Previous Section Index Home Page

5.18 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee; he made an interesting speech that touched on some extremely important points. I am also delighted that he mentioned Alison Wolf’s excellent report, which was published at the weekend. We will all want to come back to it once we have had the chance to consider some of its detailed points in Committee.

I thank the Secretary of State, following his consensus-building speech—I think that that was the intention, although I am not sure. He passed me a biographical note about Herbert Fisher, of whom I confess I had not heard. Apparently, he was a predecessor of my hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Sheffield, Hallam as far back as 1916, and he advocated a Bill for compulsory education until age 14. I am not quite sure what point the Secretary of State was seeking to make. Nobody doubts that individuals aged 14 are children, and back in 1916 the voting age was 21. Are today’s Liberal Democrats supposed to be influenced by the fact that somebody in one of our seats in one part of the country voted in a particular way 100 years ago?

Ed Balls: My point was that the Fisher Act advocated and legislated for part-time education to 18.

Mr. Laws: Instead of looking at Sheffield MPs in 1916, when there was a very different age of majority in very different circumstances, perhaps we should look
14 Jan 2008 : Column 688
at—perhaps the Secretary of State should be looking over his shoulder at—some of the Members who represent Sheffield today. I am advised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), who is right about most of these things, that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) represents a constituency with one of the lowest participation rates between the ages of 16 and 18 of any constituency in England. As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) noted, the right hon. Gentleman said, not 100 years ago or in 1916 but last November,


the hon. Member for Surrey Heath missed out that bit of the quote. He went on to say that


Kelvin Hopkins: I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman has visited many schools; indeed, I have been involved in education. Does he agree that a major factor in young people’s alienation from school at a very young age is a sense of failure from not getting to grips early on with elementary reading and mathematics, and that if that can be overcome such demoralisation will not take place?

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I think he is suggesting, like the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside, that we need to look first at the reasons why most young people who leave school at age 16 leave the education system. That is largely a consequence of the lack of skills that they have acquired up to the age of 16, as well as other multiple disadvantages. They usually leave because of a failure to be able to exploit the existing educational opportunities. We should consider the root of those problems first.

Mr. Frank Field: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Laws: In a moment.

I think there is common ground in all parts of the House, certainly among Liberal Democrats, that there should be an aspiration to give young people a good education and every opportunity to stay on not only to 18 but beyond that, and to ensure that they are a success. Some of the statistics right across the country, particularly in the most deprived communities, show just how far away we are from giving people genuine educational opportunities at 16 and beyond. For example, the latest figures published by the Government show that, on the basis of their own chosen measure—the number of youngsters who get five A* to C GCSEs, including English and maths 84 per cent. of white British boys from poor families are failing to get those qualifications. We need to think about why there is such a chasm of educational disadvantage between those in the more affluent areas and those in deprived areas.

14 Jan 2008 : Column 689

Mr. Field: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for not giving way immediately, because my question now makes more sense. He referred to some of these young people being damaged, and perhaps some of them are, but what struck me, when I talked to a large number of them over the summer holidays, was how intelligent they were, yet many of them had not been at school for years.

Mr. Laws: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. I am sure that he is right about the talents that many of these young people have. Later in my speech, I want to consider some of the categories who currently leave education at 16. They have very different characteristics and disadvantages, and we need to ensure that the systems that we put in place are suited to their needs, not merely to some blueprint passed down from on high by the Government, whether or not the CBI agrees with it.

I want to focus on the principal disagreement we have with the Bill, which concerns compulsion and potential criminalisation. I want to consider whether that is the right way to deliver the Government’s appropriate aspirations. There are many measures in the Bill with which we agree strongly, and to which we shall return in Committee, but today we are discussing the overall principles of the Bill, which is why I want to focus on those particular points.

My view is that the compulsion and criminalisation in the Bill are not the right means to deliver the Government’s objectives. Because we believe in the Bill’s aspirations, and in many of its components, we are not going to divide the House on the issue of criminalisation and compulsion today. I hope, however, that we can persuade the Government over the weeks and months ahead, not only in this place but in Committee and in the other place, that they have got some key decisions wrong, and I also hope that we can secure amendments to the Bill that will make it more acceptable.

At the moment, the Bill infringes liberty, fails to address many of the real causes of educational disadvantage, and could disadvantage some young people with regard to their employment prospects. I fear that when politics students in years to come look back at the Labour Government of 1997 to 2010, they will find that this Bill—

Michael Gove: 2009.

Mr. Laws: Whether there will be a 2009 or 2010 date depends on what confidence, or foolishness, the Prime Minister has. I am not going to speculate on that. At the moment, I am a 2010 man, but the polls are very volatile at the moment.

