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Lord Henley: I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in his amendment. This is one item of policy where there is scarcely a cigarette paper's difference between the noble Lord and myself. Perhaps I can say how much I welcome back the Liberal Party to the realms of real opposition rather than the rather blatant support that we have seen on other occasions for the party in Government.

As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, this is a clear case of a broken promise; a promise made by Mr. Peter Kilfoyle when education spokesman before the election; a promise that I am sure was spread widely throughout the country and that people accepted as a matter of faith. It is on that and virtually that alone that our case rests. There is no answer that the Government can give other than that they must at this stage come clean and honour the pledge given by the education spokesman before the election.

Should anyone fear that that pledge did not receive sufficient coverage at the time and that many people were not aware of it when they decided how they would vote, I can assure the Committee that I received a number of letters, and I imagine that is true of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and others, from individuals who,

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having exactly those concerns and having children who they felt might or might not be able to stay on to 11, contacted local officials of the Labour party. Again, they received similar assurances. For example, I received a letter from Mrs. Fauvet from Liphook in Hampshire. She contacted the local Labour party head office and was given exactly that assurance. No doubt she was relying on the words of Mr. Peter Kilfoyle. I received a letter from Swansea making exactly the same point; that is, that a promise had been made by the party to spare his son from upheaval when the scheme was abandoned. Where is that promise now?

I wish to make only one final point in relation to Scotland which the noble Baroness should address. Scotland is not covered by the amendment, but we may have to come back to it when we deal with Clause 5 later on. In Scotland, where assisted places will also be affected by the consequent changes, there is a current threat of primary seven pupils not being allowed to continue through to senior school in 1997 at the age of transfer, which is 12, despite letters of confirmation that they could from the Scottish Office which were dated both 1990 and 1997. I hope that the noble Baroness can address that specific point and say that the Scottish primary seven pupils will be allowed to continue in line with the letters that they received from the Scottish Office dating back to 1990 and 1997.

I welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, tabled the amendment dealing with clearly broken promises of the party opposite. I do not know what the noble Lord intends to do with his amendment following what we hear from the noble Baroness when she responds. I dare say that she will assist us and tell us a little more about the discretionary power that is now being offered as some sort of sop to buy off the broken promise. I welcome hearing more about the discretionary power. But it will take a little more than that to satisfy us on these Benches.

Obviously, I leave the matter of the amendment to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, as to what he does with it. It is his amendment. But if we do not receive satisfactory answers tonight, it is something to which we shall certainly return at a later stage and we will return with strength.

Baroness Blackstone: I listened most carefully to the points made by Members from the other Benches of this Chamber as to why we should make explicit provision for pupils with assisted places at preparatory schools which go on to the age of 13.

Perhaps, first, I may make a more general point. I am grateful that the Liberal Democrat Members of this Chamber look at issues on their merit and do not behave in the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Henley, wants them to behave; that is, that they should oppose for the sake of it.

Lord Henley: Perhaps the noble Baroness will give way. We are Her Majesty's Government's Official Opposition. One of the duties of the Official Opposition is to test the arguments of the party in government. That

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is what we do and what we shall continue to do. That is why I welcomed the noble Lord, Lord Tope, of the Liberal Party back to the realms of real opposition.

Baroness Blackstone: Of course it is appropriate for the Official Opposition to test matters in the way the noble Lord, Lord Henley, described. But he issued what I felt was an inappropriate jibe in the direction of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in relation to the fact that, from time to time, looking at issues on their merit, he finds he is able to support the Government. When I was on the Opposition Benches there were many occasions where I was able to support the Government; I did so and said so explicitly. I hope that there may be some occasions when Her Majesty's Opposition, as represented by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, is able to do likewise.

I have to say that I would much rather not be in the position of disagreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I have the utmost respect for his views, and on the vast majority of issues concerning the assisted places scheme we see eye to eye. But it seems that, whereas we believe the overriding consideration should be what is the most appropriate age for primary-aged assisted pupils to transfer to the maintained sector, he places greater weight on the type of independent school the assisted pupil attends. I still believe that there is much that we can agree on and am hopeful that the noble Lord will take some reassurance from how we intend to use the discretionary power, which I believe will meet most of his concerns.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, shares our view that age 11 is the most sensible age for children to transfer to the maintained sector. Providing for the 400 or so pupils in separate preparatory schools to retain their places until age 13 would mean that they would miss the normal age of transfer in their locality. After age 13 they will not be able to take up an assisted place in a senior school. Such places will no longer be available.

Therefore they will be transferring to state secondary schools two years after most pupils in the state system started at those schools (assuming they cannot remain in the independent sector after they cease to be entitled to assisted places). That would mean that children would be transferring after most of their contemporaries had entered secondary school. That cannot be desirable from the point of view of individual pupils.

