HL Deb 19 March 1998 vol 587 cc860-71

6.34 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The Statement is as follows:

"Tuesday's Budget has rightly been well received. It confirmed New Labour's reputation for economic competence. It was a Budget for enterprise, a Budget for work, a Budget for families and for education.

"The Chancellor pledged an extra £250 million for schools and skills in the coming financial year. Let me remind the House that this increase is part of the £2.5 billion boost for education and skills which we have already earmarked in the 10 months since we were elected last May.

"We inherited a situation where between 1993 and 1996 the party opposite had cut £110 in real terms from every secondary pupil in the country and £44 from every primary pupil. Already we have made a substantial start to repair the damage of years of Tory neglect by providing an extra £110 for every pupil in the coming financial year. We have increased the Standards Fund to over £500 million for 1998–99, which includes an extra £59 million to improve literacy standards. Today I want to detail the big difference which this week's Budget increase will mean to our schools and their pupils, outlining four further major steps we shall be taking.

"First, I can made this pledge today. We shall bring to an end the scandal whereby children in 600 of our schools, most of them primary, still have to go outside in order to use the toilet. Tens of thousands of children have to go outside to use facilities which often date back to the Victorian age. That is simply unacceptable in the last years of the 20th century. We are inviting the authorities affected to apply for a share of the extra £35 million which we are earmarking so that they can provide the decent facilities that every modern school should have. By next year we shall have ended the scandal of outside toilets forever. It will take our schools from the Victorian age into the age of the new millennium.

"Secondly, I am concerned at the number of schools which have inefficient boilers and heating systems which often break down. They waste energy and leave thousands of children spending their winter days in cold and draughty classrooms. We shall provide an extra £15 million which will allow up to 500 schools to replace or improve their inefficient heating systems. That will make classrooms more comfortable and learning-friendly places, save a great deal of money which is now being wasted and bring environmental benefits, including reduced carbon dioxide emissions. As many as 100,000 children will have, at long last, the kind of working conditions which they should be able to take for granted in a civilised society.

"Thirdly, we have already announced the first £22 million to provide the extra teachers to ensure that we make an immediate start on our class-size pledge, which will mean that by 2001 every five, six and seven year-old is in a class of 30 or under. That first tranche will mean that 100,000 infants will benefit from September this year.

"When we announced that funding, redirected from the phasing out of the assisted places scheme, we made clear that there would be extra money to build extra classrooms where they were needed. Today, I can announce that there will be an extra £40 million from the Budget which will be targeted specifically on providing those extra facilities during 1998–99. This extra funding will help us to deliver our core pledge on class sizes. Doing so will help us to meet our demanding literacy and numeracy targets.

"These three capital spending measures will be in addition to the £250 million from the new deal for schools to be allocated in 1998–99 and additional to the £800 million which LEAs and schools are spending in the normal way on repairs and maintenance this year.

"And there is a fourth piece of good news on schools from the Budget. I can further confirm that we shall be expanding rapidly our education action zones programme. We shall fund a five-fold increase to establish 25 zones by January 1999. We have already had considerable interest from imaginative partnerships between schools, LEAs and business at a local level.

"The zones offer extra flexibilities in order to help schools in challenging circumstances to meet demanding targets and to make significant improvements in standards and in expectations. By making a substantial expansion in the coming year, I am confident that we shall be able to extend the programme yet further in the lifetime of this Parliament.

"Taken together, this is a coherent programme which will help the process of transforming schools for the future. It means: no more children having to go outside to use the toilet; improvements in the heating of schools; substantial further progress to meeting our class size pledge; and a big boost to our flagship programme of education action zones.

"In the years ahead, we will meet our manifesto commitment to increase the proportion of national income spent on education. We are making a substantial start in the year ahead. By doing so, we are transforming the life chances of millions of children. We are modernising the fabric of our schools. And we are making real progress in raising standards for all our children. A New Labour Budget. A Budget for a modern Britain in a new century. A Budget to turn ambition into achievement".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

6.40 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I was persuaded earlier today to take this Statement later than usual. I was not particularly happy to do so, but nevertheless I agreed. I believe that the noble Baroness, at the time the Statement was due, was in the Division Lobby, and that is understandable.

