House of Commons
Monday 23 May 2011
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before questions
Rosemary Nelson Inquiry
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of the Report, dated 23 May 2011, of the Rosemary Nelson Inquiry.—(James Duddridge.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I want our education system to be the best in the world, which is why we have invested more than £100 million in an endowment fund for the poorest students. We have invested £2.5 billion in the pupil premium, we have expanded the academy programme and we have invested more in expanding elite routes into teaching such as Teach First. We have also raised the floor standards by which we judge schools’ performance. Some 216 secondary schools are below the floor standards with fewer than 35% of their students achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, and 1,394 primary schools are below the floor standards with fewer than 60% of pupils at the end of key stage 2 achieving level 4 or above in English and maths. I wrote to local authorities on 1 March asking them to set out their plans for improving their weaker schools. I received those plans back on 15 April and I am reviewing them.
In my constituency I want the best possible education for all pupils, no matter who they are or where they come from, but organisations such as the CBI are saying that they are concerned by the numeracy and literacy levels of school leavers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should have a zero-tolerance approach to underperforming schools and that we should prioritise literacy and numeracy levels?
I am sorry, Mr Speaker, that the Government are doing so much that I could not pack it all into one answer. I agree with my hon. Friend that we absolutely need a zero-tolerance policy on illiteracy and innumeracy. That is why we will be ensuring that all students pursue a course in English and maths to the age of 18.
The Secretary of State will know that one of the best ways of improving standards in schools is having a highly qualified and motivated teaching staff. I understand that there has still been no response to the inquiry into the quality of teacher training that the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families conducted when I was its Chair.
The James review found that school buildings that are beyond being merely fit for purpose make no real contribution to educational standards and that teaching and leadership are what make the difference to outcomes for children, not least in our weakest schools. Will the Secretary of State explain the difference in spending patterns that will be implemented by this Government as compared with those of the previous Government?
That is a typically good question from the Education Committee Chairman. Unlike the previous Government, we will not be wasting money on a capital programme that is out of control and bureaucratic. Instead, we will be investing money in making sure that more of the very best graduates go into teaching and we will be expanding opportunities for inspirational figures such as Peter Hyman to open new free schools and target the disadvantaged, who need them most.
Last week, I visited a school in my constituency that struggles to meet the floor targets but which has the most dedicated and outstanding teachers and head teacher anyone could wish for. How will the Government support those outstanding teachers and make them feel that the job they are doing is valued even though, because of all the other circumstances that those children experience in their lives, the school will struggle to meet the floor targets?
We have made our floor standards not only tougher, by raising them, but fairer so that we take account of progression. Those schools in which there are children from challenging backgrounds with low levels of prior attainment will be judged in the round. We are going to have a new measure in our performance tables that focuses attention on the performance of the 20% of students who come from the toughest backgrounds. It is also the case that our pupil premium will ensure that schools such as the one the hon. Lady mentions, with a high proportion of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, will simply get more money so that teachers can do an even better job.
The Government are committed to reducing the administrative burden on schools. We have already announced that the lengthy self-evaluation form will be removed, FMSiS—the financial management standard in schools—will be scrapped, and the inspection framework will be streamlined. All data collections are being reviewed and we have included measures in the Education Bill to remove unnecessary regulations. In addition, we are taking action to reduce dramatically the volume of guidance and advice issued to schools.
Free schools and academies reduce bureaucracy so that more time can be spent on education. Does the Minister agree that all those schools should be encouraged in all areas so that children from any background can have access to an environment that encourages aspiration and ambition?
My hon. Friend is right. The recent Public Accounts Committee report on academies found that they have achieved rapid academic improvements and raised aspirations in some of the most challenging schools in some of the most deprived parts of the country. That is why we are expanding the academies programme and encouraging more providers to enter the free schools movement.
Although it is important to reduce the burden of administration, how will the Government make sure that free schools have the right management skills to deal with the issues they face? In Bradford, a number of free schools have been approved where the management have no proven skills in management techniques.
There is a rigorous approval procedure before any free school proposal is approved by the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman should be assured that we are accepting to business case only those proposals that can demonstrate to the Secretary of State that they have a rigorous approach to leadership and management and will provide high-quality education.
Too much administration, the overbearing nature of Ofsted inspections, and an almost evangelical approach to safeguarding make it almost impossible for many schools to take their kids out on school trips. Instead, our young people are penned up in fortress-like schools. May we have an assurance that the Department will do everything it can to ensure that children get out of the classroom and go to museums and other facilities where they learn better?
My hon. Friend is right. That is why Ofsted inspections are being focused on teaching, leadership, attainment, behaviour and safety. We have taken into account the work of Lord Young in making sure that we do not over-regulate school trips, and that we make it much easier and safer for teachers to take children on school trips without the fear of prosecution.
4. What estimate he has made of the number of young people who will opt to study English baccalaureate subjects in the 2011-12 academic year. (56576)
We do not currently collect systematic data on pupil choices, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the English baccalaureate measure is having a positive effect, with more schools making this combination of subjects open to more pupils. Our concern is that last year just 15.6% of pupils achieved a C grade or better in the English baccalaureate combination of subjects.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but what would he say to a governor at Walbottle Campus in my constituency who raised with me the fact that that school and others like it have seen an impressive performance in GCSE results in the past few years, but saw only about 5% of its pupils achieving the E-bac? Does the Minister recognise the concern that E-bac by diktat will put at risk the hard work and commitment of staff, governors and pupils in creating a broad curriculum that enables all pupils to thrive?
The English baccalaureate is not prescriptive. It is just a measure—one of many measures—that this Government are putting forward as part of the transparency agenda. It is the next stage in that school’s improved performance. It is a concern to the Government that children, particularly in deprived areas, are not being offered that combination of choices. Only 8% of children who qualify for free school meals were even entered for the English baccalaureate subjects, and only 4% achieved them.
Does the Minister have any hard evidence that there has been a significant switch towards subjects in the English baccalaureate this year for this year’s results? Is he concerned that as a consequence cramming might have taken place in the switched-to subject?
It is always a concern if schools are not entering students for qualifications that best meet their interests. That is what is behind the introduction of the English baccalaureate measure. We want to undo some of the perverse incentives that already exist in the league table situation. We would not want to see pupils being transferred mid-course to English baccalaureate subjects simply for the league table position.
I am sure the Minister has read the bishops’ e-alert which arrived from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales at 2.18 pm this afternoon, in which the bishops say that they
“have serious reservations over the omission of Religious Education from the English Baccalaureate”
“urge the government to reconsider its decision”.
Given the state of rebellion on the Government Benches about this and the uncertainty across the country, will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm that he is not planning another U-turn, this time about RE and the E-bac?
Unlike the Pope, the bishops are not infallible. We believe that there is plenty of room in the English baccalaureate curriculum to continue to study subjects such as RE, economics, music, art and vocational subjects, and we have deliberately kept the English baccalaureate small to enable that to happen. In addition, RE is a compulsory subject, and we have seen a very large rise in the proportion of the cohort taking religious studies to GCSE, whereas we have seen a fall in the numbers and the proportion taking geography and history to GCSE.
School Staff Redundancies
No such assessment has been made centrally. The funding settlement for 2011-12 protects school funding in the system at flat cash per pupil and provides funding for the pupil premium on top of that.
Is the Minister aware of the report in The Times Educational Supplement showing that almost four in 10 schools in England plan to reduce staff numbers in the next year, meaning a possible drop of almost 17,000 staff across England? With a reduction of that order, is it not the case that many schools will struggle, particularly when it is linked to reductions in school budgets, which will fall in real terms over the next three years, meaning that those pupils most in need will be disadvantaged the most?
It is very difficult to take Labour Members seriously on the issue of funding, because we inherited a record Budget deficit that had to be tackled, and despite tackling a £156 billion Budget deficit, we have managed to maintain funding for schools at flat cash per pupil over the spending review period. In addition, we have introduced the pupil premium, which will rise to £2.5 billion by 2014-15. Having said that, and although this is a good settlement in the context of what we inherited, schools will have to find efficiencies in procurement and other areas; we absolutely recognise that. Coming from the hon. Gentleman, the question is rich, given what we inherited from his Government.
The first free schools are due to open in September, less than 15 months since we first invited applications from groups interested in setting up new schools. That in itself is testament to the incredible energy and commitment of the first pioneering projects. Four groups have now entered into a funding agreement, a further 22 have had their business cases approved and six more are under consideration.
I wholeheartedly welcome that progress. Research by the Adam Smith Institute has found that 42% of profit-making independent schools operate on fees equal to or less than the average pupil funding in state schools. If entrepreneurs can drive up teaching standards and keep costs down, should we not look critically at some of the more dogmatic objections to their potential role in developing free schools?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s radicalism and idealism. I want to see how the first free schools do when they open in September. Given some of the inspirational figures who plan to lead them, I am convinced that we will see standards rise and that, as we see them rise, the innovations that those figures bring to the state sector will be spread more widely.
