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Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con):
Is the Prime Minister aware that when the Department for Work and Pensions ran child benefit, it did a full audit on 20,000 names? When it was passed to the Inland Revenue, that was cut to 2,000 names, which is why the National Audit Office had to check its figures. Is he further aware that those protocols were agreed at a high level in
March between the NAO and the Inland Revenue, and when the NAO asked for narrow detailsnot peoples personal bank accountsthe Revenue said that to disaggregate that information would be too burdensome for the organisation? Those decisions were, therefore, taken at a high level. Is that not the image of a department that has had too much work loaded on it at the same time as it is cutting staff?
The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman raises a point that will be the subject of the investigation. I have to tell him that there is a dispute about what the NAO and HMRC said to each other about these particular data, but the important part of the inquiry is that it will reveal the truth of what happened.
Q10.  Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): I congratulate the Government on acknowledging veterans, most recently the Bevin boys, for their contribution during the war. Will my right hon. Friend give positive consideration to recognising the Land Army girls who worked tirelessly under extreme conditions for their nation during the same conflict?
The Prime Minister:
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the Government are sympathetic to the case for recognising the work of the Womens
Land Army. We are looking carefully at how that should be done, and we shall report back to the House in due course.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: They are often opposed by local people, then imposed by planning inspectors implementing Government targets for renewable energy. If the Prime Minister is serious about climate change, will he urgently restart Britains nuclear programme and stop industrialising the uplands of Britain with wind farms that are ugly, inefficient and unreliable?
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A week ago, the Prime Minister guaranteed in the House that copies of the successful bids for £6 million to prevent extremism would be placed in the Library. A week later, those documents are not in the Library, which has received a message from Downing street saying that there is no timetable for their delivery. What can you do, Mr. Speaker, to ensure that the Prime Ministers pledge to the House is honoured and that scrutiny of that £6 million by right hon. and hon. Members is allowed to proceed? After all, we do not want any further financial problems, do we?
Mr. Speaker: I will look at the record in Hansard. If the words spoken by the Prime Minister are exactly as the hon. Gentleman says, and I have no reason to doubt that they are, I would expect a promise made by a Minister on the Floor of the Housewhether by the Prime Minister or any other Ministerto be carried out. Let me look at Hansard, and I will get back to him. If it is as he says, and a Minister has made a pledge on scrutiny in the House, I will see to it that those documents are placed in the Library.
Mr. Speaker: We now come to the first debate on the Opposition motions. I inform the House that in each debate I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. Under the powers that have been given to me, the speeches of both Front-Bench spokesmen, and the spokesman of the third-largest political party represented in the House, will be restricted to 20 minutes.
That this House expresses its concern over recent reports that the Government is retreating on the Academies programme and calls on the Secretary of State to restore the freedom of Academies to operate outside the National Curriculum, to take steps to liberate them further from local authority control, and to recognise that Academies should act as a spur and encouragement to local authorities by pioneering innovative new approaches to helping the most disadvantaged; and further believes that the Academies programme should be expanded and accelerated with not only more Academies but also greater freedoms for new providers who wish to open all-ability schools in the state sector.
First, may I say what a pleasure it is to see the Secretary of State in his place today? Some of us imagined that after the events of the past 24 hours he might well have enjoyed a rapid promotion back to the Treasury, where he would sit at the right hand of the Gord. We will probably have to wait a few weeks before that miraculous assumption happens.
Talking of biblical themes, my mission today is to adapt the words of St. Francis of Assisi and see whether, where there is discord, we can bring harmony. I refer, of course, to the need to heal the breach in the Labour party on education and bring the Secretary of State back into line and on to the side of real reform. One of the most worrying aspects of the Secretary of States tenure is a crab-like inching away from the proper reform programme, which began under Tony Blair. In recent weeks, that process has taken on the aspect of a full-scale invertebrate retreat.
It was all so different only two years ago. In those days, the Government had a reputation for competence, and the Secretary of State was only a Back Bencher. The two may or may not be related. Only two years ago, the country was led by a Prime Minister who, whatever his defects, knew where he wanted to take the country. Now, we are led by a Prime Minister who, because of his defects, dare not even go to the country. Only two years ago, there was an emerging consensus on the need for the Government to promote a public sector reform vision, driven by greater pluralism, diversity and choice. Now, there is a growing consensus that the Government do not have a vision and that they are paralysed by cronyism, incompetence and weakness.
