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30 Mar 2006 : Column 1060

Points of Order

12.19 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether I could ask you to examine this proposition and to use, if you think it right, your authority to improve an infuriating situation that increasingly concerns me. I received a reply from the Foreign Office on Tuesday to a question in which I asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to define the British national interest in the middle east. After five working days, the reply came that the Foreign Office would let me know shortly what the definition of British national interest is in the middle east. That in itself is an outrage. However, the following day, I got a more detailed answer that merely refers me to a website at the Foreign Office at which the answer about the British national interest is apparently given. Incidentally, that practice is widespread across many Departments. I believe that it is right that if Members of Parliament ask a parliamentary question, they are entitled to a full answer from the Department, not some impertinent note referring them to a website, which they may or may not have time to go into to try to find the answer. If a proper parliamentary answer is to be given to Parliament, it should be given in the Queen's English in understandable terms, so that Members of Parliament have it on the record and do not have to go off to the Library to ask someone to look it up for them.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I suspect that I am possibly more used to gaining access to websites than my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), but I have great sympathy for his concern, because a website can change—it can be edited and amended—whereas a parliamentary answer remains on the record.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): The Leader of the House, who is sitting on the Front Bench, is perhaps the appropriate person to hear what the hon. Gentlemen have said, because he looks after the interests of Members—as, of course, does the occupant of the Chair. Although the occupant of the Chair has no responsibility for answers given by Ministers, it is right that Members of Parliament should get the fullest help when they ask parliamentary questions and not be faced by either undue delay or any kind of elongated paper chase. However, it is not uncommon for parliamentary answers to refer to other documents or previous answers, so that cannot be excluded, one suspects, in the name of efficiency. On the whole, there should be a bias in favour of providing succinct and prompt answers to Members of Parliament.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In my business question a moment ago, I properly referred to the importance of climate change, with reference to the Prime Minister's remarks. My further observations involved making a sensible request, particularly in the light of the investigation that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is to undertake into matters connected with the Kyoto protocol post-2012. Will you rule whether the Leader of the House was in order in not addressing that issue or
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being helpful in response to a Member's question, as the code of ministerial practice requires, in not indicating whether parliamentary time was available to assist the work of the Select Committee and in responding to me in simply party political terms on a serious issue?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: It would not be a unique occasion in the annals of parliamentary history if a Minister did not give the fullest answer to a question. The right hon. Gentleman must not pursue business questions now, but in a spirit of indulgence, as we are on the eve of the recess, I allowed him to put that point on the record.


Housing Corporation (Delegation) etc.

Mr. Secretary Prescott, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Geoffrey Hoon, Mr. Secretary Clarke, Mr. David Miliband, Yvette Cooper and Jim Fitzpatrick presented a Bill to make provision about the delegation of functions by the Housing Corporation and Housing for Wales and about the validation of things done or evidenced by, and the authentication of the fixing of, their seals: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Tuesday 18 April, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 164].


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Appropriation Act 2006

Council Tax (New Valuation Lists for England) Act 2006

Merchant Shipping (Pollution) Act 2006

Criminal Defence Service Act 2006

National Insurance Contributions Act 2006

Terrorism Act 2006

London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006

Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006

Consumer Credit Act 2006

Identity Cards Act 2006

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006

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Adjournment (Easter)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

12.24 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): At the last election, I made five personal pledges to my constituents. All those pledges appeared in my election literature, and one of them was to turn two schools in the east of my constituency—Mitcham Vale and Tamworth Manor—into academies. Both schools have been completely rebuilt since 1997, and they have some of the best facilities anywhere in the country, but while other schools in Merton are improving fast, they are both still in the bottom few per cent. of the country's schools for GCSE results and for the value that they add to pupils' education. In Mitcham Vale, nine out of 10 boys still fail to get five good GCSEs.

Local people are well aware that those schools are poor. They both have space for 1,200 pupils, but they are barely half full. Every year, I see dozens of parents in my surgery, many in tears, because they have been told that the schools that they want are full and that their children must go to either Mitcham Vale or Tamworth Manor. So, on the doorstep, the reaction to the suggestion of creating academies was very positive, as residents are fed up with bad behaviour and low results. They want to see schools with a new ethos, strong discipline and good results. So my pledges went down well at the ballot box. Although Mitcham and Morden was Conservative until 1997, Labour's majority is now more than 30 per cent.

I am pleased to say that Merton's Labour council shares my belief that academies, with new sixth forms to attract ambitious students, could take both schools out of the doldrums. The council is working hard to get the new academies opened in September this year—a very tight timetable. Like me, it is concerned that any delay could make the schools unsustainable.

