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Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations

Volume 98: debated on Wednesday 4 June 1986

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10.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Robert Dunn)

I beg to move,

That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1986, which were laid before this House on 21st May, be approved.

Hon. Members may remember that last year we came to the conclusion that the original regulations had become rather cumbersome and a somewhat daunting bundle. For the convenience of all concerned, we introduced a single set of consolidated regulations.

As hon. Members will have noted, there has been little need this year for any substantive amendment to the consolidated regulations of 1985. The amendment regulations before the House are designed mainly to assist the smooth running of the scheme, although very little has appeared to need changing. As in previous years, provision is also made for the appropriate revaluation of parental income scales.

To provide some context for this debate on the amendment of the regulations, I should like to speak briefly about the nature of the assisted places scheme as it operates under the present arrangements.

More than 21,000 children are receiving assistance under the assisted places scheme at 226 of the best independent schools in this country. High academic standards are a prerequisite of schools' participation in the scheme.

Of those now receiving assistance with their fees, over 47 per cent. come from families whose gross combined income per year is less than £7,300. The scale for determining the amount of fee remission is intentionally a tough one and only those families with incomes below £6,376 in the current year qualify for completely free places. Even so, for the school year 1985–86 over 39 per cent. of the assisted pupils qualified for full remission of fees. With this evidence before me, I stand ready to refute any claim that the assisted places scheme operates to subsidise the rich. Nor do I accept that it is a means of supporting children, albeit from low-income families, who would have attended independent schools even if the assisted places scheme did not exist. The principal regulations require all participating schools to ensure that at least 60 per cent. of their assisted pupils come from the maintained sector.

While my hon. Friend is on the topic of participating schools, may I ask whether he is aware that there is considerable concern about the qualifications for schools that are allowed to participate? May I instance——

Order. The hon. Gentleman had better not. He should address himself to what is in the regulations rather than to the merits of the scheme itself.

I think that I know what my hon. Friend is getting at. I shall attend to it in due course.

Only four of the participating schools have had difficulty in attracting sufficient suitably qualified applicants from state schools.

It is our view that the scheme is operating very successfully, and as evidence and support of that contention I would point to the consistently low-income profiles of the families involved, the successful recruitment of pupils from the maintained sector and the redistribution of quotas away from poor recruiter schools towards successful ones. For the Government, the participating schools, the pupils and the parents who benefit, and the general public, the assisted places scheme is a resounding success.

I refer to the text of the draft regulations. Regulations 1 and 2 are concerned only with nomenclature, and I shall not trouble hon. Members with comment on them. Regulation 3 does two things. It inserts a missing preposition in regulation 21 of the principal regulations. More notably, it increases the period allowed to the Secretary of State to respond to requests from the participating schools for increases in their fees. At present the schools must give the respective Secretaries of State one month's written notice of intended fee increases. The Secretary of State concerned then has only seven days in which to query the increase. We have found that administratively that has proved difficult, and we now propose an extension from seven to 14 days.

Regulation 4 is put forward to close a legal loophole that was brought to our attention by a number of the participating schools. The principal regulations are designed essentially to treat the assisted placeholder's current family as a family unit for the purposes of assessing income annd therefore the appropriate level of fee remission in individual cases. However, the principal regulations do not at present cover circumstances whereby an unmarried mother subsequently marries a man who is not the father of her child.

My hon. Friend has touched on a matter that is of concern in the context of the recent Treasury Green Paper on reform of personal taxation, which is not wholly irrelevant, in that it seeks to address the problem of it being an advantage for people to remain unmarried. It may have occurred to my hon. Friend that under the assisted places regulations as drafted there is a large incentive to someone contemplating taking up an assisted place similarly to remain unmarried.

I understand my hon. Friend's point. Through the change in the regulations, we have tried to deal with the anomaly whereby an unmarried mother with a child, who then marries a millionaire could find that the income of the millionaire was not taken into account for the assessment of fee remission. Regulation 4 amends this anomaly and allows that husband's income to be taken into account in determining eligibility and level of assistance under the scheme. I am sure that the House accepts that this is sensible, placing all family units on the same footing.

