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Michael Ellis: I very much agree. Of course we all recognise and cherish the right of people to protest in this country; we have an extremely liberal democracy that allows and, indeed, encourages it. It has however, reached a point of utter nonsense in Parliament Square gardens.
"in the open air, or under a tent",
and committing an offence under that provision. The maximum penalty for breaching it is a fine at level 1 of the standard scale, which is a maximum of £200. However, Members will be interested to know that if a person is prosecuted a second time for this offence, they can then be classified as "an incorrigible rogue". The provision then allows the magistrates to remit the matter to the Crown court for sentence. Whereas on first prosecution the maximum sentence is a £200 fine, on second conviction for the same offence the maximum penalty would be up to 12 months' imprisonment. That might well act as a disincentive to those encamping themselves on Parliament square, encouraging them to move on. The only requirements for prosecution are that the people concerned have been given an opportunity to take shelter elsewhere and have not availed themselves of that opportunity; that they have persistently ignored reasonably accessible alternatives; and that their remaining in situ would have offensive consequences or those consequences would appear likely to occur. I think that the House could well deal with the encampment by means of a prosecution before the Bill is given Royal Assent.
I have dealt with two clauses. I have only two minutes in which to cover several hundred more, but let me say a little about the proposal relating to police commissioners. It is a fundamentally democratic proposal, which I strongly support. Only a tiny number of people currently know that police authorities even exist.
Andrew Bridgen: Does my hon. Friend agree that in this country we police with consent-the consent of the people-and that there is no better way of securing the consent of the people than a democratic election?
Michael Ellis: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It has been quite strange to observe Opposition members baulking at the suggestion that police and crime commissioners should be elected. One would have expected them to support the democratic process.
Michael Ellis: I do not accept that at all. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the last Prime Minister but one, Tony Blair, summoned chief constables from around the country and put them under pressure to deal with knife crime. That was a form of politicisation of the police, and it is not something that police commissioners will be doing. Democratically electing police commissioners will, in fact, legitimise them.
Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): We have had an interesting and wide-ranging debate to which many Members on both sides of the House have contributed. At the heart of the Bill is disagreement about whether the reforms will lead to politicisation. Government Members may assert that they will not, but there is real worry among not just Members of Parliament but many outside organisations.
The hon. Members for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), discussed the measures to deal with alcohol. Many of us welcome those measures. Let me say to the Home Secretary and her Ministers that I consider it important to enforce not only the new laws in the Bill, but the existing laws.
Some of the problems relating to alcohol, and in particular to binge drinking, are cultural. There is not just one homogeneous problem; there is the problem of binge drinking, the problem of the purchase of alcohol on estates by under-age drinkers and the problem of alcoholism, which usually involves older drinkers. We need to understand that there are three separate problems, each of which requires a separate solution.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East also mentioned the measures relating to drugs, which I welcome. Obviously, we will have to consider their practical implications in Committee, but this is certainly a sensible and realistic attempt to deal with what we all recognise to be a real problem.
Although we are in favour of universal jurisdiction, I repeat to my right hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) something my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary said: we will look at its implications in Committee.
My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) talked about the issue of commissioners, which is at the heart of the Bill. We all accept that accountability is important and necessary, but the question is: what is the right way of ensuring that the police are held accountable? The Bill proposes that the right way is through a single individual on a force-wide basis. My two hon. Friends and my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary pointed out some of the difficulties in that, as I will too.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) pointed out that the Bill's proposal of a single individual accountable at force-wide level does not address the real accountability issues, which, as most Members will know, are at neighbourhood, street and ward level. People come to me about drugs problems in the pub car park or a gang of youths at the end of the street; they do not come to me about the force's counter-terrorism policy, or come to me and say the force does not have the right strategic approach to serious and organised crime. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles that the
accountability gap people often feel and the confidence that is then sometimes under threat are at a neighbourhood and street level, and I do not see how a single force commissioner can deal with that.
