Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Brougham and Vaux): My Lords, I remind the House that if Amendment No. 180 is agreed to, I cannot call on Amendment No. 180A.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I do not agree with the Government on this proposal. As always, they look as though they are giving something away when in fact they are not.

First, they are not going to allow the parents in grant-maintained schools either to sign a petition or to have a vote about the future of their own school. I cannot understand how the Government can defend that. Secondly, they are going to tie their hands behind their back and not allow them to fight their corner.

How can the Minister stand there and advocate this policy? She is part of a Government who shout from the rooftops about open government, democracy and letting the people speak and then produce a policy like this. This amendment goes just slightly beyond factual information so that the schools can say something, so-called objectively, about what they believe the consequences are, but with the might of the local education authorities ranged, philosophically and politically, against the existence of grammar schools. They will be able to use their budgets and their might. And if they cannot use it officially, their councillors can use it unofficially outside the schools, with all the resources that can be raised through organisations such as TEN and CASE and many others, which are already beavering away in many of these areas to initiate the system that will collect signatures for a petition.

The Government talk the language of generosity. They are not generous. This again is a mean-spirited and pernicious attack on the ability of grammar schools to defend their corner.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, perhaps I may speak to Amendment No. 186. Far from being a pernicious attack on grammar schools, it seems to me to be a sensible measure to ensure that LEAs and the governing bodies of LEA-maintained schools can publish factual material relating to information and the assessment of the consequences of a ballot in a statement about the proposals and intention in the event of such a result being achieved. Without such facts, parents will be voting in a vacuum.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He said that they can talk about the proposals that would follow if the ballot were successful. They cannot do that. We have just debated a series of amendments which were all fended off by the Government, who will not even allow this information to be published by the local authority which would let the schools themselves know what their fate would be

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1159

in reorganisational terms should a ballot be successful. The schools themselves will not even be in receipt of that information.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Nevertheless, my Lords, it would still be open to the school or the LEA in the event of such a ballot to make statements relating to information given to the parents. It would be wrong if either the LEA or the governing body were able to propagandise or to try to influence the result. I welcome the new clause preventing any LEA or school governing body doing that. However, I think that two points need to be made.

There is a grey area between providing facts and publishing information designed to influence. One person's fact is another person's undue influence. The amendment requires that regard be had to guidance issued by the Secretary of State. I suggest that the guidance needs to be very clear-cut so that it is not capable of being misunderstood by the LEA or the governing body.

Secondly--and this is really the reason I rise to speak--I wish to respond to the noble Baroness's point about the so-called unfairness of this provision to grammar schools. If we take the Birmingham situation as an example, we have the foundation of the King Edward schools in total--the governing body--and the proprietors of the two fee-paying schools, which are also closely associated with the five King Edward grant-maintained grammar schools. The governing bodies of those individual schools will be covered by the legislation but the foundation itself, which is separate from that, has considerable resources, is an apologist for all the King Edward grammar schools within the city, engages in frequent public debate and no doubt will be using its considerable resource to propagandise and influence the outcome of the ballot. Those who argue the opposite case will have no such resources. Indeed, it could be a very one-sided process. Far from this being a pernicious act against the grammar schools, it shows the hurdles that are facing those who wish to argue against selection.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Tope: My Lords, I am grateful for that last contribution. When listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I became more and more convinced that paranoia had got a grip on her. I listened to this language of destruction with these wicked LEAs being out again to destroy grammar schools. I then heard her accusing councillors in general of using public money--presumably LEA money--to support other campaigning and giving it CASE and so on. If councillors act in that way, all kinds of sanctions will come down heavily on them. That really was the language of paranoia.

I share the concerns of the previous speaker about this. What is a fact to some is, at best, an inconvenient fact to others; and an inconvenient fact comes very close to being propaganda or a fact sought to influence opinion. I look forward with considerable interest to reading the guidance. I am extremely glad that I do not have to draft it, because I believe we are entering a

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1160

minefield here. It worries me. Perhaps because I am on the other side of the argument, I worry considerably about the inhibitions that are placed on governing bodies and LEAs in attempting to explain what this is about and attempting to answer factually questions which will come from parents and others in this position. That will be extremely difficult.

Having said that, I welcome this amendment. Needless to say, it does not go as far as I would wish it to but it is a considerable improvement on what we had before. I am pleased that the Government have recognised the clear difficulties that were identified at the Committee stage and have been prepared to take a step forward. The Minister clarified a point which my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood made in a more heated debate than we are having now about parent associations being able to use their own money. I am grateful on her behalf for that clarification. My noble friend Lady Thomas is speaking during the Dinner Hour, which is why she is not present at the moment. But I will ensure that she gets the happy news as soon as possible.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Tope, I was amazed by the vehemence with which what the Government are doing was dismissed by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I thought that this would be welcomed. I thought that we were trying to be helpful here. We had listened. We had indeed, and she is quite wrong to suggest that what we are doing is tying behind their backs the hands of those schools that might be affected and not allowing them to fight their corner. We have said that they can publish factual information with public funds, as can local education authorities. We have similarly said that if they wish to use private funds to go further, that is a matter for them.

Perhaps I may pick up the point made by my noble friend Lord Hunt and by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. It is important that guidance should be clear-cut and we shall use our best endeavours to make sure that it is, so that people know where they stand. It is open to LEAs to publish what they think is appropriate, particularly in the case of all-authority ballots. We think it is right for LEAs to decide what they ought to be publishing in the circumstances rather than enforcing something which at the moment can only be entirely hypothetical.

I repeat that I am very surprised that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, replayed her Amendment No. 180A. I hope that the House will agree that the government amendments not only reduce some of the uncertainties about what LEAs and school governing bodies can do but also significantly reduce the restrictions on governing bodies' attempts to influence petitions and ballots. I trust that the amendments will be accepted. I am sure that no one will be surprised if I urge the noble Baroness not to move her amendment.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, and with the leave of the House, would she consider it reasonable and fair if the schools in Kent, for example, which has the largest concentration of grammar schools--all 33 of them--published a leaflet saying that the likely consequences--

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1161

those are the words I use--of the result of the ballot would be massive disruption, very costly reorganisational proposals and serious disruption of the education of the children? Would that be a reasonable assessment for those schools to make? It might, in the event, be an accurate one.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it would be a very unreasonable assessment to make, for the reasons that I spelt out in Committee.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 180A not moved.]

Baroness Blackstone moved Amendment No. 181:

Page 80, line 34, leave out ("section 105") and insert ("sections 105 and (Restriction on publication of material etc. relating to ballots)").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 105 [Ballot regulations: eligibility of parents to request and vote in ballot]:

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page