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"I wanted to write to support your decision to stop the vast majority of BSF projects currently under way, and for the reasons that you outlined. Whilst Banbury School was one of the last schools to be included in the BSF programme, nevertheless, the huge bureaucratic hurdles and ridiculous amount of wasted time in meetings with advisors and consultants, etc, means there could never be value for money for the investment...On an immediate positive note, both myself and our Senior Vice Principal now have days released from former BSF meetings, where we can spend time looking directly at our school, the needs of our youngsters and how we can support further improvement in standards."
Mr Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab): In 2009, North Tyneside elected a Conservative mayor with a Conservative cabinet, and one of the first things that they did was to review the BSF programme because they were concerned about bureaucracy, consultants and value for money. Is the hon. Gentleman surprised that they confirmed that they would continue with the programme in my constituency without any change whatever?
Tony Baldry: The hon. Gentleman can make his points-[Interruption.] No, the hon. Gentleman can make his points about his constituency because I am not in a position to cross-examine or test the evidence. What I am giving hon. Members is the primary advice-the primary evidence-of a principal in my constituency. Let me repeat what that principal said:
"bureaucratic hurdles and ridiculous amount of wasted time in meetings with advisors and consultants...means there could never be value for money for the investment."
Mr Slaughter: The hon. Gentleman was in a position to assert that a single individual received £1.35 million. He has been asked to name that individual. It appears from his comments that he was simply parroting what the Secretary of State said in the House. If the hon. Gentleman cannot name that individual, will he withdraw that accusation today?
The position of the Opposition on this issue is pathetic. They come to this Chamber with synthetic anger, having got the country and schools up and down the country into a real position of difficulty, and they then have the audacity to suggest-[Interruption.] No, they then have the audacity to suggest that the
Secretary of State was misleading the House. That is what the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) has been saying.
I want to make it very clear to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) that I will trust my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education implicitly on this, because I do not believe that he would have misled the House on this matter. If that is the best point that the hon. Gentleman can make to defend the previous Government's being so incompetent that they gave more than £1 million to an individual consultant, it is a very sad situation.
The Secretary of State has made it clear that the present Government intend to continue to invest in school capital projects, whether they involve primary or secondary schools, either to ensure that the most dilapidated schools are repaired as quickly as possible or to provide extra school places where they are needed in areas of growing population. It would be helpful if the Minister gave us all an indication of how the Government intend to approach that. I think that all Government Members recognise that the Building Schools for the Future programme was a travesty of a scheme, but there clearly are schools that require capital investment.
It is clear, for example, that Banbury school, on my patch, still requires capital investment. It serves an area that includes a number of wards with a disadvantaged school population and it has some very mature buildings. I hope that the review that the Secretary of State has set up will make recommendations about capital investment that adhere to the principles of value for money and ensure that capital investment goes to the front line to benefit pupils and schools, not consultants. It would be helpful to have an indication of how the Government intend to invest money in school buildings in the future.
Another important point is that in the Building Schools for the Future programme, the previous Government simply ignored primary schools, although often in our constituencies it is in primary schools where the school population is growing. In counties such as Oxfordshire, there is a double whammy at the moment. The fact that the previous Government left our nation's finances in such a parlous state, with one pound in every four being spent on interest, means that it is increasingly difficult for county councils, through their schools capital programme, to allocate money for new school building projects.
For example, the Grange school in Banbury, which has a number of temporary classrooms, was hoping that it would be able to receive money from the county council's own capital programme. That is looking increasingly difficult, simply because there is not the money in the budget.
None of us in any way underestimates the difficult decisions that have to be made by Ministers. I hope that this Minister will not be distracted by the rather synthetic anger from those on the Opposition Benches, because they are the guilty men who have got us into this situation. Rather than coming to this Chamber and chuntering as they are this afternoon, they should be ashamed of themselves for the position in which they left our nation's schools and our nation's education.
No debate or contribution on education should pass without our remarking on the fact that 10 years ago, the United Kingdom was fourth in the world for the quality
of our science education; we are now 14th. Ten years ago, we were seventh in the world for the quality of our children's literacy; we are now 17th. Ten years ago, we were eighth in the world for the quality of our children's mathematics; we are now 24th. So we are talking about every area of academic endeavour over the past 10 years. It is not just the Building Schools for the Future programme that the Labour party left in a shambles, but educational standards as a whole. The present Government will have to sort out all that in the coming years.
Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. We have about half an hour until the winding-up speeches and at least seven or eight hon. Members are trying to catch my eye. I therefore ask Members to be as brief as possible to allow others to speak. For the benefit of new Members, I point out in passing that it is helpful if Members write to Mr Speaker in advance of Westminster Hall debates, indicating their wish to speak. That makes it easier to work out who is to speak next.
Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on securing the debate. Like him and like thousands of people in my constituency and millions throughout the country, I was appalled that the very first casualty of the Conservative and Lib Dem policy of savage cuts was investment in our schools. That will be deeply damaging to education and demoralising for students, parents, governors and teachers alike. It is also a big political mistake, because a lot of people who voted Lib Dem or Conservative were certainly not voting for that. In future, when people think of this Government, they will remember that the very first thing Ministers did was take the axe to our schools.
I want to highlight the casualties among schools in my constituency. Iffley Mead is a great special school. Ofsted rated it outstanding for care, guidance and support, and for personal development and well-being, and good in all other respects. The school anticipated the total replacement of outdated buildings, with state-of-the-art teaching areas for special needs, residential accommodation for looked-after children and respite facilities for families in need of additional support. People will find it impossible to understand why they evidently do not figure as part of the big society.
Cheney school, which is a community secondary, has been doing excellent work and has been building on an overall good Ofsted rating. It was looking forward to extensive rebuilding, including the replacement of science labs that were condemned as unsafe last year and which have now been closed. The school has significant numbers of children with special needs, for whom the current buildings, which do not have lifts, are not fit for purpose.
I am enjoying my right hon. Friend's contribution very much, and it chimes totally with what is happening in Newham, where the John F Kennedy special school is one of 14 projects to have been cancelled by the Conservative party. Is it not ironic that some mainstream schools will be far better resourced than
some schools that cater specifically for special needs children, who are the most vulnerable children in our communities?
Cheney is a good school that serves mixed communities and gets great results. It is a specialist school in languages and leadership, but, to add insult to injury, it has now heard that its £250,000 specialist schools money is also being cut.
We have to ask what message it sends simply to hack support away from schools such as these. I can assure the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who has just spoken, that there is nothing synthetic about the anger of Labour Members or the teachers, students and communities affected. There has been no assessment or evaluation of schools' particular needs, and programmes are simply cut. Schools are now in limbo: they are told that Building Schools for the Future has been cancelled, yet they do not know what resources, if any, will be available to meet their pressing needs. That is a kick in the teeth for everybody who cares about those schools and who has been working hard for their success. What is the Minister's message to those schools for the future?
I would also like to press the case of Bayards Hill primary school, which is due for total rebuilding and which had primary capital grant approved a couple of years ago. The catchment area includes one of the most disadvantaged communities in my constituency, and rebuilding would be a huge boost to aspiration and confidence. The school's plans were all set to go, but they are now at real risk because Oxfordshire county council is looking at making huge cuts in all its programmes. I call on the county council to honour the pledges that have been made and to ensure that the project can go ahead.
This saga of school cuts is a shameful indictment of the priorities of the coalition Government, who are diverting resources from good schools with a proven track record and a clear need for investment to the damaging ideological experiment of their so-called free schools-let us remember that that is where the money is going. If the Government were listening to parents, teachers and governors, they would abandon this damaging policy now and reinstate investment in schools in our communities so that they could deliver the best opportunities and standards. If the Government do not listen, everyone will know in the years to come that the first big message from this coalition Government was that whereas Labour invested in the future of our schools and brought hope and opportunity, the Conservatives and Lib Dems brought cuts and despair. It is a tragedy that children's education is paying the price for the Government's monumental misjudgment.
Jessica Lee (Erewash) (Con): I wish to highlight two key issues: the problems with the Building Schools for the Future scheme and the financial difficulties that the country is in. We have to place any discussion of future programmes for schools in that context.
