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19 Nov 2009 : Column 174

I was angered the other day when I read that Rupert and James Murdoch wanted to turn BSkyB into a more trusted and loved broadcaster than the BBC. Two days before, I had read that the Murdoch empire is not only the biggest carrier of pornography in the world, but has now bought a major supplier and maker of pornography in the United States. I do not know what "trusted" and "loved" meant, but a company that makes such filth available to children does not impress me. Our children should be protected from pornography, whether it is on BSkyB or the internet. Childhood should be protected.

I shall say something that Government Front-Bench Members might not like. I talked earlier about the age of 18 being the age at which children cease to be children. I shall return to the Government's guarantees set out in the Queen's Speech, but first I remind the House of the five outcomes-the guarantees of childhood-in "Every Child Matters": to be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being. There is nothing wrong with those.

I would like, however, to say one thing to Front-Bench Members and, given the opportunity, to the Prime Minister. In an answer during Prime Minister's questions last Wednesday, the Prime Minister said that he now believes in votes at 16. I think that that fashion started with the Liberal Democrats, but the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House now seem to believe it too. However, I think that we should think extremely carefully before moving to votes at 16-it would mean adulthood at 16 and the end of the protections of childhood between 16 and 18.

Many of the things that I speak about are based on evidence sessions and intensive consideration of a subject. The first inquiry last year was on children in care and looked-after children. Having seen the vulnerability of 14 to 16-year-old children, and that of 16 to 18-year olds out in the world who are open to every kind of exploitation, we realised at the end of the inquiry that we do not want the protections of childhood to finish at 16. We lose those protections at 18 to our cost as a society.

I have commented on what I liked about the Queen's Speech-it contained some very good things-and it is my Select Committee's job to ensure that they measure up to the way that they were promulgated in the House yesterday and today. There are one or two things that I wish had been in the Queen's Speech, but hon. Members can be assured that Select Committee members will consider promulgating those ideas in the coming months.

1.7 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Select Committee, on his speech, which has taken us a little closer to touching on some of the issues that we will need to debate when the Children, Schools and Families Bill passes through the House, presumably in a few weeks' time.

I agree with many of the points that the hon. Gentleman made in his speech, which covered a wide range of areas, and I have no doubt that he and I would agree with something that the Secretary of State said earlier: that when an organisation has failing leadership, there is a duty to intervene to deal with it. I believe that the
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hon. Gentleman supports that policy, not only in schools, but beyond schools, and I suspect that if his advice were taken by his party, it would have a good deal more impact in motivating the electorate and, apparently, Labour Members than the 38 guarantees given by the Secretary of State, which we are supposed to be debating today.

The Liberal Democrats believe that we should not be debating this fantasy Queen's Speech programme of Bills, some of which should not be matters for legislation, such as the fiscal responsibility Bill, which the Secretary of State touched on, and some of which will be unlikely to be passed into legislation before Dissolution, which I suspect will be in March. I strongly suspect that the Children, Schools and Families Bill, which covers a large number of areas, is one of those that might struggle to receive proper scrutiny in this place and another place. It might well fail to pass, therefore, before the end of this Parliament, although I think that most people outside this place, in particular those involved in schools and colleges, would welcome the Bill not getting on to the statute book.

In our view, we should instead be using the last months of this Parliament to tackle and focus on issues of political reform, on cleaning up Parliament after the expenses abuses earlier this year and on tackling the two big areas that largely do not require legislation: the situation in Afghanistan and the state of the economy, to which the Government will return in the pre-Budget report.

I want to focus in particular on the education issues that are likely to emerge from the Bill, accepting that, however much we regret its inclusion in this fantasy Queen's Speech, we will have to play our part in scrutinising it over the weeks and months ahead.

Mr. Graham Stuart: I may be pushing the hon. Gentleman further ahead in what he wants to address in his speech, but does he agree that neither the Badman report nor the Government have made the case that there is sufficient risk in home education to justify compulsory registration or giving local authorities the right to enter people's homes and question children when there has been no trigger to cause concern? That needs to be opposed as fundamentally illiberal.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman correctly anticipates the comments that I want to make in my speech. I am not sure that I fully agree with the extreme position that he takes on the Badman review, if I may characterise it that way, but we certainly have some concerns about how the Government are going to implement it, which I want to touch on later.

