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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr. Robin Squire) : As part of his review of policy on under-fives, my right hon. Friend will bear in mind the implications for the under-fives element of standard spending assessments.
Mr. Pickthall : Since the Prime Minister, and subsequently the Secretary of State, have recently discovered the virtues of nursery education, would it not be sensible, just and financially prudent to change the basis of the SSA calculation for under-fives away from a simple population count in a local authority towards the provision of places in a local authority ? That would get rid of what is, in effect, a subsidy for bad providers to spend elsewhere in their budget. It would allow good providers relief from having to cut other sectors in their budget in order to provide good nursery education.
Mr. Squire : We shall bear the hon. Member's observation in mind-- other hon. Members have also advanced that argument. A number of local education authorities provide good provision for under-fives while maintaining spending at the SSA level. If the hon. Gentleman's desire, which is certainly that of the Government, is to see an expansion of the service, it would seem perverse to change dramatically the way in which the SSA is distributed in favour of those who are already serving a large number of under-fives.
Mr. Ian Taylor : Will my hon. Friend consider, not only the SSA calculations for county councils, but the relationship with first schools and the grant-maintained sector ? Send first school in my constituency, which is grant maintained, is anxious to provide nursery provision. I know that the Department is currently considering that case.
grant-maintained schools, that seek nursery provision. Where applicants fall within laid down criteria, we shall seek to satisfy my hon. Friend's justifiable concerns.
Mr. Win Griffiths : Why did not the Minister have the good grace to mention the fact that, of the 40 top providers of nursery education, 40 are Labour education authorities ? Why does he not stop including all forms of child care in the same bracket as high quality nursery education, and give advice and guidance to all local education authorities to start providing more and more nursery places ?
Mr. Squire : The reason that I did not give the answer that the hon. Gentleman wanted was that I was not asked the question. As the hon. Gentleman has now asked the question, I shall underline the fact that, of the 34 Labour authorities that the Labour party is anxious to boast about in terms of nursery education, 70 per cent. fall in the bottom 40 for exam results and 82 per cent. fall within the bottom 50 for truancy levels. We should hear a bit about that.
Mr. Forth : My right hon. Friend has no immediate plans to visit Northumberland schools. My colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), will visit two schools in Northumberland on 14 March.
Mr. Beith : I hope that the Minister visits two schools in my constituency so that he can become aware of the problem posed by the combined effect of the county needing to fund the 2.9 per cent. teachers' pay increase and facing a capping limit of 1.5 per cent., the result of which is that all schools in the county face reductions in their budgets. Is he aware of the problem ? What does he plan to do about it ?
Mr. Forth : Northumberland does no worse and no better--it is very close to the average if one looks at the pattern of schools' expenditure. I see no reason why an efficient and responsible local education authority should be unable to maintain the standards that we expect of it in the current financial circumstances. There is no proven causal connection between the level of expenditure and quality of education output. I would expect that in the right hon. Gentleman's area, as in all others, school governors, teachers, heads and the local education authority would take it on themselves to continue to deliver a proper standard of education.
Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I am very disappointed by the response from the Minister about the visit to Northumberland. Is the Minister aware that about four fifths of the population of Northumberland live in the urban south-east corner, with the rest in the rural part ? We are quite happy to support the high cost of rural education in Northumberland, but would it not be better for the Minister to go up there and see what is happening rather than regard the area as if it were part of a colony in darkest Africa ?
Mr. Forth : Northumberland is treated in exactly the same way as all the other 108 local education authorities. They are all subject to the same impartial, even-handed treatment, both by the funding formula and by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We would, therefore, expect Northumberland, like all other local education
Column 777authorities, to ensure that it delivers a proper, acceptable and increasingly high standard of education to all its pupils.
Mr. Harry Greenway : When considering the budgets of Northumbrian schools, will my hon. Friend reflect on the great success of the policy of devolving budgets to schools in Northumberland and elsewhere, the more responsible spending that has resulted from it and the much more valuable spending from the point of view of the pupils, which is what schools are all about ?
Mr. Forth : Yes, indeed. The local management of schools programme has been one of the most successful programmes in the past few years. It has proved some important things, not least that if responsibility is given to governors and heads they will seize it and make full use of it in coming to difficult decisions about priorities in their schools, and that these decisions are far better made where they matter, in the school and in the classroom, rather than in some local education authority which is probably remote.
14. Mr. Wareing : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what information he has on the percentage of students attending universities who are supplementing their grants or loans by employment in term-time jobs.
Mr. Boswell : Information derived from the recent student income and expenditure survey indicates that, of students sampled, 23 per cent. had some earnings during term-time, and rather more during the Christmas and Easter vacations. Information is not available to indicate whether the students concerned were in receipt of grants or student loans.
Mr. Wareing : Is not it absolutely deplorable, after the years of the great Thatcherite economic miracle, that students today are in a worse position than they were before 1979 ? Is not it disgraceful that the Government seem to have no plans whatever to encourage students to keep to their main task, study during term-time ? What are the Government going to do about it ?
