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Opposition Day

Volume 175: debated on Tuesday 3 July 1990

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4.29 pm

I beg to move,

That this House is profoundly alarmed at the crisis in the nation's schools and the collapse in teacher morale, the serious problems of retention and recruitment, the deteriorating state of school buildings, and the under-funding of the system; condemns Her Majesty's Government for its lack of ambition and leadership for the nation's young, for pushing through changes which are adding to the crisis, for the fact that one-third of children are getting a raw deal, and that fewer young people stay on in full-time education than in any major competitor country; and calls for action now to raise the standards of education and to invest properly in the nation's future.

I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. A large number of hon. Members wish to participate in this debate and, sadly, as a result of our late start, it will be impossible to call them all. I shall be able to call many more if speeches from both the Front Benches, and also the Back Benches, are brief.

This late start owes nothing to the endeavours of the Opposition and everything to the attempts by Conservative Members to sabotage an Opposition day yet again.

Across the country there is a rising sense of crisis in our schools. It is a crisis recognised in all areas by people of all political persuasions. It is a crisis for which the Government are overwhelmingly responsible. Some 11 years ago, this Administration came to power promising to promote higher standards of achievement. Similar pledges were made in 1983. The 1987 Conservative manifesto stated:
"The time has now come for school reform."
We do not know how many votes were garnered on the promise of those so-called reforms. We do know what has happened. Ill-considered, meritricious and often contradictory changes have turned out to be a lethal cocktail which has brought the school system to a lower point than at any time since the war.

The Government's prospectus for the system has clearly failed. The Secretary of State knows that. In April, The Independent on Sunday stated:
"Many of the school and college changes introduced by Kenneth Baker when he was Secretary of State for Education are falling apart. His successor, John MacGregor, is increasingly preoccupied with a damage limitation exercise."
The scale of the crisis caused by that damage can scarcely be exaggerated. Every day, I receive letters and reports from head teachers, governors and parents, worried sick about their children's education. Those representations come more often from traditional Conservative areas than from Labour's heartlands.

The chairman of governors of a large and successful secondary school in Cheltenham wrote to me:
"the supply of teachers"—
even in her area—
"is becoming such a problem that the state education service is under threat."
I have a letter from the headmaster of Hyde primary school in Hampshire, which has no physical education hall, kitchen, dining area or playing fields and has outside toilets for boys. The headmaster said that inadequate funding under the local management for schools formulae was causing him to "cut back staffing". That point is underlined in a survey published today by the National Association of School Masters/Union of Women Teachers. It shows that well over 3,000 jobs are likely to be lost as a direct result of the introduction of the local management of schools.

School buildings across the country are in an appalling state. There is a £3 billion backlog. The Bucks Herald led its issue of 7 June with the headline, "Crumbling Schools Crisis" and quoted the county architect, John Stewart, as saying:
"We are rapidly reaching the point … where we can no longer keep pace with the progressive dilapidation of the buildings under our control."
Saving money, making do and mend, is a constant theme of the reports and letters that I receive. The Mail on Sunday led its edition of 27 May with the headline:
"The Scandal of Our Schools."
It stated:
"Britain's State education system is in danger of collapse,"
according to disturbing new research commissioned by the National Foundation for Educational Research. It continued:
"Only huge contributions from parents are saving schools from a complete breakdown."
The research that the paper quoted found that one third of all money spent in schools on books and equipment came from parents, who were providing nearly £40 million for primary schools alone.

What a mockery all that makes of parental choice, of which we hear so much from the Secretary of State. The choice facing many parents is no choice at all—the "choice" of paying up a second time for essentials for their children's education, which they thought they had already paid for once through taxation.

The very principle of free state education is being whittled away by the Government. For example, what kind of choice have the parents of children at Crawford primary school in Southwark? One class there has had four teachers this term, and the children were told a couple of days ago that they would have to be sent home until September. There are overwhelming teacher shortages, because teachers' salaries are insufficient. Some secretaries in the area are paid more than they are, and the Government have poll tax capped the local education authority.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when I visited a London school when Labour was in office I found that one class had had the misfortune to have seven teachers in one term? We all agree that it is extremely difficult to teach in London, and that is one of the reasons why the Government have introduced education reforms. No one condones the present position; however, the problems were infinitely worse under Labour, and were not solved under its Administration either.

The hon. Lady is wrong. As anyone involved in the education system knows, the position was infinitely better under Labour.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is an appalling indictment of the system that parents have had to take over and teach children at Crawford primary school? They have been told that otherwise the children will have to be sent home, and there will be no more schooling for them until next term, at the beginning of September. Have not the Government been appallingly complacent in ignoring the problems of teacher shortages in London, especially south-east London?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Secretary of State for Education and Science has shown abject complacency: he has washed his hands of responsibility for what is happening, not only in inner London but in many other parts of Britain where he is seeking to ensure that authorities spend less than they do now. He is more concerned about the level of poll tax bills than about ensuring that children receive a decent education.

The hon. Gentleman is making a case for massive extra expenditure. How much would he spend if he were Secretary of State for Education and Science, and why is the Leader of the Opposition doing so much to suggest that a Labour Government would not spend those vast sums?

I was hoping to quote the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) later in my speech. In a fine speech at Chatham House, he said that there must be an increase of one third in spending on state education. He caustically asked any of his hon. Friends who might challenge that policy whether any of them, or their children, had ever been inside a state school.

My answer to the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) is that, just as the Leader of the House cannot say what tax rates will be—even on the day before the Budget—I cannot say exactly how much we shall spend when we are in government, in two years' time. With the backing of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, I can say for sure that a Labour Government will spend more on education and training, because it is essential for the economy of this country and its survival that we start investing in the nation's future, instead of undermining it.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reading my speech—let alone quoting from it—but I fear that he may have inadvertently failed to give the House the full flavour of what I said. I said that I was in favour of increased spending on education, but emphatically not in favour of putting any money at all into the failed education philosophy represented by the Labour party.

I know what the hon. Gentleman said, but I was going to send the hon. Gentleman a few tracts so that he would realise that we are thinking along the same lines.

So tight is the financial squeeze on primary schools that, on average, they are given less than the cost of four Mars bars a week to spend on books and educational equipment for their children—a point eloquently made by the president of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Some reports of school responses to the squeeze have a grotesque, pathetic flavour. The Daily Telegraph reported on 23 June that the Chilvers Coton first school in Nuneaton saved money by cutting paper towels in half but had stopped the practice after two pupils had contracted hepatitis.

These accounts of life in the English schools system in 1990 are confirmed by a succession of official reports. The Government-appointed teachers' pay committee in its report in February said that teacher morale was lower even than in 1989–90. That was also recognised by the Select Committee. There was also a stark message from the teachers' pay committee that the pay award forced through the House three weeks ago would lead to a real pay cut for almost every teacher.

Some 50 per cent. of newly trained teachers leave the profession within five years. The proportion of graduates entering teacher training has halved in eight years and at Cambridge university it halved in a year last year. The Secretary of State denies that there is a problem. He held a press conference on Friday to announce the success of recruitment advertising by Saatchi and Saatchi. He is so complacent about teachers and teaching that in the litany of self-congratulation in his amendment there is not a single mention of teachers.

If it is all so good out there, will the Secretary of State now guarantee to every parent that no child will be without a properly qualified, permanent teacher in front of the class in September? I invite the Secretary of State to answer that question. He does not respond, so I shall repeat the question. I am asking for a simple reply. He says that there is no problem and proclaims the success of Saatchi and Saatchi's advertising. Will he guarantee to every parent that no child will be without a properly qualified, permanent teacher in front of the class in September?

No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I am waiting for the Secretary of State to answer my question. The Secretary of State has been given two opportunities to reply and has failed to do so.

The most damning part of the Government's record is the report from Her Majesty's senior chief inspector of schools which stated that, in terms of educational standards, 30 per cent. of pupils—over 2 million—were getting a raw deal. What an indictment of the Government after 11 years in power. The Secretary of State's amendment refers to the local management of schools and the national curriculum.

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but, before doing so, I remind Conservative Members that, thanks to the Government, this is a short debate.

The hon. Gentleman's dismissal of the efforts of teachers and his slighting of their efforts will be bitterly resented in common rooms throughout Britain. [Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have the courtesy to listen. I know that basically he is a courteous man. When he and I first met we were attacking wicked cuts in education by the Labour Government of the day. At that time he had the courage to stand up to his party, but he seems to have lost that courage. The hon. Gentleman will remember that in 1976 there was such a shortage of teachers that those of us who were running schools had to scour the streets in an effort to find people. [Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman must respect the Chair and I hope that he will do that in future. Interventions must be brief.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I distinctly heard the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), whom you have just rebuked, say that you deserved it.

I did not hear the remark, but I saw the hon. Gentleman making gestures that were clearly discourteous to the Chair. I hope that I shall not have to endure a repetition of that.

The Secretary of State's amendment refers to the local management of schools and the national curriculum. In both cases the Government have taken a good idea and nearly murdered it. Centrally dictated formulae for funding which take no proper account of a school's circumstances are barmy. A national core curriculum could and should be a guarantee of education entitlement for all children. There is a role for testing and assessment, and it is to diagnose children's strengths and weaknesses, and to provide information to parents and teachers on children's progress and on the performance of schools. However, Ministers have allowed this national curriculum and the formal testing associated with it to get completely out of hand.

On Friday the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), spoke about "wieldy and intimidating tests" which the Government have imposed by way of a pilot scheme on about 400 schools. He said that those tests for seven-year-olds would have to be reduced. Apparently even the Prime Minister has had second thoughts. In April she told The Sunday Telegraph that she wondered whether the Government were "doing it right" on the national curriculum. The answer to the Prime Minister's question is that her Government are doing it wrong and, despite the Secretary of State's blandishments, they continue to do it wrong.

In a thinly disguised attack on his predecessor, now the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Secretary of State announced in February
"measures to cut the burden of paperwork on schools caused by the Education Reform Act."
He claimed that that measure would save 150,000 sheets of printed paper. That sounds impressive, but it works out at just six sheets per school. It pales into insignificance compared with the 1,438 sheets of paper which almost every teacher has received and has to absorb under the national curriculum. That compares with more than half a billion sheets of paper which the system as a whole now has to digest.

The day after his damning report of the state of English education the senior chief inspector of schools gave an interview to The Daily Telegraph. He described the national curriculum and the local management of schools as a gamble. He said that in the short term it would exacerbate
"teacher shortages and resourcing difficulties."
He was right. Ministers have been gambling with our children's education. Their behaviour is made all the more culpable by the fact that the spin of the wheel, the gamble, is always with other people's children and never with their own.

When the Opposition say that most Ministers have educated their children in the private sector the discomfort of Conservative Members is patently obvious. In February The Sunday Times said that, of 21 Cabinet members with children, 20 had sent their children to private schools at an average cost of a place today of £4,200 a year. That is twice the average of £1,900 in the state system. All three of the Secretary of State's children went to private school, as did both children of the previous Secretary of State.

No, I will not give way.

If those Ministers who sent their children to private schools were to apply the same policies and financial constraints to private schools as they apply to the schools which educate 95 per cent. of the country's children, they would be beyond reproach. In truth, they apply a double standard of breathtaking proportions which so mocks those in the maintained sector as to be immoral.

The national curriculum applies by law to state education but not to private schools. Rigid formula funding is imposed on state schools, but, under the assisted places scheme, no formula applies to state funding of private schools. The actual costs of up to £7,000 per day place are paid wherever they are incurred. Local authorities are poll charge capped for spending £1,900 per pupil while the state funds fees in private schools at two or three times that level per pupil. The standard spending assessments for education are set so low by the Secretary of State that local education authorities would have to cut millions from their budgets and sack thousands of teachers to get anywhere near those levels. However, private schools are able to raise fees well above the level of inflation.


Pay increases for teachers in state schools are held below the level of inflation, while private schools and city technology colleges are able to pay more to get the best. Private schools can use their influence to raise millions of pounds for laboratories and equipment while state schools are starved of cash. The conclusion to be drawn from such double dealing is that, like other people, Ministers want the best for their children but they believe that they can have that only if they pay for the best: for small classes; well-equipped laboratories; well-maintained buildings; and well-paid teachers. But it is different for other people's children. Ministers claim that they can get the best in larger classes and crumbling buildings, with too little equipment, too few books, and a demotivated and underpaid teaching force.

Another consequence is that by boycotting the maintained system Ministers send out a clear message that they lack serious personal commitment to state education and that they are as profoundly ignorant of its achievements as they are of what needs to be done to sustain and improve it.

I have already explained to the hon. Gentleman, although I realise that he does not like it, that I am not going to give way any more because of lack of time. He should make his own speech. Perhaps he might complain to the Government Whips about their attempts to sabotage this debate earlier.

The Sunday Times recorded in February that the Secretary of State sent his son, who is now grown up, to Highgate school, which is on the border of the London boroughs of Camden and Haringey. Fees at that school amount to more than £4,000 per pupil per year, and many of its pupils are subsidised by the state through the assisted places scheme.

How can the Secretary of State justify poll tax capping Camden and Haringey local education authorities, which are spending £1,200 less per child in their charge than he thought it right to spend on his child? Would he be happy to have his child educated with the level of resources that the Government have dictated is sufficient for poll tax capped authorities to spend in the north, the north-west, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Greater London and Avon?

I hope that the Secretary of State will now respond to a second question, because his amendment claims that there have been
"lasting improvements in standards in schools"
in the past 11 years. If, as the Secretary of State claims, 11 years of Tory Government have led to lasting improvements in the state system, is that system now good enough for him to have his child educated by it? I invite the Secretary of State to reply to this critical question about whether the Government apply one standard or two to the education of our children. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] For the second time today, we have seen the Secretary of State refuse to answer questions—first about whether he could guarantee that every child in a state school will have a teacher in September; and secondly about whether, after 11 years of Tory Government, the state system is sufficiently good to educate his children or those of his Cabinet colleagues. What a lack of confidence that displays in the system over which he and his colleagues have presided for 11 years.

My hon. Friend may not have heard several Tory Members accusing him, from a sedentary position, of personalising the debate and of attacking only the Secretary of State. Does my hon. Friend realise that 250 Tory Members have been to public school and received private education? As a section of society, they are not prepared to give our children the same facilities, the same pupil-teacher ratios and the same start in life that 250 of them received.

No. I have given way more to Conservative Members than to my hon. Friends.

By any serious international standards, the state to which the Government have reduced the education system is a disgrace. "National scandal" was the phrase used by Derek Jewell, the chairman of the Headmasters' conference of private schools, to describe state funding of the system which, as a proportion of national wealth, has declined in the past 11 years. We need a Government with a clear ambition for the nation's young people, ready to set targets for raising academic performance and the percentage of young people staying on at school, with clear mechanisms for delivering those targets. We need a Government committed to investing more in young people's education, and equally committed—by example, leadership and systematic appraisal of performance—to ensuring that we get more out of that investment and end the enormous and unacceptable variations in performance between otherwise similar schools. We would get all that from a Labour Government, but the Secretary of State has no ambition and no leadership: he is a Treasury placement so uninterested in the effect on children's lives of the policy to which he is a party that he could not even bring himself to meet education representatives from poll tax capped authorities.

Incredibly, instead of using demographic decline to secure a once-in-a-lifetime boost to the staying-on rate after 16, without substantial extra cost, the Secretary of State in his public expenditure White Paper plans to cut 80,000 places in full-time education for 16 to 19-year-olds, and he stands supinely by while the Secretary of State for Employment cuts nearly £300 million from the budget for training young people.

As ever, as the Government flounder, Ministers start to blame each other.

"Senior Conservatives are alarmed by Labour's growing lead in the polls over the government's education policies,"
reported The Independent on Sunday on 18 June.

"The shift of opinion in Labour's favour has been greater than on any other issue…The Prime Minister and Kenneth Baker blame John MacGregor the Secretary of State for Education for failing to promote Government changes".
A month ago we learned from a report which has the fingerprints of the Conservative party chairman all over it that the Secretary of State was to be given a new public relations minder—a man called Robin Light—as Central Office was so worried about the Secretary of State's performance.

To add insult to injury, we read in yesterday's diary in The Times of an attempt to bail out the Secretary of State:
"Conceding that education is their weakest area, a number of Tory MPs say Mrs. Currie should join John MacGregor's team and add flair and excitement to a lacklustre department."
I do not wish to intrude on private grief, but the piece continued:
"MacGregor, who as agriculture minister had to take much of the flak over her salmonella-in-eggs gaffe, might suggest another description."
It also raised questions not only about the future of the Secretary of State but about that of the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary of State. Although Conservative Members may want them to go, we want them to stay, because every time they open their mouths they raise our lead in the polls.

In a catalogue of failure, few policies have failed so monumentally as opting-out. In 1987, the Prime Minister predicted that by the next election—which will be next year or the year after—most eligible schools would have opted out of local authority control. That would amount to thousands. The dice have been heavily loaded in favour of opted-out schools. The advice that the Department of Education and Science has issued to schools has been so biased that even the Tory-controlled Association of County Councils has protested. Despite that, not thousands, not hundreds but only 44 schools have opted out, with more in Tory-controlled than in Labour-controlled areas.

So the Prime Minister, who is pathologically obsessed about local education authorities, announced off the cuff to a conference 10 days ago that opting out is to be made easier, and that the local government finance system will be rigged so that poll tax can be reduced where schools opt out. When that emerged, the Secretary of State was reduced to getting his press officer to telephone journalists to tell them that there is no difference of opinion between him and the Prime Minister.

If there is no difference of opinion, will the Secretary of State tell us now, or in his speech, how the scheme for cutting the poll tax is to work, how the new arrangements for opting out are to work and how such further upheaval squares with a categorical undertaking that he gave in an interview on 9 March, that
"No new school reforms would be introduced by a Conservative government until 1994 at the earliest"?
That the centrepiece of the Government's answer to the educational challenges of the 1990s should be fiddled ballots for opting out is a mark of the mediocrity to which their education thinking has now been reduced.

It first dawned on this country towards the end of the last century that the rise of Germany as an industrial power had been built upon superior investment in education and training. Then other countries such as Japan, the United States, France and Italy overtook us. Our £20 billion trade deficit is paralleled by an even bigger deficit in the education and skills of our young people. If we are to compete as well as to give our young people their birthright, we must invest in their education and training. We need an end to the Government and an end to their wilful damage of our education service. We need a Government who are committed to a state education system, who use the system and who have real ambition for the nation's young. The only way to achieve that is to have a Labour Government.

4.59 pm

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

"congratulates the Government on its programme for securing further lasting improvements in standards in schools through its policies for the national curriculum; assessment and testing, increased parental choice, and greater autonomy for schools; notes increased recurrent and capital expenditure since 1979 in real terms per pupil of 40 per cent. and 13 per cent., respectively; notes widespread public support for the Government's reforms and welcomes the significant increase in staying on rates among 16 and 17-year-olds in the last two years and in the numbers going on to higher education which show the success of the Government's policies; and contrasts this inspiring programme with the failure of the Opposition to produce alternative proposals offering similar leadership for the nation's young.".
The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) made a profound speech. However, having listened to his speeches since I became Secretary of State, I am bound to say that they have three characteristics. First, the hon. Gentleman always uses the same material and it is getting pretty tired and trivial now. Secondly, his sole preoccupation seems to be to string together every negative quotation and every negative statistic that he can find—and they can be found in every country and in every education system—and by lumping them all together he seems to think that he is making some sort of contribution to the education debate. Let me tell him quite clearly that he is not. The picture that he gave today is unbalanced, incoherent and a travesty of what is happening in our schools.

We have heard that this is a short debate, but I shall give way just this once.

Is the Secretary of State aware that in my constituency alone six primary schools regularly send children home and that six and seven-year-olds go to school only to be told again that there is no teacher for them? What will the Secretary of State do to guarantee a decent education for Southwark children?

I shall come to that point in due course, because we have been doing a great deal. But it is a travesty to suggest that what happens in some schools in Southwark is typical of what is happening throughout the country.

The hon. Member for Blackburn completely failed to acknowledge the substantial progress that is being made. He has given no credit, please note, to the teachers for their many recent achievements. His sole intent is on black headlines and never mind the real story. He is the classical perpetual Opposition spokesman.

Thirdly, once again the hon. Gentleman has failed to answer the key question that has been put to him so often from the Conservative Benches—what would Labour actually spend? It is not enough for him to claim that resources are insufficient when his own policy document is long on platitudes, short on costs and takes refuge in those all pervasive words "as resources allow".

I do not use those words. The Labour document is riddled with that phrase, and I know perfectly well why.

I remind the Secretary of State that when he appeared before the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts he referred to expanding education as soon as resources allowed on more than one occasion when he was challenged by Conservative Members. He can check the record. He used those words.

Of course, I believe in spending as resources allow, but the big difference is that, by its hints that it will spend more, the Labour party somehow pretends that that does not matter. But the record shows that this Government have been spending more on education than the previous Labour Government did because we have been improving the resources. That is the key difference. The question that the hon. Member for Blackburn never answers is what a Labour Government would spend. The answer is clear from his silence in every debate that we have had—not a penny more. That simple fact destroys the whole of his speech.

On an earlier occasion I described a decade of action under this Government: to improve education standards, to extend opportunity and choice and to improve the management of steadily increasing resources. I deal now with the ground that we have covered in the past year.

First, the programme for the national curriculum is well on target. There is absolutely no retreat. The House has approved programmes of study for English, maths, science and technology. We are completing work on geography, history and modern languages. The proposals are rigorous and have widespead support. We are taking practical decisions on arrangements for assessment, ensuring that they achieve their objectives in a workable way.

On assessment at seven, it is right to try different types of schemes. They are being piloted in 2 per cent. of schools. They are not in full application and they are not being reported. We shall be assessing the pilot schemes and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am determined that that assessment will be carried out in a workable way. But it must be real assessment, which improves standards and—I think the hon. Gentleman agrees with this—which achieves the results that we seek. We must strike the right balance and we shall do so.

In the classroom, Her Majesty's inspectors report excellent progress in the range and quality of work in the core subjects. There was not a word from the hon. Gentleman about that. There is a marked improvement in curriculum planning. I meet many teachers who are making good use of that national framework for exercising their professional skills. That has been a major programme of work and reform and it will continue to be so for some years ahead.

