HC Deb 19 March 1999 vol 327 cc1406-14

11 am

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment if he will make a statement on the proposed privatisation of the education directorate in Hackney.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

The Secretary of State is not proposing to privatise the education directorate in Hackney. He has today written to the leaders of the three political parties in Hackney to say that, having considered the findings of the Office for Standards in Education inspection report on Hackney local education authority, which is published today, he is of the opinion that the LEA is failing to perform a number of functions to an adequate standard, and that he is minded to direct the director of education of Hackney LEA to contract out several functions. Contractors could include public sector or private sector bodies or consortiums. The LEA has been given until 13 April to comment on the proposal. We are determined to ensure that every child in Hackney receives a good education. That is why the Secretary of State is taking this course of action.

Ms Abbott

I begin by thanking Education Ministers for briefing me on this subject yesterday and saying that I did not break the embargo on the information.

I regret very much that no Education Minister felt able to respond to my private notice question. I think that it is unprecedented for a Member to table a private notice question and for it to be accepted by Madam Speaker, but for no Minister from the Department concerned to make themselves available to respond. That shows a rather derisory attitude to the House. [Interruption.] I am afraid I do think that. Indeed, I shall go further.

It was a very bad practice of the previous Government to make announcements at press conferences that should properly have been made on the Floor of the House. I very much regret that my Government have followed that practice. It cannot be right that Ministers are engaged in a press conference instead of reporting to the House on a step of national significance. Ministers clearly believe that today's announcement is of national significance because they were on the "Today" programme this morning, and are holding a major press conference as we speak. [HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful".] That is why they are not here, and a Treasury Minister is here instead.

I tabled a private notice question because I felt that the matter was of significance far beyond Hackney. Today, Ministers will be taking the first step towards taking control of a key aspect of education away from local democratic control. Local democratic control of education is one of the most important pillars of local democracy, and it should not be undermined lightly. There can be no doubt that the decision on which Ministers are, as we speak, making a statement to the press will take away significant local control over some of the most important areas of education policy.

There has been absolutely no local consultation about this step. It will not do for Ministers to say that they are taking it on behalf of Hackney parents and children, because they have not visited Hackney or consulted local people. They have certainly not consulted Members of Parliament who represent the area on whether we want any aspects of the education directorate's work put out to tender. I take very seriously that lack of consultation on this unprecedented step.

Putting the most important aspects of the education directorate's work out to tender is an experiment. We have no knowledge of whether it will improve Hackney schools. Ministers should not be experimenting in Hackney if they have no knowledge of whether contracting out the inspectorate and other education directorate functions will improve matters. Precisely because of the borough's problems, Ministers should not be experimenting in Hackney.

I understand that Ministers' proposals will not involve privatising all the LEA's functions, but in a way, that makes matters worse. What is a cannibalised LEA supposed to do? Some functions will be taken away; some will be left to the LEA. Ministers have not explained—either yesterday, or in today's brief and rather cursory statement—how they imagine that an LEA can remain viable following the removal of its key strategic functions.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have been listening carefully to the hon. Lady, who has been making an interesting point—but she has been asking questions further to her private notice question for six minutes during time that has been allocated to private Members Bills.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

There is some justification in the right hon. Gentleman's point of order. I trust that the hon. Lady will remember that this is not a debate and will fairly quickly come to the end of her remarks.

Ms Abbott

I take that point of order in good part, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Why did not Ministers feel it appropriate to consult locally before taking this step? Are they confident that a cannibalised LEA will be viable? What will be the role of the education officer? It seems that the education officer will have no control, and be reduced to a monitoring officer. How much will the consultants who are brought in to advise on the contract cost? What proportion of the total contract do Ministers anticipate outside contractors will receive as the management fee for running the LEA?

Will Ministers assure me that, before the contract is finalised and put out to tender, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) and I will have the opportunity, on behalf of local people, to see it and comment on it? Do Ministers understand that this step is viewed by people in Hackney with the utmost concern? The lack of consultation and the piecemeal nature of the steps proposed give rise to local concern. I hope that the Economic Secretary will be able to answer my questions.

