House of Commons
Monday 3 September 2012
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Children in Care
Let me welcome you, Mr Speaker, back from the recess—without a tan. In July I published a report describing extensive progress on implementing last November’s “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation” action plan. Although all children are potentially at risk, particular challenges arise for children in care, especially those in children’s homes. Accordingly, I announced urgent action to improve children’s residential care, including developing a clearer understanding of when children go missing, allowing Ofsted to share the locations of children’s homes with the police and examining out-of-authority placements.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that 45% of children who are in care and looked after are in homes away from their borough. They are removed from their networks of support and the familiarity of adults whom they can trust, which makes them more vulnerable and more prone to abuse. Does he agree with the report by the deputy Children’s Commissioner that children should be cared for as close to home as possible, and, if so, what steps are we taking to ensure that happens?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that point. That is why I launched the progress report jointly with the deputy Children’s Commissioner, picking up what I believe to be the scandal of too many vulnerable children—almost half, as my hon. Friend said—being placed a long way from familiar environments. We have set up a task and finish group specifically to look at the problem and at how we can keep children closer to home and familiar environments when that is in their interests. The group will report back to me within the next few weeks and we will take specific action as a result.
May I thank the Minister for including me, as chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, on the working group on children’s homes? If we are to safeguard children in care from sexual exploitation, we need to improve the quality of care in some of our children’s homes. Does he agree that we need to move to more robust inspections that measure outcomes for children in terms of improving their well-being and safety?
The hon. Lady is entirely right and I thank her for her work with the working group. I should also mention that she joined me at the joint press conference to give the useful and detailed findings of her report. The third task and finish group we set up—into which I very much hope she will have some input—is looking at the quality of residential children’s homes and the quality of the work force working in them, where I think we can do an awful lot better. Inspection needs to be better and more appropriate, and we need to ensure that any authority placing a child in a home is absolutely convinced that the quality of care is appropriate and the best available.
My hon. Friend mentions a particularly horrific case that shocked the whole nation when it appeared in our headlines. It is very important that we raise the profile of this insidious force—which I am afraid is present in too many communities—and ensure a joined-up approach, involving the Home Office, police, local authorities and our schools, so that this is not happening beneath the radar and so that children are educated and know what to do to avoid such tragedies happening again.
Although Ministers are right to focus attention on the sexual exploitation of children in care, such children continue to face many challenges in their lives. Today’s report by the all-party group on looked-after children and care leavers reveals that, shockingly, only 12% of children in care get five good GCSEs, despite efforts by two successive Governments to change that. Will he tell us why the important strategy on children in care, which was promised to us for this summer, has been delayed?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but she has failed to notice the fact that throughout the last year the Department for Education has announced a series of practical measures to help children in care in all sorts of destinations, to tackle the very scandal that her Government left of the huge gap of achievement in education between children in care through no fault of their own and their peer group. That is why, for example, every child in the care system automatically qualifies for the pupil premium. That is real, practical, tangible action, which her Government never took for those kids who need it most, and there are many more things still to come over the next few weeks and months.
Further to the Minister’s answer on reducing the number of out-of-area placements, will the Government do more to ensure that information is adequately shared between police forces and those who inspect homes and local authority departments, to ensure that any problems can be addressed?
My hon. Friend gives me the opportunity to shout “House”; that is the full set. We have set up three task and finish groups, and the third is looking specifically at the anomaly left over from regulations in the Care Standards Act 2000, whereby the police are unable to access information about children in children’s homes who go missing or get into trouble, in order to co-ordinate the action that needs to be taken to prevent those children from ending up in the hands of sexual predators and others. That situation will be changed. The group will report its findings to me in the next few weeks, and urgent action will be taken as a result of them.
In May, my Department published scorecards for local authorities to enable them to identify and tackle the causes of delay in the adoption system. My Department will shortly launch a consultation on changes to speed up processes for prospective adopters, and we plan to introduce legislation thereafter.
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise that issue. There have been a number of occasions in the past when, for the best of motives, social workers have felt it inappropriate to match children with prospective adopters because faith might have been seen as a barrier. I do not believe that faith should be a barrier to ensuring that children find a loving home.
We know that some 5,000 children have placement orders, but the number of approved parents is less than a third of that figure. Does not this highlight the importance of hammering home to social services authorities the need to welcome prospective adopters and push the process through so that they can adopt children today?
I absolutely agree. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of my job is reading about parents who want to adopt children but who have found that, for understandable reasons, the system has been far too bureaucratic and slow in allocating children to them. Working with the best in local authorities, I am sure that we can all do better.
It is welcome that the speed of adoption is being looked at, but will the Secretary of State confirm that the safeguards of the Hague convention will still apply to inter-country adoptions, and that the adoption panels’ functions will not be watered down?
It is vital that we ensure that international safeguards are present in respect of inter-country adoptions. When we come to look at the adoption panels, we will want to strike a balance to ensure that the right people are coming forward and being scrutinised appropriately with the minimum of delay.
We can do that by making it clear to all local authorities that age should not be a barrier. I understand the pressures on social workers, and I empathise with them, but in the past local authorities have sometimes made the best the enemy of the good. Notwithstanding the fantastic work that is done in children’s homes and by foster carers, we know that adoption is for good, and that the sooner we can place a child permanently in a loving home, the better it is for all concerned.
One of my constituents, who is here today, has spoken to me about her continued grief at having been forced to give up her son for adoption in the 1970s. Will the Secretary of State take a moment to read about the experience of my constituent, and give her the recognition that she is seeking of the fact that the forced adoption practices that used to exist in this country were traumatic and absolutely wrong, and should never have been allowed to exist by any Government?
The hon. Lady makes an effective point in a very effective way, and I absolutely agree with her. It is one of the blessings of the past 30 years that attitudes towards adoption and conception have changed so much, and that the stigma that used to be attached to children who were born out of wedlock is, mercifully, no longer there. It is quite wrong to force a mother to part from her child when she is capable of providing that child with a loving home. Anxious as we are to ensure that children in need are adopted, we must be equally anxious to ensure that single parents are supported.
The Government have extended free early education to 15 hours a week for all three and four-year-olds, and plan to extend this to around 40% of two-year-olds from September 2014. We recognise, nevertheless, that families might face difficulties with child care costs for older children or those beyond the free entitlement. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have asked the Minister for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), and me to lead a commission to look at the affordability of child care, and we will report in the autumn.
First, I hope that we are going to get an apology from Ministers for the way in which they have treated the One in a Million school in Bradford.
The Minister will be aware of the Daycare Trust’s survey that came out during the summer, which showed an 18% increase over 12 months in the cost of a week’s holiday child care. What are Ministers going to do to support hard-working families and parents who are struggling to meet unaffordable child care costs?
This Government are investing more in early years education than any previous Government: £760 million is being invested to extend the free entitlement down to disadvantaged two-year-olds. As I said in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s initial question, we have set up a commission to look at these issues, especially those relating to wrap-around care and holiday care, which we know to be particular issues for many parents.
I agree that this is a particular issue. My hon. Friend may be aware that today we published the draft provisions for special educational needs, which we hope will go into the Bill next year. We are particularly looking at extending down the support and protection offered for children in the school system so that nought to fives get similar support. She will also be aware that in the specific guidance to local authorities we highlighted the issue of making sure that they should provide more information for parents who have a disabled child.
As the Minister said, she has today published the draft legislation on the provision for children with special educational needs and disability, so how does she intend to address the shocking fact that 87% of local authorities reported that they do not have enough holiday child care for children with SEND?
I think there is a particular issue to address on the availability of holiday care for many children, not just for disabled children, and the commission is looking at holiday provision. Similarly, we are trying to encourage local authorities to put in place a local offer as part of the draft provisions we published today. That will include making sure that adequate respite care is available, and holiday provision is a prime example of that.
I am very glad that my hon. Friend is looking into holiday provision of child care, as many parents who use child minders outside term time find that they need to pay them a retainer—sometimes as much as £1,000 a year—to keep them when they start using the free entitlement during term time. What can be done to help ensure that such families get the full benefit of the free entitlement?
I should like to answer Questions 5 and 21 together, Mr Speaker, as they are identical, but I seek your permission to do so.
