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12 Oct 2009 : Column 20

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): York has done well on capital funding for schools, gaining about £12 million a year under the Labour Government, compared with less than £1 million a year under the Conservatives. However, we still do not yet have a date for joining the full Building Schools for the Future programme. Will the Labour Government continue Building Schools for the Future if they win the general election?

Ed Balls: The answer is very clear. We will keep investing in Building Schools for the Future; indeed, we are doing so this year, next year and the year after. The Conservative party has pledged a £4.5 billion cut. That, I am afraid, would mean that schools would not be rebuilt or refurbished in my hon. Friend's constituency or in constituencies represented by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

T6. [292221] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): In a parliamentary answer, the Secretary of State said that he had no idea how many children suspected of having been trafficked had gone missing from local authority care. If any trafficked child goes missing, that is appalling. If the Government do not know how many are going missing, how can they put the problem right?

Mr. Coaker: As the hon. Gentleman knows, because we have talked about this issue on numerous occasions, a national referral mechanism is now in place to try to help with the identification of such children. There is a real debate, not only about the numbers of such children in local authority care but about how to keep them safe. The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed, rather than debated, this issue; he knows that trying to protect children in local authority care is extremely difficult. Once they are in care, many try to escape because they believe that the authorities are acting against their best interests and that if they escape, the traffickers will look after them. The issue is very difficult. The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to gather more information. However, he knows as well as me that the answers are extremely difficult.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that Wandsworth has the lowest proportion of pupils granted their first choice of secondary school in London? Furthermore, there are no secondary schools in an area of 7 square miles in the centre of the borough; parents and children there are uniquely disadvantaged, as they do not qualify-at least on distance grounds-for any oversubscribed school. Will the Minister meet those parents and advise them on how best to start a new secondary school?

Mr. Coaker: I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about that issue. The provision of schools in an area is, of course, a matter for the local authority. However, if he feels that a meeting involving him, the local authority, the parents that he represents and me would help, I would be only too ready to attend.

T7. [292222] Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Recent Government figures show that pupils with special educational needs are eight times more likely to be permanently excluded than those with no such needs. Will the Government kindly tell us what
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measures are to be included in the forthcoming guidance on dealing with rowdy children, to ensure that such children receive fair and proportionate treatment, particularly as many of them suffer from severe learning difficulties?

Ed Balls: I hate to repeat a point that I made earlier; this is the first day of the new parliamentary term. We published the guidance two weeks ago, and in it we made it clear that the only way to deal with that issue is for the exclusion of a child with special needs to be a last resort and for there to be early intervention, a diagnosis of the problem and extra and special help so that the young person stays on the right track; such measures will sometimes include alternative provision. In that way, we can prevent such exclusions, which are a failure for the system, from happening.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): May I commend the work of Booktrust to my right hon. Friend, particularly the work of Irene Mandelkow, the Bookstart co-ordinator in Liverpool? She and her team have increased the number of pre-school children registered with libraries tenfold in the past 10 years.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ms Diana R. Johnson): I was delighted recently to meet representatives of that organisation. They do an excellent job, and more power to their elbow.

T10. [292225] Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that capital expenditure in schools in urban areas is higher than in rural areas and that there are possibly more temporary
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classrooms in rural areas than in urban areas? That obviously impacts on poverty: what is he going to do about it?

Ed Balls: The important thing to do is to ensure that our local authorities manage their capital programmes well, which sometimes means local authorities investing to ensure that rural schools can work together to share facilities, so that even with smaller rolls the money can still go further. The important thing is to ensure that we refurbish or rebuild all our secondary schools and all our primary schools in the next 10 years: a pledge that this Government will make; a pledge that the Conservative party, I am afraid, cannot match.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): During the summer my right hon. Friend visited the excellent Neston high school in my constituency, and also released £25 million for the building of an academy in my constituency. In both cases, there are issues about the quality of buildings. Will he look carefully to ensure that moneys released require buildings to be built that are sustainable and environmentally friendly, because that is a good investment for the future?

Ed Balls: I congratulate my hon. Friend and all those who have ensured that these new schools are being rebuilt and opened. We had an excellent visit to that school and heard a brilliant orchestra there. We need to ensure that our brand new schools are environmentally friendly, that they are planned well in acoustic terms so that they can cope with the needs of deaf children, and that they have the sports, music and arts facilities that they need. But one can do that only by continuing the investment in our schools-investment that we will guarantee and that, as I have said, the Conservatives are determined to cut.

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Sale of Government Assets

3.31 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD) (Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on the proposed sale of Government assets announced today.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Liam Byrne): Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to come here this afternoon and answer questions about the sale of Government assets.

