Discontinuance of Maintained Rural Primary Schools

New clause 13 – in the House of Commons at 4:30 pm on 24th March 1998.

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  1. '(1) Where a local education authority proposes the discontinuance of a maintained primary school in a rural area the matter shall be referred to the Secretary of State for determination.
  2. (2) Such referral for determination shall take place after consultation under section 28(4) has been concluded.
  3. (3) A rural primary school is a school identified in a list under subsection (4).
  4. (4) A local education authority shall maintain a list of rural primary schools; and in compiling and maintaining that list they shall have regard to any guidance given from time to time by the Secretary of State.'.—[Mrs. Browning.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

In some ways, the new clause could be seen as something of a tidying-up measure. On Saturday 28 February, when I was sitting at home sponging the mud off my coat ready for the countryside march in London the following day, I, in common with the rest of the nation, was treated to the sight of the Minister for School Standards gracing our television screens to make an important announcement about village schools.

We were all delighted to hear that announcement, and I hastened to obtain a copy of the press release that accompanied the Minister's television appearance. In it, he is reported as saying: Today, I am announcing tough new protection for village schools … we have decided that any proposal by a Local Education Authority to close a rural school will be called in to the Secretary of State for decision.Further, Ministers will have a presumption against closure. And Ministers will have particular regard to the need to provide access to a local school for rural communities. That is all jolly good stuff, which we can totally support. Hence the new clause.

The Minister went on to say: Of course, we cannot guarantee that no school will ever close. But these changes will give village schools strong new protection". I have explained how supportive we are of the announcement, but I was doubly surprised: not only by the sudden announcement on 28 February, but because the Committee had been sitting for some time—we had had no fewer than 19 sittings at that time. I sat through all the sittings of the Committee, and I do not recall the Minister saying that this was a matter of any priority for the Government.

It seems rather strange that, out of the blue—two days after the final Committee sitting—the Minister made this announcement on Saturday evening television. The Government were clearly in trouble that weekend. Some Ministers said that they would be attending the countryside rally, while others said that they would not, because they thought that the whole thing was a put-up job. However, here was the Minister rushing to the support of rural communities and trying to pour a little oil on what would be a troubled weekend for the Government from the media.

We have questions for the Minister, and I should be grateful if he would break the habit of a lifetime and answer the specifics tonight.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

Yes, it was rather unkind—I withdraw it. I want the Government to vote with us tonight, so I shall try not to be unkind to the Minister for the remainder of our discussions on the new clause.

Does the Government's promise apply for any restricted length of time? For example, can we assume that it will continue after the Bill receives Royal Assent? Or was it just a short-term measure to bolster the Government through a political problem that will no longer apply once the Bill has received Royal Assent?

The Minister describes this as "tough new protection". If it is tough, it should have the statutory protection of the law. If it is new, we would have expected the Minister to table a Government new clause when the Committee reconvened—as it did for several more sittings—or on Report to put into statute the tough new measures he announced on television on Saturday 28 February. It might be that, as a busy person, the Minister is minded to table the new clause in another place.

Will the Minister clarify how the promise and the tough new protection will fit in with schedule 7 and clause 33, which clearly still require the Secretary of State to contact local education authorities to ask them to look at the numbers in their schools and to deal with the rationalisation of surplus places? Clearly the Minister has a new strong power in mind, so that, when the Secretary of State considers each school that comes to his desk, he will almost certainly wish to make changes to the powers he currently has to require LEAs to go through the rationalisation process and to submit to him—as the Bill proposes—some plan as to how they are to deal with rationalisation.

Schedule 7 proposes that, in some cases, the rationalisation of surplus places will require LEAs to come forward with proposals which could result in the discontinuance of a school. I assume that the Secretary of State will wish to make some modification to the Bill on that. There seems no point in them going through a paper exercise if there is to be a presumption against closure. One could assume that village primary schools will be exempted from that requirement.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

If the hon. Lady, as well as watching the teatime news, occasionally referred to the Official Report, she would have read my written answer on 26 February about the removal of surplus school places, in which I gave a clear commitment that, in considering surplus places, local authorities must take into account such circumstances as geography. That must be a factor in the consideration of rural schools.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but a written answer is not tough new statutory protection. If the promise he made on television in such specific terms is tough and new, why did not the Government table such a new clause in Committee or on Report, rather than leave it to the Opposition to do so? Perhaps the matter slipped his mind—I know that his officials are busy. As I said—I shall not tease him—we are very much in favour of what he said, and we shall be pleased to accept the support of Labour Members in the Lobby if the new clause is pressed to a Division.

