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Column 553people wanting to return to the inner cities, the movement is from them to edges of the cities, to the motorway junctions and to the areas beyond them to new towns.
The Government are brave to introduce another agency. However, despite the millions of pounds that have been poured into the inner cities by Labour and Conservative Governments, the inner cities continue to decline because there is no way of creating wealth and of housing people : the people have gone. Those who remain are the poorest, the most deprived and the unemployed and they have no scope or future.
I wish to consider what I hope that the urban regeneration agency will do. In my book "New Life for Old Cities" I considered how urban areas could be regenerated. I am glad to say that the Government followed most of my recommendations, but they have not done the trick. In the 1980s, the Secretary of State will remember that I wrote another book, entitled "Public Land Utilisation Management Schemes" which was an attempt to show how to get rid of derelict and vacant land in public ownership. The then Secretary of State for the Environment set up a register to identify the amount of publicly owned vacant land. At its height, it amounted to 116,000 acres, but since then the figure has dropped to 80,000 acres. However, there is still much public vacant land which could be used. "PLUMS" proposed that public authority land should not be confiscated but valued and a share certificate issued for that value. The land should then be marketed. Local authorities do not have the marketing ability to enable the value of the land to grow.
I hope that the new agency will follow my proposal of exchanging derelict and vacant land in public ownership--owned by local authorities and utilities--for a certificate which will grow in value as the land is marketed. That is why I intervened in the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to ask whether the new agency would have marketing powers. In the past, land has been compulsorily purchased and taken away from the public authorities, but they should share in its increased value--increased as a result of marketing and as a result of being passed over to the new urban regeneration agency. That agency will be headed by my former right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, Mr. Peter Walker, so it is bound to be successful in its attempts to tackle the problems.
I am concerned about vacant land in the inner cities, but the problem can be solved by building on it. However, that will not happen if we do not do something about the problems of housing and job creation in those areas. I hope that the new agency will get hold of the land and give it to private developers who will do something with it. As they build factories, houses and shops, the value of the site will go up and the local authority will benefit from that increase in value because the value of its shares will increase. That must be the right approach.
There is a second reason why the inner cities should be revived and that is illustrated by my experience in my constituency in south Devon, which is surrounded by Plymouth--
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I want to follow the tradition of the House by saying something briefly--it will be brief because of the time limitation--about my predecessors in Walthamstow. The seat of Walthamstow, West, which is part of the present constituency, was held shortly after the war by Clement Attlee, who was a Member of great distinction and Prime Minister for some years after the war. From 1970 to 1987, Walthamstow was represented by Eric Deakins who, I am sure, hon. Members on both sides will remember with respect and affection. From 1987 to 1992, Walthamstow was represented by Hugo Summerson. It would be foolish to pretend that he and I agreed politically, but I know that he did his best to represent the issues and concerns of the people of Walthamstow. I certainly intend to follow his example.
I want to refer particularly to some of the proposals in the Queen's Speech that affect local government, housing and homelessness. It comes as no great surprise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) remarked, that the vast majority of constituency problems brought to hon. Members are about housing. Given the scale of the housing problem in London and in the country as a whole, I find the sections of the Queen's Speech devoted to housing remarkably thin. There are no serious proposals in the Gracious Speech to tackle the problems of homelessness, and I fear that those problems will worsen in the future.
There are various reasons why the situation is unlikely to improve. In east London, in the area that I represent, Bow county court deals with most of the repossession cases from Walthamstow, which has the second highest number of repossessions in Britain--that in an area in which, by London standards, house prices are extremely low. In many cases, the banks and building societies, the prime lenders, seem uninterested and unwilling to work with other agencies which are trying to do something about repossessions and debt management. A day conference was recently called by my borough council. It was attended by fuel providers, members of citizens advice bureaux and representatives of council departments, but the banks and building societies refused to participate. The problem of repossessions will continue despite the odd half per cent. reduction in interest rates. It will continue so long as people are made redundant and we live with the present rate of unemployment.
We have heard about proposals to improve the rights of tenants to have repairs and improvements made to their properties. My immediate reaction to what has been suggested is that it is another phoney charter, with the blame being placed everywhere but with the Government. Local authorities are being denied the resources to do the repairs, and at the same time are being blamed for failing to deliver what their tenants need.
It is meaningless to say that tenants living in larger estates should have the right to improve their properties when millions of pounds are required to rejuvenate those blocks and remedy structural problems. Such a task is far beyond the capacity of individual tenants. Consider what
Column 555has happened in an area such as mine in recent years. I think of an estate that is now part of a housing action trust, one of the few such trusts that have been established.
