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Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. I remind the House that there is a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

1.57 pm

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): I want to celebrate a single line in the Budget which announced that £2,000 would be given to every school for books. That is generous and unconditional, and will be welcomed by every school. As we enter the 21st century, there will be a need for more computers and for greater understanding of science and technology, but that will never entirely replace books and libraries.

I grew up in a flat above a bookshop which, in those days, was also a library. It was natural for me to have books everywhere and to value and love them, and to value libraries. In every school that I visit, I gravitate first to the library, which I believe to be the educative heart of any school. It is there that children begin to make choices and begin self-learning. It is there that they discover, in what I trust will now be a greater choice of books, what they want to learn. Through books, they understand more about the world, the environment and all the things that excite them. Let me take hon. Members, in their mind's eye, to my favourite school library.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): Does the hon. Lady agree with the recent finding by the Office for Standards in Education that most of the problems of finding enough money for books in schools result from poor management of resources by the heads of those schools?

Valerie Davey: I dispute that. We have just heard from the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) how good management is and that schools want more scope. This wholly generous and unconditional gift from the Government should be accepted in that spirit.

Come to that library with me--to the middle of a sprawling redbrick estate in Bristol, up the steps of a nursery school and down a small, colourfully decorated corridor with two classrooms ahead of us. Turn right and right again through a door which, in the original building,

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was the entrance to a large walk-in store cupboard. Now, with the help of parents and the construction of a window in the roof, that cupboard has become a library: an oasis in that school and that community.

Children find sanctuary in that library. One day when I was there, a small boy came in. He was a three-year-old who knew instinctively that, if he could not cope in the classroom and things had got on top of him, he would find in the library a place where he could calm down, find his own way and, even at the age of three, instigate his own learning.

This beautiful little library has books at floor level, a nice carpet, bean bags and a welcoming atmosphere. It is very special to the school and to the community, and I trust--indeed, I know--that the money will be welcome and well spent. When the school received its first £1,000, it could not believe its luck: it could not believe the Government's generosity in giving it what it knew that families and youngsters needed most. I am sure that pattern will be repeated throughout the country.

Given the generosity and unconditionality of the gift, I shall not presume to dictate, or even suggest, how the money should best be spent--

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): There is no such thing as Government money. There is the people's money, which comes from the taxpayer. Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that?

Valerie Davey: What I acknowledge is that the party in power has a way of dictating, or deciding, how money should be spent. In this instance, the Budget has been generous to education in providing money for books. As I was about to say, I hope that some of that money will be spent on poetry books, because I feel that poetry gives the English language an extra dimension.

A book to which I often refer--not every day, but on some days--contains "poems for the day". The poem for today, 11 March, has a title that is not easy, but is nevertheless important. It is by Arthur Clough, and Churchill quoted it several times during the war. It is called "Say not the struggle naught availeth". We would hardly use the word "struggle" today, but we would use the word "challenge"--and the present Government face the greatest possible challenge: that of ensuring that education standards rise, and that every child has a choice in education, receives an excellent education and achieves the highest possible standards.

I trust that the allocation to education will bring real joy to children now. None of us can know how much it will enable children to attain in the future as a consequence of the excitement and expectations that it will instil. Let the children enjoy it; let schools, teachers and parents ensure that it is well spent.

2.3 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I thank the Secretary of State for the note that he sent me--and, no doubt, the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts)--explaining why he would not be able to stay for the whole debate.

I must confess that, having had to follow the hon. Member for Havant on a number of occasions recently, I experience a sense of nausea when I hear him criticise

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what the Government are doing. It strikes me as hypocrisy, given the state in which his party left our schools and education in general. I therefore think it rather appropriate that, while the hon. Gentleman was speaking, the Secretary of State's dog was sick.

I hope that, if I am somewhat critical of aspects of the Budget, I shall not be considered hypocritical myself. My views are at least consistent with what I have, for some years, considered to be necessary to education and employment.

Although undoubtedly well-intentioned, the Budget was spoilt both by gimmicks and by unnecessary complexity.

There are some very good measures in the Budget--measures that we of course support--such as those to help small businesses or to improve competition. There are many other measures that we support but which we feel are too timid. For example, the Government are being far too timid in the extent of their support for pensioners, although the improved support is welcome.

The Government have also been unduly timid in relation to the environment. Nothing in the Budget will do anything to improve public transport in our country. It is therefore hardly surprising that I read today the results of an opinion poll showing that only 3 per cent. of people believe that the Government are doing a good job in relation to transport.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): Did I mishear the hon. Gentleman? I thought that he said that there was nothing in the Budget to help transport. I distinctly heard the Chancellor mention an extra 20 per cent., especially for rural areas; will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that? [Interruption.] Twenty per cent.--£20 million extra in the Budget.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman says that he heard the Chancellor say all those things. Of course he heard that, but he fails to take into account the additional costs that will be imposed on public transport because of the changes that have taken place in the fuel levy. If he studies the Red Book, he will see that the net effect is zero additional support for public transport.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner), who is obviously interested in these affairs and in environmental matters, may agree that the Government were right to reduce vehicle excise duty, but I hope that he also agrees that it was rather timid to reduce by £55 the VED for vehicles below 1100 cc. The Liberal Democrats would have much preferred the complete abolition of VED for vehicles of 1600 cc and below.

