House of Commons
Wednesday 23 January 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What recent assessment she has made of the level of anti-Semitism in Northern Ireland. (137935)
The Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Semitic activities, estimates that there were fewer than 10 incidents in Northern Ireland last year. As we approach Holocaust memorial day, I know the whole House will join me in condemning anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred on the grounds of a person’s ethnicity, religion, disability or sexual orientation.
I thank every Northern Ireland politician and every Northern Ireland party present in the House today for their active engagement in the parliamentary committee against anti-Semitism. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the interests and concerns of the very tiny Jewish community in Northern Ireland remain an important priority, despite their smallness in number?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. He is right that the Jewish community in Northern Ireland is small—around 200, I believe—but that does not make it any less important to combat anti-Semitism. This is a disgraceful crime. The UK Government take it very seriously, and I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on combating anti-Semitism throughout the UK.
I, too, commend the work of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) in this regard, and I thank the Secretary of State for what she has said today. Does she agree that the attack on anyone’s symbol or identity causes serious problems everywhere—as we have seen in Belfast and on other issues—and will she assure me that the Police Service of Northern Ireland will be given adequate resources, if required, to deal with anything that amounts to anti-Semitism arising in Ulster?
It is important that the police take anti-Semitism and other forms of hate crime very seriously, both in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom—I know they do, as does Justice Minister David Ford. It is also important to reflect on the fact that a number of identities are present in modern Northern Ireland, including the Jewish identity. People should be able to practise their identities in a way that is free from oppression by other people.
The Secretary of State is right to stress that there is no tolerable level of prejudice against any minority, no matter how small. Someone who espoused the ethic that no minority was too small to be protected or cherished was Inez McCormack, whose funeral takes place today. Will the right hon. Lady join in paying tribute to the work Inez McCormack did, not just as a trade unionist, but in stressing that the benchmarks for a new fair society in Northern Ireland must include equality, cherishing of difference and the protection of all minorities?
I am happy and enthusiastic to join the hon. Gentleman in paying that tribute. For many years, I have campaigned against anti-Semitism, and I believe that it is a hallmark of a civilised society that it protects minorities. That is one of the vital reasons why we should all continue to be vigilant on the matter of anti-Semitism and other forms of hate crime.
2. What assessment she has made of the recent public disorder in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (137936)
4. What assessment she has made of the recent public disorder in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (137938)
9. What assessment she has made of the recent public disorder in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (137943)
10. What assessment she has made of the recent violence in Belfast. (137944)
The recent violence in Northern Ireland has been intolerable. The Government fully support the efforts of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in their efforts to combat this disorder and to bring to justice those responsible for it.
While the activities and involvement of many young people in the recent disorder has been criminal and wrong, does the Secretary of State agree that what those young people need is some hope for the future, through jobs and training? What will she do to ensure that the Northern Ireland Assembly gets all the support it needs in that endeavour?
The UK Government continue to support the Northern Ireland Executive through the block grant, which is approximately 25% higher in Northern Ireland than it is in England. Our economic strategy is focused on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy, providing a boost by getting the public finances under control and keeping interest rates low. We are providing support for families by cancelling Labour’s fuel tax rises, and we have provided an income tax cut for over 600,000 families in Northern Ireland.
Belfast still sadly remains a city where communities are divided physically by walls and fences. What steps is the right hon. Lady’s Department going to take to help rebuild these communities and to link them together so that the disorder we have witnessed recently will become history rather than something we have to deal with in the present and the future?
In addition to the economic measures I mentioned earlier, there has been a strong focus—by me, my predecessor and the Prime Minister—on working with the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver a shared future by healing divisions between different parts of the community in Northern Ireland. A huge amount was achieved with the Belfast agreement, but recent events demonstrate that there are still significant sectarian divisions, which it is now urgent to address.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the Westminster Government have a responsibility to provide whatever assistance is needed to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to deal with matters of national security? Does she view it in that light?
The impact of the recent disorder on resources is certainly a cause for concern. However, the United Kingdom Government are already giving the PSNI significant assistance through the £200 million of additional security funding that we allocated in 2011, and that money is helping the PSNI to deal with the current protests. Not only has it released resources for other forms of policing, but it has enabled the PSNI to purchase a new fleet of Land Rovers which are being deployed directly in policing the protests and combating the violence.
The current difficult situation is of concern to all of us. There is significant violence and illegal behaviour, and daily we hear anecdotal evidence of the potential economic withdrawal of some of the hard-earned foreign direct investment that we have received for the past few years. We need a solution. Would the Secretary of State be amenable to a round-table conference with the two Governments and all the Northern Ireland parties to sort out all the issues that confront us?
All Northern Ireland’s political parties must work together to find a political way forward. The violence is unacceptable. The protests need to stop, and be replaced by a political dialogue. I have been urging the parties to engage in such a process, and I welcome the hard work they are doing in trying to set it up. I believe that the constructive meeting that I had with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Irish Foreign Minister last week has provided an impetus for the political parties to continue their discussions on a political solution.
As we have heard, the violence in Belfast has had a bad impact on the employment prospects of people in that city. This morning the Northern Ireland Finance Minister announced that he intended to launch an advertising campaign to make people aware that, in spite of everything else, Belfast is a great place in which to work and do business. Is there any way in which the Secretary of State can support him in his quest?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s question, which gives me an opportunity to emphasise that there is much that is positive in Northern Ireland, and that 2013 still has the potential to be a fantastic year for it. There has been a very successful start for Derry/Londonderry as the UK city of culture, the G8 is coming to Northern Ireland, and the World Police and Fire Games, one of the biggest sporting events in the world, are to be held there as well. All that demonstrates the existence of a modern, forward-looking Northern Ireland that has resolved a great many of its problems.
The violence is counter-productive, and it is damaging Northern Ireland’s image abroad. I will strongly back efforts to bring people back to the centre of Belfast to support the economy there. I urge everyone to recognise that Northern Ireland is a great place for inward investment, a great place in which to set up a business, and a great place to visit as a tourist.
Order. Before I call the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), I must emphasise that we have a great deal to get through. We need short questions and short, sharp answers.
May I continue the positive theme? The Secretary of State will be aware of the Belfast Telegraph’s excellent campaign, “We’re Backing Belfast”, which people have joined in supporting. Could the Secretary of State do any more to back the city at this time? Could she, for instance, arrange for meetings of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to take place in Belfast, or arrange for the Cabinet to meet in Belfast in order to show support for it—and, perhaps, take the opportunity to announce economic measures such as a cut in corporation tax?
Those are interesting ideas, and I will pass them on to those who make such decisions. As for corporation tax, the Prime Minister is considering the issue and will make an announcement in due course.
The Secretary of State will know of reports that leading members of the Provisional IRA who were formerly involved in its campaign of violence in Northern Ireland are now working with dissident groups there and providing them with expertise. What discussions has she had with the Chief Constable about the matter, and has she asked Sinn Fein what it knows about those people and their involvement in dissident violence?
I regularly discuss with the Chief Constable the serious terrorist threat posed by dissident republicans, and I will continue to do so. The UK Government are vigilant in combating the threat from dissident republican terrorists. They are small in number but they have lethal intent, and unfortunately they also have capability.
The Secretary of State will be aware that it is not just city centre traders who have been affected by the current trouble. During her visit to my constituency last week, she met representatives of local businesses who have been affected by the disruption. Does she agree that we will only be able to create the conditions for long-term stability and growth on which we can build if the parties in Northern Ireland work collectively, along with both Governments, to develop a shared future and tackle sectarianism?
I agree that the lessons from the past few weeks demonstrate, once again, how important it is that all the elected representatives in Northern Ireland work together to build a shared future and to heal sectarian division. I very much welcome the opportunity to come to the hon. Lady’s constituency and her office, and to meet those who have been affected by the protests. She continues to have my sympathy for the treatment that she has undergone and to which her staff have been subjected.
I join the Secretary of State, and hon. Members on both sides of the House, in standing against the recent violence. It is important that Westminster sends a clear message that it is unacceptable. Does she agree with me, and with what other hon. Members have said today, that we need more than just condemnation—we need action? Will she outline what steps she has taken and, more importantly, what steps she intends to take now to deal with these problems?
