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Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I am conscious that a number of colleagues wish to speak, so I shall try to be short and I will abandon my notes. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), not least because I contested his constituency 25 years ago in 1979. As he took us for a tour around Grays and Tilbury, I reflected that that was the election when the Conservatives promised to let people buy their own council houses, and thinking back over those 25 years it is interesting how much those Conservative ideas of the first Thatcher Government have dominated the political landscape ever since. This Government, in the last three Parliaments, have had to act within the parameters that were set by what was achieved in the Thatcher years following 1979.
The hon. Gentleman raised another important point that I do not think the House had taken on board; I certainly had not. It is an example of the contemptuousness of the Government generally towards the House that while those in the Press Gallery are given a huge and detailed briefing on every Bill, there is no similar briefing in the Vote Office. The media has 200 pages of briefing, but there is nothing for Members of Parliament. That is illustrative of the way in which we constantly have to seek to extract information from Ministers and Departments by tabling questions. It is almost some sort of parlour game. It should not be. If this is to be a grown-up Parliament where we all contribute seriously to debate, I can see no reason why that information should not be made equally available to us.
Every Queen's Speech lists, almost frenetically, all the Bills that are to be debated. This one, with 40-plus Bills, must be something of a record, but it seeks to give the impression that the more Bills there are, the more problems the Government can tackle. The truth is that although the first paragraph refers to the economy, the Government are running out of money, and sooner or later in this Parliament we will either see taxes rise or services cut. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition pointed out today in an excellent speech, the Prime Minister seriously curtailed the ability to raise taxes by ruling out increases in national insurance and the basic rate of tax, so where will the money come from? In areas such as mine in Oxfordshire and the south-east, it will come through stealth taxes. For example, the amount of money that is made available to local government from central grant will be cut, council tax will then rise, and the Government will cynically seek to blame those political parties that control district and county councils for increasing council tax and reducing serviceswhen in truth it is central Government and the Chancellor who are to blame, reducing grant and skewing the grant system so that their friends in the north get more while people in the south get less.
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The Queen's Speech makes no reference to the horrendous situation that will arise in the next few months as a result of council tax rebanding and revaluation. Ministers say that that will in some way be fiscally neutral; that the take will not be increased. In Wales, for every house that went down a band, three houses went up. That will be a real issue in constituencies such as mine and for much of the south. It will be particularly hard for people on fixed incomes, such as those in the public services. Much is made in this Queen's Speech about reforming the public services, but it is not much good reforming law and order if there are no police officers. The Thames valley police force does not have the necessary police officers because the cost of living is not taken into account when they are recruited. Metropolitan police officers can earn £6,000 a year more than police officers in Banbury and Bicester, and Met police have free travel from Banbury and Bicester, so it is not surprising that Thames Valley police is constantly haemorrhaging police officers. Likewise, it is not surprising that the Oxford Radcliffe Hospital NHS Trust is often in financial difficulties if the only way that it can recruit nurses is from nurse agency banks where they receive premium rates of pay because it does not take into account the cost of living problems in the south-east.
None of those issues is addressed in the Queen's Speech. As this Parliament proceeds, many Members will have to explain to their constituents that they are becoming worse off financially because the Government are simply taking more and more in stealth taxes, while they receive fewer and fewer servicesfor which the Government seek to blame the local deliverers of those services.
The Queen's Speech also makes no reference to the increasing lack of democratic accountability. It talks about the reform of the House of Lords, but what about reform of unelected institutions such as the South East England regional assembly? The sort of issue that caused concern on the doorsteps during my election campaign was the housing numbers being imposed on places such as Banbury and Bicester without any democratic debate. That is a real undermining of district councils. I do not know why on earth people stand as district councillors when key matters such as how fast and how far communities should expand seem to be determined in Dorking or Guildford by unelected officials. No one quite knows or understands whole layers of planning systems that deliver new housing numbers.
Where have the Government been for the past eight years if they are now only just beginning to address the issue? There should be a quick rendering of the alleluia chorus. It will be interesting to see whether there are more than a couple of lines on this issue in the Press Gallery briefing. Like so many others issues, it was kicked into the long grass during the general election campaign. It was one of many difficult issues that the Government should have faced up to into detail, but simply did not.
