House of Commons
Wednesday 21 November 2007
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
More than 71 per cent. of the Welsh working age population were in employment as of September. Some 1.3 million of the Welsh population are now in work, and there has been an increase in this regard of more than 6,000 in six years in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but he knows full well that whatever increase there has been in overall employment levels in Wales in the past two to three years has resulted from the enormous increase in migrant labour coming into Wales. Given that his Neath constituency has more than 6,000 people on incapacity benefit and more than 1,000 young people not in education, employment or training, when will he shake off this complacency and start taking seriously the problem of worklessness in Wales?
What is interesting about that question, which I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has asked, is that incapacity benefit levels tripled in Wales under the Conservative Government. I remember that in my constituency, and in those of hon. and right hon. Friends, people were just pushed out of mining and heavy industry—not into jobs, because they did not exist, but on to incapacity benefit, there to stay. Economic inactivity rates are now falling faster in Wales than anywhere else in the United Kingdom because of the interventionist measures that the Government have taken to give people hope and jobs for the future.
In the past 10 years, major employers such as General Dynamics UK, Axiom and Brace’s Bakery have invested in my constituency and brought new jobs. A strong economy and the fact that Wales, and Islwyn in particular, is a great place to grow one’s business have been a major factor. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must resist those, and the Conservative party in particular, who put forward policies that would deter investment in Wales?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. Indeed, the Opposition’s policies would take Wales back to the miserable economic situation of the 1980s and 1990s, when unemployment went through the roof, people were put on to incapacity benefit and the economy suffered as a result. He might have been thinking about other Opposition barriers, so I should mention the vice-president of Plaid Cymru. When she proposed last week rejecting the St. Athan defence academy training establishment, the Plaid Cymru annual conference merely noted her proposition. Is that party in favour on that issue or not?
On promoting greater employment levels, is the Secretary of State happy with the approaches taken at Jobcentre Plus, particularly to encourage people with special learning needs back to work? I am thinking of those who suffer from autistic spectrum disorders. What approaches are being employed in Jobcentre Plus to help such people back to work? Will he talk to organisations such as Autism Cymru to encourage their work further?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of autism. I have worked closely with Autism Cymru and, when Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with Autism Northern Ireland. Our approach depends on severity on the spectrum of autism. Those on the light end of the spectrum, as it were, can be helped into work, and have been by Jobcentre Plus. Those at the difficult end of the spectrum are more difficult to help, but we continually work with such organisations to try to tackle the problem and to deal with people in that situation.
The right hon. Gentleman will recall that in his alter ego as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions he told the House that
“youth unemployment has been all but eradicated”—[Official Report, 18 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 283.]
However, the Office for National Statistics labour force survey reveals that the number of young people aged 16 to 19 in Wales who are unemployed rose from 17,000 in June 1997 to 23,000 in June 2007, which is an increase of 35 per cent., and the number of those who are economically inactive rose from 50,000 to 65,000, which is an increase of 30 per cent. Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how such large increases amount to an eradication of youth unemployment? Is it simply that it does not count in Wales?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the youth unemployment figures are normally calculated on the 18 to 24 age group, and long-term youth unemployment in that group has been all but eradicated across the UK, as I have told the House previously. There is, however, a particular problem with 16 and 17-year-olds, which is why we are introducing policies to ensure that they stay on in education, training or an apprenticeship. That is the Government’s policy. It is important that we bear down on the problem to give new hope and opportunity. He should not talk about youth unemployment. There was mass youth unemployment under the Tories, and if we adopted his policies we would go back to it.
Does my right hon. Friend recall the phrase “Unemployment is a price worth paying”? What assessment has he made of the city strategy pilots in Rhyl in my constituency and the south Wales valleys to combat unemployment and the use of incapacity benefit?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his chairmanship of the city programme in Rhyl, where I saw him at work when I visited. He has brought together a range of employers, the local authority and voluntary groups in a really good strategy for tackling Rhyl’s long-standing problems of inactivity, and they are starting to make an impact. I remember the statement that unemployment was a price worth paying; I think it was made by a former Conservative Chancellor. I also remember statements from other Conservative Cabinet Ministers telling people to get on their bikes and find a job. That is what the Conservatives were saying to the people of Wales.
There are now more jobs in Wales than ever before. Some of the statistics are amazing. Wales accounts for nearly 15 per cent. of the UK’s graduate business start-ups, yet on the population base that figure should be only 5 per cent., so it shows our success in Wales.
Comprehensive Spending Review
I had constructive discussions with the Chief Secretary during the comprehensive spending review process, which delivered a higher than average settlement for Wales, giving both the Welsh Assembly Government and the Wales Office the resources to deliver on policy priorities.
The capital gains tax changes announced alongside the comprehensive spending review will be a disaster for Wales. Was not the Welsh shadow Finance Minister, Angela Burns, absolutely right to highlight the damage that will be done to the Welsh economy because 98 per cent. of firms in Wales employ fewer than 50 people?
In that case, why do we have one of the best business start-up rates anywhere in Britain? Why do we have the graduate start-up rates that I have just described? Why is the Welsh economy doing much better on exports, economic activity falls and on almost every indicator? I know the Welsh business community, because unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am a Welsh MP. He should talk to Welsh businesses; they say that the Welsh economy is performing better than they can ever recall in their business life. He should talk to them about their prospects rather than try to talk them down.
I welcome the comprehensive spending review as it pertains to Wales, especially alongside the convergence funding that will allow projects in my area to progress. As my right hon. Friend is aware, one such project, supported by the Welsh Assembly Government and Anglesey county council, is the widening of Stephenson’s Britannia bridge across the Menai straits. Will he work with the Assembly Government and the county council to make sure that the project comes to fruition, and that they draw down the correct money so that north-west Wales can enjoy prosperity in the future?
Indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that important project. I have travelled over the bridge with him from time to time when visiting the constituency he represents so well. It is important that such infrastructure projects are driven forward, especially with the help of the £3 billion-worth of European convergence funding that benefits his constituency and many others in west Wales and the valleys.
The Secretary of State knows that the Labour-Plaid Assembly Government said that the CSR has delivered the worst settlement for Wales since devolution. Over the next few months, has the right hon. Gentleman any plans to give Welsh Assembly Ministers tax-raising powers, in any shape or form, to plug the gap?
I am very pleased that the hon. Lady has asked that question. Not only do I have no power to give tax-varying powers to the Welsh Assembly Government, but the settlement, which was welcomed by the Welsh Assembly Government Finance Minister, speaking on behalf of the whole Welsh Assembly coalition Government, represents spending growth at an annual average real-terms rate of 2.4 per cent. That is higher than the UK average of 2.1 per cent. and higher than for the other devolved Administrations—Scotland is at 1.8 per cent. and Northern Ireland at 1.7 per cent. The hon. Lady should welcome that spending, especially as the Welsh budget is more than double the amount we inherited in 1997.
The Secretary of State knows that this is not my criticism, but that of his Plaid partners in Wales. I suggest that he speaks to his Cabinet colleagues and his Plaid coalition partners, because he is in fact planning to impose taxes on Welsh road users. The Local Transport Bill gives Assembly Ministers power to impose a tax on all drivers using trunk roads in Wales—power to tax Welsh lorry drivers, Welsh farmers and tourists driving in Wales. Those provisions were not in the draft Bill and have been slipped in at the last moment, probably at the request of the Plaid Transport Minister. As the Government have ruled out a national road pricing—
I regularly speak to Welsh Assembly Government Ministers, and I recommend that the hon. Lady does so too. She might then get her questions a little straighter. The truth is that they have asked for these powers—[Interruption.] Is she seeking to deny the Welsh Assembly Government the powers for which they are asking? In that case, she would be unable to see or support the building of the M4 relief road. Probably the only way that that relief road can be financed is through raising a toll, and having the power to do so. I would have thought that she would support that objective given the traffic problems in the Newport-Cardiff area of the M4, which is often brought to gridlock.
The comprehensive spending review also introduced a £1.1 billion environmental transformation fund for the consideration of new energy projects and technology. Inetec, a company in my constituency, has a wonderful new technology that would use food and packaging waste to generate electricity. It would not use anaerobic digestion, as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has proposed. Will my right hon. Friend agree to take the matter up with the Welsh Assembly Government so that that new technology for Wales can be moved forward?
