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Building Schools for the Future

Volume 523: debated on Monday 14 February 2011

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on his assessment of the High Court ruling on Friday to the effect that the decision to cancel the Building Schools for the Future programme in Waltham Forest and other areas was illegal.

I am grateful for the opportunity that this urgent question gives me to repeat the points made in my written ministerial statement of Friday.

On Friday, Mr Justice Holman handed down a judgment on the judicial review brought by six local authorities, including Waltham Forest, following my decision to cancel BSF projects in their areas. It was, of course, deeply regrettable that any building projects had to be cancelled, but the scale of the deficit we inherited meant that cuts were inevitable, and the inefficiency that characterised BSF schemes meant that we needed a new approach. All the local authorities that pursued the action agreed that cuts had to be made, but, as the judge records, they argued that

“other (unidentified) projects should have been stopped rather than theirs”.

The claimants argued that Government decision making was confused and irrational, but the judge made it clear that the decisions I made were clear and rational. He said that

“the Secretary of State intended to draw, and did draw, a clear demarcation between situations where there were obligations under contract and those where there were not. The decision is not open to challenge on irrationality.”

The claimants argued that the chosen cut-off date for projects was wrong, but the judge also made it clear that

“a cut-off date of January 1st reflected government-wide policy and helped to achieve that policy by making very large savings.”

The claimants also argued that there was a breach of promise in stopping their specific projects, but the judge said:

“I do not consider that there was any failure…because there was no such promise or expectation.”

I am grateful that on all those substantive points, the judge found as he did, in our favour.

On two procedural grounds, the judge ruled in favour of the claimants. In essence, his view is that my consultation with 14 local authorities in relation to 32 sample schools and a further 119 individual academy projects did not go far enough, and that I should have included the six claimants in my consultation. He also judged that I should have had rigorous regard to equalities considerations in reaching my decision.

The judge has not ordered a reinstatement of funding for any BSF project, nor has he ordered me to pay compensation to any of the claimants. Instead, he concluded that I must give each of them an opportunity to make representations, and then review the decision, in so far as it affects these six authorities, with an open mind. I am happy to do so. The judge has made it clear that

“the final decision on any given school or project still rests with”

me, and that I

“may save all, some, a few or none”.

He concluded by saying that

“no one should gain false hope from this decision”.

I am grateful to the judge for that direction, for the fair and careful manner in which he appraised the evidence, and for his support for the Government on the substantive decisions that we took.

I want to emphasise, first, that the purpose of the urgent question was not to score points, but genuinely to elicit information, and secondly, that the court action was not taken light-heartedly but because, in the case of my local authority, Waltham Forest, we felt that there was no option as the urgency had become so great.

In my constituency, which is not unusual, seven schools were due for rebuilds—George Mitchell, Buxton, Belmont Park, Norlington, Connaught, Leytonstone and Lammas, which is on the boundary between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). We were also expecting a new school to be built to deal with the rising demand for places in secondary school. That brings me to the crux of the argument, which is that by 2014 we will be 500 places short in secondary schools. That is a minimum. Waltham Forest is usually a recipient of migration from central London, which means that the actual demand could be 600, 700 or perhaps more. At present, 500 is the bare minimum.

There are three other points to be considered. One is that the structure of many of the schools in question is dreadful and literally falling apart. Teachers, pupils, governors and other staff have fought valiantly, and BSF was the light at the end of the tunnel until it was taken away. Secondly, a number of the schools that I mentioned serve some of the most deprived areas in London, which means some of the most deprived areas in Britain—areas that are struggling with all sorts of problems. Thirdly, some of the schools were on the verge of being decanted, expecting the work to start. In the case of Leytonstone, the school was hours away from moving students to other premises in the expectation that building work would start.

I want to ask a number of specific questions. What is the time scale for finding a replacement and addressing the judgment? Will the Secretary of State approach the matter with an open mind? He has already said that he would, but I want him to reiterate that. Will he consult openly with the schools and the local authorities, but in a fairly tight time frame because matters are becoming so urgent? Lastly, the argument is not about bringing back BSF. We recognise that it has gone, but as he said, we expect a replacement to be announced, and so far that has not happened. When will a replacement be announced?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the fair way in which he makes the case on behalf of his constituents. I should point out that Waltham Forest has already received £68 million from BSF, but I appreciate, as he rightly says, that there are many schools in Waltham Forest which are not in the state of repair that either he or I would wish to see.

The hon. Gentleman makes the point that by 2014 Waltham Forest secondary schools will be 500 places short. I am sure that he, like me, is aware that many primary schools across London are short of places. We must balance the need to ensure that there are places in secondary schools with investment in primary schools, which BSF did not cover.

