HC Deb 07 June 2000 vol 351 cc293-347
Madam Speaker

We now come to the first debate on the Opposition motions. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.40 pm
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

I beg to move, That this House believes that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was being simplistic and divisive in attacking the admissions procedure of Oxford University on the basis of a single, individual case; regrets the lack of action by the Government to promote freedom and opportunity for all the people of the United Kingdom; and calls on the Government to match its rhetoric with action, by removing government obstacles to the less well-off entering university, significantly increasing investment in education, taking those on low incomes out of income tax, tackling pensioner poverty, improving the quality of healthcare for all, and ensuring access to basic services in both rural and urban communities. I initiate the debate against the backdrop, as we saw in Prime Minister's questions this afternoon and have seen even more so outside the Chamber lately, of some intriguing arguments beginning to develop among those who are against one set of elites and those who are against another. Many of the arguments are bogus. Let us hope that this afternoon we can point to some of the errors that may arise in politics when the specific is applied to the general.

It is invariably a mistake to enter into gesture politics, as we are all tempted to do from time to time. It is certainly a mistake for senior politicians to take a specific example and to generalise from it. That was one of the great mistakes that the leader of the Conservative party made recently over the Tony Martin case. Equally, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stands accused of taking a specific issue and overgeneralising it, in the Laura Spence case. That results in bad attitudes and, if legislation were ever to flow from it, worse laws.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who has been particularly prolific over the past week in respect of the Laura Spence case, put the issue well when he said that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer tries to raise a principle on the back of one specific case, he must answer the question on which he remains completely silent: which of the other candidates should have been turned down? Not to answer that question is gesture politics of the worst kind.

What matters is reality. Much of what the Government are saying—and to some extent the Conservatives as well, in so far as they intrude upon reality these days—is not what real life is about. I asked the Prime Minister this afternoon about tuition fees. Applications are up in Scotland from Scottish students, and down in Wales and England from Welsh and English students. The Prime Minister answered very carefully. He did not answer the question. He said that enrolments were up. As the Minister knows, applications and enrolments are two entirely different things in the tertiary education sector.

Speaking as a Scot, I welcome the fact that Scotland has a different policy, which is advantageous compared with that in England and Wales. However, I do not welcome the fact that the Government will not acknowledge the deficiencies of their policy on a United Kingdom basis. I hope that the change in policy that was effected in the Scottish Parliament will provide a beacon for a policy change in respect of education in England and Wales.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

We in Wales are jealous of the Scottish Parliament's ability to enact such legislation; we would very much like to do that. I hope that the Government hear the right hon. Gentleman's encouraging words. Does he agree that, among the red herrings that have been trawled around, the needs of thousands of ordinary children are forgotten? That applies especially to those who may not go to university, but cannot get the resources to train in further education colleges.

Mr. Kennedy

In the spirit of celtic comradeship, may I say that I agree with the right hon. Gentleman and that the Liberal Democrats wish that the Welsh Assembly had the legislative capacity to make the sort of decision that was made in Edinburgh? I hope that that case will be advanced in due course. I endorse the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. Amid all the heat that the Chancellor's comments generated and the debate that they sparked, very little light has been shed on educational reality.

I have a copy of a letter, which was written to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) by a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones). The writer considers student funding in general and tuition fees in particular. The letter reflects reality, as opposed to the headlines, and the news management that the Government have attempted. I have the student's permission to quote the letter. It states: My opposition and "outrage" stems from the fact that the proposals as leaked in the recent Russell Group report … would mean that I couldn't afford to go to Oxford university. I came from a state comprehensive and was the first person from my school EVER to get a place at Oxbridge. My Dad is a fireman and my Mum works with disabled kids. They are typical middle class people, not affluent, but not too hard up. If they are expected to pay £5,000 per year for my university education, simply because I'm clever enough to get a place at Oxford, they cannot afford to do so. That is the social reality in this country.

The Government's approach, especially to opportunity in higher and tertiary education, has been grossly deficient. They have also failed to invest adequately in the education system in general. If my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough catches your eye, Madam Speaker, he will want to concentrate on that issue. I cannot cover every item in our admittedly wide-ranging motion. Education and social opportunity is essential and I do not apologise for focusing on that to a large extent.

The second issue that we want to consider is the national health service. The Government have embarked on a fundamental rethink of the NHS. That was not promised or flagged up three years ago. The rhetoric at the end of the general election campaign stressed that people had a week in which to save the NHS by voting Labour, and that any other outcome would mean the demise of the NHS. The health service is not in that parlous state, thank God, but it is in deep difficulty, and staff morale is low; there is considerable disillusionment.

The Prime Minister has embarked on his great review. I do not know about the Minister's experience, or that of the Prime Minister, but, as a Member of Parliament who has visited many hospitals up and down the country in the past 17 years, the one persistent and consistent comment that I heard from health service staff is that they need more money, and that the last thing they need is politicians reorganising them yet again. Every Government fall prey to the temptation of reorganisation because they are unwilling to confront themselves or the tax-paying public with the harsh reality that if we want a better health service, we must be prepared to dig deeper in our pockets to provide it. That is where the political priority should lie, not in yet another bureaucratic, politically motivated and orchestrated reorganisation.

I do not believe that NHS staff are encouraged by the thought that yet another set of political masters will tear up the plant to see how it is growing; they want that plant to be better tended in the first place. That is how the funding priorities should have been set in the first half of this Parliament. We said so before, during and after the general election.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

We will say it at the next election.

Mr. Kennedy

I agree with my hon. Friend; we will say it at the next election, and we have been proved comprehensively correct.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how much he welcomes today's Mental Health Alliance lobby of Parliament? Will he join me in regretting that, in all 11 pages of the major speech that the Secretary of State for Health made yesterday, there was no reference to users of mental health services, their carers or mental health staff?

Mr. Kennedy

I welcome that lobby, and several of my right hon. and hon. Friends and I have had discussions with those involved today. That oversight is certainly significant and sad. I hope that the fact that the hon. Gentleman has taken the opportunity to put it on the parliamentary record will stop any such deficiency occurring in future. I very much agree with him.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

Although I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about NHS resources—I am delighted that substantial extra resources will be provided during the next three years—I am surprised that he thinks that fundamental reform is not needed. Is he happy about the fact that part-time consultants in the NHS, especially orthopaedic surgeons, have long waiting lists and that people have to wait perhaps a year for hip operations that could be carried out next week if they went private and paid for them?

Mr. Kennedy

My criticism of further reform at this stage is that many of the institutional and structural issues that the Government and, in particular, the Prime Minister will address are the result of insufficient funding during the lifetime of this Parliament. That is criticism No. 1. Criticism No. 2 is that, if we want to reform the delivery of health services at community level to make them more accountable and efficient—no hon. Member would be against that principle—two things must be done. First, managers must be allowed to manage; the Government must not spend their time interfering politically. Secondly, managers must be set budgets that allow them to plan.

Every year, the Government of the day suddenly announce—pre-Christmas or post-new year—extra cash to help solve whatever perceived problems arise during the winter months. We saw that in classic form with this year's flu epidemic. We all know that that happens; it is a feature of the weather and of demography. NHS managers tell us that the money is welcome and that, if only they had known that they would get it eight, 10 or 12 months ago, they could have deployed it far more efficiently and effectively. The Government need to deal with that, not with what one suspects is a high-profile, well news-managed health inquiry, chaired by the Prime Minister, which no doubt will be unveiled in glitzy fashion at No. 10 Downing street, but will not reach those whom it is intended to assist. That is the case that we are making. It is an issue of opportunity that is close to the hearts of Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kennedy

I shall certainly do so, although I want to make progress.

Mr. Davies

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way a third time. He seems to suggest simply that more money is required, not modernisation or reform. Has he read the Public Accounts Committee report, which shows enormous variation in the unit cost of standard procedures such as hip operations, and in efficiency and performance? The Government are introducing benchmarking of costs and outputs to provide more cost-effective and consistent standards of health across the country, rather than simply throwing more and more money at what is often mismanagement and bad practice. Does the right hon. Gentleman welcome that?

Mr. Kennedy

Again, we have absolutely no objection to the most cost-effective delivery of health care in the country, which must be in everyone's interest. However—I am not in any way undermining the work of the Public Accounts Committee—it must be recognised that the delivery of health care in my part of the country bears hardly any relation to the delivery of health care in, say, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) in terms of, for instance, geography, demography and other demands.

I often feel that the indices and formulae that are used do not take adequate account of geographical disparities. That has an impact not just on health but on the delivery of education, and on many other things.

One group which, in terms of "Opportunity Britain", must feel that they are being the most denied under the present Government are pensioners. They are some of the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society. Let me quote to the Minister the last Labour manifesto, in which Labour pledged that pensioners would share in the increasing prosperity of the nation. After three years of Labour Government, however, the percentage of national income going to pensioners has declined. That is a statement of fact.

Insult has been added to injury by the increase of 75p in the basic state pension. Lifetime savings of just £8,000 bar 600,000 pensioners from entitlement to income support, although their income is lower than £75 a week. Up to 700,000 pensioners who are entitled to claim income support fail to do so.

In 1998–99, there were 50,000 "excess winter deaths"—a chilling phrase—most among elderly people. That is the highest figure for many years, and is substantially higher than the figures in any comparable western country.

As a people, we should be ashamed of such statistics. There must be a substantial increase in the amount given to pensioners, and the comprehensive spending review will provide a big opportunity. Any increase should be loaded in favour of the oldest and poorest pensioners, who all too often form the same group.

I could mention many other issues, but there is not enough time for me to do so. Let me say a word about one of the most dispiriting aspects of national political dialogue. I refer to the increasing sense that there is a difference between urban Britain and rural Britain. There is no such difference. A lack of opportunity in rural Britain may take a different form from a lack of opportunity in urban Britain, but a lack of opportunity in either should be something that a Parliament is not prepared to tolerate. We are seeing too much of it.

In rural Britain in particular, the extent of deprivation and social exclusion is all too often disguised. That applies as much to the fate of the local post office as to the lack of access to decent transport. It impacts on the single mother as much it impacts on the pensioner. The Government are not doing enough, and we want more to be done. We also want aspirations and anxieties to be met in the context of the incidence of crime, and the perception and fear of crime. Before the election, it was a case of "Vote for us; more bobbies on the beat". Three years after the election—in which enough people voted for the Government—there are thousands fewer police to be deployed in our rural and urban communities. Those are the facts, and they need to be exposed.

The Government have done much that is good, and the Liberal Democrats have said that. As the Minister knows, we are frequently criticised by others—members of the Conservative party and the media—when we do so, but if we think that the Government are trying to do the right thing, why should we not say so? That is an example of sane, rational, constructive politics. What is most disappointing, however, is that although they have a benign economic scenario, a thumping House of Commons majority, a so-called official Opposition who have shown no signs of getting their act together over the first three years of the Parliament—

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

Dream on.

Mr. Kennedy

The few of them who are here are dignified and distinguished representatives of a dwindling band.

Despite having all that in their favour, the Government have a poverty of ambition. What could, and should, they have done on the social justice agenda? What could, and should, they have done to make life better for pensioners? What could, and should, they have done to improve our national health service? What could, and should, they have done to improve the lot of those in education in general and the tertiary system in particular?

I want us to be ambitious about our politics. The Liberal Democrats are ambitious, and we will make the case for greater opportunity—a case that finds no resonant echo in the Conservative party, still less the Government of the country.

4.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks)

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: 'believes that true opportunity for all requires that access to higher education should be based on merit not background; welcomes the measures the Government has implemented to widen access as part of the record increase in education spending of 8 per cent. in real terms in this year alone; and welcomes the many initiatives taken to help those in society whose needs are greatest, including an extra £950 a year for older pensioners on low incomes and a record increase in NHS spending of an extra £2 billion this year, plus 6.1 per cent. average growth year on year until 2004.'. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) was kind enough to mention that his motion covers a wide range of subjects. Perhaps one or two matters of world interest are not covered in it—

Mr. Charles Kennedy

They are for the second motion.

Mr. Wicks

Indeed. One of my colleagues said that the motion had all the hallmarks of being written on the back of an envelope; I thought that the back of a serviette was more likely. Despite that remark, I shall treat the subject of the debate seriously.

Despite the right hon. Gentleman's criticisms of the Government, some, though not all, of which I can address, I acknowledge that my party and his have in many respects shared in the radical tradition and ambition of the past century. Long before new Labour—indeed, 100 years or so before—there came the new Liberals, following the great schism at the end of the 19th century between the welfare Liberals and the market Liberals.

In spite of the many differences between us—I shall not be wholly conciliatory—there is a sense in which we have all been concerned about how to attack injustice and pursue a just society. That has led us to discuss issues concerning the right balance between economic prosperity and fairness and between the values of equality and liberty. It was a great liberal—Hobhouse—who reminded us in 1911: Liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid result. Some of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about some of our universities lacked the right balance between those two important values.

We have been concerned about citizenship and the balance to be struck between rights and duties. The unjust society—the motion is about justice—has been described in many ways across epochs. It varies from era to era in terms of its determinant causes and characteristics, but I always think—I say this not just to be conciliatory—that the best portrayal of injustice is still that from Sir William Beveridge, a great Liberal, in his report of 1942. Sir William talked about the challenge facing our country after the second world war. In a wartime speech, he said: Reconstruction has many sides, international and domestic. On the domestic side, one can define its aims best by naming five giant evils to be destroyed: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. That was the agenda successfully confronted in many ways by the Attlee Government in 1945.

Much has changed in the 50 to 60 years since then. Many substantial improvements have been made in the life chances of our people, not least in their life expectancy. There is much to applaud, but, when the Government came to power in 1997, the socio-economic context was depressingly familiar in terms of rampant inequality.

There was a real sense in which Beveridge's five giants, well known in the 1940s and before the war, still stalked the land. There was want—one in three babies were born into poverty. Disease, sickness and mortality correlated with social and economic circumstance. There was ignorance—one in four or five of our adults were lacking basic numeracy and literacy skills. There was squalor—neighbourhoods were grim and desolate. There was also idleness, which is, of course, the experience of mass unemployment, with one in five households having no adult in work. We were familiar with that when we came to power, and we are seeking to deal with that agenda.

All five of those Beveridge giants are significant. All of them are interconnected. One cannot be overcome on its own—we need to overcome all of them. The connections include the fact that one third of adults without skills are on benefits. By contrast, those who have good GCSEs are able to increase their earnings by 40 per cent., compared with those who lack any qualifications. That is why, in addressing these issues, we need comprehensive strategies.

We need joined-up government. We also need the important work of the social exclusion unit, and projects such as sure start that bring together health, education and other services to help families with children in the early years. We need the Connexions service, for 13 to 19-year-olds, which involves the modern development of careers and the youth service, cutting across Departments and involving a range of professionals.

I shall focus on three of the giants that I mentioned: idleness, want and ignorance. I shall not cover all the points raised by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West, but I want to examine some of the aspects that he mentioned—employment, social security and education. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Who has the telephone? Turn it off, please.

Mr. Wicks

Madam Speaker, I am sure that it was not William Beveridge telephoning to correct my quotation. I can assure you that it was accurate in every detail.

