Orders of the Day — Education and Industry

– in the House of Commons at 9:34 am on 8th December 2000.

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Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment 9:34 am, 8th December 2000

Mr. Speaker, I apologise to the House for having to leave before the end of the debate—I have written to you about that. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and to my hon. Friends not only for being in the Chamber on a Friday morning, but for being so understanding about it.

In continuing the debate, let me say how tickled I am that the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment, has reached the dizzy heights of "The Westminster Hour" Christmas quiz. In order not to skew the result, I shall not give the answer to the question, but she will be greatly relieved to know that the question is not, "Who is she?"—so at least that is all right. That remark was extremely ungallant of me, so I withdraw it immediately. All I can say is, TGIF—"thank God it's Friday".

Each year, the Loyal Address focuses on the tip of the iceberg that is the legislative programme: the programme itself is only a framework for taking forward measures and underpinning action that is already in train. We should understand clearly that, in the past, those people who demanded less legislation realised that legislation alone was neither the sole objective of Government actions nor the sole judge of their actions.

Legislation is crucial in getting right the policies and programmes that are laid out and accomplished not only by politicians but by people locally who carry out the will of Parliament or of local government. However, it is also a means of engaging with civil society; so, as it is Friday morning, I shall give a few moments thought to that. In The Times this morning, Simon Jenkins accuses me of coming out with too many facts. However, last night I was at Garforth community college, just outside Leeds, where I was accused of not giving enough facts about what the Government are doing. Facts alone do not add up to a political programme; re-engaging with civil society does. It is extremely important that we, as a Parliament and a Government, regard the programme in the Queen's Speech and the run-up to the next Parliament as an opportunity to spell out that we are an enabling Government. We are on the side of men and women in their communities, offering the opportunity, resources and support for them to succeed in getting and keeping jobs, earning a living and building a family, while living comfortably and safely in communities that have a decent environment and the quality of life that we should expect for ourselves, with the safety on the streets that the Government have been endeavouring to restore.

In other words, the big picture is of a Government who are on people's side, backing up what they do. Instead of cutting, disinvesting and disengaging from the support that is necessary—the Opposition policy—we are endeavouring to provide investment for the future, to reverse the cuts of the past and to engage with people in their lives where and when it matters. That is doing it with people, rather than doing it to them, and that will enable people to succeed.

I understand that the Leader of the Opposition will take part in "Songs of Praise" on Sunday, from Bradford. Last night, the gospel choir at Garforth, who are also taking part in that programme, sang their hearts out about community—about people working and caring together. I hope that, when the Leader of the Opposition hears them sing on Sunday, he will feel a twinge of conscience about the type of policies that his party currently advocate and would inflict on the rest of the country—[Interruption.] I seem to recognise the voice of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)—[Interruption.] My hon. Friends tell me it is the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley)—same policies, but slightly more sophisticated. Does the right hon. Gentleman want to intervene? At least I can engage in some sort of intellectual debate with him—[HON. MEMBERS: "No, you cannot".] Yes, I can do so occasionally; he has one or two things to say about Edmund Burke, for example.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his kind remarks about me. I simply said that it is disgraceful for any member of a political party to try to monopolise religion—to believe that it is the monopoly of his or her party, rather than an inspiration for Members on both sides of the House, although we may have different means of achieving the same objectives.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I thought that the Leader of the Opposition had done that at an evangelical meeting in the spring of this year and that he is going on television on Sunday night precisely to display how committed he really is when he gets off the moors. Such comments are a little rich—

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I do not think that any of us would dare to do that. I think that Dave Allen's famous phrase, "May your God go with you, whoever he or she might be", is the way forward.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

May I say, on behalf not only of my constituents but of people more widely, that having been present when the Leader of the Opposition spoke to the faith groups in the Emmanuel centre in Marsham street, anyone of whatever faith or party who was there would have found nothing that he said controversial because he was confronting the problems that we are all trying to tackle in giving support and inspiration to people? Some of what my right hon. Friend said may have upset the Secretary of State, but I hope that he will take my witness that what the Leader of the Opposition said was not only acceptable, but inspiring and right.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I certainly agree that the speech would have been acceptable; I reserve judgment on whether it was inspiring, and I shall examine the text before saying whether it was right. I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's assumption that the Leader of the Opposition was not making a political gesture in that case. I think that we can draw stumps on that one.

So from God not quite to mammon because, along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, I pay tribute to the business community for the contribution that it has been making to the current favourable, benign economic position. The work of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, together with other colleagues and the business community, has ensured that we can reinvest the fruits of success. As the Prime Minister rightly said on Wednesday afternoon in the debate on the Address, we can reduce the cost of failure in social security and debt repayment from 42p to 17p in the pound. As a result, we can invest in public services in a way that the Opposition are clearly intent not only on stopping, but on reducing. They want to stop certain forms of public expenditure so that they can hand out tax cuts. They are ideologically against investing in public services and the quality of provision and support that they produce. I shall illustrate that this morning.

The business community has joined us in the task of reskilling the nation and ensuring that we get it right locally and regionally, as well as nationally. Through the Learning and Skills Council, we can join together in partnership to initiate programmes that will meet skills gaps and unblock the bottlenecks that exist in a few of our enterprises and sectors. That will ensure that we can compete globally, while continuing to reduce unemployment and to achieve the process of high and sustainable employment that was spelt out in the Queen's Speech.

The Department's major task has been to tackle the standards deficit in relation not only to schools, but to the basic and technical skills required for the nation. We rejoice in the way in which yesterday's primary school results show how teachers, heads and non-teaching staff, those in education action zones and those taking part in the excellence in cities initiative have not only produced an uplift in the overall performance in the key areas—the tools for future learning, which are essential to enable children to go forward into secondary and further education, giving them the opportunity of using their creativity, imagination and encouraging their love of learning for the rest of the lives—but have made substantial improvements in the most disadvantaged and deprived areas of our country. The uplift has taken place in local authorities such as Tower Hamlets, and the worst performing authority four years ago is now above average compared with 1996. Individual schools facing tremendous disadvantage have transformed the life chances of their pupils.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The Liberal Democrats certainly appreciate the achievements of schools, teachers and children as shown in the results published yesterday. Does the Secretary of State agree that the league tables do not show the immense commitment and hard work involved in getting a child to achieve level 3? That work is not recognised, nor are those children who achieve levels 5, 6 or above. Is not it time to make those tables much more sophisticated to recognise the achievements of all our children, not just some?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I want us to be able to celebrate locally and nationally the progress that has been made, the added value that is provided from a child first entering the school system or a particular key stage, and the support provided and work done to increase the standards of education and achievement. I accept entirely that that is a necessary objective.

From next year, we shall engage in the development across the country of value-added tables, which will be set alongside the information that must be made public under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which received Royal Assent a week or so ago. Those value-added tables will be set in the context of the achievements of children who have often struggled against the odds. We hope to have that in place in secondary education from 2002 and in primary education from 2003. We have to include a whole cohort, which is why that has taken longer than I would have wished.

In sadness, rather than anger, I wish that in celebrating what the pupils have done and the excellent work of teachers, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) would reconsider praying against the order that allows local authorities to pay the uplift as teachers reach the standard and go on to the new pay scales, which involves £2,000. Cities such as Bradford, for example, which is not under Labour control but is run by the Conservatives, were about to set in train the process of paying their teachers who pass the threshold, but they will now not do so because they are worried that the Liberal Democrats might carry the majority in the House and stop teachers being able to receive the uplift. Authorities should be able to get on with the necessary administration.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I admire the Secretary of State's confidence that the Liberal Democrats will carry the country at the next election. He should recognise that the serious issue—the courts certainly made him recognise it—is that the House requires an opportunity to debate matters of substance. Introducing performance-related promotion, which has now become performance-related pay, is a major issue, and the House deserves the opportunity to debate it. The Liberal Democrats have performed a service to the teaching profession in allowing the Secretary of State to explain his position and hon. Members on both sides to have an input to the debate.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I think that that claim will prove to be as spurious as the National Union of Teacher's claim that teachers wanted them to stop the payments and the programme being put in place. It behoves the Liberal Democrats to tell teachers that any delay in paying them the money is entirely down to them. I am happy to debate that in the House, but I hope that the Liberal Democrats will not be foolish enough to vote against it. I did not say that the Liberal Democrats would carry the House, but the Conservatives in Bradford fear that they might. We shall see what happens in due course.

From the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998 and the measures that we have introduced under it, the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, and the introduction of a teacher training curriculum for the primary sector for the first time, to the Learning and Skills Act 2000, we have taken the necessary steps to raise standards and to ensure that we can tackle the deficit that exists. Under legislation that we put in place as early as July 1997, we have been able to take action to reduce class sizes. Two and a half years ago, 485,000 youngsters were in classes of more than 30 infants; there are now only 30,000. That represents the first reduction for 10 years in 7 to 11-year-olds in classes of more than 30. We have seen the changes coming through. We have joined with colleagues in other Departments on early-years and day-care provision, which has been strengthened with quality measures being put in place. We have seen the success of our welfare-to-work measures in practice through the new deal and through the work of the Employment Service and its partners across the board. Employment zones are working. They were put in place only in April, and I pay tribute to those who have moved so swiftly to achieve what they have.

I shall say a few words about the importance of a deal. It is one thing to say to people that we will withdraw their benefits if they do not get a job, and another to say, "This is something for something and if we play our part we expect you to play yours." That is responsibility and obligation going side by side. Yes, there are rights, but there is a duty to take up opportunity.

The deal is simple. We shall play our part as a Government and resource education, training and the personal adviser system. We shall help in ensuring that individuals get over the past trauma of unemployment, or even of under-achievement and social or educational disadvantage, but we expect opportunity to be taken up. That is different from the approach of Opposition Members, whose programme involves withdrawing that support. For example, under the Tories the new deal for lone parents would mean that those with children over 11 would simply be told to get a job. Their scheme would not offer the guidance and support that we are now putting in place, nor would it for the other new deal programmes.

America Works is the programme that the Opposition intend to introduce in place of our new deal programmes. It is a small programme that operates from New York. The figures that the Opposition have given in terms of their savings of £419 million towards their tax-cut programme are made up in an interesting way. Overall, the programme amounts to £5.3 billion, but they still have £2.7 billion to find to meet their target. Given that we may have the time available, I shall address the issue of £419 million.

First, the Opposition have taken the legitimate figures for 1999–2000 and applied them to 2000–01. They have then deducted the 1999 sums from the 2000 sums and added them up to show a saving, without updating the figures. Secondly, and remarkably, they have failed to understand that if they criticise a Government on the basis that a percentage of young people who get a job do not sustain it for more than 13 weeks, they cannot build that calculation of the removal of youngsters from jobs—flexibility does exist—into the cash figures and then criticise the Government again.

The Opposition have their £3,000 a job investment programme. For the record, it is £1,500 for those companies that do not get a youngster to stay in a job. They have averaged the programme at £2,700. They had to do so because they have taken the figures across the board, including those who keep a job and those who do not. For the record, and for the public who may at some point read Hansard, I shall explain what their America Works system means. It involves giving a private company £3,000 if someone is sustained in a job for more than 13 weeks. The education and training programme and the personal adviser service are withdrawn. Only £1,500 is paid if someone gets a job but does not keep it. If an average is taken, we get the Conservatives' figures. If that is done, they accept the percentage and therefore the proportion within the labour market, which we do not control and where flexibility is inevitable in a modern economy, or what might be described as the new economy.

Thirdly, the Conservatives presume that the administrative costs will be borne by private companies. On that basis, they withdraw £115 million from the Employment Service budget. The trouble is that they have double counted. Our figures, against which they have judged their own for savings purposes, include the costs of administration. If we count the Opposition's figures against ours and include administration costs, which are included in our figures, and then transfer administration to the private sector and pay companies for administering the Conservative system as well as for getting an unemployed man or woman into a job, we find that the figures have been counted twice. The whole thing is a charade.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I suggest that, after that four-minute attempt to understand our figures, the Secretary of State needs a numeracy hour to help him understand them. He appears to be saying that he is quite happy for young people to go into jobs that are not sustained. Does he accept that the National Institute of Economic and Social Research figures show that the new deal has found jobs for only 13,000 young people?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment

First, the NIESR figures were based on the opening phase of the new deal programme. Secondly, I do not accept that only 13,000 youngsters have been found a job because of the new deal. Of course, that has nothing to do with discrediting the figures that I have read out or the calculations on which they were based. I think that back to the drawing board would be the order of the day.

The same applies to the Opposition's education

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The right hon. Gentleman's approach is fascinating. He appears to criticise the Opposition's concentration on a model that works in New York in a way that gives inspiration in showing us how we could do better than the new deal. What contacts have the right hon. Gentleman and his Department had with the Wildcat Corporation in New York, and what lessons does he think could be drawn from what is being done so much better in America than in the United Kingdom?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have had the Wildcat Corporation working with us. We have been engaged in ensuring that we use the expertise and the will of employers, 80,000 of whom have signed up to the new deal. On the US-wide scheme, I think that 20,000 employers have signed up. We have been examining with the Wildcat Corporation, as we do with employment zones, how we can use the flexibility of resources more effectively—we shall do this under new deal mark 2—to ensure that we tackle the most serious disadvantage. That can never be done by merely stuffing people into a job without social or educational support.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Employment Sub-Committee, of which the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) is a member, has visited the Wildcat Corporation both in New York and, recently, in this country, as part of a programme of examining intermediary programmes that can assist us in developing the new deal? I thought that Conservative Members would know that and would understand that we are using that experience in this country.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment

Yes. The experience of hundreds of youngsters who have been placed in long-term jobs and supported in New York is interesting, but it is not the alternative to about 550,000 youngsters entering a new deal programme because they have been unemployed for six months or more, with 254,520 getting jobs. We have been helping those who needed minimal help and supporting those who needed a lot of help, and we are rejoicing in those who obtained a job faster than would otherwise have been the case and in those who got a job only because of the new deal programme.

I shall reflect on the wonderful calculations that the Opposition apply to education. We are not entirely certain how much the Opposition feel that they could take out of general budgets to switch into schools. It is between £3.4 billion and £4 billion, except that £1 billion has already been switched and is being delegated this coming year. However, we are certain that some of the facts are astonishing.

Conservative Members appear to feel that they can impose on head teachers additional burdens and administration while criticising the Government's plans for administration. The Conservatives' proposals to switch transport costs would mean asking head teachers to become bus drivers—that is, they would have to get the children to school as well as teach them when they got there. The Conservatives would place arrangements in the hands of individual schools rather than setting up co-ordinated contracts to get children to school. One must also bear in mind that half the money spent in that way is spent on special needs education. One would be in real trouble if one told schools that they had to organise their own insurance—even though they wanted to collaborate and arrange that through local authorities—especially if that meant dealing with special needs education in a way that would ensure no co-ordination on placement or admissions. I look forward to hearing the hon. Lady's explanation for that.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The Secretary of State referred to head teachers becoming bus drivers. Does he accept that head teachers are doing exactly that? A head teacher has left the profession to become a chauffeur, and another has left to become a lorry driver. The imposition of bureaucratic burdens by the Government makes teaching a job that people no longer want to do.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I was not sure whether the hon. Lady was advocating that head teachers should become bus drivers, or bemoaning the fact that they have done so. My point was that she would be forcing them to do that job as well as that of head teacher. That would be the inevitable consequence of her proposals.

There is an interesting figure in the Conservative party's litany of items that it would chop out of what it describes as non-essential budgets. Conservative Members might like to reflect on this figure over the next few weeks, because I want to help them to have a sensible debate in the run-up to the general election, whenever it comes. They appear to have forgotten the £300 million that is paid out not to state schools, or to specific local authority functions such as educational psychologists, but to non-maintained special schools in the voluntary and private sector. That is £300 million that the Conservatives have counted in their savings in the distribution to the state system.

Never mind the maths hour—or 55 minutes, or whatever it might be—I would like the hon. Lady to do her sums again. When she has done them, she should hold a press conference and spell out to the world the reason why Her Majesty's Opposition simply could not add up. [Interruption.] Would the hon. Lady like to intervene again? This is the countdown to the next general election.

I shall say a little more on special needs. On Wednesday, we announced that we would legislate. Today, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill is in the public arena. We shall ensure that there are new rights for parents and children, and that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 will now include the rights that were denied to those taking up education. We shall ensure that we get the balance right between support for inclusion and specialist provision where it is needed, so that we tailor special needs support precisely to the requirements of the child. We shall spell out in the next week or two, on Second Reading in the House of Lords, the fact that we shall ensure that no one need fear any change in the code of practice in terms of the rights that currently exist on statementing.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge and Chryston

What my right hon. Friend has said is excellent. Would he perhaps go a step further when envisaging the approach to special educational needs and embrace advocacy? That is becoming extremely important and it ought also to apply to education.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment

Yes, I would be happy to examine how advocacy could be developed in terms of parental and family rights. We are keen that an advocate should be available at local level for parents. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) knows—he has done an enormous amount of work on this subject, for which we are all grateful—that some very good experiments have been undertaken. Our task is to get this right. We shall obviously be able to debate the subject at length when it comes before the House.

I want to ensure that, if we disagree on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill, we disagree about matters about which we are genuinely at loggerheads. This is an important Bill. There is too little public debate on the issue, but it is profoundly important to millions of young people and their families across the country. I shall be happy to listen and respond to the Opposition parties on the issue.

We want to ensure that whenever there is a problem, we shall tackle it; that whenever support is required, it will be available; that resources are put in place on a sensible basis at a local level so that people can do the job in the classroom; that we break down bureaucracy; ensure that teachers can do their job more effectively; and increase the morale and motivation of the profession. To achieve that, we shall continue to broaden people's horizons, to rejoice in the improvements that have taken place, and to shout about what a wonderful profession the education system offers. That means rejoicing when there is an improvement in recruitment, such as the 8 per cent. increase this year, which represents an extra 2,000 teachers. There are not more teachers leaving than entering the profession, as there were in 1997 on the back of the pension changes that the previous Government introduced.

There are challenges ahead. The recruitment campaign for next year will begin at the beginning of the year, as we recruit graduates. We shall want those who use graduate figures to include the new graduate training programme, which they do not do at present, so that we get this right. The new programme is very popular and successful.

Above all, we want to get a message across. We are linking what we are doing in the earliest years—sure start, child care and nursery provision—with lower class sizes and successes in literacy and numeracy at primary level. That needs to be carried forward into the secondary sector to offer real opportunity and equality. That will ensure that the investment that we are making in further education and skilling contributes to the continuing success of our economy, the growth that comes with low unemployment and the stability that comes with low inflation. We want to do that in an environment in which we contribute to people getting and holding a job, but having the skills available to be flexible and adaptable enough to be able to move within the economy in a way that will ensure success for the future.

That is a challenge on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I work closely together. Enterprise and innovation, underpinned by the skills and the knowledge economy of the future, will ensure that we get it right for everyone, wherever they are.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education 10:08 am, 8th December 2000

The Secretary of State brightened up my Friday morning when he informed me that I have been mentioned on "The Westminster Hour" Christmas quiz. I can think of several possible questions that could have been asked about me, perhaps on namesakes or shoes. If they were on some other subject, I would say to the Secretary of State that I am willing to spend some time this Christmas with my dictionary, if the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will spend some time this Christmas doing his tables.

The Government came to power claiming that their No. 1 priority was education, education, education. They still proclaim education as their priority today. Indeed, words on education made up about 10 per cent. of the Gracious Speech. However, far from setting education at the centre of the Government's programme, far from lifting the bureaucratic burdens on our teachers, far from meeting the needs of schools faced with teacher vacancies and with no hope of filling them, far from addressing the growing damage to standards resulting from the Government's policies, far from lifting the Government's constant interference in our classrooms, far from trusting the teachers and helping the head teachers deal with disruptive pupils, the Queen's Speech clearly showed that, on education, this is a Government who have run out of steam, are bereft of ideas and have nothing to offer the majority of parents or teachers. That was also clear from the Secretary of State's speech.

Where are the measures to reduce the mountain of paperwork that teachers have to deal with day in and day out? Where are the measures to give teachers the time to get on with the job of teaching children? They need to be able to inspire young minds by lighting that spark of interest—by creating a thirst for knowledge—which will last throughout children's lives and enable them to develop a truly fulfilling life.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment

Will the hon. Lady name one piece of legislation that did not create additional orders or paperwork, or require material to be sent out to explain it? All measures in the late 1980s and early 1990s contributed to that including, of course, the national curriculum, the assessment tests and the work that had to be done to introduce the Office for Standards in Education. All those measures were worthy and correct, but led to more, not less, paperwork.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Over the past year, the Secretary of State has sent out an average of one piece of paper for every hour that a teacher should have been working. He could have introduced legislation to reduce the burdens on schools. By setting the schools free and trusting the teachers, he could have let them decide how to spend all their budget. Instead, he has continued to ensure that the budgets are spent not on the school's priorities but on those of the Government.

