Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Henley: Perhaps the noble Lord will give way. I will assist him. Ministers might have shifted in what they are saying on this, but the Bill itself has not. If the noble Lord looks at the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum he will see that it clearly says,

Lord Tope: Perhaps it is not for me to explain what the Government mean in their Bill. I am sure that the Minister, when she replies, will do that more adequately than I can. I believe that it is the intention of the Bill that it will do as it says in the preamble and, to the extent that the savings are made, that is what they will be used for. I assume that is what it means, but it is perhaps not for me to say.

I do not want to delay your Lordships today. My party wishes this Bill well, subject to some small but important details. We will not be supporting measures designed overtly or otherwise to delay its passage or to delay its implementation, but I will certainly listen carefully to the reply that is given to the questions that have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and others because, to some extent, perhaps for different reasons and different motives, I share those concerns.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: You will never know how greatly relieved I was to hear the noble Lord, Lord Henley, give the assurance that he does not wish to delay the implementation of this Bill for a period of two years.

We have annually debated the background to this Bill. We have looked at the assisted places scheme every year. We have trotted out the same old arguments until we all know them backwards. But the information and assurances which the noble Lord asked for will not take two years, two months or two hours to supply.

The letters to which the noble Lord referred seem to me to make it perfectly clear that the savings achieved by phasing out the assisted places scheme will result in phasing in smaller class sizes, as my noble friend Lord Peston made perfectly clear.

I wish to make three straightforward points in favour of bringing in this Bill as smoothly and as rapidly as possible. It seems to me that it cannot possibly be argued that the date or details of implementation come as any surprise to any Member of your Lordships' Committee. It has been our official policy since the assisted places scheme was introduced. Neither the schools nor the parents need any further period of notice or information. It was and is the first of the Labour Party's five pledges in the manifesto. Nobody could be given greater warning than that.

10 Jul 1997 : Column 737

What is more, outside this Chamber I do not sense any passionate desire from the people concerned most closely for vast amounts of extra information and details down to the last tuppence ha'penny of what will be done where.

Not long before the general election I was invited to a great and famous independent secondary school in this country, which I shall forbear to name, to talk to a conference of some 40 independent prep-school headmasters. They were headmasters, not head teachers. Unfortunately, not one female, lady, woman, was in the position of being in charge of an independent preparatory school and prepared to come to that conference.

I prepared myself to address those gentlemen and to take their questions. They asked me many, many questions. None was concerned with the assisted places scheme. They may not have approved of it but they were in absolutely no doubt what it was about: how it worked; how it affected them; and what they needed to do about it.

Secondly, it cannot possibly be argued that that would be a better scheme if we had any form of delay or reconsideration or that it needs any greater degree of time to perfect. Always there will be disputes about exact numbers and figures. As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, we shall have to work out the very fine detail as we go along because the thing will not stand still. Numbers and figures will change. But we cannot leave it. We cannot say, "We will give it another year or so just to settle down and see if we can bring it in then". We cannot say with Shakespeare's Viola:

    "Oh Time, thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me t'untie".

It is up to the Opposition to demonstrate that additional time would allow any specific improvements to be made or that additional time in even considering this Bill would allow us to bring it to a further degree of perfection. So far, the Opposition have failed singularly to convince me that that is so.

Thirdly, it is impossible to argue that the implementation of this scheme as it is at present put forward will force good schools to close or to suffer cruel and unnatural financial punishment. As I see it, the key statistic is that the average of assisted places for participating schools is about 14 per cent. Many APS schools claim that they are over-subscribed in any event. The APS was started to assist the intellectually able children of poor parents and not to subsidise independent schools. Those schools which are now claiming hardship, if they are--and I believe that some do--may be likened to the seven foolish virgins at the marriage ceremony recorded in the Gospels who failed to get oil for their lamps in advance. When the bridegroom came they were locked out. To them I can only say: it is too late now; the bridegroom came on 1st May.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: With this group of amendments, noble Lords opposite seek to delay the effect of the Bill's provisions. I have listened carefully

10 Jul 1997 : Column 738

to the arguments put forward about the savings or lack of savings, as is claimed by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and other Members of the Committee on the Opposition Benches. I am afraid that I cannot see any reason to delay the start of the phasing out of the assisted places scheme because of the questions which are raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, raised a number of questions about Scotland, some of which were about the White Paper on schools which was published earlier this week. It would make more sense for questions about the White Paper in Scotland to be answered when we reach Clause 5, which is the clause which relates to Scotland, rather than to discuss that matter with these amendments which are concerned with delaying the Bill.

