Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, South) : The amendments relate to pension and superannuation schemes, which, at the moment, are on a statutory basis. It is unfortunate that pension arrangements did not receive much consideration in Committee. However, I appreciate that that was partly due to the fact that negotiations were continuing with the electricity boards' employers and trades unions and the amendments are the result of those negotiations.
The points that I am about to make relate to this and the subsequent group of amendments. What protection is there for members of existing pension schemes after privatisation? Paragraph 1(5) of new schedule 13 provides that regulations under that paragraph which provide some form of protection can be made only up to the new vesting day. Exactly the same applies to the pension schemes of the Scottish boards. We shall have to see those regulations when they are published, but what protection will there be after vesting day? My constituents have already raised with me their fears in relation to the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board pension fund which is already embarking on a contributions holiday. I should declare an interest because I am still a member of that fund, having worked for the board for about five years.
Contributors to that board's pension fund and others are worried that employers are taking a contribution holiday. I have had experience of private employers who have tended to see the pension fund almost as an asset of the business rather than as an asset of the members of the fund, and I should like some clarification and assurances from the Minister of exactly what protections are on offer once those industries are privatised.
Mr. Michael Spicer : The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) is right to say that the amendments have been brought forward at this stage as a result of consultations with those concerned. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office will answer his specific point on Scotland when he deals with the next group of amendments.
During our discussions of clause 99 in Committee, I gave an undertaking to bring forward an amendment to protect the pension rights of employees transferred to successor companies, in the event of the electricity supply pension scheme being wound up. This provision would replace the existing "no worsenment" protection under section 54 of the 1947 Act. My officials subsequently had long and detailed consultation with the industry and the electricity supply trade union council on the formulation of the no worsenment protection, which was the subject of a great deal of debate in Committee.
As a result of those discussions, the Government tabled amendments in another place to provide the framework for the continuing pension protection for existing employees, pensioners, dependants and frozen- benefit-holders on the transfer date. The Secretary of State is empowered to make regulations to place a duty on employers that such protected persons shall not be placed in any worse position because of the winding-up of the electricity supply pension scheme or through other specified circumstances, including transfers within the industry with continuity of employment. The regulations will enable any disputes arising in respect of the no worsenment provisions to be referred to arbitration.
Column 621Because the provisions became so long and so complex, they were transferred into a schedule, together with the original contents of clause 99.
I hope that hon. Members are satisfied that that meets our commitment given in Committee to introduce protections for pensions. Question put and agreed to .
Lords amendment No. 92 agreed to .
Lords amendment No. 168, as amended, agreed to .
Lords amendment : No. 93, before clause 100, insert the following new clause--
" . The provisions of Schedule (The Scottish Pension Schemes) to this Act (which provide for amending the Hydroboard Superannuation Fund and the South of Scotland Electricity Board's Superannuation Scheme and for giving special protection to certain persons who have or may acquire rights under those schemes) shall have effect." Motion made, and Question proposed , That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.-- [Mr. Lightbown.]
The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Ian Lang) : It might be helpful if I said a brief word about the amendments. They transfer the contents of clause 100, which gives the Secretary of State power to amend the Scottish pension schemes, into a new schedule. They also introduce into the schedule new provisions relating to the protection of pension rights for certain persons. They have been prepared along similar lines to the amendment just introduced in relation to the electricity supply pension scheme in England and Wales. Like that amendment, it has two effects. First, it gives the Secretary of State for Scotland power to make regulations amending the two Scottish schemes. Secondly, it gives him the power to make regulations for protecting certain persons against any deterioration of their pension rights under the schemes.
Column 622The amendments were introduced with the agreement of the Scottish boards and the trade unions in the industry in Scotland.
As I heard the question asked by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) in the last debate, I can save him from having to get to his feet. I understand his anxiety on behalf of some of the employees of the hydro board about the security of their pensions under the new arrangements. Privatisation brings no change to the arrangement ; the trustees are still subject to the same obligations. If any trustees act fraudulently they will be subject to prosecution. Obviously, trustees must take decisions about investments in funds, and in so doing they take professional advice. Regular actuarial reviews are required by law to ensure that the trustees are aware of the value of the funds in relation to their liabilities. The hon. Gentleman mentioned trustees taking a contribution holiday, but that practice is by no means unusual--especially in recent years. Pension funds have substantial surpluses, and for that reason trustees feel able to take a holiday.
