Education Bill

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The Chairman: I am bound by the programme motion that was agreed by the Committee this morning. A change could be made only if a request was made to suspend the Committee for a short meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee. I would be prepared to accept that, but otherwise I must follow what was agreed at the start of this morning's proceedings.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Pike, and I request a short meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee.

Mr. Heppell: If there had been this concern, it should have been raised at the Programming Sub-Committee this morning, when we could have dealt with it. I tried to make this point earlier. We have offered the Opposition extra time on several occasions, but they have refused it, so they should not now complain about not reaching particular clauses or amendments. If they want to propose any amendment to the programme motion for extra time, we will be happy to consider it. If they want to start early, work late or even sit on a Wednesday, we will consider it. I must point out that the information from the Opposition, which in effect said that they would try deliberately to—

The Chairman: Order. Unless the Government indicate that there is any useful purpose served by suspending Committee for a meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee, there is no point in me allowing it. At this stage, I cannot see any indication of that possibility. That does not stop any informal proceedings, and if the Government Whip indicated within the available time that a suspension would be useful, I would be prepared to allow it. However, we do not have much time.

Mr. Andrew Turner: On a point of order, Mr. Pike. I was hoping to intervene on the amendment and did

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not do so because we were having an extremely wide debate. I am not criticising you, Mr. Pike, but much of it was wide of the amendment, particularly the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. His contention of what the amendment would provide for is simply inaccurate. New clause 4, which has mysteriously disappeared from the amendment paper, would have provided for that debate. The hon. Gentleman seems to have chosen to use that debate for this amendment.

The Chairman: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. This is my first Committee in the Chair, and I was extremely lenient during the debate. I cannot turn back the clock. The only procedure that I could follow would be for a short suspension of Committee for a meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee. If the Government Whip indicated that it would serve any useful purpose, I would be prepared to accept that, otherwise we are just wasting what is already limited time.

Mr. Ivan Lewis: I shall try to move on swiftly. I pointed out what I believe is consistent with the position that was articulated by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. [Interruption.] This is a first in my experience: a walkout by the Official Opposition.

Mr. Heppell: On a point of order, Mr. Pike. It should be recorded that the Conservative Front Bench spokesmen have walked out of the Committee and are not using what little time—

The Chairman: Order. The point has been made.

Mr. Lewis: This issue will continue to be debated, but I must respond to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar), which I failed to do earlier. We would all accept that the behaviour and actions of people in Northern Ireland in recent weeks is intolerable and heinous. The problems of Northern Ireland are much more complex and cannot be related merely to faith-based education.

That was my point in relation to Bradford, Burnley and Oldham. There are deep-rooted difficulties in some of our towns, and we have a responsibility to address them. I do not part company from those who have identified faith schools as an issue in the debate about why those disturbances occurred and how we bring together people from different religions, cultures and backgrounds. However, some people have claimed that faith-based education is the primary cause of such difficulties in communities and society. I do not accept that premise.

I remind the Committee of the basis on which a new school must apply if it wishes to establish itself in the maintained sector. It would have to apply to a local school organisation committee, which would then decide whether the creation of the new school was in the interests of, broadly, the local community and, narrowly, the family of schools. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough knows that the Secretary of State has given some initial suggestions on the guidance that will be available to those committees, although more detail will follow. That guidance will make it clear that a new faith-based

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school must demonstrate either a partially inclusive admissions policy or, if it does not feel that that is appropriate, a commitment to and strategy for working with other schools in the area of another faith or no faith. A new school must be approved by the school organisation committee, which would make a statement about whether establishment of the school would be in the best interests of the local community. The decision would be made according to guidance from the Secretary of State, and would address the issues of collaboration and partnership and the need to bring young people of different religious and cultural backgrounds together. The introduction in September of citizenship education as a statutory part of the national curriculum will be an important step forward in encouraging young people to think about and discuss mutual respect and tolerance of people from different religious and cultural backgrounds.

I wish to conclude by telling the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that his amendment will not achieve the objectives that he articulated in his lengthy presentation. The legislation gives admission forums the power to form a view and express an opinion on admissions criteria for all schools, including faith schools. They will not be able to change admissions policies, but they will be able to express an opinion, which must be taken into account by the school. However, responsibility for admissions policy will remain with the school. On that basis, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Andrew Turner: I am grateful to have an opportunity to speak. A considerable amount of the Committee's time has been wasted, because it appears that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough does not understand either the clause that he wishes to amend or his own amendment. The clause is clear on the powers of admission forums. It says that they can advise admissions authorities on

    ''such other matters connected with the admission of pupils'',

but he wants to add ''including religious observance.'' It is an advisory body, yet he wasted much time on new clause 4, which was on the amendment paper at the last sitting but has now disappeared for some reason.

At the beginning of the sitting, the hon. Gentleman attempted to discuss amendment No. 233. We would have reached it had he not so clearly misunderstood the purpose of clause 44 and his amendment. Neither of the objectives that he described in his introduction, the length of which the Minister noted, could have been achieved by the amendment. He wasted our time by trying to persuade us that that was not the case.

I share with the hon. Gentleman a great interest in the future of religious schools and in the Government's proposals for the creation of more faith schools. I do not necessarily share his opinions, but I share his interest. The issues could have been discussed under new clause 4 had he not withdrawn it from the amendment paper, as I assume he did. However, he raised several issues at enormous length, and I wish to deal with some of them.

The hon. Gentleman argued with the assertion of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and

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Sale, West that he not only wanted to amend the admissions policies of faith schools, but the Liberal Democrats objected to the transmission of faith within the maintained sector. Speaking from a sedentary position, he denied that that was the case. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West responded and referred to admissions policies. As the Minister said from a sedentary position—I, too, put it on record—the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the Committee does not think it appropriate that faith schools should be used for the transmission of faith.

11.15 am

If the hon. Gentleman believes that I have misrepresented him, perhaps he will say so. I seem to have got it right.

The hon. Gentleman consistently denied the Minister's assertion about his reasons for objecting to the admissions policies of faith schools. The Minister said, fairly, that if one wishes so effectively to undermine the admissions policies of state schools, there must be a jolly good reason for doing so, and he thought that perhaps that jolly good reason was that faith schools were so damaging to communities that they should be destroyed. That was what the Minister asserted that the hon. Gentleman believed. The hon. Gentleman denied it but he gave no other reason. In the absence of any other reason being given by the Liberal Democrats, we must draw our own conclusions. I should be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman if he wants to give a reason.

The Liberal Democrats have been hostile to faith schools since time immemorial, certainly since 1870. I remind the hon. Gentleman that church schools existed in this country and were doing an excellent job long before the state education system was born or even thought of and it is no good his pretending, without reason, that he can undermine faith schools as new clause 4 and the amendment propose. There must be a reason, and I want to know what it is. The only reason that the hon. Gentleman has given is that some children who are nearer to a faith school than others who happen to be of the faith may be turned away. If that is his reason, if he is saying that we have to draw a line round the London Oratory school—I take that example at random because I was speaking to the headmaster last night—and it admits, say, 240 boys a year—

 
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