Schedule 16 — Repeals and revocations

Part of Sale of Mobile Homes (Interviews) – in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 5th May 2009.

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Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 9:45 pm, 5th May 2009

I, too, begin by thanking all those involved in the scrutiny of the Bill, including Ministers who were, as ever, very patient in Committee. They accepted many interventions and, as Mr. Gibb said, gave the Opposition a great deal of amusement on the morning of 26 March as they tripped over a number of their own new clauses and parts of the Bill.

I would particularly like to thank all the staff and others in the House, including the departmental staff who stayed for our very long sitting on 26 March, which lasted overnight into 27 March. They could not go home for a few hours in the early morning to clean up, but had to stay in the House because of the rather odd behaviour of the usual channels on the Government side. We very much appreciate the fact that they did so. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for their support and for their proactive approach throughout proceedings on the Bill, although they had the good sense to leave before the overnight sitting on 26 and 27 March; they did not, I think, anticipate the length of that sitting.

I should like to make three points in conclusion. First, there was a rather bad-tempered debate earlier on child protection and child well-being. It was a pity that it was so intemperate on both sides, because it is an extremely important issue, which we ought to deal with in the mature way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole dealt with it. We were surprised when we heard that the Government were going to introduce three new clauses at short notice. Two of those new clauses do not cause us particular concern, but new clause 22, which introduces a new targets regime, is very significant indeed. Although we did not oppose it today, we want to find out a lot more about it before deciding whether to support it in another place. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families for saying that he is happy for my hon. Friend and others to sit down with his departmental officials and perhaps Ministers to discuss the measure before it goes to another place, as it is important that we deal with the concerns that my hon. Friend set out very clearly.

On the issue of child protection, I am disappointed by the insistence of the Secretary of State on keeping the substance of the serious case review secret. He knows that no Liberal Democrat Member has any problem with the notion that certain parts of serious case reviews should not be published. I can think of one page of the baby P serious case review that I certainly would not want to put in the public domain. When he kindly invited a number of us to look at that serious case review, I made notes on what I considered to be the significant parts of it. When I passed those notes to his departmental officials to find out how much was already in the public domain, or how much was not in the public domain, so I could not use it, all the points that I considered to be significant concerning the way the baby P case was handled, were, according to the officials, not in the published version of the serious case review, and not in the public domain. I therefore question whether on the basis of the selective information that is published we can understand fully what happened in such cases. I believe that there is a middle way whereby the bulk of the reports can be published and small portions excluded. None of the bodies cited by the Secretary of State has commented on that issue.

Secondly, I wish to make an observation on the Bill, which includes, particularly in the parts relevant to the Department for Children, Schools and Families, a ragbag of measures, which suggests a lack of direction, particularly in the DCSF education portfolio. I am genuinely disappointed that on the subject of Ofqual, although the Secretary of State has taken a welcome step by introducing this new organisation, the Government have not gone much further in setting up what would be an objective standards regulator, rather than a body that will simply seek to regulate existing qualifications.

The Secretary of State must know that if the intention behind the establishment of the body is to end the annual debate where the Schools Minister and others have to pop up on TV in the middle of August to comment on standards of GCSEs and A-levels, it will not work. It will not work because the Government have set up Ofqual in a very limited form and not given it the ability to comment on educational standards in a way that could allow all those interested in the education debate in this country to understand what has happened to educational standards over time. Without that basic understanding, we have little chance of having policy that is informed by fact, rather than dogma.

Although we were not able to debate it today, there is an awful lot in the Bill on the children, schools and families side which adds to the bureaucracy of schools. The Secretary of State must know that individuals whom he greatly respects, such as John Dunford of the Association of School and College Leaders, have been highly critical of much that is in the Bill on the new complaints procedures, the regulations surrounding the use of force, and the search powers. All those bring in extraordinary bureaucratic burdens which head teachers object to and which will make their job in schools much more difficult.

I ask the Secretary of State to reflect on how those proposals and the impact that they will have on schools square with what the Prime Minister talked of today in his rather drab education speech, in which he spoke about a White Paper that will contain proposals to reduce the burdens on schools, and about rationalising the statutory duties, correspondence and guidance that schools receive. The effect of much that is in the Bill in the children, schools and families area will be to impose new bureaucratic burdens on schools. Issues such as the use of force could make the job of head teachers and teachers more difficult, potentially even making them less willing to intervene in circumstances where the use of force is necessary.

Finally, an aspect of the Bill that showed up the incoherence of Government thinking in terms of accountability—I hope this will be dealt with in the White Paper that is to come—is that of school oversight. We were told that the Young People's Learning Agency was being established to cover the academies programme because, in a nutshell, the Government do not have confidence in the ability of local authorities as commissioners and standard setters at a high level.

In the west country there will be a tiny number of academies which, owing to the Government's lack of confidence in the oversight of local authorities, will have to be monitored by some regional quango because the Government do not trust the local authority commissioning and oversight process. That is not only extraordinarily wasteful, but a terrible indictment of the existing regime that we ought to depend on for the oversight of 23,500 schools in the country.

If we cannot trust local authorities to do their job of overseeing schools and as the first tier to hold those schools to account for the standards that they deliver, we have a real problem, not only with the average schools and the better than average schools but with the many schools in this country which are in challenging circumstances and which are performing badly, but which are not academies at present.

My final comment is about the context of the debate in education. There is a feeling about the Government that they may be coming to their final months in office. Many of us can remember when the Government started the process of public service reform—the attempt to improve public services in 1997. They started with no cash because they were tied into the spending limits that the Conservative Government set. They started with no reform agenda. Indeed, the early mantra was standards, not structures.

After a while the money started to flow, as the Conservative spending plans were dumped. That led to some improvements, particularly in terms of the capital stock and the staffing in schools. Eventually, there was a change in policy by the Prime Minister, who acknowledged the importance of structures, rather than standards.

Over the past couple of years, we seem to have gone backwards. The Secretary of State, in his first speech, turned on its head the Prime Minister's comment about the importance of structures rather than just standards. The whole reform agenda has clearly run into the sand, as confirmed by the Schools Minister's extraordinary comments the other day on the proposals to extend the academies programme to primary schools. He described the proposals as sending

"a chill down the spines of parents and teachers" and leading to an

"opting out of the national curriculum in an unregulated free market experiment."

I should have thought that Lord Adonis would have felt shivers down his spine at that description of what is, after all, merely an extension of the existing academies programme. There could be no clearer indication that the reform programme in education has come to an end.

Although the Prime Minister claimed today that he wants to be on the side of spending more and continuing to invest in education, as opposed to being on the side of austerity, we know that the Government's spending plans after 2011 deliver real reductions in total expenditure year on year, and that there will be cuts in capital expenditure of 17.5 per cent. in real terms each and every year beyond 2011. We are almost back to where we started in 1997, returning to an era of austerity in public services, including education, and no reform programme. If we are to see standards continue to improve, and the gap between youngsters from deprived backgrounds and those from more affluent backgrounds continue to narrow, we will require an awful lot more in policy terms than what is now on offer from this Government.

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