Children, Schools and Families Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 7:03 pm on 11th January 2010.

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Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury 7:03 pm, 11th January 2010

In responding to the distinguished Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, I should say only that that is why, ever since 1946, the independent sector has endeavoured always to broaden its interest and intake and to provide more scholarships. But what has been the response? All the scholarships that were available to poorer children have been restricted, and since this Government came to power no scholarship amounting to more than 50 per cent. of the fees has been allowed. That is a retrogressive policy, and I deplore it.

I fear that the Bill has missed the point. As Baroness Walmsley pointed out in the other place, we have had more than 1,200 regulations since 1997, and they have added up in words to more than the combined works of Shakespeare. That is not clever, and I agreed so much with Lord Sacks, who, in the other place on 26 November 2009, reminded us that not everything that matters can be measured; not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that is valuable can be valued at a price. Of course, that is true.

As a veteran of the 1983 Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts and, I think, the only survivor of the Committee stage of the 1988 GERBIL, the great Education Reform Bill, of the now distinguished peer, Lord Baker, I can observe that the Bill before us is really not worth most of the paper on which it is written. Clause 23 alone, on the licence to practise, would be enough to erode the morale and confidence of most of the teaching profession.

There is, however, an aspect of the Bill to which I want to refer, because I support it strongly. That aspect is represented by clauses 10 to 14, on personal, social, health and economic education. It is a clumsy phrase, and I absolutely agree with Mr. Allen that, if we can think up something snappier that means something to people, so much the better. However, parents are responsible for providing a moral dimension to the education of their children, and, in my ideal world, where marriage would be the norm but stable relationships would be the best equivalent for everybody else, parents would take on that responsibility.

Such education would be not just about the biology of sex, but about the moral framework-about marriage, stable relationships and all those virtuous things that lead to stable communities and a stable society. We cannot force parents to do it, however. Some parents do not want to; some do not think that they are very good at it; and some would rather that doctors or, indeed, teachers did it instead. Someone must do it, however, and after more than 25 years as a Member one of my regrets is that Parliament and successive Governments have failed to encourage young people, over several generations, towards a more mature understanding at an earlier age of how to respect their bodies, friends and communities. It is much better that teachers should do this than pornographers, drug-pushers, people-traffickers or criminals, and that is why clauses 10 to 14 should be supported.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North said that people outside this place, on the estates and in schools and communities, do not have a clue what this is all about. I think he is right. In fact, it is worse than that, because most people inside this House do not have a clue what it is about either. Those of us who have been here for a long time and have been talking to our education authorities, social workers and hospitals-accident and emergency departments, and so on-realise the enormous challenge that young people face nowadays that we did not face when we were their age.

The whole question of sexually transmitted infections is now the biggest public health issue in most of our constituencies, and that is fuelled by access to alcohol and its low price: it all goes together. That is why I very much welcome clause 11, particularly subsection (4), which defines, from paragraphs (a) to (g), exactly what is meant by personal, social, health and economic education. In terms of public health, we must be hard-nosed and realistic about the temptations faced by young people on our streets in our constituencies on Friday and Saturday nights, with large volumes of alcohol, binge drinking and irresponsibility all around. That can lead only to the A and E department of a hospital, where one will find, if one asks people quietly, that on a Saturday night they receive teenage girls who have had between 20 and 30 units of alcohol over a period of four or five hours, and who are legless and likely to have engaged in sexual activity that has been dangerous for them. In all this, do we not usually blame the girls? Is it not those bad gals who cause all the trouble because they are the ones who get pregnant and cause all the teenage pregnancies? In fact, it is the young men who cause the trouble, not the girls, and it is time that we addressed that. I hope that the Bill will lead to a huge improvement in the quality of education of our young people that takes on board the importance of educating young men, just as much as young women, about their social responsibilities and relationships.

I mention in parenthesis a remarkable phenomenon that should be happening right across the country-the emergence of street pastors. I helped to launch a street pastor scheme in Salisbury last autumn. These people are not busybodies who wish to go about preaching to young people-far from it. They want to be there quietly to help at critical moments at times of critical decisions when young people-it is usually young people, but not exclusively-have had a little more to drink than they should and have to decide whether to stop or how far to go. For those young people to find alongside them experienced, trained people to whom they can talk is proving to be a great benefit, certainly in Salisbury and I believe elsewhere.

I commend the report on alcohol published last week by the Select Committee on Health, because that, too, recognises the significance of cheap alcohol. I have come to the conclusion over all these years-Parliament has been discussing this for 26 years, to my certain knowledge-that we have gone much too far in making alcohol cheap and more widely available. We will not address this problem satisfactorily until we go for minimum unit pricing, and we will have to start to restrict the number of outlets and police the whole thing much better. If one asks any police force, certainly mine in Salisbury-Salisbury, for goodness' sake: that wonderful, safe, beautiful city, which has so few problems compared with most-one will find that 80 per cent. of crime is still committed by people with alcohol-related intent. That is the bottom line, and we really must do something about it.

Then we come to the whole question of the education of our children and how we can best get it across. I make a plea that this Government, in their dying days, and the incoming Government carry on from where my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath started in bearing in mind the intellectual approach to take towards education. Before rushing into the thicket of undergrowth and muddle that is in the Bill, the House should bear in mind that British education is still the envy of the world, that English is still the most important language in the world, and that it is our duty to future generations to uphold the primacy of ideas over regulation. It is our duty, as a nation, to guard with pride the intellectual endeavour of western Christendom and western civilisation, and that depends on the quality of our education.

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