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Let me consider education. Everybody says, Of course, I want the very best for my children. Dont we all. Would people sensibly express some other sentiment? However, we then have to consider how to achieve that. Again, let me give a Conservative exampleRab Butler, who introduced the Education Act 1944, which produced the mechanism for comprehensive schooling. That did not happen in a big way, although Catholic schools in my constituency admirably adopted the idea long before Shirley Williams came along with her circulars in the 1960s. The Act created the opportunity to provide a high standard, quality education and to get rid of the idea of the sheep and the goats. In the 1930s, the Hadow report stated that we needed three levels of schools, starting with secondary modern schools for ordinary, dull boysit did not mention girls. We needed technical high schools for those boys who were going to do better and become engineers, and we needed grammar schools for the very bright children who would lead the nation into the future. It was a tripartite, three-legged system. Post-war, it delivered a Britain that was not performing, and that was wasting great swaths of talent. It was not employing our men and women who had
fought through the second world war and who had returned to our industries. It was not giving them the tools that they needed to make a new start and to develop Britain in the way that it should have been developing from the end of the 19th century.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that some of the blame for what he is describing must be placed at the door of teachers, who often encourage pupils to go into further or higher education when they are not suited to it? We now have the ridiculous situation in which we have a shortage of plumbers and carpenters, yet we have people at universities studying the pop group, the Beatles.
Mr. Purchase: I am not going to be drawn into an argument about the Beatles, because I know that the right hon. Gentleman knows much more about pop music than I ever will. Notwithstanding that, I have real sympathy with that idea. I am firmly of the view that a course of education should be open to every child who can benefit from it, whether in primary, secondary or tertiary education. The test should always be the same: is this course of study appropriate to this child, and will the child benefit from it? There is little point in taking swaths of children into higher and further education who simply will not benefit from that resource being offered to them. Our job, across the House, is to ensure that more and more children can take advantage of the quality education that abounds in many of our institutions across the nation.
The right hon. Gentleman suggests blaming teachers. Well, they are a very easy target. I take a somewhat different view. There are teachers who do not do their job well, but that is true in every walk of life. We need to deal with people who do not deliver properly. That might be in a private company, where the employer can see that obstructions are being caused to their production process. Something would need to be done about that; there is no way around that. Equally, in the public sector, people who are an obstacle to progress and who are preventing the very best service from being given have to be removed or dealt with. The right hon. Gentleman and I find ourselves at one on this matter. This is a pragmatic matter where we have to be sure that peoples competences are right, proper and appropriate to the job that we are asking them to do, whether in the private or the public sector.
In education, however, we have found ourselves going down the road of diversification, choice and parent choice. People say, We have not got enough; we must have more. We must have trust schools. We must have academies. We must have this, that and the other. It is all about the cachet attached to their boy or girl going to this or that school, but I say, Look out. The more selfish people among the middle classes will get fed up with academies. Oh yes, they will get fed up and they will need something different to say about their kids. Just look out for the word conservatoire starting to creep into Education Ministers vocabulary. It will not take long for that to happen.
It is problematic when we talk about parents aspiring for the very best for their children. It is such an easy track to take, and there is such a ladder to climb but, frankly, it is a bit like Jack and the beanstalk. We can never be sure where the ladder is going to end. We do
know, however, that every child and every student is worthy of the best that we can give them, and that must be offered on the basis of affordability, even though we are a rich nation. The way we should do that is through a generalised education system, in which teachers are trained to give the best teaching and to recognise special ability where it exists and bring it out in every child.
I am a great fan of sixth forms, but I recognise that some young people do not prosper in sixth forms. However, if we put them into a less regimented further education college, we find that, a little further down the road, they start to see what their peer group is doing and they develop again. Development in children has fascinated generations, as people have asked how we can best deal with an uneven development and maturation process that cannot be addressed on a collective basis and has to be individualised, and how we can then encapsulate the opportunity within an affordable, comprehensive system of education.
I want to move on to health. Again, we hear people saying that we must have something different. First we had trusts; now we have foundation hospitals. There is an idea that everybody has to be involved, but not everybody wants to be involved. Generally, people want to see decent houses, decent schools and decent hospitals in their area. They then want to get on with their lives. They want to go to work and provide for their families as they grow up and grow old. There is a great deal of focus on getting people to participate in this, that and the other. Well, people do participate, but they do so at the point of use, be it in housing, education, health or local transport.
In the health service, we are paying the price for the atomisation of the service. We have a national health service, and what a remarkable achievement that was for a post-war Government who were so strapped for cash that they could scarcely afford to feed the nation, let alone develop a health service that was free at the point of use. Yet now, we regard the health service in terms of regions, districts, PCTs and hospitals. We need to get some coherence, because that is the best way to deliver the service that people want.
