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Westminster Hall

Volume 547: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2012

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 26 June 2012

[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

Women (Global Economy)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Greg Hands.)

It is a pleasure, Mr Turner, to serve under your stewardship today. Today’s debate is on women in the global economy. It is true to say that women now drive the world economy. Globally, they control £20 trillion of annual consumer spending, and that could climb as high as £28 trillion by 2015. Their £13 trillion in total yearly earnings could reach £18 trillion in the same period. In aggregate, women represent a growth market more than twice as big as China and India combined. Given those sums, it would be foolish to underestimate that economic force.

Carol Bagnold, HSBC’s regional commercial director for London, said:

“The female economy is hugely important for the UK and globally in terms of the international stage. Wealth is shifting, and the scale of contribution from women in both the business and consumer world is growing.

The States have recognised this with a plot of research done. In the UK the statistics show the same opportunity and we need to grasp this. 60% of personal wealth will sit with females by 2025, 37% of start-ups are now female owned, within the corporate world there”

is a

“growing number of females controlling the finances.”

Women are now the largest emerging economy. British women in their early 20s already earn 3.6% more than men of the same age. Women in full-time work are seeing their wages grow at more than twice the rate of men’s, and if that growth continues the average pay of women in the UK will overtake men’s by 2020.

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend’s flow so early in her speech. Does she agree that those figures show that there is no need for politically correct positive discrimination, quotas or targets, because women are more than capable of competing on equal terms with men, and that we should focus on jobs and opportunities being given on merit alone?

I agree with half of what my hon. Friend says. We are taking significant steps forward, and I will refer to various women and business executives who make similar comments, but they include the caveat that different sorts of support are essential for women to enable them to achieve the positions they want, and to continue their jobs and professional advancement through a complex cycle, because women are the carers and nurturers in society.

In the UK, 700,000 businesses are female-owned and estimated turnover in 2011 was £130 billion according to the International Centre for Entrepreneurship. For the first time, there are more young female millionaires than young male millionaires, so women are becoming wealthier younger. It seems that women are now truly an unstoppable economic force. However, in tandem with those positive statistics is the fact that although women may be earning more when younger, things change dramatically in their 30s when they have families. Between the ages of 40 and 49, there is a significant difference—about £3—in the hourly rate of women and men of the same working age.

We are often told that if women set up businesses at the same rate as men, there would be 150,000 new starts a year. As well as that, if we increased women’s participation in the workplace, we could add another £15 billion to £22 billion to the UK economy. We are also told that it will take another 70 years to achieve gender balance in the boardroom, such is the state of affairs there. Both sets of statistics are true, but neither does justice to the full role that women play globally.

Academics talk of women’s achievements reaching a plateau after a high point pre-2000 when a diverse raft of ground-breaking women took to the national and international stage. In this House in 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first and only female Prime Minister. Elizabeth Butler-Sloss was appointed the first woman law lord in 1988. Stella Rimington was appointed the first female head of MI5 in 1992, and Debbie Moore was the first woman to establish a public limited company in 1984.

The rapid rise of women to leadership roles faltered as we approached the 21st century. Martin, Warren-Smith, Scott and Roper commented on the alarming lack of progress, and Vanhala stated that there has not been a significant increase since the early 1990s. That prompted Broadbent and Kirkham to write that:

“after a promising start why aren’t women moving on, even in ‘feminised’ professions such as accountancy”.

In their book, “Through the Labyrinth”, Eagly and Carli wrote about the distinct lack of women in powerful roles. However, others, including Broadridge, Broadbent and Kirkham are now asking whether we have reached a pivotal point in the advancement of women in leadership, and suggesting that to deliver the next level of progress a new understanding of female leadership might be required.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is too modest to mention it, but I commend her work with her book “If Chloe Can”, and the magazine that she set up and has delivered to thousands of schoolgirls throughout the country in scores of schools. She turned it into a play, and what she has achieved is remarkable. Does she agree that role models are crucial, and that women and other people can achieve their ambitions, whatever their background, if they have other people’s paths and examples to follow?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I do indeed believe that, and I am not the only one. A huge body of work has been done on that. Ofsted did a report last year, and this year Girlguiding UK did a report on the importance of role models. I came to the same conclusion after 10 years of research on the Genda Agenda, and in the Ideopolis report and the Merseyside Entrepreneurship Commission. I originally sought to look specifically at Merseyside where evidence unfortunately showed that the statistics for girls claiming benefit were double the national average, but for those setting up in business they were half the national average. That was not because of the academic qualifications they did or did not have, not because they did not have drive and determination, and not because they did not have the wherewithal; it was purely because of a lack of role models. If girls do not know what opportunities are out there, they cannot follow a path and achieve.

If I wanted to make a chocolate cake, I would not try to fathom out how much butter, flour and chocolate I would need. I would go to a recipe book, or follow the recipe of someone who had got it right. If I then wanted to tweak and perfect it with extra chocolate flakes and buttons, I would. In the same way, I teach young girls and older girls that there is a path that they can follow, and show them the raw ingredients that they need to achieve.

Another positive comment I always make to young girls from all backgrounds—this is key—is that when I did an academic qualitative and quantitative study of the top 100 women in the world from all backgrounds, the determining factors were not who someone was related to, or what academic qualifications they had. Personality and character traits determined their future. Being persistent, determined, consistent, a good team player, optimistic, and able to find a way of doing things even when hurdles were put in the way were the key determining factors for whether people achieved. That was a long answer, but it encapsulates 10 years’ work.

I thought that at this point I would urge the Minister—if my hon. Friend wants to comment, she can—to do the following. It seems to me, having been one of the many colleagues who went to see the performance of “If Chloe Can” when it was turned into a play and who also saw the production in Speaker’s House, that if the Government and the Minister really want to do something useful, giving some support and funding to allow that to go around the country as my hon. Friend envisages would be far more worth while than just talking about these things.

I thank my hon. Friend very much. I would never have been so bold as to make such a plea, but as he has, on my behalf, I shall endorse it thoroughly.

I argue not only that women have reached a pivotal point, but that we need to understand and ensure that we in the broader sense—all of society—support the complex female life cycle. I am talking about the life cycle of a woman as mother, carer and nurturer. We also need to understand how those biological and atavistic needs drive, motivate and influence women’s choices. Women’s natural predisposition to be carers and nurturers regularly dictates the style and type of job that they do, the type of business that they establish and the choice of hours worked in order to fit around the needs of their family. Perhaps targets for the extra number of businesses that women should set up, how much extra they could add to the economy or how great a percentage could be on a board are artificial and too simplistic a range of targets and do not take into account innate human desires.

As we look to the global stage and look at businesses, we are noticing that there has been a change from a hierarchical structure in business and organisations to a flatter one. Executive leaders are seeing and feeling that, but is everyone else convinced? Targets are not enough. They do not work sustainably and are not as effective as they need to be. We can look to other countries. In China, the Philippines and Thailand, things are very balanced. In Japan, that is not the case. There, women take only 6% of the top jobs. We have to look at the cultural effects. The McKinsey study in Europe showed a much improved gender balance. In China, 70% of women are in work, but India is far behind, with 35%. Again, that shows the cultural significance and difference.

Eve Baldwin, the global human resources director for Unilever, says that she has noticed that 50% of entry-level positions are taken by women, but 80% of promotions go to men. Why are we still not landing job promotions? It seems that organisations still prefer a male style. Perhaps there is still a lack of acceptance of different styles. Perhaps organisations do not appreciate the different dimensions and character types that women can bring to the business world. That needs to be fixed internally.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the very thoughtful and extremely well-researched speech that she is giving. Does she agree that one reason why women are not progressing in the way that we would all obviously like them to progress is that for many there is an absolute tension between wanting to have and rear a family and, at the same time, wanting to nurture a career? We have not resolved that tension yet. One reason why we have not resolved it is the cost of child care, which of course went up under the previous Administration. The current Government must address that in a significant way if women at all levels are to make progress at work.

That was a very pertinent point and well made. Child care is key and needs to be addressed in many ways. It is not just a question of costing it out and paying for it. There could be tax incentives. There could be tax reliefs. We could perhaps start with just women setting up in business or look to help people on the new enterprise allowance. Obviously there will be budget constraints, but we have to think smarter. We have to think about how we will use Government money, but we also have to facilitate women so that they can add to the economy, because a woman’s life is, as we have stated, a complex life. The desire to have children is one of the most basic desires and needs to be fulfilled.

One change that has occurred in recent times is that the number of child minders has gone down—in my view, because of over-regulation. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must ensure that there is less regulation to enable more people to act as child minders? That would reduce the costs of child care and be much more convenient to a number of women, especially those who do not have the money available to them to put their child in a nursery, to employ a nanny or to use some other rather expensive means of looking after their children.

Absolutely. That is a point well made. I will be raising those issues at the end of my speech so that the Minister can take them forward and see what we can do. We believe in market forces and fairness. Obviously, if there are more people prepared to do child minding as a job and support other people, that should bring the costs down. We have to ask why the costs have risen so dramatically and therefore limited women in what they can do. They have to put their ambitions on hold while they look after their family.

As well as considering the support provided and the size and shape of business, we must examine lifelong learning. We must examine education for girls. Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, said:

“We are living in a time of change and flux and it’s almost impossible to predict what the eventual outcome will be. What we can and must do is prepare our young people, and for the certainty of change, ensure they have the skills and attitudes they will need to survive and thrive, and help them (young women especially) develop the resilience to overcome setbacks, whatever happens.

The idea that your education finishes when you leave school or university no longer holds true—today’s young people can expect to learn and re-learn throughout their lives. Additional qualifications, second and even third degrees are likely to become more commonplace as people re-invent themselves and re-energise their careers. And if education is no longer linked only to the early stages in life—to childhood and youth—then developing attitudes that characterise successful learners is just as important as developing knowledge. Learning how to learn, developing physical and mental discipline, being open and engaged with the world, cultivating a true love of learning—these matter as much as knowing facts and figures and formulae.”

The reason why I asked Helen Fraser to contribute a quote to this important debate was not just—I say “just” lightly—that she is chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, a group of girls’ schools. Before that, she was managing director of a global company, Penguin Books. Therefore I felt that she had seen both sides of the coin. She has been a mum and wife and a successful business woman, and now is a business woman again in the world of education.

Following on from that, Professor Lesley Yellowlees, president-elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry—the first woman to be elected president in its 171-year history—says:

“The UK needs a highly skilled workforce, particularly if we are going to make headway in these bleak economic times. More and more young women are studying science at university to the point where we have a near 50-50 balance in chemistry.

The problem today is not women entering science, but keeping them there and retaining all those skills and talent that can and does make a massive contribution to the global economy.

For the chemical sciences, that contribution is worth £258 billion, or 21 per cent, to the country’s GDP, according to an independent report the RSC commissioned in 2010.

Women are playing a greater role in science than ever before—but we can do much more. This is just one of the areas I will be focusing on as I begin my two-year term next month as the first female President of the Royal Society of Chemistry.”

She says that she will make helping women not just to get into science but to stay there a key issue. She will be doing that through role models.

Maxine Benson, a co-founder of everywoman, says:

“GenderDiversity isn’t just a nice thing to have; it is the solution to a business loss. Businesses with fewer women on the board make 42% lower return on sales, 66% lower return on”


“capital and 53% lower return on equity. The differing attitudes to risk and governance means that having a female board member cuts your company’s chances of going bust by up to 20%.

The retention and promotion of talented women at senior levels is one of the simplest, most…effective and easiest methods of dramatically improving your business’s bottom line.”

All those things must be taken into account. People must appreciate and understand the differences between men and women, embrace those differences and bring them on board, because only then will they truly understand the benefit of having more women in key positions.

I want to move away from the business world to look at global leaders, because they are key. Women are coming of age as global leaders. Things are shifting. We have gone into a financially chaotic period, and women are coming through in places experiencing war-torn upheaval. We cannot talk about female leaders and understand them, or have today’s debate, without referring to Nobel prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, who spoke in Parliament last week. She was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1991 for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights. She is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades and has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression. The Nobel committee gave her the peace prize for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation in peaceful times.

We also need to refer to the latest Noble peace prize, which went jointly to three women: Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; Liberian peace advocate, Leymah Gbowee; and Tawakkol Karman, a leading figure in the Yemeni pro-democracy movement. They were all recognised

“for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

I would argue that women’s mothering and nurturing predisposition helps in non-violent struggles, with co-operation, consensual understanding and empathy; perhaps, like a mother for a child, there is the same love for supporters and country, and they could take their country and the struggle of the nation to a new phase of development.

Professor Parveen Kumar, the president of the Royal Society of Medicine, professor of medicine and education at Barts in London and the leading light in global health, wrote the definitive medical textbook used all round the world, including Asia and Africa. She is trying to take on new technology to distribute it as cheaply as possible to emerging nations. She set in motion active support and engagement with Royal Society members—all 23,000—so that they could help and support some of the most needy people in the world. She analysed the health statistics on child and infant mortality, and, with Carolyn Miller, chief executive of the international health charity, Merlin, assisted Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to raise health standards, provide books, support and a new wing of a hospital, and to teach, not only doctors, but, this year, the first cohort of midwifery qualifications. As Professor Kumar and Carolyn Miller say, helping women globally is key—if you help and educate a women, you help the family, the child and the next generation.

If we put together a picture of women globally, we see that it is not only about finance, the support that they give others or education. They are not necessarily driven by high status or the turnover of a business, but appear to be a cohesive glue. A woman will be the mother of every child who ever populates the earth. Through that, they seem to act more laterally and less hierarchically. They seem to reach out to fill the vacuum that might be left in society.

I want to talk about global communicators.

Before my hon. Friend moves on to the next subject, would she agree with me about charities? I am slightly connected with Women for Women, which raises a considerable amount of money to invest in women in what are often war-torn countries. It recognises that one way to restore broken lives and families, including in areas of strife, is to empower and enable women to work and rebuild families. That charitable work is to be commended.

Absolutely, it is indeed. We can see such efforts in many organisations, of which that is one, where women come together to build lives, help co-operation and make the world a better place, as they perceive it, for their children and the next generation. Part of that message has to be about communication; getting the story to the outside world and telling the tales of women that might not otherwise be heard can help.

The formidable Christina Lamb is possibly one of our best war journalists. She said that she always thought that she would help people, perhaps providing assistance and support as a doctor, but she turned out to be a journalist, travelling the world providing a voice for particularly women, families and children, who would not otherwise have one. In doing so, she has told their stories around the globe and got them the medical help, the medicine and the support and protection that they required. In her own way, she has been a healer.

I make special reference to Boni Sones, who set up Parliamentary Radio to link women and women MPs not only in the UK but around the globe. She says:

“Women journalists in the UK and women across party in the British Parliament have been using new technology and new journalistic practices to talk about the issues they have been championing to improve the lives of the women and families they represent in their constituencies. They are now trying, via a BlackBerry applications to ‘link in’ women in Parliaments across the Globe to their web based radio station so that they then broadcast stories”

and success stories, not only about them, but about other women across the globe. She continues:

“The World is indeed becoming ‘flat’ as new media allows new connections like this one to take place. Previously broadcasters required FM frequencies and line-bookings, now the internet and mobile phones like the BlackBerry device can allow programme makers to broadcast all over the World.”

Boni is a visionary. She set up that project in Parliament, but she is seeking to make global links to tell stories across the world.

It is important to celebrate women’s achievements. That in itself can provide role models, allowing others to see what has been achieved and what women, too, could achieve. I want to talk specifically about Merseyside women of the year. The award is ten years old this year, and the ceremony will take place on Friday. It began as a very small event looking at women in business, but grew and grew with the formidable courage of the ladies involved and did not remain just about business.

I am struck by the various avenues and fields that the award has covered: charity, learning, support and media. Past winners include Claire Lara, the chef; Lisa Collins, the business woman; Pauline Daniels, the stand-up comedian; Kim Cattrall, the actress—yes, she came from Merseyside too—Edwina Currie; and Carla Lane. A plethora of women have won the award, which is supported by three incredible women: Jean Gadsby, Ellen Kerr and Elaine Owen, who have come together and supported the award. This year—the 10th year—they are taking it to the next level. They want to support and fund women. They are putting a bursary together to do that for the next generation of women.

There are things to be asked of the Government. I have spoken at length about the various things that women do and achieve but, as has been touched on, we need role models for women—visible signs of female accomplishment. Something simple that Boni Sones wanted was pictures of women, even in Parliament, or in the National gallery, celebrating success. The images of women constantly before us do not show them in successful, powerful roles, but in weaker, consumer or sexualised roles. A few more paintings would seem a meagre request.

Is not that one of the peculiarities and tensions of the issue? Speaking—forgive me, Mr Turner—as an old feminist, I suggest that one of the ironies of the feminist movement is that in this day and age arguably there is even more pressure on young women to aspire to a certain body image. Equally, we have a terrible celebrity culture. We could have good, strong role models for women, but young women aspire to what the media too often put forward. That does not advance women in society. In many ways it has taken us back decades.

I would completely agree, as would many young girls. The 2010 survey by Girlguiding UK examined what was forming girls’ attitudes to work and what was driving and motivating them to take up jobs. It was what they saw in the media; and usually the jobs were powerless ones. In 2010, it was still a major ambition of girls to be a hairdresser, rather than an engineer, because that was what they saw. The ambition was to be a beautician rather than a scientist, to be a WAG rather than a lawyer, to be someone’s other half rather than to achieve in their own right.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite the fact that she received a lot of criticism, there was much merit in the speech by Cherie Blair last week? She identified a problem with the aspirations of too many young women, who aim just to marry a rich man, and see that as the be-all and end-all of their lives. In the same way, unfortunately, the only aspiration of a number of very young women in our society is still to be a mother. That is why we have such a high teenage pregnancy rate. They see nothing else in their lives besides having a baby.

When I go round schools, one of the key things that I say is “What would you like to achieve for yourself? It is great if you get the perfect partner and have children. Those are other things, and part of your life; but what are you doing with your life? How will you shape and craft it? Should your husband leave you, what will you do? When your kids eventually grow up, as they do—and there is a massive vacuum in a mother’s life when a child leaves—what will you do; and how can you fulfil your aim?” Sometimes, when I am speaking to 12 to 18-year-olds, that all seems so far away. Tomorrow seems far away. When I am speaking on a Monday, Friday night seems a long time away. Nevertheless, I try to make that point.

I hope that she will not mind my mentioning this story, but I always tell the girls I speak to about Debbie Moore. It is funny in hindsight; but so many things seem funny in hindsight. She was a successful model and at 19 married the man who would have been the love of her life, a photographer. She thought that was it; her life was perfect. She had peaked. Two years on, it was their second wedding anniversary. He went off to work and she waved him goodbye, knowing she had a magnificent celebration prepared for him when he came home that night. She waited, and he did not come home. The next morning he still did not. He had run away and dumped her for a younger model. She was only 21 and he had run off with a 19-year-old girl.

She suffered turmoil, devastation and upset, of course, and through the stress a thyroid imbalance set in, so she ballooned, then lost weight. That was not conducive to a modelling career, because she would arrive at an interview one size, and arrive at the photo shoot another size. When she asked the doctors if there were potions or pills to help her, they said that there were not, but that possibly gentle exercise would suit her. She said, “I hate the gym, and I hate jogging. Oh, but I don’t mind dancing.” She took up dancing and learned more and more. From that beginning she set up the Pineapple dance studio and dance clothes range, and became the first woman to set up a public limited company. She always says that the best opportunities can come from the greatest adversity. It is a question of what people do with them. Who would think, she asks, that after all the devastation and upset, she would, many years after the event, thank the man who left her, because he made her a multi-millionairess? I try to emphasise to girls that the question is not what someone else can do for them, but what they can do for themselves.