People looking back in years to come will see in this Bill a lot of the characteristics they associate with this Government and this Prime Minister—both the good characteristics and the bad. On the good side, they will see the passion that has driven this Government right from the very beginning—or perhaps more accurately, from 1999, when the Government were first able to take action that broke from the past—which is the desire to make Britain a fairer place, and to break down the barriers of disadvantage. My party feels extremely passionate about such matters. However, we
14 Jan 2008 : Column 690
also see aspects in the Bill of what has, I fear, become more characteristic under the current Prime Minister, which is an illiberal desire to micro-manage and to believe that those in Whitehall know best. As Alison Wolf’s paper shows very clearly, it is often the case that attempts to deliver improvements in services from on high in Whitehall are not only in breach of people’s freedom, but also counterproductive.

I would like to start not with the practical issues related to the Bill, which are extremely important to my party, but with the issue of principle. The Bill will extend state control over many people in a significant way. It will certainly do so over 16 and 17-year-olds. It could extend control over parents, although there is confusion, or doubt, in the Government’s mind about what responsibilities parents of 16 and 17-year-olds should have. It will certainly extend the obligations on local authorities and employers. The Secretary of State has sought to give the impression that there is some great consensus, which seems to consist largely of himself and the CBI—

Michael Gove: Parts of the CBI.

Mr. Laws: Indeed. No doubt the Secretary of State will be able to cite others who are in favour of this element of compulsion. However, he could have cited not only the principal Opposition parties as opponents of compulsion and criminalisation, but many other bodies with which his party has been associated in the past—in some cases, the distant past—such as the TUC, the National Union of Teachers, the Children’s Society, the Professional Association of Teachers and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England. All of those bodies are opposed to the way in which the Government intend to deliver what in other respects is an admirable aspiration.

In an earlier response, the Secretary of State did not do justice to the serious issue of the way in which we treat 16 and 17-year-olds in our society. They are not treated completely as individuals with adult rights, but they have many of the rights of adults. They have the power to start work, get married, be parents, or change their name; they are allowed to be pilots, to gamble, to join a trade union, to leave home and to apply for a passport. The Government are now, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said earlier, and as I implied in my question, proposing to give young people the vote at 16.

One wonders what the ideology is of a Government who think that young people of 16 or 17 should have the power to vote and determine the future of our country, as the Labour party does, but who also manage to hold the idea that those young people are not equipped to make judgments about their own best interests in education and training. There is an inconsistency in the Government’s approach and in their attitude towards liberty that I assume must reflect a confusion in their view of the age at which young people can be considered adults. I presume that the Secretary of State was not saying that if the CBI decided it would be advantageous for young people to be in education until the ages of 19, 20 or 21, the Government would consider legislating to force people to stay in education beyond even the age of 18. I assume that a confusion about when one acquires adult rights is behind that aspect of the Bill.

14 Jan 2008 : Column 691

We think that the measure is illiberal, that criminalising many young people in that age group will be counter-productive and that it will be difficult to pursue such issues through the courts. I also suggest to the Secretary of State not only that the Government are not yet able to keep all the youngsters whom they would like to in education until even the age of 16, but that he would be hard pressed to find any other country in the world, including those where there is compulsion, where all those in the age cohort up to 18 are in education and training.

Mr. Sheerman: I have two points. First, the hon. Gentleman seems to assume that there has been a vote in the parliamentary Labour party or the Labour party at large about votes at 16, but there has been no such vote. I am old enough to remember occasions when there was blood on the floor in debates in the Labour party, and there might be again if that issue is debated. Secondly, has his party had a vote on leaving education or training at 18?

Mr. Laws: Yes. One of the characteristics of my party, for good or for ill, is that we have votes on such issues at our democratic conferences. It is party policy to extend the vote in the way I have described. I am sorry that the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee was unwilling to acknowledge the Government’s position on this matter. I was just quoting the deputy leader of the Labour party, who, as Leader of the House, too, I assume speaks with some authority on such matters.

I hope that when the Minister for Schools and Learners or the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Science—[Hon. Members: “Skills.”] Sorry, I am still learning. I do not know how long that division will last, but I am sure that in time I will master the names of the new Departments. I hope that when the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills sums up the debate, he will deal with the issue seriously and not simply use the rather feeble excuse that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families used earlier, which is that the CBI believes that 18 is the right age. I have great respect for the CBI, but I do not think it appropriate to take our ideology or standards on basic liberties from any business lobby, however distinguished.