State school admission arrangements are geared to the local age of transfer and a pupil seeking to enter a state secondary school after the normal age may not obtain a place in his first choice school. That is another reason we favour transferring at age 11. Children would be joining classmates who had already formed friendships. Assimilation into the maintained sector is therefore likely to be more difficult after the normal age of transfer. I hope the noble Lord will accept that we are quite genuine in wanting to do the right thing for those pupils.

But I accept that there may be cases where it would be appropriate for a child to transfer later than at the age of 11. To provide for circumstances where a transfer at the age of 11 would not be in the best interests of a

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particular child, the Secretary of State will have a discretionary power, as I believe Members of the Committee are aware, to allow primary age pupils to continue to hold their places for a period where they receive secondary education.

We promise to use this power flexibly and in a way that is sympathetic to the needs of individual pupils. I can assure the Committee that support under the scheme will be extended where there is a good reason to do so. We have already indicated three particular instances where we are predisposed to exercise discretion and I should like to set them out again so that we can all be clear about them.

First, to cater for a later local age of transfer to secondary school. Providing for a child resident in a part of the country where a three-tier system of education operated to transfer at the age of 11 would clearly be inappropriate. Here it would be appropriate to extend support under the scheme until the pupil could transfer to a senior school in the state system at the same point as his contemporaries were transferring from middle schools--in other words, at the age of 12 or 13.

Secondly, there are a small number of schools in the scheme--I believe only about 12--that have a specific allocation of entry places at the age of 10. Some of the schools have such an entry because they operate in areas served by a middle school system. Others provide for an accelerated entry into secondary education. Although the pupils are technically of primary school age, they are provided with secondary education in what is essentially a secondary school. Presumably because they have got ahead of their contemporaries they are transferring early. Dulwich College operates such a system. We have indicated that we intend to exercise discretion in such cases so that pupils can retain their places through to completion of their secondary education--in other words to the age of 18.

Finally, some children in preparatory schools, which are schools with an age range of seven or eight years of age to 13, may have been given a clear promise that they can keep their places through to the age of 13 in the belief that the new Government had given such an undertaking. In such circumstances, we shall honour that commitment.

But I have to tell the Committee, so that there is no doubt, that we take the view that it would be wrong to continue to subsidise private education at the taxpayer's expense where no such promise or understanding had been given. Making a blanket provision on the face of the Bill for all places to continue to the age of 13 years would mean going further than required to fulfil commitments made.

In situations such as these, where individual cases need to be assessed and a decision reached on the circumstances pertaining to the particular case, a discretionary power is in our view more appropriate. Through the use of such a power it will be possible to check each case to ensure that there is a good reason for support to be continued and thereby to safeguard the public purse. After all, the level of funding provided to

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assisted pupils is significant. We have to bear in mind the interests of the taxpayer before providing for additional support as of right.

Much has been made during this debate about the letter from Peter Kilfoyle; but I believe that there is no real difference between the provisions in the Bill when taken together with how we intend to use the discretionary power and the letter. The letter states,

    "much will obviously depend on the school to which a child has been admitted".

Members of the Committee who are familiar with the pattern of provision in the independent sector will know that there is a variety of age ranges in existence. We framed the Bill so that we can take account of these and the individual circumstances of the particular child. The discretionary power is the only way to cater properly for the diversity of provision in the sector.

Our manifesto set out clearly our intention on class sizes and the assisted places scheme. It is the manifesto that counts and it did not make any commitment about the extent of continuing support that would be available. Members of the Committee opposite are reading a little too much into Peter Kilfoyle's letter. It does not represent the kind of commitment that they are alleging. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, will accept that the Bill's provisions on the discretionary power are both sensible and pragmatic. They will allow us to check on the individual circumstances of each case and reach a view of what is best in the light of the particular circumstances. An automatic right enshrined in the Bill would not provide that safeguard. It could lead to support being available for a period for which no commitment had been given or when it would be in the long-term interests of the child to transfer to the state sector at the age of 11 years.

We believe that there is no strong justification for providing for certain pupils to keep their places up to the age of 13 years. After listening to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, I suspect that the main reason they want support extended through to the age of 13 is so that the scheme can provide a bridge until alternative sources of funding are available.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Henley: The main reason why we want it extended is simply because an assurance was given by Mr. Peter Kilfoyle. It is no good the noble Baroness saying that it is the manifesto that counts. Obviously it does; but that does not mean that spokesmen for the party can then go around saying whatever they want. We expect a spokesman to say what is party policy. We were told by Peter Kilfoyle, and we were given a promise, that the pupils could stay on. That point has not been addressed by the noble Baroness and I believe that it should.

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