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7 Jun 2010 : Column 21

T7. [000832] Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Many schools in my constituency find it necessary to implement personal security measures, paid for by parental contributions and budget delegations. How do the coalition Government intend to address the future cost of the capital and revenue for security funding in such schools?

Michael Gove: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and congratulate him on his election. Both he and his predecessor have been impassioned champions for the interests of the Jewish community and other faith communities in the London borough of Barnet, and I am deeply concerned that parents of Jewish children have to pay out of their own pocket to ensure that their children are safe in school. It seems to me quite wrong that, simply because of the faith or community from which a child comes, their parents should have to pay extra to ensure that they are safe. That is why I have asked for talks with the Community Security Trust and the Board of Deputies of British Jews-to ensure that we can do everything possible to safeguard those children.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I think that I have discovered why the Secretary of State was so disparaging about the recipe book that the previous Government produced, which as you will recall, Mr Speaker, included recipes for proper English food, such as Lancashire hotpot and cottage pie. The right hon. Gentleman might not have heard of those, because I understand from The Times this morning that his favourite meal is something called "scaloppine with parmentier potatoes". I am afraid that we cannot get that in Dudley, so I asked somebody more familiar than myself with the fancy foreign food available in expensive London restaurants, and apparently it is veal. Is that what the pupils of Britain can look forward to eating now that the Notting Hill elite are running the Government?

Michael Gove: I am enormously grateful to the hon. Gentleman for paying such close attention to my wife's column in The Times. I should point out that the issue is not about fancy London restaurants; I do not have time to eat in them. The dish is cooked by my wife, and, if he and his wife would like to come round for dinner, scaloppine will be on the menu. I shall make sure that I have some Banks's Mild, as I know that it is his favourite tipple, and we will have an opportunity to discuss together how I can help the black country.

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): What plans does the Secretary of State have for the process of revising the funding formula for local authorities? I represent two local authorities, both of which are in the lowest 40 authorities for educational revenue funding.

Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising her concerns on behalf of the F40 local authorities. It is our intention to try to ensure, consistent with making provision for the very poorest children, that all local authorities, including those that have been most disadvantaged, have fairer funding.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): Stoke-on-Trent was in phase 1 of the Building Schools for the Future programme, and my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Labour Front Bench will know full well the
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number of times that I have raised this issue. We were within a hair's breadth of securing the BSF programme-there was just the issue of the 20:20 academy to be resolved. May I urge the Secretary of State to look carefully at the situation in Stoke-on-Trent and to try to give us some certainty about ensuring that we get the much-needed and much-deserved BSF programme through?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. His colleague, the newly elected hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), recently said on Radio 4 that he wanted money available for school buildings to go to Stoke rather than to vanity projects for yummy mummies in west London. I defer to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central when it comes to knowledge about yummy mummies in west London; however, we have been, and are, looking very sympathetically at the case for specific additional spending in Stoke.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will any attempt be made to revisit the proposed changes to the nursery grant provision system introduced by the previous Government and due to come in this September, which could have a very bad impact on private nursery provision?

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather): We will be going ahead with extending the free child care entitlement for three and four-year-olds for 15 hours a week. However, I am aware of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman mentions, and I am listening to the views of the private voluntary sector. If he has specific concerns arising from his constituency, I would be grateful if he would write to me with the details, as that will help to inform our thinking.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), has today announced the introduction of no-notice detention. How is that compatible with good child safeguarding procedures, and how will he ensure that children who have caring responsibilities, and who often do not let their schools know that they have them, are not adversely impacted by this retrograde proposal?

Mr Gibb: This is a deregulation matter. It is not a prescriptive matter requiring schools not to give 24 hours' notice for detentions: it merely enables them to do that if they wish. Trusting head teachers and teachers means that they will make these arrangements themselves if schools feel that they are necessary. We are trying to take out of the statute book impediments to maintaining good order and good behaviour in our schools.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): I welcome my hon. Friend to his post, but may I return to the subject of special educational needs? He will be aware that in a low-spending authority such as Gloucestershire, parents, particularly disadvantaged parents, often struggle to get their children the special educational needs treatment that they need. Can he assure me that there is no place in this country for a postcode lottery for special educational needs and that every child in this country should get equal treatment for their needs?

