House of Commons
Monday 20 February 2012
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Ministry of Defence is undertaking its annual budget-setting process, in which I am personally engaged. I am increasingly confident that we will achieve a sustainable and balanced defence budget for the first time in a decade or more, and I hope to be in a position to make an announcement to the House shortly.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and for the good news that we will be balancing the budget. Will he say a little more about research and development co-operation with France on the unmanned fighter drone and on other matters? How will that affect our ability to balance the budget?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As he will know, I was with the Prime Minister in Paris last Friday, when we confirmed that we will take forward the assessment phase of the medium altitude long endurance unmanned aerial vehicle with the French. Clearly, we can co-operate on many areas with France, a country with a broadly similar industrial base and defence budget to our own. Such co-operation will be to the benefit of both countries, and I intend to explore all those opportunities.
The military action over Libya showed that among the European members of NATO there was a shortage of precision guided missiles, of air-to-air refuelling capacity and of airborne drones to identify targets. Clearly we need to acquire more capacity in those fields, so how sure is the Secretary of State that his budget will enable the UK to play its part in building a stronger European capacity?
The hon. Gentleman correctly identifies one of the lessons from the Libya campaign. Much of what came out of that campaign was positive, but clearly some shortfalls were identified. I must say that the finger must point primarily at those European members of NATO that fail to spend the target 2% of their GDP on defence. We will be looking to them to contribute the additional resources required to make good the shortfalls.
I am delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend is close to balancing the books. Does that mean that we can look forward to an early set of accounts that are not qualified by the auditors, so that we can have confidence in what the books say.
Speaking candidly, I can say to my right hon. Friend that it will be a number of years yet, as the Department has made clear, before it is able to get an unqualified set of accounts. As Labour Members will know, that is largely due to a legacy problem associated with MOD inventory and the large quantity of stock items held in a form that the National Audit Office is not able adequately to audit. A solution is being put in place—a new IT system will resolve this problem over the next couple of years—and it should then be possible to get unqualified accounts.
The last time I checked, most of the people we were needing to defend the UK against were not in Scotland. I think that Scottish taxpayers, like taxpayers in the rest of the UK, would expect that we deploy our military forces and structure our military posture to deal with the threats that we are facing.
Contracts (Small Businesses)
Innovative and efficient smaller businesses make an important contribution to defence, beyond the obvious benefits to the wider economy. That is why the “National Security Through Technology” White Paper sets out a wide range of measures to make defence and security procurement as accessible as possible to even the smallest of enterprises. I attach particular importance to the establishment of a new small and medium-sized enterprises forum, which meets regularly under my chairmanship to discuss and inform subsequent action on issues of concern to small businesses.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the part he plays in the Skipton and Ripon Enterprise Group. I know that he takes a close interest in SMEs in general and I am grateful for his interest in defence SMEs. We are taking a wide range of steps to achieve precisely what he asks for, and the SME forum is but one example of that. He is particularly interested in the use of pre-qualification questionnaires. Their use is being minimised for procurements of under £100,000, and we are working to simplify or even eliminate them. We are already adopting the new core questionnaire, which is standardised across government. Many steps have been taken to encourage SMEs to engage earlier and more effectively with the Department, but if he has any ideas I would welcome them.
A written statement on the White Paper that was recently published indicates that the Government will no longer prioritise UK suppliers when buying defence equipment. For the sake of small companies, and for BAE Systems workers at Brough, 850 of whom face redundancy, ought we not to have a debate on the Floor of the House about that change in Government policy?
I have to say to the hon. Lady that such matters of debate are largely for the Backbench Business Committee to determine. No one would relish more than me an opportunity to explain the defence White Paper and the gross misrepresentation that she has just given. I would welcome such a debate, and I hope that it happens.
The Minister solicits ideas on this front. The Ministry of Defence necessarily requires strict security credentials from its business contractors, but that sponsorship can act as a barrier to competition. Will the Minister consider giving new businesses wishing to seek contracts with his Department the opportunity to apply in advance for security clearance for their personnel entirely at their own cost to level that playing field?
Actually, I think there is a widely shared misunderstanding in the SME community of the issues that it faces. I refer my hon. Friend to the box on page 61 of the White Paper, which explains in detail the security requirements and how the obstacles that I accept some small and medium enterprises think they have experienced can, in practice, be dealt with.
In view of the important role that SMEs play in some of our bigger programmes, and their need to be confident in the process and to have security of outcome, will the Minister give the House some clarity on the intention for the F-35 programme? In particular, given rumoured reductions in orders from the USA, Australia and Canada, does he expect the price that the MOD pays for each F-35 to rise, and does he have a view on the exact point at which they become unaffordable for the UK?
First, I apologise unreservedly to you for my earlier answer, Mr Speaker, but you have encouraged me to be pithy in the past, and it would have been quite a long answer to give the details in full.
Addressing the concern of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), the honest answer is that we do not know. The Americans are not reducing the total numbers for the purchase of the joint strike fighter, but they have changed the profile of those purchases. Other partner nations have indicated that they will reduce their offtake. That is likely to have implications for JSF prices, particularly those acquired in the early stages of the process, which is when this country intends to acquires its JSFs. We are watching those implications carefully, and I am happy to talk to the hon. Lady separately about the implications for the UK.
Medical Emergency Response Team (Helmand)
The UK Forward Aeromed capability, commonly referred to as the medical emergency response team, has been called out around 480 times in Helmand province in the past year. As air evacuation assets like this are shared between coalition nations, not all call-outs will have been for UK personnel, as the team provides medical evacuation for UK and other international security assistance force troops, as well as Afghan security forces and civilians when appropriate.
I am sure that the House will want to put on record its appreciation for the dedication and professionalism of the members of the medical emergency response team, many of whom are civilians who risk their lives helping personnel who have been injured. One of the issues I am greatly concerned about is the capacity to rescue people who may have suffered spinal injuries from heavily armoured vehicles, and whether appropriate rescue and cutting equipment and release mechanisms for doors and roofs are available so that when people are removed further damage to their spine is limited. Will the Minister confirm that such equipment is available for MER teams?
We are not aware that there are any specific capacity problems. In fact, calls on the service over the past 12 months have been rather reduced from the level experienced in the previous 12 months. That reduction reflects both reduced kinetic activity in the area of operations and improved efficiency in the way in which the task is shared across Regional Command Southwest. I believe that the position has improved significantly, and that there are no specific capacity difficulties at the moment.
On Helmand, up until 2 February the UK Government had a clear position in Parliament, in NATO and with the country about a conditions-based withdrawal, and for the medical emergency teams and all our forces to return home and for the Afghan forces to take the lead on security by 2014. On that date the US Secretary of Defence announced a 2013 timetable for Afghan forces to take the lead and within hours the UK Government followed that timeline. What changed on the ground in Afghanistan in that week for the UK Government policy to change so dramatically?
