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1.7 pm

Kevin Brennan: It is my great pleasure to speak on the Third Reading of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson). In the light of the praise that has been lavished on her, she will have difficulty getting out of the door after today’s debate, but all that praise is deserved. She is very persuasive in a way that is not always encountered in politics; she bowls people over with charm, as well as with the logic of her argument. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton, West (Mr. McAvoy), who is on the Front Bench, uses similar tactics in the Government Whips Office.

I was recently in the north-east. In many ways, people from the north-east and people from south Wales, where I come from, are very similar. I noticed that there is an advertising campaign for the north-east, and its slogan is “Passionate people, passionate places.” My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West is a living embodiment of that. Perhaps she should appear on the posters promoting the north-east to the rest of the country and the world, because she certainly lives up to that slogan in the way she puts forward her arguments on behalf of her constituents, and families with children with special needs right across the country. They have great reason to be grateful to her for introducing the Bill and steering it through its stages in such an exemplary fashion, and with great charm.

I want to thank the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople for the serious and thoughtful way in which they have engaged with the Bill. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and I are former Select Committee colleagues, and I know how assiduously she cares about the issues, which showed in her contributions to the debate and the way in which she probed to ensure that the Bill achieves what we all want to see it achieve.

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The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) has a good knowledge of the issues. We do not always agree across the Floor of the House, but we have debated the issues in a civilised manner. It is important that her party is, like the other parties in the House, committed to the cause of children with SEN. She has pressed me once or twice about whether the Government are doing enough in that area, and I have responded. It is only fair that I press her back occasionally, especially because she mentioned in her concluding remarks on Third Reading that children with SEN are eight times more likely to be expelled than the average. I remind her that that situation would not be helped if an important tier of protection on exclusions were removed by getting rid of independent tribunals. I urge Conservative Members to think about the impact of such a move on children with SEN, whose interests the hon. Lady has discussed during the course of the Bill.

The Bill is short, and it is not mine—it belongs to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West. I will not match my hon. Friend’s level of detail on Third Reading, but I will make a few brief points.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke asked whether our ambitions are high enough for children with SEN. The Government have shown their high ambitions in the children’s plan and by supporting this Bill. One of our ambitions is to make this country the best place in the world for children to grow up. That is our mission and our ambition, and we want those words to become reality.

When we discuss the issues, it is important to will not only the ends but the means. That is why we have made record investment in education and SEN. In the course of the Bill, I announced a number of measures on the provision of information and the improvement of teacher training. Our ambitions are high, and the children’s plan, which we published last December, makes it clear that those ambitions are high not only for some children, but for all children. In particular, our ambitions are high for children from the most deprived or vulnerable backgrounds and for children with SEN.

We all believe that every young person should have a fair chance to reach their full potential, which is the driving force behind this Government’s agenda on children. As a result, the Government are determined to help children overcome the barrier presented by SEN. As we have discussed, a great deal of work is under way to try to narrow the gap in achievement.

Incidentally, another hon. Member who contributed to proceedings and who is worthy of attention, particularly in relation to her contribution on deaf children, is my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley), who made a good speech earlier in our proceedings.

We are determined to do more in the future, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, which is why the Government have supported and will continue to support the Bill in its passage through Parliament. We will not get anywhere on improving outcomes without better data. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole has said, we do not want bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake, so it is important that we collect information and data for a purpose that will have an impact at the front line and, ultimately, on the outcomes for those vulnerable
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children. We need a clearer picture of the scale and impact of SEN around the country to drive up the transformation that we want to see in standards. We want to see better outcomes for all children with SEN as well as other children in our schools. That is why the Bill is so important, and that is why the Government have been able to give it our wholehearted support. We wish the Bill bon voyage on its way down the Corridor to the other place, where we hope it will have a smooth journey into law.

1.14 pm

Mr. Chope: In this short contribution, I want to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on getting the Bill to the stage that it has reached today. Hers was the second in the ballot of private Members’ Bills; last week, we got the first one through. I am not sure how many more Bills will get on the carousel before the end of this Session, but getting the first two on their way to the other place is a great achievement for the two Members who were lucky in the ballot.