In April, all but a handful of local education authorities introduced schemes for local management of schools. That gives schools fairer shares of the education budget and much greater autonomy in the management of their affairs. In itself, it does not alter the total resources available, but it distributes them in a more open way, based on better and clearer criteria. One in eight schools already have delegated budgets. Next year, it will be one in four. That will reduce local bureaucracy. It has made schools and local education authorities more accountable and it has enhanced the position of head teachers and staff in line with changes in the pay structure that reward leadership and responsibility.

If the hon. Lady talks to teachers in schools that have piloted local management of schools during the past few years, they will tell her of the benefits.

No, I shall not give way. I have already said that I would not give way again.

During the past school year we have lifted artificial limits on the places available in popular secondary schools. By this September the number of grant-maintained schools will have increased from 18 to 44. The number of applicants to those schools has risen sharply—by 40 per cent. on average this coming September. There has been a remarkable change in atmosphere and morale and proposals are already coming from another 16 schools.

The same goes for city technology colleges. Four more will open next term to join the four already in operation. Again, the demand from parents for places for their children in those city technology colleges is high.

I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Blackburn is so implacably opposed to that policy. He cannot bear the thought that those schools are proving so popular. The Labour party prefers the monopoly supply of a uniform product. It likes to think that it knows what is best for children and is determined to deprive parents of that choice.

We have set in hand a major programme of work towards further improving the standard and relevance of post-16 education and the proportion of young people who benefit from it. Those improvements start in schools. We have introduced the general certificate of secondary education and the technical and vocational education initiative. That has markedly increased standards of attainment.

In 1989, the proportion of candidates achieving grades A to C increased from the previous year by 3.5 percentage points to 46 per cent. It is encouraging that many more young people are staying on in full-time education. To listen to the hon. Gentleman, one would not think that such things had happened. He does not like hearing about them. He prefers to talk his way through them.

The first year after the introduction of the GCSE saw the participation of 16-year-olds rise to 52 per cent. In the second year, 1989–90, provisional figures suggest that as many as 56 per cent. Of 6-year-olds are now engaged in full-time education. Provisional figures from the largest examining body, the Associated Examining Board, suggest that the number taking A and AS examinations is likely to be the highest ever even though there are fewer pupils in the relevant age group. All of that is working through to substantially higher numbers going into higher education—more than 1 million students now compared with 750,000 in 1979. The number is increasing markedly year by year, with an increase of about 10 per cent. in the past year in the number going to universities and polytechnics. There is a clear sign that that will continue next year.

We have now implemented this year's pay settlement, based on the interim advisory committee's admirable report, enabling us to introduce further improvements to the career structure, local flexibility and rewards for responsibility and classroom skills. All of that, to use the report's own words, can surely be described as far reaching.

Will the Secretary of State now answer the question that I put to him twice during my speech? If things are so good for the teaching profession, can he guarantee that no child will be without a permanent properly qualified teacher in front of his or her class this September?

Did the Labour Government ever give that guarantee, and would one ever do so in future? I shall deal with the position of teachers later, but I will tell the hon. Gentleman now why that is a false question. There are problems in some geographical areas and in some skills. Some issues of considerable standing reflect not simply on the education system but on the geographical area in which they arise. We have been taking a number of actions to deal with those problems, at a time when recruitment for all sorts of occupations is becoming more intense. I am not prepared to be unrealistic and to give such a guarantee, but we are doing a great deal to address the issues.

That question was about as silly as the hon. Gentleman's other question, which I shall now answer. I sent half of my children to state schools and the other half to independent schools. That was a considerable time ago. It is right that people should have that choice. If I had children now, I should happily send them to the many excellent schools in Norfolk. However, at the time I was concerned about the quality and direction of education that was being provided in the borough, and I exercised choice, which I think is a parental right. We have the assisted places scheme to extend the range of choice. I note that the hon. Gentleman went to Brentwood school in Essex, which takes pupils on the assisted places scheme. Would he deny others the opportunity to give their children the education that he had, by abolishing the assisted places scheme? That is one of the questions that he must answer.

I am delighted to answer the question. The reason why I am in the Labour party and not in the Tory party is that I want every child to have a similar opportunity with a similar level of resources. The test is not where someone went to school, but where he sent his children to school. Let us consider the example of the school that the right hon. Gentleman's son attended. Some £4,000 per pupil is spent by the state at Highgate school, while the Government are poll tax-capping two London boroughs, Haringey and Camden, which are spending £2,800 per pupil—£1,200 less. How is that justified?

I have already written to the hon. Gentleman about that. He has completely missed the point about parental choice and opportunities for different sorts of education. The hon. Gentleman knows that I have written to him saying that the comparisons being made were bogus because he failed to take into account parental contribution and other considerations. I shall repeat what I said in my letter to him. Once an allowance is made for those areas of spending, there is little difference in the average payment made in support of an assisted place and the average secondary unit cost. That deals with that point.

I have just completed wide-ranging consultations on the future pay mechanisms for teachers with a view to introducing legislation next Session. We are continuing with—indeed, adding to—a substantial package of measures on teacher recruitment, including investing in measures to tackle shortages in particular subjects, and an advertising recruitment campaign, which is having an excellent response, but which, typically, the hon. Gentleman tries to denigrate. Those are just a few of the many very positive areas of achievement and progress in the past year.

There is one new announcement that I wish to make this afternoon. I am today writing to the local authority associations setting out my proposed support grants programme for 1991–92. There are three background points that I wish to stress before giving the detailed figures. First, as announced earlier this year, I am accepting the recommendation of a recent efficiency scrutiny that the education support grant and local education authority training grant scheme should be brought together into a single programme. Next year's grant programme will reflect that.

Secondly, it must be borne in mind that that programme is small in relation to total spending on schools, which this year will amount to well over £11,000 million. The actual expenditure on the subjects that I am about to announce will often be a good deal greater than the amounts supported under the grant programme itself, because a great deal will come out of that £11,000 million as well. Nevertheless, the programme has an important effect in ensuring targeting of significant sums on specific aspects of policy.

Thirdly, I held meetings with local authority representatives earlier this year during which I said that the specific grants programme should be more effectively concentrated on fewer items of high priority, and I suggested those that I had in mind. There was general agreement with the views that I expressed.

I now propose a programme that will support no less than £364 million of expenditure in 1991–92. Of that, more than £270 million will be targeted on the education reforms of the 1988 Act, which we are now putting in place. That is a major funding boost. In 1990–91, education support grants and training grants are already supporting more than £190 million of spending on reforms. The programme that I am announcing today increases that by almost £80 million, or 40 per cent.

My proposals include almost £90 million of spending on activities to improve school management, including support for local management of schools, management training for school heads and other staff, and training and support for school governors. They include £170 million for activities underpinning the national curriculum, including a new £35 million activity to help get the new national curriculum assessment arrangements into place, a new activity to help schools buy more books, more support to help schools to buy information technology equipment, and more support for preparing teachers to teach the national curriculum.

The focus of the grants programme is very much on the education reforms. However, as in previous years, I intend that the grants should also cover other key areas. I am proposing a substantial increase in support for teacher recruitment. That will help local education authorities take steps to draw into teaching more mature entrants and former teachers, through setting up creches, taster courses, keeping-in-touch schemes, counselling services, and so on. There is a new activity to help local education authorities to improve provision for the under-fives, especially through better planning and co-ordination of work across the maintained and voluntary sectors. Full details of my proposals have been placed in the Library.

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me, but I should not give way again.

The grants programme that I am announcing today will provide significant and essential underpinning of the Government's education policies. It will ensure that funds are directed purposefully and effectively to where they are most needed. The £364 million is vital further support for schools and colleges that are already working so hard, helping them to make a real success of the reforms.

I shall now deal with some of the hon. Gentleman's specific charges. He referred to Her Majesty's inspectors' annual report and others. It is typical of him to be highly selective in what he quoted, so I shall cite some of the main findings to get the perspective right, and they are the main findings. Some 70 to 80 per cent. of work seen across schools and colleges was satisfactory or better; one third was good or very good. The beneficial impact of the Education Reform Act 1988 is already beginning to show. The implementation of the national curriculum is beginning to bring about specific and general improvement. The benefits of the GCSE and TVEI continue to be felt. That is all stated in the report.

Primary schools have made a rapid and effective start to implementing the national curriculum in the core subjects. Both in post-16 and in higher education, the general picture is that some 80 per cent. of what HMI saw was judged satisfactory or better. The quality of teaching and learning in further education colleges is generally satisfactory and slightly better than last year—just over 80 per cent. of the lessons were of good quality. The great majority of heads welcome the opportunity that local management of schools presents to control their budgets.

I could continue, and I think that it is right to do so, to put the perspective right because the hon. Gentleman always draws attention to the bits that could be improved without recognising all the things that have been done and the great improvements that have been made. It is demoralising for teachers if he continues constantly to emphasise that when there is so much good happening in the system. There will always be much more to do, improvements to be made, standards to be raised, new challenges to be met and new teaching methods brought in by technology to be exploited. We are doing a great deal to continue the improvement process.

The overall conclusion of the report states:
"The overall picture is of a service in which most of what is done is of reasonable quality or better. That is a sound basis for improvement and change and should be recognised as such."
Opposition Members do themselves no credit and earn no thanks from the many hard-working and dedicated teachers whom I meet by constantly dwelling on the negative. They should do as we do, and accentuate the positive while taking effective action to improve what is poor.

On resources, the hon. Gentleman's speech contained nothing new—although I listened carefully to what he said. He asserted, by implication, that schools were starved of resources. He knows that that is not true. They are better staffed and better provided for than ever before. The pupil-teacher ratio is an all-time best. This is the bit that the hon. Member for Blackburn never likes to hear. Funding per pupil has risen more than 40 per cent. in real terms since 1979–80. Overall spending on the various sectors of education has also risen in real terms. There has been a 58 per cent. increase in provision for the under-fives, a 33 per cent. increase for special schools, 17 per cent. for primary schools, 12 per cent. for secondary schools, and more than 20 per cent. for further and adult education.

It costs nothing for the Labour party to say that it will spend even more "as resources allow". No one believes Labour anyway. Labour might pretend that it will spend even more "as resources allow", but we all know what that meant under the Labour Government of the 1970s. It meant positive reductions in some education programmes and a much smaller increase than we have achieved in others.

We all want education to benefit from increased prosperity. The Government's reforms will help in addition to get better value for the money already invested.

There are many more things that I could say, but in the interest of allowing other hon. Members to speak, I shall not respond to other charges made by the hon. Member for Blackburn. However, I shall address recent claims that local management will force schools to make thousands of teachers redundant. I have seen claims that tens of thousands would be made redundant—at one point the figure given was 70,000, but it has been whittled down and down. That simply is not the case. I quote:
"Local management of schools serves as a convenient whipping boy for those unwilling to face up to the realities of falling rolls and surplus places."
Those words are not mine but come from an editorial that appeared in The Times Educational Supplement at the end of last month. In none of the cases of teacher redundancies reported in the press so far has the treatment of teacher salaries under local management of schools been a contributory factor.

What are the facts? First, vacancies. There are 400,000 teachers, and under this Government there have never been more than 2 per cent. of so posts vacant. The figure remains below that—and in many authorities, well below. What we must tackle is uneven distribution, particularly in inner London and in certain subjects.

Secondly, the number of teachers leaving the profession has not changed significantly for 10 years although migration from inner London has increased. But recruitment has also increased steadily. This year, 21,700 students started initial teacher training courses, which was 2.5 per cent. above target—and we are increasing the target. Primary recruitment was up by 13 per cent. Applications to postgraduate certificate of education courses starting in September are currently 5 per cent. up on this time last year. About 25,000 people enter or re-enter teaching each year.

The problem is local and subject-specific, and I agree that there are subject-specific issues. The reason is that the skills concerned—mathematics, physics and technology—are precisely the skills for which over decades we have not been producing enough people. That problem is now being addressed by the national curriculum, GCSE and TVEI. In an expanding and prosperous economy, they are also the skills that are in high demand. Our approach involves target-specific recruitment measures, including bursaries, which have improved the position, and the licensed and articled teachers scheme to bring back into teaching people who are more mature. In that context, the high response that we received in the recruitment advertising campaign from people aged over 26—graduates and non-graduates alike—was significant. Clearly, that is a well-targeted approach.

As to teachers' pay, there is more local flexibility and a willingness to pay more on a higher-grade scale for skills that are in short supply—which is what every other employer has to do. The recruitment campaign is designed not only to improve the status of teaching with the slogan that we have chosen but to attract more recruits, as every employer is now doing. Every employer is making the same approach. Those are the right ways of tackling the problem. Attendance at the various roadshows that we have run this year has also been very positive—75 per cent. up on last year.

The response that we are receiving to that targeted programme demonstrates that teaching as a career is attractive. I want to go on and on making it more attractive, including the perception held by the public at large. It would make much more sense if the hon. Member for Blackburn joined me in saying that "Teaching brings out the best in people," as the slogan says, and that teaching as a career is on the up.

That returns me to the remarks of the hon. Member for Blackburn, who never acknowledges the substantial achievements of recent years. Apart from the fact that the Labour party has nothing distinctive to say now about the great education reforms that we are carrying through, there are two fatal flaws in Labour's approach that undermine the hon. Gentleman's position. First, there is a clear policy distinction. The hon. Gentleman would abolish grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges and the assisted places scheme. That is because they give power and choice to parents. I warn the hon. Gentleman that he is making a big mistake. I suggest that he talks to parents, teachers and governors who pioneered the first grant-maintained schools and CTCs, and to pupils on the assisted places scheme who were given the opportunity and choice to which their parents want to contribute all that they can. If the hon. Gentleman does that, he will learn more about that which he is so anxious to destroy and how successful it all is.

Secondly—and I make no apology for returning to this—I must ask what the hon. Gentleman's policy is on resources. The only attack that he could develop today was that the Government are not spending enough on education. On the previous occasion when we debated education issues, I challenged the hon. Gentleman to explain Labour's position on resources for teachers' pay. He said that Labour would allow either free negotiations between teachers and employers or a review body without any cash limit. The morning after that debate, I wrote to the hon. Gentleman asking him to clear up the confusion between his statement and the phrase "as resources allow". I have now received a reply:
"Cash limits would apply in the normal way"—
if it were a local authority negotiation—
"or (if we inherited an interim advisory committee arrangement) as they do in respect of employees covered by Review Bodies."
So there would be cash limits "as resources allow". Still the hon. Gentleman has not answered my question and that of my hon. Friends. Is he promising anything in terms of extra money? His is a bogus attack.

The Government have a coherent policy for schools that is already achieving substantial results, and it will continue doing so. Standards will continue to rise. There will be greater diversity of schools, greater choice for parents, and the guarantee of a balanced curriculum for all pupils, with clear expectations of what they can achieve. That is why I urge the House to support the amendment.

5.27 pm

The Secretary of State appears to be benign, rubicund and charming, but the same old vicious policies emerge as were embraced by his two predecessors. The Secretary of State says that there is no crisis. We chose the title of the debate, which we had to initiate because the Government never wants to debate education. We have to do that out of the small amount of time at our disposal, and today half an hour was pinched out of that, so it is again a very short debate.

We chose the theme of the crisis in our schools, because there is a crisis, and we know that that theme would find a response throughout the country. We knew that it would, if I may dare to use a pun, ring a bell—especially among the teaching profession.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) correctly said, there is no crisis in your schools. The crisis is in our schools—in the state education system. You do not have a crisis. You have the money, and you send your kids to your schools. Most of you went to the same schools yourselves.

Order. I hope that the hon. Member is not bringing me into his argument.

I thought, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that my remarks were absolutely accurate.

I meant to refer to Conservative Members, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is Conservative Members who send their children to their schools, and who then cut and cut money from the schools that our children attend.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House spent almost 300 hours examining the Education Reform Bill. As I have said before, it is a deform Bill. It deforms the education system and everyone knows that it does. As the Act unfolds it becomes more desperate. The Minister says that he intends to recruit more teachers and has new methods of recruitment. He knows as well as I do that all he needs to do to recruit teachers is give them better conditions and wages and restore their negotiating rights. Britain is the only country that has withdrawn teachers' negotiating rights. We were condemned by the United Nations for doing that and so violating ordinary trade unionism.

We have seen long years of attacks on the teaching profession led by successive Ministers. Lord Joseph, then Sir Keith Joseph, led the way with vicious attacks against the profession. He was followed by the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker)—his constituency is aptly named—who is now chairman of the Conservative party. He launched deadly attacks all the way through. Teachers deeply resented those attacks which underestimated the teachers and, even more, undervalued their profession. They were hurt and they are bitter about it to this day. No matter what the Secretary of State says, the fact is that teachers have had to put up with attacks. Teachers were demeaned. Parents and other people were virtually asked by the Conservative party to undervalue and constantly attack the teaching profession.

Now the Secretary of State praises teachers. He says that he talks to tons of teachers. A while ago we found that he never talked to anyone in his constituency. He talked only to people in other constituencies. He should talk to teachers. They would ask him why they have no negotiating rights over their salaries. They would ask why there is a shortage of teachers not only in certain subjects but overall. They would ask him why the Select Committee issued an important report on teacher shortages, of which he seems to have taken no notice. The report was produced by not only Opposition Members but Conservative Members, who have a majority on the Committee. The Committee knew about the shortage of teachers and also knew that there was a crisis in that shortage.

The Secretary of State knows about the local management of schools. Often it is mismanagement of schools. In our city of Sheffield no school has opted out, and none has in Leeds or Wakefield. The idea has been spread that lots of schools are opting out. Only 40 throughout the country out of the thousands of schools have opted out. Yet the Secretary of State says that it is popular. We can formulate our own conclusons based on—

No, I shall not give way. The hon. Gentleman must excuse me. I want to make a few points.

The assisted places scheme has been mentioned. A great deal of money has been spent on it. The Government's expenditure plans show that when the assisted places scheme started in 1984–85 £22 million was provided for the scheme. In 1985–86 a total of £30 million was provided. In 1986–87 it was £38 million. In 1987–88 it was £46 million. The next year it was £51 million. The year after it was £59 million. That comes to £246 million of our money spent in private education that was taken away from the education of our children. In the next three years another £192 million is to be spent—£62 million, £60 million and £70 million. Added to the £246 million, that comes to £438 million.

The city technology colleges scheme began with £1 million. Then the figure increased to £14 million and for this year it is £37 million. It is planned to increase it to £45 million, then £50 million and then drop to £40 million. That comes to £187 million, making a grand total, with the £438 million, of £625 million spent on CTCs and the assisted places scheme. That money was taken away from our children and put into private education. Schools near the CTCs suffer. The CTCs benefit from resources which should go to our schools.

The Secretary of State talked about local management. We have had letters from schools all over our city of Sheffield saying that they will have to sack teachers. The Secretary of State knows that as well as I do. He gave figures to show how few teachers have gone. He knows as well as I do, as an experienced teacher, that he should count how many teachers have gone at the end of this term when they are not hired for next term.

Many small schools have budgets which are £13,000 lower than last year. That is true of all primary schools. They will all have to sack teachers. Morale is lower than ever because teachers do not know who will be sacked. I have spoken to many of them. They are worried and miserable about whether they will be sacked, because they have already been told that somebody will be sacked. That is happening throughout the kingdom. The Secretary of State knows as well as I do that that is superimposed on the shortage of teachers which is implicit in the Select Committee's report. Those are the facts and they should be borne in mind.

Other features of the crisis in our schools are crumbling school buildings and endless bureaucracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn mentioned some of the documents that make up that bureaucracy which are sent round to teachers. Teachers have told us and the Conservative party that merely to carry those documents home at night and take them back to the classroom is a new chore. They have to read all those documents. Under the heading "Teachers" the chief inspector's report says:
"If actually carrying out assessments, recording and reporting outcomes and accounting for what has been done do turn out to be overly prescriptive and inquisitiorial, not only will the quality of teaching and learning be adversely affected but the competence, professionalism and creativity of the teaching force may be undermined. Ultimately, the effective implementation of the Education Reform Act will depend upon the work of teachers who are trusted to use their pedagogical skills and experience in the interests of their pupils and the nation, with a minimum of external checks and balances, but who are properly accountable for what they do. Too much prescription and too detailed an external scrutiny of the work of teachers will lead to impossible workloads; bureaucratic inflexibility, and a de-skilled teaching force."
Increased bureaucracy and the fear of being sacked are the fundamental reasons for low morale among teachers and in schools.

We hear constant attacks on local education authorities. The LEAs are elected authorities which have existed for many years. They understand the problems of great cities. They are talked about as if they were villains of the piece by people who do not even send their children to LEA schools.

Not just now.

That criticism is hard on people who, with little or no pay and often voluntarily, devoted their lives to the education of our children for all these years. LEAs were not set up solely by the Labour party. They were supported by Tories of the past and Liberals of the past.

I am not giving way. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, other people wish to speak and I want to put these points over.

The Government have introduced testing at seven and then more testing at later stages. There is a lack of funds for schools. They attack LEAs. The Government attempt to persuade schools to opt out by giving them inducements. All those factors have caused teachers' morale to fall to its lowest ebb. It is not for nothing that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn said that teachers are not mentioned in the Government's amendment to our motion. Their amendment is glorious and lyrical. As I said, it could be set to music. It has nothing to do with reality in our schools. It was thought up to fox people into believing that the Conservative party is doing something good for our children.

Our people from Sheffield insist on coming down to London and meeting the five Labour Members and the one Tory Member who represent Sheffield constituencies in a room in the House and the Minister is invited to attend. At first, we planned to meet just one or two people, but then demands came from all over Sheffield. As the Minister probably knows, the local newspaper, the Star, which is a very powerful newspaper in South Yorkshire, is helping us because those running it believe that there is a crisis in our schools. That is happening all over Britain. If the Minister does not know it, in heaven's name why is he the Minister? Everyone else knows it. If he can talk that crisis out of existence he had better get on with it.

Practically all primary schools in Sheffield will be losing teachers. Parents are demanding to lobby the Minister and I am inviting him to meet them on 11 July to discuss some of those problems.

Bureaucracy, form filling, testing and endless reports are hindering the education of our children. In the primary schools there is practically no non-contact time. Teachers have no time away from the children. They have meetings before school, after school and at lunchtime. They spend their time trying to take lessons and share out classes when teachers are away because they are so tired. Now, supply teachers are being used to fill permanent vacancies. The Government's answer is to scour Europe and other countries for teachers when we have about 100,000 teachers who are willing to return to teaching if they get a decent wage, negotiating rights, resources and schools that are not crumbling. More teachers are needed now. We need more money and more resources urgently.

