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Schools Funding

Volume 513: debated on Wednesday 7 July 2010

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to apologise to you and to the whole House for the way information accompanying my oral statement on Monday was provided to all Members.

During my statement a list of schools affected by our plans to review capital funding was placed in the House of Commons Library. I wish to apologise to you and to the whole House for not placing that list on the Table of the House and in the Vote Office at the beginning of my statement, as you reminded me page 441 of “Erskine May” quite properly requires. I further wish to apologise for the inaccurate information on the list I was supplied with and which I gave to the House. [Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Secretary of State. The statement will be heard in silence. That is the way things are done in these circumstances.

A number of schools were miscategorised, and for that I apologise. In particular, there were schools that were listed as proceeding when, in fact, their rebuild will not now go ahead. That confusion caused Members of this House and members of the public understandable distress and concern, and I wish to take full personal responsibility for that regrettable error.

I also wish to apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House for any confusion over the manner of my apology today and any related media speculation. In responding to press queries earlier, my Department confirmed that I was writing to those affected by these mistakes, and it was my intention then to come to the House with as accurate a picture as possible of the exact errors and to apologise for them. I have placed a revised list of schools in the Vote Office and am writing to all Members affected. I would be grateful if any Members who are concerned that schools may have been wrongly categorised were to contact me personally, so that I can ensure, with them, that the information we have been supplied with is as accurate as possible. Once again, Mr Speaker, I am grateful to you and to the whole House for granting me the opportunity to make this statement and, once again, to apologise unreservedly.

May I thank the Secretary of State for finally coming to this House to make an apology for the serious errors made in his statement on Monday about the cuts to the school building programme? It is right that he apologising to this House, but he should also apologise to all the pupils, parents and teachers expecting new buildings, who have now had them cruelly snatched away.

The chaos and confusion around this announcement is frankly astonishing. First, during the statement on Monday the Secretary of State had a list of the more than 700 school building projects that he was axing, but no list was available to any other hon. Members during the debate. Does the Secretary of State agree that this must not happen again and that, in any other statement he makes, timely and accurate information will be made available to all hon. Members?

We then find out that this list of school projects to be cut by the Government was inaccurate and that schools who thought they were safe have, in fact, lost out. A second list was published on Monday night, followed by a third list yesterday afternoon, and we now believe a fourth list may be coming. A total of 25 schools had wrong information: nine schools previously listed as going ahead have now been told they will be cancelled; seven schools previously listed as unaffected have now been told they are “under discussion”; and five schools which are under review or have been axed were not even on the list at all. These are schools in Sandwell, Northamptonshire, Bexley, Doncaster, Greenwich, Peterborough and Staffordshire. Can the Secretary of State explain how this possibly could have happened?

It is good that the Secretary of State has finally been dragged kicking and screaming to this House to apologise, but the real apology should be directly to the more than 700 communities up and down this country expecting new schools, who now will not get them. The real apology should be to the teachers, pupils, parents and governors from every area who have had the prospect of new buildings and new facilities cruelly snatched away. Will the Secretary of State now apologise to the country for shattering the dreams and hopes of so many pupils and schools across the country?

I thank the shadow Minister for his questions, and I understand the passion with which he speaks; it is entirely understandable in the circumstances. May I also apologise—quite rightly—to those in the borough of Sandwell and all those other boroughs that were most affected by the inaccurate way in which I made my announcement? I entirely agree with him that it is parents and teachers in those schools, who believed that they were spared and found out 24 hours later that their schools were to be closed, who were the most badly affected. It is their feelings that I am most affected by. He is absolutely right to invite me to apologise, and I am more than happy to underline how sorry I feel towards the parents and teachers involved.

The hon. Gentleman asks me to ensure that this will not happen again. It will always be my aim to ensure that timely and accurate information is provided to the House, and I apologise once again for the inaccuracies in the information given. He mentions that two lists were supplied; they were, indeed. One listing was by local authority and one listing was by parliamentary constituency. We have sought to ensure that the list that is now supplied is as complete as possible and as accurate as possible, and I repeat again that I am apologising to all Members who may have been misled, inadvertently, by the information that was supplied on Monday. For those Members who wish to contact me personally, I hope to be able to talk to all of them and reassure them about the future of the building projects in each constituency affected

Order. I know that passions are running very high on this matter—[Interruption.] Order. I certainly understand why, but the hon. Gentleman must be heard, and he will be.

