First Day

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 5:51 pm on 6th May 1992.

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Photo of Mr David Madel Mr David Madel , South West Bedfordshire 5:51 pm, 6th May 1992

Before congratulating the hon. Member or Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on his maiden speech, I wish to congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on assuming your new office as Deputy Speaker. I know that you were born and schooled in Bedfordshire and the entire county will be delighted. The Gracious Speech said that we will get a move on with changing the parliamentary boundaries. It could be that the county may be entitled to a sixth parliamentary seat. I am not saying that you will necessarily cross over from Northamptonshire, but one never knows how these matters will work out. I am sure that I speak for many in Bedfordshire when I congratulate you on your assumption to the Deputy Speakership.

It gives me great pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone on his maiden speech. The House greatly appreciated his tribute to Allen McKay and all that he did in the House, particularly the way in which he argued for the coal industry. We listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's comments on the coal industry. Speeches on the industy always strike a deep chord in the House and we look forward to hearing from the hon. Gentleman as the legislation on the future of the coal industry proceeds.

I noted with interest the hon. Gentleman's comments on the Government's plans for further reform of industrial relations. He said that the matter needed to be looked at carefully and I agree with him. There is an increasing management response to the legislation and we shall have to wait and see how it works out. As I have said, the hon. Gentleman's comments about industrial relations and the coal industry were appreciated by the House and we look forward to further contributions from him.

I welcome the tone of the Gracious Speech and the policy themes set out in it. I welcome the commitment to improving public services through the citizens charter and the commitment to raise standards at all levels of education. I especially welcome the part of the speech which says that the Government are committed to increasing the role of the railways in meeting the country's transport needs. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman)—I believe that he is a neighbour of yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker—has been reconfirmed in his ministerial duties with responsibility for public transport and the railways. He will know of my interest in reopening the Dunstable to Luton line for passenger traffic. It is nice to know from the Gracious Speech that the role of the railways is to be given increasing importance in meeting the country's transport needs. Following from that is the commitment to introduce legislation to allow private sector money to become involved in running our railways. Anything that improves the quality of public services is to be welcomed and the Gracious Speech strikes the right chord there.

I wish to raise a matter of immediate concern to my constituents—it was touched on by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone—and that is the future of the Maxwell pension fund. Mr. Maxwell owned Waterlowes printing plant in Dunstable and Sun printers in Watford. As a result, in my constituency there are a number of ex-employees and widows who are dependent on a Maxwell pension. Many have given a lifetime of skilled service to the printing industry. Some have been told that their pensions might not be paid after the end of May. That is causing immense anxiety and distress. I understand that there is to be a lobby of Parliament in early June and I hope that by then we may have heard about the Government's thinking on how to handle this distressing matter. If the present situation is not enough to worry about, some of my constituents have just received a note, with no explanation, saying that their Maxwell pension is now being paid not by the Maxwell Communication Corporation but by the Mirror group.

This entire wretched saga is the unacceptable face of capitalism writ large in Bedfordshire. There has been a history of industrial co-operation in my constituency and so many of my constituents have given a lifetime of service to the printing industry. I hope that the Government will make an early statement about what can be done to help people who, in good faith, put so much of their incomes into pensions and are now facing great anxiety.

I welcome yesterday's interest rate cut as a further step towards getting us out of recession and difficulty. However, as the Government recognise, it will not stop unemployment from continuing to rise in the immediate future. That puts an increasing burden on the training and enterprise councils as the number seeking training is bound to rise. Just before the election, the Government made the welcome announcement of additional funds to finance the introduction of employment action and high technology national training. The Government pointed out that funding for this financial year will be greater than that for the financial year which ended on 31 March, but there are further problems. It is recognised now that if the number requiring training under the guarantees exceeds the contract levels, the position will be reviewed and the onus will not fall exclusively on training and enterprise councils. The Government recognise that TECs cannot be expected to enter into an open-ended guarantee for youth and adult training when their funds are finite. The Government have made the welcome statement that they will review the position. It needs to be reviewed now because, alas, the number of people seeking training has risen and will continue to rise until unemployment starts to fall.

The Conservative party and the Government made a welcome commitment in the manifesto by saying that popular schools which become over-subscribed will be given extra funds to allow them to expand. That is a generous and bold commitment as it implies that there will be Government funding for increased running costs and capital costs. I hope that the Treasury will smile happily at what is a considerable potential increase in state spending. If that leads to an acceleration in the number of schools opting out, will those opted—out schools be buying back from local education authorities the support services that the local education authorities now provide? I refer to curriculum back-up, peripatetic music teachers, curriculum support and outdoor activities. That is an important administrative and financial detail. As soon as the Government can say more about it, that will be welcomed, but the commitment to spend more where schools are meeting increased parental demand is thoroughly welcomed. I hope that there will be no hesitation or worry by the Treasury about meeting that valuable and welcome commitment in our education service.

I shall also mention the Government's plans for testing at seven, 11 and 14. I fully support testing at seven, but it has got off to an uneven start. However, it is essential as a first guide to a child's progress at school. Testing at 11 is not yet with us; we are told that it will be with us by 1994. Testing at 11 is a little different, because we now have —thank goodness—a welcome variety in the changing of the age at which children move on to middle and upper schools. Some children change at eight, some at nine and some at 11. Those who change at nine go to middle schools which cater for children up to the age of 13, where the curriculum is wider and greater opportunities are provided. Those who change at 11 go straight on to their upper school.

It will be difficult to get a clear picture of testing at 11 because so much depends on what sort of school a child is in. For children attending middle schools for the 9·13 age range, testing can be useful. Corrective action can be taken between the ages of 11 and 13, when the child will leave the school. However, if a child is moving on at 11 because the local education authority makes the change at 11, corrective action can hardly be taken in that school. It is asking quite something to tell the new upper school to start acting immediately on the basis of a test that a child took at the age of 11 in a previous school.

Diagnostic testing is useful and can be helpful, but we cannot imagine that it could be applied uniformly throughout the state education system, because of the different patterns involving the age at which pupils move on to upper schools. The Government, rightly, want variety and greater choice in education, so that is a potential problem for them.

With regard to testing at 14, when a child reaches the age of 14 he or she is getting close to the GCSE exam. Rightly, the Government have invested much money and political capital in trying to make the GCSE exam system work properly. Although I am not opposed, just like that, to testing at 14, I do not want anything to interfere at that age with a child's progress towards the GCSE expectations. We do not want children to lose their confidence because of a test at 14, nor vital teacher time to be taken away from the essential preparation for GCSE, which is taken at 15 or 16. I do not oppose the concept in principle, but the Government will have to go into considerable detail, and exercise great caution, before moving ahead on testing at 11 and 14.

This is the second time since the war that a Conservative Government have been returned with a majority of about 20. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Mr. Knox) mentioned what the then Prime Minister—Mr. Churchill, as he then was—said about that during the debate on the Loyal Address on 6 November 1951. My hon. Friend quoted one part of Mr. Churchill's speech; I shall quote another, which is relevant to this Parliament: What the House needs is a period of tolerant and constructive debating on the merits of the questions before us without nearly every speech on either side being distorted by the passions of one election or the preparations for another."—[Official Report, 6 November 1951; Vol. 493, c. 68–69.] I believe that the 1951 Parliament took that advice to heart, and proceeded in a constructive and orderly way. I hope that this Parliament will do the same, 41 years later.