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Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op):
It gives me great pleasure to contribute to this debate. Most of my remarks will focus on education, but as is our privilege in this debate, I shall start by commenting on the broader context of the Queen's Speech. We do indeed have the opportunity to take a longer view, and the comments of the Opposition spokesmenboth of
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whom dealt mainly with healthperhaps reflect the fact that we are getting close to a general election that everyone seems to think will take place next May.
Time and again, my constituents come to my advice surgeries, or write to me, to say how much the health system has improved for them, and genuinely to thank me as a Labour Member of Parliament. No reasonably fair-minded person can doubt that consumer satisfaction with the health service has gone up astronomically in the past seven years. The picture with education is also very encouraging. When the Education and Skills Committee recently went to Norway, the permanent secretary in Norway's department of education said, "I am perhaps going to make you feel uncomfortable. Normally, you seek information on these visits, but I want to ask you some questions. We spend far more on education than you do, but the reforms that you have introduced seem to be producing outstanding results and pushing up standards. We want to learn how to do what you're doing, because in Norway we spend far more per head on education."
In the context of the real world, I am now going to be slightly unkind about the Government, even though I honestly feel that there has been a great increase in the quality of health care and a great improvement in many aspects of the education service. I have always been interested in preventive health care. As most people who know me realise, I am not a health expert, but early in my career in the House, I and others formed a group called the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. We campaigned for seat belt legislation, and for many other reforms that have saved countless lives over the years during which we have energetically pursued these issues. In that time, PACTS has made a real difference, and I welcome the measures on road safety in the Queen's Speech, because they will save many lives.
It is important to strike a balance on these issues. We all know that the safest way to travel is by aeroplane, the second safest is by train, and the most dangerous is by bicycle or motorcycle. So when there is an accident on the railway, let us please see it in that context. Before spending billions of pounds of taxpayers' money on saving a tiny number of lives a year, we should consider how many people are killed on our roads every day.
I am sorry that the Secretary of State for Health is not in his place, because if he were I would say to him in public what I have said to him in private. I came to this House to protect people in the workplace, and the evidence shows that passive smoking not only kills but causes dreadful ill health and means a much shorter life for the many people who have to breathe in other people's smoke while at work. I have always believed that if we approach this issue in terms of protecting workers' health there is an indisputable case for rapid change, so it grieves me that no measure has been introduced. We have a White Paper, we have had the discussion and the arguments have been made. There is no reason why the Queen's Speech should not have included a commitment to enabling this House to introduce a Bill similar to those introduced in Norway and in the Republic of Ireland a year ago. Two of our European Union colleagues have introduced such legislation, and it is already working very successfully in both those countries.
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Let us consider the deep shame of what happened to the miners. It was not until the mid-1960s that legislation was introduced to protect miners from breathing in the filth of the mine debris and dust that caused so many dreadful diseases. What a shameful record. Yet now we are lingeringwaiting to introduce a measure that everybody knows needs to be introduced. The White Paper is a step in the right direction, but it gets a critical point wrong. If we believe in protecting workers' health, we cannot exclude 20 per cent. of establishments from the smoke-free provision. Are we going to say that workers in those establishments should not have to care about their health, and neither do we? What sort of legislation would that lead to?
I have a warning for the Secretary of State for Health and for those on the Front Bench. Why should this be a party political measure? I believe that when a Bill on this subject comes before the House of Commonsit is a pity that that will not be sooner rather than lateron a free vote, there will be an overwhelming majority for a measure along the lines of the Irish legislation. That is my clear view, and if I were lucky enough to secure a slot for a private Member's Bill this week, I would introduce such legislation myself, and hope that the Government would give it fair wind. That gets that particular concern off my chest.
I will say in passing that I have been a long-term advocate and passionate believer in a system of identity cards. I cannot believe some of things that I have heard about the identity card schemeI see my colleague on the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) disagreeing with me, as I would expect. If we are going to have a decent system of law and order in this country and be able to catch the criminals who plague the lives of some of my constituents, identity cards are crucial. I am not convinced by the arguments of Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members against the scheme.
