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Sir Michael Spicer: I agree and sympathise with my hon. Friend. I have received a similar number of letters. Indeed, my fax machine broke down. It has now been repaired and is spewing out more letters from unhappy constituents.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): I want to put it on record that I too have received many representations. In my much shorter parliamentary career, I have never experienced anything like it. I suspect that my office has received 1,000 letters, which will of course all get a reply. That number shows the strength of feeling, of which I hope the Minister will take account.

Sir Michael Spicer: I agree with my hon. Friend. Even the masses of letters in support of foxhunting have been greatly exceeded by those on the issue that we are considering. I was trying to calculate how long it had been since I previously received such quantities of mail. I believe that it was in 1974, when there was a mass revolt against the rate rises that were introduced by the then Labour Government.

Mr. Michael J. Foster (Worcester): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the sentiment of a letter that was sent to the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock), from a Conservative councillor in Bewdley? Mr. Stephen Groome said:

The letter continues:

Sir Michael Spicer: That is a good cue for my next point. It is no good the hon. Gentleman or the Minister

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saying that they inherited the problem. Labour's rhetoric, to which the hon. Gentleman was doubtless party, was partly responsible for bringing the Government to power. It suggested that they would wave a magic wand over education. However, for Worcestershire, the slogan "Education, education, education" is a sick joke.

Education services in Worcestershire are being progressively run down on the Minister's watch. The Government are going to have to do better than simply publish Green Papers that kick the problem into the long grass. That is not good enough. I hope that the Minister will not spend much of her speech saying that this problem is someone else's fault. She is in charge at the moment, and the problem has risen to a critical level during her term in office.

Of course, it is general election time, and the Government have felt the need to be seen to be doing something to remedy the problem. Instead of setting out to change the basic formula, they have this week made a larger than average one-off payment to Worcestershire of £1.35 million. That is about £1 million short of the amount needed to allow schools to run a standstill budget compared with last year. Unless the county steps in with local taxpayers' money, schools that might have ended up with a deficit budget of, say, £50,000--as was the case in one of the secondary schools in my constituency--will now be able to cut that by half.

As for the revenue support grant and the area cost adjustment formula--the source of the inequality of treatment between local education authorities--nothing has changed. As it is, the gap between the recipients of the largest amounts and the smallest will continue to grow, and dissatisfaction and disenchantment will well up. No amount of temporary bandaging will put that right.

What is required from the Minister is a clear statement that the present mumbo-jumbo, masquerading as a rational formula, will be abolished and that it will be replaced by a procedure that can be clearly understood. When costs are set nationally, allocation of funds should be on a strict per pupil basis. When there are genuine differences in costs or needs between areas, they should be properly identified. I hope that the Minister will at least say that this is her intention, and that she understands the growing urgency of the matter.

I would also like the Minister to respond to one more point. Next Wednesday, 7 February, a large delegation of governors and head teachers is coming to the House of Commons. Will she please say that she or one of her colleagues will meet a representative delegation from that group?

7.37 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): I congratulate the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) on securing this debate. I readily accept that this is what might be called the hot political issue in Worcestershire. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), is in Worcester tonight, so she cannot be with me on the Front Bench, although I know that she would otherwise have wished to be here.

I shall first respond to the request that the hon. Gentleman has just made about the meeting that is being held here next Wednesday. I received a letter today from

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a group calling itself parent governors. I had not realised that the group would consist of head teachers and governors. I told my office that I would be delighted to call in to the Grand Committee Room some time between 3.30 and 5 pm to meet them and listen to what they have to say.

Mr. Luff: I appreciate that this problem is not all the Minister's fault--it is also the fault of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Will she put pressure on one of her ministerial colleagues in that Department to meet the group, which will consist mainly of parent governors, but also of some head teachers? It would be only a small group, and it would be most helpful if the Minister could do that.

Ms Morris: I cannot commit my ministerial colleagues, and I know that the hon. Gentleman would not wish me to do so. It is sometimes difficult to secure time at such short notice. On the two days before the meeting, I shall visit schools outside London and I would not have been able to attend a meeting on those days, although I should not have intended any discourtesy. I am sure that people will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said, and that the invitation will be extended to my colleagues at DETR. I accept that SSAs are essentially a DETR responsibility.

I shall start on a note of agreement with the hon. Member for West Worcestershire. I am not here to defend SSAs; I am not prepared to do so. In his closing remarks, he spoke of a system of financing that was fair, transparent and flexible and that would acknowledge the needs of local areas. That is what we want as well.

Under this Government, the system will be changed. We are consulting on the matter at the moment. We really tried in our first year: we got everyone together from the Local Government Association, the counties and the urban areas, including London. The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that not one local authority leader--Tory, Liberal Democrat or Labour--is volunteering to say that they do well out of the present SSA structure. Therein lies the problem. London appears, on paper, to be exceptionally well funded. Representatives of London bodies come to the House and talk about the difficulties that they have with asylum seekers, and with people coming here without English as their first language. All those needs must be acknowledged.

I have said many times in Adjournment debates and outside the House that during our first year in office, when we hoped to achieve general agreement about changing the SSA system, we did not manage to achieve that agreement. We had a choice at that point: push a measure through, which we could have done with our majority and even though there was no consensus among local authorities, or wait, talk more, consider different models and try to get it right. I would sooner do the latter because getting it right is in the best interests of pupils, parents, governors and teachers. We will not be able to make a change again for a long time. The Conservative Government had experience of that. Changing the way in which education is funded year after year after year just confuses the situation.

The change to the formula will be massive and it has to be right. If making that change takes longer than we expected, I will make no apologies for that, although I am

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happy to acknowledge that I wish that we had been able to achieve agreement among local authorities in our first year in office.

When I was in opposition, I, too, received lots of letters from people in Staffordshire and Worcestershire about exactly the same problem. People have not begun to write such letters since 1997. We had big postbags before then, and the Conservatives did not make such a pledge. They did not even consider the SSA and did nothing to resolve what is essentially a difficult situation. I do not want to spend all my 15 minutes talking about that, but it is the truth.

The hon. Member for West Worcestershire is right that the formula is historic, but history did not begin in 1997. The formula has not served the people of this country well for many years, and that has affected his constituents and mine. Changing it is a tough job, but one that we are determined to do. I want to discuss general financing in Worcestershire.

Mr. Michael J. Foster: Before my right hon. Friend moves on to the current position and the future, may I take her back a step? Although there is consensus across the House about the need to change the SSA formula, is she aware that in 1991-92 Conservative-controlled Hereford and Worcester county council deliberately set a budget £5.4 million under education SSA? The consequence of that over the next 10 years was that children in Worcestershire were short-changed by some £42 million.

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