House of Commons
Monday 11 October 2010
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
School Bullying (Children with Allergies)
The Secretary of State and the ministerial team have not received any recent representation on the bullying of children with allergies.
I thank the Minister for that answer. I chaired a meeting of the all-party group on allergies at which a number of children spoke about their experiences of potentially life-threatening bullying in schools. For example, they had foods to which they are severely allergic forced upon them. Some schools’ response to that was commendable, but in others it was not taken seriously. Would the Minister be happy to meet me and a group of these children to discuss their experiences of that problem and potential solutions?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I pay tribute to the good work that she has done with the all-party group. She secured a debate on the subject and has raised the matter on numerous other occasions. I would be delighted to meet a group of representatives. I met a large body of young people who have long-term conditions who came to lobby us about their circumstances at school. The problem affects 18 million people throughout the country and it shows no sign of abating among younger people, so I am more than happy to take forward her offer.
Ofsted (Inspection Assessments)
The Department has regular discussions with Ofsted about its approach to school inspection, including its assessments of pupils’ educational attainment and achievement. That engagement will continue as Ofsted develops a new streamlined and refocused inspection framework built around the core areas of pupil achievement, teaching, leadership and behaviour and safety.
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Ofsted takes into account not just raw attainment at schools but the progress of pupils. Between September 2009 and March 2010, of schools in challenging areas, 10% were awarded the outstanding grading, compared with 11% of all schools.
Two head teachers in Chesterfield told me how liberating it was for them when contextual value added measures were put in place and there was finally acknowledgement of the tough circumstances under which they performed their roles. Does the Minister agree that the CVA measures, as a key part of the inspection that assists parents, help parents to assess the strengths of teaching at a school, not just the strengths of an intake?
May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment? I look forward to working closely with him to achieve our shared objective, which is to close the attainment gap between those from wealthier and those from poorer backgrounds. I assure him that, in Ofsted inspections, the progress of pupils is as important as the absolute level of attainment. Value added figures, whether the current CVA figure or a review figure that measures progress, are important in all Ofsted inspections.
Special Educational Needs
To deliver the Government’s commitments on special educational needs, I am publishing a Green Paper later this year to look at the wide range of issues concerning children with special educational needs and disabilities. To inform this important work, I have issued a call for views and have met parents, teachers, local authorities, charities and other groups. I am also considering the findings of recent reviews, including the recent report from Ofsted.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer and I congratulate the new Opposition Front Benchers on their appointment.
In some schools, support staff provided for statemented children are being redirected to other children by head teachers who use such staff almost as a floating resource. Can the Minister assure me that she will look into that matter as a great priority?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I understand from my discussion with him prior to questions that a specific issue is concerning him and has led him to ask that question. I wonder whether he will be good enough to write to me because it would concern me greatly if schools were redirecting to other children resources that were supposed to be allocated to children who have a statement in special educational needs. It would be useful to have his feedback in advance of the Green Paper.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment to children with special educational needs. My constituency has schools with well in excess of 50% of pupils on the special educational needs register. How will the Minister encourage Ofsted to look at the bigger picture when it comes to its assessments, because the problems are often complex?
My hon. Friend is correct to say that the problems are complex. It is absolutely right that school inspections take account of how well pupils with special educational needs and disabilities are provided for, as well as how well they learn and progress. That will be an important consideration for Ofsted as it develops new inspection arrangements focused specifically on the core areas of achievement, teaching, leadership, behaviour and safety.
Does the Minister agree that there has been a serious improvement in SEN children’s facilities and support up to the age of 16? However, does she further agree that the real challenge, as anyone who has looked at the matter in detail will know, is provision from ages 16 to 18, and that things get even more challenging for parents when their children are 18?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have discussed this matter before. I want the Green Paper to look specifically at that. He will be aware that there are a wide range of reports on what happens in schools and special schools, and on support for children in mainstream schools and in special units that are attached to them. However, there is very little research on transition. If one issue has come out clearly from my meetings with parents and voluntary sector organisations, it is the need to think about the whole of a child’s life—all the way through.
In my constituency, many parents, particularly those from less advantaged backgrounds, fight hard to get their children’s special educational needs recognised. Will my hon. Friend guarantee that she will look carefully at that?
My hon. Friend is correct to say that many families feel that they have had to battle to get their child’s needs recognised, let alone catered for. That is very much why we will produce the Green Paper later this year. We are looking at how we can make the system less adversarial and how we can focus more, for example, on outcomes, and how to make the process more transparent. I hope that any parents of SEN children in her constituency who have strong views will respond to our call for views. They can go to the Department’s website and submit them now to help to ensure that we frame the questions in our Green Paper correctly.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am delighted to address you from the Dispatch Box for the first time.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment to SEN provision. However, there is significant feeling among the SEN community that the whirlwind pace of change within the Department for Education has left little time to consider the effect that the changes will have on SEN provision, and particularly the effect that academies and free schools will have on funding from local authorities. Will she reassure the House that those ideological experiments will not take money away from council budgets for providing support to the one in five children with SEN?
May I begin by congratulating the hon. Lady on her promotion? It will be a great pleasure to debate these issues with her. I am aware that she has a long-standing interest in special educational needs—she was responsible for the passage of the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008. I am sure she will be a knowledgeable opponent over the next few months, which I look forward to.
On the hon. Lady’s specific question—[Interruption.] I am being heckled when I am trying to pay a compliment. Labour Members cannot even let me be nice to Opposition spokesperson. Goodness gracious! They should wait till next week—[Interruption.] There’s always a last time. I should like to answer the hon. Lady’s question. On academies and free schools, she would be aware, if she had been in the Chamber for the debate on the Academies Act 2010 before the summer, that an advisory group is looking specifically at funding issues.
Special Educational Needs (Leeds North West)
There have been no representations received from Leeds local authority in relation to provision for children with special educational needs in the authority’s area. School organisation and special educational provision are matters for local consultation and determination, and where there are disagreements, they may be referred to the independent schools adjudicator for consideration.
I thank the Minister for her answer. That there have been no representations contrasts with the fact that many representations have been made to Education Leeds and similar authorities. Lucy Holmes, my constituent, has finally, after a lengthy battle—10 years—had a review of her SEN statement, in which time, of course, her needs have changed substantially. What will the new Government do to ensure that children’s needs are met by reviewing statements far more frequently?
The statement of needs is supposed to be reviewed annually, so it is a matter of concern if that is not happening and it has taken 10 years for such a review to take place. However, I should also say that too often a statement of needs is a static document that ends up in a drawer, rather than a dynamic document used as a basis for discussion and focusing on outcomes. Again, I hope that the Green Paper will begin to examine this issue.
Building Schools for the Future
6. What assessment he has made of the effects on children from the most deprived backgrounds of the changes to the Building Schools for the Future programme. (16452)
The decision to end the Building Schools for the Future programme was designed to ensure that resources were targeted more effectively on the front line. It is deeply regrettable that the fiscal position that we inherited required projects to be stopped, but the capital review that we have put in place is designed to ensure that money goes to those who need it and schools are rebuilt in the areas of greatest need.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the Grove school in Newark, where many deprived children are educated. I am grateful to him for arranging a visit by Lord Hill, but things really are desperate there. The next flood in Newark, which will come at any time now with the next heavy rainfall, will mean that they will be unable to teach at the school. Would the Secretary of State therefore be kind enough to arrange a date for the noble Lord’s visit?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the passionate way in which he makes his case. I am well aware that in Nottinghamshire, and in many other areas, schools that desperately need refurbishment and rebuilding have been denied resources. One of the reasons why we had to change the BSF programme was that it was behind on its timetable, it was inefficient in the allocation of resources and vulnerable children, such as those for whom he speaks so passionately, were losing out. I can guarantee that Lord Hill will be in touch later today to fix a precise date to see my hon. Friend.
Has the Secretary of State received a report of our meeting with Jonathan Hill regarding Tibshelf community school in my constituency? The school is 100 years old, it is being held up by pit props and the teachers are having to travel six miles back and forth from Tibshelf to Deincourt community school, which is being closed by the county council. We desperately need to get this job done. The Minister said that this is a compelling case. Does the Secretary of State feel compelled to replace the school and rebuild it?
The hon. Gentleman always makes a compelling case for his constituents, and I am well aware that in the part of Derbyshire that he represents resources have not been devoted to the front line as efficiently as they should have been. One of the aims of the capital review that we have put in place and of the comprehensive spending review, which will report to the House next Wednesday, is to ensure that the schools in greatest need—both secondary and primary—receive resources as quickly and efficiently as possible.
It is a pleasure finally to face the right hon. Gentleman across the Dispatch Box; he and I have not done this before. I hope that he will not mind my saying at the beginning that my observation of him so far in his job is that he has failed to understand the difference between being a Minister and being a journalist, displaying a fairly loose grip on the facts. He promised hundreds of free schools, but has signed off just 16; he promised thousands of academies but has so far signed up only 50; and his mistakes on the BSF programme threw schools into chaos and prompted four legal challenges from local authorities. Can he give the House a straightforward answer today? Can he confirm that he proceeded with his decision to scrap school building projects despite being explicitly warned by his civil servants that local authorities would have a “fairly strong legal case” against his Department?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. First, may I congratulate him on his elevation to shadow Education Secretary? I admire the way in which he fought his leadership campaign. He was an advocate for both modernisation and aspirational socialism, which is why, of course, he came fourth out of five, neither of those values being entirely flavour of the month in the Labour party at the moment. May I also thank him for his reference to my past as a journalist? It was a pleasure to spend some time in a job outside politics before I came into this House—I recommend it to him. May I also say that, as the permanent secretary made clear to the Select Committee when I was answering its questions back in July, the advice that it was alleged I was offered was not passed on to me?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his characteristic graciousness. Today he is wearing something of the air of the self-satisfied teacher’s pet who has escaped the attentions of the biggest boy in the playground, but I say to him that my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) and I are the strike force for the parliamentary football team—he softens up opponents and gives me the bullets to finish them off. I give that warning to the right hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Gentleman’s answer is typical of the cavalier way in which he is running his Department. He has got himself into a mess because of his determination to inflict a political experiment on our schools, skewing the budget towards pet projects instead of helping all schools through tough times. We have already heard that he has wasted £260 million through his botched decision making—is that what Philip Green would call a shocking waste? Will the right hon. Gentleman now tell this House how much his Department has set aside to cover the legal costs and possible compensation to local authorities caused by the mistakes that he has made?
That was a fantastic question—or series of questions. I am impressed that the strike force in the Labour party parliamentary football team comes, according to the right hon. Gentleman, equipped with bullets. It says something about the approach of the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) towards playing fair that he regards a Tommy gun as an appropriate thing to bring on to the football field.