I think that the starting point for our social policy has to be a strong economy and jobs. That is why we were not impressed by what I think many people would regard as the "pay now, probably cut later" economics of the Liberal Democrats. We had to plan for the long term, not the quick headline. Our central economic objective is to achieve high and stable levels of growth and employment. We need to lock in economic stability as a platform for sustainable growth.

The approach is working, most notably in respect of jobs. I think many of us would regard a job as the most important social security policy of all. We have a dynamic and healthy labour market, and the number of people in jobs is the highest that it has ever been, at 27.8 million. More than 900,000 more men and women are in jobs now than in May 1997 when we took office. Claimant unemployment is the lowest that it has been for 20 years. with the claimant count of unemployed men and women down to January 1980 levels.

I do not recite those statistics to be complacent. I understand that the unemployment level is still too high and that it still affects many communities. Nevertheless, I think that our record on jobs is impressive.

Mr. Kennedy

The Minister used the phrase "pay now, cut later" to describe the Liberal Democrats' approach to economics. Although we join him in rightly criticising the boom-and-bust days that preceded this Government, it is worth placing on the record the fact that, although he and his ministerial colleagues are occasionally—indeed, regularly—somewhat dismissive of our approach to economics, the central plank of the Government's economic strategy, which has created the opportunities to do so many things, was in our manifesto but not in Labour's. I am referring to operational independence for the Bank of England.

Mr. Wicks

We thought that it was right to implement that policy, and did so at the very start. I agree that it has been a very important plank of our economic policy. What was wholly missing from the right hon. Gentleman's speech today was any notion at all of spending commitments or spending priorities. He had a wish list, but, although it would be the wish list of many of us, I heard no ideas or commitments concerning the money that would have to be raised to implement it.

I am struck by the common sense of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), with whom I have been serving on a Standing Committee for the past few weeks. He said recently: Simply saying that we can dip into a bottomless pit of resources is not acceptable. It is vital that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West and other Opposition Members provide basic arithmetic on spending and priorities, otherwise they offer only the economics of the playpen. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough might play a useful role in the Liberal Democrats' Front-Bench Treasury team.

In addition to increasing employment opportunities, it is a radical feature of the Government that we are doing more to make work pay. We all know the problems of dependency culture and the unemployment trap. Through a combination of the national minimum wage, the working families tax credit and child benefit, we have done a great deal to enable people who are moving from benefit into work to receive a decent income. Our policies mean that, from early next year, no one with children who is in full-time work will earn less than £214 a week. That is a major step forward.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

The Minister speaks glibly about increasing employment opportunities, just as the pre-Budget report did, but how is the creation of employment opportunities assisted by dramatically increasing the national insurance contributions of swathes of self-employed people the length and breadth of the kingdom?

Mr. Wicks

We need to cost carefully our tax and national insurance proposals and to get the balance right between the revenue that must be raised and our spending priorities. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I both speak glibly, but the fact is that, since the Labour Government took office, 900,000 more men and women have found jobs. That is a victory for those men and women, their families and communities, and it is good news for the economy. I am not being glib; I am stating a record of achievement of which many of us who remember the horrors of mass unemployment perpetrated on this country by the Conservatives are proud.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

I am impressed by the list of measures that the Government have taken to help people into employment. Will the Minister examine the impact of the current cut-off for therapeutic earnings, which stands in the way of people who are recovering from or who have a history of mental illness? We have to be far more flexible if we are to enable such people to gain their rightful place in the work force and the community.

Mr. Wicks

That is why we increased the level of that cut-off in the last Budget. I accept the more general point that, to enable people with learning disabilities or other forms of disability to enter the labour market if they want to, as many do, we need to provide an array of policies and support systems, some of which will operate in the field of social security.

Although I wish I had the opportunity to do so, it is not my purpose today to address in detail the issues surrounding incomes for elderly people and pensioners. There are interesting and legitimate disagreements about the package of measures available in that respect, but I should like to state one fact: during this Parliament, we have spent an additional £6.5 billion on pensioners, which is £2.5 billion more than we would have spent had we merely linked the basic state pension to earnings.

It is legitimate to argue about the pros and cons of our strategy, but no one can deny that we are spending money on the proper needs of elderly people. We are doing that in a variety of ways, for example, by providing free television licences to those aged 75 or more, which is important and targeted support because many—although not all—of our elders in their late 70s, their 80s and 90s are housebound, living alone and dependent on their television. We have increased the winter fuel allowance and provided free eye tests for the over-60s—a piece of decent social policy of which we are proud.

I acknowledge the terrible data quoted by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West about those who have died from cold in winter. Early in my career, I participated in a major research study into that topic, and I am proud to be able to claim to have written the first major study of the old and cold problem. When we need to summon the energy to do better for our country, evidence that old people—still today, I acknowledge—are cold in the winter, and sometimes lethally so, is a national disgrace. By focusing on the poorest, the home energy efficiency scheme and many other measures, we are doing our utmost to address that appalling problem in terms of pensioner incomes.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

The Minister is very knowledgeable about these matters. Will he clarify the Government's position on the 75p pension rise? Looking back, does he think that that was the right or the wrong thing to do?

Mr. Wicks

The hon. Gentleman and I share an academic background in social security. These are important matters and there are differences of opinion. Our priority as a Government has been to focus support on the poorest elderly people. We are doing that in different ways: partly through the income support system, with the minimum income guarantee, and partly through free television licences, a measure that focuses on the very important group of people over the age of 75. I think that that is the right priority and the right thing to do.

I repeat the fact that, over this Parliament, we shall be spending more on elderly people, particularly the poorest—many women in those elderly groups never had an occupational pension, have few savings and have been widowed—than we would have spent if we had simply index-linked the pension to wages. There is legitimate discussion about that, but no one can say that we are not spending proper amounts of money.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)


Mr. Wicks

I want to talk about another subject in which I am interested—education—but I am happy to give way first.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Is it not a fact that the Government have not helped the very poorest pensioners, because the minimum income guarantee means nothing unless a pensioner is claiming income support? Is it not high time that our poorest pensioners who have no other income are absolved from having to claim benefits, and receive a consolidated basic pension?

Mr. Wicks

The gap between the richest and poorest pensioners increased dramatically under the previous Government.

Mr. Bercow

That is not an answer.

Mr. Wicks

That is part of our legacy.

Miss Kirkbride

That has nothing to do with it.

Mr. Wicks

It has a lot to do with it. In 1997, we had to look at the situation confronting us. We weighed the options very carefully. We found that, after 18 years—not least because of Mrs. Thatcher's decimation of the state earnings-related pension scheme—

Mr. Bercow

indicated dissent.

Mr. Wicks

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the attack on SERPS has nothing to do with the issue, he shows that he is approaching the social security question with a certain illiteracy.

Our judgment is that we should concentrate resources on the poorest elderly people. We are doing that in the ways that I have described. We are communicating as effectively as we can and in imaginative ways that ensure that those who are entitled to income support in old age receive it.

Although the basic priorities for our social policy are a strong economy and good jobs, much of the ability of our citizens, whatever their age, to get such jobs will depend on education, training and skills. Although that has always been so in many respects, the challenges posed by globalisation and the impact of new technologies mean that those of us who are interested in social security in the broadest sense must turn our attention to education, training and skills. That is why we have a true commitment to the notion of lifelong learning and are spending more on education.

Over this Parliament, education spending will increase by more than 16 per cent. in real terms. This year alone, following the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget of a further £1 billion for education, spending on it will rise by more than 8 per cent. in real terms—the highest annual increase for more than 20 years. The right hon. Member for Ross. Skye and Inverness, West speaks as if we were not spending more on education or, for that matter, on health. The very reverse is the case.

Mr. Willis

The Minister is very selective in his statistics. Unit funding for students in further and higher education has gone down each year under this Government and is scheduled to go down right through to 2001–02.

Mr. Wicks

Unit funding for university education declined dramatically under the Conservative Government. We have rectified that because we will have no trade-off between quantity, with the increasing number of people in higher education, and quality. The hon. Gentleman is committed to further education, as I am, and knows that spending on it is at record levels. At long last we have a Government taking further education seriously, as it deserves.

Lifelong learning has to start with the early years. Some of the best preparation for our people will take place at a tender age. That is why our national child care strategy—with the development of nursery education, guaranteeing places for all four-year-olds, and the innovative sure start programme, tackling a range of issues, involving parents, and considering health, education and the family as a whole—is so important.

It is also why, despite some opposition from some forces of conservatism, our national literacy and numeracy strategy has played such an important role in our education system. Some thought that it was not necessary, but we believe that it was absolutely right and proper that the three Rs should be emphasised in our primary schools. The results show a great improvement.

In the Budget, all schools—primary and secondary—received a major boost. There is now an average extra direct grant of £40,000 for secondary schools and £9,000 for primary schools. That goes directly to the school, and that is how money should be spent.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

Going back to nursery education, does the Minister recognise the concern highlighted in a report by, I think, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology that, although it is important for young children to have access to nursery education and to an educational environment and support, we should be careful about how early we start to force literacy and numeracy on them? An important part of the first stages of educational experience is developing social skills and a sense of ease at being in the educational environment. Evidence from Europe suggests that the literacy programme can start slightly later and the children will all be at the right level later on.

Mr. Wicks

Yes, that is why we have been very careful to develop a programme that prepares the child for the literacy and numeracy strategy at primary school. The Government recognise the need to get the balance right, but there can be no excuse at all for allowing some children to reach the age of 11 without basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills. None of us want that for our children and none of us should want it for any child.

The learning and skills councils for which we are currently legislating are another important part of our education strategy. They replace the training and enterprise councils and the funding councils and will have charge nationally and locally of all post-16 education and training, bringing into one funding scheme about £6 billion to benefit about 6 million learners and responding to the demands of the economy and the needs of companies and individuals. It is a revolution and it shows our commitment to the skills agenda.

University education was a focus of the opening speech of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West. Higher education has to be paid for. More and more of our children now have the opportunity to go to university. The proportion is now a third and rising, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set a target of 50 per cent.

As the Dearing report recognised, universities were seriously underfunded, with a drop of 36 per cent. in unit funding between 1989 and 1997, and a further cut planned for the next two years. We had to address those facts, and we did so through our policies on tuition fees and loans. However, we have always ensured that students from less-well-off families do not have to pay fees. Already more than 40 per cent. of students are exempt from making any contribution, and that proportion will go up to 50 per cent. from next year because we are raising the contribution threshold. I repeat that poor students do not pay fees. We believe that the loans system is fair, in terms of the balance between the student, his or her family and the taxpayer. We have recently introduced a package of measures to support mature students, who can have some especial difficulties in accessing education.

Recently, the Sutton Trust published a report that touches on some recent controversy. It included data on access to universities and showed that we must do more to ensure that all of our talented young people, whatever their background, get the chances they deserve in higher education. It surely is not satisfactory that only 13 per cent. of young people from lower socio-economic groups enter our top 13 universities, despite making up 50 per cent. of the school population. I heard nothing in the speech by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West that would rectify that problem. We are determined to rectify it.

Nor can it be right that at the beginning of the 21st century, not the 20th, someone from a private school is nearly 30 times more likely to get into higher education than someone from a disadvantaged background.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

Has the Minister anything to tell the House about the relationship between, for example, young people's willingness to live away from home and access to higher education? Precedents in a community also have a tremendous influence on that access.

Mr. Wicks

I certainly recognise that in order to understand the data that I have cited, a variety of causes will be significant, and they may vary from one community to another. A range of matters needs to be addressed, including the aspirations of our children from poor areas, particularly when no one in the family or local community has been to university, and the schools' aspirations for their most able children. Also, there are of course implications for the universities, as has been highlighted recently.

Mr. Bercow

Although the Minister is right to want to increase the proportion of state school pupils who go into higher education, does he agree with the Secretary of State for Health, who has made it clear that he intends to relax the access criteria to medical schools specifically in order to enable more state school products to go to them?

Mr. Wicks

Products are young men and women, and our position is that every young man and woman of high ability should have an equal and fair chance to enter our universities and medical schools. That is why the debate now needs to move on to the positive measures that can be taken. We have already provided £10 million for opportunity bursaries of up to £1,000 from the autumn of 2001, aimed at young students from disadvantaged backgrounds. That will operate initially as a pilot scheme in excellence in cities areas, building on the schemes already in place in higher education institutions. We are also funding summer schools, special provision for gifted and talented pupils in inner cities, and other measures to link state schools with colleges and universities.

Much can be done and many of our universities are doing much at the moment. We want to encourage that development. It is important that the row over the issue now moves on to a positive agenda for action for the benefit of the most able boys and girls, whether from the state or private sector, whether rich or poor. That should now be the agenda.

Mr. Willis

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. In light of his comment about the Government's wish to attract more students into higher education, I want to repeat the question that I put at Question Time a month ago. Will he make a categoric statement at the Dispatch Box now, ruling out any future use of differential fees, as requested by the Russell group and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals? Higher education would be out of the reach of many students if they had to pay real-terms costs.

Mr. Wicks

I am about to move on to that topic. The hon. Gentleman is prescient—the issue was raised by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West when he quoted from representatives of the Russell group.

Miss Kirkbride

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wicks

Not yet, as I want to answer the question. I have an old-fashioned sense of order; indeed, our policies are built on good old-fashioned values. I shall give way to the hon. Lady later.

Many students and their parents have been worried by recent press reports about top-up fees. I am happy to reassure them that the Government's policy has not changed. Indeed, we have legislated to prevent universities from levying differential fees. We are monitoring the charges that institutions make to ensure that differential fees are not being levied. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reiterated that policy recently when he said: Anything that discourages open access to all universities and their departments in this country is, in my view, wrong. Those who argue for substantial differentiation in fees have to answer where the resources would come from to pay for those on low incomes to enter university departments, given that the top-up fee that they were levying would have to pay for that and for any improvement in quality.—[Official Report, 23 March 2000; Vol. 346, c. 1106.] That sets out our position absolutely clearly.

Miss Kirkbride

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I am sure that the House would like more state school pupils to go to university, although it must be borne in mind that more used to go under the old grammar school system. However, the House would also be interested to know whether the Minister backs the Chancellor over the controversial case of Laura Spence. Interestingly, the Minister has not mentioned that case yet.

Laura Spence did not get into the medical school of Magdalen college, Oxford, where the Government have limited the number of places available to five. The Chancellor said that that was wrong, but the people who got the precious five places all had the same academic qualifications as Laura Spence. Some were women, some were from ethnic minorities and some came from comprehensive schools.

Will the Minister back the Chancellor and tell the House which of those students should have been deprived of a precious place at Magdalen college so that Laura Spence could go?

Mr. Wicks

The difficulty is that disproportionate numbers of students with very good A-levels come from private schools. I wish them good luck, but the reasons for that are easily understood. Although about two thirds of our high-achieving A-level students come from state schools, those percentage differences are not reflected in the intakes to our top universities. That is the issue that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has done so much to highlight. If we are to build an equal society, we must tackle that problem for the sake of our young people.

Miss Kirkbride

It is class war.

Mr. Wicks

It is not a matter of class war but of the common-sense revolution that is taking place in the way we treat each and every young person in the country. We support that common-sense revolution.