Regulation 4(2) is also an addition to the definition of "parent" for the purposes of the scheme and takes account of the new legal definition of "custodian" introduced under those sections of the Children Act 1975 which were implemented earlier this year. The principal APS regulations are being amended so that children who are the subject of custodianship orders and their legal custodians are placed on exactly the same footing as adopted children and their adoptive parents.

Regulation 5 covers the rules for assessing income. Any allowance paid by a local authority to an assisted pupil's custodian will be ignored for APS purposes. Regulation 5 also updates the relevant income tax legislation in the principal regulations.

Regulation 6 provides for the updating of the income scale used for assessing the amount of parents' contributions towards the fees — the threshold below which parents pay nothing towards fees being raised from £6,376 to £6,806.

I am confident that the changes that I have just described will allow the continuing smooth running of the assisted places scheme. Indeed, they can only enhance what is already highly successful and popular.

10.22 pm

I am sure that the House is well aware that the Opposition strongly object to the assisted places scheme. It is a clear symbol of the divisive and destructive approach that we have seen from this Government since 1979 in their policies on education and their attitude to state education. When almost everything in state education was going wrong because of a lack of resources and a lack of Government interest, they seemed to do everything they could to nurture their assisted places scheme. No doubt it is because they believe that education should be elitist and they want to use it to confer privilege on a few rather than to offer higher educational standards to all the children of Britain. There is no need for me to go over again our opposition to the assisted places scheme.

May I anticipate the hon. Gentleman's point of order? I hope that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) will now address himself to the document before the House.

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I draw your attention to the fact that in introducing the regulations the Minister made a general comment about them. Perhaps I may just complete one or two general remarks, which might speed up our proceedings. There is very little support in Britain for the assisted places scheme. People want the privilege of good education for all our children and not for a select few.

I shall now turn to the regulations. It is rather interesting to note that the first time round the Government got the regulations wrong. It might have been of interest to us if the Minister had explained why he got them wrong the first time and had to come back with a second set. I put that question before Government Members become too critical. He might also have explained to us why he picked an increase of virtually 7 per cent. in the allowances for income. I can see that there is some relationship to average earnings, but I suggest that perhaps the income increases do not take into account people on very low incomes. The Minister might like to say something about that.

I notice that the new Secretary of State wants more time to think about decisions in education, because he is asking for 14 days rather than seven. I had hoped that he would move in the opposite direction and speed up the Department's consideration, especially of things like local authority proposals for the reorganisation of schools. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the considerable backlog of decisions there, and it would be better if the Government came forward with proposals to reduce the time that it takes to reach ministerial decisions rather than to increase that time.

If the hon. Gentleman will look at them, he will find that there is a regulation, to which the Minister referred, which suggests that the Government should have 14 rather than seven days in which to respond. Mine seems a perfectly valid point, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to continue to remark from a sedentary position and keep the House here longer, he is welcome to do so.

The Minister mentioned parents and guardians, the regulations in respect of which, if we are to have an assisted places scheme at all, represent a sensible tidying up. Will the Minister answer a question that we asked the last time around when we considered the regulations, but which he did not answer? What evidence does he have about the rate of pay for teachers in the independent sector? There is some evidence to suggest that the rate of pay——

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now straying from the draft regulations.

With the greatest of respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, one of the regulations mentions the fact that the Government want to extend the time which they have to consider requests from schools involved in the scheme to put up their fees. Whether an increase in fees is legitimate depends on rates of pay and other matters. If the Government——

Order. If we start a debate on levels of teachers' remuneration now, we are likely to be here for a long time. We ought to stick to what is in the draft regulations.

Perhaps I may refer you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the part of the regulations which would increase the amount of time from seven to 14 days——

Order. There is nothing in the draft regulations about teachers' pay and we must not get involved in a debate on that topic. If the hon. Gentleman returns to that matter, I shall have to rule him out of order.

I accept that I must not debate teachers' pay, but may I suggest that it would be helpful if the Government could give us the information for which I have asked? They ought to have such information to make decisions about whether it is reasonable to increase fees. When we asked the Minister for this information previously, he said that he had none about the level of remuneration of teachers in independent schools. I am now pressing him to produce that information.

