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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 403: debated on Monday 10 March 2003

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Education And Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

School Funding (Hendon)


If he will make a statement about the funding of schools in Hendon in 2003–04. [108240]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Stephen Twigg)

According to our latest information, the London borough of Barnet has increased its schools budget by 11 per cent. or £17 million. However, it has increased its individual schools budget—that is, the funding that the education authority passes to schools for them to spend as they consider fit—by only 7.8 per cent. or £10.5 million.

I remind my hon. Friend that he required Barnet to passport £14.5 million—double what we received in grant. After a 24 per cent. tax increase and £11 million of cuts, the council is still £1 million light. However, the standards fund changes are the real culprit.

Our schools are £5.6 million short of what they need simply to stand still. Copthall school, a high-performing comprehensive that my hon. Friend recently visited, is losing four teachers and cannot afford the new books for the changed GCSE syllabus. More than half the infant and primary schools are receiving an increase of less than 3.2 per cent. net. Parkfield school is receiving a zero increase; Mathilda Marks Kennedy school is actually losing 1 per cent. in cash terms. There is no prospect—

My hon. Friend makes his point effectively. I pay tribute to his efforts to draw attention to the situation of Barnet schools. We recognize the difficulties that some face. In my original answer, I highlighted the fact that there is a considerable gap between the healthy 11 per cent. increase in the overall schools budget and the amount that is getting through to schools, and we believe that Barnet should deal with that. My hon. Friend has drawn to our attention the enormous variations in the figures for different schools. We encourage the local authority to examine its formula and find ways to support some of the schools that are doing the least well.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) rightly blames the Government in connection with the changes to the standards fund, but he did not mention the increased burden of employers' national insurance costs and teachers' pension contributions. This morning, a Barnet head told me:

"It's breaking my heart. We've got a good school here, but we are struggling to find a penny. We are looking at at least three redundancies."
What does the Minister have to say to frustrated heads, teachers and parents who are paying massive tax increases but see their schools being cut to the bone?

It is absurd of the hon. Gentleman to speak of schools being cut to the bone. Changes have been made to the local government funding formula and the standards fund. We have been able to assist several authorities that fell below the 3.2 per cent. threshold, but, unfortunately, Barnet did not fall into that category. However, at an earlier stage, when we agreed to implement the outcome of the School Teachers Review Body process, we acknowledged that the healthy increase in teachers' pay in London, especially in inner London, but in outer London as well, was one that we wanted to support. That is why Barnet received £579,000 from the London budget support grant to enable it to pay the extra money to teachers in those schools. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that that has assisted the schools, but we need to do more, which is why I shall continue to work with the borough and with colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), to ensure the best deal for Barnet schools in future.

Specialist Schools


If he will make a statement on the performance of specialist schools. [108241]

On 1 April, the Specialist Schools Trust published its excellent latest analysis by Professor David Jesson of York university. I shall place a copy in the Library of the House of Commons. The document presents an analysis of educational outcomes and value added by specialist schools in recent years; it contains a wealth of data and I commend it to the House. To draw out one particular set of statistics: 54.1 per cent. of pupils in non-selective specialist schools achieve five or more GCSE A* to C grades, compared with 46.7 per cent. of pupils in other non-selective schools. That represents a 3 percentage point improvement in specialist schools over the previous year, compared with a 2 percentage point improvement in other schools.

I welcome the clear benefits that specialist schools provide for pupils, but what about schools in challenging circumstances that would dearly like to become specialist schools, but are struggling both because they have difficulty raising the finance and because they lack the support needed to develop plans that will secure the improvements so evident in specialist schools? What help can such schools receive?

My hon. Friend is right. There are several sources of support. The first is the local education authority: as she knows, the director of education and the authority in Sheffield are giving Sheffield schools substantial support to become specialist schools. The second source is the wide variety of work carried out by the Specialist Schools Trust, which is generally welcomed by schools. One aspect of that support is access to a fund to help schools that are not able to raise the £50,000 by their own efforts. Money is made available to replace that as things move forward. There is substantial help and I want to encourage all schools in the country to seek specialist status.

I happily endorse the support for specialist schools of the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn). Indeed, I congratulate the hon. Lady on being one of two Labour Members who voted with the Opposition against the ten-minute Bill that was introduced by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) to reduce the powers of specialist schools, when 135 Labour and Liberal Democrat Members were on the other side. Why does the Secretary of State think that he has visibly failed to convince his own party of the merits of specialist schools?

I read the debate on the ten-minute Bill with interest. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) made an articulate speech in moving the Bill, which I am studying carefully. As my hon. Friend said in that debate, he is not opposing specialist schools, but arguing for change in the specialist school regime, which he personally favours. That is a legitimate and positive debate to have, and throughout my party we think that specialist schools play a major role in improving educational standards, and we shall support them strongly.

