My first speech in the House was made some time ago, and it is rather strange to be here again making a maiden speech as a new Member —especially such a brief speech so late in the evening. Let me first say a word about Mr. John Whitfield, my predecessor, who was in the House for four years. He was, to say the least, an abrasive character : indeed, he would have regarded that as a compliment. The best acknowledgement that I can give him is that he always believed in ensuring that people knew his opinions.
My constituency is far larger and more diverse than many people realise. It has many of the problems of an old industrial area, and I hope to be able to speak on those in the House in the not-too-distant future. However, today's debate is on the inner cities and education, and I should like to say a few brief words about that.
I share the concern expressed earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) that the Government's new interest in inner cities should be more than a token gesture, and that local authorities should not be bypassed in dealing with inner city problems. However, I am also concerned that all the help, if there is to be real help, should not go just to the large city areas, but should also go to the large northern towns which have, albeit on a smaller scale, many of the problems about which we have been talking today. The Dewsburys and the Huddersfields of this world have high levels of industrial dereliction and housing need, besides high levels of multiple deprivation which, although not on the same scale as Leeds, are the product of the same chronic under-investment.
One of the areas of greatest under-investment in our towns and cities is housing. When this Government were first elected in 1979 they made the decision to cut spending on housing by half. We are now seeing the consequences of that deliberate policy. The waiting lists are longer than ever before; there is less building and less improvement. There has been a real deterioration in the condition of the housing stock.
The Government have concentrated their energies on selling council houses. They do not seem to realise that the housing crisis cannot be solved by selling the houses. That may achieve other aims, but it will not contribute to the solution of housing problems, especially when local authorities are not allowed to use their capital receipts. The only way to solve or even to begin to solve this very real housing crisis is to build and to improve and repair more houses. The housing problem cannot be solved simply by changing the tenure of those who are already housed. I hope that the Government will embark on substantial investment as part of their about-turn on the inner cities.
I am profoundly disturbed by the Government's education proposals. Schools will be able to opt out of local authority control. I am desperately worried about the Government's plans for examinations at the ages of seven, 11 and 14. I do not want my children's education to he ruined by examination swords hanging over them and dominating the school curriculum in the way that the 11-plus examination was used to dominate junior schools when I was young.
Of course there is a place for examinations, but pupil profiles are infinitely more valuable. We cannot turn back the clock and allow primary schools to become testing places, with competition between schools and the comparison of results and with cramming for brighter children to boost school results, all of which we had in the 11-plus days and all of which would mean a return to the kind of testing that is proposed by the Prime Minister and this Government.
Does the Secretary of State intend to encourage schools to opt out? Has he thought through the consequences? Are we to have rural schools opting out and selecting and, by definition, therefore rejecting some pupils who might want to attend them because they are nearest to them? What will happen to pupils who have to travel a long distance to other schools? Who will pay? How long will their journey be? Will that really be in the educational interests of those children? What will be the basis of selection? Will bright children be selected? Will the children of pushing and motivated parents be selected? At the interviews to which the Prime Minister referred, will parents be asked whether they are willing to help with the PTA, with fund raising and, indeed, with funds?
The Secretary of State should devote his energies to promoting strong, local community schools that have proper resources and that can cater for all the children in the area. If the Secretary of State is concerned about the education of all children, he will back down both on the proposal that schools should be able to opt out and also on the proposal that examinations should be held at seven, 11 and 14. A healthy education system does not consist simply of a series of hurdles. That is no education system; it is just an escape route for the few. If the Secretary of State does not believe that there is a case for investing in all of our children, he should not be responsible for education.