There was a certain element of the spraying of fire in the question asked by the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). May I say that we will vigorously contest the judicial review of our decision? It is really important that people appreciate that the Building Schools for the Future programme had failed. Unfortunately, in 2008, instead of 200 schools being built, fewer than 50 had been built. Under the Building Schools for the Future programme, £11 million was wasted on consultants. One consultant secured the equivalent of £1.35 million, while schools in my constituency, the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency and almost every hon. Member’s constituency needed that resource. We will make no apology for ensuring that in the education budget money goes not to lawyers and consultants but to the front line and that 13 years of Labour failure is at last reversed by a coalition Government committed to aspiration.
The coalition agreement committed us to improving the quality of vocational education. Alongside Professor Alison Wolf’s review of such matters, we aim to open at least 12 university technical colleges offering high-quality vocational learning to 14 to 19-year-olds—schools that put vocational training at the core of their curriculum offer.
I think that my hon. Friend understated my popularity somewhat, but nevertheless he will know that we are entirely committed to ensuring that people get the right kind of advice about vocational options. Too often, people have lacked that advice and it is important that those with the aptitudes, tastes, talents and choices to take them down that road get proper advice and advice on progression, too.
Does the Minister accept that young people from poorer communities are often put into vocational GCSEs as an easy option, as a result of which academic subjects such as history are becoming the preserve of the elite? What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that “academic equivalence” GCSEs are not becoming the default option for poorer communities?
As a qualified history teacher, I share the hon. Gentleman’s passion for the teaching of history, but I think he underestimates and undervalues—as do so many from the bourgeois class that he personifies—the significance of technical skills, craft skills and practical skills. They matter too, and the Government know it.
Am I up? [Hon. Members: “More, more!”] I am intoxicated by the exuberance of the situation, one might say.
The Government are absolutely clear about their determination to deliver practical learning in the way that I have described, and—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The exuberance and enthusiasm of my ministerial colleague is something to behold.
More than 300 academy schools had been opened as of 1 September 2010, and since the Academies Act 2010 received Royal Assent two months ago we have received 189 applications to convert to academy status, or 5.9% of the outstanding mainstream schools that are currently eligible. Some 32 new academies opened on 1 September, and 23 more have opened since then, the equivalent of one nearly every working day.
I had the good fortune to visit the Wellington academy in the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), last Friday. It is an outstanding example of what an academy can do. It has gone from being the worst-performing school in Wiltshire to being one of the best on a like-for-like basis. GCSE passes have doubled and it is now offering A-levels for the first time, and its level of exclusions has gone from being the highest in Wiltshire to being the lowest. Does the Secretary of State agree that academy status can not only be of benefit to higher-performing schools but be of huge benefit to low-performing schools that wish to improve?
My hon. Friend makes a compelling case. Academy status can benefit all schools, which is one reason why the former right hon. Member for Sedgefield argued that academy freedoms should be extended to all schools. What a pity that the Opposition have retreated from that high water mark of reform.
For the avoidance of any confusion among those on the Treasury Bench, this is a supplementary question to Question 8.
In opposition, the Secretary of State said that in his first 100 days he would identify the 100 weakest schools and rapidly give them new leadership, and give hundreds of high-performing schools academy freedoms so that they could help weaker-performing schools. Can he confirm that he has so far failed to enforce any obligation whatever on the 50 or so new academies to help weaker schools, and that he has done nothing about his pledge to help the weakest 100 schools? Is he not just picking a few of the favoured and allowing the rest to drift?
The hon. Gentleman will have to do better than that. All the schools that have been granted academy status either are helping or will help underperforming schools to improve. We have actively identified some of the weakest schools in the country and will shortly announce the partners, whether existing academy sponsors or high-performing schools, that will ensure that those schools raise their performance. It is a tragedy that under the Government of whom he was a part, the gap between rich and poor widened and we came near the bottom of the 57 most advanced countries in the world in educational achievement. It is a particular tragedy that the gap between private and state schools grew under his Government, testament to which is the fact that in the shadow Cabinet under which he serves, more members were educated in private or selective schools than in comprehensives.
Primary School Curriculum
We have made clear our intention to review the national curriculum at both primary and secondary levels, to restore it to its original purpose—a core national entitlement organised around subject disciplines. We want to arrive at a simple core, informed by the best international practice, that will provide a minimum entitlement for pupils. We will announce more details about our plans later in the year.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Head teachers in my constituency are concerned that Government have still not come forward with their proposals for replacing the primary school curriculum, and that the delay is preventing them from properly planning for the future. Will he reassure the House that the Government’s plans will be published in time for primary school heads to get the staff, timetables and resources that they need to start the next financial year?
Yes, primary schools should continue with the current primary curriculum. The details and timings will be announced later in the year, but I assure the hon. Lady that there will be plenty of lead time available to schools to implement the new curriculum. We do not want what the previous Government had, which was “initiativitis”. Schools received new initiatives every two weeks, and lever arch files full of prescriptive instructions about how to teach were disseminated to all our schools.
Will the Minister comment on the fact that many primary schools appear to be teaching multiple methods for basic mathematical problems, which has been set out through the national strategies, rather than achieving fluency in key methods, which enables those pupils to go on and achieve and where countries such as Flanders and Finland have proved so successful?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her passion about the way maths is taught in our schools. Of course, how children are taught is a pedagogical matter, which should be left to the professionalism of teachers, but what is taught and when will be matters for the national curriculum review.
We believe that it is important that there are safe, free local places to play. However, the Department inherited unaffordable spending commitments for this year, and play has therefore had to make a contribution to the savings needed.
Local authorities will be told of their revised allocations within the next month, soon after the comprehensive spending review, and it will be for them to decide which play areas proceed, according to their own local priorities. Local authorities are not required to inform my Department of their decisions.
Aintree village is one of the areas in my constituency that was due to benefit from a new play area. One reason that residents and the parish council wanted the play area was to tackle childhood obesity. Does the Minister agree with me, and with residents in Aintree and across Sefton, that decent-quality play areas are a good way to tackle childhood obesity? What measures will he take to support local authorities and others who wish to see the kind of support needed to tackle childhood obesity?
I think we all agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of play in so many different areas. It can help to affect social divisions, obesity and other health measures. Of course, we fully share his aspirations and, I am sure, those of the people behind the project in Aintree village. I pay tribute to the people in his constituency and in other communities who have striven hard for those play areas, but I repeat that the play funding was based on the dodgy accounting of the previous Government’s end-year flexibility system. On that basis, I am afraid that it has had to be reviewed, but I hope that there will be money forthcoming in due course so that other projects can proceed. He will hear about that in the next few weeks.
The Minister may be aware that I have made several representations on this subject regarding a number of play parks in my constituency, including in Winterton, Keadby, Crowle and Burringham. What is now coming back from some of those is the fact that there have been several delays in the process, through the fault of the local councils over the years. May we have an assurance that the Department will look favourably on the cases of park bids that have been delayed because of problems within the local authorities?
Again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his concern for that important matter, but it is not for the Department for Education to specify which particular play projects are to go ahead. That area is not ring-fenced; it is up to the local authorities. Once we make the further announcement following the comprehensive spending review, I very much hope that those projects that are to go ahead do so with all speed.
Children from Deprived Areas (Educational Achievement)
Raising the attainment of children from the most deprived areas is a priority for the coalition Government. From September 2011, we are introducing a pupil premium, which will guarantee additional funding for schools with deprived children, and ensure that the poorest children, wherever they live, are able to receive the right support. Schools will decide how to spend the premium so as to achieve the best results for their disadvantaged pupils.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for that reply. Will she confirm that that premium will cover those living in pockets of rural poverty in Thirsk and Malton, which are particularly sparsely populated and rural in nature, to increase their chances of social mobility?
One of the points about the pupil premium is the fact that, because it targets the individual child, it has a much better chance of picking up those areas where there are pockets of deprivation, which have been missed by other ways of distributing deprivation funding. It does not matter whether children live in a wealthy area or not; unfortunately, the stats about their parents’ income are still the greatest predictor of how well they will do at school. I think that that is an absolute scandal. Unfortunately, it is the legacy of the previous Labour Government.
The educational achievement of young people in deprived areas has risen highest for those in receipt of the education maintenance allowance. EMA is undoubtedly helping to break the decades-old link between deprivation, attainment and staying-on rates. That being the case, and given the comments made by the Minister, will she commit to retaining EMA in its current form?
Can the Minister tell the House what steps she is taking to ensure that children from the most deprived areas have access to the highest quality teaching, and to make sure that teaching in those areas is subject to the most effective performance management?
My hon. Friend will be aware that we have expanded Teach First, something that both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives feel strongly about. It was a Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment. I hope that will have a considerable impact on raising the attainment of children in deprived areas. Of course, pupil premiums will make sure that there are extra resources for schools to spend as they choose: they may be spent on one-to-one tuition, or on other things that schools feel are best for narrowing that attainment gap.
There are hundreds of teaching assistants working in primary schools in the most deprived areas of not just my constituency but the whole country. Many of them are fearful of the effect of the budgetary decisions that the Minister is about to make. Will she give an assurance that teaching assistant posts, which have had a massive impact on educational attainment, will be protected, and perhaps enhanced?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware—I have already said this to one of his hon. Friends—that future spending is subject to the spending review, which will take place next week. I cannot tell him what future spending will be until after the spending review next week. What I will say is that there is a clear coalition commitment to targeting extra resources on disadvantaged children through the pupil premium, which schools can spend as they wish to narrow the attainment gap between the richest and the poorest students in their school. They may well choose to do that by having more teaching assistants, but they may choose to spend the money on other things.
Departmental Guidance (Head Teachers)
You can’t keep a good man down.
The Government are committed to reducing the amount of guidance and advice issued to schools. Our intention is to streamline and reduce schools guidance so that it is provided only where there is evidence of demand from professionals. We want to free up head teachers so that they have more time to focus on the important task of raising standards in our schools.
Head teachers in the Kettering constituency are absolutely fed up with the scale of guidance and advice that they receive from central Government. My hon. Friend has a deserved reputation as the enemy of red tape, so can he illustrate the scale and volume of the guidance and advice issued by the Department under the previous regime?
I can indeed. I have here the advice and guidance just on behaviour and attendance. It is roughly equivalent in length to the complete works of Shakespeare, which I also happen to have to hand. This Government are determined to reduce red tape and bureaucracy. We want teachers to be able to get on and teach, so that they do their best by our children.
Attainment League Tables
We plan to reform the school performance tables to make them more rigorous and to ensure that they focus on academic standards. We have proposed introducing a new measure, the English baccalaureate, that will recognise achievement in not just English and mathematics but the sciences, a modern or ancient foreign language, and humanities such as history or geography.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. The number of students studying history and geography at GCSE level in some schools in Stourbridge has fallen as low as 25%. That is partly due to schools encouraging the study of softer subjects to improve their league table positions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an indictment of the current system, and has he any steps in mind to remedy the situation?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She joins a growing cross-party consensus, led by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), that we need to ensure that children up to the age of 16 follow a stretching academic curriculum, as they do in many other European countries. As a passionate pro-European, I would like to see us emulate those countries in that regard, and in many others.
