Previous Section Index Home Page

Following is the full text of the petition:

[ The Petition of Mr Brian Kewley, Postmaster and the customers of Lower Heswall Post Office, Wirral,

Declares that the proposal to close the Post Office will have a disproportionate impact on the community it serves due to the large proportion of elderly people who rely on the service, the nearest alternative Post Office which has little parking availability and is served by an infrequent bus service, being up a steep hill which presents problems for many of the customers, and the extent to which other traders in the Village rely on people coming to the Post Office.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to review urgently, with the Post Office, the policy of branch closures with a view to maintaining a Post Office service in the Village of Lower Heswall.

And the Petitioners remain, etc. ]


Family Courts (Reform)

10.14 pm

Mr. Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind): The petition states:

11 Dec 2007 : Column 272


Post Office Closures (Northamptonshire)

10.16 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I stood in the rain for more than an hour with 200 protesters in support of Little Harrowden post office, and it gives me great pleasure to present this petition. The petition states:


Post Office Closures (Brighton)

10.17 pm

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I present the third petition in one week against the proposed closure of another post office in my constituency. The petition is in the name of Mr. Keith Day and is signed by 1,556 residents and people working in businesses in the area. The petition states:


11 Dec 2007 : Column 273

School Funding (Shropshire)

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

10.18 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Madam Deputy Speaker, I should like to begin by thanking Mr. Speaker and you for granting me this debate. Since I was first elected in 1997, I have attempted to bring to the Government’s attention the problems and costs of delivering public services in a thinly populated rural county. Shropshire is one of the largest inland counties, but with 289,000 inhabitants it is one of the least populated areas of the United Kingdom. It has some of Britain’s most stunning scenery, but the long distances between its small towns and villages make the delivery of public services costly and difficult.

Despite the geographical challenges, Shropshire county council is to be congratulated on being one of the best performing counties in England; it is judged to be a four-star council. It is one of only two children’s services authorities to have consistently received top grades against all headings under Ofsted’s annual performance assessment process.

Shropshire has 141 primary schools, 22 secondary schools and two special schools. In 2007, Shropshire performed ahead of the national average on all 11 indicators for seven-year-olds. The pattern of results in Shropshire has largely mirrored or exceeded national changes. This year, we again secured top grades against the five every child matters outcomes. Shropshire’s performance has remained ahead of the national average for 11-year-olds in English, mathematics and science. Its performance has also remained ahead of the national average on eight of the nine available indicators for 14-year-olds and has moved further ahead in the key level 5-plus indicator in English and mathematics. For 16-year-olds, the indications are that the results for GCSE or equivalent are likely to be the best ever recorded in the county. All results of the seven available indicators have improved over the 2006 county figures, and they have moved further ahead of the equivalent national figures in six of the seven indicators. Shropshire is ranked either first or second on all the main indicators. Attendance in Shropshire continues to be over the national average, and Shropshire’s permanent exclusion rates remain low in comparison with other authorities in the west midlands.

That splendid track record is all the more remarkable when one considers that Shropshire is the second lowest funded of all 34 England upper-tier authorities. Shropshire’s guaranteed unit of funding per pupil for 2007-08 is £3,551. Based on 39,218 pupils as at January 2007, that delivers £139.3 million in dedicated schools grant to Shropshire. All-England average funding is £3,888 per pupil, leaving Shropshire with £337 less per pupil. If Shropshire received the funding of an average local authority, there would be £13.23 million more to spend on Shropshire’s children.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Coleham primary school in Shrewsbury receives, on average, £711 less per pupil than the national average. That equates to a deficit of £300,000 for just one school.
11 Dec 2007 : Column 274
The headmistress has asked to meet the Minister to discuss how on earth she will cope with that massive deficit.

Mr. Paterson: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for that support, but I am afraid to have to tell him that the position is going to get worse, because in 2010-11 the gap increases to £385, leaving Shropshire’s children £15.1 million behind.

Let me address this particularly to the Minister: I am not calling for a single penny more in taxation to be levied for education. Shropshire’s hard-working taxpayers are already taxed quite enough. My criticism is of the formula that distributes so much less taxpayers’ money back to Shropshire per pupil from Whitehall. The City of London receives £7,089 per pupil and Tower Hamlets receives £6,028, as against Shropshire’s £3,551. Perhaps a direct comparison would be with Ealing, which, with an almost identical number of pupils—39,250—receives £4,634 per pupil but in a much less sparse area. If Shropshire’s children received Ealing’s funding per pupil, they would have an incredible £42,486,428 extra. I repeat that I do not want a penny extra to be raised in tax, but I would like the Minister to explain how these extraordinary disparities come about. Does he believe that it is fair that a child in the City of London should receive back from general taxation twice what a child in Shropshire receives?

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Following on from my hon. Friend’s excellent point, the comprehensive spending review has just locked in funding per pupil for the next three years. In Shropshire and other rural authorities in the neighbouring area, we are now locked into well below average settlements because the Government have decided to abandon the previous formula, which was at least transparent and based on deprivation indices and others. That has been swept aside, and for the period of the CSR they are looking solely at increases based on percentages. That means that authorities at the bottom of the league table, such as Shropshire, which is sixth from bottom— [ Interruption ]and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) says, Lincolnshire, will now be locked into that disparity, which will widen over the next few years.

Mr. Paterson: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I am most grateful to him for coming with me to see the county council. I think that we have been there three times in the past three weeks. But again, the position is worse than he said.

