House of Commons
Monday 29 October 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—
There is growing consensus that, alongside the overall increase in apprenticeships under this Government, we must enhance their quality and make them more employer-focused. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who ensured that an apprenticeship normally lasts longer than a year, and is a real job. To enhance availability, we are simplifying apprenticeships, and the National Apprenticeship Service will in future focus more of its resources on engaging with employers.
Is it not a fact that a lot of those apprenticeships are nothing but a scam? They allow employers to change the name on a job, call them apprenticeships and dodge paying the minimum wage. What is the value of an apprenticeship making sandwiches or packing shelves in a card shop?
I am a great supporter of apprenticeships across the economy. As the economy has changed over the past few decades, apprenticeships are in the service sector and insurance as well as in engineering and high-value areas. I am sure the hon. Gentleman, like me, is looking forward to the review by Doug Richard into the future of apprenticeships, because we must ensure that quality is at the heart of the apprenticeship offer.
I am in favour of sandwiches and in favour of people who learn skills in apprenticeships in all sorts of different sectors. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who held a jobs fair last week. I will be copying what he did in my constituency. I hope he, like me, will go to the meeting on Wednesday to discuss what Members on both sides of the House can do to promote apprenticeships in their area.
I welcome the Minister to his post. He has large shoes to fill because his predecessor was a passionate advocate for the brief, but I am sure he will do splendidly. Unfortunately, however, recent figures show a 2% drop in the number of apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds for 2011-12. Given the concerns that we share about long-term youth unemployment and the number of young people not in employment, education or training, does that figure show that the Government are failing in their own terms?
On the contrary, not only is youth unemployment on the latest figures falling—thankfully—but in the last year, we have moved to make apprenticeships higher quality. For instance, 11,000 apprenticeships had no job attached. Is it not far better to have high-quality apprenticeships and sell them to employers to ensure that as many as possible engage, so that we can get the numbers and the quality going up at the same time?
I, too, welcome the Minister to his position and wish him well in taking over the work his predecessor carried out so admirably. In tightening up the rules on quality, the Government have borne down on some questionable practices. However, they have also tightened up on sub-contracting and sub-sub-contracting to providers. In some areas, particularly rural and peripheral ones, some of those providers are the only providers of such courses. Will he ensure that, where that quality can be guaranteed, those arrangements can continue?
The pupil premium represents a significant investment of £1.875 billion since its introduction in April 2011. We are keen to ensure that schools’ use of the premium leads to real improvements for disadvantaged pupils. We have two evaluations under way—a study we have commissioned from Ofsted and our own external evaluation of the premium’s first year. The findings of both reviews will be available next spring, and will further support our drive to promote best practice.
I welcome the Minister to his position and thank him for his answer. Fifty-six per cent. of the children at Newington primary school are on free school meals. In the headmaster’s view, the pupil premium has doubled key stage 2 attainment and improved maths and English scores by 41%. Will the Minister give a commitment that the money will be in the hands of the head teacher and not ring-fenced in future?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words and am delighted to hear of the success of the pupil premium in her local school. I can confirm that we are not going back to the days under the previous Government, who sought to micro-manage each piece of education expenditure.
The right hon. Gentleman has a long tradition of passion for and commitment to the early years in education. We are constantly keeping schools and early years funding under review, and of course we will do what we can over time to ensure that youngsters, at whatever stage of their education, have an opportunity to fulfil their maximum potential.
The pupil premium is an excellent coalition policy to assist children from disadvantaged backgrounds, as is the free school policy. Can the Minister advise us on what efforts he will make to push forward with the free school policy to target areas with a high proportion of students on the pupil premium?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is right that free schools are being concentrated in many parts of the country where there is disadvantage and where traditionally the performance of the school system has been weak. That will ensure that many disadvantaged youngsters can attend schools producing an outstanding or at least good performance.
The SK5 8 postcode in my constituency is the 162nd most deprived neighbourhood out of almost 32,500 in the UK. Children attend three different secondary schools where they significantly under-achieve, and not all are entitled to the pupil premium. The Brinnington educational achievement partnership set up in 2009 has helped to increase the number of children attaining GCSE A* to C from 33% to 75%—quite an achievement. Funding has now ended, but would the Minister look favourably on its bid to the education endowment fund?
I am delighted to hear about the progress in the hon. Lady’s constituency, and she has ingeniously managed to keep her question in order. If she would care to write to me on that subject, I will certainly look at the issue further. In the light of what she has said about disadvantage in her constituency, I hope that she will welcome the pupil premium, which must be helping schools enormously in her area.
Early provisional data show that 126,000 apprenticeships were started by those under the age of 19 in the last academic year.
Eight hundred and seventy people took up an apprenticeship in Rugby last year, which is an increase of more than 50% since the general election. These are young people who are starting on a process that is vital to them and to the country. Does the Minister agree that, in the same way as for those completing a degree, graduation-style ceremonies should be encouraged as an important way of recognising their achievements?
I agree very strongly with my hon. Friend. The first graduation ceremony was held at Buckingham palace a fortnight ago, and the next will be at York minster on 12 November. I hope that around the country we will have ceremonies of graduation from apprenticeships to show the value that has been added to young people’s lives by this fantastic programme.
It is fantastic that there are so many apprenticeships available, but we are not going to get youth unemployment down if youngsters do not avail themselves of the apprenticeships that are available. Does my hon. Friend find it disturbing—indeed, disquieting —that Barchester Healthcare, which is probably one of the best health care providers, has not been able to fill 500 of the 600 apprenticeships that it has offered? Indeed, it took six months to fill one single paid administrative apprenticeship in its Chelsea office.
The average value of an apprenticeship to the apprentice over their lifetime is more than £100,000, and is often more than a university degree. There has been a sharp rise in apprenticeships in health and social care, but I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the specifics of the case that he raises.
I started an apprenticeship in a factory, along with 50 others, in the days when it took six or seven years to complete—an experience that the Minister could not possibly be expected to understand. Over the years, the decline in genuine apprenticeships has been catastrophic to Britain’s ability to produce for itself, so what will he do to rebuild the real, quality skills that used to be—not any more—the envy of the world?
I would have thought that as a former apprentice the hon. Gentleman would welcome the 500,000 apprenticeship starts over the last year. I entirely agree, however, that we must do more to support quality in apprenticeships, for instance by ensuring that they last for a minimum of one year, and I hope that he will work with me to deliver that.
The Minister will be aware that the recent national apprenticeship scheme pilots achieved a small increase in the take-up of apprenticeships by black and ethnic minority young people, but those pilots have now come to an end. Will he consider using the employer apprenticeship grant to continue to promote diversity and further increase participation by BME young people?
Matthew Hancock: Apprenticeships are a route for all. I welcome the idea of a bid into the second round of the employer ownership pilot from the sorts of groups the hon. Lady talks about. I look forward to such a bid and will consider it along with all the others.
We are increasing the overall funding for early intervention from £2.2 billion in 2011-12 to £2.5 billion in 2014-15. This funding should enable local authorities to support early intervention for children under five, including through the new entitlement to early education for two-year-olds.
Local authorities are under an obligation to ensure a sufficient supply of Sure Start children’s centres. The overwhelming majority of local authorities, including Liberal Democrat-led ones, have done just that. It is important to recognise that children’s centres work best when they offer a variety of services, from stay and play to some of the targeted early intervention programmes that have done so much to help those children most in need.
The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists estimates that at just age four there is a 30 million word gap between a child from a deprived household and one from an affluent household. This is the number of words that a child will hear in different environments. Will not language and child development now suffer from the scrapping of the ring-fenced early intervention grant and result in more children starting school at four on an unequal playing field?
I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s case. The gap in attainment between disadvantaged children and children from more fortunate circumstances only grows over time and is often a consequence of growing up in households where they are not read to and where they do not have a rich literary heritage on which to draw. However, she is mistaken in thinking that the early intervention grant was ring-fenced. It was not; it was money that was available to local authorities to spend as they saw fit in order to help those whom they considered, on a local basis, to be most deserving.
Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether the Government intend to abolish the early intervention grant, and what steps they are taking to ensure the quality of provision provided in the early years? It is not simply about providing services but about ensuring that they are of the necessary quality to make a difference, so that disadvantaged children arrive ready for school.
That is a typically good point from the Chairman of the Education Select Committee. The early intervention grant money has never been ring-fenced and will remain available to local authorities, which have statutory obligations to provide not just children’s centres but particular services, and we will be announcing more steps in due course to ensure that money is spent even more effectively in the future.
17. I declare my interest in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, Mr Speaker. The early intervention grant has been, and will be, reduced and will be put into the rate support grant. Without a doubt, one thing that is happening is that £150 million is being taken from the localities to the centre. What does the Secretary of State intend to do with that money on early intervention, and will he please meet me, in the not-too-distant future, to discuss that and other early intervention grant matters? (124992)
Meetings with the hon. Gentleman are always a pleasure—I find myself better informed after every single one. On this occasion, however, I fear that, in the same way as even Homer nods, even the hon. Gentleman errs. The early intervention grant money will increase over the lifetime of this Parliament. The £150 million to which he refers is money that will go to local authorities in order to support the sorts of evidence-based interventions I know he has done so much to champion.
Even a Conservative councillor described the Government’s approach on this as “typical smoke and mirrors”, and we have heard typical smoke and mirrors again from the Secretary of State today. If we compare like with like—not the money for two-year-olds, which the Government have claimed is new money—what are the figures this year and next year?
A significant part of that extra money is actually the money for two-year-olds which the Government said was additional money. The figures in the Government’s own consultation showed that the cut would be from the £2.3 billion figure, which the Secretary of State has just given us, to £1.72 billion next year, which is a cut of 27%. Should not the Secretary of State be honest and listen to Merrick Cockell, the leader of Conservative local government, who made a clear point last week:
“this move…will force local authorities to cut early intervention services even further”?
Is that not what is really going on?
I am never surprised when I hear a kind word from the Chair. It is no more than I have come to expect.
Implicit in the hon. Gentleman’s question was the idea that we should reduce funding to extend early education to two-year-olds. I do not believe that is right. I believe it is right that we increase the amount we spend on early intervention from £2.2 billion to £2.3 billion, to £2.4 billion and then to £2.5 billion. That is an increase in anyone’s money.
There are currently 16 studio schools open. By September 2013, we expect there will be 30 studio schools open, representing nearly 10,000 new school places. More studio schools will be announced following the current application round, providing an employer-backed academic and vocational offer for 14 to 19-year-olds of all abilities.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and welcome him to his position. Does he agree that studio schools offer young people not only a great academic education, but real-world life experience, and will he therefore join me in welcoming Derby college’s bid to open a school in Heanor?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of what studio schools bring to the offer for young people. I understand that this is the first time that Derby college has applied to open a new studio school. We are very much looking forward to receiving its proposal, which will no doubt be supported vigorously by my hon. Friend. Each application will be considered on its own merits and in comparison with others submitted.
As Minister for Skills, it is my mission to raise the status and quality of vocational education. Following the Wolf review, we have reformed school performance tables to encourage the take-up of high-value vocational qualifications before the age of 16. From this September, all those in apprenticeships were required to study English and maths, but there is more to do.
That is utter waffle. Is not the truth that the Secretary of State has downgraded the engineering diploma, excluded practical subjects from the English baccalaureate and has no plans to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) in offering a technical baccalaureate? What do the Government have against vocational education? Is it spreading the privilege a little bit too far?
I do not think that requiring all those in apprenticeships to study English and maths if they do not have level 2 is “waffle”; I think it is extremely important for improving the rigour and quality of vocational education. Vocational education is vital to this country’s future, and that is why I will put all my effort into championing it.
Although more girls start apprenticeships than boys, they are very under-represented in some areas. Only 5% of engineering apprenticeships and 13% of IT apprenticeships were taken up by girls. Will my hon. Friend take action to encourage more girls to consider apprenticeships in IT and engineering?
Yes. I am delighted to say that I have already taken some action, but there is more to do. The first round of the employer ownership pilots included funding for a bid by engineering companies across the country specifically to support engineering apprenticeships and engineering training. I entirely accept the size of the challenge in engineering and ICT. If we say that engineering is not for half of our population, we are never going to have enough high-quality engineers. [Interruption.]
20. Indeed. Would the Minister accept that the withdrawal of funding for the Women into Science and Engineering campaign is not a good idea if we are to be serious about getting more women into engineering and science? (124995)
No, I do not recognise that point at all. The employer ownership pilots are doing precisely the opposite in the first round. We are looking for more innovative, thoughtful and new ways of ensuring that funding gets to the right places, including to women, where their representation in a particular sector is low.
A number of organisations have expressed concern that the increased focus on the EBacc will lead to fewer students studying the practical or vocational subjects that are so important for encouraging the next generation of engineers. What can my hon. Friend say to those organisations to allay their fears?
In the first instance, ensuring that high quality science is taught before the age of 16 is vital to the future of engineering at a later age. More importantly, ensuring that English and maths are there is crucial for vocational and occupational skills for everybody. There is much more to do in that area, but the EBacc is a step forward. It is part of the future provision right across the academic and vocational areas.
Literacy and Numeracy (Attainment)
The pupil premium provides additional funding—rising to £900 per pupil next year—that helps schools to raise the attainment of disadvantaged children, including in literacy and numeracy. Ofsted will have an increased focus on the performance of pupils who attract the premium. We are also putting in place a new catch-up premium of £500 per eligible child for every year 7 pupil who has not achieved basic literacy and numeracy standards on leaving primary school.
Halton has seen significant improvements recently in the attainment of those pupils receiving school meals, compared with those who do not. We have also seen a doubling of the number of students getting five or more A to C grades at GCSE over the past 10 years. Resources are of course crucial to all that. The Minister has just mentioned the pupil premium. Can he guarantee that, over the remainder of this Parliament, there will be no cuts in resources going into education in Halton?
What I can guarantee is that the pupil premium will go on rising every year in this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman might like to know that, in this current year, more than £2 million of pupil premium funding is going into his constituency, and he will be delighted to know that that will rise to more than £3.3 million in the year to come.
A car travels, on average, 41.8 miles per gallon. How many miles will it travel on 8.37 gallons? The answer, of course, is 349.866 miles. The problem is that, while 54% of 14-year-olds answered that question correctly in 1976, only 33% did so in 2009, according to a study carried out by King’s College, London. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new draft maths primary curriculum and the new teacher training courses for specialist maths teachers in primary schools will have a significant effect on ensuring that children grasp and understand the fundamentals of maths and arithmetic by the time they leave primary school?
For a moment, I thought that my predecessor as Schools Minister was going to skewer me at the Dispatch Box, and I began to freeze over. However, I am most grateful to him for his question—and for providing the answer—and for highlighting the important work that the Government are doing to restore the credibility and seriousness of these subjects. I pay tribute to him for the superb work that he has done in these areas over the past two years.
May I also welcome the Minister back to the Front Bench? I know that he is passionate about this subject, and I look forward to working with him for the benefit of the House and of the country. Last month’s reading recovery annual report confirmed that 9,000 fewer children received reading recovery intervention last year. That means that 9,000 struggling children, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds, are not getting the intensive support that they need to support their literacy levels. The Department’s own evaluation shows that reading recovery achieves real results for children, and that it could achieve long-term financial benefits for the Government. Does the Minister agree with that evaluation? If not, why is he happy to sit back while children fall behind?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind comments, and I am keen to work across the House where we can on some of the issues to which the previous Labour Government showed considerable commitment. This Government, however, are trying to put in place a simpler funding system, not only for the baseline funding, but by giving schools through the pupil premium a large amount of additional finance— £2.5 billion by the end of this Parliament—so that schools can prioritise in each setting the mechanism and the intervention that best serves their pupils. Schools will, through the pupil premium, have the moneys for precisely the types of reading recovery that the hon. Lady mentioned.
