Tuesday 10 February 2009
[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Tami.)
It is nice to serve under your tutelage once more, Mr. Olner.
Many people will not know what the Rose report is, but I think that it will have much further reaching effects than the hot air and froth being engendered in the Thatcher Room at the moment concerning bankers and so on. When the report comes to fruition in March, April or some time later this year, it will affect education not only in primary schools but right across the board. It will instruct and help teachers and help young people develop skills and will establish a lasting effect on education in this country.
This is a serious debate, and I am pleased to see that some MPs take it seriously and are in the Chamber. We should continue to remind our colleagues how important education is and how it fashions all of us. Many young people will benefit from the report. I am encouraged by Sir Jim Rose’s report and by my visits to schools in my constituency and my talks with head teachers, who welcome the report. They are looking forward to some things in the report that I will discuss in a minute or two. Support staff and teachers also welcome the initiative.
There is, of course, some opposition, whipped up by a few subject teaching associations and some newspapers. They say that the proposed new curriculum is the end of subject teaching—history, geography, maths and so on—and therefore the end of proper teaching. It is complete nonsense to accuse Jim Rose of that particular sin. He is way beyond that. The report is logical. It builds and develops on the themes forming the early years foundation stage. It recognises that there is teaching before the initial teaching alphabet takes over, and that changes and developments have taken place in primary phases during the past few years.
The report encourages cross-curricular links between subjects. I went to the George White junior school in Norwich and found that there are improved attitudes, greater enthusiasm and motivation and consequent improvements in attainment when children are taught in a cross-curricular way. We do not learn in subject boxes; learning is, or should be, an inspiring but sometimes slightly messy and confusing business. It makes more sense to acquire and apply knowledge and skills across the curriculum through themes and topics.
That does not mean, however, that basic literacy and numeracy skills will not be taught. On the contrary, they will be taught separately, as the report recommends, and then applied across the curriculum, where they will make sense and have a purpose. Sir Jim’s proposals outline an exciting, flexible, creative primary curriculum that puts the child at the centre, producing practical, thoughtful “ideas people” rather than forcing children into narrow cul-de-sacs of knowledge with an inability to think laterally, creatively and imaginatively or to apply their knowledge and understanding effectively.
The report was called for by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Its aim was to consider the feasibility of reducing the number of subjects in primary education and of introducing foreign languages into the curriculum at that early stage, particularly at key stage 2. The Minister and I will fall out savagely in a few minutes about some of the things that I shall say about key stage 2, because I think that there will be serious consequences if and when the Rose report is implemented. The curriculum should enable schools to provide more personalised teaching, especially for children with special educational needs, about which I shall say more in a minute. Reading, writing and numeracy should be strengthened.
I have identified the following as key points in the review: the aim of instilling a love of learning; changes to the curriculum involving a move away from subject-based education; complementing the use of play in teaching; interaction and general interrelationships between all stages of all education; and allowing teacher innovation within the education sector.
We have read the headlines about the changes from subject teaching to a more thematic approach. People have missed the point if that is what they believe. The quote that has stuck with me—we all had primary education and remember the good bits and bad bits—is
“to instil a love of learning for its own sake”.
That is something a person carries with them through life: the ability to question because of encouragement to ask questions, without the belief that one can ever stop learning, whether at age 16, 18, 23 or whenever. In a good primary school curriculum, learning is continuously built into children, and it extends throughout the rest of their lives. Sir Jim has sent a powerful message by saying that, and we should welcome it.
We neglect a prime part of the education process in talking so much about increased testing. We miss out on making people enjoy learning—there is nothing to say that it cannot be enjoyed. I welcome the fact that many young people skip and run to get to school because they so enjoy the teaching that they receive and are inspired by it. Others, of course, do not do so, but Rose’s scheme recognises that and allows for their abilities to be fed into a new programme. Those who do well at learning and enjoy it do better in exams.
The report is entitled “The independent review of the primary curriculum”, and we can still feed into it with ideas. Many groups by which I have been invaded—I will mention one or two of them—are still taking part in that process.
“A love of learning” is the phrase that we must push, but many opportunities offered under the new curriculum will be compromised and undermined by the continuing presence of what Sir Jim Rose calls “the elephant in the room”—this is the point where the Minister and I savage each other delightfully—meaning key stage 2 standard assessment tests. Key stage 2 SATs are abhorred out there in the community, and it has been recognised that key stage 3 SATs are not as essential as was once argued.
All MPs visit schools. I visited one last Friday and spoke to the head, deputy head and chair of governors about the curriculum issues to which my hon. Friend refers. I congratulate him on securing this debate. Is it not taking Basil Fawlty’s “Don’t talk about the war” approach to education to instruct Sir Jim Rose not to discuss in any detail comments about assessment and testing? They have a central and sometimes malign impact on curriculum development in terms of teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum and so on. Does my hon. Friend hope, as I do, that Sir Jim Rose will set aside that requirement and discuss the future of key stage 2, which should follow key stages 1 and 3?
I agree absolutely. There must be a serious challenge to SATs 2 and their effect on the morale of teachers, young people and parents. We must ask what we should substitute for them. None of us would stand up and say that young people should not be tested by some kind of system, but it should not be a SATs 2. There are other ways to do it, and I will mention some of them. We must trust teachers. They want to inspire their pupils and see that they are being inspired. They are quite prepared to carry out tests, and do so, in their own time and on a more individual basis. Because they know the strengths and weaknesses of the young people they teach, they are able to help them progress.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is the quality of teachers, their enthusiasm and their inspirational ability that make the difference in schools? A good set of well-motivated teachers under a decent head makes for a good school. Does he think that Sir Jim put enough emphasis in his report on the ability for teachers to be flexible and use their skills to inspire children?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for attending the debate. Certainly, Sir Jim Rose has mentioned that issue, and much more credit could be given to teachers in terms of their contribution to the whole education process. The teaching unions, for example, will be pre-eminent in helping to establish the essential part that teachers play in the whole education process.
Teachers’ assessments and judgments are often sidelined in favour of the crude measurements adopted by Ofsted and the Government, which then appear in league tables. I despise league tables—although not football league tables particularly. I despise league tables for schools for being as pre-eminent as they are, because they bias the whole system and miss lots of tricks about the skills and abilities that young people are developing. I do not want to go on about the kind of tests that exist. All I know is that teachers across the country are not impressed by league tables and the information that they provide.
Of course, we need national standards, and testing must exist to track the progress of pupils, but anyone with any experience, expertise or even common sense recognises that the current regime has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and that it has had a detrimental effect on the education of our young people. I defy any MP to stand up and say that when they go into a school they do not hear that comment time and again from teachers who are absolutely committed to their young people and to their profession.
Let us look at the changes in the curriculum that Sir Jim Rose has suggested. He wants students to have the following abilities: understanding of English, communication and languages; a mathematical understanding; scientific and technological understanding; human, social and environmental understanding; understanding of physical health and well-being; and understanding of the arts and design. Those are the issues that he has identified as themes; they are the areas where we should be discussing how we inculcate understanding, learning, a love of learning and a questioning attitude.
Understanding English, communication and languages is fairly obvious. We need literacy, of course. Often, however, we miss the importance of communication. Communication is vital. A current instance is the baby P case; it is interesting that at the moment I receive more literature about that case than I do about the Gaza strip. One of the things mentioned over the sacking of the director of children’s services in that case was that communication was very poor.
Communication is a skill and an art. Being able to talk to people, and being confident in doing so, in order to transmit ideas is very important. As an ex-teacher in higher education, I have to say that American students over-communicated. Whenever I held seminars, I could not shut them up. I think that it was part and parcel of their training; they had lots to say, lots to question, and so on. By contrast, generally the English student or the Scottish student—sometimes we get them in England too—used to listen, take notes and then run off to the library to nick the relevant journal before anybody else could. That was their way of becoming involved in a seminar. We should encourage people to talk much more, to argue and not to be afraid of being stupid now and again—they may say something that sounds stupid but might just be on the button in a particular conversation.
As I said, communication is very important. Various groups have written to me on the subject, such as the I CAN charity, which is very active in helping children to communicate; it is specifically a communication charity. It is doing lots of work in that area and I am sure that its work will feed into the Rose report in the next few months.
If the recommendations of the Rose report are accepted, does the hon. Gentleman expect that there will be more teaching of English, including communication skills, and maths, or does he expect that type of teaching to contract to give more time to other aspects of the curriculum?
Yes, I think there will be a slight contraction of that type of teaching. There is an argument that people can be over-teached, and I think that Sir Jim Rose is asking whether over-teaching happens. What are the essential things that a young person needs in today’s world? There will be some people who say that they should be taught financial ability. We will certainly not get bankers to come and tell us anything about financial ability, but handling finances is very important and it is a skill that must be fed into the curriculum. Whether that is done through mathematics, literacy or whatever, young people must be able to handle finances; they must be able to talk about the issues and argue them out.
I think that some of the classic rote stuff that we teach will disappear and I do not think that we will miss it very much. There has been an acceptance in the past that some things are essential and the Rose report has started to ask, “What is really essential?” I am not sure that our answers will ever be 100 per cent. correct, but we will get close to that mark—in the 90s, anyway. That process should be encouraged, so that we really look for what is essential.
My experience is that no one ever wants to take anything out of the curriculum, whether in higher education or junior schools. Every teacher wants their subject to be in the curriculum. Sir Jim Rose is trying to establish a different kind of thinking about how we include subjects in the curriculum.
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there will be a contraction in the amount of time spent on teaching literacy and communication as a consequence of the report, how does he think that we will tackle the problem that one in five 11-year-olds are still struggling to read when they leave primary school?
I am not trying to say that there will be an absolute doing away with numeracy and literacy. I made the point that there will be some teaching of those subjects. It is just a question of what kind of numeracy and literacy children actually need. If teaching is geared to examinations and league tables, it gives a very different perspective on the curriculum and what is taught than if children are taught what is essential to be a citizen of the United Kingdom and indeed a citizen of the world. There is a bigger debate, which Sir Jim Rose is trying to provoke. Whether or not this country is up to having that debate and whether or not the teaching professionals are big enough to engage in it are questions that will be answered in the next few months.
The hon. Gentleman is being most generous in giving way. Does he agree that many of the one in five 11-year-olds who have just been referred to could read if they decided that they wanted to learn and applied themselves to learning? They just need the inspiration and motivation to do it. Perhaps a more flexible curriculum that gave teachers more opportunity to inspire students and to do their own thing, rather than simply following a set curriculum, would help children to want to learn to read, which would reduce the illiteracy rate at 11.
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to make a small point on my little hobby horse—special educational needs?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that intervention and I absolutely concur with it.
There are charities and volunteer groups that do a lot of work in the field. Volunteer Reading Help is a national charity with a network of about 1,500 volunteers who have helped more than 4,000 children of primary age. A huge number of people are prepared to work and confer with the professional teacher about how to help children. There is great recognition of the need not only to read but to be able to write, spell and so on.
Goodness gracious, I spent from the age of six to the age of 11 learning times tables. I am an absolute expert on nine times seven, although I notice that some Ministers get that question wrong sometimes. We had tables hammered into us and brilliance was demonstrated by a student’s ability to do those tests, and by the ability to spell. I think that I am quite a good speller—but gosh, the hours and hours we spent going through spelling books was a waste of time. We should have done something completely different. Politics would have been a good thing to study at a very early age, and I would not have joined the Conservative party either.
In relation to my hon. Friend’s last but one reply to the Opposition spokesman—the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb)—I encourage him not to be too apologetic about tackling the obesity of the core curriculum, which has pushed too many other subjects to the margins. Those subjects certainly include the visual and performing arts, which have a part to play in improving communication skills, the importance of which he was talking about earlier. A slimming of certain over-mighty core subjects would not go amiss, as the objectives would be delivered in other ways.
Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. We all agree that it is essential to have mathematics of some kind. As some people will know, I am running a mathematical day for MPs here in a few weeks’ time. MPs are very good at quoting figures, but they do not know how people reach those figures, or what the equations are. The aim is not to make MPs into mathematicians, but to make them sceptical about how figures and statistics are collated, and to make them ask what it really means to say that someone has a 5 per cent. better chance than someone else of not getting cancer. I do not know what that means in concrete terms; if anyone does, will they please tell me?
Mathematics is important for young people, and financial understanding can be part of that. It is a huge problem in schools that many young people do not gain an understanding of how to handle finances. That has led to citizens advice bureaux being packed out at the moment, and at other times of the year, because people find it difficult to keep hold of the different, complicated accounts that come their way. That kind of teaching can help.
Scientific and technological understanding starts in primary schools. I have a bee in my bonnet about that. Some teachers do wonderful things by teaching children how to make parachutes and doing nature study, as they used to call it—indeed, I think they still do—teaching understanding about fish and so on. David Attenborough’s television programmes fascinate young people and old people alike, which is quite amazing. There should be more of that kind of teaching at an early stage, and children should get their hands dirty doing experiments such as making parachutes and mixing things together to make smells. That is what stimulates them to try to understand and to ask questions, and they carry that love through to secondary school, where other problems arise in science and technology.
That approach is essential—everyone says so, but no one does much about it. A bit has been done, but not enough. We still lack laboratories for young people to practise the skills and arts of science and technology. Their world is full of television programmes and so on, and we need to reflect that much more in every school.
On the theme of human, social and environmental understanding, how can children avoid hearing about climate change these days? They have heard of it and they think they can see it in individual events. That is arguable, but they need to know what the arguments are.
What are we trying to do with science? Jim Rose will have to ask himself that question, and will have to get support on the issue. Are we trying to make Nobel prize-winning scientists? No, we are trying to make people confident and literate in science so that they can ask the right questions even without knowing all the technical jargon. The jargon may be unnecessary, but it exists and people have to try to be confident with it. We saw that in the debate on genetic modification, when dreadful things were said against GM for all sorts of reasons. That debate is rising to the surface again, and it cannot be ignored.
We can explain things, such as the use of stem cells to handle brain problems. I visited an eminent school, highly rated by Ofsted and at the top of the league tables, which taught about stem cells in religion classes. Fine, but there was nothing in its science classes about stem cells, because the teachers had decided, for their own personal reasons—I do not know whether they were creationists or whether there was another argument—that they wanted to use religion classes to talk about what it meant to use stem cells. We had similar debates on human embryology a few months ago, when people asked if we were playing God, or trying to change the world. That is fine in religion—I am for that—but I am also keen on such subjects being taught in science classes. They can be started in a simplistic but understandable way in primary school. Rose has got that message.
Little needs to be said about physical health and well-being, with the Olympics coming and with obesity on the agenda at last. Young people are keen to participate in some kind of sport, although some do not want to do sport and we have to find out why, but if we can inculcate it into them, that would be great.
The arts and design can blow the mind. We should appreciate, in our society, that there are artists who create great works. One does not have to be a Picasso to get great pleasure out of drawing. Goodness me, every MP—smart devils they are—gets their Christmas cards painted by some young constituent from a school in their patch. Colleagues will know what those drawings are like—they are great! They will never hang in the British Academy, but those young people are very proud when an MP recognises their work. We should say to Rose, “Carry on with the arts and design, because young people really appreciate them.”
The hon. Gentleman skipped over the fourth area of learning outlined in the Rose review—human, social and environmental understanding—although he mentioned the environment. Under that heading, should children also learn, during the seven years of primary school, about the Romans, the Saxons and the middle ages, and about the oceans, continents and rivers of this country and Europe, or should those subjects be moved to secondary school?
No, they should not be moved. It is hard to deny young people the delights of seeing how previous civilisations operated. I do not say that we should be going into Mayan temples and all that stuff, but the children at George White junior school in Norfolk go out to see the broads and learn what they are and how they were formed. That can be explained to them. It is difficult to talk to children—or, indeed, adults—in deep technological terms about such things, but they should know about the countryside that they inhabit. They should know about the history of their street and about the wall around the city, and the city gates. Many young people are now doing those things. I have seen projects recently in which young people have studied a part of the city of Norwich by going to look at it and then going back centuries to how it used to be. There is great interest in such subjects, and some teaching on them is absolutely necessary. I do not say that there should be a 20-lecture course on them, but a few hours can be spent discussing them and looking at pictures. There have been many great, technological advances, which can be used to show on screen the different things that happened years ago in the parts of the world where young people live.
Foreign languages are another area of discussion, but I do not want to say too much about that area because we talk about it often. It is important to learn foreign languages. Not enough people can speak another language, and that is not only hypocritical and arrogant, but also a shambles. I confess that although I passed higher Latin I failed lower French. I think it was the first time that French had ever been taken in Scottish highers. I knew things like “Toto ouvre la porte” from the books, but we learned by rote. We were told, “Here’s the book—read that,” and then we got some questions on them. Being Scottish, I found it difficult to speak French sometimes, but I was red hot at Latin, not that it has done me much good except to get me into university.
My experience reflects that of many people nowadays. They do not see the value of languages, and they still want to speak English everywhere they go. We have to get away from that situation. We have all said that many times, and it is beginning to happen in schools—I acknowledge that there has been a move in that direction—but there has to be a push. The Rose report gives us an opportunity to do more.
On play-related teaching, there are now computer suites in schools for young people to play on. That will be a real advantage, because that is their world, with the internet and so on. Technological advances should be utilised at primary school, and not left until secondary school, as they once were.
Does my hon. Friend welcome the recognition in the interim report that we are seeing the emergence of digital natives, almost, with young people who have sparkling aptitudes and abilities, and who sometimes out-stretch their teachers? Does he hope that the final report in April will focus a little more on the need to bridge the enormous digital divide or void that there can be between the ICT skills and knowledge of young people from different socio-economic backgrounds? Should that not be a priority?
Absolutely. My original comment about people being more worried about what bankers are saying to a Select Committee illustrates where politics have reached. We should be talking about socio-economic problems being a priority for the Government. Where are our discussions about that? I am talking about the generality. Teaching people from different socio-economic backgrounds involves the use of different methods and ways of seduction. Teachers know how to do that, and we should be supporting and helping them. I am disappointed that we do not find people to belly-ache about socio-economic groups and how we can sort things out—it is through primary education that we will do that.
I know that I am ranting on a bit, but I want to mention that through major national initiatives to provide a comprehensive assessment system we are at last beginning to trust teachers to assess the progress of pupils. Assessing pupil progress—APP—will, I think, result in the abolition of the SATs test at key stage 2 and interim assessment models could also be used. There are alternatives to SATs that would inspire teachers and make them less disgruntled at times. Locally administered, moderated teacher assessment with sampling to monitor national standards should have our full support.
