House of Commons
Monday 7 June 2010
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:
Right honourable Stephen Creswell Timms, for East Ham
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Science and Maths Graduates (Teaching)
There is clearly a problem with a shortage of specialist teachers, as only 47% of mathematics teachers and 58% of combined science teachers have first degrees in the subjects that they teach. We need to do more to encourage pupils to study sciences and maths, and encourage graduates to enter teaching in those subjects. Therefore, we are actively reviewing the routes into teaching and bursaries, along with other incentives offered to well qualified people who want to teach science and maths.
It is very good to see my hon. Friend at the Government Dispatch Box. Will he ensure that schools have sufficient powers and funds to offer generous retention bonuses to teachers of shortage subjects, and that schools with retention problems are fully aware of such powers?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments; it has been a long time coming. We are certainly considering how schools can be further encouraged to use the existing recruitment and retention pay flexibilities which are available to address local teacher shortages in maths and other priority subjects. Head teachers already have some scope to do that, but we plan to reform the existing, rigid national pay and conditions so that schools have greater freedoms to attract top science and maths graduates, along with others as they see fit, to be teachers. Such academy-style freedoms are being debated in other place as part of the Academies Bill.
On behalf of the whole House, let me welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr Timms) back to his rightful place.
May I warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position as Under-Secretary of State? If he keeps his nose clean and pulls his socks up, he might become a Minister of State, although I think he will have to become a Liberal Democrat for that to happen. May I also welcome the rest of the ministerial team to their posts and wish them all the very best with their responsibilities?
We agree with motivating and encouraging more graduates of science and maths into teaching. On the basis of that encouraging and motivational language, will the hon. Gentleman comment on the remarks made by the Minister for Schools, who is reported to have said:
“I would rather have a physics graduate from Oxbridge without a PGCE teaching in a school than a physics graduate from one of the rubbish universities with a PGCE”?
Would the Under-Secretary like to apologise on behalf of his hon. Friend, or at least provide the House with a list of “rubbish universities”, so that graduates from those institutions need not apply for teaching posts under this new Government?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments. I will certainly keep my nose clean and pull my socks up, if that is what he thinks is required. I know the job of opposition too well: the job of opposition is to scrabble around to make trivia newsworthy, and I congratulate him, on his debut on the Opposition Benches, on doing that. I am not going to comment on that trivia, but let me be clear when I say that we have many very talented teachers in schools today. We intend to build on that and ensure that organisations outside the reach of government, such as Teach First, are given the opportunity to expand and that we support them in doing so. I am sure we can all agree that we have great universities in this country. This Government are committed to supporting those universities, as we recognise the importance of all universities, courses and degrees, which, through their rigour, increase the intellectual capability of the nation and its skills base.
Autonomy for Schools
My Department has received more than 1,100 expressions of interest from schools in relation to my offer to open up the academies programme to all primary, secondary and special schools.
I am grateful for that brief answer, but perhaps the Secretary of State will acknowledge, in these days of evidence-led policy, that there is limited evidence of schools demanding freedom from local authorities, as opposed to freedom from central Government tinkering. Also, the majority of schools targeted to become the new academies became “outstanding” schools within the local authority family. Finally, it is rather hard to become better than outstanding.
Evidence shows that academy freedoms have a key role to play in driving up standards, and that academy schools have improved their academic results at twice the rate of other schools as a result of using those freedoms. Moreover, the specific freedoms that an overwhelming number of head teachers wish to acquire will be used not only to improve the education of children in those schools, but to help other schools which desperately need freedom from local and central bureaucracy in order to drive up standards for all.
I believe that the principle of autonomy will be supported in schools throughout the country, but how would the Secretary of State balance it with the need for fairness in terms of funding and admissions? In particular, what role does he see for local authorities under the new regime?
The hon. Gentleman was a distinguished Minister for School Standards in the last Government. He will know that academies will have to abide by the admissions code, and that admissions will therefore be fair. He will also know that academies will not enjoy preferential funding, and that we are absolutely committed to ensuring that local authorities continue to play a strong strategic role. I was delighted to be able to write to the Local Government Association to affirm my commitment to working with it in order to achieve that.
I am sure the Secretary of State will know that there are some excellent schools in my constituency, but there is also a fast-growing need for more school places at both primary and secondary level. Does he agree that Toby Young’s excellent and well documented campaign for a new free academy school in Acton deserves the fullest support at all levels?
Thanks to my hon. Friend’s impassioned advocacy, I have been able to visit some of the superb schools in Ealing, and I know that they are currently led by a wonderful team of head teachers. I also know, however, that throughout west and south London there are increasing pressures on pupil numbers, and I therefore welcome expressions of interest from everyone who is dedicated to improving state education and creating new comprehensive school provision.
The gentleman whom my hon. Friend mentioned, Mr Toby Young, is one of the most fluent advocates of opening up the supply of state education. I note that the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) said that he welcomed Mr Young’s proposal, and that he hoped to be present to open the school in due course. I hope to join him then.
Building Schools for the Future
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.
Building Schools for the Future (Nottinghamshire)
This Department is reviewing the Building Schools for the Future programme to ensure that when we build schools for the future, we do so in a more cost-effective and efficient fashion.
Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity at some point to visit Sherwood? There are two schools specifically affected by this programme: Dukeries college in Ollerton, and Joseph Whitaker college in Rainworth. Is the Secretary of State aware that Nottinghamshire county council has spent £5 million on this scheme without a single brick being laid? What we really want is an indication of the time scale, so those schools can make plans for their future.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question; if he continues asking great questions like that, he will very shortly be my right hon. Friend. I do sympathise with him—both Dukeries college and Joseph Whitaker college do a fantastic job for the young people in their care, and they are very fortunate to have him as an impassioned champion on their behalf. I am actively reviewing how we can ensure that the maximum amount of money goes to schools, and as he rightly points out, it is quite wrong that local authorities should have to spend so much money on bureaucracy before a single brick is laid or a single contractor is engaged. It is quite wrong that a bureaucratic system put in place under the previous Government should prevent money from going where it deserves to go—to the front line, so that all our children can be better educated.
There is a lot of concern in Nottingham about the right hon. Gentleman’s “review” of Building Schools for the Future. Can he get rid of some of that uncertainty by saying specifically by what date that review will be over, particularly of wave 5? Will it be in the next week, in two weeks, in three weeks—can he give us a date?
The hon. Gentleman is of course a former Minister, and talking of dates, I would love to have a date with him so that we can discuss exactly how poorly Nottinghamshire was being treated by the last Government, and the fact that Nottinghamshire has just reached its outline business case—[Hon. Members: “When?”] I hope to have the opportunity very soon to explain to the hon. Gentleman and others exactly when the review I am conducting is being concluded.
There are currently 203 academies open in 83 local authorities. More academies will open in September, with numbers continuing to grow each year now that the programme has been opened up to all schools. For the academies with results in 2008 and 2009, the increase in the proportion of pupils achieving at least five A* to C GCSEs including English and maths is 5 percentage points, an increase on last year’s academy improvement rate of 4.3 percentage points, which is double the national average.
Progress in opening academies under the last Government was extremely slow. Some 1,100 schools have applied for freedom from local authority interference, and freedom to set their own standards to ensure they demonstrate the highest possible quality. What comfort can the Minister give to ensure that those applications will all be honoured, and that those schools will not be dissatisfied?
May I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post and wish him well in it? He shadowed me on a number of occasions, and now I am shadowing him. However, is not the excellent progress made by academies in the past 12 months the result of the involvement in their development of parents and teachers and, as the hon. Member for Southport (Dr Pugh) said, of local authorities? Is placing such power in the hands of the Secretary of State not therefore a huge step backwards and a hugely centralising measure? Why are local decision making on the development of academies, parent power and devolution being replaced by centralisation and the exclusion of parents, local authorities and teachers from that process?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words; it is nice to be on the Government side of the House, instead of on the other side. However, this is not a centralising but a decentralising measure, beyond the local authority and down to the school level. This is about trusting professionals and having faith in the autonomy of schools. Our advice to schools is that it is important for them to discuss with parents and pupils their intention to convert. Existing legislation for setting up academies does not require such consultation with parents, so even when the hon. Gentleman was the Minister for Schools, there was no requirement for academies to consult parents.
I warmly welcome all the Ministers to their posts. May I ask a question both as a Member of Parliament and as the chair of governors of a Church of England primary school? Could the follow-up to the Secretary of State’s letter to outstanding schools such as ours include a letter to the chair of governors setting out the advantages and disadvantages of academy status to schools, and the advantages and disadvantages, if any, to local authorities and to diocesan boards of education?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Of course the advantages of academy status are very clear: this is about trusting professionals to run their schools without interference from politicians and bureaucrats, either locally or nationally. I am sure that all the people he refers to will be aware of that. In the last set that we have seen—that of 2009—the results of a third of all academies showed an increase of more than 15 percentage points compared with those of the schools they replaced, so the advantages of academy status are very clear.
