House of Commons
Monday 21 January 2013
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
On behalf of the whole House, may I take this opportunity to congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your 50th birthday on Saturday? On behalf of the whole House, I hope that it was a festive weekend in the Speaker’s household.
There are 2,619 academies in England. Over half of state-funded secondary schools are now open as academies or have applied for academy status. In Kettering, 85% of secondary school-age pupils are taught in academies; in Northamptonshire overall the figure is 75%; and in England it is 52%.
My constituents are delighted that five of our six secondary schools have now become academies. Will my right hon. Friend kindly agree to visit Kettering to see for himself how the lives of young people are being transformed and their educational development is being enhanced by this exciting Government initiative?
It would be a pleasure to visit Kettering. I am delighted at the progress that has been made in Northamptonshire. A wide range of academy sponsors have helped to ensure that children—not just in my hon. Friend’s constituency but across the county—are at last enjoying the education they deserve.
As the Secretary of State knows, Trafford borough council has a strong educational record and is giving good support to schools to form academy trusts, including Elmridge and Acre Hall schools in my constituency, about which I have written to him. Does he agree that it is important that every support is given to enable local solutions and local sponsors to come forward in successful authorities such as Trafford, rather than simply opening things up through outside organisations that might have little association with our children’s educational needs?
I absolutely accept the hon. Lady’s point that Conservative-controlled Trafford is a superb local authority, and we can see the many schools that have flourished under its care over the years. As a strong local authority, not only has it welcomed the growth and expansion of outstanding schools—such as Urmston grammar, led by Mike Spinks, in her constituency —but it recognises that schools sometimes have a responsibility beyond their borders to help others to improve. In Northamptonshire we would not have schools improving had it not been for the actions of David Ross and other outside sponsors. Similarly, I know that there are schools in the north-west that wish to extend their wings, not least Altrincham girls grammar in Trafford, helping schools in deprived east Manchester.
20. Three of the schools in my constituency have become academies, but there are still some laggards. What can my right hon. Friend do to encourage the rest of the schools to offer the same opportunity enjoyed by the young people in those academies? (137919)
In her report on vocational education, Professor Alison Wolf recommended the replacement of work-related learning at key stage 4 with high-quality work experience beyond the age of 16. Thanks to that report, funding reforms and the introduction of new 16-to-19 study programmes are supporting those changes, which were announced last July and will take effect from September.
Apart from the fact that most of that was fairly waffly, how would the Secretary of State know what is going on in his Department, given that his former children’s Minister told the Select Committee on Education last week that it was more like a department of Grace Brothers than a Department of State? What will the Secretary of State do, therefore, to ensure that people are being served? The Engineering Employers Federation, the Forum of Private Business and others have all said, “This isn’t working. Get your act together.”
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but as Minister responsible for vocational education I do not know why he is so dismissive of department stores. Retail provides many opportunities for young people to learn the skills that they need to be successful in the world of employment. Last week we had the opportunity to discuss qualifications at 16 and the importance of vocational education. I was delighted then that those on the Opposition Front Bench endorsed every recommendation in the Wolf report, and I am delighted also that we have an opportunity now to carry through those recommendations.
My local education business partnership does fantastic work linking local businesses with schools and giving pupils a bit more understanding of the world of work and the workplace. What are the Government doing to help to promote such social enterprises?
I am absolutely delighted that business, not only in my hon. Friend’s constituency but elsewhere, is playing an increasingly positive role in supporting work experience in schools and promoting an understanding of the world of work among the next generation. In particular, I have been delighted to be able to work with Business in the Community, an outstanding organisation supported and established by the Prince of Wales, that has done much to ensure that business plays its part in encouraging our young people to aspire to achieve more.
This morning, the Under-Secretary of State for Skills tweeted his support for the Policy Exchange report on vocational education, but that report and Tim Oates’s report for Cambridge Assessment were both heavily critical of the Government’s approach, including of their move away from immersion in the workplace for young people. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many schools have now withdrawn provision for work experience for 14 to 16-year-olds, and whether he wants that provision to be ended completely?
It is for each school to decide what is appropriate for its own students, but Alison Wolf’s report, which was welcomed across the House, clearly underlined the importance of high-quality work experience after the age of 16. That position was supported by the CBI and by the Labour party at the time, and our reforms to the funding of post-16 education now facilitate that provision.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need better integration of schools and further education colleges, and that is happening as a result of the Wolf report. The barrier that prevented those who are qualified to work in further education colleges from working in schools has been removed, and children over the age of 14 have the opportunity to be taught in FE colleges, which they did not have before. Greater integration of the two sectors is vital if we are to build on the successes of both.
I am determined to eradicate underperformance in the adoption system. The Department has already published two rounds of adoption scorecards for local authorities as part of a tougher approach to driving up the speed of the adoption process. Our most pressing priority now is to increase the number of approved adopters, and it is crucial that all parts of the system focus on that goal. I hope to make an announcement shortly.
I thank the Minister for that response. I have been made aware of a case involving a couple seeking to adopt, who have been piloting concurrent care with their local authority. The judge initially ruled that the placement order had to be completed within 26 weeks of the birth of the child, but it now looks unlikely to be completed before 44 weeks, at best. Is the Minister listening to the experiences of carers undertaking such pilots to ensure that he understands what they are saying and is able to improve the process across the country?
It is disappointing to hear of the experience of my hon. Friend’s constituents, who are trying to help some of the most vulnerable children in our society. We are keen to promote all ways of improving approaches to concurrent planning, and to fostering for adoption, that are child-focused and that will ensure that children are placed as soon as possible. We are working with Coram to develop practice guidance that is informed by the experience of carers themselves, including—I hope—those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, in order to improve people’s and professionals’ understanding of how those placements work. We will also be legislating in the forthcoming children and families Bill to ensure that care cases are completed as soon as possible within the 26-week time limit.
Adoption is successful for many children and families, as I can confirm from personal experience, but as the Minister knows, there is a shortage of adoptive parents coming forward. Will he confirm that it is important that we improve care standards in residential care and among foster carers, and that we make an investment in those people as well as, rightly, trying to speed up the adoption process?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has huge experience in this area. We need to ensure that we have the right placement available for the child at the right time. That could involve a variety of potentially permanent placements, but we need to ensure that the child has the opportunity to thrive whatever the placement. We believe that there are more children who could benefit from adoption, but we need to ensure that the whole system is fit for purpose.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress that he is making on adoption, an area in which he is particularly well qualified, professionally and personally? What progress is he making on driving out the political correctness that makes it difficult for white parents to adopt children from ethnic minorities even though there is a shortage of adoptive parents?
We know that that is still a problem in the adoption system. For example, it takes over a year longer for a black child to be adopted than a white child. There is also concern that there is still too much emphasis on getting a perfect ethnic match in the adoption system. That is why we will be legislating to ensure that all factors that are relevant to the characteristics of the child are taken into consideration, but that none, including the child’s ethnicity, should be overriding.
Human trafficking is a heinous crime, and I salute my hon. Friend’s work in raising awareness of this issue. Schools can ensure that pupils receive appropriate information on this important topic through personal, social, health and economic education.
I thank the Minister for that reply. I commend the work undertaken among girls at Sandbach high school in my constituency, raising awareness that trafficking is happening right here in many UK towns and cities. What are the Government doing to make sure that school pupils recognise grooming, are aware of the dangers to which it can lead and know how to avoid becoming victims?
I, too, commend the work done by pupils and teachers at Sandbach high school, and I thank my hon. Friend for bringing it to my attention. I would be interested to hear more from her about how that school carries out best practice. She rightly highlights that PSHE plays a role in ensuring how pupils learn about, recognise and spot the signs of abuse and grooming, helping them to stay safe and to make informed choices.
Are not too many teachers anxious about raising such subjects in the classroom? We know of the real risks that young girls face—most brutally revealed at the Old Bailey last week by the cases of young children in Oxford? What can the Minister do to help teachers in the classroom to have the tools they need to protect these girls?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we need teachers to be aware of, and well trained in, these issues. I would like to learn from the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and to share it as best practice, so that we can ensure that those important issues are taught in our schools.
One of the signs, of course, is children who go missing from school on a regular basis. In 2011, the Select Committee recommended that the Secretary of State should write to schools annually, reminding them of their responsibilities. Is that now happening?
Children in Care
The number of children reported to the Department as missing from care for more than 24 hours was 800 in 2010, 920 in 2011 and 1,490 in 2012. However, there are significant differences in data collected by the police and local authorities, which need to be addressed. The expert group on data has now made recommendations, and we will announce our actions shortly.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s analysis and about the importance of ensuring that all children, particularly those who have been trafficked who are probably the most vulnerable of all, have the protection they need within the care system. Our forthcoming revised statutory guidance on children who go missing from home or care will include specific advice on how to safeguard trafficked children. We are asking the Refugee Council together with the Children’s Society to carry out a review of the practical care arrangements for children in care who may have been trafficked, to identify the gaps in the system and to make sure that good practice is spread as widely as possible.