The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), who has a fixed smile on his face, can go on smiling. There is a crisis and all the laughter and smiling will not stop it. Teachers need to be treated as professional people; wages and conditions must be improved, and crumbling schools must be repaired. The Conservative party should address those problems to achieve what we want for our children. Failure to do that will develop the present crisis into a catastrophe by the autumn term if something is not done. Never mind the Minister's lyrical concepts; the Government's failure to treat state education as an immediate priority will alienate more teachers and parents. The Government's amendment pretends that there is no crisis. There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.

Order. I remind the House of Mr. Speaker's earlier appeal for brief speeches.

5.42 pm

During our brief education debates, I sometimes wonder what those who spend their lives working in education, the parents of the children in our schools and the teachers who devote their efforts and show great commitment to our children will think when they read our debates. So much of what we hear is a sterile and weary repetition of party points which have little or nothing to do with the real problems which are recognised by many hon. Members. Those problems must be addressed seriously, responsibly and with planning and forethought.

Everyone who knows anything about education knows that the leads and lags in the system are enormous, and long-term improvements have to be initiated some years beforehand. Equally, when standards have fallen and problems have arisen in the system, the roots of those problems can be found in decisions that were taken many years ago. Those who want to address the problems would do far better to learn from the lessons that history has taught us and to try to see where we went wrong so that we can avoid making the same mistakes in future. Personal attacks about where people send their children to school have nothing to do with the debate. More than 90 per cent. of our children are and will continue to be educated in the state sector and we must all strive to ensure that the state sector is made as good as possible.

I bitterly resent the sweeping statements about Conservative Members and their attitudes not only to their own children and generally. I am probably one of the few Members of Parliament who can claim day-to-day responsibility in a large educational unit. I have been chairman of the governors of one of the largest primary schools in the country for 16 years. It has been a pilot school for local management of schools: we have a large staff and large numbers of pupils. The school is in an area of social change and we have experienced many of the problems that are inherent in the education system. I am familiar with them and deal with them most weeks of the school year. This Friday, I shall be there looking at staff appointments, so I can claim some knowledge of the system and direct week-to-week contact with teachers.

I am sorry, but I must get on, as many other hon. Members wish to speak.

One of the essential ingredients in our attitude toward educational reform must be common sense. So much of what we do in education concerns common sense. It does not involve party dogma, systems or listening to conflicting advice from expert after expert, by which politicians of all parties have been seduced on far too many occasions. All too often the teachers in the classroom can teach us what we need to do to provide the best education for our children.

We hear a great deal about the problems created in LMS. Too much is owed to the vagaries of local authorities and what they are doing apart from their education policies which affect their overall expenditure.

We should try to address the future while learning from the past and we should recognise certain essential facts. The Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts, to which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) referred, recently produced a report. No one who served on the Select Committee would say or would expect me to say, as the Committee Chairman, that there are no problems in our schools. The hon. Gentleman mentioned non-contact time in primary schools. Wearing my school governor's hat, I can talk about those problems from personal experience. But that does not mean that the reforms should be written off or that the changes that we are trying to bring about will not result in an improvement.

However, I would stress one matter to my right hon. Friend the Minister. Those reforms will be delivered only by ensuring that there are enough teachers to deliver them. We must recognise that there are not sufficient teachers in certain areas. I recognise that coverage is patchy and that there are subject shortages, but there is enough evidence to suggest that to make these essential, widely welcomed reforms work we must will the resources. To deny them is to deny the education system and our children the opportunities of building on the recognition that, for too many decades, the education drift has been allowed to go unchecked.

I said that much of what is said in these debates is sterile and pointless. There is agreement among people who care about education, about children and about the delivery of education that a well-qualified, well-remunerated and properly motivated teaching force is the way forward. If we can achieve that and stop the endless bickering about who was responsible for this, that or the other, we can make some progress. If people outside can see the House responding to genuine concerns, as it can and should, we will do education a great service indeed.

5.51 pm

The debate is about the crisis in our schools. I believe that there is a crisis and that, above all, it is a crisis of morale among many teachers, if not all, because of their difficulties in implementing Government reforms which, whether they agree with them or not, they believe have been introduced at a pace beyond their ability to cope. Yet, at the same time, they must ensure that children receive the correct level of education and care.

I am conducting a tour of schools in Cornwall, and visited three different schools only last Friday. It confirms that professionals working in the service—parents, pupils and councillors—are aware of the crisis but are astounded that the Government appear to believe that the solution is more bureaucracy, more gimmicky initiatives and more central control, whereas, in truth, more investment is desperately needed.

That shows the difference of opinion between those who are directly involved and the Government. I do not want to get into a debate about whether or by how much the Government have increased investment, but I stress that the more teachers I talk to, the more anecdotes I can give the Secretary of State and hon. Members of the need for still more investment to meet the objectives laid down by the Government.

It is extraordinary, given that the principle of the national curriculum has such widespread support, that the Government have managed to create a curriculum that has received such widespread criticism.

There is much support for the principle of a national curriculum, and my party was the first to make a manifesto commitment to it. But the structure that the Government have fronted—I say "fronted" because I am not sure that it is entirely the Minister's fault that it has got out of control; it may have more to do with how the National Curriculum Council works—is far too extended and extensive and teachers are struggling to control it because it is far too prescriptive. We favour a national curriculum that offers a framework of educational aims and objectives, not one that lays down every dot and comma of what each teacher should be doing and ignores the principle that teachers should be trained to present skills in an individual way and that classrooms should not be treated as factories, where everybody must do everything the same way in a repetitive system.

The opportunities for local variation and flexibility, which should be central to the national curriculum, have been squeezed out by the Government. The recent survey on reading skills has caused much concern. Whatever the background and the reasons for the fall-off in reading skills—I accept that the Secretary of State will want to know much more about it—the report makes it clear that it may have been caused by particular systems and styles of teaching. If the Government get it wrong, squeezing everybody into the same straitjacket may lead to squeezing them into the same faults. My concern is that the national curriculum ignores the principle of diversity and choice as protection against everybody getting it wrong, even at the risk that some teachers may get it wrong some of the time.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that teachers should be allowed individuality in their teaching methods and approaches, but does he accept that it is not unreasonable to set common aims for teachers and children under the curriculum?

I agree. The problem is how much the aim is common and how it is defined. The curriculum and the testing system under it is so detailed that it does not allow teachers enough flexibility. They cannot afford the flexibility and time necessary to make it work.

The reports of teachers I speak to—I speak to many—are precisely in those terms. That is the major criticism they make, whatever their original opinion of the national curriculum. They say that the learning process is being hindered by the detail and testing process in the national curriculum and that the normal good practice of teacher-parent dialogue gives parents more information about how their child is doing than do the raw results of testing.

The Government claim that testing will lead to higher standards, but I fear that it may lead to lower standards. The British Dyslexia Association has advanced that argument on behalf of those about whom it is particularly concerned.

Although it is good that testing of seven-year-olds has been restricted to only the core subjects, the bureaucracy of administering the tests means that there is a risk of insufficient attention being given to the foundation subjects. There is a danger that teachers will be forced to teach for tests, which will not stretch the most able but will brand many as failures at an early age. The regimentation of the standard assessment tasks diminishes the role of teachers and denies their professional judgment and diagnostic skills. The testing arrangements do little to determine the needs and ability of individual pupils, because administering them for a class of 30 childern is highly unlikely to leave time to use them for diagnostic purposes to help children overcome individual problems.

The problem of stress among teachers cannot be ignored. Even if all the other factors that I have mentioned can be put right and teachers become used to the curriculum, the stress and the difficulties that teachers are under could gravely damage the pupils now experiencing the implementation of the process, precisely and simply because it is being pushed through so quickly.

I and other Liberal Democrats believe that national testing before GCSE is inappropriate and that a more developed record of pupil achievement, involving not only the teaching staff but pupils and parents, would have been a better way forward. Ministers do not accept that position, but there is room for them to slow the pace of change in the classroom to allow the teachers to have a real chance of making testing effective for present and future pupils.

The whole problem has been exacerbated by the morale of teachers, who are suffering from the burdens imposed on them. A major investment is needed not only in cash, but in time and care for those teachers and their professionalism to combat the growing problem of teacher morale. The falling morale among teachers especially saddens me, yet the Government seem determined to ignore the difficulties that teachers are facing and to heap more and more work on to them.

One head teacher in my constituency wrote:
"The workload is becoming almost insurmountable for all of us—we will work for the sake of our pupils, but these excessive demands, lack of time and preparation to complete everything within government issued deadlines will result in the continued erosion of the teaching profession, and you will find that existing expertise, dedication and professionalism will recede."
Another head teacher said:
"I have a good many years left to give to education but my enthusiasm for teaching cannot go on indefinitely unless the Government provide significant additional resources to enable us to implement the National Curriculum in a professional manner."
We recently debated in the House the Government's decision not to implement fully the award recommended by the teachers' pay review body. I said then that I had spoken to head teachers and other teachers who were leaving the profession in Cornwall. Cornwall is not an area in which it is especially difficult or unrewarding to teach; on the contrary, we have some of the best education in the country. I went home after that debate and on the Friday I visited another school. Blow me down, once again the head teacher said, confidentially, that he was giving up and taking early retirement because of the burdens that he faced. There is a real problem; it is not just make-believe. All of us who speak to teachers and head teachers find the same problem.

Another issue which is less important, but which should not be ignored, is pay. Teachers have such commitment to their pupils that they are willing to work for lower salaries than they could obtain elsewhere. None the less, the way in which the comparable level of their salaries has been eroded is a direct sign to them that they are undervalued. In its report on teacher supply, the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts said:
"The government should implement the IAC's recommendations in full without delay."
The Government are not doing that. The failure, year after year, to give teachers a fair deal over pay will do nothing to solve the morale problem or the supply crisis. The Government have a duty to establish a political climate in which the professional status and authority of teachers are held in high regard. The Government have failed even to try to do that. They have a duty to restore professionalism to the job.

The Government should look again at the proposals from many quarters for the establishment of a general teaching council. That would be the clearest sign we could give that we see teachers as professionals in the community. I see that the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) is in his place and I see that he agrees with that point. There is wide agreement among all parties in the House and outside that that is the way to go forward.

Both the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East and I have had Adjournment debates on the crisis of the quality of Cornish school buildings in which teachers have I o teach. That is on the record so the hon. Gentleman need not look too bashful. We know that in Cornwall we need to spend £100 million to bring the schools up to the level that the Government set in 1981 for schools to achieve by 1991. However, the county has been allowed to spend only £6.522 million for 1990–91. It is simply impossible to reach the minimum standards that the Government say should be achieved. Will Ministers cut the standards? Will they review the standards that they believe are necessary for education, or will they accept the fact that for the indefinite future teachers will teach in surroundings that are inadequate by the Government's own standards? On the current levels of spending, we cannot meet those minimum standards. Ministers have repeatedly refused to put in the extra money necessary to meet the shortfall. I do not deny that some money is going in, but in Cornwall we can now offer only lower standards for the future.

Time after time, the Government have been warned that the crisis in our schools is weekly becoming more acute. Rather than recognise the problems and listen to teachers, the Government are obsessed with gimmicky initiatives such as the assisted places scheme and the city technology colleges, which fail to tackle the real needs. They have also heaped further burdens on to an already stressed and devalued teaching profession by the bureaucracy of an over-prescriptive and underfunded national curriculum. All the evidence and experience of the past year shows that the Government reforms are causing chaos. It is imperative that Ministers think again, slow the pace of change and give the education service the priority and funding it deserves.

The miracle is that, despite the pressures and lack of resources from which they have suffered, teachers are still doing a superb job in our schools. On that at least I agree with the Minister. Their commitment to their pupils and their schools is unwavering. If the Government showed only half that commitment to state education, a debate on the crisis in our schools would not be necessary.

Between now and the general election—and afterwards—my party will make it clear that if improving our education system means spending more money and raising taxes, we shall not flinch from doing so because we believe that investment in our young people is a priority for which raising taxes should not be dodged if it is necessary. I feel sympathy for Labour Front-Bench Members who are not allowed to say that in this debate but who believe that as well. I hope that they can persuade their leadership to allow them to say it too as they approach the general election.

6.6 pm

The real crisis in our schools would be the one that would occur if Labour Members ever won power. The House was not surprised to learn of the negative attitude displayed by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) because the whole of the Labour party's education policy is negative. Labour Members would abolish the grammar schools, the grant-maintained schools, the city technology colleges, the assisted places scheme and, as we have heard this afternoon, even the independent sector. The Labour party has become the party of abolition; Labour Members would even like to abolish choice itself. They want the uniform greyness of mediocrity.

The Government remain committed to improving the quality and standards of the state education system in which the majority of our children are educated. I need hardly remind the House that in 1976 the then Prime Minister, Lord Callaghan, called for "a great debate" and that is what he got. There was no action, but plenty of talk. The present Government have acknowledged that there are problems and have introduced, alongside other measures, the Education Reform Act 1988. The thrust of the Act was to restore choice to parents.

We believe that parents are the best guardians of education. Most parents know best what is right for their children, so parents should be trusted and involved in the education process. The Labour party seeks to thrust the nation's children into one type of school—

—irrespective of ability, preference or need. I hear Opposition Members endorsing that by saying "good".

The hon. Member for Blackburn mentioned ambition. Indeed, the Labour party is ambitious; it is ambitious for itself. Labour Members want office and they are prepared to promise anything and to jettison anything if it means that there is a chance of their gaining power. The Labour party has also discovered standards and Labour Members talk about introducing an education standards council. I must remind them that that idea has been dismissed by the teachers' unions as a gimmick. Labour Members talk about a parent-school contract, but they forget that the present Government have already enshrined in law rights for parents. The Labour party is talking about introducing five-subject A-levels, which would undermine one of the accepted and established beacons of academic excellence.

Conservative Members stand for choice, and more parental choice will ensure an improvement in standards. Parents naturally want the best for their children. In the independent sector, for example, as we have been repeatedly reminded by the hon. Member for Blackburn, parents are prepared to pay for choice, and to pay heavily. In the state sector, parents are willing to invest their time, their interest and their commitment.

I believe that parents will be the great engine of educational change. The hon. Member for Blackburn criticised the introduction of grant-maintained schools. I believe firmly in grant-maintained schools and I am anxious that Ministers should drop the artificial 300-pupil threshold for entry. Let us see more schools, more smaller schools and more village schools applying for grant-maintained status.

We should remember, however, that such reforms take time and that it is now only two years since the passing of the Education Reform Act 1988. Only now are we beginning to see the introduction of local management of schools and only now are the first grant-maintained schools beginning to emerge.

No. The hon. Lady must forgive me, but many of my hon. Friends wish to speak.

The national curriculum is bound to encounter some teething troubles before it is accepted. But let no hon. Member doubt our commitment to improving the quality and standard of state education.

On 7 June we debated teachers' pay and conditions. There is no doubt in my mind that the teaching profession is no longer as attractive as it was 20 or 30 years ago. In those days, teachers were on a par with doctors and architects. That is no longer the case and much of the responsibility for that loss of esteem must lie on teachers' own shoulders. As I have said before, if they wish to be treated as professionals, they must act as professionals, and professionals do not march, demonstrate, strike or obstruct.

Like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I believe that the vast majority of teachers in Britain are committed both to their profession and to the children in their charge. It is unfortunate that the efforts of the majority are undermined by the efforts of a militant left-wing minority. Anyone who doubts that has only to remember the appalling scenes that recently occurred at the teachers' conferences, where the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers was howled down by a militant left-wing mob of his own members. Teachers are to education what the house is to home. One cannot have one without the other, and I should like teachers to occupy once more their old and coveted position in society.

There are problems in our schools, and some of them have their roots in increasing indiscipline. Indiscipline and an attendant lack of respect are increasingly to be found both in the home and at school. But it would be wrong for society to place all the responsibility for school problems on teachers' shoulders. Parents must understand that they have duties and responsibilities as well as rights and that they cannot abdicate them as soon as their children go through the school gates.

Education is a partnership between parents and teachers. I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) in his place, because he has made just that point in many of our education debates. Too often the partnership between parent and teacher deteriorates into a casual association that takes place once a year. We need to restore respect for teachers, and respect must be earned. Boys of 13, 14 and 15 can be difficult and unpleasant—well able to turn a teacher's life into something of a nightmare. In such cases, firm discipline is required, and I fear that such discipline is missing from many of our state schools.

Teaching is best achieved in a firm, disciplined framework, both at home and at school. When that framework is absent, chaos begins. We need to go back to some of the basics, both in teacher training and in the classroom. Over the past 25 years, teaching has suffered from too many experiments and too many theories—

I am delighted to have my hon. Friend's support.

Too many proven methods have been scrapped, on the scantiest of evidence, for the new fashion of the day, and children's education has suffered as a result. But my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is not a fashionable man and he is not a theorist. What we need now is not more innovation but a period of consolidation. Under my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that is what we will get—to the benefit of our children and to the benefit of the nation's schools.

6.15 pm

It has been a revelation and a source of amazement to me to hear hon. Members' deliberations on the state of our education system. One has only to visit half a dozen state schools to realise that everywhere disillusioned teachers are struggling to provide a good education for the children in their charge and finding that their task is made more difficult by the Government's action.

In the past decade, we have suffered a cut in investment in the education service and in the future of our children. We spend less of our GDP on education today than we did under the Labour Government, and it is the under-resourcing of the service that is causing so many of the difficulties.

What state can our education service be in when we read of parents being asked by school governors to lob in £50 apiece for teachers to be employed? Do we realise the depth of the crisis when we read that parents in Harpenden, that citadel of Conservatism, have set up Harpenden Parents Against Education Cuts because of the way in which local management of schools is working?

My hon. Friend referred to local management of schools. He may or may not be aware that, in the past day or two, chairmen of boards of governors have received letters from the National Association of Governors and Managers pointing out to them that, because of LMS, they now face a great risk of being sued for negligence, errors and omissions, and inviting them to take out insurance against such claims. Does my hon. Friend agree that that will create a crisis of confidence among school governors equal to that among teachers, and that it is greatly to be deplored?

I had heard about that, although I had not seen the document until my hon. Friend produced it. It appears in any case to be another unthought of consequence of the Government's reforms that will cause great aggravation in the education system. They are already causing aggravation for teachers and that is why we have a growing crisis of teacher supply in the United Kingdom. The problem is particularly severe in inner London; indeed, in boroughs such as Southwark and Tower Hamlets it is a scandal. It is beyond belief that any Education Minister can stand at the Dispatch Box and not suggest positive solutions to the problem. It is a national scandal. The problem is steadily spreading its tentacles to other parts of the country.

At one time, we were principally concerned about maths and science, but we now find that there is a shortage of skilled and qualified teachers of modern languages, design and technology, and music—half the subjects in the national curriculum. Is it any wonder that there is a crisis in our schools today? On DES teacher training targets, we are 27 per cent. short in maths, 23 per cent. short in physics, 16 per cent. short in modern languages, 42 per cent. short in chemistry, and 22 per cent. short in technology. There has been a failure to meet DES targets, and the problem will get much worse before it gets better. That failure can be seen in Wales, fabled for its teachers, where teachers are provided as if they were on a conveyor belt. In Wales, local authorities are experiencing difficulties in recruiting secondary school teachers, qualified Welsh language teachers, and science, maths and modern language teachers. They are lucky if one or two people apply for such posts. The difficulties are to be found everywhere. Morale is low and the profession overburdened.

The praise that the Government heap on teachers is rather like the praise that the generals heaped on the soldiers in the trenches in the first world war. It came from people who were strategically inept, had a poorly paid soldiery and were poorly equipped. That is why, in the past six months, the so-called "escape committee" has increased the number of people wanting to join from the profession from 700 to 3,000. Teachers are disillusioned because they are being asked to do too much too soon and too quickly, when their pay is too little too late and too slow—staged payments of a cash-limited pay award. There is worse to come.

In my county, teachers will lose their jobs as about half of our primary and secondary schools have had savage reductions in their budgets because of formula funding and the LMS scheme, which the Welsh Office forced on my local authority of Mid Glamorgan. That has adversely affected our schools.

LMS is not about giving parents and governors the chance to run their own show; it is about exposing schools to formula funding, which means that they will be closed. There is no doubt that small schools will close in the near future.

On nursery education, poll tax-capped authorities will consider areas in which, at the moment, provision is non-statutory, so there will be cuts. It is salutary to think that poll tax-capped Labour authorities are among the best providers of nursery education. It is no coincidence that Tory education authorities are the worst providers of nursery education.

Throughout the education system, teachers are struggling to provide a high-quality service, when virtually everything that the Government are doing is counter-productive. We have a legacy of crumbling schools, crumbling teacher morale, teacher shortages, teachers not being taught, classes without teachers in front of them, and change for the sake of change. Parent governors are thoroughly disillusioned and say that their meetings are about finance and not about education. They can foresee the day when they will ask not who is the best but who is the cheapest when they appoint teachers. That is our education service—the cheapest.

6.25 pm

I shall make just two general observations about the current position of education, based on my impressions in visiting schools and talking to parents, teachers and governors, and certainly not from the point of view of an expert. I shall also raise one specific requirement for Cornwall.

First, as has been mentioned, there is no denying that our primary and secondary schools have been subjected to a period of significant change, not least because of the provisions of the Education Reform Act 1988. I have no objection to the majority of the measures. Indeed, I warmly welcomed the introduction of the concept of a national curriculum and local school management. Of course there will be teething problems and certain genuine difficulties, and they will all require careful consideration. It cannot be denied, however, that the changes have meant extra responsibilities and an increased work load for teachers, parents and children. That fact must be recognised by all of us who are anxious in the widest sense for the future education of our children.

The scheduled time scale for the changes has always worried me. The rate of change demanded of teachers and children alike has been onerous. Furthermore, as a direct consequence of the time scale requirement, the necessary advice, information and procedures to be adopted have not always been available to schools. That has undoubtedly caused additional anxieties. That is why we now need a period of consolidation—indeed, tranquility—in our schools. As legislators, we owe that at least to our teachers and children.

Fortunately, there is evidence that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State understands that requirement. His remarks about assessment today confirm that impression. Consolidation does not mean weakening or losing the basic objectives that we seek, or even the momentum that is essential to implement the changes. Common sense dictates that consolidation is required to maximise the effects of the changes.

My second general point is about teachers. I mean no offence, but we all know that a small minority of teachers, or perhaps their representatives, are a nuisance to the teaching profession. They do untold damage to the teachers' cause. I ask Ministers and colleagues to recognise that the great majority of teachers are hard-working, committed and anxious to provide the best possible standard of education for our children.

