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The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): Up to the end of 2000, a total of 143 comprehensive schools had closed since May 1997. That figure includes schools that have closed owing to the amalgamation or merger of two or more schools, and schools in local education authorities that have moved from a three-tier to a two-tier education system.
Sir David Madel: The right hon. Lady is aware that, following the closure of the upper school in Houghton Regis, Northfields upper school, in Dunstable, faces additional challenges. She is also aware of the changing nature of employment in my constituency, where there have been heavy job losses in the motor and allied industries. Will she do all she can to grant Northfields school technology status, the better to prepare its young people for the new, high-skilled jobs that are so essential to the south Bedfordshire area?
Ms Morris: Indeed I am aware of Northfields school--thanks to the hon. Gentleman's efforts, it is one of the schools emblazoned on my memory. I fully recognise that he has campaigned long and hard for it to be granted specialist status. I can say no more than that I know that it has submitted a bid--I think for the third time--which will be evaluated against a set of criteria. We shall just have to wait and see. However, it is acknowledged that if schools are really to serve their children, they need to reflect on the changing demands of a changing local economy. I am delighted that he has a school in his constituency that accepts that responsibility and is gearing up to meet it. I very much hope that, if not this term, then at some time in future, Northfields school will achieve specialist status. I, like the hon. Gentleman, realise that that will further help it to deliver quality education for his constituents.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): Since 1997, we have created 120,000 free early education places for three and four-year-olds. We will announce figures for 2000-01 shortly. All four-year-olds and half of all three-year-olds are now entitled to free part-time early education places. In the same period, 298,000 new child care places for 546,000 more children have also been created.
Mr. Corbyn: I thank the Minister for that reply. I am pleased at the increase in the number of nursery and pre-school places, and I compliment the Government on it. Will she consider a specific and rather unusual problem? Some primary schools have developed nursery classes, but because of the perversity of the charging system, independent, voluntary and local authority day nurseries
Ms Hodge: The whole thrust of our policy on expanding early years education and child care is to develop integrated places, bringing together early years education and child care to best meet the needs of children and of the modern family. I hope that the nurseries in my hon. Friend's constituency will take advantage of the substantial new resources that are available to create integrated places, which could be in nursery schools or in nurseries in the private and voluntary sectors. Following the Chancellor's announcement on the increases in child care tax credit, places, especially in areas such as inner London, are now affordable to low-income families.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does the Minister recognise that although there has been an increase in nursery places attached to schools, the number of pre-school playgroups has fallen during the Government's time in office? There has also been a dramatic diminution in the number of registered child minders. Does she realise that the Government are doing further harm by their surreptitious announcement last week of a new stealth tax on small primary schools? When my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) introduced the citizens charter and the charter mark, small schools could apply for the latter free. The Government are now preventing small schools from applying by imposing a stealth tax charge of £600 to be considered for a charter mark. Many schools in my constituency with successful nursery classes have succeeded in winning charter marks, but now they will not even be allowed to apply. Is not that yet another scandal and another example of the Government betraying small schools?
Ms Hodge: It is sad that Conservative Members never quite get their facts right. The additional costs will be met by the Department, so there will be no additional costs to schools. I shall repeat what I said earlier about places in playgroups. There has been a steady decline in pre-school places, which started under the previous Government because of their divisive nursery voucher scheme. We have replaced that with planned partnerships, and this year for the first time the number of places available in pre-schools has increased by 5,900. We are aware of the decline in places with child minders, which is why we have introduced start-up grants to assist child minders. That is already having an effect, and we are confident that there will be 145,000 new child minder places by 2004.
13. Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South): If he will estimate the number of (a) lone parents, (b) young people and (c) long-term unemployed young people who have entered the work force under the new deal. 
The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Ms Tessa Jowell): The latest figures, to the end of December 2000, show that 81,311 lone parents and at least 274,230 young people aged 18 to 24 have found work through the new deal. In addition, 62,570 long-term unemployed people aged over 25, and 20,385 people in the new deal 50-plus have found jobs through the new deal.
The combined effect of the strong, stable economy, the new deal and the efforts of hundreds of thousands of unemployed people enabled us to announce yesterday that we have reached a milestone. For the first time in 25 years, claimant unemployment has fallen below 1 million.
Mr. Griffiths: Does the Minister remember meeting unemployed people a decade ago, during the recession, who despaired of ever again getting a job? Hundreds of people in my constituency have benefited from the new deal, and tell me that it has transformed their lives. Does my hon. Friend share my deep regret that the policy that has brought about that great prosperity for people is under threat from the Conservative party?
Ms Jowell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government offer the prospect of a better, strengthened new deal that gives opportunity for long-term unemployed people. The Opposition offer no deal.
European Standing Committee C--Relevant European Union document: 10802/00; Waste electrical and electronic equipment. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee reports HC 28-i (2000-01) and HC 23-xxix (1999-2000).