Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): Like others, I declare an interest. I was, until 2000, a teacher, having taught in three state comprehensive schools, two of which were classed as social priority. I was a member of the Inner London education authority, the mention of which calls to mind not only political battles of the past but, perhaps, the importance of those battles in changing education structures and of what that can do to raise standards.
I want to cover three points: spending, teaching in deprived areas and ideology. Although the Labour party does not like it, the sad truth is, as the Secretary of State underlined, that for the next couple of years everything that we do must be seen in the context of the financial
mess we have been left with-not only the huge budget deficit and the record national debt, but the fact that Labour went into the last election with blank cheques, of which, for me, Building Schools for the Future was the last. Those are Labour's legacies, and, although today we have been told that we are making cuts, they were phantom legacies with no money to back them up. I congratulate the Secretary of State on what he achieved in the comprehensive spending review-the increase of £3.6 billion over the next four years and the pupil premium, which other Members have mentioned.
On Building Schools for the Future, we accept that in certain areas there is obviously worry and panic, but the Labour party's suggestion that the capital programme has entirely disappeared and there will be no repairs to schools and no new schools built is a fallacy. In Fleetwood, which has an extremely good Conservative county council that looks after its money, seven primary schools in some of the most deprived areas in my constituency will have been rebuilt and refurbished by the end of this financial year. That work is still going on, whatever Labour claims.
For me, the learning environment is not just about teaching. It is more than bricks and mortar and, these days, steel and glass. We need quality teaching, good leadership from heads and legislation that allows professionals the freedom to innovate and get on with what they do best.
I remember starting out as a young teacher-we were all young once-in the 1970s when there was another "building schools for the future" programme under a Prime Minister called Jim Callaghan. My first teaching post was in Tottenham, a deprived area then and now, which is perhaps a comment on a series of Governments in between. One could not imagine this today, but we were offered a purpose-built comprehensive for 11 to 18-year-olds, with eight-form entry, on a brand-new site behind Spurs football club. Northumberland Park school, as it was called, was designed by the latest 1970s architects-hon. Members can imagine the result-and had a theatre and a swimming pool. We moved into the school with its first first-years-we had first-years in those days; I think they are called year 7s now-and a bunch of new, enthusiastic and excited teachers. That is where I learned my trade as a history teacher, and I have three anecdotes about my experience.
First, 10 years down the line, that school was in serious trouble, so the building was not the problem. Secondly, I was asked, as a history teacher, to choose the European A-level module, and I chose France and Louis XIV because that is what I knew, it was my specialism, and I could bring my best talents to bear on it. However, there was stiff opposition from the so-called education advisers. This is when I tuned into politics, because that opposition was all about questioning the ability of children in Tottenham, whatever their background, to achieve what other schoolchildren could achieve. I was sorry to hear the shadow Secretary of State's comment about teaching Latin in Acton. Why should every child not get the best that other schools-even independent schools-provide? I can tell him that the students who studied Louis XIV have ended up in good jobs because they were well taught, not just by me, but by others.
My third anecdote is about social deprivation and poor schools. In that same school, I wanted to put on extra classes when we first had a sixth form, and I did
so, for children going for their pre-university application. They were the first from that school to do so, but I was told by the local National Union of Teachers activist that I should perhaps not put on extra classes. Why? Because the school might expect other staff to do the same. I was naive enough to believe that getting a job in a socially deprived area and school involved going the extra mile. Through his reforms, the Secretary of State is attempting to allow teachers who are perhaps a bit younger than I am now to go that extra mile and to achieve for every single child.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), who drew on his experience at the chalk face to make his points. I agree with him that every child ought to have the best.
I have been privileged to spend my life in education, working with the most fantastic young people in schools and colleges as well as with wonderful fellow professionals. Professionals have not always got it right, nor have politicians. However, when the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said that his priorities were "education, education, education" he at least put his money where his mouth was. We saw investment in education at all levels-from Sure Start to higher education-the like of which I had not seen in my lifetime.
That is why the Secretary of State was right to begin his speech by celebrating successful school leaders who prospered under the previous Government. That does not mean the previous Government got everything right, because they could have done some things better, but, sadly, this Government, rather than learning from and building on the success of their predecessor, are doing what politicians too often do: gambling on organisational change. They are starting again with structures, but that is a distraction from the core issues of quality and teaching and learning, and the capacity and quality of leadership in schools and colleges, which the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) rightly emphasised.
Nationally, schools with the highest number of children who receive free school meals have seen the biggest rise in educational attainment. There has been phenomenal investment in information technology and other modern equipment in our schools, and the role of support staff has been transformed so that the focus is more effectively on the needs of our young people. Teachers are now specialised in teaching and learning, and the outcomes that they have achieved at all levels of our education system have improved year on year. Exciting and innovative things are happening in our comprehensive classrooms, yet, at the very moment when there is a momentum towards greater success, what do this new Government do? With no electoral mandate, they decide to turn everything upside down and gamble with our children's future.
We need look no further than the Government's approach to EMA to see how they have strayed from their mandate and gambled with our young people's futures. Over the past few years, EMAs have been a spur to widen achievement and raise aspiration. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) quite rightly quoted the Secretary of State when, putting
our right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) in his place, he said, "I have never said we are scrapping EMAs. We won't." It was pleasing to see that the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) said as recently as June:
"The Government are committed to retaining the educational maintenance allowance".-[ Official Report, 14 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 307W.]
Research conducted by CfBT-the Centre for British Teachers-gives robust evidence that EMAs have increased participation and achievement among 16 and 17-year-olds and contributed to improved motivation and performance. As the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness recognised, when effectively focused on the target groups, EMAs are restricted to low-income households and disproportionately taken up by those with low achievement at school, those from ethnic minorities and those from single-parent families. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that attainment at GCSE and A-level by recipients of EMAs has risen by 5 to 7 percentage points since their introduction.
I know all that from my own experience as the principal of a sixth-form college. Indeed, only this week the principal of North Lindsey college in my constituency wrote to me expressing alarm at the impact of the Government's plans to scrap EMAs on young people's aspirations. He urged me to raise the matter in Parliament and to argue the case for retaining EMAs, so that is what I am doing this evening. I am appalled by the way in which the Government have abandoned EMAs, breaking the promises that they made to young people as recently as June, as well as before the election. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh pointed out, this Government are taking a reckless gamble with our children's futures.
Sure Start is being reduced and diminished. The pupil premium appears to mean no more than raiding money from other pots and distributing it in a different way-a way that may turn out to be more unfair. That is why a Liberal Democrat colleague-the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward)-left the Chamber so peremptorily earlier on. He was not satisfied with the answer that the Secretary of State gave to his quite proper question. There will be a real-terms cut per pupil in the schools budget. BSF is a shambles, with schools, communities and students being let down. Support for school sport is being dismantled, thereby betraying our commitment to an Olympic legacy. EMAs are being cancelled and tuition fees trebled. So much for aspiration.
This is a casino Government, gambling with the economy, gambling with our nation's health service and gambling with our children's future. It is a gamble that is uncosted, unhelpful and unnecessary. I urge all hon. Members to support the motion before the House this evening.
"pursuing a reform agenda in education that represents an ideological gamble with successful services",
In my constituency, after 13 years of a Labour Government and a Labour council, and with two Labour MPs between 1997 and 2005, the latest local figures available show that nearly 40% of pupils fail to achieve the basic standard of five good GCSEs, including maths and English. The national figures show that nearly half of all pupils failed to meet that basic standard last year. I am therefore not sure how those on the Labour Front Bench can claim any success, especially when so many thousands of young people are leaving compulsory education without achieving even the most basic of standards. Nor can they claim that the issue is expenditure. In real terms, public expenditure on education increased by £35 billion over Labour's 13-year period in office, which is an increase of some 72%, although the increase in my constituency was only 50%. Essentially, 50% of children are failing to reach the basic standard, and that is as good as it got in 13 years of a Labour Government. The minor improvements that took place in later years-the introduction of academies, and things like that-were unfortunately far too little and far too late, leaving many children failing in our schools.
Although there are still too many bad teachers in our schools, a large majority are committed and doing a wonderful job in very difficult circumstances. As with so many other parts of the public sector, teachers have been tied up with bureaucracy, and constrained by an over-supply of rules and an under-supply of common sense. I see that week in, week out in schools in my constituency, and I therefore welcome the fact that my Government are introducing truly radical reforms to increase innovation and diversity of approach in our schools. After years of failure by a Labour-run council, I welcome the fact that the Government's academy policy is handing powers to the people who are best placed to understand the needs of education in their local areas: teachers, head teachers and governors.
In my constituency, there has been a stampede to academy status. Highdown school has already announced its intention to gain such status, and Reading boys school and Kendrick girls school, both grammar schools, will follow shortly. I am sure that others, such as Reading girls school, will take advantage of today's announcement by my right hon. Friend that any school may now apply for academy status if it teams up with a stronger school that will help to drive improvement.
Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): In addition to welcoming the success of the academies in my hon. Friend's constituency, does he also welcome, as I do, the Secretary of State's recent decision to allow the National Education Trust, the Centre for British Teachers and the Friends of All Saints school to move forward to the next stage of setting up a free school in my constituency with the aim of opening a 120-pupil school in September next year? That local school is backed by local people and the whole of the local community.
I want to make one further remark about my two excellent grammar schools, and I say this gently. I have had conversations with head teachers to the same end. Their catchment areas need to be looked at carefully. Kendrick school in particular is recruiting pupils from far and wide, and is becoming too remote from the local
community that it serves. I would like my local grammar schools to re-engage with the task of aiding social mobility for clever, poorer local Reading children rather than being regional schools. I hope that my right hon. Friend will ensure that those schools can expand their numbers to recruit more local Reading children as that may help the situation.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that under the last Government, grammar schools were, unfairly, not allowed to expand their numbers. It is clear that people in my constituency are voting with their feet, and schools are taking advantage of academy status and all the freedom that that brings, instead of staying with the failed system of central planning of the shadow Secretary of State's Government.