Although there is a lot of moaning in the press, the vast majority of teachers are dedicated, imaginative, innovative, inspiring individuals, and that continues to be the case. We are all here because of them. As a member of a Select Committee, for example, we might ask young people—such as those who appeared before the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee yesterday—“What made you do this?” and they will say that it is because a teacher at school inspired them. They will not say that it was at university, because it happens long before that. It is often at primary school that a teacher captures someone’s imagination, shows them a book in the library and how to get on the internet and find things out. It is at that point that bright young people from different backgrounds can take things forward and gain great experience.
We should get round to dealing with things and say that teachers can use the Rose report to inspire a generation of young people through cross-curricular education. There was once a medical course that was taught in the following way: students would think about all aspects of the liver—how it functioned, its physiology and so on—but they would also find out how it could be ruined by drink. Extra-curricular matters are taught to medical students. Courses for medical students are changing to recognise that their work takes place in a society with social problems.
We have a real opportunity to inform young people about such issues earlier. We should not dodge the matter. Young people live in a real world that will change, and that is not just because of bankers and what we do to them. The world is really changing and young people will have different values. Education must not lag behind. We should get ahead of the curve and teach things that are relevant to young people’s daily lives.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on giving us, I think, the first opportunity to debate this subject since the original Rose proposals came out. Not only the final conclusions of the Rose process, but the Cambridge primary review will be published in the next few months. This is therefore a valuable opportunity for hon. Members to debate the subject and to hear the Minister’s comments on the development of Government policy.
I am not quite as convinced as the hon. Member for Norwich, North about the importance of the report; I will explain why in a moment. When we consider the challenges in the primary sector—the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) talked about the 20 to 30 per cent. of youngsters who leave primary education with poor basic skills—what Rose has to offer is relatively modest, is unclear in some areas, and may even deal with the least important challenge in primary education.
When I visit schools, not only in my constituency but across the country, I find that most heads are not convinced that a major change in the primary curriculum is necessary. Most particularly, good schools already believe that they have the flexibility and freedom to do much of the cross-curricular work that is picked up in the Rose review. One of the things I want to challenge today is how important Rose will be and precisely what it will mean.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument carefully, but I am a little at a loss to understand his reasoning. He says that 20 to 30 per cent. of children are leaving the primary stage without the necessary skills. I presume that he acknowledges that those children have the ability, but that they have not been inspired to draw that out to learn those skills. That is because they are hide-bound by a fixed and rigid curriculum and teachers are not allowed to do their thing, to be flexible and to inspire children. Does he not think that Rose has started to get to grips with that problem?
No, I am not sure that Rose has done so. Although I entirely agree that, in some way, the biggest challenge in primary education is to make sure that the 20 or 30 per cent. of youngsters at the bottom are inspired by education, pupils should leave primary education not only with good basic skills in English and mathematics, but with a love of learning in other subject areas.
I am not convinced that the review’s proposals will deliver the outcomes for which the hon. Member for Norwich, North hopes. We also have to question the extent to which heads in schools are able to use some of the flexibility that they have to ensure that they do not simply teach mathematics and English in a rather desiccated way, but that they link them up with the other subject areas. That already happens in many schools, as the Rose report indicates.
In the hon. Gentleman’s critique of Rose, does he include Rose’s description of special educational needs, such as individuals with dyslexia and dyspraxia, who have difficulty reading and writing? That is not always picked up and is a huge issue in schools. Rose picks it up and I have never seen anyone else do so. Does he agree?
I certainly agree that that is an important issue, and I shall go on to discuss it, because it is one of the matters to which we should give priority. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Rose review has a fairly limited perspective on primary education and that the Cambridge review has a much broader view of primary education. Although the Cambridge review started before the Rose review, we expect the results to be delivered after Rose’s. The Cambridge review will look at all aspects of the development of youngsters in that age range, and it will deal with the important issue of testing, where concerns that what is being taught and tested is not always the most appropriate part of the English and mathematics curricula have been underscored by bodies such as Ofsted. Testing can also pressure some schools into narrowing what is actually taught. I shall come back to that later.
Will the Minister say to what extent the Rose review consultation process should be taken seriously? It is disappointing that the Alexander review, the Cambridge review and the Rose review have got slightly out of kilter. There is a feeling that the Government are not drawing as much on the Cambridge review as they could and that they will have made many of their decisions before it is published. I understand that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has already started work on a lot of the detailed programmes of study that come out of the Rose review, particularly in relation to the six areas of learning. That work appears to have started even before the end of the consultation process on the Rose report, which I believe will be at the end of this month. I wonder whether we ought to take seriously the consultation in which the Government are involved, or whether this Government-commissioned report has been fairly closely prescribed and consideration of some issues that could usefully have been considered has specifically been ruled out, with the result that the report can lead only to modest changes.
Before I outline my concerns about the report, I want to highlight some of its useful and important aspects. As the hon. Member for Norwich, North indicated, the report emphasises the importance of getting the basics of literacy and numeracy right. In fairness, it also highlights extremely important issues, such as speech and language, where there is a need for more support and better joining up with other services that can help to deliver better speech and language education. The Government took effective action in commissioning a report on that, the Bercow report, which makes many useful proposals that I hope will be picked up.
I question, however, what precisely the Rose report says about the amount of time to be spent on literacy, numeracy and communications. The report’s remit made it clear that the Government wanted that area to continue to take priority, and that is a clear conclusion of the review. The hon. Member for Norwich, North, in response to my intervention, expressed the hope that those aspects of the curriculum would contract to make way for the subjects that people perceive to have been squeezed out, such as history, some of the sciences, geography and some of the non-academic parts of the curriculum. We are therefore being told two contradictory things about the impact of the Rose report. If the report is accepted, does the Minister expect us to end up with more time for those subjects—perhaps with a different emphasis on different parts of the teaching of literacy, numeracy and communication—less time for them, or the same amount of time?
Some of the proposals for teaching modern languages seem fairly sensible. We have a crisis in the number of pupils engaged in modern language education. Ever since the Government ended the compulsory teaching of modern languages beyond the age of 14, without doing anything to encourage youngsters to persist with them, we have had a topsy-turvy approach, whereby we have tried to salvage modern language education by including much more of it in primary education. Its quality is inconsistent, however, and, because of a lack of qualified teachers, some schools teach modern languages that may not be followed up in secondary education, simply giving children a taster of five or 10 different languages. Rose says that what is taught in modern languages during key stages 2 and 3 ought to be joined up, and that is quite sensible.
In what could be seen as a criticism of the present Government and their predecessors, Rose says that he wants a more thoughtful and stable process for reviewing primary education. He says that past reviews have been largely reactive and driven by the need to reduce curriculum overload and over-prescription, and that now he wants a proactive strategy and schools to be afforded a period of stability in which to achieve the agreed curriculum goals. That is very important: if head teachers, governing bodies and teachers generally make one request when we visit schools, it is that we provide greater stability and consistency, rather than a series of initiatives that are introduced and often phased out before they have had a chance to benefit anyone.
Those are the report’s aspects that I welcome, but I have some concerns about other elements. There is a lack of clarity about the proposed emphasis on the basic skills of literacy, numeracy and communication. We know that they are crucial not only to people’s basic skills and to getting a job, but to their ability to engage properly in other subjects. We can teach those English and mathematics skills through the high-quality teaching of other subjects, and they do not have to be taught in a dry way that is all about the two times table, but we must get the basics right. Youngsters cannot succeed in secondary education unless they are taught those important basic skills, but there is a lack of clarity about whether there will be more or less of such teaching.
I also found in the report a great deal of jargon and a good many things that seem to be motherhood and apple pie. Before the hon. Gentleman finished his speech, I flicked at random through the report to any old page just to read a paragraph again. Paragraph 1.51 is typical of the report’s educational mumbo-jumbo, listing rather obvious points with which nobody could disagree. That is a feature of the report which makes it so difficult to engage with the document and to understand what it means. It is almost impossible to disagree with the provisional recommendations; if one were to propose their opposite, one would be considered bizarre or educationally illiterate. The report contains much that is uncontroversial and much with which it is difficult to engage.
Let me finish this point, because I may be being unfair to Rose and the hon. Gentleman may wish to defend him in a second. There is a lack of clarity about themes, about what will happen to subject teaching, about the role of facts and individual understanding of subjects such as history and geography, and about whether the suggestions will undermine a more traditional approach to education, in which youngsters are expected to engage with facts, allowing them an understanding that they can use to exploit the many information-providing vehicles that are available in the modern age.
I am sure that we will have many arguments about data over coffee first thing in the morning, but does the hon. Gentleman not think that, for too long, history has been about kings and queens rather than about the history of the area where people live, or where their parents come from? People come from different parts of the world. For people living in Britain today, is that not the real issue, rather than who was king in 1603?
If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he wants the Government to provide for more flexibility and freedom in what is taught in every curricular area, I entirely agree. We, as a party, do not believe in a curriculum that is so prescriptive that it seeks to prioritise certain parts of history. If, however, he is saying that history teaching should be almost fact-free—perhaps I parody his argument—that poses a serious risk. If youngsters are not given a framework to understand the past, it is difficult for them to use the skills that he rightly wants to develop so that they can improve their education. I am not sure what implications the Rose report has for the teaching of those core subjects, however. When the Government and Rose came under attack because of the perception that the proposals meant dumbing down education, there was a considerable retreat from them. That feature of the report makes it so frustrating when one tries to understand its proposals—whether some might be damaging or whether they are just tweaks to the system.
Some speeches take much longer than one expected when one started, and I have left precious little time to discuss some important points that should have higher Government priority. I shall touch on them briefly.
Any primary education review that leaves out the testing regime leaves out something of great importance and relevance to the curriculum debate, because one cannot debate the curriculum without debating the pressures on schools through the testing regime, which is so crucial. I certainly do not want us to get rid of key stage 2 testing in its entirety; it is important to know in primary schools the proportion of youngsters who achieve basic skills in maths and English. I do not want the testing regime to become more onerous through the introduction of single-level tests, either. The debacle of last year’s SATs results gives us an opportunity to consider whether there is a greater role for teacher assessment with external moderation, because credible tests are still essential for testing the right things in the basic subjects and for giving us an idea of how schools and youngsters are doing in a particular age range.
We also need a much better system of assessing youngsters as they enter primary education, and of ensuring that the interventions that they need, particularly in speech, language and other special educational areas, are delivered. The testing regime should not just be about assessing the performance of schools. More significantly, it should be about the actions that we need to take to improve opportunities for young children. That is why some of our proposals on school funding and the pupil premium, which would put additional money into schools to help the most disadvantaged youngsters, are crucial, and will become even more important in an environment where education funding is being squeezed, as it will be after 2011.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this important debate. I disagree with most of what he said, but I do agree with his view that Romans, Saxons and the middle ages, as well as the oceans and continents, the rivers of the UK and the countries of Europe, should be taught in primary schools. I disagree with his comment that primary schools should not teach about kings and queens: they are an important part of understanding our history, and I hope that they remain in the primary curriculum.
And the Scottish kings and queens as well.
I agree with the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that there is no clamour among primary teachers or head teachers for further changes to the primary curriculum, and that what is desperately sought in the primary sector is a period of stability.
The interim report of the Rose review of primary education is both disappointing and confused. It is disappointing because it fails to refer to and therefore to address the fundamental problems in our education system that it was designed to tackle. There is no reference in the report to the fact that one in five 11-year-olds leave primary school still struggling with reading despite seven years of primary education; the fact that 40 per cent. of 11-year-olds leave primary school not having reached level 4 in reading, writing and maths combined; the fact that, in 2007, 37 per cent. of six-year-olds on free school meals failed to reach the national standard in their key stage 1 writing assessment, up from 28 per cent. in 2002; the fact that nearly 3,000 fewer six-year-olds from the most deprived communities achieved a level 2 or above in key stage 1 maths last year than in 2005-06; or the fact that the number of six-year-olds from the most disadvantaged communities achieving the national standard in writing has fallen by 18 per cent. since 1997. None of those key issues is addressed in the interim report.
One of the main problems facing our education system is literacy, yet, despite using the word “reading” 35 times, there is not a single mention of the word “phonics”, let alone the phrase “synthetic phonics”, in the 68 pages of the report. There is not even a reference to Jim Rose’s report on the teaching of reading, which recommended the early and systematic teaching of synthetic phonics in the teaching of reading. How can a review of the primary curriculum not refer to how reading is taught and how it should be taught?
It was the Conservatives who initiated the debate on how reading is taught in primary schools. It led to the report of the then Education and Skills Committee and then to the previous Rose review, which was about reading, and the change in Government policy under Tony Blair and Lord Adonis. However, under the current Administration, there appears to be no understanding of the importance of the issue. Is it not odd that Jim Rose appears as the author of both reports? I believe that the Rose review on reading was actually written by Jim Rose himself, whereas the report we are debating today, while claiming to be independent, is actually written by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, as the remit letter instructs. It is therefore hardly what one would call independent.
I take the point that the hon. Member for Yeovil made about mumbo-jumbo in paragraph 1.51, which contrasts starkly with the clear and simple language and direction of policy in the Rose review on reading. It would be hard to believe that the two reports were written by the same person.
There is no reference in the report to how maths should be taught: for example, whether so-called reform maths—the multiple-strategy approach to the teaching of arithmetic—is actually working. The Conservatives have established an inquiry into maths teaching in our schools. It will be headed by Carol Vorderman and will consider whether children should learn their multiplication tables by heart, so that they instinctively know that eight sevens are 56, for example. Children need to know number bonds automatically, so that they can say that eight plus four is 12 without having to count on their fingers. That can be achieved only through practice and direct, whole-class teaching. Automaticity is as vital in arithmetic as it is in the playing of the piano, if one is to progress to more challenging maths or to more complex pieces of music.
None of that is discussed in the report. What is discussed is a proposal to move to more cross-curriculum teaching using themes and projects—all the old 1950s and 1960s mantras that have failed whenever and wherever they have been tried. A 1992 analysis of primary education by the three wise men, including Sir Jim Rose, concluded:
“The resistance to subjects at the primary stage is no longer tenable…There is clear evidence that much topic work has led to fragmentary and superficial learning.”
Page 17 of the Rose review highlights a major survey published by Her Majesty’s inspector of schools in 1978, noting that
“much so-called ‘topic’ and ‘project’ work in those days often failed to match children’s developing abilities and militated against extending their understanding because it lacked progression and was too repetitive.”
The review goes on to state that it is
“certainly not advocating a return to the vagaries of old style topic and project work.”
No, it is advocating a return to a new style of topic and project work and cross-curricular teaching, but it is not how one implements the approach but the approach itself that is the problem. The report does not explain why continuing with the same ’50s and ’60s approach that failed so badly will succeed now, nor does it say how implementation today will differ from implementation in the ’50s and ’60s. I do not believe that the results will be any different if we go back to an approach that failed when it was tried in the ’50s and ’60s, in the ’70s, and even in the ’80s and ’90s.
I have sympathy with some of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but does he agree that many schools succeed in blending different elements of the curriculum? I hope that he does not want to impede the work of good schools that are capable of blending parts of the curriculum together in a useful way.
There should be flexibility in the curriculum. My concern is that the review will replace one set of prescriptions with another and will not increase flexibility. Schools will now feel that they have to do what is in this report rather than what they were doing before.
Of course there are cross-curricular activities: for example, when a class is asked to write up something about the middle ages—a story or what they have learned from the textbook that they have been given—doing so improves their literacy skills. That is the right approach to cross-curricular teaching, not attempts to shoehorn literacy, numeracy and other parts of the curriculum into themes, whether chocolate or rocks, in which one loses the structure and can miss out important parts of what needs to be taught, compared with teaching distinct subjects.
On page 25 of the report is a list of the ideological debates that have plagued education since this ideology was introduced into the British education system in the 1950s. It originated in the United States in the 1920s at Teachers College, Columbia university, under John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick. The report lists:
“Subjects vs cross-curricular studies;
Knowledge vs skills;
Child initiated learning through play vs teacher directed learning;
Formal vs informal classroom organisation; and
Summative vs formative assessment.”
The report itself clearly comes down on the ideological side of cross-curricular studies and child-initiated learning through play.
On the 50-year debate about whether schools should teach knowledge or skills, page 27 of the report states that
“it is worth noting that, when observed in practice by the Review, the approach which attempts to teach skills…disembodied from a coherent core of worthwhile knowledge has not been convincing in securing children’s understanding of important key ideas.”
But the next paragraph states:
“There will be times when it is right to marshal worthwhile content into well-planned, cross-curricular studies.”
In effect, that is an endorsement of the cross-curricular skills approach that the preceding paragraph dismissed. However, no evidence is given in the review about how and why that approach might be effective now when it was so ineffective in the past.
Paragraph 1.48 says:
“Given the strong tradition of child-centred thinking in primary education, it is perhaps surprising that many respondents to the review found it difficult to answer the question… What is distinctive about children’s learning and development in the primary phase… Typical answers included: ‘It’s a time when they learn how to learn’; ‘It’s not what they learn but how they learn that’s important’”.
Yet, despite dismissing these answers as poor, the review, on page 41, recommends:
“In year one, the range and content will highlight the opportunities for child initiated enquiry and exploration.”
Herein lies the confusion in the report, which is at the heart of this review. Evidence that the 1950s and ’60s approaches do not work is cited, but the report proceeds to recommend those same approaches. The review appears to endorse and promote an ideological approach that has failed.
E. D. Hirsch, in his book, “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them”, sets out clearly the problem in American schools, which also applies to British schools: he says why that ideological approach has never worked and goes into the roots of the ideology. I tried to find a quote from the book that best summarises the argument, but the best quote is from the blurb on the reverse of the book, which says:
“For over 50 years, American schools have operated under the assumption that challenging children academically is unnatural for them, that teachers do not need to know the subjects they teach, that the learning ‘process’ should be emphasised over the facts taught. All of this is wrong…by disdaining content-based curricula, while favouring abstract—and discredited—theories of how a child learns, the ideas uniformly taught by our schools have done terrible harm to America’s students. Instead of preparing our children for the highly competitive information-based economy in which we now live, our schools’ practises have severely curtailed their ability, and desire, to learn.”
