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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 March 2006, 13:29 GMT
Blair defends key schools plans
School classroom
Mr Blair school reforms will move forward quickly
Tony Blair has defended his school reform plans for England after relying on Tory votes to get the controversial bill through its first Commons hurdle.

At his monthly media conference the prime minister insisted his reforms offering more "freedoms" to schools had not been "watered down".

On Wednesday MPs voted by 458 to 115 for the plans which give schools more control over admissions and budgets.

But 52 Labour backbenchers rebelled and another 25 MPs did not vote.

Mr Blair told reporters: "We didn't compromise on the self-governing trusts at all. Those freedoms will remain."

He said the role of local authorities had been strengthened from the original proposals - but they would still not have the right to prevent schools becoming self-governing trusts.

'Not run out of steam'

"We have not watered-down those freedoms at all. It is true, however, we have given a lot of reassurance and safeguards on selection," he said.

School reforms would now "move forward a lot more quickly than people think", Mr Blair said.

And he denied Wednesday's vote showed his government had "run out of steam".

EDUCATION VOTE
For: 458
Against: 115
Majority: 343
Labour MPs voting for: 274
Labour rebels: 52
Labour MPs not voting: 25
Tory MPs not voting: 20

Although a "small minority" of Labour MPs voted against the plans, he said "a lot of people totally agree" with the direction he was taking the party.

"The aim is to make public services and the welfare state more responsive to the individual and achieve a fairer balance between what the state can enable people to do - and what people must do for themselves.

"This is the direction of travel - and there's no point in my hiding it."

Reform

Critics have said the vote shows Labour MPs have lost confidence in Mr Blair, but Home Secretary Charles Clarke told the BBC such rebellions were "a fact of political life in the modern era" and had happened before.

"This is a Labour bill, driving forward Labour reforms," he told Radio 4's Today programme.

And he denied the Labour revolt signalled the end of the road for the prime minister: "Tony Blair has led a reforming administration ... He's committed to reform."

"We are committed to these reforms. I think they should go on and I hope that Tony Blair leads that for as long as possible."

'Defining moment'

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly said she was delighted to get the plans through.

Conservatives, Lib Dems and some Labour rebels failed in their attempt to sabotage the government's timetable for further debates on the plans and prolong detailed scrutiny for weeks.

The government won the timetable vote by 300 to 290, with its majority cut to just 10.

WHAT'S IN THE BILL?
Parents, businesses and voluntary groups to be able to set up foundation (trust) schools, with control over budgets and admissions
Interviewing pupils and parents to be outlawed
Schools to 'act in accordance with' - rather than just 'have regard to' - admissions code
Schools to set up 'partnerships' with outside groups and 'federations' with other schools
Failing schools given one year to turn around or face being closed and replaced
30m for councils to raise standards

A committee of MPs will now go through the plans line by line - a process during which some Labour rebels hope to amend the plans. The plans would then need to be backed in votes by MPs and Lords before they can become law.

The prime minister has called the Education and Inspections Bill a "defining moment".

But critics seized on the fact that about a quarter of Labour MPs, including eight ex-ministers, did not support the plans.

John McDonnell, chairman of the left-wing Labour Representation Committee, said Mr Blair "effectively resigned as leader".

He said the prime minister had undermined his own authority and lost the party's confidence by relying on Tory support against his own backbenchers.

Twenty Tory MPs did not vote but no Conservatives opposed the plans.

The education secretary denied she was feeling bruised by the scale of the rebellion.

Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Sarah Teather said she would focus on how the plans could be improved in their committee stage.

Under the plans, private companies, faith groups and parents will be given freedom to set up and run "trust" schools within the state system.

To allay backbench concerns, ministers promised a ban on schools using interviews to choose pupils, strengthened the admissions code and told councils they will be able to enter competitions to build new schools.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Education Secretary Ruth Kelly defends the bill



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