I apologise for the fact that I have not addressed all the important issues. I would have had much to say on health care, for example, but I will say merely that I hope that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West and his colleagues will recognise that the recent expenditure on the NHS announced by the Government is a record investment in a major institution close to the heart of British men and women. We are finding the resources but, unlike the right hon. Gentleman, who, on health care, seemed to be among the forces for conservatism, to coin a phrase, we do not think that it is a question of pouring money into the health service without thinking through how the patient and the public will get as much as possible from every extra health pound that is spent. That is why, perfectly properly, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Health and the Prime Minister are leading a review to find out how we can develop structures for the health service that enable that money to be spent properly.

At the outset of my address, I referred, rather generously, to the fact that the Liberals and Labour have shared a radical tradition over the past 100 years. We have been pushing that radical agenda in government, building on the values of the British people and their concerns about fairness, and trying to balance economic prosperity with social justice. However, although we are proud of our record of achievement, I repeat that no one can be complacent. Much has been done but so much more needs to be done. Those of us in the House who have the honour to serve our constituents and meet them regularly in our advice surgeries know that in all our communities, much pain and suffering needs to be addressed. The agenda is clear—there is much to be done.

Our vision is clear, as well as our agenda. Ultimately, it is a simple vision, which decent men and women have shared over the years. Each and every citizen has equal rights and duties. Each and every citizen, whatever their background, deserves decent opportunities. That is what this debate allows us to say, and that is what the Government are doing. This is an important debate—no debate could be more important.

4.36 pm
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

As the Minister said, the Liberal Democrats' motion is somewhat all-embracing. It refers, as observers of the debate should be aware, to education, taxation, pensions, health care and access to services in urban and rural communities. I feel sure that it was only an oversight on the part of the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip that there is no reference to kindness to animals, but no doubt that will make an appearance on a future Liberal Democrat Opposition day.

I always look forward with eager anticipation, beads of sweat upon my brow, to the contributions of the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy). He is an agreeable cove, and he has fine parliamentary jousting skills, so I say with the greatest respect that it is a pleasure to engage in debate with him today. However, the motion tabled by Liberal Democrat Members and the speech that the right hon. Gentleman devoted to it were notable more for their breadth than their depth. It was, if I may say so, the scattergun approach—the broad brush. The right hon. Gentleman could not be accused of an over-intense focus on any one issue.

It must be said, however, that the proposition of the Liberal Democrats, at least in terms of the meat of some of the issues that they quite properly raised in the motion and the right hon. Gentleman's opening speech, compare favourably with the stance of the Government. The House should be aware of just how risible is the Government's amendment to the motion. Specifically, the Government apparently think it necessary and desirable, in an amendment, to state—wait for it—that access to higher education should be based on merit not background … That, of course, is true, but it is blindingly obvious that it is unnecessary to make any such statement in an amendment. It is an utterly banal observation. There is no dispute about it—of course we agree that merit should be the determinant of access to opportunity and to higher education. It does not require to be stated in a Government amendment.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

Not just yet, but I will happily give way to the hon. Lady in due course.

That is a banal observation. It is like saying that, when it is sunny, one ought to wear a hat to protect one's head, and when it is raining, it would be a good idea to carry an umbrella. It is blindingly obvious. What we on the Opposition Benches know, however, is that a political party should be in business unashamedly to support the pursuit of excellence, to underscore the important principle of academic freedom and to recognise that admissions tutors—not Ministers in Her Majesty's Government—are best placed to make judgments about the people whom they admit to their institutions.

I want to focus somewhat on the on-going row—believe me, it will be on-going—about elitism, admissions policies and the behaviour of the so-called privileged. This fight was picked by the Chancellor. It was outrageous for a senior Minister to pick that fight, but the battle has been well and truly joined.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), made no discernible reference to the conduct of Oxford or of Cambridge university. I have considerable respect and, in the light of recent events, great sympathy for the vice-chancellor of Oxford university, Dr. Colin Lucas. I have no vested interest in the matter; I do not know the distinguished vice-chancellor. To my knowledge, I have not met him. I did not go to Oxford university. As some people will be aware, I hail from the wing of the Conservative party that pays a mortgage and buys its own furniture. I went to a comprehensive school and to Essex university, but I have the greatest admiration for Oxford university and, as I said, great sympathy for the vice-chancellor of that institution, who has been assailed by a wholly improper propaganda campaign from the Government.

What did Dr. Lucas say in the run-up to the debate? Referring to his institution, he said: We cannot compromise on education, if we are to remain a world class university. He is absolutely right to say that. No matter what the pressure, no matter how much cajolery, no matter the extent of the threats to that institution emanating from Ministers, he and his admissions tutors must continue to make judgments based on their assessment of who would most obviously benefit from an Oxford university education.

There was some chuntering among Government Back Benchers when my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) observed that more state school pupils went to Oxford and Cambridge universities when there were more grammar schools. Labour Members—presumably showing the same ignorance of the facts as that displayed by the Chancellor in the recent saga—dissented from that proposition. Let me offer the Minister some facts on the matter.

In 1970—Oh, I see that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), who is herself the privileged product of a private education, regards the facts on grammar school access to Oxbridge as an appropriate occasion on which to yawn. She and other members of the Government will have to hear the facts. In 1970—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady says that she is not a product, but a person. If she wants to pick a semantic argument, I am happy to accept that amendment. The term "state school product", at which she cavilled when I used it in an intervention, is perfectly commonplace. If she is not familiar with it, that is her problem—not mine. If she wants to be referred to as a person, I am happy to oblige her.

In 1970, 60.4 per cent. of people going to Oxford university were from state schools, and a substantial proportion were from grammar schools. The figure for Cambridge university was 61.3 per cent. During the ensuing three decades, there was a marked deterioration. Nevertheless, over the past five years, there has been a substantial improvement in the proportion of state school pupils admitted both to Oxford and to Cambridge. It is genuinely a source of regret to me that the Minister failed to mention that in his remarks.

The hon. Gentleman—the product, I believe, of an independent education, although I do not hold that against him—is normally a very fair-minded fellow. It saddened me that he did not take the opportunity to say something about the improvement in the performance of Oxford and Cambridge in relation to state school access to those institutions. He should have done so—especially in the light of the monstrous remark of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 26 May, that it was time that Oxford university opened its doors to people from all backgrounds and, indeed, opened its doors to women. What breathtaking ignorance. Does the Chancellor not know the facts? Is he not aware of the reality? Did he not pick up the phone and inquire? If he had done so, he would have discovered that 50 per cent. of the people going to Oxford university are women. That is pretty well a reflection of the composition of our population. However, the Minister said nothing in defence of the magnificent efforts of Oxford and Cambridge or to admit that the Chancellor's remarks were a disgrace.

I had hoped that the Minister would say more about those institutions' efforts in their summer schools to encourage more children from state schools to go into higher education, and specifically to go to Oxford. He certainly did not say anything about the target schools and Oxford access scheme. It is a worthwhile scheme that is being pursued with great vigour and commitment by professionals dedicated to the enhancement of opportunity for children from all types of background and from the length and breath of the United Kingdom. He did not say anything about the teachers in service scheme, which has been operating since 1998 in respect of Oxford university, or about the university's new website on chemistry. What a dismal performance.

The Minister seemed reluctant—just as the Prime Minister was—to endorse the inflammatory terminology deployed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He lacked the guts and forthrightness simply to say in unmistakable terms and on the record that the Chancellor had got it wrong and that he should have the decency to apologise. I am happy to admit that I have made mistakes from time to time. I have even admitted to them occasionally in the privacy of this Chamber on the basis that it would probably be a state secret if I did so.

Mr. Rowe

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if one feels that some of one's aspirations are not as easy to achieve as one thought, an alternative strategy is to create a totally artificial windmill and then to tilt at it?

Mr. Bercow

As usual, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. His observation carries particular weight because he known in the House for his fair-mindedness. He does not normally rush to score party political points, which is something that I rarely do, as you will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend is particularly fair minded and he is right. The Government are in a mess and they are now seeking to divert attention.

We should be clear about the record of Ministers on this subject. On 27 May, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, whose job appeared temporarily to have been appropriated by the Chancellor, agreed with the Chancellor's remarks and endorsed what he had said. On 2 June—a week later, vindicating Harold Wilson's observation about a week being a long time in politics—the Secretary of State said something rather interesting. He remarked: I'm simply very keen that having debated for a week we are able to broaden the agenda which is, unless you raise standards and expectations, then the issue of access becomes more difficult. A certain interpretation facility is required in that context. I think that the gist of the point that he made in a slightly circumlocutory way was, "The Chancellor got it wrong; it is all very embarrassing; he has splattered himself, myself and other Ministers with egg and it would therefore be useful if we could hurry on to talk about something else." The Secretary of State is a subtle and sophisticated fellow and he certainly did not put it in such crude and bald terms. However, we can take it that that is what he meant.

Mr. Wicks

The hon. Gentleman referred earlier to a dismal performance, but he has clearly prepared his speech on the basis that the debate would be dominated by one education institution and one particular person. However, both the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) and I talked about matters more generally. Does the hon. Gentleman have anything to say about education for all our children or is he just obsessed with education for the few?

Mr. Bercow

I am obsessed with education for all our children, and the Minister need be in no doubt that I shall come to that. [Interruption.] I am grateful to the Minister for his sedentary advice on how I should make my speech, but, on the whole, I am happy to follow my own counsel. I make no apology for devoting considerable attention to the Chancellor's remarks, as the Government have not been prepared to admit error, apologise or progress the debate. I hope that Members on both sides of the House recognise that people are turning away from politics and becoming cynical about it because they feel that we always insist on being right and are never prepared to acknowledge error. To be fair, Liberal Democrat Members have a relatively good record on that and, from time to time, take a much more reasonable approach. However, the Government never admit to error on anything which, frankly, is a mistake on their part.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

As the Chancellor wanted to raise these issues, would it not have been better if he had said that Oxford and Cambridge are two of many good universities and that people with good A-level grades should expect to get offers from several universities and pick the most appropriate one for them? He should then have said that many universities have access courses and all the things that my hon. Friend has talked about. Finally, he should have said that, at certain large schools, few pupils get A-levels in maths or science. We should all concentrate on those people as they have potential and need our help so that they can go on to make applications.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend is correct. The biggest problem is encouraging people in the state sector to consider the possibility of going to Oxford or Cambridge. The Minister nodded at that important point but, unfortunately, has failed to recognise the weakness of the Government's position on the matter. He is a fair-minded man, so I ask him how the prospects of people in state schools applying to our finest universities will be enhanced if a senior member of the Government attacks and vilifies those institutions and claims that they are ridden with snobbery, are inherently biased and do not care about people from state school backgrounds? How will that encourage state school pupils to consider applying to our finest institutions?

Before the hon. Gentleman ruminates further on that point, he should be aware that many students at Oxford university reacted to the Chancellor's remarks with horror and fury because they could see how much damage they would do at grass roots. On 28 May, a Downing street spokesman—unnamed, of course, although the first name "Alastair" and the surname "Campbell" readily trip off the tongue—told The Mail on Sunday: Despite everything that has been said, Gordon did not tell Tony that he was going to make an issue of Laura Spence. The whole thing spun out of control. Tony feels it looks as though we are going back to the bad old days when Labour was in the trenches fighting the class war. We've left that sort of thing behind us but Gordon doesn't seem to have got the message and Tony has reminded him of it. I am glad that, without any public demonstration or apology, the Prime Minister has, behind the scenes, spoken to the Chancellor sotto voce and informed him of the error of his ways. It is time that that was reflected in a change in the Government's public attitude and policy. The same might be said of Baroness Jay. Frankly, it was monstrous of her to claim that she went from a pretty standard grammar school to Oxford, when the school has made it clear that she did nothing of the kind.

We are concerned about standards, access and opportunity. However, access and opportunity have been damaged by the Government's determination to reignite the class war and by their blinkered and stupid policy of introducing tuition fees and abolishing the maintenance grant. On 14 April 1997, the then Leader of the Opposition said: Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees in higher education. That was followed up 10 days later by the then shadow Foreign Secretary who, on Leeds university student radio, said: We are quite clear that tuition costs must be picked up by the state. However, 100 days after the statement by the then Leader of the Opposition and 90 days after the statement by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment himself came to the House to announce the introduction of tuition fees.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House whether the Conservative party was, and remains, in favour of the introduction of tuition fees?

Mr. Bercow

The Conservative party did not go into the election supporting the introduction of tuition fees, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware. There was a bipartisan agreement to establish a review of the financing of higher education, to be undertaken by Ron Dearing. The difference between the position of the Conservative Opposition and that of the Government is that we respected the Dearing package as a whole. The hon. Gentleman, who is well informed, will know that the Dearing report recommended the continuation of the maintenance grant whereas the Government, to their eternal discredit, cherry picked. They opted for the introduction of tuition fees but, against Sir Ron Dearing's advice, they abolished the maintenance grant, greatly damaging the prospects and affordability of education for the poorest people in our community.

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman has given a fair description of the situation that surrounded the Dearing report. However, will he remind the House whether the Conservative party, following that report, was in favour of the introduction of tuition fees—yes or no?

Mr. Bercow

I thought that I had made the position abundantly clear to the hon. Gentleman. I said that we accepted the Dearing package. That is a demonstrable fact. It is on the record. The shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), has repeated the commitment on a number of occasions. Why the issue is causing the hon. Gentleman's brow to furrow is a source of some mystery to me.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

As well as the introduction of the charge, does my hon. Friend agree that to call it a university fee that students have to pay when the moneys do not go to the university is one of the worst abuses of language of which the Government are guilty? Should it not be referred to as the university tax? If the charge is to continue, should not the moneys at least be given to the universities so that what students pay the universities and their departments have to spend?

Mr. Bercow

It certainly is a tax, and my hon. Friend is right to point that out. However, it is not unusual for the Government to distort and pervert language for their own purposes. I can assure my hon. Friend that the competition as to which is the worst example is a hot one.

The Government have failed on education spending, despite the gloss that the Minister put upon the subject. The reality is that, in the lifetime of this Parliament, the Government will spend 4.7 per cent. of national income on education, whereas the previous Government spent 5 per cent.

The Minister enjoined me to talk about other matters, and I am happy to do so. I make no apology for dwelling on education. The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the Prime Minister said that his key priority was education, education, education. The right hon. Gentleman probably thought that by saying it three times he could cover up for the fact that he had not one remotely interesting or novel idea to contribute to the debate.

Mr. Wicks

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's figures on education spending as a percentage of gross domestic product. By the year 2001–02, it will be 4.9 per cent. of GDP. If training is added, it will be 5 per cent.

Given the hon. Gentleman's obvious purported concern about quality in education, why is it that unit funding between 1989 and 1997 fell by a massive 36 per cent?

Mr. Bercow

I am happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman. First, I think that he is wrong about the figures. By the end of this Parliament, the Government will spend a lower proportion of GDP on education than the Conservative Government. If he wishes to correspond with me about the detailed movement of the figures in relation to unit costs, I shall be happy to oblige him. I want to focus on the big picture, and he is right to encourage me to do so. I want to focus, for example, on the further betrayal of grammar schools. The hon. Gentleman knows—[Interruption.] I will deal with his point. He must exercise what degree of restraint he is able to muster as I develop my case. I hope that he will be as patient in listening to me as I was—I was extremely patient—in listening to his fascinating animadversions.