The Queen's Speech contained no measures to enable our universities to hold their heads high again as centres of excellence world wide and to compete in the global marketplace. But let us face it: the Secretary of State has lost interest in education. Indeed, he has publicly joked about his hopes to move to the Home Office. He simply will not face up to the problems that his policies are creating for teachers, parents and children. He certainly is not going to be doing anything about them.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment

Just to provide a moment of delectation, yesterday I travelled 500 miles to visit a school in Nottinghamshire, a school in Derbyshire and Garforth school outside Leeds. I left a school at 9 o'clock last night to get back to London—in bad weather—in time for this morning's debate. No one would do that unless he was really committed to education.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Visiting schools is important. We both do that, although when I talk about visiting schools to find out what is happening, the Secretary of State's right hon. and hon. Friends tell me that I should not be doing it. It is a pity that he visits schools but does nothing about the problems that they have identified in relation to his policies. If he is visiting schools and listening to what they are saying, he will know that they want to be set free and have all their money supplied directly. They do not want their funding creamed off by central Government and local education authorities.

The Secretary of State has been turning his attention to other matters, such as social security, the countryside and Europe. We are told that in the next few weeks he will speak on patriotism. He has even opined on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Perhaps one of the questions on that show could be taken from the book that the Secretary of State has endorsed. It tells us that our schools are becoming an anachronism and that the future task of the teacher would be as a learning "manager", equipping them— children— with the basic skill of "learnacy". I suspect that if the definition of learnacy was a question on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", no one would get past £100, let alone get to £1 million.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Conservative-controlled North Yorkshire county council is planning to top-slice the money that the Chancellor is giving to schools and to calculate that as part and parcel of their allocation. Is that official Conservative policy?

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that we want to provide money directly to schools without going through local education authorities. Liberal Democrat councils up and down the country have failed to provide proper funding for schools and have held back money for their own initiatives instead of providing it for the schools' priorities. If he considers those actions, he will see the real problems that LEAs can cause. He only has to look at the problems experienced by schools in Wokingham unitary authority which have been in an absolute mess since the Liberal Democrats took control of the district council. If the Secretary of State does not want to sort out the problems that he has created, the next Conservative Government will.

One education Bill was announced in the Queen's Speech, on special educational needs and access to learning for disabled people. The Conservative party is also interested in improving access to education for disabled people, but parents are already worried about the Bill, especially part I, which relates to special educational needs. It will be necessary to scrutinise it properly. I sincerely hope that the Government will recognise the importance of ensuring that sufficient time is available in the House and another place for that.

The Bill is of particular importance because of the concerns that parents are raising. Although we have not seen it, we know from the background note issued by the Government for the Queen's Speech and from the consultation document that was issued earlier this year that a key aim will be to enshrine the principle that a child with special educational needs shall be educated in a mainstream school unless it is against the wishes of the parent, or a school or an LEA cannot take reasonable steps to adapt its provision. The intention is to put into force the Government's inclusion agenda.

I hope that the Secretary of State will consider the impact of that agenda which is being used by local authorities as an excuse to close special schools and to fly in the face of parents' wishes. I saw that for myself when I recently visited Thurlow Park school in Lambeth and admired the new £1.3 million nursery unit which was opened by the Secretary of State in March. The school is now threatened with closure by Lambeth council.

I saw the quality of education that the school provides and spoke to a parent who set out her concerns, which are shared by other parents of children in special schools. She was worried that if her son was placed in a mainstream school, far from being included, he would be treated by other children as being different and would not be able to get involved in all activities to the same extent as other pupils. A policy of inclusion would cause him to feel excluded within the class.

Parents have a real fear of that happening. It is not groundless. Such children have often moved from mainstream schools to special schools and their parents have seen the different quality of education and way in which their children can achieve in that environment. Parents are rightly concerned that there should be a choice of provision. They do not want special schools to be closed and children included in mainstream schools if it is not in their interests, but simply meets a Government target.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I am deeply grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; I shall endeavour to make this my last intervention.

I do not disagree with the thrust of what the hon. Lady is saying. I want to make it absolutely clear that the inclusion agenda is not a wholesale closure of specialist facilities and schools that meet particular needs of youngsters and their families. That is why we want a regional structural approach so that facilities are available. We do not want a free-for-all or a closure by dint of resources not being available in a particular borough or local authority. In fact, the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities, is leading the campaign to keep Thurlow Park school open.

There will be issues on which we disagree. I promise that we will listen and make time available to debate the Bill. It transcends ideological party politics and we need to get it right.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I certainly endorse the Secretary of State's comments that we need to get the Bill right, and that is why we need to give it time. I hope that his remarks about the need to ensure that the inclusion agenda does not lead to a wholesale closure of special schools will filter down to those Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled authorities which are putting many special schools under threat of closure, raising genuine concerns for parents.

It is a difficult balance to strike. Parents are questioning the potential impact on special schools and are also concerned about the changes to the special educational needs code of practice and the Government's intentions on the back of that change. It is proposed to water down the statement for each child so that rather than specifying the position, it will simply have to set it out. There is a concern that local authorities will use that change to give a very vague description of the child's needs, thus reducing the right of children and their parents to access resources for those children's particular needs.

The Secretary of State will be aware that after the publication of the Green Paper on special educational needs in 1997, the Government came under a lot of pressure not to reduce parental rights to statementing. I recall pressing the Minister for School Standards on this point in the Select Committee on Education and Employment. Ministers have made a number of statements to the effect that there will be no reduction in parents' or children's rights. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), reiterated that point in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) at the last Education questions.

If parents find that the Government have kept to the letter of those promises but are using the code of practice to get out of their commitments, they will know, once again, that the Government cannot be trusted. This is a Government run by lawyers picking their words carefully, spinning and failing to deliver.

All spin and no delivery is an apt description of the rest of the sections on education in the Queen's Speech. What is there but the reannouncement of existing policies? The Government are so out of touch with what is happening in our schools that in a Queen's Speech bereft of content they could not find time for measures to redress the crisis faced by our schools, colleges and universities.

We know that the Government are out of touch. We have only to look at the problem of teacher supply to see that. On 26 November, about a month after we had initiated a debate in the House on the crisis in teacher recruitment and supply, the Secretary of State finally admitted that there was a problem. Following a question from Mr. John Humphrys about teacher shortages on "On the Record", the right hon. Gentleman said: Yes, there is a serious problem and had we not acted at the end of March think we'd have been very close to melt down. How wrong can he be?

The Government acted to increase the number of recruits into teacher training, not to increase the number of teachers in schools today. The message I get from schools as I travel around the country is that they fear that in so many areas they are close to meltdown. Indeed, the Department for Education and Employment accepted that in a letter which has been sent to local education authorities. It indicates the concern in the Department that a widespread four-day school week could be in place by January. The letter from the Department's head of schools, David Normington, says that Whitehall will co-ordinate Government intervention where measures fail. However, it wants local authorities to develop co-ordinated strategies for dealing with shortages which threaten the ability of schools to provide a full week for their pupils. We have only to listen to head teachers to know the problems that schools are facing. The Evening Standard reports that at St. Augustine's Church of England school in Westminster, the head teacher needs two science teachers by January. He said: If I can't get two supply teachers qualified in science, then I will get two who are not and they will cover the lessons for the younger pupils … Another London head declined to identify his school, but said: I've got three classes without teachers in January. I don't know where they are going to come from. The article continued: Bill Alexander, head of Reading Girls' School, said: "We are having to accept second best because we haven't got the quality available. Last week in Luton I spoke to a head teacher with five vacancies that he cannot fill—there are no applications for those vacancies. Non-specialist teachers have to teach other classes.

Earlier this week I was in Cumbria. It is a very nice part of the country and until recently, it has not had many problems with teacher recruitment. It is an attractive place to live and it has always been possible to encourage teachers to work there. Even there, however, head teachers say that they are facing real difficulties. They are talking about having only one applicant for their specialist posts in secondary schools.

The problem of teacher supply is not confined to London and the south-east. It is spread out across the country. Children will suffer because the quality of education that is provided will suffer, particularly in secondary schools, if children's classes are being taught by non-specialist teachers.

What was the Government's recent reaction to this crisis? The Prime Minister announced in the press to head teachers that, over the next 10 years, the Government will recruit—should they get the chance—250,000 teachers. Setting aside the fact that the Government will not be in a position to recruit over the next 10 years, on current targets, vacancies and losses to the profession would leave us short of 100,000 teachers in 10 years' time. The Government are out of touch, spinning the truth and failing to deliver.

The Queen's Speech concentrated on secondary education. It claimed that the Government would introduce more specialist schools—a claim that we have heard many times from them. Yet those words ring hollow for the specialist schools that were told earlier this year that they could not continue with their applications for specialist college status because the Government had introduced the 30 per cent. rule, meaning that those areas in which 30 per cent. of pupils are already taught in specialist schools do not qualify for a further specialist school.

The specialist schools initiative was introduced by the previous Government, and the schools' records show that they do a good job for their pupils. If the Government are really interested in encouraging more specialist schools, they should not impose artificial limits in areas but enable those schools which want to become specialist schools to do so.

The Queen's Speech also referred to urban school reform. There is an indication there that there might be something new in the Government's thinking and that they might bring forward further proposals on secondary education. What do we see when we look at the background notes? It is all about city academies—already enshrined in the Learning and Skills Act 2000, although the Government have been finding it difficult to get people to take on that option. [Interruption.] Oh, the Secretary of State says that applications are flooding in. Perhaps he could tell the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry how many city academies will have been set up within the next three months, and then the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry could tell us in the winding-up speech.

The idea of city academies is not new—it is in the Learning and Skills Act 2000. Indeed, it is not even a new Labour idea—it owes much to the city technology colleges that were set up under the previous Government. City technology colleges such as Thomas Telford have achieved excellent results and shown the value of setting schools free and enabling head teachers and principals to have a real chance to control the destiny of their school.

What other urban school reform for secondary schools might be offered by the Secretary of State? Perhaps the Government will have another look at their fresh start proposals. Fresh start has been a complete failure from the beginning. Fresh start schools are closing. In the early days, head teachers of fresh start schools were leaving when they found that they could not get on with the job that they wanted to do. Telegraph Hill, for example, is under threat of closure by Lewisham council. The director for lifelong learning and culture at Lewisham council recently said on "World at One" about fresh start: it certainly hasn't worked in this instance … Because of that we have to take another hard decision … to close the school. Fresh start has not proved to be the magic wand that Ministers claimed it would be when they introduced it. Despite the publicity that surrounded the concept of the super-head being parachuted into a school, paid extra money and turning the school around under fresh start, it has been a disaster—it simply has not worked. The Government need to go back to the drawing board, but there is no indication in the Queen's Speech that they are doing so.

The Government talk about improved standards of teaching and education, yet we have seen secondary class sizes rise in the past three and half years: the pupil:teacher ratio in secondary schools is the worst for 25 years; the number of pupils in secondary classes of 36 and more has nearly doubled in the past three and half years; and, after three and a half years, almost 100,000 more pupils in secondary schools are in classes of between 31 and 35. Increased class sizes are not the only problem facing secondary schools: they are unable to get the teachers that they need.

The future of our secondary school sixth forms is under real threat. That is not only being said in the House; it is being said by secondary school head teachers throughout the country, for example, by the head of the secondary school in Tividale, West Bromwich, which has a sixth form of only 56 pupils and offers only a limited number of courses, but fills a niche in the market, provides options for education post-16 to young people who otherwise would not stay on for post-16 education, and achieves excellent pass rates in the courses that it offers. It is being said by the heads of secondary schools in Cumbria, where only five out of 27 school sixth forms meet the unofficial size criterion set by the Department for Education and Employment of 200 pupils. Small rural sixth forms feel particularly threatened by the Labour Government. They fill a need by ensuring that young people have a choice of provision in post-16 education, but the Government are threatening those sixth forms with closure, which would deny parents and pupils an opportunity to choose how and where they continue their education post-16 and would also affect the rest of the schools.

The Secretary of State mentioned bureaucracy and administration—the question whether, if schools are given greater freedom and more responsibility, it merely piles on more administration. That is, of course, not true. The problem identified by schools with existing bureaucracy is that it is not of value in raising standards in the classroom; it is just pieces of paper sent out by the Department for Education and Employment—or by the Department to the local education authority for it to send to schools. That practice was identified by the Government's better regulation taskforce as one of the methods used by the Government to enable them to claim that they have reduced the amount of paperwork they distribute to schools. Head teacher after head teacher and teacher after teacher says that the bureaucracy does not help to raise standards in the classroom—it does nothing to improve the education of children. We want to ensure that heads have the ability to make decisions regarding their schools, to control their schools' destiny and to raise standards in the classroom, unencumbered by the paperwork which has emerged from the Government continuously and at an increasing rate in the past three and a half years.

The Secretary of State spoke at length about the new deal, but when two thirds of young people on the education and training option of the new deal end up without a job, and only 13,000 young people have found jobs as a result of the new deal, it is no deal for young long-term unemployed people. The right hon. Gentleman has admitted that there is to be a new deal mark 2, following discussions with the Wildcat Corporation—indeed, the Government have been talking to that corporation for some time now. They have recognised the complaints from businesses and employers about the new deal gateway not working. The Government realise that the new deal is not the success that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister claimed it was a week ago. They recognise that new deal mark 1 has been a failure and that young people are being let down by the policy that the Labour Government introduced. That is why "Britain works", which will focus clearly on getting young people into a job as soon as possible and keeping them there, will be a better deal for young people and for the taxpayer.

Business was also mentioned in the Queen's Speech in connection with learning and skills councils. The Secretary of State says that businesses have joined with Government in those councils, but businesses are complaining that there is not enough business representation on them to ensure that business needs are genuinely catered for.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

One only has to look at the figures on business representation—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The House listened carefully to the Secretary of State when he was speaking and those on the Treasury Bench should extend the same courtesy to the hon. Lady.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is normal in education debates for Ministers to be wholly unwilling to listen to the truth about their policies; they prefer to ignore the reality of the impact of their measures on people's lives.

Businesses are complaining about the lack of business representation on learning and skills councils. The Government claimed that they would ensure that there was 40 per cent. business representation on every regional LSC, but on Berkshire LSC, for example, business representation is less than 40 per cent., and businesses complain that there are only two people with current business experience on the national Learning and Skills Council.

It is not only business that the Government have let down. They have let head teachers down, as we learned from yesterday's release from the National Association of Head Teachers and the Secondary Heads Association. The Secretary of State's comments at the NAHT conference earlier this year raised head teachers' hopes that the Government would change the way in which schools are funded and get funding directly to schools based on a national funding formula, but the Green Paper published in September by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions did nothing to improve the system of school funding. It did not ring-fence or put money directly into schools; instead, it maintained the status quo and schools and head teachers feel let down.

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment said that the Queen's Speech was all about the big picture and showing people that the Government were on their side. If the Government were really on the side of schools, teachers, parents and children, the Queen's Speech would have contained measures to introduce a national funding formula; it would have contained measures to set our schools free, trust our teachers, give parents choice and enable schools to raise standards. The Government promised education, education, education, but today, teachers are leaving the profession in droves, schools face a four-day week, secondary class sizes are at their highest for more than 20 years, standards are falling and children's education is being damaged. That will be the legacy on which the Government are judged at the next election, and they will be found wanting.

Photo of Mr Martin O'Neill Mr Martin O'Neill Chair, Trade & Industry Committee, Chair, Trade & Industry Committee 10:38 am, 8th December 2000

Perhaps I can be forgiven for not pursuing the issue of education. Scotland now has a Parliament that has responsibility for education—at least, the education of my constituents—and it is making a reasonable fist of it, so I shall focus today on the aspects of the Queen's Speech relating to industry.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment said, legislation is the tip of the iceberg—it plays only a part, albeit an important one, in determining the thrust of Government policy. In industry, what is necessary above all is to establish an air of stability and, even if there cannot be certainty, to remove some of the most obvious uncertainties, so that businesses can plan. The Government successfully tackled inflation and provided businesses with the opportunity offered by stable interest rates, so that, in that respect at least, investment and borrowing can proceed satisfactorily. Given those elements of stability, the Opposition and business must find a new focus for their whingeing and complaining.

I accept that regulation can be a problem. It can be difficult when the Government want to attack the problem of poverty pay. It is unfortunate for some employers that they must start paying decent wages for the first time in their industrial lives. It may be tiresome that employees will be entitled to four weeks' holiday a year, and that agreements must be entered into with employees so that if excessive hours must be worked, that can be done on the basis of a social partnership and an understanding between the employer and the worker.

Equally, it may be regrettable for some employers that the tax system is to be used to supplement the low rates that they pay their workers. The working families tax credit is part of the succession of measures that the Government have introduced, including the new deal, to get people into work for the first time and off benefit, and the national minimum wage, which is not as high as some of us would like it to be, but which certainly has not acted as a deterrent to employment, as the Opposition suggested it would. The working families tax credit offers families the opportunity to benefit from the parents being in work—being about the world, rather than languishing at home, as so many of our constituents had to do for so long.

In the weeks and months ahead, we will hear further complaining and moaning when programmes for parental leave are introduced, to enable all members of the family to play an appropriate part in the early stages of bringing up their children.

Such measures result in regulations and in problems. I would far rather have those regulations than the regulations introduced in the final years of the previous Government, which in sheer weight of numbers were little different from those introduced by the present Government. The difference is that the regulations introduced by this Government will improve the lot of working people, increase the number of working people, and benefit the welfare of the poorest families in our community. We are happy to be attacked for introducing such regulations, because we believe that what is being done is socially defensible and economically desirable.

It is fair to say that there are regulations that could be removed to get rid of the clutter. Such regulations may have been appropriate when they were introduced, but they are difficult and complicated to implement. I welcome the Bill that will introduce regulatory reform. It will be good for us to have sunset regulation, which will enable regulations to wither on the vine painlessly and, in terms of the business of the House, to be removed as quickly as possible. We should be grateful for that.

I shall deal now with manufacturing industry. One of the surprising features of manufacturing industry in recent months has been the strength of its performance. Given the cost differential between British manufacturers and those in the euro zone, many of us were frightened at the prospect of our industry going under in a way that no Government could prevent. However, to its credit, British industry has tried to absorb the costs in order to reduce the differential between the United Kingdom manufacturing base and that on the continent.

The absorption of costs has not been accompanied by a dramatic increase in productivity. That may be due to the fact that prices have been held back and workers have restrained their wage demands because they understand the nature of the problem.

My colleagues on the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and I have visited a number of car plants over the course of the year. During our visits, starting with the Longbridge crisis and continuing with the circumstances surrounding the changes at Dagenham, we saw tremendous efficiency at the assembly plants. It was interesting that different companies had varying approaches. The message became increasingly clear as we went around: the cost differential between components sourced in the United Kingdom and those sourced in the euro zone, or even more so in eastern and central Europe, where prices are that much cheaper, presents a problem for our manufacturing industry, and particularly for the car industry.

That will not be a problem for car assembly. It is likely that we will continue to have excellent plants across the country. The difficulty will be faced by firms that have traditionally supplied the components for the car industry. They will require assistance, but not in the form of subsidy. If they are to match the productivity levels of their competitors on the continent, a more imaginative approach will have to be adopted to capital allowances and the like.

In the nine months since the Budget, there has been a dramatic increase in the willingness to invest in IT equipment, as a consequence of the writing-off of capital used for the purpose of installing information technology. The purchase of computers by companies has increased dramatically because of the tax rewards available.

We must be far more imaginative in future, and the Treasury must get out of the mind-set that it has been in for too long, believing that companies that want to invest will invest, and companies that do not want to invest will not do so, so there is no need to give engineering companies and the like any incentive to invest. The costs, the differentials and the need to absorb costs has stripped back the financial basis of much of our manufacturing industry. We must look on the sector as a special case and offer it support. If we can do that, we will help British manufacturing industry to get through this difficult period, until, I hope, we can join the European monetary system.

Were we able to join, the opportunities afforded to our companies would be considerable. Price transparency is the most obvious. Flexibility of trading is equally important, and once the system moves into top gear the year after next, our failure to join will be an even greater disadvantage. However, in view of the disparity in the value of our respective currencies, we cannot realistically envisage joining the European monetary system in the foreseeable future.

The pound may be slightly overvalued, but the fecklessness of the European central bank is such that its monetary controls and the behaviour of its currency are a source of concern. The short-term advantage that has been gained by the European manufacturers will not be sustained in the longer term, when the cost of imports into their zone begins to be properly reflected by the cost of the devalued currency under which it is operating at present.