The Secretary of State should be aware that while we on the Opposition Benches were prepared to vote for specialist schools, for the Government's own policy, the Minister for School Standards abstained, refusing to vote for the Government's policy. Will the right hon. Gentleman now acknowledge that one of the attractions of specialist school status is the extra money that is available? Will he admit that this year's settlement has left schools throughout the country, in Labour areas as well as Conservative ones, angry and disappointed at the cuts and redundancies that they are facing? As he has heard already this morning, this has made head teachers and teachers desperate for any extra money because they have been so badly let down by this Government.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the parliamentary convention is that Ministers do not vote on ten—minute Bills. However, they listen carefully to the debate and take account of what is said.

Specialist schools make a major difference in raising educational standards. That is why we support them, and that is set out clearly in the proposals. That is why many of my colleagues are encouraging schools in their localities to be specialist schools. That is the right way to go. It is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the principal motive for schools becoming specialist schools is financial. I do not think that that is the case. The principal motive is the ethos of specialism, which we published a few weeks ago.

Regardless of the merits of my Specialist Schools (Selection by Aptitude) Bill, may I tell my right hon. Friend about the achievements of Derby high school in my constituency, which became the first school in the country to become a joint arts and science specialist school? Does he not think that this is an interesting development? Will he encourage more schools to apply for joint specialisms? Would not that be a particularly useful way forward for schools in rural areas?

My hon. Friend's suggestion is entirely correct. As I think he would acknowledge, and as the Select Committee will acknowledge, the proposals that we put forward in "A New Specialist System" encouraged precisely that mix of specialisms that will achieve the sort of quality that my hon. Friend has referred to, both in rural areas and elsewhere. We are developing a creative collaborative approach to specialism, which is the right way forward.

What would the Secretary of State say to a local business man in my constituency who supported specialist status for his local school and then received begging letters from the Specialist Schools Trust and other Government quangos, which he described as Government propaganda paid for by taxpayers? Is it right that people who have worked hard to support their local school should receive begging letters from Government bodies?

That is a facile point. We had an excellent reception, just before Christmas, of specialist schools and sponsors from a wide variety of different schools throughout the country, all of whom were extremely positive about the approach. Many sponsors were looking for additional means by which they could support education in this way. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's constituent school was present at that event, but I expect that it was. However, most sponsors—I cannot speak for the one that he mentions—are positive about the support that they give and often seek to give further support to other schools.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) mentioned, the process of becoming a specialist school is time-consuming and difficult. The seven secondary schools in Stevenage have banded together and put in a joint application. What measures is my right hon. Friend's Department taking to encourage schools in suitable localities to do the same?

We are giving guidance to local education authorities to encourage that kind of thing, but I would add one important point: the process of becoming a specialist school is now entirely about one question—the ability to achieve the quality standard necessary to become a specialist school. We will be rigorous about that, but we removed before Christmas the competitive element between schools which meant that, although a school had done the work that my hon. Friend referred to and passed the quality test, it could fail a test against somebody else. All schools that do the work and pass the quality standard will get specialist status, which is a significant difference both for individual schools and the collaborative framework to which my hon. Friend referred.

Sex Education


What measures he is taking to improve sex education in schools. [108243]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Stephen Twigg)

From April 2003, there will be a professional development programme for teachers of personal, social and health education which includes a specialist module for sex and relationship education. Up to 750 teachers will participate this year. Those awarded qualified teacher status must now demonstrate that they are familiar with the framework for PSHE, including sex and relationship education.

It is probably safe to assume that a geography teacher is best placed to teach geography and a maths teacher best placed to teach maths. I welcome the announcement, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is probably not ideal that maths and geography teachers among others should teach sex and relationship education? Will he therefore go a step further and develop a programme in which trained specialist teachers deal purely with sex and relationship education and can deal with all aspects of sexuality and relationships in light of the increasing incidence of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases? Will he also make sure that children at school have good access to information sites on the internet, the use of which is often banned by other programmes?

I shall not he tempted down the path of responding to the opening part of the hon. Lady's question. That would guarantee me a place in the parliamentary sketches tomorrow, so it is probably best not to.

The hon. Lady takes a close interest in these issues. I had an opportunity, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears), to appear before the Select Committee on Health as part of its inquiry into sexual health. The response that I have given today demonstrates the seriousness with which we are taking the need for full training and professional development for teachers in our schools. The hon. Lady raised the specific issue of access to the internet, a matter on which I have responded to the Select Committee. Schools clearly want to be able to block access to inappropriate sites on the internet, but if material can be of assistance to sex and relationship education programmes we very much want schools to make that available via the internet. Those decisions are clearly best made at school level, but I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in encouraging all schools to take up responsible sex and relationship education.

