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Mr. Forth: The Department is currently supporting locally-devised projects to a value of some £14 million in more than 80 English local education authorities under the truancy and disaffected pupils programme of the grants
Column 150for education support and training scheme 1994-95. In December, we announced further support for some 90 projects in 1995-96 to a value of £15.6 million.
Mr. Amess: Is my hon. Friend aware that during my present tour of every school in my constituency, the subject of truancy has been mentioned, and that Basildon heads will be mentioning it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when they meet her on 8 March? As GEST expenditure forms a considerable investment of public funds, can my hon. Friend reassure Basildon heads that the present schemes are working?
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend, as ever, raises an important point which concerns the Secretary of State and myself constantly. I hope that he agrees that our considerable investment in those projects has great potential to show enormous benefit, particularly when the team of consultants that we have asked to conduct an independent survey of the projects report to us later this year. We want them to evaluate the projects to find out how best to deal with the difficult problem of truancy and then to disseminate that as good practice to help my hon. Friend's head teachers, who I know will want to work with him in dealing with that extremely difficult problem.
14. Mr. Steen: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what is the Government's policy on the optimum number of pupils per teacher in (a) primary and (b) secondary schools; and if she will make a statement as to how far this policy has been achieved.
Mr. Steen: Is the Minister aware that Devon county council has told schools in my constituency and throughout Devon that they will have to cut the number of teachers, increase class sizes and get rid of the choice of subjects in schools because they can not afford to pay? Could my hon. Friend please tell me that this is part of a scurrilous campaign by the Liberal county council to terrify parents and to make people fear that cuts will be made when the money could be taken from elsewhere in the budget?
Mr. Squire: I know that my hon Friend's attention to his own LEA's detailed expenditure will be greater than mine. It is open to his local education authority and to some of the others we have already mentioned this afternoon to choose priorities in such a way that they do not damage the quality of education in the schools in their area. If his authority is not doing that, it must be judged by the standards that it sets. The Government have determined increased expenditure for education; it is up to authorities, if they so wish, to choose other priorities.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell: A few weeks ago I asked a question for written answer about teacher ratios in the local education authority in Northumberland. There has been an enormous increase in teacher ratios, and last week teachers in Northumberland told me that, if the cuts go ahead and teachers are lost, there will be another
Column 151enormous increase in teacher ratios there. What will the Minister do about that, or is he just in charge of the nursery school and not education?
Mr. Squire: A good try, I suppose. The hon. Gentleman has heard successive Ministers say from the Dispatch Box that how schools organise themselves must be a matter for individual schools. He may also have heard a moment ago, in response to an earlier question, that I drew attention to the fact that while numbers of classes over 30 in primary schools are indeed rising slightly to just over a quarter, that compares with a figure of 35 per cent. when the Government that he would have supported left office.
Mr. Riddick: Following the Audit Commission report which showed that local authorities took on an extra 90,000 staff between 1987 and 1993, does my hon. Friend agree that local education authorities should be trying to reduce spending on central bureaucracies rather than spending on schools?
Mr. Squire: My hon. Friend, who speaks with considerable knowledge of education matters, is absolutely right. [Interruption.] Although Opposition Members do not like hearing the truth, they are going to hear it. It is important for an authority to examine the whole range of its services, and in particular to try to protect its teaching force as far as possible.
Mr. Hutton: In the light of today's announcement that the chairman of the National Westminster bank has awarded himself a 35 per cent. pay increase, and the news that the seven wise men appointed by the Confederation of British Industry to provide new guidelines on executive pay have themselves shared more than £4 million in pay and tax this year, does the Prime Minister think that it is time that he joined the British public in condemning those latest examples of executive greed in Britain's boardrooms?
The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman will know, when excessive and unjustified pay increases have been agreed I have condemned them--and condemned them from the Dispatch Box on a number of occasions. Where the hon. Gentleman and I disagree is on whether, in the private sector, it is right for the Government to institute a pay policy both at the top--as the hon. Gentleman would clearly like--and with minimum pay controls at the bottom, as the Labour party would like.
