7 Feb 2002 : Column 1009

House of Commons

Thursday 7 February 2002

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill (By Order)

Order read for further consideration, as amended by the Chairman of Way and Means.

To be further considered on Thursday 14 February.

Mersey Tunnels Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 12 February.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Young People (Consultation)

1. David Wright (Telford): What steps the Government have taken to consult young people about the policies of her Department. [31400]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): We are building on existing good practice to integrate young people's involvement in all our activities and, by doing so, implementing the Government's core principles on participation published last November in "Learning to Listen". The development of the Connexions service is an excellent example of how a new service can engage with young people.

David Wright: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Last week I visited Madeley Court school in my constituency which has a school council and two student representatives on the governing body. Does he agree that that is a good mechanism for consultation on education policy nationally and on the policies of the governing body of that school?

Mr. Lewis: I agree with my hon. Friend. That is an innovative approach to the involvement of young people and I congratulate the head teachers and governors on involving young people in that way. We are becoming increasingly conscious—certainly I am as the first Minister for Young People and Learning—of the importance of listening to young people and talking to

7 Feb 2002 : Column 1010

them about policies that have an impact on their everyday lives. It is important that they are involved in the design, development and evaluation of services.

At a national level, we are keen to consult young people in a way that they have not been consulted before. For example, when we published our White Paper, we held a consultation day with children and young people. When we produce our proposals on 14 to 19 reforms in the near future, the document will be specifically aimed at young people and we will hold consultation events with them. As we develop new services and evaluate existing ones, it is important that we involve young people.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): What discussions has the Minister had with members of the Youth Parliament about his Department's policies? Will he confirm that all members of the Youth Parliament have been invited to the Department to meet Ministers and officials? What are his plans to ensure continuing dialogue with members of the Youth Parliament and how will he keep in touch with them to give them feedback on the discussions?

Mr. Lewis: We have a high regard for the contribution that the UK Youth Parliament makes in linking politics, Government and young people together. The hon. Gentleman might be aware that the children and young people's unit has been in dialogue with representatives of the UK Youth Parliament. Deliberations are under way on the level of future Government support for the activities of the Youth Parliament.

As for discussions with the Department for Education and Skills, many young people who have been involved in the UK Youth Parliament have told me about the benefits of that, both locally and when it meets at a national level. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that every Member of the House has a responsibility to re-engage young people with politics and the political process. One of the biggest dangers to democracy is that far too many young people do not think that deliberations in this House and politics in general are relevant to their everyday lives. The UK Youth Parliament plays an important part in dealing with that.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): It is right to engage young people in consultation because it is mutually beneficial for the school and the young people, and helps the school to run smoothly. However, does my hon. Friend agree that practice varies enormously? Although some young people enjoy that benefit and like being at school, some schools are not so committed to the practice. Will he comment on strengthening guidelines to encourage schools to engage young people so that they can benefit in the way that he described?

Mr. Lewis: I agree that practice is patchy. Some schools are good at involving young people and are committed to the concept, but others are not. We do not think it appropriate to introduce statute on that policy at the moment, but we should spread good practice guidance and make it clear that in principle the Government support the idea of school councils and other ways to engage

7 Feb 2002 : Column 1011

young people at school level. We have a long way to go, and we need to build on existing good practice and commitment.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I agree with a lot of what the Minister said: consultation with young people is important. He will know from consulting school councils and others that their greatest current concern is the disastrous failure of the exam system in the Edexcel fiasco. The Secretary of State has given Edexcel one month to prove that this summer's exams will not fall into chaos. Do the Government have a contingency plan if Edexcel does not satisfy the Department, and if so, what is it?

Mr. Lewis: The Government's reaction to the difficulties at Edexcel was immediate, rapid and decisive. We insisted that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority carry out an audit of the difficulties that emerged at the examinations board last summer—that report has recently been published—and the quality assurance person at the QCA has been put into Edexcel to improve practice. We believe that lessons have been learned from the difficulties of recent months, which undoubtedly affected too many young people, and that systems are now in place to ensure that the improvements that we expect at Edexcel are delivered in time for the summer exams.

