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In my brief contribution, I want to talk about education and the potential for us to offer many more people, in the medium and long term, the opportunity to enjoy
much happier Christmases and new years. I refer not just to mainstream education, but the range of complementary policies that need to be introduced in certain areas to add value to the substantial investment that has been made in our mainstream education system. New Labour's mantra in 1997 was "Education, education, education", and rightly so, because education is the route out of poverty for so many people. It is also a route to self-fulfilment. Above all, it is the driver for achievement of the skills base that we need in order to secure the public services and industry that will enable us to survive in the modern economy.
My constituency and the neighbouring black country constituencies provided object lessons, being classic examples of areas requiring that approach. Historically they have been manufacturing constituencies, but the closure of heavy industries during the 1980s and 1990s consigned a generation with relatively low educational qualifications to long-term unemployment. There was a danger that a new generation would grow up in households that had never known employment, or education and the aspirations that go with it. It was for areas such as mine that Labour's priorities were so important in 1997, when unemployment was higher, there was more poverty, and educational achievement was lower-much lower-than the national average.
I am indebted to a project on poverty conducted by students at St Michaels school-which is in an area neighbouring my constituency and yours, Madam Deputy Speaker-which highlighted some of the issues confronting people in my constituency. I hope to present the result to the Minister during the next parliamentary Session.
We have seen an enormous amount of investment in education in local schools. It has risen by some 50 per cent. in real terms since 1997, and that has been reflected in achievement. The number of pupils obtaining five good GCSEs has almost doubled. The number at key stage 1 achieving level 5 in English and maths has risen by a third, and the number achieving that level at key stage 2 in English, maths and science has risen by two thirds. Meanwhile, the number of students entering higher education has risen by nearly 27 per cent.-but although those are significant improvements that reflect an enormous change in the aspirations and quality of life of those who have succeeded, our area still lags well behind the average in the national league tables of education authorities. It is important to focus on the extra problems that prevent areas such as the black country from attaining the higher educational achievements that are found in other areas.
I know of the work that the Government have done. I want to pinpoint one or two areas-one of them in my constituency-which provide a lesson that could be used in other areas. My constituency contains an estate that stood out according to all the normal indices of deprivation: the Tibbington estate, or the "Tibby", as it is affectionately called. It is among the worst 1 per cent. in terms of poverty and low educational achievement, and unemployment is well above the average even for an area with above-average unemployment.
Three years ago, the Safer and Stronger Communities project secured three years of funding to set up a project involving the use of local people with aspirations and a commitment to improving their area to act as mentors for people on the estate. Over those three years they have helped some 400 families with a range of
support mechanisms, but above all they have provided access to both intermediate and higher education for a number of people. The most significant statistic that I have found is the information that 41 received bursaries for colleges and universities. That would have been unthought of before the implementation of the project. That funding is coming to an end, and successor funding must be considered if the fragile growth in regeneration in the area is to be sustained. On Monday I was pleased to hear the announcement of the Connecting Communities project, which will enable 20 young citizens, under a successor scheme, to be recruited to train and implement environmental and other initiatives on the estate, continuing the work on raising aspirations that has already been done.
I want to emphasise the importance of that development. Given the deterioration in the economy, areas of that kind, which were beginning to emerge from years of recession, are obviously more fragile than some others. It is vital not to throw away all the progress that has been made on the Tibbington estate. I am confident that the work being done by Skills Link and the Murray Hall Community Trust will not be wasted. There is considerable evidence that when on one estate it is possible to recruit a critical mass of people who are committed to improving their local environment and bettering themselves, that commitment is transmitted to other people.
There is another area of policy that needs to be acted on if we are to make the most of our investment in mainstream education. I have been working with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, and City university, on incorporating speech and language screening in the educational process, so as to secure the specific support needed for certain categories of young people who fail to make the most of education because of inherent speech and language difficulties.
