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1.33 pm

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): The House might be relieved to hear that I will attempt to strike a slightly different tone from the opening speeches. I wish to concentrate on education and to deal with several aspects of that in some detail.

I should say from the outset that I welcome many aspects of the Budget, some of which I will highlight in a moment. However, there were conspicuous absences from it and much lack of clarity. I always fail to understand why, when the Government have good tales to tell, they insist on over-selling their announcements. That is entirely counter-productive and it hands the Opposition a stick with which to beat them.

Extra funding is a good thing and we all welcome it, so why cloud the issue by continuing the false spin of raising funding to private school levels? When the pledge was made last year, it was clearly fatuous and intended not to track increases in private school funding, but to be an aspiration of raising funding to 2006 levels for private schools. Even with that narrower definition, at a forecast growth rate of 2.5 per cent. in real terms, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that we would not get there until 2020. Every child in education at the moment will have left education by that stage, even under the Secretary of State’s proposals in the Green Paper for young people to stay on beyond the age of 16, so the pledge is entirely irrelevant for any child in school today.

We heard pre-Budget hype about heavy spending on education. The Department for Education and Skills has indeed been one of the greatest beneficiaries of this year’s Budget. However, the claim of increasing funding as a proportion of gross domestic product is rather undermined by the fact that the year-on-year percentage increase is less than the projected economic growth. The shadow Chancellor referred to that point at the outset of his speech. The average rate of economic growth cited in the Budget is 2.75 per cent. over the course of the comprehensive spending review period, so, in fact, there is a shrinkage. I do not
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understand the contradictions in the Red Book, so I hope that the Financial Secretary will give me an explanation when he makes his winding-up speech.

Let me welcome the commitment in principle that has been outlined today to raise the education leaving age. Unfortunately, the Department’s rather chaotic withdrawal and replacement of the Green Paper this morning meant that none of us received it in time to go through it in any detail. However, we have made it clear from the outset that we broadly support the initiative. As the Secretary of State said, whether it succeeds will depend on not the strength of the carrots or sticks—or bribes or threats—but whether the proposal includes genuine educational opportunities that are tailored to meet the needs of each individual young person. The success will also depend on how transparent the choices are.

We have one of the worst post-16 staying-on rates in the western world. That matters to the economy and for social justice. Some of the most disadvantaged young people miss out on the opportunities that education offers, and such a lack of education has lifelong impacts on a person’s earning potential, life choices and life chances. Sixteen is a critical point. Ninety per cent. of those who stay on in education and do A-levels go to university, but the route back into education is a great deal more difficult for those who opt out.

Making the proposal work will depend on much more than enticing 16-year-olds to stay on. It will also depend on changes much further back in the system. Many young people mentally leave school at 14 or 15 and no carrot or stick will re-engage them. The curriculum is key to keeping such young people interested.

The Secretary of State referred in detail to diplomas as a means for achieving success. However, he has warned of the risk of these diplomas being seen as the secondary modern qualification. That is why I remain disappointed that the Government have not done as Tomlinson recommended and gone the whole hog by scrapping GCSEs and A-levels and introducing a new, modern, British diploma that would be recognised by all and would allow young people to mix academic and vocational learning.

The Secretary of State referred in his speech to the pernicious link between achievement and background. John Smith’s commission for social justice pointed to Tomlinson’s recommendations as being the key way to break the link with class structure in education and ensure that all young people have the chance to perform. I am disappointed that the Secretary of State has not taken that on board and delivered Tomlinson in full.

A few moments ago, the Secretary of State replied to my hon. Friends the Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for Cambridge (David Howarth) by citing figures for capital and revenue. The amount cited for revenue was £700 million, but I am still not clear whether that is the amount for each year, or the total spend between now and 2013 or 2015. What does the Secretary of State mean by the £200 million for capital? When will that be delivered? We know that there have been great delays in getting building projects in place
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under the Building Schools for the Future programme. If we do not start this project now, by the time we change the learning leaving age, we will not have the capacity to deal with the many more young people who will be staying in education. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State wrote to me about that in detail and, perhaps, placed in the Library an answer setting out exactly what he means by the funding, what he proposes to spend it on, and when it will begin.

