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Mr. Brady rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) will not be tempted to pursue that line. We should come back to the terms of the new clause that we are debating.

Mr. Brady: I am most grateful for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you know, some more experienced Members of the House may on occasion take advantage of the relative inexperience of others. I am grateful to you for protecting me from my right hon. Friend—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman may be sure that I shall continue to give him the best protection that I can.

Mr. Brady: I am most grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have also given me the opportunity to move on a little in my consideration of this group of new clauses and amendments.

Mr. Lansley: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Brady: Well, I am trying to move on, but I will take a brief intervention.

Mr. Lansley: My intervention relates to a point that my hon. Friend was making about the extent of the powers that the Government propose to take in clause 2. They are immensely wide-ranging powers to disapply or modify existing education legislation—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We are debating new clause 5, and I hope that we can come back to that subject.

Mr. Brady rose

Mr. Lansley: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Brady: I certainly will, so long as my hon. Friend will take note of your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Lansley: Absolutely, and, in this respect, I am following the point that my hon. Friend was making: that new clause 5 seeks to extend to local authorities—as new clause 6 extends to qualifying schools—some of the powers in relation to innovation and earned autonomy that

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would be available without the Secretary of State's scrutiny. The point that I was trying to make is that the wide-ranging powers that the Secretary of State is seeking to take are on the application of a qualifying body. Is my hon. Friend aware of any intention on the part of the Government to solicit applications from qualifying bodies to secure modifications of legislation of a kind that the Government are seeking?

Mr. Brady: I am not aware of any intention to solicit such applications, but Ministers might wish to make their position clear in that regard when replying to the debate on this group of amendments.

Chris Grayling: Under new clauses 5 and 6, the qualifying body would not have to make an application. It would be able to take the decision in its own right, and the Secretary of State would then have to stop it.

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend is right. This is where the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough—in new clauses 5 and 6—and our own new clause 10, to which I shall return shortly, seek to shift the balance of this legislation in an important way. A thread runs through the Bill—whether in regard to clauses on exemptions for innovation or on earned autonomy—which suggests that it is up to Ministers to decide when it is appropriate or possible to take such action. The new clauses would make the legislation more permissive by freeing up the whole process and, without suggestions being solicited, schools or other qualifying bodies could make precisely those moves, which is a positive step.

Mr. Cameron: Will my hon. Friend clear up a worrying point that I put to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough? The hon. Gentleman is lending his support to new clauses 5 and 6, but in both, subsection (3) would give autonomy to governing bodies and LEAs while subsection (4) would give the Secretary of State the opportunity to take it away in many circumstances. For the benefit of Conservative Members, will my hon. Friend describe the areas in which the Secretary of State would want to curtail the freedom of schools and governing bodies in such a way?

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend makes an intelligent point—the Liberal Democrat new clauses would have that effect, but I make no criticism of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. Although I do not necessarily support the new clauses, I have enormous sympathy with their thrust. My hon. Friend might sympathise with the hon. Gentleman and be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt had he been with us as we sat through the debates in Committee, during which we were ground down by the Government's relentless attempts to regulate and control so that we might occasionally fall into the trap of believing that that ought to be allowed.

Before I move on to new clause 10 and the earned autonomy provisions, I must focus briefly on the extent of the exemptions available for innovation. For the convenience of hon. Members, I shall consider amendment No. 79. The origin of the thinking behind it lies in a debate in Committee about the extent to which Ministers are taking unqualified, untrammelled powers to suspend legislation without exemption.

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The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) may be interested to know that we probed the extent of that freedom by raising with the Minister the hypothetical question whether it would be possible to disapply certain aspects of the Education Act 1996 by removing sections 449 to 462, which prevent maintained schools from charging for places. The Minister was good enough to give confirmation:

he was very clear about this; I make no bones about it—

How many hours of debate in the House took place and how much energy, belief and passion were expended in this place to ensure that children in this country have a right to free education? I do not for a moment suggest that the Minister seeks to remove that right, but Members on both sides of the House should be greatly disturbed that the best he could do in response to my question was, "We have no intention of doing it."