I hope that the Minister will answer my specific questions, and also say what he had in mind when, as a qualification, he said: Of course, we cannot guarantee that no school will ever close. Was he referring to rationalisation of places? What number of pupils does he think makes a village school viable?

I have been a Member of Parliament for six years, in which time the only school in my constituency to close had a total school roll of 14. In my experience—and I am sure in that of most hon. Members—when a school of any category, but particularly a village primary school, has been considered for closure, the matter has almost certainly gone to the Secretary of State, whom Members of Parliament and governing bodies lobby. That certainly happened under the Conservative Administration, except on the rare occasion when there were no objections. If, over and above that, there will be new, tough powers to protect rural primary schools, I want to know what, specifically, the Minister has in mind.

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

I support the new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). The Minister's honeyed words at the Dispatch Box sit extremely ill with the letter, signed by an official from his Department, that was sent on 9 March to Kent education authority. Hon. Members will, I hope, share my deep disquiet at the fact that the letter contained a list of 45 secondary and primary schools in Kent, including some in rural areas—it could be termed a hit list of schools for closure on grounds of surplus places. The existence of such a list is a matter of deep concern to me, and, I know, to a number of my hon. Friends.

The list includes no fewer than four schools in the rural parts of my constituency: Shipbourne primary school; Blacklands junior school; Hever Church of England primary school; and the Eden Valley school. The wording of the letter—for which, of course, the Secretary of State has responsibility—is somewhat threatening. For example, in its request to the local authority, it states: In each case please set out the reasons for the surplus, as far as this can be ascertained, and the justification for continuing to maintain all the schools on the list still open and not yet proposed for closure. As I said, that sits ill with the Minister's words.

For two critical reasons, I hope that the House will support the new clause. First, the continuation of village schools is indispensable. Schools are the lifeblood of a village. If the school is lost, so is the heart of the village—young people will leave, and others from outside will be reluctant to move in.

4.45 pm

Secondly, I believe that the Department's exercise rests on a false premise—that it is possible to predict in the long term the demand for places in a village school. In my experience, it is not possible to make such long-term—or even medium-term—predictions about demand for places.

The St. Mark's Church of England infants school in the village of Eccles, which was part of my constituency before the boundary changes, was once considered for closure. However, only last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), as Secretary of State and Education and Employment, authorised the upgrading of that school to a full-scale primary school, because of the influx of people into the village and the surrounding areas.

That graphically illustrates the fact that the demand for places at a school can vary enormously over 10 or 20 years. I believe that the Bill's provisions for the protection of rural schools need strengthening, so I warmly support the new clause.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I think that the Minister will, on reflection, come to regret his statement before the countryside rally to prevent the people of North Tyneside from marching on his home later that day. He made a foolish promise—if he meant what he said, the Government should support the new clause, as it would bear out what he said on television, and the commitment that he made in his press release. We do not support the new clause, however, and perhaps the Government will agree with our position.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) made a passionate plea for rural schools in Kent—any hon. Member whose constituency contains a large number of rural schools could have made almost the same speech. I doubt whether any hon. Member—especially those who represent rural areas—does not accept that the protection of village schools is important, provided that they meet appropriate educational standards and are supported by the local community.

What has happened in the past four or five years, however, does not bear out what the Conservatives now say. Since 1992, 450 village schools were closed, and—until the Minister gave his commitment—thousands were under threat because of the lack of resources. Many small village schools—especially those with fewer than 25 pupils—are concerned that they have to live on a year-by-year basis.

The new clause will do nothing to preserve village schools. It would undermine the Government's attempt to create a level playing field. All schools, be they urban or rural, small or large, should be given the same consideration when a local education authority proposes closure. The Government's intention in the legislation was to make the decisions closer to the people, giving local education authorities a duty to plan for places and to make proper recommendations on closure.

The issue of the closure of small village primary schools is very real, as is the issue of surplus places. It is clearly nonsense to include the issue of surplus places in the whole of an LEA's provision in a measure designed to apply to small rural primary schools.

If we are to maintain those schools, we have to accept that there will be surplus places in them, unless there is expansion in particular villages. The communities in many of the affected areas—especially the Yorkshire dales, near my constituency—remain relatively stable: numbers fluctuate, but they do not go up or down by huge leaps or bounds.

