Previous Section Index Home Page

13 Nov 2007 : Column 626

Of course, much has changed, especially over the last 10 years and unemployment in my constituency is now at its lowest level for 10 years. It is now 3 per cent.—down 29 per cent. in 1997. Youth unemployment has been virtually eradicated. The number of 15-year-olds getting five or more GCSEs at A* to C grade is up 12 per cent. since 1998.

Our sixth form college, King Edward VI, ably led by John Glazier, has an A-level pass rate of 99.6 per cent. and 90 per cent of its students progressed to higher education last year. The college is looking to the future and is helping to shape the three new academic diplomas recently announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. The college has ambitious expansion plans, assisting the aim of having all 16 to 19-year-olds in education.

Just down the road at Stourbridge college, the staff ensure that no learner leaves without a level 2 qualification; and a ground-breaking programme of learner progression ensures significant progress. The college also has ambitious plans to expand, to add to local regeneration, to raise aspirations and to improve tomorrow’s opportunities and sustainable jobs. Again with dynamic leadership—this time from Lynette Cutting—the college works with more than 500 employers every year. It manages the black country construction employers taskforce and leads a regional team to gain a construction consortium of £3.6 million. Last year, it delivered 40 per cent. above the original contract allocation and it was first in terms of recruitment and achievement.

I am sure that Stourbridge college would welcome a visit from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills to see the outstanding progress being made there, especially as the college is planning to deliver 100 per cent. above its original “train to gain” offer and establish a new arm of “Stourbridge Training” to enable the college to be responsive to employer needs. That is just what we need in the black country. As you can see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Stourbridge is a “can do” town with two “can do” colleges, of which all of us in the local community are rightly proud. They are already delivering on the education and skills agenda and aspiring to do much more.

The black country as a region has suffered from a decline in traditional industries and manufacturing and there is a need to upskill our work force, broaden our horizons and look increasingly outwards rather than inwards. Advantage West Midlands, the Black Country Consortium and the learning and skills council are all working on that agenda, but development and aspiration also need to be encouraged and supported by local councils and by joined-up thinking across their departments.

What is the use of encouraging young people to stay on in education and training or encouraging over-19s to upskill and train to attain functional literacy or numeracy when their local council is closing libraries where they can research, study and learn, youth services are being cut, leisure centres and swimming pools are being closed and top performing schools closed down for no better reason than to have the lowest council tax rate in the region?

13 Nov 2007 : Column 627

For all the good that the Government’s education investment is doing in Stourbridge, short-sighted, short-term, penny-pinching local council policies can and will undermine our progress locally. That is why it is vital for Ministers to keep a close eye on the efforts and performance of councils such as Dudley—not just in respect of education policy, which is soon to benefit from £25 million black country learning challenge money, but across the services as a whole that are necessary to back up progress in the education and skills agenda.

The black country as a whole, and Stourbridge in particular, has a proud history, and aspires to a prosperous and proud future. I am confident that the proposed legislation will be invaluable in that quest.

9.19 pm

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): We have had an excellent debate today—it was lively and vigorous, not least thanks to the Secretary of State. I thank all those who participated. Their individual commitment to improving our public services was clear and in many cases moving.

The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) stressed that any policy to secure greater educational participation must be rooted in getting the basics right in the early years. We wholeheartedly agree with that. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), in his characteristically brilliant style, pointed out that this Government have retreated from reform on health as well as on education. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) spoke with passion on education. Although we may differ, I appreciated his palpable commitment, which I share, to greater social mobility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), in a typically tightly argued speech, reminded the House that the Conservative party is in favour of increasing university participation. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) underlined his reputation as an exemplary constituency MP. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), a former nurse, spoke affectingly and with a formidable grasp of detail on the question of the protection of unborn life.

The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) made important points about ensuring appropriate consideration for the position of women in extending opportunity. My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) made a persuasive and cogent case for further reform in the NHS, reinforcing his reputation as a great campaigner for better health outcomes. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) spoke with characteristic fluency about the effects of globalisation on his constituency.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) made a speech that reflected her long-standing commitment to children’s issues. The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) made a thoughtful speech with interesting ideas about how to extend academic excellence, which I enjoyed. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) spoke with all the authority of a former teacher, and we all benefited from his shrewd Ulster wisdom. The hon.
13 Nov 2007 : Column 628
Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) spoke persuasively on the need for improved school nutrition.