That is rather sad, when one recalls the rigour and robustness of the Bundesbank and the way in which it pursued monetary policy over decades, and compare that with the way in which the European central bank is behaving.

The success of the monetary policy committee of the Bank of England and the flexible way in which it has gone about its task shows that it is still possible to run monetary controls in a sensitive way that gives industry a chance.

We all recognise that the Queen's Speech applies to a five-month term, at most.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I have been following the hon. Gentleman's remarks with interest, especially on the subject of the euro. He said that he is keen that we should join the euro, but went on to describe the European central bank as feckless. Does he believe that we should not contemplate joining the euro unless and until the European central bank has been reformed?

Photo of Mr Martin O'Neill Mr Martin O'Neill Chair, Trade & Industry Committee, Chair, Trade & Industry Committee

Perhaps I was not making my point clearly enough for the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). The disparity between our currencies is such that early entry is unrealistic. If the euro is undervalued because of the way in which monetary constraints are imposed by the European central bank—which is a fundamental reason for the low value of the euro—one would earnestly hope that, in the medium term, the bank will get its act together over the next 18 months or so.

There could be a general election in the spring and, within nine months—or perhaps even earlier—a referendum Bill might be introduced on which we could vote. Even then, there would be 21 to 30 months before entry. However, it would be dangerous to contemplate having an early referendum when the disparity in values is so wide. It would be difficult to convince the British people about joining, although they can be convinced. I therefore favour a twin-track approach of arguing for the ultimate objective and being realistic enough to understand that people will not associate economic success with joining a currency system whose value is declining, despite the feeble efforts of European central bank. The Government enjoy the privilege of making their own statements. My own view is that we should join the euro quickly, but that is not politically possible or economically attractive in the short term, so long as disparities exist.

The first Labour Government for a long time is in its final stages, and we are confident that we will be returned when there is an election. I believe that the opportunity for that will come in spring. The general assumption is that the modesty of the Queen's Speech, which does not contain many measures, means that we will have an election before long. However, that does not mean that we cannot build on our success over the past three and a half years and consolidate a healthy economy in which more people are in employment than ever before. We have conditions that, in the past, might have led to high-level inflation. The labour market is becoming increasingly tight in several parts of the country but, nevertheless, people recognise that it is in everyone's interest to restrain wage demands, keep inflation under control and give industry a chance.

Some of us would like the Government to take account of that, although not necessarily in the legislative programme announced in the House this week. The Finance Bill in March could provide assistance for manufacturing industry after the Budget, to help it through the rough period in which it finds itself. If we do not provide that assistance, we will discover that even more of our manufacturing base will have been eroded and the employment prospects of many of our people will have been lost.

The Queen's Speech is an excellent document, given the purposes for which it was written. It is understandably modest, but when the legislative programme covering finance and industry is introduced after the Budget, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will be able to make appropriate representations to the Chancellor so that we can get the backing for manufacturing industry that it deserves and which the country needs.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 10:54 am, 8th December 2000

I rise from our packed Benches to respond on the third day of debate on the Queen's Speech. I apologise for missing part of the speech of the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), but I agreed with a great deal of what I heard him say, with the exception of his final comment about the modesty of the Queen's Speech. I do not think that anyone could describe it as much more than that.

I have a sense of disappointment. When I came to the House in early May 1997, stood at the Bar of the other place and listened to the programme that outlined the first term of the new Labour Government and contained their aspirations for Parliament, there was a great sense of pride at being part of that. However, when I stood at the Bar this year, there was a sense that there was much that had not been achieved. Indeed, the vision and ambition had virtually gone. The crisis in our public services is not just about the recruitment of teachers, but concerns the recruitment of all public sector workers, including those in our hospitals, in the police and even in London Transport, which suffers from a dearth of people wanting to fill necessary jobs. Urban decay is still evident across the country, and I see it as I move about looking at schools and colleges in different areas. There is a growing divide between urban and rural areas, and the north-south divide has become starker during the Government's period in office. There has been a resurgence of racial and ethnic intolerance, shamefully fuelled by the Conservative party over the past 18 months.

Photo of Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Conservative, Wealden

I do not know on what grounds the hon. Gentleman is casting that slur, criticising the Conservative party and accusing it of encouraging racial crime and hostility towards people of other nations. There are people in my own constituency who came to this country illegally, and I saw nothing wrong in criticising the way in which we were dealing with illegal immigrants.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. However, some of us were present at the Romsey by-election. The right hon. Gentleman should have been there and seen the tactics used by his party. It is an honourable party, but it used the race card and the ethnic intolerance card unashamedly to try to win a by-election. However, it lost disastrously, and Romsey was the only seat to change hands in a by-election in the lifetime of this Parliament.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

I was at the Romsey by-election. No constituent, and no one in the Conservative party with whom I worked, made any suggestion of that nature in response to what the Conservatives did or said. I saw the literature, and I was on the streets and doorsteps, meeting Conservative and Liberal Democrat supporters—although not many Labour supporters, as they were probably voting Liberal Democrat. The hon. Gentleman ought to be careful about what he says, as he has insulted many of us who were involved and are dedicated to good race relations and to trying to bring about a time in this country when the colour of someone's skin is no more important than the colour of their eyes or hair.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Again, I am grateful for that intervention. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should speak to those on his Front Bench. Especially, he should remind the shadow Secretary of State for Health of the comments that he made about Commonwealth doctors and their inability to speak proper English, and consider whether that is a positive addition to the debate. However, I shall leave the Conservative party with its own conscience.

Where in the Queen's Speech is the vision to tackle major initiatives? For many of my constituents, and for me personally, perhaps the biggest disappointment of the speech was the failure to include even a draft Bill on arms export legislation in the Department of Trade and Industry section. Many people listened with admiration to the Foreign Secretary when, in opposition, he dissected the Scott report and exposed the previous Government's hypocrisy on the arms to Iraq scandal. Many say that it was his finest hour. Yet, four years later, we have been given a promise to ratify the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court—a measure that we wholeheartedly support—but there has been no progress on the essential issue of arms exports, other than the quadripartite annual report.

The sense of disappointment is heightened by the bizarre tactics of the Conservative Opposition. For the fourth year in succession, they have attempted to turn the Queen's Speech into a music hall event. It seems that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has cast himself as a modern-day Nero, providing bawdy enjoyments for his anonymous chums rather than presenting serious policy alternatives for his party and the country.

There is so much that we need the Government to do. We have yet to see the extent of the regulatory reform Bill, but, like the Institute of Directors, we welcome an attack on outdated regulation. It is the absence of needless regulation that will encourage enterprise and wealth creation. The job of Government is to ensure that growth can occur in a framework from which all of us can benefit. In a liberal economy, there must be a framework that allows innovation and risk taking and yet protects workers' rights, consumers and the environment in a market-friendly, non-bureaucratic manner.

Let us trust that the Government get the balance right. Removing the requirement to implement the working families tax credit would be a welcome measure. Removing VAT from all credit transactions between VAT-registered traders—a measure that would be permissible within existing EU regulations—would simplify collection arrangements and take a huge burden off small business. Providing for mutual arrangements between Government, business and trade unions could simplify the regulations for implementing the working time directive, which is the subject of much comment and concern for small business. All those changes would be welcomed by the Liberal Democrats, as would measures to compensate business for the burden of being compelled to participate in Government surveys and inquiries. Why not introduce tax relief on imposed bureaucracy? That would certainly reduce the burden.

However, deregulation is but part of the story. The Liberal Democrats would have liked to see in the Queen's Speech a Bill to reform the system of uniform business rates, which is heavily biased against small business. We would have liked a bank regulation Bill, to give power to the recommendations of the Cruickshank report, which argued that the monopoly power confirmed by the bank clearing system was creating £5 billion a year in excess profits for the banks.

Where is the oft-hinted-at consumer protection Bill, to extend and defend the rights of consumers? Why is regulation always applied to soft targets, when it appears that rogue traders, unregulated money lenders and cowboy tradesmen in building, plumbing and car repairs continue with impunity? We hear much about rip-off Britain. Why is no action being taken to stamp it out?

I commenced my speech by expressing a sense of disappointment with the Government's intended programme. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment mounted a brave defence of his Government's record. Unlike the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), I do not seek to belittle his efforts. Few Secretaries of State could have worked harder to try to convey the Government's message. My party's criticism is not based on puerile personal attacks, or on whether the Secretary of State should move to the Home Office. It is directed at a lack not of activity or conviction, but of ambition—a lack that is typified by the legislative programme.

The Secretary of State was right to point out the Government's attempts to resolve the post-16 crisis. Perhaps the most appalling indictment of the previous Conservative Government was that they deliberately created a skills shortage whereby 7 million adults were functionally illiterate and one in four were unable to carry out the simplest numerical calculation. That happened as a result of policy. We have the Learning and Skills Act 2000, but, despite that, what has changed for our learners, for business and for providers?

The chairs on the Titanic have moved. Captain Blunkett now has a £6 billion budget and has assumed almost total control of the sector. Of course, he has become obsessed with targets for the post-16 sector, and the latest scheme is to withdraw benefits from claimants with poor basic skills, which are presumably ascertained by testing them each week in the jobcentre. What nonsense. Sir Claus Moser rejected the idea, believing that it would be counterproductive. Any sensible observer would tell the Secretary of State that the fear of learning is still the greatest barrier for many people and that compulsion will not address it. It is to be hoped that the policy will be abandoned.

What is needed are not more targets and penalties, but greater entitlements for learners. If we are to address the issue so graphically portrayed by Sir Claus Moser and Chris Humphries in the final skills taskforce report, a Bill to give people proper entitlement to learning must be introduced. As our greatest national skills shortage is at NVQ level 3, A-level or GNVQ advanced equivalent, we must be prepared to back the skills taskforce recommendations by giving all 16 to 25-year-olds a statutory entitlement to that level of training. For those without even a level 2 qualification, of whom there are far too many, we must provide an entitlement that applies throughout their working lives and which is supported by the state. That should be backed by statutory rights for time off for study, access to individual learning accounts, education maintenance allowances and student loans. Such entitlements could transform the learning agenda and build on the foundations laid with the Learning and Skills Council.

It is sad that there is nothing in the proposed legislation—or, indeed, in the Government's thinking—to address the anomaly that tuition fees have created for students in England. Following the Cubie report and the work of the Scottish Executive, Scottish students do not have to pay tuition fees and are entitled to bursaries. The Welsh Assembly plans to introduce exactly the same proposals next year, as does the Northern Ireland Assembly. Within the next two years, English students in England will be singled out as the only students paying tuition fees. That is rather sad.

It is also sad that in their desire to free universities, the Conservatives make the most scurrilous attacks on our new universities. A headline in The Times stated recently, "Tory shadow says that former polys have 'lost their way'". What an insult that is to the work of our new universities. What an insult to Leeds Metropolitan, to which many students in my constituency go. Groundbreaking work is going on in the new universities, but we are still told that they have lost their way. Elitism is creeping back into the university sector.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. When the new universities were polytechnics, they included centres of excellence in vocational training. Many such centres of excellence continue in our new universities, but in recent years some of them have attempted to move away from that excellence in vocational training. I fear that students have lost out as a result. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that every one of our new universities is a centre of excellence in vocational training?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

What the hon. Lady does not do is condemn the previous Government—

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

With respect, I shall do so in a moment.

The hon. Lady does not point out that when the previous Government took the new universities out of the control of local authorities and gave them independent status, they suffered a 5 per cent. cut in their unit funding every single year. That forced many universities with excellent records on vocational training to look elsewhere for students in order to balance their books. I still believe that the vast majority of our new universities offer excellent courses and tuition, as well as an excellent foundation for undergraduates. My party does not want to be associated with the Conservative party's attempt to create an ivy league in our universities and a two-tier system in which university provision would be divided yet again.

However, the Government were right to recognise that the long-term solution to the nation's skill shortage lies within our schools. While the Secretary of State can rightly point to the improved performance of our children in standard assessment tests and GCSE examinations, those gains will be short term unless some of the underlying challenges in our education system are addressed.

Schools are swamped with bureaucracy. Targets abound, like Smarties cascading from a sweetie jar in a reception class. The Liberal Democrats had hoped for a reduction in bureaucracy Bill in the Queen's Speech. "Sunset" arrangements for existing documentation, automatic synopsis and collation of information and free administrative support to small schools would make the reduction of bureaucracy a reality at relatively low cost. Above all, we would scrap the plethora of national targets, which are designed more for the Secretary of State's benefit than for our children's. We should make our battle cry, "Every child matters", not simply those at the margins of the national agenda.

As David Hart, the general secretary to the National Association of Head Teachers, said yesterday: The Level 4 benchmark tells us nothing about those high ability pupils who have gained Levels 5 or 6, nor does it give any recognition to those children for whom Level 3 represents considerable progress. It really is time that the tables contained measurement of performance across the entire ability range. We welcome the Secretary of State's statement this morning that the Government plan to adopt such an approach, but why, after four years, are the same league tables, with the same biased information, still appearing?

Every child should have his or her own development plan, which is agreed with parents and monitored against national standards. That is what happens in the best public schools, which the Prime Minister said we should try to emulate in the state education system. The plans should be the responsibility of schools and parents. It is time to concentrate and to demonstrate that we trust our profession. We should not simply talk about doing that; we should act.

But there lies the rub. The greatest threats to the standards agenda in our schools are the shortage of teachers and increased class sizes. Why was there nothing in the Queen's Speech to tackle those fundamental issues? Does the Secretary of State really believe that presiding over the largest secondary class sizes since 1975 is acceptable, or does he take the view that only children who are educated privately benefit from smaller classes?

Of course, the worsening of class sizes in secondary schools did not start under this Government—they inherited the problem from the cost-cutters in the previous Government. Pupil:teacher ratios rocketed from 15.6 in 1992 and reached 16.4 by 1997. The effect was disproportionately felt at key stage 3, where average class sizes rose from 23.8 pupils per teacher in 1990 to 24.7 pupils per teacher when the Tories left office. Let us have no crocodile tears over the idea that class sizes were not rising rapidly under the previous Government. It is perhaps more than a coincidence that Ofsted pinpointed key stage 3 as an area of particular concern.

However, the situation has become appreciably worse under new Labour. In January this year, key stage 3 ratios had risen to 25.2 pupils per teacher, and they are now above the average level for reception classes in primary schools—the ratio for reception classes in January this year was only 24.7 pupils per teacher.

The Government learned those bad habits from the Tory cost-cutters, but they also learned the art of missing targets. This week, much has been made of our children's performance in the third international maths and science study. How much better would the performance of our pupils have been if they had all been taught by qualified maths teachers? In the 18-year period between 1983 and October 2000, targets set by the Government for recruitment into maths teacher training courses were missed on no fewer than 15 occasions. To be fair, I must tell the House that the previous Government missed only 11 out of 14 targets; the present Government have missed four out of four targets.

During those 18 years, nearly one in five places for maths teachers have been left unfilled, which resulted in a shortfall in the numbers entering training of some 6,000 possible maths teachers. No wonder we lag behind in international league tables—schools cannot recruit maths teachers. No wonder many schools cannot even recruit heads for their maths departments.

What are the results of the Government's initiatives? Despite all the hype from the Teacher Training Agency about golden hellos and training salaries—we heard more about those this morning—this month's application figures for PGCE courses makes depressing reading. As of 6 December, applications to maths courses are down by 30 per cent. compared with last year's figures, and they are down nearly 50 per cent. compared with the period when the Government came into office. That is not a record to be proud of. Secondary course numbers are down 11 per cent. and 41 per cent., and primary course numbers are down 7.4 per cent. and 34 per cent., compared with 1997 levels.

The Secretary of State will doubtless accuse me, as he always does, of scaremongering. However, even he now recognises that there is a problem. Talk of meltdown is certainly premature, but in a bid to avert a widespread four-day week caused by teacher shortages, the Department for Education and Employment has written to chief education officers promising 19 more recruitment strategy managers and a special unit in the DFEE to resolve the crisis. That was mentioned by the hon. Member for Maidenhead.

The letter from David Normington ends optimistically but conveniently fails to refer to a recent survey by the Teacher Training Agency of its own recruitment strategy managers, which shows that the problem is even greater than the DFEE has admitted. It also ignores the fact that although we have more teachers, nearly 1,000 of them were recruited at primary level to meet the key stage 1 class size pledge.

This is not a temporary crisis; it will be with us for at least another decade. We will reveal our own proposals to tackle the crisis in the coming months. I hope that the Government will have a sensible debate about how to move forward.

The Liberal Democrats were pleased by the fact that a special educational needs and disability Bill was included in the Queen's Speech. It was a long time coming, but we give the Secretary of State the pledge that we shall do everything in our power to speed that Bill on to the statute book.

However, like other hon. Members, we have some concerns. We have come a long way since the Warnock report was published in 1979. At that time, I was the head of one of the first schools in the United Kingdom to adopt a comprehensive policy of encouraging pupils with physical impairments to access mainstream education. That occurred, incidentally, under a Conservative authority. Together with the Fairfax school in Bradford, Ormesby school in Cleveland—where I was the head—participated in a major research project by the National Foundation for Education Research, which was led by Seamus Heggarty and Keith Pocklington. At that date, integration was a novel idea. Parents were sceptical, often preferring the safety of the special school. Teachers, too, were sceptical—few had any training or experience. However very few of those in our state schools today have not met a child with a physical, sensory or other impairment and helped to make them part of the school community.

Few schools do not have a sizeable proportion of children on their special educational needs register. Despite the Education Act 1981 and subsequent legislation, there remains a huge tension in the field of special educational needs and disability. Rightly, parents have had their expectations for their children raised. All too often, however, there is a gap between expectation and reality. That is all too evident with regard to statements.

I met a parent in Folkestone earlier this week whose child, who is in the first year at primary school, has a full statement, yet the child's needs are being met by an untrained, unqualified classroom assistant who can give the child no more professional support than the parent can. Although that is typical, we must not accept the situation. What matters about the Bill is not what words appear on the page but how its provisions are treated in reality and transferred into action in our schools.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I fully accept that: we must also have entitlement to funding. All hon. Members have had representations from parents about the new SEN code of practice, and the worry is that there will be less funding and less entitlement as a result of that code. I hope that the Government will address that issue in their response to the debate.

Parents who have presented their children for inclusion in mainstream schools have been turned away, perhaps too readily, with section 316 of the Education Act 1996 being used as a legal excuse. My experience in Leeds showed that league tables and perceptions may have had more of a bearing. Equally, parents who have wanted their children to be educated in the special school system have been forced to take a mainstream place because of LEA policy. That cannot be right either. We must offer parents a choice.

The most difficult tensions arise when parents of children with severe learning difficulties, emotional and behavioural difficulties, or a mixture of the two, want them to have access to mainstream schooling. During my time as head of John Smeaton community high school in Leeds, I encountered many of those concerns when my highly dedicated staff and I pioneered the inclusion of children with severe learning difficulties—mostly Down's syndrome—in our school community. Incidentally, we went on to include children with sight and hearing impairments. I well remember our first totally blind youngster from a depressed local council estate going off to study law at Keele university. He now works as a barrister in a leading London practice. That is achievable with inclusion.

I am a passionate believer in inclusive education. Children with disabilities and special educational needs already begin life facing barriers not of their own making, so they should not also have to encounter barriers of our making. It was never right that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 failed to cover education. We will never overcome the fact that only 6 per cent. of disabled people are in work, compared with 85 per cent. of their able-bodied peers, unless we remove the barriers in our schools, colleges and universities. The Government's input this year of £200 million to improve access is a generous start, but the investment that is needed in staff development, curriculum and planning will require a great deal more.

Furthermore, LEA schools must be held accountable for those resources. All too often, general delegation of LEA budgets for SEN and disability fails to be sufficiently targeted. I hope that the Bill will provide new requirements. I hope, too, that it will create coherence between the arrangements for SEN and for disability. The definition of disability in the 1995 Act is broad and would cover many children currently classed as SEN. Indeed, many children with SEN also have a defined disability. The last thing schools want is two sets of competing regulations, so I hope that the Bill will create coherence.

However, if the Bill is to be a landmark in the education of our young people, it must begin with the premise that all children have a right to inclusive, mainstream education. The onus must be on parents, schools and other professionals to say why that is not appropriate. Section 316 of the 1996 Act—especially the reference to "efficient use of resources"—must not be used as an escape, and we will be looking for that provision to be radically changed.

Inclusion should not present a threat to special schools. There will always be a need for specialist support, especially for children and young adults with complex needs. Special schools must be seen as a resource centre for learning communities, not stand-alone institutions.

