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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker, to seek your guidance. I have just been given what appears to be the wholly authentic information that, overnight, what has been described as a stack of amendments will be tabled to the Sale of Goods (Amendment) Bill [ Lords ] for consideration this Friday. I am informed also that the express purpose of the amendments is to delay still further the Report stage of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which was subjected to such odious treatment here on 6 May. If that is so, it must be a gross and contemptuous affront to this House.

I have been asked by disabled people to express again their deep anguish and anger at the tactics being used to deny them full citizenship. It must be, at the very least, discourteous to the House to table, overnight, numerous amendments whose purpose, I am told, is to wreck the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, when many right hon. and hon. Members will be leaving the House tonight to attend the funeral on Friday of our late and beloved colleague, John Smith, and will not even have seen the amendments before they leave.

Madam Speaker : I cannot comment on what is at the moment a hypothetical situation. Friday's proceedings will be regulated by the Chair when the time comes.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will have noticed that the Minister of State told my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) that if he persists in asking questions of the nature that he did, funds given to organisations in my hon. Friend's constituency would be at risk. [ Interruption. ] Oh yes--let there be no doubt about what we heard. The Minister should be asked to withdraw his remark. When something similar happened in 1981, I complained to the Privileges Committee, because Ian MacGregor, then chairman of the British Steel Corporation, was involved. The Privileges Committee held a number of sittings to adjudicate on whether that incident took place, because it was seen as a threat. On that occasion, the threat was that funds would be cut off from my own constituency, for investment in the British Steel Corporation. Will you, Madam Speaker, ask the Minister to withdraw his comments ?

Madam Speaker : Order. Nothing that I heard was out of order. However, I compliment the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) because he is dealing with the matter in precisely the right manner.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : On a point of order. Madam Speaker. I apologise for my voice, but I am sure that it will soon come back. [ Interruption ] Well, I would not wish to take a vote on that.

Will you, Madam Speaker, give further consideration to the point that was raised by my right hon. Friend ? I wonder whether you understand--I am sure that you do, but I put it in that way--the feeling of anger that exists among disabled people at the way in which the Bill, which is aimed to help them, is being obstructed and frustrated at every turn by the Government. Is there any way that you

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can try to ensure that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is allowed to be debated again on the Floor of the House, instead of the obstruction that the Government

Madam Speaker : Order. That is not within my authority, and the hon. Gentleman and the House know that it is not.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I wish to raise a point of order of which I have given the Minister concerned prior notice. In a written reply to me on 25 April, the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) stated that the Government intended to make an order under section 22 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to lift a layer of protection from three species of birds of prey. He said that the Department of the Environment had consulted some 7,000 organisations, including, I might add, the British Association of Tortoise Keepers, and the British Cactus and Succulent Society, though I have never seen a bird of prey seize either a tortoise or a cactus.

However, it appears that the Government sent the consultation paper to the wrong branches of the Government's advisory bodies : the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and English Nature, with the result that the latter's ornithologists were never properly consulted. In a further reply to me on 3 May, the same Minister stated

Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman is entering into a debate. What is the point or order for me ? What would he like me to do about it ?

Mr. Banks : What I should like you to do about it is get some justice back into this place, when a Minister has, perhaps inadvertently, misled the House, because he said that the Association of Chief Police Officers had been in favour of lifting protection from birds of prey. ACPO

Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman is arguing a case. He must not argue a case across the Floor of the House. What he is saying to me is that he does not believe that the information that was provided to him is correct.

Mr. Banks : No, the organisation concerned has stated publicly that the Minister has misled the House.

Madam Speaker : Order. I am on my feet. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who knows his way around the House and how to put matters right, will use the procedures of the House to do so.

Mr. Banks : That is precisely what I am trying to do, because I want the House to know exactly what has happened

Madam Speaker : Order. On points of order, it is not a question of the House knowing. Points of order are something that I have to deal with. If the hon. Gentleman wishes the House to know, he must use the Order Paper, through either questions or early-day motions. That is the way to inform the House, and not to use points of order, which is an abuse of our system.

Mr. Banks rose

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Madam Speaker : Order. That is the end of it. I am on my feet. The hon. Gentleman knows how to use the Order Paper to correct something. If he uses that method, the whole House will know what the position is.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. During Question Time, when I asked a question about water disconnections in England and Wales in relation to the position in Scotland, where disconnections are illegal, the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) said, "I am an Englishman and I can only speak for England." I ask, therefore, whether you will disqualify him and people who think like him from voting tonight on the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill, because he has no right to do so. That Bill is not wanted in Scotland.