Some years ago, the borough council produced a scheme for the total redevelopment of that estate, with the replacement of tower blocks by low- rise property. The Government were approached, but they said that the local authority could not be allowed to spend the necessary money. After protracted discussions with tenants, the formation of a tenant-controlled company was proposed. That would have enabled the company to do the work and have access to private money. The scheme was thought through and plans drawn up, but again the Government turned down the scheme.
In other words, when tenants approach the Government with proposals for real tenant involvement and power, the Government show no interest. As I say, that estate is now part of a housing action trust. The Government now have a responsibility, having forced the tenants down that path, to make sure that the redevelopment of the estate is made possible.
I welcome the proposals in the Queen's Speech on the rights of leaseholders. I hope that the legislation will do more than simply give leaseholders the right to acquire freeholds and extend their leases. Leaseholders should have the right to change or choose managing agents and to examine and, if necessary, challenge freeholders' accounts to see whether extortionate service charges are being imposed. Freeholders and landlords should have more responsibilities and be obliged to carry out repairs and improvements. After all, if council tenants are to have the right to have repairs done, the same right should apply to private tenants. The Asylum Bill will have great impact in my constituency, which has many asylum seekers and various ethnic minorities. Walthamstow has the largest Pakistani community in London. Between 1980 and 1990, I chaired an inquiry into racial harassment in Waltham Forest. It was horrendous to hear what some people told the inquiry about their daily experiences. At one extreme, there were cases of violence, including physical assault and arson. There have been murders in my constituency in recent years. Letter boxes are sealed because people are scared that petrol will be poured through and set alight. At the other extreme are incidents that might be thought of as trivial, such as verbal abuse and the use of graffiti. But for people who cannot step out of their front doors, go to the shops or take their children to the park, the threat of abuse is not trivial. When that happens every day, it has a great effect on the quality of people's lives.
Legislation such as the Asylum Bill generates a bad atmosphere. When the Bill was last debated, there was much talk of illegal immigration, social security scandals and other forms of criminality. Whenever such statements are made, especially by senior politicians, the suggestion is put about that certain communities are not to be trusted, and that in turn gives the green light to harassment. Indeed, it gives a certain respectability to harassment. That has a serious impact on the daily lives of many of my constituents.
Local voluntary organisations and local authorities must deal with the consequences, especially on housing estates. I regret that the Asylum Bill is to be reintroduced.
Column 556I hope that, at least, the debate this time will be conducted in a more temperate way and that the Minister will have conducted genuine consultation before the measure is published. Rather than that Bill, my constituents need legislation to deal with harassment and discrimination. I hope that even at this late stage the Government will reconsider their decision to reintroduce the Asylum Bill. 7.37 pm
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) : I wish at the outset to offer you, Madam Deputy Speaker, my congratulations on your appointment. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on his fluent maiden speech. I am sure that we shall hear much more from him on a subject about which he clearly knows a lot.
I am in an awkward position because mine is not a maiden speech, nor is it a retread speech. I suggested to an hon. Friend that I was a re-retread, to which he replied that I must have worn rather thin. My physical appearance gives the lie to that.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, Sir Charles Morrison, who was respected by hon. Members in all parts of the House for his decency, common sense and independence of spirit. He will be sorely missed. I wish him a happy retirement.
I am privileged to represent the beautiful constituency of Devizes. It is an area of great variety, stretching from Salisbury plain in the south to north of Swindon, and the town of Highworth, in the north. It takes in an enormous number of interests, from defence through agriculture to car manufacturing at the Rover and Honda plants around Swindon. The variety of interests of my constituents that I shall be pursuing here in the coming years will keep me busy. I am fortunate to represent that great constituency.
During the recession, from which thankfully we are beginning to emerge, the construction industry--especially its smaller parts, of which there are many examples in my constituency--was hard hit. Anything that revives interest and confidence in the housing market will be greeted with great relief, and with that in mind I welcome the references in the Gracious Speech to tenants' rights. The dramatic achievements in extending the variety of housing tenure and, therefore, choice since 1979 have together formed one of the most profound sea changes of the past decade.
We have broken away irrevocably from the segregated housing of the post-war years, that soul-destroying and socially divisive separation between council and owner-occupied housing. The variety of forms of tenure and of housing agencies, not least the still growing housing association movement and the birth of other new agencies such as housing action trusts, have extended beyond recognition the frontiers of individual housing choice. New joint ventures by housing authorities will take that process still further, and I hope that we shall give them every encouragement.