Mr. Heald: It is my understanding that the Liberal Democrats’ position is that adulthood should start at 16—that is, that the ages for various things should be rationalised at that age. Does that thinking underpin the hon. Gentleman’s argument, or is he developing it on the basis of the current age for adulthood of 18?

Mr. Laws: My thinking is that it will be extraordinarily bizarre when the Secretary of State or his representatives knock on the door of an individual who is not in employment or training but who turns out to be married, a voter and a parent, and when they tell that person that, despite all the other responsibilities that they have acquired, which they might be exercising perfectly effectively, the Government do not like the way they are managing their educational or training affairs.

Ed Balls: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

14 Jan 2008 : Column 692

Mr. Laws: I will give way, and then I will move on to other issues.

Ed Balls: The hon. Gentleman has some consistency. He is opposing the current reform, just as he opposed the new deal, the windfall tax, the minimum wage and tax credits—all of which, in different ways, imposed rights and responsibilities on young people or employees—but how about pensions and pension contributions? Is it illiberal to require adults to make pension contributions for their savings?

Mr. Laws: The reason I supported that legislation—which I am not sure the Secretary of State was so keen on when it started out following Lord Turner’s commission, as he was attempting to sabotage it from the Back Benches—is that it contains a power to opt out. There is a power of choice in the proposals for personal accounts. If there were no power to opt out, I would ardently oppose the proposals, particularly because 50 per cent. of pensioners will in future be subject to means-testing, and automatically enrolling them in a pension scheme from which they would get no advantage would be wrong, philosophically and practically— [ Interruption. ] I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is trying to intervene on me.

Michael Gove: No.

Mr. Laws: We have been stuck in this important territory for quite a while, in my speech and in those of others, and I would now like to move on to consider some of the practical issues that affect this group of young people, as they are at least as significant as others we have been discussing. I have used these issues as tests when thinking about how the proposals might be adopted in my constituency, and whether they would be effective.

We need to start by considering who constitutes this group of young people who, sadly, leave the education and training system at the age of 16 and, as a consequence, probably end up with much more limited opportunities, much more limited incomes and many other associated problems in later life. We know who these people are; we do not have to guess. They are often from highly disadvantaged backgrounds and will often have secured few or no qualifications. They might well already have a history of truancy; the truancy figures are extremely high in schools in many parts of the country, which is relevant to the issue that we are discussing. They will probably have high levels of special needs, with emotional or mental health problems in some cases. They might be single parents. There is a whole issue about how we should deal with people aged 16 or 17 who have had a child, and we shall no doubt come back to that in Committee. In some cases, they will be caring for a close relative. Sadly, many young people end up in that situation, sometimes because of terminal illness in the family. They might have a drug addiction or be involved in crime. They could be in prison.

The young people who will be affected by the Bill might also be in employment and doing extremely well, but in a small business with no accredited training provision. They might none the less be learning the
14 Jan 2008 : Column 693
disciplines of the workplace and getting the motivation that they never received from an education system that sometimes seems completely irrelevant to those who do not have an orientation towards the subjects that we have been teaching in schools for a long time. The Government are, however, gradually starting to tackle that issue.

In regard to the practical needs of all those people, we must consider three issues. First, are we dealing with the real causes of their leaving the education and training system at 16? Are we focusing on dealing with the causes of the problem, rather than treating the symptoms? There are all sorts of problems in society that we could try to solve simply by passing a law to abolish the problem on paper, without actually dealing with the substance.

Alison Wolf’s excellent paper, to which the Chairman of the Select Committee referred earlier, lists in one of its later chapters a whole series of schemes—some of them Government-backed—with a proven record of having real benefits in tackling educational disadvantage early. She says:

that is, the money to be spent on implementing the Bill—

For example, she talks about

which has a well-proven record in dealing with educational disadvantage. She also talks about the funding of tuition in English as a second language, and about ensuring that there is an educational entitlement to the two additional years of education or training, which people will be able to take at a more flexible time. I shall return to that last point in a moment.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath touched on another proposal that would tackle disadvantage, which, sadly, the Government have yet to take up, and that is the pupil premium. I am glad that the Conservatives are showing some sympathy with this idea, although I am not sure that that sympathy has yet been illustrated by the shadow Chancellor providing any money to fund the proposal. Frankly, a pupil premium policy with no funding associated with it will not be effective in challenging educational disadvantage. A question that we can legitimately ask the Government is whether it is right to bring in this draconian extension of Government powers over individuals, their families and businesses without having done much more to invest in those areas and without having put in place a coherent structure for the curriculum and qualifications which meets the needs of these young people.

Next Section Index Home Page