Special Educational Needs
We will reform the schools system so that children with special educational needs and disabilities get the best possible support. We will improve diagnostic assessment for schoolchildren, prevent the unnecessary closure of special schools and remove the bias towards inclusion to give parents more choice.
Given that one in five children in this country has identified special educational needs, what measures will the new Government take to ensure that they are able to access the same level of funding and services for the provision of their teaching that they enjoyed under the previous Administration? How will any such measure fit into the new free school model that the Government propose, given the role currently played by local authorities in providing those services?
Nothing has actually changed in the relationship between local authorities, academies and free schools with regard to special educational needs. Schools will continue to get the funding that they need, and local authorities will continue to have a very important co-ordinating role. We will work very closely with the Local Government Association to ensure that these proposals are implemented in a way that ensures that schools get the funding they need.
The copy of the coalition agreement, which enjoys pride of place on my bedside table, does indeed say exactly what the Minister said in her reply about ending the bias towards inclusion and preventing the unnecessary closure of special schools. Will she explain to the House in a little more detail how the Government propose to fulfil those praiseworthy pledges?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about the pride of place in which the coalition document is held, but I suggest that he should get better material to read before he goes to bed. [Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] It is a very good read, but it is not necessarily the most riveting. A number of important reviews have taken place in this area, for example, the Lamb and Balchin reviews. Ofsted is also about to produce a review of special educational needs, and I shall take great note of all those as we consider the way forward.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position, wish her well and compliment her on wearing her new team’s colours today.
Mr Speaker, you will recall that earlier this year, at Clarence house and in the presence of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, the Labour Government announced the provision of £500,000 towards the establishment of a stammering centre in the north of England to complement the excellent work of the Michael Palin centre in London. Will the hon. Lady reassure the House that the money for this important work for children with speech and language difficulties in the north of England will still be provided—yes or no?
There are currently 203 academies open in 83 local authorities. Academies with results in 2008 and 2009 showed an increase in the proportion of pupils achieving at least five A to C GCSEs, including English and maths, at 5 percentage points—an increase on last year’s academy improvement rate of 4.3 percentage points. That was, of course, double the national increase. Interest from schools in joining the academies programme has been excellent: as I mentioned earlier, more than 1,100 schools have already registered interest with my Department.
I know that the Secretary of State is aware that in Hastings we have two new academies scheduled for next year. We are very pleased to have two very important sponsors—Brighton university and BT. May I ask what plans he has, and what steps can be taken, to encourage a high quality of sponsors to participate in the academies?
I thank my hon. Friend for her impassioned advocacy for improving educational opportunities for children in her constituency. I had a chance to see just how dedicated she is to supporting them when I visited her constituency during the general election campaign.
Those who wish to sponsor academies have repeatedly said to me, in opposition and in government, that the bureaucratic burdens laid on them by the previous Government acted as an impediment to their doing the work they wanted to do to help children in disadvantaged areas. The Independent Academies Association, under Mike Butler, wrote to a Minister of State in the previous Government and pointed out that the work he was trying to do to help disadvantaged children was directly impeded by the bureaucratic burden imposed on him by the then Secretary of State. I am confident that an increasing number of sponsors, philanthropists, charities and others who want to help our poorest children will find that the changes we are bringing about enable them to do a fantastic job, not just in Hastings but across the country.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his plans to revitalise the academies scheme. A great number of schools are looking forward to embracing the academies freedoms that will come with it, including the European school in Culham in my constituency, which is seeking to use its specialist multi-language curriculum for the benefit of the state sector. What plans does he have to make sure that more children have such excellent language education?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for those words. I am also much in accord with him in believing that this Government should have a place at the heart of Europe. That is why I was so disappointed to read in The Observer yesterday that the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) wanted to rewrite the treaty of Lisbon and the treaty of Rome.
Order. Let me just say to the Secretary of State that I know he is enjoying himself, and I am delighted to see him enjoying himself, but he must not enjoy himself at the expense of people lower down the Order Paper who want to get in and whom I want to accommodate.
I know that the Secretary of State will want to be known as a Minister who keeps his word and who is consistent in his policy. Will he therefore confirm that the brand new academy linked to MediaCity in Salford, which is included in the £135 million Building Schools for the Future programme, will go ahead? Those programmes have got to financial close, and if he were not to proceed with that world-class academy it would give the lie to his party’s commitment to progress on the whole of the academies programme across the country.
Under the Academies Bill, the sole arbiter of applications for academies is the governing body. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the wider community has an interest in this matter? Not only the governing body should be included, but parents, local authorities and the wider community so that it understands the needs of the many and not just the few.
It is because I am committed to the needs of the many and not just the few that I want to see this programme, which has done so much to raise attainment for disadvantaged children, move forward. I would like to see governors and head teachers working with other schools and other groups within the community to drive up attainment. That is why those who currently lead our schools will, I know, have those conversations. I prefer to give them the freedom to do so rather than to patronise and to busybody by insisting that they do so.
May I ask the Secretary of State whether the academies programme will continue to provide an alternative route to accessing funds for new school buildings? I am thinking in particular of Withernsea high school in my constituency. I wonder whether he or the Minister with responsibility for schools might be able to visit Withernsea, see the school and see how it might benefit from joining the academies programme in future.
Primary School Places
9. How much funding he plans to allocate to (a) Slough borough council and (b) other local authorities where there are insufficient primary school places in order to increase the number of such places available in the current financial year; and if he will make a statement. (809)
School capital allocations announced in 2007 for the current spending period include £1.5 billion for new pupil places. Additionally, around £1.9 billion is allocated for primary school modernisation, some of which will fund new places. The capital support for Slough and its schools this year is some £25 million, including nearly £9 million specifically for new primary school places.
I am glad to hear that that £9 million is confirmed. It was given by the previous Government to increase the number of our primary places. We still have 60 reception and year 1 children who do not have places for next year and those funds are essential to provide them, but a note from the Library advised me that £32 million of Slough’s external finance, which includes a number of grants in relation to education, is at risk. As we have not had a detailed breakdown of what funds to local authorities have been protected by the Government, can the Minister assure me that £1 in £6 going from the Government to Slough borough council will not be cut by the coalition Government?
There are currently 23 all-age academies open that include primary provision. The Academies Bill will also open up the academies programme allowing all primary schools to apply to become academies in their own right. There has been a very high level of interest from schools with more than 250 outstanding primary schools already registering with the Department. We expect the first of those schools with an “outstanding” rating from Ofsted to open as academies from September 2010.
The Minister may recall that in the early years of grant-maintained status, secondary schools were able to opt out, but primary schools had to wait, although subsequently they found that the operation was relatively easy. Will he ensure that, this time, primary schools have the opportunity as quickly as other schools?
My hon. Friend will be pleased to see in the Academies Bill, which is receiving its Second Reading in another place, that primaries will be able to apply for academy status. Indeed, the 250 outstanding primaries that have registered an interest with the Department will be fast-tracked to that status by, I hope, this September.
I am currently reviewing the methods by which capital has been allocated to schools, to ensure that we can build schools more effectively and cost-efficiently in the future.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. During the period of the last Labour Government, many roofs were repaired—when the sun was shining. Can he give an absolute guarantee that schools in a constituency such as mine, which were not part of that programme but still need some catching up, will be rebuilt or properly maintained?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has a number of great schools in his constituency that have benefited from investment, not least Manchester academy, which is achieving outstanding results. Manchester is approaching the conclusion of its final business case for specific funding under the Building Schools for the Future programme. I want to make sure that before we go any further we strip out any bureaucratic costs with which either Manchester’s council tax payers or Manchester’s teachers might be saddled to ensure that we get the maximum amount of spending to the front line.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for his commitment in general to driving up education standards across the country and in particular for his commitment, I hope, to the new academy to be formed by the merger of Central Technology college and Bishops’ college in my constituency of Gloucester? As he knows the timing insisted on by his predecessor on the other side of the House was incredibly tight and caused the academy to be formed in late July and to open next term. Parents, staff and pupils are all desperate for further information on progress that I understand depends on my right hon. Friend’s Department’s confirming absolutely that the academy is going ahead. Could he confirm that his Department will help with announcements—
Will the Minister confirm as soon as possible that two schools in my constituency—President Kennedy and Woodlands, where the buildings go right back to the late 1960s and early 1970s and one of whose buildings is being held up on all four sides by scaffolding—will figure in the programme, and when can he confirm that to them?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that funding under the Building Schools for the Future programme had been allocated on the basis of deprivation, not the state or dilapidation of the building. I will consider the two schools that he mentions and write to him.
The introduction of a pupil premium will target extra funding specifically at deprived pupils to enable them to receive the support that they need to reach their potential. By targeting the funding via a pupil premium, extra funds to support disadvantaged children will be clearly identifiable. We will publish our proposals, with details on how we plan to distribute the pupil premium, in due course.
