Previous Section Home Page

Column 1116

I move to the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). I do not know whether he is in his place. He pleaded--

Sir Rhodes Boyson rose --

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) is clearly not giving way.

Mr. Kilfoyle: The hon. Member for West Derbyshire said that he waited 28 hours for an answer from the chairman of the Derbyshire education committee. I have news for the hon. Gentleman. I managed to meet the chairman today. He was here taking part in a lobby with thousands of Derbyshire parents, teachers and pupils. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not go out and meet them today.

Mr. McLoughlin: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has said that I refused to meet people today. He is wrong.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That was not a point of order.

Mr. Kilfoyle: The hon. Member for Dartford talks about Stalinism. I do not know what he knows about that or about democratic centralism. I know a fair bit about both. Outside the Militant Tendency, I have never known of a better example of democratic centralism than the way in which the Conservative party conducts the country's affairs.

When the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) wants to sing the praises of grant-maintained schools, I hope that he will consider the position of St. James school in Bolton, where the head teacher was sacked for corruption. One may say that that was the exception that proved the rule. I could not understand why the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation, which had a base in that school, could not, apparently, monitor what was going on there.

Education in Kent was raised by the hon. Members for Dartford and for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) in an intervention, as Hansard will show. Whenever I see the hon. Member for Dartford and his close friends and collaborators the Members for Gravesham and for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey)--who is off on an antipodean visit--I tend to think of the Bash Street Kids. I think of Plug, Danny and Smiffy in educational terms. In a kinder moment, I tend to think of the Three Stooges--Larry, Curly and Mo--except that they were amusing. There is nothing amusing about the attritional warfare that those hon. Gentlemen wage against education provision in Kent.

Mr. Dunn: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Could you ask the hon. Gentleman to repeat the attack on me? I could not make out what he was saying.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I shall provide Hansard with a translation if it needs it. The hon. Member for Dartford fails to point out that, in the 18 years before the new administration came into Kent, not one new nursery place was built in Kent. Eight new nursery units have been set up this year, including one in his constituency. The hon. Gentleman failed to point out that the administration has given £750,000 to voluntary and independent sectors, that it has doubled the number of

Column 1117

classroom assistants in infant classes or where there are children with special needs, and that it has reduced the number of children waiting for special needs assessments. It has also injected an extra £11.8 million for children with special educational needs by fully funding the code of practice. He also failed to point out that it has made good a shortfall of nearly £500,000 for section 11 funding which was caused by Home Office decisions and withdrawals, that it fully funded the teachers' pay rise last year and that it is providing £6 million extra to take care of repairs in the county. The silence that greets these points is instructive.

I urge the House to vote for the Labour motion and to treat the Government amendment with the contempt that it deserves.

9.44 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr. Eric Forth): The few people who have witnessed the debate--sadly, there have been relatively few--would be forgiven for thinking that it has taken place under entirely false pretences. This is styled an "Opposition day" debate-- a debate called by the Opposition--and one would therefore have assumed that the Opposition regarded the subject as being of passing importance. However, I have made a careful note of the numbers of Labour and Liberal Members present during this debate on what the Opposition claim is an important subject close to their hearts. At 5.30 pm, there were four Labour Back Benchers and one Liberal Member in the Chamber. At 8.15 pm, there were two Labour Back Benchers and no Liberal Members at all. Even half an hour ago, there were as many as six Labour Members present and the same Liberal Member--the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster)--who, I concede, has been here most of the day and who is still in his place.

The numbers that I have cited are bad enough but the depths of cynicism displayed by the Opposition are well illustrated by the briefing that has fallen into my hands. It is headed "PLP Briefing by David Blunkett MP". I shall not weary the House by relating its irrelevances--

Mr. Blunkett: Read it out.

Mr. Forth: I shall read out part of it. The hon. Gentleman must be patient--I shall read his words to him. The last page of the briefing states:

"We now have a major campaign running throughout the country with a petition available, leaflets prepared and education is a central part of our thrust for May 4".

So much for the alleged spontaneity of what is happening across the country. It is perfectly obvious that the protests that the Opposition claim are taking place are nothing more than a cynical and carefully orchestrated attempt to worry people unduly.

