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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It is reported in this morning's edition of The Independent that, before he became a Cabinet Minister, the right hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken)--to whom I have given notice of my intention to raise this matter-- was director of a company which exported arms to Iran, contrary to the Government embargo. Has the right hon. Member offered to make a statement to the House to the effect that he observed due diligence at that time, and that he therefore broke no commands?

Madam Speaker: The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is no; I have not been informed that any hon. Member is seeking to make a personal statement.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On Monday, I met the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) at Darlington station, and he told me that he had returned from Stockton-on-Tees where he had made a visit to the Stockton, North constituency. Yesterday, I read in the newspapers that he had in fact visited my constituency, without giving prior notice to me in accordance with the courtesies that you expect to be extended to fellow Members of Parliament. I have given the right hon. Gentleman notice of my intention to raise this matter as a point of order today. Will you reiterate your guidance to Members of Parliament about the matter?

Madam Speaker: The entire House knows the views I hold on the matter. I find myself having to repeat them several times a week, and that should be entirely unnecessary. The right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) should have informed the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) that he intended to attend a public engagement in the constituency of the hon. Member. It is to be regretted that the right hon. Member for Copeland apparently did not do so.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I know that you are keenly aware of your role as custodian of the integrity of our democratic system. In recent years, many of the powers of your office which your predecessors exercised have been usurped by other undemocratic, unelected bodies outside the Parliament. Yesterday, one of my constituents was removed from the organisation Health Promotion Wales, because he was a whistleblower and had exposed corruption within that body. Is it not time that you exercised your powers and took back from those unaccountable, unelected bodies the powers that should be yours and Parliament's?

Madam Speaker: The hon. Gentleman seems to be giving me powers which I do not possess. If the House wishes to invest me with those powers, I will be quite prepared to accept such responsibilities. Until that time, I shall carry out the powers that I already have in the House.

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Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley): I have in my hand a statement completely exonerating my right hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), but it would be out of order for me to read it.

Madam Speaker: Thank you. I have already dealt with the matter.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): As you will have noticed, Madam Speaker, at Question Time today I have been pursuing matters relating to the arms trade with Burma. My point of order for you is not about that, as the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad), replied to my question courteously and in great detail.

My concern is that the Department of Trade and Industry replied to me in a very negative way, saying that it cannot provide us with information, for reasons of commercial confidentiality, but as you know, from time to time the Department of Trade and Industry is the first to release such information to the press. I know that you deprecate information being released in that way. Is there any mechanism by which we can get some information on this most important matter?

Madam Speaker: I am not totally clear to what the hon. Gentleman is alluding, but I am concerned to see that, when information is available, it is made available to the House through individual hon. Members. I should be grateful, therefore, if the hon. Gentleman would leave with my office all the information he has, so that I might examine it properly.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Have you had any request from the Prime Minister to make a statement about what steps he plans to take in respect of the involvement of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in selling arms to Iran against the embargo? It is not a matter for him, but one for the Prime Minister as to whether he can remain in the Cabinet.

Madam Speaker: I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that we have Prime Minister's Questions tomorrow, and if hon. Members are lucky enough to catch my eye, they may be able to put that question direct to the Prime Minister.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North): You will remember that, not very long ago, we used to have 20 minutes set aside for questions on what was then the European Community and is now the European Union. The situation has changed, in that, as Delors said, the time will soon come when 80 per cent. of political issues are decided at the European level rather than-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Do be quiet. I want to hear the hon. Gentleman. Mr. Marlow, let me hear what you have to say.

Mr. Marlow: I do not often find difficulty making myself heard. That was the situation. Now Europe is a more significant political issue. I know there are many ways in which it could be discussed and debated, but it is very important that the Executive comes under cross-examination and questioning on this subject. I think today we have had one substantive question on Europe. It may be that that is the way Members want it, but there is a certain amount of chance as to whether these questions get brought forward.

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If there were a separate time for asking questions on Europe, I am quite sure that right hon. and hon. Members would put down those questions, so that the matter could be properly considered. Would it be possible that we could consider bringing back the procedures we had several years ago, so that we can focus in Question Time more directly on the European issue?

Madam Speaker: As the hon. Gentleman is aware, I do not deal with the rota, but I noticed that there was only one substantive question today on Europe. The hon. Gentleman is sitting very close to the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, and he might like to take the matter up with him.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (Surrey, East): I was concerned to see on today's Order Paper my name appended to a number of dubious amendments to the Atomic Energy Authority Bill. I am sure that that was inadvertent, and I am equally sure it is just as embarrassing to the hon. Member for Coventry North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), with whom I get on very well. I am sure that he would be the first to say that, other than our surnames, we have very little in common. I wonder whether you would have a word with the relevant authorities, Madam Speaker, to ensure extra vigilance in future, so that this embarrassing faux pas cannot occur again.