We welcome several other measures. The introduction of the energy tax is welcome--we had proposed that for many years--but it is a great pity that, in the same Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not make good the Government's general election pledge to start a wide-scale home energy insulation programme.

I said that the Budget was marred to some extent by gimmicks. The biggest gimmick is the 10p income tax rate. Liberal Democrats believe that it is absolutely right to provide more help for the poorest in our society--indeed, we might go even further than the new Labour Government and argue that there is an urgent need to redistribute wealth, and that that can be done through the tax system. However, the introduction of the 10p rate of

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income tax is certainly not the most efficient or effective way to do it. It would have been far better to raise personal tax thresholds. That would have been more tax-efficient and would have helped more people.

I should have liked the Chancellor to make a long-term pledge to impose a starting threshold of £10,000, which, once fulfilled, would have meant that 10 million people no longer needed to pay income tax. That would really have helped the least well off in our society and would--I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree--have had a direct impact on educational standards, because we know that there is a link between low educational standards and poverty.

The view that I have just expressed is not without support elsewhere. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said:


I therefore believe that the announcement of the 10p tax rate was a gimmick. There are better ways of doing what I believe that the Chancellor wanted to do, which is to help the less well off. He could have helped more people, with less complexity, without that gimmick.

I shall now discuss issues of education and employment. I shall criticise some aspects of the Budget, but as I have said many times, I want it to be understood that I give the Government credit for many of the things that they have done. I therefore hope that my criticisms will not lead the Secretary of State to accuse me--as he has allegedly accused other critics--of being a sneering cynic or a miserable sod. The Secretary of State is said to have called people that, but he can tell us for himself whether that is true.

The House ought to welcome the additional £100 million for the research infrastructure fund, the second round of university challenge, the tax incentives for companies to invest in research and development and the development of individual learning accounts, which we have already discussed. It is right and proper that employers are given an opportunity to contribute to individual learning accounts.

My party was the first political party to propose the introduction of individual learning accounts. We are delighted that the Government belatedly accepted that idea. We also proposed that businesses should be able to contribute to them, and we are delighted that, at long last, the Government are following our lead. We are concerned that current individual learning accounts are minuscule and will not deliver the learning revolution that we want, but at least they are a step in the right direction.

The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) intervened on the Secretary of State about the importance of ensuring that individual learning accounts are made available to all. I was delighted to hear him assure the House that he will consider that carefully in the light of Sir Claus Moser's report. I hope that when he does so, he will also look into the position of those students who have no qualifications and who are currently barred from access to individual learning accounts. I hope that he will ensure that that is reversed.

We welcome many other measures in part. We welcome, as did the Secretary of State, the Chancellor's announcement of a boost for the nation to improve its

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skills in information and communication technology. I am delighted that the Secretary of State has at last acknowledged that, if we are to get our pupils on-line, it is vital that we also give teachers the opportunity to get on-line. That is a change of heart for the Department. A senior spokesman for the Department was quoted in The Guardian last year as saying:


    "There's no reason to buy teachers computers. They are being trained in how to teach ICT, not how to use a computer."

At least the Department now acknowledges that teachers need to be given computers, so I am pleased about that improvement.

The Secretary of State can wrap up any announcement in various ways, but today's announcement does not go very far. After all, we now know that, under the original scheme to give teachers laptops, only 2.5 per cent. of teachers have so far received one. At that rate, it would have taken 40 years for all teachers to get a laptop. The announcement of additional resources is welcome, but sadly it will only increase that percentage to 6.5 per cent. of teachers, so there is a very long way to go. I hope that in the winding-up speech we will be told whether trainee teachers, who will need access to laptops, will be eligible under the scheme--a point raised by the hon. Member for Havant.

We welcome the additional money for ordinary computers in schools, particularly inner-city schools. I hope that the Secretary of State will acknowledge that the current announcement does not go very far, particularly when we bear in mind the fact that, according to his Department's figures, 64 per cent. of primary schools and 57 per cent. of secondary schools have computers that are more than three years old, and 44 per cent. of computers in primary schools are over five years old. The vast majority of them will not be millennium compliant, and additional funds will be needed fairly rapidly.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) praised the Secretary of State and the Chancellor for the £2,000 for every school for books. I agree with her in principle: any additional books for our schools must be welcomed. However, I suggest that that is not the most effective way of carrying out that operation. It looks like a good idea and it will grab the headlines, but one wonders whether it is a sensible way of providing more books.

Schools will not have the freedom to decide how best to use that money. They could perhaps make more effective use of the money through the purchase of CD-ROMs or software. Moreover, in a small group 1 primary school with 50 pupils the measure will look good, because it will have £40 per pupil for books. However, for Banbury school in Oxfordshire, which is a group 6 secondary school, the amount is merely £1 per pupil. One has to question whether it would not have been better to have a per capita system.

I want to show support for the new deal for the over-50s, although I have some concern about it. That Government initiative has not been mentioned today. I believe that it is an important measure, but it may flounder unless the Government are prepared to take tough action on age discrimination. If employers are not willing to take on people over 50, the scheme will come to naught. [Interruption.] I note that the Secretary of State is nodding. I remind him that the 1997 Amsterdam treaty requires European Union countries to take appropriate action to tackle discrimination on the grounds of age.

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During the last election, the Government made a commitment that they would do so, yet sadly so far they have been lukewarm on this important issue. I hope that the new deal for the over-50s will rapidly be matched by positive action from the Government on discrimination.


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