Yes—a very good prompt from behind me. There are just around 100 civil servants working on the programme and I am delighted that they are, because I am convinced that helping idealistic figures, such as Peter Hyman and Sajid Hussain, a state school teacher who is setting up a school for disadvantaged students in Bradford, is a good thing. We are bringing schools to the areas of deprivation let down by the hon. Gentleman and his party. Instead of civil servants having their time diverted to the sort of politically correct projects that preoccupied the Labour party, at last they are concentrating on driving up standards for the poorest, and I am proud that it is the coalition Government who are doing it.
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming a number of potential free schools in my constituency, which he knows well, including one that plans to offer a bilingual education and one that plans to help very deprived young people in different areas?
I am delighted not only that there are free school applications from Brighton, Kemptown, but that Brighton college is playing a part in helping to establish a new free school in the east end of London which is setting out specifically to target talented children from poorer backgrounds. When that is combined with the innovation being shown by the Durand school in Brixton, for example, which plans to establish a state boarding school for disadvantaged children from that area, I have to say that the coalition Government are unleashing a wave of radicalism the like of which will not have been seen since 1944.
That confidence is clearly not shared in No. 10 Downing street, because last week it gave a distinctly lukewarm end-of-term report on the free schools policy. Let me quote a No. 10 source from The Independent:
“I guess you'd give Michael a six out of 10. The problem with Free Schools is that the scheme was designed to fill gaps in areas where there are poorly performing schools. But that’s not where the applications have come from.”
Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how many of the 26 approved free schools in England come from the 10 most deprived local authority districts?
May I say, in terms of statements emanating from the centre, how delighted we were on this side of the House to read just last week that the Labour leadership has full confidence in the right hon. Gentleman? We are absolutely delighted that he is where he is, and we hope to see him there for many months to come.
All the free school applications that we have received are either in areas of deprivation and educational underachievement or in areas where pupil numbers are rising fast and there is a desperate need to see new school places. Whether it is Bradford or the east end, Slough or Tower Hamlets, in every single one of those areas poorer children are benefiting as a result of our radicalism.
My son has been doing standard assessment tests—SATs—recently, and I have been saying to him, “Read the question and answer the question.” I am tempted to say the same to the Secretary of State. The answer—the answer he would not give—is two, so it is clear that his policy is based on ideology, not on need.
I am more pragmatic than the Secretary of State. I have always said that each local proposal should be judged on its merit, and there is nothing to stop a free school being truly comprehensive if it is set up in the right way. What I object to is the unfair way in which he is siphoning off resources from other schools to pay for his free schools. Will he confirm today that the average maintained school is this year going to get an 80% cut in its maintenance budget to pay for free schools? If that is true, how on earth does he justify it?
I hope the advice that the right hon. Gentleman has given to his son on how he sits his SATs includes doing his revision and his homework, because I sat open-mouthed as the right hon. Gentleman unveiled his latest position on free schools. It is very different from the answer he gave on “The Andrew Marr Show” on 10 October when he was asked:
“So you are against free schools?”
and he said, “Yes I am”; very different from the answer he gave in The Guardian on 9 November when he said that under Labour
“there would be no more free schools”;
and very different from the answer he gave on 31 January when he said:
“Free schools mean a free-for–all”.
Over the past year, he has been consistently opposed to free schools, and now he says he is in favour—
Order. I ask the Secretary of State to resume his seat, and let me make it clear beyond peradventure, to the Secretary of State and to the House, that questions are about the policy of the Government and answers, suitably succinct, should be about the policy of the Government. That is how we will proceed from now on.
Special Educational Needs
We published a Green Paper, “Support and Aspiration: A New Approach to Special Educational Needs and Disability”, on 9 March, and it is out to consultation until 30 June. We will consider responses carefully before taking forward our reforms, and we will shortly invite tenders for pathfinders to test proposals in the Green Paper. Within the general framework for special needs provision, it is for local authorities to determine the particular arrangements in their areas.
I thank the Minister for her reply and congratulate her on the excellent Green Paper. I have been contacted by a number of constituents from the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign, however. Can she explain how the Department for Communities and Local Government’s review of statutory duties on local authorities fits in with the strategic role envisaged for local authorities in her Green Paper?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. DCLG is undertaking a comprehensive review of all the statutory duties, but it is intended to remove unnecessary duties, not necessary duties, and there is absolutely no intention to downgrade those duties relating to special educational needs.
The Minister told the Education Committee last week that she thinks there will be resources for special educational needs. Children and parents deserve more than guesswork. Can she guarantee now that the Government will make sure that all children with additional learning needs have the support that they need to succeed at school?
That is exactly what the Green Paper is about, and I hope that the hon. Lady, if she has constituents who are particularly affected by our proposals, will ensure that they respond. The proposals are absolutely about making sure that children get the help that they deserve, but that is sadly not happening at the moment, partly because a lot of resources are wasted.
The Government and I are very concerned that adoption has lost momentum in recent years, and that is why we have launched a programme of reform. This has included setting up a ministerial advisory group, writing to directors of children’s services and lead members, publishing revised guidance, and launching an adoption data pack to support and challenge local authorities. We are also funding two voluntary sector projects to improve adoption practices and helping to promote adoption through National Adoption Week.
I thank the Minister for his answer and his support for the great work done by adoptive parents, and I welcome the Government’s work to increase adoption. He will be aware, however, of concerns about the security of the personal information of adoptive parents. Does he accept that without appropriate safeguards, parents may be discouraged from adopting? Will he take this opportunity to assure me and others that he is taking all possible steps to ensure that adopters’ personal information is properly protected?
I echo my hon. Friend’s support for the fantastic dedication of prospective adopters and people who take on that great responsibility. I know of his great interest in this area. He is absolutely right. I do not want to see anything that stands in the way of people coming forward and offering themselves to give safe adoptive placements to vulnerable children. He has raised this issue with me before in an Adjournment debate. I give him an undertaking that we will see if there are any problems in this area that are undermining the system.
We are currently reviewing the national curriculum with a view to slimming it down and focusing it on the essential knowledge that all children should acquire. Beyond that, it should be for individual schools to design a curriculum that best meets the needs of their pupils. The review is considering which subjects, beyond English, maths, science and physical education, should be part of the national curriculum in future, and we will announce our proposals early next year.
Fareport Training Organisation in Gosport has been nominated as a community champion for its amazing work in using citizenship education to help to engage post-16 students who have been disengaged with the traditional school system. Given what these classes have taught these students about their role in society and the value of democracy, does the Minister think that they would have enormous value in delivering the big society?
My hon. Friend is right. Citizenship is an important subject, and schools have an important role to play in encouraging young people to become responsible citizens and active members of society. I welcome what she says about her school. The Government are fully committed to empowering young people to become active citizens. That is the intention behind the launch of the national citizenship service programme last year.
The Minister will be aware of his own Government’s violence against women and girls strategy and the excellent report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs, both of which have highlighted the importance of education in schools in preventing violence against women and girls. What steps is he taking to make sure that that plan is delivered in our schools?
This is one issue that will be addressed in the national curriculum review. The issues that the hon. Lady raises are very important and have been given a very high priority by this Government. We share her concerns and we agree with the importance of raising these issues at school level. That is precisely what the national curriculum review will examine.
Discretionary Learner Support Fund
As with the education maintenance allowance, guidance on the 16-to-19 bursary fund, whose establishment is provided by the Secretary of State pursuant to section 14 of the Education Act 2002, will be issued by the Young People’s Learning Agency pursuant to its statutory powers under section 72 of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009.
Surely the Minister accepts that there is an urgent need for young people to have certainty as they make decisions about whether to go to college this year. Given that his own Department’s equality impact assessment said that the shift to a discretionary system could leave the door open to unintended discrimination, how will he ensure that decisions about allocation of funds are fair to students and do not leave colleges to prosecution under the equalities law?
By her own description, the hon. Lady is a champion of fairness, and she has been consistent in her critique of these matters. We expect schools and colleges to have regard to the guidance. They will also have to comply with equalities legislation, which means that they must not discriminate against their students on the basis of their protected characteristics, and they are subject to the public sector equality duty in section 149 of the Equalities Act 2010.
Three schools have applied and have opened as academies in Lancaster and Fleetwood. Those schools are Lancaster royal grammar school, Lancaster girls grammar school and Ripley St Thomas Church of England high school. The total number of open academies stands at 658, and more than 1,000 schools in England have applied to convert to academy status since June 2010.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on that success, and I thank him and his officials for their help with regard to Lancaster. Will he ensure that every assistance is given to schools that specialise in teaching children with special educational needs so that they can enjoy the benefits of academy status?
