Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman says that two special schools in the Forest of Dean are to be merged, and he expresses the concern of parents and pupils about what will happen to them as a result of the policy of inclusion. Why did he fail to admit that a new special school, with 65 places, will open in the Forest of Dean at a cost of £3 million? There is hardly a loss of provision for children with special needs in the area.

Mr. Robertson: I did not imply that there was to be a loss of provision. I said that schools were merging. I am sure the hon. Lady is not suggesting that special needs education in Gloucestershire is being downgraded. She must accept, however, that people would not go on marches, come to the House or sign petitions if they did not believe that the special school of Alderman Knight was under threat.

There is a great danger that those special needs children will be forced into mainstream schools against their will. That does not suit them or the pupils and teachers at mainstream schools. Again, hon. Members do not have to take my word for it. They should talk to them as I have done. My opinion does not matter. What matters is what the pupils, teachers and parents think. If pupils are forced to go to schools where they cannot cope, their right to a good education will have been removed. We call it inclusion, but they will not be included in society if they do not have the appropriate education or the appropriate care, which they can receive only at special schools.

What is the choice for parents if those schools are closed? If they do not have the option of sending their children to them, they will have to send them to a mainstream school. That is no choice. Why are the changes being made? Is it because of party political dogma or for financial reasons? In Gloucestershire, it is both. There is party political dogma—there is no question about it—but there is also the problem of finances.

The county council is thinking of changing sixth-form provision in the city of Gloucester and its outskirts, some of which also fall into my constituency. Are those changes motivated by financial constraints? We keep hearing from the Government that more and more money is going into education, yet I find that special schools and sixth forms are under threat. One of the wards at Tewkesbury hospital was also under threat, again because of money, yet we are told that the health service is receiving more money. Where is it all going?

I do not want to dwell on finance, however. If the Minister doubts my word, he should come to Alderman Knight school. It would be delighted to receive him. He

3 Dec 2003 : Column 600

should look those children in the eye and tell them that he supports proposals to close their school. I do not think he would do that. I certainly hope that he would not.

On top-up fees, if anyone is advising a couple who are about to get married—although it is probably unwise to do so—the advice should be to avoid debt. My grandfather had a saying, "When you are in debt, you are in danger." We should not be sending graduates out into the world of work with massive debts hanging around their necks. We hear that they are likely to earn much more money because they have university degrees, something that I do not own. However, hon. Members have missed the point: if graduates earn more money, they will pay more tax because it is a percentage of our income. That seems very simple to me.

I am proud that I was part of the education team that decided that the Conservatives would scrap tuition fees when we returned to government. Nothing in our policy would prevent students from going to university, as has been suggested. Our aim is to stop what was graphically and well described by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) as the circle whereby many people go to university, but some cannot get a job on leaving and do jobs that do not require degrees, yet this country has a skills shortage, many people drop out of university because they took the wrong course, and we have a massive bill that we cannot pay. Why not reduce the bill? When I speak to representatives of industry in my constituency and to health service workers, I hear about the skills shortage, but sending more people to university will not redress that shortage. If it could, the skills gap would not exist.

It was a Conservative Government who increased the number of students going to university from one in eight to one in three. Perhaps we should now consider educating and training people in a different and more appropriate way. I would have liked to speak further about that issue, but I fear I have run out of time.

6.11 pm

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I declare an interest as a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.

Performance indicators, monitoring, auditing, assessing—call it what you will, but gauging the performance of the services on which the public rely and which it is the duty of Government to provide is essential, not only as a means of reporting back to the electorate à la plastic card on which Labour Members were elected in 1997, but as a potentially useful tool in improving those services. Regrettably, like so much that emanates from the secret and unelected elite of advisers who shape our party's policies, the theory too often fails to square with the real world. Corrupted by a stream of sub-marketing jargon, a potentially useful tool has become a self-serving one. It seems ultimately to concentrate on moving the macro-debate on the improvement of public service performance towards micro-squabbles over the latest set of key performance indicators. After Marshall McLuhan's

we have Milburn's "star rating is the only game in town" and Adonis's "League Tables 'R' Us".

3 Dec 2003 : Column 601

A reform or bust mantra is being used to threaten Labour Back Benchers, our traditional supporters and the wider public. We are in essence told that changes that nudge us towards a market ethos or that rate activities in tables that would be more at home in Consumers Association magazines are the only legitimate forms of modernisation, on which service quality and thus electoral success depend. Yes, one alternative is a Tory Government slashing public spending and sending the NHS and schools back to the doldrums in which they languished in the 1980s and early 90s, but that is not the only alternative to the target and market culture that we are being encouraged to embrace.