Nowhere has that abandonment of a progressive vision been more worrying than in education. On many occasions, the Secretary of State has revealed his anti-reform instincts. I shall run through them shortly. However,
there is still timeand hope, in my breast, at least, if not on the Labour Back Benches, that he may yet come good.
Michael Gove: I know that some of my hon. Friends doubt that, but I am a generous soul and I like to think that a young lad could rise to the occasion, on this day at least. I hope that he will take the opportunity that the debate presents to repent of his errors or, at the very least, to turn over a new leaf and make clear his commitment to reform.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): May I test the hon. Gentleman on his commitment to turning over a new leaf? If he became Secretary of State, would he give permission to a Conservative local authority, such as Buckinghamshire, that presented proposals for a new grammar school?
Michael Gove: It is normally the Labour party that raises grammar schools when it wants to divert attention from the divisions in its ranks. However, I can understand, given what is happening to the hon. Gentlemans candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Democratsthe so-called Calamity Cleggwhy he wants to divert attention.
Michael Gove: I apologise for drawing attention to the divisions in the Liberal Democrat party in that way. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) invites me to talk about our policyit is the same as it has always been. In those areas that retain the 11-plus, demographic change may mean that additional provision is needed, but we are not in favour of restoring it. In that respect at least, there is a measure of consensus in the House, although it may sometimes be broken by the aggressive instincts of the Minister for Schools and Learners when he is anxious to assert his pit bull characteristics.
Speaking of pit bull characteristics, the hon. Gentleman inevitably tries to intervene because he wants to acquire a reputation as the Rottweiler of the Back Benches. I am afraid that he must stay in his kennel for another couple of minutes. [Hon. Members: Down boy.] Indeed.
My purpose, in spelling out some of the matters on which the Government have slipped back in the reform agenda and pointing out ways in which they can fruitfully take matters forward, is constructive. I want the Secretary of State to realise that his tenure will be wasted if he listens to the reactionary voices in his party urging him to give producer interests and the complacent establishment a chance. I want to give him
the chance to deploy his intellectual gifts, which are still there, and the powers of his office in the service of reform, which will make opportunity more equal and help the disadvantaged most. My challenge to him is to be a moderniser.
Two years ago, there was a modernising consensus in the House of Commons. It drove the Education and Inspections Bill through and put it on the statute book, thanks to Conservative Members votes. The current Secretary of State was deeply unhappy with that at the time, as he told the New Statesman. However, that consensus was built on a powerful set of insights. Improvements in education had to be driven by not only a relentless focus on standards but a proper reform of structures.
In 2005, when the Blair Government published their education White Paper, the then Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State argued for greater pluralism and diversity in schools. They anticipated the development of fully independent schools in the state system. They hoped that local education authorities would play a progressively smaller role. They hoped that all new state schools would be created outside local authority embrace, and cited Florida and Sweden as exemplars. They looked at those states that had enacted thoroughgoing supply side reform with greater parental choice as their models. Schools outside local authority control, such as academies, would act as a goad and a spur to improvement. They would utilise their freedoms to pioneer new ways of doing things. They would also provide parents with a new choice: to take children out of failing schools and place them in more successful ones.
Michael Gove: That choice would mean new competition within the public sector, which would drive up standards. Will the hon. Lady say whether she still cleaves to that visionthe vision on which Tony Blair was elected in 2005?
Helen Jones: The hon. Gentleman talks about parental choice, but what he would say to the Conservatives in Warrington, who, along with the Liberal Democrats, are closing Woolston high school, contrary to parents wishes, while refusing to conduct a review of other schools in the borough? What is his message to his friends who are closing a vastly improved school, contrary to the wishes of people in the area?
Michael Gove: My message to them is that I sympathise with them, because of the surplus places rule and the funding arrangements, both of which were put in place by the Government. If they campaign on Conservative proposals for greater choice and control, they will have a Conservative MP in Warrington, as part of a Conservative Government delivering for parents. There is powerful evidence
Tom Levitt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is delivering his speech with his customary wit and charmwell worth the £1,000 a week that The Times pays him for pontificating on its pages. If he were to come to Chapel-en-le-Frith in my constituency, he would see a new high school and a new infant school, both of which have been built to replace schools that the previous Tory Government did not replace, even though they were completely derelict. Those schools were built as part of a plan to address the capital replacement needs of schoolsa plan that his party has abandoned this week. Is that not completely irresponsible and reckless of him?