I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s commitment to ensuring that all children, particularly those who have special educational needs, can benefit from these additional freedoms. I am working with the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) to bring forward proposals to allow special schools to become academies.
The academy programme shows that the one-size-fits-all school is not what we need. May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his support for the groundbreaking boarding school element of Durand academy in my constituency? It will be the first free state boarding school for people from the most deprived areas, and the people of that school and the people of my community will welcome it.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the points that she makes. She is a consistent champion of helping people from poorer backgrounds to do better in state education. I place on the record my thanks to her for the support that she has given the outstanding team of teachers at Durand academy. I hope that this new initiative ensures that the children at that school continue to have an education of the highest quality. I am sure that we can make common cause of our shared commitment to ensuring that children from poorer backgrounds enjoy the sort of education previously restricted to those from richer backgrounds.
Maintained School Buildings
The Department for Education and Skills took the decision to no longer collect information on the condition of maintained school buildings in 2005 under the previous Government. The review of education capital undertaken by Sebastian James recommends the implementation of a rolling programme of condition data collection to provide a picture of investment needs. To help us consider our response to that recommendation, we have recently asked some local authorities to provide details of the condition information that they currently hold on their estates.
I think the House will recognise that that answer is only marginally helpful. Under the last Labour Government, a lot of secondary and primary schools in inner-city areas such as mine were rebuilt. At the moment, it is very unlikely that any primary schools, even those in great need, will see rebuilding or major refurbishment programmes. When will the money be available to those schools to ensure that children in inner cities get the education they deserve?
I will say two things. First, I recognise that many schools are in a desperately poor condition and need investment. Secondly, any question about investment can only elicit the reply that the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) gave earlier, which is that when Opposition Members ask for more investment, they should ask themselves one question: who is responsible for the desperate state of the economy that we inherited after 13 years of comprehensive mismanagement?
My right hon. Friend made his own personal assessment of the state of the buildings at the Duchess’s community high school in Alnwick, and he pronounced them to be pretty dreadful. When will there be a capital programme to which we can bid for those schools that are most urgently in need of rebuilding?
My right hon. Friend has made his case consistently and well. I hope to make an announcement about our response to the James review before Parliament rises for the summer recess. That will give explicit details about how we can make available resources for schools whose condition and fabric deserve urgent attention.
In March this year, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) kindly visited St John Bosco arts college in my constituency. In the Government’s announcement before the summer on their response to the James review, will they state that schools in areas of high social and economic deprivation will still benefit from higher capital support from Government?
I know that the Minister of State was impressed by the commitment shown by the teachers and parents at the school he visited. The hon. Gentleman has put his case throughout fairly and well. We will do everything that we can to ensure that the schools in the greatest need receive money. We have to prioritise schools where the fabric is most in need of support. As ever when thinking about revenue and capital allocations, deprivation is one of the central factors that we will consider.
Subject to the passage of the Education Bill, schools will be under a new duty to secure access to independent and impartial careers guidance for their pupils from September 2012. Also, an unprecedented degree of co-operation with the careers industry means that we will have new professional standards, training and accreditation.
I thank the Minister for his work in this area. Does he agree that more businesses also need to work in partnership with schools to provide careers advice? Will he join me in applauding the companies that are backing the futures fair that I and others in my constituency are putting together for secondary schools in Reading?
I am well aware, as you, Mr Speaker, and the whole House will be, of my hon. Friend’s commitment in that regard. Indeed, on 29 September, under his leadership, Reading West schools and others will be holding a futures fair. It is critical that that becomes the norm, not the exception, with businesses, schools, careers guidance bodies and Government working together to turn people’s ambitions into reality.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the Education Bill is going through the House—I have a copy for him here, just in case he has forgotten its contents. He also knows that on the subject of transition I have written to every local authority in the country—again, I have a copy of the details here—and to schools, letting them know what provision they need to put in place in anticipation of their new duty this September.
The move from Connexions to more effective arrangements for careers guidance will present challenges as new opportunities emerge. Those challenges will, of course, be resolved at local level. It is for local authorities themselves to decide what provision they should make for young people, taking into account their statutory duties and the advice that they have received from me.
The good people of Hull have just kicked out the Liberal Democrat council, and with it the Tory-led policy of pulling funding for Connexions. Will the Minister congratulate the new council leader, Steve Brady, on overturning that vicious Tory policy and looking after young people in the city?
The hon. Lady will know that I have agreed to, and indeed already conducted, a meeting with young people to consider exactly what they want out of the system. I intend to spread those summits to other locations across the country so that we can shape the service to meet young people’s needs, for as John Ruskin said:
“The highest reward for a man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.”
Directors of Children’s Services
A working group of representatives from the Department for Education and key stakeholders from the local government sector was set up earlier this year to consider the role of directors of children’s services. The group is developing a range of options. Of course, Professor Munro also considered the matter in conducting her review of child protection, published last week, and I plan to consider her recommendation alongside the options appraisal that is being drawn up by the working group.
Is it not of crucial importance that every top-tier local authority has a director of children’s services? Children’s safety has to be a priority right across the House and the country. Why are Telford Conservatives opposing the appointment of a director of children’s services in Telford and Wrekin council, of which we have just taken control with a whopping majority?
I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning will be delighted to meet the new leader of the hon. Gentleman’s council, as well, at some stage in the future.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the recommendations of the Munro report will be considered with the working group that we have already established, as we decide on the best way forward in delivering children’s services in local authorities. We will ensure that children are given the very best protection, which we know we need to improve.
I want to raise the profile of the whole issue of the trafficking of children and the sexual exploitation of children—another important issue, on which we are working closely with Barnardo’s and stakeholders—and to ensure that we have much better inter-agency working. In Professor Munro’s recommendations, local safeguarding children boards have a key role to play. That might be considered alongside what the director of children’s services does in any case.
The Opposition welcome Professor Eileen Munro’s report, and specifically her recommendation that the role of director of children’s services is protected. We recently surveyed every director of children’s services in England, more than 80% of whom said that the ability to safeguard children in their area would be reduced by cuts to police, mental health services or primary care. Does the Minister acknowledge the worries of those directors of children’s services that cuts to those services will impact on the ability of councils to safeguard their children, and what is he doing to represent those views to his ministerial colleagues?
If the hon. Gentleman has read the Munro report, he will know that she identifies as the biggest enemy to protecting children better the bureaucracy that has gone into the system, whereby social workers at the sharp end with other key agencies and professionals spend up to 80% of their time in front of computer screens, complying with processes rather than getting out into the field and dealing with the vulnerable families and children whom they went into the profession to protect. That is what we want to happen in future, and I hope it will happen as we take forward the Munro review, in the best interests of protecting the vulnerable children who are not nearly safe enough now.
We expect the cost of providing a £1,200 bursary to the most vulnerable young people to be just under £15 million in 2011-12. In addition, just over £101 million in 2011-12 will be allocated to schools, colleges and training providers for them to make discretionary awards to students. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are also putting in place transitional funding.
In evidence to the Select Committee on Education last week, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges made it clear that to support young people properly, schools and colleges ought to have known six months ago how much money they would get. They still do not know how much money they will get. When will they know?
What colleges do know is that the Government are providing just over £194 million in 2011-12 in the transitional support that I have described. Of course, the change that we are describing is a change towards greater discretion. I was with the gentleman to whom the hon. Gentleman refers, and I know how much he welcomes that additional discretion, so that the system can become more responsive, dynamic and suited to need.
We have heard that under the new arrangements, schools and colleges will have flexibility on who qualifies for support, but will my hon. Friend confirm that disadvantaged students in my constituency will get the help that they need to enter further education?
Barnsley college is an outstanding college, as judged by Ofsted, and it would like to support young people from low-income families by giving them free school meals, free transport and help with books and equipment. Will the Government guarantee that they will give Barnsley the funding to deliver that to its young people, to enable them to fulfil their potential?
I will tell the hon. Lady what I will guarantee. I will guarantee that colleges can make those kind of discretionary decisions. She is right: different colleges in different areas, serving different cohorts, need funds to support different kinds of activities to deal with different challenges. That is exactly the kind of flexibility that we intend to help her college and her learners.
Arts and Culture
We want all children and young people to be able to experience a strong cultural education. Following the review of music education, the Government have asked Darren Henley to carry out a review of cultural education, both in and out of school.
The Minister will recognise, however, that the creative industries are crucial to the country’s economic recovery. Is he aware that many of the leaders of those industries remain to be convinced that sufficient is being done to include within the national curriculum the subjects that really matter to them—art, design, technology and so on? May we have a categorical assurance that guidance has been given to the national curriculum review to ensure that those subjects are included properly?
