House of Commons
Monday 19 July 2010
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
My hon. Friend has been slightly modest with this question, because through his constituency he has been one of the pioneers of work clubs in the UK. We are looking at his experience, and we plan to announce our intention shortly to provide additional support, so that work clubs can be developed throughout the country in areas affected by unemployment.
I thank my right hon. Friend for those kind comments. Does he agree that one benefit of work clubs and job clubs is that the whole community is able help those who are out of work, while they are out of work, to get back into the world of work as speedily as possible? May I give him an undertaking that we in Banbury and Bicester stand ready to support any third sector, voluntary or other group—anywhere in the country, but particularly in the inner cities—that is trying to set up work clubs or job clubs?
My hon. Friend’s offer will be extremely welcome throughout the country. There are a small number of other clubs in operation, but we want to see that number expand significantly. Although there is a clear role for central Government in providing support through the Work programme to get people back into work, we also want to see communities and individuals engaged in helping others who are struggling to find work, and we will do everything we can, as we unroll our plans over the next few weeks and months, to ensure that those opportunities exist.
All Members want to see as much effort as possible to help people off benefits and into work, but how much has the right hon. Gentleman estimated it will cost to cover the predicted 100,000 extra people who will be out of work because of the Budget delivered by his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
The hon. Gentleman has clearly not adequately studied the small print of all the forecasts. The reality is that by the end of this Parliament we expect to have more people in employment—significant increases in employment as a result of our approach to dealing with the deficit. The previous Government left us with a completely unaffordable deficit; they left this Government and this country in deep financial difficulties. What we had from them was a culture of irresponsibility. We will put this country back on the rails.
In my constituency we have two job clubs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest problems facing people looking for work is that, when they look for fairly low-paid work, they find that they are better off staying on unemployment benefit? That is a real problem.
My hon. Friend is right, and it is clearly an absurd situation when work does not pay. We have to make changes, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is leading an effort to address that problem. In this country we have to ensure that work pays, and that we do everything possible to help people off benefit dependency and back into the workplace.
Since the general election a number of changes have been announced to benefits and pensions. The most significant for pensioners was our decision, after 30 years of decline in the pension’s real value, to restore the earnings link with the basic state pension.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but he is well aware that the earnings link will not help pensioners as of January, when they start to pay their increased VAT. That increase amounts to almost £8 billion over the life of a Parliament, so when will the hon. Gentleman stick by his party’s promise during the general election campaign to fight any VAT rise? What will he do to protect those elderly people who, through no fault of their own, will be left with enormous debts, thanks to this Government?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the country’s structural deficit is now more than £12 billion larger than it was thought to be at the election. I do not know where he would have got that £12 billion from. As for pensioners, not only will we ensure that we restore the earnings link, but in April 2011 the full value of the cash increase in the state pension will go through to the poorest pensioners on pension credit.
Does the Minister agree that if the pensions in payment today had been linked to the consumer prices index rather than to the retail prices index for the past 20 years, pensions would be 14% lower than they are now? Does not the proposed shift in the definition of price indexation represent a huge raid on pension benefits, which gets worse and worse as time goes on and makes all current and future pensioners poorer?
It pains me to suggest that the hon. Lady is being selective in her use of statistics, but if she looks at the increase in pensions as a whole—the basic state pension and additional pensions—she will see that we have linked the basic state pension to earnings, which over the course of 20 years, for a typical person retiring this year, will add £15,000 in extra state pension compared with price indexation, which was the policy of her Government.
In a written statement, the Minister said that the Government would force occupational pensions to be linked to the consumer prices index instead of the retail prices index. What powers do they have, or will they have, to take to make that happen?
I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions for her question, as this matter has not been well understood. Statute provides a floor above which occupational pension schemes have to operate. In other words, we will not force occupational pension schemes to cut their increases; we simply provide a floor, which used to be linked to the RPI and is now linked to the CPI. Schemes remain entirely free to go beyond that if they wish.
Ministers have had no discussions with the IIAC about industrial injuries linked to the mining industry. However, my colleague Lord Freud is planning to meet the IIAC chairman and the council shortly to discuss their work.
In 2008 a report by the IIAC concluded that activities linked to the mining industry, such as kneeling under heavy loads, doubled the risk of suffering osteoarthritis of the knee. The activities described in the report apply as much to tin miners as to coal miners, but because the report made no specific reference to tin mining, former tin miners in Cornwall are being denied compensation. Will the Minister review the scope of that report to ensure that tin miners are treated fairly?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have visited his constituency and know what an important part the mining industry has played in his local economy over the years. We all very much hope that it will have the opportunity to do so again in future. I am very sympathetic to the points that he makes. I can give him an undertaking that I will discuss the matter with Lord Freud, and we will certainly make representations on his behalf to the IIAC to see whether the issue of the tin mining industry and those who have worked in it can be addressed again.
I am delighted to hear that the Minister is sympathetic to the mining industry and miners across the country. Can he give a guarantee that there will be no cuts whatever in the industrial injuries compensation that the Government provide to those in coal mining, tin mining and every other type of mining over the next five years?
It is the goal of this Administration to protect the most vulnerable in our society, and if people have significant issues in their lives we will do everything we can to protect them. Of course, we are facing a massive economic headache left to us by the previous Government. I expect to hear Opposition Members say, “Protect, protect, protect,” to us on many occasions over the coming months, but it would not be such a challenge to do so if they had not left such an enormous mess for us to deal with.
The Government are committed to tackling youth unemployment. Young people can access a comprehensive range of opportunities, support and advice that will help them find employment, as part of the Work programme. As we introduce that programme, it will offer integrated employment support to young people, regardless of the benefit that they claim. I recognise the work that my hon. Friend has done in her constituency among young people. The results there are good, because youth unemployment is lower than the national average and has fallen over the past year.
In my constituency, at this time of year when there is seasonal work things are not so bad, but there are up to 470 young people under 24 claiming jobseeker’s allowance at other times of the year. Can the Secretary of State clarify what measures will be taken to boost apprenticeships to give young people better life chances?
Yes, I can. As my hon. Friend knows, we made provision in the Budget for more than 50,000 new apprenticeships. It is also worth remembering that one thing that the last Government set in train, and would have introduced had they been returned, was a hike in national insurance, which would have damaged any prospect of young people in her constituency being in long-term viable jobs. There is a good story to tell, which could not have happened if we had not taken over and found savings within the budget in our first year.
Given the gap that there will be between the prevention of the rolling out of the future jobs fund and the introduction of the Work programme next year, and as apprenticeships are a devolved matter, what practical help will the Secretary of State be able to provide for my constituents, particularly the 1,300 young people who are out of work in Glasgow North East at the moment? Do the Government not need to do more to prevent an autumn, winter and spring of discontent for young people in Glasgow?
There will not be a gap, all existing programmes are being extended, and the Work programme will be applicable to all those young people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Having only just gone into opposition, he might like to reflect on the past 14 years, and the fact that when his party left office it left us with more than 1.3 million 16 to 24-year-olds not in full-time education, employment or training. That is 200,000 more than were left to the Labour party in 1997. It is a shameful record, and we do not need lectures from Labour Members about youth unemployment.
How does my right hon. Friend plan to break the cycle of intergenerational unemployment? In my constituency there are many families in which no one works. That has a devastating effect not only on those families but on their communities.
My hon. Friend asks an important question. In the past 14 years huge sums of money have been narrowly focused on different groups, and we have forgotten that in households with families, far too many are out of work. That is one reason why child poverty has been so difficult to tackle, and why we must change the system. We want to consider how to make work pay for those on the lowest incomes, and how work can be distributed more among households and less just among individuals. Most particularly, we want people to recognise that it is more important and more viable for them to be back in work than on benefits. The complicated system that the previous Government introduced, with all its different taper rates and withdrawal rates, meant that people needed to be professors of maths to figure out whether they would be better off going to work or staying on benefits. Our job is to ensure that the system is simpler and easier to understand. Unlike the previous Government, we will value households that take a risk and try to go to work.
The Secretary of State will know that many young people get fantastic help from the voluntary sector through, for example, the future jobs fund, the youth guarantee, the working neighbourhoods fund, and also through small contracts with the jobcentres to help people into work. As he is cutting those programmes by more than £1 billion, does he think that the funding from his Department for the voluntary sector to help young people and others into work will increase or decrease in the next 12 months?
