HC Deb 13 March 1986 vol 93 cc1157-218 8.54 pm
Mr. Michael Portillo (Enfield, Southgate)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring to the House's attention the subject of parental choice in education. This has necessitated a change in my plans for this evening because I had intended to go to Fulham to lend my support at the adoption meeting of the Conservative candidate for the forthcoming by-election, the excellent Mr. Matthew Carrington. Nonetheless, it is a greater opportunity for me to address the House on this subject. I am gratified to see such a good attendance on the Tory side of the House—a large and spontaneous attendance by my hon. Friends—

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

Does not the Conservative attendance contrast with the total lack of alliance representation? Does this not reveal their lack of interest in education, especially in parental choice?

Mr. Portillo

The only point that I will make in response to my hon. Friend is that he was charitable in not mentioning that the Labour party has only one representative in the Chamber.

This subject is of tremendous importance. It has moved close to the top of our political agenda for a number of reasons. The more we analyse the economic problems that the country suffers, and the difficulties of British industry in competition, the more we are driven to conclude that the shortcomings of our education system must have a great deal to do with that problem. Sadly, there are large numbers of young people emerging from our schools today with no paper qualifications. However, they also lack many of the basic life skills that would equip them for later life and for employment. That has left British industry, and the Government through the Manpower Services Commission, with the tremendous task of having to train young people to equip them for the jobs that are available. This accounts for the substantial paradox with which we have to grapple in many places where there co-exists a high rate of unemployment and a high level of vacancies. That is true of Fulham, an area which I have come to know well.

On a recent visit to Japan I was struck by what one could almost term the obsession of Japanese parents with the subject of education. It is evident that Japanese parents are willing to make tremendous sacrifices so that their children can have a good education. If one attempts to account for the fact that that country is successful industrially and economically, one is driven to the conclusion that there is a striking correlation between a high degree of motivation among the people for improving their education and the success of their industry.

This intense interest in education is also witnessed in Britain. As I go round my constituency I am struck by the number of people for whom education is the most important topic in their lives. Among the matters with which they expect politicians to deal, education is the most important. The tremendous concern that parents feel for their children's education is not limited to any one class. It is certainly not limited to the middle classes. It is something which is of interest to people of all sorts. They are willing to make tremendous sacrifices and to undergo hardship so that their children can be given a better education.

Today, many of those parents are concerned, worried and anxious about what is going on. The basis of that anxiety for many of them is that they feel that their children are not getting as good an education as they got. It is surprising that as our country continues to grow economically and makes steps forward in many ways, none the less, parents feel that their children are not doing as well in school, nor learning as much, as they did. They are concerned at the lack of basic skills taught to their children, and at the lack of discipline and poorer results, and are anxious about whether their children are well equipped for going into employment. Some people in education will try to tell those parents that what they perceive to be the truth is not so. Those parents may be told that they should not judge by examination results and that there is much more to education than examination results, and children should be allowed to learn at their own pace what they want, and when they want.

A vital step needs to be taken. Parents should be supplied with a much more objective measurement of the achievements of schools and of the output of education. One of the problems that parents face in arriving at judgments is that our public examinations tend to be graderelated—that is to say, the number of children getting a pass at a particular level will tend to be a constant percentage year by year. That is why I am so full of praise for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science for the initiative that he has taken in proposing the introduction of the GCSE, which will provide us with more objective criteria. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department to build on that, so that parents can be equipped with better quality measurements of what is going on in education.

It is incredible how difficult it is today for parents to obtain the information on which to base their judgments and choices. My mind is driven to something that I read in The London Standard on 7 March about ILEA. The article said: The authority's highly-respected research and statistics branch has compiled a list showing how schools are performing, making allowances for the number of bright, average and below average children each school starts out with. That is important research, which would be valuable to parents. However, The London Standard goes on to say: The document … is on the ILEA's Top Secret List, with access only by a few officials and politicians … It is part of the secrecy rife at the ILEA. That is the sort of information that parents should have a right to know and it is important not only for parents, but for the Government, who have rightly been arguing that the important thing in education is not merely the money that goes in but the quality that comes out. If we are to counter the simplistic idea that we can measure the standard of education by the amount of money put into it, we must have better information, and I congratulate the Government on what they have done so far, and urge them to go further.

My thesis is that we can improve education in the state sector by giving parents more information, more rights and more control over their children's education. The traditional strength of our state system has been due to two factors. The first was the absolute quality of that education, which in the post-war years was undoubted. The second was the chance that it gave children of all classes and from deprived backgrounds to fulfil their potential.

Recently, I was disturbed to read in a speech delivered by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), speaking in his constituency, figures for the entry of working class children to universities, expressed as a percentage of the overall entrants. In 1955, the figure was 25 per cent. and it rose in 1968 to 35 per cent. That was an encouraging rise in a fairly short time. Unfortunately, since then the picture has become much less satisfactory. By 1973, the figure was down to 23 per cent., and by 1981 it was down to little more than 19 per cent. That latter contrasts with the much higher figure achieved as early as the 1920s. It is sad to think that in this respect we are in a worse position than we were more than half a century ago.

It would be absurd of anybody to try to blame this situation on teachers. Schools are on the whole extremely anxious to respond to the needs of the nation and the wishes of the parents, but it is difficult for individual teachers and schools to do so. In the present system, they do not have the flexibility or autonomy that would enable them to do so.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, who will be replying to the debate, in a recent speech to the Association of Principals of Sixth Form Colleges, made an interesting comment. He said that our education system was both national and fragmented. To the extent that it is national and nationalised, I think that it suffers from some of the classic faults of institutions in our country that are nationalized—that is to say, a lack of responsiveness to its users and perhaps too much concern for the ideas, the comfort and the security of the people engaged in it professionally.

The starkest way of putting it is to ask whether it is not a great irony that our education system should have two interests, the local or national Government on the one hand, and the trade unions on the other, either one of which can make tremendous changes in the education system, bringing it shuddering to a halt, with no ability in the hands of the parents to keep the education system moving in the direction in which they wish to see it go. I conclude from all that that we need to give parents more choice. As I shall explain, the very fact of providing parents with more choice is likely to lead to substantial improvements in the education system.

We have certainly taken some important steps forward. The Education Act 1980, which introduced the concept of choice, is an important landmark. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Carlisle) and his colleagues of the day for that substantial advance.

Most of us on these Tory Benches might agree that we need to go further in making more effective the choice that parents are able to make. In many areas there may be only one school that a large number of parents would wish to put down as their first choice. That school may rapidly fill up with first choices, and then what happens? There is nowhere in the area parents can send their children except to the schools which, for presumably good reasons, they did not wish to put top of their list of choices.

The longer-term aim should be to direct the resources towards those schools that are able to attract children through the choices made by their parents. That will mean establishing some sort of relationship between the number of children in the school and the resources given to it by the local authority. I am prepared to admit that putting that into practice in many ways may be a messy process. It will involve having crash building programmes in the good schools so that they can go on accommodating the number of children wishing to go there. In addition, teachers will have to be more mobile. They will have to be prepared to go from school to school as the choices build up in favour of the better schools, and as parents withdraw.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Does the hon. Gentleman not see that there might be some problem as to how large a school can get? He may feel that the resources are available for this crash building programme, but how large would he let a school get?

Mr. Portillo

It will be a very shocking idea probably to the hon. Gentleman, but I should like a school to get as large as the parents would like it to be. That may mean building on the site or on different sites, taking over buildings used for other purposes, taking over school buildings that are closing in the less popular schools, or amalgamations. I think what the hon. Gentleman is worried about is not the practicality but the implication of the scheme.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

All of us, have surely had experience of split-site schools causing enormous problems. Furthermore, from our own constituencies, and indeed from the history of the public schools, we all know that a great deal hangs on the quality of, above all, the headmaster. If my hon. Friend is going to put all his resources into schools that are, as it were, transistorily popular, what happens when the headmaster changes or it becomes unpopular?

Mr. Portillo

I respect the breadth of experience from which my hon. Friend speaks. However, I wish to get a little further in my speech.

One of the results of all this is not just that some schools will grow infinitely and others will close. This scheme is worth pursuing because it will tend to drag up the worst quality schools towards the quality of the better schools. Therefore, the reductio ad absurdum to which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) has referred will not necessarily occur.

Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)

Does my hon. Friend believe that parents will want to uproot their children from a particular school simply because there has been a change of headmaster? There would have to be a fairly catastrophic change in headmaster to produce that kind of result. Most parents would not wish to move their children from school to school because they realise that this creates problems for children.

Mr. Portillo

My hon. Friend has made a valuable point. However, I hope that he will agree with me that as more power and responsibility are given to parents one expects them to have a greater say in the selection of headmasters, which will eventually have an effect upon the quality of headmasters.

I should like schools to be able more readily to respond to the wishes of parents. I do not believe that that will be to the detriment of schoolteachers. They have almost as much to gain from this kind of approach as do parents. If teachers are better able to respond to the wishes of parents by providing the kind of education that parents wish to be provided, I believe that this will lead not to a diminution but to an increase in morale.

When I replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) I made the point that I wished parents to have a greater say on boards of governors in the selection of headmasters. I am pleased to see that the Education Bill makes provision for more parent-governors and for greater powers to be given to them. However, parent-governors will still be fairly heavily outnumbered by other governors. I think that the reason why the points that I made a few moments ago aroused such indignation on the Opposition Benches was the idea that if a school is popular it should be allowed to grow but that if it is less popular it should be allowed to contract is anathema to certain Labour authorities. Experience in the Inner London education authority is the exact opposite of that idea.

I shall quote again from The London Standard of 6 March. It reveals that a leaked document ranks schools in the ILEA area according to their popularity—according to whether parents have placed them as their first, second or third choice. The press report reveals that the leaked ILEA document shows that intakes at some very popular and oversubscribed schools are being cut while other schools that are half empty have escaped unscathed. The pattern, therefore, is that if a school is popular it is more likely to have its intake cut but that if a school is half empty its intake is unlikely to be cut. That may account for some of the indignation of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett).

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

Is not the answer to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett)—this is a nettle that my hon. Friend will have to grasp—that the obvious corollary of parents being allowed to choose successful schools is that the successful schools must be free to select the best candidates?

Mr. Portillo

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but I have a feeling that he intends to develop it when he makes his speech. Some of the ideas that I have put forward this evening were canvassed in a document called "No Turning Back." I am pleased to note that some of the authors of that document are in their places this evening, and I expect that later they may try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I urge the Government to give careful thought to the points that are made in that document and to consider whether or not they can move in that direction. So many of the building blocks are already in place. So many of the thoughts contained in that document appear already to be in the mind of the Government. Again I refer to the Education Bill, which contains many excellent features. I have been struck particularly by clause 23, which allows for the devolution of more financial responsibility to schools. Experiments are taking place in that direction in some places. We hear much talk of expanding the assisted places scheme to which I say amen. We also hear talk of making direct grants to technical schools and to inner city primary schools. I urge the Government to pull together all these strands and to go further with all of them.

My message to my hon. Friend the Minister—he may hear the same message from some of my hon. Friends—is: trust parents; give them responsibility and they will prove to be responsible. I would rather rely on the collective wisdom of parents than on the accumulated experience of civil servants, educationists and, dare I say, Ministers. Therefore, I repeat my message to my hon. Friend that he should trust the parents.

9.15 pm
Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

I am grateful for the fact that I have been called in the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo) on his choice of subject. When we discuss a wide range of subjects on the Consolidated Fund Bill, I am always amused, because the Bill consists of only one page. No doubt people listening to the debate might wonder why we sit all through the night discussing such a small Bill, but the amounts involved are £155,484,000 in clause 1 and £1,032,019,000 in clause 2. As those sums affect many areas in Wales I am privileged to put on record what is happening in education in Mid Glamorgan and in parental choice in Wales.

In Wales, as distinct from England, there is a further problem because some parents who are Welsh speakers prefer their children to attend Welsh schools. The education committee of Mid Glamorgan is one of three that were formed after the reorganisation of local authority boundaries in 1973. The former Glamorgan county education authority was renowned as one of the most progressive in the whole of the United Kingdom.

Since the election of the Conservative Government in 1979, tremendous restrictions have been placed on local authorities, particularly in regard to education. In Wales, as in most of the country, there has been a gradual reduction in standards and in facilities provided in schools, such as books and desks. In my constituency some schools have still got outside toilets. On 4 March I asked the Minister, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard), about the number of schools with outside toilets. We were surprised to receive this reply:

The report A Study of School Building published jointly by the Department and the Welsh Office in 1977 found that there were at that time some 7,000 primary and some 600 secondary schools with outside toilets. Of these, about 6,000 primary and about 600 secondary schools had their oldest accommodation built prior to 1946. The Department is currently carrying out a sample survey of the improvement needs of the existing stock of school buildings. This will include information on improvements to toilet accommodation where this is below regulation standards."—[Official Report, 4 March 1986; Vol. 93, c. 105.] It is time that money was spent on improving standards in schools, especially in Mid Glamorgan which has suffered under the Government's funding priorities.

I should like to put the record straight regarding an article that was published in a Bridgend local paper. The matter was raised by a friend, county councillor Jeff Jones, at a meeting of the sub-committee on 21 September. He suggested that the article on representation on school governing bodies also referred to a decline in educational standards in Mid Glamorgan schools. The report was criticised, and the chairman of the education committee, councillor Dennis Philpen, who is my constituency party chairman, was rather surprised that the matter should have been raised as the Mid Glamorgan education authority had prepared a report on the subject.

The statistics show that, in 1980, 30.3 per cent. of school leavers left without an O-level or a CSE grade, that 30.7 per cent. left in 1981, that 27.6 per cent. left in 1982, that 27 per cent. left in 1983 and that 25.4 per cent. left in 1984. Whereas 75.2 per cent. of the fifth year group was entered for examinations in 1980, 78 per cent. was entered in 1984. In 1980, 19.6 per cent. of school leavers left with five or more O-levels and 24.4 per cent. left with the same number in 1984.

Those statistics show a significant improvement in public examination performance by Mid Glamorgan pupils during that five-year period. There is no evidence of a decline such as is referred to in the Bridgend local paper. When considering such statistics, it is essential to remember that CSE examinations in Wales are held on the same days in June and July as the GCE examinations. That is often forgotten when critics point to better examination performances by pupils in English schools. In England, CSE examinations are held in April and May.

In some subjects with an examination syllabus similar to the GCE, candidates in England can and do enter for CSE and GCE examinations. It is also possible for pupils in England who leave school at Whitsun in their fifth year to enter the CSE examination. That is not so in Wales. The result is that a high proportion of the fifth year group in schools in Wales—the pre-Whitsun leavers—cannot sit either the CSE or the GCE examinations. In 1980, 30 per cent. of the fifth year group were pre-Whitsun school leavers in Mid Glamorgan. Thai proportion fell to 23.6 per cent. in 1984.

It is clearly unjust and misleading to make comparisons between Wales and England and to say that educational standards are lower in Wales on the grounds that more pupils than in England leave school without one pass in GCE or CSE. A large proportion of pupils in Wales have left school before the examinations are held.

It is also, of course, equally misleading to make such a comparison between Mid Glamorgan and other education authorities in Wales. Despite the attempts made by Mid Glamorgan head teachers and careers officers to persuade pupils to stay on at school until the end of the summer term, still in 1984 over 23 per cent. of Mid Glamorgan pupils left before Whitsun. The rate in other Welsh authorities is lower.

The Mid Glamorgan statistics, of course, reflect the social and economic difficulties faced by many Mid Glamorgan communities. I well remember a recent report to the Mid Glamorgan planning committee in which the county planning officer reported on a research survey carried out for England and Wales by the county planning officer for Durham. It demonstrated the level of social deprivation in each district council area in England and Wales and found that three of the six districts in Mid Glamorgan—Cynon Valley, Merthyr and Rhondda—had the worst deprivation in England and Wales, while the other three districts were all at what was described as "the deprived end" of average conditions. It is essential to take this into account when making any judgment on pupil examination performance in Mid Glamorgan schools.

There is now no doubt that there is a clear association between the socio-economic background of pupils in local education authority schools and their average levels of attainment in public examinations. Statistics Bulletin 13/84 published in November 1984 by the Department of Education and Science gives the results of a research analysis of statistics for the maintained schools in England. This clearly shows that at least 70 per cent. of the variation between authorities in their pupils' examination achievements was statistically associated with variations in the values of socio-economic background measures.

The socio-economic background indicators used in the survey were drawn from the 1981 census and were the same as those used in the grant-related expenditure calculations for the rate support grant. Examples are: (i) children living in households whose head is a semi-skilled or unskilled manual worker, described subsequently as the low socio-economic group; (ii) children in one-parent families; (iii) children in families with four or more children; (iv) children living in households receiving supplementary benefit.

In addition, the following socio-economic variables were used by the DES statisticians in their analysis: (a) the population density in the authority; (b) the 16 to 18-year-old population density; (c) the rate of unemployment in the 16-18 age group; (d) the rate of unemployment in all age groups; (e) the infant mortality rate; and (f) poor housing.

These socio-economic indicators are the same ones as were used by the county of Durham in its survey of social deprivation in England and Wales. Although the Department of Education and Science Statistical Bulletin deals only with the schools and local education authorities in England, I am confident that its findings apply with even more weight to the schools and authorities in Wales, particularly Mid Glamorgan. The sub-committee was well aware, for example, of the recent reports of the Cynon Valley district council on the state of the housing in its area and of the Mid Glamorgan area health authority's concern about the high infant mortality rate in the county.