I welcome the increased funding for the Housing Corporation this year, which I hope will be used in imaginative and sensible ways. It has been said by several hon. Members this evening that homelessness is of concern to us all wherever it arises, and I believe that we now have the means to tackle it in a constructive way. We need a co-ordinated approach and a continuing will to achieve it. I welcome also the proposal to extend the rent-to-mortgage scheme to England from north of the border. When wearing another hat, I was somewhat involved in
Column 557the original concept of the scheme. I believe that it provides another important avenue of choice for people's homes. I wish the proposal, a fair wind.
At the end of the day, choice is at the root of the Government's philosophy. I am delighted to see that in the Gracious Speech we are not resting on our laurels. There is so much further to go, especially in rural areas such as that which I now have the honour to represent. Choice is meaningful, however, only when it is available to all. I appreciate that we cannot reach that stage overnight and that there is much more to do, but at the same time I believe that the impetus must come from the Government over the next five years. We must show that we shall extend choice as far as we can. In rural areas there is a major problem in providing affordable housing for local people both for purchase and for rent. So long as it continues, the concept of choice in such areas is of necessity severely qualified. There are those who call for major council house building programmes to meet the problem. I do not subscribe to that view. Council housing has a valuable role in providing one element of choice, but I do not believe that returning, as some Opposition Members have suggested, to massive council house building programmes would bring any long-term benefit to the provision of choice. There are better ways of meeting the problem.
First, I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench to try to ensure that rural housing associations are especially encouraged and that the special problems of geography and population densities in rural areas are recognised. I ask them to ensure that the issue of affordability in rural areas is properly addressed and that housing associations in such areas are given a sufficient share of available resources to meet their particular problems. Secondly, I ask that local housing associations are encouraged further in their role as enablers rather than providers, and as co-ordinators of imaginative initiatives that can meet the problems of rural housing in a cost-effective and adequate way.
In that context I mention briefly the thorny issue of receipts from council house sales. I am fully aware of the macro-economic considerations that led to the restriction on their use as capital, and I do not argue with those considerations, but we must understand that it is difficult for those who see housing need around them to understand why money which has been raised from housing cannot be spent towards meeting that need. Perhaps my right hon. and hon. Friends will explore with the Treasury the possibility of using receipts from council house sales, not as capital--I understand the difficulties of doing that--but in a different and more revenue-based way as part of the enabling role of housing authorities in providing affordable housing for rent in conjunction with the private sector. That might provide an avenue, and I hope that that approach will be explored. I leave that thought with my right hon. and hon. Friends. Housing still presents the Government with a vital and exciting challenge. It is one that lies at the heart of the concept of choice, which is central to the quality of life and is the bedrock of individual aspirations. I find it heartening to know that the Government remain determined and enthusiastic about meeting the challenge.
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Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East) : First, Madam Deputy Speaker, I congratulate you on your appointment. For the record, I wish genuinely also to applaud the election and appointment of Madam Speaker, which was obviously an historic occasion.
I pay tribute to the work done by my predecessor, Dave Nellist, and in turn to his predecessor, Bill Wilson, and also his predecessor, the late Dick Crossman. The House will understand later why I have linked all three of my predecessors.
During different periods Dave Nellist and Bill Wilson, and to a certain extent Dick Crossman, all talked about two particular issues. Dave Nellist and Bill Wilson certainly talked about unemployment and problems associated with it. About 20 years earlier, shortly before the then Labour Government, Bill Wilson spoke of crime being associated with unemployment. Going back further, to 1945, we find Dick Crossman talking about the reconstruction of Europe and of Britain, which again raised the issue of unemployment. My predecessors and the issues to which I have referred were interrelated during different periods.
Coventry, South-East has its fair share of unemployment. Some of the area's major industries have been privatised, and I have been interested to listen to other hon. Members talk about privatisation. When it comes to privatisation, my constituents consider primarily their future prosperity and employment. That is certainly their position in the context of the railways and of General Plessey Telecom. Earlier on, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) mentioned Jaguar. Everyone is concerned about unemployment for it is a national problem.
In the past, Coventry was famous for its innovation and its employment prospects. But for the employment prospects, I should not have gone to Coventry. I should probably have gone elsewhere, and some people in Coventry may think that that would have been a good idea.
