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Mr. Miller: The Minister seems to recognise that it is necessary to ensure that one is comparing apples with apples. Does he agree that schools such as Cambridge Road school in my constituency, which has inadequate playing facilities, and John Street school, which is in a battle with the community action programme about the availability of classrooms, are disadvantaged? Should not his priority be to correct that disadvantage before seeking to make comparisons?
Mr. Forth: I certainly hope that the local education authority would make a priority of such schools. That is something on which everyone could agree. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that we
Column 765should somehow excuse or explain away inadequate school performance simply because of difficulties in respect of premises or location. The truth, and the real giveaway here, is that many schools in difficult and deprived areas operating in difficult circumstances are producing magnificent results year after year. We want to find out how they do that and then make sure that everyone else does the same.
Mr. Jenkin: Is not the vital point about league tables not so much the quality of the analysis as the fact that they make schools concentrate on outcomes rather than inputs? If we had concentrated more on outcomes over the past 20 years, would we not have a better education system?
Mr. Forth: Yes. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We are now reaching the stage at which most people in education are at long last looking at outcomes, results and achievements and are no longer obsessed with how much money is required to produce those results. Money is and always will be important, but the main requirements and factors affecting educational performance have nothing whatever to do with money.
Mr. Robin Squire: The Department is represented alongside the Department of Health on a project team drawing up voluntary nutritional guidance for school meals providers. This forms part of the nutrition task force's programme of action to achieve the targets set in the Government's "The Health of the Nation" strategy.
Mrs. Kennedy: I am grateful to the Minister for that interesting reply. Would he be interested in new evidence which shows that one in nine of our schoolchildren starts the day without breakfast, and that more than half have snacks, biscuits and crisps later in the day instead of a hot school meal? As part of its studies, will the project team consider the link between poor nutrition and the performance of our schoolchildren, and will the Minister publish the results?
Mr. Squire: I should like to ponder the hon. Lady's last two points, but she was correct to highlight the problems that too many school children face by not having even one decent meal a day. One reason why school meals are so vital is that, assuming that parents take them up, they ensure that every child has at least one square meal a day. When the proposals are published next summer, I hope that they will persuade more schools and local education authorities to put more effort into that very important area.
Mr. Dykes: Ignoring Labour party propaganda on the subject, and in view of the recent worrying publicity in the borough of Harrow about the fact that a small number of children from low-income households are not receiving
Column 766proper nutrition at lunchtime, may I ask my hon. Friend to have special discussions with Harrow local education authority to ensure that that problem is resolved?
Mr. Squire: I invite my hon. Friend to forward to me any evidence of problems which may exist in Harrow. On the wider issue, he will be aware that it is precisely to ensure that children from low-income families are properly provided for that an LEA is required to provide free school meals for the children of parents on income support.
Mr. Squire: In 1995-96, Derbyshire's education standard spending assessment will increase by 0.7 per cent. I will shortly be announcing annual capital guidelines for education capital work in 1995-96.
Mr. Skinner: That grant is not good enough. Is the Minister aware that more than six years ago, when the reorganisation plan for north Derbyshire was in process, the Government promised that Bolsover school would be placed on one site with the necessary money to implement that? More than six years have elapsed, but the Government have failed to carry out their promise. Instead, they have been cutting the grant for Derbyshire schoolkids ever since. It is time that they put a stop to that.
Mr. Squire: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman enjoys his daily rant, even if the House is coming to expect it. I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that, as the House is aware, it is the responsibility of LEAs to bid for capital work separately. As I reminded the House in an earlier answer, the order for those capital bids was determined some time ago in conjunction with LEAs. Those priorities must be the basis on which the Government fund capital funding.
Mr. McLoughlin: Is my hon. Friend aware that Derbyshire county council holds back from schools as much of its budget as it possibly can? Will my hon. Friend confirm that schools in Derbyshire would receive more money if they followed the lead taken by 30 per cent. of secondary schools and became grant-maintained?