My constituency is not getting the full benefit of the pupil premium because many parents are far too proud to access free school meals for their children on account of the stigma attached. What can my right. hon. Friend do to address this problem?
That is an important point. Research from the Department will be published shortly, which will highlight the massive differences in the take-up of free school meals right across England. In some parts of England there is essentially 100% take-up, while in other parts almost a third of pupils do not take up free school meals. The Government will look at this and work with local authorities and schools to get those figures up.
University Technical Colleges
It is early days, but 98% of pupils at the JCB academy, which was our first university technical college, got an A* to C in engineering in their first exams this summer. [Interruption.] I am sure that Labour Members will be delighted by this great success. Many of the sixth formers have gone on to university and higher level apprenticeships. Five UTCs are open, and we are committed to having at least 24 across the country by 2015.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In the last year of the Labour Government, only 17% of young people in my constituency went on to higher education. This December, I am pleased to be officially opening a new university presence in Crawley, which links local employers with local young people through technical education. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Central Sussex college on setting that up?
I certainly join my hon. Friend in warmly welcoming what has happened at Central Sussex further education college, which is now offering higher education. It is crucial to have more engagement between our employers, our colleges and our young learners in order to ensure that when people leave college, they are ready for work, can participate in the work force and make sure that Britain has the prosperity it needs in the years ahead.
The EBacc means students are less likely to study technical subjects purely on the basis that schools are less likely to provide them because they will be measured on the narrow academic approach of this new qualification. Surely the way forward should be for all schools to offer vocational qualifications, knowing full well that people do better in their academic subjects when they do vocational routes, which should not be provided only in specialised technical colleges.
If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence to back up his assertion, I will happily look at it, but having a core of English, maths and the sciences within the EBacc before pupils reach 16 is vital to ensuring that people can go on to a vocational or an academic pathway in the future. It is absolutely central to this Government’s future vision of where our prosperity comes from that our occupational and vocational skills are at the heart of it.
English and Mathematics
We are developing a new rigorous English and maths curriculum, which will help young people become fluent in the basics. The new phonics test will identify pupils in year 1 who need extra help, and the new year 6 grammar, spelling and punctuation test will ensure the basics are secure.
My hon. Friend will know that the recent CBI survey showed that 42% of employers were having to provide remedial training in numeracy and literacy to college and school leavers. Will my hon. Friend set out the steps the Government are taking to make sure that these colossal costs to businesses are reduced?
My hon. Friend has made a good point. The Secretary of State has already said that his ambition is for virtually all students to study maths until the age of 18, and we will introduce a funding condition for students who have not achieved a GCSE in maths so that they can reach that level of aptitude. We will also look at mid-level qualifications for students who have maths GCSEs but do not want to take a full A-level in maths, so that there is an alternative path for them to take.
GCSE English Results
16. What assessment he has made of the 2012 GCSE English results; and if he will make a statement. (124990)
On 18 October, provisional national and local authority level GCSE results for 2012 were published. The percentage of pupils achieving grades A* to C in English had fallen by three percentage points to 66.2%. The independent regulator, Ofqual, continues its investigation into the awarding of English GCSEs this year, and is now looking into why some schools achieved the results that they had expected while others did not. The final report will be published shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) and I recently met teachers and head teachers in Luton to discuss the problems involved in the GCSE results. It is clear that some pupils were not permitted to take the sixth-form courses that they had chosen, as a consequence of their results, and that some schools that made strenuous efforts to improve their English results have actually been knocked back. Is that not a disgrace, and should not apologies be made?
I share the concern felt by the hon. Gentlemen. We must wait to see the Ofqual report before we can be more certain about what went wrong this year, but it is clear that there were a variety of factors consequent on the design of the examination, and that we need to take steps to remedy them.
In Hackney, 103 pupils received D grades in English in June. In some cases, classmates at the same schools achieved lower scores in January, and received C grades. In each of the five schools affected in Hackney, at least 85% of ethnic minority pupils received Ds rather than Cs. The Secretary of State talked about looking into why some schools had achieved less than others. Will he look into this very serious matter as well?
Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), I recently met head teachers from North Lincolnshire. Despite an improvement in results in the area this year, they were still concerned about this year’s marking, particularly in the case of pupils who would have found it easier to get an A in January than they did in the summer examinations. Will my right hon. Friend consider the concerns about the situation that will be expressed in a letter from my hon. Friend and me?
I certainly shall. As we all know, the hon. Gentleman is a teacher with extensive experience of working in some of the toughest schools. I am glad that there has been an improvement in academic results in North Lincolnshire, but yes, there are continuing question marks over the quality of marking at GCSE.
Questions raised about GCSEs earlier this year place even greater emphasis on the need for rigour in the exam system. Will my right hon. Friend encourage other parts of the United Kingdom to follow suit, and does he agree that clarity is needed for pupils and students, universities and employers, so that they compare equally?
18. If the legal action against Ofqual is successful, and it is decided that pupils were treated unfairly—which the Secretary of State himself believes, although he refuses to do anything about it—what action will the right hon. Gentleman take? (124993)
We know that the Secretary of State is in a good mood, because yesterday was his favourite day of the year, when he gets an opportunity to turn the clock back without anyone being able to complain. Why does his new Schools Minister have no responsibility whatsoever for GCSE English, or even for the curriculum? Is he too ashamed to defend the Government’s position on the GCSE English scandal, is he too busy at the Cabinet Office polishing the Deputy Prime Minister’s shoes, or does the Secretary of State not trust him?
That was a three-part question, and I shall use both sides of the paper. Yesterday was, in fact, a sad day for me: I was in mourning because, sadly, Queens Park Rangers lost to Arsenal, who, with 10 minutes to go, scored a goal that I can only conclude was offside. It was a day of mourning for the Gove household. The Schools Minister, however, is fully involved in all discussions in the Department for Education in every policy area. The two of us are singing from the same hymn sheet, which is, of course, what we should be doing every Sunday, whether or not the clocks go back.
I agree that mathematics teaching is a major issue. It is the subject with the highest teacher shortage, and we know that maths skills are vital for students. We are working to attract top graduates, with bursaries of up to £20,000. By increasing maths take-up between the ages of 16 to 18 we will increase the pipeline of people going into the maths teaching profession.
Does the Minister agree that teaching factual financial education, such as calculating APRs and tariffs, should be an integral part of the maths curriculum, and will she meet me to discuss the work of the all-party group on financial education for young people?
I completely agree that it is very important for students to be financially literate. In order to be financially literate they need to be mathematically fluent. That is why we are going to have higher expectations in topics such as using and understanding money, working with percentages, and positive and negative numbers. We are also looking at limiting the use of calculators in the early years of primary school so that students achieve proper fluency in calculations. I believe I am due to meet my hon. Friend in only a couple of minutes’ time, but I am happy to have a further meeting with him on this issue.
Great maths teaching was instrumental in enabling me to go on to a career in STEM, and it is absolutely critical in helping us to rebalance our economy. The Secretary of State is turning our locally accountable schools into academies, so can the Minister tell me what minimum qualifications or standards she will put in place for maths teaching in academies?
What is important in academies—and, indeed, in all schools—is that we give the head teachers the maximum autonomy and flexibility to recruit the best possible people. As the hon. Lady knows, the issue we face is that although maths is the highest earning subject at degree level and A-level, it is very hard to recruit teachers. We are looking at every possible avenue to increase the level of people coming into studying and teaching maths. That will increase the pipeline, which in turn will make sure academy head teachers have the best possible pool of teachers to draw on.