I would say to the Secretary of State—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I mean the shadow Secretary of State; I nearly made a mistake there. I would say to the right hon. Lady that we will provide sufficient funds as necessary for the voluntary sector. She should know from all our previous work that the voluntary sector is a vital part of finding people work and putting them in closer touch with their local communities. She goes on about the future jobs fund, and she must understand that we are continuing with the programmes that have already been let, but getting rid of those that have not yet been let. She knows that those programmes are incredibly expensive—far more expensive than the guarantee. We simply cannot afford them, because of the mess that the previous Government left, so she must understand that we will get people back into work through ensuring that the economy is back on track, providing apprenticeships, which offer real opportunity for young people, and ensuring that the national insurance hike that she was about to make will not happen.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that the consequence of his party’s Budget is to cut, not increase, the number of jobs in the economy. He will also know that he is cutting 90,000 planned and funded jobs from the future jobs fund. He did not answer the question about whether he would increase or cut the support for the voluntary sector to help get people into work. As he well knows, the Minister in the Lords has told voluntary sector providers that they are too small to get contracts under the Work programme. The Government have quadrupled the size of the contracts, and are locking out the voluntary sector for up to seven years. Is not the truth that all the right hon. Gentleman’s talk about the big society is simply a big con, to hide cuts in jobs, in help for the unemployed and in support to get people back to work?
It is ridiculous for the right hon. Lady to stand there, two and a half months after leaving government with the finances in a total shambles, and try to lecture us about youth unemployment. [Interruption.] I remind her that in the whole time for which Labour Members were in government, there were only three years in which they reduced unemployment for 16 to 17-year-olds. Youth unemployment rose throughout 10 years, and the Labour Government left it worse than they found it. No lectures from the right hon. Lady, please; only apologies will do.
Will the Secretary of State take no lectures from the Opposition on unemployment? In Wellingborough unemployment doubled under the Labour Government.
What would my right hon. Friend have said if he had been in my office on Friday, when a constituent came in and said, “My granddaughter works very hard. She’s a single mum and she’s just getting by, but she doesn’t have a council house. The other granddaughter has given up her job and is on benefits. She has a house and is better off”? Which granddaughter is doing the right thing?
Those who take the risk and try to work and take jobs are the people whom we want to support in society. The trouble is that endlessly under the previous Government, the levels of support for those who did not take a risk or a chance were too high for them ever to take those risks. The answer is very simply this: we will value those who try, and make sure that things such as housing benefit and unemployment benefit are set at rates that do not discourage people from taking work.
The future jobs fund is directed at young working-age people. It continues to provide work placements, and all existing contractual commitments are being honoured. Next year we will introduce our Work programme. This will offer integrated employment support to young people, regardless of the benefit that they claim. The programme will help them move into sustained employment rather than temporary jobs. The Government believe that that will have positive impact on child poverty, and indeed all kinds of poverty, in future. However, the recent changes made by the Chancellor in the Budget will have no overall measurable impact on child poverty in the next two years.
I hope that the Minister will agree that a decent living wage is the best way, and the most efficient means, of combating poverty. The previous Government certainly knew and understood that, and supported and helped many people back into work, not only to their benefit but to the benefit of their families and communities. Will the Minister consider the implications of unemployment for poverty? Will the Government reconsider their proposal to scrap the future jobs fund?
What the hon. Gentleman does not understand is that the future jobs fund does not guarantee a sustainable future job. I agree with him about getting people off welfare and into work. Nobody will rise out of poverty by remaining on welfare. We want to change things and to get people back into work, but we want to get people into sustainable work. That is why we announced 50,000 additional apprenticeships, and why the Work programme will be geared to getting people into long-term sustainable employment. We will do people no favours by creating artificial short-term schemes that cost a lot of money which, thanks to the previous Government, we can no longer afford.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that child poverty can also be tackled by helping people on low incomes to get into work or, if they are in work, to earn more? There was talk of a living wage under the previous Government. I am no professor of maths, but is he aware that analysis of materials published by his Department shows that a single mother with two children under 11 who earns £250 a week suffers an effective tax rate of 90% as a result of benefit withdrawal and tax changes? Is not that a broken, complicated and perverse system?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We inherited from the previous Government a system in which there are tangible disincentives to move back into work. When people do the right thing and move back into work, they often face penal rates at which they lose the money they are earning, either through loss of benefits or through increased taxation. That must change if we are to create a genuine incentive for people to do the right thing and return to the workplace.
The Government have already cut the future jobs fund, child tax credits and housing benefit, which will increase child poverty in two or three years’ time. Will the Minister tell us whether, in addition to that, his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has proposed means-testing child benefit?
I have no intention of taking any lessons from the previous Government on child poverty—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”] The Labour party promised to halve child poverty by 2010, but missed that target by 1 million children. Its failure on child poverty was lamentable. By contrast, this Government will take steps over the next few years to reduce child poverty and to ensure that we do the right thing by the people in this country who are at the bottom end of the income scale.
Future Jobs Fund
8. What estimate he has made of the number of jobs in Kilmarnock and Loudoun constituency supported by the future jobs fund. (8933)
We do not collect data on a constituency-only basis, so I cannot help the hon. Lady with a detailed response to her question.
As the Minister seems to have no idea about the number of young people on future jobs fund projects at the moment, perhaps he will consider coming to my constituency and speaking face to face to those young people who feel that those jobs have been downgraded by this Government’s attitude to them as unsustainable. Will he ensure that each one of those young people is in a sustainable job within the next 24 months?
I just do not think that Labour Members understand. If someone is given a six-month job under the tag of the future jobs fund, the word “future” does not apply. It is things like apprenticeships that are genuinely about the future and about creating sustainable employment. That is why this Government announced 50,000 extra apprenticeships. That is why the work programme will focus on long-term opportunities. The tragedy of the future jobs fund is that it is precisely not a future jobs fund: it is a six-month work placement, at substantial cost to the taxpayer, at the end of which—in almost all cases—there is no job. That is a tragedy, but the fund was all about the engineering of figures under the previous Government—unlike the long-term strategy under this Government.
Disabled People (Work)
Nearly half of all disabled people are already in employment. However, many more could work with the right support, and want to do so. We have announced plans to implement the Work programme, which will provide personalised help to those and other customers to return to work, and we will also ensure that there is a specialist package of provision to help the most severely disabled people.
The work capability assessment was, of course, developed in consultation with medical experts and disability specialist groups. There will be an annual review to ensure that any problems with the assessment are dealt with, and there has already been a Department-led review dealing with some of the issues that my hon. Friend raises in connection with people with mental health problems. Modifications will be made, especially by expanding the support group to cover people with severe disability issues, to ensure that they are not inappropriately put into groups of activity.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the outstanding work done by Treloar college in my constituency in assisting students with very severe disabilities into work through their world of work and job coaching programmes. What can the Government do to encourage more firms to partner the college in such programmes?
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the staff who work at Treloar college and to the many volunteers throughout Hampshire—including in my constituency—who fundraise to help to support the excellent work that they do. It is an important independent specialist provider which supports people with some of the most complex and profound disabilities. Other providers can learn from Treloar’s how to work in partnership with local employers to provide youngsters with severe disabilities with skills that make them employable so that they can get into work.
Despite the best efforts of the last Government, there is still anecdotal evidence that people with disabilities are being discriminated against in the workplace. Can the Minister assure the House that every step will be taken to ensure that employers responsible for discriminating against people with disabilities will face the severest of penalties?
There is some important legislation in place that will help employers to understand their responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that we are only at the beginning of a process of implementing that legislation. It is about changing cultural norms in the workplace to ensure that reasonable changes are made to help more disabled people to do the work that they want to do.
In the coalition agreement, the Government pledged to reform the access to work programme. Will the Minister tell us what the timetable for that reform will be, and can she give us an assurance that the programme will continue to be funded at the same level in real terms as the current access to work programme? Or is reform just another byword for cuts?
I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased to know that I have already had meetings with officials and with employers who are participating in access to work, so as to understand how we can make it work better for more disabled people. The real challenge is to ensure that the money available supports more disabled people in an effective way, so that we actually get people into work rather than leaving them languishing on benefits.
On 24 June we published a call for evidence for plans to increase the state pension age to 66 on a more rapid time scale. The closing date for that consultation is 6 August.
There is a general understanding of the need for such a change, but those who will be affected by what will be an arbitrary date desperately need the knowledge to enable them to plan their finances, to give them certainty and security in their retirement.
