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Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I should like briefly to say that I find myself sympathetic to the Government on the issue if, as I imagine, they are going to reject the amendment. I do so on the very simple ground that I believe very strongly that the channels of communication are already sufficiently clogged up with a mass of paperwork for us not to add to it, except when there is a very clear need to do so.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My brief contribution is related to what the noble Lord has just said. When we sat on the opposite side of the Chamber, I remember very well the valuable contributions that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, made to our discussions. However, in the many education Bills which emanated from the last government, it seemed to me that the noble Lord nearly always tabled an amendment stipulating that we should have an annual report to cover one aspect or another. I see the noble Lord shakes his head, so perhaps I am wrong; but I believe that happened from time to time.

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Practically speaking, we now have a revolutionary Government in Parliament which means, after the long dark 18 years of Tory government, that we really need to change many things. However, we shall not be able to do so if we have annual reports to cover all sorts of issues because we would spend all our time producing such reports, debating them and having them produced. It seems to me that there is a certain point at which annual reports are not necessary.

Baroness Blackstone: I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for his very careful explanation of his reason for wanting an annual report on the effect of the phasing out of the assisted places scheme. I very much agree with the spirit of much of what he said and accept the motives that lie behind it. However, in his opening speech on Second Reading, I recall the noble Lord saying:

    "One of the pleasures for me in welcoming the Bill is that I shall not, year after year, have to come to this Chamber and think of new ways of explaining why we oppose the assisted places scheme".--[Official Report, 24/6/97; col. 1478.]

I very much share those sentiments as, I suspect, does the noble Lord, Lord Henley. This Chamber has spent too much of its time in recent years discussing the scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, and I clearly share the view that it would be a more fruitful use of our time to consider matters which affect the majority of schoolchildren in this country.

There is so little between the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and myself on the matter that I hope I shall be able to give him the assurances that he seeks regarding the information that the Government intend to make available, so that we shall not feel it necessary to press the amendment. I should like also to reinforce the sentiments expressed by my noble friend, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. I can promise the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that we will be fully accountable to Parliament and to the electorate for the delivery of our pledge to reduce class sizes.

I give the noble Lord a clear undertaking now that we shall set out each year in our report on the department's expenditure plans specific information on the following points. First, the continuing cost of operating the scheme during the period in which it is being phased out; secondly, the money that has been released each year as a consequence of the fact that no new places are awarded from 1998-99 onwards; and, thirdly, how that money has been deployed to reduce class sizes. If there is any further information that the noble Lord wants to see included, I shall give any request that he makes very careful consideration.

The noble Lord anticipated what I would say about the department's annual report. We take the view that the department's annual report is the most appropriate means for publishing such information. Indeed, it brings together in one place expenditure information with a very detailed commentary, and the Government's policy objectives. Therefore it provides both strategic and detailed financial information. I shall take up the request of the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and provide him with a copy so that he can keep it by his bed. I do not believe

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that many members of the public would have the departmental report or a report on the assisted places scheme as their normal bedside reading.

I repeat that reducing class sizes is one of our key pledges. In our expenditure report we shall want to set out clearly how we are doing that, because we believe in proper accountability. We shall also set out how we intend to deploy the available resources. We will provide detailed information so that Parliament and the electorate can see that we have kept our promises. In keeping with normal practice, the report will be presented to Parliament and therefore open to scrutiny. I shall be only too happy to take questions from any Member of this place about the report.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for his intervention. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, will accept that the level of information that I have undertaken to give in the departmental report will make separate reporting arrangements and the provision of yet more paper unnecessary and redundant.

Through our policies recently outlined in the White Paper, we shall be able to ensure that the state sector is equipped to provide a first rate education for all our children, including the most able and talented. Our aim is to develop the state system so that it rivals the best that the independent sector has to offer. We shall be investing our energies and available resources to that end.

In one respect only will the scheme's abolition have any effect on our education system. The money saved will be used for the benefit of the 480,000 children in overcrowded infant classes. Through a programme of action involving local authorities and schools we are committed to ensuring that by the end of this Parliament every five, six and seven year-old will be in a class of 30 or less. We shall provide the information about the progress we are making in achieving that aim in the departmental annual report.

6 p.m.

Lord Tope: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply and to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for what I think was his qualified support for the amendment. I am grateful to the Minister for quoting what I said on Second Reading, because the noble Lord, Lord Henley, was concerned about my withdrawal symptoms--that I needed to be weaned off it over a seven-year period. As the Minister quoted, I did not say that I opposed an annual debate; I said that I did not want to have to come here year after year to say why I was against the assisted places scheme.