Does my hon. Friend accept that some of the most important skills in that area are parenting skills? Many will benefit immensely, when they have children of their own, if we ensure that they have the full advantages of education. The best teacher is not necessarily the one in the classroom—it is the one at home. Particularly in a deprived area such as my own, proper parental support for youngsters at school is probably the most important skill, even above numeracy and literacy.

My hon. Friend is right. Parental involvement in the delivery of sex and relationship education is clearly crucial. Our citizenship programme and the inclusion of citizenship in the core curriculum in secondary schools can play a part in parenting education for future parents—people who are now students in our schools. However, we need to look at other ways of engaging with parents. The Connexions programme is one way in which that can be delivered, but I am certainly keen to learn of other positive examples so that we can ensure that parenting education is as effective as possible.

Statistics demonstrate that some of the work that is going on, particularly when health and education professionals work together, is already having a positive impact. The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) referred to the high levels of teenage pregnancy in this country, which is of great concern, but it is welcome that the latest statistics demonstrate that there has been a 10 per cent. fall in the number of under-18 conceptions over the past three years, and I hope that our policies will enable that trend to continue.

Skills Strategy


How many further education colleges he and other Ministers in his Department will visit between 10 April and the publication of the skills strategy to discuss the strategy. [108244]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

Ministers visit colleges on a regular basis. All local learning and skills councils will have discussions with colleges and other providers on the forthcoming skills strategy during April and early May.

To help to address skills shortages, further education colleges have been invited to bid for extra learning and skills councils' moneys for additional post-19 non-basic skills courses such as plumbing. Will my hon. Friend tell the House how much extra Government money—over and above that already built into baseline provision at colleges—will be available from the Learning and Skills Council nationally as part of the skills strategy for post-19 non-basic skills courses from September? If that information is not currently available, can he tell me the date on which it will be?

One of the great challenges of the skills strategy is to define the respective contributions of the Government, the individual and the employer. Central to that will be the creation of a funding system that is sufficiently flexible to focus not only on national outcomes such as basic skills level 2 qualifications, but on specific regional skills needs and sectoral skills shortages and gaps. One of the central challenges of the strategy will be to create a more flexible financial and funding framework that will allow us to focus resources on sectors such as plumbing and joinery, in which there are serious skills shortages. The details will be published in the strategy in June.

When the Minister visits further education colleges between now and June, will he clarify the Government's thinking on the delivery mechanism for adult learning and skills? Colleges have been asked to provide three-year plans under the success for all programme, for example. Will that be the vehicle for delivery? Yesterday, the Chancellor appeared to announce that employer-led training will be the vehicle for delivery through the training tax credits. The Minister has also said that the regional development agencies and the sector skills councils will have a key role. Are the Secretary of State and his Ministers running this programme, or is it the Chancellor? What advice would the Minister give to college principals on this matter?

One of the challenges of the skills strategy is to focus on the needs of the customer. The customers in this case are the individual learners and the employers. We need a combination of interventions to create a much higher level of investment in skills in this country. This is about raising the standards of colleges and training providers generally, which is why the success for all programme is so important in terms of investment and reform. It is also about stimulating employer engagement and investment. That is being done through sector skills councils, through the use of the supply chain and through the use of intermediaries such as banks, financial advisers and others. So we need a high-quality supply side, in terms of educational institutions, but we also need to incentivise the demand side with regard to individual learners and employers. There is not a choice between the two. One of the challenges of the skills strategy is to reduce bureaucracy and create a clearer and more transparent system that small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, will be able to understand how to access far more easily than at present. The skills strategy will seek to address that.

When my hon. Friend goes about his business around the country, will he consider coming to North Yorkshire, and, specifically, the Yorkshire coast and Scarborough and Whitby? We have particular challenges in terms of the peripherality of our community, and of the delivery of these services in a rural context. We also have entrenched long-term unemployment, and it is a particular concern of mine that we are not getting to those people at the moment. I would welcome an opportunity to discuss these issues with some of those people, so that we can roll out the strategy effectively in my constituency.

It would be a pleasure to visit Scarborough on any occasion, particularly to meet my hon. Friend and his constituents. We tend to talk about skills in the context of young people doing better and of post-16 staying-on rates. We also talk about work force development in terms of adults who are already in employment. We should not forget those adults who are close to the labour market but who continue to be unemployed and find it difficult to access employment, often because of their lack of basic skills. We intend to focus our strategy in June equally on the needs of those individuals. We have record levels of employment, but we cannot be complacent about those who remain outside the labour market.

I congratulate the Minister on having produced the quintessence of the Government's approach to everything—a combination of interventions, as he called it.

Let us look briefly at the Government's record. Individual learning accounts are 50 per cent. over budget, and fraud and abuse are costing taxpayers £100 million. Then there is the folly of winding up national training organisations while only half the sector skills councils are in place. Given the harsh and entirely unmerited things that Ministers have said in the past about further education colleges, should we not look forward to the launch of the skills strategy in June less with anticipation than with dire apprehension?