I hope that very soon there will be another massive step forward for education in my constituency with the announcement of a brand new school. I have been particularly taken with the success of city technology colleges and university technical colleges to support education for 14 to 19-year-olds. They would add real diversity and choice for parents in my constituency.
Before it was popular and before it was Conservative party policy, I often wrote about and campaigned for a pupil premium. It is gratifying that the Government are implementing such an important and radical policy, which could see some schools with a particularly high concentration of poor pupils receive as much as £1 million in additional funding to deal with the particular disadvantages associated with poorer pupils. That could make an enormous difference, and help to close the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils, although I accept that on its own it will not be enough.
The Opposition should recognise that the coalition Government are taking on the most successful policies of the last Government, such as the Teach First scheme to bring outstanding graduates into teaching. But they must also face up to the reality that 13 years of a Labour Government and local authority-run education services have left a legacy where, despite massive investment, almost half of pupils fail to make the best or even the most basic grade at school. We owe it to our children to try radical new approaches that have had great success both here and in other countries. It is time to break the cycle of under-achievement.
Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): I realise that time is short, so I have cut down enormously on what I was going to say. I shall stick to the main points. I have been privileged to spend most of my career in education. I know how schools operate, unlike most of those on the Government Front Bench, and I am therefore in the privileged position of being able to comment on the Government's proposals and on how they are likely to impact on schools and on outcomes for children.
Given my background, I will always approach education reforms not from an ideological standpoint but from the standpoint of whether they will improve schools and outcomes for children, especially poor and vulnerable children, and those with additional difficulties, in constituencies such as mine. The question for me is whether the Government's reforms will continue the many different improvements that we have seen, or whether they will act as an anchor on talent and aptitude.
I find it inconceivable that any Government could consider allowing just about anyone to open a free school in any type of building, without outdoor play areas, recreational space, or qualified teachers. I am sure the Secretary of State will be aware of the recent Institute of Education report, which clearly demonstrates that the more time a child spends with a support assistant, as opposed to a teacher, the less progress that child will make. It is the strength of the pedagogical environment, the specialist knowledge of the subject and the confidence and quality of the teaching experience that deliver progress. That can only come from a qualified teacher working in a qualified environment.
The Government are proposing a relaxation of the accountability framework in schools, so that academies and schools judged to be outstanding will be inspected only every seven years. I have to ask whether that is going to improve outcomes for schools. I have many criticisms of Ofsted, but I do not criticise its relentless pursuit of an upward trajectory in school improvement. We are all swiftest when we are chased, and that applies as much to head teachers, teachers and schools as to anything or anyone else.
The Government are seeking to abolish independent appeals panels for exclusions. I understand from my discussions with schools that that is not what they want. Head teachers and chairs of governing bodies are telling me that, while it can be very uncomfortable to appear before those independent panels, they provide valuable checks and balances in the system. The heads and chairs are concerned that, without them, they could find themselves defending their actions in court. That would not be good for schools.
The Government are also proposing a national funding formula that is distributed from central Government. However, I am more concerned with what that resource will drive into schools than with where it comes from or who delivers it. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have repeatedly said that they will protect schools funding, but when asked direct questions, they have given very few direct answers. I was pleased to hear the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) advise the Education Committee this morning that schools budgets would grow by subsuming the standards fund and the educational needs grant into the baseline, and that they would be increased by the pupil premium. If that is true, it is welcome. However, the Secretary of State needs to know that I will be checking out the position with schools in my constituency when they get their budgets in December, and if those schools, which educate some of the most deprived children in the country, have less money next year than they have this year, I will be his worst nightmare.
The Secretary of State is an English graduate, and he is fond of coming to the House and lecturing us on the teaching of history. I want to give him a lesson from my end of the curriculum. Unlike politics and philosophy, maths is an absolute science. I shall start with an easy
equation. If schools in the poorest communities receive less funding next year than they did this year, and if we add that to more unemployment and poverty as a result of Government cuts, that will equal poorer standards and outcomes, not better ones.
I have looked at the reforms very carefully, and if they are going to produce better outcomes for schools, I will welcome them. However, it is my considered view that they will lead to improved outcomes for some children but poorer outcomes for most. The strapline of this Government will be less "Every child matters" and more "Actually, some children don't matter very much at all". That would be a tragedy for the majority of children and schools in this country. The Government appear to be following an ideological experiment with other people's children, and it is the poorest and the most vulnerable who will lose out most.
Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I appreciate that we are running on a somewhat reduced timetable, but I want to spend a little time metaphorically to reach across the Floor, if I may, and express some sympathy for the fact that Labour was the party that Opposition Members joined. [Interruption.] Most Labour Members may not have been on the Front-Bench team or even in this House during the previous Labour Government, but this is the party they joined and they looked to it to be progressive and ambitious for every child in this country. I am sure they still do, but when they look back on the 13 years of Labour Government, they will see our decline in the international league tables and a widening gap on social mobility, not to mention the 900,000 young people not in education, employment or training. They must be disappointed. The real disappointment, however, is that when faced with a bold and truly ambitious programme such as the one put forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, those on the Labour Front Bench have nothing positive to say.
Far from being the ideological gamble suggested by the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) in the Opposition motion, I believe that our programme of change is measured, responsible and genuinely based on evidence. One refreshing aspect of the new Government is that whenever discussion of education policy arises, it always starts with the international evidence and considers where in the world something is done best-whether it be in Norway, Sweden, parts of the United States, or Singapore. Further confirmation of the coalition Government's evidence-based approach is that they have not proceeded in an ideological way, as they have continued a number of programmes put forward by the previous Government. They are even continuing with some policy elements that have not yet started or are only just beginning, such as increasing the participation age to 18 or the extension of free entitlement in early years. That,
if nothing else, provides absolute evidence that our approach to education is not about salami slicing, cheese paring or any other kind of food cutting-up that could be described.
There are good and great things happening in any period, and some occurred under the last Labour Government. I am thinking of the academy programme, in particular, which was the baby of the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The former Chairman of the education Select Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said that he understood the approach towards the first wave of schools in the academy programme under the last Government, but it was always Tony Blair's ambition that, eventually, to use his own words, "every school" could be an academy.
The new coalition programme is about focusing on the elements that can make the most difference, prioritising the areas, the people and the children that most need help at the most pivotal times in their lives, and then trusting professionals to get on and do the job. When it comes to spending money where it can make the most difference, I believe in people, not palaces. Of course the school environment makes a difference, but what makes an even bigger difference is the person standing at the front of the class-the person who can inspire and lead those young people, helping them to learn. That is why I welcome the extension of Teach First, the introduction of Teach Now and new initiatives such as Troops to Teachers.
It is often said that no one forgets a good teacher, but I have met many people who have forgotten a good smart board. In the Building Schools for the Future programme, the £1,625 spent per pupil on IT would have been much better spent in investing in our human resources and our people.
As to focusing on the people who need help most, there is the pupil premium, supplemented by the education endowment fund. Although it is right to debate how that formula works and how the transition to the pupil premium will work, I would love to hear any Labour Member challenge the principle of the pupil premium and say that it is the wrong way to go about funding education. There should be an amount per pupil and then a supplement- [Interruption.] I am talking about the structure. The supplement will go to those who need it most. It puts the money where it is most needed and it will incentivise schools to take on the most needy pupils rather than have the top-skimming about which people rightly complain.
I have virtually no time left so I shall conclude by saying that focus on the most formative times is important. That is why I particularly welcome the extension of the early-years free allowance and the extension to the neediest children at age two. Every piece of academic evidence that I have ever seen says that it is most important to focus on the very earliest years to help with children's futures. That will affect their ability to read and their behaviour and discipline, which affects all those around them.
We thus have diversity and choice in respect of school types and we have progressivity in respect of the pupil premium and other measures. We also have an evidence-based, financially responsible approach that will allow more schools to prosper, more teachers to flourish and more children to become everything they possibly can be.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): We have had a very good debate, which has included contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the hon. Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley), my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) and the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). The debate has been well informed, with Back Benchers in particular bringing their expertise to the subject.
The Government are embarking on an ideological experiment with the children of this country. Let us look at some of the measures that have been discussed this afternoon. The pupil premium has featured quite largely. It is supposed to be the Liberal Democrats' flagship contribution to the coalition Government, so important that any funding for it would be in addition to planned spending on schools. That is what the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) said was the benchmark, and that is what the Prime Minister said. He said that it would be additional. That is what a premium is, after all: something on top. Then along came George, and the Treasury boffins.
I know that the Secretary of State is a very cultured man. I would say that he is a very literary man. Some might say that he is sometimes a self-dramatising man. However, no one would ever be so vulgar as to suggest that he is a man with an eye for detail, or with his finger firmly on the figures. How else can we explain the fact that he was popping open the champagne when he received his settlement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite having just been done up like a kipper?
Let me give the Secretary of State some advice. If the Chancellor offers the same amount of cash next year as this year, that is a cut in real terms. If he then offers to top it up so that, per pupil, it does not keep up with cost increases over the next few years, that is not a pupil premium, but a real cut per pupil. It is not a pupil premium, but an old Treasury con. The Secretary of State should have known better.
One can accept that the Secretary of State, with his challenged grasp of numbers, might be beguiled by the Chancellor, with all his confusing charts and tables-that is perfectly possible-but how can we explain the reaction of his Liberal Democrat chum in the Department? How does the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), respond to this absorption of the supposedly additional flagship pupil premium into a schools budget that has been reduced per head in real terms? Answer: she brags about it. She will have trouble bragging about it when she starts trying to explain to head teachers in Brent Central why their budgets have
been cut despite the introduction of the so-called pupil premium. She will have to use all the expertise that she has built up over the years in preparing dodgy bar graphs for Liberal Democrat focus leaflets.
