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1.25 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): Although my constituency is not deprived and the region in which it is located is not poor, I have a particular interest in today's topic because of my background. I was born and brought up in the north-east of England. I lived there for the first 18 years of my life before coming to London to attend university, and I have a strong commitment to what I consider my home region.

The north-east is the most deprived region in this country, as measured by household disposable income. In 1998, disposable income per head was £8,080, or 86 per cent. of the UK average. The local newspaper, The Northern Echo, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), described the scale of the problem when it recorded that, according to almost every key economic and social indicator, the region is lagging behind other UK regions.

One important way to tackle the problems in deprived areas in the north-east and elsewhere is through education, which provides a ladder, enabling people to rise from a background of low skill and poor education and improve themselves. I know that the Government share the view that education is important to regeneration. In a White Paper published in July 1998, the Deputy Prime Minister highlighted the importance of education as a means of regeneration.

Reference has been made to the many schemes that the Government have introduced, such as education action zones, to which the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope) referred. However, my concern is that those schemes have not been successful in narrowing the gap in exam results between poor and wealthy areas of the country—a point that was highlighted in this week's report on the north-east by Ofsted. I shall quote some figures from it that perhaps illustrate the point, but I should first declare an interest, in that in 1997 I stood as a parliamentary candidate in South Shields, which formed part of south Tyneside.

In terms of 15-year-olds who achieved five or more A* to C GCSE grades, the gap between south Tyneside and the rest of England in 1997 was 9.4 per cent. By 2001, that gap had widened to 10.9 per cent. In 2001, some 39.1 per cent. of children in south Tyneside achieved five or more A* to C grades, but in England as a whole, 50 per cent. achieved the same result.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the best ways to address the regional disparities that he is outlining is through an elected regional assembly for the north-east?

Mr. Hoban: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham made particular reference to the role of regional government, but I chose not to intervene as I did not wish to steal his thunder. I visit the north-east, where virtually all my family live, some four or five times a year and, as I said, I stood as a parliamentary candidate in South Shields in 1997. However, in my many visits I have heard nobody demand an extra layer of regional government. Nobody has told me that they want a regional assembly in the north-east. People are not rioting on the streets of the north-east, demanding a regional assembly to address the disparity in regional performance. The argument that a regional assembly can improve regional performance is bogus.

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I took care to check that south Tyneside was not an isolated example of those regional disparities in exam results, and was not the only area affected. In Newcastle, for example, the gap has widened from 13.5 per cent. in 1997 to 14.3 per cent. in 2001. Indeed, in the north-east as whole the gap has widened from 7.3 per cent. in 1997 to 8.5 per cent. in 2001. The gap in results between the most deprived region and the country as a whole is therefore widening.

The Government have introduced a number of schemes such as excellence in cities and the education action zones, and we hope that they will produce results. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) identified the achievements in his constituency arising from the EAZs. I shall quote from the Ofsted report that was published earlier this week to give its perception of the success of the zones. Mike Tomlinson states:

at key stages other than key stage 1—

That is a sad indictment of the policy introduced by the Labour Government to improve education in those areas. It certainly is not working for the country as a whole.

The hon. Member for Corby mentioned the success of education action zones, but we know that they have not achieved the financial results that had been hoped. They have not raised the amount of private money that they had been targeted to attract, which is why some have been closed and rolled into the excellence in cities programme. An announcement to that effect was made by the Government last year.

The excellence in cities programme has not achieved that many improvements itself. The Ofsted report states of schools in the programme:

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does my hon. Friend agree that education is part of an overall picture in the inner cities, and that one of the reasons that it is so important is that it can encourage potential investors into this country? For example, Toyota created a huge number of jobs in Tyne and Wear, and the knock-on effect for the regeneration of the north-east was very large.

Mr. Hoban: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, although it was Nissan, not Toyota, that invested in Sunderland. The contribution that that has made to the region has been enormously beneficial, and a number of other businesses have moved to the area to service that industry. It is important, when attracting inward investment, to have a pool of talented, skilled employees. We need to focus on that, because—as my hon. Friend says—education is one of many facets of regeneration. It is a particularly important facet for individuals, but for the entire north-east it is vital for achieving economic success.

One of the problems that the Government are trying to resolve by tackling the educational problems in the north-east is the historical legacy not of 18 years of

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Conservative Government but of the fact that the local education authorities—all of which operated under a high degree of autonomy while we were in power, although that autonomy has subsequently been eroded by this Government—were Labour-controlled. The results in education authorities such as South Tyneside, Newcastle and Sunderland are a consequence of years of Labour control. There is much to be done to improve the results in those areas, and I am not sure that central Government initiatives are the only way of achieving that.

We need to ensure that there is more choice in schools. We must move away from a monochrome mix of schools towards more variety and innovation, to attract teachers into schools in deprived areas. The Ofsted report comments that it is difficult to attract teachers to schools in those areas. Perhaps we need to be more innovative in terms of the type of education that those schools offer, to excite and challenge teachers to come and work in them.

We also need to consider parental choice in deprived areas, where there is, unfortunately, not a wide diversity of choice in terms of the range of schools on offer. People in the north-east who can afford to do so will send their children to the private schools. I attended a comprehensive school in Durham, and I benefited from that. Escaping poor schools should not be an opportunity open only to those who can afford to go to private schools. We must therefore ensure that the state schools system is attractive and that we can offer more choice to parents on low incomes. One of the retrograde steps taken by the Government in their first term was to abolish the assisted places scheme, which had provided an opportunity for parents to escape the state sector and for those in less well-off areas to benefit from a different type of education.

In the United States, George Bush has focused on the need to allow parents in areas where schools are poor to have an effective choice in education through a form of education voucher. It will be interesting to see the product of that reform and how it will change the lives of the people in those areas.

I am conscious that time is short and many Labour Members wish to speak. I do not wish to deprive them of that opportunity, but I have one more point to make. The other aspects of policy to which we need to pay close attention are planning and development, which have been touched on frequently in the debate. Living in the south-east and representing a seat in Hampshire, which will see a great increase in its population in the next 10 to 15 years, I am acutely conscious that by building more homes in the south-east, we are in danger of encouraging economic migration from the north to the south. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) referred to the migration population being primarily among skilled and senior technical staff in businesses.

My concern is that by increasing significantly the number of houses to be built in the south—an increase significantly greater than that in the north-east—we are in danger of impoverishing the north-east by dragging its skilled, technically able people to the south. Although I wish my constituency to develop well economically, I do not want that to happen at the expense of the one nation to which my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) referred in his remarks. Our planning and development policies need to reflect and consider the impact of greater house building in the south-east on the impoverishment of areas in the north.

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The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) referred to community-led initiatives. The Portsmouth housing association is trying to develop a bond to finance a project called Fusion. It will combine public and private investment in a wide range of skills to tackle the poverty and deprivation that exist along the south coast, in Portsmouth and the neighbouring boroughs, including Fareham. I welcome that scheme, because it demonstrates the need to look at the fabric of our environment and to provide the education and skills that people need to lift themselves out of deprivation. It also demonstrates how the public and private sectors can work together. To use a housing association as a facilitator is an excellent idea.

In conclusion, we must ensure that all the Government's policies are directed towards improving the lot of those living in deprived areas. I am concerned that their policies on education and planning will work against the interests of those people, not in their favour.

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