House of Commons
Wednesday 16 January 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I am always happy to meet relevant organisations to discuss issues affecting levels of services provided to the people of Wales.
I thank the Minister for his response. Digital UK is funded by the TV licence but the level of service it has been offering to many of my constituents, and other people in north-east Wales, has been totally shambolic in terms of the lack of provision of English or Welsh language Welsh television services. In some cases it has even told people to buy Freesat boxes, which is pathetic. Will the Minister ensure that the situation is sorted pronto, and that if Digital UK carries on being that pathetic it will be required to fund those Freesat boxes? The situation in north-east Wales is unsustainable.
I am aware that in certain parts of Wales there are specific issues concerning the reception of digital television, and that some communities cannot receive the full suite of digital channels that most people receive. I understand that most of those problems are relatively straightforward to sort out, but where there are persistent problems I will be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady and Digital UK, and possibly Ofcom, which may be more appropriate in that respect,
My hon. Friend will be aware that the reason for the digital switch-off was the sell-off of analogue frequencies for 4G. Does that mean that there will be adequate 4G coverage in north-east Wales—and elsewhere—when 3G services are superseded?
I am advised that coverage in north-east Wales will be similar to the previous analogue coverage. Where communities experience a loss following the switchover or the roll-out of 4G services, the Government will be happy to pursue that issue and take it up with the relevant agencies.
This is an issue of concern and the Wales Office is in very close touch with all parties involved in the dispute. This is not actually a matter for the Government—it is a contractual discussion between the BBC and performing artists—but we are hopeful that a resolution can be found very soon.
Knighton in my constituency—very near to north-east Wales—is able to receive only 17 channels as opposed to the 50 channels received in Swansea, Cardiff and the Minister’s constituency. Will the Minister join me in making representations to UK Digital on that matter?
That issue is similar to the one raised by the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones). Where communities rely on relay transmitters, as opposed to the principal digital transmitters, they do not receive the full suite of channels and may receive only the 17 public service channels provided by BBC, ITV and S4C. We will continue to look into the matter and discuss it with hon. Members who have constituents facing those issues.
The defence industry is a significant contributor to Wales and the UK’s economy, contributing more than £22 billion of annual revenues, of which £5.4 billion is from exports. Companies such as General Dynamics, EADS and BAE Systems ensure that the defence industry makes a vital contribution to the economy in Wales.
I am always extremely grateful—as I am sure the entire House is—to see my hon. Friend take such an interest in Welsh matters. In November I visited EDGE UK, which is part of General Dynamics, and I was tremendously impressed with its exciting research and development programme. It is an excellent example of a part of the defence industry that is benefitting Wales hugely.
The Royal United Services Institute think-tank produced a paper demonstrating that 40p of every pound spent on a UK-based—indeed, a Welsh-based—defence contractor brought 40p back into the UK economy. Will the Minister ensure that the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence understand the importance of supporting our Welsh defence industries so that we can also support the UK economy?
The Wales Office and the MOD are keenly aware of the importance of the defence industry to the economy of this country, and the hon. Lady is right to say that it makes a significant fiscal contribution. That is why I was extremely pleased to visit EDGE UK last year and see it making such a huge contribution to the economy in that part of Wales.
The MOD has disclosed that on safety grounds it has ruled out Devonport as a suitable relocation site for Trident following Scottish independence. Is the Secretary of State as surprised as I am that the First Minister is making a case for Milford Haven, when the MOD has not undertaken any safety assessment of the casualty rate in south-west Wales following a strategic attack or a Trident-related accident?
3. What recent assessment he has made of the automotive industry in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (136387)
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend on her inclusion in the new year honours. I know her many friends and fans across the Principality will share my delight at that recognition.
The automotive industry is vital to the Welsh economy, accounting for more than one-fifth of manufacturing turnover and generating more than £3 billion annually. The industry has also been instrumental in attracting foreign direct investment to Wales.
I saw the news that Toyota is once again the world’s largest car manufacturer. That is obviously good news for the company itself, but it is great news too for the UK and for Wales, not least at Deeside where Toyota is now in its 21st year of manufacturing. During that time, it has created thousands of high-quality jobs and made a vital contribution to the north Wales economy.
The Minister will know that one of our biggest brake manufacturing companies is Meritor, based in Cwmbran in my constituency. It relies heavily on European business, so the exchange rate with the euro is important, as is our membership of the European Union. Does the Minister not agree that mixed messages coming from his Government about our membership of the European Union do great damage to industry in Wales, including our automotive industry?
I think there is a very clear and united message coming from the Government about the need to increase our exports and rebalance the economy following the failed economic model of the previous Government. We are working very closely with the automotive sector in Wales, and UK-wide, to see further growth in this sector.
The Welsh Government have taken the remarkable decision to tie up much needed capital public funds in the purchase of Cardiff airport, in spite of our thoughts and concerns. Will the Secretary of State take every proactive step possible to encourage new airlines to consider using Cardiff airport in order to increase the number of destinations it serves and to make the place sustainable, especially given the importance of the British Airways maintenance centre, which uses that runway?
As I said, I discussed this matter with the First Minister recently. The purchase of Cardiff airport is of course a matter for the Welsh Government. I have no doubt that they will be looking to see a robust business case for that purchase, and we will be considering the issue of the operator of the airport very carefully, too. My hon. Friend makes an important point about the importance to the local economy of the BA maintenance facility.
The hon. Gentleman will know that Swansea made a bid for super-connected status, which was considered. Newport got super-connected status, which I am sure is welcomed by the people of Newport. He will know that a business case has to be made. He was very much to the fore in the business case for the electrification of the railway line to Swansea, and I hope he will play a similar role with regard to super-connected status.
The Wales Office continues to work closely with both the tourism industry and the Welsh Government, who have principal responsibility for policy in this area. Wales remains, of course, the very best part of the UK in which to holiday.
I thank the Minister for that reply, and I fully agree with him for once. I remind him that the tourism industry in Wales accounts for 10% of employment, both direct and indirect, which is higher than in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. As I am sure he is aware, at the end of next month we have Wales tourism week. What steps is his Department taking to ensure that this very important industry is given the political priority it requires?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, of course, about the critical importance of the tourism industry to Wales. I recall from last year that the Wales Office team had a busy Wales tourism week, and we look forward to a similarly busy week at the end of this month, going out promoting tourism in Wales and meeting tourism representatives and operators.
Again, the right hon. Gentleman is quite right. VisitBritain has an important role to play in promoting Wales as part of promoting the UK more generally. He will be aware of the additional resources that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement for VisitBritain. The challenge for Wales is how we capture a greater share of the UK tourism spend coming into the country. We look forward to meeting VisitBritain very soon to talk about the specific challenge facing tourism in Wales.
Thank you again, Mr Speaker. Tourism in mid-Wales is very much based on landscape and the scenic beauty of the area. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the impact on tourism in mid-Wales if the Mid Wales Connection goes ahead, with its 600 additional turbines and 100 miles of extra power cables, and of the damage that will do?
My hon. Friend will be aware of the close interest that the Department of Energy and Climate Change is taking in the proposed development in mid-Wales. Members on both sides of the House will share his concern that the beauty of mid-Wales be preserved as best possible.
13. The long-standing tourism links between north Wales and Merseyside are underpinned by the transport connectivity. The Welsh Assembly Government have now announced that they want to start building a business case for electrifying north Wales rail, including the line from Wrexham to Liverpool. Will the Minister pester Department for Transport colleagues on my behalf and ensure that it shares all the information it has from business cases for investment in English railways? (136397)
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. We are already there; we are already pestering the Department for Transport. It is a good example of the collaboration now between the Wales Office and the Welsh Government. We are working closely to help to build a business case for electrification and further improvements of the north Wales lines.
Visit Wales may well be the responsibility of the Assembly Government and there are issues of concern about the marketing of Wales overseas by that organisation, but in those discussions with VisitBritain will the Minister argue confidently for a robust Welsh approach, Welsh identity and resources for Wales, because hitherto that has not always been the case?
On the tourism marketing of Wales, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that those decisions lie with Welsh Ministers. I know that some Members are puzzled about some of the decisions they have taken about how they deploy those resources, but it is a matter for them. The Wales Office is keen to do whatever it can, including with VisitBritain, to see that Wales excels in the tourism sector.
Encouraging visitors to visit Wales could be greatly helped if they did not have to pay the highest tolls in the UK on entering Wales. Will the Minister ensure me that he is vigorously campaigning with the Department for Transport to reduce tolls when the ever-extending concession ends?
