Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Geraint Davies: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way twice. He has painted a picture of a Labour strategy of excessive spending and taxation, but the statistics show that although we are spending more on health, education, crime prevention and so on, we are spending less on failure--on unemployment and debt. As a share of total GDP, total Government spend is marginally down because we do not have to service the same debt as the Conservatives. Tax and borrowing as a share of GDP is also down. All aspects of policy are good, even according to the right hon. Gentleman's terms.

Mr. Davis: The hon. Gentleman assumes that the effects of the upturn of the economic cycle will always be available to the Government. Incidentally, he assumes that the effects of 20 years of Conservative reforms will always be available to a Government who follow a social democratic programme. That is not plausible. We are not just interested in the waste--as he rightly calls it--of people on unemployment benefit; we are also concerned about the waste in government.

I did not intend to mention this, but as the hon. Gentleman has raised it and as he is a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I should explain that the Treasury assesses that the PAC has saved £1.5 billion a year so far. Is he really saying that that cannot be multiplied 10 times over by a Government who are determined to do their job properly, because it certainly can? He should accept that before he makes any more fatuous comments.

In conclusion, there is great scope for increasing savings beyond the £8 billion proposed by Conservative Front Benchers. It might be possible to double that in the following year. In addition, the Government's shortfall in spending appears to be systemic at about £5 billion a year--sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. The result is that we are systematically paying £5 billion a year too much tax. In addition, we have the obsession with debt that I described earlier. It is not at all implausible that an incoming Conservative Government could, in their third year, consider tax cuts of some £20 billion, which would go some way to restoring the situation that existed when this Government came to power.

The simple fact is that the strategy that the Government have followed will not, in the long term, deliver economic success for this country. The Prime Minister likes to talk about preferring "what works". What works is freedom, as Conservative Governments have demonstrated over the years. We need freedom from excessive regulation, excessive taxation and excessive Government meddling. It is clear that the Government have not understood that message. I trust that the next Conservative Government will understand it and apply it with vigour.

8.30 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): I apologise for being absent for a couple of hours of the debate while I attended a Select Committee meeting and polished off a couple of related reports.

I pay my respects to the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), who has just left his place. He and I come from the same part of Scotland. He became a

12 Mar 2001 : Column 702

magician and I kicked a football about. I have retained my accent, but he has slightly lost his--I do not know why. Our politics diverged very early in life and are very different now, but I pay credit to his hard work for his constituents, the county, his party and, indeed, his country. I look forward to working with his successor, who will undoubtedly--and, I hope, soon--be a Labour MP. The right hon. Gentleman and I will no doubt meet again on the A11 dual carriageway, which the Government have now allowed to be developed. He will be glad that we finished the work that he started, although I note that it took a Labour Government to finish it off.

I am pleased to speak in the debate, and I want to concentrate on the growing confidence in Norfolk, especially in education, although it is reflected in other sectors. Norfolk county council is taking up Government initiatives. I pay tribute to the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, who have worked hard together to implement those initiatives, shown great entrepreneurial spirit and kept in touch with reality. I pay tribute also to Norfolk's outstanding director of education, Dr. Bryan Slater.

Norfolk local education authority is responding to the Government's agenda of high standards for all and dealing with the legacy of the laissez-faire, market forces approach of the Conservatives nationally and locally, which has directly led to under-performance in far too many schools and low standards for far too many children. Norfolk now has a rapidly improving standard across the board, and at key stage 2 the improvement in our pupils' performance over the past three years has been the highest of any of the shire counties.

Norfolk is achieving that by challenging and supporting its schools in the way expected by the Secretary of State, and by making the best possible use of increased Government funding and education initiatives. The extra funding for schools announced in the Budget will therefore be put to good use in Norfolk. It will add to the pump-priming money that Norfolk will receive as part of its capital service agreement with the Government, which it signed recently. Norfolk will deliver even better performances in its schools in return for up to £4 billion of extra funding, and will do so by using the new flexibilities provided by the Department for Education and Employment.

Norwich, part of which I represent, is the heart of the county. Over the years, it has had education problems, but six schools, including two high schools that were in special measures, have been restored to health in the past three years. Norwich still has problems with fast economic growth and with the increase in the number of pupils. That has created a difficulty for the LEA in finding school places.

