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School Closures (Thursday)

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2011

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement about the school closures on Thursday and advice to parents worried about the situation.

The Government are currently in discussion with trade unions representing public sector workers to reach a fair deal on pension reform. Our proposals draw on the widely praised report from Lord Hutton, who was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions under the previous Government. The state of the economy that we inherited and major demographic changes mean that reform is vital. We want to ensure that all public sector workers enjoy pensions that are among the best available, but we need to balance that with fairness to other taxpayers. Talks between the Treasury and the TUC yesterday made real progress, which is why it is so regrettable that two of the classroom unions are planning industrial action this Thursday. This action is unnecessary while talks are still going on, will cause massive inconvenience to hard-working families and will hit working women particularly hard.

In order to minimise the impact of the strike on working parents, I wrote last week to all local authorities, as the employers of teachers, and to all schools, emphasising their duty to keep schools open wherever possible. In response to requests from governors, I also laid out the flexibilities at the disposal of schools to ensure that they stay open. Schools can vary staff-pupil ratios, they can depart from the national curriculum and they can draw on voluntary support from the wider community, with those who have been checked by the Criminal Records Bureau able to provide particular help. Nothing can replace the great teaching offered by gifted professionals, but I would far rather see schools staying open and offering a restricted curriculum than see hard-working families having to lose a day’s pay or paying for ad hoc and expensive last-minute child care.

When I wrote last week, I also asked local authorities and academy heads to let me know which schools they knew would be closing. We collated data from them last Friday, and these data were updated yesterday. At that stage, 118 out of 152 local authorities, and 379 out of 707 academies had replied. The initial returns suggested that 2,206 local authority schools would be partially open and that 3,206 would be closed, while the situation with a further 10,872 was not known at that stage. The figures showed that of the 707 academies, 158 would be fully open, 128 partially open and 84 closed. Nine were still uncertain and 328 had not yet responded. I asked last week that those figures be updated as of 3 pm today, and that exercise is ongoing. Once the provisional data are examined, we will provide updates tomorrow and on Thursday.

It is the responsibility of individual schools to inform parents if they are closed, but the ability of individual heads to determine if and when a teacher has decided to strike—and therefore their ability to make contingency plans—is governed by the employment law that we inherited. Individual teachers have no obligation to tell their school or employer of the intention to strike in advance. Of course, we always keep the law under review.

I remain committed to discussing pension reform with all the teacher unions openly, honestly and constructively. The current generation of teachers in our schools is the best ever, and I want to see them properly supported; but this strike, at this time, will not help our schools, as those unions that are not striking this Thursday know. This action is unnecessary, premature and disruptive. I hope that all parts of the House will join me in working constructively to support those hard-working families who are the victims of this action.

Let me start by making one thing clear: on Thursday, children should be in school and their parents at work. Opposition Members have said consistently that these strikes are a mistake. We support reforms to make public sector pensions sustainable, and it is wrong for action to be taken now, while talks are ongoing. However, the Government cannot evade their share of responsibility for the disruption that millions of families will suffer on Thursday. We are worried that the Secretary of State has once again not properly thought through the consequences of his statements and has left parents in the dark, because it is we who have brought him here today. For the first time, Members have some information about the likely scale of disruption. Will he give us a commitment that he will keep Members in all parts of the House regularly updated from here on in?

Secondly, what reassurance can the Secretary of State give to parents today that where schools are open, children will be properly looked after, and remain safe and secure at all times? His letter to head teachers urged them to keep schools open, but was silent about children’s safety. We want schools to stay open, but will he say more about what roles he considers it acceptable for parents to perform? What is a safe balance between trained and untrained staff? Are advanced checks advisable or necessary? He has said today that those with CRB checks may be able to do particular jobs, but will he spell out exactly what those roles are? This is not an area where he can afford to look like he is making it up as he goes along, so I would be grateful if he could answer those specific points.

Thirdly and most importantly, what steps are the Secretary of State and the Government taking over the coming hours to try to avert the strike? His letter acknowledged the

“very strong feelings in the teaching profession about teachers’ pensions”.