The evidence on the economic impact on the Welsh economy of the Severn bridge tolls is mixed, not least in respect of tourism, which relies on the bridge to carry visitors into Wales. All I would say at this stage is that until 2018, when the concession ends, no decisions can be taken about the future use of those tolls and whether they will remain at the current levels or whether other options are available.
Is the Secretary of State aware that Neath food bank is now seeing more people in work—many part time and desperate—than out of work? One hundred thousand working people in Wales are now being hammered by his welfare cuts, some among the 230,000 households in Wales that will be forced by the Government to pay council tax for the first time in April. Will he now take down from the Wales Office website his promise that people will be better off under this Government in work and admit that some cannot even afford to eat?
Certainly not. In fact, people who are in work are considerably better off. The average earner on the minimum wage who works full time will by next April be paying half as much in tax as he did at the beginning of this Parliament, in the wake of the right hon. Gentleman’s Government. If he is not willing to tackle the appalling legacy of the welfare shambles that he left, we will be prepared to do so.
Does my right hon. Friend share my amazement at the complaint we have just heard from a senior member of the last Government, a Government who twice froze personal allowances and doubled tax for low earners, from 10p to 20p as a starting rate? Is not the reality that the massive £3,000 hike in the personal allowance—which Labour does not like to hear about—is helping low-paid people in Wales and the whole of—
There was no answer there from the Secretary of State, as usual. Let me tell him the answer. There is no excuse for his not knowing, because his own income assessment makes it clear that 400,000 households—a third of all households in Wales—will lose out as a result of these changes. Let us contrast that with the 4,000 households—that is 4,000 versus 400,000—that will get a tax break as a result of the millionaires’ tax cut. That ratio of 100:1 tells us everything we need to know about this Government. The 99% pay while the 1% profit. Let me be clear: Labour will continue to speak for the 99%; the Secretary of State can speak for the 1%.
As a consequence of the measures taken by this Government, 1.1 million taxpayers in Wales are paying less tax, while 109,000 taxpayers in Wales are now paying no tax at all. That is what we are doing for hard-working people, and I am appalled that the hon. Gentleman sees fit not to support them.
Hitachi’s investment at Wylfa will help to ensure that our nuclear work force remain highly skilled and some of the best in the industry. Talented young apprentices on Anglesey can look forward to an excellent future at Wylfa.
Locally in Gloucestershire, as well as through the national training academy for nuclear, we are working hard to ensure that we have sufficient skills—and retain those skills—ready for nuclear new build. What measures will the Secretary of State be proposing to ensure that Wales, too, benefits from the ability to improve that capacity?
My hon. Friend is right: the development of nuclear skills is key. The Government have created the Nuclear Energy Skills Alliance to co-ordinate the work of all the expert skills bodies relating to nuclear. The Welsh Assembly Government are also represented on that alliance.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the new energy centre in Llangefni—indeed, he has visited—which upskills people in the nuclear industry and for low carbon. However, with unemployment increasing considerably in 2012 and the announcement of a further 350 jobs at risk at Vion, will he meet me urgently to discuss the skills and jobs issues that are harming the prospects of young people and under-skilled people in Wales?
Would it not be better to invest the money elsewhere because of the uncertain future of nuclear power, given the huge cost overruns in Finland and France and the fact that those two power stations are already three to four years late? Owing to the uncertainties relating to nuclear power, should we not be investing in renewable energy, and particularly in tidal energy, which is Wales’s North sea oil?
The Government are committed to a mix of energy that includes renewables and nuclear, and nuclear will play an extremely important part in that mix. The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), has announced that the generic design assessment of the Wylfa reactor has commenced. The reactor will be a huge asset to the nuclear industry in this country.
Notwithstanding the relatively mild winter that we have had up to now, fuel poverty remains a huge challenge. The Government are addressing that via a range of measures to ensure that those in most need are able to heat their homes affordably.
More than 5,000 people in Blaenau Gwent would be up to £200 better off if the Government adopted Labour’s plan to force energy companies to put the over-75s on to their cheapest tariff. We have heard the Minister’s warm words, but why are the Government not doing much more to help people with their bills?
We will take no lessons from Labour on how to respond to the issue of fuel poverty. We are taking real action, not least through the green deal, through our continued support for winter fuel payments and cold weather payments, and through implementing the Prime Minister’s promise to ensure that everyone gets access to the cheapest possible tariff through their provider.
Cutting domestic electricity bills in half would practically end fuel poverty in this country. The Americans have done that through the exploitation of shale gas. Would it not be right for us to get behind that exciting new technology as well, to remove people from fuel poverty in Britain?
My hon. Friend is quite right to suggest that shale gas has been something of a game changer for the energy market in the UK. In the autumn statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a range of measures to explore the potential for shale gas in the UK, alongside strict new regulatory safeguards.
The Minister will no doubt have seen the report from the Department of Energy and Climate Change which shows that people in Wales pay some of the highest gas and electricity prices in the whole of the UK. Why does he think that is the case?
There are price variations right across the UK, and it is not possible to say that this is a Wales-specific issue. We stay in close touch with the regulators, and we are looking particularly at off-grid prices for liquefied petroleum gas and for fuel oil. We are aware of some competition questions in that area, but we do not believe that this is a Wales-specific issue.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Will he join me in welcoming Air Asia’s £5.5 billion purchase of 100 A320 aeroplanes from Airbus? That will be good news for the aerospace sector in Wales and in my constituency, where there are several aerospace companies with Airbus contracts.
Yes. I was pleased to go with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to witness the signing of that contract. It represents a tremendous boost to the factory at Broughton. It will secure the jobs of 1,500 workers, as well as of those in the wider supply chain.
In 2013, the increase in the personal allowance for income tax will be the largest ever cash increase and shows that this Government are committed to creating a fair tax system that rewards hard work.
Like many in my constituency, I am sure that the people of Wales and, perhaps in particular in Llanbedr Pont Steffan, welcome the changes to personal allowances that our Government have implemented. Would the Minister care to take this opportunity to confirm how many residents in Wales have benefited since 2010, having been taken out of income tax altogether following this Government’s welcome changes to the personal tax allowance?
It is indeed great news in Llanbedr Pont Steffan and elsewhere in Wales that, as a result of the decisions taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the autumn statement, an additional 13,000 people will be lifted out of tax altogether, with a total benefit to people of £1.1 million.
The Silk commission proposals will provide the Welsh Government with the power to vary individual tax bands. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that the Welsh Labour Government might be tempted further to target the 6% of Welsh taxpayers who pay the higher rate of income tax and contribute 33% of all taxes raised in Wales?
Is not the real danger with the Government’s changes to tax and benefits that we will see in Wales, particularly in deprived communities where the vast majority of people work, that those people will have less money in their pockets, less money to spend in local shops and there will be more shops closing and fewer people in jobs—a double whammy for the Welsh economy?
If the hon. Gentleman wants to be taken seriously as having a message on deficit reduction, he should know that deficit reduction cannot begin until a serious approach to welfare reform is taken. Government Members are doing that in a fair and responsible way—a way that rewards hard work.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Sapper Richard Reginald Walker of 28 Engineer Regiment, attached to 21 Engineer Regiment. It is clear to see from the tributes paid that he was an outstanding soldier and hugely respected. Our deepest sympathies are with his family and friends at this difficult time.
I would also like to mention the helicopter crash in central London this morning. The whole House will wish to join me in sending our thanks to the emergency services for their rapid and professional response to this situation.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
For too long many women, and especially hard-working stay-at-home mums, have been penalised by the country’s pension system for interruptions to their national insurance contributions. After 13 years in which the previous Government did nothing to address this situation, does the Prime Minister think that this week’s announcement of a single-tier pension will finally deal with this grave injustice?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The single-tier pension is an excellent reform. I very much hope it will have all-party support, because it holds out the prospect in 2017 of a basic state pension of over £140 rather than £107, taking millions of people out of the means test, giving them dignity in retirement and particularly, as my hon. Friend says, helping low-paid and self-employed people and, above all, women who have not been able to have a full state pension in the past. It is an excellent reform, and I hope it will have the support of everyone across the House.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Sapper Richard Reginald Walker of 28 Engineer Regiment, attached to 21 Engineer Regiment. He showed the utmost courage and bravery, and all our thoughts are with his family and friends.
I also join the Prime Minister in passing on condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the helicopter crash in London this morning and in paying tribute to the emergency services.