When I spoke on a platform recently about skills, in the company of the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, he said that for 20 minutes he had heard the most sensible words that he had ever heard a politician utter on the subject. I said that I did not think that that would do me much good in my own party, but it did, I hope, show that the Government are taken seriously in this regard.

For the first time, we seek to produce a strategy across Government. This Department, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Work and Pensions are working together on it. We also seek to develop a strategy which genuinely, for the first time, engages with small and medium-sized enterprises. The failure to do that has historically been a major weakness in our system.

As for further education colleges, those in the sector themselves say that this is the most exciting reform and investment programme they have seen for 30 years.

Will someone teach Ministers the skill of speaking plain English without resorting to the appalling verbiage and dreadful jargon that smother good sense and do no credit to any holder of public office?

There speaks the contempt and arrogance of a party that is destined to remain in opposition for a very long time.



How many initiatives the DFES and its predecessor Department have announced since 1997 to tackle truancy. [108245]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

Since 1997 we have been working to support local education authorities with a range of measures to tackle truancy and improve school attendance. In the last year we have introduced electronic registration systems into more schools, we have co-ordinated national truancy sweeps, and we have funded behaviour improvement programmes in areas with high levels of truancy. Over the next three years, we will implement our national behaviour and attendance strategy to support schools in improving behaviour and attendance and tackling truancy.

What I actually asked was how many schemes the Government had announced. Perhaps the Minister was not there on the day when the answer was given to him, but the truth about the latest Government scheme, involving bringing parents before a magistrate, is that only four out of 10 parents turned up. The local council's principal officer for inclusion said

"It's obviously been a failure… The scheme clearly needs rethinking."
Would the Minister care to comment on that?

I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that truancy is a problem that we need to tackle, and an issue on which there ought to be national consensus. Every day 50,000 children truant, and 7.5 million school days are lost every year. Truancy leads directly to educational underperformance and street crime. What the Government are doing, for the first time, is establishing a combination of positive support and early intervention to prevent truancy and nip it in the bud when it begins. We are also ensuring that sanctions and other consequences result when parents do not fulfil their responsibility to get their children to school.

More adults than ever before are supporting teachers. We are reforming the educational welfare service. We have nationally co-ordinated truancy sweeps. We are reforming the curriculum—and yes, we are holding parents to account for the first time when they actively condone truancy. We believe that there must be a combination of support, prevention and accountability.

My hon. Friend will be aware that truancy is often related to social difficulties in areas of deprivation, and to family breakdown and the like. This puts enormous pressure on the head teachers of very large schools in such areas, in which there is a high proportion of people with social difficulties. Will my hon. Friend consider recommending the appointment of, and the provision of the necessary resources to support, specialist social workers in such schools to take that pressure off of head teachers and teachers?

There have never been more adults in our schools supporting teachers in their front-line classroom duties. Classroom assistants, learning mentors and Connexions personal advisers are there to make links to provide intensive support to individual young people, particularly those who are the most challenging within the school community. They also make links between what is happening in school and what is happening at home, and central to that is the role of Connexions, which addresses any barrier that is preventing young people from progressing within the education system, be it the curriculum, the relationship with the school, the situation at home, or the relationship with peers. There have never been more adults working as part of the school work force to focus on the needs of all children, but especially of those who are the most challenging to the education system.

Will the Minister acknowledge that court action, fixed-penalty notices, parental contracts and the like are not a great deal of help with the permanent truants, who are completely out of the control of their own parents? What estimate has he made of this hard-core group, and what specific initiatives does he have for them?

Such observations are fairly typical of the Liberal Democrats, based as they are on the principle of all rights and no responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman will recall the recent high-profile case of Mrs. Amos, who was sent to prison as a last resort because she had consistently failed to send her children to school. However, she is now the greatest advocate of our policy. She says quite openly that she sends her children to school regularly, and her family are receiving intensive levels of support. There is no doubt that, as a last resort, fines and imprisonment lead to the triggering of action that is so important in terms of finally dealing with the underlying problems that result in such children not attending school.

Pupil Performance (Kent)


What comparison he has made of pupil performance at key stage 2 in Kent with performance among (a) comparator authorities and (b) English authorities generally. [108248]

In 2002, Kent's key stage 2 results in English, maths and science were just below the national average, and were below those of similar authorities.

Is that not pretty awful? Of course, it has come about because teachers, instead of doing what they want to do in the final year of key stage 2, have to coach the 11-plus. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been reported this week in Kent newspapers as saying that he has no plans to scrap selection. Given that, as we now know, we get worse results at A-level than do non-selective areas, worse results at GCSE than do non-selective areas, a higher proportion of failing secondary schools than do non-selective areas, and, now, worse results at key stage 2 than do non-selective areas, is it not about time that we made some plans to scrap selection?

