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Education Bill

Education Bill

Column Number: 331

Standing Committee G

Thursday 10 January 2002


[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Education Bill

9.30 am

The Chairman: There is a request for a Programming Sub-Committee, and I propose to suspend the Committee for a few minutes to allow that meeting to take place. All those who are not eligible to remain in the Room must withdraw.

Sitting suspended.

9.32 am

On resuming—

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East): I beg to move,

    That the Order of the Committee [11th December] relating to programming, as amended [13th and 18th December] be amended by substituting for the entries for the ninth and tenth sittings the following—

    9thClauses 44 to 48, Schedule 4, 11.20 am

    10thClauses 49 to 53, Schedule 5,

    Clauses 54 to 56, Schedule 6, 5 pm

    Clauses 57 to 61

We want the guillotine to move from 11.25 am to 11.20 am, and to fall between schedule 4 and clause 49.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Heppell: On a point of order, Mr. Pike. The Government are trying to be as amenable as possible to the Opposition. The Minister was disappointed that we did not discuss all the clauses on Tuesday morning. We offered the Opposition an extra three hours to debate those items, if they would make up the time later in the evening. We did not disagree that the extra three hours would be useful, but we failed to get consensus because the Opposition decided that they would agree to the extra three hours only if we moved the middle knife. I conclude from that that they were happy to debate for another three hours, as long as we made no progress. That would seem to be illogical, except for the fact that I have a copy of a letter from the Leader of the Opposition to the Conservative party chairman, which spells out the tactic of—

The Chairman: Order. This is not really a point of order.

Mr. Heppell: I think when I have finished, Mr. Pike, you will see that it is relevant. It is important that we place on the record that Conservatives have adopted a tactic on Standing Committees of trying to take up extra time, while sending imperfectly scrutinised legislation to the House of Lords. [Interruption.] I am sorry but that tactic is outlined in the letter from the Leader of the Opposition.

The Chairman: Order. We have a short amount of time. I have already ruled that this is not a point of order.

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Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): On a point of order, Mr. Pike. I seek your guidance on another matter. Is it helpful for the Government Whip, in expressing his one-sided view in a highly prejudiced and silly manner, to refer to the discussions of the usual channels, which are intended to facilitate our proceedings? He quoted from a letter that I certainly have not seen. It is not the custom of the House to remark on any leaked letter. The Opposition are seeking to scrutinise an important flagship Bill under a timetable imposed by a majority on the Floor of the House that cannot be second guessed between elections. We are faced with an attempt to truncate discussions. Progress was certainly made at the last sitting, and it is completely tendentious of the Government Whip to suggest that there was any dragging out of proceedings. No tactic is being deployed in Committee that would even remotely equate to what he has suggested. The Opposition are making a genuine attempt to scrutinise the legislation properly.

The Chairman: We have spent enough time on this matter. While I understand the points that have been made, I am a member of the Modernisation Committee and I am committed to the agreed programming system, and I am sure that those arguments will be debated again when we come to decide whether the procedures, which are still experimental, should be made permanent. It would more appropriate to debate those points then.

Clause 44

Admission forums

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): I beg to move amendment No. 210, in page 29, line 6, at end insert—'Admission forums'.

I welcome you to our Committee, Mr. Pike. Your arrival coincided with a few moments of consensus across the Committee, which we seem to have lost. I am sure that amendment No. 210 will lead to a fresh outbreak of consensus. It inserts a heading into the text of the Bill. It has no impact on the meaning, but ensures that the format is in line with the rest of the Bill. I hope that the Committee will welcome it.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike? I congratulate your town on having a fine victory in the FA cup on Saturday against Canvey Island. As a former Burnley trialist and as someone who grew up in the town, I am sure that you will bring a special glow to the proceedings and will support the comments that I am about to make.