Mr. Boswell : I find the question absolutely extraordinary. The hon. Gentleman needs to remember how many universities there were in Liverpool when my right hon. and noble Friend became Prime Minister. He also needs to recognise the huge achievements of the two universities in Liverpool in establishing a city of learning. In his spare time, he may care to reflect that we now have record student numbers, no increase in student drop-out and the most effective and successful higher education system in the world.
Mr. Boswell : It is very much a matter of degree, but not many students get by without working at some stage during their studies. It is the norm in many other countries that students must work their way through college, whereas we produce a generous student support package. That is reflected in the efficiency and timing of our degrees and the quality of the results achieved.
Mr. Patten : The governing body of every local education authority- controlled school is now required to consider, at least once a year, whether to hold a ballot on whether the school should seek grant-maintained status and, if they decide against it, to explain their decision to parents. In addition, to be helpful we are setting up a network of local centres to give factual information on grant-maintained schools. There is already one such centre in Bolton, and to be particularly helpful, we are just setting one up at the excellent Castle Hall school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor).
Mr. Arnold : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on taking those steps to combat the immense amount of negative propaganda against grant- maintained schools. Is he aware that, in authorities like Liberal and Labour-controlled Kent, £100,000 of education funds have been diverted to those black propaganda activities ? Will he look at the leaflets and at the scaremongering, which is worrying parents and teachers ?
Mr. Patten : The parents of Kent have already voted overwhelmingly in favour of grant-maintained status. For example, by 1 April more than half the secondary school children in Kent will be educated in grant- maintained schools. I will certainly look extremely carefully at what strikes me as a scandalous waste of money by the chief education officer for Kent and his officials on that black propaganda.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in the United States for a series of meetings, including some with President Clinton and the United Nations Secretary-General.
Mr. Mudie : Is the Lord President aware that more than £1 billion of taxpayers' money spent to persuade people to take out personal pensions ended up in the pockets of salesmen through commissions ? Is he also aware that more than 300,000 men and women are losing benefit because of bad advice ? Given that growing scandal, is not there a case for urgent Government action, or is this, once again, something for which the Government will take no responsibility ?
Mr. Newton : I do not regard the fact that some 5 million people have taken out personal pensions, which will significantly improve their prospects in retirement, as anything like a scandal. The hon. Gentleman will know
Column 779that some of the advice that has been given is currently under examination, which is entirely right. I know of no reason to justify his accusation.
I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Greenway : Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the obvious success of the Prime Minister's visit to the United States ? Does he recall that Sir Winston Churchill variously described the temperature of our special relationship with the United States as normal and blazing ? What is the temperature now ?
Mr. Newton : I can best describe the relationship as very cordial indeed. It is a long-standing relationship based on shared interests, as has been confirmed at a joint press conference which my right hon. Friend and the President held within the past hour or so. Their discussions have covered a wide range of international issues, including Bosnia, Russia and the world economy. The President's support for the joint declaration on Northern Ireland was particularly welcome. The visit is confirmation that we have a continuing, strong, all-round relationship with the United States.
Mr. Newton : My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has been advised, quite properly, by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and made the position entirely clear in his evidence to the Scott inquiry yesterday.
Mrs. Beckett : Is not the position of the Attorney-General as the Government's chief legal adviser becoming increasingly untenable as Ministers seem to use him as a scapegoat to save their own skins ?
Mr. Newton : The concern of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade was clearly an anxiety that people might misrepresent him in exactly the way that the right hon. Lady is now seeking to do. My right hon. and learned Friend the
Attorney-General's advice on public interest immunity has remained consistent and, of course, he is due to give evidence to the inquiry.
Mrs. Beckett : Does not the Leader of the House realise that what sticks in the throat of the British public is that, having secretly sold arms to Saddam Hussein, which were used against British troops, Ministers were prepared to see innocent men go to gaol to cover up their conspiracy and that is what people cannot stomach ?
"Public interest immunity cannot be waived by either the prosecution or the Ministers. It was for the judge to decide whether the interests of justice in ensuring a fair trial for the defendants outweighed those considerations of public interests referred to in the certificates. There was no question of anyone attempting to suppress evidence".
That letter was written by counsel for one of the accused.
Mr. Newton : Yes, indeed I shall. There is a widespread view that those overseas trips were inappropriate. We are all concerned to see effective, proper treatment and deterrents for young offenders and the statement this afternoon will help bring that about.
I refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Janner : When the Prime Minister returns from his visit to the United States, will he be kind enough to look personally into the case of my constituent Paul Kenney, who did not return from his journey to Portugal, but was found dead on a beach ? Will he please consult his colleague the Prime Minister of Portugal, who has not had the common decency to tell the parents, or me as their representative, why this lad died, how he died, whether he was murdered or why the parents could not find the body for a month ? If the right hon. Gentleman agrees that it is the Government's duty to look after ordinary citizens when they travel abroad, will he please start raising merry hell about this case ?
Mr. Newton : I am conscious of the hon. Gentleman's understandable concern for his late constituent and I have of course looked at the Adjournment debate he had not long ago. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that during his visit to Portugal on 24 and 25 February, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the case with the Portuguese Foreign Minister and I hope that that was helpful.