In paragraph 35 of its conclusions, the Statistical Bulletin is explicit about the dangers of making simple judgments about pupils' examination performance and notes that

All of the latest analyses have indicated that the social background, and to a much lesser extent the school-based and financial factors, provide a statistically significant explanation of the variation between local authorities in the levels of examination success of school leavers. I have always been aware of the dangers of making unjust comparisons between schools on the basis of examination performance. The Department's Statistical Bulletin has also demonstrated the unfairness of making similar comparisons between education authorities on the basis of pupils' public examination performance. During the past year or two, local newspapers in South Wales have begun to make such comparisons, as they have been trying to make do for many years between individual schools. However, to make a fair comparison, the socio-economic background of the authority's catchment area must be taken fully into account.

I want the Welsh Office to follow the example of the Department of Education and Science in England and to publish a similar statistical analysis of the association between the socio-economic background of pupils in Welsh education authority schools and their average attainment in public examinations. If the Welsh Office does not do that, unfair judgments and invidious comparisons will continue to be made following each annual publication of school examination results. At the same time, misleading statements and unsupported generalisations will continue to be made about public examination performances in Mid Glamorgan schools.

The House will not need me to remind it that the success of many Mid Glamorgan schools should not be judged by a superficial consideration of public examination results. We must also bear in mind the many achievements of Mid Glamorgan pupils in music, art, drama, design, crafts, technology, games, athletics, many other sporting activities and, last but not least, in their involvement in the communities in which they live and the support and help which they give unstintingly to the elderly and the disadvantaged.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

The burden of the hon. Gentleman's argument—although I do not accept it, I understand it—is that one should not have sole regard to public examination achievement when judging a school and that other social factors and social deprivation should be taken into account. However, will the hon. Gentleman consider why Highbury Grove comprehensive school in Islington—an area of great social deprivation—achieves considerable excellence in examination results?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

I remind the House that interventions must be brief.

Mr. Powell

I accept that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it was a nice breather for me. I shall not stray down the path of discussing Islington, because I am worried about the future of schools in Mid Glamorgan, and especially about this report. Social deprivation in Mid Glamorgan is as bad as it is in any other area. In Maesteg, unemployment is about 45 per cent. Similar unemployment throughout Mid Glamorgan forces many social problems upon local authorities.

The inspectors of education produced a report on a survey of curricular provision for low-attaining pupils in the Mid Glamorgan local education authority. It deals in some detail with the great difficulties that beset the local authority. The report reminds the local authority that

since the late 1970s the standard of work of pupils of modest and lower academic ability in Welsh secondary schools and the quality of their learning programmes has attracted widespread attention and interest within the education service, within schools, in local education authorities and H.M. Inspectorate as well as at Ministerial level within the Welsh Office. Some years ago I shared this concern and interest, and felt that urgent action should be taken to deal with the problem. Her Majesty's inspectors summarised what has been done in Mid Glamorgan as follows:

The Mid Glamorgan LEA has been active since about 1980 in the field of curriculum development for less able pupils in years IV and V. Teacher working groups were established in the Autumn Term of 1981 and, some months later, produced a framework of courses. Pilot studies commenced in September 1982 in selected schools for a Certificate of Education (CoE) course of 2 years duration comprising initially 8 components of grouped or inter-related studies: communication studies, numeracy, social education, physical education, leisure studies, science at work, practical and creative studies and vocational studies. Development work was also extended to embrace moderation and assessment; much emphasis was placed on the assessment of course work, while the final examination was timed for the spring period before the first eligible fifth year pupils left school. By the time the first cohort took their examinations in 1984, certification had been taken over by the Welsh Joint Education Committee, though the LEA continued to be responsible for the associated curriculum development; few courses have been, and are being added to the original list and the opportunity to provide courses and to have them assessed has been extended to the whole of Wales. Additional resources of staff (one or 2 per school) and capitation allowances have provided for the introduction of the courses. The LEA has also supported working groups and panel meetings, and the certificate courses have become an important focus of in-service activity within the county. Co-ordinators have been appointed in each school and have helped to ensure ready access to materials and courses and the effective functioning of assessment and moderation procedures. Although the initial concept was to provide a group of balanced and inter-related courses, in practice the certificate has been incorporated into the existing curriculum of most schools on a single-subject basis—though of course many pupils take a wide range of the courses, in some instances comprising nearly all their curriculum. The 1985 subject entries for the CoE numbered some 17,000 and candidates were being prepared in every school in the county. I could go on at some length about this question of education in Mid Glamorgan and its effect in Wales, but I know that there are quite a number of Members on the Conservative Benches who wish to speak. It is a pity that this was not a three-hour debate—

Hon. Members

It is.

Mr. Powell

If it is, I will go on. Seriously, a number of other hon. Members wish to take part. Because I am the only Welsh Member present, I have taken the liberty of extending my time so as to be able to present the difficulties and problems in Wales, and in Mid Glamorgan in particular.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to put all this on the record and to correct a fault in an article, published by the Glamorgan Gazette, from one of the lesser breeds in Mid Glamorgan, the only Conservative county councillor for the Mid Glamorgan area, David Unwin. By putting this on the record I hope to exonerate the Mid Glamorgan local education authority of any guilt conveyed by misguided representations made to the press, and enable the parents of pupils in Mid Glamorgan to understand that if they have a choice in Mid Glamorgan they have it where the education authority is thinking closely and sincerely about the future education of their children.

9.39 pm
Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

There is a problem in our education system. There is extensive dissatisfaction with the education provision available. At primary level all too often an ideology of child-centred education has been advanced to the detriment of education in basic skills in the three Rs and discipline. That is certainly the view taken by parents. It is widely held by parents that at almost every level too many teachers tend to denigrate good standards of learning and discipline as somehow bourgeois and Victorian.

There is anxiety about standards in many comprehensive schools, and indeed there is statistical underpinning to support that anxiety. The data of the Department of Education and Science, as set out in statistical bulletin 13/84, led the Department to predict an increase of about 15 per cent. in the proportion of pupils obtaining five or more O-levels or CSEs grade 1 in local education authorities with a fully selective system of schools—that is to say, 25 per cent. of pupils in grammar schools and 75 per cent. in secondary modern schools—compared with pupils in local education authorities with a fully comprehensive system of schools when all other factors, including social class and other social factors, are held constant.

Therefore, the DES expects better examination results from local education authorities with selective schools than from those with comprehensive schools. Yet the huge majority of the nation's children are in comprehensive schools. That disturbs a great many people, I think with justification.

Parents are dissatisfied and, if statistical evidence is needed to demonstrate that, it can perhaps be drawn from the "choice in welfare" study carried out under the auspices of the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1979. Research based on national quota samples found that the proportion of people favouring freedom for individual parents to contract out from state to private education had doubled from 27 per cent. in 1963 to 60 per cent. in 1978. Many of us deeply regret the divide that has been so long established in Britain's education system between the maintained and the private sector. It is a disturbing phenomenon to find that, increasingly, parents are looking to opt out of the mainstream provision of education. That must give us all cause for concern.

A letter published in The Times on 25 February expressed, in a representative way, the anxiety of industrialists and those concerned with the development of technical skills under our education system at present standards. Six professors of engineering signed a letter which said:

we are concerned at the near-collapse in our schools' teaching of the syntax of English. The power of our language, for fine distinctions and complex arguments, results only from the systematic teaching of precision, and engineers and scientists are often dismayed to find that the present-day school-leaver cannot adequately wield that power. Why should there be that problem? I suspect that it arises in part because the public sector provision of education is virtually a monopoly and has increasingly taken on the characteristics of all monopoly producers. It becomes, to an unfortunate degree, self-serving and perhaps insufficiently regarding of the real concerns of customers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo) rightly congratulated the then Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues on the introduction of that worthwhile piece of legislation, the Education Act 1980. It marked a useful start along a road upon which I hope we shall travel further towards the creation of opportunities for choice by parents. That useful start has been followed up recently by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's proposals for reforms of the school curriculum and examination system.

For the first time—it seems extraordinary that it was the first time—the Education Act 1980 gave parents the right to express a preference for the schools which their children might attend. However, the Act contains one important qualification which, as subsequent experience has shown, tended to undermine its excellent intention. It heavily qualified the right of parents to exercise a preference by making it subject to the provision of efficient education or the efficient use of resources. As a result of that qualification, it has been all too easy for local education authorities to override the preferences of parents. In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) on 4 February, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said: there were about 9,000 parental appeals against school admission decisions in 1985, of which some 4,000 were decided in the parents' favour".—[Official Report, 4 February 1986; Vol. 91, c. 113.] The real amount of choice that it is possible for parents to exercise has remained very limited.

At the same time, it is doubtful that we are getting the value for money that we ought to be getting from the considerable expenditure that is going into education. Many people are anxious that we cannot spend enough money and are not putting enough resources into education. Of course it would always be desirable to put more resources into education, but we have to ask some searching questions as to whether we are obtaining the best value for money out of the resources that are being put into education.

It is an unsatisfactory feature of the education system that more non-teaching staff are employed in it than teaching staff. The pattern of funding and of accountability in schools is little short of chaotic. My hon. Friend the Minister may agree with that. The Department of Education and Science is not truly in control of overall funding. Funding is almost a by-product of an annual negotiation between the Treasury and the Department of the Environment, with the Manpower Services Commission as an important tangential factor. The Department of Education and Science is held politically responsible for the quality of educational provision while not controlling overall funding and not employing teachers and while the organisation of schools locally and the detailed allocation of resources under the Education Act 1944 is a matter for the local education authority. Therefore, the Department which is held responsible has frustratingly limited powers in practice. My hon. Friend the Minister may agree with that to some extent.

Some strange things have happened over the past 20 years. I know that the grammar schools were highly regarded. They were perhaps the finest repository of centuries of educational tradition, experience and excellence. However, they were swept away in the late 1960s and in the 1970s in the name of an educational theory. I know how popular grammar schools are because in my own constituency a great rearguard action was fought in the wake of the 1976 legislation of the previous Labour Government which would have abolished the grammar schools.

In Warwickshire the grammar schools survived. Unhappily, Warwickshire changed political control in the county council elections last year. The ruling Labour and Liberal coalition has set out finally to extinguish those great schools. There are three grammar schools in my constituency. There is the King Edward school in Stratford, which is the school Shakespeare attended. That might be a reason for assuming that the school is worth preserving. Certainly, its enormous continuing popularity and academic excellence would justify its preservation.

There is Shottery school for girls and Alcester grammar school in my constituency and there is tremendous local attachment to those schools. I do not think that when some misguided electors voted Liberal a year ago they realised that they were voting for the abolition of those first-rate schools to which they are so attached.

Mr. Leigh

Is my hon. Friend aware that, of the 150 grammar schools remaining, three are in my constituency? Last week, we managed to save Queen Elizabeth high school in Gainsborough, but only thanks to the good electors of Lincolnshire, who kept a Conservative county council in control last May. Does that not underline how vital it is that people should turn out to vote Conservative in county council elections so that they retain the best elements of the selective system?

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend has spoken some wise words. I appreciate what he has said. There are only 150 grammar schools left, and we should cherish them. No doubt they are not all perfect, but we must take enormous care to ensure that parents' preferences are heeded and that ideologically motivated local authorities do not succeed in simply sweeping grammar schools away because they disapprove of them on theoretical grounds.

The technical schools were late to flourish under the Butler dispensation. There is an excellent example in Bath in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, but technical schools have almost entirely disappeared as well.

It is interesting to contrast what has been happening in other countries during the period in which we have lost our technical schools. In Germany, parents have the right to choose whether their children should go to a grammar school, a technical school, a secondary modern, or its equivalent. Parents have increasingly opted to take advantage of technical schools. Some 50 per cent. of German school leavers are leaving technical schools and are, on average, two years ahead of our school leavers in mathematical attainment. There is a similar differential in Japan, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate referred.

I said that there is a problem. Our sense of crisis has been precipitated by the teachers' dispute, which has been running for a year in England and Wales and for longer in Scotland. It has been marked by deeply damaging disruption to schools, by irreparable harm to children in their preparation for public examinations and, more profoundly, by loss of respect of students for many teachers. Our schools exist in an atmosphere in which parents are angry and members of the teaching profession are ashamed. It is dispiriting—indeed, so dispiriting that we cannot accept it as a prospect for the future—that the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers are holding out the prospect of further disruption. Under the present administrative and negotiating arrangements that is only too real a prospect.

I suspect that the reason the system does not seem to be working is that it has been captured by the producers. Education is controlled by educationists—educational academics, and bureaucrats and the activists in education trade unions. I do not disparage the excellence in our education system, but in a producer-dominated system—as in the nationalised industries and in monopolies of all sorts—dedication to the customer tends not to be the paramount quality. The right direction for reform must be to enable families to recapture control of education. I believe that we can reliably look to parents to apply continuing pressure for good standards of learning and discipline in schools. If schools are made accountable to families, once again schools will become in a much more worthwhile sense expressions of local community.

I should like parents to be empowered to exercise choice as purchasers of education in a market place. There are four principal options by which parents might be enfranchised and given the power to choose a system of education. The assisted places scheme was the Government's chosen initiative. That scheme is popular with the independent sector and is no doubt popular with families who have benefited under it. Its weakness is that it puts the emphasis on escape or exit from the system which contains 95 per cent. of the nation's children. It does nothing to overcome the unhappy split between the independent and the maintained sectors. It tends to cream off talented children and therefore weakens the maintained schools. It has not taken off on a large scale and I believe that it does not provide a suitable model for further expansion.

The second option is education credits.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I completely agree with everything that my hon. Friend said about the assisted places scheme and its basic deficiency. Does he not agree that one of the problems with that scheme is that, because it applies only at secondary level, it means that children who have not been to pre-prep schools and so on are at a disadvantage in meeting the entrance requirements?

Mr. Howarth

That is a further weakness of the scheme; I agree with my hon. Friend.

I was talking about the possibility of educational tax credits. It might be argued that it would be an act of simple justice to give credits to those who have paid taxes but who are not benefiting under the maintained provision of education. I am unenthusiastic about that route. It would do nothing to help poor families in the absence of an integrated tax credit system. There would be no benefit under such a system for families who do not pay tax. It would not help provide the resources needed to fund new private schools. I am not enthusiastic about seeing any enlargement of the private sector in contradiction to a maintained sector.

The third option is the educational voucher scheme. That scheme has enormous merit in that it empowers every parent, equally, on behalf of every child, to choose the education for that child in an educational market place. The difficulty with the voucher scheme is that the administrative procedures of issuing vouchers and coping with the paperwork would be clumsy, expensive and awkward.

The fourth possible means of making schools accountable to parents, and the one that I find most attractive, is a system of per capita funding. Under a direct grant scheme, direct grants either from the Department of Education and Science or from the local education authority receiving funds originally from the Department, could flow directly to schools on a capitation basis. That is to say, for each child that the school was able to attract and retain, a certain amount of money would be made available. The merit of that system would be that it would make schools accountable to parents.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Is the hon. Member aware that most schools get their allowance of resources based on the number of pupils and that the number of teachers is allocated on the basis of the number of pupils in the school? That is the system that applies at present.

Mr. Howarth

There is an important distinction because, under the present system, children are allocated to schools by local education authorities. Under the system that I propose, parents would make their choice of school for the child and the child would attract, as of right, a per capita grant. That is a qualitatively different system. I am not proposing a total upheaval in all respects, but I think that there is an important difference in that my system makes the parent as purchaser sovereign and the state equips each parent to start equal on the starting line.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Chris Patten)

I would like to clarify what my hon. Friend is saying as it would be interesting to get his point absolutely straight. My hon. Friend seems to be arguing for a voucher scheme for the maintained sector. That seems to be the distinction between what has previously been discussed when vouchers have been on the table and what my hon. Friend and some of his hon. Friends are talking about now. Is that right?

Mr. Howarth

I am talking not strictly about a voucher scheme but about a scheme whereby every child at a school would be entitled to a certain grant from the state. The availability of the grant could be restricted to children in maintained schools, or extended to all children, regardless of whether they attend maintained or private schools. Either system is possible. At this stage, I am not arguing in favour of one or the other.

I find it attractive that the grant should go to each child, regardless of whether the child attends a maintained or private school because it would blur, and in the end extinguish, the demarcation between private and maintained schools in our system which has been damaging socially and culturally.

Mr. Chris Patten

I am pursuing information rather than trouble. Will my hon. Friend make it clear what the difference is between that proposal and the voucher scheme? I am still a little uncertain about it.

Mr. Howarth

The voucher scheme requires a large administrative apparatus to send parents the voucher, cheque or piece of paper which they present and cash in at the chosen school. The system that I propose is more convenient administratively. The school is entitled to collect the funds according to the number of children attending the school. The distinction is purely administrative. The system that I propose would be cheaper to run and would provide less scope for parents to become muddled by the administration, and to that extent it is preferable. But I do not wish to be dogmatic about the virtues of the per capita system as opposed to the voucher scheme. The important point that they have in common is that they both make schools directly accountable to parents.

I should like to see self-governed schools, owned and ultimately controlled by their governors, who would be trustees. I welcome the Education Bill, but it goes only some way down the road of developing the responsibility of governors. We could usefully go further with governors appointing the head teacher, who would be responsible for education policy, including staff appointments, and a bursar, who would be responsible for the administration and finance of the schools. I should like salaries and pay to be the responsibility of the school, and schools empowered to pay what they believe is appropriate in the local circumstances to attract the staff they need. That would build up the responsibility and sense of self-confidence of schools, and help us to overcome our present acute difficulty of finding teachers in shortage subjects.

