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Mr. Andrew Turner:
My hon. Friend has hit the button precisely. There is a world of difference between a member of public being able to sit on a governing body, whether of a school or a foundation hospital, and
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his having the ability to choose the hospital that best delivers his needs. Is it not astonishing that we expect people to go through the bureaucratic procedures of involvement in governance when they could go through the so much simpler procedures of having the opportunity to decide where to obtain the service that they want?
Mr. Hoban: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In reality, there is no substitute for choice in terms of delivering the service that people want. If they are able to choose their child's school or the hospital in which to have their operation, services will be tailored to match their needs. Too often, involvement in boards and other forms of governance is seen as a substitute for real choice in our public services. Placing too much emphasis on that puts us in danger of taking away the most simple mechanisms for people to ensure that their wishes can be heard, their views expressed and their voices listened to directly by organisations, instead of having them ignored or ridden over roughshod by public bodies and by the Government.
This Government have been a tremendous example of the way in which services can be run on the basis of a single sense of direction that is determined from Whitehall, not at a local level. As a result, priorities are not set in our local communities. Parents do not have the choice of schools that they believe that they should, but are forced to choose from a very narrow range with their choices restricted by a Government who have a clear sense that what they believe is right. That arrogance of centralised direction and control has absorbed much of the money that they have raised from taxpayers. The "Government knows best" approach stifles much of what is done well in our public services. In recent weeks, I have talked to teachers who feel as though they have become de-professionalisedthat there is so much that they are told to do by central Government that they are moving away from being professionals towards being technicians. Many in the public sector worry that they are losing their autonomy and sense of decision making as individuals because of the way in which the Government, through public service agreements, targets, monitoring and control, have sought to remove some of their discretion and independence in improving public services.
If we strip out much of the bureaucracy in Government, we can afford to spend more on our front-line services. We can ensure that our doctors, nurses and teachersall those in the front linehave the opportunity to mould services in the interests of the people who use their hospitals and schools and want safer streets. If we strip away that bureaucracy and centralised direction, we will have an opportunity to develop a pattern of provision that meets local needs and responds to what is happening on the ground, instead of whatever is the current priority in Whitehall. That will allow resources to be spent where it matters and drive the improvement in our public services that so many people are waiting for.
Our approach to public services distinguishes us from Labour. We will give power to professionals and choice to patients and parents. Our commitment to that is in stark contrast to a Government who suddenly, a few weeks before the election, find out that people are fed up with a fat and bloated Government and try to amend
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the centralising agenda that has demoralised our professionals and angered our constituents, who cannot see where their taxes have gone. If we are to ensure that the planned additional spending on health and education is spent well, we need to give professionals freedom, give parents and patients choice, and above all give taxpayers value for money.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to sum up for the Opposition at the end of what we can all agree has been a fairly lively debate. I shall endeavour to refer to every contribution in turn, because a considerable number of interesting points were made, which I shall try to draw on as best I can. We look forward to debating such matters in further detail after the Finance Bill has been published, which I understand will take place on Thursday 24 March.
Before I come on to the debate itself, I would like to say a brief word about the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), whose office was informed that I intended to refer to him this evening. As the House will know, he has announced that he will be standing down at the forthcoming general election so that he can take up important work in Africa. It strikes me that a wind of change is blowing through the Treasuryit might have further yet to blow.
I stood in the right hon. Gentleman's neighbouring seat of Brent, East in 1997, so he and I go back at least a little way. I pay a brief tribute to him tonight and say that although the House will miss his shy and diffident style at the Dispatch Box, in an age in which it is fashionable to talk about faceless politicians, he, in all seriousness, has clearly been an exception to that. Our future deliberations will be the poorer for his not being present to participate in them. Perhaps his good friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury will be kind enough to pass that message on.
The debate was opened by the Education Secretary. I do not mean to be uncharitable to her, but although she spoke a great deal about Sure Start, she did not actually provide one for the Government today. Frankly, she went over the top. I have heard her speak better than that and hope that we will hear her speak better again. I am afraid that today was not her best run out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), the shadow Education Secretary, responded to the right hon. Lady in his typically robust style. Among other things, he wisely pointed out that with this Chancellor one always needs to read the small print. He gave a specific example from the innards of the Red Book on the direct funding of payments to head teachers. He then pointed out quickly that what the Government had said last week had already been qualified in the Red Book that was published only a few hours thereafter. I wish to return to the tendency to need to read the small print in the Chancellor's Budget later in my speech.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is well known in the House for his implacable opposition to the introduction of university top-up fees. The bulk of his colleagues might not have been loyal to their party's 2001 manifesto, but
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he was. He delivered a thoughtful speech on scientific issues, especially the operation of stem cell research in the United Kingdom. I am not an expert on such matters, but I am sure that his points will have been noted with interest by those who are.
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made the point that the Learning and Skills Council has grown like Topsy over the past few years, and I think that Conservative Members have sympathy with that statement. He rightly pointed out that the £330 million administrative cost of the LSC has increased markedly, which is one reason why Conservative Members think that the money could be spent better in an alternative way.
The hon. Gentleman spoke for more than half an hour, but he did not once mention the Liberal Democrats' intention of abolishing Ofsted, which, as we know, provides parents with an independent assessment of the success or otherwise of their children's schools. Bearing it in mind that that was a big announcement made by the Liberal Democrats only a week ago, it was interesting that in a debate specifically on education, their Front-Bench spokesman omitted to mention that that was their plan. I would love to put that point to him, and if he turns up in the next few minutes, I shall endeavour to do so.
I was perhaps a little hard on the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) when I intervened on him. All I would say in my defence is that I was sorely provoked by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and could not resist the temptation. In fairness to the hon. Gentleman, he made some interesting policy announcements on behalf of the Labour party, including further significant rises in the taxation of petrol and, as he put it, punitive increases in taxation for people who drive 4x4 vehicles, which he characterised as Chelsea tractors. He seemed to be under the impression that they are driven only in Chelsea. If he visited my constituency, we could rapidly disabuse him of that. It will be interesting to note whether the Economic Secretary endorses any of those policy proposals in his summing up. We would be very interested if he did.
My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) delivered a typically robust speech. He analysed the Budget's impact on his constituents and gave several specific examples. He rightly pointed out the need to plan to compete not only with our European partners or the United States, but, looking further ahead in the 21st century, with the economies of China and India. To be fair to the Chancellor, he has also made that point, but my hon. Friend's prescription for doing that in practice was more credible than the Government's. I pay tribute to him for that.
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The hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) spoke about several specific constituency issues. He clearly spoke from the heart. He also informed the House of his self-denying ordinance about the kissing of babies during election campaigns. It is up to each individual Member to campaign as they see fit and we shall see, when the votes are counted, whether the hon. Gentleman's intention has a dramatic effect on his result. There are many ways of effecting a swing; we shall see how that one works in practice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) made what he announced would be his valedictory speech in the House of Commons. He used the opportunity to advocate a personal list of fiscal measures.
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