HC Deb 24 July 1997 vol 298 cc1088-106

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 5, at end insert— ("( ) in the case of a pupil with an assisted place at a school providing education for children up to the age of 13 but not beyond, at the end of the school year in which he attains the age of 13; or")

6.4 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

I must inform the House that the amendment involves privilege.

Mr. Blunkett

In order to detain the House for as short a time as possible, I shall not go over all the old ground and refer in detail to familiar issues. We oppose the assisted places scheme; some Opposition Members support it.

In phasing the scheme out, we are doing our best to protect children's interests. We have declined to overturn its extension, which we could have done in time for next September. We have made it clear that we will protect the interests of children who have already been guaranteed places and that, in allowing the scheme's extension to children in primary education, we are protecting their right to remain in it until the age of 11. Today's debate deals not with substance and principle, but with the issue that arises from the Lords amendment, which refers indirectly to the Kilfoyle letter.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

My party is as convinced as the Labour party of the need to abolish the assisted places scheme as quickly as possible, but we also believe that when a promise has been made it is important that it is kept.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he supports what Lady Blackstone said in the debate on the Bill in another place? She said: The presumption will be that any parent who has accepted an assisted place running through to age 13 in a free-standing preparatory school on the basis of the Kilfoyle letter will have that place honoured. I can confirm that in such circumstances the commitment will be honoured through the use of the discretionary power."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 July 1997; Vol. 581, c. 1093.] In what circumstances would the Secretary of State not agree that the commitment given in the Kilfoyle letter is being met by the Government?

Mr. Blunkett

I am happy to support what was said by my noble Friend. On the understanding that the promise was given as a consequence of the Kilfoyle letter, it will be fulfilled under the discretion that we have agreed.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood)

The Secretary of State is dealing with the nub of the issue. What if a child at an independent preparatory school has an assisted place that was given according to the rules of the assisted places scheme but not on the basis of the Kilfoyle letter? If the right hon. Gentleman cannot describe circumstances that distinguish the general case from the case that has not relied on the Kilfoyle pledge, I do not understand why he has to preserve the discretion. Why can he not simply write the principle into the Bill?

Mr. Blunkett

I think that the right hon. Gentleman understands perfectly well why we need the discretion. There are people who, although their child had entered a school that keeps pupils up to the age of 13—and had done so at an early age—had not been assured that their child would continue until the age of 13. Such people were not in the position that we are discussing.

There have been some peculiar quirks to the assisted places scheme, and we, as a new Government, do not propose to repeat them. There have been quirks in the interpretation of the scheme—not least the fact that, when the original secondary education scheme was passed in the early 1980s, hon. Members were not necessarily aware that it would be applied to primary education by primary and prep schools. People who were obtaining places were highlighted in the press because, as the former hon. Member for Buckingham said, there was a presumption that they may not strictly have been entitled to them. We are not examining what has happened in the past, so as to protect the interests of the young people concerned. We are mindful of the fact that we must not drop ourselves into the hole of not having discretion and being unable to examine claims properly.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

It is obvious that the Secretary of State intends to press ahead and put the legislation on the statute book. The amendment is important. How will he exercise the discretion? How much will it cost to examine the cases of each of the 2,000 children who are covered by the amendment? What extra amount will his Department put to one side to scrutinise each of those applications? No parent of any child who falls into this category will be satisfied with the right hon. Gentleman's blanket assurances. If he intends to keep his pledge of putting children before dogma, he must say how much is being put aside to examine these cases.

Mr. Blunkett


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Interventions should be short: they should not be mini-speeches. I appeal to hon. Members for co-operation.

Mr. Blunkett

As an ex-Minister, the hon. Lady should be aware that the section, including staff at Darlington, have a duty to examine the applications and the allocation of places and to hold on file the information that is required, including details about the nature of the places that have been given up. As we are not expanding the scheme, and as that information is available, it can be made available at no expense. It is a question of using departmental time, and I am, and intend to remain, a great believer in ensuring that we use that time effectively and efficiently.

I am not sure that the people involved in the 2,000 cases to which the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) referred will apply for their children to go through to the age of 13. Some of them will think that it is more sensible to transfer their children to secondary education at the age of 11 than to seek private sponsorship, which many appear to be doing, or to transfer them to state secondary education at an age that is inappropriate for the area in which they live. These matters have already been debated at length, and I do not intend to delay the House by going through them again for the sake of hearing my own voice.

It is critical to understand that I am honouring our commitment to use the discretion sensitively and generously and to ensure that the young people and their families are not let down. I give that assurance again, and I have given it in the words of my noble Friend. I repeat the assurance that I gave on Second Reading about the 12 schools where children will take up places in September at the age of 10 and stay until the age of 18. We shall honour that assurance.

Much of the debate arises from the fact that, at the general election, we chose not to overturn the Conservative Government's decision on opening up primary education to assisted places. We did that because we thought that it was in the children's best interests not to have their education disrupted, and so that they would not have to enter the state system at such a late date that there would be no preference for them or their families. Contrary to what has been said in earlier debates on the matter, we have been extremely sensitive to the needs of children and have not put dogma first.

The amendment would not have been carried in the other place if only life peers had been voting. It would have been defeated by 79 votes to 55 if hereditary peers did not exist. It was simply a case of what I have described before as privilege defending privilege. Someone described it as democracy. This House is the democratically elected forum and has a mandate from the electorate. We had an overwhelming mandate on the Bill at the general election and no one could have been in any doubt about where we stood. We are not, therefore, debating the principle of the measure but whether discretion should be used in the way that we describe.