We know that the financial crisis exists, and that has to be the background for our debate. Bennerley school, which is in my constituency in the east midlands, is one
of 151 schools that are up for discussion. It is a possible academy school; indeed, I have spoken to the relevant Minister to put the school's case on behalf of parents, teachers and our local community. In doing that, however, I am mindful of the context of the financial crisis that the country faces, and any decisions that the Government make will reflect that context.
I want to make three points about why the Building Schools for the Future programme is failing and needs to be looked at. The first relates to bureaucracy, the second to delays and the third to construction and design difficulties.
"One... school was built with corridors so narrow the whole building had to be reconstructed; another had to be closed because the doors could not cope with high winds. One was so badly ventilated that additional mobile air conditioners had to be brought in during the summer, and pupils were sent home."-[Official Report, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 49.]
"BSF suffered from too much bureaucracy and wasted costs in the procurement process, and that should be addressed."
"The current BSF programme is very bureaucratic, slow and unwieldy and I would welcome a review."
"We welcome the review of the BSF programme as to learn lessons from past experience in order to find a better way of working for the future can only be a good thing."
The problems with the scheme are not to be underestimated, and some professionals have acknowledged that. Debbie Jones, chair of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, which has good first-hand knowledge of the issues, says of the programme:
"While the aims were sound, the process left a lot to be desired, embroiling local authorities and head teachers in some torturous bureaucracy and wasteful procedures and did not make the most of the expertise in local authorities in managing capital projects."
Finally, if the point has still not been made clear, the Secretary of State set out for the House on 5 July the structure in place under the Building Schools for the Future programme. The process is quite long, and I hope that hon. Members can bear with me. It begins with the Department for Education. There is then the quango, Partnerships for Schools. Then there is another body, 4Ps, and Partnerships UK. Following that, local authorities set up a project governance and delivery structure, including a project board of 10 people, a separate project team of another 10 people and a separate stakeholder board of 20 people. They form the core
group supervising the project. Then we have a design champion and a client design adviser-the list goes on and on.
I have said a few times that any programme of reforms must be put in the context of this country's financial state, and it never ceases to amaze me that Opposition Members appear to sigh, moan and raise their eyebrows when that point is made on the Floor of the House. However, we cannot ignore the position that our country is in. "There is no money." That was the note that was left; we all know that.
There are difficult decisions facing us. National debt is approaching £1 trillion and there is a budget deficit of £155 billion. The debt interest costs every year are more than the entire schools budget. This country must prioritise. The concern is that if Labour had formed the next Government, they would have turned their attention to jobs and that head or deputy head teachers' jobs might have been at risk. The coalition Government are looking elsewhere. I urge the Department to consider the merits of each school that is being reviewed, but I accept, on behalf of the school in Erewash that I mentioned, that that consideration must take place in the context of our limited budget.
A responsible Government must make hard decisions. I am in agreement with the steps that the Government are taking to review the BSF project for two reasons: it is responsible to take those steps in the light of the bureaucratic problems with the scheme, and because of the financial mess that has been inherited from the previous Government. On the doorstep during the general election campaign, Erewash constituents would often ask me why, since they must balance their household budgets, the Government cannot do the same. They have a point.
The new Government have real will and a bold, reforming programme for education: the academies programme, free schools and getting to grips straight away with the bureaucratic problems of Building Schools for the Future. Those are positive ways to start, because we need to set teachers and schools free and support them in making choices so that they can make the best decisions for their pupils and the future. The time for writing blank cheques is over. I support the Government in prioritising good teaching and sensibly-afforded programmes for building in schools.
I start by declaring an interest: two projects in my constituency have been scrapped and one hangs in the balance. The two that have been scrapped are the La Retraite and Bishop Thomas Grant secondary schools projects, and the one in the balance is for Dunraven school.
I have lived in my constituency all my life. I love my area and think that our young people are fantastic-they have drive and talent and want to succeed. I do not buy into the view that is often promulgated in the media that our young people are a problem. To answer the point
made by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) about so-called synthetic anger, that is where my anger comes from: there is nothing synthetic about it. I want to provide young people in my constituency with a platform from which to succeed. That is why I feel emotional about the topic, and if the hon. Gentleman does not get that, I am not sure he will get anything.
Having declared my interest, I want to discuss the manner in which the BSF cuts were announced. I welcome the Secretary of State's apology, but that does not excuse the shabby, dysfunctional way in which he made the announcement on 5 July. One of the problems was that he came to the Chamber almost as if he were attending an Oxford Union debating society-type event. He made the announcement in a way that seemed to show no recognition or appreciation of the gravity of what he was saying, or its effect on communities such as mine. As for the content, it included massively sweeping statements about the BSF project, some of which we have heard again this afternoon. We were told, at column 49 of Hansard, that it was "dysfunctional" and "did not guarantee quality". It was portrayed as a wasteful programme, delivering second-rate buildings and facilities or, as I think the Secretary of State put it at column 48 on the same occasion, "botched construction projects". I do not think that any Labour Members would say that the BSF programme was perfect, or that every aspect of it operated perfectly, or that it was 100% efficient; however, big and sweeping statements have been made, and I want to know-I will be grateful if the Minister elaborates-where the overall evidence is to support those statements.
A National Audit Office report on the BSF programme was produced last year. Although it noted that initial timings and budgets were too optimistic, it found that BSF was delivering school buildings more cheaply than academies and other school building programmes, and it was making it easier for local authorities to use their capital funding strategically. The hon. Member for Banbury put a premium on what school principals say about the project, and I would not disagree with taking note of what school heads and principals say about it. PricewaterhouseCoopers published an evaluation of BSF in February in which more than four fifths of head teachers agreed that the programme would contribute to educational transformation in their schools; three quarters agreed that it had more potential to deliver educational transformation than previous capital investment programmes; and all the head teachers surveyed agreed that it delivered a more stimulating environment and tackled fundamental design issues in schools. That is the overall evidence.
There are examples in my constituency of the BSF programme being very effective and highly successful. They undermine and contradict the overall view put forward by the Government and the Secretary of State. One example is Elm Court school, a special school in the Brixton area. An old Victorian building was transformed into a modern learning space, with fantastic new facilities
including a theatre, a drama space and multi-use games and sports areas. The young people love it. Again, I ask for the evidence for what the Government say.
The lack of evidence calls into question the coalition's motives for the announcement that they have made. They have said that the money being taken from the programme is not being diverted into free schools, but do they not accept that it adds insult to injury when the parents and teachers in my constituency, whose schools are affected by the cuts, see all that money being ploughed into the Secretary of State's pet project, the free school model? The hon. Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) mentioned the structural deficit, which tends to come up every time we talk about anything relating to resource. [Hon. Members: " Of course it does."] Okay, I accept that, but one of the ways of dealing with the deficit is to bring about growth. That is ultimately the best way to eradicate the deficit, in many respects. Why take investment away from the people to whom we are looking for the growth of the economy in the future? It does not make sense to me.
Above all, although I accept that BSF may not operate perfectly-the hon. Member for Erewash outlined the process-why not review and reform the process? Why sweep away an entire programme? I do not know whether there are any Liberal Democrat Members in the Chamber, but I cannot believe that they are going along with what is happening.
Mary Macleod: Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the Government are reviewing what is currently in the programme? If he accepts that the programme was not perfect, he should welcome a review to ensure that the capital funding that is being provided is spent in the right schools.
Mr Umunna: I argue that we need to wait until after the review, instead of scrapping all the ongoing projects. I shall talk about what doing that will mean for schools in my area, and I am sure that the same effects will be felt in other constituencies.
I mentioned the Liberal Democrats because, for the best part of two years, they have been spending literally hundreds of thousands of pounds in my constituency flowering their leaflets with their promises of the best start for children and pledging a boost for schools. There was recently a by-election in the Tulse Hill ward-this was after the announcement- and the literature promised:
"We will provide a fair start to all children by giving schools the extra money they need".
The bottom line is this: we need the money. We need the projects to go ahead, and not only because school buildings in my area need reforming and updating. We have plenty of statistics to show that where we have invested in infrastructure using the BSF programme, it has massively increased the educational attainment of pupils in Lambeth, the London borough in which my constituency is located. School places are an issue there and the impact of the decision will be massive.