Notwithstanding the need to increase the age at which people draw the state pension, will the Minister and his Department look into the social class dimension? According to the latest statistics, 19% of men from the poorest social backgrounds do not survive to get their pension. Those from poorer backgrounds, who often do heavy manual work throughout their lives, die much earlier in their pension careers than those from better-off backgrounds. Will he look into the social class dimension?
The right hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about pensions and social issues, and he has highlighted an important matter. We specifically referred to this in the call for evidence for the change to 66. The good news is that life expectancy is increasing across all social groups, but the factor that he mentioned is an important one, and we will consider it when we examine state pension ages.
All education leavers claiming jobseeker’s allowance receive help and support from a personal adviser, access to jobs and a range of employment and training opportunities. These include help with job search skills, which is very targeted and very personalised. Help is also available from partner organisations such as Connexions.
Given the previous Government’s legacy of youth unemployment, is my right hon. Friend aware of the additional problem of education leavers with criminal records seeking employment through the route of rehabilitation? What is his Department doing to give young offenders a second chance to get on the employment ladder?
I think my hon. Friend will find that the unified Work programme will be one of the better ways of tackling that issue, because it will be very narrowly focused. If we get it absolutely right, it will be narrowly focused on the needs and problems of those individuals. The previous set of programmes was too disparate; now we can focus, and we should be able to help. Another issue worth raising, although it does not come under the remit of our Department, is what remains on people’s records, and I hope that in due course we will be able to look carefully at that. People trying for that second chance sometimes find that employers say no to them simply because they have been inside, and a compassionate society should try to do something about that.
Does the Secretary of State recognise the figure of 120,000 young people who will be added to the dole queue because of cuts in Government programmes such as the future jobs fund and the long-term guarantee for jobs, as well as the cuts to university places taking place in a different Department? Does he believe that Jobcentre Plus will be able to cope with that increased Government-led demand?
I do not recognise that. The right hon. Gentleman was in a Government who completely failed to deal with youth unemployment. They ended up leaving office with higher youth unemployment than they inherited. That is not something that we want to crow about, but it is the reality. We need to do better than that, but we also face the challenge of reducing the deficit that his party’s Government left us. I recognise his interest and his compassion, but unless we put the economy right, we will not be able to exercise either.
Will my right hon. Friend look this summer particularly at the 16-year-olds who are leaving school, to make sure that the jobcentre works not just with Connexions but with the relevant parts of the youth service to provide a much more integrated and much better informed set of opinions and advice than have been offered to young people in the past? There is an urgent need for 16-year-olds to have good advice between jobs and apprenticeships and further education.
I absolutely guarantee to do that, and I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State about it. It is worth bearing in mind what a real challenge this is for us. I have to repeat that, over the past 14 years, that group particularly was most failed by the previous Government. Before they carry on giving us lectures about it, they should recognise that failure and probably apologise for it.
We have had a large number of representations from organisations interested in and interested to participate in the Work programme. My colleagues and I have also had a series of meetings with interested parties among the provider community and the financial community.
Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the Skipton and Ripon enterprise initiative led by Alan Halsall, chairman of Silver Cross Prams in my constituency, which has built a network of established business owners who are voluntarily giving their time to provide advice to anyone who wants to set up a business?
I will indeed pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituent. As well as Government action to address the problems, we should capture the valuable experience of communities and individuals in building businesses, and use it positively to help those who are out of work. We particularly want more individuals to move off benefits into self-employment. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend’s constituent and—I hope—others around the country will be able to make a big difference to these people as they seek to build their businesses in the years ahead.
Has the right hon. Gentleman had representations from the academic behind the new benefit system, who said that
“ministers should postpone plans to move 2.5 million incapacity benefit claimants on to the new employment and support allowance… until serious errors have been rectified… To go ahead with these problems is not just ridiculous. It is, in fact, scary”?
That was said by Paul Gregg, Professor of Economics at the university of Bristol.
If one looks at what the last Government first set up with the work capability assessment, I have some sympathy with that view, and I have changed some of these things. The last Government actually expected people on chemotherapy to be judged fit for work. We moved quickly to change that, and we have also set up a review of the work capability assessment, which will report by the end of the year. I have made sure that there is a voice on that from groups that have deep and detailed knowledge of the area. For example, we have the head of Mind acting as an adviser to the review. That is how we will get it right; we will do all we can to do so.
The Government recognise that the UK’s 6 million carers play an indispensable role in looking after family, friends and members of the community who need support. We have set out our commitment to simplify the benefit system in order to improve work incentives and to encourage responsibility and fairness. We will consider carefully the needs of carers as we develop our thinking on welfare reform.
I thank the Minister for that answer. As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, carers are the unsung heroes in our communities, many of whom work seven days a week, 24 hours a day in return for a miserly allowance of £53.90. Fairness has been mentioned, but as a result of the VAT increase in the Chancellor’s Budget, that allowance is now worth even less. What will the Minister and her Department do to correct that unfairness?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question concerning an issue that I know he cares about and puts a lot of thought into. The carers whom I have met since taking up my position feel strongly that it is not only the financial benefits and supports that are important, as they also want the ability to get into work. At the moment, one in five carers are forced to quit work rather than to carry on, as they would like to. We will therefore focus on making sure that these people get access to flexible working, personalised budgets and direct payments and, in the long term, we will have a commission for long-term care. That is how we can ensure that the support for carers is in place. There were measures in the Budget that will help to make sure that financial support is there for carers, particularly in the area of housing.
There are 21,000 carers in Medway. They do an invaluable job which is often unrecognised, but the benefits system remains incredibly complex, and many are unaware of their entitlements. What plans has the Minister to simplify the system to make it more accessible to them?
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. Carers find it incredibly difficult to navigate the benefits system. We will do all that we can to remove any disincentives preventing people from going out to work. The one thing that we will not do is implement the policy of clawing back 1.5% of carer’s allowance, as the last Government did. That is the last announcement that carers would want to hear at this time.
Work Capability Assessment
I have read carefully the report on the issue by Citizens Advice. I have had meetings with its national leadership, and have also visited local volunteers to discuss the issues with them.
The evidence from Citizens Advice on Labour’s work capability assessment is clear and damning. It states that
“people are being inappropriately subjected”
to the assessment, that it
“is not an effective measure of fitness for work”,
and that it is
“producing inappropriate outcomes.”
The perception among my constituents, however, is that the Government are responding by making the test even stiffer. Can the Minister assure me that he is taking that evidence seriously?
Absolutely. I was profoundly concerned to discover some of the things that the last Government had done. That is why we are taking steps to address some of the problems, such as the fact that people undergoing chemotherapy have been expected to go to work, which is one of the examples of actions that were completely wrong. We have also commissioned a review by a leading professor, backed up by senior figures with relevant experience of matters such as mental health. We will seek to ensure that the work capability assessment, while being right, fair and proper in the system as a whole, is judged as effectively as possible so that it does not treat unfairly people in genuine need.
I welcome the Minister’s review of the work capability assessment, which is long overdue. Two thirds of sufferers from Parkinson’s disease have been deemed fit for work. Such people suffer from a long-term, complex, debilitating but also fluctuating condition. What assurances can the Minister give that his review will ensure that future assessments are not so crude as to brand them benefit cheats?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no way on earth that we would seek to brand people in that position benefit cheats. Our job is to find the right dividing line. When it is practical to do so, we should help people with disabilities into work. There is general agreement among all the groups who work with them that that is the positive and the right thing to do. However, we must also ensure that people who are genuinely not capable of working receive unconditional support, and all the care that we can possibly provide. That is where we will seek to draw the line.
The hon. Gentleman’s experience and knowledge of these issues is unrivalled in the Chamber, and he has sought to present them on a non-party-political basis so that we can continue to discuss them. I have had a number of discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I continue to discuss the issues with him. I hope that we shall be able to make progress, preferably on a non-party-political basis.
The Secretary of State will know that early intervention to help babies, children and young people to develop socially and emotionally so that they can make the best of themselves is one of the processes that depend heavily on the bolting together of small bits of funding, which are likely to suffer most in the current economic climate. Will he talk seriously to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about exploring other means of raising sustainable funds so that early intervention can continue for a generation, which will be necessary if we are to ensure that our young people get the best out of life?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the issue of early intervention is specifically lodged with another Department, but I take an interest in it, and guarantee that I will continue to do so. I can say without fear or favour that I think it has the greatest potential to change many of the lives that we talk about—lives of worklessness and poverty, including child poverty. It is arguably one of the most significant issues in the medium to long term, and I will do my level best to ensure that it is pursued.