I want to focus on—

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

No, not at the moment. I want to make some progress. Members are complaining and want me to talk about other issues. I shall be delighted to do so, but I must have the time to devote to that purpose.

On 7 February 1997, the then shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment said that a Labour Government posed no threat to grammar schools, to their continuance or to their ethos, or to their quality. That statement was followed up by the then Leader of the Opposition, who is now the Prime Minister, in a letter to the electors of Wirral, South in the by-election campaign. He stated: A Labour Government will not close your grammar schools. That is my personal guarantee. Since then, they have put on to the statute book what is a one-way ratchet, allowing for the destruction of grammar schools, but not permitting their creation.

The Government's record is bad, but the really guilty men are sitting on the Liberal Democrat Benches. They are in a hopeless position from which to excoriate the Government for their record. Let us turn to the observations of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). What has he said on the future of grammar schools? I remind him, in case he is suffering from a convenient amnesia, that, in an Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), the hon. Gentleman argued that the Government should legislate to remove— as he put it— grammar schools.—[Official Report, 20 October 1999; Vol. 336, c. 376.] The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), his sidekick, who I think is giving the House the pleasure of a winding-up speech tonight, observed on 1 September 1999: Liberal Democrats nationally are opposed in principle to selection for secondary education. The hon. Gentleman is cheering enthusiastically at that proposition. In that case, let me say that some clear points flow from his statement. He used the word "nationally". Does he understand that it is important for observers of the debate correctly to interpret Liberal Democrats' use of language? One does not have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out what that means. The get-out clause in the hon. Gentleman's observation is, "That is what we are pontificating about at national level, but what local Liberal Democrats say and do is an entirely different matter." Is that what he means?

What does the hon. Gentleman say to his Liberal Democrat colleagues, including the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake)—

Mr. Don Foster

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

I will in a moment, if the hon. Gentleman contains himself. The choice is his. If he behaves himself, I will give way and if he does not, I will not.

The hon. Gentleman should tell me what his attitude is to the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington, for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), for Colchester (Mr. Russell), for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) and for Torbay (Mr. Sanders). Why do I mention those hon. Members? The answer is simple: they have grammar schools in their constituencies. Discovering from those hon. Members whether they support the retention of grammar schools in their areas is more difficult than someone who is not a dentist extracting a tooth from someone's mouth. Those people become Trappist monks in those circumstances. They are not prepared to tell us whether they support the retention or the abolition of those institutions. We all know that the Liberal Democrats specialise in chameleon politics. We all know that they say different things at different times in different places to different people for different purposes, but that is hitting a new low.

At least the Government's position is just about coherent. It is to say, "We will put on to the statute book regulations that allow for the destruction of grammar schools, but Ministers themselves will not soil their hands by getting involved in campaigns. What local Labour Members do is a matter for them." The Liberal Democrats' position appears to be for the national party directly to contradict what the local party or Member of Parliament might do. That is extraordinary.

What do the Liberal Democrats say about the explosion of red tape in our schools? Do they think that it is objectionable that schools have faced a further 2,468 regulations over the past 12 months? If they do believe that it hampers the efforts of teachers and of governors to advance the cause of educational standards, why is it that that did not merit even a brief mention in the speech by the leader of the Liberal Democrats?

What do the Liberal Democrats believe about the Government's ridiculous politically correct policy of seeking artificially to reduce school exclusions by a fixed target of one third, irrespective of the seriousness of the bad behaviour that might necessitate, in the view of the professionals, the exclusion of pupils from schools? Upon that subject, there is an extraordinary and untypical reticence from the Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrats aspire to be a party of government. It seems an improbable prospect but, if that is their aspiration, they ought to have something to say about a key policy of real concern to head teachers, teachers and governors.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has unveiled a common-sense Conservative policy to tackle the problem of rank indiscipline in large numbers of schools across the country, and he is receiving support from teachers and parents and, indeed, from teachers unions. I am not averse to receiving support from time to time from teachers trade unions, when we are pioneering sensible policies and they want to join forces with us. Why did the Liberal Democrats not say a little more about the appalling failure of the Government's policies on the new deal for lone parents and the new deal for young people? What are those policies doing to advance the cause of opportunity in our society? I hope that the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Croydon, North, is aware that, of those who have gone to interview under the new deal for lone parents scheme promoted by the Government, only 4.5 per cent. have so far secured jobs—that is, 20,590 out of 454,920.

What do the Liberal Democrats think about that? What do they think about the failure of the new deal for young people? Of those who have gone through the scheme so far, 58 per cent. have ended up back on benefits. The scheme is also failing businesses, increasing numbers of which have withdrawn from it, complaining about its bureaucratic burden and administrative complexity.

What do the Liberal Democrats say about the way in which the scheme has failed other unemployed people—those who have been unemployed for long periods, who need help and deserve support, who could benefit from an active programme of public assistance but have been denied such help by the Government?

Mr. Charles Kennedy

I apologise for the fact that I had to slip out of the Chamber for a moment. I gather that the hon. Gentleman has been making characteristically pertinent remarks about my contribution. If I had gone through all the topics on which he wanted me to comment, in the detail that he demands, I would have made an even longer speech than his.

Mr. Bercow

I am happy to concede that the right hon. Gentleman must be the judge of his own speech. I said genuinely at the start that I have always had great respect and affection for him, so I will not quibble with him about that. He is entitled to make his own speech, but I thought that some of the points that I am making about Government policy and the weaknesses in it were worthy of a mention by someone occupying his high office. I accept that it is for the right hon. Gentleman to make a judgment about the points that he wants to develop.

The new deal for young people has failed the taxpayer, costing thousands upon thousands of pounds for every place. It is failing in the training and education option—

Mr. Wicks

indicated dissent.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Gentleman chunters from a sedentary position through most of my speech, and he now shakes his head in a bizarre fashion, ignoring the fact that, having gone through the training and education option of the new deal for young people, participants are twice as likely not to get a job at the end of it as they are to get a job. Only about 16 per cent. of the entrants to the scheme end up with qualifications.

The scheme is failing in the north, where it is most needed, and succeeding slightly better in the south, where it is less needed. The whole thing is a mess. The Government have got it wrong. The scheme is indiscriminate and badly judged, and it is not delivering.

Mr. Wicks

I was shaking my head because my head tends to do that when I listen to nonsense. We have heard much nonsense about the new deal. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, at a human level, when, as I do, one speaks to the young men and women who have had an opportunity through the new deal—there is one in my office—one sees the benefits for young people, which will last throughout their lifetimes. The economic impact on the individual and on our economy is vast. The hon. Gentleman should be more generous about an extremely successful scheme.

Mr. Bercow

I do not know to which young people the Minister is referring. The number of letters that I receive from around the country from young people who have gone on the new deal and have found it miserably disappointing exceeds the number of letters that I receive about any other single subject. As my personal assistant can testify, like other Members of Parliament, I receive a very large mailbag indeed.

I politely suggest to the Minister that he ought at least to be aware that many people feel let down. The Government engaged in a great deal of hype about the scheme. People were led to believe that they would obtain sustained and unsubsidised jobs at the end of it. The Prime Minister, who repeatedly makes mistakes on the subject at Question Time, about which I have corresponded with him, does not seem to recognise that the great majority of people are not getting into sustained, unsubsidised jobs. Many people get jobs, which are usually subsidised, for approximately 13 weeks. They subsequently go through the revolving door of benefit dependency all over again. The Minister should know the facts. If he does not, it is a disgrace; if he does, he should be sufficiently candid to acknowledge them.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

I am sure that my hon. Friend did not mean to be ungenerous to the Government.

In their first year, they had a commendable record of getting young people off the long-term unemployed register and back to work. Three times as many people per month went back to work before the new deal was introduced as afterwards. Surely the new deal is a busted flush. The Minister should consider why it fails young people.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend is correct; the figures clearly demonstrate that long-term youth unemployment fell at a faster rate between April 1993 and May 1997, under the stewardship of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) as Chancellor of the Exchequer, than under this Government. The Minister should know that.

To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, they made reasonable points about pension provision and the way in which the Government have let down many elderly people. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West spoke with great sincerity and I sympathised with much of what he said. However, he did not refer to some of the Government's more damaging actions. For example, their decision to abolish tax credits has been costly to many poor pensioners. The abolition of the widows bereavement allowance for 60 to 65-year-olds has been expensive and painful. The abolition of private medical insurance for those over 65 has been damaging. The Government who said that they wanted to scrap means-testing are increasing it.

The Chancellor, when in opposition, said as long ago as 1993 that it was his ambition to end means-testing for pensioners. However, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has regularly observed, means-testing is increasing and the Government now acknowledge that it will increase further in future. They expect the proportion of pensioners who depend on income support to increase from one in five to one in three in the next 50 years. That is a serious problem, which requires attention. It needs more than the Government's smug self-satisfaction about what, to date, constitutes a mixed record at best.

The savings ratio has dramatically declined. That has imposed real pressures, of which the Government seem unconscious. The policies on social exclusion are not nearly as well developed as the Minister would like us to believe. Two years ago, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson)—now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—spoke about a proliferation of programmes that were insufficiently co-ordinated. Two years later, circumstances in health care have not markedly improved.

The Minister must know about the huge numbers of people, of all political persuasions, throughout the country who believe that they have to wait too long to get on a waiting list, that they have to struggle to see a consultant, and that they are not guaranteed maximum waiting times. He must know that the health service is creaking under the most unbearable strain from the Administration. Yet the Minister displays only insouciance and great satisfaction with the Government's achievements to date. The health service's predicament is serious. I receive letters all the time—as, I am sure, do Liberal Democrat Members—from people who do not care much about politics but care a great deal about the health service.

Some of the letters come from people who work in the health service. We meet health service staff all the time and they say that the pressures are worse than at any other time in their professional lives. I accept that pressures have always been great. That was true when my party was in power. I do not claim that we got it 100 per cent. right; it would be absurd and arrogant to make such an assertion. However, it is foolish for the Minister to behave as though Government policy does not have the fundamental weaknesses that people across the country pick up.

I shall deal with transport, which is relevant given that the Liberal Democrat motion, perfectly reasonably, refers to access to services in urban and rural communities. However, it does not refer to the breathtaking increases fuel duty that have been suffered during the past three years and the damage that those policies cause. I hope that the hon. Member for Bath will mention that in winding up for the Liberal Democrats. I found it worrying in preparing for the debate to observe that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable)—who, sadly, is not in his place—said: I fully intend to support the Government on the principle of the escalator.—[Official Report, 6 July 1999; Vol. 334, c. 844.] He said that the fuel escalator was a market-minded method of improving behaviour.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, who I discern is also not in his place, suggested on 27 April this year that our European competitors should raise their transport taxes to create a level playing field. He did not think that our taxes were too high; he complained—this is a rarity indeed—that the transport and fuel tax rates obtaining in European Union countries were too low. That is an extraordinary proposition, but the Liberal Democrats are all over the place on such matters.

In a welcome intervention on 9 June 1999, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) said that Liberal Democrat traffic tax policies were "unpopular with the public" and "unlikely to be effective" in combating climate change. That was a welcome outburst of frankness and candour from the hon. Gentleman, but it is intriguing that that was not even an example of Front Benchers disagreeing with Back Benchers. Those hon. Gentlemen are all Front-Bench spokesmen for the Liberal Democrats, but that is not a remarkable state of affairs because, so far as I can tell, virtually every Liberal Democrat Member is a member of the Front-Bench team. No particularly competitive test is involved in getting on to the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, but it would be helpful if there were a little joined-up thinking between right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on those Benches, given that they have the audacity to propose an all-embracing motion that criticises the Government, and implicitly criticises us, even though a lacuna has been revealed in their own thinking.

The Government's record is frankly abysmal, and the Liberal Democrats are not well placed to criticise it in the light of the fact that they want to tax, spend and borrow more, and the Government probably bow only to the representatives on the Liberal Democrat Benches in terms of political correctness. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West rightly said that it is wrong to criticise institutions on the basis of one case, but he did not say whether he thought that a general attack on the behaviour of those institutions was justified. I had hoped that he might be prepared to support the magnificent efforts in which two of the finest universities in the country are engaged to improve state school access to them. Regrettably, he did nothing of the kind.

The fact is that on education, the treatment of pensioners and the conduct of transport policy—not to mention the attitude to this country's future in Europe and the fact that we can best maximise opportunity through free trade, not federalism; co-operation, not coercion; and a Europe of nation states, not a single European state—neither the Government nor the Liberal Democrats are well placed.

The Government are getting it wrong, but I regret that the Liberal Democrats are fulfilling the Home Secretary's description of them. Although they may be perfectly agreeable individuals in private company, those characters are the scavengers of British politics. They do not adhere to a fixed position. They do not know the meaning of the word "principle". They are prepared to say wholly different things at different times in different places to different people for different purposes. They are not credible challengers to the Government

The Conservative Opposition—committed to commonsense policies in education, health, social security, transport and in the conduct of international relationships—are the proper challengers to the Government. I look forward to the day when we remove the Minister from the Treasury Bench and my right hon. and hon. Friends readily take his place.

5.19 pm
Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

The debate about elitism and access to higher education that has taken place in the press is really about fundamental values. It is about how we can raise standards throughout the country, and about ensuring that there is equality of opportunity.

Too many young people in my constituency leave school at 16 without adequate qualifications—without achieving the potential of which we all know they are capable—and not enough go on to further or higher education. In the 42-minute speech of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), we heard not a word about the divisiveness that featured in 18 years of Tory Government. We heard nothing about the underfunding in those 18 Tory years, nothing about the under-achievement of those 18 Tory years, and not a word to defend a track record that—in view of what my constituency has inherited—I can only describe as appalling. Young people have simply not achieved what they are capable of achieving.

I believe that we must tackle the problem of elitism by raising standards, and raising the expectations of young people in a comprehensive education. We must widen access to further education through colleges, and by ensuring that universities do more to reach out to under-represented groups.

I want to focus on the issue of standards. Unless there is a massive increase in the opportunities presented to young people from a range of backgrounds and neighbourhoods, we cannot offer lifelong learning and access to higher skills—services that are needed for individuals, and for the success of local economies.

I have an image of a pyramid. If we want to raise the top of the pyramid to achieve greater success, we must increase the base: more young people must be drawn into the learning economy, into skills and development and into gaining qualifications. Having begun, young people can move higher and higher up the pyramid, and can eventually achieve the best result.

The Liberal Democrat motion starts by being ambitious about equal opportunities in Britain and raising standards, but then peters out into a shopping list of things that the Liberal Democrats would like to happen. That misses the point. The point is that we need a fundamental root-and-branch change, at local level. Our education institutions, our local councils and our communities must play an active role in raising expectations and delivering what people want in their communities.

I want to demonstrate that, when people are brought together and the circumstances are viewed holistically and comprehensively, change can be achieved. I shall describe what we are achieving in Corby, with a Labour Government, a Labour county council and a Labour borough council.

Let us consider a person's life. A person is born and then becomes a child, and subsequently, perhaps, a student. That person then goes into the workplace. At every step along the way, the Government are endeavouring to inject resources, ideas and innovation into the system, in order to raise standards and give people a better chance.