I should like to ask the Minister a rhetorical question. What will the Government do with all the information to be provided? During these debates, we have referred to the issue of deafness. I have here a letter from a constituent who says how horrific it is that only 32.9 per cent. of deaf children in England achieve five GCSEs at grades A* to C, against a national average of 57.1 per cent.; the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has also referred to that. Now that we have those figures, how will the Government ensure that something is done to remedy the situation? Information is power; that is why this Bill could be significant. However, it will not be any use unless the information gained gives power that is exercised to bring about some improvements.

Earlier, I referred and paid tribute to the work of the Priory Church of England primary school in Christchurch and its work with the Dore programme. All that was drawn to my attention by Judy Jamieson, the hard-working and able deputy chairman of governors. She has almost single-handedly been trying to promote the idea in a
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wider area of Dorset. Although the Minister did not really address the issue on Report in his response to the amendments, I hope that proper information about the Dore programme will be made available. One of the problems seems to be that the programme relates to a different category in respect of some of the special educational needs that we have been discussing. As was said by one of the professors giving evidence to the Welsh Assembly in November last year, there can be two approaches:

The Dore programme uses that latter approach, and it is not clear to me whether the Government are wholeheartedly open-minded about or willing to endorse it. The professor went on to say:

There is tremendous potential there. If there are people following these debates who find it difficult to access information about various symptoms of dyslexia, dyspraxia and other conditions, I am sure that they will become better informed, as I have, by looking at the Dore website, which has an amazing amount of information.

Most important of all is the issue of early screening, to which the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West referred in her Third Reading speech. If there were proper screening of all pupils of between six and eight years old, I am sure that we would be able to take remedial action much more quickly and direct it to the relevant children’s differing needs and circumstances. I hope that that will be one of the things to come out of the Bill.

I congratulate the hon. Lady once again. If the Government are genuine about taking the matter forward—I hope that they are—the hon. Lady has done a good job in bringing the Bill before the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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Fixed Term Parliaments Bill

Order for Second Reading read.—[Queen’s Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

1.20 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is difficult to believe that last year the whole political and media establishment of this country spent more than two months doing little else but speculating about whether there would be a general election and when it would occur. By the end of it, people had become experts in the most extraordinarily arcane subjects, such as the likelihood of rain on particular Thursdays in November, the hours of daylight in that month, or the details of precisely when the electoral registers were compiled. In the end, the only way one could have guessed that the Prime Minister was going to bottle out, as the inelegant phrase of the time had it, was if one understood that if he were to go to the palace at the time that he was rumoured to be doing so, there would not be enough time to turn off all the Members’ computers in the Palace of Westminster. We therefore knew at that point that there was not going to be a general election. The political system was reduced to a sort of guessing game. That seems to be a bizarre way to run a country. One has to be some kind of Hercule Poirot to work out whether there is going to be a general election.

That entire episode was, of course, subsequently disastrous to the Prime Minister’s own political reputation, but it was also ridiculous and damaging to the whole country and to the political system itself. As a consequence, I went back to an old proposal from my party that in future Prime Ministers should not have the power to decide when general elections should be held but that the parliamentary term should be fixed by law. The current position, as everyone in this House will understand, is that the Government can in effect call an election whenever they want within the five-year term of Parliament. If the Government win that election they get another five years, and the whole thing starts again.

The first and most obvious thing wrong with that arrangement is that it gives an enormous unfair advantage to the incumbent party. It is rather like having a 100 m race in which one of the runners has the starting pistol, and can occasionally use it to shoot one of the other runners. The incumbent need wait only for a few favourable polls and call an election within a three-and-a-half week period and is then rewarded with another five years in power. That makes politics rather more a matter of luck than of performance. As we all know, in political life there are times when Governments are blamed for events entirely beyond their control, but there are also times when they receive the credit for events that equally had nothing to do with them.

Of course, if the Prime Minister had called the election last autumn and won it on the basis of a bit of luck about foot and mouth or the floods not being the disastrous administrative episode that they might have been, we would now be facing another five years of him. I am not sure whether that prospect would be very attractive to the country, to his party, or, sadly, to
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himself. Our system can produce unfortunate results for all concerned, and it is the ultimate in incumbency advantage.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on the point about incumbency. Are the Liberal Democrats in favour of this Bill because for nearly a century they have not had an incumbent Prime Minister, and have no prospect of having one for the next century? At least the Labour party and the Conservative party have a fairly equal chance of having an incumbent Prime Minister at some time.