When taking account of a request to increase fees, the Government also take account of the pupil:teacher ratio in assisted places schools and the provision of books and materials

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask this with the greatest possible respect to you. Is there one rule for Back Benchers and another for Front Bench spokesmen? The hon. Gentleman has not directed any of his remarks to the draft regulations.

It is not in order for the hon. Member to criticise the Chair, directly or indirectly, but there is nevertheless substance in his complaint. The merits of the assisted places scheme have been debated and decided upon by the House. We are not debating them tonight. We must confine the debate to what is in the draft regulations. I hope that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish will do that.

I am trying to do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am also trying to tell the Government that, if they are considering taking more time to examine requests for increases in fees, they should take account of the difference in standards as between the privilege that the Government are conferring on a few children in assisted places and the generality. It would be rather better if they insisted that public expenditure on assisted places was exactly the same as public expenditure on places——

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When I tried to intervene earlier you ruled me out of order. Although I do not seek in any way to challenge that, I must protest at the way in which the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is using the debate as an excuse to attack the whole concept of the assisted places scheme. That seems to be an abuse of the procedure of the House. I ask you to deal with him as firmly as you dealt with me.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I remind you that the Minister spent much of his speech extolling the virtues of the assisted places scheme without any mention of the draft regulations and you allowed him to carry on?

These are difficult matters in which the Chair must use some judgment. The Minister strayed beyond the narrow terms of the regulations. I was anxious at the time about that and I reproached the hon. Gentleman in an attempt to keep the debate in line with the regulations which are before the House. I hope that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) will now, having had a fair run, and having made a number of points, confine himself to the regulations.

I was trying to bring my remarks to a close. If the Minister wants to raise the fact that I am the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments that dealt with the original regulations and the fact that they were ultra vires, I would stress to him that we are concerned with the vires of the order and not its merits. The purpose of this debate is to deal with the merits of the order. Although I cannot find many merits in the order, I was trying to do that as briefly as possible. It seems that some hon. Members want to make a meal out of the order.

As this is the Secretary of State's first occasion to be on the Government Front Bench in his new role, he should get rid of the assisted places scheme as it is one of the divisive parts of Tory party policy. He shold get rid of that as he got rid of Mr. Stuart Sexton, and return to mainstream Tory policy, to things like the Education Act 1944 and R. A. Butler and not continue with the idea of assisted places.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have warned the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on a number of occasions about straying from the subject, but he is still doing that. Will you, in the interests of the general amity of the House —we are all interested in the regulations and that is why we are here tonight—ask the hon. Gentleman to confine his remarks to the regulations?

Order. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I allowed the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish to go on because I thought for one second that he was about to resume his seat. I thought it better to allow him to do that rather than to provoke him into further comment.

I had only one more sentence to say. I wanted to stress that, as objectionable as the Opposition find the assisted places scheme, we do not think that it would be especially useful to divide the House tonight.

10.33 pm

It would be a tragedy if the merits of the regulations were lost because points have been made which are not strictly relevant to the debate, which is, after all, limited in time.

I am pleased to note the way in which the regulations show that the Department is prepared to make those changes that are a necessary consequence on changes elsewhere, and that they seek to provide an adequate definition of the person responsible for the child's education. These factors encourage us to believe that the scheme is being properly supervised and considered.

I want to confine my remarks to the changes that have been made in the income scales for parents and the rates at which they make their contributions to the education of the children. In his introduction my hon. Friend did not make it clear on what basis the changes had been made. As the income levels designated in the regulations will apply in the next education year, when the increase will be considerably above the rate of inflation, there is an element of generosity. However, some of us might think it inadequate. I should like my hon. Friend to confirm that that generosity was the intention of the Department and not something that happened by accident when a figure was, as it were, plucked out of the air.

Although my constituency is in the south of England, the people there have quite low wage rates. The Government should recognise that the levels at which parental contributions are fixed are significant in cities such as Portsmouth, which is akin to many of the industrial cities of the north in its social and economic problems. If my hon. Friend can assure us that it is the intention over a period to change the assessment of parental contributions to benefit parents, that will be welcomed in the less prosperous parts of the country, particularly by parents whose incomes are below average. It is they who make the greatest sacrifice for their children to be educated under the scheme.

