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Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): Oh God.

Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman does not like to be reminded of the Conservative party's record, but it puts things in perspective. On average, 150,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in each of the 18 years that they were in government. That is the record of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, who was a Cabinet Minister for many of those years.

Judy Mallaber: Does my right hon. Friend realise that there were 800,000 jobs in the textile and clothing industry, to which I referred, at the start of the Conservative Government, but 300,000 when they left office?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I hope that the facts will not get in the way of the prejudice of Conservative Members. She referred to the difficulties that her constituency faces because of the decisions taken by Coats Viyella, and I am prepared to meet her to discuss the implications of those decisions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) referred to the valuable role played by the Redbridge Parents in Partnership scheme in helping the local education authority identify the needs of parents in that borough. I am sure that the local authority, parents and central Government, working in partnership, will be able to offer the parents and their children in that borough a far better future as a result of the measures announced in the Queen's Speech.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) raised the important issue of advocacy for those who have disabilities. I am pleased to be able to say that the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), is looking at that issue.

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) raised serious concerns about the disruption that the current difficulties on the railways are causing commuters in his constituency. That point was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), who referred to the more general difficulties that commuters in Kent face. I fully understand those concerns, and I will ensure that those comments are relayed to the Minister for Transport and the Deputy Prime Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham has made a big sacrifice by being here today--not just to hear my winding-up speech, but to miss the opening of the new computer suite at Chantry primary school, where 13 new computers will be installed. I am sure that the House will want to commend the head teacher, Mr. Gates, for using

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the prize that he won for being nominated as one of the teachers of the year partly to fund the new facility. That shows his devotion to the school. That is reflected by many head teachers throughout the country, who are doing an extremely good job and ensuring that standards are being raised throughout the primary sector. I add my personal congratulations to Mr. Gates and to Chantry primary school. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to visit the school in the not-too-distant future to pass on my congratulations.

I congratulate also the Gravesham teachers association. I was interested to hear of its survey of challenging behaviour among pupils in all 42 schools in the Gravesham constituency. It is one of the key issues that schools are having to face. The Government are considering reviewing our policies to ensure that teachers have the facilities and the opportunity to deal with that sort of behaviour.

I am sorry to have missed the speech of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. I regret that, because although our views on the Post Office differ, I understand that it is an issue to which he has given much consideration. It is always worth reflecting on the views of someone who has knowledge of a particular area, even though there will be differences of opinion.

We disagree on the way forward for the Post Office. It is important that I use this opportunity to address some of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised. We feel that the universal bank and universal banking services are important ways of overcoming a potential loss of revenue as a result of the introduction of automated credit transfer from 2003. I believe that ACT would have been pursued by the Conservative party had it been in government. However, it was right for the right hon. Gentleman to raise the points that he did. It would not make sense to introduce an alternative system that would be more costly than ACT.

The challenge for the Government is to bring forward a programme for universal banking services that will deliver that which we promised, which is to ensure that all benefit recipients and pensioners will continue, if they so want, to get their pension and their benefit paid over in cash on a weekly basis, if that is the current position, at the post office of their choice. That is the objective on which we shall deliver.

We are in negotiations with the Post Office and the banks on delivery of the arrangements. I do not think that Opposition Members would expect me now openly to negotiate on the details of the discussions. The matter is commercially confidential, and right hon. and hon. Members who have been in government will understand the sensitivities of the negotiations. When they are concluded there will need to be a full statement so that Members can hold us accountable for the outcome of those discussions. That is how it should be done, and I think that Opposition Members will understand that.

Mr. Lilley: One of the issues at stake is under what powers the right hon. Gentleman is negotiating with the banks, and what sanctions he is threatening to use if they do not concur and cough up the money to get him out of the hole into which he has put himself.