The Government do not support extension of the 11-plus, as my hon. Friend knows. However, in the end it must be for local people to make decisions about the future of school organisation in their areas. The issue must be the standards to which he refers, and I commend him for the work that he is doing to ensure that the debate is about standards and not about ideology.

Public Service Agreement Targets


If he will make a statement on progress in meeting his public service agreement targets in relation to (a) literacy, (b) numeracy and (c) truancy in schools. [108249]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Stephen Twigg)

The standards of literacy and numeracy in our primary schools are at their highest levels ever. We are committed to taking extensive action to raise standards further, and to reduce truancy to achieve the challenging targets that we have set.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for his reply. Given that the trumpeted public service agreement targets on literacy and numeracy were missed in 2002, and that the target on truancy was missed and then scrapped, why cannot the hon. Gentleman see that for the Government to fail to meet targets set by independent experts would be disappointing, but to fail to meet targets that they themselves have set requires incompetence on a truly spectacular scale?

I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should make those remarks in a week when the international reading literacy study has demonstrated that the standards achieved by 10-year-olds in this country are the third best of any country in the advanced industrialised world. That is a great tribute to the success of the national literacy strategy.

We have set very ambitions targets. Since 1997, the numbers of 11-year-olds achieving the expected level in English have risen from 63 per cent. to 75 per cent. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to join me in praising that great achievement. Yes, we did not hit the target, but we are not lowering it. We have an ambitious target of 85 per cent. of pupils achieving the expected levels in both English and maths from next year, and we aim to sustain that target through 2005 and 2006. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will support us in seeking to ensure that the vast majority of 11-year-olds reach the expected levels in English and maths.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) mentioned primary schools quite specifically. That theme is consistent with what the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the shadow Chancellor, has said. In his piece in The Guardian earlier this week, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that 25 per cent. of primary school children could not read, write or count. How does my hon. Friend feel that that compares with the 1997 figure, when 40 per cent. of primary school children were unable to reach level 4?

My hon. Friend is right. The 1997 figures show that 63 per cent. of pupils achieved that level in English, and 62 per cent. in maths. There has been a very substantial improvement. The national literacy and numeracy strategy and the hard work of teachers in our primary schools have ensured that that improvement has come about.

Is not the most common cause of truancy the fact that a pupil cannot keep up with classmates? Does the Minister agree that setting helps to raise standards and reduce truancy? Is not it therefore a cause for concern that the overwhelming majority of lessons in our secondary schools are mixed ability?

The causes of truancy are complex and varied. Different practices are adopted in different schools and areas to tackle that. The evidence on setting is mixed. There is evidence of successful setting in certain subjects at certain stages, and other evidence that shows successful mixed-ability practice. What is important is that we enable head teachers to study the evidence that is available and to make the best decision on setting and mixed ability for the children in their schools.

Higher Education White Paper


What representations he has received from students on the White Paper "The Future of Higher Education". [108250]

Our consultation on the White Paper has so far received 57 responses directly from students. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had numerous meetings with students during our visits to the universities, and as part of our regional consultations. We will publish a full report of the White Paper consultation later this summer.

Has my hon. Friend had time to look at early-day motion 994, which has now been signed by 49 hon. and right hon. Members? It is also supported by Cambridge university students' union, in my constituency. Will she consider the view that the early-day motion expresses, which is that, if extra money is required for universities, a measured increase across the board in tuition fees would be preferable to a system of top-up fees?

I have seen the early-day motion to which my hon. Friend refers, and I have considered the views that it expresses. Indeed, we considered that option when we put together the proposals in the White Paper. A number of arguments counter my hon. Friend's view of the matter, perhaps the most important being that we know that there are different returns for individuals who attend different institutions and take different subjects. At its most extreme, there is a 44 per cent. difference in average returns between graduates from institutions at the two extremes of the graduate pay scale. I put this to my hon. Friend: is it really fair to ask for an even contribution from students when graduates get an uneven return from their attendance?

Does the Minister accept that most students take the view that the replacement of grants with loans and the introduction of fees have had a devastating effect on low-income families? Would not a much better way forward be to reintroduce grants, rather that constantly expanding the number of universities? That would mean that children from poor homes had a better and more equal opportunity in education.

It is entirely because we accept that people from low-income backgrounds may be deterred from attending universities that we are proposing the changes in the White Paper. They include the reintroduction of grants for a third of the student cohort; the continuation of fee remission on the first £1,100 for students with low-income backgrounds; the abolition of the upfront fee, so that students have to repay only after they become graduates and start earning; and the continuation of no real interest being charged on the loans. That is a package of proposals that will counter the feelings of some students, particularly those with low-income backgrounds, that may deter them from attending university.

