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I wish to discuss a question that goes to the heart of the debates that we will have in the coming months and of the issue raised by the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford relating to school improvement: what happens when leadership is not strong, when school
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rolls are falling and when a school is struggling to hire a head of maths or English? In such circumstances, parents are right to say that they want action, which is why in this Bill we will provide stronger powers for parents to demand change from local areas. In addition, over the past two years we have challenged governing bodies and local authorities to drive improvement and radical change where it is needed.

As I said, that has delivered huge results. In 1997, more than 1,600 schools were not meeting the basic benchmark-that was what we inherited-but 638 schools were doing so when we launched our national challenge two years ago and as a result of £400 million of money that we are investing the figure is now 270. We are not now talking about one in two, but one in 12 and we will get the number down to zero by 2011. My message to the small number of councils that do not act and drag their feet is that there is no excuse for that and we must improve every school in every area.

We are clear that that improvement must be led by the schools themselves, local commissioners must step in where action is not being taken and we have powers and are taking further powers to demand that they act where progress is not being made. In July, when we published the White Paper, I told the House that I was concerned about school improvement in Leicester, Blackpool and Gloucestershire, and I asked independent expert advisers to report on what more could be done. Today, I have accepted and published the reports on Blackpool and Gloucestershire, where, with the full agreement of those local authorities, we are now moving ahead on school improvement, new academies and new national challenge trusts. We will receive the reports on Leicester, Kent and Suffolk shortly.

In addition, the Minister for Schools and Learners has today written tailored letters to a further 30 local authorities, which contain 38 national challenge schools where we are concerned that the action we want is not being taken. We have particular concerns about four of those 30 and we will need to know that there is a plan in place by Christmas. If there is not, we will use the powers that will commence in January to demand improvement in those schools and we will expect the local authority to issue a warning notice.

We are also particularly concerned about progress in Dudley, where there were plans for an academy but for some reason that I do not fully understand the Conservative administration in that local authority has decided that an academy may not be the right approach to take. I am sending in an expert adviser to see what has happened, what has gone wrong, who has been advising the local authority on its plans, whether the authority is getting the wrong advice and whether, in fact, we should be moving forward with this. We will see what the expert adviser tells us when a report is made to us by Christmas. If the hon. Member for Surrey Heath wishes to clarify the point, I would be happy to take an intervention now.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab) rose-

Ed Balls: As the hon. Gentleman does not wish to do so, I shall take an intervention from my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I thank the Secretary of State for his speech. Does he agree that the 1,600 failing schools in 1997 were directly attributable to significant areas of deprivation throughout this country? Would he
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like to say a few words about how this Government have tackled that deprivation, which has led to our having improved education in areas that the Conservative party regarded as "no-go" zones?

Mr. Graham Stuart: The gap has widened.

Ed Balls: The hon. Gentleman shouts from a sedentary position that the gap has widened, but that is categorically untrue-the gap has narrowed over the past 12 years. We need to look at the facts, about which my hon. Friend was right. In 1997, half the secondary schools were below the benchmark, but two thirds of the pupils in those schools came from areas of below average income. Children from low-income families in lower-income areas were disproportionately losing out from Conservative education policy. Not only have we acted at the school level, but we are now saying that any child who falls behind will get extra help. That is the only way to close those gaps in attainment. It is a scar on our society, as it has been for generations, that children in poor areas do less well. The gap is narrowing, although there is more to do, but it will not narrow if we go back to the policies that we had before 1997- [ Interruption. ] It is narrowing.

I am working with local government across the country to drive up standards and improve schools. In the case of Dudley, we are now sending in the national adviser with the agreement of Dudley council. I am grateful for the council's support. We are working with Conservative councils, Labour councils and Liberal councils across the country to introduce academies and national challenge trusts: Labour councils such as Nottingham, Salford and Hackney; Conservative councils such as East Sussex and Coventry; we even have a Liberal council working with us in Hull, which is a great thing to see.