Vernon Coaker: I will not give way at present, as I want to make a point about an issue the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) raised. He talked about the need to tackle antisocial behaviour, and we all agree with that. People ask why the crime statistics are sometimes not believed. As Bill Bratton said to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, unless antisocial behaviour-some of the minor crimes which are nevertheless real issues-is dealt with, people sometimes do not believe the broader crime statistics. That highlights the importance of having somebody at the local or neighbourhood level who-
Vernon Coaker: Let me finish this point. That highlights the importance of having somebody at the local or neighbourhood level who is accountable for dealing with such matters. That is the really important level of accountability.
Mr Offord: A central tenet of the Local Government Act 2000 was the introduction of greater accountability and transparency in the decision-making process and the introduction of directly elected mayors, so why does the hon. Gentleman not support the same rationale in this Bill?
Vernon Coaker: Because I did not think they were a very good idea then. The hon. Gentleman has to deal with this: the accountability his party seeks to put in place through this Bill is at a force-wide level, and I am saying it is the wrong level of accountability.
Vernon Coaker: I cannot give way as I have to finish in four or five minutes. Those Members wishing to intervene can argue this point in more detail in Committee, as they do not have to be Committee members to do so.
The Bill makes a number of proposals on issues such as drugs, alcohol and protests around Parliament, but at its core is police reform and the proposal for elected police commissioners and police and crime panels. At the same time as we have massive cuts to policing that will mean thousands fewer police in every single area of the country, the Government are subjecting police to an unwanted organisational upheaval. Of course, not only are police officers under threat but police staff in the back office and police community support officers will go.
As we have seen from the police grant reports today, every single police force will be under huge financial pressure, yet the Government want to spend more than £100 million on these commissioners, equivalent to the cost of 600 full-time officers. This organisational change will happen in May 2012, just before the Olympics, and in 2012-13, the year of the biggest cuts.
Who wants this? The Minister must tell us who is demanding these so-called reforms. We have seen in The Guardian today that the APA is completely opposed to the reforms-the letter is from Conservative, Independent, Labour and Liberal Democrat members. Liberty is opposed to them, so are the LGA and the police. We have a so-called listening Government who are, frankly, telling people that they know best.
The Minister has failed to answer the questions. If the commissioner is elected based on a particular proposal, who will decide? The elected commissioner or the chief constable? If I am an elected commissioner and I promise that every police officer will be visible and on the street, but the chief constable says, "No, I want some for domestic violence, for cross-border organised crime, for tackling economic fraud and for child protection," who will decide? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East said, the Government have a duty to be clearer about where that dividing line will occur and about what operational independence and operational responsibility mean. We have no clarity about that in the Bill.
I have dealt with subject of the wrong level of accountability, and it is also unclear how police and crime panels are to work. Are they to hold commissioners to account or to work with them to deliver what they want? They have a power of veto in only two areas-namely the precept, or budget, and the appointment of the chief constables-but they must have a three-quarters majority for that veto to be effective. That is a greater majority than the Government have passed for the Dissolution of Parliament. A three-quarters majority would mean that virtually every person on the police and crime panel would have to agree for that veto to happen.
In conclusion, the political independence of the police is as important in a democracy as the independence of the courts. Political views and opinions may ebb and flow, but the police remain. That allows every individual, whatever their race, religion or politics, to feel protected. A single person who is politically motivated elected to oversee the police will make it increasingly difficult to ensure that this political independence is maintained. For that reason, above all, the Government must think again.
The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): I apologise to the House for the fact that I had briefly to leave the debate. I was attending and addressing a meeting in the House of London members of the Police Superintendents Association, as were Opposition Front Benchers.