When the Prime Minister first became leader of the Conservative party, he said that its biggest problem was that it spent far too much of its time “banging on” about Europe. Is he glad those days are over?
Even the leader of the Labour party should accept that a massive change is taking place in Europe: a change that is being driven by the changes in the eurozone. Frankly, the country, and political parties in this country, face a choice. Do we look at the changes, see what we can do to maximise Britain’s national interest, and consult the public about that, or do we sit back, do nothing, and tell the public to go hang? I know where I stand; I know where this party stands—and that is in the national interest.
Let us hope we can find out today where the Prime Minister does stand. I suppose I should congratulate him on one thing—deciding on the date of his speech. Well done. Another example of the Rolls-Royce operation of No. 10 Downing street.
In advance of his speech, what is the Prime Minister’s answer, which investors need to know, to this question: will Britain be in the European Union in five years’ time?
On important decisions, may I first of all congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on an important decision that he has made this week—to keep the shadow Chancellor in place until 2015. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Rarely do we see so much cross-party support.
My view is that Britain is better off in the European Union, but it is right for us to see the changes taking place in Europe, and to ensure that we argue for the changes that Britain needs, so that we have a better relationship between Britain and Europe, a better organised European Union, and the full-hearted consent of the British people. Those are the choices that we are making. What are his choices?
Maybe we are making a bit of progress. In October 2011, as I am sure the Prime Minister will remember, he and I walked shoulder to shoulder through the Lobby against the 81 Conservative Members who voted for an in/out referendum. You might call it two parties working together in the national interest. At the time, the Foreign Secretary—I think he is on his way to Australia to get as far away from the Prime Minister’s speech as possible—said that the reason for our vote was that an in/out referendum
“would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time”.
Was the Foreign Secretary right?
Yes, he was entirely right. It is interesting that the Leader of the Opposition only wants to talk about process, because he dare not debate the substance. I do not think it would be right for Britain to have an in/out referendum today, because we would be giving the British people a false choice. Millions of people in this country, myself included, want Britain to stay in the European Union, but they believe that there are chances to negotiate a better relationship. Throughout Europe, countries are looking at forthcoming treaty change and thinking, “What can I do to maximise my national interest?” That is what the Germans will do. That is what the Spanish will do. That is what the British should do. Let us get on to the substance and give up the feeble jokes.
First of all, I thought the jokes were pretty good. But I am talking about the substance. The Prime Minister’s position appears to be this: an in/out referendum now would be destabilising, but promising one in five years’ time is just fine for the country. Let us see if that is his position, because what does it mean? It means five years of businesses seeing a “Closed for Business” sign hanging around Britain. What did Lord Heseltine say—[Interruption.] I know that Conservative Members want to jeer Lord Heseltine, one of the few mainstream voices in the Conservative party. He said:
“To commit to a referendum about a negotiation that hasn’t begun on a timescale you cannot predict, on an outcome that’s unknown…seems to me like an unnecessary gamble.”
Is he not right?
It is absolutely no secret that, when it comes to Europe, there are disagreements between me and Michael Heseltine. Michael, for whom I have a huge amount of time, was one of the leading voices for Britain joining the single currency. I am delighted that we have not joined, and we should not join—under my prime ministership, we will never join the single currency—and that is also the view of millions of businesses up and down this country. What business wants in Europe is what I want in Europe: to be part of Europe, but a more flexible Europe, a more competitive Europe, a Europe that can take on the challenge of the global race and the rise of nations in the south and the east.
Let me put it to the right hon. Gentleman again. When change is taking place in Europe and when the single currency is driving change, is it not in Britain’s national interest to argue for changes which will make the European Union more competitive and flexible, and which will strengthen and sort out the relationship between Britain and the European Union, and then to ask the British people for their consent?
That is our approach. Apart from coming up with what he considers to be very amusing jokes, what is the right hon. Gentleman’s approach?
The biggest change that we need in Europe is a move from austerity to growth and jobs, but the Prime Minister has absolutely nothing to say about that. This is the reality: the reason the Prime Minister is changing his mind has nothing to do with the national interest. It is because he has lost control of his party. He thinks that his problems on Europe will end on Friday, but they are only just beginning. Can he confirm that he is now giving the green light to Conservative Cabinet Ministers to campaign on different positions—on whether they are for or against being in the European Union?
The right hon. Gentleman tries to make the point that Europe should somehow be moving away from the policy of deficit reduction. He is completely isolated in Europe. Not one single Government—not even socialists in Europe—believe in pushing up borrowing and borrowing more. That is the simple truth. What is in Britain’s interests is to seek a fresh settlement in Europe that is more flexible and more competitive. That is in our interests, and that is what we will seek.
Let me ask the right hon. Gentleman this: does he not understand that what has happened over the last decade—during which a Labour Government signed treaty after treaty, gave away power after power, saw more centralisation after more centralisation, and never consulted the British people—is what has made this problem such a big problem in the first place?
The whole House, and the country, will have heard that the Prime Minister did not answer the question about whether he had given the green light to his Cabinet—to his Conservative Cabinet colleagues—for some of them to campaign for being in the European Union and others to campaign for getting out of it. That is the reality of the position, and of the weakness of this Prime Minister. At a time when 1 million young people are out of work and businesses are going to the wall, what is the Prime Minister doing? He has spent six months preparing a speech to create five years of uncertainty for Britain. When it comes to Europe, it is the same old Tories: a divided party, and a weak Prime Minister.
There will be a very simple choice at the next election. If you want to stay out of the single currency, you vote Conservative; if you want to join the single currency, you vote Labour. If you want to take power back to Britain, you vote Conservative; if you want to give power to Brussels, you vote Labour. That is the truth. What we see from the right hon. Gentleman’s position is that he wants absolutely no change in the relationship between Britain and Europe, and that he does not believe that the British people should be given a choice.
Q15. The Prime Minister has rightly focused the Government on growth. The development of new housing plays a key part in the provision of that growth, as well as the provision of much-needed new homes. In my constituency, two developments will provide 8,000 new homes between them. Will the Prime Minister join me in praising Rugby borough council’s attitude to new development, and perhaps visit Rugby to see how we are going about it? (137160)
I should be delighted to visit my hon. Friend in Rugby. He is absolutely right to say that we need to build more houses in our country. That is because, unless they have help from their parents, first-time buyers are now, on average, in their thirties. We need to build more homes in order to allow people to achieve the dream, which so many have already achieved, of getting on to the housing ladder.
Q2. In 2010 the Prime Minister and his party said it was lying and scaremongering to suggest they would reduce family tax credits for families earning less than £31,000, but we found out last week that the threshold will, in fact, be £26,000. Will the Prime Minister apologise to families he has failed to protect and has made poorer while he has been in government? (137147)
This Government have had to make difficult decisions on public spending and welfare, but we have protected those on the lowest incomes and we have made sure there have been increases in some areas. That is what we have done with child tax credits, and it is a record we should support.
Q3. The residents of Thanet enjoy burgers but also love horses. They will have been shocked to hear this morning that they may have been eating horsemeat. Will the Prime Minister assure us that he and his Government are doing a lot to reassure the diners of Thanet? (137148)
My hon. Friend raises a very important and extremely serious issue. People in our country will have been very concerned to read this morning that while they thought they were buying beefburgers, they were buying something that had horsemeat in it. That is extremely disturbing news. I have asked the Food Standards Agency to conduct an urgent investigation. It has made it clear that there is no risk to public safety, because there is no food safety risk, but this is a completely unacceptable state of affairs. The FSA will meet retailers and processors this afternoon and work with them to investigate the supply chain, but it is worth making the point that, ultimately, retailers have to be responsible for what they sell and where it has come from.
May I thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their condolences to the families of those who died in this morning’s helicopter crash in my constituency, and add my condolences and sympathy? Does the Prime Minister agree that amazing work was done this morning, particularly by the fire service? Firefighters from Clapham station arrived very swiftly. Given London’s changing skyline, does he also agree that—not today, but at some stage—we will need to look much more closely at where, how and why helicopters fly through our central city?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to praise the emergency services once again. I think everyone could see from the terrifying pictures on our television screens this morning just how swiftly they responded, and how brave and professional they were. On her point about the rules for helicopter flights—and, indeed, other flights over our capital city—I am sure that will be looked at in the investigations that will take place. She is right that that is not an issue for today, but it is inevitably something that has to be carefully looked at.
