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Bills face stormy passage

DFEE under pressure to push through legislation on nursery vouchers and opting out.

Ministers are expecting a tough battle to pilot two controversial education Bills through a House where nervous MPs have set their sights on the next election and the Government has a working majority of only five.

In the hope of seizing the initiative on education, the Government plans to introduce legislation in the last full parliamentary session to provide nursery vouchers for parents of four-year-olds and to make opting out more attractive.

The party's business managers aim to get both Bills started before Christmas and, because they will be back-to-back, one will begin in the Commons and the other in the Lords.

The nursery voucher Bill is tentatively down to start in the Commons. However, there is concern within Government that the grant-maintained schools Bill might need to be switched to the Commons to avoid an initial mauling in the Lords.

Clauses are now being drafted to allow GM schools to borrow money against their assets. Other measures await the outcome of the rapid consultation being carried out by the Department for Education and Employment on options that would create a fast track to GM status for church schools.

Conservative party strategists accept there is little prospect of any substantial increase in the numbers of GM schools before the election - not least because taking all voluntary-aided schools out of council control would cost about Pounds 163 million in the first year.

However, the Prime Minister has staked his personal credibility on reviving interest in the sector and senior Conservative MPs believe the Bill can be used to embarrass the Opposition in the key months ahead.

Tony Blair, Labour's leader, sends his son to a Catholic GM school and Tory MPs are keen to exploit the contradictions in the party's policy over the ending of GM status and the creation of foundation schools.

However, the churches have privately expressed opposition to their schools being singled out in order to increase the size of the GM sector. This is likely to test the Government's resolve in introducing a Bill to face the wrath of the Bishops in the Lords.

Within sections of the Catholic education service there is a view that the Government should have the confidence to legislate to make all secondary schools grant-maintained, and provide a clause that would allow governors to opt to stay with the local authority within a given time limit.

The DFEE will be under tremendous pressure if ministers are to achieve their ambition of getting the two Bills on to the statute book by the summer.

Legislation is not needed for the pilot nursery voucher scheme, but has to be in place by April 1997 when the scheme goes national. The GM legislation has to be completed in time for schools to take advantage of it next September.

Labour is hoping to galvanise a wider coalition against nursery vouchers - one Tory backbencher, Iain Mills, MP for Meriden, is calling for the scheme to be discretionary.

The more serious problem, however, is likely to be with the GM schools Bill. The Anglican and Roman Catholic churches have been muted in their public response to the proposals. However, in a meeting with Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, David Young, the Bishop of Ripon and chairman of the General Synod's board of education, and Bishop David Konstant, head of the Catholic schools service, left ministers in no doubt about their hostility to the Government's proposals.

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