Banbury school in my constituency is one of those where my right hon. Friend has had to cut the funding, and, actually, I think that all my constituents understand that, given how the Opposition left the cupboard absolutely bare, it really does not lie in their mouths to complain that we have had to take the action that we have. I have no hesitation or problem in going to the teachers and parents of pupils at Banbury school and explaining the realities of life as they are.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. On Monday I explained to the House why I had to take the regrettable decision that we took. Today is a day for me to apologise for the inaccuracy that accompanied my statement. I am grateful for the generosity of his support, but the important thing that I would like the whole House to appreciate is that I am apologising today, and the only person who should apologise today is me.

Mr Speaker, I can assure you that there is nothing synthetic about the anger felt in Sandwell. The pupils in Sandwell have seen what the new politics is: they have seen the attempt to sneak out a half-spun, half-apology on the BBC, and they have seen the Secretary of State come here humiliated for the second time this week to apologise to them. He can embarrass himself, he can disgrace his party, but what is intolerable is that he has cynically raised the hopes of hundreds and thousands of families. You’re a miserable pipsqueak of a man, Gove. You have—

Order. Before we go any further, I must ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the term that I think he used. I think I heard the term, “pipsqueak”. The hon. Gentleman must withdraw that term. It is not appropriate—[Interruption.] Order. I know what I am doing. Members should leave this matter to me.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question; it gives me the opportunity once again to apologise to his constituents and to other parents and teachers in Sandwell for the confusion that was caused by the mistake that I made on Monday. I understand the passion that he brings to the issue, and I understand how hard he fights for his constituents. I shall be very happy to go to West Bromwich and apologise to those who have been misled by the mistake that has been made. I am more than happy to do so. As I said earlier, the mistake was mine and mine alone, and I am happy to acknowledge it.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement here this evening, because one school that has been wrongly classified is the St Helena school in my constituency, which by some happy coincidence is the one that I used to go to. However, will the Secretary of State have words with Conservative-controlled Essex county council, which, notwithstanding his statement, still proposes to shut two secondary schools in my constituency? They were going to be shut if Building Schools for the Future money had been forthcoming. There is no money, but the council is still going to shut them—despite the fact that 96% of my constituents do not want them shut.

I know exactly what my hon. Friend means; I am very well aware of the situation in Colchester; and I know that the situation to which he alludes is one that now, as a result of the decision that was taken on Monday, we can freely and, I hope, constructively discuss.

Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement today will have done nothing to assuage the anger in Coventry at his continued ignoring of the situation in Coventry? I understand that not a single one of its schools, even on the revised list, is to be given the go-ahead. That is a degree of neglect and irresponsibility on his part which, frankly, we did not expect of him.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. Once again, I expressed my regret on Monday, and I underline it again today, that we are not in a position to go ahead with 50% of the projects under the Building Schools for the Future programme. My reason for coming to the House today was to apologise for the 25 or so schools that were wrongly categorised in the 1,400 or so about which we made an announcement. However, I do understand the particular sense of regret that many—he and his parliamentary neighbours—will feel across Coventry and I am sorry that the decision that I announced to the House on Monday was forced on us because of the regrettable financial legacy that we inherited.

I thank the Secretary of State for the clarity that he has provided today on a very thorny issue. Rather than focusing on the synthetic anger of Labour Members, I welcome his offer to apologise to the schools affected, but ask him to ensure that he writes not only to the local education authority but to the individual headmasters. I have spent today on the phone having to deal with disappointed parents and headmasters who are uncertain of what the situation is. I welcome his apologies; can he please ensure that they are transmitted to the headmasters in my area and the other areas affected?

I understand that the Secretary of State has apologised for errors in the list, but why did the list not come to the House in the first place? Was it because he did not think that other Members of this House should see it, or was there some other reason?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. No, absolutely not. I wanted to make sure that Members had as much information as possible. In the course of my statement, I outlined the criteria by which I had been guided and the fact that we were going to terminate those projects which had not reached financial close, with the exception of some projects which were at the so-called close of dialogue stage. The fact that the list was placed in the Library, and not on the Table of the House and in the Vote Office, is something that I deeply regret and for which I should like to apologise once more. The hon. Lady’s question provides me with an opportunity to say, once again, that I am sorry, to her and to other colleagues.

The whole House welcomes the Secretary of State’s gracious apology. However, is not the real deceit the more heinous because it was intentional—the one perpetrated by Labour Members who ran around the country during the election campaign promising school rebuilding programmes that they knew the money was not there to supply? That is a disgrace.

Order. Let me say very gently that, in so far as one can hear everything that was said, the hon. Gentleman has made his point, and made it very clearly, but the Secretary of State is not responsible for the policies or for the behaviour of other parties. He might, however, wish very briefly to reply.

Does the Secretary of State understand not only the anger but the confusion of the young students from Copland school and Alperton school, who, at the very moment when he was at the Dispatch Box making his original statement, were receiving an award from the organisers of Building Schools for the Future for their contribution to the design of the new schools that they then heard him announce were not going ahead?

