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Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Ahem!

Mr. Brady: How could I forget the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster)?

In the debates on class sizes in Committee, we raised several concerns that what started as a laudable objective could go horribly wrong for schools and for the Government. I take no pleasure in the fact that many of those concerns have already started to come back to us in constituency mail. Some schools are concerned that their budgets will be hit; others fear that they will lose members of staff because their rolls are falling; yet others think that they will lose teaching assistants as a result of the Government's policy. The Government's record to date is woeful, and suggests that they will reduce educational attainment rather than improve it. The Queen's Speech contained no proposal of any consequence to address those problems or to try to raise the standard of the Government's performance in education.

The Queen's Speech foreshadowed increased costs for business. Its proposals will put more people out of work, make it harder for Britain to compete in the world and fail to provide any new hope to children for a better standard of education to improve our performance in the future.

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8.4 pm

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): My speech welcoming the Queen's Speech was going to be much longer, but the speeches by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) have allowed me to shorten my contribution. Both spoke about children and the effect of work on the family.

As a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, I have an especial interest in our plans to develop the new deal, and it is appropriate to talk about that, given the speech by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). I also wish to talk about employability and fairness at work. I pay tribute to the members of the employment service in Cornwall, who have worked hard to become a beacon as pathfinders for the new deal for 18 to 24-year-olds and as pilots for the 25-plus group. I welcome today's publication of the new deal document for the under-25s, which illustrates the innovation that the Government and the employment service are putting into developing the new deal.

Cornwall especially will build innovatively on existing programmes. For example, one project will enable older workers with experience in declining industries to use their experience in growth industries. Another project has been successful in helping workers to transfer into woodland management and timber processing. In a part of the country such as Cornwall, which has lost tin mines, where farming has been in decline and fishing has had its problems, new opportunities through the new deal are to be welcomed.

I was privileged to serve on the Committee that considered the National Minimum Wage Bill. When I am a lot older than I am now, one of my favourite memories of Parliament will be the faces of Conservative Members as they realised that they faced all-night sittings of the Committee because Labour Members were determinedto force through the national minimum wage. The Conservatives realised that they were going to be there all night and into the afternoon, because we were committed to our manifesto commitment to get rid of poverty wages. I was proud to be part of introducing that historic measure to provide fair wages for a fair day's work. Let me warn the Conservatives that we shall not let them get away with holding up our Bills in this Session, either.

I look forward to the fairness at work legislation. As a Cornish Member, I am glad that it will address various issues. Take South West Water--actually, somebody: please take South West Water. It has the highest bills and the lowest performance indicators in the country, not to mention some diabolical plans that it has implemented or intends to implement in my constituency. On top of everything, South West Water has de-recognised Unison. Despite the support of the overwhelming majority of workers for the union, the company refused point blank to recognise it.

The fairness at work legislation will remedy that situation. It cannot be right, when the majority of workers wish to be members of a union, that a large employer, such as South West Water, can refuse to recognise it. That unfairness needs to be addressed.

I hope that we shall also see an end to the blacklisting of union members. Hon. Members will not need reminding of the appalling treatment that many people

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have suffered at the hands of the Economic League and others. The end of that situation will be welcomed throughout the country.

Much in the Queen's Speech will be welcomed by women. My right hon. and hon. Friends have discussed parental leave, which will give mothers and fathers individual rights, not transferable between them. I can think of few more family-friendly policies than that. Parents will be able to use their leave to attend school events, provide child care, or simply bond with their child. I hope that Opposition Members will reflect and support that proposal. Conservative Members talk of the cost to industry, but imagine the savings to industry if fewer family breakdowns occurred. Policies that support parents in raising their children should be supported even by some of the ayatollahs on the Conservative Benches.

As a Cornish Member, I welcome the news that there will be reform of structural funds. We in Cornwall look forward to the new year, when final areas are to be announced. With the lowest gross domestic product in the country, we look forward to some good news in 1999.

I very much support the Queen's Speech. Apart from the obvious big battles that stretch before us, such as reform of the House of Lords--something that I particularly welcome--it is clear that Bills that focus on fairness at work, for example, will improve the lives of men and women throughout the country. That will build a stronger partnership between workers and employers, provide necessary protection and lead to new ways of working.

8.11 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): We have had a fascinating debate so far, and one enlivened with some powerful speeches. I refer particularly to the contribution of the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond). I wish to place it on record how much I agree with every one of his remarks. It is appropriate also to refer to the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), who spent a large part of his speech praising others who have worked hard on disability rights. It would be inappropriate for the debate to conclude without reference to the significant effort that he has put into forcing through disability rights. I put on record, from the Liberal Democrat Benches, our support for the work that the hon. Gentleman has done.

Predominantly, the debate has been about trade and industry matters. However, it is billed as a debate that is intended also to cover education and employment. I hope that the House will not object if I use the few minutes that are available to me to pick up one or two issues relating to those subjects.

I am sure that the House will be aware that I would have liked many education and employment issues to be set out in the Gracious Speech. For example, I would have liked to see a Bill relating to lifelong learning. The Government have made some good progress in that direction, but they have so far failed to acknowledge the vital importance of a strategic planning framework for lifelong learning. A Bill would be very important.