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The frenetic activity of some 40 Bills cannot alter the fact that the economy on which all this is built is beginning to crumble. This Government are running out of money. Many of these Bills are interesting and worthy, and I certainly share in the delight expressed earlier at the introduction of a Bill on corporate manslaughter; indeed, Anne Jones and her family, constituents of mine, will be also be delighted. However, during this Parliament in areas such as minethose in the south, the south-east, Oxfordshire and the Thames valleythe burden of taxation will go up and the quality and level of services will go down. I suspect that this issue will form a fundamental part of the debate in this place during the next five years.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): First, I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your well-earned reappointment. Many in this House have on many occasions had reason to be thankful for your guidance and kindness. I also congratulate those from all parts of the House who are making their maiden speeches. I hope that their stay will be long and constructive.
I must start by expressing some disappointment at the regressive view taken by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) concerning the nature of a multicultural society. I urge him to rethink and to remember the words of Roy Jenkins, which were very profound at the time and still resonate with us today. He said that we want a society in which we can have cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance. That provides the ideal for a society in which everyone is valued, and everyone can make a contribution in an equal way.
Wolverhampton is a very good example of a city that is rapidly developing a cultural diversity that enriches the whole of that city. Indeed, people there find tolerance, friendship and a welcome, despite difficulties arising from time to time, which we must expect. None the less, we make it more difficult to appreciate cultural diversity if economic diversity is so great that many lives become a battle just to make ends meet.
The Gracious Speech suggests that the Government have put education at the heart. Many in this House will endorse that priority, but we may think that there are different ways of achieving the same objectives. It is obvious that I, coming from a west midlands seat, have a considerable interestas many of us in that region doin manufacturing, and especially in engineering products. We have had a considerable setback with the loss of Rover in recent months, and although the Government did what they could it was never going to be sufficient. Part of the Rover problem is that it is simply not big enough. We have spoken of Europe today, and perhaps at some stage there will be an opportunity to develop a truly European motor industry based on indigenous companies such as Rover, Citroen and Peugeot. That would be a way of ensuring an indigenous motor industry in Europe capable of competing with the rest of the world. Despite such setbacks, productivity in manufacturing generally, and particularly in engineering, has massively outstripped productivity in society as a whole. Manufacturing output, while certainly not surging ahead, is just about managing to hold its own.
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Exports are an extremely important part of manufacturing industry. Regardless of the euro debate that we will doubtless have at some stage, or of the more immediate argument concerning the constitutional treaty, in manufacturing terms we are all Europeans now. The days when a company's biggest rival was just at the end of the street are gone for ever; now, our fiercest competitor is just as likely to be in Berlin or Beijing. We have to adopt an international mindset if we are to succeed in continuing to lift our people's living standards. Even smaller companies must consider adding a European dimension to their development strategies. Britain exports or dies. Currently, we are not recognising that problemand it is a problemas fully as is necessary.
I want to put in a plug for the national exhibition centre, which plays an extremely important part in providing a shop window for Britain's exporters. My plea to our Front Benchers and to the House as a whole is to recognise that more needs to be done for our exporters at every level. The NEC has an important role to play in that regard, and it ought to be seen in the role of a competitor with the big European venues, in order to give us a competitive edge for our exporters throughout the nation, but particularly in manufacturing.
The driving force for the improvement in the knowledge economy is education. It was fashionable at one stage to measure the success of education by growth in the gross domestic product in real terms. That seems somehow to have faded, and we take it as read that education is failing. But the truth is that if we return to that extremely sensible measure, we can see that our students, pupils, teachers and others working in education are deserving of our thanks and congratulations, rather than the brick-bats that are too often thrown at them. The growth of the knowledge economy on which our prosperity relies, now and in the future, is critically dependent on more and more people being educated to a higher level. The question is, does the Government's programme as we understand it measure up to what we require of it?
I have no problem with increasing the higher education intake. It has to be paid for, and we might need to return to the debate about how we do that and the part that student fees and the taxpayer have to play. Additional funding for further education institutions has assisted greatly in recreating the solid infrastructure of post-16 education that many in this House, of an older generation, took for granted before the Thatcher era.