Under that system standards would improve because children and resources would gravitate to the better schools, and there would be continuing pressure on all schools to satisfy. In the end, parents would have the sanction of removing their child to another school, if they were unhappy about the school. The organisation of schools would be determined gradually through the operation of supply and demand in an educational market place. As a result, some issues which at present are vexatious would be taken from the realm of political decision-making.

I am thinking, for example, of the question whether village and small schools should survive. That would be resolved by parents deciding whether the advantages to the local community of keeping a small school outweigh the educational disadvantages that it is fashionable to argue are inherent in small schools. The question whether large 2,000-plus comprehensives have a role to play would be determined by parents making their judgment in the light of experience. The question whether there should be magnet or specialist schools would be determined similarly. If the German experience is anything to go by, large numbers of parents would opt for technical schools with strong technical curricula, together with a good grounding in the English language and one foreign language. That is more or less the pattern of the German realschule.

It is offensive that under the present dispensation the permission of a local education authority must be sought before a new denominational school can be established. To judge by the over-subscription of existing denominational schools, many parents would opt for such a school, if they were empowered to make the choice and given the means to put it into effect. They would also opt for other types of new schools.

It would be naive to suggest that there would be no problems in the scheme which I have sketched. Under any system there would still be poor areas and areas of social instability. In any system some children will find themselves in the least popular schools. However, I believe that even those schools will be better because when head teachers are in control of the schools they will be more motivated to run the schools in a manner that pleases the parents. The schools will be accountable to the parents. Indeed, it will be normal for parents to take an active interest, to bring pressure to bear and to exercise responsibility to a far greater extent with regard to their children's education.

I believe there will be a tendency for standards to rise. With the streamlining of administrative costs, more money will be available for schools. On that basis no one should be worse off and many people will be better off. It would be a mark of a mature society that parents should make decisions about the education of their children rather than politicians and bureaucrats. Parental sovereignty in education is a worthy theme to accompany the themes which the Government have already introduced—wider home ownership, wider share ownership and trade union democracy. To give parents power over the education of their children would be profoundly popular and beneficial.

10.6 pm

Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)

First, I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo) on having the foresight to put in for this debate this evening. It is extremely important for the future of the country. I should like to follow along the lines of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), and elaborate some of the cogent points that he put forward.

This evening it is a pity that we do not enjoy the company of the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo). If that hon. Gentleman were here, I am sure that he would immediately rise to the bait and call me one of those hooligan minor public schoolboys on the Tory benches. However, he would be quite wrong, because, unfortunately for him, I have not had the advantages enjoyed by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), or the hon. Member for Durham, North, (Mr. Radice) Consequently, I do not have a guilt complex about introducing greater choice into the educational system.

By the skin of my teeth, I missed becoming a school contemporary of the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock). How the course of history might have been altered by exposure to that towering intellect in some of the formative years of my development. This is personal reminiscence. However, I am part of the 95 per cent. of the population who did not have the advantage, or perhaps whose parents did not have the advantage, of being able to select the school to which their children were sent. I know that that 95 per cent. is not enough, however, for Mrs. Shirley Williams and the Social Democrats. She believes not in a 95 per cent. no choice system but in a 100 per cent. no choice system. Mrs. Williams once said—I am not sure whether she has recanted: Independence in education is bought at too high a price for the rest of society. I do not know whether the electors of the city of Cambridge will agree. However, I suspect that we shall have the company of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) for many years yet.

Mr. Chris Patten

He will cheer us up.

Mr. Hamilton

I agree he will cheer us up and, as Dr. Johnson put it in connection with someone else, he: adds to the gaiety of nations. It is true that parents in Britain are dissatisfied with the educational system. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon pointed out that the Institute of Economic Affairs survey on the desire for choice in education showed that more than half of the British people believe that it would be a good thing if we were to move to a more market-orientated policy in education.

Some 81 per cent. of people in that survey declared themselves in favour of the right to send their children to fee paying schools. Therefore, 81 per cent. of the people of this country reject the Labour party policy of extinguishing altogether any possibility of choice in our secondary education system.

Although the Education Act 1980, introduced and put through the House by my most distinguished constituent, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Carlisle) has made a great improvement in the opportunities for choice for a great many people, we need to go further than the Act enables us to do. The state's dictation and restriction in education are unacceptable. We would not accept such dictation and restriction in far more trivial parts of our daily lives, so I find it astonishing that, for more than 100 years, we have been prepared to put up with them in what is one of the most important elements in any individual's life and one of the most important aspects of his personal and psychological development.

Alas, in recent years schools have become tools of social engineering. The Education Act 1976, which was the brain child of Mrs. Shirley Williams, had as its main aim to impose equality on the country, but in that it failed. It did a tremendous amount of damage while its provisions were still in force. There are problems in my constituency, even in some of the most affluent parts. For example, in Wilmslow, the school is on three sites which are for apart, which results in tremendous upheaval during the day, with people having to shuttle between sites. By no stretch of the imagination can it be said that the converging of three disparate schools into one school in name but three schools in reality, has benefited anybody. The parents, still less the children, had no choice in deciding to make that change in the education and school system.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Southgate and for Stratford-on-Avon pointed out, the education system has been hijacked by those who run it. When constituents complain to me, for example about crumbling buildings, buildings that are not redecorated or a lack of books, all that I can say is, "If you had real choice in education, would you allow this situation to obtain? Would you allow your priorities to be those of the education system?" Most parents do not want this. However, because they have no direct input into the system and because the local education authority is not run directly in the interests of the consumer, unfortunately the priorities are those of people not directly involved in the system as consumers.

Dr. Hampson

Like my hon. Friend I was a grammar school boy rather than a public school boy, but I cannot help thinking of all the great public school traditions, which were not on behalf of the consumers. Had one asked Dr. Arnold whether he was doing what parents wanted him to do, one would have got short shrift.

Mr. Hamilton

Unlike my hon. Friend, I am not living a century ago—two centuries ago, perhaps. It is true that not all parents would be quite so concerned about the lack of a lick of paint on the walls, but if they are concerned, and if they have a choice, they can send their children to schools where the priorities are different. In the state-maintained sector they do not have that choice. There is no real assessment of teacher performance as yet in the state sector either, and that is disturbing. I am sure that it is also unacceptable to the vast majority of parents.

One wonders about the priorities of the bureaucrats who run the LEAs—for example, those who run the system in my authority of Cheshire. Recently, the director of education, a distinguished man, took early retirement and got a very nice little package. He received a lump sum of £36,000 and an indexed-linked pension of £14,000 a year for life. On that early retirement he did not, in fact, retire. He then became professor of education at Warwick university at whatever salary he derives from that.

I find it a strange set of priorities that allows somebody to take such a package which is beneficial to him but which dissipates the resources—the scarce resources, as Opposition Members would say—available for education. Of course, he was allowed to do that only on the grounds that his departure would conduce to the improvement of the education system, but I fail to detect as yet any institutional or structural improvements in the system, and it is to that I was referring, without intending to be derogatory to his abilities in any way.

The politicisation of many schools in the country results from the lack of effective parental imput into the system. The howls of horror which have been heard from those who derive the incomes from the system at the introduction of attempts to quantify the achievements of schools and to compare the different standards of different schools had to be heard to be believed.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that in this country there has been a system of inspection of schools for a very long time? Those reports have been studied carefully by schools, and the whole system of appraisal has been going on for a long time. The majority of governing bodies have taken very seriously the reports of the inspectorate. There has been a system of appraisal in the country for a very long time.

Mr. Hamilton

I accept, of course, that there has been a system of appraisal. I do not think that anybody looking at it fairly could say that it is perfect and would not be improved if there was yet another means of putting pressure on schools to raise standards even beyond the minimum which inspectors have to assess.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

Would it not, for example be in the interests of the parents of the 21.3 per cent. of ILEA school leavers a year ago who failed to get even one CSE or O-level to have a system whereby at least they had some input rather than having inspectors who appear to have been able to do nothing about it?

Mr. Hamilton

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

Mr. Bennett

Will the hon. Gentleman not accept that, in the way in which the CSE examination was designed, the intention was that, to get a grade 5 CSE, one had to be in the top 80 per cent?

Mr. Hamilton

That is true, but I wonder how many employers pay much attention to CSEs and regard them as pieces of paper worth having.

What matters is not what we put into the system and how much it costs to run, but what we get out of it at the end of the day. We seem to have reversed the emphasis. We are constantly talking about inputs and how much we are building up the school systems; we are not talking enough about the effectiveness of the resources we provide.

As a Government we have two achievements in that respect. It is now possible to compare the examination performances of schools and, under the 1980 Act, there is an increased but still imperfect choice for parents as to which schools to send their children. I stand today like Lord Clive in the 18th century when he was interrogated by a Committee of the House—aghast at our own moderation after so many years of experience when we have had great opportunities to make radical changes in the education system, but have drawn back from the brink of doing so. Real choice will come about only when we introduce more market oriented systems of choice. When one says "market system", that is perhaps an abstraction that does not attract some people. The market system means people, consumers, individuals, making their own choices rather than others making choices for them, so it is a more humane system than the present one.

This will have great political benefits for the Government who take the step of introducing it. There are many political difficulties by which all Governments are beset. There is, for example, the question of closure of village schools and the size of schools. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon pointed out, there is the question of religious schools and of teachers' pay. If we had a more market-oriented education system, those problems would not disappear completely, but they would be much less pressing and they would certainly be much less political than they are at the moment. We should be able to be more flexible over scales of pay for teachers. That would remedy the shortages in certain subjects and in certain difficult areas.

Many of the local government problems that are connected with the reform of the rating system would disappear if education were centrally funded, albeit directed locally. There is still much to do in order to reform the education system. There is choice of a restricted kind, but that choice is available only to those who have the resources to move to an area where there is a decent school. It is all very well for the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) to say that he sent his children to a state school, but that was Holland Park comprehensive school. There is a great difference between a school of that kind and some of the schools that one finds in some of the most deprived inner-city areas.

As a grammar school product—I hope that its product will incline hon. Members to approve of the system—I very much regret that the advantages that I enjoyed, coming from a modest background, are now denied to many people who come from the same kind of background. They are imprisoned in a system that will blight their lives. I fail entirely to understand the arguments of those on the Opposition Benches—[SEVERAL HON. MEMBERS: "They are not there."] They would deny it if they were. They would deny parental choice. The implication is that the working classes are not fit to make decisions about the educational needs of their children—which, for socialists, we ought to find extraordinary. But this is not a new phenomenon. If one looks back to the days before the introduction of the state education system, which is going back a very long way, we find that even when incomes were very much smaller than they are now poor people put aside significant proportions of their income to provide for the education of their children.

In his book "Education and the State", Professor E. G. West points out that in 1833, the year in which the first state education grants were introduced, the percentage of the net national income being spent on day schooling was about 1 per cent. of parental income. By 1965 it had risen to 2 per cent. In 1833 the average was about 0.8 per cent. for children below 11 years of age. In 1965 it was about 0.86 per cent. In relative terms, therefore, the sacrifices being made by parents today are not much greater than the sacrifices that were made by parents all those years ago.

In those days most children received day schooling and the average length of schooling was between four and five years. In Manchester, which is on my doorstep, apparently 80 per cent. of schooling in the 1830s was paid for entirely by parental fees. This shows that parents who then lived in indescribable poverty compared with the kind of poverty that may be experienced today, were prepared to make that kind of sacrifice. Today parents are very much more able to provide properly for the education of their children. In fact, the Forster Act of 1870 provided for a rudimentary form of vouchers. They were called tickets. That can be found in section 25 of the Act. These ideas, therefore, are not new.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Is it not an extraordinary paradox that in many households where there are two wage earners and where the average take-home income is higher than it has ever been the demand for private education is so low? Does not this give us pause for thought when we consider how much discretion parents ought to have?

Mr. Hamilton

That was not characteristic of my hon. Friend's own family because he was a school chum of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central at Eton.

It is only because the state takes such a high proportion of their income in taxes that people feel unable to pay twice for the education of their children. If the tax burden were reduced by transferring responsibility for education from the state to individuals, they could pay much more easily for the education of their children.

Mr. Leigh

Is not my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) saying that the working classes cannot be trusted to look after the education of their children?

Mr. Hamilton

I shall allow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) to make his own speech in due course. I shall certainly not attempt to read his mind.

The vast majority of people, if they had a higher net disposable income because the tax burden was lower, with spending on education being lower, would much prefer to educate their children themselves. That is the basis of our approach in the publication "No Turning Back", which is familiar to many hon. Members. We made three suggestions about how the education system could be improved. The principal way would be to introduce per capita funding, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon has pointed out. School boards should be made more powerful through a major parental input and headmasters should be given executive powers. That could be reinforced by an absolute right to send one's child to any school where a place was available. In addition, a group of 30 or more parents should have the right to set up a school which would receive the funds which the State would otherwise have expended on the education of their children.

Under that system, choice would exist naturally. That could happen if the disposable income of parents was not reduced by the burdens of the state. It is a myth that the redistribution of income plays other than a small part in raising the living standards of those on lower than average incomes. Most people in receipt of benefits pay for the benefits which they receive. As we heard at Treasury Question Time today. If the whole incomes of those earning £30,000 a year and more were to be expropriated by the state, that would raise less than £2 billion. Therefore, the redistributive element in the educational, social security and welfare system is very small. If the State did not own the assets and pay for the provision of services, people could do that themselves.

I ask my hon. Friend to be more radical than his predecessors have been and to trust the collective wisdom of parents rather than to perpetuate the collectivist follies of politicians.

10.27 pm
Mr. Christopher Chope (Southampton, Itchen)

May I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo) on introducing the debate. Like others of my hon. Friends, I comment on the lack of interest shown by members of the SDP and the Liberal party in a very important subject. I also note that there are still only two Labour Members present.

The backcloth to the debate is the teachers' dispute, which has shown the extent to which parents have been left out of the control of the education of their children by the present system. Many parents were very disturbed at the selfish and unprofessional behaviour of teachers and the way in which parents' evenings were brought to an end and lunchtime supervision was disrupted. In some cases in my constituency parents were forced to give up work to look after their children at lunchtime. That shows the extent to which the behaviour of teachers was becoming irresponsible.

It was fortunate for some people in my constituency that there was a private sector alternative available. During the dispute an increasing number of parents took their children away from the maintained sector and put them into private schools until those schools were filled to overflowing. At least, there was that extent of choice but realistically that was available only to those who could afford to pay the fees.

Parents have been virtually powerless to influence events in the last year. I want to bring parents in from the cold, and there are two ways to do that. The first is to give them a clear choice of schools and the second is to give them greater responsibility for what goes on in those schools.

It is assumed now that we do not have to decide which children go to popular schools. In reality, there are popular and unpopular schools and choices must be made. The arbitrary and unfair system operates in almost every local education authority now in what are called catchment areas. Under this system, an outsider can buy in to an area and can send his child to a popular school, while somebody who may have been living in the community for many years and who wants to send his child to a certain school is squeezed out; he may be a council tenant and cannot get a transfer into the catchment area of that school. So let us not kid ourselves into thinking that there is not now a system of selection to decide which children go to popular schools.

There is a better system, one that would involve waiting lists and operate on a first-come, first-served basis. It would mean that a long-standing resident in a community would have an advantage over an incomer. There would be a running record of likely future demand for a given school. If people put down the names of their children at birth for entry to popular primary schools in the locality, the local education authority would have five years' notice of the likely demand. The design capacity of schools could be examined to see whether they could meet the demand.

I was surprised to learn from a recent written answer that no central statistics are kept of the design capacity of maintained schools. If Ministers are to take wise decisions about which schools should be closed because of a fall in demand, basic information should be in the possession of the Department of Education and Science about the design capacity of schools. Until we have such basic information, we shall not know the extent to which schools could expand.

If parents had their way, there would be more discipline in schools, with more emphasis on a core curriculum. Indeed, if parents had their way there would not be peace studies and political education. There would be much less sewing for boys and metal work for girls. The popular schools would have remained open, bad teachers would have been sacked rather than transferred and prize days would still exist, rather then having been abolished by most Socialist local education authorities.

I recall what happened in ILEA when I was the vice-chairman of a governing body. At what was supposed to be a prize day ceremony, I said I thought it a pity that there were no prizes to present. Because of that, the Socialists decided that it was not right that I should even be the vice-chairman of that governing body.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

Is it not typical of ILEA to spend £8,000 per child on a creche for the children of its employees, when that is more than it spends per pupil in its schools?

Mr. Chope

I agree. That is another example of the absurdities of the ILEA. My hon. Friend and I were able to get some information about that earlier this week when we visited a sports hall in Wandsworth. We were told that ILEA prefers to bus children from local schools to its own facilities rather than deign to allow them to use a facility provided by Wandsworth council. Two local ILEA schools have used their meagre resources to make the sports hall facility available for their pupils, but that has been in spite of ILEA.

If parents had had their way, I am sure that teachers in short supply, such as maths and physics teachers, would be offered more money and that we would not have lost many fine schools. It is difficult to work out how parents can be given greater responsibility for what goes on in schools unless they are given responsibility for what are colloquially known as resources, but what I prefer to call money. If parents were given responsibility for money and its allocation in schools, I am sure that it would be much better allocated. I am also sure that, if parents felt that, by becoming members of a school governing body, they would be something more than tokens of parental involvement and able to take decisions that counted, many more would come forward. We will not get major parental involvement until we give parents responsibilities, and governing bodies control over resources.