The hon. Gentleman asked three specific questions, one of which was about the time scale. I have already been in touch, through my Department, I understand, with Waltham Forest. We want to make sure that we can receive proper representations on behalf of the local authority and its schools in a way that enables us to make comprehensive judgments in the most rapid time available. For that reason, in response to his second question, I will of course keep an open mind and will be keen to hear from him, other Waltham Forest Members and anyone with an interest in the decision. His third question was on consultation with the local authority and the relevant schools. I will be in touch with the local authority to find the most expeditious way of ensuring that the judge’s directions can be followed.

However exemplary the Secretary of State is in being fair-minded, is not the reality that all the consultation in God’s creation will not create money where money simply does not exist? The point about the whole programme is that it was worse than bankrupt, because it cost £250 million without a single brick being laid.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Unfortunately, under the previous Government, the BSF budget increased from £45 billion to £55 billion, yet only 8% of the school estate that was supposed to be renovated was renovated. We must have a more efficient way of ensuring that school buildings can be repaired, maintained and rebuilt, and that is what we intend to do.

The High Court has ruled the Secretary of State guilty of an abuse of power, but anyone listening to him for the first time today would not have thought so. There is still not one word of apology. If he does nothing else, will he at least put that right by apologising to the communities that are suffering the devastating effects of his defective decision making?

Fresh doubts have been raised about the Secretary of State’s competence and judgment. To restore confidence, will he now publish all relevant submissions and advice related to that decision? Did he overrule official advice to consult before making those decisions? Will he confirm reports that a leading QC warned him that the councils had a fairly strong case against him? Why, then, did he proceed regardless, and how much public money has been wasted on legal costs? The judge requested a rerun with an “open mind”. The Secretary of State’s self-justifying response on Friday suggests that his mind is firmly made up. To give the six councils confidence of a fair hearing, should he not now remove himself from any further part in the decision?

This is a damning verdict on a Cabinet Minister by a High Court judge. We saw the same on school sport, Bookstart and the education maintenance allowance: snap decisions, no consultation. The Secretary of State is a repeat offender, dragged here yet again. Is he not now in the last chance saloon, with a clear warning to change his ways?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he responds to the judgment. He refers to an abuse of power, but he will be familiar with the fact that “abuse of power” is a judicial term that has been in use since 1603 and, in particular, has been applied in judicial review cases since 1985. It has been applied to Cabinet Ministers on both sides of the House. It is a matter of open debate that judicial review is there to ensure that decisions taken by Cabinet Ministers can be reviewed in the Court. As I said, I was delighted that in this case, on the substantive points, the judicial review found in the Government’s favour.

The right hon. Gentleman asks whether all relevant submissions will be published. All relevant submissions were disclosed in the proceedings and looked at by Mr Justice Holman. He had an opportunity, unlike the right hon. Gentleman, to read the evidence and concluded that the judgment that we made was entirely rational, and he backed us on the substance.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about legal advice that referred to the fact that councils had a strong case. That legal advice, as I have informed him and other right hon. and hon. Members, referred specifically to the 32 sample schools in the 14 local authorities that we consulted. All of those sample schools went ahead. The consultation was right and proper in that respect. I am afraid that, as is so often the case, he is misinformed, jumped to a conclusion and, as a result of asking a question to which he knows the answer is not the one he anticipated, has sadly made another mistake.

The judge acted in accordance with all the evidence and found that, on the substance, the right decision was taken. An opportunity now exists for me to review the decisions in the six local authority areas. As I have said before, I intend to do so in an open-minded way and to take advantage of the judge’s direction in order to hear their case.

When the Secretary of State carries out that review, will he keep in mind the claims of those schools that were excluded from the Building Schools for the Future programme and might be in more urgent need of repair than those that were included, such as the Duchess’s community high school in Alnwick?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the weaknesses of the way in which Building Schools for the Future was designed was that it did not prioritise schools on the basis of dilapidation; they were prioritised according to other, political criteria. There are of course schools in Building Schools for the Future areas which are in desperate need of renovation, but there are also schools outside those areas, such as the Duchess’s school in Alnwick, which are in a similarly dilapidated state—a consequence of the failure to invest money efficiently over the past 13 years.

The Secretary of State’s initial remarks seem to indicate an attitude that the play was a success, but the audience was a failure. He did, however, move on and offer to look at those decisions with greater care. He will know that Sandwell is a hugely deprived borough with growing school rolls, and that many of its schools were told year on year that they could not have improvements because they were part of BSF. Will he now look at those cases again? People are faced with crumbling schools and, frankly, dashed hopes. Will he now listen to Sandwell’s representations in order to remedy that gross injustice?