The Queen's Speech may be small—

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

It may be perfectly formed. It may have many critics, but if the SEN legislation is adopted, as many of us hope, it will be one of the notable Queen's Speeches of this Parliament.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge and Chryston 11:25 am, 8th December 2000

I should like to follow up the last points made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). He made a constructive contribution on this aspect of the Queen's Speech. I was pleased that, in response to my intervention, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State emphasised the importance of disability rights in education. I want to move forward just a little to the importance of advocacy and choice.

Choice was mentioned from one extreme by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and from the other by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. I do not believe that special educational needs can be met unless we underline the paramount importance of parents being given that choice. Equally, it was spelt out in the Children Acts that the rights of the child are paramount. I am sure that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and the House will agree that it is pivotal to our approach to these matters that the individual needs and rights of a child be properly assessed and responded to in a way that is consistent with disability rights.

Much of my own thinking on these matters is based on the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986, which I piloted through the House. I want to know how that is being brought up to date and how it relates to disabled people, especially in education.

I welcome the major change in administration that has been made since the new Government came into being—I am delighted that responsibility for disability rights has been switched from the Department of Social Security to the Department for Education and Employment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), have shown progressive thinking, which is reflected in many of the measures that they have introduced, including those in the Queen's Speech. Before, disability rights were the responsibility of the DSS. The Leader of the Opposition and I had an exchange the other day. There was a feeling, which I am not saying he shared, that with disability went spending. Perhaps disability was seen as a burden, whereas under the DFEE it is seen as being about jobs, opportunities and potential. That is very welcome.

The Queen's Speech, short as it is in the circumstances to which right hon. and hon. Members have referred, gives priority to these very issues. In a spirit of charity, which is appropriate for this time of the year, I shall give the hon. Member for Maidenhead the benefit of the doubt. She spoke about the worries of parents with children who seek a response to their special educational needs. She may have caused, perhaps inadvertently, some concern and alarm that I genuinely do not believe was justified by the content of the Queen's Speech and the legislation that my colleagues have already put before the House or will be introducing in due course.

I want to reassure the hon. Lady and parents, including those in my constituency, because this does not sound to me like a Government who are not taking on board the success of special schools. The first page of the Queen's Speech refers to the creation of more specialist schools. On the second page, it says: My Government will introduce a Bill to improve the framework for meeting special educational needs and access to learning for disabled people. That shows a sense of priorities and a commitment to, above all, the choice that is so important when parents, carers and teachers must deal with difficult circumstances, as often happens.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that the reference to specialist schools applies not to schools dealing with special educational needs, but to colleges specialising in technology, language, arts and sports.

I agree that it is important for parents not to be given the wrong impression about what is happening, but does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern about the genuine worry felt by parents when a special school that is providing well for their children is closed by the local authority? Such parents may find it difficult to obtain a statement about their children's special educational needs, because the local authority is concerned about the resources that it may have to provide. They may also be worried when they see in the code of practice a wording change that could water down the requirements and affect the statement.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge and Chryston

One reason for my wish to make my speech today, on a Friday, was my desire to underscore that point; but I would prefer to put it another way. I think the hon. Lady shares my concern. I shall say more about that later, especially in connection with the legislation that I have mentioned—and, of course, in the context of my constituency.

I am delighted that the Queen's Speech mentions legislation to deal with discrimination in other aspects of education. I argued for such legislation when we were in opposition; I am sorry that I did not persuade the present Leader of the Opposition, who was then the Minister responsible for such matters. Perhaps it is because of that departmental change that we have achieved a breakthrough, but the Government certainly deserve to be congratulated. Their approach covers not just schools but colleges, community education and further and higher education. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 definition of disability, covering people with moderate and severe learning disabilities, is very much in their mind.

Let me say something about the crucial importance of involving other aspects of education in disability discrimination legislation—aspects other than those affecting schools, important though such aspects are. Like the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, I want to see much more physical access for disabled people. I want to see, for instance, more induction loops and information technology not just in schools but in colleges—in higher education institutions, including universities. The Queen's Speech addresses that need.

However, I also consider it crucial for schools to have adequate staff to deal with special needs. That makes training essential. We have drifted into a problematic situation, especially in colleges of further education. When the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) had some responsibility for replacing the poll tax, he did something that affected Scotland as well as England. He took colleges out of local authority control, in order to reduce council tax. He did not do that in the light of the education arguments that ought to have been involved, or as part of any education strategy.

One reason why I welcome the focus on these issues is that we can consider why some colleges appear to have cut courses in, for example, horticulture, personal hygiene and hairdressing, which are often relevant to people with special needs. Transport has gone as well. I am keen to ensure that education is available to people—in every sense—whatever their disabilities happen to be, and on the basis of genuine choice.

Under the new legislation, it seems that cases involving school-age children will be heard by tribunals rather than courts. That is very significant. I hope my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take on board my view that, in this as in so many other contexts, advocacy is of the essence. I know that my colleagues who specialise in health, particularly mental health, are going quite far towards embracing advocacy, as I, along with many others, wish to do. As my right hon. Friend will know, the Sheffield Advocacy Alliance has been much to the fore in this regard.

However, given that important choices are being made in education, I entirely support the involvement of parents. I welcome the duty to give them advice and information; I also welcome the more sensitive approach to resolving disputes.

I unreservedly welcome—here I come to events in my constituency, as they relate to the debate—the right of children with special needs to be educated in mainstream schools when that is what parents want. Such provision should he properly funded, and there should be adequate training, which is essential.

I welcome choice. I welcome the new role of the Disability Rights Commission in providing codes of practice. I feel no fear on that score, perhaps because I have so much confidence in the commission. I also welcome the Government's clear declaration that there will be cases—especially cases involving severely challenging behaviour—in which the provision of mainstream places will not be appropriate. I think the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough would agree with that.

I believe that we can offer best practice in my constituency. I refer to the remarkable success of Drumpark special school. In a recent debate, fears were expressed—unfounded, I am delighted to say—that the school was under threat. I congratulate Margaret Sutherland, the head teacher, on the leadership provided by her and her 25 colleagues, and on the forward-looking and visionary way in which they deal with special needs. Physiotherapists, speech therapists and occupational therapists are there, when and where they are needed.

I want similar opportunities to be available elsewhere. I want that best practice to be reflected in other parts of the country. In my constituency, staff are trained to deal specifically with such issues, and in response to the necessary curriculum. Many have experience of teaching in mainstream schools, and are able to bring a fund of accumulated experience to their task.

Let me try to convey the pride that I felt a few weeks ago, when some of those children and their teachers were invited to Cherie Booth's Christmas party at No. 10. I was extremely proud of the self-esteem displayed by the children, and of their articulateness: they were able to tell the Prime Minister's wife about their visit to France, for instance.

That may or may not have been possible for children in mainstream schools. Obviously, I want to stress the need for absolute choice, parents' rights and the paramountcy of the rights of the child in both contexts, but I hope that what the hon. Member for Maidenhead has said does not give the impression that anything in the Queen's Speech would deny such rights to parents in my constituency, and would remove the excellent service provided by schools such as Drumpark, which I am sure can be, and is being, repeated elsewhere.

I welcome the measures announced in an inevitably short Queen's Speech. They are progressive, and it must be remembered that they are in addition to the education achievements already experienced in just three and a half years. I welcome the progress towards advocacy, although I want more progress to be made. I welcome the additional funding. However—here I pray in aid Mencap, which, like many other voluntary bodies, has done so much—I want to be sure of another development. Mencap says: Parents will still have the choice of a special school if that is what they want for their child. It goes on to say: In principle, we believe that all parents should have the same rights to choose a mainstream education for their child, regardless of whether or not their child has a disability.Parental choice of a special school would remain. In addition, however, it makes the fundamental point about funding, which is so essential: we can set many objectives, but unless they are properly resourced, we simply will not achieve that which we set out to achieve. In that spirit, I congratulate my colleagues warmly. They are moving ahead, taking a progressive approach to those matters. I know that that is welcomed in my constituency. I hope that, in due course, they will be given the opportunity to introduce even more progressive legislation, particularly in that sector.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden 11:41 am, 8th December 2000

I want to highlight a major gap in this year's Queen's Speech: the failure to mention in any way how the Government will introduce measures to prop up the sub-post office network, whose future has been put in doubt by the Government's decision to make it compulsory for people to have their benefits paid into bank accounts. We all know that the sub-post office network is vital in all our constituencies and that there is great concern not just among sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, but among all our constituents—pensioners, young mothers, disabled people—who receive their benefits through the local post office.

The failure to mention that network in the Queen's Speech is surprising for three reasons. First, the campaign against benefit fraud is mentioned, but the Post Office's problems arose precisely because of the cancellation of the benefit payment card, which was to be the principal mechanism for eliminating some forms of fraud and which, only this week, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said was essential if the Government are to carry forward their campaign against fraud.

Secondly, the abolition of the payment of benefits through the Post Office leaves a huge financial gap in the future of the Post Office network, which needed to be mentioned and the House needs to examine in full. Thirdly, if that gap is to be filled by a stealth tax imposed on the banks, as I believe it will be, that should require parliamentary authority, which should have been foreshadowed in the Queen's Speech.

Not long ago, Members of Parliament were given stark evidence of the size of the problem facing the Post Office network when the Post Office sent to every Member a brochure that showed that, by 2005, the network would face a deficit of more than £500 million a year if nothing were done to replace the contract with the Department of Social Security.

That should not have come as a surprise to Ministers because, when I was Secretary of State for Social Security, officials advised me that, if I attempted to save £400 million a year by making the payment of benefits into banks compulsory, it would lead to the collapse of the Post Office network. I was told that that would be avoidable only if the network were subsidised, but that the cost of that subsidy would wipe out any savings that one might hope to make. Indeed, those officials explained, the subsidy required to prop up the Post Office might be greater than the savings that one would make because, in addition to the loss of income from the DSS, post offices would lose what they call footfall: the traffic of people through the post office, who buy things and thereby provide additional revenue.

Ministers have never, although I have repeatedly challenged them, denied that they received identical or similar advice to that which I received. None the less, they ploughed ahead with the measure. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry attempted to paper over the gap in the finances of the post offices with a statement that was thinner than rice paper. He pretended that the £550 million annual gap could be filled by new commercial revenues.

Frankly, that suggestion should have raised questions in the minds of hon. Members and, indeed, of the commentators outside the House. To build new commercial businesses within a few years that will generate a net cash flow of more than £500 million requires business expertise, which is rarely available. I know one or two business men who have achieved that and might be able to do it again, but the Secretary of State claims he can do it on the basis of his professional experience—I have looked it up—of five years as a senior law lecturer at Newcastle polytechnic. Apparently, that gives him the expertise to identify new commercial projects that will, in a short time, generate those revenues.

Those reading the Post Office brochure will see that the source of money that the Government are relying on is primarily the taxpayer. Taxpayers will pay to make good the savings: they will pay money through other Departments for services that the post offices may or may not provide them. The other sources on which the Government are relying will come from bullying the banks to provide that money and simple wishful thinking.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

On the viability of generating £500 million of income, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, with 17,000 Post Office retail outlets—it is the biggest retailer in the country—we are looking at generating about £250 from each per year? In those terms, the proposition does not seem that far fetched, does it?

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

That reveals the business expertise of the hon. Gentleman, which seems on a par with that of the Secretary of State. The fact is that £550 million is a lot of money. To make a net profit of £550 million in a short time, however large the initial network, will be a difficult task.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I will not because I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's question will be of the same quality as his first. [Interruption.] If he is feeling hurt, of course, I will give way.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

It is outrageous that the right hon. Gentleman should say things about my business background. As people will know, I have had a sparkling career in multinational companies and a number of successful businesses, which is much more than I can say for the right hon. Gentleman, as is clear from his facile remarks.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I am sorry. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman is better qualified than the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to hold that post and we look forward to his promotion to it.

The brochure that the Post Office network has put out identifies four major business streams. We look forward to their endorsement by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Davies), based on his business expertise. The first, although it is not highlighted, is probably the major one.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

I think that the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Davies) divided £500 million by 17,000 and came up with 250 as the answer. Perhaps he will have recalculated that figure by the end of the debate.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

It does seem as though the hon. Gentleman will have to follow his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment into the numeracy hour. Perhaps that is why he gave up business for the Labour Back Benches.

The major element in the new revenues identified by the Post Office is a direct subsidy from the taxpayer. Originally, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry denied that any such subsidy would be necessary, but he then introduced an amendment to the Postal Services Bill at a late stage of its proceedings giving him powers to pay such a direct subsidy. The Post Office brochure states: The Post Office has developed a clear and transparent formula to calculate a Social Network Payment, which takes account of the costs of supporting sub-postmasters— and— income lost as a result of the Benefits Agency withdrawal. Clearly, that is how the Post Office believes the subsidy should be calculated.

I asked Ministers if the House could be informed about the formula that the Post Office proposes to calculate the amount of public money to be distributed to it. They replied that the information is commercially confidential. That is absurd. There is no commercial risk to the Post Office from releasing its proposed formula. The only conceivable commercial risk would be to competitors of the Post Office—if there are any—and surely they should have the right to know what is being proposed by way of subsidy to their major competitor.

Taxpayers have a right to know. The House has a right to know. The Government's refusal to give us those facts is a clear abuse of the exemptions in the code of practice on information. When I raised that matter during debates on the Freedom of Information Bill, I was told that the measure was already being observed by the Government and that in its future operation, they would not give such information. Worse still, the questions of Members of Parliament are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000; we have less legal right to information than members of the public. Although I asked the appropriate Home Office Minister to confirm that in writing, he is experiencing great difficulty in getting back to me. However, the point was confirmed by the Lord Chancellor in another place.

The second major source of money is what the Government describe as Government general practitioner services—an interesting concept developed by the Government and the Post Office, whose aim, according to the brochure, is to provide a trusted one stop service for citizens in their dealings with "officialdom", including all levels of government, other agencies and public bodies (e.g. NHS, Police) and the voluntary sector (for example … Citizens Advice Bureau). The service will cover transactions plus simple advice and information. That is a daunting task to place on every sub-postmaster: to be well informed about every service provided by the Government—or at least well enough informed to point people in the right direction—and to provide some information and undertake some transactions on the spot. That will require extensive and costly training. It is hard to see how that source will be profitable.

In this case, however, we are given an amount; the Post Office says that, by 2005–06, more than £80 million a year will be paid towards the Post Office network's fixed costs from Government general practitioner services. It is claimed that the cost will not fall solely on the taxpayer; the brochure states: The Government will pay us to provide these services … overall this will be more effective and efficient than departments providing the services separately and will provide savings for them. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to ask whether he could quantify the savings to be made by Departments and whether they would offset to any degree the £80 million charge that will otherwise fall on the taxpayer. No answer, came the stern reply—yet again. We should be told, because the House is the guardian of public money and it should know how that money is being doled out.

The third element is e-commerce. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is a great one for the flavour of the month and when he made his statement, that was still e-commerce. It was still possible to envisage the making of easy money from e-commerce. The right hon. Gentleman proposed that post offices become collection, return and payment points for organisations carrying out business and consumer transactions.

The Post Office is a little less enthusiastic than the right hon. Gentleman; it is investigating the matter. It will certainly have to do so—most sub-post offices will have some space problems if they are to store piles of parcels to be distributed to people who were not at home for the delivery of their e-commerce. However, even the Post Office acknowledges that e-commerce will not raise a significant sum—just £6 million by 2005–06. I am sure that the hon. Member for Croydon, Central will be able to divide that by 17,000 and work out the amount per Post Office, but that will not solve the problem posed by a gap of £550 million.

Finally, we come to the major element, the jewel in the crown of the Government's proposals on commercial opportunities for the post offices—the creation of a universal bank. The Secretary of State told us in his statement that that would be the main solution—banking would be provided to the 3.5 million people who have no bank accounts and the branches that the high street banks have closed would be replaced. Again, it is amazing that the commentators should have swallowed that idea, not only because Girobank has always provided banking services through post offices, but because it is not immediately obvious that the greatest commercial opportunities lie in providing banking services to the 3.5 million people who are least attractive to banks and have therefore been largely ignored by them, who have the least money to spend or deposit, or who live in areas where the banks have found it least profitable to operate.

Of course the original idea behind universal banking was not to raise money, but to provide a social service to those who were otherwise financially excluded. Social services cost money; they do not earn money. So who will pay for the universal bank?

A judge asked a bank robber, when he was finally arraigned for his offences, why he robbed banks. He replied, "Your honour, because that's where the money is." The Government's attitude is similar; they have turned to the banks because that is where the money is. They are telling the banks that they must set up accounts based on recommendation 14 of the poverty action team—PAT. That bears no relation to Postman Pat. Those accounts cannot run into overdraft. The banks have also been told that they must provide everyone with clear accounts and a money transmission system that mirrors the system that I originally wanted to set up with the benefit payment card.

The banks say that the system will cost £45 million to set up and £125 million to run, although the House has not been told that—we found out by diligent questioning. The Government have grandly said that they will cap the cost to the banks at £125 million a year. The banks will be required to pay a 49p transaction cost, whereas the normal interchange fee between banks is 30p. Of course, both those figures are far more than the 2p that the Secretary of State said it would cost to transmit money using automated credit transfer.

I should like to hear an answer by the end of the debate as to whether the extortionate transaction fee will be additional to, or the means by which, that £125 million a year will be levied on the banks. I should like to know how much of that £125 million will represent net cashflow to the post offices, rather than the cost of meeting the additional costs that they will incur to set up the universal banking operation. Most importantly, I want to know under what parliamentary authority the levy will effectively be imposed on the bank.

In July, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and the Minister for Competitiveness wrote a letter to the British Bankers Association, although they did not bother to inform us about it. It has become known as the Johnson and Johnson letter. In that letter, they asserted: We now expect the banks to meet their social obligations. They concluded that the banks will by October need to be offering basic bank accounts and meeting the marketing, accessibility and availability tests. Only the House can impose obligations on private organisations, or set tests that private and commercial organisations must meet by given dates. To do otherwise than to gain the authority of the House to impose such obligations represents the lawless use of power; it is an abuse of power, which rests on a veiled threat. The banks tell me that if they do not go along with the proposal, they will receive unfavourable treatment when they go before the Secretary of State over competition or merger provisions. A lot of consolidation is occurring in that area.

I pleased that the Minister for Competitiveness is now here. We have taken part in several debates on the subject, and I always welcome his participation in them.

If there is a veiled threat that the Secretary of State will use his powers over mergers and competition to the disadvantage of any bank that does not play its part in setting up the universal bank, the right hon. Gentleman will be in a difficult position when the necessary decisions come to be made. I once held that authority, and the Secretary of State is cautioned by his officials that he is acting in a quasi-judicial role. If he has the slightest conflict of interest, he must declare it or stand aside. Effectively, the present incumbent has ruled himself out from any decisions involving the banks by indulging in back-street bullying of them.

The truth is that a stealth tax is being imposed on the banks to bail out the Post Office. I am no friend of banks, but I am a defender of the law and a defender of banks' customers. A report has been published this week by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research on financial accessibility. It says that the Government's measures will impose additional costs either on low-income claimants or on other customers of financial institutions. This is both inequitable and inefficient. I am sure that the institute is right. Ultimately, there is not an entity called a bank that will pay the costs. The money in the banks is owned by us all. I should declare an interest because I have a bank account. It is my money, the money of the citizen, that will be bullied out of the banks to bail out the Government in a difficult situation.

We should not pretend that the proposal is a costless way of extracting money. Bank robbers go to jail because someone suffers when banks are robbed. A bank is not an imaginary entity. People's money is being protected and looked after in the banks. If the Government turn bank robber, they should be held to account. The report of the NIESR on access to financial services is critical of the Government' s proposal to introduce a universal bank. It states: Universal bank customers may also find themselves labelled as being unsuited to mainstream providers, whereas in reality— according to the institute's survey— they do not differ from people who already have accounts with banks and building societies. The real problem of the UN bank according to this interesting study is that some people are unfamiliar with banking, and the main distinction between those who have bank accounts and those who do not is whether they come from families or are in a milieu where bank accounts are familiar or not. The solution is a marketing problem and not one of setting up a new type of bank with a new type of account.

The conclusion that I draw from the institute's analysis of what the Government are up to is that the proposals put forward by the Secretary of State in his statement lack credibility, transparency and probably legality. Taxation by stealth is being proposed. It is an abuse of power and a cynical attempt to delay the impact until after the election of the foolish and ill thought out decision to undermine the viability of the Post Office network by requiring the most vulnerable people in our society to have their money paid into a bank account rather than through the post offices, which they would prefer.

All those who want a widespread network of post offices to remain will take this issue to heart when the election comes. The future of the network will become a big issue. People will know which party when in government was hailed by the National Federation of Sub-postmasters as providing the best ever guarantee for the future of that network and which Government—this Government—undermined its viability fundamentally and lack all credibility in their attempts to disguise the fact.