Q4. Last week I organised an entrepreneurship seminar in Chiswick for women wanting to set up their own businesses, and one of the questions they asked was about the cost of child care. This Government have extended 15 hours of care to the most disadvantaged quarter of a million two-year-olds and extended that to three and four-year-olds. Does that not show that this Government are supporting families and women who want to work? (137149)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Over the past couple of years we have seen one of the fastest rates of new business creation in our history, but we do need to encourage female entrepreneurship in particular, because if we had the same rate as other countries we could help to wipe out unemployment all together. As my hon. Friend said, we do help families with two, three and four-year-olds with child care. We also help through the tax credit system and, as the House knows, we are looking at what more we can do for hard-working people who want to go out to work and need help with child care in order to ensure they can do the right thing for their children and families.
Let me say again that we should recognise and welcome the work that food banks do. The last Government rightly recognised that through giving food banks an award. [Interruption.] As this question has been asked, and as some hon. Members shout out a lot about food banks, let me remind them of one simple fact: the use of food banks went up tenfold under the last Labour Government, so before Opposition Members try to use this as a political weapon they should recognise it started under their own Government.
Q5. The National Star college in my constituency provides world-renowned care for some of our disabled youngsters with the most profound and complex learning difficulties to enable them to lead independent lives. Sadly, its future, like that of a few similar colleges, is being placed in jeopardy by a decision not to ring-fence its funding. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will wish to solve this problem, so may I invite him to the college to see this wonderful care for himself? (137150)
I am very happy to discuss this issue with my constituency neighbour, who rightly praises the fantastic work carried out by the National Star college. It does an excellent job in improving the life chances of young people. I know that the college has concerns about the new funding system and that my hon. Friend has contacted the Minister responsible. We are changing the way in which funding is allocated, but that does not necessarily mean that the funding will be cut. I am very happy to discuss this with my hon. Friend, but the new funding system does allow local authorities to have more say in how the funding is distributed, and I am sure they will want to recognise excellent work, including from this national college.
Q6. Is the Prime Minister aware of the trauma facing thousands of families, particularly in London, who live in private rented accommodation, where the housing benefit payments do not meet the rapidly increasing rents? These people are then forced out of their homes and out of their boroughs, and the community suffers as a result, as does the children’s education. Does he not think it is time to regulate private sector rents and bring in a fair rents policy in this country, so that families are not forced out of the communities where they and their families have lived for a very long time? (137151)
The hon. Gentleman must recognise that we inherited a housing benefit system in London that was completely out of control; some families were getting as much as £104,000 a year—that is for one family for one year. Even today we are still spending about £6 billion on housing benefit in London. We have to recognise that higher levels of housing benefit and higher rents were chasing each other upwards in a spiral. I do not support the idea of mass rent controls, because I think we would see a massive decline in the private rented sector, which is what happened the last time we had such rent controls. We need proper regulation of housing benefit, and we need to make sure that we have a competitive system for private sector renting and that we build more flats and houses.
The deficit has to be brought down, but if tax credits and benefits are capped for the next three years at 1%, people on low incomes will be left vulnerable to increases in food and energy prices. If prices go up by more than expected, what contingency plans do the Government have for benefits and tax credits?
The most important thing is to make sure that people are getting a good deal on energy prices, which is why we are going to be legislating to make companies put people on the lowest available tariffs. That is something the Government are doing that will help all families.
Q7. As a diabetic, may I welcome the fact that last year the Prime Minister lit up No. 10 for the first time on world diabetes day? One third of all primary school leavers are either obese or overweight, yet they still consume cans of Coke and Pepsi that contain up to eight teaspoons of sugar. What steps is he proposing to take to engage manufacturers in a war against sugar? If we do not act now, the next generation will be overwhelmed by a diabetes epidemic? (137152)
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue, which is one of the biggest public health challenges that we face in our country, and to highlight the problem of excessive consumption of sugar. That is why we challenged business, through our responsibility deal, to try to reduce levels of sugar, and that has had some effect. We have in place a diabetes action plan, which is about how we improve early diagnosis, how we better integrate care and how we provide better support. But, frankly, this is one of those health challenges that is not just a challenge for the health service; it is a challenge for local authorities, for schools and for parents, too. As someone who is trying to bring up three children without excessive amounts of Coca-Cola, I know exactly how big this challenge is.
Twenty years ago this week, Claire Tiltman, a 16-year-old pupil at Dartford grammar school for girls, was stabbed to death in my constituency. Nobody has ever been convicted of the crime. Both her parents subsequently died never knowing who had taken their only child from them. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that this Government will continue to provide full assistance to Kent police to help bring justice in the case of one of Britain’s most brutal unsolved murders?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this case, which is particularly tragic because, as he says, the girl’s parents have both died. Of course we will do everything we can, but above all it is for anyone who knows anything about this case to talk to Kent police, because in the end it is their responsibility to try to solve the case. As for taking action to deal with appalling knife crimes such as this, as my hon. Friend knows, the Government have taken a set of important actions.
Q8. Thirty-nine people suspected of serious child sex offences who fled the country have been brought back to Britain quickly under the European arrest warrant to face justice. Sadly, many of the Prime Minister’s Back Benchers want to scrap the European arrest warrant, making it easier for paedophiles to escape justice. Will he today categorically rule that out? (137153)
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have the opportunity to work out which of the home affairs parts of the European Union we want to opt out of and which ones we want to opt back into. That is rightly being discussed in the Government and in the House, and I am sure they will listen very carefully to his arguments.
Great progress is being made in improving the rights of park home owners, many of whom are vulnerable and on low incomes. Currently they are not eligible for the green deal. Will the Prime Minister ask his civil servants to investigate this matter to make sure that assistance with energy efficiency is available to everybody who needs it?
I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says. This Government have taken some steps forward on the rights of park home owners, of whom I have some in my own constituency and therefore know how important it is that we get the balance of law right. I will look at her point about the green deal, a very important measure to try to help people with their energy efficiency and to keep their bills down. We want it to be available to as many people as possible.
Q9. Yesterday Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director of the NHS, told the Public Accounts Committee that GPs were imposing unjustified restrictions on cataract operations. It seems that the Prime Minister and his reorganisation are taking the NHS back to the 1980s, when the NHS was the sick man of Europe. Will he take this opportunity to apologise to elderly people who are waiting unnecessarily for their cataract operations? (137154)
Compared with 2010-11, last year there were 400,000 extra operations in our NHS. Across our NHS, there are 5,000 more doctors and 5,000 fewer administrators. We have got the level of mixed-sex wards right down. The level of hospital-acquired infections—[Interruption.] The point that I am making, which I know the Opposition do not want to hear, is that the NHS is improving under this Government because we are putting the money in and they would take the money out.
Q10. Many of us were inspired by the Prime Minister’s speech on political reform delivered in Milton Keynes when we were in opposition. He promised to make politicians more outwardly and properly accountable to the people. To make that happen, we were promised a system of open primary selection, which has already had such a refreshing effect in the constituencies of Totnes and Gosport. When does the Prime Minister expect a system of full-blown open primaries to be in place more widely, as promised in the coalition agreement? (137155)
I do support the use of open primaries. As my hon. Friend says, in the Conservative party we had a number of open primaries. I hope all parties can look at the issue and debate how we can encourage maximum participation, including in the selection of candidates.
Q11. Let us talk about Europe and the national interest. Millions of British women would be hit by the proposal in today’s Conservative Fresh Start report to opt out of the EU law on equal pay. Will the Prime Minister rule out such an opt-out today? (137156)
Q12. I know my right hon. Friend is aware of the extreme flooding suffered in the west country in November and December last year, impacting many homes and businesses and sweeping away the rail link between the west country and London, leaving us cut off for several days. Will he please ensure that our Government take every step necessary to improve the resilience of this vital rail link so that we never get cut off again? (137157)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this question. I am well aware of how bad the flooding was and I went to Buckfastleigh to see how badly the town had been flooded for myself. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has discussed the recent flooding with Network Rail’s chair and chief executive, and he will visit the area soon to look at this. We are working with Network Rail to improve the resilience of the overall network and we will do everything we can to ensure that these important services are maintained, even when they are challenged by floods such as those we saw last year.
Does the Prime Minister accept that a statement on Europe designed to be populist runs the risk of polarising this House, undermining key UK relations with America, confusing and alienating our friends and partners in Europe and, disastrously, starting a process that sleepwalks the UK out of Europe?
I think the most dangerous thing for this country would be to bury our head in the sand and pretend there is not a debate about Britain’s future in Europe. The most dangerous thing for this country would be to see the changes taking place in Europe because of the single currency and to stand back and say that we are going to do nothing about them. What Britain should be doing is getting in there and fighting for the changes we want so that we can ask for the consent of the British people to settle this issue once and for all.
Q13. Will the Prime Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to keep pensioners warm in this cold weather and will he join me in congratulating the Suffolk Foundation on the great success of its “surviving winter” campaign? (137158)
This Government have given the biggest increase in the basic state pension—an increase of £5.30 a week last year. We have kept the winter fuel payments, we have kept the cold weather payments at the higher level and we are replacing the Warm Front scheme with the energy company obligation, or ECO. Although the Warm Front scheme helped some 80,000 houses a year, the ECO could help up to 230,000 houses a year. That is what we are doing, that is how we are helping old people, and it is a record we should be proud of.
Q14. The Prime Minister should know that the Office for National Statistics recently released figures that showed 24,000—24,000—extra cold weather deaths over the winter of 2011-12. The majority of those who perished were over the age of 75. Does the Prime Minister think that his Government should do more to help the elderly and the vulnerable and less to help millionaires through tax cuts? (137159)
As I just said, we are doing more to help the elderly and the vulnerable, with a record increase in the basic state pension that was bigger than what the Opposition would have done under their rules. We are keeping the cold weather payments at the higher level, which the previous Government only introduced before the election. We are keeping our promise on winter fuel payments. We are taking all those steps and ensuring—again, this is something that was never done by the Labour party—that energy companies will have to put people on the lowest tariffs. That is a record we can be proud of.
Tarn-Pure, a business in my constituency, is enduring a hideous regulatory farce thanks to the Health and Safety Executive and the European Union. Will my right hon. Friend remind the CBI that the British economy is very reliant on small and medium-sized businesses, which are far less able to cope with bad regulation, particularly when it is badly administered in the UK?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Businesses large and small are complaining about the burden of regulation, not just from Europe but more generally, and that is why we should be fighting in Europe for a more flexible, competitive Europe in which we see regulations coming off rather than always going on. The view of the Opposition is that we should sit back, do nothing, accept the status quo and never listen to the British people or British business, either.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you will be well aware, during last night’s Adjournment debate on Remploy I tried on a number of occasions to ask a question of the Minister. She refused to take interventions on the basis, I think, that she did not have enough time. The debate finished at 7.29, one minute before it was due to conclude. Is that consistent with parliamentary procedure?
It is purely up to the Minister to decide whether to take an intervention, so that is simply not a matter for the Chair. I note the accuracy of the hon. Gentleman’s point about the time at which the debate concluded, but that is not relevant to the autonomy of the Minister in deciding whether to take an intervention. The hon. Gentleman was certainly a persistent woodpecker and I feel sure that he will be so on subsequent occasions. He has put his concerns on the record, but nothing disorderly took place.
Corporate Accountability and Safeguarding of Adults from Abuse and Neglect
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to hold corporations criminally accountable for abuse and neglect in care settings; to make provision to compel any person or organisation to supply information to Adult Safeguarding Boards; and to introduce a new offence of corporate neglect whereby a corporate body can be found guilty if the way in which its activities are managed or organised by its board or senior management is a substantial element in the existence or possible occurrence of abuse or neglect.
I should like to begin with a quote:
“We as parents are there to protect our children and for whatever reason we failed to do so and it’s huge burden of guilt.”
Those are the words of Ann Earley, the mother of Steve Tovey. Steve has learning difficulties and was a victim of abuse at Winterbourne View hospital. Like everyone else, I was shocked and appalled by the events at Winterbourne View that were exposed by “Panorama” last year. The 11 perpetrators of those crimes rightly ended up in the dock and were punished. However, no stone should be left unturned when protecting vulnerable people.
My Bill proposes legislation that would see those who provide care and support held corporately accountable for abuse and neglect on their watch. In the words of Judge Ford, who presided over the Winterbourne View case, a “culture of ill-treatment developed” at the hospital that “corrupted and debased” the staff,
“all of whom were of previous good character”.
That statement goes to the heart of the reform that I am proposing. It reflects what many believe they witnessed at Winterbourne View: a care provider that betrayed those in its care and left unchecked a culture which, bit by bit, tolerated ever-more degrading treatment of vulnerable people, allowing a culture of cruelty to fester—and charged £3,500 a week for that. That is why, as the then Minister, I ordered the report into what happened at Winterbourne View so that we could make sure that lessons were learned, and it is why today I present this Bill to the House.
My Bill has two elements: to improve adult safeguarding and to close a loophole in the criminal law. It would amend the Health and Social Care Act 2008 to include a new offence of corporate neglect. This new law would act as a deterrent. It would force weak boards of directors to pull their socks up, visiting their services, talking to and, vitally, listening to the people who use those services and listening to and including the families of those whom they are caring for—and, yes, engaging with the staff, being interested in them and in their professional development. As the chief executive of care provider Care Management Group, Peter Kinsey, put it to me recently:
“If there is a systematic failure, as at Winterbourne View, then executives and ultimately the Board are responsible for not having measures in place to pick up concerns and failings in quality.”
That must be right. It is why good providers have absolutely nothing to fear from this Bill. Only those organisations that allow abuse and neglect to go unchallenged should be worried.
We would not be the first country to legislate on this issue; there are international precedents of this kind in law. For example, in Alberta in Canada care corporations face fines of up to $100,000 in such cases. Under my Bill, corporations found guilty of corporate neglect would face unlimited fines, remedial orders and publicity orders. That reflects the approach already enacted by this House in the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.
When things go wrong—when terrible abuse and neglect take place—the public expect those who take the fee to be held to account. It is not just the public who think so; many in the care sector do as well. Introducing a criminal sanction has the backing of the charity Action on Elder Abuse and of the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group, whose members include the Carers Trust, Leonard Cheshire Disability, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Mencap, the National Autistic Society, and Scope.
The second element of my Bill concerns adult safeguarding. The serious case review into the abuse at Winterbourne View uncovered a raft of missed opportunities and bad care. The authors of the review also uncovered a
“lack of financial transparency and co-operation”
from Castlebeck, the company in charge. This meant that the review was not as comprehensive as it should have been—a blow to adult safeguarding in general and a barrier to those seeking to learn lessons from Winterbourne View. That is why my Bill proposes to amend the law to require any person or organisation to supply information to an adult safeguarding board—a provision that is already in place in relation to children’s and young people’s safeguarding in England. I know that the Government take very seriously their responsibilities with regard to protecting vulnerable people, but there is a gap in the law that needs to be closed.
Before Christmas, the Government, in their final report on Winterbourne View, pledged to consider how corporate bodies could be held to account for abuse and harm. That was incredibly welcome news and I was particularly pleased to hear the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) commit the Government to changing the way in which we care for adults with learning disabilities in this country, but there is still much to do. I am convinced that my Bill would help to drive up the quality of care, acting as another safeguard against abuse.
The author George Eliot said:
“Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself; it only requires opportunity.”
At Winterbourne View, staff carried out horrific acts because of the opportunities a culture of cruelty created. This Bill would help to remove some of those opportunities, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Paul Burstow, Hazel Blears, Jack Lopresti, Glyn Davies, John Pugh, Andrew Stunell, Tracey Crouch, Mr David Ward and Mr Michael Meacher present the Bill.
Paul Burstow accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March, and to be printed (Bill 120).
[14th Allotted Day]
I beg to move,
That this House notes the breadth of opposition from business, the creative industries, champions of vocational education and schools to the Government’s plans to introduce English Baccalaureate Certificates; and calls on the Government to rethink its plans.
This debate goes to the heart of the challenge facing our education system. The central question for the debate is: how do our schools best equip the young people of today to play their part in the economy and society of tomorrow?
Labour believes that a true baccalaureate approach, one that recognises skills, knowledge and the core characteristics needed to succeed in the future, should be at the centre of this debate. Although as a country we have made great progress in improving education, there is still a lot for us to do as we strive to compete with the highest performing jurisdictions. Our future economic competitiveness relies on our ability to produce aspirational citizens and young people with the skills, knowledge, resilience and character to get this country ahead in the world.
That is why we have called this debate. Yes, we need reform in our system of assessment and qualifications. That is why Labour has asked Professor Chris Husbands from the Institute of Education at the university of London to lead an independent review of 14-to-19 education in England. This is the exact approach that has been taken by the Labour Government in Wales.