I say to the House and to the other place that great care must be taken over an amendment that is designed to undermine the Bill. We are sensitive to the importance of using the discretion wisely and of continuing to give guarantees. We are making sure that we protect children's interests and are going out of our way to prevent disruption.

6.15 pm

I wish that Conservative Members would understand that, as in the past, discretion will be used wisely and publicly. I fully understand that light will be shed on individual children and the importance of what was promised and what will be fulfilled. We do not want to open any more cans of worms that can be used to undermine the aim of switching resources from the benefit of a few to the benefit of the many. Some 400,000 youngsters of five, six and seven in state schools will benefit from smaller classes. That is a clear message from the House, and it was sent at the election on 1 May. I hope that the House will reaffirm it in rejecting the amendment.

Mr. Dorrell

I hope that the House will reject the Secretary of State's motion to disagree with the Lords amendment. In moving it, the right hon. Gentleman was softly spoken—butter would not melt in his mouth. He is determined to try to present his case in the gentlest possible way. The question before the House is simple: whether the Government should write into the Bill the commitment that was given on behalf of Labour by the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, in his letter to the chairman of the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools on 1 April.

I disagree with the Bill's principle, which is the abolition of the assisted places scheme. The Government's policy is divisive, and closes opportunity to many children. The Bill removes choice from parents and, in short, is regressive and reactionary. However, as the Secretary of State rightly said, that is not the question before the House. The question is very precise: whether the pledge given by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), now the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, should be put into the legislation to abolish the assisted places scheme. Let us be clear about the circumstances and history of the argument.

During the election campaign, the chairman of the IAPS sought clarification from the Labour party about how its policy to abolish the assisted places scheme would apply to his members—traditional preparatory schools offering education between the ages, typically, of eight and 13. There was some correspondence. The first response from Labour was not clear. The IAPS wrote again and received a crystal clear letter from the hon. Member for Walton, dated 1 April. It was not, in the language of the last Parliament, a statement made on a wet night in Dudley. It was a clear statement by a Labour party spokesman, no ifs or buts. I shall read it again to the House:

If a child has a place at a school which runs to age 13, then that place will be honoured through to 13. The question is whether that pledge, as given by the hon. Member for Walton, should be written into the Bill. It is a question not of the merits of the Bill, but of whether a Minister's word is his bond or simply the first convenient thing that comes into his head. It is a question that has dogged the Bill throughout its passage through Parliament.

It all began during the Second Reading debate on 2 June, when my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) asked the Secretary of State what his response was to the Kilfoyle letter and why the pledge was not in the Bill. It is instructive to go through the various occasions when the issue has arisen during the passage of the Bill. The House should note that, each time the issue has arisen, the Government's response has been different. No wonder the Secretary of State was so modest in his presenting his case this evening. He was anxious not to present a new argument. That at least is a departure in the way Parliament has dealt with the issue because, at every stage, the Government have offered a new excuse.

On 2 June, the Secretary of State offered his first excuse: I am very clear, and so is the Bill, that assisted places will remain in primary education up to the normal age of transfer at 11. Where an alternative transfer age applies in that area, the Secretary of State will have discretion, and my ministerial team and I will use it wisely to ensure that we do not have a situation where 500,000 youngsters transfer at 11, but other people think that they can transfer at 13, even if 13 is not the normal transferable age in that locality."—[Official Report, 2 June 1997; Vol. 295, c. 27.] There we have the first doctrine that defended the Bill as drafted—that we should not allow transfer at age 13 where the normal principle of the local education authority within which the prep school operates is to transfer schoolchildren between primary and secondary stage at age 11.

I have two answers to that response. First, and most important, the Secretary of State's response on 2 June—which was not, I have to say, repeated in his speech this evening—breaks the pledge given by the hon. Member for Walton, who said that, where a child had a place at a school up to age 13, the place would be honoured up to 13. The Secretary of State's first response was that that would not apply if, in the locality surrounding the prep school, the normal habit was to transfer at 11. It was a breaking of the pledge.

Secondly, it is, of course, a matter for parents to decide whether it is in their children's interests, given local circumstance, to transfer, in the normal traditions of the locality, into the state system at 11, or to continue to 13, as the Kilfoyle pledge made it clear they would be entitled to do.

Just how clearly the Kilfoyle pledge was broken, if we accept the principle of the Secretary of State's response on Second Reading, was made clear in the letter that the Department for Education and Employment sent to prep school head teachers about how the Government, at that stage of the argument, intended to use their discretion. I go through this argument because, from the beginning, the Government have said, "Rely on our discretion," but at several stages in the argument they have offered different interpretations of how they intend to use it.

The Department's letter states: There is provision for the Secretary of State to exercise limited discretion to extend support under the scheme in exceptional circumstances. That is not what the Kilfoyle letter told the IAPS on 1 April. That contained no ifs or buts. It stated: If a child has a place at a school … that place will be honoured". In its letter to prep schools, the Department started talking about "exceptional circumstances".

