Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

Courageous Secretary of State for Education in the Thatcher government
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The Independent Online

Departmental ministers are not often given the praise they deserve when the record of a government is under consideration. Mark Carlisle was the largely unsung Secretary of State for Education who, between 1979 and 1981, put three major pieces of legislation on to the statute book, one of them distinctly Thatcherite, while resisting as best he could the pressures to reduce educational expenditure.

His appointment as Shadow Secretary of State in November 1978 had been something of a surprise, as he was known mainly for his interest in penal reform and had won his spurs as a minister at the Home Office in the Heath government. Nevertheless it was a popular appointment and he was expected to do well. He found his period in the department stressful and there were clear signs that battling with his civil servants on the one hand, and with the Treasury on the other, was getting him down.

Nor was he altogether at ease with Margaret Thatcher, a prime minister who had strong views on education and a very different style from his own. His disappearance from office was neither altogether unexpected nor perhaps altogether unwelcome, but the setback to his political career was final and it was no great surprise when he accepted a peerage in 1987.

Mark Carlisle was the son of a Manchester cotton merchant and he was born in Montevideo. He was educated at Radley and, after National Service in the Education Corps, 1948-50, studied Law at Manchester University, where he obtained his LLB. He was called to the Bar at Gray's Inn in 1953 and practised on the Northern Circuit. He had a good mind and was a successful criminal barrister, although some of his colleagues were to characterise him as "top of the second rank". That is less than fair, although he did not take silk until 1971.

His interest in politics dated to his student days when he served first as chairman of the university Conservatives and then as chairman of the Federation of University Conservative Associations, 1953-54. Subsequently he became chairman of the north-western Young Conservatives in 1957, and he was clearly destined to become the classic combination of parliamentarian and lawyer, a good and fluent speaker, albeit with a very legal style.

He was chosen to contest St Helens in the 1958 by-election and fought the seat in the subsequent general election. He was then adopted for Runcorn and elected to Parliament in 1964. He held the seat until 1983, but, faced with boundary changes, unsuccessfully sought to be selected for Eddisbury and Tatton. In the 1983 election he fought and won Warrington South, which contained much of his former seat.

Carlisle's major interest lay in penal reform and the resettlement of offenders; he served on the Home Office Advisory Council on penal reform from 1966 until 1970 and was closely associated with Nacro (the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders). He was made an opposition spokesman on home affairs in October 1969 and, when the Heath government took office in June 1970, he became Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office. It was his natural habitat as a minister and he built up a good reputation. He piloted the Criminal Justice Bill through committee and in 1972 was promoted to be Minister of State, with prisons as part of his responsibilities. Essentially an enlightened liberal, he was none the less insistent that discipline be restored in prisons.

Kenneth Clarke, who was the committee whip on the Tote Bill, admired both the skill and flexibility that Carlisle showed when the Bill ran into difficulties in committee:

It was a dog's breakfast of a Bill, inherited from his predecessor, and he was faced with a brilliant critic in Brian Walden. There was no majority on the committee for the Bill and so Carlisle worked with Walden to completely rewrite the Bill in committee and turn it into something workable, acceptable and, more important from a whip's point of view, capable of going through.

Almost universally popular with parliamentary colleagues, Carlisle had already served as secretary of the Conservative Home Affairs Committee from 1965 to 1969, and when the party returned to opposition he was elected to the executive of the 1922 Committee, remaining on it until 1978. In 1976 he was appointed to the Franks Committee on Immigration and, as the sole Tory on the committee, proved helpful to Margaret Thatcher by insisting that a register of immigrants was possible. When Thatcher decided that she wanted a change in her shadow education spokesman, she turned to Carlisle and wrote to the then chairman of the Kent Education Committee, "I am sending Mark Carlisle down to Kent to see how you do things."

He proved a very agreeable guest, and much that he learnt from Kent and other LEAs in the next few months helped shape the 1980 legislation which allowed parents to choose a school outside their own education area, provided them with full information, including exam results, and provided for clear admissions criteria to be published and an appeals system to be set up. Each school was to have its own governing body and parents and teachers were to be elected to serve on it. It is difficult now to remember how revolutionary much of this seemed, but the consequences were far-reaching.

Parental rights of choice were complemented by a corresponding duty placed on local education authorities to comply with parental choice except where it would prejudice the provision of efficient education or the efficient use of resources. While these restrictions could be and were used to hinder what was intended, many authorities got rid of school catchment areas and appeals tribunals often backed the parental case. Carlisle would have liked to make choice more of a reality by modifying the provisions for "free" school transport.

What he had in mind was the fact that only a third of those who required transport to school received help, while another third lived sufficiently far from school to require transport to it. He hoped that local education authorities would devise schemes of their own that would be more fair and he had in mind Kent, where the proposal was to make parents pay for the first two miles of every child's journey, but no more. Principally because the move was seen as a threat to free denominational transport, the Bill went down to defeat in the Lords at the hands of "Rab" Butler and the Duke of Norfolk, and the school transport system remains unreformed to this day.

