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House of Commons

Friday 8 December 2000

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Orders of the Day

Debate on the Address

[Third Day]

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [6 December],

Question again proposed.

Education and Industry

9.34 am

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): Mr. Speaker, I apologise to the House for having to leave before the end of the debate--I have written to you about that. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and to my hon. Friends not only for being in the Chamber on a Friday morning, but for being so understanding about it.

In continuing the debate, let me say how tickled I am that the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment, has reached the dizzy heights of "The Westminster Hour" Christmas quiz. In order not to skew the result, I shall not give the answer to the question, but she will be greatly relieved to know that the question is not, "Who is she?"--so at least that is all right. That remark was extremely ungallant of me, so I withdraw it immediately. All I can say is, TGIF--"thank God it's Friday".

Each year, the Loyal Address focuses on the tip of the iceberg that is the legislative programme: the programme itself is only a framework for taking forward measures and underpinning action that is already in train. We should understand clearly that, in the past, those people who demanded less legislation realised that legislation alone was neither the sole objective of Government actions nor the sole judge of their actions.

Legislation is crucial in getting right the policies and programmes that are laid out and accomplished not only by politicians but by people locally who carry out the will of Parliament or of local government. However, it is also a means of engaging with civil society; so, as it is Friday morning, I shall give a few moments thought to that. In

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The Times this morning, Simon Jenkins accuses me of coming out with too many facts. However, last night I was at Garforth community college, just outside Leeds, where I was accused of not giving enough facts about what the Government are doing. Facts alone do not add up to a political programme; re-engaging with civil society does. It is extremely important that we, as a Parliament and a Government, regard the programme in the Queen's Speech and the run-up to the next Parliament as an opportunity to spell out that we are an enabling Government. We are on the side of men and women in their communities, offering the opportunity, resources and support for them to succeed in getting and keeping jobs, earning a living and building a family, while living comfortably and safely in communities that have a decent environment and the quality of life that we should expect for ourselves, with the safety on the streets that the Government have been endeavouring to restore.

In other words, the big picture is of a Government who are on people's side, backing up what they do. Instead of cutting, disinvesting and disengaging from the support that is necessary--the Opposition policy--we are endeavouring to provide investment for the future, to reverse the cuts of the past and to engage with people in their lives where and when it matters. That is doing it with people, rather than doing it to them, and that will enable people to succeed.

I understand that the Leader of the Opposition will take part in "Songs of Praise" on Sunday, from Bradford. Last night, the gospel choir at Garforth, who are also taking part in that programme, sang their hearts out about community--about people working and caring together. I hope that, when the Leader of the Opposition hears them sing on Sunday, he will feel a twinge of conscience about the type of policies that his party currently advocate and would inflict on the rest of the country--[Interruption.] I seem to recognise the voice of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)--[Interruption.] My hon. Friends tell me it is the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley)--same policies, but slightly more sophisticated. Does the right hon. Gentleman want to intervene? At least I can engage in some sort of intellectual debate with him--[Hon. Members: "No, you cannot".] Yes, I can do so occasionally; he has one or two things to say about Edmund Burke, for example.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his kind remarks about me. I simply said that it is disgraceful for any member of a political party to try to monopolise religion--to believe that it is the monopoly of his or her party, rather than an inspiration for Members on both sides of the House, although we may have different means of achieving the same objectives.

Mr. Blunkett: I thought that the Leader of the Opposition had done that at an evangelical meeting in the spring of this year and that he is going on television on Sunday night precisely to display how committed he really is when he gets off the moors. Such comments are a little rich--

Mr. Lilley: We do not claim a monopoly.

Mr. Blunkett: I do not think that any of us would dare to do that. I think that Dave Allen's famous phrase, "May your God go with you, whoever he or she might be", is the way forward.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): May I say, on behalf not only of my constituents but of people more

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widely, that having been present when the Leader of the Opposition spoke to the faith groups in the Emmanuel centre in Marsham street, anyone of whatever faith or party who was there would have found nothing that he said controversial because he was confronting the problems that we are all trying to tackle in giving support and inspiration to people? Some of what my right hon. Friend said may have upset the Secretary of State, but I hope that he will take my witness that what the Leader of the Opposition said was not only acceptable, but inspiring and right.

Mr. Blunkett: I certainly agree that the speech would have been acceptable; I reserve judgment on whether it was inspiring, and I shall examine the text before saying whether it was right. I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's assumption that the Leader of the Opposition was not making a political gesture in that case. I think that we can draw stumps on that one.

So from God not quite to mammon because, along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, I pay tribute to the business community for the contribution that it has been making to the current favourable, benign economic position. The work of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, together with other colleagues and the business community, has ensured that we can reinvest the fruits of success. As the Prime Minister rightly said on Wednesday afternoon in the debate on the Address, we can reduce the cost of failure in social security and debt repayment from 42p to 17p in the pound. As a result, we can invest in public services in a way that the Opposition are clearly intent not only on stopping, but on reducing. They want to stop certain forms of public expenditure so that they can hand out tax cuts. They are ideologically against investing in public services and the quality of provision and support that they produce. I shall illustrate that this morning.

The business community has joined us in the task of reskilling the nation and ensuring that we get it right locally and regionally, as well as nationally. Through the Learning and Skills Council, we can join together in partnership to initiate programmes that will meet skills gaps and unblock the bottlenecks that exist in a few of our enterprises and sectors. That will ensure that we can compete globally, while continuing to reduce unemployment and to achieve the process of high and sustainable employment that was spelt out in the Queen's Speech.

The Department's major task has been to tackle the standards deficit in relation not only to schools, but to the basic and technical skills required for the nation. We rejoice in the way in which yesterday's primary school results show how teachers, heads and non-teaching staff, those in education action zones and those taking part in the excellence in cities initiative have not only produced an uplift in the overall performance in the key areas--the tools for future learning, which are essential to enable children to go forward into secondary and further education, giving them the opportunity of using their creativity, imagination and encouraging their love of learning for the rest of the lives--but have made substantial improvements in the most disadvantaged and deprived areas of our country. The uplift has taken place in local authorities such as Tower Hamlets, and the worst performing authority four years ago is now above average compared with 1996. Individual schools facing tremendous disadvantage have transformed the life chances of their pupils.

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