I shall happily do that, and I await further details from my hon. Friend. May I take this opportunity to speak on behalf of the whole House, I hope, in saying how delighted I am to see that the Government have announced the go-ahead for the world’s largest biomass plant at Port Talbot? It will be fuelled by wood chips, and will contribute about 70 per cent. of the Welsh Assembly Government’s 2010 renewable electricity targets and involve 150 jobs. That is a very good project.
Dafydd Wigley said that the Plaid-Labour coalition’s days could be numbered due to a particularly tight comprehensive spending review, which will mean the non-delivery of “One Wales” commitments on first-time buyers, pensioners and free laptops for children. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Welsh Assembly Ministers about whether the Plaid and Labour commitments to the people of Wales can be delivered with the comprehensive spending review as it stands?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on levels of child poverty in Wales.
Mencap Cymru recently found that Welsh families with a child with a learning disability are missing out on an average of £5,000 a year in benefits. Some miss out on as much as £20,000. In addition, recent news reports suggest that £21 million devolved to the Assembly for support for disabled children has been diverted elsewhere in the budget. Given that those households with disabled children are among the poorest in Wales, what measures are the Minister and Secretary of State taking to improve support for those families and their benefit take-up levels?
Mencap and other organisations play an important role in feeding into the process by which we bring forward policy to tackle child poverty. The hon. Lady will acknowledge that when the Government came to power, 3.4 million children were living in poverty. Since 1998-99, 600,000 have been lifted out of poverty. Our strategy in the UK is to commit to halve child poverty by 2011 and to raise the bar to eradicate 60 per cent. of child poverty by 2020. Huge strides have been made. The number of children in households in the UK with incomes below the poverty line fell by 100,000 between 1998-99 and 2005-06. We are committed to eradicating child poverty, and we will continue with that objective.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the child trust fund scheme has been welcomed in Wales as a way to tackle child poverty, and that take-up in my constituency at 76.9 per cent. is higher than average. Will he find ways to encourage more parents to use the vouchers so as to raise that percentage even more?
The high level of take-up in my hon. Friend’s constituency is very good news, and she is right that we must do everything we can to encourage higher levels across Wales. The child trust fund is important, but the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), the Liberal Democrat spokesman on these matters, has said in a press release:
“The Child Trust Fund should be scrapped and the money should be used where it would really make a difference—helping youngsters”.
However, if the Liberal Democrats are serious about combating child poverty—
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the First Minister about all aspects of the Welsh economy. The Welsh Assembly and the UK Government have worked in partnership to ensure that the Welsh economy has grown rapidly to historic levels of output, with record investment.
I thank the Minister for that reply, and I am sure that he will agree that one of the best ways to tackle the twin challenges facing the Welsh economy today—economic inactivity and low skills levels—is to support the excellent work being done across Wales by many organisations. In my constituency, they include the Shaw Trust in Llandarcy, Remploy in Baglan and, in particular, the New Sandfields Aberavon development trust, whose Strides project, in partnership with Sandfields comprehensive school, has done so much to assist the skills levels of young people.
I agree entirely, and my hon. Friend is right to point out that a genuinely partnership approach is being adopted. That is why employment in Wales is at historically high levels, with 1.334 million people now in work. As a result of this Government’s policies, Wales is attracting record levels of investment, and that has led to consistent growth in employment levels. In partnership with all sorts of organisations, Wales is becoming truly world class.
Gross value added is now recognised as a key economic indicator. If the UK average is taken to be 100, Wales stands at 78 while west Wales and the valleys languish at 65, despite seven years of objective 1 funding and expenditure of £1 billion. The main reason for that is the absence of involvement by the private sector. What conversations will the Minister have with the Welsh Assembly to ensure that the private sector gets more involved with convergence funding to make it more successful than the abortive objective 1 funding?
By way of answer, let me say that incapacity benefit claims have fallen by 9 per cent. in west Wales and the valleys, and the figure for Wales as a whole is even higher. The strategies to turn the existing problem around are firmly embedded, but I agree entirely that the private sector must get involved. It is noticeable that private sector output in Wales has risen for 45 successive months, from March 2003 to October 2007, but it is true that we must also get the private sector involved with convergence funding.
One of the most significant developments in the next few years will be the St. Athan defence training academy, on which we hope that building will start in the next two years. We have already won the first package, so will the Minister do everything in his power to make sure that the Ministry of Defence understands the benefits of bringing the second package to Wales as well? That is supported by everyone on the Labour side of the House, but will he make sure it is supported by everyone on the other side as well?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The success of the academy depends very much on strong and coherent cross-party support and leadership. The massive investment in the new St. Athan defence training academy, worth billions of pounds, shows that the Government have given Wales a huge vote of confidence and is a sign of the country’s bright economic future. Thousands of jobs will be created when construction of the academy is complete, and they will come on top of the 1,500 jobs created during the construction period. We must continue to show consensus and leadership at all levels on this matter.
Can the Minister confirm that, when the Varney review on corporation tax cuts reports in the next few weeks, any tax breaks offered by the Government to businesses in Northern Ireland will also be offered to businesses in Wales?
There will be a level playing field on that issue. I reiterate the comments that have been made about St. Athan and elsewhere: we would welcome the hon. Gentleman’s help in ensuring that there is coherent, joined-up cross-party support for St. Athan.
I welcome the fact that our programmes are enabling people to come off benefits and into work, but what reassurance can the Secretary of State give that the recipients of disability living allowance who suffer from a progressive disease will not be subject to unnecessary stress by examinations under the right payment programme, as that will both cause them tremendous distress and waste staff time?
Clearly, people, possibly including my hon. Friend’s constituents in that predicament, who are severely disabled should be helped and supported on benefit and not forced into any old job, but we are changing the capability assessment under which people’s potential to work is medically assessed, to ensure that they are supported and given the maximum opportunity. More and more disabled people are working with the help of our Government’s policies, and incapacity benefit levels have fallen by 12 per cent. in her constituency as people have moved off benefits and into work.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that supporting youth projects is a key way of getting more people into work? Will he join me in condemning the Liberal-Tory alliance on Wrexham council, which is systematically targeting the poorest wards in Wrexham by closing down facilities that help young people into work?
Indeed. I am horrified by the Liberal Democrat council’s performance in Wrexham, and I hope that it will be swept out of power next May. I am delighted at Labour’s recent stunning by-election victory in Wrexham, overturning a Liberal Democrat majority of 231 in the Stansty council ward.
Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), does the Secretary of State not realise that damage will be done to tourism by allowing taxation on all vehicles that enter Wales? That is what will happen if the framework powers go ahead. Why are these actions being taken, given that there has been no proper consultation?
I do not accept anything that the hon. Gentleman has said. As I explained patiently to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), the Conservative spokesman for Wales, the truth is that the measures for which the Welsh Assembly Government are asking Westminster to grant will enable them, for example, to impose a toll like the one that has been successfully operated on the M6 from Birmingham towards Manchester, in order to fund the M4 relief road. The hon. Gentleman might know—he might not, of course—that there is severe traffic congestion in the Brynglas tunnel and elsewhere on the M4 on the stretch from the Severn bridge to Cardiff. These measures are not meant to impose nationwide tolls in Wales or anything of the kind that he suggests; they are specifically targeted to help in specific instances, including the M4 relief road.
I have made it clear to this Parliament in taking the 2006 Act through its passage that I think that that is unlikely, and I have said all along that I am in favour of calling a referendum on full law-making powers, which I support and put into the Bill, when we are likely to win it. I do not think that there is any point in calling a premature referendum, which would produce a repeat of 1979, rather than the success, albeit narrow, that we achieved in 1997. We need to build a consensus for a yes vote across all parties, and I want to be part of achieving that.
I speak regularly to ministerial colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government on the implications for Wales of the Government’s legislative programme, including the planning Bill.
The planning Bill is, in effect, undemocratic. It will take away from local people the right to cross-examine infrastructure proposals. Will the hon. Gentleman take time to discuss the matter with Assembly Ministers, who are very concerned about the way in which the Bill is going to be presented?