It has clearly largely been a good debate and I welcome the constructive comments that have been made and that have been reported to me. I shall attempt to respond to as many as I can either now or, if appropriate, later. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), mentioned his report and we are paying the closest attention to its recommendations, which we think are very considered. Like the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen, he mentioned the importance of operational independence. We all agree about that and we all want to protect it. The Chairman of the Committee suggested that a memorandum of understanding might be the means by which that could be achieved. That is a good idea and the Government have already said that we will sit down with ACPO once the Bill is enacted and agree an extra-statutory protocol-I am sure that we can discuss these issues as the Bill makes progress-that will set out the terms of agreement to ensure that operational independence is protected. There is agreement between us and ACPO-it is important that the Opposition understand this-that we should not seek to define operational independence in the Bill. That is a matter for case law.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) made a number of important points and I shall respond in detail at the appropriate time, but let me deal with two of them now. We will be engaging with the Electoral Commission on its recommendations. He asked whether the strategic policing requirement could cover issues such as business crime. That is important, but the aim of the requirement is to cover issues of national importance on which co-ordination is required, such as counter-terrorism and serious organised crime, to ensure that elected police and crime commissioners and chief constables have regard to those cross-border issues. I am not sure whether that would be appropriate for the issues he raised, but it is worth discussing.
Mark Reckless: On the question of operational independence, one could get the impression from Opposition Members that police forces operate and are directed in a political vacuum. Surely, it is entirely appropriate that police authorities should determine whether Tasers, for example, should be used. None of us would expect police to start using water cannon and that sort of operational tactic without political permission and oversight.
Nick Herbert: I strongly agree and the Home Secretary said exactly the same thing today. Such tactics are a matter for the operational responsibility of the police, but such major decisions have to be agreed with the police authorities that hold them to account locally.
My hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) made good speeches supporting our plans to toughen alcohol licensing. I welcome the Opposition's support for those measures, but what a far cry it is from the claims of the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) that Labour's 24-hour drinking laws were about
"enriching the quality of people's lives."
How naive that was. We have seen the result of those laws-violence and disorder in our city and town centres. So, Labour now repudiates its ill-judged experiment with the so-called café culture, but it is clearly going to oppose the measures on police reform for opposition's sake. That is not the position of the former Minister with responsibility for policing, the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), however. Based on the notes I have seen, I think she made a thoughtful speech on the importance of accountability, although we may differ on the particular.
The shadow Home Secretary's arguments against our proposals for police and crime commissioners are deeply unconvincing and he keeps getting things wrong. He attacked our statement on police funding today and got the numbers wrong. Last week, he said that the inspectorate of constabulary's figures were "corrupt and erroneous", but was then forced to retract those words. Today, he told the House that police and crime commissioners would have the power "to direct" policing, but that is simply wrong. Chief constables will retain control and direction of their forces, as it says in clause 2, which he should read. We are determined to protect the operational independence of chief constables. Police and crime commissioners will be able to set the policing plan with the agreement of the chief constable but they will not direct policing and nor should they.
The shadow Home Secretary said that the commissioners will be elected solely to run policing, but that will not be their sole job. They will be police and crime commissioners with wider powers and devolved budgets from the Home Office to fight crime and engage in crime prevention with the local community. If the right hon. Gentleman has such a good case, why does he need to invent objections to the Bill? He continues to assert that the commissioners will appoint political advisers, but we have repeatedly made it clear that we will not allow that. We do not want to politicise policing and we do not want spin in policing. We will not take any lectures about political advisers and spin from the friend of McBride and Whelan.
Ed Balls: I do not want to get into personal invective or to drag the important issue of policing down to the gutter. I have been told by a number of people who attended the meeting of the Association of Police Authorities at which the Minister spoke that he said that, if he were elected as a police and crime commissioner, the first decision he would take would be to appoint a political adviser. Was everyone else at that meeting mistaken or has he forgotten attending the event and saying those things?
The Labour party complains about the cost of the commissioners and that complaint was repeated by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). We have made it quite clear that commissioners must cost no more than the police authorities they replace. Yes, there will be the cost of holding the elections once every four years-an average £12.5 million a year. That is less than 0.1% of police spend, and the money will not come from force budgets anyway.