We want to build a consensus on sustainable curriculum reform. Surely, before we decide on changes to assessment, it would make sense to reach a decision on what is needed from the curriculum. Instead, what we have from the Secretary of State is a plan drawn up last year on the back of an envelope that enjoys very little support. The Association of School and College Leaders said in its response to the Government’s consultation:
“This reform will only be successful if those who have to implement it feel involved and if there is an attempt to build consensus around the changes proposed.”
If we look back to the introduction of GCSEs in the 1980s, we will see that they were established with cross-party support. I share the concerns expressed by the former Education Secretary, the Conservative peer Lord Baker, that rushed reforms, lacking political consensus, do not offer the best way forward. We believe that the Government’s plans to introduce a narrow subject range of English baccalaureate certificates will undermine our future economic position, not strengthen it.
Concerns about both the substance and implementation of EBCs have been widely voiced. They have been voiced by business, including by the CBI and those in the creative industries and the knowledge economy. Sir Jonathan Ive, the pioneering inventor behind the iPod who was knighted last year for his services to design and enterprise, recently opposed the narrow focus of the Government’s plan:
“It will fail to provide students with the skills that UK employers need and its impact on the UK’s economy will be catastrophic.”
Does the hon. Gentleman accept responsibility for the reforms undertaken by the last Labour Government, including the modularisation of GCSEs and the 2007 reforms? Both those major reforms have caused enormous damage to the reputation of GCSEs as a brand and to the underlying education that is provided under the new curricula.
I certainly accept that we need to learn from the strengths and weaknesses of the changes that have been made. We made a number of reforms. I was a Minister when Curriculum 2000 was implemented, which created the AS-level. That was a positive reform that has stood the test of time. There is a case to look again at modularisation, but as I will say in my speech, that does not require us entirely to remove controlled assessment from the core subjects that make up the secondary school curriculum.
Sir Jonathan has been joined by other leading British innovators in warning the Secretary of State that his plans are “jeopardising Britain’s future prosperity”. Research carried out for the Department for Education by Ipsos MORI demonstrates the effect that the EBacc performance measure has already had on creative subjects. For example, more than 150 schools have withdrawn the important subject of design and technology from their curriculum. There have been similar declines in drama and art. I fear that the Secretary of State’s plans for EBCs risk making the situation even worse.
A survey by YouGov for the National Union of Teachers that was published earlier this month found that more than 80% of teachers said that the proposed changes to exams at 16 were being rushed. Louise Robinson, the president of the Girls Schools Association, has said that the Education Secretary is transfixed by
“a bygone era where everything was considered rosy”.
“You can’t be forcing a 1960s curriculum and exam structure on schools. These children are going to be going out into the world of the 2020s and 2030s. It is going to be very different from”
the Secretary of State’s
“dream of what it should be.”
It is an indication of the Secretary of State’s unpopularity that voices from the private schools sector and the National Union of Teachers are united in their opposition to his plans.
That is a completely different situation. There are many things that we can learn from the decisions of private schools, and indeed state schools, to adopt the IGCSE. In developing an appropriate consensus on the best qualifications for secondary schools, there is a lot that we can learn from the IGCSE, and indeed from the international baccalaureate.
The high-performing jurisdictions in Asia, which the Secretary of State often rightly quotes, are looking to our success in innovation and creativity. I therefore argue that now is not the time for us to move backwards. As they look to us, it is a false debate that says that we cannot have both rigour in maths, English and science and a broader, richer curriculum. As Michael Barber has pointed out:
“Leaders in Pacific Asia are realising that what worked in the last 50 years is not what will be required in the next 50. They have come to the conclusion that their economies need to become more innovative and their schools more creative. It is one thing for an education system to produce well-educated deferential citizens; another to produce a generation of innovators.”
We are right to want our schools to focus on maths and English for all. That is why the Opposition are committed to maths and English for all up to age 18—a proposal that was backed by the CBI in its recent education report.
As well as rigour in maths and English, we need it right across the curriculum. Excluding crucial subjects such as design and technology, computer science, engineering and arts subjects will not promote innovation in our schools. Those subjects are important to our future as a country, including our future economy. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister tell the House the Government’s plans for those subjects that will not be included in the EBCs? Last September, the Secretary of State said that he wants Ofqual to assess the expansion of EBCs into other subject areas, but that sounded to me—and to many others—like an afterthought rather than a central feature of his plans.
As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, under the previous Labour Government a qualification in cake decorating was considered the equivalent of a maths GCSE, and a level 2 qualification in horse studies was the equivalent of four GCSEs. Is that right and will he stand up to defend what the Labour Government did in promoting such equivalents? Will he return to an age where cake decorating is the equivalent of a GCSE in maths, and horse studies the equivalent of four GCSEs?
The hon. Gentleman is capable of a more intelligent argument than the one he has just made, and I hope we can have that moving forward. The Labour party wants vocational qualifications that are fit for purpose, so let us have a debate about how we can secure that.
When I ask parents in my constituency what is their biggest concern about education, they often say, “Will it prepare our children for the jobs of the future?” Of course parents want schools that instil knowledge, but they know that knowledge alone is not enough. Parents value the role of schools in educating their children to become active citizens and informed consumers, and to participate in the economy and jobs of the future. That is the prism through which this reform should be viewed. A true baccalaureate approach will require forms of assessment that are truly fit for purpose.
Last September, the Education Secretary told the House:
“We want to remove controlled assessment…from core subjects.”—[Official Report, 17 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 654.]
and he nods in assent to that today. As I understand, however, the power to decide on forms of assessment lies with Ofqual. Is the Secretary of State planning to bring forward primary legislation to change that so that he has the power to make such decisions? I see he is nodding. Will he say whether he will do that and whether it is his intention to write the questions, invigilate the exams and mark the scripts as well?
The Education Secretary has expressed his preference to scrap controlled assessments, replacing them with three-hour exams at the end of two years’ study. In no other walk of life would we expect three-hour linear exams alone to provide the basis for an assessment of the depth and breadth of learning. Will the Secretary of State tell the House on what evidence from this country or abroad, he has based his preference for entirely removing field work in geography, laboratory experiments in science and presentational skills in English, favouring instead a linear exam that could encourage rote learning over deeper understanding?
The third area where the Government’s plans fall short is perhaps the most worrying. We know the Secretary of State’s plan A because it was published in the Daily Mail in June last year. What he really wants is to reintroduce the two-tier system of O-levels and CSEs—yet another example of the “Upstairs, Downstairs” mentality to which the former Children’s Minister, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), referred at the Education Committee this morning. Having failed to secure his preferred scheme, however, it now seems that we have a stealth version of a two-tier system.
The Secretary of State told the House in September that his plans would not amount to a two-tier system, yet he is proposing a statement of achievement for those who will not take EBCs. Is that not a return to a two-tier system? In fact, it is arguably even worse than the old CSE system, because at least in that system high-performing CSE candidates still had the chance of getting an O-level. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what value will be attached in reality to those statements of achievement? How will they help young people secure places in further education or work, or as apprentices?
We as a House should, on a cross-party basis, reject the talent myth that divides children into winners and losers before they have even had the chance to demonstrate their potential. Such defeatist thinking is socially regressive and caps our potential as a nation. What estimates have the Government made of how many young people will not be entered for EBCs in core subjects? At the other end of the spectrum, the Secretary of State has hinted on a number of occasions at the reintroduction of what is called norm referencing—placing an artificial cap on the proportion of high grades. Are the Government going to proceed with that?
With EBCs we have had from the Secretary of State a lesson in bad policy making—putting the cart before the horse by putting assessment before curriculum, choosing dogma over evidence, and no attempt to build consensus for a lasting solution. Ofqual has expressed real concern about the Secretary of State’s timetable and careful implementation is vital if changes are to succeed. Will the Government, even at this stage, rethink the rushed timetable for those changes?
I accept that the education system is ripe for reform, but we need reform that works. That is why the Labour party has set out a plan for reforming vocational education, with a technical baccalaureate at 18, including English and maths for all. The Secretary of State has undermined important vocational courses. The engineering diploma, for example, was devalued by the Education Secretary before being reinstated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Government have not given that crucial area the priority it deserves. While the CBI criticises the Education Secretary’s plans for EBCs, Labour would get businesses to accredit vocational courses.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and that is part of the reason we have said that English and maths should continue beyond 16, right up to 18. As an advanced industrialised country we are unusual in not requiring learners to continue with both mathematics and the home language, and we have put forward that positive reform precisely to meet the concern raised. I see nothing in the Government’s proposals for EBCs that will address that bad situation, and a real risk that it will make it even worse.