I disagree with the idea that the Bill will take away powers. It will implement proposals set out in the White Paper “Planning for a Sustainable Future” to streamline and improve planning. It is another Government proposal that fulfils our commitment of devolving legislative competence to the National Assembly for Wales via framework powers. The consent regime for significant infrastructure projects will respect the existing devolution settlement. The infrastructure planning commission will decide whether to grant consent for projects in Wales only if the existing consent regimes are not devolved.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Captain John McDermid of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, who was killed in Afghanistan last Wednesday, and our condolences also to the families and friends of the two service personnel who died yesterday in a helicopter crash in Iraq. We owe them and others who have lost their lives a deep debt of gratitude.
I am also sure that the whole House will wish to send our warmest congratulations to Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip on their diamond wedding anniversary yesterday. They have both devoted their lives to public service and we pay tribute to them again today.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy by the Prime Minister?
Many people in my constituency and throughout the country will have been very concerned at the announcement yesterday about the loss of millions of data records from the child benefit office. Can my right hon. Friend assure me and the House that he will take every possible step to ensure the protection of the data of our citizens, not only in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, but across Government?
I profoundly regret and apologise for the inconvenience and worries that have been caused to millions of families who receive child benefit. When mistakes happen in enforcing procedures, we have a duty to do everything that we can to protect the public. That is why bank accounts are being checked now for fraudulent activities and why the banks have agreed to look back to 18 October and beyond to check whether there have been any fraudulent activities—and there is no evidence of that happening. That is why the banking code will ensure that there are no losses suffered by anybody who receives child benefit if there is fraud in their accounts—and again there is no evidence of fraud.
It is also why we have set up the review by the chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers into the procedures that have been followed. I can also say to the House today that I have asked the Cabinet Secretary and security experts to ensure that all Departments and all agencies check their procedures for the storage and use of data. As the House may know, last month I also set up a review to be chaired by Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust and the Information Commissioner jointly, to look at the security of personal data in both the public and the private sector. They will look at the work of Government agencies and Departments. We will give the Information Commissioner the power to spot-check Departments, to do everything in his power and our power to secure the protection of data. In other words, we will do everything in our power to make sure that data are safe.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain John McDermid, who was killed in Afghanistan last Wednesday, and to the two service personnel who were killed when their RAF Puma helicopter was lost in Iraq last night. They all died serving our country.
I also join the Prime Minister in congratulating the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on their diamond jubilee. They have had a remarkable life together, and a life of public service.
Millions of people will today be worrying about the safety of their bank accounts and the security of their family details, but they will not just be worried; they will be angry that the Government have failed in their first duty—to protect the public. Does the Prime Minister think that the matter should be treated as an isolated incident, or does he believe that there is wider, systemic failure and a lack of leadership at Revenue and Customs?
It is precisely because we have to check all procedures, not just in HMRC but in all departments, that I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to conduct a review. There is also the review that will be conducted by the chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers into HMRC itself. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that there is no evidence of fraudulent activity taking place, and that this was a failure in implementing the proper procedures. It is important that he should know that the procedures that should have been followed are these: only authorised staff must be allowed access to protectively marked information; information must not be removed without appropriate authorisation; and encryption should be used whenever any information is being sent. Those were the procedures. They are in existence now, and they should have been operated.
It is all very well holding reviews, but the Government have had 10 years to sort out the department. I have to say to the Prime Minister that if a junior official in an organisation can access so much information and send it not once, not twice but three times, that is evidence of systemic failure. Last year there were more than 2,000 breaches of security at Revenue and Customs. In May this year, 8,000 families needing tax credits had their bank details revealed, and later in the year details of 15,000 taxpayers, including private pension information, were lost in the post. The Government said at the time:
“We have…reviewed our arrangements and introduced safeguards to prevent this happening in future.”
Clearly, that was completely wrong. Does the Prime Minister accept systemic failure in the department?
What I accept is that the review must look at all the procedures that are adopted by HMRC, but it must also look at other Government Departments and agencies. In relation to the case that the right hon. Gentleman is quoting—that of Standard Life—yes, a review was done, and it proposed that there be changes in both encryption and audit. The problem was that the information that was lost was lost on October 18, and the procedures that should have been followed were not followed. Let me just tell him—[Interruption.]
I think that the House should know that under the “Manual of Protective Security”, which all departments are obliged to follow, any data that are sensitive will attract a protective marking—“restricted/confidential”—and should be encrypted when in transit. There is absolutely no doubt that that is the procedure; it just was not followed, and that is what the investigation has got to look at.
But this has been going on for years. [Interruption.] Yes, let us look at what happened in September 2005, two years ago: Revenue and Customs lost vital data about savings from one of its clients, UBS. The data were stored on a CD-ROM and were not encrypted. The data went missing from a Revenue and Customs office, and what happened? Revenue and Customs claimed it was a one-off incident in a single office. That is what I call systemic failure—when procedures are not followed over and over again. HMRC was the Prime Minister’s department. He insisted that it paid child benefit, and he increased its scope. Clearly there is a problem with its security, its privacy, its culture and its leadership. Does the Prime Minister feel at all responsible for this?
The Leader of the Opposition should know that his party supported the changes that we made to HMRC. The National Audit Office reported on the changes that we brought about and said the performance of HMRC had not been adversely affected. The adjudicator for HMRC said that the changes had not had any negative impact. I have to ask the right hon. Gentleman: what if we had followed his advice at the last general election? He proposed that we cut expenditure on HMRC. His report—the James review that he put into his manifesto—said that his party should cut £660,000 million by what they called the “Rationalisation of data processing”. It was he who recommended further cuts.
I have to say that on a day when the Government have lost the details of 25 million people, to try and blame the Opposition is pathetic. What people want from their Prime Minister on a day like this is for him to stand up, show some broad shoulders, be the big man and take some responsibility. This morning his Chancellor, to give him credit, had the guts to admit that his confidence had been shaken. The Prime Minister was in charge of the Department for 10 years. By definition, that must have been when the systemic failure developed, so has his confidence been shaken?
I said right at the beginning that I apologise for what has happened. Everybody who is a recipient of child benefit should know that we will follow every proper procedure now to improve the working of HMRC and of every Government Department and agency. I have announced not only the inquiry into HMRC, but that the Cabinet Secretary will look at every Government Department and every agency. I have also announced, which is important, that we will look at the collection of private and public data. That is what the Walport review will look into. The idea that we are complacent about the matter is ridiculous. We are taking all the action that is necessary. The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of HMRC and its resources and staff. I am saying to him that the reports have shown that that is not the reason that things have gone wrong. There is no excuse for not following proper procedures.
If the Prime Minister really wants to learn some lessons, will he recognise that this appalling blunder comes at a time when the Government are planning a national identity register to draw together private and personal details of every single person in this country? Will the events of the past few days cause him to stop and think about that policy?
I have already announced the inquiries that we have set up, but let me say that 22 out of 25 European countries have identity cards. The right hon. Gentleman’s own security adviser proposes identity cards. His own reviewer of the national police force—the border force—says that he is in favour of identity cards. What we must ensure is that identity fraud is avoided, and the way to avoid identity fraud is to say that for passport information we will have the biometric support that is necessary, so that people can feel confident that their identity is protected.
People are desperately worried about the privacy of their bank account details and their personal details. They will find it truly bizarre—they will find it weird—that the Prime Minister does not want to stop and think about the dangers of a national identity register. Will people not think that he has completely lost touch with reality? He is demonstrating no common sense at all. Will they not see a Prime Minister who tries to control everything, but cannot run anything?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about running things well. For 10 years we have had the best economic policy in any part of Europe, for 10 years the lowest inflation of any decade, the lowest interest rates of any decade and the highest employment of any decade—something that he could never rival.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that all those who support his call for urgent action on the environment should also support the European reform treaty that will allow an enlarged European Union to put behind us institutional questions and instead concentrate on what really matters, including tackling climate change?
My right hon. Friend has taken a long-term interest in how we can improve our environment. There is no doubt that we cannot have environmental improvement without European co-operation. If the Conservatives want to support environmental co-operation, they should be supporting the reform treaty.
I add my condolences in respect of the servicemen and my congratulations to Her Majesty.
After the twin disasters of £25 billion of taxpayers’ money disappearing down the black hole of Northern Rock and 25 million personal records disappearing in the post, does the Prime Minister accept the wisdom of Tony Blair who said that the Treasury had become far too powerful under its previous incumbent, was no longer fit for purpose and should have been broken up?