That is the point that the hon. Member for Norwich, North made: love of learning comes from learning well in primary schools. Throughout his book, Hirsch talks of the damage that the “naturalistic”, “project-orientated”, “hands-on”, “critical thinking” approach to education has caused.
The communist intellectual, Antonio Gramsci, was one of the first to understand the damage that this approach to education was causing. There is nothing new in all this: it all goes back to the 1920s and ’30s; the same old stuff is repeated and fails over and over again, but here we are in 2009 recommending the same stuff again. Gramsci wrote in 1932 that this type of education
“is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but crystallize them”.
That can be seen in all the data showing the gap widening between the children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from middle-class, educated backgrounds. The gap between the state and independent sectors is widening, too. The review is full of recommendations that would move English primary education even further towards the type of education that so worried Gramsci.
The review states, on page 49:
“Parents also worry that the shift from the play-based environment to a more structured approach to learning in Year 1 of primary school is too abrupt and inappropriate for a child who may have only recently turned five.”
That is a clear endorsement of extending play-based education from the nursery to reception and even to year 1. I asked the Minister for Schools and Learners a parliamentary question about how many parents had been consulted as part of the review process, echoing the concerns about the consultation process expressed by the hon. Member for Yeovil. The answer was eight.
One in five children in London attend an independent school. Many centre-left and left-wing journalists I know send their children to independent schools. When I ask them why, they say that it is not the social cachet or the exclusivity of the intake that makes them spend upwards of £8,000 a year, or even the small class sizes, but the fact that vast majority of pre-prep and prep schools have not adopted the so-called progressive approach to education that is so prevalent in the state sector. Those schools have never abandoned phonics in the teaching of reading: they continued to teach children their times tables by heart and they have 40 minutes a week each of history and geography, with no intention of shunting those subjects to key stage 3 and secondary school, as Rose wants to do in the review, thereby narrowing the curriculum and lightening it by shunting those important subjects up to secondary school.
If we are serious about raising standards in our primary schools, we have to eschew the ideological approach that has so dominated this country’s education system from the late 1950s, particularly following the Plowden report in 1967. We need to replace this ideological approach with a practical approach using what the evidence says works.
The paragraph in the review that most alarmed me was 2.44 on page 42, which says,
“The teacher who once said: ‘If children leave my school and can’t paint that’s a pity but if they leave and can’t read that’s a disaster’ was perhaps exaggerating to make a point.”
That is what the report says—“exaggerating”. If Sir Jim Rose and the QCA do not believe that it is a disaster for a child to leave primary school unable to read, they are the wrong people to carry out a review of primary education.
Mr. Olner, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate. He is right; this is the first opportunity that we have had to debate an important area of education reform. I thank him for his warm welcome for the interim report of the Rose review.
I should like to stress, first, that the report is an interim one and, secondly, that it is on the primary curriculum, not on primary education—some Members may have misinterpreted that point, as a couple of them referred to the review as a report on primary education. That may be what they wished it was, but it is a report on the primary curriculum. My hon. Friend has brought great insight to the debate, as a teacher and from his experience as a constituency Member of Parliament. Unlike the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), the primary schools that I have visited welcome the review of the curriculum, so perhaps we are going into different primary schools.
I want to correct one point that was made. Although the QCA provided evidence, Sir Jim Rose actually wrote and authored the report.
The 21st-century job market is rapidly changing, as are the skills that young people will need when they leave school. Our young people, as we all know, are more techno-savvy and adept at communications. Importantly, new jobs are opening up that did not even exist a decade or so ago. The technological and communications revolution has opened up a whole realm of possibilities for more interactive, engaging learning than we could even have dreamed of 20 years ago, when the national curriculum was first introduced. We need to adapt our education system to that rate of change so that it is flexible enough to accommodate and seize on those opportunities and to prepare our young people for the future.
In our children’s plan, we outlined our ambition for a world-class education system and high-quality children’s services and for this country to be the best place in the world for children to grow up in.
In their plan for a world-class education system, have the Government considered rebalancing the funding between primary and secondary education? We spend much more on secondary education than on primary education, and perhaps that should be rebalanced so that children acquire basic skills before they go to secondary school, where it is much more expensive to correct problems. Perhaps the Government should examine the system in Japan.
The hon. Gentleman will find that many local authorities are rebalancing their funding towards early years and primary education. When I was in local government, my local authority certainly took that policy decision, because it saw evidence of early intervention feeding through into later years.
The review says that we must weave flexibility through the fabric of our education infrastructure from what is taught to how it is taught—the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) referred to that point. Crucially, that flexibility must be underpinned with consistency throughout—high standards, and coherence throughout the spectrum from nought to 19 in education, mirrored by children’s services. The Government created the new Department for Children, Schools and Families more than a year ago to bring that coherence to Whitehall. Looking ahead, we are about to legislate to make local authorities the single point of accountability for all children’s services and provision from nought to 19, and that too will lend greater coherence to the system.
That consistency and coherence must be matched in the classroom to ensure that children going through their school journey experience a smooth progression so that they can pursue their talents and interests in a structured and rewarding way. That is why we modernised the secondary curriculum. We wanted to provide more time for the basics and personalised learning, more flexibility for young people to pursue their interests and talents at a pace that suits them, more support for those at the bottom and more stretch for those at the top.
At the other end of the education spectrum, we have developed the early years foundation stage, which provides play-based learning for children in their earliest years to instil in them the love of learning, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North referred, while encouraging their development. The primary years bridge the two, so consistency and transition are important, but as the longest period of a child’s statutory education, it is an extremely important developmental period in its own right, as well as playing an important part in the progress to secondary school.
Children make huge advances in their physical, intellectual, emotional and social capabilities between the ages of five and 11, so it is vital to have a primary curriculum that can properly support and encourage that development, as well as preparing children for the demands of secondary school and further learning, training and work to take advantage of the new opportunities that I mentioned. We must also support teachers to ensure that they have the best possible system and resources to bring out the best in their pupils.
We have seen real progress in primary learning over the past decade, with 88 per cent. achieving level 4 science, the highest ever. Sixteen per cent. more children have achieved level 4 maths since 1997, and 18 per cent. more have achieved that in English. That translates into 93,000 more 11-year-olds gaining the top level in maths and 101,000 more in English. That is no small achievement, but of course we acknowledge that there is still a great deal more to do.
I was coming to that. The remit for the review emphasises the importance of literacy and numeracy, and we recognise that importance. The curriculum will promote literacy and numeracy throughout all areas of learning. We do not specify the amount of time to be spent on English and maths, but maths will be used in designing and making models, and understanding patterns in art. The emphasis is on excellent curriculum design that will embed English and maths throughout, although Jim Rose says in paragraph 2.24 that
“literacy and numeracy must continue to be prioritised. These skills should be secured through rigorous, discrete teaching and used and applied across the curriculum.”
I am grateful to the Minister for accelerating to that part of her speech, but I am still not clear whether the intention is that more time will be available for English and maths, or whether the expectation is for that part of the curriculum to contract so that other parts can expand.
As I have said, we are not prescribing the amount of discrete teaching of English and maths. The idea is that teachers should be able to use their expertise to spread English and maths and embed them throughout the curriculum. We are not being prescriptive and saying that they must spend x hours on English and maths. We expect both to be spread throughout the curriculum.
Jim Rose’s interim review places a new focus and energy on the primary years to build on the success I outlined, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for his and his team’s hard work and commitment in producing such an insightful interim report. I look forward to receiving his recommendations in due course. As my hon. Friend noted, consultation is ongoing until 28 February.
On that point, and in reply to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, eight parents responded to Jim’s interim report, and much wider parent consultation is under way on the web at Mumsnet, face to face and in the ongoing consultation.
That is fine, but the consultation is taking place after the report has said that parents have a certain view. It is asserting views for which there is no evidence. That is what concerns me about the quality of the evidence on which the report is based. It seems to be based on assertion, not evidence.
I emphasise that the report is an interim one, and that consultation is ongoing. We expect wider interest from parents, especially parents who have been involved on governing bodies and in schools. Those to whom I have spoken seem aware of the report and have had the opportunity to contribute—[Interruption.]
A fundamental disagreement with the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton concerns the importance of cross-curricular education. Part of Jim Rose’s work considered how the primary curriculum in England compares with that of other countries. The QCA contributed to that work by providing an analysis of 10 countries that have changed their primary curriculum since 2005. Of those 10 countries, eight chose to group learning around areas rather than individual subjects, including France, Spain, Germany, New Zealand and Scotland. Their rationale for the change emphasised the need to improve the transition to primary school and deepening understanding of core areas by integrating different parts of the curriculum and developing connections between them.
Although the report highlighted a tremendous amount of support for a national curriculum framework, it was agreed that the primary curriculum as it stands is outdated for pupils and slightly unwieldy for teachers with its 10 subject areas. That rationale, which other countries have adopted, lies behind Jim Rose’s recommendation to group individual subjects into six areas of learning and understanding. I want to make it absolutely clear that we are not seeking to abolish subject areas from the curriculum. Children will still learn about important individuals, groups and events that have shaped our past, our culture and our communities.
The QCA is indeed working on draft programmes of learning, but the emphasis is on “draft”. With the timetable that we have in mind, we cannot wait for the final report before starting work on the draft programmes of learning, but there is plenty of time for the consultation’s input to the content of the programmes.
They are still very much at an interim stage. I do not expect them to be at a stage where they could go out to further consultation until we receive the results of the current consultation, but I would then be more than happy to share the more rounded programmes of study. Both hon. Gentlemen have the opportunity to communicate with the QCA their ideas of what those programmes of study should look like.
The interim report makes it clear that high quality subject teaching must not disappear from primary schools, and a proposed design for the curriculum will promote challenging subject teaching alongside equally challenging cross-curricular studies. That is the basis from which we are starting. No one subject is isolated. Disciplines are interconnected, and it is important that young people understand how concepts are related—that point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North—to make their learning more relevant and to prepare them for more advanced study or work where concepts do not fall neatly into academic topics.
More opportunity to use and apply skills across the curriculum, such as in maths, science and technology, will give a new practical emphasis that will make learning more relevant and give young people the skills that employers want. As I have said before, the aim of the reforms is not so much to change what children learn as to change how they learn. That is where the focus of public debate needs to be.
When the Minister addressed me, she said that how reading is taught is not an issue for this report because it is about the curriculum; now she is saying that it is all about how things are taught, not what is taught. Which is it? Is it about the curriculum or is it about how things are taught? What is this debate about?
I go back to the point that I made earlier: this is an interim report that sets out the principle of areas of learning. The way in which those areas of learning are taught will be part of the final report that comes out, which is being consulted on. As I said, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity for input into that consultation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North said, it is no good teaching people dry facts if, when faced with a real problem in science, they do not know which formula to apply. There needs to be practical application and contextual learning so that children can make links between concepts and apply them. It means that teachers will have the flexibility to determine where interconnected learning is most appropriate and where it will enrich understanding, and it will mean more freedom and flexibility for teachers to focus on the basics. The best schools are doing that anyway, as my hon. Friend noted in relation to his constituency. Ofsted tells us that schools without standing curriculums provide both skilled subject teaching and opportunities for children to benefit from cross-curricular studies. It does not mean that the primary framework will be any less rigorous. It will focus on the core areas of learning—literacy and numeracy—to give children a solid grounding in the basics before they progress to secondary level.
Jim Rose’s report will also take into account the important work of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on speech, language and communication, which, as so many hon. Members noted, is essential for children’s development and success.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the report by the hon. Member for Buckingham led to the speech and communication action plan, which was rolled out in December. I think that it was the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) who mentioned I CAN—it may have been someone else.
The Communication Trust is taking on the consideration of the pilots we are doing in certain areas. As many people know, the trust is made up of I CAN and groups dealing with aphasia and many other issues. That work is about finding the best way to embed very early intervention on speech, language and communication, which can be the key to unlocking children’s talents, particularly in the primary years.
I shall address the elephant in the room now. [Interruption.] I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North has been looking forward to the savaging. We have no plans to abolish externally marked key stage 2 tests. Our system of testing and assessment gives parents objective information on their child’s progress and gives them information to choose the right school, although I acknowledge that is not the only information they should be using. It also helps teachers to secure progress. Although I acknowledge that not all primary heads are enthusiastic about key stage 2 tests, I have found when I go into secondary schools that the heads of those schools find the information invaluable when helping children to progress through secondary school. It also allows the public to hold local government and governing bodies to account on performance.
We have an expert group considering assessment in the wake of stopping key stage 3 tests. Jim Rose is a member of that group, and we will receive reports later this year. The terms of reference include assessment and promoting a broad curriculum. My hon. Friend mentioned league tables and he will remember our announcement. We are currently consulting on new school report cards, which will give a much broader picture of a school and, we hope, will give information that enables parents to make informed choices.
The hon. Member for Yeovil raised the Cambridge review. Jim Rose has met members of that review and in order for it to contribute to Jim’s review, he is bringing forward publication of the curriculum chapter so that it will inform part of his review.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about special educational needs. I share his ambition for young people with special educational needs. I feel particularly passionate about that and I was particularly pleased to announce our Achievement for All project. We have put £31 million into outcomes-based pilots around the country for children with special educational needs, so that we are focusing not on the process of what goes in to help a child with special educational needs, but on what the outcome is and what the expectations are of what a child with special educational needs can achieve. In my view, that is the way we should be going—raising aspiration and expectation and making part of the statementing process the outcomes that we expect young people to achieve.
I think I have covered most of the points made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. I want to return to literacy and numeracy, because that firm foundation, combined with the subject grouping, will bring the primary curriculum more in line with the early years foundation stage. The deeper understanding, flexibility and independent thinking that it promotes will stand children in better stead when they start their secondary studies. It will help us to achieve the consistency and ease of transition for the pupil that we are seeking to create through our education system and children’s services.
The personalisation principle underlines the new secondary curriculum to encourage more independence in learning and to give young people more control over their education. At the primary stage, independence and having the confidence to learn, explore and develop are no less important. That will be supported by a play-based approach to learning in the earliest years of primary school, which the children have experienced through the EYFS. That, we hope, combined with a less restrictive, more personalised approach will mean a more seamless transition from early years to primary and from primary to secondary.
Well, we all accept that phonics is important. I visited a primary school in Peckham that was going through the intensive reading recovery process. I was privileged to be able to sit in on an intensive reading recovery class and one thing that I noticed was the number of different methods being used to help the child to reach the standard that they should have been at. The results being achieved were amazing. I went into the reception class, where phonics was being used. The majority of children were learning to read, but not every child was, and when it came to reading recovery, a number of different methods were used to enable children to reach the levels that we expect.
There will be the room necessary to incorporate some of the softer aspects of learning, which are crucial to education and development. I am talking about children developing awareness of the world around them, a sense of their responsibilities as citizens and values such as tolerance, respect and understanding, which will stand them in good stead not just for work, but for their personal relationships and possibly their future family life. This is an opportunity for us to prepare our students, at the outset of their journey through school, for life and learning in the 21st century. The primary review will allow us to keep up the momentum in driving up standards, with greater consistency between the different stages of learning to provide the best standard of education to our children and young people, so that they are fully equipped for the challenges of 21st-century life and work. Education cannot be just about exam results; it must be about developing the whole child.
As I said, this is an interim report and the review is ongoing, but the proposals in the interim report pave the way for progress and I look forward to Jim Rose’s conclusions when the final review is published later this year. A richer, more rounded curriculum will lead to a richer, more rounded learning experience and, ultimately, to richer and more rounded young people.
United States of America
Thank you, Mr. Olner. I am sure you will not mind me saying that you do an excellent job in that capacity. I, too, declare an interest as I am married to an American citizen.
I am grateful for the opportunity to open this timely and topical debate. I congratulate President Barack Obama on his election to office. His arrival in the Oval Office is an historic event, which I hope will do much to repair America’s reputation in the world. I hope that he will introduce innovative policies to deal with old and new economic and security threats. Those threats endanger the United States and the United Kingdom.
Britons want and need a strong and prosperous America. I wish President Obama political wisdom and courage in equal measure. Our two nations enjoy excellent bilateral relations. As reiterated in recent days by Secretary of State Clinton, we are bound by shared values, shared interests and shared priorities. We also benefit from a shared history; a history that witnesses thousands of Americans leaving their homes each year to search out their British cousins and ancestries. Likewise, thousands of UK citizens journey to America to stay with new-found relatives or to enjoy return visits in cities as far apart as Savannah, Sacramento and Seattle.
Our common bond runs far deeper than the £108 billion trade between our nations each year and far deeper than the thousands of American companies that transact business in this country. It is greater than the 158,000 American citizens living in the UK, many of whom are married to British people. It goes beyond the 16,000 American students who enjoy the benefits of a British university education. The bonds that I speak of are etched in blood.
It would be a dishonour to the American people to hold a debate on this subject and not pay tribute to the brave American sons and daughters who have shed their blood over many generations and in many conflicts when fighting to defend the freedoms that we all enjoy today. In the second world war, in Europe alone, nearly 250,000 American servicemen sacrificed their lives to bring peace. The figure is far higher for the global war. America has an honourable and spiritual legacy of brotherhood and fellowship with this country.
Whatever the rationale or justification behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the brave and fearless servicemen and women of the United States continue to put themselves in harm’s way, often alongside British troops and personnel. They do so not only to protect America’s interests, but to protect America’s commitments to its allies and friends. This morning I pay tribute to the American people and salute them. I hope that colleagues will join me in doing so.
Last year, I was asked by a journalist in Washington whether I thought anti-Americanism would die when George W. Bush left office. That was a naive question, even from a journalist who had little time for Bush or for Republicans. Anti-Americanism may well have increased under the second Bush presidency, but the person who resides in the White House is not the magnet for people’s hatred of America. People hate America because of what the American people stand for: their spirit, beliefs and values; their sense of being, providence and destiny; their belief in the freedom of democracy, speech and religion; and their belief in the power of individuals to realise their highest dreams and full potential. I pay tribute to the excellent work of the website “America in the World”, which was established to fight anti-Americanism.
Barack Obama stated in his inaugural address that
“we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man … Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake. And so … know that America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity. And we are ready to lead once more.”
It is those beliefs and national virtues that so enrage America’s enemies.