More maintained schools might operate like those in the private sector, which have bursars. It is amazing that, in the private sector, a school with 1,000 or 500 pupils is capable of being virtully self-sufficient and can employ local jobbing people to do maintainance whereas a school of similar size in the public sector probably takes a month to get the various forms filled in. In Southampton, those forms are sent to the area office, which sometimes has to refer matters to county hall in Winchester. That system is absurd.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

My hon. Friend is making an interesting and important speech. I suspect that he agrees that parents have no say over the curriculum in an independent school but have an indirect say in that they are the customers. How does he envisage parents controlling the curriculum in the maintained sector—by indirect means or by more direct means? Is he trying to bring maintained schools into line with independent schools or the reverse? I would like to know where he is going.

Mr. Chope

That is an interesting intervention. I would like governors to take responsibility for the curriculum. There is obviously a state involvement in that the Department of Education and Science has an interest in ensuring that there is a core curriculum in all schools, and I would not want to remove that. If, however, governing bodies had responsibility for deciding the curriculum, they would probably take wise decisions, especially if they comprised fewer teachers and contained more parents and people interested in the school. One of the great assets of many schools in the private sector is their alumni. We do not have such involvement in the public sector as there is no scope for them to be drawn on to governing bodies. Perhaps that idea could be added to the Government's proposals for giving governing bodies greater breadth.

As has been shown, working class pupils are being excluded from entry to universities because of the system. It is a disgrace that only 19 per cent. of university entrants in 1981 came from working class backgrounds. That is reflected in what the vice-chancellor of Southampton university said at the launch of Industry Year. He said that, when he was at Durham university, engineering courses were almost entirely filled by people who had been to public schools. There is a mass of evidence to suggest that where parents are involved in their children's education those children perform better. I can think of no better reason than that for increasing parental involvement in our schools.

10.40 pm
Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

I notice the ingenuity of the Opposition Front Bench in spreading their talents to the Back Benches. I am sure that the House will enjoy the contributions from this side of the House.

I speak in the debate with a sense of déjà vu, of turning back. A decade or more ago I took part in these debates. My remarks tonight are not directed against the sentiments, criticisms of analyses of my right hon. and hon. Friends. We have the same arguments and they are absolutely right. Standards in British schools are not what parents would like, nor what universities and polytechnics expect. They are not producing people with the talent that is necessary for the professions and industries of this country to compete in the world. I believe that that is common ground. It is a feature of the past 10 years. It is a tragedy that we have not progressed effectively over that period. The sands are moving, but not so dramatically as we wish.

We would like to see more changes in the curriculum in schools, because it has gone on the rocks. Too many subjects, including peace studies, have been shoved in at the cost of basic disciplines—the core subjects which the Secretary of State does not have the power to impose on the system. The balance has also been wrong.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) spoke of the German tradition of polytecknik technical schools. That has not been the tradition in this country. There is a certain inconsistency in what is said about the desire for market forces in schools, while at the same time lauding the independent sector. The key reason why we do not have a German tecknik philosophy or its equivalent polytechniques in France in our schools is the public school tradition. It was dominant, and fed through to our grammar schools. It was all about the educated and civilised man, and was not concerned with the practical application of skills The philosophy has filtered through the school system and into higher education as well.

Time and again in the past 150 years people have tried to break that tradition, as in the middle of the 19th century, when Manchester university and other institutions were deliberately created to oppose the classical tradition of Oxbridge. Other great civic universities followed in the latter part of the century, supported by the local customers if one likes—the industrialists, the Frys, the Boots family, the tobacco people in Nottingham and the Wills family in Bristol. The Prince Consort, Prince Albert, constantly criticised and attacked the traditions of British education and compared them with those of Germany. The reports of the education commissioners at the turn of the century refer time and again to this, and it has continued to the present age.

Since the war there have been several attempts to break the tradition. We started with the technical colleges and a tremendous impetus by David Eccles, now Lord Eccles. There was a major breakthrough in British education to counter what prevailed at the time. There was a phase during which colleges of advanced technology were established to compete with the rest of Europe in high technology. Those institutions were merged into the university tradition. In the 1960s Tony Crosland attempted to re-establish the polytechnic tradition.

Now here we are again, with all the same arguments being put forward, starting with those of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), the then Prime Minister, and moving on to the new impetus by the Conservative party, when the Prime Minister, then Secretary of State for Education and Science, published a White Paper in 1970 to continue the debate. Therefore, it is not enough to say that there is something sacrosanct about the private sector, and I hope that my hon. Friends are not saying that. Unfortunately, that is the impression given by some of their arguments, and it is the preception among the public. We do ourselves no service if that is what the public believe to be the arguments of Conservative Members.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but the public school ethos, as opposed to its attainments, has survived to influence adversely the way in which we do things in industrial Britain because no alternative source has produced people of high educational attainment. We have set out to destroy the grammar schools and technical schools by which people from working-class backgrounds and with a different ethos could have challenged the public school values in industry.

Dr. Hampson

There is some sense in that. Several of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo), talked about the system being controlled by the producers. But that is exactly what the public school tradition was about. It set the standards of the system. That is why Britain is unique in almost the entire Western world in the authority that we invest in teachers and, above all, in headmasters. Britain gave more power to the professionals—the teachers—than did any other country, and that is a tradition to which the National Union of Teachers, in its present warped fashion and with its Left-wing leadership, still pays lip service. The tradition that the professionals know best goes back a long way.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I cannot allow my hon. Friend to get away with the suggestion that producer power in the public schools resulted in their turning out people who were suited to running an empire. Surely that happened because the consumers—the parents—wanted their children to leave school with those qualities, and the schools responded to that demand—

Dr. Hampson


Mr. Forsyth

In no way can my hon. Friend argue that the producers—the teachers—insisted on turning out such products.

Dr. Hampson

I am sorry to have to correct my hon. Friend, but that is exactly what happened. The large growth in British public schools occurred in 1851 after the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms, which brought Civil Service examinations into British Government. To get through those examinations, they needed schools to prepare people for the syllabuses. That is why so many public schools were created. Schools such as Cheltenham and Clifton burst on the scene to produce those people. It was not in response to the customers—the parents of the children attending the schools—but another example of the professionals calling the shots.

Another problem with the argument is that we become confused between choice of course and choice of school. There are completely different solutions, and it is easier to obtain one than it is to obtain the other. If we mean a choice of course, we must consider the composition and powers of governing boards. We went through all this in the mid-1970s. I could claim that I coined the phrase "parent power"; indeed, although my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office is now attributed with coining the phrase "magnet schools", I claim copyright on that, too, because I heard it first during a visit to Boston in the early 1970s.

Our arguments then were strong, but the Education Act 1981 did not go far enough. We did not accept the logic of what we called in opposition the parents' charter. We said that it was nonsense for governing bodies to be dominated by local authorities. That is the crux of the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth mentioned this—

Mr. Chope

No; Southampton, Itchen!

Dr. Hampson

I apologise for that understandable mistake. We know where my hon. Friend's fame lay. The point was that local authorities, especially Socialist ones, packed the governing bodies of schools so that parents could have no effect on courses or curricula. Indeed, all the perversities in the present system, such as peace studies, were pushed into the schools by the lackeys of local councils, who were put on to governing bodies as political nominees, not because they had any real interest in the schools. We said that that must be removed. We said that parents ought to be the largest force, because it was their children who were involved. That was fundamental. But we let the parents down. We have taken two bites at the problem over five years. We could and should have done it as soon as we came in, in 1981.

It is also a matter, not just of the composition of governing bodies, but of the powers that they are given. I agree with everything that has been said about giving them more strength, provided that one has the right governing body. Otherwise, why give more powers to a governing body which is as warped as those that we have seen in so many schools? Once the membership is right, one can talk seriously about giving financial power to the schools; far more than we have ever dreamt of doing so far in British education. It is something for which I have long argued.

The ultimate logic of having a say or an input or having control over the curriculum is to go the American way. Instead of having rates as we now do, a subject dominated by the cost of education, and trying to get rid of the rates, the answer is possibly to turn rates, as in the United States, into a property tax to fund education. One could than have a real parental say, because then local communities would be paying and understanding, and therefore taking a greater interest in what goes on in schools. I am not saying that that is the way that we should go, but that is the logic of dealing with choice. Choice is about what is taught in the schools.

Many of my hon. Friends are not just talking about that, or even wanting to. They are really talking about the choice between schools, and accepting the imperfections of the present system. Now we get into how one tackles the problem. I trust the people—I think that that is the phrase that was used tonight. I trust the parents. I want to give them a greater say. Unfortunately, on the basis of our present legislation, it is not good enough. In Leeds in the past month I have had constituency case after constituency case because the Labour-controlled city council is now engineering catchment zones for primary schools, the most popular schools in Leeds. It is absolute chaos and is causing enormous anxiety, concern and upset.

The Yorkshire Evening Post has exposed what is going on inside the Labour group on the city council, which controls education. These are the abuses to which I alluded in discussing the Bill which the Government thankfully brought in; abuses by councillors with regard to propaganda on the rates. I have said time and time again that it is not just a matter of publicity. It is about the people who are there and who write the publicity, who are hired to write it, and the increasing role in the system, not of the officials themselves, but of the professional politicians.

The Yorkshire Evening Post has exposed what is happening in Leeds, where Councillor Driver of the hard Left is supposed to be a lecturer in another college, but he is a full-time council member. He has moved in, he has a desk, and he is sacking or not reappointing the professional staff. The director of education is being increasingly isolated and has very few staff. I said in Committee—I knew then—that before Christmas they were out to get the director of education in Leeds because they found his views unpalatable.

We have serious problems with the present system in terms of the composition and powers of governing bodies. Parents should have more say and we should have done more than we have done, but the problem is to find the way to do it. I have told my hon. Friends that they are strong on theory but lacking when it comes to the practicalities, as I have heard them so far—whether it is the direct voucher system or the interesting variation of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon.

I have to say what I am about to say simply because of my American experience. My hon. Friends are aware of all the time that I have spent in the United States, but I went on one specific occasion to look at both the voucher experience in California and, what is usually forgotten by friends of ours in this country who have written about it, the voucher experiments in East Hartford. These systems do not work as the theory dictates they should. Who, even here in this House tonight, is prepared to cite any American experience? It was all the fashion 10 years ago, but nobody uses it now.

I shall tell Members why. The bureaucracy is appalling in getting the vouchers out to the parents, getting them into the schools, the staff at schools having to handle them and not wanting to. One cannot duck the fact that trade unions exist in the teaching professions. They do not want vouchers and make it very hard to work the system. That is one of the practical reasons why vouchers have not been successful.

Secondly, even the credit system of just allocating money to schools, which is much more tolerable and possible, is costly. It needs sophisticated computer programmes, which no doubt we can develop, and a lot of staff, if not in the schools. That was the experience in East Hartford.

The third reason is more telling, and that is the so-called dragging-up effect which my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate mentioned in reply to my intervention. My hon. Friend accepts that there is possibly a problem in expanding a school ad infinitum to meet the numbers, because moods change. Interest in schools varies, fashions change, the quality of staff alters and heads disappear. Therefore, schools and their reputations change, although that is often the result of perception rather than reality. Then there is a problem because the school has been expanded. Sophisticated caravans cannot be wheeled in and out of playgrounds.

The converse of that is that the poorer schools will be dragged up and we shall never reach that logical ad absurdum position, as my hon. Friend put it. But that does not happen; rather the reverse. There is a spiral downwards of depression and deprivation in the schools, which start losing numbers. We see that in our constituencies in the cities, where there is already a rapid decline in numbers. The morale of staff declines, the better staff go to other schools, the subject range starts collapsing and parents become conscious that a school has a bad reputation. It gets worse and worse. Therefore, there is no dragging-up effect.

Mr. Peter Lilley (St. Albans)

Precisely the same problems must occur in the private sector as schools change in popularity and effectiveness. There are limitations on the amount by which they can expand, and so on. Yet I am not aware that that has brought about the downfall of the private education sector. It has occasionally brought about the downfall of bad schools, but I should have thought that that was something to be welcomed and to be hoped for in the state sector as well.

Dr. Hampson

Unfortunately, it has not brought about the downfall of enough of the worst private schools. Standards in the state system, particularly in inner cities, are so bad that a false market is created. People who are desperate not to go to state schools which they perceive to be bad, and also for prestige and other reasons, are using schools in the private sector on which if they had any sense, they would not waste their money.

Mr. Greenway

My hon. Friend is making an interesting and important point, but in the end every parent has to decide whether to send a son or daughter to a school that is running down such as my hon. Friend has described. Would my hon. Friend do that?

Dr. Hampson

I accept that point, because I want to find ways in which that becomes a real choice, but the scale of the problem cannot be avoided. Britain has seen a fall in pupil numbers of a third over 10 years, and in some parts of our cities a 40 per cent. fall. How could any voucher or pupil credit system work in those conditions? The movement of people is far too acute. That imposes an extra pressure on the better schools and a faster decline elsewhere. There is no evidence of the dragging-up effect working.

Mr. Alan Howarth

Will my hon. Friend concede that under the present system there is little incentive for a bad school to get better because local education authorities are allocating pupils away from the schools of parental first choice in order to maintain the input of resources into the schools which are less popular, and that hardly provides any incentive for or pressure on those schools to make themselves more attractive to parents?

Dr. Hampson

Of course, that is true, but some of the schemes, including my hon. Friend's scheme, are no answer. They do not grasp that fact because they perpetuate the problem of the relative decline in the perception of schools, which can be related to the dramatic fall in numbers of some and the improvement in others. The voucher schemes of various kinds make matters worse. That is what we are living with now. We have to try to find ways of coping with that. One can get parental choice systems and change the balance of power between local authorities and governing boards and parents, which is at the heart of it, to deal with the problem.

The system has not worked for a number of reasons. East Hartford is the best researched area to help us to understand why, because the American research had all sorts of oddities about it. It was largely an ethnic population, for one thing. East Hartford is an average lower middle-class semi-skilled to skilled professional catchment area. What was found, which is relatively true given the adjustments for California, was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) in an intervention. He mentioned the unlikelihood of parents wanting to move. He was using that to attack a point of mine that one could not go on letting the schools get bigger and bigger, because when the Head changed and the reputation fell, what would happen to all the empty buildings?

The fact that parents are not readily prepared to move is the reason why the system would not work. The evidence of the American schemes is that no more than 7 per cent. of parents are prepared to move. The overwhelming majority of parents opt for their nearest school, and it was proved that there was no need for all the cost and bureaucracy of a voucher scheme. There can be a straight parental choice system without the cumbersome nature of the voucher system, because it is theoretical and ignores the practice.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

I do not want to spoil my hon. Friend's enjoyment of his shadow boxing with the voucher system, which to my knowledge has not been introduced by anyone this evening, except my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth). However, there seems to be a lack of internal consistency in his argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) rightly said that once people have opted for the secondary school system or for a primary school they would be reluctant to change. That is not the same as avoiding shifts at the point of choice, which is generally the transition into the primary school system, or from the primary school system into the secondary school system. It would also act as a trigger to the school management to see how successful or unsuccessful its school was and give it a warning to do something about it for the following year.

Dr. Hampson

It is the same point. I am talking about human psychology. We all know from our own areas that parents normally prefer their nearest school. Of course, if it is evident that there is a better school not too far away they may make an effort, but if they are offered a choice, whether it be a transfer between sectors, from primary to secondary or within secondary schools, parents actually prefer their own schools. There are many studies which show that. When one talks about parental choice, that is the reality that one has to face.

The heart of the problem is not solved. The problem is declining standards, particularly in city schools, and good schools which have been mucked around by local authorities. One has to deal with particular aspects, whether it is local authority power, Government power, composition of governors or alternatives. One obviously could expand the assisted places scheme, which is a very useful way of enabling those who have little choice to go for more specialised schools. The magnet school idea must come into this country.

With the state system, one should be able to offer parents a choice of specialist subjects, not at 11 on supposed ability and future potential, but between schools that are good at mathematics or physics or specialise in modern languages, above the core range of subjects. We already do that with music, ballet and with the choir schools. Even the Labour Government had to accept that choir schools were the one exemption that they had to make in their comprehensive legislation. They had to leave choir schools to produce good choristers. That could be applied across the board. There are ways in which we can cope and give more choice to parents.

It seems perverse that I have to say, I hope not too strongly, that we appear to be talking about some of the attractive theoretical schemes, impractical as they are, on the heels of the teachers' strike, from which unfortunately we got little credit. I know that parents have increasingly started to blame the obstreperousness of the National Union of Teachers, and for years I have been preaching about what has happened to the NUT. However, parents are upset. The strike has gone on for a long time and they are worried about their children. We are in danger of telling parents that we are looking after a narrow group of parents and children. We are in danger of trying to help not only those who want to go to the private sector—they are by no means the majority—but those who are already in it. That is the greatest risk of all.

The last time we considered the voucher system, when the Conservative party was in opposition and then in Government, it was not to apply to private schools. The idea was to put choice into the state system. If the system were applied to private schools, an enormous bonanza of financial assistance would be given to those who have already selected private education. That would not be palatable politically. That is why the Government at that time, would not accept the broad range of that idea and why, despite the arguments of some of my colleagues, we cannot have that system now. If we had such a system, we would be giving tens of millions of pounds to those who are already in the private sector. It would be perceived not only as an unnecessary increase in public expenditure but, in the context of the tragedies in the state sector of education, as favouring the private sector, encouraging the growth of the public sector, encouraging a certain part of the middle classes to use the private sector and, above all, giving them financial help to do so.

11.15 pm
Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson), who has brought a wiser and wider perspective of education to Conservative contributions. If there is one criticism of the hon. Gentleman it is that, in 26 minutes, one could possibly have had too much of a good thing.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo) on his luck in being selected in the ballot and on his choice of subject. Listening to his contribution and those of his colleagues who followed him, I began to feel that some of those hon. Members might have been more interested in parading their theories of choice for each other's interest, entertainment and delight than in showing concern for the education of our children. Most hon. Members seemed more interested in the theory of choice than in the reality of education.