Pension contribution rates for non-teaching staff are determined by local administering authority fund managers. In a joint letter in December 2011 my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and for Communities and Local Government made it clear that no academy should pay unjustifiably higher employer pension contributions than maintained schools in their area. The letter also made it clear that other options would be considered if high rates persisted.
Northumberland county council is blocking schools that wish to go to academy status. Will the Minister review the December 2011 evaluation of this problem and then meet with me and interested representatives from my constituency who wish to turn to academy status or are considering doing so?
I am concerned by what my hon. Friend says about his local authority blocking those schools that wish to go to academy status, and I can tell him that Department for Education officials are continuing to work on this issue with Department for Communities and Local Government officials. I would be delighted to meet him and others to discuss this matter. It would not be acceptable for local authorities to use this move to impede schools that wish to go to academy status.
In March the Secretary of State announced our intention to introduce a national funding formula during the next spending review period. In the meantime, we are simplifying the local funding system, and I hope I was able to reassure my hon. Friend during a Westminster Hall debate last week that we are committed to introducing a national funding formula and to doing so at a pace which is manageable for all schools.
I thank the Minister for that answer. I just want some reassurances, on behalf of the parents and young people of Redditch, that finally, after 13 years of Labour failing to deal with the issue, we are going to address the national funding formula. I also wish to invite him to come to Redditch to see some of our fantastic schools, which do a very good job in difficult circumstances.
I would be delighted to visit the hon. Lady’s constituency, and I can guarantee her that, after many years of the previous Government failing to address this very unfair national funding formula, this Government will, in the next spending review period, ensure that there is a fair formula for the whole country.
I am grateful for those assurances from the Minister, and I welcome him to his place. He mentioned the next spending review period. Does the welcome extension of the minimum funding guarantee not give the Government the opportunity to move even faster and to take steps towards a fairer funding formula now?
My hon. Friend is right to say that we already need to take those first steps towards a more rational and fairer formula. We are doing exactly that by reducing the huge number of existing variables in the formulae across the country to a much smaller number. That is the first step in moving to a fairer formula for the whole country.
Literacy and Numeracy (Attainment)
I am just a simple bricklayer, so can the Minister explain to me why he thinks unqualified teachers in free schools and academies will raise standards, but at the same time he feels it necessary to impose tougher tests on teachers in other state schools in order to achieve the same thing?
We announced last week measures to raise the quality of teachers across the board, and I think those received a warm welcome across the country. In the past, the standards for going into teaching have been too low. It is sensible to raise those in all schools across the country.
Last week, I had the opportunity to write to hon. Members from Leicester and Derby inviting them to join me in raising standards in those cities, specifically by making sure that underperforming primary schools can be converted into academies. I look forward to working with those Members in the coming weeks.
This year, only 11 out of the 2,000 pupils who took A-levels in Knowsley took A-level physics, which compares with 971 who did so in Hampshire. Even when the population size is taken into account, I simply do not believe that pupils in Hampshire are 22 times more scientifically gifted than those in Knowsley. Will the Education Secretary commit to a one nation policy in which every pupil, regardless of their background, will be encouraged to study rigorous qualifications, as opposed to the previous Government’s two nation policy, which exposed this educational divide?
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election to the Education Committee? He is a distinguished historian and a long-time campaigner for improved access to rigorous academic subjects for all students. He is absolutely right to say that we inherited a frankly inequitable situation, and I hope that we can work across the House to resolve it.
The whole nation has been shocked by the allegations of child abuse surrounding Jimmy Savile, but Labour Members are also deeply concerned by the similarities with recent cases such as the one in Rochdale, where power relationships were exploited and cries for help were ignored. It has become clear that the BBC is just one of many organisations with questions to answer, so will the Secretary of State back our calls for a public inquiry, in order to gain justice for the victims and to ensure that in future young people are both empowered to speak out and listened to when they do so?
I do not think that any of us should seek, for any moment and in any way, to relativise the seriousness of the charges that the hon. Lady raises. The BBC certainly has some issues to investigate, and two inquiries are being undertaken there. Separately, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner has been conducting her own inquiry into the exploitation of young people by groups and gangs. I want to make sure that we can consider each of those reports, but I rule nothing out.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ensuring parental involvement in children’s education is critical, and one way that that can be improved is through regular reporting of pupils’ progress. That is why I deprecate the action that has been taken by the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, which works against parental involvement by inflicting a work to rule on members.
T3. This summer, 97% of students at Bristol Metropolitan academy achieved five good GCSEs, which is a phenomenal improvement over the past few years. Sadly, only 37% achieved five good GCSEs in English and maths, but 46% would have done so if they had sat the exams in January. That means that the school is now below the floor standard, whereas it would have been above it. Is that not grossly unfair, particularly for those pupils who worked so hard to try to get that grade C? (125003)
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and delighted that pupils in that academy are improving their education. As I have said before, the structure of the GCSE examination that those students sat, which was designed before this Government came to power, was unfair.
T5. I think I detect a bid for the regrading of football scores from the Secretary of State. Will Ministers confirm that the Government will do everything they can to ensure that the Southwark and Lewisham college campus site in Bermondsey gets not only a continuing further education college but a university technical college and, if space permits, a secondary school, too? (125005)
Yes, I can. I know that my right hon. Friend has met colleagues in the other place, and my colleagues in this place and I are happy to meet him too to ensure that we can sort this problem out.
T4. Does the Secretary of State share my concern at a recent Ofsted report that showed serious and ongoing issues in Birmingham social services? There is good news, however, in that under new leadership Birmingham is now showing greater vigour and strategy in addressing those issues. How can Birmingham be assured that it will have the resources it needs to address those issues, particularly given the doubt over matters such as the early intervention grant, which was discussed earlier? (125004)
First, let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that, because the early intervention grant is rising, the money will be there to ensure that safeguarding responsibilities can be discharged. Birmingham local authority has, under different political colours, had problems in both school improvement and child protection. I want to work constructively with local councillors and local MPs to ensure that we can make some improvements. Investment is required, but so is a far more rigorous attitude towards dealing with the circumstances in which many children at risk of abuse or neglect find themselves.
T9. A number of schools in my constituency struggle to get some of their pupils to grade C standard at GCSE, and some of the head teachers to whom I have spoken are concerned that the rigorous standards of the English baccalaureate certificate will prove unattainable for some of those pupils and might be discouraging, particularly for those who at age 11 are five years behind on reading? Will he assure teachers in my constituency that he is committed to raising standards for all, that those pupils should not be discouraged and that the EBacc is not out of reach? (125009)
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and that is why we are introducing additional support for all children who are behind their expected level of achievement at the age of 11. That additional support will go to those secondary schools that need it. I must be honest, however, and if there are primary schools in Wiltshire in which children are five years behind their expected reading age, that is just not good enough. The responsibility rests with the head teachers of those underperforming primary schools. If secondary teachers are saying that they cannot transform those children’s education in some of the wealthiest parts of Wiltshire, he should have a word with those head teachers, because as far as I am concerned they are falling down on the job.
T6. May I go back to the Minister’s answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) about tough new tests for new teachers? Will he clarify whether that will apply outside the state system—for example, to free schools? Will he answer that question directly? (125006)
Those schools that are already outside the state system—independent schools—have the opportunity to hire people who do not have qualified teacher status. That has led to Brighton college, for example, hiring a nuclear physicist. I am sure that the students in Brighton college and the parents who pay for that education are only too appreciative of it, and if we can have the same degree of spirit, invention and flexibility in the state sector, great.
I welcome the provisions on special educational needs in the draft Children and Families Bill, but will my hon. Friend carefully consider the case for a national framework within which those commissioning the new local offers can operate, similar to NICE guidelines in the field of health, for example?
I know my hon. Friend is a deeply committed and understanding champion of children with special educational needs and disabilities. He will therefore be aware that we have 20 pathfinders across 31 local authorities that are testing the formulisation and delivery of the local offer. We will examine their findings carefully to help sharpen up the development of the local offer as we go forward.