It is small wonder, therefore, that my hon. Friends returned to the issue in Committee on 10 June. When the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), replied to that debate, she had a different line of argument. She said:

the commitments that we gave in our manifesto will be honoured. I shall remind the Committee of those commitments. First, children in a secondary school will be able to finish secondary school and, secondly, children in a primary school will be able to finish primary school."—[Official Report, 10 June 1997; Vol. 295, c. 980.] Both those commitments were given, and it is welcome that the Government intend to honour them, but the Under-Secretary forgot the third commitment, which was given by the hon. Member for Walton—

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers)

That was not in the manifesto.

Mr. Dorrell

That is a new defence. We have not had that one before. So far, on the authority of the Prime Minister, this has been held to be binding. Now the Minister says that it is not in the manifesto. Would he like to develop that line of argument? I do not think that the Secretary of State will thank him if he does; he is in enough trouble as it is.

Mr. Blunkett

I wish to draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention merely to the fact that he was quoting the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), in terms of her interpretation of the manifesto.

Mr. Dorrell

So we are back to the wet night in Dudley doctrine—that it does not matter because it was not in the manifesto. In her response to a debate in which the pledge was being quoted, the Under-Secretary talked about two commitments in the manifesto Those two commitments the Government are certainly honouring, but she forgot the commitment in the letter.

Before he gets too excited about it, the Secretary of State should remember that, the following day, the Prime Minister acknowledged at the Dispatch Box that the Under-Secretary was wrong. When challenged by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) on the issue, he said: Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise this, and I hope that my answer will give him some satisfaction. The Prime Minister recognised that the Under-Secretary and the education team had got it wrong. He went on to say: the Secretary of State will make it clear today"— he had not made it clear until then—

that he will exercise his discretion in respect of those children". Then the Prime Minister introduced some new doctrines into the argument. They had not been mentioned before. He said that the Secretary of State was about to issue a new statement of policy that said that the Government would exercise this discretion provided that they"— parents— have been given a promise or an understanding that their assisted place will go all the way through to 13. That was the doctrine the Secretary of State repeated from the Dispatch Box this evening: that the commitment in the Kilfoyle letter is not an unrestrained commitment, but a commitment to honour places where a specific commitment can be shown to have been given to a specific parent that the place will be open to age 13.

According to the Prime Minister's doctrine, the parent is not entitled to rely on the general pledge of Labour party policy given to the IAPS by the hon. Member for Walton on 1 April; any parent taking up a place in a prep school on the assisted places scheme was told on 11 June—several weeks after the commitment—that, if they wanted to rely on that commitment they had to get a specific and personal promise out of the prep school offering the assisted place. The Prime Minister had changed the terms of the argument.

Under further questioning from my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley, the Prime Minister introduced a new principle into the defence of the Government's position. My right hon. Friend pressed the Prime Minister to say why we could not have this principle in the Bill in the unrestrained terms of the Kilfoyle letter and why it had to be based on discretion. The Prime Minister said:

It is important that there is a discretionary element, because we must avoid abuse of the system."—[Official Report, 11 June 1997; Vol. 295, c. 1135–36.] That is the Achilles' heel of the Government's argument. Despite repeated attempts to extract from Government spokesmen, both in the House and in another place, an example of the abuse against which the Government are protecting themselves, no example has been forthcoming. The only Minister who offered any explanation about the abuse that the Government had in mind is Baroness Blackstone, about whom I shall have more to say in a moment.

It was only in another place that the full implications of the two new doctrines introduced by the Prime Minister became clear. My noble Friends supported an amendment moved by a Liberal Democrat peer, which is why I hope the Liberal Democrats may feel that this commitment should be written into the Bill.

My noble Friends pressed Baroness Blackstone to elaborate on the Government's policy. Part of the speech in which she set out the three circumstances in which the Government intend to use their discretion has already been quoted. Two of those circumstances are welcome. The first is where the local age of transfer is not 11 but 12 or 13, and I agree that that would be sensible. Secondly, there is the Dulwich example, where there is a secondary school that recruits at age 10. That seems sensible, too.

Then we come to the third example—I shall quote Baroness Blackstone's words directly. We come back to the doctrine of the specific promise. She said that some schools

with an age range of seven, eight and nine up to 13—may have been given a clear promise that they can keep their place up to the age of 13 in the belief that the new Government gave such an undertaking. We shall honour that commitment. What on earth does that mean? Does it mean that, on recruiting a pupil into a prep school, a head teacher has to produce a specific commitment that the child will be welcome at the school to the age of 13? Is not any parent entitled to assume that, provided the child behaves properly and so on, that is an implied undertaking between a school and a family? Why cannot that parent rely on the implied undertaking that, on putting a pupil into a school, the place will be open until the completion of the normal cycle of education in that school? Why cannot that parent rely on the general principle of the letter sent by the hon. Member for Walton?

6.30 pm

The importance of the questions that I am asking is underlined further when we look at what Baroness Blackstone had to say about the Government's belief that they need to protect themselves from abuse. She is the only Government spokesman who has tried to answer the question about what sort of abuse is being referred to. My hon. Friends and, I hope, the entire House will listen with some care to the few words that she offered in answer to that question. This is the Government's defence of why we cannot have this principle written into the Bill. She said:

I was referring to schools which are simply using this as a bridge into independent secondary schools—in other words, providing another two years of private schooling at the taxpayers' expense for those who will then go on to pay for their child's independent ordinary schooling."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 July 1997; Vol. 581, c. 790-1.] Let us be clear: the abuse against which the Government are protecting themselves is the action of parents who rely on the Kilfoyle letter and who, through the assisted places scheme, are intending to use a place at a preparatory school as preparation for access to an independent school at 13. That is the case with the great majority of children going into prep schools. It is precisely what the majority of parents who put their children into an independent prep school will intend for their children. The action of those parents is being described by Baroness Blackstone at the other end of the Corridor as the abuse against which the Government are protecting themselves. That is why Conservative Members do not accept the soft words of the Secretary of State.