There has been not been a dramatic shift of policy on the part of the US, ISAF or the UK Government. What the American Secretary made clear, as have the French, is that they will be accelerating the pace at which they hand to Afghanistan forces the lead responsibility, but there is no suggestion that the commitment of the ISAF countries is reducing or that the numbers are necessarily reducing. Simply, the speed at which the Afghan national security forces are developing is enabling them to take the lead more. The shift will therefore be more into a training, support and mentoring role, but that does not affect the overall strategy, and the Lisbon agreement among ISAF countries remains in place.
We have made exports a high priority and are supporting the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation through an active and innovative defence diplomacy initiative. I have recently returned from a successful visit to India where I led a delegation of some 25 British defence companies to promote the best that Britain has to offer. The White Paper “National Security Through Technology” published this month by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), reaffirms our support to defence and security exports.
Over the past few months we have heard much concern expressed about the Typhoon contract. Will the Minister tell the House a little more about the exports that he is working on so that buyers are not gulled into buying second-rate outdated equipment?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. It is important that we recognise that in the United Kingdom we are fortunate. We do not rely just on major defence companies such as Thales, BAE Systems and QinetiQ. We have a raft of medium-sized companies such as Cobham, Ultra, Chemring and Martin Baker, well known for its ejector seats, and those companies have a rich supply of high technology to offer other countries. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working hard to promote those companies as well.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for that extremely helpful and gallant question. If I may say so, looking at the shadow Secretary of State, that was a scheme set up by the current Opposition, who were then in government. It was a three-year scheme. They believed in performance-related pay and so do we.
There is a belief in industry that we will lose at least 30,000 jobs in the defence sector over the coming period. Although people in that sector applaud the Government’s stated export support, they fear that it has no substance if it is not backed up by a strategy, no matter what title the Government choose to use for that. There is not a free market. If the Government do not develop some kind of defence strategy, other nations will gain at our expense, as they are potentially doing in India with a product inferior to that which we have to offer. Will the Government think about the need for some kind of defence strategy, which they clearly do not have, despite what they say?
It is pretty rich for a former Labour Secretary of State for Defence to criticise us when his Government did not have a defence review for 13 years. We have undertaken that defence review and indicated that we have a strong policy of support to industry. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), has set out his White Paper in which we support British industry. This Government, led by the Prime Minister, have done more than any previous Labour Government to support British defence exports. That is a strategy. The 16 visits that I have made overseas are beginning to bear results. Just to give one example, BAE has sold three offshore patrol vessels to Brazil.
The Minister’s good friend the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has urged employers to give the nation’s unemployed priority for new positions. How exactly does that square with the Department’s White Paper, which states:
“The MOD does not consider wider employment, industrial, or economic factors in its value-for-money assessments.”?
Our job as Defence Ministers is to get the best equipment for our armed forces, but it is also true that we have a thriving defence industry, to which the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth)referred. There are some 300,000 British Defence jobs and it is important to ensure that while we have to make savings as a result of the appalling budget deficit that we inherited from the previous Labour Government, we give support to British industry to export their goods overseas. I have heard from British industry that it has never had such strong support from Government as it is getting from this coalition Government.
In support of the police and other civil and Olympic authorities, the armed forces will provide up to 13,500 regular and reserve personnel to ensure the Olympic and Paralympic games are safe and secure. Up to 7,500 will support the smooth running of Olympic sites, while the remainder will use their specialist capabilities and equipment to contribute to the delivery of Olympic security.
I announced to the House earlier today by written statement that an order has been made under section 56(1A) of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 to enable up to 2,000 reservists to be called out to support Olympic security.
The Army will apply its policy of intelligent selection for the Olympics. Only those reservists who volunteer and who have the support of their employers will be called out in connection with the Olympic games.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the scale of support that he has announced. I recently visited the regional fire control centre that is opening in my constituency, which will provide emergency fire control at the Olympics. Will my right hon. Friend offer some insight to the House about who might be in overall command of an emergency or of security, and what procedures he is putting in place to ensure that both the civil and military authorities concerned with the Olympics security will work together?
I am sure we look forward to my hon. Friend’s supplementary question.
In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), I can say that the safety and security of the games is the responsibility of the Home Office and will be police led. The national Olympic security co-ordinator is the principal co-ordinating police officer for the delivery of national safety and security operations. Military personnel will remain under military command and control arrangements. Defence is working closely with the police and other civil authorities to ensure that that co-ordination between them is effective and that the games are safe and secure.
I am delighted to see my hon. Friend here. His exercise in expectation management was not required.
In my initial response I said that we thought long and hard about whether it was right to call out reserves for the Olympics and the decision was that we would call out reserves only where both the reservists themselves are willing volunteers and their employers have signified that they are willing and able to release them for that period. This call-out will be on an entirely voluntary basis for both the employer and the reservists.
We do not yet have numbers for the final distribution between the different locations, but clearly the major venues will be in London and I would expect the majority of armed forces personnel deployed to be at those venues. With regard to command and control, the police are in overall control. The specific arrangements for integrating the military into the command structure will vary from place to place and task to task. A series of exercises is now taking place, one purpose of which is to test the proposals for integrating military and police command and ensure that they are robust.
Redundancies (Armed Forces)
Personnel are selected for redundancy by selection boards that are convened by each service. The boards assess evidence contained in individuals’ appraisal reports against selection criteria, which include performance, potential experience, qualifications and the relevance of their skill sets to the future needs of the service. The services will select applicants where possible, but they may select non-applicants where that is necessary to ensure that the right balance of skills is maintained across the rank structures.
I commend the Minister for the resettlement package that the Government are putting together, but I would like to highlight one anomaly. Some servicemen and women serving in Europe—for example, in Norway, Italy and France—and administered by the European support group have no access to funding for travelling back to the United Kingdom for their resettlement packages. I ask him to look into the matter and ensure that all our servicemen and women are treated equally.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important matter. I think that exceptions can be made. If he would like to write to me on the matter, I will write back with the details. I understand that a small number of people are affected, and we should certainly look after them properly.
In answer to the shadow Secretary of State, it is quite complicated. However, I can say that the immediate pension that people might have earned after 22 years is now available after 18 years, so anyone made redundant within four years of the immediate pension date will receive the immediate pension straight away.
As the Army is reduced to the size it was at the time of the Boer war, although there is to be no reduction in the number of Ministers, does the Minister accept that it would be untenable for any member of 16 Air Assault Brigade, who could have served in up to three deployments to Helmand province, to be made compulsorily redundant?
An internal MOD document states that the Department considers the UK force structure to be
“out of proportion with modern working practices”.
With the reduction in the number of armed forces personnel, why is the Minister doing nothing to correct the top-heavy force structure and the imbalance by making cuts across all ranks?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is an avid reader of Hansard. If he goes back to about 1994, he will see that I raised this matter then in the House of Commons—I have been here too long. He is right that there is a disproportionate number of senior officers. They are excellent people, but we are looking to reduce that disproportionate number so that there are fewer senior officers in relation to bayonets on the ground.