When the Secretary of State produced his estimates of costs, did he take account of the fact that vocational courses tend to be a good deal more expensive to deliver than others? It is likely that the young people who are not staying on at the moment will be undertaking more vocational courses. What is the rationale for keeping the educational maintenance allowance at the age of 17? It is not clear why the allowance would be kept in the system when it becomes compulsory to stay on beyond the age of 16.

There are several practical steps that the Government should take to make 16-to-18 learning work better. First, they could narrow the gap in funding between colleges and schools, although such a measure was conspicuous by its absence from the Budget. Secondly, they could move 16-to-19 funding from the Learning and Skills Council to local authorities. We could then have some hope of devising a system under which funding would follow the student. The White Paper on further education, published with last year’s Budget, promised that a technical funding group would come up with a new funding system. Where is it? Has it finished the job yet, and may we see the new system, please?

It is a long time until 2015, but many young people have already dropped out of the system and need attention now. The training wage for teenagers not in education, employment or training—NEET—is a step in the right direction, but it has been an awfully long time coming. The Government have presided over a 44 per cent. increase in the number of 16 and 17-year-olds in that group. There are 124,000 16 to 17-year-olds in the NEET group, and the pledge offers help for 50,000 of them. How will that help be targeted, and who will be selected for help? In particular, what does the Secretary of State for Education and Skills propose to do about the disproportionate number of teenagers from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds in that group? The number doubled between 2004 and 2006, and that must surely be of considerable concern. What research has been done on why those teenagers are failed by the system, and how will the pledge be targeted to help them?

The announcement on apprenticeships was much harder to unpick. I am not clear what is meant by “doing more” to double the number of apprenticeships to 500,000. The number of young people on apprenticeships has risen from 165,000 to 188,000 in the past five years. At that rate, it will take another 40 years to meet the target. What exactly is the Secretary of State proposing to do differently to ensure that we reach the target more quickly? I am sure that the personalised learning money will be welcomed by all, but we know that the children with the most severe difficulties need a trained teacher to achieve improvements. It is critical that the money is spent in a
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way that works. Putting a child with an adult for half a day a week will not work for all children.

Ofsted’s report on the foundation stage pointed out that speaking and listening skills were holding back many young children from progressing. No details about that are attached to the proposals for personalised learning. Does the Secretary of State intend to extend that programme? The money for ChildLine and for listening services is very worthy, but will he clarify how much money will be provided? The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is not clear about how much money is being given, and for how long it will be available. I hope that the Government’s commitment signals a shift towards focusing on the problem of bullying in schools. The Government have poured a great deal of money into initiatives to tackle truancy, but we know that a third of children who truant say that they do so out of fear of bullying. Tackling the problem at source would save a great deal of money and result in a good deal more education being provided.

I have some further queries. Will the Financial Secretary clarify the pledge on VAT for academies? Does it refer to sports facilities, as was said in the statement, or to buildings, as the Red Book says? I hope that it refers to buildings, because the critical problem for many voluntary sector organisations in most areas is a lack of places to meet. If all academy buildings were opened up to the community, it would make a significant difference, but why have academies been singled out in that regard? Sixth-form colleges are caught in exactly the same trap; they, too, have halls and meeting spaces that could be opened up to the community. Will the Secretary of State consider asking the Chancellor for VAT relief for sixth form colleges, too?

Academies were conspicuous by their absence from the Budget. Where is the money to meet the Prime Minister’s pledge of 400 academies by 2010? The Secretary of State referred to the pledge again, so it appears that it has not been dropped, but I cannot tell where the money needed to meet the pledge will come from. Is it coming from the total pot for education, or is there specific funding of which we cannot find mention in the Red Book? If the money is to come from the whole education pot, the pledge on per-pupil funding is a bit meaningless, because the funding will obviously be concentrated in very small pockets.

