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Commons Chamber

Volume 488: debated on Monday 23 February 2009

House of Commons

Monday 23 February 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Afghanistan (Troop Deployment)

1. What forecast he has made of levels of troop deployment to Afghanistan in the next two years; and if he will make a statement. (257879)

Before I answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in expressing profound condolences to the families and friends of Marine Darren Smith of 45 Commando Royal Marines, who was killed on active service in Helmand province on 14 February, and Lance Corporal Stephen Kingscott of 1 Battalion The Rifles, who was also killed on active service in Afghanistan on 16 February, and to the family and friends of Private Ryan Wrathall of the 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, who died in Iraq on Thursday 12 February. They all died in the service of our country, and we will always remember their bravery, courage and devotion to duty.

In December 2008, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a temporary uplift in UK force levels in Afghanistan to bring our deployment to around 8,300 troops. We are currently working closely with the new US Administration on their ongoing policy review. Her Majesty’s Government will continue to ensure that our commanders have the troops and the capabilities that they need to do their tasks safely and effectively.

The whole House will join the Secretary of State in his tribute to those of our brave soldiers who have recently died in Afghanistan and elsewhere. More troops from my regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, will shortly be going to Afghanistan, adding to the United Kingdom’s already significant contribution to the NATO force in that country. Does the Secretary of State understand the real anger in this House, and throughout the country, at the fact that other NATO countries are not shouldering their fair share of responsibility? What is he going to do about it, given that so many British lives are at stake?

I understand that the regiment to which the hon. Gentleman referred is shortly due to go to Afghanistan as part of 19 Brigade, and we wish it well.

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, and I have tried, since becoming the Secretary of State for Defence, to give expression to them in this country and, more importantly, when I have discussions with my NATO counterparts. I will continue to do that. UK forces are in Afghanistan because it is vitally necessary for them to be there as a part of securing our homeland defence against the risk of international terrorism. I hope that all parties would accept that our commitment properly reflects the priority that we should attach to succeeding in our mission in Afghanistan.

Has the Secretary of State reflected on the fact that there has never been a specific mandate from this House for the deployment of our armed forces and service personnel in Helmand? The Prime Minister always promised us that, if there were a significant deployment, it would have such a mandate. There is a serious democratic deficit in this case, and the Secretary of State needs to tell his NATO colleagues that he is under pressure in the House about it.

It is now time that we took stock. When we deployed in Helmand, there was a ministerial statement. I confessed to the House that I had never heard of Helmand before, and I suspect that there were an awful lot of other people like me. It is now time for this matter to be put to a vote in the House of Commons, to see whether there is an endorsement of this ongoing mission creep. We are putting more and more of our armed forces into Helmand, but NATO is not fulfilling its obligations.

When it comes to the business of the House, it is for my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and others to determine such matters. We have made regular statements in this place on UK force levels and on deployment in Afghanistan, and I have a strong sense of a cross-party consensus in support of that mission. As I said, it is not for me to determine which procedures or matters are put before this House.

I would strongly rebuke—not rebuke; I would never rebuke my hon. Friend. But I would disagree with him very strongly when he talks about mission creep in Afghanistan. There has not been any mission creep in Afghanistan. We are there to support the NATO mission at the request of the Afghan Government, and force levels reflect the nature of the tasks that need to be completed. I repeat that there has not been mission creep in Afghanistan.

I agree with the Secretary of State that there is a cross-party consensus in this House on the need to be in Afghanistan, but what can he do to inspire the country to believe that this is our battle, and something in which we must succeed? At the moment, that battle of communication is not being won.

I accept that we have to respond positively to that issue. Since I have been Secretary of State, I have made it a priority to make it clear why UK forces are in Afghanistan. They are there to ensure the homeland security of the United Kingdom and our friends and allies. The threat of international terrorism is real, and we fool ourselves if we think that we can somehow wish it away—we cannot.

I agree with the view, which is shared by the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks sensibly and sanely on these matters, that we cannot succeed in our mission in Afghanistan purely by the use of military force. But nor can we succeed without it, and the responsibility that rests on me and others is to ensure that, in the discharge of that role, which is vital for UK national security, we have the right balance of forces with the right equipment to allow the men and women who serve this country so bravely in Afghanistan the best prospect of succeeding in what we all accept is an arduous and difficult campaign.

Will the Secretary of State clarify the circumstances in which we would contemplate sending more British troops? Last week, the Foreign Secretary referred to a “strategic stalemate” that appeared to rule out any more British troops going. From the beginning, rather a small number of western troops have been trying to overcome a large country and stabilise a large population. Is it not rather odd to congratulate the Americans and urge Europeans to send more troops but seemingly rule out any more British troops going? Are there any circumstances in which we would send more, or are we driving a hard bargain? If it is the latter, will the Secretary of State build on the statements made by him and others that military action needs to be accompanied by a political plan?

I do not think that the problem in Afghanistan has been the lack of a plan. There is a carefully set out strategic plan for succeeding in the counter-insurgency campaign. It has a military and security component, to which the UK is making an important contribution, and there is also a clear economic plan involving reconstruction, social development and political progress in cementing support across Afghanistan for the new democracy. We have a comprehensive approach.

When it comes to Europe and others, we are right to be critical of the NATO effort and response in Afghanistan. It falls short of what is necessary on specific matters such as combat forces or even the mentoring and training role, in which there is an obvious deficiency in the support that we are providing the Afghan army and police. It is important to keep in mind the fact that there are 25,000 NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan, which is a not inconsiderable effort. We do damage to the alliance if we tend to dismiss that, and we should never damage the coherence of the NATO alliance. However, we need more, which is reflected in the recent US decision to improve troop levels.

We have never ruled out additional troop deployments in Afghanistan. The decision on whether we deploy is taken on the advice of our commanders about the specific capabilities that they need. We have made no secret of the fact that there is currently a serious threat to us from improvised explosive devices. We have attempted to respond to it, and we need to do more to counter that threat, which now accounts for 80 per cent. of our casualties. It is not the case that we are not prepared to do more—we might be. We will act on the basis of the advice that we receive from our own commanders and from our NATO allies.

As President Karzai says that there is now no resting place for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, as the head of MI5 says that our military presence there increases the danger of terrorism in Britain, and as the bombing of Pashtuns and their women and children greatly radicalises Pakistan, what is the continuing justification for sacrificing more British lives in this unwinnable war?

I reject the hon. Gentleman’s defeatism, which has no place in this House. The logic for UK deployment in Afghanistan is very clear, and I have tried to set it out today and on previous occasions. The real threat that the UK faces is not the risk of state warfare but the risk that emanates from failed states such as Afghanistan that, as we know from recent experience, have provided a safe haven for international terrorists who mean us harm and who have done everything that they possibly can to acquire the capabilities to inflict serious harm upon us. The idea that we can simply leave Afghanistan to its own devices is a counsel of total despair, and would sacrifice the genuine interests of the security of our country.

While I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to our armed forces in Afghanistan for the tremendous work that they are doing, does he agree with the US envoy Ambassador Holbrooke that the current situation in Afghanistan is a mess?

Ambassador Holbrooke will choose his own words to describe the situation in Afghanistan; I would not use those words myself. There has been progress in Afghanistan in recent years. We have not prevailed in the campaign against the insurgency—that is stating the bleedingly obvious—but it is an error to describe the past few years as having resulted in no progress. We have denied the opportunity for Afghanistan to be a haven for terrorism and there is a democracy there now that is making small steps towards progress. The very significant service and sacrifice of the British armed forces has played a significant role in allowing us to make that progress.

However, I agree strongly with Ambassador Holbrooke that there is an obvious case for NATO to do more to improve security conditions on the ground and for the Afghan Government to respond to the effort that our people are making to consolidate security, with progress at a domestic political and economic level. There has been too little of that in the past few years.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, despite the dismal performance of too many of our NATO allies, in many respects, the command structure is at fault? Does he agree that too many countries are pursuing their own objectives in Afghanistan outside the main plan and that the command chain needs to be pulled into a much tighter focus?

The two major operations in Afghanistan are that of the international security assistance force and Operation Enduring Freedom. I believe that there is homogeneity of command structures in ISAF, and that is useful. There is a debate between regional and provincial command, which needs to be properly aired and thrashed out. However, the detail of the command structure arises from military commanders’ advice, and politicians should tread warily when it comes to the detail of military command arrangements.

The general consensus on Afghanistan in the House has put the United Kingdom in a strong position in NATO. Does the Secretary of State agree that, if there is to be further British deployment in Afghanistan, four criteria must be met? First, there must be a clear and achievable political mission to support the military mission, as was the case with the surge in Iraq, but that does not currently exist in Afghanistan. Secondly, governance in Afghanistan, including widespread corruption, must be tackled because it is undermining our efforts. Thirdly, as has been said, all NATO allies should be asked to take a fairer share because too many are shamefully failing to do that. Fourthly, any increase in troop numbers must be matched by a proportionate and appropriate increase in equipment such as helicopters and armoured vehicles.

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman has said. We would not deploy additional forces to Afghanistan unless they had the right equipment to do their job properly. He has rightly drawn attention to the small number of helicopters that are available to support ISAF. We are working on that, as are our NATO partners and allies. The French-UK helicopter initiative is a small step in the right direction—it has yet to produce significant new assets but I hope that it will do soon.

Although I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said, I caution him about drawing too many parallels between Iraq and Afghanistan. They are two very different countries, with very different security situations.

The Secretary of State will know that, over the weekend, reports in the press gave detailed information about the life-changing injuries that some of our troops in Afghanistan have sustained. Will he take the opportunity, relatively early in his time in office, to review the way in which the Ministry of Defence publishes statistics, so that we can have a full and transparent picture of the sacrifices that are being made on our behalf? The British public, our armed forces and their families deserve no less, and are far more able to deal with unpleasant truth than with what many may perceive as half-truths and evasions.

I agree that transparency in the figures is important. Every fortnight, we publish a series of figures, which show the extent of injuries and wounds to service personnel in active theatres. It is not therefore fair or reasonable to criticise the MOD for failing to provide an accurate scorecard on what is happening. We do not have a category of “life-changing injuries”. Neither the statisticians nor the services have identified that as a meaningful definition. However, we publish comprehensive fortnightly data, which deal with the extent of injuries and wounds. I am happy to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to that, if he wishes.

Armed Forces Personnel

2. Whether his Department plans to offer (a) financial support and (b) advice to armed forces personnel returning to the UK specific to circumstances caused by the economic downturn. (257880)

Financial guidance is available to service personnel in establishments throughout the United Kingdom and abroad. However, recognising the particular demands of service life, the Ministry of Defence and the Financial Services Authority are working together to deliver a programme of seminars for service personnel to help them to become more aware and confident in dealing with their personal finances. The programme’s implementation is flexible to allow targeting of units returning from overseas tours.

I thank the Under-Secretary for his response and I warmly welcome his emphasis on the transition to UK—and, in many cases, civilian—life. That echoes what he recently told me and other members of the all-party group on veterans.

There is a particular need to focus on the needs of service personnel who return to the UK without strong family links or, indeed, any family to which to turn for such assistance. I have heard that from voluntary organisations in my constituency. May I ask my hon. Friend and his officials to work closely with the Secretaries of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and for Work and Pensions to identify ways in which military personnel can particularly benefit from their services and assistance?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that support. Some of those issues are already being addressed in the service personnel Command Paper. However, if there are instances where the MOD should be working with other Departments to improve the position not only of those who are in service, but of those making the transition into civilian life, I am prepared to look into them and to meet any Members with suggestions about that.