I appreciate the passionate and effective way in which the right hon. Gentleman makes his case. I had the opportunity to talk to Sandwell’s council leader on 5 August, when he brought a delegation of teachers, parents and young people to the Department for Education, and I am very, very happy to ensure that, in the process that we now have, I listen fairly to all the representations made by Sandwell and its Members of Parliament.

The Building Schools for the Future programme was put together according to political criteria rather than being based on Schools’ state of dilapidation. Does my right hon. Friend feel that that was right?

My hon. Friend makes a very fair case. As I mentioned earlier, some local authorities and schools in the Building Schools for the Future scheme were badly in need of investment, and I, like all right hon. and hon. Members, am sorry that the money simply is not there to invest in every school that needs it. But, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) quite rightly makes clear, the school estates of many local authorities outside BSF were also in need of renovation.

Regrets will not solve the problems of many Walthamstow schools affected by the judgment—problems including asbestos, leaky roofs and a lack of space for the curriculum. It was for precisely those reasons that on 12 July I asked the Secretary of State to come to Walthamstow himself. Will he now, finally, in the light of the decision, make good on that and see for himself the issues that BSF was trying to deal with in Waltham Forest? Then, we might finally have schools that are fit for purpose in our borough—unlike the Secretary of State, who it appears is not fit for purpose, according to the judge.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making her case. Waltham Forest, as an effective and efficient local authority, has already been in touch with my Department, and I am delighted to say that we will be in conversation with it to ensure that the right judgment is made in due course. But, with respect to the hon. Lady and all Opposition Members, although many schools are in desperate need of rebuilding, the question that must be asked is, “Why weren’t those schools rebuilt effectively in the last 13 years, and why did the Building Schools for the Future scheme operate in such a wasteful and inefficient fashion?”

Sixty million pounds spent on consultants; £1,625 per pupil spent on IT. Would my right hon. Friend say that Building Schools for the Future represented the very best way of spending money for the future education of our children?

My hon. Friend, who serves on the Education Committee, has made a study of the waste inherent in Building Schools for the Future, and he is right: it is a scandal that, while buildings, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) pointed out, were in a state of decay, unfortunately millions of pounds were spent on consultants. One individual, in one year, made more than £1 million as a result of his endeavours as a consultant working on Building Schools for the Future.

Is it not becoming increasingly obvious that last year the Secretary of State took the decision to abandon all those schools under Building Schools for the Future in too much haste? As a result, he has had revised lists—I think there were six in all—and now this court judgment. We have a school in my area, more than 100 years old, being held up by pit props. A contract was made with the builder, but the case is still waiting to be decided. His junior Minister said that it is a compelling case, and there must be scores like that all around Britain. Why does he not stop the arrogance and get on with the job?

The hon. Gentleman says on the one hand that we acted with unprecedented haste, and on the other hand that we should get on with it. One of the reasons we acted as we did is that the scheme we inherited was wasteful and inefficient. I should point out that as a direct result of changing the scheme we have been able to ensure that a school that was part of Building Schools for the Future, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), is going to be built one year faster than it would have been under Labour, with 30% savings. Under this coalition Government, we are making the savings and beating the time scales to ensure that in the most deprived areas, the schools are built.

Is it not the case that despite the huge amounts of money spent on BSF projects before a brick was even laid, the Government architecture watchdog judged that 88% of those projects were either mediocre or not good enough? Does not that underline how badly managed the scheme was under the previous Government?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment made it clear that far too many of the designs were not up to scratch under the previous Government. We want to make sure that every young person has a school that is fit for purpose. That was not the case under the previous Government.

The priorities for BSF were set according to social and economic deprivation and educational underachievement. Is the Secretary of State really saying that those are the wrong priorities when deciding what educational investment should be? Liverpool schools have been hit hard by last year’s announcement. A month ago, I wrote to the Secretary of State inviting him to visit St John Bosco school in my constituency—one of the schools that was affected by the announcement. Will he, or one of his colleagues, visit that school at his earliest convenience?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making the case. Initially, the Building Schools for the Future criteria were exactly as he described, but subsequently they were altered so that readiness to deliver became a factor. That meant that, for a variety of reasons, the money was not always targeted at the areas most in need. He has made the case for St John Bosco and for other schools in Liverpool very effectively. One of my ministerial colleagues or I will make good on the promise to visit Liverpool.

Does my right hon. Friend find it outrageous that under the slow and over-complex BSF process, it usually took about 30 months before construction began? What can he to do ensure that the process is simpler and more efficient for schools such as Chiswick community school and Hounslow Manor school in my constituency?

