House of Commons
Monday 24 June 2013
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The number of 16 to 18-year-olds starting apprenticeships in 2011-12 was 129,900, down by 1.4% on the previous year.
With youth apprenticeships down on last year and the demise of the professional careers service as most people recognise it, what are the Government doing to ensure that young people receive the correct advice on starting apprenticeships, and, in particular, the route to higher level qualifications that some apprenticeships can lead to?
The hon. Lady is quite right that we need to encourage all students to consider apprenticeships as a high quality alternative to the academic path. I commend the activity that Sunderland city council and Sunderland football club are under-taking to ensure that more young people in that great city consider apprenticeships as a viable role for the future. I should add that the recent diminution in the number of 16 to 19-year-olds taking apprenticeships was due significantly to the fact that we were reducing the number of low quality apprenticeships where the duration was shorter than a proper apprenticeship needs to be and the quality of tuition was less effective than a good apprenticeship needs to be, but there is still more to be done.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his Department’s success in raising the profile of apprenticeships and making them a genuinely attractive alternative to higher education? Will he join me in congratulating East Midlands Housing Group on its apprenticeships in my constituency, and on being an apprentice team of the year finalist this year?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the importance of construction and other sectors in helping to encourage more young people to consider apprenticeships. The Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock)—who sadly cannot be with us, Mr Speaker, because he is enjoying paternity leave—has I think done more than any other Minister, apart possibly from his immediate predecessor, to put apprenticeships on the map and to work with industry to raise the esteem in which vocational training is held.
Does the Secretary of State realise that many of us who believe passionately in apprenticeships are concerned that the people instructing apprentices should be of the highest order? What is this love affair between him and people who are unqualified working with apprenticeships and in schools?
I absolutely agree that those working with apprentices need to have either the best qualifications or the best experience in the relevant sector, which is why we implemented the recommendations of Alison Wolf’s report. We have allowed lecturers in further education, who are qualified in that sector but were not previously able to work in schools, to work in schools. We will also implement the Richard review, which once more puts employers in control of assuring the quality of vocational qualifications, so that anyone who secures an apprenticeship can be confident that it will lead to a satisfying job.
With youth unemployment at the 1 million mark, one would have thought that Ministers would do all they could to get young people into training and jobs, so why have the Government overseen a 12% reduction in young apprenticeships in the past six months alone, alongside a £165 million departmental underspend? Where is the determination to fix this crisis? Rather than writing eight-page letters and trying to become the pen pal of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), should the Secretary of State not be focusing on some policy work?
Rather than writing eloquent questions and reading them out with the rounded vowels of a public school educated champion of vocational education, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman concentrate on what the Government have done. I also suggest that he refer back to the wonderful Westminster Hall debate, held with the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk, in which the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that under the previous Government vocational education was not good enough, that there were far too many low standard courses, and that the Wolf report and the Richard review have been the two best pieces of work on vocational and technical education undertaken in the past 25 years. If he looked back at what he said then, he would face a dilemma: does he eat the words he uttered in Westminster Hall, or does he acknowledge that the question he has just asked was nonsense from start to finish?
Rural Schools (Funding)
Supporting successful rural schools is an important principle of our funding reforms. My Department has just concluded a review of funding arrangements for 2013-14, which included visits to North Yorkshire and several other rural authorities.
Does the Minister accept that the pupil premium has not worked its way through to rural schools in perhaps the way he had hoped, and will he join me in helping North Yorkshire council to put in place fairer funding for rural schools, particularly those with many service children?
The pupil premium has to be passed down properly to all schools, and before it existed, many young disadvantaged people were not getting any proper additional funding in many rural areas. My hon. Friend may wish to know that we also recently widened entitlement to the pupil premium to include pupils in families who had been entitled to free school meals at any time in the past six years. She will be pleased to know that as part of our recent funding review, we have introduced a sparsity factor of up to £100,000 that will allow local authorities to give extra money to schools in rural areas, and one of the big gaining authorities will be North Yorkshire.
