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Gaia House

Q9. [155702] Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): If he will visit Gaia House near Totnes.

The Prime Minister: I have no current plans to do so. Gaia House is a centre that offers insight and meditation, and zen retreats throughout the year, so this is an answer that, obviously, I shall keep under review.

Mr. Steen : If the Prime Minister did visit this Buddhist retreat, he would have plenty of time to reflect on how to protect council tax payers from Liberal Democrat councils that wish to increase council tax, as Torbay council does, by six times the rate of inflation. The council has refused to cut bureaucracy. It spends money on surveys to establish how many tombs there are in Torbay's cemeteries—for health and safety reasons—rather than on protecting and maintaining social services for the living. What task will the Prime Minister take on to protect the weakest and most vulnerable in Torbay from the Liberal council?

The Prime Minister: I obviously would be able to reflect on all that, but I think I would gain another insight as well. It is obviously true that we have hugely increased the amount of money we have given to Devon council—

Mr. Steen: And Torbay?

The Prime Minister: Yes, Torbay too. My briefing mentions South Hams, the hon. Gentleman's own local authority—

Mr. Steen: As well as Torbay?

The Prime Minister: Yes. The great thing is that we have increased the money for Devon, Torbay and South Hams. I think that probably the insight I would gain after this retreat would be "Vote Labour".

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Q10. [155703] Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Marks and Spencer opened its first-ever Lifestyle store in Gateshead yesterday, creating 210 jobs? We welcome that further demonstration of confidence in the north-east by Marks and Spencer, but, as my right hon. Friend knows, what the region desperately needs is more investment in research and development, and the kind of skilled jobs that often result from Government procurement programmes. We also eagerly await the promised redistribution of 20,000 civil service jobs away from the south-east and into the regions. I acknowledge the tremendous progress that has been made in the creation of employment and reduction of unemployment in my region under my right hon. Friend's Government, but what further progress can we hope to see in the coming months and years?

The Prime Minister: I think that it is essential, first, to back the regional development agency, One NorthEast, which, as my hon. Friend knows, is making precisely that sort of effort to bring manufacturing and other industry into the area, and also ensuring that we have the right skills base there. That is immensely important. The second essential thing, as my hon. Friend implied, is to go on running the economy in an effective and stable way so that we have high levels of employment and low levels of unemployment. He will know, as I do, that in the north-east any political debate of 15 or 20 years ago would have centred on the huge levels of unemployment. It is a tribute, surely, to the management of the economy under this Chancellor, and to this Government's record, that we have seen in the past seven years dramatic reductions in unemployment, dramatic rises in employment and the best-run economy of any major industrialised country.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): The Prime Minister will know of last Friday's kidnap from a

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Belfast city centre bar, which, but for the police, would have resulted in a murder. That kidnap was the work of mainstream republicans, who are led by the persons who have been returned here to serve as Members for Mid-Ulster and for Belfast, West. The Prime Minister will also know of the Irish Justice Minister's description of their "vomit-making hypocrisy". Against that, the response of the Prime Minister's Government yesterday is seen by people in Northern Ireland as being rank moral cowardice. It is utterly unreasonable to expect us to remain in discussions with these people in these circumstances, and I have to tell the Prime Minister that unless he can summon up the courage to act on this matter within the next few days, I and my colleagues will take steps next Monday to bring that process to an end.

The Prime Minister: For obvious reasons, as the right hon. Gentleman will surely understand, there is a limit to what I can say about any individual case that is being investigated by the police at the present time, and in respect of which charges will be laid, so I have to start with that qualification.

Secondly, let me say very clearly, not just to Sinn Fein but to the IRA, that we have for a significant period of time said through the Good Friday agreement that these people are entitled to participate in the democratic process, but that they are able to do so only if they are fully part of the democratic club. One cannot talk about human rights for people one day and beat human rights out of them the next—that is not acceptable.

We will have to consider, in the light of what the police find, what we then do. But I have said to the right hon. Gentleman before and I say again—indeed, this is the reason why we have had suspension of the institutions for the past year or more—that there will not be any compromise on this point. People cannot be part of a democratic process unless they abide by the rules of democracy. I am not going to comment on the individual case, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that if it is shown to be the mainstream IRA that has done this thing, action will obviously have to follow.