Mr. Squire: My hon. Friend is certainly right to say that, for all sorts of reasons, strangely enough not alluded to today by Opposition Members, grant-maintained schooling makes a lot of sense. As to the way in which Derbyshire local education authority handles its funding, that is its responsibility, including the way in which it funds individual schools within the total sum that it chooses to set aside.
Mr. Forth: That would depend entirely on the quality of the teaching, the quality of the school, the dedication of the staff and so on. The hon. Lady is quite correct; I have said, and I repeat today, that there is no proven causal connection between class size and educational output. If the hon. Lady thinks otherwise, I should be glad to see any evidence that she can produce.
The Prime Minister: I have indicated in the House on several occasions that there may be circumstances in which I would support one. Clearly, in the case of Northern Ireland that is so, for I have already announced one.
Mr. Thompson: Bearing in mind reports today of an official survey showing that 11-year-old pupils do not have sufficient command of English to answer questions in science and mathematics, and bearing in mind the mounting evidence of the damage being done by the National Union of Teachers' boycott of tests, will my right hon. Friend urge Opposition Members with influence on that union to urge it to drop the boycott today?
Column 768very much the fact that most teachers' unions have now called off their boycott. It is high time that the NUT did the same, and I hope that it will do so.
Mr. Blair: On railway privatisation, is it right, as the report to the Transport Select Committee states, that the costs of legal consultancy fees and relocation costs for British Rail alone are now £100 million, and that when underwriting and City fees are added in the total cost may be as much as £700 million? Are those figures right or wrong?
Mr. Blair: I believe that the £100 million figure was given in a parliamentary answer. Perhaps the Prime Minister will check that. Is it also right, as the report indicates, that if the privatisation targets are to be met, the rail network will virtually have to be halved or there will be savage reductions in the timetable across the service? Can the Prime Minister guarantee that if there is found to be the remotest possibility of those things happening he will cancel the privatisation?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is using yet another of the scare stories which have surrounded the privatisation process for some time. Since the start of the rail privatisation process, there has been no shortage of scare stories; that is just the latest one. As recently as 24 November, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport stated and restated unequivocally that franchise services would be broadly based on the existing timetable. That remains the position.
Mr. Blair: If the Prime Minister proceeds with a privatisation that has no popular support, which will put the future of the railways at risk and, in the process, spend hundreds of millions of pounds which should be spent on providing a better public transport service, will that not show how completely out of touch the Government are with the British people?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. His comments about rail privatisation are precisely the same as the comments that his predecessors made about almost every privatisation that has occurred. Each privatisation has proved a success. The initial costs of past privatisations have been more than outweighed by efficiency and benefits, and that will be the case for rail users as well. The right hon. Gentleman relies on precisely the same scare stories which existed for each privatisation that has occurred. If he seeks further assurance, it will come tomorrow when the franchise director launches the pre-qualification documents. The right hon. Gentleman will then see how wrong he is.
Sir Teddy Taylor: As the present appalling restrictions at the Spanish border, with four-hour delays for people and eight-hour delays for vehicles, seem designed to cripple the economy of Gibraltar, and as the European Union seems unable to prevent these illegal blackmail activities, will the Prime Minister give guidance to Ministers to the effect that there should be no further concessions to Spain in the EU until the problem is resolved? Is the Prime Minister aware that it would hearten the loyal people of the rock if he would visit Gibraltar and assure them of the full support not only of the Government but, I hope, of every party in the House of Commons which believes in freedom?
The Prime Minister: On my hon. Friend's second point, I can guarantee that we have no intention of deviating from the commitment that we made to the people of Gibraltar in the 1969 constitution. That commitment is there and it will remain. With regard to his first point, we have already made strong protests to the Spanish Government about the secondary checks imposed by the Guardia Civil at the frontier between Gibraltar and Spain. It is very important that the controls should cease and we have made it absolutely clear that the Spanish Government must bring them to an end. They are aware of our views, and we are in contact with them about it.