The national curriculum review is considering which subjects should be compulsory at which stages of a pupil’s education, and it will make its recommendations in due course. However, just because a subject is not in the national curriculum does not mean that it is not an important subject. It can be important but outside the national curriculum. We have to distinguish between the national curriculum and a school curriculum. We want to give schools more discretion in drawing up school curricula.
Given that academy schools have been among the worst offenders in putting pupils from poorer income families on to grade-inflating, semi-vocational courses, how will the expansion of academies further the take-up of English baccalaureate subjects?
The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue on several occasions, and we share his concerns. In most instances, academies have taken over schools in deprived areas and in challenging circumstances, and mostly those schools have been badly underperforming. Academies are transforming the quality of education in those areas at twice the pace of mainstream schools across the system. We share his concerns, however, and the introduction of the English baccalaureate measure will go a long way to ensuring that schools in the most challenging parts of the country start to deliver academic education for children who have been denied those opportunities to date.
One of my Department’s aims is to ensure that the most talented people possible are teaching our children. Teachers from the European economic area can already teach in our schools. Today I want to extend that freedom to teachers from Commonwealth countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and I hope that other Commonwealth countries such as South Africa, Jamaica and Singapore can join in due course.
Would the Secretary of State like to compare the answer of the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, when he talked about the ecumenical nature of the Government in wanting to meet the needs and hopes of young people in education, to his own horribly brazen party political response, when I asked him about school building for children in inner-city areas? Will he come to Manchester and see some of these schools so that we can discuss how to improve the situation?
My hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning is blessedly ecumenical, but I am afraid I am sometimes more narrowly Presbyterian in my approach. However, it would be a pleasure to visit Manchester again. I have enjoyed it in the past, and I know that when it comes to speaking up for his constituents, the hon. Gentleman does a great job. I would be happy to work with him.
T4. Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is unfairness in the level of per pupil funding for Cambridgeshire schools when set against the national average? Will he join me in urging schools across Cambridgeshire to respond to the Department’s consultation on school funding reform, which finishes on Wednesday? (56601)
Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the mean-spirited actions of Tory-controlled Wandsworth council, which plans to introduce a charge of £2.50 for children to play in a publicly funded playground? Children there play together regardless of income or background, and for many local children the playground is their back garden, because they live in high-rise flats. Is this localism in action, or will the Secretary of State assure the House that the Government will press councils to ensure that this is not a slippery slope towards a price tag on playtime? [Interruption.]
As my hon. Friends point out, a slippery slope is often something we would want in a playground. In fairness, however, as the hon. Lady pointed out, we want to ensure that children have the opportunity to play and enjoy play without fees or bureaucracy getting in the way. It is one of the responsibilities of local authorities to ensure that children have an opportunity to play freely, but it is also the responsibility of central Government to sweep away some of the ridiculous health and safety regulations that the previous Government put in place to prevent our young children from enjoying themselves properly.
T6. Within just a few weeks of beginning their initial recruit training courses for the Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force, individuals joining the forces who have been let down in the areas from which they come have had their educational attainment transformed. What lessons can mainstream schools learn from Her Majesty’s armed forces? (56603)
That is a brilliant point from my hon. Friend, who, as some may know, is a Territorial who served in the Parachute regiment. Our proposal to allow people who have been in the armed forces to enter the classroom—our Troops to Teachers programme—will ensure that precisely the sorts of virtues that he talks about become more widespread and are targeted at the most disadvantaged children.
T2. Bristol is facing a crisis in primary school provision, with an estimated shortfall of at least 3,000 places by 2015. Instead of supporting gimmicky measures such as the 150 places at the new secondary free school in Bristol, will the Minister concentrate on the real needs of parents and pupils in Bristol, and help us get primary school provision in place? (56599)
I note that the hon. Lady is opposed to new secondary school provision in Westbury on Trym. I am sure that her constituents will want to know that she is against an excellent new secondary school—that is very instructive to know—and that she is diverging from the view of her Front-Bench colleagues, who I think are in favour of free schools. There is an urgent need for more primary school places. The last Government were warned by the Office of Government Commerce that they needed to act, but they failed to do so. That is why all local authorities are receiving more money from us to provide more school places for primary school children.
T7. In Tamworth and around the country, A-level students are now preparing for their examinations, and many will have offers of university places based on their predicted results. Is it not time that we ended this unsatisfactory arrangement and timetabled university applications to come after A-level examinations and results, thereby ending the bureaucracy of clearing? (56604)
T3. Following the abolition of education maintenance allowance, further education colleges are finding it difficult to plan ahead for pupils on low incomes, those who may have been on free school meals and those from low-income households. How on earth will colleges be able to plan ahead if they are not receiving information about the people trying to enrol? Can the Minister say what he is going to do about that? (56600)
That is a perfectly fair question. It is important that colleges have information as soon as possible to make the kind of provision that the hon. Gentleman suggests. I will ensure that further discussions take place between my officials and colleges to guarantee that they have that information.
T8. Does the Secretary of State agree with Ofqual that the OCR—Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations—GCSE history pilot should end? Shaun Connelly, the head of humanities at Colne Primet high school in my constituency, has contacted me, as he believes that the course has allowed students of all abilities to achieve their potential in history. (56605)
A judgment about which qualifications should or should not count is properly a matter for Ofqual, the independent regulator. One of the points that it makes is that although that particular qualification may have some teaching attractions, only 25% of the content is assessed by an external exam at the end; 75% of it is teacher-assessed. Many of us would argue that the balance between teacher assessment and external assessment should be got right, and that we should have more external assessment.
T5. Under the Protection of Freedoms Bill, an individual who is barred from working with children can volunteer in the classroom. The school will not be notified that that person has been barred by the independent safeguarding authority. Many parents are worried about this development. Is the Minister? (56602)
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that point. We are working on a number of scenarios to ensure that people who are not entitled to work should not be there. However, it is up to everybody to be vigilant—not least the head of a school—and to take appropriate references on the background of the person concerned. I would much rather have a system with a common-sense and proportionate approach which does not drive out adults who willingly want to give up their time to work with young people and make them into better members of our community, and not wrap them in cotton wool.
T9. A survey for the Prince’s Trust shows that one in five children from deprived homes believes that they will end up in “dead-end jobs”. Does the Minister agree that this highlights the importance of implementing the Wolf review, and in particular recommendation 7, which says that the lowest-attaining learners should focus on English and maths, backed up by practical work experience? (56606)
I am familiar with the Prince’s Trust report to which my hon. Friend refers. It does indeed describe the under-achievement that he highlights, but it also says that often people do not get adequate advice and guidance—the wherewithal that they need—to achieve their ambitions. That is precisely why we are so committed to filling that gap.
T10. Head teachers of eight secondary schools serving children in my constituency have taken what they describe as the unprecedented step of writing to the parents and carers of years 11 and 12 students about the impact of Government cuts on sixth-form funding. They are considering cutting the range of courses, increasing class sizes, ending the teaching of some subjects, and reducing guidance and enrichment sessions. They say in their letter:“we have never been subject to cuts of this magnitude,”which— (56607)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to that letter; I hope that he will send me a copy. I know that he is a new Member, and that he is passionate about raising standards in his constituency, but the reductions in public spending are a direct consequence of the mistakes that were made by the Government who preceded us. I am afraid that the reply that he should give to that letter should graciously acknowledge that fact.
Too many special needs children are being denied education because a school place travel grant or a statement has either not been granted or not been honoured. Is it not time, when there is clear evidence of special educational need, that we allow a child’s educational funding to follow them to their school of choice, whether or not they have a statement?
The proposals in the Green Paper that we are consulting on aim to make it clearer when a child should have a statement. Schools should therefore be much clearer about what is normally available, and I hope that that will make it easier for parents and schools to understand whether there should be a statement. The new proposals for an education, health and care plan ought to join up funding to make things much simpler for families.
Further to Question 13, we have been told for nearly a year that an announcement on the replacement for Building Schools for the Future is imminent, yet we are still waiting. We are now being told that there might be one before the summer recess. The fabric of some schools continues to crumble, and a few are now in a dangerous state. Will we hear an announcement in the next couple of weeks telling us exactly where we are going to be?
No, I am afraid. I would make two points. Over the comprehensive spending review period we will be spending more every year on school capital than the previous Government spent in every year of their first eight years. It is therefore simply wrong to say that there is no investment in school buildings, because it will be greater than it was in the first eight years under the previous Government. Also, more than 700 schools in the BSF programme are still having their renovation work carried out. Of course we would like to do more, but our capacity to do so is impeded by the bureaucratic mess that we were left by the last Government and by the fact that there simply was not any money left after their comprehensive mismanagement of the economy.
