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11.39 pm

Estelle Morris: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I shall be brief, as I want to give one hon. Member from each of the main Opposition parties time to speak. It is a pleasure for me to begin this debate, but I shall start by offering some thanks to my ministerial team—my hon. Friends the Under–Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the Minister for School Standards and the Under–Secretary of State for Wales—who took the Bill

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through Standing Committee. I wish to thank also those Officers of the House who, as ever, have helped and guided us, and my officials in the Department.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Estelle Morris: Very well.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The right hon. Lady says that she feels pleasure. Should not she feel shame that the Bill has not been properly discussed in this place?

Estelle Morris: That is a pity. I was just about to thank Opposition Members for—from time to time—engaging in constructive and enjoyable debate. I was not a member of the Standing Committee, but I was told that on several occasions Opposition Members were offered the opportunity to sit later in the evening, but that on every occasion they chose not to do so.

Mr. Brady: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Estelle Morris: I shall in a moment.

There have been two days during which to debate the Bill—one of which was extended this evening. To a large extent, the Opposition's use of that time was determined by them. I sat through debate on a string of amendments last night. The Opposition had the choice—

Mr. McLoughlin: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. How can the Secretary of State get away with misleading the House in such a vile way—[Interruption.]—when the fact is—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would wish to choose his words more carefully.

Mr. McLoughlin: How can the Secretary of State equate what she says with what actually happened today, when the Government spent 198 minutes on a motion and the Opposition Chief Whip had to move the closure so that we could begin to make a little progress? It is outrageous for the right hon. Lady to say what she is saying.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I understand the hon. Gentleman's feelings on the matter, but it is a matter for debate not for the Chair.

Estelle Morris: The Bill is about children out there—

Mr. Brady rose

Estelle Morris: Those children deserve a good standard of education in our schools—[Hon. Members: "Give way!"] I am not giving way. If hon. Gentlemen will shut up, I shall give the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) time to respond, but the more I have to give way, the less time there will be for the debate.

The Bill is important. It builds on the success of the past four years of Labour Government. It means that we can build on the successes in primary education,

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recognised by the Ofsted annual report yesterday and the PISA—programme for international student assessment—report published at the end of last year.

The Bill recognises that we have a hugely accountable schools service. We know where our strengths lie and the Bill allows us to use our time and energy to provide greater support for those schools that are failing, and to free up the school system so that schools can be the initiators of reform. We have an accountable system and, in coming years, I look forward to being able to build on our success, working on the ideas that come from our best teachers, our best school leaders and our strongest local education authorities so that they lead the next generation of educational reform.

I am also delighted that we have taken powers in the Bill to free up the curriculum, especially for 14 to 19-year-olds. In future months, I look forward to debates in the House about better opportunities for the many who have failed in the past.

In essence, the measure will ensure that every child who attends a school in this country has the opportunity to succeed and flourish; to build on their talents; and to be taught in well-led schools by teachers who are well trained, with the chance of professional development. During the past four years, we have made tremendous progress. That progress is recognised not only by Labour Members, but by parents throughout the country.

I have every confidence that the Bill provides the measures that we need to ensure that we deliver what we are concerned about—not counting up the number of minutes of Members' speeches, but making sure that our teachers and school leaders have the tools to do the job.

I commend the Bill to the House.

11.44 pm

Mr. Damian Green: On Second Reading, the Bill was opposed not only by Conservative Members but by nearly everyone else in education, because it concentrates on structures not standards. It will do nothing much to improve the standard of education.

The Bill has not been improved by the parliamentary process, despite the efforts of Members of all the Opposition parties in Committee, because of the Government's contempt for the House and their attempt to deny debate at every stage.

What the Secretary of State said about the Standing Committee is a travesty of the truth. What happened in Committee was that, apart from imposing too strict a guillotine on the entire timetable, the Government also imposed intermediate guillotines, which ensured that there was not enough time for debating every controversial clause in the Bill.

That is how the Government behaved in Committee and they have continued to behave as outrageously on Report. Today, 17 groups of amendments were on the amendment paper. We have dealt with three of those groups and we finished with the first group only because the Opposition Chief Whip moved a closure. The Government were happy and prepared to spend the entire day and night discussing one group of amendments, leaving many important issues entirely undebated.

The Government will also know that, partly because we have not been able to have a vote on a matter of particular interest to Welsh Members, which was also not debated

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in Committee, the entire part of the Bill dealing with Wales—a significant part—has not been discussed at any stage in this House. That is a complete insult.

We must now invite another place to consider how well this House has done its duty. At least the Government have failed so far in their plans completely to emasculate their lordships House as well, so we can still invite their lordships to do their job fully and thoroughly, not least because of the areas that we have failed to debate tonight, which cover an enormous range of policies that are deeply important to schools, parents and teachers.

We have not discussed the Government's proposals on sixth forms or schools' powers to form companies—a radical and revolutionary proposal that the Government welcome and that everyone agrees is one of the most important changes to affect our schools—[Interruption.] The Government seem to think that it is funny that we have not debated it. Also, we did not debate the governance and financing of maintained schools, schools forums or admissions policy. If the Government do not think that admissions policy is important to every parent, they are even more out of touch than I thought. We have not discussed the proposals on school organisation, which would allow the setting up of academies and other new schools.

Finally, we have not discussed the curriculum, although a huge number of amendments were tabled that would change it. Nothing could be more at the heart of our school system than what is taught and learned in our schools.

The Government have failed to allow any proper discussion in the House and it is a disgrace. The Secretary of State should realise that in the long run this is not just a parliamentary matter. Clearly, it is serious that the House is held in contempt by the Executive of the day, but it is more than a parliamentary matter. It will affect everyone in the country. We will be piling up problems for our schools and their teachers and pupils because the House will be passing bad and inadequate law.

Mr. Key: Does my hon. Friend also agree that schools are dreading the regulatory impact of much of the legislation. What really matters to head teachers and parents in my constituency is, for example, the impact of the decriminalisation of cannabis on the sixth form life of their schools. We have not even discussed that tonight.

Mr. Green: The Government could have given the House the opportunity to debate that and many other important measures. They have deliberately failed to do so. The tests that the House and the country will set the Bill are: will it encourage a single extra teacher to stay in the profession; will it cut the red tape that is driving teachers out of our class rooms; and will it improve discipline in our schools? The answer to all those questions is a very clear no.

Conservative Members would have welcomed moves to give more freedom to schools to improve standards. In our period in office, we gave schools those freedoms. Those are the freedoms that this Government have taken away. The Bill will increase the centralisation of our education system. Every important decision will have to go across the desk of the Secretary of State. That is not the way to run a modern, flexible education system.

Apart from the fact that the Bill is another turn of the ratchet in making Parliament irrelevant, we now know that not only are the Government holding this House in

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contempt tonight, but that they propose to do so through the institutions of the Bill. The fact is that the Bill will take away the power of the House to pass primary legislation on important details. The Government will deal with all important details by secondary legislation. They have amply shown their contempt for the House, and the Bill shows that even further.

The Bill was inadequate on Second Reading, and the Government have conspired to ensure that the House cannot fulfil its function of improving it. For the sake of our schools, we must ask the Members of another place to do their best to reduce the damage. The Bill was inadequate; it is still inadequate, and I invite those hon. Members from all parties who care about our schools and our children's education to reject it.

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