I promised that I would agree with something that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire said, and I am going to. He suggested that Labour had stolen his partys policies, and I am afraid that that is true. That is why we do not have the good Labour legislative programme that we should have. Not only have we stolen the hon. Gentlemans clothes; we have also gone in for re-announcement after re-announcement. It was a technique that was brilliantly developed by Mrs. Thatcher. We had not come across it before, but it was absolutely superb. We would have five announcements of the same thing over three or four weeks in the newspapers, and now my lot have learned the technique. It drives me absolutely insane. An idea, which was probably not a very good one to begin with, is re-announced and re-announced.
An example is the one about privatising part of the national health service. People have had it up to here! They do not want the national health service to be privatised. As I have said, they want a good hospital that does a proper job for them. They do not want
private clinics and private this, that and the other. BUPA has been doing all that for yearsI do not know whether it does it well or badlybut good luck to it, on one level. The truth is that we need a proper, funded state system of health care that is available to everyone at the time of need and free at the point of need. Frankly, I am fed up with the re-announcement of these initiatives, most of which I do not find very helpful anyway.
Mr. Knight: Is not the reason that the Government are so far behind in the opinion polls that they are not delivering what the public want? The hon. Gentleman touched briefly on transport. A classic example is the Governments plans for road-user charging and for forcing upon Manchester the proposition that people will have to pay a charge to go into the city every day. That is why the Government are so unpopular. People do not want things like road-user charging.
Mr. Purchase: I resisted the temptation to discuss the Beatles with the right hon. Gentleman, but this is irresistible. What he refers to is typical of what has been happening in housing, health and education, and certainly in transport. I am so proud of my local authority, because it has said, No, we wont have congestion charging, and if you wont give us proper money to develop our transport infrastructure, well have to find another way. No, we in the west midlandsBirmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Solihull, Sandwell, Walsall, Dudleywe are not having congestion charging.
Mr. Knight: May I therefore say three cheers for those councillors in the hon. Gentlemans constituency who have made that decision? Is he aware that Councillor Jones, who represented a safe Labour seat in Manchester and was the biggest proponent of road charging there, not only lost his seat in the May elections but came bottom in the poll?
Mr. Purchase: Yes, I am aware of that. At one level I am very sorry, because Councillor Jones is a fellow member of Labour. However, if he was so misguided as to introduce Conservative policies, I am very happy for him to be defeated. To give the other point of view, did the right hon. Gentleman know that in Barrow, three people stood as anti-academy alliance candidates, opposing the local academy, and ousted three sitting councillors, one of whom was the Tory leader of Barrow council?
Mr. Knight: Just for the sake of accuracy, road-user charging is not Conservative policy. We voted against it in the Local Transport Bill in Committee and we will vote against it on Report. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join us.
Mr. Purchase: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for putting me right on that. It was my fevered imagination at workI always think that schemes that are likely to be of no consequence to the rich are Tory ideas. In Manchester, the scheme will hurt a lot of people. There are people in Manchester who are strongly opposed to the scheme, but my Government have put them in a difficult position by saying, Do this or you dont get that.
We had that with council housing, too, with authorities being told, Either put it out to arms length or you dont get money to refurbish your houses. That is an absolute disgrace. Why on earth is my party punishing the poorest 10 per cent. of people in this country? It is
an extraordinary decision not to let progressive councilsTory or Labour, it does not really matter to me in that sensenot to keep their houses properly maintained without giving them away to some undemocratic body.
The situation is the same with schools. Building Schools for the Future looks like a great programme and, although we can argue about whether it is correct in every detail, a lot of money is involved. However, the programme comes with a little pair of handcuffs attached. Authorities are told, Of course you can have all this money, provided you have an academy, because somebody somewhere has, for whatever reason, got the ideait is quite mistakenthat academies can deliver where other head teachers and schools cannot.
There is a tendencyand it is not a nice onefor the Government to strong-arm local government. I say this to Conservative Governments and Labour Governments: they cannot deliver their programmes in this country without working hand-in-glove with local authorities. Local authorities are to be treasured and trusted, and they are to be given powers to do the things that they believe to be right in their local circumstances. That is why local democracy is so important. That is why the idea of accountability, democracy and elected representatives having a proper say and determining what is best for the people whom they represent should run through the draft Queens speech like lettering a stick of rock.
At one level, it is great that we can have a draft speech. It is a pity that more hon. Members have not seen fit to be here on this Thursday afternoon. Indeed, I am very sorry that only a few hundred people have visited the website, with all its imperfectionsI might add that more people look at the beautiful baby pictures that I put on my website. The website has not been a great success, but that illustrates another point. People want good services where they live and they want laws that are appropriate, fair and just. Although the proposals in the Queens speech may, in the end and in law, deliver some of those things, I would have preferred a programme that had Labour running all the way through it just like lettering a stick of rock.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), who made a thoughtful contribution on the importance of community and expressed his concern about the direction of Government policy. On council housing, when I was not long elected, constituents came to me bewildered, because although they thought that the council was the best landlord, they were being bullied to vote for someone else as their landlord. If we really believe in local community, it would make more sense to reflect the wishes of local people in a fair and balanced way.
