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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on a matter arising

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from the conduct of Trade and Industry questions this morning. I listened intently to the supplementary question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), and awaited eagerly the Minister's response. However, with the authority of the Chair, Mr. Speaker, you judged that my right hon. Friend's question was out of order. Naturally, all Members accept that ruling. As I would not wish to be subject to a similar ruling in future, I should be most grateful, Mr. Speaker, if you would advise me and other Members of why a question about the exclusion of the self-employed from the national minimum wage legislation is irrelevant to Question 7 about the national minimum wage.

Mr. Speaker: A lot has happened since that question was put. However, the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that I will always seek to guide him.


Criminal Justice and Police

Mr. Secretary Straw, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Cook, Mr. Secretary Byers, Mr. Charles Clarke and Jane Kennedy, presented a Bill to make provision for combatting crime and disorder; to make provision about the disclosure of information relating to criminal matters and about powers of search and seizure; to amend the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 and the Terrorism Act 2000; to make provision about the police, the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad; to make provision about the powers of the courts in relation to criminal matters; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 29 January, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 31].

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Opposition Day

[1st Allotted Day]

Teacher Supply

Mr. Speaker: We now come to the main business, which is an Opposition Day. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

1.33 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I beg to move,

As I start this debate, I would like to pay tribute to the teachers and non-teaching staff in our schools who, today, are having to work even harder in the face of difficult circumstances to ensure that children receive as good an education as possible, given the problem of teacher shortages faced by schools throughout the country. Our debate takes place against the backdrop of a crisis that has all but crippled our education system. In all parts of the country, schools are facing massive problems in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers. However, that is only the tip of the iceberg for, just as worrying, is the impact that the crisis is having on the quality of education that children receive. Behind the headlines, teacher shortages are having a damaging effect on standards in our schools. There is an immediate crisis in teacher supply, but there is also a crisis in the quality of education which our hard-pressed teachers can provide.

We know what the Government's response will be from what they have been saying over the past few weeks. First, they will tell us that there is no crisis, as the Secretary of State did at Education questions last week, when he said:

I suppose that we should be grateful for small mercies. The week before, on 7 January, the Prime Minister said on "Breakfast with Frost" that

Of course, it is just the sort of problem that the Prime Minister has refused to debate on television with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. First, the Government say it is not a problem, and then it is a problem, but not a crisis. I wonder what we are going to be told this week? Perhaps the problem is a little bit bigger or has become a little local difficulty. It may even--to use a word that is favoured by new Labour--be a challenge.

It is no good the Government claiming that the problem is merely being whipped up by the Opposition. In a letter

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to the Department for Education and Employment, the director of education at the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead stated:

There are many other such concerns. In a letter published on 4 January, David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that teacher recruitment was "approaching meltdown". Last November, Derek Dorey, the head of Selsdon primary school in Croydon, said:

On 28 December, John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:

Also in December, Professor Alistair Ross, of the Institute for Policy Studies in Education, said:

Furthermore, the Minister for School Standards received a letter this morning from the National Union of Teachers, which states:

It is not as if the Government have not been warned about the problem. Time and time again, they were warned by Opposition Members and by members of the teaching profession that teacher shortages had reached alarming levels. It is noticeable that the Government have not initiated in their four years in office a single debate on the teaching profession and the problems that it faces. This is the third such debate, each of which was initiated by the Opposition. In the two Opposition day debates that occurred last year, we urged the Government to take action to prevent a crisis. They have also been urged to do so by the Secondary Heads Association, the other teacher trade unions and other groups.

The Government have been told for many months that the system is close to breaking point, but we can go back even further than that. In October 1997, in a press release on the first report of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, which dealt with teacher recruitment, the then Chairman, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment and present on the Front Bench, said:

At that time, however, children were not being sent home early, no schools were completely reliant on supply teachers from abroad or were on four-day weeks and there was no proliferation of unqualified and non-specialist staff. If there was a crisis at a time when schools were operating normally, what on earth is the situation today?

Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West): Would the hon. Lady care to compare the current Government's spending on education with that planned by the previous Conservative Government? If the previous Government's plans had been implemented, would there not have been 10,000 fewer teachers than are currently working in our schools?

Mrs. May: I am happy to compare the current Government's spending on education with that of the

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previous Conservative Government. The figures show that they are spending less, despite having come into power in May 1997 and promising to spend a greater proportion of the national income on education than the previous Government. I suggest that the hon. Lady pay more attention to her figures and not take the Whips' brief so seriously.

Since all the threats to which I have referred arose, the Government have not taken the necessary action to prevent the crisis from harming the quality of education that our children receive. Indeed, their complacency is breathtaking. It is not as if the figures have not been showing a problem. The Secretary of State's own Department's figures show that recruitment levels have dropped since 1997 and vacancies have been rising. Indeed, official figures show that teacher vacancies have increased by almost 50 per cent. under the Labour Government. [Hon. Members: "That is not true."] The Secretary of State and the Minister for School Standards say that that is not true, but those are the official figures released by the Department for Education and Employment.

I can understand the Secretary of State indicating that those figures are not worth trusting. After all, last autumn, when the Department was saying that there were only 1,000 vacancies across the country, a survey by The Times Educational Supplement and the Secondary Heads Association showed that there were 4,000, which is four times the figure produced by the Secretary of State's Department.

We do not have to examine official statistics to know the position: we just need to look at last week's edition of The Times Educational Supplement, which contains 272 pages of job adverts. The Secretary of State is not the only person to distrust his Department's statistics. As the director of learning services at Essex county council said in a letter to the right hon. Gentleman:

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