The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) spoke with formidable authority about real weaknesses in contemporary patient care. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) underlined the importance of extending educational participation if we are to compete better internationally. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) spoke with great moral force about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Whatever our personal positions, we all benefited from his thoughtful arguments. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) consolidated his growing reputation as an assiduous constituency Member. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) assailed the Government’s record with brio and élan, and the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) spoke with charm and fluency in support of the Government line.

The nature of the Chamber, and of political life, can exaggerate division. While good men and women will always disagree, it is appropriate to acknowledge that public services have been strengthened and are supported by all parties in the House. The Liberal Governments of the first decade of the previous century laid the foundation for universal welfare provision and Labour Governments introduced the national health service and the Open university, while Conservative politicians made a reality of universal education, presided over the biggest increase in affordable house building in our history and laid the foundations for greater individual choice within the state system. It is important that we acknowledge that collective, cross-party commitment to better public services.

That is why I was so disappointed by the rather partisan approach favoured today by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. I should not have been surprised, however, because long before he took up his post he made clear what he wanted to do with the job. In an interview with the New Statesman, he explained how he wished to reject the consensus that used to exist between Mr. Blair and the Conservatives and

with the Conservatives over policy, preferring division over consensus and putting political positioning before real reform. We had more of the same today.

The Secretary of State made no substantive arguments. Instead, he built his speech around a flimsy, pre-fabricated soundbite. He asserted that the Conservatives supported “excellence for the few”. When challenged three times to provide evidence for that quote, he could not. When challenged on the facts, he fell back on assertion. When asked to justify his position, he resorted to caricature and bluster: Brownism in action.

As I watched the Secretary of State struggle at the Dispatch Box, however, I could see a nervous tic—a quivering palm, betraying the shaky ground that he was on. We saw another quivering palm last week from the Prime Minister. It is becoming a characteristic of this Government: when they are challenged on the facts, we can see how nervous they are. Under this Government, a handshake from the Prime Minister has taken on a
13 Nov 2007 : Column 629
whole new meaning. Instead of the smack of firm government or the great clunking fist, we have the great quaking wrist.

Under the great quaking wrist, and his mini-me, a much more profound dividing line has opened up than the one between Labour and Tory. It is a division between those serious about reform and those stuck in a bureaucratic mindset. While those on both Opposition Front Benches are united in our desire to see greater freedom for professionals, more pluralism and wider choice, on the Labour Benches there is a fundamental split.

The dividing line is increasingly drawn around the Secretary of State. We know that throughout his time at the Treasury he was an enemy of reform. It is no good him furrowing his brow and shaking his head: we have the witness statements here. We do not need 56 days to get the evidence in order, because the suspect is bang to rights. An eyewitness account of a meeting between the Secretary of State and the then Prime Minister reveals:

Those challenging the Prime Minister were said to be irretrievably on the side of darkness and anti-reform. By the end, the Prime Minister was made to feel

There is also the testimony from the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) when interviewed by the BBC about his rebellions against Blair over education. The hon. Gentleman revealed that he had the support of the Secretary of State who egged him on, saying that

Another quote reveals that

If that is support for the Blair reform agenda, I would hate to see what opposition looked like.

The truth is that the Secretary of State was the Kim Philby of the Blair Government—outwardly part of the establishment, but secretly working for the Stalinists. [ Laughter. ] I am glad hon. Members laughed at that one.

By rejecting the reform agenda, the Secretary of State has left us with a remarkably thin agenda. There are no measures in the Queen’s speech to deal with the scandal of illiteracy, with more than 40 per cent. of children leaving primary school not having met the basic standard in reading, writing and arithmetic. There are no measures in the Queen’s Speech to deal with the tragedy of innumeracy, with less than half of children getting five good GCSEs, including maths and English.

There are no measures in the Queen’s Speech to reverse the tragic educational waste that begins in our primary schools and sees the gap between the most privileged and the least fortunate widen as they go through school. There are no new ideas. There is no passion for improvement and no liberating vision. There is just one Bill, with one aim—political
13 Nov 2007 : Column 630
positioning. Let us be clear what the purpose of the Bill is. It is not there to address the significant problem that we have with educational under-attainment. Nor is it principally about providing improved vocational education for those who currently opt out of learning too early. It is about politics, pure and simple. Because the numbers not in employment, education or training have risen, not fallen, under this Government, they want to get that embarrassing statistic down by legislating that record of failure out of existence.

One cannot stop a problem just by passing a law against it. One cannot end unemployment or inflation with legislation. Labour tried that in the 1970s, when it thought that it could pass a law to fix prices. It was trying to eradicate the symptoms, rather than tackle the problem at root. The root problem here runs deeper than the Government admit.

