will be developed further.
To report progress and ask leave to sit again.—[Mr. Nick Brown.]