However, I can explain one rather more specific point which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, and which relates more directly to the assisted places scheme. As my right honourable friend made clear in another place earlier this week, the savings from the assisted places scheme in England, Wales and Scotland will be pooled. Funding will then be distributed in support of our commitment to reduce class sizes. Therefore, our commitment applies equally to children in infant classes across the United Kingdom. Funding will be available to meet our pledge in Scotland in a similar way to which it is to be met in England. I hope that that is helpful and explains the position.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: While the noble Baroness is on that point, is she telling us that what the Minister was reported to have said will not mean a reduction in class sizes in that way? Is that not the case?

Baroness Blackstone: I am not sure that I entirely follow the noble Baroness's question. Perhaps I can make it clear that savings from the assisted places scheme in Scotland will not deliver enough to reduce class sizes. We have already made that clear. However, we intend to pool the savings that are made in England and Wales so that those savings can be distributed in order to fulfil our pledge on class sizes across England, Scotland and Wales. I hope that that is now clear.

I turn now to the question of savings which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. That seems to be his favourite subject. He quoted the previous Government's estimate of a differential between the cost of an assisted place and a maintained sector place at £12,200. But the cost differential for 1997-98 will show a significant increase in the differential. Provisionally we expect the differential to be 40 per cent. I regret that the noble Lord is working from out-of-date information.

I am very grateful for the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Peston on this matter.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: Can the Minister explain the differential between the cost of the assisted places scheme per person and the sixth form college cost?

10 Jul 1997 : Column 739

Baroness Blackstone: I cannot give a precise figure on the differential between an assisted places scheme in a sixth form and an assisted places scheme in a maintained school, which is the relevant comparison. It would not be relevant to compare the overall cost of an assisted places scheme with the cost of a place in the sixth form: that would be a ludicrous comparison, if I may say so.

The average cost of an assisted places scheme place in 1997-98 will be £4,100 per annum. That is 47 per cent. more than the standard spending assessment in the state sector. There is clearly a very substantial difference between the costs and therefore there must be savings, and very considerable savings, to be made from abolishing the scheme.

I remind Members of the Committee opposite that the former government spent over £1 billion on the scheme. We believe that spending is much better directed at educating young children and improving their education by reducing class sizes in state schools. As we have stated, we are concerned to help the many rather than to concentrate this money on a very small number of pupils.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, raised the issue of class sizes and numbers of teachers. As the White Paper published earlier this week explained, there will be a programme of consultations with local education authorities and schools on how best to meet their commitment to reduce infant class sizes over time, including the precise mechanisms for channelling and distributing the funds released by phasing out the assisted places scheme. The necessary legislation will be brought before noble Lords in due course, as I made clear on another occasion.

The precise numbers and costs of the teachers and of the other provisions required to enable reduction of class sizes will depend on the outcome of the consultations with the local education authorities and schools. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, was correct in stating that at this stage we cannot be 100 per cent. precise about the details of the costs that will be involved in fulfilling this pledge. However, I can confirm--and I stand by the figures which I set out in the letter I sent to the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky--that approximately £100 million of savings will be available by the year 2000 and £100 million per annum thereafter. That figure of £100 million a year is equivalent to 4,000 teacher years. That is a lot of teacher years which will help us fulfil the very important pledge that we made to the electorate. We are completely confident that these sums will be adequate to reach the class size target by the end of this Parliament.

We have consistently opposed the assisted places scheme, year after year after year, ever since its inception in 1981. We made clear then that when in office we would move quickly to end the subsidies it provides to schools. Deferring implementation for three years, as entailed by the amendments, is completely unnecessary and would delay the delivery of that pledge. Moreover, we are honouring the September 1997 intake, and therefore schools will have an extra year in which to plan for life without a subsidised entry. Clearly, many

10 Jul 1997 : Column 740

schools have been, very sensibly, preparing for the loss of the assisted places scheme for some time. If they had not done so, frankly they would have been very foolish because we have signalled on many occasions our intention in that regard.

I do not always believe what I read in the newspapers, but press reports tell us that those schools have plans to run schemes of their own and to fill the remaining places with fee paying pupils. We look forward to discovering whether the press reports are accurate.

The Bill demonstrates our priorities as set out in our manifesto. To delay this pledge would affect the fulfilment of our promise and prevent us from keeping our word with the electorate. We do not intend to break our word with the electorate.

The party opposite left us with a legacy of 440,000 pupils in overcrowded infant classes. Frankly, that is not a good legacy. Recent data show that that figure will soon reach 480,000. At that rate, delaying the provisions by three years would mean over 600,000 pupils in classes of over 30. It is simply unacceptable for that figure to rise. That is why we are acting now.

Therefore I give no apology for moving swiftly. We would be criticised if we were to delay the implementation of our pledge. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, stated that he would not press these amendments, for which I am very grateful. I have spelt out the reasons why his argument about lack of savings does not stand up. In the light of that, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page