Our overriding ambition is to lock in the recovery and then to lay the foundations for growth in the years to come. Because of the action that we have taken this year, we are confident that growth will return to our economy towards the end of this year and into 2010. Over the months to come, therefore, the Chancellor will set out more detail around our plan to halve the public sector deficit over four years once recovery is secured. This entails a return to growth with support for firms and families; fair tax rises for those most able to bear the burden; and slowing the growth of public spending. As the Chancellor set out in April, an ambitious programme of asset sales is part of our plan-a plan that sets out up to £16 billion of property and other asset sales, with proceeds raised being used to support our priorities, including new capital investment and paying down debt.

Today the Prime Minister set out a few details of that programme, and in the months to come we will publish a portfolio of assets to be sold. It will cover assets for sales, and assets where we wish to explore different ways of managing things in the future. The portfolio will include the Tote, the Dartford crossing, the student loan book and the channel tunnel rail link. We know that councils will make a major contribution to the overall level of asset disposals through sales of housing and other assets, as will central Government property. As I said, these three elements are expected to deliver £16 billion in receipts over the period 2011 to 2014. However, we aim to secure receipts from central Government sales within the next two financial years where and when market conditions are right.

We have already sold £30 billion of public assets since 2004. This success, building on the £22 billion sale of 3G licences in 2000, played a major role in the reduction of debt over the past decade. We have made tough choices to cut debt in the past; those decisions allowed us to support the economy now. We will not flinch now from tough choices to allow us to live within our means in the years to come.

Dr. Cable: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for calling this urgent question. It is Parliament's first day back, and we have seen old habits-this national car boot sale was announced in the media yesterday evening, with a major speech by the Prime Minister and no statement to Parliament.

I have no objection to the principle of asset sales, which are an important part of managing the public finances. However, there are big questions about timing and content. Can the Chief Secretary first confirm the Treasury's own figures that the net worth of Government has declined from 70 per cent. of GDP in the late 1980s, before the big privatisation, to nil today and will decline
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to a minus figure in 2013? That means that if the Government were to sell off the whole of what remains of the public sector, they would have to pay somebody to carry it away.

On the substance of the Chief Secretary's answer, he said that there would be £16 billion of sales. Is it not true that £13 billion of that will be from local authorities and that, as he confirmed to me in a discussion on the radio at lunch time, there is no pressure on local authorities to make those disposals and they will be free to invest the money raised? In that case, how will the sales narrow the Government budget deficit, if at all?

Can the Chief Secretary explain why the Government were in favour of privatising the Tote in 2008, then announced in the Budget this year that it would be kept in the public sector in the medium term, but now say again that it is to be privatised? The Tote has had more false starts than any race in history.

On the timing of this announcement, the Government have a terrible record in selling public assets, with the history of gold sales and the sale of QinetiQ, which was condemned by the National Audit Office. There is now a proposal to sell land, in a market in which development land is at about 15 to 20 per cent. of its peak value. Is that not an absolute guarantee that the Government will not get value for money, and that this announcement has been driven entirely by political concerns?

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the question and for his renewed interest. I know that that is completely unrelated to his own difficulties to do with tuition fees and mansion taxes at his party conference recently.

Let me be absolutely clear about the substantive question that the hon. Gentleman poses, because it is important and there will be wide interest in all parts of the House about our strategy. As I said in my statement, in the Budget, the Chancellor set out the ambition to sell about £16 billion of assets over the period 2011 to 2014. About £11 billion of those assets will, of course, be local authority assets. That is based on a long-term picture of what local government tends to sell each year. Over the past 20 years, local authorities have raised something like £3.7 billion a year, and of course they are free to keep those receipts and reinvest them in priorities such as affordable housing and schools.

In addition, we anticipate that something like £2 billion of central Government property can be sold and reinvested by Departments. We believe that additional business and financial assets can also be sold, such as those that the Prime Minister listed, and that something like £3 billion can be raised from them over the next couple of years. Of course, that money will be available to pay down debt.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): How telling that at the end of the Prime Minister's summer of denial, instead of following the Conservative lead and taking the tough decisions required to get the deficit under control, this morning he has ducked the issue and chosen to peddle the illusion that asset sales can somehow avoid the pain of fiscal adjustment-taking people for fools again. Can the Chief Secretary confirm that he, at least, understands that asset sales, however necessary they may be to reduce debt, do not reduce the deficit, and that they can only ever be a supplement to, not a substitute for, proper fiscal discipline?