Does the Secretary of State also understand that the manner of his dealing with questions on the statement—

Order. I have cut the hon. Gentleman off at one and a half questions, but I think we have the gravamen of what he wanted to convey.

As the hon. Gentleman might know, I have visited Copland school and know that its facilities are less than adequate, so I appreciate the frustration that the staff, pupils and parents of that school will feel. I underlined on Monday the regrettable fact that the economic circumstances that we inherited meant that we could not go ahead as we might have wished with the school rebuilding programme. I also stressed that the manner in which Building Schools for the Future had been organised did not seem to me to guarantee the best value for money. We are reviewing how capital is allocated in order to ensure that we get value for money so that those schools across the country that do need rebuilding and renovation will receive that money in a more timely and efficient manner in future.

To my ears, the Secretary of State’s apology is sincere. One school affected is the Eastbourne technology college, which is under consideration. So that I can reassure the head and the staff, can my right hon. Friend give me some indication of exactly the time line for the decision on whether the building will go ahead?

We hope to make the decision in respect of the school to which my hon. Friend refers before the House rises for the summer, but I will obviously seek to talk to him after this statement in order to clarify exactly the position that his school is in.

Order. Just before there is a growing enthusiasm for participation in the statement—people are standing up who were not standing up before—perhaps I can just emphasise to the House that the statement is about the manner in which matters were handled, and indeed to an extent about the inaccuracy of lists. We are not having a re-run of Monday’s statement, when the Secretary of State, if memory serves me, was available for one hour and 20 minutes. We are not going through all of that again.

I thank the Secretary of State for his dignified statement, and I have a deal of sympathy for him, but may I ask for a little more than sympathy for the people of Cardinal Wiseman high school in my constituency, who have been told that their case for a rebuild under BSF is under further discussion as a sample school? Can he give the House some indication of when he will make a decision on that, because they desperately need to know the facts?

Ealing is one of those local authorities in that stage prior to financial close called close of dialogue. As the hon. Gentleman quite rightly points out, several schools in each of those local authority areas are called sample schools. Those schools are thought to be in the most urgent need. For that reason, we wish to do everything possible to try to ensure that they will receive funding as quickly as possible. As I mentioned in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), I hope to be able to provide clarity by the time the House rises for the summer recess.

I should like to thank the Secretary of State for his apology. I am sure that not one person in the Chamber has not made a mistake at some stage. I also imagine that few in the Chamber would be able to apologise to the House with such dignity and humility, and I thank him for that. However, will he explain the reason for the list that was released, and the reasons for the cuts that we are seeing? The fact is that there simply was no money—it was promised and never delivered. Will he explain why the list was released in the first place?

Order. The right hon. Gentleman should sometimes beware the entreaties of his friends, and I know he will be conscious of that. I have just made the point that we cannot rehearse all the arguments behind the announcement. I will leave it to the judgment of the Secretary of State briefly to respond.

My hon. Friend refers to the list. The list was furnished to me by those involved in the Building Schools for the Future project, but it was my responsibility to check it before it came to the House. I was anxious to do so in as rigorous a way as possible. The fact that the list contained inaccuracies when it came to the House is my responsibility alone. It was for that that I wished to apologise, and I underline that apology thanks to my hon. Friend’s question.

Surely the Secretary of State owes the House an explanation as to why he brought wrong information to it. We do not seem to have had such an explanation. Just for the record, given that the list is now elsewhere and not available to hon. Members in the Chamber listening to the statement, could he reassure us about and explain the decision that has been made on the Staffordshire schools?

I would like to make two points in response to the hon. Lady’s question. I sought as quickly as I could to bring to the House a statement explaining the future of Building Schools for the Future. That is why I made the statement on Monday. There had been a great deal of speculation about the future of the project, and to allow it to proceed would have meant that whichever schools were built, unnecessary additional administrative costs would have been incurred. That is why I sought the fullest possible information, and sought to bring it to the House in a statement at the earliest possible stage. I know that the hon. Lady is a Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent. One announcement that I was able to make on Monday was that Stoke-on-Trent, as a local authority that has reached financial close, will see all the schools under Building Schools for the Future rebuilt or refurbished.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the other piece of important factual information he presented on Monday, the expansion of the Teach First programme, is in fact accurate, and that the numbers were presented—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry; I respect the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm, but the short answer is that the Secretary of State cannot go into that, because it is way beyond the terms of the statement today. If I know the hon. Lady, she will save it up for another day, and we look forward to hearing it on a subsequent occasion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) has gone to the heart of the situation, and the Secretary of State has markedly failed to answer her searching question. When the Secretary of State delivered his statement to the House, he presented the image of a man who had spent 24/7 examining the Building Schools for the Future programme and had at his fingertips absolutely every issue relating to it, yet we learn today that he did not have that knowledge. He should apologise to the House for his failure as a Secretary of State, and for failing markedly to be on top of his brief.