While I accept that it might be inevitable, if we were to be having an annual debate, that some other noble Lords might feel the need to do that, if I were taking part I should like to think that I should be congratulating the Government, year by year, over a seven-year period if necessary, on how well they were achieving the implementation of the Bill and in reducing class sizes.

I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, who said that the Bill was a small one. That is strictly true. I hope that he did not mean that

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the Bill's effects, particularly the desired intention of reducing infant class sizes, was in itself a small measure. I regard that as an important measure. Therefore it is important that we monitor how much progress we are making towards achieving that objective.

This is a bizarre little debate. I stand where I have always stood. I do not believe that I have requested annual reports very often. I can recall only one occasion. I cannot remember whether it was my amendment which was being supported by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, and others, or whether it was the other way round. I am clear that I am standing where I am standing now. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, was standing over there, taking an opposite view to the one that he takes now, and, most particularly, the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, did not at the time trouble to spell out how else we might have obtained the information and what other parliamentary devices might be available to us to drag out of government the information we were then seeking.

I am grateful to the Minister for a constructive and positive reply. I shall take her up on her offer to consider further any other matters which we think might be considered in the annual report. I shall ponder further on the matter, and carefully read what she said. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 [Transitional arrangements for existing assisted pupils]:

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 1, line 24, after ("school") insert ("and their siblings").

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 23. The Government do not fully appreciate the great disappointment being expressed by families affected by the Bill. It reminds me of an earlier disappointment some 20 years ago when the then Labour Government abolished direct grant schools. At that time a family I now know well was faced with the dilemma that faces many families today. Their son had just won a place to go to Loughborough Grammar School when the system was abolished. The father was a gardener; his wife a nurse. In addition to the eldest boy they had two other children. They decided to make sacrifices to pay to put their eldest boy through that school.

The son worked hard and succeeded academically and on the sports field. He went on to become head boy. Through his cadet work, the RAF offered him a scholarship. He went on to university. That is a true success story. As one can imagine, his parents felt enormous pride. Why am I mentioning this? Just because only a month ago the father said to me that his one regret was that they were unable to do the same for their other children.

Today we are dealing with those same hopes and aspirations. There will be parents who are faced with telling their children, "No you can't go to that school. Yes, I know your brother and sister are there. No, it is not your fault. It is the Government who have decided

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that you cannot go". What does that mean to a young child? I have a suspicion that the message will not be understood and that the child will be left feeling inadequate, perhaps in some small way blaming the parents for the let-down.

I have received a letter from a mother who has three children, all of whom are currently benefiting from an excellent education under the assisted places scheme. Her son and eldest daughter are in the senior school, and so will have their places honoured. However, the youngest daughter, who is seven, took her place only in September 1996 in the junior department of that same school. She is happy there. When she started she believed that she was going to the senior school to join her sister and brother. Her mother said that it would be tragic if her place were withdrawn at 11 and she is made to leave all her friends to start in a school in an entirely different area.

The mother wrote to Labour Party head office and asked whether her daughter's place would be honoured until she finished her A-levels, bearing in mind that this is an 11 to 14 school. An assurance was given on 14th May 1997 by Liz Arnold that that would be so. That mother wrote also to her MP, and through him received a letter from Stephen Byers who explained that their approach was to treat all assisted places holders even-handedly. She therefore asks whether her younger daughter might be given schooling for seven years on the assisted places scheme, which would take her through to the age of 14. The mother, who is retraining, hopes by then to be able to pay for her daughter's last three years at senior school. I wonder whether that might be considered. This is only one example.

In another place when the Bill was debated on 5th June 1997 Mrs. Gillan, the Member for Chesham and Amersham, referred to the plight of four other families known to her, all asking the Government to reconsider the position on siblings. I know of three further families. I ask the Minister if she will let us know the number of families affected by the sibling issue and, if there are comparatively few, will the Government reconsider the position about accepting my amendment?

All of us remember our school years and, being one of four children, I looked to my elder sister to keep an eye on me when I first joined the same school. For 96 per cent. of the population brothers and sisters attend the same school. It gives an additional sense of confidence and a bonding is established between the children. Family life and stability are crucial, and never more so than now when so many families are breaking up. What a pity it is that this Government are determined to add to those pressures and deny children the opportunity to take their place at the school of their choice alongside their brothers and sisters.

I move to touch on two other matters where the Government might consider using its flexibility. I refer to those families who qualify for assisted places due to social need. I understand that representations have been made from charitable foundations who rely on this scheme. What will the position be for brothers and sisters in these circumstances? The same question

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applies to children who attend religions-based schools. Are their circumstances to be viewed individually? Will there be any flexibility in approach?