A list of the percentage of women in business and in various careers shows that they account for only 22% of MPs, peers and Cabinet members. Women have 35% of senior civil service places; 9% of Supreme Court justices are women. They account for 45% of general practitioners, 31% of NHS consultants, and 19% of university professors. There is much that can be done to change that, but the question to ask is “What do you want to do; what do you need to fulfil in yourself? There are a plethora of jobs out there; what do you feel would fulfil your potential and aspirations?” To go back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), seeing women purely as glamorous, sexualised beings has many ramifications. If women are thought of only in visual terms, rather than in terms of what is in them, that takes away their power. That stunts their aspirations, because they do not see women in powerful positions; they see them only as an addition to someone else.

Chief Guide Gill Slocombe said:

“We believe that today’s young women have enormous potential to promote change at a local, national and international level. This belief is further backed up with the results of our Women in the Lead survey which showed that an amazing two thirds of award-winning women have previously been a Brownie, Guide or member of the Senior Section.

Therefore we call upon all those involved in public life to join us in ensuring that they play their role in providing opportunities to enable young women to exercise their power, make their voices heard and strengthen their role in the global economy.”

To return to what I ask of the Government, the issues are role models, visible signs of accomplishment, and child support, for women and children. Greater family and pre-family support and education is a key thing, so that, as early as possible, women fully understand the life-changing choice of whether to have a child. Other issues are support for women setting up businesses—women are nearly five times more likely to cite family reasons for setting up a career—and support for female-run businesses, although I do not exclude male-run businesses, which should have support too. Access to finance for business is also relevant to both males and females, but particularly to women, because usually they start off with much lower capitalisation. They have humbler aspirations and desires, and are more than happy to start off with less money. Equally, they take fewer gambles, so they will have done more research when they set up a business, and they ask for less money. We feel that more mentoring support is key.

I will close today with a quote from my colleague and good friend, Bettany Hughes, who is an award-winning historian and broadcaster, and a research fellow at King’s College London. She said:

“The oldest surviving 3D sculpture in the world, 40,000 years old and carved from the tusk of a woolly mammoth, is of a woman. For the next 40,000 years, close on 92% of all extant human figures are of the female form—telling us that when homo sapiens tried to work out what it was to be human, the female of the species was conspicuous not by her absence but by her presence. In this epoch human-kind invented religion, cities, farming, tools, philosophy, democracy…the list is endless. Archaeology and history show us that throughout this massive bulk of human experience—from 400,000 BC to around 400 AD—women have enjoyed substantial standing and influence and sway in society. Plato opined, ‘Nothing can be more absurd than the practice that prevails in our country of men and women not following the same pursuits with all their strength and with one mind, because when this happens, the state, instead of being a whole, is reduced to a half.’ How true. Why choose to live in the half world of Plato’s imagining when we can flourish in a full one?

The word Man comes from…‘Manu’ meaning mind or thought. Mankind is a global community not of humans with an excess of the Y chromosome, but of creatures who think. We, both man and woman, think best together. This is not a plea from 50% of the population—but a recommendation for all 100%. Both male and female can draw comfort from this truth—I think and therefore I am, a man.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) on securing this debate. As I have mentioned before, I support much of what she says. I also congratulate her on her careful thought, the construction of her speech and her considerable research.

I will not speak for long; unfortunately, I am sitting on the Defamation Bill, which starts at 10.30. I should not say “unfortunately”, because it is always a great pleasure to sit on a Public Bill Committee, but I will have to keep my comments short.

Obviously, I speak as a woman. I am an old feminist and the mother of two daughters, aged 20 and 21. All my life, I have been opposed to any form of stereotyping, whether it is based on gender, sexual preferences, colour of skin, race, religion or whatever.

Although I agree with so much of what my hon. Friend said, I just put into the mix a little bit of caution. I accept that as a woman, my biology means that there will be some natural urge or instinct to have a child. As a mother, therefore, I realise that many of us have mothering instincts. However, there is a danger of saying that all the great attributes of someone such as Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, come from the fact that she is a woman. I take the view that she has a steely determination, which is found in both women and men. Her nature to care and to make considerable self-sacrifice is not because she is a mother but because she is a great human being, and both men and women have those attributes. There is a danger if we say that women have a particular side of them that lends itself to the more nurturing and caring professions.

Those of us who have practised law will remember the days—I am certainly old enough to—when as young female barristers we were undoubtedly encouraged to practise in the family law division. There was an assumption that we would want to do so. When I first went to the Bar, more than 30 years ago, it was difficult for women to advance not only within the profession but at the criminal Bar because it was seen as a combative arena, which indeed it is, and not the sort of arena that women would want to engage in.

My role model was a woman called Rose Heilbron, who went to my school. She was the first woman to get a first in law from Liverpool, to get a first at Gray’s Inn and to do a murder trial. When the male criminal, who was up for murder, saw her, he said, “My God, I knew things were bad, but now I have seen who is representing me, I see things are worse.”

Rose’s desire to go into the law came from a desire to help other people. It was a case of, “There but for the grace of God go I”. She had been a refugee. Her desire to support others and to ensure that everybody had access to the law was what motivated her. Although I agree that women are not the only part of the population to have these caring, nurturing and mothering beliefs, many studies have linked those qualities with the fact that we give birth. They say that our biological differences are the key motivating factor for why women take up a job and pursue a profession. More than 80% of social enterprises involve women, and that is down to our biological differences.

I am extremely grateful for that intervention from my hon. Friend who has researched the matter and clearly knows a great deal more than me. Although I agree with much of what she says, I want to add a note of caution so that those who perhaps do not fully support the advancement of women or the feminist cause do not rely too much on our natural instincts as mothers, nurturers and carers to say, “That is all well and good and that is where you should stay.”

Let me return to the point I was making before my hon. Friend’s intervention. When I returned to the Bar, some 20 years ago, I was struck by how much its attitude had changed—not only to background, school, the colour of skin, race and religion, but to women. There had been a great advancement of women at the criminal Bar. We are now reaching the point when almost half of the people at the criminal Bar are women, which is to be celebrated. Women are just as capable as any man at either prosecuting or defending in criminal cases, however difficult that case may be.

I will not delay you for much longer, Mr Turner, but I want to reiterate this point about child care. There is a very real need, especially among those who are not particularly well paid, to return to the world of work. The reasons for that are often economic, but not always. This may not be understood by some men, but many women want to go back to work not just because they want to earn the money, but because they want the social side and the interaction that comes from it. At the moment, however, we have a profound problem in our country. A number of women, on finishing their maternity leave, look at the cost of returning to work and find that the amount of money that they will earn is the same as what they will have to expend on child care. We need to tackle that.

Finally, mentoring was mentioned by my hon. Friend. How right she was. Certainly at the Bar, there were mentoring schemes to help women. Mentoring is an admirable scheme and works especially well for women.

Thank you, Mr Turner, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) in this debate. She has to go off to a Public Bill Committee. I hope that you, Mr Turner, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who is the shadow Minister for Equalities, the Minister for Equalities and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) will all forgive me as I have to go off to a Select Committee soon, so I will be unable to stay for the wind-up speeches. I apologise in advance for that.

In all honesty, I was not intending to speak in this debate. When I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West speak, I was even less keen, given how much research she has done on this subject. She made a fantastic speech and clearly knows her stuff. I have not done any research at all, Mr Turner, so I would not want you to compare my speech with that of my hon. Friend, because it certainly will not compare. However, the things that she said have prompted me to make a few points.

I commend my hon. Friend because, as I said in one of my interventions, her work with “If Chloe Can” is truly inspirational to lots of girls. She attended a theatre production, when “If Chloe Can” made its debut in the west end, and saw a thousand schoolgirls from many deprived parts of London hugely excited, not only by the production by the National Youth Theatre—which I also compliment—but by seeing some fantastic women from all walks of life whom she had persuaded to attend. Those women talked about their life stories and encouraged those girls to think they could achieve something with their lives and achieve their ambitions if they set out to do so, irrespective of their backgrounds. All that is inspirational.

The work that my hon. Friend has done in pursuing that aim is truly amazing. Lots of people in politics talk a good game, but I must say that there are not that many who go through the motions of doing something. She does not just talk about things; she goes out and does the things I have described, quietly getting on with it. She should be commended greatly for the work that she does. I say that even though she only half-agreed with my opening intervention, but I will overlook that fact for now.

I will talk about a couple of things. My hon. Friend talked about the pay gap between men and women in their late 30s and 40s, which contrasts with the situation when they are in their 20s. It struck me that there was something rather inevitable about that particular problem, and I am not entirely sure that anything can be done—or indeed, should be done—to address it.

If a man carries on working through his 20s and 30s, one hopes that he will progress in his job, whereas a woman may have made her own choice to leave work to have a child before coming back to work later. It would be bizarre if the woman came back on the same pay or higher pay than the man who had been slaving away for an extra 10 or 15 years in that particular company. It seems to me that some of these things, whether they are right or wrong, are simply inevitable and are not a matter for the Government to start interfering with. They simply reflect the inevitability of life.

I am always interested in hearing what the hon. Gentleman has to say on this subject. Although I understand the argument he is making about the impact of taking time out of the workplace, does he accept that one potential solution to the problem he describes is to share the time out of the workplace more equitably between fathers and mothers, and to take measures to promote that sharing of time away from work?

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. The bit that I am not particularly convinced about is that even if we equalise the opportunities for men and women to take time off work to look after children, my guess—I am not an expert in these matters, but this is my guess—is that through nature women will be more likely to want to take that time off work than men. I could be completely wrong, but that is my guess. We can equalise the opportunity as much as possible, but I suspect that even if we did so, women would be much more likely to take maternity leave than men would be to take paternity leave.

The hon. Lady may disagree and if the Government implement such a scheme, we will see what happens. I hope that, if the Government do so and what I say proves to be true, she will come back and acknowledge that that was the case, rather than sticking to her sort of feminist dogma, which is not really wedded to the real world.

However, I agree with some of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe made about child care and its regulation. We seem to have an obsession in this country with making every job in the world a job that someone needs a degree to do. One of the latest examples of that is childminding. When parents look for a childminder, the most important factor—it would certainly be the most important factor for me regarding my children—is that their children are happy and safe, and that they are in a happy and safe environment. Whether or not the childminder has a degree is of no consequence to me whatever.

The Government have to start trusting parents a lot more. Parents are perfectly capable of deciding who is a good childminder and who is not without the Government imposing unnecessary regulations on the child care sector and making people have increasingly large amounts of qualifications that are totally unnecessary. The Government should just let parents get on with choosing the right childminder for their children, which may end up being cheaper, thereby allowing women to return to work.

However, there is scope for helping children with child care. My starting point is that so many people in this country seem to have decided that they do not want to work that when people clearly want to work, the Government should be out there, giving them as much support as possible so that they can. If there are lots of women who would prefer to go out to work and who want to achieve something in life, there is a role for the Government in trying to make that process as easy as possible.

I should say in passing that I do not think that it is useful to frown on those women who want not to go out to work but to stay at home and bring up their children. They should be encouraged to do so and they should not be looked down on by others for making that choice. The issue is that we should help people to fulfil their ambitions and to make the choices that they want to make.

I also want to touch on maternity leave and the kinds of regulations that apply. I do not think that anybody objects to the principle of maternity leave, but we should be rather careful because lots of things that can be well meaning and that seem, on the face of it, to be a good thing for women can end up, in practical terms, being a barrier for women.

Whether people like it or not, and whether other hon. Members in this room want to acknowledge it or not, I suspect that there are still many people in businesses out there who look at a woman of a certain age, see how old they are—perhaps somebody in their late 20s, who has recently married—and think to themselves, “Hold on a minute. If I take this person on, the chances are that they will be leaving to have a child and I will be having a huge disruption to my business, and possibly a huge cost as well. I will find it very difficult to replace this person, particularly for a fixed period of time.”

As a result, that businessperson may not give that woman that particular opportunity, although otherwise they would have done. We have to guard against these well-meaning schemes that are not actually providing opportunities for women, but providing barriers to women getting a job in the workplace. Before anyone runs away with the idea that it is just male employers who will think like that, I should say that I suspect that female employers are just as prone to make that kind of decision as male employers are.

We have got to look at certain companies. For my sins, before I entered Parliament I used to work for Asda. For a company such as Asda, regulations and obligations are meat and drink. Asda employs 140,000 people, so having people take time off for maternity leave is absolutely no problem at all. In fact, many companies of that size will make a point of offering enhanced employment terms as a way of attracting the best people to work for them, because they can afford to allow people to take time off.

I ask you, Mr Turner, to bear in mind those companies that employ one or two people. If a small businessman employs two people and one person takes off an ever-increasing amount of time, that causes huge disruption to their business—there may not even be a successful business for that woman to go back to, given the disruption and cost incurred. Nobody objects to the Government’s wanting to introduce measures that genuinely help people, including women, in the workplace, but we should be very careful about going over the top in imposing too many onerous conditions on businesses that will end up having exactly the opposite outcome to the one intended.

If the Government want to help women in the global economy and help them to fulfil their potential, the way to do that is exactly the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West has been going about doing it, which is to provide people with role models and to show them how they can achieve their goals, irrespective of their background. It is to show them that even people who leave school with very few qualifications can achieve their goals if they have the right characteristics and the right determination to go about their lives. I urge the Government to do those encouraging things and not to go down a politically correct route with quotas and other such things.

All we want—all I want, certainly—is for people to be given jobs and opportunities on merit and merit alone. If we believe in true equality, surely we should be gender-blind; it should be irrelevant whether someone is male or female. I could not care less whether the board of a company has 95% men or 95% women. All we should care about is that they are the best people for the job and for the company. It will not advance women if the Government go down the route of having quotas for this and quotas for that and politically correct decision making; that will make people feel that women have got to where they are only through some situation that has been concocted to achieve a particular outcome. That does not do women any good; it does no one any favours. Everyone has to feel that everyone has got there on the same basis, and that basis should always be merit.

I commend what my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West has done in pursuing the agenda of merit and in allowing women to fulfil their ambitions and dreams, and I hope that the Government follow that model rather than trying to have some “get equal quick” scheme, which would not advance women at all but advance political correctness and build up huge resentment among the public. I will now allow the Front-Bench spokespeople to have their say. I apologise again for having to leave for my Select Committee.

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) on securing what has been an engrossing debate. She is absolutely right to set as her territory the celebration of the socio-economic achievements of women in this country and across the world. As I listened to her speech, I was struck by how much our shared experience as women unites us right across the world, in both developed and developing economies.

In the workplace, in business and in the family, in our role as caregivers and managers of the household and its finances, and in our role in our communities, women’s experience is the same right across the world. It is important to recognise that the structural barriers to women’s advancement in this country are different not in kind but in degree from those experienced by women in other economies, and that measures taken to dismantle them will have global applicability. It is absolutely right that we should seek to dismantle the barriers, for exactly the reasons that the hon. Member for Wirral West highlighted in quoting Plato, that proto-feminist—the personal fulfilment of women and men, and the benefits for our world and for society as a whole.

I want to highlight some structural issues, a number of which have not been mentioned in the debate but are important. The hon. Members for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), who unfortunately have had to leave the debate, raised some of these issues and contributed interestingly to the discussion.

Despite progress in women’s socio-economic position, which the hon. Member for Wirral West rightly highlighted, there is still a clear difference between the income made and assets held by women and men, although to some degree that is mitigated by cash transfer programmes, which are effective in supporting women’s financial positions and those of their children—if women have money, they spend it on their families. In many developing economies, there are still limitations on women’s property rights. It is important that we have strategies to address those economic, income and wealth inequalities, and that we keep up a clear line of sight on progress.

Several hon. Members rightly highlighted the importance of access to education as a route to well paid jobs. Across the world, women are typically in less secure, more vulnerable and less well-paid employment, often because they work in sectors of the economy in which pay and conditions are poorer. Education is clearly an important answer to that segregation and employment disadvantage, and it is key, therefore, that we look at whether our education system addresses that inherent segregation.

The hon. Member for Wirral West pointed to the progress in the participation of women in chemistry studies but, regrettably, we do not see the same picture across all the STEM subjects. In engineering, maths and IT, women are under-represented after the age of 16, and in computer science the position is worse than it was 20 years ago. The same picture is also seen in the much-fêted Nordic countries. We need strategies in our schools to address the education choices made by young women as they approach further and higher education, and schools themselves must think more creatively and imaginatively about career routes for women, and encourage girls to progress down them.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Shipley has had to leave the debate, although I understand why, because I want to pick up on a couple of his points. On women as mothers, and on how that inhibits their labour market participation, he suggested that part of the problem was some of the maternity rights that have been secured—after considerable fighting, to which the Minister has, in the recent past, contributed.

What determines women’s unpopularity with the kind of employers that the hon. Gentleman characterised is not the right to maternity leave but the fact that they can become mothers at all. Removing the right to maternity leave would not increase the propensity of such employers to take on women; they would simply not employ them in the first place. It is right that we should establish an institutional requirement that women who have contributed to an employer’s business, have skilled up to be able to make that contribution and have a continuing contribution to offer should have their ability to return to their employment assured. As we know, retention of staff is a cost-effective way for employers to operate their businesses, so there is an employer advantage as well.

It is also important that we design shared parenting arrangements in a way that genuinely facilitates equal parenting by women and men. We await the Government’s response to their modern workplaces consultation, and I am concerned that any plans for redesigning parental leave should take account of what we know is effective in ensuring that both women and men are likely to take up leave entitlement. Much depends on whether the leave is paid, and women, but particularly men, find it extremely difficult to take parental or paternity leave if there is no income replacement. It is also important to recognise that it is absolutely right to protect a certain period of maternity leave only for mothers, because of pregnant women and new mothers’ health and well-being needs.

I was interested in the statistics on women in senior positions that the hon. Member for Wirral West highlighted. She cited a number of disappointing statistics from the public sector, but in many ways the position is even worse in the private sector; only 15% of FTSE 100 companies have a woman on their board. I congratulate the Government on their work over the past year or so to influence a change in behaviour at board level in our leading companies, and it is good to see some of that bearing fruit.

I hope that the next thing that the other political parties would like to learn from—I am thinking about what genuinely advances women into positions of influence—is the Labour party’s success in significantly increasing female parliamentary representation through the use of all-women shortlists. I would say to the hon. Member for Shipley that of course we want people to advance on merit, but we must first ensure that they are advancing from a level playing field; too often, as I am sure the Minister would agree, women are not.

I was interested in the points made by the hon. Member for Wirral West about encouraging more women to become entrepreneurs and start new businesses. We absolutely want to encourage that, both in this country and around the world. Much of the difficulty that women experience in starting a new business relates to factors such as lenders’ perceptions. Interesting experiments have been done in the developing world with microfinance and access to credit, and they could be translated into this country. I hope that the Government will consider why only 25% of their enterprise allowance is taken up by women and whether more can be done to encourage women entrepreneurs to take advantage of it.

This debate has rightly discussed women’s role as care givers. Lack of access to child care is inhibiting girls’ and women’s participation and economic success. We still hear, for example, of girls being forced out of education when they become pregnant or are unable to access child care. The hon. Members for Broxtowe and for Shipley both suggested that the answer to the lack of affordable child care was to diminish regulation. I warn the Minister and her colleagues in the Government to be cautious about that.

I am proud of the progress made under Labour to increase the supply of child care. Between 1997 and 2009, we went from one place for every nine children under the age of eight to one place for every three. We massively increased child-care supply. I am pleased that the coalition Government are continuing down the track of creating more places for two-year-olds, but I urge Ministers strongly not to weaken quality through deregulation.