We can all imagine the scene. Brent head teacher: "But my budget has gone down! Where is the pupil premium?" The hon. Member for Brent Central: "Let me just show you this bar graph. It clearly demonstrates that although you have less money, you have more money than you would have had if we had cut the budget more deeply. You have therefore benefited from the pupil premium." Brent Head Teacher: "Oh, well, that's all right then." Come off it! The hon. Lady must think that head teachers in her constituency were born yesterday. It is a con. When the final budget figures land on head teachers' desks across the country, it will take more than a few dodgy bar graphs from the hon. Lady and a few flowery flourishes from the Secretary of State to con professional school leaders into swallowing this nonsense.
It is no wonder the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) walked out when the Secretary of State admitted that this was simply an increase in cash terms. [Hon. Members: "Stormed out!"] Stormed out, indeed. According to the hon. Gentleman's website, he fights for schools in his area. I believe it, after his reaction to the Secretary of State's announcement to the House. I know that the Minister who will be winding up the debate loves a bit of poetry, so I will give him some Yeats. It was a case of
"I will arise and go now"
Mr Stuart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way in what is a witty and well-presented speech, although he is using paltry facts to great effect. The truth is that with funding for the NHS protected-unlike under Labour-along with funding for international aid, the threat to education was significant. People were talking about cuts of 10%, 20% and possibly higher. Therefore it must be seen as a good result that, in an extremely tough overall financial round, the education and schools budget, including the pupil premium, is being increased in real terms.
Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman knows that it is not increasing in real terms per head over the next few years, but that is not the point. I would accept that if that were the Government's explanation for what they are trying to do, but they are trying to con people into believing that the pupil premium is truly a premium, an additional sum of money. That is what they promised; that is what the Prime Minister promised, but it is not what is being delivered.
What else do the Lib Dems get out of this deal? They get free schools that bypass local democracy, which they used to be so keen on, and that can be set up without any planning permission. They can be set up in an undertaker's if that is what people want, which would make for an interesting school run. The Lib Dems also get a 60% cut in the capital programme, with resources diverted to the Conservatives' peripheral ideological experiment, and a systematic dismantling of any system or programme that promotes collaboration and working together within the family of schools. No school is an island. Yes, by all means give schools freedom and autonomy from unnecessary bureaucracy, but let us please acknowledge that, without any structure for co-operation, standards ultimately suffer.
Let us look at school sports partnerships, which were mentioned in the debate. This morning at a meeting in the House of Commons we heard from Jo Phillips, a school sports co-ordinator in the Prime Minister's Witney constituency, who is about to be made redundant by the Secretary of State. Along with others, she described the transformation that school sports partnerships have brought in Oxfordshire and across the country. She absolutely dismissed the guff we heard from the Under-Secretary of State at Education questions on Monday, and said she could not believe that the Prime Minister could possibly have been told what the full consequences of the complete withdrawal of funding would be for his constituency and the country as a whole.
I hope the Secretary of State has explained to the Prime Minister what he is doing with school sports partnerships. We all saw his dramatic transformation from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde when the Prime Minister walked into the Chamber in the middle of Education questions on Monday, so powerful was his zeal to please his boss. Perhaps the Government were a bit hasty in getting rid of those relaxation pods they lampooned before they came into office, because the Secretary of State looked badly in need of a place for a nice lie down at the time. I hope he has explained to the Prime Minister that, for the sake of funding a peripheral ideological programme, he has cut a system that has enjoyed near-universal support among teachers, sports people, parents and pupils, and that has transformed pupils' lives-and that he did so on a day when the International Olympic Committee was visiting London means he has also greatly endangered Britain's Olympic legacy.
Dan Rogerson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Along with his colleague the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), he might want to stay behind for some extra tuition about how to square the cuts proposed by the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), with the situation that all Departments would be facing had Labour got back into office, unlike what we have secured in this coalition, which will be extra money for education.
Kevin Brennan: If the hon. Gentleman examines the record, I think he will find that when his party colleague, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), was discussing this with the previous Education Secretary, the schools budget had been protected and the right hon. Gentleman refused to do a deal because he claimed the Conservatives had already protected that sum of money for schools and he could get a pupil premium on top. As I said, stitched up like a kipper.
Much progress has been made since the days when I, like many other hon. Members, taught in leaky portakabins under the Tories. A lot of progress has been made since those days of inadequate facilities, inadequate resources and inadequate pay for teachers. The Government seem determined to take us back to a fragmented, underfunded future. They should change course now.
The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in this interesting and timely discussion. The shadow Secretary of State began it and I listened to him with some sympathy, because it is not easy to bounce back from coming last of the serious candidates in one's party's leadership election-I exclude the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for obvious reasons. The right hon. Gentleman may be a loser, but he is a trier and a trier deserves a hearing in this House. He said that the Government are ideological in their pursuit of excellence, and that was repeated by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). If that is the charge-that we are resolute in our determination and unstinting in our efforts to do the best by our children-I, for one, plead guilty.
The right hon. Gentleman also complained about capital funding so let us put the record straight on that. The level of Department for Education capital funding for the next four years is by no means low. The Department's average capital budget over the forthcoming period will be higher than any single year's figure before 2004-05. Yes this was a tough spending round, but he knows that he is comparing these figures against an exceptional year and that in fact they are higher than the ones for any period during the first term of the Labour Government from 1997.
Andy Burnham: Can the Minister offer us one word of convincing explanation as to why, in a spending review when we were told that schools were protected, the Department got a minus 60% capital settlement when the average for the rest of government was minus 30%? Why were schools singled out for double punishment?
Mr Hayes: The right hon. Gentleman was not listening to the argument. The truth of the matter is that the capital deal secured by the Department is tough compared with the previous year, but it is by no means exceptional when one examines capital spending over the lifetime of the Government of whom he was a part. Let us also deal with this issue of revenue spending. He knows that combined the pupil premium and school funding, which is protected, means an increase in funding for the schools budget of £3.6 billion in cash terms by the end of the spending review period, which is a 0.1% real-terms increase in each year of the spending review.
Mr Hayes: The hon. Gentleman knows that we are protecting school funding in the system. I am talking about flat cash per pupil before adding the pupil premium. He knows what flat cash per pupil means. It means that as the number of pupils increases, the overall budget increases in line.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the education maintenance allowance, so let us get to the bottom of that. I have the research here, although I know he has not read it. It clearly shows that the EMA did increase participation at the margin: 90% of pupils in receipt of it said that they would have participated in education regardless of the EMA. We are going to target resources more effectively at disadvantage. We are going to help people the previous Government failed to help. I do not need to take any lessons from the right hon. Gentleman-Cambridge-educated and pulled up on the shirt-tails of Lord Mandelson and Mr Blair-about what it is like to move from a council estate to a decent education to this place. When he lectures us-
Clive Efford: I recommended an amendment to our education legislation on the pupil premium and the then Government did not accept it, but nor did I have the support of the Liberal Democrats at that time. The pupil premium was meant to be additional. In addition, it was meant to follow the pupil, which would mean that even schools in affluent areas could take pupils that need additional help and get additional money. That is not what the Minister is offering.
Mr Hayes: That is exactly what we are doing. The three things mentioned by the hon. Gentleman are all part of the pupil premium: it is additional, it is targeted at the pupil and it allows the local discretion that he cites. The hon. Gentleman's amendment was not supported by those on his Front Bench-it was not supported by those who were in government and who had power over these things when they were prepared to let the dead-weight cost of the EMA disadvantage learners across the country.
I welcome the opportunity to debate these matters, because the Government understand that it is time for fresh thinking. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, young people's education today will have a profound social, economic and cultural impact on what Britain becomes tomorrow. A person's learning, however, does not-indeed, must not-end with their compulsory schooling. Much of what has been said by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other hon. Members resonates with the Government's agenda for further education.
I have just returned from the Association of Colleges conference where yesterday we launched a new strategy for skills that sets out a profoundly optimistic vision for the future of further education and practical learning. I know that the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) will welcome that positive approach to practical learning: from the burning fire of ambition to the warm glow of
achievement, a future nurtured by professional guidance from an all-age careers service with clear routes for progression; a future for colleges in which their primary responsibility and accountability will be to their learners; and a future in which colleges are free to meet the needs of learners, building confidently on what has been achieved by a better, fairer schools system driven by learners' needs and teachers' skills with standards raised ever higher through diversity and choice.
That is why we are pushing ahead with opening more academies, including, for the first time, primary academies. A record 144 academies have opened so far during this academic year and there are many more to come. That is indeed record progress-it took four years for the first 27 academies to open. We know that academies are working, as results continue to rise faster than the national average. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) told the House, academies, specialist schools and other reforms across the world have shown that giving schools autonomy and allowing teachers and head teachers, rather than politicians and bureaucrats, to control schools is what drives up performance.
The early focus has been on outstanding schools, as we want the best schools to lead by example, sharing best practice and working with other schools to bring about sustained improvements to all schools in their area. We will do much more in our determination to tackle the problem of endemic disadvantage that we inherited from Labour. Our pupil premium will rise progressively to £2.5 billion by 2014-15, supporting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and incentivising good schools to take on pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds. The pupil premium will target extra funding specifically at the most deprived pupils to enable them to receive the support they need to reach their potential and to help schools to reduce inequalities, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) urged us to do.
We trust schools to make good decisions about how to spend the money to support deprived children and to narrow attainment gaps, and we need to, because the gaps that we inherited from the previous Government-the widening gap between rich and poor and the failure to address social mobility-were shocking. They were a damning indictment of that Administration and of the people sitting on the shadow Treasury Bench.
I respect all Members who contributed to this debate. I respect the experience of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), the knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) and the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson). I know that people across the House want the best for our future and for our children. However, although some Opposition Members have woken up to the truth that the way to get the best is to put power in the hands of the teachers and to drive the system through the needs of learners, some are wedded to a failed past orthodoxy and we heard it again tonight. I hope that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) is not one of those who will defend the failures of the past. I hope that he will embrace reform and that he will come on the journey with us to a better
schools system and a better future for our young people. I do not say that all those on the Opposition Benches are without heart. No party has a monopoly on concern or compassion, so I do not say that Labour Members are heartless-I say that their Front Benchers are witless.