Just before coming to the debate, I received a copy of a letter that Susan Powell, the head teacher at La Retraite school, had just sent to the Secretary of State
about the significance of the scrapping of the BSF project at her school. She explains how, in anticipation of receiving the BSF moneys, her school took on site three mobile classrooms:
"The reason for these mobile classrooms was that, two years ago, we agreed with the local authority to take on extra pupils and to extend the intake to 5 forms of entry. We agreed to do this as part of the arrangements for BSF; it was part of our bid. We believe that we have a moral right to new buildings to house the extra pupils, which we only took on in return for this promise. You may not know that pupil places are at a premium in Lambeth which is, as an authority, extremely short of places."
Many hours, weeks and months of planning have gone into projects in my community that have been scrapped. I appeal to the Minister not only to approve the project at Dunraven school, which is in the balance, but to reverse the decision on the La Retraite and Bishop Thomas Grant schools. We are talking about our children's future, and the coalition needs to wake up and come to its senses.
"when mistakes are made, we apologise and we take responsibility."-[Official Report, 12 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 641.]
In 1997, the Labour party inherited a legacy of chronic underinvestment from successive Conservative Governments. That is a fact, and the new Administration need to learn the lessons of the past. I am more interested in that than in any apology.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), who made some extremely good points, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on having procured the debate. He knows how much I respect his views, but he weakened his case with needless party political posturing, especially with his reference to the burden of the changed scheme falling particularly on Labour-held constituencies. That is not the case, as I am about to explain.
I thank the Minister for two things. First, the Secretary of State has promised that I may visit him to talk about this subject-I shall return to that in a moment. Secondly, the Minister will be aware that a promise has also been made that either the Secretary of State or a Minister will visit my Newark constituency. I am extremely grateful, and I await both dates with great interest. My point is that, in just a few weeks, I have received two promises from this Government that I got absolutely nowhere near receiving from the previous Government.
The Minister and all Members present will know that in 2001, very few seats changed hands from the Labour party to the Conservative party. Newark was one of those that did. I campaigned hard upon the fact that the disgraceful state of the schools in my constituency would be addressed, and with urgency. To give credit where credit is due, two outstanding schools have been refurbished in the west and north parts of my constituency: one in Tuxford, of which I am a governor, and one in Southwell. They are both excellent schools and look grand, they really do. However, the four secondary schools-now three-in the centre of Newark remained
in a dreadful state. I campaigned again in 2005 on the principal point that something would be done about those schools. I constantly asked Labour Ministers for meetings. The requests were refused. I constantly asked Labour Ministers to visit the constituency. That was refused. Views constantly changed, amounts of money changed and there was obfuscation about which particular wave of the Building Schools for the Future programme my schools would be in. I never knew. When the education authority came under Conservative control, it was similarly frustrated by a process that left it flabbergasted by its incompetence.
Enough. Enough of complaining about the past. The hon. Member for Streatham made the point that this debate is about the future. It is about our children and delivering the education that they need. I am not interested in knowing what has gone before. I am not interested in the incompetence. I am interested in why The Grove school in Newark has to cease teaching when there is a heavy fall of rain and the children have to hold buckets under the roof. I am interested to know why Magnus school, which is just coming out of special measures, has nothing to look forward to. I am interested to know why the Orchard special needs school similarly has no idea what its future will be. Whatever the faults of the past, I am interested to know what the future is for these three schools on four sites-covering all the secondary schooling in the centre of my constituency-which have had their projects cancelled without a glimmer of hope being given to them.
We are told, "You can teach in a tent," and I am sure that that is possible. The staff in Newark are first class, but the grave difficulty is recruiting new staff to a site that is a shambles. The new schools that I have are recruiting staff and pupils easily. The difficulty in Newark, which is right on the border between Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, is that so many of my children are drifting away over the border into Lincolnshire to be educated there.
My message is very simple: one does not take away a lollipop without promising a child a visit to the zoo the next weekend, or something similar. It is basic psychology. All sorts of members of staff from The Grove, Orchard and Magnus schools have expressed their disappointment and horror and have asked why schools in north Lincolnshire and Sheffield, for example, are totally unaffected while all Nottinghamshire schools are affected. The Grove school has been described by the local authority as having the worst buildings in Nottinghamshire, although I think that it has strong competition from Toot Hill, in Bingham, which is also in my constituency. What is the future for those schools?
The Building Schools for the Future programme was deeply flawed. I had nothing from it but frustration, anger and obfuscation, and the performance of those who were trying to administer it was simply bathetic-not pathetic. I ask the Minister please to give me some dates for the visits and for when I can see the Secretary of State, and to let me say something to my head teachers that gives us some hope that the schools' capital projects will help Newark and that I can deliver on the promises that I made in 2001, 2005 and 2010, which took Newark out of the hands of Labour and delivered it to the Conservative party with a 16,000 majority.
Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): I believe that the Building Schools for the Future programme is a classic example of what we have seen over the past 13 years of Labour: a project that was supposed to cost £45 billion and ended up being costed at £55 billion. Bureaucracy was the absolute cornerstone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) so graphically described, there were nine stages of preparation with multiple sub-stages, and many councils that entered the process six years ago only now have building work starting.
Labour, of course, set up a quango to deliver the project: Partnerships for Schools. I understand that running the quango cost the taxpayer £24.4 million last year and that the CEO earns about £215,000 a year-very nice work if one can get it. Finally, Labour achieved completion of works on only 97 secondary schools in seven years. That is absolutely typical of the endlessly aspirational but completely failing projects in so many areas. If that were not enough, the issue that I wish to raise is even more fundamental.
None of south Northamptonshire's six secondary schools had any prospect of a look-in on the programme before 2015. My constituency has one school in special measures and another that has just come out. The buildings are appalling, presumably because attainment is reasonable. Like many partly rural constituencies, mine has great areas of deprivation. That is simply not fair. I urge the Minister to ensure that our plans provide fairness across the country.
Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on securing this timely and hugely important debate. He has campaigned tenaciously on this issue on behalf of the schools in his constituency and I applaud him for it.
This has been an energetic and passionate debate, and rightly so. Education fires up people's passions. Many hon. Members from various parties were drawn into politics because they want to work to give all our children and young people the best possible start-an aim with which I think we all agree. However, the whole House should also agree that cutting Building Schools for the Future so soon after the birth of the coalition Government is a shameful and shambolic example of ministerial arrogance and incompetence.
Time and time again in this debate, we have heard of the anger in hon. Members' constituencies-real anger, not synthetic-about the decision to scrap school buildings. My hon. Friend the Member for Halton, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) have made excellent speeches. I also highlight the excellent contribution made by the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who illustrated the cross-party anger
about the matter. The rally in London on Monday organised by the teaching unions and my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Education showed the depth of anger not just in the House, but across the country among parents, young people, teachers, school governors and local authorities.
We have heard that the manner in which the decision was made showed breathtaking incompetence and arrogance. It was incompetent because the Secretary of State, whom I like very much and think is an incredibly intelligent man, was not on top of his brief. It was a debacle because information was not provided to hon. Members when the Secretary of State made his statement to the House on 5 July. It was a shambles because error after error appeared in the cancellation lists. I think that we are currently on our fifth or sixth list, but I might be a bit behind the curve.
What matters more than any of that is the fact that 735 schools will now not be refurbished or rebuilt as planned. It is confusing. Dyke House school in my constituency was due for financial closure this Friday. It has decanted all its students to another site ahead of the two-year building programme. The head teacher has invested another £400,000 to facilitate the build, and the local authority has invested £3 million to ensure that it takes place. There has been no word whatever about whether the project can proceed. I asked a named day question about Dyke House school on 6 July, to be answered on 12 July. Almost two weeks after that answer was due to be provided, I have not yet got a response from the Department. I had the privilege to serve as a Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and I found it an incredible honour to work with the most passionate, energetic and professional officials anywhere in Whitehall. This is not the officials' fault; it is a symptom and a sign of ministerial dysfunction and incompetence, and the ministerial team should be ashamed of themselves.
Mr Slaughter: My hon. Friend is identifying some of the perhaps unintended consequences. It is not just that schools are being left with crumbling buildings; local authorities' plans for redeveloping schools have also been thrown into chaos, causing not only financial loss but the sort of loss that my hon. Friend is discussing. In some local authorities, including mine, academies have had a full modernisation programme but other schools have been left to rot, resulting in a two-tier system. It is a complete shambles.