Does he not accept that those feelings have been inflamed by the Government’s reckless and provocative handling of the issue from start to finish? In retrospect, does he believe that it was wise or fair to pre-empt the Hutton report by slapping a 3% surcharge on pensions, costing some teachers an extra £100 a month, or for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to announce a raising of the retirement age at a crucial moment in the negotiations? Does the Secretary of State recall saying this to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ conference while in opposition?

“I…think that, for people who’ve been in the profession, we shouldn’t alter the terms on which they entered. I think that’s part of the sort of broad contract that you expect.”

Is not that exactly the point? Pensions are a contract, and they should not be changed unilaterally in this high-handed way.

During the Labour Government, the number of days lost through industrial action fell to its lowest level ever. Will not parents take a dim view if this Government return us to the 1980s so that the Secretary of State and his friends can rerun the battles of their youth? Do not those parents want a Government who play fair with the professionals who teach their children, rather than one who play politics with people’s pensions?

I was grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the constructive way in which he began his response, but I think that, on reflection, he will consider the way in which he concluded it to be irresponsible at this time. The whole House wants to see people keeping level heads and maintaining an even temper at this time, and the fact that he chose to ratchet up the rhetoric in that way was not appropriate.

I am grateful to him for supporting the direction of Lord Hutton’s reforms and for his initial words about the responsibility of all local authorities and heads to keep schools open in order to ensure that we do everything possible to minimise disruption. Because teachers are employed by local authorities and individual heads, individual local authorities and heads have to depend on teachers telling them whether they will be on strike before making contingency arrangements. That is a direct consequence of the labour laws that we inherited from the right hon. Gentleman’s Government. If he believes that those laws should change, and that we should reform trade union laws, I should like to know about it.

The right hon. Gentleman asked us to update Members of the House with data, and we will do so. At the first available opportunity when the data are reliable, we will share them with hon. Members, with local authorities and with individual parents. He also asked us to do everything possible to keep children safe and secure. The safety of children is always my first concern, and that is why I want to see schools remain open, and why I have written to local authorities and outlined the flexibilities that they have. It is also why I have drawn their attention to the statutory guidance that covers health and safety and child protection.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the 3% surcharge that is being placed on pensions. As a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he should be aware that every aspect of the pension reform that we are bringing forward is a direct result of the dire mess in which he and his colleagues left our economy. If people want to know why our pensions have to be reformed, they need only look at the financial mess that was made—[Interruption.] I am afraid that the intemperate response coming from the Opposition Benches reinforces the guilty consciences on that side of the House.

The right hon. Gentleman also quoted from a speech that I gave to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. It is important that he not mislead the House or anyone listening—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I am sure that he would never do so intentionally, which is why I hope that he will stress that the proposals that we are putting forward respect the accrued rights of all those who have been in state pension schemes up until this moment—[Hon. Members: “Withdraw.”] I know that he would wish to make that clear.

The right hon. Gentleman also said that, in the last year of the Labour Government, we had the lowest number ever of days lost to strike action. The truth is that, in the past year under this coalition Government, we have lost even fewer days to strike action. If we are to maintain that record, we need calm on both sides of the House, and not the pandering to the union gallery that we heard at the end of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is irresponsible for union leaders in the teaching unions who are on six-figure salaries to lead teachers out on strike when two thirds of their members did not even vote in the ballot? Does he also agree that this action will undermine and damage the education of children and the status of the teaching profession?

We all listen with respect to the Select Committee, and its Chairman is quite right. The general secretaries of those trade unions have, throughout their careers, shown a commitment to improving state education. I therefore believe that their motives are right in most circumstances. On this occasion, however, they have made a mistake and they should acknowledge it.

I went to school in Darlington in the ’80s and I remember being sent home from school because not all the teachers had informed the head that they were going on strike. I was sent home and sat on the front door step before a neighbour came to fetch me. What guarantees can the right hon. Gentleman give about the fact that, although schools might be open, some teachers unexpectedly might not be present? The most important consideration here is the welfare of children. What is the right hon. Gentleman going to do to ensure that we do not see a return to strike after strike after strike under this Tory Government just like we did in the ’80s?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making her point, but as the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) made clear from the Opposition Front Bench, this strike is unjustified at this time, and the responsibility rests on those general secretaries and trade union members who are going on strike. They are causing inconvenience to hard-working parents and they should not be going on strike: that is the united position of both Front-Bench teams, and I am sorry that the hon. Lady does not share it.