Defence Munitions Beith
There are no current plans to change the status of Defence Munitions Beith. The weapons end-to-end initiative is working on the best through-life support solution for the MOD and industry, taking into account the strategic requirement, value for money and the linkage with associated industries. This is a wide and complex piece of work. There is a need to maintain Beith at least until the Spearfish torpedo has been converted to a single-fuel system, when the need for specialist facilities may lapse. The conversion programme is expected to be completed around 2018.
I am delighted to repeat the invitation that I made in a letter early last year, to which the hon. Lady has not so far replied, and to extend it once again on the Floor of the House. Of course I should be delighted to meet her to have the precise discussion that she seeks.
Will the Minister provide some more details on how cutting the MOD policing budget in half will impact on the policing and guarding of defence munitions sites such as Beith, and the armaments depot at Coulport, in which my constituents are particularly interested? Specifically, will he respond to concerns that the policing of those sites will have to be downgraded and that those sites will no longer be protected by armed guards or, indeed, with dogs?
The Ministry of Defence routinely deploys a range of military assets in defence of the Falkland Islands and in fulfilment of our standing Atlantic Patrol, South task. Despite media speculation to the contrary, there has been no recent change to force levels. There is no evidence of any current credible military threat to the security of the Falkland Islands, and therefore no current plan for significant changes to force deployments. However, Her Majesty’s Government are committed to defending the right of the Falkland Islanders to self-determination, and plans exist for rapid reinforcement of the land, sea and air forces in and around the islands should any such threat appear.
My right hon. Friend is right on two counts. First, it is absolutely necessary to ensure that our intentions are not capable of being misinterpreted. We have the strongest possible intention of defending the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination and the strongest intention to defend the islands. Equally, we have no desire or intention to increase the heat around the debate. We are not seeking to take actions that are provocative or cause unnecessary alarm. We will defend the islands—nobody should be under any illusion about that—and we will deploy the forces necessary.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK has important strategic interests in the south Atlantic, not least in energy security, the important work done by the British Antarctic Survey on climate change and the geopolitics of the Antarctic? Will he update the House on any discussions that he has had with our allies regarding the defence of the Falklands?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the determination of the people of the Falkland Islands to remain British must be respected and protected, as it rightly was when a fascist dictatorship grabbed the Falklands 30 years ago? If there is any sign from this crew in Buenos Aires that they are going to try it on again, will he ensure that they are stopped?
I can answer the right hon. Gentleman unequivocally by saying yes. It is important that we also recognise that the crew in Buenos Aires, as he puts it, is quite a different crew from the fascist dictatorship that invaded the Falkland Islands using conscripts back in 1982. We are dealing with a democratic Argentina that has publicly eschewed the use of military force in pursuing its claim to the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.
I spent some time with HMS Montrose in September last year before it sailed to the south Atlantic. During the discussions over deployment, it became clear that the supply routes to the Falklands for fresh provisions were being severely impeded. Will the Secretary of State say something about the security of supply to the Falklands of fresh food and other services, and about the deployment of the Navy?
As the hon. Lady knows, an air bridge is operating via Ascension island and other routes into the Falklands are available. The Government are concerned about the actions and statements of some states in respect of access to their ports for Falkland Islands-flagged vessels. We will keep this issue under close scrutiny. We always have the option of increasing the frequency of the air bridge, should that become necessary.
Are not Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, Admiral Lord West and General Sir Mike Jackson absolutely right when they say on the record that were the Falklands again to be occupied, Britain would not be able to retake them because this Government do not have any naval aircraft carriers on the high seas? We are in our weakest position in five centuries of naval history, and it is happening on the watch of a Conservative Government.
The right hon. Gentleman has succumbed slightly to hyperbole. The Government’s position is clear. Our approach is to make clear to Argentina our intent to defend the islands, to deploy the necessary military forces to provide a credible defence of the islands, and to ensure that we are not placed in the invidious position of having to mount a long-range invasion to retake the islands.
Falkland Islands (Argentine Forces)
We pay close attention to developments in Argentina’s military capability. There is no current evidence of the intent or the capability to launch a credible military threat to the Falkland Islands. However, we are committed to the protection of the islanders’ right to self-determination and will remain vigilant in our posture.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. What impact will the ban on Falklands-flagged ships in Latin American ports have on Britain’s ability to defend the islands? Which Governments in the region can we count on as allies in the unlikely event—let us hope that it remains a very remote possibility—of hostile Argentine action?
As I have said, the statements that some Governments have been induced to make about access to their ports for Falkland Islands-flagged vessels are most unwelcome, but we judge that they will have no material impact on our ability to defend the islands or reinforce the islands, should that be necessary. I hope my hon. Friend and the House do not mind, but it would not be in the interests of the UK’s national security or of the Falkland Islands to explore in public which regional nations might be friendly to us if there were a need for military action at any time in the future.
The Government have agreed that there should be a fresh review of the rules governing the award of military medals. It will be conducted by an independent reviewer with full consultation with interested parties. The terms of reference and further details will be released shortly.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but I am not entirely happy with it. The veterans endured the most unimaginable hardships to protect this country during the second world war. Given that many of them are now in their late 80s and early 90s, does the Minister agree that it is imperative to be quick? We need to know when the review will be concluded.
We all owe a huge debt to those of our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generation who gave up their youth in the service of this country to keep it and the world free from fascism. In the context of my hon. Friend’s question, that particularly applies to those who endured astonishingly awful conditions in the Arctic, and I pay tribute to them for their courage and resilience.
Medals are not awarded by me, and it is quite right that there is to be an independent review that will not be led by the Ministry of Defence. I share my hon. Friend’s concern, but I can assure her that I am told that it will be a swift review and will take place shortly.
As I have just said, the review is not being led by the MOD. I understand that it will be able to consult widely, and I look forward to seeing the terms of reference and details shortly. It is not being led by the MOD, so it is not up to us to determine exactly when it will happen.
Defence Science and Technology
At the beginning of this month, I was pleased to see published our White Paper “National Security Through Technology”, which emphasised the contribution that using, sustaining and developing technology makes to our national security. The Government are therefore prioritising investment in defence science and technology. The White Paper makes clear our intention to end a long period of declining budgets and maintain the Ministry of Defence’s investment in science and technology at a minimum of 1.2% of the defence budget as protection for our future.
Before asking my supplementary question, I would like to pay tribute to my constituent Corporal Jay Baldwin, who was recently seriously injured while serving in Afghanistan and who is now being treated in the Queen Elizabeth hospital at Edgbaston. I am sure the whole House will join me in sending him and his family our best wishes.
How does the Minister believe that investment in science and technology supports not only our defence industry but our economy and companies such as Thales UK in my constituency?
