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There are also concerns at local level about the future of funding for the 18 children's centres in our borough. I understand that the funding grant is secure until the
next comprehensive spending review in March 2011, but the future is uncertain after that. Moreover, although BSF does not affect primary schools, a primary capital programme exists, and there is concern for the future of that funding string as well.
Overall, therefore, BSF is vital to the overhaul of the secondary schools in our borough to help us meet the extra demands created by the birth rate and patterns of migration in east London. BSF is a major investment programme that will totally modernise all schools in the authority, including our special school. Works will vary from major rebuilding, remodelling and refurbishment to combinations of the three. The only exception among the secondary schools is the recent new-build Jo Richardson community school, which will receive ICT investment.
The borough has a selected bidder for the ICT, as well as an LEP-selected bidder. We hope to finish the whole process by late summer, assuming no policy change at the national level. We therefore seek reassurance for the project as a whole. The BSF LEP-selected bidder has passed the various stages of the BSF LEP evaluation process. The BSF programme is a key element of improving the well-being of children in the borough, reducing inequalities and ensuring integrated children's services, given the guidance that we received under the Childcare Act 2006.
BSF will bring many benefits to the borough, including extended schools, raised attainment and expanded education services as the school-age population in the borough grows. I therefore return to the two quotes that I reported at the beginning of my contribution. I welcome the commitment to the BSF programme that the Prime Minister made clear among his first parliamentary answers. I hope that the Minister can support the programme in Barking and Dagenham, not least because we have concluded the selected bidder part of the process and are nearing completion of the total process, which is why the report in Building magazine caused such concern locally. We seek reassurance that our scheme will not be put on hold. The magazine stated that
"all those at preferred bidder stage will progress as planned, although sources have warned there may be 'some grey areas'."
I simply seek reassurance that we will proceed as planned and that we are not one of the grey areas. The borough's changing demographic profile, birth rates and existing pressures on the education sector combine uniquely, with the result that this capital programme is vital for our residents and children. I look forward to the Minister's response and, hopefully, to some reassuring noises.
The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) on securing this important debate. He speaks eloquently on behalf of his constituents. He has emphasised the importance of the BSF programme to the borough of Barking and Dagenham, including its importance to issues such as extended schools and raising educational attainment. I pay tribute to him for his fight against extremism and the British National party and his commitment to campaigning against poverty.
I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's comments, including his forecasts for secondary school places and
a 50% increase in the birth rate, rising from 2,380 in 2000-01 to 3,541 in 2007-08. He is right to emphasise the importance of the fabric of a school building to the issue of raising attainment. Our ambition is to raise standards throughout the education sector, to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged, to restore confidence in our qualifications and exam systems, and to ensure that children leave school with the knowledge that they need to succeed in further education and the world of work. Our coalition agreement sets out a progressive programme of reform to achieve those aims, based on the fundamental principles of more freedom for teachers and professionals, more choice for parents, more help for the most disadvantaged, and less bureaucracy and process.
If we are to effect real change and recast Britain's education system as one of the best in the world, our focus on raising standards in all schools, reforming the curriculum and securing the best and brightest for the teaching profession must be relentless. We must also retain a focus on the school estate, ensuring that schools provide an environment conducive to education, with high-quality technology and facilities, space that supports different types of education-from one-to-one tuition to whole-year groups-and, importantly, a pleasant environment where children want to be. I welcome the opportunity the hon. Gentleman has given us to debate the issue, and congratulate him again on securing the debate.
Building Schools for the Future was a flagship programme of the previous Government, who had high ambitions to rebuild or refurbish every school in the country by 2023. Of course, there are many schools that need to be rebuilt and many are in a very poor condition. With a rising birth rate in parts of the country, including, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, his constituency, we will need to make more places available, and both those issues will require capital spending. We shall clearly need to build schools in the future.
The hon. Gentleman rightly quoted the Prime Minister as saying that building schools for the future is something we shall continue to do. However, that does not mean that we must go through the bureaucratic and wasteful procedures that were the previous Government's approach. I understand that the process in Barking and Dagenham started in 2007. Here we are in 2010 and the diggers have not yet moved in; £250 million was spent before a brick was laid or earth was moved. Of that, £60 million was spent on consultants or advisory costs. Let us be clear: the previous Government said they were spending money on schools; but in the seven years since the scheme was announced only 95 new schools have been built out of 3,500 secondary schools. In the current financial climate, where front-line services are under pressure to do more with less, we cannot afford to direct lavish amounts of money away from pupils, teachers and children's services into the pockets of consultants and bureaucratic processes.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education stated in the debate on the Gracious Speech that for the remainder of the financial year there will be no cuts in front-line funding for schools, Sure Start and sixth forms. We have secured additional funding from outside the education budget to fund the pupil premium,
which will ensure that more money reaches the most disadvantaged pupils, who already start out with a financial and knowledge deficit in comparison with their peers. Capital programmes and investment in the school estates are very important to the coalition Government, but we must ensure that those programmes represent good value for money.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out in his opening remarks, we are reviewing the Building Schools for the Future programme to ensure that we can build schools more effectively and cost-efficiently in the future. We definitely will not halt projects that have been started, where diggers have been engaged and holes have been dug in the ground, as the Labour Government did when the college building programme had to be put on hold because of "catastrophic mismanagement". Many colleges stood to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds. Indeed, the Association of Colleges said that some stood to lose millions following the abrupt cancellation of projects. It said that 24 colleges stood to lose between £2 million and £5 million; indeed, 17 stood to lose more than £5 million.
