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10.50 am

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) who, whether I agree with him or not, has been assiduous in representing what he sees as the interests of his constituents. In that, at least, I support him. I fear that that will be the end of my kind words in response to his comments.

I want to start where the hon. Gentleman started. In almost his opening sentence, he said that attitudes to grammar schools tell us something about the type of education service that we want. I absolutely disagree with that; that is where we differ.

Grammar schools have become fewer in recent years. They were set up when all that this country needed to survive economically, to flourish, to compete and to win was for a few people to be educated to the highest level. The grammar school system achieved that aim exceptionally well. That is why, in years gone by, we were a nation that competed so well and succeeded against many of our European competitors and those elsewhere.

However, I must tell Opposition Members that the challenge for this nation and the education service is no longer that of providing good education for the few--the top 25 per cent. It is--

Mr. Brady: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Ms Morris: Not at the moment. The hon. Gentleman spoke for 32 minutes and squeezed out the comments of many others. Our challenge is to bring about a school system that raises standards for every child, and which ensures that 24,000 schools are good, and good enough for the hon. Gentleman's child and my child, for his constituents' children and my constituents' children.

I have to conclude that a party that chooses to use all its education debates and all its education energy in a fight to save the admissions arrangements of 162 selective schools in 29 local authorities, and which rarely utters words of concern about the rest--which are also, in some cases, the best--is a party that has not caught up with the needs and demands that are currently being placed on our country and on our education service.

Mr. Rowe rose--

Mr. Bercow rose--

Ms Morris: I will give way to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) when I have made progress.

That is what divides the parties. It is the Labour party--the Government--that has taken on the challenge, never taken on by any other Government, of not being content

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with being able to say that our system delivers the best for a few, and which is determined to deliver the best for everyone.

Mr. Rowe rose--

Ms Morris: I shall give way when I have made this point. Anyone would suppose that there was no threat to the grammar schools--that no grammar school closed--until 2 May 1997. We know, because we have heard it often said, that Lady Thatcher was the Secretary of State for Education who closed more grammar schools than any other. In the past quarter of a century--when, for all but five years, the Conservatives were in power--the number of grammar schools fell from 809 to as few as 166. Why, in 18 years, did the Conservatives not stop the closure of those grammar schools?

Mr. Rowe rose--

Mr. Brady rose--

Ms Morris: Why, in 18 years, was no new grammar school opened? Where was the legislation to give parents the power to vote to open grammar schools? Where was the legislation to stop local authorities closing grammar schools? It was not there. The need to protect the admission arrangements of grammar schools is an idea hooked into because, quite honestly, the Opposition have nothing else to say about the education agenda.

Mr. Bercow: The right hon. Lady's position is fairly apparent, but may we clarify one matter beyond doubt? If she had a vote in a ballot, how would she cast it--to retain the grammar school or to abolish it? Secondly, is she prepared, on the Floor of the House today, to give an absolute and unequivocal guarantee that the stupid regulations that the Government have pushed through Parliament will not allow for widespread fraud?

Ms Morris: Of course I will give that guarantee--that the regulations passed by the House will not be subject to fraud. We based a lot of those regulations on the ballot regulations for GM schools. Interestingly, whereas the Conservative Government never made any provision to prevent the use of public money in opt-out ballots for GM schools, the Labour Government have put in a provision to prevent public money being spent in that way; and we certainly will respond to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. In the regulations that we passed on grammar school ballots, the provisions to protect public resource and to avoid fraud are far stronger than ever they were for GM ballots.

Whether we like it or not, the issue of selection has always been there and always will be. For as long as I can remember, the question whether we should select--comprehensive versus grammar--has been there. It will not go away; and if we had not passed the legislation, it would not have gone away. It has thwarted our education service for too long. It has taken our energy, our resource and our efforts, when we should have been concentrating on things that matter more. No magic wave of the wand can stop the debate.

As a Government, we had to decide. As that debate continued, whom did we want to have the say? To whom did we want to hand the reins of influence in that decision?

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We had three choices. We could have kept those powers to close grammar schools to ourselves--as the previous Government did--and I suspect that, with our majority, we would have got the legislation through Parliament. We could have done what the Liberal Democrats want us to do--handed the power to local education authorities. We chose neither. We chose to hand the reins of power about the future of admission arrangements for 160-odd grammar schools to the parents whose children will be affected.

Mr. Rowe rose--

Ms Morris: I shall give way later.

I am prepared to defend our decision on two counts. First, that is where the power should be. Secondly--and more importantly--it frees leaders of education on the Government Benches to do what they should be doing: picking up the pieces and ensuring that the education service, which has been so badly neglected for the past 18 years, is fit for all our children for the millennium.

Mr. Rowe: The Minister has made a powerful case that grammar schools would probably have withered on the stem anyway, and that there were many more important things to do in the education system, yet one of the first pieces of educational legislation that the Government introduced was to create the mechanism for destroying something that she regards as almost an irrelevance. Why?

Ms Morris: The hon. Gentleman knows well how legislation works. I believe that the Bill that became the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 was the largest education Bill that had ever been passed. It set the new framework, and the new set of relationships for schools. It was out of the way in our first year, freeing us to concentrate on other things.

In the past two years, we have focused on numeracy and literacy, where standards have risen by the biggest measurable amount ever. In each of the years since standard assessment tests began, exclusions have dropped and GCSE and A-level results have improved.

I read a comment in this morning's press by the hon. Member for Buckingham, in which he attacked the Government for vandalism of education. The biggest vandals in the education world today are those who oppose the literacy hour and the numeracy hour, which have patently raised standards for children. The biggest vandals are those who oppose performance-related promotion and the reform of the teaching profession that the Government are working on.

