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Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I am delighted to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil). This is my first opportunity to mention the name of his constituency in the new Parliament. My surname may be McIsaac, but the McIsaacspronounced differentlyoriginally hailed from the isle of Eriskay. While I may not share the hon. Gentleman's Scottish Nationalist politics, I am sure that we will continue to share a love of the islands of the west of Scotland. I pay tribute to his maiden speech, which highlighted problems that I know exist in the islands, and I hope that he does well in the House.
Being called today made me cast my mind back to my own maiden speech, which seems a long time ago. On that day I focused on education, and particularly on primary school class sizes, a subject to which I want to return today.
During the general election campaign, North East Lincolnshire council, which covers the constituencies of Cleethorpes and Great Grimsby, announced controversial school closures. I am inclined to go for the cock-up rather than the conspiracy theory of history, but many residents of Grimsby and Cleethorpes sense a very fishy aroma wafting from Grimsby town hall. The Liberal Democrat leader of the council stood against my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) at the election, and two of my opponents were Liberal Democrat and Conservative cabinet members. Although I do not think that that was deliberate, many people in the area do.
Having announced the closures in the middle of the election campaign, the council has now given a closing date of 31 May for comments. I think that that is far too short a period for parents worried about their children's education to come up with alternatives to closure. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, will talk to education Ministers to establish whether a properly defined time limit for this part of the consultation is possible. But regardless of the time limit, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby and I believe that the closures are entirely unjustified. They do not conform to Government guidelines, and I think that education Ministers should reiterate to councils that it is not good practice to start eliminating surplus places by closing schools that are successful and, in the case of some of those earmarked for closure, over-subscribed.
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Another reason why the proposed closures are completely wrong is the fact that the information used by the council is out of date. Its net capacity figures relate to 2002 or thereabouts. Since then, many of the schools in questionnot just those threatened with closure, but some that are threatened with amalgamation or a reduction in the number of classroomshave taken steps to deal with the problem of surplus places. The paper produced by the council does not recognise that. The fact that the figures are out of date and wrong must be addressed as a matter of urgency before any decision is made to close a school.
The schools themselves are challenging the figures. One of them, Bursar primary school in Cleethorpes, is close to my home. The council says that it has capacity for 243 admissions, but its limit is actually 210, and there are currently 198 children on its roll. That could not be described as an excessive number of surplus places. Elliston infants school and Elliston junior school are also in Cleethorpes. One of those schools is above capacity and is one of the best-performing schools in the borough, yet it too is being earmarked for closure.
The council has come up with predictions of the size of the Grimsby and Cleethorpes population in 2009. It asserts that the population in the borough is declining and that the number of births is falling. It claims that there will be 400 or 500 fewer children each year. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of live births in the area is increasing, and it predicts that the number of children of primary school age will also increase over the next few years. If the council proceeds with its plans, up to 2,000 primary school-age children may be without places because of its severe underestimate of future numbers.
I am deeply worried by the council's failure to announce alternatives to the closures. It simply announced in the press, in the middle of an election campaign, that schools would have to close, and told parents to come up with alternatives. Surely it would have been better practice to liaise with parents, with the schools involved, with head teachers and with unions in a co-operative way, with a view to identifying alternatives and to see what the schools themselves could suggest. Some of those earmarked for closure have no surplus places at all, and it is entirely wrong for over-capacity schools to be closed as a first step in the process of dealing with surplus places.
My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, with whom I have sparred on many occasionsI remember doing so on the issue of compensation for distant-water trawlermen when he was doing one of his earlier jobsknows that once I get my teeth into an issue, I will not give up. I shall use every opportunity to harangue Front Benchers to establish whether there are any measures that they can take. I realise that it is for the council to come up with a solution to the problem of surplus school places, but I must seriously say to my hon. Friend that I do not believe the guidelines are clear enough to councils. Because they are unclear, councils such as North East Lincolnshire can come up with controversial proposals that worry parents and teachers and, in this case, create a great deal of uncertainty.
Now that the council says that schools will have to close, parents are wondering whether to risk sending their children to a particular school in September, and teachers are wondering whether they have to start looking for new jobs. Indeed, if there is a vacancy, how
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will head teachers recruit staff if a school is going to be open for only three or four more months? The situation is a recipe for disaster. I tell the Minister again that we need far clearer rules on how to deal with surplus places, and I shall try to arrange a meeting with education Ministers to make that point.
Ultimately, the most serious political reason for my raising this matter before the 31 May deadline for comments is that, just as Governments are not allowed to make announcements during an election period, there is merit in local authorities not being allowed to do so, particularly in the middle of a general election campaign when people on the cabinet of that council are putting themselves forward for election, and when their main line during the election campaign in Grimsby and Cleethorpes was to blame the Government for the closures. We must seriously examine how certain councillors misuse their position to try to gain political advantage at the expense of school children and their parents.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): This opportunity to raise matters of importance to our constituents recurs at regular intervals through the parliamentary calendar before the rather too regular Adjournments of the House. It is an important chance for Back-Bench Members to raise issues that they would not otherwise be able to raise properly and in order during discussions on legislation or, indeed, on the rare Government debates on matters of interest. Members present are clearly aware of the value of the exercise, not least those seeking to make their maiden speechesthis is yet another opportunity to do so after the Queen's Speech. However, all Members should be aware that this a chance to play a valuable role on behalf of their constituents and I find the empty Labour Benches astonishing. One can only assume that all is sweetness and light in every Labour constituency other than Cleethorpes.