Given that the Secretary of State has had meetings with devolved Education Ministers in Northern Ireland and Wales about other examination matters, will the Minister confirm whether the Secretary of State had discussions with them about the potential for rural schools, their potential closure and the need for them to be sustained?
Last week, the chief inspector of schools said that Ofsted’s report on unseen children painted
“a striking new picture of disadvantage and educational underachievement”.
In his speech, he said that we needed new policies and approaches to deal with underachievement in rural and coastal areas. If those policies are to succeed, they will need to be financed. Will the Minister commit today to a redistribution to rural areas, so that allocations are fairer and more equal?
We are committed to introducing a fairer national funding formula, and we hope to be able to say more about that once we are clear about the spending review announcements later this week. We also intend to ensure, through Ofsted and the accountability measures we publish, that schools in rural, coastal and other areas that may have small proportions of young people on free school meals or entitled to the pupil premium are still under intense pressure to narrow these gaps, which are as unacceptable in rural and coastal areas as they are in our inner cities.
A small village primary school near Melksham in my constituency has grown over several years to serve more than 200 pupils in seven classes, five of them in temporary buildings. Will the Minister ensure that through the targeted basic need programme rural councils such as Wilshire’s will get the help they need to meet the growing primary school pupil population?
We will certainly do that. The Government are spending more than double what the previous Government spent on capital to support new school places, and as my hon. Friend indicated, before too long we hope to announce the results of the targeted basic need programme, which will enable new schools to be established in areas of basic need, as well as the expansion of existing good and outstanding schools.
I am determined to reform the adoption system to reduce delay for children. One of our most pressing priorities is increasing the number of approved adopters. We have already launched the First4Adoption telephone and online service to provide information to all potential adopters and published the adoption passport, and we are bringing in a quicker two-stage adopter approvals process from 1 July.
My constituent Helen Holgate is a respected and experienced foster carer, but she still tells me that there are considerable court delays during the concurrency process. What steps is the Minister taking to improve the concurrent care process so that children can be placed permanently and more swiftly with a loving family on a full-time, permanent basis?
First, I would like to pay tribute to Helen Holgate and all the other fantastic foster carers helping many vulnerable children in our country. We are working towards streamlining the approval process for foster carers. On court proceedings, through the Children and Families Bill, we are introducing fostering for adoption rules to ensure that children are placed earlier with prospective adopters, and with the work of the Family Justice Board, we are helping to strip out unnecessary delays in care proceedings. As a result, the average length of a care case has already been reduced from 57 to 42.2 weeks.
With the Fostering Network and many other fostering charities, we have developed some excellent training materials for foster carers, to provide them with the support that they need. This will make them feel confident that they are in control of the placement, with the day-to-day decisions such as whether children get their hair cut or go on a sleepover being delegated to them. This will also help the children to feel that they have a normal family existence while they are in a foster care arrangement.
One of the many myths surrounding adoption relates to the age of prospective adopters. We want anyone who is interested in adopting to come forward and use the new adoption gateway, which is the easy way of getting the information and advice that they need. We do not want to put people off adopting; we want to welcome them with open arms and do all that we can to support them in providing children with the homes they desperately need.
The Children and Families Bill underlines our expectation that children normally benefit from the involvement of both parents. In addition, the early years teachers and early years educators qualifications that we are introducing this year and next year will include training in engaging parents in their child’s development and education.
One of the most interesting and inspiring constituency visits that I have made recently was to the Oxhey early years centre, which is run by a fantastic person called Helen Walsh. While I was there, I saw an excellent programme for non-resident fathers run by the Sunshine Children’s Centre in partnership with Watford football club. It brings together children and fathers who do not normally see their children to play, and helps the fathers with their parenting skills. Will the Minister confirm that the Government support this kind of thing? If she has time, perhaps she would like to come to Watford with me to see the centre.
I completely agree that what the Sunshine Children’s Centre in Watford is doing is excellent; it is a very good example of best practice. I am delighted that the centre is working in partnership with Watford football club, which is the team that my dad supports. Perhaps he would be keen to visit the centre. We recently put out our new children’s centre guidance, which puts much more focus on getting parents involved in their children’s development and upbringing and on supporting families to be emotionally resilient. This is absolutely the kind of thing we want to see more of.