I thank the Minister for the very constructive meeting we had before Christmas. I am sure he is aware of concerns about the new police definitions of “missing” and “absent” and their impact on effective child protection. I am sure he would agree that the key to protecting children from child sexual exploitation is a sharing of all data about vulnerable children, including absence figures at the local level? Will he therefore ensure that any future guidance from his Department about children missing from care reinforces that?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady not only for her chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults, but for her vital contribution to the work of the groups in the Department that have been looking into the issue. I hope that we can continue that dialogue in future.
It is crucial for us to improve data on missing and absent children at local level, in police forces and local authorities and more widely in other agencies, and we need to make that as effective as possible throughout the whole system. I look forward to discussing with the hon. Lady how we can do that better.
As the Minister will readily acknowledge, the police think that far more children are going missing than local authorities record. What the Minister says about trafficked children is absolutely right, but until local authorities are forced to identify trafficked children, we cannot begin to deal with the problem. Will he instruct authorities in future to record the number of trafficked children whom they are looking after?
Part of the purpose of the working group that we set up following the report from the all-party parliamentary group and the accelerated report from the deputy Children’s Commissioner was to consider how we could better record the data on all children who have some contact with the care system, and that includes trafficked children. I will think carefully about what my hon. Friend has said in conjunction with that work, and I should be happy to discuss it with him further.
It is said that one of the main reasons children go missing from care is a lack of time, love and attention from those who care for them. However, the Government have presided over dramatic cuts in children’s services at a time when more children are entering the care system, along with—according to the former children’s Minister—a “downgrading” in the Department of issues involving children. Given that more than 50% of social workers are describing their case loads as unmanageable and 88% say that children’s lives may be put at risk by the cuts, can the Minister tell me who will be able to spare those children the time, love and attention that they need, keep them in the care system and keep them safe?
We must ensure that the child protection system that we have is as effective as possible. We are implementing the Munro reforms, which the hon. Lady’s party supports, both in relation to the statutory guidance on safeguarding and working together and in relation to better trained and higher quality social workers. We want protection to be in place for every child who needs it, but we must also provide the care that children require once they are in the care system. I want what the hon. Lady wants, which is the best possible care for all those children, and I hope she will join me in supporting Eileen Munro’s work so that we can ensure that it is provided.
We have received almost 5,500 written responses to our consultation, and we are currently reviewing them, along with all the views that we have heard in meetings with interested organisations. We will report on the findings from the consultation once we have had a chance to consider them in full.
If the Secretary of State had succeeded in uniting everyone—from the CBI to the teaching unions, from Kenneth Baker to Sir Jonathan Ive—in support of his proposals, we would be calling him a genius. What word would he use to describe someone who has achieved the exact opposite?
I am always grateful for the thought that the hon. Gentleman is toying with the question of whether to call me a genius or a saint. I shall merely say that what we have managed to do so far is put the case for reform after the years when, sadly, the Labour party was in power, and confidence in our examination system received a shock from which the coalition Government are at last rescuing it.
The Secretary of State may not see anything wrong with a 19th-century education system that places no value on practical, vocational or creative training, but employers are very concerned, and so is the CBI. Why is the Secretary of State not as worried as they are?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, because it gives me another opportunity to remind the House of the changes that we have made to, for example, the teaching of computer science. We replaced an out-of-date information and communications technology curriculum, which had not changed under the last Government, with a fit-for-purpose computer science curriculum that was endorsed by the industry. The hon. Gentleman’s question also gives me an opportunity to point out that, through both the Wolf review of vocational qualifications and the Richard review of apprenticeships, we have managed to unite all those who take vocational education seriously in acclaiming the reforming steps that we have taken.
The school information regulations that came into force last September require schools to publish on their websites their GCSE results and the GCSE courses that they offer, as well as details of the curriculum for each academic subject in each year of school. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that schools comply with those regulations, so that parents have all the information that they need when deciding on a school for their children?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; one of the best ways in which we can ensure that all schools offer the range of subjects that young people need in order to succeed is to ensure that there is transparency about the curriculum and clarity in the minds of parents. The changes he mentions should secure that, and it is important that schools observe them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if this country’s work force are to be able to compete in the global marketplace, we must always endeavour to equip our students better with the skills that they will need to flourish in an increasingly competitive and globalised world?
My hon. Friend, once again, hits the nail on the head; he is acquiring a reputation in these Question Times for cutting straight to the heart of an issue. He describes why the changes we have made to ensure that all students who fail to secure adequate GCSE passes in English and maths at 16 are now required to take those critical subjects on beyond that age are so important. That is also why we are absolutely delighted that we are recruiting a better cohort of teachers than ever before, to build on the achievements of the past.
“The EBacc is very similar to the exam I sat in 1951…the School Certificate. It’s exactly the same, exactly!”
That was changed in 1951
“because it simply wasn’t broad enough for most children…I was part of a privileged elite. And the EBacc is a throwback to that.”
Those were the words of former Conservative Education Secretary, Lord Baker. Discuss.
I am happy to say that what was an academic education limited to a narrow elite in the 1950s is now being extended to more and more children. I am very sorry that the snobbish attitude that prevails on the Labour Benches—[Interruption.] It is interesting to see Labour Members uniting behind a view that academic education should be available only to a minority, and it is a unique historic trap into which they are falling by endorsing the idea that English, maths, science and modern foreign languages should somehow be denied to young people. What a pity that the party that once stood up for ragged-trousered philanthropists is now standing up for closed-minded reaction.
Despite the concerns that have been expressed about arts and creative subjects, is it not true that there is plenty of room in the curriculum for young people who are interested in studying those subjects, even while taking the full English baccalaureate suite?
Yes, and I find it curious that there are those who say, for example, that English literature is not a subject that encourages creativity. The assault on the subjects in the English baccalaureate betrays the most narrow of mindsets, whereby the only things that are creative are those which fall within a particularly narrow spectrum. I think that scientists are creative; I think that those who study physics are capable of creativity; I think that geographers are creative; I think that historians are creative. To have Labour Members attacking those subjects as somehow not being creative and not being appropriate for the 21st century is as revealing as the dog that did not bark in Sherlock Holmes’s story.
Local authorities have a key role in securing early intervention provision to meet the needs of their communities. To support this, we are increasing the overall funding for early intervention, from £2.2 billion in 2011-12 to £2.5 billion in 2014-15. That funding will enable local authorities to support early intervention provision, as well as funding the early education for two-year-olds from low-income families, which evidence shows is one of the most important types of early intervention.
I am interested in those figures, because I do not think they are quite what they seem. If it is so important to have early intervention, why is the Secretary of State actually taking away more than £1 billion from early intervention in England? Why is he taking 41% in real terms—more than £4.4 million—from my local authority, the London borough of Redbridge?
I am a great fan of the hon. Gentleman; he does distinguished work in this House, so it is rare to see him lapse. I would remind him of two things: we inherited a blasted economic heath as a result of the depredations of the previous Government; and the figures for the amount that we are spending on early intervention rise for every year of this Parliament.
In view of the success of the pupil premium in targeting money for school-age children and on this important issue of early intervention, has the Department given any consideration to a form of nursery premium that would extend the benefits of that to younger children?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the pupil premium has been hugely successful in incentivising innovation and trying to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds do better. It has also ensured that the balance of funding in education has moved towards disadvantaged children and disadvantaged areas. We are constantly looking at ways to ensure that the innovation and progress that the pupil premium has helped bring about are extended to more children at more ages.
The Secretary of State cites a figure of £2.2 billion for 2011-12, but by that point he had cut £600 million from early intervention in the previous year. I asked him about that in October; since then we have had the local government settlement, which includes a further cut of £49 million to early intervention. Is this not yet another example of how, as the former children’s Minister told the Select Committee last week, children and families are a “declining priority” for this Secretary of State?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point. I remind him that he and his colleagues would have more credibility in discussing public spending if they were to acknowledge the terrible mistakes made by the previous Labour Government that led to the desperate economic situation in which we find ourselves. The figures are—[Interruption.] Silence in class! Spending on early intervention has gone up from £2.2 billion to £2.36 billion to £2.39 billion to £2.51 billion. Even at a time of tremendous economic pressure, spending is increasing. I should have thought that that would be good news in anyone’s language.
University Technical Colleges
I congratulate the Government on the progress in the expansion and implementation of UTCs, and particularly the work of Lord Hill, the former Minister. I am sure that we all wish him the best in his new position. I must confess that I hope that there will be a UTC in Watford before very long. Does the Minister agree that the time must come very soon when all students of the appropriate age group have access to UTCs? Does he also agree that UTCs are an excellent weapon in reducing the long-term unemployment of young people by providing the skills they need to get jobs?