Mr. Green: That is an extraordinary reply. We are in the middle of the one-month period of investigation, but the Minister is apparently entirely confident. Either the one-month exercise is a sham, or the Government have no plan B and the exams will go ahead under Edexcel even if Edexcel fails the one-month test. Which is it?

Mr. Lewis: It is irresponsible of the hon. Gentleman to undermine confidence in this country's examinations system. Although the situation at Edexcel is serious in terms of the small number of young people affected by it, the vast majority of young people have every reason to have confidence in the examinations system because they have not been affected by the problems at Edexcel in the past. We have every confidence that the robust quality assurance systems that we have put in place and the interventions of the QCA and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will ensure that this summer the examinations system will run as we expect it to.

Private Finance Initiative

2. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): If she will make a statement on the PFI in schools. [31401]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (John Healey): There are 38 signed PFI projects involving almost 500 schools with a value of more than £1 billion. A further £1 billion has been allocated to projects in various stages of development. The Government have increased the amount of PFI credits for schools from £35 million in 1997-98 to a planned £850 million in 2003-04.

7 Feb 2002 : Column 1012

Mr. Chapman: Does my hon. Friend agree that in public services, it is critical that the quality of service that people need is put in place, rather than the means of its financing or provision? In three schools in my constituency, PFI work is about to commence that will provide them with new classrooms—in one case to replace 14 mobile classrooms—and new facilities that would otherwise not have been provided, or not have been provided on the same scale or in the same time frame.

John Healey: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am glad to hear about the three schools in his constituency, which are among nine in the authority area that are to benefit from the scheme. The programme has already started and is running on time for completion in December this year. He is right that teachers and pupils will have good-quality buildings maintained to good-quality standards. He mentioned the added value that that can bring. Wirral local education authority officials told my officials that even at the current high levels of Government capital investment through public routes, it would have taken 15 years to reach by conventional means the same state that the PFI contract will deliver for the nine schools in the area.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I welcome the fact that after many years of frozen capital spending, my local authority, which is Liberal-Democrat controlled, is working with the Department to build new primary schools in my constituency. However, does the Minister acknowledge that PFI funding is more expensive than conventional public borrowing? Will he explain whether the extra cost will be borne by the improved and expanded schools, or will it be spread across the whole LEA and so be borne by other schools as well?

John Healey: If the hon. Gentleman's authority has put in a bid for a PFI project, it is one of the more than 100 out of 150 LEAs to have done so. That demonstrates the interest in that form of additional financing of capital investment. As for cost, he will know that PFI projects can proceed only if they can demonstrate value for money over conventional means of funding. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) spoke of a project in his LEA area that will deliver a 9 per cent. lower cost for the programme. Furthermore, payments begin only when services start. Teachers, pupils and schools get new buildings with guaranteed higher maintenance standards.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Many of our constituents deserve new-build in the education system, some of which is 20 years overdue in my constituency. I welcome the PFI work and seek an assurance from my hon. Friend that despite carping from certain quarters, he will not back off from the programme, which provides a sensible way of putting capital into schools in our most deprived communities.

John Healey: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. PFI is a means to raise additional resources to improve school buildings and to deliver better and more cost-effective public services. Of course, it can also free head teachers and teachers from the business of maintaining and managing buildings, allowing them to concentrate more on standards, education and their

7 Feb 2002 : Column 1013

students. Despite the carping that my hon. Friend mentioned, it is increasingly popular with schools and local education authorities. Last year's bidding round was oversubscribed by 3:1, the current one by 4:1.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): The Minister will know that I strongly support the genuine transfer of risk to private bodies, but can he tell us the difference between shifting the Government's debt into public-private partnerships and Enron's accounting methods to shift its debt and hide it in offshore partnerships?

John Healey: The right hon. Gentleman does the PFI programme in schools a serious disservice in trying to make such links. There is no connection or comparison whatever with the methods that that company employed. He is right about shifting the balance of risk, which is key to PFI contracts and the ability to deliver value for money and cost reductions. Shifted risks include risks that the private sector bears in upfront costs until buildings are completed, and risks associated with serious systems and buildings failure during the contract, which is why many local authorities and schools regard the arrangement as a valuable way of bringing new capital finance into the school system.

Next Section

IndexHome Page