I know that the Minister is conscious of the support needed for servicemen, but will he give an undertaking to ensure that the families of service personnel who are serving on long deployments, whether in the Royal Navy or in the other forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, are also given proper advice at this time? One of the problems faced by servicemen currently serving abroad is that their families may have got into problems in this difficult time. I would like an assurance—and, I am sure, so would the House—that such advice will also be forthcoming to partners and families of service personnel.

I pay tribute to the service families, who are doing a vital job in supporting the men and women in theatre. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Welfare and financial support are available through the HIVE—help information volunteer exchanges—system. In addition, there is work under way with service charities such as the Royal British Legion, which, along with the RAF Benevolent Fund, has just launched a programme of support for welfare advice workers in citizens advice bureaux, which are giving support for families and those in service. However, I would like again to put on record our thanks to those families.

One of the biggest concerns that service personnel have when they return is that they and their families may face a year-long wait on the housing list. Will the Minister consider discussing with local authorities throughout the country the possibility of prioritising personnel returning from abroad—some local authorities do that, but not all?

One of the out-turns of the service personnel Command Paper is to allow service families to get local recognition of where they are based, if they want to stay in that area. My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Later this year, I and ministerial colleagues from the Department will make a series of regional visits. One of my visits will involve meeting local authorities and other agencies to reinforce some of those issues, so that servicemen and women and their families are not disadvantaged by their local system.

The very high morale of soldiers and sailors returning from theatres of war will be witnessed by all those who are able to see the 7th Armoured Brigade coming through Carriage Gates at 3.45 this afternoon, after defence questions. However, does the Minister agree that unless proper advice on financial matters and the welfare packages available is given to soldiers and sailors at home, that morale in the field will be fundamentally undermined? It is vital that we keep the home end going, if we are to keep the fighting morale of our soldiers out there going.

First, may I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and other members of the all-party group on the Army for arranging this afternoon’s event? I and other ministerial colleagues will be there to support the event. He raises a vital point. It is important that we support families, because when people are on operations, they think about their families back home being taken care of. One thing that I am working on, which will be announced later this year, is a welfare pathway, which is intended to look not only at support for families and servicemen when they are in service, but at how they make the transition to civilian life. We should not forget that we have a duty of care to servicemen and women not just when they are in service, but when they leave.

Amphibious/Littoral Military Capability

Amphibious and littoral capability continue to be key elements of our force structure, as reflected in our major investment in amphibious shipping in recent years and by the contribution of our brave Royal Marine Commandos to operations in Afghanistan.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He will be aware that last week the amphibious task group Taurus 09 set sail for the far east, led by the Plymouth-based ships HMS Bulwark and HMS Ocean. Does he agree that that kind of shipping, coupled with our highly trained marines, for whom we have such high regard, is at the centre of defence capability for meeting the challenges of an uncertain future? Could he tell me what the prospects are for Devonport being involved in the support of such capability?

The Taurus 09 exercise gives our forces an opportunity to practise in the amphibious arena in challenging environments in various parts of the world. It is an important exercise, and I think that HMS Bulwark sailed from Plymouth last Wednesday to participate in it. Devonport will be the centre of excellence for amphibious operations, as well as conducting the depth maintenance that is needed on the submarine fleet and on the surface fleet, so Plymouth will continue to provide the support that it has provided to our forces historically.

The defence of our coastline has never been more important, particularly in the light of the recent attacks in Mumbai, yet in recent evidence to the Defence Committee, the noble Lord West, referring to those defence arrangements, said:

“It is not what I would call, ultimately, satisfactory”.

Can the Minister reassure me that Lord West’s concerns are ill-founded, and that much more is being done to protect our coastline?

I do not know in exactly what circumstances the phrase “ultimately, satisfactory” was used, but plans are in place to provide the necessary capability to counteract a terrorist attack in our country. We believe that they are perfectly adequate, although they obviously have to be kept under review. In the light of circumstances such as those in Mumbai, that is vital, as every Member of the House can see.

An important part of any amphibious or littoral force is the capability supplied by the aircraft carriers. There was great concern in West Fife recently when the decision was made to delay the aircraft carriers, but there was little talk about the impact of that decision on the Navy’s aircraft capability in the longer term. What will happen to the Navy’s aircraft capability between now and when the aircraft carriers come into service? What will be the impact of the decision on the costs, not only of construction but of any elongation of the aircraft carriers’ service?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have our current aircraft carriers, but we also have the real capability provided by HMS Ocean. There will be no gap in capability. The new carriers will come into force as soon as possible. Yes, there has been some delay to the original in-service dates, but that will be adequately filled by our current force.

Joint Combat Aircraft

4. What recent assessment he has made of progress in the development of the joint combat aircraft. (257883)

I visited Fort Worth for discussions on this programme with Lockheed Martin about 10 days ago, and the programme is proceeding very satisfactorily. I am sure that this is a capability that our country needs, and I hope that we will be able to make an important announcement about it over the next few weeks.

Can the Minister use this opportunity to confirm that the delays to the future carrier programme announced last December are in no way connected with potential delays to the joint strike fighter programme?

The ability of senior MOD civil servants to deliver major capital projects on time and within budget is not something that automatically springs to mind when one reflects on their abilities. The defence information infrastructure IT project was costed at £2.3 billion. It is now running at £5.8 billion, even though it was not reported to Parliament, and its projected cost is now £7.1 billion. Will the Minister reassure the House that that £5 billion overspend will not inhibit our ability to finance the project that the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) has asked about? When are we going to get a grip on some of the major projects for which the Ministry of Defence is responsible?

My hon. Friend has found an ingenious way of bringing up a subject to which I know he is very committed. I can give him the assurance that we are making progress—albeit with a delay, sadly, as he rightly said, in respect of the defence information infrastructure programme. The latest figures I have seen show that we have managed to install some 62,000 computer terminals and we hope to complete another 100,000 by the end of the year. I can assure my hon. Friend that the problems with this particular project will have no consequences at all for the joint strike fighter programme.

The joint combat aircraft will be based at RAF Lossiemouth, where a good deal of work has already been done on the transition from Tornadoes to the JCA. Is the Ministry of Defence content with those preparations and is it confident that the changes will go to time?

I have not looked at those particular preparations in detail, as it is still some time before we take delivery of those aircraft, but the hon. Gentleman can be certain that we are watching that matter very closely indeed. We do not intend to invest in this programme, with all the enormous importance it has for the future of the nation’s defence capability, without ensuring that proper support mechanisms are in place for it.

We are widely informed that the development of the joint strike fighter has led to a two-year delay in the aircraft carrier project. Will the Minister confirm that there has been no official announcement that work that has been destined for the Tyne for more than 12 months now on the aircraft carrier has been transferred to Scotland? Will he meet me and a number of other Members from the north-east, along with the trade union leaders, to discuss the matter further?

I am always delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I mean my hon. Friend. I would be more than happy to meet him. I have already given the House the assurance that the reprofiling of the carrier programme was in no sense due to any delays in the JSF programme, and we have made that clear from the outset. I hope that my hon. Friend will be satisfied with that. So far as the distribution of work on the carrier is concerned, as my hon. Friend knows, we have a contract with the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and it is up to the alliance to decide where it would be most efficient and most appropriate to locate the work that needs to be undertaken. It is not for us to designate particular sites.

Typically, the Minister piled confusion upon confusion. He has just told the House that there is no connection between the delay in the aircraft carriers and the acquisition of the joint combat aircraft or joint strike fighter. I point out to him that his own Secretary of State made a statement to the House on 11 December—a statement that we have previously had no opportunity to discuss. In that statement he said:

“We have concluded that there is scope for bringing more closely into line the introduction of the joint combat aircraft and the aircraft carrier. This is likely to mean delaying the in-service date of the new carriers by one to two years.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 67WS.]

The Minister and the Secretary of State cannot both be telling the truth. Which one is true?

The hon. Gentleman was not listening to me and has got it exactly the wrong way round. It was put to me this afternoon that the reason for reprofiling the dates of the manufacture and delivery of the carriers was the delay in the JSF programme. I have explained that there was no delay and that that is not therefore the reason for reprofiling the carriers. The reason for doing so was, quite simply, that it made no sense to spend money much earlier than required to no possible benefit when we could not advance the date of JSF delivery even if we wanted to. We have made that very clear. It is exactly the other way round. The hon. Gentleman, not for the first time, has completely failed to understand the situation.

Will the Minister assure me that Britain will have complete autonomy in its use of the joint strike fighter? Is he absolutely certain that we will be able to fly it to its full potential, maintain and upgrade it without the support of American personnel?

My hon. Friend has put his finger on a number of important points, and I can assure him that we are confident of meeting those objectives. It is a central priority in our programme to do so.

Iran (Missile Development)

5. What assessment he has made of the implications for UK defence policy of recent Iranian missile development. (257884)

We routinely assess the military capabilities of other nations’ armed forces, including those of Iran. Iran is attempting to improve its ballistic missile capabilities; we continue to monitor these developments very carefully indeed.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but how worried are the Government about the potential supply of Fajr-2 missiles from Iran to Hamas and what would be the implications for regional security, including the safety of our own troops?

Iran should stop meddling in the affairs of the middle east. That is what it should do. The supply of armaments to Hamas in Gaza is profoundly unwelcome and must stop. We have made an offer to try to help the interdiction of those missile supplies and we stand ready to do that. We have no information to suggest that the capabilities that the Iranians are seeking to acquire pose a threat to UK forces, but Iran’s growing interest in developing ballistic missile technology goes far beyond what is and can ever be justified in terms of Iranian self-defence, so we are entitled, along with our allies, to keep a very close eye on the continuing malign influence that Iran is playing in the middle east.

What attempts have the Government made to speak with Iran about the possibility of its signing, or at least seeing the value of, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty?

We should certainly continue to discuss those matters with Iran. It is quite clear that Iran is continuing to take steps to seek to acquire a nuclear weapons programme. We must do everything we possibly can, with our international allies, to ensure that that never happens.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of possible Russian involvement in arming Iran, in particular the stories that the Russians might be providing the Iranians with anti-missile missiles?

We do have concerns about the suggestion that Russian ground-to-air missiles might be provided to the Iranians. As part of trying to secure the defence of Iranian nuclear installations, that would certainly be a very unwelcome development. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have had discussions with Russia about those matters, and continue to do so.

Within the last few days, it has been revealed by the British ambassador to the United Nations that in 2005 the Iranians offered the British a deal whereby they said:

“We stop killing you in Iraq…you allow us to carry on with our”

missile and

“nuclear programme.”

That deal was rightly rejected. This is, I believe, the first time that a senior British official has spoken about an Iranian admission of direct involvement in killing British service personnel. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that is also his understanding of that situation?

I do not think that there is any doubt that, in recent years, the Iranians have been assisting various groups in Iraq to attack British forces. That is totally unacceptable. Iran should keep its nose out of Iraq and other countries. Iran has a legitimate set of interests in the middle east, but it has no right whatever to involve itself in the internal security situation of other countries. Its role in assisting those groups to kill British forces is one that we will never forget.

Super Garrisons

6. What progress has been made on the evaluation of policy options for super garrisons; and if he will make a statement. (257885)

Four super garrisons will be established in Aldershot, the east of England, Yorkshire and Salisbury plain. Those will all form by April 2009, and the Northern Ireland super garrison by April 2010.

All those phase 1 super garrisons have been subject to major rebuild programmes, but their development goes beyond infrastructure. They will provide a sustainable military community better integrated with the local civilian community and the local civilian authorities. These will be places where people will want to work and to live.