I have a huge amount of respect for the hard work that teachers do, but share the disappointment of many parents in my constituency that Thursday’s strikes will cause massive disruption to their children’s learning. Will the Secretary of State advise how people such as myself and other colleagues who have a CRB certificate can help schools to stay open on Thursday?

One of the things I would stress is that all of us can play our part in helping to ensure that children are kept safe and have a fruitful and constructive time in school on Thursday. Any Member—and, indeed, any member of the public—who is CRB checked can volunteer to help in their local school. I am sure that the head and the chair of governors would welcome that level of support. I have already received a number of letters from head teachers who have asked me if they can ensure that those who are CRB checked can help. They can help in many ways, by providing cover, by supporting trained teachers and by ensuring that children spend a fruitful and constructive time in school.

To those people who follow industrial relations it is remarkable to see a union like the ATL vote for a strike for the first time ever. I understand the Secretary of State’s desire to keep schools open, but in view of that, is it not better that he leave the Chamber now, phone those general secretaries, invite them in and spend the next 24 hours trying to secure a solution for these strikes? It is not too late.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who, as we all know, was a union negotiator before he came to the House and therefore has some expertise in these matters. As an expert union negotiator, he will know that it is unwise for anyone to call the dispute in the middle of talks. Talks are ongoing: we had talks yesterday with the TUC; I have arranged telephone calls with the individual general secretaries of trade unions for later today—and I took the precaution of doing so before coming to this House. [Interruption.] I have already talked to all the general secretaries in person and explained to them the lack of wisdom in what they are doing. The question for the hon. Gentleman and for other Labour Members is: what are they doing to keep our schools open? Are they doing everything possible to encourage the unions to lower the temperature or are they, sadly, once again engaging in the sort of opportunism that has given their party a bad name?

I regret, as the Secretary of State clearly does, the decision by two unions to cause the strike this week, and I am pleased to hear that the right hon. Gentleman is engaging in a constructive way. Will he set out what will be happening over the coming weeks to further the talks, to allay the concerns of teachers, perhaps by going against the message sent to them by the people at the top of their unions?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There has been misinformation and propaganda about this dispute, and it is important that the facts are known—and that they are known by every Member. It will be the case at the end of this process that all public sector pensions will be among the best available. In particular, teachers’ pensions will remain strong because we recognise the importance of ensuring that those who work in our classrooms are well protected. Because discussions are ongoing and because they are based on Lord Hutton’s report, I think it quite wrong to prejudice those discussions by pre-empting them and stating what an end-point should be. By their very definition, discussions allow for both sides to make constructive suggestions, which is why it is such a pity that the trade unions have deliberately chosen to pre-empt that process.

Does the Secretary of State understand the degree of anger and frustration among so many teachers who have given years to their profession and feel that they have been forced into taking strike action, thus losing a day’s pay, in order to try to protect the pension for themselves and for a future generation of teachers? Instead of trying to work out cockamamie schemes to keep schools open, why does he not deal with the issue, retain the pension and support the teaching profession?

I understand that there will be anger and frustration on Thursday: anger from parents whose child care arrangements have been disrupted, and frustration about the fact that schools remain closed. The question for all of us is: why is this reform necessary? I am afraid that the answer is: because of the dire economic situation that we inherited from the Labour Government. We are pledged to negotiate openly, honestly and constructively, but that negotiation has been pre-empted by the unions, and the hon. Gentleman’s responsibility is to ensure that schools in his constituency stay open.

I can inform my right hon. Friend that 35% of schools in the borough of Wokingham and well over 50% in the borough of Reading will close. Will he join me in thanking teachers at schools that are staying open, such as E P Collier and Reading girls’ school in my constituency, where staff have put the needs of children and parents before the pre-emptive action of their unions?

As I said in my statement, not every teaching union has chosen to go on strike this Thursday. While I am well aware of the strong feelings that exist about the future of teachers’ pensions, I know that many people who will be taking industrial action feel understandably concerned about what will happen when schools close, and I think it important for all of us to recognise that people who are working hard to keep schools open are operating in a public-spirited fashion and deserve our support.

