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Ruth Kelly: I do not think that that is the case. I accept that schools are not bursting to come forward with plans for expansion—not many have been put forward in recent years, some have been approved, and some have been turned down—and if there are barriers in the system that prevent schools from even thinking about
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that, we want to remove them. The more likely model, however, is one that I see happening with my own eyes in my constituency. I have a head teacher who runs a successful school and I have a school that has been in special measures and has been very weak for many years. The head teacher of the successful school has now become executive principal of both, and the result, even in a very short space of time, has been dramatic. If we can get successful heads to want to take over under-performing, failing schools, that will drive up standards very quickly and spread opportunity across the system. The people who will benefit are those who are disadvantaged and who really need to benefit. That is at the heart of this White Paper.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): May I thank the right hon. Lady for gladdening my heart? I fear, however, that she has depressed many of her colleagues, and I wish her well in the battle ahead. In relation to local authorities, I was particularly interested in the phrase in her statement, "They will oversee competitions to deliver new schools." I hope that that will gladden my heart, too. Will she explain that statement a little more?

Ruth Kelly: Under legislation that has already been passed, all new schools that are being proposed will be subject to a school competition so that the best school provider obtains. That process will be overseen by the local authority, with the voice of the parent also respected in the process, so that the school obtained is right for the area and the children, with the local authority setting the admissions criteria, the sort of curriculum and other specialist aspects that it is seeking. That is a strong role for a local authority, but not a new one.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): We would all approve of certain aspects of the White Paper, such as the concept of clusters of excellence, which makes sense both in the most deprived and the most advantaged areas. But does my right hon. Friend understand the real fears of many on seeing this White Paper that the very powerful social stratification in our education system will be intensified by parental choice? Can she give some comfort to those who, like me, fear that their constituents, and their constituents' children, will miss out in the rush to the excellent schools? If all parents choose, some will choose better.

Ruth Kelly: I can give my hon. Friend some reassurance on that point. First, the White Paper is also about teaching and learning in our schools. It is about making sure that every child has the best possible education, tailored to their individual needs. When they are falling behind, they will have small group or individual tuition to bring them up to the expected standards in English and maths, and when they are gifted and talented, they will also have extra support. This is freedom for a purpose, not freedom just for freedom's sake. That freedom can drive up standards not just for one school, as collaboration can be encouraged by the use of that freedom and flexibility. That is exactly what is happening in local authorities such as Knowsley and in other areas such as Sheffield and Manchester. Such schools choose, because of the
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freedom that they have, to work with others to improve education throughout their locality. Collaboration will be strengthened by strong, autonomous schools rather than the reverse. Those schools that most need help—those in the disadvantaged areas—will be the first to be able to benefit from the new trust model, because that is what the schools commissioner is there to do.

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Points of Order

4.34 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point of order relates to Standing Order No. 112, which allows a Minister to make a statement to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee and to answer questions put by members of that Committee on the statement. You might or might not be aware that this morning, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced details of the Northern Ireland budget to a press conference in Belfast. The decisions that the Secretary of State announced concerned the expenditure of £10 billion of taxpayers' money, and also involved a 15 per cent. increase in the rate bills paid by people in Northern Ireland. Despite the importance of that statement, however, not even a written statement has been made to the House of Commons today.

May I ask you, Sir, to remind the Secretary of State that our Standing Orders already allow Ministers to make statements, if not in the Chamber, to—in this instance—the Northern Ireland Grand Committee? That would at least allow the people elected by our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland to question Ministers about decisions that have an enormous impact on the lives of their constituents.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If it is your wish to speak to the Secretary of State, will you please point out that the importance of the issue lies in the fact that this is a 19 per cent. rate increase, the highest in living memory in Northern Ireland? Yet Northern Ireland Members of Parliament have received no information other than what they can obtain from the BBC's website.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I point out that the Secretary of State is due to appear before the Select Committee tomorrow? He could have saved his information until then, when he could be questioned by Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Speaker: Let me place it on record that I prefer Ministers to come to the House, or to a Committee of the House. I hope that that is borne in mind. As for the point of order from the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), it would be for the hon. Gentleman to approach the usual channels and ask for a meeting of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to be held. I cannot interfere in that; it is a matter for the usual channels. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.