Mr Wright: I agree absolutely. At the moment, we are debating the Academies Bill on the Floor of the House; I think that we are about to suspend for a Division on it. The Academies Bill will set up a two-tier system of education as well.
Before the Division, we were discussing the arrogance and incompetence of the current ministerial team. When the Secretary of State announced his decision, he committed the cardinal sin of failing to ask the right questions. That was arrogant, because he thought that there was no need to consult or ask whether his information was correct and accurate. That is an example of top-down government-the belief that the Minister in Whitehall knows best and that there is no need to check data or facts with schools, trade unions or local authorities.
Building Schools for the Future was not perfect; I have not suggested that and nor has any other hon. Member who has contributed to this debate. However, it was ambitious in its scope, and that was something that we had not seen in this country for the best part of a century. It represented nothing less than a 15-year programme to refurbish or replace every single secondary school in England.
Mr Wright: The hon. Gentleman must forgive me, but I have only four minutes left. In cancelling BSF, the Secretary of State told the House that rising standards in schools are not based on new or improved school buildings.
Derek Twigg: On the point about rising standards, there was some suggestion that standards had not risen under Labour, yet in Halton they have risen significantly in all secondary schools. In fact, only today Bankfield school, my old school, has been rated as outstanding by Ofsted.
Mr Wright: I congratulate Bankfield school on that achievement. Hartlepool local education authority was the fastest-improving education authority in the past 10 years, with regard to rising economic standards, and we have just lost out on £104 million of BSF funding. That could have been the last piece in the jigsaw that would allow our young people in Hartlepool, Halton and elsewhere to meet their potential and thrive.
The Labour Government were allowing teachers, who are professional and well respected, to use their professionalism to inspire and impart knowledge. The CBI produced an interesting report last year that found that exam results in BSF schools improved at more than four times the rate of other schools. It also found that in those schools 30% of pupils felt safer, that bullying and vandalism had decreased by 23% and 51% respectively and that 13% more pupils said that they intended to stay on for the sixth form. Therefore, there is a close relationship between rising standards and inspiring buildings.
To allow Britain to compete in the modern globalised economy, surely we need world-class facilities. If we are to lead the world in science in the 21st century, surely we need state-of-the-art science labs to help motivate and
inspire the next generation of scientists. If we are to be at the cutting edge of climate change mitigation, surely a good start would be to demonstrate to pupils, from the youngest possible age, that green buildings can help protect the environment. On a slightly more mundane level, surely it is right that this country, which is still the world's fifth largest economy-despite the comments of Government Members who want to run down our economic performance-should be able to provide school buildings that do not leak.
The Minister must answer several questions that the Secretary of State seems pathologically incapable of answering. If the Minister does not have time to answer them, I would appreciate it if he wrote to me, and to the Members who have participated in the debate, with specific answers.
Did the Secretary of State at any point receive written or oral advice from his officials or from Partnership for Schools urging him not to publish a list of schools until after he had consulted local authorities to ensure that his criteria were sound and his facts right? Was he advised of the risk of legal challenge from private building contractors? What contingency has his Department put in place for possible judicial reviews from schools, local authorities and private contractors? Will the Minister admit that the decision was not about inefficiency, cumbersome bureaucracy or insufficient funds, but was considered necessary by the Secretary of State to free up money for his dogmatic and ideological free market experiment in schools?
"Action is urgently needed today because the whole of my predecessor's Department's spending plans were based on unsustainable assumptions and led to unfunded promises."-[Official Report, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 50.]
That is a serious allegation about the financial controls and the accountancy and budgetary procedures at the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It alleges that the permanent secretary, as accounting officer, allowed the then Secretary of State to make uncosted promises for short-term political gain.
"During your time as Secretary of State, I can confirm that the Department for Children, Schools and Families worked closely with Her Majesty's Treasury to ensure that appropriate cover was provided for spending decisions. Decisions on capital expenditure, including those relating to Building Schools for the Future, were subject to Treasury clearance where appropriate...If any actions on this or any matter were in breach of the requirements of propriety or regularity, I would have sought a ministerial direction. I can confirm that I made no such requests during your time as Secretary of State."
Will the Minister concede that there were no unfunded promises in the BSF programme and that all schemes went through appropriate procedures of appraisal at both the Department and the Treasury? Will he now apologise for the scurrilous allegations about my right hon. Friend's conduct?
In conclusion, the Secretary of State's decision on Building Schools for the Future has cost him a lot; in the space of an afternoon, his reputation-hard won over many years-was reduced to tatters. More importantly, the decision has cost the private sector the potential for
recovery and local authorities millions of pounds in opportunity costs and sunk spending. Even more importantly, by denying hundreds of thousands of children and young people the opportunity to be taught in world-class facilities of outstanding design, that decision will be to the cost of the educational potential, and hence the social and economic progress, of this country for many decades to come.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): I am sure that we are all glad that the former Minister has got that off his chest, but he has not left me much time in which to answer the real questions that hon. Members have asked. This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and it is a pleasure. I welcome the large number of Members who have sought to participate in the debate. That demonstrates the interest in this matter, although it is notable that there are twice as many Conservative Members present as there are Labour Members.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on securing this interesting debate. I certainly recognise his passion for the subject and for the schools in his constituency. I also recognise the big impact that the Building Schools for the Future changes have had on his constituency and the good progress that those schools have made. He acknowledged that the BSF system was certainly not perfect, but he did not state what the effect on BSF would have been in the event of the re-election of a Labour Government committed to axing 50% from capital spending. The cuts have not just come about-
Tim Loughton: I will not give way because I want to answer the specific questions that the hon. Gentleman has asked. I can either take more interventions and not answer his questions, or I can answer his questions. The choice is his.
The right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) said in his speech that the coalition Government's first cut was to the BSF budget, but it would have been the same had the Labour Government been re-elected because the money was never there for the scheme, despite all their vague promises.
Many hon. Members from both sides of the House have spoken passionately about the effects of the BSF changes in their constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) has built a reputation for standing up for the schools in his constituency since his election in 2001, and I will certainly nudge my colleagues about the visits to his constituency and to the Department that he was promised. I also acknowledge the passion with which the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) spoke, particularly on his work in the interests of the young people in his constituency. I will answer three of the specific questions from the hon. Member for Halton, but if I miss any other hon. Members' questions I will be happy to write to them if they nudge me afterwards.
First, the hon. Member for Halton asked about the review. It is led by Sebastian James, the director of DSG International, and is due to be completed by the end of the calendar year, with interim advice to be produced in September, ahead of the comprehensive spending review. Secondly, he asked about the impact on ICT funding. Basically, those decisions will be taken along with those on schools still under consideration and on the future of the scheme, which is being decided under the James review. Such considerations will be part of that review.
Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman made a point about playing fields. The review will include consideration of all requirements on schools, including their buildings and land. However, there is simply no intention to get rid of playing field regulations. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the review will support the coalition aim to protect such playing fields.
I also want to respond to the specific point made by the former Minister, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), about the consultant paid £1.35 million. The National Audit Office's BSF report of 2009 said clearly, on page 37, in section 4.8, that the £1.35 million was paid to the firm KPMG for the financial services of "one individual" exclusively in that period. The hon. Gentleman knew that-[Interruption.] If he did not know that, he had not done his homework. He was a Minister in the Department at the time.
Let me restate the Government's absolute commitment to raising standards of education in this country, an ambition shared by all hon. Members and certainly those in the Chamber today. From day one, we have been totally committed to raising educational standards and to tackling head-on some of the big problems bequeathed to us by the former Government.
The achievement gap between private and state schools has grown over the past 13 years. Just as painfully, standards have declined to the point at which 42% of pupils eligible for free school meals are not achieving a single GCSE above grade D. Only a quarter of GCSE students are achieving five or more GCSEs including English, maths, science and a foreign language. We are 24th in the league table for maths, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned.