I know that the hon. Gentleman was not part of the previous Government-indeed, he was an effective and constructive critic of them-so he cannot be blamed for what went wrong, and he is right to raise the issue of the Barking and Dagenham BSF plans today. However, he will appreciate the financial backdrop against which this debate is being held-an inherited budget deficit of £156 billion. As a result, the previous Government had already committed themselves to reducing capital spending across Departments by more than 50%, with a reduction of 17.5% in each of the next three years. The right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), the former Secretary of State for Education and now shadow Education Secretary, admitted to the House that school capital spending was not protected in those plans. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's first port of call should be the shadow Secretary of State, in order to find out from him what he had planned to do if their party had won the last general election.
Jon Cruddas: I want to put it on the record that we had this row about the BSF plans in Barking and Dagenham with the previous Government. There was a controversy in the first phase of the BSF programme, in that we were on the list and were taken off it because of some difficulties with the imposition of academies. So this is an argument we have had with Governments either side of the aisle.
Mr Gibb: I am grateful for that intervention and I will bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said. He also gives me an opportunity to correct something I said earlier. I think that I gave a very disparaging view of the previous Government when I said they had completed only 95 schools in the seven years since the project began; they actually completed 97. So, for underestimating their great achievement in completing 97 schools out of 3,500, I apologise and set the record straight.
We will be looking extraordinarily sympathetically at two sets of circumstances as we review the BSF programme: deprivation and particular need. I know the projects in Barking and Dagenham are very important to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, and especially to the
pupils and school staff who will be affected, but I am afraid that that is all I can say at this point; I cannot give specific guarantees at this time about particular projects. Nevertheless, I promise to keep in touch with the hon. Gentleman as we continue to review capital spending. I know that that will not be enough to satisfy him or his constituents, but I am afraid that that is all I can say at the moment.
I reiterate that capital programmes are important to our programme of school improvement, but they must be delivered efficiently and cost-effectively, and must also be focused on where spending is most needed and will have the most impact.
Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): First, I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), on his appointment as Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office. I have known him for many years. The Prime Minister quickly recognised the many qualities that I know he possesses, and the people of the Forest of Dean also knew a good thing when they saw it: they had the wisdom to elect him in 2005, and again last month with an increased majority. I know that he will bring common sense and good judgment to his office.
I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss constituency boundaries for islands. Not many of us are greatly affected by the issue, but it is extremely important to those of us who are. Islands come in many shapes and sizes. There are those with a tiny population, such as the Scillies with scarcely 2,000 residents. There are islands joined to the mainland by road or rail, such as Anglesey and Hayling island, and even Portsmouth. Most important for this debate is that there are islands with significant populations that remain isolated, with no physical link to the mainland. They include Na h-Eileanan an Iar-more commonly known as the Western Isles-Orkney and Shetland, and my own constituency of the Isle of Wight.
Last month's election was fought on boundaries with average constituency sizes of 71,000 electors in England, 66,000 in Scotland, 56,500 in Wales and just over 63,000 in Northern Ireland. The UK average was 69,500. I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister that England as a whole is under-represented in the current system, particularly since devolution has introduced another layer of politicians in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. With roughly 110,000 electors, my constituency is the largest by quite a margin. The constituency of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), whom I am glad to see here today, has fewer than 23,000. His, at a fifth of the size of mine, is the smallest constituency, again by a significant margin.
The coalition Government intend to increase the size of constituencies generally, creating fewer, more evenly sized and, in the majority of cases, more populous ones. I understand that the aim is to have an average electorate of 77,000, which would reduce the number of MPs by 10% and cut the cost of politics. The principle of greater equality is good, the aim of reducing the cost of politics is laudable and, from experience, I know that it is perfectly possible to represent a large constituency. My noble Friend Lord Norton of Louth's excellent report from the commission to strengthen Parliament found that larger constituencies may foster
"a closer, longer-term relationship between member and constituents".