My hon. Friend makes the very good point that it took 30 months from the moment of starting the process to the first brick being laid. In the project that we have used as a pilot in Doncaster North, the procurement process took just 10 weeks and the school will be delivered one year ahead of schedule. If that is not proof that there was inefficiency in the existing scheme that we inherited, I do not know what is.

Will the Secretary of State tell us when he is going to make an announcement about a replacement for BSF for Coventry schools? A large number of our schools are dilapidated or have scaffolding around the buildings, and this situation cannot go on. I do not want him to blame the previous Government. You are in charge now. You put this question earlier: what did we do over the past 13 years? Well, we had 18 years of your previous Government when capital programmes were cut.

I am not in charge of anything other than the chairing of this session, but I look forward to what the Secretary of State has to say.

The hon. Gentleman, along with the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), met me last summer to make the case for Coventry, and he did so very effectively. I appreciate that a number of schools in Coventry need investment at some point in the future and have suffered as a result of the way in which the BSF timetable has operated. We hope that the James review of the allocation of capital will be published shortly—as I said, some of the pilot projects have shown that there is significant scope for savings—but naturally I want to make sure, as part of this process, that we can receive the submissions from the local authorities cited in this case.

Under phase 3 of BSF, 19 school projects in Bradford were frozen. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that it was a cruel deceit to sign off phase 3 just before the general election when there was no money available to build those schools. However, is it not also cruel to spend new capital money on free schools before we first meet the needs of the schools tied up in BSF?

My hon. Friend makes a balanced point. The point I would make about free schools is that in the work that we have done so far, we have established that we can cut significantly—by up to 50%—the costs of providing school places. There is a proposal for at least one free school in Bradford, and it will be considerably cheaper than BSF schools. I hope that he will work with me to ensure that all new schools that are built—whether free, maintained or academy—are value for money and admit students on the basis of social justice and equality for all.

The Secretary of State will be aware that Luton was one of the six authorities covered by the High Court action; the specific school was the Cardinal Newman Catholic school in my constituency. I visited that school on Friday and spoke at length to the head teacher. It is desperately overcrowded and has poor facilities, as is the case with all high schools in Luton. It is not so long ago that Luton had the highest proportion of school-age children in the country. In reconsidering these building projects, will the Secretary of State consider overcrowding and the lack of school capacity?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good case. I am well aware of the problems that affect Luton’s schools. I shall, of course, look closely at the case that he, other Luton Members and Luton’s local authority have made.

In Dover and Shepway, £2.9 million was spent on consultants. One Kent bidder spent £5 million on a bid only to lose. The scheme was a bureaucratic nightmare and a complete fiasco. Does the Minister agree that it was a fiasco? Who was responsible for this fiasco, and are they in the Chamber today?

My hon. Friend asks a series of questions, but I must resist the temptation that he extends to me. We all know that the scheme had to be reformed. Those who embarked on Building Schools for the Future did so for the best and most idealistic of reasons. Those who made promises immediately before the last election, which no Government could honour, must look to their own consciences.

The Secretary of State has assured us that he will keep an open mind in receiving representations from the six authorities, including Newham. I ask him to take a close look at the cases of Plashet school and Little Ilford school, whose pupils made a DVD to show him the state of their buildings. Renewal now would avoid continuous costly patching up. Should it not be allowed to go forward?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good case. I have had the opportunity to visit schools in his constituency and I appreciate the challenges that teachers face there. One reason why these six local authorities brought the case was that they were among the closest to the finishing line when the line was drawn. By definition, wherever the line was drawn, those closest to it would have felt the most acute sense of injustice; also by definition, those closest to it would have been among the most needy. Wherever the line was drawn, there would have been a feeling of grievance. I understand the feeling of grievance in Newham and I take on board the points made by the right hon. Gentleman and others.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the BSF scheme spent £20 million on a school in Essex that closed a few years later? A local authority official said that all the money had been spent, but that they had no idea where it had gone. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that shows the failures of the BSF scheme?

My hon. Friend underlines the fact that under Building Schools for the Future, the capacity of local authorities to spend money as they saw fit took second place to the diktats of a centralised bureaucracy. As a result, there was inefficiency, which meant that public money was not spent as effectively as it should have been on raising standards.

Given that the Secretary of State’s actions have been judged an abuse of power in relation to six local authorities, does it not follow that there was an abuse of power in relation to other authorities whose BSF projects were cancelled and which have not yet taken legal action against him? Will he commit to review all BSF projects that were cancelled, including the building projects at two schools in Warrington that serve the most deprived areas of my constituency? If he will not, is he not open to the risk of further action from other local authorities?