These difficulties can emerge for all sorts of reasons. Young people's home background might hinder them from acquiring normal levels of comprehension or articulacy, or they might have health problems or particular conditions that hold them back. Identifying and addressing the causes of these difficulties is a specialist skill, which has not until now been fully incorporated in the education system. Work to address them is being done by organisations such as the RCSLT and City university, and I wish to highlight the work being done at City university by Professor Joffe and the ELCISS-enhancing language and communication in secondary school-programme. It has conducted a project in Redbridge and in Barking and Dagenham, training teaching assistants to identify pupils with communications problems and the policies needed to address them. It is too early to assess fully the outcomes of this programme, but all the evidence so far is that comprehension, speaking and confidence is improving, and antisocial and disruptive behaviour is dropping, as a result.
There is a similar, and much-needed, programme for the criminal justice system. All too often in the past, young people with speech and language difficulties became disruptive and alienated from the education process because they could not access education in the same way as their fellow students. In time, many of them became alienated from mainstream society-an
alienation that often manifested itself in criminal behaviour. It is no coincidence that 80 per cent. of the young people in the criminal justice system have been identified as having speech and language difficulties.
Interestingly, Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons, was recruited to this cause by a prison governor saying to him, "Whoever else you take out of my prison, keep the speech and language therapist here." If the young people who go through the youth justice system do not receive the education to give them the confidence and abilities to get back into mainstream society once they are released, all we are doing is recycling criminality. Speech and language therapy has an important role to play in this, and I compliment the RCSLT for providing the template for support-and indeed the support itself-that is required in terms of screening and other mechanisms.
I should also briefly mention my visit to Rampton, the secure hospital in Nottinghamshire where there is a team of speech and language therapists dealing with some of the most difficult and challenging patients, and pay tribute to the work that they have done. I was taken around by a patient who had acquired the ability and self-confidence to talk about his problems, and to escort people around the hospital explaining what the staff and patients did and how they dealt with different problems. That is a reflection of the Rampton staff's commitment and the valuable work that they do to improve the quality of life of others.
Projects such as these are not just a frill; they are not just additions bolted on to our system. If we are to get full value from all the money that the Government have invested in education, they are essential. That is because we can only go so far by providing good schools, attractive buildings and inspirational teachers and head teachers, because there will always be groups of people with special problems that need to be addressed. There will also always be communities with no history of participation in education, and changing that culture and level of aspiration will complement all the good schools and inspirational teaching that we have provided.
I ask the Minister to take this point away with her, because money spent on improving young people's education at the earliest stage in their development will make huge savings, both by reducing the number of people in the criminal justice system and by enhancing educational qualifications, and therefore the skills base of our country, which we need in order to survive in the modern world.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey), but I am particularly pleased to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) and for Orpington (Mr. Horam). We will miss their presence in Parliament. They have both made serious contributions to this House over the years that they have been Members. I started my ministerial political career with my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, when she was a junior Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I was a ministerial special adviser. I have therefore worked with her closely over a number of years, and I know that she has made a terrific contribution to this House.
I vie with my hon. Friend, however, in representing one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country. While she was exhorting everybody to go and spend their Christmas in the villages and towns of Devon, I can say that the honey-coloured villages of the Cotswolds look particularly picturesque at this time of year, especially if it snows, and I encourage everybody to come and spend time in the Cotswolds over Christmas.
In the few minutes that are available to me, I shall concentrate not on singing "The twelve days of Christmas", but on discussing the 12 years of this Labour Government and how that has affected my constituency. I have to say that it will not be a flattering account.
In the first year of Labour, we witnessed the beginning of the move away from local authority power, with the introduction of the regional development agencies. The South West of England Regional Development Agency had the wisdom not to appoint a single member from Gloucestershire to its board. It is therefore no surprise to me that Gloucestershire has ever since lost out in RDA grants. The RDAs are not particularly good at objectively stating how they come to their decisions, and they tend to make inconsistent decisions between themselves. I therefore look forward to the coming of a Conservative Government, who will bring about changes in the RDAs.
In the second year of Labour, there was the refusal to fund what I have dubbed the missing link. One can drive on a dual carriageway all the way from Palermo in Sicily in southern Italy to Perth in the middle of Scotland, except for a little missing link in my constituency, joining the M4 to the M5. Although I have campaigned consistently since becoming a Member of Parliament for that link to be built, it never has been, and the cost of doing so is ever rising, while there are more deaths and there is more congestion. I urge this Government-or perhaps I shall soon be needing to urge another Government of a better political hue-to build it.