I believe that we have emerging cross-party consensus in our country across local government-among Labour representatives, Conservatives and Liberals-about what we can do together to improve schools. However, that consensus is not shared in this House. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath disagrees with all the Conservative councillors who are working with us. He says that there is no role for local government in driving up standards. He expects parents on their own to have the time and the know-how to set up their own schools.

Bob Russell: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ed Balls: I will not.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath will not match our investment in front-line public services or support our guarantees-

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Ed Balls: In one second- [ Interruption. ] I have already taken an intervention from the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and, to be honest, we have had many meetings.

On top of the investment that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will not match, he will cut £200 million from the Sure Start budget, slash our school building programme by £4.5 billion, break our promise on pay and conditions to teachers and head teachers-which he says he will scrap, along with all the benefits that we have had in working hours through the national agreement-and refuse to match our September and January guarantees to parents.

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Mrs. Cryer: Does my right hon. Friend agree that Opposition Members frequently do not represent the sort of constituencies that we represent? They therefore do not have an understanding that some parents are incapable of helping their children, sometimes because they are on drugs and sometimes because they simply do not have any English. We do not want that sort of situation, but we are in it, and I do not think that there is a magic-wand solution to it. Some of our schools are doing wonderful work with these children. I have three schools where 95 per cent. of pupils enter without a word of English, yet many of those kids are ready to take A-levels at 18. We have to look for value added, and these are very difficult circumstances.

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The only way to deal with this is to start with the earliest years. That is why investment in Sure Start is so important and why we have to engage parents early in primary and secondary school. As I know, because my hon. Friend and I have visited schools together, that means getting the parents involved and sometimes helping them with their learning, and also saying to every parent, "You have to face up to your responsibilities and support your child." If we do that, we can make great progress.

It is true that more Labour Members have more experience of those challenges and difficulties. I thought the Leader of the Opposition was very candid yesterday when he said there were almost no Conservative voters in the whole city of Glasgow. That is probably true of a number of inner-city areas around the country- [ Interruption. ] I apologise; let me set the record straight. There were actually 95 supporters of the Conservative party in Glasgow, North-East. I apologise to the Hansard writers for that slip and I am pleased to clarify it.

I said earlier that these guarantees are not being supported by those who sit on the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has made it clear that he opposes our 18-week guarantee and our commitment to allow patients to see a cancer specialist in two weeks. I believe that for about an hour and a half yesterday the shadow Chief Secretary said that the Conservative party would back the two-week guarantee but was then reoriented over the course of the afternoon and came back into line, I would guess after a conversation with the shadow Chancellor.

I have to say that I am puzzled; why are the Conservatives not supporting these guarantees? Why are they giving in to those with vested interests and to GPs, rather than putting the interests of patients first? After all, the Leader of the Opposition said that he supports the NHS. He even elevated it to a cast-iron guarantee-or should I say an "iron-cast guarantee" as I am on the Government Benches? Whatever; he will drop it soon. We know how worthless cast-iron guarantees are from the Leader of the Opposition.

Labour Members see in Conservative health policy the influence of the right and the straitjacket that it is putting on the party leadership. Back in August, I remember that the Conservative MEP for South East England, Daniel Hannan, said that the NHS was a "60-year mistake". To be fair, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire has made his views clear. He has distanced himself from the views of Mr. Hannan, MEP,
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and I accept that and it would be wrong for me to use Mr. Hannan's views and directly attribute them to the hon. Gentleman. I will not.

The problem is that the issue of Mr. Hannan is rather more difficult for the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families than for the shadow Secretary of State for Health, because he is rather more of an admirer of him. They are fellow neo-conservatives, fellow Eurosceptics, fellow members of organisations and intellectual soul mates. In fact, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath was listed as a supporter of a book published last year called "The Plan" written by Mr. Hannan and the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell). It set out a very different legislative programme with his support, calling for the NHS to be replaced by a system of insurance and for the Firearms Acts to be abolished, saying that Criminal Records Bureau checks poison society and advocating withdrawal from the EU. The interesting-

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it be possible to have the extra electrons that have been added to the Secretary of State taken away so that he can become less negative and more neutral? That is the answer to his question, by the way.