The proportion of young people not in education, employment or training has been too high for too long. It is a structural problem, reflecting wider changes in the labour market, which we are determined to tackle. This month sees the start of our £126 million youth contract programme for 16 to 17-year-olds supporting some 55,000 young people who are not currently participating. That is on top of our record spending of £7.5 billion on education and training places for young people.
I thank the Minister for his reply. The latest increase in the number of NEETs seems largely to be a result of the drop in employment in the 16 to 18 age group. Local manufacturers in my area report that they have great difficulty in getting young people to go into manufacturing, but that those who do have successful apprenticeships have normally done work experience. Will he lobby his colleagues to reintroduce compulsory work experience in secondary schools to overcome this problem?
The hon. Gentleman is a champion of apprenticeships, as am I. He will be delighted that there are now a record 104,500 apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds, but he is right to say that the engagement of employers is needed, and employers do indeed say that early contact with the world of work is important. He is right to make that case and I share his argument. We will continue to pursue that course of action.
Order. The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), who has Question 21 on the Order Paper, is not in the Chamber and is under no obligation to be as he had not been notified of any intended grouping. So no blame attaches to him, but I will call another Member to ask a supplementary.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Erewash jobs fair that I have arranged for this Wednesday is an excellent opportunity to showcase to young people, and indeed to those of all ages, the employment opportunities and opportunities in training and skills that are currently available?
In Erewash, they speak of little else than the hon. Lady’s job fair and her continuing work in the interests of young people and local employers. She is right that through marketing manufacturing opportunities of the kind she mentions we will seed a thirst for such work, which is so vital if people are to fulfil their potential and the economy is to prosper.
May I remind the Minister that there is nothing amusing about the 1 million young people who are unemployed? Is it not a fact that the lack of leadership and imagination in our schools and in the leadership of this country means that those people are languishing with little hope? Can we not use unemployed graduates, working with NEETs, to make something happen and make it happen soon?
The hon. Gentleman is right that this is not a matter for levity, but he is also wise enough to acknowledge, I hope, that it is a structural problem. The number of young people not in education, employment or training began to rise, as he knows, long before the current economic challenges. It requires a structural solution and at the heart of that is building the skills people need to get and to keep jobs, which is precisely what this Government are doing.
The Minister has been good at understanding that we need good careers guidance for young people, but if we are to have fewer people out of work and doing nothing at all post-16, high-quality work experience for all young people must be delivered in every school and college. Will colleagues in the Department for Education work with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that such a programme is in place very soon?
I am the personification of the relationship between the two Departments to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. It is essential that our strategy for growth and our approach to business work in tandem with what we do in schools. Although he cannot welcome it, as he has already asked his question, I am sure that he will want at least to contemplate the excellent advice to schools on this very subject that I issued just before the summer recess.
The Department for Education will publish tables of provisional GCSE results for 2012 in October. In 2011, 84.3% of pupils in state schools in York achieved five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C and 94.3% achieved five or more GCSEs at grade A* to E.
York’s schools continue to perform better than the national average, but I have faced many complaints from parents and teachers about the English marking fiasco. The head teacher of one of York’s best performing schools, Steve Smith, says:
“It is morally wrong to manipulate exam results in this way—it is playing with young people’s futures.”
Will the Secretary of State advise Ofqual to re-mark the papers according to the old criteria while the inquiry goes on and will he publish all his correspondence with Ofqual on this matter?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question. Let me take this opportunity to underline my admiration for the work done by York schools and York head teachers. I share the sadness that many teachers and students will feel about what happened with GCSE English this year. It is appropriate that we should all learn lessons about some of the mistakes made in introducing an examination, modular in style, that was not best equipped to ensure that all students could perform well and be treated fairly.
The hon. Gentleman invites me to tell Ofqual what it should do. I will not, because the Secretary of State for Education when the hon. Gentleman supported the Government, Mr Ed Balls, pointed out that Ofqual was an independent regulator of standards, independent of Ministers and reporting directly to Parliament and he said:
“I am not going to second-guess its work.”—[Official Report, 23 February 2009; Vol. 488, c. 27.]
I hold to that position.
Our aim is for all pupils to be offered good food in schools and to understand the importance of good nutrition. That is why the Secretary of State has asked the co-founders of the Leon restaurant chain, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, to examine school food, determine what more needs to be done to make nutritious and healthy food available to all school children, and ensure that children understand the importance of healthy eating.
Free school meals are a lifeline to many families living in my constituency and there are concerns that the Chancellor has now called for a further round of expenditure cuts. Will the Minister give an assurance that no category of child eligible for free school meals at the moment will lose their eligibility during the life of this Government?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He knows that, to make work pay, we are reforming the benefits system and introducing universal credit. We are working with the Department for Work and Pensions on how that translates into eligibility for free school meals, but we are determined to see no drop in the numbers of parents and their children eligible for free school meals.
July’s independent NatCen report on the two-year free school meals pilots in Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton showed a very positive impact on healthy eating, attendance and pupil attainment, just as in Hull when we had free, healthy school meals for primary and special school pupils, so why do not the Government now act on the evidence and have free school meals in our primary schools?
I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of a healthy school meal to children’s behaviour and their concentration at school. To extend free school meals to the whole population would cost £3.4 billion. The state of the public finances that we inherited from her party’s Government means that we have one of the highest budget deficits in the G20. We have reduced the budget deficit by a quarter in the first two years of this Government, which is a tremendous achievement, but we cannot, however worthy the spending programme, undertake new spending programmes of that order.
Is the Minister aware that, according to the School Food Trust’s own survey, almost half of all state secondary schools offer non-permitted foods, and over a quarter offer non-permitted snacks at mid-morning break? Does not that show that it is nonsense to suggest that academies are the only schools not meeting those standards?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The evidence suggests that there have been improvements in maintained schools and in academies, but that more needs to be done in both types of school, which is why we have established the school review under Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent. There have been improvements over the past seven years in the proportion of healthy food taken at lunchtime. More pupils ate a balanced meal in 2010 than in 2004—67% compared to 60%, but that still means that a third of our youngsters are not taking a healthy meal at lunchtime. That is what we seek to address.
Does the Minister not agree that if the capable and intelligent people who have been given the opportunity to run their schools under academy status, and also free schools, are able to decide complex things such as finance and how the school is run from top to bottom, it is only reasonable that they should be given the opportunity to decide the nutritional value of school dinners?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government’s direction of travel is to give the professionals who run our schools more autonomy to run their schools as they see best. If regulation were the answer to all our country’s problems, every child would be a fluent reader and know their multiplication tables, and every local authority school would be in full compliance with the school nutrition regulations.
The coalition Government will shortly announce their proposals for the future of exams at 16; we hope to ensure that future examinations work in the interests of all young people. We need exams that will keep pace with the best in the world and meet the demands of children, teachers and employers.
Today is the start of the new school year. Thousands of 16-year-olds in my constituency and across the country have had their hopes dashed and their plans devastated by this summer’s grading fiasco. When will the Secretary of State accept that it is his responsibility to tackle this injustice, and call for a regrading?
I quite agree that it is appropriate that we should tackle the problem, which arises from the structure of the GCSE examination. That is why we are removing modules and reforming examinations. For years, under Labour, Ministers sat idly by as we endured grade inflation and dumbing down. At last the tide is turning.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the challenges in setting the grade boundaries in the new GCSE English qualification this year highlight the need to end modular exams, restrict controlled assessment, and end the lazy devaluation of the GCSE currency that has gone on for too long?
Over the past 10 days, there have been countless examples of people getting a D for work assessed this summer that would have got a C grade in January. Sally Coates, head of the excellent Burlington Danes academy, who spoke alongside the Secretary of State at last year’s Conservative party conference, said:
“It is blatantly unfair to move the goalposts, without warning, midway through the year”,
and described it as “rough justice.” Does the Secretary of State agree?
I agree that these examinations are unfit for purpose and need to change. I also agree with Labour Ministers, who, when they were in power, said:
“The objective of Ofqual is to ensure consistency between the modular GCSEs and their non-modular predecessors. How it does that will be up to Ofqual.”––[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 24 March 2009; c. 597.]