This is a new policy from the Liberal party today. I do not know whether the new leader of the Liberal party will want to stick with the policy to break up the Treasury. If the hon. Gentleman seriously believes, as he implies, that we should not be helping Northern Rock depositors and savers, if he seriously believes that we should let Northern Rock mortgage holders go under, then I do not believe he has support in any part of the country. We have taken the right decision—initially supported, of course, by the Leader of the Opposition, who has since backed away from it—to give liquidity to Northern Rock. I hope that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) will continue to support that position.
May I point the Prime Minister to the next Treasury disaster, with the imminent publication of the report on the privatisation of QinetiQ, which I warned about in the debate 18 months ago? Was the Prime Minister not financially very naive when he agreed to the undervaluation of public assets, enabling an American private equity company to make a windfall profit of £300 million and the chief civil servant involved to make a personal fortune of £22 million?
It is very interesting that the hon. Gentleman has not moved to talk about Northern Rock again. I suppose that he is now supporting us in rescuing Northern Rock. I hope that that is a consensus.
As far as QinetiQ is concerned, we raised £800 million from the sale. QinetiQ is serving its country under its new ownership and QinetiQ is very important to the Ministry of Defence’s future procurement plans.
The proposal to raise the education leaving age to 18 over the next few years includes, for example, a young person at 16 or 17 getting a job and doing one day a week of training. I would have thought that just as there was all-party support for the Education Act 1944—the last time the education leaving age was raised by legislation—there should be all-party support for what we are doing. I regret very much that the education spokesman of the Conservative party has called raising the education leaving age to 18 “a stunt”; it is absolutely vital for the future of our country.
Just as information technology created millions of jobs in the 1990s, so environmental technologies can create millions of jobs across Europe and the world over the next few years. That is why the joint public-private energy technologies institute, now funded to the tune of £800 million—half of that from the private sector—is absolutely vital in giving us a world lead in the new products and processes. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend’s constituency and many universities around the country are going to benefit from participation in this. It is an example of public money being used for a public purpose, working with the private sector to create new industries and new jobs.
We know from the statement made by the head of MI5 that we are dealing with a small but important group of young terrorists who are operating in cells, and we know that there are distinct links in our country with the Asian sub-continent; that is one of the reasons why the numbers in Britain are so high. However, we also know that the measures that we announced last week, not only to win the battle of hearts and minds but to isolate extremists, are the right way forward. The right hon. Gentleman should agree with me that we are making substantial advances in persuading young people that this is not the right way forward and in isolating these terrorist extremists in our country, and we will continue to fight the battle against terrorism.
I believe that all sections of the House will want to support the Annapolis talks, which start in the next few days. It is very important to say that the Annapolis talks are part of a framework over the next few months, whereby we then have a donors conference in December and, I hope, build on that with our proposals for greater economic security and support for the Palestinian people. Last week, I announced a $500 million advance from Britain, if we can solve the security problems, to provide jobs for the Palestinian people. I have now talked to other world leaders and they will be prepared to support this fund if we can make progress on security. My hon. Friend rightly says that the levels of poverty and unemployment are intolerable in Gaza and the west bank, and we are ready to do what we can to help people in those areas.
The Prime Minister rightly paid tribute to the servicemen killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two men killed in Iraq were possibly in a Puma helicopter that was older than some of the personnel it was carrying. When will the Chinook helicopters ordered by the previous Conservative Government for use by our special forces be delivered for use by our special forces?
I do not think, despite the tragedy yesterday, that anybody should jump to any conclusions about what has happened. A full investigation should and will take place. I want to pay tribute to the courage, dedication and service of the men who have died.
As for equipment, we have ordered more helicopters; more helicopters are there on the ground; and we have the biggest defence programme of capital investment over the next 10 years of any Government at any time.
My hon. Friend knows his constituency very well. Nineteen schools are being rebuilt in Stoke-on-Trent, and 111 additional classrooms are being refurbished. He is absolutely right: under the building schools for the future programme we have committed to the refurbishment of thousands of schools, primary and secondary, around the country. It would be unfortunate if the Conservative plans announced yesterday were to disrupt a programme whereby people are expecting new schools and new classrooms in the next few years.
I do not know why the Prime Minister was smiling a moment ago about HMRC. There are 25 million people who do not think that it is funny at all. Can he explain why the accounts of HMRC have been qualified for the past four years?
That has happened on many occasions. I just have to read to the hon. Gentleman from this report. The National Audit Office said that HMRC’s performance has not been adversely affected, and that in some areas performance had improved substantially. It added that the adjudicator for HMRC had said that the changes that we brought about in the HMRC had had no negative impact on its customers. HMRC is working as a new unit.
It is not only a consultation; I invite him to meet the Minister responsible for Post Office matters at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to talk about those issues. The fact is that we are putting £1.7 billion into helping the Post Office network. It is true that many post offices are not widely used at all. In some cases, there is single-figure use during the course of one day. There will be a proper consultation and my hon. Friend’s local residents will have the chance to have their voices heard.
The first announcement in Brussels last spring was that the constitutional project had been abandoned. There is no constitutional treaty; it is an amending treaty. We won all our red lines and secured all the agreements that we won. That is why the question for the Conservative party is now whether it will support a referendum, even after ratification.
Is the Prime Minister aware that when the Department for Work and Pensions ran child benefit, it did a full audit on 20,000 names? When it was passed to the Inland Revenue, that was cut to 2,000 names, which is why the National Audit Office had to check its figures. Is he further aware that those protocols were agreed at a high level in March between the NAO and the Inland Revenue, and when the NAO asked for narrow details—not people’s personal bank accounts—the Revenue said that to disaggregate that information would be too burdensome for the organisation? Those decisions were, therefore, taken at a high level. Is that not the image of a department that has had too much work loaded on it at the same time as it is cutting staff?
The hon. Gentleman raises a point that will be the subject of the investigation. I have to tell him that there is a dispute about what the NAO and HMRC said to each other about these particular data, but the important part of the inquiry is that it will reveal the truth of what happened.
They are often opposed by local people, then imposed by planning inspectors implementing Government targets for renewable energy. If the Prime Minister is serious about climate change, will he urgently restart Britain’s nuclear programme and stop industrialising the uplands of Britain with wind farms that are ugly, inefficient and unreliable?
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A week ago, the Prime Minister guaranteed in the House that copies of the successful bids for £6 million to prevent extremism would be placed in the Library. A week later, those documents are not in the Library, which has received a message from Downing street saying that there is no timetable for their delivery. What can you do, Mr. Speaker, to ensure that the Prime Minister’s pledge to the House is honoured and that scrutiny of that £6 million by right hon. and hon. Members is allowed to proceed? After all, we do not want any further financial problems, do we?
I will look at the record in Hansard. If the words spoken by the Prime Minister are exactly as the hon. Gentleman says, and I have no reason to doubt that they are, I would expect a promise made by a Minister on the Floor of the House—whether by the Prime Minister or any other Minister—to be carried out. Let me look at Hansard, and I will get back to him. If it is as he says, and a Minister has made a pledge on scrutiny in the House, I will see to it that those documents are placed in the Library.
[1st allotted day]
We now come to the first debate on the Opposition motions. I inform the House that in each debate I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. Under the powers that have been given to me, the speeches of both Front-Bench spokesmen, and the spokesman of the third-largest political party represented in the House, will be restricted to 20 minutes.
I beg to move,
That this House expresses its concern over recent reports that the Government is retreating on the Academies programme and calls on the Secretary of State to restore the freedom of Academies to operate outside the National Curriculum, to take steps to liberate them further from local authority control, and to recognise that Academies should act as a spur and encouragement to local authorities by pioneering innovative new approaches to helping the most disadvantaged; and further believes that the Academies programme should be expanded and accelerated with not only more Academies but also greater freedoms for new providers who wish to open all-ability schools in the state sector.
First, may I say what a pleasure it is to see the Secretary of State in his place today? Some of us imagined that after the events of the past 24 hours he might well have enjoyed a rapid promotion back to the Treasury, where he would sit at the right hand of the Gord. We will probably have to wait a few weeks before that miraculous assumption happens.
Talking of biblical themes, my mission today is to adapt the words of St. Francis of Assisi and see whether, where there is discord, we can bring harmony. I refer, of course, to the need to heal the breach in the Labour party on education and bring the Secretary of State back into line and on to the side of real reform. One of the most worrying aspects of the Secretary of State’s tenure is a crab-like inching away from the proper reform programme, which began under Tony Blair. In recent weeks, that process has taken on the aspect of a full-scale invertebrate retreat.