T7. Considering the need to preserve our Olympic legacy, what does the Secretary of State have to say to those 150,000 people who signed a petition against his plans which will come into force this Wednesday to scrap minimum size regulations for school playing fields? (125007)
Many children from my constituency with severe learning difficulties attend Doubletrees school in St Blazey. It has been reported to me that the move from EMA to bursaries for 16 to 19-year-olds represent a fall in funding for that school. Will he meet me to discuss their concerns?
T8. Bearing in mind that the Secretary of State has already said that the results of the GCSE fiasco this year were unfair, who would he advise the 137 pupils in my city who have had manifest injustice done to them as a result of the marking fiasco to put their faith in—him, to put the matter right, or the legal action against Ofqual? (125008)
It is anyone’s right to pursue action through the courts if they believe that is the only way to secure a remedy, but the point that I would make, and have consistently made, and a point which was reinforced by the Chairman of the Select Committee, is that the design of those qualifications was flawed from the start, and it was not this Government who designed them.
I am sure that forward thinking and value for money are part of the Department for Education’s thinking. With that in mind, does the Secretary of State agree that it would be silly to remove permanently surplus places in secondary education, when it is known, as is set out in question 24, that youngsters coming through the system will need those places in three or four years’ time?
I think my hon. Friend has specific concerns about issues in his constituency in relation to some of the smaller secondary schools. I would be happy to meet him to discuss whether there is some way that we can support his understandable desire to make sure that there is capacity for future children in those schools.
The Government’s decision to transfer funding for two-year-olds’ nursery education to the dedicated schools grant will mean an additional cut of 27% for the early intervention grant. Leicester will lose £4 million in 2013. It will have no option but to reduce support for children’s services and the troubled families programme. Can the Minister explain how this will get kids ready for school, promote social mobility or save taxpayers’ money in the long run?
I should have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome the additional investment in making sure that the very poorest two-year-olds receive 15 hours of free pre-school education—something that was never achieved under the previous Government. [Interruption.] I notice all sorts of sedentary chuntering from the Opposition Benches but there is a direct challenge to the hon. Lady and to the shadow Secretary of State. Last week I asked whether they would work with me in order to convert underperforming primary schools in her constituency into academies. She has said nothing yet. People are waiting. Is she on the side of reform or of a failing status quo?
I welcome proposals to continue the teaching of maths to age 18, both for those who get a grade C GCSE and for those who do not. Are any practical changes required in the timetable of those who go into employment at the age of 16 if they are to be able to continue to do maths and possibly literacy up to the age of 18?
The Government have already committed to a funding condition for students who do not achieve a C at GCSE to continue to study maths until 18 either in or not in employment. I am also concerned about the cohort who achieve a GCSE grade C in maths but who do not want to go on and study A level. We need to make it clear that there are qualifications for them, too.
I am interested in the logic of the Secretary of State’s position. If he believes it is right that academies and free schools should be able to take on whoever they like on the strength of the opinion of the head teacher, why is that not right for local authority schools? And if he believes it is right that we make the teachers’ training qualification more difficult, why is it right that academies can opt out of that?
As Wiltshire’s education settlement has historically been underfunded, we look forward to the new school funding formula, but Wiltshire council is concerned that it might have unintended consequences, especially in relation to support for small schools, so will the Minister please meet me to explore any scope for discretion in how the council can go about making those changes?
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss these matters. He will know that in the past couple of weeks the Government have made two announcements to try to ease concerns in this area: first, we have committed to reviewing the funding formula for 2014-15; and secondly, we have promised to continue the minimum funding guarantee beyond 2015.
The special educational needs proposals currently under pre-legislative scrutiny will water down the scope of the SEN tribunal, weakening the rights of parents to get the help they need. Will the Minister give a commitment today to ensuring that parents of children with SEN do not lose out?
The hon. Gentleman should look carefully at the draft clauses and the subsequent regulations and code of practice that will follow, because it will be clear from all that that the tribunal processes will be strengthened, particularly for those over 16, who currently have little course for redress.
I, like many others in South Essex, believe that one way to improve educational outcomes in Basildon would be through the provision of a UTC specialising in both engineering and logistics. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he would welcome and support an application for such a college in Basildon?
I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that children learn properly when they eat properly, so does he share my concern that already more than 1 million children who live in poverty are not eligible to claim free school meals—a figure that is likely to increase next year with the introduction of universal credit? Has he made it clear to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that he should be seeking to extend eligibility rather than restricting it?
I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman. We are working across Government to ensure that as many children as possible who are eligible for free school meals receive that very important benefit and that it continues to go to those who deserve it.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the effects of the GCSE fiasco are now being felt by students not directly involved, because schools in my constituency are having to fund a legal action against Ofqual, because the Government, unlike the Welsh Government, have failed to act?
Ash Dieback Disease
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is today in Cannock Chase visiting woodland, so I will reply in his stead. We are taking the threat posed by Chalara fraxinea—ash dieback disease—extremely seriously. We have today imposed a temporary ban on imports of ash and restrictions on its movement, supported by the results of a shortened consultation with industry on our pests risk assessment. The ban will therefore be effective well before the start of the main UK planting season. Before the ban, the Horticultural Trades Association urged its members to follow a voluntary moratorium on imports throughout the period, which is being well observed.
On discovering Chalara in the UK, plant health authorities took immediate action rapidly to assess ash trees for signs of infection at more than 1,000 sites where ash plants from Europe had been grown or planted in the past five years, and this has resulted in the destruction of 100,000 trees.
I thank the Minister for his reply.
Over the weekend, the risk facing the UK from ash dieback disease has become apparent. Experts fear that it is the biggest threat to British trees since 25 million trees were killed by Dutch elm disease 30 years ago. It is disappointing that the Secretary of State chose to announce the ban in Staffordshire instead of in person to this House.
We welcome the ban, but the question on everyone’s lips is, “Why did it take so long?” Ash dieback was found last February in a Buckinghamshire nursery. Why did Ministers sit back, cross their fingers and wait until the disease was found in the wild in June? Why did the Horticultural Trades Association act before the Government? Why did the Government’s consultation on an import ban on ash start only on 31 August? Can the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that no infected trees were planted in the spring, especially after the severe winter? Can he guarantee that no infected trees were imported into the UK over the summer while Ministers dithered? How does he know that people did not import saplings into the country in the boot of their car? Why were landowners and local authorities told of the disease just three weeks ago?
How will the ban be implemented and policed, and how much will it cost? On Saturday, the Secretary of State told the “Today” programme that 58,000 trees had been burned since the disease was identified. The Minister said that within that short 48-hour period the number had been revised up to 100,000. Can he tell us what the number will be by the end of the week? Is it possible to treat and store felled wood so that it can be used productively in future? What assessment has he received of the impact of the disease on jobs in the wood services industry?
In autumn 2011, the Forestry Commission’s pathology bulletin carried the headline “One to watch for—Chalara fraxinea”, and stated that it was
“not yet present in Britain”.
On what date was Chalara fraxinea identified as the pathogen that causes ash dieback and when were Ministers informed? They cannot say that they were not warned as an internal Forestry Commission document warned that cuts meant that there would be
“no capacity to deal with the costs of disease or other calamity.”
The Forestry Commission trade unions’ evidence to the Science and Technology Committee stated:
“Forest research in Great Britain is already funded at a minimal level, and will be drastically under-funded as the cuts proceed.”
This Government cut the Forestry Commission’s cash by 25%, closed seven regional offices, and cut 250 staff. They have cut funding for forest research from £12 million a year to £7 million a year. The Forestry Commission’s website details the difficulty that scientists had in identifying the deadly form of the fungal infection, and those cuts reduced the commission’s ability to identify and tackle tree disease.