I hope that the independent negotiating machinery to determine teachers' salaries and conditions, whether it takes the form of a teachers' council or some other form, will soon be restored. Certainly we have been given some firm promises on that by my right hon. Friend. It is essential that the new framework provides the necessary ability to restore the morale of teachers. It is essential for public confidence that we are perceived as a Government who recognise the crucial work undertaken by teachers, as demonstrated by the establishment of the new framework.

Two years ago, almost to the day, I had an Adjournment debate on the county of Cornwall's school building requirements. Since local education authorities will soon be finalising their applications to the Department for next year's financial allocations, I want to use this opportunity to emphasise the need for Cornwall to receive a meaningful capital allocation to sustain a rolling programme of new school building, accommodate the rising number of pupils and bring about the replacement and improvement of existing school stock.

I remind the Minister that there are 33 secondary schools in Cornwall and nine, including Liskeard in my constituency, still occupy split sites. In 1973 I took a delegation to see the Secretary of State for Education, now my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Liskeard school. We are still waiting for results.

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that, but I remind Opposition Members about the delegations that one took to see their education Ministers: their promises were not delivered either.

I want my right hon. Friend to ensure that sufficient allocation is made so that we can make the maximum use of scarce financial and human resources. The problems caused by split-site schools do not allow for the maximum use of those resources.

In 1992 Cornwall's primary school population will exceed 40,000 pupils—the highest figure ever achieved. Undoubtedly that will exacerbate an already difficult situation. Our chief education officer estimates that there are some 50 projects that would merit urgent priority if sufficient funds were available. He also estimates that 50 per cent. of those projects can be classified as major—costing more than £200,000.

Our county has always been a modest-spending area and it does its best to top up the Department's allocation. This year the county will spend £14 million thanks to the use of capital receipts and reserves, compared with the Department's allocation of £6.5 million. Last year the corresponding figures were £8.9 million and £6.1 million. Each year the council's education committee faces an almost impossible task—some might say that it is invidious—in determining priorities. I have not mentioned the new building regulation requirements that could add a further £70 million to our financial needs.

Apart from the problem of split-site schools, does my hon. Friend agree that the tremendous legacy of old schools from the Victorian era, particularly in our villages, means that it is necessary to get on top of that problem once and for all?

My final remark answers the point that my hon. Friend has rightly raised. The current building requirements in Cornwall are the price we have had to pay for the relative lack of activity in that regard in the 1950s and 1960s. That does not absolve us, however, from our responsibilities to our children in the 1990s.

6.34 pm

The debate coincides with an article in The House Magazine by the Secretary of State for Education. The Secretary of State begins his contribution by describing his aims as follows:

"To encourage all children to achieve the highest level of their different abilities and discover and develop their own particular talents, thereby acquiring the wide range of skills and abilities they will need to deal with the many and diverse challenges which lie ahead."
If that was true, there would be no difference between us and we would happily agree on the definition of what education should provide for our children. However, there is no consensus between us, for three reasons.

The first is on philosophical grounds. The Government aim to create an education system that is designed not to develop the potential of each child, but to fit this generation of children to the short-term needs of their friends in business. That is what LMS and city technology colleges are all about: they are aimed at creating a generation of managers and technicians to run industry and commerce in the future. In recent years the privatisation and the orientation of education towards the needs of business have been the Government's themes.

Secondly, if what the right hon. Gentleman said was true, we would have a well-paid and well-motivated teaching profession, enjoying high morale. We have exactly the opposite. That profession is suffering a haemorrhage. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) has shown me an article which says that six out of seven primary school teachers in one school in Lambeth intend to leave that school in the next three weeks. Come September there will be one teacher for those children.

Thirdly, there is no consensus between us because of the way in which the Government have dealt with the needs of local authorities to repair, renovate and even maintain the fabric of the schools in which our children are taught. The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), who comes from my part of the country, spoke about standards, grey uniformity and choice.

One part of the national curriculum relates to the teaching of computers—it is covered by the information technology section. I have a photograph from my local paper, the Coventry Evening Telegraph, that shows children of the Chace primary school in Willenhall, in my constituency, being taught computing in toilets. After 11 years of a Tory Government children are being taught in the loo. How can those children be assessed on their ability to absorb in those conditions? The photograph could not show the open drains, nor pass on the smell that will come with hot weather. How are teachers supposed to inculcate in those children the sense of wonder and awareness of the world when they are sitting in a toilet learning about computers? "Our Crumbling Schools" is not just the title of an article in that local newspaper or a campaign of the Labour party, but reality for children in the city of Coventry and elsewhere.

In the past three years my local authority has bid for £11.8 million, £16 million and £12.4 million from the Department of Education and Science for essential repairs. If those repairs are not carried out, it will severely impair the ability of teachers to deliver good quality education and, as a result, morale will go down.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has already mentioned a school in Nuneaton, of which the Minister will be aware, where children have caught hepatitis A because there is no soap in the toilets and the paper towels have been cut in half. The north Warwickshire district medical officer said of the outbreak:
"Financial cuts in education, where children are only allowed half a paper towel, no adequate soap and no, or poor quality, toilet paper made the problem more difficult."
The savage cuts in, and under-provision for, education are now to be exacerbated by poll tax capping. More than £200 million has been cut from the education spending allocation in the 20 authorities affected. In the past three years Coventry has bid for about £40 million—we were allocated £10.6 million. Last year we were awarded;£1.96 million—15 per cent. of what the council bid for. It was the lowest allocation to any council in the west midlands; and of the 109 education authorities in England and Wales, only 14 are worse off than Coventry.

I was talking to parents in my constituency, and to governors of Chace primary school at Willenhall, over the weekend. The toilets, where computer studies classes take place, are out of date and smelly. When it rains, teachers have to put up with puddles inches from the computer terminals. The rain also comes into the school on to the carpeted areas where children are supposed to sit and listen to stories. The female staff toilet is now a store room for computer and games equipment and the caretaker's room is a storage area for science equipment. The library, where remedial teaching takes place for those with difficulty in learning how to read, consists of half the main hall. There is a curtain down the middle of the hall and physical education classes are conducted in the other half.

It is hard to imagine how somebody like the elderly lady I spoke to the other night, who is a volunteer, going into that school to help with remedial teaching, manages to teach in half a school hall, separated from the PE class by a curtain.

Her Majesty's inspectorate is worried about Chace primary school, which is one of numerous crumbling schools in our cities. It is not one of the schools visited by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, when he came to Coventry. He and other hon. Members from my area know that we are not talking about a left-wing authority or a city council that has ever disobeyed a single Government instruction during the past 11 years. It has never been anywhere near being rate or poll tax capped.

The local paper has provided the Under-Secretary of State with a dossier of what is going on in Coventry. What is he going to do about it? How do the Government decide on allocations that leave schools in Coventry lacking such facilities? Why is Coventry the area with the lowest budget in the west midlands and the 15th lowest in the country? How are such positions reviewed? How can we get the money this year so that bairns of five, six or seven years old in such schools in Coventry may have decent facilities in which to be taught this year? That is what the debate is all about for me. Those are the most important years in a bairn's life. It is when the mind blossoms and awareness develops.

I am proud and lucky. I have four healthy bairns growing up and being educated in Coventry. However, in Coventry there are parents with children at schools in which, according to the local newspaper survey, the stench from decaying toilets causes regular outbreaks of sore throats and stomach bugs. How are kids supposed to learn in such conditions? It does not happen in Harrow, Eton, Marlborough or Charterhouse and the private schools that I have visited as a speaker, where the walls are panelled in oak, as are the walls of this place.

The average spent on children's education in this country is just over £1,900 per child. In Avon, a poll-tax-capped authority, the figure is £1,870. The Government spend money on their assisted places schemes to send kids to the private school of Charterhouse. They spend £7,200 per child, four times what they say is too much to spend on our kids in state education. That is why an HMI report this January stated that one third of secondary schools, in which 1 million children are taught, have accommodation so unsuitable that the quality of the children's education was being "adversely affected".

This year, Coventry asked for £12.2 million. We were allowed—note the word "allowed" to spend £1.96 million. But the Government are spending £7.65 million—four times that amount—on one city technology college in Nottingham. It is not that the Government do not have the money; they are hypocritical. We have a Government education team that does not care about the 95 per cent. of children in the state education sector. Why not?

The reason the education team do not care is that the Government are at present engaged in precisely the same pre-privatisation rundown that has occurred in every nationalised industry prior to privatisation during the 11 years of this Government. It is a simple exercise designed to make the product—the Government call it a product—the education system, unworkable and unpopular among parents so that they cry out for privatised control. That is not yet working. The Secretary of State has offered parents of this country an opportunity to opt out, but out of 4,257 secondary schools in England and Wales, only 40—less than 1 per cent.—have asked to go private, and not a single primary school has done so.

During their period in office, the Government have cut the proportion of public spending on education and science, and increased money for private schools. They have closed 1,575 primary schools and 312 secondary schools, and opened a handful of elite city technology colleges. They have cut back expenditure on text books, and put up the price of school meals; and, according to The Times Educational Supplement last Friday, there has been a 3.2 per cent. fall in the average reading ability of seven-year-olds. Millions of ordinary families cannot get nursery education or care, which would not only be good for the children, but would open opportunities for parents, particularly women. Only one quarter of the three and four-year-olds in this country receive any form of nursery education.

Education should be about a lifetime for people to go in and out of education as they need it. But it is not. There are few nurseries for our bairns to attend, and colleges, polytechnics and universities, where grants have been cut by one quarter, then frozen and—if the regulations are passed—from this summer, even benefits will be taken away from students. When dealing with our children's education, the Government cut funds, but when dealing with their children's education, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough said, they are prepared to spend an extra £0.5 billion on assisted places.

Socialists believe that education is a right. The Government believe in privilege. As soon as we get rid of the Government and have a decent, socialist Government, we can once again make education the right that it should be.

6.46 pm

This debate is about the crisis in our education system. The view that there is a crisis is held by parents and teachers throughout the country. A striking factor in the debate was the utter complacency of the Secretary of State. The way in which he described our education system and the activities taking place in our schools would not be instantly recognisable by teachers and parents. That shows the great divide, the gulf, that exists between the Government and the teachers and parents of this country.

I suspect that there is one point on which we can agree with the Secretary of State, but he comes to that position with a record behind him. He has, to use the criminal jargon, some form. Nevertheless, we welcome the fact that he now holds a slightly different view. He told us that teachers were a key resource and we had failed to sing their praises. He should go back and read all the education debates during the past few years because he would then realise that Labour spokesmen, on each and every occasion, have sung the praises of teachers and recognised the tasks and burdens carried by them.

The Secretary of State now says that teachers are doing a good job. This is where his form is relevant because it is this Secretary of State's Government who have done so much to undermine the morale of teachers throughout the country. The Secretary of State's Government—we must remind ourselves of this, because it is an essential part of the current malaise in schools—took away from teachers the basic human right to bargain and negotiate freely with their employers. The Secretary of State's Government took every available opportunity in the House and outside to denigrate teachers' professionalism. That reached its height in the middle of the last decade and has had a remarkable impact on morale. The Secretary of State's Government have, on every possible occasion, refused to work with teachers and go with the grain of teachers' professionalism in developing the systems of both testing and the national curriculum.

The hon. Members for Crosby (Mr. Thornton) and for Truro (Mr. Taylor) said that there was a need for a general teaching council. We echo those views because we believe in teachers' professionalism, and have been saying so for some time. We welcome the Secretary of State as a partial convert, but he has a long record to get rid of before he becomes a true convert.

A key element of the debate involves resources. The picture painted by the Secretary of State was that all was well in our schools and there was no problem. When my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) asked about schools in Southwark, he had a simple response. He said that the Government did not generalise, Southwark had its own peculiar problems and so we could not argue about teacher shortages there. I wish that the Secretary of State would put that argument to the parents of those children in Southwark, who do not know whether they will have teachers in the classroom this autumn. Why does he not go down to the east end of London and visit the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), and talk to the parents of the 300 children in Tower Hamlets who still do not have a school place because of the teacher shortages?

My hon. Friend rightly referred to the national scandal that more than 300 children are now out of school who have the right to education in our school system. Is he aware that, exactly a year ago, I took a deputation to the Secretary of State's predecessor to explain to him in detail the problems and the shortages, and that nothing has happened since? Will he join me in pressing the Minister to give an immediate, serious pledge and guarantee that a target date and timetable will be set, at the end of which my constituents' children will have the right to the proper state education that is guaranteed for all children in this country?

My right hon. Friend has made a powerful intervention. Certainly I join him in asking the Secretary of State whether he is prepared to make that timetable commitment. We noticed earlier that he was not prepared to give parents a commitment about the availability of a teacher in every classroom this autumn; will he now give a commitment to the parents of Tower Hamlets, and to the 300 children who have no teachers? I shall give way if he wishes me to, but once again the House and my right hon. Friend will notice that he has no interest in these matters, and is not prepared to give any commitment.[Interruption.] I repeat that, if the Secretary of State wants to make the commitment, I shall give way—but, by pointing a finger, the Secretary of State suggests that the Minister of State will do it. We look forward to that, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to intervene.

The argument about resources was not addressed by the Secretary of State. We all know why he was appointed. The previous Secretary of State was full of ideas, none of which as we all know, and as the Conservative party regrets—worked effectively in practice. This Secretary of State was appointed to do the Prime Minister's bidding. While he is doing that, he himself is never bidding for education, or for resources for the education system.

Let us have a look at what the present Secretary of State has agreed to. He has agreed to standard spending assessments for education: if they had been followed by local education authorities, that would have meant a £1.4 billion cut. That is how hard the right hon. Gentleman fought for education. He said that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) was wrong to compare levels of expenditure in the maintained sector and on the assisted places scheme. However, he is never prepared to argue for the children in rate-capped authorities who, halfway through the school year, will have their educational resources cut. Where has the Secretary of State been? He has simply rolled over for the Treasury and the Prime Minister.

This afternoon, the Secretary of State made a major announcement. The nub of his speech—his pot of gold—was the amount of money that he had for the system. He said that he was announcing expenditure for 1991–92 of £364 million, through the educational support grant system. I thought that he was being generous to the education system, so I went to the Library and examined the figures for this year's expenditure. They come to £357.7 million. The right hon. Gentleman has therefore announced an increase of £6.3 million—or 2 per cent.—when inflation is running at nearly 10 per cent. As always, he has announced a cut in real terms. Again, if he wishes to intervene I shall gladly give way.

This is the Secretary of State who tries to give the impression that he argues with his ministerial colleagues on behalf of education. Hon. Members who heard his opening contribution will remember that he said that he had argued for the success of TVEI and for additional resources. Where was he when the 22 authorities embarking on TVEI had their expenditure reduced by 50 per cent? Was he knocking on the door of the Department of Employment, saying that it was crucial education expenditure? We have not heard a squeak from the Secretary of State: yet again he has failed to stand up for the education system, and for what is good in it.

Against that background of a lack of resources, we must make another criticism of the Government's record. It concerns the confusion and lack of clarity in their thinking. With the complacency that was characteristic of his speech, the Secretary of State said that there were no problems with the local management of schools. Obviously, neither he nor any of his hon. Friends has been to any of the schools that my hon. Friends and I have visited, and talked to teachers, governors and parents. If they had, they would know that there are massive problems, and that schools are finding it increasingly difficult to meet their budgets. The Secretary of State knows that the Coopers and Lybrand report warned him that local management of schools could work effectively only if there were adequate resources in the system. Those resources are not available.

There is also confusion about testing and the national curriculum. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph at Easter, the Prime Minister said that she had never expected the national curriculum to work out as it had. That is typical of the Prime Minister: it is abundantly clear that she does not lead her own Government when there are any difficulties. However, she has one advantage over the Secretary of State: I suspect that he still has no idea how the national curriculum will work out in practice.

There is a problem in every school in the country. Teachers are being bombarded by material without any sense of direction and purpose from the centre. On top of that, children are to be tested at the age of seven. There seems to be a difference of opinion between Ministers on that point. The Minister of State—who may be making a valedictory speech in a few minutes—said, in an interview with the Today newspaper a few weeks ago, that testing was being piloted and that no decisions were being taken, although she did seem to favour a rigorous, detailed system. Last Friday I was delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State in Leeds. I suspect that, if the newspaper reports are correct, he is the only junior Minister in his Department who can be confident about his future. He said that testing was to be slimmed down. Whose version is the reality? Which is the Government's version? Is it the Minister of State's version, or the Under-Secretary's? Why do we not hear a word from the Secretary of State? The reality is that teachers do not know what is expected of them in the autumn of next year.

Our indictment against the Government is a powerful one. It is about resources, confusion, drift and a lack of leadership. Any country that wants to build for the future realises that education is the investment for the future: investment in education today is the guarantee of economic success tomorrow. That is recognised by the French and the Germans and by people in the developing countries of south-east Asia. It is recognised by all economically successful countries. The only people who fail to recognise the importance of education are the Government and their Education Ministers. The clear message is that we need a change of education policies and a Labour Government to safeguard the future and our children.

7 pm

The substance of the debate, couched in terms of an Opposition motion that does nothing to value teachers' efforts or to encourage parents and children, should have given the Opposition an opportunity to outline some new policies. However, not one Opposition Member has offered a concrete suggestion that would lead to any change for the better. They said that the most important anouncement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on education support grants and education authority training grants was rubbish.

Without exception, Opposition Members have dwelt on their determination to put the clock back. They say with pride that history will repeat itself. They would diminish parental choice, as they did before, by the abolition of the direct grant schools which many of them were privileged to attend. They would threaten local education authority maintained grammar schools, the very schools which provided education for children whatever their background and parentage. They would undermine the reforms that have been broadly welcomed by schools and parents alike. The hopes that schools and what is taught in them would take the direction that many teachers have been looking for for years would be dashed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton) was right to condemn Opposition rhetoric. He was also right to emphasise that time is necessary to repair the damage that has been done over years to the education system, and right to dash the assumption that only socialists send their children to state schools. That is a disgraceful assumption, and it is absolutely untrue. It is in the interests of all hon. Members to strive for excellence in every school.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby spoke about the local management of schools and said that local authorities themselves must be given the opportunity and urged to deliver to the schools the most that they can. The only way to ensure that our reforms work is to allow schools to govern themselves and use the resources that are available to them. He said that we must ensure a sufficiency of teachers for the system. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done that by properly addressing the problem with great urgency and giving it high priority.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) made an interesting point on the national curriculum. I am glad to know that he is in favour of the concept of the national curriculum but sad to learn that he has not troubled to study the way in which it is being introduced to our system. There is much flexibility. Much of the national curriculum produced by the working group is on the established principles and methodology that teachers have been using for years. The curriculum draws together into a coherent programme study and syllabuses for children throughout the years that they are at school from the age of five to 16. It certainly enables teachers to use their skills and their own style of teaching. Those who seek to slow the pace of reform simply wish to prevent the children of this generation from benefiting from our reforms.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) was right to point to the uniform mediocrity of a blanket system. He was also right to draw attention to the measures that successive Conservative Governments have introduced. Parents are the key to improvement, and if they are allowed to choose what they want for their children they will choose academic standards.

I direct the attention of the Opposition to an Islington school that has recently had a change of head teacher. It is in one of the inner-London areas that we have heard about in the debate. Parents are flocking to that school to which the head teacher has introduced old-fashioned ideas of academic standards, uniform, and good behaviour. [Interruption.]

Order. There are many meetings going on in the Chamber. The hon. Lady deserves to be heard.

That boys' school in Holloway deserves to be seen as a model for parents who are considering what kind of school to choose for their children. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth supporting the grant maintained schools.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) rather mischievously misunderstood the principles of local management of schools. The Welsh Office does not deliver the formula for such management. The county sets the formula and delivers the money to the schools. The hon. Member for Bridgend should be sure of his facts before he makes mischievous statements to the House and to the wider world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) will be glad to know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recognises the importance of allowing schools to have lighter burdens within the reforms. He accepts that in the schools and for teachers there must be a lightening of the burden. We also recognise that our teachers are professionals. They can be sure that the Government are committed to the return of their negotiating rights as and when agreements have been reached.

I have visited a number of schools in inner London. I admit that I have not been to schools in Southwark, but I have certainly visited Hackney, Camden and Tower Hamlets. The right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) does a great disservice to the elected members and the director of education in Tower Hamlets who have been working ceaselessly to ensure that they will have sufficient teachers.

It will not do to pretend that I am blaming my local education authority. I am not. It is doing its best, as ILEA did before it. The real trouble is that the Government have not backed the authority's efforts and given it the resources to take children off the streets and into the schools so that they can receive the education not only that they deserve but to which they have an absolute right.

The Government have recognised exactly that problem by making quite sure that authorities have a substantial capital allocation for rebuilding schools and building new ones.

No, I will not give way to listen to a catalogue of disaster. There is no truth in the Opposition's charges. A bird's eye view of what a future Labour Government would do as resources allowed shows that they would return everything to where it was 11 years ago, and that will cause nothing but damage. By contrast, during the last decade the Government have striven to meet the needs of children of all abilities. Apart from the reforms of the Education Reform Act 1988, our policies have enabled more children to stay on at school after GCSE and more people are going to university.

We are not in the least bit complacent. We shall continue to pursue policies that will free our schools and our children from the stranglehold of bureaucracy. They will allow choice for parents and freedom for professional teachers to do their job in the way that they think best. Most important, our policies guarantee that children will receive a high quality, broad and balanced education. I urge the House to support the amendment.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. By leave of the House, I should like to ask the Minister to respond to the questions that I put to her.

Order. I have heard the hon. Gentleman's point, and it is not a point of order.

Order. The hon. Gentleman has already spoken. If he has a point of order, it should be addressed to the Chair and not to the Minister.

In this sort of debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, as the Clerk in front of you will no doubt confirm, if I use the phrase, "with the leave of the House" —as has been done in other circumstances—I am allowed to speak a second time. That is what I am trying to do.

Order. I am giving the guidelines to the hon. Member. If he asks for the leave of the House, only one voice has to be raised in opposition for it to be refused. If the hon. Member is asking for the leave of the House, I must put it to the House.

Order. There can be no further point of order about the leave of the House.

Following your ruling, which I accept, Madam Deputy Speaker, if the Minister asks, with the leave of the House, to speak again, will it be in order for her to answer the questions that I put to her, because I am the only hon. Member whom she has not answered?

That is very hypothetical. Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 214, Noes 287.