Specialist teachers are also conspicuously absent from the Budget. Last year’s Budget contained a pledge to increase the number of science teachers by 3,000: where are they? The only mention that I could find of recruitment of science teachers related to the review that the Prime Minister has commissioned from Lord Sainsbury of Turville, but no details have been given on that point. Where is the extra money for recruiting foreign language teachers, so that the recommendations made in the Dearing report just this month can be met? There are some welcome initiatives in the Budget, but it has been spoilt by over-hype, and there are many conspicuous absences. I hope that, in his winding-up speech, the Financial Secretary can clarify some of the rather obscure aspects of the Budget.

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1.44 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), because her constituency is similar to mine in its make-up. When she has had the opportunity to study the Budget in great detail—obviously, it is difficult to have done so a day after it is published—she will see that it will benefit her constituents as much as it will benefit mine.

May I say at the outset how disappointed I was with the speech of the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne)? I was disappointed because I rate him as someone who is able to grasp issues effectively. Instead of spending his time talking about the substance of the Budget, he spent much of the early part of his speech engaged in a juvenile attack on the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs through references to “Thunderbirds” and so on, and on the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That demeaned the hon. Member for Tatton, because I think that he has a great future; he could well end up as the Leader of the Opposition.

I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman both claimed credit for everything that the Government had done in the Budget, and attacked it. Every good proposal made by the Chancellor yesterday the hon. Gentleman said was his idea, or the idea of his buddy, the Leader of the Opposition, but he still ridiculed every aspect of the Budget. I will be interested to see how he and the Opposition vote on various measures next week, because that will be the test of whether they support this tax-cutting Budget. It is the first time in, I think, 75 years that the basic rate of income has been cut, and we should welcome that greatly.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Keith Vaz: I will in a moment, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to hang on a minute; I am starting my speech.

Of the 21 Budgets that I have seen in this House, I think that this is the best. It builds on the stability of the past 10 years, and it gives us enormous hope for the future. In my brief speech, I will set out why I think that, but first I give way to the hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench.

Mr. Goodman: Does the right hon. Gentleman deny that he said, a few moments ago—it will therefore be in Hansard tomorrow—that the Chancellor’s reduction in income tax, announced yesterday, was the first such reduction for 75 years?

Keith Vaz: That is indeed what I said, and we should welcome the reduction, because it benefits people in all our constituencies. The Chancellor has led this country by providing prosperity for our people and the basis for growth, and he is now ensuring progress, especially in health and education.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): In the past three months, I have, in this Chamber, heard the right hon. Gentleman express concern to the Secretary of State for Health about hospital-building schemes and waiting times in Leicester. Will he pinpoint where, in the Chancellor’s speech yesterday, it said that there would be specific help to deal with those problems?

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Keith Vaz: I will, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to listen to the rest of my speech. I know that he came in late, and therefore—

Mr. Burns: I have been here all the time!

Keith Vaz: I am very pleased. I did not see the hon. Gentleman—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. If there are to be interventions, may we follow the usual rules of debate?

Keith Vaz: Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sorry. I did not particularly look for the hon. Gentleman earlier; I apologise if he was here for the whole debate. My attention was, of course, on Front Benchers. Next time, during the Front-Bench speeches, I will look in his direction to make sure that he is here. Oh, now he is leaving the Chamber. That is why I was confused—he keeps changing his position. He needs to have a fixed position, not just in the House, but on issues.

I will come to my point about health and education in a moment, but first let me say that the Budget will be warmly welcomed, because it will build on the stability of the past 10 years. We should thank the Chancellor for what he has done. This will obviously be his last Budget, because he will be a candidate in the leadership elections, and I hope very much that he will take over as Prime Minister; he certainly has my support. We would then know that, over the next few years, we will continue to have stability.