Free School Meals
The number of pupils of compulsory school age in maintained schools eligible for free school meals was 1,179,880 in January 2010. The Department has not produced an estimate of the number of pupils eligible for free school meals in September 2010; the figures are produced annually as part of the annual school census, completed by local authorities in January each year. Leaving time for compilation, the next set of figures will be available in May 2011.
I thank the Minister for his answer. He will note my interest as a former principal. Does he think it is fair that 16 to 18-year-olds attending colleges are ineligible for free school meals, when 16% in FE colleges and 10% in sixth-form colleges are from disadvantaged backgrounds, compared with only 7% in maintained schools?
Help for Families
The Government are committed to a new approach to supporting families with multiple problems. My officials are working with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and voluntary organisations to encourage local innovation to tackle barriers. Since April, family interventions have supported 4,725 families with multiple problems, already exceeding the 3,518 supported in the whole of last year. Ninety-three per cent. of families completed or are still receiving support, and no fewer than 79% left with successful outcomes.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I well remember my visit to Whitehawk primary school, which has done a fantastic job in joining up support services for many of the families living in the deprived area around that part of Brighton. Independent evaluations show the considerable savings of such intervention programmes, which can cost on average from £8,000 to £20,000 per family, but which save around £50,000 per family and much more for those with particularly challenging problems.
White Working-Class Boys (Educational Under-Achievement)
White boys in receipt of free school meals are among the lowest attaining groups of students. In 2009, just 19.4% of white boys eligible for free school meals achieved five or more good GCSEs including English and maths, compared to 50.7% of all pupils.
I am grateful to the Minister, who obviously recognises the problem, which was first raised by the National Union of Teachers in a report about two years ago. Can he assure us that, unlike the previous Government, he will not, for reasons of political correctness, try to brush it under the carpet, and that he will do something about it?
It is a concern when any particular group is significantly underperforming compared with the national average. One big priority for the Government is to close the attainment gap between those from the wealthiest and the poorest backgrounds. We are focusing on that in a range of education policies from academies to free schools, and also in our focus on improving behaviour in schools and reviewing the curriculum.
Pathfinder Projects (Blackpool)
All local authorities, including Blackpool, have provided financial information on their 2010-11 play programmes and this is being considered by our Department. However, as I said earlier, the Department is not making judgments on the relative merits of individual sites, and does not hold this information. Local authorities will be notified within the next month of their revised play capital allocations. It will then be for local authorities to decide which play areas go ahead, based on local needs.
Eleven play pathfinder projects in Blackpool are waiting with bated breath for those allocations. That includes the Fishers Field project in my constituency, which is a highly imaginative but complex project involving new playing fields and a natural park. I hear what the Minister says, but his colleague the Secretary of State, in reply to me earlier in the summer, said he was clear about the needs of Blackpool in terms of deprivation, mobility and general problems in that area. Will the Minister pass on the message that the people of Blackpool would like to see such projects go ahead?
As I said before and as the hon. Gentleman would have heard, we are very much in favour of promoting play as much as possible because of the many social health benefits that it brings. When the allocations are determined after the spending review coming up, I hope the local authority in Blackpool will decide its priorities according to local needs—we have given local authorities that power—and proceed to promote the play schemes that it considers most appropriate for the local area.
Special Educational Needs (Daventry)
There have been no representations received from Northamptonshire local authority in relation to provision for children with special educational needs in the authority’s area. However, school organisation and special educational provision are matters for local consultation and determination, and where there are disagreements they may be referred to the independent schools adjudicator for consideration.
Will the Minister kindly accept a representation from parents in my constituency, who have visited my surgeries with various problems regarding special educational needs provision in Northamptonshire—especially the parents of a young lad called Joe, whom I met on Friday, who suffers from Down’s syndrome and is unable to get the regular speech therapy that he needs?
May I very strongly encourage the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to respond to the call to send in views for the Green Paper? The call closes on 15 October, so there are just a few more days to respond, and I should be very grateful if he made sure that that his constituents’ experiences were represented. If he wishes to meet me further, I shall be very happy to do so.
New Schools Network
The Department is working with the New Schools Network to finalise the specifics of the grant agreement in line with the activities and key performance indicators. Those have already been outlined in broad terms in the letter of 18 June from my Department to the New Schools Network.
Does the Secretary of State understand the concern surrounding the level of transparency in the role of the New Schools Network? In particular, how can he be satisfied that there will be no conflict of interest between its role in providing advice to groups seeking to set up new schools and its other, undisclosed financial donors?
I am reassured by the fact that the New Schools Network has as its chairman the former editor of the Financial Times, who employed the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) before he became such a distinguished Member of Parliament. I am also reassured by the fact that among its advisers are Professor Julian Le Grand, who was an adviser to the former Prime Minister, and Sally Morgan, who was political secretary to the former Prime Minister. Those three distinguished figures, along with many others who support the New Schools Network, seem to be the sort of talented figures whom we should be encouraging to play a bigger role in state education, rather than, as was the case in the Brown years, saying to them that they are not wanted when it comes to improving education for the very poorest.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to reassure all those hon. Members who are anxious about the decline in the standards of education under the previous Government that two steps forward have been taken in the past week. First, we have reversed the policy, which was initiated under the previous Government, whereby marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar were removed from GCSEs. In future, GCSEs, according to Ofqual, will be marked in a way that pays proper attention to the need to spell, punctuate and write a grammatical sentence. Secondly, as I am sure the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) will be relieved to know, we will ensure that every child has a proper sense of the connected narrative of British history, and Professor Simon Schama has agreed to advise the coalition Government in order to ensure that every child grows up knowing the glories of our island story.
I have a case in my constituency, where the three mile limit rule for free school transport is so strictly applied, using new software mapping techniques, that half the local housing estate has lost its access to free bus passes. Owing to the two-tier secondary education system that operates in parts of Leicestershire, we have the ludicrous situation in which 11-year-olds are expected to walk three miles to school along a main road, whereas 16-year-olds travelling to the upper school, only 300 metres further on, have access to a free bus pass. Will the Secretary of State look urgently into the guidance notes for local authorities on that matter?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that case, and I shall certainly look into it. I know that Leicestershire is an F40 local authority, one of the least well funded in the country; I know, notwithstanding that, that Ivan Ould, the lead member for children’s services, does a fantastic job, as does my hon. Friend. I shall make sure that I talk to Mr Ould and my hon. Friend about how we can resolve that situation for his constituents.
T4. Will the Secretary of State use his undoubted influence in government to get a decision—perhaps before 20 October—on the previous Prime Minister’s commitment to make a proper donation to the £100 million appeal for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, so that the very successful schools to Auschwitz project has buildings to visit in future decades? (16473)
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter, and I must pay tribute, across the Floor of the House, to the fantastic work that he has done in the fight against anti-Semitism. I can reassure him that we have already committed to give the Holocaust Educational Trust the money that it needs. It is an issue of no contention, across the House, that we must ensure that as those who remember the holocaust fade from our lives, the memory of that unique evil never fades from the minds of any of us in this place.
T2. My local education authority of Cheshire West and Chester is one of the lowest funded in the country; like Leicestershire, it is a member of the F40 group. What measures is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that education funding will be more equally distributed across the country in future? (16471)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that passionate case, as so many representatives from F40 authorities do. In the context of the comprehensive spending review and the forthcoming schools White Paper, we are now looking at how exactly we can ensure that schools funding is more equitable across the country. We are of course looking particularly at how we can ensure that disadvantaged children, wherever they live, receive what they deserve.
Back in January, one of the Ministers stated that there was a question mark over whether local authorities were the best people to run youth services. Given that, how does the Department now justify the removal of ring-fencing for the youth opportunity fund and youth capital fund and the cuts to Connexions and the youth sector development grants? Those cuts mean that many organisations that the Department would like to see running youth services, such as the excellent Soul project in Walthamstow, are facing a very uncertain financial future.
Will the Minister agree to visit the Soul project with me to discuss with the young people and volunteers who run it the contingency plans that he has in place to ensure that there is not a big voluntary sector youth-shaped hole in the big society?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady and am delighted to take up the invitation, as I have to many other youth centres and projects around the country; she may come to regret that invitation.
I am afraid that in this financial climate we have to think smarter about how we can provide services. In common with every Department and every other part of this Department’s work, the youth sector is under that scrutiny. My battle is to involve as many providers as possible from the voluntary sector, local authority and others in ensuring that we provide youth services to those most in need of them in the most imaginative way—with less money, because of the previous Government’s disastrous financial legacy.
T3. The Leeds and Bradford Dyslexia Association is applying to open a specialist school through the free schools initiative. Will my right hon. Friend agree to look at that application? Furthermore, does he agree that the application is a clear demonstration that, despite Opposition claims, free schools can not only help the brightest but be a real opportunity for groups such as the LBDA to help children and young people who need extra support? (16472)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and the argument contained therein. He is absolutely right: many of those anxious to establish new free schools are motivated by the desire to help the very poorest or those most in need. As well as the case that he mentioned, in Yorkshire there is a talented young teacher, the son of a bus driver, who wants to open a free school in one of the most deprived parts of Bradford. It is the idealism of that young man, and of the dyslexia association activists my hon. Friend mentioned, that is an inspiration to us all on this side of the House.
The last Labour Government established three free school meal pilots in Wolverhampton, Durham and Newham. Will the Secretary of State give me an assurance that when the evaluations are complete, there will be full disclosure and that they will not just be scrapped as the Lib Dem council did in Hull when we had such a pilot? It did not wait for a full and proper consideration of the evidence.
The hon. Lady was a distinguished Minister in the Department and I know that she shares with me a desire to ensure that policy is evidence-based. That is why I was surprised that the previous Government said they would definitely go ahead with the extension of free school meals before the evidence about whether the pilots were working was in. I was also particularly surprised that the previous Secretary of State committed to the extension of free school meals without there being sufficient funds in the Department’s spending envelope to pay for them. It was, I am afraid, another example of the recklessness with which he drove our finances and economy on to the rocks.
T5. The Secretary of State is absolutely right to order a review of his Department’s capital spending. When he does decide how to allocate capital, will he look favourably on the schools that reached the very final stages of the BSF application process and suffer greatly from dilapidation, such as Mayflower high school and Billericay school in my constituency? (16474)
As ever, my hon. Friend is a strong, powerful and fluent advocate for his constituents. It is important for us to make sure that the capital that we have goes to the schools that need it most. It is also critically important that we ensure that the one area that the previous Government overlooked—the significant expansion in demand for primary schools, particularly in the south and south-east—is addressed. I am sure he will agree that we need to address that along with the dilapidation in the secondary estate.