Regrettably, the debate has not, as one might have hoped, been about standards, achievement and opportunities in education. We would have welcomed such a debate. In reality, it has been about money. I shall dwell for a moment on money because a number of interesting facts have emerged.

For example, it has emerged that the total rates, community charge and council tax arrears run up by local authorities amounts to some £1.5 billion. In other words, authorities have failed to collect money that they should have collected, although some are at the same time

Column 1118

complaining about not having enough money. That is bad enough, but the independent Audit Commission said that there are some £500 million worth of savings to be made through local authority efficiencies.

We have also heard that surplus school places could represent savings for local authorities of up to £250 million. Mention has been made of local education authority and school balances. The independent schoolteachers review body said that its pay award was affordable.

In her opening remarks, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the Ofsted report. She quoted the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) as having said that the chief inspector's report was

"about as unbiased as you can get".

She went on to point out that the same report said about education money:

"In overall terms, the provision of resources is satisfactory." All in all, the picture is one of many opportunities being available to the local authorities that care to use them and manage their affairs and choose their priorities properly. They can make available to themselves substantial sums of money to spend on education, if they so wish.

That is the key to this whole debate. If we then consider individual authorities, some very interesting facts emerge. I was told today that, apparently, there was some sort of protest emanating from Derbyshire. Labour Members could not make up their minds earlier about how many people were involved in that protest. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who has not been seen since and, certainly, has not been present throughout the debate, claimed that 5,000 people were involved. The hon. Member for Brightside thought that the figure was 3,000 and then said that, anyway, there were a few thousand involved.

We do not know how many people were involved in that protest, but what has emerged is that the people who were here from Derbyshire included teachers and, it is said, pupils. I have been told--I cannot believe that this is true--that the teachers were taking what in the trade is known as a Baker day, so that they could come to the House of Commons on a political protest. I will be making it my business to make further inquiries about that, because if teachers in Derbyshire or anywhere else are using a Baker day to be away from their classrooms for a political protest, I would want to know a lot more about it.

The situation is worse than that. If supply cover was having to be introduced in those teachers' classrooms to continue the education of their pupils, I would like to know how Derbyshire could find the money for supply cover to cover a political protest at the same time as it is apparently complaining about a lack of money.

Dr. Reid: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for threats to be made against persons approaching this House with a view to lobbying their Members of Parliament? Is that not a breach of parliamentary privilege-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. All hon. Members are responsible for the words that they utter in this Chamber.

Mr. Forth: I would have thought that the House would regard it as a dereliction of duty if I did not make it my

Column 1119

business to satisfy myself that taxpayers' money, which is intended to be spent on education, was not being spent instead on political protest.

Dr. Reid: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I do not honestly think that there can be anything further to that point of order. It is very clear. Every hon. Member is responsible for his own words in this Chamber. That is crystal clear.

Dr. Reid: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It had better be a new point of order.

Dr. Reid: I seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on whether it is a breach of parliamentary privilege to threaten those approaching a Member of Parliament.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that he should write to Madam Speaker about such matters.

Mr. Barnes rose --

Hon. Members: Give way.

Mr. Forth: I seem-- [Interruption.] I seem to have touched a rather raw nerve end.

Mr. Barnes rose --

Mr. Forth: I shall follow the rather bad example of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) and I shall not take any interventions.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Absolutely!

Mr. Forth: I was going to point out that expenditure on education is of course a matter for local education authorities. That has emerged clearly from today's debate. What has been really important about today is the number of interesting examples that my hon. Friends have given of what their local education authorities have chosen as priorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman), in a very telling intervention, pointed out that her local authority of Lancashire had increased its administrative staff over three or four years from 503 to 548. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) pointed out that Nottinghamshire had run up an overtime bill for its staff of £10 million and was carrying 20,000 surplus school places. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) pointed out that Ealing has some £17 million in its reserves.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) referred to 20,000 surplus school places in Derbyshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber), in an excellent speech, pointed out not only that his authority of Wiltshire was spending 5.2 per cent. of its expenditure on administration, but, unbelievably, that it was wasting valuable money, which could be going on education, on pursuing some sort of anti-hunting vendetta.

