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Mr. Don Foster: The Minister will recall that, during the Committee stage of the School Standards and Framework Bill, she made a number of pledges--as did her right hon. Friend the Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), who is now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. She is right to say that a number of additional

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places have been made available, and that is welcome; but in some parts of the country parental choice is being reduced. My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) has given examples, as have I, and many hon. Members on both sides of the House could do so as well. I hope the Minister will agree that it is not good enough to say that overall there have been additional places, when in many parts of the country choice has been restricted and the situation is worse than it was under the last Government. That is totally contrary to the promise that was made during the passage of the Bill.

Ms Morris: I will come to that. It is an important point: indeed, it is almost the crux of the argument. There are 12,000 extra places in popular schools, but it is true that some parents who might have obtained not a 31st but a 35th or 36th place will now not obtain that place. This is about hard political decisions. We were determined to implement the policy and make it work, and, to some extent, to change the culture.

Year after year, numbers have crept up. The figure of 31 sounds fine; for Chloe to be the 31st child sounds fine; but what will the hon. Member for Northavon say when he returns to his constituency next Friday, and Mrs. Smith tells him that she wants her daughter to be the 32nd? Over time, the numbers have ratcheted up, because parents see the needs of their children. Eventually, there will come a Friday when the hon. Gentleman has to explain to 37 constituents why there are now 38 in a class, whereas when they first applied there were only 30. That is the problem: parental choice is also about the right of other parents to demand reasonable class sizes.

As well as 12,000 extra places, we have given a cast-iron guarantee to all parents--millions of people--who have an infant-aged child that their child will not be in a class of more than 30. Those are not the parents who write to us or go to advice bureaux: they are people whose children will be brought up under a Government who have said that class size matters--a Government who take the flak in Adjournment debates such as this but who have made it happen. That is what we are determined to do.

I now refer specifically to South Gloucestershire. Hon. Members will be pleased to know what our guiding aim has been. Although we have been prescriptive over the class size limit because we are accountable to the electorate for that, we have tried to allow local authorities to plan their provision as they see fit. Let me run through the figures. We have made available £1.5 million to take on 48 extra teachers and £704,000 to build nine extra classrooms.

The hon. Member for Northavon says that some places on the plan have not been funded. Since I announced the latest round of class size plans, we have gone back to local authorities where there have been complaints and talked to them. We want to make the system work, but as reasonably as possible. There of course comes a time when our money is spent, but I have been careful to ensure that we are open to reasonable argument.

South Gloucestershire, which I gather is now Liberal Democrat controlled--having gone from no overall control--will be able to say by September 1999 that, whereas in September last year, 3,391 children were in classes of over 30, this year, the number will be 326. That is cause for celebration.

Mr. Webb: The hon. Lady gave me those figures, or corresponding ones, a little while ago in a written answer,

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but the other half of the written answer was on junior class sizes in South Gloucestershire. Does she accept that they have gone up? Can anything be done about that?

Ms Morris: What I do know is that the teacher:pupil ratio has fallen for the first time in 10 years nationally. I cannot not give the figures on that ratio for South Gloucestershire, but, nationally, they have fallen for the first time in 10 years. As I have said before, when we have approved class size plans, we have ensured that there will be no consequences for key stage 2 class sizes and that extra money is going to local authorities to accommodate key stage 2.

The hon. Member for Northavon asked--and we could have another interesting debate about this--whether 35 with a teacher and an assistant was not better than 31. That is a point that the Tories make. Once they are in train, the 20,000 extra classroom assistants--I do not put it forward as a better alternative--will mean that there will be a better adult:pupil ratio within key stage 2.

Mr. Don Foster: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that the half-hour Adjournment debates are the property of the Member who introduces them, who is guaranteed a ministerial reply. They are not general debates. They are certainly not platforms for exchanges between those on the Front Bench.

Ms Morris: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will cheer up the hon. Member for Bath. Let me go back to the point about our willingness to listen and to try to get it right for local areas. Since we announced the first round of extra money, we have gone back to areas where there have been complaints. I have asked officials to talk, to look at builders' reports, to visit the schools, to measure classrooms and to come back; we want to get it right. As a result, we were able to give £110,000 extra to Warmley primary school.