Nick Herbert: Labour's manifesto at the last election proposed referendums five times over-on AV, on reform of the other place, on mayors, on further powers for the Welsh Assembly and on the euro. Did Labour Members advance arguments against those democratic pledges on the grounds that they would cost money? Of course not. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) pointed out, of course there is a cost to running elections. Police authorities do not have that cost because they are not democratic. That is exactly what we want to fix.
Nick Herbert: For all Labour's objections, one could be forgiven for forgetting that the previous Government twice proposed to democratise police authorities. So what happened? They backed down, twice. That is the difference between the previous Government and the coalition. The Opposition retreated from reform at the first whiff of opposition and we are determined to see it through. [Hon. Members: "Give way!"]
"Only direct election, based on geographic constituencies, will deliver the strong connection to the public which is critical."
Is that too long ago? Let us look at what the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) said just two weeks ago. He told the Home Affairs Committee that "the present accountability of police authorities was not optimal." What a masterpiece of understatement. If police authorities are sub-optimal, what proposals does he have for reform? None. He is silent on the issue. Today the right hon. Gentleman admitted that "there is more we can do to deepen accountability at force level." What? He will not say. He is against reform of the governance of policing, but he is for it, just as he is against cuts while admitting that he would cut police budgets by more than £1 million a year. Apparently these can be delivered without losing a single police officer. That is what he said today.
Nick Herbert: Labour Members say that the constituencies will be too big, yet the largest constituency outside London will have 2.5 million electors, and the capital has more than 5.5 million. Londoners like the clear line of accountability that the Mayor provides. The Opposition run scare stories about extremists being elected. Did it happen in London? No. Fortunately, Ken Livingstone was replaced by Boris Johnson.
At the heart of objections to the Bill lies a deeply worrying philosophy. It is the view that one cannot trust the people. Heaven forfend that they might elect someone who represents their views. Those are the same disreputable arguments that were mounted against enfranchising the general public and women. The same attitude pervades opposition to the Bill-that one cannot trust the electorate. It is as undemocratic as it is elitist to argue that the public should have no say, and that our public services would be run so much better by people who are unaccountable and who know better than them.
Policing is a monopoly service and people cannot choose their force. This public service has to answer to someone. Is it to be bureaucratic accountability to Whitehall or local accountability to the people? We believe in trusting people and returning power and responsibility to communities. We think that local people should have a say over how their area is policed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said, we think that local people should have power so that they can do something when problem drinking blights their town and city centres. We are determined to rebuild the link between the people and the police forces who serve them. That is why these reforms are right for the people, right for the police and right for the times. I commend the Bill to the House.
That the following provisions shall apply to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill:
1. The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
2. Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 17 February 2011.
3. The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Consideration and Third Reading
4. Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
6. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.
7. Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments or on any further messages from the Lords) may be programmed. -(Angela Watkinson.)
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, it is expedient to authorise-
(1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of-
(a) any expenditure incurred under or by virtue of the Act by a Minister of the Crown, and
(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under or by virtue of any other Act out of money so provided, and
(2) the payment out of the Consolidated Fund of expenditure of the Secretary of State in making payments to returning officers for charges in respect of services rendered, or expenses incurred, by such officers for or in connection with elections of police and crime commissioners.
Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): Tonight, I shall try to find the balance in schools admissions between the right of schools to set their admissions policy and the right of parents to get their children into a local school. In Milton Keynes, a growing city with many in-year admissions, that is no mean feat. Hopefully we can find a resolution tonight, but it is fair to say that for many, school admissions is a sore subject. It preoccupies parents, has the power to inflate housing prices and has even been the stuff of TV drama.
In Milton Keynes, schools admissions has gained renewed controversy since changes were made to the allocation process. The previous Government said that those changes would ensure fairness, but combined with other factors, they have had the unintended consequence of leaving scores of children out of education or having to travel miles across the city to get to school. The delays and distances endured by many of my young constituents are simply not fair.