Column 1120

Such examples tell us clearly not only that the opportunities exist for local authorities to reorder their priorities and put more money into education, but that authorities such as those mentioned by my hon. Friends are wilfully refusing to order their spending priorities so as to put money into education. That is a condemnation of the kind that the debate has brought out clearly, but which Opposition Members have chosen to ignore completely.

What has emerged during the debate about Opposition policies? Predictably, the answer is almost nothing. Nothing has emerged about what the Opposition would do about education--although I must admit that the hon. Member for Bath has said that his party would put more money into education. However, on a platform that he shared with me recently--I am breaking no confidences because it was a public occasion--he said that the absolute priority for the Liberal Democrats was to put all the money into education for under- fives.

So the Liberal Democrats are not talking about funding the teachers' pay increase, repairing crumbling school buildings or anything similar. I realise that education for the under-fives is where their priorities lie, but we should not let the debate pass imagining that they would put more money into the teachers' pay award, which is the subject of the Opposition motion.

We listened in vain to hear what the Labour party would do about the education spending issues that Labour Members talk about. They talk about class sizes, arrears of building repairs and further and higher education expansion; occasionally they refer to student grants and loans; they have been known to refer to the reading recovery scheme. But they are not prepared or able to give any idea of whether they would fund even one of those areas. There is silence on that subject, and that is one of the most telling facts to emerge from the debate--the avoidance of any commitment by Opposition Members on what they would do to improve or even to change education spending. They are silent, and that fact should be well known.

Things get worse when Opposition Members start talking about standards and quality in education. As was pointed out forcefully by my right hon. Friends the Members for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) and for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), we know all too clearly that time and again when the Government have brought forward positive measures to improve education standards, the Labour party has systematically opposed them. Labour opposed testing pupils to establish their educational needs, and opposed the publication of school results, until--

Mr. Blunkett: No, we did not.

Mr. Forth: Labour opposed that until the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) experienced a conversion. Now he tells us that not only does he welcome the publication of results--

Mr. Blunkett: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Forth: No, I shall not.

Apparently the Leader of the Opposition would welcome the publication of even more details about what is happening in schools--although whether his Back Benchers support him remains to be seen.

Column 1121

As for the hon. Member for Brightside, he said recently about grant-maintained schools:

"I am having no truck with middle-class, left-wing parents who preach one thing and send their children to another school outside the area".

I cannot imagine whom he was thinking of. And when he was challenged during the debate about his attitude to grant-maintained schools earlier in the debate he said something from a sedentary position, which I shall now have written into Hansard for him, because I made a note of what he said. It was, "I have not changed my views on opt-outs." In other words, in spite of his recent attempts to con headmasters of grant-maintained schools, the hon. Gentleman has not changed his mind on opt-outs, and his implacable opposition to grant-maintained status remains unchanged.

Therefore the debate has been informative, but not in the ways that the Opposition wanted it to be. We have established that education is in no sense starved of resources. It has received more and more money systematically, year on year, ever since the Government have been in office.

Secondly, we have clearly shown our commitment to improving quality and standards in education. All of the measures which we have put in place--the curriculum, testing, independent inspection, the publication of the performance results of schools--have systematically ensured an increase in the quality and standards in education. That is our continuing commitment. We have heard no commitments and nothing of any substance from the Opposition tonight. I urge the House utterly to reject the motion.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question: --

The House divided: Ayes 256, Noes 289.

Division No. 119] [10.00 pm


Column 1121

Abbott, Ms Diane

Adams, Mrs Irene

Ainger, Nick

Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)

Allen, Graham

Alton, David

Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)

Armstrong, Hilary

Austin-Walker, John

Banks, Tony (Newham NW)

Barnes, Harry

Barron, Kevin

Bayley, Hugh

Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret

Beith, Rt Hon A J

Bell, Stuart

Benn, Rt Hon Tony

Bennett, Andrew F

Bermingham, Gerald

Berry, Roger

Betts, Clive

Blair, Rt Hon Tony

Blunkett, David

Boateng, Paul

Bradley, Keith

Bray, Dr Jeremy

Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)

Burden, Richard

Byers, Stephen

Caborn, Richard

Callaghan, Jim

Next Section

  Home Page