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Mr. Sheerman: Let us be clear about this. It is on the public record that any incoming Conservative Government would cut public expenditure by a significant amount. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there would be no cut in education expenditure?
Mr. Collins: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to say that we have made it clear that we will not reduce the total amount spent on educationeither what is spent now, or what would be spent under the Government's plans for the future. On the contrary, we propose to increase school spending, for example, by £15 billion a year by the end of a five-year Parliamentan increase of a third on the present leveland any reduction or saving in a school budget made as a result of the Gershon process will be recycled in the school's budget. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to put that firmly on record.
Mr. Sheerman: We get the same answer from the official Opposition spokesperson on health. The Conservatives suggest that they would make large cuts in public expenditure, but when Labour Members directly ask whether they would be made in education or health, Conservative members say no. Where would those cuts come?
Mr. Collins: Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to point out that what the shadow Chancellor said most recently, for example, on the Frost programme yesterdaythe hon. Gentleman may have seen itwas that we propose to save 2p in the pound of what is presently spent, bearing it in mind that the Government have increased overall Government expenditure by about 80 to 90 per cent. Contrary to what the Prime Minister and Labour Members often imply, the vast majority of public expenditure is not on schools or hospitals. We could not only preserve the entirety of those budgets and grow them significantly, but find massive savings elsewhere. As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) pointed out yesterday, we could start by stopping the Department of Trade and Industry spending £120,000 over two years on potted plants. We could move on to getting rid of 168 quangos.
The Labour party must be clear about this. It is putting on its websites the claim that the Conservative party is committed to removing £35 billion from public services. That is the statement. However, we should bear it in mind that £23 billion of that £35 billion is actually part of the Gershon process, so is the Labour party taking the view[Interruption.] The Secretary of State says that the Government propose to reallocate that
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£23 billion to front-line services. So do we. The difference between us is only £12 billion out of £600 billion of total public spending, and, with that £12 billion, we propose to plug £8 billion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's vast black hole of borrowing and reduce taxes by £4 billion. If she and Labour Members honestly believe that the public believe that 100p out of every pound are currently well spent and that we could not save 2p, she and her colleagues will be in for a sad process of disillusionment at the general election.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): The hon. Gentleman has surprised the House by saying that the Conservative party's intention is to match the Government's spending on education as opposed to on schools. Can we be assured that, in the next few years, the Conservative party would match our spending on Sure Start, adult skills and apprenticeships?
Mr. Collins: It is certainly our intention, assuming that there is an election this year, not only to match the overall spending levels that we inherit, but to increase them. We will not spend them in exactly the same way as the hon. Gentleman but, as he raises the point, I am very happy to make it clear that, contrary again to allegations that are often made by the Labour party, we have no intention of shutting down Sure Start. It has been successful and important in a number of respects, and we wish to build upon it. However, I have to say that we wish to build upon it in a way that does not threaten the continuation of many existing forms of nursery provision in the way that the Government's present policies do.
Mr. Lewis: Is the shadow Chancellor aware that the hon. Gentleman is now going beyond the shadow Chancellor's commitment, which is to match this Government's expenditure on schools but not on education? Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that that is the position of the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition?
I understand perfectly that the hon. Gentleman has perhaps not kept up with the issue in the way that he should have done, but I am happy to make it clear that, as a result of the completion of the James process, it has now become possible for us to identify not only that, as we said 18 months and two years ago, we would more than match Government spending on schools, but that overall education funding will increase broadly in line with what the Government are proposing. The difference is that we will spend the money at the front line. We will provide autonomy to schools, budget control to head teachers, get rid of bureaucrats and paper pushers and reduce the Department for Education and Skills by two thirds in terms of its administrative functions and personnel. We
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will take the money that his Government are spending on paper pushers and give it to front-line teachers and colleges. That money will be
Let us move on to the Bill. The Secretary of State will not be surprised to hear that the Bill is something that we can welcome. It would be a bit odd if we did not welcome it given that very large parts of this huge Bill involve re-enacting without amendment previous pieces of Conservative legislation. The Bill looks substantial, with 128 clauses and 19 schedules. What a testimony to the diligence, effort and original creative capacity of the Secretary of State and her teamone might think. However, sadly, one finds that the Education Act 1996, which the Bill repeals, is re-enacted word for word in clauses 1, 3, 4, 19, 20, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 31, 32, 35, 47, 48, 50, 51 and 57 and in schedules 1, 2, 3 and 4. There is an equally long list of word-for-word transpositions in the Bill from the Education Act 1994, which it also repeals. Given that 79 per cent. of the Bill's text is lifted word for word, clause for clause and schedule for schedule from legislation that was put on to the statute book by the last Conservative Government, of course Conservative Members are unlikely to oppose it. However, it shows that there is not a great deal of originality and creativity in the eighth year of a Labour Government.
