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Public Confidence (House of Commons)

4. John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to increase the confidence of the general public in the House of Commons. [3025]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): We will bring forward powers for public petitions to trigger debates in the House of Commons and to initiate legislation, and we will introduce a new public reading stage for Bills. The House has also voted for significant new powers to hold the Government to account through the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee.

John Robertson: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his answer, and a good answer it was too. Does he agree that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has been a bit of a shambles? We brought it in without thinking about it. Can we make sure that there is consultation with Members and staff, to ensure that the reputation of the House is upheld, rather than the way it is at present?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question, and I know that a number of colleagues have had difficulties in accessing the system. The whole purpose of allowances is to facilitate and enable MPs to represent their constituents and hold the Government to account. I am considering whether we can have a proper channel of communication between the House and IPSA to get a sensible dialogue under way. I hope he welcomes the announcement a few days ago that there will be a review of the scheme later this year.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): Since the start of this Parliament, the coalition Government have repeatedly ignored the House of Commons when making major policy announcements, thus avoiding scrutiny in the Chamber. There have also been some major leaks. Today we have the BBC announcing that the Chancellor will freeze council tax in the Budget, and the Department of Health announced major changes to the NHS operating framework to the media hours before a written ministerial statement on those changes. The Government's discourtesy also means that copies
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of statements are delivered late to the Opposition Front Bench, often with only minutes to spare. Will the right hon. Gentleman, who I think believes that good scrutiny leads to good government, assure us that statements will be made first to the House and not to the media, and that the Opposition Front-Bench team will receive a copy of the statement at least an hour before it is delivered?

Sir George Young: Of course, statements should be delivered to the Opposition on time, and during the last Parliament Opposition spokesmen did receive copies of statements later than they should have, but I wholeheartedly reject the hon. Lady's allegation about statements. By the end of today, Ministers will have made no fewer than 10 statements since the Queen's Speech, and I think that she will find that that is a higher strike rate than was achieved by the last Government. Of course, the House should be the first place to hear of any changes in Government policy.

Business of the House

5. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): If he will assess the merits of providing the House with provisional information on its business for more than two weeks in advance. [3026]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to deal for a second with future engagements, in offering my congratulations to my hon. Friends the Members for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) on their announcement at the weekend of their coalition arrangements.

I can see that there would be advantages to hon. Members in announcing the business further in advance, but decisions about the business for three or four weeks' time is usually too provisional to be helpful to the House.

Jo Swinson: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words.

Most other workplaces manage to make some plans more than two weeks in advance, albeit on the understanding that sometimes plans have to change. Publishing greater information about future business would help hon. Members to manage their time more effectively and lead to a better functioning of the House. Will he consider experimenting with more advance notice about the business of the House?

Mr Heath: I certainly agree with the principle that my hon. Friend sets out, but this place is not quite like other places in that business on the Floor of the House is subject to many factors, including the progress of business in Committee and in another place, and decision making within Government. It is not always possible to schedule business with any certainty more than two weeks in advance, and there is a risk that providing the House with very provisional information that is subject to change could frustrate rather than inform hon. Members in their diary planning. In addition, we always seek to be topical, and that might be lost if we planned too far ahead. However, I certainly take my hon. Friend's point.

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Programming of Business

6. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What his policy is on the use of programme motions to regulate proceedings on legislation; and if he will make a statement. [3027]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): The Government intend to provide adequate time for consideration of Bills on Report, when the most serious problems occurred in the last Parliament.

Philip Davies: The Minister and I regularly used to vote against the previous Government's routine use of programme motions in the last Parliament. What will be different about this Government, so that we do not have the situation where people in opposition complain about programme motions, but in government routinely use them?

Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman remembers well what happened in the last Parliament, when very often huge parts of Bills were not considered by the House, which was a disgrace. What will be different is that there will be fewer Bills, better drafted Bills and an end to the automatic guillotine of the Report stage. However, that depends on all parts of the House having a grown-up attitude to how we consider business. [ Interruption. ] I hear the grown-up attitude evinced by Opposition Members.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Is not the answer to remove timetabling, or at least relax it, so that it no longer strangles debate in the House? For years now, Bills have gone through with very little debate on key parts. The answer is to go back to a time before the Jopling proposals, when we had full and free debate, and when the House could sit as late as was necessary.