Schools in Hastings have been bitterly disappointed by the recent decision of the local authority, guided by the schools forum, to devolve £1.4 million of excellence cluster funding that had been intended for the most deprived schools. It is now to be shared throughout East Sussex. The rationale appears to be that the pupil premium will make up the additional costs. Can the Secretary of State please clarify whether additional funds from the pupil premium are considered as part of the overall funding when the assessment is made of the minimum funding guarantee?
Good careers advice is absolutely vital to those at risk of falling into neither earning nor learning. Following the demise of Connexions, will the Secretary of State say who will own the administrative data, counting in real time the numbers of young people who are not in education, employment or training?
The hon. Lady is right about good careers guidance, but she will know that a survey conducted by Edge found that 51% of young people regarded the advice from Connexions as inadequate. In moving to the new service, we will of course take on board those data, but we are also putting into place for the first time an all-age database to give people the advice they need in order to fulfil their potential.
My hon. Friend has lent his considerable weight to that campaign and it is important, whether we are thinking about swimming and physical education or more broadly, that we do everything we can to ensure that life-saving and first aid skills are part of what happens in our schools.
Twelve months ago, the Secretary of State said that there was a compelling case to rebuild Tibshelf school. Meanwhile, the teachers are travelling 6 miles every day, tramping between two schools—Tibshelf and Deincourt in North Wingfield—yet we have heard nothing more from the Secretary of State. It sounds to me as though, like many of us, he is very good at talking the talk, but in government, you are supposed to walk the walk. When is this going to happen?
It is good to see the hon. Gentleman walking the walk without any mechanical or medical aid of any kind whatever; we are all reassured to see him in fine form. I have to say that the hon. Gentleman, as a former grammar school boy himself, should accept one thing: the difficult economic situation that we inherited and the difficult position that Derbyshire county council put us into after years of Labour rule mean that it is very difficult for us to do the work necessary to repair the school which needs our support so desperately.
We are doing everything possible with our reform of the school admissions code, which will be published shortly, to ensure that all children have a high-quality school place. I know that my hon. Friend has argued vigorously to ensure that every child on the Isle of Wight has a school of high quality close at hand. I look forward to working with him and the council.
Parents, staff and students across Sefton have raised concerns about the plans to create academies. Does the Secretary of State understand the need to gain support from parents, staff and students—and, indeed, the wider community—before converting schools to academies? Will he ensure that such major and irrevocable changes cannot be carried out by governing bodies without full consultation?
The popularity of academies is attested by the increasing number of parents who want their children to go to those schools. I am sure that every governing body contemplating this step will take the appropriate procedures and will ensure that this transformative change benefits all the students.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend on an issue that I know is of considerable concern in this House as well as to the public and the media. The Government believe that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our democracy, and that it is of the greatest importance that people should be able to discuss and debate issues as freely and openly as possible. This includes those occasions when freedom of speech is exercised provocatively, as it is supposed to be in a free country.
Plainly, however, there are also occasions when an individual is entitled to have their privacy protected. There is a balance to be struck and this is reflected in our existing legal framework. The Government recognise the importance of finding the correct balance between individual rights to privacy on the one hand and rights to freedom of expression and transparency of official information on the other. We also recognise that there are widely differing views on what that balance should be. It is in no one’s interest to rush to judgment on this.
The complexity of the issue and the lack of consensus are some of the reasons why the report of the Master of the Rolls’ committee on the procedural aspects of super-injunctions and anonymity injunctions published last Friday is to be welcomed, and why we will want to take on board its carefully thought through recommendations. It reaffirms that open justice is a fundamental constitutional principle, and that exceptions are permissible only to the extent that they are strictly necessary in the interests of justice. While such decisions will necessarily be made in each particular case, dependent on the facts of that case, it does offer a likelihood of some greater clarity.
The report indicates that when some degree of secrecy is necessary, the facts of the case and the reason for secrecy should be explained, as far as possible, in an openly available judgment. It also emphasises that super-injunctions—where the fact that there is an injunction, as well as the substantive issues, has to be kept secret—are now only being granted for very short periods where secrecy is necessary to ensure that the whole point of the order is not destroyed. We hope that its analysis and recommendations should help to allay concerns that super-injunctions were being granted far too readily and about their potential open-endedness.
Of course, a range of wider issues has been raised by the events of the past few months and especially the past weekend. We take seriously the need to ensure that we have the correct balance between privacy and freedom of expression. Today, the Prime Minister will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) recommending that a Joint Committee be established to consider how current arrangements can be improved. Such a Committee will be able to use representation of both Houses and the considerable expertise that Select Committees have to examine whether the current arrangements are working and to consider whether we might make any changes that would make things work better.
In the meantime, it is right to emphasise that just as any change in the law is a matter for Parliament, the interpretation of the law is a responsibility placed on the judiciary. Legal mechanisms exist to review individual decisions that may be mistaken. If we believe in the rule of law, it is our duty as parliamentarians to uphold those principles.
I welcome the report from the committee of the Master of the Rolls, which contains a number of sensible recommendations, and also the Prime Minister’s decision to establish a Committee to examine all the issues surrounding the granting of injunctions and super-injunctions. Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept, however, that matters are developing very rapidly? Does he accept that the revelation on Friday of some of the details of the injunction granted to Sir Fred Goodwin raised important issues of public interest, and that that raises the question of why the injunction was granted in the first place? Does he agree that he would virtually have to live in an igloo not to know the identity of at least one premier league footballer who has obtained an injunction, and that the actions by thousands of people who posted details of it on Twitter are in danger of making the law look an ass?
In the report by the Master of the Rolls, doubt is cast once again on the right of the press to report the proceedings of Parliament. Does that not have worrying implications for the rights of Members of the House of Commons, and for parliamentary privilege?
More than a year ago, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport called for the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840 to be replaced by a clear and comprehensive statute upholding the fundamental rights of the press to report what is said in this place. Will he ensure that that, too, is considered by the Prime Minister’s Committee as a matter of urgency?
Let me respond to my hon. Friend’s reference to individual cases by saying that he will not be surprised if I am not drawn into commenting on the matter. What I can say is that widespread public interest and, indeed, disquiet have been expressed about the events of the past few weeks and days, and that—as the report by the Master of the Rolls clearly showed—they raise the question of how a person’s privacy can be balanced against the requirement for the public to be properly informed, and also the question of how injunctions may be enforced. I would add, however, that the courts have power to punish those who breach injunctions, and those who decide flagrantly to do so should bear that in mind when they embark on such a course.
The question of parliamentary privilege is not a new issue. While it is fully recognised that we have complete privilege in this Chamber to say what we like—and the Lord Chief Justice reiterated that in the clearest and most unequivocal terms in his comments last Friday— the question of the extent to which communication between a constituent and a Member of Parliament is covered by parliamentary privilege remains uncertain. What is entirely clear is that—from the judiciary’s point of view as much as those of the Government and Parliament—that is an undesirable state of affairs, which is undoubtedly susceptible to both clarification and rectification if the will is there for that to be done.
I thank the Attorney-General for his answer to the urgent question. I also thank the committee chaired by the Master of the Rolls for its report.
Will the Committee that the Prime Minister is to establish be a Joint Committee consisting of the Culture, Media and Sport and Justice Committees, and how soon will it report?
Until now, the Government’s position on this issue has been a muddle. The Attorney-General may be aware that I raised the issue last week during Justice questions, when I reminded the Lord Chancellor about the importance of balancing freedom of expression with an individual’s right to privacy. I also asked the Government to give clarity and guidance on an issue that has become increasingly confusing and where Parliament has been slow to act. In response, the Lord Chancellor said that
“it is probably right that Parliament passing a privacy Act might well be the best way of resolving the issue”.—[Official Report, 17 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 137.]
However, on the following day the Culture Secretary said:
“I don’t believe a privacy law is the way forward.”
The Government appear to be at sixes and sevens on their policy on privacy injunctions and freedom of the press. Will the Attorney-General clarify their position?
Does the Attorney-General believe that a new privacy law is needed? If so, how will it differ from article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998? He will be aware that super-injunctions and anonymised orders should apply only in exceptional cases. There is a concern that they are being applied for, and granted, too readily. Does the Attorney-General believe that this report will address those concerns, and how soon will the Committee report?
Does the Attorney-General believe that the sanctions for those who break injunctions are sufficient? What are the Government’s views on how the right to privacy can be balanced with the growing usage of internet-based communications such as Twitter?
Finally, being able to speak freely in the House of Commons and House of Lords is an essential part of parliamentary scrutiny. Can the Attorney-General confirm that the Government will not allow this principle to be undermined in any way?
I shall deal, so far as I can, with each point in turn. First, the Government have made it clear that it will be a Joint Committee, and have asked
“Business Managers to establish a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider these issues. The remit will be to advise the Government on how current arrangements can be improved and put on a more sustainable footing, aiming to report in the autumn.”