I thank the Minister for that answer. We have quite a large military footprint in Oxfordshire—Bicester, Benson, Abingdon—and it would be fair to say that Oxford would very much welcome, in due course, being considered for super garrison status, but those things require planning and lead-in time. Will the Minister assure the House that there will be long discussions and lead-in time with local authorities to make quite sure that we can get the best out of the potential for super garrisons for the military and for communities such as Oxfordshire?

The hon. Gentleman has been a champion of the garrison at Bicester for a long time. While I do not think that there is the potential for a super garrison in that location, there are possible synergies in respect of other defence capability moving into the area; of course, we will be considering that. Should we consider it further, there will be full consultation not only with him, but with the relevant local authorities in so doing.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he is satisfied that the garrison of our armed forces in this country broadly reflects where they are recruited from?

It can never do that in its entirety. The garrison in this country reflects historic decisions that have been made and facilities that have been located in different parts of the country. Of course it would be sensible, to the degree that it is practical, to align the garrison of the Army in Great Britain with the locations in which its members are recruited, and we should try to do that. However, we cannot simply change our footprint and an extensive estate that has existed for a long time.

I am grateful to the Minister for writing to invite me to see progress at Andover in relation to the proposed transfer of UK Land Command to the site. He will, however, be aware of the enormous changes and pressures affecting the community in south Wiltshire as a result of the super-garrison proposals, and also the quite proper expansion of the work being done in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. Can he assure me that planning will take place in close association with the new Wiltshire council, which will come into being shortly, and that in implementing this enormous investment programme, he will not neglect the existing married quarters, which remain sub-standard for so many of our military personnel and their dependants?

I am told that there is a good relationship with the local authority, but if the hon. Gentleman has evidence to the contrary I shall be only too happy to listen to him and ensure that we put things right. He has expressed his concern about some of the changes for some time, and I should also be more than happy to talk to him privately, as well as in the Chamber, about those issues.

There has been substantial investment in both single and married quarters over time, but the hon. Gentleman knows that we live with a legacy of neglect that goes back many decades.

The Government’s super-garrison initiative offers them an opportunity to do something about the shameful accommodation that many of our troops have had to put up with for far too long. However, servicemen and women will note that defence is conspicuously absent from the Government’s programme for bringing forward capital expenditure and that defence projects are being delayed or cancelled, and they will draw their own conclusions on where they lie in the Government’s scheme of priorities. Why have Ministers decided not to follow the example of other countries that are including defence projects in their fiscal stimulus packages?

The hon. Gentleman has raised these issues in a manner that is not acceptable. There has been substantial investment in the estate over a long period, and the legacy that we were left by the Government whom he supported was truly outrageous. He needs to remember the Annington Homes deal, which left us with a legacy on family living accommodation that was an absolute scandal before the 1997 election. None of that can be solved immediately; it has to be solved over time, and it is being solved. Many thousands of homes have been brought up to standard, including both service family and single accommodation.

Afghan Public Opinion

7. What assessment he has made of Afghan public opinion on the international security assistance force and UK military missions in Afghanistan. (257886)

The United Kingdom and our ISAF partners are in Afghanistan at the invitation of the democratically elected Government of Afghanistan, and our strong experience on the ground is that Afghans welcome the progress that has been made since the overthrow of the Taliban. The governor of Helmand province, Governor Mangal, has himself stated:

“Until the threat of terrorism is removed it is important that British and international forces remain in Afghanistan.”

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Does he acknowledge that United Nations figures show that 39 per cent. of the 2,118 people killed in Afghanistan in 2008 were civilians and that 31 per cent. more civilians were killed by NATO in 2008 than in 2007? At the same time, a broadcasting poll shows that the proportion of Afghanis who think that their country is heading in the right direction has fallen from 77 per cent. to 40 per cent. and that support for NATO among Afghanis has fallen from 67 per cent. to 37 per cent. Does the Secretary of State not think that these trends are connected, and that we have to ensure that the people of Afghanistan see themselves not as targets but as protected by the forces, and that they can see the basis for their country developing, rather than having their civilians killed in the crossfire?

Let me make it absolutely clear to the right hon. Gentleman that Afghan civilians are not targeted by NATO and ISAF forces—it is completely untrue to claim otherwise. The majority of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by the Taliban and their supporters, and we should never lose sight of that fact. They show an indiscriminate use of violence and a willingness to use men, women and children—civilians—as a cover behind which they launch their cowardly attacks on both the Afghan security forces and NATO troops. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we have to do more—it is the value system that we represent that is important here—to reduce even further, if we can, civilian casualties in Afghanistan. I want to be clear with him and the House that I think there is more we can do, and I want to be in a position soon to make a further statement about that.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but even some of the more stable parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the north, are now beginning to look as though they may come under threat from Taliban or other insurgent elements. What guarantees can we ask for from the whole international community that a proper political process is underwriting what the military are currently trying to do? I am aware that my own regiment, the 1st Rifles, is there, as it has been on previous occasions. The military people need to have some knowledge that the political situation is getting better, not worse.

With great respect to my hon. Friend, I think it is a mistake to describe the security situation in the way that he has done. I think he will find that there were fewer security incidents this year in Kabul, for example, than the year before, so we need to be very careful about how we in this House describe the security situation there. I am not for a second saying that there are not still very serious challenges for us to face in Afghanistan, but I think we need to be clear about the nature of the problem.

The political reconciliation process is, first and foremost, rightly and properly a matter on which the Afghan Government, as the democratic representatives of the Afghan people, should take lead responsibility, but I think my hon. Friend will find that our military commanders on the ground are very well experienced and very well educated in the political realities of Afghan society.

While Afghan public opinion is, of course, very important, so, too, is British public opinion. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that if our European NATO allies do not deploy more troops in a combat role, British public support for this particular campaign will be substantially lessened—and, indeed, the public’s faith in NATO itself will be much reduced?

Yes, I think there is a danger of that, as I have made clear in many public remarks, but if there is a consensus in this House—and I hope there is—it should be about the nature of the UK mission in Afghanistan. It is first and foremost about securing UK national security interests. That is why our troops are there—it is why we ask them to expose themselves to the risk of danger—and if the right hon. and learned Gentleman agrees with me about that, I hope he will join me in continuing to make the case for why the United Kingdom should be involved in the way that it is in our mission in Afghanistan.

Topical Questions

My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future, and that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in the military tasks in which they are engaged either at home or abroad.

The Secretary of State will be familiar with the case of Marine Joe Townsend, who was grievously wounded, like so many of our brave service personnel, while on active duty in Afghanistan—in Joe’s case losing his lower limbs entirely. The Secretary of State will know that there was huge public support for Joe when he encountered problems with the planning laws in trying to build a bungalow on his grandfather’s farm to allow him to live independently. It is clear that there are problems here—although Wealden council is trying to work constructively with him, there are lessons to be learned—so will the Secretary of State agree to meet me, representatives of local government and, perhaps, his colleagues from the Department for Communities and Local Government, to see whether planning guidance can actually reflect the fact that when we say that wounded servicemen and women are special, the treatment they receive reflects that?

I agree strongly with the hon. Gentleman and the spirit behind his question. We have to find a sensible way to enable Joe to live in a house that is suitable to his needs and near to his parents, and that must be a priority for us. Wealden district council is trying to find a sensible way forward and I hope that that is achieved speedily. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to discuss this genuine and important issue.

Sergeant Michael Brennan from my constituency was blown up in Afghanistan, but it happened too early for him to get compensation. Is it not time that the Government paid less money to solicitors to argue why people such as Sergeant Brennan should not be paid and instead paid out to all those service personnel who have been badly injured in Iraq and Afghanistan?

My hon. Friend will not be surprised that I share his views on solicitors in general. However, in the specific case in question, it is not that his constituent does not have access to any compensation; the issue is that he was injured before the 2005 scheme was introduced, and he can access a war pension under the old war pension scheme. If my hon. Friend wants to meet me to talk about the issue, I am prepared to arrange that.

T3. As the A400M airlift aircraft is not expected to come into service until 2014, and even that date is optimistic, what will the effect be on future Army structure, given that it is heavily dependent on airlift and that airframe capacity is being not just diminished but rapidly exhausted? (257905)

We have a contract with Airbus Military, and we are committed to that contract. We expect Airbus Military to deliver on that contract. If it is unable to do so, we shall have to examine all the options available to us.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the service cadet units in our constituencies and in recognising that, for example, the Air Training Corps in Eastham and the Sea Cadets in New Ferry provide a valuable service to our young people and their communities? (257907)

I am pleased to do so, and I pay tribute to all the young boys and girls, their parents and the volunteers who support the ATC and the Sea Cadets in my hon. Friend’s constituency. They do a brilliant job, and we would like to find ways to encourage more such activity. It is a great grounding for a young person to spend some time in the cadets, and I strongly recommend such an experience for every young boy and girl in this country.

T4. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what assessment he has made of any possible implications of, or lessons to be learned from, the recent collision between nuclear submarines for our nuclear fleet and our defence? (257906)

As the hon. Gentleman will know and as the First Sea Lord has made clear, a very careful investigation is taking place into exactly how that event happened and what conclusions we should draw. I do not want to pre-empt that inquiry, but if there are any lessons to be learned—and I suspect that there are—we need to learn them quickly.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend look again at the recent increases in fares for the Falkland Islands air bridge and the removal of the child concessions, which have made it more and more difficult for Falkland Islanders to visit this country? That goes against the spirit of what the Government have always professed—that we should increase our contacts with the islanders. (257909)

Progress is being made in discussions with the Falkland Islands Government on this issue, and we hope that we will be able to reach agreement in the very near future and announce the details.

There is a piece of work being done in the Department about the Joint Force Harrier. All that I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that it is right that we should look at every option as we prepare for the future, but all the options that we are considering include recognising the principle that it should be a jointly operated force.

Increasing numbers of Territorial Army doctors are serving abroad. For many years, doctors have been trained at Strensall camp just outside York. Is the Minister convinced that sufficient training is given now that they are more likely to be deployed, and does the NHS—the normal full-time employer of those doctors—give enough support to doctors who serve in the Territorial Army?

May I start by paying tribute to the men and women reservists who are in both Iraq and Afghanistan? I visited Afghanistan two weeks ago and met some of them. My hon. Friend’s constituents should rightly be proud of the contribution they are making to training. I have visited York on previous occasions and I should be pleased to do so again if my hon. Friend feels it would be helpful. To try to meet the need for specialist medical provision, there is a new scheme for volunteers from the NHS and currently two NHS nurses are on Operation Herrick in Afghanistan.

T9. Some Defence questions ago, the Minister indicated that he was willing to respond to the number of forces personnel who have been deafened in action, and I am pleased that some constructive discussions are going on between the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Minister’s Department, but does he acknowledge that the United States gives both better equipment and much better support and compensation for servicemen and women who are deafened on active service? Can he ensure that we provide exactly the same quality of support as the Americans do for their troops? (257911)

Following the right hon. Gentleman’s raising the issue, I had a meeting in the Department with the RNID, along with the Surgeon General, and we are now working together, which includes having representatives from the RNID on working groups. Later this year, I hope to announce a joint working approach with the RNID, which we both feel will be constructive and helpful for servicemen and women. I do not agree that the United States is doing more than we are in this field. The constructive approach taken by both the Ministry of Defence and the RNID is a positive way forward.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister is aware, my constituent Willie Leith lobbies me almost daily about the Yangtze incident. I have written to my right hon. Friend to raise the issue with him, but will he put the Government’s position on the record so that I can reassure my constituent, Mr. Leith?

I have replied to my hon. Friend in the past and I am more than happy to meet him if he wants more detail about the issue.