Mr Heath: This is the first opportunity that I have had to welcome the hon. Gentleman back to the House. I am very pleased to see him here.

Yes, we want to ensure that the bits of Bills that need longer scrutiny receive that scrutiny, and that we have a sensible dialogue with all Members of the House-the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee will help us in non-legislative areas-to ensure that the House has its say on matters about which it is concerned, and that we do not waste time on areas where no one has a genuine interest. That is what I mean when I talk about a grown-up way of looking at the business of the House. Let us hope we get it.

Oral Statements

7. Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): What recent representations he has received on the process for Ministers making oral statements in the House. [3028]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): A number of Members have raised issues surrounding ministerial statements in the House in recent weeks. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I are always happy to continue to take representations on that and other issues.

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Mark Tami: When in opposition, the Deputy Leader of the House, like his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, was very concerned about the leaking of statements, the overuse of written statements and the lack of advance notice that was given to shadow Ministers. When will the hon. Gentleman and his colleague practise what they preach?

Mr Heath: As my right hon. Friend said, we have had 10 statements in 13 sitting days, which is not too bad. Of course, we will ensure as far as possible that Opposition spokespeople have the chance to see statements at the earliest possible opportunity.

Parliamentary Representation

8. Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the implications for the House of the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference on parliamentary representation. [3029]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): The Government wholeheartedly agree that we should take all the steps
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that we can to increase diversity in Parliament, and that there is a real need to make political parties reflective of the communities that they serve. We are considering the Speaker's Conference report and recommendations very carefully as we develop policies and agree priorities. As part of our coalition agreement, we have already made an early commitment to introduce extra support for disabled people who want to become MPs, councillors or other elected officials-one recommendation of the Speaker's Conference.

Diana R. Johnson: Women now make up 22% of the House-notably, the majority are Labour Members. At the start of a new Government, perhaps we ought to look at the issue with fresh eyes, so will the Deputy Leader of the House look again at the over-representation of middle-aged, middle-class white men in the House?

Mr Heath: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I have to say that my party is, very sadly, under-represented in terms of women in the House, and we deeply regret that. The ministerial responsibility for the issue lies with the Minister for Women and Equalities, and I hope that she will make very swift progress on bringing proposals before the House.

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Free Schools Policy

3.31 pm

Ed Balls (Morley and Outwood) (Lab/Co-op): ( Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement on the free schools policy, which was announced in a press notice on Friday 18 June.

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for this opportunity to update the House on our progress on reducing bureaucracy in the schools system, giving more power to front-line professionals and accelerating the academies programme, which was begun with such distinction under Lord Adonis and Tony Blair.

During the Queen's Speech debate, I outlined in detail our plans to extend academy freedoms. I mentioned then that we had more than 1,000 expressions of interests from existing schools. I can now update the House by confirming that more than 1,700 schools have expressed an interest in acquiring academy freedoms, with more than 70% of outstanding secondary schools contacting my Department-a remarkable and heartening display of enthusiasm by front-line professionals for our plans. As I have explained before, every new school acquiring academy freedoms will be expected to support at least one faltering or coasting school to improve. We are liberating the strong to help the weak-a key principle behind the coalition Government.

As well as showing enthusiasm for greater academy freedoms in existing schools, teachers are enthusiastic about the opportunities, outlined in our coalition agreement, to create more great new schools in areas of disadvantage. More than 700 expressions of interest in opening new free schools have been received by the charitable group the New Schools Network, and the majority of them have come from serving teachers in the state school system who want greater freedom to help the poorest children do better.

That action is all the more vital, because we inherit from the previous Government a schools system that was as segregated and as stratified as any in the developed world. In the most recent year for which we have figures, out of a school cohort of 600,000, 80,000 children were in homes entirely reliant on benefits, and of those 80,000 children only 45 made it to Oxbridge-less than 0.1% and, tellingly, fewer than those who made it from the school attended by the Leader of the Opposition.

