Tuesday 12 March 2013
[Mr Edward Leigh in the Chair]
Olympic Legacy (Sheffield)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Syms.)
It is a pleasure to be opening this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Leigh. It means a great deal to those of us from Sheffield to have secured the debate; most of us are here and all plan to speak. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) regrets that he cannot join us, due to a commitment away from Westminster, and I am sorry that the Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), is not present either, although I shall be turning to his contribution to the debate in due course.
The Olympic and Paralympic games were clearly a great moment for Britain, showing the best of our sporting talent, sportsmanship, hospitality and world-class sporting facilities. They were, however, meant to be more than only a moment; they were supposed to provide a legacy for sport, with lasting opportunities for our people, our young people in particular.
In Sheffield, we know all about the benefits of sport. We were the country’s first city of sport and are home to some genuinely world-class facilities, not only the Don Valley stadium, located in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), but also the Sheffield Arena, the Ponds Forge international swimming and diving complex and some great community sports facilities. Given their reputations, we have secured more investment over the years, with the establishment of the English Institute of Sport and iceSheffield. Such investment has delivered a huge return. For example, we have beaten the trend nationally in increasing swimming participation and in engagement in other sports. The facilities at Don Valley have inspired a generation of young people, of whom Jessica Ennis is obviously the most successful and best known.
The investment in sport has also demonstrated economic benefits. In the first 12 years of the new facilities, sporting events brought in almost 640,000 visitors to the city and more than £46 million, creating about 990 full-time jobs. For every reason, therefore, it is ironic and deeply disappointing that barely six months after the Olympics and Paralympics, the city council has been put in the position of having no alternative but to close Don Valley stadium.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East will talk more about Don Valley, but it is worth noting that it was the first completely new national sporting venue built outdoors in Great Britain since Wembley in the early 1920s. It is the second largest athletics stadium in the UK, after the Olympic stadium, with a seating capacity of 25,000. As well as hosting international athletics meetings, it is home to a number of sporting clubs and facilities that are used by the whole community. It is currently used by the City of Sheffield athletic club which provides training, coaching and competition in athletics events, as well as in cross-country and road-running events, and offers coaching for children aged from eight years old.
Jessica Ennis is a member of the City of Sheffield athletic club. She has said that the venue held “great memories”, as it was where she started her athletic career. She has also said of the stadium closure:
“It’s a huge shame. To see it demolished would be a massive, massive disappointment…We’ve achieved so much as a country in the London Olympics, so to lose some great facilities sends out the wrong message, really.”
Her trainer, Toni Minichiello, has worried about the effect of the closure on the children of Sheffield who are engaged in athletics,
“because when Jess started she had the Don Valley stadium where, yes, we could train outdoors but there was also a smaller indoor area which we could use that made us fairly weatherproof”.
He also made the point that the closure reflects
“a series of systemic errors in government policy that are affecting a whole generation of kids who want to be involved in sport. It’s about neglecting basic joined-up thinking on health, education and sport...It is about failing to learn lessons from past mistakes, lessons we’ve had years to get right.”
Perhaps more surprising among those expressing regret about the closure of the Don Valley stadium was the Sports Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson); I am sorry that he has been unable to join us for today’s debate. In an interview on Radio 4’s “You and Yours” programme on 1 March, he said:
“I don’t want to see any facilities close”,
in particular one as “emblematic” as Don Valley. In full, he said:
“I very, very much hope that the local council, when they consider this, this afternoon, realise that London 2012 has created a unique opportunity for sport in this county, and I know it’s tough, and I know it’s difficult, and I know there are no easy answers, but it would be a huge, huge shame—it’s such an emblematic facility that means so much to so many local people…to close at such a time.”
We need to be clear, however, that the responsibility for the closure lies not with the city council but with the Government, who have given it no alternative. The stadium costs the council £700,000 a year to run. It is a national asset and, as the Sports Minister said, “ an emblematic facility”, but its costs are borne by one council. When the council is being forced to take £1.6 million out of libraries and £3.5 million out of early years, there are no easy options. Over the past two years Sheffield city council has been forced to make £140 million of cuts due to Government policy, with a further £50 million in both this year and next.
The cuts are unfairly targeted at cities such as Sheffield. That is why the Bishops of Sheffield and of Hallam, together with other faith leaders and community and voluntary sector leaders, have launched the campaign for “A Fair Deal for Sheffield”. In 2011-12 alone, Sheffield council’s revenue spending power reduced by £47.5 million or 8.15%, while Richmond upon Thames, which by any measure is a much wealthier part of the country, had a cut of a mere £1 million or 0.61%. If the Sports Minister were present, he might find it hard to appreciate the impact that that level of cuts can have. His constituency covers parts of the boroughs of Swale and Maidstone. Their cuts per person between 2010-11 and 2014-15 are £73 and £51, respectively, far less than the £200 cut per person imposed on Sheffield council.
Cuts of that severity mean that Sheffield city council and many other local authorities are no longer in a position to keep facilities such as Don Valley open. Notwithstanding the comments I quoted earlier, even the Sports Minister had to acknowledge that when he was asked on “You and Yours”:
“There is a direct causal link, isn’t there, it can’t be avoided, between the almost 30% cuts in local authority support and closing this stadium?”
“Yes, there is a direct causal link, you’re entirely right”.
Nevertheless, he went on to blame the council for failing to maintain the stadium properly and indicated that that was one of the reasons for its closure:
“The Don Valley stadium hasn’t suddenly declined in the last six months. This is presumably an ageing process that has been going on for most of the past 20 years because successive councils haven’t invested money in it on a yearly basis that keeps it going and keeps it to a stage where it doesn’t suddenly require a huge bill at the end of the road, and this probably points to a lack of investment over a prolonged period.”
I take strong exception to that further attempt to shift the blame, personally and on behalf of the city council.
I was chair of Sheffield City Trust for the 11 years up to 2008. The trust is the charity that runs Don Valley and our other major facilities on behalf of the council through our operating subsidiary, Sheffield International Venues. As a trust and a city, we maintained Don Valley to the highest standards. There is absolutely no lack of investment, and there has been no decline over 20 years. I have the capital and maintenance budgets for the last five years, which show that £1.6 million was invested in keeping it as a top international stadium. There is a capital requirement in forward costs, not because of under-investment, but simply because it is sensible to anticipate future need.
It was not just the Sports Minister who weighed into the debate; the Deputy Prime Minister also did so, calling on the council to keep the stadium open. It is perhaps reassuring to know that the Liberal Democrats are consistent in a perverse sort of way. They are now against closing it, but they were opposed to opening it in the first place. The Deputy Prime Minister’s arithmetic does not stack up. He argued that one-off closure costs could be offset against running costs simply to delay the closure, leaving no money to deal with it when it happened a few months down the line.
The Deputy Prime Minister has form on these issues. Less than two weeks ago, the city council’s chief executive wrote to correct him on “inaccuracies and misrepresentations” in his comments when opposing cuts in council services. The Deputy Prime Minister cannot have it both ways. He supported and implemented massive and disproportionate cuts on Sheffield council and then stood outside local libraries in his constituency collecting signatures opposing their closure. The same applies to Don Valley.
The impact on Sheffield sport goes well beyond the stadium. There will be an impact on community sports facilities, which I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) will speak about, and on school sport, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) will want to make a contribution. There will also be an impact on Activity Sheffield, the Youth Service and the voluntary and community sector, all of which engage the young and the old in the sports activities that are so important to their well-being. Yet when councils in our big cities are facing a struggle to maintain services, it is increasingly difficult for them to support and sustain facilities such as Don Valley. We need a national strategic plan for sports facilities and for the Government to work with councils to keep facilities such as Don Valley open and genuinely to help to deliver an Olympic legacy. The Government must play a role with the councils to ensure that we have stadiums where events can inspire the next generation.
The Government have given the council no alternative to the existing use of Don Valley, but the council is looking at alternatives to provide a sporting legacy. It has made a commitment to the refurbishment of the nearby Woodbourn Road athletics track to provide good-quality outdoor facilities in partnership with local athletics clubs at a much lower cost. It invited my predecessor, Richard Caborn, who is also one of the Sports Minister’s predecessors, to look at alternatives for the site. He has been in discussion with the two universities, Sheffield college, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Sheffield city region local enterprise partnership, the Baker Dearing Trust and Sport England to explore the creation of a new advanced sports and well-being park to provide comprehensive delivery of the Olympic legacy through a facility providing rugby, basketball and gymnastics, by adding an indoor straight at Woodbourn road to the facilities that the council is planning, and by linking to a medical devices advanced manufacturing research centre and a life sciences university technical college. This morning, at a press conference at the English Institute of Sport, he shared that proposal publicly. It has the backing of the city region local enterprise partnership and the other partners I mentioned as a project deserving consideration. Indeed, it also has the backing of Lord Coe.
I hope that the Minister will, on behalf of the Sports Minister, agree to meet those involved in the project to discuss how the Government can, instead of crying crocodile tears, offer practical support to an initiative that might provide an Olympic legacy for our city.
It is a pleasure, Mr Leigh, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this important debate. I am pleased to see my fellow Sheffield MPs, my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) and for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith). My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) would have wanted to be here because he has a long-standing interest in the World student games and the legacy of sporting facilities in the city. The Sheffield approach is united, with perhaps the one exception that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central mentioned.
I have apologised to you, Mr Leigh, because I must leave early, but I did not have a chance to apologise to the Minister in advance. I have a plane to catch, and the timetable is too tight to allow me to stay to the end of the debate, but I will read with interest the Minister’s commitment of support at the end of the debate.
I was at the opening of the World student games in 1991 when the Don Valley stadium had its finest among many fine moments. I was leader of the council and proud to welcome more than 6,000 young people from all over the world to our city to see the magnificent sporting facilities that we had built and which are still a benefit to the people of Sheffield today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said, it is not just the Don Valley stadium. The Arena is used regularly and attracts events from all around the world, bringing in an audience from the wider region. Ponds Forge international sports centre is visited by more than 1 million people a year and there are the Hillsborough leisure centre and the Graves tennis and leisure facility in Heeley. The Lyceum theatre in the city centre was also magnificently restored as part of the cultural events for the games. Some £147 million was spent not just on a one-off occasion, but for the people of Sheffield to enjoy, which they have done for the last 22 years. They have done so as spectators and participants, and just by looking at the stadium, because its architecture is magnificent.
Don Valley was part of the city’s regeneration, and we must remember where we were at in the late 1980s when we thought about building sporting facilities for the event. Sheffield city had gone through a horrendous time and had lost 40,000 steel engineering jobs in the Don valley alone, and that had a cataclysmic effect on the city, its industrial structure and its social life. Doing something new and showing that new things could be built on the rubble of the old steel works was extremely important in changing the city’s psychology and thinking about moving forward rather than reflecting on what had gone before in our proud history and heritage in steel engineering, although that is still alive with major companies and organisations such as the advanced manufacturing research centre keeping us at the forefront of new technology. Don Valley stadium is about not just sporting events, but physical and psychological regeneration.
Don Valley has seen many great athletic events. It has seen world champions compete, and it has been home to Jessica Ennis, a local Sheffield girl. I was fortunate to be at the Olympics on the first day of her competition and saw what she had achieved, which was great. It was emotional, and when she came to thank the people of Sheffield she made it clear that she had not had to go abroad to access top-quality training facilities because they were available in Sheffield, and that she was proud to have used those facilities. We understand that, and I feel a personal attachment to the Don Valley stadium for a variety of reasons.
Some people ask why we did not think in advance about whether the stadium would ultimately have sufficient use to justify its existence. At the time and before it was built, we talked to Sheffield football clubs about the potential for them to move into it afterwards. That is recorded in minutes that are now in the Sheffield archives. Sheffield Wednesday said from the beginning that it was not interested, but we talked to directors of Sheffield United, who expressed an initial interest, but eventually decided that it was not for them to continue and they wanted to redevelop Bramall Lane. That was entirely the proper decision for the football club to take, but it shows that we did not simply dismiss the possibilities for other uses at some stage in the future. It simply was not going to happen, and all the issues around the future of the athletics stadium in Manchester, and in relation to the Olympic stadium in London, showed that that is not an easy way forward. However, we have had Sheffield Eagles play there and Rotherham United for a period of time, which helped keep the club going, so the stadium has had other uses over the years.
The reality is that it costs £700,000 a year to maintain the stadium, which still provides superb training facilities and a base for many community activities, but no longer gets major national or international events. At a time of real funding cuts for the local council in Sheffield, can we continue to afford a national and international venue, when national and international events do not come there? That is a major question. We have to say to both the Government and the national sporting bodies that if they want a national stadium to hold national and international events, there has to be national support for it. Clearly, there is no sign or evidence that that is the case and that the Government want to come forward with assistance.
Let us make this clear: unlike Manchester and the Commonwealth games, for which the Labour Government at the time provided an awful lot of support, Sheffield funded the World student games itself. All the costs have been borne by the people of Sheffield. Good facilities have been provided for our people, as well as national facilities, so we are truly a national and international sporting city. The £147 million was paid by the people of Sheffield. The only bit of Government support that we got—I gave him credit at the time, and have done since—was from the then Minister, David Trippier, who gave an urban development grant to help renovate the flats that formed the basis of the student village. Those flats are still in use today, but that is the situation that we face.
I will make a passing reference to the situation of the Liberal Democrats, which is even more convoluted than my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central gave them credit for. They voted in favour of the games to begin with. When the facilities, including the Don Valley stadium, were half built, they changed their mind and voted against them—what they were going to do with the half-built stadium I am not quite sure. They have since voted twice to remortgage the facilities and use the money on the remortgage for other things, and then blamed the cost of the games for £650 million of debt, which is nonsense. The games never had £650 million of debt—that includes a roll-up of interest and the two remortgages used for other purposes, not even for the facilities themselves. The Liberal Democrats were then in favour of Government cuts, which is forcing the council into its current financial position, and then they were in favour of keeping the stadium open, without saying what else they would cut instead. That is a pretty consistent position—for the Liberal Democrats—to be in over a period of years.
That is the current situation for the council. The facts are clear: more than £200 million of cuts need to be made. There will be library closures and cuts to advice centres and early years provision. We are on alternate weekly collections for our refuse. I am sure that the Minister will tell us how awful that is—at least reflecting the views of the Secretary of State on matters so dear to his heart. However, the council has to do those things to balance its books.
We all have our examples; I like the one about Windsor. There have been cuts of £200 a head for the people of Sheffield, but £40 a head for the people of Windsor. I know that historically, Windsor has had less grant, but it has also had fewer needs and more resources, which is why northern cities are getting bigger cuts—they have more grant to cut. Why? Historically, they have had greater needs. They still have greater needs and fewer resources, but they are still being penalised. Given the council’s position, it is very difficult to see how we can justify—despite the stadium’s history, the attachment that I feel to it, and all the good things that it has done for Sheffield—keeping the Don Valley stadium. Of course, the rest of the World student games legacy will be there—the Lyceum theatre, the Arena, Ponds Forge, Hillsborough leisure centre, Graves tennis and leisure centre—for the future benefit of the people of Sheffield and the surrounding area, and for people nationally.
It is important that we do not simply stand still. We can have our disagreements with the Minister about Government funding, and we will no doubt continue to. We can all hold our heads in our hands and say, “Woe is me. We can’t do much about it”. However, the fact that Sheffield has a can-do attitude is shown by Richard Caborn, the former Sports Minister, who still is very much my friend, and who is leading a group of people with the support of the council, the local enterprise partnership and the two universities, to look at bold and imaginative potential regeneration, involving rugby and other sports, the college, and a link-up with universities on sports medicine. With those sorts of things, we can really look to the future. It is not merely about combining sports, medicine and education together, but about that acting as another powerful vehicle for regeneration of the area.
Work still needs to be done in this area, which is between the city centre and the much improved area around Meadowhall. There are great opportunities, with possibilities around the canal, where British Waterways has ideas that it was going to go ahead with before the recession in 2008. I pay tribute in passing to David Slater, a local businessman, who has been really active and keen, and who wants to see the area regenerated. The ending of Don Valley stadium will offer the opportunity to have that space. It is important that we use it constructively and keep the links with sport. We probably cannot do that without Government help.
I know that the Minister cannot give a commitment this morning, but he should look at the regional growth fund and other potential sources, and recognise that this is a real opportunity for the council, with the Government, to take the area forward. We can say, “Don Valley, you have performed a great service for our people in Sheffield. You have been a magnificent institution.” We now have to look to the future and see how improvements can be made on the site when the stadium is finally cleared.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate and on outlining so clearly some of the issues relating to sports facilities in Sheffield. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). Don Valley stadium is in his constituency, as he said, and more than any of us, he understands the issues relating to the role played by the facilities in Sheffield in regenerating the city and in particular, the lower Don valley, as well as what we need to see going forward.
I want to direct most of my contribution to two specific areas of sporting provision in Sheffield: local leisure facilities and sporting provisions in schools, both of which are key elements of sports provision not only in the city but across the country, especially for young people. Unfortunately, both are under attack, because of the self-defeating scale of the austerity being implemented by the coalition Government. However, before I venture into discussing those areas, I would like to briefly reiterate some points made by my Sheffield colleagues.
In my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East, we have, as he said, a former leader of Sheffield city council. Although he would not say so himself, more than anyone else, he and Councillor Peter Price, who was deputy leader of the council at the time, are responsible not only for making Sheffield the country’s first city of sport, but for the construction of the original three facilities—Ponds Forge, Don Valley stadium and Sheffield Arena. As my hon. Friend mentioned, there were also other facilities, such as Hillsborough leisure centre. All were built for the World student games in 1991.
Whatever people’s opinions of the staging of those games—I have always been consistent in supporting them, the investment that they brought with them and what they have achieved—I want to pay tribute to both my hon. Friend and Councillor Peter Price for the foresight and leadership that they showed, not only in taking the city of Sheffield through some very difficult times, but in developing a new future for it as a major sporting city. Anyone who remembers the lower Don valley at it was when the steelworks had gone can only agree that it was a major achievement to put in place Don Valley stadium and all the other infrastructure that has developed on a major scale around it. In later years, and thanks to the investment put in place by the Labour Government, Sheffield added the English Institute of Sport and iceSheffield to its portfolio. Of course, iceSheffield and the EIS are in effect next door to Don Valley. We now have an impressive array of facilities in the city. Because of that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East said, we have managed to stage national and international events, from grand prix athletics—Kelly Holmes made her last ever appearance at the Don Valley stadium; I was there on the day—to world swimming events. The national junior swimming championships were held at Ponds Forge only the weekend before last.
As a result of these investments, Sheffield became the first city of sport in 1995. It has seen rates of participation in sport rise—by almost 6% just in the past three years, 3.5% above the national average. One in seven of Britain’s Olympic athletes for 2012 trained at some point in Sheffield’s facilities. Of course, the pin-up girl for Team GB, Jess Ennis, comes from the city and developed her talent in Sheffield’s facilities. I pay tribute to her for being announced as world sportswoman of the year only last night, and I place on the record our congratulations to Jess on that achievement. Next week, she will rightly be given the freedom of the city of Sheffield. We are all very proud of her, and I look forward to seeing her receive that award.