That is an understandable response from the hon. Lady, but the judge was clear that only the local authorities that received a specific form of approval after 1 January and that took part in this action were governed by it, and that no other local authority should consider that it is in time or within its rights to bring a judicial review.

Will my right hon. Friend explain why, in spite of having schools with the same leaky roofs, dilapidated classrooms and overcrowding as those described by many Opposition Members, my constituency was told that there was no chance of even being considered for a BSF project for the next five to 10 years?

My hon. Friend repeats a concern that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed—that the process by which individual schools and local authorities were selected for entry into Building Schools for the Future, even though it might have been conceived idealistically, in the end was not seen as fair. We need to ensure that the successor scheme guarantees that money is spent effectively and efficiently on those in the most need.

The residents of Sandwell have been let down twice by the Secretary of State. First, it was announced that Sandwell schools would be unaffected by the cuts, only for that to be rescinded a few days later. Secondly, he undertook to visit Sandwell to explain what had happened and then decided that he would not do so. Will he do something to restore the faith of the people of Sandwell in the Government’s intention by agreeing to make the consultation and review process totally independent, so that he is not left in the position of reviewing his own previous bad decisions?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. He, along with the leader of Sandwell council, Sandwell teachers, parents and young people, was able to come and meet me in the Department, and he made the case for the schools in his local authority very effectively. An opportunity now exists for the decision to be reviewed, but the judge was quite clear that that decision should be taken by the Secretary of State.

I welcome the very reasonable tone of the Secretary of State’s response to the reasonable judgment. Does he agree that it is not reasonable to ask pupils to be educated in schools that are falling down, or that after 13 years of a Labour Government, they see dripping wet rain coming in and, in some cases, skylights falling in, because dilapidation was not as significant a factor in the scheme as it should have been, and affected schools were therefore not eligible for BSF funding?

My hon. Friend makes a very strong point. I note that while he was talking about dilapidation and making the case for reform of how we allocate capital with passion and urgency, Opposition Front Benchers were laughing. They might consider that this is an appropriate subject for levity, but I believe that they should reflect on their record in office and consider why, after 13 years and after they inherited a golden economic legacy, so few schools were in a fit state. Was it anything to do with any of the mistakes that might have occurred on their watch?

To return the Secretary of State to the judgment, which was about consultation, will he give us details now of what consultation he will carry out with the six local authorities involved? Will it include children and young people themselves and their families?

I noted from the Secretary of State’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) that the judgment does not rule out other local authorities that incurred expenditure also taking legal action. Will he consult those local authorities?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point. The judge was clear that it is only with regard to the six local authorities in question that I have to consult, and that no other local authorities are either in time or entitled to mount a judicial review. The manner of the consultation with those local authorities is very much a matter for them to outline in conversation with me and the Department, but I want to ensure that the process is as fair and expeditious as possible. With respect to other local authorities, such as those in Durham, I have of course had the opportunity to visit her constituency and that of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) to see the specific case for investment outside BSF, which I know may be necessary.

The Secretary of State will know that schools in Hammersmith and Fulham lost £200 million in well worked-up, mature BSF proposals. Instead, we have free schools enrolling pupils, despite the fact that they have no approved business case, their consultation is not complete and they have no secured site. Will he reconsider decision making in Hammersmith and Fulham, before he has to go back to the High Court?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point. I have had the opportunity to visit with him many of the outstanding schools in Hammersmith and Fulham, including Phoenix high school, which we both hold in high regard. The new free school that is likely to be opened, the West London free school, is being opened at a significantly lower cost than that for which schools were built under BSF. It will be in a handsome building adjacent, I believe, to the fee-paying independent school Latymer Upper, where he enjoyed such a great education.

I hoped that the Secretary of State would be able to bring us sunshine today in relation to some of the schools that have been affected, particularly Seaham school of technology, which suffers from terrible problems of dilapidation. The opportunity cost of not replacing the school and having to fund the repairs is considerable. It is the only school serving quite a large town, and it has rising demand. Will the Secretary of State consider the case for that school?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, not only for proving that he is a reader of The Times, and a fan, as I am, of Sarah Vine’s writing, but for making the case for investment in east Durham. I have had the opportunity in the past couple of months to visit the north-east twice, and I always enjoy doing so. He makes an impressive case. I know that with Building Schools for the Future gone, we must all look at how we can get money to the schools that need it in the best way. I also know that in Seaham and Easington there are schools that desperately need investment at some point in the future.

Staff at Trinity, Bluecoat and Fernwood schools in my constituency are desperate for extra investment in their buildings. Will the Secretary of State say when he will meet Nottingham city council to review our city’s excellent case for that additional investment?