Division No. 281]

[7.10 pm


Abbott, Ms DianeCaborn, Richard
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)Callaghan, Jim
Allen, GrahamCampbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Alton, DavidCampbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Anderson, DonaldCampbell-Savours, D. N.
Archer, Rt Hon PeterCanavan, Dennis
Armstrong, HilaryCarlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Ashley, Rt Hon JackCarr, Michael
Ashton, JoeCartwright, John
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Beckett, MargaretClay, Bob
Beith, A. J.Clelland, David
Bell, StuartClwyd, Mrs Ann
Benn, Rt Hon TonyCohen, Harry
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)Coleman, Donald
Bermingham, GeraldCook, Frank (Stockton N)
Bidwell, SydneyCook, Robin (Livingston)
Blair, TonyCorbett, Robin
Blunkett, DavidCorbyn, Jeremy
Boateng, PaulCousins, Jim
Boyes, RolandCox, Tom
Bradley, KeithCrowther, Stan
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)Cryer, Bob
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)Cummings, John
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)Cunliffe, Lawrence
Buckley, George J.Cunningham, Dr John

Dalyell, TamMahon, Mrs Alice
Darling, AlistairMarek, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Dewar, DonaldMartin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Dixon, DonMartlew, Eric
Dobson, FrankMaxton, John
Doran, FrankMeacher, Michael
Dunnachie, JimmyMeale, Alan
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs GwynethMichael, Alun
Eastham, KenMichie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Fatchett, DerekMoonie, Dr Lewis
Faulds, AndrewMorgan, Rhodri
Fearn, RonaldMorley, Elliot
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Flannery, MartinMowlam, Marjorie
Flynn, PaulMullin, Chris
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelMurphy, Paul
Foster, DerekNellist, Dave
Foulkes, GeorgeOakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Fraser, JohnO'Brien, William
Fyfe, MariaO'Neill, Martin
Galbraith, SamOrme, Rt Hon Stanley
Galloway, GeorgeOwen, Rt Hon Dr David
Garrett, John (Norwich South)Parry, Robert
George, BrucePatchett, Terry
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr JohnPowell, Ray (Ogmore)
Godman, Dr Norman A.Prescott, John
Gould, BryanPrimarolo, Dawn
Graham, ThomasQuin, Ms Joyce
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)Radice, Giles
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Randall, Stuart
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)Redmond, Martin
Grocott, BruceRees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Harman, Ms HarrietReid, Dr John
Hattersley, Rt Hon RoyRichardson, Jo
Haynes, FrankRobinson, Geoffrey
Heal, Mrs SylviaRogers, Allan
Healey, Rt Hon DenisRooker, Jeff
Henderson, DougRoss, Ernie (Dundee W)
Hinchliffe, DavidRowlands, Ted
Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall)Ruddock, Joan
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)Salmond, Alex
Home Robertson, JohnSedgemore, Brian
Hood, JimmySheerman, Barry
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Howells, GeraintShore, Rt Hon Peter
Hoyle, DougShort, Clare
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Skinner, Dennis
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Illsley, EricSmith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Janner, GrevilleSmith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)Snape, Peter
Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldSoley, Clive
Kennedy, CharlesSpearing, Nigel
Kilfedder, JamesStott, Roger
Lambie, DavidStrang, Gavin
Lamond, JamesStraw, Jack
Leadbitter, TedTaylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Leighton, RonTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)Trimble, David
Lewis, TerryTurner, Dennis
Litherland, RobertVaz, Keith
Livsey, RichardWallace, James
Lofthouse, GeoffreyWardell, Gareth (Gower)
Loyden, EddieWareing, Robert N.
McAllion, JohnWatson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
McAvoy, ThomasWelsh, Andrew (Angus E)
McCartney, IanWelsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
McFall, JohnWilliams, Rt Hon Alan
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
McKelvey, WilliamWilson, Brian
McLeish, HenryWinnick, David
McNamara, KevinWise, Mrs Audrey
McWilliam, JohnWorthington, Tony

Wray, Jimmy

Tellers for the Ayes:

Young, David (Bolton SE)

Mr. Martyn Jones and

Mrs. Llin Golding.


Aitken, JonathanEmery, Sir Peter
Alexander, RichardEvans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelEvennett, David
Allason, RupertFairbairn, Sir Nicholas
Amery, Rt Hon JulianFallon, Michael
Amess, DavidFavell, Tony
Amos, AlanField, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Arbuthnot, JamesFishburn, John Dudley
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Fookes, Dame Janet
Ashby, DavidForman, Nigel
Aspinwall, JackForsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Atkins, RobertForth, Eric
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Fox, Sir Marcus
Baldry, TonyFranks, Cecil
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)French, Douglas
Batiste, SpencerFry, Peter
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyGale, Roger
Bellingham, HenryGardiner, George
Bendall, VivianGarel-Jones, Tristan
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)Gill, Christopher
Benyon, W.Glyn, Dr Sir Alan
Bevan, David GilroyGoodlad, Alastair
Biffen, Rt Hon JohnGoodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Bonsor, Sir NicholasGorman, Mrs Teresa
Boscawen, Hon RobertGorst, John
Boswell, TimGow, Ian
Bottomley, PeterGrant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)
Bottomley, Mrs VirginiaGreenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Bowis, JohnGregory, Conal
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir RhodesGriffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')
Braine, Rt Hon Sir BernardGriffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Brandon-Bravo, MartinGround, Patrick
Brazier, JulianGrylls, Michael
Bright, GrahamGummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)Hague, William
Browne, John (Winchester)Hampson, Dr Keith
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)Hanley, Jeremy
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon AlickHannam, John
Buck, Sir AntonyHargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Budgen, NicholasHargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Burns, SimonHarris, David
Burt, AlistairHaselhurst, Alan
Butcher, JohnHayes, Jerry
Butterfill, JohnHayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)Hayward, Robert
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Carrington, MatthewHicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Carttiss, MichaelHicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)
Cash, WilliamHiggins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs LyndaHind, Kenneth
Chope, ChristopherHogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Churchill, MrHordern, Sir Peter
Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Colvin, MichaelHughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Conway, DerekHunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Cormack, PatrickIrvine, Michael
Couchman, JamesIrving, Sir Charles
Cran, JamesJack, Michael
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)Jackson, Robert
Davis, David (Boothferry)Janman, Tim
Day, StephenJohnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Devlin, TimJones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Dicks, TerryJopling, Rt Hon Michael
Dorrell, StephenKellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesKey, Robert
Dover, DenKing, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Dunn, BobKing, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Durant, TonyKnight, Greg (Derby North)
Dykes, HughKnight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)

Knowles, MichaelOppenheim, Phillip
Knox, DavidPaice, James
Lamont, Rt Hon NormanPatten, Rt Hon Chris (Bath)
Lang, IanPattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Lawrence, IvanPawsey, James
Lawson, Rt Hon NigelPeacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Lennox-Boyd, Hon MarkPorter, Barry (Wirral S)
Lightbown, DavidPorter, David (Waveney)
Lilley, PeterPortillo, Michael
Lord, MichaelPowell, William (Corby)
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir NicholasRaffan, Keith
McCrindle, RobertRaison, Rt Hon Timothy
Macfarlane, Sir NeilRedwood, John
MacGregor, Rt Hon JohnRenton, Rt Hon Tim
MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)Rhodes James, Robert
Maclean, DavidRiddick, Graham
McLoughlin, PatrickRidley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Madel, DavidRidsdale, Sir Julian
Marlow, TonyRifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Marshall, John (Hendon S)Roberts, Sir Wyn (Conwy)
Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)Rost, Peter
Martin, David (Portsmouth S)Rowe, Andrew
Mates, MichaelRumbold, Mrs Angela
Maude, Hon FrancisRyder, Richard
Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinSackville, Hon Tom
Meyer, Sir AnthonySainsbury, Hon Tim
Miller, Sir HalSayeed, Jonathan
Mills, IainShaw, David (Dover)
Miscampbell, NormanShaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)Shelton, Sir William
Mitchell, Sir DavidShephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Moate, RogerShepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Monro, Sir HectorShersby, Michael
Montgomery, Sir FergusSmith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Moore, Rt Hon JohnSmith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Morris, M (N'hampton S)Soames, Hon Nicholas
Morrison, Sir CharlesSpicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Moss, MalcolmSpicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Mudd, DavidSquire, Robin
Neale, GerrardStanbrook, Ivor
Needham, RichardStanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Nelson, AnthonySteen, Anthony
Neubert, MichaelStern, Michael
Nicholls, PatrickStevens, Lewis
Nicholson, David (Taunton)Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Norris, SteveStewart, Rt Hon Ian (Herts N)
Onslow, Rt Hon CranleyStokes, Sir John

Stradling Thomas, Sir JohnWardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Sumberg, DavidWarren, Kenneth
Summerson, HugoWatts, John
Taylor, Ian (Esher)Wells, Bowen
Taylor, John M (Solihull)Wheeler, Sir John
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)Whitney, Ray
Tebbit, Rt Hon NormanWiddecombe, Ann
Temple-Morris, PeterWiggin, Jerry
Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)Wilkinson, John
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)Wilshire, David
Thorne, NeilWinterton, Mrs Ann
Thornton, MalcolmWinterton, Nicholas
Thurnham, PeterWolfson, Mark
Townend, John (Bridlington)Wood, Timothy
Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)Woodcock, Dr. Mike
Trippier, DavidYeo, Tim
Trotter, NevilleYoung, Sir George (Acton)
Twinn, Dr IanYounger, Rt Hon George
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William

Tellers for the Noes:

Walden, George

Mr. Sydney Chapman and

Walker, Bill (T'side North)

Mr. Irvine Patrick.

Waller, Gary

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House congratulates the Government on its programme for securing further lasting improvements in standards in schools through its policies for the national curriculum, assessment and testing, increased parental choice, and greater autonomy for schools; notes increased recurrent and capital expenditure since 1979 in real terms per pupil of 40 per cent. and 13 per cent., respectively; notes widespread public support for the Government's reforms and welcomes the significant increase in staying on rates among 16 and 17-year-olds in the last two years and in the numbers going on to higher education which show the success of the Government's policies; and contrasts this inspiring programme with the failure of the Opposition to produce alternative proposals offering similar leadership for the nation's young.


Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.23 pm

I beg to move,

That this House condemns the Government's incompetence and indifference in the face of the mounting housing crisis which is evident from growing homelessness, soaring mortgage costs and rents and the lack of affordable accommodation in urban and rural areas of Britain; and notes the failure of the Government's chosen instruments, as evidenced by the financial crisis of the Housing Corporation which is undermining Housing Associations, and the failure of the Housing Act 1988 to achieve its targets on Housing Action Trusts, Tenants' Choice and Assured Tenancies.
Homelessness and unmet housing need may not directly affect as many as are affected by the problems of the national health service or the education service, but the scale of those problems means that homelessness and the housing problem must take their place among the major social issues which Britain faces.

There are various ways of measuring the problem. The first is to look at the Government's homelessness statistics. Those figures, which were running at a high level last year, already show a dramatic increase for the first quarter of 1990. They show that for the year as a whole it is likely that no fewer than 150,000 households will be accepted officially as being homeless. On the usual extrapolation of those figures, that means that about 500,000 people are now regarded as homeless. Of those households, 33,000 are in some form of temporary accommodation and about 12,000 are in unsatisfactory bed and breakfast hotels. Those figures represent an increase of about 500 per cent. since 1982.

In anybody's language, those figures are shocking, but they are only a fraction of the true measure of unmet housing need. Ministers will understand well that the figures do not measure those who applied to be treated as homeless but were not accepted, and that figure in turn is also at a shockingly high level—nearly 300,000 households at an annual rate this year.

That figure does not include those who simply do not fall within the official definition of homeless. In other words, the young single homeless do not appear in the statutory figure and it does not include those who are now widely described as the hidden homeless. A recent survey in London estimated that figure at about 300,000. Those are the people familiar to many hon. Members on both sides of the House, those who present themselves at their surgeries—young couples, perhaps with a young baby, compelled to live apart, each with his and her respective parents and families who are compelled to move from one temporary address to another, begging the charity of friends and relatives. One of my constituents has no address; he simply lives in a car. He, too, does not appear in the homelessness statistics.

The statistics do not tell the full story, but part of that story is told by the evidence of our own eyes. It is told through the evidence of the homelessness which we now see in the streets of our great cities. It is worth making the point in parenthesis that, although we tend to regard homelessness as an urban problem—indeed, as a London problem—the problem of homelessness among young people is rising faster in areas outside London than in the capital city.

The sight of young people sleeping rough, alongside those who are mentally and emotionally incapable of looking after themselves and those who are the victims of changes in the income support rules or who are inadequately provided for in the wake of the care in the community provisions, is truly shocking. It is little wonder that the Government have reluctantly decided that that daily witness to the growing problem of homelessness—the sight of young people begging on our streets by day and sleeping on our streets by night—is too great a blot to be tolerated and that they have to do something about it.

The £15 million measure announced by the Minister for Housing and Planning about 10 days ago at the Institute of Housing, while welcome, is no more than a street cleaning exercise. That is an inadequate response to a problem which demands much more than cosmetic treatment.

We note the way in which the hon. Gentleman has opened his speech. I hope that before he sits down he will set out the sort of money that he would expect to spend if he were on the Government Front Bench.

I hope to meet the hon. Gentleman's points before the end of my remarks.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for Members of Parliament is that presented to us through our postbags and at the surgeries which most hon. Members hold in their constituencies. I hold regular surgeries, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman does in his constituency. In recent years I have noticed a worrying and remorseless rise in the proportion of cases brought to me which involve housing needs. I estimate that perhaps 70 per cent.—sometimes more, but certainly 70 per cent.—of all my constituency cases involve some degree of unmet housing need.

By the end of a long evening—perhaps three or four hours—considering such a range of problems, I feel profoundly depressed. That must be an experience common to hon. Members on both sides of the House, when we not only witness a parade of human misery, which is depressing in itself, but have to acknowledge that we cannot do anything, even in conjunction with a hard-working local authority, to alleviate the problems of most of those people. The all-too-predictable and depressing aspect of the housing crisis is that it hits those who are most vulnerable.

A recent and good Department of the Environment survey showed that only 3 per cent. of the homeless had incomes at or above the national average. In London, a similar survey showed that fewer than 4 per cent. could afford to buy or rent homes in the private sector. We are dealing with people who are at the bottom of the income scale and, in many cases, are already vulnerable because of a physical or mental incapacity that makes it difficult for them to handle their affairs properly. We are often dealing with people who, by reason of membership of a minority, ethnic or otherwise, are likely to be discriminated against and to find themselves at the bottom of the pile. I fear that those groups are strongly represented in the numbers of those who are increasingly finding it difficult to be adequately housed.

Britain is a rich country, still full of resources—at least according to some Conservative Members—and at the end of a decade of prosperity. It has certainly had an unprecedented bonus from North sea oil perhaps £120 billion to £130 billion of North sea wealth that was not previously available. How is it that a country that spends a great deal, perhaps notoriously, of its natural resources on housing and on subsidised housing can fail to provide adequate housing for a substantial minority of the least fortunate citizens in our midst?

The facts that underline the problem can be simply stated. The problem arises, not surprisingly, because there is a shortage of housing at prices that people can afford. That shortage arises primarily because we have not built enough homes. Housing completions for 1989 made a total for that decade that was the lowest peacetime total of housing completions since the first world war. That failure occurred right across the board. If the trend established by the preceding Labour Government had been maintained this Government would have built an additional 600,000 houses. They would have reduced by 200,000 the number of houses that lack one basic amenity. There is a substantial shortfall because of the Government's failure to maintain the record established by the previous Labour Government.

The hon. Gentleman must be a little more than fair. If we compare the past 10 years with the 10 previous years—which is what he was trying to do—surely he would agree that in that first decade many of our cities were just slum clearance areas. They were demolishing old houses and replacing them. There was an agreement between the Conservative and Labour parties in the city of Nottingham that, by the end of the 1970s, it would be out of the replacement era and would no longer be building 2,000 houses a year. It would be a different scene. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is comparing like with like.

I am more than happy to be fair to the hon. Gentleman, but I think that being more than fair is a little more than is called for. I do not think that he can sustain his argument. It would be a valid argument if there was now no unmet housing need. However, we are far from that. The whole point of the problem that I have described is that there is a growing homelessness problem, which cannot be denied. While that is the case, the pressure, the demand, and the need to build more houses remain and grow.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can explain the worst record of his Government in the way that he has attempted to do. The facts are clear. Under the six years of the preceding Labour Government, housing completions averaged 230,000 per year, but during the 10 years of this Government for which we have figures, the average annual total was 170,000. That is a substantial shortfall. It goes a long way towards explaining why there is the degree of unmet housing needs that Britain currently faces.

If there were no slums, and if the number of households was the same, the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) would have validity. However, the rate of household formation has changed, and that must be taken into account. That is what causes part of the pressure of the unmet housing need. The hon. Gentleman ignored that.

My hon. Friend is right. The rate of household formation has risen for a variety of unfortunate reasons, such as marriage breakdown. There is now the relatively new or at least increased phenomenon of evictions and mortgage repossessions. All those factors have increased the need for additional housing, which is why the shortfall becomes so important.

The failure to build houses over that period extends right across the board. The private sector did well for a short time, but, as everybody knows—and it hardly needs reinforcing—it has now fallen victim to the regime of high interest rates and its contribution to the housing scene has been much reduced since mid-1988.

Housing associations, on which the Government pinned such great hopes as the main providers of social housing, have been hard hit—not only by high interest rates, but by the recently discovered problems of the Housing Corporation. No proper explanation has yet been offered about whether those problems are the result of mismanagement, bad luck, or simply having to grapple with the environment created by the Government. What is known is that even if the housing associations were freed from the problem of the difficulties of the Housing Corporation, they could not hope to meet more than a fraction of the shortfall, even at best. We also know that because of the Housing Corporation's difficulties, the Government's forecasts of completions by housing associations for the coming two years are now not worth the paper they are written on. I hope that when the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment replies to the debate he will inform the House, the housing associations, and all who depend on them for social housing of the new forecasts. I suspect that he will have a sorry story to tell—that is, if he is prepared to come clean. We certainly expect him to give us the figures.

If the hon. Gentleman checks the record, he will see that I am not unsympathetic to the points that he made at the beginning of his speech. However, his policy appears to be spend, spend, spend; build, build, build. Does not that ignore the problem of 100,000 empty council properties and over five times that number of empty private properties? Should not we use the resources available at present to solve the problem?

If the hon. Gentleman checks the record, he will know that I take the view that one property empty for no good reason is one too many. I do not dissent from the need to impress on local authorities, private landlords, housing associations, the public sector and, not least, Government Departments that it is a shocking betrayal of the homeless to keep properties unnecessarily empty.

The hon. Gentleman must accept that even if we were to squeeze that figure, and even if we could persuade his right hon. and hon. Friends to do something about the high rate of housing stock kept empty by Government Departments, we would still not have done enough to make good the failure to build the houses that we need.

The picture is at its bleakest in local authorities. The private sector has fallen short, housing associations have been crippled even in respect of the relatively unambitious total set for them, but local authorities—despite all their efforts and against their will have been forced to cut housing provision dramatically.

The figures are shocking. In 1976, local authorities in England completed 105,000 houses. Last year the figure was down to 16,000. It is scheduled—as Ministers will agree—to fall still further in the current year, and if the present Government remain in office much longer, no doubt it will be destined to disappear altogether. That is where the shortfall arises and why, particularly in social housing where the need is felt at its most acute, we are confronted by today's problems. Hon. Members do not face those problems, but they are faced by the homeless.

My hon. Friend has been describing the plight of the homeless, but does he agree that many other people, although not homeless, desperately need adequate rented accommodation? Is not the situation made worse by the lack of local authority building on any significant scale? There has been none in my borough for 11 years. The Government say that housing association provision can take the place of local authority dwellings to some extent. In 1978, under a Labour Government there were nearly 18,000 starts, but in 1989, before the Housing Corporation's present crisis, the figure was only 9,600. Does not that prove that even housing associations are not achieving anything like the number of starts, or providing anything like the accommodation, that they did under a Labour Government?

My hon. Friend is right, and I am grateful to him for that information. We have yet to hear the Minister's predictions for housing association completions over the next two years.

It is a question not just of the shortfall of supply but of the affordability of housing. The impact of high mortgage interest rates on home owners is well known. I suspect that it is felt by a number of hon. Members, who will not need too much persuading of the severe repercussions of that development. Home ownership, so long held up as the great objective not only of Government policies but of all right-thinking people, has become an impossible dream for many—and an impossible nightmare for many more. I refer to the people who find it extremely difficult to maintain mortgage repayments.

Many households and families whose budgets have been totally destroyed by the impact of high interest rates do not figure in any official statistics. At the fringe, there is the small but inexorably growing number of people who are substantially in arrears with their mortgage repayments. The number of those who have arrears of six months is growing all the time, as is the number of repossessions.

It would be a mistake to imagine that the impact of high interest rates has been felt exclusively by owner-occupiers. Rents, too, have risen sharply, across the board. It is difficult to measure the rise in the private sector, but rents of housing associations—on which so many hopes were pinned have also sharply increased, by 24 per cent. Last year alone. That is because those associations are directed increasingly to raise capital on the open market, so they, too, pay high interest rates.

In the public sector, as among the private rented sector, tenants have faced substantially increased rents. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) has done excellent work in detailing the impact on one local authority area after another. No doubt he will say more about that issue later. It is clear that many local authorities have found it extremely unpleasant to be forced to push up council rents against their own better judgment. It is worth recalling that the west Oxfordshire Tory councillors who resigned the Tory Whip did so not just because of the poll tax but because they resented and were unwilling to comply with the direction to force up council rents to market levels. They pointed to the impact of ring fencing on the housing revenue account, and of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 in directing local authorities to raise rents to market levels.

We know that what is vilified by Labour spokesmen this year will become conventional Labour wisdom next year. Will the hon. Gentleman go through his entire speech, as he did at the Institute of Housing conference, without making one policy suggestion or stating what a future Labour Government might do?

If the hon. Gentleman will contain his impatience and allow me to proceed, I will rapidly reach the point that will satisfy his request.

Inadequate supply and increasing housing costs go some way to explaining the crisis but not why it exists. No Opposition Member supposes that the Government deliberately created it. Rather, it is the consequence of a failure of analysis and the priority given to ideology. The Government have been misled by their own obsessions. As in other areas, it is not the Government but the most vulnerable who are paying the price for the Government's mistakes.