However, all the developments I have mentioned came at a cost—one that the city and its citizens have borne for many years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central pointed out. We are still bearing the cost, but the cuts being made now to Sheffield’s local government budget makes it all but impossible to keep all the facilities open. In that context, the decision to close Don Valley stadium is inevitable. That is something that Lord Coe sympathised with yesterday. He made it clear that he entirely understood the reasons why the council has taken the decision that it has.
However, even if the Government’s funding decisions are so careless of the legacy made possible by Sheffield’s investment and by the investment in elite sport put in place by the previous, Labour Government, it is clear that Sheffield is not, hence the alternative proposal now being shaped and taken forward by Richard Caborn, an ex-Sports Minister with a record second to none. I therefore echo the challenges laid down by my hon. Friends; we need to see the Government supporting Sheffield as it attempts to secure its future as a provider of opportunities for elite sport. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on that point.
The summer of 2012 was probably the greatest summer of sport that this country has ever witnessed, but Team GB’s success in both sets of games—the Paralympic games and the ordinary, if I can call them that, Olympic games—was not built in a day, a week or a year. To develop and nurture the talent that blossomed so beautifully last August and September takes many years. Often—in fact, nearly always—future Olympians start their sport as youngsters, taking up their interest at local facilities and in local schools. It is the cuts in funding for those local opportunities that lead many of us to fear that 2012 might have been a false dawn—a high watermark for British achievement, rather than the first stage in a long-term renaissance of British sport.
We are hearing of local authorities closing leisure facilities throughout the country. For many, the choice is unenviable—close a leisure facility or cut back on adult care or another statutory service. A significant number of local authorities are seeing 30% reductions in budgets. Sheffield has already seen £100 million taken out of its budget. Next year’s budget, as from April of this year, will see another £50 million cut as the council attempts to balance the books and, in common with what is happening in many other local authority areas, it is leisure and sports facilities that are finding themselves in the firing line.
One example is Stocksbridge leisure centre, in my constituency. The centre was paid for by public subscription by local people and opened in 1970. It was a genuine case of local people clubbing together to provide their own facilities—the big society, if you like. However, the local council, because of the financial pressures that it finds itself under, has decided that it will no longer fund the subsidy required to keep the facility open. That is a not inconsiderable sum; it is about £400,000 a year. People will agree that the centre is expensive to run, but most will agree that it still provides a critically important service to the local community. That point was agreed by Sport England itself only yesterday. Sport England has produced a report on sports facilities in the town and has made it clear that there is a need for a facility along the lines of what is already in place in that community. The reasons are clear—they are fairly obvious.
For those who do not know the area, Stocksbridge is a small town some 12 miles from the centre of Sheffield. It is—still—a steel town. It is semi-rural in nature and completely surrounded by fairly intensely rural hamlets and villages. It is isolated in many ways from the urban centre to which it is attached in a local government context.
With good reason, local people have been concerned—indeed, very angry—about the proposal to close the leisure centre. An impressive working group, led by a very capable and dedicated local businesswoman, has opened negotiations with the council on an alternative way forward. I remain hopeful that the council can find a way of keeping the current facility open for a period long enough for the development of a sustainable plan for the future of sports provision in the town. However, that will not be easy, given the scale of the cuts faced by the local authority.
I therefore pay tribute to people such as Emma Gregory and Fay Howard, who have stepped forward—again, it is women who just roll their sleeves up and get on with the job—and shown what they are made of. They are fighting for their community even in the midst of the worst funding settlement for local government in our lifetimes. They are the big society writ large. It is not only the local authority that owes them, but the Government. They are doing that not just because they understand the importance of sport for the health of their children or because they understand that children should be given the opportunity to learn to swim. They are also doing it because they know that youngsters living in their community may well have the potential to compete in future Olympic Games.
Already, the area surrounding Stocksbridge is home to the world downhill biking champion. Already, it has strengths in key areas such as rock climbing, mountain biking and cycling more generally. But, who knows, perhaps the real tragedy will be that if this facility closes, the country loses the next Rebecca Adlington or Sharron Davies. That may happen if the community loses the facility. The council and the community need to find a way forward, and these transitions are never cost-free. Whether or not the way forward is a refurbishment of the current facility or the building of a brand-new facility that is cheaper to run and managed on a community trust basis, which is the most likely way forward, there is a need to invest time and money in establishing a positive resolution to the issue.
I therefore issue a challenge to the Minister. It is entirely in line with Government thinking on finding alternative ways forward in the context of their cuts. We are doing exactly what you are telling us to do—what the Government are telling us to do. I apologise, Mr Leigh.
I am aware that legacy funds have been made available and that NHS moneys are available to invest, but those funds do not address the scale of the threats facing sports facilities created by funding cuts. There is clearly a problem relating to small, isolated communities such as Stocksbridge. Although the trend towards creating fewer and larger facilities to cover any given area may well be fine for densely populated areas, for rural or semi-rural communities the model falls short of what is needed.
I am therefore adding to the requests that we are making today of the Minister. After all, if we are asking for Government support to find a way forward on Don Valley, clearly it is also imperative that we ask for effective Government support for communities such as Stocksbridge. Will the Minister recognise that point, and will he commit today to looking at the issue and to trying to establish the transitional funds necessary to enable communities and local authorities, working together, to remould their current sports provision in order to develop sustainable solutions to the funding challenges building up in rural and semi-rural areas? It is often forgotten that south Yorkshire is broadly rural. Sheffield is to a large extent rural; one third of the city is in the national park. This is not only an issue for the south of England—Sussex or Kent—it matters as much to south Yorkshire as anywhere else. We may be metropolitan, but we are in some aspects fundamentally rural.
Sport England itself agrees. Its report, issued only yesterday, on the sports facilities in Stocksbridge makes it clear that while it is important to deal with the current situation by developing new district sports centres—there is a clear idea in Sheffield about what those centres might look like—areas such as Stocksbridge need local, albeit small, facilities due to their isolation.
I shall conclude with one more point. The funding problems faced by sports facilities in areas such as Sheffield are being made a whole lot worse because of the coalition Government’s decision to cut funding for school sport partnerships. The £162 million cut to the school sport partnership programme, alongside cuts to specialist sports colleges, was a devastating blow to sport in schools. It means that 60% less time is now being spent on organising school sport than was once the case. Almost half of local authorities have recorded a decrease in the number of school sport partnerships operating, with a staggering one-third of local authorities having no school sport partnerships in operation. Under the previous Government, record investment in school sport saw huge increases in participation, in both competitive and non-competitive sport. The last school sport survey, in 2009-10, found that 78% of pupils took part in intra-school competitive activities, up from 58% in 2006-07. Unfortunately, the current Government do not see sport in the same way, but I would be pleased to hear the Minister prove me wrong on that. They have even axed the two-hour participation target, claiming that it was just a box-ticking exercise.
London 2012 was a glorious achievement. It built on the success we enjoyed in Beijing. It did not, however, happen by accident. It happened first and foremost because of the impressive performances turned in by a talented generation of athletes, but they could not and would not have achieved that success without funding from Government and political will from the Government of the day to achieve great things. However, sport is not solely about winning medals; it is about competing, a healthy lifestyle and having fun. When we, as a nation, should be investing in physical activity to alleviate the obesity crisis, the Government are instead doing the opposite. Cuts to local authorities will inevitably fall disproportionately on our sports facilities—Sheffield is not an isolated case. The Local Government Association has produced a report that says that there is evidence of more participation, but the worst of the funding cuts have yet to come, and if the facilities are not there, participation levels will decrease. Sheffield’s participation rates will almost certainly decrease if both facilities—Don Valley and Stocksbridge—close. Cuts to sporting bodies and Sport England will affect elite and non-elite sport. The cumulative impact of the cuts will, I fear, mean that instead of the London Olympics being the springboard for greater things, they will be seen merely as the high water mark, with a steep decline in performance on the international scene to follow.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to be alongside my good friends to argue our case.
In the summer, I had two amazing weeks in London, and being a proper Yorkshire person, that is not something I say lightly. The first amazing week was at the beginning of August, when I was privileged to be there on super Saturday to see athletes win three gold medals, including Sheffield’s very own Jessica Ennis. A month later, I had tickets to the Paralympics, and I was there on thriller Thursday to see another great Yorkshire woman, Hannah Cockroft, and two other brilliant athletes win golds. We know that the wonderful stadium in which I spent much of my amazing time in London is struggling to continue and cannot continue only as an athletics stadium. The facts of life mean that athletics stadiums are very difficult to support, and yet Don Valley has kept going through the will of the people of Sheffield for more than 20 years, but that involves a subsidy of £700,000 a year, which is no longer sustainable.
Don Valley opened in 1991. I did not live in Sheffield at the time; I had a brief period working out that Yorkshire really is the best place to live and hurried back only a couple of years later. I took time off from my job in social services and, rather than go on holiday, I went to Sheffield to spend time at the World student games. It was a phenomenal event. Over the years, I have visited Don Valley regularly, turning up to many of the great events held there. I have seen World records; I was there, at the same time as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for the last appearance of Kelly Holmes; and I have even been on the track, having completed a race for life there.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said, although the stadium is in Sheffield, it is a national asset. The previous Government and the current Government were both clear and determined that the legacy of 2012 should not just be a legacy for London. In many areas of life—transport, communication, media or whatever—the majority of money is spent in the region we are in now. If we want to be one nation— dare I say it?—money should be available and spent in the north.
I have done a lot of work looking at tennis facilities, in my role in the all-party tennis group. For a long time, we have looked at developing tennis facilities at the Graves leisure area in my constituency, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) kindly mentioned earlier. One reason for that is that talented young people in any sport do better if they can train near home. We are talking about youngsters; young people who need to go to school and need their family’s support. Without local facilities, we will not get a range of people with a range of ability from around the country. Of course, we cannot have facilities of that calibre everywhere, but what a tragedy if we were to lose this facility, which is in the north, has delivered a world champion and, we feel, can go on supporting many young people in the future if only the finance is there.
My hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge and for Eltham (Clive Efford) have often spoken about school sport partnerships, because legacy is not only about facilities, but about our investment in young people. For a couple of minutes I want to focus on the effect of the cut to school sport partnerships funding to Sheffield. Prior to the cuts, Sheffield had four thriving partnerships, each working closely with their schools, providing training, development, resources, curriculum support, coaching, competition and participation events for them. A key feature of the work was the network that supported it: the profile of PE and sport in school was raised and time was given to release a member of primary staff to assist the process, to enable valuable development work to take place. We now understand, more than ever, that getting children active from primary is key to keeping them active through life.
Since the removal of funding, partnerships have been forced to set up as private enterprises, which means that they are no longer directly funded. Schools have had to make tough decisions, when their budgets are under pressure, on whether they can afford to buy in the service for their children.
Not only did the funding end in 2011, but so did the PE and sports strategy for young people, which supported the partnerships’ work. As part of the strategy, partnerships undertook a full audit annually to monitor the engagement of their schools in PE and sporting activity. It is a bit disingenuous of the Government, while we are trying to encourage participation, to say, “As part of our cuts to paperwork, partnerships will no longer have to monitor that.” Some of us might think that that is just a way of covering up the fact that, as we know, participation will decrease.
During the school sports partnerships era, schools that were previously unengaged became more engaged, as they had dedicated funding to do so. As soon as the funding went, along with the network, the engaged schools continued to be involved at some level, but less-interested schools started to become unengaged once more. That impacts most greatly on families in which PE and sports are not common parts of their daily life and on families that are financially constrained.
An important part of the partnerships was that there were clear links between schools and clubs in the community. I know from my constituency that although clubs were available—some are not that expensive, such as the Beauchief tennis club—families were not used to going there, so the link was not made. The school sports partnership identified children who were interested and keen and helped them into the local clubs. The removal of the funding has therefore been a huge blow. In some areas of Sheffield, provision has started to disappear. As my hon. Friends have already asked, what future champions are we now missing?
There was a big issue at the Olympics about the proportion of our elite athletes who come from a private or public schooling background rather than from ordinary schools in ordinary communities. Jessica Ennis came from an ordinary school in an ordinary community, and yet she achieved the highest possible level she could. We all felt wonderful about that, but how many others will not get that chance if we do not cast the net wide and get talented young people, who can come from any background and from anywhere, into sport?
A report by Ofsted into schools’ sport provision was published just last month. It looked at what had happened in those four years. The report supported the work of the partnerships and encouraged the Department for Education to consider developing a new national strategy. The report stated:
“Ofsted recommends that the Department for Education considers devising a new national strategy for PE and school sport that builds on the successes of school sport partnerships and enables schools to make a major contribution to the sporting legacy left by the 2012 Olympic Games…The impact of school sport partnerships in maximising participation and increasing regular competition was clearly evident in the vast majority of schools visited.”
We need national facilities and a national strategic plan. Sport England is doing a good job. I have with me a list of projects that shows all sorts of work going on. I am excited about the investment into the Graves sports facilities in my constituency, which will, importantly, look at the link between health and sport and enable people with disabilities and long-term conditions to look at how sport can help them improve. There is a lot going on, but surely the investment should not just be about new facilities all the time; surely we must look to support facilities that have delivered for us in the past.
The Government promised a legacy. They must redouble their efforts to make it happen.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this debate, and my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) on the way in which they have represented their constituencies in this important debate.
This debate is important because Sheffield is synonymous with sport in this country; it has made itself so over a long time. This debate is about fairness, consistency and planning. There is discussion about legacy in one section of Government—that we must deliver and build the legacy—but in another section of the Government— the Department for Communities and Local Government —we see a complete failure to have any strategy whatever and to plan ahead for sports facilities, in order to ensure that the enthusiasm inspired by 2012 can be met by the capacity to provide sports services for people.
This debate highlights the Government’s reckless approach towards local authorities and sport services. We consistently find that the Government have no coherent plan when it comes to sport. Local government has an essential role to play in encouraging participation in sport and physical recreation, but what we see from the Government are consistent attacks on local government and precious little evidence of working in partnership with it.
Research by the Local Government Association, published last Friday, shows that demand is growing in local authority areas post-2012, but with the cuts imposed by this Government, we are moving in the opposite direction from the one in which we should be moving. The lack of any strategy from the Government is highlighted by the comments of Toni Minichiello, Jessica Ennis’s coach, with regard to Don Valley. He asked why the Secretary of State for Education
“twice had to delay announcements on sport in primary schools? Why have school sports partnerships been cut? Why are athletics tracks up and down the country—not just in Sheffield—having to close? All of these errors could have been foreseen. That is the point of legacy—investment and planning.”
Across the whole sporting community, we consistently hear the same comment: this Government have no coherent sport strategy to deliver the legacy. There is a lack of cross-departmental, joined-up thinking, threatening the 2012 legacy.
Sheffield has become a centre of excellence for sport. It hosted the student games in 1991 and laid the foundations for a sporting legacy in that city. If we look back to the 1980s, when I was in local government and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East was on Sheffield city council, Sheffield was showing the way for planning for sport for a generation. We have all celebrated what has gone on in Sheffield over the past year, but it did not come either cheaply or at a moment’s notice. It started back in the 1980s, when Sheffield planned for the World student games. It has built on that legacy, showing an innovative way of approaching sports development—years ahead of other local authorities. It planned to have not just a centre of excellence for sport, but a place where major entertainment events could take place and to use the income generated from that to cross-subsidise a state-of-the-art sports facility.
Sadly, time has caught up with that; competition from other venues has meant that it has not been possible to sustain that business plan over many years. However, if the people of Sheffield look back, they will see that they have been extremely well served by the forward thinking of the people who planned the student games and the facilities back then. Last year showed what that sort of long-term planning can deliver. The Olympics were a great event not only for London, but for places such as Sheffield, which have been providing state-of-the-art facilities for our best athletes to train in so that they could compete at the top of their sport and bring an enormous amount of national pride to the United Kingdom. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the pioneers back in the 1980s who planned for the student games and delivered a legacy for us last year. That is why it is important that we support their endeavours in Sheffield.
I am not suggesting that anyone can provide £700,000 a year to sustain the Don Valley stadium; no one is asking for that. The current financial situation in Sheffield has forced it to make the decision, but changes in the business plan for the stadium would probably in any case have forced a decision about its future.
Even in the light of what is taking place, Sheffield has still shown a commitment to the provision of state-of-the-art sports facilities. It is still prepared to put £150 million of capital into the refurbishment of the Woodbourn facility to bring it up to standard, so that it can remain an athletics training facility, to put £70,000 a year of revenue into it and to hand it over to local athletics clubs for them to run, so that it continues to provide sports facilities, particularly for athletics. Even at this time of severe cuts, Sheffield is prepared to support state-of-the-art sports facilities for future generations.
Many people have queued to have their picture taken with the athletes who have benefited from the facilities provided in Sheffield—particularly with the likes of Jess Ennis. I have to say, however, that some of the people at the front of that queue have not entirely supported Sheffield’s investment in sports facilities over the years. My hon. Friends have highlighted some of the double dealing of local politicians in Sheffield over the financial package for Don Valley—criticising it at one time, while defending it and saying that they want the stadium kept open at another time.
In Sheffield, only Labour politicians have shown a consistent commitment over a generation to investing in sports facilities, for which they are to be commended. Sheffield did not become a centre of excellence in sport by accident; it had to show a commitment over many years to deliver the legacy of 2012, and we must provide the support in kind that it requires. The Government should be an honest broker and bring together all the parties to work out a plan of action for not only the Don Valley site, but Woodbourn. We are not talking about the Government committing huge resources, but using their good offices to ensure that Sheffield gets the support that it needs.
Up and down the country, local authorities are making decisions about vital sports facilities. They are having to ensure that such facilities—many are being outsourced to outside organisations—are financially viable and sustainable. I want to hear from the Minister what he is doing to ensure that people are not being excluded from sports facilities because of cost. The more local government finance is squeezed, the greater the need to raise income from fees and charges and the more that people on low incomes—the very people we must encourage to participate more, as all the research shows—are excluded from services. What exactly is he doing to ensure that we do not exclude people on the basis of cost from participating in local government sports facilities in these times of austerity?
The Government need to work with local authorities to ensure that they do all they can to have the capacity to meet the demands highlighted by the Local Government Association research. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about the future of sports facilities? If there is a cross-Government approach to sport, I am sure that he will have had meetings with that Department to assess the impact of cuts on local government services. Exactly what discussions have taken place, and what can he tell us about their outcome for protecting the sporting legacy in local government services?
The Government’s own councillors are criticising their approach to austerity in local government services. The Local Government Association has declared Tory- led West Somerset council to be “not viable” over the longer term. The Tory former LGA chair Baroness Eaton has said that the understanding of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about the impact of the cuts on local government is
“detached from the reality councils are dealing with”.