When our brave servicemen and women return home after they have been injured, many of them receive compensation but many need help from local social services for adaptations. Is the Secretary of State aware that some local authorities refuse to give adaptations unless people pay, because their compensation has come through and they are above the threshold? Can we do something to prevent local authorities from taking compensation away and ensure that they give people the adaptations they really need?

That is an issue that I am addressing. Councils should be disregarding compensation lump sums in respect of adaptations. This is part of a bigger piece of work I have asked the Department to do on what is called a welfare pathway, so that when people leave the armed forces we do not just forget about them, but make sure that local authorities and other agencies take into account the fact that those people have been on active service and we owe them a debt of gratitude. That work will be produced later this year, and I am working with other Departments and COBSEO—the Confederation of British Service and Ex-service Organisations—to pull it together. As part of the regional visits, I shall be meeting local authorities to stress the need to treat veterans as a special case.

In an earlier answer, the Secretary of State expressed his desire that Iran should stop meddling in the middle east. Iran needs financial means to engage in that activity. Lloyds TSB recently had to admit that it had facilitated some financial transactions, so may I urge my right hon. Friend to have talks with his Treasury colleagues to make sure that no other British banks are involved and that no financial transactions from the UK put our troops at risk?

I shall certainly look into the matter that my hon. Friend raises, but I am sure that she will be aware of recent steps that we in the United Kingdom have taken to freeze Iranian assets and to deal with the flow of money that is used to support causes that directly target the health, safety and well-being of British forces.

To take the Secretary of State back to the issue of Afghanistan, let me say that I fully support our troops being there, but I am not sure that they are helped by his definition of “progress”. Could he say what kind of progress there has been, given that two years ago non-government organisations could operate freely in about 80 per cent. of the south, whereas today they can barely operate anywhere in the south at all?

I am not sure that the UK forces would welcome that assessment of progress, either. [Hon. Members: “It’s true.”] No. In the south, and in Helmand, which has become the principal focus of Taliban insurgent activity, the situation remains seriously challenging, both for local Afghans and for British forces. However, we recently saw significant success in operations in Helmand, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least welcome that.

May I remind the Secretary of State that when British forces were first deployed to Afghanistan back in 2002, we were promised a six-month deployment, yet we have been there for a period longer than the second world war? May I also draw his attention to the fact that he has issued revised defence planning assumptions that still class Afghanistan as a contingent operation instead of a standing commitment? Is it not about time that we treated our Afghan deployment as a standing commitment, and configured our armed forces accordingly?

Whatever our armed forces need to conduct successful operations in Afghanistan, they will have; I do not think that it matters very much what label we attach to that operation. They will get whatever help, support and resources they need to succeed.

Will the Government help those of us who are concerned about the proposal to sell the Royal Star and Garter home in Richmond upon Thames? It is highly valued by people who are disabled. It is not only a place for service personnel who were disabled in conflict, but a war memorial, and it should not be disposed of in the way proposed by the trustees.

I understand the passion to which the issue gives rise, but it is a matter for the trustees. However, if my hon. Friend would like to write to me on the subject, I should be happy to meet him and others who raise such concerns.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It will not have escaped your attention that there has already been widespread public disorder across Europe arising from current economic conditions, including in Iceland, where the Government and Parliament have been directly on the receiving end of such disorder. I tabled a question to the Home Secretary on 22 January, asking

“what consideration she has given to assessing the threat to public order arising from the current economic situation.”

There was no reply to that on the named day for answer, 29 January, so I tabled another question, asking her when she would answer that question, but answer came there none. Imagine my surprise this morning to see that the lead story in The Guardian is “Britain faces summer of rage—police”. The article goes on to say:

“Britain’s most senior police officer with responsibility for public order raised the spectre of a return of the riots of the 1980s, with people who have lost their jobs, homes or savings becoming ‘footsoldiers’ in a wave of…violent mass protests.”

Whatever the merits of that opinion, surely you, Mr. Speaker, will be as surprised as I am that parliamentary questions on the subject have not been answered. Are you aware of any statement that the Home Secretary proposes to make on that issue? Could you give an instruction that she should at least pay attention to her parliamentary duty and answer hon. Members’ questions?

I am always very keen for Members of the House who table questions to get a proper answer. I am not responsible for the reply that any Minister gives, but the hon. Gentleman has put the matter on record, and I hope that the Ministers responsible will take note of the points that he has made.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should like to ask your advice on a matter relating to Iqra Slough Islamic primary school in my constituency, which has refused to allow me to visit it until, according to the governors, I issue

“a full retraction of your view as regards the Promoters, the majority of whom are Governors and that you fully support the current Promoters and Governing Body.”

I know that this is not a matter of privilege, but I believe that that body is seeking to fetter my ability to represent my constituents.

I am afraid that is a matter in which I cannot interfere, but the hon. Lady has an advantage in that her constituency is quite near the House of Commons. The important thing about the school is the children, so why not invite them along to the House of Commons and let them see the good work that the hon. Lady does? To me, that would be the answer.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday the Prime Minister was in Berlin with other leaders of the European Union discussing matters relating to the regulation of financial services and, by implication, the City of London. Surely a matter of that importance ought to be accompanied by a statement. Would you please be kind enough to ensure that the Prime Minister comes to the House of Commons on such occasions?

It is up to the Prime Minister, but he will note the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you reassure the House that if, as rumoured, the Government are about to authorise the Bank of England to take further steps towards the printing of money, involving some £150 billion-worth of taxpayers’ money, that will be done only through a full statement to the House?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I raise with you a letter that has been written by my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter), which has gone to tens of thousands of my constituents, outlining his reasons for his resignation as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Malloch-Brown? It is written on House of Commons Portcullis paper, which seeks to lend the authority of the House. In a letter to my constituents, the hon. Gentleman says that he has been their elected representative for 25 years and he is looking forward to fighting the next election as Labour’s candidate for the new Hammersmith seat. He goes on to say:

“My first duty as an MP is to you”,

but that is written to people who are not his constituents. May we have a ruling on whether the rules on writing to other Members’ constituents are properly enforced in the House?

First, I hope the hon. Gentleman has notified the hon. Gentleman about whom he is complaining. The best ruling that I can give is keep the Speaker out of disputes over boundaries. That is the best thing to do. Hon. Members should try and resolve these matters themselves. Every constituency has a Member of Parliament. The boundary changes that the boundary commission has brought in are nothing to do with the House or the individual Members. Hon. Members should be busy looking after their existing constituents without interfering. I make no criticism of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency neighbour. I say to the whole House—[Interruption.] Order. I say to the House, if the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) will let me speak, that every Member of Parliament has constituents. Look after the existing constituents, and worry about what happens after the next election.

Bill Presented

Northern Ireland Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Secretary Woodward, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary David Miliband, Mr. Secretary Straw, Secretary Jacqui Smith, Mr. Secretary Hutton, Mr. Secretary Paul Murphy, Mr. Secretary Jim Murphy and Paul Goggins, presented a Bill to make provision in relation to policing and justice in Northern Ireland; and to amend section 86 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 62) with explanatory notes (Bill 62-EN).

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

[Relevant Documents: The Fourth Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, Session 2007-08, The Draft Apprenticeships Bill, HC 1082, and the Government’s response, HC 259, Session 2008-09; and oral evidence taken before the Committee on 9 July 2008 on the Learning and Skills Council, HC 960-i, Session 2007-08.

The Seventh Report from the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Session 2007-08, Pre-Legislative Scrutiny of the Draft Apprenticeships Bill, HC 1062-I, and the Government’s response, HC 262, Session 2008-09; and the First Report from the Committee of Session 2008-09, Re-skilling for Recovery: After Leitch, Implementing Skills and Training Policies, HC 48-I.]

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Over the past 11 years our education system has been transformed and the lives of children and young people in our country have improved substantially. Over 100,000 more children are now leaving primary school secure in English and maths at level 4, compared to a decade ago. Almost half of young people now achieve five good GCSEs. That compares to just over a third in 1997. Results are rising fastest for pupils in schools in the most deprived areas. More than 3,000 schools have been rebuilt or completely refurbished, nearly 3,000 Sure Start children’s centres are open, and more young people than ever before are going on to higher education and university.

By investing in education and working with our many great school leaders and teachers, we have gone from well below average standard to well above average in education in the world. That view is supported by the recent trends in international mathematics and science study in respect of both maths and science.

However, there is still further to go to get to a truly world-class education system. Although the proportion of secondary schools below our basic benchmark has fallen from more than half—more than 1,600—in 1997 to less than a fifth today, we want every school to be a good school. Although the number of exclusions has fallen by 29 per cent. since 1997, some young people are still left on the wrong track after being excluded from school.

Our Sure Start children’s centres now reach more than 2.3 million children and their families, but not every family yet gets the support that it needs during the early years. Although we have legislated to raise the education leaving age to 18 and more young people are going to university than ever before, there is more to do to get all young people and adults the qualifications and skills that they need. That is why, building on the progress of the past decade and the vision of our children’s plan, the Bill introduces the next stage of radical reforms to guarantee that every school is a good school, to give teachers the support and powers that they need, to provide excellent services for all families in every area and a real culture of early intervention and prevention, and to ensure that all young people and adults get first-class qualifications and skills. All those reforms are vital to our mission to ensure that opportunity and excellence are for all—not just some—young people in our country.

I shall take both hon. Gentlemen’s interventions in a second. However, before I do, I want to pay tribute to Lord Dearing, one of our country’s great education reformers, who died last Thursday. He made a massive contribution in so many areas, and for successive Governments, on languages, the curriculum and higher education. Right up to the end of his life, he was working with my Department to create academies that specialise in technical education. He will be sorely missed by Members on both sides of the House.

I want to turn to those reforms in detail, but first I shall take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way and I immediately take this first opportunity to echo my party’s recognition of the tremendous work done by Lord Dearing.

The Secretary of State referred to participation in higher education, and was boastful about his—or his Government’s—record on that. Will he confirm whether the Government stick by the target of 50 per cent. participation for under-30s by 2010? If he confirms that target, how does he reconcile it with the fact that the Government are now capping student numbers?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for my words about Lord Dearing. In my speech I was paying tribute not to myself, but to all the Secretaries of State in the past 10 years who have made the programme. There is a fundamental difference on the issues. On the Labour Benches, we will continue our investment. For 2009-10, and in future years, our commitment is that 50 per cent. of young people will go to university. The Conservative party will not match our commitment, because it wants to cut public spending next year and the year after. That is the difference. There is no cap on student numbers. Our commitment is clear, and the Conservative party’s commitment to cuts is also clear.

I wonder whether this is the time for the Secretary of State to share with the House whether he believes that the university of Durham was right to say that official statistics overstate the improvement in educational performance in recent years. Does he believe that Professor Peter Williams, chair of the advisory committee on mathematics education, is right? He said:

“over 20 or 30 years, I don’t think there is any doubt whatsoever that absolute A-level standards have fallen”.

Is the Secretary of State trying to set up an independent Ofqual today because he accepts those points?

As I said, the international, objective TIMSS report, which came out only recently, showed that England was ahead of our European partners in maths and science. There has been no dumbing down of our science qualifications. As to the review of primary education to which the hon. Gentleman referred a moment ago, I should say that we are grateful for that contribution. Jim Rose will reflect on it, as he reflects on other contributions. In my view, it is essential that we have a slimmed down primary education curriculum that focuses on what children and parents want—to have the basics of reading and maths under control when going to secondary school. We have made substantial strides in achieving that in recent years, and we are not going to go backwards and take away the emphasis on the basics. I hope that that is not what the hon. Gentleman would propose.

Clause 47 concerns the provision of education for persons subject to youth detention. Given that, as the Secretary of State knows, upwards of 60 per cent. of the 11,000 people in our young offender institutions suffer from speech, language and communication problems of an intensity that prevents them from accessing conventional education and training courses, can he say something more than the Bill does about how the Government intend to ratchet up provision for those people?