I stayed in the Chamber throughout the whole of the last amendment on the grounds that discussion on any amendment can end at any time; that votes are not always pressed; and, indeed, it looked for one moment as though the amendment was not going to be pressed. The noble Baroness was not present in the Chamber throughout any of that time, and, in the event, it would have been possible for somebody on the Government Benches to have either suggested waiting one or two minutes for the noble Baroness to return to the Chamber, or for some cursory—even if only very cursory—discussions to have taken place with me indicating that we were pressing on with the Bill. I have now had to postpone an important engagement in order to deal with this Statement.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I listened carefully to what the noble Baroness said. She knows that I have already apologised on behalf of the Government for the delay; I have not apologised on behalf of my noble friend Lady Blackstone, who has done nothing wrong.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, knows that a Division is called because there are those who shout "Not-Content". It was those on the Opposition Benches who shouted "Not-Content", including the noble Baroness. It was their responsibility to put in Tellers. They failed to do so. As a result, there was understandable confusion and my noble friend Lady Blackstone was entirely within her rights to be in the Division Lobby. She considered the matter to be important. It was also right for the Deputy Speaker when the vote was negatived, to carry on with the business. I do not believe that any further apology is called for from anybody on this side of the House and I hope that the noble Baroness will feel, on reflection, that she has been fairly treated.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, in the course of making my statement I said that I understood and understand that the noble Baroness could not have been here; she was in the Division Lobby. I am saying that, because she was in the Division Lobby and her colleagues knew that, it was possible for us to have waited no more than one minute for the noble Baroness to return.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it is a decision of the Chair.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have been in that position before and, on behalf of the Government, I have asked for an adjournment for one or two minutes. That is always possible from the Chair. The Chair has no instructions if they are not given.

However, no apology is forthcoming and it is no more than I expected. But perhaps I can say also that, to add insult to injury, I learnt the details of this Statement this morning from journalists. It is not unusual for me to do so because that is happening on a regular basis. The details of the Statement were made widely available to journalists. In fact, the first details of the Statement came very early this morning on Radio 4.

There is considerable confusion. I hope that the noble Baroness will address some specific questions to clear up that confusion resulting from the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget Statement, taken together with the Statement today. I should like to quote from the Budget speech when the Chancellor said, Over £100 million extra will he allocated in the coming year to tackle the skills gap in Britain".—[Official Report, Commons, 17/3/98; col. 1103.] The Chancellor then said at col. 1112, We are determined to improve education all round, so I am allocating for the coming year to education an additional £250 million". The Statement today refers to an extra £250 million, which is part of the money already pledged last year. The Statement makes that clear—£35 million extra to improve toilet facilities; £15 million extra to improve heating systems; £40 million extra for the class size pledge. It goes on to state that those three pledges were in addition to the £250 million already pledged.

On 2nd July last year, (at cols. 315 and 316)—at the time of this Government's first Budget—£1 billion was earmarked for education from reserves; £1.3 billion was to be made available over the course of the whole Parliament. That was to be allocated in the following way: £83 million for this year, 1997–98, and £250 million for each of the following four years. My specific question therefore is: what spending referred to in the Budget speech and in the Statement today is part of that £2.3 billion? What expenditure announced today is new money and what is the source of any new money?

Higher inflation during the current year has cost local authorities around £1.2 billion on the education budget. The changes to taxation dividends in the July 1997 Budget are also estimated to have cost local authorities up to £300 million. Does not the noble Baroness agree, therefore, that the additional moneys of £1 billion from reserves and £83 million allocated this year of the £1.3 billion, does not compensate the authorities for such a loss? If the noble Baroness agrees, will she explain what capacity and from what source local authorities will meet such pressures caused specifically by measures set out by the present Chancellor of the Exchequer?

While referring to the measures set out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Budget, perhaps I can ask what the cost implications are as a result of changes to the national insurance contributions paid by the employer for schools and local education authorities which employ staff earning above £23,000 per year. The noble Baroness will know—indeed, it was widely welcomed—that £1,000 was allocated to each school throughout the country in this financial year to meet the cost of extra books. What was the source of that money? Was it top-sliced from local authorities' total budgets?

With all the financial changes since the July Budget, what is the percentage increase in real terms and the increase in cash terms that has been made available to local education authorities in 1997–98 and 1998–99? That is one question about which the noble Baroness will probably need notice but the rest of my questions are pertinent to the Statement today.