Merrick Cockell has suggested that the cuts are unsustainable in future.
Labour authorities across the country are working hard to protect community sports facilities. Research by my office has found that Tory authorities are, on average, making greater cuts to sport development and facilities expenditure than Labour authorities, so the idea that any of the cuts are politically motivated is ridiculous. No one is saying that there should be no cuts—I am sure that the Minister will say that there is no money, an argument we have heard before—but the unfair cuts are forcing the loss of so many facilities in areas of high deprivation.
Local government is hitting the poorest hardest. The spending power of the 10 most deprived local authorities is being cut by eight times that of the 10 least deprived local authorities. Taking the cuts per head of population, 43 of the top 50 are Labour, three are Conservative and the rest have no overall control; none is Liberal Democrat. Sheffield is 39th in that list, and is being forced to cut £139.57 per head. The Prime Minister’s area is losing only £34 per head.
Government cuts to Sheffield’s funding, rising prices and increasing demand mean that Sheffield has to find £50 million of savings next year, on top of the £140 million of savings already made over the past two years. The Government have said that the cuts will continue until 2018, which leaves Sheffield in the desperate situation of having no choice but to make such decisions as the one about Don Valley.
Despite that cut, Labour councils are playing their part. Although the hardest cuts to sports expenditure are being imposed on Labour authorities across the country, Labour authorities are cutting 6% of sports spend, Tory authorities are cutting 11% and Liberal Democrat authorities are cutting 17%. Even in these times of austerity, Labour authorities, which are at the top of the list for cuts to local spending capacity, are showing the way in protecting sports services and facilities.
I want to hear exactly what the Minister will do in relation to Sheffield. I am not for a minute suggesting that he can rush in and spend a whole load of Government money, but I want to know what, if anything, anyone in the Government has done to liaise with the local authority, UK Athletics and any of the parties interested in the Don Valley site to ensure that we sustain state-of-the-art sports facilities in Sheffield and that the Don Valley site is developed for the benefit of the local community.
We have heard about the consortium led by the former Minister for Sport Dick Caborn. That scheme is worthy of great consideration and has been given initial backing by Lord Coe, who is the Government’s adviser on the Olympic legacy. What do the Government intend to do in relation to that scheme and what part will they play in examining its viability and, if necessary, in ensuring that the scheme moves forward? The scheme has the potential to regenerate a major site in the city and to create nearly 1,000 jobs. It is innovative in how it approaches the whole well-being issue of health, sports and recreation; and it could be unique and a beacon for other areas to follow. The Government have a lot to gain by examining such a scheme, which was proposed by Dick Caborn this morning.
Sheffield has become synonymous with sport in this country and with sporting success. That success has been a long time in creation, which shows that a legacy is something that is developed over many years. We can all learn from that as we try to build on the 2012 legacy. Sheffield has laid down a challenge for the Government—what will they do to help regenerate the site and to ensure that Sheffield continues to play its part as a major sporting centre of excellence for the next generation?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this debate, and other hon. Members on showing their support for Sheffield and the stadium.
Hon. Members will no doubt be aware that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport sets the policy framework for sport funding decisions, but that the day-to-day decision making on the funding for local sports facilities lies with the local authority, with Sport England providing advice, guidance and, in some cases, funding. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport would have liked to have been here this morning, but unfortunately he had to attend a Bill Committee sitting. Let me deal with some of the issues that have been raised about the local government finance settlement before talking a bit about the Olympic legacy and the situation in Sheffield.
A couple of hon. Members questioned whether the local government finance settlement was fair. They might have been present in the Chamber when that matter was debated, and when we were able to outline, as a House of Commons Library report confirms, that the settlement was fair to north and south, east and west, urban and rural. Some of the comparisons that are used, and we have heard some this morning from the hon. Members for Eltham (Clive Efford) and for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), are—I choose my words carefully—not appropriate. It is difficult to make a fair comparison between some of the metropolitan city councils in the north that get a per dwelling spend of around £3,500 to £3,700 with a council such as the one in the Prime Minister’s west Oxfordshire constituency, which has a per dwelling spend of £1,800, or even to a council in a constituency such as mine, which has a couple of the most deprived wards in the country, and has one of the highest per dwelling spends in Norfolk, but is still only at £2,200. It is wholly inappropriate to compare such authorities, and the changes in their expenditure, to authorities that get substantially more in the first place because their baseline is much higher.
The problem for West Somerset, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Eltham, is not related to the percentage of its funding—it actually had an increase this year—but to the fact that it has 35,000 residents across a big rural area, leaving the council with a critical mass issue to deal with. In fact, I have a meeting with Somerset MPs this morning about that very issue.
I am tempted to take literally the words of the hon. Gentleman, who seemed to suggest that we should go back to central control of local government and to dictate from the centre what councils must do, but I must remind him that with the Localism Act 2011, the Government have made it clear that we believe in localism. Local determination should decide how councils spend their money; they are best placed to consider what their local community needs and to service it. We are working with local authorities, as is the LGA, to ensure that we see more innovative and efficient ways of working, whether that is through shared services, shared management or outsourcing. We are looking at how they work and facilitate to ensure that they spend their money on important front-line services for residents, not on bureaucracy, red tape and back-office management costs. They can still go further on that, but ultimately it is for those authorities to make their local decisions.
As hon. Members have said, the Olympic games last summer were truly magnificent and a great boost to the whole country, both psychologically and in a sporting sense, showcasing the very best of what we as a country have to offer. Specifically for this debate, we must recognise the great talent of Jessica Ennis. Like the hon. Member for Sheffield South East, I was fortunate enough to be in the stadium on her first day of competition. It was fantastic to see what she achieved and the inspiration that she and other athletes have given to those who might follow in their footsteps. If we are to repeat the success in 2016, we must ensure that our athletes have the best possible conditions in which to train, which is something on which we can all agree.
Let me make a few general points about what the Government are doing to secure a lasting sporting legacy to the games before addressing the specifics of what is happening in Sheffield. In December, UK Sport and Sport England, the public bodies responsible for the delivery of elite and grass-roots sport, announced the funding they will be providing over the next four years. UK Sport will invest £347 million in elite sport and Sport England will provide £493 million to the national governing bodies of sport for community sport.
In addition, more than £100 million of lottery and public funding is being invested in school games over the next three years; and £500,000 is being invested in youth sport over the next five years through the youth sport strategy, with £150 million being invested through the Places People Play programme to upgrade 1,000 local sports venues. Some 15.5 million people aged 16 and over are now playing sport at least once a week, which is 750,000 more than a year ago and 1.57 million more than when London won the Olympic and Paralympic bid. In the current economic climate that is a significant investment in sport. I can reassure hon. Members that both UK Sport and Sport England have record levels of funding thanks to this Government’s decision to restore the lottery shares to the original good causes, including sport.
UK Sport is investing almost £500,000 to ensure that our athletes can build on the success of last year and do even better in Rio in 2016. Over the next four years, Sport England is investing more than £1 billion in youth and community sport, which includes more than 1,000 local sports facilities.
The Government are fully committed to providing high-quality sport in schools as well as in communities. Our new schools games programme introduces competitive sport in schools, between schools and at county, regional and national level. We have invested more than £100 million in the programme, and well over half of all schools are taking part. Indeed, the national finals are being held in Sheffield this year. The programme is getting young people to play sport regularly and not creating bureaucratic, top-down networks. However, we must not be complacent. We share the desire to inspire a generation to take up and enjoy sport throughout their lives. I can confidently say that an innovative and exciting announcement on school sport will be made shortly.
Additionally, let me draw hon. Members’ attention to the Government’s 10-point sports action plan, which sets out how much is being done to deliver a real legacy from the London games. With those announcements down the line, I hope that hon. Members will be pleased with the Government’s direction of travel.
On the specifics of Government spending and the legacy for Sheffield, naturally nobody wants to see a sports facility close, but local authorities need to make tough decisions to ensure that they are providing the best possible services to all their communities, and that includes strategic management of the public estate at a cost that is affordable within their budget constraints. The hon. Member for Eltham alluded to how much money is out there, but the reality is we are having to deal with the previous Government’s atrocious legacy of deficit and debt, so we must start to live within our means. Local government accounts for around a quarter of public expenditure, so it has its part to play in this process. That is why councils must make decisions about what they are doing and how best they provide facilities for local people. I suspect that is also why Lord Coe himself has said, in support of the decisions that Sheffield city council has to make, that he understands why a local authority must look at these situations and make decisions.
As has been said, Don Valley stadium is 23 years old and costs about £700,000 a year to operate. It also has an estimated repair bill of more than £1.5 million and there is another stadium, less than a mile away, which costs £70,000 a year to operate. Therefore, it is for Sheffield city council to make the decision about which of these facilities they can afford and to justify that decision to their people locally, without central Government dictating whether it is a right or wrong decision.
I am informed that the council has given clear assurances that local people will still have access to first-class outdoor athletics facilities; indeed, Sheffield is extremely well served in that respect. The council is also talking to local athletics groups about how they can become involved in the management of those facilities, and I will come back to that point in a moment. Sport England has agreed to work with the council to ensure that Woodbourn becomes a first-class, sustainable venue for community and elite athlete training, and for regional competition.
Of course, Sheffield also has a first-class indoor facility in the form of the English Institute of Sport, which is where Jessica Ennis herself does much of her UK training. I was also heartened to hear that Sheffield has been the recipient of a number of grants for facilities, both large and small, including a grant in 2011 of almost £5 million for the English Institute of Sport. As I have already said, Sheffield will also host the national finals of the school games in September 2013.
I welcome the imaginative proposal unveiled this morning by the former Sports Minister, and I can confirm that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, will be pleased to meet those involved in developing that proposal. I also encourage them to meet Sport England, to discuss how they might apply for funding under the sports legacy iconic facilities programme.
None of this activity means that either central or local government can or should be complacent; we simply cannot afford to be. We all want to build on the success that we saw in 2012. However, just providing the facilities will not guarantee a lasting legacy, which is why my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, laid out the 10-point plan to ensure a sporting legacy, including school sport, getting more children involved in competitive sport, specific disability sports programmes, talent development and elite sport, attracting and delivering major coaching and volunteer programmes, and world-class facilities.
We have made it quite clear that we are trying to move away from asking local authorities and local areas to report back lots and lots of information; that is part of helping them to reduce their costs. We also trust local authorities. Unlike Labour, we trust local authorities and local people to make the right decisions for their local communities. That is what local elections and local democracy are about, and that is obviously where the difference lies between central and local control.
The Minister has said a great deal about trusting local councils and local people. He talked earlier about the importance of all that—indeed, he has referred to it twice—but as yet he has said nothing about the leisure facility in my constituency, even though I asked that he give a response to the argument that the Government could do more to support the council and the community in finding a future for sports in that area.
Actually, I think that I have directly addressed that point in my comments. It is for local authorities to look at what they need for their local community and how they spend their money in the interests of servicing their local community. As I have always said, if any local council has a particular issue that they wish to come to discuss with me, I am very happy for them to do that; indeed, I am very happy for the hon. Lady to do that too.
The combination of all the things that I mentioned earlier is exactly what made the Olympic games last year such a success, and it is that combination—not one thing alone, but a combination of things—that will provide a legacy to 2012, a legacy that I hope Sheffield continues to help to deliver, through the inspiration of Jessica Ennis and others like her, as well as through the local communities who support their local facilities.
Reburial of King Richard III
An interesting debate indeed.
I pay tribute to Richard Buckley, from university of Leicester archaeological services, who led the dig in the car park in Leicester which found the remains of King Richard III. It was a pleasure to talk to him last week, when preparing for this debate. I also pay tribute to the Yorkist Richard III Society, which proposed the dig to Leicester university and made some funding available to enable it to take place.
It is 527 and a half years since the end of the wars of the roses, a nasty, bloody civil war that tore our country apart. Although people think of it as a war between the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster, it was in fact a war between the north and the south and it was as horrible as any of the more recent civil wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. In this debate I do not want to set York against Leicester. Rather, I want to use the stupendous discovery of King Richard’s remains to bring our cities closer together, perhaps as a metaphor for the one-nation politics that all our parties nowadays stand for.
I do not hide the fact that I believe that King Richard III’s mortal remains should be buried in York. However, that is not the purpose of today’s debate. I want the Government to create a fair, independent process for arbitrating between the claims of York and Leicester, and other places, such as Westminster abbey, just across the road, where Anne Neville, King Richard’s wife, is buried. I want the Government, having created such a process, to come to decisions in a dignified way, based on historical advice, and after considering the views of all interested parties. It is the responsibility of the state to decide where, how and when King Richard, former King and head of state for our country, is buried. It is not a decision that should be delegated to a group of academics at Leicester university, as is currently specified in the licence for the dig, issued by the Ministry of Justice.
I am deeply grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whom I called my hon. Friend in a slip of the tongue. I have known him for many years. The overwhelming opinion in the county of Leicestershire is that King Richard III should be buried close to where he has lain for more than 500 years. I hope that, in the end, he finds himself at peace in Leicester cathedral.
I do not for a minute disbelieve that that is the sentiment in Leicester. Indeed, an e-petition with 7,500 signatures supports the proposition that the King’s remains should be laid to rest in Leicester cathedral. There is also an e-petition with 24,000 signatures supporting the proposition that the mortal remains should be buried in York minster, which is where Richard, during his life, gave notice that he would like to be buried. The Government must find some fair, independent process for arbitrating between parties on this question.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman believes that this should be a decision for the state—that is, in some ways, correct—but does he not think that there should be some consideration and weight given to the views of the late King’s family and descendants?
The late King’s descendants—17 of them—published a statement recently supporting the proposition that their ancestor should be buried in York minster. Their voices ought most certainly to be heard in the process that I propose, as should those of the royal family, the Church of England and the Catholic Church, which I mention in deference to a question asked by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), who is chairing our proceedings, on the Floor of the House last week. The voices of many people with interests should be considered before a final decision is made.
In preparing for this debate, I consulted a number of people. I have mentioned Richard Buckley, but I also consulted Dr Sebastian Payne, former chief scientist for English Heritage, who is a member of the advisory panel on the archaeology of burials in England. I spoke to Simon Mays, the scientist responsible for human remains at English Heritage; to Wendy Moorhen, deputy chairman of the Richard III Society; to Paul Toy, curator of the Richard III museum in York; to Vivienne Faull, Dean of York minster, and to others.
The licence issued by the Ministry of Justice to Leicester archaeological services unit to excavate the car park permitted
“the removal of the remains of persons unknown”.
Richard Buckley told me that the prospects for finding King Richard were remote and that that was known by the Ministry of Justice when the licence was issued. Indeed, the licence application contained the phrase,
“in the unlikely event of finding the remains of Richard”,
so it is no surprise that the decision was taken in relation to persons unknown, rather than in relation to a former king.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He mentions the licence granted by the Ministry of Justice, which I would argue was granted in the fair and independent way that he has been calling for, but the application for the licence was explicit about Richard. It said that a licence was wanted for an
“excavation to investigate the remains of Leicester’s Franciscan Friary and also potentially locate the burial place of Richard III, whose remains were interred here in 1485”.
The application explicitly asked for a licence to find Richard III. The licence was clear that any remains should be deposited at the Jewry Wall museum in Leicester or else reinterred at St Martin’s cathedral in Leicester. The reason for that, presumably, is that it is archaeological good practice that remains are reinterred at the nearest consecrated ground, which is Leicester cathedral.
I am advised by various people, whose opinions and good advice I sought before this debate, that each case must be considered on its merits. There are many archaeological investigations in my constituency. The licence issued to the Leicester archaeologists contained broadly the same terms as a licence that would normally be issued to any archaeological society or group with a decent reason to dig. It mentioned “persons unknown”. If a mediaeval tailor had been found, it might have been appropriate to keep his remains in the county archaeological museum in Leicester or to rebury them nearby. In the case of a king’s remains, reburial is absolutely necessary. The remains should not be kept in a museum in Leicester or anywhere else. The state has a decision to make about what is the appropriate way to deal with the remains of a former king.
I want to declare my interest. I am a member of the Richard III Society and I have written a book on the battle of Bosworth. My standpoint is neutral, being a Member of Parliament for Bristol, neither from Leicestershire nor Yorkshire. I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s discussion about an independent solution. Would he consider my compromise, whereby even if Richard is buried in Leicester his body might lie in state at York for a week? However, regardless of where Richard is buried—perhaps the Minister could respond to this point—the Richard III Society has raised £30,000 for a tomb for him to be encased in. I am keen to see whether there is support in the House for an appropriate burial in such a tomb, whether it is in Leicester or York. I am also keen for that to be privately financed so that it is not a great cost to the taxpayer.
Once again, I pay tribute to the role the Richard III Society has played in this whole event. It proposed the investigation based on its own research, and the excavations were expertly carried out by the archaeologists from the university of Leicester. It is too early to agree the compromise solution the hon. Gentleman suggests, but it is a constructive idea, and it is entirely consistent with my view that we should look at ways to bring together people from York and Leicester, rather than set them against each other. The idea has been considered by the Church, and the Dean of York mentioned it to me last week. It is the sort of proposition that could be considered under the process I am asking the Government to set in train.
As I say, the licence refers to persons unknown. Now that the identity of the remains has been established, it is right to reconsider the terms of the licence. Indeed, Sebastian Payne, the former chief scientist at English Heritage, described the discovery to me as a game changer. He is a member of the Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England. The panel has representatives from the Church of England, English Heritage and the Ministry of Justice. It met last Friday, and I asked Dr Payne to seek its advice on this case. Yesterday, I received a reply from Professor Holger Schutkowski, the chair of the panel. He wrote to me, saying that
“since the exhumation was carried out under Ministry of Justice licence, it is APABE’s understanding that the final decision on re-interment rests with the MoJ and that it is open to the MoJ to vary the terms of the licence. Therefore, APABE advises that your detailed questions should be addressed to them. APABE has no views about where the remains should be re-interred or how the place of burial should be marked. APABE recommends, however, that the views of those that have justifiable close links with the deceased, be they historical, cultural or religions, require balanced consideration as, for instance, set out in recent DCMS Guidance. Consideration should also be given to the rights, Canon Law and responsibilities of the Church of England as the legal successor of the Church into whose keeping the body was given at burial.”
The Government have the power to amend the licence; indeed, they frequently amend licences. Back in the 1980s, when the York Archaeological Trust was excavating at Jewbury, in York, the plans were changed as a result of representations from orthodox Jews, who took the view that the Jewish skeletons that were discovered should be reburied quickly, in line with Jewish practice. Four years ago, the Ministry, under the previous Administration, issued advice that, generally speaking, human remains should be reburied quickly. However, that has been found to be impractical in some cases, because it impedes archaeologists’ scientific examination of the remains. The Ministry has therefore amended quite a few licences in recent years to permit scientific examinations.