Mr. Don Foster

The right hon. Gentleman said, rightly, that the House should listen carefully to what was said by Baroness Blackstone. It is also important that the House reads all her comments on this matter. If the right hon. Gentleman reads further, he will see that she talks about the fact that the majority of schools will act honourably. She said: I am sure that the vast majority of schools will act honourably and seek to do the right thing by the pupils in their charge. But I am afraid that we cannot rule out the possibility that a school—perhaps giving prominence to its own interests—may not ensure that parents consider all the available options."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 July 1997; Vol. 581, c. 1094.] Surely the point is that many parents will want to consider what is the right thing to do for their children at the age of 11, and it is important that they should be given all the available information. That is the point that she was making.

Mr. Dorrell

I agree that parents must be responsible for their own decisions and make their own choice about whether they want their child to switch to the state system at 11 to go on in the independent system to the age of 13 or to switch into the state system at 13. Those are the decisions that it is proper for parents to make.

I do not accept any criticism about not reading the entire speech: I was reading the end of Baroness Blackstone's speech. I read the final paragraph of her speech to the last full stop and I read it verbatim. My point is that the Government's definition of abuse is the mainstream intention of any parent with a child on the assisted places scheme picking up on the commitment given by the hon. Member for Walton.

The numbers attached to this argument are tiny. What is proposed makes no material difference to the Government's plans for the assisted places scheme, regrettable though I believe them to be, but it makes a huge difference to individual children and it makes an even bigger difference to the Government's reputation for straight dealing. As the Bill went through the House and another place, we were told, first, that everything would be all right because it would be against the children's interests to move them at 13. Then we were told that we could rely on the discretion because it would deliver the result that the hon. Member for Walton promised. Then, when Baroness Blackstone was pressed on what she meant by abuse, she made it clear that she was referring to the great majority of parents who are relying on the Kilfoyle letter. They are being defined by the Government as abusers of the system.

The Secretary of State can use his majority if he chooses to overrule the Lords amendment. I hope that he will use this as an opportunity to show that he is bound by the specific terms of the commitment given on behalf of the Labour party which would not be honoured if the speech made by Baroness Blackstone was the guiding principle on which he was intending to use his discretion. This is his opportunity to recognise that this is an argument that has dogged the Bill from the beginning. It is an argument where right is on our side and he now has an opportunity to acknowledge that.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

The Secretary of State's contribution today has been most unedifying. I listened carefully, and I heard the assurances that he gave the House about the way in which those children will be treated. He said that there was nothing disreputable in his behaviour and nothing underhand in the way in which the Government will deal with this. However, the last thing that he was prepared to do was to put his words in writing in the Bill. It is that which gives the House cause for concern. It certainly gave cause for concern in another place.

If the Secretary of State is suggesting that we do not have cause for concern, that we have been given a bankable assurance and that the reservations expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) are groundless, he has no reason to resist this modest but clear amendment. If the Government agree to the amendment, the people of this country—the 2,000 or so children who will potentially be affected—will have clear notice from the Government that they acknowledge the concerns. They would be giving an assurance to those children and their parents that they will behave honourably.

The argument that the amendment undermines the whole purpose of the Bill is pathetic. It is a narrow amendment which deals with a specific point, not with the underlying principles of the Bill—which most Conservative Members find deeply offensive. It deals with a small number of children and parents who deserve better treatment than they have had so far from the Labour Government.

My other point relates to the rather old-fashioned, class-warrior remarks of the Secretary of State about the decision of the other place to try to revise the Bill. His attack on hereditary peerages was rather pathetic. Their Lordships basically said that they were dissatisfied with the assurances that they had received and that there was therefore a need to revise the Bill. They were acting as the defenders not of privilege, but of those children from poor households who had been given the opportunity, by the Conservative Government, of education at independent schools regarded throughout the world as of the finest.

I hope that the message will go out to the people of this country that the right hon. Gentleman and his party are not content simply to have the most massive majority in this House for decades, but are so arrogant and so new Labour that they brook no opposition, from wherever it might come.

Mr. Blunkett

Especially from a Tory hereditary peer.

Mr. Howarth

That is a cheap remark. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that there should be no revision; no opportunity for the decisions of this House to be revised? The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) is nodding. If this House is to be the sole authority, why have another Chamber? Why not abolish it? [HoN. MEMBERS: "Yes."] There we have it—old Labour noises from new Labour faces. They are not interested in any opposition; they wish arrogantly to promote their cause, however unjust or misguided.

I hope that the Government will think again on the amendment. If they are anxious to show parents that they are serious in upholding the undertakings given in the Kilfoyle letter, they should accept the amendment gracefully. They should do so not because their Lordships defeated the Government, but because they recognise that they would be doing their duty in upholding an undertaking by a Labour spokesman and fulfilling their duty to the parents. I hope that they will think again about their unwise and arrogant remarks about the way that Parliament handles its business. They should understand the need for a revising Chamber.