Our proposals for the new national curriculum were published for consultation earlier this year. They are based on the principle that the national curriculum should set out a body of essential knowledge that children should be expected to acquire in key subjects. We are considering the consultation responses, and considering the inclusion of life-saving skills.
I am conscious that we do not wish to be too prescriptive, but just two hours of training could enable help to be provided to those suffering the 60,000 cardiac arrests that take place outside hospital each year and give a real, tangible skill to those who wish to go into the sports and leisure industry.
I thank my hon. Friend for that, and for bringing a delegation from the British Heart Foundation to meet me. It made a good case for the introduction of live-saving skills. I also know that 86% of teachers support training in those skills. However, we have to strike a balance in the national curriculum between the flexibility that we give to teachers and what we prescribe centrally. Those factors will go into our final decision making.
On Friday, I visited Burnbush primary school in my constituency to meet a really lively group of year 6 pupils. They showed me the skills that they had learnt as a result of the Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust and British Heart Foundation programme that has been going round schools and teaching children about resuscitation and how to stop people choking. Does the Minister agree that we should be considering such training for the curriculum not only in secondary schools but in primary schools, as their pupils could also benefit from learning those skills?
I think it is a fantastic programme that the British Heart Foundation runs. One thing we have done is to provide finance to the Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education Association to work with partners such as the British Heart Foundation on providing programmes that really bring the subject to life in schools.
Primary School Places
By the end of this Parliament, we will have made well over £5 billion available to local authorities to support the provision of additional pupil places, which is more than double what was provided by the previous Government over a comparable period.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree with me that when we are dealing with a shortage of school places, the last thing we need is an assault on valuable teachers in the independent sector, who face being mummified with red tape to appease the vested interests of the Labour party?
The National Audit Office projects that there is a 240,000 shortfall of primary school places across England, and in fact there are now bulges in classes across Tameside and Stockport, the two local authorities covering my constituency. Given that, will the Minister explain what proportion of capital spend has gone to address this problem in the areas of need?
I certainly can. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that under this Government, the amount of money that has gone into funding basic need places has doubled in comparison with the amount available under the last Government. I can also say that the reason why there might be pressures at the current time is that the hon. Gentleman’s party removed over 200,000 primary places between 2003 and 2010—in spite of the warnings about higher pupil numbers from the Office for National Statistics.
The borough of Kettering has the sixth fastest household growth rate in the whole country, and the pressure on primary school places is getting more acute year by year. Will the Minister ensure that in his new funding formula, there is appropriate funding for areas of the country that are experiencing rapid population growth?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point because the Government are not only allocating much greater capital for basic need, but have changed the funding formula for distributing this money so that where there are pockets of basic need in areas that were previously not recognised, we are reflecting that fully in the distributions.
The Secretary of State was reticent last week when Sir Michael Wilshaw launched Ofsted’s report on closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children attracting the pupil premium. Was that because Sir Michael Wilshaw advocated Labour’s proven policy of greater collaboration between schools to raise standards rather than the Secretary of State’s desire for privatised schools for profit of the kind that have been such a failure in Sweden?
I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. This Government are encouraging schools to collaborate; this Government are encouraging partnership; this Government are promoting national leaders of education; this Government are going to introduce something that their predecessors did not—tables of similar schools so that schools can learn from each other.
Children and Families Social Work
Building on the recommendations of the Munro review, we have put in place an ambitious reform programme for social work that seeks to improve initial social work education through the Step Up to Social Work and Frontline training initiatives to get the best people into the profession as well as improve the quality of front-line practice by revising Working Together to Safeguard Children and appointing a chief social worker.
My hon. Friend pinpoints a key area of our reform agenda. That is why we have asked Sir Martin Narey to look carefully at social work education and report back to Ministers later this year. It is also why we have introduced, along with the chief social worker, principal family social workers in each local authority area to help champion and challenge social work as well as to provide assistance and support in the first year, which we know has been so successful.