I also pay tribute to the work of Lord Hill in this area and I note my hon. Friend’s representations on behalf of Watford. He is absolutely right that it is essential we provide the opportunity for all young people to access high-quality vocational education. He will be interested to hear that we are already well on the way to exceeding the Government’s target of 24 UTCs by 2014.
It is important that areas such as Bradford in west Yorkshire which have high levels of youth unemployment have access to initiatives such as UTCs. How will the Minister expand and promote the policy as quickly as possible so that areas such as Bradford and west Yorkshire can participate?
Despite improvements in recent years, educational attainment in North Lincolnshire is still not where we would like it to be. May I urge the Minister to do everything he can to ensure that the UTC application for Scunthorpe progresses?
Special Educational Needs
Our proposed reforms will ensure that services work closely together to support children and young people with special educational needs, including a requirement for local authorities and the health service to commission services jointly. We are testing approaches to implementation across 20 pathfinders, including a local offer that sets out services available for all children and young people with SEN and a co-ordinated education, health and care plan for those with more complex needs.
Around 70% of children in care have some form of special educational needs so it is vital that we better co-ordinate the support that they receive, including in their foster placements. The pathfinders are looking specifically at improving working partnerships between education, health and social care in respect of looked-after children, as well as at the training needs of foster carers to ensure that we get much more co-ordinated support.
Additional needs funding will be routed through local authorities to all post-16 providers from September 2013. There is quite a lot of evidence in the colleges sector that local authorities have not got a grip on the number of our young people in their area who have additional needs. What will the Minister do to ensure that this does not get in the way of a smooth transfer next autumn?
The Department and the Education Funding Agency are working closely with local authorities and colleges. I have had discussions with the Association of Colleges, as well as a number of discussions with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools, to make sure that the transition is as smooth as possible and that the adjustments that need to be made are made in good time so that no child misses out as a consequence.
Twenty thousand pupils in Hampshire are educated in the independent sector, including children with special educational needs, yet those schools do not benefit from the same level of scrutiny by child protection boards as those in the state sector. Given the appalling case of sexual abuse and the recent tribunal ruling at a school in my constituency which specialises in teaching children with special educational needs, will my hon. Friend agree to meet me as a matter of urgency to discuss what measures can be taken to improve that situation?
I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that issue in more detail. Every school must have a child protection policy and the new Ofsted multi-agency inspection that comes in later this year will be a strong way of ensuring that there is a much more co-ordinated response to safeguarding and child protection, not just within schools but right across all agencies.
Ensuring that children benefit from high-quality early education and child care is a key priority. This Government spend more than £5 billion per year. As a proportion of GDP, that is higher than Germany and as much as France, yet our parents pay some of the highest costs and child care workers in England receive lower salaries than those in comparable countries. There is much scope to reform our system to achieve higher quality and better value for money.
As the Minister says, the UK has some of the most expensive child care in the OECD. The Resolution Foundation tells us that a woman second earner working full-time on the minimum wage would bring home only £4 extra from that second role in her family, after paying child care costs and losing tax credits, and the Government hardly helped by cutting the child care element of the working tax credit, which hit 400,000 families. Is it not time that the Government got on and did something to help parents with those high child care costs?
As we announced in the mid-term review, we will help hard-working families with the cost of child care and we will announce measures on that in due course. As a country we spend more than £5 billion a year, more than countries such as Germany and the same amount as France, and we are not yet getting value for money. My other aim is to make sure that we use the money in our system much better to ensure that more money goes to the front line and that our hard-working child care workers in nurseries and our child minders receive more of the money coming from parents and the Government.
My role is to make sure that the child care provided in this country is of the highest quality and provides value for the money that the Government are putting in. My hon. Friend is right: many parents choose to look after their own children at home. That is important, too, but my role is very much to ensure that child care is of the highest quality.
Two expert advisers on child care, Professors Helen Penn and Eva Lloyd, have warned the Government about their child care plans. Does the Minister agree with Professor Lloyd that changing ratios would not reduce costs, but would result in “a reduction in quality”? Will the Minister publish the expert report that her Department commissioned nine months ago and take the advice of these experts who said, in effect, that she needs to go back to the drawing board?
I suggest that the hon. Lady speaks to her boss, who has advocated Danish and Swedish child care systems, both of which have higher ratios than we currently have in England. They also have higher salaries and higher levels of qualification.
We are looking at best practice in Germany, France, Denmark and the Netherlands to make sure that we end up with a system in which we pay child care workers more than the £6.60 an hour that they are getting at the moment. That is a legacy of the previous Government. We are paying those who should be highly paid professionals £6.60 an hour—barely more than the minimum wage.
Sixth-form colleges make an important contribution to the education of 16 to 19 year-olds. The latest data show that the sector is performing well in both student attainment and a range of valued-added measures. Nearly four fifths of sixth-form colleges are rated “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted.
As the Minister has just said, sixth-form colleges are our most successful educational institutions, in terms of both quality of education and value for money. I suggest that the Government would do well by our young people and taxpayers if they sought to establish many more sixth-form colleges and ensured that those that we have are treated fairly and supported.
We will certainly go on strongly supporting sixth-form colleges. I believe that an all-party sixth-form college group will be formed in the near future with the hon. Gentleman as its chairman. I will be more than happy to meet him in his capacity as chair of that group.
There is only one school sixth form in my constituency; the rest of the sixth-form students go to Harlow college. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the poorest pupils going to sixth-form and further education colleges have access to free school meals, as school students have?
As my hon. Friend will know, that is a long-standing injustice in how legislation treats students in colleges compared with those in schools. Obviously, resolving it would involve a considerable financial commitment, but I assure him that we are looking at it.
Will the Minister accept, however, that funding should be equal for sixth-form students regardless of the status of the establishment they go to? With that in mind, will he accept an invitation from me to visit Colchester sixth-form college—arguably the best in the country—to see how successful it is?
The Department is working to ensure that as many good and outstanding state schools as possible have the opportunity to sponsor other schools. We have created a sponsor capacity fund to ensure that just such a change can take place.
I refer my right hon. Friend to the excellent progress being made by King’s Lynn academy. Will he join me in paying tribute to the principal Craig Morrison and his team, who have put in place a new reinvigorated ethos and put real pride into the school? Is it not an excellent example of why the academies programme should be rolled out and will he join me in visiting the school in the not-too-distant future?
It is always a pleasure to visit the county of Norfolk, particularly in my hon. Friend’s company, and I would be delighted to do so. In the past, educational standards in Norfolk simply were not good enough, but as a result of the transformational leadership of academy principals, things are at last improving. I commend, for example, the work undertaken by Rachel de Souza at the Ormiston Victory academy and the work that she is extending across the whole county, particularly targeting children in the most disadvantaged parts who need our reforms most.
By April this year, 40% of Bristol pupils will be taught in academies. One of the consequences of that has been the creation of rather fragmented services in school improvement, educational welfare and so on; 75%, I think, of the academies are buying those services in from the local authority, but not all of them are. What assessment has been made of the quality of both statutory and non-statutory safeguarding provisions in academies as a result of the change?
There was fragmentation in education in Bristol, with far too many children being educated outside the city and far too many of their parents feeling that they had to be educated privately. At last, educational standards in Bristol are being turned around, not least thanks to the inspirational leadership of academy sponsors and academy leaders such as David Carter of the Cabot Learning Federation. There is no evidence that child safeguarding is taken any less seriously in academies. All the evidence is that academies, in pastoral and in educational terms, outperform other schools.
Academies and free schools are making a real difference to educational attainment in this country. May I make the Secretary of State aware of an excellent bid for a new free school in east Reading that is truly worthy of Government support?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that case. I find increasingly that Members in all parts of the House are supporting free school bids. Not so long ago, the shadow Education Secretary was saying that free schools were freaky schools; now, increasingly, free schools are the schools that every Member of this House wants in their constituency.
Guidance and Advice Service
An excellent, broad education grounded in core subjects such as maths, languages and sciences is an important foundation for a successful career. That is why we have introduced the English baccalaureate to encourage students not to close off their options too early. We have also given schools a new duty to secure independent careers guidance, which will help students to make informed choices about the best study routes for them.
The Minister must know that children from more socially deprived backgrounds desperately need high-quality careers advice. All the evidence is that that careers advice is diminishing rapidly up and down this country. What is she going to do about that to help those young people?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I have said, ensuring that more students are taking core subjects means that they will have better career opportunities later in life, and extending the opportunity to study maths and English beyond GCSE level for those who have not got a grade C means that they will get those important points. We have developed the National Careers Service, and the helpline has had 62,000 contacts with 13 to 18-year-olds, giving people these opportunities. We also ask schools to offer face-to-face advice. The key is that students get a good education; that is what will help them to compete in the world.
Tens of billions of pounds are spent on post-14 education alone, and the choices made by young people are crucial to their future and to that of the nation. The Education Committee’s report on careers advice and guidance will come out on Wednesday. Does the Minister agree that we must ensure that the right advice and guidance is in place, not only to help those most disadvantaged in our society but to ensure the most effective use of public funds?