That interest in the theory of choice led the hon. Member for Southgate to put forward a rather glib description of a market force philosophy in education in which the only operation of choice was through buying and selling education. The idea that one could choose through the ballot box did not seem to occur to him. It led some other hon. Members to make bizarre remarks. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) seemed to criticise primary education for being child-centred. I should have thought that hon. Members on both sides of the House believed that education should be centred on the child. The Plowden report andall that has been best in the enormous achievements of primary education have been centred on the development of the child.

Rather less happily, the theory of choice led the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) to make some rather tasteless and ill-considered remarks about the personal circumstances of the former director of education for Cheshire. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise that he has made an enormous contribution to education ideas and practice.

Mr. Neil Hamilton

I am sorry to contradict the hon. Gentleman, but I made a specific point of saying that I was not in any way seeking to be derogatory about the former director of education for Cheshire. I was merely saying that the local authority showed a peculiar set of priorities by dispensing with his services and replacing him with someone else rather than using those resources in ways that would benefit the children in school.

Mr. Fisher

The hon. Gentleman must judge for himself whether it is right and proper that he should use parliamentary privilege to bring in the circumstances of an individual's pension. As that man has given so much to public education, not only through his contribution to the Cheshire local education authority but through the Schools Council, the hon. Gentleman's criticisms were less than considered. He may well wish to reflect on them and perhaps drop a line to the gentleman concerned.

The debate seems to have centred on the idea of choice. Opposition Members, after hearing the contributions from the Government Benches, believe that it is impertinent that the idea of choice and the bastion of choice should come from there. The Government have destroyed the most important choice of all in the past six years, or at least have gone a good way to limiting it. That is the choice of quality. If parents now wish to find and choose a school which has well-paid and well-motivated teachers, they must look very carefully, as there are no well-paid teachers and motivation is hard to come by.

If parents want to find a school where there is a sufficiency of good textbooks and library books, that sort of choice is hard to make after the past five years. Similarly, maintenance and supervision and well-cared-for and clean schools are all much harder to find after the way that the Government have capped the rates and made it extremely difficult for local education authorities to respond to the parents' choice, through the ballot box, to spend more of their rates on education. That is a real choice and a real way of expressing that choice.

Mr. Lilley

Has the hon. Gentleman not read Her Majesty's inspectors' report on the impact of spending policies on local authorities, which concluded that there had been an improvement in the supply of books yet again in a recent year, that of all local authorities only a third had a shortage of books and that the shortages in 90 per cent. of that third were due not to a shortage of funds but to the inadequacies of management by teachers or by the local authority? There was no sign, except in 3 per cent. of all schools, that a shortage of funds had led to a shortage of books.

Mr. Fisher

The hon. Gentleman should look at the statistics provided by the National Book League and the Publishers Association; he will then see that that is not the case.

I should like to concentrate on the element of choice on which the debate has focused; that is the choice of school. Exactly what does that involve, and for whom is the choice being made? The reality is that the choice to which Conservative Members were referring is a choice which very few people can enjoy. To operate the sort of choice that Conservative Members talk about, one would have to live in an urban or suburban area, be better off and, most important of all, be mobile. If one lives in a rural area which has only one secondary school or it cannot afford transport, there is no chance to make a choice between schools.

Similarly, there are difficulties about how to make such a choice work. Hon. Members spoke about attractive schools, but what does that mean? What makes a school attractive to the public? It may be attractive because it has a young and dynamic new headmaster with a fresh attitude and a way of getting publicity in the local paper. It may be attractive because it has good examination results. It is difficult, however, for parents to understand those examination results in the context of the intake of the school, the enjoyment of the children in the school or the achievement in relation to the children's potential.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)


Mr. Fisher

I cannot give way any more: I want to allow another Government Member to speak and I have already given way several times.

Choice has been extended over the past three years, but that choice is an incoherent one. As there are dropping school rolls, many of the articulate and intelligent parents who see the main chance can choose their schools, but that does not always have a happy effect on the balance of education in an area. Some very attractive schools are attracting parents who are able and mobile enough to move their children to them. That is causing wider and wider disparities between schools; because some schools are attracting the more able academic children, there is a disparity between intakes and the potential of intakes.

The hon. Member for Southgate recognised the illogic in his choice of subject when he spoke about having to give more money to more schools, but he failed to see the stupidity in that, as that would enrich the good schools and further run down the poor ones.

To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he did not concentrate only on the idea of choice in schools. He also talked about the importance of information, parental rights and control. Unfortunately, he made a mistake in linking information and control, because they are different. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West was wise and sensible enough to recognise that the idea of a shift from a professionally focused education system to a consumer and parent-focused one is new. Political parties have yet come to terms with it, or may have begun to do so only during the past few years, as has the teaching profession. Indeed, political parties are probably ahead of the teaching profession.

There is an enormous difference between information and scrutiny, and access and control. It is right and proper that parents should have more information about curricula, schemes of work and homework, especially what it is for, how it is set and how it fits into a child's development. Parents should have more information about school ethos, discipline, admission and exclusion policies, safety, health and midday supervision. They should have far more information on the fabric and resources of schools. Few parents know what capitation is spent on their children. When they are told that in a primary school in a top junior class only 10p a day is spent per child on consumable resources for that child, they are shocked and are given a wholly new perspective of the difficulties of teaching children with minimum resources.

Moreover, parents should have greater access to teachers, reports and discussions, not only for their child's school, but for the locality's schools, so that they can see the plurality of choice, and how their child's education at his school fits into local education. None of that is easy. It all costs money and takes teachers' time, which is an extremely scarce and expensive commodity. The problem is different with control, which should not be solely with parents. Education must be a partnership between teachers, parents, others in the community, pupils, especially in secondary schools, the local education authority and the Government. The seductive idea that because parents should have more rights and involvement they should have more control is mistaken. They should have more partnership and involvement, but not more control.

It is interesting that we have talked solely about the choice of school and not about the choice of curriculum or subjects. No hon. Member has mentioned second languages, music, drama or three-dimensional art, between which children must choose at school. They all require additional resources. It is not merely a matter of choosing the totality of a school, but of making choices inside a school. Above all, there is the choice by the ballot box—the right of electors to choose to spend more on education. Only in that way can we open up the choices, information, rights and involvement that parents should have.

11 . 18 pm

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I was much derided in my intervention when I suggested that it was not beyond the bounds of possibility for a much larger number of parents to exercise their choice under the present system by spending money on private schooling which they at present spend, for example on a second car. None of my hon. Friends who has spoken has suggested that the money should be handed to parents to spend as they choose, because they know that parents will not spend additional income on education. The fact that the percentage of income that families spend on education has not risen in 100 years is clear.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) that, at a time when the education system is reeling from the teachers' strike and other difficulties, the electorate will look to the Conservative party to improve the standard of education in the short term.

Everyone knows that this can be best effected by the standard of the head teacher. The standard of most schools depends heavily on the standard of the head teacher. One of the lamentable features of the present education system is that most head teachers receive the minimum amount of training for their job and most have a nugatory amount of power compared with the power that a good manager ought to be given. Head teachers also have a limitless tenure which is absurd. I believe that most head teachers should be given, as they are in the independent sector, a limited tenure which can be extended if it is considered beneficial.

Governors should be given a proper job. I agree with my hon. Friends who have spoken earlier that the present education system is bizarre. The money is provided by central Government, but the Government neither hire not fire a single member of staff. The local education authorities may hire or fire the staff but they have no control over the day-to-day deployment of that staff. Those that have control over the day-to-day deployment have no control over the amount of resources they receive. If we wish to improve the educational system, we should look at some of the in-built weaknesses which have been allowed to survive for so long.

I am aware that time has run out. I urge my hon. Friends to be wary of approaching the electorate with some high flown theoretical scheme when there are many more less high flown things which could improve education in the short-term.

11.22 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo) on getting this debate for the Boyson Glee Club and their rendering of "No turning back".

I am a little puzzled by this theme of no turning back, because they seem to be returning to privilege and selection in education. However, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on emphasising the responsibilities of parents and the right to trust parents. That is important.

However, I caution the hon. Gentleman that the responsibility of parents is an onerous one. We can either as parents, or as those interested in education, pick out the first class schools and the rotten schools. However, it is a more testing task to decide between the very good school and the school which is of a slightly poorer standard. We sometimes put an unfair burden on parents by suggesting that they should exercise choice when they have a difficult choice to make. I enter the caution that, although it is possible to make a judgment on the present standards of the school, one must also take into account what the school will be like next year, the year after that or seven years hence. If we could predict which will be the good schools of the future and which will be the bad, it would be easier to prevent schools from deteriorating.

A choice based on future standards is a difficult task to perform. The danger is that, because people exercise a choice, they start to preordain in which direction a school will be pushed. If one is not careful, one can push a school downhill. Based on objective criteria a school may not go downhill but for the exercise of parental choice.

However, because of the areas in which people live there are often no choices. There may be too long a distance between schools and thus one cannot offer a choice. In the large cities, those who choose a denominational school do not get a choice between two denominational schools because of the distance between the schools. Choice is important but must be treated with care.

The hon. Member for Southgate did not touch on vouchers, but other Conservative Members did mention them. The first problem is that schools do not have rubber sides and it is difficult to move a school building and take it away to another site. It is extremely difficult to add or take away from a school building, although many local authorities would love to be able to expand the number of children that they can take on a site. When I was a teacher, I felt that one of the most depressing things was to have to teach in overcrowded schools. Now, because of falling rolls, the extra class room, where things can be left out and developed is an extremely useful resource, and it would be unfair to schools to press them to take more and more pupils when they cannot provide the extra buildings.

The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) was keen on market orientation, but schools are not like cans of beans. The danger is that the more we encourage parental choice, the more we encourage them to look at the outside appearance—the label on the can—rather than at the contents. I have talked to heads who are worried about the way in which, because of falling rolls and parental choice, they have to do a public relations job for the schools, rather than putting the emphasis on what goes on in the schools. Sadly, that effort goes into convincing parents that that is a good school, when the reality is different. We should be wary of that.

We should be making sure that we give all children a passport to achievement, which should allow parents and pupils to make a choice. However, the choice should not be between good and bad education but between different types—as the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) said—of good education. Parents want to be able to choose between two good schools and then look for varieties in the curricula and so on, not between a good and a bad school.

Spare resources should be spent on the existing schools to make sure that they are good. Children should get off to a good start, which should make nursery education universally available, for those parents who want it, to all three-and four-year-olds. In Gloucestershire, there is no nursery education, in Somerset there is 1 per cent. provision, and in West Sussex, Havering and Bromley there is a 2 per cent. provision. Some local authorities still let no children into primary school before their fifth birthday. All this shows that we have a long way to go before we can start expanding the choice of good schools.

Too many parents choose schools on the state of the buildings. It is extremely depressing to go to schools where the head, the local authority and the parents would all like to spend money on improving the fabric of the schools, but cannot. A major problem, for example, is leaking roofs. There is no money because of rate capping and all the other Government measures.

We should ensure that parents can choose between well-maintained schools. Tameside, for example, is greatly displeased at the way that the Government are giving capital allocations to improve buildings. In Leeds, next year, the local authority will be able to spend only 6 per cent. of the money that it estimates it is necessary to spend on school buildings. All around the country is a depressing picture of delapidated school buildings.

I would argue strongly that class size is one of the most important factors in education. I pay a tribute to the Government in that they have managed to improve the pupil-teacher ratio. However, in many cases, we have to go still further. Many parents want small classes so that the teacher can take into account the needs of the individual pupils, not just to teach them and give them information, but to ascertain the children's problems and help them to overcome their learning difficulties. If we offer parents that, we are offering them real choice.

I would argue strongly that we must look at the width of the curriculum. It is appalling to discover that in Trafford in 1986 no swimming lessons are given in the schools. When I went to school in Trafford just after the war, swimming was in the curriculum. All these years after, it is sad that we cannot afford to let children enjoy swimming lessons, bearing in mind the implications for children's safety.

I could offer many arguments about ways in which I should like to see choice. I am very concerned at the way in which education is beginning to cease to be free. It is worrying that the parents in some schools are being asked to raise ever more money for basic school resources. However carefully that is done, it puts unfair pressure on parents who are on low income. In Solihull, one finds that in one school the capitation from the local authority is £31,000, with the parents contributing round about £12,000 this year for the basic requirements. If we want to start talking of choice, it is far more important to ensure that all schools are adequately resourced and that there is free education at the point of use rather than putting on to parents charges, particularly when some parents find this very difficult.

I would argue that many youngsters are turned off school by the continual demands at school for children to produce more money. As hon. Members will know, a child comes home from a school and always asks for money at a wrong or inconvenient time. The parents may have spent a bit too much at the weekend so that, when the child says that it has to have 50p on Monday morning, the parent does not have it. The parents then start passing comment about the school, and the feeling builds up in some children that there is a conflict between parents and school. I notice some Conservative Members shaking their heads, but they obviously do not represent areas such as mine where parents are hard up and find it difficult to meet demands to pay for some of the facilities that in state education, I believe, should be provided free.

I could make many other points about primary and secondary schools in the country. Before we start talking about giving people choice, we have to make that sure that it is a choice between first class schools for all children.

I fear that those who have spoken of vouchers are not referring to choice as between first class schools but are referring to the introduction into the country of a rationing system such as existed in wartime. Conservative Members say that there are not enough resources available in the country for the first class education of every child. They are saying that there will have to be a rationing system. This would encourage a black market; some parents would be encouraged not to take up their share but would put up with a second or third rate school, while others would be able to buy privilege by topping up their vouchers. Before contemplating such a system, we should first face up to the fact that in this day and age the country ought to be able to provide all children with a first class education. If we do that, there will be no need for a voucher system. Parents would then be choosing between different education resources and different education systems rather than between a first class school in one place and a second or third class school somewhere else. It is important that we offer an education that is excellent in all schools. That is the key, rather than referring to making a phoney choice.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Bennett

No, I shall not give way. If I do so, I will end up by being unfair to the Minister.

If Conservative Members do not realise that their voucher system is a rationing system, they should look at it again. The Opposition want a first class education to be provided for all children.

I want to deal briefly with one other point: that there has been no increase in the number of working class youngsters who enter higher education. The problem is not that the number of working class youngsters who enter higher education has gone down; the problem is that the percentage has gone down. The participation rate of youngsters from the middle classes has increased rapidly but the same increase in participation has not been achieved by working class youngsters. That is worrying, but I stress again that the numbers have not gone down.

The only way in which to raise educational standards is to get parents, pupils and teachers to co-operate. Before that can happen the teachers' dispute must be settled. That will raise morale in schools. We must then ensure that conflict does not arise between parents and teachers. That is another aspect of the voucher system. There must be partnership.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) to keep on referring to Conservative Members as having argued for vouchers when not one single Conservative Member has done so?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

That is a point of argument. It is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Bennett

That was a rather poor and spurious point of order. Several Conservative Members referred to vouchers. Those who did not do so did it by implication. I should be delighted if all Conservative Members denounced vouchers, but they will not, of course, do so. Parents, pupils and teachers must co-operate. Vouchers will not achieve co-operation. Parents should be not only involved in the management of schools but partners with teachers in the education of their children. Children are in school for only part of the day. It is therefore most important that parents should participate in the education of their children and that they should take an interest in the details of their education and back up the teachers. If cooperation and partnership between them can be achieved, standards will be raised.

If people are encouraged to measure schools by means of a voucher system, the opportunity for building up that kind of confidence will be destroyed. I hope that we have heard the last of the voucher system in this debate and that the Conservative party will consider seriously the raising of standards in schools rather than the introduction of divisive proposals.

11.38 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Chris Patten)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo) on introducing this debate in so interesting and thoughtful a manner. My hon. Friend and I have done business before. This is quite like old times. Indeed, I come from the same stable as a number of my hon. Friends who declined to turn back. We represent a touching example of pluralism inside the Conservative party. I should confess that at one time I, too, helped to write a pamphlet. I wish my hon. Friends as much success with theirs as we had with ours.

The main contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate and those of many of my hon. Friends should make us all look afresh at things that we take too easily for granted. In particular, he reminded us that parents are the educators par excellence They bear a huge part of the burden of educating our children and young people. This Government have long recognised that most parents do this job well. We recognise, too, that many would like to contribute more to it than the education system has in the past allowed. We further argue that, if parents were allowed to make a fuller contribution, our school system would be the better for it. I am with my hon. Friends on all that.

It was for those reasons that we took action, prodded on by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) and others, in the Education Act 1980. It is interesting to note how little the Education Act 1944 had to say on parental rights. It contained only a very general assertion of the parental right of choice which could often not be effectively exercised when it came to practice. In the 1980 Act we gave parents a statutory right to express a preference for the maintained school to which their child should be admitted, and we supported that right by requiring parents to be adequately informed about the schools in their area.

We obliged the local education authority and the governors of the school to meet that preference to the greatest practical extent, provided that, if there were special entry requirements for the school, the child satisfied them. Parents were also given the right of appeal in case their expressed preference was not met. The appeal arrangements led each year to several thousand successful appeals. The House may be interested in the broad figures.

It is my understanding that between 90 per cent. and 95 per cent. of parents are successful in securing their first preference. I speak as a parent who has just been successful in my choice for the education of one of my children.