A strong body of evidence suggests that good-quality child care and early-years interventions are the most important factor in improving long-term outcomes, especially for the poorest children highlighted by the hon. Member for Broxtowe. In the Netherlands, where steps were taken to deregulate the provision of child- minding services, the adverse impact on children’s outcomes has led the Dutch Government to reverse their decision. I hope that Ministers learn from that.

Finally, I will mention a couple of issues that did not come up in this morning’s debate but are important to women’s participation as global economic actors. Violence against women continues to be a major issue. Of course, if a woman is suffering violence and abuse, that is likely to affect her economic and educational performance as well as being a fundamental attack on her human rights. All Governments have rightly given the issue considerable attention. It is not confined to our country; we must fight and address it around the world, as well as addressing women’s voices and autonomy to control and determine choices relating to their own lives.

I could highlight many such choices. We have discussed educational choices, but we have not talked much about health and reproductive choices, or women’s opportunity to shape their own communities and whether or not they can secure political participation. It is important that the right institutional structures are in place to ensure that women’s voices can be heard and are given a legitimate place in the public political process. The Beijing platform for action for the advancement of women is a useful framework in which to do so. If the Minister has time, I would be interested to hear, now that we no longer have the Women’s National Commission, how she thinks the institutional machinery will work to preserve women’s institutional political influence in the UK.

It has been a pleasure to participate in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral West and all speakers on their consideration of an interesting and worthwhile set of issues. It is important that we continue to celebrate women as decision makers and women’s participation in the economy, family life and their communities, and continue to strive for their continuing advancement—not just for women’s sake, but for the good of our society as a whole.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I hugely congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) on securing this important debate and making one of the most exceptional, wide-ranging and well-researched speeches on the issue that I have heard.

We all know that the UK, European and world economies continue to face significant challenges. In these tough times, Governments and companies around the globe are looking for every available competitive advantage. This Government believe that in doing so, we must utilise fully women’s skills and potential. It is a no-brainer, really; it is obvious. It makes sense: it is good for women, for our economy and for British business. We will create a more competitive economy and a more equal society.

I congratulate all who have taken part in this debate. Significant contributions were made by almost all the Members who have taken part. The hon. Member for Wirral West mentioned role models and global leaders. Aung San Suu Kyi and others have been significant in raising our eyes to the magnificence that is possible. There is something exceptionally wonderful about someone of the size and shape of Aung San Suu Kyi standing against the military might of Burma. The contrast was incredibly effective, and we were all moved listening to her.

While I am praising famous women, I mention Hillary Clinton, who has done magnificently in her role as Secretary of State, as a good example of someone who has raised the profile of women. So are the women who stood shoulder to shoulder in Egypt during the revolution. We now wait with bated breath to see whether they will secure the political rights and freedoms that should go with such a change.

I am proud that this Government have placed women and children at the heart of our international development policy with a strategic vision for girls and women, which highlights the importance of economic empowerment, for example, and sets ambitious targets for developing countries to reach by 2014 in order to help 18 million women access financial services and 4.5 million to strengthen their property rights. Hon. Members are right that we in the United Kingdom have much in common with our sisters around the world who, wherever they are on the spectrum, tend not to be on an equal footing.

Interestingly, the hon. Member for Wirral West mentioned image and gender stereotyping. It drives me mad that we are always represented as either servile or sexual. The Government are doing a great deal of work on that. Although some say that that is the nanny state, I say that it is essential that the Government take a stand on the sexualisation of children and the conformity imposed on us by singular images and gender stereotyping.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) discussed how, when she was younger and planning to be a lawyer, she was almost forced into the family law division, but resisted. Things have changed in law, which is fantastic, but unfortunately, in many other areas, they have not. The career choices made by school leavers have huge economic consequences. As my hon. Friend said, if someone chooses to be a beautician or a hairdresser, that is absolutely fine, but they should recognise that it is an economic choice. If they choose a higher-paying career, their choices in life will be very different. That is an important issue in our action on careers.

The new national careers service will encourage girls and women to challenge stereotypes by giving the broadest options. It will provide information on a wide range of opportunities, such as studying science and maths, for example, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). She also mentioned STEM subjects. A recently announced funding programme, in which the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will work with the Royal Society, will focus on increasing diversity in the scientific work force. Over four years, a total of £700,000 will be invested in work to overcome the barriers to girls studying STEM subjects and entering related industries. That is incredibly important. Early choices are hard to make up for later.

I will mention the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) only briefly, as he is not here. I must cast aspersions on the idea that men get there on merit alone. Often, men get there just because they have been there all the way.

On enterprise, as we have heard, if we want our economy to grow, it is vital that we support more women to set up and grow their own businesses. Last week, we published details about the army of women who are backing us to boost business. The Government have provided funding for 15,000 mentors to support those setting up and growing their own business. The hon. Member for Wirral West has said how many more businesses we would have if more women began start-ups. I am pleased to announce that, as of last week, more than 12,000 mentors have registered, 40% of whom—almost 5,000—are women. I was fortunate, because my mother had her own business, so when I needed help to set up my design business, I could ring her to ask how to do a business plan, a VAT return and so on. It was easy and, in a sense, the business mentors are like mothers or fathers who can give people personal advice that they may otherwise feel inhibited about requesting.

On women in rural enterprise, we have published details of a £2 million programme to help female entrepreneurs in rural areas—there is a specific difficulty in such areas—to start or grow their own businesses. We have set up the women’s business council, which is chaired by Ruby McGregor-Smith, the chief executive officer of the FTSE 250 company Mitie. She was named business leader of the year at the Orange national business awards in 2011 and leads a prestigious group of UK business people drawn from a wide range of sectors. Over the coming months, the council will examine the full range of issues affecting women’s economic participation in education, work and entrepreneurship, both from the perspective of women and the choices they face and, importantly, from the perspective of business. The issue of women’s lives, which are complex, has been raised, and at its next meeting the council will consider issues relating to women’s economic participation with regard to three key life stages. Following its deliberation, the council will consider its conclusions and produce its final report, which will outline a series of practical steps that Government, business and individuals can take to support women and the economy. The report will be presented to Ministers next spring.

On work, I do not know about the two remaining Members—the hon. Members for Wirral West and for Stretford and Urmston—but I have children, and negotiating responsibilities is very difficult. I have to do a lot of planning and be very good at multi-tasking, organising and responding to unexpected last-minute events. It can be done, but nevertheless the introduction of the right to request flexible working for all, as well as shared parental leave will address some of those very difficult issues. Many of our most forward-thinking employers already understand that. Although the hon. Member for Shipley said that small businesses have difficulties, it is actually the case that businesses such as mine—I had one with four members of staff—go to the ends of the earth to be flexible for their staff. Arranging work around the familial needs of a good member of staff benefits businesses in the long run. They need to invest in the good employees who work for them—they will give back more than they could ever give them. That is an important development.

The hon. Gentleman also said that businesses look at women of child-bearing age and say, “I’m not going to employ her, because she may go off and have a baby,” but shared parental leave will mean that employers will no longer to be able to say with any certainty whether it is the man or woman who has applied for a job who will take that leave when they have children. Frankly, when I had children, men were involved in the process.

Last week, the Government announced that they will establish a new commission to look at the costs of child care, which is one of the biggest issues that women face across the board. The cost of child care is huge. I spent all my money on child care when my children were young and I was working. The new commission will be led by Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. We realise the huge costs and the bearing they have on women and their families.

On top of that, as has been mentioned, we are supporting child-care costs to families who work less than 16 hours a week, by providing an extra £300 million for child-care support under universal credit. Eighty thousand more families with children will be able to work the hours that they choose. We have increased free early education to 15 hours a week for three and four-year-olds, and we are extending the entitlement to free education and care for 260,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds to 15 hours a week. Working families can currently claim substantial help with additional child-care costs through working tax credit. From 2013, the Government’s new universal credit will support those who work, by ensuring that they are better off by doing so. More will always be needed on child care, but the new commission is specifically tasked with dealing with the costs of child care, because that is one of the biggest inhibitors for women who want to return to work.

On equal pay, which I think the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned, we have published our updates on our “Think, Act, Report” initiative, some of which relate to the economic consequences of choices made early on. The case studies show that adopting the principles behind the Government’s voluntary approach to diversity at work has helped leading firms reap business benefits. We strongly believe that a light-touch approach, such as “Think, Act, Report”, is the best way to encourage most employers to deal with the complex causes of unequal pay. They have to think about gender differences, act on them and then publish, in whatever form suits them best, what they have found, what they are doing and their best practice.

If the voluntary method is the best way to progress, we also need a stick for those companies that do not follow this progressive agenda, so it is right that we take strong action in the few cases in which employers have been shown to have breached the law. That is why we recently announced that we intend to proceed with our proposal that where an employment tribunal finds that an employer has breached equal pay law, it will order them to conduct a pay audit in cases where continuing discrimination is likely. If an employer has already been found to be bad, there is reason to instruct further. We intend to legislate when parliamentary time allows.

I am slightly short of time, but let me address access to finance, which is a huge issue. I have been working with the British Bankers Association to understand those areas in which there may be discrimination or barriers against women accessing loans for business or mortgages. A report will be issued shortly.

The Government and Lord Davies have made progress on the issue of women on boards. There has been a great improvement in the number of women on FTSE 100 boards—representation has risen from 12.5% to 16%—and it is on target to reach 25%. Only eight all-male boards remain in the FTSE 100, which is eight boards too many. One woman on a board is insufficient, but we will reach the 25% target. From October, there will be a new provision in the corporate governance code, which will require companies to comply or explain their policies.

We have made it clear that we will not introduce quotas. We have a role to play in ensuring that the right frameworks are in place to enable business to thrive, which is what our business-led approach does. We do not believe that European Union-wide standards are appropriate—a discussion is ongoing and we have responded to a consultation on quotas—given the different corporate governance rules, economies and labour market conditions across member states. We also recognise that cultural expectations play a role. In the UK, we do not have a culture of using quotas. In fact, they are not lawful under our domestic legislation. At the moment, we are making good progress.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of all-women shortlists, which led to a step change in representation in Parliament. I believe that they are available until 2030. Both Labour and the Conservatives have taken huge steps forward, and the Liberal Democrats would also have done so had we had more women in winnable seats.

This has been an excellent debate. We could discuss many things that Members on both sides of the House are trying to address. I do not think that the differences between us on this issue are as huge as some of the views expressed in Parliament may lead us to believe. We all need to make sure that, from the earliest point in life, girls are given the choices that will enable them to progress. There is a difference between the lives of men and women, but we are trying to equalise their status as much as we can by providing the support that is needed. There is a whole world of people out there, and half of them are women.

In conclusion, in a global economy the action that we are taking across the world makes sense. It is good for women, good for our economy and good for British business. In doing so, and in advancing the role of women, we create a more competitive economy and a more equal society.

BME Communities (Educational Attainment)

I am grateful to have been awarded this debate on educational attainment in black and minority ethnic communities, which was triggered by a couple of things that have happened to me recently.

First, I have been holding a series of round-table meetings in my constituency to help to define my priorities and constituency strategy, and the differential attainment levels of our young people were a particular concern. For example, the proportion of young black people achieving more than five A* to C GCSEs in 2011, including English and maths, was 38.5%, compared with 47.5% for young Asian people and 69% for young white people. Although there has been significant improvement in those disparities since 2008, they remain of grave concern.

Secondly, I was horrified to hear—as I am sure many others were—the recent statistical release from the Office of National Statistics, which revealed that, nationally, 55.5% of economically active black men aged between 16 and 24 years are unemployed, and that this rate has doubled since 2008. For young black people, the unemployment rate is 44.4%; similarly, 27.6% of Asian young people are unemployed, rising from 22.8% in 2008. Breaking that down, 33.6% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people are unemployed, and 24.2% of Indian young people, which compares with 20% of white British young people. Those national trends are reflected in my constituency, too.

I have called the debate to examine educational attainment in BME communities, but it is important to note at the outset that although educational attainment influences employment, people with equivalent qualifications to those of different ethnicities experience different levels of employment. For example, young Indian people, who are the second highest performing group educationally, are more likely to be unemployed than their white peers. Similarly, Chinese graduates can expect to earn 25% less than their white counterparts. Thirty-six years on from the Race Relations Act 1976 and 12 years after the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, that is indefensible. We cannot wait for another 30 or 40 years to ensure that we deal with such questions.

What are the specific issues in equalities and educational attainment? From the evidence, gaps in achievement can begin in the early years. For example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission triennial review states that the proportion of pupils achieving a good level of development in the early years foundation stage varies between different ethnic groups. Pupils from Irish, Indian, white British and mixed white and Asian backgrounds achieved more than the national average for a good level of development in 2009, but pupils from black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic groups did not perform so well. In all ethnic groups, girls outperformed boys significantly.

The 2008 research undertaken by the Learning and Skills Network and the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities indicated that poor experiences at primary school often began a gradual but cumulative process of disengagement, which became entrenched in secondary school and resulted in lower achievement and lower engagement in post-16 participation in education or training. I was particularly struck by the following statement from the report, on education:

“Engagement is not a simple choice for all young people. Young people can feel disengaged from learning for various reasons, and this can be mild or severe...For some young people, this is a process that they feel powerless to stop.”

At GCSE level, although national attainment by ethnicity has improved since 2006-07, and the achievement gap between some ethnic groups and the national average has disappeared, there are still some gaps. For example, 52.6% of Pakistani and 48.6% of black Caribbean heritage pupils achieve five or more A* to C grades at GCSE compared with the national level of 58%. That is a massive improvement since 2006, when the rates were 35% and 34% respectively. During the same period, Bangladeshi pupils improved from 40% to 59.7%, and black African students from 40% to 57.9%. Chinese and Indian students have performed consistently above national levels; currently, 78.5% of Chinese students and 74.4% of Indian students achieve five or more GCSEs. Travellers, Gypsies and Roma people are still the lowest achieving groups, with 17.5% of Irish Travellers and 10.8% of those from Gypsy or Roma backgrounds achieving five or more GCSEs including maths and English. Those inequalities are even more pronounced when looking at those who gain the English baccalaureate.

The data available on A-level attainment is limited to the number of A-levels, rather than subject or grade. Based on the number, the gaps in attainment are reduced or disappear, and the proportion of BME students in higher education has increased significantly from 13% in 1994-95 to 23% in 2008-09, broadly reflecting their presence in the youth population. In spite of that, however, 44% of all black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian graduates attended post-1992 universities. Shockingly, in 2009, only one black Caribbean student was admitted for study at Oxford university. So although BME participation in higher education is increasing, there are restrictions. Attainment also reflects earlier patterns, with 66.4% of white students receiving a first- or second-class honours degree compared with 48.1% of BME students overall and only 37.7% of black students. Drop-out rates were also notably higher for black British and Asian heritage students.

I want to touch briefly on training opportunities for young people, specifically apprenticeships. Data from the Black Training and Enterprise Group has shown that, again, there is under-representation of BME young people in apprenticeships: in 2009-10, only 7% of apprenticeships were taken up by young people from BME backgrounds, although the BME population represents 14% of the working population as a whole. Provisional data for 2011-12 indicates that 9.2% of those beginning apprenticeships are from BME backgrounds, although 16% of 16 to 24-year-olds are from ethnic minority groups. The data are worse for completed apprenticeships.

As policy makers advocating a fairer society, such data and the issues that they reflect should be one of the reasons why we get up in the morning—they should drive us to do more, to do better. Educational attainment is not only a key indicator for the jobs we will do and the incomes we will earn but, as the recent health inequalities review undertaken by Professor Sir Michael Marmot showed, a predictor for how long and how healthily we will live. Our education, good or bad, affects our whole lives. We must ensure that policy—education, employment, welfare and economic—strives to reduce the inequalities that still exist.

For those people less motivated by social justice arguments, it is important to note that reducing educational inequalities is associated with higher national standards of educational performance, as evidenced by Wilkinson and Pickett in “The Spirit Level” of 2009, and that enhances economic productivity, not to mention tax revenue. Furthermore, all politicians are concerned about the low turnout at elections—again, people with higher educational attainment are more likely to participate in voting.

So what causes those educational inequalities and what can be done about them? The reasons for inequalities in attainment are many and varied, often interacting with one another in a complex way. Evidence indicates, however, that key determinants are the education system, family background and poverty. Although schools of poorer quality were associated with poorer educational outcomes for all pupils, the 2007 report by the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion on understanding low achievement calculated that the major determinant was living in poverty. That effect is compounded for BME young people—more BME children are likely to go to poor-quality schools.

The particular school characteristics associated with quality and achievement include head teacher leadership, school processes and school ethos, but many of those characteristics are not measured. School resources are also associated with school quality, in particular when pupil-teacher ratios are included, although the extent to which extra resources can add value has been contested—for example, by Hanushek. The composition of the student body is another important factor: the poorer the socio-economic mix of students, the poorer the school quality and attainment levels. In addition, a neighbourhood effect was also identified, suggesting that although household income is a key determinant in educational attainment, it is also influenced by wider socio-economic factors. A poor-quality neighbourhood, not providing a particularly salubrious educational environment, is associated with lower educational attainment levels.

Another key determinant of educational attainment, both at school and later, in higher education, is family background. All children do better if their parents are well educated, and if education is valued. However, an evidence review published in April by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that parental involvement is the most important characteristic, showing a strong causal relationship with attainment levels. Parenting style and expectations are also important, but less strongly so. The effects of both household and neighbourhood poverty on children’s educational attainment are obvious, and have been mentioned. However, analysis by Wilkinson and Pickett, comparing international data on educational achievement from the programme for international student assessment, shows that countries with high levels of income inequality also have lower scores for maths and literacy. Fairer societies do better on a range of measures, and educational attainment is one of them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I apologise for not being able to stay for all of it. She is discussing some of the factors behind differential attainment between BME and other populations. Does she agree that in finding the solutions to the problem, it is critical to involve parents, the school and the pupils? Indeed, that is what the black pupils achievement programme in Lewisham found. When all those elements can be brought together, it can make a difference.

I totally agree. We need to engage young people and parents in the solutions to the problems associated with educational inequalities.

The Joseph Rowntree review also considered the influence of individual attitudes, aspirations and behaviour, to see whether those are causal factors in determining attainment levels. At this stage, there is not enough evidence to suggest any positive association, although involvement in extra-curricular activities or sport showed a weak link. If we are to deal with those inequalities in educational attainment, what should we do?

My hon. Friend will be aware that for at least 10 years I have run a project—London Schools and the Black Child—looking at black children and under-achievement. Although all the social issues that my hon. Friend raised are important, one thing is clear: one problem for black children is a culture of low expectations in education. Controversial as Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, is, he showed, first at St Bonaventure’s and then at Mossbourne community academy in Hackney that, even if they come from deprived backgrounds, when black children are given high expectations, structures and limits, they can achieve.

I would not be at all surprised about what my hon. Friend says. The review examined systematic review-level evidence. My hon. Friend’s point is valid. I am sure that a greater amount of research will prove the causal link.

What should we be doing? I am proud that many of the improvements in BME attainment levels in the past six years can be attributed to the interventions of the Labour Government. The ethnic minority achievement grant was particularly effective, for example, in meeting the needs of bilingual pupils. Disadvantage because of language issues is one reason for the attainment gap in primary school, but that gap can be made up with specialist support. With the abolition of EMAG in April, there are concerns that that vital work will stop.

Aiming High was another effective programme aiming to increase participation and attainment for black pupils at key stage 4. Similarly, education action zones, targeting resources to improve attainment in inner-city areas, and curriculum development such as citizenship education contributed to positive changes in the education system, and to increased BME attainment levels. The 900,000 reduction in the number of children living in poverty achieved under Labour will also have had an impact on attainment levels.

