Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), and I shall return to many of the comments that he made, as his speech was very pertinent to the debate.
I suspect that, if Baroness Thatcher and the late Sir Keith Joseph had tried to introduce this Bill, Labour Members would have howled it down. The Bill bears all the hallmarks of centralisation and of a Secretary of State who wants extreme powers.
This Labour Government want to put into legislation Conservative pledges from the 1997 and 2001 general elections. What is the difference between the free schools policy advocated by the Conservative party at the last election, and what is proposed in part 1?
Mr. Green: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to answer his question. The free schools policy would have taken power out of politicians' hands and given it to schools. The Government's policy is to take power away from schools and local authorities and to give it to the Secretary of State.
Mr. Willis: I am grateful for that intervention and clarification. The House will be astounded that a Conservative shadow Secretary of State should consider the Bill too extreme. Many hon. Members will remember grant-maintained schools, and I seem to recollect that the relevant legislation meant that it was the Secretary of State who took the decision to allow such schools to opt out. Of course, parents had a say in the matter, but it was the Secretary of Statenot local authorities or the schools themselveswho made the final decision.
The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) is new to the education portfolio, but other hon. Members will remember the so-called great Education Reform Bill. It became the Education Reform Act 1987 and allowed the Secretary of State to take enormous powers unto himself. For example, he was able to dictate from the centre the curriculum in every school in the country. Even so, the Tories now say that this Bill is too extreme.
It is easy to be seduced by the Secretary of State's undoubted sincerity. No hon. Member would deny her that accolade. Parts 1 and 5 of the Bill have siren qualities, and purport to give much more freedom to schools. However, the Bill will require raft after raft of regulations, as the implementation of each clause will entail secondary legislation. The Minister for School Standards, when he responds to the debate later tonight, must give the House a guarantee that those regulations will be produced while the Bill is being considered in Standing Committee. It will be very difficult to determine what the Bill will do if we do not know the effect of the secondary legislation.
Labour Members must recognise that the Bill will create a de facto national education system. The Secretary of State will possess Kremlin-like powers over every secondary school in the land. The Bill condemns to the history books the comprehensive ideal, which the
Mr. Jon Owen Jones: The hon. Gentleman has set out what he thinks that the Bill will do. However, it applies to Wales as well as to England, and much of what he described will not apply in Wales. I hope that he will deal with that in his speech. The Liberal Democrats are in partnership with the Government in Wales. At the end of this Second Reading debate, how do Liberal Democrat Members intend to treat those elements of the Bill that have the support of their colleagues in the Welsh Assembly?
Mr. Willis: That is a fair point, and I shall answer it directly. The Bill treats the Welsh Assembly in a way that is fairly honourable, as it moves most of the relevant powers to the Assembly. Any proposal that elements of the Bill should be imposed in Wales, or that the powers that the Bill confers should be used there, will have to be brought to the Welsh Assembly for debate. In contrast, without leaving Sanctuary buildings, the Secretary of State can make all the decisions that affect England. She will not have to bring any proposal back to the Floor of the House.
I have set out the fundamental difference between the effects of the Bill in England and Wales. It will be difficult for hon. Members, in Standing Committee and on Third Reading, to deal with that element of the Bill. We should have much preferred there to have been a separate Bill for Wales, enabling the Welsh Assembly to carry out some of the Secretary of State's functions. However, the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) made his point well.
The Bill will create a two-tier, two-speed school system. Schools serving the most challenging and deprived communities will be penalised by a Labour Government because of their poverty. New Labour's proud boast in 1997 was that a war would be waged on social exclusion, but the Bill does not do that. Indeed, the general secretary of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities has described the Bill as a "rag-bag" of centralist policies designed to consolidate the votes of middle England.
Our secondary school system is not a failure. The Secretary of State began the debate by quoting the latest OECD figures on the achievements of 15-year-olds. How can we talk about a failing system when we have such outstanding results? For the Secretary of State to stand at the Dispatch Box and talk about successful and failing schools in the same breath is insulting to the many schools that are trying, against the odds, to succeed.
Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman referred to history. As I think that the House will want to echo the comments about the performances reflected in those tables, does he recognise the enormous contribution towards the education of 15-year-olds that the
Mr. Willis: It is lovely when one is fed lines. I remember the national curriculum's introduction in 1988. I remember cartload after cartload of boxes, and an office that was stacked full of these publications. I remember the Tory Government bringing in Sir Ron Dearing to slim down the curriculum so that it was manageable. The slimmed-down national curriculum, which was introduced in the early 1990s, was certainly a step forward. We have always said that we want a nationally based curriculum, but it must be minimal in what it tries to achieve. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at the impositions placed on schools by Chris Patten; no, I mean John Patten. I apologiseChris Patten is a nice man. I must not get my Pattens wrong.
The Secretary of State was right that our system is not perfect. There are local education authorities and schools that have failed generations of children. That is unacceptable and must be challenged.
My main criticism is that the Bill does not build on the strengths of our comprehensive system but deliberately sets out to undermine its principle. We welcome proposals in parts 1 and 5 to give heads and teachers greater professional freedom. Everyone in the House, before and after the last election, has argued for that. Measures such as greater flexibility and relevance with regard to the curriculum, the ability of schools to provide a range of additional services and flexibility over the school weekeven the school yearare welcome. Proposals to form companies, borrow capital and attract investment are all exciting possibilities, provided that they are co-ordinated within a broader community of schools. For rural schools, such powers would be particularly useful, given that post offices and local banks are being closed. Some of the most deprived urban communities have also lost those facilities and schools could provide some of them. We welcome that proposal.
We have reservations about discarding or abandoning national pay and conditions for teachers, although we recognise that the House will have to get to grips with regional costs for public sector workers. That key issue applies to us all. No one has the solution, but I had hoped that it would be in the Bill.
Fundamentally, we reject the view that only successful schools, as defined and agreed by the Secretary of State, should have these freedoms. All schools that are not in special measures should be eligible for these freedoms and decisions should be taken locally, not by the Secretary of State. That is a fundamental issue on which we will, if necessary, seek to divide the House on Report.
There is no definition of a successful school in the Bill. Yet at the whim of the Secretary of State, successful schools will be able to opt out of the provisions for up to six years. [Hon. Members: "Four years."] No, three plus three. Presumably, that will prohibit some 1,500 schools that currently have serious weaknesses, because clause 53 gives the Secretary of State the power to close all those schools without consultation with the local authority and hand them over to non-LEA providers.