It was all so different only two years ago. In those days, the Government had a reputation for competence, and the Secretary of State was only a Back Bencher. The two may or may not be related. Only two years ago, the country was led by a Prime Minister who, whatever his defects, knew where he wanted to take the country. Now, we are led by a Prime Minister who, because of his defects, dare not even go to the country. Only two years ago, there was an emerging consensus on the need for the Government to promote a public sector reform vision, driven by greater pluralism, diversity and choice. Now, there is a growing consensus that the Government do not have a vision and that they are paralysed by cronyism, incompetence and weakness.
Nowhere has that abandonment of a progressive vision been more worrying than in education. On many occasions, the Secretary of State has revealed his anti-reform instincts. I shall run through them shortly. However, there is still time—and hope, in my breast, at least, if not on the Labour Back Benches, that he may yet come good.
I know that some of my hon. Friends doubt that, but I am a generous soul and I like to think that a young lad could rise to the occasion, on this day at least. I hope that he will take the opportunity that the debate presents to repent of his errors or, at the very least, to turn over a new leaf and make clear his commitment to reform.
May I test the hon. Gentleman on his commitment to turning over a new leaf? If he became Secretary of State, would he give permission to a Conservative local authority, such as Buckinghamshire, that presented proposals for a new grammar school?
It is normally the Labour party that raises grammar schools when it wants to divert attention from the divisions in its ranks. However, I can understand, given what is happening to the hon. Gentleman’s candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats—the so-called “Calamity Clegg”—why he wants to divert attention.
I apologise for drawing attention to the divisions in the Liberal Democrat party in that way. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) invites me to talk about our policy—it is the same as it has always been. In those areas that retain the 11-plus, demographic change may mean that additional provision is needed, but we are not in favour of restoring it. In that respect at least, there is a measure of consensus in the House, although it may sometimes be broken by the aggressive instincts of the Minister for Schools and Learners when he is anxious to assert his pit bull characteristics.
Not at this stage, but I will give way later.
Speaking of pit bull characteristics, the hon. Gentleman inevitably tries to intervene because he wants to acquire a reputation as the Rottweiler of the Back Benches. I am afraid that he must stay in his kennel for another couple of minutes. [Hon. Members: “Down boy.”] Indeed.
My purpose, in spelling out some of the matters on which the Government have slipped back in the reform agenda and pointing out ways in which they can fruitfully take matters forward, is constructive. I want the Secretary of State to realise that his tenure will be wasted if he listens to the reactionary voices in his party urging him to give producer interests and the complacent establishment a chance. I want to give him the chance to deploy his intellectual gifts, which are still there, and the powers of his office in the service of reform, which will make opportunity more equal and help the disadvantaged most. My challenge to him is to be a moderniser.
Two years ago, there was a modernising consensus in the House of Commons. It drove the Education and Inspections Bill through and put it on the statute book, thanks to Conservative Members’ votes. The current Secretary of State was deeply unhappy with that at the time, as he told the New Statesman. However, that consensus was built on a powerful set of insights. Improvements in education had to be driven by not only a relentless focus on standards but a proper reform of structures.
In 2005, when the Blair Government published their education White Paper, the then Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State argued for greater pluralism and diversity in schools. They anticipated the development of fully independent schools in the state system. They hoped that local education authorities would play a progressively smaller role. They hoped that all new state schools would be created outside local authority embrace, and cited Florida and Sweden as exemplars. They looked at those states that had enacted thoroughgoing supply side reform with greater parental choice as their models. Schools outside local authority control, such as academies, would act as a goad and a spur to improvement. They would utilise their freedoms to pioneer new ways of doing things. They would also provide parents with a new choice: to take children out of failing schools and place them in more successful ones.
The hon. Gentleman talks about parental choice, but what he would say to the Conservatives in Warrington, who, along with the Liberal Democrats, are closing Woolston high school, contrary to parents’ wishes, while refusing to conduct a review of other schools in the borough? What is his message to his friends who are closing a vastly improved school, contrary to the wishes of people in the area?
My message to them is that I sympathise with them, because of the surplus places rule and the funding arrangements, both of which were put in place by the Government. If they campaign on Conservative proposals for greater choice and control, they will have a Conservative MP in Warrington, as part of a Conservative Government delivering for parents. There is powerful evidence—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is delivering his speech with his customary wit and charm—well worth the £1,000 a week that The Times pays him for pontificating on its pages. If he were to come to Chapel-en-le-Frith in my constituency, he would see a new high school and a new infant school, both of which have been built to replace schools that the previous Tory Government did not replace, even though they were completely derelict. Those schools were built as part of a plan to address the capital replacement needs of schools—a plan that his party has abandoned this week. Is that not completely irresponsible and reckless of him?
I will tell the hon. Gentleman what is completely irresponsible and reckless: making an intervention without studying the facts. I am afraid that he is completely wrong in his idea that we would abandon the building schools for the future programme. He must insist that the Government Whips Office supplies him with better questions. I like the hon. Gentleman and I enjoy his interventions, but quality needs to rise. I would like to see greater competition from his colleagues, so that he can feel involved and give us better interventions, and we can all benefit.
There is already powerful evidence that choice and competition work. In Hackney, the presence of new academies, such as Mossbourne community academy, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and I were privileged to visit yesterday, has driven up standards, not just for those who attend them, but for all schools. In Sweden, where a more thoroughgoing process of opening up the supply side has taken place, there is a direct correlation between the number of new independent schools in the state sector in a municipality and improvement in standards overall.
Reform brings results. But the question everyone is asking is: does the Secretary of State believe in real reform? There are several reasons why we fear that he does not. The first is the Secretary of State’s complete failure so far to make the case that choice, competition and contestability drive up standards. Professor Julian Le Grand, the then Prime Minister’s senior policy adviser between 2003 and 2005, has written thousands of eloquent words making the case for choice. The preface to the 2005 education White Paper made the case. The co-ordinator of the 2005 general election victory, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), has made the case. He said:
“As a parent I don’t want power in the hands of either councils or schools…I want it in my hands. This is the new political agenda.”
The idea of extending choice to individuals in how they receive public services is more than consumerism. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there is
“a compelling social justice case for doing so. For too long those who can afford it have been able to buy choice over health and education. Those without, do without…State control has not guaranteed equality of outcome…School choice programmes in Sweden, Denmark and the USA…show a beneficial impact on performance across schools as a whole.”
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s every word, but words such as those have not yet crossed the Secretary of State’s lips. Unlike the right hon. Member for Darlington, he has not had the courage to take on the reactionaries in his party, the unions and the establishment, and make the liberal, modernising case. Today he can. We look forward to hearing it. If he fails to make that case, we and the world will draw the appropriate conclusion—that he lacks the bottle to fight for reform.
A bigger problem than the Secretary of State’s failure to make the case for choice, contestability and competition is the way in which his actions have spoken louder than his words, and the way in which he has diluted essential elements of the academy programme. This brings me to the second test that he is failing. He must ensure that academies are free from bureaucracy so that they can perform the functions that they were designed to achieve.
I do not like to disagree with my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, but I wonder whether he is being too kind in saying that the Secretary of State lacks the bottle for reform. Looking back over the 10 years of this Labour Government, was it not the Secretary of State’s master, the current Prime Minister, who at every stage opposed the reforms of the previous Prime Minister and prevented the excellence from spreading much more widely?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he makes a powerful case. We happy licence fee payers who were fortunate enough to watch “The Blair Years” on Sunday evening will have seen witness after witness testifying to the way in which the then Chancellor and his aides, supporters and advisers were thwarting the Blairite reform agenda at every turn. But my mum taught me in Sunday school that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, and I believe that, even at this late hour, there is an opportunity for the Secretary of State to embrace the reform agenda. He is intelligent enough to follow the logic; I hope that he is honest enough to recognise that now is the time for real change.
I will not give way at this stage.
I want to elucidate one of the areas in which the Secretary of State has so far failed the test. His first act as Secretary of State was to limit the freedom of academies. Under him, academies were stripped of the right to shape their own curriculum and compelled to follow the national curriculum. They were also told that they would have to fall in line with local authority control. Rather than acting as a competitive force outside town hall control and levering up standards, they were to fall under the sway of bureaucrats.
