New faith schools will be forced to admit a quarter of their pupils from different backgrounds and religions, the government announced last night.
Schools minister Lord Adonis said he would be tabling an amendment to the education and inspections bill next week to give local authorities the power to demand new faith schools admit at least 25 per cent non-believers.
He stressed the move would not make it a national requirement, but would give councils a new tool "in their role as guardians of community cohesion".
Lord Adonis added that there was "no question" of places being left unfilled if insufficient non-faith pupils want to attend the school. "Equally, there will be no obligation on anyone to apply to or attend a faith school," he said.
His announcement came as peers in the House of Lords last night debated changes to the education bill, in particular former education secretary Lord Baker's proposal that all new faith schools across the country take a quota of non-faith pupils.
He had warned of the "savage harvest" produced by segregation between Catholics and Protestants in schools in Northern Ireland, and insisted the issue being debated was more than about faith schools - it was about the "shape of our society" in the future.
"I would like that shape not to be separate, divided, isolated, jealous and envious. I would like it to be cohesive, harmonious, integrated, tolerant and generous," he argued.
However, he withdrew the amendment following Lord Adonis' comments - comments that were welcomed by the Bishop of Portsmouth, who also sits in the upper House.
The Church of England announced this month that all its schools would take a quarter of non-Christian pupils, but the bishop insisted other faith schools should not be subject to the same requirement.
He argued that the very existence of Jewish and Muslim schools was a "sign of inclusion for their communities and of fledgling potential inclusion gradually over the years" and warned any national quota system would send "profoundly negative signals".
Speaking on BBC News 24 this morning, education secretary Alan Johnson stressed the importance of faith schools in British society but said it was right to "set down some ground rules for new schools, and encourage integration in existing schools".
During his monthly press conference yesterday, Tony Blair acknowledged that in applying the requirement to new schools only, the proposals would inevitably affect Muslim schools more than any others.
But noting how faith schools were now at the top of the agenda alongside issues such as the Muslim veil, he said: "We wouldn't be having this debate if it were not to do with people's concerns about integration and separation of Muslims in British society."