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Baroness Blatch moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 197C, Amendment No. 197D:

Line 16, at end insert--
("(1A) After section 3(2) of that Act there shall be inserted--
"(2A) Regulations under this section shall in particular secure that a pupil receiving primary education and provided with an assisted place shall continue to hold that place to the end of the period during which he receives secondary education at the same school."."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the rather thin reason given for my amendment being technically flawed in fact applies to the government amendments. They were inconsistent with the Act as it was. That is why the amendment is tabled: in order to open the Act and to amend it. That is precisely what my amendment seeks to do.

The issue that precipitated this U-turn was a case where the DfEE, in its wisdom--it was wise to do so--dropped its opposition to a court case because it knew it was heading for defeat. The claim is that fresh evidence came to light. My understanding of the case is that all that was known about the young man was known by the department. It would be helpful to know precisely what the fresh evidence was and the criteria that the Secretary for State will now apply in respect of the amendments as set out in the Marshalled List, and which will eventually find their place into the assisted places Bill.

The boy was told that he could keep his assisted place and stay in the system. Depending on the Secretary of State's largesse, that would allow children to move from one school to another. My amendment is more modest than that; namely, that young people are given an understanding that they could receive an assisted place in one school and go right the way through that school. The meanness of the Government in applying their policy knows no depth. I also believe that they will find themselves in court again because there are some very interesting cases. It is interesting to go back through all the correspondence.

There is one letter on file which has to be placed on the record of this House because it encapsulates the bones of my case. The letter is from Mrs. Karen Cutler to Ms. Flashman. It contained within it a letter which Ms. Flashman was asked to convey to Mr. Blunkett. It reads as follows:

    Graham Brady MP raised the issue of an article in 'The Times' that day concerning Junior level Assisted Places, bringing attention to a promise made to a Harriet Tillson from Mr. Blair. The letter of 1 Nov. 1996 was in response to a query concerning her daughters' assisted places. They were at the time aged 7 and 11. In the letter Mr Blair states 'We do not wish to disrupt the education of individual children and any children already on the scheme will continue to receive support until the end of their education.'

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1212

    Your reply was as follows and I quote, 'Not only will I ensure that people understand the importance of being able to follow promises but that they can read as well so that they can actually get the promises right. The promise we made we are fulfilling and I should remind the Hon Gentleman that, of course, at the point he is referring to the previous Government's scheme to extend assisted places to primary education had not actually taken place.'

    I found this statement almost unbelievable. Either you knew that this was not true and were avoiding giving a proper reply or you were genuinely unaware of the two different types of junior level places and that integral junior departments of senior schools were allocated places early in 1996 to be taken up in September 1996. This would show a level of incompetence which I personally would not expect from such a Senior Minister. I was also rather surprised that you were not corrected immediately on this point by any other Member of the House.

    As I have already said, junior assisted places were allocated early in 1996 to integral junior departments of senior schools which offered assisted places at 11+ also. They were taken up in September 1996 and therefore not only were the places available but Mrs Tillson's daughters were already at the Maynard school at the point of Mr Blair replying to her.

    Ben Bradshaw was quoted in The Times as saying that it would not have been known that the Maynard school ran through to 18. This is clearly nonsense since at that point (Nov. 1996) only schools which 'ran through' had junior places.

    Free standing Preparatory Schools were only allocated places in 1997 to be taken up in September by virtue of an Amendment to the Education Act. This is extremely important as the Labour Party Office prior to the election were promising those in integral junior departments that their places would be honoured through to the age of 18, the basis on which they were offered in the first place, whilst those in the free standing preparatory schools would have their place honoured to the end of that school, either 11 or 13. They would not have been able to transfer the place to a separate senior school.

    I telephoned Labour Party HQ on 27th February as I was due to take my 8 year old daughter for an examination the following day for entry to a 3-18 girls school. I was told that where a child held or had an offer of a place for September 1997 in an integral junior department of a senior school then that place would be honoured through to the age of 18 if a Labour Government was elected. I was told that this was a clear policy commitment. Laura was successful in gaining the assisted place at the school and I accepted it on the basis of the assurances received.

    You will see that the promises made concerning the two types of places i.e. free standing prep schools and schools which essentially 'run through' were in some ways different although in both cases no child would have been forced cruelly to leave the school concerned until that school's natural ending.

    Not only do I hope that you will be able to follow these promises but that you will fulfil them. I fully understand and appreciate your party's policy of raising standards in state schools and I hope that you will indeed in time provide each and every child in this country with a level of education now only achieved by the very best. However, I do not see that it is necessary to finance this and the much needed reduction in class sizes for infants at the expense of these, what must be few children who are now devastated at having to be forced out of schools which they, their parents and their schools believed they would be allowed to remain in until the end of their education, 18.

    Stephen Byers said earlier in the House to a Conservative MP that he hoped that he would not allow prejudice to get in the way of fact. I hope, Mr Blunkett, that I can ask the same of you particularly as you have said previously that you would put children before political dogma.

    I do hope that if the statement you made was a genuine mistake and that you were unaware of the promises made to these children and of the basis on which these places were offered then you will meet with Mr Blair and your junior Ministers and reconsider this matter and allow all children to remain in their current school until the age of 18.

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1213

That is a poignant letter. It sets out the understanding of these parents and also quotes Mr. Blair personally. Mr. Kilfoyle made a similar promise. Mr. Blair personally wrote in The Times on 12th February 1998 that no child currently at private school under the scheme, or who had already got a place, had lost out. They would be able to continue their education. It is not surprising that these parents feel let down and misled. I believe that based on those cases there will be further appeals in the courts. There are also letters from Mr. Blunkett, who refers to the provision of all-through schools and raises the expectation that young children who were promised in good faith that they could have a place at an integral prep department at an all-through school would receive education through to the age of 18.

In introducing his amendment, the noble Lord made an interesting U-turn as a result of one court case. How can we deal more sensitively with children already in the system? There is a good deal of insensitivity being shown to these children. The technicality of my amendment to which the noble Lord has referred applies equally to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord. They are both inconsistent with the Act as it is now. The reason why there is an amendment to revisit the assisted school places Act is precisely to allow the Secretary of State to be responsive to the needs of these children. It is necessary to amend the Act. All I seek to do is to honour the real expectation on the part of young people who were offered places in good faith that they would see their education through to the end of secondary education in an all-through school with an integral prep department. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we have heard a lot from the noble Baroness about a particular case. I deal first with the case on the basis of which she alleges that we have made a U-turn. This is not a U-turn. We have always had a discretionary power in this respect. The initial application in the case of Alistair Sanderson, in respect of which the noble Baroness seeks further information--

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, if the noble Lord says that the Government already had discretion why did they not use it?

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