I wanted to make some progress and look at the individual reforms in order, but I am happy to answer that particular point. I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman’s speech later on, and I hope that, if possible, he might be permitted to serve on the Committee. The reforms that we are introducing in the Bill, which build on the work that he has done for the Government in speech, language and communication, are very clear about the fact that we must strengthen our responsibility to young people going into custody and coming out of custody—in particular, through new responsibilities for local authorities in taking forward those young people’s education and ensuring continuity of education afterwards.

It is not normal on Second Reading to look forward to amendments, which are really a matter for the Committee, but in recent weeks there has been a debate, which has included contributions from the Special Educational Consortium, on ways in which we could strengthen this part of the Bill. I am happy to say that in Committee we will table amendments to make it clear that the obligations on local authorities to deal with young people in custody will be strengthened. In particular, although it is not possible for all the content of educational statements to continue while a young person is in custody, local authorities and the youth custody estate will have an obligation as far as possible to continue that special focus on those with learning difficulties while they are in custody. That, among other changes, will be very important in ensuring that these clauses have real, detailed teeth. We will also ensure that we say so in our guidance. Those issues will be debated in Committee, but today I am giving an assurance that we will take them forward with great seriousness.

I am sure that the Secretary of State did not wish to mislead the House in his answer to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), but would he confirm that the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills has announced a moratorium on university places for 2009 and 2010?

As I understand it, we have funded 10,000 more student places—that is no cap. The question is this: are the aspirations of young people in this country capped? The answer is, not by this Government—we want 50 per cent. of young people in universities. Would they be capped by the Conservatives? The answer is yes, because they will not support our objective; in fact, they would cut the public spending that is needed to ensure that those numbers keep rising year on year in the future. That is the difference between the two parties, and that is the point that I was making in my answer.

I wanted to start my speech by talking about school reforms. As I said, in 1997, 1,600 secondary schools were below the basic benchmark; that figure is now down to just 440, from over half to less than a fifth of secondary schools. We are not satisfied, however, and our national challenge objective is to ensure that we get that number down to zero by 2011. That is why we have provided £400 million of funding and why there is extra support for those schools. Many of them, already high-performing schools that are doing well, will get there without the need for such extra support, but where schools are not on course, we will step in. The Bill challenges local authorities to tackle underperforming schools, but it also gives us the power, where they will not act, to step in and require them to take their responsibilities seriously. We will do so by requiring them to match new investment with new leadership through national challenge trusts and our academies programme.

Over the past 18 months, I have given the go-ahead to 96 further academy projects, of which 43 will replace national challenge schools. We have gone from six university sponsors of academies in July 2007 to 48 sponsors today, and 12 local authorities are now sponsoring academies themselves. These schools are taking a greater proportion of disadvantaged and deprived children than the catchment area would suggest and delivering faster rising results than the average. They are proof that we can break the link between deprivation and lack of achievement. That has not happened by accident, but because we are willing to act and intervene. Since January, we have agreed to 17 new academies, and I can announce today that the Schools Minister and I have given the go-ahead to six new academy projects to replace a total of seven schools, six of which are national challenge schools, in Croydon, Wolverhampton, Sandwell and Bournemouth. I commend the academies programme to the House.

As someone who wishes to see more pupils from state schools get to top universities, does the Secretary of State agree with those in such universities who think that some A-levels are more serious and academically rigorous than others, and if he does, will his reforms include getting more of those subjects taught and examined in state schools?

I was coming to that very point. If we want to raise school standards to ensure that every school can be an excellent local school, it does not just take good leadership and a willingness to intervene to drive change where necessary, but strong inspection and independent auditing of standards. As the House will know, in the spring, we will publish a report card White Paper. Through the Bill, we will strengthen school inspection by allowing Ofsted to produce an annual health check for all schools and to introduce a new, risk-based approach, which will mean that more attention is focused on schools that need more support, and that there is a lighter touch for higher-performing schools. At the same time, building upon the immediate success of our new independent regulator of qualifications, tests and examinations, the Bill will provide Ofqual with the remit, powers and independence that it needs. It is the job of Ofsted, with greater flexibility, greater powers and much greater independence, as a body reporting directly to Parliament, to ensure that we maintain the quality of standards across qualifications and over time. That is what the Bill will achieve, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will support it.

The Secretary of State will be aware that at a recent Qualifications and Curriculum Authority meeting in September, the chair of the Ofqual committee spoke of the need for a clearer picture of what is meant by maintaining standards when the structure of qualifications changes. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what he means by maintaining standards in such circumstances?

I am not going to do that, because I will leave it to Ofqual. It is an independent regulator of standards, it is independent of Ministers and it reports directly to Parliament. It is clearly its job to ensure that standards are maintained across qualifications and over time. We have to get away from this ridiculous, damaging and draining debate about dumbing down, when, whenever standards go up and teachers and young people have worked hard, some politicians and commentators jump up and say, “This must be because standards have been dumbed down.” That is not fair, and it is not right. Rather than my making such assurances about standards, it will be much better when Ofqual, the independent regulator, makes such assurances to the public and to families. I am not going to second-guess its work. That is Ofqual’s remit and responsibility, and it should get on with that work.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his patience in giving way a second time. Given his undoubted enthusiasm for a fully independent Ofqual, will he take up the recommendations of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families that it should be allowed to sample cohorts to obtain an objective assessment of what is happening to educational standards over time?

In the reforms to key stage 3, we are introducing such sampling, and Ofqual will advise us on it to ensure that standards are maintained. However, I am not going to pre-empt the work of the expert committee that is looking at key stage 2 reform. The Bill makes it clear that there is a role for Ofqual as an independent regulator and as the monitor of standards to ensure that standards are maintained in national curriculum tests. Lord Sutherland praised the work of Ofqual precisely because he recognises that its role will be crucial to getting beyond the mess of last year’s curriculum tests.

No.

I turn to a second point that is essential to the Bill. Strong discipline is vital for effective teaching and learning. Over the past decade, we have made huge progress on improving behaviour. In 2007, Ofsted rated behaviour as poor or unsatisfactory in a third of the number of schools that it had given that rating to 10 years before. Following Sir Alan Steer’s review in 2005, we have given head teachers the powers that they need to tackle bad behaviour. In the Bill, we are extending the powers that we have given school and college staff to search a pupil for weapons so that they may search also for drugs, alcohol and stolen property. Alan Steer asked for those reforms to ensure that teachers have the powers that they need so that they can get on and teach in the classroom.

At the same time, we will legislate to build on the work that now involves pretty much all secondary schools, including all academies, working in partnerships to challenge poor behaviour and attendance. We will implement Sir Alan Steer’s recommendation that all secondary schools, including academies and pupil referral units, should be part of those partnerships. As will be discussed in Committee, I intend to ensure that those behaviour partnerships report regularly to children’s trusts on the work that they are doing together. That work will ensure that we keep exclusions down but that they happen when they are needed, that head teachers have the confidence to use their powers, and that we intervene early to keep young people on the right track and ensure that they are not permanently or temporarily excluded from school.

It is also important that schools have the support of parents. Strengthening the role of parents in schools is an important part of the children’s plan, but we also want to ensure that when parents feel that their complaints are not being properly listened to, they have a proper right of resort. In our consultation, parents made clear their view that the opportunity to complain to the local government ombudsman would be welcome, and we are taking that step in the Bill. That is the right approach, and it will be used in a very small minority of cases. I hope that the whole House will support that reform.

If I may, I shall bring the Secretary of State back to Ofqual and its independence. Has he had an opportunity to meet two of the three large examination bodies, which have serious, albeit different, concerns about its independence and its ability to ensure that standards are right? It is not good that those powerful bodies have such doubts about the independence of that important new agency.

Ofqual is a new agency that has tough powers, and it is important that the examination bodies know that it has teeth and will use its powers when it needs to. It would not surprise me if the examination bodies were concerned, but are they concerned about its independence? In my view, absolutely not. It is a non-departmental body that reports directly to Parliament, and its head is a Crown appointment. It is an independent body, but in the end its independence will be proved by how it undertakes its task and its work. We have already seen that Ofqual is independent, and it will be an extremely important addition to our education landscape.

A decade ago, there were no children’s centres. There are now almost 3,000 Sure Start children’s centres around the country. The next stage of our reforms is to ensure that every family can access the support of such centres. That is why the Bill will enshrine in law our 2020 goal of ensuring that there is a children’s centre in every community in the coming years. That is the way to ensure that the benefits of Sure Start, which millions of children and families around the country are receiving, are received by all children and families in perpetuity.

Abacus, in my constituency, was one of the first Sure Start centres. Part of its success has been the inclusion of parents in its advisory body. I welcome the establishment of children’s centres on a statutory basis, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that their governance arrangements include parents in the wider community so that services are developed in a way that meets the local community’s needs?

My hon. Friend has a great track record and expertise in those matters. If she thinks that that is the right thing to do, I am sure that it is. The details of the proposals will be discussed in Committee.

Every Sure Start will be expected to have a governing body, and we need to ensure that the voluntary sector and the private sector have a proper voice if they are involved in Sure Start, and that parents are also represented. Sure Start is founded on the premise that it starts from the community and from parents’ work, needs and interests—indeed, many of our best outreach workers are parents.

It is vital that all services that support children work together effectively to put the needs of children and families first. Sure Start is an example of that. We must build on the excellent examples of services working together across an area through a children’s trust. The Bill ensures that every local authority will have a children’s trust board, with responsibility for improving the well-being of all children in the area. It will also ensure proper accountability for the well-being of children and young people, and a culture of early intervention and prevention so that all young people, especially those with a special educational need, get the support that they need.

The Secretary of State knows that on Friday I shall have the privilege of introducing a private Member’s Bill—the Autism Bill—with tremendous support from all parties in the House. An integral part of that Bill is the requirement that local areas collate and share data on disabled children as part of children and young people’s plan assessments, and take account of autism in the statutory guidance that will accompany the regulations. Will the Secretary of State undertake today that in Committee he will table the requisite amendments, under the Government’s imprimatur, to the Bill that we are considering now so that we have legislation that allows local authorities to collate and share the information?

The hon. Lady has a passion about and an expertise in such matters. We discussed them with the parents of autistic children and adults a few months ago in the House. The Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) introduced last year—it has subsequently been enacted—provided for recording information about children with special educational needs. It is vital, as part of our Aiming High work, to listen and record the satisfaction and concerns of parents with a disabled child. That includes autistic children. My hon. Friends have written to the hon. Lady about those matters. Second Reading of her Bill is approaching, and it is not for me to say today what the Government will do. However, I have written to the hon. Lady to say that supporting transition and collecting data, and especially ensuring that the needs of families with an autistic child are taken into account, will be central to the work of children’s trusts. Indeed, it will be in the statutory guidance that accompanies the children’s trust legislation. The children and young people’s plan will ensure that the issues that she raises are acted on in every area of the country. I look forward to reading the debates on her Bill on Friday.

May I press the Secretary of State further? Will he confirm that the statutory guidance that accompanies the regulations will state that autism is to be specified as a category?

I will not give the details of that statutory guidance today. However, I will ensure that the guidance is drawn up in such a way that it ensures that the needs and interests of families with a child with autistic spectrum disorder are properly taken into account. The children’s trusts must be accountable for ensuring not only that services are co-ordinated and that the problems and concerns of a child with a special need are addressed, but that if that does not happen, parents and wider services have somewhere to go to ask why matters have not been tackled effectively. The children’s trust is the right place for that and the guidance is the right place to specify what the hon. Lady seeks. I am happy to have a further meeting with her and my hon. Friends to take up the matter in the coming weeks.