Photo of Ms Linda Perham Ms Linda Perham Labour, Ilford North 12:04 pm, 8th December 2000

I am pleased to speak in this debate focusing on education and industry. Although I intend to cover issues relating to both subjects, I shall, with the House's indulgence, also comment on the important subjects of crime and health, in relation to which I have particular interests or local concerns.

I am delighted that the special educational needs and disability Bill has a place in the Government's programme, and I acknowledge the thoughtful contributions made on the subject by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) and by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). This long awaited and much needed measure will be particularly welcomed by parents of children with special educational needs.

For some years—ever since I served as a local councillor—I have been in contact with Redbridge Parents in Partnership, a group working for equal educational opportunities for children with special needs, which is a member of the Alliance for Inclusive Education. Redbridge Parents in Partnership and the alliance were invited to respond to the consultation on the Bill, and their members feel strongly about inclusive education. They say that parents seeking mainstream schooling for disabled children face a bewildering array of attitudes and a totally fragmented approach. They want the Bill to instruct local education authorities to provide inclusive education for all who want it, without caveats that deny parental preference.

Redbridge Parents in Partnership and the Alliance for Inclusive Education raised several other concerns in their submission to the consultation, including the powers of special educational needs tribunals and the definition of SEN and disability, which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned. They regret the omission of the issue of bullying on the ground of disability. They also highlight the proposal in the Bill for a new duty to enable students with disabilities to gain better access to further and higher education. We all welcome that proposal.

I have just completed a placement, organised through the National Council for Voluntary Organisations secondment scheme for MPs, with Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities. I discussed the Bill yesterday with members of Skill's post-16 learning group. They welcomed it, having campaigned for it since the enactment of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Skill has been in existence for 25 years and provides an excellent information and advisory service throughout the United Kingdom for students with disabilities. It also conducts research and development projects, runs volunteer schemes, organises conferences and produces publications. Last year it received 6,000 telephone calls and there were nearly 40,000 hits on its website. Skill will pursue several issues during the passage of the Bill, but it is pleased to see its inclusion in the Queen's Speech. I was glad that to hear from the opening speeches of those on both Front Benches, and from the Liberal Democrats, that there is a genuine spirit of co-operation for carrying the Bill through.

Law and order and fighting crime are major priorities in my constituency. On behalf of the people of Ilford, North I welcome the strong emphasis in the Queen's Speech on continuing with measures to cut crime and crack down on disorderly conduct. The Government are set to be the first since the 1950s to have cut crime figures in their first term of office. The British crime survey shows that overall crime was 10 per cent. lower in 1999 than in 1997, with burglary rates down by one fifth to their lowest level in a decade, vehicle crime down by 15 per cent. and violent crime down by 4 per cent.—but my constituents expect more to be done.

Fear of crime remains high. Two years ago, in my constituency, I organised a public meeting about crime and fear of crime, with the local police, Victim Support, and the police community consultative committee. At that time, even after only a year and a half in office, the Labour Government had made substantial efforts to address the problems of young offenders, truancy, drugs, anti-social neighbours and child safety. Although the meeting was held in Woodford, which is generally not a high-crime area, local people expressed fears about burglaries, muggings, under-age drinking and drug taking.

In recent months, services on some bus routes were halted in parts of my constituency close to my home, after a spate of violence and vandalism involving groups of yobs. As a result, people in Hainault were deprived of a bus service after 9 pm. Only a few weeks ago, on the same night as a 26-year-old man was stabbed to death while travelling by bus in nearby Barking, a bus a few streets away from my house was vandalised. The local press quoted me at the time as saying: Local people should not have to tolerate disruption to their local bus service because of wanton vandalism. The police must give priority to tackling these crimes so that my constituents can travel in safety. I am pleased that a strategy action group, a sub-committee of the borough's public transport liaison committee, is being formed by interested parties, including the police, bus companies, schools and the council, to deal with the problem of youth disorder on public transport. I should like to pay tribute to the efforts of a Conservative colleague from Redbridge council, Councillor Morris Hickey, who chairs the public transport liaison committee. He has worked tirelessly with me, with the police and with other local organisations on that disturbing issue.

The problem of yob culture is one matter that I constantly raise with local police. One day towards the end of August I spent time talking to local magistrates and the police chief superintendent, and in the evening went on patrol with local officers to tour the constituency. The experiences of that day convinced me of the necessity for the measures in the Queen's Speech, especially fixed penalties for disorderly behaviour in public places and the prohibition on drinking alcohol in designated public places.

Yesterday I attended an event for secondary school children at Redbridge magistrates court. It was about drugs in the criminal justice system, and included a mock trial, a debate and presentations by the clerk and bench chairmen, the probation service, the senior drugs worker from the Redbridge drug and alcohol service and the court-based drug worker.

The drug referral project, funded by the Government office for London, was established last year by Redbridge magistrates court in response to a rising tide of alcohol and drug-related offences in the borough, which accounted for an estimated 70 per cent. of all offences at the time. I pay tribute to the Redbridge bench for introducing that initiative—although as a member of its supplemental list, I must declare an interest. Redbridge is the best performing north-east London court, and the seventh best in England and Wales, in respect of the average number of days from first listing to completion of criminal cases.

The problems of my local area demonstrate that the Government are right to concentrate on curbing drug and alcohol abuse. In tackling law and order issues, the Tories—with breathtaking hypocrisy—alternate between scaremongering and brushing their appalling record on crime aside. In its 18-year rule, the Conservative party allowed national crime to double, and let the number of criminals convicted fall by a third, yet local Tories recently demonstrated against the closure of Woodford police station, which the assistant commissioner tells me is not scheduled to close. The biggest threat to local police stations, and to the chances of getting more police officers on the front line, is the prospect of the Tory cuts guarantee.

I should also like to comment on the health proposals, which were debated yesterday. I welcome the announcement in the Queen's Speech of legislation to support many of the commitments in the national health service plan. I was pleased to be able to speak in the debate on the plan on 29 June, and I am sure that every hon. Member would agree that it is time to put the reforms in place.

The proposals cover many of the problems raised by my constituents in the three and a half years that I have served in the House. They include cutting waiting times for treatment by GPs and accident and emergency departments, shorter waiting lists for heart surgery, more doctors and nurses, empowering nurses to prescribe drugs, order tests, admit and discharge patients and run clinics, and the provision of cleaner wards and better hospital food.

As secretary of the all-party group on aging and older people, I am pleased with the proposals for national standards to combat ageism in the NHS, for the provision of new intermediate care services to end bed blocking by 2004, and for free nursing care in nursing homes from October 2001. However, although the Government are to put £1.4 billion of new investment into health and social services for older people, 125,000 people will still have to pay for personal care.

I have campaigned for improvements in cancer treatment ever since I was elected, and I welcome the huge expansion in screening programmes proposed in the plan. I welcome in particular the extension of the breast cancer programme to women aged between 65 and 70—an extension for which I have worked with Age Concern—the upgrade of the cervical cancer programme, and the development of a programme for prostate cancer, which in September received an enormous boost in research funding, announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, of up to £4.2 million a year by 2003–04. Obviously, as a cancer campaigner, I am delighted that a Bill covering tobacco advertising and promotion is also in the programme.

On industrial matters, I endorse many of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), who chairs the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, on which I also serve. Like him, I am glad to see a regulatory reform Bill in the Queen's Speech. I am sure that the prospect of the introduction of wider powers to scrap unnecessary regulations without the need for legislation, and the provision of parliamentary scrutiny and public consultation, will be music to the ears of the chorus of Conservative Members who continually bleat about burdens on business, conveniently forgetting that they introduced 3,000 regulations for each of their last three years in office.

I also remind Conservative Members that many employment protection and social justice reform measures put on the statute book over the years—mainly by Labour Governments—such as the race relations legislation in the 1960s and 1970s, the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, were originally seen as imposing burdens on business or restricting certain freedoms.

The Government's fairness at work agenda, much of which was enshrined in the Employment Relations Act 1999, introduced trade union recognition, the right to parental leave, paid holidays, rights for part-time workers, the national minimum wage—I was proud to stay up all night to see that legislation through—and other measures. All those hard-won rights, and the working families tax credit, have been labelled by the Opposition as burdens on business. Doubtless they will take the same view of the proposals issued yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, entitled "Work & Parents—competitiveness and choice". Those deal with paid paternity leave, the extension of maternity pay, flexible working options and other measures to support working parents and help them achieve the right balance between work and home responsibilities.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil, I am happy to be a member of a party that has continued the Labour tradition of improving the pay and conditions of working people, but, also like him, I welcome the Bill that will weed out unnecessary regulation in a number of areas. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry provide more detail about the parliamentary scrutiny role that is mentioned in connection with the Bill? Will it involve the Trade and Industry Committee?

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

Does my hon. Friend agree that alongside all the benefits to employees in small businesses, some of which she has mentioned, there has been a net increase of 140,000 new small businesses, partly because we have reduced corporation tax, we are considering cutting red tape, and we are providing an environment in which business under Labour prospers?

Photo of Ms Linda Perham Ms Linda Perham Labour, Ilford North

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The Government have done a great deal for small businesses, and I was pleased to take part in the debate on the subject in January. It is a complete myth that they are disadvantaged by red tape. We have created a climate in which small businesses thrive. We have much more to do for business, but we have already done a lot.

Finally, as one of the 411 Members of Parliament who supported Second Reading of the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), I continue to support the proposal, and welcome the introduction of the Bill that will provide options for banning hunting with dogs. I am delighted to see that it has been published today. Like the almost 300 people in my constituency who have contacted me on this issue, 1 support a total ban.

The Queen's Speech rightly focuses on our continuing commitment to fight crime and improve health, and to introduce other important measures, including those relating to education and industry. The people of this country will want us, with their support, to carry through our programme. We shall continue to introduce good measures to realise our vision of an economically stable, fair and prosperous society.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West 12:20 pm, 8th December 2000

I shall speak briefly. I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for being unable to be present for the winding-up speeches, as I have a longstanding commitment to show some people around the House.

I welcome the attention given in the debate to the Government's proposals to help people with education. Many parents feel that their local education authority either does not understand the need for their child to be assessed, or does not have the resources to provide the special help that is needed. The Department for Education and Employment has an appeals system that allows for hearings; the number of inquiries made by parents is great and the number of hearings is significant. However, I hope that the Government will carry out some analysis of withdrawn appeals to determine whether they were withdrawn because parents were satisfied, or because they had given up. We must be aware of the stress on those processing such applications and on education authorities. I believe that the appeals system works fairly, but it would be sensible to check that people are not falling by the wayside.

My second and final point on education relates to a problem that I think still exists—it certainly did two years ago. If a child, because of illness or for some other reason, takes A-levels at the age of 19 and that child comes from, say, a lone-parent household in receipt of income support, there is no way in which that child can obtain income support, even though the income of the parent—typically a mother—can fall by as much as £70 a week when the child turns 19. If such a child stays on at college or school to do A-levels, there is a gap, and in all my correspondence with Ministers at the Departments of Social Security and for Education and Employment I have discovered no way in which either the education authority or central Government can bridge that gap. I ask not for a reply today, but that consideration be given to filling that gap, which I believe still exists.

There are obvious limitations. Ministers may well say that, were they to act, it would open up to everyone the opportunity of having income support while they do A-levels. I do not want to get involved in the issue of university access courses. I am referring specifically to pupils who have lost a year or two of education, who are doing A-levels at the age of 19 and whose family is on income support. My question is, what happens in respect of income support when the young person turns 19? In the first such case I encountered, I had to get a charity in which I am involved to provide support. It was pleased to do that, but how much better it would have been had there been a way of resolving the matter through the local education authority or the national Government.

The main issue I wish to address is of a different nature from those raised in the debate so far. I am concerned about people who will not vote for my party or any other in the next election because they have been away from the country for some time: I speak of the 4 per cent. of British pensioners who are resident overseas in what are referred to as the "frozen countries". The problem is not new, having existed under the previous Government, but it is one to which we should return.

The first paragraph of the Government's response to the 7th report of the Select Committee on Social Security, on pensioner poverty, House of Commons paper No. 606, states: The Government is committed to ensuring that every pensioner has a secure and fulfilling retirement. Part of that means we must ensure that every pensioner has a decent income in retirement. It does not say that only 96 per cent. of pensioners should have a decent income in retirement. Let me illustrate the problem by quoting from a transcript of the "Today" programme, broadcast at 7.45 am on 16 October this year. The Minister of State, Department of Social Security, stated: Well it isn't a question of Commonwealth—I mean you can go to Jamaica and it's uprated, St. Lucia it isn't. There isn't a logical pattern. There is— he probably meant to say "there are"— 130 countries where the pension is frozen and 40 countries where it's uprated every year. He mentioned historical reasons for that state of affairs, but did not try to defend the logic.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to say: We pay about £1.3 billion a year to pensioners abroad. Approximately in unfrozen countries it is £800 million and in frozen countries it is £500 million, so that the difference between the 800 and 500, given that it's 50:50, is the £300 million cost. It would cost £300 million a year to unfreeze the basic state pensions of people who earned their entitlement in this country and now live abroad.

I shall give some illustrations of the anomalies. They are well known, but it is important to repeat them. If I had retired 30 years ago to the United States, I would get upratings of my basic pension. If I had gone north of the parallel to Canada, it would have been frozen.

To show what that might mean, let us consider the case of a woman who, sadly, died this year, aged 96. She emigrated to Montreal in 1963 after her husband's death to live with her blind daughter who, as it happens, is also on a frozen UK pension. She was able to get some social security help in Canada. The cost to her of the frozen pension between 1963 and this year, when she died, was more than £53,000.

It is difficult for any Government to say that they are giving help to all pensioners and meeting their needs, if someone who goes to another country to look after a blind daughter from 1963 to 2000 loses £53,000 if that country happens to be Canada, but would not have lost that sum if she had gone slightly further south to the United States. That needs changing, and now is the time that it should be changed.

Basic state pensions are not frozen for people who go to live in Germany, Italy or France, but they are frozen in South Africa. They are not frozen in the Philippines, but they are frozen in Indonesia. They are not frozen in Bosnia-Herzogovina, but they are frozen in Zimbabwe. They are not frozen in Barbados, Jamaica or Bermuda, but they are frozen in 48 of the 53 Commonwealth countries, including Grenada, St. Lucia, as I mentioned, Trinidad, India, Pakistan and Australia. The Chancellor said when he presented his mini-Budget last month: Our aim for pensions reform is both to end pensioner poverty and to ensure that all pensioners share in the rising prosperity of the nation.—[Official Report, 8 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 325.] He did not say that those whose working lives were spent in the United Kingdom and who were entitled to a reasonably full basic state pension or part of it were to be excluded. For pensioners living abroad, it is a case not of being able to share in the rising living standards in this country, but of preserving the standard of living that they had when their pensions were first paid to them and they chose to live elsewhere.

It is obvious that pensioners who live overseas will not get the benefit of a free television licence or the winter fuel payment. Their costs for medical treatment will not be met by the national health service. We have cut them off with the basic state pension, and £300 million a year would put right that illogical, indefensible anomaly.

I pay tribute to the alliances of pensioners in many of the countries where people are affected, and to the World Alliance of British Expatriate Pensioners. We have an obligation to make sure that the Government put right the anomaly. I am sorry that it was not put right before three years ago. It certainly needs to be put right now.

Of those with frozen pensions, 98 per cent. live in the Commonwealth. What a terrible price they are paying for Commonwealth membership. I hope that the Commonwealth ex-service associations and the Royal British Legion will take up the case, because most of the people who are affected are in their 80s or 90s, and they will have given service during the last great war. There is an example of a widow whose husband had served in the first world war and in a reserve occupation in the second world war. People such as her are still our responsibility.

The House is the place where we should say to Government, "Time to end the anomaly. Time to be fair." We must make sure that it is not just the more than 11 million pensioners in this country and the almost 400,000 in the unfrozen countries who get the upratings, but that the more than 400,000 in the frozen countries share in the upratings as well.

I do not find it easy to look forward to my own pension, which will be at a significantly higher level, when I know that people are suffering overseas, many of them on very low incomes and many unwilling to argue their case because of pride. I pay tribute to those who argue on their behalf, and I am proud to have followed Michael Colvin in helping to continue the campaign.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley 12:30 pm, 8th December 2000

As I speak, hundreds of my constituents face continuing uncertainty about what the future holds for them. This is their 13th week of uncertainty since the textile and clothing firm Coats Viyella announced its intention to retreat to its original thread business and withdraw from clothing and home furnishing.

Coats Viyella in the east midlands has closed factories in Ollerton, Worksop, Shepshed and Scunthorpe, and redundancies were announced for other sites. The remaining work force at several sites in my constituency and elsewhere are still waiting to hear what will happen to them after the announcement earlier this week of a management buy-out of the contract clothing division. There have been agonising weeks of rumours, ups and downs, and not knowing what the future has in store and what they can look forward to.

The Queen's Speech properly reasserts the Government's commitment to pursuing the central economic objective of high and stable levels of growth and employment. There has been remarkable success since I made my maiden speech on employment in my constituency during the debate on the first Queen's Speech under the present Labour Government. To recap, long-term unemployment doubled under the Tories, but more than a million new jobs have been created under Labour. Unemployment in my constituency of Amber Valley has gone down by almost 40 per cent. in the past four years.

I have the pleasure of serving on the Select Committee on Education and Employment with one Opposition Member who is in the Chamber now and we have discussed the new deal. Whatever Opposition Members say, I am especially pleased with the way in which the new deal programme has developed. I am pleased that Ministers are prepared to engage in dialogue with Back-Bench Members to find out how the programme is working on the ground in our constituencies. They have also listened to the Select Committee's suggestions for improving the programme as it has progressed. A special buses programme in south Derbyshire ties into the new deal; it is a response to our comments about difficulties with transport. I look forward to the roll-out of the new deal programme intensive gateway, which is needed to assist 18 to 24-year-olds who have had particular problems. Those issues were raised by the Select Committee, and Ministers took them on board.

The Tories want to abolish the new deal. I challenge them to come and talk to the 350 young adults in my constituency who have found work through the new deal. Many more have received training and employment opportunities as a result of the programme. The Government have been adaptable and are prepared to look at positive examples of what is happening elsewhere, such as the Wildcat programme and the Strive programme in Harlem, which is now moving to Brent. However, those should be looked at as part of our unemployment programmes, and we must be careful not to learn from the major part of the American experience that is based on pushing "welfare mums" into work when their children are just a few months old, regardless of whether they want to go back to work.

We can be proud of our successes in the field of employment. However, there are casualties inside every success story. My constituents at Coats Viyella face the awful uncertainty of not knowing how many jobs will be saved in their workplaces in my constituency. I should like to draw attention to a few issues arising from that industrial restructuring, and to the Government action necessary to deal with it. I shall then comment briefly on more positive issues relating to the flexibility needed in a modern economy. I particularly welcome yesterday's Green Paper on measures to help parents balance home and work life, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham).

First, I shall go back to the clothing and textiles industry and the problems in Amber Valley and the east midlands. It is only two days since my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) was cut off in full flow at the end of the Queen's Speech debate on Wednesday. He was speaking about Biwater at Clay Cross, just a few miles up the road from my constituency. That pipe manufacturing works has been taken over by a multinational company, Saint-Gobain, and was immediately closed down with the loss of 700 jobs, despite the fact that it was a profitable company. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has spoken directly to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire and to local people about the company. I ask him to give special consideration to the speech made by my hon. Friend on Wednesday, which gave a highly critical account of events at Biwater and mentioned some of the potential dangers of the legislative action that the Government may be contemplating on mergers and company policy.

I do not want at this stage to comment on the saga of events at Coats Viyella or on how its management has acted, because discussions are still occurring and we are trying to save the maximum number of jobs in the company. Again, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware of the problems and of my concerns. I want to put on record my thanks to him and to officials in his Department, both nationally and regionally, for what they are doing to try to help save jobs. Whatever the outcome, however, I urge him to discuss what has happened with me, and to discuss events at Biwater with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire, so that we can learn the lessons necessary to ensure that future legislation and action will minimise the likelihood of recurrences.

As I said, I do not want to comment on those events in detail, but I should like to mention two issues that I find unacceptable. It is not acceptable for people to learn from the internet that they are losing their jobs as it has to be announced on the stock exchange first. Neither is it acceptable for the work force in a factory in my constituency to learn that they are to lose 200 jobs, only to be told two hours later that the company is sorry and that it made a mistake. Two hours after receiving a press release saying that 200 jobs were going, I received another press release correcting the position. I should like to discuss a number of other issues with Ministers before they embark on future legislation relating to mergers and company policy, but I shall not mention them now.