6.45 pm
Mrs. Gillan

The House knows of my deep hatred of the Bill, which I have vigorously opposed at every stage. I am delighted with the way in which the new Conservative Front-Bench team have taken up the reins in opposing a vicious Bill that is based on class envy.

I congratulate the Government on doing one thing of which I thoroughly approve—protecting the music and ballet assisted places scheme, which is aimed at children who are talented in music or dance. Of course, the cost per pupil of that scheme is £13,000, so this amendment would cost very little to include in the Bill.

During the passage of the Bill, and not least on this amendment, we have tried to persuade, cajole and urge the Government to use common sense, despite their determination to abolish the scheme. We asked them to wait and see, because if their pledges on standards—which we all applaud—were fulfilled, the scheme would wither on the vine.

Had the Government been prepared to wait a little, that would have given schools time to absorb the change and perhaps find alternatives ways of funding pupils from less well-off families. However, the Government would not accept that and now they will not accept this reasoned amendment, which was passed by 127 Members of the other place. I congratulate those life and hereditary peers who thought it important to send their views to this place.

The amendment is a matter of honour. Both this and the other place are honourable Houses. I call on the Government to look on the amendment as a matter of honour. Indeed, one noble Lord—who agrees with the Government on the principle of the Bill—said that the Kilfoyle letter should be honoured. He said that the Government should start with a presumption of innocence in favour of those pupils and parents who are in the position referred to in the Kilfoyle letter. If we cannot appeal to the Government on logic, can we at least appeal to them on the ground of honour?

Mr. Blunkett


Mrs. Gillan

The Independent Schools Information Service has estimated that about 2,000 children will fall into that category, as I said in my intervention the Secretary of State's speech. We have heard how the discretion will be applied, but we have also heard that the right hon. Gentleman considers that no expense will be involved in examining the cases of those children. It is rather sad that he considers that the departmental time of officials is not an expense. I would have thought that he would acknowledge that the officials who will no longer be required to administer the team will end their work more quickly if the amendment were accepted. If he rejects the amendment, the officials will have more of their time taken up examining the so-called discretionary arrangement, so it will be an additional cost on the taxpayer.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), I was alarmed by the attack on the House of Lords and the use of that appalling soundbite, "Privilege defending privilege." The Secretary of State should accept that it is a case of privilege defending the underprivileged—something on which his party should be concentrating, as the Conservative Government always did.

The very fact that the right hon. Gentleman refers to privilege means that it is the privilege of the independent schools that bothers him. That betrays his antipathy towards independent schools, which was revealed so clearly on 2 June when, from a sedentary position, the right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted a colleague to preside over the demise of the independent sector.

Mr. Blunkett

Who said that?

Mrs. Gillan

The Secretary of State said it in a sedentary intervention recorded in Hansard.

We have tried every means to amend the Bill. We make a final appeal that the Government accept this well-thought-through amendment from the other place—for the sake of the children and as a matter of honour.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I want to add a few remarks to those of my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Secretary of State brought discredit on himself by attacking the Lords for seeking to amend the Bill in a way that was designed to give effect to the promises made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) before the election.

I took part in the Second Reading and Committee debates on the Bill. I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell). In those debates, Ministers defended the provision by referring to a limited discretion in terms very similar to those used in a letter to schools issued by the Department. The letter talked about a limited discretion in exceptional circumstances, which were described solely in relation to easing integration into the maintained sector in those areas where the normal age of transfer is later than age 11. The evidence asked of schools wishing to apply on behalf of parents for such discretion makes no reference to the Kilfoyle letter.

When we debated the matter before, Ministers did not talk about discretion in the terms that were later used in the upper House. It is clear from what Baroness Blackstone said about discretion that the Government are seeking to cover up their clear failure to meet the pledges that they made before the election. They are trying to say that they can meet those pledges by the exercise of discretion, but it is clear that they will not. Baroness Blackstone said:

If it can be demonstrated that the offers were made on the strength of the Kilfoyle letter, then, yes, we shall exercise discretion"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 July 1997; Vol. 581, c. 1093.] The pledge made by the hon. Member for Walton was unequivocal. He said: If a child has a place at a school which runs to age 13, then that place will be honoured through to 13. He did not say that the place had to be offered on the understanding of the commitment in that letter. He gave a clear expression of an intention that such places would be honoured. Ministers are trying to run away from that pledge. If they intended to honour such assisted places through to 13, they would put that in the Bill. The evidence suggests that they will not honour places in the terms of the letter issued before the election. They seek to break that promise.

We do not know the circumstances under which they will break that pledge. When Baroness Blackstone talks about the potential for abuse, we are in murky territory. There is no evidence of such abuses. No evidence is offered that schools have been seeking to encourage parents to maintain places against the interests of their children. Quite the opposite is the case.

I do not know about the cases of 2,000 children countrywide, but I know about the cases of five children in St. Faith's school in my constituency. The parents are continually asking the school under what circumstances their children, aged under 11, will be able to stay at the school until they are 13, as they hope. The school cannot answer. The parents are concerned that the place that they had believed would be maintained until the age of 13 will not be honoured. The school is not trying to disguise anything or distort their decision. It is trying to enable them to maintain the places that they had believed that their children would be able to enjoy up to 13.