Having now alienated most hon. Members with my views on what should and should not have been in the Queen's Speech, may I quickly run through two or three concerns about the long-term implications of aspects of the education proposals? I have already said that I believe that there has been a profound positive improvement in the quality of education in our country, but what worries me most is that, as Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, I am aware of areas where we are not applying the views that the Government have enunciated.
For example, we as a Government believe in evidence-based policywe hear Ministers telling us that all the time. That is a very good rule: finding evidence and introducing policies on the basis of it. No Government or Administration get it right all the time, but since 1997 this Government have introduced many interesting, innovative measures and, even more importantly, put substantial resources behind them. There has never been as much money invested in education in this country as has been invested since 1997. That is good news.
However, I have to say to the Secretary of State and the Government that they must evaluate their measures carefully and respond quickly. Some will work and some will not; some will become something of a disaster. As Chairman of the Select Committee, I know about
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individual learning accounts and attempts to establish a UK e-university. Those were brave experiments and good ideas, but they did not work out in practice. We have to dust ourselves off, evaluate what went wrong and then get it right next time. If there is a general systemic failure across a range of issuesperhaps in some of the public-private partnerships that the Department has implementedwe have to learn from it. The Select Committee's role, at its best, is to advise the Government how to put problems right.
Sure Start policy is another important issue. I have been a devoted supporter of it, and all the research and modelling from the best think-tanks shows that the best possible spend that can be made is on early years education. That is where the best value for money is. Stimulating children's imagination and giving them the chance to change their lives very early on is important, as is giving parents the opportunity to stimulate their children in the right way. I am wholly convinced by that, but the early research into Sure Start seems to show that only about 28 per cent. of it is effective. The Secretary of State needs to be aware that very good programmes sometimes yield results that are not 100 per cent. effective. Sure Start-type programmes need to be modified and built on in the future.
On the other hand, I can say that our policy on free nursery places has proved magnificent. The recent research of Cathy Silver and her team showed how excellent pre-school experience is. What a fantastic investment it has been for the taxpayer. It is important to get the balance right and understand the need to monitor the evidence closely and respond quickly to modify policy.
The Government will probably not like to hear another criticism, but the Queen's Speech refers to Ofsted and the need to modify it. It is my Committee's job to hold Ofsted, as well as the Government and the Department, to account, and Ofsted has appeared regularly before our Committee.
We have consistently argued for lighter-touch inspection. I am delighted that the Government are introducing such a system, although I have some concerns about using lighter-touch inspection across the piece as a rule. Some schoolsperhaps between 10 and 20 per cent., although I do not know the exact figuremay need a much longer inspection. They may need a longer inspection, but they do not need inspectors to come in, tell them what is wrong with the school and then walk away without providing any help to sort out the problems and get the system right. That has always been my criticism of Ofsted: too often, it goes into a school setting, tells the school that it is not performing in a range of areas and then walks away.
When we press the chief inspector of schools, David Bell, and ask him, "But surely if you find that a number of schools in one town or city all have a similar problem"in other words, systemic failure"do you mean to say that you would not pick up the phone to the LEA's director and say 'you've got some problems here, and it's not just one schoolit's a cluster of schoolsand if you don't do something about it, when we evaluate you, as the LEA, you will have problems?"' The two things are not really in sync. Yes, Ofsted evaluates LEAs and yes, it evaluates schools, but it fails in the systemic evaluation of schools in certain areas, and the Government must be very careful about that problem, especially when it is linked to my second point.
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My second point is that, in the Queen's Speech, we have yet another step towards schools becoming more independent and more in control of their own destinies than ever before. That journey has been going for a long time, but I tell the Secretary of State for Education and Skills that it is perilous. We took the Select Committee to look at the system in New Zealand, where a Labour Government gave absolute independence to their schools 10 years ago. There are no local education authorities and there is no council interferencelocal councils no longer have an education remit or rolebut the people who had experienced that system for some time found it very difficult. The independence was such that, where systemic failure was found, there was no one between the department of education and what was happening in the schools, so it became extremely difficult to achieve systemic change in the education system and process.
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