All schools should be treated the same, and LEAs should be obliged to make rational decisions close to the people. We would prefer it to be up to the LEA, in consultation with local communities, to make decisions about the closure of schools, be they small rural primary schools or large urban secondary schools, on the basis of standards, of what is required for the community, and of what is financially acceptable to the authority.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Conservative, Maidenhead

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) summed up the debate about the new clause when he said that, if the Minister meant what he said in the media about small village schools, he would support it.

The new clause is designed to put into effect what the Minister stated was the Government's policy. I hope that he will be able to put us out of our misery by saying that he does indeed support it, but I have a suspicion that he may not do so. That says an awful lot about the Government's attitude to rural communities and the cynical way in which he was willing to appear on television at the drop of a hat to announce a new policy to pacify those who are genuinely concerned about the Government's general attack on the rural community.

In Committee, we debated the removal of the right of parish and town councils to appoint governors to the governing bodies of their local schools. That is an issue about which my local parish and town councils are extremely concerned. They have written to me to point out that the school is an essential part of the local community, as is the parish council. It is important to retain the heart of the local community, especially in dispersed rural communities, which is represented by the village school.

The Minister tried to placate people in rural areas by suggesting that the Government are adopting a more helpful policy towards village schools than was intended when the Bill was first drafted. There are 14 new clauses and well over 100 amendments on the amendment paper today. More than half are Government amendments, yet nowhere in them is there an attempt by the Government to place on a statutory basis the new policy that they claim, hand on heart, to have adopted. That says more than anything else about the Minister's press release and appearance on television. The policy he announced is a policy in words only. If it were not, the Government would support the new clause.

The Government should think again about rural schools, which play a key part in the community. They may find that the issue comes into conflict with their announcements on infant class sizes. They have said that, if a 31st child is due to come into a village school, either he or she could go to another rural school, which may indeed have been closed, or the money could be given to the first school to accommodate that child. They will have to think carefully about the interaction of their policy on rural schools with their commitment on infant class sizes.

If he is serious about the policy that he announced in the national media, the Minister should accept new clause 13 with open arms, and thank the Opposition for having put into words, for inclusion in the Bill, a policy that he claims to support.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) wondered why the Minister's honeyed words had not translated into an amendment to the Bill. The answer is simply that a march by 385,000 people generates a media response from the Government, but that, to get a measure into one of their education Bills, one has to belong to the union.

In whatever areas the unions have opined regarding the Bill—on partnership provision between LEAs and independent schools, for example, or on terms and conditions—the Government bend to what they are told behind closed doors; but when it comes to trying to pacify rural areas, it is a different story. Unless the Minister can spin a convincing tale, we will draw the natural conclusion that what he said was all for effect, with no real meaning.

I am delighted to support the new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. It was a previous Angela—Dame Angela Rumbold—who, as a schools Minister in the previous Government, first outlined a clear Government pledge in support of village schools. She did so in February 1987, which I remember because I was making my first attempt to enter Parliament. Despite my lack of success on that occasion, we all learned the importance of village schools.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) spoke of a level playing field. In a rural area, such as the part of Cornwall in which I lived for 10 years, there is no level playing field. It sometimes takes a wider view, which may come from a departmental angle rather than from a local education authority, to balance the needs of a rural area against the diktats of the pure numbers and costs of keeping a school open.

In the light of the epic announcement last week of the ending of outdoor lavatories at schools, how many of the schools involved are village primary schools?

Noble though the Minister's aim may be of eliminating that inheritance from, as he told us last week, the Victorian era—I am glad that he does not blame everything on the previous Conservative Government—what is the education priority for a village primary school that is facing closure? Is it to spend on average £60,000 to provide loos for the children, or is it to spend it in a way that will guarantee that the school continues through hard times as well as good?

5 pm

I know from experience of village schools in my constituency that they are often on a knife edge because of their financial situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, many will face particular pressure because of the Government's commitment on class sizes.

One village school near where I live has 70 children and can just afford to provide two full teachers, which makes for a class size of 35. I challenge Ministers to show me any primary school in which children get a better education than they do at that school. It serves nearly all the children in the village, and if it has to reduce the numbers in its classes to 30, not only will some children in the village have to travel much further to school, causing yet more congestion on roads when commuter traffic is at its height, but the very survival of the school will be put at risk because of the loss of income from the additional children.