8.15 pm

No matter what Members of the House believe about the principle of free, universal education, they will no longer able to rely on it being provided by statute if the Bill becomes law. It will be provided at the whim and discretion of Ministers, which is a matter of grave concern.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes an important point about those pillars of the Bill and I would be interested to hear the views of Liberal Democrat and Labour Back-Bench members of the Committee, but none are present. Does he agree that the specific situation that he has identified effectively shows that the Bill would give this Labour Government and the Secretary of State the power to do certain things—those which would give the hon. Member for Bury, North nightmares—although one might accept that they do not intend to do them?

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can only imagine that Labour and Liberal Democrat Back-Bench members of the Committee expected to debate the red herring amendments on faith schools and were surprised by the change to the programme motion. They must have been lulled into a false sense of security, or perhaps they expected to debate these more central matters another time. They have been confused by what the Government Whips chose to do without giving notice to Members on either side of the House.

Moving on from the point that we established in Committee—the exemption from any provision of education legislation might run as far as allowing maintained schools to introduce fees or charges—we come to amendment No. 79, which raises another concern. I freely admit that we could have tabled a raft of similar amendments, as Ministers seek the power to suspend any provision of education legislation, but amendment No. 79 simply picks on a particularly important aspect of those powers.

I say again that I accept that Ministers may have no immediate desire to allow charging, but unless we accept amendment No. 79 it will be possible for a maintained school to make such an application to a Minister.

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Furthermore, in the spirit of good will, which we have tried to re-establish, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) described this Minister as a reasonable and honourable man, although his judgment is occasionally lacking in matters of procedure.

I see that we shall now gain the enormous benefit of the wisdom of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). We look forward to being enlightened, and hearing his views on the powers the Government are taking to obtain exemptions from legislation that potentially allows maintained schools in his constituencies to charge for places.

More relevant to amendment No. 79 is the possibility that the Government may accept an application from a qualifying body for that body to be exempted from section 317 of the Education Act 1996. That section deals with the duties imposed on a governing body or local education authority in relation to pupils with special educational needs. As Members on both sides of the House accept, such pupils need special protection and education that meets whatever their needs may be. They may have autistic spectrum disorders, or physical disabilities. In any event, the 1996 Act currently provides a guarantee—a degree of certainty—that the special needs of a pupil in a maintained school will, as far as is reasonable, be met by the governing body and the local education authority.

I hope that Ministers will give a warm welcome to the amendment, which would give them an opportunity to guarantee the protection of children with special educational needs—not just in the generality of schools or in the specialist colleges whose expansion the Government are announcing, but in schools granted exemptions for purposes of innovation.

It is not beyond the realms of credibility that a school might make a bid for exemption from some requirements relating to special educational needs. It might avoid considerable costs by doing so. It is not far-fetched to imagine that at some point a school, while not saying that it did not want to make any SEN provision, might say that an aspect of such provision placed too heavy a burden on it. At present, Ministers are insisting on retaining the power to disapply that obligation. Amendment No. 79 would have the important effect of presenting such disapplications.

I hope Ministers will not just accept the specific terms of the amendment, and the fact that its aim is right, proper and important, but understand from the two examples given by the Opposition—the first, in Committee, relating to the introduction of charges and the second, on Report, relating to protection for those with special educational needs—that there is real concern about the limitless scope of the powers that they seek.

New clause 10 is particularly important. The theme was established by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, who tabled new clauses 5 and 6. New clause 5 seeks to allow a local education authority to innovate without the Secretary of State's permission—although, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, subsection (4) would give the Secretary of State some power to control that freedom. New clause 6 would allow a school to innovate without the Secretary of State's permission, with a similar caveat in subsection (4). I know that the Secretary of State is keen to have powers to control the

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process, but she is clearly confident that the new clauses will find favour on both sides of the House, as she has not felt it necessary to stay in order to witness that support.

New clause 10 takes the whole issue by the scruff of the neck. It attempts to change the balance. Opposition Members strongly support the move to give schools more autonomy. We believe that they are generally better able than Ministers to run their affairs, raise educational standards and give children the best possible education. In almost all circumstances, schools, heads, teachers and governing bodies should be left to get on with their work with the maximum freedom that is reasonable.

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