The second issue that I should like to put to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench relates more generally to the textile and clothing industry. More than a million new jobs have been created since the election, but I think that about half the jobs that have gone—industrial restructuring means that such losses will occur—have been lost in the textile and clothing industry. In the past year, 29,000 have been lost, 8,000 to 10,000 of which were in the east midlands.

I said earlier that I wanted to comment briefly on proposals to improve parental rights. Before any Opposition Members jump up to say that my anxiety about the loss of jobs in the textile and clothing industry is contradicted by my concerns about that issue, and that such rights price us out of the market, I ask them to consider the strategy document drawn up for the textile and clothing industry by industrialists, trade unionists—who have played a major role in being positive in difficult circumstances for the industry—and academics. The document was produced at the request of the Department of Trade and Industry and provides a range of action points on making the industry competitive and ensuring that, despite the problems facing companies such as Coats Viyella, it retains a place in the global marketplace. The strategy, which was drawn up by the industry, says that we cannot compete on the basis of the poverty wages and poor conditions that prevail overseas. It argues that we must compete through, for example, niche markets, quality products, design and e-commerce.

We have problems at Coats Viyella, but there are examples in the industry of companies that are doing well. Although we have a positive strategy that gives some hope for adapting an industry that will not be the same in future, but in which there is potential for the retention of future jobs and for movement into new areas, many companies are not being proactive enough to take the opportunities, the initiative and the help that is on offer. That is understandable, because they are stretched on a daily basis, and they need help and assistance to take such action.

I hope that the Secretary of State's programme will carry on the Department's good work in sending out the message and giving assistance to the industry. I welcome the fact that he made money available to the East Midlands development agency to promote such work and to help companies adapt to a changing world. That is a model of what could be done in other industries that face difficulties. The work that is under way with the money that is available until April in my region includes a mapping exercise of the industry, giving developing companies practical help to move into new markets and an examination of cluster developments, which make the Italian clothing industry the only industry in, probably, the western world that has any strength. The money has also been used to examine areas in which companies can be helped with, for example, development, design and marketing. They are developing business packages and examining new products, which may be able to compete in the world market, in areas such as technical textiles.

My request to the Secretary of State is that the programme of assistance that the development agency in my region is carrying out to help businesses and to give them some chance of surviving in the industry will be sustained beyond April. I hope that it will be allowed to continue and that the initiative will be extended into other regions.

I cannot resist highlighting the short-sightedness of the Conservative party. In its desperation to make savings on spending, it wants to abolish regional development agencies and cut the budget of the Department of Trade and Industry. That would involve cutting the help that is provided with regard to exports, although that is an important part of the strategy document that I have discussed in relation to the clothing industry. It would also involve cutting support in other areas, such as the help provided to small companies that find it difficult to develop e-commerce, despite the fact that that is a major way in which those companies could market themselves and compete.

Perhaps the Conservative party's short-sightedness explains why my Conservative opponent in the forthcoming election was quoted in the Derby Evening Telegraph as saying that her party would not assist the Derbyshire clothing and textiles industry. That remark may have been unwise.

I welcome the reference in the Queen's Speech to strengthening health and safety legislation. In passing, I want to discuss another area of industrial restructuring in my constituency, which involves the damaged health of ex-miners. That is a shameful overhang—it is shameful that it took court legislation to get the ball rolling and for miners to be allowed to start to claim compensation for bronchial diseases and vibration white finger. Yet again, I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to continue to do all they can to limit the blockages that have resulted in such a long time being taken to settle the largest personal injury claim in this country. It affects thousands of people in my area and tens of thousands around the country.

Let me move to a more positive matter. I do not accept the argument that we must compete by pushing down rates of pay or conditions. I was delighted by the consultation document that was published yesterday, which is about balancing people's lives in their workplace and as parents. I very much look forward to our debate on extending those rights. The document contains a range of options and possibilities. It will be welcomed, and it would be invaluable if it were discussed—I am sure that it will be—by hon. Members in their areas with people at work, those who are not at work but who would like to go to work, and employers.

I make a bid for one proposal from what I regard as an excellent report on part-time workers by the Education and Employment Committee. I engaged in an extremely interesting debate to get my views, and those of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), included in the report. I was pleased that after two goes, we eventually persuaded Ministers who came before us to accept some of the definitions on the rights of part-time workers that would make the system more workable. I hope that they will also accept the proposal that women should have the right to return to work part time after having a child. The onus would obviously be on employers to explain why that was impractical. Such a measure would be valuable.

It is a question of efficiency. One of the interesting statistics in the report shows that, if only 10 per cent. of women who do not return to work after having children were to change their minds, employers would save £30 million in recruitment costs. I am not arguing that they should go back after three months, as the Americans want them to do.

I have a particular bee in my bonnet about efficiency. It is an issue that I have pursued for a couple of years. We have a shortage of nurses, yet 140,000 qualified nurses are not currently employed. The previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), urged health authorities and trusts to introduce work patterns that would enable nurses to be able to return to work, and the Government have continued that practice. However, I still get cases locally of nurses who are unable to return to work as they want to after having a child, even though they may be prepared to work rotating shifts in difficult work patterns. It comes down to local management. It should be simple to introduce various work patterns. People just need some certainty and some discussion about what system would work for them. That is a practical example of how combining work and domestic responsibilities can be efficient for employers and for people who want to work.

I welcome the document "Work and Parents". The theme running through it is about flexibility and adaptability. That is relevant to the traumas and difficulties facing the clothing and textile industry and the people in my constituency who are not sure what will happen to them and their jobs. It is one of the positive aspects of the document.

Industries must adapt to the modern world and look for new ways of doing things and for new products. We must also adapt and realise how people live their lives. It can be not only efficient, but the proper thing to do to enable people to combine their domestic and work responsibilities. That makes for a good work force, and ensures that we do not lose the skills of that work force. Adaptability, flexibility and engaging in the world as it is in this century will enable us to adapt efficiently and competitively to the modern workplace.

Photo of Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Conservative, Wealden 12:47 pm, 8th December 2000

I followed with great interest the remarks of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), and I shall comment on them later. First, may I tell the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), that we welcome the introduction of a Bill to improve the framework for meeting special educational needs, especially access to learning for disabled people? There is a great need for such legislation, as a case I am dealing with shows. The education authority is finding it very difficult to provide suitable education for the child. Our county council's social security budget is inadequate. I hope that the Bill will have a marked effect on the ability of local authorities to deal with those sad cases.

I should like to draw attention to the Bill that the Government propose to introduce to increase the effectiveness of the power to reduce regulatory burdens by removing inappropriate and over-complex regulation. That has some bearing on the remarks of the hon. Member for Amber Valley. This issue affects not only industry and commerce, but local government because of the impact of unnecessary and harsh regulatory burdens.

One of course understands the problems that the cotton industry faces. It suffers greatly from international competition. It cannot stop the competition, and it cannot buy its way out by improving the industry. Some industries can compete internationally by greater investment, by adopting more modern and competitive methods, and by reducing the number of people they employ. Some industries, however, will find it increasingly difficult.

I think that one reason why people in areas like mine, in the south, find it easier to get jobs is the fact that they have adapted to modern conditions. Our areas have not inherited the 19th century industrial framework. Those working in, particularly, the coal industry in the north endured great sadness and hardship as the industry gradually contracted. Of course, if we had wanted the industry to survive we could have bought more coal, and done a great deal of damage to our environment.

It seems to be Government policy that regulations can somehow ease the problem, not just on humanitarian but on economic grounds. We should be careful about how far we go down that line. The Centre for Policy Studies has produced a pamphlet entitled "Handicap, Not Trump Card—the Franco-German model isn't working". We know that France and, more particularly, Germany have special social market conditions and certain attitudes that could be said to make the working man's lot rather more comfortable than it has been hitherto, in what the CPS would describe as a free market. However, the author, Mr. Keith Marsden, pointed out—using figures for May 1999—that unemployment in the United Kingdom, as defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, was only 4.6 per cent. In the United States, it was 4.5 per cent. In France, it was 11.4 per cent.—I believe that it has now fallen to about 10 per cent. In Germany it was about the same—the author gave a figure of 10.9 per cent.

Having compared OECD and World Bank data for each of those countries, the author concluded that there was a clear correlation between higher Government expenditure and lower employment. In 1997, the Government share of gross domestic product in the United States was 22 points below that of France, but its employment ratio was 15 points higher. The United Kingdom's public spending was 8 per cent. below Germany's, but its employment ratio was seven points higher.

We must conclude that it does not improve employment prospects to look constantly to industry to provide jobs by imposing extra regulations, although such regulations may seem attractive on the surface.

Leave for male parents, for instance, is likely to prove popular. All of us who are parents feel that, once there is another child in the family, it would be more pleasant to help our wives by doing some of the work in the home. Such measures have considerable appeal, but we should be careful about the extent to which we introduce them, especially in the context of the industry referred to by the hon. Member for Amber Valley.

It should not be assumed that—however many arrangements are introduced to enable people to work fewer hours, and however many more comfortable labour policies there are—employees will be saved by such measures. We have employed such policies from time to time in this country. Citing the United States, the hon. Lady suggested that the alternative was harsh, but we should not go too far in the opposite direction. We have social obligations: we have an obligation to overcome some of the difficulties involved in moving from one industry to another, and to ensure that a contracted industry remains competitive, albeit with lower employment. A balance must be struck. What might be described as a harsh policy may deliver much greater prosperity to a country, but may cause problems to those whose industry cannot pay a decent wage. No amount of Government-imposed extra social obligations on those companies will cure the problem. It only continues the malaise.

At its recent conference, the Confederation of British Industry had a lot to say on that subject. In a survey last month of 400 firms, the CBI found that 55 per cent. of the administrative burden was caused by Government regulations, which was unacceptable. Sixty-one per cent. of the firms said that they were not given enough time to implement new rules; 43 per cent. believed that regulations were having a significant negative impact; and 49 per cent. said that red tape had diverted valuable management time.

One must treat such analysis with great respect. The point was taken up by Mr. Digby Jones, the Director General of the CBI. He was, according to the newspaper—I have actually met him—critical of the Government about the "inept" climate change levy. He said: It is blindingly obvious that many firms are struggling with the pace of the changes, some of which are still to come into effect.Simplification of existing laws is very welcome, but it will not ease the concern about the relentless build up of new regulations. One could go on. There is the cumulative increase in European Union regulations. I am not a Europhobe. I believe that it is important to have a thriving EU market. I want it to be freed up. I do not like unnecessary regulations, but we all know of companies that complain of EU regulations.

On top of EU regulations, some 3,000 separate regulations have been introduced since the Government came to power. A combination of EU directives and Whitehall laws have added about £12.3 billion to business costs over the present Parliament.

Business has to deal with all the working families tax credit regulations, which cause problems for small companies employing just five people. That also causes much resistance to improving employment relations; in turn, the companies are accused of not carrying out a Government regulation. In the atmosphere that pervades industry and small companies in the south, we do not have the boss versus the working man. Companies do not feel that, to produce decent, productive output, they have to submit themselves to burdens that have been laid down by the Government.

Parental leave sounds fine. I am sure that it will be widely greeted as a move forward and as a means of socially civilising the market, but I ask the Government to consider carefully that the key to this country's prosperity is a competitive economy and the key to a satisfied electorate is full employment. We do not want to sacrifice those two fundamental objectives.

I have attended two or three meetings of the all-party town and country group. "Modernising Local Government Finance: A Green Paper" draws attention to the fact that the standard spending assessment system is not genuinely based on need, but reflects past political choices and over-compensates urban areas for additional costs of social and economic deprivation. It goes on to say: The present system also perversely makes it difficult for local authorities to implement Government policy. The cost of implementing best value, for example, has resulted in substantial budget increases for local authorities, with no specific additional financial support from the Government. That relates to what I was saying earlier. I asked one of my councillors to outline the manner in which new regulations affect the way in which local government is run and how they affect employment problems and financial problems. Councils will have to restructure completely their method of working; the status quo is no longer a choice except for councils serving populations of less than 85,000.

All departments are to be scrutinised on best value over five years; audit costs for best value exceed £40,000 and each inspection costs £45,000. Officers' time is estimated at £30,000. In the eyes of those who have to implement it, that Government initiative is a waste of money—it is unnecessary bureaucracy.

Under contaminated land legislation, district councils have a duty to identify all such land in their area. In Wealden, where there are some small towns and a lot of very nice countryside, that will mean the employment of a person at a cost of between £28,000 and £30,000. The council will have to find that amount from its resources.

Under disability legislation, our leisure department—the council runs two swimming pools and all that goes with them—will have to provide disabled access for all sports centres. Although such provision is right and we recognise the needs of disabled people, that piles a further cost on to the district council.

Under the housing business plan, we have to provide projections for the next 30 years. Another large document will have to be printed; officer time is being spent on compiling it. The resource accounting directive demands a completely different approach to housing finance. Again, there are costs in training staff and councillors; outside consultants had to be called in to help the council understand how to carry out that directive.

Then there is the housing inspectorate. All housing departments are subject to an Ofsted-type inspection. People who give their time to work voluntarily as councillors—although they receive a small stipend—and seasoned local government officers in local government wonder where local government begins and ends; they wonder whether big brother is telling them what to do, as a result of what the Government think is good for every council in the country. Councils have varying needs—do we trust them to make their own judgment or issue yet another directive?

Community planning is another initiative. We are told that partnerships should be built with private, public, voluntary and community bodies. Such boundary crossing exercises could be beneficial, but they are extremely time consuming.

The neighbourhood renewal strategy was also drawn to my attention. I do not have a definition for that, but if councils are to carry out even more Government directives, more officer time will be needed.

We shall be in trouble if we think that all these directives, about which big businesses, small businesses and local authorities complain, will make the countryside, the towns and businesses more efficient. On the contrary, private business men complain increasingly and bitterly about the huge burden that is forced on them.

As I have said, I represent an area of small towns and nice countryside. In this country, we continue to pride ourselves on our tolerance, individuality and personal choice—on occasions we even accept idiosyncratic behaviour, provided that it harms no one else. That is part of the charm of living in our country. In the light of that, the intention to grind down those people who pursue foxhunting is ludicrous. To call it hunting with dogs is a rather cheap description; it is hunting with hounds—not any old dog can hunt. That is a degrading way to describe those who hunt, although it does not get under their skin—they do not expect anything else.

The proposal resurrects the belief that the Government must control, and this Government have aided and abetted that atmosphere. That is why a march will take place in March this year. The ban has nothing to do with animal welfare, but it might divert the public's attention from their own trials and tribulations.

Even if hon. Members know that a majority of people do not want foxhunting to continue and the Hunting Bill is passed, I hope that they will realise that they do not have to do what the majority says they should do. There are occasions when we should remember what Edmund Burke said when he went to electors of Bristol. I paraphrase, but he told them, "I do not have to do what you want me to do just because you tell me. I will use my own judgment at Westminster." We should make a stand on certain matters, and I believe that foxhunting is one of them.

This is yet another example of the Government's dirigisme. They want to ensure that local government does things in certain ways. They want to tell employers and businesses what to do, and they are imposing extra regulations on them. We should not ignore what was said at the CBI meeting.

Unfortunately, I do not think that I shall be able to take part in the debate about the French Government's decision to propose a different way of organising the defence of western Europe and Europe as a whole. I listened to the Secretary of State for Defence; he told us that we had nothing to worry about. He said that the defence force would enable the European nations to carry a greater burden of the defence of Europe and its democratic values. In addition, he said that it would help to maintain the confidence of the United States, as the leading partner in the defence structure of the western world, and that it would show our willingness to undertake that extra responsibility, rather than simply relying on American military might, as we have done so much in the past. I found it extremely difficult to believe that the Government really thought that the European arm of that defence structure would not weaken our ties with NATO.

Some of us do not like being patronised by the Government, nor do we like the arrogance of some Ministers. Those Members on both sides of House who know a great deal about defence through their contacts with and serving on the NATO parliamentary assembly, as I have done for 10 years, and who have every opportunity to consult people from various Ministries and who regularly go to the United States, as I do, to discuss matters with the Pentagon, understand that there is no way in which the Government can assure us that the proposal on the defence of western Europe—perhaps extending to the central European countries and the Baltic because of enlargement—can be achieved without weakening our ties with NATO. In fact, we heard about the programme of separate structures for planning. That is the first step towards total separation from NATO.

I found it incredible that Ministers could be so sure that that was not the plan of the French Government, but—surprise, surprise—on the eve of the Nice conference we found that that was the plot. If people with the experience of some hon. Members on both of sides of the House know that there was something in our suspicion that the new arrangement for the defence of European interests would weaken our ties with NATO, why were we shunned for saying that? Why were people made to think, "Those Tories are just Europhobes; they will have nothing to do with Europe"?

Those people were plain wrong. It is that sort of comment, along with the dirigisme that I have discussed, that leads me to conclude that the Government must understand, if Labour wants to be a new party, that they must forsake some of the socialist control that they still want and their habit of wanting to control things. Anyone who disagrees with them is rubbished. They are responsible for high unemployment and responsible for the state of the health service. I can only say that the health service as planned is no longer the envy of the world. It will have to adopt some of the methods of the private sector if it is to be improved.

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Labour, Gravesham 1:10 pm, 8th December 2000

The right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) spoke of the nation's tolerance for idiosyncratic behaviour. The way in which Members sat quietly and listened to some of his remarks was a good illustration of tolerance. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his valiant effort to try to fill the gap between £5.3 billion in cuts so far identified and the £16 billion that we know Conservatives plan to cut from the Government's spending plans. If the cuts come down to the costs of providing the disabled access to leisure centres, they will have to look much harder to find the rest of the £16 billion.

I am pleased to be able to participate in the debate, even though in doing so I have had to offer my apologies for not being present at a special event that is taking place as we speak—the opening of a new computer suite at Chantry primary school in Gravesend, with the unveiling of 13 brand new computers. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education for providing £9,000 from the national grid for learning. The rest of the funding is the result of a prize won by the head teacher of the school, Mr. Eric Gates. I hasten to say that he did not take part in "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" The money came following his award for having been nominated teacher of the year. I know that the House would wish to congratulate him on that. He has also received congratulations from my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Education, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

Is my hon. Friend aware that Tony Cooper, the head teacher of Aldercar school in my constituency, won the award for being the best secondary school head teacher of the year? Would he like to compliment Mr. Cooper as well?

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Labour, Gravesham

I am delighted to add my congratulations to him. I am sure that my hon. Friend has ensured that there was sufficient celebration in the House, as I did for Mr. Gates, who took on his job as head teacher just over three years ago, when I took on my present job as the Member for Gravesham.

When Mr. Gates took over the school, it was in special measures. The roof was leaking, the windows were broken and there was a total of 40 books for the entire school. Earlier, when the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was in her place, we had a discussion about whether she should be visiting schools. I was delighted to learn that she was visiting schools in my constituency. I am not altogether surprised that she decided to visit two of the schools that have shown outstanding success recently. One of them was the Ifield special school—a special school in every sense—and the other was Chantry school which I have mentioned, perhaps to bathe in the reflected glory of the success of the two schools.

I say to the hon. Lady—as she is no longer in her place she will have to read my remarks in the official record—that as she left Chantry school there were those who wondered how long it would be, if her policies were implemented, before the school was back in special measures with leaking roofs, broken windows and 40 books in the entire school.

Yesterday's performance tables for primary schools show that Chantry school and many other schools in my constituency have done exceptionally well in improving standards, often against the odds. Kings Farm primary school, which I visited a couple of weeks ago, has done very well. It is still in special measures, but I hope that we shall soon have an announcement that it is coming out of them. When I visited the school, I was honoured to be awarded a copy of a book by some of the children there. It was a signed copy, because they had made contributions to a collection of poetry, which was appropriately entitled, "Up, up and away". That describes the feeling that many of the students and staff in such schools have about the progress that they are making.

That is also true of Northcourt primary school, in a deprived part of my constituency, which, until recently, was in special measures and which Kent county council had wished to close. It was the heart of the local community, yet it was to be closed. The community as a whole drew together, shoulder to shoulder, to protect the school. We saved it from closure, and it is now out of special measures and making great progress in providing the standards of education that its children deserve.

None of that success has been achieved by accident. It has not just come about, but has been the result of investment, most notably investment in the reduction in infant class sizes. In Kent, the number of infants in classes with more than 30 pupils has fallen to one tenth of its 1997 level. That is a 90 per cent. reduction in the number of large classes. The announcement last week of the standard spending assessment allocations allows spending on schools in Kent to rise by 6.5 per cent., which is three times the rate of inflation. That reflects the extra £12 billion to be spent on education nationally over the next three years.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that early-years nursery class sizes have grown under this Government?