I thank the hon. Lady for that answer and wish her well in her new role. My constituency, Reading East, like those of many hon. Members, has deep pockets of deprivation. Will she therefore confirm today that all disadvantaged children will receive a fair share of funding from the pupil premium, wherever they happen to go to school?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am aware that he has taken an interest in the pupil premium over a long period. It is an issue that I championed from the Opposition Benches, so I feel passionately about this policy and the opportunity to change young people’s lives. It seems a sad indictment of the society in which we live that parental income remains the best predictor of educational attainment. The hon. Gentleman’s point about pockets of deprivation is precisely the reason why the pupil premium represents an opportunity to change young people’s lives. At the moment, the system for distributing deprivation funding often does not get to the front line, particularly where pockets of deprivation are surrounded by an otherwise relatively wealthy area.
The hon. Lady and her Liberal Democrat colleagues are clear that the pupil premium must mean rising education spending for the next three years. I confirm to the Secretary of State and the House that the old Chief Secretary and the new Chief Secretary made a commitment to me, Lord Mandelson and Lord Adonis in the coalition talks that there would be additional money, on top of rising spending this year, next year and the year after—a commitment that the Secretary of State could not make today. Does the hon. Lady agree—I will not quote her this time; I will quote the Deputy Prime Minister—that
“without money, that commitment will continue to be meaningless—more spin without substance which will yet again leave thousands of children short-changed.”?
Are the Liberal Democrats being short-changed by their Conservative colleagues?
The Prime Minister made it clear from the Dispatch Box last week that the pupil premium would involve substantial extra money from outside the education budget. Perhaps I should remind the right hon. Gentleman that one of the sticking points during the coalition talks with the Labour party was that it would not agree to the pupil premium.
Building Schools for the Future
As I mentioned earlier, we are currently reviewing the methods by which capital has been allocated.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answers on the BSF programme, but I am afraid that I am still not clear on the detail. As a former director of Lewisham’s local education partnership, I should be grateful to him if he confirmed whether the funding commitments that underpin the strategic partnering agreements between local authorities and their private sector partners will be honoured. Lewisham council would be grateful for any reassurance that he could provide.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her election, and she is fortunate to have many excellent schools in her constituency, including Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham, which I have had the great pleasure of visiting. Lewisham was one of the first local authorities to enter Building Schools for the Future. A number of schools have been built already under BSF, and because Lewisham is so far advanced, I cannot conceive of any changes to the BSF programme that would be likely to impact on the many projects that she will have shepherded towards a close.
Children’s and Youth Services
The Department for Communities and Local Government will be writing to local authorities with their revised grant allocations and details of the removal of ring-fences very shortly, including those affecting grants from the Department for Education.
The removal of those ring-fences will give local authorities greater flexibility to reshape their budgets and find the necessary savings that we expect them to make, while maintaining the quality of services to children and young people, which remain a priority of this Department.
Does the Minister agree that involving young people in determining youth service projects and the detail of spending on those projects is a good thing? Will he confirm that local authorities are to receive their full funding for this year’s youth opportunity fund and youth capital fund?
On the first point, I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that young people’s involvement in, engagement with and ownership of youth services is vital, which is why, whenever I visit youth projects, I make a point of speaking to young people and asking them how they are involved in the project, and of promoting such things as youth mayors. In a neighbouring constituency to hers, the Bolton lads and girls club—a most fantastic facility that I have visited twice, and which the Prime Minister has visited as well—serves her constituents and does a fantastic job of engaging young people. I fully support that. It is just the sort of youth facility that we want to see more of.
We will improve standards of discipline in schools by giving heads and teachers the powers they need to deal with violent incidents and remove disruptive pupils or items from the classroom. We will introduce no-notice detentions so that poor behaviour can be dealt with immediately, give teachers wider powers of search and clarify their powers to use force. We will stop heads being overruled on exclusions and will reinforce schools’ powers to maintain good standards of behaviour through stronger home-school behaviour contracts.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. About 70% of all allegations of physical assault and sexual assault are never proven, yet the figures released clearly show that, despite those accused being exonerated, the records are kept on file and they come up on Criminal Records Bureau checks. What are the Government going to do about that?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I have today placed a letter in the House of Commons Library detailing how the £670 million of spending reductions in my Department will be implemented. There will be reductions of £359 million in a variety of programmes, including the ending of “Who Do We Think We Are?” week, which started under my predecessor. Given his article in The Observer yesterday, in which he sought to win his party’s leadership by outflanking the leader of the Conservative party on both immigration and Euroscepticism—something not done since Enoch Powell was a Member of the House—I hope that those cuts will be of interest to the House.
I am also today lifting restrictions that have stopped state schools offering the international general certificate of secondary education qualification in key subjects. That means that, from September, state-funded schools will be free to teach a wide range of those respected and valued qualifications, putting them, at last, on a level playing field with independent schools.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on starting his spending cuts with abolishing the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, which I believe is partly responsible for undermining academic standards in science and maths A-levels and GCSEs. What does he plan to put in its place to ensure that pupils are properly prepared for university and for work?
I know how committed my hon. Friend is to raising standards in schools. The right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) will be aware that Ofqual recently pointed out that some of the changes to the science curriculum had downgraded the importance of rigour, and the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend will be aware that the Royal Society of Chemistry said that recent changes to the science curriculum had been a catastrophe. We will make sure that the finest minds in the country of all parties are invited to join us in reshaping the curriculum.
T4. The ContactPoint database that was championed by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Barnardo’s is to be scrapped. What assessment has been made of the impact that the removal will have on safeguarding children? (829)
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her election. Very soon she will hear further details of the demise of ContactPoint, which was not championed by a great many professionals at the front end, who knew that the bureaucracy added to safeguarding over recent years has contributed to some of the dangers to our children, so we would like to replace it with a much better system. She will hear more details shortly.
T2. Does the Secretary of State agree that whether or not Building Schools for the Future continues in its present form, schools such as Carshalton Girls, Carshalton Boys and Wandle Valley will still need substantial investment—about £70 million—to help them improve buildings and deal with demographic pressures? (827)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that in parts of south London, including those that he represents, demographic pressures are a real concern. One of the reasons that we are reviewing the allocation of school capital is to ensure that every pupil who needs it gets a school place. That was not true under the previous Government.
T8. I am sure the Secretary of State will know of the considerable success that we have had in my constituency, Wigan, in creating apprenticeships, jobs and university places for young people. Can he tell us what measures he will introduce to help young people who are not in education, employment or training? (833)
We will increase the number of apprenticeships. I am pleased to see that the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who has responsibility for apprenticeships, is in his place. We will increase the number of apprenticeships by reallocating funding that is currently going on the Train to Gain programme, and we are increasing spending for further education colleges, which—given what happened to the Learning and Skills Council under the previous Government, when building projects were cancelled halfway through and young people who deserved to be in education and training were denied training places—will at last ensure that we give young people the chance that they deserve.
T3. I have received a number of inquiries, as I am sure other Members have, from teachers who would like to get involved in starting up free schools but are concerned about confidentiality issues. Can my right hon. Friend advise where they should go to find out more about how to go about setting up free schools without revealing too much about their personal details? (828)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question. She will be aware, as I am sure are Members on the Opposition Benches, that some of the finest schools in the world, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program schools in America, were set up by teachers, and those teachers would not have been able to set up schools anything like as good under the regime that prevailed under the previous Government. I recommend that anyone my hon. Friend knows who wants to get involved in improving state education contact the New Schools Network, a not-for-profit charity organisation dedicated to improving state schools.
T9. What provisions will the Secretary of State make in the Academies Bill to safeguard the interests of parents of children with special educational needs or hard to place and other children with specific and complex needs, such as the children currently supported by EDPIP, the East Durham positive inclusion partnership in Easington in my constituency? (834)
The interests of all children with special educational needs, particularly those who have the most acute disabilities, are at the heart of my thoughts and those of my ministerial colleagues. That is why we are reviewing the whole provision of special needs education, so that we can ensure that whether children are in academies, voluntary aided schools or other local authority schools, they have the highest possible level of support and nurture so that they can achieve everything possible.
T5. The Secretary of State will know that there are some excellent schools in Stroud. He has visited one of them, Amberley school. What provision, guidance or support will there be for schools that want to become academies which are not so good and are struggling, but see a future for themselves as academies? (830)
My hon. Friend has been a fantastic champion of both schools and further education. We will make sure that schools that are in real difficulty are teamed with an education sponsor with a track record of excellence in order to improve circumstances. We will ensure that schools that aspire to become academies but are not yet in a strong enough position are teamed with people who can help them achieve their ambitions for all their children.