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman has high hopes, which will not be fulfilled.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I seek your help in ensuring that an issue of public debate is reflected in the House ? Like everyone else, I heard on all the news bulletins this morning, including interviews with the President of the Board of Trade, about plans to privatise the Post Office. There were also the lead stories in a number of national newspapers. You will know that the duty of the House is to reflect the debate, concerns and interests that are being voiced in the country.

Has there been a request from the Secretary of State to make a statement to the House on that privatisation, not least because if it goes ahead for a sale of £1 billion, which is the figure being quoted, my constituents' property will be sold against their will, without a vote ? I want to know when the £1.5 million per constituency, which, pro rata we should receive

Madam Speaker : Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is asking me whether a Minister is coming to the House to make a statement on that matter. No Minister has informed me that he or she is seeking to make a statement today.

Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It is related to, but separate from, that raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris). I seek your guidance, Madam Speaker, on a matter concerning the procedures of the House --and, indeed, the responsibility of the House and its Members. I understand that one of your roles is to protect the rights of hon. Members- -and, in so doing, to protect the rights of the House and to uphold the House's dignity, and respect for the House and its decisions. I raise this matter not only to seek clarification for myself and colleagues-- [Hon. Members :-- "Get on with it."]

The matter on which I seek your guidance, Madam Speaker, is the authority of decisions made by the House. The hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) moved a motion that was carried by the House ; what I--like members of the public--cannot understand is the fact that the Government have chosen to ignore decisions reached by the House. I believe that, as a result of that, the House has been brought into disrepute. I wonder what remedy there is in the House to ensure that a decision made by the House can be put into effect.

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Madam Speaker : There is nothing mandatory about the House's decision. If the hon. Gentleman seeks to amend our procedures in any way, he may wish to make some reference to the Procedure Committee. I think that he already knows that references have been made to the Committee in relation to private Members' Bills.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Since entering the House in 1987, I have been repeatedly reminded that this is a unitary Parliament governing a unitary state, and that every citizen in that unitary state is entitled to the same protection under the laws passed by the House. Can you explain how it is possible that disconnecting consumers from the water supply can be illegal in Scotland, while consumers are being disconnected from the supply in England and Wales ?

Madam Speaker : The answer is no.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I seek clarification on a matter that arose in your exchanges with my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) ? You told my hon. Friend the Member for West Derby that the matter of the threat issued by the Minister might be dealt with by way of an Adjournment debate. Do you accept, however, that Opposition Members feel the utmost concern about the fact that a threat to withdraw funding was made ? We feel that such a threat must not be a matter only for the individual Member involved ; it may be a matter for the whole House. Potentially, the issue of such a threat could be a breach of privilege which ought to be dealt with by means of the proper procedures.

Madam Speaker : If the hon. Gentleman believes that it may be a breach of privilege, he should write to me. I think that I have answered correctly, and that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) has taken the right action--in proposing to raise the matter on the Adjournment as soon as possible.

Sir Michael Neubert (Romford) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I revert to the point of order raised by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) ? I do not know the nature, number or sponsors of the amendments tabled to the Bill that is to be considered on Friday. May I point out to you and to the right hon. Gentleman, however, that I served on the Standing Committee ? It was unexpectedly controversial --there were a number of Divisions--and hon. Members could well have taken the opportunity to table amendments on Report. Can you confirm, therefore, that that does not necessarily bear the interpretation that the right hon. Gentleman has placed on it ?

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman is quite correct. That was not a point of order but an explanation ; all the same, it was helpful. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I make a similarly helpful comment in relation to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill ?

Madam Speaker : Order. No. I have taken points of order about that, and I understand the feeling of the House. We must now wait and see what happens on Friday.

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BALLOT FOR NOTICES OF MOTIONS FOR FRIDAY 17 JUNE -- Members successful in the ballot were :

Mrs. Jacqui Lait

Mr. Martyn Jones

Ms Rachel Squire


Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay, supported by Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. John Hume, Mr. Ken Maginnis, Rev. Ian Paisley, Mr. Allan Rogers, Mr. Alex Salmond, Sir David Steel, Mr. Dafydd Wigley and Mr. Paul Flynn, presented a Bill to provide for the granting of pardons to soldiers of the British Empire Forces executed during the Great War of 1914 to 1919 following conviction for offences of cowardice, desertion or attempted desertion, disobedience, quitting post, violence, sleeping at post, throwing away arms or striking a superior officer ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon 1 July, and to be printed. [Bill 115.]

