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House of Commons

Monday 12 October 2009

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Mr. Speaker: The House will be aware of the protest on the roof of Westminster Hall. For very good reasons we do not discuss matters of security in this Chamber, but I wanted to say to the House at the first opportunity that I have had a preliminary report and the full circumstances are now being investigated urgently and thoroughly. The results of that investigation will be considered by a meeting of the Joint Committee on Security in the very near future. Whatever action is necessary will be taken.

Secondly, as I emphasised before the recess, I repeat that I am keen to make good progress both at Question Time and in the conduct of ministerial statements. I am therefore looking to each Member to ask a single, short supplementary question and to the Minister at the Dispatch Box to provide a brief reply.

Oral Answers to Questions

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked-

Child Care

1. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the sustainability of provision in the child care sector; and if he will make a statement. [292191]

5. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the sustainability of provision in the child care sector. [292196]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Iain Wright): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall answer question 1 with question 5.

We monitor the child care market, including the sustainability of provision, on an ongoing basis through regular surveys, and feedback from local authorities, Government offices and partner organisations. Local authorities have substantial Government revenue and capital funding to help to ensure that providers in their areas remain sustainable while continuing to give children the best start in life and provide invaluable support to their parents.

Mr. Speaker: I apologise: I did not hear the Minister say that question 1 was grouped, but if he did I am very grateful to him.

John Howell: My constituents, like those of others, benefit from a mixed market in child care provision, which includes state, private, voluntary and independent providers. Will the Minister therefore not show some shame for the way his and the Government's policies have plunged a third of providers into the red and left parents, other providers and the sector as a whole in a great state of uncertainty?

Mr. Wright: It is lovely to see the hon. Gentleman back from the break as well. In 1997, something like £1 billion a year was provided for child care; now the figure is £4 billion; and 470,000 families now get direct child care support through the tax credits system, at an average of about £68 a week. The long-term viability of nurseries and child care provision has been enhanced as a result of legislative strengthening by this Government, as well as increased and unprecedented resources. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents would thank the Government for that.

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Mr. Vara: Child minders provide invaluable child care for many parents. Notwithstanding what the Minister has said, 40,000 people have left the profession since 1997. What are the Government going to do to ensure that more parents can avail themselves of such provision, particularly because they prefer and rely on it?

Mr. Wright: People will leave the market and the sector for various reasons, whether personal or otherwise. That is just common sense. However, in respect of free provision for three and four-year-olds and the additional roll-out that we want in order to ensure free provision for two-year-olds, let me say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I respect a great deal, that there is now more opportunity than ever for parents, families and carers to have appropriate, high-quality child care provision. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that, as opposed to sniping at what is a good and enviable record.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend will know that this Government have an amazing record on child care provision, but there is now a worry: at the same time as we applaud reaching down to two-year-olds, how do we guarantee quality under the new arrangements?

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend, who is obviously very knowledgeable about the issue through his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, makes an important point. The inspection and regulatory regime that we have put in place with Ofsted will ensure that we can enhance quality and, at the same time, sustain funding and investment or increase them wherever possible. For example, local authorities have more than £1 billion at their disposal in capital and revenue funding to ensure the sustainability of the child care provision available in their areas.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents access child care through the Government's excellent Sure Start children's centres, and will he confirm the Government's commitment to those centres, which provide not only high-quality child care but the necessary support to parents?

Mr. Wright: Like Blackpool, Hartlepool has benefited enormously from Sure Starts-indeed, I think that every single constituency in the country has. The Government remain committed to ensuring that more than 3,000 Sure Starts and children's centres are provided in this country. The scheme has provided for a revolution in child care provision, allowing the earliest and best possible start for our children, which will put them on a road of improvement and attainment throughout their lives. I would have hoped that the whole House supported such an important measure, but it is fair to say that the Opposition support the abolition of Sure Start and will not commit to funding for it.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): At last year's Labour conference, the Prime Minister tried to grab the headlines by announcing the extension of the early years free entitlement to all two-year-olds. This year's conference revealed that the Government will pay for that policy by scrapping the help with child care costs
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that is given to thousands of hard-working parents, most of whom are basic-rate taxpayers. Are the Government not trying to create an illusion of progress when they are in fact axing one child care policy to pay for another? What further cuts is the Minister planning to make to fund the rest of the Prime Minister's announcement?