I was considering the importance of area-wide accountability for the work of children’s trusts. There is a specific problem for families with a special educational needs child, and when children have been or are at risk of being excluded from school. We have piloted several different ways in which to offer alternative provision for young people who are excluded from school. We have done that with the private and voluntary sectors, as well as several different organisations around the country. In this Bill we are legislating further, to improve the provision for young people educated outside the mainstream. Following consultation, we are legislating to reform what will be called short-stay schools, in order to increase local accountability for such pupils and to ensure not only that local authorities have the freedom to act to ensure the right provision in their areas, but that we have the powers to act when we do not think that the provision is good enough. That will be a substantial step forward.

The Secretary of State will recognise the extraordinary work that charities such as Action for Children and Barnardo’s do to support some of the most vulnerable children in our communities. How does he respond to those charities’ concerns that the Bill does not do enough to help young people from marginalised backgrounds to access apprenticeships—a word that he has not yet used in his speech—and appropriate learning pathways? Also, what assurance can he give about the future of work-based programme-led apprenticeships?

I am coming to apprenticeships in a second. First, however, let me praise the work being done by Action for Children, the Special Educational Consortium and others to ensure that the needs of children with a special educational need and, in particular, of those young people at risk of getting into difficulties or getting on the wrong track are properly taken into account.

As I have said, we will debate the issue in Committee. We will also propose amendments that will strengthen further what is already a substantial strengthening of the obligations on local authorities, both home and host, to ensure that young people do not fall down the crack, but are supported in their education and have their well-being ensured while they are in custody. The Bill will clarify the responsibility of local authorities to secure a good education for young people while they are in custody and to ensure continuity in their education as they leave custody and are resettled, and, in particular, the responsibility of the local authority to which they return to ensure that their education continues once they are released. We will propose amendments, but we will also back that up with revised statutory guidance for local authorities in the summer.

A moment ago the Secretary of State referred to short-stay schools, which I assume will be taking over from the pupil referral units, for young people with difficulties who are not thriving in a mainstream school. They are termed “short-stay schools”, but will he confirm that there will be no cap on a pupil’s length of stay, so that they are not reimposed on their mainstream school before they are ready or before they have made sufficient progress?

The name is being changed because of representations from the sector, which is keen that the word “school” be included, because we are talking about schools, first and foremost. In many cases stays are short, but not always. There is no artificial cap being introduced, and there is nothing in the legislation to suggest that. However, we are keen to ensure that, as part of behaviour partnerships, pupil referral units—or short-stay schools, as they will be—are engaged with other schools to ensure that young people receive the support and the challenges that they need, so that they can keep on track before they reach the point of exclusion. Spending some time in such a school during the week before reaching that point may help young people to keep on the right track and not be excluded. I hope that hon. Members will welcome that when we have a chance to debate the issue in Committee.

In the current economic circumstances, it is also vital to ensure that all young people are equipped to meet the challenges that they face, as the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who is no longer in his place, said. Achieving that includes staying in education or college, as well as entering an apprenticeship. Last year we legislated through the Education and Skills Act 2008 to raise the education or training leaving age to 18. We also introduced the first set of diplomas, which I believe are the best chance that this generation has to break the old two-tier divide between first-class academic qualifications and second-class vocational qualifications. I am delighted that early feedback on that from pupils and teachers has been good.

My right hon. Friend is talking about widening opportunities, so will he ensure that all schools support the children’s plan and the vision for young people in their communities? Will he also ensure that there are opportunities for all young people from a range of backgrounds to mix when taking up the new diplomas or the other schemes on offer?

That is what the diplomas do, by ensuring that schools work together with colleges to ensure that the curriculum is interesting and inspiring. We are also extending the duty to co-operate as part of children’s trusts to all schools, academies, sixth-form colleges and further education colleges, to ensure that they all work together to make opportunity available to all children and young people in their areas, not just some.

As I said, we legislated last year to raise the education leaving age to 18. This Bill will put in place the requirements, the expectation and the levers for local authorities, working with the new Young People’s Learning Agency, to ensure that all 16 to 19-year-olds have the opportunity to stay in education, training or an apprenticeship. Over the past decade, the number of apprenticeships has gone up from 65,000 to 250,000.

The Bill represents the first overhaul of apprenticeship legislation for nearly 200 years. It will put apprenticeships on a statutory basis, and establish the entitlement to an apprenticeship place for every suitably qualified young person who wants one. It will ensure that apprenticeships are of high quality, and that they will benefit young people and employers alike. It will also require schools to provide information, advice and guidance on apprenticeships, when it is in the best interest of pupils to do so. We are backing this with a £1 billion plan.

Apprenticeships obviously represent an incredibly important process, but it is important that apprentices should not be used as cheap labour. Will my right hon. Friend look into whether the exclusions from minimum wage legislation that apply to some apprenticeships are really valid?

As my hon. Friend will know, we have raised the minimum pay for apprentices from £80 to £95; that will come into effect shortly. The vast majority of apprentices already get paid above that level. The national minimum wage is not a matter for me; it is a matter for the Low Pay Commission. This is something that the commission will look at, and we look forward to seeing its reports.

I welcome the framework for apprenticeships that my right hon. Friend is introducing. However, in Stoke-on-Trent we are finding it more and more difficult to get employers to come forward with apprenticeships. Will he give me an assurance that he will look closely into how we can establish direct public funding for the apprenticeships that we need, in the public and private sectors, and at how we can achieve the necessary flexibility to ensure that employers can be brought on board?

There is already substantial investment in apprenticeships. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and I are working together to ensure that we do everything we can to keep young people in apprenticeships and to expand apprenticeships. In fact, we have announced today that the Government will ensure a further 21,000 apprenticeships in the public sector in 2009-10 alone. That will be an important step towards achieving our objective of making apprenticeships available for every young person.

It is also important to equip the whole work force with the skills that they need. The new Skills Funding Agency will offer better support to employers by bringing together all the different adult learning agencies under one roof, and there will be a new right for employees to request time for training. All these reforms are now vital to support employment and our economy. They are also vital to our mission of excellence, not just for some but for all.

My right hon. Friend will know that the chemical process industry on Teesside will require 24,000 high-quality apprentices over the next 10 years. Those apprentices will need to have been taught physics, chemistry and maths separately. Will he reassure the House that those subjects will be taught separately in secondary schools, and not just as general science?

They are being taught separately in increasing numbers. Standards are rising in science, and we now have more young people doing separate sciences. This is all part of the renaissance of science in our country, which is being backed by a massive multi-billion pound investment in science, following 18 years of savage cuts to the investment base under the Conservatives—

If the hon. Gentleman would like to tell us his views on grammar schools, I shall be happy to take his intervention. It would be a great honour.

I want to ask the Secretary of State about the announcement today of 21,000 new apprenticeships in the public sector. Can he assure the House that these will indeed be new opportunities for young people in new apprenticeships and new posts? Or will this instead involve a redefinition of existing training programmes and courses in the public sector?

I am happy to give that assurance. These are new apprenticeships in the public sector, and there will be 21,000 more of them from the 35,000 that we are going to deliver with £150 million-worth of spending. That would not be delivered by the Conservative party: while we are expanding spending on apprenticeships next year, the Conservative party wants to cut it. That is the difference, so I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he sought.

I would like to draw the Secretary of State back to his earlier comment about careers guidance in schools. One thing that has bedevilled vocational education for decades is the fact that “bright” youngsters do not get any vocational offers within their curriculum package. The Secretary of State made the point that whether or not young people are offered apprenticeships is at the schools’ discretion. I urge him to reverse that idea and make it a mandatory requirement that every child, irrespective of their educational ability, is offered an apprenticeship.

With respect—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to be part of our debates in the coming weeks—clause 35 makes it clear that there is an obligation on schools to promote apprenticeships to young people. It is most important that the advice and guidance they receive are impartial and objective, but we are building directly into the Bill a requirement to promote apprenticeships because of the particular and vital role we think they will play in extending education for all young people up to the age of 18. As the hon. Gentleman says, in too many schools over past years and decades, apprenticeships have been undervalued, which is why the Bill places a clear duty on schools in that regard—and they will have to honour it; we will ensure that they do not get around it.

My right hon. Friend knows that the Children, Schools and Families Committee also stressed the importance of all children gaining access to information about apprenticeships. Will he clarify one part of the Bill for me: what does he see as the future for young apprenticeships—those for 14 to 16-year-olds?

Just a few weeks ago, I met some young apprentices in Derby and saw how learning on a young apprenticeship as part of their key stage 4 curriculum was inspiring them to work hard for their maths and English exams as well. I think that young apprenticeships are brilliant and that they are a very important part of our pre-16 learning. I would like to see them expanded as part of our goal to get more young people staying in education up to the age of 18.

What, then, is the position of Her Majesty’s Opposition on all these important reforms? Far from supporting our drive to expand apprenticeships and far from bringing forward investment in school buildings to help to support our economy now, the Conservatives want to cut our school building programme and cut our investment in apprenticeships in the coming year. That is no surprise to us, because they continue to oppose all the major educational reforms in this Bill—and, indeed, in last year’s Bill. Education, training or an apprenticeship for all to 18—the Conservatives oppose these things. They oppose our new diplomas, as they oppose our policy of fair admissions for all parents. On providing a children’s centre in every community, the Conservatives want cuts. They oppose our National Challenge programme and they have undermined our academies programme.

What can we expect to hear from the shadow Education spokesman? Will he tell us where the £4.5 billion of cuts to the school building programme will fall? I doubt it. Will he tell us more about half-baked gimmicks like his plan to force 11-year-olds who do not make the grade to stay on for another year in primary school? Probably not. Are we likely to hear more details about his Swedish model? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is keen to be introduced to the Swedish model, but it is unfortunately not something that I can arrange for him today. Will he tell us about the billions of pounds in cuts that his Swedish model would mean? Will he tell us that there will be no intervention to raise standards in underperforming schools? Will he tell us that surplus school places will be springing up everywhere—not where they are needed, but where some have the loudest voices? Will he tell us that instead of local accountability, there will be a lottery for parents and a hugely centralised bureaucracy? No, he will not tell us any of those things.

Instead, we will hear more of the hon. Gentleman’s usual debating society rhetoric, without any substance at all. In recent debates, he has called me

“an exam candidate who has not done his homework”—[Official Report, 22 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 683.]

and

“a gang member who wields a weapon but only harms himself.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 775.]

It is a pity that he has not taken his own advice.

Just a few years back, the hon. Gentleman wrote in The Times:

“The Conservatives’ core problem is their failure to grasp that their introspective Westminster pranks, whether hyperactive plotting or hyperbolic attacks on the Government, only confirm the impression that they are playing a self-interested game rather than setting out a coherent alternative.”

Never has a truer word been said. He went on:

“For the Conservatives to return to power, the party must be seen to have learnt from its mistakes, rejected the arrogance, cynicism and pocketlining of the Major era”.

For his punch line in his article, he said:

“Ken Clarke is sadly ill-equipped to do that job. As John Major’s tax-raising Chancellor, British American Tobacco’s handsomely remunerated director, the euro’s voter-rubbishing cheerleader and the tireless hammer of nurses and teachers, Ken carries more tainted baggage than a mule on Colombia airways.”

We all know that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) likes a smoke, but to compare him to a Colombian mule seems a bit unfair, even for this shadow Cabinet.

