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Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): I start on a sober note. I am sure that the House will share a sense of shock and deep sadness at today's horrifying news that a 15-year-old schoolboy has died, apparently after a fight involving another pupil at his school. The thoughts and prayers of every hon. Member will be with the family and friends of all those affected. I hope that all parties in Parliament will come together to act on the persistent calls from teachers for new legal protections and powers to help them in their vital task of upholding discipline in our schools.
Let me respond to the words of the Health Secretary straight away, because some of the things that he mentioned, too, are above party politics. All of us, without exception, pay tribute to the dedication, professionalism and sheer hard work of those in our public servicesour nurses, doctors, teachers and others. All of us admire them, praise them and support them. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) said in his superb speech, we all celebrate the genuine progress that they have made since 1997, as we do the achievements that they secured between 1979 and 1997. There should be nothing between any of us on that subject.
The question is not whether we back our NHS and education professionals, but how we do so. The Secretary of State came up with an interesting phrase. He said that we have been on a journey with our public services since 1997. He will forgive me if I observe that parts of the journey have been circular in nature. We started by moving away from GP fundholding, and we are now moving back towards it. We started by moving away from grant-maintained schools, and now we seem to moving back towards those as well. As my right hon. Friend explained, we started by moving away from city technology colleges, and now we are moving close to them again, with city academies. We started by increasing the size of the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health, and now the Government say that they want to slim them down again. We have had an interesting journey, but the start and end points have not been terribly different.
The Secretary of State also saidI think that I am quoting him accurately; I am sure he will correct me if I am notthat the Government had met every target and every pledge. That will come as news to those who are still waiting for access to an NHS dentist, which the
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Prime Minister told them in a speech in 1999 they would get throughout the country by 2001. The Secretary of State said that many of the problems that have occurred in 2004 are the results of decisions taken by past Conservative Governments 10 or more years ago. However, I am sure that he would not expect the Prime Minister to have made his pledge in 1999two and a half years after Labour came to officeunless he had properly researched it. The Prime Minister obviously believed in 1999 that he could secure universal NHS access by 2001. When he made that pledge, he was fully aware of exactly what capacity was in place and what was not.
My hon. Friends scored a bull's eye against the Secretary of State when they pointed out that he rightly said that we should praise NHS staff, but seemed alarmed by the prospect of allowing them to decide their own budgets and run the NHS in their own way.
One of the things that happens in the House is that we are tempted to oppose the party that we would like to be up against, rather than the party that we are up against. I put that gently to the right hon. Gentleman, because I have been guilty of it at times. Some years ago, the Secretaries of State for Health and for Education and Skills were considerably to the left of where they are now. I admit, politically inconvenient though it is, that they have moved and that I cannot make that charge against them. On the same basis, however, the Secretary of State for Health cannot make the accusation that the Conservative party stands for charging people for operations, that we would cut NHS spending or that we would introduce the black deathwhich I think was the next thing that he would have come to in his litany.
Nor is it the case that the Conservative party will introduce a five-plus for every primary school, as the Secretary of State for Education said we would, or that we would forbid schools from taking postcodes or geography into account in their admissions policies. I understand why he believes that that might have been our policy but I assure him that it is not. I wish to make it absolutely clear that that is not the Conservative party's policy.
Mr. Charles Clarke: It would be helpful to the House if the hon. Gentleman would say whether it is or is not Conservative party policy to abolish codes of admission, and therefore enable every school, primary or secondary, to determine its own admissions policy without any guidance.
Mr. Collins: It is clear that giving schools complete freedom to decide their own admissions policy does not involve banning them from taking into account the postcode[Interruption.] It is all very well for the Minister for School Standards to make a sedentary intervention, but the Secretary of State made two charges, and he has now withdrawn one charge, so we have made progress.
The policy on schools having freedom means that head teachers will be able to decide for themselves the admissions criteria that they wish to apply. If the Secretary of State believes that there are many state school head teachers who want to introduce either a
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five-plus or 11-plus examination, he is even more out of touch with teachers than I thought he was. Of course that is not what they want to do. It is another Labour scare story suggesting that professionals should not be trusted to take decisions themselves.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who chairs the Education Committee and who is not in his place at the moment, made an extremely good speech in which he talked about the need to build on and learn lessons from Sure Startboth its successes and its failures. That is certainly something that we would like to do. He welcomed the Government's proposals to reduce the amount of bureaucracy in Ofsted. At the same time, he expressed some interesting concerns about light-touch regulation. Interestingly, he was also quite cautious about reducing the role of local education authorities. Similarly, it will be interesting to see whether the Secretary of State will go as far as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has in advocating cutting LEAs out of education entirely.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield said that he thought that the ballot arrangements for abolishing grammar schools were unfair. The Opposition would agree with that. The conclusion that we would reach is to abolish the balloting mechanism and leave grammar schools to continue with their work, not threaten them all the time.