Mr. Wright: I completely disagree with what the hon. Lady said. The expansion of free places for two-year-olds is fully funded through savings by, as she says, phasing out tax relief on child care vouchers. That is at no extra cost to the taxpayer. I have to say, however, that the savings to the taxpayer are disproportionately given to the more well-off families-the figure is in the region of 6 per cent. We will continue to make sure that we invest in high-quality child care for low and middle-income families because all the evidence shows that that is vital for improving outcomes. If the hon. Lady wants to continue to narrow her focus on the highest earners, that is up to her, but the Government are on the side of low and middle-income Britain.


2. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What recent progress has been made on the roll-out of the ContactPoint database; and if he will make a statement. [292193]

The Minister of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): Significant progress has been made on ContactPoint. We are receiving promising feedback from early adopter areas about how ContactPoint is helping people who work with children to identify problems and prevent them from escalating. From late October, local authorities can start training ContactPoint users across England.

Jo Swinson: I thank the Minister for that reply but, given the Government's record on data protection, does he not see that ContactPoint risks information on millions of children falling into the wrong hands, fails to protect those children and should be scrapped?

Kevin Brennan: Instead of reading the scare stories in the papers, the hon. Lady should get off her high horse and talk to some of the early adopters who are using the system already. Let me quote one of them to her. A consultant paediatrician working with children at the Countess of Chester hospital in Chester said:

The hon. Lady should talk to the people who are using ContactPoint.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I could quote to the Minister several consultant paediatricians who think that their job of dealing with child protection will be compromised by the use of ContactPoint. Will the Minister therefore confirm how many people have applied to have their children's details shielded on ContactPoint and how many of them are
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Ministers-including himself, perhaps? If he is completely happy with the security arrangements surrounding ContactPoint, will he now undertake to publish in full the data security review on ContactPoint carried out by Deloittes, which he has declined to publish since February last year?

Kevin Brennan: I look forward to hearing the names of the consultants who, according to the hon. Gentleman, say that ContactPoint will threaten children's safety. There was a time when the Conservative party, having appropriately opposed a policy going through the House, would not then write to local Tory councillors deliberately to undermine its implementation. This shows why the Tories are not fit to govern.


3. Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the progress of the academy programme; and if he will make a statement. [292194]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): This summer's excellent GSCE results include our open academies once again achieving a faster improvement in the proportion of pupils getting five good GCSEs than the average national improvement rate. I can tell the House that I have today approved four new academy projects in Hampshire, East Sussex and Plymouth. I can also confirm that I approved a further 15 academy projects over the summer recess.

Mr. Vaizey: If the Secretary of State is such an enthusiast for the academies programme, why does he not extend it to primary schools, as my party is pledged to do? In fact, why is he going in the opposite direction, with his own Ministers saying that such an extension would send a shiver down the spine of parents?

Ed Balls: There are a number of very successful all-through academies that are combining secondary and primary provision, but we have made it absolutely clear that the massive diversion of resources away from our primary and secondary schools in order to extend the cost of expanding academies to primary schools would not be value for money; it would be very disruptive and not the right thing to do if we are trying to raise standards in our primary schools.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): Just before the summer recess, my right hon. Friend announced a review of secondary education in Gloucestershire to be conducted by Graham Badman. Should Graham Badman produce a report that encourages the building of an academy in my constituency, will my right hon. Friend give it full support and join me in encouraging the local authority to support a £13 million academy in my constituency as well?

Ed Balls: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support for the review of the national challenge programme in Gloucestershire. Graham Badman has done his review; it will come to me shortly and we will respond to it in due course. I hope that we will be able to accept his recommendations. I fully expect further proposals for academies in Gloucestershire and, if that proves to be the case, I will support them absolutely. My hon. Friend
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will then be able to join those in Hampshire, East Sussex and Plymouth who have welcomed new academies, which will allow us to continue to raise standards in our secondary schools.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Will the Secretary of State please give an assurance that where an academy is in process, but that process has not been completed-I am thinking of Sheen school in my constituency-funding will remain committed to it and will not be removed under any deficit-cutting programme?