The hon. Member for Halton claimed that all the changes to BSF are ideologically driven. That is true: the
Government are ideologically ambitious to raise the quality of education for every child and to raise the standard of education in every school. The hon. Gentleman also said that the changes were the biggest attack against Labour-supporting areas. What about the attack on the aspirations of the constituents in those areas, building up their hopes of new school buildings when there was never any prospect of a re-elected Labour Government delivering them? That is the attack, and it was misleading, dishonest, opportunistic and immoral. Yet now Labour Members cry foul about how things are happening.
I understand the grave disappointments of hon. Members about the BSF programme. I also understand the disappointment of the affected heads, teachers and pupils in the constituencies of the hon. Member for Halton and others who have spoken. It would have been wonderful to have inherited a decent financial legacy so that we could carry on with an efficient building programme to renew all our schools.
The hon. Member for Streatham said that abandoning the BSF programme made no sense. However, what does not make any sense is to leave our Government with a Budget deficit of £155 billion and a public sector net debt of £926.9 billion, or 63.9% of GDP. That is what does not make sense, and that is what is unfair to the children, teachers and parents who are now being let down by a plan that would never have been delivered in practice. It also discriminated against many schools in the later phases. They had no prospect of the money, because it had been lavished disproportionately-wasted-on the earlier schools. That is the truth of the matter.
It is vital to repeat the fact that, contrary to some of the wild reports, the BSF changes do not mean that school buildings and capital works will suddenly be stopped dead in their tracks. We remain committed to investing in the schools estate, to ensure that pupils are educated in buildings of a good standard, where they feel safe, comfortable and ready to learn. However, we must acknowledge that, as the Chancellor made clear in his Budget last month, we are living in a difficult fiscal climate and one in which £1 of every £4 we spend is borrowed. Increasingly, professionals across all public services are being asked to do more with less.
BSF was the flagship programme of the previous Government. Where it has delivered, it has seen some impressive new buildings, but at a huge cost-rebuilding a school under BSF is three times more expensive than a commercial building and twice as expensive as building a school in Ireland.
Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I refer to the Register of Members' Financial Interests, in which I declare that I own a house, which I rent out privately.
The debate is the first in Westminster Hall that I have secured. I am pleased to take the opportunity to raise an issue of such importance to my constituents. Housing remains a pressing priority in Houghton and Sunderland South, and indeed across the north-east region. Time and again, constituents tell me of their frustration at being unable to secure a home to rent, in particular in a community in which they grew up and where their family continue to live. Their expectations are not unreasonable, and shortage of supply understandably gives rise to frustration and resentment.
In April 2009, there were 2,184 households on Sunderland city council's waiting list for social housing. In 2008-09, 217 people in Sunderland were accepted as homeless and in priority need. That figure is down from 597 in 2004-05, and I commend Sunderland city council's housing advice team, whose preventive work, advice and mediation prevent more families from becoming homeless. In 2008-09, the team undertook 710 homelessness prevention cases outside the statutory framework, helping to protect families from the misery and chaos of losing their home and all the social problems that that causes.
However, I am concerned that cuts to local authority funding, with more expected in the autumn, will financially squeeze councils such as Sunderland. Councils will find it increasingly difficult to invest in the vital preventive work that ultimately saves money and alleviates pressure on social housing. I seek reassurance from the Minister on that point.
Under the previous Labour Government, Sunderland's largest registered social landlord, Gentoo, secured a grant of £34 million from the Homes and Communities Agency under the kick-start scheme. That funding has been crucial in regenerating key areas in Houghton and Sunderland South, such as Doxford Park and the Racecourse estate. I know that such funding has also been crucial in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott).
Research carried out by Gentoo estimates that the overall benefit to the local economy of that Government investment was £60 million-from a grant of £34 million. Jobs in construction and associated trades were secured and created through the investment, which is important in the context of the global recession, when construction workers were struggling to find work as home building ground to a halt.
Local people have benefited from hundreds of new homes to rent and much needed regeneration. I must also commend Gentoo for ensuring that all its social housing stock meets the decent homes standard, five years ahead of the previous Government's deadline. The challenge is not simply ensuring that we have adequate social housing built to meet our needs, but enabling existing tenants to live in modern homes.
Social housing, which many of us used to know as council housing, has an important role to play in our society. For too long, we heard negative comment about so-called sink estates, with social housing seen as, at best, a second-class option and, at worst, a last resort. As someone who grew up in a council street, the major problem to affect our quality of life and that of our neighbours was the lack of investment in our homes in the 1980s and 1990s-no proper heating systems, damp, no damp-proof course and rotten windows.
Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): As my hon. Friend said, mine is the neighbouring constituency-Sunderland Central has housing provided by Gentoo and Sunderland city council. Does she agree that the standard of housing built in recent years by Gentoo in my constituency, such as Leafields, has not only improved the standard of housing that people live in, but had a great impact on reviving communities and improving their facilities? Often, such housing projects have been built in conjunction with other new builds such as Sure Start centres and schools. That impact is in danger of being lost through the cuts being threatened in such areas.
Bridget Phillipson: Yes, I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. Doxford Park is a particularly good example in my constituency of social housing at its best. Like the development in her constituency, it has a variety of homes: bungalows, flats and family homes. Equally, there is mixed tenure in such developments. There are homes for rent and homes that can be bought, often at affordable prices that are in the reach of local people.
My hon. Friend makes the good point that such development needs to be continued. We still have a pressing need for regeneration in some areas of Sunderland. I appreciate and accept the concerns of many of my constituents that, at times, regeneration has been too slow. I am keen to see it continue, but from discussions that I have had with Gentoo I know about the difficulty that it faces. It would like to build more homes for rent, but because of lack of money from the Government, at times it has little option but to reduce the number of homes it can rent, relative to the number of affordable homes it can sell.
In 1997, the Labour Government inherited a vast backlog of necessary repairs to the social housing stock. The homes were simply not fit for habitation and were crumbling. Social housing should be a genuine choice for my constituents, and I would argue strongly for that choice. Owning a home remains out of the reach of many of them due to their income, so investment in social housing must remain a key priority of the new Government.
As the housing market has slowed and the deposit required for a mortgage has sharply increased, turnover of social homes has dropped significantly in Houghton and Sunderland South, and across Sunderland. That particularly affects young families, who are forced to turn to the private sector, where rents are often higher, there are still unscrupulous landlords and there is not the same security of tenure.
I contend that if the Government will not prioritise investment in social housing, it is all the more important that additional safeguards are put in place to tackle rogue private landlords. However, the Government have offered no commitment on that issue and have dismissed
as bureaucratic any suggestion that further regulation of the private rented sector is needed. Further measures are required to provide protection to private tenants in constituencies such as mine, and to provide protection against antisocial behaviour committed by tenants where the landlord does not take action, or where properties are left to stand idle by absentee landlords who are sometimes as far afield as Hong Kong.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) used to live in my constituency. Some of the private landlords who bought properties in the area lived in Hong Kong, and the city council had significant difficulty tracking them down to push forward much-needed regeneration. Sometimes homes become a public health hazard or a focus of antisocial behaviour.
Moreover, the proposed reforms to the housing benefit system will push private tenants into poverty as they struggle in constituencies such as mine to make up the shortfall. It is not uncommon for private tenants in Houghton and Sunderland South to top up their rent by some £10 to £15 a week. For such tenants, the top-up could double when their finances will already be under pressure because of a freeze in child benefits, cuts to tax credits and the VAT rise.
The changes to housing benefit will increase homelessness in my constituency, which will, in turn, lead to greater pressure on social housing stock when we already have a shortage. Local authority housing advice teams such as those in Sunderland will struggle to deal with the additional people who register as homeless. In fact, many local councils support homeless people in accessing private tenancies, and they will now face a massive strain on their already limited budgets. I urge the Government to rethink that damaging element of the housing benefit reforms. In my constituency, it will prove divisive and punitive, and exacerbate social housing need.
Along with many others, I urged the Labour Government to prioritise investment in social housing and recognise the need felt in communities such as Houghton and Sunderland South. Investment did increase, and I was pleased that they listened. However, I am deeply concerned that that progress will be lost. The House of Commons Library makes it clear that the Homes and Communities Agency will see a 10% reduction in its capital budget this year-a total of £450 million when our need for social housing remains as strong as ever, and when crucial construction industry jobs might be secured or created.