I obviously join my hon. Friend in his tribute to his constituent and hope that he makes a rapid and full recovery.
Of course, investment in science and technology is about not just industry but protecting and securing our troops, and I am glad to say that we are having phenomenal success in that regard in Afghanistan. I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that Thales is one of the many companies and trade organisations that welcomed the White Paper when it was published earlier this month. They recognise that investment in science and technology is crucial for their future as successful, enterprising and competitive companies operating here in the UK. Perhaps one of the most exciting recent examples of the importance of that investment was the four-year £40 million future combat air systems focused research contract, which we announced in December. It will generate capability for the future and provide important work for the high-tech advanced manufacturing businesses of the UK.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that was a major feature in the UK/French summit that occurred last Friday, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier. The future of the unmanned combat air sector is very important, which was exactly why I highlighted in my earlier answer the contract with BAE Systems. That contract will take forward technology in a number of crucial areas and ensure that our skill base is sustained, maintained and can take advantage of the opportunities that the sector will provide in the future.
Pakistan and Afghanistan
17. What discussions he has had with his NATO counterparts on Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan. (95298)
Pakistan is an important player in the regional politics and will play an important role in Afghanistan’s future, so Pakistan’s involvement is routinely discussed during regular talks on regional issues with my NATO counterparts, most recently at the NATO Brussels summit that took place on 2 and 3 February. Lasting stability and security in Afghanistan is, I believe, in Pakistan’s interests. We continue to encourage Pakistan to support the Afghan-led reconciliation process fully, recognising that progress could help pay a peace dividend on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the history of the Pakistani intelligence services’ role in the emergence of the Taliban. Is he as concerned as I am about recent reports that the Pakistani intelligence services continue to operate inside Afghanistan? Does that have implications for Afghanistan after NATO leaves the country?
The hon. Gentleman underlines the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably linked, largely by the big overlap of the Pashtun population in the border areas. We should never forget, as well, that Pakistan has suffered more from terrorism than any other country, with more than 30,000 Pakistanis having lost their lives to acts of terrorism over the past decade. We continue to look carefully at how Pakistan’s security forces and others interact with their Afghan counterparts, and we continue to encourage Pakistan to play a positive and dynamic role in stabilising the area.
The Secretary of State will be only too aware of the febrile relationship at the moment between the United States of America and Pakistan—apparent allies. What concerns does he have and what can be done about the safety of Pakistani nuclear sites, which are so close to the Afghan border?
Obviously, the safety of Pakistani nuclear missile and nuclear weapon sites is of the utmost importance, not only for regional stability but for counter-terrorist efforts across the world. The Pakistan military regard that as a very high priority, and all the information that I have seen suggests a very high level of security and security assurance around Pakistani nuclear sites.
Aircraft Carrier Programme
The overall cost of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier programme is continually informed by the conversion development phase, which is developing a much greater understanding of the costs and risks involved. We will publish the findings as soon as we can and will keep the House informed in the usual manner.
I am afraid that I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, because we simply do not know the answer. In answer to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), I talked about the possible price implications for the joint strike fighter as a result of the Americans’ decisions in rescheduling their profile. Similarly, we are still doing the work on the precise cost of the conversion. We will report to the House in the usual way. That will be part of the major projects report, so all the normal processes will be followed. I understand the importance of the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Whatever the cost of the carriers, is not a key argument in their favour that if—God forbid—the Falklands were, despite all our preparations, taken in a surprise attack, it would be essential to have a carrier to regain them? Does not that prompt the question of why we do not have one at the moment?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and I am aware of the arguments about, for example, the use of carriers off Libya. However, I think that the correct decisions were taken in the strategic defence and security review regarding the Tornado aircraft, which enabled us to fight that war very effectively. I repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said: the Falklands are well protected; we live in a different world; and the suggestion that aircraft carriers play an important part in the Falkland Islands in the near future is unhelpful at this stage.
My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended, now and in future, through the delivery of the military tasks for which the MOD is mandated; that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in those military tasks; and that we honour our armed forces covenant. It is clear to me that in order to discharge those duties I have a responsibility to ensure that the Department has a properly balanced budget and a force generation strategy and defence equipment programme that are affordable and sustainable in the medium to long term.
Ministers have already made reference to last week’s meeting between the Prime Minister and President Sarkozy, where they agreed to move on to the procurement phase on the unmanned aerial vehicle project. How many new jobs does the Secretary of State estimate will be created in the UK as a result of this agreement, and how will he maximise the potential for job growth?
The announcement made at the summit last week was to advance the assessment phase of the unmanned aerial vehicle project, which involves £44 million of expenditure split between British Aerospace and Dassault. I cannot give the hon. Lady an exact estimate of the number of jobs that that will create in BAE, but I am happy to write to her to give her the best estimate I can.
The Anglo-French summit consisted of two separate parts. First, there was a defence meeting where we were able to have direct discussions with my counterpart in France and talk about all the joint procurement programmes and opportunities that we see for collaborating together in future—for example, in the combined joint expeditionary force—and for procuring together as both defence budgets come under financial pressure. The broader summit conducted between the President and the Prime Minister reasserted at the highest level the desire of the two countries to work together in areas such as nuclear collaboration and the unmanned aerial programme.
Owing to the nature of this question, I will ask it gently. Forces children receive a service pupil premium, but it has recently come to light that a child who is orphaned due to the bravery of their parent in combat loses that payment. I welcome the fact that the Government say they will act upon that, but have they now implemented the change? How many children receive the premium? Can the Minister guarantee that no child will lose the premium as a result of a seriously injured parent being discharged from Her Majesty’s forces?
This is an important issue and the Government were concerned about what we read. However, it must be understood that the premium is given to schools, not to children, to compensate for the way in which armed forces children move around. We have instigated scholarships for the children of casualties in Afghanistan so that they can go into higher education. The pupil premium is a Department for Education responsibility, but Defence Ministers are concerned and we wish to ensure that nobody is disadvantaged. The Department for Education is looking at the matter. We certainly do not wash our hands of it and we are concerned, but the right hon. Gentleman will understand that once a child is settled in a school, the need for a premium is somewhat changed.
T4. Having served with the present commander of British forces in the Falklands, I think the Argentines would be very foolish even to contemplate any sort of military intervention, but does the Secretary of State agree that a strong statement of support from the United States would be helpful? (95307)
Clearly, strong statements of support from any of our allies are always helpful, but the realistic situation, which we have long recognised in this country, is that the defence of the Falkland Islands is a task for which the UK must be prepared and capable of undertaking alone if necessary. We hope that we will have support from others, but that cannot be our planning scenario.
I think I can give a very short answer to that question: no.
T5. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to purchase the new C-17 aircraft for the Royal Air Force. Is that not evidence of the benefits of tackling the Ministry of Defence budget, which is vital to securing the future effectiveness of our armed forces? (95308)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In fact, the acquisition of the eighth C-17 aircraft was an extremely high priority for the military. It reinforces the Afghanistan air bridge at a time when the ground lines of communication through Pakistan are closed.