Of course I will be extremely interested to see what the Select Committee report says on the subject. We do need good careers guidance, but we also need a system where students have an incentive to take subjects that will prove of value to them later in life. That is the whole point of the English baccalaureate.
More than 5,000 schools across the country are closed today as a result of adverse weather conditions. Thanks to changes that this Government have made, no school that ensures that it is open will be penalised if individual students cannot make it to school on that day. I hope that as a result more and more schools will recognise that while the decision on whether to remain open or closed is a matter for the head teacher, everything can and should be done to ensure that all children get access to a good education.
After the revelations about Jimmy Savile, Cyril Smith and other appalling cases, is it not time for the Secretary of State to stop dragging his feet over personal, social, health and economic education, causing its teaching over the past two years to decline, and instead to help equip our young people to better resist the efforts of predatory paedophiles?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that given their scale the recent revelations about the extent of child abuse and child grooming are uniquely worrying. In a speech that I gave to the Institute for Public Policy Research just before Christmas, I outlined a series of steps that my Department has taken, and will take, in order to deal with this.
T2. Given the evolving role of school governors, especially in performing accountability measures, and bearing in mind how Ofsted is focusing on school governors and their role in ensuring that higher standards are found in schools that have thus far not managed to achieve them, does the Secretary of State agree that we need to focus on skills and, in particular, the role of the chair? (137924)
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has done on how to improve school governance. It matters hugely and one of the successes of the academies programme has been to raise the quality of school governance. I agree that, while it is important that the community feels that its voice is represented on governing bodies, the single most important thing is the skills and capabilities of the governing body.
Last week, the former children’s Minister, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), said that the children and families agenda is a “declining priority” for this Government. The response from a senior official in the Department was to describe the hon. Gentleman as “lazy” and “incompetent”. The code of conduct for special advisers and civil servants precludes them from making such personal attacks. Will the Education Secretary investigate to determine whether a breach of the code has occurred and, if one has, will he take all necessary disciplinary action?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It gives me an opportunity to affirm the importance of child protection and of ensuring that this Government take all the steps needed to make sure that no child is placed at risk and to—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”] I think the first part of the question was about child protection and I regard that as the most important part, which is why we have taken steps to ensure that child protection is and remains a top priority. It is, of course, the case that leaks are a part of political life, and I tend to regard them all with equanimity.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making a very important point. Changes to the way in which we pay and reward teachers will ensure that good teachers are rewarded better and that those schools in disadvantaged areas which, thanks to the pupil premium, are receiving more money will have the chance to get the high-quality teaching that their children deserve.
T4. Hetton school in my constituency was due to be rebuilt under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme. The school was then accepted on to this Government’s new scheme, but its head has now been told that, due to financing issues, the rebuilding will be delayed by another year. Will the Secretary of State explain the reasons for that? (137926)
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and will investigate the specific case that she mentions. Sadly, the Building Schools for the Future programme had to be terminated, not least because of the inefficiencies within the scheme. The priority schools building programme will ensure that schools are repaired at less cost to the taxpayer and in a more effective way. If there has been any slippage in the particular case that the hon. Lady has brought to my attention, I will look at it and write to her.
T6. Today, the all-party group on archives and history has formally published its report, “History for all?” One of its principal recommendations is to consider whether there should be a British history qualification at 16 that would teach the broad chronological span of British history. Will the Secretary of State seriously consider this report and meet a cross-party delegation of MPs to discuss its findings? (137928)
T5. The Secretary of State has spoken eloquently of the need for academic subjects to be taught in poorer communities, so why is Keele university in north Staffordshire seeing its allocation for secondary teacher core training cut by 100% in history, 100% in geography and 100% in English? Will he give me an assurance that the new teaching regime will not distort teacher supply geographically, so that areas such as Stoke-on-Trent are not deprived of well trained, well motivated teachers? Why this snobbery? Don’t Stoke kids deserve the best? (137927)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I read his column in the Stoke Sentinel on precisely this issue, with admiration both for his passion and for the quality of his prose. I assure him that we will absolutely ensure that, across the country, teachers who are well trained will be placed in the schools that need them most. That is why we have reformed pay and conditions—there is still silence from the Labour party on whether or not it supports our changes—and why we have made changes to teacher training through the school direct programme. Let me offer the hon. Gentleman a meeting with the head of the Teaching Agency, Charlie Taylor. After that meeting, if he is not impressed by Charlie and his commitment to helping the poorest children do well, I am afraid that nothing will convince him.
T7. I am sure that Ministers will be aware that Holocaust memorial day will take place this week and that the work of the Holocaust Education Trust has been commended by this and previous Governments. Are they also aware that the Lord Merlyn-Rees memorial lecture will take place this evening here in Parliament—in the Attlee suite—at which the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), and Mr Danny Finkelstein of The Times will speak? I hope that Ministers will implore their constituents and colleagues to attend. (137929)
I look forward to listening to both the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) and Mr Finkelstein of The Times this evening. Let me place on record my gratitude to the last Government for instituting state support for the Holocaust Education Trust, and particularly to my predecessor as Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), for the courage and commitment that he showed to the fantastic work of the HET. I extend my congratulations also to its chief executive, Karen Pollock, who is an inspirational public figure and richly deserved her recent recognition in the honours list.
T8. I have just come from an excellent event hosted by Newham council called “Every child a musician”. It is a scheme that was launched in 2010 to give all children from whatever background access to a musical education. It has been rigorously evaluated by the Institute of Education, and Professor Graham Welch has stated that evidence already exists of“a link between progress in EcAM and progress in writing and English.”Can the Secretary of State explain, therefore, why arts subjects will not count towards the English baccalaureate? (137930)
I congratulate Newham council on its leadership, and I congratulate all those involved in music education, who have been supported in London by the Mayor through the scheme that he has introduced to ensure that more children have access to instrumental tuition.
Darren Henley’s report on music education was greeted as probably the best report on the subject that had been written, and enacted by any Government, since the dawn of time. I am grateful that there is such widespread recognition of our commitment to school music.
T9. Some 18,000 young people and teachers have had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz thanks to the wonderful work of the Holocaust Education Trust. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should commend those who are organising events across the country to commemorate the awful evil of the holocaust, and that it is important that all young people learn the lessons from the past so that it is not repeated in the future? (137931)
I absolutely agree, and at a time when we are seeing the effects of prejudice and anti-Semitism on the rise—all of us will have been watching news programmes over the weekend horrified at the re-emergence of murderous prejudice in north Africa and the middle east—we will all affirm the vital importance of the work that the Holocaust Education Trust continues to do.
The hon. Lady will know that there are duties on local authorities to ensure that there is adequate provision of the services that she mentions. We work closely with many youth services, and I spoke at the National Youth Agency only last week about the innovative and creative practices that are now developing in a lot of areas, which are delivering excellent services for young people. That includes the £240 million capital investment that we have recently put into myplace centres, which are benefiting many of the poorest parts of our country.
T10. In recent years, more premature babies, who are being born even earlier, are surviving in good health, albeit that they start school with development that, when measured from their birth date, is delayed. Will the Minister consider fresh evidence, especially about severely premature summer-born babies, and give their parents the final say on when they start school? (137932)
We are certainly prepared to consider that further. My hon. Friend will know that in the simpler code that was introduced on 1 February 2012, we clarified some aspects of the admissions situation and made parents’ rights on deferral much clearer. The Department is also meeting parents who are affected by such issues to consider any further changes.
Earlier, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), hinted again about changes to child care. A week or so ago there were major trails in the Sunday papers about imminent announcements. Has she been thwarted in her ambitions by members of the Government who do not wish to see women back in the workplace and contributing to the Government’s tax take?
We will shortly announce proposals on child care. As I mentioned earlier, we are not getting value for money for the £5 billion that we spend. In the mid-term review, we said that we would put forward a new offer for working parents. At the moment, our parents pay more than those in virtually any other OECD country, after 13 years of Labour creating a system that does not work. We are going to fix it.
We heard earlier about the success of Northamptonshire in introducing academies. We have not been as successful in Staffordshire, and one reason for that has been peer pressure by headmasters on those headmasters who want to establish academies. What steps can the Department take—if any—to encourage headmasters to have a little bit more courage to go ahead and take that step?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I fear we have reached a tipping point in the number of schools that have become academies at secondary level, with more than 52% of pupils now educated in academies. As a result of that, even in local authorities where there are perhaps one or two more small c conservative head teachers, I believe that the overwhelming evidence of the benefits that academies bring will ensure that we see more schools going down that path.
I know that the Secretary of State shares my determination to improve social mobility. Will he therefore support my constituent, Damien Shannon, who has been prevented from taking an MSc place at St Hugh’s college Oxford simply because he cannot lay his hands on £21,000 immediately? How does that help social mobility?