In addition, would the Government consider delaying the scheme which would significantly reduce the number of siblings who would not follow on? At the Second Reading in this House my noble friend Lady Perry, who is not in her seat today, spoke of the children who will lose out because of the abolition of this scheme. How doubly hard it will be for families who have some children who will be allowed to complete their schooling while others will be denied that opportunity.

I find the Bill unacceptable, and the Government's attitude towards these children incomprehensible. The Secretary of State said in another place, when asked about the sibling connection, and I quote from the debate on the Queen's Speech,

    "The hallmark of this Government will be to put children before dogma. It will be to ensure that the interests of our children come first on every occasion".".--[Official Report, Commons, 15/5/1997; col. 183.]

It seems to me that for some children dogma is coming first. Siblings are not to have their interests considered fairly and their schooling needs are being ignored. Parents do not wish to have their children at separate schools, especially when those schools have different holiday arrangements. For many working families, particularly lone parent families, this will add to their problems.

Will the Minister give further consideration to the sibling problem, use her discretion and allow these children to complete their education at the school of their choice? I beg to move.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: The effect of Amendment No. 4 could clearly be to prolong the phasing out period from seven years to much longer. If I have understood it correctly, in theory a place would have to be made available in four years' time for a child currently aged one year whose sibling was aged 17 and moving next year into the final year of the secondary APS place, with that place for the younger child then continuing until that younger child had finished its primary education--a further six years. If I am right about that, it goes far beyond the assurances which have been given to parents. I would resist it as undermining the whole intention of the Bill.

At a deeper level, I would question the validity of the whole sibling sequence practice in our education system. For brothers and sisters to attend the same school may often be nice, it may be desirable, it may be quite helpful, it may be convenient for the family or the lone parent, but it is surely not vital, not essential, not some kind of inalienable human right.

This matter was discussed at great length in the Committee stage of this Bill in another place. I became absorbed by the passions and assumptions in that debate and I read it with no small surprise. We have already heard about the first presentation in the Committee stage

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of this particular amendment by the Member for Chesham and Amersham, who deplored the situation and said that the Bill will deprive brothers and sisters of the opportunity to attend the same school. She gave examples, several of them, with names of people who would be bitterly affected--bitterly affected--by the Bill. One of those was a 10 year-old who had had a difficult time at her state primary school. She had taken up an assisted place and had become extremely happy, but would be forced to make the traumatic, painful return to the state sector because she could not go on.

Similarly, another case was reported of a son on an assisted place who was doing extremely well and a daughter, aged 10, who had set her heart on attending the sister school to the one that her brother was in, but whose hopes would be utterly dashed by this particular plan.

A little later on another Member of that Committee--I must not quote him directly--said words to the effect that it was a fundamental principle of our education system that siblings are able to be educated together--I repeat, a fundamental principle. I believe that this is absolute nonsense.

I can, however, quote the direct words of the Minister replying to this, who mentioned again the cases cited by the Member for Chesham and Amersham. The Minister said,

    "Is that the worst thing that is likely to happen to those children?"

She was referring to the fact that they might have to forgo the ability to go into another school.

    "The honourable Lady thinks that it is such a terrible thing that they will be educated in the maintained sector. I have more faith in the state education system than Opposition Members. "--[Official Report, Commons, 5/6/97; col. 664.]

She went on to say at col. 666 that the Conservative Party had said in its manifesto that,

    "it favoured selection and giving schools the right to select on aptitude or academic ability. It is that system and those criteria more than any other that have split brother from sister, brother from brother and sister from sister. Conservative Members cannot claim that that is the best way to allocate places at secondary school, and then claim that siblings should be given precedence."

I cannot for the life of me see why this scheme should apply to siblings at all. It was designed to allow academically brilliant children of poor parents to rise out of the mediocrity of the state system and be educated at superior independent schools fit for their talents. Two hundred years of scientific research have failed to prove that intellectual or artistic ability is transmitted or inherited sideways among the children of a family. The gifted and successful children of Johann Sebastian Bach have been endlessly studied but no one has asserted that because Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach was a gifted composer, then his brother, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach ought to be educated to be the same thing.

We all know dozens of families in which there is one brilliant and gifted child who has brothers and sisters who are perfectly average in ability. Why should a child of average or below average ability have the right to an assisted place at the taxpayers' expense simply because a clever big brother or big sister has one? Even within the flawed logic of the APS itself, there is no sense in this proposal. I hope that my noble friend will stand firm

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and have absolutely no truck with it. It is like that silly system at Oxbridge where some young person can demand automatic admission to a college to read for a degree in sub-atomic nuclear physics on the sole ground that he is founder's kin, descended from the person who created the college. This amendment is as silly as that.

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