Paragraph 2(1) states :
"The Secretary of State may make regulations for the purpose of securing that
(a) no person to whom paragraph 3(1) or (2) below applies"-- which, for the purposes of the provision, is an employee "is placed in any worst position by reason of (ii) any amendment of a relevant scheme which results in benefits under that scheme being reduced, or contributions by employees being increased, and is made otherwise than in such circumstances as may be prescribed". In other words, the purpose of that paragraph is to protect employees' rights, and the trade unions are well content with those arrangements.
Question put and agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 94, 169 to 173, 175 to 181 and 96 to 99 agreed to. [One with Special Entry.]
Further consideration of Lords amendments adjourned.-- [Mr. Lightbown.]
To be further considered tomorrow.
That the draft Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 26th June, be approved.
The draft regulations consolidate with certain small amendments, which I will describe, the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1985 as amended in 1986, 1987 and 1988.
The assisted places scheme was established in 1981 for the purpose of widening the educational opportunities of able children from less well-off families. It provides their parents with assistance towards the fees of some of the best independent schools in the country. The assistance is on a sliding scale based on parental income, and the principal changes embodied in the consolidating regulations are concerned with the annual revision of that scale.
In past years there have also been technical amendments to keep the definition of "total parental income" for the purposes of the scheme constant as tax legislation changes. This year, one such amendment takes account of the position of assisted places scheme--APS--parents who either receive or pay maintenance payments. But I venture to suggest that all of the amendments, which I shall describe in a moment, are straightforward.
Part I of the draft regulations deals with citation, commencement, application and interpretation. By virtue of draft regulation 1, the regulations are to come into force on 12 August 1989. Part II of the draft regulations deals with eligibility for assisted places, and is unchanged from earlier years.
Part III deals with remission of fees. Draft regulation 11 of part III has been amended to increase from £950 to £1,000 the amount that may be deducted from the relevant total income of an assisted place holder's parents in respect of each child or dependent relative other than the assisted place holder. Parts IV and V cover administrative arrangements and miscellaneous requirements and are unchanged. Schedule 1 provides for parents' income for the purposes of the scheme to be computed on the basis of their "total income", as defined with reference to tax legislation in regulation 11. The provisions of paragraph 5 of schedule 1 ensure that, despite changes in the taxable status of maintenance payments introduced in the Income and Corporation Taxes Act 1988, APS parents making maintenance payments will continue to be able to offset them against their "relevant income". The provisions also ensure that APS parents receiving such payments will continue to count them as part of "relevant income". The provisions, however, only preserve the status quo as far as the assisted places scheme is concerned.
Draft schedule 2 sets out the income scale used for assessing parents' contributions towards fees. As usual, this has been uprated to take account of movements in the retail prices index. The threshold at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees is raised from £7,258 to £7,584. Draft schedule 3 revokes the 1985 regulations and the regulations amending them.
Column 624The provisions and amendments that I have described will ensure the continued smooth running of the assisted places scheme, and I trust that they will find favour with hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West) : This debate gives us an opportunity to review the workings of the scheme that the Government brought into effect during the passage of the Education Act 1980. It has given me a chance to read some of the Hansard reports of the time, and very interesting reading they made. I have been able to re-examine the Government's intentions in introducing the scheme. The Secretary of State said in October 1980 that the scheme would lead to a greater social mix within independent schools. I have tried to find evidence of the fulfilment of that criterion, but I have to say that the evidence is very thin. It is true that each year almost exactly 40 per cent. of APS pupils have been entitled to free places, and over half have come from families with incomes below the national average. We must, however, ask ourselves whether that constitutes a social mix.
A research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council showed that over 50 per cent. of pupils had fathers from professional and managerial occupations : only 7 per cent. came from families with manual working backgrounds. The research also found that 68 per cent. of pupils' mothers and 51 per cent. of their fathers had attended selective or independent schools. Very few represented the kind of able working class child whom, according to the initial publicity, the scheme would rescue from inadequate inner city comprehensives.