We welcome the creation of a tree disease taskforce under Professor Ian Boyd to deal with this crisis. We also welcome the app that is being launched to crowd-source the disease—I am surprised that the Minister did not mention it—although with leaf fall already under way this is, again, too little too late. After the forest sell-off fiasco, this incompetent Government have been asleep on the job with ash dieback. Like Nero, Ministers fiddled, and now it is our forests that will burn.
It is sadly predictable that when we have a serious condition that could have enormous consequences with which we are trying to deal as a country, the first thing the hon. Lady thinks is, “How can we blame the Government rather than deal with the disease?” She asked why the Secretary of State was not here today. It is because he is talking to people who are dealing with the disease; he is talking to foresters and making sure that we are taking all necessary precautions.
The hon. Lady asked why nothing was done in February. Of course something was done in February—we acted straight away under the previous Secretary of State. Once the first United Kingdom finding of Chalara was confirmed in March, plant health authorities prepared a pest risk analysis. No previous national or international pest risk analysis existed, partly because until 2010—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady would do well to listen to the background to this. Until 2010, there was widespread scientific uncertainty over the identity of the causal organism. That is actually an international issue, rather than an issue in this country.
Since the disease was intercepted, plant health authorities have been carrying out intensive surveillance and monitoring, chasing forward movements of ash plants from infected nurseries and inspecting trees in the vicinities of infected sites to ascertain where the disease may be present in the wider environment. That enormous ongoing task involves well over 1,000 sites, and it is as a consequence of that that the 100,000 trees have been destroyed.
The hon. Lady asked for a guarantee that no infected material came in during the voluntary moratorium, but of course I cannot guarantee that. I can say that no commercial imports took place, because of the action that we took, but I cannot guarantee that no one brought back a little ash sapling in the boot of their car. I hope that they did not, but I cannot guarantee it.
The hon. Lady may not understand that this is an airborne disease and that the incidence of the disease in mature trees in East Anglia had not previously been suspected—it is likely to have been carried on the wind over the channel. Now that we have discovered it, we have immediately taken the action required.
Finally, the hon. Lady was quite wrong about resources, because there has been no reduction in those for plant health and tree health in this country, as she would ascertain were she to speak to the Forestry Commission.
I welcome these proceedings and congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister. Will he pass on our thanks to the Food and Environment Research Agency in my constituency for its work and to the Forestry Commission? Will he explain to the House that this disease was already treated as a quarantine pest under national emergency measures? That would help to show that it was already high on the political agenda. Will he ensure that resources are put into urgently investigating the age profile of the disease? Saplings are deemed more likely to die from the disease, but are mature trees equally at risk? Will he also assure the House that none of the other plants that are being inspected by FERA and the Forestry Commission are causing the same concern?
I can certainly confirm that we are taking all measures possible to deploy colleagues in the Forestry Commission, those working in forest services and people from FERA to identify the incidence of disease wherever it can be found. We will look closely at a suspected further case in a mature tree. It is important to realise that there is a national forest inventory through which symptoms of disease are looked at across the board all the time. There were 8,000 inspections of ash trees under the inventory last year and it was found that the trees were, in fact, in very good health. Only 61 cases of any signs of ill health in ash trees were discovered, and none of them was due to Chalara.
There is concern because while it is now late autumn, this was discovered much earlier in the year. Leaving aside that delay, will the Minister give the House an assurance that he will work with the Woodland Trust, which has great expertise in this issue and has a series of asks for the Government?
It is important that we work with everybody; this is not something that we can leave entirely to the scientists and the experts. Anyone who spots an incidence of disease in trees would do well to advise the authorities. We can then use the great body of voluntary organisations that are interested in the health of our forests to do all we can to deal with the disease as quickly as possible. I repeat that there was not a delay over the summer. Planting does not take place during the summer period and, as far as we are aware, the voluntary moratorium has worked very well.
We are keen to bring together experts in plant disease, industry experts and wider forest interests so that we can see what more, if anything, can be done to deal with what could be a disastrous outbreak of the disease. We also need to look at how we will deal most effectively with plant and tree health in future. The Secretary of State and I have discussed that, because we feel that for many years this country has not been as well equipped to deal with plant health as it has with animal health. I would like us to be prepared for all eventualities at all times.
This episode is a terrible indictment of the Government, and also the Opposition, because the Horticultural Trades Association first warned about the disease back in 2009—[Interruption.] Neither of your houses has worked hard or fast enough on this. Will the Minister reverse the 25% cuts that he is making to the Forestry Commission so that it has the resources to tackle this episode urgently and properly?
Pound farm in Suffolk is a mile from my constituency boundary, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). Will the Minister update the House on what proactive policies are being put in place for local home owners and residents? Will there be a proactive felling and burning policy, and how will it be communicated?
We certainly need to communicate with local people who have forestry interests and trees on their property about what they should be looking for. I will not pre-empt the discussions with the experts on the ground about precisely what is the right action to take, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will apply all available resources to the problem, because we do not want it to spread further if we can possibly avoid it.
The Minister said that he had difficulty identifying the pathogen, but did he or his officials contact Danish scientists who have a decade of experience in the field? Will he publish the scientific research indicating that airborne spores could reach this country from continental Europe?
It was not I who had a problem identifying the pathogen; it was the international authorities, including the Danish authorities that the right hon. Lady mentions, who had reason to suspect that the pathogen was not the one that was initially identified, and that it was less virulent. That was why Europe and the world, frankly, took their eye off the ball to a certain extent and did not recognise the threat that Chalara represented to the Danish forests, for instance. Of course we work closely with our colleagues in other European countries and learn from their information, but I am afraid we cannot second-guess the international consensus.
The ash tree is known as the Lincolnshire tree. Indeed, my home in Lincolnshire is surrounded by them, and if only a couple fell over, my home would be completely demolished. We therefore take the problem very seriously in Lincolnshire. Will the Minister accept that there have been reports of nursery imports carrying the disease coming into Lincolnshire, and that the reason why such diseases have taken off in the past is that Governments have not had sufficient grip and have not been severe—ruthless even—by stopping them at their inception?
As I have indicated, we need to take tree and plant diseases very seriously. There is of course evidence that saplings have brought the disease into the country, which was precisely why we applied the voluntary moratorium and have now moved to a ban, which comes into effect today. That means that no trees have been imported on a commercial basis since early spring.
May I declare an interest as the proud owner of a number of ash trees that I planted 10 years ago?
Will the Minister explain what budget Professor Boyd and his team are working to and where that fits in the cuts that were identified in evidence to the Science and Technology Committee last June?
The team that Professor Boyd has brought together will have all the resources it needs. I do not have a figure to give the hon. Gentleman because that will depend on where the team’s discussions take it but, if he wishes, we will provide his Committee with the information in due course.
Research into tree health—other than that which takes place within the university sector and independently of the Government—is carried out through the Forestry Commission and Forest Services. The actual amount will be available in the Forestry Commission’s budget, and I will send the hon. Gentleman an accurate figure if he wishes.
What advice would the Minister give to people who might have trees with the disease in their garden? How will he encourage them to come forward if they are concerned that they might be blamed for bringing the disease into the country?
Let me be clear: we are not going to blame anyone for bringing in a tree. The only person engaged in a blame game is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench; the rest of us are trying to find practical solutions. I have no intention of scapegoating somebody who has innocently brought a diseased tree into the country. We will ensure that advice is available through the Forestry Commission, and use every resource, including the press, so that people know the signs they should be looking for in mature ash trees. Meanwhile, it will be for experts to identify the existence of the pathogen in ash trees and to take appropriate steps. Nobody should feel worried that because they have planted an ash sapling, they will be held personally responsible for the outbreak of Chalara.
The consultation was about a statutory ban and the responses we received were overwhelmingly supportive of that. In fact, they also provided some further helpful advice about the implementation of the ban, which enabled us to achieve that at the very first opportunity.