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Licensing Act 2003 (Amendment)

4.36 pm

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I beg to move,

When the world is so troubled by natural disasters, international terrorism, threats of flu pandemics, the impact of climate change and scandalous poverty, malnutrition and disease, circus may seem a rather trivial matter for the House to consider, but I believe that the performing arts have a vital contribution to make to the wealth of our nation, and circus is perhaps the most overlooked, undervalued and misunderstood performing art of them all. Today, touring circus is not just misunderstood; its very existence is under threat.

I am a school friend of Gary Smart, grandson of the legendary Billy Smart, and I freely confess that since then circus has been in my blood. This summer I was delighted to see two very different circuses, the charming and intimate Gifford's circus and the outstanding and exhilarating Zippo's. At both, the looks on the faces of the children, and for that matter the adults, were enough to persuade me to continue the campaign to save the circus from extinction.

Neither of those two circuses uses wild animals, and I must make it clear at the outset that the Bill has nothing whatever to do with the use of wild animals in circuses. Indeed, I signed early-day motion 468, which expressed concern about the use of such animals in circuses. Of the 30 to 40 touring circuses, only about three still use wild animals, only one to any significant extent. The overwhelming majority of circuses are now all-human, or use only domestic animals. The Bill is about protecting a fine British tradition that was born on the south side of Westminster bridge, on land now owned by St. Thomas's hospital. It was begun in 1768 by Philip Astley, a retired sergeant-major who had served in the 15th Light Dragoons in the seven years war and who was a gifted horseman. Initially he became an equestrian trick rider, and performed at pleasure gardens in London. He opened a riding school just across the river, added other acts and set up a ring, calling it "the circus"—which derived, I believe, from the French word for a circle.

For many thousands of young people, a touring circus is now their first introduction to live performing art. Circuses are the last unsubsidised touring art form in the country, visiting some of the smallest as well as some of the largest communities of our land. Circus is a profoundly democratic art form, and its very nature is multicultural. The innocent pleasure that circuses bring, however—as highly talented professionals risk their lives twice daily—is threatened, although I am sure that it is unintentional, by the Licensing Act.

The debate about the Licensing Act has concentrated on alcohol-related antisocial behaviour, 24-hour drinking and, to an extent, the Act's impact on village halls and sports clubs. But the Act also threatens to destroy the touring circus. That is hardly surprising, as it simply was not constructed with the needs of touring circuses in mind. Indeed, the circus industry had been promised total exemption from its provisions, just like
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that granted to travelling fairgrounds and even to Morris dancers. It was realised too late that that promise had been broken—or perhaps just forgotten.

I have taken industry representatives to meet Ministers on three occasions. Those meetings have always been courteous, including that with the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), whom I am glad to see in his place today. But the policy has not changed at all. I have initiated two Adjournment debates, asked many questions and written many letters to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I hope, even at this eleventh hour, that I can persuade Ministers to embrace this Bill, which is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the Licensing Act.

I am not alone in my concern. I am sure that Ministers know that Arts Council England continues to be concerned that the Act will have a damaging and lasting impact on the circus industry. The central problem is that the Act requires premises to be licensed. That is fine for a theatre that does not move, but it is a real issue for a touring circus that moves many times a year. So the Royal Opera house needs one licence, while a small touring circus needs 40, and sometimes as many as 60, separate licences. Getting 40 or more licences poses three problems for circuses, the first of which is cost. There is the cost not just of the fee but of duplicating plans, advertising the application and so on. Even without costing the labour to make the application, the average cost for just one licence is about £600. Most circuses operate on very small margins, and for 40 venues, £600 per venue works out at £24,000 a year.

The second problem is the bureaucracy. It is very difficult for a small circus out on tour—often, such organisations are very small indeed—to go through all the complex formalities needed to apply for a licence. All but the largest circuses have no back office beyond the one that travels with them in a caravan on the road. Organising photocopying and advertising, and dealing with local authorities in other parts of the country, imposes an intolerable—indeed, impossible—additional burden on these very small operators.