It is clear to many right hon. and hon. Members that public service performance will be a critical issue at the next general election. To fulfil my role as a helpful Back Bencher, I propose to offer the Government some advice on the processes and procedures they have in place to measure the effectiveness of public service performance.

Let me start with the NHS—the most comprehensive, technologically advanced and accessible public health care system in the world. The Government and Labour Members are rightly proud of the record extra investment that has been diverted to the NHS. The problems arise if the award of some public money to hospitals depends on the satisfaction of arbitrary targets and the subsequent award of glittering stars. Even the Government's top statistician says that targets can be naive and impossible to deliver. Indeed, it is now recognised that the star system has little to do with the quality of health care, and more to do with the political outlook of individual hospital managers. Are they prepared to go along with the targets and produce the figures that Government advisers want to read, and thereby reap the star reward; or are they willing to allow the hospital to deliver to a different, and perhaps more relevant agenda, but see the stars denied?

The star system has not been successful and is seriously damaging to the morale of many NHS staff—the very people who pulled that national asset through the funding famine and bureaucratic morass of the Tory years. The star system may be a valid way of improving the behaviour of boisterous primary school children, but it is a wholly inappropriate way of shaping the policies and finances of huge hospital trusts that are straining to deliver services. To give a local example, the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS trust includes three hospitals—Leicester royal infirmary, Leicester general hospital and Glenfield general hospital—and had a two-star rating until this year. The trust recently had a successful review by the Commission for Health Improvement that praised many aspects of its work, and was given an overall score of 15 for different aspects of clinical governance—the highest score in England was 17. As for other performance indicators, it performed 98,300 elective procedures within 12 months, and 89 per cent. of patients were on a waiting list for less than six months. Staff numbers were up by 4 per cent.; staff turnover was down from 14 per cent. to 11 per cent.; and sickness absence fell from 5.3 per cent. to 4.6 per cent. However, in the star rating system it went from two stars to no stars. It achieved six of the arbitrary targets, but

3 Dec 2003 : Column 602

an administrative error led to some in-patients waiting longer than normal, and there were problems in accident and emergency. What a way to treat a magnificent hospital trust with some of the finest hospitals in the east midlands.

In local government, we await, not very eagerly, the publication and inherent simplification of the best value league tables. Yet again, complex public services will be distilled to a starkly simplified, tabulated structure—beware the positions that lead to relegation. In education, no amount of key performance indicators could prevent the engineering firm W.S. Atkins from adding to the financial and administrative burden on schools in the London borough of Southwark. Following the statutory intervention of the Home Secretary, taxpayers effectively paid an engineering firm to ruin further the system of education delivery in Southwark. The Andrew Adonis formula of

is misleadingly simple. What are the desired results under that root and branch logic? Increasingly, money tied to reform is for the benefit of investment banks in the City, the metropolitan media and home counties constituencies, but those groups do not rely on public services.

The underlying tenet or holy grail that underpins that deeply flawed approach to the measurement of public service performance and unites some MPs in subservience to it is competition, which apparently keeps the private sector lean and mean. I do not dispute that and would go further—the survival of the fittest keeps all markets trim and free of excess. Without wanting to demean the efforts of small and medium-sized business enterprises, the harsh realities of the marketplace are appropriate to the opening of a sandwich shop or carpet fitters, for example, but have no application or use in health, education or law enforcement. Recourse to the language, practices and forces of the marketplace in the provision of essential public services shows the fundamental intellectual bankruptcy, not just of the proponents of that theory, but of the wider political system. Hospitals are not shops and patients are not customers. To tell the public that their money cannot be spent on services that they want to work, such as the NHS, schools and police, without a gratuity payment to the private sector is breathtaking chutzpah and disingenuousness on a scale previously seen only in the literary efforts of Jeffrey Archer.

There is a role for private contractors in the delivery of public services—there always has been—but its scale and location have to be controlled. There is a place for comparative quality tables of public services, but only when pre-existing distortions to the delivery environment are removed. Only last Friday, a press notice issued by the National Audit Office said that its recent report recommended that the Department for Education and Skills

We have to build those adjustments into every set of tables, if they are to be used, when measuring the quality of public service delivery.

3 Dec 2003 : Column 603

The NAO also recommended that the DFEE

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first drive mad. Governments whom the gods wish to destroy, they first put into the hands of unelected advisers with few contacts with ordinary people, after which they add a sprinkling of accountants, star systems and league tables, light the pink touch-paper and retire. I fear that we are heading in that direction. The consequent electoral explosion in autumn 2005 is too dire to contemplate.

Next Section

IndexHome Page