Ed Balls: I have made it clear that I am accelerating the academies programme and accelerating secondary school improvement. There is no question of having any cuts in our academies or school improvement funding this year or next. While the consultation is ongoing, there will be no cuts from this party. The question is whether the other parties can make the same commitment, and I am afraid that the answer is no.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): As the number of academies increases, is it not particularly important that they all comply fully with the schools admissions code? Is the Secretary of State absolutely convinced that all parties in the House understand the importance of compliance with that code?

Ed Balls: I toughened up the schools admissions code last year and changed the regulations. I am very clear that all schools-whether they be maintained or faith schools or academies-must comply fully with the code. When I did so, however, I was attacked by the Conservative Members for my actions, so I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance he mentioned. I will deliver fair admissions, but they will not.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): The Secretary of State has already indicated that funding will be crucial to the development of the academies programme. In September, he gave an interview to The Sunday Times in which he said that he was planning to cut £2.2 billion from the schools budget and that those plans had been in train within his Department for several months. Will he therefore, first, tell us when he gave the directive to his Department to look into the cuts; and, secondly, will he now publish the list of the proposed cuts that he went through with The Sunday Times journalists?

Ed Balls: It is very interesting to hear that question because on the Saturday before my interview, the hon. Gentleman's party called for savage cuts and then when a discussion about efficiency took place, he backed off very fast indeed. The fact is that a year ago I asked an expert adviser to help me to find efficiency savings so that I could shift them to the front line. I am clear that I want the budget for education and schools rising year on year, and I would like to see that in real terms. The only way I can guarantee that teachers and teaching assistants are there at the front line, however, is to find savings in procurement and in how schools work together to free up those resources. I want the budget to rise next year, the year after and in future; it is the Conservative party that wants cuts-and cuts now. That is the difference.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I had intended to ask the Secretary of State to speed up decision making on academies in Plymouth, so I am
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delighted that he has made his announcement today. Will he confirm that as we are ready to go, we can in fact open the academies next September?

Ed Balls: I went to visit Plymouth a year or so ago and the Minister for Schools and Learners has been there since. I am announcing today that both the Tamarside and John Kitto community colleges have been given the go-ahead to open in September 2010. In the case of Tamarside, it will be through the sponsorship of the university of Plymouth, and in the case of John Kitto it will be through the sponsorship of Exeter diocesan board of education. These will go ahead in 2010 because we are committed; we will deliver our national challenge and every school will be above the basic benchmark by 2011. That is my commitment-one that time and again I get attacked for making by the Conservative party.

Mr. Laws: I have now had an opportunity carefully to consider the Secretary of State's answer. I still cannot understand how it can be that the last time we were here before the recess he told us he was going to resist all cuts to the education budget, but we then discover that a full year ago he had asked his officials to look into cuts. May I ask him about one of the specific proposals he discussed with The Sunday Times-that to axe 3,000 head and deputy head teachers? Does he now accept that that was a mistake?

Ed Balls: No, of course I do not. The truth is that it was not I but the leader of the Liberal Democrats, at his party conference, who was confused about the issue of savage cuts. I made it very clear that I want the schools budget to keep rising year on year, and that I want the school education budget to rise year on year in real terms. We are achieving that in the current year, but we must be realistic: real-terms rises in future years will not be as high as they have been in the past, which means that the only way to deliver for the front line is to find savings. I think we can do that through school balances and procurement, and also by ensuring that schools work together and share their leadership teams. Every school should have a head teacher, but schools can share leadership teams in order both to raise standards and to become more efficient.

The hon. Gentleman should be supporting me in this regard, but once again he is not doing so. I-and, I think, he-would like to see education spending rise in real terms; it is only the Conservative party that is advocating cuts and more cuts.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that among the very best performers in GCSEs this year were the schools run by ARK-Absolute Return for Kids-and by Lord Harris. They did up to four times as well as other comprehensives. The people running those schools say that their success depends on absolute freedom from local bureaucratic control. Does the Secretary of State agree?

Ed Balls: The really interesting aspect of that is the fact that the list of local authorities now co-sponsoring academies includes one or two Liberal Democrat councils, one or two Labour councils and 11 Conservative councils. The hon. Gentleman says that they are wrong to be taking such action, and should get out of the way.

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