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7.16 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have congratulated me on my new post. I am delighted to be in it. I am grateful for the commiserations of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, but I do not need them. I am very happy to be standing at the Dispatch Box introducing this Bill. It is a change which for a long time the Labour Party in opposition signalled that it would wish to introduce. It was part of our general election pledge that we would phase out assisted places.

I hope that noble Lords opposite and on my own Benches will forgive me if I fail to answer all the questions that have been asked today. We have had an informative debate, but how useful it has been I am not sure. However, I am sure that it has set the scene for a lively Committee stage. I hope that in Committee we will be able to go into more detail, which I shall be unable to do in the time available to me tonight.

Lord Henley: My Lords, will the Minister offer to write to me and to other noble Lords who have made points that she cannot answer tonight, and do so before the Committee stage? I am still awaiting answers to a number of questions that I asked during my speech on the humble Address, which was a month ago.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the noble Lord anticipated what I was about to say. Yes, of course, we shall write to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate and who put questions that I do not have time to answer today. I am sorry if during the debate on the Queen's Speech the noble Lord put questions which were not answered. I was not aware that my noble friend who wound up the debate made a commitment to answer any questions that he put. The noble Lord asked many questions and I apologise if they were not answered.

It might be easier for the parliamentary section of my department to answer questions put in this debate if the noble Lord's noble friend Lord Lucas would refrain from tabling so many Written Questions. Of course, we welcome Questions, but perhaps I may inform the House that he has now tabled almost 50 in seven weeks. That reaches an all-time record. We are answering them, but I mention the fact because it is hard work for the civil servants concerned.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I take great exception to what the Minister has just said about my noble friend Lord Lucas. He has been working extremely hard as a parliamentarian--indeed, as parliamentarians should do--to examine the case that the Government are making. It is his right to table Questions. I hope that nothing that the Minister has said implies that he does not have that absolute right. There are rules and procedures in this House about the number of Questions that can be tabled. No doubt the Clerks will advise my noble friend whether he has broken any of those rules. However, it is my understanding that he has not done

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so. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to recognise the absolute right that my noble friend has to table such Questions.

Further, if the Minister's civil servants are too tired to answer such questions, then as Minister responsible she ought to consider reorganising her department to ensure that there are enough civil servants to do so. After all, it must surely be one of their most important roles to reply to Questions tabled by Members not just from this House but also from another place. I should add that the point just made by the Minister is not one that she would have got away with if she had made it in another place.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has now taken up quite a bit of my time which I would otherwise have used in answering questions which have been put to me in today's debate. Of course I am not denying that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has a right to table Questions. He has the right to do so and they are all being dealt with. I am simply trying to explain that I believe it is a record for 50 Questions to be tabled in a period of seven weeks. It also amounts to a great deal of work for the civil servants concerned.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, also complained about the timing of the Bill. However, the legislation has been introduced right at the start of the Session so as to give notice to the schools involved about the phasing out and to avoid any further uncertainty. It is a short Bill with a limited number of clauses. We made a pledge in this House with respect to the Bill, and any others introduced, that we would abide by the normal timetable. We shall of course do so. The Bill has nothing to do with dogma or envy. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and to my noble friend Lord Parry for their recognition of that fact.

Several speakers referred to "old Labour". I should point out that New Labour was elected on a large mandate--indeed, with a huge mandate--and it defeated divided Conservatism. The electorate endorsed our proposals to phase out the scheme and spend the money saved on reducing class sizes in infant schools. Unfortunately, noble Lords opposite seem to be a little out of touch with the views of the electorate on such matters. However, I am glad that the noble Lords, Lord Henley and Lord Campbell of Croy, accept that we do in fact have a mandate to make such changes. I am sorry to tell the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, that, given the fact that we made it absolutely clear in the election campaign and in our manifesto that this was something that we were going to do, we have no intention now of undertaking a review.

The noble Baroness, Lady Elles, talked about what she called the "mythical White Paper". She asked why it had not been introduced before the Bill. I believe I explained why we needed to introduce the Bill very early in the Session: we want to be fair to the schools concerned. However, we shall be publishing our White Paper early next month. It is a very wide-ranging document and one which covers a huge range of issues, not just matters which might be relevant to the question of class sizes. There will be plenty of opportunity to

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debate the White Paper and we shall be consulting widely. I should stress that we took office only on 2nd May and to expect a White Paper of this kind to be introduced in less than three months after taking office is rather a tall order. I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that fact.

The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, said that it was in the national interest that outstanding talent should be developed. I entirely endorse that view. It is in the national interest that outstanding talent should be developed. However, what depresses me about the philosophy of some noble Lords opposite is that they seem to think that private schools have some kind of monopoly in relation to developing and sustaining talent. I believe that came out particularly in some of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington. I see the noble Lord shaking his head, but he did go on and on about a small number of independent schools--

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister but I merely pointed out that there were certain independent schools that have centres of excellence, as indeed do certain state schools. I therefore thought that, rather than children being forced to go to their area school, they should be given a chance in both. I never denied that many state schools have centres of excellence. I just wanted to point out that the legislation would deprive certain poor children of the opportunity to attend such centres of excellence. The Minister has misinterpreted what I said.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for intervening and saying that he does not deny that there are many state schools which make excellent provision for children.