The most amusing comment made by the hon. Gentleman was that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are a close-knit team. That is not exactly the phrase that would come from most of our lips.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood made an extremely good speech, parts of which I have already looted in some of my remarks. He talked about the way in which the Government are bringing back GP fundholding and implementing our policies on city academies policies, albeit that they are doing it under a different name. His central theme, which was absolutely right, was that the Government have now decided that it is electorally popular to talk about choice in education. However, people know that they will not get choice from a Government who at best have a half-hearted belief in choice, and are divided about it. They support the word but not the idea. People will get choice only from a Government formed by the Opposition, who are determined to make choice a reality.
The hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) said that a great deal of money had been spent in her constituency. I am sure that that is entirely true. She said that she believed that ideas and concepts were not relevant unless there were the resources to implement them. We, the Opposition, would say that resources alone will not achieve much without the right structures or the correct empowerment of parents or pupilsand that, sadly, has been the story of much of the past seven and a half years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), in a typically thoughtful and wide-ranging speech, made some extremely powerful comments about the need to move towards the use of phonics, a return to teaching by rote, setting and less use of mixed-ability teaching. In response to his comment that he thought that this is something about which politicians should express preferences and views, I hope
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that he will have noticed that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, in his speech on education yesterday, specifically committed our party to sponsoring the expansion of all those things, for precisely the reasons that my hon. Friend addressed.
The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) rightly praised my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton for his speech, and made an excellent speech herself about the need to focus on the prevention as well as the cure of illness, and to develop the healthy schools initiative. I am sure that she shares my disappointment that the Prime Minister, in his party conference speeches in 1999 and 2000, made promises that were not kept. In 2000, he said that £750 million of lottery money would be spent on new school sports facilities in the succeeding three years. By February this year, however, of that £750 million a total of only £8.5 million had been spent. That is disappointing, and I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of the issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) said that 200,000 people have had to go private because they cannot wait for their operation on the NHS. He also made powerful constituency points about animal rights protestors. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) made some sensible comments about school sport. He also made some strong points about the need to get the balance right in sex education. He is right to say that we should all review the balance and scope of sex education in our schools, and can learn lessons from European countries that have been more successful in this field for many years under successive Governments. He also spoke about the wisdom of listening to people who represent different faith groups and people who, like my hon. Friend, practise a faith.
The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) talked about the food industry and food labelling, and secured an important clarification from the Health Secretary about his position which, I understand, was misrepresented in some of this morning's newspapers. The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) made an interesting observation about the reason why waiting lists in Northern Ireland are much longer than in England. Lessons certainly need to be learned, and I strongly agreed with his conclusion about the need to provide support for people suffering from what is called Gulf war syndrome. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) rightly highlighted the distinction between the Government's words about opportunity and their action in introducing top-up fees.
The contents of the Queen's Speech are, in many respects, disappointing. The School Transport Bill is carried over and will strip parents of a 60-year-old statutory entitlement to free school transport. That will permit, then encourage and ultimately, we fear, require local authorities to charge for that service. Two thirds of current subsidies for school transport benefit special needs children, who will lose out, as will parents who are far from wealthy, and people in rural areas.
The child benefit Bill, on the other hand, will address a genuine and long-standing anomaly, so we welcome it. Unfortunately, it has been packaged with measures that will result in the introduction of new and higher charges
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for adult learners in further education colleges. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State for Education and Skills commented on something that my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) told me this afternoonthat the Association of Colleges has been told by the Learning and Skills Council that any revenues that it raises through the extra charging regime will be clawed back by the Treasury. In other words, the money would not be additional, which is a deeply disturbing development.
The schools Bill will include a number of measures that the Opposition do not find any difficulty in supporting, as they will make it easier and quicker for schools to achieve foundation status. They will also establish a three-year rolling budget and slim down Ofsted. We support those excellent measures, having called for them for a considerable period. However, we believe that the Bill is uncontroversial not because it is perfect, but because it is a half-hearted stab at what is necessary. Foundation schools have limited freedoms: they do not have control over admissions, have no final say over expulsions, and cannot commission or control all works on their site. They do not have the right to decide entirely for themselves whether to expand, alter working conditions or impose home-school contracts as a condition of admission. Schools need those freedoms, but they are not granted in the Queen's Speech.
The Queen's Speech that we should have had would involve a right to choose Bill, scrapping the surplus places rule, encouraging and funding good schools to expand, allowing parents to take state funding to any school of their choice, and ensuring that an extra 600,000 parents get their first choice of school in the lifetime of the next Parliament. We should have had a teacher protection Bill, giving teachers accused of misbehaviour a guarantee of anonymity until they are charged, giving head teachers the final say on exclusions by abolishing independent appeals panels, and providing for a massive expansion of high-quality separate provision for pupils who end up excluded.
We should have had a higher education Bill to scrap tuition and top-up fees, to transfer the huge asset of the student loan book to universities to make a massive improvement in their finances, and to scrap outright the disgraceful post of university access regulator, because access to university should not be politically determined.
As ever, we must judge the Government not on what they say, but on what they do. What we got in the Queen's Speech was more spin and all talk. What we needed was more choice, more discipline and higher standards. After seven and a half years, it is clear that we will not get any of that from more Queen's Speeches from Labour. We will get it only from the first Queen's Speech of the next Conservative Government.
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