On the vexed issue of BSF, I understand what the Secretary of State says about the capital review, but going hand in hand with that must be some sort of needs-based criteria. What progress has he made towards arriving at such criteria?
That is a very good and characteristically shrewd point from the hon. Gentleman. We need to do two things. First, we need to ensure that whatever money we have is allocated in the most effective and efficient way, and we also need to ensure that as well as being efficient, it reflects needs. As regards needs, there are a variety of different criteria that we have to judge: first, so-called basic need—in other words, population growth—secondly, deprivation; and thirdly, dilapidation, or the actual fabric and state of the buildings. We have not had an accurate assessment of the fabric of the school estate since 2005.
T6. The policy of enforced inclusion pursued under Governments of both parties has played havoc with children with special educational needs in my part of Essex. It has meant the closure of special schools, increased pressure on mainstream schools, and pressure on remaining places in the special schools system. Can the Minister promise that under the review inclusion will be made a matter of parental choice, not an outcome arrived at through bureaucratic stalling and bullying? (16475)
Parental choice is absolutely at the heart of the themes of the Green Paper. It is essential that we try to come to decisions about a child’s future based not only on their disability but on understanding the particular needs of the child. Two children with the same disability may have very different circumstances and need different educational provision.
Will the Secretary of State please indicate the Government’s position on supporting parents in choosing denominational schools for their children? Would he oppose any measure that would reduce that choice—that is, local authorities charging a flat rate of £2 a day per child, which amounts to £180 that parents believe is a tax on faith? Lancashire county council is charging parents £2 a day per child for transport to go to a denominational school; does he approve of that sort of attitude?
I am very interested in the case that the hon. Lady brings to my attention. In her constituency, in Skelmersdale and elsewhere, a great many people are benefiting from a Roman Catholic education. I would hate to see anyone unduly penalised for wanting their child to be educated in accordance with their faith, so I will look at the case she mentions.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct; I am afraid that the legacy of the previous Labour Government is that social mobility did stall. This Government believe that one’s birth should not equal one’s fate. That is why we want Sure Start to focus better on targeting the most disadvantaged families, why we are reviewing the early-years foundation stage to ensure that all children are ready for school, and why we are implementing a pupil premium targeting extra resources on the most disadvantaged children.
After 18 months of very hard slog, the 50 children and the staff and parents of Lever Park special school in my constituency raised the £20,000 funding needed to become a specialist school. In July, the Government promised them £100,000 to transform their facilities; in September, the Government cut it to £20,000. Will they please review their decision?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady. I will be speaking to people from the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust later this afternoon, when I will explain to them exactly the difficult circumstances that we inherited, which mean that unfortunately some tough decisions have to be made, but also point out that the fantastic achievements that have been secured so far by specialist schools and academies will be rewarded appropriately after the comprehensive spending review.
T8. What recent assessment has the Secretary of State made of the need for additional secondary school places in the Brentford and Isleworth constituency, and what advice would he give to parents who have been in contact with me to say how desperately they need a new school? (16477)
My hon. Friend, like all those who represent constituencies in the west and south-west of London, will know that recent demographic changes mean that there is immense pressure on primary and secondary school places. I am particularly sensitive to the need for the resources to be there to ensure that the children who are now arriving at primary schools have the places that they deserve. We are also ensuring that some of the new free school applications that we have received are prioritised in those areas where the demographic need is particularly acute.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is a great disadvantage to return from school to a home where no English is spoken? Is it not time we had a campaign to make knowledge of the English language common throughout our country? Will the Secretary of State lead a cross-departmental campaign to deliver English speaking and knowledge across the country?
Not for the first time—nor the last—the hon. Gentleman speaks for me. It concerns me that a grasp of proper spoken and written English, which is the key to enjoying full civic life in this country, is denied to far too many people. I will work with my hon. Friend the Minister for Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning to ensure that an ability to speak and write English clearly is at the heart of everything we do, whether in adult, secondary or primary education.
T9. In the wake of the Munro report, is the Minister as concerned as I am about the growing number of children being taken into care? Does he agree that the best way in which to stop more of those personal tragedies is to invest in prevention programmes for babies and their carers in the earliest years? (16478)
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course, the big increase in the number of children coming into care in the aftermath of the baby Peter case was alarming. It is therefore absolutely right that the ongoing Munro review makes suggestions for freeing up the bureaucracy, which holds back social workers from doing the sort of preventive work—keeping families together when possible and working with other professionals on an early intervention basis—that can be so profitable financially, but, more important, socially, for those families later.
The Secretary of State has just said that he is keen to promote initiatives in the study of history in schools. Does he remember the rather sterile debate in 1990, when Lord Baker introduced the national curriculum, between skills and content? Does he agree that skills Learned in the study of history are as important as narrative? We cannot have one or the other—we need both.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s point. He was a distinguished editor of History Today, and his voice in these debates is important. It is critical that we ensure that every child has a proper spine of knowledge—the narrative of the history of these islands. Without that, the skills of comparison and of examining primary and secondary sources and drawing the appropriate conclusions, are meaningless. Without that spine, history cannot stand up and take its place properly in the national curriculum. One of the problems in the past 13 years—indeed, since 1990—is that national history has not been taught as it should be in our schools. Under the coalition Government, that will change.
T10. I think that my hon. Friends are aware of my interest in and support for deaf education; I remain a chair of governors at a deaf school. What plans has the Secretary of State for deaf education and for ensuring that deaf children receive the same education as their hearing peers? (16479)
The Department currently funds the I-Sign pilot project, which supports our position of informed choice for parents by putting in place the British sign language skills infrastructure necessary to make a BSL choice viable. As I said in answer to several earlier questions, we will produce a Green Paper later this year on special educational needs and disability. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend made sure that his views on the needs of deaf children were inputted into the Department’s call for views. As I said, the deadline for that is 15 October.
With permission, Mr Speaker, it is with great sadness that I make this statement about the tragic death of Linda Norgrove, the British aid worker taken hostage in Afghanistan, who died during the course of a rescue attempt by US forces on the night of 8 October.
Linda was working for the non-governmental organisation Development Alternatives Incorporated when she was kidnapped along with three Afghan colleagues by insurgents dressed in Afghan national army uniforms as she travelled by car on 26 September in Kunar province in north-east Afghanistan. Immediately following her disappearance, a crisis management team began work at our embassy in Kabul, and the commander of the international security assistance force in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, was informed, along with the Afghan Government’s national security adviser. In London, Cobra was immediately convened. Intensive efforts to locate Linda began. Leaflet drops were carried out, offering a reward for information about Linda. Forces in the area began an increased tempo of operations in and around the area where she was captured, designed to limit the hostage takers’ room for manoeuvre.
Our objective throughout was clear: to secure Linda Norgrove’s safe release while continuing the long-standing policy of successive British Governments not to make concessions to hostage takers. From the very start Cobra assessed that Linda’s life was in grave danger, which is why I authorised from the beginning a rescue attempt to be made in the right circumstances. Linda’s captors were assessed to be representatives of a local Salafist group allied to the local Kunar Taliban, who have links higher up the Taliban chain of command to al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. We had information from the outset that the objective of Linda’s captors was to pass her further up the Taliban command chain and perhaps move her to yet more inaccessible terrain. On the basis of the information available to us, we were in no doubt whatsoever that there was a continual and real threat to her life and no credible option for a negotiated release.
Linda’s Afghan colleagues were released on 2 October, but at no stage was any serious attempt made to negotiate by those holding her. Afghan media reports purporting to convey demands by her captors, including the complete withdrawal of all UK forces from Afghanistan, were not judged to be credible. Nothing that happened between 26 September and 8 October caused me or anyone else involved to change our view that a rescue operation was the only realistic hope for Linda’s safe and secure release.
Linda was captured in the US area of operations in Afghanistan. We agreed at the outset that this operation would be US-led. The US has had forces in Kunar since 2006 and has excellent knowledge of the region. US special forces were therefore held on 30-minute standby to mount a release effort from the day Linda was captured. In the early days of her captivity, bad weather and storms in the region hindered attempts to get detailed information about her exact location, meaning that a rescue attempt was not possible in those early days.
After intense efforts by the UK and our allies to prepare for a rescue, US special forces attempted to rescue Linda on the night of 8 October. In the operation that followed, these special forces succeeded in reaching the right location and in shielding 10 women and children from the fighting that ensued. However, tragically, the operation still was not successful, as we did not succeed in saving Linda’s life.
Every indication that we had over the weekend suggested that Linda had been killed by the explosion of a suicide vest worn by one of her captors. Early this morning General Petraeus contacted the Prime Minister’s office to say that in the review of the rescue operation, new information had come to light about the circumstances surrounding her death. The review and subsequent interviews with the personnel involved indicate that Linda may not have died at the hands of her captors as originally believed, but may have died as the result of a grenade detonated by the taskforce during the assault. All such rescue operations involve a measure of risk which has to be weighed against a constant risk to a hostage and a risk that such an opportunity to undertake a rescue operation may not recur.
I wish to pay tribute to the US forces in Afghanistan who risked their own lives to try to rescue a British citizen. We should also remember that the responsibility for the loss of Linda’s life lies with those who took her hostage. The Prime Minister and I are utterly determined to do everything that we possibly can to establish the full facts and give Linda’s parents a full account of the tragic circumstances in which their daughter died. General Petraeus has personally assured the Prime Minister that ISAF will carry out a full investigation into what happened. The UK will be fully involved and the House will be informed of its outcome.
The taking of hostages and the targeting of civilians, including aid workers, is morally indefensible under any circumstances. We did all in our power to rescue Linda from the appalling circumstances in which she found herself. She was a dedicated professional doing a job she loved in a country she loved, helping a people who have borne the brunt of conflict and poverty for decades. For Linda’s family, this will be the most painful loss it is possible to endure. Our thoughts are with them as they come to terms with the death of their daughter and the whole House will be united in sorrow for them.
May I join the Foreign Secretary in sending our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Linda Norgrove at such a difficult time? Linda Norgrove did vital work towards ensuring a stable and secure future for Afghanistan, and the House will want to pay tribute both to her work and to her courage. But although we all know the bravery of our aid workers and the risks that they take, it was still shocking for all of us to hear of Linda Norgrove’s death this weekend, after she was taken hostage two weeks ago. That shock will be compounded by the distressing information this morning.
The House will know that we support our military and civilian effort to create the conditions for a political settlement that can bring the war in Afghanistan to an end. We condemn utterly the actions of the hostage takers throughout the events to which the Foreign Secretary has referred today. Operations such as the one launched by the American special forces this week are incredibly challenging. They require immense bravery on the part of the armed forces involved, and success can of course never be guaranteed. We understand, too, the intricate and complicated web of intelligence required for such an operation, and nothing can ever be certain. The Foreign Secretary will appreciate too, however, that important questions now arise as a result of these events.
