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Labour fails to show at all-party meeting

Labour frontbencher Peter Kilfoyle found himself torn this week between commitments to local and central government.

But faced with the choice of summing up for his party nationally at the second reading of the Education Bill or speaking to the country's education directors there was no contest. He pulled out of the Standing Conference of Chief Education Officers' meeting in Coventry - and sent no replacement.

So a gleeful Robin Squire, the junior education minister, and Graham Tope, the Liberal Democrat peer, attended the meeting which was to have been addressed by MPs from the three main parties.

They cheerfully paraded their local authority credentials: Mr Squire had been past leader of the London borough of Sutton; Lord Tope is its present leader.

"I have been much heartened by your willingness to co-operate with us in the implementation even of controversial reform," said Mr Squire.

"I am heartened to know that your relationship with my department has grown warmer over the last few years. I know that we can do business together successfully."

All this from a Government which just a few years ago made it very clear that there was no place for local authorities in the future.

For Lord Tope the relationship between ministers and local government is not much improved: "The words are warmer, but the present Government's attitude to local government has not really changed."

The CEOs were left to interpret for themselves the no-show policy at their meeting and the terse letter from David Blunkett, the shadow education spokesman.

Commitments like winding up debate in a second reading could not be broken, he told them. Agreements to speak to chief education officers apparently were.

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