|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Robert Hughes: I applaud the Government's attempts to control drugs in schools and urge them to do more, but why are the Government at the same time cutting by 25 per cent. the number of customs officers dealing with drug enforcement? Is it inconsistency or hypocrisy?
Mrs. Shephard: I think that what it could be is a question for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, the total Government programme on drugs prevention amounts to £500 million. Her
Column 1341Majesty's Customs and Excise is involved in the recent initiative, as are the Education and Health Departments, the Department of Social Security and other Government Departments.
Mr. Brazier: As a former schools inspector, does my right hon. Friend agree that much of the initiative must be taken at county level? Does she further agree that it is outrageous that, nine months after a call in February from Conservative county councillors for a tougher policy on discipline in schools in Kent, the Lib-Lab ruling coalition has still not agreed to take action?
12. Mr. Byers: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what percentage of primary school inspections planned by the Office for Standards in Education for this term will not take place during this term.
Mr. Forth: While this is mainly a matter for Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, who heads the independent Office for Standards in Education, I am advised that contracts have been let for 76 per cent. of the primary schools inspection originally planned for this term.
Mr. Byers: Is the Minister not concerned that 24 per cent. of those planned inspections will fail to take place this term? Does he agree with the comments made by the former chief inspector of schools that the main problem was the requirement that every contract for inspection has to go out to competitive tender? Does he agree that it is yet another example of his Government putting political dogma before the interests of the nation's children?
Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman is being a little previous in this matter. This is the first term of primary inspections and we are planning for and approaching them systematically and methodically. Although the figures show that we have fallen somewhat short of the plans prepared by Ofsted, we are well on the way in making a good start.
Bearing in mind the difficulties that have arisen, of which we have made no secret, Ofsted is taking a number of measures to alter the contracting arrangements and certain other matters in an attempt to ensure that the cycle of primary inspections will develop in pace over the next few terms. At this stage, like Ofsted, I am confident that that will be achieved.
Mr. McLoughlin: Does my hon. Friend agree that he should not listen too much to the carping from Opposition Members, who opposed inspections in schools but are now complaining that they are not happening fast enough? Does he understand the concern felt by some grant-maintained schools that they will be inspected by the local authorities from whose control they have escaped? Will he consider that point carefully?
Mr. Forth: I know that there has been widespread concern on the latter point, but I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that as the Ofsted inspections proceed and the level of expertise and impartiality becomes more and more obvious, schools will be reassured that the new independent professional inspection process is of great value both to education and to schools themselves. More
Column 1342and more schools are beginning to learn that that is to their benefit. As for the attitude of Opposition Members, this is yet another area in which they cannot quite make up their minds whether what we are doing is so much better that they want to agree with us, or whether they want to stick with their traditional opposition and become lost as a result.
Mr. Eastham: Is the Minister aware that many local authority chief education officers are complaining that there is inadequate funding for inspections? Is he further aware that that has resulted in the educational requirements of schools being denied in order to meet the costs of inspections? Will the Minister consider providing additional funding?
Mr. Forth: Opposition Members complaining about a lack of money is something that happens all too frequently. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should establish from his Front-Bench colleagues whether they are now prepared to commit more money to education, for this or any other purpose.
Mr. Forth: In May, guidance on pupil behaviour and discipline was sent to all schools as part of the "Pupils with Problems" pack. The guidance aims to help schools to maintain and improve discipline. In September, the Department published an anti-bullying pack to help schools combat bullying.
Mr. Evennett: I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Department on their work on discipline in schools. We are all aware of the few well- publicised schools which have discipline problems, but can my hon. Friend confirm that the last Ofsted report showed that most schools did not have a discipline problem and that most pupils in the state sector were well behaved?
Mr. Forth: It is important to get this matter in context and to understand that throughout the country teachers are doing an excellent job in maintaining classroom discipline. In most classrooms, in most schools, for most of the time, there is an orderly atmosphere and pupils are learning. However, undoubtedly there is a very small number of difficult pupils. We want to work with teachers to ensure that they have available to them all reasonable means of dealing with disciplinary problems. Very often the key to that is parents. My appeal is for parents to support teachers, governors and heads of schools in maintaining proper discipline. Without parental support, the job is much more difficult.