First, could the Foreign Secretary tell us more about the Government’s role in the planning and authorisation of the operation? When we spoke, I asked him to tell the House as much as he could about his assessment of the risks to Linda’s life that made the rescue operation the best opportunity to save her life, and I am grateful for the additional information that he has provided to the House today. Could he also tell us about the nature of the authorisation that he gave the rescue operation, and say how much information he was given about the rescue attempt before it began and the level of UK involvement in the planning of the rescue operation?
The Foreign Secretary will be aware, too, of the concern that has arisen about the potentially inaccurate information that was disseminated over the weekend. I thank him for the briefing that the Foreign Office provided me at the weekend. I know that it was provided in good faith, but does he share my concern that the information that people received over the weekend is now cast in serious doubt? The Government and ISAF appeared to be certain over the weekend that the hostage takers had killed Linda Norgrove during the operation. Given the uncertainty that inevitably surrounds such a difficult and complex operation, may I ask him on what basis that was believed to be the case? We agree, too, with the Prime Minister’s statement this morning about the importance of avoiding inaccurate information in such a sensitive and complex case. However, can the Foreign Secretary tell the House why it appeared that Government and military sources gave the impression of such certainty about events in the briefings over the weekend? Can he also tell the House about the new information from General Petraeus? Has he spoken to General Petraeus, and has the evidence—including, perhaps, surveillance footage—on which the new conclusions are based, been shared yet?
I welcome the investigation into the operation and the Foreign Secretary’s statement that the UK will be involved. Can he tell us to whom the investigation will report? Will its findings be made public? Who will be entitled to see its conclusions and its evidence? Can the Foreign Secretary give us some guidance on how long he expects the investigation to take? Can he also reassure the House that Linda Norgrove’s family will be kept informed throughout? The House will appreciate that the focus of the investigation will be on the events during the operation, but can he also tell us whether there will be a review into the way in which information on the issue was disseminated over the past 48 hours?
Finally, the safety of our aid workers has always been a matter of concern for our forces on the ground, which is an issue that I know the Government take extremely seriously. Aid workers play an essential role working to establish the conditions that will allow our forces to leave Afghanistan. Clearly we all want to avoid a situation where aid workers are unable to help the Afghan people because of a minority who want to terrorise the country. Could the Foreign Secretary therefore tell us what advice the Government are giving to British aid workers, particularly taking into account the fluid security situation? Linda Norgrove’s work was extremely important for the future of Afghanistan. We need to ensure that her work can continue for the future.
May I begin by congratulating the right hon. Lady on her appointment as shadow Foreign Secretary? I wish it were in happier circumstances that we were meeting across the Dispatch Box for the first time. We share across the House the condemnation of the taking of hostages and the concern for aid workers that she has just expressed. Many of them work in difficult and dangerous circumstances. Our travel advice is against all travel to Kunar in Afghanistan, but Linda Norgrove was working for a US non-governmental organisation, knowing that she was working in very dangerous circumstances. Nevertheless, that is known by many people who work in those places and conditions.
The right hon. Lady asked about the authorisation given by the United Kingdom and the knowledge that we had. I mentioned in my statement that we were aware that this was a group with links to al-Qaeda, to the Taliban in many different forms and to other terrorist groups operating on the Afghan-Pakistan border. I cannot expand in enormous detail on the precise intelligence, for reasons that the House will understand, but everybody concerned—in the military command, in the British embassy and in the British Government—agreed, from what we had seen, that there was a continual threat to the life of Linda Norgrove, and that we could not be sure that the opportunity to rescue her would come again, either because of weather conditions, or because we would not know her location again or because she might not survive for us to attempt a rescue. The specific authorisation to take such action was given by me on that first day, within a few hours of her being taken hostage. That authorisation was supported by the Prime Minister, who was of course kept informed throughout.
The role of the British special forces was to supply a liaison officer. Contrary to some media reports that I have seen this afternoon, it was not to take part in the planning—and certainly not in the execution—of the operation. The operation was planned by the US special forces, and it was carried out by them. We must remember that, after their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past nine years, the US and UK special forces are now extremely well practised in their operations and extremely skilful at what they do. That does not mean, however, that every mission succeeds.
The right hon. Lady rightly raised the question of the inaccurate—or likely to be inaccurate—information that was given out at the weekend. Of course we regret that; any Government would regret that inaccurate information had been given out on such a matter, or on any matter, particularly one of such importance. There is a balance to be struck between transparency and certainty, and at the weekend—and, indeed, today—we have erred on the side of transparency. We give the country the information that is available to us. Certainly, the initial viewing of the various videos that were taken during the action suggested that it was an explosion caused by the hostage takers that had cost Linda Norgrove her life. It was on a second viewing by different US personnel that it appeared that there was another possibility. We must not rush to judgment about that possibility, however.
There will be an investigation to try to establish exactly what happened. That investigation will take place as rapidly as possible, but I cannot give the right hon. Lady a precise timetable for it at the moment. Clearly, however, General Petraeus and ISAF command attach enormous importance to this matter. It is something that they have focused on at the very top level of the military command over the past two weeks. As I mentioned in my statement, General Petraeus spoke to the Prime Minister today, and the Prime Minister has been able to view some of the evidence involved. We hope that the investigation will be completed as soon as possible. Given that we will need to design a new form of investigation, the precise form that it will take is now being discussed with ISAF command.
We will certainly keep Linda’s family as fully informed as possible. We did so during the hostage taking. Our ambassador in Kabul visited the family last week, and the Prime Minister has spoken to Linda’s father today. I spoke a few hours ago to our colleague, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who is the constituency Member of Parliament involved. He could not make it here for logistical reasons this afternoon, but he obviously had questions to raise. We will keep them fully informed of what is happening, and we will look to have a report, the conclusions and every significance of which can be fully described to the House and to the country.
All of us hope that Linda is the last overseas aid worker to be captured by the Taliban, but sadly she may not be. What protocols are in place involving our military and the US military in terms of the nationality of any captive? For example, were an American aid worker taken captive in territory in which British forces predominate, would it be our decision to go in to rescue them, or would it be the Americans’ decision? At what level are these decisions taken?
Decisions about what can happen militarily are taken by ISAF command. The commander of ISAF is General Petraeus, the US general. The deputy commander is a UK commander, so these decisions are taken together. They require the political authority of the Government of the national concerned. In the case of a US citizen who is held hostage, the US Government would have to give their authority for such an operation. Could it involve British special forces? Absolutely. We would treat an operation involving a US citizen as if they were one of our own, just as the US in this case treated Linda Norgrove as one of their own.
May I first add my very sincere condolences to the family and friends of Linda Norgrove following the terrible tragedy that has befallen her? In saying that, may I offer my full support to the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues on the excruciatingly difficult decisions that they have had to make, as I know only too well from my own experience? I ask him to confirm that, although it is correct that there should be an investigation, any investigation that looks at the circumstances that faced the decision takers and participants should take them forward, and should not, from the languid luxury of hindsight, seek to second guess those incredibly fast decisions that they had to make?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who having served for five years as Foreign Secretary is familiar with these dilemmas and difficult decisions. Let me stress that this is an investigation into the military circumstances and what happened in the actual incident. However, it is important to remember, when looking at the decisions that we have made, that we had to bear in mind what might have happened had we not made the decision to mount a rescue operation. We might not have had the opportunity again. We know from experience that a hostage held by the Taliban can be murdered in cold blood and that Linda Norgrove would probably have been taken into yet more inaccessible terrain. That is why we concluded from the beginning that the best option would be to take the earliest opportunity for a rescue operation if the conditions were right for that and if the military assessment were that there was a good chance of success. Clearly, the view was—a view confirmed by General Petraeus in his telephone conversation with the Prime Minister this morning— that there was a good chance of success. General Petraeus would not have wanted to send his troops into action without that good chance of success. All those things must be borne in mind.
To return to the question of the investigation, will it be conducted under the auspices of ISAF or under the auspices of the US military?
As I mentioned in answer to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the shadow Foreign Secretary, we are still designing the form of the investigation because this is a new set of circumstances. The UK will certainly be fully involved in the investigation. General Petraeus proposed that from the beginning and the Prime Minister was absolutely clear about our wish to see that in his conversation with General Petraeus this morning. Therefore, we will have to sort out in the coming hours whether that takes place under ISAF auspices or under the auspices of the US military with UK involvement. I will let the House know in the appropriate form, perhaps through a written statement, how that has turned out.
I add my sincere condolences to the family and friends of Linda Norgrove at this very sad time. It is evident from the tributes being paid to her that she was a very exceptional person who dedicated her life and considerable talents to helping other people and the peace efforts in Afghanistan.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to establishing what has actually happened and I also welcome his statement. This tragic incident is a salutary reminder of the risks that humanitarian aid workers face in Afghanistan and other dangerous parts of the world, yet their contribution to those efforts is indispensable. Can he assure us that assessing the safety of the circumstances in which humanitarian aid workers and NGO staff are working in Afghanistan will be a priority for the Foreign Office in the weeks and months ahead?
Of course we want to see whether any security lessons can be learned, but let me stress that very many steps are taken to try to ensure the security of people working in Afghanistan by our military, by ISAF—and therefore by the military of other nations—by the Afghan security forces, and sometimes through the operations of private security companies. A great deal of security is provided, but that is not a guarantee against murder or kidnap. We will all remember the tragic case of Karen Woo earlier this year—another aid worker who was murdered in Afghanistan. The House must recognise, as indeed it has in the comments that have been made today, that people often take considerable risks in order to deliver humanitarian aid and development to difficult parts of the world. We should salute the efforts of those people.
I am mindful that the people who went in on this exceptionally difficult operation were as brave as they could be, but I am also slightly worried because helicopters were used. Sometimes, helicopters are heard from a long way away, so there was warning, and one of the first principles of war is surprise. I hope that the investigation will look at the reason for using helicopters.
It is very important for Ministers and those responsible for giving a general authorisation for such an operation not to interfere too much in the military aspect of it, which must be left to the military experts on the ground. Of course, my hon. Friend speaks with military experience and will know a thing or two about such matters. The terms of the investigation are still being drawn up, but I am sure that it will be able to look at all the military circumstances surrounding the operation. However, he should bear in mind that operating in Afghanistan, in mountainous and inaccessible regions, very often requires helicopter-borne operations, including if there is to be any surprise. Land forces making their way over mountains and through valleys over a long period of time may find it more difficult to achieve surprise than helicopter-borne troops.