As a result of announcing an additional £40 million, can the noble Baroness now confirm that the money released from the assisted places scheme was, as was widely predicted, not sufficient to fund the class size pledge? While on the subject of measures in the Chancellor's speech, perhaps I can refer the noble Baroness to education action zones. Let me say right away that I welcome more innovation in education. I welcome more private sector involvement, though, as the noble Baroness may understand, I shall have more to say about the detail of that policy when the Bill comes before the House.

My understanding is that five of the action zones are to be up and running by September, which is a mere 22 weeks away. I understand also that a further 20, as a result of the Statement, are to be up and running by January 1999—just 38 weeks away. I say nothing about the complexity of such arrangements—to be discussed later on the Bill—with regard to proper consultation, the views of parents of children attending each school in the action zone and the detailed contracts which will have to be made, including very complex financial arrangements, with the private sector.

However, this policy has only recently been presented to Parliament. The Bill has not even completed its stages through another place. It has yet to be discussed and considered for approval in this place. There are no draft regulations in existence which support these proposals. The closing date for applications to become an education zone is tomorrow. Decisions as to which schools will become action zones will be approved by the end of April. Is it not astounding arrogance on the part of the Government to be pre-empting so blatantly both Houses of Parliament in this way? How can the noble Baroness—I hope she will tell the House—and her right honourable friend the Secretary of State justify the statement, and I quote: I can further confirm that we will be expanding rapidly our education action zones programme". On whose authority?

Will the noble Baroness list the local authorities which continue to have schools with outside toilets? I agree with the noble Baroness and her right honourable friend the Secretary of State that it is right to wish to see an end to all outside toilets. However, as a past county council leader I am conscious that there was a wide variation in the way in which local authorities managed their capital programmes. Often those with the greatest backlog of repairs were those which had not managed their financial programmes very well. Therefore, some of this expenditure could be seen to reward inefficiency. Is it the Government's intention, irrespective of the level of inefficiency and irrespective of the track record of an authority, that they shall be rewarded if they continue to have schools in their area with outside lavatories?

Welcome though it is when any government find additional funds to address problems such as better sanitation, improved heating systems and smaller classes, these proposals further erode local authorities' power to determine their own priorities in their own areas, and in many instances will reward the poorest financial management in local education authorities.

6.52 p.m.

Lord Tope

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Personally, I was content to wait a few minutes longer to hear the Statement, although I share the concern which has been expressed here and in another place that its contents were so widely known early this morning.

I was not quite clear whether the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, was or was not welcoming the contents of the Statement. I say quite clearly that I do welcome the contents of the Statement. It is scandalous that in this day of the information superhighway literally thousands of our children under 10 years of age still have to go outside to use the toilet. It may well be that after 18 years of Conservative government the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, felt a little constrained to give too warm a welcome to that. But I feel no such constraint.

I welcome the additional money for improved heating. As the leader of an LEA, I have some experience of such matters. I know that building maintenance, whether in schools or elsewhere, is always the easy cut to make each year. But I think we all know that the accumulative effect of so-called easy cuts each year becomes more and more serious. Local authority associations predicted a year or more ago that a sum in excess of £3 billion additional money would be necessary to bring school buildings up to an adequate state of repair. This is a small step in that direction; it is nevertheless a welcome step.

We welcome the move to provide the additional classrooms that will be necessary to reduce class sizes. We regret that it is limited only to infant classes, although that in itself is welcome. There is a recognition that the money from the assisted places scheme is not enough to meet this. I can only echo the statements made by others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that we told you so. It is nevertheless still welcome.

As has been said, we shall be debating education action zones in the not-too-distant future when the Bill comes to the House. I know that they have been welcomed by my colleagues in the other place.

I have some specific questions which I think are directly pertinent to the Statement and which I ask as the leader of a local authority that happens to be a local education authority. I know that these are questions which I shall be asked in the morning. The Statement gives the impression that this is real money being given to LEAs by a generous Government. I ask the Minister specifically: are we talking here about cash grants, or are we talking, as I suspect we are, about permission to borrow—credit approvals? Are we saying therefore that LEAs will have permission to borrow this money, with the consequent effects that that will have on revenue budgets through debt charges?

I understand that this is to be a bidding process. Although I am not surprised, I am disappointed by that because bidding inevitably means a lot of work, raised expectations and then, for many, some disappointment. I am little confused. The Secretary of State has made a clear commitment to end outside toilets by next year.