The problem stems from planning consents given by Conservative-controlled district councils that do not require developers to contribute to what can often be small towns on the edge of conurbations. In my constituency there are two growth areas with many new houses, but no schools were built, which has created problems. It would make sense if, in the next Parliament, regulations were introduced to make developers' contributions to infrastructure a mandatory element of planning consent. I believe that the Secretary of State has some sympathy with that view.

12 Mar 2001 : Column 703

It is opportune to congratulate the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State on the forward-looking initiatives announced in the recent Green Paper on education, "Schools: Building on Success". Much of the media attention has focused on the proposal significantly to increase the number of specialist schools. Norfolk has already embraced the idea of specialist schools and 10 have been set up in the past two years. Ten more are in the pipeline, and expansion of the specialist schools programme will be music to their ears.

The specialist schools in Norfolk's network are working together to improve standards for all children in all schools. I hope that the Secretary of State will accept the ultimate logic that all secondary schools should develop a specialism, that those that might find it difficult to raise sponsorship funding should be given the financial help that they need, and that particular attention should be paid to the difficulties of schools in less-advantaged areas as well as those in sparsely populated rural areas where there is no large employer to call on as a sponsor. It would be a tragedy if a two-tier secondary school system were to result from the specialist schools programme. Experience in Norfolk to date shows that there is no reason why that should happen. I shall return to that point in a few minutes.

There are a number of other positive features to the Green Paper proposals. This country has lagged disastrously behind other developed countries for many years in its failure to develop a system of secondary schooling in which academic and vocational education are of equal worth. Of critical importance to providing appropriate provision for all individual learners is the development of a system in which individualised pathways, involving a mixture of academic, vocational and work-related activities, can be provided. The Green Paper proposals offer the first real hope for the development and implementation of such an approach in our schools since the abandonment of the technical and vocational education initiative in the early 1990s.

Equally, if used sensitively and in the interests of the individual learner, proposals to enable individual young people to progress at different rates will provide a further means of ensuring that not only the content but the pace of learning is more likely to be appropriate and therefore to continue to engage the individual learner in learning. Those two developments underline the importance of developing through the new Connexions service, comprehensive and effective guidance for young people as they progress through the secondary education system.

Equally welcome are the clear statements about the role of local education authorities--reformed education authorities, in the language of the Green Paper--in future. All the signs are that local authorities have recognised and acted on their duties to raise standards.

The Green Paper also makes strong statements about the need to ensure collaboration and mutual development across schools. The stated intention of the welcome proposal for expansion of the specialist schools programme--both in the number of schools and the range of specialism--is to drive collaboration and not competition. That feature of the Green Paper has attracted the most comment and criticism since its publication.

12 Mar 2001 : Column 704

Many have argued that the need for schools to attract external sponsorship in order to make a bid for specialist status will result in a two-tier system of secondary schooling, in which schools in more affluent areas are able to achieve specialist status, while others are not. That point is worthy of some examination in the Norfolk context.

Norfolk has rapidly developed a network of specialist schools: six technology schools, two sports colleges, one arts school and one language school. It has done so exactly in the spirit of the Green Paper, by developing a geographical spread and a range of specialism with the explicit expectation that schools will share the developing expertise across the secondary sector. That approach has been adopted as an intentional counter to the clearly emerging two-tier perception of secondary schooling in parts of the county--most notably the urban areas. The accumulated effect over a number of years of previous legislation and its interaction with local circumstances has come dangerously close to producing sink schools in some areas. Happily, things have moved on, and none of the worst-affected schools are any longer subject to special measures.

That pattern can be properly reversed only over a period of time, with schools and the LEA working together in the shared belief that all schools can be good schools. We must remember that it is the education of every child that counts. I passionately hold to the view that it is not necessary to have endemically weak schools in order that the majority of children can receive a good education.

The opportunity further to expand the specialist school system in Norfolk in a collaborative framework is therefore welcome news. However, it is slightly galling that it comes only weeks after the Department for Education and Employment wrote to tell Norfolk that it was nearing its ceiling for the number of specialist schools that it could have. That position has been reversed, and that will come as great encouragement to the 10 schools that are bidding to join the existing 10 specialist schools, and to the entire secondary sector.

Next Section

IndexHome Page