The Government have also
“asked the Justice Secretary and Culture Secretary to liaise…on the Terms of Reference.”
The right hon. Gentleman’s second question was about privacy law. It is undoubtedly the case that it would be open to this House to enact a privacy law, if it wished. However, I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that he misquoted my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary, as what he actually said was:
“We’re not minded to have a new privacy law but we’re not ruling out the need for legislative changes.”
If I may say so, it is possible to have legislative change without necessarily having a full-blown privacy law, and this seems to me to be precisely the sort of issue that the Committee will need to consider, and in a measured and sensible fashion.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly raised the question as to whether a privacy law would make any difference to the existing arrangements. That, too, is an interesting subject for both legal and political debate, and it is precisely because that needs to take place that the suggestion has come forward that this is the best way in which to proceed.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions about enforceability. It has been clear for some time in a number of different spheres that the enforceability of court orders and injunctions presents a challenge now that information can rapidly be posted on the internet, but that does not necessarily mean that the right course of action is to abandon any attempt at preventing people from putting out information that may, in some circumstances, be enormously damaging to vulnerable people or, indeed, be the peddling of lies.
May I press my right hon. and learned Friend further on the second issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale): the protection of parliamentary privilege? Last week in the report and the subsequent press conference, the Master of the Rolls and the Lord Chief Justice intimated that they wanted the House of Commons to extend the sub judice rules in order to restrict the use of freedom of speech under parliamentary privilege in this House and/or the reporting of it. Had that applied in 2009, the public would not be aware today of the Trafigura super-injunction and this whole issue would not have come to light. Can my right hon. and learned Friend please ensure that these proposals by the Master of the Rolls and the Lord Chief Justice do not in any way restrict either our rights or the rights of the press to report?
I have to say to my right hon. Friend that my reading of what was said is rather different. In the clearest and most unequivocal terms, both the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls spelled out the existing fact: that the privilege we have under article 9 of the Bill of Rights is unimpeachable in any court in respect of what is said in this Chamber. The control mechanism that is put in place is, in fact, entirely dependent on yourself, Mr Speaker. That then raises the question of the extent to which there is a necessity, by convention, for comity, whereby this House, through Mr Speaker’s authority, respects the rulings of other courts, being a court itself. As I understand it, there has never been any suggestion that any of the proposals being put forward call into question those basic principles. Indeed, as I pointed out in an earlier answer, the evidence is pretty overwhelming that where there is a lack of clarity in this area in terms of communication between constituent and Member of Parliament, there seems to be a universal view that it would be well if we could clarify things, and the Government recognise that.
We welcome the Attorney-General’s clarification, but is it not a fact that if we continue to use parliamentary privilege to usurp court orders, we are not only bringing Parliament and the courts into conflict, but interfering with the separation of powers. Is that desirable or is it not?
I would assume that across the House it would be considered that the abuse of parliamentary privilege to subvert court orders made with the express intention of implementing Parliament’s legislation through the courts is improper. Ultimately, however, that is a matter for this House and Mr Speaker to regulate, and it is through our own mechanisms that we do so; that is the right and privilege we have. I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a privilege that must not be abused.
We would expect a Joint Committee to uphold the necessary rights of Parliament and defend them, but would any Committee not also have to look at the separate question of whether it can be right for someone to use Twitter or electronic media of other kinds to place something in the public domain with the express intention of allowing it then to be reported?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, but it ties in with the earlier point about how all this can be enforced. As I said earlier, however, those who take an idea that modern methods of communication mean that they can act with impunity may well find themselves in for a rude shock.
I, too, welcome the establishment of this Joint Committee, which is sensible in view of the difficulties in interpreting the law. There are reports that the Attorney-General is considering prosecuting an individual for a breach of one of these injunctions. Is that the case? Is he considering such a prosecution?
I would not normally comment on the role I have to carry out as Attorney-General in the public interest and not as a Minister of the Crown, but there is no secret in the fact that, as matters stand, I have received no referral whatsoever in relation to any civil contempt of court.
Does the Attorney-General accept that the fault in this case lies with Parliament itself in not repealing the Human Rights Act 1998? As the then shadow Attorney-General, I advocated doing that and it remained Conservative policy until the general election. Does he accept that it is about time that we legislated on our own terms in Westminster to deal with these matters, and in terms of parliamentary privilege, to ensure that the British voter actually sees legislation that is what he wants and that we have British law for British judges?
My hon. Friend raises a perfectly legitimate issue, which may doubtless be the subject of debate in this Chamber. Like me, he will recall that when we enacted the Human Rights Act the issue of the balance between privacy and freedom of expression was extensively debated. Indeed, not only was it extensively debated, but its detail was looked at, as were its possible implications in respect of introducing a privacy law into our national legal framework. Therefore, it cannot be said that the consequences that flow from it can be unexpected; I strongly suspect that he predicted them at the time, and I believe I did too.
I hope that the Attorney-General will acknowledge the independence of the Scottish courts. Will he confirm that no application was made for an interdict at the Court of Session on the news reported in the Sunday Herald yesterday and will he assure the House that no legal action will be taken against the newspaper or its staff?
Order. Let me just say to the hon. Gentleman—although I know that he has already done it—that occasions such as this are for raising the issues of principle involved, not for seeking to flout orders for whatever purpose. If the hon. Gentleman wants to finish his question in an orderly way, he may do so.
I should like to return to the response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell). Although it is right that we do not have a strict separation of powers in this country, we adhere to the principle to some degree as it is accepted that we write the laws and the courts interpret and apply them. In that context, does the Attorney-General agree that Members of this House should exercise extreme caution when, as we have in some senses just witnessed, they take it on themselves to breach court orders using parliamentary privilege when they are not fully apprised of all the evidence in the way that the judges who hear the cases are appraised? We have the power, after all, to change the law if we see fit.
May I take a contrary view? Members of this House have absolute privilege that they use responsibly and for judges to criticise Members of this House seems to me to be an abuse of their power. Will the Attorney-General spell out quite clearly that judges should butt out?
I have to say to my hon. Friend that I am not quite sure what they are supposed to butt out from. If he is suggesting that they should butt out from doing their duty and following the judicial oath that they take, I am afraid I disagree with him.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right and it is therefore open to this House and the Government to consider those issues. To return to where I started in my answer to the urgent question, a mechanism has been put in train that will, I hope, allow, on the basis of some cross-party consensus, a sensible view to be taken of how the law can be improved in this area.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that some important issues of principle and of the constitutional rights of Members of Parliament are under discussion, as some of the exchanges have already demonstrated? Is it not now time for either the Joint Committee that he mentioned or a special Select Committee of the House of Commons to determine the boundaries of privilege in the modern day and age, some of which were touched on by the special Select Committee that examined the case of Mr Damian Green in the last Parliament?
The internet heralded the age of information abundance, whereas once newspapers could enforce information scarcity. Our dilemma is caused by our failure to respond to that challenge as a Parliament, so I welcome the review. Given that at least one person who took out a super-injunction is also talking to solicitors about the illegal hacking of their phones, does the Attorney-General not think that to balance this up we must consider the massive covert and illegal invasion of individuals’ privacy so that we can have a framework of laws that protects people from technological invasion of their privacy while also allowing freedom of the press?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the question about phone hacking is currently the subject of criminal investigation. For that reason, I am sure he will appreciate why it is not a subject on which I wish to comment further in any detail, but I will say that the Government are perfectly aware of the issue.
Surely, we cannot have a situation in which celebrities court positive publicity to gain sponsorship and other endorsements and then rush to take out super-injunctions when negative publicity comes their way. There are not many cases of people taking out injunctions regarding positive publicity. Does the Attorney-General therefore agree that what we do not need are more privacy laws, of which we seem to have plenty at the moment, and that we need freedom-of-speech and freedom-of-the-press laws?
May I say to my hon. Friend that our laws already provide very substantial protection for the freedom of the press? The question arises as to how a balance should be struck. Even before the operation of the Human Rights Act, the power of the courts to protect the vulnerable and children, for example, was well established in our law. In that sense it is not a novelty. That balance is always going to be a subject of legitimate debate and I hope that, as a result of the steps that the Government are taking, that debate will take place.
The Attorney-General has rightly concentrated on matters of law but does he agree that equally important, arguably, are matters of technology? If it is not technologically possible to enforce a particular law, there is hardly any point in having that law in the first place.
I am not sure that I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Ultimately, the enforceability of any order made by a court depends first on people obeying the law and, secondly, if people do not obey the law, on the capacity to bring them to justice and to make the court’s order felt on them. That is a slightly different issue but, as I acknowledged earlier and as was acknowledged by the Lord Chief Justice when he gave his press statement last Friday, the multiplicity of available communication media certainly do pose a particular challenge for the courts.