I say to those who disparage the imperfections of democratic Governments that it is all too easy to defend brutal and dictatorial regimes when one does not live under their terror and repression and when one is not fettered by the thought police or religious masters. At its worst, political liberal romanticism is hypocritical to its core and gives succour to America’s enemies and to those who continue to incarcerate the spirit of their people and to shackle the humanity of their citizens. Western-style democracy is not right for every culture and ethnic group, but some sort of accountability and transparency there must be. Governments should be for the people and be elected by the people. In a manner and at a time of the people’s choosing, it should be possible for the people to remove those same Governments.
I believe that freedom is a universal human right. That is why the special relationship is so important. America and the United Kingdom are still a force for good in the world. We should not shy away from ensuring that our economic, humanitarian and military assets are deployed to defend and uphold our mutual and national interests.
My hon. Friend is delivering a passionate speech on this country’s special relationship with America and America’s relationship with the world. At the heart of our special relationship with America is friendship. All friendships need constructive criticism. Does he agree that the reason we have such a great relationship with America is that we have had the courage and conviction over the years not always to agree with everything that America has done? We have stood up for the rights of this country when they have been in contradiction with what has happened in America.
As always, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. In politics, yes men do not always give the best advice. Their advice is a reiteration of what they have heard and so is no advice at all. A candid friend is perhaps the best friend of all. In the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Conservative party and this country seek not a slavish, but a solid relationship with the United States.
In an ideal world, the cultured and enlightened but deeply dissatisfied people of Iran, particularly the young aspirational Iranians, would bring about internal change. Given that Iranians face one of the world’s most oppressive Governments, that appears unlikely in the short term. It is particularly unlikely if Iran’s leaders continue to employ their gerrymandered form of democracy.
A peaceful outcome to the current Iranian impasse must be the goal of all politicians and diplomats. However, it will be achieved only if the international community unites to contain and restrict Iran’s nuclear advancement. There must be new resolve, not a loss of will or an unwillingness to face down the harsh realities of Iran’s aggression. The new American Administration would do well to remember that Iran’s political masters are well versed in duplicity or taqiyyah. Even under the so-called moderate regimes of Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, Iran continued to trade talks for time. As the new President stretches out his hand, I hope that he avoids being seduced into a long, protracted dialogue to nowhere—a diplomatic cul-de-sac of talks about talks—while Iran continues to build a nuclear bomb.
European diplomats and politicians, including some here today, quite rightly talk about carrots and sticks, but they should not turn their faces from the harsh reality that Ahmadinejad’s prize carrot is not improved relations with the United States, but ownership of his very own nuclear weapon—technology aimed at America’s allies, including Europe, Israel and other Muslim nations. Every hour, the nuclear clock is ticking, and the time for diplomatic dialogue is running out. If Iran joins the world’s nuclear club in late 2009, as some US intelligence analysts believe, the middle east paradigm will change irreversibly. It will sound the starting pistol for a new regional arms race, and overnight Iran’s nuclear bomb will have become an apocalyptic stick with which the beat the world, and British interests too. That is why, if diplomacy fails, and Iran’s fist remains clenched, President Obama will need a credible military option to stop Iran.
The stark reality is, however, that the new American President has no feasible military option with which to neutralise Iran’s nuclear threat: a conventional attack is unlikely against the world’s eighth largest army and given America’s existing commitments elsewhere; a tactical nuclear attack is politically unpalatable, would have considerable nuclear, political and diplomatic fall-out for many years, and would be an environmental disaster; and a multiple cruise missile attack is unlikely to penetrate or dismantle Iran’s reinforced nuclear bunkers. That is why President Obama should commit to developing a new generation of non-nuclear, conventional, inter-continental ballistic missiles. The use of such new hypersonic mass technology would restore America’s deterrent and military advantage, and give President Obama much-needed military and diplomatic flexibility. Israel could, of course, take unilateral military action, but that could be seen by America’s enemies as weakness, procrastination or a failure to act. America’s new tone is welcome, but it must not strike a note that empowers or emboldens its enemies.
In the American State Department, the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington DC, including in the previous and current White House Administrations, is a shared view that a united Europe is good news for America’s national security, for its treaty obligations under NATO and for reducing the likelihood of future conflicts in Europe. I understand that view, but it is fundamentally flawed. I understand that a stable Europe is good news for America and Britain, but it is individual nation states, within Europe, that have stood with America in times of need. Never—not even in world war two—has there been a fully united European voice; there have only ever been the voices of nation states, some coming together.
Replace the nation state with political hegemony, and those nations that have supported America—often going it alone—might in future be drowned out by a chorus of diplomatic disapproval and political disunity. I say to policy makers in Washington that a single political Europe with a common defence and foreign policy, and eventually with a single federal President, will not be good for the United States, or indeed for Britain, even if a future President turns out to be former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Starkly, a united states of Europe will undermine, not enhance, the national security of the United States of America. Recent history should teach us that lesson.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, much of which I agree with, but he is in danger of putting up an Aunt Sally. I do not believe that anyone in the European Union is talking about the sort of political union that he mentioned or about getting rid of national vetoes on foreign and security policy, and nor should they. However, what did he think of Vice-President Biden’s speech, in Munich, the other day, when he called strongly for the European Union to take an increased role in this area to ensure that member states do more in supporting the United State’s efforts?
It is right that the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and even we, as individual politicians, put aside partisanship and—dare I say it?—narrow and polarised views, so that we can work for the common good and humanity of all those whom we seek to serve. That means that Europe must work together closely and with the United States. In recent times, however, particularly over issues of major defence and foreign policy objectives, different views have been held in Europe—particularly France and Germany—from those that might have been expressed in this House in support of the United States.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the American and British frustration is that so many European countries that say that they will support our troops in conflict, physically do not? They will go out to places such as Kandahar, but very rarely will leave the bases, whereas British and American troops are on the front line. So many countries that talk the talk do not put up the troops to take part in the action.
Again, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Those NATO members that enjoy the benefits of membership should step up to the plate to provide more troops, particularly given that we are likely to see a surge over the coming months. It should not be left just to the United States and the United Kingdom—indeed, I pay tribute to Denmark and Canada, and to Australian special forces as well. The role of some of the other countries that he alludes to, and the contribution that they could make to the new surge, is a debate for another time, and perhaps another place, in this House. For example, if Germany cannot provide more troops in a kinetic role, it could provide more in non-kinetic roles, such as in assisting hospital services in camp Bastion, so that troops can be released for duties elsewhere.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) might want to reread the constitutional treaty—the Lisbon treaty—under which some vetoes would certainly have been given up.
If the United Kingdom loses its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, would it be good or bad for America? American defence and foreign policy analysts need to ask such questions today, not tomorrow, when it is too late. A European Union dominated by a Franco-German foreign policy and defence axis would not be good for America’s national security, or its self-interest. Consider Afghanistan!
Similarly, the United States ought to think very carefully about its stated aim to see Turkey accede to the European Union. On the face of it, the United States has a perfectly valid and rational foreign policy reason for doing so. It makes sense to encourage Turkey to look westwards, rather than eastwards, and anything that can be done to encourage a stable and secular Turkey avoiding radicalisation makes perfect sense. It would be good for Britain and good for America. A peaceful and prosperous Turkey is good for all of us. However, the unintended consequences of Turkey ceding to the European Union would eventually undermine America’s national security, because the free movement of peoples, under existing EU rules, would result in a mass migration of peoples from Turkey to towns and cities all over Europe—I grant that—but in particular over the United Kingdom. In sufficient numbers, such mass migration would change irreversibly the social and cultural fabric of this country.
The socio-cultural dynamic of America’s closest ally will have changed. Such a change will have profound and lasting political and bilateral consequences for the United States. That is not scaremongering, but a candid, over-the-horizon assessment of what could happen given the UK’s past experience with the accession of other EU countries and new applicants. Instead, Turkey should be given full trading access and rights to EU markets, but should not be allowed to become a full member. If it does, the issue of migration post-Maastricht should be dealt with for not just Turkey, but others.
Given your expertise in the matter, Mr. Olner, you will know that Turkey is currently a very dominant issue in the American Congress. Congressman Ed Whitfield for Kentucky, who chairs the Turkey caucus, takes a different view from me. Nevertheless, such a matter is relevant to the bilateral relations. None the less, I thank you, Mr. Olner, for your guidance.
In conclusion, history is shaped for good or ill by the great alliances of nations. The strategic alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom has provided security for more than 100 years. It is a relationship that has, and continues to be, a force for good. That is why America should reverse any foreign policy objectives that jeopardise that special relationship. If Britain and America are a diminishing club of a few good men, then Washington policy makers should be alert to that stark reality and to anything that undermines or threatens it. A weakened Britain means a weakened United States. It is in the national interests of both countries to use all means necessary—however unpalatable and counter-intuitive—to keep this alliance strong and beyond the vagaries and transience of any particular Administration. The alliance should be defended at all costs against all enemies, both within and without, and against those who seek to put enmity between our two nations. Such enemies ultimately want to destroy our way of life and the shared values to which I have referred. America is still a beacon on a hill, as the new American President has paraphrased. It is an extraordinary country with extraordinary men and women. I should like to say without hesitation or equivocation, may God bless the United States of America.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this important debate. I am surprised to be making a full speech because I had assumed that there would be time only for a short intervention. I did not realise that so few Members would be present. It is a shame because, as my hon. Friend said, this is an important area of policy for both this country and the world at large. He made a heartfelt and thoughtful speech. Many of his wife’s family are in the United States, so he spends a lot of time there and understands its ethos.
Let me turn to what the United States of America means to me. As a very young boy I was told of the experiences of a five-year-old girl in the last few months of the second world war. She was very fearful because she had been forced from her home and had ended up in a small village just outside Leipzig, which initially was liberated by the Americans—prior to Yalta and Potsdam—and put into what became East Germany. That young girl remembered the great kindness of the American GIs in the immediate aftermath of the war. Like some of the Russian soldiers, the Americans were by no means entirely innocent of some of the atrocities that went on at the time. None the less, those young GIs gave that young girl her first taste of chocolate and fruit, and she remembered that for the rest of her life. That young girl was my mother, who was a refugee in eastern Europe as the war came to an end. Her story is one of the reasons why, from a very young age, I have very much admired and loved the United States.
My hon. Friend referred to anti-Americanism. He was right to suggest that although there is a sense of a new dawn under the new President, anti-Americanism did not begin under the erstwhile presidency of George W. Bush. Such a feeling goes back many decades. I was an undergraduate in the mid-1980s at the height of President Reagan’s rule, and a lot of the anti-Americanism that existed then was driven by envy—envy of America’s wealth and of its superpower status. It was one of two superpowers at that juncture. It was the policies of Ronald Reagan—based on much of the thinking of President Nixon—that ensured that America reigned supreme and that the cold war ended in the defeat of communism.
There is, of course, another element of anti-Americanism. In an old country such as ours, we have tended to regard America as slightly naïve. Its love of freedom, opportunity and aspiration somewhat grates in much of British public life. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, we have seen great benefits from America over the last century, certainly in regard to the first and second world war when it bailed us out. Obviously, we stood very tall during those terrible months in 1940 and 1941 before America emerged on the scene. There were no great votes for President Wilson when he finally entered the first world war against the forces of the German and Turkish empires as they were then. Therefore, we have seen those benefits, and we should never underestimate them. One of the difficulties that we face today is that we have only one superpower, and that so much is being driven by America, particularly in the military field, in the aftermath of the terrible terrorist atrocities of 9/11.
My hon. Friend spoke in a very heartfelt way about the issue of the special relationship. However, such a relationship should not be overstated. I am not in any way being negative about the new President. I know that he brings with him great hope, but there is possibly an over-burdening expectation of what his presidency will achieve. Such feelings of expectation could, I suspect, turn to disappointment. None the less, I also suspect that his presidency will prove to be a success. I imagine that he will be re-elected with a very large majority in the future.
My hon. Friend talked about America’s strategy in relation to Turkey, which stems from the fact that it regards Europe as a homogenous block. Much as we have a good relationship with America, which is based on common language, and common history, it would be wrong to overstate the nature of that relationship. If we look at the large Hispanic population in America, and then spool forward a decade or so, I suspect that we will find few people talking about the special relationship between our two countries. Instead, American foreign policy will focus on its relationship with Europe.
Although I instinctively agree with much of what my hon. Friend had to say about the importance of nation states, I also fear that the tremendous economic turmoil facing this country, and the world, will be with us for some years to come. We will hear increasing voices in this country—from across the political spectrum—calling for us to integrate with the power block in Europe. Remember, we eventually joined the EC in 1973 as a defence mechanism. We felt that the only way forward for this country was to latch ourselves on to Europe. That debate on our integration within an all-powerful European block will go on in the decades ahead. In the future, the world will be in blocks. For the short term, the United States will be the only economic, military and political superpower. Clearly, China and India are developing at a great pace.
We must also look to the future, and the United State’s role going forward. Clearly, the 20th century was the American century, just as much of the 19th century, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, was the British century. The great, tumultuous events in the financial markets and the economic downturn, and the sense of insecurity that will be felt by a great many millions in this country and throughout the world, will mean that some of the trends by which power has moved eastwards will accelerate. China has 1.3 billion people, and India 1.1 billion people, and both have huge and growing middle classes. Although those countries will not by any means be immune from the impact of recession and the downturn, they will mean only that their growth will be lower than in the past. They will still have economic growth of which we would be proud even in our better times. We will therefore see the emergence of China and India not only as economic superpowers, but as political and military powers. Consequently, America’s place in the world will be different, as will our relationship with it. I appreciate that I am moving slightly off topic, Mr. Olner—I saw a disapproving eyebrow.
As I said, I am a passionate supporter of the USA and its great ideals, especially when, on occasion, it does not quite reach those ideals. I am especially proud because I have always had a very strong sense of personal connection with the country. Of course, the American embassy is in Grosvenor square in my constituency, and I have been proud to play a small part as a parliamentarian in helping to develop relations between our two countries.
I will be interested in what the Minister says when she sums up. The debate has been thoughtful, and I appreciate that we have touched on a range of things. It is easy, in the euphoria following the election of President Obama, to look at things in a slightly superficial way, not least because he is a very forward looking, thoughtful and philosophical man. He has a sense—I suspect that it will develop in the months and years ahead—of America’s place in the world and how the world will develop, and I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) that it is a shame that more hon. Members are not here to take part, because it sets the framework for much of our foreign policy discussion in years to come. Understanding and appreciating America’s role is critical.
Colleagues will not be surprised to learn that I am euphoric about the election of Barack Obama. It is one of the most welcome developments probably in decades for the message that it sends in America, for this country, and for the world. I know that some in the media throughout the world are indulging in superlatives, but I think they are warranted. It is a fantastic development.
I was privileged to be at the Democrat convention in Denver in the summer. I have never waved any flag as enthusiastically as I waved the American flag when I listened to President Clinton and Barack Obama. They made fantastic speeches. The atmosphere was fantastic, and the feeling of hope and that it was time for change was palpable. It communicated itself across America and the world.
My party has always been a friend and supporter of America. We have sometimes been critical of the incumbent in the White House, but that is different. In democratic politics, one can be critical of a Government or of a politician in another country, but still be a great friend of the country and a supporter of its values and people. It is important to make that distinction; otherwise, we do ourselves and the value of democratic debate down. I agreed with much of what the hon. Member for The Wrekin said, but hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) made an important point when he said that Britain needs to be the candid friend of America and to tell the truth as we see it. When we do so, we are at our most powerful.
The relationship with America is not simply about the relationship with one President or the incumbent in the White House, but with the whole American political system. More importantly, it is about our relationship with the American people. In the US Senate, President Obama voted against the war for Iraq. What is our influence with him? I am sure that it will be great. We need to explain our position, and I am sure that he will look at us objectively. Hopefully, he will look at us in a special light, but we must remember this: the fact that we went along with a President who, in my party’s opinion, made a huge mistake in going to war with Iraq has done us no favours with the new American President. I make that important historical observation because it is best to be candid and to tell the truth to a friend, even if we fundamentally disagree with them. Not going along with just anything that is said or done by a friend is the surest way of sustaining our credit.
That relates to how we should approach our relationship with the new President. My party and I are extremely optimistic, given the foreign policy positions that he has taken in the past, many of the things that he said during the election and the hints and nudges given by Vice-President Biden in Munich the other day. The President’s policies seem to be going in the direction of policies for which we have been arguing for some time, even if others have not.
How do we encourage and support the welcome new direction in American foreign policy? We should remind the new incumbent and his Administration that we have long historical ties, exactly as the hon. Member for The Wrekin said. I join him in paying tribute to the role that American citizens have played in securing the liberty and freedom of our country. It is important always to send that message. In doing so, we need to ask how we can help America to ensure her security and the security of the free world. I differ slightly from the hon. Gentleman in the answer to that question. If we are to help America to deliver on the new mission that President Obama clearly has, we need to be close to our European partners and to bring them along with us. If we are not engaged wholeheartedly with our European colleagues, we will be less able to persuade them to go in the direction in which America and Britain often instinctively go.
Let me be clear: anti-Americanism anywhere is bad. One can be against a policy of a country, but anti-Americanism is, frankly, ignorant. Having said that, I have not seen the level of anti-Americanism to which the hon. Gentleman alludes in France and Germany since the election of Barack Obama. I have seen opinion poll ratings on the new President that the hon. Gentleman and I would die for in our constituencies. The reaction of the 200,000 people to whom President Obama spoke in Berlin during his campaign did not look like anti-Americanism to me. That is perhaps my point. There is huge good will for America and its values—we can also consider what President Sarkozy has said—and particularly for the new President, because of his policy decisions. The question for us in this House is how to encourage it.
Looking at the recent past, the danger is that if we are not careful, British support will be taken for granted. We have not been a candid friend; we have not appeared to ask the questions that should have been asked. America always assumes that we will be on its side and so almost discounts that support. That is the danger if we are not candid about times when we disagree. Furthermore, because we appear to go along with anything that America says or does, however misguided, we lose influence within Europe. That means that we are not influential in America or in Europe—the worst of all possible positions.
Our approach should be to stand up for our values and ideas and communicate them as strongly as possible. It is not about choosing between America and Europe, it is about ensuring that British national interests, which are clearly aligned with those of America in the long term, are delivered by having strong alliances with our neighbours in Europe. Immediate challenges, such as the need to increase NATO forces in Afghanistan, will best be met if we are able to cajole our European colleagues into doing more. We, too, must do more. Britain will almost certainly have to send more troops, despite the problems of overstretch, and a difficult judgment must be made about the number that we send. We must use our leverage with France, Germany and other NATO countries in Europe to try and get them to step up to the plate. If we were able to do that, President Obama would be happy with us, he would react to us in a grateful way, listen to us and be impressed by our level of influence.
