Lonely rebel sounds alarm on school cuts

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The Government was warned by a former Tory education minister last night against restraining spending on schools to pay for tax cuts before the general election.

Alan Howarth said the Conservatives would "not be forgiven" if they neglected the trust people had placed in them to provide public services. The MP for Stratford-on-Avon was the lone rebel voice joining Labour and the Liberal Democrats in appeals to ministers to think again about their refusal to fund the teachers' pay increase.

Responding to a Labour- initiated debate, Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, confirmed that the 2.7 per cent award recommended by the teachers' pay review body should be implemented in full. But she left it to local authorities to foot the bill.

Listing teacher cuts in his own constituency, Mr Howarth said: "If these limitations on spending are designed to clear the way for tax cuts later this year, I repudiate that policy. It would be entirely wrong that we should cut taxes on the affluent while the needs of our public services are not properly met." Without a promise of immediate relief for Warwickshire, he would be failing his constituents if he supported the Government in the division lobbies, Mr Howarth said. None was forthcoming and the Government went on to defeat a Labour motion calling for a rethink on funding the teachers' award, by 289 votes to 256.

Opening the debate, David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said it was time for Tory MPs to choose between standards in schools or "saving their skins by attempting to salt away cash for a tax bribe in the general election".

When a government had abolished negotiations between employers and employees and when it had accepted an independent review body's report, it had a "moral and political" obligation to pay for it, he said.

Dissecting the Prime Minister's Question Time claim that there were two education authority "administrators" for every three teachers, Mr Blunkett said the figure had included 109,000 non-teaching staff, such as caretakers and secretaries, 150,000 manual workers and 57,000 psychologists and other welfare staff. He claimed that Mr Major was "mathematically challenged".

According to Mrs Shephard, the Labour spokesman's speech was "predictable". Indeed, so confident was she of its predictability that this verdict was written into her text, printed before Mr Blunkett spoke.

Stating that the teachers' pay award should be implemented in full, she accepted it was a "tough settlement". The "vast majority" of education authorities were coping but some which had cut school budgets seemed more interested in "political point-scoring", she said.

The only awkward intervention for Mrs Shephard came from her own side when George Walden, another former education minister, asked why Mr Major "appeared to close the door on a new educational opportunity" being offered by Manchester Grammar School in seeking to re-enter the state sector. The prestigious school would like to take pupils on academic ability regardless of means, but the Prime Minister is "not so enthusiastic".

Mrs Shephard said the school's proposals were "extremely interesting". Then, neatly avoiding an answer and disarming a critic, she invited him in to tea to talk about it.

Tea and a chat was not quite the approach adopted by the Chancellor when Tory Euro-rebels asked for a meeting to discuss a single currency, a request that Kenneth Clarke refused.

One of the spurned, Nicholas Budgen, MP for Wolverhampton SW, complained to Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, at Question Time. Mr Hurd had no sooner assured the House that his door was "always open" than up jumped Mr Budgen to say how everyone admired his courtesy. "Would the Foreign Secretary not agree that where those courtesies are not allowed, it is not merely insulting to individual MPs, but it denies their constituents the right to be properly represented?" As laughter subsided, Mr Hurd replied simply: "Over many years, I don't think you have ever knocked on my door in vain."

Joyce Quin, a Labour spokeswoman, tackled the Foreign Secretary over the warning by the ICL chairman Peter Bonfield at the Britain in the World conference that "negative and backward-looking views by Britain towards Europe are undermining our ability to be taken seriously in the world".

Mr Hurd said the ICL chairman's basic point was correct. "It is in the interests of not just the British business community, but of Britain as a whole, that we in this House and in this country should work out coherently ... an approach to the future of the EU with which we can as a nation be at ease."

Andrew Robathan, Tory MP for Blaby, sounded unlikely to be at ease until mink have been eradicated from the UK. Imported for fur farming in the 1960s, some had escaped and some were released when the pelts market collapsed. There were now estimated be 110,000 at large, he said, introducing a Bill for their destruction.

Invoking the spirit of Ratty in Wind in the Willows - a water vole in all but name - Mr Robathan said the voles were being wiped out by the rapacious mink. He suggested a start could be made by trapping and shooting those that had colonised the Isle of Lewis. The minks, however, stand a far better chance of surviving than the MP's Bill does of reaching the statute book.

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