As the Leader of the House said, the Governments legislative programme must be seen in the wider context of the whole Session, which is not just about legislation. In fact, many of us would argue that it should be a lot less about legislation. There is a great danger of regarding the number of Bills as a measure of the vibrancy of the Government, but if things are going reasonably well and legislation is not required, introducing another Bill
just to get another headline is not an effective use of Parliaments time or an effective way of avoiding extra bureaucracy and red tape.
It is important to recognise that although the Government have a wider programme, they will be working in a much changed world. The economy will be far more challenging and energy prices will still be a major issue, as will food security, and the Government will have to cope with those challenges. With the economy, world factors may well be at play, but over-extending Government borrowing and allowing private borrowing to get out of control has reduced the flexibility for coping with economic changes. Perhaps it was dangerous to believe the rhetoric that the economic cycle had been abolished; recognition that economic cycles are fairly relentless would have allowed better preparation for coping with a downturn.
As the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) said, the everyday bread-and-butter concerns of our constituents, such as the future of our post offices, are important. Post offices in my constituency are going through a closure consultation. It is quite frightening that the head of the Post Office has said that if the Government fail to award the contract for the Post Office card account to the Post Office, another 3,000 to 6,000 closures will be needed. At this stage of the Governments thinking, the drawing up of the terms of that contract seems farcical, when this funded closure programme could prove to be just the tip of the iceberg, to be followed by yet further piecemeal closure programmes.
It is crucial to recognise the value of services that are delivered locally. To that end, the Department for Work and Pensions must avoid getting back into its bullying ways with pensioners and others in receipt of benefitan issue raised during business questions earlier. If people have chosen to use their post office and they prefer the POCA, they do not want to receive phone calls badgering them to switch to a bank. They had a choice and they freely made it, so they should not be bullied out of it. It is even more frightening for those who find the card account too difficult to cope with. As they could not handle PINs or had visual problems or needed others to collect money for them, they were led to believe that they could keep their girocheques going. Those people are now receiving letters saying that they will have to switch to a bank account. It is worrying when people who have learned and grown up budgeting in one way are suddenly told to change their whole way of life at the behest of, and to make life easier for, the Department for Work and Pensions. That Department should remember that it exists to serve the people it provides pensions to; it is not the master but the servant of the recipients of pensions.
As well as all the big issues posed by the legislative programme, I hope that the Government will turn their attention to, and focus their energies on, the day-to-day practice of good governance. They must not be distracted from that by an excessive amount of legislation.
Let me return to the intervention I made earlier on the Leader of the House. People are too often asked to comment on the priorities in a draft programme without knowing the length of time within which the programme is to be delivered. Dealing with 18 Bills over 18 months is different from dealing with 18 Bills over 10 months. It
may be time for the Government to get more grown up about sharing their thinking about the legislative timetable with the whole of Parliament.
When the programming of Bills was introduced, it was part of modernisation. It is easy to see why securing a more systemised scrutiny of legislation is tempting and attractive to all Members. It was understood at the time that individual Bills would be programmed, but also that, in the long run, Parliament would get a programme for the years legislation, which would enable Members to look ahead and discover when Bills were likely to be introduced. The idea was that that would facilitate input from outside lobbying and allow people to influence legislation as it developed. We should build on those ideas. We now have a draft programme and the Queens Speech will happen later in the year. The Government must have an idea of what they are thinking of doing for the rest of year, and they could share that with Parliament so that we could make better use of our time and provide better scrutiny. Above all, that would engage the public and the outside world, as is meant to happen. Announcing the business a week or so in advance does not give the public a real chance to influence their Member of Parliaments response to the next Bill. More delivery is required from the Leader of the House on the wider agenda of programming and the efficient use of parliamentary time.
To a Government who have been in power for 11 years, I also suggest that one of the other inevitable cyclesalthough they might plan to avoid thisis that Governments, Parliaments and those in power change. It would be sensible for them to consider whether the systems in place would make life easy or difficult for them if they find themselves in opposition. They should start to think about how Parliament can scrutinise and hold Governments to account, rather than being frightened of creating such a system. One day they might not be in government, in which case they might welcome such a system.
Similarly, those of us who aspire to be in government should resist the trappings of power that have accrued to the Executive, and recognise that Executives who are held accountable stand a better chance of long-term credibility and popularity in the country. Executives who get out of touch with the country and Parliament are the ones that start to fall foul of the electorate.
Let me turn to some of the specific Bills in the draft legislative programme. In some ways, the banking reform Bill is an attempt to put right the Chancellors legacy, and to pick up the pieces after the damage has been done. The general trend of the banking reform Bill is welcome, but again it should be recognised that allowing private borrowing to get out of control put a lot of pressure on individuals and the economy, which even that Bill will not tackle.
The business rate supplement Bill could go further to reinvigorate local economies through restoring business rates to local authorities. Currently, business rates go to central Government and are divvied out on a formula. Therefore, making the local area more vibrant benefits individuals, but has no direct payback to the local authority. When a planning authority considers, for example, whether a quarry is a good development, it cannot even calculate the benefits to the local community from a business rate increase.
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