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend is wrong on the question of the press conference. My right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Education and Employment are not holding a press conference on Hackney: they are all out of London on departmental business, and that is why I am answering the private notice question. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend raised the form of the announcement with Education Ministers when she met them yesterday, but I think the matter might appropriately be pursued with them.

Ms Abbott

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hewitt

Perhaps I may make a little progress in answering the very large number of questions that my hon. Friend has put to me.

On the issue of democratic control of education in Hackney, elected members in Hackney and their electors will receive better advice and a better service from efficient contractors on a number of extremely important functions relating to Hackney schools than they have been receiving from inefficient officers. Elected members will continue to have responsibilities, and to be accountable to the electorate, but they will not be able to intervene in professional matters which are properly the preserve of officers.

On the issue of the experiment to which my hon. Friend referred, let me make it quite clear that this course of action is based on overwhelming evidence of the failure, despite recent improvements, of Hackney council to provide a proper education to Hackney children. There have been two inspections of Hackney LEA—the first in 1997—and a Government-funded improvement team worked with the authority for some time. It is clear that some progress, which we welcome, has been made but it is also clear that, in other respects, the progress has been quite unsatisfactory. Taken as a whole, the Ofsted report on the LEA that is published today is damning. Hackney LEA itself has accepted that it is a fair report. Our intention is not to experiment with the education of Hackney children, but to ensure that they get a decent education.

Ms Abbott


Ms Hewitt

I give way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Minister must complete her remarks. She cannot give way.

Ms Hewitt

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

On the question of the cost of the consultants, the Department will bear that cost. The consultants are simply being used to ensure that the contracting-out specifications are drawn up in the most efficient way.

With regard to the involvement of local Members of Parliament, I very much hope that my hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) will work with Ministers in ensuring that, in future, Hackney children get a first-class education.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

I sympathise with the Minister's plight. It is extraordinary that a Treasury Minister is responding to a private notice question that should be answered by an Education Minister. Ministers at the Department for Education and Employment have been active in briefing the media. They have been active on the airwaves. We know that there have been two significant education announcements today, on A-levels and on Hackney. For no Education Minister, apparently, to be in London this morning is extraordinary. That is an insult to the House.

Of course, one reason why no Education Ministers are present is that at least one Education Minister was a councillor in Hackney. The head of the schools standards branch of the Department was also a councillor in Hackney. Perhaps Ministers are not present because they would be embarrassed to show their faces, given what we know about the record of Hackney council.

Does the Minister agree that the problems in Hackney are part of a wider problem identified in the Audit Commission report published last week on the performance of local education authorities? That showed that, of the 15 worst-performing LEAs, including Hackney, 13 are Labour-controlled—none are Conservative—and Conservative LEAs make up a quarter of the best-performing LEAs. The problems in Hackney are part of the wider problem of the failure of Labour in local government.

Now we are told that, because Labour politicians have failed in local government, another bunch of Labour politicians in central Government will come in and solve the problem. However, the problem can be solved only by giving freedom to the schools. Instead, as the Ofsted press notice states: Hackney's schools have shown remarkable forbearance and loyalty to the LEA despite the long-term chaos they have experienced. But they are sceptical about the possibility of rapid and sustained improvement. That scepticism is justified. The Minister admitted that the powers of the LEA are unchanged, the role of the councillors is unchanged, and the new consultants will be employees of the council. The one thing that there will not be is more freedom for the schools. There will be just the opposite: more centralisation and more control.

Does the Minister agree that we have been here before? I remember the previous Minister for School Standards, now the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, boldly announcing towards the end of 1997 that he would send in a hit squad to sort out Hackney. As always, the rhetoric was overheated and the reality was disappointing. We will judge the results of the exercise announced today not on the rhetoric surrounding it, but on what happens in Hackney schools.

