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Building Schools for the Future

Volume 511: debated on Monday 7 June 2010

5. What recent discussions he has had with local authorities on plans for the Building Schools for the Future programme. (805)

My Department is currently reviewing the Building Schools for the Future programme to ensure that we can build schools more effectively and more cost-efficiently in the future.

Cancelling Building Schools for the Future would hit two schools in my constituency, Crosby and Chesterfield high schools. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would also damage the recovery by taking much-needed work away from construction workers and small businesses?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House.

I intend to ensure that we prioritise capital spending to ensure that in areas of real need, the taxpayer and teachers are given better value for money. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that under the last Government a significant amount of the cash that was devoted to Building Schools for the Future was spent on consultancy and other costs, which did not contribute directly to raising standards or to employing a single builder or plasterer, or anyone else whom he would no doubt wish to continue to see employed. I therefore hope that he will work with me to ensure that, in Sefton and elsewhere, we do everything possible to ensure that we obtain better value for money from this programme.

The Secretary of State must be aware of the considerable anxiety in communities about the fact that their new secondary school programme remains very much in doubt. Some £5 million has been invested by Stockton borough council and partners, and they are hurtling towards appointing a preferred bidder. Will the Secretary of State please assure the people of my constituency, who have not had a new secondary school for 40 years, that children in our area can still look forward to their new and redeveloped schools?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and welcome him to his place.

I know that in Stockton there are real areas of need and deprivation, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will raise his voice on their behalf. I also know that Stockton has reached the outline business case stage of the Building Schools for the Future programme, and that a significant amount has been invested—more, perhaps, than needed to be invested, because of the additional bureaucracy. I intend to ensure in future that the costs faced either by Stockton or by any other local authority are reduced to the absolute minimum, so that we can prioritise front-line funding.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Building Schools for the Future did not provide properly for schools that perform well but have buildings in a disgraceful state, such as the Duchess’s community high school in Alnwick, and can he offer any hope to schools in that position, whose record of good results impairs their ability to get buildings they desperately need?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. The aim of Building Schools for the Future was to ensure that funding is prioritised for areas of need, and understandably so, but it is also the case that Building Schools for the Future amounts to less than half the total available schools capital, and there are funds available to repair schools such as the Duchess’s high school in Alnwick, which I and the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), have visited, and which, having visited, I know are in need of repair. I will look sympathetically on the case my right hon. Friend makes, and I hope that I or one of my ministerial colleagues will have a chance to visit Alnwick soon to see for ourselves how the school is coping.

I wrote to the Secretary of State last night to request that, two weeks on from the Treasury announcement, he give this House details of the £670 million of departmental cuts and the £1.2 billion of local government cuts he has announced. Twenty minutes before questions, I received an answer. That answer gives no reassurance at all to the hundreds of schools whose new building plans appear to be in limbo—and I must say that this is no way to make announcements to the House of Commons. In that letter, the right hon. Gentleman does confirm that he is cutting free school meals in primary schools, one-to-one tuition and the gifted and talented programme, but there are no details at all of how cuts to local government budgets will affect children’s services, including services for looked-after children and disabled children, youth clubs and action to reduce teenage pregnancy. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether he was advised that by agreeing to smaller central Government savings than his Department’s equal share, he has knowingly shifted the burden to bigger and more damaging cuts for essential children’s services financed by local governments: yes or no?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for avoiding the Labour leadership hustings in Southport and instead making his presence felt here today. I am afraid, however, that the points he made were, perhaps unintentionally, at variance with the facts. We are not stopping anyone who currently receives free school meals receiving free school meals. We are ensuring that funding is in place to cover the areas he mentioned. What we are specifically doing is cutting £359 million from a variety of budget areas that, in our judgment, are not priority and front-line areas. Details are in the letter I sent to the right hon. Gentleman, a copy of which will be available in the Library. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are not cutting front-line spending on schools, but before the general election he promised to cut 3,000 head teachers or deputy head teachers. Not a single front-line job is lost as a result of the economies the current Government have made. That is the difference between us.

I showed the House the courtesy of coming to questions rather than going to a GMB conference, and I think the right hon. Gentleman should have shown the House the courtesy of making his cuts announcement in a written ministerial statement or oral statement to this House, in which he made it clear that children across the country in the pilot areas will be losing the free school meals that we announced some weeks ago.

Let me ask the right hon. Gentleman a second question, however, as we got no answer to the first. Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister told the House that the pupil premium will be additional to the education budget. In the formal post-election coalition talks, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) and Chief Secretary told me that the Conservative party had promised the Liberal Democrats that the pupil premium would be on top of our announced spending plans not for one year but for three years, yet the Secretary of State told the House last week that his budget was protected for only one year. Who is telling the truth on education spending: the Secretary of State or the Chief Secretary to the Treasury?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for revealing what went on in those coalition talks between himself and the Liberal Democrats. Those talks were clearly a roaring success, and I am surprised that his recollection is so perfect in that area when it is hazy in so many others. Let me reassure him that funding for the pupil premium—so effectively championed by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), and so effectively carried forward by the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather)—will come from outside existing education spending. As the Prime Minister pointed out at Prime Minister’s questions last week, we have not cut front-line spending, but the right hon. Gentleman would have. That is the difference between the Government and the Opposition.