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Baroness Carnegy of Lour: I have one or two further questions that I would like to ask. I was unable to be present at Second Reading. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy made a number of excellent points about the plans for the assisted places scheme in Scotland. He has made further points which, had he not made them, I would have made myself.
The Government intend removing from Scottish young people the opportunity to take up about 3,500 assisted places. It is essential that we receive answers to the questions, but unfortunately there is not only no Scottish Office Minister in the House, I see not one Scottish Peer on the Benches opposite.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: The noble Baroness has just appeared, and I am very glad to see her. Scottish Peers have been drifting in as I have been speaking. That is excellent, because they may be able to assist me. Amendments Nos. 22, 24 to 26 and 28 relate to Clause 5. They have roughly the same effect on the scheme as those in other clauses. What is going on in relation to the assisted place scheme in Scotland is, to say the least, surprising. I am delighted to see that the Scottish Office Minister has now appeared. That is excellent news, because he is no doubt well-briefed on the matter.
I first suspected that all was not well with the Government's plans when I asked a Written Question on 5th June, which, given the Government's promises during the election campaign, I imagined would be easy to answer. I asked what the Government expected to save each year from bringing the assisted places scheme to an end; what it would cost per annum to reduce class sizes to 30 and fewer. That was not an unreasonable question. I waited for 13 days, almost the maximum period, to receive the reply. Then I was not given replies to the question that I had asked. I was told that the Government's expenditure plans did not take account of the phasing out of the assisted places scheme, but just the broad sums that were in the plan for the present scheme as it is.
I was told how many children were in classes of over 30 and how many classes of over 30 there were. I was told that it was not possible to calculate the annual cost of reducing those classes to 30 or fewer because the figures were not available. Clearly, at that point the Government did not know what they would require to reduce the classes, and, consequently, whether the savings from the assisted places scheme would be enough.
Since then, my suspicions have been somewhat enhanced, because we have heard, as my noble friend Lord Campbell said, that the Government do not intend to legislate to reduce class sizes because there would not be enough money. The education press in Scotland suggests that the Educational Institute of Scotland,
The implementation of the curriculum for 16 to 18 year-olds which is so important, and which is known as Higher Still, and eagerly awaited by everyone in Scotland has been postponed for yet another year. So it will not happen for another two years. That is unfortunate. The plans for the compulsory appraisal of teachers have also been abandoned. We know that the teacher unions and the local authorities have told the Government that they just cannot see a way of implementing them. It may well be that the problem of reducing class sizes is meeting the same kind of difficulty. I ask the Minister whether it is true that the Government are breaking their promise on the question of reducing class sizes to 30 or less in Scotland? Is it the case that the Bill's financial memorandum, bearing in mind that it is a Great Britain Bill for England, Wales and Scotland, does not apply any more?
If so, are the Government going to proceed with removing the assisted places scheme in Scotland? If they are not going to use the money in that way, the scheme must be going simply out of prejudice, and prejudice about this scheme in Scotland is singularly unfortunate because polls have shown that it is well supported by a substantial majority of people in Scotland. There is considerable regret that this particular opportunity for young people in Scotland is to be removed.
I support this amendment because, obviously, postponement of the scheme would allow the Government to sort out the confusion into which they have fallen in Scotland and would enable them to produce a scheme which would meet the intentions which are expressed in the financial memorandum.
Lord Peston: I hope that it is in order for me to debate the Bill, particularly the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Henley, who is the main Opposition spokesman on these matters. I listened with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said, and I have read the speech of his noble friend Lord Skidelsky on Second Reading. I was intrigued and extremely puzzled both by the original speech and by what the noble Lord, Lord Henley, now has to say, because it seemed to me to lack one crucial element which one would usually require in your Lordships' House; namely, an element of logicality.
I am sorry that the noble Lord referred to it as mean, nasty and envious to go against it. I thought that the Bill was rather mean, nasty and envious when it came in, as did several of my noble friends. It was not a Bill that we supported. I also believe that my noble friend the Minister and the Secretary of State are incredibly generous because they did not do what someone like me would have done; namely, abolish the scheme forthwith; they are going to go on spending hundreds of millions of pounds on this scheme for the next few years. I certainly do not mind being thought of as mean and nasty; it is my stock-in-trade, but the notion that my noble friend is being mean and nasty in any way is absurd. This is a use of public money--transferring public money from expenditure in the maintained system to expenditure in the fee paying system. That is what it is, and the Government have now announced that they will reverse it.
Noble Lords opposite may disagree with that and I do not blame them for doing so. It seems to me just as reasonable for them to disagree with that as it was for us to have disagreed with what they did in the first place. That is the nature of disagreement. But for them then to demand--my noble friend will no doubt respond to their demand because she is that type of person; she has a mission to explain, as I have--that she takes them through this in enormous detail is absurd. The amendments are ridiculous to start with. There is absolutely no doubt that this scheme costs those sums of money.
Lord Peston: At the current rate it will be getting on for over £200 million by the end of the century. One hundred and fifty million pounds was the sum left out as a result of the phasing process. There will still be some left after that.
The scheme is costing that much, and the way to check is to look in the public accounts, where you will see these figures. The fact remains that this Bill very generously eases out the assisted places scheme rather more slowly than some of us would like but, out of sheer loyalty to my noble friend, I support her and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on this. But to suggest that there are no savings, to suggest that all this scheme does is simply transfer money that would have been spent in the public sector to be spent in the private sector with no net costs to the system just does not stand
Lord Tope: I do not want to waste any more of your Lordships' time on this, nor do I want to follow the particularly Scottish points that were being made, except to marvel at the ability of the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, to conjure up Scottish Labour Peers and even a Minister before our very eyes as she spoke. That is an ability I certainly envy.
I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for making clear when introducing the amendments that they are simply probing amendments on which he does not intend at this stage to press for a Vote. I must confess that, until he had said that, I had harboured the unworthy thought that possibly these amendments were intended to delay the implementation of the Bill simply because they viewed it as a mean and nasty Bill and were opposed to it.
As I said at Second Reading, we wholly share the aspirations of the Government, subject to some details, as regards this Bill. We have always opposed the assisted places scheme. We wish to see it phased out as quickly as possible, consistent with commitments that have been given. Similarly, to the extent that the phasing out of the assisted places scheme would help in the reduction of class sizes in infant schools, so, too, we support that enthusiastically. Indeed, it is well known that my party would have wished to go rather further and rather faster than that. We wholly support the intentions of the Bill, both as they appear in the Bill itself and as stated in the preamble.
However, we share the doubts that have been expressed both in your Lordships' House and elsewhere about the extent to which the phasing out of the assisted places scheme will actually contribute to the very laudable objective of reducing class sizes. It is in the nature of things that the Government, in proposing this measure, are likely to maximise the savings likely to be achieved and the Opposition is likely to do the opposite and to maximise the costs involved in reducing class sizes.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and we will not know until it actually happens. We need to recognise that. Perhaps it is inevitable that the Liberal Democrats are somewhere in the middle. I suspect that the savings will not be as great as is claimed for them; I am sure that the costs will not be as great as some of those claiming that believe, but there are people who are perhaps more independent observers than some of us in this House who have grave doubts about whether the savings will be sufficient to meet the Government's commitments.
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