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Education (Admission to Higher Education)

3.43 pm

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to reform the admission procedure to United Kingdom institutions of higher education for all school leavers by holding the relevant public examinations in mid April to mid May ; to allow applicants to more than one institution to disclose to each institution the application relevant to that institution alone and to offer to applicants the right to see references given on their behalf to higher education institutions ; and for connected purposes.

My Bill proposes a modest change in the dates during which the main public examinations leading to admission to higher education take place in the United Kingdom. This year, exams have already commenced in Scotland ; they began on 3 May and will end on 8 June. In England and Wales and Northern Ireland, there are eight examining boards, and the first examinations will take place this Friday, 20 May, and finish on 1 July. Hundreds of thousands of pupils are taking those exams, and I know that we all wish them every success.

The benefits of holding the entrance exams between mid-April and mid-May would be as follows. Such a change would remove pupils' anxiety about the subjective nature of the higher education admissions system. It would also widen access to higher education, improve freedom of information for pupils and enable them to make a more informed choice between areas of higher education study, from a more up-to-date list of courses.

Moreover, the change would enable pupils to seek to gain admission on the basis of work done and results achieved, rather than of inaccurate predictions of performance. Higher education selectors could make full use of the completed record of achievement of the young person concerned, and the need for the tactical process--that is, pupils attempting to second guess what the selectors want, fearing that alternative choices may be held against them--would be eliminated. Above all, my Bill would end what has been described as the bear garden of the clearing process each September. Most of those desirable objectives could be achieved by an admissions system operating after A-level results are known.

The current system and the timetable for admission to higher education were designed specifically to admit 18-year-old school leavers to higher education as it was 30 years ago. At that time, the participation rate of 18-year-olds was 7 per cent ; now, I am pleased to say, it is more than 30 per cent., and in Scotland it is more than 36 per cent.

The theory is that effectively all decisions about places in higher education are taken before the examinations. At one time, that may have worked in practice. However, it is unfair and creates much anxiety among pupils and their families.

What is wrong with the present system ? I shall touch on four or five of the problems. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service--UCAS-- operates the admissions system on behalf of nearly 200 institutions of higher education, which run more than 20,000 courses. The application cycle takes about a year to complete. That means that a pupil is required to make a choice about higher education almost a year before he or she starts the

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course. Why should pupils have to commit themselves so early in their post-16 development ? That is much too soon to settle early career patterns.

A pupil may well be undecided a year in advance about the subject area that he or she wants to study, and may have listed completely different subject choices on the application form. Listing different choices can, and does, cause some admissions tutors to take the view that the applicant is uncertain and therefore not committed to that particular application. I do not believe that pupils should have to second guess what admissions tutors want. Research shows that nearly 30 per cent. of final year undergraduates would not choose the same course if they had their time over again.

When choices are made, the course information is out of date. The lead time for the cycle means that the course information material for pupils due to enter higher education in October 1995 had to be at the UCAS printers by January 1994.

The most serious defect of the present admissions system is the use of A- level predictions, made seven or nine months before the examinations, to determine offers of places. Offers are based on teachers' predictions of exam grades, which are made months before the exams take place. Because they are made so far in advance, those predictions are inaccurate. No fewer than 65 per cent. of them are wrong. More than 50 per cent. of teachers' predictions forecast A-level grades too high ; a quarter of them predict results two grades or more too high.

How can we continue to run a system with a 65 per cent. failure rate ? That is no part of a modern education system. The failure rate applies almost equally to comprehensive schools, independent schools, grammar schools, sixth-form colleges and further education colleges. In FE colleges, A- levels are often completed in one year, which makes the problem far more acute. Lecturers have only a few weeks' experience of their students before they are required to submit A-level grade predictions.

The national closing date for applications is in December, and it is even earlier for Oxbridge. Higher education admissions tutors do not wait until the closing date to begin their assessments, and that can lead to discrimination against pupils who go right up to the closing date before making up their minds.

