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Helen Jones (Warrington, North): In view of the article in The Daily Telegraph today, will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on the record of the former chief inspector of schools? I refer especially to the evidence, documented in his own reports, of the success of many of the Government's policies, including the rising GCSE standards, the vastly improved literacy and numeracy standards in primary schools and the success in cutting infant class sizes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend asks me to arrange a debate on those issues. However, given that we are to have Education questions and that the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill is to come before the House, I suspect that there will be opportunities for Members to air such issues.
I am, of course, aware of the former chief inspector's comments. I also heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on the radio this morning handling the issue with extreme skill. He showed the concern for educational standards that I hope everyone in the House shares. I share my right hon. Friend's view that it is to be regretted that the former chief inspector has, apparently, changed his mind on several things that he previously supported; that is, of course, entirely a matter for him.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): May I return to the scourge of foot and mouth? Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to come to the House as soon as possible so that we can hear more about the contingency plans that may have to be used if this terrible disease continues to spread across the country? I draw her attention to the statement made yesterday by her colleague, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, that there seemed to be a good case for the postponement of the census. Will the right hon. Lady confirm whether that requires legislation? If so, we need to know in good time.
Will the right hon. Lady go further and ask the Home Secretary to come to the House and explain what the arrangements would be for polling day on 3 May--whatever elections take place on that day? As I understand it, new regulations provide for a complete election by post, if necessary. There has been a complete relaxation of the postal vote arrangements. It would be possible to use postal votes in rural areas, such as Cornwall, where there would be a total distortion of the result--of the county council elections or any other election--if any foot and mouth restrictions remained in the area on polling day. Will the right hon. Lady ask the Home Secretary to explain to the House exactly what contingency plans are in place?
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman raises two issues. I think the census may be a matter for the Treasury rather than for the Home Office. People are obviously considering contingency plans, although there may be some reluctance to get into detailed discussions until we know whether there is a need for such steps. I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my relevant right hon. Friends.
On voting, it is certainly my understanding--although I have not checked the matter with the Home Office--that postal voting, which is much more widely available, might assist in resolving any difficulties. I cannot undertake to ask the Home Secretary to make a special statement on that issue in the near future, not least because Home Office questions will take place on Monday 12 March, offering an opportunity to raise it at a pertinent point.
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend has had reservations about those issues for some time and is, of course, free to express them. I simply say that I understand that one of the former chief inspector's criticisms is that he believes that there is a lack of follow-through on policies. I understand also that Mr. de Gruchy, who is not always the Government's greatest fan, has said that however much he may disagree with many of the Government's policies, he does not believe that it can be justifiably alleged that they are not followed through.
Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): In the context of the questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) on the Government's handling of foot and mouth and the considerable concern about foot and mouth across the island of Ireland, will it fall to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to keep us informed of events in Northern Ireland and their effect on the border counties?
Mrs. Beckett: To be honest, both are involved, as the right hon. Gentleman will clearly appreciate. However, without becoming too involved in the detail of a specialist subject, I understand that, as far as we are aware, the outbreak in Ireland has some relationship to the original case in the north of England. In that sense, such matters still fall within the remit of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Clearly the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is involved and will certainly play his part in keeping the House informed.
Perhaps I may trespass on your good graces for a moment, Mr. Speaker, to confirm to the House that questions to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will take place on Thursday 8 March and questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment will take place on 15 March. Those are the occasions on which Members will have an opportunity to raise the issues to which I have referred.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work of the staff and pupils of the excellent comprehensive schools in my constituency? Each of those schools has its own diversity of ethos, and each has high standards and is producing improving results, year on year. Those improvements are largely due to the work of the staff and pupils and have little to do with the policies of the former chief inspector, but they are also due to the support provided by the excellent local education authority in Bury. In view of the publication last week of the Green Paper on the future of secondary schools and the huge interest that those wide-ranging proposals have produced, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is now a strong case for a debate in Government time about the future shape and structure of comprehensive education in this country?
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the work of many good LEAs, which are working in partnership with schools. He refers also to the Green Paper. I am mindful of the remarks in the Financial Times this week that much of the detailed policy in the Green Paper--particularly the emphasis on secondary schools--deserves praise. That view is widely shared.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): May I return to the issue of the foot and mouth crisis? Following the Downing street emergency meeting with farmers' representatives on Tuesday and the debate that took place in the House yesterday, I understand that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will announce that the Government will open selected abattoirs to take livestock from farms that are free from foot and mouth.
J. J. J. Heathcote, a small but modern abattoir in my constituency, has been in touch this morning to advise me that it understands that the Government will open only large abattoirs. That means that animals may have to travel many, many miles, which some believe has contributed to the crisis that we face today. If that is the case, it could have a devastating impact on small farms and small abattoirs. Will the Leader of the House assure me that the Minister will open not just large abattoirs, but will consider opening small, modern abattoirs? We believe that that would help farming communities.
Mrs. Beckett: I am aware that my right hon. Friend is giving careful and detailed consideration to the issue of how the travel of animals to slaughter can be handled so that they do not come into contact with other animals. Consideration is being given to what that will mean in terms of travel distances, times and so on.
I am not aware of the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman has just raised about the size of the abattoirs that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has in mind. However, I take his point, as will my right hon. Friend. I certainly undertake to draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention.