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The Lord Bishop of Ripon: My Lords, I am not clear whether the conventions of the House allow or expect a contribution from these Benches. However, since the education departments of the Churches have played such a considerable part in the Bill, perhaps I may be allowed to say a brief word.
I enjoyed the contributions from all sides of the House. I found myself in the Lobbies with a variety of partners. I noted today that I had been through the Lobbies with each of the parties in turn at various stages of the Bill. I hope that this Bench will not be accused of political partisanship.
When the proposals were first published last summer, there was considerable alarm among the Churches. In response to that alarm, the Secretary of State wrote a letter to the Daily Mail saying that we need have no fears: church schools were secure with the new administration. A great deal of hard work had to be done convincing Ministers that our concerns were genuine. Eventually they were taken seriously.
The level of communication between the staff of the Church of England Board of Education, the Catholic Education Service, the Free Church Council Education Committee and civil servants has been high. I have been intrigued to note that the banter has risen to an extremely high level during the long process of the Bill. The work on all sides has been enormous.
As was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, all the discussion has been about framework and structures, but this is the School Standards and Framework Bill. We are all agreed on the raising of standards, but, as the noble Baroness said, we are not necessarily agreed on the framework which will deliver it. However, I believe that there is widespread agreement in this House and in the country that Church schools deliver excellent educational provision. They are able to draw together parents, governors, teachers, pupils and the community into a body with shared values and beliefs within which personal growth, intellectual stimulus and the acquisition of skills are held together.
We in the Churches have been concerned to preserve and enhance the structure which has delivered such a popular and well regarded provision. In the case of over-subscribed schools, denominational allegiance has to be the admissions criterion. But many parents wish their children to be educated in schools which cannot be filled on denominational choice alone. I am pleased to believe that as a result of the work done in relation to this Bill those schools will be able to continue to make a contribution. I believe that the structure and character of Church schools has been both preserved and enhanced.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, for her unfailing courtesy in listening to our concerns. I thank also her ministerial colleagues and the officials of her department. I wish to make particular mention of the officials of the boards of the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the Free Church. Those are tiny boards whose staff have carried huge responsibilities during the year. I believe that they and their legal advisers have served the Churches and the education service extremely well.
Baroness Darcy de Knayth: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Rix and the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, are unable to be here, but have asked me, as one of the three who attended the most helpful meeting with officials, to comment on special educational needs. Both noble Lords, together with the noble Baronesses, Lady David and Lady Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington,
The Bill arrived without a mention of special needs. However, thanks to the strong support from all sides of the House, and to the Minister and the noble Lords, Lord Whitty and Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for being willing to listen and to the Minister for also being helpful in arranging that productive meeting with officials from the department and our advisers from the Special Educational Consortium, we now have a much better Bill as regards children with special needs. A number of helpful amendments have been made and many undertakings have been given. We have also had a welcome offer of further meetings, which gives me hope of progress beyond the scope of the Bill. Meanwhile, I wish the Bill well.
Lord Monson: My Lords, in the light of persuasive correspondence which I received last week, perhaps I may be permitted to say a few words about a matter which is not an integral part of the Bill but which might better be described as a last-minute bolt-on accessory. I refer to the deplorable Clause 139 which, despite the wishes of parents, outlaws even the mildest form of corporal punishment in independent schools. As a result of the proliferation of controversial legislation now being pushed through Parliament--and the proliferation of major sporting events--the clause has received far less public and media attention than it deserves.
I use the word "deplorable" because, unlike the rest of the Bill, the proposal was not in Labour's manifesto at the last general election. It was pushed through the House of Commons at five o'clock in the morning with no previous public debate and with no consultation with those affected; that is, the independent schools in question and the parents of the children at those schools.
As my noble and learned friend Lord Wilberforce powerfully intimated in Committee, it is an illiberal move rather than the liberal move it purports to be. Moreover, it seems to me to be a slap in the face for the European Court of Human Rights, which has specifically ruled that corporal punishment in moderation, of course, does not constitute cruel or unusual punishment. It was a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights which first led to a ban in state schools. The court ruled that children of parents with a philosophical objection to corporal punishment could not be so punished. Fair enough, but clearly there are many parents with precisely the opposite philosophical convictions. Surely their convictions, too, deserve respect.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, perhaps I may point out that after a period of harmony in winding up the Bill we are entering an area in respect of which the noble Lord could have tabled an amendment. This subject has not been discussed today and is not appropriate for the
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, on that point of order, it would be helpful to be properly advised on this. My understanding is that any Member of this House can reflect on the Bill. That is what "Bill do now pass" is about. They can reflect on any parts of the Bill which were most poignant to them, or most disappointing or most pleasing. The fact that the noble Lord has not spoken with the harmony which the Minister has enjoyed to date is not an issue. It would be helpful to be properly advised on the matter.
Lord Monson: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for that intervention. The reason for my rising is not to complain, but to ask the Government to do something and I point to that immediately.
Given that the Government are officially neutral about Clause 139, as was made perfectly clear on 16th June and probably on other occasions too, will the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, urge their right honourable friend the Secretary of State to delay bringing that provision into force until the European Court has ruled on an application from parents who wish to preserve the status quo, citing their own philosophical convictions, which surely deserve respect? After all, if the court were to rule in favour, that would necessitate changing the law once again and I do not believe that anyone can think that desirable.
If the Government are not prepared to do that, I urge that implementation of Clause 139 be delayed, first, until the schools in question have had time to work out an alternative disciplinary policy; and, secondly, for long enough to allow the parents (who have made great financial sacrifices to send their children to fee-paying schools with a firm disciplinary policy and who now feel that that is no longer worthwhile) to look for places in non-fee-paying schools--all of which, including the obligatory term's notice, takes months rather than weeks. I make that suggestion bearing in mind, once again, that the proposal was not in the manifesto and therefore the institutions and individuals concerned must be given time to adjust.