At present, any changes as a result of Higher Education Funding Council decisions come slap bang in the middle of the applications process, which can cause havoc for pupils forced to make an early choice of courses in advance of examination results. The present timetable also means that full use cannot be made of a pupil's record of achievement when applying to enter higher education.

If we ever move to modular A-levels, the predictions of results so far in advance will become impossible, as the exams to be taken to build up credits for the modular A-level will not be known in time for the present long application cycle. Finding a modern solution is not a simple matter and we need to take account of the fact that we have different school year in England and Scotland, but a United Kingdom-wide admission system to higher education.

I believe that in the short time available to me, I have set out a fair summary of the chief defects of the admissions system. Any objective assessment must conclude that it is

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old-fashioned, ill-informed and complex-- just the factors needed to limit access. The question is how we can run the admissions system on the basis of results rather than inaccurate predictions. One answer must be to run the examination timetable earlier. Instead of running from late May to late June in England, we should bring the process forward by about five weeks to mid-April to mid-May. That would ensure that results were available in early to mid-July.

There could still be a three-month application period, there would still be time to carry out the interviews, and the choices expressed by pupils would be fewer because they would base them on the results achieved. Preparatory work, with a computer programme for applicants, can be done well before exams are taken. Nothing in such a change need affect those who apply to higher education with qualifications other than A-level. In fact, BTEC assessments will be completed assessments because of the extra time available.

Scotland, which does not have A-levels, already has an earlier period for the examinations--as I said, they have already started--so the change would be absolutely minimal. A not unimportant aspect of such a change is that the exam timetable will avoid the peak of the hay fever season which runs from May to July.

Pupils psych themselves up for exams, so any change must be carefully managed. It must not affect anyone on a current programme of study. My Bill proposes privacy for the applicant to higher education, as each institution would not be allowed to see the applications made by the pupil to other institutions. It also proposes that pupils should have access to references given on their behalf.

To have an admissions system based on equity, we owe our young people flexibility and informed choice, and the modest change in the school year would be justified to bring that about. My proposal does not interfere with quality standards, but is something with which only the House can deal effectively. I have not--and I have never been able to say this before-- been able to identify any financial costs relating to the Bill.

I have identified support across the House and in the world of education for the principle of the change, which is all that I am proposing today. The changes would enable us, on behalf of hundreds of thousands of young people, to move from a system based upon secrecy and fiction to one based on open facts.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jeff Rooker, Ms Estelle Morris, Dr. Robert Spink, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. Jon Owen Jones, Mr. John McAllion, Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Mr. Bill Walker and Mr. David Trimble.

Education (Admission to Higher Education)

Mr. Jeff Rooker accordingly presented a Bill to reform the admission procedure to United Kingdom institutions of higher education for all school leavers by holding the relevant public examinations in mid April to mid May ; to allow applicants to more than one institution to disclose to each institution the application relevant to that institution alone and to offer to applicants the right to see references given on their behalf to higher education institutions ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 15 July, and to be printed. [Bill 116.]

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Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill

As amended (in the Standing Committee), further considered. 3.53 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Mr. Deputy Speaker said last night that you would consider the position of starred amendments Nos. 302 and 303 which relate to South Queensferry. Do you have a statement to make on the matter ?

Madam Speaker : I believe that the hon. Gentleman has some indication of what I am about to tell him. He knows that the amendments were starred, and it was therefore not possible to debate them with the relevant group. The House has already passed that group of amendments, and therefore the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot allow a Division on amendments that have not been debated.

New Clause 4 --

Non-denominational schools

After section 22D of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, there shall be inserted the following section

"Further provisions relating to non-denominational schools 22E.--(1) An education authority shall submit to the Secretary of State for his consent any proposal of theirs to which this section applies and shall not implement such a proposal without his consent. (2) A proposal to which this section applies is one

(a) to

(i) discontinue the school or a part of it ;

(ii) amalgamate the school or a part of it with another school ; (iii) change the site of the school ;

(iv) change the arrangements for admission to the school. (b) in relation to which the Secretary of State, having consulted any education authority affected by it, is satisfied, upon written representations made, that, if implemented, it will have any of the results specified in subsection (3) below.