That is the problem with which we are dealing : those whom the scheme has helped are those who would probably have attended such schools in any case, and whose parents--despite having fallen on hard times, often through divorce--wanted to ensure that their children went to the kind of schools that they had been to.
My predecessor in the constituency of Durham, North-West said in the 1980 debate :
"It is unique to this country that we seem to believe that our top civil servants, top management, those who are to be leaders of the community have to be educated in separate schools, having been taken away from the rest of society and moved into a secluded quarter." So many people who have aspirations towards independent schools see themselves as separate--and wish to separate their children--from the ordinary, everyday stream of life. That is a sad indictment of our society. The assisted places scheme has not led to a greater social mix in independent schools ; it has enabled the existing mix to continue.
The Government's second intention was that the scheme would increase the number of working-class children going on to higher education. It is well known that I have been a strong advocate of providing such opportunities. However, the figures and what has happened under the scheme show that the take-up of sixth-form places has never risen much above 75 per cent. and some 60 schools have consistently recruited below their quota. Almost two thirds of those taking up places under the scheme for the first time at 16 are already fee-paying pupils in independent schools. The regulations, in spirit if not in letter, provide that more than 60 per cent. of assisted pupils should be recruited from the maintained sector. It is clear from recruitment to sixth forms that
Column 625assisted pupils are coming from the rest of the independent sector. Those two factors mean that the scheme is not providing access to higher education for working-class young people.
A recently published general household survey carried out in 1986 shows that the daughters of unskilled workers proved to be testimony to the belief. It shows that the number of daughters of unskilled workers going to university was less than 0.5 per cent.
The Government's third aim was that the scheme would not be aimed at sustaining the independent sector. That has made the Labour party somewhat cynical. How can a school continue to call itself independent when 40 per cent. of its pupils are there because of public funding through the assisted places scheme? The estimated cost of the scheme in the current financial year is £59 million. That is a substantial public contribution to the so-called independent sector. Clearly and inevitably many schools would be in great difficulty if that money were withdrawn from them. However, they need to prepare for a Labour Government withdrawing that money from them. The fourth aim that the Government had in mind was to provide academic training for working-class young people. The implication was that the Government did not believe that such academic training could be provided in the maintained sector. Let us consider the criteria for what is academic. This year, the Government are adding another 52 schools to the list of schools to which the assisted places scheme will apply. That is partly to redress the regional imbalances. Of the 470 schools that made provisional offers of places on the scheme in 1981, its first year, more than 200 were discarded by the Department of Education and Science as unsuitable for such an academic scheme. The 1989 newcomers to the list include several schools that were accepted by the DES then, but changed their minds about participating in the scheme. Clearly there are others that would have been acceptable had they applied. But the list includes a number that would almost certainly not have met the 1981 criteria. More than half the new schools have fewer than 400 pupils. How can the Government reassure anyone that those schools would be likely to offer the wide range of A-level subjects taught to viable groups in the way that the 1981 criteria required? Some lack any proven record of achievement in sending pupils forward to higher education. The Government have clearly abandoned the initial aims of the scheme as described to us. I return to the subject of regional inequalities. The Government said that the scheme could be regarded as a national scholarship scheme for bright children from modest backgrounds. Indeed, the measure refers to the desirability of securing an equitable distribution of assisted places throughout the country and between boys and girls.
It does not need great brain power to appreciate that there is an uneven distribution nationally in the independent sector, particularly of schools that are called academically excellent, to which the scheme was supposed to relate. There is certainly an uneven distribution among those willing to offer substantial numbers of assisted places.
In 1988, for example, there were 464 new places available in Greater Manchester, 346 in the Liverpool and Birkenhead area and 225 in Bristol and Bath. By contrast, there were 70 in Nottingham, 55 in Leeds, 16 in Sheffield and none in Leicester. I give those figures simply to
Column 626demonstrate that the Government have failed, even on their own criteria, to ensure an equal distribution of resources.
As I have shown, the Government have failed to meet the intentions of which they spoke when they introduced the scheme in 1980. In addition, the costings have been startling. We are lectured daily by the Government on the need for economy. We are now being lectured about the need to be careful with public spending because, they say, high public spending is the cause of rocketing inflation. If that is so, we must look carefully at the rising costs in the assisted places scheme. In 10 years, Government expenditure per pupil has increased by 275 per cent., which is certainly more than the rise in Government expenditure in the maintained sector. Indeed, if public spending in that sector had gone up by 275 per cent., we would probably not be suffering now from some of the problems that exist, but I will not embarrass the Government by dwelling on those problems.