The 1980 Act did not guarantee that every expressed preference would always be met. No law could do that. There are always bound to be some schools which are over-subscribed—schools which either cannot be physically enlarged or where an increase in size might impair those very qualities which make them so popular. Nor ought we just to accept that less popular schools should be half-empty. It may not be possible to close them, because the schools could not go elsewhere. That is not only a problem in rural areas. The right answer could be to keep schools like that reasonably full but to make them better so that they become more popular.

The 1980 Act also widened parental choice through the assisted places scheme which serves to provide the same kind of alternative to the maintained school that the former direct grant grammar schools provided. I thoroughly deplore the wanton destruction of that well-tried alternative, and I say that not just because I am a product of a direct grant school. In my view, the direct grant school provided an admirable bridge between the maintained and the independent sectors, over which many children like myself were able to cross. My hon. Friends will recall that the last Labour Government can fairly be said to have created more independent schools than anyone in history, including Edward VI.

It was the destruction of the direct grant schools which led to our introduction of the assisted places scheme. That scheme gives parents of bright children with a low or modest income the opportunity to choose for their child a school which is not part of the maintained sector. That is a valuable freedom. When the assisted places scheme began in 1981–82, just over 4,000 pupils benefited. That figure has gone up to over 21,000. When the scheme is fully operational after the September 1987 intake there will be about 35,000 assisted places in the 226 participating schools.

The 1980 Act did more than widen parental choice. It increased parental influence by requiring most schools to have a governing body which serves only that school, and it provided for parent governors on every school governing body. The Act was fully implemented only in September 1985, so the system of parent governors is still in many instances in the developmental stage. Parents are still in the learning stage about how to use their new influence to help improve their children's schooling.

A number of people have urged the Government to go beyond the 1980 Act by a further widening of parental choice through an expansion of the assisted places scheme beyond its planned size, or by creating or re-creating direct grant schools. We should, and will, give serious attention to those proposals. There has been a good deal of media speculation about those and other matters. I am sure that none of us believes everything that we read in the newspapers unless it is complimentary, but I should like to say a word more seriously about the speculation.

For at least a decade and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) has said, arguably for longer, there has been concern about how we can best raise standards and the quality of our education. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), made a famous speech at Ruskin college almost 10 years ago on this subject. I agreed with most of what he then said. Only a few years before that he and his hon. Friends would have denounced the very sentiments he was expressing then as the ravings of Right-wing extremists.

There is still considerable concern about standards and quality in education. In my judgment, that is related not only to worry about the consequences of the teachers' dispute. Nor should it be taken as an outrageous attack on our education service, which does marvellous work, much of it ill reported, if reported at all.

It does not seem to be self-evident that the way in which we try to deliver education in Britain is necessarily the best way to provide for the needs of our young people. Many of the things that were assumed when the 1944 Act was drafted—such as the system of financing education and the leverage given by that to central Government, issues to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon referred—have changed over the years.

It is right that all these matters should be openly debated. Discussing them is not a sign of lack of faith in the maintained sector of education, or what my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon referred to, in a happy phrase, as the "mainstream education sector". It is an indication of our passionate concern to see education improved. It is interesting to note that the only serious debate on these matters is taking place in the Conservative party. Doubtless others will follow where we lead. I notice, for example, that the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), who is not able to be here tonight, has already sniffed the wind, and I suppose a few others will lift their nostrils to it in due course.

In that spirit, I come to discuss—I am not sure what to call them now, vouchers or credits; there is, clearly, an administrative distinction between the two—access arrangements, which some have called the direction of resources to schools which can attract parents. My hon. Friend the Member for Southgate referred to it in that way.

It is ludicrous for the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) to suggest that the subject interests my hon. Friends only because they want to strengthen the independent sector of education or undermine the mainstream sector. I have read carefully what they have written and I have listened to them on the subject on more occasions than tonight's debate. I dare say that I shall have to listen to them on more occasions still, and that will be to my benefit, if not to theirs. [Interruption.] Flattery is all right so long as one does not inhale. They have made it abundantly clear that they want to improve the quality of education for all children, and it is a travesty of their argument to suggest otherwise.

The possibility of introducing vouchers—I take the point about the administrative distinction between vouchers and credits—was examined thoroughly during the last Parliament. The central idea is that parents should be given the financial power, by means of a voucher or other notional entitlement, to act as the customer of the school. Under credits—as, I imagine, under vouchers—each school would stand or fall financially by its ability to attract and retain parental custom.

As the Secretary of State explained in his answer of 22 June 1984—when I was happily engaged as a junior Minister in Northern Ireland—a voucher system could not reproduce a true free market. Market forces would have to be constrained in three ways. While on another occasion I should be happy to have the point explained to me if I am wrong, I should have thought that the same argument about market forces would obtain were one talking about credits or the direction of resources, in the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate discussed the matter.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) would regard the three constraints as state dictation or restriction, but they are these. First, the customer could not refuse to consume. Schooling would remain compulsory. I cannot really believe that anyone seriously opposes that constraint, at least in terms of the national interest. Secondly, the provider cannot be allowed to charge what the market will bear. I think that the House will acknowledge that as well. In the maintained sector, schooling has to be free of charge to parents, but that does not mean that they are not allowed to make a contribution. Thirdly, the customer cannot be allowed to accept a shoddy service. The national interest requires a minimum quality.

I concede straightaway that, to the extent that quality is not guaranteed now, the arguments for finding other ways in which to deliver it grow more attractive. If we thought that we were doing everything perfectly, this debate would not be taking place. The third constraint highlights another important issue. It is not strictly true that the parent is the customer. The customer is the child. The parent acts as proxy for the child, but not all children would get a fair deal in their education if they depended wholly on their parents. I suppose that that is the Dotheboys Hall argument. That underlines the need for minimum standards of quality.

Some of my hon. Friends argue that such paternalism, however well meant—I hope that we will not doubt one another's motives—cannot be delivered. I imagine that they would also argue that it will anyway discourage responsibility. They argue that parents should be free to make good or bad choices and that they will become responsible parents and citizens only if they are treated in that way. Dignity and freedom, they would argue—I think that I am drawing on some of their propositions—depend on the responsibility that goes with choice. I understand those arguments, but I say again, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton said, that, for a century or more, like every other country, Britain has worked on the premise that the state should be the final trustee for children's education. We have believed in striking a balance between that responsibility and the choice accorded to parents.

Nothing that I have seen in education or elsewhere in life leads me to conclude that to talk about balance in this way is as preposterous as some people seem to suggest.

If full account is taken of the constraints that I have mentioned, a voucher scheme and the transition to it become extremely complex and involve long, complicated and controversial legislation, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said three years ago. They also threaten to become very costly. Hence my right hon. Friend's earlier conclusion that a voucher scheme is not a simple or easy option.

Mr. Lilley

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Patten

I have two minutes. I am sure that there will be other opportunities to discuss this matter.

Mr. Lilley

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Patten

I have two minutes.

My right hon. Friend's conclusion does not mean that he and the Government are satisfied that the present system gives parents the choice and influence to which they are entitled. The surest way in which to give parents choice is to have more good schools to choose from. Raising the standards that are achieved at all schools is the central aim of the Government's policies, as set out in our White Paper, "Better Schools", which was published a year ago. Those policies are designed to make every school in the maintained sector better by a curriculum which develops the potential of each pupil, whatever his or her abilities and aptitudes, and prepares all adequately for the responsibilities of adult life, of citizenship and for work.

Our policies involve a large reform of school examinations and a range of measures to improve teaching quality. I believe that the proposals in our Bill, which we should soon have an opportunity to discuss, will also increase parental choice and help schools and the quality of education.

We have set out a range of sensible policies in "Better Schools" and elsewhere. I am less convinced that we have either the hammer or the nails to enable those policies to work as effectively as we would like. I am sure that we will have any number of chances to discuss how to provide a delivery mechanism for the policies on which, in so far as they concern the quality and content of education, we are substantially agreed. I am sure that we shall have many chances in the weeks and months ahead, as we discuss legislation, to discuss the provision of a delivery mechanism for the policies in relation to quality and content of education, on which we are substantially agreed.

11.55 pm
Mr. Colin Moynihan (Lewisham, East)

It is not impossible to envisage the content of briefing papers put before Mr. Brezhnev and his colleagues early in 1979. Military strategists saw the opportunity to give the Soviet armed forces combat experience in difficult country, where new weaponry and lethargic conscript troops could be tested and toughened, safe in the knowledge that Afghanistan lay within a sphere of influence certain to be left alone by the Western world, however angry it might become in its opposition.

Idealogues may have pressured the powers that be to consolidate political ties with a strongly pro-Muscovite lobby in Kabul, albeit a small one—a lobby that, if granted power, must never be permitted to set precedent and retract from its Marxist-Leninist grip. Nor would the remaining pragmatists be left in doubt: Iran's instability; the conventional, if overrated, argument supporting Soviet allegiance to the need for a warm water port; President Zia's then unpopularity; closer proximity to Gulf oil; a further foot abroad; and, thus, clear political opportunism were strong arguments indeed.

Only history stood in their way—a nation unconquered, unoccupied and unbeaten, imbued with a spirit and culture that had protected generations against foreign incursions and achieved the blend of religious fervour, independent vision, unabashed individualism and the love and embrace for the wild yet beautiful terrain that produced freedom fighters capable of fighting a dedicated holy war to protect their very being.

There, at Christmas time in 1979, were the seeds of the conflict with the Mujahidin that lasts to this day—a war that occupies at any given time 120,000 Soviet troops on active service; a war likely to continue, which has led to a quarter of the population leaving Afghanistan for destinations outside their borders, primarily in Pakistan, where are now the world's greatest concentration of refugee camps.

The war has become a subject matter of super-power summits, and provided General Zia with a Christmas present in 1979 that has sustained a Western-oriented and relatively stable Pakistan for the past six years, thus creating an acclaimed statesman out of a man whom the Western press then branded as an international pariah.

When I visited the frontier of Pakistan on December 27 last year, the demonstrations against the Soviet Union, Washington, Islamabad and London brought with them a renewed optimism about a fast-approaching political settlement to a six-year-old war. I believe that it is hollow optimism, founded on rhetoric, not reality.

In part, the Geneva talks in November had offered Gorbachev a far greater opportunity than Reagan for creating the subtle media environment conducive to political accord. By adopting a conciliatory tone and soft approach towards the West, the Soviet Union was in a position to insist firmly that an end to the war required in the first place direct talks with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The purpose of such a move was clear. It was an attempt to put pressure on the Pakistan Government to change their position, and part of the long-term process of weakening Pakistan's support for the Mujahidin; a policy which in turn poses a considerable threat by the Soviet Union to the geopolitical stability of the region.

Neither historically nor in military strategy throughout the six-year war has the Soviet Union suggested that a new, non-aligned Afghanistan free of Soviet troops from its soil was a reality or beneficial to them. The signals and informal reactions to the six rounds of Geneva talks provided a lacklustre shop window from which the Soviet Union could offer an acceptable face to the West.

The Soviet Union has annexed Afghanistan. Its short-term strategy is to stay there with the least amount of military and political support necessary to ensure the pro-Soviet regime. To minimise their presence, the Soviet Union must minimise the threat from the Mujahidin, reduce Western hostility and create sufficient discomfort in Pakistan's internal policies to reduce its support for the jehad.

The Russians are pursuing a "running sore" policy against Pakistan, variously and vigorously. It constitutes a scorched earth policy inside Afghanistan, drawing more refugees to the camps in Baluchistan and North-West Frontier province, and putting a further burden on the Pakistan Government's increasingly onerous position, under pressure from aid-fatigued international agencies.

The policy constitutes further border incursions, which place additional pressure on Pakistan's defence budget. It constitutes the development of a tribal network of well-paid, pro-Soviet informers instead of military cover along the porous mountain border dividing their countries. That is more effective than any military blockade of the Duran line could possibly be. It constitutes continued pressure at the Geneva talks and in international forums geared to alleviate Western hostility, thus drawing Pakistan into the political solution and thereby restricting direct American support for the jehad. It constitutes an escalation of the process of destabilisation and friction in Pakistan's towns in Baluchistan and North-West Frontier province, through the activities of the Khad, especially in Peshawar, the winter capital of Afghanistan.

The position of refugees is an integral and important part of the policy. Since 1975, when 1,400 refugees were registered in the North-West Frontier province, a steady influx has led to the establishment of 380 refugee tented villages in 15 districts along the 1,500-mile Pakistani-Afghan border. With an influx of about 3,000 a month at the beginning of 1986, those camps hold 2.6 million registered refugees and a growing number of unregistered, and therefore unsupported, refugee families established around the refugee tented villages. The Pakistan Government registered support from United Nations agencies and voluntary agencies, both of which have expanded the scope and extent of their relief operations. As early as 1981, the Pakistan Government saw their supervisory role as a major drain on domestic resources.

From a simple process of cash maintenance allowance, the relief assistance now entails the distribution of basic and supplementary food rations, shelter in different forms, such as tents, tarpaulins and temporary huts, portable water supply ranging from hand pumps to open surface wells to machine-operated tube wells, comprehensive medical and health and hygiene care, primary education facilities and religious instruction, veterinary cover and numerous communal services and facilities, such as income-generating vocational training and self-reliance projects.

However, the refugees' problems are escalating. Even when I was there about two months ago, between 4,000 and 5,000 refugees were arriving each month. Registration in many areas has stopped. Many refugees are moving to urban centres. Necessarily, the Pakistan authorities are considering setting up refugee camps in the Punjab, where there is no natural Pathan affinity as exists across the Afghan-Pakistan border. Shelter for the refugees is badly needed from the international community.

Many camps have received no sugar for six months because of the diminishing resources going to the international agencies. Donor fatigue has combined with the need last year to transfer many resources to Africa—in many cases, rightly so. Although each person used to get a tea ration of 90 g per month, the present ration is 45 g. The kerosene ration, which used to be 20 litres per person per month, has been reduced to 12 litres in incredibly cold conditions. In 1979–80, the wheat ration was 23 kg; in 1981, it decreased to 20 kg and it is now 15 kg per person per month. Health problems are growing considerably; TB and dysentery are on the increase and malaria is still evident.

The problems of the refugees are a major drain on the resources of the Pakistan Government, which adds to the difficulties of that Government, tests their resilience and their tremendous generosity to the Afghan refugees, and adds weight to the long, running-sore policy of the Soviet Union to try to destabilise the North-West Frontier province and Baluchistan.

I was keen for the House to debate the subject because it is vital for us regularly to assess the current position in Afghanistan, to set the contemporary developments against the historical backcloth of Soviet penetration in that country; to provide an opportunity for the House fully to assess the appalling evidence of human rights violations which continue inside Afghanistan; to give the House the opportunity, particularly at the present time, to look at the humanitarian assistance now required to assist the growing number of refugees; and to enable us on the Back Benches to question the Government about the extent of our practical, humanitarian assistance to those in need, to the refugees outside the country and to the displaced people inside Afghanistan. I hope that this debate will give us a short but important opportunity to make an assessment of some of those areas.

But I believe—it is important to place on the record my view and why I hold it—that the Soviet Union is in for a long stay in Afghanistan and has every intention of being there for a long time. The historical involvement of the Soviet Union must be clearly understood before hon. Members draw any conclusions about the lack of any real success with the proximity talks or the true intentions behind the propaganda initiatives launched since Christmas by the Soviet Union.

The long-term policy of the Soviet Union is its determination to stay in Afghanistan until the puppet regime is consolidated. The Government and people of Pakistan have accommodated more than 2.6 million displaced Afghans on their soil and on that of neighbouring countries. The Soviets have started air violation of Pakistan's territory, have spread disinformation among the Afghan refugees and Mujahidin, and have put pressure on the Government of Pakistan to begin direct negotiations. There is a hectic struggle by the Soviets to undermine the correct policy of the present regime on the Afghanistan issue, as well as the very integrity, sovereignty and solidarity of Pakistan. The Soviets try to avail themselves of the chance of a longer stay in Afghanistan in order to impose Sovietisation on the younger generation there, and to wait for political change in Pakistan's attitude which, they think, may be to their benefit.

Political propaganda to the contrary is misleading and without substance. Soviet military assistance will not be withdrawn, although it may decrease in size, commensurate with the reduction of the perceived threat, until a pro-Soviet Government is firmly in place. Nothing short of that will suffice.

More proof of this point comes from an assessment of Soviet policy, which is divided into two sectors. In the occupied areas the process of military, political, economic, religious, social and cultural Sovietisation has been accelerated. In the liberated regions, the villages are sometimes suddenly attacked and the dwellers killed, their shelters demolished, the harvest burnt, the economic resources destroyed and the strategic localities depopulated. These brutal tactics were used against the Muslims of central Asia. By repeating them in Afghanistan, the Soviets want to induce the population either to accept the rule of a Communist Government or to emigrate to Pakistan or Iran. They are more than amply documented in the long catalogue of human rights violations in Ermacora's two United Nations reports on human rights in Afghanistan.

Eight important criteria need to be fulfilled with regard to human rights. They are the right to self-determination; the right of the Afghan people to choose their own economic, political and social system, free from outside intervention; the immediate removal of foreign troops from Afghanistan; a political settlement in Afghanistan, based on the withdrawal of foreign troops, and respect for the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-aligned status of Afghanistan; a strict observance of the principle of non-intervention and non-interference in the event of a settlement and afterwards; a recognition of the right of the Afghan refugees to return to their homes in safety and honour; and the observance of the tenets of the Geneva convention, and the convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment during the war in Afghanistan. The final criterion is the observance of the principles of the international covenant on civil and political rights by the Government.