Are the Secretary of State and other members of the Cabinet aware that many public sector workers, including teachers, believe that a war has been declared against them over their standard of living and their pensions? They are sick and tired of a Cabinet, consisting of a fair number of multi-millionaires, which takes such a hostile attitude to people who want to work for the community—as teachers do—but whose standard of living is constantly being undermined.

I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, who has been in the House for many years and has stood up for many unpopular and noble causes, but I think that he is quite wrong in this instance. We are not declaring war on anyone. We want to ensure that our public finances can be restored to balance after what happened under the last Government, and we also want to ensure that public sector workers have the best pensions available. It is critical for us to ensure that our reforms proceed. The right hon. Member for Leigh made it clear that we need to work constructively on the basis of Lord Hutton’s proposals. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on his rhetoric, and recognise that it is not helpful to parents or to his own community.

The shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), said that the Government could not evade their share of the responsibility for what is happening. Earlier, he said that the Government must accept their share of the blame for causing disruption to millions of families. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me, and the whole House, that he will not consider taking an ounce of blame for the strikes until the Labour party apologises for the dreadful financial legacy that he and the Government inherited?

My hon. and learned Friend has made a good point, but notwithstanding the dreadful financial situation that we inherited, teachers, and all public sector workers, will retain a defined-benefit pension scheme. Defined-benefit pension schemes were the norm in 1979, and indeed in 1997, but I am afraid that after what happened with the Labour Government, they became a rarity in the private sector. That is why we are so anxious to ensure that they are reformed in the public sector so that they can be secure for the future.

The Secretary of State asked what Labour Members were doing to help to resolve the strike. Unfortunately I am not the Secretary of State, but if I were, I would be ringing those general secretaries, bringing them together, and trying to resolve matters before Thursday. What is the Secretary of State going to do between now and Thursday to prevent the strike and the disruption to children’s education?

I have met, and enjoy meeting, the general secretaries of all the trade unions, and I am glad that I enjoy cordial relations with them. As I told the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) earlier, I am talking to all the general secretaries of all the trade unions later this afternoon. I made sure that yesterday’s negotiations and discussions were concluded so that the general secretaries had a chance to reflect on them before I contacted them today. I think that that is the wise and moderate way in which to proceed, and I am sorry that there are Labour Members who believe at this stage that anything else is appropriate.

I received an e-mail from a teacher in Eccleston in my constituency who was concerned about the proposed strike action on Thursday. My constituent is concerned that, despite being a member of the ATL, he did not receive a ballot paper. Does my right hon. Friend agree with my constituent and me that, if members of the ATL are being disfranchised in this way, the legality of the strike is in question?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. I am sure that the ATL will want to investigate any irregularity in the ballot. As has been pointed out, it was not the case that a majority of those who were members of the union voted in favour, but a majority of those who did cast their ballot clearly voted in favour of the strike, so we have to respect that democratic vote, even though I strongly believe, like the right hon. Member for Leigh, that the unions are mistaken to go on strike.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it takes two sides to create any conflict and this smug, arrogant Government have revelled in the part they have played in this dispute? In the real world, trade unionists have to fight for every penny and every pension, but the bankers just wait for the Government to give in and to line their pockets. That is the real contrast.

I respect the passion of the hon. Gentleman, and I know that he has a distinguished record as a trade unionist. Members of trade unions have an absolute right to take industrial action in defence of their interests if people believe it is right, but trade union leaders should decide whether it is wise to strike at any given moment. I do not believe that it is wise to strike at this point.

On the specific question of bankers, I have to say that they are paying more in tax under this coalition Government than they ever did under a Labour Government.

Six years ago a lot of blue-chip companies closed their final salary schemes to new employees and within the past three years they have closed them full stop. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that now is the right time to reform public sector pensions to make sure that they, too, are sustainable going forward?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have to be fair to all taxpayers. Of course it is important that we make sure public sector workers have a decent pension, but we must also make sure that others in the private sector who are paying for those pensions have their position respected. Given what happened to private sector pensions under the previous Government, Labour Members are in no position to lecture anyone about the integrity of benefits in retirement.

