Brown backs down on plan to 'confiscate' school funds

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By Colin BrownDeputy Political Editor

A U-turn is being prepared by Gordon Brown over a plan to claw back surpluses in school budgets, after the proposal provoked furious disagreement from head teachers and parents.

Mr Brown was attacked at the despatch box yesterday by David Cameron, the Tory leader, who said the scheme to "confiscate" 5 per cent of the £1.7bn in school surpluses had been criticised by head teachers as "unjust and ill-conceived".

The Prime Minister hinted that the proposal to claw back this year's surpluses in school budgets would be dropped when the Government announced the results of a consultation exercise next week. The move is the latest attempt by Mr Brown to disown some of the most contentious plans inherited from Tony Blair after U-turns on supercasinos and reclassifying cannabis.

There have been howls of protest over the plan to act retrospectively over this year's surpluses and a growing campaign at Westminster to force the Government to climb down.

Protest Commons motions were tabled by Liberal Democrats and a cross-party group of MPs.

Mr Cameron said: "This is a serious issue for schools. Let me quote some of the head teachers. They say it is unjust, an ill-conceived idea. One said it undermines governors' authority. Another that it destroys the trust between schools and government. Why don't you just scrap this consultation and let the schools keep their surpluses?"

Mr Brown told him: "We are consulting on how we can best use them to the best effect for pupils and teachers."

Mr Cameron also had Mr Brown on the ropes over a report on the debacle over the voting forms for the Scottish elections when thousands of votes were declared void because the voters ticked the wrong box.

The Tory leader claimed it showed that Labour ministers had caused the chaos for political reasons. The former Scottish secretary Douglas Alexander later apologised for the confusion caused at the polls, but Mr Cameron's allegation infuriated Mr Brown.

Amid rowdy scenes in the Commons, the Prime Minister's parliamentary private secretary, Ian Austin, was ticked off by the Speaker, Michael Martin, for shouting. "Once again Mr Austin, you said a lot," Mr Martin told him. "The best thing for you is to stay away from my chair, because my hearing's bang on." Mr Cameron retorted: "It's another of the Prime Minister's cronies who won't behave properly."

He insisted the Gould report "said ministers in the Scotland office 'frequently focused on partisan political interest overlooking voter interest'". "I thought politics was going to be different under you," he said. Mr Brown accused Mr Cameron of "misleading" the House over its conclusions. Mr Cameron replied: "I don't know how you have the gall to accuse me of misleading anybody. You should have a look at page 17 of the report that says there was a notable level of party self-interest evident in ministerial decision-making."

Mr Brown also refused to rule out support for US military action against Iran. Pressed by Labour's Michael Meacher for a commitment that Britain would not support an attack, Mr Brown said: "I will rule nothing out but I do tell him that I believe that the diplomatic route and the sanctions are both having an effect."