For under-eights we have the sure start programme in Corby. It is delivering opportunities and help to parents with very young children: it is helping them with parenting skills, education and child care generally. Children aged two and three—children who are virtually babies—are being given the best start that we can give them. Support is being given not only to children but to parents. Parents are being helped to improve their parenting skills, and are also being given the child care that they need if they are going to work.

In Corby we have the Pen Green centre, a centre of excellence recognised by the Government as a beacon. It shows how it is possible to work with parents with young children in a way that gives the children the best possible start in life.

As for primary education, we have seen astonishing results from the numeracy and literacy hours. Those changes to the school curriculum in primary schools in my constituency have raised standards to a remarkable extent. The statistics are really exciting. Teachers and governors are recognising that they are achieving more than they ever achieved before because of the new way of working in primary schools.

Moreover, we have introduced an education action zone in Corby. It is supported by the Government, who are providing £1 million per year for the next three years, with the support of local businesses, local councils, local police and the health authority, with the aim of bringing about a co-ordinated approach to raising standards in Corby. Instead of the divisiveness and competition that were so destructive during the Tory years, Corby's schools are working together. Teachers are sharing resources, ideas, training and support. Pupils are being offered a wider range of courses. Our action zone embraces every school, secondary and primary, in its endeavour to build the pyramid of success and achievement.

We can focus on information technology and giving young people computing skills. People as young as seven or eight can do things on computers that many hon. Members could not achieve. We are working in partnership with parents, because not everything can be done in the classroom. Anyone who has taught, like any parent, knows that raising standards relies on help with homework, on out-of-school-hours activities, on Saturday clubs and so on. All that enhances and enriches a child's education, building the pyramid one step higher.

The Corby education action zone, like many others, is working in some of the most disadvantaged areas with some of the most challenging targets for change and educational attainment. Those will be achieved only if there is real co-operation. We need teachers who are enthusiastic about teaching, giving all they can in the long hours that they work, in partnership with parents and governors, to ensure that every child—not the few, not just one school—receives the best opportunities.

In Corby, we have taken the opportunity to create a fresh start school. We have dealt with the problem of over-provision of places by merging two schools to create a new Corby community college. I can give the Government notice now that we will apply for a specialism in arts and media at that school. With a specialism, parents can see what they want. They can say, "My child is going to a school that is special." Every school will be special. We have technology colleges and language colleges: now we look forward to having an arts and media college. Corby is famous throughout the United Kingdom for dance, and children will know that that can be enhanced and supported through the new fresh start school.

Even that is not enough. The Government's new Connexions service—for which the Minister is directly responsible—is an ambitious programme, combining careers and youth services for people aged 14 to 21. Young people with the greatest need will receive the most resources, giving them the best possible start. If they are struggling, not doing so well or having problems at home, they can have a personal adviser, a mentor to whom they can turn for help in making the transition from being young into the world of work. In that way, they can make the most of the opportunities given to them.

I hold a parliamentary youth forum in my constituency. Young people in Corby want to go places, and they are held back only by institutions that will not give them opportunities. We have to ensure that we provide them with those opportunities.

I draw to the Minister's attention the kick start programme in my constituency, a particularly innovative scheme. It involves 15-year-olds who have basically given up on school, and perhaps school has given up on them. What should we do with those young people? Kick start is a programme of social education combining the best of youth work with the best of careers guidance and support. It works with young people outside school, helping them to re-engage with what education is all about and to realise what is possible. I have presented awards to young people who had been written off by the system. After a year of intensive support and help, they are moving into Tresham institute of further education and gaining NVQ and GNVQ qualifications that they would not previously have dreamed of, far less aspired to achieving.

Connexions and kick start exemplify the kind of programme that we are putting in place to raise standards and build the pyramid of success. We have not heard enough about further education—the Cinderella service in too many people's eyes. FE is critical. I am talking not about the universities, but about people who want to take vocational training. They do not seek university degrees, but training that will help them into work, or even to a university. FE colleges give opportunities for part-time work or courses and evening courses, offering access to education that simply did not exist before. If we are to achieve equal opportunities, the Government's expansion of further education, targeting people in areas of under-participation and channelling resources towards disadvantaged areas, is the best way in which to motivate—incentivise is the awful word that people use—colleges into grabbing people and getting courses going. Perhaps we will not get them into the college—which might be an institution that they would never go to—so why do we not run courses in the community? Community centres are available, enabling us to take education and learning out to those people. That, too, will enable us to build the pyramid, to bring more people into learning, success and achievement.

I am particularly pleased about the European directive that provides for time off for study or training for every 16, 17 or 18-year-old. Therefore, even those young people who decide that they want to go straight into work on leaving school at 16 have a mandatory right to one day off per week to leave the workplace and to get further education and qualifications. It is another example of the Government's action on raising standards.

At every step in a young person's life as he or she grows up—whether a three-year-old, on the sure start programme; an eight-year-old, in a numeracy hour; a 12-year-old who—thanks to an education action zone—has a new information technology programme and a new computer suite at school; or someone finding new opportunities through the Connexions service or further education—the Government are intervening to increase standards, raise qualifications and create opportunities.

Even in the rural part of my constituency, in east Northamptonshire, we are not closing small village schools. When the Tory Government were in office, 450 village schools were closed. In the past three years, under this Government, only six schools have closed. In rural areas, we are stir porting what we believe in—the value of small village schools.

I should like briefly to touch on one other aspect of equal opportunities: raising the skill levels of people at work. In my constituency, there is a particular issue—which I have raised on the Floor of the House before—about inequality in the workplace, especially as it affects temporary workers. Many people, too many of whom are young people, gain access to work through employment agencies offering, for example, a two or three-day contract to make sandwiches. Those temporary workers receive a couple of days' pay, which they may well spend over the weekend, and then go back for another couple of days' work. It is temporary work, without a career structure, development, training or opportunities.

I have been pressing the Government hard to start cleaning up the cowboy agencies, whose behaviour encourages young people to leave work without qualifications and to begin temporary work. Those young people know only that type of work. They know that they work for a couple of days, earn some cash, spend it all over the weekend and then start again. Round and round they go in that cycle, without development, simply chundering round on the bottom.

I am pleased that the Government have managed to change all that. Temporary workers now have rights that they never had before. Now, under this Government, temporary workers are entitled to the same training, pension provision and pay that full-time workers in that workplace receive. We have started to create standards in the workplace that will raise people's income. It is not, however, simply about income, but about creating stability and providing a ladder of opportunity that was never there before.

When we examine the issue of equal opportunities, and the specific issue of educational opportunities, we should realise that it is not a matter of simply chucking more money at the problem. It is about determining how we can intervene at each stage in a young person's development, from birth to adulthood, to ensure that they are supported, receiving the very best and achieving their maximum potential. We also need to determine how we can help back into the system those whom it is failing, so that they get the most out of it.

I want to build on the success in my constituency of primary schools, nurseries, play groups, the secondary system and further education colleges, to ensure that every single young person in Corby and east Northamptonshire gets the best start in life. We must have an openness and transparency at every level in education. We do not want to see elitism or discrimination operating at any level. There must be open and equal access throughout the system. By offering to the many what was—under the Tory Government—available only to the few, by removing the barriers and by making opportunities, we can build the expectation that everyone, regardless of his or her background, can aspire to the very best.

5.34 pm
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope). His speech was full of enthusiasm and commitment to his constituency, and whether or not I agree wholeheartedly with his remarks is irrelevant. His speech stands in stark contrast to the one that preceded it, that of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). I hope he feels better now: his speech reminded me of banging your head against a brick wall and how good it is when you stop; the hon. Gentleman was banging his head for a long time.

I was slow to rise to speak because I had been pondering whether I represent the forces of conservatism, because my professional background is that of a teacher and I remain a staunch supporter and defender of the teaching profession, or whether I am one of the liberal elite, because I continue to support somewhat unfashionable beliefs regarding local democracy, local government and local education authorities. However, I need not have pondered my dilemma for so long, as it appears that the definition of the forces of conservatism is anyone who does not agree with the Prime Minister and the definition of the liberal elite is anyone who does not agree with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I can, therefore, proudly tell the House that I fall into both categories.

The saddest aspect of the current battle between the opposing forces of darkness is that both sides use their slogans, insults and misguided attacks to disguise the fact that, despite Britain's undoubted economic success, ours is a nation that is deeply divided, one in which access to opportunity still depends to a significant extent on social background. It is not the forces of conservatism or the liberal elite that we should attack; it is the failure of successive Governments to attack social injustice and inequality.

It is no good the Leader of the Opposition stamping around the country like a skinheaded Rottweiler, baring his prejudicial teeth. He knows full well that he and his party revelled in injustice during the Tories' 18 years in office. Between 1979 and 1997, the number of people living in poverty in this country increased by 300 per cent. When the Conservatives left office, 10.7 million people lived in households receiving less than half the national average income; 3.4 million of those people were children. That is not a record of which any party leader should be proud.

One in five adults have literacy problems. Nine per cent. of children leave school without qualifications, often entering an underclass, as they have no job to go to. The speech of the hon. Member for Buckingham took 42 minutes, and the vast majority of it dealt with the elitism of the Tory party—its obsession with the few and with grammar schools, which are mentioned at every opportunity. I have to tell him that I have not wavered an inch from my fundamental belief that selection is not right. I will never demur from that position.

Had the hon. Gentleman given my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) the opportunity to speak, instead of casting him down in an appalling manner, my hon. Friend would have made it clear that Liberal Democrats as a party believe that local democracy and devolution are incredibly important. They lie at the heart of our beliefs, which is why we believed so strongly in different solutions for Scotland and Wales. It is why we are proud of our Executive in Scotland and of our colleagues in the devolved Welsh Assembly.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

While we are talking about selection based on academic ability, did the hon. Gentleman see the BBC "On the Record" programme at the weekend, on which the Conservative education spokesman, the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), said that she wanted all schools to have the opportunity to select pupils on the basis of academic ability? Yesterday, however, on a programme called "Powerhouse", the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said that he was a great supporter of comprehensive schools. Does the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) perceive any consistency in the Conservatives' policy?

Mr. Willis

I have long since found the answer to that difficult question. It is clear that the common-sense revolution wants to create 24,000 free schools. Every free school would have its own admissions authority and arrangements for intake and be a wonderful Utopia. Indeed, if they wanted to select the whole caboodle, I suppose that they would be able to get away with it. The hon. Member for Buckingham talks about the Liberals being all things to all men, but if such a policy is not all things to all men, children and, I should add, women, frankly I do not know what is.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Gentleman is certainly entitled to celebrate diversity and to say that he favours the application of local solutions, but how does he square that belief in diversity with his remark that the Government should have legislated for the removal of grammar schools? How can he say on one hand that he is in favour of different solutions all over the country, and on the other that his only criticism of the Government on grammar schools is that they did not go far enough and should have abolished the lot by decree? He must make up his mind.

Mr. Willis

Such obsession with grammar schools is always interesting. I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman straightforwardly. Given that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and, indeed, the Prime Minister made a clear commitment in opposition that there would be no more selection, the vast majority of people voted in the election in the belief that a Labour Government would abolish selection in all schools. Labour's position was honourable, but the one that it ultimately took was a cop-out. I agree with the hon. Member for Buckingham on that.

However, in the Committees considering the School Standards and Framework Bill and the Learning and Skills Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath and I spoke very strongly against the flawed ballot arrangements. If one looks at the first ballot in Ripon, one sees just how flawed: 25 per cent. of parents who voted did not even send their kids to state-sector schools, yet they had a say on whether grammar school status should end. We cannot allow that to happen.

The policies espoused by the hon. Member for Buckingham very much reminded me of the previous Tory Government's—targeted at creating yet more division, inequality and inequity in education. Assisted places, grant-maintained schools and nursery vouchers may have helped a few poor families, but let us face reality: every one of those initiatives was targeted at potential middle-class Tory voters. They were for that purpose and that purpose only. Little attention was given to the mass of children in our state schools or to the lack of opportunity that many were afforded in an education system that was grossly underfunded, undervalued and constantly under attack from Tory Ministers.

The Tory Leader yesterday spoke about Labour's education policy as a smack in the teeth for every teacher and parent. His violent and intemperate language might please his core right-wing voters—in contrast to the baseball cap and denims at Notting Hill carnival—but it disguises the fact that the largest growth in permanently excluded pupils occurred between 1992 and 1997 when he was in the Cabinet. There were 2,910 such pupils in 1992 and 12,000 by 1997. That is what happened in our schools during Tory years.

Even now, the Leader of the Opposition has no solution to the hard-core problem of challenging behaviour, social exclusion and inequality of opportunity. Why—because it is a deep-rooted and complex problem. Rather like his recent deep-sea diving exploits, he is never prepared to look far below the surface. Simply locking those children out of our schools—out of mind, out of society—is not a solution.

Of total excluded students, 60 per cent. never return to school; 20 per cent. are already in the care of social services—already damaged, with poor self-image. Children from lone parent families constitute 34 per cent. of those excluded. Ethnic minority students from an Afro-Caribbean background are four times more likely to be excluded than their white counterparts, and heaven help children with a special educational needs statement, who are seven times more likely to be excluded.

Does the Leader of the Opposition have anything to say about why those groups are being excluded in such great numbers? The answer is no, because in all the years of Tory rule there was no attempt to get to the root of the problem and find out what was happening. There was no research into why certain groups of youngsters are turned off by school and act in an antisocial way. We need that research. I hope that the Minister will commit the Government to avoiding abandoning children in sin bins in either schools or pupil referral units and to taking a more deep-seated approach.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about exclusions policy. He talked about the figures for excluded children not returning to school. Is he aware of the experience of the Zaccheus centre in Birmingham, from where the large majority of pupils return to school after some months? Does he accept—this is a matter of real concern to professionals—that a teacher who has a knife wielded at him or her by a persistently violent pupil has a right to be protected from that pupil, even if that means exclusion?

Mr. Willis

The hon. Gentleman accused the Minister of tabling a banal amendment to our motion, and that was a banal question. No right-thinking individual believes that teachers should not be protected from violent students. Unlike him and his privileged friends, I spent my whole life in state education, not in the leafy lanes of Buckingham but working in downtown schools in Leeds and Middlesbrough with very difficult and challenging youngsters, and in 34 years I never came across a student wielding a knife—not once.

That is not to say that there are no students who wield knives, but let me tell the hon. Gentleman, before he goes apoplectic again, that the vast majority of Britain's schools are safe places in which to work. The vast majority of teachers do not encounter the horrors that he and his colleagues peddle stories about around the country and portray as the norm, frightening kids and parents into choosing private education.

Mr. Hope

The hon. Gentleman has hit on an important point about the deliberate attempt by the Conservatives to raise fears. They create unnecessary worry and, more importantly, undermine the real efforts of teachers to deal with and help challenging and difficult pupils. The scaremongering undermines our efforts to give teachers the support and help that they need to do a good job.

Mr. Willis

That is right. The Conservatives are using scare tactics. They have absolutely no other policy. Yes, violent and disruptive pupils must be removed from the classroom, and even the Minister would accept that the ludicrous targets for cutting exclusions must be abandoned by the Department for Education and Employment, but unless we address behaviour problems in a comprehensive and imaginative way, all we will succeed in doing is to create an even greater problem for society further down the road.

