Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that local authorities should be encouraged to open all the facilities that are available in schools in the summer? There appears to be a problem with insurance, which is why youngsters are not allowed to use the equipment. We should consider ways of solving the problems and ensure that the facilities are available for our young people.

Mr. Gardiner: I am grateful for that intervention and I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Insurance and other matters must not be allowed to stand in the way of opening up access. I shall deal with that point later.

We are not the only country that is having to think out of the box to tackle the issue. In Austria, the social affairs spokesman has put forward the idea of a fat tax, suggesting that social insurance contributions should be linked to body mass index. I can see that one or two colleagues are rather worried by that suggestion, but I do not think that we should pursue it—at least not yet.

3 Dec 2003 : Column 607

The Government have set a target of 70 per cent. of the population engaging in regular physical exercise by 2020. It is right for them to set high standards. Just as they intervene to stop us smoking and to encourage safe sex and sensible drinking, so they must intervene to fight obesity by removing the hurdles that prevent people from being more active.

A key element in making the nation more active is access to facilities, which is the very point that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) mentioned. Membership of a private gym is often expensive and quality sports pitches and leisure centres are in limited supply. Consequently, affordable, good-quality facilities are out of reach for far too many people. We must open up access and make the best facilities available to the whole community.

Based on schemes in Wales, Glasgow and Newham, and along with London Assembly Member Diana Johnson, I am in discussion with fellow London MPs and with boroughs to see whether we can make swimming in London free for all children. Of course, to use the facilities we must first have them. Germany has 92 50-m swimming pools. In France, the city of Paris alone has 20. In the UK, we have just 17. Many 25-m pools, which should be standard facilities for every community, are in a state of disrepair, if they exist at all.

We must complete a national needs analysis for each nation and region and work with their sports governing bodies to put the necessary facilities in the right place. That means, in practice, that housing should not be built without consideration being given to the availability of sports and recreational facilities. The public should consider having such facilities in easy reach the expected norm and the Government should be ready to embrace partnership with the private sector in all areas to get those facilities in place.

In the last minute available to me, I want to touch on children's trust funds. I am concerned about the necessary information for parents, and now for children in schools, who will have a real interest in acquiring the financial skills to manage their own funds at maturity. The Government information campaign beginning in 2005 is too late. Parents need to be made more aware of these issues in good time. The Government need to clarify whether the additional tax-free contribution of £1,200 a year can be made by parents in respect of the years between September 2002, when the first child qualifies, and 2005, when the first fund is opened.

I am concerned that a policy designed to increase social inclusion and to help children out of poverty will see wealthy parents take full advantage of the provision to make the £1,200 additional payments each year while poor parents cannot. The projection for a fund with a £500 initial contribution but no additional annual contribution suggests a real-terms value of £900 at maturity. However, a £250 initial contribution in respect of a rich family with just a £50 a month additional contribution going in would have a real-terms value of more than £18,000 at maturity.

That would have the perverse effect of ensuring that the gap between rich and poor would widen as a result of the child trust fund. I believe that the Government must offer parents from poor families an extra incentive to make additional payments so that that does not happen.

3 Dec 2003 : Column 608

6.38 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): The bulk of the debate has been about higher education and my speech will reflect that, but first I shall say a word or two about other matters that have been discussed.

We on the Conservative Benches will be constructive on the children Bill and we welcome what the Secretary of State for Education and Skills said about the school transport Bill, so far as it went, but he will recognise that until and unless he can guarantee that no child currently entitled to free school transport will lose that entitlement he will face unhappiness and opposition.

On the national health service, let us recognise that the truth is a mixed picture. The Government have poured in more money and recruited more doctors, but they have also hired three times as many extra administrators. They have recruited more nurses, but they have presided over the complete disintegration of NHS dentistry, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, and there is not a single NHS dentist in either Kendal or Windermere, for example, in my constituency.

The Government have presided over a record number of operations, but a record number of people have been killed by hospital-acquired infections. The truth of the matter is that some parts of the NHS are getting significantly better, but others are getting very much worse. It would help us all if the Secretary of State for Health felt able to acknowledge both parts of that picture.

The Education Secretary seems confused on three issues to do with higher education. First, will top-up fees deter students, especially those from low-income families? He denied that outright, but then demolished his case by praising a university for deciding to set a zero fee for a physics course in order to attract more students than it would get if it set a higher fee.

Secondly, will the Government's office for fair access tell universities whom to admit? The Secretary of State got hot under the collar with my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) for having said that it would. He said that it was wrong for my hon. Friend to say that, but minutes later he contradicted himself when he told one of his hon. Friends that Offa's job would be to tell universities to come up with policies to admit more working-class kids. If that is not interfering with admissions, I do not know what is.

Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman seemed confused about the manifesto on which he stood two years ago. He claimed that the pledge was not to introduce top-up fees before the next general election. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) blew a hole in that argument by pointing out that the full quote is simply:

full stop.

The Education Secretary tried to have some fun with a few quotes he had found. Two can play at that game, and I had a productive 15 minutes in the Library earlier. The right hon. Gentleman quoted a couple of Conservatives who left office more than a decade ago. I shall quote someone who served in the present Government until just six months ago. The right hon.

3 Dec 2003 : Column 609

Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) just yesterday said that he did not think social justice comes from loading young people of ordinary means with a large amount of debt.

The Education Secretary got excited about a 15-year-old quote from my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk. It turns out that the quote was about student loans, which both sides of the House now support, not about fees. I think that the right hon. Gentleman was trying to say that my hon. Friend has been less than consistent. I checked the right hon. Gentleman's own record for consistency, and I did not have to go back 15 years. In December 1997, just six years ago, he voted for the Government's cuts in lone parent benefit. On the very same day, he wrote to the then Social Security Secretary to say that those plans, for which he voted, were "fundamentally wrong". He said that

The right hon. Gentleman must have a sense of déjà vu. Seven Labour Members—the hon. Members for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), for Gower (Mr. Caton), for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) and for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor)—made speeches in which they attacked the Government's proposals and made it clear that they could not support them.

Conservative Members have three priorities for higher education: excellence, independence and admission solely on merit. Each of those is threatened by the measures in the Queen's Speech. Excellence will be undermined because the Government's proposals will drive away many academically outstanding candidates from low-income families who are fearful of debt, but at the same time the Government will throw open the doors to academically weaker candidates from families wealthy enough not to have to worry about high borrowings. That is an odd definition of social inclusion, and it can only further water down standards and drive up already soaring drop-out rates.

Next Section

IndexHome Page