My focus has been on meeting the people affected by this disorder, talking to the businesses and the communities that have been disrupted by it, keeping in very regular touch with the Chief Constable to give my absolute support to the brave efforts of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in keeping order on the streets, and driving forward a political solution from the political parties. I am in very regular touch with them, urging them to meet to discuss this issue, in order to find a political way forward to resolve these critical issues on identity and build a shared future.
I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. Of course, as she said, there is positive news, but will she now, with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government, review what has happened? Will they then set out together concrete proposals to deal with the underlying issues, specifically those relating to culture and identity, social and economic deprivation, and sectarianism? In doing that, we can continue to work together to build the shared and prosperous future that we all want for Northern Ireland.
As I have said, at last week’s meeting with the First Minister, Deputy First Minister and Irish Foreign Minister we did review the current situation. I will continue, as I know the Tanaiste will, to press the Northern Ireland parties to make real progress on this situation. It is now vital that we see practical steps towards delivering a shared future and healing those sectarian divides. That is a point I have made repeatedly in pretty much every speech I have made since being appointed. Now is the time for real progress and seeing the Northern Ireland Executive and all Northern Ireland’s political leaders going forward to deliver that shared future that they all very much support.
3. What discussions she has had with the Irish government on the recent violence in Belfast. (137937)
I have been in regular contact with the Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore, in recent weeks. Last Thursday, we met the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Belfast to discuss various matters, including recent violence and disorder.
As well as discussing the violence, has the Secretary of State any plans to discuss the question of a border poll with Dublin and, in particular, the Social Democratic and Labour party’s idea of a long-term financial support framework for Northern Ireland, agreed between London and Dublin, which would survive future constitutional change while, over time, reducing the north’s net dependency on the Treasury? Will she meet my party to discuss such proposals?
I am certainly happy to meet the hon. Lady and her party colleagues. I have not discussed a border poll with Eamon Gilmore recently. My feeling is that the conditions that require a border poll are certainly not present in Northern Ireland, and we have no plans to call one at the moment.
The United Kingdom Prime Minister has a number of times made apologies in this House. In the Secretary of State’s discussions with the Government of the Irish Republic, has she raised the issue of the Dublin Government making apologies concerning previous Republic Governments arming the Provisional IRA and therefore raining more than 30 years of terror and mayhem down on the innocent, law-abiding British people in Ulster?
That is not an issue I have discussed directly with the Irish Government, but the Prime Minister has made it very clear that everyone with an involvement in Northern Ireland’s troubles has a duty to confront their role and address issues raised by the past.
Union Flag Dispute (Belfast)
5. What steps she is taking in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Assembly to address the issues that have given rise to the Union flag dispute in Belfast. (137939)
I have discussed these matters on a number of occasions with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and with representatives from the other main political parties. It is vital that political leaders in Northern Ireland identify ways to reduce community division and build a genuinely shared society.
I thank the Secretary of State for her response. Is she aware that some of the underlying issues that have led to the flag dispute include getting jobs in the public sector for the Protestant community, cultural differentials between Ulster Scots and Irish and parading disputes? Those issues led to the flag dispute and then this morning the police ombudsman ensured that investigations will take place only into the IRA activities of the past. All those issues are causing problems and must be addressed. Will she liaise with the appropriate Ministers in Northern Ireland to address those issues and see that they are resolved?
I agree that there are probably a number of underlying issues relating to the recent flag protests and I am happy to work with the relevant Ministers on all those matters, as I am already doing. The strong message I would send out is that it is far more difficult to address such issues when there is violence on the streets of Belfast. That is why it is essential that the violence stops and the protests are replaced by a political dialogue on a way forward.
Will the Secretary of State reassure me that, irrespective of the scale of violence and unrest, the coalition Government will always support the democratic decisions taken on the flag issue?
Yes, I can give him that assurance. Democratic decisions must be respected; they cannot be changed by rioting. If they are going to change, they should be changed through the democratic process and by dialogue.
Will the Secretary of State congratulate the Unionist forum on its formation? Its task is to try to identify the issues and solutions across the whole of the unrest in Belfast.
It is constructive to have dialogue across the board. The Unionist forum can provide a good opportunity to engage with the loyalist community and I welcome the fact that those heading it up have emphasised that there is a twin-track approach that will involve dialogue with the other political parties and other parts of the community.
May I add to the comments made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the role played by Inez McCormack over many years? In moving the peace process forward, she always said that if we want to move from a shared divided past to a shared united future we must do that in a non-partisan way while recognising that we must compromise. The Northern Ireland parties in this House have attempted to work together, so will the Secretary of State give her commitment that she will ensure that that makes progress?
Yes, I will.
6. What discussions she has had with the devolved Administrations on developing a UK-wide strategy on tackling diabetes. (137940)
I have not been involved in discussions as my Department does not have responsibility for diabetes. It is for Health Ministers across the UK, including in the Assembly, to tackle diabetes in their areas.
I thank the Minister for those comments. A strategy for the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland was started in 2003 to address the time bomb of diabetes. That concludes this year, 2013. Does the Minister agree that there is a critical need for a strategy to continue? What steps can he take to ensure that diabetes will be addressed over the next 10 years as there has been a 30% increase in Northern Ireland in the past 10 years?
I took a keen interest in the subject when I was a shadow Health Minister and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we must tackle the plague of diabetes that is affecting our communities. Diabetes is not just a health issue, it is a way of life issue and sport, in particular, can bring real benefits. I shall speak to the Minister in the Assembly about diabetes and we will write to the hon. Gentleman.
In any discussions the Minister has with the devolved Administration on a UK-wide strategy on diabetes, will he ensure that he emphasises that type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes are entirely different diseases that should be dealt with separately?—[Interruption.]
I am afraid that I could not hear a single word from the right hon. Gentleman. Would he be kind enough to repeat his question?
Order. There is too much noise on both sides of the House. Let us hear the right hon. Gentleman.
I asked whether in any discussions the Minister has with the devolved Administration, he would emphasise that type 1 and type 2 diabetes are entirely different diseases and that any strategy needs to reflect that in how it deals with them.
I absolutely agree. Type 1 and type 2 are two completely different diseases, and while we talk a lot about type 2—we need to—type 1 has a devastating effect on communities and families, and we need to look at that, too.
7. What discussions she has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on youth unemployment; and if she will make a statement. (137941)
Youth unemployment is a very serious concern for the Government and for everybody across the House, and every effort is being made to reduce it. It is part of the strategy to make sure that youth unemployment is addressed in the Province, and we will make every effort to do that.
I am most grateful to the Minister for that answer. Given that more than 90% of firms in Northern Ireland have 10 employees or fewer, does he agree with my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor that a tax break on national insurance for new hires would go some way towards helping to bring down youth unemployment?
Youth unemployment in general is, of course, a matter for the devolved Assembly, but the UK Government must make every effort that we can. Certainly, I know that the Treasury will look at everything that the shadow Chancellor says and does, and at the spending commitments he gives. We must not think that this suddenly happened in 2010: as the hon. Gentleman will know, youth unemployment started to rise in 2004, in the boom before the bust that the previous Administration gave us.
Order. There are still far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. Let us have a bit of order for Mr Robert Halfon.
13. Will my hon. Friend the Minister help young earners on low earnings by lobbying the Treasury to put the extra revenues raised from the 45p rate towards reintroducing the 10p income tax rate, which was abolished by the last Government? (137947)
Together with the Secretary of State, I regularly lobby on behalf of Northern Ireland for money. The previous Secretary of State and Minister lobbied extensively to get the £200 million that was needed to make sure that the security situation in Northern Ireland was addressed. It is up to the Administration in Northern Ireland to spend the very generous grant that they get, which is substantially more than England gets.
Does the Minister agree that, given the problem of youth unemployment and many other economic problems in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein’s call for a referendum seems most inappropriate, and is nothing but a cynical exercise in republican breast-beating? In light of the Government’s new-found enthusiasm for referendums, should there by some chance be a referendum, will he give an assurance that the Government will be firmly on the side of keeping Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom?