I have two proposals for the Minister. First, he should appoint an independent committee of experts to examine the historical record; the scientific analysis arising out of the dig; good archaeological practice; and the ethical and religious issues. The committee should advise him on where, how and when reburial takes place. Secondly, he and his Department should give the university of Leicester notice that it may be necessary, having taken advice from independent experts, for the Government to amend the licence and that preparations for reburial should therefore temporarily cease.
There are two other issues I would like to mention. First, the scientific tests to establish the identity of the remains are not yet complete, and archaeologists have not yet published their findings from the dig in peer-reviewed journals. In its letter to me yesterday, the advisory committee said:
“APABE understands that there is evidence ascertained through various scientific approaches that the human remains exhumed from the site of the former Leicester Greyfriars may be those of the late King Richard III. Due to the potential significance suggested by recent media presentation of preliminary scientific results, APABE believes it is in the national interest that decisions about the future deposition of these remains should await completion and peer review of the scientific results.”
I am emotionally inclined to believe the remains are those of King Richard, but the Government would clearly be foolish to set in train arrangements for the burial of the remains of a king—a head of state—if it is not certain that that is what has been found.
Richard Buckley is, of course, certain that he is right, but he has a vested interest in being certain: his reputation and legacy as an archaeologist depend on the identification being accepted. If he is right, he will go down in history, like Howard Carter, who found Tutankhamun, although Carter had the advantage that Tutankhamun was found in a casket that had Egyptian hieroglyphics on the side saying, “This is the body of Pharaoh Tutankhamun.” Unfortunately, King Richard—buried in haste after the battle, naked and with his hands tied by his captors—was found in neither a coffin nor even a shroud, and no evidence was found of coffin nails or of the pins that would have pinned a shroud together.
I mentioned that public opinion is split, with thousands of people supporting Leicester, and three times as many supporting burial in York. I have received many letters and e-mails from members of the public supporting burial in York. Most are thoughtful, well argued and based on scientific facts, but some are, frankly, inflammatory. I talked to the Dean of York yesterday, and some of the letters she has received at the minster are so extreme that she has referred the correspondence to the police. I would say to everybody: calm down. Let us all respect the memory of a former king of our country, and let us discuss, in a dignified and sober way, where his remains should finally be put to rest; we do not want to reignite the wars of the roses.
I provoked some laughter in the main Chamber in October when I said that King Richard is still well regarded in York. His reputation was trashed by that pesky playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon. History is always written by the victor, and the Tudor dynasty had a vested interest in undermining King Richard’s reputation. Of course, Shakespeare would not have got a licence from the Government of the day to perform his plays if he had told the truth about good King Richard. Long may the BBC remain free from Government licensing!
I do not have time to make the case for Richard’s burial in York, except to say it was what he requested in his lifetime. Weighed against that is the case for burying him where his remains were found, which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth). However, the decision should be taken on independent national advice, not delegated to archaeologists from Leicester, who clearly support the Leicester cause, and who would have found it outrageous if the decision had been delegated to a group of people from York. We need this decision to be taken nationally, in the national interests and by people who are independent of the vested interests of York or Leicester. I hope the Minister will agree.
If I may, Mr Leigh, I will now give the Floor to the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy).
I will certainly try to keep my remarks brief. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) on securing an undoubtedly important debate, not only for hon. Members here from the great county of Yorkshire, but for those from across the country as well.
The controversy surrounding the decision to bury Richard III at Leicester cathedral, as the hon. Member for York Central said, stems from the fact that there has been little public consultation on the issue. The people of York are profoundly grateful to the university of Leicester and its archaeologists for their efforts in recovering and identifying the body of Richard III, but they remain frustrated that they were not able to put forward their views on where he should be interred.
What is even more frustrating for them is that Richard III’s own views have not been consulted either. Historians widely believe that while he was alive he expressed a desire to be buried in York. Indeed, he spent the best part of his childhood at Middleham castle in the Yorkshire dales. Richard also spent some of the best years of his life as his elder brother’s lieutenant in Yorkshire, and he clearly identified himself with the city of York and its minster. He drew much of his support and power base from York and Yorkshire. In return, York clearly held a very special position in his heart, and that was reflected in his plans for a chantry of 100 priests in York minster, where he wished to be buried.
The evidence comes from the city of York and Richard’s living descendants, who were mentioned by the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams). The call is strong from the great county of Yorkshire that Richard III wanted to be buried where he was loved and supported.
The decision to allow the university of Leicester to have a free rein over King Richard’s final resting place flies in the face of the wishes of tens of thousands of people who have added their support to the campaign for him to be buried in York, as well as those of his remaining descendants, as I have said. It is true that Westminster abbey, Leicester cathedral and York minster all have claims as suitable locations to bury Richard III—I do not doubt that at all—but instead of allowing campaigners on all three sides to debate this issue in a democratic fashion, the Government and the university of Leicester have hashed out an important decision behind closed doors and concluded a finders and keepers agreement. I will finish on this point: I entirely back the call from the hon. Member for York Central for an independent body to make the final decision over the resting place of Richard III.
I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) on securing this debate on licensing for the reburial of King Richard III. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for his remarks. I thank both of them not just for what they have said, but for how they said it. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for York Central that it is appropriate that we conduct this debate with the dignity that the subject matter deserves.
I am well aware—if I was not before, I certainly am now—of the level of interest in Yorkshire and Leicestershire, as well as the general public interest across the whole country, about what should happen. The project that we are discussing and the identification of the king’s remains have created a sense of national pride and excitement and have generated renewed interest in English history and archaeology. I am sure we can all agree that that is very welcome.
It is only right that I should start, as the hon. Member for York Central did, by congratulating the university of Leicester, the city of Leicester and the Richard III Society on an outstanding research project that has brought history alive to so many. I note that the archaeology journal Current Archaeology has hailed the search for Richard III as its archaeological project of the year. I therefore congratulate all those who have been directly or indirectly involved in the project on the remarkable results that their work has achieved.
The debate has concentrated on the licence. By way of background, the Ministry of Justice has responsibility for burial law and policy. The law is old and well established. Under section 25 of the Burial Act 1857, exhumation of human remains is permitted only with a licence from the Secretary of State. In this case the project was a joint venture between the university of Leicester, Leicester city council and the Richard III Society and all three parties contributed towards the excavation. All have, as I understand it, been involved in the application for the licence. The director of the university of Leicester archaeological services applied for a licence on 31 August last year and it was granted on 3 September. I emphasise that the application was treated in the same way as any other archaeological application would be. Such applications do not require the consent of the next of kin as they are invariably for unnamed remains buried a long time ago. The Secretary of State has a broad discretion to issue exhumation licences and may attach any conditions considered appropriate. Those invariably include conditions on where the remains should be reinterred, as well as that the remains should be treated with due care and attention to decency. In this case, as the hon. Member for York Central made clear, the licence gave permission to exhume up to six sets of remains, one of which could be those of King Richard III.
A project of this nature clearly required a significant degree of contingency planning. The director of the project thought that it was unlikely that the king’s remains would be found. Nevertheless, the application carefully considered the various possibilities and what would happen in the unlikely event that the remains were uncovered. It therefore indicated various options for reburial, which were dependent on what was eventually found.
The hon. Member for York Central made reference to the tests that were carried out. On 4 February, the announcement was made that the remains were indeed those of King Richard III, as it was put beyond reasonable doubt. In its application to the Secretary of State, the university indicated that it intended to reinter the remains in Leicester cathedral, which is one of the possible locations the licence mentions. The licence actually states that the remains are to be deposited
“at Jewry Wall Museum or else be reinterred at St Martins Cathedral or in a burial ground in which interments may legally take place”.
The conditions attached to the licence were therefore very broad, envisaging both that the remains might be those of Richard III but also, as was thought last summer, that they might not be. Now that the exhumation has been completed, it is the university of Leicester’s responsibility as holder of the licence to decide where the remains are finally laid to rest. That is the law.
Much has been made, not least today, of the fact that the people of York want Richard III’s remains to be buried in York, and I understand the strength of feeling in York and in Yorkshire more widely. However, I should make it clear that York minster has openly supported the reinterment of the remains in Leicester cathedral. It is also right to point out that the default position of the Church of England—the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) made this point—is that the remains should be interred at the nearest Christian church, which in this case is Leicester cathedral.
As I have said, the conditions of the licence were widely drawn. They gave a wide discretion on where the remains could be reinterred. The licence stated that
“the remains shall be reinterred in a burial ground in which interments may legally take place”.
Conditions of a licence can be amended, but that is unusual. The university of Leicester could apply to vary the terms of the licence if it wanted to. However, the broad terms of the licence allow it to reinter the remains effectively where it wants, with due regard to decency and the dignity of the deceased. It is right that the state has an interest in that, but our interest must surely be that there is a suitable location for the remains. I do not think that the hon. Member for York Central is arguing that Leicester cathedral would be unsuitable. He is simply arguing that there may be a preferable site, which I entirely understand.
The key point is that Leicester university has made it clear that it is happy to receive representations on this issue. Many of the hon. Gentleman’s points deserve further consideration, and I hope and expect that those at Leicester university with that responsibility will take into account what he has said. We would be happy to facilitate a meeting between the people he identifies and the university to enable that to happen. I am sure that we would all agree that wherever the king’s remains are finally laid to rest, they will belong not only to the location, but to the whole nation.
Forced Conversion of Schools to Academies
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.
I do not know whether those present have ever had the privilege of reading Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall,” but it starts with the main character, Paul Pennyfeather, being debagged by something he refers to as the “Bollinger club” and having to leave Oxford in shameful circumstances after being caught running across the quad without his trousers. He subsequently takes up a career as a school teacher after going to an agency—a thinly disguised version of what used to be called Gabbitas-Thring—that tries to interest him in going to a school somewhere in Wales that is recommended to him as follows:
“We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First Rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly”—
says the man at the agency—
“School is pretty bad.”
We may be reaching a point where to confess to being a school, rather than an academy, might be seen as a sign of failure.
I am relaxed about school types. On a personal note, I was educated in grammar schools. I taught for a short period in a secondary modern school, and for much longer periods I taught in an inner-city comprehensive school and a top-flight independent school, so I think I know a fair amount about school diversity.
The result of my experience is that I am not particularly impressed by the labels that schools bear, and I am fairly agnostic about their structures. However, I differ in that respect from most Ministers, of whatever political persuasion, who seem preoccupied by structures, which interest me far less. The reason for that may be because structures are, as far as the passing occupants of the Department for Education are concerned, quite easy things to change. Frankly, on a wet Thursday afternoon in an inner-city school, or in a rural school for that matter, with a class of difficult adolescents, the name on the board outside the school, or the school’s governance structure, makes precious little difference to the reality inside the classroom.
What does appear to make a difference is good school leadership, committed staff, a relevant and inspiring curriculum, a sound ethos and above all—this has been proved to be the principal determiner of educational success—parental involvement and interest. Those ingredients are independent of governance structure. They are not necessarily present in an academy, although I am prepared to acknowledge that some academies exemplify those ingredients, and they are not necessarily absent in other sorts of schools that happen not to be academies. My conclusion is that the best thing we can do with a school that has all those characteristics is to support it and, so far as possible, not to tinker with it.
There are some, quite a few of whom are around at the moment, who recommend academisation as a solution to all educational ills—it is rather like the old medics prescribing leeches for everything—arguing that it is a sure-fire way of improving educational results. In fact, the evidence is mixed and clearly debatable, particularly when taking into account things such as changes in admission policies, pupil profiles and so on. We can believe the likes of Professor Gorard at the university of Birmingham, who sees no benefit from the academy programme; or we can believe the DFE, which has quite a different view; or we can believe neither. However we cut it, the mooted effects of academisation appear not to be exactly game changing.
Will my hon. Friend tell me how academies that were good schools are coping with the opportunity for more freedom and independence? At the same time, there are frankly awful academies that were forced into becoming academies after being run by the local authority.
There is a lot to be said for letting schools elect the structures they genuinely prefer and with which they can work. My hon. Friend may be illustrating in advance some of the possible dangers of forcing schools to make a choice they simply do not want to make.
My point is simpler. Academisation itself is not obviously fundamental to solving our biggest education problem in this country, which is the tale of boys from poorer backgrounds losing interest before their education concludes—the not in education, employment or training phenomenon. I do not intend to pursue the debate on academy outcomes, real or alleged, or, for that matter, the difference between converter and sponsored academies, which have chosen to be academies, and those academies that simply found themselves becoming academies, possibly against their will.
Instead, I simply want to point out the self-evident truth that I do not think anyone sane would dispute. Academies are not the only way to improve results, and they are not necessarily the most efficient way to improve results in this cash-constrained world. That also applies to the Labour programme, which later in this debate might be distinguished from the current Government’s programme.
I clearly do not need to say much about the slush funds the Government have found in surprisingly tough times to support the academy programme—I see that £1 billion has been found from somewhere or other—but I would like to draw attention to the National Audit Office report on the Labour academy programme, which produced bright, shiny, new and very impressive buildings and institutions. The NAO compared the Labour academy programme with its predecessor, which was called excellence in cities, and it found that, although there were improvements under the Labour programme, the improvements were not significantly better than those achieved by excellence in cities at a much lesser cost.
We must accept that none of us comes to this debate without in-built convictions and biases, so I will get some of mine out of the way by fessing up to them. I must acknowledge that I have a principled and ideological instinct against assets funded over many years by local taxpayers being alienated or removed from the direct control of local taxpayers. I have also never been sure how the lack of any local strategic oversight can be part of a proper, efficient funding model for education in any area, which bothers me. And I have never been able to understand why the remedy for constant interference by central Government, about which schools commonly complain, should be independence from local government, given that local government’s powers in respect of schools have declined dramatically over my lifetime. I do not grasp why Government should impose less on those schools for which it has sole charge than on those schools left under the umbrella of the local education authority. I feel that the rationale eludes all but the most brilliant among us.
There is a strongly held view, which I accept—I accept it of the Government; I do not accept it as the best view—that being an academy is a good thing. But even if we accept that view, there is still one more unexplained puzzle: if the Government are confident of their case, and they are clearly unafraid of big-scale change, as we have seen, why do they not just make all schools academies and make the case for abolishing LEAs, thereby ending the division, disruption and death by a thousand cuts?
I have pondered that, and the only answer I can give is the answer the Government normally give, which is that they want schools to choose whether to be autonomous. I understand that is the rhetoric surrounding the programme, but as the programme has rolled out that particular answer has come to seem odder and odder. First, choosing has been confined to a limited group of people. Parents and staff were excluded by the Academies Act 2010, and during its passage I moved an amendment on the Floor of the House that sought to allow parents some sort of voice, but the amendment was not supported. So we moved from a position where parents decided to one where only a limited number of people decide.
Secondly, the choice is constrained by the fact that opting for autonomous independence is linked to another choice about funding, because the funding packages are not the same and depend on whether the school chooses to stay a local education authority school or become an academy. Thirdly, the choice to be an academy is being linked with a choice to be inspected less and have less bureaucracy and prescription from Whitehall. What is actually involved in the choice argument is a skewed choice, vested in those who have the most to gain from making that choice in terms either of power, in the case of the governors, or of remuneration, in the case of the head teacher. Unsurprisingly, the choice to become an academy has gathered some momentum. That is the current state of play as we can best understand it.
However, the Secretary of State has gone one step further and, with gifts bordering on the prophetic, has told us that by a certain date, a fixed number of academies will be in place, with primary schools firmly within that range. Primary schools are normally not big enough to provide all the administration and back-up that independence entails, so it is a puzzle to me how the Secretary of State could possibly know how many schools will choose of their own free will to become academies.
The hon. Gentleman is concerned about the size of primary schools. I draw his attention to a school in Cheshire that had 12 pupils at the time when it became a grant-maintained school. When grant-maintained schools were abolished, it had about 36 pupils. Size did not prevent schools from becoming grant-maintained schools; why should it prevent them from becoming academies?
I do not think it will prevent them from becoming academies; I am just making the simple point that primary schools have less instinct to become academies, simply because the administrative overheads of providing all the services customarily provided by the local authority bear more heavily on their budgets, which in these modern times are already significantly constrained.
I was trying to determine the basis for the psychic gifts that enabled the Secretary of State to anticipate how many schools will become academies by a certain date. I concluded that he probably does not have psychic gifts; he has a gift for irony, as the matter will probably not be left to choice anyway. Throughout the land, brokers are appearing in schools when the opportunity arises to hasten things on and ensure that the targets are met. They show up when a school suffers even a temporary decline in standards. A recent article in The Guardian by George Monbiot—not a man I ordinarily agree or see eye to eye with—compared them to mediaeval tax collectors. I happen to think that mediaeval tax collectors performed an important social function; I do not necessarily feel the same way about brokers.
Brokers appear to come to governing bodies with threats and an academy contract in hand. The threats are, “Sign the contract, or you, the governors, and possibly the head teacher, will be replaced”, or “Choose a sponsor, or if you don’t we’ll choose one for you, which we may do anyway.”
To add to the hon. Gentleman’s examples, a Department for Education adviser said to a school in my constituency, “You lost your autonomy when you went into an Ofsted category. Either you sign the papers to become an academy, or we will put in another interim executive board to do it for you.” I wonder whether he has had similar experiences.
I have had very similar experiences, but they are not just my experiences. Reports are coming in from up and down the land, and there is a kind of similarity that makes them wholly plausible.
There is a hurry to get on with things. Schools are basically told, “Get on with academisation now, or we will do it for you anyway.” They are also told—this surprises me—“Don’t tell the parents or the staff until it actually happens. Consult with them afterwards.” To sweeten the pill, cash is sometimes promised, in the form of a changeover fund to accommodate change. Relief from inspection or the school’s current status is also promised: whatever pressure Ofsted or the LEA apply will disappear when academy status is established. More worryingly, I have evidence that sponsors have been recommended, particularly school chains, with whom individual brokers have prior connections.
Can I take the hon. Gentleman back to what he said before? I have had a number of schools that have received not only that suggestion, but the message, “Don’t talk to the parents before everything is signed, sealed and delivered.” Is it not also strange that ministerial policy is that Members of Parliament should be told about academisation only after the funding agreement has been signed, thereby removing any chance for democratically elected Members of Parliament to advise, consult with the school or have any say in what is about to happen?
Yes, that is distressing. The hon. Gentleman is a witness to the fact that we have moved from a situation in which parents were allowed a vote to one in which parents do not have a voice.
I would like to draw attention to the well documented fact that some of the brokers’ behaviour is markedly aggressive. One governor of fairly robust temperament described a broker as “seriously scary”. I find the process appalling. Regardless of what one feels about the academy programme, I find it distressing that people who have the interests of children and their schools at heart feel that they have been put in that situation. It strikes me that it is bullying. The intention is to close the contract and sign it there and then, which is the worst kind of sharp salesmanship, if I can put it like that. It is obviously wide open to corruption; it is about making offers that people cannot refuse, straight out of the Vito Corleone textbook. I see absolutely no reason why we who wish to stop bullying in schools allow the bullying of schools.
Fortunately, we have the Minister with responsibility for bullying here, so she can deal with any accusations of bullying.
