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Mrs. Ellman: I note the hon. Gentleman's wish to provide opportunity. Can he therefore clarify his party's position on education maintenance allowances?

Mr. Cameron: As the hon. Lady will obviously know, we have just lost an election and we have to look at all the policies that we had. We think that what we put forward at the election had great merit and that the principles were right, but we are beginning a policy review, which is the right thing to do after an election—[Interruption.] I am glad to have given such delight to Ministers.
 
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The issues are too important to try to find differences where none exist. The issue is people's futures. These are our children, not some guinea pigs to be subjected to endless experiments in public policy. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) made a remarkable maiden speech on that point. In many ways, we have had a friendly debate, but perhaps the most friendly moment was when he said that he was not as fragrant and beautiful as Virginia Bottomley, and the Minister for Schools, the right hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) shouted, from a sedentary position, "Well, you're not so bad yourself." [Interruption.] I am afraid that it is on the record now and the Minister cannot deny it.

While there is an emerging consensus in some areas, there is a pressing need for tough choices in other areas. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) spoke about his experiences in Northern Ireland and I am sure that there is much that we can learn from the educational success there. Literacy is an example. If children cannot read properly, they cannot learn properly. If they cannot learn properly, they misbehave and wreck the education of others. So discipline is tied to literacy, but we still pussyfoot around the need to apply the best method of teaching, which is phonics. We should get on with it.

The curriculum is another example. It is right that we have one, but it has become stuffed full of unnecessary and occasionally damaging prescription. It badly needs slimming down. Streaming is another issue. To me, it is common sense. We need to stretch our brightest children and we need to help those who are falling behind. How can we do that with an outdated and unquestioning adherence to mixed-ability classes? Those are big challenges ahead for those of us who are committed heart and soul to giving every child the start in life that they deserve. They are challenges that I am prepared to confront.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on retaining her position. Despite the rumours, she did not get the sack. Instead, she has been given what we have to call a new "colleague". I am told that many women dream of the day when their Adonis will arrive. I am not sure that the Secretary of State is one of them. From what I have read about Lord Adonis, we should wholeheartedly welcome his appointment. He supports parental choice; so do we. He supports school freedom; so do we. He sounds admirable, and as he started life in the Social Democratic party he can presumably rely on support from all parts of the House. As someone in the other place said, he started in the SDP, now he is in the Labour party and he is introducing Tory policy. Truly, he is a man for all seasons.

It is a pity—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) will listen to this bit. It is a pity that the Prime Minister could not find one of his 355 Labour MPs in the House of Commons to do the job but presumably he was hard pressed to find anyone who actually agreed with him. Anyway, we are in the unique position of having two Secretaries of State for Education: one in the Commons, who was elected, and the other in Lords, who was anointed.
 
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I shall try to help the right hon. Lady, however. If she ever has any problems with Lord Adonis she should remind him of an article he wrote in 1996 about the House of Lords. I think she will enjoy this: Mr. Adonis, as he then was, wrote that the other place is

He went on to say that—I think she will like this bit too—apart from the Lord Chancellor

I am sure that the right hon. Lady will agree.

We agree with the words in the Gracious Speech—school discipline, parental choice, freedom for schools—and if real tangible actions follow those words, we will back them. But if we have a stream of initiatives that are not followed through, or gimmicks, we will oppose them. The same applies in health. If hospitals are given real freedom, and power is devolved to professionals, we will back the Government. If it is all talk, we will not.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) warned the Government on that front. She said that they should take time with their legislation. She is right. The Opposition believe that choice has a role to play in meeting rising expectations on health.

The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (John Denham) made a thoughtful speech about private sector involvement. He was sceptical about it. It is clear that the Government will have a tougher time on that issue. Who knows? They may need support from the Conservative Benches. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Huddersfield says that there is nothing about policy, so I shall turn to policy and to his speech.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about school discipline. I agree with him; he has great experience and I look forward to reading the reports of his Select Committee. Discipline in schools, ordered classrooms where teachers can teach and children can learn are vital principles. We backed them with policy at the last election and we shall continue to do so. The Government spoke about those things before the last two elections, but let us look at what happened.

There were policies, such as targets for cutting exclusions, that actually made the problem of discipline worse. That is why we have a situation where a teacher is attacked every seven minutes of the school day and truancy is up by a third. If the Government want to get serious about school discipline, they should give heads full power to exclude unruly pupils; they should abolish appeals panels; they should allow schools to make home-school contracts enforceable and they should invest in turnaround schools. Is that enough policy for the hon. Member for Huddersfield? If the Government do those things we shall back them.

I have to say to Labour Members that the start was not good. The first act of the Secretary of State was to set up a new high-level group and then to rush on to the "Today" programme to tell us all about it. What happened? She was asked about the number of schools with serious discipline problems and she started talking about 5 per cent. of schools. According to the chief inspector, the number is one in 10—10 per cent. of schools. When asked about the number of appeals that
 
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are overturned, the right hon. Lady said that it was 2 per cent. In fact, it is 20 per cent., and when John Humphrys put that point to her, she said that it was a misprint in Hansard. I hope that she has been upstairs to give Hansard a full apology.