That the draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 25 October, be approved.
That the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 25 October, be approved.
I will deal first with the Assembly order, which is much the smaller of the two. That is because the law governing elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly was substantially amended as recently as 2009. Since then, some minor procedural updates have been applied to European and parliamentary elections that, for consistency, should also be applied to Assembly elections. For example, article 3 of the order makes provision to allow a candidate standing in the name of two or more parties to have one of those party's emblems on the ballot paper.
It also enables a person who cannot sign his or her signature to use a mark in place of any signature required at the nomination stage. Article 4 requires individuals to give reasons if they request their absent vote to be sent to a different address from that at which they are registered. Those are clearly relatively small changes, but they nevertheless mirror updates made to the law since 2009 that apply at other elections in Northern Ireland, and they will provide for greater consistency.
The draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2010 is the more substantial order, and provides a much-needed update of the law governing local elections in Northern Ireland. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 made a considerable number of changes to the law governing parliamentary elections across the United Kingdom. As I have indicated, those changes were applied to Northern Ireland Assembly elections and European elections in 2009, but have not yet been applied to district council elections in Northern Ireland. They are set out in schedule 1 to the order, and they include allowing returning officers to correct procedural errors and supply documents in other languages and formats.
Schedule 1 also makes provision for the control of donations to candidates in local elections in Northern Ireland, in line with the donation controls that apply at all other elections in Northern Ireland and across the UK. Schedule 2 makes changes to absent voting procedures, which again already apply at other elections in Northern Ireland. They include adding registered social workers to the list of those who may attest absent vote applications on the grounds of illness and disability, which will make it easier for people with disabilities who live in the
community to apply for an absent vote. Schedule 3 aligns the law relating to access to and inspection of documents at local elections with procedures at all other elections in Northern Ireland.
The order also amends the local election rules contained in schedule 5 to the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962. That includes updating the list of acceptable forms of photographic ID that can be presented in order to vote in Northern Ireland, which is of course crucial to ensure consistency of approach for all polls in 2011.
The order is substantial, and I would not wish to detain the House by providing an in-depth description of each provision. I hope the House is satisfied that it contains small but important changes to the law that will provide much-needed modernisation of local election procedures in Northern Ireland and greater consistency with other elections across the UK.
Finally, article 3 of the local elections order sets the date of the next district council elections in Northern Ireland as 5 May 2011. Hon. Members will be aware that in 2008, the previous Government agreed to a request from the Northern Ireland Executive to postpone the local elections that were scheduled to take place in May the following year. The House subsequently approved legislation to postpone the election until 2011, on a date to be specified nearer the time. The postponement was to allow time for new local government boundaries to be redrawn as part of the overall review of public administration that was taking place in Northern Ireland. That review was to provide, among other things, for the number of district councils in Northern Ireland to be reduced from 26 to 11.
I regret to report that that reduction did not proceed as planned. Although the local government boundaries commissioner reported to the Executive with proposed new boundaries on time in 2009, an order has still not been brought before the Assembly to give effect to them. This June I made it absolutely clear to the Executive that there could be no prospect of further postponement of the elections beyond the two years previously agreed. I was also advised that further delay in passing the order to give effect to the boundaries would seriously jeopardise planning for elections in May 2011. The Executive therefore needed to take an urgent decision on whether the proposed new councils could be delivered in time to allow for elections to them in May 2011.
On 15 June I received confirmation from the Minister for the Environment in the Executive that the reorganisation would not now go ahead in 2011. I announced shortly afterwards that there was now no option but to hold elections to the existing 26 councils in May 2011. The local elections order will provide for that. I know that some hon. and right hon. Members may have concerns about those elections being combined with both Assembly elections and a potential referendum on the alternative vote. I have received the advice of both the Electoral Commission and the chief electoral officer on this matter, and both are confident that a combined poll in May 2011 can be successfully delivered if the risks are properly managed.
My officials are working closely with the commission and the chief electoral officer in the run-up to the polls to ensure that there is an early identification and resolution of any potential problems.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The Minister alludes to the difficulties that could be presented, with the distinct possibility-or probability-of our having three elections, using two different voting systems, on the same day. Will he ensure that as much co-ordination and co-operation takes place to ensure that after this legislation passes, which it undoubtedly will, the people of Northern Ireland get the maximum amount of information to ensure that they are fully prepared for what will be an unprecedented voting day next May?
Mr Swire: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we must do that. In fact there are two elections, which will be held in the normal way for the people in Northern Ireland, and the third is just a straight yes/no vote. I hope that the people of Northern Ireland will vote in the same way as I will.
Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): The Minister mentioned that in his meeting with the Electoral Commission, it had indicated that it was happy to facilitate all the elections taking place on the same day, provided that the risks were properly managed. Will he also agree that the commission said that it needed to ensure that it is properly resourced, given that there will be complications involving, for example, the number of ballot boxes available, and a number of other logistical issues, which will require more expenditure than a regular election?
Mr Swire: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Of course this needs to be properly resourced, and the necks of both the Secretary of State and myself are on the line if anything goes wrong. What we all want to avoid, on both sides of the House, are scenes such as those that we saw in the recent general election, when people were turned away from the polling stations. The matter is further complicated because some polling stations in Northern Ireland are quite small. There is also the issue of screening, and, as the hon. Lady said, of ballot boxes. I understand that the ballot boxes are being sourced at the moment. She is right to say that we must get it right, and to do that requires proper planning and funding.
As I was saying, my officials are working closely with the commission and the chief electoral officer in the run-up to the polls to ensure that there is early identification and resolution of any problems such as the ones that we have just heard about.
I hope that the House is satisfied that the vast majority of provisions in these orders will make small but important changes to provide for greater consistency with elections elsewhere in the UK. I also hope that hon. and right hon. Members are reassured that the necessary steps will be taken to ensure successful combined polls in May 2011, and will therefore agree that the date of the next local elections should be set for 5 May next year. I commend these orders to the House.
Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab):
Northern Ireland has made remarkable political progress, and that has been integral to the whole peace process. There are many people both inside and outside Northern Ireland who deserve great credit for that. Enormous efforts have been made, as is reflected in the celebrated success to date. For the first time in a generation, the overwhelming
majority of people can live peaceful lives free from violence. Nevertheless, Northern Ireland still has a particular political ecology and the situation remains fragile. That is why any proposals to change the way in which the electoral situation works in Northern Ireland require great scrutiny, consultation and forethought. It is clear to us, however, that in the Government's rush to gerrymander Scottish, Welsh and Irish parliamentary seats, they are failing to listen to the deep concerns of Northern Ireland politicians about how ill-considered changes could have negative consequences for Northern Ireland.
Clearly, the motivation and rationale behind the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which will apply to Northern Ireland, are questionable. We support the principle of an AV referendum, yet the Government have refused to split it from the much more contentious matter of constituency design. The Government claim that over-representation is a primary driver of the changes, yet the UK sits in the middle of the EU table, with one MP per 110,000 people.
The Government have also said that the reduced number of MPs will save money, but it is hard to see how that can be true. There is no evidence that reducing the number of MPs will cut case loads, so unless the Government intend to make MPs less accessible to their constituents, they will have to resource MPs for the relative uplift in constituency size. It is worth noting that this week, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) suggested that people who will no longer qualify for legal aid because of the changes that the Government are about to implement should go to their local Member of Parliament. It is therefore clear that the Government are intent on increasing MPs' case loads in any case. That will need to be resourced, so savings seem unlikely.
Eric Joyce: Yes, of course. The votes will take place on the same day, so the arguments that apply to the rest of the UK also apply to Northern Ireland. A particular complication is that, as a consequence of the orders, Northern Ireland will also have local government elections on the same day.
Indeed, taken together with the Government's plan for fixed-term Parliaments, the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill appears to be designed simply to assure the coalition a five-year term, with constituency redesign giving it the best chance of re-election. We therefore believe that it sits outside the margins of acceptable democratic practice.
The House of Lords has narrowly decided that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is not hybrid, yet it is strange that the Government should decide that two Scottish constituencies will be treated as special cases and exempted, while Northern Ireland, where the Assembly may be directly affected by the measure, is not to be a special case. The strength of Northern Ireland's democratic institutions is crucial to the peace process, and the legislation governing the running of Northern Ireland Assembly elections was constructed specifically to ensure wide community representation. In his winding-up speech, will the Minister
assure the House that the changes that he intends to make will not affect the delicate balance in the Northern Ireland electoral system, especially for smaller parties?
Another primary concern is that the strict 5% thresholds, which are explicit in the Bill, will reduce the scope for the boundary commissioners to take local variables into account. Arithmetic will trump all other considerations and local communities will be split between constituencies. Professor Ron Johnson of Bristol university, for example, said that splitting some wards between constituencies will be inevitable. The Boundary Commission has confirmed that. Wards will no longer be the building blocks of constituencies. In many cases, natural geographical boundaries such as rivers will have to be ignored, as will community links and historical factors, which are so important in Northern Ireland.
According to the Boundary Commission, the threshold is also likely to lead to frequent reviews, which means that some constituencies will change with each review. That will further destabilise the relationship between local communities-
In the context of the reduced sensitivity to local variables, we believe that the constraints on local inquiries are especially serious. At a time of such significant changes, that is particularly important.
The political ecology in Northern Ireland is particular; it is different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Government plan to change the electoral system and the constituencies in Scotland, England and Wales, and they are not taking sufficient account of the peculiar variables that apply in Northern Ireland. As a consequence of the orders, local elections will take place on the same day as other elections, and there could be additional complexity. It is important for the Government to take into account the different nature of Northern Ireland. We do not believe that they are doing that. Consequently, the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland, and of the United Kingdom as a whole, will not be served.
Mr Dodds: May I express my great frustration and annoyance at our being denied time to debate these important matters? However, I am sure that your statement will come as a great relief to other hon. Members, Mr Deputy Speaker.