From September, local authorities were charged with co-ordinating all applications for foundation schools and academies for those applying outside the yearly round. Previously, these in-year applications, usually from people moving into the city, were submitted directly to schools. Now councils must match each child's three preferences with the schools' admissions criteria and capacity, and allocate a place. Nationally, councils have reported concerns to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator about this new role. Pressure group Parents Outloud even championed the previous system, and admissions staff at schools have bemoaned the new layer of bureaucracy. Locally, the impact of the change has been compounded by the fact that all our 12 state secondary schools are foundation schools, with one voluntary aided and one academy. Milton Keynes council only has a team of five to deal with its new responsibility.
Since September, I have been inundated with complaints from parents about delays in the process, as well as about what has been offered. Children are now sitting at home for weeks while the council finds them a place, and then further weeks for the school to induct them. When places are offered, many of them are on the other side of the city.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): My hon. Friend is raising an important topic. Is he aware that on my side of Milton Keynes I have received a similar number of complaints, and that some of the complaints about admissions relate to primary schools as well as secondary schools?
Mark Lancaster: I am aware of the problem, because it is the same in Milton Keynes North. However, I am also aware of my hon. Friend's sterling efforts in getting many of his constituents into school. I congratulate him on that.
This is a particularly timely debate. The Government are currently reviewing the school admissions framework and the school admissions code, with a view to making it simpler and fairer. A White Paper on "The Importance
of Teaching" has just been published, putting the onus of fair access to schools on local authorities. Fairness is the driving force of the White Paper. I want therefore to outline the situation in Milton Keynes and consider how we can make admissions fairer for schools, authorities, parents and, most importantly, pupils.
As I have said, many of the complaints I have received relate to the delays in council allocation and school induction. This year, Milton Keynes council received 327 secondary school in-year applications. This influx is to be expected in our city, which is an area of rapid growth. The Department for Education-or the Department for Children, Schools and Families, as it was then-recommended that places be allocated within five school days. Milton Keynes council aims for a turnaround of 15 days. Owing to this year's influx, however, parents have seen a reported six-week wait for their child's three preferences to be processed. Then, once a place is allocated and accepted, there is a further delay as the school conducts its induction arrangements.
Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In September and October, I was inundated with problems from parents, particularly in the Holme Valley, Honley and Brockholes, with over-subscribed schools. Does my hon. Friend agree that consistency in admissions policy would be particularly helpful, especially when it comes to siblings being able to go to the same school?
We can all agree that the last thing we want is children out of school. In fact, parents could be prosecuted for keeping their children at home for such lengths of time. However, according to a Mail on Sunday investigation in September, bureaucracy was barring up to 15,000 primary and secondary pupils from the classroom nationally. Each school calculates its own published admissions number-known as a PAN-every year. This determines the number of pupils that can be admitted to each year group. However, such is our shortage of places that 120 of this year's 327 secondary school applicants did not get any of their three choices.
There is one school bearing the brunt of the city's scarcity of school places. The Radcliffe school in Wolverton does not fill its PAN, so when the council cannot give in-year applicants any of their three preferences, it allocates them to the Radcliffe, seemingly regardless of where the children live in our ever expanding city. Head teacher John O'Donnell is currently dealing with an influx of 140 allocations. A staggering 119 are from children who are out of area, many of whom will have to be bussed or potentially taxied in from outside. Understandably for students who are out of catchment, Radcliffe was not one of their three preferences. The council is fulfilling its duty-every applicant is being offered a school place-but this is turning the Radcliffe into a de facto community school. Whereas 5% of its intake came from outside the catchment area previously, that has suddenly increased to 10%, and is set to rise further.
That volume of allocations has taken its toll. Mr O'Donnell is devoting two days a week to dealing with the backlog. His induction arrangements involve meeting the pupils and families to determine their
requirements, be they special educational needs, academic courses or even language-after all, 37 mother tongues are spoken at the school. The induction process has been criticised, but it is understandable that Mr O'Donnell wants to get his pupils off to the best start. His school finally broke out of special measures in October 2009, after a well deserved record round of GCSE results, but do we want him to put children straight into lessons that are not appropriate just to get them into school, or do we want him to continue raising standards? Such is the backlog that pupils are now being allocated places at the Radcliffe, where they will not be able to start for months. The result is scores of children sitting at home-not studying, just waiting.