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School Admissions (Prohibition of Religious Discrimination)

12.32 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I beg to move,

I begin by welcoming the opportunity to discuss this issue in the House. I accept that it is a controversial issue that has implications for the way in which we organise our school system and for race relations, among other things. I am very keen to put on the record my interest in this issue as an honorary associate of the National Secular Society. In terms of my own education, I am Jewish by background but I went to Church of England schools.

This Bill is not about whether faith schools are good or bad schools. Currently, faith schools are mainly voluntary aided. Although the Church or religion concerned does not pay the school's salaries or running costs, it is allowed to run its own admission policy independent of the local education authority. Where the school is over-subscribed, it is allowed to admit only children of a specific religion. Indeed, the contribution that religions make to schools relates only to capital costs, and has been reduced from 20 per cent. to 10 per cent.

The Bill would not close faith schools, convert them to community status or prevent them from being run with a religious ethos, but it would prevent them from selecting by, or discriminating on the basis of, religious background. There are several reasons for seeking to do that. First, it is self-evident that such discrimination against children is wrong in and of itself. Why should a child living next to a school be excluded from it, even though his neighbourhood friends attend it, solely because he or his parents either have the wrong religion or no religion—or, indeed, because his parents are unable sufficiently to persuade the school that they are religious enough to justify their child's attendance? Why should a child be punished by being prevented from attending a school, which they would otherwise have an opportunity to go to, on the basis of the views or culture of his or her parents? Why should the child be denied fair treatment in school admissions?

Such criteria also encourage hypocrisy, as many in the Church and other religions recognise, when parents become church attenders purely to get their child into the local school. A recent newspaper report stated:

Those words speak for themselves.

Even if the application of such criteria causes long-lasting religious adherence, should the state be sanctioning religious recruitment by permitting those sorts of admissions policies in state schools? Is it right to segregate children according to their religion? The

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Cantle report into the causes of riots in northern cities expressed clear concerns about the make-up of many of the state secondary schools—in this case, Church of England schools—in the area, which were nearly 100 per cent. white, as children were bussed across cities at the taxpayer's expense despite the wide mix of races and religions in the catchment area. On the basis of observations on visits, the Cantle report said:

I understand that the Government and many hon. Members supported the conclusions of that report.

If we are to stop the sort of racial segregation that we have witnessed in some cities we must either stop religious schools existing, or—a lesser step—stop them segregating and discriminating on religious grounds. Have we learned nothing from Northern Ireland, where we know that if children do not mix in school it becomes much harder—though not impossible—to tackle in-built and inculcated prejudice?

Why should religious parents, who tend to be more middle class, be allowed a greater choice of schools than non-religious parents? Community schools do not give preference to atheists or the non-religious, so why should state-funded schools discriminate? The disadvantage to non-religious parents in respect of the choice of school increases with every new faith school that is permitted to select on the basis of religious adherence.

It has been argued that faith schools are better schools and it is alleged that the results demonstrate it. However, that has always been alleged to be the product of their ethos rather than selection. If people and hon. Members who oppose the measure believe that faith schools are better schools because of the way in which they are organised, why not make it clear that they should not use selection as a means—directly or indirectly, advertently or inadvertently—of selecting on a better educational background or on a social class basis?

Answers to parliamentary questions provide clear evidence that the proportion of children eligible for free school meals is significantly lower, on average, in faith schools than in community schools. That is clearly a factor in faith schools achieving better results, regardless of their social mix. Therefore, it is clear that the policy cannot be defended on the basis of good results.

Many religions share the concerns that I have raised. Although they want their own schools, they do not feel the need to discriminate and segregate. I do not believe that support in public opinion is needed before one can propose something that is right, but I will always point it out when public opinion supports a measure. Polls show that up to 80 per cent. of people feel that it is wrong for state schools to select on religious grounds. When children are asked whether they feel any religious adherence, the majority say that they do not. They do

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not see why selection should be made on the basis of their religious belief—or on the basis of the belief that their parents have, or claim.

There are strong arguments—improved race relations, better mixing, and non-discrimination—for a ban on state schools being able to allow discrimination on religious grounds in their admissions criteria.

I commend the Bill to the House.

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