Surely the hon. Gentleman is being completely unfair to the Government. Did he read the article by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian yesterday? It quoted Tim Crumpton, a councillor in Dudley, who said that after he made accusations of bullying, he received a letter from the Department saying:
“We carried out a thorough investigation and found no basis in the claims.”
Does that satisfy the hon. Gentleman?
I am sure that the Department took the broker’s word for it. What I am describing has been told to me by people I have known for some time, who have no axe to grind and whom I trust.
I feel particularly aggrieved about my area. Under previous regimes, not a single school in Sefton ever opted out. We had two ballots, both of which were lost. There were good reasons. Sefton was one of the first LEAs to give schools true financial independence to pioneer; in fact, I was on the local authority at the time. It has kept its central costs low. It has always prioritised education and schools. It stands favourable comparison with other LEAs. Its schools are good and, better still, there are good relations between the LEA and the schools, which themselves cluster together harmoniously and supportively. There is a genuine communitarian spirit, accompanied by good results. To make things more acutely painful, Sefton has a good record, praised by the Schools Minister, for improving its schools; it is in the top five of LEAs.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made the point about how good Sefton is, because we both represent constituencies in the borough. I, too, have experience of how good the schools are. Does he agree that when people have such a good education authority, it should be allowed to support its own schools to improve, rather than having this forced academisation?
That is clearly an option, because we in Sefton are not overly impressed by academies. The first school to be awarded academy status—coincidentally, one that tried to opt out before but failed to secure parental support—was subsequently inspected by Ofsted; our first academy was put into special measures and the head teacher and chairman of governors have now gone. The brokers are now in Sefton and, having failed to tempt the more prestigious schools, are pouncing like vultures not necessarily on the weakest but on those temporarily weakened.
I understand that there is a rationale for that, and I do not want to be unkind to Government policy. Schools must be in certain categories, failing or failing to improve, and in such circumstances arguably someone must intervene. The categories, however, have in practice been extended beyond the permanent sink schools or those that are sinking. In one case in Sefton, an otherwise good school had four heads in six years, which caused temporary instability over a short period, but the school and the authority could deal with that. In another case, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded earlier, in the school I attended as a child, there was a temporary and wholly uncharacteristic blip and a firm expectation that the school would improve with or without academy status. None of the bullied schools, for that is what they feel they are, has a poor record over time. Even if they had, what is the case for cutting the umbilical cord with a local authority that has a clear record of improving its schools? What is the case for encouraging the schools, as was done, to seek sponsors some appreciable distance away? A school in the northern part of Sefton was asked to look at a sponsor in Chester or in Bolton, or to consider a chain.
I run out of any coherent educational rationale when encountering arguments to suggest that a change in leadership will help a school whose main problem is that it has had too many changes in leadership; that is when my brain starts to hurt. What appears to have happened is that academies have become ends in themselves, not a means to an end. Instead of academies being a means to school improvement, success is measured by the number of academies, not their products. Can the Minister confirm whether new secondary schools converting will not only be paid for attracting pupils—for success—but be given an under-occupancy payment of £18,000 for three years for failing to attract pupils? In the old days, I am not sure what the Audit Commission which taxed us about surplus places would have had to say about that; fortunately, we have taken the precaution of abolishing it.
The Government can go further; if they want, they can lower the threshold for intervention, they can extend and widen the categories, or they can put pressure—heaven forbid—on Ofsted to toughen up the regime, or make it more partial or timed to suit the academy bounty hunters. There is a real worry that the neutrality of Ofsted might be under pressure and, equally, there is a worry about Ofsted’s reliability. If it delivered a rogue inspection, as it occasionally will, given the nature of things, that could have significant consequences for any school that is the victim of such an inspection. The broker who came to Sefton was asked by a head teacher what would happen if an academy chosen to sponsor a school was failed by Ofsted. The broker said that that will not happen. I do not know how the broker could know that it would not happen but clearly, if so, that seems to indicate that Ofsted is more shackled than we believe or hope it is.
I cannot explain this whole situation educationally any more, although I have sincerely tried. I have run out of any educational rationale that makes sense to me. I can explain it only sociologically. I hazard a guess—it might be right—that Ministers neither like nor understand and do not empathise with councils; they simply think that the sort of people you get on councils should not manage or interfere with the nation’s schools. That is a possible view, if slightly prejudiced, but it is not wholly incomprehensible if you look at some of the more eccentric London boroughs. It is understandable that if you have achieved a good education in an independent school, and contrast that with those with a less fortunate or privileged outcome, you might think—
I am sorry; I was talking about any individual, not you in particular, Mrs Main. I will express myself in whatever way you find appropriate.
One—I think that is all right—might suppose that what is crucial to the success of education is the independence of the school. That is an understandable view. It is a simplistic and probably wrong view, but I can understand people taking it and it providing them with the motive for feeling that academies are an all-sufficient solution.
Another interpretation might be that there is an unstated plot to reorganise schools into private chains rather than in LEAs; if so, we could legitimately debate that at some point. It is likely that many primary schools, if they become academies, will form part of chains. There is nothing particularly wrong with chains, and there have been great ones in the past: Blue Coat schools, Merchant Taylors’ schools, the Woodard foundation, Haberdashers’ Aske’s schools and so on; and, in the state system, organisations such as the Christian Brothers, or the Salesian or Notre Dame schools. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with chains; they are often founded for the poor but usually end up serving the rich. The model is particularly in favour with the Minister responsible for academies, Lord Nash, who I understand supports a chain of some sorts himself.
In the past, however, huge gains to the educational system were not achieved by virtue of the state handing people 125-year leases; normally, it was done by philanthropists digging deep into their pockets. If there is a real agenda, and such motivations are genuinely behind the strange set of phenomena we are seeing at the moment, I am happy to debate that. Let us not, however, have this forced choice, with underhand persuasion and inducement.
In my years as a teacher, the worst sort of bullying was not the stuff that one saw and could stop but the stuff that was not seen and took place away from view. If nothing else, through this debate I hope to bring the bullying of schools, rather than in schools, to people’s attention.
Thank you, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this debate. I have to confess that the problem in Northumberland is not that the county councils are being bullied by the Government but, rather, that the county councils are bullying the schools.
The reality of the situation is that Northumberland has few academies; my constituency does not have a single one. We must ask why. All of us, of course, want our children to receive the best possible education, whether at an academy or a maintained school. The great William Yeats described education as the lighting of a fire, and the question that follows is how best to achieve that.
In Northumberland, we have a three-tier system, of which I am an unadulterated supporter, particularly in a rural context, but at the heart of the issue for Northumberland is a middle school. The Minister is a small hero of Hexham middle school, which I visited two weeks ago to meet Mrs Parker and her three star pupils, Elizabeth Nixon, Amy Hawke and Anisha Bannister, all of whom wrote to the Minister requesting a change of mathematical calculation, from chunking to long division. They are deeply pleased that she listened to their pleas and are looking forward to meeting her when I bring them and their teacher to the House in the near future.
I welcome the chance to debate academies today. Surely it cannot be a bad thing that they can set pay and conditions, deviate if necessary from the national curriculum, change the length of terms and school days, reduce classroom sizes, introduce new disciplinary techniques, target resources to the most appropriate areas, and allow the school to be run by head teachers and governors rather than by a local authority, which, in my case, is some 50 or 60 miles away. That is my opinion, but I could give my hon. Friend the Member for Southport ample examples, including the Harris Federation, the schools in Newcastle, and ARK Schools, which runs more than 18 separate academies throughout the country. Since they took over those schools, grades have gone up by more than 200%, and the standard and quality of education have improved immeasurably. Local people are voting with their feet and deluging those schools with applications.
That is why I deem it unfortunate that, contrary to my hon. Friend’s assertions, Northumberland schools are not being forced to convert to academies. They are being prevented from converting. I will give three specific examples. Allendale middle school was a failing school, and the council chose to close it instead of converting it to a sponsored academy. It will close in the autumn, notwithstanding the assurance from the former Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lord Hill, who said that
“there is substantial evidence that sponsored Academy status is the best way to transform such underperforming schools and make sure that we achieve a lasting solution to underperformance”.
Similarly, Haltwhistle middle school has chosen to go down the path towards academy status, but it is being prevented from doing so by the county council’s approach on pensions. That is what I want to address in my last few minutes today. In Northumberland, the county council is requiring an extra pension contribution from an academy, of between 12% and 26%, whereas for a standard maintained school in the UK the average pension fund contribution for teachers earning less than £75,000 is approximately 8%. There is no financial justification for the measure, and no other county in the country is following that course of action. Either the council’s pension fund panel is driving that unfair proposal forward to prevent schools from becoming academies, or the council is fundamentally opposed to academy status. There can be no other reason, except that it would like to obtain greater sums from a would-be academy than from a maintained school.
The position is set out in a communication between the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Secretary for State for Education in December 2011, which stated that
“the overall costs for the Academy as a participant in the Scheme should not increase”
“should not be treated in the LGPS less favourably than maintained schools.”
Given that advice from the two Secretaries of State, I tabled a parliamentary question to which the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) replied:
“my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and for Communities and Local Government made it clear that no academy should pay unjustifiably higher employer pension contributions than maintained schools in their area”.—[Official Report, 29 October 2012; Vol. 552, c. 15.]
With several head teachers and governors from Northumberland, I then met the Minister and a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government on 17 December. As yet, nothing has changed. Some schools that want to become academies or are budgeting for the year ahead are facing larger pension contributions than those of their competitors and than those which they themselves previously enjoyed. In those circumstances, either there is an impact on their financial calculations because they are paying larger contributions, or they are refusing to become academies when that is what head teachers, governors and local parents want, because they are worried about the larger contributions.
One Northumberland school governor said:
“We are being drained of funds by this issue, and it is draining away the optimism we had when we converted to an Academy”.
That is a crying shame. Academies are a fantastic opportunity to help to turn poorly performing schools around, but the failure to resolve the issue is holding back schools in Northumberland.
It is a pleasure, Mrs Main, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), my neighbouring MP, on securing this important and crucial debate.
The ideological crusade that the Secretary of State for Education seems to be on with his academies programme is deeply concerning, and offensive to the education profession. I do not believe that it has the best interests of our children’s education at its core. I am not idealistically opposed to academies. I believe that for some schools the academy option is in their best interests, but I do not believe that it is the only option for school provision in the country, and schools should not be intimidated and bullied into being academies.
Today, I want to speak up for schools in west Lancashire and throughout the county, which has become an enclave of resistance against the Secretary of State’s absolutism on academies. Throughout Lancashire, head teachers, governors, teacher unions, Members of Parliament and even the Conservative-controlled county council have been steadfast in their opposition to the deplorable antics of the Department for Education, and in their rejection of academies for academies’ sake, and I support them in that.
In recent weeks, there has been significant media comment about the conduct and behaviour of the Department for Education in its promotion of the academies programme, and it seems that the experience in Lancashire is being replicated throughout the country following a certain pattern. It starts with creating a myth about failing schools in an area, irrespective of the truth behind the headlines. Then come the threats that underperforming schools will have to become academies. When that fails, the bribes start.
It seems that the same approach is being taken in Lancashire as in one of the areas that is continuing to resist all attempts by Whitehall to foist academies on them. In the middle of last year, threats were dished out, and in July 2012, the county received a visit from Dr Liz Stillwell. Ahead of the visit, a press release was issued that stated boldly and aggressively that
“weaker schools across”
“should aspire to the success”
of the academy she was visiting that day, and that poor standards of primary education in Lancashire would no longer be tolerated. That press release listed the schools that the Department deemed were underperforming, and four primary schools in west Lancashire were on the hit list. I spoke to each of the head teachers, who were surprised—even astonished—to be on that list. They accepted there had been a blip, but both the LEA and the Department accepted that the performance of the schools was improving. Therefore, against the Department’s measures, the schools were not failing.
The schools commissioner travels around the county, peddling the Education Secretary’s ideological wares as if she was some kind of snake oil saleswoman. With her half-truths and misinformation, she leaves fear and instability in her wake among communities. Surely, she should be absolutely committed to supporting all types of school to improve their standards and performance. She should not be forcing schools down a path that may not be in the best interests of their children.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is nothing like five years. I would be happy to supply him with the detail. There are four schools involved, and each is different.
The situation in areas such as Lancashire has been manufactured under the pretext of improving underperforming schools. That raises the question why the National Audit Office report stated:
“most converters…have been outstanding and good schools”.
In a letter to me on 31 January, the chief executive of Conservative-controlled Lancashire county council wrote:
“we do not understand why some rapidly improving schools are being targeted for academy conversion.”
We are back to the myth-creating: everyone is told a school is failing, when the truth is that it had a blip and its performance is improving. We are then told to make it an academy, and, in a couple of years, it is claimed that the success is the result of academisation. We are encouraged to ignore the good work and the fact that the improvement would probably have happened anyway.
From the safety of Westminster, the Education Secretary has called Conservative-controlled Lancashire county council a “failing education authority”. That makes me wonder on what basis he claims that it is failure. I am sure he would say it is performance. However, he is probably referring to the academy conversion rate.
Let us look at performance. Some 69% of schools in Lancashire have improved, compared with the national average of 29%, and that is to be commended. However, according to the Secretary of State, the academy conversion rate in Lancashire is just 3%, compared with the national average of 9%. Is that the source of his frustration? Just four out of 484 Lancashire primary schools have chosen to become academies, while three others are in the process of being forced to become academies.
In November, the Education Secretary wrote to MPs to ask them to do his bidding by getting our schools to become academies. I doubt whether he will be welcomed with open arms by Conservative candidates campaigning in the forthcoming county council elections in Lancashire.
Let me be clear: failure and unacceptable performance in our schools cannot and should not be tolerated. By the same token, however, the sustained and cynical denigration of the hard work of our schools and schoolchildren should not be tolerated, simply because those schools are not academies. Perhaps the Department for Education, to refer to comments made earlier, should apply its anti-bullying policies to itself and its agents.
All the evidence points to a Department that is ideologically wedded to the promotion of academies for all, rather than the best education for all. In our education system, only 10% of all state schools are academies and free schools, and the figure for primary schools is only 5.3%. Yet one third of Department for Education staff are assigned to the academies and free schools programme, which accounts for 18% of the Department’s revenue and capital budget—a level completely disproportionate to the size of the programme. Then we come to the £1 billion overspend. No doubt that money is being taken from the budgets for non-academy schools, many of which most need that investment.
The whole situation is compounded by the Gove army of brokers. Given that they earn up to £700 a day, some might suggest they are more like mercenaries. I would suggest they are conflicted mercenaries, because many are alleged to have connections to academy chains. These conflicted mercenaries—these brokers—are running round the country offering inducements of £40,000, plus £25,000 for legal costs. That approach to academisation is deplorable, and it is all being done because of the ideological war being waged by the Education Secretary.
Our ambition and aspiration should always be to ensure that our children have access to the best possible standards of education from the start to the end of their school life. Simply forcing schools to become academies is not the solution. We know that one-size-fits-all policy making does not work. In our schools, we need good, strong leadership from the head teacher and governing bodies, with investment in schools buildings and school resources, irrespective of whether the school is LEA controlled or an academy. There should be a consensus among parents, teachers, governors and the community about the type of school they want; that decision should not be forced on the community.
I agree that we need to ensure that all schools reach the required standards. However, we should do so based on the needs of the individual school and its children, not on the imposition of a one-size-fits-all model driven by ideology. I am sure the Minister has come here today replete with the usual lines about school improvement, education for the 21st century and investment, but I remind her that we are talking about the forced conversion of schools into academies.
My message to the Minister is this: nobody believes you. As each day passes, fewer and fewer people believe you.
My apologies. It is certainly catching today.
My message to the Minister is that nobody believes her. As each day passes, fewer and fewer people believe her. For most schools—certainly in Lancashire—the answer to her academies is still a resounding no. I implore you: please stop bullying, stop the bribery and get back to supporting all schools and all children.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) for initiating the debate.
It is not too much of a secret, certainly in some quarters, that I am not a great fan of academies. I opposed them under the previous Government, and I oppose the academy regime under this Government. Within a few months of coming into the House of Commons, I voted against the Academies Bill. That was for a couple of reasons. First, many supporters of academies, who want to push for academy status, are seeking to control admissions. For them, it is about who goes into the school, not what goes on in the school.
In a private meeting with the Secretary of State, I said, “You should be far more radical and make every school an academy in terms of some of the freedoms that are proposed.” However, for those who support academies, and who are pushing for them, that would not really work, because the secret of academies is that some schools are academies and some are not. Alongside freedoms in relation to conditions of service and so on, there would need to be some control over admissions, which would defeat the purpose of going to academy status for many sponsors, and the same applies to free schools.
I am opposed to the academies also because there is an overemphasis on the impact that the structure will have on raising achievement and attainment in schools. It is interesting that many of the new academies have not taken up some of the new freedoms: they have taken the money and stayed, rather than taking the money and running with the new freedoms. Another reason for my opposition is that I always want, as Stephen Covey said, to
“Begin with the end in mind.”
If something works, generally speaking it is okay. I do not feel that there are too many strong, politically different issues or matters of principle. Most of them are about what works in a situation, with some fundamental underpinning of values. I am not clear where the evidence is for academies. In a sitting of the Education Committee a few weeks ago, I asked the Secretary of State whether he believed in evidence-based policy and he said that he very much does, but I do not see any evidence for that.
The success of the academies project seems—my hon. Friend the Member for Southport referred to this—to be judged by how many academies there are. That has almost become an end in itself. There has been much talk about needing to convert. A school is in a particular situation, and the idea of need is always introduced; but it does not mean the school will benefit from a conversion. The evidence base is not there. The idea is that the school needs to convert because it meets the criteria; but it is the Secretary of State who sets the criteria. It is like saying, “I will decide when it is raining, and I will decide what to wear in the rain.” He is doing the same, because he is saying, “I will decide the criteria and whether they have been met.” That is the same idea as, “There is a need to put on a coat when it is raining; it is raining so we need to put a coat on.” The false logic behind the whole academies programme is: “An intervention is needed and an academy is an intervention, so you need an academy.” It is all false logic. Using a coat when it rains is an intervention, but it is not the only form of intervention and there is no evidence that that intervention is the one that would work.
There are all sorts of interventions, which could include setting up an academy—but where is the evidence? Local authority support would be a possibility: many authorities are not, as has been suggested, dreadful, and are effective at providing support. The intervention may be a new head for the existing school. It may be an integrated post-inspection plan, or an interim executive board to turn the school around. There is evidence to show that all those interventions work in certain circumstances. They all have an evidence base, but there is no evidence that the academy structure works. It is false logic.
In my constituency in Bradford, there are two schools that are going through intervention academy conversions. My two sons went to one of those schools many years ago. If someone went to a local estate agency 10 or 15 years ago, the window would have adverts stating that properties were close to the school. The school was one of the largest and most successful in the Bradford district and it was why people moved into that area, but it has had a difficult time. It was not so long ago that the head teacher of that school, before retirement, was the executive head of another school that was failing and has now become successful. I was chair of governors at a school that was in special measures, and it became the first secondary school in Bradford to be rated as outstanding. All that was done without academy status and on the basis of interventions by an extremely good head teacher, who was able, through a new management team, to turn the school around.