Coventry, South-East has employment problems and an inner city problem. Dick Crossman comes into that, because when he was a Minister he said that the then Labour Government would tackle inner city problems. He certainly produced innovative ideas. Some Conservative Members may argue that that Government's policies and ideas did not necessarily lead to success. I spent 20 years in local government, and I can say that if there was a lack of success it was because of the lack of resources provided by the Government and their predecessor. There was a switch of emphasis and of policies. An example would be the reduction in urban aid grant. Those with experience of local government will know what I am talking about. There are many other examples.
Coventry, South-East, like the rest of the country, suffers from a lack of resources to develop its education system. We need resources for school building repairs, for building new schools and for better teacher training. Those problems should be dealt with ; they are more important than talk of tax reductions.
Coventry, South-East has a major council housing problem because of the lack of Government resources to carry out the necessary repairs and to deal with homelessness ; which means building homes for people who cannot afford to buy in the private sector. A great
Column 559many people in the private sector are being subjected to mortgage foreclosures, and the numbers are rising in my area.
There has been much talk of home ownership from the Government and from previous Conservative Governments. Freedom to choose does not exist without economic freedom, and my constituency has its fair share of people without that.
We have another problem, which is not peculiar to Coventry, South-East. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) touched on it earlier when he mentioned the Asylum Bill. That Bill would have been all right if it had been conceived in justice. Instead, it was conceived in panic, because of Europe's fear of migrations from the east and the south. In many parts of Europe there is a phobia about those migrations, which are seen as a threat, and the Bill was one of the panic measures adopted by European Ministers.
To return to Dick Crossman, in 1945 we were going through the same sort of major debate on Britain's relations with Europe as we are having today-- the "will she, won't she" debate. The question is whether we become more involved in Europe. The present Government, and former Governments, have procrastinated on that, but the Government have just won an election and it is time they clarified their position on Europe. If they do not want to be members, let them tell the country so. If they want to be only half-hearted members, let them tell the country so. But they should not mislead the country into thinking that they are involved in hard negotiations over Britain's rights when in fact they are putting on a charade--a half-hearted attempt to kid the Europeans that we want to play a major part as members of the European Community.
There was no real vision in the Queen's Speech. Some of my colleagues have already mentioned the plight in which the United States finds itself, and the trends in our inner cities which could lead to a similar situation here. The Queen's Speech was disappointing in that respect. There is no vision in the United States, either, and here we play petty party politics while a number of aspects of policy remain quite wrong. The speech did not deal with the fundamental problems of this country.
We have had debates about devolution for Scotland and Wales, but what about devolution for England? What about taking more power away from the English centre and giving it to people to exercise more constructively in new forms of regional government? The test for Europe will certainly be how effective regional government here can be.
I am honoured to have taken part in this debate, and I hope to serve the people of Coventry, South-East and the people of this country to the best of my ability.
Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West) : I add my sincere congratulations to those of many others who have expressed their delight at seeing you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in the Chair today. With great pleasure, too, I follow the tradition of congratulating the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) on his maiden speech. His constituency has a reputation of being one with a lively representative in the House, and the hon. Gentleman did not fail to
Column 560follow in that tradition, so well set by his predecessor Dave Nellist, who was always controversial and who always put his case forcefully to the House. I am not the only Member who will look forward with interest to what the hon. Gentleman has to say in future.
I do not want to detain the House long, and in any case I will not be allowed to do so. I want to raise an environmental matter which is of considerable importance to my constituency and which is already causing anxiety and even fear there.
On 21 June, the summer solstice arrives and large numbers of hippies, itinerants and new-age travellers can be expected. Some of my constituents call them by names that cannot be expressed in parliamentary language. Large numbers are expected, and I prophesy that they will assemble in my part of Hampshire from the end of May. The same happened last year and the year before, and each time more of them came. Last year, about 4,500 camped at Rats Lodge in Longstock and, had it not rained, considerably more of them would have come. One can only wonder what will happen this year if there is fine weather.
I noticed that on the spring bank holiday about 30,000 people attended a pop festival at Lechlade in Gloucestershire, and if more itinerants and hippies come to my constituency in the pre-solstice period, the noise disturbance, the petty crime and the filth that they will leave behind will cause my constituents great anxiety. Such concern was well expressed last week when a public meeting was held in the town hall at Stockbridge. It was so full that 50 people had to be turned away--a good reflection of the extent of public anxiety. The motion on the Loyal Address was seconded by my hon. and filial Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) with many happy turns of phrase. The Queen's Speech stated :
"My Government will work both at home and abroad to protect the environment. They will ensure that the environment remains a key issue in all policy making".