We have already seen how Labour local authorities have succeeded in thwarting new academies in areas where educational provision is weak and the system desperately needs new providers. In Tower Hamlets, where Goldman Sachs wanted to set up an academy, the local authority said, “No, we don’t need no competition”, even though the standards there are so poor that almost half the secondary schools fail to get 30 per cent. of their pupils to the level of five good GCSE passes, including in maths and English.
In Hull, another area of educational weakness where more than half the schools fail to reach the acceptable level of 30 per cent. good GCSE grades, another academy sponsor was prevented from establishing a new school by Labour local bureaucracy. These local authorities are emboldened by the Secretary of State’s words to resist new entrants and competition. They could make it easier for new suppliers to give brilliant schooling to the disadvantaged, but the Secretary of State’s words, and his party, have made that harder.
I am looking carefully at the Opposition’s motion, and I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman thinks that only academies should have the freedom to innovate in the national curriculum. Why should not local authority schools, and all other schools, have that freedom?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making a constructive intervention. We want more freedom for schools. This week, we have been talking about greater freedoms. The key point is that, by applying competitive pressure outside local authority control, academies in Hackney have succeeded in driving up standards. That is what we want to see elsewhere, but there has been no evidence that the Secretary of State has grasped that agenda or that he has made the case for it in the way that his predecessors or the previous Prime Minister did.
Not at this stage.
To follow on from the intervention by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), the people who designed the academy programme knew that the whole point was that they should operate at a distance from local authorities in order to provide a competitive spur. Dan Corry, the former special adviser at the then Department for Education and Skills, has told us—
Not at this stage. I think that this evidence will interest the hon. Gentleman. Dan Corry, who used to advise his near neighbour, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), said:
“Blair and Adonis had an innate belief that local authorities were at the root of all problems. Blair and Adonis wanted autonomous schools everywhere. Neither wanted local authorities to have any real control”.
Lord Adonis might subsequently have been—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Not yet. I was talking about Lord Adonis, and I know why the Secretary of State wants to intervene at this point.
Lord Adonis might subsequently have been taken to the Admiral Lord West memorial cell in the Downing street Lubyanka and forced to recant under pressure. He might even now be wandering the corridors of the upper House saying, “I love big Gordon”, but he cannot run away from the record, even though the Secretary of State is now distancing himself from reform. Would the Secretary of State care to make his intervention now?
If possible, let me inject rather more substance into the debate. Yesterday morning, the hon. Gentleman told the “Today” programme that academies would be exempt from the national curriculum: he then went on Channel 4 news at lunchtime and said:
“It’s clear that any school which is set up is going to have to follow the core aspects of the curriculum that binds all schools”.
Can he explain the contradiction between those two statements?
Yes, as there is absolutely no contradiction. As the Secretary of State should know, there is a difference between the national curriculum that binds states schools and the curriculum requirements that independent schools have to follow. Under our proposals, academies would have the freedom that independent schools have.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point: he is absolutely right. One of the core aspects of competence is unity in government, but there is a clear division between the Secretary of State’s position and that of Lord Adonis, as recorded by the Secretary of State’s special adviser and academy sponsors. Let us listen to what those who are actually delivering change say. Jennifer Moses of ARK, an academy sponsor, says:
“Rather than forcing academies back into the local authority family, we should be extending their freedoms to more schools”.
She agrees with the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) and with me, but not with the Secretary of State. And who has been most delighted at the retreat? It is those in the union movement, who never wanted academies to have freedom in the first place. Steve Sinnott of the National Union of Teachers says:
“I welcome Ed Balls’ statement giving local authorities a greater say in the planning of academies. This is a direction of travel of which I thoroughly approve.”
So there we have the Secretary of State—praised by the producer interests; disappointing the providers of academies; siding with the existing establishment; making life more difficult for those who want to help the most disadvantaged; U-turning from the position once held by his Government and still held by his junior Minister; and retreating from reform.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for diverting him from his text, but on the particular issue of the curriculum of independent schools, I have before me the regulations that apply to independent schools. They say that schools should draw up
“a written policy on the curriculum”,
which would give pupils experience in
“linguistic, mathematical, scientific, technological, human and social, physical and aesthetic… education”.
All they have to do is draw up a curriculum, but the hon. Gentleman suggested on “Channel 4 News” that the curriculum would stop the teaching of creationism in schools, so he must have been talking about the national curriculum. It is the national curriculum that will stop the teaching of creationism, not the independent curriculum rules. If he is saying that the rules will apply to all schools, why will they not apply to academies?
I was looking forward to the Secretary of State’s intervention and hoped that it might be illuminating, but he is going down a curious alley—and a blind one at that. The Secretary of State and I both agree that the teaching of creationism should not be part of science teaching, and we also agree that there is a distinction between the national curriculum as it applies to state schools and the curriculum that applies to independent schools. We want to give academies the same freedom that independent schools have—one of those clear dividing lines of which the Secretary of State is fond. If the Secretary of State wanted to argue for restricting academy freedom, we would be interested; if he wanted to argue for extending academy freedom, we would be delighted; if he wanted to argue in favour of creationism, I would be fascinated; and if he wanted to join us in saying that religious fundamentalism should play no part in the school curriculum, I would be overjoyed. However, the Secretary of State is attempting to make a distinction without a difference.
I am keen to make progress by listing another aspect of Government retreat.
I want to refer to another bureaucratic change, apparently small in scale, which provides telling evidence of what is happening at the Department for Children, Schools and Families. The Department’s decision to place the academies programme within the ambit of the building schools for the future programme has meant that all new academies are now managed by the partnership for schools quango. Thanks to this Government’s change, the construction of all new academies and the building of extensions to existing academies are managed by a centralised bureaucracy.
Far from academies introducing welcome diversity, every new academy has its design, building, layout and even its project management dictated from the centre. Academy sponsors are not allowed to specify any aspect of design or choose the project managers for construction. They are not even allowed to meet the project managers and are permitted only the most limited role during construction. They put up the cash, bear the risk and want to help, but are treated like conscripts.
That policy is already having malign and perverse effects. Among the many virtues of Mossbourne academy in Hackney, which I visited yesterday with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, is the fact that it is a Richard Rogers partnership building— an exceptionally handsome architectural landmark. Mossbourne wants to expand: it has been so successful that it needs to establish a sixth form and build an extension. However, it cannot ask the Richard Rogers partnership to build the extension because it is not on the building schools for the future programme approved list, so it is denied the chance to get the same visionary architect to construct a visionary addition to a visionary building because of the Department’s blinkered bureaucracy.
Can you imagine, Mr. Speaker, if, when they were building St. Paul’s, Christopher Wren had been told by the “building cathedrals for the future” bureaucrat that he could not do that dome after all, because he was not on the Department’s list of state-approved builders? Of course, Sir Christopher Wren placed his own inscription there: “if you require my monument, look around you”. If people look at academies in the future and see that something visionary has been obscured and messed up by something wholly inappropriate and bureaucratically foolish stuck on later, perhaps they will say that if we want a monument to Ed Balls, there it is!
Surely the hon. Gentleman understands perfectly well that in the future people will look around them and see hundreds and hundreds of brand-new schools built by a Labour Government, which had previously been left to rot for generations by the Tories—[Interruption.] Fourteen Etonians!
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that vigorous intervention—and also for drawing attention to the lack of Etonians on the Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman is an old friend of mine and a man of prodigious talent. It is a great pity that someone of his formidable intellect is putting it at the service of class war. He will, I know, receive his reward from the Government in due course, but he does not need to assert his prolier-than-thou credentials in order to win his place on the Front Bench.
Let us return to the question of academies. Will the hon. Gentleman remind us how many of them are currently in operation? How many years have they been in operation and what miraculous assumption leads him to believe that we have the evidence to justify the massive expansion of academies that he suggests?
The success of academies, which are overwhelmingly popular with parents in their communities, in driving up standards and in transforming the educational environment in areas such as Hackney, seems to me—and perhaps to the Secretary of State, given some of his comments—to provide arguments for their continuation. I am interested in hearing more from the Secretary of State about what he thinks of academies. We all know that I support them. What we are worried about is whether the Secretary of State supports them in name only and whether he has the intellectual courage to make the case for choice and contestability.