There are a few new measures in the Bill about which I shall talk, but we must put that in context given that four fifths of it simply puts back on to the statute book what was there anyway. What an extraordinary waste of parliamentary time. The Government said in recent days and weeks that there was insufficient time for the proper consideration of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill or the European constitution, but they have found enough time to re-enact, word for word, measures that already exist, which make up 80 per cent. of the Bill.
Let us move on to one or two of the new measures that the Government have included in the Bill. About a week or so ago, we heard from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State about the importance of parent power. We were told that parent power would be at the heart of their vision for the future of the UK education system. Parent power was going to be the way in which standards in schools would be driven up and something that would uniquely distinguish the Government from any of their predecessors. However, the Bill will remove the right of parents to meet Ofsted inspectors. It will scrap the annual school parents' meetings and remove annual school reports to parents. That does not sound much like parent power to us.
As is normal in such circumstances, the Bill has been improved during its passage through the other place, which is where it was introduced. Two important measures have been added as a result of amendments that Ministers in the other place resisted. In particular, the Bill now requires parental consultation before the closure of small, rural primary schools. As a result of the Government's defeat in the other place, parental consultation will be required before the closure of
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special schools. Given the Government's rhetoric about parent power, we hope that the Secretary of State will accept those amendmentseven though her colleagues in the other place resisted themand that the provisions will be included in the Bill that finally completes its passage through the House.
I welcomed the fact that the Secretary of State talked about her wish for greater freedom for schools. The Bill will result in a little extra freedom for schools at the margin. However, that must be set in context by the fact that the Government's first action on coming into office in 1997 was to remove grant-maintained status from all schools without any consultation with parents, many tens of thousands of whom had voted in parental ballots throughout the land so that their schools could become grant maintained. Even after the Bill is enacted, supposedly freer foundation schools will lack many of the basic freedoms enjoyed by schools with grant-maintained status, which we propose to give to all schools without exception, or the wider school freedoms that we would like to introduce.
The so-called self-governing schools that the Government propose will not have the absolute freedom to decide whether they wish to expand. It is all very well for the Secretary of State to say that she does not want to stand in the way of those schools, but she does not propose to give them the power to take such decisions. They will have no power over admissions and there will be no change to the local authority controls over their funding mechanisms. They will have no control over exclusions, or their own right to set up a sixth form. Even city academies will have less freedom under this Government than they will under a future Conservative Government.
It was interesting that the Secretary of State did not mention in her speech one of the measures that the leader of the Labour party general election campaign apparently wanted to put at the heart of the Bill: the new power for local education authorities to invite new providers to come along to have a look at whether they want to set up a new school. I wonder why. I suspect that it was partly because she felt that her own Back Benchersthose few who turned upwould not be strongly in favour of the proposal, and partly because she knows that it will make no real difference to any significant number of schools. As long as it remains for local education authorities to determine whether they want a new non-state provider in their area, non-state provision will remain a theory, not a practice. There is certainly no proposal to introduce a statutory right to supply for new providers of education, which the Conservatives propose to introduce straight after the general election.
The Secretary of State briefly mentioned the national literacy strategy. The Bill might not be the legislative vehicle in which to address such matters, but the Conservatives are wholly convincednot least because of the splendid efforts made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb)that a national literacy strategy that does
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not have phonics at its heart is a strategy that will not succeed in the way that today's children and future generations have every right to expect.
Sadly, the Bill constitutes a series of missed opportunities. Even though it is an education Bill, it contains no provision for teacher protection, including a statutory right of anonymity when facing an allegation of abuse. It contains no provision to give head teachers the final say on exclusions, or to give the Secretary of State an unambiguous power to impose a moratorium on special school closures or for parents to be involved in that process. It does not create a school expansion fund and thus makes no progress toward a genuine right to choose.
The Government still believe that a public sector monopoly, driven from the top, is the best and only way of providing educationeven though that flies in the face of the experience in every other field of human endeavour and the example of a number of other European countries. The Secretary of State, like her predecessors, believes that she knows better than head teachers how to run their schools, how to impose discipline and how to control budgets. Perhaps that is why she got such a rough ride from the Secondary Heads Association.
Much is being done well in Britain's schools, but a great deal could be done a lot better. Tinkering at the edges will not work, still less tinkering by a Government who have clearly run out of ideas and are running out of time. It is time for action on school discipline, parental choice and professional freedom, and the Conservatives will provide it.
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