Indeed, that cut, combined with the cuts to the Building Schools for the Future programme, will damage the already struggling construction industry in Sunderland, where vital jobs could have been created and much-needed projects could have gone ahead for the benefit of my constituents.
I shall draw my comments to a close as I am anxious to hear the Minister's response. Again, I am grateful for this early opportunity to draw attention to a serious issue that affects my constituency and wider Sunderland.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell):
I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson). She is following
in the path of her distinguished parliamentary predecessor, Fraser Kemp, and I am sure that she will in time establish the same strong reputation that he had for sticking up for constituents. She has done so very well just now. I thank her for bringing this question to the attention of the House and for giving me an opportunity to respond to it.
We need to start with the real situation facing this country as far as financial circumstances are concerned. The hon. Lady made it sound as though the coalition Government have taken decisions purely on a whim-as though we had a choice-and overlooked the fact that we have inherited the worst financial situation of any Government in western Europe, save Ireland.
Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) to the House. It is great that she is now the MP for the place where I spent some of the happiest years of my life.
The Minister makes a point that we hear continuously-that there was no choice. The truth is that there was a choice. We all agree that we have a terrible deficit to sort out, but the choice that the Government parties are taking is different from the one that my party would have taken if it had been in government. We do not have to choose what the Minister has chosen. That needs to be nailed to the wall now.
Andrew Stunell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, which is one that I have heard several times from Members on the other side of the House. Unfortunately, it is no more relevant or close to reality than the projections that were made before the election, which were that everything was fine and that we could just carry on.
If things were so good beforehand, it is astonishing that so little social housing was built by the previous Government. House building in England is now at its lowest level since 1946, with just 118,000 completions in 2009. I remind Opposition Members that they were in charge at that time. Excluding the war years, they achieved the lowest rate of house building across England and Wales since 1923. That is not a record that allows them the strength to criticise what this Government are doing now.
Bridget Phillipson: The argument that the Minister makes is a good one in many ways. He refers to 1946 as a key point. Much of my constituency is composed of post-war modern developments built when Britain was groaning under the weight of the debt we accrued to fight the second world war. Surely, sometimes it is a question of priorities. We choose to prioritise what matters, and if we choose to prioritise housing, we not only secure the future of our communities and regenerate them, but, equally, create much-needed jobs in a time of deficit.
I accept the Minister's point that the previous Government should have done more on social housing. I pushed hard on that point. I would contend that latterly they were doing more, but that the rug is now being pulled-
Andrew Stunell: I thank the hon. Lady, who acknowledged the reality of what I said. As she correctly says, this is a matter of priority. I shall come to exactly what the Government's priorities are, and why we took the decisions that we have announced.
We need to be clear that there is a significant gap between the supply and demand for new homes. For decades, the housing market failed to keep up with the needs of our growing population, which has led to problems with affordability, people coming on to the council house waiting list and people seeking to buy their first home. That, in turn, has led to social and economic problems, and the hon. Lady eloquently set out some of the problems affecting her own community.
The long-term demand for housing is strong and fed by rising population, increasing affluence-taking 10 or 20 years at a time-and people's strong cultural preference for homes of their own. Under-supply has led to some serious consequences for us.
I want to make it clear to the hon. Lady that we, too, share her commitment to having more affordable housing, and we remain committed to the provision of social rented housing for those in need. We will promote shared ownership schemes and help social tenants and others to get on to the housing ladder, although that has to be done within the constraints of the financial position that the Government find themselves in.
If constituents came to hon. Members' surgeries with a problem and explained that they were on £300 a week but were spending £400 a week and putting the extra £100 on their credit cards, which had £50,000 on them, we would, as responsible Members of Parliament, say, "You need to see whether you can increase your income and reduce your expenditure." People would get such advice from any sensible debt counsellor or MP. We, as sensible MPs, and as a sensible coalition Government, have to say that our commitments and aspirations must be measured against the resources available and the constraints of the financial position that we are in.
Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): We hear that mantra from the Government every time they open their mouth; it is their answer to every question. The Government are looking to wipe out the deficit in three to four years simply so that they can deliver tax cuts before an election. They are doing that at the expense of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson).
Andrew Stunell: It would be nice to think that we could wipe out the deficit, but the Government's financial plans say that we will have stopped adding to the overdraft. It is not that we will reduce the £50,000 credit card debt that I mentioned, but that we will stop increasing it. The hon. Lady needs to get a grip on reality.
To return to the subject of the debate, we are absolutely committed to wider home ownership and helping those who aspire to own their own home; the figure is estimated at some 1.4 million households. We want first-time buyers who cannot get into the housing market to do so, and we want social housing waiting lists to be reduced. We want to ensure that the affordable housing supply is increased.
That means building new homes, where they are sustainable, in places that are attractive to people and near to work. We know from the performance of the previous Government that top-down targets are not the right way to go about that. In fact, the higher the targets were raised by the Labour Government, the fewer houses were completed.
We intend to return decision making to democratically elected councils and to remove regional housing targets. We will reform the planning system to give neighbourhoods more say, provide incentives to local authorities to deliver sustainable development and create new land trusts that will make it simpler for communities to provide homes for local people. We will drive up housing supply by providing financial incentives to local authorities that build additional housing. I would have thought that that was helpful to the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South in respect of the debate.
Ours will be a bottom-up approach, allowing local communities to control the way villages, towns and cities develop through local plans and letting them derive direct benefits from the proceeds of growth in their areas. We need to remind ourselves again that the affordable housing supply was down by more than a third under the previous Government. We recognise that there is continued need for affordable housing for social rent and for low-cost home-ownership housing, and we remain committed to delivering on that.
Some Library figures on spending reductions being applied to the Homes and Communities Agency were mentioned. If the hon. Lady looks carefully at the expenditure plans that we have set before the House, she will see that the previous Government's housing pledge committed £1.5 billion to the agency's funding. We have now secured and authorised £1.25 billion. In other words, by struggling and kicking we have pushed forward a sum that is just £250 million short of the original pledge, which was based on wobbly finance. The Government are strongly committed to pushing that programme forward. We will make the radical changes needed to incentivise housing supply and ensure that local communities are empowered so that they can take advantage of that.
On Monday, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government attended an event in Liverpool, which was the first of a series of events to kick-start the big society. It was announced that four pilot local authorities would immediately be given the opportunity to take forward some of the ideas for devolving power and making things happen locally, to supersede top-down decision making from Whitehall and get things going on the ground. I hope that, soon, the hon. Lady will see those pilots delivering success and that she will strongly encourage Sunderland city council to join in.
The hon. Lady mentioned housing benefit, which I want to discuss. We-the Government and taxpayers-are paying more in housing benefit than we do for the police and universities combined. In real terms, the cost of housing benefit has risen from £14 billion to £21 billion in the past 10 years. I will give her the opportunity after the debate to score a few points at my expense. This is the second time that I have debated housing benefit in Westminster Hall with a Member representing Sunderland
South. The previous time was on 12 January 2000, with her predecessor-she may want to look it up in Hansard-who said:
"The overriding objective of the housing benefit system is to enable those with no income of their own and those on low incomes to provide for their reasonable housing costs... housing benefit should not subsidise someone to live in a property that is unreasonably expensive. If it did, tenants would... have no incentive to look for more reasonably priced accommodation and landlords would have no incentive to seek more reasonable rents."-[Official Report, 12 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 108WH.]
At that time, her predecessor was a Minister with responsibility for communities and I was in the hon. Lady's place, making bitter complaints about what was happening to housing benefit. Since then, housing benefit expenditure has risen by £7 billion.
Bridget Phillipson: Does the Minister accept that, subsequently, the local housing allowance was introduced to deal with that problem and that although the reforms of the housing benefit system were far from perfect-it is a complicated, means-tested system-the LHA was designed to tackle some of the difficulties, including rents being too high or tenants not being encouraged to find more affordable accommodation? We do not need wholesale cuts to adapt system more adequately to meet the needs of tenants.
Andrew Stunell: I am sure that those matters will be debated during the consultation on the plans that have been announced. Since the hon. Lady's predecessor made that statement to the Chamber, expenditure on housing benefit has increased by 50%, from £14 billion to £21 billion. A simple ready reckoner helpfully provided by my Department shows that that £7 billion would have allowed us to build 60,000 social houses in each of the past 10 years-600,000 houses could have been constructed. That would have satisfied her and me, but it would have required restraint on housing benefit.
