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Mr. John Marshall: It is remarkably generous of the hon. Gentleman to give way, bearing in mind that he has been talking about the need to spend more money. Will he explain why Liberal councils spend much less than Conservative councils on education?

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon): There are no Conservative councils.

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend makes the point from a sedentary position that we are not sure which Conservative council is being used to judge us, given the few Conservative councils that now exist. People know that education in the areas that the Conservative party used to control was extremely badly damaged.

Unlike the Conservative party, which starved education of the money that it needed, and unlike the Labour party, which was too timid to promise more, the Liberal Democrat position on funding is clear, simple and unchanged. An under-funded education service is a false economy. That is why Liberal Democrats remain committed to increased investment in education and training. If necessary, we shall increase the level of taxation by 1p in the pound to pay for that increased investment. That is the equivalent of half a pint of beer a week for the average taxpayer.

That is hardly too much to ask for the future prosperity of our nation, especially when that increase in taxation can fund increased investment to provide high quality early-years education for all three and four-year-olds without using a cumbersome and bureaucratic scheme. It will fund more books and equipment, smaller class sizes and effective support for children with special education needs. It will also provide increased investment for decent buildings.

Unlike politicians of other parties, Liberal Democrats believe that those who will the ends must also will the means. The gimmicks and the soundbites are not for us. Only the Liberal Democrats offer radical policies backed by clear funding proposals. Under-investment in education is tantamount to condemning future generations to the scrapheap, along with this failing Government. Education is vital and increased investment is essential. If we fail to meet the challenge, we fail the nation.

7.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Robin Squire): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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I judge that the debate is about resources for education and standards. I shall show that the Government have invested heavily in education and that, as a direct result of our policies, standards are rising across education.

It is especially disappointing that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who moved the motion, is not ready to recognise increased spending on this occasion, bearing in mind that he has done so in the past. He told the House in 1994:

His speech this evening was the predictable gloom and doom that we have come to expect, wrapped up with his famous promise that there will be a penny on income tax for education.

Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman says, that is soundbite politics, not serious policy. Let us consider the commitments that the hon. Gentleman's penny is expected to pay for. Some have been mentioned by him this evening and others have been mentioned in Liberal Democrat documents.

The list is virtually endless. The commitments include providing pre-school education for every three and four-year-old, education or training for 16 to 19-year-olds in work, retraining and education for adults, £500 million of capital expenditure on schools, unstated additional resources for higher education, increasing funding for all schools, abolition of student loans, extra funding for pupils with special education needs in addition to the delegated schools' budget, the reduction of all primary school class sizes to no more than 30, investment in new equipment and teaching aids, including information technology, increasing funding for in-service training for teachers and giving all students, full time and part time, entitlement to social security throughout the year.

The Liberal Democrats claim that that amazing list of pledges could be paid for by a 1p rise in the rate of income tax. That is unutterable nonsense. To coin a phrase, based on audience observation:

Let us not just say a penny, for that sounds nice and small. The average family, which earns £21,400 a year, would find itself paying £18 extra tax every month as a result of the penny increase.

Even that is not the end of the story. The House may recall that the Liberal Democrats have been promising their 1p for at least a couple of years. In November 1996, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer again reduced the standard rate of income tax by a further 1p. I assume, therefore, that the logic of the position of the hon. Member for Bath is that his party now supports a 2p increase in the standard rate of income tax. That helps a bit with the arithmetic of the pledges, but it increases the pain, especially for those on below average earnings. I judge that the hon. Gentleman's party is rather coy on this issue, and coyness is a rather unnatural position for the hon. Gentleman to adopt.

We know, of course, that the hon. Gentleman could spend money, given the chance. After all, anyone can spend money. Even the Liberal Democrats concede that

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point. I quote from the internal Liberal Democrat document entitled "Towards 1996--Ideas for Research and Campaigning", which was no doubt given a wide circulation. Within it is the statement:

    "Lib-Dems just want to throw money at education."

The real point is to spend money wisely, as the Government have done and will continue to do.

The prescriptions of the hon. Member for Bath are pure fantasy politics and, of course, are based on the assumption of a Liberal Democrat Government--more fantasy politics. Let us turn to the real world in which the Government have been investing in education.

