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Mr. Howell : I am dealing with proposed grant-maintained schools, which are mentioned in the order. That should be in order. In all my time in this place, any self-respecting Minister who said that he wished not to deal with proposed school trusts but only with those that are already formed, out of courtesy to the House, would have withdrawn his order. That is not what this Secretary of State has done. He is going on hell-fire with his order, which has no relevance to his speech. However, hon. Members must put up with such discourtesies.
As a result of the company--the grant trust--the people on the board of parent governors--
Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest) : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene because I intend to make my own contribution to the debate. On the assumption that he is making a spurious attempt to raise matters that are not within the scope of the regulations, will he agree that no member of the grant maintained schools trust had any discussion on the composition of any governing body, whether in Birmingham or in any other education authority? To imply otherwise is to lie to the House.
Mr. Norris : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify the position. In Birmingham, the trust has discussed with interested parents and governors the concept of grant maintenance. That is what it should do, and that is what it has done. It is the elected Labour councillors of Birmingham who have so far spent over £20,000 of ratepayers' money on spurious legal actions to try to frustrate the wishes of parents and governors in Birmingham.
Mr. Howell : If the trust is behaving as a trust, why has it not had one minute's consultation with the chairman of the governors, who happens to be a distinguished former lord mayor and Labour councillor? Why are representatives of the trust seen going into the Conservative room at the Birmingham city council with Conservative governors? If it is a trust, it has an obligation in law to be evenhanded in all the advice that it gives. It has an obligation in law to speak to the governors as a whole, which it has not yet done. It is conniving in a
Column 871hole-in-the-corner method by meeting certain governors only. For that reason, the Secretary of State should not give it a penny. It is not behaving properly.
Mr. Norris : As long as the right hon. Gentleman makes statements that are wildly inaccurate and accuses me of involvement, he must expect me to interrupt him. He has said that the trust has an obligation in law to consult every governor. For my edification, will he draw the attention of the House to that specific law? Where does he find it? Where does the obligation arise? I know of no such law.
Mr. Howell : If that obligation does not exist and the trust-- [Interruption.] I assert that as the trust is a charity the obligation does exist because a charity cannot be partial in its activities. It cannot be party political. If the obligation does not exist, the Secretary of State is showing a monumental abuse of his powers by allowing the trust to behave as it is. May I add--
Mr. Coombs : Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is a monumental abuse of power for the Birmingham city council to make available confidential names and addresses of parents so that they can be lobbied and canvassed in their own homes by supporters of the council against the opting-out proposal?
Mr. Howell : I am delighted to deal with that intervention because it echoes an argument that has been advanced by the Secretary of State, as reported in Education . The right hon. Gentleman asserted that it was wrong for members of the city council and others, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and myself, to have access to the names and addresses of parents for the purpose of writing to them. The headmaster of the school in question has used the register to write five, six or seven letters
Mr. Howell : It is typical of the Tory rabble that I have only to address you, Madam Deputy Speaker, with the greatest respect, which is the phrase that I used, to bring them off their seats. With the greatest respect, I made the error of replying to the question put to me and I should not have done so.
Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. The right hon. Gentleman and hon. Members should not respond to interventions. They should stay within the scope of the debate ; it is a narrow one and I intend to keep the House to it.
To return to the trust, it is advising on the gerrymandering of boards of governors. [Interruption.]
Mr. Howell : With the greatest respect-- [Laughter.] I am dealing with the activities of the trust. It is behaving in a disgraceful way. I am perfectly entitled to express that to the House. What has happened in Small Heath is wholly
Mr. Howell : I will tell the hon. Gentleman how they voted. They voted in a way which has been challenged, rightly, in the courts, therefore -- [Interruption.] I will tell the House what happened. The trust was advising the headmaster who called a special school assembly of pupils of 11 to 15, distributed leaflets and told them to go home and vote no. That matter is before the courts.
Mr. Dunn : The right hon. Gentleman is making an interesting case and I understand his difficulties. Can he please tell the House what his opinion is of his constituents who as parents exercised their democratic right and voted to opt out?