Order. I do not wish to be unkind or discourteous to the hon. Gentleman, but the question was, and must remain, about youth unemployment. There is no requirement on the Minister to answer.
Despite the recent violence that we have witnessed, there is great work being done on the ground to combat youth unemployment and build community cohesion. Much of it is supported by funding from the European Union, through PEACE money. Will the Minister assure people in Northern Ireland that he remains firmly committed to the United Kingdom remaining within the EU, and to Northern Ireland continuing to benefit from PEACE money?
As ever—[Interruption.] I never knew I was so popular. Making sure that youth unemployment is addressed in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom is very important. The issue of the PEACE money, which is part of negotiations at the moment regarding the financial settlement, is way above my pay grade. Whatever happens, we will ensure the best possible deal for the United Kingdom.
Public Disorder (Policing Costs)
8. What the cost to the public purse has been of policing the recent protests and disorder in Northern Ireland. (137942)
I am advised that the additional cost of policing the recent protests is estimated at £3.9 million for the period up to 31 December 2012. That figure does not include costs arising from injuries to officers, or the cost of investigations to bring those responsible for disorder to the courts.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that at a time of great pressure on public expenditure, additional resources that have to be spent on policing the protests and disorder in Northern Ireland are inevitably money that will not be spent on housing, education or tackling the kind of deprivation that some have suggested fuelled the protests in the first place?
Yes, it is disgraceful that this violence has occurred, and the fact that it has had such an impact on police resources is deeply regrettable. It makes it much more difficult for the police to continue their commitment to community policing and outreach in the community, which is another reason why the violence has to stop.
11. What discussions she has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on attracting inward investment. (137945)
We have given assurances, and continue to give assurance, to Executive Ministers that the Government will work closely with them to rebalance the economy in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Irish economy has suffered adversely for many years as a result of the lower rates of corporation tax levied in the Republic of Ireland. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the impact of the Government’s policies of lowering corporation tax and remaining outside the eurozone, and what effect that has had on inward investment in Northern Ireland?
There are ongoing negotiations for further possible reductions in corporation tax in Northern Ireland, but one of the biggest things that the Northern Ireland Administration and UK Ministers can do is bring people to Northern Ireland to see the great success story there. Only last week, the seven leading Japanese businesses in the UK came to Northern Ireland and were enormously impressed by the progress that we have made there.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 23 January. (138633)
Before I answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Kingsman David Robert Shaw of 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. He died in Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham last Wednesday as a result of wounds that he sustained in Afghanistan. He gave his life for the safety of the British people, and his incredibly brave contribution must never be forgotten. Our profound condolences are with his loved ones.
Mr Speaker, this morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House I shall have further such meetings later today.
I am sure that the whole House and the whole country would want to associate themselves with the Prime Minister’s comments about David Robert Shaw and his family and friends at this difficult time.
On Monday, the Prime Minister stated that the task for our generation was to struggle against terrorism. On Tuesday, his Government sacked 5,600 troops. Why is there such a gap between what the Prime Minister says and what he does?
I think that the hon. Gentleman asks an important question, and I do not deny for one second that we have had to take difficult decisions about defence spending in our country. However, let me make this point. At £33 billion a year, we have the fourth largest defence budget anywhere in the world, and it is important that we make sure that we have the right scale and shape of armed forces, and that they have the right capabilities. That is why, in the defence review, we are investing in drones, and investing more in special forces and in key intelligence capabilities, making sure that we have the aircraft we need to ensure that we have highly mobile armed forces. I am incredibly proud of what our armed forces do, and because we are now balancing their budget, they will be better equipped for the future.
Sixty-eight years ago this Sunday, the Nazi concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated. As we mark Holocaust memorial day, will the Prime Minister commit to ensuring that young people in this country always have the opportunity to learn about what took place in the darkest period in our shared history, and will he commend the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust?
I think that my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House, and indeed the whole country, in raising this vital issue on this day, and in praising the Holocaust Educational Trust—an absolutely brilliant charity and organisation that makes sure that young people from schools across the country have the opportunity to go and see the places where the terrible events of the holocaust took place. I had the immense privilege this week of meeting a holocaust survivor whose story was truly heroic and truly heartbreaking, but who in her 90s is still making these arguments and making this case so that future generations will learn. We should also learn, not just about the European holocaust, but from what has happened more recently in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia and elsewhere that, tragically, there is far too much prejudice and persecution in our world.
Can I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Kingsman David Robert Shaw of 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment? He showed the utmost courage and bravery, and the condolences of the whole House go to his family and friends.
Can the Prime Minister guarantee that if he gets his in/out referendum he will campaign to stay in?
Yes, I want Britain to be part of a reformed and successful European Union. This entire argument is about what is in Britain’s national interests. We want a European Union that is more open, more flexible, more competitive, not just good for Britain, but good for Europe too.
I do not think that was quite a complete answer to my question. Let us see if we can press the Prime Minister a bit further about how he is going to vote. Is he saying that if he does not achieve his negotiating strategy, he will recommend—[Interruption.] The part-time Chancellor can hang on a minute. Is the Prime Minister saying that if he does not achieve his negotiating strategy, he will recommend that Britain leaves the European Union?
First, it is very welcome that the right hon. Gentleman is accepting the premise that the Conservatives will win the next election, and interestingly, not raising the fact that the unemployment figures are down once again today. Employment is up by 90,000 this quarter, and the rate of job growth last year was the fastest since 1989. But I answered his question very clearly. I want to see a strong Britain in a reformed Europe. We have a very clear plan. We want to reset the relationship. We will hold that referendum. We will recommend that resettlement to the British people, but the question now is for him: has he got a clue what he would do?
The clue is in the title—Prime Minister’s questions. He is supposed to be answering the questions. He has had six months to think about this. It is not too much to ask. The Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who is not here, would say unequivocally that he would vote yes in a referendum. The Secretary of State for Education, who is hiding away down the Benches there, has briefed that he wants us to leave the European Union. I am just asking the Prime Minister a straight question: can he guarantee that he will vote yes in an in/out referendum?
Yes, I support Britain’s membership of a reformed European Union. Only the Leader of the Opposition would go into negotiations expecting to fail. We go into negotiations knowing what is best for Britain. Let me put it to him again. We now have a very clear approach: a renegotiation and then a referendum. What is his answer? Let me tell him—he is meant to lead the Opposition, and you cannot fight something with nothing.
The reason that those on the Conservative Back Benches are cheering is not that they want to vote yes in an in/out referendum; it is because they want to vote no. That is the reality for the Prime Minister. He still has not answered the question. Let me put it another way and give him another chance. We know from his speech this morning that he wants to go off and negotiate for fairness, flexibility and motherhood and apple pie in Europe. Can he name one thing—just one thing—which, if he does not get it, he will recommend leaving the European Union?
I do not want Britain to leave the European Union. I want Britain to reform the European Union. We have set out the areas where we want—[Interruption.]
Order. Members are shouting their heads off at the Prime Minister. They must desist. Let us hear the answers.
We have been very clear about what we want to see changed. There is a whole series of areas—social legislation, employment legislation, environmental legislation—where Europe has gone far too far, and we need to properly safeguard the single market. We also want to make sure that ever-closer union does not apply to the United Kingdom. These are the things that we are fighting for. Let me put it to the right hon. Gentleman again. We want a renegotiation and then a referendum. What does he want? Or does he not know?
So four hours since the big speech, the Prime Minister cannot answer the most basic question of all—whether he is for yes or for no. Why can he not answer it? Why can he not say unequivocally that he will vote yes in a referendum? Because he is frightened, because of those on the Conservative Back Benches. The only thing that has changed since a few months ago, when he said he was against an in/out referendum, is not the situation in Europe, but the situation in the Tory party. Why does he not admit it? He has not been driven to it by the national interest, but dragged to it by his party.
The most basic question of all is: do you want a referendum? I do. Does he?