To date we have seen strong protection of children’s services across local authorities, which recognise the importance of providing the best quality service in their areas. Social worker vacancy rates have fallen, not risen, from 10% in 2010 to 7% in 2012. Many local authorities are doing a fantastic job, but we need to ensure that all raise their game.
I explained in my previous answer the approach that local authorities quite rightly take to ensure that children’s services are the best they can be, but we can enable that through the revised Working Together to Safeguard Children, making it clearer who is responsible for providing which services while ensuring that the quality of social work is as high as possible. That is why I set out in my initial answer why this is such a high priority for the Government.
Has the Minister seen the recent survey of 2,000 social workers, which paints a shocking picture of, in their words, “crisis”, “breaking point” and “chaos”. It shows increasing caseloads, long waiting lists, the use of non-qualified staff to assess children, the use of agency workers, and children who need help being turned away as thresholds are revised upwards to cope with the situation. As one social worker put it, “amber is the new green”. Is it not time that the Government got on red alert and did something about this crisis?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady, who was so supportive of many of the measures we have taken to bring in the recommendations of the Munro review, decides to use this set piece to provide a dividing line that does not need to be there. We are all trying to achieve the same thing: to improve outcomes for children who come into contact with children’s services. We are seeing improvements in the country, but they are needed across the board, and we are introducing reforms to ensure that children and families get high quality social work and support when they need it.
Secondary School Places (Essex)
I apologise, Mr Speaker.
Local authorities are responsible for ensuring that there are enough school places to meet demand in their areas. The Government are committed to improving quality and choice through the expansion of the academies programme, university technical colleges and sixth forms, and through the opening of free schools.
The Minister will be aware that Essex county council is currently consulting on proposals to close the Deanes school—most recently rated by Ofsted as “good” with elements of “outstanding”—in my constituency. Clearly, the loss of the school will greatly reduce choice for parents, so will the Minister meet me to discuss the options to try to resist the plans?
In spite of my tardiness in rising to the Dispatch Box, I am aware of the situation at the Deanes school and of my hon. Friend’s robust representation, as always, of the concerns of her constituents. Although the matter is primarily one for the local authority, as she will understand, I would be delighted to meet her to discuss the issues on the ground, which I know are of great importance to many of her constituents.
The last Labour Government’s policies, which were backed by Labour in Colchester, would have led to the closure of the Thomas Lord Audley school. Thanks to the coalition, that school has been saved and is going from strength to strength. The Secretary of State will recall from his visits to Colchester, however, that there is still a question mark over secondary school provision on the Shrub End estate. Will he agree to meet a delegation from Colchester to see whether we can save that school, which Labour also wanted to shut?
Is my hon. Friend aware that 350 secondary school students in Harlow are eligible for free school meals, but because they go to Harlow FE college, they do not get them, whereas the kids who go to the one sixth-form school in the constituency do get them? Please will my hon. Friend remedy that anomaly and ensure that free school meals are available for all eligible students?
We are aware of that long-standing anomaly in the system, and we want to fix it. However, such matters depend on the budget allocations that we are given by the Treasury, and these are obviously difficult times. We shall have to look at the situation after the announcement of the spending review settlement.
School Funding Formula
The current school funding system is unfair, and is based on an out-of-date assessment of need. We have already introduced reforms to make the system simpler and more transparent, which will assist preparation for the introduction of a national funding formula in the next spending review period.
I welcome that answer and that recognition. The current formula has arbitrary consequences in constituencies such as mine. Because a rising birth rate and other factors are not taken into account, parents living in areas like Claygate and Thames Ditton are struggling to secure local places. When will the review start, and what efforts will the Minister make to consult Members directly on the key issues and criteria that are at stake?
I can tell my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State and I are committed to introducing a fairer national funding formula in the next spending review period, but we are currently waiting for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to announce our final settlement in his spending review statement this Wednesday. I assure my hon. Friend that we will engage in full consultation with all Members, including those who have particular interests in this area, as he has.
We cannot make any comments until the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced the spending review settlement later this week, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State and I are working hard to secure a good settlement for all parts of the education system, not just for schools.