We are seeking to uphold a decision that brings credit to the upper House and to give effect to what should have been the Government's intention. Parents had understood that to be their policy, and it ought to be put in the Bill.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

It is regrettable that we have to debate the amendment and that the Government have not seen fit simply to accept it. It will not undermine the purpose or principle of the Bill, which have been debated long and hard in the Chamber. I contributed to those debates several times, and my views are well documented.

We are debating whether the Government are willing to abide by commitments that were freely given before the election—commitments on which people have been able to base decisions about the schooling of their children. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) put the issue clearly in an intervention, when he referred to supporting the Government in keeping a promise.

The Government have not said that the commitment was not given. We are not debating whether the letter was sent by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle). He clearly gave an open-ended commitment that any child who had an assisted place at a school that went up to age 13 would keep that place up to 13.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has just pointed out, there was no suggestion in the letter that parents of such children had to have read the letter and said that they had done so to be able to believe that the place would be honoured until 13. The Government are introducing an extra criterion, which has not yet been clarified, to assure themselves not that parents were aware that the place would not be honoured but that they were aware of the Kilfoyle letter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) asked how the Department will decide whether the cases brought before it will be subject to the Secretary of State's discretion. Will there be a test for parents? Will they be asked what the Kilfoyle letter is, and if they do not know, will their child not get the place?

We are talking about a small number of children. If the Government want to keep faith with parents, they should be willing to accept the amendment. It is precisely because they appeared to try to forget about the Kilfoyle letter during the early stages of the Bill—to forget about a promise made by a Labour Member when he had shadow responsibility for the matter—and pretend that it did not exist, that parents are saying that they want the commitment enshrined in the Bill. They will not simply allow the exercise of discretion by the Secretary of State. It is important that people are clear about the Government's position and that the uncertainty that the Government are suggesting, through the exercise of discretion, does not continue for the parents of children who do not know the age at which the assisted places scheme will cease to apply.

I have often sat in this Chamber brief though my time in the House has been, and heard the Prime Minister say that this Government keep their word and keep their promises. The debate on the amendment is about whether the Prime Minister is right—about whether this Government keep their word or their promises. If the Prime Minister is right, the Government should accept the amendment, because only by accepting, it will they prove that they keep their word on this issue. If they do not accept the amendment, they will be saying that the Government do not keep their word or their promises, contrary to all that the Prime Minister has said, but that they choose when and when not to keep their promises.

7 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I have only a brief point to add to the debate, which arises from the comments of some of my hon. Friends. My contribution is a last and, alas, perhaps a vain attempt to persuade the Government to change their mind on the issue.

As has been frequently pointed out during the debate, the issue at stake is whether parents and pupils can rely on the word of a spokesman for the Government. It should be pointed out that it is in the interests of the Government that they should, in this case, make it clear that such reliance can be placed on the words of a Government spokesman. It is particularly in the interests of the Government in relation to an education issue because they seek to enact various education measures, the success of which will much depend on the ability of parents and students to rely on the words of Ministers about their future intentions.

As we all know, the Government have a vast majority, so they can easily reverse or amend their own legislation during this Parliament. The Government intend to introduce major measures in relation to, for example, student maintenance. If those who are subject to those measures and who are forced to take out loans feel that they cannot rely on the constancy of the Government's intention, that will do much to undermine the Government's policies. It is therefore surely in the interests not just of the country as a whole, but of the Government in terms of their legislative programme, that they should show, by accepting the amendment, that one can rely on a statement made by a Labour party spokesman in terms of its full meaning and without the slightest dilution.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

During the election campaign, the Prime Minister spent a great deal of time talking about trust and honouring pledges in an age of new politics. The Bill has broken a bond of trust. The amendment would force the Government's hand and hold them to their pledge. They should have the decency and the humility to accept it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) and my hon. Friends the Members for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) have not rehearsed in detail the reason for our opposition to the Government's policy on assisted places. We have concentrated tonight on the question of the honour of a Government who are now being challenged to keep their word.

I heard the Secretary of State say from a sedentary position that our pleas were all cant. I can tell him that parents who are worried about their children's future do not regard the honouring of a man's word as cant. That is the very least they expect from a Government.

I remind the Secretary of State of the pledge that he is being asked to honour on behalf of his Prime Minister and his Government. During the election campaign, the former shadow schools Minister, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), gave a pledge, not to the country, but to the parents of children who had been awarded places under the assisted places scheme. The hon. Gentleman wrote:

If a child has a place at a school which runs to age 13, then that place will be honoured through to 13. There was no equivocation, and no talk of potential abuse. There was a clear commitment to honour every place.

The Government have not taken that line since they published the Bill two months ago. There has been no talk of honouring places through to 13. Indeed, as we have heard this evening, Ministers have changed the line almost every time the matter has been discussed. We are now told that Ministers will use their discretion in deciding who has a valid place and who does not. Possession and knowledge of the document written by a spokesman for his Government before the election will decide whether parents are in a strong position to argue their case and whether they feel that they are part of that pledge.

Ministers' warm words offer no guarantee to parents whose children have been awarded assisted places until the age of 13 as their proposed discretionary power could, by definition, be used to guarantee a child an assisted place or to deny a child an assisted place. In effect, Ministers are saying to parents, "Trust us. We will use our discretion."