Madam Speaker: The hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) is serving on the Standing Committee, so obviously there has been some misunderstanding and some misprinting. The hon. Gentleman has cleared up today's matter, and I shall do what I can to ensure that it does not occur in future.


National Health Service (Amendment)

Mr. John Austin-Walker, supported by Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mrs. Audrey Wise, Mr. Roger Sims, Mr. John Greenway, Mr. Alex Carlile, Mr. Jimmy Hood and Rev. Martin Smyth presented a Bill to make provision in relation to persons disqualified, or subject to proceedings for disqualification, under section 46 of the National Health Service Act 1977; to make provision about the constitution of the tribunal under that section; to make corresponding provision for Scotland; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon 31 March, and to be printed. [Bill 91.]

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Eradication of Mink

3.38 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to eradicate mink from the United Kingdom.

"A brown little face with whiskers, a grave round face with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice. Small neat ears and thick silky hair. It was the Water Rat"--

and not a mink, as might be expected. Ratty in "The Wind in the Willows", as described in that quotation, was in fact a water vole: a vegetarian mammal much loved since Kenneth Grahame wrote his book, and once common throughout the country. But no longer.

Last summer, I canoed from Blaby to Westminster with my brother to raise money for a hospice in Leicestershire. We travelled 137 miles, mostly on the Grand Union canal; we did not see a single water vole. Having grown up not far from that canal and having been used to seeing water voles in abundance, I made some inquiries, and discovered that water voles were being wiped out by mink. It is a fair bet that most hon. Members who are present, and most people in the country, have never seen a wild mink. They are not easy to spot, like pollution or visible damage to our countryside; but the fact that we do not see them does not mean that they are not causing serious harm to our wildlife.

They are rapidly destroying the water vole population, as well as having a significant effect on game and coarse fishing. They will kill water fowl, particularly moorhens, and any ground-nesting birds; they are also skilled at climbing trees. Indeed, it is alleged that they have destroyed significant numbers of kingfishers in their nests: kingfishers live near and beside water. As they reach offshore islands, we should recognise the impact that this alien introduction will have on the population of sea birds, including gannets and puffins. They also pose a growing threat to poultry farms, and have been seen attacking lambs.

The impact of the mink on our indigenous wildlife is not appreciated because it is not seen, but it is neverthess immensely serious. Of particular note is the excellent study of the distribution and changing status of the water vole, published in 1993 and carried out by the Vincent Wildlife Trust. The water vole is the optimum prey size for mink, and has developed no escape mechanism against the predator.

The authors noted that the link between mink and the decline in the number of water voles is "now incontrovertible", and pointed out that the mink had exterminated the muskrat from several sites in North America, and was thus quite capable of doing such damage here. They stated:

"The effect of mink on the water vole is serious and may well provide the final straw causing extinction of the species in many areas".

Mink were brought to this country from North America for fur farming before the second world war. By 1962, there were some 700 fur farms, many of which were run from sheds in back yards. Inevitably, some mink escaped. Some small-scale fur farmers, giving up their businesses, released their stock-- and there has been the equally astonishing sight of so-called animal welfare groups deliberately releasing the animal into the wild.

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In 1957, the first breeding wild mink were positively identified in Devon; now, not 40 years later, there are reckoned to be 110,000 wild mink, which have spread throughout most of the country and have even succeeded in reaching the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides by swimming across the ocean from the mainland.

If we leave aside the possibility of pumas on Bodmin moor, the mink is the only alien predatory mammal that man has been foolish enough to introduce into this country. We currently hear a good deal about the New Zealand flatworm and the effect that it is having on earthworms and our ecology as a whole. Perhaps we should look more closely at the effect of alien introductions into New Zealand; but my choice of comparable man-made ecological disaster would be Ascension island--once known as Bird island-- where rats came with sailors, who introduced cats to catch the rats, but the cats ate all the ground-nesting birds. The island is no longer known as Bird island. Man has created another potential ecological disaster with mink in this country. In Leicestershire, in my constituency, water voles are now scarce on the River Soar, as was pointed out earlier this month in the Leicester Mercury . That newspaper is running a campaign to clean up the River Soar; what a tragedy it is that water voles are unlikely to benefit. Nearby, mink have been seen in the middle of Market Harborough on the River Welland, and they are certainly present on the Grand Union canal.