The fact is, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has said, that the Conservatives are still playing a self-interested game, rather than setting out a coherent alternative. The truth is that parents do not want a schools lottery, cuts to the school building programme or massive centralisation. They want every school to be a good school, standards to be guaranteed, discipline in the classroom, early intervention, more apprenticeships, and opportunity and excellence—not just for a privileged few, but for all. That is what will be delivered by the Bill. It is radical. It is right. It has public support. I commend it to the House.

May I say how much I enjoyed the Secretary of State’s speech, particularly the last few moments? There were some brilliant lines in there—uncharacteristically witty, if I may say so. I do not know who his new scriptwriter is or what he is being paid, but it is clearly worth it.

As ever, the Secretary of State laid out his case with characteristic pungency and no lack of political verve, and I note his deliberate words of dislike for debating society rhetoric, so I shall seek to ensure that in what remains of our debate on Second Reading we concentrate on the detail of the Bill. What a lot of detail there is. This is a massive piece of legislation that covers a wide variety of areas. We hope to expose it to appropriate scrutiny when makes its way into Committee.

Interestingly, the Secretary of State is already introducing the idea of amendments—on Second Reading—before we have even reached consideration in Committee. That provokes two questions in our mind. First, is the Bill, as it were, oven-ready, or is the Secretary of State running to catch up? What does that say about the competence and grip that he brings to his Department? Secondly, why is the Bill not in such condition on Second Reading that we know precisely what the Government intend to bring before us? Why do they need even now to say that they will table amendments in Committee, but cannot tell us what those amendments will be, because they are not in the Bill? We cannot have effective scrutiny and an effective debate on Second Reading if there are, as the Secretary of State himself acknowledged, aspects of the Bill that he considers imperfect and believes he needs to change, but which he will not introduce until the Bill is considered in Committee.

As I said, we already have a large Bill covering a wide variety of areas. Some of those are naturally ones where we believe it right to legislate and we sympathise with the Secretary of State’s intentions, and indeed with some of the specific provisions in the Bill. First, I want to discuss the creation of Ofqual, which is the new regulator of exam standards. I say new, but it has already been in existence for some time. However, the Bill will put it on to the correct statutory footing for the first time. We wholeheartedly welcome the creation of this regulator. That is because the idea of setting up a separate exams regulator was proposed in the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). I believe that it has also received the support of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws).

The idea of an independent regulator has widespread support because there is widespread concern about standards. The Secretary of State is quite right to say that teachers are better than ever, and he is quite right to acknowledge that our pupils are working harder than ever, but there is real concern about the rigour of the examinations for which this Government are responsible.

The Royal Society of Chemistry—not an Opposition claque, but a respected scientific body—has said that teenagers who, when faced with today’s examination papers, get 35 per cent. of the answers correct would have got only 15 per cent. correct if they were dealing with equivalent papers from the 1960s. British Council researchers—paid Government employees—have pointed out that candidates who would get a C when sitting an A-level examination in Hong Kong get an A here.

Peter Timms of the university of Durham, an independent academic beholden to no one, has shown that a student who achieved an E in A-level maths in 1998 would have achieved a B in 2004. Duncan Lawson from the university of Coventry, another independent academic, has shown that students entering university in 2001 with a B at maths A-level displayed a level of knowledge that 10 years earlier would have been displayed by a student with a grade N, or fail. Indeed, students who failed the maths A-level in 1991—failed it!—performed better overall in tests of mathematical competence than those who secured a B pass in 2001.

Two other academics, Jonathan Ramsay and John Corner, analysed maths papers from the 1960s to the present day. They found topics that used to be set for 16-year-olds in the old CSE exams cropping up in A-level papers. Their report observed that

“finding areas and volumes using calculus, which used to be examined at ‘O’ level, are now examined in ‘A’ level pure mathematics… but it is the ‘O’ level questions which are harder.”

A team of mathematicians led by Professor John Marks also studied GCSE and O-level maths papers over time, from 1951, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2006, covering periods of both Labour and Conservative rule. They found:

“It is now possible to achieve a grade C in GCSE mathematics having almost no conceptual knowledge of mathematics. This is due in part to the simplicity of the questions and the decline of algebra, geometry and proof within the papers.”

Their report also observed:

“It has become substantially easier to achieve a grade C since…1987...In 1990 the percentage mark on the Higher Tier”—

the decline pre-dates the arrival of Labour Secretaries of State: we are absolutely clear about that—

“for a grade C was just over 50 per cent. However, in 2000 and 2006 the required percentage mark for a grade C had fallen to about 20 per cent; this mark could be attained by answering correctly the first four questions on Paper 5 and Paper 6”.

Indeed, we discovered that in 2004, GCSE students taking Edexcel’s version of the exam could secure an A with a score of just 45 per cent., while one of 22 per cent. secured a C. Only 0.7 per cent. of the pupils who sat the exam failed to secure a C or better. The need for Ofqual is clear if we are to restore confidence in our examinations.

If Members want to hear about the questions in those papers, I shall turn to them shortly. First, I shall be more than happy to take an intervention from my hon. Friend.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of Ofqual’s first jobs as the central regulator will be to conduct research, look at standards over the decades, and provide a definitive answer so that we need not engage in the sterile debate about standards that we must now undergo every year? What we need is an agreed baseline on which all of us can base policy. That will lead to proper policy, rather than the mess created by this Government.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am not in favour of sterile debates. Indeed, I am not in favour of sterile anything. I prefer fruitful debates, and fruitfulness and fecundity all round. I am glad to note that the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), agrees with me. We are back to the Swedish model. I should point out, incidentally, that the Swedish model was first introduced to the House by the former Prime Minister, the former Member of Parliament for Sedgefield. May I say that I hope he is enjoying—[Hon. Members: “Steady!”]—her popularity in all parts of the House even now?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that Ofqual must be engaged in this debate. All the research I quoted earlier was generated by independent academics concerned about what was happening. Of course there are other voices, from Ofqual and the Government, that take a different view, and that is why it is vital that Ofqual leads the debate in order to provide the confidence that parents, teachers and all of us have a right to expect.

In the interests of having that open debate, it is vital that we all know what our children are being asked in examinations. I am sure that, whether or not they have children going through the state education system, Members are concerned about the sorts of questions that are set in GCSE science, for example. We know that 16-year-olds sitting GCSE science are asked questions such as the following. They are told that for hundreds of years scientists have found information about the stars using one of four options—it is a multiple-choice exam. Those four options are microscopes, space probes, seismometers or telescopes. Given that this information has been around for centuries, the answer should be obvious.

It is also the case that in GCSE science papers people are told some answers in the questions. In one question, for example, they are told that it takes Jupiter 11.9 years to orbit the sun and then they are asked whether the time taken for Jupiter to orbit the sun is 1.9 years, 29.5 years, 65.4 years or 11.9 years. The answer is there in the examination paper. It seems to me that any of us—[Interruption.] I happily grant that some of us are still capable of making mistakes even when the answer is staring us in the face, but the point here is that in order to have confidence in mathematical and science standards, we must be sure that the examinations our children sit stand comparison with the most rigorous in the world. It worries me how well other countries are doing in comparison with us: the Asian countries are pulling ahead of us, as are countries such as Finland. We need to be able accurately to ensure that exam standards are kept to a high standard over time—and, ideally, that we can hold our own with the world’s best.

It is worrying in this respect that the first intervention from Ofqual has been to force examination standards downwards. Last summer, one examination board, AQA, was specifically ordered by Ofqual to make an exam easier by lowering its pass mark for a C grade. It seems to me entirely wrong that the first intervention by a body that is charged with restoring and maintaining confidence in exam standards should explicitly be to make exams easier to pass by lowering pass marks.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned Finland as a good example of an education system that succeeds, because it has a thoroughgoing, 100 per cent. state comprehensive system. Will he advocate that that should be applied in Britain?

I certainly believe that what we need is more good comprehensive schools. One of the striking features of Finland’s education system—the feature that is crucial to its success—is the quality of people entering education, and specifically the quality of people entering primary and secondary teaching. Its teachers are drawn from the top 10 per cent. of graduates. In the spirit of bipartisanship, I should add that the Government’s support for the Teach First programme, for example, and the efforts Lord Adonis made when he was at the Department to ensure that more people from top- performing universities with high-level qualifications entered teaching were right. We will do everything we can do to support such steps.

However, it is important not only that we get good people into teaching, but that we know that the exams are of a high quality, and, as the hon. Member for Yeovil pointed out, it is worrying that Kathleen Tattersall herself, the current chair of Ofqual, has said she is not clear about how standards should be maintained over time. The Secretary of State was reticent about the role that he has, but I understand that, under clause 138 of the Bill, he has the right to intervene to specify minimum standards. He can lay out in a memorandum of understanding to the chair of Ofqual exactly what he may require in any examination. Independence is important for any regulator, but it is quite right for the person properly elected and chosen as the Minister to lay out certain minimum requirements, and I hope that in the course of debate in Committee the Secretary of State or one of his ministerial colleagues will have a chance to give us further and better particulars on what exactly he intends to do to ensure that there are certain floor standards in examinations.

Can the hon. Gentleman clarify the position that his party intends to take on how independent Ofqual should be in relation to standards? He will know that the Government have said that Ofqual’s role is not to monitor education standards as a whole, but to monitor the existing qualifications and assessments. Is that his position also, or does he envisage a wider role for Ofqual?

I notice that the Secretary of State looks curious. I too find the question curious, because it lacks the acuity that I normally associate with the hon. Gentleman. I do not wish to give Ofqual a broader remit than that outlined in the Bill: I just want a degree of specificity about the role that the Secretary of State can properly have to be laid out in the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman feels that the Bill gives the Secretary of State too much power, that would be interesting.

I am interested that the Secretary of State is amused by the question, because I was citing the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report. As I understood it, the Government were saying that they were not willing to allow Ofqual to use its own devices—for example, sampling mechanisms—to determine what had happened to standards. Instead, the Government envisaged the much narrower role for Ofqual of simply policing the existing qualifications. Does the hon. Gentleman envisage the narrower role or the wider role?

That is genuinely helpful. I do not believe that a wider role is necessarily required, but it is important that we ascertain in Committee and in any secondary legislation that might be introduced exactly how Ofqual might operate. It is certainly the case that I believe that, if necessary, Ofqual should have the independence to commission research—indeed, it has that power under the Bill—to embarrass a Government who have fallen down in a policy area, or to show up examination boards and qualification providers that are not doing their jobs properly. I am encouraged by what some of the examination boards have been saying about Ofqual using its powers more vigorously to that end.

The hon. Gentleman has given the House some worrying examples of people who think that standards have slipped dramatically over recent years, but many people have given evidence to the Select Committee that the issue is more complicated and that standards have been maintained. I say that because of the concern that students, and their parents, are told every summer that the qualifications that have been achieved with great hard work are worth nothing. We are in danger of falling into that trap even though the evidence given to the Committee by the QCA—which is doing a responsible job, and I have not noticed it being bullied by the Minister—was that standards are being maintained.

I entirely take point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee. It is because I want to give parents a degree of confidence that I believe that it is right to create this regulator. We support that aspect of the Bill.

If the hon. Gentleman really believes that the examples that he quoted give an accurate picture of school standards, does it not follow that that must feed through into the universities? How does he explain the vastly increased numbers of young people going to university, and does he believe that those graduates are less well qualified that previous generations of graduates?

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions universities, because I am worried by the extent to which universities are laying on remedial teaching for students taking mathematical, science or engineering degrees. For example, Imperial, one of our best university colleges, has had to lay on remedial lessons for some of the finest students from our state and independent schools. I am all in favour of increasing participation and getting more people into university, and I also believe—as I said earlier—that students are working harder than ever. It is important that we do everything that we can to encourage and celebrate achievement wherever it exists, but it is also important that we can be sure that an examination continues to be worth what it is commonly understood to be worth.