May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the right hon. Lady’s commitment to social mobility and the work she has done in encouraging internships in this House? I shall look as quickly as I can into that case and discuss it with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
I look forward to the Minister’s proposals for improving outcomes for children with special educational needs. However, for those parents who are still forced to use the tribunal process, the delay before they get to that tribunal is considerable and can lead to additional pressure and for too long leave children without the education they need. Will he agree to discuss the matter with the Department, and seek to improve those outcomes?
I know my hon. Friend has a lot of experience in his family of these issues, and we are working hard to ensure that we move away from the adversarial nature of our system which means that far too many cases end up in a tribunal. We have looked carefully at the report from the Education Committee and will be responding shortly with—I hope—answers that it will find helpful.
At Christmas, officials from the Department for Education held a party at which they were encouraged to wear silly hats and not remove them until they had identified what cuts they wanted to make. Another official blogged that he would like a barge on which to sail between the different offices outside London. The one he could not reach was Darlington, which is under threat of moving to Newcastle. Does the Secretary of State see how insulting that is to 450 of my constituents who might be losing their jobs?
The hon. Lady has made a good case for the continuation of Department for Education provision at Mowden hall in Darlington. It is important for us all to recognise that the work of civil servants engaged in the DfE review has been typical of the committed work they do across the Department to ensure that we have better services for less money. I am looking forward to working with her to ensure that we examine the case for either Darlington or another location in the north-east providing an even better service for all children in the future.
In light of the report by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) earlier in this Parliament, will the Secretary of State say what steps he is taking to improve the parenting skills of parents who have children under the age of three?
We are currently undertaking three pilots to see how parenting classes can enhance the capacity of parents from a variety of backgrounds to provide children with the support they need. I am particularly open to innovation in that field, and those three pilots should help us to decide the best way to move on.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the despicable terrorist attack in Algeria and the tragic events of the last few days. It is with great sadness that I have to confirm that we now know three British nationals have been killed, and that a further three are believed to be dead, as is a Colombian national who was resident in Britain. I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the families and friends of all those who have lost loved ones.
First, let me update the House on developments over the weekend and the steps we have taken to get survivors home, and then I will begin to set out how I believe we will work with our allies to overcome the terrorist scourge in this region. The Algerian Prime Minister told me on Saturday afternoon that the Algerian military had completed its offensive and that the terrorist incident was over. Since then, Algerian forces have undertaken a further operation to clear the site of potential explosives and booby traps. This is still being completed, and it will allow our embassy-led team to access the site.
It is important to put on record the scale of what happened. There is still some uncertainty about the precise facts, but we believe that, in total, there were some 800 employees working at the In Amenas site at the time of the attack, about 135 of whom were foreign nationals. Over 40 were taken hostage, and at least 12 were killed, with at least a further 20 unaccounted for and feared dead. The Algerian Prime Minister has said today that he believes 37 foreign hostages were killed. The number of terrorists was over 30. Most were killed during the incident but a small number are in Algerian custody.
Our immediate priorities have been the safety of the British nationals involved, the evacuation of the wounded and freed hostages, and the repatriation of those who have tragically been killed. Working closely with BP, and side by side with our US, Japanese and Norwegian partners, a swift international evacuation effort has been completed. The last British flights out on Saturday night brought not only the remaining freed Britons, but Germans, Americans, New Zealanders, Croats, Romanians and Portuguese.
As of yesterday, all 22 British nationals caught up in the attack, who either escaped or were freed, had been safely returned to Britain, to be debriefed by the police and of course reunited with their families. Now, our most vital work is bringing home those who died. An international team of British, American and Norwegian experts is in close co-operation with the Algerian Ministry of Justice undertaking the task of formally identifying their bodies. We want this process to happen as swiftly as possible, but it will involve some intensive forensic and policing work, and so may take some time.
Throughout the last five days, the British ambassador to Algeria and staff from across the Government and beyond have been working around the clock to support British citizens and their families, and I am sure the House would like to join me in thanking them for their efforts.
We should also recognise all that the Algerians have done to confront this dreadful attack. I am sure the House will understand the challenges that Algeria faced in dealing with over 30 terrorists bent on killing innocent people in a large, extremely remote and dangerous industrial complex. This would have been a most demanding task for security forces anywhere in the world, and we should acknowledge the resolve shown by the Algerians in undertaking it. Above all, the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists.
Many questions remain about this whole incident, but one thing is clear: this attack underlines the threat that terrorist groups pose to the countries and peoples of that region, and to our citizens, our companies and our interests. Four years ago, the principal threat from Islamist extremism came from the Afghanistan and Pakistan region. A huge amount has been done to address and reduce the scale of that threat. Whereas at one point three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against the UK had links to that region, today that has reduced to less than half, but at the same time al-Qaeda franchises have grown in Yemen, Somalia and parts of north Africa.
The changing nature of the threat we face was highlighted in our national security strategy in 2010 and shaped the decisions we made. Although there were difficult decisions to make, we increased our investment in our special forces, cyber-security and key intelligence capabilities, while also increasing our investment in fragile and broken states.
In north Africa—as in Somalia—terrorist activity has been fuelled by hostage ransoms and wider criminality. To date, the threat it poses has been to these north African states themselves and, of course, as I have said, to western interests in those states, but as it escalates, it is becoming a magnet for jihadists from other countries who share this poisonous ideology. Indeed, there are already reports of non-Algerian nationals involved in this attack.
More than ever, the evolving threat demands an international response. It must be one that is tough, intelligent, patient and based on strong international partnerships. First, we should be clear that this murderous violence requires a strong security response. We must be realistic and hard-headed about the threats we face. Our role is to support the Governments of the region in their resolve to combat this menace, as many are doing at a high cost. We will therefore work closely with the Algerian Government to learn the lessons of this attack, and to deepen our security co-operation, and we will contribute British intelligence and counter-terrorism assets to an international effort to find and dismantle the network that planned and ordered the brutal assault at In Amenas.
We must work right across the region. In Nigeria, we will continue our close security partnership with the Government there as they confront Islamist-inspired terrorism. In Libya, we will continue to support the new Government on the urgent priority of building new and effective security forces. In Mali, we will work with the Malians themselves, with their neighbours and with our international allies, to prevent a new terrorist haven developing on Europe’s doorstep.
We support the French intervention that took place at the request of the Malian Government, and we are working to ensure that an African-led military force can—with the appropriate training and support—help to ensure Mali’s long-term stability. That support will include the EU training mission that was agreed by EU Foreign Ministers in Brussels last week.
Secondly, our tough security response must be matched by an intelligent political response. Al-Qaeda franchises thrive where there are weak political institutions, political instability and a failure to address long-standing political grievances, so we need a political approach that addresses these issues. We must support effective and accountable government, back people in their search for a job and a voice, and work with the UN and our international partners to solve long-standing political conflicts and grievances.
Thirdly, we must be patient and resolute. Together with our partners in the region, we are in the midst of a generational struggle against an ideology which is an extreme distortion of the Islamic faith, and which holds that mass murder and terror are not only acceptable but necessary. We must tackle this poisonous thinking at home and abroad, and resist the ideologues’ attempt to divide the world into a clash of civilisations.
The underlying conflicts and grievances that are exploited by terrorists are in many cases long standing and deep, and, of course, the building blocks of democracy—the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, the rights of minorities, free media and association, and a proper place in society for the army—which are a big part of the solution, all take a long time to put in place. But this patient, intelligent but tough approach is the best way to defeat terrorism and to ensure our own security. We must pursue it with an iron resolve.
I will use our chairmanship of the G8 this year to make sure this issue of terrorism, and how we respond to it, is right at the top of the agenda, where it belongs. In sum, we must frustrate the terrorists with our security, we must beat them militarily, we must address the poisonous narrative they feed on, we must close down the ungoverned space in which they thrive, and we must deal with the grievances that they use to garner support. This is the work that our generation faces, and we must demonstrate the same resolve and sense of purpose as previous generations did with the challenges that they faced in this House and in this country. I commend this statement to the House.
I join the Prime Minister in expressing my deepest sympathy and condolences to the families who lost loved ones in last week’s terrorist attack. For them, and for all those involved, the past six days have been an unimaginable nightmare. The whole country has been shocked as the horrific details of this unprovoked and violent act of terror have emerged. This was pre-meditated, cold-blooded murder of the most brutal kind, and behind each lost life is a family of loved ones who are in our thoughts today.
I echo the Prime Minister’s unequivocal condemnation of those involved in planning and carrying out this attack. It is they who bear full responsibility for the dreadful loss of life, and every effort must now be made to bring them to justice. We on this side of the House will give the Government our full support as they seek to achieve that. We will also give them our support as they consider how best to respond to the growing threat that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other violent extremist groups pose.
In particular, the task is to understand the nature of the new threat, which is more decentralised and fragmented and takes advantage of the ungoverned spaces and security vacuum in parts of north Africa. At the same time, in its response the international community needs to apply the lessons of the past about the combination of diplomacy, politics and security required to help to bring about stability in the region.