So it should be. Ofqual is an independent regulator, accountable to Parliament. If Ministers were to interfere in Ofqual’s decisions, they would be meddling where they should not interfere. It is deeply irresponsible, cynical and opportunistic for the hon. Gentleman to make the case that he is making.
No wonder the Secretary of State did not want to answer my second question, because I have been looking at what he said when issues to do with exams and tests arose when he was the shadow Secretary of State. In 2008, he said that
“ministers must be held accountable when the regime fails.”
He went on to say that it was time to end what he described as
“This ‘it weren’t me, miss’ approach”.
Was he not right then, and wrong now? And what was the title of that article? “Minister, you failed the test”.
For 13 years, Ministers under Labour did fail the test. They failed to ensure that our examinations were modernised and reformed so as to be among the world’s best. This is a test that we are determined to meet. It is a great pity that the Labour party is not joining us in making sure that our state education system is one of the world’s best.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The greater the transparency in the grade setting and marking process, the better. That is one of the reasons Ofqual exists as an independent regulator, and one of the reasons it should continue to do that job, not Ministers.
If, when Mo Farah had run the 10,000 metre final in the Olympics, he had been told he had to run a further 10,000 metres before he could claim that he had won the gold medal, he would say that that was wrong, so why is it right to change the way GCSE exam results are marked halfway through the academic year, which is what happened this year?
May I ask my right hon. Friend to take heed of the message I have received from businesses in my constituency? When it comes to looking at changing the GCSE’s structure, what young people need, and what is fair to them, is a sound GCSE system that allows employers to know that the people who they hire are able to do the job, and that therefore does not put undue pressure on people who would not be able to do the job.
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely critical point. We need to make sure that standards are comparable over time. The process by which Ofqual ensures that standards are comparable over time was introduced under the last Labour Government. It is a process that Labour Members now disavow for opportunistic reasons, and in so doing they make it more difficult to ensure that our examination system can be reformed on a sound basis. It is a pity that a party that once led on education reform is now clambering on to any bandwagon that passes.
Positive for Youth set out for the first time an over-arching vision for youth policy. One of the key principles of its vision is for local leadership and greater partnership in the delivery of services for young people. Local authorities are best placed to decide how best to shape their services, and their duty to secure sufficient services is outlined in revised statutory guidance which we issued back in June. This Government have invested an additional £141 million in a network of 63 Myplace youth centres to support local youth service provision as well.
Will the Minister comment on my local authority’s plans for the youth service? It is cutting its budget by half, closing four of the seven permanent youth clubs to obtain their sites for market sale, and now plans to sell free-for-use sports pitches in a public park to a private company for commercial letting.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s record on accounting for supposed children’s centres closures in his constituency, which turned out not to be the case, one needs to scrutinise some of his comments rather more closely. What I do know is that there is some very innovatory work going on in the youth field between the three boroughs in the tri-borough experiment. [Interruption.] Within the hon. Gentleman’s own constituency, in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, they are leading the way in youth innovation zones, showing new, practical, innovatory ways of bringing services to young people that they need and will use. [Interruption.] He should go and visit them.
Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Ifield youth services on providing a broader range of services to younger people through voluntary sector involvement? Does he agree that voluntary sector and faith involvement in providing youth services is extremely important for local communities?
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. We share the same local authority—West Sussex—where there is some innovatory practice in youth services, provided not just by the local authority but in partnership with punchy voluntary organisations which know what young people want and can engage with them and make sure that they are engaging with useful services that will aid their well-being, which is what youth services are all about.
We already know from parliamentary answers that youth services have suffered a disproportionately large cut in public expenditure, but last month the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action released a report which found that its members had experienced a drop of around a fifth of total expenditure, 40% of them making redundancies, and that children’s and young people’s organisations were being disproportionately hit. As the Minister has expressed concern about local authorities disproportionately cutting youth and children’s services, what precise steps is he taking to make sure that local authorities and the voluntary and community organisations that he rightly praises are not targeting youth services for a larger share of cuts?
The hon. Lady makes my point. I have expressed my concern about the disproportionate effect—in some cases— on youth services that some short-sighted local authorities have exercised. That is why we consulted on and revised the statutory guidance which we issued back in June, and why also, at the core of Positive for Youth—the most comprehensive policy, which her Government never even attempted—are those best placed to have a voice and scrutinise the value of their youth offer: young people themselves. That is why I am about giving a voice to young people and making sure that they have a place at the top table in the town hall—something that her Government never gave young people.
The Government have introduced a higher level test in mathematics for primary pupils to ensure that stretch is provided for the most able. More students are able to study further maths A-level as a result of the Department’s further maths support programme. We are also introducing specialist maths free schools for 16 to 18-year-olds, which will offer our most talented young mathematicians the chance to excel in maths.
I know that my hon. Friend is aware that we need to do more to encourage the 250,000 students each year who achieve a good GCSE in maths but are discouraged from taking it at A-level. Will the Government introduce a new maths qualification for 16 to 18-year-olds who have a grade C at GCSE but for whom A-level is not suitable?
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of maths. We need to do more to encourage even those who have an A to C grade in GCSE maths to continue studying maths, including those who choose not to take an A-level. We want to see the vast majority of students studying maths to age 18 within a decade. The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education is consulting on options for new qualifications and will provide advice to the Department in the autumn, after which we will decide on the Government’s role in the design of any such qualifications.
Sport should be a central part of any school. Great schools know that sporting and cultural opportunities go hand in hand with high academic standards. We are introducing a revised programme of study for physical education with a greater focus on competitive sport. We are also encouraging more schools to sign up for the highly successful school games. We will make a statement about further measures shortly.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that energetic answer. Does he agree that the Government need to focus on improving competition in school sport to counter the culture that existed under the previous Labour Government whereby teachers sought to reward all competitors for fear of dividing children into winners and losers? [Interruption.]
Judging by the reaction from the Labour Benches, that question was, to use a fencing term, a palpable hit. I agree that it is important that we support the growth of competitive and team sports in all our schools. One of the things I have been most impressed by when visiting state schools is the way so many of them are using academy freedoms to provide not only greater facilities but more sporting opportunities for our young people.
Free schools are already doing a fantastic job in providing that opportunity—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman, having missing the penalty the first time, is trying to come back, put the ball on the spot and have another go. The whole point is that free schools are doing a superb job in providing great sporting facilities, and the reason for that is that they are free of the sort of centralist interference that old socialists like him, in their sweet but frankly out-of-touch way, are still nostalgic for.
We will continue to increase funding through the pupil premium for the benefit of disadvantaged pupils so that by 2014-15 it will amount to £2.5 billion, double the £1.25 billion we are providing this year. No decisions have been taken on funding beyond 2014-15, which will be part of our spending review considerations.
Any increase in the pupil premium will be enormously welcome in Worcestershire and other F40 areas where schools rely on it not only to help deprived pupils but to meet their basic funding needs after decades of underfunding. The Secretary of State has said that the funding formula is unfair and needs reform. I urge the Minister to ensure that that happens as soon as possible during the lifetime of this Government so that the pupil premium can reach all those for whom it was intended.
I understand that this is an issue my hon. Friend feels particularly strongly about. The Government agree that the school funding system needs reform. We have already announced changes for 2013-14 that will make the local funding system simpler and more transparent. We will introduce a fair national funding formula during the next spending period. I understand that that is rather longer than he is hoping for, but it is important that we make any changes at a pace that schools can manage.
From this September, schools are required to publish what money they receive through the pupil premium and what they do with it, and to do so online so that councillors, governors and parents can scrutinise what is happening with that money. Similarly, Ofsted is focusing much more on the efforts schools are making with disadvantaged students. Of course, we are publishing key stage 2 and 4 results for students eligible for the pupil premium separately. This is all part of a picture of increasing transparency. Of the schools I have visited, many are already using it for innovative and interesting projects. I encourage the hon. Lady to ensure that all the schools in her constituency have all the children who should be on free school meals claiming them to ensure that they actually get the money they are owed.
