Tory hurdles fail to unseat Bill

13th June 1997 at 01:00
A raft of amendments wrung few concessions from Labour for legislation to abolish the Assisted Places Scheme. Frances Rafferty reports

The problem with hitting the ground running is that it can sometimes cause a stumble, the Government discovered this week during the passage of the Education (Schools) Bill.

The Bill will abolish the Assisted Places Scheme - subsidies on private school fees for low-income families - and use the money to cut class sizes. The plan had been to whizz through the committee stage of the Bill, on the floor of the House, followed by a swift third reading before dispatching it to the House of Lords.

But the Conservative opposition decided not to play ball, and used the time-honoured tactic of filibustering until the ministers were forced put up their hands in the early hours of Friday morning.

When the Bill returned five days later, it gained a Government majority of 252, but with one concession. Stephen Byers, minister for school standards, said children aged 10 with assisted places would be able to retain them.

The Bill will allow secondary children to finish their assisted place; primary-aged children will lose funding after age 11.

Despite Eric Forth and Gillian Shephard - the main hitters for the Tories on education - having other things on their minds (namely the ultimately doomed leadership bid of right-winger Peter Lilley), the Opposition was well organised.

Their friends in the independent sector had done some homework for them and 34 amendments and six new clauses were tabled, with 28 amendments and four new clauses taken (although none got through).

Mr Forth, former education minister, said the Government was arrogant. He said: "This is a controversial Bill that will affect the lives of many young people." It needed detailed debate on many aspects.

Opposition MPs were concerned about children at prep schools that finish at age 13. The minister said there was room for discretion on a case-by-case basis.

Another amendment covered the right of the siblings of children with assisted places. Cheryl Gillan, a former Tory junior minister, said: "Mrs Penny Brayley is a single parent with two daughters, aged 12 and 15, at Edgehill college in Devon. There has been a massive improvement in their academic performance since they took up their assisted places.

"Mrs Brayley has also a 10-year-old son, called Benjamin I Under the Bill, there will be no possibility of Benjamin joining his sisters. I hope the minister will think about Benjamin as this Bill is rammed through the House in a quite undemocratic way."

She was also concerned that many children having to transfer to state secondary schools would be denied learning Latin, Greek and the classics, and would no longer be able to play cricket, lacrosse, rugby fives, golf or rowing. Mike Atherton, England's cricket captain, she pointed out, held an assisted place.

The Tories claimed dissapointment with the Government's performance as it sat largely in silence during the filibuster.

Tim Loughton, MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, had a theory: "If a few more (Government members) had put down their cr me de menthe frapees and pork scratchings in the bar, and bothered to come down to the Chamber, perhaps we might have had a proper debate."

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