Measures in the Education Act 2011 do not deal with disparities in attainment and could reverse the progress that has been achieved. For example, the measures on behaviour and discipline relating to detention, searching and exclusion have particular significance for Traveller, Gypsy and Roma children, who are four times more likely to be excluded, and Black Caribbean boys, who are twice as likely to be excluded. Excluded pupils are four times more likely to leave school without any qualifications. The measures have been introduced despite research conducted by the former Department for Education and Skills that acknowledged that exclusion is partly due to the conscious and unconscious prejudice of some teachers.

The expansion of academies and free schools without fully considering the potential and unintended consequences is another concern. Resourcing through the pupil premium may contribute to improvements in educational attainment if associated with increases in the teacher-pupil ratio. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) has written:

“If the premium is allocated precisely according to need, it is surprising that the area getting the largest increase in their allocation this year is Rutland (8% of children living in poverty), while the smallest increase goes to the Wirral (26% of children in poverty).”

The most recent proposal to reintroduce GCEs and a two-tiered exam system where children are streamed at 14 will only exacerbate the inequalities that already exist. Black and minority ethnic students are currently more likely to be put into lower attainment sets and, as such, would be more likely be put into CSE streams, thereby pigeon-holing their futures.

The economic and welfare policies which, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, are projected to increase the number of children living in poverty to 4.2 million by 2020, should alarm everyone who wants a fairer Britain. We cannot and should not let these children endure such hardships, but to compound that by failing to give them the support they need to reach their potential at school is unforgivable.

Finally, I want to make some recommendations. It is important to reintroduce the ring-fenced ethnic minority achievement grant; to develop teacher training to equip all teachers to teach a diverse range of students; to explore issues around unconscious bias; to reinstate targets for BME teacher recruitment; to increase research into the causes of differential attainment, including effective independent careers advice and guidance for young people from BME communities; to reduce the number of exclusions of black Caribbean boys, and restore powers to exclusion appeal panels; and to ensure that the curriculum is inclusive and promotes diversity, and that the call to reinstate GCEs is rejected.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this vital debate. There has been much talk about this subject in the media and in the report by Alan Milburn, and I know that the Government are taking seriously the work on social mobility. None the less, unless we deal with the issue of differential attainment, we will be letting down a generation of young people.

We have a mixed story to tell. I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for her pioneering work on this matter. Had she not been making noises about the underachievement of black boys in particular, some of the progress and bureaucratic changes that have been made would not have taken place. I will touch on that matter in my suggestions to the Minister at the end.

Over the past week, the Secretary of State has talked about changing and splitting the GCSE, which is relevant to many of my constituents in Hackney. I do not disagree that we need to see rigour in standards—in Hackney, we have seen huge improvements in schools, which were achieving well below the national average 10 or even seven years ago, but most are now achieving well above that, with Mossbourne academy, which my hon. Friend cited, achieving 84% A to C grades including maths and English. A number of children are going on to not just good universities but Oxbridge as well as other Russell group universities.

We have done a lot in Hackney to improve standards, which we attribute to good heads, rigorous standards and a clear framework of expectations for young people of all backgrounds. We accept no excuses because of poverty or ethnicity and no low expectations. In one school, City academy—its principal, Mark Emmerson, is now also acting executive principal of City academy Islington because of his success so far—the pupils have not sat GCSEs. He has told his staff that they should see all the pupils in his highly ethnically mixed school, which is populated mostly from the dense local council housing estates in the area, as future A* pupils, and that that must be the teachers’ expectation. The school has been growing year by year, and is now in its third year. Most of the pupils are a couple of terms ahead of the expected achievement at the end of year 8, their second year in secondary school. A couple of them are more than a year ahead of where they would normally be, but they did not necessarily come in with the highest level of achievement at key stage 2—level 5. Some were achieving below that. Mark Emmerson has got them back not just to where they should be, but to above that.

I spoke about one school, but I could spend a lot of time talking about good practice in Hackney schools. Everything is not perfect, but there are good heads and good rigour, and we have seen huge investment, thanks to the previous Government, in new schools and good buildings. Young people have been amazed when they have gone into their new schools, and feel that they deserve them. They have a feeling that they have the right to be in a good-quality environment. The schools operate long days, with breakfast and after-school provision.

Another school in my constituency, Petchey academy, gives same-day detentions, but that is seen as positive. If a child is falling behind, for whatever reason—they may have been messing around in class, they may just not understand something, or they may have difficulties at home and bring other issues into the classroom—at the end of the day they spend an hour focusing on that area of under-achievement so that by the next day at school they are back with the rest of the class. I am sure that that does not always work, but that aspiration is surely needed. Many pupils in Hackney come from challenging homes, and often live in overcrowded conditions in families with long periods of worklessness. I will touch on some of the issues of ethnicity and language in a moment.

Returning to the Secretary of State’s comments, I do not agree that reintroducing a two-tier system for education is the answer. The idea that 25% of Hackney pupils at 11, and certainly at 13 or 14, will be pigeon-holed and earmarked for a lower qualification is a retrograde step. The example I have just given of Hackney’s City academy shows that much can be done at secondary school for pupils who may not have achieved their full potential at primary school. It would be a retrograde step for a cohort of teachers to expect a percentage of pupils to take a lower-grade exam. The benefit of the GCSE is that whatever someone’s ability, they can progress on the same programme of attainment, and if they work hard they can achieve higher than C grade.

Changing the landscape massively confuses matters for employers, who tell me that they have several issues about the qualifications that young people leave school with, and I certainly do not believe that changing them will make a difference. I am not alone in thinking that. Lord Baker, former Secretary of State for Education, gave the Minister and the Secretary of State good advice when he said:

“The CSE certificate which we did away with in the eighties”—

I was one of the last pupils to sit the old GCE, which shows my age, but we are talking more than 20 years ago—

“became a valueless bit of paper. It wasn’t worth anything to the students or to the employers. That means that there has got to be rigour for the other subjects at 16 as well.”

Lord Baker is promoting university technical colleges, as I am. I have one in my constituency, Hackney university technical college, where young people will be studying from the age of 14 and taking more technical qualifications alongside academic qualifications, but that will not be seen as second best or something different, and will be not instead of but as well as GCSEs.

I am one of the vice-chairs of the all-party group on social mobility, and in the discussions I have touched on there is much talk about universities and getting young people into university, but the issue starts much earlier. That is one reason why I was a great champion of Sure Start. The investment in children under 5, and helping their parents to parent better and to understand the benefits of wider education through play, is very important. Professionals say that they can see the difference between children of parents who have been supported by Sure Start and those who have not, because the former have been positively engaged with the child. We must start there.

We need a raising of attainment in primary schools and a raising of ambition. That is why many Hackney primary schools take pupils to universities and into the workplace, through work programmes, to see those places for themselves. That is particularly important for a range of young people, including some from ethnic minority backgrounds, who do not have a pattern of work in their family.

I shall touch on some of the data, which show why this issue is so important and why the Minister, who I am sure is listening hard, needs to ensure that the Department does not take its eye off the ball. The inequality is still quite stark: we have seen some improvements in Hackney, but provisional data from 2011—last year’s results—show a 6% gap in achievement at GCSE level between Caribbean-heritage boys and all other boys and a 5% gap between the same cohort, Caribbean girls, and all other girls. We can look at the pattern from 2005. Due to interventions by various schools and the Learning Trust in Hackney, we have seen the number achieving five A* to C grade GCSEs, including maths and English, steadily improving for both boys and girls. It is a good story so far, but we should not sit back and say that that gap is acceptable.

As a Hackney resident and a Hackney mother, I am glad to see the very many improvements, but we need to be careful about what we say about improvements, because some of the stats go back to a period when there was the use of NVQ equivalents to GCSE. My concern is that although on paper the gap may have narrowed, it is because some black children have been palmed off with NVQ equivalents, which do not in fact equip those children to compete in the marketplace.

I completely agree. Statistics can bury many issues, which is why the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth about ensuring proper teacher training and support so that assumptions are not built in at the beginning is a key one. I shall give a couple of examples of where I have seen that in the past.

Some issues that probably do not figure on most hon. Members’ horizons, although my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and I will come across them regularly, are those to do with Turkish, Kurdish and Cypriot children, who are still massively underachieving compared with their cohort group. Although there has been an improvement since 2011, we still see a gap in attainment between Turkish, Kurdish and Cypriot boys and girls and all other pupils of 14%. That brings in one of the other issues—language. At home, many of these young people will speak only their mother tongue. That is fine. The mother tongue is very important, and of course parents and mothers in particular are the first educators of a child. However, if the parent is not very literate in the mother tongue, the child may not be getting the range of educational input required from the parent in the mother tongue. Often, the only adult whom many of these young people speak to in English is their teacher. Their exposure to the wider world is sometimes a bit limited. Often, the young people will be helping in the family business, which will involve working with other Turkish families, for instance; and in the mosque and other community groups, it will be only the mother tongue that is spoken.

I do not want anyone to go away with the impression that I do not think that the mother tongue is important, because it is very important. Actually, it is very important for our young people as they go out into the world and develop their careers. Given that the Turkish economy, for example, is growing by about 7% a year, speaking their mother tongue is a real skill and strength for young people in Hackney. However, there is an issue and it may not hit the Minister’s radar screen because, in terms of the national population, this group is relatively small and focused in parts of north-east London.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington about statistics, but let us look at the differences between young people when they leave primary school at 11 and when they get to GCSE level. In Hackney in 2011, 77% of white boys left school at key stage 2 at the end of year 6 with a level 4 in English and maths. At GCSE level in the same year—so it is not the same cohort, but this shows the gap that we have to bridge—51.7 % got five or more A* to C grade GCSEs, including English and maths. That is a differential of 26 percentage points. If we look at the same figures for black boys, we see that 69% achieved level 4 in 2011 and, in the same year—so it is not the same cohort—42% achieved five A* to C grade GCSEs. That is a differential of 27 percentage points. The differential is similar, but there are endemic issues, on which I and others have touched, about why certain groups achieve less well.

I want to illustrate the importance of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth about teacher training. For about nine years, I was a governor, and latterly chair of governors, at a primary school in north Islington. During that time there was a big shortage of teachers. We had a lot of very bright, talented, young teachers, who were keen to teach, but many of them, to put it bluntly, had never seen a black face in their lives.

The head teacher, who was a black woman, which was still quite unusual, and I were very concerned on a couple of occasions. On one occasion, a child was very scared about going into assembly to see African dancing. My immediate reaction was that it was terrible that a child was worried about seeing something that reflected, to a degree, their own heritage. There were a number of issues to unpack about witchcraft and pride in their background, but the other teachers saw it as naughty behaviour, because they had not come across the cultural issues involved.

On another occasion, they were casting for “The Wizard of Oz”. In the film, Dorothy is played by Judy Garland—a young, white girl—so presumably, that was the image in the minds of many teachers. Each class was asked to do a bit of “The Wizard of Oz”, so they each had a witch, a Dorothy and so on. The Dorothys, when they came out of the classes, were all little white girls. The head, being from a different background, challenged it, but at the time I was worried; this was a cohort of good teachers, but teachers who did not have that perspective, which was a real worry. We need young people in schools now not only to achieve well, but to go on to become teachers themselves.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and I were at Sebright school in my constituency, which is one that works with City Year kids. Through City Year, young people on a gap year work with pupils, providing mentoring, physical training and an extra adult to support the students. They have found different ways to engage and are very popular with the Hackney schools they go into. They are now moving into secondary schools. What is good about that cohort is that the groups of young people, aged between about 18 and 22, coming into Hackney schools better reflect the wider Hackney community. They are not all from Hackney, but they better reflect what you might see, to put it simply, on a Hackney bus.

To a degree, there is a time lag with teacher training, but the teachers in our schools do not necessarily reflect the ethnic background of the pupils they teach. What is the Department doing to encourage change? Are the Government being proactive? Let us be honest, we do not have enough teachers from ethnic minority backgrounds. Just as we have concerns that there are not enough male teachers in primary schools to be role models, the Government need not to be shy at addressing this issue. That brings me to my final point and recommendation to the Minister.

We used to see a quite detailed breakdown of achievement by ethnic background. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. If she had not talked about, and made it acceptable to talk about, the difference between black and white children, the Department at the time would not have had the courage to produce a much more granular breakdown by different ethnic groups. We have gone back and shrunk to broad-brush breakdowns—black, white, Asian and so on. That breakdown does not work for me, because it would not pick up Kurdish, Turkish and Cypriot achievement, which is a big issue. We collect some of those data locally, but no wider dataset is collected.

I know that there has been nervousness about labelling and pigeonholing pupils by ethnic background, but used properly, such information can be very helpful. It can be used by MPs, parents and others to challenge what a school does and by good teachers and head teachers to ensure that they focus on areas of proven underachievement and do not contribute to it. I understand that that is a detailed point, but if the Minister cannot comment now, will he write to me with exact reasons why the Department no longer breaks down the data to that level of granularity? Will the Department consider doing so again? Will he also pick up the point about teacher training and attracting more young people from ethnic minorities into teacher training?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this important debate.

The first thing to say is that the underachievement of black children is not a new issue. It goes back all the way to the 1950s, when children would come here from the Caribbean—bright and able children, who had excelled in the classroom in the Caribbean—but they suddenly found themselves in units for children who were educationally underachieving.

There is a clear pattern to that underachievement. When children of African and Caribbean descent enter the school system at the age of five, they are doing as well as white and Asian children. In some cases they are doing marginally better, because there is some medical evidence to show that black children are a little more developmentally advanced at the age of five. By the age of 11, their achievement levels, particularly for boys, start to drop off and by the age of 16 there is a huge gap. Although we—my Government—masked that gap, partly by the use of national vocational qualification equivalents for GCSE, it still remains startling.

Ministers might say, “Why does this matter to us? We don’t have many of these people in our constituencies. Maybe it’s their families. Maybe it’s them. Why should we bother?” First of all, as hon. Friends have said, it is an issue of equity and justice. If it means anything to be a British citizen—even in austerity and even in the times that we face—it ought to mean that there is the chance to make something of yourself through an educational system that treats people fairly.

As the child of immigrants who came to Britain in the 1950s, I know that that generation of West Indian immigrants knew that it would be tough, that they would have to work two jobs, that often they would live in overcrowded conditions and that they would encounter racism, but they thought—as immigrants always think—that for their children it would be better, and that education was the means by which it would become better. All the challenges faced by minorities today—whether about employment, policing or immigration—pale to nothing, in my view, in comparison with the betrayal of an earlier generation of immigrants who came to Britain to better themselves and their families, and thought that education would be the ladder for them, as it has been historically for immigrants all over the world.

Education matters because equity matters; it matters because fairness matters; and it matters because justice matters. I throw into the debate a quote from Martin Narey, who is the former director of the Prison Service and the former head of Barnardo’s. He said years ago that on the date and time a child is permanently excluded from school, they might as well be given a date and time to turn up in prison. The link between educational underachievement, social disorder and eventually a life of crime is a very clear pathway. Rather than spending money on rehabilitating young people and on dealing with the consequences of crime, let us focus on and pay attention to what I believe is the root of a lot of these issues—the educational underachievement of too many of our children, particularly black children, in our schools.

Post the riots last summer, people talked about the rioters being in gangs, about their parents, about lack of religious leadership and about all sorts of things. People did not talk about the fact that the biggest signifier when we looked at the young people who were arrested and charged with incidents in the course of the riots was that two thirds of them—I think that was the figure—had special educational needs, and the majority of them had been excluded from school. Those were the two biggest indicators. I am not saying that educational underachievement is an excuse for criminality or rioting, but the link is there. If we are talking about a business case, the business case for making sure that all our children achieve their very best in school is unanswerable.

As colleagues will know, this is an issue that I have harassed Ministers about, both in my Government and in this Government. On the question of the figures, I remember going to see a brand-new Labour Schools Minister in 1997 and asking him about the figures about ethnic achievement. I will not give his name—he was a very nice man—but he looked at me and said, “Well, Diane, we have got these figures and, you know, they seem to show that ethnic minorities are doing better.” I said, “How can that be?” I think he had a youth cohort study and the figures were broken down into white and ethnic minority, so I said, “I tell you what, you tell your officials to go away and break down those figures between white, Asian, African and Afro-Caribbean.”

The Minister looked at me, but he was a nice guy, so he went away and came back a few months later and said, “We have broken them down, and we find that you have the whites doing how they’re doing, and the Asian students doing better than the black students, but even the black students are creeping up a little bit.” I replied, “I tell you what, you go away and break down the black student figures between boys and girls.” He came back with what I and the black community knew, that black boys’ results were flatlining. What was happening to black boys at the end of the ’90s, and had been happening for decades, was masked by a failure to keep statistics. Although it seems arid and technical to ask for stats, we cannot have programmes that reach those children effectively without a statistical basis.

There is an emerging concern that although girls from certain ethnic minority backgrounds now achieve well in Hackney schools at 16, and in particular at 18, and some of them even go on to university, a number of them drop out of education after 18. Studies show that, and it exactly illustrates my hon. Friend’s point about the need to track the figures and keep the statistics at a detailed enough level for them to be meaningful.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

I also remember, a few years into that same Government, going to see the then Secretary of State for Education and asking for a breakdown by ethnicity of GCSE results. She said, “Sure Diane, of course you can have them,” but her officials looked shifty. At that time, schools were supposed to keep the figures; they just were not published. Months later, I got a letter from my colleague, who is now in another place, saying that unfortunately the data could not be released because they were “not in a usable form”. Even if schools are made to keep data, unless they know that the figures will be made public and used, it is in their interests, particularly those of schools that are failing our children, to keep them in all sorts of higgledy-piggledy ways so that no one can drill down and see what is happening to the children. I cannot stress enough the importance of examination data broken down by ethnicity, because if we do not have that we cannot reach those children because we do not know what is happening to them.

I suppose this is the appropriate point at which to raise the question of why. Why do black children fail? That is something I have struggled with, as have academics, parents and community workers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth said, it is a mix of things. It is partly to do with poverty in an absolute sense, although all the research shows, particularly that done by the Institute of Education, that even when we allow for poverty—usually by using free school meals as an indicator—black children systematically do less well than children of other ethnicities. There is no question but that poverty is an issue. Nowadays there is also increasing peer group pressure. Parents can be devoted to their children’s academic futures but if, as the children reach adolescence, their cohort thinks that studying is not cool, that can be problematic. I have mentored the children of friends in that situation, and I do not discount its significance.

There is also a culture of low expectation in some schools. I am not talking about bad teachers, but about teachers who say, and have said to me, in effect, year on year, “What do you expect?” Well, let me tell Members what communities in areas such as Hackney expect: they expect each and every child to reach their potential. There is a culture of low expectation, of saying, “Well, if we can make school a nice, safe place, and the children come in and make samosas and bang steel drums, isn’t that nice?” That sort of culture masks the failure to give young people the academic equipment they need to fulfil themselves as people and to compete in the world of work.

Some educationalists, some teachers and perhaps some Ministers might say, “Well, you know, Diane, you can’t expect schools to make good the failings of society.” That is a strange thing to say because if we read the history of education in this country, the Victorians believed exactly that: school could make good the failures of society. Had we said to Arnold, the first inspector of schools, “Oh, you can’t expect schools to make good the failings of society”, he would have said, “That’s ridiculous! This is what we’re here for.” Hiding behind—I emphasise “hiding”—real social and youth culture issues to say that schools cannot make a difference is to take a position that the Victorians would not have recognised.

One reason why it is important to keep detailed stats is that it is not sufficient to talk generally about black and minority children. I have worked on the subject for years, and in London, which is the part of the country I know best, the figures and outcomes are complicated. Chinese children, I think, do best in London, white girls do second best, then children of east African, Asian or Indian origin and, going down the list, Bengali boys, who are bumping along at the bottom with white boys and black boys. Black girls always do better than black boys. The London stats show us differences in out-turn between Asian children from the subcontinent, Asian children from Bengal, Asian children from east Africa, African children or Caribbean children, and not keeping detailed statistics about out-turns year on year is failing such children. Only when we see the differences can we start to identify what the issues are.