My position is no, we do not want an in/out referendum—[Interruption.] My position is precisely the same as the Prime Minister’s position when we voted together in October 2011 against an in/out referendum. My position has not changed; it is his position that has changed. And here is the truth: after six months of planning a speech on a referendum, he cannot even tell us whether it is a yes or a no —[Interruption.]
Order. I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. I said a moment ago that Members should not shout their heads off at the Prime Minister; neither should they shout their heads off at the Leader of the Opposition. They must stop—[Interruption.] Order. They must stop, and his questions must, and will, be heard.
The Prime Minister is going to put Britain through years of uncertainty and take a huge gamble with our economy. He is running scared of UKIP, he has given in to his party and he cannot deliver for Britain.
I have politely to say to the right hon. Gentleman that his whole argument about there being uncertainty is fatally undermined by the fact that he cannot answer whether he wants a referendum or not. Can I give him a little bit of advice? He needs to go away, get a policy, come back and tell us what it is. In the meantime, our approach is what the British people want. It is right for business, it is right for our economy, and we will fight for it in the years ahead.
Q15. Around the world, 170 million children under the age of five are stunted. That means that they are so malnourished that it has affected their physical and possibly their cognitive development. The world has enough food for everyone. As leading non-governmental organisations such as Save the Children launch a major campaign against malnutrition, will the Prime Minister tell us what action the United Kingdom will be taking during its presidency of the G8? (138647)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue, particularly as we chair the G8 this year, and because some of the leading non-governmental organisations, including Save the Children, have quite rightly launched that campaign today. Above all, what Britain will be doing is meeting the commitment we made to spend 0.7% of our gross national income on aid—a commitment that we have made and that we have kept, whereas many other countries have broken their promises. We will be using that money to make sure that we focus on the issues of malnutrition, under-nutrition and stunting, because it is not acceptable, in 2013, that so many millions of families in the world go hungry every day and every night.
Q2. The British automotive industry is a world-class success story, with 82% of the cars we produce being exported. The key is inward investment, and the key to inward investment is our continuing membership of the European Union. Has the Prime Minister heard the growing voices expressing concern from within the industry over the prolonged uncertainty that his speech this morning will create? Is he beginning to recognise the damage that he might do to our economy and to a sector that employs hundreds of thousands of British workers? (138634)
First, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is very welcome that, for the first time since the 1970s, Britain is once again, under this Government, a net exporter of cars. That is something to celebrate, but I simply do not agree with what he says about business. This morning, the Institute of Directors, the director-general of the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses are all coming out and saying that this is the right approach. Let us get a good deal for Britain, let us reform Europe and make it more open and competitive, and let us put the choice to the British people in a referendum.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s support for ending hunger, and his use of the G8 leadership for that campaign. Does he recognise the importance of the root causes of hunger, such as the land grabs and the use of land for producing biofuels? Does he also recognise the need to ensure that investment in those countries is suitably transparent? Will he use the G8 to seek bold action on those root causes?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. Because Britain is meeting its promises on money for aid, we are best placed to make the arguments about what I call the golden thread, which is all the things that help move countries from poverty to wealth: making sure that there is the proper rule of law, democratic systems, accountability, a free press and property rights. We will be making the argument in the G8. We need greater transparency about land ownership, greater transparency about companies and greater transparency about tax. These are all arguments that Britain will be pushing in the year ahead.
Q3. Can the Prime Minister confirm that his Government are the first for 30 years not to offer hard-pressed consumers a Government-funded energy efficiency scheme, following the closure of Warm Front last week? (138635)
No. The energy company obligation scheme is many times the size of the Warm Front scheme. Warm Front helped 80,000 families a year, but ECO could help up to 230,000 families a year, so it is a bigger and potentially better scheme.
What assessment has the Prime Minister made of unemployment in my constituency, particularly the fact that more women are in work than ever before?
The point my hon. Friend makes is absolutely right. There are now more people employed in the private sector than ever before, and there are also more women employed in our country than ever before. When we look at the unemployment figures that came out today, we see that what is remarkable is that in employment is up in almost every region and unemployment is down in almost every region. There is a huge amount more to do, but clearly over 500,000 new jobs were created in the private sector last year, the fastest job creation rate since 1989. That shows that we are on the right track.
Q4. Does the Prime Minister believe that it is fair that Preston city council, which represents one of the areas of highest deprivation and poverty in the country, is receiving a 12% cut in its local government funding, while his own West Oxfordshire district council receives a cut of only 1%? Will he look at that again and give Preston a fairer deal? (138636)
Of course, local government right across the board is facing a difficult funding settlement—I do not hide from that—but the figures are as follows: the area formula grant per head in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is £501, whereas in my constituency it is £320. I completely accept that needs are greater in different parts of the country, which is why the figures are different, but I think that the figures speak for themselves.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a landmark speech this morning, which demonstrated serious leadership of our country and leadership on the important issue of Europe, but I invite him to agree with me on this issue: it is not simply the United Kingdom that is seeking to renegotiate the treaties, because there is also a serious imperative on those members of the eurozone that have introduced the disastrous single currency policy into Europe, which has caused economic chaos. They are the ones in need of treaty renegotiation, not just us.
I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. The point he makes is correct: there is a big change taking place in Europe because of the reforms that are necessary to deal with the single currency. That is why treaty change and change in Europe is coming. There is also already a big debate in Britain about our role in Europe. I think that politicians have a choice: we can either walk towards that, try to shape that choice to get a good deal for Britain and make changes that will benefit all of Europe, or we can stick our heads in the sand, as the Labour party is doing, and hope that the whole thing will go away.
Q5. Why does the Prime Minister think that Scotland’s two-year referendum process is too long but that his five-year Euro-marathon is just fine? (138637)
There is a very easy answer: the Scottish nationalists, in my view, misguidedly want to leave the United Kingdom as it is. I will be arguing, as will Members right across the House, that Scotland should stay in the United Kingdom. What I want to see in Europe is a changed Europe. Then we ask the people.
Q6. Despite his busy morning, I am sure that the Prime Minister will have seen today’s report from the Department for Communities and Local Government highlighting the huge savings that can be made by turning around the country’s most troubled families, such as the £224 million saved by councils in Greater Manchester, which equates to £32,000 per family. [Interruption.] What is he doing to ensure that these lessons are put to good use by local authorities across the country? (138638)
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I do not understand why people are trying to shout down what should be a cross-party initiative to try to deal with the most troubled families in our country.
One council spent up to 20% of its budget on just 3% of its families. This is a problem affecting all local authorities right across the country, and I very much commend the approach that the Communities Secretary is taking—to bring together local councils and work out how we can help these families solve their problems and thus reduce a major impact on taxpayers as well.
Q7. The Government’s welfare Bill will plunge 200,000 extra children into poverty, and children in places such as Liverpool are already suffering. Yet the Government want to make the poor go away by redefining poverty. Does the Prime Minister really think he is going to get away with that? (138639)
What I would say to the hon. Lady is that the introduction of universal credit is going to reduce the number of children living in relative-income poverty by around 250,000. Those are the figures.
On the issue of welfare, we face a clear choice. Given that in-work benefits have gone up by 20% over the last five years compared with just a 10% increase in wages, we believe that it is right that welfare benefits should not continue to go up ahead of wages. I note what Labour have done this week: great sound and fury, voting against the Bill and saying it is completely wrong, but completely refusing to reverse it. That is the complete policy vacuum that we face from the Labour party.
Given the Prime Minister’s keen interest in single markets, will he look at mortgage lenders restricting legal work to a small number of larger firms and depriving local practices of the work that keeps them at the heart of local high streets in a thriving small business economy?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I will look closely at this. We do want to see a competitive market in financial services and conveyancing. It is a major issue in our economy at the moment to get that mortgage market moving.
There are good signs, as the Governor of the Bank of England said last night, that credit conditions are easing, but we need to make sure that they are easing for people who are trying to buy their first flat and first home, who do not have a big deposit or a lot of help from the bank of mum and dad. We need to make sure that we are on their side.