When the Secretary of State was asked about changes in the guidance to schools about exclusions, she said that there had been none. In fact, the rules were changed in 1998 and new guidance was introduced in 1999. It was amended in 2000 and again in 2001. It was reissued in 2002 and changed again in 2004. I suppose that for a Government who are obsessed with meddling that probably does not count as intervening very much but the rest of us would take a different view.

I want to turn to the speeches made in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) made an excellent speech about involving parents in schools and referred specifically to the importance of special schools. He spoke with great clarity and passion. He said that parents know their children best. That is so right, especially about children with special needs. If the Government understand the issue, they will put a moratorium on the closure of special schools so that a proper investigation can be made about why so many parents are having choice denied them. If they do so, they will be supported by us and, I am sure, by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean.

The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) made a powerful maiden speech. She spoke about the regeneration of Swansea. She told us that her parents told her to stand up and be counted. That is what she did today, and I am sure that she will be counted. She rightly said that the test of being a good Member of Parliament is what the MP has done to help others.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) made an excellent speech, with very few notes. He told us about the history of Lancaster prison and that, in the past, it was a place where prisoners were put in chains and whipped and where witches were killed. It was a powerful speech, but perhaps I should warn him that care must be taken when describing such policies in the House—if the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions or the current Home Secretary overhears, such things may well turn out to be Government policy, so we ought to be a little bit careful.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) made a thoughtful speech. He talked about the growing expectations in public services and said that quality costs money and that we need to rethink some of our policies, and I hope that he will help us when we do so.

The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) made a serious and weighty speech. She told us that her predecessors included Harold Wilson and Kilroy-Silk. I can only hope that she emulates the career of the former, rather than the latter. She has great knowledge of the NHS. She talked about foundation hospitals and payment by results. She is clearly on the Blairite wing of the Labour party. I hope that she has not picked her team a bit too late.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) made an excellent speech from Sir Teddy Taylor's old seat. He spoke clearly and
 
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passionately about service. He talked about the need to protect Hemel Hempstead hospital, and I am sure that he will fight a great campaign.

The hon. Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler) made a sparkling speech—witty and informed. She promised us some stories about Paul Boateng, but did not quite deliver. We all remember that, when he was elected, he said:

and he is now our ambassador in South Africa. We do not know what her slogan is, but after that speech, I am sure that she will go a long way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) spoke about a range of things. He raised the case of the mother whose three teenage daughters had all become pregnant and the fact that she blamed the school. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) made a powerful speech about that issue as well. They are both right. We need to talk about such issues, and we need to recognise that we are all in this together. It is a matter for parents, teachers, governors and the Government, as well as for schools.

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) made a powerful maiden speech, talking about the dangers of overdevelopment. She was generous to her predecessor, she was passionate about the voluntary sector, and she talked about the gap between people and politicians—and I am sure that she will close that gap in Guildford.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Horwood) made an interesting maiden speech. He started by defending MPs' pay and pension arrangements. I am sure that that will be go down well in some parts of the House. I am not sure how well it will go down in Cheltenham. He then went on to discuss overdevelopment and the housing targets. That will probably go down better.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) made an excellent speech. It is only right, as we have only one Scottish MP, that his constituency's name is by far the longest. It was such a good speech that it will not be long before he is pulled on to our Front Bench to speak about Scotland more often.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Ms Thornberry) made an interesting maiden speech. She said that she knocked on 11,000 doors during the election campaign, but she found that most of the people were out. We suspect that they were at Islington dinner parties, but we were not told. However, it was a powerful speech, like many others, some of which, I am afraid, I have not had time to mention.

This is an 18-month Session, so there is plenty of time for the Government to get it right and to flesh out the Queen's Speech with measures and action that would really make a difference. That is what we in the Opposition want to see. We want an education policy that gets the basics right, that gives head teachers full powers over discipline and abolishes appeals panels, and that gets to grips with our examination system and restores rigour and confidence. We want to see real school freedom, with all head teachers in charge of all their budgets and all their admissions. Above all, we need Education Ministers who are prepared to take a stand on issues, face down their critics and actually make things happen.
 
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The Government still do not seem to understand that real change cannot be achieved by forming a committee, by issuing another press release or even by passing another law. A Government must set out what they believe in and follow it through to the end, and they must recognise that we are all in this together—the Government, teachers, parents, governors and children. Central Government do not, and cannot, have all the answers.

In the past eight years, we have had three manifestos, nine Acts of Parliament, five Green Papers, three White Papers, two strategy documents and four Education Secretaries—or five if we count Lord Adonis—but look at the record: truancy up by a third, one in three pupils leaving primary school unable to write properly, and a teacher attacked every seven minutes. It is time for all the words in the Queen's Speech to be backed by action, which is why I urge all Opposition Members to join me in the Lobby tonight.

9.45 pm


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