As co-chairs of the executive board of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, the Minister for Equalities, who is also responsible for criminal information, and I launched a consultation on parental internet controls on 28 June. The consultation closes on 6 September and the final number of responses will not be known until then, but to date there have been no fewer than 600 responses from parents, members of the public, charities and businesses.
Members across the House will pay tribute to the Minister and his UKCCIS team for setting up this important inquiry.
We know that 83% of parents are deeply worried about how easy it is for young people to stumble across or find adult material online. Does the Minister think that enough of those parents’ voices are going to be heard in what is quite a technical consultation? Is he looking forward to getting a 110,000-name petition from parents, proving that parents are very interested in this point?
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done on this important issue. She is absolutely right. I absolutely want the internet to be a safer place for our children, and I am open to any suggestions to bring that about. However, a joint effort is needed, which is why UKCCIS is a union of lots of different interested parties. But parents are absolutely at the heart of the issue: they need to know what to look out for in respect of their children’s internet access at home and to talk to their children to make sure that they are safe. We all have a role in this, and I praise the contribution that my hon. Friend is making.
School Playing Fields
No disposal of publicly funded playing field land at an academy may take place without the Secretary of State’s consent. The Government will agree to the sale of playing fields only if the sports and curriculum needs of the academy and its neighbouring schools can continue to be met. Sale proceeds must be used to improve sports and education facilities.
The Secretary of State made sure that academies were accountable only to himself and then decided that all state schools should become academies. But he gets his figures wrong on playing fields, overrules his own advisers, exempts academies from most of his own policies and, in any case, focuses all his time and his Department’s money on free schools. How can we have confidence in him on sport or anything else?
I am proud of the success of academies and free schools, but they are not the only thing that the Government are doing; we are also making sure that we improve inspection, teacher recruitment, the curriculum and examinations. As for playing fields, we have ensured that the rules have changed so that they are better protected under this Government than they were under the last one.
It is a pleasure to announce that 55 new free schools are opening this year. They will provide young people across the country with a high standard of education and the facilities that they deserve. I am delighted that we are building on the good work of Labour reformers such as Lord Adonis in bringing forward the programme.
How on earth can it be fair that pupils in Dyke House and High Tunstall in my constituency, as well as those in other constituencies, could obtain the same mark in the same subject from the same examining body in the same year and yet get different grades? What urgent work is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that pupils affected are not disadvantaged and that they will be able to take up the college place or apprenticeship course of their choice?
The hon. Gentleman has been a highly effective Minister in his turn and he knows how important it is, when dealing with questions of examinations, to ensure that there is consistency over time. He will also be aware that Ofqual, the regulator, is the appropriate body to look into these matters. It published an interim report last Friday, which I hope he has had the chance to read. He will be aware that Ofqual is doing more work this week and will be talking not just to teachers’ representatives but to all interested parties. I hope that he will make a submission to Ofqual.
The hon. Gentleman will also know, as a former Minister, that Ofqual is accountable to Parliament and not to Ministers. That means that if there are further questions to be asked of Ofqual beyond those that I and other Ministers are asking, it may be appropriate for the House to ask those questions, through the Select Committee or other means.
Again, I stress that Ofqual is the appropriate regulator and will want to hear from all schools affected. The report that I hoped would be delivered and which Ofqual did deliver rapidly this Friday dealt in broad terms with the issues about grade boundaries. However, there may be school-specific cases that, like the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), my right hon. Friend, as an assiduous constituency Member, may want to bring to Ofqual’s attention. I encourage all MPs who believe that there are specific cases that defy logic in schools of which they are aware to bring them to Ofqual’s attention.
The Secretary of State said earlier that this year’s problem arose because the modular English exam was “unfit for purpose” so nothing could be done to rectify the injustice this year, yet the same exam will be sat next year. Is he saying that next year’s pupils can look forward to the same injustice on his watch?
T5. My right hon. Friend will know that schools will shortly have a duty to provide comprehensive and independent careers advice to their pupils. What support will he provide to schools to ensure that that they meet these important new obligations? (118490)
My hon. Friend will know that this Government take careers advice very seriously, which is why we established the National Careers Service. He will also know that we have not only changed the law, ensuring that schools secure independent advice and guidance, but introduced statutory guidance for schools and, furthermore, a practical guide to how they should go about it. This is a record that we can be proud of and that the whole House should enjoy.
T3. Where was the Secretary of State when so many parents and young people were traumatised by what was happening with GCSEs? Why did he not go on radio and television to explain his position? None of us wants him to interfere with Ofqual, but over the past two years he has been responsible for producing a climate of fear in which Ofqual and the examination boards operate. (118488)
I am grateful to the former Chairman of the Select Committee for his points about Ofqual. The most important of his series of comments was his assertion that none of us would like Ministers to interfere in Ofqual’s operations on grade boundaries and grade setting—a mature and appropriate point. More broadly, he asked where I was when the GCSE results were announced. On that day, I took the opportunity to give interviews to the BBC, ITV and Sky to explain my concerns about the situation that we inherited from the previous Government. Ever since then, I have been doing everything I can in my Department, with the help of my Ministers and the superb team of civil servants we have, to ensure that we can reform examinations for all students.
T8. I welcome the help that the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning and the Skills Funding Agency have provided in showing flexibility over the number of 16 to 18-year-old apprentices taken on by my local college in Stafford. How can he ensure that this common-sense attitude always prevails? (118493)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a doughty champion of his local college and has visited me with its representatives to make its case. The answer is that we need to give colleges more freedom and flexibility to respond to local demand. That is why I simplified the funding regime, why I cut the number of statutory duties that colleges are burdened with, and why we removed a number of intermediary bodies. We believe in trusting colleges to respond to local learners and local businesses in Stafford and elsewhere.
T6. We should be incredibly proud of Team GB’s Olympic success, including that of my constituent, gymnast and bronze medallist Kristian Thomas. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Government’s own school sports adviser, Dame Kelly Holmes, that two hours of PE per week should be compulsory in schools? (118491)
Let me congratulate the hon. Lady’s constituents on their achievements. I know that Wolverhampton, which I think held a marathon only this weekend, is a place of sporting excellence. Dame Kelly Holmes has done a fantastic job as adviser and continues to help us in every way, but although we should do everything possible to encourage the maximum participation in and enjoyment of sporting and physical education, compulsion of the kind that she has called for is not something I believe in.
“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey”,
and a journey from the age of 16 to higher learning can be a journey down a practical pathway—no longer a cul-de-sac but a highway to higher learning. To that end, I am working to create 25,000 higher apprenticeships during this Parliament; when I became a Minister, there were 180.
T7. The Department’s consultation on the future of child care ran for all of 44 days over the school summer holidays, greatly limiting the potential for parents to make their views heard. Given the importance of this issue, will the Minister reopen the consultation for at least another six weeks? If not, is that because she and her colleagues have already decided what they are going to announce during conference? (118492)
We have had a lot of responses, but I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the precise number. If he has constituents who wish to make their views known, I would be happy if they were to write to him and he were to write to me. If he does that quickly, I will make sure that I take them into account.
T10. Today I visited Burnt Mill school in Harlow. Three years ago, 27% of its pupils had five good GCSEs with maths and English. This year, the figure was 72%. Does that not show that with the right vision, leadership and teaching, the best academic results can be achieved? (118495)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I offer my congratulations to the head teacher, Helena Mills, and all her staff on the tremendous achievement that that school has delivered over the past few years in raising the standard of GCSE achievement of its pupils. That shows that with good leadership and high expectations, all our children can achieve to the best of their ability.
I thank the Secretary of State for meeting me to discuss cadet forces in state schools. The problem remains: how does the BTEC in uniformed public services count towards the performance tables? If he can find a way to resolve that issue, he will have the gratitude of my constituents.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that from this month it will no longer take a whole year for schools to dismiss the very small minority of teachers who turn out to be professionally incompetent? Will he reassure us that that is just one of a series of future reforms that will give schools and head teachers more control over their own schools?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The rules have changed and we will make it easier for head teachers to deal with underperforming staff. In the most extreme cases, that means that the underperforming staff will have to go. I want to ensure that head teachers are given the resources and time to ensure that underperforming staff can improve, because we all know that every child deserves to have a high-quality teacher for every moment in class.
