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Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): Hear, hear.

Mr. Webb: Even Colchester. We need a system that is just and achieves its aims. I shall not dwell on the area

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cost adjustment, which is popular in the west country. I shall concentrate on the additional needs allowance aspect of the calculation.

I understand that the principal variables used to try to identify additional education needs are ethnicity and lone parenthood. It is implausible that the proportion of children from ethnic minority backgrounds is a good proxy for additional educational needs when certain ethnic minority backgrounds tend to produce children with above average educational attainment. It is a crude indicator.

South Gloucestershire is in many respects a relatively prosperous area, although with significant pockets of deprivation, but it has significant numbers of children with additional educational needs. I today asked the Library to give me another blessed league table showing the proportion of statemented children. It shows that South Gloucestershire has an above average proportion of such children. I can think of 100 reasons why such league tables might be dubious--policies vary and so on--but that example shows that, just because an area seems relatively prosperous on the face of it, it does necessarily lack children with additional educational needs. The present indicators are not picking that up.

Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that while the increase of some 6.9 per cent. in the education SSA for the coming year for South Gloucestershire may indeed be partly explained by growth in the area and by data changes, it is nevertheless greater than it has been in recent years? If, as he has expounded so eloquently, we can improve the way in which primary school head counts are translated into SSA figures, very significant progress will have been made.

Mr. Webb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support on this very technical but basically simple issue of primary school head counts. I do not want to get into a pointless debate about whether this year's settlement is a lot or a little. My understanding from the authority is that 6.8 or 6.9 per cent., adjusted for the number of extra pupils--a number that is out of date anyway--means that we are getting the national average, but we are still around the bottom of the table. It does nothing about the technical problems, so I understand the hon. Gentleman's point.

The fundamental technical point is that the balance between the essential--I was going to say "bog standard", but I am not sure whether that is parliamentary language--figure for "ordinary" children and the tweaks for area costs and additional needs seems to be wrong. The variations across the country in the cost of educating one child seem to me to be too great to relate to the variation in true costs. As far as I can see, that is because the core figure for "ordinary" children seems to have too little weight and the variable factors seem to have too much.

One might ask how South Gloucestershire has managed so far. It has done so in two ways. The first is by spending several million pounds in excess of its SSA.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I should like to reinforce the point about the head count, which would be of great benefit to my constituency. When a local authority area is given an SSA, it does not necessarily mean that the money is provided to meet it. In order for

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some local authorities to spend up to their education SSA level, they have to make cuts in other services. It seems as though central Government are abdicating their responsibility and passing it to local councils which are then blamed for the cuts, when in fact it is the inadequacies of central Government funding that are to blame. This is not a party political point--that policy was pursued rigorously by the previous Government and, unfortunately, the same ideas seem to be creeping into this Government's policies.

Mr. Webb: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comment. With his background in local government, he understands far better than I do the arcane niceties of local authority funding. I hope that the Minister responds to that point when she sums up.

I was setting out how South Gloucestershire has coped. It has coped by spending £7 million above its education SSA this year. With capping in place--various versions of it, at least--that means cutting other services. That in turn means that I get letters from pensioners asking why they are paying for social services when they used not to, and it means raiding the reserves, but I regret to say that the reserves are pretty nearly empty.

The other services are in many respects underfunded rather than overfunded, and the only conclusion is that things cannot continue as they are. South Gloucestershire cannot go on raiding its reserves and cutting other services. Any allowances that the Minister can make tonight to deal with some of the injustices in the formula will be gratefully received.

I am not asking that South Gloucestershire be moved to the top of the table, or even the middle. I am simply asking that some manifest injustices, especially the use of out-of-date figures on primary school pupils, be corrected. I hope that the Minister will send us home tonight with a message for the children of South Gloucestershire that, at long last, under this Government the funding for their education will soon be put on a proper footing.

9 pm

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood): I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) on securing this debate and on an excellent speech. I agree, I think, with everything that he said. The issue is extremely important to his constituents, my constituents--three-quarters of whom reside in South Gloucestershire--and the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) and for Wansdyke (Dan Norris). We have all made representations to Ministers on this and related issues. Indeed, on one occasion we managed to write a joint letter--all in the tradition of Labour and Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament agreeing to get rid of tribalism and to co-operate with and listen to each other.

I notice the absence of interest of a single Conservative Member in a debate on educational funding in South Gloucestershire. I have been wondering why so many Liberal Democrats are present. I am sure that it is because they anticipated a quality speech from the hon. Member for Northavon, and that it had nothing to do with whether he would announce his candidature for his party's leadership.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member, but we should remind ourselves that this is a debate and not a rally.

Mr. Berry: I am not the campaign manager of the hon. Member for Northavon, and I of course accept that rebuke. I merely emphasise that the four hon. Members--including myself--to whom I have referred, have very seriously supported the arguments of South Gloucestershire council on this issue.

I acknowledge and welcome the fact that the increase in South Gloucestershire's education standard spending assessment is significantly greater than in previous years. Some schools in my constituency are already benefiting from the new deal. There are new classrooms, and class sizes are coming down as a result of the Government's initiatives. I warmly welcome the substantial additional funding for education overall.

Like the hon. Member for Northavon, I feel strongly that South Gloucestershire council is being treated unfairly, but I do not do so simply because of a place in a league table. League tables are quite useful, but given that some local authorities must be at the top, some in the middle and some at the bottom, it is sensible to ask why they are in such places and whether there is any case for doing something about it. League tables are a guide to asking sensible questions. When I do so about South Gloucestershire council's ranking for education SSAs, I must confess that I reach very similar conclusions to the hon. Gentleman.

Why is South Gloucestershire council's education SSA so low? First, it is due to the allowance for area cost adjustment. I say no more about that except that at least four hon. Members present, who have served on either the former Avon authority or district councils in that area, have made this argument to successive Governments year after year. We all believe that, for our part of the country, the way in which the area cost adjustment is dealt with is inequitable.

Secondly, there is the issue of additional educational needs, about which, as the hon. Member for Northavon has said, concern has been recognised. The Government have recognised that that, too, is flawed. Unfortunately, however, we do not yet have a more satisfactory solution.

Thirdly, the education SSA in South Gloucestershire is too low because of the date on which children in school are counted to calculate it, as has been mentioned. The primary SSA for the next financial year, 1999-2000, is based on the number of pupils in school in January 1998--the beginning of last year. Obviously, pupils who started primary school in September 1998 will not be funded by the SSA until April 2000, which is a delay of 18 months.

I am aware of the justification for using the January figures for primary school children and the September figures for secondary school children. The unfortunate thing about children is that they do not all become five at the beginning of the school year.


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