Ed Balls: This is the second time that we have had an intervention on that point, so I just want to clarify it. When the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) reads the Children, Schools and Families Bill, he will see the detail, which may be helpful. Local authorities have the right under existing legislation to enter the home where a child is at risk and there is a concern about safeguarding. On the quality of education-that is what is new in the Bill-the Bill makes it clear that there is a right to see the child on their own only with the permission and agreement of the parent and the child. There is no right for the local authority to
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enter the home or see the child without their agreement. That is clear in the Bill. It is important that the hon. Gentleman is educated about that before we take the debate any further, because home educators watching this debate on television might think that what he has said is correct. It is important to clarify that it is not correct.

Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that clarification. As we have been drawn into discussing the Badman review rather earlier in my speech than I had intended, all I would say now is this: first, we accept the Government's approach of saying that it is sensible for all those who are home educating to be registered. That is a reasonable minimum requirement. Our concerns, which will need to be debated when we scrutinise the proposals in detail, is whether the registration process will involve imposing a central vision of education by the back door. We are concerned also that home educators have gained the impression that there is seen as being a particular relationship between home education and child protection, which has caused a lot of anger throughout the country. The Government may not have intended that, but that is certainly the impression created by the Badman review.

We will also want to debate carefully the issue that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) raised and the Secretary of State touched on, which is what powers local authorities should have and what oversight they should have of home education. I would hope that in most cases a light-touch approach would be taken, but most Members would also want to ensure that in extreme circumstances, where local authorities have genuine concerns, they should have the powers to ensure that parents are doing the job that they are claiming to do. Local authorities may have powers in relation to child protection; we will debate whether they have them in relation to oversight of the education provided.

Mr. Graham Stuart rose-

Mr. Laws: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman one last time, since he has managed to draw me into this issue so early in my speech.

Mr. Stuart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I put it to him that local authorities do have that power. If they have cause to believe that a suitable education is not being provided to a child, they can take action and seek a school attendance order for instance. Local authorities already have that right; the question is whether we should give them the right to make such judgments without any trigger of concern.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman is right that local authorities already have some powers. However, the debate that he is trying to encourage now, at quite an early stage in the Bill, is one that we need to return to later, because the issues are quite detailed.

The first thing that I wanted to say, before getting drawn into the details of the Bill, is that it is extraordinary and depressing that we should be debating an education Bill only one week after concluding the debate on the previous education Bill and approving it. Yesterday we had the extraordinary situation of the Secretary of
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State's Department issuing a press release on what the new education Bill will include. It confirmed that the Children, Schools and Families Bill, as it is called, will make amendments to nine separate Acts since 1996, one of which is the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, which we passed one week ago and most of which has not even been implemented.

Does that not confirm the criticism of people involved in education throughout the country that the Government are addicted to legislation and bureaucracy, and cannot even wait until previous measures are embedded before they start legislating for new proposals? After all, we are talking about the 12th education Bill that we have had in 12 years of this Government. It is most people's view-although not, apparently, the Secretary of State's-that that degree of legislation says something not about the Government's commitment to education, but about their failure to get the basic frameworks right and then allow the education system to develop in a devolved way. Instead, we have the extraordinary tide of bureaucracy contained in the Bill, most of which is essentially about just that, which threatens to swamp most schools in the country.

Earlier the Secretary of State tried his best, as he normally does, to set up one of his dividing lines, with the Conservative party and others on one side of it. However, he is surely aware that the dividing lines are between himself and virtually everybody else involved in education. For instance, the other day the respected secretary-general of the Association of School and College Leaders criticised most of the measures in the Bill in very blunt terms, and particularly the guarantees. The National Union of Teachers, which is not normally associated with the forces of the right, was equally critical of many of the guarantees in the Bill, as well as other aspects. I could also mention the National Association of Head Teachers, and the list goes on.

Ed Balls: I take very seriously the interests and views of the NAHT, the NUT and the Association of School and College Leaders, as the hon. Gentleman does. However, I am sure that he would agree that, as well as listening to the views of teachers and the profession, it is important that we stand up for the rights of children and parents. The change to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 does not affect schools directly. We now have a power under the 2009 Act to ask local authorities to consider issuing a warning notice. The new power will say that if they refuse to do so, we can issue one ourselves, if we believe that a school is consistently underperforming. Does he think that that is the right approach or does he prefer the "let the free market rip" approach proposed by the Conservative party?