Michael Gove: I will tell the hon. Gentleman what is completely irresponsible and reckless: making an intervention without studying the facts. I am afraid that he is completely wrong in his idea that we would abandon the building schools for the future programme. He must insist that the Government Whips Office supplies him with better questions. I like the hon. Gentleman and I enjoy his interventions, but quality needs to rise. I would like to see greater competition from his colleagues, so that he can feel involved and give us better interventions, and we can all benefit.
There is already powerful evidence that choice and competition work. In Hackney, the presence of new academies, such as Mossbourne community academy, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and I were privileged to visit yesterday, has driven up standards, not just for those who attend them, but for all schools. In Sweden, where a more thoroughgoing process of opening up the supply side has taken place, there is a direct correlation between the number of new independent schools in the state sector in a municipality and improvement in standards overall.
Reform brings results. But the question everyone is asking is: does the Secretary of State believe in real reform? There are several reasons why we fear that he does not. The first is the Secretary of States complete failure so far to make the case that choice, competition and contestability drive up standards. Professor Julian Le Grand, the then Prime Ministers senior policy adviser between 2003 and 2005, has written thousands of eloquent words making the case for choice. The preface to the 2005 education White Paper made the case. The co-ordinator of the 2005 general election victory, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), has made the case. He said:
As a parent I dont want power in the hands of either councils or schools...I want it in my hands. This is the new political agenda.
a compelling social justice case for doing so. For too long those who can afford it have been able to buy choice over health and education. Those without, do without...State control has not guaranteed equality of outcome...School choice programmes in Sweden, Denmark and the USA...show a beneficial impact on performance across schools as a whole.
I agree with the right hon. Gentlemans every word, but words such as those have not yet crossed the Secretary of States lips. Unlike the right hon. Member for Darlington, he has not had the courage to take on the reactionaries in his party, the unions and the
establishment, and make the liberal, modernising case. Today he can. We look forward to hearing it. If he fails to make that case, we and the world will draw the appropriate conclusionthat he lacks the bottle to fight for reform.
A bigger problem than the Secretary of States failure to make the case for choice, contestability and competition is the way in which his actions have spoken louder than his words, and the way in which he has diluted essential elements of the academy programme. This brings me to the second test that he is failing. He must ensure that academies are free from bureaucracy so that they can perform the functions that they were designed to achieve.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I do not like to disagree with my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, but I wonder whether he is being too kind in saying that the Secretary of State lacks the bottle for reform. Looking back over the 10 years of this Labour Government, was it not the Secretary of States master, the current Prime Minister, who at every stage opposed the reforms of the previous Prime Minister and prevented the excellence from spreading much more widely?
Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he makes a powerful case. We happy licence fee payers who were fortunate enough to watch The Blair Years on Sunday evening will have seen witness after witness testifying to the way in which the then Chancellor and his aides, supporters and advisers were thwarting the Blairite reform agenda at every turn. But my mum taught me in Sunday school that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, and I believe that, even at this late hour, there is an opportunity for the Secretary of State to embrace the reform agenda. He is intelligent enough to follow the logic; I hope that he is honest enough to recognise that now is the time for real change.
I want to elucidate one of the areas in which the Secretary of State has so far failed the test. His first act as Secretary of State was to limit the freedom of academies. Under him, academies were stripped of the right to shape their own curriculum and compelled to follow the national curriculum. They were also told that they would have to fall in line with local authority control. Rather than acting as a competitive force outside town hall control and levering up standards, they were to fall under the sway of bureaucrats.
We have already seen how Labour local authorities have succeeded in thwarting new academies in areas where educational provision is weak and the system desperately needs new providers. In Tower Hamlets, where Goldman Sachs wanted to set up an academy, the local authority said, No, we dont need no competition, even though the standards there are so poor that almost half the secondary schools fail to get 30 per cent. of their pupils to the level of five good GCSE passes, including in maths and English.
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