I admire the hon. Gentleman’s optimism and I hope that it is worthy of the amount of time that he has given it this morning in relation to our European allies, but the fact is that we have been trying to utilise that leverage for the past five years, sadly to little effect. Of course we need to work with our European allies and America as much as we can, but when those European allies are holding back the British national interest and the joint UK and American national interest, we cannot keep waiting for them to change their minds.
On that point there is no difference between the hon. Gentleman’s point and mine. The UK ultimately decides on its foreign policy and where its troops go, and I would be against giving up the veto on that. However, during the past five years that he mentioned, we have lacked influence because of previous mistaken foreign policy decisions, and we have not been in a position to persuade people to do more. That is the danger. However, with a new President changing the parameters and in the light of speeches made by Vice-President Biden, I hope that we can reach out and have more influence.
The hon. Gentleman may be right—I might be Panglossian in my optimism, but we should approach this as a new chance and opportunity to take difficult decisions and bring others with us.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he has been very generous. I want to be crystal clear on this point when foreign policy statements are made by the hon. Gentleman, not only in this debate but in future debates. In relation to the United States and wider foreign policy issues, is it the policy of the Liberal Democrats to give up the veto on foreign policy and defence matters? I understand that that was a stated aim of his predecessor.
I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could show me that statement. Our party passed a policy at its October conference, stating very clearly that we would not give up the veto on foreign policy or defence measures. My understanding is that that has been a long-standing policy of our party. That is factually the case, although I know that there are some in British politics who have tried to portray it as otherwise.
In some of the discussions about how we relate to the new American Administration, I have been slightly worried about the unseemly competition regarding who will shake hands with President Obama first. Will it be Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy or Prime Minister Brown? [Hon. Members: “Tony Blair.”] People are mumbling Tony Blair. He may well have got there first, but I am talking in terms of incumbents.
We ought to get past this issue. Sir Nigel Sheinwald and others should try to persuade the Government and the American Administration to approach such diplomatic niceties in a different way. Perhaps it would be good if a number of European Union leaders met President Obama at the same time, whether in London at the G20 or elsewhere. We must make it clear that Europe wants to work in partnership with the new Administration as much as possible. It will be interesting to see whether there is any change in how we approach our relations with America in those respects.
I know that there is lots of time left in this debate, and I do want to hear from my colleagues. However, I have a few more substantive points to make.
They are on America, of course, Mr. Olner.
My first point regards the foreign policy team that Barack Obama has put together—it is absolutely fantastic. The wealth of experience, knowledge and judgment is tremendous, not only because of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, or Vice-President Biden, but because of special envoys such as Senator George Mitchell in the middle east and Richard Holbrooke in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are some talented people, and the way that Obama organised that team quickly is characteristic of the way that he fought his presidential campaign and developed his political career. It was done in a measured and structured way that bodes well.
I talked with Democrat foreign policy advisers during the convention in the summer. It was clear that they want to see a big change regarding investment in foreign policy. In terms of the smart power that we have been hearing about, they want to build up the state department and the diplomatic weight and mass within America’s diplomacy and foreign policy architecture. That is welcome. To give one example of the need for such actions, I am told that there is currently only one civil servant in the State Department who can speak Farsi. Given how significant Iran is, we need people who can speak Farsi and understand what is coming out of the country. That is a small matter, but it exemplifies my overall point.
Given what we heard from the Foreign Affairs Committee, which was worried about cuts in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget, I would say to the Minister—
I was drawing on the lessons from the United States, Mr. Olner. It has many lessons for this country, not least that of investing in diplomacy.
One could stand here all day debating the many countries and issues in the in-tray of President Obama and his team. I would like to pick out one or two issues, not least because they were matters raised by Vice-President Biden. As the hon. Member for The Wrekin said, Iran will be high on that list. We have seen reports in The Guardian about a letter that was drawn up in response to President Ahmadinejad’s welcoming letter following the election of President Obama. It tries to extend the hand of peace; we will see whether it is met by an unclenched or a clenched fist.
I am more optimistic and positive about that approach than the hon. Member for The Wrekin, who warned us not to be too hopeful that it will work. He may be right; if intelligence reports are correct, Iran is well along the road of having enough enriched uranium to produce a bomb. However, there is a danger that the policies tried over a long period have not worked. We need to think afresh, as President Obama clearly has been doing, about how to stop the Iranian regime’s attempts to get a nuclear weapon. We all know how hideous that regime is in many respects and how destabilising it would be if it got a nuclear weapon. We must explore all options. I am delighted that the new President is genuinely open-minded about that. Given our critical situation, we need to try as many routes as possible.
On the missile defence system that President Bush wanted to establish, I note that Vice-President Biden’s comments were carefully worded. It is true that the new Administration have not yet resiled from the project. However, they are talking about the costs and whether the technology works. Most interestingly, they are talking about involving Russia in the project. Many of us are not against the technology and can see its many advantages, but our major concern is how destabilising it was to the relationship between NATO and Russia. It was particularly notable that Vice-President Biden made that point in his speech in Munich.
It is fantastic to see an Administration who talk so positively about engaging with the rest of the world on climate change and who are so concerned about pandemics and how damaging they can be to hundreds of thousands of people, mainly those living in developing countries. The Obama Administration clearly want to tackle those issues, as well as—this was stated in the Munich speech—the problems of poverty and how it can create instability, tensions and misery.
Order. May I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks to a conclusion? He has now spoken for longer than the Member who secured the debate, and has not allowed sufficient time for the Minister and the chief Opposition spokesman to have the same amount of speaking time as him.
I will certainly do so, Mr. Olner, as I am keen to hear from my colleagues. I thought that I was doing the House a service by keeping the debate going. [Interruption.] I thought that I was playing a helpful role. People do not normally acknowledge that they are trying to keep a debate going, but there we are. It is fantastic news that America has a new leadership. We welcome them, and we look forward to working with them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate.
Anybody who watched the television coverage of President Obama’s inauguration would have been moved by what they saw. For a start, as a number of other hon. Members have mentioned, it was the inauguration of the first African-American President. Some journalists described it as a second reconstruction. Hearing and seeing the reaction of ordinary African-American voters, I felt the sense of a country coming together, a century and a half after its bloody civil war. The inauguration also demonstrated what American citizenship and democracy mean, as the leaders of the nation, rival candidates and rival parties assembled at the Capitol and we saw the peaceful transition of power from one President and one political party to another.
Out of curiosity, I looked on the internet to see how al-Jazeera was covering the events. It was covering the inauguration live. I could not help but wonder what impression would be gained by the millions of viewers living in countries where people cannot choose their own Government or rid themselves of leaders in whom they have lost confidence when that spectacle of American democracy in action was displayed in front of them.
The starting point for this debate is that the United States, for all its faults, is still a land of opportunity and a beacon for much of the rest of the world. It is a country where central to the idea of citizenship is the notion that any ambition, any dream, can be realised. When I was observing the Republican convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, I was struck by the fact that every taxi driver I talked to seemed to come from either Ethiopia or Eritrea, but that each was now determined to make himself into an American and achieve as much as he could in his new life in the new world.
It is a good thing that the dominant world power since 1945 has been a country committed to democracy and the rule of law, but American influence and power rest on far more than military force. One must consider as well its commercial influence and its cultural influence through television, film, music, sport, brands of clothing and the food that is conspicuous in virtually every country of the world that one can visit.
When it comes to relations between this country and the United States, we have shared and suffered a great deal together over the past 100 years. I shall not recount the history, but every weekend, when I go to Princes Risborough library in my constituency, I see a modest brick monument to an American pilot, Lieutenant Sparky Cosper from Texas. During world war two, he was flying over the Chilterns when he had a problem with his plane, and he deliberately steered it to crash in the countryside, killing himself rather than endanger the lives of citizens in the town below. That sort of individual case was replicated, I am sure, in many towns and villages throughout the United Kingdom.
[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]
Looking forward, I think that our relationship with the United States should be close, but it ought never to become slavish. We share a great deal—language, culture and a relationship built on trade, investment, defence and intelligence—but we do not need to be starry-eyed. There have been unhappy episodes in our history: 1812 is one such example; one also thinks of President Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts in the late 19th century to build up a blue-water American navy, partly because of fears that the United States might have a military clash with the British empire. Although I certainly wish President Obama and his Administration well, we should not pretend that they will be anything other than hard-headed in the defence of United States interests first and foremost. That is what their electorate expect.
My questions for the Minister concern four subjects that seem important in terms of our bilateral relationship with the United States. The first is international trade and protection. Most of us in this country, across party boundaries, hoped that some of the Democratic party’s campaign rhetoric about the need for protectionism would not be translated into legislative action. We have been concerned about the “Buy American” provisions that are now being debated in Congress.
I note that those provisions have been somewhat watered down by amendments tabled within the last week. However, when I was in Toronto last Thursday and Friday, the Canadian Ministers with whom I discussed the issue were certainly of the view that the deal was still far from being a satisfactory one. In particular, they felt that individual states and individual municipal authorities in the United States might be able to invoke protectionist clauses in their procurement contracts, on the grounds that they themselves were not parties to international agreements prohibiting protectionism.
I would be interested to learn what approaches on this subject British Ministers have made and intend to make to their counterparts in the new US Administration. I would also like to receive from the Minister some assurance that the British Government really will stand by our long-standing commitment to free trade, as something that is not only in the interests of our own country, but in the interests of spreading prosperity among the poorest countries in the world.
Secondly, I want to say a few words about Iran. I welcome without reservation President Obama’s decision to have contact with the Iranian regime. It is very easy to talk to one’s friends, but if one simply refuses to talk to people one ends up diminishing the opportunities for mutual understanding, let alone the opportunities for diplomatic progress. However, in line with that new American approach to Tehran, there needs to be real determination on the part of European countries to back up America’s carrot with a rather bigger stick than European powers have been willing to brandish up to now.
I know that it is difficult to get European agreement on these matters. However, more than 12 months have passed since the Prime Minister said that we needed to have a block on new European oil and gas investment in Iran and so far no legislative action to give effect to that ambition has been forthcoming. Frankly, it is galling to hear the Iranian deputy Commerce Minister boast, as he did last month, that 67 per cent. of Iran’s foreign trade in 2007 came from Europe and that he is able to say:
“EU members are not paying any attention to the UN resolutions against Iran.”
I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what her colleagues are saying to their counterparts in other European countries about the need to back up President Obama’s diplomatic overtures to Iran with sanctions that clearly demonstrate the intention of the whole of the European Union to isolate Iran commercially if it is not willing to enter into serious discussions about how to obtain verifiable assurances that it will not develop nuclear weapons.
Thirdly, the question of Iran brings me on to broader questions of nuclear doctrine and nuclear policy. In the past 12 months, it has been striking to see how men who have been characterised as hawks in US politics—men such as former Secretaries of State Kissinger and Shultz and former Senator Sam Nunn—are now campaigning very publicly for significant changes in US nuclear doctrine and for a major reduction, to be achieved through negotiation, in the stocks of nuclear weapons that are held internationally. Do the British Government support those initiatives? The Foreign Secretary’s paper last week suggested that they are behind such an approach, but I want to tease out from the Minister whether our Government believe that that new strategy has implications for their policies on the modernisation of Trident and the future of the British nuclear deterrent.
Finally, I cannot avoid saying a few words about the allegations that have been made about torture and abuse. Harking back to my opening remarks about the importance of America’s democratic moral example, if we and the United States say that we stand for democracy and the rule of law, evidence that we have failed to live up to those standards in practice does us significant harm in international relations and indeed in terms of domestic public confidence.
Can the Minister say whether the Government are minded, even at this stage, to make fresh representations to the US Administration following the court ruling in the case of Mr. Binyam Mohamed? In a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), dated yesterday, the Foreign Secretary said:
“I did not, however, discuss the details of Mr Mohamed’s Judicial Review proceedings.”
That is, he did not discuss them with Secretary of State Clinton when he visited the United States. In the letter, the Foreign Secretary goes on to argue that that was because the High Court had given British Ministers a copy of its judgment in “advance” of it being handed down, on “strict conditions” of confidentiality. However, the Foreign Secretary went on to say in his letter to my right hon. Friend that a US spokesman had said on 4 February that
“The United States thanks the UK government for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information and preserve the long-standing intelligence sharing relationship that enables both countries to protect their citizens.”
The right hon. Gentleman went on to say in his letter:
“On that basis, I saw no need to speak again to Secretary Clinton in the period between the judgment’s public release and my statement on Thursday.”
The problem that we have here is that the judges stated on 4 February that it was
“difficult to conceive that a democratically elected and accountable government could possibly have any rational objection to placing into the public domain such a summary of what its own officials reported as to how a detainee was treated by them”.
The judgment said that there would not be a breach of national security if that summary was made public. I accept, straight away, that it is possible for judges to get it wrong and to make assumptions that the disclosure of particular material would not harm national security interests when, in fact, it could do so. I also accept that the terms of an intelligence-sharing relationship must give to the country supplying the information a veto on whether or not that information is disclosed, but it is of course open to a country supplying intelligence to decide to waive that right of confidentiality. I find it baffling that the Foreign Secretary appears not even to have made a request to the US to do that. I therefore hope that the Minister will also be able to say something about that point when she responds to the debate.
In my view, relationships between Britain and the United States need to be built on both friendship and frankness. There will be times when our interests clash and there will be occasions when we disagree about particular issues. However, I am confident that our shared values and our shared interests mean that the relationship between our two countries will remain of critical importance to both in the years to come.
I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing the debate, which is, as he said, timely. Indeed, it could not have been much more timely if he had chosen the date. I endorse his congratulations to President Obama, and I join him in his tribute to the Americans who have stood by us and those who have fallen with us. I am sure that the whole House would do the same.
The UK’s relationship with the United States is our single most important bilateral relationship, and is vital to our prosperity and security. It is based on shared values and shared objectives, and has been cemented, over many years, through the work that we do together on a wide range of issues that are important to the peoples of both countries. Those issues range from climate change to terrorism and the economy, with many points between. We will be a close and productive partner to the new Obama Administration—I look forward to that—and will seek to grow and strengthen the partnership through a common commitment to tackling the challenges faced by the people of Britain and America. In that context, I, too, welcomed Vice-President Biden’s speech, in Munich on Saturday, on foreign policy, which set out with clarity and vision how we can expect our partner to act in future.
Our Prime Minister was among the first world leaders to speak to President Obama after his inauguration, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary held discussions with Vice-President Biden in Munich at the weekend. Hon. Members will be aware that the Foreign Secretary was one of the first Foreign Ministers to hold face-to-face discussions with Secretary of State Clinton last week in Washington. Hillary Clinton has summed up the UK-US relationship as having stood the test of time, and I believe that to be the case.
We strongly welcome the early steps and commitments that have been taken by President Obama, including those on climate change, and the Executive orders of 22 January on the closure of Guantanamo Bay and on the review of detainee treatment and interrogation techniques. The Government have long held that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility should be closed, and those early moves demonstrate to us a real commitment to addressing the challenges of violent extremism in a manner that is consistent with human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law. We strongly welcome that.
The Minister has said how much she welcomes the new Administration’s commitment to closing Guantanamo Bay and to opposing torture. Does that not make more ironic the Government’s positions of not being prepared to take any more detainees from Guantanamo who are not British residents or citizens, and of not pushing the American Administration to publish summaries of intelligence reports that British judges wanted published, because they might reveal torture? The Government’s position on both those issues is the reverse of what the Minister is welcoming from the American Administration.
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I do not share his views. The Government’s position has always been that we wanted Guantanamo closed, and it has also been our position to support British citizens and those who were legally resident in the UK, and to seek their return. We have brought back a number of such people, but there are a small number outstanding. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Secretary of State’s statement of last week on the matter. I shall return to the issue, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) has asked me to do so.
Let me address some of the specific points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked about protectionism. I assure him that the Foreign Secretary has already raised concerns, during meetings with his counterparts, about perceived protectionism, and he will continue to do so. It is worth remembering that President Obama has repeated his commitment to avoid taking a protectionist approach in response to the global economic situation. I feel it is our duty to continue to build on that position.
Several hon. Members discussed Iran. The UK and the US are very much as one in recognising the threat that a nuclear armed Iran would pose to security in the middle east and beyond. We wholeheartedly support the new Administration’s desire to engage directly with Iran, as expressed by President Obama and reiterated by Vice-President Biden at the weekend. Overnight, President Obama has again said that the US is looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table face to face. Also overnight, the Iranian President said that Iran is ready to hold talks in a fair atmosphere. We are discussing strategy closely with the US, with a view to convincing Iran to change its approach to nuclear. It is essential to dissuade Iran from progressing towards obtaining the technology that is needed to make a nuclear bomb. The possibility of direct US engagement may help to change the dynamic, but Iran must act to rebuild the confidence of the international community. It continues to enrich uranium and to increase its capacity to do so in defiance of five UN Security Council resolutions.
More broadly, we welcome President Obama’s promise to take the lead in working for a world in which the roles and risks of nuclear weapons can be reduced and ultimately eliminated. Last week, the Foreign Secretary launched a policy information paper on the subject, outlining the UK’s position and the work we have done in that area. We applaud the United States’ decision to enter the multilateral debate about Iran’s nuclear programme. That is vital not just for the middle east, but for the global integrity of the non-proliferation treaty. On 27 January, President Obama said,
“it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us”.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury talked about sanctions. The UN Security Council has passed three sanctions resolutions imposing a range of measures—banning the supply of items that could contribute to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic programmes, denying visas for key officials and entities associated with proliferation, and calling on states to exercise vigilance with all Iranian banks and to inspect cargoes on Iran Air and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.
The EU has implemented those sanctions and has gone beyond them by freezing the assets of more entities, banning more officials from travelling and imposing further financial vigilance requirements against Iranian banks. We will work with international partners this year and beyond to bring further pressure to bear on Iran, including through extended and toughened sanctions. I say to the hon. Gentleman that this is something to which Iran has to respond. I hope that Iran will take that opportunity in the spirit that President Obama offered.
We welcome the priority given to climate change by the new US Administration. It is a distinct policy shift from the previous Administration and we welcome that. We will encourage the United States to define what it believes constitutes dangerous global temperature increase, and discuss what its contribution to avoiding it might be. However, of course, there is an immediate opportunity, and we encourage the new Administration to play a leading role when the world meets in Copenhagen in December to agree the follow-up to Kyoto. The new US commitment in the area of climate change means that we have a much better chance of securing an ambitious global agreement on how to tackle the problem.