It is clear from the figures that in the last four years 50 additional pupils have been covered by the scheme, for an extra £1, 700,000. I appreciate the problems that the Government are facing in relation to inflation, but figures of that sort go beyond reality and sensibility.
Where is the public accountability in those rising costs? Who is in control of the expenditure? Who are, and where are, those publicly elected people who are determining fees? We are witnessing inefficiency. How can the Government guarantee value for money when they do not know what is happening and when they have no involvement in the setting of fees or in the development of the nature of schools? They have even opted out of any responsibility for the curriculum. We return to a point that we have talked about before. When the House was considering the Education Reform Bill, the Opposition were bemused that the Government could talk about a national curriculum yet exclude independent schools. Are they saying that people in independent schools are not part of the British nation?
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood) : The hon. Lady does not understand how the system works. In the independent sector, parents vote with their feet and, if the curriculum is inadequate, they take their children away. In the maintained sector, until the reforms introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, people had no choice. No choice is the Labour party's policy.
Ms. Armstrong : It is late at night, so I will forgive the hon. Gentleman for his inaccuracies. We are talking about public money. It is not a matter of parents making an automatic choice. All they can do is send their child to a school that is part of the assisted places scheme. Conservative Members know that parents do not move kids around as though they were pounds of butter and that they have consideration for their children, even if Conservative Members have not. Whatever the arguments about choice, this is public money and there should be public accountability. Those young people have the right to be treated as part of the national curriculum.
It is interesting that this legislation comes at the end of a week in which hon. Members and people outside the House have been much concerned about the Government's education policy and where it has taken children. People have talked about the massive problems
Column 627for children who cannot get a place in any school because there is no teacher. When will the Government take the education of all Britain's children seriously? When will they take their commitment to children in Tower Hamlets, who have no access to school because there is no teacher, as seriously as they take throwing money at the independent sector?
This week, there has been public criticism of the money that the Government have thrown at city technology colleges, a system which is meant to create different groups of children. The Government are doing that with public money. It is used to justify the Government's ideological dogma. The Government are denying opportunities to children and know that they cannot deliver the national curriculum to some children this September.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) rose--
Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) rose--
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman rose--
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was not asking the hon. Lady to give way ; I was raising a point of order. Is it in order for her to say that this is public money, when it is money raised from industry?
Ms. Armstrong : The hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett- Bowman) should examine the amount of capital investment that the Department of Education and Science puts into city technology colleges.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett : When the hon. Lady was challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth), who asked her whether Labour was in favour of the assisted places scheme, she did not answer the question. Will she not come clean and admit that the Labour party intends to get rid of choice altogether? The Labour party does not believe in the assisted places scheme. It has said that it will remove the charitable status of the independent sector, and that it will get rid of the city technology colleges and the grant-maintained schools. The Labour party proposes a statist education system with no choice at all, in which everyone has to be educated under the control of the state.
Column 628Why does she not come clean on that and admit that the consumerism in which the Labour party pretends to believe does not really exist?
Ms. Armstrong : I know that it is late. The hon. Gentleman understands what I am saying, although he pretends to misunderstand. I am in favour of choice, but I am as much in favour of choice for those kids in Tower Hamlets as I am for those who get into Cheltenham ladies college. Those children in Tower Hamlets, who are going into primary schools in which teachers have had no opportunity to update themselves in science, deserve choice as much as children whose parents decide that they want an independent education for them. I am not against people having choice, but I want choice for all people and not just some.
The Government are denying opportunity to the majority of children. They are demonstrating that they care about the few and that they believe that one can give a good education only to a few. We do not believe that, and we are not prepared to accept that. As a result, we will oppose the regulations.
Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford) : I am delighted to take part in this short debate, and I welcome the Government's determination to continue to support and extend the assisted places scheme. I recollect that the last occasion on which I spoke as a Minister, on 5 July 1988, was in support of changes in the regulations on assisted places. I remember quoting the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and I think that it is worth repeating his words today. He said in The Guardian on 23 March :
"First, we must recognise that a nation of consumers enjoying relatively high living standards becomes literally much more choosy, much more interested in choice and variety."