I do not expect to carry Conservative Members with me when I make that assertion, but I hope that they will listen—particularly when I concede, as I have on other occasions, that we, too, have been guilty in the past of approaching housing from too ideological a viewpoint. We used to believe that only local authorities could provide social housing and that the intrinsic merits of public sector rented housing should override individual preferences. We recognised our mistakes, and I hope that the Government will do likewise.

The Government's first mistake was a mirror image of our own. They held, for reasons of ideological obsession, that local authorities had no role to play in housing provision. That is why we saw a shocking decline in new house completions for which local authorities were responsible during the 1980s. That is why local authorities had their allocations cut and why their ability to borrow on the capital market was reduced. That is why they are subjected to the lunatic control that prevents them from spending their own capital receipts on housing provision. That shows how far the Government have been prepared to press their hostility towards local authorities, in an attempt to eliminate them from their essential role in meeting housing need.

The Government's second mistake was excessive reliance on the private sector. No one disputes that it has a role to play, but, as is currently evident, the private sector is vulnerable to volatile market conditions, and is unable to sustain output when interest rates rise. The encouragement of house price inflation that was meant to sustain a boom has produced a bust instead. It was a mistake to assume that the private sector could carry the load by itself.

The private sector itself acknowledges that truth. Unlike the Government, private companies in the construction industry admit that, while they can do a certain amount of work themselves, in many cases the price of success for them is co-operation and partnership with the public sector. They appreciate that, although they have capital and expertise to contribute, that is not enough by itself and that only local authorities in most cases have the land, land assembly powers, powers over planning, development, and most of all the democratic legitimacy—the accountability to their local communities—that allows them to provide and guarantee developments that are in the interests of those local communities.

The Government's third mistake of an ideological nature was the belief that the market can always provide. Given the peculiar and convoluted structure of housing finance, and the structure of land prices and building costs, there is no way that the private market can meet the need for social housing. The Ministers must know that, because a study commissioned by their Department and carried out by Price Waterhouse last year demonstrated that a married man with two children on an income just above housing benefit level could afford a two-bedroomed house for his family and pay a private sector market rent for it in only two cities in Britain—Leicester and Newcastle. Elsewhere, the private sector simply does not provide housing to such a family at a price remotely in relation with its ability to pay.

The Government's fourth mistake is obsession with tenure. They believe that changing tenure is somehow a solution to the problem of housing shortages. Whatever its merits or demerits, selling council houses does not add a single new unit to the housing stock. Indeed, it makes the management of existing stock in the public sector so much more difficult. Again, I suspect that many Conservative Members understand the experience that my local authority has. As family houses have been sold from the housing stock and the local authority has been prevented from replacing those houses, and making good that loss, it has become impossible to pursue the sensible management of the housing stock in the interests of the tenants.

Previously, it was possible to put young, married, childless couples in high rise blocks. When the couple had children, they could be moved down to a flat or maisonette with a garden. As their children grew up the family could be put into a family house. When the children left home and the parents retired, the couple could be put back into a flat, as they wished. That was a sensible progress in the use of the housing stock, but it has ground to a halt because losses have been sustained to the housing stock but nothing has been done to replace the housing lost. The system now condemns young mothers with growing children to a permanent future in a flat at the top of a high rise tower block.

I am aware that the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) can hardly contain his impatience, so I shall tell him what I believe is the way forward. It could be embraced by the Government as well as the Opposition. We must approach the provision of housing free from ideological preconceptions. We must use in as flexible and pragmatic a way possible all the instruments that lie to hand. That means that we shall encourage the private sector to make its contribution in what under a Labour Government would clearly be a more stable interest rate and investment climate.

We would encourage the private sector to enter into partnership arrangements with local authorities and housing associations so that each could make their proper contribution to the joint enterprise and provide the houses that are needed. We should extend and encourage the role of housing associations. I hope that we shall be assured this evening that the problems of the Housing Corporation are of short duration and that the Government will come to the aid of their favourite instrument. We shall encourage local authorities to resume their essential role in meeting the need for social housing. We shall begin by progressively relaxing and removing the controls that prevent local authorities from spending their capital receipts. About 8.5 billion is held by local authorities. In many cases they would be willing, indeed keen, to spend a proportion of that money on the provision of housing and, in particular, on a programme to relieve the immediate problem of homelessness.

We calculate that it would be possible to establish—indeed a Labour Government would immediately set in train—a scheme that would produce 50,000 houses at a cost of only a small proportion of the capital receipts held by local authorities. In case anyone asks what that figure is, I should mention that it is £1,850 million. That would be an immediate solution to the homelessness problem. We would then progressively further relax constraints so that local authorities could draw on the skills and resources required to enable them to make a proper contribution.

We should not only approach the matter free from prejudice but encourage a level playing field in terms of subsidy so that people can really choose which type of tenure they prefer. Housing should be free from the imbalance that currently disfigures our housing finance. A huge and growing subsidy is provided to owner-occupiers. Admittedly that is a reflection of high interest rates. That provided a substantial financial incentive until recently to those who were tempted to buy their own homes.

What we intend to do and have committed ourselves to do is to reduce and remove the excessive subsidy to those at the highest level of the income scale who receive tax relief in proportion with the size of their income. The first essential step which should be taken and which will be be useful in restoring the balance that I have described is to reduce mortgage tax relief to the standard rate of tax. We also believe that we should remove the idea which so informs the Government's housing policy, that to rent one's home is somehow an inferior or second-best form of tenure.

I am glad to see that Ministers are avid readers of "Looking to the Future". Many of our proposals are designed to narrow the gap between tenants and owner-occupiers in the control that they have over their housing conditions.

The hon. Gentleman must let me complete this point.

We believe that it is right to increase tenants' control and rights so that they can again choose in accordance with their personal preferences and circumstances the form of tenure that suits them best. They should not be driven by their inadequate rights as tenants and the inadequate subsidy that tenants receive in comparison with owner-occupiers into making arrangements to purchase a house which, for many of them, proves disastrous.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned "Looking to the Future" and referred to ideology. How will the Labour party carry out the following policy described in that document? It says:

"We are also looking at ways of extending the right to buy to private tenants who have rented for many years from a non-resident business landlord."
Would not that finally kill off any incentive for such landlords to provide housing? Does not it prevent any choice in that area of housing for the future?

I cannot understand how the hon. Gentleman can support the right to buy in respect of one group of landlords but deny it in respect of another. As to whether it is right or proper to deter the private landlord, I have no objection whatever to the private sector providing accommodation for rent to those who wish to rent at a market price. However, for the reasons that I gave earlier, the notion that the private landlord can provide housing for those who need social housing—those who cannot pay the market rent—is completely misplaced. If the hon. Gentleman continues to hold that view, that takes us a long way towards unravelling the mystery, which perhaps is not much of a mystery, of why the Government's housing policy is in such disarray and disaster.

Housing provision is not a difficult issue.

It is an issue that is often clouded and made more difficult by putting political labels on it. We should accept that the private sector can help, but that it cannot do everything.

No. Let me complete this point.

There is a role for the public sector and for housing associations as well as for the private sector. We should accept that the market can fix the price of some but by no means all property either for rent or for sale. We should accept that there is and will remain a substantial need for social housing at non-market prices. We should accept that individual preference rather than political prejudice should determine the form of tenure and that, apart from the pattern of subsidy and the restrictions placed on the rights of tenants even for individuals, at different times and in different circumstances during their lives they will want to choose different forms of tenure. We should make that choice as easy and real as possible.

We should recognise that the housing problem affects not only the homeless and those in inadequate housing, but the operation of our economy. In many parts of the economy inadequate housing affects labour mobility and makes it more difficult to attract essential public sector workers such as teachers, nurses, bus drivers, train drivers and so on.

Unless we get to grips with the problem we shall be doing a disservice to the homeless and fatally handicapping our economy and our society. No Government can claim to have served the country well if a minority of its most vulnerable citizens cannot find decent housing. No Government can claim success if the number of homeless continues to grow, as it does. Therefore, I hope that the Minister for Housing and Planning will not claim success on behalf of the Government but will seriously address an issue of great importance and pressing urgency which is a growing blot on the Government's 11-year record.

8 pm

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

"congratulates the Government on the success of its housing policies, which have extended the benefits of owner-occupation to two-thirds of all households, achieved better value for money from over £6 billion a year of public expenditure, increasingly focused this assistance on those most in need of it, and greatly widened freedom of choice for tenants in the public and private rented sectors."
The hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) began his speech with a reference to the facts and so will I. He referred in particular to statutory homelessness. I shall happily give way to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong, but I think that I heard him say that there were 500,000 statutory homeless. Last year 132,000 people were accepted into statutory homelessness.

With respect to the Minister, he may be confusing the number of households with the number of individuals. Shelter is very clear that it is permissible and indeed proper to multiply the number of households by a figure of just over three to produce the number of individuals who are homeless. I was referring to the number of individuals.

The one fact about the 132,000 households accepted into statutory homelessness that the hon. Gentleman failed to mention is that they were provided with homes.

Let me put it on record for the sake of those who are trying to follow the debate that the Minister has got off to a most unfortunate start. On the central question of the statistics that tell us the extent of homelessness in Britain—the numbers accepted by local authorities as officially homeless—the Minister simply does not understand his own figures.

I understand the figures perfectly well. I also understand that those 132,000 households were found homes. Of course, we must consider how many people are in temporary accommodation. I totally accept that 40,000 people—not 500,000 people or millions of people as we hear from Opposition Members and their supporters outside the House—are in temporary accommodation and that 12,000 people are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I agree that that is 12,000 too many. That is why we are spending £250 million directed specifically at helping those in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Between 1,000 and a maximum of 3,000 people are sleeping rough on the streets of London and about 2,000 people are sleeping rough outside the metropolis. I concede that there are also a number of people sharing houses and flats unwillingly. The House is addressing itself to the reasons behind those facts.

The hon. Member for Dagenham implied that not many new houses have been built since the Government took office. In the past 10 years 1.6 million new houses have been built—additions to the housing stock—while the population of the country has risen by less than 1 million. The number of houses per head of population has risen quite considerably in the past 10 years. So why is there such pressure?

It is not pathetic to argue that the housing stock per head of population has risen considerably, when an essential element of the Opposition's argument is that the housing stock appears to have deteriorated.

I shall give way in a moment.

When one asks why there is pressure on housing in Britain and throughout the western world, the answer is extremely clear, although the hon. Member for Dagenham skirted around it. There are new social circumstances, particularly as, sadly, many families are breaking up. It is a phenomenon in the western world and cannot be ignored. Whereas in the past a family required one house, now in some cases a family requires two, three or even four houses. Undoubtedly, as a result of families breaking up throughout the western world if the hon. Member for Dagenham has visited other countries he will have found out for himself—there is a growing social change that is creating pressure on housing.

I noticed the ease with which the Minister moved from numbers of homeless households to discussing population. Of course, the population has increased by only 1 million, but the Minister should be examining household formation. Once in a while a Minister has to make up his mind about whether the Government plan to bring in more restrictive divorce laws. Families have always broken up. Until the late 1960s the law did not prevent families from breaking up but people were forced to continue living together and were unable to start new lives. Will the Tory Government accept modern reality? They will have to make sure that there are more houses or introduce more restrictive divorce laws. Those are the only alternatives to the present difficulties.

I was simply going through the facts. There are increasing numbers of break-ups in families and that is putting pressure on the housing market. Of course, the Government have to respond to that pressure. I shall explain to the House precisely what we propose to do. It will not be the same menu as that of the Labour party; I shall come to that in a few moments.

Undoubtedly, there is a need for massive public spending, and that is happening. We are spending £3 billion subsidising the housing revenue accounts of local authorities. Of £3 billion of capital allocations, more than £1 billion is currently being spent on housing associations through the Housing Corporation. I should tell the hon. Member for Dagenham, in direct reply to the question he asked in his speech, that we are confident that, for a variety of reasons, output will rise to 40,000 in the next two years. That is a considerable amount of subsidised building.

The Minister has given us an important answer. That figure, if it is to be believed, is most encouraging. How soon does the Minister envisage that the Housing Corporation, which has had to put a stop to housing association new investment for the time being, will overcome that problem and resume normal business? My conversations with those involved suggest that there is no early prospect of that happening, which would mean a substantial reduction in the forecast to which the Minister refers.

Labour spokesmen completely ignore the reason why there are reschedulings of allocation at the moment. Completions have speeded up and are happening at a much faster rate than was originally planned. That is good news for people being housed, but of course we have to bring the process under cash control. Completions are coming through at different times under the old and new allocation procedures, but the rate of completion is being maintained, so I have given the hon. Gentleman the reply for which he asked.

A massive amount is spent—this is often ignored by the Labour party—on subsidised housing. There are two principles by which we operate those subsidies. First, we target them on those who need them most. That clearly has implications for our attitude to rents and to housing benefit and support, which we want to be channelled through the ring-fencing mechanism to those who need it.

Secondly, by changing the emphasis through the housing associations and the Housing Corporation we shall attract more private finance. We estimate that three quarters of all new build by the housing associations will attract private finance. Therefore, the taxpayer will get better value for money than with local authority finance.

The Minister has carelessly thrown out figures on the public sector. Will he address the dispute without the Conservative party? Both sides agree that public investment in housing has been cut from 7 per cent. about 10 years ago to 1.5 per cent. That is a pretty dramatic cut. The Conservative-controlled Association of District Councils, the Conservative-controlled London Boroughs Association and many Conservative councillors say that the Government have cut too much in housing, hence the problems in west Oxfordshire that my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) referred to. What is the Government's position? Are they saying that the ADC and the LBA are wrong or right? If they are saying that they are right, where will the additional funds—estimated by the ADC to be between £35 billion and £50 billion—come from?

The Government's massive spending programme must be considered in the context of other policies. We intend to continue with the galvanisation of the private sector, by which we shall ensure increased home ownership.

I am pleased that the Labour party has apologised to the country for the mistake that it made in opposing the right to buy. One wonders whether there are more apologies to come for further mistakes. We are long-suffering about the Labour party, but I thank it for apologising to us and to the rest of the country for being wrong about the right to buy. As it presumably now knows, there are enormous benefits in people owning their home, given the sense of pride and independence that flows from it.

We have raised the percentage of home ownership from under 60 per cent. to almost 70 per cent. That must be good.

I shall continue, otherwise other hon. Members will not be able to speak. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) can reply to my remarks at the end of the debate.

We shall ensure that access to home ownership stretches to those who are on lower incomes. That is one of the reasons why we are considering ideas such as rent to mortgage, extending shared ownership arrangements and part equity. I agree with the hon. Member for Dagenham that under a sound and balanced housing policy there must be a thriving rented market. That is why we intend to revitalise the private rented sector.[Interruption.] Opposition Members look askance, but I shall return to the private rented sector.

As a part of our panoply of policies to meet some of the pressures on the housing market, we are considering planning procedures and intend to introduce a Bill to make them much more efficient, in the interests not only of development and housing but of maintaining the countryside and environment. We want to achieve a balance as efficiently as possible. The hon. Member for Dagenham nodded his head when I mentioned the possibility of a planning Bill. I hope that that means that we shall receive the Opposition's co-operation on it.

Will my hon. Friend undertake to consult hon. Members, particularly Conservative Members, about the planning legislation? Conservative Members have considerable experience of planning disputes. We do not wish to see lots more housing or other development on green-field sites in our constituencies.

New planning legislation will ensure that the balance between development and the preservation of the environment is maintained.

My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) earlier mentioned the national scandal of the 750,000 empty houses. It is a priority of the Government to ensure that those houses are properly used. My hon. Friend rightly said that 100,000 of those empty houses are in the possession of councils.

Yes, mainly Labour councils. Those housing authorities should be putting those empty houses to good purpose. We intend, when considering subsidies, to take into account how local authorities use their local housing stock, and we certainly will not subsidise empty council houses. We shall assume that they are earning rent when we allocate subsidies.

I agree that we must address the problem of the 600,000 empty houses in the private sector. Overwhelmingly, what lies behind that figure is hostility, which has built up for many years, towards the landlord and the private rented market. That does not exist in other similar countries. In the United States, the private rented share of the market is over 30 per cent.; in France, which is similar, it is over 30 per cent.; and in Germany it is over 40 per cent., but here it is about 7 per cent., although as recently as 1950 it was 50 per cent., and at the turn of the century it was 90 per cent.

Does the Minister accept that the private rented sector does not provide the accommodation that is desperately needed? I looked at the advertisements in today's Evening Standard. It is true that there are places to let, but there are no flats for less than £140 a week. The people who can afford that are able to own their own home and to obtain a mortgage. What use are those advertisements to the people who simply cannot afford to pay £100, or in some cases more than £200, a week in rent?

In a moment, we shall find that the hon. Gentleman has made my point for me. The collapse of the private rented market is especially tragic for single people who have traditionally depended on it for housing. There are signs that the Housing Act 1988 is bringing life back into private renting. I want to speed up that process considerably.

I want, therefore, to announce a six-point plan for reinstating the private rented sector and for giving self-confidence back to the private landlord. First, we shall give the widest possible publicity to the provisions of the Housing Act 1988. It was a well-balanced piece of legislation which introduced tough measures against unscrupulous landlords who bullied their tenants while giving new rights to landlords to set market rents and to repossess their properties. We shall, in the near future, be publishing a easy-to-read booklet on the new rights that have been given to landlords.

Secondly, as from next April, we shall be speeding up the legal procedures by which disputes about rent between landlords and tenants are settled. Thirdly, we shall be discussing with building societies and finance houses any remaining reservations that they may have about the letting of property in which they have an interest. Fourthly, we shall be discussing with housing associations how they can help on a fee-earning basis with the management problems associated with letting property. Those are sometimes perceived to be especially acute by elderly landlords. Fifthly, we shall maintain the pace of our new lodgers initiative, which is making it much easier for people to rent out rooms in their homes. Sixthly, in the context of our single homeless initiative, we shall focus attention—

No, I shall not give way.

In the context of our single homeless initiative, we shall focus attention especially on the better use of space above shops. That will be done with the assistance of the greater help provided by the new renovation grants regime as applied to landlords. As I said, there are signs of life already returning to the private rented sector and this plan will speed up the process.

However, one major problem remains—the blight placed on private rented housing by the Labour party. According to the published document, Labour would once again intervene in fixing rents.

I certainly will read it out. It is good stuff and it makes good reading. On page 26, under the heading "Tenants", the document says:

"Labour will ensure that rents are set at levels which people can afford."
Labour also intends to sequester properties. The document says:
"We are also looking at ways of extending the right to buy to private tenants who have rented for many years from non-resident business landlords."
I shall not read the whole document as those sentences stand for themselves.

The measures of sequestration and of the reintroduction of a form of rent control would probably be enough in themselves to kill off the private rented sector. However, in this matter as in others, it is the secret manifesto that worries one most. The hon. Member for Dagenham has sounded reasonable and balanced, and he has used words such as "flexible" and "pragmatic". However, that is one public face of the present Labour party. Another public face is revealed by a document that I have here, which has been circulated by the Labour research department at Labour headquarters. It contains several proposals. On tenure, the document says:
"All tenants and licensees of non-resident landlords will have the right to full security of tenure…But Labour will go beyond simply restoring succession rights to the pre-1989 position; we will extend them in both the public and private sectors. Any partner of a tenant should have the right to succeed to the tenancy on the tenant's death…If the tenant has no partner, any person who has lived as part of the tenant's household for six months should have succession rights…Labour believes a minimum of two successions should be offered. This would allow, for example, one partner to succeed the other, and, in turn, for one of their children to succeed them."
So much for tenure.

On rent controls, the document says:

"The disastrous deregulation of housing association and private rents will be ended by Labour. Rents will, once again, be set independently of the landlord."
In other words, there will be fixed rents.

On the allocation of tenancies, the document says:
"all non-resident landlords should be obliged to observe the principle of equal opportunities in the allocation of housing on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, age and disability."
On the right to buy, the document says:
"Labour's aim is to extend the principle of the Right to Buy to many private tenants currently denied that right."
There may be doubt about what the Labour party really believes. I suspect that there is considerable confusion and doubt in the mind of the hon. Member for Dagenham. In a recent interview in a magazine called "Roof", which is published by Shelter—not exactly a passionate supporter of the Government—the editor questioned him on some specific issues. The editor asked the hon. Gentleman what the Labour definition of affordable rent will be. The editor writes:
"Gould is coy. 'I don't suppose we'll be putting figures on that, no. We are, I stress, committed to rents people can afford."'
The editor then asks:
"'can we expect Labour to define an affordable rent in the manifesto itself?' Gould laughs: 'I think that's unlikely.'"
The poor old editor tries again and asks:
"'Does Labour have a housing goal?' 'Not in any very specific sense.'"
All that would be funny if it were not rather worrying. We have had a demonstration today of the way in which the hon. Member for Dagenham sounds plausible, flexible and pragmatic—whatever word he may want to use at present. A better example is the submerged part of the iceberg, which is extremely worrying. I do not know what Labour will publish in the near future, or what its official position will be at the next general election. I suspect that Labour will try to hide most of this stuff before the election. However, even its published pronouncements on the private rented sector are blighting the market. That restricts housing, especially for the single homeless. At the same time that the Labour party has the brass neck to table the motion tonight, it is preventing the development of the traditional form of housing for single people. That is outrageous.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister's flow. Is he saying that private landlords are now convinced of the imminence of a Labour Government? Is that his view as well?

Of course not. The consolation prize in all this is that Labour will never get into power. The Labour party is running around the country saying in public how pragmatic it is and how it wishes to match the private with the public sector. It is apologising to the Government for being wrong about the right to buy and saying that it is thinking again about the role of the housing associations. But in the bowels of its engine room, it is churning out consultation papers that represent traditional socialism of the very left kind. That is a strange proposition for the country to be faced with. On the one hand, the Labour party is covering the cracks and, on the other, a fully fledged socialist document is being prepared in its back room.

Speaking from the engine room, I should like to draw to the Minister's attention the fact that over the past six months—there has certainly been a dramatic increase in the past few months—I have had numerous interviews with consultants and private landlords. They agree with my analysis of the decline of the private sector, which they also say has hardly anything to do with the rent Acts and everything to do with the way in which we subsidise housing in Britain. More important, a group of major landlords has gone away to work on proposals that would give private tenants the right to buy. I am pleased about that, because we shall take the good landlords with us. The Tory party can keep the Rachmans.