Q8. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), the Prime Minister justified very large cuts in defence spending, with 5,000 troops being sacked right now, on the basis that he had had to face some difficult decisions on expenditure. But those decisions were made in 2010. The security risk facing this country is now much worse, as he himself has acknowledged and as many of his own hon. Friends fear. Given those threats, including in the Sahel, is there not an overwhelming case for looking again at the strategic defence review and ensuring that our troops have the numbers needed to justify our defence? (138640)
The right hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. The point about our defence reviews is that they are every five years, so there will be the opportunity to look at this all over again. What I would say to him about the level of risk—I made this point in my statement to the House on Monday—is that the risks are changing. We still face the biggest risk from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, but the proportion of the risks that we face from that area has declined, so we are able to use resources as we draw down in Afghanistan to cope with the other risks that we face.
The overall point is absolutely that, yes, we are going to have a smaller regular Army, although the extra reserves will mean that the overall level of our Army hardly changes size. But they will be better equipped, more capable, more mobile and more capable of dealing with the modern threats that we face.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on his speech on Europe this morning. This Prime Minister has a history of going in to bat for Britain; the Labour party has a history of going in and surrendering things such as the rebate. Is not the big difference between that side and this that this side trusts the people and that side wants to deny them a say?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Frankly, the British public have seen treaty after treaty introduced to this House, passing powers from Westminster to Brussels. They have seen a huge change in the European Union over the last 30 years. They see a big change taking place because of the eurozone, and that is why I think it is right to resettle our relationship with Europe and then to trust the people.
Q9. As with phone-hacking, blacklisting has destroyed the lives of many innocent people. Recent revelations show that the secretive, serious abuse of powers involved in blacklisting continues with the involvement of the police and the security services. Will the Prime Minister order an immediate investigation into this scandal, which has ruined, and continues to ruin, the lives of many hard-working men and women and their families? (138641)
The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the issue that the Opposition will be raising today in their debate. Let me say that the blacklisting that occurred was a completely unacceptable practice, and the previous Government were right to bring in legislation to make it unlawful. We have seen no evidence that the blacklisting regulations that were introduced are not doing their job, and the company responsible was shut down in 2009. However, I welcome the openness and frankness with which Labour is using an Opposition day debate to look at something that went wrong while it was in office.
My right hon. Friend insists on five excellent principles, including democracy based on national Parliaments, and he rejects ever-closer union. Other member states want to go ahead with more integration and are demanding it. Last year, on the fiscal compact, they ignored his veto and went ahead, irrespective of the rules of the European Union. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what will happen if, by next spring, they insist on going ahead with their own intended proposals, and what will he do in response?
First of all, I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. I believe that what is going to happen is that the eurozone countries do need to make changes to the European Union, as I put it in my speech this morning. They are changing the Union to fix the currency. That is what President Barroso’s report is about and what the four Presidents’ report is about, and it poses quite wide-ranging treaty change. I think this gives us the opportunity and the right to argue that for those countries that are not in the eurozone—and frankly, I believe, are never going to join the eurozone—there are changes we would like, not just for ourselves but for a more open, competitive and flexible Europe. So there is going to be change in Europe. The eurozone countries do need to make changes, but we should not back off from pushing forward our agenda as well.
Q10. Is the Prime Minister aware that there can be nothing more gruesome than to see him headed out of austerity-riddled Britain to wine and dine at Davos with 50 top bankers who helped to create the economic crash and several hundred tax-avoiding millionaires? Does it not prove the theory that if you want to identify a posh boy, look at the company he keeps? (138642)
I seem to remember that last year I ran into the Leader of the Opposition, but we will leave that to one side. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, I think that when he sees the speech I am going to be making in Davos, which will be arguing that we need greater transparency over tax, greater responsibility over the tax avoidance and tax evasion issues, and greater transparency about companies and about the land issue we were speaking about earlier, he might even find that he agrees with some of the things I am going to say.
Will the Prime Minister cut through the irrelevant arguments coming from the Opposition and give the very simple message to the British people that if we have a Conservative Government after the next election, they will have their say in a referendum on Europe, but if we do not have a Conservative Government, we will not have a referendum?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I believe it is right to resettle our relationship with Europe to make it more open, more competitive and more flexible, to make us feel more comfortable inside the Union, and then to give the British people the in/out referendum they deserve.
Q11. Can the Prime Minister confirm that 3.4 million families with someone who is disabled will be worse off as a result of his benefit uprating cap? Why is he making life more difficult for these families? (138643)
First of all, I would say to the hon. Lady that disability living allowance is not included in the cap, and disability living allowance is not related to people’s income; it is actually related to people’s needs. If we look as a whole at what we are doing with disability living allowance and the personal independence payment, we see that the overall the amount of money we are spending on disability is going to go up and not down.
My right hon. Friend’s admiration for the economic and political wisdom of our noble friend Lord Heseltine is well known. In the light of my right hon. Friend’s speech this morning, will he consider inviting Lord Heseltine to conduct an inquiry into the consequences for the United Kingdom if we leave the European Union?
I always listen closely to what Michael Heseltine says and I am a huge fan of his plans for an industrial strategy. On the issue of Europe, we have not always agreed. He was a leading proponent of Britain joining the single currency and I have always been opposed to that. On the issue of the referendum, I gently remind my right hon. and learned Friend that an in/out referendum was very much part of his manifesto at the last election, but in the interests of coalition harmony, I think we will leave that to one side.
Q12. A Swansea constituent of mine with a chronic medical condition tells me that he has just £20 a week to spend on food and clothing after paying his utility bills, and that after the welfare cuts in April he will have just £2 a day. If the Prime Minister believes that we are all in it together, will he agree to review the impact of the welfare cuts on the very poorest, so that my constituent’s sacrifices are in line with his own? (138644)
I will look very closely at what the hon. Gentleman says and the circumstances, but it is worth making the point that, if we compare 2013 with 2010 in terms of the level of key benefits, we will see that an unemployed person on jobseeker’s allowance is getting £325 more this year than in 2010, that a couple on jobseeker’s allowance are getting £500 more and that a single, out-of-work mother is getting £420 more, so what the Opposition try to do week after week—paint a picture that we have unfairly cut welfare—is simply untrue.
Health inequalities in the country are persistent and damaging. Recently the Department of Health announced a 5.5% increase in its allocation to local authorities for their public health responsibilities and a 10% increase for Bedford and Kempston. Does the Prime Minister agree that those funds, locally directed, will go a long way to help tackling long-term health inequalities?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. For many years public health budgets were raided in order to deal with issues and problems in the NHS. Because we put in place an increase in the NHS budget—we have also ring-fenced some of the public health budgets—we are able to make sure that we tackle some of the real problems, such as smoking, diabetes and other issues, that will put enormous pressures on our health service in the long run.
Q13. The House has heard that the Prime Minister is looking forward to meeting people from national and international banks in the next few days. When will he visit a food bank? (138645)
First of all, let me once again praise what food banks do in our country and let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that the use of food banks increased 10 times under the last Labour Government.
Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to all the athletes who took part in the British transplant games held in my constituency? Linked to that, will he encourage people to register for organ donation, which will help to save lives?
I certainly pay tribute to all those who took part in the British transplant games and to the many volunteers who made the games such a success. Gillingham did a fantastic job in hosting the games and my hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. They are a testament to the benefits of transplantation and I would encourage people to do as he says.
Q14. Seventy-seven of Warrington’s young people with the most complex special needs face being without places next year because of Government cuts to post-16 high-needs funding. Why should the most vulnerable young people in my constituency pay the price for the Prime Minister’s economic failure? (138646)
First of all, let me make the point to the hon. Lady that the reason we are having to make cuts is because of the mess left by her Government. No one wants to have to make the difficult decisions that we have had to make in government, but I would argue that, when it comes to helping the disabled and the most vulnerable, this Government have always looked after them.
Last but not least, I call Crispin Blunt.
Pitt the Younger said that
“Europe is not to be saved by any single man”,
and then correctly went on to predict that England would
“save Europe by her example.”
I believe that my right hon. Friend is in danger of contradicting Pitt, because his example today and his exertions over the next four years stand the best possible chance of rescuing the European Union for both Europe and Britain.