T10. The safeguarding of our children and young people, which is of paramount importance, has received an unprecedented profile in recent times—but for the wrong reasons. What are the Secretary of State’s plans for supporting local authorities and social workers in that crucial work, and for ensuring that all our children and young people are protected? (835)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that very important subject, on which in opposition we did a lot of work. Despite all the well-intentioned reforms and the dedication of front-line professionals, the safeguarding of children in this country is still not working properly. That is why I should like to inform the House that, as we first announced in opposition in February, we have decided to commission Professor Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics to carry out an independent review leading to recommendations that support good-quality, child-focused front-line safeguarding practice in children’s social care; and we will strip away the bureaucracy that has grown up too much around safeguarding in recent years.
T6. The Children, Schools and Families Committee report on the national curriculum called for a five-year cycle of review and reform of the curriculum. Will the Secretary of State put in place such a cycle and ensure that the early years foundation stage, the national curriculum and the arrangements for 14 to 19-year-olds are viewed as a continuum? Will he also tell us whether he plans to implement the Rose review in the meantime? (831)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Teachers do not welcome perpetual revolution in the curriculum; schools need some stability, and we will shortly make some announcements about the review of the curriculum. Thereafter, it will not be our intention to have five-yearly-cycle reviews.
Regarding the Rose review and the decision by the previous Government to implement a new primary curriculum from September 2011, as both parties in the coalition made clear in opposition, we do not intend to proceed with the proposed new curriculum. We believe that the Rose review’s proposed approach was too prescriptive in terms of how schools should teach and diluted the focus of what they should teach—
Does the Secretary of State agree that the CPD—continuing professional development—of teachers is absolutely essential, particularly in science and maths? Is he aware that the fine centre at the university of York, where teachers can go for CPD, and the nine other centres are being starved of visiting teachers because of the interpretation of the “Rarely Cover” work force agreement? The unions interpret it so strictly that we will not be able to maintain those centres.
As ever, the former Select Committee Chairman makes a brilliant point. He is quite right: John Holman’s work in York is outstanding and we should do everything that we can to support it. I note the split between the enlightened voice of Opposition Back Benchers, challenging what the unions say, and the position of Opposition Front Benchers, who will do everything possible to ingratiate themselves with organisations such as Unite, including indulging in anti-immigration rhetoric.
T7. Many schools in my constituency find it necessary to implement personal security measures, paid for by parental contributions and budget delegations. How do the coalition Government intend to address the future cost of the capital and revenue for security funding in such schools? (832)
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and congratulate him on his election. Both he and his predecessor have been impassioned champions for the interests of the Jewish community and other faith communities in the London borough of Barnet, and I am deeply concerned that parents of Jewish children have to pay out of their own pocket to ensure that their children are safe in school. It seems to me quite wrong that, simply because of the faith or community from which a child comes, their parents should have to pay extra to ensure that they are safe. That is why I have asked for talks with the Community Security Trust and the Board of Deputies of British Jews—to ensure that we can do everything possible to safeguard those children.
I think that I have discovered why the Secretary of State was so disparaging about the recipe book that the previous Government produced, which as you will recall, Mr Speaker, included recipes for proper English food, such as Lancashire hotpot and cottage pie. The right hon. Gentleman might not have heard of those, because I understand from The Times this morning that his favourite meal is something called “scaloppine with parmentier potatoes”. I am afraid that we cannot get that in Dudley, so I asked somebody more familiar than myself with the fancy foreign food available in expensive London restaurants, and apparently it is veal. Is that what the pupils of Britain can look forward to eating now that the Notting Hill elite are running the Government?
I am enormously grateful to the hon. Gentleman for paying such close attention to my wife’s column in The Times. I should point out that the issue is not about fancy London restaurants; I do not have time to eat in them. The dish is cooked by my wife, and, if he and his wife would like to come round for dinner, scaloppine will be on the menu. I shall make sure that I have some Banks’s Mild, as I know that it is his favourite tipple, and we will have an opportunity to discuss together how I can help the black country.
What plans does the Secretary of State have for the process of revising the funding formula for local authorities? I represent two local authorities, both of which are in the lowest 40 authorities for educational revenue funding.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising her concerns on behalf of the F40 local authorities. It is our intention to try to ensure, consistent with making provision for the very poorest children, that all local authorities, including those that have been most disadvantaged, have fairer funding.
Stoke-on-Trent was in phase 1 of the Building Schools for the Future programme, and my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Labour Front Bench will know full well the number of times that I have raised this issue. We were within a hair’s breadth of securing the BSF programme—there was just the issue of the 20:20 academy to be resolved. May I urge the Secretary of State to look carefully at the situation in Stoke-on-Trent and to try to give us some certainty about ensuring that we get the much-needed and much-deserved BSF programme through?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. His colleague, the newly elected hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), recently said on Radio 4 that he wanted money available for school buildings to go to Stoke rather than to vanity projects for yummy mummies in west London. I defer to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central when it comes to knowledge about yummy mummies in west London; however, we have been, and are, looking very sympathetically at the case for specific additional spending in Stoke.
Will any attempt be made to revisit the proposed changes to the nursery grant provision system introduced by the previous Government and due to come in this September, which could have a very bad impact on private nursery provision?
We will be going ahead with extending the free child care entitlement for three and four-year-olds for 15 hours a week. However, I am aware of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman mentions, and I am listening to the views of the private voluntary sector. If he has specific concerns arising from his constituency, I would be grateful if he would write to me with the details, as that will help to inform our thinking.
The Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), has today announced the introduction of no-notice detention. How is that compatible with good child safeguarding procedures, and how will he ensure that children who have caring responsibilities, and who often do not let their schools know that they have them, are not adversely impacted by this retrograde proposal?
This is a deregulation matter. It is not a prescriptive matter requiring schools not to give 24 hours’ notice for detentions: it merely enables them to do that if they wish. Trusting head teachers and teachers means that they will make these arrangements themselves if schools feel that they are necessary. We are trying to take out of the statute book impediments to maintaining good order and good behaviour in our schools.
I welcome my hon. Friend to his post, but may I return to the subject of special educational needs? He will be aware that in a low-spending authority such as Gloucestershire, parents, particularly disadvantaged parents, often struggle to get their children the special educational needs treatment that they need. Can he assure me that there is no place in this country for a postcode lottery for special educational needs and that every child in this country should get equal treatment for their needs?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. This is precisely why we need to consider and carefully review the whole provision of special educational needs to ensure that parents have a real choice about where they send their child—be it to a maintained school, to a specialist unit within a maintained school, or to a special school—and that the support is available to them and to parents.
I am sure that the Secretary of State would like to agree that Sure Start has been a huge success. Can he guarantee not only that the funding will be there for Sure Start but, more importantly, that he will continue to expand the programme on the number of Sure Starts in constituencies?
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 2 June).
Question again proposed,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Constitution and Home Affairs
I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of Ms Harriet Harman. Once moved, that amendment will limit the scope of debate to the issues mentioned in it. Older hands can expect to be called to order by the occupant of the Chair if they go beyond the scope of the amendment. New Members making maiden speeches can expect some customary latitude.
I beg to move an amendment, at the end of the Question to add:
“but, whilst welcoming the progress made by the previous administration to reform and improve the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, respectfully believe that such changes should be made wherever possible on the basis of a strong cross-party consensus; therefore call for active discussions by your Government on proposals for an elected House of Lords, a referendum on the alternative vote, recall of hon. Members, the period of any fixed-term Parliament, party funding, changes to the number of hon. Members, the drawing of electoral boundaries, and individual voter registration; consider as wholly unacceptable and undemocratic proposals to require any special majority to remove a Government and require an early general election, or to alter the number of hon. Members or the boundary rules in an arbitrary and partisan way; strongly endorse the measures which led to an overall reduction in crime of over a third, and of violent crime of 41 per cent., since 1997; oppose any measures to cut the number of police officers and police community support officers, to restrict the use of the DNA database in accordance with the Crime and Security Act 2010, to extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants, or to politicise constabularies through the introduction of elected commissioners; and urge your Government to reconsider the introduction of a pre-determined cap on skilled immigrants and to maintain the flexibility and effectiveness of the current points-based system.”
I begin by welcoming the Deputy Prime Minister to the Treasury Bench and to the Government Dispatch Box on what I believe is his speaking debut in that role in the House. He takes over from me wide responsibilities for the Government’s constitutional agenda. As my colleagues and I were, he and his ministerial colleagues will be responsible for what is put before the House and the country, but in making his decisions and recommendations he will be blessed, as I was, by having officials of the highest quality, diligence and—certainly with myself—patience. I should like to place on record my thanks to them and to all the officials with whom I worked, and to wish the right hon. Gentleman well in his endeavours.
“Constitutional agenda” is an abstract term that can have the effect of emptying a room quickly, and not just when I am the one making a speech. However abstract, though, it describes something of profound importance to the effective running of any society and its political system, namely the architecture of power—the rules that set down who can make decisions and who can hold in check those who exercise power. In most systems, those rules are enshrined in what the Germans call “black letter law” and are normally subject to special procedures of entrenchment to make it more difficult for those with the power of government to misuse it to change the fundamental rules of the constitution for narrow partisan ends.