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is important to celebrate the success of students, why did he not celebrate the success of our young people aged 10 and 14 who did the best in Europe in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study? Instead, he trotted out some line about Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan did better than us, and I thought that was worrying. If the Minister is relaxed about that, it reflects curiously on him, because he is normally a tiger on standards so I would have thought that he would be worried. In addition, as he knows, many high-performing European countries, including Flemish Belgium and Finland, were not in the study, and as he also knows a, welter of other studies, including PISA—the programme for international student assessment—tell a very different story about what is happening. It is important to ensure that we have a degree of independent corroboration, which is why I support the introduction of Ofqual. It is natural that the Minister should choose statistics that flatter his Government’s record; his predecessor the Minister for School Standards—now the Foreign Secretary—always quoted from PISA when it appeared to flatter the Government, but when PISA tells a different story, it is no longer flavour of the month or year in the Department. That is entirely understandable and I can appreciate why Ministers do it, but it is why we need Ofqual.

To return to the point about graduates, is the hon. Gentleman saying that today’s graduates are less capable than his generation of graduates?

Absolutely not. As well as welcoming the creation of Ofqual, I welcome the provisions on Ofsted and the Government’s inspection regime. I specifically welcome the relaxation of the Ofsted regime for good schools and the more risk-based approach to their regulation. It is something we advocated 18 months ago and I suspect that a similar idea was coursing through the Government’s bloodstream, so it is good to see it reflected in the legislation.

I also welcome the Secretary of State’s proposals for the reform of what we shall no longer call pupil referral units. Again, change and reform in the area was proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney, who made it clear that it was important to have first-class alternative provision for children who have been excluded from school. Exclusion is a last resort but it is crucial as one of the weapons that heads need to maintain good order, and it is just as crucial that we have high-quality provisions for pupils who have been excluded.

The suggestions being made around the Bill and in the Secretary of State’s written ministerial statement last year seem to us to make good sense. It is important to go beyond local authorities and get alternative suppliers into the business of creating what will be the alternative provision of the future—the short-stay schools to which the Secretary of State referred. Furthermore, in Committee, we shall do everything possible to support the Secretary of State’s wish to improve the education of children and young people who are in custody.

On the subject of looking beyond local authorities for organisations that provide a great service, we support the direction of travel in the Bill on child care. The private and voluntary sector provides much pre-school care and education to a high standard. The early years are crucial and we welcome the broad extension of the entitlement to free care for three and four-year-olds that the Government have brought forward. We specifically welcome the provisions in the Bill to ensure equity in funding between the maintained sector and the private and voluntary sector in the provision of nursery education and child care. It seems to us that a more level playing field is the right way to proceed.

If the hon. Gentleman is saying that pre-school support and nursery care are so important why are we left with the statement that

“David Cameron has pledged to cut £200 million from the Sure Start budget every year—the equivalent of closing one in five Children’s Centres across the country”?

The absolute fact is that two centres in my constituency are now under threat, so I should appreciate hearing from the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Lady, for whom I have great respect and affection, asks “Why am I left with this statement?” The reason why she is left with that statement is that the Labour Whips office cannot find anything better to give her, which is a great pity and a disservice to her. The truth is that we will match every penny that the Government are committed to spending in the Department for Children, Schools and Families budget. We shall not cut Sure Start at all; we support provisions to ensure that Sure Start children’s centres are put on to a statutory basis. We have specific concerns that the Government have failed to ensure that access to Sure Start is spread as equitably as possible. We are concerned by the work of the National Audit Office that shows that existing Sure Start children’s centres have failed to reach some of the most excluded individuals in our society, which is why we support an extension of the health visitor programme and the restoration of universal health visiting as a way of getting children—especially those in need—into Sure Start. That is what we aim to support.

The last time we discussed these matters, the Opposition’s position was that although they would protect the schools budget in 2009-10, they would cut the non-schools budget by £200 million. Does the Conservative spokesman’s statement suggest that he has an exemption from next year’s cuts, and has the shadow Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills team been left to pick up the tab?

There is no need for the Secretary of State to ask me that when he could have rung me at any time in the past month or so to find out the truth. For quite some time now the Labour party has argued that we would cut the non-schools part of the Department for Children, Schools and Families budget, but we made it clear that the DCSF budget is ring-fenced; the Opposition will match the budget that the Government have set. [Hon. Members: “You’ve got it wrong!”] No. It is understandable why, in his partisan zeal, the Secretary of State should have misunderstood, but I hope that he will reassure his colleagues in the Labour party, and voters who may have received Labour party press releases about the future of children’s centres or anything else, that whatever else may change if the Opposition take over, funding for DCSF provision will not. His support in reassuring people and ending scaremongering would, as ever, be greatly appreciated.

It was interesting to find out that when the Leader of the Opposition said that the schools budget would be protected, he in fact meant the DCSF budget. Can the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) give the same assurance for 2010-11? Also, am I on to something in suggesting that the problem has been transferred to the Opposition’s plans for the 2009-10 DIUS budget? The Leader of the Opposition was very clear about the multi-billion-pound scale of the cuts in 2009-10; if the axe is not to fall on DCSF, it sound like bad news for DIUS.

I mentioned the Secretary of State’s partisan zeal earlier. Having found that one of his foxes has been shot, he is anxious to find another. However, if he had paid attention to what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, he would not have gone down this particular route. I know that he is restless in his search for dividing lines. I remember the interview that he gave to the New Statesman when he was just a humble Back Bencher—or at least a Back Bencher: he said then that he had had enough of consensus in education policy, and wanted to get back to good old-fashioned dividing lines. As I say, he is desperate in his search for one.

There does seem to have been something of a volte-face in the Opposition’s policy, but if that is the case, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that Sure Start also requires other Departments to play a role, not least the Department for Work and Pensions. Is he making further commitments for other Departments to ensure that Sure Start continues to be funded in the same way? Will those Departments have to ensure that funding goes into Sure Start, too?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. We are committed to ensuring that we fully support Sure Start children’s centres. That is why I said that we are glad that there is to be statutory provision for them in the Bill. That is why I mentioned, in the context of the question asked by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), that we are anxious to ensure that more people use the centres. That is why the Department of Health is extending the provision of health visitors. If we were intent on allowing Sure Start children’s centres to wither on the vine, to be underfunded, or to be undercut or undermined in any way, we would not have made those commitments.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being extremely generous, both with his time and in giving clarification. I note that he said that we could have picked up the phone; we did write to him and ask him for clarification on the issues, but he never replied. While he is clarifying matters, perhaps he could tell us whether he is still committed to the £4.5 billion cut to the Building Schools for the Future programme that he set out in his policy document last year.

I am given to understand by an hon. Friend that the Minister did write to me—[Interruption.] —as did the Secretary of State. However, my internet provider has a spam filter, which means that junk mail is automatically excised, so anything that emanates from the Labour party or DCSF’s special advisers automatically find itself in the bin. On Building Schools for the Future, as the now right hon. Minister for Schools and Learners knows, we are committed to ensuring that every penny that is spent on building schools remains there for school buildings.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with the Government’s approach is that they think that it is the sum of money, rather than how one spends it, that matters? Will he promise me that when he is in office, he will make sure that we spend it an awful lot better than they do? They waste so much of it on the quangocracy.

As ever, my right hon. Friend is bang on the button. Talking of quangocracy will inevitably draw the attention of many hon. Members to the fountain of quangos created in the Bill, which I shall shortly turn to. First, I shall say a few words about apprenticeships.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to increasing the number of apprenticeships. Again, that idea was pushed first by the Opposition, most vigorously and eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), and also by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). My hon. Friend the Member for Havant has been arguing that we should refocus the Train to Gain budget in order to generate an extra 100,000 apprenticeships.

I noticed that the Secretary of State said that the Bill was the first legislation on apprenticeships for 200 years overall, but in 1994 Lord Hunt of Wirral, who was then the Secretary of State for Employment, created the very idea of the modern apprenticeship—an idea that was derided at the time, when the Labour party was in opposition, only subsequently to be adopted by it. I am glad that the Government have seen the merits of Lord Hunt’s proposal. It is only a pity that there is a gap between the rhetorical claims that they make for their apprenticeship scheme and the achievements on the ground.

In 2003 the Prime Minister, as he then was not, said that there would be 320,000 apprenticeships by 2006. The reality was that there were only 239,000. Nothing abashed, in 2007 he said that he would double the number to 500,000, but the next year the total fell by 13,000. Figures from August to October in 2008 apparently showed an increase, but if we dig below the figures, we see that the increase is entirely due to an increase in the number of apprenticeships for people over 25. The number of apprenticeships open to those who were 16 to 18 or 19 to 24 fell.

Overall in the past year we have seen a fall in the number pursuing level 2 apprenticeships, from 56,000 to 49,000, and a fall in the number pursuing level 3 apprenticeships—those that would be understood as full apprenticeships in European countries—from 27,000 to 24,000. Overall the fall is between 7 and 12 per cent. in the number pursuing apprenticeships. In construction, one of the areas where industry has been most engaged with the apprenticeship programme, the fall has been more than 30 per cent. in the past year—more than 6,000 apprenticeships gone.

I note that the Secretary of State said that there would be a new requirement for Building Schools for the Future contractors to help fill that gap, but that provokes the question to what extent those contractors were falling down on the job beforehand. I suspect that many of those contractors were those who were shouldering their responsibilities to take on apprenticeships. It would be interesting to know the precise estimate of the additional number of new apprenticeships that will be created by the requirement that the Secretary of State is imposing.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but that still leaves us 5,000 down on the number of apprenticeships in construction. The fall in the number of apprenticeships at level 3 is particularly worrying. We are training fewer people at level 3 than we were a decade ago. As the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee—an independent Committee—pointed out, most of the increase in apprenticeship numbers

“has been as a result of converting government-supported programmes of work-based learning into apprenticeships.”

I have nothing against Government-supported programmes of work-based learning, but I have everything against a Government who attempt to massage figures and manipulate names in order to try to paint their record in rosier colours than it deserves.

We broadly support the principle of creating an entitlement to apprenticeships and the way in which the Government are going about encouraging schools to offer a wider range of options to students, but the Government are using the Bill and the declaration of an entitlement as a way of covering up their failure to deliver over time. It is a similar approach to the one that they are taking over the child poverty Bill. They are attempting to enshrine in statute a commitment to eliminate child poverty by 2020, as a way of distracting from the fact that this year we will see that progress towards the interim goal in 2012 has moved backwards. It would be better if the Government were honest about their failures, because then all of us could work with them, as we sincerely wish to do, in order to achieve the noble goals that they occasionally articulate.

It is indeed shameful that we are moving back, but we are delighted that the Government, whenever they want to work with us, continue to work with us. At present one of the problems—[Interruption.]

Order. It would be helpful if any interventions were made in the normal way.

I was saying that the hon. Gentleman should apologise for the fact that between 1979 and 1997 we had the biggest rise in child poverty of any European country. He should praise the Government for the fact that since 1997 we have had the biggest fall in child poverty of any European country. We are very proud of that record; the shame and apologies should come from the Conservative party.

That intervention can stand without my saying anything more. It stands in its own right as a reflection of the approach that, sadly, the Secretary of State has taken to an attempt to be constructive.

May we go back to a point touched on a little while ago? The Secretary of State was saying that there were 1,000 additional apprenticeships to be made available in the construction industry. Does my hon. Friend not agree that in normal economic circumstances the annual demand for new labour in the construction industry equates to some 80,000 people? Even if the Government’s aspiration could be achieved, could it be anything like commensurate with our need for skills?