Methinks the hon. Gentleman protests too much. He is clearly on the defensive, and rightly so because the Labour party is in a very bad position. The Opposition are hitting hardest single people—in particular the single homeless—who have depended traditionally on the private rented sector to rent rooms. Yet, at the same time, the Labour party introduces motions such as the motion that we are debating tonight.

For our part, we accept that there are new housing pressures, which have been brought on in Britain and throughout the western world by rapidly changing social conditions—in particular, by the tragic breakdown of many family ties. But in so far as it is a housing problem, we are treating it with urgency. We are spending vast sums of public money as effectively as we can. We are further galvanising the private sector in respect of home ownership and renting. Most immediately, we are ensuring that we make better use of almost three quarters of a million empty houses. The radical and urgent manner in which we are addressing those matters makes nonsense of the Opposition's motion.

8.32 pm

I found the Minister's speech profoundly depressing. That is especially sad as this is the first housing debate that I have attended since he has been in post. There were several crucial issues regarding the housing crisis on which he did not see fit to touch. I shall come to some of them in a moment. I do not want to speak for too long as this is a short debate, but I want to make a couple of constituency points and a couple of policy points.

The housing crisis is not evenly spread throughout the country. Everyone realises that. In the north, the condition of the stock is the overwhelming contributor to the crisis, whereas in the south it is the sheer shortage of stock. In the midlands, we are piggy in the middle. We suffer from poor quality housing and a shortage of stock, but not to the extremes that are experienced in the north and south. That means that we are left out; we do not make the headlines. Nevertheless, the extent and nature of the housing crisis in the midlands is such that, were we talking about London, it would merit headline space. That point is not made clear in our general housing policy. It is not made clear in the media and it is ignored by those with London-centred attitudes.

I shall refer in a moment to the Housing Corporation, but I want first to refer to Birmingham, part of which I represent. In recent years, we have lost out badly in the housing allocation. We have a massive amount of system-built housing to replace. That housing needs to be cleared; it cannot be renovated. The Boswell houses and the 900 Boot houses in my constituency cannot be salvaged. They will have to be replaced with a variety of mixed tenure housing of varying density and with different financial arrangements. That was par for the course to the Labour party when I was on the Front Bench, and it remains par for the course now. We do not have the financial wherewithal to provide the public money to pull in the private capital that we need to make those changes. That is why I think that the Government have gone too far.

Let me give an example. In the housing needs index and stress area review undertaken by the Housing Corporation, Birmingham lost out more than any other city or district in England. By 1992–93, the Housing Corporation's programme will be worth £1.7 billion—double what it was two or three years ago. By then, Birmingham will be losing out to the tune of £20 million a year because of the changes in the housing needs index and the stress area factors: the city will have lost 1.3 percentage points in that index. The Minister frowns, but he can check those figures and he will find that they are accurate. We shall lose £20 million a year after taking the stress area factors into account.

We must bear in mind the fact that that loss is on top of Birmingham's ever-declining housing investment programme allocation. The Minister talks for all the world as though the housing investment allocations and the housing investment programme are public subsidy. They are not. They merely give the city permission to borrow money, on which the council will have to pay market interest rates. The housing investment allocation is not money doled out to Birmingham city council by the Department of the Environment.

It is money that the city council is permitted to borrow and on which the interest charged is fully subsidised.

It may be fully subsidised over a 60-year period, but Birmingham is not getting the billions of pounds worth of handouts of which the Minister talks. He spoke of the capital allocation, not the interest subsidy, and one must consider the two things separately. The HIP allocation for Birmingham is not money given to Birmingham by the Government. The Government are merely giving Birmingham permission to borrow. As I said, that makes matters even worse because, over the years, our allocation has been cut and it is planned to cut it even further. We are supposed to be the country's second city, yet on the Z scores of the census index we have the largest single concentrated area of deprivation in the country. I am not talking down my city—we have to make a realistic case for the bids—but if similar circumstances applied in London, they would be headline news.

We do not have a cardboard city in Birmingham yet, but it is around the corner. Virtually every hostel in the city is almost full every night. It would take only a slight change now and we would have a cardboard city. A slight shift would also mean families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. To its credit, Birmingham city council has never yet placed a family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It ill behoves the Minister to castigate the council on the number of empty dwellings, which is less than the national average—less than 2 per cent. There will always be empty properties. Heaven knows, I have criticised Labour and Tory-controlled councils alike for having an excessive number of empty properties which could be available for letting. But in a country with about 20 million dwellings and with millions of people moving around, we shall always have empty dwellings. It stands to reason. Every dwelling cannot be full every night. I understand that, according to the professionals, we need about 4 per cent., and, by and large, that is the private sector figure. The local authority average is only 2.3 per cent. We need 4 per cent. to keep the system going so that people have the chance to move. As I said, Birmingham city council has never yet put a family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but we are close to it and to cardboard city.

Boosting the private landlord, as the Minister did in his speech, is not the answer. Being someone else's landlord is not an acceptable way to earn a living. That is a bald, stark statement, but it is not an attack on decent, caring private landlords. I probably should have said "being someone's exploitative landlord". That is the difference between the Opposition and the Tories. We genuinely want a partnership with the private sector—in tenure and money—but not an exploitative private sector. We genuinely want variety and change in finance and tenure, but we will not set up one section of society financially to exploit another.

The Minister talked about opening rooms above shops. The Tories have been talking about that for the past 11 years, but they have done nothing about it, save in one or two areas in which there was some heritage or historical aspect or some extra funny-money funding that they could find to assist. They have not seriously tackled the problem in 11 years. It is no good trotting out that policy now in the twilight of the Government, because it will not wash.

Let me deal briefly with two other points. One relates to the Housing Corporation and the mess that it has got itself into.

The Government have got the Housing Corporation into a mess, with the result that people will be homeless for longer than they would otherwise have been. On 13 December last, the Public Accounts Committee took evidence from the chief executive of the Housing Corporation and the permanent secretary of the Department of the Environment. Question No. 584 on page 15, which was not asked by me, on the Housing Corporation's plans and the housing aspects of the Department of the Environment, states:

"Next year you are going to get even more money. Will you be able to cope physically with the expansion of monies that is involved? I am not talking about labour and materials; I am talking about physically getting the money out to the housing associations who depend on you."
The chief executive of the Housing Corporation, David Edmonds, replied:
"I think so. I have great confidence that the work we have done over the last three or four years in putting into place some really quite sophisticated systems…We are a very highly computerised organisation."
He said further:
"We have a record system and a recording system and an ability to turn round paper which is very much greatly enhanced…We have…new financial systems, internal controls and checks…the volume of our work next year will be easily absorbable by the Housing Corporation."

My hon. Friend asks, "What happened?". Why have I and other hon. Members for some months been on the receiving end of the most desperate pleas from housing associations that did everything that they were asked to do to get ready for the new system? They would have been the first to be on the receiving end of complaints from Ministers if they had not been ready for the new regime, but they were ready. They told the Housing Corporation that they were ready. One assumes that the Housing Corporation told the Government that they were ready. The Public Accounts Committee has not yet reported on that matter. I must assume that the assurances that were given to the Public Accounts Committee last November about the strength and sophistication of financial forecasting have been totally shot to pieces and exposed as false in the past few months. The Housing Corporation—perhaps with the Government's hand on it—has failed to meet its duties and responsibilities of financial management and control.

The end result is that building firms will shed labour and homeless people will not get homes. I give one example, and I make no apology for choosing it, from the city of Birmingham. Birmingham Friendship housing association wants to build four five-person houses on a site in Sparkbrook. It has forged a package deal with a local builder who owns the site. The scheme, just under £300,000, is in the draft Housing Corporation 1990–91 programme, but, like many other housing associations, Birmingham Friendship does not know whether it will get an allocation for work this year. Meanwhile, the builder, who has held his price for the scheme since last year, is anxious to get on with the work. A small scheme, nevertheless, sums up the hardships and disappointments suffered on the ground because of the cash crisis. Homes for local Asian families will be lost. Work in an area of high unemployment will be lost to a firm of multi-ethnic builders which has held its costs for a year, waiting on the promise that it was in the draft Housing Corporation programme.

That is just one example—four houses for five families—and it can be repeated in virtually every urban area in the country. It is all because of financial mismanagement on the part of the Housing Corporation because the Government either did not listen or took no account of the information that they received. I emphasise that that is happening in every urban area in the country.

One word that I did not hear fall from the Minister's lips was "rural". Not once did he refer to the problems of rural dwellers and the housing crisis. It is no good his pointing to the Secretary of State for the Environment, who must be one of the most disappointed Secretaries of State ever to see successive Ministers of State come and go in his own Department. If he is to refer to rural areas, that is fine. My remark was not meant personally. I have great respect for the Under-Secretary of State. He has been badly treated by the Prime Minister.

I now raise a couple of issues about rural problems. I make no apology for that. I am an urban dweller and an urban representative, but someone must make the case for rural dwellers Tory—Members do not do it. The problem is constantly left to Opposition Members.

My record is quite good. I had an Adjournment debate on the problems of rural communities. If the Minister's minders want to look it up, it was on 5 April of this year and is reported at column 1394 of Hansard. I raised the whole gamut of the problems of rural dwellers. I referred to the difficulties of housing and gave some examples, but at column 1399 the Minister talked about increasing investment in rural areas through housing associations and referred to the programme, which had been announced, of schemes for communities with fewer than 1,000 people. He referred also to providing low-cost homes. He said that, when the scheme was in place, it would provide 1,500 homes for rent in small villages and 350 homes a year for local sales. He talked about a scheme of repurchasing former shared-ownership dwellings when the occupiers move on.

What has happened to that scheme? I understand that it has not been possible to put the scheme together in a way in which, according to lawyers, it will work. I should like an update on what has happened to the scheme to provide more low-cost, low-rent and affordable homes in rural areas. The Government made great play of the scheme when it was announced. When will bricks be placed on the mortar and when will the houses come into being?

I referred also to the remarks of the chairman of the Rural Development Commission, Lord Vinson, who is certainly not a supporter of our party—he is not a member of it. He said, and I agreed, that, on average, we need only a handful of homes in every sizeable village, but they must be affordable homes.

When I was the Opposition spokesman on housing, I suggested geographically rounding off communities. Like most other people, I do not want urban sprawl, and I do not want to destroy the countryside. I do not regard the countryside as a jigsaw puzzle or the lid on a chocolate box, which classy marketeers tell us it is all about. That is not the reality of life in rural areas when youngsters are forced to move away from villages and small towns and away from their families and jobs because they cannot possibly afford the massive prices for very small dwellings because of the dislocation of prices in rural areas. That problem must be met. I do not see action on the ground. On 5 April, the Minister made it clear to me that work was in hand. I still do not see the difficulty, and if the Minister introduces a planning Bill he will get my support.

Smaller developments in smaller villages and towns can be achieved—there is much academic work to prove that. One would not face the problem of Foxley Wood and the like, although there may be occasions when new small towns should be developed.

I believe that the concept that I have outlined is sustainable politically and financially. Unless something like that is developed, the problems of rural dwellers will get even worse. Ministers must come to terms with that because they have ignored the problem of rural dwellers for too long.

Order. I let the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) get away with it, but I now appeal for brevity. As so many hon. Members wish to speak, voluntary restraint would be helpful.

8.50 pm

It is unfortunate in a debate lasting just two and a half hours that some one and a half hours has been taken up by contributions by the Front Benches. My comment does not, however, reflect on the content of those speeches. Accordingly, I shall try to set an example by being brief.

I declare at the outset that, as all the House knows, I have been a board member of Shelter since 1983. That fact is occasionally used by each side of the House in support of their argument and I assume on that basis that they are fairly balanced. I should also declare, as recorded in the Register of Members' Interests, that I am director of a group of companies that rent out properties.

There is a seductive glamour about the use of capital receipts and it was especially prevalent when I was wearing my local government hat. The Government's stance has been attacked, but, in truth, the issue is simple. If one believes that housing needs broadly approximate to the arising of capital housing receipts, one has an argument. I believe that there is virtually no connection between housing needs and the arising of receipts. Therefore, some system akin to that used now by the Government for allocating permission to borrow to local authorities with lower receipts is essential. That practice would be followed by any Government—no post-war Government have introduced controls on capital borrowing.

There is understandable dismay on both sides of the Chamber at the sight of people living rough in our major cities. The Daily Telegraph was right when it said in June:
"In a civilised society it is unacceptable to have people sleeping on the streets because they have nowhere to go."
Similar scenes are repeated in other western countries, but that does not reduce our concern, although it may temper the more extreme political comments made. The Minister and the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) set out some of the circumstances and social background to the problem. I judge that it is the responsibility of Government, local authorities and the various agencies connected with them to deal with this problem. Other than personal choice, there should be no reason for people to live rough in the streets or under cardboard.

The Government have launched a sustained and welcome series of initiatives. Tonight my hon. Friend outlined another six, but time does not allow me to comment on them in detail. One initiative relates to people with surplus property or rooms who do not want to be involved in what they see as the palaver of renting and engaging tenants. The initiative will enable those people to engage housing associations to do it for them. Those associations will guarantee them a rate of return. Anything that encourages such people is welcome. All the initiatives are welcome, though overdue, and form part of the solution for which we seek.

I also welcome—I would, wouldn't I?—the £2 million initiative announced a few months ago by my hon. Friend the Minister. That initiative will enable the development of a nationwide framework of advice centres, essentially run by Shelter and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux—NACAB. That initiative wisely draws on Shelter's knowledge and expertise and it is designed to encourage young people, where possible, to remain in their local area rather than to drift into the big cities, with all the attendant difficulties that that causes.

Tonight little mention has been made of the problem of the mentally handicapped. Many have now been released into the community, but in some instances they are inadequate, unable to house themselves and perhaps institutionalised. I am aware that the Department of Health will launch an initiative on that in the near future. However, the problems of the mentally ill are extremely pressing as they form a significant part of those who are currently homeless. We owe it to them to announce that initiative as soon as possible.

The hon. Member for Dagenham is one of the acceptable faces of the Labour party. His acceptance of guilt and past ideological sins was touching, but had he studied the faces behind him, let alone left the Chamber and spoken to many Labour party councillors, he would have discovered a less than equivalent atonement.

The Labour party and those who run the large council housing empires have welcomed the advent of housing associations in their much enhanced role with all the enthusiasm of people eating sheep's eyes for the first time. When the Labour party considers the rest of the private-rented sector, it does not like or understand it. The Labour party has forgotten that every extra right for a tenant is an extra responsibility or loss to a putative landlord.

I agree with the Minister that the Labour party wants to turn the clock back because it is wedded to the public sector and the belief that it knows better. I do not know why, as the housing record of far too many Labour authorities is too depressing whether judged on the number of properties empty, the size of rent arrears or their practice of opposing by every reasonable legal way people wanting to exercise their right to buy. I cannot believe that that record can act as an example to the Labour party as, whichever way one looks at it, the picture is grim.

Last week there was a fascinating editorial in The Sunday Times on a wide range of issues of which housing was but a part. That editorial was not uncritical of the Government and the gist of it was that more public spending was not the solution to most of our problems. It noted:

"Overall spending on public services was 15 per cent. higher in 1989–90 than it was during the last year of the last Labour government. So much for the 'vicious cuts of the brutal Thatcher regime' … The idea that Britain can be cleansed of public squalor by spending more money on public services is a widely believed nonsense. What nearly every public service needs is not more money, but more competition."
Nothing would increase the standard of rented property more than to have several would-be landlords clamouring for one tenant—that has been demonstrated in other areas of necessity such as food and clothing. Instead the landlord has been frightened away by the fear of a possible future Labour Government—not lessened by tonight's contributions. All housing reforms should be judged on the acid test: will they increase the supply of rented property efficiently? The article concluded:
"At least the government realises what needs to be done. Labour prefers the soft option of simply promising to spend much more on monopoly public services, which on present evidence most often makes them worse."
For those and other reasons, I oppose the Labour motion.

8.58 pm

The Government may well claim that never have so many people owned their own houses, and that that is, of course, because of Government policies. But they must also claim that never have so many people been homeless, sleeping rough on the streets, in derelict buildings, in substandard lodgings, hostels or bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That is also a direct result of Government policy. There is no doubt that in the past 10 years there has been a sharp increase in the number of homeless, well above any expected trend. A report commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree memorial trust, "Homeless in Britain", shows that every day an average 1,000 households apply to local councils for help and that during the past 10 years, more than 1 million households have been registered as homeless by local authorities.

The problem is no longer a phenomenon of our largest cities. People are sleeping on our streets, in unused buildings, temporary accommodation and other unsuitable places right across this land of ours. My own area of Southport, in Sefton, north-west England, has a homeless problem, which has been growing for the past few years as the local authority finds its hands tied with restrictions on housing finance, and social services departments find it increasingly difficult, because of their restricted resources, to assist people who are homeless through no fault of their own. Such people have been turned out of hospitals and other institutions as a result of the Government's policy of closing down such homes without providing an alternative means of care or an alternative place to live.

Such short-term measures as that announced by the Minister for Housing and Planning on 22 June to provide £15 million for additional subsidies and subsidised accommodation for the single homeless, may give some small relief. However, I fear that it may create more problems than it will solve. Until we recognise the underlying causes of homelessness and instigate a programme to combat them, the long-term prospects for Britain's homeless are bleak.

Another problem that I fear such short-term measures may create is to put pressure on the police force to use the Vagrancy Act 1824 and other laws to move people off the streets. To give people who are already down and out a criminal record as well will do little to enhance their prospects of finding permanent housing. If there is any form of compulsion attached to the programme, it is likely to be defeated before it gets off the ground. Young people may rebel against it, particularly if they can be compelled to enter an institutionalised system, of which many of them have had experience and are trying to avoid.

There will also be a problem finding buildings with long-term leases at a reasonable cost. That will not be an easy task in the south-east. There will be problems in finding the staff and volunteers to run such centres. Many of the young people on our streets are vulnerable. What safeguards will there be to ensure that someone placed in a position of trust can be trusted? I fear that short-term measures will serve only to paper over the cracks in time for the general election. Once the young people who sleep on our streets are safely hidden in hostels and dormatories, the issue of Britain's homeless will be put on the back burner.

Those are the problems that arise from short-term measures, but I must not spend any more time on that subject because it will deter from the main argument, which is to identify solutions for the causes of homelessness. There is no dispute—or should not be—that the single, most important cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing units. The blame for that can be laid directly at the feet of the Government. Due to the Government's policy to reduce public spending, their dislike of local government and their utter contempt for anything that might be seen as public service, the provision of social services and social housing by local government has been virtually destroyed.

The right-to-buy policy is not, in itself, a mistake, and the principle behind it is to be welcomed. Encouragement should be given to the voluntary and, in some cases, private sector to increase their contribution to the provision of housing, particularly affordable housing units. What is wrong is the way in which the Government have approached and administered that policy. The Government have failed to recognise—or perhaps chosen to ignore—the fact that in any society there will always be a need for social housing and housing at affordable rents and prices.

The right-to-buy programme, when coupled with restrictions on the use of capital receipts, has resulted in a critical shortage of such housing. In 1979, the number of new council houses built was 79,009. In 1989, that figure dropped to a mere 14,925. At the same time, the numbers on waiting lists requiring accommodation had increased from 741,000 in 1983 to 1,268,000 in 1988. That is the scale of the problem. The Government's attempts to move the emphasis of the provision of social housing to the voluntary and private sectors have failed, because they do not understand the nature of the matter with which they are dealing, and because they have not enabled the individual to acquire the means to obtain access to affordable housing.

The pressure on housing associations to take up the slack, accompanied by a reduction in central Government funds, has meant that they have had to bridge the gap between public and private sector funding through the raising of rents. In effect, they have had to move up market. The purpose of housing associations was originally to provide for the more vulnerable groups—those on low incomes, and the elderly. However, Government pressure has forced them into the business of catering for the conventional household and those more able to pay, rather than those in need. Consequently, access to permanent affordable housing for the traditional clients of housing associations has been further reduced. The sorry saga surrounding the administration and funding of the Housing Corporation is now undermining confidence in housing associations in general, and provision of all types of homes by that process is consequently under threat.

Women have possibly been the hardest hit by current housing policy. I recommend to the Government—and to all parties—the excellent Shelter publication, "Women Losing Out", which points out that housing policies are based on assumptions about the family, and about women's role within families. The policy is designed on the assumption that the nuclear family is the norm, whereas it accounts for only 28 per cent. of households. One-parent families with one young child represent 40 per cent. of the homeless. More than 50,000 one-parent households in Britain become homeless in a year, according to the Joseph Rowntree report. In an era that promotes home ownership at the expense of public housing, women's housing options have been drastically reduced. Their traditionally low incomes and employment prospects create vast inequalities in access to housing between men and women.

The Government's housing policy is now based on the ability to pay rather than on need. The housing Acts of 1988 and 1989 have increased the difficulties of those who are unable to buy. They have reduced security of tenure, introduced higher rents and reduced benefits, owing to the system of assessment of what it is reasonable to pay rather than what the tenant is paying for. Despite all their efforts, the Government have failed to attract the private sector back to rented accommodation. The measures about which we have heard tonight will not affect that either. The private sector still accounts for only 10 per cent. of rented provision, and much of that is to students and single professionals rather than to families.

I was interested to read in the Observer last Sunday that, owing to the high cost of living in the south and south-east, northern universities are expecting 50,000 extra students in September and landlords are already preparing their welcome with plans to increase rents by 15 to 20 per cent. and an insistence on 12-month contracts, although the academic year is only 32 weeks long. Students and some other young people increasingly find that they are in a no-win situation, with rents payable in advance. For students whose grants are payable term by term and for young people on social security which is paid in arrears, the chance of finding a permanent roof over their head is slim.

The housing crisis in Britain will get worse as high mortgage rates and ever-increasing rents push people into arrears. In 1979 there were 2,530 repossessions; in 1989, there were 13,780. That figure is bound to climb, as will the number of evictions from rented property.

I am intrigued to know how the Government intend to square the conflict in their advice. Perhaps the Minister will answer that question. As inflation bites and unemployment rises, their philosophy demands that they encourage young and old alike to get on their bike and look for a job. As the housing crisis deepens and homelessness is rampant, the Government's advice appears to be to stay put, as the pavements of London and other large cities are not paved with gold. Indeed, they are more likely to be paved with Britain's homeless. Because of the housing crisis in rural and urban areas alike, such advice is useless.