This awful tragedy, like the one of Dr Woo to which the Foreign Secretary referred, reminds us of the rising death toll of civilians in Afghanistan as the Taliban target civilian administrators, mayors, justices and anybody whom they can kill as part of their campaign of intimidation. I wonder how much longer our strategy should be maintained. When he came to office, the Prime Minister indicated a change of thinking on Afghanistan, and I hope that that new thinking continues to be thought, as it were.
We have been very clear about our approach to Afghanistan, and on giving all the necessary support to our troops. Indeed, we announced in the early stages of the new Government a doubling of the operational allowance for our forces who are fighting there. We have greatly increased development aid to try to assist the Afghan Government in building their own capability and the speed of development in Afghanistan in future. We have also lent our strong support, as the previous Government did, to the political process, to which the shadow Foreign Secretary, referred. That adds up to the right strategy for Afghanistan, and it is important that we are not diverted from it by events, including military encounters and tragic events such as the one that we have experienced and that we are discussing today. Such events do not invalidate the overall strategy that we are pursuing.
May I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to Linda Norgrove and to the grace and dignity shown by the Norgrove family? Is it not the case that the ultimate responsibility for Linda’s death lies fairly and squarely with the evil and cowardly Taliban?
On Friday, in my constituency, I attended the funeral of Sergeant Andrew James Jones, the 339th British hero to die in Afghanistan. Of course, the responsibility for his death and Linda Norgrove’s death lies with the Taliban, but does this House not have a responsibility to bring this increasingly futile conflict to a swift conclusion?
The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us of the scale of the casualties, of the names that we have so often heard read out in this House and of the fact that his constituent was the 339th of our servicemen and women to die in Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman has a long-held different view about the merits of what we are doing in Afghanistan. What I can say is that this Government will, as we have pledged, present a regular review—a quarterly review—to the House of what we are achieving in Afghanistan, or what we are not achieving, what our immediate objectives are and what resources are required to attain those. I hope before the end of this month to be able to make a statement to the House with the latest such review, which will enable hon. Members of all views on this issue once again to take part in reviewing what we are doing and questioning the Government.
The Foreign Secretary referred to the long-standing policy of successive Governments not to make concessions to hostage takers. The international security assistance force troops comprise soldiers from more than 30 member states, and those states do not always take the same view in their responses to hostage taking. Is he having any discussions with some of those member states to ensure that, at least when we are in the same theatre of operations, we take the same approach?
Yes, and the hon. Lady makes an important point. I have raised this issue with Foreign Ministers of other nations during bilateral discussions in recent weeks, because clearly if one nation is prepared to pay or to sanction the payment of ransoms, that can undermine the international position. I also raised this very strongly in the discussion on terrorism at the United Nations Security Council in New York, which I attended in late September, during the United Nations General Assembly. I particularly stressed the point that it is against not only international practice, but international law for such ransoms to be paid, and I will regularly reinforce that point to other nations.
In his opening remarks, the Foreign Secretary said that the hostages—Linda Norgrove and her colleagues—were taken by people wearing Afghan national army uniforms. Has he made any assessment of how many similar events have taken place in the past year in Afghanistan and of whether there is a problem with regard to the security of uniforms and other material from the Afghan national army?
The hon. Gentleman raises an entirely legitimate point, which deals with one of the issues that we will need to follow up after this incident. As far as I am aware, this is not the only incident in which Afghan national army uniforms have been abused. It is not easy in the circumstances of Afghanistan, and with an army that now numbers well over 100,000 and has a relatively high turnover rate, to control the uniforms available around the country. This may therefore be a difficult problem to address going forward, but we will certainly want to do some additional work in ISAF and with the Afghan Government on how to tackle it.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on welfare reform.
Let me start by welcoming the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) to his new post as shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We have already had a conversation in the last week. I extend that welcome to all members of his new shadow Front-Bench team.
The statement today is in three parts. First and foremost, today—as everyone in the House may well now know—we launched an approach to those on incapacity benefit under the work capability assessment, and it is necessary for the House to hear this directly from us so that Members can question me. Secondly, I want to use this opportunity to set out more detail on the new Work programme, which is very much related to the work capability assessment. Thirdly, the House has a right to know more about our plans for wider benefit reform as we look ahead to a White Paper and welfare reform Bill, although I would add the caveat that greater detail will be contained in that statement.
The economic backdrop is severe. We have the largest deficit in the G20 at £155 billion—the largest in peacetime history—with debt interest of £120 million a day, or £43 billion in 2010-11. Under the previous Government’s deficit reduction plan, which the Opposition now seem not to favour—although I might be wrong on that point—annual debt interest spending would have risen in only five years to almost £70 billion. Let me put that in context: that would have meant spending more on interest than we spent on policing, defence and transport combined. So, there is an urgent requirement to make these changes and reforms.
[Official Report, 11 November 2010, Vol. 518, c. 1-2MC.]We are at a critical point, with 5 million people on out-of-work benefits, 2 million working-age people claiming incapacity benefit, of whom 900,000—just under 1 million —have been claiming for an entire decade, and a system that has left Britain with the highest rate of jobless households in Europe. Those statistics reveal the human cost of leaving our welfare system unreformed, and with that comes an ever-increasing financial cost. The working age welfare budget rose by 40% in real terms from £63 billion in 1996-97 to £87 billion in 2009-10. A staggering £133 billion was spent on incapacity benefits in the past 10 years, and benefit spending is forecast to be more than £152 billion in 2010-11, which is about 10% of gross domestic product.
Today we spend £1 in every £3 on welfare in this country, yet youth unemployment is higher and inequality greater, and there are 800,000 more working age adults in poverty than there were in 1998-99. In that context, we also announced the reform of child benefit last week. I personally do not think that it is right, if we have to make changes and reductions, to tax the poorest to fund the receipt of child benefits by those with the highest levels of income. If we do this correctly, we can save about £1 billion, protect some 85% of families and secure fairness as we support people. I know that that is tough—we are in tough times—but I believe that it is fair, and that is the key. The important thing as we come through these spending reviews is that we should have a progressive change, not a regressive change.
At the same time, we announced procedures to set a cap on benefits for workless households to average earnings, which are about £26,000. However, we ought to set that in context. The cap will be net of income tax and national insurance, so if someone was working to receive that amount of money it would equate to gross earnings of some £35,000 a year—not a very narrow cap. Equally, we will exempt the disabled and those on working tax credit so that we encourage work incentives and do not penalise those who find it difficult to be in work. That is fair, and we will announce more details in the spending review, which means that I shall do my level best to answer some of the questions that I expect Members want to ask.
In the last week we have also announced a new enterprise allowance, which is there to help unemployed people who would like to try to set up their own business. We will be able to give them up to £2,000 in various forms, as well as the advice and mentoring of those who have started their own businesses. Today, the most important step is that we are launching two trials for those on the old-style incapacity benefit under the work capability assessment. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), is travelling to Aberdeen and Burnley today to see both those trials get under way. They are about giving many thousands of people the opportunity to move from the margins of society into mainstream employment. I remind the House that we inherited the programme, and that I supported it while we were in opposition. We have had to make a few changes, and we will make more as necessary.
Under the new system we will assess people on the basis of what they can do, not what they cannot, and thereby support people to meet their aspirations for work. We are determined to get it right, which is why we will learn from the trials and why we have set up an independent experts group to scrutinise the assessment. That group includes, for example, the chief executive of Mind, so as the programme is trialled we will listen to and deal with concerns about those who are mentally ill, such as those expressed on the radio today. Through those measures and through the Work programme, we are committed to supporting everyone who goes through the assessment.
We will ensure that those deemed unable to work continue to receive the support that they need, and that those deemed able to work are fully supported to do so. People who are found fit for work will move directly on to our new Work programme rather than have their jobseeker’s allowance stopped in the normal way. They will receive an integrated package of support, and in due course so will those who have been out of work for a longer period. It will provide personalised help based on individual needs, not on the benefit that somebody receives. Using the best of the private and voluntary sectors, that will help get people into work as quickly as possible.
The systems that I have described are what we call black-box systems, and I shall explain what that really means. Put simply, we will not lay down prescriptive criteria about how they should be run. We want those running them to do whatever is necessary to help people into work—that is the key. They will be operated on a payment-by-results system that ensures that providers do not simply go through the motions. They will receive their real money only for getting someone into work and ultimately keeping them there, and they will find rewards further up the chain as they do so. We have received more than 790 expressions of interest in joining the programme from providers, and in December we will invite bids for contracts, ready for national roll-out next year.
Finally, the work capability assessment and the Work programme are of course critical to getting more of the 5 million or 5.5 million people who are currently on benefits back into work, but they will not be enough. Underpinning that support must be a benefits system that incentivises work, and we have to ensure that work always pays. That is why the coalition Government aim to bring forward a White Paper soon and a welfare reform Bill in the new year.
The introduction of what I call the universal credit will restore fairness and simplicity to an overly complex, outdated and now wildly expensive benefits system that simply prevents people from getting back to work. As we get the benefits system working, we can get Britain working. The best way to get the deficit down, drive the recovery and get the economy moving is to ensure that more and more of the British people who can work do so. Welfare reform is critical, and I give a guarantee that people moving on to the universal credit will not be any worse off at any stage. In fact, they will be better off as they find work.
Everyone in the House should unite around, and try to achieve, the cause of moving people into work and creating a pathway out of poverty for the 5 million people on out-of-work benefits. I understand that the new leader of the Labour party has said that he will not be in opposition for opposition’s sake, so I hope that he and his shadow Cabinet colleagues will do the right thing and support us in delivering a welfare system that is fit for the 21st century. I commend these reforms to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. I thank him also for his gracious welcome to myself and my team. Members of all parties will acknowledge and recognise the work that he has done both inside and outside Parliament over recent years on the crucial issues for which he now bears a heavy responsibility.
As befits a responsible Opposition, my team and I will work constructively with the Government when there is common ground between us, on issues such as increasing opportunities and support for people to get into work. However, I must also be clear that when the Government propose measures that we judge arbitrary and unfair, we will oppose them robustly.
The Secretary of State began his statement with a rehearsal of the case for reform. While, of course, I disagree with the rather partial and partisan account of the economic situation that he inherited, let me be clear about the fact that I recognise the need to continue the reform of the welfare system. I believe in a welfare state that ensures that there are more people in work and fewer in poverty. That empowers people and contributes to a fairer and more equal society.
Let me also acknowledge, on this first outing at the Dispatch Box, that conditionality does have a role to play, as we recognised in government, first, because we know that it works in helping people to turn around their lives and, secondly, because it is the foundation for ensuring the public support on which the welfare state is based. Accordingly, I will carefully scrutinise each of the Government’s specific proposals on the welfare system.