I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend could assist me with a point raised by the Neuberger report—the change allowing members of the media to be present when applications are made. Am I right in presuming that the press will be able to report unsuccessful applications with full details? If so, will that perhaps serve as a further check on the makers of these applications in future?
I think that will be very much a matter for the discretion of the judge hearing the case. I do not think that one could make some kind of blanket pronouncement as to how it would operate in practice, but clearly the merit of the course of action being proposed is that it would remove the element of total secrecy, which—I can well see this argument—fuels speculation and in some cases, I have little doubt, a lack of understanding as to why the application was made in the first place, whether it was successful or not.
I think that we all agree in the House that the law should be used to protect the vulnerable and not to hide the misdemeanours of those with large cheque books, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we have found ourselves in this situation because of the behaviour of some of the newspaper press? Super-injunctions have emerged because of the ineffectual and impotent way in which the Press Complaints Commission works, but we can regulate that and give ourselves greater protection from abuse.
Looking at the matters that have been complained of recently, it seems to me fairly noteworthy that the press appear generally to observe the terms of injunctions against them. Indeed, from that point of view the injunction system appears to be quite effective; it is in other respects, such as the blogosphere and Twitter, that the difficulty emerges. What is absolutely clear is that breaches of court orders should not take place.
Following on from that question, does the Attorney-General agree that members of the Press Complaints Commission are the last people who should be policing this area—an idea that has apparently been floated by the Prime Minister—given their feeble record and complete failure over the phone-hacking scandal?
The question of what role the Press Complaints Commission may play is clearly another subject that the House may wish to consider. I am not sure that I entirely subscribe to the right hon. Gentleman’s very pessimistic view of the Press Complaints Commission. I have seen examples where, it seems to me, it has operated quite effectively. That is a further reason why that may be a sensible area for debate.
I welcome the review, but does the Attorney-General share with me the concern at the deeply sinister and Kafkaesque prospect, under the present super-injunction regime, that an unnamed journalist could be imprisoned in a secret court for having revealed the name of a hitherto anonymous personality who had a lot of money to bring that legal action? That is more like the actions of a state such as North Korea or Zimbabwe than the United Kingdom.
Does the Attorney-General agree that in seeking a solution we need to balance sensitively the right to respect for private and family life with freedom of expression and fair and public hearing, but we must avoid rushed legislation and we must as far as possible future-proof the legislation against any technological changes?
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that although we must use the naming of individuals in the House with great caution, a quick trip into the blogosphere and the Twittersphere, to use his words, would have revealed the names of those two individuals? Does he agree that what is happening in relation to injunctive law is bringing the law into wide public disrepute? Although I welcome the setting up of the committee, does he agree that ultimately there will be a need for a change in the law to clarify the matter?
As I indicated at the outset, it is possible for Parliament to enact changes to the law. The fact that the courts may not be able to and may not seek to control everything that might be said in breach of an injunction does not necessarily mean that that injunction does not have a valid purpose. It can at least limit the circulation of the damage, even if it cannot stop it. So for those reasons—we do not live in a perfect world—I do not think that the fact that an injunction can be breached and may be breached by some individuals invalidates it, although a point can sometimes be reached where a matter becomes so public and the currency so total that the existence of the injunction becomes pointless.
I welcome the review. Twittergate is just the latest example of judicial legislation distorting the balance of human rights under article 8 of the European convention. There have been other examples recently, including the defeating of deportation orders under article 8 in relation to convicted criminals. The Attorney-General rightly points out that there is a big difference between judges interpreting the law and judges making new law, which is for elected representatives. Does he agree that the Human Rights Act has at least contributed to undermining that separation of powers?
In constructing the Human Rights Act, I do not think Parliament can be described as anything other than open-eyed as to what it intended to do about privacy law. It debated the issue extensively, there was a great deal of polemic on the Floor of the House, and it put in section 12 to try to emphasise that the balance should be in favour of freedom of expression. I am well aware of the fact that the way that interpretation has taken place has come in for criticism. It is also true, and the point was made by the Lord Chief Justice on Friday, that a remarkable feature of many of these orders is that they have never been appealed or taken further once they have been granted, so the development of case law in this area has as a result, on some of the matters complained of, not necessarily taken place. We clearly set out a framework and asked the judiciary to interpret it. Whether we were right or wrong to do that is a matter of legitimate public debate.
I agree with the Attorney-General that there is a balance to be struck between privacy and freedom of expression, but does he share my grave concern that how that balance is struck seems to depend more on the wealth of the individual concerned than on the facts of the case? Will he make sure that in any legislation or any other changes that happen, all people have access to the law, regardless of their wealth, whether in this area, libel reform or any other aspect?
As my hon. Friend will appreciate, that is ultimately a matter for my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, with regard to the legal aid framework, but it is right to say that the vulnerable in our society do enjoy legal aid in order to bring cases before the courts and, indeed, to get the help necessary to do so. It is perhaps also worth pointing out, as the Lord Chief Justice said on Friday, that a slightly odd feature of these cases, although an understandable one, is that those people in whom the media have an interest appear to be those who are very wealthy.
Rosemary Nelson Inquiry Report
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the report into the death of Rosemary Nelson, which is being published this afternoon. Mrs Nelson, a solicitor, was murdered close to her home in Lurgan, County Armagh, on 15 March 1999 when a bomb attached to her car exploded. Responsibility for the murder was claimed by the so-called “loyalist” paramilitary group, the Red Hand Defenders.
I will first set out the report’s main conclusions before moving on to outline its findings on the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Ireland Office and the murder investigation. I will also set out the context in which this tragic event happened. The inquiry was established by the previous Government and was asked to determine
“whether any wrongful act or omission by or within the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland Office, Army or other state agency facilitated her death or obstructed the investigation of it, or whether attempts were made to do so; whether any such act or omission was intentional or negligent; whether the investigation of her death was carried out with due diligence; and to make recommendations.”
I would like to put on the record my thanks to Sir Michael Morland and his fellow panel members Dame Valerie Strachan and Sir Anthony Burden for their work. They have produced a detailed account of the circumstances surrounding this despicable and cowardly murder. This is a lengthy report that has cost £46.5 million and taken six years to complete. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in hoping that it brings a measure of resolution to Rosemary Nelson’s family.
The report finds that
“There is no evidence of any act by or within any of the state agencies we have examined (the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Ireland Office, the Army or the Security Service) which directly facilitated Rosemary Nelson’s murder”.
The report goes on to say that
“we cannot exclude the possibility of a rogue member or members of the RUC or the Army in some way assisting the murderers to target Rosemary Nelson”,
although the panel does not provide specific evidence on this.
Those who are looking for evidence that the state conspired in or planned the death of Rosemary Nelson will not find it in this report. It does say that
“there were omissions by state agencies, which rendered Rosemary Nelson more at risk and more vulnerable; the combined effect of these omissions by the RUC and the NIO was that the state failed to take reasonable and proportionate steps to safeguard the life of Rosemary Nelson. If Rosemary Nelson had been given advice about her safety and offered security measures, then assuming that she had accepted such advice and security measures, the risk to her life and her vulnerability would have been reduced”.
The report does however recognise that
“There is nothing that any organisation can do that will infallibly prevent a murder. What can be reasonably looked for is a reduction in the risk”.
I am profoundly sorry that omissions by the state rendered Rosemary Nelson more at risk and more vulnerable. It is also deeply regrettable that, despite a very thorough police investigation, no one has been charged for this terrible crime.
On the investigation into the murder, which was led by a senior police officer from outside Northern Ireland, the report describes it as “exhaustive, energetic and enterprising”, concluding that
“there is no evidence of any deliberate attempt by any of the organs of the state corporately to obstruct the investigation”.
On the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the panel finds that
“some members of the RUC publicly abused and assaulted Rosemary Nelson on the Garvaghy Road in Portadown in 1997, having the effect of legitimising her as a target.”
The report states that
“we believe that there was some leakage of intelligence which we believe found its way outside the RUC”;
“the leakage increased the danger to Rosemary Nelson’s life”;
“some members of the RUC made abusive and/or threatening remarks about Rosemary Nelson to her clients.”
In addition, the report states that
“in assessing whether or not Rosemary Nelson’s life was at risk, RUC Special Branch failed to take into account all the intelligence and the open information available to them…RUC management negligently failed to intervene to prevent their officers from uttering abuse and threats to defence solicitors, including Rosemary Nelson…Local RUC management failed to follow through promised action to pay special attention to Rosemary Nelson’s office and home addresses…there was no analysis or evaluation of intelligence relevant to Rosemary Nelson…there was a corporate failure by the RUC to warn Rosemary Nelson of her vulnerability and offer her security advice”.