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Sarah Teather: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. This is precisely why we need to consider and carefully review the whole provision of special educational needs to ensure that parents have a real choice about where they send their child-be it to a maintained school, to a specialist unit within a maintained school, or to a special school-and that the support is available to them and to parents.

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Mr Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I am sure that the Secretary of State would like to agree that Sure Start has been a huge success. Can he guarantee not only that the funding will be there for Sure Start but, more importantly, that he will continue to expand the programme on the number of Sure Starts in constituencies?

Michael Gove: Yes.

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Debate on the Address

[5th day]

Debate resumed (Order, 2 June).

Question again proposed,

Constitution and Home Affairs

Mr Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of Ms Harriet Harman. Once moved, that amendment will limit the scope of debate to the issues mentioned in it. Older hands can expect to be called to order by the occupant of the Chair if they go beyond the scope of the amendment. New Members making maiden speeches can expect some customary latitude.

3.34 pm

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): I beg to move an amendment, at the end of the Question to add:

I begin by welcoming the Deputy Prime Minister to the Treasury Bench and to the Government Dispatch Box on what I believe is his speaking debut in that role in the House. He takes over from me wide responsibilities for the Government's constitutional agenda. As my colleagues and I were, he and his ministerial colleagues will be responsible for what is put before the House and the country, but in making his decisions and recommendations he will be blessed, as I was, by having officials of the highest quality, diligence and-certainly with myself-patience. I should like to place on record my thanks to them and to all the officials with whom I worked, and to wish the right hon. Gentleman well in his endeavours.

"Constitutional agenda" is an abstract term that can have the effect of emptying a room quickly, and not just when I am the one making a speech. However abstract,
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though, it describes something of profound importance to the effective running of any society and its political system, namely the architecture of power-the rules that set down who can make decisions and who can hold in check those who exercise power. In most systems, those rules are enshrined in what the Germans call "black letter law" and are normally subject to special procedures of entrenchment to make it more difficult for those with the power of government to misuse it to change the fundamental rules of the constitution for narrow partisan ends.

We in the United Kingdom do not have a single text, a written constitution or any protective entrenched procedures. Although I believe that over time we should develop a single text, I do not propose or support entrenchment or special procedures for constitutional change. However, the absence of entrenchment places a special responsibility on those in government not to misuse their power, and wherever possible actively to seek and achieve consensus across the House, or to ensure that the final decision is made directly by the people in a referendum.

Of course, the Government must have the power of initiative. When we took office in 1997, there had been no successful proposals for constitutional change for decades. In contrast, the new Labour Administration had a very large agenda: devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; an elected Mayor and assembly for London; data protection; freedom of information; the Human Rights Bill; phased reform of the Lords; independence for national statistics; reform of party funding; and a new system for elections to the European Parliament. All but one of those measures, however controversial they may have been at the beginning of their legislative journeys, were in the end either approved by consensus across the House or endorsed by the people in a referendum, and they are all the better for that.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is right that a great deal of constitutional change has occurred over the past 13 years, but I am not clear why he does not want to go an extra step now and have a written constitution-a Bill of Rights. Surely that would be an important way of entrenching and making absolutely clear the rights of our citizens.

Mr Straw: As I said a moment ago, I believe that there is a case for bringing together our constitutional arrangements in a single text, and we were working on achieving exactly that. However, the process will take a long time. Entrenchment-in other words, the sovereignty of this House being modified by some super-legislative procedure and by a constitutional court overseeing that-is a bridge too far for me and I do not support it. However, I do not believe that the two have to go hand in hand, and the case for a single text is strong.

However controversial the proposals that we introduced may have been at the beginning-I think particularly of the Human Rights Bill and the Freedom of Information Bill-in the end, we were able to achieve consensus across the House. That may have been a subject of regret later for the Conservative Opposition, but consensus was achieved. There was one exception, which I regret and, in a sense, it makes the point that I am putting to the House-the closed list system for European elections.