The Secretary of State spoke about his plan to remove child benefit from higher rate taxpayers and, from the Dispatch Box, described that change as “fair”. How does that change meet the fairness test when it will result in one family, with a collective household income of £80,000, getting child benefit and the family next door, with an income of £44,000, getting none? There have been a variety of claims as to what the threshold in fact is. Can he confirm at this time that the change will affect only parents earning more than £44,000?
Since the shambles of the announcement last week, the Prime Minister and others have suggested that marriage tax breaks might be introduced in the near future to compensate for the removal of child benefit. Does the Secretary of State accept that there is no coalition agreement to implement the Conservatives’ marriage tax allowance proposals, that to date such proposals have applied only to basic rate taxpayers, and that even if his coalition partners were to accept those proposals, they would cost more than the savings made from the child benefit reform he proposes?
On incapacity benefit reassessment, which the Secretary of State touched on, despite its omission from the briefing in this morning’s newspapers, I welcome his acknowledgement that he is continuing the previous Government’s proposals on the trialling and roll-out of the work capability assessment. I note that those proposals this morning appeared to be attached to a specific target of removing 500,000 people from benefits. If a system of assessment is to be truly fair and objective, will he clarify whether that figure is a hard target, merely an assumption or a headline-grabbing claim?
I was also concerned to see reports in The Times today that those judged too sick or disabled to work could nevertheless have their benefits time limited to six months or a year. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether that is the case? If it is not, will he clarify what actual plans he has for reassessing those who are initially found to be unable to work?
The Secretary of State has also told us today that people found fit for work will move directly to the Work programme. His colleague the Employment Minister—the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling)—has previously told the House that the new single Work programme will not be introduced until the first half of 2011. How can that timetable be reconciled with the trials now under way, which were announced in Burnley and Aberdeen?
I welcome the comments made on the radio this morning by the Employment Minister, who said that he would be prepared to modify the test if it were not working properly. Indeed, I welcome the gracious acknowledgement of the Secretary of State’s confirmation of that point today. However, he concluded his statement by describing welfare reform as an historic opportunity. It is, none the less, an historic error to fail to realise that effective welfare reform requires economic recovery. He seems to be in denial of the fact that getting people back to work requires there to be jobs for them to take up.
That insight explains why the previous Government took measures to ensure that unemployment was kept at about half the level of that in previous recessions, that the unemployed were supported and that, at the same time, those who could move from benefits into work were doing so. In contrast, the Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility revised forecast predictions that public sector jobs would be cut by 750,000 and that unemployment would increase to nearly 3 million people. Over the next few years, the Treasury’s own papers indicate half a million more jobs lost in the public sector, half a million jobs lost in the private sector and half a million fewer jobs and opportunities for the unemployed.
Labour Members will continue to make the case for backing our economy, fighting for jobs and standing up for fairness while reforming our welfare system.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State. May I answer a few of his particular questions? First, I thank him for his general support for the aims of what we are trying to do. I am sure that we will work together to achieve those. I think that is the best thing to do. I recognise fully that, of course, there are things that he will not agree with. That is reasonable, and it is exactly what I would say were I sitting in his place. In fact, I did exactly that some 10 years ago. How time goes on.
I also welcome the shadow Secretary of State’s acceptance of the need for conditionality in the system; we will need to discuss that with him further. There is absolutely a need for conditionality, which can properly be introduced only once we have created what I call the contract—that is, when we can genuinely say that we have improved the programmes to get people back to work, and have made the benefit system simpler, having made sure that there are no blocks to people going back to work. If we fulfil that bit of the contract, those out of work and looking for work need to fulfil their bit of the contract—they need to take the work when it is available. That is the key to conditionality.
The shadow Secretary of State asked about the level at which child benefit will be removed. It is simple—it will be removed at the higher-rate threshold. At the moment it is £43,875, but of course I cannot predict what it will be. It is a matter for the Chancellor; no one should read anything into what I said. It is not my job to set the rate, but the benefit will be removed at the higher-rate threshold.
The shadow Secretary of State went on to say that the change is not fair. He describes the tax system when he says it is not fair, although I am not sure what he is trying to describe. The reality is we think, fairly, that it is wrong for someone on lower income to have to pay tax so that someone on higher income can receive an element of benefit to look after their children. If he thinks that it is unfair to make the changes through the tax system, I would like to know what he did in the past 10 years to reform the tax system that he now thinks is unfair. The very same tax system actually penalises those who have one single high earner in the family as against a household with two lower earners who together could be earning £80,000, so he is condemning the tax system that he has given to us. We can only use the system that we have, but he may now think that that is unfair.
The measures will help enormously to meet what I call a progressive form of reduction in costs. I think that the process will be ultimately welcomed—it has been welcomed by the general public.
The shadow Secretary of State made the point that he did not think there were enough jobs. Of course, we could do with many more jobs. We have inherited an economy that has been stuttering. In the past month or so there have been just under 500,000 jobs in the jobcentres. Those are not static jobs. Those are jobs that are available—they rotate; some are taken and new ones come on. We know that in the informal economy there are many more jobs being taken. That is evidenced by the fact that some 280,000 people went into work in the past quarter, which is the highest number of people back to work since modern records began in ’89. The reality is that there are some jobs.
The shadow Secretary of State talked about growth. As he knows, over the period of the spending review, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, the IFS—sorry, the IMF—and others have made forecasts; the IFS may yet make the same forecast as them. The IMF has forecast that growth levels will be between 2% and, in the medium term, 2.5% and that there will be a net increase in employment over that period. We can jostle over the figures, but I do not agree that there are no jobs available. As the economy begins to grow we will see even more jobs, but if we do not get people ready for those jobs, we will be in the same situation as he found himself in with 5.5 million people on out-of-work benefits doing nothing and languishing in households that had no work at all.
The shadow Secretary of State talked about the work capability assessment and he said that there were concerns. He is right. The figures that we were talking about were estimates of where we believe we could and should be. They are not hard targets. We cannot and will not set hard targets for a simple reason. As I explained earlier, this is a process. As we look at what happens in Aberdeen and Burnley, I hope—I am prepared to share this with him—that we will figure out whether there are things that we are doing right or wrong, so I am not saying that there are targets. It would be wrong to set targets.
As for the idea of reviewing the measures, the shadow Secretary of State said that he welcomed the Employment Minister’s views. We will modify all the measures as necessary. The key thing is that nearly 1 million people have sat on incapacity benefit without anyone seeing them over the past 10 years. We have to change that. The Labour Government started that programme; we must finish it. I hope that we will receive his support. The right hon. Gentleman commented on the way that we do these things. We will consult where necessary and make sure that the Opposition get the evidence that they require to decide whether to oppose our measures.
I conclude by saying to the right hon. Gentleman and all Opposition Members that we inherited a major deficit from him and his team. That deficit is the largest in the G20. If we do not get that down, the interest payments on the loans alone will dwarf everything we do. What we are doing in the spending review is looking for ways to do that. At the same time, it is important to make sure that when we act to reduce the deficit, we share the burden across the income scale and we do not achieve savings on the backs of the poorest in society. I am here to make sure that that does not happen. I hope I will have the right hon. Gentleman’s support in that when he sees how progressive the review turns out to be.
As a Back-Bench MP, I receive child benefit. Prior to entering the House, I was even better paid and received child benefit. Was the Secretary of State as surprised as I was to learn that the new Leader of the Opposition would like to restore child benefit to people like me?
He may be after my hon. Friend’s vote, in which case we will have to do some quiet talking. It is a ludicrous position to take. We now have a Labour party in opposition which prefers to defend the very wealthiest, and a coalition that wants to defend the worst off.
Universal child benefit is the most effective benefit for reaching the poorest children, more effective than means-tested benefits which are designed for them. Can the Secretary of State enlarge on the implications of his comments last week that child benefit will, in due course, be subsumed into his new universal credit? Should I therefore assume that there is no prospect, regrettably, of a universal payment being reinstated when the economy recovers?
The hon. Lady is right that child benefit has been and will continue to be a very effective mechanism to get money to the poorest families. We are not eradicating the universal benefit in the case of child benefit. We are capping it off at the higher rate. The rest—[Interruption.] Well, 85% of the public will get their child benefit. The hon. Lady asked specifically about the universal credit. I did not say that it would subsume child benefit. I said that as we reform the benefit system, and as the PAYE system is reformed, we should be able to look at these things long after the spending review and look for ways of getting rid of anomalies. Right now, in the spending review, there are no plans to make any such changes. We will do exactly as I said. Child benefit will be removed from families where there is at least one earner above the threshold.
For years my right hon. Friend and I argued in opposition that marriage should not be discriminated against in the tax and benefits system, and in particular that mothers who chose to look after their children at home should not be discriminated against. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he has not changed his view, and that through mechanisms such as transferable allowances he will ensure that women are entitled to make their own choices and are not influenced by the tax and benefits system?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I make a point of agreeing with him on many things. The changes to child benefit are exactly what they are—to help us to reduce the terrible deficit that we have and to save the poorest families in the land from suffering a terrible burden that they would have to bear in due course. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear last week—these are not matters directly for me, but he and the Chancellor will bring forward measures in due course—the very best way to ensure that couples do not face that penalty is to ensure that they are not unfairly taxed from the outset. This is about child benefit, and we will support families who make the choices that they make.
When, in the mid-1970s, the decision was taken to merge the child tax allowance, which broadly benefited the wallet, with the family allowance, which broadly benefited the purse, the then Labour Government, after a bit of a kerfuffle, decided that it should become a child benefit for the mothers, for reasons which, I think, both sides of the House recognise. Does the Secretary of State realise the dismay of many people in all parts of the House and the public that he is now running a coach and horses through the principle that it is very often the mother who has to juggle the family budgets, that certainly in the south of England, salaries at the level at which he is withdrawing benefit are not extravagant, and that that is a blow to the concept that mothers are at the heart of our families in Britain?
I respect the right hon. Gentleman enormously, and he knows that, but I am afraid that he is living in a time warp. The reality is that we have walked into government to find facing us the single biggest deficit on record. This country is close to being broke, thanks to his Government and how they ran the economy. So, yes, in a perfect world we might have wanted to continue with everything as it was, but in reality we cannot afford to. We make such changes on the basis of ensuring that we do not make them on the backs of the poorest people. Had we done it any other way, he would have complained quite rightly, and I must say to him that, if he does not like the proposal, and it sounds like he does not, perhaps he or his Front-Bench colleagues will tell us where they think they are going to get the money from as an alternative.
I appreciate the Secretary of State’s commitment, through the work capability assessment, to include the chief executive of Mind on the independent panel, because it is recognised that some disabilities go into remission. Can he give any further reassurance that other disabilities, such as ME or MS, in which there are quite profound ups and downs and cycles, will be recognised in the new assessment?