In relation to the Northern Ireland Office, the report concludes that
“the NIO did not press the RUC hard enough for full replies to their questions concerning Rosemary Nelson's personal security…the NIO should have proactively questioned the RUC as to what factors were considered in producing a threat assessment…the NIO dealt in a mechanistic way with correspondence from Non-Governmental Organisations raising concerns about Rosemary Nelson's safety.”
The panel, in its findings relating to the accusations of obstruction by the state in the murder investigation, identifies:
“Special Branch gave levels of information unprecedented in the history of the RUC to the Murder Investigation Team”.
The panel also finds that the investigation team had wide-ranging terms of reference and was generously resourced, but that special branch co-operation was incomplete. Special branch was, it states,
“over-possessive about their intelligence…unjustifiably resentful and defensive about any enquiry which they interpreted as treating them as potential suspects…omitted to disclose all items of relevant intelligence”.
The panel concludes, however, that
“in the main, the investigation was carried out to a high standard, in very difficult conditions”,
“Overall, the investigation of the murder was carried out with due diligence”.
The panel has chosen not to make any recommendations, pointing to
“fundamental changes to the organisations that we have been examining and to the context within which they worked”.
In particular, the panel notes:
“The Royal Ulster Constabulary has now been replaced by the PSNI, on the lines envisaged by the Patten Commission. Many of the reforms were first proposed, and subsequently implemented, by Sir Ronnie Flanagan…Complaints against the police are now investigated by the independent Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, so the PSNI is not in the position of having to investigate complaints about its own officers…After the murder of Rosemary Nelson, the Key Persons Protection Scheme was amended: defence solicitors were included among those who could qualify for the scheme”.
The report concludes that
“we consider that these changes effectively deal with the systemic problems that we saw in the way that the organisations operated”.
The three panel members say in their foreword:
“We recognise that the context in which these events happened was extraordinarily difficult. We do not underestimate the problems and personal danger faced by the agencies and individuals whose work we have been examining. For example, during the Troubles, over 300 RUC officers lost their lives and over 7000 were injured; over 700 British military personnel were killed and over 6000 were injured”.
At times, such personnel stood quite literally between the rule of law and the descent into anarchy. All of us owe them an immense debt of gratitude, and that is something that this Government will never forget.
The report does make criticisms of the RUC, and we should not seek to gloss over them. But it would be wrong for the criticisms in the report to be used in any way to denigrate the overall record, courage and sacrifice of the RUC. Despite the enormous progress heralded by the agreement, Northern Ireland was still emerging from 30 years of terrorist violence in 1999. With both loyalist and republican dissidents continuing to carry out attacks, the security situation remained dangerous. As the report says,
“there were violent groups who were implacably opposed to the Peace Process who were prepared to commit sectarian murder”.
In conclusion, it is clear that just as Lord Saville found no evidence of a conspiracy by the British state, and just as Lord MacLean found no evidence of state collusion in the murder of Billy Wright, so this panel finds no evidence of any act by the state which directly facilitated Rosemary Nelson’s murder.
This report is a detailed and authoritative account of the circumstances surrounding Rosemary Nelson’s horrific death. Politically motivated violence can never be justified. The whole House will wish to join me in condemning her vile murder and also extending our deepest sympathies to her family. I commend this statement to the House.
Rosemary Nelson was a prominent and diligent human rights lawyer who worked hard to protect the rights of her clients. Rosemary Nelson was also a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a friend to many. She was killed by a loyalist paramilitary group shortly after midday on 15 March 1999. I join others in this House in offering my deepest sympathy to her family and her friends.
Today we have the final determinations of the inquiry. I thank the Secretary of State for a copy of his statement on those determinations and an advance opportunity to read the inquiry report. I also pay tribute to the inquiry chairman, Sir Michael Morland, to his panel members, and to the supporting Law Officers and officials.
The Secretary of State and I have both read the conclusion of the inquiry report, but I am afraid that I am unable to draw the same comfort about the findings and implications as he has done in his statement. The inquiry raises very serious issues about the police and about the Northern Ireland Office. In recognising this inquiry’s criticisms about policing, the inquiry does not take away our profound admiration for the outstanding courage and bravery of the men and women of the police family—and that of course includes the RUC—and of the Northern Ireland Office, at which I have had the privilege to be Secretary of State. I record again my thanks for the outstanding professionalism and fairness with which it was my experience to work at first hand.
However, this inquiry makes uncomfortable reading for both agencies. These agencies have undoubtedly, by what they have done, ensured that many lives have been protected from terrorist target. Indeed, we will never know just how many people might have been killed or how many people alive today were targets. However, we can be grateful to these agencies and at the same time set apart wrongdoing and failings. What is clear is that in the case of Rosemary Nelson, her death was not inevitable. The Secretary of State quoted from the report:
“There is nothing that any organisation can do that will infallibly prevent a murder. What can be reasonably looked for is a reduction in the risk”.
Well, that reduction was not reasonable. The risk could have been reduced, and it was not reduced. There were failings.
It is important to separate out the investigation into Mrs Nelson’s murder, which the inquiry described as “exhaustive, energetic and enterprising”, although
“not perfect in every respect”,
and, equally importantly, the fact that the inquiry found “no evidence of any” organisations of the state attempting
“to obstruct the investigation of the murder”.
We can distinguish this from the failure of measures to protect her life which brought about her murder. Here we have very uncomfortable reading—more uncomfortable than I think the Secretary of State recognises. It is uncomfortable for the RUC and the NIO of that time. Having reached that view, questions should also be asked about the process of threat assessments even today.
The report disturbs me. Given what was known, why was Rosemary Nelson not protected? That is our question. The report states:
“She was a very public figure and thence an obvious trophy target.”
The inquiry concluded:
“Any reasonable, thorough and objective assessment could only have reached the conclusion that general intelligence, circumstances and recent events indicated that Rosemary Nelson was at significant risk.”
On the RUC, the inquiry found that “management negligently failed”, that “local RUC management failed”, that there was
“no analysis or evaluation of intelligence in relation to Rosemary Nelson”,
and that there was
“corporate failure to warn Rosemary Nelson of her vulnerability.”
Of the NIO, the inquiry found that there were omissions rather than commission. The NIO did not press the RUC hard enough for full replies on Mrs Nelson’s security, it did not press the police on disparities between what the NIO was being told about the threat and what the RUC had concluded in its threat assessments, and it was too mechanistic. Crucially, the inquiry says of the NIO that
“there is no evidence of any internal policy discussion about the treatment of defence lawyers in general or Rosemary Nelson in particular.”
All this taken together is damning. As the inquiry concludes:
“The combined effect of these omissions by the RUC and the NIO was that the state failed to take reasonable and proportionate steps to safeguard the life of Rosemary Nelson.”
“If Rosemary Nelson had been given advice about her safety and offered security measures, then assuming she accepted such advice and security measures, the risk to her life and her vulnerability would have been reduced.”
A worrying feature of the report is the incompleteness, or what some might see as evasiveness, in giving proper answers to reasonable questions from the inquiry. The inquiry states that it was not told that special branch
“did not maintain a paper file on Rosemary Nelson”.
Indeed, when Colin Port, who led the investigation into the murder asked about that,
“he was given an incomplete answer, and as regards whether Rosemary Nelson had an SB number, an incorrect one.”
In fact, the inquiry found that Mrs Nelson had not one number, but two. It was told that if she had had a special branch number, a special branch file would most likely have been created. The inquiry generously says:
“We cannot exclude the possibility that a paper file on Rosemary Nelson did at one time exist, but was lost or destroyed.”
It beggars belief, given that no one has yet been convicted of Mrs Nelson’s murder, that files of the state could have been allowed to be destroyed or lost during an ongoing murder investigation. That matters, because it is clear that specific views were formed by police officers that would undoubtedly have added to the risks to Mrs Nelson had they reached wider circulation.
The report needs to be read carefully. The inquiry found—you will be worried by this, Mr Speaker—that special branch in the south region, in the preparation for an application for a warrant to be signed by the Secretary of State, but which was not ultimately authorised, said of Mrs Nelson and the Provisional IRA that
“she openly supports their cause and intelligence states she has flouted the law”,
“Nelson uses her legal training to assist PIRA in every way she can and it is clear Nelson is a dedicated Republican”.
That is why the conclusions of the report are so disturbing.
We may never be sure of the specific consequences of these failings. However, the inquiry states that there was an incident of abuse and assault on Mrs Nelson by members of the RUC, that there was a
“leakage of intelligence which we believe found its way outside the RUC.”
It states that the leakage and threatening remarks
“would have had the subsequent effect of legitimising her as a target in the eyes of Loyalist terrorists.”