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Mr. Gummer: The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras protests too much. Some Muslim organisations want to have the sort of mix that he describes, but others do not. The right hon. Gentleman says that he has the rightand I believe that he thinks he has the dutyto tell Muslims what they shall have. I am saying merely that I believe in a free society, and that people should be able to make this choice for themselves.
The real difficulty for me is that the party that is most against centralisationthe party that is always talking about local choice and that always wants decisions to be made at the lowest level possibleis busy saying that the one decision that people cannot make concerns the matter that for some people is the most important thing in life. That matter is the religious nature of the school to which they send their children.
People do not have to go to faith schools, and parents do not have to make the choice to send their children to such schools. If too few parents make that choice, faith schools will not be available. We suggest that people should be allowed to choose in big matters, not merely in
Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman knows that many schools behave in that way, even if they do not adopt that name. A school in my constituency is exactly as he describes. I do not agree with it, but I support its right to make the choice that it has made. Indeed, I had to fight the Government to prevent it from being closed down. That was because the Government did not like the progressive form of education that it was offering. The hon. Gentleman therefore cannot teach me anything on that issue.
Simon Hughes: I plead with the right hon. Gentleman to be careful, as he has slipped occasionally into criticising those who support the new clauses. The new clause proposes only limited admission control; it has nothing to do with any argument about the right to found schools of any faith. No hon. Member has argued that there should not be a right to found faith schools. There may be a debate about that, but it has not taken place today, and it is not part of the case being set out by the proponents of the new clauses.
Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman kindly brings us back to the key point in the debatethat choice should not be partial. It is not for him to say, "We will allow you choice, but only within the parameters that we consider decent."
Those who oppose the new clause are saying something different. We are saying that the glory of a tolerant society is that individuals can make choices that are extraordinary and huge. They can choose about big things that really matter, and which make a difference.
When I stood up for Summerhill school in my constituency, I was able to say to the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who is now Secretary of State for the Home Department, that although I did not like the school, that I would not send a child of mine to it and that I did not like the way it ran its education, I was willing to fight to the death for its right to teach in the way that it did. I was also willing to fight for its right to exclude people who wanted to choose a different kind of education.
Why should that choice be available only to those rich enough to pay for it? That is grossly unfair. Does the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey want the proposals to be extended to those who pay for their education? If not, his position is very peculiar. It is that only the poor shall be forced to go to schools with the mix proposed in the new clause, and that the rich will be excluded from that requirement.
It is interesting that the party with the most liberal name should have become the party with the least liberal policies. Liberal Democrat Members think it is wicked to consider abortion wrong, and they now think it wicked to suggest that 100 per cent. of pupils at a faith school should be of one faith.
Liberal Democrat Members of course understand the argument about choice presented by the right hon. Gentleman. However, is not his a rather short-sighted and partial view of choice? Let us assume that a new faith school has been built in a town in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, and that it has just gone to faith status. Let us assume, too, that a child who went through the primary system with his friends now wants to go on to the new school, which is only 30 yards down the road from where he lives. In my scenario, the school is of high quality, but the child is prevented from going to the school that he prefers, with his friends, because that school will not take any pupils who do not belong to the faith that it represents. What would the right hon. Gentleman say to that child and his parents when they came to see him at his constituency advice centre?
Mr. Gummer: First, I have had to help a number of my constituents with regard to choice of schools. In my area, it is often true that not everyone is able to go to the school of first choice. Sometimes, I have to tell Roman Catholic children who cannot go to the Roman Catholic school that there is not enough space. The new clause, therefore, will not resolve that problem.
Secondly, I find it difficult to believe that propinquity is so important that it overshadows people's right to decide the nature of the school that they want to run. I do not understand why the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) does not accept that it is right for people to be able to make such choices. The choices that are made by people might upset the hon. Gentleman, or me. For example, some schools in my constituency do not, in my view, honour the faith status with which they were endowed. They have become so inclusive that it is difficult to tell the difference between them and schools with no faith base. I am sorry about that, but that is a decision for those schools to make. I have to accept that, if I want the right to make choices as I want, others must be able to do the same.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for finally giving way to the pressure to interrupt me, because I want to tell him that the danger to tolerance comes when those who would be tolerant are asked to accept something that they themselves do not like and do not want. We are in danger of becoming a society that is tolerant of everything that we accept but that is unwilling to be tolerant of things that are inimical to us.
Mrs. Mahon: I speak in support of the new clause introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) because I want to put children and their education for the future at the centre of our lives. The most important thing we can do is to help them to live together in understandingnot segregated and attending different schools. We shall then have a more cohesive and decent society.
I am the child of humanist, socialist parents. I went to a Church primary school because it was the only school in the village, so I had early experience of how it feels to be treated differently in schoolbecause my parents were different. For many, many years I was quite intolerant of Church schools.
I then went through another phase. Like the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), I have found that I changed my mind as I went through life. However, during the past 10 or 15 years, I have turned back to my other views.
Like the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, I want a level playing field, but perhaps mine would be different: I want all our schools to be secular. Newfoundland has just got rid of its Church schools. That is a good thing and will enhance integration. I realise that that course is not possible for us, but my right hon. Friend's proposals will help us to progress to greater integration.
I challenge the notion that religion is a precondition for morality. It is not. A child brought up without religion can be a moral human being who knows the difference between right and wrong. We must challenge the notion that religion and morality are necessarily the same.
My experience of life shows me that many agnostics, atheists and humanists are often more tolerant than religious people. Many of my non-believer friends do not believe in capital punishment and do not want to drop bombs on civilians. However, I have many friends who are Christian or Muslim or from other faiths who hold the opposite view. We should not assume that just because people are religious they are superior to us. If we extend the number of faith schools, we are making the assumption that their religion makes them superior.
I am from Halifax. I went through the whole saga of the Ridings school. Anyone who wants to study selection should go to Halifax. At the top of the pyramid are two grammar schools which select. Then there are two opted-out Church schools which also select. We are left with two secondary modern schools and the Ridings school. That is how selection works.