I am delighted that, today, I have written to the hon. Member for Bath to say that I have made available £73,925 for Newbridge St. John's infants school, a Church of England school, which shows that the case that it made, following our decision not to privatise, was a good one. The reason why it did not get the support first time round had to do with something in the paper application not ringing true. Sometimes, figures do not match up, or the school has not made the case on paper sufficiently.

Where local authorities have come back and said, "You have got it wrong," over the past few weeks, I have been asking officials to talk to them. That is why there is extra aid in the South Gloucester area and in Bath and North East Somerset. At Castle primary school, £17,265 has been made available.

I hope that hon. Members will accept not only that we are determined to deliver our pledge to the electorate, but that the line of accountability is important to us. We will deliver the pledge early--by the time of the next election, but we want to do it as sensitively as possible.

Chloe is Mr. and Mrs. Wilson's second child. I know that their eldest child has special needs and that the education of that child will have been of paramount

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concern to them; they want to ensure that that child receives the support that is needed. I understand that it is disappointing for Chloe that other children in her village are going to the school of her choice. What is ironic is that, had the family moved in before 23 October, class size policy would not have stood in their way. Chloe lives close enough to the school and most children in the village get a place. What is happening is that people who live further away are taking those places because of late entry.

I say as gently as I can that that is a consequence of the family having moved in since admissions closed in October last year. It is a matter for local decision. The local authority has taken a decision that the school that 2.65 miles away that is offering a place is of good standard and is not so far away that it makes life impossible for Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and Chloe. If it had not been of good standard and would have made life impossible, I feel sure that the local authority would have come back to us and asked for an extra teacher at the school, even at that stage. It did not.

Locally, the solution to the problem of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and Chloe was to offer a place in a good-quality school that was 2.65 miles away. I accept that that is a disappointment, but I hope that, when she starts in September, Chloe will settle down and succeed. I hope that, in years to come, the family will look back at this time as one that was traumatic for the children, but made no difference to what I hope will be a happy and fulfilling career for Chloe.

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Boundary Walls (Scotland)

1.27 pm

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): I am grateful to be given the opportunity to speak on this subject. The situation started with a dispute between Mr. Thom and his neighbour, Mrs. Hetherington, who are both constituents of mine, concerning the single brick boundary wall between their respective properties. I have represented Mr. Thom for many years, and the case was raised on the Adjournment on 13 March 1996.

The case went to the Court of Session, where it hinged on whether the wall was jointly owned by both parties, more commonly known as "common property", or whether each party owned half of the wall up to the mid-point, which is known as ad medium filum. The court decided to opt for the ad medium filum option, meaning that Mr. Thom lost his case. However, there were two conflicting lines of legal theory and precedent, and the matter was thus referred to the Scottish Law Commission. The subsequent handling of the case is at the crux of Mr. Thom's complaint. At all points, the SLC has taken a long time to resolve the matter. Nine and a half years passed from the original referral to a report finally being produced.

The commission issued a discussion paper, to which Mr. Thom made lengthy submissions, pointing out that the decision by the court was irrational as there was no way in which to divide a single brick wall and, thus, the ad medium filum approach was inoperable. The same would be true if a fence were used, rather than a boundary. That much was conceded by the commission, which declined Mr. Thom's invitation to visit such sites as it was instead convinced by written and verbal representations.

Since the matter was first referred to the SLC, its composition has changed radically, and a committee of three has been set up to investigate the situation.

One new member of the committee was a Professor Reid, who had written the article on boundary walls for "The Laws of Scotland Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia". In that article, he stated that the law was clear and that the ad medium filum approach was correct. As my hon. Friend the Minister should know, the Stair encyclopaedia is treated as a definitive statement of the law. It was thus irresponsible of Professor Reid to publish such an article while the SLC was considering the matter.