However, as much as I wish to see those eight important criteria fulfilled, I am not optimistic. On the contrary, as I have said, the Soviets have a long-term policy to stay, or at least to Sovietise the Afghan people. They want to establish a status quo. They want time to educate and indoctrinate the younger generation along Communist lines so that after a decade the Soviets will have dedicated sons working for their interests in Afghanistan.

Even if the Soviets do not annex Afghanistan physically, they would like to annex it ideologically to the Soviet Union to ensure the maintenance of an underling Communist regime in power in a strategic land. That can be achieved only by indoctrinating the younger generation and for that they need time.

Moreover, an overall campaign in educational, cultural, social, political, economic, military and religious institutions has been intensified to accelerate just such a process of Sovietisation in the occupied areas. The Soviets have concentrated on the Afghan youths. Every year, thousands of students from the elementary schools up to university level are sent to the Soviet Union and other satellite countries where they are indoctrinated in Soviet policy.

For the freedom fighters, the position is clear. The Afghan Mujahidin would be well advised to prepare themselves for a protracted war of national liberation because there is no alternative except the continuation of their armed struggle against the occupation forces.

There is further evidence of that in an assessment of the Soviets' intervention in central Asia. It took them 10 years to consolidate power in central Asia. There was the Basmachi revolt in central Asia. Well-armed ground forces fought against the effort to extend Bolshevik control to the area. Eventually, by the end of the 1920s, the Bolsheviks had won by a combination of military repression, unwavering determination and economic development.

But the Soviets' task in Afghanistan will be that much more difficult, not least because rapid social transformation is hard in any country, but in Afghanistan it is almost impossible because the country has never been a colony of any of the imperial powers. It has no tradition of local administration which is so essential to a successful Sovietisation of an economy, and gives me much hope that this will not be implemented effectively by the Soviets as they would dearly like to see.

I have mentioned two of the Soviets' advantages—the armed force combat experience and the idealogues, the cementing of political ties and the strongly pro-Muscovite lobby in Kabul. But they face substantial disadvantges. Economically, it costs the Soviet Union some $100 million a day to run the army in a rugged country against stiff resistance. In the Islamic world they have substantially alienated themselves. This is a jehad, a holy war. The threat to Islam is felt throughout the Islamic world.

In the Third world the Soviet Union has lost the confidence of the non-aligned countries, as exemplified by the vote in New Delhi which was unanimous against the Soviet Union's involvement in Afghanistan. That is costly politically. The Non-Aligned Movement constitutes some half of the world's population.

Furthermore, the presence of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan has cemented NATO policy. Major question marks have been left for the eastern bloc. After all, there was the Rumanian condemnation of their actions. I am firmly of the opinion that it made Soviet intervention in Poland much harder, and indeed put them in a position whereby strong action in Poland was minimised if not negated.

Then there is the critical domestic problem faced by the Soviet Union as a result of its continued presence on present lines in Afghanistan. That is the domestic problem of the Soveit Asiatic republics. The Muslims constitute one in five of red army conscripts. A Muslim population in 1982 of 18 per cent. in the Soviet Union is likely to be a population of nearly 25 per cent. in the year 2000. However, the Soviets fear that the impact of the Iranian revolution will spill over into the Soviet republics of central Asia and I think that they are extremely cautious and aware of the consequences of asking central Asians—for example there were some 9,000 conscripts in central Asia in 1980—to go in and fight against people who historically, culturally and traditionally are far more their brothers than Russians from Moscow.

Meanwhile, proximity talks continue. The four critical points essential to a political solution are well known to the House. They are preservation of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence and a nonaligned character of Afghanistan; the right of the Afghan people to determine their own form of government and choose their own economic political and social system without restraint; the creation of conditions which would allow the refugees to return voluntarily to their homes with safety and honour; and the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

As The Times lucidly put it in a leader in the autumn of 1985: As UN 'proximity talks' between Pakistan and the Afghan regime continue at Geneva there seems no hope of a way out of the impasse. The appointed mediator, Diego Cordovez, makes optimistic noises in vain. Broad agreement may exist between the respective parties on the subjects of eventual Afghan nonalignment and the return of refugees with 'safety and honour', but as ever there is intransigence on the all-important matter of Soviet troop withdrawal. Anyone can draw up a timetable for withdrawal. What is needed is a clear sign of conviction to implement such a timetable; and Soviet policy and history militate strongly against such a course of action.

Meanwhile, among the resistance groups, there have been remarkable successes, in military terms worthy of the admiration and respect of the world. Afghanistan is a mosaic of a country. Its people form a patchwork quilt bringing together families and villages, fiercely loyal to their traditions and localities. Islam is the only unifying factor. It is wrong to attempt to emasculate the tribal system, but the Afghan people, represented by the party organisations in Peshawar, have in recent months shown greater unity, a unity of purpose which is much admired and needed by the international community. It is an international unity of purpose for which they should be commended and which will gain the Mujahidin increased international credibility.

All Afghans speak of the need for humanitarian aid. I believe that it is important that the Government consider how they can help on a bilateral, as well as multilateral basis. Today there is an acute need for food supplies in nearby areas and cash for the remote areas inside Afghanistan, where the price of local food is cheaper than the outlay for transportation of extra food would be. Certainly the supply of medical assistance and food within Afghanistan are most important factors in helping the people in their localities. The Government can then not only do a great service for the Mujahidin but also lessen Pakistani economic and social problems.

Whenever the Soviets intensify their bombing in strategic rural areas, thousands of victims pour into Pakistan which eventually will increase the population of refugees to an enormous number, posing threats to the political stability of the north-west frontier. That again necessitates the forming of a co-ordinated command and policy for the people inside the country. The more refugees there are, the more tension will build up between the locals and refugees and among the different refugee groups which can lead to clashes and insecurity among the locals and refugees.

Undoubtedly there is a great amount of good will between the refugees and the people of Pakistan. That has been achieved by the sincere efforts of the people and Government of Pakistan and the bond of the Pathan people. The refugees and Pakistanis must strive to maintain the existing good will. It is here that the West and Britain can help.

It is in Afghanistan that the greatest need exists for international aid. The refugees abroad are looked after, more or less, by Pakistan, Iran and the international community. But if no help is offered in Afghanistan itself, the country will bleed to death. Chanelling aid to the Afghans is not easy, because of the war, but it is still possible. Reliable ways have been found by foreign aid organisations. It should be borne in mind that large parts of Afghanistan—80 per cent.—are under the control of the resistance organisations, which co-operate more succcessfully all the time. If Western democracies offer no help to the victims of this cruel war, they will have abdicated the knowledge of what peace and freedom are really worth.

This assistance can come in many forms. It can come in the form of food aid, medical assistance—in training Afghan doctors and nurses outside Afghanistan who then go inside Afghanistan to assist, in providing medical supplies and in sending the very sick abroad—clothes, shoes, tents, help with education and scholarships via the British Council. Food assistance is critical.

The Mujahidin's continued struggle, however, rests on the classic Maoist principles of warfare—guerrilla activity with the support of the Afghans' rural population inside their country and active propaganda outside, sustaining the Western support that they need. We should as a Government consider how we can assist with that publicity. There is a need for good feeders of information and training for them. Unconfirmed news is not used. There is a need for good quality news footage—not from Afghans with super-8 video cameras but from professionally trained foreign cameramen. There is a need then to stimulate interest in that film.

On humanitarian grounds, there are many aspects which we should consider actively. I firmly believe that west European countries now need to assess the level of support they give to Pakistan to assist the Afghan cause. Financial support for the refugees is dwindling while their number increases to form what in today's terms is the largest single concentration of refugees, which was officially put at 2.6 million in January 1986.

Undoubtedly, the Soviet Union has the will and the means to subdue Afghanistan completely. The single aspect of public opinion, which ultimately may spell success or failure for a United States venture, does not appear to have proved to be even a minor factor for the Soviet planners inside Afghanistan.

The spread of conflict beyond Afghanistan would invite outside powers into the region and might even lead to further conflict. The only alternative which should be acceptable to both parties is a neutral Afghanistan. A neutral Afghanistan would be a face-saving measure for the Soviets as well as for the Mujahidin. Neutrality as a means of policy should not, however, be imposed on the Afghans; rather it should be a policy that they adopt by preserving the independence of their country.

The Soviets may insist on a "neutralised" Afghanistan; the Afghans may insist on a "neutral" Afghanistan—that is a significant difference. The Soviet troops should withdraw and troops from Islamic countries or any other country should take over under an international agreement, mutually acceptable to both parties, to control law and order, if the need arises.

The Afghan factions based in Peshawar have continued to cement their unity of purpose, which is so important. A guarantee should be given by both sides not to interfere with each other's political affairs or with each other's nationalities. Both the Soviet Union and Afghanistan have the same ethnic groups living across each other's borders. Because of its geo-strategic location, Afghanistan always has played and still plays a vital role in the stability of the region. Any major event which takes place in Afghanistan has repercussions on the Persian gulf region and on Soviet-Asian security. A Soviet-dominated Afghanistan would affect the Persian gulf region and a prolonged war would affect Pakistan, which in turn would affect other countries of central Asia and the Indian ocean.

I believe that the only solution to the problem in the long run—I have outlined the difficulties which would have to be faced to achieve this solution—is to work towards a neutral Afghanistan, to give Afghanistan nonaligned status and, in due course of time, to turn it into a Switzerland of the East.

I hope that I have made a useful contribution. I hope that this debate will mark the beginning of a regular review of the situation. Above all, I hope that tonight's debate will give the Government the impetus to consider further humanitarian assistance for the Afghan refugees in Pakistan and the displaced Afghans in their homeland. I believe that the many areas that I have considered can best be achieved through the British charity Afghan Aid. As I have said, if the Western democracies offer no help to the victims of this cruel war, they will have abdicated the knowledge of what peace and freedom are really worth.

12.25 am
Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)

I think that the House owes a great debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) for the way in which he has presented his case this evening. I shall not, of course, attempt to follow him in the comprehensive manner in which he attacked the extraordinarily complex and distressing question of Afghanistan, but the House will know that I have tended to interest myself in the question of Afghanistan for some time; in fact since Christmas 1979.

If the House will bear with me, I should like to underline one aspect to which my hon. Friend drew attention, in view of the kind remarks he made about the British charity, Afghan Aid, of which I have the honour to be the chairman. It is worth reminding ourselves that in 1979 the population of Afghanistan was somewhere between 15 million and 17 million souls, although no one knows the exact figure. In Iran there are now about 1,500,000 Afghan refugees, and in Pakistan there are just under 3 million refugees. Inside Afghanistan itself there are perhaps another 1 million or 2 million displaced people.

I have heard various hon. Gentlemen who grace the Opposition Benches with their presence from time to time—but who, rather surprisingly, in view of their regular and stated interest in the subject, seem to prefer their beds to the subject of their choice this evening—say that there is an extraordinary event in Afghansitan which has led to the bombardment and the displacement of people. As I understand their analysis, that event has something to do with the bandits of the Mujahidin.

I find it difficult to square that assertion with those of my many Afghan friends who have been driven from their homes and who readily associate themselves with the Mujahidin. The refugees in Iran and Pakistan, the 1 million or 2 million people who have been displaced and the population that remains in spite of the danger of bombardment and reprisals, continue to help the very people who Labour Members constantly assure us are resisting the civilising influence of the Soviets.

It is curious that the majority of the mosques and schools which we are frequently told have been destroyed by these bandits have in fact been destroyed by aerial bombardment. I should like to know how the Mujahidin have managed so quickly to acquire an air force, which is embroidered, apparently, and no doubt by some extraordinary machiavellian scheme, with the stars of the Red air force and the models of the MIGs and SUs which do the bombing.

My hon. Friend has investigated the politics thoroughly. I should like to emphasise the humanitarian cause, which should excite the sympathy of the House perhaps more than any other. It has been detailed with chilling simplicity by the two Ermacora reports presented to the United Nations General Assembly. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State on the remarkable and heartfelt job that he did in an Adjournment debate earlier this year when he drew our attention to the provisions of the first Ermacora report.

The humanitarian difficulty is a tragedy without parallel in the world, including Sudan and Ethiopia. Perhaps officially as many as half the refugees in the world today are Afghans. The bulk of those whom we can help directly in Pakistan are not too badly off. My hon. Friend drew attention to the funding difficulties which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has begun to experience this year, but by and large they are not too bad. The real need is inside, where people are threatened by starvation, and are bombed, maimed and wounded. Until recently we have been able to rely only on anecdotal evidence, which is easily debunked by journalists of a rather pro-Soviet inclination. Aid organisations interested in the position inside Afghanistan have tended increasingly to try to become a little more professional in the way in which they assess the difficulty.

Such is the scale of the problem that it is extremely difficult for someone, however good his intentions, to go swanning into a country, disburse large sums and hope that they will reach the right place. Such resources tend to disappear and are sometimes disbursed in areas where there is not such a great need. The House will know that starvation can occur even in a village where there are adequate food supplies. Those of us who have taken an interest in the tragedies of Ethiopia and Sudan, as my hon. Friend has done, have seen similar events there.

Professional assessment and research of a dispassionate and academic sort into the position inside Afghanistan has been needed. The organisation Afghan Aid, of which I have the honour to be chairman, has taken a leading role in that endeavour, and some years ago commissioned, I am glad to say with the help of the Overseas Development Administration, a report by Dr. Frances de Souza entitled. The Threat of Famine in Afghanistan", which pioneered for the international aid community the thought of techniques which enabled us to make the professional assessments of need which are commonplace in areas such as Africa, which are more accessible to aid organisations.

As the professionalism of voluntary organisations grows, it becomes possible to build a picture of what is happening inside a country. It would be right to draw the attention of the House to Dr. de Souza's report and the famine indicators which she used in Afghanistan. These compared unfavourably with similar famine indicators used in Biafra in the 1960s.

The Government have been generous in their aid to refugees in Pakistan, and all of us are grateful for that. If the Minister will forgive me for saying so, he and the Minister for Overseas Development have not been slow to draw our attention to the Government's generosity on our behalf. However, the time has come for the Government to recognise where the real need lies.

That need has been recognised by other aid agencies working for other Governments. I have only just returned from Norway—a country which in per capita terms is rather better off than the United Kingdom, except in view of the recent decline in oil prices—which has been generous and is aware of the need to help inside Afghanistan, rather than where it is easy, which is outside.

When my hon. Friend the Minister replies to the debate we will expect more than mere sympathetic words for those inside Afghanistan. He is aware, as is my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development, that the need exists. I delivered to him Dr. de Souza's report, which highlights that need. It is not good enough to give a little money and hope that that will be conscience money which will satisfy the House and the public.

The publicity and knowledge of what is happening in Afghanistan is growing. More journalists go there, better pictures are taken and therefore the world is becoming more conscious of what is happening.

People will ask what Governments and the United Nations agencies have done to help where the need exists. The answer is that they have done virtually nothing. It has been left to voluntary agencies, such as the one with which I work, to take the lead. It is obvious why Governments have done that. Government aid organisations like to deal from Government to Government. They do not like to send aid in on the quiet to countries like Afghanistan without the support and encouragement of the Government in the capital city.

The House is aware that, if the Government tried to do that, none of the aid would reach the people in need. It would either be stored in cardboard or be given to Russian soldiers. Therefore, if we are to do something more than merely wear our hearts on our sleeves, we must realise that extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he is able to give us an assurance that the Government, whom I am pleased to support, will do something practical and on a sufficient scale to remove the shame which I feel because they have failed, for reasons of their own convenience, to sent help where it is needed. There is plenty of evidence that other countries are thinking of doing this. I have repeatedly been told that over the past few months.

If my hon. Friend can give us that assurance, the lead which voluntary agencies have given, which should have been given by the Government, will not have been in vain. I urge him to take note of that above anything else, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East pointed out, the need is urgent and the situation is getting worse.

12.40 am
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

I follow the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne) in congratulating the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) on his presentation of the tragedy that is Afghanistan today. The hon. Member for Lewisham, East was able to draw on his experience of the refugee situation on the borders, particularly in Pakistan, and draw attention to the burden that has been imposed on Pakistan by the weight and sheer volume of the refugees who are there. He was right to draw attention to the victims of the war in Afghanistan, both the victims who perhaps are marginally better off in Pakistan and those who suffer in Afghanistan.

I look forward to hearing how the Minister responds, particularly to the request for appropriate mechanisms for channelling aid to those who suffer within the country. I agree with what the hon. Member for Dorset, South said about the need for a Government response on this. He would be the first to recognise that in the peculiar circumstances of Afghanistan, probably that response will have to be through non-governmental organisations such as his, because of the flexibility that they can bring. I congratulate that voluntary organisation on the work it has already done, and I trust that the Minister will respond positively to what has been said.

So much for the key and most important part of the debate—the victims and the humanitarian aspect of what is happening in the Afghanistan war. We know that on Christmas day 1979 the USSR sent an army of occupation into Afghanistan. The leader, Mr. Amin, was killed, and, within four or five days, the Soviets controlled the cities, the airports and all the key strategic points.

Six years later, there are an estimated 118,000 Soviet troops remaining in the country. In spite of the torture, the scorched earth policy, the mass of sophisticated weaponry—the helicopter gunships and so on—the Soviets have failed to subdue the Mujahidin within Afghanistan. Therefore, we must admire their resistance against all the odds. The civilian casualties have been high, there have been mass movements over the borders into Pakistan, and into neighbouring Iran.

However, in condemning the invasion as what the Soviets, in another context, would have called a dirty colonial war, we recognise that, although the invasion was clothed in ideological garb, the reality is consistent with long-standing Russian—not Soviet—policy in the area. They have not learnt the lessons that we learnt to our cost, particularly in the last century, in 1838–42 and 1878–80, which culminated, almost 80 years ago, in the Anglo-Russian convention of August 1907, when Russia recognised Afghanistan as outside its sphere of influence.