Mr. Howell rose --
The body has been advising the headmaster and governors who now face two judicial reviews, neither of which was acknowledged by the Secretary of State at Question Time, nor in his disgraceful speech to the Young Conservatives when he was dealing with the trust and the legislation. Instead he attacked those who were ensuring that the legality of what was going on was properly reviewed in the courts. We shall have other opportunities to talk about the sort of literature that has gone out and certainly to defend the charges made against us. It does not equate with the concept of any democratic process that I have ever been brought up in to understand that, on the one hand, parents could be written to six or eight times and, on the other, people are pilloried by the Secretary of State for writing one single letter to parents advising them of the case against opting out.
The regulations are a disgrace to the British democratic process. It is an absolute disgrace to the Secretary of State for Education and Science, who, if he had an ounce of decency left in him, would take them away and rectify them.
Column 873that I have ever heard such an appalling display of self-righteous humbug in all my years in the House. During my recent sabbatical, when I had the pleasure of reading these debates as one removed, I was just as excited by the concept of grant maintenance--the idea of allowing schools to operate as independent schools free from the sort of political chicanery that we have heard about in the examples that my hon. Friends and even Opposition Members have given. It was a marvellous concept, which we had to follow through as vigorously as possible.
I shall first of all dispel what I see as possibly the only valid point that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) made. He is right that on page 10 of one of the early documents published by the trust the words "As a registered charity" appeared. Those words were written in the context of what we expected at that time would be a successful application for charitable status, bearing in mind the trust's three objectives, which I shall later outline.
As it happens, by the time that that publication was issued, charitable status had not been obtained. Any decision--
Mr. Norris : When I have finished my sentence, I will give way. As it happened, at the time that that document was published, charitable status had not been obtained. At that time, it was still being sought for the trust as a whole. We have been advised that, because of the nature of the political debate surrounding grant maintenance--whereas the objectives of the trust were perfectly clear and not concerned with the debate in the House on the Education Reform Bill--charitable status would not follow automatically. It was therefore brought to our attention that the document was in error. Immediately that that document was shown to us to be in error, the-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Win Griffiths rose --
Mr. Win Griffiths rose --
A correction to four words was made in a quite complex document, copies of which I am more than happy to allow my hon. Friends and, indeed, Opposition Members to see. We ensured that the education press, especially The Times Educational Supplement, The Guardian and other interested journals, had full details of the change that we had made. We were very keen that, if there was any suggestion that any of the work of the trust was not charitable--in the sense that it involved the discussion of any principle that might be defined as political--the trust should not seek grant- maintained status in that regard.
An important consideration was the belief of all those associated with the trust that it was reprehensible to use public money to make a political point. The irony is that in that regard the trust accepted--
Mr. Win Griffiths rose --
Column 874Mr. Straw rose --
Mr. Norris : We have a short time and others want to speak. When I have finished, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Bridgend. In that regard, the trust was clear that it had three main functions. They were first--
Mr. Win Griffiths rose --
The trust has three objectives. The first is to advise schools that inquire of the trust about what grant-maintained status means. Earlier, figures were tossed around about the popularity of the concept of grant-maintaned status. There are 6,300 schools eligible for grant-maintained status, and the House will be interested to know that of those more than 10 per cent. have now inquired of the trust as to how they might seek grant-maintained status. Therefore, more than 600 schools have expressed interest in the principle. The second purpose for which the trust was established was to assist those schools that have balloted their parents and have decided that they will make an application for grant-maintained status. Those schools would need two kinds of technical information about the issues to be decided upon while the balloting takes place and about the process for preparing an application to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State were the ballot successful. My right hon. Friend acts in a quasi-judicial capacity in determining any application to him for grant-maintained status, but he could not, of course, offer advice on the preparation of an individual application.
I shall now give way to the hon. Member for Bridgend. The hon. Gentleman has not risen and, having given him every opportunity, I see no reason to detain further-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman is well known for his chicanery-- [Interruption.] He gave way to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) and you should now rule that my hon. Friend has the Floor because the hon. Gentleman gave way.
Mr. Norris : Perhaps it would assist my hon. Friend and the general debate to make one point clear in answer to a serious allegation by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell). At no time has the trust had any discussions with any member of my right hon. Friend's ministerial team or with any local authority about the composition of governing bodies. That is entirely a matter for the appropriate authorities and it is absolutely nothing to do with the trust. I assure the House that the trust has plenty of work on its hands without engaging in matters that are entirely outside its purview.