10.36 pm

Participating in this debate is akin to dancing barefoot on razor blades. Mr. Deputy Speaker, you very wisely, I thought, told the first two speakers that they could have a short, fair run. I should like your indulgence to pursue a similar course.

We are talking about draft regulations that are intended to extend a scheme that I do not like. I want to say exactly what we find objectionable about the assisted places scheme, and find even more objectionable in view of the draft regulations, which exacerbate the evil.

Order. If the hon. Gentleman will address himself to the merits of the regulations before the House he will be in order. He heard the criticisms that preceded his speech. He will be out of order if he seeks to debate the merits of the assisted places scheme as such. I remind him again that the House debated that scheme and made its decision on it a long time ago. We are now debating amendments to that scheme, and not the scheme itself. The hon. Gentleman should confine himself to the amendments.

I thought that what I had said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, had made it clear that I was talking about the draft regulations which extend what we considered an evil. These draft regulations facilitate the taking of money from the hard-pressed, maintained sector of education, to transfer children to the not necessarily better private sector. I will not buy their hype and call it the independent sector.

The draft regulations comes from a Government Department with responsibility for the public sector of education, yet it slaps its customers in the face by depriving them of their most gifted assets—the children. I do not go along with a system that seeks to do more for assisted places than is absolutely necessary. Therefore, it will come as no surprise to hon. Members to learn that we are against these statutory instruments, which widen the catchment area of eligibility.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will advise us whether, on that basis, he intends to divide the House.

May I tell the hon. Gentleman, who presumably knows little about the procedures of the House, that a Division needs two Tellers. Were I not treading a lonely path, I might well be persuaded to divide the House.

I find it difficult to accept that the statutory instrument widens the catchment area of eligibility for assisted places by raising the earning threshold, not in line with inflation, but by a figure of 7 per cent., which Treasury Ministers frequently condemn as being outrageously high for wage awards. I particularly resent the fact that benefits accrue automatically to children on the scheme, while other poor and equally deserving children have their eligibility to better education cut, and while the actual availability of opportunity is disappearing for them.

The instrument subsidises parental income above the rate of inflation. As it subsidises school fees above the rate of inflation, it is therefore a double subsidy. In the maintained sector there is a double penalty: a falling education budget, whatever the Minister tells us, and parents steadily picking up even greater portions of school expenditure to help the state system. The latest HMI report writes of parents paying for basics, such as rewiring the school hall.

This is a fair opportunity to welcome the Secretary of State to his new office. All hon. Members who have the wellbeing of children at heart wish the new Secretary of State well in a difficult task. There is about the debate an air of déjà vu or, perhaps déjà entendu, if the Minister's hearing aid is in working order. There is an element of confusion, in that the original order was withdrawn and we now have a new one because the clerk was unable to number the paragraphs of the original one correctly. It shows that good schooling costs money. It is right for the Secretary of State to realise that good education does not come cheap, as his predecessor found out with the training and vocational education initiative.

We oppose the draft regulations because they widen the inequality among children, undermine the state sector and give irrational ammunition to those who wish to denigrate comprehensive education. It is based on the utterly false premise that the private sector per se deserves to he better financed than the maintained sector.

I shall not divide the House because, despite this statutory instrument, when we have an opportunity we shall phase out the scheme, for the benefit of all children, rather than for those of the suppressed middle class who already get a good deal from education and who would, if they stayed in the maintained sector, greatly contribute to its excellence.

Order. Is the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) giving way?

10.43 pm

This is the third occasion on which I have taken part in the debate. [Interruption.] Given the opportunity, I should like to do so, but last time I was ruled out of order for straying from the path on which we had been set. This is an annual opportunity for Opposition Members to show their prejudice against an excellent scheme. The regulations as amended should be accepted by the House, and I am delighted to hear that Opposition Members will not divide the House tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1986, which were laid before this House on 21st May, be approved.