These are serious questions for the Minister. Will schools that have the £60,000 be given the option to choose to spend it on higher priorities, and will schools that have more than 30 children per class be allowed to put the survival of the school before the priority of a class size of 30?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the acquisition of an inside toilet might persuade some of his constituents who are putting their hard-earned money into private education to send their children to that excellent infants school instead?

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that people who send their children to schools in Surrey take into account a range of factors. The factor that he has suggested is pretty well bottom of the list. It is not a key factor in deciding where one sends one's child to school. Parents will consider the performance of the school—for example, in attaining literacy standards, and its proximity to their home.

Frankly, as someone who has survived the indignity, as the right hon. Gentleman sees it, of an outside loo when I was at school—he may judge for himself how much damage it has done to my character and personality—I hold no brief against my parents for deciding on that school despite the lack of basic necessities. The right hon. Gentleman's argument is absurd, and I note that he avoided the real question, which was why a school that might need the £60,000 to keep going should be obliged to pander to his whims and sentiments at the expense of its very survival.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

A number of issues have been raised in this brief debate on new clause 13, and I will try to answer all of them. First, I must deal with the concerns outlined by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley)—in particular, the letter sent by an official from my Department. Letters were sent asking each local education authority to consider surplus places—an issue that the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) raised—and drawing attention to schools that had more than 25 per cent. of places empty.

The Government take the view that local authorities should review provision to ensure that value for money is achieved. In Kent, 48 primary schools and 25 secondary schools have more than 25 per cent. of their places vacant, and it is appropriate for the Government to ask the local authority for an explanation.

However, that must be seen in the context of my written reply to a question from the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on 26 February on surplus places and the duty and responsibility of local education authorities. In that reply, I clearly said that the Government recognise that authorities will want to take into account any unusual circumstances, for example geography and social make-up."—[Official Report, 26 February 1998; Vol. 306, c. 364.] Therefore, in answer to our request for information about those schools, it is for the Kent local education authority to point out the rural communities that might be served by them. It is clearly important for both the Government and Kent local education authority to consider the needs of the school in the context of the community it serves.

I take the point made by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing. We are not considering all schools equally. As was said in the statement on 28 February, we recognise that, yes, the matter should be determined by the Secretary of State, but, more importantly, that there should be a presumption against closure, which is vital if we are to offer rural schools far greater protection than they have had.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

The Minister will be aware that, in the list of Kent schools to which he has extensively referred, no fewer than 10 are Church of England primary schools. He will also be aware of the considerable concern about what will happen to denominational schools that face the problem of the 31st child.

Parents who seek to place their children in denominational schools put first and foremost the teaching of the faith and are looking for the denominational school concerned. If 10 under-subscribed Church of England primary schools are taking children who could not get into over-subscribed schools of the same denomination, would that be a sufficiently unusual circumstance to guarantee that the school continued to function even if it remained heavily under-subscribed?

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

I will deal in a second with the issues that we might need to take into account when determining the schools that might be closed. As we made clear in the announcement on 28 February, we are not saying, "Never, ever," to the closure of a village or rural school. There must be circumstances in which a closure would be wholly appropriate, but we will consider whether parents are being offered real choice of denominational education if that is what they want. That factor must be taken into account.

I am sure that the right hon. Lady is aware that, in the Government's discussions with the Church authorities on our class size pledge and our policy towards surplus places, we have reached a situation in which the authorities are broadly supportive of the Government's position. The Church education authorities have approached us about our pledge to reduce class sizes in infant schools, and broadly welcome our measures.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his generosity in giving way again. He has several times prayed in aid the attitude of the Churches to this issue. Is it not the case that the Roman Catholic Church at any rate broadly supports some limit on class sizes, and would want such a limitation to come about, but not at the expense of denying Roman Catholic education to Roman Catholic children?

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

That is the case, which is why, elsewhere in the Bill, we have made specific admissions provisions to meet those concerns. There is a special provision that admissions will not be dealt with by the adjudicator, as normally would be the case, but referred to the Secretary of State.

We inserted that provision to meet the concerns expressed by the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Our approach has been clear: that, if the Bill needs to be amended to make it better, we are prepared to amend it. We had several constructive meetings with representatives of the Church education authorities. In the light of their views and their concerns about the Bill as originally drafted, we made several changes. The admissions change is an example of one that we made because we believe that it meets the reasonable concerns of the Church authorities, and makes the Bill better.