The purchase was possible because the MOD is moving forward with the process of delivering a credible and sustainable budget with which Treasury officials are comfortable. Trust between the Treasury and the MOD has been the crucial missing ingredient in the past, and rebuilding it has allowed the Treasury to sign off the acquisition of the new aircraft from an in-year underspend. The Treasury would traditionally have been very reluctant to do so without seeing MOD hard numbers for the following year.
T7. I thank the Minister for his reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) on the service premium. However, was the Secretary of State aware that extra support would be cut off if a serving parent died in the service of their country before it was disclosed in The Sun and other newspapers, which pressured the Government into a U-turn? (95310)
The hon. Gentleman also raises that important point. The truth is that that is a Department for Education responsibility. Let us remember that this Government introduced the pupil premium, and it is therefore new, but it would be fair to say that we in the Ministry of Defence had not appreciated that this might happen. The Department for Education is looking to ameliorate any problems, but let us remember that the pupil premium is about the transience of service children attending schools—[Interruption.] Well, that is why we introduced it. Circumstances change when a child is settled, but we do not wish them to be disadvantaged.
Is the Ministry of Defence able to offer the longer term reassurance, of the type that it gave last July for the MOD bases in South Uist and St Kilda, for the Sound of Raasay, Rona and the Kyle of Lochalsh bases in my constituency, not least because in the last couple of weeks QinetiQ, the operator, has published half-year profits that were up—commendably—by 45%?
As my right hon. Friend will know, the whole issue of bases is currently under review. The Army is undertaking a large rebasing exercise in conjunction with the new Defence Infrastructure Organisation, and I hope to be in a position to make an announcement to the House in the not too distant future.
T8. The Minister with responsibility for veterans will be aware of the call by the shadow Secretary of State for a £1 million legacy veterans fund, to be funded by cuts at the top end. The Minister is well known to be a commonsensical man: will he stand up and say that he agrees with my right hon. Friend? (95311)
The Secretary of State’s excellent decision to deploy an anti-air warfare Type 45 destroyer to the Falklands certainly ensures that the islands are protected against aerial attack. That still leaves the danger of surface attack. In the absence of aircraft carriers, can my right hon. Friend confirm that a nuclear-powered submarine is available to protect our warship and the sea lanes approaching the Falklands?
First, I should make it clear that the deployment of HMS Dauntless to the south Atlantic is a routine deployment and she will rotate with other vessels of the fleet in due course. Secondly, as I suspect my hon. Friend knows, we never comment on the deployment of our submarines of any description. As he has raised the issue, I will take the opportunity to make one thing clear. There has been some speculation in the press and by Argentine Ministers about the deployment of nuclear weapons to the south Atlantic. The United Kingdom has a clear and publicly stated policy that we will neither use nor threaten to use our nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state that is a compliant member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, so the Argentine republic need have nothing to fear on that count.
The Government have willed an end-date for combat operations in Afghanistan, but not yet an endgame for how we disengage militarily. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that the sacrifice and outstanding efforts of those who have served and continue to serve in Afghanistan will be underpinned by a departure that is properly planned, co-ordinated and commensurate with conditions on the ground?
The ISAF strategy for transition in Afghanistan has been worked up in detail and continues work that the previous Government had started before we took office. The strategy is clear—it is a progressive transition to an Afghan security lead, which is taking place area by area throughout Afghanistan. It is proceeding well and on a time line that gives every indication that we can make the withdrawal from the combat role at the date that we have suggested. Obviously, the precise speed and order of events depend on circumstances on the ground, but the direction of travel is clear. All international elements are signed up to it and it is progressing well.
The review is of military medals. I believe that those police officers who serve are entitled to campaign medals. I am sure that they can make representations, but as they already receive those medals, I do not think that it will affect them. I am not responsible for the terms of reference.
Further to Question 6, what structures exist to allow concerns about the biggest Army cuts of all time to be raised further up the chain? I am thinking of the sorts of concerns raised earlier by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I and my colleagues are asking ourselves, “What’s he talking about?” I’m not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. Is he talking about whether the Army is top-heavy? [Interruption.] I am at a loss to know exactly what he is talking about, but we intend to reduce numbers in the senior ranks of the Army in order to address the disproportion there.
I welcome the forthcoming review of the awarding of military medals and I thank my right hon. Friend for his recent correspondence regarding the survivors of the 1940 Lancastria disaster and their campaign for a medal, but may I press him for further details on the timing and remit of this important and timely review?
It should happen speedily. The problem is that this is a responsibility across Government and led, I believe, by the Cabinet Office. We want it announced swiftly and we want it to take place swiftly so that we can understand the rules. I am sorry that I can only give this answer, but I think that everyone will be glad to know that I am not responsible for it.
I think we have covered this one already. The arrangements for performance-related pay were put in place by the previous Government and were a decision taken by them with which I concurred entirely. It is the right way to incentivise senior civil servants. By paying non-consolidated performance-related pay, we reduce the total cost to the Department. The scheme was introduced in lieu of pay increases.
The situation on the Afghan-Pakistan border is extremely complex, as my hon. Friend will know. As I said, the Government’s position remains that we repeat continually to the Pakistanis that it is in their interest to engage with the peace process and the reconciliation talks, and to ensure long-term stability in the region.
What precise act of brilliance justifies the payment of an £85,000 bonus to one of the Secretary of State’s civil servants? Will the Secretary of State make a bid for his own bonus for today becoming the first Minister to stop blaming the previous Government for all his problems, and tell the House on what precise date the coalition Government will take responsibility for their own conduct?
The hon. Gentleman might not have heard my previous answer when I stated the fact that this contractual, performance-related pay system was put in place by the previous Government. I happen to approve of it; I consider it the right way forward. If he wants to ask about the details of its design and why it was done the way it was, perhaps he should ask the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) or one of his many right hon. Friends who served in the previous Government as Secretary of State for Defence.
RAF Fylingdales and RAF Staxton perform key duties as listening and radar stations. There is concern locally about the impact of wind farms on them. May we have a rejection of any wind farm applications on the grounds that they will interfere with the RAF’s work?
I am not sure whether this will be good news or bad news for my hon. Friend, but we are making increasing strides towards finding radar systems that do not interfere with RAF operations, so this particular obstacle to wind farm applications is diminishing. That is probably not the news that she wanted, but it happens to be the truth.
Office for Fair Access
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for giving me the opportunity to tell the House why the Government think that Professor Ebdon is the right candidate for the post of director of fair access. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science would happily have been here to respond, but he is currently in Antarctica.