David Howarth: The hon. Lady’s remarks are on the record to haunt her in future decades. A point against the present system is that it favours richer parties, which can raise funds to fight general elections more than once every four or five years. There may be something in what the hon. Lady says, but only because of the unfortunate way in which we fund political parties in this country.

The second reason the present system should be got rid of is that it interferes with good government. It is said that fixed-term systems produce a political cycle in which Governments cause pain—necessary pain, they would say—in the first part of their term, but move to pleasure in the second part. At least that cycle is obvious to the electorate. In a non-fixed term system, things are worse because in effect we have a convention of four-year Parliaments, with all the disadvantages of a fixed term, but with the possibility of periodic panics where the idea that an election might be in the offing leads to immobility in government. It might not be a bad thing if the Government were to do less, so perhaps immobility might be a good thing in some circumstances, but it is not good if it prevents the Government from working on particular projects.

I have one specific example with which I was involved last summer. The Climate Change Bill got through a Joint Committee in July and was supposed to appear well before the new Session of Parliament. It was supposed to be debated extensively in this House early in the new year. As far as I can tell, no work at all was done on the Bill during the summer; the whole process was massively delayed. It has gone through the other place, but has yet to appear in this place. Having a system of occasional, months-long speculation about whether there will be an election leads to stop-start, boom-and-bust politics. It would be much better to have a regular rhythm.

The intervention from the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) was interesting, because another disadvantage of the present system—I am being stared at by a number of Whips at this point—is that it adds to the Government’s power over their Back Benchers. The threat to recalcitrant rebels that if they vote the wrong way, they might bring the Government down, leading to a general election, has been heard recently in our political lives. The general election gives the ruling party an interesting threat to make to its own Members—that they might find themselves not selected for the subsequent election.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. He might be coming on to this, but I have been trying
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to see where in his Bill there would be provision for an earlier election if, for example, there were some emergency. If a Government were to lose a substantial vote, that should trigger a general election. Would that be covered by his Bill?

David Howarth: I will indeed go into that later, but the point that my Bill tries to make is that to hold a general election in those circumstances should require a greater consensus among the political parties in the House of Commons and the other place than merely a decision by the Government of the day. The power to call an election in such circumstances still exists and must exist, but should it lie with the House or with the Government? I say that it should lie with Parliament.

The fourth reason for rejecting the present system is that it leads to a rather silly macho style of politics, as we saw last autumn when the debate was effectively reduced to a version of “Come on and try it if you’re hard enough”. We ended up with a game of political chicken between the parties, each trying to outdo the other in showing that it did not fear a general election. The outcome was very nearly a general election that no party really wanted, and it is extraordinary that that situation was allowed to arise.

Part of what was going on last year is another reason for rejecting the present system. Certain elements in the media wanted an election, and tried to encourage the parties to vie with another in their eagerness for one. That was because newspapers tend to sell more copies during general elections. I want us to resist the underlying thesis that politics has become simply part of the entertainment industry. The power of Governments to call elections is definitely entertaining, but it does not strike me as good governance.

Mrs. Laing: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that last year there was a perfectly legitimate reason for a general election to be held? The premiership had changed. The Labour party had the privilege of electing the new Prime Minister, but the rest of Parliament and the people of the country had not had an opportunity to do so. We can discuss later whether it would have been right to hold a general election, but there was a perfectly legitimate reason for some commentators and Members of Parliament to say that there should have been a general election. If the hon. Gentleman’s Bill became law, that would not be possible. Under a fixed-term system, if the leadership of the governing party changed there would be no opportunity to hold a general election, and therefore a plebiscite on the new Prime Minister.

David Howarth: That is not exactly true, for reasons that I shall explain later—they relate to the answer that I gave the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall)—but even if it were true, I do not think the hon. Lady would be right. I know that the leadership of my own party made a point similar to hers last year, but I do not agree with it, because I consider that we are a parliamentary rather than a presidential democracy. I think that the idea that every time there is a change at the top there must be an election takes us in the wrong direction, down the road of a presidential system. I prefer our traditional parliamentary system.

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