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Lord Hattersley: My Lords, I rarely detain the House so I hope that I may be allowed 30 seconds to offer my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath some rather belated congratulations on his promotion. We have known each other for a very long time. There was a time when I hoped that he would find a political career in another place--ideally, as the Member of Parliament for the Sparkbrook area. However, fate and fortune have brought him here and I congratulate him on his promotion. I look forward to it continuing for very many years.
However, saying that does not in any way inhibit me from saying that I so object to the regulations that he has just moved that, if it were not against the conventions of this House, I would seek to divide the House against the Motion. I would do so not least because in his opening remarks, quoting necessarily, properly and understandably from what the Secretary of State said in another place, my noble friend was diametrically wrong in two particulars. First, he said that the decision on the organisation of schools will be decided by local parents. In very many cases, that will not be true. My noble friend also said that, as a result of that decision, the scheme for balloting would be fair and workable. As on
In fact, what we have before us today is the oldest of all political tricks: the decision to legitimise a procedure by offering a ballot, but making sure that the ballot comes out in the direction wanted by those who organise it. I have no doubt at all that when the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, speaks, she will say, as she said outside the House, that the ballots are geared to ensure that grammar schools are destroyed. I have discovered that there is a relationship in these matters between the noble Baroness and myself. She always describes what she fears the Government are doing; I always describe what I hope the Government will do. What she fears and I hope are always the same but, unfortunately, neither her fears nor my hopes are ever realised. If the regulations go through in their present form, they will make it almost impossible for localities to make a genuine and open decision on the sort of educational organisation that they want.
The threshold--20 per cent. of appropriate parents--will in many cases be literally impossible to obtain. The idea that you cannot have a ballot until you overcome that immense hurdle seems wholly unreasonable to me and to every education authority which has been asked about it. It is particularly difficult to overcome when the second category of decision is being taken--that is, that relating to feeder schools. I ask my noble friend to consider the city which I once represented and in which he still lives. It might just be possible for feeder schools in Birmingham to obtain 20 per cent. of parents calling for a ballot, but it would be very nearly impossible.
Having said that, I make no major complaint about the 20 per cent. threshold for those areas where the ballot is to be organised in an entire local education authority area. My great complaint relates to those areas where the ballot is to be conducted through so-called "feeder schools". I put it to my noble friend that he and I both believe that the existence of grammar schools, of selective schools, prejudices the education of an entire area. The mirror image of that is held by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, who no doubt believes that the existence of grammar schools enhances the educational prospects of a whole area. I note that the noble Baroness nods, as I would have expected. She and I are united on the principle that the existence of grammar schools affects, in one way or another, a whole local education authority area.
However, in many cases, the ballot will not be conducted in a whole education authority area; it will be conducted through designated feeder schools which may have only the most tenuous relationship with the education in a specific town or county. Indeed, it may be possible that parents of children at a primary school in the shadow of a grammar school (who long to send their children to that grammar school) which is just across a footpath or on the other side of a road but which has not sent the requisite number of children there in the past three years, will be denied a vote. However, parents in a private crammer 10 miles away, where most of the
It is not simply a matter of the principle that I have tried to set out, but the administrative complications are overwhelming. I will not read to my noble friend the submission from the Church of England which asks the Government to consider those schools which are fed by dozens of small schools throughout a county area, many of whom will be disenfranchised even though they are feeding the school, but only to a small degree, and are related to dozens of other small primary schools which will not be allowed a ballot at all. This is an extraordinary way of conducting a ballot. It requires me, at the end of my couple of minutes, to ask how it is that the Government have brought in a procedure that is so complex and, on the other hand, lacks so much natural justice?
There are two interpretations. One is that the entire senior staff of the Department for Education and Employment are nincompoops and have got it totally wrong. The other interpretation is that the Government wish to introduce ballots of such formidable complication that most education authorities and the pro-comprehensive factions within them would not initiate the ballot in the first place. On mature reflection, I support the second conclusion.
I want to tell my noble friend--this is why I have made the insufferable sacrifice of being in London on a Friday morning--that the Government's intention in this particular will not succeed. People will run the ballots, people will campaign to end the comprehensive rules and on many occasions--certainly where whole authority ballots are being held--they will succeed. The Secretary of State in another place is making himself absurd over his attitude towards grammar schools.
Only today we hear that the decision that the Government have taken to except the Church of England from the promise to have no selection interviews has been rejected by the Church of England. It says "We do not want to have interviews. Why is the Government insisting upon interviews?" The Government's position on secondary schools and secondary organisations becomes increasingly untenable, as demonstrated by the news from Bristol this morning that two grammar schools have decided--without ballots, as they are entitled to--on the decision of their governors to go comprehensive.
I do not expect my noble friend to accept some of my criticisms. He knows very well that I am not making them to him but through him to the Secretary of State. I want the Secretary of State to understand that the campaign, the ballots, will be pursued despite the complications, and a number of them will certainly be won.
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, in his opening remarks the Minister said that the ballot company had been chosen by tender. Can he tell the House how long the contract is to run, and if there is provision in the contract to break the contract if the ballot company is not doing a proper job?
I would like to speak for a couple of minutes--probably a couple of minutes shorter than my noble friend Lord Hattersley--to support my noble friend on the Front Bench. I recognise the validity of some of the criticisms that my noble friend Lord Hattersley has raised this morning, but I think that we ought to celebrate the fact that the Government are introducing a mechanism, which is better than the old mechanism, to enable a change to take place with regard to grammar schools.
Twenty years ago, when my little daughter was five and at the local primary school, there was a proposal to amalgamate a boys' high school with a girls' high school, largely because of the pressures of economies and school places. The only people to be consulted about that change were the parents of the children at the high schools at the time. The process of change--if the two schools amalgamated--would have taken place only after all the children in those schools had left the schools. It seemed to me totally nonsensical to have a situation where you were asking people to make a judgment which, when it came about, they would have no involvement with at all.
I welcome the mechanism that the Government have determined in terms of asking the parents of children at the primary school level what their views are regarding the future education of their children. That is the key thing that we should hang on to. I am sorry that the mechanism is complicated and that there is the 20 per cent. hurdle, but at least we are setting out a system which is far better than the previous system. Once all the hurdles have been got over and all the complications--which are meant to ensure absolute fairness--are resolved and the determination is made, nobody will be in a position to question it. When an area decides to get rid of the grammar schools nobody will be in a position to say "Yes, but what about my particular school or this particular school? We are going to carry on campaigning".