If the coalition Government's proposals are implemented in the form in which they have been introduced, they will save £1.8 billion, which is equivalent to 20,000 social houses. In a time of constraint, the hon. Lady and I must weigh up housing benefit costs against the possibility of increased social housing. Those are the tough choices that her predecessor offered to me 10 years ago, and which it is now my duty to offer to her today. The reforms that have been announced will allow us to make better use of our social housing. A key point relates to the way that social housing is occupied. We all know that there is a mismatch between the size of households and the size of many council houses. We know that that is also an issue.
When resources, affordable housing and rented accommodation are scarce, waiting lists are high, and financial constraints on the country are great, we must ensure that we make efficient and effective use of the resources and homes that we have. The hon. Lady referred to the hardship that will be caused to her constituents as a result of applying the new rules, but I remind her that the discretionary housing payment allowance to local authorities is £20 million, which will rise threefold to £60 million to help households to adjust. As the name suggests, the payments will be entirely at the discretion of local authorities.
Hon. Members are rightly interested in housing need, which increased under the previous Government, despite a 50% increase in spending through housing benefit.
I suspect that there is not much of a gap between the hon. Lady and me on what might have been a better use of that money in delivering social housing for people to rent. We have inherited record-low house building. We have waiting lists for social housing of 1,800,000 households, and turning that around will not be easy. However, I assure the hon. Lady and other hon. Members that we are absolutely committed to turning it around and to providing safe, secure, sustainable housing for all who need it.
Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for taking this intervention; I did not want to interrupt his flow. Will he provide us with the figures? I lost track a little, but I think he said that 600,000 houses could be built for £7 billion. Can those figures be put in the Library or shared with Members so we can check them out?
Andrew Stunell: It is a good job that I did not say that, because if I had it would have been completely incorrect. If I conveyed that impression, it is a good job I am responding now, because that allows me to say that the difference in the cost of housing benefit in real terms between 10 years ago and now is £7 billion a year. I believe that the hon. Gentleman has seen my point. I do not think that there was anything wrong with what I meant to say. If there was something wrong with what I actually said, I am happy to put that right.
The focus in recent weeks has been on the Building Schools for the Future programme, but I wanted to bring this debate to Westminster Hall because the mechanisms underlying that programme-local education partnerships-have been overlooked. They are public-private partnerships between local authorities and a private sector partner selected to carry out contracting for the local authority. I have initiated this debate because I want to talk about the inefficiencies of local education partnerships and a certain lack of democratic accountability.
On value for money, I have previously worked with academy sponsors and a number have come to me in little less than despair about the measures and mechanisms that they have to go through with local education partnerships, to the extent that one even told me that the introduction of the partnership would be enough to put them off sponsoring another academy. I shall give a few details of an academy sponsor who sponsored an academy before the local education partnership came into effect, and then did so again after that, to give the Minister the benefit of experiences that that academy sponsor related to me about the way the partnership process works.
I shall also speak about the democratic accountability of local education partnerships. I shall refer, for illustration only, to a specific case in my constituency: the rebuild of Elmlea infants school, which badly needs a rebuild and has a very hard-working head teacher. That rebuild will not be done under the Building Schools for the Future programme.
First, on the academy sponsor and its concerns about efficiencies, the sponsor told me that the local education partnership in Bristol-the contractor partner was Skanska-was 90% owned by Skanska as contractor and 10% owned by the local authority. Obviously, that raises questions. The interests not of the school but of Skanska were put first, because of its stake in the LEP. Moreover, the local authority was a 10% shareholder, so it was compromised because the higher the building costs for Skanska, the higher the fees to the LEP. It was apparent that the school's interests were not represented in that dynamic.
My second concern is about responsibilities. A partnership may function very well, but there may be a lack of accountability as to who takes responsibility for what. That problem has been raised frequently in connection with academy projects. In a local education partnership academy project, the school that is converting to an academy is not the client; the local authority is the client. In the case that I am referring to-it may be replicated because of the structural nature of LEPs-the
council is reluctant to accept responsibility for the contract, because the school that it is looking after will no longer be its school. There is an imbalance in responsibility for the LEP contract and responsibility for the school afterwards. During discussions on the rebuild and the education to be provided in the new academy, the school was unable to speak directly to the architect dealing with the build but had to go through the contractor, Skanska, which did not necessarily have the expertise that the school had in providing buildings fit for educational purpose.
On costs, the school, which was being sponsored by sponsors who had sponsored other academies, was forced to take on the LEP procurement process rather than open tender. That caused much concern and some frustration, because the sponsor had managed to bring in an academy on time and under budget-the Minister will know that that is unusual for academy procurement and set-up. The sponsors had proved to be extremely efficient and had found extremely efficient partners, and they wanted to replicate that best practice, but were unable to do so because of the rigidity of the local education partnership. They also reported that Skanska had an overhead and profit margin of 8% plus, compared with the market rate of 4%. The sponsor estimated that that deprived the school of £500,000 of new build for that element alone.
On legal fees, because of the nature of the local educational partnership, there were three sets of solicitors. There were no challenges to the legal costs, which were substantial and, I would suggest, in a number of cases arose from replication of a task.
Those are illustrations of a wider problem that I am sure is replicated up and down the country. In another case, a school was forced to take the LEP ICT option, even though it already had its own ICT equipment that it could run itself, and which was fully functioning and used to great effect. That equipment was not compatible with the LEP version of ICT equipment required, so it was replaced at great cost, with complex contracts having to be negotiated. New ICT equipment had to be bought in at the taxpayer's expense, and the school's existing, perfectly functional ICT equipment became redundant because of the rigidity of the procurement process.
I could go on and on-I have a long list of inefficiencies, but I know that the Minister has better things to do, so I will not do that. Those examples of waste were provided to me by just one academy sponsor, which came to me with its concerns, but they are an indication of the kind of waste that is occurring under local educational partnerships. In this climate of economic austerity, I suggest that such waste should be looked at carefully.
My second concern is slightly less reported and has to do with democratic accountability and transparency. To illustrate my point, I will refer to the rebuild of Elmlea infants school in my constituency. The infants school shares a site with Elmlea junior school. Both schools have playgrounds and Elmlea junior school has a large playing field, which is an excellent facility for the community and is used to fulfil the curriculum requirements of both the infants and the junior school. The infants school is in urgent need of a rebuild-it has classrooms with no windows. The head teacher works hard for her children and the school is successful despite its substandard facilities.
The local educational partnership was responsible for drawing up a projected rebuild of Elmlea infants school. All along the line, the LEP process has derailed, been postponed and caused confusion among almost all the stakeholders-the local authority, head teachers in the schools and, most particularly, parents and the public. In January 2009, a feasibility study presented options 1, 2 and 3 for a rebuild of Elmlea infants school-this will get technical, but it illustrates the point. Options 1 and 2 were based on rebuilding on the existing site, and option 3 was based on rebuilding on the junior school's playing field.
Throughout the process, it seemed that there was an LEP bias towards option 3. Option 2 was presented as the favoured option in January 2009, but rather undemocratically and quickly-it is difficult to get to the bottom of why this happened-option 3 was suddenly presented as the preferred option. All sorts of questions were raised about why that happened. Questions were asked by parents and by myself at public meetings, because incomparable costs had been presented in an attempt to move public opinion and the opinion of those in the local authority in favour of option 3-the rebuild on the playing field. The key question is why the LEP was able to provide incomparable costs. I have asked for breakdowns of the costs for the individual options so that the process can be conducted in a transparent manner and value for money can be ascertained; but to date, I have not received those breakdowns, so it is difficult to see how the money is being spent.
In conjunction with the knowledge that, in the academies process, 90% of the LEP was owned by Skanska, it has been asked whether Skanska's interests are driving the school rebuild, or whether the rebuild is being driven by the interests of the school, parents and education. In my constituency, it has become a massive issue. The lack of transparency has delayed the process because people are seeking democratic accountability and answers. The school is worried that the rebuild it needs so much will be jeopardised because the LEP process has been so long-winded and has evaded so many questions that need answering.