As one of the MPs representing Hackney, which 10 years ago was one of the worst performing boroughs in education, I want to draw the Secretary of State’s attention to our excellent exam results, with more than 60% of pupils getting five A to C grades at GCSE, including maths and English. Mossbourne community academy gained a result of 89%, which is exceptionally good. However, within that there were real challenges for pupils sitting the English exam. At BSix college, for example, for the previous three years, 83%, 86% and 83% of pupils respectively gained a C or above, but only 36% did so this year—
When a youth service is failing to meet the needs of its local communities, would the Minister support switching the funding to organisations such as sports groups, scouts and guides, so that they can extend their constructive engagement with young people?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We have some fantastic youth groups, voluntary organisations and people around the country with a passion for engaging young people and a knowledge of how to do so, who in the past have been frozen out too much from the local offer. In future, they need to be part of the offer for young people locally, and must work with local authorities and schools to ensure that young people get the very best opportunities.
In Darlington, 50 young people at St Aidan’s academy should have got a C this year but got a D. That is not a one-off case; there are schools like it up and down the country. The Secretary of State has said that he is sad about this matter. Does he think that it is fair?
I think that the GCSE, which was introduced under the last Government and was sat by students this time around, is not fit for purpose. Any specific questions about grade boundaries are properly a matter for examination boards and for Ofqual, the independent regulator. As I mentioned earlier, it would be quite wrong for Ministers to attempt to mark exam papers.
This is a first—I do not think that until now I have ever disagreed with any word that the hon. Gentleman has said in Education questions. Thanks to the fantastic work of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), and his team, and the UK Reserve Forces Association, great steps forward are being taken to ensure that more schools have cadet forces. I was overjoyed a couple of months ago to read an op-ed article penned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), which said that there should be more, not less, military involvement in all our schools. I am pleased to see that there is a pact of steel across the Front Benches on this issue.
The regulator has said that if the marking for this summer’s English exams had been the same as the marking in January, it would have made a 10% difference to results. Given that fact, might not the Secretary of State have a word with the regulator to encourage the re-marking of borderline cases in grade D, with that 10% being added to the score?
I am sure the regulator will have heard the right hon. Gentleman’s case, but it is vital that we maintain its independence. If we were to subject it to ministerial inference, that would undermine the point of having an independent regulator in the first place.
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the start this month of IES Breckland in Brandon, a free school? It means that there will be secondary education in Brandon thanks to the free school programme, which there would not have been without it. It provides a local future for the schooling of people in Brandon.
There have been three reasons to celebrate in Suffolk over the past four weeks: first, a new free school in Brandon; secondly, a new free school in Beccles; and, thirdly, my hon. Friend coming first in a handicap race at Newmarket in his constituency and, in so doing, raising money for some of the most deserving cases in the military and equestrian worlds.
GCSE English is a progression qualification. From my 30-plus years in education and from listening to heads, teachers and local young people, it is clear to me that this year’s marking is a fiasco. Will the Secretary of State urge Ofqual to ensure fairness across the whole of this year’s entry group and not hide behind unacceptable comments such as that the entrants in January “got lucky”?
I am sure the regulator will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s case. As I have said before, he was the head of an outstanding further education college. However, it is only appropriate to say that when the regulator appeared before the Education Committee, she made it clear that she saw it as her mission to deal with problems associated with grade inflation. It was on that basis that a Committee of this House approved her appointment.
More than 20 children in my constituency have not been allocated any of their three preferences for primary schools, leaving some children without a school place this year. Will the Secretary of State meet me to hear a solution proposed by a local headmaster, which Lancashire county council refused to discuss?
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) to ask his urgent question, I should emphasise to the House that owing to the pressure of business, I intend to let the exchanges on the urgent question run for no longer than half an hour. I hope that is helpful to the House.
London Metropolitan University
The UK Border Agency has been working closely and continually with London Metropolitan university since March to address its systemic issues. In the most recent audit, the UKBA found concerns in three specific areas: students studying without permission to be in this country, how international students are recruited and the attendance monitoring of students. In those circumstances, allowing London Met to continue to sponsor and teach international students was not an option.
Institutions must comply with the rules, whether they sponsor 10, 100 or 1,000 international students. That includes having a system to check that students have the right visas to study in the UK, and monitoring the attendance of students. Universities must ensure that students can speak English and have the right qualifications to study at degree level. The UKBA found systemic failures that meant that London Met had not been able to ensure the appropriate admission and tracking of students from abroad.
We understand that genuine international students at London Met will be concerned. That is why a taskforce has been created, which includes the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Universities UK, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the UK Border Agency and the National Union of Students. The taskforce is working with London Metropolitan university to help genuine, appropriately qualified students find another education provider to sponsor them. Three UKBA staff are currently based in a help centre set up by London Met to support and advise students.
The UK Border Agency will contact students of revoked institutions when they curtail their leave. It is only when students have their leave curtailed that they will have 60 days to find a new institution or leave the country. This 60-day period does not begin when the institution is revoked. UKBA recognises the unique situation with London Metropolitan university and will not begin writing to students to curtail their leave until 1 October.
But let us be clear: these particular problems have been identified at one university, not the whole sector. The Government recognise the important contribution that international students make to the UK’s economy, and to making British universities among the best in the world. Britain is and will remain a top-class destination for top-class international students.
Education providers have to meet strict standards, ensuring that they provide high-quality education, and take their immigration responsibilities seriously. I am sure that the House agrees that enforcing these strict standards is an important role for UKBA, and a vital part of restoring confidence in our immigration system.
It is interesting that the Minister put no figures whatever on the number of students at London Met university who have apparently not fulfilled UKBA’s requirements. One can only begin to get the impression that the Government want to pick on a university that has done good work in assisting overseas students as well as helping a lot of people into higher education who would not otherwise have had that chance.
The Minister wrote to me at the weekend and said:
“Those students however who are already attending the University and who have valid leave to remain do not have to do anything immediately.”
That is a strangely complacent answer to give the 2,600 students at London Met university who paid good money to study hard in order to achieve qualifications to go home. If they cannot find another university, are unable to complete their courses and subsequently deported, what impression will their home country have of Britain? What attitude will those countries have towards this country in future when, through no fault of their own, students have been denied the right to complete a course for which they paid a great deal of money? The image that that presents around the world is appalling—it suggests that overseas students may well be deported from this country because of a decision made by the UK Border Agency without its providing any detail about the basis of it.
Why cannot the Government do a couple of things? First, they should allow the 2,600 students to complete their courses at London Met university rather than have to try to find somewhere at the beginning of September when courses are starting in a few weeks. Secondly, they should work with the university to ensure that if things have gone wrong, they can be put right because the same thing could happen at any other college or university. One gets the impression that the decision to try to crack down on bogus English language schools some years ago—and no one has any time for bogus language schools—has been transferred to the higher education sector.
Almost a third of London Met university’s income comes from overseas students. The same figures apply to many other higher education institutions. The decision throws into jeopardy the very future of that university and damages the image of British higher education around the world. Every university in this country has cause for concern about UKBA’s decision. I ask the Minister please to think again, reverse the decision, allow those students to complete their courses and the university to continue to recruit overseas students after the systems have been put in place to ensure that the law is correctly followed. That would support Britain’s higher education sector. Instead, the Government have chosen to attack it, attacking every university and college in the process. I ask them please to change their mind.
The hon. Gentleman asks for some figures, so let me give him some from the samples considered by UKBA. Some 101 students whose visas had already been refused were selected. Of those who had no right to be in this country studying, 25% were studying at London Metropolitan university. A wider sample was taken of two separate random groups of 300 students—600 students. More than 60% of students were involved in one or other of the problems that I identified in my answer to the hon. Gentleman’s original question. It was not a small, isolated number of students; the sampling showed significant systemic problems throughout. The hon. Gentleman appeals for all the students concerned to be allowed to carry on studying in this country, but he cannot seriously believe that someone who has no right to be here, is not educationally qualified and does not speak English to a level that enables them to benefit from a university course in this country, should be allowed to stay in this country.