Mr. Speaker: That is not a point of order for the Chair, as the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well. It is a point about the expression of frustration.

Ed Balls: I am not going to be neutral, Mr. Speaker. I am going to stand up for parents and pupils in our country and to expose the difference between our Queen's Speech and that which the Opposition would propose. That is the debate that we will have in this House.

It is important that I should set out these points in the debate on the Queen's Speech so that we understand the basis for the debate. The publication that was produced last year is not the only joint publication to which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has put his name along with Mr. Hannan. There is another book co-authored by the shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mr. Hannan, MEP, and the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. It was published in 2005 and is called "Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party". It sets out some really interesting ideas. Does he remember? Let me prompt him.

The book says that our NHS

and is

I shall not make a big deal of that because I know that the shadow Secretary of State for Health does not agree with Mr. Hannan's view, although I do not know whether he has had that conversation with the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

I think that the chapter on education in this 2005 book is particularly interesting. It has the normal sweeping attack on the "failing" state education system-we expect that. It also makes it explicit that we should restrict excellence to the few rather than broaden it. It states:

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That is the description used by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath-it is very interesting. The book also states:

I think that means the Minister for Schools and Learners.

and states:

That is very interesting.

The comments are most interesting on the subject of Sweden. Let me quote:

It goes on:

this is most interesting-

It then states that

That is what this book says, and it contains policy proposals to which the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families put his name in 2005, unlike the shadow Secretary of State for Health, who has been doing some distancing of himself from Mr. Hannan and his book.

On the national curriculum, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has been clear: he wants all primary and secondary schools to opt out of the national curriculum altogether- [ Interruption. ] The Conservatives do not like this. I know that it is not very comfortable, but we shall carry on. The hon. Gentleman says that schools should be teaching history and phonics, but he also says they should opt out of the very curriculum in which the phonics and history will be included-totally incoherent.

On the issue of profit, the hon. Gentleman has been a little less clear over the past few months. If we want to follow his advance thinking, the important person to read is his other intellectual soul mate, the editor of The Spectator, who has said:

That is the Opposition's schools policy. That is what they are briefing to their friends in the press. I hope the hon. Gentleman will come clean in his speech today. That is the truth. It is not about tough regulation and accountability, but about wholesale deregulation. It is not about guarantees to parents and pupils, but about a free market free-for-all. It is not about putting the needs of children first, but about putting profits first. That is Tory education policy.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ed Balls: No, I will not.

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This is the choice. Do we build on our progress? Do we continue our front-line investment? Do we back head teachers and teachers? Do we guarantee high-quality public services? Or do we turn back the clock and go back to a Government who will have longer waiting lists, with the vulnerable not helped? Do we go back to a world in which parents are told, "Either you set up your own school or your children will be left to wither and decline"? Do we go back to an unfair, unfunded free market experiment, in which an education industry and profits come before parents and pupils? That is the choice. That is the difference. That is the debate for the coming months and I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.

12.2 pm

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State in the debate on the Queen's Speech, not least because the Gracious Speech had his fingerprints all over it. It was, in every sense of the word, pure Balls.

Before the Gracious Speech was delivered, we were told by one Cabinet Minister that it would be the most political Queen's Speech for 12 years. Instead of that statement being a shamefaced confession, it was actually a boast. The Cabinet Minister concerned appeared to think that there was a virtue in using the Government's entire legislative programme for narrowly partisan purposes.

Whoever that anonymous briefer might be, he certainly will not come in for any criticism from the Secretary of State. After all, the right hon. Gentleman was the man who told the New Statesman that his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), was absolutely wrong to pursue consensus over schools policy. What we needed, the Secretary of State said, was

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