In Bradford, a secondary partnership has been established. The whole principle behind it has been to offer support to other schools and negate the need for academy conversions. The partnership was formed about 18 months ago and all 28 secondary schools from the district are involved and pay an annual subscription to join. It involves developing a rigorous system of performance review. It will provide effective school-to-school support and deliver school-led professional development. Those schools do not need to be academies. There are other ways forward that do not require a change to a school’s structure.
Ideology has been mentioned a few times, but I do not think that is the issue. It is about ego. All schools can be improved, but it takes time and requires hard work. It is not glamorous and a slog is involved. It takes 18 months to two years to get the right people in place to turn a school around, but where is the glamour in that for a Secretary of State who needs to be seen to do dramatic things? Where is the glamour in that hard graft that happens day in, day out up and down the country in turning around schools that need to improve?
The problem is that that egocentric project comes with a cost. The House of Commons Library briefing shows the actual cost involved in investing in the schools and bribing them to take up academy status, as well as the opportunity cost of the money that is not available for other schools. It is frankly sickening to see schools in Bradford unable to afford basic repairs while a bottomless pit of money appears to be available to support the free schools and academies programme. That programme is a costly distraction—devoid of evidence—from the principal concern of an authority, which is to raise educational achievement and attainment through the well-established methods that already exist for turning schools around and providing the quality education that pupils need and deserve.
It is a pleasure, Mrs Main, to be under your chairmanship this afternoon. I think I agree with some of what everyone has said, but not all that anyone has said, which makes for an interesting debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) for securing it. One point on which I agree with him is that there is a danger of the academies programme being seen as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end. It is that point on intended and unintended consequences that I wanted to address.
I will explain where I am coming from on the issue by reference to my constituency. I had a quick tot up and I have nine secondary schools in my constituency, including one that is 100 yards outside. They range from leading independent schools, such as Latymer Upper school and St Paul’s girls’ school, to leading Catholic schools, such as Sacred Heart high school and London Oratory, which former Prime Ministers and current party leaders seem keen to send their children to. There is also the West London free school, which was set up Toby Young, and two academies that were part of the Labour Government’s academies programme: Burlington Danes academy, which is a new build, and Hammersmith academy. There are two outstanding—I should say that all those that are subject to Ofsted inspection are outstanding—community schools: William Morris school, which is a sixth-form school that I helped set up 20 years ago and am a governor of, and Phoenix high school, which is run by Sir William Atkinson, who is a famous head teacher, known across the country.
The reason I mentioned those is because there is a vast range of schools, and I do not discriminate between any of them. I go to them all, invite their pupils here and I am very proud to have every single one of them in my constituency. I am particularly proud of the two academies and indeed, I helped to set them up, under the previous Labour Government. It is a shame that the £50 million that went into those was not replicated by the Building Schools for the Future programme being continued, so that community schools could also have benefited.
What I find surprising is the attitude of—I have to call them this—the ideologues in the Department for Education and in some Conservative local councils, including my own. They take it to be their mission to ensure that there is academisation wherever possible, without regard to the reasons why they are doing it. I hope that from what I have said it is clear that I have no particular beef about whether a school is an academy or not. All those schools are doing well in their own way.
I can best illustrate that by reference to ARK Schools, which is a well known academy chain, and is the governing foundation for Burlington Danes academy, which, historically, has been a grammar school, a successful comprehensive school, and a Church of England school. It is now an ARK academy and I was part of ensuring that that happened. On the back of that, west London is now populated by a dozen-plus new ARK schools, and again, I have no particular objection to that. I was at one of the primary schools last week—ARK Conway primary academy—opening the new library.
What I have difficulty with, however, is the attitude of Conservative local authorities, who, whenever they see a possibility in relation to an existing community school, pressurise that school into becoming an ARK academy. We had an early example of that with Kenmont primary school in my constituency. The head left, which is a perfectly normal thing to happen. The local authority then said that it could not afford to employ a new head and that the school would therefore have to become an ARK academy. It was only because the parents and governors objected—in the end, a new head was recruited —that that did not happen, and it is now, once again, a very successful community primary school.
Other schools have been pressurised; indeed, one is being pressurised at the moment, and I use the phrase advisedly. There are primary schools in my constituency that have effectively been told that their only option is to become an academy. I feel that in some cases, those schools are set up to fail, and they are not given the requisite support. Perhaps a head teacher leaves, there is a temporary head for a year or two, and the school is allowed to drift into special measures. I am not going to name particular schools—I do not want to name schools that are having difficulties—but I see that pattern repeated, and it is not what a local authority should be doing. It should be supporting all its schools, including those for which it is not directly responsible.
We had a £33 million investment programme—at the moment, that is quite a big programme—over two years for primary schools, yet all that money was directed to voluntary-aided schools, free schools or academies, for new build, refurbishment, conversion or expansion as may be, despite the fact that very successful community schools also wish to expand and see investment put into them. I object to those double standards and to not having a level playing field. I have to ask who the ideologues are in this case, and I am afraid that they are particularly centred around the Secretary of State for Education.
None of that would matter if there were no adverse consequences, but let me explain some of the consequences. First, there will be a perception—it may be a reality, but it is certainly a perception—that we are creating a two-tier system in education, in which academies are the preferred type of schools. Parents will therefore gravitate, reasonably and understandably, towards those schools, because they believe that the schools will be preferred—with money, resources or simply the attention that they receive from local education authorities and the DFE. That then leads to a form of separate development. A number of academies are now for pupils aged three to 18, and they therefore monopolise children within an area. Equally, I have noticed a trend whereby secondary academies will select—particularly if they are in the same group—from their primary feeder schools, so it may be that there is no longer an interchange between primary schools in that way. I am beginning to get a lot of complaints from parents of children in community primary schools who might want to send their children to secondary academies, and they find that they are refused or are a long way down the waiting list.
I also fear that there is a possibility of politicisation of the academy system down the road. There is a strong association between the academy system and not only Conservative local authorities, but Conservative funders, peers and so on. Lord Nash has been mentioned. Lord Fink, who I think is still the Tory party treasurer, was the chairman of ARK, and he is the chairman of one of the schools in my constituency. Both of those gentlemen are very substantial funders of the Conservative party. One of them, Lord Nash—or rather, his wife, Lady Nash—was the principal funder of my opponent at the last election. It is a free country. Anyone can do as they wish, but the association of particular schools, chains of schools and individuals with a particular political party is not healthy in education. I see that as another branch of the politicisation and there is the real prospect of our moving—with every pronouncement that comes out of Government or those close to Government—to profit-making schools. If another Conservative Government were elected, we would see that trend continue, and I think that would be extremely regrettable.
This is not an easy issue to deal with; it is not black and white in any way. As I hope I made very clear at the beginning, I support every school in my constituency. I have a good relationship with ARK. I find it slightly troubling that soon it will be almost the size of a local education authority, spread across some west London boroughs, because it does not have the same democratic accountability as LEAs. However, I do not blame ARK. It may be a willing recipient of the Government’s largesse, but I place the blame squarely where it lies: in the tram-line attitude and the “Go for academies at all costs” policy that infects the DFE at the moment. With hindsight, in years to come, I think that that will be seen as a very retrograde, ideological and divisive step.
Whether individual schools are achieving for individual pupils is clearly important, but as Members of Parliament, we have to look after the interests and welfare of all the schools in our constituencies, and that certainly ought to be the role played by LEAs and the DFE as well. I do not see that happening—I do not see the even-handed approach that will embrace and encourage community schools, in the same way that I see that when those in the preferred or favoured categories are dealt with.
With the hon. Gentleman’s experience of ARK, does he not accept that in even his own constituency—I do not extend the point to all other ARK schools around the country—when ARK has gone in and schools have become academies, they have transformed the education? Without knowing his constituency, I suggest that all the schools ARK has gone into have had a successful outcome. Surely that is the point.
I make it clear that I am absolutely not criticising ARK as an educational institution. The answer is that it has had some remarkable successes and some partial successes. Some successes have not been quite so big, and in some cases, it is too early to say. That is true—it is exactly why I started with a slightly self-indulgent tour round my constituency—and I could say the same thing about many other schools and different types of schools there. That is not the point I am making. The point that I thought I was making—I will make it slightly more clearly—is that the concentration and fixation on a particular type of school and giving schools of that type a privileged status will undoubtedly have an unbalancing effect on education across the piece. That is the mistake that the Government are making.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing the debate. He gave us a thoughtful and philosophical discourse, as ever, on forced academisation. Interestingly, he described what he saw as bullying going on within the system. I will come back to that. He also introduced us to the interesting concept of an under-occupancy subsidy for some types of school that the Government are currently promoting. I am sure that we will hear more about that in the future.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on his speech. He managed to turn it into a bit of a debate about pensions, which might be a separate issue from what we are discussing today, but he did show his erudition by quoting Yeats. I, too, will quote some Yeats:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”.
In some of what is going on with the forced academisation debate, there is a problem with the falconer not knowing what the falcon is getting up to out and about in the field. I will also come back to that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) described what she called snake-oil salesmen in relation to forced academisation. The hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) said that this policy was not so much ideological as egotistical on the part of the Secretary of State for Education and that he needed to be seen to be doing something dramatic, which explained his actions. It reminds me a bit of the goalkeeper’s dilemma during a penalty shoot-out. Statistically it is proven that, very often, to stand still is the best thing to do during a penalty shoot-out, but if the goalkeeper does that and the opposition scores, they are roundly criticised. If, however, the goalkeeper dives in completely the wrong direction and the opposition scores, they are praised for at least having a go. Perhaps that explains the phenomenon that the hon. Gentleman described.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) told us about his own experience, including helping to set up academies in his constituency, and about his fear of politicisation and of profit-making schools. I recently met colleagues from Sweden, who described to me the utter disaster of profit-making schools—free schools—in Sweden. The impact has been to lower standards because of the race to the bottom that profit-making schools entail. Also, Sweden has had to reinstate a requirement for teachers to be properly qualified in free schools, because of that race to the bottom for low-paid staff and maximising profit. That has happened in free schools in Sweden, so there is a lesson for us there as well.
This debate is about forced academisation. Let me say at the outset that I am a supporter of academies and have been throughout my 12 years in the House of Commons. Of course, the genesis for the academies programme under the previous, Labour Government was to launch a direct assault on the double disadvantage of social and economic deprivation. Our concern about the current Government’s academies programme is not about the freedoms that can be granted—that come along with academy status—but about the loss of focus on under-performing schools in areas of high social and economic deprivation and the fact that that might result in the positive impact of the academies programme being diluted. I worry that the principal foundations for the success of the early academies—collaboration and partnership—have been replaced by what other hon. Members have talked about here today, a fixation on the numbers game. That is what we are seeing at the moment. It explains why we are having this debate on forced academisation today. It is all about numbers, rather than standards.
I am not wedded to any particular model for the way in which schools should be run. As a former teacher myself, I agree with the hon. Member for Southport that the structure makes very little difference. We know what makes a good school; we know what factors are involved in that, and there is plenty of research to show it. I do not think that there are many people, either—there may be some here—who think that local authorities should directly run all state-funded schools these days. A lot of us agree that local authorities did not always do a particularly good job of running local schools in many cases in the past, but just because a job was not always done well does not mean that there is not a job that needs to be done. There is a job that needs to be done at local level in relation to our schools, and that focus is being lost by the current Government with this numbers game that they are fixated on.
I welcome the Minister who will reply to the debate. It is a shame that the Minister for Schools is not replying to it. I know that responsibility for this subject lies in the House of Lords, but it would be good to have the Schools Minister here to reply to the debate, because he could then explain why he supports the current policy when he said in his manifesto at the last election that he wanted to
“replace Academies with our own model of ‘Sponsor-Managed Schools’. These schools will be commissioned by and accountable to local authorities and not Whitehall”.
That was his policy previously, which perhaps explains why he never fronts up on this subject as Schools Minister and turns up to debate it. I would welcome his doing that in the future.
However, I am glad that we have the hon. Lady here to answer on behalf of the Government about the worrying reports that we are receiving from around the country. Despite my intervention earlier about yesterday’s article by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian, there seems to be a growing number of reports from around the country about bullying behaviour by the individuals who are being sent round by the Department for Education to bring about forced academisation of schools.
Last year I visited a group of schools that had formed an education improvement partnership. One of the primary school head teachers in it was desperate to tell me about her experience with what some people locally have described as gauleiters being sent out by the Department for Education. What she told me made my jaw drop. She told me that when the adviser from the Department turned up, she was told that she had to meet them and that no one else was to be present. When she objected to that, she was told that perhaps at a stretch she might be allowed to have the chair of governors present with her for part of the meeting. She wanted to have, and in the end she insisted on having, the head teacher of the local secondary school, which was part of the education improvement partnership, with her for the debate, but she told me several stories about how she was leaned on—that is the only way it can be described—and told that there was no alternative to her school becoming an academy, despite the fact that the governors did not want that, the parents did not want it and it was clearly an improving school. In the end, having taken legal advice, they were able to fend off the adviser who had come from the Government, using those bullying tactics, but I am told that as she left she said, “I’ll be back”, Arnold Schwarzenegger-style—no doubt after further efforts have been made to undermine the efforts being made by the school to operate as part of an education improvement partnership to raise standards in the school. That is happening around the country. I have also been told that in the same area, one head teacher has seen a gagging clause put into their contract, having been forced out of a school as part of this process.
It is all very well, under the cloak of standards, to go around to schools and offer them an opportunity to consider academisation—the sponsored academy approach. That can be entirely appropriate on many occasions, but the bullying behaviour—we are hearing, and I am receiving, more and more accounts of it—is very worrying. I therefore want the Minister to answer a few questions about that. How many schools does she know of that have successfully resisted forced academisation procedures? How are the academy advisers recruited? How are they rewarded? Is it true that they are on a payment-by-results regime? I hope that the Minister will answer this question particularly. Is there any code of conduct for those people as to how they should behave? As the Minister with responsibility for the issue of bullying, will she give us an absolute assurance that if there is one, she will publish it, and that if there is not one currently, she will ensure that one is available? I ask that because some of the behaviour that is being described—
I do not have time to give way I am afraid. I would otherwise, but I want the Minister to be able to answer.
Given the behaviour that is being described, if there is a code of conduct, it is obviously not being adhered to in any acceptable way. Is it acceptable to insist on meeting heads alone, not allowing them to have other people with them? Do the advisers have targets? To whom are they accountable? What evidence is there that forced academisation raises standards? We do not have much time and I want to give the Minister the chance to answer the questions. Why has the Department backed down in the face of a legal challenge from Coventry council about forced academisation? Will she undertake to ban gagging orders on heads who are forced out of their jobs and introduce transparency into the process?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing the debate. We have had an interesting discussion this afternoon on the evidence behind the academies programme and some of the issues with underperforming schools. He outlined the elements of a good school. I agree with him, and think everyone in this House would agree, that good leadership, a good ethos and parental involvement are all things we recognise about good schools. He also suggested that those attributes were completely independent of academies, and that is where I cannot agree with him.
Strong evidence across the OECD links school autonomy with improved performance and, where there is a strong accountability system—also important—strong leadership in the school and improved results. It is notable that many of the countries that have successfully improved their educational performance—Germany over the past 10 years, for example—have done so by increasing the amount of autonomy that schools have, setting strong standards and a strong accountability regime. Germany has seen a marked improvement, relative to other countries. The OECD used evidence from PISA 2006 to show that science results for 15-year-olds had improved in countries that gave more autonomy to schools. That evidence is generally recognised, and was recognised by the previous Government when they established and promoted the academies programme. There is a link between autonomy and accountability and improved performance.
The German system is rather more complex because each Land has its own education system. I am happy to discuss it with my hon. Friend in more detail in due course, but there has been a general move across the country to have fewer decisions made by the Government and more decisions made by school leaders. That is my general point. The point about process he raised is a slightly different issue.
My hon. Friend mentioned that our other school policies and what happens in schools are important. He is right. The academies programme is part of what the Government are doing to address educational standards. We are also giving significant funding for disadvantaged pupils through the pupil premium, which is £2.5 billion a year. We are also improving the quality of teaching in our schools, by increasing the number of high-quality applicants to the profession and developing existing teachers. We are reforming the national curriculum to make it more rigorous and more focused, so that teachers have the freedom to design lessons that inspire and motivate their pupils.
Some freedoms that have hitherto been held mainly by academies are being extended to all schools. All schools are being given more freedom in how they design their curriculums. We are encouraging schools to collaborate and share best practice, so that strong schools can help weaker schools to improve. We are increasing the rigour of the accountability framework, including introducing the English baccalaureate and our new floor standard measure for key stage 4. Ofsted’s inspection framework is raising the bar on inspections, so “satisfactory” is no longer good enough. The policies have to be looked at in the round. The academies programme is accompanied by other policies, in areas such as accountability, to ensure that school leaders are accountable for what they do.
I am afraid that I will not because I have a lot of questions to answer in a short time. Many interesting issues have been raised during the debate that I have not yet answered and want to move on to.
We are encouraging all schools to convert to academy status, so that good and outstanding schools can use the autonomy that the status provides to drive up standards. Where schools are underperforming and leadership and management need improvement, however, we cannot just stand by and allow that to continue. The cases that hon. Members have raised in the debate are about schools in which performance is not good enough. We are not talking about schools in which performance is already good. There are good schools under local authority auspices and there are good academies, but we are talking about underperforming schools. We look for two indicators of underperformance to determine which schools we should approach and work with to deliver sustained improvement: low achievement over time and whether the school is in Ofsted category 4.
Many schools agree to become sponsored academies, because they know that academies are achieving dramatic improvements in results, particularly where new sponsors have taken on formerly underperforming schools, as I have seen in my county of Norfolk. Sponsors bring outside influence and a wealth of experience. They challenge traditional thinking and have no truck with a culture of low expectations.
Hon. Members asked about the evidence. It shows that sponsored academies are improving at a faster rate than other state-funded schools. In fact, on average, the longer they are open, the better they do. Between 2011 and 2012 the proportion of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, in sponsored secondary academies increased by 3.1%, which compares with 0.6% across all state-funded schools, so there is a differential rate of performance.
There are some dramatic case studies. Students and staff at the Accrington academy in Lancashire, for example, celebrated a huge improvement in results. In 2012, 60% of students achieved five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, including English and maths. That was up 13 percentage points from 47% in 2011 and up an incredible 42 percentage points from just 18% at the predecessor school in 2008. The school is supported by its sponsor, United Learning. Given the opportunities, I can understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) is keen for more schools to be able to convert to academy status in his area. I am discussing that with the Minister for Schools, who is in turn discussing it with the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government. We hope to come back to my hon. Friend very soon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham also outlined academies’ freedoms over term times, the school day and pay and conditions. We have heard positive reports about ARK academies and the fact that they have a longer school day. E-ACT has supported the Blakely academy to set higher teacher pay to bring in top-quality teachers.