Does that mean that every LEA will be entitled to receive the money necessary to remove the outside toilets—presumably to provide inside toilets? Is there sufficient money? On average it costs about £58,000 per school. That does not seem to me sufficient in all cases.

Will it be a condition of the application that the LEA will be required to contribute towards such costs? Will there he an upper limit for each grant, or, as is more likely, for the permission to borrow that is going to come? As I said, one of the problems with bidding is that a lot of work goes into preparing the bids and no one is too sure what the outcome will be. Will the Government be publishing the criteria against which they will be judging those bids so that at least LEAs know what they are aiming for when submitting the bids?

I believe I am correct in saying—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—that the closing date for bids for this money or permission to borrow is 30th April, which is just six weeks away. If that is correct, can she tell us when the announcements will be made? I am sure she will recognise that that is particularly pertinent because much of this necessary work, especially if it is to be done before next winter, will have to be done during the school summer holidays, which begin in the middle of July. Can she assure us that announcements on successful bids will be made in enough time to enable LEAs to do all the work that is necessary to bring the contractors in to carry out this work during the school holidays?

Lastly on bidding, I have a concern which I have expressed before in your Lordships' House about those good local education authorities, regardless of political control, that have managed their capital programmes well, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said; that have made education a priority; that have long since removed outside toilets; and that have, it is to be hoped, despite all the difficulties, tackled questions of heating and so on. Are they once again to lose out because the money is being provided inevitably to meet need and some LEAs have for years failed to meet that need themselves? What are the Government going to do to ensure that good LEAs are not further penalised in this way?

Finally, the Statement is about schools' funding. I am certain that the Minister shares my concern and the concern of other noble Lords that there seems to have been nothing in the Budget for lifelong learning. When does she expect to make a Statement about additional funding for further education?

6.58 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, was, I am very sorry to say, unable to welcome the Statement which provides substantial additional funds to ensure that our schools are brought into the last part of the 20th century and do provide hugely better conditions for both young people and teachers. That is important if we are to improve standards of education and the conditions in which people work. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, who was able to welcome the Statement in that respect.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to a great many different figures and quoted, if I may say so, rather selectively from the Chancellor's Statement yesterday. I think she has confused a number of different elements of the Government's new budget proposals. It might be best to write to her to ensure that she fully understands the wider context for today. What I have spoken about today is the new—and it is new—£90 million of expenditure on a package of important measures to improve the quality of our school buildings. That is the focus of today, plus a small sum of additional money to allow education action zones to be increased in number. I very much look forward to debating with her some of the issues that she has raised on education action zones and class sizes when the Bill comes into this House.

The Government, under the new deal for schools, were able to provide last year an additional £1.3 billion of capital for the UK as a whole and £1.085 billion for England in order to deal with the high priorities of repairing, renovating and replacing in many of our schools, where there is an appalling backlog of urgent repairs which need to be done. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, referred to a backlog of £3 billion. Of course, that depends on how one defines what needs to be done but the Government figure is £4 billion.

So far as recurrent spending is concerned, the Government were also able to provide an additional £835 million above the planned expenditure for 1998–99 in the announcements that were made in July of last year. I think that this additional money is greatly welcomed, not just by teachers, not just by local education authorities, but also by the hundreds of thousands of parents who have children in our schools.

The noble Baroness asked what the implications of the national insurance increases would be on local education authorities as employers. I cannot give her the precise figure and I am happy to write to her about that. They do have a very substantial improvement in the amount that they have for recurrent expenditure, as I have just indicated.

The noble Baroness also asked about the assisted places scheme and whether the abolition of that scheme provides sufficient additional resources to fund the class sizes pledged. What the Government have always said is that that would provide adequate funding for the recurrent needs of bringing class sizes down, but the Government never said that they would provide enough money for the capital side. The additional £40 million that we are able to make available today is making a start on the whole issue of trying to provide adequate classroom provision to ensure that no child aged five, six or seven is in a class with more than 30 children.

The noble Baroness asked whether it was right that we would be getting five education action zones off the ground by September with a further 20 in January. I can confirm that that is our intention and that the date for applications ends tomorrow. The noble Baroness suggested that the Government are pre-empting both Houses of Parliament. May I say that the Government have inherited a situation in which we believe that standards of provision in a variety of respects in our primary and secondary schools are not good enough? We want to try to encourage exciting and interesting innovation. That is what education action zones will do. Of course, they will not be able to be established until after the legislation is through.