Given that scale of underachievement, it is no surprise that so many idealistic teachers want to start new schools, such as those American charter schools backed by President Obama, which have closed the achievement gap between black and white children. In order to help teachers do here what has been achieved in America, we announced last week that we would recreate the standards and diversity fund for schools, started by Tony Blair and abandoned under his successor. We are devoting to that fund £50 million saved from low-priority IT spending-less than 1% of all capital spending allocated for this year-and we are sweeping away the bureaucracy that stands in the way of new school creation, with the reform of planning laws and building regulations.

Five years ago, the then Prime Minister said outside this House:

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That is the challenge that Mr Blair laid down, and this coalition Government intend to meet it.

Ed Balls: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for coming to the House, because his free school policy raises important issues of funding, fairness and standards-and it should not have been smuggled out in a Friday morning press statement. I should also say that Lord Hill has written to my colleagues in the other place confirming that the Academies Bill will, in fact, be enabling legislation for free schools. The Secretary of State should have the courtesy to inform this House, and those on the Opposition Front Bench, of his plans in that regard.

On funding, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm not only that his free school policy will establish a free market in school places, in which parents will be encouraged to set up taxpayer-funded new schools at will, but that he has secured no new money at all from the Treasury to pay for it? Will he confirm that he is using savings from cutting free school lunches for poorer children to fund his announced £50 million of start-up support, and that that is a drop in the ocean compared with the billions involved in the actual cost of his new policy?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm Professor David Woods's finding that the proposal for a new parent-promoted school in Kirklees would

The question is whether existing schools will see their budgets cut and lose teachers to pay for the new schools, and whether the Building Schools for the Future programme is now on hold to fund his new free schools policy. On fairness, does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the Swedish Schools Minister that

How will he ensure that the losers from the budget cuts will not be the children of middle and lower-income families?

It is important that the right hon. Gentleman should answer this question. Has he put in place clear safeguards to stop existing private schools from simply reopening as free schools, with taxpayers taking over the payment of school fees? On standards, can he confirm that since the Swedish free schools policy was introduced, England has risen to the top of the TIMMS-Trends in Mathematics and Science Study-league table in maths and science, but Sweden has plummeted to the bottom?

Will the Secretary of State amend the Academies Bill to prevent parents from delegating the entire management of free schools to profit-making companies? Alternatively, can we look forward, as in Sweden, to the grotesque chaos of private companies scuttling around the country touting to parents, saying that they will set up a new school for them, and make a profit, at the expense of the taxpayer and other children's education?

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Michael Gove: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. May I seek to put his mind at rest? He asked whether the Academies Bill created the provision for the creation of free schools. I confirm now, as I confirmed during the Queen's Speech debate, that it absolutely does. He specifically asked about free school meals and their funding. It is interesting that he should have asked that, because when he was at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, he did not secure the funding for the extension of free school meals; in fact, figures from the Treasury confirm that that was an underfunded promise, which raised the hopes of the poor without the cash being there to sustain it. It was a cynical pre-election manoeuvre, typical of the right hon. Gentleman.

I confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that under no circumstances will I take for the free schools programme money intended to extend free school meals to poor children. That money will go towards raising attainment among the poorest children. I rejected the idea that the right hon. Gentleman has attempted to advance. As I pointed out in my statement and on Friday, the money for the programme comes from low-priority IT projects. If he had simply read the press statement, rather than relying on unsubstantiated and unsourced reports, he would know that.

If the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about saving money and making economies, may I ask him this? Two weeks ago, I wrote to him asking whether he would help us to find economies in the education budget by releasing the Handover report, which he commissioned when he was in office to try to find economies in the schools budget. If he is serious about bearing down on costs and greater efficiency, will he now confirm that he will allow us to read that secret report on saving money? His silence is eloquent in itself.

The right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to refer to the words of the Swedish Schools Minister, Mr Bertil Östberg. Let me just say that the Swedish Schools Minister- [ Interruption. ] What a tongue twister that was. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, Swedish is a language, particularly given the diminution in the number of people studying modern languages under his Government, that fewer and fewer people can translate properly. He clearly cannot, because the Swedish Schools Minister said that the article from which Labour are quoting was

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