Why has the Radcliffe seen such an influx? It can be partly explained by the creation of the Milton Keynes academy-a fantastic new facility, and the city's first-which opened in September 2009. As I told the Secretary of State after he delivered his White Paper on 24 November, the academy's PAN is lower than that of its predecessor, the Sir Frank Markham community school. That has displaced people from the academy's catchment area, who are instead being given places at the Radcliffe. For example, Mr O'Donnell is for the first time seeing applicants from the Netherfield estate, which is 1 mile from the academy, but nearly 7 miles from the Radcliffe. In fact, many of the Radcliffe's new intake of 119 are from the academy's catchment area.
It is worth taking a moment to consider why it is so important for children to go to a school close to home. Once they are 18, many seem to pick a university that gets them as far away as possible-or a continent that takes them even further afield, on their gap year-but most school kids just want to walk to school with their mates. The national Walk to School campaign highlights why travelling on foot is good for morale and health, taking congestion off our roads and promoting a more cohesive society.
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this excellent debate and campaigning so vigorously on behalf of school pupils across Milton Keynes. I am sure that he will be aware that there is a problem right across the country. In Ingleby Barwick in my constituency, a local group called BO2SS-Barwick's Own 2nd Secondary School-has come together to put forward a free school application specifically in order to allow local pupils to attend a school within walking distance in their community. It is important to put on record the fact that although the problem is significant in Milton Keynes, it needs to be addressed across the nation as a whole.
With Mr O'Donnell's out-of-catchment intake, he is seeing a massive decrease in those attending after-school activities. Engagement has already taken a hit because many pupils have to change buses in central Milton Keynes. There, they are drawn to shops and attractions, rather than continuing with their journeys, which sometimes involve catching two or three buses. We have to think about what sort of society we want to create. Do we want our children to become juvenile commuters, reading bus timetables rather than textbooks?
The problem is not confined to the two aforementioned schools. For example, the Mumford family moved to a house in Newport Pagnell that overlooks a secondary school, Ousedale. Two of their daughters were offered places at the school, but not in a classroom yards from their home-rather, at the campus in the next town, Olney, which is more than 8 miles away and not on a bus route. They were alternatively offered places at the Radcliffe school, 6.5 miles away, but told that they would not be able to start until November. After weeks out of education, they face a daily commute when there is already a school on their doorstep. Likewise, a mother and her son moved to Olney, very near the town's Ousedale campus. The son was instead offered a place at the Radcliffe school, 11 miles away. As there is no bus service that would get him to school, he was offered a council-funded taxi to take him there and back every day. Fortunately, after an intervention from my caseworker and persistence from his mother, his appeal was successful and he has happily started at his local school, without having to use a taxi, at a cost to the council of £2,875 a year.
We are talking about fairness, but what is happening is unfair on children whose parents are not able, for whatever reason, to fight their case and push for appeals. It is unfair on the children whose parents cannot provide them with transport if they have to travel several miles to school or support them if they are stuck out of education for a period of time. Indeed, schools can admit above their PAN in exceptional circumstances if children fall into the categories stipulated by the fair access protocol. This protocol also applies to those who have been out of school for more than one term or those whose parents have been unable to find them a place after moving to the area. However, Milton Keynes council resorted to this protocol on only four occasions last year and not at all this year.