I hear what the hon. Lady says, and I remember also her passionate intervention on Monday. I take note exactly of what she said, and I can only underline again that I apologise for the fact that the information I presented to the House was inaccurate.

It is extraordinary how this list was produced and put before the House. Let us recall what happened on Monday: the Secretary of State was cuddling the list as if it contained secret information, and he slipped bits out only as they were forced from him in response to questions from Opposition Members. Therefore some of us on the Opposition Benches suspect that the Secretary of State knew that the list was not complete and that there were errors in it when he was delivering it in the House—[Interruption.]

Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat. I would not want to misunderstand the hon. Gentleman, but I am gaining an impression that he is suggesting that—[Interruption.] Order. I am gaining an impression that he is suggesting that the Secretary of State was engaged in a knowing deception. [Interruption.] I really do not believe that to be so, and to my knowledge there is certainly no evidence for that, and I cannot have a Member accusing any other Member of knowing deception—of deliberately misleading people—unless that can be substantiated.

I think it would be better if the hon. Gentleman left it there, but I will allow him a sentence to try to clarify his position.

I did say that some of us suspect that that is the case, Mr Speaker, and if you ask me to withdraw that, I will obviously do so, but I think there is something that needs to be investigated further in the way that the Secretary of State treated the House. [Interruption.]

Order. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that I have given a ruling and I think it is a fair one. I asked the hon. Gentleman to clarify his position, but it has not moved me, if I may say so. However, he is a very experienced parliamentarian—he and I came into the House together—and if he wants to table questions or write letters or both, and to engage in all sorts of other activities that satisfy him in relation to this subject, I do not think he will require any encouragement from me to do so.

In the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I mentioned in response to a previous question that two lists were furnished on Monday afternoon. One list was supplied to Members, which listed schools by constituency, and another, which listed schools by local authority, went on my Department’s website. The aim was to be as candid as possible with all the people raising queries about the number and location of affected schools. I had sought to satisfy myself that the list I had was as accurate as possible, and I had ensured that the people who supplied me with it knew the importance of providing accurate information to the House. The fact that inaccurate information was supplied to the House is, however, my fault, and my fault alone. The fact that the information did not reach the hon. Member in the most accurate and timely way possible is my fault, and my fault alone, and I apologise unreservedly.

We must take the apology for what it is, but the Secretary of State must now deal with the consequence of that, which is that he failed to give an opportunity to Back Benchers to question him on the implications of, in the case of my constituents, losing 20 school-building programmes. My constituents go to 20 of these schools. The Secretary of State will remember that he referred to Phoenix school as an excellent school. Its head teacher, Sir William Atkinson, told the Evening Standard, “It is devastating news”. He has lost £25 million. He has buildings with concrete crumbling, iron pipework that has been fractured, lots of leaks and flat roofs that are leaking. Will the Secretary of State therefore give parliamentary time, or meet me and Sir William and the other heads, to discuss what we do now?

I am always very happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, to schools in Hammersmith and Fulham.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will understand the massive anger in my constituency over what has happened, particularly as the permanent secretary to the Department for Education has now clarified the fact that the money for this programme was there. Is the Secretary of State aware of the following type of error, which happened in my constituency? A school that was proposed for closure was told in the literature given out by his Department that that had been stopped. If that is another error he was not aware of, how many more might still be out there, and what is he going to do about that?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. In my statement, I made it clear that I would be grateful if hon. Members would ensure that any information they had that pointed to inaccuracies was put to me, and I am very happy to discuss that. Following the questions and points of order that have been raised by Opposition Members, my Department has insisted on looking at all the information that has been placed in the public domain in order to check it for accuracy. That is why I have come to the House today to make this statement. I believe that about 25 schools were miscategorised. I think that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), indicated in the question that he asked that that was around the figure that he had identified as well. With other schools that were listed, there were clerical errors—for example, the date of opening was not accurately recorded—and for that I apologise.

I am not really sure about this, Mr Speaker, but is the Secretary of State saying that the list that was put in the Vote Office this afternoon is not accurate? I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) that a school that is listed as in her constituency actually is not in it.

It is my belief that the list we have placed in the Vote Office is accurate. I know that there was particular confusion regarding schools in Durham in the first list that was issued on Monday, but we have sought to clarify that and I believe that it is now correct.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State and to all hon. and right hon. Members for their co-operation.