Mrs. Helen Jackson: Will the Minister today recognise something that every teacher in this country recognises--that there is a link between the unacceptable rise in the numbers in school classes, in both primary and secondary schools, and both the quality of education and
Column 1343the discipline maintained? Does he agree that there needs to be a limit on class sizes, especially in primary schools, to enable quality and discipline to be maintained?
Mr. Forth: No, I know of no such link. If the hon. Lady thinks that, simply by repeating it often enough she will make it come true, she is sadly mistaken. If she can produce any evidence of a causal connection between classroom sizes and discipline problems, I shall be happy to consider it, but no such evidence has yet come to my attention.
Mr. Hawkins: On the subject of discipline in classrooms, did my hon. Friend have the opportunity at the weekend to see the excellent article by The Sunday Telegraph education correspondent, Mr. Jonathan Petre, reporting on a visit that he and some secondary school heads had made to Japanese schools which had high numbers in the classroom but high standards of discipline? Does he not feel that it was a counsel of despair for some of the heads on that visit to say that they did not feel that it was possible to emulate the high standards of discipline in Japanese classrooms in their own schools? If my hon. Friend has not seen that article, will he consider it carefully, as there are lessons to be learned there for British schools?
Mr. Forth: Of course we should always be conscious of experience in other countries, but quite how far Japanese experience is directly transferable to Britain is an interesting matter on which I would wish to ponder. However, I agree that it is depressing if people in the responsible position that head teachers undoubtedly have, when given the opportunity to see some sort of international comparison of this kind, are reluctant to accept the lessons that may be there to be learnt. I hope that they will think again, just as I am prepared to consider the example that my hon. Friend has given.
Mr. Blunkett: Does the Minister agree that discipline is crucial to an acceptable learning environment, but that pastoral care in schools and special support, including with the family, are much more important than the Group 4 approach to school discipline, which has resulted in 8,000 pupils being excluded from our schools, many of them grant-maintained schools, during the past year?
Mr. Forth: I join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities on the Opposition Front Bench. When he has had a little more time, he may like to study the figures somewhat more carefully, when he will see that they are not as they first appear. A lot of nonsense is being talked at the moment about the nature of exclusions. We must distinguish between permanent and temporary-- or limited--exclusions. We must also be careful not to extrapolate a small sample to a national level. However, I share the hon. Gentleman's concern in this area. We want to consider carefully the whole matter of exclusions, who is carrying them out and why and the general background to them. I hope that we shall be able to find the right answers to support our heads and teachers in the difficult job that they are doing.
Mr. Boswell: The Government's policies have led to record student numbers in higher education. More than 30 per cent. of young people entered higher education in 1993, compared with around one in eight 10 years ago.
Mr. Clappison: Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that Britain now has a higher graduation rate than many of our European Union competitors and that 50 per cent. more students now gain a first degree than in 1979? Does my hon. Friend agree that, instead of carping, Opposition Members and their Commission on Social Justice would have done better to study the successful Conservative policies which have enabled that to take place?
Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend is entirely right in pointing to our achievements in that direction and, in particular, the fact that we now have the highest graduation rate in Europe. That does not entirely transmit itself to the Opposition Benches. Every time an Opposition Member comes up with a sensible proposition, someone tends to end up being sacked.
Mr. Bryan Davies: After that orgy of self-congratulation, and after Prime Minister's Question Time, will the Minister take his fellow ministerial team to No. 10 Downing street to discuss a petition received by the Prime Minister this morning, presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) and myself, on behalf of the higher education sector--students, staff, administrators and vice-chancellors-- protesting at the under-funding of higher education by the present Government?
Mr. Boswell: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the retention of his somewhat dangerous portfolio. He has never told the House what proposals he would make for the resourcing of higher education. I can tell the House that, in the last public expenditure survey, we were able to produce a real terms increase, to a record level, in the proportion and amount of higher education funding in this country. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We have the highest student numbers and the best resourced higher education in our history.
