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5.53 pm

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. No Opposition Member wants to denigrate the teaching profession. I was briefly a teacher in Australia, and know how hard teaching is; I had a tough time of it. I shall shortly concentrate on an issue pertaining to my own constituency, but I cannot resist holding the Government to account for the manifest failings of their teaching policies.

The Government promise, to which the Liberal Democrat spokesman alluded, has a hollow ring for those of us who have children in state education in inner London. The Government promised "Education, education, education," but last week, my children were not in education at all; they were knocking around at home. I have no hesitation in using my children as a

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political football, because they always use me as a football. The Government should apologise to those of us with children in state education in inner London; despite their promise of "Education, education, education", they have devolved it to us. What greater failure of government could there be than to precipitate the first strike of the National Union of Teachers in 30 years, resulting in my family having educate our children at home last Thursday?

Anybody who listens to teachers, as I do in my constituency, and hears their horrendous tales of top-down control and having to fill in forms, knows that, contrary to the Government's assertions, the Opposition have good ideas for alleviating those problems.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester): Name one.

Mr. Johnson: Here is an idea for the man who wants to ban fox hunting, which I offer in all humility. It may not be as good as some of the brainy ideas of the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), who went on about benchmarking, best practice and socio-economic indicators—there was some good and interesting stuff about low expectation thresholds and so on—but I am genuinely interested in the Government's response to it. When I visit schools in my constituency, I am struck by the lack of something that teachers had when I was at school: respect, in the words of Ali G—[Interruption.] The groans of Government Members are interesting; I suspect that, sadly, they are congenitally opposed to the solution that I am about to give.

Head teachers in my constituency tell me that they cannot oblige children to spend half an hour picking up crisp packets as punishment for a misdemeanour, because their parents will come to the school and get stroppy. They have no authority any more. It may be pompous of me to talk about respect in the classroom, but I think that, having taken the trouble of being elected to Parliament, I am allowed to be pompous. It is important to restore respect. I am earnest in wishing to know whether or not the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), agrees that that is a fundamental problem in our schools.

Mr. Hendrick: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many of the kids at school today are the children of people of my generation? Twenty years ago, when my generation was looking for work, there were 4 million unemployed people; our generation did not get much respect from the previous Government. Kids today are the children of those parents.

Mr. Johnson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reiterating the old cry that it is all society's and, presumably, Mrs. Thatcher's, fault. Personally, however, I do not think that she is to blame. There has been a calamitous falling-off in the respect in which teachers are held. Teachers used to be people who did not just impart instruction, but were treated with dignity, honour and respect by their charges. It would be a good thing if that respect were restored. We should give back autonomy to teachers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) said, as well as the ability to discipline children; we should restore the old assumption that teachers, not children or parents, tend to be in the right.

David Taylor: I thank the hon. Member for Pomposity on Thames for giving way. How did the previous

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Government, whom he supported, show respect for teachers, when they allowed class sizes to become unacceptably large and teachers to teach in schools, laboratories and classrooms that were 30, 40 or 50 years out of date? Only recently has that problem begun to be addressed.

Mr. Johnson: It ill becomes the hon. Gentleman to return again, as his hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) did, to the so-called derelictions of the Conservative Government, when it is the present Government who have produced the first NUT strike in 30 years and who are depriving my children of the education that they promised. [Interruption.] I will not take sedentary interventions from a chap of whose identity I have no knowledge.

I promised to speak about a problem pertaining specifically to my constituency, Henley, and to south Oxfordshire, so I shall pass over my other objections to the Government's generally lax policy on education, particularly their divisiveness and chippiness in respect of Oxbridge admissions. The Government allegedly intend to introduce a 67 per cent. quota for admissions from the maintained sector. I should be interested to hear the comments of the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Wentworth, on that.

I am delighted to see the Minister in his seat. We have become old friends in the course of the unfolding catastrophe of the individual learning accounts. Some hon. Members may not be familiar with the disaster of the ILA affair. This is how it went: from September 2000, anyone could avail him or herself of £200 to cover the cost of computer training, a very good thing which we all, in principle, support. People dialled up a website, entered their name and supplied the name of their learning provider. They then received an ILA account number and could claim their £200 from the state.

It will not amaze the House if I say that the scheme was an invitation to fraud. In order to find a learning provider, people merely had to look in the mirror. It later turned out that a CD-ROM was available with ILA numbers to help people rip off the Government. The scheme was expected to have 1.1 million subscribers; it eventually had 2.5 million. It went 30 per cent. over budget and those who have reason to know say that the total cost was in excess of £550 million, half of which was defrauded from the Government by Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Del Boy Trotter and assorted other alleged purveyors—

David Taylor: And the Boris Johnson school of journalism?

Mr. Johnson: The hon. Gentleman should withdraw that assertion. I came nowhere near to defrauding the individual learning account system. My entire purpose in the debate is to speak in favour of those who honestly entered into deals with the Government and found themselves ripped off by the Government's breach of promise.

On 21 July 2001, the Government announced that the ILAs would continue "into the new era", but the gurgle of money down the drain turned into a roar and on

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24 October, the ILAs were suspended, with a closure date of 7 December. By 23 November, the panic in Whitehall was so great and the sums lost were so huge that the scheme was brought to a sudden and juddering halt. It turned out that it was so riddled with fraud that it could not go on another day. I understand that the fraudsters had penetrated the central database of Capita, the firm contracted to run the scheme, and were simply looting it at will.

The Minister has been generous with his time and has been helpful in my inquiries so far. Can he tell us what steps are being taken to penalise Capita, a firm with close links to the Government, and which paid £50 million to run the ILA scheme? It was a spectacular failure of administration. Why was Capita hired, when it had a history of epic bungling? For example, it was put in charge of administering Lambeth's housing benefit. Lambeth later cancelled the contract and pursued Capita for its fee after it emerged that there was a backlog of 30,000 claims and no fewer than 113,000 unopened letters. Many other councils had similar experiences with the company.

What steps are the Government taking to penalise the bunglers that they hired, and what steps to compensate the many hundreds of honest learning providers who have been faced with financial ruin because of the Government's panic-stricken pulling of the plug? We still do not know why it was necessary to close down the ILA scheme in November, rather than to modify it, make it fraud-proof, and allow the bona fide firms to continue.

People took out loans or remortgaged their houses and invested huge amounts of their own time and money, in the belief, backed up by constant Government assurances, that they were supplying a service that the Government not only desired but would help to pay for. They have been treated most shabbily. I speak not just for the Henley community online centre, which has been forced to close, but for about 1,000 other such companies across the country, which, as the Minister well knows, employed about 4,500 people. About £50 million of investment has been taken out of higher education. We still do not know how or when it will be put back. Though I have taxed the Minister before on the question, I should be grateful if he offered some clarification at the end of the debate.

Where is the compensation for those whose legitimate expectations inspired by the Government were frustrated, and where is the replacement scheme? If the Government are really committed to higher education, we will have a son of ILA; if not, many hundreds of thousands of students and hundreds of firms will learn the same lesson about the Government as the disappointed parents of London did: that Labour promised far more than it could deliver, and when it found that it was falling down on its promises, it ratted on them without so much as turning a hair. If that is how the Government honour their undertakings this time, they cannot expect to be believed in the future.

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