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Lord Carter: My Lords, we are on Report. Noble Lords are only supposed to speak once to an amendment. They can ask short questions of the Minister for elucidation but they should not make another speech.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the Minister made a fixed accusation to my noble friend the former Secretary of State for Education and Science. When my noble friend tried to interject, the Minister said that he would have the opportunity at the end of the debate. It does not become the Government Chief Whip to reach for the rule book when my noble friend had almost come to the end of his point.
Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I am grateful for such support as I am getting. May I repeat my short question? The Minister said that the last Conservative government had failed our young people. If so, why during the last Conservative government did the number of 16 year-olds who stayed on increase from 30 per cent to 75 per cent? Why does the noble Baroness want to make a cheap political point that she knows is fundamentally wrong?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, many cheap political points have been made by Opposition Members during this debate. While I concede that the number of young people staying on at school increased, when we took office only some 45 per cent of 16 year-olds were attaining five good GCSEs at grades A to C. That is a measure of the previous government's failure.
Baroness Warnock: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, as the Government--who were elected by a huge majority--believe that selection does not help to raise standards, which is their manifest aim, I fail to understand why the policy decision to abolish grammar schools cannot be taken by the Government. Why should it be taken by parents?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I thought I had made clear that it is the Government's principled view that for the few remaining grammars schools--164 out of a total of 3,800 secondary schools--it is right to consult parents, seek their views and allow them to ballot.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I personally resent the Minister's very cheap jibe about our intentions and policy objectives over the years to raise standards in education. The noble Baroness and I have known each other a long time. I would not say such a thing of the Minister. The noble Baroness has always been concerned about standards in education.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, if the noble Baroness will hear me out, I like to think that my colleagues and I are also concerned about standards. Most of the debate between us is about the means to achieving ends. The noble Baroness states that. Yet her party accepts city technology colleges after opposing them when they were set up. It accepts specialist schools, having opposed them when they were set up. The party accepts testing and assessment, which it opposed when put in place. Funding by the Government as a percentage of GDP is less than when we were in office. I give way to the noble Baroness.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, perhaps I may clarify what I said. Nothing I said was intended to mean that the noble Baroness's intentions were not to raise standards. I simply said that as regards outcomes I do not think that she was altogether successful.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, unless the noble Baroness interferes with the writing of Hansard, she referred to the party not being interested in raising standards. When the Minister says that about my party, she says it about me.
It is almost as though the Secretary of State was not around: that we all imagined what he said over the weekend. The Minister referred to a manifesto commitment. We are not overturning a manifesto commitment. The manifesto commitment was overturned by the Secretary of State himself over the weekend when he wished to draw a line in the sand: he wished to end hostilities against the grammar schools. There is only one way to do that: to take away the pernicious petitioning and balloting system.
Many, like me, will be angry and dismayed--but not surprised--by the Minister's response to the debate. Your Lordships will remember well the siren call of Mr Blair at the last election of, "Trust me. We shall be a government who will say what we mean and mean what we say"--that is, when they are not joking. This is a Government who, from the Prime Minister down, make choices for their own children--selection by interview, selection by examination. They send their children to independent schools, grammar schools and grant-maintained schools. We have no quarrel with that. They do what every good, discerning parent would want to do: make the best possible choice for their own children. But what hypocrisy--to make those choices for themselves but to deny the same choice to parents up and down the land. You do not improve the rest by destroying the best.
If the Government support the monolithic non-selective system advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, let them honestly say so. If not, let them clarify what they support. The Minister came to the Dispatch Box to explain what has happened since Friday. But nothing that the noble Baroness said threw any light on the comments of her colleagues in another place.
In arguing whether or not he supported grammar schools, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, made it clear that the national party does not support them. I remember well that when the School Standards and Framework Bill was discussed the noble Lord said that if his party had been in power it would have had a one-line clause in the Bill abolishing all grammar schools. My noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking reminded noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches that some of their colleagues at local level were highly supportive of grammar schools--often overtly--in their local area. I wish that I could find the quote of the reply, but I remind noble Lords of the gist of it: "That is at local level. But our national policy is not to support grammar schools". Talk about facing two ways at the same time!
Lord Tope: My Lords, I want to get to a vote and have, therefore, hesitated to intervene. Perhaps I may suggest that the noble Baroness is not best placed to describe the policy of the Liberal Democrats, nationally or locally. It is not what I said. Nor is it our party's policy, nationally or locally. Nor did I say that I would introduce a one-line clause in the Bill which I shall introduce when I become Secretary of State for Education.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I think that I might embarrass the noble Lord by quoting from that discussion. I am well placed to talk about Liberal Democrats at local and national level. I worked with them for a very long time. Such was the state of play in Cambridgeshire when I was leader that we almost had to tape record our discussions with Liberal Democrats because of their saying one thing and doing another. On visiting a grammar school recently I was surprised when supporters of the grammar school said to me, "Please don't upset the Liberal. He's very supportive of our school but he doesn't really want it to be known too well at national level".
The petition and balloting arrangements represent a pernicious and relentless war of attrition on grammar schools--a war which was declared at an end over the weekend. And--surprise, surprise--the guns are manned once more. At the weekend, Mr Blunkett said that when he stated five years ago, "Watch my lips, there will be no selection either by interview or examination", it was a joke. To supporters of grammar schools--myself, noble colleagues, staff, parents and children--this is no joke. I commend the amendment.
Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.