The third year of Labour gave hope to many of my constituents, because the Government published a rural White Paper. At first, we thought they were a sinner who had repented, because although they were not known for helping the rural areas, it seemed to promise some real hope for the future. Unfortunately, that was very quickly followed by the fourth year of Labour, when the foot and mouth crisis took hold throughout the country. Many of my farmers were very severely hit and, unfortunately, they are still reminded of that as the Government are now saying that they must bear the cost of any future such outbreaks. My farmers are extremely worried about that because the Government do not have control over what may cause foot and mouth in the first place, as we saw from the outbreak in the Government's own research institute in Surrey.
The fifth year of Labour gave my county its biggest ever increase in council tax. An increase of 8.3 per cent. across the country spawned a rise-this is the correct figure-of more than 50 per cent. in the police precept for the county in that year. The sixth year of Labour brought the beginning of the regional fire control centre, to be built in Taunton. That is a massively unpopular enterprise, given that Gloucestershire has one of the best working tri-centre control rooms, in Quedgeley, just outside Gloucester, where the police, fire and ambulance services work superbly together. Having seen the benefits of that, the Government decided in their wisdom to
build a regional control centre. That was initially expected to cost £100 million, but this Government are so incompetent at managing finance that the latest estimate is that it will cost £1.5 billion. Why they could not have just left things alone when they were working perfectly properly, I do not know.
The seventh year of Labour gave us the regional spatial strategies, despite my best efforts on behalf of the Opposition to oppose them. I was told by the Government, who were putting them through Committee-one can see this if one looks through Hansard-that they were a creature of the Deputy Prime Minister. In other words, the then Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was desperately trying to get control of the rural areas and, in particular, of planning in those areas, and so he invented the regional spatial strategies. I am delighted that my colleagues who are shadowing the Department for Communities and Local Government will scrap them, and I hope very much that they have the opportunity to do so. These strategies are an unnecessary and unwanted tier of local government.
The eighth year of Labour saw the introduction of a most shambolic piece of legislation: the Hunting Act 2004, which came into force on 18 February 2005. It wasted more than 700 hours of time in this House. Whatever one's views on hunting, one must say that the process has led to a shambolic and unworkable Act, which is unsatisfactory.
In the ninth year of Labour, the Government's action weakened health care provision across the Cotswolds. In that year, Fairford hospital closed because of the severe financial constraints imposed on Costwold and Vale primary care trust. Gloucestershire county council's health overview and scrutiny committee noted that the move
"has had a detrimental effect on the health and experience of the local residents".
Far more seriously in that year was the Government's imposed merger of the excellent Gloucestershire ambulance trust with Wiltshire and Avon's ambulance trusts. I warned at the time that that would cost lives and I take no pleasure in saying that it did so. It delivered a poorer service, but I am glad to say that because of the pressure that my colleagues in the county and I have brought on that trust, it is beginning at long last-several years later-to improve its service. My best Christmas wish to my constituents-in fact, this is four years overdue-is that the long-promised new hospital in Moreton-in-Marsh will come to fruition in 2010.
The flood damage in the 10th year of Labour was, of course, not the Government's fault. I cannot lay the blame for that at their door, much as I would like to do so-I am sure that they can control all acts of God! What I can blame them for is their lack of action. Some 300 homes in my constituency were flooded, as were several schools, doctors' surgeries and other institutions. Two years on from the horrific floods that hit Gloucestershire in 2007, I still do not have total confidence that the same thing would not happen again. Some work has been carried out, but I am not totally confident that the incidents that brought about the cutting off of Mythe water works, which left many thousands of people without water, and that almost took out the substation in Gloucester-that would have left 500,000 people without electricity-would not be caused again.
In the 11th year of Labour came a decision to exclude the Swindon to Kemble railway line doubling, which is much needed and would be a very beneficial piece of infrastructure improvement at a relatively reasonable cost. I am glad to say that as a result of the pressure that I have been able to apply, Network Rail still hopes to include that in its improvement projects and it has until the end of the year to come up with the full costing for the scheme. I hope that, through a bit of careful accounting, we have managed to find within the region the funding to do that. Again, it would be very good news for my constituents if that were able to be delivered in 2010.