When one considers the social exclusion unit's report, "Bridging the Gap" and sees how many of those 170,000 youngsters leave school and spend the next two years out of work, with no hope and moving into crime, one realises that this is a real issue that must be grasped. I would have hoped that we would have a consensus across the House on how to tackle challenging behaviour. Instead, the opportunity has been used to score cheap political points.

It is not fashionable to link social disadvantage with educational underachievement. There is always evidence to demonstrate that some outstanding individuals and institutions buck the trend. However, there remains a strong negative correlation between social disadvantage and educational achievement, just as there is a strong positive correlation between educational achievement and economic and social upward mobility. Given those facts, I do not see why it should surprise the Chancellor of the Exchequer that while a mere 7 per cent. of our children attend private schools, they make up 35 per cent. of the straight-A students and take up some 50 per cent. of Oxbridge places. Inequities are as deep-rooted in our culture as they are in our Government, in the civil service and in our major universities. Inequity will be found anywhere where wealth is still able to purchase social advantage.

The answer from the Liberal Democrats is not the politics of envy. It is not a re-run of a former class war, but the real politics of fighting the seeds of injustice that create barriers for so many of our young people. The Chancellor's attack on Oxbridge was misguided. His attack should have been on his own Government for introducing tuition fees, for ending grants for students and for pricing poor students out of the marketplace, because that is what has happened, according to the figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and the Mosaics survey.

The Chancellor's attack should have been on the Prime Minister for encouraging the Russell group and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals to believe that a Labour Government would allow them to charge differential tuition fees in a USA-style revamping of higher education finance. I listened carefully to the Minister's speech today, but the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 would allow universities to charge differential fees. I accept that the Government would then take grant from the universities in equal amounts, but nothing in the legislation would stop differential charging.

The Chancellor's attack should have been on his own Government for continuing systematically to reduce the unit funding level for higher education students from £4,980 in 1997 to £4,750 this year. The hon. Member for Buckingham did not answer the Minister's intervention about the 35 per cent. decrease since 1989, but in that year the unit funding per student in higher education was £7,385. It was reduced by 35 per cent. and fell to an unacceptable level by the time this Government took over. We do need a systematic overhaul of an outdated and biased admission system, but the real challenge is ensuring that a greater number of our young people aspire to go to Oxbridge and have the qualifications they need to do so. That means tackling the inherent injustices in our state education system.

I saw as one of my most important challenges as a head as being to help young people from underprivileged backgrounds fight social injustice through their education. To deny that our education system has that prime purpose is to deny the need for universal education at all and to return to the pre-1870 Britain, where the working classes were educated simply according to economic need. We hear fine words from the Government about education for the many, not the few, but so much of their approach has been disjointed and lacked research, co-ordination and vision, as well as resources.

The social exclusion unit was set up in 1997 after the Prime Minister's call for a Britain in which no one is excluded from opportunity and the chance to develop their potential. How right he was. He also said that we should make it our national purpose to tackle social division and inequality. I make no bones about saying to the Minister that the establishment of health action zones, education action zones and employment action zones has been useful, provided that they are co-ordinated, as they appear to be at the moment. Tackling social exclusion and poverty, wherever it occurs, should be something in which we all participate.

Bernstein wrote in 1970 that Education cannot compensate for society. If we accept that social disadvantage is a key factor, if not an excuse, for educational failure at whatever level, including Oxbridge, we must also recognise that tackling poverty in all its facets is the most effective way to encourage educational achievement for all. That is the challenge for the Chancellor and his colleagues in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. The right hon. Gentleman will be judged by the Liberal Democrats on whether he addresses social injustice and poverty or the voting intentions of more affluent groups.

5.56 pm
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

Several slogans could be brought into this debate. I would like to see, for example, parents involved; residents trusted; professionals valued; and young people seriously consulted. That little menu could make an enormous contribution to achieving a society that we could really value.

We could begin by involving parents. One of the saddest features of underperforming schools is that when heads, governors and staff turn out for an open night, nobody comes. That is a real tragedy and it happens again and again. Even when certificates are handed out, few parents take the trouble to turn up in far too many of our schools. That is partly a function of the hours that those parents work, and it may be that certificate-awarding ceremonies and parents' evenings should be staggered, so that people who work late at night in underpaid jobs can attend. We may need to be more imaginative. However, in many schools our young professional teachers have an uphill struggle against parental indifference, which is broken only when the parents believe that their child has been discriminated against and, in many cases, make a thoroughly inappropriate response.

A young woman I know of was in her first job and keen as mustard. She worked in an inner-London school and found that, in a class of 35, 16 languages were spoken and one child was so disturbed that he sat at the back nodding his head until he made himself sick. What happens to the other 34 children while the unaccompanied teacher tries to clear up the mess? After two terms in the school, that young woman, in her first year of teaching, was offered the deputy headship because none of the other staff had stayed. That is the reality of some areas of our education system. We must do much more to support teachers. Instead, they are denigrated and verbally assaulted for being incompetent or inefficient. There are inefficient teachers, and they should be eased out of the system, but the majority struggle against tremendous odds.

Governments are full of good intentions, but as we all know, good intentions lead straight to hell. All education Ministers want to change things, so they issue a raft of circulars on taking office. By the time the last school in the country has implemented those changes, the first school to do so is probably three education Ministers' changes down the track. It is impossible for schools to make sense of what they are being asked to do, if they are asked far too often to change what they do.

I believe that we make far too little use of volunteers to support professionals. I am a trustee of the charity Community Service Volunteers, which for many years has been trying to get employers interested in sending employees into schools at lunchtime. People who do that enrich their own lives and improve their performance at work, but also enrich enormously the lives of the pupils whom they help.

I think that the country should have a national youth service. Young people should be able to volunteer for a proper length of time so that they can find themselves. The Nuffield study and other studies have found considerable evidence that young people who volunteer change their attitudes to minorities and to each other.

There is a danger that the debate belongs in the land of the Wizard of Oz. Hon. Members have talked about getting to university and the surge of people going into higher education. I am delighted that that is happening, but we must ensure that higher education is as it should be. I am deeply worried by the changes that have taken place in some parts of higher education in recent years. It is now common for senior academics to be promoted on the basis of the money that they have attracted through their research, rather than on the basis of their teaching.

Teaching is becoming very much disregarded, at least in many of our more successful universities. Most students have no interest in research. They are left short changed when they are lured into higher education, only to find that teaching in universities is undervalued. University teachers have no support staff to speak of, and have to do everything themselves. That is a shame.

We should place much more trust in people who live in difficult areas. Far too many people live in intolerable conditions, and the vast majority of badly run estates are represented by members of the Labour party. Many of those councillors have almost given up hope. They do not have any serious intention of giving self-determination to residents. If residents were given only a relatively small amount of money to spend, they would transform the quality of their lives—the syringes would be taken off the grass, the dog mess would be removed, and lights would be repaired the day after they were broken.

Such things are essential, but the idea of trusting the poor with any money at all is discounted in local authorities up and down the land. That is a shame and a huge mistake.

We do not consult young people seriously enough. The Government came into office claiming that they would consult more widely than ever before. They set up focus groups, and I am sure that they have been very useful. They have also introduced a raft of legislation that directly impacts on young people, but they have never seriously set out to determine the opinions of young people.

Young people have an enormous amount to offer. Very often, they know what they want—if not in detail, at least in outline. I am chairman of the steering group for the United Kingdom youth parliament. When that organisation takes shape, it will provide a representative group of young people against which policies can be tested, and from which the ideas for new policies can be derived.

Mr. Hope

I could not agree more genuinely about the need to consult young people. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government have consulted young people, through a variety of mechanisms. Young people have visited No. 10 Downing street as part of the social exclusion unit's strategy for including consultation with young people in its decision-making process. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that every hon. Member could do far more to consult young people? For example, I hold parliamentary youth forums in my constituency to ensure that I hear young people's views. Could not other hon. Members do the same?

Mr. Rowe

The tide is beginning to come in. The enthusiasm of young people for the United Kingdom youth parliament has outrun the available resources. I am grateful to the Under—Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who is no longer in his place, for what little in the way of resources has been given to those of us who want to establish the parliament. However, the body will be established: it will change the face of the country and do a great deal to engage people not with party politics but with the stuff of politics. In that way, we can try to make society work better.

Access to the health service also needs to be looked at carefully. The move to consulting the consumer is in some ways welcome, but we are in danger of allowing the consumer's preference to outrun common sense. For example, many beds in the national health service are blocked because families are given a choice about which home their elderly relatives can be sent to. Although the choice is often severely limited, no placement in a particular home has to be accepted. Families pay nothing while their elderly or sick relative is in hospital, but they may have to pay top-up fees when that relative moves into a home. There is therefore a perverse incentive that leads to beds being blocked. We need to look at that and similar problems very carefully.

Finally, I turn to the question of consultants. We should honour the dedication, hard work and expertise that many consultants display, but we should also be extremely tough when consultants say that they will not work with a colleague but refuse to help health trusts by putting their reasons in writing. As a result of such behaviour, a health trust may have to spend as much as £1.25 million of patients' money which it can ill afford to get rid of a person with whom consultants will not work. Defensive practices such as that are out of date and improper.

6.7 pm

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

I shall be brief, as I am aware that other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate.

My first comments are addressed to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who, in his typically robust contribution, made some of the repetitive errors for which he is known. He spoke about exclusions from school. I do not propose that violent and disruptive pupils should not be removed from school, under certain circumstances. However, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) was right to point out that there is a danger that the difficulty may be exaggerated.

That exaggeration is a persistent problem among Conservative Members and their spokespeople. During the 18 years of the Conservative Government, there was a deliberate attempt to denigrate state education and to encourage people to move to the private sector. The constant harping on the problem of violence in state schools is part of a pattern.

Although care must be taken with the targets set for the reduction in exclusions from schools, anyone who talks to head teachers knows that league tables make schools conscious of their exclusion rates, and that schools can use those rates to manage their position in the league table. Any Government who did not take that into account and did not try to reduce exclusions would be irresponsible. Excluding pupils without offering them any alternative forms of education merely stores up social problems for the future.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

The private school nearest to the House is Westminster school. Its head teacher has excluded many final-year students as a result of behaviour that was reported in both the national and the international press. Is it not clear that the problem of exclusion is therefore not confined to state schools in difficult areas?

Mr. Rammell

It certainly is not, and that is in line with my critique of the contribution from the hon. Member for Buckingham. The hon. Gentleman displayed breathtaking nerve when he criticised the Government for increasing the amount of regulation. Anyone visiting a school during the 18 years of Conservative Government was regaled by teachers with stories of the never-ending regulation and coercion to which they were subjected by that Government. We have rightly focused on standards and on the necessary regulations. However, I welcome the fact that the Government are listening to what schools and teachers are saying, and are seeking to remove some of that regulation.

I was also interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments about the percentage of national wealth invested in education under this Government. Who was it who talked about lies, damned lies and statistics? First, the percentage of national wealth that is invested in education depends greatly on the performance of the economy. In a booming economy, as we have at the moment, a percentage of national wealth invested in education means vastly more money being invested in schools than happened under a Government who went through the two worst recessions since the second world war.

Mr. Bercow

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rammell

In a while.

Secondly, anybody can play with the figures. The key judgment for electors is what a Government inherit and what they have done by the end of their period in office. It is incontestable that, by the end of this Government's period of office, we will be investing a higher proportion of national income in education than the proportion that we inherited when the Conservatives left office on 1 May 1997.

We then heard from the hon. Gentleman a sustained diatribe against the new deal. I take exception to that, because I passionately believe, from talking to young people, that the new deal is the first sustained, properly funded scheme for the long-term unemployed that we have seen in this country in a generation. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that the rate of decrease in terms of long-term youth unemployment was less now than it was between 1993 and 1997. I do not have the statistics in front of me, but I do not doubt that, because we are moving towards full employment. We have dramatically reduced unemployment. As we move towards full employment, of course the rate of decrease will reduce. This way of playing with statistics to present a false impression leads to great concern.

I recently held an event at the House of Commons for employers in my constituency to focus on the opportunities to be obtained by the new deal. Unbeknown to me, a young woman from British Airports Authority, who works at Stansted airport, was there. She had been unemployed for six months; she felt that she had no hope, no opportunity. She went on the new deal, and is now the personal assistant to one of the directors at BAA at Stansted. That example demonstrates that the new deal is working.

We also heard about the national health service. Lectures from the Conservative party about our stewardship of the national health service are very difficult to take. If we consider in detail what happened under the previous Government for 18 years, we see that there were erratic increases in funding. There were a couple of good years here and there in terms of increased investment, normally as we were coming up to a general election, but in some years, the real-terms increase in funding was as little as 0.4 per cent.

The difference that people are seeing under this Government is sustained, continuing investment so that we can begin to tackle problems such as the bed blocking to which the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) referred and some of the problems involving consultants. Sustained investment, over the longer term, needs to take place so that we can provide the kind of health service that people want.

Mr. Bercow

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman did not dispute the fact that the Government are responsible for a shortfall of about £13 billion in terms of their manifesto commitment to increasing expenditure on education. He did not cavil at that charge against the Government.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he is aware that, in the majority of cases, the new deal is not producing sustained, unsubsidised jobs, and that the majority of people going on the scheme are finding jobs for a short period but are then coming out of work again?

Mr. Rammell

When we launched the new deal, nobody ever said that we would guarantee a job to everybody when they came out of the scheme. The new deal is, however, providing opportunities where previously none existed.

Liberal Democrat Members focused on the Chancellor of the Exchequer's comments. I think that my right hon. Friend was absolutely right to make those comments about the Laura Spence case. He was rightly identifying an example of a superbly qualified young woman, who was adequately qualified for entrance to Oxford university, but did not get in. That case highlighted a problem. If it was an isolated example, we could ignore it, but I do not believe that it is. I remember the example, which gained national newspaper coverage, of a young woman in my constituency who applied to Oxbridge, and was ridiculed at the interview not because of her qualifications, her intelligence or her ambition, but because of her accent.

In addition to those specific examples, an independent report this week shows that children and young people from state schools are significantly under-represented compared with what we would expect, given their qualifications. We have a real problem. There are young people who have ambition and talent and are adequately qualified, but because of historical reasons and prejudices, they are not getting access to our best universities.

Mr. David Taylor

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so generously again. Is not one way of tackling some of those difficulties, as suggested by a former deputy leader of this party, to remove some of the huge tax concessions given to private schools which make their performance so attractive to the better-off section of society.

Mr. Bercow

The old left returns.

Mr. Rammell

Whether it is old left or new left, that issue needs consideration. We want to ensure that there is fairness and equality in the system.

There are further concerns regarding higher and further education, and a lot of it comes down to funding. I welcome the fact that we are introducing educational maintenance allowances at the age of 16. All my discussions with young people from poorer backgrounds indicate that the real determinant of whether someone goes on to further and higher education comes at 16. That is the point at which the young person has to be supported, out of work, through the family. It is absolutely right to bring in those allowances and I want to see them expanded as quickly as possible.

We must also face up to the threat of top-up fees that is being pressed rigorously by the Russell group of top universities. If they had their way, we would have the prospect of fees of £7,000 or £8,000 a year. This has already been tried out in Australia, where it has had a catastrophic effect on access.