On the economy, close working with the new US Administration to counter the effects of the global economic downturn will be crucial. The economic crisis is global in nature and has consequences for every country. As hon. Members have said today, we need global solutions, which is why we are in close and regular contact with the new US economic team and others to ensure a co-ordinated and effective approach. Of course, as hon. Members know, President Obama will join the Prime Minister and other world leaders at the London summit on 2 April, which will build on the action plan agreed at the Washington summit in November last year. The summit will include matters such as enhancing sound regulation, strengthening transparency, reinforcing international co-operation, and promoting integrity in financial markets. Crucially, it will also include reforming multilateral institutions.
Hon. Members raised the matter of the EU. A strong EU-US relationship is important for our opportunities and chances to improve the world. The relationship needs to be strong and I feel that hon. Members have acknowledged that. However, there will inevitably be disagreements. There have been disagreements at regional level, for example, over the US policy on Cuba, and between individual countries—as hon. Members have mentioned—for example, over Iraq.
The US and the EU have strong economic ties that will underpin the relationship and take us through the rough and smooth. The Foreign Secretary was heavily involved with the informal discussions with his counterpart EU Foreign Ministers last year during the French EU presidency. They considered key priorities on which to engage with the new Administration and the vital partnership that we need to develop. Transatlantic relations were a welcome priority for the French presidency. The EU needs to continue to present focused clear and positive messages to the US to cement early involvement.
The result of the meetings among the Foreign Ministers of the EU was a paper that sets out many of the important issues that require close EU-US co-operation, in particular, the middle east peace process, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Georgia and other matters. We should consider the comments made by the Foreign Secretary about the approach of the EU to the US. In relation to that, I have in mind the comments of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). He wisely said that we should exercise caution in our expectations of the new President. The Foreign Secretary suggested—I believe this is right—that the EU’s message to the new Administration should be about what the EU can offer the US, rather than simply being a list of expectations and hopes for US movement and help. The EU needs to think about how it can add value and get the best from the relationship. It needs to exercise activity and suggestion in what it can do in key areas of EU-US co-operation.
I shall now refer to the specific matter raised in respect of Mr. Mohamed. Perhaps I could clarify the issue for the benefit of hon. Members. The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked a legitimate question about what was discussed with Secretary of State Clinton. It is, indeed, the case—as has been confirmed—that the Foreign Secretary did not discuss the detail of the judicial review of Mr. Mohamed’s case because, under the terms of the embargo, he would have been in contempt of court to have discussed the matter with Secretary Clinton. However, I can say to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that the Foreign Secretary will meet Mr. Mohamed’s legal representative this week. I hope that that will be welcomed.
I also wish to put on the record that the subject of the ruling was not the position of any specific Administration; it was about the principle of intelligence relationships. I refer hon. Members to the Foreign Secretary’s statement to the House last week when he made it clear that it is right
“that a country should retain control of its intelligence information, and that that cannot be disclosed by foreign authorities without its consent.”
On the disclosure of intelligence, about which the hon. Member for Aylesbury asked, I can again do no better than refer to the Foreign Secretary’s statement when he said that
“were our own classified information to be disclosed in such a way, it could compromise our work, our sources and therefore our security… the disclosure of the intelligence documents at issue, by order of our courts and against the wishes of the US authorities, would indeed cause real and significant damage to the national security and international relations of this country.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 990-91.]
I would like to conclude my comments. Our relationship with the United States is, without doubt, as important now as it has ever been. As hon. Members have confirmed today, US leadership is crucial for us in so many important issues, including many that have not been raised today. I particularly wish to mention development and the reform of the UN, which are crucial to our advancement. We are right to be close to the US and we will continue to ensure that that is so. We will also continue to offer the US our support, which will be unequivocal, but not uncritical. It is emphatically in the UK’s interest to do so. As Vice-President Biden said in Munich on Saturday:
“Our partnership benefits us all. This is the time to renew it.”
It is important to say from where the economic challenges come, but perhaps the purpose of this debate—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will feel that this is a good note on which to end—is to consider what we can now do together to overcome the challenges that we face.
School Buildings (Dudley)
Building Schools for the Future—BSF—is the largest single schools capital investment programme for more than 50 years. It aims to rebuild or renew England’s state secondary school estate during its lifetime. It is generally welcomed by teachers, head teachers, governors and parents, and, at this point, I must declare several interests, being not just the local MP, or MP within the borough of Dudley, but a former teacher in Dudley and a mother of two teenage sons who are still in Dudley’s state education system.
The Government will invest £9.3 billion in BSF in the 2008-2011 spending period alone. The sheer scale of BSF enables local authorities, such as Dudley, to move from a patch-and-mend system to rebuilding and renewal, with a more strategic approach to the funding, design, procurement and management of buildings. One reason why I support the BSF programme is that it is not just about buildings; it aims to create learning environments to inspire young people, unlock their talents and raise aspirations to help them to reach their full potential. It also aims to provide teachers with 21st-century workplaces and provide access to facilities that can be used by the whole community. As a former teacher, I know that that is just what is required in Dudley and in the wider black country.
Month by month, term by term, I see the BSF programme building momentum, but, alas, not in Stourbridge, Halesowen or Dudley. Why? Because Dudley’s Conservative cabinet, the council leader and education portfolio holder, have decided to close the door on these vast opportunities, and, I suspect, for the worst of reasons—party politics. How did we get to the point at which on 2 November 2008 the education portfolio holder, Councillor Liz Walker, told local newspapers:
“There are many costs which we couldn’t budget for, costs we weren’t aware of”?
She added that money needed to be spent on other priorities, such as roads. In the same week, the council cabinet decided against entering the BSF programme to secure £200 million to revamp the borough’s secondary schools, throwing away a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform education provision in Dudley. Head teachers were reported by the Express and Star on 4 November last year to be “gobsmacked” and worried that Dudley risked becoming
“the poor relation of the West Midlands.”
One head teacher, Graham Lloyd, of Holly Hall mathematics and computing college said:
“I am gobsmacked because it was my understanding we were working flat-out to be included in the next wave. I have said it before, if Dudley isn’t involved in BSF it will be a disaster. It puts us at a significant disadvantage to all the other authorities in the region who have this funding”.
The confusion that head teachers, parents and pupils feel is real, because, as Mr. Lloyd said, until the decision to withdraw, literally up to the day of the announcement, the local education authority was indeed working flat out to be included, having already applied to be included in earlier waves of BSF, and having worked on bids since an expression of interest way back in 2003.
In June 2006, Dudley borough council published its document, “Investing in the Future—Transforming Secondary Provision”, a 57-page document setting out statements of principle and intent, reviewing secondary schools throughout the borough and developing the education vision for Dudley. The consultees to the process ranged from young people attending Dudley schools to governors, head teachers, councillors, MPs, the local learning and skills council, primary care trusts, local businesses and community groups—in all, 37 categories of Dudley stakeholders, covering hundreds of thousands of people. The stated intention in the first paragraph of the introduction was to work with the then Department for Education and Skills for Dudley’s inclusion in waves 7 to 9
“ or earlier if the national position allows.”
The document spoke of vision, consensus, dynamism and the intention to address the needs of current and future learners. It underlined the strong link between capital spending, staff and pupil motivation, quality of teaching, learning, and pupil performance. A consensus emerged at the end of the consultation, and work began to pull together a bid that included planning for two academies in the borough and the significant development of long-established schools.
One scheme of particular importance to me is the Thorns community learning village in Stourbridge, costing £8.5 million, which the council acknowledged would transform special needs education in Dudley. It has now been shelved, or in Dudley council speak, “delayed indefinitely”. The plan was to merge Old Park special school with Thorns community college and Thorns primary school in Quarry Bank, based in separate buildings but sharing joint facilities on-site. Funding is already in place for the relocation of Old Park, the initial phase of the project, but the funds that Dudley LEA planned to secure through BSF for phases 2 and 3 are now, once again in Dudley council speak, “yet to be determined”, which roughly translates as, “We have no idea at the moment.”
That is one instance of the effect of the surprise U-turn on BSF by Dudley’s Conservative-controlled education authority. There are schools all over the authority which would have benefited and, indeed, are crying out for rebuilding. Halesbury special school in Halesowen still uses mobile classrooms that are at least 30 years old; Ellowes Hall school, a specialist sports college in the constituency of Dudley, North, was judged in its April 2008 Ofsted report to be
“hampered by inadequate sports facilities”,
one example being the lack of an adequate sports hall; and, in the constituency of Dudley, South, Wordsley school, Kingswinford school and Hillcrest community college would all have benefited directly from BSF funding.
Dudley council’s capital strategy for 2009 to 2014 still contains the following aim:
“By providing high quality accommodation with stimulating learning environments for school pupils and members of the community to ensure education standards continue to rise. Over the next five years the priorities will be to maximise external investment in the infrastructure from BSF”.
So, after an extensive consultation, consensus, planning and a strong statement of intent, why the U-turn? Councillor Liz Walker said in 2007:
“This multi-million pound investment programme will give us the money and the opportunity to improve all schools. It could result in at least £10 million investment in each school, which will re-model and possibly rebuild many of our secondary schools in the borough to an extremely high standard, fit for 21st century education. Investing for the Future is fundamental to inspiring learning for future generations. The proposals aim to secure the best provision for children, young people and local communities.”
However, the council leader and education portfolio holder recently stated that the cost of managing the bid was too high. The estimated amount of money— £2 million—has been included in every document relating to the scheme as far back as 2003, however, and it was reiterated in the capital plans and visionary documents to which I referred earlier. Does this woman not read her own papers? Is she not listening to the briefings from her officers?
The Secondary Heads Association in Dudley is united in its condemnation of the snap decision not to proceed. It has engaged in the choice and diversity agenda, bringing in a range of educational provisions throughout Dudley and setting up two of the first trusts in the country, and it recognises the importance of academies to the overall BSF process in Dudley. The LEA has been committed to BSF, having applied already to be involved in two earlier waves, but it has now decided not to go for it a third time—when the chances of acceptance are highest.
The Secondary Heads Association felt let down by the LEA pulling the rug from under its feet, particularly when it heard that it was just the set-up costs that were holding the LEA back—£2 million to release £200 million. What has happened to the LEA’s vision? The closure and sale of the Cradley high school site in Stourbridge was identified as the main vehicle for releasing the £2 million, but that decision was fought by the local population, with my support. However, although the school is now closed, the site has not been disposed of and we are now faced with the additional insult of council tax moneys to the tune of more than £250,000 being used to keep the site closed.
The Secondary Heads Association was so concerned by the announcement not to proceed that it offered to use part of its capital budget each year to raise the money for the LEA’s perceived shortfall. The offer was refused, and a highly politicised scrutiny meeting of the council upheld the decision. The head teachers feel the decision so deeply not just because their vision of state-of-the-art facilities for 21st-century learning has, in effect, been shattered but because the consequences of not going down the BSF route are too awful to contemplate.
Although Dudley is at the heart of the black country—indeed, it is often proudly designated its capital—it does not exist in a vacuum. The surrounding authorities of Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Walsall and Birmingham have applied for and are receiving BSF funds and are creating vast palaces of learning. It is inevitable that Dudley pupils and future learners will vote with their feet and cross LEA borders to take advantage of state-of-the-art facilities elsewhere, leaving Dudley’s secondary rolls to decline and deplete to the point that we fear closures will inevitably follow.
I am also dismayed that the potential for local employment that could arise from the BSF programme has now been thrown away by the council, which is, in effect, taking away opportunities for builders and other workers across the whole borough.
If the shortfall could have been made up by alternative funding, why still pull the bid? Could the decision possibly be linked to a report in The Guardian on 2 July 2008 about a meeting of Conservative council leaders that was urged to discontinue co-operating with Labour authorities in Whitehall and beyond, and to just say no? Or perhaps it was timed to link with this weekend’s announcements about future Conservative policy. Sadly, we do not know, but nobody with any knowledge or experience in the area can make any sense of the decision to pull the bid after so much work has been done and so many fine words have been said in praise of BSF and what it could do for Dudley.
Where can we go from here? I hope that the Minister will be able to intervene to get Councillor Walker and the council leader, David Caunt, to account for their lack of vision and betrayal of the aspirations and life chances of children in Dudley and, perhaps, to explore possible ways forward. I hope that the Minister can get clarification as to what will happen in the meantime to schools with declining facilities and to the plans for academies in Dudley. The LEA’s plans are in tatters and head teachers are condemned to firefighting one crisis after another, but they would all rather be watching their schools blossom in a joint visionary future.
The local politicians who pulled the bid appear to be “frit”, in the words of one Stourbridge head teacher, and there is definitely a lack of capacity at officer level. The LEA released a position statement on 2 December in which it said that it wished to explore every possibility with head teachers in the light of the political directive not to proceed. That was more than two months ago but, as yet, there has been no move from the LEA to do so, nor any answers to head teachers who are desperate to move forward. Perhaps today the Minister can start to get the answers that we are all hoping for and that the children of Dudley deserve.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) on securing this important debate. I know that she, having previously been a teacher, is committed to this issue, and that, as the local MP, she is ambitious for regeneration in her area. I also know from the assiduous lobbying and collaring of me on various occasions in this building by her and the other three Dudley MPs how strong feelings are on this matter. Her ambition echoes that of the Government to transform education and children’s services in this country to ensure that they are world-class.
The Building Schools for the Future programme represents the biggest investment in our school buildings in five decades. It is reinvigorating learners and regenerating communities. Fifty BSF schools are now open, with 1,000 schools across 80 local authorities now engaged in the programme.
Despite the current economic climate, which causes us to look at public spending, we remain committed to the BSF programme in full because we have seen what a difference it can make to children, schools and communities. That commitment emanates from the very highest levels of Government.
As I reported to the Children, Schools and Families Committee last week, to facilitate progress and the completion of projects in the current economic circumstances, and to minimise delays to programmes, we have accelerated the procurement process and reduced costs. There are indications of half a dozen or so banks returning to the schools lending market, and the European Investment Bank has agreed in principle to a funding package of up to £300 million.
The programme continues to gather momentum. By 2011, 200 rebuilt or refurbished schools will have been opened, and, by 2020, we expect the majority of local authorities to have completed their programmes in secondary schools. As my hon. Friend said, BSF is not just about making sure that we can build a few new classrooms. It is about creating inspiring environments in which children can enjoy their learning and feel safe. It is about 21st-century equipment and facilities for 21st-century learning. And it is about taking a real sense of pride in the institutions in which we educate our young people. As the consultation for secondary education provision reform in my hon. Friend’s constituency shows, young people themselves feel strongly about this and want to get involved in it.
Turning specifically to BSF in Dudley, I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment at Dudley council’s decision to defer its participation in the programme. I know that her disappointment is shared by head teachers, governors, pupils and parents alike. She makes a compelling case when she speaks not just about the advantages of BSF but the disadvantage to Dudley of not joining the programme, compared with the rest of the authorities in the region. It is missing out on an opportunity to boost local employment through construction, and risking pupils and parents voting with their feet and moving to one of the adjacent areas where they deem provision to be better. BSF offers an excellent opportunity for local regeneration, and taking part would show a real commitment to children and families in the Dudley area and would demonstrate that it is worth investing in 21st-century schools, resources, and education.
Of course, local schools are ready to back the programme. Last week, I met Brian Heavisides, the chairman of the Dudley head teachers group, to discuss BSF projects in Dudley. He assured me that the schools in Dudley are keen to join at the earliest possible time and stand ready to support the bid financially.
As we heard, Dudley council expressed concerns about raising the estimated £2.4 million for the initial pump-priming phase. The intention would have been to appoint staff at an estimated cost of some £500,000 per year. It is essential that the local authority puts in place the correct resources to manage the project, but it is important for the council to remember that the total funding does not need to be in place from day one—it can be scaled up—and that some professional costs which relate directly to the construction of new buildings may be classified as a capital cost and funded from the authority’s capital allocations. The cost of local authority staff, of course, should not normally be funded from capital.
As I said in my letter to Councillor David Caunt on 31 December—still working on new year’s eve—judgments concerning which costs could be capitalised are a matter for the authority working with its district auditor. I urged him to discuss whether the cost of staffing and external advisers could be funded from capital funding streams as a matter of urgency. I have advised that a representative from Partnerships for Schools meet with the local authority, also as a matter of urgency, to discuss the matter, and my officials are working closely with the council to effect a solution that will allow Dudley to enter the BSF programme at the earliest opportunity.
Some people have suggested—we heard this today—that the reason for Dudley’s decision to delay BSF is party political. I cannot comment on that, but I very much hope that it is not putting party politics before children’s education. I say to the people of Dudley that it is not too late for their council to decide to enter the programme. I am willing to come to the council and work hard with it to make this possible, but in the end the council has to want to will the means.
My hon. Friend mentioned the two new academies in Dudley and the effect that the council’s decision to defer its bid for BSF funding will have on those programmes. The buildings for the two new academies are being procured via the academies national framework, which makes provision for design teams and contractors in areas where new academy buildings are required outside BSF waves. Funding of up to £400,000 to deliver the two academies is available for the local authority in Dudley to bid for; this is standard for local authorities delivering national framework-procured academies. I therefore reassure my hon. Friend that the Dudley academies’ new buildings should not be affected by the council’s decision to defer application for BSF. Both academies are on track for opening in September this year and are to be in their new or refurbished buildings in September 2013. I hope that we will be able to get on and effect that change, because those schools in particular need the advantage that academy status will bring them.
My hon. Friend has mentioned Thorns community learning village in relation to BSF funding. As I understand it, the Thorns community learning village is a relocation of Old Park special school to an existing site already housing a secondary school and a primary school. Its construction is funded through a number of funding streams, including targeted capital funding, the asset management plan modernisation grant and the school’s devolved formula capital. Its initial phase was not intended to be part of the BSF programme. Rather, BSF was intended to fund any follow-on work required to Thorns community college and the primary capital programme will fund any work required on Thorns primary school. As my hon. Friend said, time scales are yet to be determined for these programmes, although I understand that the council’s position is that the follow-up work does not have sufficient impact on children’s educational outcomes to make it a priority. I personally urge the council to revisit this matter, to clarify its situation and—I hope—to proceed with the work that my hon. Friend is strongly advocating.