For instance, one of the reasons why Bengali boys do so badly compared with Asian boys from other backgrounds is to do with rural Bengal and the conditions that they come from. Unless we have the detailed statistics, however, we cannot identify that. One of the things I have seen as the years have gone by is that first-generation African children tend to do better than Caribbean children. That is an interesting fact, which is worth contemplating. In my opinion—having studied this, held events and looked at the figures—the results of first-generation African children may speak to more stable families in the African community at this point and a stronger sense of personal identity. Until we have the figures and can analyse why there are differences, we cannot help those children.

We have not spoken much about higher education, which the debate is not primarily about, but we cannot talk about educational underachievement without mentioning what is happening to BME children in higher education. A case in point is London, where it is striking that universities within a few miles of each other and in theory serving the same population are very different in their demographic make-up. In fact, some of the former polytechnics in London educate more BME young people than some of our Russell group universities put together. I do not accept the argument, “Well, that’s because it’s all they are capable of.” A lot of things are going on, such as poor advice at school level or poor A-level choices. There is a lot to say about what is happening in higher education to BME young people.

As my hon. Friend knows, a lot of interesting work has been done on that, but for me it is summed up by the bright young woman from Hackney who was offered places to read medicine at Nottingham and Cambridge universities. She turned down the place at Cambridge because she said that she did not think she would fit in there. That demonstrates that it is about more than the academic side; it is about the attitudes of universities and their welcoming of the wide population of this country.

It is an interesting issue, and I hope that on another occasion in the House we shall have the opportunity to debate BME communities in higher education specifically.

The issue we are debating has engaged me for many years, almost since I first entered the House, and there are two specific things that I have done about it. I set up an initiative called London Schools and the Black Child. Over a decade we have had annual conferences at which we brought together parents, community leaders and teachers, not to say, “Oh, the system is terrible and these teachers are terrible,” but to ask what we could do to help our children. The heart of those conferences—officials can tell Ministers about them, if they look through the files—were workshops, where parents dealt with issues such as how to cope with exclusions, how to help black boys to achieve, and how to help children to achieve higher standards.

The extraordinary thing about the conferences was that every year more than 1,000 parents would turn up. We held them at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre just across the way. The first one was due to start at 10 o’clock, and at 9 o’clock we had people queuing outside the door. Parents really want to help their children. There is an assumption that perhaps black children do badly because the black community does not value education. No. If I only ever say one thing in this House let it be that the black community does value education. That is why it is so important to me to keep making the case for focusing and having practical strategies.

The other thing that I have done, with the support of UBS, the international financial services company and bank, is to run an awards ceremony for London’s top achieving black children. One is always trying to counter stereotypes. The Minister might be surprised to know that there are black children at inner-city schools turning out 10 or 11 A* grades and four As at A-level, and going on to study medicine or law at Russell group universities. One year, we got Lenny Henry and the newscaster Trevor McDonald to hand out the awards, and we rang the Evening Standard and said, “We are having this awards ceremony—London’s top achieving black children; would you be prepared to cover it?” They asked, “Are any of the children gang members?” In other words, unless those children fit a stereotype they do not get coverage. We can open a London newspaper any day and see gang atrocities, stabbings and shootings. We do not hear enough about the children, of all ethnicities, who are achieving, and trying their very best. I thank UBS for its support. After the debate, I have a meeting with UBS to plan this year’s awards ceremony in the autumn, which will be held in the House of Commons.

I want to talk about what I think the solutions are. I have never doubted that part of the solution is to get parents to engage. The children who come to the awards ceremony are often from underachieving schools in socially deprived areas. One of the problems is that the room is always packed, because they bring their mum, dad, aunt and gran; the children who do best are those whose parents are most engaged in their education. It is important to get parents to engage, and that is why I have held conferences every year. Often parents do not quite know what to do for the best. The education system is very different even from when I was at school in this country. It is important to get parents to engage, but it is also important that the education system should recognise that. It is important to recruit more black teachers, not because only black teachers can teach black children, which is clearly absurd—I have mentioned Sir Michael Wilshaw—but because, particularly in metropolitan areas, unless the demographic in the staff room bears some relationship to that of the children who are being taught, there is unlikely to be the overall cultural literacy that will help teachers to engage with the children. It is also important, for all working-class boys, to recruit more male teachers. I deal with boys in Hackney—black, white, Asian, Turkish—who throughout their education have engaged only with women and have never seen a man as an educational role model. More male teachers are important. Teacher training is also important so that teachers have cultural literacy.

In closing, I will mention a subject on which I could talk for an entire hour and a half, because I have spent a lot of time on it in my life as a Member of Parliament. I had to have this debate with Labour Ministers: it is not good enough to adopt a colour-blind approach. With a colour-blind approach, ethnic minority children continue to slip under the radar and are palmed off with substandard qualifications, education and life chances. A colour-blind approach will not work. Comprehensive statistics are vital, as is recognising the importance of parents.

I must mention the institution of Saturday schools. For 20-odd years, Saturday schools have been run on a voluntary basis by the black community in London and other big cities. The same children of whom teachers in their mainstream school say, “Oh, what do you expect? We can’t get them to sit down,” go to a Saturday school, get their heads down and do their work. That is partly due to parental involvement.

We need statistics, recruitment of black and male teachers and teacher training, but above all we need to recognise that the issue is easy to ignore or to utter pieties about. If we abandon a cross-section of the community in our inner cities, they have a way of bringing themselves back into the political narrative—a way that is not good for them or for society. Better people than me have worked on the issue over their lifetime. I implore the Minister: let us not lose the advances made under the Labour Government. Let us continue to move forward.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this debate. I welcome the debate, and the tone so far. It is correct to point out at the outset, as other hon. Members have done, that the title of the debate deals with educational attainment in black and minority ethnic communities. High attainment is found in all black and minority ethnic communities, and, as other Members have highlighted, some minority ethnic communities seem to be doing particularly well. We should all be as interested in why that is the case as in why pupils in other communities are not doing so well. Why some communities do well should be of great interest to us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth presented a thoroughly researched and well-argued speech, obviously born out of a desire to do something about an issue that she has encountered in her role as a constituency MP. She is to be commended for bringing to the House an issue that she has discovered in her constituency in order to highlight the need to do something about it. She emphasised the need for a well-rounded approach to educational attainment and mentioned, as did other hon. Members, the importance of parental inclusion. She also pointed out the abolition of the ethnic minority achievement grant, which I may comment on later. I congratulate her on her remarks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) made an excellent speech, also born out of her constituency experience. She emphasised, as we all should, the importance of rigour and standards in our schools, saying how much had been done, particularly in her borough of Hackney, through effective leadership in our schools. That is a key part of high achievement, as is having no excuses or not accepting low expectations in our schools.

In recent years, there has been real improvement in achievement and attainment in our schools, particularly in our London schools through measures such as London Challenge. That was acknowledged recently on television by the Mayor of London, who said that huge improvements in standards had been made in London schools in recent years. He was absolutely right to highlight that, but, as other Members have mentioned, that may well mask some of the underlying problems in relation to black and minority ethnic communities.

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of work on exclusion, which I will say more about in a moment. She was also strong in her opposition to introducing any kind of two-tier qualification system, which she called a retrograde step. We will debate that issue on the Floor of the House later today, so I am sure that the Minister will understand why I do not want to go into it in detail now.

My hon. Friend has mentioned one of the Secretary of State’s innovations, which we will debate later today. Does he agree that the principle behind the English baccalaureate—that every child should get certain core GCSE qualifications—is a good one and that it would help avoid a situation in which too many children are damaged by a culture of poor expectations?

I agree that it is extremely important that every young person and child should understand the implications of the pathways that they choose at GCSE. It is important that they understand that certain choices may lead to closing off opportunities at a later stage. I do not, however, support the crude mechanism of the E-bac, because I do not think that it is the way forward for qualifications at 16, and it will not necessarily mean that people will opt for those subjects that it is in their interests to take. There should be a clear understanding of the implications of choices made at 16. We should retain high expectations for young people in their GCSEs, particularly in English and maths, but also allow them the opportunity to make informed choices about the subjects that they want to take.

I want to address a number of points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). She is right to emphasise that this is not a new issue. Indeed, she has been making that point for the 25 years she has been a Member of this House, which she entered in 1987. It is only right that we pay tribute to her efforts on the subject, including her practical efforts in relation to the initiative that she mentioned in her speech.

My hon. Friend and I debated the issue when I was a Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2008 and I can confirm that she is passionate about the subject and has a lot to say. As I recall, she took 26 of the 30 minutes that we had to debate the issue and I did my best to respond in the remaining time available. She was quite right, however, because she had a lot to say on the subject. She was right to emphasise its importance and to take me to task, as a Minister, on the subject, as she had previous Labour Ministers and as I am sure she will continue to do to coalition Ministers. It is important to hold our feet to the fire and make sure that our attention is maintained. That applies not just to those of us on the Opposition Benches, but, more importantly, given that the Minister is in government, to those who hold the levers of policy in the Department for Education. My hon. Friend was also right to mention the need for detailed data, which I will return to in a moment.

When we debated this topic in 2008, my hon. Friend made a number of points that caught my attention, one of which was that research by the former Department of Education and Skills confirmed:

“Black Caribbean pupils are significantly more likely to be permanently excluded—3 times more likely than White pupils.”

However, as my hon. Friend has said today, and as she said in 2008:

“In relation to base-line entry tests, black pupils outperform their white peers at the start of school”.

We need to understand what is going on.

My hon. Friend went on to emphasise the importance of teacher training, pointing out that only 35% of newly qualified teachers

“rated their course as good for preparing them to teach black children, as opposed to 60 per cent. who rated their course as good preparation for teaching children of all abilities.” —[Official Report, 1 April 2008; Vol. 474, c. 223, 224WH.]

That is still a significant issue that we all need to consider and that the Minister must not lose sight of in his reform of teacher training.

My hon. Friend talked about exclusion, which absolutely needs to be tackled. When we were in government, we started to look at that subject in more detail and in greater depth than Ministers had at the start of the Labour Government in 1997, when my hon. Friend had a meeting with Education Ministers. In 2007, the Department published a priority review entitled “Getting it, getting it right” on the exclusion of black pupils. It discussed the iconic status of the issue of exclusion in black communities. Black Caribbean parents in particular believed that the school system would not meet the needs of their children unless something was done about the disproportionate level of exclusion of pupils from that particular background. It was extremely important that that report was undertaken at that time, and I would be interested to hear from the Minister about what the Government are doing now to follow up on that issue in relation to the exclusion of black and minority ethnic pupils. It was a priority of the previous Government to try to do something about that, even though they accepted that it was a complex and difficult issue. We undertook a number of initiatives that were specifically designed to tackle the issue of exclusion.

Another matter that was raised in the debate was the expectations of teachers. As long ago as 2003, the London Development Agency undertook major research that showed, among other things, that many teachers had lower expectations of black pupils and that black pupils felt that they received less positive input and, in some cases, even discrimination from teachers in the course of their school lives. Under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, schools have a duty to ensure that they deal with this issue. A significant amount of literature for schools has been published by the Department and, in the past, by the Commission for Racial Equality on the subject. One report found that a significant minority of schools were failing to implement their duties under the race relations legislation. Given that we now have a more fragmented system of education in which a number of schools are no longer run as community schools in a local authority system but have become academies, independent of any local accountability, how will the Department ensure that such schools fulfil their obligations under race relations legislation in relation to black pupils?

I am sorry to have missed part of the debate, but I am pleased that it is taking place this morning. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a particular concern now given that the Government intend to repeal the good relations duty on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is of course the institutional framework by which this kind of mechanism can be applied?

Yes. My hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of expertise on this subject. We are all concerned that a lot of very good work on equality could be undone—perhaps not in a deliberate sense—by Ministers who desire to follow their own path and ensure that they distinguish themselves from the previous Government in their approach to education and schools. They could be undoing very good work and taking a significant step backwards in relation to the education system and the topic that we are debating today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth talked about the impact of exclusion on people’s lives and about the fact that the Department itself had calculated that there would be a significant loss of earnings for pupils who were excluded in the course of their lifetime. At the time of that study, I think the reduction in lifetime earnings as a result of exclusion was calculated at £36,000. Worse than that, 80% of the juveniles in prison had been excluded from school at one time or another. That statistic made me sit up at the time, and should make the Minister focus on the issue. If 80% of juveniles in prison have been excluded from school, that must tell us something about exclusion and whether it is effective in trying to change the sort of behavioural problems that probably led to exclusion in the first place. If that exclusion has a racial component, we should be significantly concerned.

I would always defend a head teacher’s right to manage their school, and clearly exclusion may have a place in that, but a concern that I came across recently is a child who was excluded but brought back into school with intense provision for a short period. That intense provision was for only half a day, so the working parent was left with half a day to try to cover, and it also took the child out of their normal environment. Has my hon. Friend given any thought to how that might have an effect on the outlook of that young person when they re-enter the school?

For many years, the scandal was that excluded pupils received little or no education after they had been excluded. My point is that exclusion should be a last resort, and it is sometimes necessary. As a former teacher, I absolutely defend the right of schools to exclude, having followed due and proper process. The Government have reformed that process, and changed the way in which an appeal can be made against exclusion. Instead of insisting on reinstatement, they have introduced fines on schools and head teachers who refuse reinstatement after that has been recommended on appeal.

I do not want to go into the details of that, but I want to make the point that responsibility for that child does not end when they are excluded, and that includes a responsibility on the head teacher and the school that excluded the child, on other schools in the area, even if they are independent academy schools in the state sector, and on all of us who are interested in education. Responsibility for that child does not end at the point of exclusion. One reason why so many young people end up in the juvenile justice system is not that they are inherently bad, but that, at the point of exclusion, there is no proper follow-up to ensure that the child receives an education, let alone attempts made to try to prevent exclusion in the first place whenever possible, given that it should always and everywhere be a last resort.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington said that improvement in GCSE achievement might have been due partially to the use of equivalencies at GCSE, but I think the facts will show that even if that were taken out of the equation, the improvement in London schools in recent years is real, as the Mayor of London said. In fact, results for black Caribbean pupils were rising at a faster rate than those for many other groups, but that does not mean that there is not a real and continuing problem, and my hon. Friend was right to highlight that.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the need for detailed data, and I appeal to the Minister that in his wish to unburden schools of bureaucracy, which is laudable, he does not fail to collect the data that are essential to tackle issues such as this. The Government are keen on having masses of data available in other areas, and that is good because it enables people to trawl through and analyse it, and to get to the root of a problem, but in this matter, less data are likely to be collected and that would be a significant mistake.

I have a few questions for the Minister before concluding and giving him time to respond. In tackling the problem, how will ending the ethnic minority achievement grant help? How will introducing a two-tier qualifications system, if that is indeed what he intends, help to improve black and ethnic minority attainment? How will not collecting proper statistics help? How will abandoning the approach of Every Child Matters help? Obviously, educational achievement is partially a case of good leadership in schools and so on, but it does involve wider issues, which many of these children may be bringing to school with them and which need to be tackled. How will a fragmented approach to exclusions help to tackle this problem? I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s response to those questions.

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this debate on an issue of enormous importance—tackling the differences in attainment among certain groups of pupils.

The overarching objective of the Government’s education policy is to close the attainment gap between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds, between girls and boys and between those from different ethnic minorities. As hon. Members have already argued, the gap in attainment between black and minority ethnic pupils and other pupils is too wide, and has been too wide for too long.

The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth pointed to the educational attainment gap between BME students and their peers. She pointed to the high levels of unemployment among black men. It is 55.5% in the 16-to-24 age group. She pointed to the fact that young Indian people are more likely to be unemployed than their white peers, despite being in one of the highest-performing ethnic groups educationally.

The hon. Lady pointed to the high degree of variation in the educational achievements of different ethnic groups. She pointed to the poor attainment levels of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils. For example, in 2011, 25% of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils achieved level 4 or above in English and maths at the end of primary education, compared with 74% of all pupils. That is one of the largest attainment gaps for any minority ethnic group. At key stage 4 in 2011, 12% of GRT pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs including English and maths, compared with 58.2 % of all pupils. We have established a ministerial working group on tackling the inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers. We are taking action, including by piloting a virtual head teacher for GRT pupils, looking again at the impact of legislation with regard to not prosecuting families for non-attendance at school, and so on.

The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) pointed to the attainment gap of 6% between Caribbean-heritage boys and the rest of the cohort at GCSE level. For girls, it was 5%. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed out that when black children enter primary school at the age of five, they are doing as well as, and in certain circumstances better than, their peers attending the same primary school, but by the age of 11, achievement starts to drop off, and by 16 there are real attainment gaps for that group of children. I agree with her that this does matter—it is a matter of social justice and fairness. She is right to have devoted so much of her life to trying to tackle these issues and raise awareness of them. I join the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) in paying tribute to her for the work that she has carried out over three decades in seeking to address the issue of higher educational standards for BME children in general, and black boys in particular.

The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington is right to say that the focus must be on raising educational achievement for black children, and children from groups that historically have underperformed educationally. She is right to point to the importance of data and making the data available. That is something that we are doing. We have put increasing amounts of educational attainment data in the performance tables. Those are broken down by free school meals, by low prior attainment and by high prior attainment. The underlying data are also available. They break down achievement by different ethnic and minority groups. We intend to put ever more data on the website over time, so that they are available to the public, and to academics who want to drill down further than the general public.

Attainment gaps are a complex issue. BME pupils’ underperformance may be due to a combination of factors, including financial deprivation, low parental literacy levels and aspirations for children’s academic achievement, poor attendance and bullying.

The Minister mentions low literacy levels among parents as a reason for educational underachievement. Let me tell me him that many parents with whom my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and I work would resent that inference.

I take the hon. Lady’s point. I am making a general point about the issue of underperforming groups in society. The range of causes is complex, and one of them can be—it is not always—literacy among parents generally.

Particular combinations of pupil characteristics can indicate that a child is especially vulnerable. Currently, white or black Caribbean boys eligible for free school meals are among those making the slowest progress. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children significantly underperform. Many of the lowest-achieving free school meal pupils also have a special educational need, and therefore face an even steeper struggle to succeed.

Nationally, in 2011, 58.2% of pupils gained five or more GCSEs, including English and maths, but the attainment levels of black and minority ethnic groups were lower. Some 52.6% of children of Pakistani origin obtained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including in English and maths, while 54.3% of black pupils, including those of African and Caribbean background, attained the same GCSE results. The figures show that some attainment gaps have narrowed in recent years, as hon. Members have mentioned. For example, attainment levels for pupils of Pakistani origin have improved at a greater rate, narrowing the gap from 12 to six percentage points since 2006.

Narrowing the gap between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds is key to raising attainment levels among those black and minority ethnic groups with higher than average levels of deprivation. For example, 30% of key stage 4 students of Pakistani origin were eligible for free school meals in 2011, compared with 14% of all key stage 4 pupils.

Our policy is to improve reading in primary schools through systematic synthetic phonics and the new draft primary curriculum for English, with its focus on rigour and ensuring that children become fluent readers and develop a long-lasting love of reading, as well as being taught the rules of English grammar. That is key to closing the attainment gap, as are our other programmes of study for maths and science.

The academies and free schools programmes are designed to raise standards in schools throughout the system, particularly in areas of deprivation. Similarly, the new floor standards for primary and secondary schools and the new focused Ofsted inspection framework are designed to raise academic standards in the least well-performing schools. The pupil premium will direct £600 of extra school funding to each pupil eligible for free school meals, giving schools the resources to tackle all the challenges that they undoubtedly face in overcoming disadvantage.