We in the United Kingdom do not have a single text, a written constitution or any protective entrenched procedures. Although I believe that over time we should develop a single text, I do not propose or support entrenchment or special procedures for constitutional change. However, the absence of entrenchment places a special responsibility on those in government not to misuse their power, and wherever possible actively to seek and achieve consensus across the House, or to ensure that the final decision is made directly by the people in a referendum.
Of course, the Government must have the power of initiative. When we took office in 1997, there had been no successful proposals for constitutional change for decades. In contrast, the new Labour Administration had a very large agenda: devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; an elected Mayor and assembly for London; data protection; freedom of information; the Human Rights Bill; phased reform of the Lords; independence for national statistics; reform of party funding; and a new system for elections to the European Parliament. All but one of those measures, however controversial they may have been at the beginning of their legislative journeys, were in the end either approved by consensus across the House or endorsed by the people in a referendum, and they are all the better for that.
My right hon. Friend is right that a great deal of constitutional change has occurred over the past 13 years, but I am not clear why he does not want to go an extra step now and have a written constitution—a Bill of Rights. Surely that would be an important way of entrenching and making absolutely clear the rights of our citizens.
As I said a moment ago, I believe that there is a case for bringing together our constitutional arrangements in a single text, and we were working on achieving exactly that. However, the process will take a long time. Entrenchment—in other words, the sovereignty of this House being modified by some super-legislative procedure and by a constitutional court overseeing that—is a bridge too far for me and I do not support it. However, I do not believe that the two have to go hand in hand, and the case for a single text is strong.
However controversial the proposals that we introduced may have been at the beginning—I think particularly of the Human Rights Bill and the Freedom of Information Bill—in the end, we were able to achieve consensus across the House. That may have been a subject of regret later for the Conservative Opposition, but consensus was achieved. There was one exception, which I regret and, in a sense, it makes the point that I am putting to the House—the closed list system for European elections.
I welcome the hon. Lady to the Chamber—I am glad to see her return to the House, albeit, through no fault of hers, a little late. I shall give way in a second.
The European elections system was very controversial. It was subject, unusually, to the Parliament Acts. In my view, it is not a good system and will almost certainly have to be changed in due course. However, no one could have said—no one did say—that it was introduced for partisan advantage. Such advantage has palpably not happened.
The amendment tabled by the Leader of the Opposition mentions the special majority that is required to dissolve Parliament and hold a general election. Having failed to get any sort of answer out of the Government, does my right hon. Friend have any theory about why they arrived at the figure of 55%?
I am delighted to be returned to represent the new constituency of Thirsk and Malton, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. He referred to the new electoral system for the European Parliament. Does he accept that, in each European election since the new election procedures were introduced, turnout has dramatically reduced. What would he have proposed had he remained in government to increase the turnout for those elections?
One suggestion—I might even have made it—was that the new system might increase turnout. Even Homer nodded, and that has not been the case, although I think that turnout has gone up a little recently. I am in favour of either an open list, or what is called the semi-open list, which is one of the proposals for the new, reformed House of Lords. I am happy to discuss that further with the hon. Lady in or outside the House.
I have set out the importance of constitutional change being made, whenever possible, by consensus. I therefore greatly hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will resist calls from his side to use the Government’s majority to ram through change for party advantage. That would be wrong—[Laughter.] I say to those who are obviously tempted by that that, with one exception, which was never to my party’s advantage, we worked hard to achieve cross-party consensus because the constitution should not be a partisan weapon in the hands of any party.
Let me consider the key elements of the new Government’s proposals in turn, and then, of course, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
First, let us consider the House of Lords. Next year will be the centenary of the first Parliament Act. The preamble of the 1911 Act spells out that it was introduced as a temporary measure, stating that
“it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”
and therefore the Parliament Act was introduced as a poor substitute. It is 99 years since that historic Act and it is probably now time to complete the original proposals of that great Lib-Lab Government in 1911.
Two reforms followed the 1911 Act: the Parliament Act 1949 and the Life Peerages Act 1958, but there was no further change until 1999, when all but 92 hereditary peers were removed and clear conventions about party balance were established. The consequence has been to make the other place a less supine and more assertive Chamber. That is sometimes inconvenient to government, as I witnessed in taking through very many items of legislation, but it was rare indeed for legislation to be amended in the other place but not improved, as I have often put on the record.
I therefore hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will resist the temptation of some on the Government side, as we have read in some newspapers, to pack the other place with up to 200 Conservative and Liberal Democrat Lords to ensure that the previous convention of no one party having a majority, which has worked well, is retained—[Interruption.] I am not clear why there is such objection to that. When Labour was in government, it was absolutely fine for one third of its legislation to be subject to amendments in the House of Lords. If the proposition is that when the Conservative party is in power, with support from the Liberal Democrats, it is fine for them to have an absolute majority in the House of Lords, let that be put on the record.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. To take him back to his phrase, “ramming through change for political advantage,” may I remind the House that Labour rammed through changes to the Lisbon treaty, denying this country an opportunity to vote on it? That is taking political advantage. I hope he now regrets that decision.
I think the hon. Gentleman protests a little too much on that. He needs to explain, as does the Conservative element of the Government, why the Conservative party abandoned its pledge to withdraw from the Lisbon treaty. Perhaps he would like to have a discussion on that with the Liberal Democrats who support the Government.
I will make a little more progress before giving way to the hon. Gentleman.
For seven years after the 1999 change, the absence of any clear consensus blocked further reform. It will be recalled that in early 2003, this House voted against every single one of seven alternative propositions put before it, ranging from an all-appointed to an all-elected House of Lords. I took over responsibility for Lords reform, in that time-honoured passage from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House, and duly established a cross-party group. Its key conclusions, which worked very well, were set out in a February 2007 Green Paper.
Thankfully, in March 2007 this House voted emphatically in favour of two consistent propositions—an 80% or 100% elected House of Lords—and against all other choices. That proposition for a wholly or mainly elected House has been the foundation for progress since. The cross-party group re-met for 15 months and did a great deal of detailed work on how an elected Lords might operate, and its conclusions were contained in the July 2008 White Paper.
At the most recent general election—for the first time—all three parties were clearly committed to action to secure an elected House of Lords. Further work to ensure that should be straightforward: a great deal has already been done, including, as the Deputy Prime Minister knows, the drafting of many of the key clauses to form the central part of any Bill. I pledge that my party will work constructively on that with him and his Administration, and with luck, we may be able to mark the centenary of the first Parliament Act with legislation finally to meet its long-term goal.
The proposal for a referendum on voting reform is another long-running issue in British politics. It took the expenses scandal for broad agreement to emerge that at the very least the British people should be given the opportunity to decide whether they wish to continue with the existing first-past-the-post system or to move to the alternative vote system. Legislation for an AV referendum was agreed earlier this year by the House by a very substantial majority of 365 to 187. That would have become law by the general election but for the refusal of the Conservative party to allow it to go through in the so-called wash-up. I am glad that the rather spurious objections that the Conservatives raised then have now dissolved. We shall, of course, support clauses on AV if they are put before the House in a similar form to last time.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that in the course of the competitive negotiations with the Liberal Democrats as to which side was going to form a Government, his party offered the Liberal Democrats a deal whereby AV would be rammed through this House without a referendum?
The answer is no. I would also say to the hon. Gentleman that a very significant proportion of Labour Members, including myself, would never have accepted such a proposition had it been put forward—let us be absolutely clear about that.
We support proposals for recall, which we proposed before the election, although the detail will have to be carefully thought through.
Many of the other aspects set out in the coalition agreement are non-controversial. I am glad to see the Administration support the proposals of the Wright Committee, and I hope that we will see good progress made on them. I say parenthetically, on a subject that concerned me greatly when I was in government, that I continue to be concerned about how we conduct our Report and Committee stages on the Floor of the House.
There is another unsatisfactory matter, and I hope that the Leader of the House will consider it. Since there is likely to be some element of timetabling, or even if there is not, we need better order when the House is considering legislation clause by clause, not least by allowing the Chair a discretion to set time limits on speeches. One of the most important functions discharged by this House on the Floor of the House is the consideration of legislation. The old system before 1997 led to great frustration, as did the system post-1997. What we have not yet got right is adequate provision to ensure that Back Benchers especially can take part constructively in debates without those debates being undermined either by too hasty Government timetables or, frankly, by some Back Benchers hogging the whole of the time by filibustering.
On the questions of Lords reform and the legislation for a referendum on voting reform, may we have a clarification from Labour that both will be the subject on the Labour Benches of three-line Whips here and in the House of Lords?
The hon. Gentleman will have to allow me to say that I consult my colleagues about the whipping arrangements that would apply. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) is speculating about whether the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) is worried about something. My advice is for him to worry about how he and his party are going to vote and we will worry about how we vote.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I am glad that the sinner is repenting. Does he regret the use of the guillotine on so many important Bills during the last Parliament? In the Housing and Regeneration Bill, for instance, which I was involved in, more than 200 Government clauses were tabled between Second Reading and Report, so Members were not allowed proper analysis and oversight of that important legislation. [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) says that there were no guillotines, as they were programme motions—but they come to the same thing.