The Government recognised in the Mink (Keeping) Order 1992 that it is desirable to destroy any mink at large. The question arises whether it is possible to eradicate feral mink from the United Kingdom. I believe that it is possible, and so, with more authority, does the director of the Institute of Zoology. The success of the coypu control organisation that eradicated the coypu from the UK should be studied carefully by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench. There are many similarities between coypu and mink. The coypu was imported for its fur--nutria--in the 1920s. Many escaped, and the population rose to a maximum of 200,000 in the wild in the late 1950s. That figure was dramatically reduced by the cold winter of 1962 and by a trapping campaign in the 1960s. The Ministry of Agriculture started a new campaign in April 1981, employing 24 trappers. The coypu was eradicated in six years, by 1987. Man, the mink's only predator in the UK, currently undertakes localised trapping and catches several thousand a year. It is appropriate to mention and to pay tribute to mink hunts, of which there are 20. They disrupt breeding programmes, and have a significant local impact. A successful eradication programme would inevitably end the sport of mink hunting, which should appeal at least to many who supported the recent anti-hunting Bill. It would lead also to a ban on the distasteful practice of farming mink for their fur.

If we are to eradicate mink from the United Kingdom, the danger of further escapes must be removed. The last recorded was in 1989. There are now only 12 registered mink farms in England, compared with 52 six years ago.

My Bill proposes that, acknowledging the desirability of conserving our native wildlife by eradicating an alien predator, the Government establish and fund a research

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project. There has been far too little research, and the project would study the mink, its distribution and the feasibility of its eradication. The project team could make recommendations on how best to eradicate the mink. It would gather support from many quarters, which might assist funding an eradication programme.

The most effective way of destroying mink is to catch them in live traps and then shoot them. That also means that no other animals are harmed by the trapping. The project would almost certainly want to run a trial eradication programme in a specific local area, such as a river system. My own preference would be the Isle of Lewis. If proved to work there, it could also work throughout the British isles. Such a research project would demonstrate the feasibility of eradicating mink, and also show that costs need not be exorbitant.

My Bill is a conservation measure, to conserve our native wildlife--much of which is threatened by the foolishness of human behaviour in introducing mink. It will be supported by all who really care about our wildlife and countryside, and who appreciate the serious nature of the situation. Recently, there have been several excellent articles on the matter in The Times and The Sunday Telegraph , and in The Sun by my noble Friend Lord Tebbit, who was once famously and unfairly likened in this Chamber to a semi-house-trained polecat.

I considered calling my Bill the Water Vole Conservation Bill. Some hon. Members may oppose it because they fail to understand the damage done to our ecology by feral mink. To them, I quote Kenneth Graham's Ratty, whose descendants are most affected by the problem:

"But don't you see what it means--you dull-witted animals?" I commend the Bill to the House.

3.48 pm

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): When "The Wind in the Willows" was written, there were no feral minks on the river bank. I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), but I am not convinced by the case that he made. I have read a range of studies of the impact of the feral mink on the countryside, and I have reached different conclusions from the hon. Gentleman. I do not believe that it is feasible to contemplate the eradication of feral mink, on economic or ecological grounds.

During the 1970s, the Ministry of Agriculture decided to cease its efforts to control mink. The hon. Gentleman was right to remind the House that mink were imported to North America for fur farming, which must be one of the most distasteful of the many abuses perpetrated by humans on animals. It was the escapes from those fur farms that led to the establishment of wild mink in the British countryside. The way that fur breeders turned mink out into the countryside when the fur trade collapsed in the 1950s represented the height of irresponsibility. I agree with the hon. Member for Blaby that the animal liberation people who turn mink loose in the countryside are doing no favours to the mink or to the native inhabitants, but it is worth reminding the House that there are still mink and arctic fox farms in this country. Seeing the wretched state in which mink are kept in some of those places makes it easy to realise how quickly they can escape. Some of the people who farm mink make Arthur Daley seem like Lord Curzon.

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Mink should never have been imported into this country. Those who profited from that are responsible for today's problem.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned coypu. I think that the comparison with the eradication of coypu from parts of East Anglia is not meaningful. Trapping coypu involved professional trappers; and eradication did not take seven years, either. My information is that it took about 15.

If mink are creating local problems in some areas, as they are, they can be dealt with by humane trapping. Mink are rather like Back Benchers--always curious--so it is easy to trap them. Alternatively, mink-proof fencing can be set up. The Ministry of Agriculture can give plenty of advice to the hon. Member for Blaby and others who have problems of this sort.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Vincent Wildlife Trust report in the context of the impact of mink on water voles, referring to that impact as the last straw. But he did not tell the House the other reasons for the decline of the population of water voles: habitat loss, changes in waterway management, and pollution. Certainly the mink came along and put additional pressure on the voles, but it is interesting that the hon. Gentleman omitted to mention these other points in the study.