We should bear it in mind that intervention takes place where schools are underperforming—where there is a problem. At meetings with governing bodies, where schools are in Ofsted categories of concern, a broker discusses sponsorship options and aims to agree a schedule of actions. As is necessarily the case in an underperforming school, that can sometimes appear challenging—of course, it can. We are saying that what is happening at that school is not delivering for the children. It is important that they receive the best possible education.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
As I mentioned before the short break in proceedings, the schools that we seek to intervene in and that are suited to a sponsored academy solution are those that are underperforming. There have been some questions about the make-up of the departmental brokers that we employ to carry out that work. As the schools are underperforming, the conversations are often about challenging them to perform better. The departmental brokers have contracts with the Department that state their terms and conditions. They are not paid on results, and they are subject to the civil service code of conduct. The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) asked about the code of conduct procedure. He also referred to it in a letter when there was a complaint, and that was addressed by the Department for Education.
The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, made it clear in his most recent report that more children than ever before are in good schools. That is fantastic news. He has been clear that there are areas of the country where almost all schools are excellent or good, which, again, is fantastic news. None the less, progress and performance are not uniform across the country. Sir Michael has been equally clear that there are areas of the country where only a minority of schools are good enough, which is unacceptable. According to Ofsted, 2 million children are in schools that are not good enough, and no one should be willing to accept that.
What we have to bear in mind is that when we broker sponsored academies in cases of underperforming schools, the children are not receiving the quality of education that they deserve.
It is a great pleasure, Mrs Main, to address the Chamber under your chairmanship. Robert Darren Powell was born on 29 December 1979 at Glanamman hospital near Ammanford. Robbie and his parents lived in the Upper Swansea valley in the town of Ystradgynlais. The community is part of the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency, which I represented in Parliament between 1992 and 1997. Although I am no longer the Member of Parliament for the family, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) has kindly agreed to let me lead this debate as many of the matters that I intend to raise are ones that arose when I served either as the family’s MP or as the Member of the European Parliament for Wales.
Robbie Powell was just 10 years and four months old when he died. A post-mortem examination took place and the cause of death was recorded as Addison's disease, which is a rare disease that affects one in 10,000 people. It can, however, be effectively diagnosed by the ACTH— adrenocorticotropic hormone—test. If that had taken place in Robbie’s case, he would be alive today and living a full and normal life.
The case of Robbie Powell has become notorious as an example of the failure of multiple individuals and agencies. The satirical magazine Private Eye has described it as one of the most shocking and astonishing stories in the history of the NHS. The multiple failures even affected how the case was dealt with by Welsh Office officials, which led to two Cabinet Ministers, my right hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) and for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) giving parliamentary answers that later proved to be untrue. For the purposes of today’s debate, however, I wish to focus on the role of the prosecuting authorities in considering the issue of whether a criminal prosecution should have been authorised in this case.
Robbie died on 17 April 1990. He had been unwell for more than a fortnight and his parents had requested no fewer than seven consultations with five local GPs over that period as they became increasingly concerned about his condition. Robbie had excessive weight loss and was so weak in the last four days of his life that he could not walk. If Robbie had been referred immediately for hospital treatment it is likely that his life would have been saved, but a number of general practitioners who dealt with him did not refer him to hospital for an investigation. On the final day of his short life, his father had to take him by car to Morriston hospital, after being refused an ambulance at the second GP consultation of the day. Robbie stopped breathing on arrival at the hospital and never regained consciousness.
All of the evidence shows that the father had been pleading with GPs to refer Robbie to Morriston hospital. What Mr Powell could not have known at that time is that four months earlier, a hospital consultant had recommended that Robbie should be tested for Addison’s disease. It later emerged that a letter to that effect had been sent to the GP practice. It said that Robbie needed the ACTH test and should be immediately re-referred if there was any recurrence of his symptoms. Clearly, after Robbie had died one would have expected that all of the background circumstances and failures would have come to light. However, the reality is that virtually all the organisations that had the responsibility for establishing the facts operated in ways that blocked, impeded or even falsified the evidence.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the skill with which he has pursued this case. However, I am sure that he would also like to put on the record the tenacity with which Robbie’s father has pursued the case. Without his tenacity, we would not be where we are today.
I am certainly very happy to acknowledge that tenacity, as I will elaborate on later in my remarks, and as I said earlier I thank my hon. Friend for his support for my raising this matter today.
My own concerns as the then MP for the Powell family became so great that they led me to request the then Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, to authorise a full public inquiry to get at the facts, a request that was framed in joint terms with the then spokesman for Her Majesty’s Opposition and later First Secretary of Wales, Rhodri Morgan. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham wrote to me on 8 May 1994 indicating that he had given the issue of whether to hold a public inquiry very careful consideration but did not think that he would be justified in holding one. However, we now know that at that time the Welsh Office officials were providing him with false information about the case.
However, my right hon. Friend offered to set up a non-statutory inquiry under an independent chairman if my constituents—the Powell family—felt that such an inquiry would help to get to the bottom of the issue. Although the family wanted a full public inquiry, they accepted this course of action but received a notification six months later that the family’s general practitioners had refused to co-operate. Furthermore, at one point the medical notes in the case, which were crucial in terms of the request for the Addison’s disease test, went missing. Questions were asked in Parliament. In June 1995, that led my right hon. Friend to assert that he had been advised that no package containing those documents had ever been received by his Department.
However, after further investigations that were undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he became Welsh Secretary, it was established that the information that had been provided to Parliament was completely untrue and as a result my right hon. Friend—who was then the new Welsh Secretary—was obliged to set up an independent investigation into the management of papers by the Welsh Office. Needless to say, the fact that MPs and Cabinet Ministers had been provided with false information on such matters by civil servants did nothing to improve the Powell family’s confidence that the true facts of the case would ever come to light.
I set out these issues as the context of this debate, because responsibilities in relation to health are now clearly within the remit of the Welsh Assembly. More recently, the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, ordered an independent review of the case, which reported last year. In advance of ordering that review, however, the First Minister had asked the Attorney-General whether he would join the Welsh Assembly Government in establishing a full public inquiry into the case, as the matters of concern that I intend to raise in this debate are not wholly within the remit of the Welsh Assembly Government but relate specifically to the manner in which the prosecuting authorities had considered the matter.
It was about that issue that I wrote on 4 April 1996 to the then chief crown prosecutor for Swansea expressing concern about the case and pointing out that it might be necessary to require a full and detailed investigation of the actions—or should I say the inactivity?—of the prosecuting authorities. The response that I received was directly from the then Director of Public Prosecutions in London, the late Dame Barbara Mills QC, who set out—I am bound to say in rather simplistic fashion—the “realistic prospect of conviction” test. Dame Barbara indicated that the Crown Prosecution Service had first been consulted about the case in November 1994 and had given preliminary advice to the police, before offering additional advice to the police in December 1994. In December 1995, following what was described by Dame Barbara as an “extensive” inquiry, the Dyfed Powys police submitted a further file to the CPS seeking advice, and the case again received detailed consideration with advice being given to the police on 5 January 1996. Dame Barbara set out in that letter that she had advised that the evidence available at that stage was insufficient to support a prosecution, but she indicated that she would be happy to consider any further evidence. She reiterated this stance in a letter to me on 26 July 1996.
At a later stage, and following complaints made by Mr Powell to the then chief constable of Dyfed Powys police and the Police Complaints Authority, it was decided that Dyfed Powys police’s handling of the case would be independently reviewed by another police force. Detective Chief Inspector Poole of West Midlands police was appointed and his November 2000 review made 25 recommendations. The Avon and Somerset police force was instructed to undertake a disciplinary investigation, and in fact a detective chief superintendent and a superintendent from Dyfed Powys police were both formally issued with discipline notices. However, as was sadly becoming rather familiar, both senior officers were then permitted to retire and the investigation went no further.
That investigation was called Operation Reboant, and it focused on the handling of the investigation itself. Although Dame Barbara had spoken about the detail of the Dyfed Powys police investigation, the conclusion of the Avon and Somerset police force on this matter was shockingly different. It concluded that Dyfed Powys police had been institutionally incompetent in respect of the police investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Robbie Powell. The manner in which employees of Dyfed Powys police had dealt with Robbie’s father was also criticised. The inquiry concluded that, as an organisation, Dyfed Powys police had failed to investigate professionally, efficiently or effectively the circumstances surrounding and subsequent to the death of Robert Powell at Morriston hospital, and that the criminal investigations were badly managed by senior detectives. However, the inquiry did not authorise prosecution for misconduct in public office as Dyfed Powys police was neither a body corporate nor a person for prosecution purposes. Furthermore, it should be noted that the GPs who were under investigation were, at the material time, actually employed by Dyfed Powys police as police surgeons, and that this conflict of interest was not disclosed.
The second investigation was entitled Operation Radiance and it was an investigation into whether any criminal offences had been committed by the general practitioners, whose role had been to provide health care to the Powell family. This investigation was undertaken by DCI Poole, who concluded that there was the potential for up to 35 individual criminal offences to be considered in the case, ranging from manslaughter to the falsification of documents, perverting the course of justice and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Core to those charges was the revelation that a secretary in the GP practice constructed a referral letter after Robbie had died requesting that Robbie should be tested for Addison’s disease in response to the original referral on that issue, which had taken place months earlier. The letter was then backdated to the time that Robbie was still alive and placed in his file of papers. Two persons in the GP practice accepted that they had been involved in this exercise, the clear purpose of which was to mislead the investigations that were taking place into the circumstances that led to Robbie’s death. Another GP confessed that she had watched a television investigative report into the scandal that had been broadcast in Wales, and following that broadcast she had constructed a series of notes, backdated them to a date when Robbie was alive and then placed them in his notes. Again, it seems clear that this action was contrived in order to give a misleading impression regarding the medical care that was being offered.
The conclusions of Operation Radiance were delivered to the CPS and led to a meeting between the CPS and their advising counsel on 2 April 2003, the effect of which was to inform the parents that no prosecution would be undertaken in relation to any of the issues arising from the treatment of their son. I have rarely read a more self-serving document than that six-page letter, but the essence of the viewpoint conveyed by the CPS is that it would no longer be justifiable to resurrect the offences as any case brought against the doctors for forgery or for perverting the course of justice would inevitably be stopped as “an abuse of process”.
It is difficult to understand why the prosecution of conduct of the sort to which I have referred could be regarded as “an abuse of process”. However, the first sentence of the final page of that letter gives a hint, when the CPS says that
“the important considerations are the passage of time and the earlier CPS decisions”.
I cannot imagine for one moment that an argument of that sort would cut much ice in the considerations that Parliament has given to the issues surrounding the deaths at Hillsborough in 1989, more than a year before the death of Robert Powell. Accordingly, the passage of time in itself surely should never be relied upon by the prosecuting authorities as a reason why no prosecution should be taken forward, and I can imagine the outcry if such a claim were to be made in the Hillsborough case.
However, it is the remaining words of that sentence that give a hint as to why the prosecuting authorities had concluded that no action would be taken over these shocking events. The words are
“and the earlier CPS decisions”.
In my correspondence with Dame Barbara Mills in 1996, she made it clear that the Crown Prosecution Service was still open to considering further evidence in the case, but on the final page of the six-page letter of 17 April 2003, crown prosecutor Mr Andrew Penhale says these extraordinary words:
“for a variety of reasons, the important evidential points were missed and the doctors were given an unqualified assurance that they would not be prosecuted.”
It seems, in that context, that the prosecuting authorities conclude that the initiation of criminal proceedings, at the very least for forgery and perverting the course of justice, might be regarded as an abuse of process. Two serious issues arise from this. Although the use of evidence that arises following a declaration that no prosecution would be forthcoming might make that evidence inadmissible, is it really the opinion of the Attorney-General that such a statement would preclude any further prosecution of such an individual? This proposition requires clarification. If the granting by the prosecuting authorities of what effectively amounts to an immunity from prosecution is regarded by the Attorney-General as effective, does that not set out even more starkly the need for a full and thorough public inquiry, to establish quite how such an appalling situation has arisen?
I am aware that the Attorney-General does not feel a public inquiry is necessary, as all the facts are now known, albeit they have been dragged into the public spotlight after years of lies and obfuscation. However, I do not know why the GPs were given immunity from prosecution in respect of serious offences of forgery and perverting the course of justice. The Powell family and I would be interested in hearing an answer to that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, I pay credit to Mr and Mrs Powell, who have fought relentlessly for justice for their son since his untimely death, very often in the face of obstruction, lies, forgery and abuse. Mr and Mrs Powell are not seeking vindictive retribution against those who failed their son and then wilfully obstructed the investigation of the circumstances. The Attorney-General declined to participate in a public inquiry as he feels that the facts are known, but he should acknowledge that it has only been the relentless challenge of Mr Powell that has brought the appalling truth to light in this case.
Back in 2001, the Bristol inquiry concluded that when things go wrong, hospitals and health care professionals owe a duty of candour and that they should be open and honest. The Robbie Powell case in May 2000 highlighted the absence of any duty of candour for health care professionals. A judgment in the European Court of Human Rights states:
“Whilst it is arguable that doctors had a duty not to falsify medical records under the common law…there was no binding decision of the courts as to the existence of such a duty. As the law stands now”,
in this country,
“doctors have no duty to give parents of a child who died as a result of their negligence a truthful account of the circumstances of the death, nor even to refrain from deliberately falsifying records.”
The Health Committee has proposed twice that this duty should be established in statute and it remains the family’s aim to see that achieved. The recent Francis report, of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust public inquiry, has also recommended implementing this duty of candour, as has the former chief medical officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson. Hon. Members will not be surprised that those people who have campaigned to establish such a duty wish to call it Robbie’s law, in acknowledgment of the appalling failures in the case that I have outlined.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) on securing this debate.
My hon. Friend outlined the sad and unhappy history of this matter. At the outset, I acknowledge that it is clear that Mr Powell and his family feel, with justification, very let down by how this matter has been handled.
My hon. Friend’s concerns appear to fall into two categories. The first relates to the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service not to bring any criminal proceedings arising from the circumstances of Robbie Powell’s death. The second is whether, in light of the Crown Prosecution Service’s conduct of this matter, there should be a full public inquiry.
First, on the decision not to prosecute, it is right that Parliament holds public services to account, including the Crown Prosecution Service, for which I am ministerially accountable here. However, I have to preface my remarks with a note of caution. This debate cannot be the place to determine the guilt or innocence of those suspected of criminal activity, and it is not the place where I can engage in detailed analysis of the complex issues that this case involves. I must also be realistic about what I can achieve in the short time available to me in this debate. I do not make those remarks lightly or to brush the matters aside. I know that this is a case where there have been allegations of record falsification and cover up, and it would only fuel those concerns if I were to refuse to engage with them. So I will engage with them, to the extent that I can and that it is possible to do so in this Chamber.
The CPS reviews of evidence in the 1990s were in relation to evidence gathered during a criminal investigation by Dyfed-Powys police, which was later found, as my hon. Friend said, to be institutionally incompetent. It is hardly surprising that decisions made by the CPS on the strength of evidence gathered by an institutionally incompetent criminal investigation may be open to criticism. I will therefore focus on the review of the evidence conducted by CPS in 2003, which was based on police investigations conducted by an independent team supervised by the Police Complaints Authority.
The 2003 evidential review considered whether any of the medical professionals involved in the case could be prosecuted for gross negligence manslaughter. It also considered, in relation to the amended medical records and a backdated referral letter, whether proceedings could or should be brought for forgery and/or perverting the course of justice. That review encompassed a lengthy consideration of papers over a number of months and meetings with officers, initiating further inquiries and consulting the various medical and forensic experts in the case. A senior and eminent Queen’s counsel was instructed by the CPS throughout.
The decision at the end was that no prosecution could be brought. That decision was taken on 14 March 2003. The family were informed by letter, which explained that the CPS intended to meet them to explain the background to the decision. Ahead of that meeting, the CPS and Dyfed-Powys police met the General Medical Council to determine what might be required to initiate a GMC inquiry.
The meeting with the family took place in early April 2003. It was explained at the meeting that this was an extremely difficult decision, based on a complicated set of facts, involving myriad differing medical opinions. The decision had to consider the impact of the earlier CPS decisions not to prosecute and the impact of the passage of time on the fairness of the prosecution, including matters such as the availability of evidence for both the prosecution and defence.
The letter of 17 April 2003, to which my hon. Friend refers, was sent to explain that decision in writing, following the meeting with the Powell family. I am afraid that I do not agree with the description of the letter as “a self-serving document”. Its purpose was to assist the Powell family in understanding the decision making in an extremely complicated case and to set out fairly the Crown Prosecution Service’s evaluation of what was and was not possible.
In 2004, an inquest was finally held in this case, after the then Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, consented to an application being made to the High Court for an order that it should take place. Following the inquest, Mr Powell complained that a number of the doctors had committed perjury during the inquest. That was again considered by the same reviewing lawyer and senior Queen’s counsel. In respect of one of the doctors, such a prosecution would have met the same problems as had been highlighted in 2003; in respect of the other doctor, the case was significantly weakened by the medical evidence heard during the inquest. The CPS decision not to prosecute for perjury and the reasons behind it were also explained to the family, in a letter dated 8 December 2005. It was, of course, open to the Powell family to ask for the CPS decisions not to prosecute in 2003 and 2005 to be reviewed within the CPS, or to institute judicial review proceedings.
It remains the case that such a review would still be available. I emphasise that I am not, in saying that, suggesting that the review could possibly come to any different conclusion, because I have no grounds for making that suggestion. I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying that that is all I can say on that aspect of the matter in this context.
Before the Attorney-General moves away from the 2003 letter, will he respond to my points on the aspect of the letter dealing with unqualified assurances that there would be no prosecution? It is one thing to tell someone that, on the basis of the current evidence, there will not be a prosecution; it is quite another for the Crown Prosecution Service to explain a decision not to prosecute on the basis of previous unqualified assurances that no prosecution would ever take place.
I totally understand my hon. Friend’s point. My difficulty is that I am not in a position in this debate to analyse the assurances that were given, their exact terms or their effect. The CPS will have to consider that. What I can say is that, generally speaking, although it is true that there may be exceptional circumstances in which an assurance that a prosecution will not be brought can subsequently be ignored and overridden, and would survive an abuse of process application if a trial were ever to take place, such an assurance will be a powerful argument if someone wishes to argue that there would be an abuse of process if a prosecution were to be brought.
In any event, the abuse of process issue in respect of assurances that no prosecution would take place is only one element in the equation, as I hope I have been able to explain. It is not the sole argument; there are also evidential issues, and I do not think such things can be considered separately. I am afraid that is the best explanation I can give in the time available.
