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Mr. Skinner: You lot hate his guts.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I do not. The hon. Gentleman knows that hatred is not an emotion that I find easy to embrace. I am speaking personally but I am also speaking for my party--we are not a party that hates, but a party that tries to be constructive. In that spirit, I will end by wishing you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and everyone in the House a happy Easter.

12.18 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): I shall carry on from where the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) left off. I am conscious that, as we speak, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Northern Ireland doing extremely important work. I am also conscious that, last week, he was at the European Heads of Government summit in Berlin. I also know, because I took the opportunity to look up the figures, that my right hon. Friend has missed only two Prime Minister's Question Times since he came to office and he has answered more questions at Question Time than his predecessors.

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I agree with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire that it is important to bring life into the Chamber. There has been plenty of life, interest and debate this morning, with 15 hon. Members raising a range of constituency and wider matters. I believe that we need to look into ways to give more hon. Members more opportunities to have a say. The Main Committee has been mentioned during our debate. The report of the Modernisation Committee will be available after Easter, and I look forward to an early debate and discussion on it. Hon. Members have made various suggestions about how we should give more Members more opportunities to speak, and I am keen to look into those. I shall certainly consider carefully the suggestion that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire made about extending the debate.

I apologise to hon. Members who had no opportunity to speak. Perhaps I should get my retaliation in first. It will not be possible to reply to all the points made this morning, but I undertake to write to everyone who has raised matters. That will destroy my Easter holidays and those of some officials. I may not have the chance to travel to the Isle of Wight or taste the delights of North Cornwall.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) put his case about the problems at the Chesterfield and North Derbyshire Royal hospital well. I am pleased that the trust there has accepted responsibility. He asked for a wider investigation, and I am pretty confident that he will get one. He spoke strongly of the need for best practice. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence is being launched today. I am delighted that we have achieved that and look forward to strong, positive work from it. I give him a hint that a colleague at the Department of Health will make a statement on breast cancer treatment soon and build on my hon. Friend's phrase about early treatment avoiding later pain. An extra £20 million has already been made available for breast cancer services. Another £150 million was announced this month. I hope that, in the next day or two, we will achieve our manifesto promise of early treatment for women with breast cancer. I hope that he and the women in Derbyshire who have been so cruelly treated do not have long to wait for that.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) raised three points. I agree that leylandii is a problem and that we must find a solution. His Bill may be a trigger for action. Colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are considering ways forward and are minded to give guidance and advice, but we may end up with legislation.

I join the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent and others in celebrating and praising the marvellous, life-saving work of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It must work in partnership with others. I am sure that we can achieve more and that we would, if, as he suggested, we listened more to the voice of children. There is much to be learned from the youth Parliament that he has advocated for many years.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent wondered whether we ask the police to do too much. There are strong arguments on that. The police deal with crime but are also the ultimate emergency service. I know that there have been discussions with the Association of Chief Police Officers and others to define the role of the

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police and learn from best practice. We could learn much by comparing police forces and authorities more effectively.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) made a strong case for the Bridge hospital in his constituency. He knows that the Secretary of State for Health shares his concerns about the failure over many years of so-called community care. For community care to be successful, we must have real, not artificial, support mechanisms in the community. We need to offer people in Braintree, Witham and elsewhere a range of choices from residential accommodation, through focused community care in the sort of sheltered housing that he mentioned, to more diffuse community care and advice. His case can still be heard, and I will ensure that colleagues hear it.

Like the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), I come from a rural area. I noted the strength of his comments. I know the value of local abattoirs both to local employment and to animal welfare. I am delighted that he was able to meet the responsible Minister and that the Minister listened to him. The hon. Gentleman knows that no decision has yet been made on the level of charges. It is important to get this right and to try to help the pig industry. I know from my own visits that the industry feels that it competes on a far from level playing field. I am glad that we have made some progress on labelling. We need to reconsider the role of the supermarkets in that. It is important to raise standards, as he put it, for the best across Europe. It cannot be right that our producers have more liabilities than their competitors.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) spoke about Kashmir. It would be nice to have the opportunity in the Easter holidays to visit the occupied part of Kashmir. That pleasure has been denied hon. Members for many years. He knows that we must build on the 1972 United Nations Simla agreement, the core of which is his argument that we need to bring people in India and Pakistan together.

I must progress quickly. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) made many points. I will write to him on them all. He and other hon. Members should note that this year's local government financial settlement has been the best for local authorities, including shire counties, since the new financial regulations came in.

I know of the concern in Carlisle about Polestar printworks. If my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) feels that there has been what I think he

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called lying, he must contact the Director General of Fair Trading. My hon. Friend will pleased to know that inquiries are being made.