Has the Minister seen the Open university's submission on behalf of mature students? It makes the point that 50 per cent. of students are mature students and expresses concern about the White Paper's lack of emphasis on such students and, indeed, on part-time students. How does the Minister intend to respond to that?

We regularly meet the Open university—indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met its vice-chancellor only last week. I do not accept that the White Paper fails to address issues affecting mature students, and I would put two points to my hon. Friend. First, the Government's targeted support in the existing regime has been increased, which particularly helps mature students. Secondly, the White Paper contains proposals to support part-time students, introducing grants to such students for the first time ever.

School Budgets (Norfolk)


What assessment he has made of the impact of (a) the increase in national insurance contributions and (b) the new formula spending share on school budgets in Norfolk. [108251]

My Department is analysing in detail the impact of the changes in Norfolk and other local education authorities on the basis of the LEA returns now being submitted as a result of financial decisions. On Norfolk, I have discussed these matters closely with the director of education and the chief executive of the county and I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the county council's decision this week to add £500,000 to the extra £1.6 million that the Government were able to allocate recently to help schools in Norfolk.

I join the Secretary of State in welcoming the extra money allocated to Norfolk county council, but will he meet head teachers in my constituency, perhaps with me, so that he could hear directly from them the scale of the problem with this year's budget? I received a letter from a head teacher on behalf of the North Walsham cluster, which set out the position of all the schools in that cluster and pointed out how many schools were facing cuts in staff and teaching support assistance. The situation is pretty bleak, so will the right hon. Gentleman meet those teachers?

I have already met people from schools in my own constituency and my neighbouring constituency of Norwich, North. I understand that Norfolk representatives of the National Association of Head Teachers are seeking a meeting with me and I am prepared to meet them. I have also had substantial email and letter exchanges with schools, including some in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

The questions that I am putting to Norfolk county council include the following. Why is 41 per cent. of the standards fund—a total of £6.3 million—being held back from schools? Why is 1 per cent. of the individual school budget—£2.84 million received during the year—also being held back from schools? Why was the non-individual school budget increased by 29.5 per cent., which is a substantial amount, much higher than that received by many other authorities?

The hon. Gentleman may join me in considering why the Norfolk formula allocation has such wide variations in budget share per pupil—for primary schools, the lowest is an 18 per cent. decrease, while the highest is an increase of 95 per cent. The upper quartile primary schools have had embedded increases of an average of 16 per cent., with the lowest quartile receiving only 7 per cent. Those are sharp differentials. The county council does not have a system of floors and ceilings, which it should have, as we do in the country as a whole. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in asking the county to explain itself on those matters.

May I express similar concerns to those of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)? I have done a survey of schools in my area and many are in exactly the same position with a shortfall in funding, perhaps requiring redundancies. They also welcome the Government's massive investment in education and the extra £1.6 million, which will go a long way. I also congratulate Norfolk county council on adding the extra £500,000. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging the Norfolk local education authority to put all that extra money in the schools that are facing difficulties, redundancies and staff cuts, thereby ensuring that there are no redundancies this year and, I hope, for the foreseeable future?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and, like him and the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), I acknowledge the concerns of schools. However, the wide variations in the figures between schools are extremely striking. We have to understand why that is, because the budget for each individual school is affected by a combination of the Government's allocation to the LEA, the council tax increase, and the county council's formula for allocating money. We are analysing those factors carefully and I will report back to colleagues in Norfolk.

Individual Learning Accounts


If he will make a statement on individual learning accounts. [108252]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

We have acknowledged the serious mistakes that were made in the design and delivery of the individual learning accounts scheme. The hard lessons learned will inform the development of a successor scheme.

Despite the terrible rip-offs that bedevilled the implementation of the individual learning accounts scheme, does my hon. Friend agree that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the concept? Does he agree that unions such as the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—and I declare an interest as a member—instituted remarkably successful partnership schemes that exceeded what the Government had envisaged? What will the Government do to enable unions such as USDAW, and the TUC, to push the programme further and do vital work for many workers who have never been involved in education since leaving school?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the principles that underpinned the individual learning accounts scheme were absolutely right; ILAs were successful in getting non-traditional learners back into learning and in giving purchasing power to learners so that they could choose the learning that was most relevant to their needs. Singularly successful in that process was the role of intermediaries such as trade unions and grass-roots community-based voluntary organisations, which were able to influence learners who, in the past, had found education an entirely negative experience. When we announce the details of the successor scheme in June, as part of the skills strategy, we will seek to ensure that we uphold the original principles, which are as true now as they were before.

Sex Education


If he will undertake a review of the publications that will be eligible for use in sex education in schools should section 28 be repealed; and if he will make a statement. [108253]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Stephen Twigg)

Head teachers and governors make decisions about materials that are used in schools. They must ensure that materials used for sex education are in accordance with the personal, social and health education framework and the law, and that inappropriate materials are kept out of the classroom. Legally, section 28 has no bearing on what is taught in schools, so a review of publications is unnecessary.

