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Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman will recall that I ruled yesterday that answers to parliamentary questions are more important than any briefing to the press. I have made that ruling, so perhaps he should table more questions on the same subject and see whether he gets more precise answers. If not, I am sure that he will report the matter to me.
26 Apr 2006 : Column 591

Independent School Closures (Provision for Pupils)

1.28 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I beg to move,

You and others may have seen the stories in the newspapers, Mr. Speaker, and understand why I have introduced the Bill. The event that triggered the Bill was the sudden closure—literally overnight—of Newlands school in my constituency, which had been there for 150 years. On 3 April, the governors issued a press release stating that the school would close that day. That meant that 450 pupils, many of whom face exams very shortly, were out of a school and 200 hundred staff were suddenly out of a job. Some of the pupils were not even at the school but in Sri Lanka. It is a boarding establishment, so some pupils did not even know where they were going to sleep. It is intolerable that that situation could arise and unbelievable that there was no safety net for children whose education is important to them. A private school is not a fish and chip shop, and it demands better protection for those who use it. It is an independent educational establishment, and a private business in that sense, but it is delivering an essential service to those children who use it, and it is important that we have safeguards to protect the education of young people in such circumstances.

The Bill would have helped in that situation and would help on other occasions when such closures take place. They are happily few in number. I am told by the Independent Schools Council that there are probably five or six a year among the schools within its remit, but perhaps rather more among those that are not registered with it. However, one school is too many if one is a pupil whose education has been adversely affected.

The reasons for the closure of the school are many. Its financial management was not as good as it had been and its bank was not as helpful as it might have been. When it became apparent that the school would have to go into liquidation, it reached an agreement with the private company, Cognita—Chris Woodhead's company—for a transfer of the assets so that it could continue. However, the landlords refused to reassign the lease. My Bill would have enabled the school to carry on or, if necessary, to close down in good order at the end of the summer term after the exams were out of the way. I offered to act as an intermediary within the 24 hours that we had before the school finally closed. I am sorry to say that the landlords would not speak to me. I subsequently had a threatening call from their lawyer—a rather unpleasant man called Julian Golding, who threatened to report me to the parliamentary ombudsman. I was just doing my job, and that was not a responsible or helpful attitude from the owners of the school.

It then turned out, following some very good reporting by The Times, that three years previously, the family who owned the school land had signed a deal with a property developer aimed at pushing the school
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out and using the site for the development of houses worth between £2 million and £3 million. Neither staff nor parents had any knowledge of the agreement signed with the developers, Allum Estates, in 2003. It is appalling that the education of children should be made secondary to the quick profit to be made from the development of land for housing purposes.

The school's announcement that it was going into liquidation had several consequences. Parents, many of whom were abroad, were telephoned at 4 o'clock the day before to be told that, as of tomorrow, the school was not functioning and asked to arrange for their children to be collected as best they could. Children who had exams coming up had nowhere to go to take those exams. Other independent schools in the area that offered to help were besieged with applications and suddenly had big increases in their rolls. There was tremendous pressure on the state sector in the shape of East Sussex county council, which had to find places for a large number of children who were suddenly on its doorstep. None of that was good planning and none of it was satisfactory for the children concerned.

The site was left vacant, without any management or security. The swimming pool was broken into and drunk teenagers were found swimming in it. Furniture was tipped into the pond. The door to the design and technology unit, which was filled with saws, drills and other implements, was forced down and damaged. Anarchy had broken out.

There is a happy ending at this particular school. The pupils felt very strongly about the situation, and gave me a petition with hundreds of signatures. I commend them for their efforts in that regard. Two parents have come forward with more than £2 million to try to help the school to keep going on alternative premises. Nevertheless, at the very least the pupils have had their education disrupted; at worst, some of them might have been in a position whereby they could not take exams for which they have studied hard over a long period of time.

The Independent Schools Council recognises that there is a problem. It would prefer a solution involving a voluntary arrangement between independent schools rather than the Government intervening directly. I have no view on that—if they can sort themselves out, that is fine by me. For the time being, the reality is that there are only ad hoc arrangements that depended on the good will of independent schools nearby and the good performance of East Sussex county council in picking up the problems. Such a situation cannot be allowed to happen again. We need a safety net to ensure that, in the event of a school going into liquidation, something can be done to help—at the very least, by closing it in good order.

If an airline passenger is left stranded abroad because the airline has gone bust, they are flown home by another airline, because the airlines have constructed a mechanism where that can happen. I am asking for something similar in the independent schools sector to ensure that the 450 children at this school and other children who attend independent schools are properly cared for and that such a situation cannot arise again.

Question put and agreed to.
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Bill ordered to be brought in by Norman Baker, Mr.   Phil Willis, Tim Loughton, Charles Hendry, Michael Jabez Foster, David Lepper and Mr. Nigel Waterson.

Independent School Closures (Provision for Pupils)

Norman Baker accordingly presented a Bill to establish a fund to facilitate the uninterrupted education of pupils in independent schools facing closure; to require independent schools to make contributions to such a fund; to place a duty on independent schools to make plans relating to the welfare of their pupils in the event of their going into administration; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 14 July, and to be printed [Bill 174].


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 25,

Question agreed to.

26 Apr 2006 : Column 594

Northern Ireland Bill (Allocation of Time)

1.37 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move,

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