It is particularly instructive to see the Conservative amendment criticising tuition fees. The Conservatives supported the Dearing inquiry, which imposed tuition fees. In addition, those of us who served in Committee on the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 remember the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dowell) explicitly arguing for the opportunity for top-up fees to be available to institutions. Given that, the Conservative amendment is duplicitous in the extreme.

Mr. Bercow

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rammell

No, I need to make some progress.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough did not allow me to intervene on him earlier, so I must make this point now. I listened carefully to his impassioned attack on tuition fees, not only top-up fees, introduced by the Government. Logically, that would mean that the Liberal Democrats were in favour of abolishing tuition fees. However, we should not judge people only by what they say but by their alternative Budget statements. The Liberal Democrats' alternative Budget statement contains no reference to doing away with tuition fees.

It is just like the restoration of the link between pensions and earnings. Liberal Democrats go round the country making claims and statements, yet when they have the opportunity, in their detailed alternative Budget, to say where the money would come from and how it would be raised, they are completely silent. Not only is that a problem for the Liberal Democrats as a political party: it does a disservice to those of us who believe in progressive taxation and believe that we have to be honest with people about how we intend to raise the money.

The Chancellor's comments rightly highlighted a real concern in Britain. There are still significant parts of British society that are not accessible to children and young people who come from ordinary backgrounds in state schools. Look at the judiciary, the BBC, our best universities, the civil service, and then look at the number of people working in those institutions who have gone to public school. We have a real problem: the Chancellor was right to highlight it, and we ignore that problem for our young people and our community at our peril.

6.19 pm
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) for giving up his opportunity to speak so that I might do so. I realise that several Members wanted to speak in the debate, but were somewhat squeezed out by earlier contributions.

I shall focus on a slightly different aspect of the debate: equal opportunities for older people—or rather, issues of age discrimination and the lack of opportunity for those people. Those issues are undoubtedly real and significant—whether a manager is denied promotion because she is labelled too old; or carers are denied about £14 extra a week merely because they are over 65; or a frail elderly patient is starved to death for want of proper care and attention in a hospital.

When it comes to age discrimination—the denial of opportunity to older people—the Government are still clinging, wrongly, to the idea that a voluntary approach is the way to fix it. I shall explore why that approach has not worked and why we need serious legislation on the matter.

In the past, the House has taken steps to outlaw discrimination on grounds of gender, race or disability. Those laws played a crucial role in changing attitudes in our society. They drew a line and set a benchmark against which behaviour could be judged. As a result, they changed our society. Age discrimination clearly exists in almost all aspects of our life. I shall dwell on two: the workplace and health care.

On the first, a survey of secretaries, published earlier this year by the Employers Forum on Age, found that nine in 10 secretaries believed that ageism exists in the workplace. One in three felt that they had been rejected for a job because of age. Nine in 10 believed that they stood little chance of finding a new job when they reached the age of 45.

When the Institute of Management surveyed its members, it found that half of those surveyed used age as a criteria for making employment decisions. Those businesses are operating foolish and short-sighted policies. They are throwing people on to the scrap heap; they are throwing away human capital and the corporate memory of their organisation.

During the first half of this Parliament, the Government set their face against legislation to combat age discrimination. They preferred to tread the path of a voluntary code, but that code is not working. Is it delivering change? Even the Government's own research, conducted by NOW for the Department for Education and Employment, cast doubt on whether the voluntary approach was working. The survey found that there had been no change whatever in the employment policies of the employers surveyed. Nine in 10 employers were not even aware of the existence of the code of practice that the Government had introduced to encourage age diversity in employment practice.

The Government often say that they do not want to introduce legislation on this matter because they do not want to impose extra burdens on employers. There is concern that employers do not want legislation. However, research shows conclusively that employers believe that there is a case for legislation. Last year, a survey of members of the Institute of Directors found that six in 10 were in favour of legislation on age discrimination. Earlier research by the Institute of Management found that eight in 10 of their members favoured legislation. Even the Federation of Small Businesses would support legislation as long as it was clear and simple.

The voluntary approach is not enough in the workplace. It is certainly not enough in health care. An overwhelming body of evidence shows that there is ageism in the national health service. A Gallup poll, commissioned by Age Concern and published last March, found that one in 20 of over-65s had been refused treatment. Two in 20 felt that their NHS treatment was different after they turned 50. Even the Department of Health found evidence of age discrimination and ageist assumptions in the provision of health care. A review of renal services found that two thirds of kidney patients aged over 70 were refused dialysis or transplants. An audit of cardiac services found that four in 10 post-heart attack rehab programmes imposed arbitrary age limits.

A survey of general practitioners conducted by Age Concern found that one in three GPs believed that age-based rationing occurred in our health service. One GP said: In hospital, you have to be able to feed yourself as the nurses don't do it. If you are frail, you've had it. That is hardly a surprise. More and more older people are admitted to fewer and fewer beds for shorter and shorter stays. That is not the decision of the Labour Government, but an inheritance from the previous Conservative Government—a health service that is so determined to get people in and out of beds quickly that there is no time to focus on quality of care and attention to detail.

Recently, my attention, and that of many people—Members and those outside this place—has been drawn to the inappropriate use of not-for-resuscitation orders. There is a massive gap between the guidelines for the use of such orders and actual practice. The case of Jill Barker, a 67-year-old cancer patient, drew that to our notice. It highlighted the fact that her medical records had been marked with an NFR order—those initials are used. That was in breach of the guidelines produced by the British Medical Association and reconfirmed by the Department of Health. There had been a serious breach of faith—one that many people feel needs to be tackled. Indeed, that case produced many more examples of the inappropriate use of NFR orders on people's medical records.

Research reported in the British Medical Journal found that two in three patients are not even consulted when NFR orders are placed on their medical records. An even more alarming statistic is that patients who have NFR on their records are 30 times more likely to die than those who do not. When they are not even consulted about that decision, it begs questions about the way in which our health service is working.

I have raised NFR orders in the House on several occasions—through debates, questions and early-day motions. I have been appalled by the complacency of the Government's response. They rely on guidance that was issued more than a year ago and are not prepared to address the problems being raised by Age Concern and others.

Because of ageist assumptions in employment practices, in our health service and in many other aspects of life, it is time that comprehensive legislation to tackle age discrimination was on our statute book. Such measures would have a positive impact. They would address the growing concern about the way that we treat our elderly people. The absence of such legislation—when it exists on gender, race and disability—downgrades for many people the importance we should be attaching to dealing with age discrimination. It sends the wrong signals.

For that reason, I hope that the Government will give up the voluntary approach and seriously address the need to establish a proper legislative framework that will confirm that we recognise that there is no place whatever for ageism in this country.

6.28 pm
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

As the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), said in his opening remarks, the debate is important. It has certainly been wide ranging. After the introduction by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), we heard a thoughtful speech from the Minister, to which I shall return in a moment. We then heard a rather lengthy speech from the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). I shall not be able to answer all the questions he put, because he asked for our views on a range of matters—from the new deal to red tape and bureaucracy in schools. We are in favour of one and against the other, but I can provide him with more details later if he wants them.

The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) made impassioned speeches. Although they are on opposite sides of the House, I felt a great deal of sympathy for both of them. The hon. Member for Corby was especially concerned to achieve the best possible start for all his constituents. He wanted open and equal access, and I am sure that we would all agree with him on that.

The speech with which I was most in agreement was made by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). He did not utter a word for which I would not offer wholehearted support. We should all support and be grateful for his long campaigns for Community Service Volunteers and for the right of young people to be heard.

The hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) made an interesting speech. I agreed with some of his points and disagreed with others. However, may I point out in the gentlest possible way that it is important to carry out research before one makes a speech? He said that Liberal Democrats had not referred to the abolition of tuition fees in our recent statement on the Budget, and he said that we had not costed our proposal. Unfortunately for him, I have a copy of the statement, which categorically states that our programme includes: Abolishing university tuition fees up to and including undergraduate level and introducing "hardship benefit" payments in order to increase access. The costing for that proposal appears at the end of the document. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, so I hope he does not think that I have mysteriously created from scratch, and in such a short space of time, a whole document just to prove him wrong. I shall send him a copy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) raised the important issue of age discrimination. I have also raised it from time to time, not least in relation to job advertisements. I am delighted that my hon. Friend is pursuing the issue with such vigour.

It has to be admitted that the Government were elected on a tide of good will and high expectations from many people in this country. They thought that they had elected a Government who would help the poor, the pensioners, the lone parents, the socially excluded, those stuck on run-down, crime-ridden housing estates, and those marooned in rural villages with no buses. They thought that they had elected a Government who would come to the rescue of all of those who had been sidelined in the Tory years.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West rightly said in his speech, the Government have taken action on some of those issues. Our concern—the principal concern of the debate—is that the Government's actions have been limited; they have not gone far enough. The Government have been too timid in their thinking and they have failed to grasp some of the real problems that exist. They have been too timid on the social justice agenda.

There appears to be almost a sense of partial denial by the Government. From time to time, they spot an issue and pick it up. The Minister, in his thoughtful speech, was willing to accept the genuine concern about the many elderly people who die from the cold. He said that that was a national disgrace. He also acknowledged that there needs to be more joined-up Government thinking to address some of the issues. He added that unemployment was still too high, despite the work that has been done and he acknowledged that no one should be complacent and that much needed to be done. I welcome that.

The problem is that the Government take a semi-myopic approach. They notice and recognise issues when that suits them, but they pretend that they do not exist at other times. As we know, the Prime Minister has tried to deny the existence of a north-south divide and he seems to think that everything that the Government are doing for pensioners is wonderful. He seems to suggest that those living in rural areas should be glad that they have such pleasant surroundings in which to live and that there is no crisis on our farms. The Government tell us that they are doing wonderful things in the health service, but why do we still have a postcode lottery three years into a Labour Government? Why can one receive certain drugs and treatments in some parts of the country, but not in others?

There are areas of selective myopia. However, when it suits the Government they invent a crisis for their own benefit. That is exactly what we had with the case of Laura Spence, when she could not get into Magdalen college, Oxford. Suddenly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer magically became an expert on how to choose the cleverest five applicants out of 23, all of them with top grades. The best reporting of that incident that I have come across was by my noble Friend Earl Russell in another place. He recently wrote an article which I thought I had here, but which seems to have disappeared. However, his point was simply that the Chancellor of the Exchequer appears to believe that there is a system that can perfectly select students merely on the basis of examination results, or even predicted examination results. Reality is not like that. We all know that, in a highly competitive system, we cannot guarantee that those with the best predicted grades will get the top jobs. If that were the case, the Chancellor of the Exchequer might be the Prime Minister, not the present incumbent.

The key point is that this issue should be left to the professionals to decide using their expertise. I am delighted that, in the two weeks that the Prime Minister has had off, he has had the opportunity to reflect. Although it was much derided by his audience, he made some very good points in his speech to the Women's Institute. He said: I think we in government—and that means me—have to trust people more. At long last, he is perhaps beginning to understand that it should be the job of the Government to set the framework and to provide the resources. They should then let the professionals—be they in health care, education and even in the selection of students for universities—get on and do their job.

Mr. Rammell

Let us put to one side the Laura Spence case. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a real problem with the under-representation of children from state schools at Oxford and Cambridge, given what one would expect from their qualifications?

Mr. Foster

I do not disagree that an issue needs to be addressed. However, the problem is how the issue was addressed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is our concern.

The Prime Minister seems to have seen the light in his speech to the Women's Institute today—two weeks on paternity leave has had a great effect on him. He said: We don't have to fight over every headline. Perhaps that will mean that the Chancellor of Exchequer will not seek to get headlines, but that we shall have a sensible approach to the problem that the hon. Member for Harlow rightly highlighted.

It is clear to Liberal Democrats that the solution to that problem is to raise standards in the state education system, One reason why it is difficult to do that and create a level playing field is that the independent sector spends twice as much per pupil as the Government spend per pupil in the state school sector. They are partly tackling the problem with some additional money, but their announcement that they will spend £19 billion would make any double-entry bookkeeper blush.

The Government are making some progress but, despite that, class sizes in secondary schools are at their biggest for 20 years, and class sizes are rising in nursery and junior schools. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough rightly pointed out, and despite what the Minister said, the amount of money that is spent per university or further education student is falling under this Government.

There is the issue of how we solve the problem of entry into Oxford and Cambridge. The solution is increased investment in our education service and trusting the professionals in that service to get on and do their job. However, the problem also relates to how we can make more people interested in entering higher education institutions. It is a little odd for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be so concerned about the issue when he is a member of a Government who introduced the very tuition fees that discourage some people from entering higher education.

I have referred to selective myopia, and it affects many different issues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West rightly expressed his concern about the plight of pensioners and the elderly. They—and many people who speak on their behalf—are angry at the pitiful 75p increase in the state pension. There is an urgent need to do more about that.

Mr. David Taylor

The hon. Gentleman is building an impressive charge on selective myopia. However, is he not also revealing amnesia on a grand scale in relation to the proposals on pensions in the manifesto on which his party fought the election? The Liberal Democrats' commitment to pensions was significantly less than ours. Indeed, we have already exceeded our aims in three years of government.

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman is wrong and has selective myopia. He clearly did not read in its entirety our documentation on the additional increases that we would be prepared to make to pensioners over 75 and, indeed, over 80. I urge him to watch this space for further developments.

At least we are developing thinking on giving pensioners even better support. The Conservative party's offer is disappointing. Expert analysis of its recent announcement on pensions shows it to be nothing like the exciting bonanza that Conservative Members would have us believe. In reality, that bonanza amounts to a magical increase of 43p a week for pensioners, once their free television licences and winter fuel payments have been removed, and reductions have been made in many areas of the budget, with money being taken from the new deal for lone parents and the social fund budget being slashed.

The Government's myopia on the north-south divide is even more staggering. The Prime Minister recently sought to persuade us that there is no such divide, despite all the statistics. Disposable income per head in the north-east is almost a third lower than that in the south-east. Seventy-five per cent. of households in the north-east receive some form of welfare benefit, compared with only 63 per cent. in the south. Jobs in the north-east are growing at a rate of 1 per cent., compared with 12 per cent. growth in the south-east, and so on. Today, the Office for National Statistics demonstrated that, whether rich or poor, people in the north of England are more likely to die early than those in the south. Even so, the Prime Minister still wishes to deny the existence of the gap.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)


Mr. Foster

I shall not give way, as I have little time in which to finish my speech.

The Minister referred to housing and expressed concern about keeping elderly people warm. However, what have the Government done about the 5.4 million people living in fuel poverty? They appear to have solved the problem for 1.1 million by doing nothing other than changing a definition. Since their time in opposition, the Government have changed their position and magically removed 1.1 million people from the total of those in fuel poverty. However, millions are still in such poverty and we are not doing enough about that. We could do simple things, such as setting a lower rate of value added tax on house renovation and new build, so that people do not pay the full VAT rate when they try to repair their crumbling buildings.

Finally, on transport, people in rural areas are suffering from many problems, such as closures of shops, post offices and village pubs. The poorest in those areas do not have access to a car and depend on rural transport, but the Government are spending £270 million less on public transport than the Tories were when they left office.