We can learn from the wisdom of those who have looked at the issues in depth before us. The Boundary Commission last reported on the Isle of Wight constituency in 2007, using figures from 2000. The electorate in 2000 was 103,000, 33% larger than the average. The commission considered severing part of the island and putting it with a mainland constituency, but concluded that to do so would
"disregard the historic and unique geographical situation"
"create confusion and a feeling of the loss of identity"
"communications would be difficult both for the electorate and the Member of Parliament."
If the island had one MP with 77,000 electors, 32,000 people or 12 electoral wards on the island would need to be included with a mainland seat. I have looked at all the possibilities. It could mean either a ferry from Ryde, with a hinterland from Wootton to Arreton to Bembridge, or a ferry from Yarmouth, with a hinterland from Cowes to Ventnor-the southern most point on the island-or from Cowes, East Cowes and Newport. I have to say that all of those proposals are barmy.
Experts from the Boundary Commission for Scotland have looked carefully over the years at the case for merging the Western Isles with Skye. The commission found in 1981 that that would be "unworkable or intolerably difficult", and, in 2004, it came to the same conclusion, saying that the arguments against change
"remained as strong now as they were then."
To get anywhere near an electorate of 77,000 would mean the Western Isles being lumped in with a huge part of the Scottish mainland. If including Skye in the constituency would prove "unworkable or intolerably difficult", how on earth would merging the Western Isles with the mainland work in practice?
Such difficulties are even more acute in Orkney and Shetland, a constituency with a population of more than 32,000. Meeting the new quota would likely entail a union with the nearest mainland constituency, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. Such a drawing of boundaries would result in a constituency that was hundreds of miles from end to end.
Part of the problem is geographical. The only access to the Isle of Wight is by sea. There is no tunnel, bridge or scheduled air service, and crossing the Solent can be expensive and time-consuming. The even bigger problem, however, is that islands and islanders are very different from the mainland and mainlanders. Those who live on islands are, by definition, more insular. The word "insular" means being of or pertaining to an island or islands, but it also means being detached, standing alone or isolated. It is clear to me why the word is used in both ways, but one must live on an island to really understand. Many people on the Isle of Wight travel to the mainland only rarely. The Solent is much more of a barrier, both physical and psychological, than any other English county boundary. If any part of the island were to be merged with the mainland, it would be reasonable for the mainland MP to live on the north island. After all, that is where the majority of his constituents-about 46,000-would live. He would not, however, be considered a part of the island community. I suspect that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar recognises that feeling in the communities that he represents. It would be a very sad outcome if people were made to feel more distant and remote from their elected representatives.
There are good reasons why both the largest and smallest UK constituencies are island constituencies, and those reasons should be respected. We should not simply disregard the work of those who have looked at the issues before, sacrificing workable and sensible proposals on the altar of principle, however good and well-intentioned that principle might be.
It might seem odd that I am arguing for more rather than less work than other Members of the House, while at the same time arguing for the continued existence of the smallest UK constituency. However, it is because I live on an island that I understand the unique nature of islands. They are very special communities and special places that need special consideration. I understand that these matters are still being deliberated and that final decisions have yet to be made about how the policy is to be implemented. Will the Minister please give me an assurance that, when the Government move forward with plans to equalise constituency sizes, they will recognise the unique nature of island electorates? I hope that his common sense and good judgment will applied in spades to this question.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Today, we see an alliance of islanders-an alliance that was perhaps created by the Daily Mail. During the election campaign, the newspaper sent one of its reporters, Mr Robert Hardman-perhaps all the reporters from the Daily Mail are hard men-to both Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the Isle of Wight. Whether his aim was to create some mischief, I do not know-far be it from me to cast aspersions on such an august publication as the Daily Mail-but we were chosen because I represented the smallest constituency in terms of the number of voters, and the Isle of Wight is, of course, the constituency with the largest number of voters. The Daily Mail succeeded in uniting us in a common cause. The largest and the smallest numerical constituencies in the UK are of one mind: their islands are indeed special.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) spoke eloquently and forcefully for his constituency. I will confine my remarks to my constituency, other than to point out to the Minister that it is odd for a democracy to be looking to cut the elected element of Parliament while almost daily-certainly monthly-we have news of further appointments to the unelected portion of Parliament. Does that mean that, when the Government leave office, the percentage of Parliament elected by democratic means will be far smaller than when they entered office? Quite how that makes the UK look internationally, other than like a laughing stock, I am not certain. Quite how the Government feel about that, other than queasy, I shall not speculate.
My constituency is the length of Wales. The Prime Minister might want to give me a territory the size of the Yukon, but that would not serve voters well at all. Areas, of course, need coverage. When a population grows in an area, a constituency with a maximum headage is usually created, obviously with some sensible anomalies, such as the Isle of Wight. That is to ensure an equality of treatment so that all voters have the same kind of representation and access to their MP as voters have in a more urban and populated setting. I speak particularly from my own perspective in Na h-Eileanan an Iar.
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