Mr. Laws: On the Secretary of State's latter question, there must be strategic oversight of schools at some level, although I am not sure that I agree at all with the Government's approach. My point was that if they wish to legislate on the issue, they should have done so in a coherent way in the previous education Bill, not by having the debate twice. When he says that the NUT and NAHT are not the only ones involved, I would refer him to what some of his own Back Benchers have been saying. He says that he respects very much the views of the NUT and the ASCL. Perhaps he also
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respects the views of the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke). I am not sure whether the Secretary of State heard the right hon. Gentleman's interesting speech yesterday, in which he even got a mention. However, in case the Secretary of State did not hear it, the right hon. Gentleman said that those guarantees

The dividing lines therefore seem to be dividing the Secretary of State not from one faction in the House of Commons, but from virtually everybody involved in the education debate.

Before I come to the important issue of guarantees, let me make it clear that the Liberal Democrats are certainly not opposed to having some core standards for public services, for which those services can be held to account. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) proposed a standard whereby if the NHS has not delivered treatment within a certain period, it should have the ability to pay for the patient concerned to go into the private sector. However, there is a big difference between such a guarantee, which is meaningful, deliverable and funded, which does not seek to micro-manage, which avoids bureaucracy and which focuses on the outcomes and not the inputs, and the list of guarantees that the Secretary of State has come up with in the Bill. The Bill contains 38 guarantees that are united only by the fact that most of them are either meaningless, undeliverable, bureaucratic and meddling or focus on inputs. As Peter Riddell said in The Times this morning, guarantees without funding, some of which I want to return to, are not worth the paper that they are written on.

The issue is not only whether pupils and parents will be deceived by the guarantees, but whether, in trying to implement some of them and force their delivery, we will end up creating enormous bureaucracy, encouraging a vexatious system that will draw many parents into going to the ombudsmen and drawing the ombudsmen into debates that they are unfit to participate in, given the scale of their resources and their ability to rule on such issues.

I draw the Secretary of State back to a debate on some of the guarantees that he is proposing. They seem to me to fall into a number of categories. The first category consists of those that are meaningless or vague, and therefore pretty worthless. Earlier today, I raised with him pupil pledge 5 from the White Paper. I do not think that I had an answer from him on that point, so I will put it to him again. That pupil pledge says that every 11 to 14-year-old should enjoy

and develop

Apparently, that will be phased in by September 2010.

Can the Secretary of State tell us whether there are any schools in the country that are currently failing to deliver that pledge, in his view? If any parent went to the ombudsman to challenge that pledge and whether it was being delivered, they would find that the ombudsman would conclude that it is utterly meaningless and therefore utterly unenforceable. Is there any point creating supposed guarantees that cannot be enforced because nobody knows what they actually are?

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We also have a whole series of guarantees that seem to bring in an unwanted level of bureaucracy. Pupil guarantee 15, for example, says that

Is that really a level of bureaucracy that we want to impose on schools? If we in this place actually believe what the Government constantly tell us-that every child matters-why try to pick out one small group of youngsters and associate such a measure with them, rather than assuming that the ability to serve the interests of all youngsters should not be relevant to all young people in schools and colleges?

On the issue that was debated a second ago with the Conservative spokesman, parent guarantee 5 says that once a child is in school, their parents will be expected to sign a home-school agreement each year. Is the Secretary of State really suggesting that every parent whose child goes to an English school should be required to sign a home-school agreement, and that that should take place each and every year of school? If so, that also involves a level of bureaucracy that is totally unnecessary and would be unwanted and wasteful for the vast majority of schools.

We come to the category of pledges that are probably undeliverable or are phrased in such a way that it would be almost impossible to decide whether the Government have met them. The supposed pledges made on sport and culture fall precisely into that category. Pupil guarantee 17 is supposed to guarantee

yet we know that for 75 per cent. of children, that standard is not met at present. That pledge was supposed to have been delivered by September 2009. Can the Government say whether that is the first of the guarantees that they have failed to deliver? Their own statistics demonstrate that they are not delivering it today.

What could any ombudsman make of the supposed guarantee on access to cultural education? All that it actually says is that

Does the Secretary of State really think that any parent who sought to challenge that guarantee-guarantee 19-could get any serious conclusion from an ombudsman on whether it was being delivered? I put it to him that it is phrased so as to be completely meaningless and unmeasurable.

I return to an important guarantee, pupil guarantee 13, in this extraordinary list of 38 different supposed guarantees. The guarantee relates to one-to-one tuition in English and mathematics. Is that really the best way to deliver additional support to those youngsters for whom additional support is crucial? We have argued for a pupil premium to deliver additional resources in schools to help the most disadvantaged get up to the right level in terms of the basic skills that we expect them to have before they leave primary education and, unlike the Conservative party, we propose to fund it. Any pupil premium introduced in an environment where there is no overall increase in funding is simply undeliverable, because no Government of any party would be willing to take money away from schools to fund others.

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