It is certainly a key issue in Hampshire, and I want to raise two related problems with the Minister today--first, the parking of several hundred caravans, dormobiles and cars in a mass trespass by new-age travellers ; and, secondly, the immensely noisy pop festival, for which the travellers provide the core and general set-up. When large numbers of caravans arrive, landowners can ask the police to move them on. The police, using section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986, can do just that. In parenthesis, I should say that I have immense praise for the way in which the Hampshire constabulary has operated, avoiding confrontation but being firm and fair at the same time. The police move them on, but the question is where they move them on to. In Hampshire, they move them on to a loophole in the law, and it is that loophole that I want Ministers to plug as soon as possible.
Hampshire has 400 miles of green lanes. Many are classified as BOATS-- bridleways open to all traffic. The verges are not marked, there are no kerb stones, there is no proper delineation and they have been there for some hundreds of years. When they are moved on, the travellers settle on either side of those green lanes. The police cannot know whether they are on private land or on a public right of way because there is no clear marking. If they are unable to prove that a traveller is on private land, they cannot evict him using section 39 of the Public Order Act. The
Column 561police are then inhibited because they know that if they make a mistake they can be sued for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment. One simple solution available to the Government is to extend section 39 to apply to green lanes, public rights of way and roads through the countryside at the discretion of the police. We are dealing not with a traffic problem but with a public order matter. When I raised the matter in the House on 12 December 1991, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department--my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd)--agreed to suggest that a meeting be arranged between the Departments of the Environment and Transport and the Home Office. I am grateful to the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment for arranging that meeting in February with representatives of the police and Hampshire county council. The Minister recognised that action was and is required and I thought that I saw his hand in the Conservative party's manifesto during the general election which said that the Caravan Sites Act 1968 would be reviewed with the aim of reducing the nuisance of illegal encampment. That proposal is welcome, but it is not in the Gracious Speech and I and many of my constituents are worried about what will happen as the solstice approaches this year if there has been no change in the law. I have to tell Ministers in the Department of the Environment that I think that we are right to call for action now to deal with the matter.
There is a second issue that I wish to touch on briefly--where to site the noisy, pop festival for which the travellers now choose the site, provide the core and much of the organisation. I want to make three points. First, such pop festivals will take place ; the question is where. If the police just move people on, there comes a time when those people will stop somewhere. They cannot spirit 6,000 or 8,000 people into thin air. That somewhere will go on being ill-thought-out, unprepared, invariably unsuitable and a confounded nuisance to those who live nearby. Clearly, we need a more constructive approach. The Government, with the Secretary of State for the Environment in the lead, should identify sites far away from habitation so that the squatters can be moved to those particular places.
There is one Government Department that can help. The Ministry of Defence has just such sites in its possession. I have no doubt that it will defend its land with as much vigour as it would defend our shores in the event of an enemy attack. Nevertheless, in the wider issue of the environment it is right that the Ministry should be asked to identify sites well away from other people and habitation and make them available in that way.
There are a number of other points that I should like to make, but because of the time factor I shall close by saying that Hampshire county council will soon be in a position to become "designated", with all the benefits which will flow from that, having provided within the county an adequate number of gipsy sites. But the county council expects that it will take six months for the Minister to approve designation when the application is made. Therefore, I want to make a plea to the Minister that when that application comes to the Department of the Environment it should be turned around in six weeks, not six months. Slow decisions are not necessarily any better than quick ones and this matter calls for a fast and effective decision. With those words, I urge Ministers to take action.
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I am the first Member for Birmingham, Yardley to make a maiden speech from the Opposition Benches for some 30 years, and I am only the second Member for Birmingham, Yardley to make a maiden speech from the Opposition Benches in some half a century. Yardley has a reputation for returning a Member of Parliament from the party which goes on to form the Government. That will cause disappointment on both sides of the House--on the Government side because Yardley did not follow the country, and on the Opposition Benches because the country did not follow Yardley. Needless to say, on this occasion I trust in the good political sense of the electorate of Yardley. My immediate predecessor was David Gilroy Bevan. His great pride was that he was Brummie born and bred and he had a long record of service to the city of Birmingham in this House and in local authorities within Birmingham. There is a wide gulf between us politically, but whenever our paths crossed he was most courteous. He was also most generous in defeat, for which I thank him.