The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington is right that schools must not hide behind social difficulties as a reason for poor educational attainment. That is one reason for the pupil premium. It is a challenge: “Here are the resources to deliver high attainment, so there can be no reason for not delivering.” Total funding for the premium was £625 million last year. It will be £1.25 billion this year, rising to £2.5 billion a year by 2014-15. In 2012-13, coverage of the pupil premium is being extended to include pupils who have been eligible for free school meals at any point in the last six years, extending the premium from 1.2 million pupils to about 1.7 million. The Deputy Prime Minister also recently announced an additional £10 million for the education endowment fund to support projects aimed at transition and literacy catch-up for disadvantaged pupils who did not achieve level 4 at key stage 2 in English at the end of primary school.

The hon. Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth and for Cardiff West raised the issue of the ethnic minority achievement grant. Raising the attainment of children from minority ethnic communities remains a key priority for the coalition Government, but we believe that head teachers understand the particular needs of their schools and are best placed to decide for themselves how that money should be spent. That is why, as part of our school funding settlement for 2011-12, we decided to simplify the funding system by mainstreaming some grants, including the ethnic minority achievement grant, into the dedicated schools grant. Although the EMAG will not continue as a separate ring-fenced grant, we are maintaining last year’s funding levels during 2012-13 at just over £201 million. That means that schools still have funds to support underperforming minority ethnic pupils, and to contribute to the additional costs of supporting pupils with English as an additional language.

Does the Minister accept that as schools are under severe financial pressure at the moment, the funds might not be targeted specifically at reducing the inequalities in attainment for which they were originally intended?

I accept that that is always a risk, but our philosophy is to trust the professionals to make the decisions, and not have decisions always taken in Whitehall that direct head teachers, who are experienced professionals, on how to spend their budgets. The funding of £201 million is in the dedicated schools grant to address such issues.

This country performs poorly in helping young people to overcome their socio-economic backgrounds. The OECD recently reported that just 24% of disadvantaged students are able to overcome their backgrounds and achieve as well as their peers academically. That is compared with 76% in Shanghai, 72% in Hong Kong and 46% in Finland, which puts the UK 39th out of 65 OECD countries in terms of what it calls the “educational resilience” of children from poorer backgrounds.

In this country, however, there are many schools where pupils of all backgrounds succeed. In Challney high school for boys and community college in Luton, for example, 29% of pupils are in receipt of free school meals, and 61% are of Pakistani origin and 11% of Bangladeshi origin. It saw 77% of its students achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths. The national attainment figure is 58.2%. In Valentines high school in Redbridge, 19% of pupils are in receipt of free school meals, and 24% are of Pakistani origin and 10% of Bangladeshi origin. It saw 76% of its students achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths. The question we must ask is this: if such schools are able to achieve those results and that standard of education for their pupils, why not all schools?

As the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington pointed out, black children sometimes have a culture of low expectation. When Sir Michael Wilshaw was head at St Bonaventure’s and at Mossbourne community academy, however, he transformed the educational achievement of the youngsters with a combination of high expectations and strong limits and boundaries on behaviour. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch cited Mossbourne community academy and its very high academic achievement. It saw 84% of pupils achieve five or more GCSEs at A* to C and nine pupils offered places at Oxbridge last year, despite high levels of deprivation in that part of Hackney and a very high proportion of pupils with English as an additional language.

The hon. Lady pointed to City academy, and the high academic achievement of pupils who had low attainment prior to coming to the school. She said that good heads and good rigour are key, and I certainly agree. She also pointed to the exemplar behaviour policy at the Petchey academy in Hackney, which brings me to school attendance and how regular attendance is key to raising academic standards.

Absence rates for some BME groups are higher than the national average. The absence rate of children of Pakistani origin is 6.7%, but the national average is 5.8%. Nationally, over 54 million school days were lost in 2010-11 due to absence. A pupil missing about nine—

Rail-Air Connectivity (South-East)

Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the issue of improving rail-air connectivity for London and the south-east. As a successful trading nation, we rely on aviation, and our commerce relies on connectivity. In the brief time that I have, I want to concentrate on the importance of air-rail connectivity for the world’s busiest two-terminal, one-runway airport.

The Government’s economic strategy rightly wants to see improved links with emerging markets. UK businesses trade 20 times as much with countries where there are daily flights than with those with less frequent or no direct services. Ministers correctly want to boost growth through increasing inward investment and boosting exports. Improved international connectivity is therefore critical. Gatwick airport’s recent investment programme has made it a credible competitor to London Heathrow airport.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was quite correct when he recently said that, under new ownership, Gatwick is emerging as a business airport for London, competing with Heathrow. The airport has recently invested £1.2 billion in facilities. In April, it announced proposals to invest a further £1 billion from 2014 to 2019. All of the money is going into making Gatwick a better, not a bigger, airport. Today, Heathrow, the UK’s largest and major hub airport is effectively full. Whether further capacity should be provided is a debate for another day. However, Gatwick is not full. At times of peak demand, such as in August, there are constraints, but, averaged out over the year, Gatwick currently operates at approximately 78% of capacity. There is potential for a further 11 million passengers to use Gatwick every year—a 25% increase on today’s levels, and a new runway is not needed to accommodate such numbers.

If Gatwick has airport capacity that can be used, the question becomes how do we best utilise that. There is no doubt that Gatwick faces a competitive disadvantage in taking on Heathrow to deliver this connectivity. Gatwick is not a “hub” airport. In pure economic terms, “hub” airports are more attractive to airlines than point-to-point airports. Although, under current market and capacity conditions, Gatwick could not become a “hub”, it is competing, and it is serving routes that are traditionally the preserve of Heathrow. It is at best simplistic, and at worst fundamentally inaccurate, to suggest that because Heathrow is full, there is no alternative in terms of enhancing the UK’s international connectivity to emerging markets.

Surface transport links are key to airline choice and can encourage full use of existing capacity. At present, Gatwick is engaging directly with Governments and national carriers in emerging markets, and asking them what it will take for new routes to the UK to be established. They hear time and again that airlines want to come to London, and that their choice of airports rests on available capacity, suitable facilities and, crucially, the airports’ surface connectivity to London. If we want new international air links to the emerging markets, good rail access to the airports that can provide them is critical.

The UK national infrastructure plan rightly recognises the national role that London’s airports have in increasing economic output and in enabling business to access new and larger markets. Indeed the NIP has identified Gatwick’s current £1.2 billion capital investment programme as one of the country’s top 40 infrastructure projects. It also outlines that the Government will

“improve road and rail links to the UK’s international gateways to help maximise the efficiency and competitiveness of the whole transport network.”

A £53 million upgrade of Gatwick rail station is already under-way. It will deliver much-needed additional platform capacity, concourse improvements and local track and signal infrastructure.

The focus now is on the services that run in and out of Gatwick station. Gatwick is already the home of the busiest airport railway station in the UK with more than 10 million passengers every year, and proportionally more people travel by rail to and from the airport than any other major UK airport. There is already a substantial growth in forecast demand. Along with Gatwick’s substantive growth, the number of ordinary commuters who use the same rail links is forecast to grow by 29% by 2026. The Brighton main line, which is effectively Gatwick’s main rail artery, is near capacity, and peak services on the line were already at almost 80% back in 2009.

The new Thameslink project will help the airport. Already, it is quicker to get to the City of London from Gatwick than from Heathrow. The airport should see a doubling in train frequency from 2018 through Thameslink, and someone living in, for example, Peterborough or Cambridge will be able to go directly to Gatwick by rail for the first time. It is partly due to this Government’s decision to progress the Thameslink upgrade project that we will see clear improvements in north-south links to and from the airport. However, further improvements are necessary.

A consistent implication from Ministers has been that the welcome improvements that Thameslink will bring are sufficient to deliver the improved rail connectivity and capacity that Gatwick will need in future. In my view, a far more holistic approach to improvement needs to be taken and, in particular, one that takes into account just how central high-quality express services from Gatwick to London Victoria are to the airport’s growth.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that many of his arguments relating to Gatwick also apply to airports such as Stansted, which have masses of spare capacity and many millions of unused passenger journeys, but which, like Gatwick, suffer from very poor transport links, and that, if they were improved, they would transform an unattractive airport into a very attractive one and a potential alternative business hub?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I apologise if my contribution seems a little parochial in its concentration on Gatwick, but the points relating to Gatwick are replicated for other airports, not just in London and the south-east, but around the country.

Over the past few years, Gatwick has lost direct links to Oxford, Birmingham, Manchester, Watford and Kent and, importantly, due to decisions taken by the previous Government, the Gatwick Express is now under threat. On-board ticketing has been discontinued, and 25-year-old carriages have replaced new ones.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He has highlighted the important point that the rolling stock that is now used on the Gatwick Express is inadequate for airport passengers because there is insufficient luggage space, and wheelchair access is difficult. The irony is that that stock has replaced purpose-built stock, which has been cascaded elsewhere on the network. I urge my hon. Friend to impress on the Government that when we argue for the Gatwick Express to be a dedicated franchise or part of a broader franchise, there should be flexibility to have appropriate rolling stock to make it an attractive airport link.

My hon. Friend raises an erudite point. It is incredible that purpose-built rolling stock for the Gatwick express is now elsewhere on the network and that, as he rightly points out, unsuitable carriages are used. The matter is even worse because the Gatwick Express starts many of its journeys in Brighton, and by the time those carriages have reached Gatwick station, particularly at peak times, they are already full, and arriving air passengers cannot get a seat on what is supposed to be a dedicated service to London. Additionally, Network Rail is proposing a further stop for the Gatwick Express at Clapham Junction, which would be a retrograde step. It would threaten Gatwick's ability to compete with Heathrow, and because of that, reduce its potential for growth.

Passengers are noticing the trend. Already, the Gatwick Express ranks below its equivalents at Heathrow and Stansted, and is at the bottom of comparative league tables for other services, behind airports such as Heathrow, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Stockholm. Gatwick is not effectively connected to locations to the east and west of the airport either, with no direct rail service to and from Kent. Trains have to go via London, meaning that the 2 million passengers from Kent who use the airport every year cannot reach it directly.

The new Southern-Thameslink franchise must deliver improvements to the Gatwick Express. In December 2009, the Government announced that they were inviting tenders for new franchises for the south-east region from 2015. The new service will integrate those currently operated by First Capital Connect and Southern, including the Gatwick Express. From 2015, nearly all rail links in and out of Gatwick will be operated by one company, with the exception of a direct link to Reading. We currently have the unique opportunity to address many of the issues.

Preserving the Gatwick Express is a priority. It should be recreated as an all-day, dedicated service between Gatwick and London, to support Gatwick’s role as a key economic driver for London, the south-east and the UK economy as a whole. To guarantee its success, bidders for the franchise should be required to outline a vision of how both the quality of the journey and the range of direct routes to and from Gatwick can be improved. In addition to the invitation to tender for the new franchise including direct express rail services to London from the airport, there must also be a clear requirement for fit-for-purpose rolling stock that caters for the needs of air passengers—so ably pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart)—as it is clear from Gatwick’s research that the current stock is not. Gatwick is particularly concerned about the installation of ticket gates at the airport railway station and the removal of on-board ticketing adversely affecting passenger experiences.

In the long term, the requirements in the recent rail Command Paper need to be implemented. The paper states that during the next regulatory cycle Network Rail and the broader rail industry should look at how best to improve surface access to major airports. Network Rail should, as part of its development of the south-east’s rail network, take advantage of the new capacity that the Thameslink programme will provide from 2018, to reorganise the way in which lines running though Gatwick are used. Gatwick’s plans for long-term infrastructure improvements deliver a win-win solution for commuters and air passengers alike. The line that supports Gatwick’s direct rail links into London is important for both air passengers and local commuters, and the airport is not suggesting that the needs of the airport outweigh those of the everyday user.

I note that the Office of Rail Regulation has projected that, independently of air travel, passenger numbers on the main line running in and out of Gatwick could grow by 29% by 2026. The office believes that Gatwick airport’s technical proposal would allow for the needs of both sets of users. This is not an either/or choice for the Government, but a solution for all.

The plans that Gatwick has published support the growth of the airport and help to ensure a better experience for the ordinary commuter using the same rail links. They provide adequate capacity for the projected growth of both sets of users, and help to deliver the connectivity that the national economy needs. In essence, they meet the needs of most user groups, and the interests that Ministers should consider.

There would be substantial benefit to the Treasury, too, because air-rail users pay a premium. Gatwick Express users reduce Government subsidies by £27 million every year, lessening the burden on the taxpayer. More users would mean less taxpayer money being spent on the network, and keeping the service as a non-stop one would allow a further £6 million to be saved by reducing journey times.

Direct rail links to Gatwick would help to improve the environment for inward investment in the south-east, because 51% of potential investors cite international transport links as an important factor in deciding where to locate. Easy rail access to airports means better links to key export markets. In the short term, Gatwick’s proposals would greatly assist the airport in marketing itself internationally to airlines operating from emerging markets, because a high-quality, dedicated rail link is key in their decision-making process. In that way, improved rail links would help efforts better to manage the capacity shortages that airports in the south-east face, and which have the potential to hamper our economy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on securing a debate on such an important and interesting topic. He is a great advocate for his constituents, and I welcome his expertise in and understanding of aviation issues, which I am sure are of great importance to many of his constituents who work at Gatwick airport.

I fully appreciate all the points that my hon. Friend made about the importance of high-quality rail services to airports, and particularly to Gatwick, which is one of our biggest and most successful airports. I echo his praise of and congratulations to Gatwick on its investment programme, and I welcome the new services that it is attracting, including Air China’s new service from Gatwick to Beijing. Gatwick well deserved the praise that it received from the Prime Minister, to which my hon. Friend referred.

It is entirely correct to say that the debate about aviation connectivity in this country is not just about Heathrow. Heathrow is an extremely important airport, but we should not forget that London’s five successful airports together make us one of the best connected countries in the world, and Gatwick plays a very important role in that system.

High-quality surface access to our key airports is important for air passengers and for our international economic competitiveness, as my hon. Friend rightly highlighted. In addition, improving rail services to airports can provide important assistance in addressing local road congestion problems and, in certain places, in dealing with air quality problems. As he said, one of the Government’s strategic priorities for the nation’s rail network is improving rail links to major ports and airports.

A significant programme of rail infrastructure improvements is under way, and a number of the projects will benefit airports. If time permits, I shall deal with those later, but first it would be best for me to address some my hon. Friend’s points that were specific to Gatwick.

We have recently started consulting on the new combined Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern franchise. All the responses to that consultation will be shared with the five shortlisted bidders that will compete to become the next operator. The consultation is an important part of the decision-making process on what goes into the new franchise. This debate is therefore very timely, and I encourage my hon. Friend and his constituents to take part in the consultation.

The task that the bidders for the new franchise face in balancing the competing priorities of those who use the Brighton main line, which serves Gatwick, will not be easy—there is no getting away from that fact. Along with much of the nation’s rail network, the line is a tribute to the engineering excellence of our Victorian forebears. Driving tunnels through the downs and building a nine-track viaduct over the River Thames are the sort of engineering projects that we take for granted today, but they were a massive challenge when they were built more than 150 years ago, largely using only manual labour and sheer hard graft.

Brilliant as those Victorian engineers were, however, they bequeathed us a railway that had only 19 platforms at Victoria, and only five tracks south of East Croydon. Since Victorian times, commuting demand has increased dramatically. In a typical weekday morning, the Gatwick Express carries more than 2,000 passengers from Gatwick airport into London, but there are more than 35,000 Brighton mainline commuters, and approximately the same number again commuting into London on Southern’s services from the inner suburbs. Expanding our inherited railway network is neither low-cost nor easy, especially where it runs through our crowded cities, so we will expect the bidders to think hard about how they can make best use of the track capacity available to them in such a way that they can continue to provide a high-quality service to those travelling to and from Gatwick, without compromising their ability to meet the needs of the thousands of commuters who also use the line every year.

Against that background, there is certainly some pressure for more trains to call at Clapham Junction, which is one of the busiest stations on the route and arguably one of the busiest in the world. My hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that although that proposal was included by Network Rail in its south-east route utilisation strategy, that is not binding on the Government. No final decision has been made on it. When we make our decisions on the new franchise, we shall carefully weigh the needs of airport passengers and commuters, as well as taking into account wider strategic economic considerations of the sort to which my hon. Friend referred. This debate is useful for feeding into that decision-making process.

My hon. Friend has concerns about rolling stock. The Government are keen for such decisions to be made, when possible, by the people who run the railways rather than Whitehall. However, I agree that when making choices about rolling stock and its internal layout, the current and future franchisees will need to balance carefully the different needs and wants of railway users.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley also referred to decisions about on-train ticketing and the installation of ticket gates at Gatwick. I am aware of the concerns of the airport operator and I have held discussions with Gatwick on several occasions. However, the installation of gates is one of most effective ways to ensure that passengers pay the fares that are due. Protecting that revenue is an important element of delivering a more financially sustainable railway. I note that efforts were made to try to respond to the airport’s concerns, with a choice of wider gates to facilitate passengers with larger bags. I hope that that provides some mitigation to the concerns that my hon. Friend and the airport operator expressed.

I want to discuss the wider programme of activity that is under way to improve rail-to-air links in the south-east and elsewhere. A fleet of brand new trains built by Bombardier in Derby is now in use on the Stansted Express to improve the experience for passengers going to that airport. Network Rail, with the assistance and support of Gatwick Airport Ltd, is investing £53 million in upgrading the station, tracks and signalling at the airport, which includes new platforms and escalators, and a refurbished concourse. That will greatly improve the attractiveness of rail services to and from Gatwick, and I was delighted when the airport and Network Rail put together the funding to make it possible.

Through the regional growth fund, we have awarded £19.5 million to Luton borough council for junction enhancements that will improve access from the M1 to Luton. The RGF has also awarded £40 million to Kent county council for its Expansion East Kent programme, which includes rail improvements affecting journey times between Ashford and Ramsgate that could support the further development of Manston airport as a passenger airport. In the north of England, Manchester airport is getting linked up to Metrolink for the first time, and funding has been secured for a new airport link road connecting the M56 and the A6. Looking ahead, Manchester airport is also set to benefit from our programme of rail electrification in the north of England and from the work on elements of the northern hub that we are committed to delivering.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley rightly pointed out, the Thameslink programme, which took some years to get started under the previous Government—they started out calling it Thameslink 2000, but for some reason dropped that title as delivery got later and later—is very much under way. It is a £6 billion programme that will benefit Gatwick and Luton airports through the operation of a brand new fleet of high-capacity trains running at greatly increased frequency. The trains serving the two airports will be able to stop at London Bridge at peak times, which is not possible at the moment. The Thameslink programme also means that, for the first time, Gatwick will get new direct services to destinations north of London, such as Cambridge, Stevenage and Welwyn.

Crossrail is finally under way, with tunnelling under London commencing at the beginning of May. Once it is completed, we expect Crossrail to provide new services linking Heathrow directly with the west end, the City of London and Canary Wharf. In the longer term, Heathrow will also benefit from the Piccadilly line upgrade, and High Speed 2 will connect to Birmingham airport and provide radically improved access to Heathrow from destinations in the midlands and the north of England. A great deal of work is under way to improve our links between rail and air in the south-east and elsewhere in the country. We shall be giving further thought to whether more can be done as part of our HLOS—high-level output specification—programme for the 2014-to-2019 railway control period.