I can give the undertaking to my hon. Friend that all those issues will be reviewed with that team. If there is an issue about that, and if it affects anybody, we will want to try to bind that into the whole assessment. The assessment’s objective is not to penalise people. The truth is that when we undertook the flow—putting people through a process that the Opposition undertook when in government—we learned a lot. We found that a large number of people who went through it have come out the better for going into work. No one ever saw them, cared about them or discussed anything with them, so we are trying to ensure that we give them help and support, not to penalise them.
Is it fair and reasonable to impose a fixed arbitrary limit on the total level of benefits that a family can receive, irrespective of the level of rents in inner-city areas, when that rent could well constitute 70% of the £500 per week ceiling? A family cannot possibly live on the remaining 30% alone.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to the benefit cap, as announced last week. I think that it is fair. It is fair for us to offer an explanation to the public, most of whom work for low incomes and pay their taxes. They do not want to see somebody on benefits disincentivised from work because of the very level of money that they receive. I repeat what I said in the statement: to net-out £26,000, somebody in employment would have to earn about £35,000. So, I do not think that the measure is effective, in the sense that we are bearing down too hard. It is fair.
On housing, over the next few years we will manage the process with the changes to housing benefit. After all, over the last five years of the right hon. Gentleman’s Government, housing benefit costs ballooned by £5 billion a year, and they were set to balloon to £20 billion a year. I have one last point for him: his Government had the lowest number of houses built at any time since the 1920s. I wonder whom he blames for local authorities having had to place people in those expensive houses.
For a generation, disability campaigners have pressed for more jobs for people with disabilities, yet the employment rate of those people has remained pitifully low. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what his pilots aim to achieve, taken with the universal credit, is a situation in which people with disabilities get a fair break and a chance of a job, and that if they have a fluctuating condition there is a benefit system that supports them?
Yes, I agree. That is exactly the point of all the changes that we are making, and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) is bound with that to review all that we do for disabled people in order to ensure that we do not write them off at any stage but give them an opportunity to go to work, if they can. We will absolutely support those who are not able to go to work. It is their right, and we will ensure that that is the case.
I want to take the Secretary of State back to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher). The universal cap of £500 a week will have a devastating impact on people living in inner-London areas such as mine, where private sector rents—paid for by housing benefit—are exorbitant, to put it mildly. The cap will result in desperate poverty for those people who try to remain living where their children go to school and near their families and community. The effect will be one of social cleansing over a vast area of inner-city Britain. Is that what the Secretary of State really wants to achieve?
I have been doing the figures, actually. The hon. Gentleman should remember that the measure is not being brought in until towards the end of the Parliament in 2013. In the meantime, we have already instigated some changes to how housing benefit is paid. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that in some parts of London there has been complicity among private landlords to push the rents up much higher than they should have done. That was because the Labour Government never sorted out housing benefit.
The reality is that we will manage the process. The numbers will be far smaller than the hon. Gentleman talks about. We will make sure that what we do as we go forward is give the taxpayer and those in receipt of benefit a fair deal. I do not think that a person needs £35,000 a year gross to live a reasonable life.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today. I do not think that anyone in the House is more able to deal with the welfare problem than him.
With hindsight, does my right hon. Friend think that it was a mistake to announce the change in child benefit policy in a television studio last week rather than waiting to announce it in the House today? Was a written statement given to the other place, which was sitting last week?
The Chancellor made a statement in a television studio, but he made a statement to the country and my hon. Friend at the same time. All I can say is that the policy has been discussed by me, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. As far as I am concerned, come the spending review my hon. Friend will see even more details about other changes. There will be full statements on those as well.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that many of us represent places where the problem is a lack of work rather than a lack of work ethic? Is he hearing any concerns from the relevant Northern Ireland Ministers about some of the proposals on which he is still working? On the Work programme, the right hon. Gentleman has referred to the black box discretion that will be given to operators there. How will he ensure that there will be no black arts, in manipulating the statistics purely to gain payment by results and the other incentives that he says will be available further up the chain?
As the hon. Gentleman may know, I have already visited Northern Ireland to discuss these matters with his colleagues. There may be some differences of opinion about where we are going, but most of that is because they have not quite arrived at the detail of it. I think that by and large these proposals, particularly the universal credit, will in general benefit Northern Ireland dramatically. The numbers of unemployed there are very high and we need to get those numbers down and get Northern Ireland working again. That is important. We have had the discussions.
My question pertains to the upper limit of £26,000 on welfare payments. My right hon. Friend stated that that equated to a gross income of £36,000. Many in my constituency work long hours, sometimes putting in overtime, but bring in considerably less than that. I remind Labour Members that those people have housing costs to pay as well. Can we make sure that people understand that the £26,000 is very much an upper limit, and that we should not ever see the welfare equivalent of £36,000 gross income as the norm?
I made the point that we also have to balance taxpayers’ requirements alongside those of people on benefit. By the way, when seen in the context of the total number of people on benefits at the moment, the numbers that we are dealing with are much smaller than people make out.
Most of all, I should say that we will not be doing this for people on disability living allowance. Those in receipt of working tax credit, for example—those in work—will also not be caught. We are simply looking to those families who have become static and immobile. There is a disincentive against their going to work; the amount of money that they receive is such that they could never get it if they went to work. Therefore their incentive to work is non-existent. That is the benefits system that we inherited; that is the benefits system that we will change.
If the Secretary of State recognises that this period of uncertainty is very stressful for people on incapacity benefit, does he also recognise that drip-feeding information through the media is not the right way of giving people any confidence that the system is fair? In particular, I understand that 40% of people who were originally refused incapacity benefit had that overturned on appeal. What does he intend to do about that, because it is frankly unacceptable?
If the hon. Gentleman is worried about the drip, drip, drip on the 20th of this month, I should tell him that there will not be a drip at all; we will get it out all in one go, so he should steady himself for that. None the less, the issue generally will be resolved, and I promise him that if there are any direct questions, I will answer them. He should remember that the figure that he refers to is 40% of all those who appealed. In total, 5% of those who have migrated have had their appeals upheld.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on the proposals for the universal credit, which will make it worth being in work. As well as trying to fit people to jobs, will he consider trying to fit jobs to people by using the Government’s contracting power to require that there be some jobs for the long-term unemployed and some jobs for people with disabilities?
There has been a huge increase in the number of people coming to my surgeries and saying that, having been on incapacity benefit, they have been reassessed as capable of working but on appeal that decision has been overturned. That applies to the vast majority of people, certainly in Derbyshire. Does the Secretary of State have figures available for the whole country? I hope so, because if he is planning on rolling this out nationwide, we need to ensure not only that people who are wrongly assessed as capable of working are not left destitute but that the tribunal system is prepared for the huge number of appeals coming its way.
Let me repeat the figures that I gave. Of all those who have been migrated through the system, about 5% have been successful in the sense that they have had their appeals upheld. There may be a slight change to that figure, because there is a backlog at the moment; we could probably make it up to 7% or 8%, but I do not think that it will get any higher than that. We should remember that all the people the hon. Lady is talking about represent the flow—that is, people who have not been in receipt of incapacity benefit until now but have been applying to come on to incapacity benefit and are being migrated through the process on to employment and support allowance or jobseeker’s allowance. The figure for those appeals is 5%, and that was part of the process that was started by the previous Government.
Many of us welcome the Secretary of State’s efforts to tackle the scourge of worklessness and to end the era in this country of indiscriminate and too often counter-productive welfare. On work capability assessment, he will know that these macro benefits are built on a series of individual assessments by a particular doctor on a particular day of a particular condition. May I press my right hon. Friend to take a personal interest to ensure that assessments of neurological disorders and mental health issues in particular are done fairly?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. I can guarantee to him that we have already been doing that, but we will continue to do so. That is why the independent panel, which includes somebody from Mind, will review it. Mr Farmer has been tasked with reviewing that generally, as well. We will constantly keep this under review and ensure that that is the case. We do not want to use this to punish people; it is about helping people, not punishing them.
Given the large number of my constituents and many others who had problems with the work capability test under the previous system, can the Secretary of State assure us that he has already reviewed the test prior to rolling out the new pilots, rather than leaving it as it is and piloting yet again? What full report is there on the outcomes of the system thus far? In Scotland, the Scottish Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux published a report that was highly critical of the system that was in place. Although a lot of us agree with it in principle, we know that when it comes to individual people the situation is very different.
I guarantee that we have already reviewed the matter. Indeed, we inherited a review process, which the previous Government initiated. We will bind in the results of that—we are doing that at the moment. Having said that, we have subsequently set up the panel and asked somebody to investigate to ensure that we are covering all the necessary matters. The two pilots will help us understand better the way that the system works. I am not sure what else we can do at this stage. As I said to the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), we intend to use what we are discussing as a process—it is not an end point, but a process that allows us to get the best out of how we deal with those who have been on incapacity benefit and need our support and help to get back to work. I give that guarantee.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many responsible employers, including those in my constituency, ask their staff to attend annual health assessments? Does he agree that it is fair and reasonable for those deemed not fit to work to attend similar assessments rather than wait 10 years on incapacity benefit without seeing a doctor?
My hon. Friend makes exactly the right point: for too long, Governments of both colours were content to see people parked on incapacity benefit. The subject should unite the House; the previous Government started the process and we want to complete it. It is no longer feasible for people to languish on incapacity benefit. My hon. Friend is right; in some cases, people have not been seen for six or seven years and in others, people self-referred and have never been seen by anybody to find out what is going on. It is high time we resolved that.
Will the Secretary of State please explain why a large swathe of Scotland is being used for the Con-Dem social experiment, especially when it involves some claimants travelling for up to 90 minutes to be interviewed? He will remember that the last time the Conservatives used Scotland as a testing ground was when they introduced the hated poll tax a year early. What safeguards and guarantees have the people of Scotland this time round?
I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is moaning about. Two cities are in the pilot, one in England and one in Scotland—he forgot that. The cities are different in character—they have quite different populations in terms of income. The hon. Gentleman made the point that some people travel long distances, and it is important for us to understand the exact effect of that. Sometimes I wish that he was not quite so parochial.
I paid a visit to my local jobcentre in Bromsgrove earlier this month, and I learned from the advisers that, in many cases, it takes them more than an hour to determine whether a jobseeker would be better or worse off by taking just six hours of employment in a week. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the introduction of the universal credit and the taper relief system will make a dramatic difference to job incentives for jobseekers, and also increase their life chances?
I am glad that my hon. Friend sees it like that, because that is exactly how I see it. Of course, the devil will be in the detail, but we want a process that is easy to understand for those who are trying to get back to work, so that they do not need a maths degree to figure out exactly how much money they will retain if they do seven, eight, nine, 15 or 20 hours’ work a week. We want it to be easy for them to understand that there is an incentive for every hour that they work, and for those in jobcentres to figure it out, so that they can give proper advice. We want incentives, not disincentives, to go back to work.