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Dr. Harris: The Government must not only show evidence that the proposal can work, but explain clearly what the price will be. If it means public sector funds going to shareholders in well padded companies, or another Railtrack--this time for the NHS--the Government should make it clear that that is the case or explain what lessons are going to be learned from previous privatisations. I fear that those lessons will not have been learned.
Dr. Fox: May I take the hon. Gentleman back to private finance initiatives? Is it not simplistic either to reject PFI out of hand or to pretend that PFI is in itself a generic solution? Surely the success or otherwise of any PFI project will be determined by the quality of the contract that has been negotiated. Is not the real worry over recent PFI contracts, particularly in the health service, the rate of return being given to get projects off the ground quickly to suit political timetables?
I remember that, during the passage of the National Health Service (Private Finance) Act 1997, there was huge competition between the new Labour Front Bench and the then Conservative Front Bench as to who had invented the idea of PFI, amid claims that whoever had done so must be right. If the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) considers those debates, he will regret the enthusiasm with which his party, as well as the Government, decided that PFI was the only way.
On the proposals in the Green Paper on schools, will the Minister tell us what empirical evidence there is to back up the idea that they constitute improvements? A study by Professor Gorard from the Cardiff university school of social sciences was published recently--perhaps even today. I hope that my quoting his academic research in aid of my argument will not lead to his being disparaged by the Government. He says in his abstract:
In terms of ensuring that the Government make plans, parents and their children want to know where this is all going to end. They want to know whether the gimmick-based, initiative-led reforms to our school system are going to mean the end of the comprehensive school. They also want to know how a selection system that could increase at any time beyond the Government's control, although only 7 per cent. of schools choose to select at the moment, is going to lead to more choice for parents.
When schools select, it is parents and their children who are selected against. If specialist schools select on the basis of ability, as they are effectively being invited to do, and if faith schools select on the basis of the faith--or the presumed or alleged faith--of the child's parents, a pool of students will be selected against. If more
On the Government's proposed reforms of the health care system, they seem to have decided that health authorities are going to be abolished without any planning or forethought as to where the public health function is going to rest. It is critical that public health is thought about at a local level, and that it does not all come out by diktat from the Department of Health.
There is no way in which the broad range of public health specialisms--for example, in environmental health, partnership building with local authorities, communicable disease control, health promotion and advice to commissioners--most of which are carried out by separate specialist public health consultants at health authority level, can possibly be delivered by a single public health consultant or trainee at primary care trust level. According to the Public Health Alliance, it is not yet clear what is going to happen to the public health function, which is possibly the most important function of health authorities--in value-added terms--in relation to health and quality of life.
In higher education, there has been an underfunded over-expansion of places, to the extent that when the clawback occurs for the universities that cannot fill their places, departments and campuses are closing. In NHS recruitment, the Government staged the nurses pay award in their first year in office in 1997, then fretted and wondered why so many nurses were leaving the health service.
The Government failed to plan early, in that they waited three years before expanding the number of places in medical schools--training places that were desperately needed and should have been filled at least three years earlier. The Conservatives were certainly complacent about our work force planning needs when they were in power. However, to delay for three years before starting to train the new doctors and nurses that we need for the future was a disaster of planning that will come back to haunt the Government.
Why do the Government claim that for schools to be diverse, they need to have different titles? We do not need a new structure for schools to offer different things. They do not need a specialism to be special. It is wrong that schools can buy higher quality with extra funding given to them only if they opt for one of these initiative-driven proposals.
If the Government cannot be honest with the electorate and with the House, at least they could be honest with their own party. However, nowhere in the education section of the briefing to Labour Members alluded to in yesterday's debate on the Queen's Speech does it mention the extent to which there will be freedom to engage the private sector in the delivery of services. There are five main bullet points and it simply is not referred to. Yes, the Secretary of State developed the point today, but she would not take interventions, so we are left dangling to consider the idea, which is tantalising for some, perhaps, that there might be extensive freedom for the private sector to be involved.
On free schools, I wonder whether the Conservatives won the election. They did not deserve to win it and the electorate did not give them that victory, but it appears to me that the drive to free schools, an admissions free-for-all and freedom to employ the private sector, despite there being no evidential backing for that, show that Ministers are delivering to the Conservatives an election victory on education that is most undeserved, unplanned and lacking in an evidential base.
The Government talk, semi-honestly, of there being more teachers. Of course there are more teachers, but there are more children. If we are to examine the figures sensibly, it is the ratio that counts. Simply saying that there are more teachers does not address whether quality is improving if class sizes are rising.