In conclusion, despite the current economic climate we continue to invest record amounts in school revenues and school buildings, largely through councils such as Dudley. Nothing is as important as investing in our education infrastructure and in the education of today’s young people and that of generations to come. Councils such as Dudley should be grasping the opportunities, the resources and the partnership that we are offering them to achieve gains for those children now.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his comments. I agree wholeheartedly, but what can we in Dudley do if the council does not go for the opportunities? Where will we be when Wolverhampton and the surrounding authorities get their money and continue developing as they already are? What prospects are there for children like my son and his friends and for my former teaching colleagues? In my vision, the prospects seem horrendous. I wonder what could happen, should the council not go for it. That is the true worry.
I am sure that, as a parent, my hon. Friend is not alone in being worried about the schools that she wants to send her children to and in worrying about how they will prosper if schools in neighbouring authorities have taken advantage of investment and it feels as though the schools in Dudley have not taken that opportunity because of decisions taken by the leadership of the council. Parents have a choice of schools; that has been an important driver in improving the standards of education over the past 12 years. The leadership of the council needs to be mindful of the fears that my hon. Friend has expressed as a champion for Dudley schools and as a local parent.
I will encourage the council and do everything that I can to work with it to help it make the right decision, which in my view is to invest now in children’s education and in creating the best possible learning environment to raise their aspirations and make them want to achieve for themselves and for the Dudley community. BSF represents a real opportunity for pupils, teachers, and families in Dudley. As I have said, we will continue to work with the council to ensure a swift and satisfactory solution.
Mr. Illsley, I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting time for this debate on an issue that is of great importance to my constituents and, I am sure, to other people in the highlands and islands.
I have great pleasure in seeing the Minister in her place. I look forward to her replying to some of the issues that I shall raise. I hope she will not regard what I say as in any way unhelpful, but will view it as potentially a way forward to help meet some of the current problems at a cost that is not disproportionate.
Jobcentre Plus currently has an important role to play in the recession we are in. I express my support and admiration for the many dedicated staff who work in Jobcentre Plus in Inverness, offering a full range of services, including work-focused interviews, back to work support and so on. I acknowledge the commitment of its local management in trying to ensure, as best it can, that Jobcentre Plus plays a role in meeting some of the economic needs of the area.
A major business, a fish processing company called Strathaird, announced that it will be closing its factory in Inverness with the loss of more than 300 jobs. Jobcentre Plus is very much to the fore among local agencies working together to ensure that people who work there have the best possible support to give them the best chance of finding alternative employment.
Clearly, the economic problems facing the country and the highlands are growing, and unemployment is rising rapidly. According to the monthly highlands and islands economic report produced by local economist Tony Mackay, in November unemployment rose by 820 in the highlands and islands, which is more than double the figure for the same month last year. November is a time when seasonal employees tend to become unemployed, but the figures suggest that there is a greater factor, and announcements since then, including that by Strathaird, suggest that there are many more problems to come in the local economy in Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and the rest of the highlands compared with what we have seen so far.
There have been substantial problems in the construction sector and many other businesses, not least seasonal businesses, which have seen significant job losses. The broader current economic and financial problems are exacerbated in the highlands because it is a region of particularly low pay. According to Mr. Mackay’s analysis, which is borne out by the official figures, the highlands have one of the lowest average rates of pay of anywhere in Scotland and the United Kingdom. Those economic problems are not being helped by the Scottish Government, whose substantial cuts in funding for Highlands and Islands Enterprise, amounting to almost £100 million over three years at the very time when the country is facing a recession, are grossly economically irresponsible, as is the slowing down of important infrastructure projects, particularly the construction of affordable housing, and transport projects. That will only exacerbate rather than ameliorate the wider economic problems.
The highlands and islands have benefited from European structural funding, and I hope that the Government will take advantage of the exchange rate opportunity. The Minister and I have had various debates about exchange rate issues and the euro over many years before either of us became members of the House. The falling pound provides an opportunity for the value of European structural funding to increase quickly, and bringing forward projects to boost employment—her Department should have a role in that—would be a good use of additional funding that would be free and of great benefit in my area. I want to press the Minister on two key issues: delivery of benefits to people who have recently become unemployed, and changes to ensure that the delivery of back to work support is as effective as it can be, not just in the highlands and islands, but throughout the country.
The telephone network and the increasingly centralised benefit delivery centres throughout the UK seem to me, from local experience, to be struggling to cope with the rapid and substantial increase in benefit claims from people who have lost their jobs. The telephone service nationally is insufficient, and in 2008, Jobcentre Plus call centres dropped more than 2 million calls. In both June and November, more than 300,000 calls were dropped, and in seven of 12 months, more than 10 per cent. of calls were dropped. Evidence, not least anecdotal evidence from constituents, suggests that the Clydebank call centre—despite being hundreds of miles away, it now processes the benefit claims for all my constituents in the highlands—is having significant problems. It has been reported to me—I hope that the Minister will confirm the accuracy of this fact—that the call centre has only 20 lines to deal with all the queries from people in the highlands. I have still not had a response to a named day question that I expected to be answered a couple of weeks ago, asking for the number of calls being dropped, broken down by individual benefit delivery centres, so as to get to the bottom of that point about Clydebank. My constituents’ experience suggests that those problems are real.
The Minister may know that the charity, Blythswood Care, operates a food bank in Inverness, and it is a sad state of affairs when charities must operate food banks to provide food parcels for people in the most severe hardship. The charity recorded and analysed the reasons for every person coming through its doors, and reported that 28 per cent. of those who access that important service do so because they have been left short of money due to delays in processing their benefit claims. Any delay is problematic, but long delays that leave people in particular hardship or for people who have experienced a sudden drop in income due to unemployment are even more severe.
Examples have been brought to my attention of constituents who have been forced to hitch-hike to Inverness to sort out their benefits because they do not have enough money to pay for the travel. Some travel claims are reimbursed—for example, for work-focused interviews—but people who want to make claims or to make their fortnightly trips to check up on available jobs have found the cost of travel difficult to afford without reimbursement. One constituent, Mr. Meredith, who came to see me in early January, had not been paid for a claim for jobseeker’s allowance in mid-November. After my office intervened, it was dealt with, and I am grateful for the speed with which that was done, but the experience is not unique to that one constituent. I should be grateful if the Minister will say what steps she intends to take to ensure that benefit delivery centres in general, but particularly that in Clydebank, have appropriate resources and personnel to deal with what is likely to be a continuing, substantial increase in demand for its services during the coming year. It is important that the Government plan ahead for that, and do not simply respond to demand as it arises. Over the past two or three months, the response has not been good enough, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments.
The second issue that I want to raise is the way in which Jobcentre Plus delivers its vital back to work support. Having visited and, indeed, opened the new Jobcentre Plus building in Inverness, I have seen at first hand the work that Jobcentre Plus staff do with work-focused interviews, and their interventions for lone parents and claimants for incapacity benefit and other benefits. They often link up with locally based organisations in the voluntary and private sectors. There is real effectiveness, and those interventions often make a difference. Sometimes, they do not, and there may be problems with claimants on two generic programmes rather than with individually tailored support. None the less, it is important to ensure that people have access as quickly and as locally as possible to that assistance.
My observation is that our effective local staff in Inverness will, if not now, over the next few months, face severe constraints with resources, both in the number of people dealing with an increasing flow of claimants, and with space. Obviously, the closure of Jobcentres—I shall return to the Jobcentre estate—and the rationalisation of buildings took place during good economic times. I shall propose a way of dealing with that problem in harsher economic times.
The Minister knows that on several occasions I have raised the specific issue of the closure of the Jobcentre in Nairn and the great difficulties that that caused for claimants there. It is interesting that the Inverness Jobcentre Plus had only three more staff—my information is that that was a 5 per cent. increase—in December 2008 compared with September 2007. It now has 61 staff instead of 58, despite unemployment rising by more than 50 per cent. in the constituency.
My figures go back only to September 2007, but that does not suggest a staffing-up to deal with the increase in demand for services at Jobcentre Plus. In the country as a whole, front-line staff numbers have fallen from about 76,000 to a little under 64,000. I know that plans are afoot to increase the number of staff. None the less, the fact that the number of work-focused interview advisers has fallen in the past couple of years means that there has to be a degree of speed in getting the new staff in place to help to deliver those services.
I observe that the problem has not been helped by the closure of Jobcentre Pluses throughout the country. In the past five years, 454 jobcentres—38 per cent. of the total—have closed. In 2008, 54 closed, in 2007 it was 49 and in 2006 it was 157. In Scotland, the number of Jobcentre Pluses has been reduced from 150 to 99 in the past five years. On current unemployment figures—sadly, they are rising so quickly that it is hard to keep track—there is now only one Jobcentre Plus for every 2,580 people on the jobseeker’s allowance register. It is expected that figures out tomorrow will show another rise in unemployment—it will possibly even break the 2 million mark for the first time in many years.
I welcome the Government’s announcement of a suspension of future closures of Jobcentre Plus, but I observe, particularly from my local experience in Nairn, that much of the damage has already been done. Although it is right to close the door on further closures, the Government must look much more directly at ways in which they can provide jobcentre services in communities, towns and villages that have been affected by closures, as well as potentially finding a way effectively and reasonably cheaply to make those services available to people in other communities that have been blighted by unemployment and that may not have had a jobcentre in the past.
I shall propose some ideas on how jobcentre services could be made more accessible throughout the UK. Given the number of closures, there is clearly a shortage of potentially appropriate facilities. It must be the case—perhaps the Minister can update me on this—that the Department will forecast space constraints becoming an issue, in some parts of the country at least, in the not-too-distant future. I know from previously having been Work and Pensions spokesman for my party that there have been very good pilots locating Jobcentre Plus services or advisers either from Jobcentre Plus or from private and voluntary organisations in other institutions—for example, at GP practices. I visited one such initiative in Camden in north London, which had proved very successful in helping people who had been distant from services before to access the services. What I am talking about now is not people who have been distant from the services—not necessarily hard-to-reach people—but simply dealing with the volume of people that sadly we are likely to see.
I hope that the Minister will consider seriously the proposal to allow jobcentre staff—advisers, for example—to deliver services on more of an outreach basis, taking advantage of the many publicly owned buildings and facilities in constituencies such as mine. I am thinking, for example, of public libraries. The Highland council has a network of service points. There are village halls in the highlands; a number of communities have recently benefited from new village halls, which would be very suitable for the task, allowing soundproofing, confidentiality, access to the internet and all the various things that would need to be available to allow the services effectively to be delivered.
When I raised the issue at Work and Pensions questions the other day, the response that I received from the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, although positive, was rather vague, so I would be interested to hear this Minister be more specific, if possible, about proposals that the Government might be bringing forward to make use of other public spaces for the delivery of Jobcentre Plus services.
It is time for Jobcentre Plus to operate on a more dispersed and accessible model, reaching into communities. In my constituency, there is only one jobcentre, in Inverness. The Nairn jobcentre was closed and even though it is not possible to reopen a permanent jobcentre in Nairn, I hope that an outreach model can be developed to allow the services to be accessed once again in Nairn. The same applies for people living in, for example, Dalwhinnie in my constituency, which is nearly 60 miles from Inverness. That is a small community. Other communities such as Newtonmore and Kingussie, which are 40-odd miles away from Inverness, have never had access to jobcentre services locally. If a way could be found to provide such services, that would be very beneficial.
If the Minister is looking for a place to pilot an outreach regime, the highlands of Scotland would be a very good place indeed to start such a pilot. I have already raised the idea informally with representatives on the Highland council and received a very positive reception. In particular, if a link-up could be devised in a way that would also help to increase benefit take-up, that would be beneficial not only to the individuals themselves, but to local authorities. I look forward to the Minister’s response and hope that a more dispersed model of jobcentre services—an outreach model—can be developed to help people in the highlands to have greater access to those services.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander)—I hope that I pronounced the name of his constituency half right, despite my accent—on securing the debate. It is a great pleasure to be able to debate with him. As many hon. Members may know, we worked side by side in a previous incarnation and we once joked about whether an occasion such as this would ever happen. It is nice—for us both, I hope—that it has.
I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the hard work of jobcentre and benefit delivery centre staff not only in his constituency, but throughout the highlands. I know that many of his constituents are being helped and supported by people, who presumably are also or are likely to be his constituents, working in Jobcentre Plus in Inverness, in Fort William, which I believe is also in his constituency, and in Forres, which is just outside it. This is not an easy time for many people up and down the country, and the highlands are no exception. I should like to place on record my understanding of how difficult things must be for his constituents who have recently found themselves, through no fault of their own, out of work. That must have been particularly hard for the communities around the Strathaird fish processing centre. Our thoughts are certainly with them.
The hon. Gentleman has engaged well in these difficult times. Only a few weeks ago, I think, he met the district manager in Inverness to discuss what more can be done, so he is a great example of a constituency MP doing a good job in difficult times. Before I move on to give my main response to the very good points that he raised, I of course want to express my agreement with him on the difficulties posed by some of the attitudes of the devolved Administration. Although we may not agree on everything across the party political divide, we can certainly agree on that. However, we continue to do our best as a delivery Department, despite some of the obstacles put in our way.
The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the seasonal nature of some of the work in his constituency; we acknowledge that there are seasonal variations. I am not in any way suggesting that the situation is particularly positive at the moment, but he may want to know that the increases in the number of people in the highlands and islands going on to jobseeker’s allowance are not as large as those in the rest of Scotland, so they are doing something right, although the figures are not going in the right direction. In the period from April to December last year, the increase in new JSA claims for the highlands and islands was 13.8 per cent. compared with 17.7 per cent. for Scotland as a whole. Obviously, those numbers are still far too large.
The other contextual fact that may be useful as we discuss this subject is that the number of people going off JSA is also rising, so the situation is more dynamic than the headline figures suggest. That applies across the whole country. If anyone is listening to or reading the record of the debate, I want to send a clear message that there are opportunities across the country now and that we will support people in trying to take advantage of those opportunities, but they need to keep looking and working with us to do that, rather than giving up hope, because there are opportunities there.
The Government will be judged on how they respond to the current situation up and down the country and in the various nations of the UK. This phenomenon is affecting most of the world. Anyone who listened to Barack Obama a few weeks ago will realise that the problem is not confined to the highlands of Scotland or to the UK. The Government’s response is that we have a choice. We could do what other Administrations have done during previous recessions and take the passive approach of merely being good at processing people on benefit and ensuring that they get their weekly or fortnightly payments. However, we take the opposite approach because we believe that it is the role of the Government to enable and support people and to enter into partnership with them to get the most out of what is not a particularly good situation, which can be seen just by looking at the headlines.
I am proud of the way in which people in our agencies have responded to the present circumstances. Across the country, clearance times for processing new benefit claims have been maintained under the target level, despite a 30 per cent. increase in the weekly uptake. It is not just the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who are working hard in jobcentres, but staff across the country.
We do need extra resources—the hon. Gentleman made that point well. The pre-Budget report announced the investment of an extra £1.3 billion over the next two years in the delivery services of the Department for Work and Pensions in response to the economic downturn and the increase in people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. The Government are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, when people who were short-term unemployed became long-term unemployed because they did not get the help to which they were entitled. We are investing a further £500 million to guarantee more support for people who are unemployed for six months by providing incentives for firms to hire, access to help with setting up a business, extra funding for training, and opportunities for work-focused volunteering. Our support will increase the longer the hon. Gentleman’s constituents are out of work rather than decreasing and becoming more passive as people slip away from the labour market.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that we have announced a moratorium on jobcentre closures, including a decision not to close 25 jobcentres as had been planned. It seemed perverse to continue with the rationalisation programme when we realised that we had to ramp up the support we offer. There will be 6,000 more front-line staff in Jobcentre Plus in 2009-10. Recruitment plans are on track to bring staffing numbers up to 69,000 by March this year. That will continue to increase as required. He asked how that work is going. We increased staff by 2,500 between November last year and this January. We are employing more than 1,000 people per month, so vacancies are certainly open at the Department for Work and Pensions. In Scotland, 1,400 posts are available. In the highlands, 18 new staff have been agreed, including five in Inverness and one in nearby Forres. That will be kept under review to ensure that we are providing the service that is required.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that prior to the adverse macro-economic events, the jobcentre offices in Nairn, Thurso and Alness were closed. I have reinvestigated the reasons for those closures and found that they would have been necessary, despite the change in the economic situation. I will go through the detail if he is interested. Some of the offices were unable to cope with the adaptations that were necessary. In some cases, the service being provided was unacceptable because of the constraints of the buildings. We cannot offer services from a building that is not compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That was an issue with the Nairn jobcentre, as he knows. The fact that it was a very nice listed building did not help with access problems and limited its flexibility. The question now is what we can do to ensure that his constituents get the service that they need and deserve.
The hon. Gentleman proposed some interesting ideas. The message I want to send is that we are up for innovation. We must continue this dialogue in Parliament and locally. We have increased flexibility by using telephone contacts and e-channels through the internet. If those cannot be accessed in the home, facilities are available in the community in libraries and elsewhere. We understand that different people find different methods easiest to use. For some people the internet is brilliant, but for others it is a nightmare. We must know what is most appropriate for each person, so that we can ensure that they are contacted appropriately.
I am sorry if some people have felt that the costs of complying with the requirements set out in legislation are onerous. I would be interested to hear examples, because we reimburse costs. It would be wrong not to. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will write to me if there are issues that he considers should be looked at. We are always clear that when customers who do not live near an office are required to attend it at our request outside their normal signing cycle—perhaps because there is an anomaly or they are not being as co-operative as we would like—the interview time is arranged to best fit their travel requirements and, as I said, expenses are reimbursed at the normal rates. We try to be flexible and not to disrupt people’s normal lives.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that a community group that operates a food bank has seen unnecessary poverty among his constituents because of delays in the processing of benefits. Obviously, that is not desirable. However, benefit applications must be scrutinised properly to ensure that they are valid. He may know that the Welfare Reform Bill, which has just entered its parliamentary stages in this House, proposes a power to pay benefit up front outside the social fund system when people have no other resources. In some instances, people who apply for income-based benefit will be able to receive it up front, prior to the application being processed in the normal way. His constituents are also eligible for crisis loans from the social fund. Those are usually processed within 24 hours and the national average is less than two days. I advise him to look into that.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned GP services. I have seen some great examples of those in my constituency. We are keen to explore ways in which collocation can make life easier for people. The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform was in Glasgow yesterday and spoke at a forum hosted by the Scottish Government on enhancing joint agency responses to redundancies and ensuring that we intervene at an early stage. He visited one of a number of pilots that started across Scotland yesterday which aim to integrate employment and skills services. Jobcentre Plus and Career Scotland staff will work together to ensure that people are not just signing on, but that they have access to the support that they need to enhance their employment prospects. There are preliminary discussions on opening a one-stop shop to build on the work that is being done. We will evaluate that and, if it works, it may have national implications.