Let me say to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) that I regret the use of guillotines full stop, but sometimes they are necessary. However, I sat in the House in opposition for 18 years, and the first Bill I sat on—the Housing Bill, in early 1980, 30 years ago—was the subject of the most ruthless guillotining, and that on a major measure. There are plenty of other measures of profound importance that were also the subject of guillotining.
My view, both in government and in opposition, has been that the House—certainly over the 30 years in which I have been in it—has not got right the way in which it should deal effectively with legislation on the Floor of the House, and I think that there is a better way. We need to provide for more time, but if we do that, the quid pro quo needs to be limits on speeches, so that people can constructively take part. We also need to look at something that I facilitated on at least one occasion, which is ensuring that when the business is subject to programming or guillotining, some Opposition and Back-Bench amendments can also be the subject of votes. I put those proposals before the House for consideration.
I have set out our view on many of the proposals that are, and will be, the subject of a broad consensus. As I have said, on every proposal that the Deputy Prime Minister brings forward, we shall seek constructively to work with the Government to achieve consensus. However, it seems that consensus was the last thing on the mind of the governing parties, when one turns to some of the elements of the coalition agreement. In his first speech as Deputy Prime Minister, outside the House, the right hon. Gentleman told the nation that he proposed to secure the biggest shake-up of our democracy since the Reform Act of 1832. He described the Reform Act of 1832 as a “landmark”, from
“politicians who refused to sit back and do nothing while huge swathes of the population remained helpless against vested interests. Who stood up for the freedom of the many”—
we have heard that phrase before—
“not the privilege of the few.”
Well, not quite, Mr Speaker, for the truth is that even after the passage of the Great Reform Act of 1832, huge swathes of the population—92% of the population—remained without a vote, helpless in the face of vested interests. The Reform Act of 1832 gave the vote, a limited franchise, to the property-owning class, of whom there were remarkably few, and deliberately ensured that nobody else had the vote—no women, no working men; just 16% of men, and no women whatever.
Let me also say to the right hon. Gentleman that had the Great Reform Act been the landmark in democracy that he suggested—I do not know where he got that from; certainly not even from Wikipedia—none of the agitation of the Chartist movement that followed would have been necessary. Those of us who know a little bit of history will remember that it was the wholly dashed expectations of 1832 that fired up the great Chartist movement. However, the comparison with 1832, if not appropriate, is certainly heavy with unintended irony, for, however limited the effect, the first Reform Act at least extended the franchise. The programme to which the right hon. Gentleman has signed up will reduce the franchise, as I will explain. Some reform!
The former Minister is making an interesting speech about equality, but will he confirm that it was actually a Conservative Government, in 1927, who gave full equality to women and the right for them to vote, and that they did so after a Labour Government, under Ramsay MacDonald, had failed in their promise to do so?
First, that was quite a long time after 1832. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman might recall, the vote was originally given to women over 30 in 1918, and then extended to those over 21 in 1928.
Let me come to the partisan heart of the Government’s constitutional proposals: the plans to cut parliamentary seats, redraw boundaries and speed up individual registration. If those proposals were implemented, they would disfranchise hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our citizens, predominantly the young and members of lower-income groups. Seats would be cut and boundaries fundamentally altered by rigid mathematical formulae devised on the basis of the current electoral register.
According to the Electoral Commission, however, some 3.5 million eligible voters are missing from the register, and that is just in England and Wales. Earlier this year, the commission reported
“under-registration is concentrated among specific social groups, with the registration rates being especially low among young people, private renters and those who have recently moved home. The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation.”
The commission’s study established that in Glasgow 100,000 eligible voters might be missing from the register, quite sufficient to raise all Glasgow seats to the electoral average for Great Britain and to provide for one additional constituency.
Cutting seats and redrawing boundaries in that way, without taking account of the missing voters, will produce a profoundly distorted electoral map of Britain. The map will be even further distorted if this boundary review is undertaken, as the Government have proposed, in tandem with the premature roll-out of individual voter registration, because that process will knock many more eligible people off the register—hundreds of thousands of them.
We are in favour of individual registration. Indeed, it was I who, last year, presented proposals for a new law, which received all-party agreement. But as all the parties agreed just nine months ago, to be fair the process will take both time and money.
I am glad to see the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) in the Chamber, because she played an important and constructive part in securing individual registration. She also went on record as saying, from the Conservative Front Bench, that any future Conservative Government would never take risks with the democratic process. She agreed that we must wait for the 2012 census. It is unclear whether the Deputy Prime Minister is proposing to do that. She also agreed that there must be ways of testing the accuracy of the system, as our legislation does with the requirement for a report from the Electoral Commission in 2014, and she said in terms that we must ensure that the system was utterly watertight. I hope that she still takes that view.
I certainly do still take that view 100%, but the right hon. Gentleman will recall that, when we debated individual voter registration, it was established that the system was intended to increase, not decrease. the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register. Lessons have been learnt from what happened in Northern Ireland. Under the new system, the register will be more accurate and more comprehensive, and it will be fair to have constituencies that are of equal size, so that every vote has equal value.
That is the aspiration, and I do not for a second doubt the good faith of the hon. Lady. I am glad to hear her endorse those proposals—now, sadly, from the Back Benches. As she knows, however, because we had detailed and collaborative discussions on the issue, if the process for individual registration is rushed—and the phrase used in the coalition agreement is “speed this up”—the consequence will be not what she and we seek, but what happened in Northern Ireland. As the Electoral Commission spelt out, what happened in Northern Ireland in 2002 was that a sudden change in the system of electoral registration, although there was a centralised system, led to the immediate loss of nearly 120,000 names—nearly 10%—from the register. The commission said:
“The new registration process disproportionately impacted on young people and students, people with learning disabilities, people with disabilities generally and those living in areas of high social deprivation.”
I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest, but a lot of what he is saying is pure speculation. Does he think that the current system, with its vast discrepancies in constituency size, is fair? The Government in which he served did nothing to address that, yet it needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Nobody argues that it is not important to secure electoral equality in England, Scotland and Wales—where different rules have applied, which is a separate issue—but that must also be subject to other rules involving geography and history, as I shall explain. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the data, he will see that nowadays Labour seats in Scotland and Wales are larger than the few Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats in those two nations. In England, our seats are 3% smaller than the electoral average, and those of the Conservatives are 3% larger. There are also some very large Labour seats these days, however, as well as large Conservative seats. We pursued the same rules as previous Administrations, and the reasons for the recent trends is that there has been more rapid depopulation in areas that are typically Labour, mainly inner cities, although that is now changing.
What is crucial is that these changes are done in a fair way, by agreement between the parties, not in a partisan way. Professor Iain McLean, a lecturer at Oxford university and an elections expert, warned last month that
“to move straight to individual registration risks moving straight to mass disenfranchisement of the young, the urban, the mobile and ethnic minority voters”
and that it
“could make Britain in 2011 like Florida in 2000”.
On the question of city seats, is my right hon. Friend aware that the first casualty could be the Deputy Prime Minister in his Hallam seat in the city of Sheffield—unless, of course, they try to manoeuvre the boundaries so as to try to save his neck, which would test the coalition?
There is no doubt that the biggest net losers under the current proposals in the so-called coalition agreement would be the Liberal Democrats, for reasons that I shall spell out.
On election night, when the Deputy Prime Minister heard that people had been locked out of the polling stations and prevented from casting their ballots, he said:
“I share the bitter dismay of many of my constituents who were not able to exercise their democratic right to vote in this election…That should never, ever happen again in our democracy.”
Yet he now proposes a programme that could have the effect of disfranchising not only some hundreds in his own constituency, but some hundreds of thousands across the United Kingdom. I urge him to think very carefully about what is being proposed.
As for the proposal to cut the number of seats, we need not speculate about the Conservative party’s intentions because they are on the record. Just months before the general election, the Conservative Front-Bench team moved the most detailed amendments to cut the number of seats by 10% and to force the redrawing of the boundaries by rules requiring that arithmetical quotas trump all other considerations. I have a copy of one such amendment before me. It says that the electorate
“shall be as near the electoral quota as is practicable”—
only a 3% margin would be allowed—
“and all other special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency, shall be subordinate to achieving this aim”.
The scheme, therefore, is that arithmetic will trump all, so that history, geography, mountains, rivers, and even communities and the sea, are to be subordinated to arithmetical rules.