Other studies have shown that otter hunting too had an impact on the increasing number of mink. Wherever otters breed, there are lower numbers of mink. Many other studies have shown that mink do not present the problem that the hon. Gentleman describes. There are ways of controlling feral mink populations in parts of the country where they might cause a problem.

Mink hunting is unacceptable and thoroughly ineffective. It is becoming the blood sport of the summer that fills the gap between the end of one fox hunting

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season and the beginning of the next. The one thing the British countryside does not need is another bunch of bloodthirsty sadists in waders damaging our river banks. No method of controlling numbers should be turned into a sport for perverts with a bloodlust. The people who hunt mink are far worse than their quarry. Indeed, they are the same people who wiped out the native otter.

I am not convinced that the mink constitutes the ecological threat to the countryside that the hon. Gentleman has suggested, and I shall oppose his motion.

Madam Speaker-- proceeded to put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No.19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business).

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Can you confirm that the very fact that this Division is taking place will mean that valuable time is taken out of the debate on education, in which many hon. Members wish to take part, but which the Labour party is taking time to prevent from starting?

Madam Speaker: I should have thought that that was rather obvious.

Question agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew Robathan, Mr. Peter Ainsworth, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. Harold Elletson, Mr. Henry Bellingham, Mr. Rupert Allason, Mr. Bernard Jenkin and Mr. Iain Duncan Smith.

Eradication of Mink

Mr. Andrew Robathan accordingly presented a Bill to eradicate mink from the United Kingdom: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 14 July, and to be printed. [Bill 92.]

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Opposition Day

[10th Allotted Day]

Education Cuts

Madam Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. I have also imposed a limit of 10 minutes on all speeches by Back-Bench Members today, as a great number of hon. Members are seeking to take part.

3.56 pm

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside): I beg to move, That this House asks the Government to reconsider its position on the Teachers' Pay Review Body award for 1995-96, because of the impact of increased pupil numbers, and the threat to standards, opportunity and achievement from the shortfall in funding experienced in many local authority areas and the vast majority of schools in England and Wales.

The time has come for Conservative Members to make up their minds whether they are in favour of saving the standard and opportunity for education for children in their schools and communities, or whether they are in favour of saving their own skins by attempting to salt away cash for a tax bribe in the general election.

On this occasion, they cannot win, because if they take away money, as they are doing, if they insist that tax cuts in November and possibly in 1996 are to be preferred to putting resources into maintaining the number of teachers, into keeping down class sizes in their schools, they will be punished as surely as night follows day by an electorate who are sick of duplicity, of people pretending that they are interested in children's education, in what is happening in their schools, and then turning up in the House and voting the opposite way.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunkett: Not at the moment.

We are not asking Conservative Members to condemn their Government and their Cabinet. The British people are doing that effectively enough as it is. We are asking Conservative Members merely to request their Government to think again. Every Conservative Member who votes today against our motion, who votes down the opportunity for the Cabinet to give a second thought to what is happening to children in our schools throughout the country, will surely reap their reward, because we will ensure that every newspaper, local radio station and elector in his or her area knows which way that Member voted. Do Conservative Members back the Secretary of State for Education, who whispers in dark corners to education corespondents that she cares about what is happening in schools and that she has been fighting a battle with her colleagues in Cabinet? Do they do that, or do they back those who believe that she has had enough?

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in Leicestershire, Labour councillors supported Liberal Democrat councillors in producing a budget that will mean cuts, whereas the Conservative councillors on Leicestershire county council produced a

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budget which would have increased spending on education by 2.85 per cent.? The increase is down to just over 2 per cent. because of a Labour-Liberal Democrat budget. What will the hon. Gentleman tell the newspapers about the way that councillors in Leicestershire voted?

Mr. Blunkett: People will say, "Do we believe those who have inflicted these cuts from the centre on every county and on every school in the country, or do we believe parents, teachers and governors who know what is happening in their schools?" It is not Labour and Liberal councillors who have inflicted these cuts: it is Conservative Members and their Cabinet.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Blunkett: I will not give way.

The Secretary of State knows the truth. She is kind, well-meaning and very likeable. Unfortunately, she is totally ineffective. She is overridden and overruled, a schoolmistress who has turned into the bedevilled schoolgirl. The House does not need to take my word for that: it can take the word of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who only last week said:

"Gillian is making excellent progress and a satisfactory amount of finance is on offer."