First, I would like to pay tribute to the work of the current director, Sir Martin Harris. Sir Martin has been the director of fair access since the post was created in 2004. Under his leadership, universities have committed themselves to a 50% increase in spend on access by 2015-16. In recruiting Sir Martin’s replacement, we were looking for someone who could build on that achievement. There is much that remains to be done. Progress over the last few years in securing fair access to the most selective universities remains limited. Only around 50 pupils out of the 80,000 on free school meals currently make it to Oxbridge. All parts of the education sector need to work together to ensure that all with the potential to succeed are identified and nurtured.
We conducted the search for a replacement for Martin Harris in a fair, competitive and transparent way. Professor Ebdon has considerable experience. He is a prize-winning analytical chemist with a PhD from Imperial, and he transformed the finances and the quality of his own university for the better. We undertook two long, thorough searches to ensure that we found the right candidate for the post. I have no doubt that Professor Ebdon has the qualities and determination to help students from low-income and under-represented groups to secure the places in higher education that their attainments and potential show they deserve.
Following receipt of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills report, which raised questions about Professor Ebdon’s presentation skills, Ministers considered carefully whether the report presented any new, relevant facts about the candidate’s suitability for the post. As the Chair of the Select Committee—I think he is here now—has said today:
“It is clear that both Vince Cable and David Willetts feel Professor Ebdon is the right man for the job.”
He has also said today:
“The committee’s report was advisory only; the secretary of state was under no obligation to follow our recommendations.
I am pleased to note that both Mr Cable and Professor Ebdon have taken the committee’s concerns seriously and strongly agree that Professor Ebdon should appear before the committee at regular intervals,”
as he will. After due consideration, I have decided to proceed with the appointment.
Let me make it clear that, in the questions that I want to ask, I in no way want to express any disrespect for Professor Ebdon, who is an academic of great distinction. However, there are questions to be answered.
I think the Secretary of State has rather tiptoed around the question of the Select Committee’s approach, because my understanding is that the Committee did not express confidence in Professor Ebdon and suggested that the advertising process—indeed, the whole process—be reopened with a view to appointing a different candidate as the director of OFFA. Is the Secretary of State aware that this is only the second time that a Select Committee has been overruled in this way? The first such occasion did not set a particularly happy precedent. What effect does he think his decision will have on the authority and standing of Select Committees of this House, and on the confirmation processes that they carry out? Although he may technically have the power to overrule the Select Committee, is it not deeply unsatisfactory for him to have done so with this appointment?
What confidence can students, universities and parents have in this appointee if the Select Committee does not have confidence in him? What confidence can the public have in the appointment, when the Select Committee says in its conclusion that
“we were not convinced by Professor Ebdon’s descriptions of the root causes of the obstacles to accessing universities”—
something that is rather more fundamental than the presentational skills to which the Secretary of State referred?
Would not the implementation of the views expressed by Professor Ebdon, to the Select Committee and elsewhere, have serious consequences for the achievement of high standards in our universities? How can the Secretary of State say that he believes in the principles of university autonomy and admissions on merit when his appointee says that he is prepared to threaten universities with what he chose to describe as the “nuclear option” of fines and deprivation if they do not meet his centrally decreed targets?
Finally, may I gently remind the Secretary of State, and his Liberal Democrat colleagues who are here today, of what he and they promised in their 2010 manifesto, when they said that they would
“Strengthen the House of Commons to increase accountability,”
“increase Parliamentary scrutiny…of government appointments”?
How does he square what he has done in this case with that promise? Or is it the case that his hands were tied by the coalition and he has been forced to carry out this process?
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s positive and generous introductory comments about Professor Ebdon, which were absolutely right. I also congratulate him on a report that he and three of his colleagues produced this morning, entitled “Achieving Fair Access: Removing Barriers, Realising Potential”. I agree with much of it. We are all concerned with the same objectives; the issue is one of how this should be done and the balance between the responsibilities of universities and those of schools, but we have much in common in terms of what we are trying to achieve.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the authority of the Select Committee, whose Chairman I have quoted. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) is right to say that we must treat Select Committees with respect, and we do so. The obligation on me, as Secretary of State, was to establish whether any new evidence had emerged from the hearings, and I found that none had. Had the report been unanimous and based on cross-party consensus, we might have responded differently to it, but it was not.
The hon. Gentleman has been very eloquent on this subject, and I know that he is anxious that we should not introduce prescriptive quotas for admission to universities. That is his primary concern. Let me be clear that that is not Government policy and it is not the policy of OFFA. The independence of universities in regard to admissions is enshrined in law, and Professor Ebdon has gone firmly on record as saying that he will respect the diversity of the sector and its institutional autonomy.
Let me start by congratulating the Business Secretary on securing his preferred appointment to this post. We have no objection to it. We have other concerns, however. Notwithstanding the support of the Minister in Antarctica, the distinct impression has been given that this appointment has been secured as part of some trade-off in the ongoing turf war in Government over higher education policy. Is that the case? It has been well briefed that the Education Secretary is thoroughly opposed to this appointment and, indeed, to the Business Secretary’s continued responsibility for our universities. The sector needs certainty in order to plan, and this turf war is deeply unhelpful. We are firmly of the view that higher education policy should remain the responsibility of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. What assurances can he give us that that will remain the case?
Mr Ebdon has served the universities sector very well for more than 40 years. He knows a thing or two about the higher education sector; some might say that he knows considerably more than many of his critics on the Conservative Benches. Does the Business Secretary agree that the opprobrium heaped on Mr Ebdon by Conservative Members will do nothing to encourage others to come forward and take up high-profile public positions of this sort?
Finally, does the Business Secretary agree that we should not lose sight of the purpose of this appointment? The Office for Fair Access was set up to promote and safeguard fair access to higher education for lower income and other under-represented groups. What are the right hon. Gentleman’s achievements to date in increasing access? He has trebled tuition fees, overseen a cut in student places of 15,000 and presided over a 7.4% drop in university applications this year compared with last year. The appointment of Mr Ebdon today does not alter those salient facts.
On the hon. Gentleman’s first, rather desperate, point about turf wars, let me make it absolutely clear that this is a Government appointment that is supported by all my colleagues, and that responsibilities for higher education will remain exactly as they are. On his more general point about access, I am sure that he will have been following the recent evidence on UCAS admissions. Contrary to the Opposition’s predictions of doom and gloom, applications from low-income students have been almost wholly unaffected by the changes in the financing arrangements. This owes a great deal not just to the outreach work—particularly that led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes)—but to the very generous provisions that have been put in place for scholarships and other support for low-income families. Access to universities has been considerably enhanced as a result of these changes and not in any way diminished.
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has dropped the plan to charge students interest on early repayment of their loans. Does he accept, however, the overwhelming evidence set out in the report today showing that skewed access to our top universities is the result not of a failure of admissions policy but of a lack of adequate preparation in our secondary schools?