I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. He makes an important point, which is that Britain’s agenda is not one of simply saying, “This is what Britain wants and if we don’t get it we will leave”, it is an agenda that is good for the whole of the European Union. We face a massive competitiveness challenge from the rising countries of the south and the east, and we must accept that Europe at the moment is not working properly—it is adding to business costs, adding to regulation, and we need to change that not just for our sake but for that of those right across the European Union.
Today we have announced changes to A-level qualifications. As the key qualification for progression to higher education, it is clear that we need A-levels that are robust and rigorous. A-levels need to provide students with qualifications that match the world’s best and that keep pace with the demands of universities and employers. Reports from the Royal Society, SCORE—Science Community Representing Education—the Nuffield Foundation, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and many others, have identified significant problems with A-levels. I urge Members to read a blog by Fields medallist Professor Tim Gowers at Cambridge on some problems with maths A-level—problems that the Cambridge university maths project will address.
The Government inherited a system in which students start A-levels in September and immediately start preparing for exams in January. Pupils spend too much time thinking about exams and resits of exams, which encourages a “learn and forget” approach to studying. We want to end the treadmill of repeated exams that do not properly test advanced skills such as extended writing and mathematical problem solving. We want questions that encourage students to think and prepare for university study, not a sat-nav series of exams. The way that the Labour party repeatedly calls such skills “old fashioned” shows how totally out of touch it is with universities and businesses. Does it think that silicon valley wants people who can understand calculus and linear algebra, or students who turn up saying, “Don’t worry, we can Google everything”?
The Secretary of State has written to Ofqual chief executive, Glenys Stacey, setting out plans for changes to A-levels, and I will make copies of the letter available in the Library. In future, A-levels will be linear—taken over two years with students sitting their exams at the end of the course. That will lead to students developing deeper subject knowledge and greater intellectual maturity over two years of study. Ofqual, the exams regulator, has already announced its decision to remove the January exams from September 2013. The AS-level qualification will remain but will be redesigned as a stand-alone qualification. It will be as demanding as an A-level, but cover half the content. We expect that it will be delivered over either one or two years, so institutions can decide what is best for their students.
The Government will be stepping back from the future development of A-levels. All students should have access to qualifications that are highly respected and valued by leading universities. Universities will now have a greater role in how A-levels are developed. Leading academics have been clear that there are real problems with current A-levels, which they say do not equip students with the skills and knowledge needed for degree courses, including extended writing and research skills. We are pleased that the Russell Group—24 of the UK’s leading universities—has agreed to lead that process. The group has welcomed the opportunity to be involved and is considering how best to provide advice to Ofqual on both the content and the assessment of A-levels. The group will focus on those A-level subjects that are most commonly required for entry to our leading universities— the facilitating subjects: maths and further maths, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history, and modern and classical languages.
We expect that the first new A-levels in facilitating subjects will be developed for first teaching in September 2015, with first exams sat in 2017. The Russell Group will seek the views of other universities as well as engaging with the relevant learned societies. Ofqual will lead a post-qualification review process each year, which will also involve the Russell Group.
The Department for Education is now stepping back from A-levels. A-levels had a global reputation before politicians took control. The Government are giving control back to universities. Furthermore, there is what the head of Stanford has called a “tsunami” heading towards the education world—the tsunami of the world’s best universities putting their best content and new online courses free on the web. This is a revolution that the DFE cannot, and should not seek to, control. The tsunami will raise the importance of advanced skills tested in rigorous A-levels, which the Labour party simply does not understand.
May I thank the Minister for her statement and for advance sight of it? I understand that the Secretary of State is rather busy today, which is why we have her and not him, and why I am speaking rather than my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)—[Interruption.] I am not being patronising. I have welcomed the Minister’s statement.
It is somewhat ironic that the cause of the Secretary of State’s busy afternoon is that he has been summoned before the Procedure Committee to account for his Department’s failure to answer parliamentary questions. In effect, he is not here for his examination because he is in the headmaster’s study for failing to do his homework. As the part-time Minister for Schools does not do exams, the hon. Lady has made the statement, and I am glad she did so.
The Secretary of State first announced his plans to scrap AS-levels in July 2010. He now says that AS-levels will not be scrapped as such, but just rendered irrelevant by the fact that they will not count towards a final A-level grade. To describe that as a dog’s dinner would be an insult to the pet food industry. It is no wonder that leading universities are opposed to the change.
Why, when the Secretary of State says he wants to consult Russell Group universities on exam reform, has he completely ignored its opposition to this emasculation of AS-levels? Dr Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge university, has said:
“We are worried…if AS-level disappears we will lose many of the gains in terms of fair admissions and widening participation that we have made in the last decade.”
He warns—Government Members should listen to this—that:
“We are convinced that a large part of this success derives from the confidence engendered in students from non-traditional backgrounds when they achieve high examination grades at the end of year 12”.
The question the Opposition want the answer to is this: why are the Government treating the views of admissions tutors on what helps state schools pupils to gain Oxbridge admission with such total contempt? That view is shared across the university sector—it is the view not just of Cambridge university, but of the million+ group and Universities UK.
In addition, the Secretary of State says he wants to create “facilitating subjects” in A-level that are ready for teaching in 2015, but they will only be in the EBacc subjects. Yet again, there is no value for creative subjects or computing and engineering. What has he got against those subjects? His plan means there will be two types of A-levels: one designed, blessed and endorsed by him; and another that is seen as less valuable—once again, that is a two-tier system from the past.
Anyway, what is the Secretary of State doing designing exams? Is he going to write the questions and mark the papers too? Is he overstepping his powers? Is that what the Minister meant in her statement by “stepping back” from the design of A-levels? Are the plans an order from the Secretary of State or just an expression of preference? Given the widespread opposition to his plans, we need to know their status.
Today’s statement, as so often, is backward looking, and for the few and not the many. Let us have exams that open up life chances rather than reforms that will slam the door of opportunity in the face of the many.
It is absolutely no surprise that the Labour party opposes any change to our system: they are the educational reactionaries; we are looking to the future. We are looking to compete in the modern world, which is why we have leading universities, such as Cambridge and Imperial, helping us to develop the new curriculum. The Opposition oppose any change; they want students to be on an exam treadmill at age 16, 17 and 18. We want students to have the opportunity to think, to learn, and to study subjects in depth; they just want constant exams.
We have discussed these changes with the Russell Group, which is bringing forward proposals and leading these reforms. I have also been in conversation with Universities UK and the 1994 Group, as they want to be involved too. I suggest that the Opposition get with the programme, otherwise they will be left behind even further. Let us not forget what happened under Labour Governments. Let us not forget Curriculum 2000, which saw a drastic reduction in the number of students doing maths A-level—down 20% in two years. We are now the country with the lowest number of students who are studying that important subject in the entire OECD.
My feeling has always been that our children are over-examined, and I had a certain prejudice against AS-level as we go from GCSE to AS-level to A-level, but I was struck, talking to schools in my area and elsewhere, by head teachers saying that the confidence the AS-level brought to some pupils was a benefit. We should, therefore, be careful about any reforms and make sure that we can carry everyone forward. We should encourage as many pupils as we can to think deeply, but make sure that we keep everyone on board. Will the Minister tell us what assessment she has made of those risks?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. One thing I would point out to him is that 75% of universities offer places based on predicted grades at A-level, rather than on AS-level results. The big increase in participation at A-level took place in the 1990s, before Curriculum 2000 was introduced. That was when we saw a massive increase in the number of students going to universities, particularly from low-income backgrounds.
If the Russell Group universities tell the Minister that exams at year 12 encourage state school pupils to go on to apply and attend those universities, will she change her mind?
The Russell Group universities are keen to lead and be involved in this process, because they recognise, as do many academics I have spoken to at all kinds of universities, that A-levels are not fit for purpose in relation to the deep study that students need to do. The whole problem with AS, and then A2 following on, is that students are constantly examined, rather than having the opportunity to study subjects in depth. It is absolutely amazing that the party that complains about too many exams is opposing a move to enable students to have more time to study. All the university academics I have spoken to like the idea of having an extra term where students can be studying and not doing exams.