My last Labour predecessors from Yardley were Syd Tierney and Ioan Evans, both highly respected Members of the House and the Labour party. I was delighted to have Syd Tierney campaign for me in Yardley during the election. Having helped to win the marginal seat of Yardley for Labour, he then returned to his home in the north-east to help win the marginal seat of Barrow and Furness for Labour. Therefore, we have much to be grateful to Syd Tierney for. My constituency is on the south-east side of Birmingham, adjacent to the national exhibition centre and Birmingham international airport. It relies for employment mainly on manufacturing industry within Birmingham and neighbouring Coventry. The economic prosperity of manufacturing in the west midlands region is the main factor which determines the economic prosperity of my constituents and I hope that in the next few years we shall see an upturn in the fortunes of that industry.
I have spent the past 18 years in education. I have worked in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham), who has just made his maiden speech. It is on the subject of education that I wish to address a few remarks to the House. I have in my constituency two comprehensive schools and many more primary schools, which offer a good standard of education to their pupils and communities. That is a great achievement when set against the background of change, uncertainty and underfunding that education has had to face.
When I met people during the election the one thing that they wanted for education was stability. They are fed up with ministerial changes of mind. As soon as one ministerial directive has been answered, it is countered with another and they start again. They also want stability of funding so that head teachers do not have to spend their time applying to this or that Government Department for funding for this or that project in order to educate the children whom they seek to serve.
Those who want stability in education will be deeply disturbed by the recent talk of the possible reintroduction
Column 563of selection in secondary schools. If we were to reintroduce selection it would be the biggest upheaval that schools have had to face in recent decades, and the biggest danger to children's education that they have had to face in their lifetime.
I call upon the Government to end the speculation that selection may be returning by making it clear that they will accept no proposals for reorganisation from local authority or grant-maintained schools which include an element of selection either on academic ability or on aptitude for a particular subject. Those who favour selection advance it as a means of raising standards and widening choice. It is neither. Selection gives more power to schools and less choice to parents. Many parents will be powerless to exert any influence over the schools their children attend, which runs counter to the Government's stated intention of trying to increase parental choice.
The other side of the selection coin is rejection. For every pupil whose self-esteem is raised because he or she has been selected, the self-esteem of many other pupils is damagingly depressed by rejection. For every so- called first-choice school that attracts extra resources, there will be more so-called second-choice schools struggling to attract the resources that they need to raise standards.
It is impossible to devise a selection system, whether it be based on academic ability or subject aptitude, which does not hand the failure label to some children and the second-class label to some schools. That is no way to improve standards or widen choice. It favours the few at the expense of the rest. At the heart of any education policy should be a strategy, desire, and aim to raise the standard of every child's education and of every school. Selection will not do that.
During the general election campaign, parents and educationists spoke to me not of selection but of smaller class groups ; of giving more time to teaching and less to form filling. Head teachers told me that they wanted to spend more time managing their schools and less time raising money to fund essential resources. They never referred to selection as a means of achieving those objectives. The Government ought to remove once and for all the spectre of selection from the education agenda on which this Session of Parliament is about to embark.
I am pleased to have made my maiden speech in a debate which embraces so many issues of concern to my constituents. I hope that in the months and years to come I shall speak again on their behalf. I am proud to represent my constituents and my party in the House, and I shall always do so to the best of my ability.
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam) : I have the privilege of succeeding Sir Neil Macfarlane, who held the seat of Sutton and Cheam for 18 years. He had a distinguished career, and he served as a Minister for seven years. Sir Neil's time as a sports Minister left a heavy mark on him, for he had to cope with both the Bradford fire tragedy and the Heysel stadium disaster. On a more cheerful note, Sir Neil was himself an enthusiastic sportsman. He was captain of the parliamentary golf society, and boasted proudly that over a five-year period he led it to only one victory.
Column 564Sutton and Cheam is fairly well known throughout the land partly through its association with entertainers, such as Harry Secombe, and its adopted son, Tony Hancock--who, wearing the expression of a disappointed basset hound, lived at 2 Railway cuttings, East Cheam. He brought laughter to millions, but the problem for fans seeking his home was that his address was entirely fictitious. Tony Hancock in fact lived at a far less interesting abode in north London. My constituency lies 13 miles from Westminster, inside the M25. Today's quiet, leafy streets belie a heritage that dates back to neolithic times. In those days, man travelled by river. Transport is still an enormous issue today, and I doubt that the early dwellers would envy the 3,000 commuters who struggle up to London on Network SouthEast.
The rail journey from Sutton has become so hazardous that no passenger can predict the time of his or her arrival. One constituent told me that the 8.17 am train is now known as the 8.37 am train, because it is always 20 minutes late. The service has not been improved by British Rail's programme of cutting down trackside trees on the basis that falling leaves cause train delays. It is hardly surprising that there has been an outcry by my constituents, who feel that local beauty has been sacrificed by British Rail going for an easy but by no means proven option. It is more a case of whistling in the wind.