Mr. Byers: My approach to these matters is that with good will, good negotiation and proper respect for one another, agreements can often be arrived at. It should be a matter not of threats or sanctions but of people coming

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together and seeing whether there is a way forward that is mutually beneficial to all parties. That is what I am trying to achieve. I may be an optimist and it may not happen. It is a matter not of refusal but of having a proper discussion and arriving at a conclusion to which the parties will sign up. That is the target that I have set myself. I am confident that we shall be able to achieve it.

Everything that we have tried to do in the Queen's Speech and since being elected to office has had a simple aim, which is to make the lives of hard-working families better, to give everybody--not only the privileged few--security and peace of mind, and opportunities to fulfil their potential.

Mr. Hayes: In allowing people to fulfil their potential, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that in the proposed legislation the statement for disabled children and children with special educational needs will not be diluted? To fulfil their potential, the statement needs to specify their needs and the outcome that will be necessary to meet those needs so that they can fulfil their potential.

Mr. Byers: I understand the important point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Rather than replying immediately, it would probably be better for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to respond in writing. I could try to respond, but I want to ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives an absolutely accurate response. That is the best way of dealing with the matter.

Britain can boast many strengths. We now have firm economic foundations, world-class companies, scientists and thinkers, the language of the internet and the richness of our culture and heritage. We can be radical, we can be tolerant and we can be fair. Today, ours is the fourth largest economy in the world, a remarkable achievement for an island nation of 60 million people.

Any analysis of the challenges facing Britain must acknowledge that, although we have world-class companies, we need to have many more and that, while there is progress in education, we have schools that could be doing much better. Although a vast majority of our people are decent and law-abiding, we have a drugs problem that accounts for a third of all property crime.

Many strong communities are getting stronger, but, equally, many communities are shattered by violence, intolerance, racism and people's lack of respect for each other. Although there is rising prosperity, there remains too much poverty. We have, in government, made progress since May 1997, and it is progress of which we can be proud. The fundamentals of a sound economy--

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Order Paper says that the subject of the debate is education and industry. No Minister from the Department for Education and Employment is present, and that is obviously a discourtesy to the House. Is it in order for a debate to proceed as per the Order Paper without any Minister from the relevant Department being present?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I think that the right hon. Gentleman has answered his own point. It is a matter for the Government to decide which Ministers should be present. It may be a matter of

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courtesy and convenience for the House for certain Ministers to be present, but it is certainly not a matter of order for the Chair.

Mr. Byers: The record will show that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment gave notice to Mr. Speaker of why he would be absent from the winding-up speeches. I know that that is the case.

I want to deal with the important points that were contained in the Queen's Speech. As I was saying, we have got the fundamentals of a sound economy, more jobs--a million more people in work now than when we took office--and investment and reform in our public services taking place. However, there are challenges that we need to address. They include how we build on those solid economic foundations to have a more productive, world-class economy, how we move to full employment, how we deliver excellence in all our schools and how we modernise our welfare service. That is what we intend to do.

We will build on the economic stability that we have been able to achieve. That will be important for business, and our people as well. That is the way forward for our country. We are investing in our public services and rejecting the £16 billion of cuts that the Conservative party would introduce.

At the beginning of the 21st century, our country faces some clear choices. Do we maintain the stability and higher levels of employment that we have been able to achieve, or do we return to the days of boom and bust and 3 million people unemployed? It is worth reminding Conservative Members of what would happen if we were to turn the clock back 10 years. We would see interest rates at 15 per cent. and inflation in double figures. We all know what that did to business and to home owners in the United Kingdom. A million home owners faced negative equity and hundreds of thousands of homes were repossessed as a result.

Economic stability will be the foundation on which we intend to build a better future for our people and our country. Nothing we will do will put that at risk. We are putting in place the certainty that comes from low inflation year after year, with low mortgages and sustained jobs in all parts of Britain. Business will be able to plan ahead and to grow and be prosperous as a result. That approach is reflected in the Queen's Speech, which is why I commend it to the House.

Debate adjourned.--[Mr. Betts.]

Debate to be resumed on Monday next.

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