We also recognise that it is false to idealise the status quo ante, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, East was in danger of so doing. The position prior to 1979 to Christmas day 1979 was not some typical western style democracy. The invasion was only the culimination of an increasing sovietisation of Afghanistan which had been built up during the 1970s. The human rights record prior to Christmas 1979 left much to be desired, and perhaps one does a disservice by too liberal a use of phrases like freedom fighters and clothing the Mujahidin, in the language which President Reagan and his friends so frequently use, the black and white language which clearly is far from the reality that has developed during the 1970s.

The position was that Afghanistan had become increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union during the 1970s and to a large extent, because of super power realities at that time, there was acceptance by the United States Government of that time of Afghanistan being within the Soviet sphere of influence.

There is another point which I think was not sufficiently stressed by the hon. Member for Lewisham, East. I note his conclusion that the Soviets are there to stay, and his cynicism about any of the apparent peace feelers by the Soviet Union. There is, however, some real evidence that there has latterly been movement on the part of the Soviet Union in its Afghan policy. It may be because of a recognition of the costs which it has incurred and is incurring. In part, those costs are human—the 10,000 Soviet troops who have been killed there—but that in terms of the total military manpower available to the Soviet Union is probably tolerable. It may be because of the economic burden both militarily and in terms of civilian aid to Afghanistan which has had the effect, as he said, of sovietising and distorting Afghan development towards the Soviet Union in terms of infrastructure, education and training.

But perhaps the largest costs—and in this I fully subscribe to the views that the hon. Gentleman proposed—is in the political field. At the time of the invasion, it may have been one of the factors contributing to the breakdown of SALT II. Latterly, of course, it has been increasingly recognised by the non-aligned movement, particularly by the Islamic part of that movement, that here we have a clear example, the only example, of a direct Soviet invasion of a third world country. The Soviets were, and are, embarrassed at the United Nations and in other international fora by the clear concensus of those whom they seek to court against their actions. I personally at the Inter Parliamentary Union conference some 18 months, two years ago moved a relevant resolution condemning the Soviet action in Afghanistan, and had very wide suppport from a range of countries which are not known to be partial—ready—criticise the Soviet Union in other spheres.

Measured against those costs has been the prospect of a strategic gain within the area because of the instability of many of the countries. The balance perhaps now is being seen by the Soviets as increasingly moving against that invasion. Perhaps there is now a clearer recognition that there was a miscalculation, and the influence which they had over the Government prior to 1979 might have served their strategic and regional purposes in many ways better than the position—the anarchy, the mess—that they have now helped to create.

However, there are some signs that the Soviet Union is thinking again about its policy and wishes to consider how best to disengage itself from the quagmire and end the stalemate. The examples are well known to right hon. and hon. Members. I refer to the articles in Pravda in December 1985 and January 1986 which called inter alia for a positive dialogue among all Afghans. The political report by Mr. Gorbachev to the twenty-seventh party congress of the Communist party of the Soviet Union has not been cited, but it contains the famous reference to the "bleeding wound." In the relevant part of his speech Mr. Gorbachev said: Naturally, like any other country, we attach considerable importance to the security of our frontiers, on land and at sea … We have no territorial claims on any of them. We threaten none of them … For instance, counter-revolution and imperialism have turned Afghanistan into a bleeding wound. The USSR supports that country's efforts to defend its sovereignty. We should like, in the nearest future, to withdraw the Soviet troops stationed in Afghanistan at the request of its government. Moreover, we have agreed with the Afghan side on the schedule for their phased withdrawal as soon as a political settlement is reached that ensures an actual cessation and dependably guarantees the non-resumption of foreign armed interference in the internal affairs of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. It is a matter of judgment whether, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, East thinks, that is an attempt to buy time, a cover for the increased Sovietisation of Afghanistan, or whether it is a sign of the new Gorbachev era in seeking to disengage from a problem that has caused such embarrassment to the Soviet Union in world forums.

The United Nations package that was negotiated at Geneva has been mentioned. The components include non-interference and non-intervention in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, the voluntary return of the refugees and international guarantees of neutrality in which the United States would play a part. The stumbling block, as ever, has been the withdrawal of the 118,000 or so Soviet troops who now occupy the country. There has been substantial United States military assistance to the Mujahidin. Again, with the cynicism of great power rivalry, this may be prompted by a wish to continue to embarrass the Soviet Union, as earlier the United States had shown signs of being prepared to acquiesce in the Brezhnev doctrine in respect of Afghanistan and to trade off Soviet disengagement from central America, which is in the backyard of the United States of America, for a reduction or for an elimination of United States assistance to the Mujahidin.

The lesson, in part, is not to romanticise. It is likely that whatever happens within Afghanistan for geographic and strategic reasons, the Soviet Union will always have a major interest in that country and that the outcome will probably be that Finland and Mongolia will act as a model. It would be unrealistic to expect there to be a wholly independent and wholly neutral Afghanistan, because of the geographical position that it enjoys—or perhaps does not enjoy.

The tragedy of Afghanistan, with all the human victims who have been so well described by the hon. Member for Lewisham, East must be seen in the East-West context. Hopes were raised by the autumn summit between President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev. At that time the President raised the question of the resolution of regional conflicts. The high moral ground which the United States seeks to hold in regard to Afghanistan is clearly put in question by its own activities in central America, particularly now that President Reagan is leaning so massively on Congress to agree to substantial financial assistance for the Contras, with no serious hope of overturning the Government within Nicaragua without direct United States military intervention.

As we consider Afghanistan in the East-West context, we must ask ourselves how serious the British Government and the United States Government are about the building of bridges to a second summit with the Soviet Union and, in our case, about the proposed visit of Mr. Shevardnadze. If we claim to be serious about improved relations, what game are we playing because there are certain signs of late that both our own Government and that of President Reagan are conducting themselves in a contrary manner? For example, one can cite the totally negative response of the Prime Minister to the Gorbachev peace proposals and the United States decision now to insist on the reduction of personnel in the Soviet mission at the United Nations. Why should now be chosen for that decision as we reach the foothills leading to the summit?

I regret that on Tuesday of this week the Prime Minister received Mr. Abdul Haq, a representative of the Mujahidin. As we prepare for discussions with the Soviets, such a meeting was unhelpful, clumsy and lacking in restraint. As in so many other personal initiatives of the Prime Minister in foreign policy, as she elephants around the world—one thinks of the infamous speech in Hong Kong in September 1984 which almost torpedoed the negotiations with the Chinese Government—it is the Foreign Office which has to pick up the pieces.

Such initiatives at this time are bound to raise questions as to how serious we are about improving relations and firming up in advance of the Shevardnadze visit. If we wish to adopt a moral stance in respect of Afghanistan, that can so easily be compromised by selective action and by selective indignation on our part. If we wish to have a realistic stance in foreign affairs some of the recent initiatives of the Government must be questioned. They should be seen as provocative, shortsighted, one eyed, indulgent and counter productive.

1 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) on having his debate selected tonight. We enjoyed listening to his erudite assessment of the situation in Afghanistan. I thank also my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne), who in the last six or seven years has given much of his time and effort to assist the people of that country.

I welcome the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) to what are becoming regular debates on Afghanistan. I was sorry that he felt it necessary towards the end of his speech to indulge in some party political polemics. I thought during the earlier part of his remarks that we would have a more or less agreed position on the considerable problems that face the people of Afghanistan. While I appreciate the temptation that Labour Members have always to bring party politics into our debates, even at one o'clock in the morning, I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman might have resisted that temptation and taken a more measured attitude to the discussion.

The hon. Member for Swansea, East was not in the House on 20 December, when we last debated Afghanistan. It is appropriate that we should be discussing the subject now, because at this time the UN Secretary-General's special representative is engaged in a shuttle to try to bring the war, now in its seventh year, to an end. We support the efforts to find a solution based on successive UN resolutions. Those resolutions would allow self-determination for the Afghan people and enable Afghanistan again to take its place among the independent, non-aligned nations.

I note the optimistic assessment of the hon. Member for Swansea, East of the change in the attitude of the Soviet Government. I hope, on behalf of the Afghan people, that his optimism is well placed, as it is essentially for the Soviet Government to decide whether it is possible to reach a settlement in Afghanistan.

When the House last debated Afghanistan, I quoted extensively from the report of the special rapporteur to the UN commission on human rights. His latest report was published on 17 February and it is available in the Library. To summarise the current position in Afghanistan, I can do no better than quote from that report's conclusions. The rapporteur said: The Afghan Government is attempting to legitimise itself by trying to build up a democratic power base, but the number of refugees is still rising and has now reached nearly 5 million. That is the number, not 2.4 million as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East suggested. The rapporteur added: This is a key issue, as it affects the problem of self-determination and the question of a political solution. Without due representation of the refugees and respect for their wishes in the political discussions, no humanitarian solution to the problem can be found. The kind of warfare has changed. Guerrilla warfare has reached the cities, whereas in outlying areas there is now direct confrontation. This influences the human rights situation in the country as a whole. Large parts of the country are out of the Government's control. Where the Government has control, it uses all forms of anti-guerrilla activities to combat opponents or presumed opponents of the regime. The next passage is particularly horrifying: The practice of torture continues and more death sentences have been carried out without observing the safeguards set out in Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Afghanistan is a party. The methods of warfare are contrary to humanitarian standards and the relevant instruments to which the States concerned are parties. The massacres of the civilian population, the use of anti-personnel mines, the looting, the methods of retaliation used and the disproportionately heavy bombardment of villages are, in any case, contrary to humanitarian law. The way in which both parties to the conflict take and treat prisoners is also contrary to humanitarian law. Brutalization of warfare can be imputed to both sides. The civilian casualties in 1985 are estimated to be about 35,000. The prison conditions of political prisons … are contrary to the Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners. The Government controls the larger villages and cities in most cases mainly during the daytime. There is therefore a de facto partition of the country. In the government-controlled areas, the educational system does not appear to respect the liberty of parents to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions. The governmental educational system, based as it is on ideological considerations, allegedly fails to give due regard to the rights enshrined in the Covenant. As a result of the conflict, the Government is unable to guarantee social and economic rights to the entire population. However, the specialized agencies and intergovernmental organizations, which could help improve the enjoyment of those rights for the whole population, are not permitted to work in the areas outside direct government control. Therefore only the efforts of non-governmental organizations can assist in meeting the economic, social and cultural needs of the population, which has no other assistance. The Special Rapporteur has the impression that the only solution to the human rights situation in Afghanistan is the withdrawal of the foreign troops, because more than one third of the Afghan population is now outside the country and is unwilling to return while foreign troops control it, and because the will to resist foreign domination seems to be stronger than it was in the so-called Basmachi rebellions. Continuation of the military solution will, in the opinion of the Special Rapporteur, lead inevitably to a situation approaching genocide, which the traditions and culture of this noble people cannot permit. The Government's tendency to seek broader support and democratic legitimization through a series of Jirgahs deserves recognition. It can, however, hardly be considered as a free exercise of the right of self-determination, which is enshrined in article 1 of the International Covenants on Human Rights. The circumstances under which Jirgahs have been assembled and the present war situation make it difficult to accept the claim that they complied with the recommendation of the Special Rapporteur to hold a Loya-Jirgah. I have quoted extensively because those are not the words of a Conservative Minister or of a partial observer, but of a United Nations rapporteur.

Mr. Anderson

Does the Minister agree that this valuable report constitutes a good answer to those who try to dismiss the United Nations as some form of Communist conspiracy?

Mr. Eggar

Oh dear! It is very sad that the hon. Gentleman has to try to make cheap points such as that. Of course we recognise the important role played by the United Nations and its organisations. If the hon. Gentleman had been present on 20 December, he would have heard me draw extensively on the first report of the same rapporteur. I shall be happy to go on doing that. If the hon. Gentleman is good enough to attend subsequent debates, no doubt he will hear me draw on that rapporteur's later reports. I should like to pick up the conclusion that the only solution to the human rights situation in Afghanistan is the withdrawal of the foreign troops. I believe that the House will wholeheartedly agree. I hope that the hon. Member for Swansea, East will not jump up and deny that.

We should therefore note carefully the words of Mr. Gorbachev at the recent party congress on 25 February, which the hon. Gentleman quoted in full. I shall refer just to the first sentence. Mr. Gorbachev said: Counter revolution and imperialism have turned Afghanistan into a bleeding wound. It is nobody other than the Soviet Union who has turned Afghanistan into a bleeding wound. This cri de couer effectively confirms the conundrum the Russians are facing in trying to explain themselves to the outside world.

The sad litany I have recorded today offers, to my mind, devastating and conclusive proof that the Soviet Union intervened with massive military force, and has remained in occupation in the name of a tiny minority, who could never command the support of the Afghan people. The problem now is how that mistake can be acknowledged and the position repaired, so far as it can be.

It is not for me to recommend a definitive solution. But in their own institutions of tribal assemblies, or Jirgas, the people of Afghanistan have their own democratic machinery which, in its way, is just as representative as our own. Let the Soviet Union recognise that the regime it is imposing from the outside can never command the support of the people of Afghanistan. For stability, peace, and a humanitarian solution to the largest refugee problem in the world, there is no alternative to Soviet withdrawal and to allowing Afghanistan to exercise its right to self-determination. There is urgent work to do to rehabilitate this nation of 15 million, with its youth decimated by war, its economy in tatters and its administration disrupted. None of these appalling problems can be rectified until Soviet forces leave Afghanistan. If they do leave, that would represent no threat to Soviet security and interests, any more than that situation in 1979 represented a threat when they invaded.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East referred at some length to his concern about the Soviet wish to sovietise Afghanistan. I agree with my hon Friend that there is evidence that the Soviet Union's leaders want to achieve a transformation of Afghan society that would ensure permanent Soviet influence. They seek the creation of a stable client state with institutions modelled on their own Soviet institutions. But as we have heard, and as my hon. Friend said, the cost of such action is high, at home and in the international community. As we know, they will never bend the Afghan people to their will.

The Afghans themselves have shown what they think of the regime and its activities. The resistance have made it clear that their struggle started and will continue with or without help from outside, although one has to admit that the regime and its Soviet allies simply cannot blame counter-revolution, imperialism or foreign armed interference. The opposition comes from the Afghan people.

The dedicated and courageous opposition of the Afghan resistance to the almost overwhelming superiority of troops, weapons, technology and communications of the invading and occupying forces must command our respect and support. We shall continue to do what we can for the victims of the occupation, and I believe that the entire free world recognises the need to do so. We fully support the United Nations Secretary General's efforts to reach a negotiated solution, but I repeat that the key to the sad problem remains a withdrawal of the Soviet forces. Until that occurs, I have no doubt that Mr. Abdul Haq and his courageous colleagues will continue to fight to free their country and, indeed, will do so with or without help from outside. They deserve our admiration and support.

I note that 21 hon. Members have signed early-day motion 560, which expresses grave concern that Abdul Haq should have been received by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary. It is extraordinary that the Kabul 21, if we may call them that, who attacked the Afghan resistance leader, did not think fit to express any concern about the 118,000 occupation troops who are employing the full force of modern weaponry against the Afghan people. The plain fact is that the resistance is fighting a tremendous battle to repel a foreign invader. Hon. Members should express concern about that invader, not attack the resistance leaders.

Mr. Anderson

The Minister misses the point of the early-day motion. Of course we condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but by selectively seeing only one freedom fighter, the Prime Minister lays herself open to the criticism that she who says nothing about United States aid to the Contras and has blocked progress on sanctions against South Africa is prepared, in this one-eyed way, only to support the freedom fighters—as she terms them—in Afghanistan.

Mr. Eggar

The hon. Gentleman's loyalty to his colleagues who are far to the Left of him in the Labour party is an appealing aspect of his character, but he does not do himself justice.

Mr. Anderson

There is no one to the Left of me.

Mr. Eggar

That is a surprising revelation. The hon. Gentleman would have done better to have remained seated, because the House will have noted that neither he nor any of his Front Bench colleagues signed the early-day motion. That is a better reflection than his remarks tonight of the way in which the Labour Front Bench views the efforts of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown) and others. It is interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East was happy to spend Christmas on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border. On the other side was the hon. Member for Leith, who is notable yet again for his absence from a debate on Afghanistan, and who is used to receiving attention and all-expenses paid trips from the puppet Kamal regime in Afghanistan.

My hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham, East and for Dorset, South asked about assistance to Afghan Aid and to other non-governmental organisations. I have taken very careful note of the support given for assistance to Afghan Aid by the hon. Member for Swansea, East. It goes without saying that we are only too well aware of the appalling conditions faced by many people still inside Afghanistan. As on previous occasions, I pay a warm tribute to the work done by Afghan Aid.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South realistically expressed the difficulties experienced by Governments in giving assistance to organisations such as Afghan Aid. I am, sadly, unable tonight to give him the assurance that he asked of me, but I can assure him that I will be drawing his remarks, the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East and those of the hon. Member for Swansea, East to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary. We have taken very careful note of the strong expression that the House has allowed itself tonight.

To reinforce the message that I have already tried to give, there is no obstacle to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. There is no threat to Afghanistan or to the Soviet Union should this withdrawal of Soviet troops take place. If Mr. Gorbechev is really serious, as the hon. Member for Swansea, East thinks he may be, he should show that he is serious by withdrawing those 118,000 troops of the occupation force. More than well-turned phrases and artificial preconditions are needed. Withdrawal is essential. Afghanistan has suffered enough.

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