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Battling baroness to play the union card

IT will fall to former education minister Baroness Blatch to hold the Government to account when the Education Bill begins its passage through the House of Lords next week.

The Conservative education spokeswoman in the Lords will be out to prove she has lost none of her zest for the political battle in the five years since she last sat on the government front bench.

She and colleagues in the Lords are planning to put down amendments on behalf of teaching unions and other groups, even if they do not support them, in an effort to force ministers to explain their intentions.

Her eyes light up at the mention of the battle ahead. "I am really looking forward to it," she said.

"We have to expose the gap between the Government's rhetoric of freedom for schools and teachers and the reality that this Bill will bring more bureaucracy.

"It will centralise even more power in the hands of the Secretary of State. He or she will have the power to change every piece of existing education legislation. That is extremely dangerous.

"Schools will have to bid for autonomy and the Government will have to create an army of bureaucrats and an army of assessors to make decisions."

As well as attempting to limit these powers, the Conservatives will oppose other proposals in the Bill.

These include the takeover of funding for school sixth forms by the Learning and Skills Council and a limit on the frequency of ballots to abolish grammar schools.

Lady Blatch will also seek guarantees that the Government will provide extra funds to implement the measures in the Bill.

In her view, the Government is guilty of undermining democracy by failing to allow enough time to debate the Bill properly in the Commons.

But she is fair-minded enough to recall that it is not only Labour governments that have pushed Bills through without proper scrutiny.

She remembers being shocked that the 1988 Education Reform Act arrived in the Lords with only a quarter of its clauses scrutinised.

Lady Blatch will be a formidable opponent for Baroness Ashton, her Labour counterpart. While Lady Blatch has experience in both opposing and piloting legislation through the Lords, this is the minister's first Bill as a front-bench spokeswoman.

Lady Blatch, recently recovered from pancreatitis, professes respect for Lady Ashton.

"She works hard and will genuinely listen to the arguments. I have every hope she will be the same during this Bill."

Lady Blatch became an icon last year when she successfully led the Lords in revolt against Government plans to repeal Section 28 - the law which bans the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities.

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