Only marginally less controversial were the provisions in the bill to create the "Assisted Places" scheme, which allowed some of the poorer members of society to take up places at independent schools. First put forward by the Conservative opposition during the debates on the 1976 Act, it was finalised by Carlisle's political adviser, Stuart Sexton, in April 1979 and Carlisle agreed that Sexton should tell the civil servants when they arrived in the DES that it had his full approval. As a result it found its way into the Bill intact and the only trouble it ran into was in Cabinet where it was thought too expensive. Carlisle came back to tell Sexton that it would either have to wait a year or be halved in size. Sexton cautioned against delay and Carlisle told the Prime Minister that he would halve the numbers involved.

During the next decade and a half, many children benefited from the scheme, but it was regarded by the Labour Party as divisive and was abolished by Tony Blair's government. The scheme was a good example of the partnership between Carlisle and his political adviser, in whose educational expertise he had considerable confidence. He treated the scheme as if it were a brief and took it through the department, Cabinet and Parliament very much as a skilled barrister. He was very effective in doing so.

Unlike his Labour predecessor, Carlisle had the courage in 1981 to give effect to the recommendations of the Warnock Committee and, although some would now think that the integration of children with special needs into mainstream education has gone too far, few doubt that establishing the framework for identifying those needs and providing for them to be statemented was a progressive and highly desirable move. If there was criticism (and there was), it centred on the fact that the new legal framework had to be implemented without the financial backing that was needed.

The earliest of the three major Bills for which Carlisle was responsible got rid of Labour's 1976 Education Act which had prescribed universal comprehensive education, but, while several authorities retained a selective system of education as a result, few took advantage of the restoration of their ability to make use of the independent sector where they required additional places. In part, no doubt, this was because the decline in the school population was uppermost in their mind and much of the decline in education finance, heralded by the Times Educational Supplement as " Cuts, Cuts, Cuts" and savagely criticised by those in local government, obscured the reality that spending per pupil actually rose.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to claim that no damage was done, particularly by the decision to free local authorities from their duty to provide school milk and meals, but Carlisle, fighting a rearguard action against a Treasury pledged to reduce public expenditure, knew that he could not protect every element in his budget. The pressures increased in 1981, with the universities suffering a savage blow in July, and it was clear to most of those in education that the new block-grant arrangements brought in by Michael Heseltine might have adverse effects on educational standards. Carlisle was known to be amongst those resisting the Treasury's demands and it was not surprising that he found himself amongst those sacked when Thatcher rid herself of the "wets" in September 1981 - although report had it that he was an unintended victim of the need to complete the Cabinet jigsaw and accommodate the shift of Sir Keith Joseph from the DTI.

Carlisle took his sacking with a better grace than most and resumed his practice at the Bar. Always unassuming, whenever in Maidstone he could be found taking refreshment at lunch in the Wig and Gown opposite the Assize Courts and there he would take up conversation with Kent councillors as if he were part and parcel of their fraternity.

He was not long without further calls on his talents. He chaired the Parole Review Committee, 1987-88, and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, 1989-2000. He had been appointed a Recorder in 1976 and from 1990 to 1999 served as a Judge of the Courts of Appeal of Jersey and Guernsey.

In a busy and active life, Carlisle found time for golf and convivial company at the Garrick. A man of great warmth and quiet, unassuming, charm, he made friends wherever he went. If he was disappointed that a political career that should have carried him to still greater heights had come to an untimely end, he never allowed it to show or to sour him.

John Barnes

I first met Mark Carlisle at the Bar in the early 1990s, immediately to be struck by his modesty and other human qualities, writes Geoffrey Nice . Later he had me, a known Liberal Democrat, appointed to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board against, and possibly in spite of, the inclinations of the Conservative Home Secretary of the day.

Although chairman of the CICB that sat in boards of three, Mark routinely turned over the chair to his colleagues and took a wing member's position. Sitting in Bath one day, we were seriously split as to the right decision and he was a "winger". Discussion was very vigorous, but never did Mark attempt in any way to add the weight of his chairmanship of the board to resolution of what should have been, and was, a decision forged by discussion of equals, chaired on this occasion by a junior colleague.

I prosecuted him at Maidstone in a murder trial when Mark must have been of retirement age. When the jury was deliberating, I found him trying to work (as barristers do) on something else in a private room. He admitted that he could not concentrate, that his anxiety during jury retirements only grew with age and that the sense of responsibility for the defendant you represented in criminal trials never diminished. But he had already revealed those attitudes in the absolutely conscientious, industrious and skilful way in which he had conducted the case.

He never lowered his standards and was, to me, the model of a decent human being.