Excellent progress has been made in pre-school and primary school education. We have thrown a lot of money at it, and perhaps value for money has not been everything that we would have wanted, but such progress is real and solid. Sure Start and the development of child centres are making a terrific contribution, certainly in my constituency, towards reducing inequalities. President Lyndon Johnson's 1960s head start programme for disadvantaged inner-city children, while ultimately proving politically unsustainable with the advent of the Nixon Administration, none the less provided a model on which programmes worldwide have been based, many of them successfully. Ours is headed in the same
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successful direction, and I wish considerable success to all those involved in it nationwide and I offer many thanks for their work.
The Government's programme outlined today declares that education remains the main priority. There is a promise to improve choice on the back of further reform. It will be in the development of secondary education that the Government must expect to have to justify their plans, which appear seriously to compromise the ideals of comprehensive education.
The comprehensive school system has certain features that, if lost or compromised, make the delivery of its prime purpose extremely difficult. The prime purpose is to ensure that the opportunity to learn is available to all children of all abilities, crucially recognising that maturation rates vary considerably between the children of both the same and different sexes. Selection by any means that leads to the separation into different schools or institutions at a fixed moment in the process of maturation prevents an appropriate education from being delivered to an individual whose development may have accelerated or may be temporarily retarded. My concern is that the ideal of choice, so essential in the competitive world of retail consumerism, will be thrust into the world of education in an unreconstructed way, reducing what should be a carefully thought through decision that will affect the life chances of a child to the level of an impulse purchasenot this Purchase!
There is no doubt that choice in education is currently a cause of some concern. The area of the country with the widest choice of schools is London. It is unsurprising that London also has the greatest percentage of so-called failing schools. By the way, a mere 2.3 per cent. of London schools are judged to be failinghardly the most difficult problem to manage that I have ever encountered. Certain schools are nevertheless branded failing schools and the biggest percentage is, as I said, in London. As choice growswhether paid for directly in fees to a private institution or through people moving house to get their children into a school near the top of the league tablesthe number of schools judged as failing will increase. The truth is that many of these failing schools are often working heroically against enormous and overwhelming odds. I do not believe that there is any serious evidence to suggest that more technology colleges, academies and grammar schools will somehow, by increasing competition for pupils, lift standards in disadvantaged areas where parents have neither the means nor the social skills to join an ever-faster race to the so-called best schools.
In the early 1970s, Rodney Lord, then working for Sir Keith Joseph in the Department of Education and Science, conducted research into the factors that most influenced educational outcomes. I shall not delay the House with details of his methodology; suffice it to say that what he discovered was what most of us knew then and know nowthat the strongest influences were, first, the parents who had achieved in school themselves, and secondly, the proportion of experienced teachers present on the school payroll. That is unsurprising and pretty obvious, but should never be overlooked. I need to know from Ministers how schools with poorer catchments will be able to attract such parents and
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teachers in the face of competition from the proposed academy developments and all the ballyhoo with which they will be launched.
It seems to me fundamentally wrong that a business tycoon with £2 million to spare can become the master of the fate of perhaps thousands of youngsters, many with unsuspecting parents. Like many others in the House, I am frankly horrified that a religious crackpotI do not apologise for the languagecan take control of a secondary school and preach the discredited doctrine of creationism. The Education Minister in the House of Lords, who will be given the task of sorting out London's education, has a choice to make for himself. He can re-read Crosland and apply its values to modern London or he can regress towards the dame schools of the 19th century, when choice was abundant if you could afford the penny a day, but quality was abysmal.
Speaking for my constituency, I want to thank teachers, head teachers, assistants, nursery nurses and all the non-teaching staff who work hard to provide a good education that will allow young people to be part of a prosperous Britain. They should be capable of competing with the best, but also capable of understanding the values of co-operation and mutuality in our ever-smaller global community. For an overwhelming number of young people, the most important start that they have is a solid education delivered by dedicated teachers in an institution that does not exclude them from appropriate education either because they are the children of parents who are unable to grasp the importance of education or because certain subject specialties are not available on site.
The educational sociologist Bernstein said that education could not compensate for societyand he was, of course, correct. In the absence of a truly equal society, however, we have to make education work for all our children. That can be delivered, in my view, only through a modern comprehensive system of education.
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