Gillian is not making satisfactory progress: she is not making any progress at all. She has pleaded with her Cabinet colleagues for more money. While the Foreign Secretary and the President of the Board of Trade wring their hands and tell the people of Oxfordshire that they are in favour of looking after their children, it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury who are in command.

Dame Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden): The hon. Gentleman speaks about progress. Perhaps he could help the debate to make progress. How much money would the Opposition donate for the proposition that he puts to the House? It would help the House to know how much money the Opposition would like to spend to replace the so-called cuts in education.

Mr. Blunkett: The right hon. Lady speaks about "so-called cuts in education". That shows no sense of reality about what is happening in the classroom. [Interruption.] I will answer the question, which is more than Conservative Members ever do on the radio--when they are not too frightened go on radio to answer questions about their policies. I will take questions and lectures from Conservative Members when they tell me about the £744 million that they spent on changing the national curriculum, changing tests and bedeviling education with turmoil for six years.

I have made it absolutely clear, and I repeat, that, when an independent review body report is accepted by a Government who have abolished negotiations between employers and employees, they have an absolute obligation, moral and political, to pay for it. We would have paid for it from moneys that the Government have cut from the projected expenditure on education that they promised at the general election. They promised tax cuts, but they increased taxes. They promised to increase public spending, but they are cutting it for every child in the land.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): My hon. Friend is correct when he says that people out there know precisely who is to blame. On Saturday, 20,000 people went on a

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march through central London. Most of them had never been on a demonstration before. They included parents, school kids, and people who had never been to London. They know who is guilty in this case. Another 5,000 from Derbyshire have been demonstrating today. To a man and a woman, they know who the guilty people are. It would be relatively easy to find the money if we started using the £35 billion that has been spent keeping more than 4 million people idle, and if we started taking back the £50 billion that has been given to the richest 10 per cent. in tax cuts. That is the way to improve our education system. Let us have smaller classes and more teachers employed.

Mr. Blunkett: I always welcome the powerful interventions of my hon. Friend. He is backed today by 3,000 people from Derbyshire-- [Interruption.] No, I said that he was backed today by 3,000 people. [Interruption.] He is backed by thousands of people from Derbyshire. I would send Conservative Members out there to count them but, unfortunately, not many of them would be up to it.

Let me quote not Labour Members, parents, governors or teachers, but the words of Conservative Members. What about the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), a former Minister with responsibility for education? Four former Ministers with responsibility for education have publicly announced that they believe that the Government should think again. We believe that even the Secretary of State's predecessor thinks that she should think again. Some of us suspect that the right hon. Lady thinks that she should think again, but she cannot get enough support from Conservative Back Benchers.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunkett: No. The hon. Gentleman should listen to the quote from the hon. Member for Wantage, who said:

"But in my view, the Government response to the teachers pay award is quite indefensible."

No Labour Member could put it more clearly than that; nor could we put it more clearly that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), who today repeated on Channel 4 that he felt that he could not vote with the Government tonight unless more money was made available to his county of Warwickshire.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Blunkett: Which of those wonderful people shall I give way to? I give way to the hon. Member over there on the right.

Madam Speaker: Mr. Paul Marland, who has been standing a long time.

Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West): Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the bind that Gloucestershire schools find themselves in is the result of the profligacy of Liberal and Labour councillors on Gloucestershire county council, and that debt servicing is the third biggest item in that council's budget? That is why the council is threatening to impose cuts on schools.

Mr. Blunkett: The response will be clear and decisive in both the local elections on 5 May and in

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the general election. People will deal clearly with Conservative Members who wring their hands and wash them of their responsibility, including their responsibility for other people's children. Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Blunkett: I shall not give way. I have given way sufficiently for the time being.

Conservative Members, and certainly the right hon. Lady's colleagues in the Cabinet, would have understood what she was talking about in her famous letter telling them what the results of their actions would be if their children were in state education at state schools. The more people send their children to state education and state schools, the more they understand what is going on. If I let them in, some of the Conservative Members who are desperate to intervene might tell us immediately where their children go to school, where they went to school, or what sort of cuts their children are experiencing. This is not a game; it is about children's education. This is about every parent in every school that is affected feeling the result of Tory party policy. This is about those heads and governors trying to carry out their responsibilities having to sit down in the next three months and decide which teacher, which care assistant, which technician and which school secretary should be given a redundancy notice. That is what it is about: real people and real children in education up and down the country.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Blunkett: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman over there.

Madam Speaker: I think it was the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold).

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