On the point made by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, if there is concern in Kent, I am happy to write to the chief education officer to clarify the Government's view on the matter. Geography and service to a rural village community are factors that must be considered in replying to letters from officials about surplus places. I hope that that clarifies the Government's thinking, and will reassure parents and teachers in the schools to which he referred.

It is interesting that the Conservatives seem suddenly to have discovered the importance of rural schools in this debate.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

We offered exactly the same safeguard.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

The right hon. Gentleman says that the Conservatives had exactly the safeguard that is being offered. He fails to realise that there are safeguards; I use the plural, because there are more than one. The great weakness of new clause 13 is that it seeks only to refer the matter to the Secretary of State. We need to go far beyond that if we are serious about protecting rural schools.

Since 1983, under the previous Government, 450 rural village schools have been closed. The Bill means that, between now and September 1999, such matters will be referred to the Secretary of State, as I made clear in my press notice. Most importantly, there will be a presumption against closure. Ministers will have particular regard to the need to provide access to a local school for local communities. No such presumption operated under the previous Government. That is why they were able to embark on wholesale closure of village schools. I will deal in a moment with the framework after September 1999.

It is not enough to refer such matters to the Secretary of State. There has to be a referral, and a presumption against closure, which will operate between now and 1999. The rate of closures under the previous Government works out at more than 40 a year. We will at least guarantee that, by September 1999, there will not have been such a closure rate.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

I want first to describe what we are doing to ensure that village schools provide the quality of education that the children attending them want. I do not want to take an announcement away from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but in April he will make known the allocations for the national grid for learning. They will make it clear that village schools will be linked to the national grid. By harnessing the benefits of new technology, we will be able to provide pupils in rural schools with a breadth and range of education experience that has been denied them.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

If it is simply a question of adding presumption of closure to new clause 13, or to another amendment, would the Minister accept such an amendment in another place?

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

I will not, because I was talking about safeguards, of which there need to be a number. It is not only a referral to the Secretary of State, a presumption against closure, and linking rural schools to the national grid for learning. It is also about reducing class sizes, which will benefit many schools, and giving them the benefits of the new deal capital money, which will make a real difference to rural primary schools.

I have an illustration of the contrasting approaches. Under the previous Government, Willington county primary school in Lincolnshire was closed in 1995, despite 28 statutory objections, an action committee and a delegation led by the local Member of Parliament. There were 23 children on the roll, and the alternative school was almost three miles away.

It is worth contrasting that with what happened to Edenham primary school, which is also in Lincolnshire, and which serves a village rural community. As a result of £97,000 from our new deal capital money, linked with £17,700 funded from people locally, it was able to provide new classrooms, making the school even more popular. Those measures are important, because they are part of the safeguards that rural schools need.

5.15 pm

The right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) referred to what will happen after September 1999. That is important, because a new framework will operate under the Bill. Such matters will go to the school organisation committee. If there is no agreement, they will go to the local adjudicator. From September 1999, the Secretary of State will issue guidance about the measures. [Interruption.] If Conservative Members will listen, I will take them through what will happen, and what local parents will be able to do if they are unhappy about the final decision.

The school organisation committee will have to act in a reasonable way. If it fails to do so, and, for example, ignores the advice, guidance and regulations laid down by the Secretary of State, it can be challenged by parents for not acting in a reasonable way. If the matter goes to the adjudicator, he will also have to follow the guidance laid down by the Secretary of State, and that guidance will once again be a presumption against closure. If local parents feel aggrieved that the adjudicator has failed to take into account the guidance provided by the Secretary of State, they will be able to subject him to judicial review, which is exactly the position in respect of the Secretary of State at the moment.

The right hon. Member for Charnwood has not come to terms with the Bill. He needs to be aware that, between now and September 1999, every issue to do with potential closures of village schools will be referred to the Secretary of State. From September 1999, we move into a new school framework. When that happens, the school organisation committee and the adjudicator will have to act in line with guidance from the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State's guidance will include a presumption against closure. Despite crocodile tears from Conservative Members on behalf of rural village schools, they closed 450 in their period in office. That is the reality.

The Government have put in place safeguards and measures that will protect rural primary schools. We are acting where the previous Government failed to act. Whether under the existing arrangements or under the new framework that takes effect from September next year, we will provide the safeguards and resources to ensure that rural primary schools will provide high-quality education to meet the needs of their local communities.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I once had a go at tapestry. The most frustrating thing was having to unpick the bits that went wrong. I was reminded of that by the Minister. I might take it up again.