In all seriousness, as the Minister said, the orders are technical, although they flow from significant primary legislation, which we have already debated at some length since we returned from the summer recess.
On the issue of having the three elections on one day, the orders are designed to make the elections run smoothly and prevent difficulties in the conduct of the elections
for the chief electoral officer, his officers and, not least, the electorate. That is welcome, particularly on issues such as making sure that the timetable is consistent for both the council elections and the Assembly elections. There has been some criticism in previous years in Northern Ireland about the rather strange timetable adopted for council elections compared with Assembly and parliamentary elections. If my memory serves me right, when I served in local government and had to submit nomination papers, that had to be done four and a half weeks before election day, so there seemed to be an inordinately long campaign for local government elections compared with others.
Obviously it is important that the timetable is synchronised and that issues such as postal and proxy votes are properly managed so that people applying for them receive one package through the post containing the necessary forms and one containing the three ballot papers. I am glad to hear that there will be three separate, differently coloured ballot papers. I am sure that we have all learned the lesson from Scotland-this never happened in Northern Ireland-when there was an attempt to have two different kinds of ballot on one paper. That was a big mistake and I am sure that it will never happen again.
We are where we are as far as the coincidence of the council and Assembly elections and the referendum is concerned. Obviously, it is preferable that, where possible, there are not so many choices on so many matters before the electorate on any given date, but people in Northern Ireland are used to having joint elections. Indeed, the council elections in 2001 and 2005 coincided with a Westminster general election. If memory serves me right, it may have happened before that. I know that at one time elections were deliberately brought together by the then leader of the Ulster Unionist party, which is no longer represented in this House, because he thought that it would increase turnout and support for his party. As with so many of his calculations, it did not quite work out that way on the day.
This is a sensible set of provisions for 5 May next year. The Minister referred to the date of the council elections for next year, and said that it was the result of the Executive not acting on the recommendation to proceed with the reform of local government. He did not go into the reasons for that, of course, but I would not want the House to be under the impression that this was the result of a lack of desire among most of the parties in the Assembly to make progress on the issue. Even if the reform did not lead to a reduction in the number of councils, other reforms were proposed, such as greater collaboration among councils and the various departments for which they are responsible. Unfortunately, it was not possible to achieve the major cost saving that would have accrued to councils in Northern Ireland because of the intransigence of one party, Sinn Fein, which rejected that constructive proposal. Therefore we are left having to proceed with the election with no real reform to local government due.
When costings were carried out for the council reforms, it became clear that there would have been considerable up-front costs. Given that the Northern Ireland block grant has been severely hit as a result of the recent comprehensive spending review, and the already severe restrictions, difficulties and challenges facing the Northern Ireland Executive on public expenditure, it was felt that
this was not an appropriate time to proceed with that particular reform. Obviously, when it comes to choosing between council reform and health expenditure, education and so on, people are right to choose the latter. That is the background to the reason for the proposals for the date of the election and why they will involve the same number of councils as previously.
Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), who spoke for the Opposition, referred to the reduction in the number of constituencies in Northern Ireland that may result from legislation going through Parliament at the moment and wondered what would have happened had there been a reduction in the number of councils. Is there not a danger in Northern Ireland that the larger we create constituencies and councils, the more removed government becomes from the people?
Mr Dodds: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that. The previous Government proposed reducing the number of councils to seven. I am the first to support a reduction in governance and the number of elected officials and all the rest of it, but a reduction to seven councils would have meant that Northern Ireland councils would be bigger than any other region of Europe. I am sure that the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), will go into considerable detail on that in his speech.
The lack or inadequacy of consultation on the primary legislation with parties in the Assembly and the Executive has been mentioned. I do not want to go over that, but consultation on Assembly and local elections with the chief electoral officer of Northern Ireland is mentioned in the orders and the explanatory memorandum. I recently met the new chief electoral officer. He is a very impressive officer and I think he will do an excellent job, but it is clear that he sought, during consultations on both the primary legislation and the secondary legislation that we are debating, some changes to the way in which elections are carried out that were not proposed by the Northern Ireland Office.
I am thinking in particular about the removal of polling agents from Northern Ireland polling stations. The Minister is nodding his head, so perhaps he has held discussions on polling agents. This is an important matter. Commendably, we have a sophisticated and elaborate system to tackle identity fraud and the abuse of the electoral system. As has been said, people must now produce certain types of photographic identification or sign postal votes, and their signatures are carefully examined. Postal and proxy vote abuse has been considerably reduced from the large-scale abuse that took place in previous elections. Our system is a model for dealing with postal votes for the rest of the UK. If the rest of the UK wants to cut out the abuse of postal voting, people should look at the administration and regime in Northern Ireland. Clearly, our system is now without any kind of abuse at all.
However, why do we still need polling agents-representatives of political parties-sitting in polling stations in Northern Ireland? The NIO, which is still responsible for elections, should address that, because it
is clear that one or two parties-I am thinking of one in particular-clearly abuse that for purposes not in keeping with the legislation. Information is taken out of polling stations, so that voters who have not voted can be identified and then, of course, visited. They will be asked, "Why have you not voted?" and told to get out to vote. In certain parts of the Province and in certain circumstances, people will feel intimidated by that, so polling agents are being used for nefarious purposes. I urge the NIO to take that seriously when it next gets a legislative opportunity.
Naomi Long: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one difficulty is that when people are approached in those circumstances and they realise that the information has been garnered at the polling station, they fear that the fact of how they have voted is also available? People are often quite intimated by the notion that the ballot is less than fully secret.
Mr Dodds: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We might sit in the comfort of this Chamber and know that the ballot is secret and that the information cannot get out, but for a lot of people, exactly the scenario that she has painted is what they believe to be the case. They believe that because information has been gathered on whether they have voted thus far, people will be able to find out how they have voted, and the people who call at their doors make no effort to disabuse them of that notion either. This is an important matter. Nowadays there is no reason at all for that provision to remain, if we really are going to ensure that we have fair and clean elections in Northern Ireland. As has been mentioned on a number of occasions, the ecology of the electoral system is different-and it is different: people are more easily intimidated by the way certain parties operate-so removing that provision would be a step towards improving the democratic process and making people less concerned about exercising their franchise.
The management of elections by the chief electoral officer and the issue of resources, which is an important point, have already been mentioned. In my discussions with the chief electoral officer, the point that he laid most emphasis on was resources. The matter of ballot boxes has also been raised, which is another issue that I know has been discussed. All sorts of imaginative suggestions have been canvassed, and I hope that it will be possible to find a sensible solution that minimises costs.
There is also the issue of polling stations. The Minister referred to the fact that polling stations in Northern Ireland were sometimes smaller than they are elsewhere. Again, I would urge him in his discussions with the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland to do what I have done, which is to urge the authorities to be a bit more imaginative when it comes to the buildings and premises that they use as polling stations. People are too fixated on the traditional buildings-"We've always used this building and we can't depart from tradition"-whereas new premises have sprung up, and many people are used to doing things differently. Sometimes the electoral officers are far too hidebound by the past in managing this issue, so I would again urge the Minister in his discussions respectfully to ask the chief electoral officer to be much more flexible. There is a consultation under way-certainly in my constituency, and I am sure in
those of other hon. Members-that is closing in December on the very issue of polling stations, so this is an opportune moment for the matter to be pursued.
Finally, so as to leave plenty of time for others who wish to contribute to this debate, let me say something about enforcement. The local elections order is fairly substantial, as the Minister said, as is the Assembly order. When I read through the detail of all the rules, what struck me was this: what happens when those rules, particularly those applying to the conduct of the election by candidates and parties, are breached? In my experience, it seems that we can prescribe all sorts of rules, from rules on the colour of ballot papers to rules on whether the X or the "1" should be marked in black pen or in pencil-we debated that in the primary legislation-or what would constitute a clear preference, all of which are matters of great detail. Indeed, the forms are set out in incredible detail in the legislation, so the issue is extremely important. Yet I have found that when matters are drawn to the attention of the authorities-the chief electoral officer and then the people responsible for prosecuting such matters-very little is ever done about breaches of the rules.
I want to refer to a matter that I raised during the debate on the primary legislation on the parliamentary voting system. One party in Northern Ireland-Sinn Fein-seems to be adept at producing detailed replicas of polling cards and other official material. On one side they appear to be authentic, but the other side has party political propaganda, some of it of a vicious nature, designed to persuade people that not only is Sinn Fein recommending voting a certain way, but that the electoral authorities are also doing so.
There were examples of that practice during the last Westminster election. One was in the constituency of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), and there was at least one in my constituency. There were also other illegal practices. The matter was drawn to the attention of the then chief electoral officer, who took the matter seriously, and it has been referred on to the authorities to consider what action should be taken. We know that there are serious consequences, and we will watch carefully, as will the electorate and the people of Northern Ireland, as well as the media, to see what happens about a clear and flagrant breach of electoral law.
I do not expect the Minister to respond in any shape or form on the specifics of a case, but I raise the matter because it concerns me that from time to time in Northern Ireland elections, whether local, Assembly or Westminster elections, all sorts of illegal practices go on. Vast amounts of money are spent, the election returns show that only a small amount was spent. Although everyone knows that tens of thousands of pounds have been spent but never declared. Such matters should be taken seriously.
It is all very well to pass legislation, regulations and rules. We debate them at length, and scrutinise them properly, but we must ensure that there is effective and proper enforcement, otherwise people will take the signal that at the next election they can push the boundaries even further and get away with far worse. That is insidious, and it needs to be stamped on. I am happy to lend my support and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the orders.
Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), but I hope that I do not disappoint him with the length of my speech, which will be very short. As the Minister who, in January last year, took through the order to postpone the elections in 2009, I thought I owed the House at least one or two brief comments.
First, I thank the Minister for keeping the promise that I made in Committee last January that the Northern Ireland council elections would be held in 2011. Members of the Committee questioned what guarantees there would be that council elections would be held that year, and I asked them to back my judgment, which they did. I am not in a position to deliver on that judgment now, but the Minister is, and I thank him for following through my commitment.