I appeal to the Secretary of State tonight not to leave those people hanging in the balance. He should honour the words of his colleague which were used in a letter that is now on the public record. He should demonstrate to the country that the Government are honourable and that the Prime Minister is honourable. If he does not, his actions will be judged by the people.

Mr. Blunkett

I intend to be brief in my reply. I used the word "cant" from a sedentary position because we get lectures from Conservative Members about broken promises, about letters being sent by Labour Members when in opposition and about Governments fulfilling their promises to the electorate. We are getting those lectures from people who broke every promise going in the previous 18 years. Immediately they came into office in 1979, they broke many of the promises they had made in opposition. One example was that they tripled the number of the unemployed although they came into office on a promise to reduce unemployment. Some of us have long memories and some of us remember the slogan, "Labour isn't working". Conservative Members should not quote a letter sent by a shadow Minister, and they should not talk about a promise that was not given in a manifesto and that did not form part of the election campaign and then describe our actions as cant.

Mr. Dorrell

Would the right hon. Gentleman like to reflect a moment on the doctrine that he is enunciating? Is he really saying that the only words that the Labour party regards itself as bound by are the words contained in its election manifesto? Is he really saying that none of the words used by its spokesmen are commitments that can be regarded as binding? Alternatively, would he prefer to go back to the proposition that he should be regarded as bound by the letter written by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle)?

Mr. Blunkett

No, I am not enunciating a doctrine, and I am not suggesting what the right hon. Gentleman suggests. I am suggesting that, outside the House, the word that might be used about people who accuse us of breaking our word is "hypocritical". We are talking tonight about precisely the opposite of what is being suggested. We are saying that, despite the fact that there was no manifesto commitment and that the matter was not part of the general election campaign, we are prepared to honour what my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service implied in his letter.

We shall use discretion to carry through the commitment to children who were promised that they would be able to hold their places up to the age of 13. Children in secondary schools who start at the age of 10 will be able to carry through until they are 18 years old—and we did not overturn the new primary admissions policy that the previous Government had introduced.

What I said about the upper House—the words have been twisted—needs to be clarified. I have not disputed for a moment the right of the upper House to send legislation back to this House or to move amendments. I have not suggested for a moment that that right does not exist. I merely pointed out that, had there not been hereditary peers, the amendment would not be before us, because it would have been defeated in the upper House. I think that that is a perfectly reasonable point to make from a democratically elected legislature that speaks on behalf of the British people.

One day, the class wars in this country will be over; we shall have a modern democracy in the 21st century—

Mr. Gerald Howarth

When you are gone.

Mr. Blunkett

That sedentary suggestion is very interesting. It is the kind of very silly class remark that shows contempt for an elected legislature in a democracy.

Mr. Howarth

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunkett

I am not giving way, because I am going to finish by saying—

Mr. Dorrell

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunkett

I have given way once to the right hon. Gentleman in what I promised would be a very short speech.

We are fulfilling the commitment that was made. We have said that in the upper House and again tonight. I shall not read further words from my noble Friend Baroness Blackstone, although I have them here. I shall commit the House to carrying through what she pledged and what we have said calmly and sensibly tonight. Those who had a promise will have that promise fulfilled. Those who believed that the letter sent on 1 April gave them a commitment will be fulfilled. I promise the House that we shall fulfil those commitments, and that is why we ask the House to reject the Lords amendment.

Question put, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 286, Noes 120.