When the Secretary of State set out his proposals last September he had no plans to include vocational education. A few weeks later, the Labour party set out its proposals, including for a technical baccalaureate. How did the Secretary of State respond? The Conservatives put out a press release stating that the certificates would “make young people unemployable.” That is what they said in September. Two months later the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who is not in the Chamber today, supported Labour’s Tech Bac. We have seen from the Secretary of State that vocational education is, at very best, an afterthought, and in reality his policy on vocational education is a total shambles. I believe that education is crucial.
The hon. Gentleman’s predecessor as shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), welcomed in full the Wolf report on vocational education, which preceded consultation on academic subjects. Does he welcome it in full, or has he changed Labour’s position?
I certainly welcome the Wolf recommendations in full—absolutely in full. They provide an important guide for the work we are doing to develop vocational education. However, the Secretary of State may want to return to the Dispatch Box to explain why the Conservatives dismiss the technical baccalaureate—will he take this opportunity to support it?
I am delighted to take this position again. I do not want to turn this into a conversation, but it is striking that before I asked my question the hon. Gentleman said our plans for vocational education were a shambles and he now says that the report, which we have implemented in full, was absolutely right. I am therefore in two minds about what the shadow Secretary of State’s position is on vocational education. On the one hand he endorses the Wolf report, which we have implemented, and on the other hand he says that our proposals for vocational education are a shambles.
The reality, as a number of colleagues on my side were shouting, is that the Secretary of State has not implemented fully the Wolf report. We will support him in doing so. We will work with the Government to develop a technical baccalaureate if they are serious about it. However, if the Government were really focused on these issues, they would not have done what they did to the engineering diploma.
The full implementation of English and maths right through to 18 is in the Wolf report and the Government have not said that that is one of their plans. We believe, for the reason given by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) on the Government Benches, that English and maths to 18 is vital to our future. The technical baccalaureate is a proposal that we have made and the Secretary of State’s junior Minister has backed it. We want to see movement forward. It is not just about the Wolf report; it is about moving forward to a system where we have vocational qualifications that are fit for purpose and where English and maths sit alongside those good, vocational qualifications.
The hon. Gentleman says that there is one thing in the Wolf report that we have not implemented—English and maths to 18. I would contest that. Is that the only thing that he can think of? Have we implemented everything else? I should point out that there is no reference to the technical baccalaureate in the report.
I am sorry that the Secretary of State seems to regard young people continuing with English and maths to 18 as a trivial proposal in the Wolf report—it is a central, important proposal. If he moves to implement it now he will have our full support, because it is vital to the future of this country. If vocational education really was at the heart of the Government’s proposals, why was he silent about it when he made his announcement in September? Why was the focus of the announcement in September on the EBacc subjects and anything else an afterthought: EBacc certificates for English, maths and science, EBacc certificates later for the other EBacc subjects, and then some vague possibility that Ofqual would devise other certificates for other subjects? If vocational education in creative and other academic subjects were really being given the seriousness that the Secretary of State claims, we should have a set of reforms that apply across the entire curriculum, not the narrowing of the curriculum that the Government have proposed through their English baccalaureate certificates.
The Secretary of State should stop digging. I welcome the Wolf report. It was published, as he pointed out, when my predecessor was in this position. I have been in this position for 15 months. The Wolf report is important, but the world is moving on. It took us to propose a technical baccalaureate. I am delighted that, albeit belatedly and half-heartedly, the Government seem to be supporting that, but my central point is that he set out proposals last September that were silent on the technical and practical subjects that are so vital to vocational education. I look forward to the day when I answer the right hon. Gentleman’s questions from the Government side of the House, but he seems very keen to question me today. I will of course take his final intervention.
I am sure we are all grateful that this will be the final one. First of all, the hon. Gentleman says that we have moved on from the Wolf report, so having welcomed it he now believes it is obsolete—that is interesting. [Interruption.] Well, if it is not obsolete, can he tell us which aspects of the Wolf report—not the one that he has mentioned; we will return to that—we have not implemented? Are there any others at all? I am all ears.
I reaffirm that we welcome the Wolf report in full. We are in favour of English and maths to 18. As the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, the Government did not come forward with proposals for that. When and if they do so, we will give them our support. The Wolf report is very important. It is not obsolete; it is an important piece of work that needs to be fully implemented. We will support full implementation, but we need then to move to build on that. The technical baccalaureate is a proposal to achieve that. English baccalaureate certificates that will not be in crucial creative, technical and practical subjects risk undermining the progress that the Wolf report has given us. If he says that we are going to have a new—I think he has used the term “golden standard”—qualification called the English baccalaureate certificate that will apply only to certain subjects and will be given a high status in the accountability framework, that is bound to lead to an acceleration of the trend that I have already described, where fewer schools are doing design technology, fewer schools are doing art and fewer schools are doing drama. That is surely something that all sides of the House can be very concerned about.
Recently, I met Airbus and Rolls Royce, who said that they are having to recruit graduate engineers from abroad, because we are not producing enough of them in this country. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s changes will make that situation far worse than it already is?
My hon. Friend makes the point powerfully, and it is absolutely the right point to make. It is not simply Opposition Members who are making it—it was the central argument of the CBI’s excellent report on education before Christmas, when it called for a pause in the Government’s proposed EBCs. That is why, in our motion, we urge the Government to rethink. We have reflected on what we are hearing from business, as my hon. Friend rightly reminds us, and from the world of education that they are not the reforms that take our education system, our economy, or our broader society in the right direction.
The Government’s plan for EBCs is very much in tune with the Secretary of State’s wider programme for education: a narrowing of the curriculum, backward looking in terms of assessment, and a policy for the few, not the many. Last year, the Secretary of State presided over the fiasco in GCSE English marking. Now, on his plans for changes to exams at 16, week after week we see increasing opposition, whether from business, entrepreneurs, teachers or parents. In contrast, I want to see a true baccalaureate approach to assessment and qualification reform. Labour Members are working to build a consensus in the worlds of business and education on reforms that will work and will last; reforms that will strengthen, not undermine, our standing in the world. On that basis, I commend this motion to the House.
Order. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s point of order in a moment. Just before I call the Minister for Schools, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) to respond from the Government Front Bench, I should say that in order to try and accommodate the level of interest, I have decided to impose an eight-minute limit on each Back-Bench contribution. Mr Brennan, I could never forget you and I was in no danger of doing so.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given that, unusually, the Secretary of State has decided to wind up the debate rather than to respond to the opening speech and has intervened on the shadow Secretary of State on five occasions, is there any means by which the time could be extended to allow the Opposition Front Bench the opportunity to intervene on him the same number of times without him being able to cry shortage of time?
The hon. Gentleman, as he rightly says, did not say that. The order in which Ministers appear at the Dispatch Box is exclusively a matter for the Government. It may be unusual, but there is nothing improper about it whatsoever. The House will now wish to hear Mr David Laws.
We warmly welcome today’s debate on what is an incredibly important topic. It has already been surprisingly interesting because of some of the shadow Secretary of State’s comments on his party’s developing policy. I praise him for the candour with which he has approached the debate.
I thought I heard the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the qualifications framework and examination system that we inherited from the previous Government were seriously flawed and ripe for reform. I think I heard him acknowledge that there were problems with the system of modularisation. I think I heard him welcome the radical and dramatic reforms—many of which seek to deal with problems that emerged under the last Government—pioneered by Alison Wolf as a consequence of her report. I thought I even heard him acknowledge, under cross-questioning by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), that the last Government were wrong to deny state schools the ability to use IGCSE qualifications, which are now used widely in the system.
Partly as a consequence of the hon. Gentleman’s candour, therefore, and partly because of the forensic cross-questioning he received from those on the Government Benches, we have made a lot of progress in establishing that the existing examination and qualification system is deeply flawed and that we are right to be pioneering change.
May I tempt the right hon. Gentleman to match my candour? I mentioned the engineering diploma, which was one of the qualifications downgraded by the Secretary of State. The industry responded and the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to reassemble a version of the engineering diploma. Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge, with matching candour, that the way in which that was handled was a disaster for that crucial area of industry?
Given that we are having these confessional moments, will the right hon. Gentleman also welcome the fact that the shadow Secretary of State has endorsed in full the Wolf report, which stated that under the last Government more than 400,000 teenagers were taking vocational qualifications that were essentially a waste of time?
