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Mrs. May: I was disappointed by the way in which the Secretary of State opened the debate. This debate is not about the assisted places scheme. We have had that debate, and legislation on it has gone through the House--whatever our views of the rights or wrongs of the Government's policy. This debate is about partnership between local education authorities and independent schools in or beyond their areas.

I was also disappointed that the Secretary of State again told the House that we should take absolutely no notice of amendments agreed in another place. He more or less dismissed the other place as something that should not exist. Is the Secretary of State suggesting that the Government's position is that there should be no revising Chamber? Should they choose to introduce proposals on such a position, they would have a very difficult time. The other place has a valid role as a revising Chamber, looking again at legislation passed by this House. We are given the opportunity to think again on the basis of what their Lordships propose.

The Lords amendments would allow local education authorities freely to enter into partnership with independent schools, as opposed to the Government's rather prescriptive arrangements. Such arrangements are hardly surprising given the prescription throughout the Bill, which even includes, as we learned earlier, what constitutes the school meal. The Lords are rightly saying that that flexibility and freedom should be there for local education authorities.

10.15 pm

I find it somewhat surprising that the Government are opposing the Lords amendments on that matter, given the statements that have been made by the Secretary of State and others about partnerships between the public and private sectors. Only in February, in a speech to the Labour party local government conference, the right hon. Gentleman said:

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The White Paper, "Excellence in schools", contains a section on independent schools, which says:

    "The new partnership should embrace independent as well as state schools . . . The educational apartheid created by the public/private divide diminishes the whole education system".

Mr. Blunkett: Hear, hear.

Mrs. May: If the Secretary of State genuinely stands by what he said in the White Paper about partnerships between independent schools and the state sector, he should welcome the Lords amendments and agree with them, because they are an attempt to ensure that the Bill puts into practice the statements made by the Government in their White Paper.

Even more recently, in a speech to the Social Market Foundation at the beginning of this month, the Minister for School Standards said:

The hon. Gentleman may have thought on 1 July that old hostilities were being put to one side, but it is clear from the speech by the Secretary of State about these amendments that that has not happened. If the Minister for School Standards stands by what he said to the Social Market Foundation, he too should support the Lords amendments, because that is precisely what they would do.

The amendments would give the local education authorities the opportunity to put together, with businesses, the private sector and independent schools in their areas, schemes that could work to the benefit of the children of the area in terms of the education provided. They would allow LEAs the whip hand; they would have the nomination rights and could determine where those rights would be taken up and how they would be allocated. The LEAs would be able to say, "Here is a child for whom we cannot in the normal course of events provide the education that we believe would be right. We believe that that could be provided by an independent school, so we will enter into a partnership so that that can be done."

That concept is accepted throughout the House in relation to children with special educational needs. Local authorities often cannot meet such children's needs within their own schools, so a place has to be bought in the non-maintained sector. I suggest that very bright children have needs every bit as special as those of others who are more naturally considered in the category of having special educational needs. If a local educational authority chooses to educate a child with those special needs outside the maintained sector, it should be free to do so. The Lords amendments would give freedom at local level.

I return to the issue that we have heard about throughout our debates tonight. Ministers stand up and talk about the importance of local decision taking, meeting local needs and accepting local circumstances, yet if we judge by how they vote on the Lords amendments and what they put into their legislation, the message is different.

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Ministers are trying to restrain what goes on at local level, and to restrict the rights, flexibility and freedom of local education authorities. The amendments are about giving LEAs the opportunity to enter into partnerships with the private sector--partnerships that Ministers applaud in their rhetoric. However, as we see yet again, the reality of what the Government are doing is far from their rhetoric. The Lords amendments are about giving extra freedoms and flexibility to local education authorities to provide the education that is right for the children of their area. On that basis, we should support them.

Mr. Blunkett: I am sad that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has taken the view that he has. If I had read his 1993 speech, I would have saved myself about 55 minutes by ticking it and handing it over to the Independent Schools Information Service. We could have saved ourselves a lot of bother. Nobody is against discretion, and nobody wants to stop local authorities entering partnerships or placing children for special reasons.

I say to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) that, if the local authority should in future choose to exercise its discretion, it would be able to do so in the circumstances that he described.

I was deeply offended and hurt by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), not least because I love the area that he represents. To be called pompous, or whatever it was--was it fatuous?--was deeply offensive. It has hurt me.

Mr. Brady: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Blunkett: I certainly will. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going to hurt me as well.

Mr. Brady: I am seeking to atone for any offence that may have been caused, by giving the right hon. Gentleman heartfelt thanks on behalf of my constituents and the people of the borough of Trafford. They will be grateful for his assurance that should they choose, through the democratic process locally, to elect parties that support the provision of places at St. Bede's, they will be allowed to do so.

Mr. Blunkett: I am grateful, but I regret that that is unlikely to prevent the hon. Gentleman from voting against us. However, I am always happy to make others happy.

I cannot make the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) happy, because he did not address the issue at all--he addressed something entirely different, which underpins why we cannot accept the Lords' view. In the end, what the Lords' view entails is exactly what the hon. Member for Guildford wants--to introduce an alternative assisted places scheme. He simply wants to be able to flout what we agreed in this House last year. For that reason, I say to the hon. Member for Bath that politics is full of guile, hidden meanings and what is written between the lines. When Conservative Members talk about partnership, they mean an assisted places scheme.

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Mr. Don Foster: The Secretary of State is absolutely right--politics is about reading between the lines. The problem is that we have no lines to read between. We have not been given the opportunity even to look at draft regulations in relation to the clause. Will he acknowledge that, unless we have some indication of what sort of fettering powers he intends to impose on local education authorities, it will be difficult for anybody to accept that he should be given carte blanche to stop LEAs doing what they think is appropriate?

Mr. Blunkett: If the hon. Gentleman has accepted that we are entering partnership arrangements--which we are--he has accepted that we will not fetter any discretion in relation to special educational needs. We are dealing with the introduction of discretion to provide for an assisted places scheme at local level, which is what the hon. Member for Guildford was advocating.

Mr. St. Aubyn: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Blunkett: I certainly will. I am hoping for some clarification of the matter.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I have been thrown into confusion by the Secretary of State. He accused me of being pompous, but then complained when my colleague returned the compliment. What is being claimed by the Lords, and what has been claimed in debate after debate in this House, is the right for local authorities to decide what is needed locally, building beyond the assisted places scheme with newer, more positive schemes. The right hon. Gentleman has gone on time and again about the number of children in classes in primary schools. If a local education authority seeks to reduce the number of children in a class in a secondary school by sending some other children to an independent school in the same area, will he deny that class smaller numbers in the classroom?

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