As a former comprehensive school pupil who was lucky enough to study A-levels and go to one of the world’s leading universities, I know how important it is to make sure these opportunities are open for all. We have some of the finest professors and universities in the world teaching physics, engineering and maths, and they tell us that they simply cannot get the quality of British children in to study those qualifications. Will the Minister assure us that she is talking to those universities, and that these changes will ensure we have more home-grown mathematicians, engineers and entrepreneurs in the future?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is absolutely right: we have some fantastic universities. That is why we are so excited that they are getting involved in developing new qualifications. Not only are they helping us with new qualifications—[Interruption.] I think the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) should actually speak to some of these academics and maybe he will get a slightly less biased picture.
Well, I do not know who he was talking to. The point is that not only are we developing new A-levels, we are also developing a new mid-level maths qualification with Mathematics in Education and Industry and Tim Gowers, which I am very glad the Opposition support.
May I say to the Minister that, as someone who is very interested in education and has been in this House for some years, I have never heard a statement so aggressively and unpleasantly delivered? Of course we need to reform our qualifications and there were some criticisms of A-levels. However, if she looks at the record, she will see that, historically, the way to do that is to base it on evidence from leading people, not just picking bits from people to quote in support of one’s position. We could have had a cross-party, bipartisan approach to this issue, led by someone such as Ken Baker, but we will not get it from this sort of aggressive attitude.
What I would say in response to that is that I did not see much consultation taking place when Labour introduced Curriculum 2000, which saw a massive reduction in the number of students studying maths. Comprehensive students are now half as likely to do A-level maths as their independent school counterparts, mainly as a result of the Opposition’s opposition.
Having listened to the Minister’s statement, I hope she will ensure that all universities have a place in the process and not just the Russell groupers, which, as she has outlined, will be leading it, and that, in setting the overall framework for a qualification, the Government will not seek to micro-manage how it is assessed, to ensure that there is room for things such as properly assessed coursework, which will prepare students for university, where they will be expected to do more extended work.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I have spoken to a number of universities, both in the Russell Group and outside, as well as the 1994 group and Universities UK, and I am absolutely clear that we need subject experts from across all the universities to be involved in the process, so that we get A-levels that reflect the broad consensus across universities. He is absolutely right that in subjects where it may be appropriate to have different methods of examination—for example, art—we should look at that, too. We will be flexible according to the subject and we are certainly very interested in getting all universities on board.
I was interested to hear the Minister say that she wanted questions that encouraged students to think. I am afraid that that is what is already going on in our schools and colleges: students are thinking. Comments such as hers denigrate the excellent work that young people and the people working with them are doing now. Does she accept that A-levels are about more than preparation for Russell Group universities? She is in real danger if she models her curriculum change only on the direction of Russell Group universities, not on the panoply of need of all our young people.
I am afraid that, according to academics in universities, too many of the questions set in today’s A-levels do not allow long responses. In mathematics and physics they do not have multi-step problems that encourage students to think through answers and are very much more laid out than they were in the past. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to look at past papers and also leading countries—
I’ve looked at rather more past papers than you have!
I do not know if that is entirely true if the hon. Gentleman does not acknowledge the changes that have been made.
We also need to ensure that examiners are able to exercise judgment in the way they mark questions. That is important as well.
Could I just say to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) that if my hon. Friend the Minister had been a man, he would not have criticised her for making this statement?
Too many top universities have become too elitist; therefore, top professions have become the same—through no fault of their own, but through the subjects that people are guided to study. I welcome this statement. Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that it will result in more disadvantaged young people going to our top universities, which is the acid test of whether it has been successful?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on his work with the fair access to university group, which encourages students to study the rigorous subjects that will help them to get into top universities. One of the things we are also looking at is the accountability system and how we show what subjects students are studying, to encourage more students from different backgrounds to study subjects such as modern foreign languages, sciences and maths, where there is a particular gap in participation between those students and students at independent and grammar schools.
My constituency is way down the bottom of the league table when it comes to participation in higher education. How will today’s statement help to address that?
Today’s statement will encourage students to take up subjects by giving them much more in-depth knowledge of those subjects and more time to study and learn, rather than having them feel that they are constantly examined between the ages of 16 and 18. At the moment in our examination system, we have tests at 11 and examinations at 16, 17 and 18. That is a very unbalanced system. I think that a system that encourages teaching, learning and in-depth study will be really attractive to students.
Having attended one of the poorest-performing schools in one of the poorest-performing authorities in the country, before going on to study A-level and then teaching the subject that I studied at A-level at both AS and A-level, I can confirm that there was certainly a diminishing of that qualification over the time I went from studying to teaching it. However, there is still a place for AS-levels and I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend acknowledge that. Can she tell us a little more about her vision for the AS-level qualification?
We are keen to encourage more breadth at A-level. We want to see the development of high-quality AS-levels that students can study over one or two years. They will have the same content level as A-levels, but half the breadth. We are also developing new qualifications—we are asking other people to look at those—such as a mid-level maths qualification, which will enable students who do not want to do a full maths A-level to go on to do that instead. In addition, we are encouraging extended project qualifications, so that students in sciences and arts can demonstrate extended writing as well. It is part of our intention to encourage greater breadth, particularly so that students doing sciences get more opportunities to do extended writing and students doing arts and social sciences are able to study maths.
As a former teacher and an A-level chief examiner, I recognise many of the criticisms that the Minister has made of the exam system and I would be broadly supportive of the views she has expressed. Given that there is a big movement of students between Northern Ireland and England and between England and Northern Ireland, and given that Northern Ireland has its own exam board, what arrangements has she put in place for the consultation involving the universities to include schools and educational decision makers in Northern Ireland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point, which I will certainly take up with my counterpart.
For many of us, the first year in the sixth form was one of the best years of our lives. Apart from The Who and The Rolling Stones, it was also a year without examinations, the first time in our lives that we were able to study a comparatively small number of subjects and a good year to learn how to study. For the life of me, I fail to see how it is progressive to expect students simply to take examinations every year. Why should the first year of the sixth form not be a year in which pupils have the opportunity to spread their wings, start to study a small range of subjects and do so with some skill?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. One of the things about moving up to A-level is that it is a new level and an opportunity for students to study independently and be able to think. I remember from when I studied for my A-levels that it sometimes takes time for the penny to drop in more challenging subjects such as physics and maths. Constantly measuring students during that process has put them off. In my view, one of the failings of Curriculum 2000 was that many students dropped out of subjects such as maths after a year because they had not yet reached the point—the “Eureka!” moment—when the subject had sunk in.
The Minister kindly appeared before the Select Committee on Science and Technology and gave evidence in our inquiry into engineering skills, which will be published shortly. In taking that evidence, we covered some of the ground being explored today. Will she now give a commitment that before she closes her mind to the methodology applied to science and engineering practicals, she will take the widest view from across the learned societies, including the Royal Academy of Engineering, as well as engaging with the universities sector?
Yes, I would like to do that. We are working on the plans to make sure that more students study maths at the 16 to 18 level, as this has been one of our historic problems in failing to get more students into engineering. I am very committed, and I would be delighted to talk to the hon. Gentleman about it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her compelling statement, and I advise her to ignore the ridiculous remarks of the former Chairman of the Education Select Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). Is the Minister aware that universities across the country will welcome this statement because it means a restoration of integrity to the system and a return to the gold standard? Does my hon. Friend agree that we must make sure that we get schools on side? Given that we share a borough, will she join me in a programme of visits to secondary schools in west Norfolk?
My hon. Norfolk Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to restore the link between universities and schools, which I think has been lost. It has meant that our school exams have not necessarily caught up with the latest research in the universities. It is so important to keep up with the cutting edge because we are competing against countries that are rising in the world. We need to make sure that we are linking to our leading educational institutions such as Cambridge university, which is not too far from us. I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend in a programme of visits; I am starting with Downham Market high school on Friday.
Evidence-based policy making is something we can all support, so will the Minister provide us with the hard evidence that these plans will widen participation, particularly in constituencies such as my own in Hull?