Ms Hewitt

First, I have already made it clear that my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Education and Employment are fully occupied on Government business, and that they are continuing to carry out their extremely energetic programme to raise standards in our schools from the lamentable level reached under the previous Government.

Secondly, on local education authorities, it is hardly surprising that most LEAs are run by Labour councillors. They have been elected overwhelmingly by people across the country, just as the Government were elected by an overwhelming majority. Very few local voters want Conservatives to be in charge of their LEA, and I am not at all surprised.

Thirdly, on the issue of solving the problem by giving more freedom to schools, I stress that the functions that we are proposing to direct the director of education in Hackney to contract out are planning for school improvements, intervention in schools causing concern, advice on curriculum and professional development, support for secondary schools and improving literacy and language teaching.

Handing over those responsibilities to individual schools which, by definition, have been unable to achieve the desired standards on their own and which have not been getting adequate support from the LEA would not be satisfactory. The answer to the problem is not to withdraw support and leave the schools without adequate support. The answer is to give them proper support.

On the specific question about the contractors, the staff of the private or public sector bodies or consortiums who come in to perform those functions will not be employed by the LEA. They will be employed by the council—I mean the contractor.

There are deep-seated problems in Hackney schools and in the local education authority. We understand the reasons for those problems. We have been working with the council and the LEA to solve them. The decisive action that my right hon. Friend has announced today is further evidence of our determination to ensure that Hackney children get a first-class education in future.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her comprehensive response to the question, and on being the first person during the 16 minutes of discussion to speak about the importance of providing a decent education to Hackney children, which is presumably what we are here for.

It comes painfully from the Conservative Opposition to speak of overheated rhetoric, when they had 18 years to sort out what was going on in education in Hackney and did nothing about it.

Although I welcome the statement, can my hon. Friend tell the House whether only those functions mentioned in it will be contracted out, or whether it is possible that other functions may be contracted out, if that improves the outcome? The end result must be a better standard of education for Hackney children. The vacuum that has existed over the past few years will now, thank heavens, be filled.

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I welcome her commitment to the better education of children in Hackney.

On the question whether other functions might be contracted out, we will ask the consultants to examine the case for contracting out finance, personnel, and information and communications technology services, because those are also unsatisfactory. We will ask the consultants whether it would make sense, in the interests of an orderly and cost-effective discharge of the LEA's functions as a whole, for other functions also to be contracted out, and if necessary, to prepared a specification for that purpose.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

The one thing that will unite all hon. Members is the proposition that we must serve the interests of the young people of Hackney and their families. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has done the House a service by asking the question.

The Department for Education and Employment, as one of the great Departments of State, has done the nation a disservice by not making a Minister available on a parliamentary working day. The Department arranged today as the date of the publication of the Ofsted report. The Department managed the publication and was prepared for it. The rest of us were not formally notified. That is why our party is represented by the London spokesman, not the education spokesman. The Department has no excuse, and the House should receive an apology at the earliest opportunity.

I hope that the Minister realises that her colleagues have landed her and the Government in a position that is difficult or impossible to defend. Hackney does not have the worst-performing schools in Britain. The Ofsted report shows that schools have improved recently, not got worse. For the Government to announce their proposals without first consulting the democratically elected members of the local education authority, of whatever party and of all parties, and without consulting colleagues in Parliament undermines the principle of education being run by democratic local government.

The Government have made two bad mistakes—first, by not coming to the House to announce their intentions properly and, secondly, by putting forward proposals to contract out services without even talking first to those elected to run them. I ask that they now seek to unwind their mistakes—that they come to councillors in Hackney before making any further decisions, and to Members of this place before breaking the barrier between what should be run by central Government and what should be run by local government, supported rather than undermined by central Government.

