Equal Opportunities in Britain

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:36 pm on 7th June 2000.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Minister (Education) 4:36 pm, 7th June 2000

I will in a moment, if the hon. Gentleman contains himself. The choice is his. If he behaves himself, I will give way and if he does not, I will not.

The hon. Gentleman should tell me what his attitude is to the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington, for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), for Colchester (Mr. Russell), for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) and for Torbay (Mr. Sanders). Why do I mention those hon. Members? The answer is simple: they have grammar schools in their constituencies. Discovering from those hon. Members whether they support the retention of grammar schools in their areas is more difficult than someone who is not a dentist extracting a tooth from someone's mouth. Those people become Trappist monks in those circumstances. They are not prepared to tell us whether they support the retention or the abolition of those institutions. We all know that the Liberal Democrats specialise in chameleon politics. We all know that they say different things at different times in different places to different people for different purposes, but that is hitting a new low.

At least the Government's position is just about coherent. It is to say, "We will put on to the statute book regulations that allow for the destruction of grammar schools, but Ministers themselves will not soil their hands by getting involved in campaigns. What local Labour Members do is a matter for them." The Liberal Democrats' position appears to be for the national party directly to contradict what the local party or Member of Parliament might do. That is extraordinary.

What do the Liberal Democrats say about the explosion of red tape in our schools? Do they think that it is objectionable that schools have faced a further 2,468 regulations over the past 12 months? If they do believe that it hampers the efforts of teachers and of governors to advance the cause of educational standards, why is it that that did not merit even a brief mention in the speech by the leader of the Liberal Democrats?

What do the Liberal Democrats believe about the Government's ridiculous politically correct policy of seeking artificially to reduce school exclusions by a fixed target of one third, irrespective of the seriousness of the bad behaviour that might necessitate, in the view of the professionals, the exclusion of pupils from schools? Upon that subject, there is an extraordinary and untypical reticence from the Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrats aspire to be a party of government. It seems an improbable prospect but, if that is their aspiration, they ought to have something to say about a key policy of real concern to head teachers, teachers and governors.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has unveiled a common-sense Conservative policy to tackle the problem of rank indiscipline in large numbers of schools across the country, and he is receiving support from teachers and parents and, indeed, from teachers unions. I am not averse to receiving support from time to time from teachers trade unions, when we are pioneering sensible policies and they want to join forces with us. Why did the Liberal Democrats not say a little more about the appalling failure of the Government's policies on the new deal for lone parents and the new deal for young people? What are those policies doing to advance the cause of opportunity in our society? I hope that the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Croydon, North, is aware that, of those who have gone to interview under the new deal for lone parents scheme promoted by the Government, only 4.5 per cent. have so far secured jobs—that is, 20,590 out of 454,920.

What do the Liberal Democrats think about that? What do they think about the failure of the new deal for young people? Of those who have gone through the scheme so far, 58 per cent. have ended up back on benefits. The scheme is also failing businesses, increasing numbers of which have withdrawn from it, complaining about its bureaucratic burden and administrative complexity.

What do the Liberal Democrats say about the way in which the scheme has failed other unemployed people—those who have been unemployed for long periods, who need help and deserve support, who could benefit from an active programme of public assistance but have been denied such help by the Government?