The Minister explained that the reason for the delay was connected with the review of public administration, an initiative that began with the Executive in 2002. Direct rule Ministers took it over, but it then quite rightly returned to the Executive as their responsibility in 2007. Indeed, I remember that in 2007 Ministers in the Executive took up the issue with some relish because they could see the merits of greater efficiency by reorganising public bodies, whether health, police or local government.
In April 2008, the then Minister for the Environment, Arlene Foster, wrote to the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward), with a request that the council elections be delayed for two years to 2011. She made the compelling case on behalf of the Executive that the complexity of reorganising the local council structure and boundaries was quite a challenge: the single transferable vote system would require new council wards, new districts and new grouping of district electoral areas. Although we were reluctant to take the dramatic step of cancelling elections, we felt that, in view of the exceptional circumstances, it was justifiable and we introduced the necessary legislation.
I had further extensive discussions with Arlene Foster's successor, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), and his successor in the role, Edwin Poots. It is of course a matter of regret that Edwin Poots wrote to the Minister in June this year to say that, for various reasons, it would be impossible to proceed with the changes to the local council boundaries. Great frustration was expressed about that, not least, I am sure, by the Minister himself because he will be able to see the advantages involved. None the less, these challenges must now be tackled by the Executive Members and by the Minister for the Environment in Northern Ireland, rather than by this House. Indeed, if I were to stray and to offer any more opinions to the right hon. Member for Belfast North and his colleagues, they would soon intervene on me.
Some concerns remain, however, and I should be interested to hear the Minister's comments. Having now set the date for the council elections in 2011, the pressure for local government reform is off, in a sense, which is a pity because I am sure that the Minister in the Executive will want to see the reforms put in place, as will other Members of the Executive. There would be great dividends if that were possible. Will the Minister tell us tonight
whether there are any signs of progress? If reform were to pick up apace, would he be prepared to come back to this House with a proposition to bring forward the date of the next local council elections in Northern Ireland, which would otherwise happen in 2015?
Mr Dodds: The right hon. Gentleman was much respected for the work he did as a Minister for Northern Ireland, but any notion of bringing forward the date of the next council elections from 2015 would not find favour with the parties in Northern Ireland, not least because it would be deeply unfair on those who had been elected on the basis of a four-year term suddenly to say to them, "Your term is going to be truncated." So although I understand where he is coming from, and the sentiments that he has expressed, I urge him to rethink that proposition.
Paul Goggins: The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but I am sure that he will share my concern, given his deep knowledge of the electoral system in Northern Ireland, that the council boundaries are way out of date. There is therefore some urgency in trying to move to new council boundaries that reflect a more modern approach. I do not expect a positive answer from the Minister about bringing forward the date of the next local council elections after 2011, but I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to see this as an urgent matter and not one that can simply be left on the shelf. I am concerned that, with the introduction of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, attention will now be focused more on constituencies and away from local government structure in Northern Ireland, and anything that will maintain the sense of urgency about the need for the local government reform will be a good thing. I repeat, however, that these are no longer matters for this House; they have now quite rightly been devolved to the Executive in Northern Ireland.
There is also the question of the practical implications of holding the various elections on the same day. I know that the Minister said he had consulted on this, and that he was confident they could all be held on the same day. I pay tribute to all those who administer the elections in Northern Ireland professionally and effectively, and I do not call into question their ability to conduct those elections one bit, but there is a debate about the various issues that are at stake: elections to the Assembly, elections to local councils and, probably, the question of whether to have an alternative vote system or not. That has been debated endlessly elsewhere. We are talking about elections using the single transferable vote system for councils and for the Assembly, which is very complicated and takes time. I urge the Minister to keep up the pressure on those who will administer the system to make sure that all the right questions are asked and answered.
There is the further point-I am sure that Minister will have considered it-that if the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill is passed as drafted, in 2015 we will have council elections, a general election and Assembly elections on the same day, using different-possibly very different-electoral systems and under new boundaries. This will be the height of complication. Again, I urge the Minister to pay close attention. He said in the course of his remarks that his neck is on the line. I well know that feeling, but I am sure he will do a fine job.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Surely the height of complication would be the situation in American states such as Montana, where people voted for the American President, for the Congress, for the state governor, in state elections and sometimes even in local elections-sometimes with additional propositions as well. They seem to manage it in Montana, so surely they could manage it in Northern Ireland.
Paul Goggins: I am not saying that those who administer elections in Northern Ireland would be incapable of doing so. I am simply making the point that this will place a burden on the system in Northern Ireland that it has never faced before. There are also implications for the electoral cycle. In perpetuity-unless the Minister offers alternatives-council elections and Assembly elections will always be held on the same day in Northern Ireland on a four-year cycle. Again, I think that should be a cause for reflection. However, I have nothing but good wishes for the Minister in ensuring that all these issues are dealt with. I am sure he will do very well. In so far as he ensures that these elections are held properly in 2011 and subsequently, he will have my full support.
First, I express my disappointment that greater progress has not been made on the review of public administration in Northern Ireland, particularly as the local government elections were postponed to facilitate that process. It has become something of a political soap opera-not quite as long running as "Coronation Street" and certainly not as entertaining. It has not reached a satisfactory conclusion as yet, and there seems to be little prospect that it will-despite the fact that it has cost a lot of money. Most people would have liked to have seen this issue brought to a more satisfactory conclusion.
Given that the last local government elections were held almost six years ago there is a democratic deficit, so it is important to give people the opportunity to refresh their mandate in local government. It is disappointing that this is being done in the absence of reform.
I noted what the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) said about the possibility of bringing the elections forward, but I concur with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) as I do not believe that further tampering with the electoral cycle is the best way of dealing with the issue. I agree that there is an urgency about taking the review of public administration forward in Northern Ireland. However, local government has demonstrated in the past its ability to co-operate even under its current structures-through arc21, for example, which deals with a number of councils' waste. At the very least, we should expect enhanced co-operation so that some savings can be made without having to tamper with the cycle further.
I seek the Minister's reassurance about photographic identification. In May, Westminster elections and council by-elections were held on the same day in my constituency. People turned up to vote, only to find that their
photographic ID was admissible for one election but not for the other. This caused extreme distress, particularly for older people, who were relying on transport passes to get the correct photographic ID. They were not able to vote in both elections, as they had expected. I hope that the arrangements involving identification documents can be simplified so that when people turn up at polling stations, they are fully confident that they will be able to cast their votes.
I hope that the Minister will reflect on another issue, although I do not expect a full answer from him this evening. Given that the qualification to vote is established when the electoral register is compiled, which means that people who are on the register and duly marked down for an election have the right to vote in it, the purpose of ID is simply to establish exactly who they are. However, there remains a restriction for foreign nationals who have a right to vote in elections, but no right to use their passports from their home nations as a means of identification. They experience significant difficulties when they try to vote in elections in which they are entitled to vote, but cannot obtain valid identification documents. Given that the purpose of the documents is simply to prove that individuals are the individuals listed in the register, I think that the matter should be dealt with to ensure full participation in the community by those who wish to vote.
Along with other Members, I have already raised concerns about the holding of three elections on the same day next May. The Minister made quite a brave statement when he said that his neck would be on the line if the logistical issues were not handled well. It remains to be seen whether people will want to hold him to that commitment, but I have to say that this is not just about the logistical issues, although they are hugely important. Of course we want the Electoral Commission to be properly resourced to ensure that the elections can be discharged fairly, but we should also consider the democratic deficit that may result from the holding of elections at the same time.
There is always a risk that the Assembly elections and the issues connected with them-I think that it usually happens this way round-will obscure important debates about local governance in relation to local government elections. We need to consider how much media coverage is given to the local government debate, which has a direct impact on people's lives but tends to be less glamorous-for want of a better word-than the issues dealt with in the Assembly. However, there is a chance that both issues could be overshadowed by the national campaign on the referendum. In Northern Ireland particularly, for obvious reasons, people might focus on the Assembly election, given its importance, rather than on the impact of electoral reform and local government.
A number of Members have said that we could surely cope with these complex elections, and it is true that ours is a very sophisticated electorate. There was a period during which we had an election, if not two, almost every year. People have become accustomed to voting and to how to cast their votes. The electorate are sophisticated in terms of being able to manage the electoral process, and, as others have pointed out, we have had two elections on the same day before. Nevertheless, the additional complication caused by a third election on a very different issue causes me some concern.
I believe that the combination of the local government and Assembly elections, while not ideal, may be manageable. I seek the Minister's reassurance that he will do all in his power to ensure that people are fully informed about the issues on which they are voting and the consequences of their votes, particularly with respect to the referendum and the two elections that will take place on the same day, and to ensure that the Electoral Commission is properly funded in order to be able to notify people.
Mr Dodds: The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland, or perhaps the Electoral Commission, has a responsibility to urge people to vote much earlier in the day. We have already experienced problems with queuing, and given that there will be separate ballot boxes, the process will take much longer on this occasion. It is therefore vital for a press and media campaign to be organised officially at an early stage. People must be told, "Do not do what you normally do and wait until the last minute, or after teatime; get out and vote earlier." That would be a very profitable campaign on the part of the commission.
Naomi Long: I entirely agree. I think it hugely important for people to be encouraged to cast their votes at the earliest opportunity. When people have turned up with the wrong documentation, it has been useful for them to be able to revisit the polling station if necessary. However, it would be beneficial generally if we could prevent what tends to be a post-teatime rush, with queues forming late in the day. I hope that that can be impressed on the Electoral Commission, and that the commission can be properly resourced so that its campaign is foremost in people's minds. People have become accustomed to voting at times of the day that are convenient for them. On this occasion, there will be three different elections with three different ballot papers, and it is important that people recognise how much time will be consumed in filling them in.
Wards are the building blocks for both local government districts and parliamentary constituencies, and one of the consequences of the delay in the local government elections is that the ward boundaries have not been reviewed for a considerable time. In my constituency, as a result of the most recent parliamentary boundary review, the ward of Derriaghy is now split between the Lagan Valley constituency and the Belfast West constituency. It is the only ward in Northern Ireland that is split. Other wards need to be reviewed, as there have been significant population movements since the last ward boundaries revision.
