Labour backbenchers warn of white paper revolt

4th November 2005 at 00:00
The white paper will be the flashpoint that leads to the Government's first House of Commons defeat unless major changes are made, Labour backbenchers have warned.

A coalition of interests in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is uniting against last week's paper and its proposed structural change in education with new independent state schools and an end to local authorities' role as providers.

The Government's increasing vulnerability was highlighted this week when its majority was cut to just one as the terrorism bill went through its Commons committee stage. As backbenchers began to plot tactics over the white paper, the Commons education and skills select committee announced it was launching a formal inquiry into the white paper.

The news came as an influential group of educationists castigated the Government for repeatedly introducing policies which were not properly evaluated, arguing that "short-term political perspectives" were driving policy-making.

In a report on 14-19 reform, the Nuffield Review, a committee of 25 led by Professor Richard Pring of Oxford university, said: "The system as a whole continues to be subject to a plethora of piecemeal policy initiatives that are not fully evaluated before they are superseded. Policy lacks an historical perspective because it is guided by short-term political objectives."

The schools' white paper has attracted similar criticism. It has brought together Labour leftwingers, angered at what they see as a further dismantling of the welfare state, with MPs lobbying on behalf of local government and those angry because they believe another major policy has been foisted on them without proper consultation.

It is the last category that may pose the most danger. After January 2004, when the Government came within five votes of defeat in the Commons over university tuition fees, MPs were told that in future ministers would do the groundwork and explain policy in advance. "That has not happened with this white paper," said one backbencher. "We are in the same position and the unhappiness is widespread.

"The difficulty here is there doesn't seem to be anyone committed to these structural changes outside the offices of the Prime Minister and Lord Adonis."

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, appeared in front of the select committee this week and played down plans to allow good schools to expand.

The select committee expects to report on the white paper early next year.

Barry Sheerman, its chair, said the white paper had many good points but was not firm enough in ensuring fair admissions. But he believed many backbench critics had not even read it. "It is the indignation of the ignorant," he said.

Ms Kelly will have another chance to win them over at a PLP meeting on Monday. Two days later leftwing Campaign Group MPs are expected to give the paper a rough ride at a meeting where Fiona Millar, a critic of the Government's policy of choice in education and the partner of Alastair Campbell who infamously dismissed comprehensives as "bog standard", has been invited to speak. Ian Gibson, the MP chairing the meeting, put down an early-day motion this week, expressing grave reservations about the white paper.

"There are a lot of people who would not normally vote against the Government who are worried about this," he said.

The Conservatives say they support much of the white paper, but may change their minds if ministers make changes in a bid to prevent a revolt in their own party.

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