Division No. 66] [7.11 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Barron, Kevin
Ainger, Nick Battle, John
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Bayley, Hugh
Allen, Graham (Nottingham N) Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Bennett, Andrew F
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Benton, Joe
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Berry, Roger
Ashton, Joe Betts, Clive
Atherton, Ms Candy Blackman, Liz
Atkins, Charlotte Blizzard, Bob
Austin, John Blunkett, Rt Hon David
Banks, Tony Boateng, Paul
Barnes, Harry Borrow, David
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Grocott, Bruce
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Grogan, John
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Gunnell, John
Buck, Ms Karen Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Burgon, Colin Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Byers, Stephen Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Caborn, Richard Hanson, David
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Healey, John
Campbell-Savours, Dale Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Cann, Jamie Hepburn, Stephen
Casale, Roger Heppell, John
Caton, Martin Hesford, Stephen
Cawsey, Ian Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Hill, Keith
Chaytor, David Hinchliffe, David
Church, Ms Judith Hodge, Ms Margaret
Clapham, Michael Hoey, Kate
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Hoon, Geoffrey
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Hope, Phil
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Hopkins, Kelvin
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Clelland, David Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Clwyd, Ann Howells, Dr Kim
Coffey, Ms Ann Hoyle, Lindsay
Cohen, Harry Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Coleman, Iain (Hammersmith) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Colman, Tony (Putney) Humble, Mrs Joan
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Iddon, Dr Brian
Cooper, Yvette Illsley, Eric
Corbett, Robin Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Corbyn, Jeremy Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Corston, Ms Jean Jamieson, David
Cousins, Jim Jenkins, Brian (Tamworth)
Cox, Tom Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Cranston, Ross Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Jones, Ms Fiona (Newark)
Dalyell, Tam Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Darvill, Keith Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Davidson, Ian Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Jowell, Ms Tessa
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly) Keeble, Ms Sally
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Dawson, Hilton Keen, Mrs Ann (Brentford)
Dean, Mrs Janet Kemp, Fraser
Denham, John Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Dobbin, Jim Kidney, David
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank Kilfoyle, Peter
Dowd, Jim King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Drew, David King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Drown, Ms Julia Kumar, Dr Ashok
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Lawrence, Ms Jackie
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Laxton, Bob
Ellman, Ms Louise Leslie, Christopher
Ennis, Jeff Levitt, Tom
Etherington, Bill Linton, Martin
Field, Rt Hon Frank Livingstone, Ken
Fitzpatrick, Jim Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Fitzsimons, Lorna Lock, David
Flint, Caroline Love, Andrew
Foster, Rt Hon Derek McAvoy, Thomas
Foster, Don (Bath) McDonagh, Siobhain
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) McDonnell, John
Foster, Michael John (Worcester) McIsaac, Shona
Gapes, Mike Mackinlay, Andrew
George, Bruce (Walsall S) McNulty, Tony
Gerrard, Neil Mactaggart, Fiona
Gibson, Dr Ian McWalter, Tony
Gilroy, Mrs Linda McWilliam, John
Godman, Dr Norman A Mahon, Mrs Alice
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Mallaber, Judy
Grant, Bernie Mandelson, Peter
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Marek, Dr John
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Sedgemore, Brian
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Shaw, Jonathan
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Shipley, Ms Debra
Martlew, Eric Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Singh, Marsha
Meale, Alan Skinner, Dennis
Merron, Gillian Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Michael, Alun Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Milburn, Alan Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Miller, Andrew Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Moffatt, Laura Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Moran, Ms Margaret Snape, Peter
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Southworth, Ms Helen
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W) Spellar, John
Morley, Elliot Steinberg, Gerry
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Stevenson, George
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon) Stinchcombe, Paul
Mountford, Kali Stuart, Ms Gisela (Edgbaston)
Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie Sutcliffe, Gerry
Mudie, George Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Mullin, Chris
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Norris, Dan Taylor, David (NW Leics)
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Timms, Stephen
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Tipping, Paddy
Olner, Bill Todd, Mark
Pearson, Ian Touhig, Don
Pendry, Tom Trickett, Jon
Perham, Ms Linda Truswell, Paul
Pickthall, Colin Turner, Desmond (Kemptown)
Pike, Peter L Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Pollard, Kerry Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Pond, Chris Vaz, Keith
Pound, Stephen Vis, Dr Rudi
Powell, Sir Raymond Walley, Ms Joan
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Ward, Ms Claire
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Watts, David
Prescott, Rt Hon John White, Brian
Primarolo, Dawn Whitehead, Dr Alan
Prosser, Gwyn Wicks, Malcolm
Quin, Ms Joyce Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Quinn, Lawrie (Scarborough)
Rammell, Bill Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Rapson, Syd Willis, Phil
Raynsford, Nick Wills, Michael
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough) Winnick, David
Roche, Mrs Barbara Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Rogers, Allan Wise, Audrey
Rooker, Jeff Wood, Mike
Rooney, Terry Woolas, Phil
Rowlands, Ted Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Ruane, Chris Wright, Tony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Ruddock, Ms Joan Wyatt, Derek
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Ryan, Ms Joan Tellers for the Ayes:
Salter, Martin Mr. Greg Pope and
Sawford, Phil Mr. Jon Owen Jones.
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)
Amess, David Brazier, Julian
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Browning, Mrs Angela
Arbuthnot, James Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Baldry, Tony Burns, Simon
Bercow, John Butterfill, John
Beresford, Sir Paul Cash, William
Blunt, Crispin Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)
Body, Sir Richard
Boswell, Tim Chope, Christopher
Collins, Tim Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Colvin, Michael McIntosh, Miss Anne
Cormack, Sir Patrick MacKay, Andrew
Curry, Rt Hon David McLoughlin, Patrick
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Malins, Humfrey
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Maples, John
Day, Stephen Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen May, Mrs Theresa
Duncan, Alan Merchant, Piers
Duncan Smith, Iain Nicholls, Patrick
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Norman, Archie
Evans, Nigel Paterson, Owen
Faber, David Prior, David
Fabricant, Michael Redwood, Rt Hon John
Flight, Howard Robathan, Andrew
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Fraser, Christopher Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Gibb, Nick Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Ruffley, David
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Gray, James Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Green, Damian Spicer, Sir Michael
Greenway, John Spring, Richard
Grieve, Dominic Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Gummer, Rt Hon John Streeter, Gary
Hague, Rt Hon William Swayne, Desmond
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Syms, Robert
Hammond, Philip Tapsell, Sir Peter
Hawkins, Nick Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Heald, Oliver Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Taylor, Sir Teddy
Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward Temple-Morris, Peter
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Townend, John
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Tredinnick, David
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Trend, Michael
Horam, John Tyrie, Andrew
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Viggers, Peter
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Walter, Robert
Hunter, Andrew Wardle, Charles
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Whitney, Sir Raymond
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Whittingdale, John
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Willetts, David
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Lansley, Andrew Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Leigh, Edward Woodward, Shaun
Letwin, Oliver Yeo, Tim
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Lidington, David
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Tellers for the Noes:
Loughton, Tim Mr. James Cran and
Luff, Peter Sir David Madel.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment disagreed to.

Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendment to the Bill: Mrs. Angela Browning, Mr. Stephen Byers, Ms Jean Corston, Mr. David Jamieson and Sir David Madel; Three to be quorum of the Committee.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

To withdraw immediately.

Reasons for disagreeing to a Lords amendment reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords

Back to