As a result of legislation currently passing through the House, we now face the prospect of new parliamentary boundaries being created and a reduction in the number of constituencies, possibly from 18 to 15 in Northern Ireland. That review will take place on the existing ward structures. I therefore seek an assurance from the Minister that we will have a review of the ward boundaries at a
very early date. That has been held back because of the review of local government, but the boundaries are now significantly out of date and there are disparities in ward sizes-and, as I have mentioned, in at least one case a ward is split between two parliamentary constituencies. We would be interested to hear what proposals the Minister has in respect of the urgent need to review ward boundaries in Northern Ireland.
My second question relates to the counts that will follow the two elections and the referendum in Northern Ireland next year. What will be the order of precedence for those counts? Will the referendum be counted first, because it is a UK-wide referendum? Will the Assembly election count take place before the local government election count, as has been the case in the past? Will the Minister give us some idea as to what will be the order of the counting of votes following these three separate ballots, and will they all take place in the one counting centre in each of the local areas, or will the referendum ballot be counted separately? I seek clarity on these matters.
Mr Swire: This has been an interesting debate and a number of interesting points have been raised. The shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), touched only lightly on the proposed legislation under discussion, and seemed to refer rather more to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. He talked about various topics including the House of Lords, Scotland, the boundary commissions and a number of MPs, none of which related to what we are discussing tonight, but his comments were nevertheless interesting for my ministerial colleagues who are present in the Chamber, as they have been discussing that Bill for many days.
The hon. Gentleman said that the changes to the Northern Ireland electoral system are confusing. The changes we propose ensure consistency across all elections in Northern Ireland, making the electoral system clearer for candidates, administrators and voters, and the changes are minor and principally administrative.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) asked a number of interesting questions. He talked about electoral law offences. It is worth putting on record that if a person is suspected of committing such an offence, the chief electoral officer should refer the matter to the police and the prosecuting authorities. Prosecutions are a matter for the Public Prosecution Service, of course. He also talked about the timetabling of local elections. Local election procedures regarding the timetable will now be aligned with the Northern Ireland Assembly timetable by virtue of this order.
The right hon. Gentleman also talked about a subject that I discussed: polling agents. As the former Northern Ireland Minister, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), will no doubt remember, the previous Government undertook a full public consultation on that in 2008. There was no consensus then on whether they should be abolished. It is also worth noting that the law allowing for polling agents applies across the UK, but we will review this again after the May 2011 elections. I must confess that I have
a considerable interest in this point and am more than happy to discuss it with the right hon. Member for Belfast North over the coming months.
Mr Dodds: I look forward to those discussions. The Minister mentioned a lack of consensus. Obviously we will not get consensus across all the political parties, for the very reasons that I outlined. Would he not put a lot of weight on the views of the chief electoral officer, who surely has an independent view on all this in terms of the conduct of elections?
Mr Swire: I do not think that I am breaking any confidences by saying that I have discussed this matter with the chief electoral officer and his predecessor. I can only say that I am more than happy to discuss it with the right hon. Gentleman. I have considerable interest in this and considerable sympathy with where he is coming from. He also raised the issue of political donations. As he will know, the consultation on the provision for donations to political parties in Northern Ireland to be made confidentially concluded on 25 October, and we are considering how best to take that forward.
The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East spoke, as usual, intelligently and with tremendous knowledge. I know that he shares my frustration that things have not moved along as much as we would have liked on local government reorganisation. He asked whether there are signs of progress, and one hears from time to time various rumblings coming from the hill. The answer is that we must not relax on this matter and we must keep up the pressure, and he was right about that. I shall return to that in a moment, if I may. He also spoke about the combined elections in 2015 and he will not be surprised to hear that no decision has yet been taken-we are trying to get through next year first. I would prefer to await the outcome of the combined polls in 2011 before taking a decision on whether it is desirable to combine elections in 2015 or whether a provision should be made for their separation.
I was asked what the Government are planning to do about the coincidence of elections in 2015. I am writing to all Northern Ireland parties setting out our proposed approach and requesting their views. It should be remembered-we have been discussing this recently in terms of other legislation-that the Secretary of State already has a power to alter the Assembly election date by two months. We will see whether we need to do that at that time.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) talked about outdated boundaries. We would very much hope that the Executive have agreed new boundaries to ensure that they are updated well in advance of 2015, but in any case, I am proposing to write to the Minister for the Environment to take forward such a review immediately after the 2011 elections. I believe I am right in saying that the current boundaries are 19 years old, which is not at all acceptable, so clearly this is something that they need to get on with, regardless of local government reorganisation.
The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East asked whether we would bring forward elections. We have received no such request and we would need to consider such a proposal carefully, as we would want to ensure that the transition to new councils and the new set-up was in its final stages. We do not want to chop
and change dates without good reason. He would probably support that approach, given that he said that it was with extreme reluctance that he postponed the date of the original election; I believe he said that he did not do that lightly. Nor should we tamper with this. We will have elections in May, but we need to keep up the pressure.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) raised some interesting points about ID, which I had raised with officials today. It is true to say that this order ensures that requirements at all elections are now consistent in Northern Ireland. I am told that people will be able to use the Translink smartpass, provisional driving licence and other smartcards. She also asked about foreigners and foreign ID. It is true that someone can now use an EU driving licence or an EU passport to vote in Assembly and local elections.
Naomi Long: One example that we had a problem with was non-EU documentation, such as that from Commonwealth countries. For example, people who are resident ordinarily in Northern Ireland and have Canadian or Indian passports cannot use them as a document to vote, even though they are entitled to vote in that election.
Mr Swire: The hon. Lady raises a good point. We should make it perfectly clear well in advance of the elections what photo ID will be acceptable. There could be nothing more frustrating than queuing to take part in three elections, arriving almost as the clock is striking 10 o'clock, only to be told that one has the wrong form of ID. That is something we should consider and, again, we need to be properly prepared. We would not want people in any great numbers-or, indeed, any individual-to feel that they had been disfranchised because they were not aware that their ID, which they thought was quite proper and which could be used on airlines and so on, was not appropriate for an election. We heard loud and clear what the hon. Lady had to say.
The hon. Lady also asked about the Assembly election dominating debate, leading to local issues being ignored. It is worth pointing out that, as the right hon. Member for Belfast North mentioned, local elections were held successfully alongside Westminster elections in Northern Ireland in both 2001 and 2005. The hon. Lady said that Northern Ireland has a sophisticated voting population, and it is up to the individual candidates to set fire in the minds and hearts of their potential electorate- [ Interruption. ] Not literally, but in terms of trying to get interest in the election. I think the hon. Lady is probably wrong on this point because having three elections, albeit two voting one way and another being a straight yes or no, will mean that people will talk about the elections much more. I would not be at all surprised if we had a very good turnout. I do not think that one issue should eclipse the other-I think that we are going to have a very political new year.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley mentioned ward boundaries. Again, that is a matter for his colleague the Environment Minister in the Executive, but, as we have said, we cannot go on working on boundaries that are nearly 19 years out of date. He also asked a specific question about the electoral night, and I am looking forward to the morning after, which I hope will be one without too much trouble. I am told by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member
for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), that the Electoral Commission's recommendation is that the Assembly election should be first, the referendum second and the local government election third, on the Monday. I believe that that has already been published.
It has been an interesting debate, but not a controversial one. The legislation is necessary to tidy up some anomalies. The contributions made by right hon. and hon. Members of all parties will be listened to by the Electoral Commission and the chief electoral officer. Let us hope that we have a good day next year.
That the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 25 October, be approved. -(Mr Swire .)
That the draft Disabled People's Right to Control (Pilot Scheme) (England) Regulations 2010, which were laid before this House on 12 October, be approved.- (James Duddridge.)
That the draft Justification Decision (Generation of Electricity by the EPR Nuclear Reactor) Regulations 2010, which were laid before this House on 18 October, be approved.- (James Duddridge .)
That the draft Justification Decision (Generation of Electricity by the AP1000 Nuclear Reactor) Regulations 2010, which were laid before this House on 18 October, be approved.- (James Duddridge .)
That the draft Legislative and Regulatory Reform (Regulatory Functions) (Amendment) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 21 October, be approved.- (James Duddridge .)
That this House takes note of the unnumbered Explanatory Memoranda, dated 2 June 2010 and 29 September 2010, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on two Council Decisions amending and extending Joint Action 2008/124/CFSP on the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX); and agrees with the Government that the mission is making an important contribution to improving the rule of law in Kosovo.- (James Duddridge .)
Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I am delighted to have secured the opportunity to debate these issues. The national health service is a national treasure. During any one year, all of us will have cause to visit a GP or hospital or to see a nurse, or we have a family member or friend who will do so. Members of my family have devoted years of service to the health service as GPs, a surgeon or nurses. I record my utmost admiration for all those working in the national health service.
The purpose of this debate is to consider the decision-making process in ward closures and other major service changes. I particularly invite the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), to address in her response the lack of consultation over the closure of Ryedale ward at Malton hospital. I regret both the closure and the lack of consultation.
I shall analyse the reasons for closing Ryedale ward at the end of the so-called pilot project and look at the consultation procedure at that stage. I shall highlight the need for services and care provision in a sparsely populated, deeply rural area, with an increasingly ageing population.
People care passionately about their local hospital and greatly value their general practitioner. Thirsk and Malton are well served by three community hospitals-Lambert hospital in Thirsk, St Monica's in Easingwold and Malton community hospital. In addition, there are acute hospitals at Scarborough and York and Friarage hospital at Northallerton. What increasingly alarms me is the trend over recent months to remove much-needed services from community hospitals, such as the minor injuries units at Lambert hospital and Friary hospital, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Diagnostic services are being removed from Malton hospital, diabetes test strip services are being stopped and there is a rumour that the operating theatre at Malton is due to close within two weeks. Furthermore, there is a threat to decommission all enhanced services in the last quarter of the year-again without consultation.