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Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Straw: I welcome the hon. Lady to the Chamber-I am glad to see her return to the House, albeit, through no fault of hers, a little late. I shall give way in a second.

The European elections system was very controversial. It was subject, unusually, to the Parliament Acts. In my view, it is not a good system and will almost certainly have to be changed in due course. However, no one could have said-no one did say-that it was introduced for partisan advantage. Such advantage has palpably not happened.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): The amendment tabled by the Leader of the Opposition mentions the special majority that is required to dissolve Parliament and hold a general election. Having failed to get any sort of answer out of the Government, does my right hon. Friend have any theory about why they arrived at the figure of 55%?

Mr Straw: I do, but I invite my hon. Friend to stay in the Chamber a little longer-

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): It is one way of keeping him.

Mr Straw: Indeed-perhaps it is the only way of keeping him. However, I invite my hon. Friend to stay and I will deal with the point later.

Miss McIntosh: I am delighted to be returned to represent the new constituency of Thirsk and Malton, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. He referred to the new electoral system for the European Parliament. Does he accept that, in each European election since the new election procedures were introduced, turnout has dramatically reduced. What would he have proposed had he remained in government to increase the turnout for those elections?

Mr Straw: One suggestion-I might even have made it-was that the new system might increase turnout. Even Homer nodded, and that has not been the case, although I think that turnout has gone up a little recently. I am in favour of either an open list, or what is called the semi-open list, which is one of the proposals for the new, reformed House of Lords. I am happy to discuss that further with the hon. Lady in or outside the House.

I have set out the importance of constitutional change being made, whenever possible, by consensus. I therefore greatly hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will resist calls from his side to use the Government's majority to ram through change for party advantage. That would be wrong- [Laughter.] I say to those who are obviously tempted by that that, with one exception, which was never to my party's advantage, we worked hard to achieve cross-party consensus because the constitution should not be a partisan weapon in the hands of any party.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr Straw: Let me consider the key elements of the new Government's proposals in turn, and then, of course, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

First, let us consider the House of Lords. Next year will be the centenary of the first Parliament Act. The preamble of the 1911 Act spells out that it was introduced as a temporary measure, stating that

and therefore the Parliament Act was introduced as a poor substitute. It is 99 years since that historic Act and it is probably now time to complete the original proposals of that great Lib-Lab Government in 1911.

Two reforms followed the 1911 Act: the Parliament Act 1949 and the Life Peerages Act 1958, but there was no further change until 1999, when all but 92 hereditary peers were removed and clear conventions about party balance were established. The consequence has been to make the other place a less supine and more assertive Chamber. That is sometimes inconvenient to government, as I witnessed in taking through very many items of legislation, but it was rare indeed for legislation to be amended in the other place but not improved, as I have often put on the record.

I therefore hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will resist the temptation of some on the Government side, as we have read in some newspapers, to pack the other place with up to 200 Conservative and Liberal Democrat Lords to ensure that the previous convention of no one party having a majority, which has worked well, is retained- [ Interruption. ] I am not clear why there is such objection to that. When Labour was in government, it was absolutely fine for one third of its legislation to be subject to amendments in the House of Lords. If the proposition is that when the Conservative party is in power, with support from the Liberal Democrats, it is fine for them to have an absolute majority in the House of Lords, let that be put on the record.

Mr Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con) rose-

Mr Ellwood rose-

Mr Straw: I promised to give way to the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood).

Mr Ellwood: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. To take him back to his phrase, "ramming through change for political advantage," may I remind the House that Labour rammed through changes to the Lisbon treaty, denying this country an opportunity to vote on it? That is taking political advantage. I hope he now regrets that decision.

Mr Straw: I think the hon. Gentleman protests a little too much on that. He needs to explain, as does the Conservative element of the Government, why the Conservative party abandoned its pledge to withdraw from the Lisbon treaty. Perhaps he would like to have a discussion on that with the Liberal Democrats who support the Government.

Mr Tyrie rose-

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