Let me respond to the hon. Friend’s comments in the context of the overall debate about aviation. The coalition has been clear that it wants a successful and sustainable aviation sector that supports economic growth and addresses aviation’s environmental impacts. Our forthcoming consultation on a sustainable framework for UK aviation will be a further opportunity to consider surface access to airports and the kind of issues that my hon. Friend shared with the Chamber. For example, in response to the scoping document on aviation with which we began the policy development process last year, a number of people advocated the potential of new fast rail links between Heathrow and Gatwick as a way to deal with connectivity. Such ideas will be considered alongside the many other responses that I am sure we will receive in our consultation, in which I hope that hon. Members will participate.

The Government will continue to work with airport operators, the rail industry, local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and MPs on ideas to improve rail access to our key airports in the years to come. All the matters mentioned by my hon. Friend will be carefully taken into account when decisions are made on new franchises for the railways—we are about to embark on the biggest programme of refranchising since privatisation—and we will ensure that we consider the importance of good surface access to our key airports.

Will the Minister reconfirm that it is her view, and that of the Government, that the Government’s first priority is to find ways of making better use of existing capacity? Will she confirm that any thoughts of expansion in the south-east take a very clear second place, and that people will not be subjected to the horror of expansion unless it is an absolute last resort?

I agree that whatever decisions are taken about long-term capacity needs in the south-east, it is essential that we do everything that we can right now to make our airports better and to ensure that we make the best use of existing capacity. Two separate things need to be done: to work out how we improve our airports today—we have initiatives on that important aspect under way, such as the operational freedoms trial at Heathrow and reforming how security is delivered—and, at the same time, to give serious, evidence-based consideration to what our future capacity needs might be.

On rail-to-air connectivity, we must be mindful of affordability constraints and value for money. When appropriate, we continue to look to the airports that will benefit from transport improvements to make a fair contribution to their funding. When there are decisions on how limited capacity is allocated between competing priorities, we will need to consider carefully the needs of all railway users—those who are travelling to the airport and those who are not, including commuters and freight operators. We need a successful and sustainable aviation sector that is supported by a railway that delivers reliable, high-quality services for all its users. That is what the Government are striving to achieve, and I am sure that our discussion today will provide useful input into forthcoming decisions on aviation and rail matters.

Mesothelioma (Legal Aid Reform)

We now come to the debate on the effect of legal aid reform on mesothelioma victims. I call Bill Esterson—you may speak seated, if you find that helpful.

Thank you very much, Mr Williams. I will stand, but it is kind of you to make the offer. It is a pleasure that the debate is being held under your chairmanship. It is an important debate, which I am sure that you and Members in all parts of the House appreciate—so far, it is mostly Opposition Members, but I know that Government Members have also indicated an interest in the subject.

I requested this debate because the Government have said that they will review the support given to victims of mesothelioma and their families following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which includes industrial diseases along with personal injury in measures to end no win, no fee litigation in the courts. The Government say that they want to stop fraudulent claims, but I believe that there is no evidence of fraudulent claims by those suffering from mesothelioma. That is the basis of this debate.

The House of Lords tried to amend the Act to exclude victims of mesothelioma from the changes to no win, no fee legislation, but the amendments made by the Lords were rejected by the Government. Instead, the Government said that they would hold a review and consider how to support victims and their families. So far, Ministers have not said what that review will consist of or when it will be held. Victims and their families need to know. When the Minister responds, he should tell the House what will happen in the review so that those suffering from that terrible disease can know and compare their evidence, so as not to lose out as a result of the end of no win, no fee.

The Government decided to include industrial diseases along with road traffic accidents in stopping no win, no fee. The implication of the change is that mesothelioma claimants are part of the compensation culture. That may well affect some personal injury claims, including whiplash, but mesothelioma victims are clearly not making spurious claims. When my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) put that point to the Minister on 17 April, she asked him to give one example of a spurious mesothelioma claim. The lack of an answer made the point that there are none.

Let us remind ourselves of what mesothelioma does. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) said in the debate in April that

“one fibre could go into someone’s lung and lie dormant for many years, but when it becomes active there is no alternative—that person suffers horribly and then they die. There is no cure, no remission and no element of survival; they die…Everybody who gets mesothelioma will die an agonising death.”—[Official Report, 17 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 279.]

The idea that those suffering from mesothelioma could be involved in fraudulent claims is absurd and disgraceful.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. Does he agree that one of the big issues is how long we must wait before we get information about how the review will start? Since we had the debate in the main Chamber, some 200 people have died of mesothelioma.

My hon. Friend has a long and distinguished record of fighting for those suffering from many industrial diseases, especially mesothelioma. He has made the point well: 200 people have died since the last time the issue was debated. That demonstrates the urgent need for the Minister to indicate exactly when the review will be held and how quickly it will conclude.

My hon. Friend will be aware, as I am, of constituents who have unfortunately contracted asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. Why are people who have terrible diseases through no fault of their own being doubly punished by the Government? Is it a case of the law of unintended consequences, or does my hon. Friend believe that they are being targeted by this uncaring Government?

I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for his question, and I hope that the Minister will answer it. We could all make our guesses as to the true motives. There are well-established financial links between the Government and the insurance industry, which might be at the heart of why things are being done in the way that they are.

It cannot be right that victims of asbestos-related diseases should be required to surrender a quarter of the damages that they have been awarded to pay for legal costs. Those damages are awarded to recognise and compensate men and women who have suffered terribly, if it is at all possible to compensate them for the pain, suffering and life-shortening that resulted from their work.

Mesothelioma has an extraordinarily long latency period of up to 60 years. As well as those 30,000 who have already died in the United Kingdom from mesothelioma, an estimated 60,000 more are yet to lose their lives due to past exposure, the vast majority of which occurred at work.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the coffers of the Government, in the shape of the Department for Work and Pensions, will also lose out? There has always been a payment back of benefits that have had to be paid up front early on because of people’s short life span once diagnosed with mesothelioma. Does he also agree that we should be making absolutely certain that no part of the compensation is taken out? The money should be used for the victims and their families and to repay the Government. Will my hon. Friend congratulate a colleague of mine in the Welsh Assembly, Mick Antoniw, who proposes to introduce a private Member’s Bill that would compensate the NHS for its expenditure on treating mesothelioma by recovering the money from liable companies?

I am happy to congratulate my hon. Friend’s colleague. She is right that it is the companies that cause this terrible pain and suffering, as well as their insurers, that should bear the financial costs, although there is no way of truly compensating the victims and their families for their suffering. It should be the private industry that caused the condition, and its insurers, that pays, not the public purse.

People were exposed to this terrible disease at work in situations which employers knew would ultimately kill the workers. However, as things stand under the legislation, those same people and their families will lose a quarter of the compensation that they absolutely should receive from the insurers of those companies.

The Government rejected a Lords amendment that would have exempted mesothelioma from the provision, but they have yet to say how sufferers and their families will be protected. In all the non-answers from Ministers, they have yet to justify to thousands of families why they did not exempt mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is an exceptional case, because the problem was known about for more than a century. Asbestos was identified as a poisonous substance in 1892 and has been banned from use in this country for almost half a century, yet employers knowingly exposed their workers to it day in, day out. They knew the dangers and ignored them for decades. They were eventually held accountable, but ever since the first successful case against employers and insurers on asbestos-related diseases, they have kept coming back to the courts and the issue has kept coming back to this place.

Mesothelioma causes intractable pain and severe breathlessness, which means that more than half of all the very modest damages claimed are for pain and suffering. The Government’s proposals would have a disproportionate effect on mesothelioma sufferers, because victims receive a higher proportion of their damages for pain and suffering than those who claim for personal injury.

The legislation requires terminally ill asbestos victims who succeed in a claim for compensation against negligent, guilty employers to pay up to 25% of their damages for pain and suffering in legal costs. They are not part of the compensation culture, nor are they legally aided, so to include them in that provision is wholly wrong. Many sufferers are so defeated by their illness that they never make a claim under current circumstances. Victim support groups have been told by victims that the change proposed would be a significant further deterrent to them making a claim at all. That would represent a big saving for the insurance industry, which therefore has the financial interest hinted at by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram).

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this issue for the umpteenth time. It is always possible to tell when an issue ought to be dealt with. We fought constantly for bronchitis and emphysema to be treated as industrial diseases, and did the same with vibration white finger. In 1999-2000, we managed to get the show on the road. Mesothelioma has been debated in this place ad nauseam, which is why we can tell that it ought to be dealt with at long last. I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter once again.

My hon. Friend speaks with greater experience than anyone in this House on the subject and on the issue of protecting the rights of workers who have suffered, over many years, grave injustice through industrial diseases and industrial accidents. He brings that wealth of experience from his time as a miner, and he continues to campaign tirelessly, and I applaud him for that. He is absolutely right that we have a duty to the victims to ensure that the matter is dealt with properly and that this Government are held to account. We need to hear answers today as to what will happen in that review, and it needs to be done quickly.

KPMG estimates that the insurance industry was given a £1.6 billion windfall when the Government ended compensation for pleural plaques. Unless the Government change their mind on mesothelioma, a similar windfall may be made available to the insurers at the expense of victims of industrial disease.

In contrast to other diseases, mesothelioma has only one outcome—loss of life. It is not trivial, and victims need help not hindrance. Most doctors say that the average lifespan from diagnosis to death is around nine months to one year. As one victim explained:

“My life has been turned upside down, and I really didn’t want to think about anything except spending my last days with my family. I worked all my life and paid all my national insurance and taxes, so this seems unfair.”

Mesothelioma victims, who often have just months to live, should not be expected to devote their energies to finding the lawyer with the best deal, yet that is what the Government expect them to do. Asbestos-related disease is not an accident. It is the result of negligence and lack of duty of care.

The claims of dying asbestos victims are never frivolous or fraudulent, but they are lumped in with road traffic accident claims that make up more than 70% of personal injury claims, for which the Government and insurance industry suggest that conditional fee agreements have been exploited. Between 2007 and 2011, there was a 6.6% reduction in employer liability cases, of which most respiratory claims are a subset. During that same period, road traffic accidents increased by 43% to nearly 800,000 cases. It is expected that mesothelioma claims will peak in about 2015, as asbestos has been eliminated from the working environment. Unscrupulous claimants may be able to fake road traffic injuries, but not mesothelioma or asbestosis. Road traffic accident problems will not be solved by punishing asbestos victims.

Mesothelioma sufferers who make a claim mainly do so because they and their families will not be at risk in terms of legal costs, which, without no win, no fee agreements, would be prohibitive. A claim may be valued at between £5,000 and £10,000, which is of great importance to the individual concerned, but which could be eaten up in costs and premiums under the Government’s plans. Mesothelioma sufferers would lose the whole of their compensation simply by not taking any action, which, as we have heard, is increasingly likely if no changes are made. Their access to lawyers would be restricted by making success fees unrecoverable from defendants, putting them at risk of paying defendants’ costs if they lose. Victims are already reluctant to claim because they have so many problems dealing with their rapid deterioration in health and trying to survive. The risk that if they lose they will have to pay such costs would be a massive additional hurdle for some of our most vulnerable people, to whom a decent, civilised society should and would guarantee support.

We should not forget that compensation is already significantly reduced for many sufferers. They must not only provide evidence of heavy exposure dating decades back, but forgo that portion of compensation where insurers cannot be traced for employers that are no longer trading. As insurance companies fight mesothelioma cases to the end, often trying to elongate the case until the victim dies, the cost of after-the-event insurance can be huge. As that will also be unrecoverable under the Government’s plans, there is no prospect of claimants being able to afford the premiums. The Government’s one-size-fits-all approach in the legislation is wrong. It may work for some personal injury claims, but is not effective in the case of complex industrial disease cases such as those involving mesothelioma.

My hon. Friend has given a graphic description of the pain and suffering faced and experienced by mesothelioma sufferers. He is describing the impact that the legislation would have on mesothelioma sufferers if, following a review, it was fully implemented for that group. He has mentioned several times the review that the Government have offered as part of the concession that they made while the Bill was passing through Parliament. Does he agree that it is essential that that review fully engages with mesothelioma sufferers and their families and especially the support groups, such as the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, which has done so much to make the case on behalf of mesothelioma sufferers?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I completely agree with him and will come shortly to what we need in the review.

For mesothelioma sufferers, unwarranted and fatal risks have been taken unknowingly, so the correct function of the legal system in such cases would be to restore victims to the position that they were in before diagnosis and to make provision for them and their families. Terminally ill and dying people will have other things on their mind than looking for a lawyer to give them a good rate, so there will not be greater competition, driving costs down, as the Minister claims. There is in fact no evidence that lawyers will reduce costs, as lawyers themselves will be less likely to take these cases because they risk not being able to recover costs if they lose or they face the dreadful prospect of having to recover those costs from their clients in a situation in which they have just lost in terrible circumstances.

Making changes to rules on compensation is no motivation or incentive for mesothelioma sufferers. One sufferer has said that

“no amount of compensation could ever compensate for my husband’s suffering and loss of life. To even contemplate this is wrong. My husband’s suffering has ended but still I have terrible images of his horrific suffering which I cannot erase…My husband was poisoned going to work. I hope this Government remembers that!”

At all stages of consideration of the legislation in this House and in the House of Lords, the fallacy of the Government’s position on industrial disease was pointed out. Twice the Lords voted on amendments to this effect:

“The changes made by sections 43, 45 and 46 of this Act do not apply in relation to proceedings which include a claim for damages for respiratory disease or illness (whether or not resulting in death) arising from industrial exposure to harmful substance.”

The Government were forced to reconsider their position and they agreed to an amendment, which brings us to the point of today’s debate. This is the amendment:

“Sections 43 and 45 and diffuse mesothelioma proceedings

(1) Sections 43 and 45 may not be brought into force in relation to proceedings relating to a claim for damages in respect of diffuse mesothelioma until the Lord Chancellor has—

a) carried out a review of the likely effect of those sections in relation to such proceedings, and

b) published a report of the conclusions of the review.”

Since then, the nature of the review, its timing, its terms of reference, how it is to be conducted and who is to be consulted have been raised several times. I have raised those matters myself with Ministers, as have the Labour Front-Bench team. When agreeing to the compromise, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) said:

“We need assurances it will be truly independent and not just a whitewash. We also need confidence there’ll be sufficient time allowed to see how the changes brought about impact on other successful claimants before rolling them out for mesothelioma sufferers.”

Given the Government’s conduct throughout, it is not surprising that we and those who represent mesothelioma sufferers, and the victims themselves, are sceptical about the Government’s promise. Today is an ideal opportunity, which I hope the Minister will take, to address the doubts of everyone who has concerns about mesothelioma. Anything less than a fully independent and thorough review of the potential effects of limiting claims will not be within the spirit or the letter of the amendments agreed to, which enabled the Government to get their legislation through. I hope that we will not hear generalities or evasions from the Minister. A clear commitment to do justice for the victims of this terrible disease is the least we can expect.

I therefore ask the Minister these questions. When will the review take place? Who will be part of the review body? What will its terms of reference be? No doubt it will include representatives of the insurance industry, but who will be the victims’ representatives? Will the review be truly independent, by which I mean independent of the insurance industry?

Concern remains that the change to no win, no fee will cut the number of people claiming and the amount being paid by insurance companies. The insurance industry has a clear financial interest in cutting down the amounts paid out. How will the Minister or his colleagues ensure that that interest is balanced by how the review is run? Will he consider an independent panel to examine mesothelioma and compensation for victims and their families? Will he and his colleagues consider the call for an employers’ liability insurance bureau following the pattern of the Motor Insurers Bureau? We must ask why there is such a facility for traffic accident victims but not for those suffering from mesothelioma or other industrial diseases.

Victims and their families want answers and protection. They have a right to that protection, given the suffering that they go through. It is time that Ministers gave answers about how that protection will be guaranteed, and soon, by this Government.

I apologise for the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), to whom this debate would normally fall, but he is serving on the Committee that is considering the Defamation Bill. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing this timely debate. He asked wholly appropriate questions and I hope to be able to give him some of the satisfaction that he seeks, and some guidance for claimants and their families on the circumstances that we are in.

I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that I slightly regretted the tone of his speech. To suggest that concern about the issue is located on one side of the House and not the other is a little wide—

The sister of my right hon. Friend Lord McNally, the Justice Minister in the House of Lords, died of that disease, and my father died of respiratory disease. I assure the hon. Gentleman and all his hon. Friends—

I will not, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, because I need time to put on record all the things that I think are important for mesothelioma sufferers, for whom concern is, very properly, universal.

Mesothelioma is a terrible disease. We recognise its devastating impact on sufferers and their families, and we take extremely seriously the plight of sufferers and their right to claim compensation for negligently caused personal injury. As was clear from the way in which the hon. Member for Sefton Central spoke, this is an emotive subject. This debate highlights the importance of the issue, and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) also made that clear.

I will deal briefly with three main issues: first, why our reforms to conditional fee arrangements are the right way forward; secondly, why we are taking an exceptional course in respect of mesothelioma claims, and the circumstances in which that exceptional course will be managed once we have improved the position for sufferers who cannot trace their employer’s insurer; and, thirdly, how some reforms have lowered the barriers for claimants in recent years.

On the rationale for conditional fee arrangement reform, it is important to make it clear that our current legal aid reforms do not affect mesothelioma cases, as legal aid is not generally available. The Access to Justice Act 1999 removed legal aid for the majority of personal injury cases, including mesothelioma cases, where alternative forms of funding such as conditional fee arrangements were available. As the hon. Member for Sefton Central will be aware, the Government are implementing the recommendations in Lord Justice Jackson’s review of civil litigation costs, and particularly a fundamental reform of no win, no fee CFAs. Part 2 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 implements those reforms.

Lord Justice Jackson concluded that the current arrangements, under which success fees and after-the-event insurance premiums are payable by the losing side, in addition to standard legal costs, are a major contributor to the high costs of civil litigation, and that it was right in principle to change the arrangements across the board. The truth is that the current system is indefensible. It has turned out to be a racket for lawyers, which is why it is changing. The new system will assist the execution of meritorious claims rather than supporting a claims-management industry.

The Government are committed to addressing disproportionate costs throughout the whole of civil litigation, and the provisions in part 2 of the Act will deal with the unfairness that currently exists in the system between claimants and defendants. These important reforms will ensure that meritorious claims can still be pursued, but at a more proportionate cost. As part of the reforms, earlier settlement will be encouraged and damages for non-pecuniary loss, such as pain suffered and loss of amenity, will be increased by 10%. In time, the reforms will apply to all areas of civil litigation—that was what Lord Justice Jackson recommended, and the Government agree.

The Government are certainly not suggesting that mesothelioma claims are brought inappropriately. Indeed, such claims are often among the easiest in which to establish base merit. I want to be absolutely clear, in response to the tone of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Sefton Central, that these claims are, of course, not part of the compensation culture—no one has suggested that they are. They are, however, part of a process of civil litigation that has to be reformed.

On the temporary exception from conditional fee arrangement reforms for mesothelioma claims, we announced that the relevant provisions in part 2 will come into force in April 2013. In particular, sections 44 and 46 abolish the recoverability of success fees and after-the-event insurance costs from the losing side in all categories of case in which they are currently used. We are, however, deferring implementation in relation to mesothelioma claims until we are satisfied on the way forward for those who are unable to trace their employer’s insurer. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands the crucial importance of that.

A number of reforms in recent years have improved the position of mesothelioma sufferers by lowering the barriers to bringing claims. In particular, the Employers’ Liability Tracing Office, which was introduced in April 2011, is designed to be a comprehensive online resource of current and historical employers’ liability policies, thus making it easier for claimants to find the relevant insurer. The database is updated with the results of any new traces, so its size and utility continue to increase. We recognise, however, that there remains a gap where sufferers cannot trace their employer’s insurer. The Department for Work and Pensions is therefore in discussions about the way forward for stakeholders. Primary legislation might be required, but I anticipate that my noble friend Lord Freud, who is working on the matter, will make a statement before the summer recess. If primary legislation is required, however, the hon. Member for Sefton Central and other hon. Members will understand that that will take a considerable period of time.

