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Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington): I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says about the desirability of extra investment in our schools, particularly those catering for the younger end of the age range. Does he agree, however, that it is equally important to ensure that the money is spent to best effect? The management of local education authorities, and the way in which they handle such matters as admissions policy, are important in that context.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware, for instance, of Barrow Hedges primary school in my constituency, which comes under local management of schools in a Liberal-controlled authority? Many parents are worried about the fact that their children, having been allocated places in the nursery class, are now being excluded from the reception class in the primary phase. Will the hon. Gentleman convey a message to his colleagues in local government--that they should sort out those problems as well?

Mr. Foster: That is an interesting point, which was the subject of some debate today. The Select Committee was discussing the problems caused by the nursery voucher scheme, and the way in which some schools are changing their admissions policies. The hon. Gentleman, however, makes an even more significant point about the crucial importance of efficient use of existing resources. I entirely agree with him about that. He may be surprised to learn that all the surveys that have been conducted show that Liberal Democrat-run local education authorities use resources most efficiently, and have the smallest amount of money held back centrally. They delegate the most to individual schools.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am rather perplexed about the Liberal Democrats' claims about extra resources for education. They talk of crumbling schools, the need for more books and the desirability of smaller class sizes, but a total of more than £4 billion would have to be spent to deal with the problems, and I cannot equate that with the imposition of just 1p on the basic rate of income tax. Will the hon. Gentleman please tell us where the money will come from?

Mr. Foster: I am delighted to learn that the figure on the hon. Gentleman's briefing note, calculated by his friends in Conservative central office, has dropped so dramatically from the £7 billion to which they referred on a similar briefing note only a year ago. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, by the time of the general election, he will have sight of the detailed costings for our education proposals, as, indeed, will the whole country. The fundamental difference between the Liberal Democrats and the other political parties is that we believe in being honest with the electorate--telling them what our policies will cost, and where the money will come from. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) will contain himself for a moment, I may touch on a few of the issues that interest him.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not. I want to make a little more

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progress; I will happily give way to him later. He cannot deny the problems that exist in our schools, and the cuts that we have seen--and I hope that he would not deny the comments of the chief inspector of schools.

Having drawn attention to the deficiencies in school premises, the chief inspector would presumably accept that other figures show capital expenditure on schools to be around half what it was 20 years ago. More than 600 primary schools still have outside loos, and two fifths operate in temporary buildings: three quarters of a million pupils are educated in such buildings. The backlog of repair and maintenance that is needed just to make our schools safe amounts to some £3.2 billion.

Why is that? First, despite their claims to have improved education spending, the Government should acknowledge that, according to their own figures, the percentage of gross domestic product spent on education since the last general election had fallen from 5.3 per cent. to 5.1 per cent. by 1995-96. Secondly, if we look at the figure that the Government believe local authorities need to spend on primary and secondary education, the standard spending assessment--I refer to figures provided by the Library--we see that the primary SSA per pupil fell by 0.4 per cent. between 1992-93 and 1996-97, while the cut in the secondary SSA has been a staggering 9 per cent.

If the Minister and other Conservative Members are not happy to use the SSA--they acknowledge that it is not necessarily the same as the amount actually spent in schools--they may wish to look at the most reliable estimate of what is actually spent "on the ground" by LEAs--the potential schools budget. According to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, over that same post-election period--1992 to 1996--the primary PSB per pupil in England and Wales fell by around 3 per cent. in real terms, while the secondary PSB fell by 9 per cent.

When, 14 months ago, the Chancellor announced his Budget for the present year, I warned that tax cuts would mean school cuts. Sadly, I was proved right. Despite all the gloss from the Government, there was no extra money for our schools, and many had to make significant budget cuts. The Government have tried the same con trick this year. It is all very well to announce that SSAs are to be increased, but if there is no real-terms growth in Government funding for local authorities, and if local education authorities are spending above SSA--as almost all are doing already--the only way in which to avoid cuts is to impose a massive hike in council tax, which is often prevented by the capping regime, or a disproportionate cut in other council services which have already been cut to the bone. In many cases, both will be necessary.

The effect is clear: there is no such thing as a free income tax cut. The latest income tax cut will mean further cuts in our schools. In my constituency, Bath and North East Somerset council has no choice but to make savings of £10.4 million, and, even with such cuts, the council tax will have to rise well above the rate of inflation. Education must inevitably take its share of the cuts. Plans for cuts in music provision, discretionary awards, information technology support, school meals and other support services are being considered, alongside a cut in the schools budget of 4.1 per cent. this year and

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7 per cent. in a full year. Plans for a major literacy programme may well have to be put on hold, as may plans to raise the quality of education for under-fives.

Not surprisingly, my postbag has been full of letters expressing concern about the proposed cuts. Mr. and Mrs. Lewis of Combe Down in Bath recently wrote to me:

cuts which they found "totally unacceptable". They argued for increased spending to ensure that

    "our schools can continue to function without having to resort to drastic measures which would jeopardise the education of our children, and lead to blight in the economy of our country in future years."

Another of my constituents, Mr. Tim Heiden, wrote to the Prime Minister:

    "Your Government maintains that education is a high priority and that standards must improve. How can this be when schools are faced with further cuts in their finances?"

On Monday night, a packed public meeting in Bath started what the local media described as

    "a crusade for education, rallying opposition against proposed swingeing . . . cuts."

At that meeting Annita Wright, head teacher of Culverhay school, warned that some schools could face cuts of up to £100,000 in their budgets, which would have a direct impact on staffing levels. She said:

    "Any cuts to teaching and teaching staff are going to impact in the classroom. There is no way to avoid that."

As a report about the meeting in my local newspaper, The Bath Chronicle, made clear, all present knew where the blame lay. The report stated:

    "Last Friday Education Secretary Gillian Shephard washed her hands of the cash crisis, claiming the local authority had 'perfectly adequate and substantial funds' to spend on schools.

    But people at last night's meeting laid the blame for the crisis squarely at the Government's door.

    St. Gregory's headteacher David Byrne said: 'Take no notice of what Gillian Shephard said. Right from the start this authority has been under-funded.'"

Bath and North-East Somerset's budget, he said,

    "has not increased in line with its responsibility."

No wonder an action group, Parents Against Cuts in Education, has now been formed in my constituency.

The situation in Bath is replicated across the nation, but the people of the nation know who is to blame. They will have listened with incredulity to the Secretary of State for the Environment when he told the House that if

Like the burglar caught red-handed with the stolen goods, the cry, "Not me, guv," goes up. That, however, is nowhere near the mark. The people know that that will not wash. They know that further cuts in education are the price to be paid for the Tory's cynical attempt to buy votes at the general election. When they come to vote, they will know to avoid any candidates with the word "Con" written after their names.

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The electorate will be looking with caution at the Labour party, which has announced no change to the Government's figures. Further, it refuses to join the Liberal Democrats in voting against an income tax cut that will lead to school cuts. It will be difficult for Labour activists to campaign against education cuts when Labour Members fail to vote against the very measure that will give rise to them.

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