I could go on and on about the failings and the questions that hang over the local educational partnership, but I will mention just a few. The preferred option for rebuild presented to the elected member for education on the council was changed at the last minute, with no debate or scrutiny. That put people on the council in a difficult position. The local educational partnership refers to independent partners, such as KEY Educational Associates, as independent in their scrutiny, whereas in fact at least one member of that independent body is employed by Skanska, so there is a question about that independence. More generally, democratic accountability has been poor.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister what his views are-if he has formed any-on the role of local educational partnerships, given that the Building Schools for the Future programme has been reviewed. Will he look closely at the value for money and the democratic accountability and efficiency represented by local educational partnerships, over which I have grave concerns?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing the debate, especially as it is her first in Westminster Hall. I also offer my congratulations on her recent election. I am sure that she will serve the people of Bristol North West for many years to come with the greatest distinction and dedication. Even if her endeavours this afternoon were not witnessed by a packed Chamber, the quality of her exposition of the problem, which showed great technical know-how, did her great credit. Her points about local education partnerships, waste, value for money, democratic accountability and transparency, are important.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend on her election to the Education Committee, and I hope that she will have a rather larger audience during that Committee's deliberations. As a leading expert in the field, she brings us a wealth of experience and knowledge of a range of educational matters-we heard about one this afternoon-and I look forward to working closely with her and the rest of the Committee.
My hon. Friend wishes specifically to discuss the role of local education partnerships and academies in her part of Bristol. I am delighted to do that, but I shall first put matters into a wider context. In her excellent maiden speech, my hon. Friend eloquently described the huge disparity between the opportunities extended to the richest and the poorest children in her constituency-the achievement gap. That poverty of attainment marks too much of the educational system, particularly for those in the most deprived areas. She described it as
"a tale of two cities, whereby extreme poverty and deprivation exist side by side with some of the richest wards in the country."-[Official Report, 2 June 2010; Vol. 510, c. 499.]
She is right, but that problem is by no means unique to Bristol North West or even the rest of Bristol. It is a sad reflection on our education system that, out of a cohort of 600,000 pupils, 80,000 are eligible for free school meals, of whom just 45 made it to Oxbridge last year.
Making opportunity more equal is the aim of the coalition Government in all of their policies, and it also guides our approach to education. That comes against the backdrop of the appalling state of public finances. Our first priority must be to reduce the deficit, but we must also ensure that we improve public services in order to improve the chances of every child. Because we prioritised education, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was able to announce that we will protect front-line spending this year on schools, on 16-to-19 funding and on Sure Start. Because tackling educational inequality is at the heart of our reforms, we will introduce a pupil premium to ensure that money is better targeted at the poorest pupils. I know that my hon. Friend has contributed both energy and enthusiasm to that policy in the past and we are extremely grateful to her for that.
Because we are determined to ensure that every child-especially the poorest-has access to excellent teaching, we will double the number of highly accomplished graduates teaching in our schools, recruit hundreds more graduate teachers into areas of poverty where they can help to raise attainment in the most challenging places and, for the first time, fund the expansion of graduate teachers into primary schools. As my hon. Friend pointed out, we must ensure that we spend
taxpayers' money in the most efficient and responsible way possible at all times and on all elements of our programme, especially capital spending on refurbishing existing schools and building new ones-including, of course, academies.
It is deeply regrettable that, throughout its life, the Building Schools for the Future programme, which included academies, has been characterised by massive overspends, tragic delays and needless bureaucracy. Its startling inefficiency means that stopping the programme was the right thing to do. Having extended its scope, its budget bulged from £45 billion to £55 billion, and its time scale went from 10 years to a projected 18. Of the £250 million spent before building began, £60 million was spent on consultants or advisory costs to support layer upon layer of process. In some areas, it took more than two years to negotiate the bureaucracy, and that was before a single builder had been engaged or a single brick laid. Only 5% of the 3,500 secondary schools in this country were rebuilt, refurbished or received BSF funding for ICT-only 185 schools, which is astonishingly few given how much money was spent. Perhaps worst of all, considering the state of public finances, is that BSF schools cost three times what it costs to procure buildings in the commercial world, and twice what it costs to build a school in Ireland.
The programme could not be allowed to continue, so my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education announced on 5 July that we would end the previous Government's school rebuilding programme. However, the end of the BSF programme does not mean the end of investing in our schools. We are still absolutely committed to rebuilding and refurbishing, but we do not believe that the BSF programme was spending taxpayers' money anywhere near efficiently enough, and money wasted on that programme was money that could not be used elsewhere, either in schools or other parts of the education establishment. We want to review all ways in which schools are built to ensure that money is allocated more efficiently, less expensively and, most important, more fairly. The cancellation of BSF does not represent the end of capital investment in schools. The review announced on 5 July will consider how the Department invests capital money, and its recommendations will help to shape the design of future capital investment in schools to ensure that we have enough school places in enough good buildings where pupils can learn effectively.
I turn to local education partnerships. As the previous Government's preferred mechanism for local areas procuring BSF building services, local education partnerships have been a major component of the old process. Although the reason for establishing LEPs was specifically to support BSF projects, some local authorities chose to use their LEPs for projects outside BSF, as happened in the case of Elmlea school, cited by my hon. Friend. However, whether or not LEPs are part of the BSF programme, they should take responsibility for offering value for money to the taxpayer in all their capital spending-indeed, we would expect nothing less. That is why we will be reviewing procurement and delivery models as part of the terms of reference in our capital review.
The aim of the review is to ensure that future capital investment represents good value for money and that it responds to schools' real needs. The review is already under way, and I shall not pre-empt its findings today. It
will report to Ministers in mid-September, and a forward plan for capital investment over the next spending review period will be produced by the end of the calendar year. However, it is as clear to me as it is to my hon. Friend that LEPs are part of a truly cumbersome process, which needs to be closely examined and fundamentally re-engineered to ensure that a higher proportion of our capital investment gets rapidly to the schools that need it most. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend on the immense detail that she has given us on the LEP that covers her constituency.
Whatever the detailed outcome of the review, we must ensure that the views of head teachers, teachers, parents and local communities are more effectively and swiftly acted upon and that there is a much greater focus on achieving value for money. When it comes to procuring services to build schools, we should have proper accountability and real efficiency. That will be good for local areas, schools, pupils and the taxpayer.
I turn to the Bristol local education partnership. My hon. Friend said that the partnership was split 90% to Skanska and 10% to Bristol city council. I gather that the figures are 80% to Skanska, 10% Bristol city council and 10% to a local BSF partnership, which is a slightly different equation. I have deep sympathy with the plight of those in my hon. Friend's constituency who have suffered from the excessive bureaucracy of the current process. I hope the situation at Elmlea school can be resolved for the long-term benefit of the pupils, and that a solution is found that is efficient and effective and that represents good value for money.
The Bristol LEP has delivered four PFI-funded schemes on time and on budget, with six further secondary school projects in various stages of completion and a further three academy projects either handed over or under construction. Aside from one slightly delayed handover of a new building, its track record has been
generally solid in terms of budget, quality and programme. However, the LEP model in Bristol has not proved so adept in delivering smaller-scale primary school projects where the needs of the local communities required a greater level of consultation and understanding. We are aware of the demand of parents in north-west Bristol for more primary school places and for more choice in secondary schools. We will have to wait for greater certainty about the various ideas that have emerged from there and the outcome of the review before decisions can be made, but whatever comes out of the review, we can be sure that future investment will be characterised by speediness and value for money.
I reiterate our commitment to investing in schools in Bristol and around the country. We have set out a comprehensive programme of reforms, founded on the need to make opportunity more equal. Part of that will be to ensure that schools across the country that need rebuilding and renovation will, in future, receive that money in a more timely and efficient manner. That is the only way to give every pupil in Bristol and beyond a better chance of success.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on having considered the problem, and I would be more than happy were she to highlight further anomalies in the local education partnership. If she refers them to the Secretary of State or the Minister for Schools, I shall ensure that they receive proper attention. I congratulate her on bringing the matter to a not entirely crowded Chamber, and I note that in her short time in the House as Member for Bristol North West she has made great endeavours to ensure a fairer and better education system for all her constituents.