What can we do about the problem? We must start from the premise that the country believes that the Government have a duty to ensure that everyone has access to affordable housing. I urge the Government to start towards achieving that aim by removing many of the restrictions that they have placed on local authorities. The top priority must be the release of capital receipts to enable local authorities to replenish stock, by providing houses themselves, by allowing housing associations to cater for the more traditional client, or through partnership with the private sector.

Another priority is to bring existing stock up to standard. Where necessary, there should be powers to purchase homes or to carry out repairs to empty private sector homes whose owners have refused to bring them up to a habitable standard. It is a tragedy and a sin that so many properties are empty. In May 1988 there were 23,000 such homes in the public sector, of which only 4,100 were available for rent. According to the Minister for Housing and Planning in an article in the Municipal Journal on 15 June, there were 600,000 vacant properties in the private sector.

I should like to see the Housing Corporation retained, at least in principle, and it should be given more funds. I should welcome changes to the way in which we define "homeless" and changes to the social security system to prevent the policy working against the young and the single homeless and especially against women who, because of our present system, remain trapped in unbearable situations that are often dangerous.

We need to change the housing benefit system so that it reflects the true cost of rents. That could be combined with the introduction of housing cost relief, a policy advocated by my party in our policy document "Housing, a time for Action", and it would apply to home buyers and people who rent. Affordable housing for all is more than the provision of bricks and mortar. Among other things, it is about the economy, our tax system, our communities, planning and the environment. Our policy document contains innovative ideas for the provision of decent housing. I commend it to the Minister and to Conservative Members.

9.11 pm

Many hon. Members have spoken about the release of capital receipts, and I think that the Minister also mentioned it. I hope that he will be able to assure us that that matter has a high priority. At a time when the nation has a housing crisis it is utterly ridiculous to sit on millions of pounds that could be put to good use. The money was raised by local authorities on the understanding that they would be able to reinvest it. That has not happened and the freezing of the funds is causing considerable distress. The money is there for a purpose for which it is not being used.

I wish to speak about the people who are at the bottom of the pile. I have the pleasure of being chairman of Stonham housing association. Most hon. Members attend their surgeries on Saturday mornings. At one time that was a fairly relaxed affair. However, every surgery that I attend becomes harder and more distressing. People come to me with the seemingly insoluble problem of having nowhere to go. I am sure that all hon. Members have met such people in their surgeries. Women about to go into hospital to have a baby do not have the slightest idea where they will go when they come out. What greater stress could one impose upon a person?

In general, the Stonham housing association picks up the debris of the nation, those who are at the bottom of the pile. We provide accommodation for about 10,500 people a day and we provide for all those whom Christians in every street sympathise about but do not want to do anything to help.

I have been in the House for some years, and in housing debate after housing debate I have heard Ministers from both parties say we should be doing various things. For example, they have said that they will ensure that houses belonging to the services—the armed forces and the police—are brought into occupation, as we do not need so many empty houses. I am sorry to say that nothing much has happened.

I hope that the thoughts that the Minister shared with us tonight will bring about some fundamental changes. Unless they do, organisations such as Stonham, the Salvation Army and many others that take care of the sad people in the community will close.

My organisation is satisfied that our finances will just about get us through another year. But unless there is some improvement in the complicated and nonsensical bureaucracy that has crept into the housing system, we expect that many organisations will have to close because there will be no money.

In London there are 75,000 single homeless people, and there is cardboard city. One does not have to go far from here to see the homeless. When I am on my way home I find old ladies sleeping in the bushes just down the road. It is sickening, and no hon. Member could find any funny feature in it, as it is horrifying.

The problem is not entirely caused by lack of money; we have to care about what happens to these people. If the various types of empty accommodation that hon. Members from both sides of the House have mentioned were used, we would not have a housing list, We would not have the misery that exists at present. We would not have people shuddering because a hostel might be put next door to them, and they are worried that it would not be attractive for their street, or that it might affect the value of their property.

Even in my constituency, in Cheltenham, there are many empty properties. I am not making a political point, but the town is under the control of the Liberals. People come to my advice bureau and tell me that they walk round the town and see empty houses and flats owned by the local authority.

Local authorities have much to answer for. They are so dilatory about carrying out the repairs and maintenance which would enable properties to be occupied that absurd situations arise. Young people with three children are put on the top floor of a 10-storey block. The mix of people in such blocks of flats sometimes causes indescribable trouble. Anti-social behaviour between neighbours increases week by week and sadly it often ends up with someone going to prison.

A lot can be done without the investment of vast sums of money, because we have already allocated millions of pounds for housing which could be better invested than it has been in the past.

Stonham, other similar organisations and thousands of voluntary workers give their time to nurse the mentally ill, who would otherwise go to prison because the hospitals that used to accommodate them are no longer available. All those people are being looked after by volunteers and a splendid professional team which has a right to expect to be paid. Unless we and my hon. Friend the Minister can find some better way of caring for people and paying the bill, there will be nowhere for even the sick to go.

9.19 pm

When the history of the 1980s comes to be written, one of the Government's real and unforgivable failures will be their lack of a comprehensive and cohesive housing policy. That failure has condemned millions or our citizens to live in inadequate homes and thousands to be without accommodation altogether.

Almost immediately upon taking office, the Government began to cut the housing improvement programme which the Labour Government had developed extensively in the 1970s and which raised to modern standards the amenities of many hundreds of inter-war council houses. Pre-1919 terraced housing, with outside toilets and sub-standard kitchens and bathrooms, cried out for improvement and major internal and external repairs were needed to prevent them from falling down.

The Government's response has been to drip feed that sector with small and completely unrealistic funds, leading to the outrageous situation in the 1990s of much decrepit and unhygienic housing in all our major towns and cities. Had the level of funding in real terms under the previous Labour Government been continued, many of those houses would now have been improved and many thousands of families would be living in more pleasant and environmentally acceptable conditions.

Equally worrying is the way in which the Government have, at every opportunity, sought to weaken and frustrate the role of public housing authorities in planning and servicing local housing provision within their communities. All manner of devices have been invented in order to remove local government from that important social policy area of human need.

Legislation has directed powers and finance to housing associations through the Housing Corporation with all the attendant difficulties and demarcation problems. There is great pressure on some housing associations to take on more responsibility in housing than they are capable of dealing with.

The Labour party recognises that housing associations have a positive role to play, but they should work in partnership with local government, the special needs housing sector and the important and emerging co-operative housing sector.

Much more devious has been the Government's promotion of the private sector. Insurance and property development companies have been encouraged to move into the private housing sector and to buy up housing estates and parcels of council houses, all complete with sitting tenants, in order to deprive local authorities of their historic and accepted housing role.

The Government have been unable to resist the attractive prospect of giving their friends in the City major capital gains through long-term property values and the ability to make huge financial gains by imposing massive rent increases on the poor tenants involved. High powered propaganda accompanied the Government's ideological separation from fairness and common sense. Thank goodness council tenants in Britain have dispatched that crazy notion to the dustbin of history by voting overwhelmingly against housing action trusts for their estates.

Once again, there is an absence of compassion in the Government's treatment of the thousands of elderly and handicapped citizens who are condemned to live their lives in accommodation wholly unsuited to their special needs. Bungalows and specially adapted accommodation for the elderly and the handicapped are at a premium in almost all areas. In my locality, it was recorded recently that about 2,500 elderly and disabled people were competing for the 50 bungalows available for letting. On that basis, many will die without having benefited from the well-being that such accommodation can bestow.

In addition, there is the misery and degradation of homelessness for many thousands of people in the Prime Minister's caring society; the uphill struggle for millions of people trying to meet record mortgage and rent payments; and, as we are now witnessing, the collapse of the private housing sector. In this debate, we are again presented with a classic picture of Tory indifference in the midst of irrefutable evidence of a major social need in housing which continues to go unmet.

9.27 pm

Unlike the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner), I believe that the Government have had considerable housing achievements to their credit during the past decade. The outstanding achievement has been the enormous stimulus to owner-occupation through the introduction of the right to buy, but in other respects also our housing stock is clearly better. It is interesting to note that, even during the past few years, there has been a marked improvement in the quality of local authority housing, certainly in my constituency. That is largely a product of the fact that capital receipts could not be spent on new building—or only a limited amount—and as a result a great deal of money has been available for improving council stock, and there have been substantial improvements.

The focus of the debate is, rightly, not on owner-occupation, but on the problems for those who cannot afford to buy houses and therefore have to look for low-cost rented housing. That is now the real priority in housing policy, and I hope that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues will accept that. As we have heard from a number of hon. Members, the problem has been made worse by the increase in family breakdowns and the increased number of one-parent families. I do not share the view that that is a trend about which nothing can be done. However, I recognise that it is putting pressure on local authority and low-cost housing.

Aylesbury Vale, in my constituency—and I am happy to talk about this after what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said—spans both rural and urban housing. There has been a steady rate of council building until recently, and currently there is a genuine waiting list that can be measured in hundreds, certainly not in thousands.

I am concerned that there may be real trouble ahead. I listened to what my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Sir C. Irving) said about what was happening in his advice bureau. I would not phrase it as dramatically as he did, but I am aware of an increasing pressure from less-well-off people who are trying to find somewhere to live. Constituencies such as mine will be in significant trouble during the next decade or two unless further action is taken because council building will virtually come to an end. It has almost no housing investment programme allocation in the current year, although it had and still has a fairly steady rate of building. It appears that, by next year, only about 16 buildings will be erected by the council within the Aylesbury Vale area. We are disappointed that we have no allocation for the kind of equity sharing programmes that, in principle, have much to commend them.

The sharp drop in council building would be fine if we could be confident that the increased demand would be taken up by housing association construction. Local authorities in my constituency have been active in pursuing that option, and Chiltern local authority has successfully converted the whole of its housing stock to a housing association. In Aylesbury, where the pressure is greater, we have encouraged housing associations, and they have shown interest—recognising that even fairly affluent places such as Buckinghamshire have housing needs.

However, when it comes to the crunch, associations find it difficult to build the houses that local authorities cannot provide. That partly has to do with the drying up of Housing Corporation funding. No doubt that is a problem brought about by its success—and I accept the remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister in that respect—but the difficulty remains that it takes time for housing associations that move into an area where there has been very little general purpose association activity to get off the mark.

If the Government are to rely on the Housing Corporation as the main instrument of providing low-cost housing, it is important to my constituency and others that resources are made available to the Housing Corporation for it to do its job. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary winds up he will say more about that aspect than did my hon. Friend the Minister.

The private rented sector has also featured in this debate. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister about new means of encouraging the private rented sector. It is difficult in areas like mine to do a great deal very rapidly because they do not have large numbers of Victorian houses available for conversion into private rented housing. That is not the nature of property in my constituency, and it is a problem elsewhere also.

Can new construction for private renting be encouraged? I do not share the horror of some Opposition Members of private money being invested in housing and making a profit. That is a perfectly desirable activity, and I am all for encouraging it. There was certainly some evidence of ambivalence among Opposition Members on that issue. The real problem is providing an adequate economic return on the investment necessary to develop low-cost private rented housing.

We need social housing and to give backing to the Housing Corporation, but I still believe that there is scope for new council housing. One of its merits is that it provides an avenue into owner-occupation in a way that housing association property does not. Many people in my constituency have moved on from renting new local authority housing to buying those properties, and have turned them into good owner-occupied houses. It would be a pity if that process were to end.

The question of council rents has not featured greatly in today's debate. Clearly they should be reasonable. It is true that they are backed, by and large, by a fairly generous housing benefit system, but it was a mistake to press for a £4.50 rent increase in areas such as mine in April. That was not really necessary, and it is particularly unfortunate that it coincided with the introduction of the community charge and higher water charges. I hope that when next year the question of the assumed rent increases expected by the Department of the Environment arises, my hon. Friend the Minister will do all that he can to contain them within very reasonable limits.

Although there is an underlying assumption that rents in the council sector should move more towards market levels, which has an element of wisdom, many people in constituencies such as mine, which are fairly prosperous, nevertheless do not have higher incomes than their counterparts in the north of England or other areas, where the cost of housing is deemed to be lower. If someone happens to work in the health service or in local government on relatively low pay, the pay is exactly the same as it is for someone who works in Lancashire, Northumberland or elsewhere. It is not reasonable to expect people on the same level of pay in other parts of the country to pay higher local authority council rents.

Housing for the less-well-off is of considerable importance. It is important politically. I am sure that my hon. Friends are aware of that. It is also important for the well-being of our people. I hope that we can bring to its conclusion the drive, energy and success that we have shown in tackling the question of owner-occupation.

9.35 pm

Initially I was reluctant to speak in this debate because the motion, with its references to the Housing Act 1988 and to urban and rural areas in Britain, seemed more a Great Britain than a United Kingdom motion. After I made my maiden speech, one Conservative Member said to me that he hoped that I would speak in United Kingdom debates and not limit myself to Northern Ireland matters. However, if I am to contribute to United Kingdom debates, United Kingdom debates must be held.

The motion refers mainly to the Housing Act 1988. I have heard rumours that that Act may be extended shortly to Northern Ireland. That would be worth examining. I welcome the extension of home ownership, which has been one of the chief achievements of the Government. I am also glad that they realise that the extension of home ownership will go only so far and that it is also necessary to maintain the rented sector, both public and private. The public sector should not be limited.

We need to expand and help the private rented sector. The chief measure in the 1988 Act was to bring rents up to market levels in the hope that such rents would increase supply. As I said to the Minister the other week, the experience at home is quite the opposite. We have had no rent control on new-build properties for 30 years but there has not been a significant increase in the supply. It could be argued that market rents should be introduced independently because it is slightly unfair to expect the private landlord to subsidise people and we should not deprive them of the income that their property would otherwise command. However, moving to market rents is not enough to solve the problem. We must consider other matters.

Obviously, an increase in supply is desirable. I was glad to hear that changes will be made on the planning side and that planning controls will be relaxed. That should not be a matter of rushing off into green field sites to build. One should look to urban areas where much land could be made available. Moreover, planning difficulties are not always the fault of public corporations and local authorities. It is often the fault of the planning authorities, which take far too long to arrive at decisions. I hope that the Minister will tackle that matter.

Several hon. Members mentioned empty housing. I noted with interest that the Minister hinted at financial penalties for public authorities which have empty houses on their hands. I did not hear him suggest any equivalent financial penalty when private property remains empty. Perhaps he will think about that. Such a penalty might go some way to increasing supply. However, an increase in supply may not be sufficient. Even with an increased supply, some people will not be able to enter the market. We must consider ways of assisting people into the market. The watchword must be that we must subsidise people, not property. I should like to see a much broader approach to helping people to enter the market. Together with some increase on the supply side, that might bring housing within people's range.

Within the Minister's six-point plan to tackle those problems, I noted his reference to speeding up legal procedures. I hope that that will not deprive people of their rights to proceedings in court. The existing procedures for getting orders for possession are fair and should not be changed. However, the enforcement of orders that have been granted needs to be examined as delays occur far too often.

Because of lack of time, I shall curtail my comments, but I should like to make a couple of points about the change of landlord provisions in the 1988 Act. Let me sound a warning against the extension of any of those procedures to Northern Ireland as that would open up considerable dangers. Paramilitary groups might apply to acquire public authority estates, and one could not be sure that the Northern Ireland Office would be sufficiently astute to catch them out and stop them. Other bodies such as insurance companies and building societies might seek to take over estates. The danger is that they would be softer targets than the public authorities for pressure from paramilitary groups, although the record of the Housing Executive is pretty bad. But that is another matter.

Housing associations make a valuable contribution and have done a considerable amount to increase the supply of housing. They provide an alternative to public authority housing and they should be encouraged, as competition is a good thing. The housing associations are mostly controlled by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive—the public authority to which they should be providing an alternative. With the best will in the world, the Housing Executive often hampers those authorities, although it is not consciously hostile to them, so a different regime is required, and had time permitted perhaps I would have elaborated on that.

9.41 pm

The Government are charged with incompetence in their housing policy and with a callous disregard for the welfare of the people of Britain. It is not true that the debate concerns only the rented sector, as the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) said. It is very much about the lack of affordable accommodation to rent or for sale in rural and urban areas. Let the Government make no mistake about it: if they simply try to mop up some of the homelessness in London by providing a few extra night shelters, they will find that the pot continues to fill up, not least from areas such as Aylesbury.

The growing pressure on housing in rural areas is forcing people out of those areas to the seaside towns and other cities. They move into temporary accommodation, often holiday lets, and become homeless when the accommodation is required.

The desperate folly of the Government's policy was to attempt to end council housing without putting anything in its place. I understand that the Government do not like council housing. I think that they are wrong, as do the people who occupy council housing. The people who desperately want to get out of the private sector also think they are wrong. That is why Tory and Labour Members speak to far more people asking for a council house or a housing association house than wishing to move into the private sector.

The right hon. Member for Aylesbury was totally and utterly wrong to say that the housing stock is improving. It is decaying fast. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. If he will not take it from me, I implore him to ask the Association of District Councils. According to that Conservative-controlled organisation, between £35 billion and £50 billion is needed in housing investment. It is said that the housing stock needs to last for 1,000 years if we are to avoid further decline. Previously the figure was 200 years, and that worries the housing experts. The Government's analysis is desperately and seriously wrong.

Several times, the Minister and Conservative Members said that they want to revive the private rented sector. I do not object to that; as long as there are good landlords, I am not fussed. However, the Minister, with his pathetic list of six things, which included issuing documents, is trying to revive a dead parrot. The reason why it is dead is nothing to do with the rent Acts but everything to do with housing finance. That is why, to their credit, the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson), and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who was previously the Secretary of State for the Environment and is not normally regarded as a logical man, wanted to end mortgage income tax relief. They wanted to end the subsidy to the buying sector because they knew that either the subsidy to the rented sector had to be increased to make market rents affordable or the subsidy to those who were buying had to be stopped.

Labour Members argue that until the Government reform housing finance they cannot get away from the fact that the housing purchase sector and the rented sector must be subsidised. No matter how much the Conservative party wants to get rid of mortgage income tax relief to revive the rented sector, it will not succeed until it makes it almost impossible for increasing numbers of people to buy, even if interest rates come down significantly. That is why house purchase is beyond the reach of between 50 and 60 per cent. of families in southern England. Until they address and understand that problem, it will only get worse.

Much of the thinking of the Tory party can be gleaned from the press releases issued by the Minister. He said:
"The Government are determined that there should be no excuse for sleeping-out on the streets."
The image is of thousands of people tucked up nice and warm in their beds at night thinking, "Isn't it a nuisance; the Government will not give me an excuse to sleep on the streets." People do not want to sleep on the streets. The Government may try to turn these people into scapegoats and to portray them as wanting to sleep on the streets, but why is it that in all western countries, except in those that follow housing policies similar to ours, such as the United States, the problem is nowhere near as severe, and in most cases does not exist?

As I have told the Minister, the big difference between today and 1979 is that when I was a probation officer in the worst areas of London around King's Cross, if a homeless person said to me "I want accommodation", I could obtain it for him, whereas today I could not. People must queue for cardboard boxes. That shows the success of the Tory party's housing policy. [Interruption.] It is true and I can prove it to Conservative Members. There is a queue also for bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and some people have been in such accommodation for two or three years.

The Tory party promised that local authorities would be able to use their capital receipts to invest in housing, but that was not allowed. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Sir C. Irving) was absolutely right: local authorities could use that money well. It is a tragedy that they are not being allowed to do so.

What do the Government intend to do about the crisis in the Housing Corporation? They said:
"It is proposed that in future an increasing proportion of new development by housing associations should be funded by a mixture of grant and private finance. Not only will this make the available public resources stretch further but the injection of market disciplines will itself lead to greater efficiency and make associations more independent and more responsible for the quality and effectiveness of their investment decisions and the competence of their management."
I can only echo the Conservative chair of the housing committee in Plymouth: if local authorities had behaved as the Housing Corporation has behaved, they would be drummed out.

The problem is the Government's problem, and we know that the figures in the Department of the Environment's White Paper on public expenditure plans are wrong and misleading. I want to know from the Minister not wild guesses or his invention of 40,000 houses but what the approvals will be for 1990–91 to 1992–93.

We need to know whether the Minister is prepared to see the Housing Corporation being examined again by the Public Accounts Committee. Anyone who knows anything about the matter knows that the Public Accounts Committee was deeply worried about the Housing Corporation and knows that its report, which will be out soon, will be of no comfort to the corporation. The tragedy is that the Government, not the Housing Corporation, are truly responsible because the Government created the scheme.

The Government say, once again, that they will punish local authorities for keeping properties empty. I am opposed to properties, whether public or private, being kept empty. However, we know that, on average, 2.1 per cent of local authority stock, 3.1 per cent. of housing association stock and 4.5 per cent. of private sector stock is empty. No less than 18 per cent. of Government property is empty. Much of it is in London and includes police officers' houses, prison officers' houses and Ministry of Defence houses, which have been empty for up to 10 years. Will the Government penalise themselves for keeping literally thousands of houses empty? They will not. The Minister may look at his feet and then gaze up at the ceiling; he is responsible for those empty properties. If he penalises local authorities which, on the whole, are good, all he will do is to aggravate the problem.

The Minister should say what the Labour party says. Where we have examples of bad landlordism, whether by councils, by housing associations or by the Government, we should use one of the other sectors to get those houses into use. We shall say to the private sector what I have been saying to it, successfully, for a long time. There are successful partnerships, but if the Minister believes that he will encourage the letting of flats above shops simply by making it easier to get people out again, he is wrong. The person who has a shop needs the confidence of knowing that if he has a bad tenant who, for example, ruins his stock pouring water through the ceiling, he can get him out, not in six months, but the next day. There is only one way in which to do that without throwing people on to the street and that is to use lease-hack. If the Government would release some of the controls on lease-back, one could achieve that.

The Opposition object to the way in which the Government have squeezed the private rented sector out of existence. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) is right to say that in Northern Ireland 25 per cent. of the rented stock was private in 1957; now it is only 5 per cent. Yet no one has threatened the reintroduction of rent controls in Northern Ireland. The Government's plans do not add up to a sensible policy, as anyone who knows anything about housing knows. If one wants to bring areas into use, one should use sensible lease-back schemes and begin to reform housing finance. One could then deliver the policies that this country needs.

We cannot continue with a disgrace that is unique to the western world, with the exception of the United States. We have teenage children—I emphasise the word "children" —begging in our streets. It is wrong and we know that it is wrong. It is unnecessary and comes about as a result of an incompetent Government who do not know one end of the housing market from the other.

9.52 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Christopher Chope)