The right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) asked about the A3. The Highways Agency is the responsible body for the study on behalf of the Government office of the south-east. I will ensure that the team leader is made known to her. The study will last two years. She asked for a meeting on site, and knows that there is an opportunity for a further meeting with the Minister responsible. I hope that she will take up that offer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) spoke strongly and movingly about miners in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and elsewhere. I am delighted that we are going to put real money into their pockets to reward them for what has not been achieved in the past. It is also important to act for coalfield areas such as Wentworth and Hemsworth and use new technology to change culture to ensure that they have new investment and a new future. I am very conscious of the bids for assisted area status for new regional funds from the European Union. I understand that the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry has written to all hon. Members this morning saying that he is happy to consult them.

I was pleased by what we heard about Wolverhampton. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) has been a strong advocate of city status for Wolverhampton. The area is on the up and up. I am delighted that there is urban forestry there and that the Government intend to build on the guidelines that she mentioned. I hope that we can green Wolverhampton.

As we move to the Easter recess, perhaps we should reflect that


We have had plenty of memories and many more desires in the Chamber today. In conclusion, we should perhaps reflect that Easter is a period of rebirth and renewal. Both Kosovo and Northern Ireland have been mentioned in the debate. Let us hope that the pain, cruelty and torture there will end and that, in the coming months, we shall see the signs of rebirth, new life and democratic renewal.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We now come to the debate in the name of the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter).

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Secondary Education (Plympton)

12.30 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as the Minister will know, that, from time to time in our constituencies, a situation of real injustice arises that causes us to get angry. I bring to the House today a situation in my constituency that has certainly made me angry. For the people involved, it is a real injustice. Some people in Plympton in my constituency have been treated very badly indeed. The Minister is a father, as am I, so he will recognise that it is an extremely natural desire of parents to try to do the best for their children. At no time is that desire more demonstrated than when parents are trying to secure the best possible schooling for their children, especially in the secondary school sector. The upshot of what I am about to describe today is that, in September, 30 of my constituents will not be able to send their child to a school of their first or second choice, or even to a school in their community, such is the way in which the system has moved against them.

The parents are faced with bussing their child--in each case, their beloved 11-year-old son or daughter--to the other side of Plymouth, to which there is not a direct bus route, outside their local community. The children will be educated outwith their peer group of friends. It is a matter of great distress to every family involved. As I shall demonstrate, there is a solution that the local education authority could adopt. It is reasonable and doable, and it would meet the circumstances nicely. At the moment, the LEA is refusing to adopt that solution, for all the wrong reasons. That is why I am here today to urge the Minister to intervene.

It will be helpful for the Minister and the House if I set out the background to the situation that I have described. I have already referred to Plympton, a suburb of Plymouth at the heart of my constituency. Some 45,000 people live in Plympton. It is a self-contained community. It has many splendid facilities, although of course we could always do with more. Until the 1970s, Plympton was run by its own borough council, and it still enjoys many local traditions. We have civic groups and societies. A stannator is elected once a year in Plympton. It is very much its own community.

There are two secondary schools in Plympton--Hele's and Ridgeway. Both are excellent schools. For historical reasons, Hele's is slightly more popular most years. Every year, I try to help a handful of Plympton parents to get their child into Hele's school, even though they live outside the catchment area and the child is not in a feeder school for Hele's.

There has never been a year to date in which a child in a Hele's feeder school has not got a place at Hele's. That is an important piece of information, which I hope that the Minister has taken on board. The wonderful booklet produced by Devon county council, now Plymouth city council, about the education selection process refers to feeder schools feeding into secondary schools as if it happened as night follows day.

Most years, Ridgeway has a few spare places and parents who appeal for a place at Hele's and lose can do so, safe in the knowledge that they will at least get their child into Ridgeway and have him or her educated in the community of Plympton. It is always a struggle. There are

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always lots of nerves, tensions and anxieties, but somehow it works. All Plympton families, to my knowledge, have been able to educate their children in Plympton if they wish to do so.

This year, the pattern seemed to be following its usual course. People were going to open days and discovering what school was best for their child and listening to what the schools had to offer. That was until 20 parents with children in feeder schools for Hele's received letters from the LEA out of the blue telling them that the school did not have a place at Hele's school for their child this year. There was no warning of that. They had attended parents evenings in the usual way and had had discussions with teachers and the head teacher. No one had ever suggested that Hele's feeder school children would not get into Hele's. It was a complete bombshell.

To make matters worse, parents in north Plymouth, perhaps to their credit, had begun to spot that Ridgeway school did not always fill up straight away with first choices, so several of them plumped for Ridgeway--a very good school--as their first choice. They chose to send their children to school three or four miles away. That was their choice, and I make no argument with that. The reason why they made that choice was that at least one school in north Plymouth is seen by parents--they are, after all, the test--to be failing. That is why they are looking around for schools in other parts of Plymouth. The upshot is that, as a result of the influx of children, Ridgeway school filled up this year with first preferences.

