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Lord Bach: My Lords, I am extremely sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness, but we are dealing with a Private Notice Question, following the rules, which is here in the form of a Statement. The noble Baroness will know much better than I that ministerial statements are made for the information of the House, and that although brief comments and questions for clarification from all quarters of the House are allowed, such statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate. The noble Baroness had spoken for nine minutes when I rose. She might think that that is a bit long, bearing in mind that this is the equivalent of a Statement.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I stand to be corrected by the Clerk at the Table, but I have been in the House since 1987, and my understanding is that each Front Bench spokesman makes a full and entirely free response to the statement from the Government Benches, that at that time the clock is stopped and that then the Clerk starts it again for 20 minutes for questions. If I am wrong, I will stand chided by the noble Lord.
I was coming to my last comment: the second thwarting factor of much of what we were trying to do in those 18 years was Labour-controlled councils. I would single out two: conspicuously, Islington and Sheffield. Both were producing the most awful education. They were spending much more per head
Lord Tope: My Lords, I rise with slight trepidation, in view of the previous exchange. I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement here. It was a fairly wide-ranging Statement in reply to a very specific question. The response from the Conservative Front Bench has possibly been more wide-ranging, even embracing Liberal Democrat policy, locally and nationally.
I understand very well how strongly and deeply the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, feels about grammar schools. Nobody who takes part in education debates in this House could doubt that. But it is becoming an obsession. We must be reminded that, whatever our views on the issue of selection and grammar schools, only four and a half per cent of our children attend grammar schools. This is not a mainstream issue for education as a whole. In most parts of the country it is, and has been for a long time, a complete non-issue.
As I was forced to remind the House yesterday, I happen to be closely associated with an area in which it has been a major issue for the last 30 years, and continues to be. But I must say again to the noble Baroness on the Conservative Front Bench that, as I demonstrated yesterday, it is not a vote winning issue, even in the London Borough of Sutton. So I worry and wonder about the obsession that she and some of her colleagues have with what is such a minority issue. Perhaps we should not worry too much about it, but while they are trying to appeal to their hard core support they are missing the real education issues and the issues of concern to a far wider group of people.
Before I turn to the Government, I wish to say that I also, coming from Sutton particularly, view with considerable scepticism the noble Baroness's concern about the instability and uncertainty for schools faced with the possibility of a ballot once every five years. It was not the present government that introduced ballots to schools. It was the last government, when they introduced grant-maintained status. I speak from personal experience when I say that that introduced considerable uncertainty in schools over far shorter periods than once every five years.
I want to turn to the Government's Statement, not the Opposition's. The Minister said yesterday, before the vote, that were it to be lost the Government would use their majority in the House of Commons to overturn that. I suspect that none of us doubted that that would be the case. But I urge the Government to use this opportunity, unwelcome though its cause is, to review the ballot arrangements.
I heard the Secretary of State in the other place this afternoon. Perhaps unlike the noble Baroness on the Opposition Front Bench, although I did not have a printed copy of the Statement, I took the opportunity to listen to it being made a couple of hours earlier. I heard the Secretary of State take comfort from the fact that at Ripon both sides of the argument felt the ballot had been rigged. A less emotive expression might be that the ballot system was flawed. He took comfort because he believed that if both sides thought it was wrong it was about right.
There is another explanation, which is that if both sides think the ballot was flawed maybe they are both right and the ballot system was flawed. So I urge the Government to look at that system. It cannot be right, just to use the Ripon example, that the children of one in four of the parents who took part in the ballot are in a private school and that parents who have their children in a grammar school are not entitled to vote.
My party has a much wider concern. We do not support the parental ballot at all, because, although parents are crucially important to schools, schools are part of the whole community, not just the property or interest of parents alone. Therefore, if those decisions are to be taken, they should be taken by the whole community or, more particularly, by the elected and democratic representatives of the whole community after full and proper consultation with that whole community.
Although the interruption is perhaps unwelcome, it provides an opportunity for the Government to put it to advantage. With the experience of one ballot which has now taken place and various attempts to get up a petition to call a ballot, they should review that process. We can all learn from experience and certainly this Government can do so. I hope that if they are not prepared to trust LEAs--and all the evidence is, and is again today, that they are not prepared to do so--they will at least look at the ballot system which is being used and make much-needed improvements to it.
The Secretary of State took the opportunity given to him by the Opposition to say a lot more about the Government's education policies. Indeed, he made an announcement in the House about today's initiative which has been announced in a six-page DfEE press release; namely, that of city academies.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I am very sorry to interrupt the noble Lord because he has been on his feet for only a very few minutes indeed. But, as I understand it, the Select Committee on the Procedure of the House in its first report for the Session 1998-99 made the following ruling:
Lord Tope: My Lords, of course I shall and wish to obey the rules of the House. But I protest most strongly. I have not had very much time at all. I did not want to intervene in the argument between the other two Front Benches. However, if the effect of one spokesperson speaking for far too long is to deny the other spokesperson any opportunity to say anything and, perhaps of even more concern to the House, to deny the Minister the right to reply effectively and properly to the points which have been made, then that procedure needs to be looked at and tightened up. But I shall not abuse the procedures of the House. I could not and would not do that.
Perhaps I may ask a few questions about the new city academies, as they are to be called. What significant differences are there to be between the city academies and the city technology colleges, which I recall the Minister's party was not too keen on? What are to be the admission arrangements for the new city academies?