One wise old figure argued this week:

Wise words from the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the best Education Secretary this Government have had. He also said:

There is a dividing line for the Secretary of State—between those on the Labour Benches who know what they are talking about and those in office today.

That is not the final dividing line that is worth recording tonight. When we talk about skills, employment and specifically about those not in education, employment or training, there is one particular policy, even more than the one for the school leaving age, that is associated with the Prime Minister and his colleagues. It is his favourite phrase—the one that he has used here at the Dispatch Box, at the Trades Union Congress and at the Labour party conference. That phrase is “British jobs for British workers” and it has certainly attracted attention. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee has called it “employment apartheid” and the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) called it a British National party slogan. The two most senior black and minority ethnic Labour Members have rejected the Prime Minister’s shallow pandering to populism. There is a new dividing line within Labour—between a principled defence of equality and a sly wink to prejudice.

Unless I am wrong, I do not think that a single BME Labour Member has used that phrase, and I do not blame them. It sullies Labour and it erects a new dividing line in our society. When our schools are increasingly multi-ethnic, our hospitals depend more and more on workers from abroad and our society as a whole knows how dangerous loose language on this issue can be, how can the Prime Minister have allowed himself to become a prisoner of the BNP’s rhetoric? It is a tragedy.

We have a choice tonight between an Opposition committed to change, optimism and hope and a Government who prefer the politics of division and calculation, a choice between an Opposition who
13 Nov 2007 : Column 631
believe in spreading choice, opportunity and excellence more widely or a Government exhausted, rudderless and addicted to control. That is why I hope as many hon. Members as possible from whichever party who believe in principle will support us and our amendment tonight.

9.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Health (Alan Johnson): This has been a rambunctious debate and, in view of some of the misunderstandings at its beginning and for the avoidance of doubt, I should put it on the record and make it clear to the House that the Opposition indicated last Wednesday the order in which their Front-Bench spokesmen would speak. We then made it clear what our order would be and I am sorry if there was any misunderstanding particularly between those on the two Front Benches. Having made that clear— [ Interruption. ] I wish I had not bothered now. [Hon. Members: “Try again.”] I think I will pass on that.

The two Front-Bench spokesmen for the Conservatives, the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), are both pleasant and affable people and they are reasonably bright, but something comes over them when they get behind that Dispatch Box. I remember when I was a kid seeing an old Walt Disney film in which a very timid husband says goodbye to his wife, walks out downtrodden, gets into his car, closes the door, switches on the ignition and suddenly horns come out of his head. His character changes completely. Something like that comes over the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire and for Surrey Heath. They get this preening self-regard. In Scotland, they say that if they were chocolate, they would lick themselves. That is great in whatever debating society they come from, but I do not think it really does justice to the debate that we have had in the House on the Queen’s Speech.

We have been debating the two most important issues for the public in terms of the services that are provided in this country. We have Bills on health and social care, a human fertilisation and embryology Bill, Bills on education and skills and on children and young persons, and the sale of student loans Bill. Admirable justice was done to them in the long debate and in the important contributions that I shall come to in a moment.

I say to the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who has just taken his seat, pointed out that the policy differences between us on health—and I believe in the health Bills that will come before Parliament—are very slim if, indeed, they exist at all. It was remarkable that when the Conservative party’s policy arrived on my desk with a dull thud—the dull was more than the thud—it was a thoughtful exposition on how we could move forward. I think that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire will agree that I am doing him justice when I say that the thing about the Conservatives’ health policy on which to remark is that it explicitly endorses the broad shape of the Government’s reform programme.

The policy agrees with the 10 reform principles set out in the NHS plan. The patient passport policy has disappeared and there is now a policy of commitment
13 Nov 2007 : Column 632
to the NHS. There are commitments to practice-based commissioning, payment by results, local involvement networks—they are an important development for patient and public involvement—foundation trusts, primary care trusts, local area agreements, patient choice, strategic health authorities and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. That is a remarkable indication of how the Government have moved the centre ground to the left and the Conservative party is trying to occupy that ground.

Let me give the hon. Gentleman a word of advice about his policy. It is completely wrong—the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) also pointed this out—to suggest that we should introduce the monolithic, top-down, unaccountable organisation that the Conservatives are putting forward. For a start, that would mean structural reform. The Conservatives say that they want structural stability, but they also propose the biggest structural reform that the NHS would have ever seen.

If the hon. Gentleman will not take my word for that, he should listen to the NHS Confederation, which is clear in its views on the Conservatives’ proposal. It says:

Next Section Index Home Page