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9.1 pm

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): Relatively new as I am to the House, I have yet to get to grips with the full magniloquence of some of the speeches that we have heard. I will not try to rival some of them in length. I have been very impressed by the compendiousness of some of the speeches from Government Members in particular.

I want to speak about a specific matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green): the imminent closure of the Henley Community Online centre. Some hon. Members may have a stereotypical view of the inhabitants of Henley-on-Thames and believe that they all have computers in their bedrooms, but that is far from the case: in south Oxfordshire there are many disadvantaged people from all walks of life, and Henley Community Online set up a very useful service for the 220 people currently enrolled with it and many more applicants on the stocks. I have a sentimental attachment to it personally, because I was there at its inception, with a couple of gigantic rabbits—people dressed up as rabbits, that is.

Now, thanks to the Government, the centre faces closure in December, because 80 per cent. of its funds came from the individual learning accounts, on which the Government have just pulled the plug, without any more warning than an ad in the newspapers. There has been some mystification about why, if it was such a good scheme, it has been necessary to curtail it so violently. Perhaps I can enlighten the House.

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If one wants to get an individual learning account one must get one's computer working and dial up the internet, fill in a form on a website and within three days one gets a seven-digit account number. One then presents this number to one's individual learning account provider. To find that provider is not very difficult: if one is fraudulently inclined one might simply look in the mirror. Lo and behold, the provider gets £200 of taxpayers' money sluiced into his bank account. I am abbreviating the procedure somewhat.

It will not tax hon. Members' imaginations greatly to see how that system could be abused. Perhaps Government Members with memories of the trade unions in the old days, when the printworkers used to fill in forms in the name of Mickey Mouse and so on, will know what I am talking about. The pertinent question is why the scheme was set up in that way in the face of repeated warnings both before and after its genesis. The Government probably wanted to meet a quota. Broadly speaking, they probably wanted 1 million people to sign up for ILAs, but as it was, they got 2.5 million, and quite a lot of fraud.

That fraud happened because the Government set up the scheme without the necessary safeguards. The Secretary of State said that they are investigating only 30 cases, but that cannot justify closing the scheme down overnight. I am sure that the real number is far higher. I especially enjoyed the bit when the Secretary of State said that she did not want to see a good scheme further damaged, so she has decided to destroy it instead—like the American general in Vietnam who destroyed a village in order to save it.

I agree with those hon. Members who have said that we must have a timetable for the restoration of the system with improved—or at least, some—safeguards. In the meantime, it would be wholly welcomed in my constituency if emergency funds could be provided to keep bodies such as the Henley Community Online centre going. Otherwise, innocent and well-meaning people who have worked hard to start something up will be punished not so much for the actions of the guilty as for the incompetent way in which the Government set up the ILA scheme and the incompetent way in which they decided to close it down.

9.6 pm

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): I wish to put on the record the fact that I agree with some of the policies that the Government have put into operation since they came to power in 1997. I agree wholeheartedly with the literacy and numeracy strategies, although initially they were too prescriptive. I also agree that some funding should go directly to schools and not via the LEAs. I welcome the adjustments that the Government have made in that area.

Despite the Government's assertion that education is a key policy, it is no secret both inside the House and outside that education provision at all levels is a mess. We have heard before and we shall no doubt hear later this evening of the considerable sums that are being put into educational provision. However, as has already been pointed out, the sum of money is no higher, as a percentage of gross domestic product, than it was under the last Conservative Government. Even after the three-year spending increase, the figure reaches only

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5.3 per cent. of GDP—significantly less than some of our European partners. As we Conservatives know, it is not only how much one spends that matters, but how one spends it. That is evidenced by educational performance in countries such as the Netherlands, South Korea and Japan.

I do not question the Secretary of State's commitment or intentions but she has several serious problems to resolve. She has inherited a debacle and under her guidance progress to date has not been promising. However, I accept that she is willing to reconsider policies that are not working and she deserves credit for having an open mind.