Mr. Batiste: Are the Government committed to the principle of uniformity of standards across each class of degree across all universities in the country? If so, how does the Minister intend to ensure that that principle is observed in practice?
Mr. Boswell: We are absolutely committed to the maintenance of high standards. It is, of course, primarily for the academic community, through its higher education quality council, to ensure that degrees mean what they say and are uniform throughout the various institutions, and that is a matter to which it is giving the closest attention.
Mr. Stevenson: Will the Prime Minister confirm the complete absence of any mention of privatisation of the Post Office in the last Tory party manifesto? Is he aware of the complete absence of any public support for that latest piece of Government dogma? Will he now take this opportunity to do the country a service and rescue the President of the Board of Trade by withdrawing that absurd proposal?
The Prime Minister: As the whole House knows, we are considering the results of the consultation exercise that was launched in the summer. [Interruption.] I am surprised to hear Opposition Members scoffing. I thought that in the new politics the Labour party favoured consultation.
The Prime Minister: I think that many conclusions may be drawn from that, some of which may well be drawn from the investigation that the Serjeant at Arms himself is carrying out into the affair. Certainly, whatever is uncovered, I doubt whether it will be to the credit of the principal people concerned.
Mr. Blair: To return to the Prime Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson), on Post Office privatisation, there is more than a whiff of retreat in the air. If the Prime Minister does retreat-- [Interruption.] Is he aware that, if he does retreat on that, he will be acting wisely, because if he is going to consult the British people, the vast majority of them--and, I believe, a majority in this House--want a modern Post Office with greater commercial freedom, delivering a cheap and reliable service, and that the best way of achieving that is to retain it in public ownership, run it as a public service and serve the public interest?
The Prime Minister: I can certainly share with the right hon. Gentleman the wish to make the Post Office business strong, competitive and able to deliver the services that people need. Of course, a large number of improvements have been made over the past few years, most of them opposed at the time by Opposition Members. In 1981, we separated out Telecom and introduced the £1 monopoly limit, introducing competition and allowing a thriving courier industry to develop. In 1990, we sold Girobank. All those changes were opposed by the Opposition, who now take credit for the success of the Post Office as a result of our policies.
Column 1346Guardian ? Not only has he been using House of Commons writing paper to forge letters; he has been forging other people's signatures--and this from a man who is on the Press Complaints Commission. Should he not resign from that body at once?
The Prime Minister: Over many years, The Guardian and its present editor have from time to time thundered against general standards in public life. It is, of course, the right of the press to do that; I simply invite its members to observe their own standards.
Mr. Ashdown: But is the Prime Minister satisfied with the promptness, accuracy and frankness with which his Chief Secretary to the Treasury has responded to questions over past weeks and months? Are those the standards by which he would wish his Government and their Ministers to be recognised?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman, and some other hon. Members, may be wholly satisfied with their own blameless pasts in every respect. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary has made the position entirely clear, and I accept his word.
Sir Wyn Roberts: Does my right hon. Friend agree that so-called investigative journalism has sunk to a new all-time low? Does he also agree that, if a newspaper is found to have used the name of the House to give false authority to its activities, that newspaper deserves to lose the respect and confidence of the House?
What is particularly sad is the casual abuse of what were once high and expected standards. If it is now commonly accepted in journalism that the end justifies any means, I believe that journalism will regret stooping to that standard. I hope that that is not the case; I believe that honest, factual journalism remains important to our democratic system. Systematic deception, fraud and collusion are certainly not what we expect from a free press.
Mr. Hall: This morning, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) and I delivered a petition to No.10 Downing street on behalf of thousands of pensioners in Warrington, calling on the Government to abandon their proposal to increase VAT on fuel to 17.5 per cent. from next April. Is the Prime Minister aware that half the 36,000 claimants of income support in Halton and Warrington are entitled to claim only cold weather payments and that many other families in fuel poverty receive no help whatever? Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that he recognises that to be a true problem, that he will abandon the VAT increase, and that he will ensure that all low-income families receive fuel credits weekly when there are cold spells during the winter?