At this point, I should stress that we have had great support from the Department for Education and Skills and, in particular, Lord Adonis. In fact, I cannot praise my noble Friend enough. In my nine years as an MP, I have witnessed some truly excellent Ministers, but he has always been available for advice and support, and he has been the most helpful of all. I hope that that can be put on the record.

With the support of the DFES, we were able to find two excellent sponsors for our academies. One of them was the Church of England, which has been involved in education for centuries. That sponsor would appeal to many of my constituents who want a local faith-based school. We have a very large African population in Mitcham, and a school based on Christian values, morality and good behaviour will appeal to many parents.

The other sponsor was Lord Harris of Peckham, whom hon. Members perhaps best know of as a close ally of the new Conservative leader, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). The general public may know of him as the millionaire owner of Carpetright, but in south London, he is also known as a sponsor of several successful schools. His Croydon city technology college started in 1990, with 57 first-choice
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applications and only 13 per cent. of pupils getting five A to C GCSEs. Now the figures are about 3,000, and 91 per cent. respectively. Bacon's technical college's results have gone from 14 to 72 per cent., and the academy in Peckham now has a sixth form of 130 students, where previously there was none. Independent data put Harris schools in the top 6 per cent. in England. I may not agree with the noble lord's politics, but even I have to admire his personal commitment and drive to educate children who often find things tough in south London.

Both sponsors would give their schools an immediate change of ethos, which is just what they need if they are to attract students, improve results and, in the end, stay open. The wonderful new facilities at those schools were built using the private finance initiative, so there were still significant financial and legal issues to overcome, but I am pleased to say that they have been sorted out, thanks to hard work by those in the DFES and Merton council. That takes us to the consultation stage.

Earlier this year, there were three public meetings, attended by more than 500 people. A questionnaire was sent to all local parents and another was put on Merton's website. I, too, ran a survey of residents in the neighbourhoods around the schools. There was a well-organised campaign against academies, led by unions, governors and retired teachers, who, for perfectly honourable reasons, believe that religions and business men should not be involved in our schools. Those who ran the consultation went a long way to ensure that those voices were heard. Indeed, some people complained that the eight or nine people behind the campaign against academies all got to speak at length at the meetings, drowning out the voice of ordinary parents, but at least they had a chance to air their concerns and to have their questions answered. For instance, it was made clear that the schools would be charitable trusts. The new sponsors could not profit from them or sell their assets. If for any reason a school closed, its land would revert to the ownership of the local authority. It was also made clear that there would be no selection by ability.

The result of the consultation was a clear majority in favour of the proposals, by about two to one. Sadly, there were only about 700 responses—three quarters of them as a result of my survey—but it is fair to say that that whole process showed no widespread opposition to the plans. Next was the simple matter of getting Merton council's overview and scrutiny panel to agree. Labour does not have a majority on that committee, even though Merton is a Labour council, so this was obviously a concern.

Back in September, however, a rising political star made an amazing statement. He said:

That speaker was the right hon. Member for Witney. So, there was no way that Merton's Conservatives would now oppose city academies or behave in a way that was opportunistic and insincere, or was there? Well, while
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the Leader of the Opposition in the country was telling us that he wanted to speed up the creation of city academies, the Conservative party in Merton decided to slow it down. In November, it brought a motion to Merton council

When it lost that motion, it put out leaflets that said:

the schools

Merton's Conservatives seemed not to notice that the only peer involved in the Merton academies was a Tory and an ally of their leader, or that he would be investing his own money in the schools, not receiving money from Merton council tax payers. But, of course, when the crunch came at the overview and scrutiny meeting, surely they would follow their leader and back academies. Well, there might be a new face at the top, but on the ground, they are still the same old Tories, and yes, they are opportunistic and insincere, because, along with a handful of unelected so-called representatives, they voted to ignore the public and reject academies.

Thankfully, there was still time to hold an emergency cabinet meeting, where the proposals were put back on timetable. However, there are still other hurdles to be crossed if the schools are to become academies in September. There are still more meetings to come. I am raising the issue today to draw attention to the damage being done by local politicians who are opportunistic and insincere—politicians who deliberately defy their leader and when he says "flip" they say "flop"; politicians who would rather put their personal agendas ahead of the future of thousands of children. Our children get only one chance. Funding in Merton's schools is up by more than £1,300 per pupil since 1997. Results have gone up at all key stages and many of our schools, including Mitcham Vale and Tamworth Manor, have been rebuilt.

Sadly, however, the fact is that some schools need extra help. I believe that academies are one answer. My constituents agree with me. My local council agrees with me. Even the Leader of the Opposition agrees with me. I hope that, as a result of this Adjournment debate, we can persuade Merton's Conservatives to agree with all of us, to stop behaving so irresponsibly, and to start putting our children first.

12.34 pm

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