After my prolonged campaign for "I before E"-infrastructure before expansion-and the coalition Government's commitment to it, I am confident that our rate of school building will keep up with our population growth. After all, Milton Keynes is the fifth fastest-growing city in the UK, but I am concerned that, as new schools appear, they will fill up with pupils from across the city before nearby houses are built. Head teachers have wanted to hold places, but the incentive is to fill places to secure maximum funding.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the problem is not limited to growing towns? We have a strikingly parallel situation in Cheltenham, where two neighbouring schools were both oversubscribed, which left an admissions gap between them. Again, pupils were referred a long distance away. That was resolved in the end by the good will of the governors of both schools, but with the assistance of the local authority. Does he share my slight concern that the more independence we give schools over admissions, the less incentive they will have to co-ordinate and resolve these problems?
The hon. Member comes to the nub of the problem-how we square that circle between the rights of schools to set their own admissions and the
rights of families to get their children into their local school. In Milton Keynes, the consequence is that new families moving in cannot get a place at their local school.
Network Rail's new headquarters is set to bring 2,000 new staff to the city. Yes, there will be school places for the children who move here, but will these be anywhere near their houses and how long will they have to wait to start? This situation also spells trouble as we see the creation of more academies. In Milton Keynes, two schools have applied for academy status, which I wholeheartedly support. I am delighted about it, but will they, as in the previous case, have reduced PANs and will we see yet more displacement within the city?
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State has mooted the idea of allowing schools to prioritise children from disadvantaged backgrounds in the oversubscription criteria. While this is laudable in principle, it has been suggested that allocation will favour a child's means over their proximity to a school. Will we end up with a city where students are crossing each other's paths as they travel to school? Indeed, this situation has posed more questions than answers. Of course there is no dispute that fairness should underpin whatever we do, but there remain two problems with the current set up: delays and distance.
Various recommendations have been made. One that head teachers say would make a big difference is allowing schools in high-growth areas to be able to hold places for people moving in at a later date. This could be made possible by "ghost funding" those places, which is the approach taken by armed forces schools. Again, I am all for infrastructure before expansion, but it has to be done in a strategic way, because at the moment people are moving next to these new schools, but are not able to get a place there.
The school admission code needs to recognise the importance of schools admitting children from the catchment area. Councils do not seem to have a problem sending children 10 miles away; parents and head teachers do. If we want to improve attainment and children's quality of life, we must recognise that proximity of schooling is very important. A school's duty should be to serve its local area. John Prescott famously warned of the dangers of setting up good schools, because
"everyone wants to go there".
The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) on securing this debate. I understand the importance he attaches to education, and it was he who introduced me to Peter Barnes, an inspiring head teacher of the Oakgrove school in his constituency.
My hon. Friend is right to say that admissions policy is a sore subject. I would go a step further, and say that for many parents admissions are a cause of huge stress as they fight to secure a place in a good school when the education system provides insufficient good places. We have some of the best schools in the world, but we also have too many that are still struggling. According to
Ofsted's annual report, published on 23 November, 39% of secondary schools and 36% of primary schools are judged to be inadequate or merely satisfactory. If the admissions system is to be fair, all parents must have the opportunity to choose a good school, not just a satisfactory school. It is not good enough that nearly four in 10 secondary schools and over a third of primary schools do not yet reach that level.
Although 83% of parents secured their first-preference school in this year's admissions round-in Milton Keynes the figure was 88%-that still means that, nationally, nearly one in five parents failed to achieve their first choice of school. It is worse in cities, with one in three missing out on their first choice in London and Birmingham. In some local authority areas, only 50% of parents manage to get their children into their first-preference schools. In 2008-09, more than 88,000 appeals were made by parents who were unhappy with the schools that had been allocated to them, and in 22% of cases the appeals were allowed.
That is the scale of the problem that the Government are charged with tackling. They must establish how to increase the number of good school places, and how to reduce the stress and unhappiness that arise every year during the admissions process. That problem is compounded by the fact that, according to the latest report by the Programme for International Student Assessment, this country's educational ranking has fallen from seventh to 25th in reading, from eighth to 28th in science, and from fourth to 16th in maths.