The second new member of the committee was Lord Gill, who was at the time a judge in the Court of Session. It would be astonishing if he were to find that his colleagues were in disarray on the matter. It appears that there are clear conflicts of interest in both cases and that both men should not have taken their places on the committee as they could not approach the issue with an open mind.

Last year, the SLC issued a short, summarised report of four pages. A longer report was impossible as the SLC would have had to deal with Mr. Thom's objections, showing the deficiencies of the ad medium filum solution. The original commission put the matter out to consultation and received an informative range of replies. However, the new commission ignored those responses which did not agree with its own predetermined position. The commission claimed that the balance of legal opinion favoured the ad medium filum approach.

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The majority of all opinion--and, crucially, the majority of the construction professions such as architects and surveyors--favoured common property. That view was ignored by the SLC, as it was not what it wished to hear. When the inevitably biased opinion of the Court of Session and the support for the court from academic sources--who partially make their living from slavishly following the court and writing about it--are stripped out, the decisive balance of legal opinion is in favour of common property.

The vast majority of opinion stated that the report should include fences. No mention of fences was made in the report, as it is impossible to consider fences and maintain the desired approach. Instead, the SLC has used the responses selectively to justify a conclusion that it has already arrived at. It has failed to engage in genuine consultation. The SLC believes that the law is now settled, and that the absence of further cases shows that. Mr. Thom has demonstrated that the law is not settled, and has submitted 16 different cases where the ad medium filum approach is inoperable. These have not been refuted by the SLC.

It is my belief that so few cases come to court because the public have a great deal more sense than lawyers, and realise that they are both responsible for boundary walls. As was indicated, the original commission refused the invitation to conduct site visits as it was convinced by Mr. Thom's arguments. The present commission has refused a similar opportunity to examine the situation at all. As the SLC concedes, the law rests on the decision in Thom v. Hetherington, although it admits on page 3 of the report that common property is more suitable for fences and thin walls.

Following representations to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife (Mr. McLeish)--a Scottish Office Minister at the time--it was made clear that the Government accepted the SLC report, and that the SLC had considered the problem of single brick walls and fences, but had decided that there was no problem, as such divisions rarely form the actual boundary between two properties. That is blatantly not the case. Thousands of title deeds specify that property ends at the appropriate division, which is either a fence or a single brick wall. One such example was the wall in the case of Thom v. Hetherington.

According to the SLC, single brick walls such as that in Thom v. Hetherington are rarely found in the boundary. We know that to be untrue. It says also that for thin walls and fences, a common property approach is the best option. The wall in Thom v. Hetherington was just such a wall, and the commission has been forced to admit that its judgment was less than perfect. The inoperability of the law in such cases--which are becoming more common as modern dividing walls are often indivisible--creates difficulties for insurance companies, as they do not know what insurance to offer. The problem has again been ignored by the commission.

It also means that title deeds that state that a single brick wall or fence forms the boundary between two properties are invalid and, as ad medium filum cannot be applied to such divisions, it is completely unclear what the legal situation is in such a case--although the lawis supposedly based on Thom v. Hetherington. It is disappointing that the Scottish Office legal department has concurred with the SLC's work and appears to be no more willing to deal with the difficulties.

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There is a clear failure of accountability in the SLC, whose standards as a public body on issues such as conflict of interest have been utterly ignored. This has led to an obviously flawed decision, which the Scottish Office and the SLC still support, despite the fact that the flaws have been pointed out. Neither the commission nor the Scottish Office is willing to answer queries about the report, leading to the obvious impression that they have something to hide.

Mr. Thom believes that the manner in which the commission has behaved is fundamentally dishonest. He feels that the commission and the Scottish Office have deliberately refused to deal with the matter on its merits. I would therefore ask the Minister to initiate a full inquiry into the way in which the matter has been handled. Clearly, throughout the case the SLC has not acted in the way in which a public body should.

Through its actions, and those of the Scottish Office, the commission has rendered itself effectively unaccountable. I would ask the Minister to look at the legal situation surrounding boundary walls and to make up his own mind on the basis of the evidence, instead of accepting the discredited report.

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