The Government are committed to creating a stronger society based on the principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility. The Cabinet Committee on Social Justice will be the forum in which Ministers look at how to tackle issues around poverty. The Committee will ensure that, for the first time, Departments must thoroughly examine the overall impact of their policies, so that we can avoid unintended consequences and the poorest being hit hardest.
I thank the Minister for her reply. Last Friday, I visited the Trussell Trust food bank in my constituency, and it became clear in conversation with Chris Mould, the director, that one of the principal reasons why the charity had to make £41,000 in grants of food aid in emergency circumstances last year was that benefits had been delayed. What steps can the Minister take to assure my constituents, and those of other Members, that such delays are minimised so that acute poverty—where people need food—will not occur again during the next five years?
Delays in getting benefits to recipients are obviously critical, particularly for those whose families face the toughest circumstances. I will look into the specific points that my hon. Friend has raised, but I remind him that we are in this position, with 2.8 million children living in poverty, because the previous Government left us with a very difficult legacy, and some of these issues will take some time to address.
As a society, we are living longer and healthier lives, and we need to make sure that the state pension system is sustainable and affordable in the longer term. As such, I hope that the House will take note of the review that we are undertaking into increasing the state retirement age to 66, and I would like to take this opportunity to ask Members to add their contributions to the call for evidence as and when they can, because this is an important debate.
May I ask the Secretary of State about the issue of teenage pregnancy, which, as he knows, affects many constituencies around the land? We have a very high rate compared with other countries across the world and, unfortunately, research done by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that many young women effectively choose teenage pregnancy and having a baby as an alternative career. What is the Secretary of State’s Department going to do, in association with other Ministers, to make sure that girls have a proper sense of self-worth, and that when they do have a baby they have a chance of getting into work?
The hon. Gentleman has, not for the first time, raised a very important issue. There is no magic wand to solve this, and crucially, as he knows from when he was in government, these are not stand-alone issues. Sometimes it is very easy simply to stigmatise a group of young women and say, “It’s all your fault,” when in fact they may well themselves come from broken families where they have only witnessed their own mothers going through the same circumstances and where men have not been involved. There is a much wider set of circumstances, therefore. Of course, making work pay for such women is important, as is recognising that, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) mentioned, we need to intervene very early. Most of all we need to make sure that people are ready, trained and able to take up work and that that work pays. That will help enormously in giving them an idea that there is a life beyond just having a child on their own and that sometimes they need support.
T2. Last week I met a constituent who had been on incapacity benefit for many years. Apart from the initial medical examination, he had not received an examination in nine years. Does the Secretary of State share my concern about a system that seems to let people down so badly? (8952)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are 2.2 million people on incapacity benefit and an additional 400,000 on employment and support allowance, and under the previous Government a very large number of them heard absolutely nothing from the state; they were simply left to rot on benefits. I think that is wrong. Many of those people could benefit enormously if we helped them back into the workplace. That will be a central goal of the Work programme. My one regret is that the Labour party did not do that years ago.
May I ask the Secretary of State particularly about the overall impact of the welfare changes announced in the Budget and since then, because he will know that, for instance, the value of carer’s allowance is being cut by about £135 a year over the next few years, which particularly hits women, and that the value of attendance allowance is being cut by about £185 a year over the next few years, again particularly hitting women? Has his Department done any assessment of the overall impact of the £11 billion of welfare cuts on women—yes or no?
T4. In my constituency, a large number of people—much larger than the national average—are pensioners, and in my region an amazing 22% of pensioners are in effective poverty. What will my hon. Friend be doing for the most vulnerable pensioners? (8954)
We need to ensure that, as well as lifting the level of the basic state pension, the most vulnerable pensioners, who receive the pension credit, get the full benefit of the increase that we will be introducing next April. However, in the longer term we do not want to allow people to retire poor and then try to catch them through a means test; we want to ensure that more people have, for example, workplace pensions, so that fewer people retire poor in the first place. That is a better strategy for the long term.
T3. Given the brief opportunity afforded by Lord Young for others to input into his review of health and safety legislation, what comfort can the Minister give my constituents that its motivation is a serious effort to ensure that the right protection is in place to prevent disasters such as the one that occurred in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin), at Stockline, rather than another excuse to trot out the usual litany of myth and distortion for the gratification of the Daily Mail? (8953)
The hon. Gentleman has to understand that any Administration must find a balance. If we regulate too much, there will be fewer jobs; at the same time, if we do not regulate enough, employees will be exposed to danger. We have to find the right balance between those two, and I do not believe that over the past 13 years the previous Government did that. They over-regulated, drove companies overseas and cost jobs. We will endeavour to ensure that we restore a degree of common sense, not simply to health and safety regulation but to the regulatory burden imposed on business right across government.
T5. People applying for jobs in areas that require Criminal Records Bureau checks often have to wait weeks or months for those checks to come through, and during that time they are ineligible to claim jobseeker’s allowance. Will the Minister look sympathetically at these rules, which have the unintended consequence of sometimes discriminating against British nationals? (8955)
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. There are a number of areas we have inherited from the previous Government in which there is an almighty mess to sweep up. I give him my commitment that I will look at the issue he has raised and discuss it with colleagues at the Home Office to see whether we can find a better way of streamlining the system, so that problems such as the one he has outlined do not occur.
In the Budget the Chancellor made it clear that we need to look at the disability living allowance and put in place an objective assessment to ensure that money is going to the people who need it most. We will undertake a review, working closely with disability lobbies, to ensure that we focus on people who need that help the most.
T6. Does the Minister agree that more must be done to help the unemployed over-50s, who are not necessarily on benefits? A constituent of mine, Mr Kevin Forbes, who was made redundant, has applied for more than 4,700 jobs without any luck. What comfort can the Minister give him and many others that we will radically improve back-to-work schemes for the over-50s? (8956)
My hon. Friend raises an important point, not least about ageist attitudes, particularly among employers. One of the worst examples is that it is currently legal to sack somebody for being over 65. We think that that is outrageous. The previous Government talked about it, but we are going to change the law, and that will be part of a cultural change. We need to see longer working lives. Many people want to go on making a contribution, and, like my hon. Friend’s constituent, they are thwarted in their attempts to do so. We need to change that culture and to change attitudes.
I welcome the review of housing benefit, but does the Minister accept that it perhaps does not go far enough, inasmuch as it does not examine the role of landlords? Many are milking the system while neither taking steps to control antisocial behaviour by their tenants, nor undertaking appropriate repairs to stop the house—and, indeed, the whole area—falling into decay.
I agree, in part, with the hon. Gentleman, who raises an important issue, because housing benefit has been in need of a review. I know for a fact that the previous Government were reviewing it, so we are trying to complete that process. He is right to say that one of the biggest problems about housing benefit, and local housing allowance in particular, is that because it has been almost open-ended, landlords have pushed and pushed on rent levels which have then pulled up the amount of money that has flowed out; the increase has been £5 billion over five years. I will be discussing with the Department for Communities and Local Government whether there is a way in which we can rectify that, but he is right to raise it. I am glad that someone on the Labour Benches has made a positive statement about the need to sort it out.
T7. Further to the previous answer on disability living allowance, can the Minister say when these definitive objective tests will be produced? Does she accept that the budget has trebled because the allowance is so unclear? Does she also accept that objective criteria mean that some people who do not receive the allowance will qualify in future and that many who currently get it will lose out, so the sooner we have the clear criteria, the better for all concerned? (8957)
I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that we will be working quickly on this and we will be involving specialist disability lobbies. As he is no doubt aware, these are complex matters and we need to ensure that, whatever actions we take to unravel the problems that we have been left with, our solutions have long-term and sustainable merit.
My question is on pensioner poverty. Parts of my constituency are more than 1,200 feet above sea level and in the winter they can be very cold, so will the Minister guarantee not to cut the cold weather payments in the coming five years?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the underlying level of cold weather payments has been £8.50, which was increased to £25 for the past two winters. We are considering the rate for the coming winter, but we take representations each year on cold weather stations to make sure that they match the exact geography of local areas, for the sort of reasons that he gives.