Thinking must be far more imaginative if we are to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor and tackle the poverty of those living in rural and urban areas. The Government promised us that 1999 would be a year of delivery. However, it appears that their cheque is still in the post and, sadly, we must still mind the gap.

6.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

Whatever the Liberal Democrats' intentions in choosing this subject, I can tell them that Labour Members very much welcome the chance to debate equal opportunities and inequalities in our country because nothing exposes the dividing lines between the political parties more than inequality. It is one of the key lines along which party policy divides, thereby enabling people to see clearly the different values, principles, approaches and prescriptions on which Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat politics are based. Inequality takes us back to the basic politics that each party stands for. Today we have certainly seen those basic political positions set out in stark contrast, and that is helpful.

The Tories, in so far as they even recognise inequality, clearly see it as the natural order and something that they do not have to do very much about—except of course to make it worse, as they did when they were in government. The Liberal Democrats still have the old-style handout mentality. They would give people a crutch but would not tackle the fundamental processes in society that lead to inequality. That is the first-aid approach of sticking on a plaster in the form of extra cash but failing to face the hard choices necessary to remedy some of the causes of inequality.

The Liberal Democrats do not understand that opportunity and responsibility go hand in hand—not because we say that they do, but because that is what people want. That is what we want, and people who experience inequality are no different. Cash on its own will not lead to long-term change. People want opportunities that enable them to take responsibility for their own lives, rather than being beholden to a benefits system.

Labour, by contrast, understands the deep-rooted causes of inequality and the fact that it is not one-dimensional because inequality in unemployment and income connects with inequality in health, educational underachievement and housing, and even in the length of one's life. Some Liberal Democrat Members recognise that. Opportunity is not distributed equally in our society, and while some groups have a wealth of opportunity, others have opportunity poverty. For too many people, where they are born, their family and their circumstances at birth are still powerful determinants of where they end up in adult life.

The way to tackle the fundamental change that is needed is therefore the hand-up, not the handout. We must ensure that the systems that we can influence—education, the economy, health and housing—enable all people to grow, to develop and to grasp the opportunities that exist.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) was the only Opposition Member to acknowledge the extent of inequality that we inherited after 20 years of Tory Government. Inequality widened and deepened substantially under the Tories. In 1997, the mortality of infants born to unskilled parents was still almost twice that of those born to professional parents. Those in the lower half of the income distribution received a quarter of all total income—which is also the amount that the top 10 per cent. received.

More than three in five children were living in a household where neither parent was in full-time work and where the income was below 60 per cent. of the median. Fewer than one in 10 individuals living in a household headed by people with black, Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi origins were in the top fifth of the income distribution. Local education authorities with high proportions of children eligible for school meals had significantly lower GCSE attainment levels than those with low free-school-meal eligibility. Perhaps the most chilling statistic of all is that an unskilled man had a 20 per cent. chance of surviving past retirement age and seeing something of his old age, while a professional man's chance of doing so was 80 per cent.

Those are not Government statistics; they come from the Office for National Statistics report on social inequalities, which was published last month. Their importance lies in the extent of inequality that they reveal over the period to which they relate and in what inequality means both for people and society. My hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) and for Corby (Mr. Hope) gave some graphic and human detail of what inequalities mean for peoples' lives and how the Government are trying to address them.

The quality of life for each of the individuals and families affected by such circumstances is poorer than it should be or need be. There is a lost opportunity to make a better life for those individuals and their families. The children concerned face an uphill struggle to realise their potential, and many never do so. There is also a lost opportunity for society as a result of the failure to capitalise on the wealth of talent and human resources that is available to us. There is therefore a failure to maximise the growth potential and strength of our economy.

The policy of the Liberal Democrats on inequality has become clearer today, both in the Chamber and from the contributions of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) on the "Today" programme this morning. He said that their approach to inequality is, first, that we should be putting more money into state education, welfare, the health service and pensions, for example. Secondly, he said that we should be promoting the liberty and freedom of the individual and liberating the community at the expense of the state. The only sense I can make from that is that Liberal Democrat policy is merely to throw money at problems and then leave matters to sort themselves out.

The right hon. Gentleman's comments this morning on his own experiences were perhaps more revealing. He said: I will take you to my own personal circumstances. I went to a local state primary school, a local comprehensive secondary school, the University of Glasgow and then on a Fulbright scholarship in the United States. I did all that on the basis of competing on a fair and equal basis with other candidates. I do not know whether he believes this, but it sounds as if he is saying that it does not make any difference to anyone's chances if he or she is brought up in a poor area of Glasgow, for example, instead of Fort William. We fundamentally disagree with that. It is not enough to provide fair and open competition. If we are to address inequality, we must help people to become more able to take the opportunities that arise.

Mr. Charles Kennedy

I hesitate to interrupt a fascinating life story. However, I bring to the Minister's attention the consideration that were it not for the state sector and comprehensive education, I would not have had the chance of tertiary education. When I took up the chance of a scholarship in the United States, it was a valuable experience. At that stage, the best part of 20 years ago, the US was implementing precisely the student-funding approach that is now the Government's policy. In the mid-west, the one group of people who were not my contemporaries were those who were well heeled, from New York and California. There were very few of the poorer kids from the mid-west because the system deterred them. That experience taught me a great deal. I wish it were an experience from which the Government would learn.

Ms Hughes

It seems not to have taught the right hon. Gentleman very much. He said that he got his scholarship competing on a fair and equal basis with other candidates. I am saying that fair and equal competition is not sufficient. It might be necessary, but if we are to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is not a sufficient condition to enable them to make the progress that clearly the right hon. Gentleman was able to make.

Mr. Bercow

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hughes

No, I will not give way at this stage. I want to make more progress.

I am glad that we have achieved clarity, because so far the Liberal Democrats' stance on inequality has been confusing. They opposed the windfall tax to fund the new deal. They supported opportunity for the few but not for the vast majority. Their manifesto stated that they would increase pensions in line with prices, but now they are to be linked with wages. Perhaps if it had been a Lib Dem 75p increase, it would not have mattered so much. They said that they would put £200 million into health and education from their elastic 1p increase in income tax. So far, they have not matched our £40 billion.

Liberal Democrats accuse us of poverty of ambition and of timidity. However, when it comes to difficult choices, they run scared. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) gave us no more of the Lib Dem analysis of what is required than more cash, more cash and more cash. That is because they only have to make promises; they do not have to deliver.

We share with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough the belief that education is a key source of inequality as a result of underachievement, and that education is a key way out of deprivation. I do not share his party's views about how we will achieve real opportunity in education for everybody, but I acknowledge his commitment to education and to young people.

I cannot say the same of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). It is amazing how often the quality of speeches is in inverse proportion to their length, and so it was this afternoon. The hon. Gentleman's speech was as bankrupt in substance as it was full of bluster. What he chose to speak about was interesting. In an extraordinarily long speech, he spent almost half an hour defending Oxford, Cambridge and grammar schools. He spent the rest of it—a relatively short time—rubbishing the national health service, public transport and the new deal.

Mr. David Taylor

Does my hon. Friend agree that at least one saving grace was that the speech of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) cleared the official Opposition's Benches, where three Members now reside? They are to be set against the scores of people who are interested in equality.

Ms Hughes

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend about that.

I must take the hon. Member for Buckingham to task, because he accused every other Member in the Chamber of ignorance. He said that the new deal was a failure and a waste of money. He added that it was not worth the effort and that it was not having any impact. However, by the end of March, 210,000 young people had moved into jobs through the new deal. To take up one of the hon. Gentleman's points, 73 per cent. of those jobs are sustainable, and 86 per cent. of them do not, contrary to the hon. Gentleman's claim, require subsidy.

It is obvious that the hon. Gentleman does not know that in December two reports were published on the macro-economic evaluation of the new deal for young people. The evaluation was undertaken by a conglomerate of five independent research organisations. One of the findings was that unemployment is much lower as a result of the new deal. The independently conducted research confirms that half of those leaving unemployment since the new deal began would not have done so without it. The evaluation of the new deal is the most robust of any labour market programme. The report is free, and I advise the hon. Gentleman to read it. He may learn something, but it will not be humility.

The Government's approach is in stark contrast to those of the Conservative party and the Lib Dems. We have set ourselves the goal of ensuring that there is opportunity for all, and unreservedly attacking social exclusion. There should be opportunity for all alongside responsibility from all.

The Labour party was born out of the conviction and from the experience of many of its members that inequality and lack of opportunity are unjust, divisive and a waste of human potential. Many Labour Members and some Opposition Members come from backgrounds where only a few have the opportunities that enabled us to achieve something like our potential and enjoy a wider range of opportunities in life. We are too well aware of many friends from childhood and members of our own families—sisters and brothers, who are no less able than ourselves—who did not have the key chances. The hon. Member for Buckingham finds that funny, but we would expect that from him, wouldn't we?

We see in our constituencies that things have not changed much for many of today's children. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby spoke graphically about that. The hard-working, decent people of this country want that to change. They want a society that is fair and just in which everyone has a chance to get on and make the best of themselves. They want the chance to use opportunities and then to go on and take responsibility for their own future, as we do and as the hon. Member for Buckingham does. However, that is a chance that he would like to deny to others.

Opportunity for all does not exist in Britain at the moment. Some people and some groups—people from poor backgrounds, women, people from minority ethnic communities, disabled people—face barriers that others do not. They all face barriers and old-fashioned attitudes that should have no place in a modern society—the sort of attitudes we have seen today from the one Member of the Tory party who spoke from the Front Bench.

We are determined to lift those barriers, and we make no apology for that. That is the proper job of a proper Government. It is what sets the Labour Government apart from the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats.

We are not leaving barriers in place like the Tories, or preferring to look the other way, or giving a quick fix that fizzles out, like the Liberal Democrats, but enabling people, through opportunities, to exercise the same choices and to take the same personal responsibilities that we all expect.

The Government are working hard in a systematic and sustained way to change Britain, to lift the barriers for all and to enable individuals and families whom we are concerned about—unlike Opposition Members—to reach their full potential, enabling them to take responsibility for their futures and, in so doing, to contribute as much as they can to this country's future. I urge Members to oppose the motion and to support the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 41, Noes 249.

Division No. 219] [7.1 pm
Allan, Richard Keetch, Paul
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)
Baker, Norman
Ballard, Jackie Kirkwood, Archy
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Livsey, Richard
Brand, Dr Peter Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Burnett, John Oaten, Mark
Burstow, Paul Öpik, Lembit
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Chidgey, David Sanders, Adrian
Cotter, Brian Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Fearn, Ronnie Tonge, Dr Jenny
Foster, Don (Bath) Tyler, Paul
George, Andrew (St Ives) Webb, Steve
Gidley, Sandra Welsh, Andrew
Hancock, Mike Willis, Phil
Harvey, Nick
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Tellers for the Ayes:
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Mr. Andrew Stunell and
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Mr. Tom Brake.
Ainger, Nick Browne, Desmond
Alexander, Douglas Buck, Ms Karen
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Burgon, Colin
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Byers, Rt Hon Stephen
Ashton, Joe Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Atherton, Ms Candy Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Barron, Kevin Campbell—Savours, Dale
Bayley, Hugh Casale, Roger
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Caton, Martin
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Cawsey, Ian
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Bennett, Andrew F Chaytor, David
Benton, Joe Clapham, Michael
Berry, Roger Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Best, Harold Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Blears, Ms Hazel Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Boateng, Rt Hon Paul Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Clelland, David
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Clwyd, Ann
Bradshaw, Ben Coffey, Ms Ann
Brinton, Mrs Helen Cohen, Harry
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Coleman, Iain
Colman, Tony Jamieson, David
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Jenkins, Brian
Cooper, Yvette Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Corbett, Robin
Corbyn, Jeremy Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Corston, Jean Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Cranston, Ross Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Crausby, David Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Keeble Ms Sally
Cummings, John Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland) Kelly, Ms Ruth
Kemp, Fraser
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Khabra, Piara S
Dalyell, Tam Kilfoyle, Peter
Darvill, Keith King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Lawrence, Mrs Jackie
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Dean, Mrs Janet Lepper, David
Denham, John Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Dismore, Andrew Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank Linton, Martin
Donohoe, Brian H Lock, David
Dowd, Jim McAvoy, Thomas
Drown, Ms Julia McDonagh, Siobhain
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Macdonald, Calum
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) McDonnell, John
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) McFall, John
Edwards, Huw McIsaac, Shona
Efford, Clive Mackinlay, Andrew
Ellman, Mrs Louise McNulty, Tony
Ennis, Jeff MacShane, Denis
Field, Rt Hon Frank Mactaggart, Fiona
Fisher, Mark Mahon, Mrs Alice
Fitzpatrick, Jim Mallaber, Judy
Fitzsimons, Mrs Loma Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter
Flynn, Paul Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Martlew, Eric
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Merron, Gillian
Fyfe, Maria Michael, Rt Hon Alun
Galloway, George Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Gapes, Mike Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Gardiner, Barry Mitchell, Austin
George, Bruce (Walsall S) Moonie, Dr Lewis
Gibson, Dr Ian Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Godsiff, Roger Morley, Elliot
Goggins, Paul Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Golding, Mrs Llin
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Morris, Rt Hon Sir Jon (Aberavon)
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Mountford, Kali
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Mudie, George
Grocott, Bruce Mullin, Chris
Gunnell, John Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Hain, Peter Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Naysmith, Dr Doug
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Norris, Dan
Hanson, David O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Heal, Mrs Sylvia O'Brien, Milk (N Warks)
Healey, John Olner, Bill
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Organ, Mrs Diana
Hill, Keith
Hinchliffe, David Pendry, Tom
Hodge, Ms Margaret Pike, Peter L
Hope, Phil Pond, Chris
Hopkins, Kelvin Pope, Greg
Howells, Dr Kim Pound, Stephen
Hoyle, Lindsay Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Prescott, Rt Hon John
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Primarolo, Dawn
Humble, Mrs Joan Purchase, Ken
Hutton, John Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Quinn, Lawrie
Rammell, Bill Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Roche, Mrs Barbara Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Rogers, Allan Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Rowlands, Ted Timms, Stephen
Ruane, Chris Tipping, Paddy
Salter, Martin Touhig, Don
Sarwar, Mohammad Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Savidge, Malcolm Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Shaw, Jonathan Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Shipley, Ms Debra Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Short, Rt Hon Clare Ward, Ms Claire
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Wareing, Robert N
Singh, Marsha Watts, David
Skinner, Dennis White, Brian
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Whitehead, Dr Alan
Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale) Wicks, Malcolm
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Soley, Clive Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Speller, John Wills, Michael
Squire, Ms Rachel Winnick, David
Steinberg, Gerry Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Stevenson, George Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Wyatt, Derek
Stoate, Dr Howard
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin Tellers for the Noes:
Straw, Rt Hon Jack Mr. Clive Betts and
Stuart, Ms Gisela Mr. Robert Ainsworth.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House believes that true opportunity for all requires that access to higher education should be based on merit not background; welcomes the measures the Government has implemented to widen access as part of the record increase in education spending of 8 per cent. in real terms in this year alone; and welcomes the many initiatives taken to help those in society whose needs are greatest, including an extra £950 a year for older pensioners on low incomes and a record increase in NHS spending of an extra £2 billion this year, plus 6.1 per cent. average growth year on year until 2004.