On the attack itself, people will agree with the Prime Minister that the Algerian Government was faced with some extremely difficult judgments about how and when to act. I join him in paying tribute to all our embassy staff for the work that they did. In the light of the attack, can the Prime Minister say more about the work that the British Government are doing with British companies operating in the region? Can he tell us whether, at this early stage, any lessons can be learned about the security of those installations?
Turning to the broader context of what is happening in the region, on Mali we support the Government’s actions to date. Can the Prime Minister confirm that he does not envisage a combat role for British troops? We agree that the efforts of the French military must be supplemented by the much more rapid deployment of west African forces, as the Prime Minister said in his statement. Can he tell us by what means, and in what time scale, he expects that to be achieved?
After last year’s coup, the Mali Government face a security and legitimacy crisis. Can the Prime Minister tell us what further steps can be taken by the international community and Governments to use diplomacy and development to stabilise the situation in Mali and, in particular, which international body will co-ordinate that urgent work?
More broadly across the region, countering the emerging threat of terrorism begins with understanding it and talking about it in the right way. The work to deal with that threat will be painstaking: diplomatic and political as much as military; and collaborative and multilateral, not unilateral. Does the Prime Minister agree that we are talking about a number of distinct regional organisations, some using the banner of al-Qaeda and others not, rather than a single, centrally co-ordinated or controlled group? Each of these threats needs to be monitored and countered appropriately. Will he outline what further steps might be taken—he talked about some in his statement—to improve the flow of information and intelligence from the region, and whether it needs to be better shared with key allies?
As the Prime Minister said, we know that these threats grow where governance is weak. What longer term roles does he anticipate for the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States in securing greater stability in the region, and how does he believe that the EU will support that effort? On the question of ready access to arms, can the Prime Minister set out how the international community can better prevent the spread of weaponry throughout the region, including weapons left over from the Libyan conflict?
Finally, does he agree with me that if we are to meet the challenges we face, we need a much greater focus of our diplomatic development and political resources on this region? We should remember the events of the Arab spring, which demonstrated the desire of people across north Africa to improve their lives through peaceful means, not through violence and terror. We should support their cause.
Today, above all, we mourn the victims of this terrorist attack. We grieve with the families of those who died. We stand united in seeking to bring the perpetrators to justice, and to doing everything we can to protect British citizens working and living around the world.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response. I think there is genuine cross-party agreement, not just on our response to this dreadful event but about the thinking that needs to be done on how to tackle these problems in the future, and I welcome what he has said. He is right to say this was premeditated murder, and he is right to say we need to understand the nature of the threat and learn the lessons of the past.
Turning to his individual questions, on the British Government’s work with the companies involved, all the major companies have been contacted across the region. All of them have put in place procedures for heightened security. Crucially, we have asked all of them to update their consular information. When these events happen, one of the first things that needs to be done is to try to be absolutely clear about who is employed, who is contracted, and who is in the country and who is not.
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are not seeking a combat role in Mali. We believe that we should be supporting the French, who have taken emergency action to stop Mali being overtaken by what is effectively an al-Qaeda-backed group of rebels. Our help for the French will be discussed again at the National Security Council tomorrow. We have lent them two C-17s. We propose to continue with that, and will be looking at other transport and surveillance assets that we can let the French use to help them in what they are doing.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the answer on the security front is to train up African soldiers, and that they should play the lead role. Some African soldiers are already in Mali from west African states, and others will be arriving soon. On who should have the co-ordinating role, ECOWAS has been encouraged to take the lead, and there is also the backing of a UN resolution that was secured before Christmas.
The right hon. Gentleman is also correct to say that what we are dealing with are distinct organisations in different countries, some of them more connected to al-Qaeda than others. I think that we need to make sure that we deal with each one individually, while recognising that there are some commonalities. We are trying to break up these problems and deal with them individually, rather than pose one global response to the challenge. As I tried to say in my statement, we need to show patience and intelligence as well as toughness and resolution.
In terms of what the Government need to do to step up our contacts with the region, the point was well made. We have had National Security Council discussions on the Sahel and I have appointed my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr O'Brien) as my envoy to the region. There is obviously a huge amount of French influence on the region and we have been less well represented. I do not want us to try to track or double up with other allies on this, but we should be working together, and that is what we are focused on.
In terms of the African Union and ECOWAS, we should be helping to build their capacity for the future. The right hon. Gentleman was also right to raise the point about Libyan weapons. The British Government have stepped up our engagement with Libya at all levels to help with the challenge of security and removing so many weapons from their society. In terms of what he said about stepping up our development, diplomatic and other resources in the region, that is very much something we need to consider.
Finally, I think that the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the Arab spring being a long-term benefit for the region, despite the difficulties that the move to democracy can sometimes engender, is correct. I think it is wrong to believe that vicious, dictatorial regimes such as Gaddafi’s somehow made our world safer; they did not. That is not just in terms of people living in Lockerbie, because we still have the problems of Gaddafi-supplied Semtex in Northern Ireland and all the terrorism that was engendered by his regime.
May I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for the sober and realistic way in which he has treated this crisis and for his strategy for the future? I suggest that the strategy needs two essential ingredients. First, we must work with the natural leaders of north Africa and west Africa. Nigeria, which he mentioned, and Algeria not only will be decisive in this crisis, but share a common interest in defeating international terrorism. Secondly, does he agree that we need to work to isolate the jihadi terrorists from the other insurgents in Mali and other countries who have local grievances? That suggests the need for a political strategy, not merely a military one.
My right hon. and learned Friend sets out extremely well the twin aims of working with African leaders and isolating the terrorists. If we look at the case of Somalia, which is a badly broken and fractured state that is trying to recover from years of civil war, terrorism and other abuses, we will see that the international community is demonstrating working with African leaders and trying to disengage terrorists from other organisations. That is the way forward to try patiently to rebuild those countries.
Two dedicated Liverpool men, Paul Morgan and Garry Barlow, have now died at the hands of terrorists in Algeria. I would like to thank the Foreign Office for the work it has done to assist the families. What immediate steps can the Prime Minister take to try to deal with this horrendous situation and to try to reduce the apprehension felt by so many families, in Liverpool and across the country, who have loved ones working away in vulnerable areas?
The hon. Lady speaks for everyone in raising the case of those two men from Liverpool who lost their lives. They were working abroad, trying to earn a good living for themselves and their families. There are many British people who do that in difficult and dangerous parts of the world, and I believe that it is part of the British Government’s job to work with foreign Governments to make sure that we defend the interests of people such as those she mentions. That is why we are getting in contact with the large businesses and thickening our contacts with all those Governments. I think that it is vital that we do everything we can with those Governments, who have to have the primary responsibility, to keep our people safe.
My right hon. Friend’s agenda lacks nothing in ambition, but ambition needs to be supported by adequate resources. Can we be satisfied, in this period of financial austerity, that the intelligence services and the armed services will have adequate financial resources to meet the substantial elements that he has wished upon them?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very good point. Of course, there are always challenges over the level of resources, even in times when money is plentiful—and it is not plentiful today. I would say, though, that our defence budget, for instance, is stable in cash terms at £33 billion. We have tried as a Government—perhaps we need to look again and go even further—to focus on those threats to our security that we face today: an investment in key intelligence capabilities and greater investment in special forces, cyber-security and the things that will have the maximum impact in keeping our people safe. We therefore have to make changes in other parts of our armed services to make possible this vital investment for the future.
I welcome the priority the Prime Minister has given this matter and the tone of his statement, especially his focus on the political and not simply the security. To add to the question that has just been put to him, the truth is that our diplomatic capacity in that region has been cut, not simply under his Government but, sadly, under our Government too. Will he look at that capacity? It is not simply about our diplomatic capabilities, but about our related ones. Unless we focus resources on where the threats are—and that means the Foreign Office’s budget not being continuously chopped, as it has been in recent years—we will not be able to deliver.
I will look very closely—it is absolutely right to look closely—at what diplomatic resources we have in that part of the world. I would simply make two points. One is that the Foreign Office actually got a reasonably generous settlement in terms of public spending and has been opening embassies in parts of the world where there are really important economic priorities for Britain, particularly in south-east Asia. The second point is that when we look at west Africa, we should be very much thinking about how we will work with our partners—I have already had this conversation with President Hollande and President Obama. We have particularly strong ties with countries such as Nigeria; France has particularly strong ties with countries such as Mali. It does not make sense for us all to double up in the same places but, working together, we need to ensure that our coverage is very good.
Al-Qaeda represents both a mindset and a physical capability. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as well as an uncompromising security response, there is a particular responsibility on the leaders in the Islamic world, both religious and political, to make it very clear that the sort of barbaric acts we saw in Algeria are incompatible with Islam, and that that message needs to be made crystal clear abroad and in the United Kingdom?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Just as we have to isolate and defeat this sort of terrorism in a security and military sense, we need to isolate and defeat the poisonous ideology on which it feeds; and that requires, as he says, Muslim leaders and faith leaders—and, indeed, leaders of Muslim-majority countries—to condemn it in very strong terms. I have been very struck over the last year that the Prime Minister of Malaysia and the President of Indonesia, along with a number of countries, have made the strongest possible statements about how Islam is completely incompatible with this sort of taking of life, and we need to hear that a lot more in the future.
