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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very important question. My understanding is that one to two young women per thousand develop anorexia. As noble Lords will know, this can cause long-term ill health and in some cases, regrettably, death. Although most mild eating disorders can be managed within primary care, people with severe disorders should be, and are, referred to specialist assessment areas, including for medical and psychiatric assessment. The broader question of young people being pre-occupied to an unhealthy extent with their weight needs to be tackled.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, the Minister has rightly drawn our attention to the importance of eating disorders and obesity. Is he aware that a significant cause of malnutrition in many parts of our society is poverty, particularly among the long-term unemployed? Are the Government aware of the work

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that is being done by the Zaccheus Trust to establish minimum levels of food in relation to income support levels? Is he conscious that there is a problem, and are the Government determined to address it? Work is being done by many organisations, but perhaps I may draw the Minister's attention in particular to the work that is being done by Reverend Professor Nicholas Sagovsky at Newcastle University.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the matter needs to be considered in the context of the Government's efforts to provide support to poor people generally. In regard to the issue raised by the right reverend Prelate, I should be interested to learn more details. I commend the Health Education Authority's food and low income database, which provides excellent examples of projects throughout the country which are designed to enable poor people to have access to a balanced diet at affordable prices.

Assisted Places Scheme

3.11 p.m.

Baroness Blatch asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In the light of criticisms of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment made by Mr Justice Kay in the High Court on 12th July, whether they will reconsider their decision to deny pupils who had secured an assisted place the right to continue that placement to the end of their secondary education.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, the court found in favour of the Secretary of State on all counts. The court ruled that the Government's policy on the duration of assisted places for primary-aged pupils is lawful, and is being applied in a consistent and fair manner. We do not, therefore, intend to change our policy.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, is the Minister aware that before the election, in November 1996, Mr Blair wrote in a letter to a parent,

    "Any children already on the Assisted Places Scheme will continue to receive support until the end of their education",

and that after the election Mr. Blair wrote in a newspaper article,

    "No child currently at private school under the scheme or who has already got a place has lost out. They will be able to continue their education"?

Does the Minister accept that, despite the judge being unable, in law, to overrule the Secretary of State, there is a moral obligation on the Prime Minister to honour his words by allowing children such as Heather Begbie to complete their education on the scheme?

Baroness Blackstone: No, my Lords. The article to which the noble Baroness refers was intended to be read in the context of a policy which had been very well aired and understood, and it was written long after the circular had been sent to schools with assisted places. It is a

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great pity that the Conservative Opposition do not give a little more attention to the 93 per cent of children who are in state schools. I do not accept that a child who has had an assisted place in a primary school and then transfers to a state secondary school will be worse off. There are many good state secondary schools. I only wish that the Conservative Opposition would understand that.

Lord Tope: My Lords, does the Minister recall an assurance that she gave me during the Report stage of the Bill dealing with assisted places that any parent who accepted for their child an assisted place running through to age 13 in a free-standing preparatory school would have that place honoured through the use of the discretionary power? In view of the somewhat confused picture of what exactly is a government commitment, will the Minister give an assurance that that particular commitment has been honoured in every case?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I well recollect the noble Lord asking that question on Report. I can confirm that the Government have set up a discretionary scheme under which parents in that category may apply for the scheme to continue for their own child until the age of 13. In all cases, the Secretary of State has adhered to that commitment. Indeed, with respect to the operation of the discretionary scheme, the Government have examined some 350 applications and have agreed that a child may stay in the assisted places scheme in well over half those cases.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, does the--

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the words of the judge in the particular case in question? I quote:

    "It is a sorry state of affairs when a Secretary of State has to explain away his own letters as mistaken or unclear and a statement of the Prime Minster as an incorrect representation of policy, taken out of context".

Can the Minister disagree with the judge's words?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the court did not rule that the Government had broken any promises whatsoever. The legal action taken in this case is a distraction designed to make political capital, and involves enormous expense in terms of court hearings. We should not play political games with children's lives.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the schools knew the position perfectly well, and parents had been well informed throughout the application of that policy.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is the height of impertinence for an Opposition Front-Bencher to call in aid a court case in the judgment of which the Government were supported, when the noble Baroness who asks the Question was a member of a government who lost court case after court

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case, costing British taxpayers many millions of pounds because of their incompetence, money which could have been spent on the education of their children?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. He is absolutely right in what he says about the Conservative Opposition's appalling record in government in that respect. This policy was introduced to support lower class sizes in our primary schools. The Government have achieved those lower class sizes. We have seen them go down right across primary education, not merely in key stage one, for the first time in 10 years. That is something of which to be proud, unlike the record of noble Lords opposite who were in the previous government.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords--

Earl Russell: My Lords--

Noble Lords: Tebbit! Tebbit!

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I really think it is the Liberals' turn.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Earl Russell: My Lords, is it the Prime Minister's position that he meant it how he meant it at the time?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Prime Minister made it perfectly clear on a number of different occasions that the assisted places scheme was to be abolished. He made it absolutely clear that we would honour a commitment that children should be able to stay in their current education until they had completed that stage. That is what the Government are doing.

Business of the House: Finance Bill

3.17 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend the Leader of House, I beg to move the Motion standing in her name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That Standing Order 44 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with on Friday next to allow the Finance Bill to be taken through its remaining stages that day.--(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, unusually, I wish to raise an objection to the Motion. The Finance Bill which will shortly come before this House contains a measure for tax allowances of 100 per cent in favour of small and medium business for firms in Northern Ireland. For the first time in the history of this country, the measure has been struck down by Brussels on the grounds that it infringes the tax harmonisation or fair taxation rules upon which it is insisting.

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That raises issues of fundamental importance, particularly in view of the guarantees that we have been given that taxation remains the preserve of national legislation and is not a matter that we would under any circumstances cede to Brussels. I ask the Government to take full account of that and to make time available so that we can thoroughly discuss this fundamental issue.

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