Labour rebels target trusts

18th November 2005 at 00:00
PM must win over restive backbenchers who see his reforms as a return to Tory opting out. William Stewart reports.

It is a measure of the government's fears over its school reform proposals that the education speech Tony Blair is due to make today will be his second in less than a month.

The Prime Minister, speaking at a regional conference in the north-east of England, will yet again set out the case for choice and parent power.

Under ordinary circumstances such repetition might seem excessive, even for a subject so close to his heart. But these are extraordinary times. After the first Commons defeat of Mr Blair's premiership at the hands of 49 Labour backbenchers over anti-terrorism legislation, the predictions are that rebel numbers could reach 100 when it comes to next year's education Bill.

Mr Blair is reportedly holding out against concessions that Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary, and her team are prepared to make, in the same way that he overruled Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, over the terrorism Bill.

So could the Prime Minister be heading for another glorious defeat? Ms Kelly will be hoping not. Yesterday she was due to tell a conference of new heads that critics had deliberately misunderstood the plans by claiming new independent trust schools would amount to the return of grant-maintained schools.

"They are wrong," she was expected to say. "Nobody here wants to create fortresses that operate quite independently and cast a dark shadow over the rest of the landscape.

"We want to see trust schools that operate on fair funding and fair admissions, that work with other schools, and that are an integral part of their local community."

The prospect of most schools becoming their own admissions authorities has been identified by senior backbenchers as the biggest source of unrest.

Education ministers are understood to be prepared to give way on this point through extra measures to counteract backdoor selection.

Evidence of the potential for the issue to split the Cabinet comes in a letter, seen by The TES, from John Prescott, written in the last month. In it the Deputy Prime Minister outlines to the Local Government Association the concessions that he has won in the white paper.

But he adds that he would prefer it if the admissions code were statutorily enforced.

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said Mr Prescott was right to highlight the issue. Unless the approach was radically altered, the Lib Dems would be unlikely to back the plans.

But admissions is not the only sticking-point for Labour backbenchers, who are also worried about the change in role for local authorities and creeping privatisation.

David Anderson is one of them. Mr Anderson, the MP for Blaydon, Tyneside, is no battle-hardened member of the awkward squad but one of this year's new intake, who has yet to vote against the Government.

He said that he cannot support the plans, which, he believes, are turning to the private sector for solutions without justification.

He is unmoved by ministers' argument that the plans were, unlike the anti-terrorism bill, contained in Labour's manifesto and therefore MPs are obliged to vote for them.

"Reading between the lines you could argue it was in the manifesto," he said. "But if people had said to us, 'this is what you will get,' we would not have agreed, I am convinced of that."

Government arguments that the white paper has been misrepresented in the media may strike some as a little rich. It was the desire to present the proposals as a radical break from the existing state system during briefings in the run-up to its publication that triggered much of the internal Labour opposition.

In truth, schools will not be compelled to acquire trust status and many local authorities are already commissioners rather than providers of services.

Backing from the Conservative Party for the reforms will depend on the results of next month's Tory leadership contest. David Cameron, the Conservative shadow education secretary, has indicated he supports much of the white paper. But his rival, David Davis, has promised to do all he can to hasten Mr Blair's end.

If ministers fail to deliver the genuine consultation they have promised over the coming weeks, then some Labour backbenchers may well do the same.

* william.stewart@tes.co.uk

Give us a break 23

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