At the moment, the evidence suggests that the reforms undertaken by the previous Government did not have a big impact on participation. What that meant was that students were studying fewer of the rigorous subjects such as maths, physics and modern languages.
Does the Minister agree that there is a place at least for a percentage of regulated and properly moderated course work in A-level qualifications, so that young people disadvantaged through illness or disruption in other areas of their lives do not have to stake everything on one or two exams at the end of their courses?
The key point about the reforms we are announcing today is that students will be assessed at the end of their course. As for requirements such as coursework, I expect the Russell Group and other universities involved in the process to advise Ofqual on that.
The Secretary of State has criticised bite-sized units, but I have to tell the Minister that the reality is that people learn in bite-sized units and that the world of work is a series of bite-sized activities, so a bite-sized approach is entirely appropriate to the way we learn and to the way qualifications are designed. Is not the reality, then, that removing a modular element is a very retrograde step?
I do not think that is true. I think modularisation has encouraged a “learn and forget” culture, in which students study something, do the exam and then forget about it, moving on to the next chunk. Many of the subjects that students study at school build on previous elements, so it is an important discipline to be able to understand everything about the subject at the end of the course, rather than forget about something learned earlier. The other issue is the amount of time involved: we are spending a term of time doing exams rather than providing students with extra learning opportunities.
Recently, A-level students have had the daunting prospect of aiming not just for As but for A*s. Will the Minister tell us what impact she expects this reform to have on the grade inflation that has been experienced with A-levels and GCSEs?
By linking A-levels more closely to universities, their entrance requirements and the skills and knowledge they possess, we will see a better control on standards.
Many parents will have got the message that the Secretary of State is largely against assessments and in favour of exams. They may therefore be a little confused about the abolition of AS-levels, and will have to get over that. I was interested to note that in her statement, the Minister accepted that it was important for students to learn more, including about extended writing and research skills, which she saw as important for A-levels. Does the Minister expect there to be more assessments during those two years?
No, I do not expect that. We are talking about the extended project qualification, going alongside A-levels, but the point about A-levels is that there will be a terminal exam.
I welcome these reforms. We know that more universities have had to change their first-year course content or put on extra classes, especially in subjects such as maths. Are not universities best placed to design qualifications at the age of 18, as they will have to deal with the output?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The important point here is that the Russell Group has agreed to be part of this process; it wants to be involved. I think there is an increasing appetite for that among universities across the board. Universities UK has also expressed its interest because universities want to know that the students entering their institutions are well prepared. In certain subjects, academics have been very concerned about the level of preparation. They have quite often found that there is a difference between independent school students who get extra tuition and those currently doing A-levels in state schools.
Will the Minister confirm that an impact assessment has been done on this policy change? If so, what assessment has been made of the effect on children from low-income families and black and minority ethnic communities regarding their education and career choices? Will she clarify whether this is a policy steer or an order?
As I said earlier, when Curriculum 2000 was introduced, we saw a drop in the number of students from comprehensive schools doing rigorous subjects. [Interruption.] We can see the negative impact of Labour’s policy on participation in the top universities—despite the introduction of organisations such as the Office for Fair Access, which had a dreadful record on social mobility and on students from low-income backgrounds studying certain subjects. In 2004, for example, it abolished the language requirement for GCSE. [Interruption.]
Order. I live in hope that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), will aim for a demeanour of statesmanlike reserve, which I think would suit him well if he could cultivate it.
There are current alternatives to the A-level: the IB or international baccalaureate and the pre-U, which is being offered by a significantly increasing number of state and private schools. Does that not demonstrate that out there in the marketplace there is diminishing confidence in the A-level as a qualification?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It also indicates increasing competition. We are competing not just with other institutions in this country, but in the global marketplace with organisations and institutions that are developing new ideas and new qualifications all the time. There is also the online world, through which many of those things are going to become available. We need to make sure that our qualifications are keeping up at the highest level. My real fear is that if independent and other schools move towards the pre-U and our A-levels do not keep up, we really will damage social mobility.
The Minister is proposing a leading role for the Russell Group, but what about all those excellent universities that are not members of it? Why should they receive second-class treatment from this Government in an increasingly two-tier system?
The Russell Group of universities and others to which I have spoken are all keen to participate in this process. It is a question of organisation. There will be members from all universities right across the university sector on each of the subject panels, making sure that there is a broad base from which to develop these qualifications.
I welcome the statement, and I particularly welcome the inspired involvement of the Russell Group. Does my hon. Friend agree that the involvement of that group will give us precisely the qualifications that we are after?
Absolutely. I think we should be proud that we have some of the best universities in the world, rather than continually damning them as elitist. We want to make sure that more students from all backgrounds are able to access the important material that these universities are providing. That is why we have Cambridge working on a project to expand the school curriculum and to give extra material to students so that they have a rich diet on which to feast rather than the paltry diet they have had in previous years.
I heard what the Minister said about what she and her Department would do for facilitating subjects, but we already know that arts subjects will be excluded from the Ebacc, which I think will be much to the detriment of the UK’s creative industries in the future. What will the Minister and the Department do for the very important creative subjects?
Many creative subjects are also facilitating subjects—I would argue that both maths and English are creative subjects—but we are thinking about the other subjects as well, and engaging in further discussions with universities and other organisations about them.
I congratulate the Minister on her strong and passionate delivery of a statement which I think will be broadly welcomed by students, universities and employers. Does she agree that allowing students to take the same exam three or even four times creates a distorted picture of their abilities which does not actually serve anyone?
I entirely agree. Our proposals have already been strongly supported by businesses as well as universities. The Institute of Directors has been very supportive, and, indeed, expressed its support this morning.
Life is not just about being able to sit exams; it is also about being able to demonstrate the ability to perform over a sustained period, and that is what employers want. Modular courses help young people to demonstrate such skills. Will the Minister tell us to what extent coursework and modular work feature in the Department’s plans? Will she also tell us on what evidence the proposed changes are based? She has not yet told us that, although she has explained her views on the previous system.
The hon. Lady says that she does not think constant exams should be part of life, but under Labour, constant exams were certainly part of students’ lives. Taking exams is all that they were doing between the ages of 16 and 18.
I welcome the statement. At a recent meeting of the Education Committee to discuss the national curriculum, we heard from various academics that there was a real interest in the upskilling of those who study physics, chemistry and biology before their arrival at university, and that it was important for there to be an academic input in the formation of A-level courses that lead to university. Does the Minister take comfort from that, and does she agree with Professor Alison Wolf’s observation—much applauded by the shadow Secretary of State—about the need to recognise that universities need catch-up courses?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Another point that Alison Wolf made in her report is that we need more maths students: at present, universities are 200,000 short of the number that they want.
There are real problems with our current system, which is why we need to reform it. We need a system with which universities and employers are happy, and which provides the important subject knowledge that students need.
I must tell the Minister, with respect, that I thought that the tone of her statement was wrong. It was a tad too aggressive, and unnecessarily so.
Is there not an anomaly at the heart of the Minister’s plans? She put a great deal of emphasis on the Russell Group. Does she not recognise that it is a self-selecting club and not a statutory body?
As my hon. Friend may know, there are various university bodies in operation. I have spoken to a lot of them, and also to a lot of vice-chancellors. We need a well-respected and rigorous organisation that will work with the other universities, but we also need an organisation that can hold the ring during the development of our reforms. Otherwise, confusion will be created.
I commend my hon. Friend’s proposals. They will benefit dyslexic A-level students, who are usually highly intelligent. However, will she assure me that the special arrangements governing, in particular, extra time in terminal examinations will remain?
I will certainly discuss that with Ofqual.
I welcome the statement, especially its focus on rigour and the continued investment in science, technology, engineering and maths. Those subjects will be very important to Britain’s employers in the 21st century. Can the Minister reassure us, however, that as well as consulting universities on the reforms, she will consult businesses and the colleges that provide so many of the A-level courses to which she has referred?
We will certainly consult businesses. However, industries and businesses have made it clear that they respect the judgments of leading universities, because they have the academic expertise to understand what is leading-edge research and what students chiefly need to know. That is why it is so important for universities to lead this process.