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Education White Paper

Q12. [49485] Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Whether he plans to meet the Association of School and College Leaders to discuss the education White Paper.

The Prime Minister: I will be meeting Dr. John Dunford shortly.

Dr. Pugh: Last month, the Association of School and College Leaders issued this press statement:

Is there not a fairly obvious downside to permanent revolution and reform?

The Prime Minister: Much the same thing was said about specialist schools when they were first introduced, but now more than half of comprehensives are specialist schools and their results are significantly better than those obtained by traditional comprehensives. The Liberal Democrats always oppose any reform, but a combination of investment and reform has delivered the best school results at 11, 16 and 18, which is why, 100 years on, people should keep voting Labour.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Derbyshire county council was the only county council to be classed as excellent in the recent assessment. People throughout Derbyshire welcome the greater assurance given this week on the continuing positive role for local authorities in delivering the excellence agenda in our schools. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Bill will be used to make sure that all local authorities are partners in providing excellence for all of our children?

The Prime Minister: The fact is that many local authorities fulfil that role. What is important is that schools have the freedom to involve external partners and that local authorities concentrate on raising standards in schools. We have come an immense way in the past eight years, and there is no doubt about the improvement in schools—in particular, the number of failing schools has been more than halved in the past few years. However, Labour Members will not rest while children still do not get the education that they need, which is why the programme of improvement through investment and reform will continue.
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Point of Order

12.31 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, I wonder whether you have received an application from the Prime Minister to come to this House to correct the record in respect of the answer that he gave to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) about the proscription in the Terrorism Bill of organisations that indirectly encourage terrorism. He told the House that the House of Lords had prevented the proscription of such organisations, but an immediate perusal of the Lords amendments shows that that is not the case. Proscription remains in the Bill, and indirect encouragement has been helpfully defined as the

In view of the fact that the House has been inadvertently misled, has any such application been made?

Mr. Speaker: I understand that the Lords amendments are returning to this House next week, which is when the hon. Gentleman should seek to set the record straight.

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Local Government Referendums

12.33 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I beg to move,

There is already provision under section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003 for a local council to hold a referendum, but the decision on whether to do so rests with the local council concerned. Not surprisingly, few councils have chosen to hold one. The principle of local referendums is not an issue to be debated in connection with my Bill, nor do I wish to get drawn into the wider debate on referendums such as those on regional assemblies or the euro. Representative democracy has served us well. Without taking the route of referendums being part of the decision-making process, as in Switzerland, I believe that there are occasions when Governments—in this case, local government—need to have a safety valve for the community to challenge what is being done in its name.

My Bill would give the power of determination over a referendum to the local community. However, unlike a parish poll, as set out in the Local Government Act 1972, whereby as few as 10 people at a parish meeting can demand that one is held, my Bill has a very high threshold in order to deter frivolous actions or those on matters over which the local council has no responsibility. It would require a local authority to hold a referendum about a matter of major local importance for which it is responsible if one tenth of its electorate demand the holding of such a referendum. In the case of my own borough, that would require around 15,000 people on the electoral roll petitioning for a referendum. That 10 per cent requirement is double the 5 per cent which is all that is required to trigger a referendum to have an elected mayor as set out in the Local Government Act 2000.

My Bill has been prompted by the arrogance of Conservative-run Colchester borough council and its contempt for the overwhelming majority of my constituents. The council wants to shut the town's bus station and build a loss-making £17.2 million contemporary visual arts facility, even though that is in clear breach of the council's own adopted borough plan. Furthermore, the council is having to make cuts in many other areas. This reveals an interesting choice of the ruling party's priorities, for the arts came 17th out of 18th in the council's recent survey of residents' priorities.

Public opinion is clearly opposed to what the council is up to. That has been demonstrated by a petition signed by more than 15,000 people who want to keep the bus station and through newspaper polls and correspondence, and confirmed by my own random sample selection of names from the electoral roll. It is not in my interests to misread or misrepresent what my constituents are telling me. However, my efforts to ascertain the true sense of local opinion were challenged by the non-elected chairman of the Colchester local strategic partnership, who questioned the validity of my survey. She had attended a special council meeting to argue against a referendum, yet had the audacity to
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challenge the town's democratically elected Member of Parliament on a matter of local democracy. It is a funny old world.

The most recent poll was organised last month by the Essex County Standard. It was good of the newspaper to do so, and it was intended for its readers. Regrettably, that phone poll was hijacked by those driving the art gallery project. Full-time staff at the town's existing publicly-funded art gallery sought to rig the vote by circulating by e-mail just the "yes" number to likely supporters. Two professors in the department of art history at the University of Essex also sought to influence the phone poll by e-mailing around to ask people to phone in. Is not that a misuse of public resources? Nevertheless, even their dubious antics were not enough to prevent a 3:1 vote against the council's proposals.

At a meeting in the town last year, where there was no scope for any members of the public, let alone the town's MP, to question what we were being told, I challenged one of the Tory councillors, who just happened to have been my opponent at last May's general election, saying that what we were witnessing was not democratic. He replied: "I am not a democrat. I am a Conservative." That just about sums it up. His words were duly reported in Colchester's Evening Gazette.

On 22 November last year, Labour and Liberal Democrat borough councillors convened an extraordinary meeting of the council at which a motion was tabled calling for a referendum in accordance with section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003. The council's Conservative and independent councillors voted this down. Most of the Tory councillors represent the rural areas of the borough. The majority of the councillors in my Colchester town constituency are either Labour or Liberal Democrat. It is the people of the town who are most up in arms at what is happening, but the rural-based Tory councillors are calling all the shots. Only one of the eight cabinet members lives in the town.

I believe that if a referendum was held, the people of Colchester would vote overwhelmingly against what the council is inflicting on the town, aided and abetted by quangos and others—generally those who do not live in the town, yet who are able to drive through an agenda that local people do not want. This is not democracy. It is not good enough to say, "Oh well, the people can vote out the councillors at the next local elections." By then, a damaging, irreversible decision could have been made. The arrogance of power needs to be checked in such circumstances. My Bill would provide that check.

Nobody in local government who is truly committed to democratic accountability and good governance will be opposed to my Bill. Only those who want to ride roughshod over the community and make decisions which they know are not in accordance with what residents support will hope that the intentions of my Bill do not materialise. I commend the Bill to the House.

12.39 pm

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