I welcome therefore the Government's plans for privatising British Rail. Meanwhile, I trust that the passengers' charter will come in useful. A refund on fares would at least sugar the pill.
I deliberately chose to speak on the subject of education in the debate on the Gracious Speech because Sutton's character is best represented by its excellence in schooling, which is very much the result of Government policies. There can be found in Sutton the best examples of the benefits of offering the widest possible choice. Our two grant-maintained grammar schools--Nonsuch and Sutton Manor--have made such a mark that they are easily holding their own in The Times list of top 250 schools in the country. Today, however, I will focus on another grant-maintained school which I find exciting and elevating every time that I visit it.
Only a few years ago, non-selective Cheam High was regarded as a sink school. It was in such disarray that one of its pupils was caught riding a motor bike through its corridors. The current headmaster, John Vaughan, rescued the situation and reintroduced discipline--for without it children cannot learn. Working with Master and Miss Average, he gave each child hope, a positive identity, and a sense of purpose. In short, he put into practice the Government's programme of vocational education.
The pupils of that school are put through the national vocational qualification course at 17-plus, and the results are so good that local employers actively seek to recruit those children. This September, the vocational studies will develop one stage further, when the school's 16- year-olds will be among the first in the country to start taking their BTEC diploma course--the second year of which has parity with an A-level. There is no doubt that it is perfectly possible for all children to be higher achievers, provided their route of learning is suited to their talents. The second year BTEC qualifies children for a university or polytechnic, and serves as the alternative route to higher education.
Column 565Academic achievements are worth while, but they are not sufficient in themselves. There is parental concern about the decline in the teaching of the Christian faith. It is a sad reflection that, in a recent survey, only 34 per cent. of the sample knew why Easter day is celebrated, prompting the Archbishop of York to comment : "It makes me wonder what kind of religious education some of these children receive at school."
In the Education Reform Act 1988, the Government tried their best, in section 8, to provide for a "mainly Christian" education while taking into account other faiths. In practice, that is not always done. Local education authorities set the curriculum, and in some Sutton schools multiculture and multifaith teaching has developed so far that Christianity is reduced to just another faith to be taken down from the shelf, together with Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and so on. The time has come to take stock of ourselves. We should not be shy of being a Christian country, and we ought to insist that a "mainly Christian" education means just that.
It is not surprising that children lose their way emotionally and spiritually when they have been denied true Christian teaching and know little of what it has to offer. I would like to know how the provisions of the Education Reform Act 1988 are working out in practice nationwide.
It would be surprising if I did not touch briefly on defence. Nine years ago I launched my pro-NATO organisation, Families for Defence. At that time, we challenged the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and won ; but national security remains as important as ever. The cold war may be over, but today we face multiple dangers, with instability in many countries, together with growing nuclear proliferation. Currently, three former Soviet republics--Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan--still hold nuclear weapons, and there is no clear picture of what they are going to do with them. The southern republics now have rapidly growing armies. Next door, Iran is building up an awesome arsenal of her own, and Iraq, far from being subdued by the Gulf war, is reasserting herself.
Not only should we monitor the plight of the Kurds ; there is another human rights issue that has been forgotten. I refer to the 850 Kuwaitis known as "The Missing Ones": men, women and children, some only 10 years old, who were snatched from their homes during the occupation and taken to camps in Iraq. Fifteen months later, they are still being held. The International Red Cross has their names. I regard it as intolerable that the world should forget about those people in the mistaken belief that, after the liberation of Kuwait, all has been satisfactorily resolved. That is not the case, and we have a duty to ensure that they are released and returned home. There are lessons to be learnt. This is yet another example of why we should appreciate that peace has not yet been established in the middle east. We must therefore be ready for every contingency, and must plan for future defence levels accordingly. We must maintain our armed forces at the most credible level.
While I accept that we must adapt to modern conditions, it is vital that we are certain that we know what we are doing, and make up our minds about our commitments. I hope that, during the restructuring process, we do not make decisions now only to regret them later in the crisis. I think that the time has come for us to
Column 566reaffirm our commitment to NATO. There has been a growing tendency in Europe to suggest that the American input is not necessary. I do not agree : we cannot do without the United States. In a major crisis, the United States is always there to help us, and the Gulf war was no exception. To exclude it would be a severe mistake, and would weaken the Alliance.