The hon. Gentleman’s second main point was that the situation damages the university sector as a whole. What damages the university sector as a whole is when individual institutions do not meet their proper obligations under the immigration rules. For years, what has damaged confidence in the immigration system is that those rules have not been properly enforced. This Government are determined properly to enforce the rules set down by the House.
Has my hon. Friend had the opportunity of seeing the voluminous evidence produced in various reports by the Home Affairs Committee on the abuse of student status in the immigration system? Given the circumstances that have now arisen, would it not have been unacceptable if the Government had ignored that breach of immigration control and sought to take no action? My hon. Friend has taken an entirely appropriate course.
I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend and, more widely, of the Home Affairs Committee. For some time, it has urged me and my predecessors in the previous Government to ensure that proper action is taken against those who abuse the student visa system. We have already taken extremely effective action against the bogus colleges referred to by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) in his initial question, and over 500 fewer institutions are able to bring in foreign students as a result of the tough and proper requirements that we have placed on those colleges. If the rules apply to the private sector, they must apply to the public sector as well. Universities must obey the rules just as much as private colleges.
The Opposition fully support the Government’s attempts to tackle bogus colleges and stop immigration fraud. If colleges are incapable of ensuring that every applicant is a bona fide student and speaks English sufficiently well to study, they should lose their highly trusted status. However, our universities are vital to Britain’s economic future. We need to foster an international reputation for high-value education, not undermine it. The Government have engaged in classic diversionary tactics. First, they briefed the press on Saturday that London Met was going to lose its highly trusted status. On Sunday, the Minister denied it on the radio, but then announced it—surprise, surprise—on the day that statistics showing that the Government have no prospect of reaching their declared immigration target were published. Talk about dither!
Will the Minister confirm precisely how many of the 2,700 students with certificates to attend studies at London Met are, in his terms, illegitimate—precisely how many? How many are already in the country and how will the Minister establish their whereabouts? How many does he expect to seek to deport, and when? What will happen to those arriving at British ports in forthcoming days? The Minister accepts that the vast majority of London Met students are legitimate, genuine. Is he really saying to a foreign student who has saved up for years, paid their way, done nothing wrong and studied hard for two years at London Met, that they should simply pack their bags and go back home? I hope not.
The Government have acted at the most disruptive time of year, in the most disruptive way—yet more ministerial incompetence. Legitimate international students bring in £3.3 billion to this country’s economy. I just say to the Minister, “Baby”, “Bathwater.”
Let me try to find some substance to respond to in the hon. Gentleman’s rant. On his first point, I pray in aid something that I know he is familiar with, as I know he is assiduous in following his brief: the conclusion of the most recent report from the Home Affairs Committee on the work of the UK Border Agency. It was published on 23 July and states:
“If a sponsor is failing to comply with their duties or is deceiving the Agency then their licence should be revoked. The Agency should take tough enforcement action against those who abuse the immigration system.”
I am very glad that within weeks of making that recommendation the Committee has been able to see the Government carrying it out.
The hon. Gentleman made the ludicrous point that this announcement was made on the same day as the immigration figures were published. I rather regret that, because I would have liked more coverage of net migration coming down by 36,000 and visas being issued at their lowest level since 2005, precisely because the figures show that—after the years of neglect under the Labour Government—we now have a Government who are effective in bringing immigration down.
The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about arrivals. The Border Force is instructed to allow into the country those who arrive with a visa for London Metropolitan university. We will give them temporary leave to remain and they can take part in the taskforce process. The taskforce is setting up a clearing house to find other sources. He also asked about numbers, but he may not have been following the story closely enough. The whole point about the problem with London Metropolitan’s system is that it does not know whether the students are turning up for lectures. It does not know whether they can speak English or not. As I have already detailed, of the sample of 600, more than 60% have one or more problems. It is precisely because London Metropolitan does not know the status of its students that we say that it has a systemic problem, and that is why we have had to revoke its licence.
London Met, part of which is in my constituency, has been a troubled institution. I accept, with some regret, that the UKBA needed to make a stand. I am glad that the Minister has gone into some detail about the arrangements that are being made, but does he recognise that there is a strong duty of care owed by the UKBA and the whole higher education organisation to those students who are about to start the final year of their studies? They may well have been at London Met for two or three years, and they must be looked after. If necessary, I hope that he will make a special case for some of those students in the weeks ahead.
That is precisely why we have set up the taskforce immediately with two main tasks, one of which is to find new courses and institutions that are willing to take London Met’s students. It will then move on to individual cases and ensure that those who are genuine students can obtain the appropriate visas and leave to remain to attend the courses that they wish to attend. The taskforce is up and running already, and happily several institutions are looking to take on former London Metropolitan students.
I have a general declaration on the register.
I put it to the Minister that nobody could possibly be against rigour in this area, but the sector as a whole has been bedevilled by bellicose statements, by constant changes in the rules and, in this case, by the timing. Above all, is not the message being sent to the global education community that this country is not welcoming those students who previously would have seen Britain as their first choice for university education?
I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman has connections with an institution that is itself closely connected with London Metropolitan—I am not aware of any problems with that other institution. The message being sent out is quite clear: as I have said, Britain absolutely welcomes the brightest and the best; we want the best students from around the world coming to our universities, some of which are themselves among the best universities in the world. However, the message also has to go out to the university sector and individual students that they have to be genuine students, be able to speak English and be properly qualified to benefit from a university education in this country, and that they cannot use a student visa as a loophole in our immigration system to come here and work. That went on for far too long; now it is stopping.
The Minister mentions the Home Affairs Committee report. One of its reports recently urged the Government to remove students from the immigration statistics and instead use the OECD measure. If he agreed to that recommendation, it would surely remove much of the push for such heavy-handed, rhetoric-induced action by the UKBA.
Of course, I reject the hon. Gentleman’s point that this is heavy-handed—and it is the opposite of rhetoric. Instead of years of Immigration Ministers from the previous Government talking tough and acting weak, we now have a Government who are acting tough as well. On the point about immigration statistics, it is a UN definition that an immigrant is somebody who comes to a country with the intention of staying for more than one year. Students who come for less than one year do not count in the immigration statistics. Students who come for more than one year do count. It would be simply perverse to say that someone coming here for a four-year course is less of an immigrant than somebody who comes here to work for 15 months on a work visa. That would be simply absurd.
I am glad that the Minister reads the Home Affairs Committee reports with such care. He is right that action has to be taken to deal with immigration abuses. This morning, however, I went to the university and met a number of international students. Only one has been offered an alternative course, but he has to repeat his year, pay another set of fees and pay the UKBA visa fee. Incidentally, the Minister talked about the taskforce, but it has not yet arrived—there is no taskforce at the university. It is due in next week. Will he confirm that there were no dealings between the UKBA and the university between 16 July and 7.45 pm on 29 August, and that there are no other universities on his list for removal of this status?
The right hon. Gentleman asks two substantive questions. His first point is simply wrong. The process started in March, and there were meetings in May. London Metropolitan submitted a representations pack to the UKBA in May and, as he said, the suspension came on 16 July. There was a meeting between London Met’s vice-chancellor, his senior staff and their lawyers, and the UKBA on 23 July, and an audit took place on 3, 6 and 7 August. London Met’s lawyers put in submissions on 8 August and 24 August, and the revocation was on 29 August. It is simply not the case, then, that there were no meetings in between—there was continual contact.
The right hon. Gentleman made a second point about other universities. As he will know, and as his Committee constantly recommends, the UKBA carries out a continual series of audit visits to institutions—both universities and other educational institutions—and will continue to do so. I can say, factually, that at the moment no other university has had its licence to bring in non-EU students suspended.
Reducing immigration levels is important to my constituents, who welcomed the admission by the Leader of the Opposition earlier in the year that there had been uncontrolled immigration under the previous Government. May I urge the Minister, therefore, to reform all routes of entry into the UK, including the student visa route, in order to build on the reductions he has already achieved?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. She is quite right. As the House knows, about two thirds of all visas issued to people coming to this country are student visas, and there has been very widespread abuse of this route in recent years. That is why the enforcement action to ensure that, whether in the private or public sector, we get rid of that abuse is good not only for our immigration system but, in the long run, for our education system, because around the world people will know that British education is being properly monitored and run.