Also in the 11th year of Labour came the devastating closure of 12 post offices in my constituency. I ran a massive campaign to try to oppose those 12 closures, which were completely daft and without foundation. One of the post offices turned over £500,000 in the month in which it was closed-despite that, it was still closed. The daft thing about the decision is that in order to use a main post office people across more than 100 square miles now have to be funnelled into the centre of Cirencester, all making extra car journeys and having difficulty parking. It was one of the daftest decisions since Beeching. One Labour Member has complained today about the Beeching cuts, wanting the station in his area to be reopened, and I am sure that the same thing will happen over some of these post offices. As well as considering all the closures in my constituency, we need to consider the national situation. In 12 years, Labour has delivered 200 fewer rural schools since it came to power and 384 fewer police stations in the shires. Worst of all, 50 public houses are closing a week at the moment because of Labour's high taxation system.
In the 12th year of this Government, Labour's recession has meant that Renishaw, a leading plc in my constituency, sadly had to make 308 people redundant in Wotton-under-Edge, Stonehouse and Woodchester, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). That was a tragedy for those involved, and I hope that 2010 will bring better news for them and they will be able to find jobs again. The Cotswolds has been badly hit by unemployment; the area had the 23rd highest rise in the number of claimants of all the 646 constituencies, and it had the 61st highest rise since 1997, when this Government came to power.
I wish to finish by discussing two local matters. At Prime Minister's questions, I raised with the Prime Minister the issue of the funding of the further stage for the National Star college. That college provides probably the finest residential training for disabled people in this country, and it is an exemplar throughout the world. The Prime Minister sent me to see the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs, who promised me that he would urgently look into the matter. The net result was that the 13th Labour college was funded, but not the star college. The Learning and Skills Council produced criteria that the star college was never able to meet, because it was national by its nature, not local or even regional. I hope that the Government will find funding for that college. If they cannot, I hope that an incoming Government will do so. There is a desperate shortage of specialist residential training colleges for disabled people in this country. As I say, the college is an exemplar throughout the world
and it reflects how this country treats its disabled people. I hope that the Government will be able to find the money.
The final issue that I wish to raise will affect all Members of this House next year: rating revaluation. Many Members of Parliament will have already been lobbied by businesses in their constituency that will find that their rates will be hugely increased next year. That comes in the middle of a recession when many of those businesses, particularly the small, rural ones, are already suffering. That seems to be a crass time to introduce rating revaluation.
I wish to draw the House's attention to a particular quirk in the rating revaluation: the way in which petrol stations are rated. They are rated on their turnover. I cannot think of a more daft way to rate an industry, because that in effect taxes success: a property tax that taxes success! The rating system was never in business to tax success; it was in business to tax the size of a property. Ironically, Tesco has managed to get a cap on its turnover for rating purposes of £1 million. In other words, it is all very well to tax small petrol stations on their turnover, but the big ones are getting away with making huge profits and not being taxed on them. I have no problem with Tesco's making profits in its petrol stations-I wish it well in that-but I want to ensure that all the small petrol retailers in my constituency stay open so that they can provide a service to my constituents.
In my constituency over the past 12 years of Labour, there has been a catalogue of shops closing, pubs closing, hospitals closing, libraries closing, magistrates courts closing and ambulance service mergers. In short, the Government have brought the country to its knees. They have weakened our standing internationally and, as far as the people of the Cotswolds are concerned, have shown a disgraceful attitude to the rural way of life. The recent pre-Budget statement brought home what a parlous state this country's economy is in. As countries such as Turkey, France, Germany and the United States are crawling out of recession, but we are still in recession-with very high rates of unemployment, as well as high numbers of youngsters without a job and not in training, which is such a waste of talent-I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, all Members and all the staff of the House a very happy Christmas. Political hostilities will end over Christmas, but come the new year they will be back with a vengeance and I hope that we will get a change of Government.
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