I should congratulate the hon. Gentleman as a co-author of this very good report on fair access—on removing barriers and realising potential. I repeat that I agree with much of what it says. The problem that the authors of the report have produced is, I think, the creation of an artificial binary distinction by claiming that access to universities is entirely an issue of schools’ policies as opposed to the admissions policies of universities. Clearly, there is an element of both, and a great deal needs to be done to raise performance levels in schools, as the hon. Gentleman and his co-authors have argued, but equally there is an obligation on universities, as this excellent report says, to help raise aspirations by improving the quality of choices of A-level subjects and making other such advances.
The Secretary of State is correct to say that issues arising from Professor Ebdon’s interview were raised in the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, and those issues will have been raised with him. However, the clear political dividing line in the subsequent voting demonstrates that a political perspective was involved in the final decision. I think that is regrettable; it is the first time my Committee has ever produced a report that was not founded on a unanimous, consensual basis. Will the Secretary of State assure me that, contrary to the press speculation, there was not some sort of back-room deal to offset an allowance for early repayment of tuition fees in return for ratifying this appointment?
I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his role: he has made his own views clear while protecting the integrity of his Committee, which is his duty in Parliament. As far as this so-called deal is concerned, there is no such deal. We have made it clear for some time that we intended to listen to the results of the consultation on prepayment. This consultation was absolutely clear that this was not an attractive way forward, so we have pursued other ways of assuming a fair and progressive system of graduate contributions.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision, the reasoning behind it and the appointment. On the last point that he dealt with—the so-called back-room deal—there will be considerable reassurance politically, but also among the academic and would-be student community, from the statement he has made. Will he emphasise again that the spin and speculation we have seen in the media over the past few days to that effect are no more than just spin and speculation, and that there is no substance to them at all?
Before he went off to the south pole, did the Universities Minister say, “I’m just going out. I may be some time”? Will the Secretary of State give us an absolute assurance that no Minister communicated with any Conservative member of the Select Committee in an attempt to influence the ratification of this appointment?
I am sure that you would want me to reassure you, Mr Speaker, that no plot whatsoever—preordained or otherwise—was organised within the Select Committee, causing it to reach the decision that it reached, by Conservative Members. However, given that the Committee was unable to endorse Professor Ebdon’s appointment and instead called for a new recruitment exercise, is it not deeply regrettable that Ministers have been so unwilling to engage with its concerns? Does this exercise not prompt serious questions about Ministers’ approach to higher education, especially as training appears to have been given more priority than the views of Parliament?
I would never accuse the hon. Gentleman of plotting. I know that he is a totally straightforward and much respected colleague. I will say, however, that what we have engaged with is a very thorough process. We went through two rounds of applications in order to attract a high-quality applicant for this important post, and Professor Ebdon and the other two gentlemen who made the final shortlist were regarded as eminently appointable by independents on a completely non-political basis.
As the Secretary of State will know, I concurred with his decision about the appointment. Does he share my concern about the apparently organised campaign of vilification against Professor Ebdon in the Tory media, many of whose members are friends of the Secretary of State for Education? Will he also tell me how the Secretary of State for Education will help the professor in his new role?
The one aspect of the so-called campaign of vilification that does concern me is that slights have been cast on the reputation of Professor Ebdon’s university, which is in fact excellent. Here are some of the key facts: 90% of the university’s graduates are engaged in work or further study within six months; last year it was given one of the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise; it was given top quality assurance in the most recent audit; and, in the most recent research assessment exercise, it was complimented on its world-class research. Those are the things that we should remember about Professor Ebdon’s achievements in his existing university.
Six months ago, it was my pleasure to present Professor Ebdon with a lifetime achievement award. I think that some of my hon. Friends may have wished that that had been the end of his career.
Is it not true that Professor Ebdon has brought analytical rigour to all the tasks that he has undertaken, that he has over 40 years of experience in the sector, and that if we continue to heap public opprobrium on people who step forward to serve their country—as was the case with Stephen Hester, and as has been the case with Professor Ebdon in the press—fewer people will step forward to give our country that help?
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his statement, on behalf of, I believe, the majority of members of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. Will he, however, answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan)? Can he give a categorical assurance that no pressure was brought to bear on Conservative members of the Committee in the ambush of Professor Ebdon at the pre-confirmation hearing?
It comes as no surprise that the Secretary of State wants to appoint someone who is moving the agenda of social engineering forward and the agenda of merit backward, but just so that we can sort out the wheat from the chaff on the Back Benches, will he be specific about which Ministers in his Department were in favour of the appointment and which were against it, and about how many Ministers in the Government contacted him privately to express their concerns about it?
I have just answered that question. The Universities Minister and I were involved in the decision, and it was made by us and by no one else. As for the general political drift of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I think it fair to point out—as some of the national newspapers did not—that among the institutions that Professor Ebdon has advised on higher education policy is the Conservative party.
When a Select Committee reaches a conclusion on an overtly party political basis, it is easy for the Executive to ignore it, and the Committee should not be used in this way. Is the Secretary of State concerned that people seeking such appointments in the future will not want to put themselves through the machine that has been set against Les Ebdon in the past few months, in the media and elsewhere, and that we will end up with a second XI batting for Britain, not a first XI?
This is a first-class appointment, which was arrived at in a proper, open and fair manner. As I said, I welcome the role that the Select Committee plays; I used to serve on the Treasury Committee, and the critical reviews it gave the members of the Monetary Policy Committee were very valuable. Critical comments have been made in this case, they have been addressed by Professor Ebdon and by me, and he will therefore come before the Select Committee on a regular basis to report. I think that the Select Committee scrutiny process has been very valuable.
I have the privilege of representing three excellent universities. Clearly, the head of OFFA has a lot of work to do to balance improved access and high standards. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that Professor Ebdon will get full governmental support in his role, particularly from the Department for Education, because far too many pupils, particularly those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds and those who receive free school meals, are still not given the chance to reach their full potential while they are at school?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress that the origins of the access problem and the lack of fair access are frequently found in the schools—I think that that was the point of the original question—not just in university admissions. It is important to pay tribute to the reforms that my colleague the Secretary of State for Education is making, in terms of improving standards and the introduction of the pupil premium, for which my hon. Friend and I have campaigned. It will undoubtedly raise standards in schools.
On 19 October 2009, the then Conservative Opposition obtained an urgent question following the decision by a Labour Minister to appoint the Children’s Commissioner in defiance of the relevant Select Committee. In April 2010, the Liberal Democrats published a manifesto which stated, on page 88, that they would give Parliament power to approve Government appointments. Why has the Minister failed to respect the views of the legislature on this occasion when he had promised to do so?
Both the Chairman of the Select Committee and I have already answered the hon. Gentleman’s question. We treat the Select Committee’s report and the legislature with respect. Criticisms have been made and they will be addressed through the Select Committee. This is a good process and we will continue to uphold it.
Between 2006 and 2010, five students only from Wrexham were admitted to Oxford university—regrettably, there was no right of appeal to the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills. Does the Secretary of State agree that admission by interview prevents transparent consideration of admissions criteria and of the effect of those criteria?