A number of other innovative projects are operating in the highlands. It is not in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but perhaps there are some supporters of Ross County near him. There is a great project called “Get a Goal” that uses football to engage people and encourage them to get closer to the labour market. There are other projects further north, such as in Wick.
The message I have for the hon. Gentleman is that if somebody comes to us with an idea, we are up for it. I commend his enthusiasm and initiative in requesting this debate and in suggesting ideas that will be good for his constituents and could have a wider impact throughout the United Kingdom.
Agriculture (West Country)
In a way, I apologise to the Minister, because she and her predecessors have been assailed annually by debates on agriculture in West Dorset. However, I make no apology for the fact that I intend to continue the practice in future years; it is a useful way of enabling the Minister to get a snapshot of admittedly only one location where farming is a crucial part of the local economy and society.
As the Minister will be well aware, dairy farming is the preponderant form of farming in West Dorset. Last year, until about November, was the first time that I can remember when my dairy farmers began to think that there might be some light at the end of the tunnel for farm-gate prices, because for most of the past 13 years, milk has sold at below 20p a litre at the farm gate and for a brief moment, it did not look like that, somewhat offset by what were then sharply increased input costs of various kinds—both for fuel and raw materials, such as feedstock, fertilizer and so on. Unfortunately, however, since November, most of the prices experienced by most of my farmers have fallen by about 2p or 3p a litre, and dairy farmers have now returned to the very difficult position of being unable to cover costs, including capital costs, or to bring in a reasonable income or wage for themselves and those they employ, given the price levels they are able to obtain. It took some years for that to happen but it is now feeding through to a significant and, all the indications are, pretty sustained, reduction in output and capacity in West Dorset’s dairy farms.
For some years the innate, long-term optimism of the farming community—that things would get better at some uncertain date—combined with deep love of a way of life, led people to remain in the industry beyond the point when rational calculation of rates of return would have kept them there. Over the past 10 years, for every farmer—there were many—who sold all or some of their livestock, there were others willing to absorb them. That led to an increase in the average scale of dairy farms and, probably, in average efficiency, which is to be welcomed, although it came with significant social effects, because the driving out of smaller farmers has been another nail in what I hope will never be the coffin of the local village—often the local farmer is the main, or an important, component of the local society.
For a while, from a sheer economic point of view, it looked as though concentrations were rising and productivity increasing, which one could celebrate. However, unfortunately the economics eventually came home to roost and people have been moving out of the industry without finding people willing to buy the livestock and maintain capacity.
Nationally, we reached a 30-year production low in 2007-08, which is paralleled in West Dorset, and as far as I can see the figures are still falling. Eventually, one might expect supply and demand in the liquid milk market to push prices back up, but clearly there is a great deal of resistance to that among hard-pressed consumers in times of economic difficulties. All in all, on the fundamental economics, the position of my dairy farmers is not good.
In addition, dairy farmers now face the very severe crisis of bovine TB, of which the Minister will be acutely conscious. Briefly, it once looked as though pre-movement testing might have had an effect, and the hot-spot concentrations were stabilising or perhaps even diminishing. Unfortunately, however, that is no longer the case. The number of bovine TB reactors is increasing again, and there are some very severe hot spots in West Dorset. Pretty much every week, a farmer tells me another terrible tale of the discovery, or now in most cases the rediscovery, of reactors and probables. That is another pressure pushing farmers out of dairying and out of farming.
The animal welfare consequences for the badger and cattle populations are also unfortunate. Nationally, that is causing considerable strain on resources, because of the fiscal cost of purchasing animals that have to be slaughtered. I fear that West Dorset is a large, and likely to be an increasing, contributor to that fiscal pressure. I know that the Minister, her colleagues and previous colleagues whom I and colleagues from other parts of the country have belaboured about this over the years, have expressed a desire to develop the gold standard—a proper vaccine for the badger population. We would all welcome such a vaccine. However, for the past 10 years, I have been hearing that it was about five years off, so I have no more confidence than my farmers that it will arrive five years from now. Even on the optimistic assumption that in five or six years there is some method of vaccination, there is no substitute for an interim cull, although that is not the Government’s current position, which I maintain is not responsible in terms of animal welfare, fiscal costs or the costs to my farmers, emotionally and economically.
Alas, this is not just a question of milk prices and bovine TB: there is also the unnecessary fact of continuing bureaucratic problems. To exaggerate is no part of my purpose, and I pay tribute to the work of Lord Rooker, who in my experience was the first person in a long time to enter the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who really tried to get to grips with the single farm payment system. I have exchanged so much correspondence with him that I feel that I know him extraordinarily well. He had an effect, and to some degree payments caught up—I pass over in silence the whole saga of the ghastly mapping exercises and the computers that still do not speak to one another properly.
A new problem, which I hope that the Minister will address, is coming over the horizon and beginning to affect my farming constituents quite significantly. As the Department or the Rural Payments Agency have caught up with the past, they have begun to discover that the past was not as accurate as they once thought that it was. They have started to ask farmers for repayments of overpayments, of which neither they nor farmers had previously been conscious. Farmers of mine are being asked for money from 2005, 2006 and 2007. Some of the cases are not meritorious; at a certain point, when the farmer has done everything in his power to provide accurate information and the RPA has made a series of errors, it becomes unreasonable, as with tax credits, to try to claim back the money. I warn the Minister that there is likely to be much pressure from me and, I suspect, other similarly disposed Members of Parliament, about that issue, although I accept that in some cases the RPA was misled or that farmers made mistakes. However, where farmers have tried to do everything in apple-pie order, and there has been an error on the other side, it is a bit tough on the farmers to try to claim back the money.
However, the bureaucratic problems are not restricted to the single farm payment. Another such problem relates to field records, with some 23 now having to be kept for each field. None the less, that issue pales into insignificance compared with the nitrate-vulnerable zones saga. I have said publicly on various occasions—I recently made a speech about it in the context of wider issues on regulation—that the whole NVZ apparatus is manifestly barmy. It constrains farmers from distributing slurry in the so-called wet months, including on the dry days of wet months, and allows them to distribute it during the so-called dry months, including wet days in dry months. That is not a rational process. When evaluation is carried out some years from now, I am sure that we shall discover that the NVZ direction has been translated in England in a way that has increased rather than reduced the nitrates in our rivers. Therefore, the system is crazy.
Let me park that issue because I know that the Minister only inherited the system and did not invent it herself. I pity her because she will go down in history as a Minister who presided over a barmy system. None the less, as the system is in place, there is at least one set of people who should not suffer from it, and that is the farmers who did not want it, who hired people such as myself—not that they paid me extra but they pushed me into action—to campaign against it. They also organised the National Farmers Union to campaign against it, and they themselves made powerful arguments against it. They are the last people who should suffer.
Putting up a serious slurry store on a significant-sized farm costs about £50,000. The whole apparatus of pillar 2—as I have just heard from the Secretary of State—is not contributing a single penny to that cost. Therefore, we have a totally non-productive investment in a wildly underinvested industry, on which the Government have repeatedly commented, as has the Chatham House report. The unproductive investment is compelled in regulation and exists because of a barmy system that did not need to be there in the first place and that costs the farmer £50,000 to comply with. Moreover, neither the Minister nor I can give the farmer the slightest advice on how to raise the money because there is not a bank in Britain that will give £50,000 for unproductive investment in a farm that is strapped for cash. That is a really serious problem that will come home to roost for the Minister in a very straightforward way—more of my constituents will leave the industry.
Recently, a constituent who has farmed for years told me that he is now on the way out. The straw that broke the camel’s back was slurry. The same thing will happen all over West Dorset, and in many other places. The south-west of England is very wet, and there are real problems with NVZs. I have campaigned for years about the need to deal with nitrates, but forcing farmers to keep slurry stores so that they can dump the stuff on wet days in dry months at great cost is not the way to do it. That is barmy. Something must change. The very least that needs to be done is to find money from pillar 2 to pay for the slurry stores. It is not the right answer because that is to change the framework, but given that the framework is already there, the slurry stores must be subsidised.
In conclusion, I want to raise two issues to which I hope the Minister and her colleagues will attend. The first is bluetongue. The Government did well on bluetongue last time round, although neither they nor Conservative Administrations have had such a happy history with other diseases. The bluetongue vaccinations were ordered on time and were well distributed and the disease was controlled, but I fear that there is not sufficient protection against the new strains. I have corresponded with the Secretary of State about that. I am conscious that unless we have multi-strain protection pretty early on, we will hardly be able to surround the Channel ports and the patches of our coastline between the ports with large nets to catch the vectors. We will be under attack from minute objects and we must deal with them in any way we can, which means proper vaccination. I hope that the Minister is pressing forward with ordering to ensure that there is not a lag when we discover that the vectors carrying new strains are heading our way.
Finally, I turn to research and development. I have mentioned that the agriculture industry is probably the most severely underinvested industrial sector in Britain—not that there are no problems of underinvestment in many other sectors, but agriculture is peculiarly ill affected by it. Farmers do not have the capacity to carry out fundamental research. Research must be undertaken at the level of DEFRA and the other agencies.
One area of concern is beekeeping, which is of immense horticultural and ecological significance in West Dorset and many other parts of the country. Over the years, I have corresponded with Ministers about it. I do not think that there is any doubt in Ministers’ minds that colony collapse is an increasing problem. Leave aside the economic and biodiversity effects, the sheer fiscal cost of widespread colony collapse, and the serious effect on horticulture and agriculture as a result, will beggar the tiny amounts of money that are currently invested. I know that an extra £400,000 has been invested, but that is not enough. I understand the causes. When DEFRA found itself fined by the Commission because of the RPA’s delays on the single farm payment, it had to cut down somewhere, and research looked like an easy target. However, it is not a cost-effective place to be reducing investment. For tiny numbers of millions of pounds, huge additions to our knowledge could be gained, and there would be a real chance of preventing colony collapse. Now is the time to address the problem. I know that times are tough; we are in recession and I understand the pressures, but I believe that we are storing up for ourselves a considerable liability if we do not act.
It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon and to respond to the second of what I anticipate will be a series of debates. It is obviously an annual occurrence, and one that I welcome. I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on winning this opportunity to discuss agriculture in his constituency. I participated in a very interesting debate on agriculture in the south-west on 20 January, but I welcome the opportunity today to put on the record my appreciation of all the hard work that our farmers do to put food on our tables.
The right hon. Gentleman opened his debate by talking about the trials and tribulations of dairy farmers, and I recognise the description he gave. The debate gives me an opportunity to express my disappointment with the tone of the recommendations of the Food Standards Agency, released in the past 24 hours, on our diet and how to deal with obesity. The FSA recommended that we should produce far less full-fat food, that dairy products should be consumed less and that we should remove all the fat, and that we should stop drinking full-fat milk and drink only skimmed milk. I do not know whether your experience is like mine, Mr. Illsley, but surely eating less is a better way to deal with obesity.
The more we remove fat from meat and milk, the less tasty food is. Am I the only one who thinks that? We should take a sensible approach and promote a balanced diet. I say that not only because I am regularly involved in debating such issues with farmers, but because I am a sensible representative of the public. The idea that we should eat as much as ever but consume fewer fatty foods is not such a good way forward. We should consider the amounts that we eat, as well. If we cook fatty meat properly, we remove a lot of the fat; it is also sensible to eat less of it. As a bit of a salad dodger myself, I am aware that I am on thin ice, but I was a little disappointed by the tone of the agency’s campaign. I know, however, that the FSA is independent from the Government and an important commentator.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the difficulties faced by farmers in his constituency. I know that last week’s snowfalls will have made their job even more difficult. I hope that their experience of working with the weather meant that they were reasonably well prepared. The present conditions follow the high rainfall in the autumn that made gathering the harvest particularly difficult.
I will come to prices in a moment, but I will first talk about disease. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s description of bovine TB as a severe crisis. I take the disease seriously and I am committed to tackling it. A package of measures is in place to reduce the spread and incidence of the disease, including regular testing, zero tolerance of overdue tests and pre-movement testing. However, I accept, as he rightly mentioned, that there is a great deal of concern that the incidence of the disease is increasing and that the measures that we have in place do not appear to be sufficient to hold it back. We need to understand why that is happening.
We are making significant investments in TB vaccines. The right hon. Gentleman will know that we plan to spend £20 million on vaccines in the next three years. When I joined the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in October, I was told that it would take five years to create a vaccine for badgers, but I am encouraged by the progress that is being made by DEFRA scientists on advancing that. I hope that the eradication group will also bring forward some good ideas.
I accept that many farmers are unhappy with the decision not to cull badgers. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the decision was based on a wide range of factors, including scientific evidence; the practicalities of delivering a successful cull; discussions with farming, veterinary, wildlife and conservation groups; the conclusions of the independent scientific group on bovine TB; and, not least, the contribution of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
The eradication group was set up in November. Through it, the Government and the industry are working together to draw up a base strategy to bring about the eradication of the disease. I have met the group. The views of its representatives carry a great deal of weight, based on their experience and knowledge of farming and of the disease. I am hopeful that it will bring forward a strategy that will carry the confidence and support of the farming community. That is my objective for the group.
We rolled out a successful vaccination campaign against bluetongue. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s kind comments on that campaign, which was a great example of farmers and Government working together. The seriousness with which farmers took the threat was indicated by the high take-up of the vaccination, which remains the only effective tool against the disease. Even now, I encourage farmers to continue to vaccinate to ensure that we remain bluetongue free. I listened to what he said about the developing strains of bluetongue and the need to ensure that our vaccines are kept up to date. Work on that is ongoing.
In that context, and bearing in mind our memory of foot and mouth disease, the Government have been discussing with representatives of the livestock industry how to change the arrangements for sharing the responsibilities and costs of animal health. Those discussions have been under way for some time. We plan to consult in the near future, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs hopes to bring forward some specific proposals soon. We anticipate that they may include a proposal to establish a new independent, arms-length body for England to deal with animal disease policy, and a livestock registration scheme to raise revenue for it. Those are difficult issues, especially given the potential costs for the industry, but there is a willingness to discuss how best to reduce the threat of disease. The scheme would differentiate the financial contribution according to the risks involved, which would provide an incentive to livestock keepers to improve their risk management. The consultation that we are considering would also seek views on the potential for private insurance to play a role.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the economic climate, which provides a serious challenge to all industries. However, farming as a whole is well placed to weather the difficulties, because demand for food will remain reasonably stable, even if different sectors face different difficulties, as he rightly said. For many farmers, 2008 was a relatively prosperous year. Total income from farming has increased by 9 per cent. in real terms and the outlook for livestock farms in 2008-09 is more favourable than it was in 2007-08. Average prices for fat cattle and finished and store lambs increased in 2008 by around 30 per cent., and store cattle prices increased by between 10 and 15 per cent, although I appreciate that his primary concern is the dairy sector and the price of milk.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that the current exchange rate has increased the value of all farmers’ income from European Union payments, and the exchange rate is good for exports. The reduction in the base rate of interest will also help all businesses to invest by reducing the cost of borrowing. It is an ill wind that blows no one any good.
The Rural Payments Agency is making good progress towards its 2008 single payment scheme targets. I pay tribute to the work of my predecessor, the noble Lord Rooker, on the subject. He rightly takes a lot of credit for improving the RPA’s performance. Nationally, £1.3 billion—80 per cent. of the total funds—has been paid out to almost 93,000 farmers. However, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be reassured to hear that I am not complacent. Once the main bulk of the RPA’s work on the single payments is concluded, I intend to undertake a review of the system, how we could introduce improvements without too much disturbance to the system, and the appeal process for the kinds of cases that he described. I anticipate a significant correspondence with him on that in the weeks to come.
West Dorset, like other parts of England, will benefit from social and economic investment under the rural development programme for England. The budget for the south-west region as a whole is more than £150 million. Officials meet regularly with the regional development agencies to discuss the development programme and to identify how we can improve its delivery. The South West of England Regional Development Agency is taking steps to speed up delivery of the programme and to ensure that it has sufficient capacity to appraise projects and administer funding.
Successful farmers are entrepreneurs who respond effectively to market demands. The EU protected food name scheme provides farmers and producers with a way to add value to their food products and to develop the market for regional and local food. The right hon. Gentleman may not be aware that an application is being made to include south-west beef and lamb in the scheme. I encourage local producers to use European standards, kitemarks and protection of names to their best effect.
Farmers look after much of our countryside and how they farm has a huge impact on the environment and biodiversity. The right hon. Gentleman rightly expressed concern about the impact of regulation, but it has an important role in safeguarding our environment and public health, as the latest food scare—about dioxins in Irish pig meat—demonstrated. That British pork could be demonstrated to be safe resulted from the farm assurance scheme. Regulation of that type brings huge benefits, but I want to ensure that we do not hold back farming with the burdens of excessive regulation. I am working to strike the right balance. Part of the problem is understanding the likely impacts of proposed new regulation. We are working hard in Europe to ensure that decisions are based on solid analysis of what needs to be done and the impact that decisions will have. A good example of when that did not happen is the electronic identification of sheep, on which he and I agree.
The Nitrate Pollution Prevention Regulations 2008 came into force at the beginning of this year. The right hon. Gentleman described them as barmy—I am sure that he would have been sent out of the Chamber had he used stronger language. Some 60 per cent. of nitrates enter water from agricultural land. The new measures will help to tackle the problem, but I understand the concerns of farmers in nitrate-vulnerable zones. An extensive programme of advice and support is being rolled out to help farmers to control nitrate pollution, with guidance documents, practical workshops and a helpline. I saw the potential impact for myself when I visited a pig farm. The farmer met the higher welfare standards by raising pigs in barns where they had proper bedding and straw—there was a mountain of bedding. The consequences for that farm were significant, considering the potential impact on the environment and the regulations. I am studying the situation carefully.
I heard what the right hon. Gentleman said about bees. A number of his colleagues on both sides of the House have raised the issue, and we are responding to it.
Question put and agreed to.