Does the Secretary of State accept that it is no use his calling for calm from the Dispatch Box when the words of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the implied threats that he has made today to review the laws on strike ballots simply serve to inflame the situation? Why does he not stop posturing, get the employers and the teachers around the table and find a way of avoiding this strike conflict?

My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary has a duty to ensure that our finances are back in balance after the terrible situation that we inherited. The speech that he made just over a week ago outlined proposals for discussion. It was not an end position; it was an opening position. The hon. Lady should have the responsibility to recognise that.

As for keeping the law under review, it is my duty to do so. It has nothing to do with strike ballots and everything to do with making sure that heads and local authorities are informed so that parents can be protected. I would have thought that the hon. Lady was on the side of parents and would support any review that might enhance protection for them.

I declare an interest as a member of the teaching union Voice, the cardinal rule of which is that teachers will not strike in any circumstances because of the impact on young people. Today, so many children are brought up by just one caregiver and in many families both parents work. Rather than looking at thresholds, is it not time to consider requiring teachers, in the interests of young people and school pupils up and down the country, at least to inform their school that they plan to go on strike? Too many schools in my constituency will be closed this Thursday because head teachers do not know whether teachers will be arriving to teach or not.

My hon. Friend, as ever, makes an informed and constructive point. I think that workers should retain the right to call for a strike and to take part in industrial action—absolutely. But we also have to recognise that public sector professionals have a wider responsibility. One of the questions that my hon. Friend puts is whether we should require individuals to inform their workplace that they intend to take industrial action and give appropriate notice. It is a matter for review and one that we will have to review after Thursday when we have seen the effect on schools and parents.

Teachers up and down the country will be appalled at the attitude that the Secretary of State has taken, implying that the people going on strike do not care about the children they educate. When did the Government change the law on portable Criminal Records Bureau checks in order to allow these parents into the schools? Unless they are CRB checked for these particular schools, those CRB checks are not appropriate. When did he change the law?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is already the case that there are parents who have been appropriately CRB checked and can support the work of schools. It is also the case that parents can support the work of schools without a CRB check. Of course parents have to be supervised by an appropriate member of staff, but it is perfectly possible, as we all know from the example of parents who have helped with school trips and journeys, for any parents to support them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is perfectly possible to understand the anger that teachers and other public servants feel at being asked to pay the price for the economic mess we inherited from the previous Government, but also to believe that it cannot be fair to ask those in the private sector to work longer and pay more to pay for pensions that they themselves can never hope to receive?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Obviously, all of us who are parents want to ensure that teachers receive good pensions in the future and appropriate reward for the hard work that they do. However, we also have to recognise that the average level of pension enjoyed by people in the private sector is significantly lower, so we have to ensure fairness across sectors.

I can recall when, during the last Conservative Government, a Secretary of State was booed at a teachers’ conference. May I advise the Secretary of State to cut out the rhetoric and get his friends on the Government Benches to calm down? Let us instead have some negotiations that can resolve the problem before Thursday.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as I know he takes a strong interest in educational matters, but, as I have said, negotiations are ongoing. The reason why both the Labour Front-Bench team and the Government believe that these strikes are wrong is because they pre-empt the conclusion of negotiations.

Can my right hon. Friend give me some advice, because I am very concerned that this strike will not only affect young people’s education, but will have a negative impact on businesses, particularly small businesses? On Thursday, many small businesses may find themselves without a significant number of staff, as they may have to look after their children. What advice can he give to businesses that are going to be hit by this, especially if the strikes are ongoing or repetitive?

I absolutely sympathise with the points made by my hon. Friend and I recognise that there will be an economic cost as a result of the disruption caused by this strike. We will, of course, do everything we can to ensure that schools remain open so that the economic and social impact is lessened.

If the Secretary of State really is sincere about wanting to bring this to a resolution, will he go back to the teachers’ leaders and negotiate on the basis that the 3% Treasury tax on pensions will now be subject to review—will he get rid of that, because if he does not do so, he is not negotiating in good faith?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the point he makes. The truth is that the specific increase in contributions applies not only to teachers, but to public sector workers across the piece—it is one of the issues that affects all public sector unions. The public sector unions affected, apart from the teachers’ unions and the Public and Commercial Services Union, are not going on strike on Thursday. We can thus infer that there are other unions that, whatever their views on the requirement to increase contributions, believe it is important to conclude the conversation and dialogue about the state of public sector pensions overall before taking any decision about action.