He said that then, and as far as I know, for he is an honourable man, he has not rescinded that comment or changed the interpretation I chose to give those words at the time.
It was clear from the speech of the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong)--and I welcomed her comments about her distinguished predecessor, thereby reminding us of her commitment to the hereditary principle--that we have been debating over some eight years this scheme which gives many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to seek and benefit from an education in good schools in the independent sector.
When the education spokesmen of the Labour party, starting with the hon. Member for Blackburn and going on to the hon. Members for Durham, North- West and for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), talk about the needs of working class children, I want to reach for my political gun. There they sit, products of the British middle class, trying to dictate to the House what they believe are the needs and
Column 629aspirations of working class children. The truth is that the Labour party has always regarded members of the alleged working class as political pawns in the sense of being members of the tied cottage culture. When we decide to extend the chance to create a ladder of opportunity, for children who in themselves--
Mr. Dunn : I will give way in time, but not in the middle of my best point. I will determine the debate when I have the floor. I certainly do not intend to give way to the middle class Members of Parliament sitting on the Opposition Front Bench who tell the House what needs to be done for children who, until now, had access only to that neighbourhood school that their local authority had dictated that they should attend.
The hon. Member for Durham, North-West asked why the Conservative party believed in the principle of the assisted places scheme.
Mr. Dunn : I will give way in time, but the hon. Gentleman must learn to be patient. Patience is a virtue seldom exercised by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and, in the dying time that he is in the House, he should learn it. He has become an institute--the parliamentary foghorn of the Labour party--but he is now to hand in his bell and retire to Derbyshire, or some place like that. The hon. Member for Durham, North- West asked why we were in favour of the scheme. The answer is simply because it provides a ladder of opportunity that was destroyed by the consensus of both Governments in the past, which destroyed many excellent schools in pursuit of the peculiar notion of egalitarianism.
The hon. Member for Ashfield has been extremely virtuous, so I shall now give way to him, but let me remind him that I am not deaf.
Mr. Haynes : Earlier today I told Mr. Speaker that he called me last in business questions because I am the most patient of hon. Members. I have a thick skin, and the hon. Gentleman can throw whatever he likes at me. He spoke about the middle class Members on the Opposition Front Bench, but I was born in poverty and worked for 35 years in the pit before I came to this place. He can put that in his pipe and smoke it.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Had the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) lived in Lancaster, whatever background he came from, he could have gone to the Lancaster Royal grammar school, had he the ability, which many of my hon. Friends have. The Labour party destroyed the chances of people like the hon. Gentleman.
I was speaking about the logic behind setting up the scheme in 1981. I welcome the extension of choice, and I welcome the decision of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to extend into the list a further 52 schools. I also
Column 630welcome regulation 18 in part V, which deals with the publication of information. I hope that in time the Government will give us some idea of how those children who started off in the scheme in the early 1980s and who must now be entering higher and continuing education have been performing, given the good start that they received. The point of the debate is simply to remind the House that the scheme exists and that the scheme is working. Of course, I believe that we should do more to make it more accessible to many more children in other parts of the country. I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Durham, North- West, implicit in what she said about the denial of places in the city of Leicester. If the hon. Lady asks us for assisted places in Leicester, who are we to deny that opportunity to the people of Leicester?
I will say to the hon. Lady that it was a good try, but that she has remained wholly unconvincing in the case that she has set out. She has continued to be an ideologue--I think that it is an insult to be called an ideologue--in what she seeks to achieve.
Self-congratulation is the prerogative of the Labour party, and every July when we debate the assisted places regulations Labour Members prove that they know nothing about working class aspirations and that they care even less.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) was on his best form, berating the Labour party from a position of small influence, just as he used to do as a former member of Southwark council--a council of 64 on which the Tories have but seven members.
I want to say two main things about the regulations, as the latest in a succession of my hon. Friends who have spoken in these debates since 1980. The first is that the Government's scheme is unprincipled and the second is that it is inconsistent.
The assisted places scheme is unprincipled because it denies the proper priorities that there should be in the education of our young people.