I can give a commitment that we will consider all the factors raised today when we come to set out the review’s terms of reference. I cannot, however, set out those terms of reference or a timetable, because any review may not happen until we have identified any primary legislation that might be required. Additionally—the hon. Gentleman made this point, and it has also been made by the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan)—that means that the review will occur against the backdrop of a substantially changed conditional fee arrangement market, so we will of course consider the effect of those changes as part of the review.

I have rather more to say, but I regret that I will not be able to do so, given that, understandably, the hon. Gentleman took interventions during his speech. Nevertheless, I have put on the record the substantive responses that he was seeking from the Government.

Neglected Tropical Diseases

It is an honour, Mr Williams, to serve under your chairmanship.

I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party group on neglected tropical diseases. NTDs are a group of diseases that affect more than 1 billion people around the world. They do not have the high profile of malaria, HIV/AIDS or TB—hence the word “neglected”—but they result in disability and death. Even for those who are less seriously affected, they bring chronic conditions that mean loss of income. Such diseases include worms or helminths, schistosomiasis or bilharzia, trachoma, lymphatic filariasis or elephantiasis, and leprosy.

Almost without exception, NTDs are diseases of the poor. They are also curable. The World Health Organisation’s 2010 report found that approximately 90% of their burden can be treated with medicines administered only once or twice a year, and that can sometimes be achieved for as little as 50 US cents. Treating and eradicating those diseases must be at the heart of any programme to tackle poverty. Yet as the title of the debate makes clear, they have been neglected for many years. Institutes such as the Liverpool and London Schools of Tropical Medicine, Imperial College London and the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine, working with researchers and institutes in developing countries, have made great strides in the understanding and treatment of NTDs.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, not least because his knowledge of the matter is well recognised. Does he agree that Members of Parliament have a role in highlighting neglected tropical diseases, making the public, the media and policy makers aware of them, and ensuring that we reduce them because they kill millions of people every year?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for making that extremely important point. I will come to the reasons why it is important—particularly with regard to efficiency in the use of aid money, which is a major public policy question.

In recent years, Governments, principally in the UK and the USA, have begun seriously to fund work on NTDs. In the UK, this began under the previous Government with an allocation of £50 million. Earlier this year, the Department for International Development announced a further £240 million over four years, which will supply more than four treatments every second for people in the developing world. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and his predecessor for recognising the importance of this work. We are especially fortunate because the Minister—I am delighted that he will respond to this debate—has been a champion in the fight against NTDs, both when he was chairman of the all-party group and subsequently as Minister.

Drug companies have also made a great contribution, working with bodies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. On the day when the UK announced a fivefold increase in its funding commitment to tackle NTDs as part of a global partnership, all drug companies with NTD drug donation programmes pledged to sustain, extend or increase their programmes to the end of the decade.

For example, GlaxoSmithKline has already donated nearly 2 billion tablets of albendazole for lymphatic filariasis and will continue until elimination is achieved. It is also providing 400 million tablets a year free of charge until 2020 to de-worm school-age children in Africa. Johnson and Johnson is increasing its annual donation of mebendazole to 200 million tablets every year—again, to tackle worms. Novartis is continuing its commitment to providing multi-drug therapy against leprosy in a final push against the disease. Pfizer will continue its donation of drugs for blinding trachoma until at least 2020, as well as donating the drug and a placebo for a study on the reduction in mortality of children treated with that drug. Sanofi, Merck and various other companies are also providing major drug donations.

It is not only drugs that are important, but vaccines. The Sabin Vaccine Institute, in which I declare an interest as a trustee of its UK charitable body, is developing vaccines to treat NTDs around the world.

We have come a long way in tackling such diseases in the past decade. The number of new cases of leprosy reported to the WHO has fallen every year since 2002 from 620,000 to 249,000 in 2008. The number of new cases of human African trypanosomiasis reported to the WHO worldwide fell from 37,000 in 1998 to 10,000 in 2008. However, there is still much to do—and it can be done. Three things are essential. The first is to keep up funding. In the 1960s, malaria was on the retreat, but the world took its eye off the ball and it came back with a vengeance in the 1980s and 1990s. Malaria is now again being tackled, but at a cost of $5 billion to $6 billion a year and after millions of unnecessary deaths.

The lesson is that we need consistency and determination. The UK has rightly decided that eradicating NTDs is one of the best ways to tackle poverty, and we should make that part of our work each year until the work is done. I am not asking for more money. DFID has committed a substantial amount each year for the next four years. However, there should be no uncertainty about future funding. DFID should continue to be a reliable partner over several Parliaments.

At the same time, I should like DFID to encourage other countries to begin or increase support for the work. The USA has been a reliable funder, for which we are grateful. It would be most welcome if it, too, could commit to stable amounts over several years. Then there are donors who have yet to contribute to the work. Will the Minister report on what he is doing to encourage others into the fold?

Secondly, we need to support the countries in which NTDs are endemic, to strengthen their health systems. The most important thing I have learned in the past year as chairman of the all-party group is that it is only through effective grass-roots health systems with committed, trained staff, often backed by community volunteers, that the fight against NTDs is sustainable. One-off treatment campaigns can be effective, and are necessary where systems are weak or do not exist, but the effects will fade unless they are backed up by permanent staff and clinics.

The UK has considerable expertise in working with developing countries to strengthen their health systems, but it is vital that the countries themselves meet their commitments, under the Abuja declaration, to spend 15% of their total budget on health. Few are doing that. I would like the Minister to let hon. Members know what the Government are doing to encourage our partner Governments in those countries to keep to their commitment under the Abuja declaration.

Finally, we need to support research. I have been heartened, as chairman of the all-party group, to see both how closely involved and how generous several pharmaceutical companies have been in tackling NTDs in the way I have outlined. However, we need to work closely with them and the research institutes in the UK and elsewhere to ensure that there is a pipeline of effective drugs for all the relevant diseases. Developing drugs and vaccines and bringing them to market is costly; those who suffer from NTDs cannot afford prices that reflect the cost of the research and development. However, although the market may not justify the cost of R and D, common humanity does, and that is where the British people, through DFID, can make a huge contribution.

We often speak about DFID doing this or the British Government doing that, but it is not they but the British people who are making the work possible, by their commitment to international development. I know that the voices raised against are often loud, but in my constituency of Stafford I have met thousands of people who give up their time and money to support projects around the world—schoolchildren, scouts, guides, community groups, churches and others. When the British people see that it is their support, through donations and taxes, that is helping to improve the lives of millions suffering from NTDs, they should know that they are an essential part of that great endeavour.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I want to pursue some things that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) said, and to congratulate him on securing this debate on such an important subject. He dedicates a huge amount of his time to malaria and NTDs through his chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group.

As vice-chairman of the all-party groups on HIV and AIDS and on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, I have been struck by the emerging evidence that patients suffering from some NTDs are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS or severe malaria. Dr Peter Hotez writes in his manuscript entitled “The neglected tropical diseases and the neglected infections of poverty: overview of their common features, global disease burden and distribution, new control tools, and prospects for disease elimination” that

“in the case of malaria there is a high degree of geographic overlap with hookworm infection…with evidence to show that co-infections of malaria and hookworm result in severe anemia…Similarly, urinary tract schistosomiasis, which occurs in more than 100 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa…commonly results in female genital schistosomiasis that is associated with a threefold increased susceptibility to HIV/AIDS”.

In other words, if we are effectively to tackle the killers—malaria and HIV/AIDS—we need to treat NTDs at the same time. Given that, will the Minister ask the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to consider embracing NTDs as well? I appreciate that the fund currently faces financial difficulties, with the cancelation of round 11, but it would be a good start if it could acknowledge the importance of tackling NTDs in the fight against malaria and HIV/AIDS, and encourage its donors to support work on NTDs, just as the UK and the USA are doing.

I also emphasise that by tackling NTDs we are not only working with people to improve their health but helping them to pursue their livelihoods, to escape the very poverty that makes it much more likely that they will contract the diseases, which ensures that the millennium development goal of tackling poverty continues to elude many countries. Many NTDs, if untreated, result in chronic disability and, given that most people who suffer from them are likely to be involved in agriculture or manual labour, such disability severely affects their chances of earning a living.

In conclusion, I congratulate the Government on announcing a fivefold increase in UK support for the work in fighting NTDs. It meets DFID’s criterion for tackling poverty and, given the low cost of treatment and the 2 billion people affected in one way or another, it represents very good value for money.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) not only on securing this important debate but on his relentless and consistent commitment to the improvement and survival of all vulnerable people, and in particular children, in many parts of the planet. His commitment, both in his life before Parliament and since taking over the chairmanship of the all-party group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, carries huge influence and is much appreciated by parliamentarians across the House.

This debate comes at an important moment. While being gracious enough to acknowledge his generous words, I hope that he will be the first to admit that the effort to tackle neglected tropical diseases is very much a combined and collective one. Many people have worked over many years to address this issue, which is one of the most tangible issues that our generation can get to grips with in the field of preventable, avoidable and treatable diseases. NTDs have struggled to compete against the three best-known diseases—HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria—because they often do not kill. Nevertheless, they impede and imperil the quality of life and well-being of many people in many parts of our planet.

I shall begin by setting the debate in a bit of context, from the coalition Government’s perspective, and I shall then seek to answer Members’ questions. When we came into office a couple of years ago, we made it clear that we wanted to build a different style of international development, one based on dynamic partnerships as well as on the relentless pursuit of results and value for money in the Department’s work. I think that it is accepted as common ground, both here and across the House, that the tackling of global disease, particularly tropical and not least neglected diseases, represents value for money. Our vision for controlling NTDs involved marshalling the evidence that NTD programmes deliver results, to justify increasing our investment considerably over the next few years. We were certainly encouraged and influenced by the very positive reports from across the NTD world, including from our pharmaceutical company partners, the World Health Organisation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and indeed the United States Agency for International Development, which was rightly referred to by my hon. Friend.

The UK’s experienced and respected academic community has encouraged us to relentlessly do more. I well remember the many representations that I received when I occupied the chair of the all-party group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, which my hon. Friend now occupies. The UK academic community’s conviction was, and remains, infectious and undiminished, and I found that their information was an enormously useful body of information to carry with me into office as a Minister.

The coalition Government’s determination to achieve the UN’s target for official development assistance spend of 0.7% of GNP, and to do that by demonstrating life-changing and transformative results to the British public, provided the bedrock for the decision that we have taken. Our conclusion was that a significant increase in the level and scope of our involvement was warranted to improve health outcomes and to reduce poverty, while ensuring value for money in achieving those results.

As my hon. Friend has already said, last October at a joint event with President Carter—whose own personal commitment in this sector has been undoubted throughout his post-presidential career—I pledged that the UK would increase its support to trying to achieve guinea worm eradication by 2015 if others stepped up and were able to help to close the financing gap. The challenge was met in January, when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is the President of the United Arab Emirates, and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation pledged enough money to close that financing gap.

That was important because, as my hon. Friend indicated, it is necessary to seek to encourage others. It is not just a question of seeking, as it were, to impose any kind of leadership or leverage; it is actually about how we get the best collective effort. That will be the most sustainable part of the process in the future, rather than continually having to renew funding.

That exercise in January was really helpful and it has given us great encouragement in this field. Although it is, of course, early days on the road to 2015, it is not so early that we do not need to make progress. So far this year, the results have indeed been impressive. Only in South Sudan has there been any reported cases of guinea worm this year. There have been 143 cases there, which represents a reduction of 62% compared with the same period last year. Of course that is good news, but we should remain aware of the considerable difficulties of operating in many of the affected countries as we aim to maintain the strong progress that has been achieved so far.

On 21 January, we announced increased support for NTD control measures. That increased support has strengthened the UK’s partnerships with the WHO, with foundations, with other donors and with pharmaceutical companies that make drug donations—donations that are much appreciated and hugely valuable—as well as with the endemic countries and indeed with NGOs. As well as guinea worm eradication, the UK’s NTD package comprises five distinct but integrated strands; I will repeat them, although they were accurately described by my hon. Friend.

We will increase support to fight the other diseases that we are already working to combat, which are lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths.

We will conduct more research, which is absolutely critical. Research was one of the issues that my hon. Friend raised. That research will build on the back of a fantastic track record of research around the world, not least in this country, where we have global centres of excellence. I had the honour and the privilege to be the vice-chairman, in a voluntary capacity, of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, where I saw such research for myself. The London School of Tropical Medicine, other London universities and colleges and many other institutions around the country also carry out research.

We have been seeking to strengthen the capacity of the WHO’s NTD department itself, and now we are able to do so. There are new programmes to control trachoma and visceral leishmaniasis, and an integrated programme approach to tackle a range of NTDs in two high-burden countries because, as my hon. Friend is well aware, there are quite a number of opportunities for synergies in tackling a number of diseases, where one can graft on to the back of some of the interventions for HIV/AIDS, and particularly for TB and malaria, not least because of the bed nets.

In many respects, referring to that issue is a way that I can answer the essential question put by the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham); I am grateful to her for her contribution to the debate. She asked if the global health fund could be extended to tackle NTDs. It is fair to say that even in the current circumstances, which she acknowledged are an impediment, the fund’s focus is on HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB, and even if there were not the current financial readjustments, which we hope will give us a stronger position to go forward and sustain what the fund is best at doing and what it has been tremendously successful at doing in the last 10 years, a focus on NTDs could be a distraction and could start diluting the fund’s efforts, particularly through the country co-ordinating mechanisms, which are the essential mechanism through which delivery is made at country level. What will be important, however, is to look at whether we can give a greater sense of purpose and instruction to the way in which the country co-ordinating mechanisms work to see where those synergies can be captured. In that way, we get the consequential collateral benefit of addressing the NTDs through what is already taking place or could be easily and mechanistically expanded in an easy, practicable, community-based way at ground level up when dealing with HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria programmes. Building on that community health approach should in itself bring benefits to the NTDs. The NTDs themselves tend to be rather more specifically focused and are somewhat more geographically identified than some of those broader-range diseases. We need to be careful, therefore, not to force or to graft something on to them. I take the point seriously, and the answer is probably through synergies.

On 30 January this year, we had the London declaration, which took us a step further and set us the challenging 2020 deadline to demonstrate real progress. The meeting brought together some of the countries most heavily afflicted by NTDs—pharmaceutical companies, donors, academics, foundations and international financial institutions. Together we pledged to focus on 10 diseases, majoring on the five that preventive chemotherapy can control, such as schistosomiasis, and five that fall into the intensified disease management category, including guinea worm and visceral leishmaniasis, and to continue to support research. I hope my hon. Friend is pleased with this emphasis on research about which I am pretty obsessed. I had to give evidence myself yesterday to the Science and Technology Committee, which was not easy.

I am delighted by the emphasis on research. As the Minister has already said in his speech, the UK is a world leader in research. I have visited the Liverpool school and was mightily impressed by what I saw there. We have also had huge contributions from the London school and Imperial college among others. I am delighted to hear that the Government place such great emphasis on research.

As ever, one should back centres of excellence. We are all pleased to acknowledge that. I was pleased to see that the director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine was awarded a CBE in the recent Queen’s honours list.

Essentially, the challenge is set for all of us to work together in a complementary fashion through an overall strategy that allows these diseases to be managed within a country’s primary health-care system—to the extent that there is capacity in the system to work with—and ultimately to be eliminated as a public health problem. National legislatures have an important role to play here in making the case to Health and Finance Ministers on behalf of their constituents.

The session in London was groundbreaking, but after the fine words, the question is how to put them into effect. The first point is that of course we are building on a number of existing partnerships that for years had sought additional resources to expand their range and coverage. The second point, which is an answer to one of my hon. Friend’s questions, is the positive response. In many ways, it also addresses the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) who helpfully reminded us that we must continue with commitment to build awareness among the public. There must be a public buy-in and sense of ownership of this approach. There is the political will within the UK to sustain the support for these tremendous interventions that have such an effect and impact on the most vulnerable in the world. Getting that positive response and support from organisations such as the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and Geneva Global was encouraging.

In late 2011, a number of institutions here launched the UK Coalition against NTDs as a collaborative partnership between UK organisations actively engaged in research, implementation and capacity building for NTD control at scale. Bringing considerable experience to bear on lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, guinea worm and avoidable blindness are at the forefront of the push for integration, especially at the country level, with country and other developmental partners. Its aim is to expand the numbers of organisations and sectors committed to supporting NTD control.

What has happened over the past five months? The UK has agreed with WHO on how to strengthen its NTD department capacity. That is important, as the department plays the key role of convening and setting standards, as well as helping ensure that the donated drug supply matches and meets demand. My Department has made considerable progress in developing the new trachoma and visceral leishmaniasis programmes, as well as programmes for an integrated approach to tackling neglected tropical diseases in two countries.

Expanding programmes to tackle neglected tropical diseases is an international effort. We are working closely with colleagues, particularly in the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank, WHO and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to ensure that we continue to seek effective mechanisms for tackling such diseases while working through health systems, for example by exploring mass drug administration through schools and the role of improved water and sanitation.

Working collaboratively in-country is high on the agenda, as is developing strategies for working in challenging countries with heavy NTD prevalence, such as Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which the Select Committee on International Development recently visited, and South Sudan, where I was recently. That will reinforce value for money and avoid duplication, which is vital to increasing impact.

Binding together all that work is our relentless focus on the achievement of results. Our bold decision to maintain development spend at 0.7% of gross national income at a time of UK spending austerity brings with it an obligation to demonstrate to our constituents as well as to those benefiting from our programmes that the money is being extremely well spent.

The results of our investment will be huge. By 2015, UK support will help to protect more than 140 million people from neglected tropical diseases and the suffering, disability and death that they may cause. To do so, we have increased our financial investment and cumulative spend from £50 million to £245 million by 2015. Our investment provides a platform for expanding our work with the NTD community. With them, we can build on partnerships for change among international agencies, Governments, academic institutions, non-governmental organisations, corporations, national Ministries of Health, and most of all with people who live where the road ends. Increasing Government commitment through increased domestic resource provision is the starting point for sustainability, including strengthening the systems that deliver health services.

I pay tribute to a vast range of academics, campaigners, NGOs and parliamentarians. Within just two years of the formation of the coalition Government, we have made a massive step up. There is cross-party recognition of a commitment to scale up over the past couple of years, I am pleased to say, in the context of our overall commitment to international development on behalf of the British people, whose broad generosity we are able to express through such innovative programmes.

We must recognise and accept that there is a risk of failure. Although we think that the interventions are well proven and their value for money will be great, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford said, there was a reverse on malaria in the past. I have just returned from the Sahel, where we were considering nutrition, a completely separate issue. Part of the challenge is that as we achieve success, the pictures will not be on our television screens. Being able to sustain it means committing continuing resources at the same if not greater levels. We must retain the political will to do the right thing through early interventions that work, making the political case all the tougher. Therefore, having champions such as my hon. Friend and the two colleagues who have joined him today is vital as part of the broad coalition of interest, which will ensure that we have the greatest impact in our generation for the most deliverable solutions for some of the greatest need in the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford asked about vaccine development, which he knows I support strongly, in many respects, for all diseases for which it is possible. We all wait with bated breath to hear whether the first vaccine for a parasite-borne disease, malaria, will become an effective element in the toolbox against that disease and for the control of its transmission. Our support for vaccine development, particularly for neglected tropical diseases, is given primarily through the drugs for neglected diseases initiative and through Tropical Diseases Research at the WHO. Working collaboratively through those institutions, we harness the greatest expertise. Of course, as with all vaccines, we need proof that it really works in adults and children effectively and efficaciously. It is rare to find a vaccine that is an absolute solution rather than just a tool in the box.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).