That is precisely why we have set up the taskforce, which will help those individual students—of course there will be genuine students: some will be in the middle of their courses and some will be about to arrive for them—and ensure that, as fast as possible, they can have courses of equivalent value and that the credits they have built up can be carried over to their new courses, so that there is no unfairness to those genuine individual students.
I warmly welcome my hon. Friend’s statement and endorse the decision of the UKBA. Although there will be genuine foreign students who are concerned and anxious, does he agree that there is only one institution to blame for their predicament, and that is London Met university?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the vast majority of universities have been able to cope with the recent growth in foreign students without any problems. We have had to suspend the licence of two other universities since we started effective enforcement action. Both universities managed quickly to resolve the situation and ensure that they could continue as sponsors. That is not the case with London Metropolitan, where the situation is significantly more serious than any previous case we have seen. Indeed, the institution itself must bear the responsibility for what happened in this case.
Since the third-year students came to this country, the visa conditions have changed. For those third-year students who are unable to secure a new university course within the 60-day period, will the Minister apply the same visa conditions that applied when they came to this country—with the full expectation of finishing their courses at London Met—so that their partners will therefore be allowed to work, which for many is an important source of funding that enables them to be here?
I do not think that it would be appropriate to announce relaxations in the rules. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman may not have heard, but I have said that the curtailment letters that start the 60-day period will not go out until 1 October, to ensure that we enable those people to come and find a new course. However, he has also revealed—perhaps inadvertently—one of the problems: people are coming here as students precisely so that they or members of their family can work. People who come here to study should come here to study. That is what the student visa is meant to be for. It should not be, either directly or indirectly, a way to gain a work visa.
London Metropolitan university suggests that the UKBA’s concerns relate to a previous administration or previous management. What reassurances can the Minister give that the decision is fair and based on current processes and data, and that London Metropolitan university is not being singled out as an example?
I have heard that suggestion from London Metropolitan, which is precisely why, when the concerns were first expressed after a visit in March, the UKBA deliberately looked for contemporary samples. The figures I gave earlier to the hon. Member for Islington North relate to students who have come under the new management regime, so we are talking about up-to-date systemic problems, not historic systemic problems.
I congratulate the Minister on cutting immigration, with student visas down by over 100,000. Might his action against London Met have a further salutary effect, by showing that universities as well as colleges have to uphold immigration control?
Absolutely, and not just universities and colleges, of course, but employers too. The message that we have been sending out for some time is now getting out there. Everyone who is a highly trusted sponsor needs to behave like a highly trusted sponsor. If they cannot be highly trusted, they will no longer be a highly trusted sponsor and allowed to bring in foreign workers or foreign students.
Was the Minister as surprised as I was that the institution was not a back-street language college but a mainstream university, and that its action has damaged our standing in this market in the world? However, let me bring him back to the substantive point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). Is there anything that this House can do to save the Government from being in the position of wishing to deport the illegal students—although none will be found—while actually deporting proper students who have paid up and should be in this country?
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman, for whose general support for this action I am grateful, that as part of a wider policy we are now doing much better at enforcing the removal of people who overstay their visas, including students. Indeed, we have run a campaign over the past few months and, in London alone, we found 2,000 over-stayers, whom we have removed. Each student at London Metropolitan will go through the visa process as normal when they get a new offer, and at that point the UKBA will be able to assess whether they are genuine students.
May I press the Minister further on his response to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee? Are there any other higher education institutions, specifically in the west midlands or Birmingham, whose highly trusted sponsor status the UK Border Agency is considering withdrawing?
As I said to the Chairman of the Select Committee, the UKBA carries out a continual programme of monitoring and auditing educational institutions and other institutions all around the country. In three cases that has led to the suspension of a university’s licence to bring in students, but only in this case has it led eventually to revocation. At the moment, there are no universities whose licence is suspended.
I agree. The point is often made by students at some institutions that they find themselves being taught alongside people who find it difficult to benefit from the course. That is one of the reasons that we have reintroduced the practice of interviewing people before they come here. We are doing that on a pilot basis at the moment, and it is already proving extremely useful in ensuring that people who cannot benefit from higher education in this country do not come here in the first place.
Does the Minister not accept that there is a world of difference between applying the rules and withdrawing the highly trusted sponsor status in respect of future applicants, and retrospectively penalising existing students, many of whom are here legitimately and fairly and have paid their fees? It is that element of retrospection that is so wrong and that goes against all our principles of justice in this country.
As I have said, the systemic problems at London Metropolitan are so great that it is impossible for the university itself to know who meets the required criteria. It is therefore essential to revoke its status and, to be fair to the individual students, to set up a taskforce so that they can be put back into the education system at an appropriate place to do an appropriate course as soon as possible.
May I return to the question of existing students, for whom the situation seems grotesquely unfair? Term starts in a month’s time, but they will not receive their letters until after 1 October. They will then have 60 days, but they will more than likely be unable to find another institution, unless that institution is given some financial incentive to take them. Could we not at least give an assurance to those students who are found to be legitimate that they will be able to continue their studies and complete their courses at London Met? Otherwise, they will all lose at least a year.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has slightly misunderstood the process. The students will not get their letters of curtailment for a month, but they obviously know now that they need to find a new course. The taskforce is operating now, so his last point about their having to waste a year will, I hope, not be true in the vast majority of cases. We have set up the taskforce, and we took action as soon as the evidence was available precisely so that we would not have to do so in the middle of anyone’s course.
House of Lords Reform Bill
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on House of Lords reform—or what is left of it. [Interruption.] Members will be aware that the Government have decided not to proceed with the House of Lords Reform Bill during this Parliament, and I can confirm that the Government have today withdrawn that Bill. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] I am not as happy about that as Members sitting behind me. I set out these intentions during the parliamentary recess, in the light of widespread media speculation over the reforms. At that time, I committed to making a statement to Parliament at the earliest possible opportunity, which I am doing today.
The House will be familiar with the sequencing of events, but let me give a brief recap. [Interruption.] No, I will not start as far back as 1911. Lords reform was in the coalition agreement, reflecting separate commitments in each of the main parties’ manifestos and based on the simple principle that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those who have to obey the laws of the land. In May 2011, the Prime Minister and I committed to holding the first of those elections in 2015. The Government’s proposals have drawn heavily on previous attempts at reform led by hon. Members from all parties in this House: the White Paper in 2008 from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), whom I am delighted to see here; the late Robin Cook’s “Breaking the Deadlock”; the House of Lords Act 1999; Lord Wakeham’s royal commission; and everything that went before.
Despite that long bloodline, it was always clear that delivering Lords reforms would require a degree of cross-party support, which the Government have sought for the past two and a half years. Soon after the election, we convened cross-party talks—I believe we had seven meetings. We then published a White Paper and a draft Bill, which were scrutinised by a Joint Committee of both Houses. When the Committee reported, the Government accepted the majority of its recommendations. I thank its members again for that work and I am only sorry that their contribution will not be brought to fruition, at least not during this Parliament. The Joint Committee endorsed a mainly rather than wholly elected Chamber—that was not my preference, but for the sake of progress, it was something we accepted. It also recommended that we increase the size of the reformed House from the proposed 300 Members to 450—again, we conceded on that. In order to alleviate fears over the primacy of the Commons, the Government also agreed to put the Parliament Acts on the face of the Bill. In response to continued concerns over the relationship between the Commons and the Lords, and at the request of coalition colleagues, we also amended the draft Bill so that elections to the Lords would happen on the basis of a semi-open list system, based on larger regions, instead of the single transferable vote.
So, shaping our proposals was a painstaking process, in which the Government courted compromise at every turn, and in July of this year this House voted—overwhelmingly—in favour of the Bill on Second Reading, with 462 in favour and 124 against. However, in spite of all that, it is now clear that we will not be able to secure the Commons majority needed to pass the programme motion that accompanies the Bill. Without that motion, the Bill effectively becomes impossible to deliver, because it cannot be kept on track; the Bill’s opponents will be able to block reform by unreasonably dragging out parliamentary debates. That is a situation I clearly cannot allow, not least with Parliament facing so many other pressing issues, particularly in terms of jobs and growth.