My hon. Friend has a prodigious memory, and he might like to draw the attention of the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) to the fact that academies developed from an earlier prototype of city technology colleges, which were pioneered by the previous Conservative Government.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. It was indeed city technology colleges that acted as a template for the academy programme. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bury, North, who, like me, believes in social justice, would be interested to know that city technology colleges, which have a comprehensive intake, actually have better GCSE results than independent schools—a point that we are proud of and that I hope the Secretary of State will embrace in his speech.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, I hope that the Secretary of State takes this opportunity to repent. It would not quite be a deathbed conversion—he is not quite there yet—but it might help him recover from the difficult position that he is in. He has grave difficulties convincing anyone that he is a real reformer. As I have mentioned, only this week we heard on the BBC how the Secretary of State has been an enemy of reform, for years inciting rebellion against former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s education reforms. Last week, I referred to the right hon. Gentleman as the Kim Philby of this Government, outwardly a member of the establishment while all the time secretly working for the Stalinists. I am afraid, however, that my Soviet history was awry. I now realise that he was actually more like one of those grey men from the Kremlin who led the plot against Gorbachev. He launched an abortive coup against a halfway sincere reformist only to end up making himself and his cronies look foolish, and leaving the country desperate for real change at the top.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way, but may I get him off the personal attacks and on to the substance of the debate? For competition and choice to work, there must be surplus places, otherwise that is rationing. How many surplus places would a Conservative Government be prepared to pay for?
Lord Adonis yesterday attempted on the radio to argue that the surplus places rule did not exist under this Government, but that runs directly contrary to the evidence. The Government have said in their guidance circular that—[Interruption.] He asked about surplus places, and I am responding. The Government guidance states that surplus places returns help them
“monitor whether local authorities are taking action to reduce”
the numbers. The question that the Government must answer is whether a surplus places rule applies? Lord Adonis yesterday on Radio 4 said no, but the Government’s guidance, policed by the Audit Commission, says that 10 per cent. of surplus places is the absolute limit.
Our view is that we should allow the development of between 20,000 and 30,000 new school places every year in order to ensure that we can provide an expansion in a new academies programme. The arguments are laid out in our green paper on education, “Raising the Bar, closing the gap”. It is do with providing opportunity for all, and I recommend it to the hon. Gentleman and look forward to hearing more discussion of it.
Would my hon. Friend’s policy therefore be to stop the county councils that are planning to close excellent secondary schools, such as one in my constituency on Canvey Island, from doing so? Would he have them put such plans on ice until we see what the effect will be of, for example, extending compulsory education to 18?
My hon. Friend characteristically makes two good points. We are clear that we should get rid of the surplus places rule and that new entrants to the state education system will provide a goad and a spur to existing local authority schools to improve. Whether in Essex or, as we have seen, in Hackney, new schools entering the system force the existing local authority schools to raise their game and improve their act. That is a virtuous competitive circle, which we would like to be extended, in line with the best Conservative principles, across the country.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way: it shows uncharacteristic politeness. Let me explain the situation: schools can be started up in areas with surplus places, but there is a built-in motivation for the local authority to close underperforming schools in exchange, so that there is a net relationship between the two that conforms to the surplus places rule. What is important is that we motivate local authorities to close underperforming schools, unlike the Conservative party’s proposals.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his elucidation of the existence of a surplus places rule, in contrast with what we were told yesterday on Radio 4 by Lord Adonis—I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has overruled his junior colleague in the House of Lords. Our point is that we want those new entrants that the Government have not allowed to come into the state sector to drive up standards all round. We do not want to see schools close; we want to see schools improve. We do not want the zero-sum game of statist control that we have had in the past 10 years; we want diversity of provision. We want reform, choice and competition to drive up standards.
Given that local authorities are virtually omnipotent as the bodies that assess and decide on, and pay for and provide, services to children with special educational needs, does my hon. Friend agree with me and, rather more importantly, with the Education and Skills Committee that the time has come for the link between assessment and the funding of provision to be broken?
The hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend in fact, and a very good friend, too—makes a characteristically good and well judged point. [Interruption.] No, I am not surprised; I am delighted about that. His point is in line with the recommendations of Sir Robert Balchin’s special educational needs commission, and it would be interesting to know whether the Secretary of State agrees with it. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I look forward to agreeing also with another wise eminence on the Conservative Back Benches, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood).
Does my hon. Friend agree that the people involved in a school are much more important even than its buildings, and that some of the best schools have old or tatty buildings? Is not the failure of this Government’s strategy that they have no way of changing the leadership in underperforming schools and they have allowed too many such schools to exist for too long?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point: among the most important qualities in schools are leadership, motivation and personnel. One of the great virtues of academies is that their leaders—such as Sir Michael Wilshaw at Mossbourne—have the freedom to pay more than the national minimum and to reward good staff with bonuses. They also have the opportunity to recruit and retain the best, and, if necessary, to deal with any weaker teachers. I am sorry to have to say that some of the teaching unions oppose that degree of freedom, but we believe that it is concomitant with the greater freedom in the academy system and that it is necessary to drive up standards, which is our aim.
Unfortunately, there has been a pattern under this Government: instead of change and dynamism, there has been timidity, retreat, paralysis and bureaucracy. We would remove barriers to the creation of new schools.
Not yet. We would ensure that money followed the pupil and, crucially, that pupils from the most disadvantaged homes got more money for their schooling—a progressive policy that I think the Liberal Democrats share, but the Government reject. We would demand high standards, ensuring that every child who can do so is reading after their first two years in primary school, because having learnt to read, they can read to learn. We would restore discipline to our schools, shifting the balance of power in the classroom back in favour of the teacher.
No, I will not give way.
We would then liberate innovative professionals to deliver inspirational teaching. On the Labour Benches, there is an agenda of stasis, centralism and state control. On the Opposition Benches, there is an agenda of change, optimism and hope, which is making the defeat of ignorance its central mission.
I invite the Secretary of State to break free from the tight Treasury embrace that has constricted his free thinking over the past 10 years, and to embrace reform and prove himself to be a moderniser.
I beg to move, To leave out from ‘House’ to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
‘notes that investment and reform in schools since 1997 has raised standards and cut the number of underperforming schools, with 100,000 more 11 year olds reaching the required level of literacy than 10 years ago and the number of schools where less than a quarter of pupils achieve five good GCSEs cut from 616 in 1997 to just 26 today; further notes that 83 Academies have already opened, with 230 to be opened by 2010, with more to come as the Government accelerates its successful Academies programme; confirms that over 30 schools became Trust schools in September with over 170 more in the pipeline; welcomes the Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme which will rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in the country; and supports further reforms to extend educational opportunity for all and not just some, including the introduction of Diplomas and, alongside an expansion of apprenticeships and enhanced support for 16 and 17 year olds through the Education Maintenance Allowance, raising the education and training age to 18 by 2015.’.
It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to debate once again with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). In respect of any failure to pursue school reforms, I hope that we can achieve some clarity about what the Government are actually saying and, perhaps even more hopefully and after all the contradictions in the hon. Gentleman’s policy over the past few days, that we can get some clarity about the Opposition education policy. I have to say that we got very little clarity on that from his performance. We once again had the usual bluster and flourish. It was a nice speech; it was well written, and the hon. Gentleman read it rather well, too—and I can honestly say that we have been impressed by how much he is impressed by himself. Unfortunately, although the speech was strong on style, it was hopelessly weak on content and policy.
The debate is billed as being about the failure of the Government to pursue school reform but, as has been said, the Opposition motion focuses on just 83 of the 22,500 schools in England today. I am happy to have our approach to academies scrutinised. I fear that by the end of the debate it will be the hon. Gentleman’s so-called new academies policy that will need to be scrutinised, because the real revelation of this debate will be that he cannot answer key questions on his own policy. I will show that at best he is simply copying what we are doing and that at worst he is not only confused but putting forward risky proposals. Conservative Members would do well to study the details of the proposals that he has announced this week. I will show that when they do so, they will see what the proposals mean for their constituencies. I fear that as this debate goes on, it may come as a bit of a surprise.
I would like to talk about the details in my constituency. Last week, the Secretary of State said categorically—this is in Hansard—that Leicestershire was the 34th best-funded education authority in the country. In fact, it ranks 149th this year, and will do so next year, in 2009 and in 2010. Will he apologise to the people of my constituency and Leicestershire for misleading them last week?