The effects would be extraordinary, especially in Scotland. The Orkney and Shetland electorate is 33,000. Under these proposals—official Conservative proposals—Orkney and Shetland would have to be jammed in with Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, which has an electorate of 47,000 in order to make a single seat exactly within the electoral average. The Western Isles, with an electorate of 22,000, is the smallest constituency in the United Kingdom. It would have to be jammed in with a vast swathe of the western highlands—of western Scotland, indeed. In England and Wales, too, long-established patterns of democracy would be destroyed in pursuit of the new Conservative formulae. How such changes, defying history and geography and people’s own sense of place, could possibly be said to strengthen our democracy I do not know. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam will be able to tell us whether he is comfortable with this scheme.
Sometimes when we talk about geography, we do not appreciate the full extent of the situation. My constituency is about the size of Luxembourg and will not meet the 75,000 threshold. The constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, whose Member is here today, is the size of Cyprus; and the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency of the former leader of the Liberal Democrats is the size of the Bahamas. It is not just a matter of numbers but of geographical extent, which makes the proposal for a 75,000 threshold ludicrous.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point, but the truth is that under the amendment to which I referred—there is no need to speculate because this is what is proposed—all the considerations that she and the whole House are concerned about, along, I dare say, with voters across the highlands and islands of Scotland and in many other places as well, would be swept aside, “subordinate”, as the amendment says, to a simple arithmetical rule.
I have said to the House that we favour a referendum on the alternative vote, but I make it clear that we will not allow that to be used as a Trojan horse for an omnibus Bill that will profoundly harm our democracy. The Liberal Democrats would do well to consider the damage to democracy that will arise from these proposals. If appealing to their sense of democracy is not enough, then I appeal to their sense of self-interest. [Interruption.] That is always best with Liberal Democrats. Why do they and the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam think that the Conservatives are now pursuing this idea? It is not out of any principled concern about the size of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister argued passionately against a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament when he was defending the size of his own constituency before the 2003 inquiry into the boundaries in Oxfordshire. The Liberal Democrats have now apparently been pulled along in the wake of this undemocratic proposal to cut seats, yet the Liberal Democrats in Oxfordshire were not then arguing for the status quo of six seats in Oxfordshire––which, at least the Prime Minister was arguing for––but for seven seats, which would have led to a House of Commons of 700.
We need to understand that a 10% reduction in the number of seats and rigid mathematical formulae will change every single boundary in the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) mentioned, that is where the Liberal Democrats are uniquely vulnerable. Their seats are isolated—tiny dots of orange in seas of red or blue—and they have proportionately twice as many marginal seats as either of the other parties. I hope the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam will accept that this proposal is dangerous—dangerous to his own party, for sure, but to the legitimacy of our democracy, as well. There is to be an argument about reducing the number of seats and the way we conduct boundary reviews, but the better way through, since so many reviews have already been set up, is to have an independent examination of how we conduct boundary reviews. That would be far better than the crude and undemocratic system that is being proposed.
Let me make this last point to the right hon. Gentleman. In the United States—this idea came from there—they have simple, rigid arithmetical rules. As the Electoral Reform Society—no great friend of mine and hard-wired into the Liberal Democrat party––has pointed out, the United States also has the worst gerrymandering in the world.
That brings me to the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) raised: the proposal for a 55% threshold to secure the dissolution of Parliament. That 55% threshold appeared in no party manifesto. It is a partisan measure stitched up by the coalition partners to protect themselves from each other—nobody else—while retaining their ability to go for an early election if they believe it would be advantageous.
Where does the figure of 55% come from? That is an interesting question. [Interruption.] Well, I am going to give the answer. It comes from the fact that the Liberals and the Conservatives together have—guess what—57% of the seats in the current Parliament. They would, thus, have the power to dissolve this Parliament if the polls and the signs looked encouraging. The Conservatives, on their own, hold 47% of the seats and the rest of the parties hold 53%, so in the event of a Conservative minority Government it would be impossible to reach the 55% threshold required to force an election. If that is not a political fix, I do not know what is.
The Labour party agrees with fixed-term Parliaments, in principle, and our manifesto included a commitment to legislate. However, given that most Parliaments since the war have lasted four years or less, we favour a four-year term.
Before entering this House, I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me why a 66% threshold was chosen in the Scotland Act 1998 when it went through this House? For what reason was that appropriate then, but not now?
I can give the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) an answer, and it is not a bad one. He ought to read carefully both limbs of section 3 of the 1998 Act. If he had bothered to read it and if those negotiating this coalition agreement had done so—I have the Act before me for the sake of greater accuracy—they would know what it states. Under section 3(1)(a), the presiding officer has to require an “extraordinary general election”—an early general election—for the Scottish Parliament if two thirds of the Parliament vote for that. However, the provision contains an “or”, not an “and”, because section 3(1)(b) states that if there is
“any period during which the Parliament is required under section 46 to nominate one of its members for appointment as First Minister ends without such a nomination being made”,
after 28 days there has to be a general election. That election is triggered by a simple majority, not by a two thirds one. Therefore, we should hear no more rubbish about there being a two thirds lock in the Scottish Parliament, because it is not true.
Please can we never again hear this comparison with the situation in the Scottish Parliament on this point, because it is totally spurious? The 66% threshold is required for the immediate dissolution of the Scottish Parliament, but 50% remains the threshold for a confidence vote, as it should remain in this House.
I should also tell hon. Members that if they were to read section 3 of the 1998 Act, they would find that if, for example, the First Minister is voted out by a simple majority and after 28 days no new First Minister has been voted in, an election has to take place. That is done by a simple majority, so the only effect of this provision is to delay matters by requirements relating to a simple majority and 28 days. There is no parallel, whatsoever, in these arrangements, and the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North knows it.
Is the right hon. Gentleman’s real view that the Prime Minister’s unfettered power to call a general election at a time of his choosing should be retained and that we should not have fixed-term Parliaments, or is he proposing an alternative mechanism, be it the Scottish Parliament’s combination of a 66% threshold and a one-month rule or some other mechanism?
I do not understand. Either this has been done for partisan reasons—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”] Of course, I am going to answer the question—I always do—but I am allowed to answer the question in my own way. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and I have been debating this for long enough. I say to him that either this has been done for the most crude of partisan reasons, or the Government have simply misunderstood how they can establish fixed-term Parliaments and take away the right of the Prime Minister to recommend Dissolution before then. It is very straightforward. We can legislate for fixed-term Parliaments—our view is that we ought to go for four-year, not five-year, Parliaments—and we can also legislate to take away the power of the Prime Minister to recommend Dissolution before then, but what we should not do is legislate to take away the power of the House of Commons to remove a Government. I am afraid that they are doing that on some curious and spurious arithmetic.
In the same speech in which he talked about the 1832 reform Act, about which I have had to correct him, the Deputy Prime Minister also said:
“We are not taking away Parliament's right to throw out Government; we’re taking away Government's right to throw out Parliament.”
That is utter nonsense. It is casuistry in the extreme. We are talking about the Government’s right to throw out Parliament and we are talking about Parliament’s right to throw out the Government.
I remind the House of an excellent article in The Daily Telegraph, inserted by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), in which he says that the 55%-majority plan will “taint” the “New Politics” and that to
“introduce such a measure in this way is simply wrong.”
He goes on to say:
“The requirement for a 55 per cent majority to dissolve parliament, and thereby dismiss a government, dramatically reduces the ability of Parliament to hold the executive to account. It is a major constitutional change, possibly one of the greatest since 1911.”
He also draws attention to what would have happened in 1979, which some of us will recall, when the Government of the day lost their majority by one vote. The then Leader of the Labour party and the Government said that there would have to be an election—it followed like night follows day. People talk about having a period of looking at a coalition in such a situation, but what do they think was being done in the days leading up to that vote but searching for a coalition? It was precisely because one was not available that the Government ran out of numbers and the vote was lost. In that situation, when there had been a vote of no confidence in the Government, the Labour Government could have carried on—they might no doubt have wished to—until the following October, because the 55% threshold would not have been achieved. If that had happened, they would have been in the ludicrous and wholly undemocratic position—
We are not wrong. It is interesting that whenever Ministers have sought to explain this, they have tied themselves in knots. In the very first Adjournment debate of this Parliament, on the day of the Queen’s Speech, the poor benighted Deputy Leader of the House got tied in knots not only by Labour Members but by most of the Conservative Members. I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to spell out how this is going to work and, above all, to withdraw this ludicrous and undemocratic proposal. I say to him, in the full hearing of a packed Front Bench, that the Deputy Leader of the House also put it on record that the Bill would not be guillotined, so that we could forget about programme motions, and that it would be dealt with on the Floor of the House, but it might never come out of the House, such is the controversy behind it.
Constitutional reform is fundamental for any democracy that wants to renew itself and make itself responsive to the needs of an ever-evolving electorate. The Opposition are in favour of reform that will strengthen Parliament and the democratic process, and we will work constructively to achieve measures with that objective in mind. As it stands, this package of proposals contains far too many partisan political fixes, and is not so much new politics as an old-fashioned stitch-up between the two oldest parties in the House. We oppose those changes and I commend my amendment to the House.