The third and perhaps most serious problem is the resultant inflexibility. Touring circuses need to be flexible. Their schedules change all the time. Bad weather can make a field unusable, and a competitor may have exhausted the market for circuses in a particular place the previous week. A circus responds by changing its intended venue, but under the Act it cannot be flexible. The time that it takes to apply for a licence means that it cannot change its plans, and it loses its revenue for the whole week because it either does not put on shows at all, or performs to very small audiences.

But the situation gets worse. It is now obvious that local authorities simply do not know how to treat circuses under the Act. Some are effectively refusing to licence them at all, while others are making obtaining a licence very difficult. Some are saying that the land on which the tent is erected needs a licence, while others are saying that the tent—the big top—needs one. Some are even saying that circuses are not covered by the Act at all and do not need licences. Cost, bureaucracy, inflexibility and now confusion: this fearful foursome means that the Licensing Act is likely to kill all but the three or four largest circuses, unless we make changes.
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It is not as if circuses do not already have enough legislation to comply with. Licensing circuses will not add in any way to public safety, or provide any extra safeguards for local communities. They already liaise with local authorities, fire brigades and police forces about their sites, and any advice offered is always acted on. A complex and detailed web of legislation is already in place. I have in my hand the operational manual of one touring circus—Zippo's. Such a manual is needed to ensure that it complies with health and safety requirements, fire regulations, disability discrimination regulations, food safety and hygiene requirements, noise control rules, regulations for the safe storage of oil and gas, and requirements for all manner of risk assessments. Such assessments include a detailed analysis of the risks posed by the domestic budgerigars used in a particular act.

I also have in my hand the 12 certificates that a touring circus is already required to have, many of which must be applied for annually. They are a certification of test and examination of lifting equipment; a fire extinguisher inspection certificate; a flame-retardant application certificate; a National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting electrical installation report; a first aid qualification; a food hygiene certificate; a public liability insurance certificate; employer's liability insurance; an animal trainer licence; a veterinary inspection certificate; water extraction permission; and staff training documentation for fire, health and safety and manual handling. Anyhow, the purpose of the Act was to provide safeguards around the use and abuse of alcohol. Circuses do not serve alcohol and I am aware of no public order issues around circuses. Families with children intent on a good time do not usually take part in antisocial behaviour: the closest to it is probably the behaviour of the clowns in the circus ring.

The Bill provides three different routes for the Government to use to solve the problem. All three will be on the basis of an order-making power for the Secretary of State, but there will be a requirement for at least one of them to be implemented within a specific period.

The first possibility—my preferred route—is the annual licensing of circuses. The nature of the licence and the body responsible for issuing it will be left to secondary legislation. The Secretary of State could issue it him or herself, or it could be issued by the Health and
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Safety Executive, the home local authority of the circus, or any other body deemed appropriate by the Minister. The big top would be licensed, and unless there were changes to the layout of the big top during the season, the licence would be valid for a calendar year and no local authority would be able to overturn it.

The second possibility is the amendment of the temporary event notice procedure for circuses. The TEN regime is also designed for particular static venues like village halls and pubs. This clause would permit a special category of TEN, developed specifically for circuses, with more TENs available for longer periods and for larger audiences. A tight definition of what constitutes a circus should remove any risk of "creep" of the provision beyond circuses.

The third possibility is a provision to exempt circuses from the Licensing Act 2003 altogether. The Minister thinks that he already has the power to do this—I hope he will do so if he does have that power—but I am not so convinced. This would be an important fall-back provision if, for any reason, the first two routes proved unworkable.

Circuses are in real jeopardy unless the Government act. It was never intended that the Licensing Act 2003 should have this outcome. My Bill is simple, workable and sets no dangerous precedent. It just delivers what the Government originally promised to circuses. I know that the present Government have a fondness for regulation, and they often seem a tad serious in their approach—perhaps more roundhead than cavalier. I hope that Ministers in what was once known as the "Ministry of Fun" can now live up to that name and agree that circus is fun, is threatened, is worth saving and can be saved. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Peter Luff, Harry Cohen, Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas, Mark Fisher, Andrew George, Mr. Michael Jack, Kate Hoey, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Miss Julie Kirkbride, Lembit Öpik, Stephen Pound and Mr. John Whittingdale.

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