Commons Diary: A further fortnight of failure at the DfE
The pace of laptop distribution is getting slower, says Streeting | PA Images
From a lack of school laptops, to delays in closing borders and ministers missing in action, Wes Streeting reflects on week where incompetence appears to have become a qualification for high office
Most people, including opposition politicians like me, don’t expect government to get everything right. But that doesn’t explain or excuse the seemingly endless list of failures we’ve seen from the Department for Education throughout this crisis, including this last fortnight.
Almost 11 months have passed since the first lockdown, but we learned last week that there are still hundreds of thousands of children and young people without the laptops and internet access they need to learn from home. Worse still, the pace of laptop distribution is getting slower. It needs to go faster to get every child online.
When the education secretary announced in early December that exams would be going ahead, before scrapping them just a month later, he also announced the creation of an ‘expert group’ to look at the varying levels of disruption to pupils’ learning in different parts of the country. Last week, in response to my written question, the schools minister confirmed rather feebly that the group is being ‘refocused’, which was a bold claim given that he also confirmed that the group currently has no membership and no focus at all.
In one of the most remarkable resignations in modern political history, Estelle Morris famously resigned as Tony Blair’s education secretary in 2002, even though there had been no calls for her to do so and the prime minister had implored her to stay. She said, with characteristic humility, “I’m not having second best in a job that’s as important as this.”
Education has been one of the greatest casualties of this crisis, yet it is also key to future life chances and our economic recovery. A serious shake-up at DfE is needed to prevent further harm being inflicted upon future generations as a result of ministers’ serial incompetence.
But this is a government where incompetence is no bar to high office. Indeed, it looks increasingly like a qualification in Boris Johnson’s cabinet.
It’s absurd that, for most kids, schools are closed but our borders are open
Three and a half years have passed since the Grenfell Tower fire in which 72 people lost their lives and many more saw their lives ripped apart in the flames. Yet hundreds of thousands of people are still living in death traps and leaseholders find themselves trapped in properties they are unable to sell because of government inaction on unsafe cladding. Given the seriousness of the situation, it was an insult to all those affected that poor Eddie Hughes, the new housing minister who has only been in post for a matter of days, was sent along to the Commons to account for the government’s failure without any plan of action.
While we’re on the subject of sympathy for the other side, spare a thought for poor Priti Patel. She’s been telling anyone who’ll listen that she wanted the borders closed last year. What a pity she didn’t bother to tell the House of Commons during Labour’s opposition day debate on Monday calling for tighter border restrictions. Still, it sounds from the newspaper briefings that she means it. It’s absurd that, for most kids, schools are closed but our borders are open. Priti Patel knows this. Boris Johnson should make her home secretary so that she can do something about it.
On Westminster Hour last week I had the chance to get something off my chest about opposition day debates. Some commentators seem to be under the misapprehension that these votes are meaningless. In case any MPs are labouring under this delusion – apparently having lost their self-respect as legislators and respect for the institution in which we are privileged to sit – no resolution of the House of Commons should ever be considered meaningless. It is our responsibility to speak for, and vote for, the interests of our constituents and our country.
If the government chooses to ignore resolutions it reflects badly on them. But not nearly as badly as missing these votes will reflect on MPs in marginal seats come the general election.
Wes Streeting is Labour MP for Ilford North and shadow minister for schools