I am sure the Minister is grateful to his right hon. Friend. Does the Minister recognise these words?
“There has been a breathtaking rise in performance in education since 1997. Inner London was a basket case pre-97; ninety per cent of students were failing to get decent grades at 16 back then. The improvement’s been astonishing, dramatic, unbelievable.”
They were his words in February 2010.
I will make a little progress before I take other interventions.
In spite of the rather political exchanges we have heard from the Opposition Front-Bench team, I want to say that, as Lord Adonis has recently written, education should not be a political football. We are talking today—this is why the shadow Secretary of State was right to table the motion—about designing a new qualifications system for millions of young people in this country. They and their parents expect us to take the right decisions for the right reasons. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I both want to hear from Members from all parties today. The coalition Government have strong views on this issue, but we always listen to those who have sensible and constructive contributions to make.
I should also confirm that, with your permission, Mr Speaker, and as the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) mentioned a second ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be replying to the debate rather than opening it for the Government. That enables me, with your permission, Mr Speaker, to be absent for a short period to fulfil an existing commitment, for which I apologise to the House.
Before I turn in detail to the points raised by the shadow Secretary of State, I would like to step back and consider briefly what the Government are seeking to deliver. Our ambition, quite simply, is to raise standards for all young people. We believe that the majority of young people are capable of leaving education with a wide range of good qualifications at good grades. We are also determined to close the wholly unacceptable gap between outcomes for the most disadvantaged pupils and the rest, which is why we have introduced the pupil premium and many other reforms. Of course, however, improving results and closing the gap are ambitions shared across the House, and I have never been shy in acknowledging some of the progress made under the last Labour Government, including in places such as inner London, where we have important lessons to learn.
If we are to realise this ambition for the schools system, however, we also need to ensure that our education system is delivering in at least three key areas. First, we need to know that the improvements in exam results are real and do not simply reflect grade inflation and falling standards. Secondly, we need to ensure that young people are choosing subjects because of their quality and relevance, not simply in order to meet league table and accountability targets, as I fear was the case for a period under the last Government. Finally, but crucially, we need to ensure that the content and stretch of qualifications are appropriate for the highly competitive environment—the shadow Secretary of State talked about this—that we will face in this century. We should be setting standards of stretch and rigour in our qualifications, not just to ensure the credibility of domestic standards over time, but to guarantee that the educational aspirations and outcomes for English children match the very best in the world.
Jonathan Ive, the designer behind the iPhone, has said of the EBacc:
“It will fail to provide students with the skills that UK employers need and its impact on the UK’s economy will be catastrophic.”
He said that the EBacc
“will starve our world leading creative sector of its future pioneers.”
What does the Minister say to that?
I do not agree with that suggestion; otherwise I would not support the reforms. Indeed, I believe that they will have exactly the opposite effect in delivering higher standards and the ambitions I have just set out.
To be blunt, most people consider that, in the three areas I have just set out—as key ambitions for our qualifications and examination system—the last Labour Government failed to deliver. They failed to maintain standards, and confidence in standards, over time, as I think the shadow Secretary of State acknowledged; they failed to ensure that children were always choosing qualifications for the right reasons, and I would be surprised if the hon. Gentleman did not acknowledge that serious criticism; and in their commendable ambition that all should succeed, they failed to ensure that the rigour and stretch of our qualifications kept pace with the best in the world. Therefore, the qualification reforms that we are debating today have two objectives: first, we want to restore confidence in standards, and secondly we want to ensure that the quality of our qualifications matches the best in the world.
I want to ask the Minister about the best way of preparing young people for life and the world of work. Does he honestly think that a three-hour exam at the end of two years does anything other than test a theoretical knowledge, and that the ability to demonstrate a good theoretical knowledge does not translate into skills for life or work? He must accept that and there must be some balance between the theoretical knowledge demonstrated in an exam and other demonstrations of ability, as far as employers and life skills are concerned.
Of course, there are some subjects for which practical skills have to be able to be assessed properly, but in fairness the hon. Gentleman should also acknowledge the serious concerns about coursework and the credibility of assessment. It is sensible to address those concerns in our reforms, and I believe that for many subjects it is possible to do that without compromising high-quality accountability in the qualifications system.
I am not going to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation. I am happy to look at the areas the hon. Gentleman suggests, although so far I am not personally persuaded that I have heard clinching arguments for some of the subjects. Far more obviously we potentially need a different system of assessment in subjects such as art and music, but I am not sure that he has so far made a convincing case for some of the areas he has mentioned.
I want to make a little progress, then I will take some other interventions, but I am conscious of the fact that a large number of people want to speak.
Our reforms combine rigour with a commitment to fairness and social mobility. They will raise the bar, but they will not shut the door on any young people. The shadow Secretary of State asked whether we would have a system in which a defined proportion of students would be able to get particular grades. I can assure him that we are absolutely not going down that route. We launched a consultation on 17 September setting out our proposals for reform. That consultation closed on 10 December. The Secretary of State and I and other Ministers are now taking the time to consider all the responses carefully before we make final decisions.
Before I turn to some of the more detailed points, let me say a little more about the case for change. GCSEs were a bold and radical development in education policy. They introduced the idea that all children, whatever their background or ability, could sit a single exam in all academic subjects and receive a grade recognising their progress. GCSEs replaced a system that was fundamentally unfair, in that it divided children into winners and losers at an early age and helped only a minority of students to prepare for further study and decent jobs. The crucial principle of universality is one that we as a coalition Government are determined to retain. Contrary to what the shadow Secretary of State said, our reforms look forwards. They do not look backwards. There will be no return to the divisive, two-tier system of the past. The reforms also look outwards, to learn from the best-performing systems in the world today—systems that deliver rigorous qualifications, accessible to all children. However, 25 years on, the GCSE is now ready for change. Students and teachers are working harder than ever, but not all are achieving qualifications that properly reflect their ability and support them to progress successfully.
By and large, many of the reforms that have been proposed would have my support and that of my party. The Minister talks about consultation, but given that there are exam boards in those parts of the United Kingdom where education has been devolved and where students will be applying to universities in England, for example, and given the need, therefore, for comparability of results in the different countries that make up the United Kingdom, what consultation has he had—or does he plan to have—with Ministers responsible for education and exam boards in parts of the United Kingdom other than England?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his broad support for some of the proposals we are debating today. I believe in devolution in the United Kingdom, as does he. Where individual Administrations and Governments decide that they want to go down a different route, it is right that it should be open to them to do so. Indeed, I believe we can learn in the United Kingdom about different solutions that people choose and then work out over time which are seen to succeed. However, I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the point the hon. Gentleman makes. If there is anything we can do to assist with some of his concerns, I am certainly willing to contemplate that.
The right hon. Gentleman has explained the need for change at GCSE and provided an analysis—an accurate one for the most part—of the legacy from the Labour party. Can he explain why abolition of one suite of GCSEs is the right response, rather than simply introducing the measures and changes he has itemised for GCSEs as they stand?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his points and the work that the Select Committee on Education has done on this and associated areas. I believe that in some of the core subjects where we are making these changes there is value in signalling the extent to which they will be improved and varied from the existing GCSE qualifications. There is some merit in underlining—through a change in how we describe these qualifications—how fundamental the changes could be. That will also be relevant for people when they assess the suite of qualifications and their future value in the labour market.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being most generous. He is right about signalling. Is there not a risk from the Government’s saying officially that GCSEs as a brand are broken and irrecoverable of sending the signal that the remaining GCSEs—most subjects—for which children will spend an awful lot of time studying are also broken? Surely he must either have plans to abolish GCSEs altogether or recognise that such signalling has risks as well as benefits?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and that is exactly why we say in paragraph 4.7 of the consultation paper that to
“ensure the benefits of this more rigorous approach to the English Baccalaureate subjects are felt across the whole curriculum, we will ask Ofqual to consider how these new higher standards can be used as a template for judging and accrediting a new suite of qualifications, beyond these subjects at 16, to replace GCSEs”.
I promise him—I will come to this later—that we have no intention of allowing the status of the other subjects, which are not at present in the core English baccalaureate certificate, to be downgraded. We place huge value on those subjects, and I will set out later how we will take the matter forward.
Is not the most important signal that we must send on behalf of young people to tell future employers that they have been rigorously tested in a way that will make them suitable for work? That is the way we will take our economy forward in future too.