I do not want to get into criticising universities. I have already made it very clear that they are independent bodies responsible for their own admissions policies. The access agreements that they sign will improve access—that is why those agreements are in place and that is what Professor Ebdon is there to do. I do not, as a Minister, want to lecture universities on how they admit particular students.
After 50 years of comprehensive education, why do we have this tragedy that only 50 pupils receiving free school meals are getting into the top universities? How are we going to solve this? The Secretary of State says that he is not going to dumb down standards. Is it not a fact that the era of the greatest social mobility—the most opportunities for poor people—was when there was a grammar school in every town?
As a member of the Select Committee who attended the hearings and was aware that all the Conservative members attended for the full meeting and made the strongest possible representations opposing the appointment, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he was aware before the Committee met that it was likely that Conservative MPs were going to try to block the appointment?
It is notable that, in defiance of the Select Committee, there have been no comments about why a minority report was not produced in the event that some people did not concur with the findings of the Select Committee. I therefore suggest that, by ignoring the Select Committee, we are doing a disservice to those Members who spent time considering the representations to the Committee. May I urge the Secretary of State to give the House an assurance that we will not allow the nuclear option to discriminate against pupils from high-achieving schools such as mine in St Albans?
I have already made it clear that there is no question of discriminating against people with ability. My constituency has two of the most successful independent schools in the country. I fully support their activities, and frequently visit them and work with them, so there is no question whatever of discrimination. Access is a much broader concept: it is helping people to realise their potential, and what can possibly be wrong with that?
As someone who spent several years as an admissions tutor in one of our leading universities, may I tell the Secretary of State that it is difficult to make judgments on the merits of individual applicants? Contextual data are absolutely critical in trying to achieve a fair admissions process, so will he endorse their use?
Contextual data are already used by universities, including both Oxbridge universities, as a useful aid to establishing someone’s potential, but it is not the Government’s job to prescribe particular systems of admission, and we have no intention of going down that road.
May I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to our colleagues who, in the fair access report, have drawn attention to the need for aspiration, attainment and eligibility while preserving autonomy and excellence? Will he work with the Department for Education so that what Michael Rutter discovered in the 15,000 hours study—and with the 70,000 hours that people spent outside school in preparation for university or college—will make it less necessary to have any kind of OFFA in future? In time, the Secretary of State should seek the abolition of the office, so that people can, on merit, grow up and, on merit, be considered by universities and colleges.
I am among the people who paid tribute to that report, and I acknowledge that there is a lot of good material in it. One of the things that it emphasised was the importance of helping with aspirations in schools, changing the expectation that many people have that they have no prospect of going to university, and working at the level of individual schools. I think we will continue to see OFFA concentrating on that, and not on penalties of various kinds, about which some hon. Members appear to be concerned.
Given that both coalition parties are committed to improving social mobility and that the Office for Fair Access is increasingly important as an agent for doing that, is it not right that the director should be qualified, determined and tough? Professor Ebdon, like Sir Martin Harris, amply fulfils that requirement, and will be an excellent leader to change what universities so far have sometimes failed sufficiently to do.
I think that universities will be greatly reassured that they have an excellent man to lead OFFA in future, as Sir Martin Harris has done in the past. It has been a good process, we have a good outcome, and universities have absolutely nothing to be afraid of.
As someone who once conducted interviews of undergraduates at Oxford, my experience is that Oxford was a university that admits on merit, rather than considering the background of candidates, and was always looking for ways to widen access. Oxford spends double the sector average on financial support for lowest income students, but given concerns expressed today about Professor Ebdon’s appointment, does the Secretary of State agree that decisions about admissions to universities must remain the ultimate decision of those universities, as they are best placed to make that judgment?
Yes, of course I agree, and I repeat what I have said several times in the past. Indeed, the ultimate assurance that the hon. Lady has are the terms of the legislation under which OFFA operates, the Higher Education Act 2004, which said that the director of OFFA
“has a duty to protect academic freedom”,
“the criteria for the admission of students”.
That is absolute.
May I press the Secretary of State on whether he agrees that the quota policy espoused by Professor Ebdon puts the cart before the horse, and whether we should be pushing schools to produce better students, rather than tempering our universities’ freedom to choose students on merit? Otherwise both students and universities will ultimately suffer.
This is a case of Parliament v. the Executive. On only two occasions have Select Committees not endorsed a senior appointment, one of which was under Labour. When we were in opposition, we created merry hell about it and said that the Executive were ignoring Parliament. What is different this time?
What is different is that the Executive are not ignoring Parliament. We are aware of the criticisms that were made of Professor Ebdon’s interview and we have asked him to appear on a regular basis before the Select Committee to demonstrate that he has its full confidence. That is what is different.
Over the past few days there has been an enormous amount of media hype of the issue and some hyperbolic language, “social engineering” being one of the terms used. To get down to some facts, more than 20 Oxbridge colleges made no offers to black students for undergraduate courses in 2009, with one college not having admitted a single black student for five years. Meanwhile, four elite independent schools have sent more pupils to Oxbridge than 2,000 state schools. Would the Secretary of State—
Yes, he will. He has been given additional resources in order to do his job properly. The issue on which my hon. Friend focuses, under-representation of at least some ethnic groups, is a particular focus of the letter that I, together with the Universities Minister, sent to the previous director as something that he should work on.
Given that the Secretary of State feels that it is his role to intervene in these matters, will he tell us how many pupils who qualify for free school meals should be going to Oxbridge by the end of Professor Ebdon’s tenure? If that number is not reached, will he intervene yet again on Professor Ebdon?
I have not intervened beyond making the appointment, and Professor Ebdon has clear terms of reference. But since the hon. Gentleman has set out a standard, let me remind him and other colleagues of the current position. Pupils from independent schools are 55 times more likely to go to Oxbridge than children with free school meals. That is the imbalance that we are trying to address.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the brightest pupils from the poorest backgrounds would be far better off if, regardless of who its director is, the Office for Fair Access, which as far as I can see is no more than an expensive and unnecessary quango that is engaged in social engineering, was scrapped and the money used to support directly the outreach programmes of our top universities?
Actually, one of the main purposes of OFFA will be to promote those outreach programmes and to draw from the lessons and experience of different outreach programmes, which as far as I am aware have not been systematically evaluated. That will be one of Professor Ebdon’s tasks.
Fair access, particularly to research-intensive universities, is of paramount importance, because it is from that body that the media, the professions, and membership of this House are drawn. In the four and a half years that I shadowed higher education for the Liberal Democrats in the last Parliament, I met more than 100 vice-chancellors, and Les Ebdon sticks in my mind as someone who is passionately committed to the agenda of widening participation and fair access in particular. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the appointment, and I hope that he will give Professor Ebdon all the support that he will need for the very important job that lies ahead.