(3) The results referred to in subsection (2)(b) above are (a) a significant deterioration for pupils belonging to the area of the education authority submitting the proposal under subsection (1) above ; or

(b) a significant deterioration for pupils belonging to the area of any other education authority ; or

(c) where neither paragraph (a) nor paragraph (b) above applies, such a deterioration for pupils as mentioned in the said paragraph (a) and pupils of any other authority as mentioned in the said paragraph (b) as, taken together, amounts to a significant deterioration,

in the provision, or availability of school education in a particular school compared with such provision, or availability in other schools managed by the education authority mentioned in paragraph (a) above or, where paragraph (b) or (c) above applies, any other education authority as mentioned in the said paragraph (b). (4) Any question which may arise

(a) whether a proposal is one to which this section applies ; (b) as to the implementation of a proposal to which the Secretary of State has consented under this section shall be determined by the Secretary of State and the education authority shall perform their duties under this Act in accordance with any such determination.".'.-- [Mr. McLeish.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.- -[ Mr. McLeish. ]

Madam Speaker : With this, it will be convenient to take Government amendments. Nos 99 to 102.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Govan) : We have debated on previous occasions the boundaries and the costs of local government reform. When we look at particular

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services, it is extremely clear that the reorganisation is boundary-led, rather than service-led. When we look at the education service, we see clearly that the reorganisation will have a considerably adverse affect on the education service.

There will be substantial cuts in education budgets as a result of the reorganisation, which will absorb a substantial amount of money that otherwise would have gone on service provision. Non-statutory services will be placed at risk. Opposition Members argued in Committee that pre-five services and community education should be made statutory provisions to protect them, but the Government refused to accept that.

It is also perfectly clear that many new local authorities will be too small to provide the complete range of education services which the pupils and the adults in the community deserve. They will be forced to have multiple layers of organisation--joint boards, structures for buying-in and combinations of authorities for particular services. It is perfectly clear that many of the existing provisions will be placed at risk as a result of the reorganisation. One particular ground for concern is the way in which the new local authority boundaries will cut across existing school catchment areas. I recognise that the Government have made a number of concessions as a result of pressure from Opposition Members and from interested bodies in education. They have been prepared to concede that all existing school catchment areas would not be changed by the passing of the legislation itself, but would require subsequent action. The Government have guaranteed that the existing legal provision for school transport to be provided for distances of two or three miles for youngsters of a relevant age will be maintained, and we welcome that. There will be a substantial deterioration in the existing provision of school transport for the majority of people living in Strathclyde and elsewhere because authorities--Strathclyde in particular--make a provision of school transport beyond the legal minimum. It is highly unlikely that those authorities will be able to do so when their budgets are under the severe pressure that reorganisation will place on them.

The loss of free transport facilities for a substantial number of youngsters will undoubtedly have a consequential impact on school rolls in areas that are affected by the boundaries of local authorities cutting across school catchment areas. We must take into account the position in which those schools and authorities will find themselves.

Without doubt, the new local authorities will find themselves under tremendous financial pressure. There will have to be cuts in education services, and schools will be closed for financial reasons. It is a question then of how many schools and which boundaries are affected.

The Government have conceded that Roman Catholic schools have special protection, as they are able to take cases to which the Church and parents object to the Secretary of State for clarification. It will be for him to identify whether the schools and parents involved are experiencing significant deterioration, compared with other schools run by that authority.

Unfortunately, as the legislation stands, no similar provision is being made for non-denominational schools. The purpose of new clause 4 is to place an equivalent responsibility on the Government to ensure that there is

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equity between the sectors and to ensure that non-denominational schools, and particular individual non- denominational schools, are not dealt with adversely by the local authority.

It is particularly important that parents who do not have a say through elected representatives have the opportunity to refer the matter to the Secretary of State. If one authority decides to close a school in its area, the parents of the children who attend that school and who reside in another local authority will have no democratic mechanism by which to express their view. The Government have reasonably bowed to pressure from Labour Members and the Catholic Church on the issue of denominational schools. They have recognised that something has to be done and they have conceded that the matter can be referred to the Secretary of State.

I envisage that a similar position will apply in some circumstances to non- denominational schools that are under severe financial pressure. It is reasonable, therefore, that the Government should also take into account those equivalent circumstances.

I have reservations about asking the House to pass a new clause which will give the Secretary of State more powers because, throughout the passage of the Bill, he has taken unto himself more powers, which he should not necessarily have. But that should not blind us to the fact that there are circumstances in which it is appropriate for matters to be referred to the Secretary of State and this is one of them. As the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church have both said that they want equivalent treatment of non-denominational and Catholic schools, I hope that the Minister will see fit to accept the new clause.

4 pm

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