T8. Will my hon. Friend inform the House of the estimate of the number of benefit claimants who are addicted to alcohol and/or drugs? Will she outline the opportunities that will arise under the Work programme to reduce dependency, which can often be both on drugs and alcohol, and benefits? (8958)
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I know the amount of work that he has done in this area. Helping people who are trapped on benefits through drug and alcohol addiction is, as he knows, a top priority for the Government. It is estimated that in England there are 270,000 problem drug users on working-age benefits; information is not currently available on the number with alcohol dependency, but I am sure that if it were, the figures would be pushed up even further. The new Work programme will recognise the cost of helping someone with multiple barriers and will allow the flexibility to tailor the support that people need.
T9. At my surgery on Saturday, Liz Harlow, a benefits adviser, told me that it is taking weeks to process applications for crisis loans. Given that they are described as loans that can provide help in “an emergency or disaster”, can Ministers reassure me that they will be processed more quickly in future? (8959)
My hon. Friend raises a vital issue. We need to ensure that crisis loans are administered far more efficiently than they are at present. I am aware that there are delays. I am happy to look not only into the individual case that he raises, but more systematically at whether the social fund is delivering—I do not think that it is.
Given the vital role that Jobcentre Plus staff play in getting people back to work and given that about 13,500 of them are on fixed-term contracts, some of which are due to end in November, can the Minister give the House an assurance that talks are taking place to extend or make permanent job contracts?
The previous Government recruited staff on a short-term basis—on short-term contracts—precisely because they were brought in to deal with a time when unemployment was rising. Unemployment is, fortunately, now falling. Inevitably, some of those contracts will come to an end and it will not be possible to keep those staff on. I very much hope that those who have built up good experience in Jobcentre Plus will be able to find alternative employment, given the fact that the employment services sector is growing and that the Work programme is lying ahead.
I very much welcome the comments made by my right hon. Friend a moment ago about housing benefit. There are particularly difficult problems in London, where housing benefit has contributed to some enormous discrepancies in rent. May I ask him to take a particular interest in the problem in the capital, where the poverty trap is one of the greatest in the UK?
We are fully aware that there might be peculiar circumstances in London and we have already trebled the discretionary allowance. We are still considering all these matters and making allowances, so I guarantee that we will continue to watch this matter. My hon. Friend is right that this has been a real issue—working people on low incomes have had to pay the bill for local housing allowance without being able to live in the sort of houses that those who are on local housing allowance and who are unemployed can live in. There is a real disparity and unfairness and we need to sort that out.
My constituent, Jackie Sallis, acquired her lifelong disability at birth, has tried but invariably failed to hold down a job and has been in receipt of disability living allowance. As regards the review that the Minister has already mentioned, will she reassure us that adults with lifelong conditions will not be subject to a regime of constant medical assessments that try to prove them fit for work, which will be stressful for them, ultimately pointless and, presumably, very expensive for the public purse?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. As we pull together the procedures for the revisions to disability living allowance, we will consider just those sorts of things. We want to ensure that it is proportionate and that regular reviews are considered, so that the allowance can be given to those with the most need without putting too much pressure on those who will never move away from DLA.
The Minister will know that the Welsh Assembly Government have some of the most progressive policies on poverty alleviation. Will she—or any of the Front-Bench team—tell us what discussions they have had with Welsh Assembly Ministers and whether, should those Welsh Assembly Ministers express any reservations about the net impact of their policies on poverty in constituencies such as mine, they will take those reservations seriously?
I have spoken to the Welsh Secretary on a number of occasions and I have accepted her invitation to go and visit the Assembly—[Interruption.] I have not yet gone, but I have had correspondence with various Ministers. I promise the hon. Gentleman that he will have our eagle eye over the course of the process just as others have.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At close of business tonight we will pass the estimates—an awful lot of money—without a vote. Bundled into that are the IPSA estimates, which show that £6.6 million will be spent simply on IPSA administration compared with £2 million under the previous regime. In the future, will it be possible to separate out the IPSA estimate so that we can have, if necessary, a debate and a vote on it?
The short answer to the right hon. Gentleman is that it is not possible to devise some new procedure for the purpose that he described. Moreover, I am not sure that it is necessary. The right hon. Gentleman has just pithily explained his precise understanding of the size of the IPSA estimate as a feature of the total estimate. If he works on the basis that everybody else is as capable of interpreting these matters as he is—that is an if, I accept—he might be satisfied that there is a general level of understanding of these important matters.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As regards the speed with which today’s business is being taken through the House, the Secretary of State for Education suggested on the radio this morning that comparison could be drawn between the Academies Bill, with its 16 clauses and two schedules, and legislation on the assisted places scheme to remove the subsidy to private education, which had three substantive clauses and two technical clauses and for which I was responsible in 1997. I know that you cannot protect Parliament from everything that the coalition does, Mr Speaker, but is not the comparison to be made between this Bill and the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, and will you protect us from the dangerous dogma of the coalition Government as they push this Bill through?
I am always keen and anxious to protect the House and I take considerable steps to do so. I have not made the comparison that the right hon. Gentleman suggests, but of course there would be no need for me to do so because he has just made that comparison extremely effectively. It is on the record, and I know that he will want to share it with the residents of Sheffield, Brightside.
Academies Bill [Lords]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Today’s Second Reading marks the first legislative step towards the fulfilment of our manifesto commitment to improve England’s education system. It grants greater autonomy to individual schools, it gives more freedom to teachers and it injects a new level of dynamism into a programme that has been proven to raise standards for all children and for the disadvantaged most of all.
The need for action to transform our state education system has never been more urgent. In the past 10 years, we have seen a decline in the performance of our country’s education in comparison with our competitors. We were, 10 years ago, fourth in the world for the quality of our science education; we are now 14th. We were, 10 years ago, seventh in the world for the quality of our children’s literacy; we are now 17th. And we were, 10 years ago, eighth in the world for the quality of our children’s mathematics; we are now 24th. At the same time as we have fallen behind other nations, we have seen a stubborn gap persist between the educational attainment of the wealthiest and the opportunities available to the poorest.
Pioneering work by Leon Feinstein for the Institute of Education has proven that educational disadvantage starts even before children go to school and that children of low cognitive ability from wealthy homes overtake children of greater cognitive ability from poorer homes even before they arrive at school. As they go through school, the gap widens. Schools, instead of being engines of social mobility and guarantors of equality, are only perpetuating the divide between the wealthy and the poorest. At key stage 1, some 71% of pupils who are eligible for free school meals are reading at the expected level, compared with 87% of pupils who are not eligible for free school meals. At the end of key stage 2, the gap has grown wider. By the end of primary school, just 53% of pupils who are eligible for free school meals reach level 4—the expected level in English—compared with 76% of pupils who are not eligible for free school meals.
As students go through secondary school, the gap becomes even wider. By the time they are taking their GCSEs, just 27% of pupils who are eligible for free school meals get five A to C grades, including English and maths. That is exactly half the figure for those students who are not eligible for free school meals. When it comes to A-levels and university entry, the gap is wider still. In the last year for which we have figures, of the 81,000 who had been eligible for free school meals, just 45 made it to Oxbridge by the time they turned 19, whereas one top London school gets an average of 82 Oxbridge admissions a year. We cannot go on with such a drastic waste of talent, which is why we need to legislate now to ensure that opportunity becomes more equal in our society.
As well as the legislation that we are bringing forward today, the coalition Government are bringing forward a series of changes to transform our educational system. We are hoping to transform teaching for the better by doubling the number of graduates on the Teach First scheme, which has already been proven to raise attainment, particularly in the poorest areas. The expansion of Teach First was backed by every party in the House of Commons at the time of the last general election, but it is the coalition Government who have found the money to ensure that the very best graduates are in the schools that need them most. We will be bringing forward proposals to improve the continuous professional development of all teachers to ensure that the current crop of teachers—here I agree with the shadow Education Secretary that they are among the best ever—can benefit from the best evidence available on how to raise attainment.
When it comes to attracting great teachers, we know that we need to take action on discipline, because the biggest single disincentive for talented people going into the classroom is the standard of behaviour that they encounter. As a result, the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), has outlined proposals to change the rules in order to give teachers greater confidence on the use of force, greater confidence when they exercise search powers and greater protection when false or vexatious claims are made against them.
As well as changing the rules on discipline, we are conducting a thoroughgoing reform of special educational needs. The Bill makes it clear that in future there will be protection for all pupils who have statements when they apply for academy schools, so that they are treated on an even keel. We shall have a comprehensive review, led by the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), to ensure that the heartache suffered by so many children who cannot get the school they need for their special needs is addressed.
