It is a great pleasure to be able to respond to an excellent short debate, which has taken place only because of the Conservative Opposition, who have again highlighted an extremely important issue for parents, schools and children throughout the country.
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis)—who has had to leave early—spoke at length and blamed everybody, in characteristic fashion. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman)—who is no longer in his piace—rightly described the Secretary of State's speech as mercifully brief, before going on to make a courageous attack on the Barnett formula, thus starting the election campaign in Scotland a little early.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) made the point that Ministers have not yet replied to letters received from a school in his constituency, which were sent in September and October. [Interruption.] The Minister for School Standards seems to suggest that she wants to blame her officials for that, rather than take the rap herself. That is typical of Ministers in this Government, but she really ought to understand that it is the responsibility of Ministers to ensure that those things are done. The school in question is now out of special measures, but perhaps the Department for Education and Employment should be put into special measures to put right its failures.
The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) made a thoughtful speech. Sadly, I do not have time to deal with the interesting and intelligent points that he made, but I particularly enjoyed his tour of Jim Callaghan's secret garden. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) reminded the House in a timely manner that there is a serious problem in education nationwide, and it was important that he did so, particularly as the hon. Member for Stockton South (Ms Taylor) then returned us to the shocking complacency that has been characteristic of the Government's response on this serious crisis. Labour Members can be complacent if they wish, but when David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers says that teacher recruitment is "approaching meltdown", serious commentators and observers in the House and elsewhere know that there is a serious problem.
The Secretary of State claims that there are more teachers, but he does not say how many are part time, or supply teachers. He does not say how many come from overseas, or are not of qualified teacher status. The breathtaking complacency of his speech was backed up by the contributions from Labour Members, while my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the shadow Secretary of State, was speaking. At that point, the only thing that Labour Members had to say was, "What would you do?" It became painfully obvious that hon. Members on the Government Benches were devoid of ideas. They have had four years in which they have generated this problem and made it worse. Now, all that they can do is ask us what we would do in their place.
The Secretary of State generously accepted a policy suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, and it is welcome and right that he should do so. Why does he not let us put all our policy recommendations into practice? Let us cut out the middleman and solve all Labour's problems.
The Secretary of State unwisely used the metaphor of the highwayman. In fact, the highwayman is Labour's Chancellor of the Exchequer, who takes our tax but delivers no teachers. [Interruption.] I am grateful to the hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Twigg) for his applause. The Secretary of State spoke of reduced class sizes leading to rising demand for teachers. However, he did not explain that class sizes are going up in primary schools, secondary schools and reception classes. Even the 30-in-a-class limit that the Government pledged is, according to the January-February issue of The Teacher magazine, now under threat because of the Government's failures in teacher recruitment. The Government really ought to start taking this problem seriously, but the Secretary of State showed no signs of doing so.
The Secretary of State spoke of the weeks that it takes to process applications, but he has had four years in office, and he must now take responsibility for the crisis that is evident in the nation's schools. We have had nothing from the Government apart from gimmicks, new schemes and new initiatives. The hon. Member for Huddersfield talked about Lord Puttnam's staff room of the future, which he said had never emerged.