The biggest service that the Government can do the children of this country and their parents is not to waste our time on the future admission arrangements of 160 schools. We should leave that to the parents. The biggest service that we can do the children is to ensure that every one of them gets a good nursery education, that at 11 they can all read and write, that they go to schools that are fit to learn in, that they have teachers who are well trained and well rewarded, and that society has the highest expectations of every single one of them. That is what we are delivering, and that is where our focus will remain.

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Car Pricing

10.59 am

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil): It is appropriate thatthe House should debate this issue on the first day that the public are being admitted to this year's London motor show. It was trade day yesterday, when the lads from the motor trade--they are mainly lads--had first sight ofthe new models. Doubtless they slapped each other on the back, talked about great deals and discussed their bonuses in the run-up to Christmas.

Bonuses for those in the motor trade may be fewer and a little thinner this year than in the past. Earlier this year, it was assumed--it was not estimated because the men from the motor industry know their business very well, and when they say that something will happen, they try to make it happen--that 425,000 models would be sold in September 1999. According to Hugo Andreae of the Daily Express on Monday of last week, the official figure is now about 387,000 registrations. That figure has apparently been inflated by the registration and pushing on to the market of tens of thousands of unwanted cars, which are described in the newspapers as pre-registered cars. It is estimated that 300,000 instead of 425,000 cars have been sold.

A spokesman for Mitsubishi said:

What has happened? Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister, who has recently arrived in the Department of Trade and Industry from the Treasury, will be able to tell us whether there has been an economic crisis that we have not heard about, as a result of which interest rates for motor cars have risen independently. Or have the words of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister at last been heeded and people have decided to stop using or acquiring motor cars?

It would seem that neither of those possibilities is of any relevance. Instead, the British public have said, "Enough is enough. We are waiting to see what will happen to prices. We have read about cheaper cars being available on the continent. We may not want to buy by post, through the internet or go abroad to purchase cars, but we shall certainly not be ripped off any longer."

Twelve months ago, almost to the day, I and my colleagues who sit on the Select Committee on Trade and Industry held a public hearing on vehicle pricing. We had all the usual suspects in the Box, including representatives from the Consumers Association, the National Franchised Dealers Association, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and the Office of Fair Trading. Committee members arrived with the usual arsenal of misinformation, prejudice and half-digested facts that comprise the main weapons of politicians. We received additional written evidence from a wide variety of other sources. It became clear before long that the British car buyer was not doing as well as his continental neighbours.

Figures provided by the Consumers Association showed sustained price differentials between the United Kingdom and certain other European states of 30, 40 and 50 per cent. European Union limits require that the differential be no higher than 18 per cent. in any one year, and no higher than 12 per cent. over a longer period. We found that the price discrepancies were due to selective and exclusive distribution arrangements, which allow

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manufacturers to set standards and criteria and determine the territory in which dealers can operate. That can be done under the block exemption, which will have to be reconsidered in 2002.

Manufacturers can tell dealers what they may sell and at what price, and where they can source their vehicles. Dealers are not even allowed to vary invoice prices. Moreover, they are not offered discounts for large volumes of sales to individual members of the public. On the other hand, discounts are offered to fleet purchasers. They are able, through various arrangements, to put their heavily discounted vehicles back on to the market at the normal recommended resale price. Franchise dealers are in a position to offer a specialist after-sales service, which the purchaser of an expensive item would expect.

Under the block exemption, there is the sweetener that a member of the public may buy a car from a recognised dealer in the certain knowledge that he will receive a consistent maintenance service. Unfortunately, that service seems to be indifferent. At best it is not bad, but more often than not it is unsatisfactory. That is the conclusion to be drawn following research involving a wide variety of organisations, and not only campaigning groups such as the Consumers Association.

The House will be aware of a "Panorama" programme on the issue and an article in The Sunday Times. Many organisations are carefully considering the issue and arriving at the consistent conclusion that the present arrangements offer the motorist little protection. If our cars are being badly serviced, there is always the worry or anxiety that unsafe cars that are hazards to the public in general are going on to the roads.

There are other reasons why the price of cars might be higher in this country than elsewhere. Apparently we are a high-wage, strong-currency economy--although we can probably set aside the high-wage issue. Simple economics tell us that if we have a strong currency it is cheaper to import. Cars imported into the country should therefore be cheaper--although perhaps that does not apply to all cars.

For example, Saab has announced that it will cut the prices of its cars by 5 per cent. because of the slide in customer demand that I have already mentioned. If Saab can do that on the basis of one month's poor figures, perhaps others could do the same. I think of Volkswagen and BMW. After all, we have had an exchange rate of about DM2.70 to the pound, or even better, for the best part of three years. Organisations of such sophistication, size and skill could surely accommodate the minor arithmetical problems that are involved in currency exchange rates.

There is also a technical argument, which has been trumpeted over the years as being of far greater significance than other considerations. The argument is that we drive on the wrong side of the road. Of course, we all know that it is the others who drive on the wrong side. Regardless of who drives on the wrong side, we are in the minority. Perhaps it is fair, therefore, that we should be punished for being British and driving on the wrong side. However, if we are being punished, why should the Irish not be punished? I shall take the case of Fiat--which sells cars in Ireland--as an example, and use euros as a simple basis for comparison.

In 1998, according to figures produced by Directorate- General IV of the European Commission, a Punto in Eire, on the basis of an index, was 104.9 euros. In the UK,

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it was 141.6. The Bravo was 100 euros in Eire and 149.9 in the UK. The Marea was 102.6 and 148.6 euros respectively. So much for driving on one side of the road as against the other.

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