So, regrettably, the coalition will not be able to deliver Lords reform during this Parliament. The hard work of many Members of this House, and the other place, to shape this Bill has, I believe, inched us forward, and my hope is that we will return to this matter in the next Parliament, emboldened by the historic Second Reading vote. For now, the immediate decision for the Government is how we fill the gap in the legislative timetable. We will bring forward measures to promote growth—the Government’s priority and my priority—and the Prime Minister and I will shortly be announcing details of that package.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. We share his disappointment at the lack of progress on reform of the House of Lords as it cannot be right that in the 21st century we have an unelected Chamber making decisions on the law of the land. I join him in thanking the Joint Committee of both Houses. Despite the cross-party talks, the White Paper and the draft Bill, issues remained that needed to be resolved, not least those to do with the powers of the new second Chamber, the electoral process and a referendum. We should have been able to make progress and we share his disappointment on the stalling of Lords reform; it is unfinished business and we should return to it.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister give the House some clarity on an issue that he has linked with Lords reform—that is, the question of changes to parliamentary boundaries? On 6 August, he made a clear link between Lords reform and the boundaries. He said:
“Lords reform and boundaries are…part of a package of overall political reform. Delivering one but not the other would create an imbalance—not just in the Coalition Agreement, but also in our political system.”
He said that because of the stalling of Lords reform, he decided to press the “pause button” on the boundary changes. He stated:
“Coalition works on mutual respect; it is a reciprocal arrangement, a two-way street. So I have told the Prime Minister that…I will be instructing my party to oppose”
the boundary changes. As he has made it clear that he will not allow the boundary changes to proceed, is it not pointless and costly to allow the Boundary Commission to carry on with its work for a further 14 months?
Is it not right for Parliament to revisit the issue now? Will the Deputy Prime Minister look for an early opportunity for the House to express its view that the boundary changes should not go ahead? We assure him of our support for that. Will he turn his words of 6 August into action? The ball is in his court. Will he assure the House that we at least have a Deputy Prime Minister who is a man, not a mouse?
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her questions and I am sorry to hear that she has an early autumn sore throat to battle with. She gets 10 out of 10 for spectacular insincerity, nevertheless. The Labour party used to campaign against privilege and patronage. The Labour party used to say that it was the party of the people. The Labour party used to believe that the second Chamber should be abolished altogether. Yet when push came to shove, what did it do? It—[Interruption.]
Of course the Labour party does not like to be reminded that it has been converted from a party of the people to a party of the peerage. What did Labour Members do when they had the opportunity? They voted for the idea of reform but not for the means to deliver it. They delivered lofty speeches about the need to give the people a say about how to elect the legislators in the other place, but they would not even tell us how many days they wanted in the timetable motion to make that lofty rhetoric a reality.
I think the history books will judge the Labour party very unkindly indeed. When they had the opportunity to translate the great work of Robin Cook and of the right hon. Member for Blackburn into reality and finally had it within their grasp to be the friends of reform, they turned into miserable little party point-scoring politicians instead.
The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that his noble Friend Lord Steel has introduced an alternative reform of the House of Lords measure that commands wide support in the other House as well as in this House. As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, that measure would remove the hereditary peers, impose a retirement requirement, thereby bringing down the size of the other House, and ensure that those who have been convicted of offences cannot continue to sit in that legislature. Will he give some indication of whether the Government would support that proposal? Otherwise, he will throw away an important and serious opportunity to modernise the upper House. It might not be what he would ideally wish, but it is all he is likely to get.
I would like to correct the right hon. and learned Gentleman on one point: the Steel Bill would not remove hereditary peers. It would do three things, to be precise. It would extend the, in effect, voluntary retirement scheme that is in place in the other place, which I think has led to the spectacular result of two of its Members choosing to do that. Having seen the coverage of the views of some Members of the other place who are from my party, I can think of one or two whom I hope would take early retirement, but there would not be a mass cull in the way that the right hon. and learned Gentleman implies.
Another provision relates to crooks, but let us remember that that means future, not existing, crooks, who would—hey presto!—not be allowed to sit in the other Chamber. Also, any peer who did not attend once, not even for a few minutes to sign on for their £300 tax-free daily allowance, would be disallowed. I am afraid that any scrutiny of that Bill shows that it would barely trim at the margins the size of the House of Lords, so by its own reckoning it would not do what it purports it would do, which is dramatically to reduce the size of the House of Lords. While I have a great deal of respect for the considerable time and effort that Lord Steel has put into this, my view remains that there is no surrogate for democracy.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister not recognise that his relying on timetabling problems will be seen as a tawdry excuse for a lamentable failure of political will? To my certain knowledge, because I handled such Bills, plenty of controversial constitutional Bills, not least in the first Labour Administration, were not subject to timetabling at all. Such Bills can be got through the House, as this Bill could have been, either by informal agreement or, if necessary, by subsequent guillotining. If he had any courage, that is what he should have done with this measure.
Not only did I have the courage, but I had the courtesy to speak to the leader of the right hon. Gentleman’s party and ask a simple question: if there were objections from the official Opposition to a timetable motion, or even the concept of a timetable motion, how many days would they want? We were prepared to offer more days.
As the right hon. Member for Blackburn knows, under the Labour Government, time and again Bills of constitutional importance were timetabled, and for good reasons. Members in all parts of the House rightly said that at a time of severe economic distress they wanted us to get on with the House of Lords Bill, but for the Bill not to consume all available parliamentary time. What answer did I get, both publicly and privately? That the Labour party wanted individual closure motions.
I am not as much of an old hand in parliamentary procedure as is the right hon. Gentleman, but he knows just as well as I do that that would have led us into a morass and the thing would have been dragged out for months. That once again showed the skin-deep sincerity of the Labour party’s commitment to reform, and it is a great betrayal of his great work in the previous Administration that his party is becoming a regressive roadblock to political reform.
My right hon. Friend should comfort himself: he gave it his best shot, with all his sincerity, and we respect him for that. May I draw his attention to the fact that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 remains in force? Therefore, the boundary commissions remain under a duty to make proposals on a House of 600 Members. Does he have the power to instruct them to stop? No, he does not. Is he therefore not simply going to obstruct a constitutional process for his own party political advantage, which is a disgrace?
The hon. Gentleman seems to be delivering answers to his own questions, so I might be redundant in this, but he is correct that, unlike on House of Lords reform, where we had a commitment to deliver legislation, and indeed elections, come 2015, in the coalition agreement we are sticking to retaining legislation on boundaries, for which, by the way, as I know he is meticulous about such things, there was no timetable stipulated in the agreement. On boundaries, we are, I suppose, strictly speaking, adhering to the coalition agreement, unlike on Lords reform—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman wants a detailed answer and I am giving it to him. There is little else going on this first afternoon back at Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, because the primary legislation is still on the statute book, there is nothing in my power to stop the work of the boundary commissions, but I have made it clear that, since I think I reasonably believe that the constitutional reform package was exactly that—a package—and since this is the first time that either of the coalition parties has been unable to deliver on a major coalition agreement commitment, it is therefore right to rebalance things and not to proceed with an unbalanced package.
Substantial reform of the House of Lords, way beyond that proposed in the Steel Bill, could have been possible with 100% agreement across the House, had the Deputy Prime Minister chosen to take that route. I ask him this simple question: as the boundary changes have been linked to dropping the House of Lords Reform Bill, will Ministers under Liberal Democrat auspices—his Ministers—be asked to abstain or vote against boundary changes?
I have made it very clear that all Liberal Democrats, whether Front Bench or Back Bench, will vote against the changes coming into effect before 2015. On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, I wonder whether he could advise the House on what more the Government could have done to seek to understand what a cross-party approach would be. We convened cross-party discussions on seven occasions when the coalition Government were first formed. We published a White Paper and a draft Bill. We convened a Joint Committee, allowed it to continue its work for months and months, and adopted the vast majority of its recommendations. We chopped and changed our legislative text, taking on board suggestions from Opposition and Government Members. For the right hon. Gentleman to say that that was a capricious exercise unilaterally conducted by the Government ignores the painstaking work put in by the Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), me and many others to try to generate proper cross-party support for this now long overdue measure.