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Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is correct that I am not aware of the issue, and nor, I would imagine, is my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends, who will certainly share his concern.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): May we have an early statement on the newly published school performance tables to show the unfortunate state of affairs whereby 50 schools see 20 per cent. of their pupils leave with no qualifications? That would provide an important opportunity for the School Standards Minister to explain to the House why it was necessary for the Government to attack some of our most successful schools, particularly the grant-maintained schools, which have done such a good job. Schools such as Blessed Thomas Holfordand New Wellington, which are grant-maintained high schools, not grammar schools, achieve results of the order of 40 and 43 per cent. of children getting and five or more grade A to C GCSEs. Those are outstanding results from

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grant-maintained schools that flourished under the previous Government but are now threatened by this Government.

Mrs. Beckett: Everyone in the House wants excellence and high standards in education, but the notion that that is threatened in grant-maintained or any other schools is ludicrous. The Government are improving the position and improving funding for all schools. While it is important that the funding is well directed, because there is no automatic correlation between more money and higher standards, the Government are determined to ensure that it feeds through to higher standards.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): The Government have imposed huge increases in fuel duty so that 85p in every pound spent on fuel is tax. We have easily the highest fuel costs in western Europe. The Government have got away with it partly because the world oil barrel price has been as low as $10. Now oil is nudging $27 a barrel, and the increases cannot be hidden. It looks as though we will celebrate the millennium in Shropshire with a £3.50 gallon of fuel. Two thirds of people in Shropshire drive to work in a car. This is a huge taxation increase on lower paid people and the strategic road haulage industry is being affected. Can we have a debate next week?

Mrs. Beckett: No, I am afraid not. The hon. Gentleman knows that the matter has been extensively discussed in the House and outside. He was careful to say that the fuel duty increase was all down to this Government. The Opposition are already determined to forget that the fuel duty escalator was introduced by the Government that the hon. Gentleman supported. He and people outside the House know that the Chancellor has heeded some of the concerns that have been expressed. That was reflected in the proposals that he advertised in his pre-Budget statement. He dealt with one of the main concerns of those worried about fuel duty when he said that any increases above real terms would in future go into funds linked to transport provision.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on the housing benefit system, and in particular the damage that is being done to its principles by the activities of the rent officer service? Is she aware that in my area, Stockport, some 3,000 tenants face redetermination of their standard reference rent leading to drops of £20 a week in the support available to them? Does she realise the tremendous difficulties that that is causing?

Mrs. Beckett: All hon. Members are aware through their constituency case load of the impact of the rent officers. However, I was not aware of the concentrated problem that has arisen in the hon. Gentleman's area. He will know that the Government intend to publish a housing Green Paper in due course, which will examine the housing benefit system. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter, but I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends, as they concern the sort of issue that they will want to consider in their discussions on that Green Paper.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney): The Leader of the House will be aware of the concern that is building up

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around the country about the Government's programme of closing community hospitals. She may not be aware that her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, with his former colleague, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), sat on the decision on hospitals in Oxfordshire for 18 months, including proposals to close two community hospitals. Today, the Secretary of State has had the courage to announce that the Government are continuing with their closure programme, and that two more community hospitals will be closing at Burford and Watlington in Oxfordshire. That is at a time when the Deputy Prime Minister wants to expand the number of households in Oxfordshire. Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on the closure of those two hospitals in Oxfordshire, and how that policy can be reconciled with the Deputy Prime Minister's proposals to increase the number of people who will need those services in the county?

Mrs. Beckett: I am afraid that I cannot promise to find time for a special debate, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health and for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, especially about the link that he discerns between different policies. There is always concern about proposed changes or closures of hospital facilities and provision, but if we were to follow the policy advocated by the Conservative party's health spokesman, health service hospitals, other than those that deal with the most acute and urgent cases, would disappear altogether.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I have two requests. First, could time be found for a debate on police numbers, which is a source of great anxiety to my constituents given that the number of police officers serving Hertsmere has fallen by more than 20 per cent. since 1997? Secondly, has the right hon. Lady given any thought to subjecting the Freedom of Information Bill to the Special Standing Committee procedure, of which she and the Home Secretary have a high opinion? Would not that Bill be an obvious candidate for that procedure, so that it could receive more detailed scrutiny? Presumably, on freedom of information, the Government have nothing to hide.

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is not one of our regular contributors at business questions. It is usual to ask one question, not two. However, I shall deal with both his requests. He asked me to appoint a Special Standing Committee on the Freedom of Information Bill. It is important that the Conservative party does not forget that that legislation has already been through a special Committee procedure and has had special pre-legislative scrutiny. It has already had the scrutiny he seeks, so his point about the Government having something to conceal is nonsense.

The hon. Gentleman asked about police numbers. I am sorry to learn that there is concern about the level of police provision in his area, but the Conservative Government took the control of numbers out of the hands of Ministers and placed it in the hands of police authorities, although I recognise that that is influenced by other decisions. The only Government in recent years who

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have provided ring-fenced funding for extra police officers is the present Government, as the Home Secretary made clear at the party conference.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): The Leader of the House said that the Government wanted excellence in education. Will she arrange for a specific debate on the future of grammar schools? It would give Labour Members with grammar schools in their constituencies the opportunity to state whether they would back or sack those schools. There is a school places crisis in my constituency. Labour-controlled Lancashire county council has said that parents will have to bus their children miles out of the area to a neighbouring school to which they would prefer their children did not go. Clitheroe Royal grammar school, which is a beacon school and which the Minister for School Standards, who is sitting beside the right hon. Lady, has stated is an excellent school, is prepared to take an 30 extra youngsters, but the Labour-controlled county council has said that it will be allowed to provide only five extra places. The council does not want to be seen to be promoting grammar schools in the county.

Mrs. Beckett: I fear that I cannot find time for a debate on what is, in fact, a long-running saga rather than a new issue. One of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues recently secured an Adjournment debate on grammar schools, which, unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman did not manage to attend.

The Government are determined to promote excellence in education across the board, but I would be unwilling to promote a debate that automatically linked excellence in education with the existence of grammar schools. There are many excellent schools of various kinds, and in the past, in particular, some schools that have been called grammar schools could not be described as excellent by any standards. I know that, because I was at one.

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