I wish to draw a picture on a metaphorical blackboard to reflect educational provision in England and Wales today. Three or four-year-olds benefiting from early years education have seen 2,000 pre-school places closed since 1997. Five, six and seven-year-olds who have moved into a new area, especially a rural area, may be without an education for some time because no primary schools have any spaces, and there is no ability to expand primary school education. They may be placed in taxis and chauffeured miles from their homes and families.

As children enter secondary school, they find that class sizes are on the increase and they often have no teacher. If they do, he or she may be a recent arrival from abroad. Disruptive pupils are encouraged to stay in school to meet Government targets, despite their impact on other students' education and teachers' attempts to instil discipline.

By some miracle, a student reaches AS or A-level, but then discovers that he will not be studying AS or A-levels at all. He certainly will not study the traditional three A-level system. He will be aware that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has said, euphemistically, that the review is due to "teething problems". Irrespective of that, he will be blamed for not working hard enough and his school will be derided for being responsible for the present confusion.

Friends of the person whom I am describing decide not to go on to higher education because they cannot afford it. Regardless of what Labour Members say, there is no doubt that the student loans scheme has exacerbated what was already a significant problem, with students from poorer backgrounds not going on to higher education.

This person progresses to higher education despite the Government's current policy on student loans. He is aware that a senior Minister has described the scheme as a "total shambles" and "a disaster". He is delighted to hear that the Government will do a U-turn, but his heart sinks as he hears that the Government may replace the existing scheme with one that will require him to pay more tax over a 25-year period.

A Scottish friend of the person about whom I am speaking has gone to university in Scotland. He studies under a system for which he has to pay nothing and which he will leave with no debt. My exemplar's parents will be asked to contribute financially to the university library to help buy books. Half way through his degree, senior academic staff will be made redundant because of funding shortages.

Despite his experience of education, this person is thirsty to drink from the cup of knowledge and wishes to further his education and training as an adult learner. He

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applies for an individual learning account, only to find that someone has fraudulently claimed his money. However, he is reassured to learn that he is not alone—indeed, that another 6,000 complaints have been made. He learns too that the Government have closed down the scheme two days after announcing that it was to expand. He is embarrassed to point out that

The person whom I am describing is so concerned by the standard of education in England and Wales that he decides to do something about it and become a teacher. He is positive about the move, and there is good news—in future, there is to be a golden hello. He is fortunate to be on the fast-track scheme, although only 111 people have been recruited at a cost of £80,000 each.

Many of the colleagues of the person whom I am using as an example do not complete the training. Indeed, 40 per cent. will drop out before completing the course. A further 18 per cent. will leave in the first three years of teaching.

The hero of my story sees statistics that show that in 1997, 18,600 teachers left the profession for reasons other than retirement. In 2000, the figure was 26,200. I accept the Secretary of State's assurance that some of those who leave return to the profession, but the figures reveal an increase of 30 per cent. in the numbers of people choosing to leave.

The person about whom I speak is rightly concerned that the teaching profession is ageing. Large numbers of teachers are approaching retirement age, and there are insufficient replacements. But when he goes into teaching, he finds that morale is low and the pay modest. There is constant interference from central Government, as inordinate and unprecedented volumes of paperwork and initiatives land on his desk almost daily. There is no freedom to teach, and no discretion or spontaneity. He has no time at weekends for family and, most significant of all, no time for preparation and development.

Teaching vacancy levels are running at 25 per cent. in the schools in which this person teaches, and there are no applicants for the vacant posts. In desperation, an acting head teacher may go to an agency to recruit from abroad, but parents rightly claim that the problem is affecting their children's education.

Some Labour Members have said in the debate that they do not believe that Conservative Members are making a positive contribution on this country's future education policies, but I have a few suggestions.

We should pay teachers salaries that their position and status in society deserve. We should ensure that performance management rewards good teachers and enables teachers to move into higher salary brackets without moving into management roles. In other words, we should keep the good teachers in the classroom.

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