By the same token, satisfying the calls by the French and Germans for their own corps would serve no real purpose unless such corps were effectively associated with NATO. Otherwise, such action would undermine NATO and ultimately destroy it. It would do nothing for military effectiveness, and could seriously damage European harmony. In any case, we already have NATO's rapid reaction corps, commanded by the British and specifically designed to take on military tasks in and outside the normal NATO area.
I have raised the question of defence at the end of my speech, in particular, because my constituents in Sutton have frequently raised it with me. They come from courageous stock ; they are dogged, and indomitable, and they are people whom I am enormously proud to represent.
Ms. Ann Coffey (Stockport) : I congratulate you on your new position, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and thank you for calling me. My constituency, Stockport, forms part of the wider metropolitan borough of the same name. It was created after the boundary changes in 1983. My predecessor was Tony Favell, a man of strong beliefs and uncompromising principles. He had, I know, a great deal of affection for Stockport, and his constituents wish him well.
Stockport is a town with a strong sense of community
responsibility. Many people give their time, in a voluntary capacity, raise funds for and run the numerous clubs that exist for the elderly and the disabled, and also youth organisations and sports clubs. The Council for Voluntary Service, the citizens advice bureaux, Age Concern and Victim Support co-ordinate the work of hundreds of volunteers who provide a valuable service for the town. Charnwood nursery, a charitable trust which has been in operation for 20 years, offers children with special needs and normal children the opportunity to learn and to co-operate with each other from an early age. It is an excellent example of integration which, sadly, has not been replicated elsewhere.
Stockport has a very vocal local press. Papers such as the Stockport Express Advertiser, the Stockport Times, the Stockport Messenger, the Heaton Guardian, Down Your Way and the District Advertiser (Stockport) tackle issues of local interest with enthusiasm. Stockport also has an excellent football team, Stockport County, which was promoted last season, and is fighting its way to further promotion this season.
In recent years, the education system has experienced a period of rapid change with the introduction of local management of schools, the national curriculum, and assessment and appraisal. The national curriculum itself has changed several times. I have a daughter at a local state school, and I recently attended a parents evening to be given information about the GCSE courses that would help her to choose her options. I was informed by the school that the GCSE was to be altered to place less
Column 567emphasis on course assessment and more on exams. The staff, however, could give me no information about what that actually meant for the individual courses, as they themselves had no information. Parents attending that meeting felt very confused and anxious. Now parents face the possibility of chaos.
Are the schools of Stockport to remain with the local education authority? Will some or all of them opt out? Who knows? If schools apply for opt-out status, which schools will be given that status? What are the criteria? No one knows. We know the situation this week, but what of next week, next month, next year? This makes nonsense of stability. Will the opt-outs lead to a centralised bureaucracy? The Department of Education must know something, because it is apparently planning to move to a new building called Sanctuary house. In 1986, Stockport underwent a reorganisation--with all-party support--of its secondary schools for 11 to 18-year-olds, and that has just been completed. It followed the Government's advice to take out spare places. Two schools were closed and three sixth-form colleges were created, one for each area of the town, to reflect local needs and diversity. As Stockport has taken out spare places, parental choice is of necessity limited by available accommodation. If all the schools opt out, set their own criteria for selection, and extend their catchment areas, where does that leave parents? What do they do? Do they apply to their first-choice school and hope that their children get in, apply to their second choice because their children have a better chance of getting into that, or apply to all the schools and hope for the best? It is a nightmare scenario for parents and children alike.
Will the Government allow opted-out schools to borrow extra capital to build? Or will the schools be into "cramming"? Shall we have huge schools with more than 2,000 pupils sending children home for private study because there is no room for them to be taught? Will some schools have shiny new buildings and new mobiles in the grounds, while others struggle to mend their roofs and provide books? That is an obscenity.
Stockport has taken a key role in strategic planning for its post-16 education. Since the three sixth-form colleges were created, the staying-on rate has risen to 75 per cent. What will happen now? If one of the secondary schools opts out and returns to an 11-to-18 intake, will that lead to the closure of one of the sixth-form colleges with consequent loss to the local community? Community groups will be dispossessed, and there will be nowhere for adult education classes to take place.
Who will make the decision? Will it be some distant regional funding council with no local knowledge? What will happen to non-vocational adult education? How will that be funded? Will it be funded at all? Evening and day classes provide the community with an opportunity to take part in an enormous range of interesting and satisfying opportunities. It is part of a long-standing tradition. The loss of non-vocational adult education will be deeply felt. These are genuine concerns of my constituents. They want stability and an end to the endless stress of change. I urge the Government to listen to those concerns.