So those families who naturally chose Hele's because their children were in a feeder school for Hele's, and who did not have the faintest notion that they would not get in--cannot now send their child even to Ridgeway school in Plympton. They are joined by another group of parents who exercised their parental right perfectly reasonably and understandably to make Hele's their first choice, even though their children were in Ridgeway feeder schools. Naturally, this year they did not succeed. So 30 of my constituents cannot have their children educated in Plympton. For them, this is a very serious matter. Many of them have come to see me in my surgery. Many have described the position as the end of the world for them. It is a matter of the gravest concern.

The parents are faced with educating their children outside the community. There is not even a direct bus route from Plympton to north Plymouth. The children will have to go into the city centre and then out again on another bus. They face that obstacle when all the time there are two first-class secondary schools in their own community. Of course, parents are appealing individually against the decision, but we know that there is movement of only two or three places each year. So two or three of them may well succeed, leaving a class full of children who cannot be educated in their community.

My case for the Minister is simply that the Hele's feeder school families had no warning that they would not get their first choice. Hele's feeder school children had always got into Hele's. No one warned them that this year was different, although I believe that the LEA knew, or ought to have known, that, this year, the numbers were difficult and the situation was different. Not a word was breathed to the parents who were exercising their proper choice. I argue that parents of Hele's feeder school children did not get a proper first choice. At the very time when they were ticking the box for Hele's, automatically assuming that that was the right thing to do, the door to

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that school was already closed. As a result of the movement from north Plymouth into Ridgeway school, their second choice was also closed off.

Those parents have been denied their first and second choice and face the prospect of bussing their children outside the area. That is unacceptable to them, to me and to local councillors. So what activity has taken place since the matter was drawn to my attention several weeks ago? I have had consultations with most of the parents. I have had extensive correspondence with the director of education and officials. I have had discussions with head teachers. I had a meeting last Friday with the local education area officials, the director of education and the chairman of education.

I believe that there is enormous sympathy within the LEA for the plight of the 30 families. However, the chairman is setting his face against finding the obvious solution. The obvious solution is that the LEA should ask one of the schools in Plympton--probably Ridgeway--to take in an extra class this year. I know that that would take it above its planned admission level, but 30 children from Plympton would then go to a Plympton school. Ridgeway school is undergoing a phase of refurbishment, I am pleased to say, which was agreed several years ago. Four mobile classrooms are being replaced and a new block is being built. It would not be impossible for one of those classrooms to be left while the extra intake of pupils saw their way through the school. The school is prepared to do that and the parents would be delighted, but the LEA refuses to take that step.

The local education authority has a strategic role in these matters; several months ago, it should have hovered above the situation and seen what was going to happen. At the earliest opportunity, it should have given the parents of the Hele's feeder school children the best information and told them that, this year, exceptionally, their children might not get into Hele's school. That would have allowed the parents to exercise a proper first choice. They could have taken the risk of choosing Hele's school, or they could have chosen Ridgeway so that their children would definitely be educated in Plympton. However, that advice was not forthcoming and, as a result, I argue that the parents did not have a proper choice.

I asked the LEA to intervene to sort out the matter. At present, the authority refuses to do so; its members acknowledge that there is a problem and that the situation will be improved next year. They will take better soundings from primary schools as to the number of children applying to Hele's. They will give local parents, councillors and myself better advice at an earlier stage. The LEA has acknowledged the needs of local people and that it needs to change its system. Although I welcome that, it will not help the group of 30 parents in Plympton who want their children to be educated in Plympton this year.

I urge the Minister to leave aside the advice that he might have received from his civil servants--I know what that might have been--and to place himself in the shoes of those 30 parents. He is a father and I ask him to share their mindset and understand their plight. I ask him to acknowledge that there is a solution: he can ask the LEA to direct Ridgeway school to form that additional class for which that group of 30 children is exactly the right number. I ask the Minister to intervene, although I do not know whether he will do so.

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If the Minister does not intervene, the matter will not end here. It is clear that the LEA either knew, or should have known, more; it could have given better advice. Some parents are talking about maladministration and may well have a legal case against the LEA: that it fell short of its duty to give them the opportunity to make a proper first choice. Some of the parents are talking about taking such action. I very much hope that it will not come to that, but that the Minister will show us today that the Labour Government, who proclaim that they are caring, understand the plight of parents and support parental choice. I hope that he will stand at the Dispatch Box and insist that Ridgeway school takes another group of 30 pupils. If he will not, or cannot, do that, will he say what he thinks that the parents of children at Hele's feeder schools should have done to exercise their choice and, more importantly, what should they do now?

I hope that the Minister will intervene to solve this problem. It is a crisis for the families involved and it will not go away. It is not good enough to solve the problem next year. Those parents deserve to have their children educated in their local community this year. I hope that the Minister will make that possible.


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