What the Minister said on 28 February was short of the full story. We have now had the full story. When he said that an LEA' s proposal to close a rural school would be called in by the Secretary of State for decision, the assumption among parents and in rural schools was that the Secretary of State would personally intervene in future, with a presumption against closure to protect rural primary schools. At the same time as the Minister was saying that, he was taking a Bill through Committee. He knew that there was a cut-off date about a year after the Bill would receive Royal Assent, after which the whole system would be changed.

An adjudicator will make a judgment independently, on the merits of a case put before him or her. It is clear that, whatever guidance the Secretary of State gives, there is no comparison between an adjudicator's decision and something being called in by the Secretary of State.

I raise again a point that I made in Committee. When a school is due to be closed, Members of Parliament rightly wish to represent their constituents. They have the power, with the Secretary of State's permission, to take delegations to Ministers in the Department to make sure that their case is raised at the highest levels of Government. They can call Ministers to account—at least, they certainly could under the previous Government—on the Floor of the House for decisions they make. The Government's proposals are a departure from that.

The Minister has revealed tonight that, on 28 February, he had to come to the aid of the party on an issue that was different from anything that his Department normally has to deal with. He had to stitch together some press statement that would make his part in the Government sound user-friendly to the rural communities, at the eleventh hour. He is now having to unpick what he said, so that he can continue to take the Bill through the House without having to amend it to honour that pledge. It is a matter of honour.

If the Minister really believes what he said on 28 February but cannot accept the wording of new clause 13, he could amend the Bill in another place, or he could have tabled an amendment on Report. The fact that he did not table an amendment in Committee or on Report to back up the pledge he gave on 28 February shows that, for all the rhetoric and going round the houses on money for this and money for that, rural primary schools are no better off with all these new pledges than they were before.

Measures in the Bill that we had already debated by 28 February made that clear. We had already been through that part of the Bill. Liberal Democrat Members know that that is the case. Rural primary schools' fate was already signed and sealed, because we had dealt with the adjudicator by that stage; but that did not figure in the Minister's press release. The press release did not tell the full story, if I may use those words.

As I have the attention of the two Liberal Democrat Members, may I say that this is the first time that I have ever heard a Liberal Democrate—Liberal Democrat—[Laughter.] "Crate" was perhaps the right word. This is the first time that I have heard a Liberal Democrat make the case for not taking into account the problems of rural areas. They are normally the first on their feet to say that there are special circumstances when rural issues are debated. I have to say to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) that I feel an "In Touch" coming on.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

I remind the hon. Lady that "In Touch" is the newsletter put out, rarely, by the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrat one, which goes out more frequently, is called "Focus".

Does the hon. Lady agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough did not make the comments that she has just said he made? Does she accept that, when closure of any school is considered, three criteria should be taken into account? The first is the educational impact that the closure may have. The second is the financial implications. The third should be the impact that the closure may have on the local community. All three should be taken into account on every closure, whether of a small rural primary school or of any other school.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I did mean "In Touch". I do feel a Conservative "In Touch" coming forward. The record will show exactly what the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said in putting his case.

I support what the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) says, except that, as he knows—I shall not waste the time of the House in rehearsing this too long—the effect of closure of a school on a rural community is different from the effect on an urban community. There is often no nearby school in a rural community, and transport problems are exacerbated by the closure of rural primary schools.

I am disappointed—but, perhaps cynically, not surprised—that the Minister says that he will not support the new clause tonight. I am saddened by that. It will make many people, especially in rural areas, question the statement that he made on television on 28 February. I ask the House to support rural primary schools, and to vote for the new clause.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 138, Noes 319.

