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15 Nov 2002 : Column 275—continued

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Green: I shall give way in a moment.

The Government's idea of choice is to allow parents to choose between a small range of options which Ministers allow them. It is unfortunate that, despite the Secretary of State's words in newspaper interviews, nothing that he has said this morning convinced the House that he is prepared to give up that degree of control, but I am sure that we can live in hope.

It is traditional that the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) makes the first intervention on Opposition speakers and I am always happy to observe parliamentary tradition.

Mr. Gardiner: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Given his remarks about devolving power over local school budgets to local heads, does he commend the fact that, in the past five years, the proportion of local budgets that are devolved and under the control of head teachers has risen from 79 to 87 per cent.? What is his target percentage for devolution of those budgets? Will he also confirm that he would continue with the direct grants to each primary and secondary school that this Government have piloted and which have been so welcomed by head teachers?

Mr. Green: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on making a rather more serious intervention than he usually manages in his jack-in-the-box performances. The problem with the way in which the Government have funded schools relates to the small packets of directed money. Like hon. Members in all parts of the House, he will have talked to head teachers in his constituency and will be aware of their frustration and irritation about the amount of paperwork and the sheer amount of time that is taken in bidding for the grants. I shall deal with the Opposition's proposals later, as I intend to address directly some of the questions asked by the Secretary of State in an attempt to avoid speaking about his own policies.

The hon. Member for Brent, North will know that 79 different funding streams can currently be accessed by schools. That is nonsense and I suspect that the Secretary of State knows that. He says that he wants to reduce that number and, inasmuch as he can do so, I will welcome any steps that he takes. However, if the hon. Gentleman thinks that schools feel that they have more control over the money that comes from the Government than 10 years ago, he is simply mistaken. That is not the day-to-day experience of head teachers in this country.

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The Gracious Speech made relatively few mentions of education. The Government promised to

The Secretary of State referred to some of those proposals, and the Opposition would heartily support any effective moves to reduce truancy. I am sure that nobody in the House disagrees with the view that truancy not only blights the opportunities of the children who are truanting, but far too often leads to the antisocial behaviour that affects many of our communities. I am also sure that he is aware of the promise made by his Government in 1998 to reduce school truancies by one third. However, he will know that his Department released in September figures showing that the Government had completely failed to make any headway on reducing truancy, despite, according to the Department's website, the issuing of 75 press releases since 1997 announcing measures to tackle truancy. The fact that there have been 75 press releases and no progress is a snapshot of new Labour's attitude to government.

That is what the Government have achieved despite forcing LEAs to write behaviour support plans and establishing a ministerial task force to tackle truancy, and despite everything else that they have been saying for the past six months. They have announced more money and proposed taking child benefit away from parents of persistent truants—a policy that I understand was launched and then dropped, in characteristic fashion. They have called for police in schools, carried out truancy sweeps and announced fast-track prosecution for parents of truants, leading to fines or even imprisonment. Some of those proposals have been announced and implemented, some announced and forgotten and some announced and withdrawn.

I therefore hope that the Secretary of State will forgive those of us who are mildly sceptical about the Government's performance in that regard for saying that we have heard a lot of what he said before. Any proposals that he makes must be seen in the context of his Government's failure to do anything effective about the problem, which is clear on the basis of their own figures, and despite their suffering from a severe case of Xinitiative-itis", to quote the Secretary of State himself.

Despite all the tough-sounding policies, truancy is as high as ever. The Secretary of State quoted Stephen Clarke of Truancy Call, who estimates that 50,000 children play truant from school every day. When Mike Tomlinson was running Ofsted, he estimated that the system had lost about 10,000 all together. Those 10,000 children are being denied their opportunity in life, and another series of tough-sounding but ultimately hollow gimmicks will do nothing to provide them with the chance in life that they deserve.

The Secretary of State will know that the problem is not only one of education, but of affecting everyone in society. Forty per cent. of street crime, 25 per cent. of burglaries, 20 per cent. of criminal damage and a third of car thefts are carried out by 10 to 16-year-olds at times when they should be in school. Those are genuinely terrible figures. If the Government want to get tough on antisocial behaviour, they must crack down on truancy and not merely dig up new schemes to announce or reannounce.