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Labour, Gravesham

We have seen the kind of investment that the Government have made in early-years education. No one would say that all the problems have been solved. We faced an enormous backlog when we took over, three and a half years ago, especially in the provision of nursery and early-years education. Increasing investment will be needed, of the type that the Government have announced, to ensure that we deal finally with the problems.

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Labour, Gravesham

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not give way again on that point.

One of the most important elements of the announcements on spending is the concentration of some funding directly to schools, especially the £540 million announced in the pre-Budget report that will go directly to head teachers to boost standards. That represents £40,000 this year and £60,000 next year for a typical secondary school in my constituency, and £9,000 this year and £20,000 next year for a typical primary school.

Those are important proposals for my constituency, because I am sorry to say that Kent county council, in previous years, though provided with fairly generous spending assessments on education by the Government, has proved unwilling to pass on much of that funding to schools in my constituency and elsewhere in north Kent. That is why it is important that an element of funding goes directly to the schools to be spent on the priorities that they consider important.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, although local education authorities are putting about £3.8 billion more than the standard spending assessment into schools this year, the fact that the Chancellor is bypassing the local education authorities and sending money directly to schools will force some authorities—such as Conservative-controlled North Yorkshire—to top-slice the money so that there will be no net benefit to schools?

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Labour, Gravesham

Clearly, there will be a problem in certain parts of the country, but it is important, especially in Conservative-controlled authorities, to ensure that the element of the funding earmarked for the raising of school standards goes directly to the schools, so that they can use it in ways that they think appropriate.

That is not the same as Conservative party policy, which states that everything should go directly to schools, no matter what the impact on services such as school transport or on the funding of special needs. I would not support such a policy.

I very much hope that some of the other measures, such as the provision of specialist school status, will be warmly embraced by local education authorities, including that of Kent. In particular, I welcome the proposal to give Northfleet boys school and Gravesend grammar school technology status. I am sure that Kent county council and the Department will look favourably on that.

Education spending will increase dramatically, but I am anxious about what would be the effect on that of the Conservative party's plans, were it ever able to implement them. I mentioned the £16 billion of public spending cuts that they would make. I would be happy to give way to anyone on the Conservative Front Bench who wants to tell me that there will not be £16 billion of cuts, £24 million of which would be in my constituency.

A couple of days ago, we heard about £5.3 billion of Tory cuts. The Daily Mail said that the Tory programme smacks more of candle-end accounting than of a serious attempt to balance the budget. The same paper last week described the Tory Opposition as "a stumbling, incoherent shambles." I do not understand why the Daily Mail is surprised by that; as a Government the Conservatives were a stumbling, incoherent shambles. Why should they change the habit of a lifetime, and why would anyone believe that they would be different if they took power? I have given the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen plenty of opportunity to challenge the claim that they will make £16 billion of cuts, but no one has responded.

There is also good news in the Queen's Speech for schools such as Chantry school, Northfleet school and Kings Farm school, where a large proportion—almost half—of the children have special educational needs. The Government have rightly developed a programme of measures to raise the achievement of children with such needs and to create a more inclusive education system. The special educational needs standards fund has been increased by £20 million, to £55 million for next year.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Given that the hon. Gentleman challenged us to intervene, does he agree that, in addition to having the right for their children to be included in the mainstream, parents should also have the right to choose not to have them included in it if they think that appropriate for the child? Is that important to him?

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Labour, Gravesham

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to special educational needs. The Secretary of State made it clear to the hon. Member for Maidenhead that the intention is not to insist on inclusion and to ensure that special provision no longer exists. Those are not the alternatives. We are saying that we must give students and parents greater powers and rights to choose the education for children with special needs. It does not mean that schools such as the Helen Allison school in my constituency, which caters for children on the autistic spectrum, will be treated as less important. The Government believe that those facilities are important. I warn hon. Members that many of them will get a Christmas card designed by the students at that school.

I also pay tribute to Ifield school in my constituency. It is an important model because, although it is a special school, it has helped the process of inclusion by using its resources to establish the smile centre, which provides guidance, advice, support and counselling to teachers in mainstream schools on how to deal with children with special needs. There is a range of models. In addition to special schools and mainstream schools, we could also have mainstream schools with special facilities—assisted by initiatives such as the Ifield smile centre—that provide for inclusion.

I welcome the Bill on special educational needs and disability, which will provide parents and students with extra protection against discrimination. All right hon. and hon. Members will have had parents in their surgeries who are distraught because they have a child with special educational needs, but that has not been fully recognised and they cannot find suitable education. It is very important that we give those rights to parents as well as children. That can happen across the board. For instance, there is a new children's resource centre at Darent Valley hospital—[Interruption.] Hon. Members need not be too anxious. The centre receives only two sessions a week for children with statements, as opposed to the five to which they are entitled.

Ministers will be aware that inclusion means that the resources have to be available to make that possible. That point was made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke). We must also to recognise that, in the words of the Gravesham teachers' association—to which I am grateful for providing the briefing—many effective teachers work wonders and achieve excellent relationships with pupils who are far from academic but whose progress is nevertheless significant and of great credit to the teacher, but in a way that cannot be measured.

We also need to recognise that Ofsted's judgment of a school can sometimes be absorbed by the students. That can be reflected in their own assumptions of failure, which has an impact on their standards of behaviour. The Gravesham teachers' association carried out a survey on standards of behaviour. Some 150 teachers took part in the survey, which covered all 42 schools in the constituency. The survey defined challenging behaviour as a level with which teachers should not be expected to cope. Such behaviour was not identified in only 13 of the 42 schools.

Special needs and disruptive behaviour are not the same, although there is a link between the two, which is often expressed in terms of the resources available. So I welcome the additional resources that are being made available to deal with disruptive behaviour and special needs.

I want to talk briefly about the new deal. I share the satisfaction of my right hon. and hon. Friends that the new deal will build on its own success and become a permanent feature. Youth unemployment in Gravesham has fallen by 89 per cent. since 1997, and 855 young people have taken part in the new deal. Therefore, the Tory plan to scrap the new deal will have a very heavy price, which will be measured in terms of crime and disorder.

There is a project in my constituency that is almost unique; it operates in partnership with Kent police. Given that Kent police have overseen a 24 per cent. reduction in crime since 1997, it is appropriate that they have the biggest settlement in the country. Working with the Employment Service and a voluntary organisation called Work-Route, they have been counselling young offenders on employment opportunities and debt. Through that process, they have successfully managed to steer many of those young people away from a life of crime and into worthwhile employment activity.

Let me give an example of a young offender who was given that counselling. He came along with his father—neither of them had ever worked, but as a result of the counselling that they received, both are now in full-time and sustainable employment, and have moved away from that life of crime.

So there would a heavy price to pay for scrapping the new deal, and everyone would pay it. Such a price cannot be put on each of the jobs created and it cannot be pared away by trying to come up with cheaper options.

I wholeheartedly commend the measures that the Government have pursued so far. By pursuing economic policies to achieve low interest rates, low inflation and high employment, we have achieved a balance that has not been struck by any other post-war Government, especially not the previous ones. Those policies have given us the resources we need to invest in the public services that the Conservatives plan to cut—if they have the opportunity to do so, although the Queen's Speech will ensure that they do not have that opportunity. It builds on the Government's sound record and ensures that we shall concentrate on our constituents' priorities—crime, employment and the health service. I warmly welcome the Queen's Speech.

Photo of John Horam John Horam Conservative, Orpington 1:30 pm, 8th December 2000

I have always inclined to the view that Queen's Speeches are dangerous things, in that they predispose Governments of either political persuasion to believe that the solution to many of our problems is more legislation, whereas what is often needed to solve the problems we face is not more legislation, but a better managed effort on the ground, properly supported by central Government. The solution to the problem that I shall address first—crime—is not more legislation, but a more effective police force, comprising more police. If it were not such a terrible pun. I might say that I am pleading for fewer new Bills and more Old Bill.

What I am saying is especially true in London, part of which I have the honour to represent. As Sir John Stevens, chief of the Metropolitan police, pointed out the other day, we are 3,000 policemen under strength; what is more, we are 1,000 civilians under strength, which means that 200 policemen have to be diverted to perform essentially civilian jobs. Sir John described that state of affairs as "a crisis" in manpower in London.

The police in my borough, Bromley, are significantly under strength, not only in terms of policemen, but in terms of police stations. Two of the three stations in the small part of Bromley occupied by my constituency have been closed in the course of this year: Biggin Hill and St. Mary Cray. One of the finest moments of my political career occurred shortly after I was first returned as Member of Parliament for Orpington, when we opened a new police station at St. Mary Cray. Excellent police backing had a remarkable effect on crime in the area, and neighbouring areas, but now, eight years later, the shutters have gone up at St. Mary Cray police station. Those who are inclined to crime and antisocial behaviour have got the message. They are less likely to be caught, because there are fewer policemen around to catch them—it is as simple as that. As a result, the clear-up rate in my area has fallen to 14 per cent. No one is ultimately held accountable for 86 per cent. of the crime committed in my area. That is an astonishing figure in this day and age.

In places such as Biggin Hill, which lies some distance from the remaining police station in my constituency, groups of youths get together to make trouble, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings, safe in the knowledge that it will be at least 20 minutes before anyone can get to them. The police launch special operations to deal with gangs of youths making trouble, but they cannot carry on such operations for more than a limited period.

Only this week, I received a letter from constituents making precisely that point. A few weeks ago, I tried to help them with a gang of youths who were knocking hell out of the neighbourhood. Now, the lady writes: We are still having trouble with youngsters motorbikes and cars … Things went quiet for a couple of weeks, but now it has all started up again— this time, nearby. My constituents phoned the police on numerous occasions during the course of one particular evening, but were told that the police couldn't do anything as they had no one spare to come out, and to ring again about 2200 hrs if it had not quietened down by then. My constituent states: I think this is a sorry state of affairs and wish to know what can be done … We are law-abiding people, pay our taxes and community charge on time, and get no service whatsoever. Must we resort to vigilante methods? That is what is happening in parts of my constituency as a result of the police station closing and the underfunding and under-staffing of the police force under the Government. No wonder street crime in my area is up by 73 per cent.

Fortunately for my area, we have an excellent chief inspector, Gerry Howlett, who, despite the restraints under which he is operating, has tackled the problem intelligently. Following the serious complaints made by many people, including myself, over the past 18 months or so, he has reorganised the local police force so that there are now not fewer, but more, officers on the beat. That started in October and certainly has had some reassuring effect, although the results are yet to be seen.

However, numbers are still extremely small, and the chief inspector cannot go on getting a quart out of a pint pot indefinitely. Indeed, many of the posts that he has created on the beat are filled only in theory—there are no actual policemen there, because the force is still understaffed.

As we heard from the Home Secretary recently when he outlined the provisional settlement, spending will go up by 5.3 per cent. in London in the next financial year. It is to go up by 10 per cent. overall in the United Kingdom, so I do not understand why spending in London is going up by only half the rate in the rest of the country, as it is perfectly obvious from recent events in London that policing needs more serious attention in the capital than in many other parts of the country.

Also, my local inspector tells me that as a result of the resource allocation formula operated in London, there will in fact be no increase at all in Bromley in the next financial year. He will get no extra money from the so-called 10 per cent. increase in central Government funding that the Home Secretary outlined. Once again, the suburban areas will suffer because inner city areas are given priority.

The situation is even worse than that. Not only are the suburbs not getting any extra funding, but they must pay an increased police precept on their council tax bills. Representatives of the Metropolitan police authority appeared before the London Assembly's budget committee recently and pointed out that the increase could be as much as 30 per cent.—that is, £37 for a band D house—to a total of £160. While acknowledging that the precept would go up by so much, they admitted that no extra police were likely to be available for suburban areas of London such as Bromley. It is clear that under this Government, people pay more and get less, especially if they live in the London suburbs, such as Bromley. The feelings of my constituents can be imagined.

Along comes the Mayor of London, with his proposals. He says that he recognises the problem and will appoint another 1,050 policemen. Does that number include the extra police promised by the Government? Will we get any extra policemen at all? Will the precept that he must raise to pay for his extra policemen be in addition to the precept raised for the Government's police? It seems unlikely that my borough will benefit at all from the Mayor's proposal. The situation is dire on the crime front.

I had intended to say a word about the national health service, where the situation is much the same—a worse performance in the past three and a half years, with a higher bill—but I will refrain from doing so, as the subject was fairly well covered in our debate yesterday.

Finally, I shall speak briefly about rail commuting. I notice that not only is the Cullen report mentioned in the Queen's Speech, but there is a proposed Bill on rail safety. Naturally, I am very concerned about the daily suffering of my commuters as they have come in and out of London over the past two months or so, since the Hatfield disaster. They find delayed trains, overcrowded trains, and sometimes no trains. That has an effect on people's work, family life and health, and they face a thoroughly wretched situation. There is daily human misery.

As the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is now here, I shall tell him that I have just had a letter from Judith Mayhew, who is chairman of the policy and resources committee of the City of London corporation. She makes the point that London's gross domestic product in 1999 was £180 billion, making its economy larger than that of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg or Sweden. She says that 4.3 million jobs—including some, I dare say, in Amber Valley, about which the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) spoke cogently—in the rest of the UK depend on London's demand for products, including, perhaps, textiles from the hon. Lady's constituency.

We are therefore talking about the heartbeat of the British economy. People face the prospect that their daily misery in travelling to and from work will continue not just until Christmas, but perhaps even until Easter. The managing director of Connex, which is the train operating company in my area, recently wrote to me and made the following plea: I wrote to Gerald Corbett now no longer at Railtrack, of course— on 10 November to express my dissatisfaction with the protracted timescales for lifting the speed restrictions affecting both Connex South Eastern and Connex South Central. In particular, I asked for greater priority to be given to Kent, especially the approaches to London Bridge. The managing director of Connex says that it is apparent from a briefing that he had received from the director of Railtrack Southern Zone, that the current situation will persist well into the New Year. The letter was written on 4 December, but the situation seems to have got worse since the then. The managing director continues: It also seems that higher priority is being given to main line routes, resulting in available points and crossings materials (essential for the necessary repairs on Connex South Eastern) being provided for works on these lines— meaning the main lines— at the expense of commuter TOCs. Kent in particular appears to be at the back of the queue in returning services to normal. Finally, he says: The situation for our customers remains completely unsatisfactory. Kent needs to receive more attention and greater priority from Railtrack. I know that the Secretary of State is not directly responsible for those matters, but in view of his interest in the performance of the British economy, will he convey to the Government the sentiment that commuters should not be forgotten in the effort to return railway services to normal working?

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Labour, Gravesham

Will the hon. Gentleman join me, and other Labour Members from Kent, in making direct representations to Railtrack and Connex about the need to improve the service quickly?

Photo of John Horam John Horam Conservative, Orpington

I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's support, as something needs to be put in place rapidly. It seems as if we are at the back of the queue when it comes to returning to normality. The situation is unacceptable, especially as it involves something that is important to the whole country and causes enormous disruption to the lives of large numbers of ordinary people. Every day, about 200,000 people come from Kent to central London, and they have to suffer misery. I am not making a political point, but a simple humanitarian one, as the situation needs to be sorted out. Despite the fatuous comments of Lord Macdonald, which I shall ignore, the situation must be treated with greater urgency. After all, we have a new Strategic Rail Authority, and it is chaired by Alastair Morton, who is experienced and effective.

I understand from the newspapers that Ministers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions meet Railtrack every day to discuss such matters. They used to meet once a week, but those meetings now happen once a day, so worrying is the situation. I am therefore earnest in begging the Government to look into the matter urgently, so that daily life in south-east England can get back to normal. I am afraid that the Queen's Speech will make no difference whatever to that daily problem. I am concerned that all the things in the speech—some good, some bad—are simply irrelevant to the ordinary day-to-day life of most of our citizens, and that is greatly to be deplored.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Opposition Whip (Commons) 1:44 pm, 8th December 2000

I am delighted to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, thus transforming my role from Opposition Whip to Back Bencher. On behalf of my constituents, I should like to make a few brief points about the serious problems in rural areas. They have arisen largely as a result of some of the measures introduced by the Government, who are dominated by urban concerns and are—not maliciously, but unwittingly—putting rural areas at a disadvantage.

Before making those specific points, I shall comment on the Gracious Speech more generally. As the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Education and Employment have both been present to hear the debate, I hope that they will use the deregulation Bill to clamp down on excessive bureaucracy. Much mention has been made of the bureaucracy that affects teachers and head teachers, but I remind the Secretary of State for Education and Employment that it also affects the recruitment of governors in schools in my constituency. The amount of paper that governors now face is unbelievable; after all, they give their services voluntarily. I hope that the Government will pay attention to that, but I suspect that they are not completely deregulation minded. The Queen's Speech states: My Government also plans other major Bills. That says to me that if they have time, they will regulate further.

I should like briefly to point out one or two ways in which things are beginning to go badly wrong in my constituency, which is very rural. In our health service, 90 beds are blocked—a quarter of all our non-acute beds. That is a scandalous waste of public money, especially as, while those 90 beds are blocked, 50 new beds are being provided. If the Government sorted out funding for social services and ensured that people who had finished their medical treatment were offered a proper home-help package, more patients could be discharged to their own homes or into residential care. However, that is the next problem: residential care homes in my constituency are closing at an alarming rate because of the Care Standards Act 2000, which imposes higher standards but does not provide the proper funding that is necessary to achieve them.

We have problems in the health service, but we also have problems in education. Gloucestershire shares a 35-mile boundary with Oxfordshire, but it does not benefit from its area cost adjustment. In many respects, Gloucestershire has higher costs than Oxfordshire. For example, our housing costs are higher. It is a scandal that our children are disadvantaged to the tune of £200 each merely because they happen to live in Gloucestershire, not Oxfordshire. That is a common problem throughout Gloucestershire, as our standard spending assessments and health spending assessments are lower than they should be. For example, in respect of health, the Secretary of State for Health recently announced that the south-east weighting is to be extended to Bristol and Swindon. However, Gloucestershire, which has higher housing costs that cause difficulties in the recruitment of nurses and doctors, will not receive that south-east weighting. We are significantly disadvantaged in those respects.

In rural areas, agriculture is in utter crisis. Bankruptcy has risen by 18 per cent. since the election, but what does the Queen's Speech contain to help our farmers? Absolutely nothing. What is in the rural White Paper to help our farmers? Eleven out of 235 pages, and they are a load of waffle. Our farming industry is in crisis. It needs help now, but the Government are not providing it.

Let me deal briefly with law and order. Crime is a problem in Gloucestershire, where it is rising. It increased by more than 4 per cent. last year, in contrast to the national average of 2.2 per cent. That means that 1,900 more offences were committed than in the previous year, and that there were 1,900 more people whose person or property had been violated in some way. We cannot continue with that increase in crime, but at the same time, the Government are cutting the number of police officers. There are 35 fewer officers now than in the previous year—a 3.3 per cent. cut. That trend of rising crime and cutting police numbers is beginning to worry my constituents considerably.

My police authority is about to make a decision on Monday to cut yet another two rural police stations. It recently closed one police station at Chipping Campden, and it is now preparing to close those at Northleach and Bibury. That comes on top of closing the magistrates court at Stow-on-the-Wold.

My constituents who live in rural areas are council tax payers, along with everyone else, and they are entitled to a proper police service. It is not good enough if the Gloucestershire constabulary merely retreats into the big cities of Cheltenham and Gloucester. My constituents in the rural areas are entitled to a proper police service. If they do not receive it, they will feel alienated from their police force.

I shall send a copy of my speech to the chairman of the police authority, ready for his decision on Monday, and I urge him in the strongest possible way to reverse the decision.

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells 1:50 pm, 8th December 2000

This afternoon, we are discussing the thinnest and most gimmicky Queen's Speech that I have ever debated. It does almost nothing about the serious problems that this country faces. Conservative Members, and my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) in particular, have today discussed those problems. My hon. Friend identified several deep-rooted and serious problems, especially those involving policing, which go almost unaddressed in the Queen's Speech.

Instead, the Queen's Speech contains several measures, which are plainly advanced under an electioneering guise, that deal with the periphery of many problems. For example, the Department of Trade and Industry has no Bills for this Session, not even those that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who will reply to this debate, promised to outside interests. That may be further evidence that his Department is being sidelined in Whitehall.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not. I am replying to this debate, which included points that she made. I may give way later, if there is time.

The Department of Trade and Industry has undoubtedly got bigger during the past few years. According to its departmental report, it has taken on an extra 1,000 civil servants, if one includes the regulatory agencies, and it is spending about 25 per cent. more than in 1997. Despite that, it has become weaker as a Department and is losing out in Whitehall all the time to the Treasury. The DTI presided over an increase of £5 billion a year in business taxation, which was imposed by the Treasury, but DTI Ministers lecture businesses and commerce on competitiveness and on the need to be more productive.