Mr. Norris rose --
Mr. Denis Howell : My accusation was crystal clear. It was not that the trust was negotiating with officers or with the city council as a whole, but that at every stage it was advising a Conservative group on Birmingham council's education committee. The trust members attended meetings in Conservative members' rooms and acted in a quasi-party political way.
Mr. Norris : The right hon. Gentleman raises a very interesting point. The trust had embarked on its work in a spirit of explaining the concept of grant maintenance to interested parents and governors. Perhaps the trust was naive to believe that it could do that without encountering the sheer distortion which the Opposition seem to regard as their everyday stock in trade.
I have a copy of a document which was issued at public expense by Rochdale council during its "Think Twice" campaign. The document is headed :
"If you are thinking about grant maintained schools, Think Twice : it's your child's future."
That document describes in fairly lurid terms a version of grant-maintained status which a reader would find incomprehensible. In those circumstances, the trust was obliged--
Mr. Norris : It was obliged to explain in the clearest possible terms the true principle of grant-maintained status so that all parents would understand what grant-maintained status actually means when they take that important decision about a school's future. If parents were left to the tender mercies of the Labour party, they would never be able to avail themselves of that information.
Mr. Maples : If a school governing body was deciding whether to opt out, would it be possible for my hon. Friend's organisation to use any of the money that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State could award under the regulations to finance a lawsuit to attempt to remove two of the governors who were against the school's opting out and therefore run up a legal bill of £75,000 and force the other side to run up a similar bill? That is exactly what the Inner London education authority has done with a school in my constituency.
Mr. Norris : My hon. Friend has made his point extremely well. It would be entirely improper for the trust or any other body charged with a proper discharge of educational responsibility to act in the way that he has described. It saddens me and it must sadden my hon. Friend and all Conservative Members that so often Labour councillors use public funds and ratepayers' money to gerrymander and engineer without any regard for the political consequences. It is becoming clearer through this bad-tempered debate that the Opposition are scared stiff of giving parents the right to control their own schools.
Having in the 1960s and 1970s destroyed so many of our great schools which actually delivered the best education without replacing them, the Opposition now want to get their greasy hands on the rest of the education system. They want to deny parents the right to make their own decisions.
With regard to the matter before the House this evening, Madam Deputy Speaker, you were entirely correct to draw the attention of the House to the limited scope of the measure, although I am sure that you do not need my reassurances about that. This measure enables my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make grants, under the most stringent conditions, to the trust in the discharge of one of its stated purposes--to research and provide facilities for grant-maintained schools, which the Opposition are the first to point out are not provided by a local education authority once the school becomes grant-maintained. Once it becomes grant-maintained, in addition to its per capita funding it receives an amount in recognition of the LEA's share of the administrative costs of the school. The school must then find its bursar, accounting system, advice on property maintenance, grants maintenance and in-service training for teaching and non-teaching staff.
Many schools may decide that, rather than appoint another racial awareness adviser or send half the staff on sexual orientation courses during teaching time, it might be better to use some of the money available to enhance teaching levels and salaries in the school. That decision is one that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends would applaud. In so far as any of the schools need services that the ILEA previously provided, it is clearly necessary that they should continue to be available, and that schools may know where those services can be found.
The purpose of the trust in that regard is specific--to determine where those services can be provided and on what basis, to cost them, to endeavour to determine which of them is appropriate for a particular type of school, and to offer free advice to schools accordingly. In that, the trust will do a job that previously has been done by the Department of Education and Science and by local education authorities, and therefore it is entirely appropriate that my right hon. Friend's Department should fund that work. That work will be accounted for separately and appear in separate bank accounts in the trust's accounts.
Mr. Flannery : The hon. Gentleman departs from the fundamental point made earlier, that the organisation of which he is chairman--he ought to declare that interest--sent out a pamphlet containing a direct lie in claiming that the trust was a charity. Why does not the hon.
Column 877Gentleman put that right in a proper manner by sending out a pamphlet correcting that earlier statement? The trust is not a charity, yet the pamphlet claimed that it was.
