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Mr. Loughton: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that friendly advice. It confirms my point that 20 members of his party attend the debate, with the other 280-odd being Lobby fodder, when they put down their creme de menthe frappes and pork scratchings.

Mr. Lansley: Labour Members have not come here to participate in the debate. I, too, am a new Member. I thought that the purpose of our coming here this evening was to debate the Bill, to determine whether it had merit and, if possible, to improve it. That is exactly what we are trying to do.

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. I remind the Committee that the subject of the amendment is siblings. I would be grateful if the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) would address that.

Mr. Loughton: I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Lord. Perhaps, at this late hour, a certain fascination with creme de menthe frappes and pork scratchings may be forgiven.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): On a point of order, Mr. Lord. How did the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) manage to find creme de menthe frappes and pork scratchings in four weeks? I have been here 14 years and I still cannot find them.

Mr. Loughton: I sought advice from the Minister without Portfolio. I gather that the formal reply will be appearing before long in e-mail from Excalibur.

I want to get on with the speech I am trying to make and to deal with the subject of siblings. Hon. Members should grow up and face the fact that the Bill has nothing

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to do with class sizes; it has nothing to do with providing better conditions for kids in maintained schools--but it has everything to do with the Government's insidious and spiteful agenda for private schools. It is the thin edge of the wedge.

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman must address his remarks specifically to the question of siblings, or he will be out of order.

Mr. Loughton: I am sorry, Mr. Lord.

On the specific subject of siblings, I want to take up a couple of points ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I, too, served for many years on a local education authority appeals panel. As my hon. Friend rightly said, the single largest subject for objections was siblings not being able to attend the same schools--usually because the good schools were full. They had waiting lists, so even with such an important criterion as siblings, the schools could not help. That was why it was so necessary that the extra funds available from other parts of the education budget should be concentrated on the good schools. That is what the Conservative Government tried to do.

The debate has been filled with incongruities. There have been attacks on the private schools offering assisted places--from the Liberal Democrats, on the basis that their results were not very good. The argument was that their results did not match up to those of LEA schools. If that were the case, parents would not be so stupid as to want assisted places for their children in those schools and the scheme would have withered on the vine and been abandoned.

No mention has been made of the fact that one of the fastest growth areas in assisted places is among ethnic minorities, where siblings are an important consideration. Brothers and sisters from ethnic minorities may be attracted to a special education that they could achieve on assisted places but could not achieve in certain inner city schools, where they are not able to fit in and fulfil their potential.

The Government have made very little mention of anything during the debate, but particularly we have heard very little about the children. The debate seems to have been focused on the parents, as if they were social lepers trying a scam on the education system to get extra places for their selfish--

11.15 pm

Mr. Clappison: Given the structure of the Bill, there may be circumstances in which one sibling in a primary school that is linked to a secondary school attended by another sibling will be forced to leave their school while the other child proceeds in the secondary school through to 18. Siblings may be forced to move to separate schools in the middle of their school career.

Mr. Loughton: That is an exceedingly valid point. My wife and her sister attended the same fee-paying school. Their parents worked overseas for the European Space Agency for many years. It was particularly important for those two young girls to be together in the same school. If girls in that situation were relying on the assisted places scheme now, it would be a traumatic experience at an impressionable time in their education.

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Have the Government shown any concern about that? Have we heard a mention of the implications for brothers and sisters?

Mr. Swayne: When I went to school as Swayne minimus, I received a great deal of attention and assistance from my elder brothers. That would not have been possible if we had been on assisted places in the environment that will be achieved by the Bill. I would have been unable to attend that school and would have had to go to another. The environment for a new pupil in any school is terrifying and unfamiliar. It is a great assistance to have the help and succour of one's elder brothers--I say elder brothers for it was a single-sex institution. The fact is, however--

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. [Interruption.] Order. Hon. Members must resume their seats when I am on my feet. The hon. Gentleman obviously did not hear me say earlier that interventions should be brief and to the point.

Mr. Loughton: I am grateful for the important point that my hon. Friend was attempting to make. I hope that he will elaborate on it in his speech rather than pinching part of mine.

Perhaps we could put the debate and this flimsy, pathetic little Bill in the context of the Government's broader plans for education, which will affect many people. Not only are they endeavouring to deny pupils on assisted places and their siblings that choice; soon, an attack on grammar schools will also be on the agenda.

We know what the Government have said about grammar schools. They are not concerned about the few of the grammar schools; they are much more concerned with the many. The implication of that is that grammar schools must surely be under threat as well. Children who are currently on the assisted places scheme, and their siblings, will be forced off the scheme because their parents cannot afford to pay the full private school fees. As my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford(Mr. St. Aubyn) said, 40 per cent. of children on the scheme receive the maximum help because their parents' income is well under the £10,000 ceiling.

The Government have made no mention of the sliding scale for the payment of fees. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford also made an important point about the discounts available for siblings, but such matters have not come up in the Ministers' flimsy arguments.

Not only will pupils currently on the assisted places scheme, and their siblings, be denied access to grammar schools as a possible alternative, but the Labour Government are going to attack the principle of grant-maintained schools. A further choice will therefore be denied to parents as Labour local education authorities install their placemen to undermine the principle of grant-maintained schools. The Government's principle is that nanny knows best--if it is not provided by the local education authority, it is not worth the paper it is written on.

What about the private schools that I began by mentioning? The Bill is the start of the slippery slope, because the Government will attack private education

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with VAT and then attack the charitable status of private schools. That is Labour's real agenda. I remind hon. Members to put that in the context of the range of choice currently available to children in this country.

Another issue, which I shall probably be pulled up short for mentioning, is that of nursery vouchers. The Government's approach to them is the most crass example of a complete stifling of choice for children at an early age.

The Government have used flawed figures and costs for sixth forms, among other things. They have not mentioned the fact that, in most cases, the assisted places scheme pays the boarding fees, not the full fees for pupils and their siblings.

A school in my constituency had hoped to be one of the next wave of go-ahead, exciting schools participating in the assisted places scheme. Lancing college, the major public school, works very closely with and gives a lot back to the community, and draws most of its pupils from that community. That school will now be denied the opportunity to broaden its appeal even further to the community that it serves and with which it has a very good relationship.

Is it not the case that the Bill--and this farce of a debate--is the result of an ill-thought-out and hasty vendetta by Labour against what it has misjudged as an issue of privilege? For the past 18 years, the Labour party has been straining at the leash to wage its misguided vendetta against private schools. The Bill amounts to the return of the nanny state and the stifling of choice for parents and their children. We broadened and extended that choice, but it is about to be stamped on with indecent haste.

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