I would have liked to see a Bill taking forward further developments in early-years education. We know that the Government have committed themselves--the Labour party did so in its manifesto--to developing high-quality early years education for three-year-olds as well as for four-year-olds. However, unfortunately, despite the

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questions submitted to the Department, we still have not received from it a commitment on when the extension will take place. Legislation to bring forward that extension, while at the same time adding to the Government's proposals for early-years education, would be important.

I would like to see an agreement on both sides of the House that there is a need to have a specific key stage for the early years, perhaps to be called a foundation key stage. It seems odd that, while both sides of the House have recognised that the early years in education are the most important, and although we have key stages 1, 2, 3 and 4, we do not have a specific key stage for that phase.

I would have liked to see other proposed pieces of education and employment legislation in the Queen's Speech, perhaps those covering all aspects of employment. I would have liked also to see proposals for age discrimination legislation going further than the Government's current plans to have a non-statutory, non-binding code of practice. I would have been pleased to see specific statutory legislation proposed in that regard.

It seems from the Queen's Speech that there is to be no new legislation for education. In a sense, I am expressing disappointment, because I have said that I would like to see references to certain pieces of proposed legislation. In another sense, I confess to some relief. I have been in the House since 1992 and, during every year since then, I have served on Committees considering one, and more often two, major pieces of education legislation. That is my personal relief, and no doubt the Secretary of State shares it. We are delighted to see the right hon. Gentleman in his place this evening. I know that he has a busy schedule. He may have had to make some difficult changes so as to be with us this evening. I suspect that he may not be pleased about that, but that he is pleased that there is not to be specific new education legislation.

I suggest to the Secretary of State and to the House that there is an additional benefit in there being no new education legislation. There has been a tendency on the Government's part to be rather quick to grab the headlines with some good, innovative and exciting education measures, many of which that we support, without having necessarily worked out all the details.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) referred to legislation on class sizes, which is a good example. Most hon. Members would support the Government's intention to reduce class sizes. Indeed, many of us would like them to go further and reduce class sizes for key stage 2 as well, and in due course reduce class sizes, at least for the practical subjects, in secondary schools. However, there is no doubt that previous legislation has been rushed through and that many of the details were not sorted out in time.

Bits of sticking plaster have been placed on top of sticking plaster. The sums of money that were originally intended to be sufficient to cover the costs of reducing class sizes were demonstrated clearly to be inadequate, and more money has had to be found.

There is also the problem--there are many other examples--of admission policy. Despite the new admission guidance brought out recently by the Department, many parents still believe that it is important

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for them to get their child into the reception class of a school even though they do not want their child to go to it--perhaps because it is an overcrowded reception class--merely to guarantee a place at the statutory school starting age. To solve this problem, the Government have offered what I believe to be the ludicrous proposition that reception classes can leave a place open. Under the current local management of schools formulae, that will not work. What school would leave a place open and lose the money associated with it?

The House will know that my party did not support the introduction of student tuition fees. There were problems in the early days involving gap-year students. Later on, and very recently, there have been problems associated with the analysis of parental income of non-United Kingdom European Union students.

I have given some examples of where details have not been worked out. I suggest to the Government, and particularly to the Secretary of State, three specific areas where they could use the year ahead of us to get some of the details right. I choose the areas of target setting, the bidding process and issues relating to the new deal.

There is no doubt that the Government are right to believe that target setting can be a key tool in levering up standards. We support them in that. However, the issue is whether the targets that are being set are the right ones. I suggest that the Government, by rushing through their proposals, have not arrived at the right target. I refer to the literacy and numeracy targets for key stage 2. The Secretary of State has expressed himself as deeply concerned about literacy and numeracy standards, and rightly so. The right hon. Gentleman has therefore set what he claims to be tough targets. They are so tough that, if 80 per cent. of pupils do not reach level 4 in key stage 2 in literacy, and 75 per cent. do not reach it in numeracy by 2002, he will resign. Those, he claims, are tough targets.

I truly believe that there is no question but that those targets will be met, not only in time but, I suspect, a year ahead of time. In my view, they are not tough targets. Instead, they are politically expedient targets. More important, there is a fallacy within this target-setting agenda, for the simple reason that the Government have rightly expressed their desire to remove social exclusion. The Chancellor of the Exchequer promised at the Labour party conference that the Government would abolish social exclusion as we understand it. Yet, if targets are set so that 80 per cent. of children have to reach a particular level while the other 20 per cent. have no target, there is no incentive for teachers to work to ensure that the children at the bottom end of the ability range, who have no chance of hitting the target, will have their standards raised. That is a real problem. It almost takes us back to the horrid days of the old 11-plus exam.

There is an urgent need for a rethink of target-setting procedures so that there are targets for those at the bottom end of the ability range. The latest evidence from the Department's own figures shows that the results of children at the bottom end of the ability range simply are not moving upward, although the results of the remainder are moving pleasingly. There is a growing gap between the successful and the unsuccessful. That is evidence of growing social exclusion, not of its removal.

My second point relates to the bidding process. The Government have made additional money available for education, and we have said that we are pleased by that.

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We have campaigned for it for a long time. My concern is the mechanism that is being used to ensure that the money gets to the right place. Often the additional money must be bid for. Since the Government came to office, more than 16,000 bids have been produced by local education authorities. A lot of detailed work and effort has gone into those bids, but more than 10,000 have failed. Roughly speaking, there is a two-thirds chance that a bid will fail despite all the effort. That does not result in high-quality education for all, as the Prime Minister promised. It provides high-quality education for some.

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