We shall also be taking steps to ensure that our children are reading fluently earlier in primary school, and we shall be transforming our curriculum and our examinations so that they rank with the world’s best—less prescription in the curriculum, more rigour in our examinations.
The right hon. Gentleman was speaking expressly about the curriculum that those schools will pursue. Many of us are worried about two areas where the schools may effectively opt out of things we believe are important to everybody. The first is religious education. Schools might advocate a set of religious prescriptions that were inimical to the broad understanding of most people’s expectations about British society. The second is sex and relationship education. We believe that it is important that every child should have an opportunity to understand their self-worth, so that they can make better decisions affecting their future.
I respect the hon. Gentleman for his commitment to both those issues. As part of our curriculum review later this year, we shall address both religious education and sex and relationship education. I agree that it is important that when sex and relationship education is reformed—as it will be—we go for the maximum consensus across the House, and that we do so in a way that ensures that as many schools as possible buy into our belief that we should have a 21st-century curriculum that reflects a modern understanding of sex and relationships.
I welcome the Second Reading of the Bill. It has gained a huge amount of support in Bournemouth. Despite what the unions say, many teachers and schools are looking forward to the extra powers they are likely to gain from the Bill.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the curriculum. As he knows, I am a huge supporter of the international baccalaureate, and if, as I hope, the Bill becomes law, could he say what scope it will allow schools to drop A-levels and take on the international baccalaureate?
My hon. Friend is a great advertisement for the way in which the international baccalaureate develops a rounded individual, with all the characteristics needed to succeed in life. It is a pity that the commitment of the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to have a school offering the international baccalaureate in every neighbourhood was one that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) decided to abandon. I assure my hon. Friend that academies can offer the international baccalaureate and, to be fair to the shadow Education Secretary, some academies that opened on his watch, including Havelock academy in Grimsby, offer the middle years programme of the international baccalaureate. One of the things we want to see is a greater degree of curriculum flexibility, so that teachers, not bureaucrats, can decide what is in the best interest of their pupils.
I am going to hand power back to teachers. There are some teachers, Vernon, like yourself, that I should be a little less reluctant to hand power back to.
The Bill trusts teachers. It marks a big step forward from what happened under the last Government. The last piece of education legislation that Labour tried to bring forward sought to prescribe in excessive detail exactly what should happen in every school, but all the evidence suggests that a greater degree of autonomy and freedom yields results for all pupils. Even before academies, a group of schools—the city technology colleges—was established by my right hon. Friend Lord Baker of Dorking. All of them were comprehensive schools in working-class, challenged or disadvantaged areas. All of them were established independent of local authority control. They are now achieving fantastic results. On average, their GCSE performance involves more than 82% of students getting five good GCSEs, including English and maths, which is at least half as good again as the average level of all schools in the country.
We know that CTCs have been successful. They have been in existence for more than 20 years and are a proven model of how autonomy can work. It was their persuasive work and the evidence of school improvement they generated that prompted Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister, to go for the academies programme. He believed that the autonomy CTCs benefited from should be extended much more widely.
Is the Secretary of State aware that Dixons CTC, one of the first in the country, has hardly any European students at all, yet the new Bradford academy, which is less than a mile away, is overrun with new arrivals from eastern Europe? How does he explain that?
My understanding is that the Bradford Dixons CTC operates a banded entry system, which is one of the truest and fairest methods of comprehensive entry, but I recognise that demographic change in Bradford and elsewhere is posing challenges for all schools. One of the things I believe is that the success of many CTCs shows that children, including those with special educational needs and those who have English as an additional language, can flourish. I hope that other schools in Bradford will contemplate—as several of them are—taking on some of the freedoms in the Bill to address the very real deprivation that exists in that city and that my hon. Friend has done so much to address, both as a councillor and as a Member of Parliament.
The Secretary of State makes a compelling case about why schools should get away from the control of local education authorities, such as the dead hand that we have in Essex. In the era of the big society, should not the number of elected parents on an academy’s governing body at least match the number of elected parents on a secondary school’s governing body?
My hon. Friend mentions the big society. I was asked earlier today on Radio 5 Live, “What is the big society?” and an image of him came to my mind. In many respects, he sums up the big society. He is not only an exemplary legislator, but a dedicated citizen activist who has always put Colchester first and last. I believe that he will be able—I know this from our informal conversations—to use the legislation to ensure that schools in his part of the world can acquire academy status, with an equal number of parent governors and other governors, thus providing him with the sort of model that, I am sure, he will press other hon. Members across the House to emulate.
Before the right hon. Gentleman completely rewrites the front pages of every newspaper in Colchester tomorrow, may I return him to CTCs? Can he tell us how many CTCs teach creationism as an integral part of the curriculum? Does he feel that the number is too many, too few or just about right?
The number is zero, which is just about right. It has often been alleged that, for example, Gateshead Emmanuel CTC teaches creationism as part of the science curriculum. Having visited that school, I know that it does not. I can tell anyone who is a critic of CTCs or academies that the cure for such cynicism is to visit them. It used to be said that the cure for anyone who admired the House of Lords too much was to visit it. Having visited the House of Lords during its deliberations on the Bill, I am full of admiration for the way in which it was debated there and for the many Liberal Democrat colleagues who helped to improve it. To anyone who wants to see how our schools can be improved, I recommend visiting academies such as Mossbourne community academy in Hackney, with 84% of children getting five good GCSEs; Burlington Danes academy in Hammersmith, where a school that was in special measures now has more than half its children getting five good GCSEs; Manchester academy, where Kathy August, on behalf of the United Learning Trust, has taken a school in which only 6% of students got five good GCSEs to a point where 35% do so now—all great successes, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will want to applaud.
I do indeed applaud all those successes. Surely the difference between the CTCs and academies that Labour introduced and the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal is that the CTCs and academies deliberately focused on areas of disadvantage, but his proposal is to give first priority to outstanding schools, which are disproportionately in areas of affluence and advantage.
First, outstanding schools can be found in any area, including areas of disadvantage. Secondly, if most of our outstanding schools are in areas of advantage, is it not a telling indictment of 13 years of Labour rule that all the best schools are in the richest areas? The hon. Gentleman lost his seat just five years ago; if only he had stayed in the Department for Education, perhaps the situation would not have been so bad. We will ensure that every school that acquires academy freedom takes an underperforming school under its wing to ensure that all schools improve as a result.
I believe that I am the only Member of Parliament who is the parent of a child at an academy, and I am a great believer in what academies have been able to do, but I want to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). Precisely because academies have invested resources in the most disadvantaged areas—the school that my child attends is the 16th most deprived in the country—they have been able to exercise a relative improvement. Surely spreading those resources and the advantages of academy status to highly privileged schools will do the reverse of what the Secretary of State intends and widen the gap in educational achievement.
I take the hon. Lady’s point, but she is making the case that only resources drive improvement. Resources are critical, but so is autonomy, and the record of the CTCs shows that it was their autonomy that drove improvement. We Government Members all know that it is the ethos and quality of a school, and in particular the capacity of a head teacher to lead, that make all the difference.
Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to correct two things that he said? The first relates to Burlington Danes, which has traditionally been a very good school. It got into special measures, and became an academy, but did not improve. It has now improved with a new, second, head. Will he accept that often it is not being an academy that makes the difference, but having a good head teacher and a good ethos in the school?
I come to the second point on which I hope the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to correct him. We have two outstanding schools with a very deprived intake in my constituency. Both have decided not to become academies. Privately, the schools’ governors have said to me that they believe that special educational needs children and non-teaching staff would be discriminated against if the schools became academies, because they have seen that happen in other academies. So will the Secretary of State not be quite so arrogant in pushing academies on every level?
On the second point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), the Bill is permissive. If head teachers do not wish to go down the academy route, that is a matter for them. I trust head teachers, unlike the previous Government who told head teachers what was right for them. We believe in professional autonomy. On the first point, I agree. I agree that the current head teacher at Burlington Danes, Ms Sally Coates, is fantastic; that is why she supports the legislation, and why she appeared with me in public to say that more schools should embrace the academy status that allowed her to do so much for the disadvantaged children whom the hon. Gentleman represents, and who are our first care.