Last week, the CBI's patience finally broke. It pointed out that, despite all the warm words and the pro-business rhetoric of the Secretary of State and the Government, the total burden on business—all the taxes and regulations—during this Parliament totals more than £32 billion. It is not surprising that it complained that the Government urge competitiveness on the one hand but undermine it on the other. They are damaging competitiveness in the world markets, where daily we fight a pitiless battle for jobs and revenue.

Of course, the problem is not over yet. The new energy tax—the so-called climate change levy—has not yet been introduced. It is due on 1 April next year and all firms, of whatever size, will pay it. It is an unnecessary tax—there are plenty of other ways to reduce CO2, emissions—and it is extremely complicated and very regulatory. It will also particularly damage manufacturing competitiveness, which was discussed by Labour Members. I notice that the Trades Union Congress recently pointed out that there had been a decline in manufacturing jobs. The rate of unemployment in manufacturing has accelerated, with 20,000 job losses in manufacturing in September alone. That is not surprising given that we have a Government who tax and regulate the very sectors, such as manufacturing, that are exposed to so much international competition.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), with great force and much knowledge, raised the issue of the regulatory burden. He emphasised the damage that could be caused if nothing is done to ease that burden. Over the past three and a half years, layer upon layer of extra regulations have been imposed. Many international comparisons and many estimates of the total cost have been made. The Institute of Directors estimates the extra regulatory burden on British industry at £5 billion a year. The Institute of Chartered Accountants—my own institute—has recently shown that the burden on small and very small businesses has doubled in the past year. Legislation introduced at the start of this Parliament is now having an effect.

That breaks a Labour party manifesto pledge, but we are used to that. In its business manifesto, Labour pledged not to impose burdensome regulations on business. It broke that pledge within weeks of the general election, so it is now faced with a colossal and rising burden. A deregulation Bill is signalled in the Queen's Speech, but that is fake repentance. It is far too late, in the months before a general election, to do any serious work to turn back the tide of over-regulation.

It is noticeable that the Department of Trade and Industry is not to be trusted with that Bill: the Cabinet Office will deal with it. The DTI imposes the red tape and another Department comes along with a new Bill in the closing months of the Parliament to try to clear up the mess.

It is also striking that the Government are not using existing legislation. My right hon. and hon. Friends will remember the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, which was designed to enable Governments to make deregulating orders. The number of those orders has dwindled in past years—there were 12 in 1997, but only four last year. Rather than using the weapons at their disposal, the Government are dreaming up another Bill.

The Government were criticised by the better regulation taskforce. Their own taskforce said that the flow of orders under the 1994 Act had dwindled in recent years and the Task Force is concerned that the Government should continue efforts to generate and follow through orders. That has not happened, so the Government are defying the criticism expressed by their own task force.

A new Bill has been promised, and the Government said that it would deal with school crossing patrols, which I am sure are very important, and fire safety regulations. Where have the fire safety regulations come from? The British Chambers of Commerce, which has calculated the extra burden of regulations as £10 billion over this Parliament, has cited fire precaution regulations. When were they introduced? December 1999. Thus the Government are proposing regulations to clear up the regulations that they introduced only a year or two ago.

There are other examples, such as employment tribunals. The Government have suddenly twigged that the number of frivolous and vexatious cases taken to employment tribunals has escalated enormously, and they are proposing fundamental changes to deal with that. But who introduced those rules? Who changed the law and brought in the Employment Relations Act 1999? The Government did. Yet again, they are belatedly starting to clear up their own mess.

The Queen's Speech is highly regulatory. The Government have still not lost the habit of trying to ban things—that is their first instinct. Trial by jury and tobacco advertising will be banned. Hunting will be banned if most Labour Members get their way. That Bill is in the Queen's Speech. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) pointed out, such a ban will do nothing to solve rural problems. People in rural Britain are amazed that, in the last Queen's Speech before an election, all the Government can produce is something about hunting. They have just published a rural White Paper, but they have done nothing about it in the Queen's Speech, apart from producing an entirely irrelevant proposal about hunting. That shows how hollow their promises have become.

There are deep-seated issues in rural Britain, which have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold and others: for instance, escalating fuel prices and post office closures. In an important speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) analysed exactly what is happening—or not happening—to post offices. The truth is that the Government are in an enormous muddle. The only certainty is that sub-post offices are now shutting at a rate of nearly two a day—mostly in rural areas, but they have now started to shut in urban areas. Why? Because—this is the only definite figure in the whole business—from 2003 they will lose their income from the encashment of benefit and pension cheques. That will remove, at a stroke, 40 per cent.—in some cases, more—of the income of those threatened post offices.

In anticipation of that development, post offices are shutting. They are unsaleable. What business can survive, given that in three years' time there will be a definite reduction of such magnitude in their income? We know why this is being done: it represents another Treasury-driven saving, in this case of potentially £400 million. I say "potentially" because I have seen no costings to verify the figure. Again, the Treasury has set the policy.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry

Will the right hon. Gentleman, on behalf of the Conservative party, give a firm commitment that his party would not introduce automated credit transfer for post offices from 2003?

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

That is exactly the point. If the costs of the alternatives that the right hon. Gentleman has had to dream up exceed the amount of the Treasury saving, then yes, we certainly should remove the threat to post offices. First, however, the right hon. Gentleman must tell us what those costs are.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said that he did not know what the costs were, and had been unable to find out from the Government. Negotiations are being conducted in secret, but they involve large amounts of public money. The House has a right to know what the Government will spend on, for example, something called a universal bank. We know that the Department, through a mixture of bluster and veiled threat, is trying to extract as much as it can from the high street banks to subsidise the rival bank that is being set up in the post offices. We also know that that puts the Department in an invidious position—a point made by my right hon. Friend. If the banks refuse to give in to pressure and then come before the Department on some competition issue, the Department's position will be greatly compromised when it must make a judgment, in the knowledge that some banks may have given in and provided money, and others may have refused.

We want to know what is going on, and what the Government's contribution will be, in the absence of sufficient funding from the private sector. I am not just referring to the universal bank; we want to know what is happening to all the internet use that they propose. The rural White Paper contains all sorts of gimmicky proposals, but it is widely believed in the post office world that none of that will begin to replace the revenue that will be lost as a result of the cancellation of benefit encashment.

How are postmasters to be reimbursed for helping people to use the internet in a corner of the post office? Who will pay for the equipment? We need some answers now because a holocaust of closures is going on throughout the country. People want to know what the Government are doing to replace that revenue.

If the cost exceeds the eventual saving for the Treasury, why is the exercise being attempted at all? It is remarkable—only the present Department of Trade and Industry could have done it—that the DTI has threatened to spend more public money to try to repair commercial damage caused by the Treasury following the announced switch to ACT payment, so I give the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the following assurance. If he will give the answers in the debate, as I request now and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden has requested, we will move forward to asserting, or not, whether we will call off the Treasury threat. First, however, we need some specific answers. I look forward to the Secretary of State's comments.

While we are on the subject of fiascoes, let me touch on another: the ban on tobacco advertising. That, too, was promised in the Labour manifesto. We know that it was all put on hold when Mr. Bernie Ecclestone went into No. 10 Downing street and demanded that it did not apply to Formula One. As we know, he had given £1 million to the Labour party. I am told that, in motor racing circles, £1 million is now known as a Bernie. In fact, I think that two Bernies were offered. He got one back and he cancelled the other one, but the overall effect was to postpone the ban on tobacco advertising until the closing months of the Parliament.

A ban is now promised, although I notice that the wording is that a Bill will be "brought forward", rather than introduced. Perhaps there is a subtlety there that the Secretary of State can inform us about. We shall be interested to see whether the Bill is introduced, debated and passed; the muddle is that that contradicts all the other policies.

There is an epidemic of smuggling into the country due to the Treasury's high tax policies. More than one in five cigarettes smoked in this country has been smuggled. The great majority of hand-rolling tobacco is smuggled, and, according to the Government's own figures, the problem is getting worse.

We have a failed health policy because the overall consumption of tobacco—if the illicit tobacco as well as legally sold tobacco is included—is going up. Young people are being induced to tobacco consumption because it is being sold in uncontrolled outlets. We have a law-and-order failure. The Treasury is losing £2.5 billion a year from that source. We make a contribution to the European Union budget, so that it can fund a 1 billion euro a year subsidy to southern Europe to grow tobacco, which then has to be burnt, destroyed or exported. We have a draft directive that will cost British jobs by forbidding the export outside the EU of legal cigarettes unless they comply with European tar standards. The whole tobacco policy is a shambles. All the Government can do is bring forward a measure to deal with the marginal problem of tobacco advertising in the United Kingdom.

Therefore, there is plenty in the Queen's Speech that should not be. There is plenty that is not in it that was promised. Let me give one example. The National Consumer Council points out: In its 1999 white paper, modern markets: confident consumers, the Government promised it would overhaul the law to deal with some of these problems of consumer protection and the necessary upgrading of the law. No such Bill has been brought forward—another broken promise.

This is, therefore, a miserable programme. It does all the wrong things and it does not do some of the things that it should do. We shall oppose it.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry 2:09 pm, 8th December 2000

The Queen's Speech addresses the needs and aspirations of the British people at the beginning of the 21st century. It offers a real vision of the future, unlike the Conservatives who want a return to all our yesterdays. They offer old, failed policies that their Government imposed on the British people during 18 years. As a result, in 1997, we began the process of rebuilding our country from the devastation that we inherited from those Conservative years.

That has been reflected in the debate. Conservative Members have tried to rewrite history—trying to portray themselves as people who can see the future and have the policies to deliver it. Labour Members have addressed the concerns of their constituents, reflecting the forward-looking programme in the Queen's Speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, raised some important issues. He noted the distinction that must be drawn—although it is never drawn by the Conservatives—between bureaucracy and red tape, which are real burdens on business that we must lift and reduce, and the provision of decent minimum standards for people in the workplace.

The right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) again made the mistake of talking about £32 billion of red tape and bureaucracy—

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry

The right hon. Gentleman is right, but he is also aware that that figure includes the cost of paying the minimum wage—providing decent standards for people in work and taking them out of poverty pay. For him, that is red tape and bureaucracy, but for those people, it is a decent living standard at last—delivered by the Labour Government.

The figure also includes the right to four weeks paid holiday a year. Once again, the right hon. Gentleman considers that a burden—red tape and bureaucracy—but this Christmas, people will be entitled to time off work with pay; the Labour Government have delivered that, but the Opposition would take it away, because they regard it as bureaucracy and red tape.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry

The hon. Gentleman should refresh his memory of Conservative policy. The Conservatives have said clearly that, if they were to come to office, the provisions of the working time directive will not be implemented.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry

I have a choice. I shall be delighted to give way to the hon. Lady, but I hope that she realises what her policy is. It is not to adopt the working time directive and that would deny paid holidays to working people.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

If the Secretary of State is so committed to the minimum wage, will he tell the House why, when cleaning contractors for the Ministry of Defence pointed out to the Ministry that it was paying less than the minimum wage to its employees, it refused to stump up the cash?

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry

I am sure that if those individuals were employees, they would be entitled to the national minimum wage. I shall ensure that the Inland Revenue enforcement team know about the matter and those people will receive the national minimum wage

The reality is, however, that the absolute opposition of Conservative Members to the introduction of a national minimum wage is on the record. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) was a member of a Cabinet that resisted even the idea that a bottom figure should be included in the legislation for the jobseeker's allowance. During the Standing Committee debates on the Jobseekers Bill, we asked that it should be £1 an hour. The Conservative Government told us that that was absolutely outrageous and that it would distort the market; it would destroy jobs—not even £1 an hour, to provide a safety net below which no one should fall. In government, they did nothing.

In opposition, however, when the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) became shadow Chancellor a few weeks after he was elected, he decided unilaterally—no discussion with the shadow Cabinet at all—to change Conservative policy on the national minimum wage at his first Treasury Question Time. The first that the shadow Cabinet knew about it was when the right hon. Gentleman announced in the Chamber that the Conservatives would adopt the national minimum wage.

The right hon. Member for Wells is still against the national minimum wage in principle; he does not like the policy—as we all know. The time is right for those Conservative right hon. and hon Members who disagree with the policy—who were not consulted because there was no debate—to say so. They should say that the shadow Chancellor was on a frolic of his own, and that he does not represent the true thinking of many members of the Conservative party, who simply do not believe in the concept of a national minimum wage. The shadow Chancellor was trying to be inclusive, but we all know the problems that he faces as a result. The 1.5 million people who have benefited from the national minimum wage and who will benefit from an increase next year, when the Low Pay Commission recommends one, are under threat because of the Conservative party's policies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) made the important point that manufacturing is a touchstone and an important part of the United Kingdom's industrial base. There are difficulties in manufacturing. Some industries, such as aerospace and telecommunications are doing exceptionally well in the current circumstances, but others, such as textiles, are facing real difficulties, as my hon. Friend said. I accept that jobs are being lost, but every job lost in manufacturing is one too many. We must do all that we can to ensure that manufacturing can find its way through this period into the strong future that it has open to it.

The right hon. Member for Wells quoted the TUC glowingly—perhaps a first for him—but the serious point is that 200,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in the United Kingdom since the May 1997 general election. I accept that that is 200,000 too many, but let us consider the Conservative party's record.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry

The hon. Gentleman does not like to be reminded of the Conservative party's record, but it puts things in perspective. On average, 150,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in each of the 18 years that they were in government. That is the record of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, who was a Cabinet Minister for many of those years.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

Does my right hon. Friend realise that there were 800,000 jobs in the textile and clothing industry, to which I referred, at the start of the Conservative Government, but 300,000 when they left office?

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I hope that the facts will not get in the way of the prejudice of Conservative Members. She referred to the difficulties that her constituency faces because of the decisions taken by Coats Viyella, and I am prepared to meet her to discuss the implications of those decisions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) referred to the valuable role played by the Redbridge Parents in Partnership scheme in helping the local education authority identify the needs of parents in that borough. I am sure that the local authority, parents and central Government, working in partnership, will be able to offer the parents and their children in that borough a far better future as a result of the measures announced in the Queen's Speech.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) raised the important issue of advocacy for those who have disabilities. I am pleased to be able to say that the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), is looking at that issue.

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) raised serious concerns about the disruption that the current difficulties on the railways are causing commuters in his constituency. That point was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), who referred to the more general difficulties that commuters in Kent face. I fully understand those concerns, and I will ensure that those comments are relayed to the Minister for Transport and the Deputy Prime Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham has made a big sacrifice by being here today—not just to hear my winding-up speech, but to miss the opening of the new computer suite at Chantry primary school, where 13 new computers will be installed. I am sure that the House will want to commend the head teacher, Mr. Gates, for using the prize that he won for being nominated as one of the teachers of the year partly to fund the new facility. That shows his devotion to the school. That is reflected by many head teachers throughout the country, who are doing an extremely good job and ensuring that standards are being raised throughout the primary sector. I add my personal congratulations to Mr. Gates and to Chantry primary school. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to visit the school in the not-too-distant future to pass on my congratulations.

I congratulate also the Gravesham teachers association. I was interested to hear of its survey of challenging behaviour among pupils in all 42 schools in the Gravesham constituency. It is one of the key issues that schools are having to face. The Government are considering reviewing our policies to ensure that teachers have the facilities and the opportunity to deal with that sort of behaviour.

I am sorry to have missed the speech of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. I regret that, because although our views on the Post Office differ, I understand that it is an issue to which he has given much consideration. It is always worth reflecting on the views of someone who has knowledge of a particular area, even though there will be differences of opinion.

We disagree on the way forward for the Post Office. It is important that I use this opportunity to address some of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised. We feel that the universal bank and universal banking services are important ways of overcoming a potential loss of revenue as a result of the introduction of automated credit transfer from 2003. I believe that ACT would have been pursued by the Conservative party had it been in government. However, it was right for the right hon. Gentleman to raise the points that he did. It would not make sense to introduce an alternative system that would be more costly than ACT.

The challenge for the Government is to bring forward a programme for universal banking services that will deliver that which we promised, which is to ensure that all benefit recipients and pensioners will continue, if they so want, to get their pension and their benefit paid over in cash on a weekly basis, if that is the current position, at the post office of their choice. That is the objective on which we shall deliver.

We are in negotiations with the Post Office and the banks on delivery of the arrangements. I do not think that Opposition Members would expect me now openly to negotiate on the details of the discussions. The matter is commercially confidential, and right hon. and hon. Members who have been in government will understand the sensitivities of the negotiations. When they are concluded there will need to be a full statement so that Members can hold us accountable for the outcome of those discussions. That is how it should be done, and I think that Opposition Members will understand that.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

One of the issues at stake is under what powers the right hon. Gentleman is negotiating with the banks, and what sanctions he is threatening to use if they do not concur and cough up the money to get him out of the hole into which he has put himself.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry

My approach to these matters is that with good will, good negotiation and proper respect for one another, agreements can often be arrived at. It should be a matter not of threats or sanctions but of people coming together and seeing whether there is a way forward that is mutually beneficial to all parties. That is what I am trying to achieve. I may be an optimist and it may not happen. It is a matter not of refusal but of having a proper discussion and arriving at a conclusion to which the parties will sign up. That is the target that I have set myself. I am confident that we shall be able to achieve it.

Everything that we have tried to do in the Queen's Speech and since being elected to office has had a simple aim, which is to make the lives of hard-working families better, to give everybody—not only the privileged few—security and peace of mind, and opportunities to fulfil their potential.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

In allowing people to fulfil their potential, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that in the proposed legislation the statement for disabled children and children with special educational needs will not be diluted? To fulfil their potential, the statement needs to specify their needs and the outcome that will be necessary to meet those needs so that they can fulfil their potential.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry

I understand the important point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Rather than replying immediately, it would probably be better for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to respond in writing. I could try to respond, but I want to ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives an absolutely accurate response. That is the best way of dealing with the matter.

Britain can boast many strengths. We now have firm economic foundations, world-class companies, scientists and thinkers, the language of the internet and the richness of our culture and heritage. We can be radical, we can be tolerant and we can be fair. Today, ours is the fourth largest economy in the world, a remarkable achievement for an island nation of 60 million people.

Any analysis of the challenges facing Britain must acknowledge that, although we have world-class companies, we need to have many more and that, while there is progress in education, we have schools that could be doing much better. Although a vast majority of our people are decent and law-abiding, we have a drugs problem that accounts for a third of all property crime.

Many strong communities are getting stronger, but, equally, many communities are shattered by violence, intolerance, racism and people's lack of respect for each other. Although there is rising prosperity, there remains too much poverty. We have, in government, made progress since May 1997, and it is progress of which we can be proud. The fundamentals of a sound economy—

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Order Paper says that the subject of the debate is education and industry. No Minister from the Department for Education and Employment is present, and that is obviously a discourtesy to the House. Is it in order for a debate to proceed as per the Order Paper without any Minister from the relevant Department being present?

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I think that the right hon. Gentleman has answered his own point. It is a matter for the Government to decide which Ministers should be present. It may be a matter of courtesy and convenience for the House for certain Ministers to be present, but it is certainly not a matter of order for the Chair.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry

The record will show that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment gave notice to Mr. Speaker of why he would be absent from the winding-up speeches. I know that that is the case.

I want to deal with the important points that were contained in the Queen's Speech. As I was saying, we have got the fundamentals of a sound economy, more jobs—a million more people in work now than when we took office—and investment and reform in our public services taking place. However, there are challenges that we need to address. They include how we build on those solid economic foundations to have a more productive, world-class economy, how we move to full employment, how we deliver excellence in all our schools and how we modernise our welfare service. That is what we intend to do.

We will build on the economic stability that we have been able to achieve. That will be important for business, and our people as well. That is the way forward for our country. We are investing in our public services and rejecting the £16 billion of cuts that the Conservative party would introduce.

At the beginning of the 21st century, our country faces some clear choices. Do we maintain the stability and higher levels of employment that we have been able to achieve, or do we return to the days of boom and bust and 3 million people unemployed? It is worth reminding Conservative Members of what would happen if we were to turn the clock back 10 years. We would see interest rates at 15 per cent. and inflation in double figures. We all know what that did to business and to home owners in the United Kingdom. A million home owners faced negative equity and hundreds of thousands of homes were repossessed as a result.

Economic stability will be the foundation on which we intend to build a better future for our people and our country. Nothing we will do will put that at risk. We are putting in place the certainty that comes from low inflation year after year, with low mortgages and sustained jobs in all parts of Britain. Business will be able to plan ahead and to grow and be prosperous as a result. That approach is reflected in the Queen's Speech, which is why I commend it to the House.

Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Betts.]

Debate to be resumed on Monday next.