Column 152real and growing problem in today's society? Will he urge our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to speed up his inquiry into the problem, and advance positive suggestions for its alleviation as soon as possible?
The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend that noise pollution is a nuisance. I am sometimes inclined to think that it is a particular nuisance at 3.15 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister: I have no doubt about the extent of nuisance that is caused to many people, and the Department of the Environment is examining that now. I hope that we shall have some proposals on which to negotiate in the next few weeks, and I shall be pleased to hear the views of not only my hon. Friend, but anyone else who has views to offer on the issue.
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman will know--for the Socialist Health Association will have told him--that improved internal adminstration is necessary, not least because of the lack of financial control that existed before.
Mr. Blair: Is not the problem the difference between what Ministers say about the health service and people's experience of it? [Interruption.] Conservative Members would do well to listen to their constituents.
Is not the problem the fact that people who see wards, and sometimes whole hospitals, facing merger or closure would prefer that £1,000 million to be spent not on more accountants and company cars but on beds, nurses and patient care?
The Prime Minister: I am intrigued that the right hon. Gentleman has referred to what the public say. He may have seen the recent "British Social Attitudes Survey", which makes it clear that, since our reforms, the number of people satisfied with the national health service has leapt by another 20 per cent., and that nine out of 10 people think that the national health service is satisfactory or better.
He may also have seen the recent survey by doctors, which found that the overwhelming majority felt that health needs were being better met under the reforms than previously, and that a 2:1 ratio felt that competition among hospitals had improved service. That is the view of the public who use the service and of the doctors who run the service, both of whom have a greater and more in-depth knowledge of it than the right hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Blair: I have just one question for the Prime Minister: if the service is so good, why did the deputy chairman of the Conservative party ask before Christmas, in the interests of the Conservative party, for zero media coverage of the health service?
The Prime Minister: I want a lot of coverage and I shall tell the right hon. Gentleman why--so that we can refer to the 8 million patients in total who are treated each year, to the 119,000 cataract operations, to the 333 million free prescriptions, and to the growth of the national health
Column 153service over the past few years. I might also remind the right hon. Gentleman not only that more people are treated and that they are better treated, but that a wider range of service is available to the NHS today than ever before. Before he and his colleagues doubt the Government's commitment to the health service, they should consider the additional funding that we have provided, and recall that Labour were the only Government ever to cut resources to the NHS.
Mr. Fabricant: My right hon. Friend will know that I am a member of the Select Committee on National Heritage and that it is considering the future of the British film industry. Is my right hon. Friend aware that Mr. Ken Loach, an English director, is today premiering his new film, which champions the cause of nationalisation on behalf of Labour's Defend Clause IV group? Is my right hon. Friend aware that that film will be a nostalgic romp, looking at the nationalised car industry and the nationalised steelyards, and that it will possibly feature a romantic look at Red Robbo? Will my right hon. Friend be nominating that film for an Oscar?
The Prime Minister: I very much doubt that I will be nominating the film for an Oscar, but it seems to be the sort of film that deserves a wide circulation. There is no doubt that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) is right to wish to abolish clause IV from his party's constitution. The only matter of surprise is that so many people in the 1990s still disagree with that obvious and worthy cause. The question is whether the right hon. Gentleman will succeed, and the answer is that of course he will, because he will have the support of the unreconstructed trade unions in doing so.
Mr. Salmond: May I offer the Prime Minister a chance actually to do something about fat cat salary increases? Some thousands of small shareholders in British Gas, supported by the staff, are going to the annual general meeting in two months' time with a motion to cut the outrageous pay increase of Mr. Cedric Brown. Does that motion carry the Prime Minister's support or not?
The Prime Minister: I have made it absolutely clear to the hon. Gentleman and to others that, if one puts an industry in the private sector, it must make its decisions in the private sector. That applies to British Gas, as to other companies.
Mr. Greenway: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the United Kingdom livestock industry leads Europe, both in terms of the quality of meat production, and in standards of animal welfare? Will his Government continue to press for higher welfare standards across Europe and, at the same time, uphold the rule of law in
Column 154Britain, so that farmers and haulage firms can go about their legitimate business, free from the constant disruption of animal rights activists?
