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Assisted Places At Independent Schools

Volume 982: debated on Wednesday 2 April 1980

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Lords amendment: No. 15, in page 18, line 28, leave out "it" and insert "the scheme"

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

I think that the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) will have difficulty on this one, even with the time that we detained the Committee on this matter. However, I must not take that for granted. At any rate, I do not think this matter will worry the Secretary of State.

This is a question of a floating "it". There is an "it" which does not mean anything. No one knows how and why this "it" continued until it came back to us tonight. It is a lesson to us all. I know how carefully the Opposition have looked through every jot and tittle of the Bill. I came away from the Committee stage believing that nothing had been missed by the eagle eye of the Opposition. The Bill went to the other place and the Lords noticed this floating "it"—a lonely, unbalanced and meaningless word. Our desire is to settle the matter now or the word will float for all time like something in outer space. I ask all hon. Members of compassion on both sides to agree that we should sink this "it" and replace it with "the scheme" so that we may bring meaning to this part of the Bill. If we do not, the clause will be the subject of terrible textual analysis and would become a question in O-level and A-level examinations in future years.

11.15 pm

I thought that when the Under-Secretary spoke of a floating "it" in orbit he was committing a grave disloyalty by referring to the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph). The matter is to be taken up with our resident classics scholar on the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), since we shall be forced to call him to account on how he could possibly have missed this floating "it" and the offensive syntax that thereupon arises.

Nevertheless, we note that subsection (8) of the infamous assisted places scheme clause refers to the requirement of the Secretary of State
"to consult such bodies as appear to him to be appropriate".
Both Under-Secretaries will recall with clarity and pride the sessions of debate and rigorous analysis which we employed in Committee in our discussions on clause 17.

We made the point then that the requirement in the Bill that the Secretary of State shall
"consult such bodies as appear to him to be appropriate"
provided an inadequate safeguard for those local education authorities whose whole planning of secondary school admission and, indeed, planning of primary school curricula could be detrimentally affected by the introduction of an assisted places scheme in their areas.

Order. "It" is only a small word, and I do not think that that entitles the hon. Gentleman to cover the whole of clause 17.

I would not dare to attempt that, not even at this time of night, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am expressing these views precisely in relation to subsection (8), and since the"it"is, as the Under-Secretary said, a matter of orbital, not to say interplanetary, significance, it seems appropriate to consider the implications of the subsection, which imposes on the Secretary of State a very loose duty to undertake certain consultations.

The case I am putting is in order—I hope—because of the reference in Lords amendment No. 15 to the substance of the subsection. I hope that that is the case, because the last thing I want to do as we move towards Easter, of all times, is to offend the Chair.

In Committee we expressed grave reservations about the looseness of the obligation. Similar reservations were expressed by the Society of Education Officers, by the local education authorities and by other bodies and organisations concerned about the possibility, which we consider to be strong and definite, of assisted places scheme pupils being creamed out of the maintained schools system.

We are bound to wonder, too, since the subsection refers directly to consultations, whether the bodies that the Secretary of State would consider it "appropriate" to consult would include the National Children's Bureau. Mrs. Shirley Williams, when she was Secretary of State, initiated a survey and in the light of that the bureau came to certain conclusions which were provided in draft form to the Secretary of State as long ago as November. Its findings had a direct reference to the ability of secondary schools in the maintained sector to cater for the needs of children of above-average ability. The publication, even in a digest form, of those findings would have been of considerable use to us in our deliberations and to bodies of opinion outside Parliament wishing to form a perspective of the assisted places scheme. I hope that after further deliberation the Secretary of State will deem it appropriate to consult the National Children's Bureau or similar research bodies.

Never has the word "it" been stretched as it has this evening.

Consultation is taking place on the assisted places scheme with local education authorities and schools. The National Children's Bureau—or the NCB—should not be confused with the National Coal Board. I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will consult the bureau. The word "it" is to come out and for all time the words "the scheme" will take its place.

Question put and agreed to.