However, one of the underlying themes of what was said by noble Lords opposite--and my noble friend Lord Ponsonby commented on this rather eloquently--is that the state system does not somehow match up. I am sorry, we on this side of the House are determined that in this Government we will promote a strong state system that can educate all of our children to the standards that they deserve. If I may say so, to assume anything else is insulting to teachers in our state schools, many of whom are excellent and many of whom are doing a fantastic job in more difficult circumstances than would be true of many teachers in the independent sector who are not coping with the kind of disadvantaged backgrounds which, unfortunately, characterise some of the pupils in the state system.

Finally, by way of introduction, I should like to say that we in the Government believe that the assisted places scheme is also the product of an educational ideology. Of course it is; there are ideological differences between us. It would be surprising if that were not so. Many rather insulting remarks have been made about the ideological basis of our wish to make changes. Yes, of course, our views are different and our priorities are different. I would not expect otherwise.

I should stress that the cost of the scheme simply cannot be justified--£160 million this year for the schemes in Great Britain, rising to £200 million at

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the turn of the century under the plans of the previous government. Over time, the previous government would have had to spend double that amount to meet their commitments. Our priority is to reduce class sizes as part of our strategy to raise primary school standards. We never said that we would achieve the class size pledge overnight. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, questioned whether the abolition of the assisted places scheme would in fact lead to the reduction in class sizes to which we are pledged. I should tell them that reductions will be made progressively as the APS savings arise. The resources freed by phasing out the scheme will allow us--and this is our pledge and commitment--by the end of this Parliament to meet our class size pledge. That is the time-scale.

The previous government had started a substantial expansion programme in the scheme so that significant savings will accrue as a result of phasing it out. The noble Lords, Lord Henley and Lord Tope, asked about the savings and queried what they would buy. I believe that was also true of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. We predict that the savings will amount to about £100 million in total by the year 2000. That represents the cost of employing around 4,000 primary teachers for a year. Of course more savings will follow after the year 2000 which will enable us to appoint additional numbers of primary school teachers.

The range of figures quoted during today's debate on the cost of reducing class sizes was considerable. Much depends on the underlying assumptions. I do not want to get too technical in this Second Reading debate and I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I do not do so. Two past pieces of independent research show a cost of around £65 million a year for the reduction of class sizes. That is within the sums that we shall be saving from the assisted places scheme in the next five years. We need, of course, to review the costings with local authorities. I am absolutely ready to concede that a review will have to take place as we go along. As the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, said, we intend to talk to local authorities and consider the costs in the light of all the practical issues that they will have to face. Of course, there are practical issues when one makes any change of this kind, but we shall address them.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked about the mechanisms for ensuring that the money saved would be used to reduce class sizes. Available funding will be distributed between authorities on an equitable and transparent basis and in the light of needs. The distribution must reflect past decisions by authorities so that we do not penalise those who have already taken measures to cut class sizes by favouring primary schools in their spending decisions. Initially at least we expect to ring fence the APS savings to be spent on specific measures to reduce infant class sizes. However, as I said, the details of the process will be discussed with local authorities and others in the coming weeks. I do not think noble Lords could expect me at this stage to have every fine detail in place on how that will be achieved. I ask for the understanding of noble Lords in that respect.

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In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and others, this Bill is about the phasing out of the assisted places scheme to help us to meet our pledge on class sizes. We shall provide full details on the arrangements to achieve smaller class sizes in the White Paper and in the autumn education Bill. However, what is clear is that phasing out the assisted places scheme will lead to significant savings to help us meet that pledge and to reduce infant classes by the end of this Parliament.

The noble Lord, Lord Butterfield, said that he has grandchildren. I, too, have grandchildren. I have a five and a half year-old granddaughter in a local authority primary school and she has three year-old twin sisters who are about to start in a nursery school. I want my grandchildren to benefit from this Bill. I want to see excellent primary schools and classes of a size that makes it possible for teachers to achieve that excellence.

I turn now to a number of concerns that were expressed as regards the impact on the maintained sector of abolishing or phasing out this scheme. Various dire predictions were made by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, but I think they were based on a false premise that all the places would be withdrawn with immediate effect. The noble Lord shakes his head. I take it back if that is not what he meant. I reinforce what I have already said; namely, that we are phasing out, not abolishing, this scheme outright. The noble Lords, Lord Skidelsky and Lord Henley, claimed that there would be significant extra cost to the state sector. However, I think I am right in saying that they were assuming average costs when marginal costs are the relevant measure here. Incidentally, I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, for his kind words about my appointment. We do not always agree about many aspects of education but debating with him has always been enjoyable and challenging and it is always conducted in a good natured way. His intervention today was rather more good natured than, I am afraid, were the speeches of some noble Lords opposite.

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