Where peers come into their own

18th April 1997 at 01:00
The spin doctors may say education is the priority, but events may prove otherwise, discover TES writers.

Gillian Shephard is busily gladhanding the natives in Scotland, Yorkshire, and anywhere the odd vote might be gleaned from her beaming smile. Her sidekick Eric Forth has taken his understated ties and bracelets to the new Kent constituency he is nursing.

Normally not a day goes by without some authoritarian pronouncement from Sanctuary Buildings. How on earth are the nation's schools - cited with monotonous regularity as the election campaign's most vital issue - to survive for a whole month without the usual exhortations? Has the great ship of state been transformed from the Bounty to the Marie Celeste, and does anyone care?

The answer appears to be yes and no. For the battalions of civil servants who actually run the show, it is largely business as usual. "From where I'm sitting I can see all seven floors and I can see lots of people working hard," a Sanctuary Buildings source assures The TES.

Ministers, however, are rather thinner on the ground. There were rare sightings of Mrs Shephard and Mr Forth last week. But otherwise, the man in charge when the balloon goes up (small balloons at any rate) is junior minister Lord Henley, a man who proves that it can be quite handy to have the odd peer in Government. They don't have to go out canvassing every five years, you see.

Rules of engagement laid down by permanent secretary to the Cabinet Sir Robin Butler forbid ministries and their quangoes from any work or utterance which might in any way be construed as political.

Thus civil servants at the DFEE are getting on with everyday work, but any development of policy ordered by the current Government has been carefully filed in the pending tray. This even covers much of the Education Act, even though the only bits of it which survived were agreed by both the Government and the Opposition.

Civil servants can work on the Orders which would bring the new laws into use, but nothing can happen until the Secretary of State for Education - whatever his or her identity - turns up for work on May 2. All except the Assisted Places Scheme extension, that is, which has already arrived.

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