The Minister will, I am sure, be aware of the nature of some of the publications in circulation, which contain a lot of lurid information that will do nothing to deter pupils from becoming sexually active before they are physically or emotionally mature. Parents, governors and teachers in my constituency would welcome being involved in a review of the appropriateness of any publications that may become available in schools should section 28 be repealed.

Such matters are best left to the school and to the professional judgment of teachers in conjunction with governors—who, of course, have a duty in law to consult parents. It is very important that parents be consulted by schools when sex education policies are being considered. I do not believe that there is widespread evidence of the sort of abuse that the hon. Lady has described, although I am always willing to look into it. However, the framework that we put in place through the Learning and Skills Act 2000 provides a robust basis for the right kind of sex and relationships education for our children in schools.

School Budgets (South-West)


What assessment he has made of the impact of the increase in national insurance contributions and the new formula spending share on school budgets in the south-west. [108254]

In 2003–04, the national increase in funding is sufficient to cover the pressures that authorities face, including national insurance. However, we appreciate that, for some authorities, low education formula funding increases, coupled with reductions in the standards fund grant, are likely to result in lower budget increases for schools. In the light of representations about that, we have announced an additional grant of £28 million, including £1.2 million for south-west schools.

The Minister will be aware that Poole unitary authority is now the 145th worst funded education authority in the country. Schools face the cuts that he describes, so what action will he take to ensure that improvements in school standards are sustained in Poole and in all other hard-hit authorities across the south-west?

I am, of course, committed to raising school standards in Poole, as elsewhere. I thought that the hon. Lady was about to congratulate the Government on the 29 per cent. increase in funding for, schools in Poole since 1997 and on the £13 million capital programme that will go into action this year. We hope to move to a system of three-year budgets and I encourage the local authority to work closely with schools to ensure that money is getting through to the front line.

How will school budgets in the south-west, and in nearby authorities such as the Isle of Wight, be assisted by the Chancellor's steps to end national pay bargaining announced yesterday?

The Chancellor made himself clear yesterday when he set out a careful approach to public sector and other pay. The Government have already taken steps to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility in the education system, including the recruitment and retention allowances that are available locally. They introduce much-needed flexibility to the system.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Rape Convictions


If she will make a statement on recent trends in the number of convictions for rape. [108261]

Recent trends show an increase in the number of convictions for rape, but a fall in the percentage of reported rapes that result in a conviction. Of all the serious offences of violence, rape is least likely to be reported, least likely to be prosecuted and least likely to result in a conviction. The Government and the voluntary sector are working with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts to improve both law and practice to ensure that rapists are brought to justice.

I welcome that reply. A number of people in the criminal justice system believe that rape conviction rates would rise dramatically if every initial police interview was video-recorded. Does the Solicitor-General agree with that view and will she take steps to initiate a more thorough approach to ensure that such initial interviews are video-recorded so that juries see the reality of the impact of those violent crimes on the victims?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Some police forces routinely video-record the initial complaint when the victim comes in. They do that so that she can say it once off and they put the statement together afterwards, without having to go through it slowly, stopping and starting, thereby increasing the ordeal. The question then is whether that practice can be spread to all police forces, so that all complainants have those facilities. Secondly, what is done with those video recordings? Can they be used in court as evidence to show how the victim was when she first reported the incident? She might look cool as a cucumber when she actually gives evidence, but the video recording made when she first complained might show her dishevelled and distressed. There are issues about the admissibility of evidence and they are being looked at by the police, the prosecutors and the courts, together with me and my colleagues in the Home Office.

Although we congratulate the Government and support them on anything that they do to enable the successful prosecution of rape offences, will the Solicitor-General give some thought to charges against men that are made erroneously? Can the reporting of cases be not allowed unless there is a guilty verdict?

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the anonymity of a defendant on the basis that there is a great deal of prejudice against them if allegations are aired in court, in public. The victim is, of course, anonymous but the defendant's name is in the papers. The question relates to whether an acquittal would expunge all that prejudice or whether it would hang around. The issue is important. As regards openness in court proceedings, the fundamental principle is that, if at all possible, everything should be done in public and everything should be on the record: justice should not only be done but should be seen to be done. The exception for victims of sexual offences was introduced by the House, because victims were not prepared to come forward. An exception was made to the normal rule that everything is public only because otherwise victims would not report. Defendants do not have the luxury of not coming forward—they have to come forward—so the issue of deterring them does not arise, and the normal rule that everything should be in public, unless there are exceptional reasons, should prevail. There are no plans to give defendants anonymity.