The Prime Minister: I agree with both my hon. Friend's propositions. There is no doubt about the need to maintain law and order, whatever the cause, where the law has been broken. As I have said, legally and practically, we need to work at Community level if we seriously want to bring the standards of animal welfare across the European Union up to the standards in this country. That is what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is seeking to do, and I hope and believe that he will be successful.
Mr. Taylor: What advice does the Prime Minister have for the governors of schools such as St. Agnes in my constituency which has seven teachers to cover the seven age groups in the school and who are now having to decide whether to make one of those staff redundant because of the failure to meet the teachers' pay increase? Should the school engage in those redundancy procedures now, or should it wait a few weeks to see whether the Secretary of State for Education comes up with the goods in her argument with the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
The Prime Minister: I think, perhaps, the first thing the governors should do is to examine whether their education authority has its priorities right in determining where the money that has been allocated to it has gone. Then, they might look at how many surplus places there might be in that education authority. I suggest then that they look at the balances in the education authority. When and if they are absolutely satisfied that the money is being spent properly, perhaps they can assure the hon. Gentleman of that. Nothing that the hon. Gentleman has said has convinced me that that is so in this case.
Sir James Kilfedder: Is it not manifestly unfair and totally undemocratic that I was not consulted, briefed or spoken to at any stage during the drawing up of the draft document? Does not the Prime Minister feel that, in view of the involvement through Dublin of the Social Democratic and Labour party in the drafting of the document and in view of the fact that Her Majesty's Government, through their representatives, have been talking to the political wing of the terrorists, that this is a contemptuous way to deal with Unionist Members of Parliament? Surely, when the Prime Minister speaks directly to the people of Northern Ireland, they will remember this.
The Prime Minister: There has been widespread consultation. It is not the case that other parties have been involved in the drafting of the document that is to be produced. As my hon. Friend will know, the document is for consultation and consideration with my hon. Friend, with representatives from all the political parties in the House and with people right across Northern Ireland. What we are seeking to do, as we were asked to do by the political parties, is to set down some ideas for consideration, discussion and negotiation between the
Column 155political parties. When and if they are able to reach agreement, we will carry the matter forward. The objective that I have is the same as that which I know my hon. Friend has and that is to ensure that what has been thus far a ceasefire is able to be turned into a permanent peace for the well-being of all the people in Northern Ireland, including my hon. Friend's constituents, whom he represents so well.
Mr. Maginnis: Does the Prime Minister agree that a well-directed and well-planned approach towards a practical solution to Northern Ireland's problems would be better than a never-ending debate about some sort of theoretical process--the sort of debate that has gone on for 10 years since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement--which did not deliver peace, stability and reconciliation? Will the Prime Minister undertake to read and to study my party's document entitled "A Practical Approach to Problem Solving in Northern Ireland", with a view to arriving at a solution and not continuing this theoretical and futile debate for yet another 10 years?
The Prime Minister: I share with the hon. Gentleman the wish not to have a futile debate. The way to ensure a constructive debate is to come together and discuss the ideas that are about and that are on the table. Ideas have
Column 156been produced at the request of the political parties. As it happens, I received the document in the hon. Gentleman's hands last evening, and I have read it this morning. I have no doubt that other documents will be produced. One has already been provided by the leader of the Democratic Unionist party. Further documents may be prepared.
What is necessary; what the obligation owed, I believe, to the people in Northern Ireland who want a permanent peace, is for all of us--the Government, the hon. Gentleman, other hon. Members and the people of Northern Ireland--to make sure that those matters are examined, discussed, considered, and decisions reached that will enable us to move forward into a permanent peace. That is what I wish to seek, and my mind is open to the right mechanism to ensure that we achieve it. But what I am determined is that we do seek to move forward to try and ensure that the chance that is in our hands--we may not be able to hold it--that the chance of peace that is in our hands should not slip away because we are not prepared to examine the matter, to talk about the matter, to consider the matter, and to reach the conclusions that the hon. Gentleman wishes to see reached.
The following Member took and subscribed the Oath :
James Donnelly Touhig, Esq., for Islwyn.
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