The fair but difficult changes to teachers’ pensions and the pre-emptive call for a strike by the trade unions will leave many teachers this week wrestling between their loyalty to their union and their concern about the impact of this on the esteem of the profession. On Friday, I welcomed Taiwanese students to St Thomas More school in my town. Teachers in Taiwan are not able to strike and, as my right hon. Friend knows, Confucian tradition reveres teachers. What advice does he have for teachers who are wrestling with the concerns about the impact of this strike on the teaching profession in our country?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of my concerns—[Interruption.] I am grateful to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for the attention that she pays to this very important question. One of the things that this Government have been seeking to do over the past 15 months is to raise the prestige of the teaching profession. We have sought to work on changes that were instituted under the previous Government and under preceding Governments. I said in my initial response to the right hon. Member for Leigh that we were lucky to have the best generation of teachers ever in our schools, and that is in no small part due to the efforts made across parties to ensure that. I am delighted to take this opportunity to underline that, but I did say on Sunday, and I will say again, that the reputation of teachers risks being affected by action on Thursday. I hope that, whatever action is taken, all of us recognise that we need to operate responsibly on Thursday, because it would be a grave shame if the respect in which teachers are held is, in any way, undermined.

Will the Secretary of State clarify whether he claimed earlier that the shadow Secretary of State misled the House? Yes or no?

I said that he would never wish to mislead the House and I hope that he will take the opportunity, in this House or elsewhere, to make it clear that our proposals respect the accrued rights of all public sector workers. My concern is that the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), in his understandable anxiety to make a political point, will fail to make entirely clear to every teacher the reality of the position that the coalition Government are proposing.

Last Friday, I met all the head teachers of primary schools in Tamworth and they told me that many of their staff have no intention of following their highly paid union leaders out on strike because they want to stay in their schools and teach. Will my right hon. Friend commend the attitude of those teachers and of the teacher at Rawlett high school who sent a message to me only this morning saying that the strikes will serve the interests only of the unions and not of children?

The point has been made—and has been made well by the Leader of the Opposition—that no one benefits from this precipitate action. It is entirely right that all the teachers reflect on those points. Of course we respect the decision of any individual to take industrial action, but we all agree that the position of teachers will be stronger and public support for them greater if they do not take such action this Thursday.

The Secretary of State is a staunch trade unionist and I know he has experience of going on strike, so he will understand the difficult decision that many teachers face this week. Will he clear something up for me? Is the pension decision to do with long-term demographic change, as discussed in the Hutton report, or is it to do with cutting the deficit, as he implied earlier? Either way, will he sit down with teachers’ leaders before Thursday and sort out the problem rather than provoking strikes through his macho posturing?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who makes two fair points. On the first, yes, I went out on strike and indeed I lost my job as a result of taking industrial action. One of the reasons I am therefore so opposed to industrial action this Thursday is that I recognise that strikes do not solve problems. Any one of us, on either side of the House, who has taken industrial action and lived with the consequences recognises that strikes do not solve deep-rooted problems. On the broader question of the way in which pension reform is designed to deal with the problems we have inherited, as I mentioned in my statement we are seeking to deal both with the terrible state in which our public finances were left by the previous Government and with the demographic challenges that force us to conclude that there is a case for reform.

In my constituency, the impact of Thursday’s strikes will be felt not by the bankers who live there but, most acutely, by lower paid people, lone parents and, especially, women who rely on fragile networks to provide child care, based on education, family and so on. Does he not share my astonishment that that point does not seem to be fully understood by those on the Opposition Benches?

One of the critical points my hon. Friend makes is that the Opposition seem to be curious in their desire to make political points rather than seeking to work constructively with local authorities and others to keep schools open. As the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) made clear in his response to my statement, it is wrong for strike action to be taken at this point when discussions are still going on. The victims will be working women who will lose out as a direct result of the disruption to family life.

Order. We must now move on. I have taken 25 Back-Bench contributions, but we have an important statement to follow and considerable pressure as regards progress on the Finance Bill. The Secretary of State has shown his willingness and desire to keep the House regularly updated and that is, I am sure, appreciated.