Race Hate Crimes


If she will make a statement on the policy of the Crown Prosecution Service towards the prosecution of alleged race hate crimes. [108263]

The Crown Prosecution Service reviews all allegations of inciting racial hatred in accordance with the code for Crown prosecutors. All cases are considered individually on their merits. However, when considering the public interest test, the code for Crown prosecutors specifically states that a prosecution is likely to be needed in the public interest if the offence was motivated by any form of discrimination against the victim's ethnic or national origin. All such prosecutions are dealt with by specialist prosecutors in the casework directorate in CPS headquarters.

Can my hon. Friend say why extremists such as Abu Hamza, who regularly on our televisions and in our newspapers spews out vitriol inciting hatred and violence towards Jews, Hindus, Americans and many other people, cannot be prosecuted? Surely those racist attacks that are visibly coming from his own mouth are evidence enough for a case of inciting race hatred.

Offences of inciting racial hatred and offences against the person such as threats to kill are prosecuted. Indeed, the Crown Prosecution Service recently reported that in the past year there has been a 20 per cent. increase in the number of defendants dealt with by the CPS for offences involving race hatred. That is against a background of a 28 per cent. increase in such defendants over the year before, and the conviction rate being kept steady at 83 per cent. There is greater determination for police and prosecutors to work together to bring offenders to justice. If there is sufficient evidence to bring about a conviction, it will nearly always be in the public interest to prosecute such offences.

Given the collapse at trial of the libel action brought by the notorious revisionist historian, David Irving, against Deborah Lipstadt for her excellent book, "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory", can the right hon. and learned Lady tell the House what discussions she has had with, or what advice she has offered to, the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to its policy on the circulation of revisionist neo-Nazi material?

If material constitutes by its circulation an offence of inciting racial hatred, if there is sufficient evidence to constitute the elements of that offence, and it is brought to the Crown Prosecution Service by the police or anybody else, it will consider whether to bring a prosecution under the code for Crown prosecutors. If the hon. Gentleman would like to bring forward evidence, the Attorney-General and I will undertake to look at it. We consider very seriously any cases that are brought to us by hon. Members, as we do those that are brought to us by members of the public and others.

Prosecution Policy (Financial Institutions)


What monitoring role she performs regarding decisions whether to prosecute in connection with suspicious transactions reported to the authorities by financial institutions. [108264]

The Attorney-General and I superintend the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office, who are independent, and they make the decisions on whether to prosecute suspicious transactions reported by financial institutions. We regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions and the director of the Serious Fraud Office to discuss current investigations and prosecutions.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that bank reports to the authorities of suspicious transactions have rocketed in recent years, and that there were more than 50,000 such reports last year? Given that the whole country is rightly focused on depriving terrorists of their funds, stopping money laundering and denying smugglers the proceeds of their trade in human beings, drugs and alcohol and tobacco, can my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that the prosecuting authorities are sufficiently geared up to respond to the enormous rise in the number of such suspicious transactions?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In the past, fraud has all too often been considered as a victimless white-collar offence that is not important. My hon. Friend is right to say that money laundering, drug trafficking and human trafficking are all connected with money laundering. Prosecutors across different departments have been working together on the issue, as have ministerial colleagues. My hon. Friend will know that the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which introduces a new offence of failing to disclose suspicious transactions, came into force in February this year, and that further money laundering regulations placing obligations on professionals to disclose will be introduced later this year. The international fraud business lies behind a lot of other crime, and we have to gear up our act to tackle it.

The Solicitor-General is, of course, right to concentrate on the use of anti-money-laundering and proceeds of crime legislation against terrorism and other serious crimes such as drug smuggling. Will she accept the point that I put to her ministerial colleagues in the Home Office, however, that some financial institutions have used the legislation, which has laudable intentions, to impose extra and very burdensome obligations on customers, particularly on small charities, and have sought to increase their statutory requirements by adding requests for intrusive information for their own commercial reasons? Will she agree to meet me and representatives of charities who have contacted me to look into this matter? We do not want laudable anti-terrorism legislation being misused to intrude too much into people's personal lives and personal information and to disrupt the valuable work that charities do.

Of course, I agree to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the important issues that he raises. Clearly, a balance must be struck: on the one hand, charities and small businesses do not want to be overburdened by reporting regulations, but on the other, they are often victims of fraud themselves. Fraud against small businesses and charities is an issue that they are rightly concerned about dealing with. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and to take those issues forward.

The Customs and Excise prosecution office now comes under the Solicitor-General's Department's aegis. Millions of pounds have been lost to the Exchequer in connection with the failed London City Bond and Stockade prosecutions. When will those matters be resolved finally? When they are resolved, will she make a statement to the House?

When the matters are resolved finally, I shall certainly consider how to give the House appropriate information as required on those important cases. I know that the hon. Gentleman has corresponded with and met the Attorney-General in relation to the matter, and that he takes an interest in these issues. I cannot comment further at this stage, but, clearly, we keep the issue under review.