I do not doubt the Minister’s commitment to tackling this issue, but when the Public and Commercial Services union made representations to the Government, it stated that cuts in the Forestry Commission would have such consequences. Even if the Minister does not accept that point, we will need additional resources. Will he undertake a swift, independent review of the need for those resources? I assure him that if he requires support in getting those additional resources and lobbying the Treasury, the Labour party will assist him.
May I make it absolutely clear that we will not fail in our fight against this disease through lack of resources? We will make available from the Department those resources that are identified as necessary by the scientific team and taskforce that we have brought together to consider what should be done next.
Has my hon. Friend experienced any resistance from the European Commission or the European Union regarding the import ban, as was suggested on the “Today” programme a couple of days ago? If so, will he make certain that under no circumstances we will allow the EU to stand in the way of the plans that he has announced?
In this instance I can put my hon. Friend’s fears to rest because the EU has not impeded what we have sought to do in any way. Indeed, we have been working extremely closely with colleagues in other countries who, to date, have faced a much larger incidence of this disease than we have. We have been able to learn from their experiences and put those lessons into action in this country.
The Minister will understand that the felling of a large amount of timber may have an effect on the wood services industry and the price of timber. Will he issue advice—perhaps he has advice now—on the safe storage, curing and drying out of wood that has been felled, to ensure that the pathogen does not persist?
We will certainly issue such guidance. The ban also deals with the movement of timber and timber waste products in this country. There is no evidence that the pathogen persists in felled trees and wood products but, nevertheless, we believe that an appropriately precautionary response would be to restrict movements in this country, and that is what we have done.
Ash is not the only tree in this country that is under assault from invasive species. In parts of Richmond park, up to 50% of our great oaks show signs of acute oak decline, and about 70% of horse chestnuts in the country show signs of bleeding canker. Surely we can make better use of our island status and apply stronger and better controls at points of entry.
We can do a number of things. Obviously, we cannot prevent the spread of wind-borne disease, but we can look carefully at where import controls are required. We have instructed the agricultural attachés network in our embassies to monitor local intelligence, so that when there are outbreaks of tree disease, we can deal with them in a timely and effective way. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that ash dieback is not the only disease to consider, because we also have phytophthora, Asian longhorn beetle and sweet chestnut blight. We are having to cope with a number of serious tree diseases, and we are applying the necessary resources to do so.
I understand that an incidence of the disease has already been identified in Scotland. Will the Minister therefore tell the House the date on which the devolved Administrations were first notified?
We have worked very closely with colleagues in the devolved Administrations to ensure that they are aware of what we are doing and that they can take appropriate decisions on what ought to be done. The Forestry Commission works across the border with its counterparts in Scotland to ensure that all scientific information is shared. I am absolutely clear that they will have all the knowledge we have in dealing with this case. I do not think there is any shortage of information.
The House has heard what the Minister said about his Government not second-guessing the international consensus and not being impeded by the EU, but does he not understand the annoyance of my constituents, who care about our precious, ancient Epping forest, at the EU’s lack of action on biocontrol? While EU officials are wasting their time and our money trying to interfere with the work of UK hairdressers, who do not need protection, they are doing nothing for our ancient forests, which need protection from airborne diseases and diseases imported from Europe. Why has the EU not taken action, and will he do all he can to ensure that it does so?
We have brought together scientific experts from all over Europe to deal with this problem. I am not sure that the people dealing with hairdresser regulation are best deployed dealing with tree health. We need to use all available methods to restrict the spread of tree diseases, because there is a very high incidence of several of them, particularly in northern Europe. We should do everything we can do to avoid their coming into this country.
In evidence to the independent panel on forestry, the Friends of Chopwell Wood, which is based in my constituency, said:
“There is a concern that having ‘saved’ our wood from sell-off we may lose it by neglect and disease”
and that that would be caused by “insufficient staff and funding”. Will the Minister give an assurance that that will not happen?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have not yet formally responded to the independent panel on forestry, but we have indicated that we accept the thrust of its recommendations. I look forward to giving a full response early in the new year on that subject. The future for forestry is very bright, despite setbacks of the sort that I have described today. I repeat that we have not cut back on the allocation of resources. I hope we will be able to mobilise not just scientists, foresters and the voluntary groups for which he has spoken up, but everybody who has an interest in trees in this country, to ensure we have a thriving forest—not only today, but in future.
I am keen that all of us with an interest in tree health take responsibility for this. We cannot all be experts on fungal diseases of the ash—I do not expect that—but people should report clear symptoms of ill health in trees to the authorities. The Government play their part by ensuring that research programmes into aspects of tree health are augmented, and we will thus ensure that we have healthy forests in the future.
As a representative of one of the areas affected by the disease, may I—in contrast to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), whose principal preoccupation seemed to be to play the blame game—thank the Department and its officials for their rapid action to get on top of this potentially devastating disease, particularly by inspecting more than 1,000 sites over the summer, destroying more than 100,000 trees and introducing an immediate ban? Given that the science of the disease is little understood, will he reassure the House by updating us on what steps are being taken to work with the forestry industry and researchers to understand its epidemiology?
That is absolutely right. We have actually allocated £8 million from existing resources for new research into tree health over the next four years, which I hope will go some way to supplementing what is already in place. There are question marks in the international scientific community over such things as the pathology of the organism and its means of transmission, which we need to explore more fully. The fact that those countries with a high level of infestation—Denmark, Germany, Poland and others in northern Europe—still do not have the answers to some of those questions indicates the complexity of the issue. It is not the case that Britain has not been playing its part; scientific research sometimes takes time.
Will the Minister assure the House that his officials are working with importers and nurseries to ensure that no affected stock remains that may be planted in the future, so that forests such as Sherwood stay not only clean and green, but great places to visit?
We will continue the programme of inspection that has identified those saplings that may be a risk and destroyed them. The ban has been in place on a voluntary basis—it is now on a statutory basis—to ensure that nothing came into the country over this summer and therefore was not available for the next planting season. We can be reasonably assured that infected trees will not be planted this winter—at least those from commercial sources—but we need to maintain vigilance, which we certainly will do. We will also work closely with the industry, which understands how dangerous the disease is and wants to co-operate. I am grateful for the help it has given to the Department in identifying and dealing with the threat at an early stage.
I do not believe that there is evidence of Chalara crossing species at the moment, but I will check that and give the hon. Lady an accurate response. She is right about phytophthora, which is well evidenced. In the case of Chalara fraxinea, we are dealing with a specific issue for the ash tree but, as she will be aware, fungal diseases are sometimes more easily spread between species than some other pathogens. I will examine all the evidence and write to her if there is any suggestion of cross-species spread.
Mental Health Act 1983
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement about an issue relating to the Mental Health Act 1983.
It has become apparent that there are some irregularities around the way in which doctors have been approved for the purpose of assessing patients for detention under the Act. For assessments and decisions under certain sections of the Act, including detention decisions under sections 2 and 3, three professionals are required to be involved—two doctors and an approved mental health professional. The latter will usually be a social worker.
In 2002, when strategic health authorities came into being, the then Secretary of State properly and lawfully delegated his function of approving doctors under the Act to them. However, it came to light last week that in four of the 10 SHAs—North East, Yorkshire and Humber, West Midlands and East Midlands—between 2002 and the present day the authorisation of doctors’ approval appears to have been further delegated to NHS mental health trusts.
I was made aware of the issue and kept up to date with the actions being taken last week. Our latest best estimate is that approximately 2,000 doctors were not properly approved, and that they have participated in the detention of between 4,000 and 5,000 current patients within institutions in both the NHS and independent sectors. Rampton high-secure hospital is in one of the affected areas, and some patients at Ashworth high-secure hospital are also included.
There is no suggestion that the hospitalisation or detention of any patient has been clinically inappropriate; that the doctors so approved are anything other than properly qualified to make such recommendations; or that these doctors might have made incorrect diagnoses or decisions about the treatment that patients needed. All the proper clinical processes were gone through when these patients were detained. We believe that no one is in hospital who should not be and that no patients have suffered because of this. The doctors would have had no reason to think that they had not been properly approved. They acted in good faith and in the interest of their patients throughout this period.