Column 1347opposes VAT on fuel, he is in favour of a carbon tax, which would have exactly the same effect on people? Will he also acknowledge that measures worth around £2.5 billion over three years have been put in place-- [Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Members pointing and shouting. They cannot on the one hand oppose VAT on fuel, and on the other hand support a carbon tax which would have precisely the same effect on the people whom they claim to be defending.
"Comment is free but the facts are sacred"?
Does he agree that certain standards of journalism have sunk below the level that one would expect in a free and fair democracy?
Dr. Marek: If the Prime Minister reads in Hansard what he said at Question Time last Thursday, he will realise that he answered one of the questions in a rather silly way. I hope that he will now give me a considered reply to that question. Why is he prepared to countenance devolution for the Province of Northern Ireland but not for the countries of Wales and Scotland?
The Prime Minister: I must tell the hon. Gentleman two things. First, if he does not understand the difference in the history of Northern Ireland, he certainly should do so before sitting in the House. Secondly, there is a well established system of local democracy and government in Wales and Scotland which does not apply in Northern Ireland.
Sir Michael Neubert: Reverting to the subject of earlier exchanges, what would be my right hon. Friend's reaction if the Lord Chancellor were to include a known criminal among his appointments to the magistrates bench? Is it not equally unacceptable that the editor of
Column 1348The Guardian should sit in judgment on his fellow editors as a member of the Press Complaints Commission when, on his own evidence, he has been party to a forgery?
Mr. Hoon: Why are the Government threatening to cut housing benefit for hundreds of thousands of pensioners simply because they have spare rooms? Why is the Chief Secretary frightening pensioners with the prospect of having to move house just because they have raised their children and want to live out their retirement in their family home? Does the Prime Minister have any confidence in the Chief Secretary, particularly on matters of accommodation?
The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the system of housing benefit that we have in place is more generous than he will find anywhere on the continent. It is necessary to ensure that a proper balance is kept between that and the taxpayer.
Mr. Evans: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in stark contrast to that lot opposite, we are united behind our leader? To put the issue of The Guardian into perspective, is my right hon. Friend aware that Janice had a shock this morning, as I think did my right hon. Friend, because it said that David Evans was sponsoring Bambi. That is how ridiculous The Guardian is. If my right hon. Friend raised £79,000 to become leader of our party, would he put it in the Register of Members' Interests? This shows that that lot opposite are a bunch of fiddlers, because their leader has not done so.
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend has been accused of many things over the years, but I do not think that anybody would credibly accuse him of being a sponsor of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).
The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman would prefer a much longer list of those Labour members of quangos that I did not yet mention. If he is so against quangos, will he perhaps explain why he wants to create a very long list of them, which I will happily read to the House if the hon. Gentleman presses me? Those are the
Column 1349new quangos that the Opposition thus far are committed to establishing. The hon. Gentleman would be better off looking at his own policy than trying to misrepresent ours.
Mrs. Knight: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Home Secretary's announcement yesterday that the regime in our prisons is to be toughened up and that privileges are to be earned is widely welcomed, especially by the victims of crime? With that in mind, will he ensure that all victims are consulted before prisoners are granted any home leave?
The Prime Minister: I very much agree with my hon. Friend and with the announcement made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary yesterday. He intends to ensure that privileges are earned and are not available as a matter of right, and that home leave and
Column 1350temporary release will be granted only after rigorous assessment of risk to the public. As he has said on a number of occasions, conditions in prisons should be decent but austere. I believe that that is the view of the overwhelming majority of people in this country.
Madam Speaker: I have a statement to make arising from a submission that I received yesterday from the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) regarding the conduct of The Guardian newspaper. I told the House yesterday that I had commissioned a report from the Serjeant at Arms on certain aspects of this matter. I have to tell the House that, having now had the opportunity to reflect on all the aspects of the matter which have been brought to my notice, I have decided that it merits further attention. I am accordingly prepared for a motion to be given precedence at the commencement of business at 3.30 pm tomorrow. For the avoidance of doubt, the essential issue to be covered is the alleged action of The Guardian in representing that a letter sent by it to the Ritz hotel, Paris was sent in the name of an hon. Member of this House.
|Next Section (Debates)