The local area medical committee has written to the Secretary of State for Health to raise those issues, and particularly to draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the threat to decommission enhanced services locally, including chlamydia screening, smoking cessation, complex drug monitoring and other services. The primary care trust held no consultation about the cuts with local practitioners. The committee believes that the cuts are damaging patient care and that they will undermine the strategic aim to provide services at lower unit cost, nearer to patients in the community. The hard work and good will of GPs are being pushed to the limit by the expectation that GPs will absorb more and more cuts and accept an increased work load. There is a threat that the blinkered goal of financial balance and short-termism, following seven years of unchecked cuts, will cause irreparable damage to primary care and leave GP practices damaged and disengaged.
There is a definite pattern in the way that services at community hospitals are being cut without consultation. The Ryedale ward, which was one of two wards at Malton hospital, the other being the Fitzwilliam ward, had 21 beds. It was recently refurbished at a cost of £1.25 million, a quarter of which was raised locally. It opened in May this year. I had cause to visit the refurbished service during my extended election campaign. Patients in Ryedale ward received intensive rehabilitation after a fall or an operation, allowing them to return safely to their home environment.
The ward closure has been termed a pilot scheme, but I am mindful that once a ward has been closed, it is difficult to re-open it. Importantly, the primary care trust in this instance is both the commissioner and the provider of services at Malton hospital. This is most unusual. It is now frowned on as unacceptable and, I understand, is being stopped through the Transforming Community Services agenda.
The way in which the ward was closed is a textbook example of how not to proceed. First, the primary care trust claimed that there was no question of Ryedale ward at Malton hospital closing. Then, after a decision taken on 23 September, the beds were removed from the ward by stealth until there were none remaining and the ward was effectively closed on 19 October. Even at a private meeting with the Health Minister and me on 12 October at the Department of Health, the PCT could still not admit that the ward was closing. Before the closure there had been almost no consultation of the relevant GP practices across the Ryedale area, or of nurses or patients.
Yesterday I lodged a petition with the signatures of more than 1,800 residents of the Ryedale area, strongly objecting to the way that the bed closures had happened without public consultation. I have had a large mailbag from constituents and heard many testimonies of the excellent care that patients received, to their satisfaction and to that of their loved ones, in the Ryedale ward at Malton hospital. The correspondence has been universally against the closure of the ward.
Many local health practitioners are wary of the so-called hospital at home scheme replacing care on a ward. There is deep concern that no advance warning or training was given before the hospital at home scheme was announced as part of the ward closure. Some patients require hospital treatment, although others might prefer to be treated at home. The scheme may lead to patients being admitted as an emergency to an acute ward, which is distressing and more costly than care on a community ward and deeply worrying to patients and their loved ones.
The Ryedale ward should not have closed without the agreement of the health practitioners and the local community. The Secretary of State has received the conclusions of a study of clinical activity on the Ryedale ward to assess whether identified clinical need could be managed effectively at home by the enhanced community support scheme. Those conclusions, which I should like to share with the Minister, are that, on balance, Ryedale should probably have been kept as a 10 to 16-unit, if not a 21-unit, ward for these purposes. There is general concern that the closure of Ryedale ward flouted the conclusions of that study, which I commend to the Secretary of State and to my hon. Friend the Minister.
What could the reasons for closure be? Given the predicted deficit in the primary care trust, my fear is that there is a financial motivation behind the recent trend of events and the subsequent lack of consultation. The budgets are being cut so radically that there might be insufficient funds to run all the services by the time that GP commissioning commences in 2012. I accept that there is a funding issue. The current funding allocation to North Yorkshire and York is the 13th lowest of the 152 PCT areas, and 12% below the strategic health authority average. There might be insufficient funds to run all the services at such time as the GP commissioning service commences.
If the trend of service cuts continues, our community hospitals could be reduced to a size where it is no longer viable to keep them open. In a rural area that is sparsely populated, with an increasingly elderly population, access to a local facility or service is key, and the closure or reduction of services could be disastrous. Scarborough hospital and local hospital trusts are deeply frustrated that there is now a local ward free at Malton hospital, currently unused, which could provide beds for patients entrusted to its care.
I welcome the Government's policy that decisions should be taken locally, but not before the relevant parties have been adequately consulted. The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), wrote to me on 25 August to state that the Government have pledged that, in future,
"all service changes must be led by clinicians and patients, and are not to be driven from the top down."
"the Secretary of State for Health has outlined new, strengthened criteria"
"focus on improving patient outcomes...consider patient choice...have support from GP commissioners...and...be based on sound clinical evidence."
In this case, each and every one of those criteria has been flouted, but I understand that Ministers are powerless to act until the end of the pilot scheme. I urge the Secretary of State, the Minister of State and my hon. Friend to look at reviewing this at the earliest opportunity.
We must ensure that any such fundamental change has the support of all those affected by it. Given that the ward is now closed, it will be harder to reopen it. I cannot see how this is simply a pilot scheme, not a reconfiguration of services. I put it to the House that the decision-making process leading up to the removal of these services was defective and has bypassed those who are most affected by the decisions. Patients must be at the heart of our health care. Local clinicians, doctors, nurses, and patients' loved ones must support the decisions taken.
Moving forward, where do we want to be at the end of this process? Local people must have confidence in the decision-making process. In the case of the closure of the Ryedale ward, they clearly do not. It is vital that at the end of the so-called pilot scheme, there will be a full, transparent and open consultation. I ask the Minister to outline precisely what form that consultation will take. I urge her to ensure that all those most directly
affected will be consulted, including GPs, nurses, Ryedale LINk-local improvement network-Friends of Malton Hospital, and all patients and their loved ones. The primary care trust must desist from the practice of not consulting on any further changes to services. We need to have a proper consultation and better co-ordination of services between the primary care trust and the local hospital trusts.
I welcome the debate, and I hope that the Minister will reassure me that my long-term ambition for the health service, both locally in North Yorkshire and nationally, will be realised and that clinical need will be at the heart of the delivery of health care.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on securing the debate. I can fully understand her desire to ensure that the best possible health services exist for her constituents, which came across strongly when she met the Minister of State on 12 October to discuss Malton community hospital.
My hon. Friend is right to say yet again-we say it often, but we cannot say it often enough-that the NHS is a national treasure. It is much loved and much relied upon by all of us, and from my own point of view it was my employer for 25 years. As she rightly stated, patients are at the heart of the service, and need to continue to be. I am sad to say that the story she told this evening is not dissimilar to my experiences in my own constituency, and it shows a big gap: what managers in charge of the finances and commissioners are trying to achieve is very distant from what local people feel.
I wish to say a little about where we are, because I think I can reassure my hon. Friend that our vision of the health service is well aligned with her own. This Government trust professionals in the NHS, and our White Paper, "Equity and excellence: Liberating the NHS", is about putting that trust into action and sweeping away the old system, which serves only to hamper and curtail the professional judgment of clinicians. We are replacing politically motivated process targets such as how many people are seen and the length of time they wait, which lump all patients together whatever their ailment, and introducing clinical standards generated by the professionals themselves, to hold them to account for the quality of care and outcomes that they provide. My hon. Friend also referred to the vital importance of professionals leading that process.
The future of local health services will not be dictated from the centre. They will not be directed by strategic health authorities or primary care trusts, they will be designed and commissioned from the bottom up by GPs and their colleagues across the health service, such as clinicians and managers, working in partnership in independent trusts to improve the quality of care. Patients will be armed with unprecedented levels of information and powers of scrutiny, and there will also be input from democratically elected local councillors. That bottom-up approach is important to prevent the present situation from happening again.
Miss McIntosh: What my hon. Friend is saying is music to my ears, but what concerns me is how we have reached a situation in which a major reconfiguration of services has happened without any regard at all to the bottom-up principle.
As my hon. Friend stated, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has identified four crucial tests that all reconfigurations must now pass. First, they must have the support of GP commissioners. Secondly, there must be arrangements for public and patient engagement-no, I would rather say "involvement", because "engagement" is not a favourite word of mine. This is about involvement-people being listened to and their voices being heard, which clearly has not happened in the case that she has described. Thirdly, there must be greater clarity about the clinical evidence base underpinning a proposal. Fourthly, proposals must take into account the need to develop and support patient choice. That is a recipe not for maintaining the status quo but for locally agreed, transparent, evidence-based and clinically led change. Decisions about the services at a local hospital will be driven by local clinicians, with the consent and input of patients and local authorities, not imposed or decided behind closed doors.
On Malton community hospital, providing health services in rural areas can be challenging, and I understand that many patients in north Yorkshire have to travel for as long as 45 minutes to reach their nearest large hospital. Local health services can indeed find it difficult to meet national guidelines, particularly those involving clinical mass. I understand that it is against such a challenging backdrop that North Yorkshire and York PCT is currently considering its strategy for health services in Malton and Ryedale, ensuring that they are safe and sustainable for the future.
I am happy for my hon. Friend to come back to me on any points that I may raise. I understand that the PCT's emerging strategy for future hospital service provision is based on four themes: prompt local access to assessment and treatment for those needing urgent care; local access to a range of rehabilitation services, delivering intensive rehab and support effectively to re-able patients; prompt and local access to diagnostic tests and, where desirable and feasible, minor surgery; and specialist out-patient services to promote access and to support patient management by local GPs.
I am also aware of press speculation that Malton community hospital may be closed. The PCT has made it clear that it sees the hospital as an integral part of local health services and that it has no intention of not having a community hospital in Malton. I do not know whether that will reassure my hon. Friend. Judging by the expression on her face, I fear that it may not.
North Yorkshire and York PCT is currently piloting a scheme of enhanced community service in the Malton and Whitby area. The PCT believes that treating patients closer to home will provide better outcomes and encourage patients to retain their independence. I gather that that pronouncement has been greeted with the same cynicism with which it is greeted in many areas around the country.