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Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to the marvellous way in which, through legislation for which he was responsible, he has championed the cause of those workers. Indeed, the whole House is indebted to him, as are those shop workers who can be required to work on Sundays against their will.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I was interested to hear that the Leader of the House believes that the Government are fully aware of the dangers of terrorism, but I am less than reassured to discover that the civil defence grant has been cut in real terms, that no public information campaign is being mounted to alert people to the dangers of terrorism, that there is no particular campaign to ensure that people are trained to know what to expect, and—most intriguingly of all—that the Civil Contingencies Bill seems to have stalled. Will the Leader of the House ask whichever Minister happens to be currently responsible for homeland security to explain the position to the House, and in particular to explain why the Bill is making no progress?

Mr. Hain: The Secretary of State and the Ministers responsible will want to study carefully the points that the hon. Gentleman raises before responding. I remind him, however—I am entitled to do so because he makes an important point—that the policy announced by the shadow Chancellor would lead to a big cut in homeland security budgets, and as a result our security would be infringed and threatened. That is exactly why the Chancellor announced yesterday a continuation of investment in infrastructure—including in homeland security—in our education system and in our other public services, so that this country can provide high quality services, and that the security issues about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned can be properly addressed. Those issues would not be addressed if the Conservatives won the next general election.

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Orders of the Day


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [17 March].


Motion made, and Question proposed,

Question again proposed.

Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

1.13 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): We welcome the Government's decision to put education at the heart of this year's Budget debate. Education shapes the nature of our society, the future of our children and our nation's potential. It is essential that we as a people, and as a Parliament, get education policy right. All of us in this House will doubtless want to join in paying tribute to the teachers, professors, lecturers, dons, teaching assistants, support staff, governors and heads who work so hard and with such dedication throughout UK education. Generally, they do so for little reward compared with other professions, and often in very difficult circumstances and with far too little public recognition. We will come later to the aspects of education on which the parties differ, but we surely can, and should, put on the record with absolute unanimity our collective congratulations, praise and thanks for what our nation's education professionals achieve, and inspire others to achieve.

We Conservatives are happy to acknowledge that important progress has been made since 1997—just as was made in the preceding years. I shall turn in a moment to several aspects of what the Chancellor had to say in the Budget about education which we are very happy to welcome. But although progress has undoubtedly been made in some elements of education in recent years, sadly, other elements have been going backwards. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers says that there is an attack on a teacher every seven minutes in our schools. Truancy rose by 22 per cent. in the five years after 1997. Seventy-nine special schools have been closed, yet such schools often offer the very best education for the most disadvantaged children. The Government missed their 2002 targets for English and maths attainment at key stage 2, and they delayed their 2004 targets by two years.

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Now, they call them simply "aspirations". Teacher vacancies in secondary schools have risen by 282 per cent., while experienced teachers continue to leave the profession because of complaints about work load, targets and poor pupil behaviour.

Regrettably but clearly, things have got worse in all these areas since 1997, but let us consider another critical area: skills, productivity and vocational education, which is essential territory in any consideration of budgetary and educational issues. It is common ground between the parties that the UK lags behind our competitors in vocational training and education, and has done so for many years. This is in no way a new issue, and there are no magic wands or instant solutions. But given the priority that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and successive Education Secretaries have given to this matter, and the huge sums of public money spent, after seven years things should be moving forward, at least. Sadly, the reverse is true.

The Engineering Employers Federation points out that

Yet the numbers for modern apprenticeships and work-based learning are actually falling in the UK—in the former case by nearly 20 per cent. The proportion of level 2 and level 3 awards made in vocational qualifications dropped by nearly 10 per cent. in the last year for which records are available. The total number enrolled in adult education has slumped by 73,000 since 1997. And according to the CBI, the number of British firms reporting a skills gap has more than trebled since 2001.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a cultural problem within schools and further education colleges? One difficulty is that a number of courses teaching specialist construction skills are closing, and until we can encourage more youngsters into vocational training, such problems will remain.

Mr. Collins: My hon. Friend, as ever, makes an excellent point, which is backed by his detailed knowledge of the subject. As he says, this problem has been with us for long time, and sadly, the closure of existing courses indicates that things are getting worse, rather than better.

What has been the effect of these developments on the UK economy as a whole? In his very first Budget, the Chancellor said that his priority was to raise Britain's productivity performance dramatically. There has been a dramatic change all right—for the worse. In the first six and a half years of this Government, productivity growth averaged just 1.6 per cent. per year—barely half the 2.8 per cent. growth that was achieved in the previous six and a half years. "Things can only get better," they said. In the vital area of skills and productivity, things have only got worse.

There was, however, much that the Chancellor announced on education in his Budget that we Conservatives can warmly welcome. Indeed, it would be churlish not to happily offer such an endorsement, given

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that announcement after announcement constituted Government acceptance of Conservative policy. There are to be more city academies, which, in the form of city technology colleges, were a Conservative idea, so we welcome that announcement. More money is to be paid directly to head teachers. That policy is a direct extension of the Conservative policies of local management of schools and grant-maintained schools. There is a clear movement in the direction of free schools—the Conservative policy of 2001—and of pupil passports, which is Conservative policy for the next election. So we welcome that announcement.

We learn from page 147 of the Red Book that most specific grants to schools

in order "to streamline funding". That is a direct lift from Conservative pledges made at our recent party conferences to reduce the current absurdity of there being up to three dozen different funding streams for schools. That is Conservative policy, so we welcome that announcement, too.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): We have heard many versions of the passport idea, which has led to great confusion both within and outside the House about how exactly the system will work. Can the hon. Gentleman explain it in more detail in his speech, or would he be prepared to attend a sitting of the Education and Skills Committee to provide us with more detail on his plans?

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