In just one second, if I may; first I want to make a point that follows on from that made by the hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and for Westminster North (Ms Buck), which was that by extending academy freedoms we do not help the most disadvantaged. That was not the view of Tony Blair in 2005, when he introduced the education White Paper. He made it clear then that he wanted every school to have academy freedoms so that they could drive up standards for all. In that sense, we are merely fulfilling the case that was made in 2005. I am happy to call myself a born-again Blairite, but all I see as I look at the Opposition Benches are groups of Peters denying—I hesitate to say the messiah—the previous Prime Minister three times. Now that the cock has crowed, I am happy to give way to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson).
I am grateful to the Secretary of State. He called the Bill permissive. What it most markedly does not permit is any kind of consultation with parents, governors, teachers and schools other than the one pursuing academy status. That is the antithesis of localism, which I understood was the bedrock of the Conservative party’s proposals.
I have great respect for the hon. Lady, but the Bill includes specific provision for consultation. Hitherto, academies had to consult only local authorities, but there is provision for wider consultation in the legislation. More than that, because the Bill is permissive, it is for schools and heads to decide whether to make the change. I know that there are a number of schools in the hon. Lady’s constituency that are very interested in doing so.
When my right hon. Friend was deciding on the ambit of the Bill, did he take note of the recommendation of the Children, Schools and Family Committee, as it was then, in its report on the national curriculum that the freedoms enjoyed by academies should be available to all schools?
My hon. Friend was a distinguished member of that Committee, and it is precisely because the Committee made such a good case that I have been so influenced by it. The case was also made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), who argued that if academy freedoms were so good, why should all schools not have them? If there is a coalition of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil and the former Member for Sedgefield, who am I to stand in its way?
I consulted head teachers, teachers, and parents, and I also took the trouble to consult the electorate at the general election; the proposal was in our manifesto, and received a great deal of support. Following the general election, I was fortunate enough to find out that the proposal received support from not just my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) and my many other hon. Friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. If I may quote, I believe:
“The best local authorities already increasingly see their primary role as championing parents and pupils rather than being a direct provider of education. We need to see every local authority moving from provider to commissioner, so that the system acquires a local dynamism responsive to the needs of their communities and open to change and new forms of school provision. This will liberate local authorities from too often feeling the need to defend the status quo, so that instead they become the champions of innovation and diversity, and the partner of local parents in driving continuous improvement.”
That was Tony Blair in October 2005—once again, an unimprovable argument.
But that speech led directly to the Education and Inspections Act 2006, in which local authorities were given the responsibility for commissioning places. The legislation before us entirely removes the local authority’s role in such commissioning, so the idea that the right hon. Gentleman is the heir to Tony Blair is complete and utter tosh.
I would never claim to be the heir to Blair; I know that the right hon. Gentleman yearns to fill that role. I was one of the many thousands watching the Labour leadership hustings on “Newsnight”, when he said that Tony Blair was the finest Prime Minister the Labour party ever had. I dropped my cocoa in excitement at the right hon. Gentleman’s conversion to the cause of Blairism. It is somewhat at variance with what is recorded in Alastair Campbell’s diaries, Peter Mandelson’s memoirs and various other documents that have thudded on to my desk over the past few weeks, but I am very happy to see him join the conventicle.
The hon. Lady will know that academies are governed by the same admissions rules as all local authority schools. They have to abide by the admissions code and subscribe to fair access protocols, so that those hard-to-place children are placed appropriately. I grant the hon. Lady that some academies, when they have made the journey from failing school to academy status, have experienced an increase in the number of exclusions, but that normally settles down after a short period, as it does in most schools with a good new head teacher who is extending discipline and control. Then we find that once academies have become settled, the number of exclusions falls, and that is certainly the case with city technology colleges. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) wished to make a point, and I am delighted to give way.
Does the Secretary of State consider the greatest missed opportunity of the previous Conservative Government to be the failure to make all schools grant maintained? Therefore, philosophically, does he believe that such freedoms should gradually spread out so that, in the end, the head teachers of all state schools have the same freedoms as the head teachers of independent schools?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I want a greater degree of freedom for all head teachers. If we compare our proposals with the ’90s and the world of grant-maintained schools, however, one big difference is that we do not envisage schools existing in a parallel universe, but collaborating with other schools. One of the great gains of the past 15 years has been the culture of collaboration that has taken root between head teachers and throughout state schools. It is wholly worth while, I wish to build on it and I make no apology for saying that it happened over the course of the past 15 years, because any fair-minded person would wish to acknowledge it and see it develop.
When the head teacher of Woodberry Down community primary school in Hackney, an outstanding school in a federation with two other primary schools, approached the Department for Education to ask whether the school might access academy freedoms, the Department said it could do so only if it broke up the federation, because outstanding schools would be able to federate only with other outstanding schools rather than underperforming schools. On what basis will such collaboration help less good schools to become better? Is that not just excellence supporting excellence, or has the right hon. Gentleman had to change that policy?
No, it is my belief that all outstanding schools should be there to support other schools. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing that issue to my attention. Actually, we have made it clear that groups of schools in which one school is outstanding and the others are not can apply. Woodberry Down may well be a school that we would like to see enjoy academy status and hope will work with other schools, but it may not be among the very first schools to enjoy academy status. If he would like Woodberry Down’s application accelerated so that it can become an academy in September, I hope he will join me in the Lobby this evening.
I have found in the past few weeks that the right hon. Gentleman is never, ever able to answer a straight question in the House. I will try again. An outstanding school was told that it could federate only with other outstanding schools if it wanted academy status. Is that his policy, yes or no?
It is certainly not our policy, and I am sorry that the headmaster of Woodberry Down has been told that. I shall write to him later or call him, or perhaps he, I and the right hon. Gentleman can have a cup of tea together, to ensure that that excellent school can become an academy by September if it wishes.
May I set the right hon. Gentleman straight on one point? Yes, the former Children, Schools and Families Committee did recommend that all schools should have the same curriculum freedoms as academies, but it was never necessary to expand academy status to outstanding schools in order to do that. It was always under the control of central Government and the Department, not local authorities.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, but as a believer in freedom I believe not just that schools should have the chance to have greater freedom over the curriculum but that they should have other freedoms as well. I remember the former Member for South Dorset, who is now Lord Knight of Weymouth, making the point in debate here that academies also have freedoms on pay and conditions, and they need those freedoms to generate the improvement that has been such an attractive characteristic of the academies movement. I agree that the Department can disapply the national curriculum when specific schools apply, but I should like to see a wider range of freedoms.
May I say how much I welcome many of the freedoms that the Secretary of State proposes, not least freedom for teachers and freeing up the curriculum?
On consultation with local education authorities, the Secretary of State will be aware that in my constituency Oldfield girls school wants to become an academy but the local authority’s reorganisation plan to reduce surplus places envisages it as a co-educational school. Can he assure me that he will not approve academy status if the school remains a single-sex school?
I take my hon. Friend’s point, which follows that made by the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls). Some 1,800 schools have applied for academy status, and if we were to run through the pros and cons of each my speech would be of interminable length. However, we have discussed that specific school before and I know that my right hon. Friend—sorry, I mean my hon. Friend; that will come later—is seeking in a fair-minded way to see whether that school can become co-educational and enjoy greater autonomy. I am sure we can find a way through.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is slightly ironic to hear Opposition Members make accusations of inadequate consultation on the Bill, given that the previous Secretary of State simply dispatched to my constituency his henchman Mr Badman, who decided to close one of the comprehensive schools there? The consultation was simply on whether to close it or merge it with another one, and it was stated that the new academy must open in September. Does he agree that this Government are trying to deal with the problems that have resulted from a very crude consultation and a very tight deadline?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and the fact that the electors of Gloucester, even though they had a superb Labour MP last time round, chose to elect him, an even better Conservative one, shows what they thought of how the last Government dealt with education.
I must try to make progress, because many Members wish to speak in the debate, so for the moment I shall not take any more interventions.
I stress that although we are following the path set down by successful schools in this country, we are also following the one set down by successful jurisdictions elsewhere in the world. In America, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is due to visit in just a few days’ time, President Obama is pressing ahead with school reforms exactly analogous to those with which we are pressing ahead here. He is making reforms to ensure that there are better teachers in every classroom and that more schools enjoy greater autonomy. The charter schools in the USA, such as the Knowledge is Power programme schools, with which I know the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) is familiar, have done a fantastic job, free from local bureaucratic control, of transforming the life chances of young people. Children who would not have expected to graduate from high school are now going on to elite colleges because of the quality of the education that they enjoy. Charter schools in Boston have succeeded in cutting by half the achievement gap between black and white children.