It was a pleasure to hear an accomplished maiden speech by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil)I hope that my pronunciation was reasonable. Those of us who served in previous Parliaments will still, I am afraid, think of the constituency as the Western Isles, because that is the limit of our linguistic prowess. I am jealous of the fact that he is bilingual. That is a great attribute and certainly opens doors. His accomplished speech on behalf of his constituents showed his deep knowledge of his constituency and I welcome him to the House. I suspect that he will form part of an exclusive ginger group of Members representing islands, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and for St. Ives (Andrew George).
The hon. Gentleman suggests that Canvey Island might be included in that group. Remote though it may be, I am not sure that it qualifies. The villages on the levels of Somerset revert to islands for only a few months every year and are considered to be inland most of the time. I welcome the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar to the House and congratulate him on his maiden speech.
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The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) rightly used this opportunity to draw attention to a concern in her constituency. I have no idea of the rights and wrongs of the case that she mentioned. I hope that it will not be necessary for the Deputy Leader of the House to intervene in local authority matters, whichever authority that may be and whatever it may be engaged in. Having been a leader of a county council and chairman of a local education authority, I can say that there is never a right time to go about school reorganisations and there is never a way of presenting a case that does not cause a great deal of controversy locally. A wise local authority will listen carefully to the cases put on both sides and come up with the right solution to provide education for the people in its area.
If I may abuse my position slightly, I will first raise two matters of concern in my constituency. The first is a serious matter that I will have to return to repeatedly over the next few months: the future of the new Frome Victoria hospital. We have been waiting since 1998, when it was announced that a new hospital would be built for the town. We were promised that it would be built by 2000. Although it benefited from huge fundraising efforts in the town£500,000 was raised towards the costs of the new hospitalthe situation has becalmed because the private finance scheme to fund it appears not to have sufficient money to get it built.
That is a matter of huge concern in Frome. We have a green field where our new hospital should be. We have an excellent hospital, but it was built in Victorian times and cannot provide the necessary facilities for the people of Frome. The town has every right to expect something to be done to break the logjam and to ensure that the hospital is built. So often we hear glowing reports from hon. Members about the wonders of investment in the national health service and what that has provided for their constituencies, yet we in Frome still have a decaying Victorian hospital and an expectation that has so far not been met and we still lack a modern facility in Frome. I asked during the previous Parliament for Ministers to look into the problem and I will continue to do so in this Parliament.
My second point is on a rather happier note. Tomorrow, I shall visit St. Louis VC Roman Catholic junior school in my constituency, where the pupils have recorded a CD, songs from which they will sing to me, in support of the Make Poverty History campaign. The fact that children are engaged in that huge issue for our time, along with a large part of the population and the Government and Opposition parties, will, I hope, result in action when it comes to the summit and the British presidency of the G8 and the European Union. I hope that we will be able to make a difference on one of the most crucial issues facing the world, and that we can begin to change the world for the better by reducing the intense poverty that besets so many people in so many parts of the developing world.
but that this elected House does not have the opportunity to say how it was for us, during an election that was widely felt to have fallen far short of what we
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would hope of the democratic system in this country. I do not say that from a partisan point of view, because there are people of no political persuasion or many who feel exactly the same way. They feel that it cannot be right to have an electoral system in which a Government can be elected with a substantial majority in this House with just 22 per cent. of the electorate supporting them. It cannot be right for the Conservative party to gain more votes in England than the Labour party, yet have fewer seats. It cannot be right that Her Majesty's principal Opposition party in terms of numbers has no representation in any city outside London. That is an extraordinary position for our electoral system to be in.
I am not arguing the case purely from the position of my own party, even though it is clearly disadvantaged by the current system. Rather, I argue that, if we want people to have confidence in our democracy, questions must be asked about the present position. At the very least, we should examine whether a system that has, I accept, done perfectly well for the country in previous centuries and decades is now adequate to the task of reinvigorating our democracy for the future.
My party has a clear line on its preferred system of voting. The Leader of the House argued that we wanted it purely on the basis of self-interest, but that is not the case. The alternative vote system mentioned earlier would be the best for us in respect of the number of seats that we would secure, but we happen to believe that it is not proportional so we do not accept, in principle, that it is the best solution.
We also understand the arguments that people often make about the important link between Members and their constituencies. I agree that it is a very important consideration and I would be loth to lose it. I continue to be unhappy with the system used to elect Members to the European Parliamentthe closed list system, which effectively puts all the power to decide who represents a particular area in the hands of the party machinery.
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