Sir Roger Moate : Will my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister, and the Foreign Secretary, personally do their utmost to ensure the success of the negotiations, which are at a critical point, on Norwegian entry into the European Community? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be quite outrageous if the unreasonable demand by the Spanish Government for a few thousand tonnes of Norwegian cod were to prevent the entry into the Community of one of our closest friends and a fine European country ?
Mr. Newton : My hon. Friend knows very well that it has been a prime objective of the British Government to bring about enlargement of the Community and the progress that has been made is one of our significant achievements over the past couple of years. On some reports I have seen today, progress has been rather greater so far in respect of Sweden and Finland ; apparently, there remains some way to go, but we shall wish to see negotiations with all four applicants successfully negotiated.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Gunnell : The right hon. and noble Baroness Thatcher missed one Prime Minister's Question Time in 12 ; the present Prime Minister has missed one in eight. Whatever the importance of the present visit, does not that frequent absence devalue his accountability to the House ? Why is he more anxious to answer questions in Pittsburgh than in Parliament ?
Mr. Newton : I must say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I usually regard as among the more reasonable of those on the Opposition Benches, that I reject out of hand the suggestion that he has made. I think that my right hon. Friend's achievement in various international negotiations both in Europe and on the wider scene are among the main achievements that he has put forward on behalf of the Government.
Mr. Garnier : While my right hon. Friend is in the United States, will he be given an opportunity to tell the people, as opposed to the President of the United States, of the true nature, history and habits of the IRA ?
Mr. Newton : I have already referred to the very welcome support of the President for the joint declaration. I hope that that in itself will have an effect on some strands of opinion in the United States which may perhaps have failed to appreciate the true nature of the IRA.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Mandelson : Does the Lord President of the Council agree that, with unemployment still up around the 3 million level, with many young and long-term unemployed in that number, jobs remain the biggest single issue facing the country ? In the light of that, will the Lord President of the Council respond positively to the important initiative taken today by the Trades Union Congress to work in co-operation with all political parties on policies to get unemployment down ?
Mr. Newton : I welcome any kind of co-operation by the TUC or, indeed, anybody else, in the interests of maintaining the recovery from recession, which is the secure basis for the jobs that the hon. Gentleman wants to see. If I may say so, it will not be served by the Labour party's support for a minimum wage, a 35-hour week and many new burdens on business.
I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave some moments ago.
Lady Olga Maitland : May I convey to my right hon. Friend the House's full support for the Downing street declaration on Northern Ireland ? Has my right hon. Friend been able to take note of the survey that took place over the weekend in the Irish Republic which showed that the vast majority of the people there call on the IRA-Sinn Fein to renounce violence ?
Column 782Northern Ireland. It is heartening to note that some 94 per cent. of people questioned in the Irish marketing survey agreed with calls on the IRA and Sinn Fein to renounce violence. I am sure that that corresponds with the overwhelming wish in this country and, indeed, many others. I hope that their leaders will take note.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Evans : Is the Lord President of the Council aware that if the highly efficient borough of St. Helens received the same level of revenue support grant as the boroughs of Wandsworth and Westminster it would not be required to charge its citizens one single penny in council tax ? Does he feel that there might be a whiff of scandal and corruption in that ?
Mr. Fabricant : While condemning the appalling massacre in Hebron, does my right hon. Friend agree with me that that was the work of a lone madman and that, for the sake of the 300 million people who live in that area, it should not in any way impede the peace process ?
Mr. Newton : Like, I am sure, everyone on both sides of the House, I share the horror at the massacre of innocent Palestinians in Hebron on 25 February. I am sure that the whole House would once again want to send its condolences to those who were affected and their families. I accept entirely and agree with my hon. Friend that the massacre must not be allowed to jeopardise the peace process. The British Government will certainly do everything that they can to see that it does not.
I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Cunningham : Does the Lord President recall that, referring to the setting up of the Scott inquiry, the Prime Minister said that no restrictions would be placed on its terms of reference ? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that ex-employees of Matrix Churchill and their representatives have been denied the right to give evidence to the inquiry, and that Lord Justice Scott has said that he will consider the matter if the Government and the Prime Minister agree ? What is the Lord President going to do about it ?
Mr. Newton : I think that it is generally true to say that the procedures of the inquiry are for Lord Justice Scott to consider and operate. Obviously, if there were perceived to be problems and if representations were made to the Government about difficulties that they could do something about, those difficulties would be considered extremely carefully.
Column 783I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Riddick : Is my right hon. Friend aware of any Government Department that hands out special green forms to job applicants who are related to politicians--forms that receive preferential treatment--and pink forms to everyone else ? Is he aware that that disgraceful form of nepotism is being practised by Labour-controlled Monklands council ? Will he join me in urging
Column 784condemnation of the practice by the local Member of Parliament--the Leader of the Opposition, who has been strangely silent on the subject ?
Mr. Newton : My hon. Friend may feel surprised that his question has been reached. He has raised a very interesting point ; I might speculate that the absence of the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) arose from nervousness that the question might be reached.
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