I should like to take this opportunity to ask the Minister whether, during future consideration of the clause and the other clauses on admissions, he will consider the issue of schools that are part boarding and part day. I refer specifically to colleges such as Wymondham college in Norfolk, which has written to the Minister—

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): On a point of order, Mr. Pike. It seems to me that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) is speaking to amendment No. 233,

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which stands in my name and is tabled for discussion under clause 45. That may be a more appropriate point for his discussion to take place.

The Chairman: I think that the point of order is valid, Mr. Willis.

Mr. Willis: I was just seeking an assurance from the Minister that that important issue will appear in future Government amendments.

The Chairman: We can deal with that when we discuss amendment No. 233. Would you agree, Mr. Timms?

Mr. Timms: Yes, I cannot assure the hon. Gentleman that the issue will be addressed in Government amendments, and it will be debated.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): As the Minister said, the amendment is uncontentious. I do not want to waste the Committee's time, but I would like to ask the Minister whether, in relation to amendments such as have been tabled and the more substantive parts of the Bill that will be debated today, he is willing to place on his Department's website a summary of where previous Acts have been amended. I refer to amendments to admissions policies because many people have told me that they find it difficult to consolidate schedule 4 or chapter 3 with previous enactments, especially if they do not have them to hand. They may have obtained a copy of the Bill, but not realised that they also needed copies of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. Could the Minister make that promise?

Mr. Timms: That request is made from time to time: it has not been made previously in this context, but I will carefully consider it.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Turner: I beg to move amendment No. 124, in page 29, line 8, leave out 'shall' and insert 'may'.

The amendment gives scope for another outbreak of consensus. It would remove a requirement on local education authorities, and would enable them to make decisions that take account of appropriate circumstances in their area. There are more small local education authorities in this country than there used to be, and many now deal with only a few schools. The City of London and the Isles of Scilly are unchanged, but Rutland has only two secondary schools and the Isle of Wight has only five. If the existing arrangements work satisfactorily, we should not require LEAs to establish a system for determining admissions and other policies. We are fortunate in my constituency, because we do not have many admission authorities and there is no controversy about the arrangements. That is the case in several small LEAs, and my amendment would remove the mandatory requirement and allow them discretion.

9.45 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I join hon. Members in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Pike. It brings back fond memories for me because the first

Column Number: 334

Committee I was appointed to, the Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee, was chaired by you. Like the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I wish to refer briefly to football. Mr. Pike, I apologise for the fact that my football team destroyed yours by winning five goals to one in the Christmas period and now heads the first division. I hope that you will not hold that against me during our proceedings.

To return to serious matters, amendment No. 124 is consistent with other amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), in that it seeks to replace a mandatory requirement with a voluntary one. Our view on the issue is straightforward. The vast majority of stakeholders who responded to the consultation believe that we must improve admissions co-ordination and communication throughout the country. Admission forums are an appropriate structure for doing that.

We made it clear in the documents that we circulated that admissions decisions will remain with the admissions authorities. However, the measure is in the best interests of pupils and parents, who experience significant difficulty with admissions from time to time. We should remember that the issue may be stressful for parents. Rightly, a major concern of parents is the education of their children. It can be a worrying and anxious time for both pupil and parents if there is confusion or ambiguity about the school that the child will end up in, and if the parents do not have knowledge of that in good time. Mandatory admission forums in all parts of the country are appropriate and, on that basis, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Turner: I did not hear anything that shows the need for the arrangement in every local authority up and down the country. The chapter does not refer to the City of London or the Isles of Scilly. There is only one school in the City of London and, I believe, only one school—it may be a secondary school—in the Isles of Scilly. Admissions arrangements are sometimes contentious in authorities with a small number of schools, but the problems would not have been solved by a forum. The contention was between a majority who accepted what was proposed and a minority who did not. The majority view will be represented through a forum in exactly the same way as it is through the local education authority at present. The Minister has not explained why a forum is necessary in my constituency, the Isles of Scilly or Rutland.


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