Mr. Norris : I am sorry that the House was detained by that intervention, because the hon. Gentleman could not have listened to a word I said earlier, when I fully answered that point. As the hon. Gentleman may or may not have observed, I am, I think, the only speaker in this debate-- with the exception of my right hon. Friend, I hurriedly add--who has stayed in order. I do so because the motion's purpose is very clear. I reiterate that the trust is in no doubt as to the limitations placed on its powers, or about the heavy responsibility borne by any non-profit-making body such as the trust--a company limited by guarantee--in the discharge of public funds.
I give this unequivocal undertaking to the House. As to the trust, there is no question whatsoever but that any funds received by the trust on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science will be used exclusively and totally to provide those services that were previously provided by local education authorities, under the specific terms of the regulations. I was privileged to attend a great grammar school in Liverpool, the Liverpool Institute high school. I used to say that I went to school with the Beatles, but these days I say that I went to school with my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) because more people know who one means. That school provided the best possible education for children, regardless of their families' incomes. If a child had the ability, he was able to utilise it fully, go to university and make a career--which he could not possibly have done in any other way in a system that did not provide that excellent start.
The tragedy of education in the 1980s is that, thanks to Labour intervention over 20 years, those schools--
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : Methinks the Conservatives do protest too much. The questions so far asked about the Grant-Maintained Schools Trust have not been answered. The reality of this debate is that there are regulations before the House-- [Interruption.] Yes, this is my speech. Conservative Members have had plenty of time.
Mr. Norris rose--
Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) had completed his speech as far as the Chair was concerned. He was moving widely away from the scope of the debate. Mr. Simon Hughes.
Mr. Norris : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. If I strayed I apologise, but I submit that to infer from that straying that I had completed my speech was perhaps less than charitable of you. You might at least permit me to conclude my peroration.
Column 878Secretary of State was equally evasive, as he was on the radio this morning and as his colleagues up and down the land know him and his hon. Friends to be.
This matter was debated by the Association of County Councils last Thursday. Not only had the association in February condemned the Secretary of State's action in laying regulations giving him powers to pay Grant- Maintained Schools Ltd., but--so embarrassed were its Conservative members- -not a word did they utter about the issue in last week's ACC debate. The questions about why the trust had been described as a charity were not answered for some time ; moreover, at no time has the question been answered whether an application had even then been made--and it is believed, on firm evidence, that it had not.
At no time have the Secretary of State and his colleagues described how leaflets came to be circulated which give the game away very clearly. One of them--printed on blue paper--reads as follows : "Schools making this choice need independent advice. Not every school will qualify ; there will be strict checks and safeguards to ensure that only well-run schools obtain GM status. The Trust can offer advice on whether GM status is right for your school. It will also be able to offer specialist advice on and assistance with the completion and submission of applications."
That is not advice to schools that have already become grant-maintained, have voted to become grant-maintained or even have started the procedure to become grant-maintained.
I have here the company's memorandum of association, lodged I believe with Companies house on 18 July last year. They clearly include in the company's objects :
"To assist governors and headmasters in acquiring GM status". There was never any prospect of the organisation's being a charity. The Secretary of State and his colleagues know that, and they have been dishonest to the House--as they have been dishonest throughout the debate. The reality is that a Tory front organisation has been set up. It has been campaigning for grant-maintained status, although so far without Government money. Where has the money come from so far? We have not been told, but the organisation has been active, and people have been evasive about explaining its activities. I phoned one of the trust company's directors today. He refused to answer any questions about the trust's activities. The trust's telephone number, indeed, was unobtainable today, so willing is it to give advice. The Secretary of State's tawdry defence of this Tory front organisation might be that he appointed the hon. Member for Epping Forest when he was not a Member of Parliament. He should now make it clear that the hon. Gentleman should no longer be in that position, because it is prejudicial to the independence of the organisation, as it is for Tory activists, known former Tory party employees and Tory councillors to be its backbone and only political appointees.
Mr. Hughes : Because the Government assert that this is an independent, non-campaigning organisation, whereas the reality is that it is urging people, directly and indirectly, to seek grant-maintained status. I hold no brief for Rochdale or for any other authority that spends public money--