Of course I will not, because I did not mislead the House last week. I have looked at Hansard, and I said clearly that although I accept that Leicestershire has a lower spending level per pupil than other areas, it will have the 34th largest increase in spending in the next three years. It was in our statement to the House, and it is clearly shown in Hansard. The thing that surprises me about today’s motion is that it does not mention any of the reforms that we have been putting in place over the past 10 years. It does not mention numeracy and literacy; more teachers; more than 1,000 new schools; new disciplinary powers for head teachers; or the fact that more than 85 per cent. of schools are now called specialist schools. It does not point out that over the past 10 years we have delivered rising standards year on year or that we have reduced the number of schools not getting a quarter of their pupils to the standard of five good GCSEs from 616 at the end of the Conservative Government in 1997 to just 26 today.
I will give way in a second.
We know that there is more to do to reach a world-class level, but, again, the motion does not refer to any of the processes that we have set in place in recent months to take forward our next stage of reform. It does not refer to the Every Child a Reader programme and our plans to spread phonics across the country. It does not refer to our one-to-one learning in primary and secondary schools, to our new independent standards regulator, to our 30 new trust schools, to our building schools for the future programme, to our new powers and obligations on local authorities to intervene to tackle failing schools, or to our children’s plan proposals to strengthen links between schools, parents and children’s services—again, that got no mention in the speech by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath.
The Secretary of State is yet to give a convincing explanation for his asking the delivery unit in 10 Downing street to look into the academies programme. Will he tell us which academies the delivery unit is examining, and whether Lord Adonis was present at the seminar on 1 November?
I will come to academies in a moment. Like the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, I will answer all the detailed points that are raised in the debate.
The truth is that while the Opposition criticise our reforms, they are either stealing our clothes or putting forward risky proposals. The Opposition say that we need to implement synthetic phonics, but we are implementing the Rose review and the systematic teaching of phonics is now compulsory across the country—it is already being inspected by Ofsted. The same is true on the confiscation of mobile phones, because on Monday the hon. Gentleman announces that that is his policy, but it turns out that such powers exist for head teachers in the Education and Inspections Act 2006. To give him some latitude, he did make a new proposal to abolish appeals panels for excluded pupils. That would mean the abolition of appeals panels first introduced by the Conservatives in 1987 and, contrary to what he said on the Marr programme, the policy has been rejected by head teachers. The same is true of his plan to ask pupils to re-sit their final year at primary school and of the Conservatives’ proposals to have compulsory externally marked tests at six. All those ideas are rejected by head teachers and parents.
The Secretary of State talks about synthetic phonics. Why is the Every Child a Reader programme, which uses reading recovery as its reading programme, not a synthetic phonics programme, in line with the Rose recommendations?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is for every school to decide, child by child, how they teach reading. We are implementing phonics and synthetic phonics across every school in the country by the Ofsted review. The Every Child a Reader programme is particularly tailored to the needs of every individual child. Of course phonics are being used in that programme and in every primary school across the country.
My right hon. Friend rightly listed a raft of things to which the Opposition motion does not refer. Is he surprised, like I am, by the fact that it does not refer to the collaboration and co-operation needed across local education authorities on the academies programme? The Government have implemented that by a process of incorporation in the national curriculum; the Conservatives propose to take it out.
Of course that is the case. The majority of the first 30 trusts that have been put forward since September are collaborating between schools precisely to ensure that we focus on raising standards for all children and spread the excellent leadership in some schools to all schools. I do not apologise for saying that collaboration is an important part of our programme.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the motion demonstrates the lack of knowledge and the bankruptcy of Conservative policy on schools? The motion on the Order Paper is headed “Government policy on schools reform”. Despite that, it does not contain a single word on the primary schools sector, which the majority of pupils in the state sector attend. That shows that the Conservatives know nothing about where our kids go to school.
I shall give way in a moment.
I find it impossible to understand the position of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and the Leader of the Opposition on grammar schools and grammar streams. We were being told a few months ago that grammar streams would be introduced in every school in the country. It is unclear whether that has been dropped in favour of setting in every subject or in favour of our policy of encouraging setting in individual subjects.
What about grammar schools? Does the hon. Member for Surrey Heath agree with the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts)? He said that
“academic selection entrenches advantage and does not spread it”.
Does he agree with the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who said that he wanted a return to “good old-fashioned academic selection”? Or does he agree with the Tory Buckinghamshire cabinet lead on education, Marion Clayton? When asked whether plans for a new grammar school in Aylesbury—it would be the first new grammar school for 50 years—would contradict Conservative policy, she told the local paper:
“I reject the idea that this goes against current Conservative policy.”
It is certainly against this Government’s policy and against the law, but is it against current Conservative policy?
On Sunday, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath told the Marr programme that plans for new grammar schools, such as those proposed by Conservative Buckinghamshire, are
“a matter for local authorities”.
On the “Today” programme on Tuesday, when asked whether he would say no to any application for a grammar school, he replied, “Absolutely”. What is his policy? Is it his Sunday or his Tuesday policy? Would he like to clarify it now? Would the Conservatives change the law to allow Buckinghamshire to set up a new grammar school? Is the answer yes or no? I would be happy to give way to him on that question—[Interruption.] Again, no clarity there then. We just saw the barely concealed reality, behind all the obfuscation, that large swathes of his party want him to reintroduce selection. At some point, he and his party leader will have to come off the fence on that issue.
If the Secretary of State wishes to show substance, he should talk about the Government’s policy rather than spend the whole time talking about Opposition policy—I know that he has no style. Will he tell the House why the Government do not trust parents to make choices in enough cases and why they do not trust schools to decide how to teach?
Let me turn to academies and the exact issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises. At last, we are dealing with a school reform that is mentioned in the motion.
Academies are central to our reforms to promote excellence for all and not just the few. The ability to replace a weak or seriously underperforming school with a new school that has new leadership and a new ethos is a crucial part of local strategies to tackle failing schools. So far, the evidence from our first 83 academies—evidence we are testing further with the Prime Minister’s delivery unit across the whole programme—is that academies are delivering faster than average improvements in results in areas and, crucially, with intakes that are disproportionately disadvantaged.
In the motion and in his speech, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath says that we are retreating on academies. I know that he wishes we were, but in fact we are accelerating our programme and removing barriers so that, for example, more universities will find it easier to sponsor academies. Our target was 200 academies by 2010, on the road to 400, but last week my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners announced that we are now planning for 230 academies by 2010.
So far, 12 universities have expressed interest in the programme and I can make two announcements today. Three further universities—King’s college, London, Bolton and Gloucestershire—are announcing today that they will engage with the academies programme. Secondly, I have today given the go-ahead for three new academies: the Nottingham university Samworth academy and academies in Croydon and Cheltenham. They will all replace underperforming schools. The hon. Gentleman’s charge that we are backsliding on academies is wrong.
Given the Secretary of State’s warm words about academies, why has he still not explained his reason for asking the No. 10 delivery unit to look into the policy, which suggests he has some concerns about it? Furthermore, he has still not answered the question about whether Lord Adonis was present at the seminar on 1 November.
The answer is exactly the same as the one I gave last week when the hon. Gentleman asked me exactly the same question. When there are large spending programmes it is perfectly normal for the Treasury, the PMD unit and Departments to look at the detail of individual elements to make sure that they work as well as we want in delivering value for money. We are doing that with the academies programme, just as we would with any other programme, and I make no apology whatever for that. Of course, I have had discussions with Lord Adonis and the delivery unit to make sure that the programme continues to deliver what we want—it is doing so. The idea that I should apologise for ensuring that there is proper scrutiny and we get value for money is completely absurd.
I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s reply to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), but is not the truth that the decision to hold a review is political? It is more about compromising the future of academies, including the largest one in England, Thomas Deacon academy in my constituency, while capitulating to the bovine instincts of Labour Back Benchers and the teaching unions.
Of course it is not. That is a completely absurd intervention. It is in the normal pattern of Government to scrutinise spending effectively, which is what I am doing. Furthermore, I am announcing new academies and accelerating the programme. Saying things over and over again does not make them true, and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath should wake up to that fact—we are accelerating the programme, not slowing it down.