I thank the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for opening today’s debate, which he did at considerable length—so much so that I am increasingly attracted to the idea of time limits on speeches.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke with great knowledge and at times some generosity about our proposed programme. That is no wonder given what we are proposing: a referendum on the alternative vote—a Labour manifesto pledge; the power of recall—a Labour manifesto pledge; moves to reform party funding, fixed-term Parliaments and an elected Second Chamber—all Labour manifesto pledges. In fact, never before will a Government have delivered quite so many of Labour’s election promises. Who would have thought it would be a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition that finally got around to doing that?
I recognise of course that the right hon. Gentleman has great authority on those matters. His Government, in their early days, had a clear reformist streak—devolution, freedom of information and progress on Lords reform. Unfortunately, that momentum was lost, but after the right hon. Gentleman’s speech today perhaps that zeal for political reform, which Labour lost in government, will now be rediscovered in opposition.
I have heard the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns, particularly his lengthy concerns about the boundary review, which seem a little coloured by the almost unsettling suspicion that there is a political plot at every turn. I shall seek to address some of his concerns, although I shall leave debate about the merits or otherwise of the 1832 Act to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) and other historians. I shall focus primarily on the constitutional reforms being pursued by the Government, for which I have direct responsibility, although I shall say a few words about some of the issues raised by the Opposition that will be taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. She will pick up those issues later.
On the constitutional side, yes, of course we will need to work out the precise detail of the reforms we are proposing, but I sincerely hope that their underlying principles will bring both sides of the House together. Despite any differences, we all share a single ambition: to restore people’s faith in their politics and their politicians. The Government’s plans will do just that, because our programme turns a page on Governments who hoard power, on Parliaments that look inwards rather than outwards, and on widespread disengagement among people who feel locked out of decisions that affect their everyday lives. This is a moment when together we have a real opportunity to change our politics for good.
I do not think anyone in the House, and particularly outside it, would question the value of trying to reduce the cost of Parliament, by making a modest cut in the total numbers. I do not judge the quality of our democracy—nor should the hon. Gentleman—by the simple number of politicians in the House.
Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister could clarify the issue I put to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) earlier. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us with a straight face exactly how he alighted on the figure of 55% rather than 54%, 56% or even 66% in his proposals? What was the logic of 55%—straight-faced?
I shall come to that in greater detail in a minute. Quite simply, the logic is to stop any single party doing what happens at the moment, which is timing the occasion of a general election for pure party self-interest. That is what needs to be removed if we are to have proper fixed-term Parliaments. The hon. Gentleman, if he agrees with his Front-Bench colleagues, supports fixed-term Parliaments, yet he has absolutely no proposals on how to implement them in practice.
I should like to make progress and then I will give way again.
First, we need to relinquish Executive control. The Government are determined that no Government should be able to play politics with the dates of a general election. [Interruption.] I am addressing the point that was made. Parliamentary terms should be fixed for five years.
Let me make some progress, and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. Let him hear me out first.
We need a new right for Parliament to request a Dissolution, taking away the Prime Minister’s exclusive and traditional right to call an election when he or she wishes. The majority required for early Dissolution—set at 55% in the coalition agreement—has clearly sparked a lot of anguish among the Opposition. It should; it is an important decision that will, of course, be properly considered by the whole House, as the legislation progresses. But the Opposition in their amendment today are wilfully misrepresenting how that safeguard will function. Their amendment deliberately confuses that new right with traditional powers of no confidence, which will remain in place intact.
Let me assure the House that we are already conducting detailed work on the steps that are necessary to remove any theoretical possibility of a limbo in which a Government who could not command the confidence of the House would refuse to dissolve Parliament and give people their say. That would clearly be intolerable. Any new arrangements will need to build on existing conventions, so that a distinction is maintained between no confidence and early Dissolution.
The right hon. Gentleman referred earlier to hoarding power. Will he explain the length of time that he is talking about—the five-year term—bearing in mind the fact that, since 1832, the average peacetime Parliament has lasted for considerably less than four years, at three years and eight months. Australia and New Zealand have three-year Parliaments. The countries with five-year Parliaments are Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and France. Which is he measuring against?
The hon. Gentleman normally talks with some knowledge, but he appears to have forgotten that the Parliament Act 1911 instituted five-year parliamentary terms and that the Labour party has just had a five-year parliamentary term. It is difficult for him to see the coalition Government introduce all the changes that he used to talk about and failed to deliver. You had 13 years finally to do something and introduce political reform. We are finally going to go on and do it.
Yes; I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for, once again, really picking out the important things in the debate today.
We are also committed to strengthening Parliament by introducing the Wright Committee’s proposals, starting with the proposed committee for the management of Back-Bench business before the subsequent introduction of a House business committee to consider Government business.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I should like to make a bit of progress if I may.
We also plan to strengthen the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, too, by implementing recommendations from the Calman commission’s final report. Equally, Wales will get a referendum on further devolution—a decision that will be taken by the Welsh people.
Yes, the Government do support a yes vote in that referendum. As for the referendum’s timing, as the hon. Gentleman may know, the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister are meeting today, with a view to identifying a date—most likely, in the first few months of next year—to hold that referendum.
Here in London, as we strengthen Parliament, we must of course ensure that we have cleaned it up, too. Radical steps have already been taken to put in place a new expenses regime. Although the way that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is working in its early days may be controversial to some hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am sure that everyone agrees that public confidence in how MPs are paid is absolutely crucial. Our personal arrangements should never be so grossly out of step with those of our constituents, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is already talking to IPSA about how we can move away from the generous final salary pension scheme enjoyed by Members of the House.
Expenses were only ever the tip of the iceberg. The influence of big money runs much deeper. It is time to finish what was started three years ago in the cross-party talks on party funding. Every party has had its own problems, but we all now have an opportunity to draw a line under them, so we will seize that opportunity. We will pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding to remove big money from politics for good.
Equally, we all remember the outrage felt in all parts of the House at the lobbying scandals that unfolded just a few months ago, before the general election. Much lobbying activity is perfectly legitimate. Much of it serves an important function, allowing different organisations and charities to make representations to Parliament, but it is a process—I am sure everyone agrees on this—that must be made completely transparent. We are committed to ensuring that transparency and we will introduce a statutory register of lobbyists.
Finally, if, once all those reforms are in place, there are individual parliamentarians who still break the rules, we will also guarantee that the House of Commons is not a safe house. We will introduce legislation to ensure that, where it has been proven that a Member has been engaged in serious wrongdoing, their constituents will have the right to organise a petition to force a by-election.
When people have been let down by their MP in that way, they must not be made to wait until the next election to cast their judgment, but I also want to be clear: recall will not collapse into some tit-for-tat game between party political rivals, with parties seeking to oust each other through those petitions. When MPs are accused of doing something seriously wrong, they are entitled—everyone is entitled in the House—to expect a fair and due process to determine their innocence or guilt. That is why I certainly would not be content for a body composed only of MPs, as the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges was, to be the sole route by which we decide an MP’s culpability. That is why we are looking into exactly what would be the fairest, most appropriate and most robust trigger. I shall outline those plans very soon.
May I take the Deputy Prime Minister back from recall of MPs to the issue of recall of Governments? I am still not entirely sure that he answered the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). I understand the point that the Deputy Prime Minister is making about there needing to be a 50 per cent. majority vote of no confidence. The issue under debate is how that would trigger a general election. Will he explain why the Government appear to have hit on a figure that bears a dramatic resemblance to their own figures and their own strength, rather than the general party balance in Parliament? Why that figure?
I have already explained, and the hon. Gentleman must accept, that, clearly, there needs to be a different figure for the motion of no confidence, which stands, and the figure for dissolution—a new right for Parliament.
I have also explained that, when we table the legislation, we will of course ensure that no Government can fall between those two things—a motion of no confidence and a vote of dissolution. We will, as is the case in many other parliamentary systems, set out how we can avoid a limbo in which a Government do not enjoy the confidence of the House yet a vote has not taken place, or cannot take place, to dissolve Government. That is what we will do. Instead of constantly seeking to see plots around every single corner, driven by a touch of party paranoia, I ask the hon. Gentleman to relax and wait until he has seen the legislation. Then we can have the debate.
Frankly, if these proposals are formed already, the Deputy Prime Minister needs, if I may say so, better to spell out how they would operate. Will he please, for the benefit of the House, explain what would happen following a vote of no confidence? Let us take as an example what happened in ’79—the vote of no confidence. Everybody knew that that would trigger a general election. If there had been a 55% threshold, there could not have been a general election; there would have been limbo. What is his proposal for filling that gap?
The Government are three weeks old. The right hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out that these are very important matters. We want to get them right. I have indicated today, quite clearly, that this is not just a matter of the vote of no confidence and a threshold for a vote for dissolution, and that we need to fill in the details of the legislation to prevent what I think he is rightly concerned about, which is a Government not enjoying the confidence of the House, yet a vote of dissolution—