Mrs. Michie: Can the Prime Minister explain how an assembly for Northern Ireland will strengthen the United Kingdom while a Scottish parliament will apparently weaken it? The situations may be different, but surely the principle is the same.
The Prime Minister: As the hon. Lady graciously admits, the situation is not just different--it is wholly different. A tax-raising assembly is proposed for Scotland, whereas in Northern Ireland an assembly is proposed which will give Northern Ireland proper control over local government matters. That power already exists in Scotland.
Mr. Haselhurst: Amid all the discussions about the European Union in the long term, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a practical and urgent agenda to try to ensure that the single market is working fairly
Column 770and openly, so that British companies have a genuine opportunity to compete successfully in civil aviation, energy and other spheres in which there are currently impediments to competition?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right about that and about its importance. At Essen during the weekend it was self-evident that that is an agenda on which Britain is increasingly winning the arguments. There is wide recognition of the fact that the liberalisation of aviation, energy, telecommunications and a range of other areas is vital to Europe's future competitiveness. A great deal of work needs to be done to ensure that. It must figure very prominently in the Community's agenda in future, and we will ensure that it does.
Mrs. Adams: Is the Prime Minister aware of the havoc wrought in the west of Scotland at the weekend by severe flooding in which lives were lost? Is he further aware that the Scottish Office Minister who visited the Paisley area yesterday gave us little comfort? Will the Prime Minister visit the stricken areas and make a statement that adequate funding will be available to reimburse families and local authorities?
The Prime Minister: I know that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing regret at the loss of life and the very significant damage following the severe flooding in Strathclyde. As the hon. Lady may or may not know, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland with responsibility for industry and local government was able to make a statement about the flooding to the Scottish Grand Committee this morning. He said that grant aid from central Government might be available under the Bellwin scheme.
Mr. Gallie: Has my right hon. Friend seen the "Scottish Engineering Quarterly Review" issued this week, which shows that orders are up, investment is up, recruitment is up and optimism is strong? Is he further aware that today Jetstream Aircraft at Prestwick announced yet another order? Is that not good news in the run-up to Christmas?
The Prime Minister: I must confess that I have not seen the journal to which my hon. Friend refers, but I will ensure that it is delivered to me regularly in future. I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend's good news and delighted to hear about Jetstream. A further order will be another welcome endorsement of the success of Scottish manufacturing.
Column 771British people gave 2.5 million units of blood freely and saved thousands of lives. Does he appreciate the dismay and disgust at the Bain proposals to privatise the service and close down five regional centres, from Plymouth to Lancaster, with 1,000 job losses? When will the Prime Minister put the national health service before private greed and abandon that proposal?
The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman knows that the NHS is getting more resources and more funding year after year. He also knows that there are areas which can be dealt with in the private sector without harm to patient care and that where that releases resources for patient care it is economically and medically sensible.
Mr. Yeo: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the results of the past four general elections show that the good sense of the British people can normally be relied on? Against that background, does he further agree that, if the 1996 intergovernmental conference produced substantial changes in the European Union the use of a referendum might be justified, but that in the intervening period speculation about the type of question to be asked is entirely bogus?
Column 772prepared to close the door on the possibility of one, but, equally, that there are important constitutional matters to be considered and it would be very unwise to make snap judgments as to how to deal with that matter. As I understand it, two days after I stated that last week, it suddenly became the Opposition's position as well.
Mrs. Jackson: According to official figures given to me by the Child Support Agency last week, that body has processed just four claims for compensation in the past 12 months. Will the Prime Minister ensure urgently that the thousands of families who have suffered from the incredible incompetence of that body are fully compensated for their financial and emotional losses?
The Prime Minister: As the hon. Lady knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security is looking at the child support arrangements. He will be responding to the Select Committee's report and will make an announcement as soon as the Government have finished their deliberations. Proposals for any changes will be brought forward at that time.
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