Shropshire’s excellent education system is facing a major crisis that is wholly avoidable. Shropshire county council is predicting significant demographic change. There is a rising population with a relatively higher concentration of older people, and there is currently a decrease in the number of children under five, and in primary education. According to the county council’s figures, there will be 3,400 fewer pupils on the roll from 2001 to 2012. There are currently 2,500 unfilled primary school places, which will rise to 5,450 by 2012. That is predicted to lead to a cumulative shortfall of £3.8 million by 2010-11.

The council is proposing to debate a paper on reorganising primary schools in Shropshire on Friday 14 December. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow
11 Dec 2007 : Column 275
(Mr. Dunne) and I have discussed that, and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) saw the council only last Thursday. I have great sympathy for the position of the council, which faces the dilemma of receiving less from central taxation than the vast majority of other authorities, while trying to deliver high-quality education in the face of current falling rolls.

However, the fall in primary school numbers is hard to understand in the light of the extensive new building that has occurred in Shropshire recently, and the dramatic increases planned for future years. It is also worth noting that live births in Shropshire bottomed out in 2001, at 2,628, rising to 2,767 in 2005. Another factor that should be borne in mind is that women are choosing to have children later, so nationally, fertility rates for women aged 30 to 34 rose from 78.2 births per 1,000 women in 1986 to 104.6 per 1,000 in 2006. Current research suggests that the trend towards later maternity is strongest among women with better educational qualifications, with some postponing child rearing to pursue their careers. That could well be the case in Shropshire, where there has been an unprecedented increase in mid-range housing with an average age of occupants that conforms more with higher birth trends, which may, therefore, fuel an unexpected surge in the school-age population.

Another factor that is almost impossible for the council to estimate is the increase in population owing due to the Government’s abject loss of control of immigration. The most graphic example of that was the Government’s prediction, when Poland acceded to the EU, of 13,000 Polish immigrants working in this country, whereas the actual figure was well over 600,000. Ironically, 13,000 babies have been born to Polish women in this country since EU accession. Population estimates assume inward migration contributing nearly 6 million to the projected rise of 7.2 million in the UK’s population between 2004 and 2031—equivalent to six cities the size of Birmingham over the 27-year period.

Poles have always been welcome in my constituency thanks to a significant Polish community in Penley, just over the Welsh border, who stayed on after the second world war because, tragically, it was too dangerous for them to return to socialist Poland. Vans with names dominated by consonants are common in the area. Following Poland’s accession to the EU, a significant population of Polish people has built up in nearby Wrexham and Crewe. Road signs near Whitchurch written in Polish attracted national attention earlier this year.

Advantage West Midlands commissioned the university of Warwick to write a paper on the economic impact of migrant workers in the west midlands, which reported in November 2007. It said:

I hope that that shows that it really is impossible for the county council to plan ahead with complete accuracy given the totally inadequate quality of Government data in this area.

11 Dec 2007 : Column 276

I hope, however, that the Minister recognises that the current system of education works well. That situation is very much due to the number of small schools that provide local education and parental choice. Having visited every school in my constituency in recent years, I can confirm that competition among schools guarantees higher standards as schools strive to satisfy parents, knowing that those parents often have an alternative so long as they possess a car.

Last Thursday, I visited Childs Ercall Church of England primary school, whose future is up for review because it fails existing criteria on pupil numbers established by the last Lib Dem-Labour council. First, the governors and the chairman of the parish council disputed the predicted numbers and were confident that given new housing they would achieve the current minimum numbers required, but they stressed that the village of 237 houses has only a village hall, a church, a working men’s club and no other public facilities. David James, the chairman of the parish council, has said:

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. He is absolutely right to underline the fact that migration within the European Union and immigration from outside the EU is having an impact on Shropshire. In fact, 36 per cent. of the housing growth in Shropshire over the next 10 years will be as a result of those factors. I do not believe that my area will be affected by any reorganisation of schools, for which I am grateful, but Shropshire has been short-changed for too long. I endorse and fully support my hon. Friend in saying that this must end.

Mr. Paterson: I am most grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. I know that we can count on him in future discussions.

The school buildings at Childs Ercall are currently used for out-of-hours activities, including a breakfast club, a computer club and other community enterprises. That is entirely in line with stated Government policy. The building schools for the future programme website states:

Ironically for Childs Ercall, the website even lists breakfast and after-school clubs as aims of the initiative. However, the building schools for the future programme, which was talked up by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in his statement this afternoon, is not due to arrive in Shropshire until 2013. Could the Minister consider bringing Shropshire’s schedule forward within the existing budget?

The Secretary of State said today that his consultation had revealed that “children and young people told us that they wanted more places to play” and “interesting things to do outside school”, and that the Minister for Children, Young People and Families had set out a strategy promising “places for young people to go to in
11 Dec 2007 : Column 277
every constituency of the country...funded by proceeds from unclaimed assets and new investment from my Department.” Do Shropshire’s school facilities qualify?

Mr. Dunne: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene again. What he is saying is important. The Secretary of State made much of consulting parents this afternoon— [ Interruption. ] I am pleased to see him entering the Chamber. He made much of consulting parents on being given more information about their child’s progress. What the parents of the children in 20 primary schools in Shropshire threatened with closure care about is ensuring that they have a school in their local village for their children to attend, rather than having them bussed into a town or village miles away. It is schools that those parents want, not play areas.

Mr. Paterson: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. Happily, the Secretary of State has just turned up, so perhaps the Minister can confer and give us a clear reply.

Successive Ministers have promised to defend rural schools. At the time of the countryside march in February 1998, when he was the Minister responsible for school standards, the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers) said:

Next Section Index Home Page