Two months ago, in his Budget statement, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced £129 million more for nursery vouchers, £15 million more for grant-maintained schools and £22 million more for the assisted places scheme--all investment in education. Of course, the Liberal Democrats would abolish nursery vouchers, destroy GM schools and deny to bright children from poorer families the opportunity to be educated in some of our best schools by eliminating the assisted places scheme. Here, as in virtually every other aspect of education, they are "little Sir echoes" of the main Opposition party.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): How much money would be saved by abolishing the assisted places scheme, and how many teachers would that abolition put into other schools?

Mr. Squire: My hon. Friend raises an interesting question. For the moment, I shall base my response on the Labour party pledge, for reasons to which I have already alluded. The Labour party has made it clear that it is talking of a phasing out of the assisted places scheme. I judge that, as a result, there will be less than £5 million available in the first year of the assisted places scheme. Frankly, that will provide 100 or so primary school teachers. Compare that £5 million with an estimated cost of meeting Labour's pledge on class size--which is possibly what my hon. Friend was alluding to--of approaching £200 million. The House and the country should be aware of that discrepancy.

Also on Monday, as the hon. Member for Bath mentioned, the House debated the local government finance settlement. It allows £633 million more for local authority spending on schools--a 3.6 per cent. increase. That makes £1.7 billion more for schools in just two years. That is investment in education, and it is not a one-off.

In 1979, the start of the Conservative Governments, £515 was spent per pupil. In 1994, that figure had grown to £1,890. In real terms, after adjusting for inflation, that is half as much again. In real terms, per pupil, spending on books and equipment has risen by 56 per cent. and spending on support staff by 156 per cent. Perhaps that, above all, finally sets the record straight. Despite all the hand wringing, the reality is that actual spending per pupil has increased by almost 50 per cent. in real terms since 1979.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): I have to confess that I listened to such mathematics under the previous Labour Government as well as under this one. If the number of school pupils declines in a school,

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spending per pupil inevitably rises without extra expenditure, because structural, cleaning and other costs remain constant, whatever happens. As a result, total spending is divided among a smaller number of pupils. That is how the Minister arrives at the increases per pupil.

Mr. Squire: To a very small extent, the hon. Gentleman's point is valid, but he cannot seriously be suggesting that that accounts for a virtual 50 per cent. increase in real terms. It does not, and I urge him to recognise that the prime factor is that we have been prepared to continue to fund education.

We have heard nothing from the hon. Member for Bath about what other countries spend on education. Perhaps we should consider a couple of facts. Although international comparisons can be difficult to make, we know for certain that public expenditure on education in the UK, which, as he said, is 5.1 per cent. of gross domestic product, is higher than in Germany or Japan; that public spending in the UK on primary and secondary education, as a proportion of GDP, is among the highest in Europe; and that the UK spends more per pupil on pre-primary education than France, Japan and most other countries. Whichever way hon. Members examine it, the Government have been investing in education. We have a record of which we can be proud.

As I have said, however, investing in education is not about throwing public money around indiscriminately; it is about spending more, as the Government have done. However, if it were only or even primarily a question of more money, Islington, Tower Hamlets, Lambeth and Hackney would be achieving among the best examination results in the UK. All are in the top 12 local education authorities for spending per pupil, but all are in the bottom 12 in terms of GCSE results.

If that sounds a little distant for most Liberal Democrats, let me take East Sussex and West Sussex. Both are controlled by Liberal Democrat and Labour coalitions--the old one-two, as we have come to describe them. East Sussex spends more per pupil at both primary and secondary level, yet when we turn to the latest GCSE performance tables, we find that West Sussex is just in the top 10, while higher-spending East Sussex is some 40 places lower.

In truth, it is more about efficiency, effectiveness and value for money. The Government's record of encouraging greater value for money is second to none--so substantial that I have time to cover only some of the highlights.

As all hon. Members will recall, we introduced local management of schools, allowing schools themselves to decide where their money is best spent, not some bureaucrat sitting in town hall or county hall. Schools have found that, having acquired that freedom, they want to keep it. Few, if any, want to go back to pre-LMS days. After all, why should they? Now, they spend their money on the services they want; they buy goods from the suppliers they trust. The supplier is often their LEA; but now, rather than saying, "This is what you get--take it or leave it," the LEA has to

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offer what the school wants, so the school can obtain the best deal around and the best use can be made of our education investment.

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