Division No. 220][5.24 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelLidington, David
Arbuthnot, JamesLilley, Rt Hon Peter
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Baldry, TonyLoughton, Tim
Beggs, RoyLuff, Peter
Bercow, JohnLyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Beresford, Sir PaulMacGregor, Rt Hon John
Blunt, CrispinMacKay, Andrew
Body, Sir RichardMaclean, Rt Hon David
Boswell, TimMcLoughlin, Patrick
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)Malins, Humfrey
Brady, GrahamMaples, John
Brazier, JulianMates, Michael
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterMaude, Rt Hon Francis
Browning, Mrs AngelaMawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)May, Mrs Theresa
Burns, SimonMoss, Malcolm
Butterfill, JohnNicholls, Patrick
Chapman, Sir SydneyNorman, Archie
(Chipping Barnet)Ottaway, Richard
Chope, ChristopherPage, Richard
Clappison, JamesPaice, James
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington)Paterson, Owen
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh)Pickles, Eric
Clarke, Rt Hon KennethPrior, David
(Rushcliffe)Randall, John
Clifton-Brown, GeoffreyRedwood, Rt Hon John
Colvin, MichaelRobathan, Andrew
Cormack, Sir PatrickRobertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Curry, Rt Hon DavidRoe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Davies, Quentin (Grantham)Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)Ruffley, David
Day, StephenSt Aubyn, Nick
Dorrell, Rt Hon StephenSayeed, Jonathan
Duncan, AlanShephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Duncan Smith, IainSimpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Emery, Rt Hon Sir PeterSimpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Evans, NigelSmyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Faber, DavidSoames, Nicholas
Flight, HowardSpelman, Mrs Caroline
Forth, Rt Hon EricSpicer, Sir Michael
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir NormanSpring, Richard
Fox, Dr LiamStanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Gibb, NickSteen, Anthony
Gill, ChristopherStreeter, Gary
Gillan, Mrs CherylSwayne, Desmond
Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir AlastairSyms, Robert
Gray, JamesTapsell, Sir Peter
Green, DamianTaylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Greenway, JohnTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Grieve, DominicTaylor, Sir Teddy
Gummer, Rt Hon JohnTownend, John
Hague, Rt Hon WilliamTredinnick, David
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir ArchieTrend, Michael
Hammond, PhilipTyrie, Andrew
Hawkins, NickWalter, Robert
Heald, OliverWardle, Charles
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon DavidWaterson, Nigel
Howard, Rt Hon MichaelWells, Bowen
Hunter, AndrewWhitney, Sir Raymond
Jack, Rt Hon MichaelWhittingdale, John
Jackson, Robert (Wantage)Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Jenkin, BernardWilkinson, John
Johnson Smith,Willetts, David
Rt Hon Sir GeoffreyWinterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Kirkbride, Miss JulieYeo, Tim
Laing, Mrs EleanorYoung, Rt Hon Sir George
Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Lansley, AndrewTellers for the Ayes:
Leigh, EdwardSir David Madel and
Letwin, OliverMr. James Cran.
Abbott, Ms DianeDavey, Edward (Kingston)
Ainger, NickDavey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Davidson, Ian
Allan, RichardDavies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Allen, GrahamDavies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)Dawson, Hilton
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Dean, Mrs Janet
Armstrong, Ms HilaryDenham, John
Ashton, JoeDewar, Rt Hon Donald
Baker, NormanDobbin, Jim
Ballard, Mrs JackieDonohoe, Brian H
Barnes, HarryDoran, Frank
Barron, KevinDrown, Ms Julia
Battle, JohnDunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Bayley, HughEagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Beith, Rt Hon A JEagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Benn, Rt Hon TonyEdwards, Huw
Bennett, Andrew FEfford, Clive
Benton, JoeEllman, Mrs Louise
Berry, RogerEnnis, Jeff
Best, HaroldFatchett, Derek
Betts, CliveField, Rt Hon Frank
Blackman, LizFitzpatrick, Jim
Blears, Ms HazelFitzsimons, Lorna
Blizzard, BobFlint, Caroline
Blunkett, Rt Hon DavidFlynn, Paul
Borrow, DavidFoster, Don (Bath)
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Bradshaw, BenFyfe, Maria
Brake, TomGalloway, George
Brand, Dr PeterGapes, Mike
Breed, ColinGardiner, Barry
Brinton, Mrs HelenGeorge, Andrew (St Ives)
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)Gibson, Dr Ian
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Browne, DesmondGrant, Bernie
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Buck, Ms KarenGrocott, Bruce
Burden, RichardGrogan, John
Burgon, ColinGunnell, John
Byers, StephenHain, Peter
Cable, Dr VincentHall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Caborn, RichardHall, Patrick (Bedford)
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)Hancock, Mike
Campbell-Savours, DaleHanson, David
Canavan, DennisHarris, Dr Evan
Caplin, IvorHarvey, Nick
Casale, RogerHeal, Mrs Sylvia