The noble Baroness also asked about which local education authorities are still running primary and secondary schools with outside lavatories. I obviously cannot give her a complete list. I am happy to write to her about that. There are some 600 schools—

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. If I may return to the action zones, the noble Baroness in the Statement has said that the Government will be introducing them and they will be expanding them. My question was not that I did not welcome them. In fact, I made quite a point of saying that I welcome innovation and welcome the involvement of the private sector. What I asked the noble Baroness for was authority for saying at this stage definitively that they will do something which has not yet been determined by another place and has not even started to be determined by this place.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, it is clear that it is the Government's intention to develop education action zones in the interests of the education of children and young people in this country. That is something that has been widely welcomed. I am very glad that the noble Baroness has welcomed the concept.

If I may come back to the subject of schools with outside lavatories, I shall write to the noble Baroness and give her a list of those authorities. I can say that for the most part they are shire counties and in particular the schools in question are likely to be in rural areas. But it is the intention of the Government to get rid of all outside lavatories.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, also asked whether there was any intention to penalise those authorities that had handled their capital well. Of course not. We have no wish to penalise authorities in that way but we also do not want to see children penalised because they happen to live in authorities, mainly shire counties, which have not resolved this problem. There are all kinds of difficulties if small children are asked to use outside lavatories, including, these days, the particularly serious one of security. It is important that we put money into the system to deal with that as soon as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, also asked whether this would be real money for local education authorities, and I can say yes, it will be. They will be 100 per cent. grants. The Government believe that that is important. There will be a bidding process but it is important to allow LEAs to identify exactly what their needs are, and a bidding process is needed in order to do that so that the Government can sensibly allocate the funds that are needed.

The noble Lord also asked about the closing date. It is 30th April because we want to get on, but there will be enough time left to local education authorities to do this work and to do it, for the most part, in the school holidays, although it may be necessary to do some of it in term time.

Finally, the noble Lord asked about lifelong learning. There is an additional £100 million in the Chancellor's announcement for our skills agenda and we will be saying more about that next week. I should also add that the Government have been able to provide an extra £100 million for further education before the completion of the Comprehensive Spending Review and an extra £165 million, as I think he knows, for higher education, again before the completion of that review and above the targets that were originally set by our predecessors.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, before the Back-Bench debate begins, can the Minister tell the House the source of that £90 million?

Baroness Blackstone

No, my Lords. It is not possible to state the specific source. It is from revenue collected by the Treasury.

7.9 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I welcome the Statement which my noble friend has repeated, and particularly the Government's intention both to reduce class sizes and to improve the fabric of our schools. Nothing is more depressing and demoralizing for students, parents and teachers than to have to operate in schools with poor facilities. Outside toilets must be a strong indicator of such poor facilities.

Will my noble friend encourage schools to use some of the additional resources that they will be receiving to improve the quality of the supervision of children during playtime periods? I have become concerned about the lack of experienced and suitably qualified supervisors at playtimes and particularly at lunchtime. It is not at all surprising that bullying, which we see in so many of our schools, occurs at lunchtime. I should be grateful if my noble friend could give me some hope in that area.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government recognise that bullying can do enormous long-term damage to children. Some takes place during breaks or at lunchtimes; some occurs on the way to or from school and some in the classroom. It is important that there is adequate supervision of children during lunch breaks, especially for younger children. I shall take back my noble friend's point and see whether we can do further work to ensure that schools provide adequate supervision. I believe that most schools take this matter seriously and I very much hope that some of the additional recurrent funding that we have been able to provide will allow them to do so.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords. I welcome the Minister's Statement. Having had daughters who attended a school with outside toilets and having campaigned on that for a number of years and been horrified that members of the county council did not even know that there were outside toilets in their schools, may I say from the heart that what the noble Baroness has said pleases me no end?

However, perhaps I may press her further on the point raised by my noble friend Lord Tope. The Minister told us that the closing date for the bids will be 30th April. When will the announcement of the successful bids be made? We on these Benches are concerned that the work will need to he done in the summer holidays, and that that is a very tight timetable.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I cannot give a precise date for the announcement of the successful bids. I am not sure that it is yet known. If I am wrong on that, I shall write to the noble Baroness immediately and, if I am right and the date has not yet been finalised, I shall let her know as soon as it is.