In the light of our legal advice, we do not believe that any decisions made about patients’ care and detention require review because of this irregularity. Doctors should continue treating patients currently detained under the MHA in the usual way. We have received advice from the First Treasury Counsel that there are good arguments that the detentions involving these particular approval processes were and are lawful, but the counsel also argues the need for absolute legal clarity. The legal advice is that this should be resolved through emergency retrospective legislation.
As soon as the irregularity was identified, my Department worked swiftly to identify the best course of action and to put the necessary preparatory work in place. It first became aware of the problem last week. Officials immediately sought initial legal and clinical advice. We then swiftly analysed possible options, including the option of reassessing all potentially affected patients, working with the health leads in the regions affected and clinical experts from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
When I was briefed on the situation, I asked for detailed information on the time it would take and the clinical risks involved in reassessing all potentially affected patients. On Friday, I asked for an emergency Bill to be drafted over the weekend, as a matter of contingency. I also briefed the Prime Minister personally the next day. Following further discussions and analysis over the weekend, the decision to introduce emergency legislation was taken yesterday, and we have since worked to prepare the necessary materials.
At all times, my priority has been to resolve the situation in a way that follows clinical advice about the most sensitive way to deal with a highly vulnerable group of individuals. We have also worked to remedy the problem as it relates to current and future detentions. As of today, all the doctors involved have been properly approved. The accountable officers for the four SHAs in question have written to Sir David Nicholson, chief executive of the NHS, to confirm they have made the necessary changes to their governance arrangements. Furthermore, the accountable officers in the remaining six SHAs have written to Sir David to confirm that they have, in the light of this issue, reviewed their own arrangements and that they are in full compliance with the Act.
Although we believe there are good arguments that past detentions under the Mental Health Act were and are lawful, it is important that doctors, other mental health professionals and, most importantly, patients and their families have absolute confidence in the decisions made. That is why, in relation to past detentions, we have decided that the irregularity should be corrected by retrospective legislation. Although we are aware of the problem in only the four areas going back to 2002, the proposed legislation will apply in principle to the approval of all doctors under the Mental Health Act since its introduction in 1983. The proposed legislation will retrospectively validate the approval of clinicians by those organisations to which responsibility was delegated, up to the point when all the relevant doctors were fully re-approved and their status put beyond doubt. The legislation will not deprive people of their normal rights to seek redress if they have been detained for any reason other than the narrow issue of the delegation of authority by the strategic health authorities, nor will it affect any future detentions or legitimise any similar failures in future. We are proposing to introduce the draft legislation to this House and, through best endeavours, looking for it to complete its passage through all the appropriate stages in this House and the other place as soon as is practicable.
While addressing the technical issue, it is also important that we get to the bottom of how this happened and that we learn any lessons to help inform the operation of the new system architecture from April 2013. As such, I have asked Dr Geoffrey Harris, chair of NHS South and former chair of Buckinghamshire mental health trust, to undertake an independent review to look at how the responsibility was delegated by the four SHAs and, more broadly, the governance and assurance processes that all SHAs use for delegating any responsibilities. I will also ask him to look at this issue in the context of the new NHS structures that come into force from next April and to see whether any lessons need to be learned. It is imperative that the review is swift, and I have asked Dr Harris to report to me by the end of the year with recommendations to ensure that every part of the system employs the highest standards of assurance and oversight in the delegation of any functions.
I stress to the House that I have reviewed with lawyers, clinicians and NHS managers possible alternatives to introducing this retrospective legislation. I have been advised that all alternatives would be highly disruptive to many of the most vulnerable patients and would deprive many other patients of the care they need while any action is undertaken. However, all the advice I have received has been unequivocal in stressing the need for absolute clarity of the legal status of any hospitalisation or detention of patients, in the interests of those patients, their families, those caring for them and the wider public. That is why, in such exceptional circumstances, this retrospective legislation is being proposed. Both a Bill and the accompanying explanatory notes will be published this afternoon. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for notice of it. Detaining people under the Mental Health Act raises the most serious issues of fundamental rights and of patient and public safety. Any reported failure will therefore always be a matter of the highest concern. I know this House will want to get to the bottom of the unacceptable breaches of procedure that we have just heard about. However, I am sure I speak for both sides in saying that the House will have been reassured by the Secretary of State today on three crucial points: first, that no patient has been wrongly detained, received care that was not clinically appropriate or will see their legal rights restricted by the legislation; secondly, that no doctor was unqualified to make decisions; and, thirdly, that urgent action is being taken to correct the situation and bring the clarity that is so essential.
Let me now turn to the serious questions that need to be answered. Will the Secretary of State say more about the events that brought this issue to light last week? Was it discovered in one SHA first, and by what process did the Department establish that it extended to three more? When exactly was the Department made aware, when was the Secretary of State informed and what action has been taken to establish the full extent of the problem? Have extensive checks been undertaken in all 10 SHA areas, and is he absolutely confident that no more patients and families are affected than the 4,000 to 5,000 he has mentioned?
I want to press the Secretary of State for more information on the people affected. Will he say whether he has any plans for direct communication with the patients and families affected? Are the patients living not only in the four regions mentioned but in all parts of the country? How many are in high-secure hospitals, and how many could pose a risk to the public?
We understand and support the Secretary of State’s wish to remove any doubt about the legal status of the patients concerned, but that must be set against the undesirability of asking the House to legislate tomorrow on an issue that it has found out about only today. Over the next 24 hours, will he ensure that Members have access to the fullest possible information, including a summary of the legal advice he has received?
There will be concerns about precedent. This is the first time that the House has been presented with emergency legislation in this area that will affect people’s rights. The public will want to know that it is being used in exceptional circumstances as a last resort, and not as a convenient means of correcting administrative failures. Will the Secretary of State therefore explain precisely what alternatives to legislation were considered, and why it was decided that they were not acceptable in these circumstances?
Let me turn to the investigation. We support the review under Dr Harris that will try to get to the facts and ensure that lessons are properly learned. We do not want to prejudge it, but is the Secretary of State in a position to confirm today whether the review is already proceeding on the basis that this is a failure of policy implementation rather than a defect in the original legislation? That is important, as practitioners working in this field will not want any unnecessary question marks hanging over the Mental Health Act 1983.
We also need clarity about the future. This area is currently the responsibility of SHAs, which are due to be abolished next April. So, as well as establishing the historical facts, will the Secretary of State ask his review to consider whether the new arrangements for sections, following the Government’s reorganisation of the NHS, are sufficiently well understood? Will he also ask the review to advise on how any danger of further confusion arising from the process of transition can be prevented?
I commend the Secretary of State for the pragmatic approach he is taking to this difficult issue. His request of the House is exceptional, but failure to act could cause unnecessary distress and uncertainty to many thousands of vulnerable patients and their families, and present risks to public safety. We will press him for answers in the areas that I have outlined, but we believe that his action is justified. He will have our support in removing any uncertainty.
First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the co-operation that he has shown to me and my Department over the weekend. There are occasionally moments when issues of public safety and patient well-being transcend the normal political divides, and I greatly appreciate his co-operation on this matter.
Let me deal with the important questions that the right hon. Gentleman has asked. The issue arose when a challenge was made to the authorisation of one doctor in Yorkshire and Humberside and, in dealing with that challenge, the irregularity in the way in which all authorisations had happened became apparent. Following further investigation, we discovered that this had happened in four other SHAs. We found out about this early last week, and I was informed towards the end of last week. Immediate action was taken to ensure proper validation last week of all the doctors who are currently taking section 12 decisions under the Mental Health Act, and that was completed as of today.
We have done exhaustive checks on the other SHAs, which is part of the reason why we asked all the SHA bosses to write to Sir David Nicholson—which they have all done today—to confirm that their processes in this area are in order. We do not believe that th