The Prime Minister is right to use this tragedy to make people aware of the growing threat from the region. He is also right to say that the best response is a regional-led response, but do we have the capacity to have a proper input across the range in this area? The Foreign Office’s headline cuts were a lot bigger once the responsibilities for the BBC had been transferred. We need a diplomatic, political, security and developmental response to this kind of situation if the threat is to be removed, which can only happen over time.
The right hon. Gentleman asks a central question. I would say yes, there is the capacity, for two good reasons. First, I believe we are more effectively co-ordinating what we have. The National Security Council means that we have the Development Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary, with their budgets, sitting round the table, which makes it more possible to use that money—including through the conflict pool—to come to terms with the challenges we face. Secondly, we have taken some difficult decisions on defence, but as a result we have reduced the amount of unfunded commitments and our budget is now, as it were, in balance for the future. We can afford the very important capabilities that include heavy lift—vital for the sorts of things we are doing with the French—air-to-air refuelling and those sorts of capacities, which will be so important for the future.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the terrible events in Algeria underline the critical importance for the international community of tackling the root causes of poverty, instability and conflict in west Africa? Britain has been doing that in east Africa, not least in Somalia, where some progress seems at last to have been made.
My right hon. Friend is entirely right to say that the work we do to address those root causes will be vital not only for those countries but for our long-term security. One of the excellent things that he did as Secretary of State for International Development was to focus more of our money on conflict and on broken states, because it is there that the investment can make the biggest difference. No one would argue that Somalia was somehow a model case, but it seems that the work we are doing with international partners, using our aid budget and working with the new Somali Government, is helping patiently to mend that country in a way that does not involve military intervention by us.
Stabilisation and security in the region are set to be supported by a European Union training mission, although that will not be in place in Mali until mid-February. There are plans for 250 trainers and 200 close protection personnel, but it is already being suggested that those numbers are insufficient. Does the Prime Minister believe them to be sufficient? What contribution will the UK be making to the training mission?
The point about an EU training mission is that it would be part of the process of training up the west African troops who want to play a part in stabilising and securing Mali. The total size of the mission would perhaps be around 500 personnel, and if there were a British contribution to it, it would be in the tens, not in the hundreds. It is a training mission, not a combat mission. The lead on this will clearly be taken by the French, who have the greatest interest in rapidly training up west African forces to replace the French forces that are currently in action in Mali.
Given that the instability in north Africa is going to last for a very long time, does my right hon. Friend agree that the commitments required from this country, our European partners and others will be very considerable indeed? Given Britain’s fine record on the training of defence forces, does he also agree that our Army will have a major role to play in training African troops, and that we will be able to be of real help to them?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. If we look at the capabilities that we have that will make the biggest difference in that area, we see that training is clearly one of them, alongside counter-terrorism, ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—and other assets that we have. We also have training assets in this country. We should be using our training academies not only to train our own military but as a way of building relationships with other militaries around the world, as that would help us in circumstances such as those that we face today.
Western powers cannot stand aside, particularly when our own nationals are so tragically involved, but does the Prime Minister accept that the defeat of these terrorist and murder gangs in north Africa and elsewhere will largely depend on the attitude of the people involved, and certainly not on military action from outside? We must bear in mind that the Taliban will still be around in Afghanistan after 11 years of western military action there.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the key will be the peoples of those countries rejecting Islamic extremism and violence and opting instead for having a job and a voice in a secure country. He is right about that, but, as we were discussing earlier, one of the roles that we can play is in recognising that we have to try to split the terrorist groups from the other groups with which they can become affiliated. In the case of Mali, for example, there is a combination of terrorist groups and Tuareg tribes. We should be trying to split up those alliances, rather than reinforcing them through our actions. I do not accept that the right thing to do is in any way to turn our back on the world. Britain is an open, engaged country and our interests are threatened in those countries. The idea that if we did less or did nothing we would somehow be safer is wrong.
In the last decade, the population of Mali has grown by 60%, and it is forecast to grow by 400% by 2050. That leaves millions of young men and women without any reasonable expectation of employment—a sure prescription for social violence, fuelling instability in the region. Does the Prime Minister agree that if there were ever a role for DFID funding, it would be to address the economic wasteland that is the Sahel?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Our aid is at work in Mali. UK aid is currently helping 200,000 people in Mali through the provision of food, emergency health and medicine, and we are always one of the first to step forward and help, and this is an example of that. I know our aid budget is controversial, but if we are to put together these broken and fragile states, I would say yes, there is a role for security; yes, there is a role for diplomacy and politics; but there is also a role for aid and economic assistance.
May I join the Prime Minister in expressing my condolences to the families who lost loved ones in Algeria, and may I also express a little relief that my own constituent who was caught up in those events managed to get home safely? I commend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for the personal efforts he made to keep informed those MPs whose constituents were caught up in this situation.
On the question of our own intelligence and security agencies, does the Prime Minister agree that whatever changes we make to our own priorities, it is important to do more of what we are good at rather than trying to do too much in operations in which we would probably not be as effective?
First, I join the right hon. Gentleman in thanking my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has been working extremely hard, almost around the clock, trying to keep people in touch, whether it be the Scottish Government, MPs, or the police liaison teams that liaised with the families through what has been an incredibly difficult—impossibly difficult—period for them. I pay tribute to those teams that do such an important job. I think the right hon. Gentleman is right in his general point that we should do more of what we are good at. All budgets are limited, and although £33 billion is a large defence budget, it has its limits, so we should focus on areas where we can, with our partners, make the greatest difference.
It is excellent that my right hon. Friend chairs our new National Security Council, but as it is a committee, may I ask if an official close to the National Security Council could operate with your authority and your confidence right across the gamut of government to ensure that we have a co-ordinated approach to dealing with international terrorism? Could that official report to you through the committee?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do not want a National Security Council to be a sort of talking shop. It has behind it the whole of the national security apparatus of Whitehall, now all based in the Cabinet Office and very ably headed by my national security adviser, Sir Kim Darroch. He is able to drive the will of the committee and the decisions it takes right across Whitehall. That is the point of it. We are still learning how best to operate the system, but I think it has been a good innovation.
The Prime Minister is right to focus on north Africa, but he will know that al-Qaeda has been operating in countries such as the Yemen for years. As a result, Yemen has been destabilised, and the Prime Minister knows that, because he has put a lot of face time into helping the Government of Yemen. As he chairs the G8, will he consider inviting the leaders of those countries that are affected by al-Qaeda to attend the summit, as they did in Georgia in 2004, so that we can have a co-ordinated approach that involves them as well?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting suggestion. I will take it away and think about it. He is absolutely right to say that Yemen has been one of the countries most troubled by terrorism. If we look at the scale of the threat to the UK directly, we find that what has been happening in Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula have posed a great threat to the UK—greater than from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. We should continue our focus on Yemen, which very much fits what I have said. We help Yemen militarily with counter-terrorism advice and support, we have an aid programme and a big diplomatic programme in Yemen, and we act with other allies to assist Yemen in its fight with the terrorists. I think that the Yemeni authorities have been making good progress on that front.
I strongly welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, I am particularly pleased that he drew attention to the planned European Union military training mission in Mali, which will build on the successful EU model in Somalia. Does he think that he will have an opportunity to emphasise the value of European security and defence policy at any other time soon?
For the last two decades, the southern countries in the European Union have been arguing that the whole EU needs to take security issues in the Maghreb far more seriously. Do not the events of the past week—as well as the arrival of many mercenaries from Libya, the arrival of narco-traffickers in the region, and the killing of 1,000 people by Boko Haram—show that we need a united and sustained EU approach to security to prevent us from facing the same problems again?
I agree that it is very important for the European Union to have a sensible programme of engagement with north African countries, which it has through its partnership. My criticisms of it in the past have been that it has not been exacting enough of those north African countries, and that there has been much aid without sensible strings and political development attached. I think that there is now a more realistic view in the European Union about the sort of progress, democracy and security response that we require throughout north Africa.
Let me echo what my right hon. Friend said about the very effective work with constituency Members done during the crisis by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this appalling attack had clearly been planned a long time before the French took action in Mali, or before we supported it; that Mali was no more than a hastily fabricated excuse; and that it would therefore be entirely wrong for us to step down from the region, as the terrorists clearly want?