Let us look at health, because the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who was a Health Minister in the last Conservative Government, mentioned it. We have benefited a great deal in Leicester from a huge injection of cash. Some £760 million will go towards our new pathway project. Leicester general hospital will be rebuilt and changed substantially, and Glenfield hospital and Leicester royal infirmary will benefit, too. Three brand-new hospitals will benefit the people of Leicester, East. Only a few weeks ago, the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), visited my constituency to launch the new local improvement finance trust centre in Charnwood, which has received £12.8 million. Another centre is being built in the Humberstone and Hamilton area of my constituency, which did not exist when I became a Member of Parliament 20 years ago, because it is new build. There is a centre, too, in Belgrave in the heart of the inner city of Leicester, East.

That shows a real commitment to the health service. Of course, I have raised concerns in the past, and I did so two weeks ago, as one of my constituents, Mark Golding, had waited for four months for a double hernia operation. I understand that it is a very painful condition. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford nods—he may well have suffered from it himself. Mr. Golding was in great agony, and he had to wait, which is wrong. We have spent a great deal of money on the health service, so why should people have to wait so long for operations? Lo and behold, after I raised the matter in Health questions, the next day, Mr. Golding received an appointment for a hernia operation. Obviously, we do not want people to keep writing to us all the time. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] We want to them to write to us with their concerns, but we do not want them to believe that just by our raising the
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matter on the Floor of the House they can get their operation, as there is a system in place. I am making the point that a lot of cash has gone in: what we need to look at is the delivery of services, which is up to the local primary care trust, not the Secretary of State for Health. I do not expect her or her junior Ministers to conduct those operations, but I do expect them to set the overall framework so that the local delivery of health services is as effective as possible.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman made a point about hospital waiting lists. Despite the doubling of the money spent on the NHS under the Government, why have hospital waiting times, as measured by hospital episode statistics, fallen by only five days in the past 10 years from 11.8 weeks to 11.1 weeks? Does he accept that that clearly shows that the money has not been well spent, and is not getting to front-line services?

Keith Vaz: I do not. The hon. Gentleman has a great deal of knowledge as a shadow Health Minister, so he knows much more about the economics of those issues than I do. We are meeting our targets, and the people who come to us are exceptions. Mr. Golding was the first case with which I have dealt in the past year of a constituent who is concerned about the delay—we would know if there were other such urgent cases, because people would contact their MPs—so matters are progressing, and I welcome that. The money has gone to front-line services, and it has improved our targets, which is to the benefit of our constituents, but of course it is important that we look at the way in which services are delivered locally by officials.

I agree that there are too many managers in our local health service, which is why I welcome the meeting that I held last Thursday with Tim Rideout, the new chief executive of Leicester PCT, who told me that a tier of management will be removed in Leicester, so even more money will be spent on local services. Mistakes have been made. One PCT would be sufficient in a city such as Leicester, so goodness knows why we had to have two. Such decisions must be looked at very carefully indeed, as we are dealing with public money, but I am pleased with the large investment in the health service in Leicester. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), is in the Chamber, so I hope that he will tell his colleagues how pleased we were to receive a visit from the Minister for Schools. Sadly, when he came to Leicester to meet the leader of the Liberal Democrat council, I could not attend, because it was a mid-week visit, but he looked at Judgemeadow community college, which will be completely rebuilt, and St. Paul’s—not that St. Paul’s, but another one in Leicester—a Catholic school, which the Minister opened, which has received public funding to build a new performing arts centre. Our schools are going to rebuilt, as a result of the largest investment by any Government in education in Leicester. Some £230 million is going into the local education system, which we should welcome enormously. The Opposition chant, “Where has the money gone?”, and the answer is that it has gone on local services, to improve them and provide benefits for our constituents, which is why they are happy with what the Government have done, and why they elected them three times in a row with large majorities.

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