We need to learn from the best-performing countries, which have been successful in closing the attainment gap between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds while raising standards for all students. Many have drawn up comprehensive plans for school improvement that involve improving teacher quality, granting greater autonomy to the front line, modernising curriculums, making schools more accountable to their communities, harnessing detailed performance data, and encouraging professional collaboration.
Only through such whole-system reform can education be transformed to make our nation one of the world's top performers, and that is what our White Paper "The Importance of Teaching"-which was mentioned by my hon. Friend-will allow us to do. It will provide greater autonomy for schools, an enhanced teaching profession with renewed professional status, a war on the bureaucratic burdens and red tape that sap motivation and energy, a real focus on raising standards in reading and arithmetic in primary schools, and a revised and slimmed-down national curriculum focused on core knowledge.
We also want to ease the burden on local authorities. Rather than their having to engage in activities such as setting up admissions forums or providing the schools adjudicator with an annual report because central Government says that they must, we want them to concentrate on making the admissions process as fair and straightforward as possible. As my hon. Friend intimated, we intend to simplify the admissions code, while still ensuring fair access to schools for all children.
As my hon. Friend said, local authorities have a critical role to play. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State describes them as our indispensable partners, and nowhere is that truer than in the co-ordination of fair admissions. Decisions about the allocation of school
places can only be made locally. When schools are over-subscribed, the current system allows admission authorities to set their own criteria to decide place allocations, provided that they comply with the school admissions code and admissions legislation.
The use of catchment areas is a popular method, but there are others, including prioritisation based on travel distance, siblings-that too was mentioned by my hon. Friend-and feeder primary schools. The admissions code states explicitly that when catchment areas are used, they must always reflect the community served by the school and must never disadvantage particular social groups by, for example, excluding certain housing estates or addresses.
Those arrangements-as well as the timetable governing when parents apply for their children to start primary school or transfer to secondary school-have been in place for a number of years, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, local authorities have been required to co-ordinate all in-year applications and offers only from this September as a result of changes made by the previous Government. On the one hand, this means that parents have to complete only a single application form to the local authority where they live, instead of having to go through the often disheartening process of contacting schools direct. It also allows local authorities to help more vulnerable families. On the other hand, it also makes for the kind of slow and bureaucratic process my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North described and delays the allocation of places. In recent months, the Department has had a steady flow of correspondence from local authorities and schools echoing those same concerns-which were also echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton)-and arguing that schools should be able to offer or refuse a place directly. Admissions processes are an imprecise science, but having heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North and having received representations from admissions authorities and members of the public, I am convinced that we have to look again at this issue. It will be considered as part of the review and the simplification of the admissions code that we are currently undertaking.
My hon. Friend also raised the important issue of travel to and from school. In common, I am sure, with all Members of this House, we want as many children as possible to be able to walk or cycle to school wherever they can. It is healthier and reduces traffic congestion. I know from the Milton Keynes "Walk'n'Roll" scheme, launched in October as part of walk to school month, and the "cycle train" interventions, that the authority is committed to working with schools to achieve precisely that.
It is far from ideal for children to have to travel long distances. Parents want their local school to be a good school that they are happy for their child to attend, which goes back to my original point that we have to do more to create more good school places and to raise standards in underperforming schools. The statutory walking distance is currently 2 miles for pupils below the age of eight and 3 miles for those aged eight and over. Where a pupil is attending the nearest suitable school and it is further than the walking distances, free home to school transport has to be provided by the local authority. I am pleased to be able to say that today's local government funding settlement announcement included the proposal to conduct a root-and-branch
review of home to school transport policy in the new year. The current arrangements have remained largely unchanged since the Education Act 1944 and the Government believe they are no longer appropriate for today's modern education system. In the meantime, I know that there are specific issues in Milton Keynes and that a number of pupils face long and difficult journeys, and I have listened carefully to the points made so effectively by my hon. Friend.
In summary, we have to improve our education system and we have to improve our admissions system. Fair and inclusive admissions are a vital component of a world-class education system, and I will ensure that our review of admissions addresses all of the points my hon. Friend raised today.