Caton, MartinHealey, John
Chaytor, DavidHeath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Chidgey, DavidHenderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Chisholm, MalcolmHepburn, Stephen
Clark, Dr LyndaHeppell, John
(Edinburgh Pentlands)Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)Hill, Keith
Clwyd, AnnHinchliffe, David
Coaker, VernonHodge, Ms Margaret
Coffey, Ms AnnHoey, Kate
Cohen, HarryHome Robertson, John
Coleman, lainHoon, Geoffrey
Colman, TonyHope, Phil
Connarty, MichaelHopkins, Kelvin
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)Howells, Dr Kim
Corbett, RobinHoyle, Lindsay
Corston, Ms JeanHughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cousins, JimHughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cox, TomHughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Crausby, DavidHumble, Mrs Joan
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)Hurst, Alan
Cummings, JohnHutton, John
Cunliffe, LawrenceIddon, Dr Brian
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)Illsley, Eric
Dalyell, TamJackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Darling, Rt Hon AlistairJamieson, David
Darvill, KeithJohnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Johnson, Miss MelaniePerham, Ms Linda
(Welwyn Hatfield)Pickthall, Colin
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)Pike, Peter L
Jones, Helen (Warrington N)Plaskitt, James
Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)Pollard, Kerry
Jones, Ms JennyPope, Greg
(Wolverh'ton SW)Powell, Sir Raymond
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)Prosser, Gwyn
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)Purchase, Ken
Keeble, Ms SallyQuin, Ms Joyce
Kemp, FraserQuinn, Lawrie
Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)Radice, Giles
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)Rammell, Bill
Kidney, DavidRapson, Syd
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)Raynsford, Nick
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Kirkwood, ArchyReid, Dr John (Hamilton N)
Kumar, Dr AshokRendel, David
Ladyman, Dr StephenRobertson, Rt Hon George
Lawrence, Ms Jackie(Hamilton S)
Laxton, BobRogers, Allan
Lepper, DavidRooney, Terry
Levitt, TomRoss, Ernie (Dundee W)
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)Rowlands, Ted
Lewis, Terry (Worsley)Roy, Frank
Livingstone, KenRuddock, Ms Joan
Lock, DavidRussell, Bob (Colchester)
Love, AndrewRussell, Ms Christine (Chester)
McAvoy, ThomasRyan, Ms Joan
McCabe, SteveSanders, Adrian
McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)Sarwar, Mohammad
McDonagh, SiobhainSavidge, Malcolm
Macdonald, CalumSedgemore, Brian
McDonnell, JohnShaw, Jonathan
McFall, JohnSheerman, Barry
McGuire, Mrs AnneSheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McIsaac, ShonaSimpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
McKenna, Mrs RosemarySkinner, Dennis
McLeish, HenrySmith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
McNulty, TonySmith, Angela (Basildon)
MacShane, DenisSmith, Miss Geraldine
Mactaggart, Fiona(Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Mahon, Mrs AliceSmith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Mandelson, PeterSmith, John (Glamorgan)
Marek, Dr JohnSmith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)Soley, Clive
Marshall-Andrews, RobertSpellar, John
Martlew, EricSquire, Ms Rachel
Meacher, Rt Hon MichaelStarkey, Dr Phyllis
Meale, AlanSteinberg, Gerry
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)Stevenson, George
Milburn, AlanStinchcombe, Paul
Miller, AndrewStoate, Dr Howard
Mitchell, AustinStrang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Moffatt, LauraStraw, Rt Hon Jack
Moonie, Dr LewisStringer, Graham
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)Stunell, Andrew
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)Sutcliffe, Gerry
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Mountford, Kali(Dewsbury)
Mudie, GeorgeTaylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Mullin, ChrisTaylor, David (NW Leics)
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Naysmith, Dr DougThomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Oaten, MarkTimms, Stephen
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)Tipping, Paddy
O'Hara, EddieTodd, Mark
Olner, BillTonge, Dr Jenny
O'Neill, MartinTouhig, Don
Öpik, LembitTrickett, Jon
Palmer, Dr NickTruswell, Paul
Pearson, IanTurner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Pendry, TomTurner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Twigg, Derek (Halton)Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)Willis, Phil
Tyler, PaulWills, Michael
Wallace, JamesWinnick, David
Walley, Ms JoanWinterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Wareing, Robert NWise, Audrey
Watts, DavidWoolas, Phil
Webb, SteveWray, James
White, BrianWright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Whitehead, Dr AlanWright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Wicks, Malcolm
Wigley, Rt Hon DafyddTellers for the Noes:
Williams, Rt Hon AlanMr. David Clelland and
(Swansea W)Mr. Jim Dowd.

Question accordingly negatived.