I know my hon. Friend has previously raised with me instances in which earlier decisions not to prosecute have been ignored with prosecutions being brought later, which I accept. I emphasise that such assurances are not an insuperable or absolute bar, but they are without doubt a major obstacle if any further prosecution is to take place.
My final point is that it is one thing to say that, back in 1996, an unqualified assurance was given and that it was sufficiently important for it to appear in that letter, but in 1996 a letter was sent to a Member of Parliament saying that the CPS remained open to further evidence. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that should at least be considered?
I have no reason to disagree, but, equally, I have no reason to disagree with the position that the CPS adopted in 2003. That really is as far as I can go on the matter. I have explained that the issue can be reviewed further, but, for the reasons I have already given, I have no reason to think that it will necessarily be a productive avenue. If that is something the family want, it is something they can ask for.
I am conscious that I have very little time, so I will explain the Law Officers’ approach to the public inquiry. The question was most recently considered by the former Solicitor-General, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier), in the summer of 2010. Prior to that, it was considered by Lord Goldsmith in early 2007.
The starting point for those Law Officers who have previously considered the case is that a public inquiry is unnecessary, not because the matter is not serious—the matter is undoubtedly extremely serious—but because issues surrounding the circumstances of Robbie’s death have already been the subject of intense scrutiny. In 2003, there was an inquiry into Dyfed-Powys police’s handling of the case by Avon and Somerset constabulary. In 2007-08, the Independent Police Complaints Commission conducted two further investigations into complaints relating to Dyfed-Powys police. Additionally, the Welsh Assembly Government commissioned their own report, published in February 2012, into the handling of the care and treatment received by Robbie Powell. It is difficult to see that a public inquiry would uncover anything that has not already been uncovered or would identify lessons to be learned that have not already been identified.
Although it was the view of Lord Goldsmith and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough that a public inquiry is unnecessary, they both agreed that, if the Welsh First Minister maintained that such an inquiry needed to be established, they would not stand in his way provided that any inquiry encompassed the actions of both the police and the CPS. The main concern was that a public inquiry would be seriously impeded if it were not able to consider the actions of all those involved. It would serve no purpose for some participants in the Powell case to be within the scope of the inquiry only for others to be left out.
The Home Office took the view, however, that a public inquiry into the activities of the police was not necessary given the number of existing inquiries into the police arising from the case. The Home Office accordingly now takes the view that any new inquiry into the actions of the police is unlikely to produce any fresh information about the role of the police in this tragic case. For that reason, the Home Office is not convinced that there is a need for a joint inquiry. The decision is for the Home Office, but from the information available to me as a Law Officer, I have no reason to dispute the Home Office’s view.
Had the Home Office agreed to an inquiry, it would have been a further condition of the Law Officers’ consent that the inquiry did not extend to question the correctness or otherwise of a prosecutorial decision. That is because it is a fundamental constitutional principle that decisions by prosecutors are taken independently of the Executive and are free from political influence. If such decisions are reviewed anywhere, they have to be reviewed in a court of law. Any other approach risks the perception that the Government are holding the threat of an inquiry over the head of prosecutors to push them into making prosecutorial decisions in a way more to the Government’s liking.
Of course, the Home Office is right: this very tragic case has been the subject of a large number of reviews that have undoubtedly identified areas where things could have been done much better. It is important that the recommendations of those reviews are implemented.
Robbie Powell’s death was almost 23 years ago, and the passage of time continues to run. The concerns expressed by Lord Goldsmith and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough about whether a public inquiry could ever be appropriate in this case perhaps apply with greater force today than they did in 2010.
I can conclude only by expressing my sympathy for the family.
Coventry City Football Club
Thank you, Mrs Main, for presiding over this debate, which gives us an opportunity to discuss an issue of such concern to the city of Coventry, to local people and, most particularly, to Sky Blue fans.
Coventry City football club has been in deep financial difficulty for many years. Five years ago, when it had lost its ground, Highfield Road, and most of its assets, the club was sold to the hedge fund Sisu 20 minutes before the administrators were due to take over. Sisu specialises in acquiring distressed assets, and under Sisu the club’s ownership is multilayered, opaque and partly offshore in the Cayman Islands. It is claimed that Sisu has lost £43 million over the period, but nobody can be sure as substantial management fees of millions of pounds are passed between the layers of ownership and debentures seem to protect unknown investors.
A bitter battle has waged for the past year over the rent and ownership of the Ricoh arena, where the club play. The club’s owners have been on a rent strike. They say they are fighting for a more realistic settlement for a league one club, although Arena Coventry Ltd, which is jointly owned by Coventry city council and the Alan Edward Higgs Charity, believes the agenda has been to destabilise the company and thereby gain control at a fire-sale price. A much lowered rent has been offered, but the dispute continues.
Meanwhile, the fans and the people of Coventry despair as the club’s owners threaten to liquidate the business or move the club out of the city. I am grateful to the Football League, which yesterday, ahead of this debate, issued a statement reiterating its position:
“Any application to move the club to a stadium outside the city would need to be considered by the Board of the Football League. In doing so, the Board would require the club to demonstrate that it had a clear plan for returning to Coventry within a prescribed timeframe.”
I hope the Football League’s rules will therefore not allow Sisu to do anything like what was done to Wimbledon football club.
The Football League has a reform of governance programme under way, on which I would like the Minister to comment. However, the Football League, which is within the democratic control of the clubs themselves, can only do so much. Do the Government believe that will be adequate to address the challenges faced by Coventry City football club and the game?
Although the dispute between the parties over the rent level has been in the public domain for many months, and much innuendo and allegation inevitably surround such disputes, one key aspect has not had any public exposure. If we are to go forward, it must be flushed out. The football club’s owners are seeking to challenge the validity of the original rental agreement made back in 2002, and are using that challenge in an attempt to discredit the city council’s motives for paying £14 million to Yorkshire bank in December for the stadium’s debts. I cannot see what right the club owners have to issue threats on that front as they bought the club more than five years later. They had the opportunity for due diligence, and I would hope that the principle of caveat emptor meant something in that case. If the hedge fund is allowed to reopen the issue, it will be a blatant attempt to profit at the expense of those who built and paid for the stadium: in part, the people of Coventry.
My right hon. Friend has obviously done considerable investigation into the matter. I have the impression that the parent company, Sisu, bought the football club to acquire the stadium; that is my view, although I have not gone into it in depth. Has he considered a way forward? Is it worth while exploring arbitration? He will know better than I do; he has dealt with the matter a lot more than I have.
I will come to exactly that point later in my speech. It is a potential way forward that has been put to the club owners in the past few days.
To return to the issue of whether the owners will be allowed to reopen the agreements that existed long before they arrived in the city and took over the club, Martin Reeves and Chris West of the city council and Arena Coventry Ltd dismissed the threats as “desperate stuff”. However, in my view, the club owners must be prepared to justify their threats and allegations publicly or drop the issue if we are to find a way forward. I challenge them to do so.
The Sky Blue Trust, which represents fans, now has more than 800 members, an indication of the growing amount of alarm among fans. I thank the trust for helping and supporting me to prepare for this debate and for all the work that it has done over the past few years. The club has made a proposal that I put to the club owners yesterday: binding arbitration conducted by a well-qualified local man, Dr John Beech, who has a PhD in business strategy from Cranfield university and more than five years’ experience examining football finance.
Board member Mark Labovitch indicated his enthusiasm for that course of action. However, the response that I received today demonstrates how difficult it is to deal with Joy Seppala and her team. It seeks to turn the proposal of binding arbitration into an opportunity to investigate Arena Coventry’s finances and set the agenda for the arbiters. Of course, there is no suggestion that the football club’s finances or ownership structure should be subjected to investigation.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on raising this important matter. The fortunes of top sporting clubs are key in any community, and the fortunes of Coventry City are important to my constituents in Rugby, as Coventry City is their closest league club. In Rugby, where some of us play a game with a slightly differently shaped ball, we had an issue with the administration of our top rugby club, the Rugby Lions, and it took some time for the sport’s administrative body to get involved. Does he believe that the football authorities are currently sufficiently involved?
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I will raise the general issue of the need for new governance in football, which I think applies to other businesses, and certainly to other sporting businesses. We will have to see what the Minister says, and whether he can give us any comfort with regard to pressure that the Department might be putting on the authorities or discussions that they might be having with them to ensure that the arrangements are sufficient to the task in hand.
Before I leave the issue of arbitration, I find it astonishing that Mr Labovitch, a member of the football board, should have sent me this e-mail a few minutes ago about the offer to arbitrate:
“Bob, I forgot to mention one (hopefully obvious) point: arbitration should all be conducted in public, no hiding behind claims of ‘commercially sensitive’”.
This from a company deliberately structured to prevent anybody from seeing what its business is, where the money is moved and who the eventual beneficiaries are. It is cheeky beyond belief.
The Sky Blue Trust has campaigned for fans to be given a stake in the club. In the past, club owners have said that they will do so, but when asked to make a firm offer, they have come up with 5% to 10% at a discount at some undefined future date, with no representation on the main board. The trust feels that such an offer is of absolutely no value, as it will not provide the transparency necessary for good governance.
I am also grateful to the enormously impressive Supporters Direct, which points out to anybody who will listen—this goes right to the point made by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey)—that this country’s record of football governance is not good. Some 92 clubs have gone into receivership in the past 20 years. In Germany, where fan ownership is the norm, not one Bundesliga club has experienced insolvency since the league’s creation in 1963. Are the Government happy with English football’s governance? Banking regulation has failed us spectacularly. Are not the same issues—lack of accountability, greed and lack of transparency—a problem in football too?
The Ricoh arena has massive potential to benefit the most economically deprived part of Coventry. It is directly connected to the motorway network and will soon be connected to the railway. Many in the city have worked hard to bring what used to be a derelict, contaminated site back into economic use, and the city is open to plans that will bring more benefit.
Many of us accept the need for a realistic approach to the lease and management issues if the stadium is to reach its full potential. Changes would be supported with the right partner at the right time. But Sisu is not entitled to bully its way into control of an asset that it did not provide, build or pay for. It must prove that it is not simply a predator with greed running through its DNA before it can expect such treatment.
The football club is a valuable part of our city’s life. In an age when communities struggle for relevance, it has the capacity to motivate people and give them collective spirit. This dispute has gone on for far too long and needs to be brought to a conclusion. I fear that Sisu, despite its words and slick presentations, has no interest in such things.
I am a Huddersfield Town fan, and my club is very much at the heart of my community, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for the Yorkshire ambulances. Mark Robins has recently moved to Huddersfield Town as manager, so us fans feel a close kinship with Coventry City, and we went through our own financial problems in the previous decade. Also, only on Friday night, I spent the evening at a charity dinner with Brian Kilcline, who lifted the FA cup for Coventry City in 1987; I told him about this debate and he, too, sent his best wishes to all Sky Blue fans. Good luck with the quest to save the club for the community.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. For Coventry, 1987 was the pinnacle so far of what can be achieved by a football club on behalf of a city, and it was the entire city; whether football fans, rugby fans or whatever, they were lifted for such a long time by that magnificent occasion, and we want to see many more of them. We all fear, however, that we will not see such occasions unless there is a new settlement, a new realism and a new acceptance of community responsibility by the owners of the club, with a constructive approach to settling the dispute that they appear to have deliberately prolonged. They are not stupid—we are dealing with clever people—so one has to assume that their motives are not good for the community, the city or the club and its fans.
Will the Minister respond to the need for the reform of governance and for transparency in our national game? Has he looked at the reform programme of the Football League, and does he believe it adequate to the challenge faced by the game? My reading is that it would not have helped us to any great extent with the existing problems in Coventry, but if the Minister can say otherwise I will be pleased to hear it. Have the Government looked at the licensing proposals of Supporters Direct? Could those proposals provide sustainability and accountability for what is overwhelmingly our biggest national sporting game?
To the club, I say that there has been a reduced rent offer. If the owners want to be taken seriously, the time is long past for them to respond clearly by accepting or putting a definite counter-proposal, rather than the deliberate obfuscation and delay, for whatever motives, that has gone on for month after month. A reasonable response to the proposition for binding arbitration, which my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) mentioned, would have been an opportunity for the club to win trust. If it had accepted the proposition, it would have seen the supporters’ trust, me and I do not know how many others prepared to join it and say that that was a reasonable way forward; my hon. Friend raised the issue independently today, so he would have been minded to get behind such action. In its response, however, the club has failed absolutely to grasp the opportunity to get with the parts of the community that care so much about the football club and economic development in the city. Instead of all the deliberate talk, innuendo and attempts to destroy reputations that have gone on, the club should come clean about its threats over the 2002 rental agreement. If we had some kind of straight response from the owners, even at this late stage, some good will would rally to their cause. They must start to examine the behaviour that we have seen for far too long.
I thank the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) for securing the debate and for his contribution. As I hope he knows, he is well respected both as a Member of the House and in the Ministry of Defence, where he served with much distinction at the end of the previous Government. That is evident in how he presented his case today. May I also record a small apology for some confusion over who was to respond to him in the debate today? I was due to be in a Bill Committee all afternoon but, fortunately, it wound down a little early, so I am sorry if that caused any confusion.
The right hon. Gentleman put his case extremely well. I entirely agree with him on almost everything he said. I place on record my sympathy for the fans of Coventry City football club for the position in which they have been put and for the way in which it came about. No one who cares about football clubs or sport in general can find the series of events that he has outlined today in any way satisfactory. In fact, almost everyone would conclude that that is a disastrous way in which to run a sports club, in anyone’s judgment. The tragedy, in a sense, is that the situation he outlined is not unique to his club. At some stage over the past 10 years, more than half of the Football League’s 72 clubs have been insolvent, which is clearly not satisfactory.
Rather than read through my prepared speaking notes, if the right hon. Gentleman is happy, I will try to answer the various questions that he posed to Government. First, do the Government believe that the Football League’s approach is sufficient? It is fair to say that under the leadership of Greg Clarke, the Football League has made considerable strides and, as I would expect, the right hon. Gentleman fairly alluded to that in his remarks. The tightening up of many of the financial fair play rules that have happened on the current chairman’s watch are welcome, necessary and a step in the right direction. Indeed, when Greg Clarke was interviewed by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee as part of its inquiry into football governance, he straightforwardly said that debt is
“the single biggest problem for football”.
That was entirely mirrored in what the right hon. Gentleman said today. He also asked if I thought that the reform programme would in itself be sufficient. The honest answer is, no, I do not. There is a great deal more ground to be covered. I will come on to some of the ways in which we are trying to cover that in a moment.
The second area touched on by the right hon. Gentleman was the legal dispute between the club owners and the city council. I hope that he does not think that I am ducking the question completely if I say that without precise knowledge, it is difficult to comment in any detail. From what he said, it certainly sounds as if it is at least an unsatisfactory situation. Clearly, if it will lead to legal action, I must be a little careful.
I have an interest in the club to declare, which I do so willingly.
Before the Minister moves on to the general considerations, could he find any way in which he might facilitate mediation? The two sides are locked in what seems to be a deeply held, personal, embittered struggle, and someone needs to find a way to help them out of it. I know that he cannot appoint a mediator, but is there anyone in the Department who could use the enormous influence of his office to facilitate such an event? It is difficult but if he could be positive it would help.
I have no statutory power as a Minister to intervene. The hon. Gentleman, however, is not asking for that; he is asking if I could use my good offices to effect a solution. As long as my powers and the limitations on what a Minister can achieve are clearly known, I have enough respect for the Opposition Members present, in particular the right hon. Member for Coventry North East whom I have dealt with over many years, to say simply that if there is a stage at which my intervention might be helpful, I am happy to do so. The danger is that that card, once played, might be the final card, so it might be better to try some other avenues first.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I leave the matter with him, but if he thinks I can do something to help, I am happy to do so. I suspect that a more obvious target might be the chairman of the Football League, who is supposed to be independent in these matters.
The problem is exemplified by my right hon. Friend’s intervention. Assuming that it is impossible—the people involved are bitter, and are at it like that all the time—someone should go in with a cool head, look at both sides without taking a prejudiced position, and try to bring them together. That would be the role to take, but I appreciate that the Minister has no statutory power.
The hon. Gentleman puts the issue well. That is the role that should be carried out by the Football League in the first instance, but if for any reason that proves impossible, I will be happy to look at any sensible proposal.
The right hon. Member for Coventry North East asked about supporter representation on the board. I will come to the bigger ticket way that that is being dealt with in a moment. I have worried about this, having looked at it during most of my three years as a Minister, and it can become a bit of an Aunt Sally. It is not much use having one supporter on a board, if there are 10 others who can vote him or her down on each and every occasion. It is about the message it sends out. The drift from the Government and the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is that this is an area that needs to be addressed, and that until now supporters have been under-represented in and under-consulted on the running of football clubs, and their views on how football clubs are run have not been sufficiently taken into account.
The football authorities—I will come to the process in a moment—have been invited to make proposals. It remains to be seen precisely where they get to. If this area were working well, different solutions would probably work for different clubs, depending on their ownership structure and the history of their involvement with supporters. If that does not happen, the Government will have to take action, and I will come to that.
The fourth question, which wraps all this up, is whether the Government are happy with football governance. The honest answer is no. That leads to a question about what we have done about it. There has been some progress over the last couple of years. All 92 professional clubs are adopting the financial fair play proposals—I will come to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s process in a moment—and the Football Association has finally set up a regulatory authority that will have power to determine applications under FA and Football League licences and directors’ criteria, and to look after moves.
Soon after I became a Minister, I turned up for a Wednesday morning debate in Westminster Hall to find the best part of 60 Members of Parliament wanting to speak, and it is clear that football governance is an area that is causing concern throughout the House. To try to maintain a cross-party position, we asked the Culture, Media and Sport Committee to look at it. In the middle of 2011, it produced a report, which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman has seen, with a series of recommendations for the football authorities. They were challenged to go away and work together, which was something they had not done very successfully until then. There is often friction between the Football League, the Premier League and the Football Association. They have worked much more constructively together in this instance, and produced an interim response to the Committee. They agreed that there was a need to change, and that they would bring forward new regulations by August. With our encouragement, the Select Committee invited them back to review progress at the end of last year or the beginning of this year, and produced a report that basically said that some progress had been made, but not quickly enough. It contained a straightforward recommendation to the Government that if further progress was not achieved by the middle of this year, the Government should not hesitate in legislating.
Those of us who have been in government would be properly wary of that move, but if it is the only to achieve proper progress, we are prepared to do it, albeit that I would want it done on a cross-party basis. There would be little point otherwise because if the Government changed, the regulations might move about. An absolutely key part of any legislation would be the regulations on supporters’ involvement in their football clubs.
Those were the questions the right hon. Gentleman asked me. Time is running out, so I will not read my script. If he is happy with that and does not want to ask me anything else, I will simply finish where I started and thank him for the debate. I wish him and his local MPs well with Coventry football club. It is a great club, and it does not deserve to have got into its present position. I wish him and others every success in their efforts to bring about a brighter future for it.
Question put and agreed to.