I think that my right hon. Friend is right on both counts. It is clear from the scale of the attack, and the number of terrorists involved, that it was some time in the planning. However, I would advance the wider argument that my right hon. Friend has advanced. Do we really believe that we—British people, British companies and British interests—would somehow be safer if we, and others, stood back from Mali and allowed it to become a country effectively governed by an al-Qaeda franchise? Of course we would not be safer. The whole premise behind such thinking is wrong. Britain is a country that is engaged in the world and open to the world, and we have people living all over the world. We are safer if we act with others to deal with problems as they occur, rather than turning our back on the world and pretending that it is possible to take that approach.
Does the Prime Minister agree that eliminating a religious and political ideology is not an easy thing to do, as is evidenced by both Iraq and Afghanistan? Can he guarantee that, if it is not possible to get many west African troops, his crusading zeal will not lead him to the use of British troops in the future?
I do not believe that the only answer, or the right answer on its own, is security and military action. As I said, and as I think the Leader of the Opposition said, we need to use all the elements at our disposal: a political response, a development response, and working with partners. However, that does not mean that a tough security approach is not part of what is required.
No one can have forgotten that on 21 July 2005, a lethal attack—which mercifully failed—was mounted against the London tube by a mixture of north Africans, including Algerians. The French, of course, have increased their domestic security. What is the Prime Minister’s assessment of how much more we are threatened at home as a result of these incidents, and what are we going to do about it?
Let me say first that my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of extremists from other parts of the world who are based in the United Kingdom and who threaten our security. The Government are doing everything that they can to ensure that we are secure from those people. We also need to address the issue of being able effectively to deport people when they threaten our country.
On the specific question my hon. Friend asks about the threat to the UK of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the principal threat it poses is, as I said, to those countries in the region and to the people of those countries in that region, and to our interests and our people in that region. But there has been a history with the al-Qaeda franchises whereby they become magnets for terrorists from elsewhere, and pretty soon we find that their ambitions and the risks that they pose go wider.
The Prime Minister said that he was going to push the issue of terrorism on the agenda for the G8. Will he also raise it with the EU 27 and the NATO 28, and try to get better co-ordination between the United States Africa Command —AFRICOM—in Stuttgart and the European security and defence policies?
I will certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s advice, and he makes a good point. The reason for specifically mentioning the G8 is that in that slightly smaller forum it is possible to have an in-depth conversation with American, French, Italian, Canadian and other partners about what more we can do to thicken our various defence, security, political and diplomatic relations with countries in, for instance, north Africa, making sure that we do not all fall over each other in trying to do the same thing in the same country. We should be recognising that in some cases there are very strong British relationships that we should build on, but in others the relationships may be French, Italian or American.
May I commend to the Prime Minister the concept of containment when he is considering these long-term problems? It served us well both for 70 years in the cold war and for 38 years in relation to Northern Ireland, and it would help to avoid an oscillation of policy from over-involvement on the ground, at one extreme, to too little involvement and an over-emphasis on withdrawal, at the other.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely intelligent point, and I will think about it carefully. Part of my response would be to say that in a country such as Somalia our aim should not be to contain the problems of terrorism in Somalia; it should be to work with the Somali Government to build up Somali security forces and to work with the Somalis to have a better political solution to political problems in that country, so that, over time, politically, militarily and diplomatically, through aid and everything else, we squeeze the terrorists out of the space. That is not containing; it is trying, over time, to overcome them completely. That is the ambition we should have, but it does not mean, to answer the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), that we have to have some sort of “crusading zeal”; it means that we have to have real resolve, but bring an intelligent mix of answers to these very deep problems.
Sadly, the last few days have shown us that we must engage more with ordinary people in north African countries. Does the Prime Minister agree that we must do all we can to increase resources for projects such as the Arab Partnership, which brings together an understanding between the United Kingdom and the Arab people?
Given our experience in Afghanistan, where, as intelligence services confirm, we achieved our original mission very early on of defeating al-Qaeda, or of driving it out of the country, but then got drawn into an expensive nation-building exercise, does the Prime Minister agree that if we are to defeat international terrorism, we need a more nuanced, flexible policy on terrorism, which takes into account local dynamics, including closer liaison with those Governments threatened on the ground?
I do not disagree with the way in which my hon. Friend has put his question. It was absolutely right to go into Afghanistan to get rid of a Government who were a host to al-Qaeda, but then of course—this is what we are doing right now in Afghanistan—we do need to have a strong political track to get a political settlement that can enable that country not only to have its own security forces, but to have stability in its political system. That is the sort of thinking we need to bring to all these problems in the future.
The Prime Minister referred several times to al-Qaeda “franchises”, and he rightly did so. Is he satisfied that what he would describe as such are not part of the Syrian opposition, which we appear to be supporting at the moment?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Many organisations in the Syrian opposition want what most people in this House would want, which is for the Syrian people to be free of the brutal dictatorship and from the murder and mayhem they face—60,000 are dead so far. Of course, elements of the Syrian opposition have extremist views and extremist ways and we must be extremely concerned about that. To characterise all or a majority of the Syrian opposition in that way would not be right.
May I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for not only how he has dealt with the immediate situation but for how, since the beginning of this Government, he has tried to deal with the underlying causes of terrorism abroad through the proper focus of international development? One way that Britain can protect her interests abroad by identifying threat is through a good strong network of defence attachés across our embassies. In the past decade, that network has weakened slightly. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider it and see what he can do?
I am very happy to reconsider that issue. I have been struck on my travels by the fact that the relationship between the defence attaché and foreign Governments is often one of the strongest we have. We will publish a paper about our defence engagement strategy shortly and it will carefully consider that issue.
Even while contemplating this frightening future of perpetual war, will the Prime Minister contrast the successful results of our involvement in Kosovo and Sierra Leone with the results in Iraq and Afghanistan, where 620 British soldiers have died? Is not the prime lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan that we cannot win over hearts and minds with drones and bullets?
I think the hon. Gentleman draws a slightly unfair comparison about some of the engagements that, after all, a Labour Government got us into. In Kosovo and Sierra Leone, we were not dealing with the massive ideological problem of a twisted Islamic ideology that sees the murder of innocent people as not just possible but necessary. That, I think, is one of the differences with what we have been dealing with in Afghanistan and that point bears making.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comprehensive approach through the National Security Council to this threat and its potential domestic extension. Does he agree that that further underlines the importance of ensuring that we can deport those people who are a threat to our country, or imprison them if they cannot be deported, and that our intelligence services can fight court cases without giving away vital intelligence? That is why we need the Justice and Security Bill.
My hon. Friend makes some very important points. There is no doubt that we have had a problem in recent years with some foreign nationals in this country who have extremist views and extremist aims. It has been very difficult to deport them, even when we have taken huge steps to get safeguards and assurances from the countries to which they will be sent—this applies to the previous Government, too. I am personally convinced that we must crack the problem and need to consider all possible avenues to do that. My hon. Friend is right, too, about the Justice and Security Bill, as we owe that to our security services. The Bill does not apply to criminal trials; it is for use when our security services are, in effect, being sued through the civil courts. It will allow more cases to come to court, rather than fewer.
The Prime Minister is right that there are small terrorist groups, local terrorist groups and big ones, such as al-Qaeda. Who finances these big ones? They feed the other ones, so if we can get to the finance and cut the head off, the body will die.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. One of the problems in north Africa is that the al-Qaeda franchises have been fed by money from hostage-taking and sometimes very large ransom payments have been made. One thing we will consider at the G8 is whether we can do more to cut off that sort of finance. That is vital in Somalia and in north Africa, too.
Given that Algeria, like many countries in Africa, has many neighbours—six, in this case—and long and difficult to defend borders, which mean that people, not just from Africa, can cross without being spotted or detected, would not one option for NATO and the EU be not to offer troops on the ground but to build up our capacity to offer technical and surveillance support, so that we can monitor the activities of those who cross and who wish nobody any good?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Clearly, border security is extremely difficult in these countries, but there is more that we can do to help them with technical abilities and also with training. That is particularly the case with the Libyans.
We plan for strategic defence and security reviews every five years, so this is a rolling programme where we permanently look at whether, given the threats that we face around the world, we have the right defence and security assets to deal with them. The decisions that we took in the last SDSR—in which we were bringing the defence budget back into balance, reducing the number of main battle tanks and looking at smaller, more flexible armed forces, but were putting money into ISTAR, drones and surveillance, into special forces and into cyber-security, making sure that we protected the key intelligence and security functions—were the right decisions. If anything, if we had the review over again, we would go more in that direction. All the evidence shows that these are the emerging problems that we are going to be dealing with more in the future.
May I commend the Prime Minister on his leadership during this crisis and on keeping the House updated? My right hon. Friend mentioned an intelligent mix of assets. I wonder whether the 12,000 Algerians in the United Kingdom and 4,000 Mali nationals might be part of that intelligent approach, by deploying them in a positive way back to their own country in a developmental role and in a role that shows leadership within their country.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that in drawing up our national security strategy, we should be listening to the settled communities here in the UK that have a huge amount of knowledge and expertise about the countries that may be causing us concern. That is very much the case with the Somali community, and I am sure the points that he makes about the Algerian community are right, too.