In Chicago, as Caroline Hoxby and Jonah Rockoff have pointed out, charter schools have achieved even more dramatic gains for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The striking thing about Hoxby and Rockoff’s research is that in Chicago the children are drawn overwhelmingly from poorer homes. Whether one goes to Sweden, Finland, Singapore or Alberta—Alberta is the highest-performing English-speaking jurisdiction in education—education reform is guided by greater devolution to the front line, greater control for professionals and a relentless focus on higher standards.
Not at this stage.
The Opposition have tabled a reasoned amendment. My problem with it is that it is not reasoned and nor does it amend matters in our schools for the better. It is simply a list of unjustified assertions. It states that the Bill provides the legal framework for new parent-promoted schools. That is not true; that was created in 2002. It states that our proposals for academy status are funded by cuts in the Building Schools for the Future programme. That is not true; they are funded using money that was in the harnessing technology grant, and we are making the Building Schools for the Future programme more efficient.
The Opposition argue that our proposals are based on reforms in other countries with falling standards and rising inequality. That is not true; they are based on reforms in countries such as President Barack Obama’s America and in Singapore, Canada and Finland, where standards are rising and equity is greater. The Opposition claim that there are no measures to drive up standards, improve discipline or deliver greater equality. At the beginning of my speech, I pointed out what we are doing about teaching and discipline, and, thanks to the impassioned advocacy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil and the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central, we will shortly introduce proposals for a pupil premium.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My right hon. Friend has listed a whole series of aspects of the amendment that show it contains many untruths. Would it be in order for the Opposition to be given the opportunity to walk away, rewrite it and come back with an amendment that might be worthy of the House?
It is, of course, a point of debate, and I look forward to hearing the shadow Secretary of State shortly.
The reasoned amendment argues that we are not building on the success of the academies programme, but the Bill fulfils it. It makes it easier for failing schools to be placed in the hands of great sponsors to turn them round, for good schools to take faltering schools under their wing and for all children from disadvantaged backgrounds to benefit from academy status.
I refer those who argue that we are failing children with special educational needs to the remarks of Lord Adonis in the upper House when the Bill was making progress there. He said:
“On the contrary, in crucial areas of special educational needs, particularly EBD”—
emotional and behavioural difficulties—
“the dynamic innovation…that academies can bring could lead to significant improvements…in ways that enhance the overall quality of the state education system.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 June 2010; Vol. 719, c. 1399.]
The expansion of the academies programme will drive that improvement in state education. I know that some Opposition Members say, “Pause, gie canny, slow down, hesitate”, but that is the argument of the conservative throughout the ages when confronted with the radicalism that says we need to do better for our children. We cannot afford to wait. We cannot afford Labour’s failed approach any more, with teachers directed from the centre, regulations stifling innovation and our country falling behind other nations. We need reform and we need it now. We need the Bill.
I beg to move,
That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Academies Bill [Lords] because it creates the legal framework for the expensive free market schools reforms which will be funded by scrapping existing school building programmes; its approach is based on reforms in other countries which have seen falling standards and rising inequality; it contains no measures to drive up standards, improve discipline or deliver greater equality in schools; it fails to build on the success of the previous Government’s Academies programme and instead focuses additional support and resources on those schools that are already succeeding at the expense of the majority of schools; it deprives schools with the biggest behaviour and special educational needs challenges of local authority support for special needs provision, the funding for which will go to those with the fewest such challenges; it permits selective schools to convert to Academy status, which risks the unplanned expansion of selective education; it removes any proper requirement to consult local authorities or the community before the creation of an Academy and centralises power in the hands of the Secretary of State over the future of thousands of schools without adequate provision for local accountability.
The Secretary of State and I have seen a great deal of each other across the Dispatch Box in recent weeks. I said to him two weeks ago that the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme was a black day for our country’s schools. Since then, he has had a torrid fortnight. He has gone from under fire to embattled to beleaguered in only 15 days.
The Secretary of State may think that the recess is in sight, but the backlash that his statement kicked off two weeks ago has only just begun, and the rushed and flawed provisions in the Bill will make things much worse for our schools and our children in the coming months. Having had to apologise twice for his announcement two weeks ago and his rushed and botched decision, even his senior Back Benchers are asking why he is so contemptuously trying to railroad his academies and free schools policy through the House in only four days. The reason is that the right hon. Gentleman, who can never answer a question, is also afraid of scrutiny.
Let me tell the House what is really going on. Today and over the next week, the Opposition will show that the Bill will create unfair and two-tier education in this country. There will be gross unfairness in funding, standards will not rise but fall, and fairness and social cohesion will be undermined. The Bill will mean that funding is diverted to the strongest schools to convert to academy status, and to fund hundreds of new free-market schools, and that the role for the local authority in planning places, allocating capital or guaranteeing fairness or social cohesion is entirely removed. The weakest schools, children from the poorest communities, and children with a special need and those with a disability, will be left to pick up the pieces with old buildings, fewer teachers and larger class sizes. The fact is that the Bill will rip apart the community-based comprehensive education system that we have built in the past 60 years, which has delivered record rising standards in the last decade.
To rush the Bill through in this way is a complete abuse of Parliament. The Secretary of State should be ashamed of himself. We will challenge this coalition—Conservatives and Liberal Democrats—to support our amendment and put a halt to this deeply ideological, free-market experiment before it is all too late.
The right hon. Gentleman is seeking to be a leader, but he seeks leadership in the luddite tendency. He has always opposed reform: he opposed it from the Back Benches when he first came into Parliament, and he continues to oppose reform that will raise standards.
To return to the subject of Building Schools for the Future, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was absolutely right to intervene. He took a brave decision to intervene on a programme that is wasteful and that does not lead to results in our schools. We will now have a system that prioritises need, not political fixes, and that ensures that the money goes on school buildings—
The former Chair of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families and I did not always see eye to eye, but he always had respect on both sides of the House for his independence. The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) got some respect yesterday for saying that the Bill was being railroaded through Parliament, but he loses it for that ridiculous, partisan and stooge-like performance. Maybe he should call some witnesses and hear some evidence before he decides to write his Select Committee’s report—unless it is being written for him by Conservative Front Benchers. His credibility is very substantially undermined.
I have been asked to give evidence to the hon. Gentleman’s Committee in a week’s time, as has the Secretary of State. My point is that the hon. Gentleman should probably hear the evidence before he jumps to conclusions. That is the proper way to act as a Select Committee Chair, rather than jumping up and making not an intervention but a speech of the most partisan and specious nature.
Let me begin with capital spending. The Liberal Democrats deputy leader, the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), put it very well to the BBC when he said:
“It would be a nonsense to take money that could be used for improving existing schools to create new schools where, on the ground, the will of the local community is for the existing schools to continue”.
That is precisely what the Bill will do. The fact is that the dismay across the country at the decision to cancel more than 700 promised new schools, disappoint more than 2 million children and parents, and put at risk thousands of construction jobs, has turned to anger at the growing realisation that those schools are being cancelled to pay for the free-market schools policy that is set out in the Bill.
The right hon. Gentleman said that this measure is a brake on progress. In my constituency, children going into one of the schools—it has an inspirational head teacher—at age 11 have a reading age of 8. After 13 years of Labour Government, what is progressive about that?
We have 720 schools where children from primary school were looking forward to going into brand-new schools. Their hopes have now been dashed by the Conservatives to pay for their free-market schools policy—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”] Unlike the Secretary of State, I have the courage to answer the question, and the fact is that in 1997 70% of children reached the required level in English and maths at age 11, and that rose to 80% under the last Government. We improved standards because we invested in schools and teachers. It is the cuts by the Government that will set back the improvement in standards.
Government Members know that the reason the new schools have been cancelled is not to reduce the deficit. It is not because of the nonsensical claims about bureaucracy. Those claims are as flimsy as the Prime Minister’s promise to protect the front line. The cuts in the school building programme are to pay for the new free schools policy. We know that, because in opposition the Conservatives said:
“we propose that capital funding for new academies should come through a new fund, established by reallocating the money available within the building schools for the future programme.”
To be fair to them, they promised it in opposition and they are delivering it in government, so that 700 schools around the country are now feeling the reality of a Conservative-Liberal Administration, and do not like it very much.