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Can the Chief Secretary confirm also that the package of central Government assets mentioned this morning amounts in value to little less than a week's worth of borrowing at the current levels, and that it is not the Government's intention to seize the proceeds of sales of local authority assets? Can he tell the House why anyone should believe a word the Government say on asset sales when they have announced every single one before? The Tate in 1999- [Interruption.] No doubt it is coming. The Tote announcement was made in 1999 and was in the Labour party's 2001 election manifesto. The announcement on the student loan book was made in 1997 and again in 2007, on URENCO in 2005 and on the channel tunnel rail link in 2007. Not a penny piece has been achieved from any of them. Will the Chief Secretary confirm that the value of all those assets is now significantly lower than when their sale was first announced? Indeed, did not the comprehensive spending review 2007 pencil in a £6 billion receipt for the student loan book alone-twice what the Government now expect to get from flogging off the entire package?

Selling the family silver will not solve the crisis in the public finances. The country has had enough of denial, dither and delusion. The Government need to start taking the tough decisions, not ducking them, or call an election and let someone else get on with the job.

Mr. Byrne: I enjoyed the remark about tough decisions. I have made a mental note of the Tate. The hon. Gentleman presumably refers to tough decisions such as proposals on state pension plans-I understand that the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, having looked at his plans, has discovered that he is £3 billion short and five years out in his sums. So I will not take lessons in tough decisions from him.

The hon. Gentleman knows that bringing public spending within the bounds of what is possible in the years to come will take a mixture of things: growth coming back, investing in new industries and jobs, the right decisions on tax-decisions that he has opposed consistently; I think that the Conservative party has voted against something like £20 billion of necessary tax increases for the years to come. It requires tougher decisions on spending in the years to come, but where there are things that the Government should not hold on to, we should sell them off. Yes, we should allow local authorities to keep receipts to invest in local priorities, but business or financial assets, such as those that the Prime Minister talked about today, can be sold off and the proceeds used to pay debt.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. We have under 10 minutes to go and we want as many people to contribute as possible.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) (Lab): In 2008, I spoke in the House about defending the jobs in the Tote in Wigan, in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner). After meetings with Downing street and the Minister at the time, a commitment was given that, in any future sale, the jobs and the investment in north-west Wigan would be protected. Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment that that is exactly what will happen? The first I heard as a local Member of Parliament about the 600 jobs and the sale was over my porridge at six o'clock this morning.

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Mr. Byrne: I do not think that the Government's position on the sale of the Tote has changed in essence. The medium-term decision was to keep it in the public sector, but now is the right time to look at the possibility of its sale. The dimensions and constraints around the sale of the Tote that my right hon. Friend outlined have not been disturbed.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Columns 586 to 588 in Hansard on 9 July 1987 contain the acceptance by the Labour spokesman that the Dartford bridge-effectively the first privately funded, operated, designed and built public works-would, as I said as Minister in the previous column, have tolls for 15 to 20 years. How can we have trust in Parliament if both sides accept something and then one side says, "We'll keep the tolls going so we can sell it off"?

Mr. Byrne: Again, the precise way in which the different assets are sold will have to be the subject of further debate and conversation, not least in the House. That is why it is the Chancellor's ambition to bring before the House a portfolio of assets, which we believe could be sold. There will be several different questions that relate to different assets, but once the portfolio is published, we might be able to have a bit more of a debate about the precise detail of each one.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): What does the brief say about the Thurrock-Dartford toll in relation to the fact that it is lawful to toll a riparian crossing only to control and manage congestion? How does a sold bridge and tunnel allow either the operators to get a return, or the Government to continue to pay, if they are constrained by the European Union directive?

Mr. Byrne: There will be many different questions on each of the assets. In some cases, the sale of the assets will require us to return to the House to change legislation but, as I said, once the portfolio of assets is published, we can have a proper debate about the whys and wherefores of each one.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): In 2001 and 2005, the Government made a manifesto pledge that they would nationalise the Tote in order to gift it to racing. Will the Minister tell us what proportion of the proceeds from the sale will be given to racing and what steps he will take to safeguard the jobs in Wigan, because he studiously avoided the question on that from the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney)?

Mr. Byrne: The announcement today has done nothing to disturb the policy commitments that have already been made about the different sales of assets. However, the Government must balance the need to get best value for the taxpayer in the years to come with the constraints and policies regarding each of the different businesses and assets. That is quite properly a subject for further discussion in the House.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): May I just clarify things? We have consistently made a commitment to the racing industry that if we sell the Tote, we will contribute half the receipts back to the racing industry. Is that still our position?

Mr. Byrne: Yes it is.

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