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House of Commons

Friday 15 November 2002

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Orders of the Day

Debate on the Address

[Third Day]

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [13 November],

Question again proposed.

Education, Culture, Media and Sport

9.33 am

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): I welcome today's debate, because education, culture, media and sport are critical parts of our national life. I hope that we will have a good debate, and in the spirit of friendship that I hope will characterise our discussions today, I thank the shadow Cabinet for agreeing to combine education with culture, media and sport.

I am delighted to be here with my colleague the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, because the first sentence in a speech that I made after becoming Secretary of State for Education and Skills was that I wanted children to enjoy school. An essential part of enjoying school is found in the relationship that schools need to have with arts, culture and sports organisations. My first bilateral meeting with a fellow Secretary of State after my appointment was with my right hon. Friend, precisely to discuss how we could progress that work.

I am also grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for deciding that the two subject areas should be debated together. My right hon. Friend will deal with the two main measures for which her Department is responsible—the communications Bill and the licensing Bill, which is published today—later in the debate. I hope that all hon. Members understand that that is the most effective way to proceed. I shall focus on education issues.

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I begin by putting on the record my tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris). She was not only an outstanding Secretary of State, but an outstanding Education Minister throughout the period since the Labour Government were elected in 1997. I worked closely with her within the Department and I think that her conviction, her power and her passion have made a major contribution to transforming the quality of education in this country. I think that she was too harsh to herself in the judgment that she made in deciding to resign. If I can reach anywhere near her level of achievement, I will consider myself to have done more than well.

The purpose of the Queen's Speech debate is to enable us to discuss the programmes and policies not only of the Government of the day, but of the Opposition parties as well. If, in the course of the debate, I point out some of the inconsistencies and weaknesses in Opposition policies, I hope that I will not be called a bruiser. I am working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to connect with my feminine side. I intend to set out six questions for the Conservatives and four for the Liberal Democrats—questions that I think they need to answer when explaining their thinking and their policies for the country. The numbers are not equal because I do not think that the Liberal Democrats have achieved the status of official Opposition—yet. It will be interesting to see in the coming year whether they succeed in doing so.

Let me give the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) some candid advice: his party does not have a problem of leadership; its problems are those of identity and policy. People simply do not know where the Conservatives stand. I hope that he will be able to help us in that respect when he answers the questions that I will ask him today.

A major theme of the Gracious Speech is the need to affirm rights and responsibilities. Today, I reaffirm the Government's journey of reform based on a strong society, moving away from a one-size-fits-all system to personalised services based on the needs and aspirations of the individual. We aim to achieve that by breaking up sometimes monolithic structures and devolving powers to front-line leaders of the profession. Diversity and choice will, in our opinion, breed creativity. We believe that it is our role as a Government to support the teaching profession and all those working within the education service, and that the key means of doing so are investment in and reform of those services.

The Gracious Speech stated:

We see the education service as a key player in that respect. We believe in rights for children and responsibilities for parents. In that legislation, we will set out a comprehensive strategy to tackle antisocial behaviour in our communities. We will continue to be tough on truancy and tough on the parents of truants, for the simple reason that truancy damages children's education and their future prospects, and is a major risk factor behind street crime and antisocial behaviour.

We believe that parents have both a legal and a moral responsibility to ensure that their children attend school regularly. It is wholly unacceptable for parents to

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condone their children's truancy from school. The figures are stark: every day 50,000 children are absent from school without the schools' permission—an enormous number. In the recent truancy sweeps that we organised, half the children stopped were with their parents. Unauthorised absence has remained at a constant 0.7 per cent. of half days missed since the data were first published in 1994.

The Government believe that those figures are simply not good enough, and we must work to improve them. Truancy damages not only children, their hopes and aspirations, but society as whole, because it can lead to crime. We must therefore deal with it, and we are setting out a number of clear steps to do just that. We will establish parenting orders to require parents to attend parenting skills classes, and we will be ready to take legal action to put that into effect. We will establish a co-ordinated programme of truancy sweeps even beyond what we have done so far, especially in areas where there is the highest rate of street crime. We will work to build much stronger relationships between schools and police, including, in some instances, having police located in the toughest schools to help build the team that is necessary to tackle these issues.

We have a number of other specific measures. These are targets for local education authorities and schools, funding for electronic registration systems in high-truancy areas, a publicity campaign to address the responsibilities of parents, extending truancy sweeps, as I have said, increasing powers to magistrates to impose sentences on parents, and a pathfinders scheme to speed up the existing prosecution system.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): I am not unsupportive of the measures that the Government are proposing on truancy, but has the right hon. Gentleman's Department done any work in analysing why truancy rates are so high in this country? They are significantly higher than those in other continental European countries, especially Switzerland, where the rate is virtually zero.

Mr. Clarke: We have done some work on this, but we need to do more. I was about to say that we need to commission more research. I would initially identify two or three reasons. First, there was a real growth in truancy rates over the 20 years before we came to office. There was the Xthere is no such thing as society" way of looking at things. In some families in some estates in some parts of the country the ethos of social responsibility has been weakened. We see it as part of our responsibility to try to build that up.

Secondly, there is the serious question whether the curriculum, in some secondary schools in particular, is sufficiently challenging for the children. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is preparing proposals, which I shall come to later, to see whether we can make changes to deal with those aspects as well. We are conducting research, but the hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to make that point.

The first question that I come to is for the Liberal Democrats. I am sure that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) will address

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the matter when he speaks, and I hope he will. My question is whether they will support our measures to deal with truancy. I say to the hon. Gentleman in all candour that if the Liberal Democrats decide that they will not support our measures, I think that the people of this country will judge them in an adverse light. The people acknowledge that there are real problems.

I now come to my first question for the Conservatives. The question of home-school contracts comes into the area that we are discussing. The hon. Member for Ashford said at the Conservative party conference:

That is what the hon. Gentleman is reported as saying. I am sure that he will tell the House whether he stands by that.

I believe that that statutory backing proposal could cause chaos. Putting into place legally enforceable contracts covering millions of school children would be not only a massive bureaucratic burden but a massive enforcement burden. Does the hon. Gentleman propose that heads should be expected to take parents to court? If not, who would be? Implementation of his proposal would open up schools to a new range of legal challenges from parents who felt that in the school contract the school might be failing to provide them with adequate information—for example, about their child's progress. That is the sort of issue that I raised when responding to the intervention of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) about the nature of the curriculum as it operates. Parents might feel that they need legal recourse.

I hope that the hon. Member for Ashford will give us more details about his proposals to provide a statutory backing to the home-school contracts and how he intends to deal with the problems that I have described.

Dealing with antisocial behaviour is a core issue for us in the Queen's Speech. We will play our part with our colleagues in the Home Office and other Departments in developing legislation that will take us forward.

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