Ms Hewitt

The Department talked to the leaders of the three political parties in Hackney yesterday, as well as to the officers and the chair of the education committee. Those contacts were merely part of a long process of discussion that has been taking place since the Government were elected, to try to improve the situation in Hackney. Furthermore, the publication of the Ofsted report and the letter sent by my right hon. Friend today are simply steps in a long process. It is a "minded to direct" letter; it is not a final decision on contracting out. The LEA has a chance to comment on it, and has been given until 13 April to do so. The director of education will continue to have a key role. As I said in an earlier response, the elected councillors of the LEA will continue also to have a key role. I think that the rather over-blown rhetoric used by the hon. Gentleman is not justified by the facts.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has raised this issue. I am pleased also to hear my hon. Friend the Minister say that the decision on contracting out is not final and that it is out for comment. Surely it represents a huge change in policy, and not only the House but the Labour party should discuss it in some detail.

I have an interest because Calderdale was the first LEA to be "Ofsteded" in the light of a great deal of extraordinary publicity about the Ridings school. The Conservative Government tried to pretend that we had the worst school in the country, which was nonsensical, as events have proved. Since the Labour Government took office, we have had much help to put things right on that.

In Calderdale, it is clear to anybody that the selective system is the problem. While we have two grammar schools and four opted-out schools, we are left with schools that are secondary moderns. Only a fool would argue against that.

We must have a debate on the whole issue. I am deeply concerned that I heard about it only on the "Today" programme. Like me, my hon. Friend has spent the past 18 years fighting privatisation. My understanding of privatisation was that it involved selling off assets and contracting out. When did that definition change?

Ms Hewitt

I am well aware of, and appreciate, my hon. Friend's concern for the education received by the children in her constituency. I welcome the fact that she has been so active in seeking to improve that situation.

I wish to stress that the action taken and the Ofsted report that has been published today do not represent a criticism of the schools or the teachers in those schools. As my right hon. Friend made clear in his letter to the councillors, he welcomes—as we all do—the improvement that has been shown in several respects. However, the report, despite that improvement in some areas, is a damning criticism of the Hackney LEA, and the situation has to be put right.

My concern, and that of the Government, is not to approach this matter from the standpoint of ideological dogma, but to ensure that the services that must be provided by an LEA to ensure that schools and their head teachers and teachers can carry out their responsibility to give children an excellent education are properly provided. It is a question of what works. What is being provided by Hackney LEA in respect of the functions that we are discussing is not working, and we shall change that situation. I will certainly draw my right hon. and hon. Friends' attention to my hon. Friend's request for a debate.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

Will the Minister clarify for the House the annual administrative running costs of Hackney LEA and what proportion of them is accounted for by the services that are to be contracted out? Will those costs be so great that the tendering process will be subject to European Union regulations? If so, how do the Government propose to deal with the hiatus in the running of services during the passage of the tendering process?

Ms Hewitt

I do not have the detailed figures that the hon. Gentleman requests but I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend writes to him on that point. I stress that the process of contracting out some or all of the functions referred to by my right hon. Friend will offer better value for money than wasting public money on an inadequate service. As education is the largest local authority service, we expect it to be possible to have efficiency within the LEA budget. That will be considered in further detail by my right hon. Friend and by the consultants when we come to draw up the specification for the contracts. Of course the tender for the contracts will comply with all the necessary procedures.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

I hope that my hon. Friend will give me some reassurance by saying that she will not have any truck with any of the sanctimonious claptrap that we have heard from Opposition spokespersons about why she is at the Government Dispatch Box today.

My hon. Friend is entirely right to focus on the quality of the advice offered by the LEA. I ask her to contrast the record in Hackney with that in Harrow, where a new Labour administration is delivering high-quality, effective support and advice to schools. I invite her to praise Pinner Wood middle school in my constituency, which has just received an excellent report, partly because of the quality of advice that has been given to it by the LEA.

Ms Hewitt

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's point. I am happy to congratulate not only the school in his constituency, which has received an excellent report, but all the schools in the country that have been making dramatic progress in raising standards, with the help of their LEAs and the Department for Education and Employment under the Government's leadership.