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The final resort of this Government is to attempt to blame the Opposition. Indeed, there has been an interesting development in the past few days in their attempts to blame the Opposition for their own failures. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister said that we proposed to close down sure start all together. The Secretary of State is already retreating hard from that position, however, and was talking about closing down some sure start schemes. I thought that I would elevate the tone of the debate, which the Government have tried to drag down, by quoting from the section on sure start in our document XThe Conveyor Belt to Crime". I looked it up after the Prime Minister made that extraordinary—and indeed false—claim on Wednesday. It states:

There is no argument between us about the possibilities of sure start. The document continues:

I hope that the Secretary of State would not disagree that it would be good to have an independent evaluation; if the scheme works, one would want it to continue, like all effective policies. The document goes on to state:

I hope that the Government will see from that excerpt that we seek to improve and build on sure start. That was the point made in XThe Conveyor Belt to Crime". We will happily carry on with the parts that work, but we will not carry on with those that do not. That is an entirely adult and intelligent approach for an Opposition to take to policy making, and we will continue to take it. I hope that the Government can approach the vital social problem of truancy in the same mature way.

We need such programmes to cope with the problem of truancy in the short term, but I hope that the Secretary of State would admit that the long-term solution that needs to be added to the mix is the establishment of a much better vocational system. For too long in the UK—this is not a criticism of the current Government, as the situation has continued for decades and possibly since the second world war—less academic children have not been given the chances that they deserve in our system. Many of them have become disillusioned with education, started to play truant and turned to crime.

Mr. McWalter: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that some parts of the sure start programme do not work and hence that he would withdraw them?

Mr. Green: I do not want to repeat myself, as I am aware that many hon. Members wish to speak. I just quoted from a document that I will happily send to the hon. Gentleman, which made the point that we want more evaluation and that some parts of the scheme seem to be working, while others do not. If he is saying that it

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is absolutely perfect and should not be changed in any way, that is fine and it is a point of view, but it is not the experience of those who are dealing with the problem on the ground. We know that many less academic children become disillusioned with education, start to play truant and turn to crime. Until we begin to reverse the chronic deficit in skills training that leaves too many children disengaged, truancy will continue to blight our children and their communities.

On secondary school reform, this promise was made in the Gracious Speech:

The Secretary of State made much play of his desire for greater autonomy and freedom to innovate for schools. I am sure that he means it, but in that case, it is a shame for him that the Government's legislative agenda does not contain an education Bill through which he could bring about the necessary reforms that our schools desperately need. Instead, he is forced to work within the boundaries of the restricted and centralising powers that the Education Act 2002 grants him.

The Secretary of State claims that the powers of earned autonomy to which he referred mean that the Department

That is interesting because it highlights the inconsistency at the heart of the idea. It is simply untrue that the Secretary of State will not have to sanction decisions, because to earn autonomy, a school will have to persuade him that it is worthy of it. Freedom sanctioned from the centre for a fixed time with Government ability to remove it is not freedom. That is not the only contradiction, however.

Earned autonomy presumably rests on the assumption that autonomy is a good thing. If autonomy benefits schools, surely those that are failing in the current system need it most, not those that live and thrive despite the restrictions. Earned autonomy is an oxymoron; it is classic new Labour double-speak.

Another phrase that the Government like runs it close: Xthe power to innovate." The Secretary of State said:

That is an extraordinary admission from a Secretary of State. He admits that the initiatives and controls that the Government have introduced stand in the way of common sense and prevent schools from innovating. All he can do to help schools to innovate is to suspend the Government's legislation.

Sadly, the former Secretary of State is not present to join the debate. I should love to hear her defend the legislation that she introduced and which, according to the Secretary of State, requires suspension in order to help schools. There is severe confusion at the heart of Government about whether their legislation is helpful or harmful. I want to help the Secretary of State: it is generally harmful. If he intends to argue through

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Cabinet Committees for another Bill to remove many provisions of last year's Act, we would welcome that. The solution is simple: get rid of the controls, not only for some but for all schools.

Whatever the Government say, they simply cannot let go. Why else would they issue a document to schools entitled XPower to Innovate: Guidance for applicants"? It consists of eight pages that tell schools how to have good ideas. Producing documents from Whitehall Departments is not the way in which to promote innovation; allowing schools freedom to innovate sensitively to suit their local conditions is the best method.

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