I welcome the Minister’s comments about the unfairness of the current national formula. Having met members of the Worcestershire Association of School Business Management last week, I can tell him that that unfairness is very keenly felt at present. May I urge him to do all that he can to ensure that we move towards a fairer national formula both before and after 2015?
I assure my hon. Friend that we are taking these matters particularly seriously. We have had a very unfair national funding formula for many years, and, sadly, the last Government did nothing to address it. At a time when there are difficult decisions to be made in all areas of funding, it is especially important for underfunded areas to have a better settlement, because otherwise they will be the areas that feel the budget pressures most acutely.
The Department has developed an online training module for school staff. It is designed to raise awareness about young carers, including awareness of the potential impact that their caring responsibilities can have on their school attendance and attainment. Importantly, the Department of Health has recently started training school nurses to be champions for young carers, and to help head teachers and governors to decide how best to support them at school.
There are about 300 young carers in my constituency. As my hon. Friend recognised in his answer, young carers often reflect many of the best values, but their education suffers as a result of their caring duties. Will my hon. Friend write to me saying what he considers to be the best scheme to support them, and what impediments there are to the spreading of such measures, given that even neighbouring districts such as Fenland and Huntingdon take such different approaches?
I praise my hon. Friend for the work that he is doing in his constituency. He has led by example in writing to all local secondary school heads to remind them of the support that young carers need, and to raise their awareness of what is available.
As my hon. Friend has acknowledged, there is a wealth of good practice out there. We recently awarded a £1.2 million contract to the Children’s Society and the Carers Trust to work directly with local services, including schools, and help them to improve support for young carers. However, I am happy to write to my hon. Friend explaining what we are doing over and above that, and what more we can do collectively—at both national and local levels—to improve support for young carers in schools.
The Minister knows that many of us on both sides of this House care very deeply about the hundreds of thousands of young carers in this country and that they should get the support they need to fulfil their potential. He just cited the support role school nurses can play for young carers, but he must know from the parliamentary questions I have asked that the number of school nurses across the country is tiny—indeed, I think one answer stated I had one in the whole of Sunderland. If this is the solution, he might want to look at that. We welcome the assurances the Minister gave at the Report stage of the Children and Families Bill, but as it is due to be debated in the other place next week, will he give us and our noble colleagues a guarantee that he will make this work an immediate priority, so the Bill will make the changes we want to see for these young people, as the care services Minister, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), promised last year.
As ever, may I thank the hon. Lady for the tone she strikes with her question? We are at one in wanting to improve the support young carers receive. As she knows, I have met the Minister for care and support to agree some key principles for work in this area and to look at how we can use both the Care Bill and the Children and Families Bill to bring about a closer connection between adult and young carers, so there is a whole-family approach to the support they receive. We will use the stages through the other place to try to make that approach much clearer.
Results for 2012, the first year to reflect the impact of a full year of the pupil premium, showed a larger than expected narrowing of attainment gaps nationally for both key stage 2 and key stage 4. Further improvement is expected as the funding levels increase and schools focus more on evidence-based interventions to help disadvantaged children.
That is very positive news, but schools are given a free hand to spend the pupil premium as they choose, rather than being required to target it on the most disadvantaged children who need the most support, and this comes at a time when the chief inspector is planning to get tough with schools that let poor children down. Will the Secretary of State get tough, too, and tell schools to concentrate these resources on the neediest children, instead of simply absorbing them into their budgets, as happens in some cases?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not going to allow schools to use this money for purposes other than that for which it is intended. Schools will have to use this money for the assistance of the most disadvantaged pupils. We are not prescribing the way in which they do that, because, unlike the last Government, we believe head teachers and professionals should be respected to choose their own interventions, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Ofsted will hold schools to account for using this money in the best way and narrowing the disadvantage gaps. If schools do not do that, they will face the consequences.
The two new academies in Hastings, the Hastings academy and St Leonards academy, were both rated 2 by Ofsted recently, which is a tremendous move forward for them. The Ofsted report particularly highlighted the fact that the pupil premium had made a great difference to the most socially disadvantaged. Would the Minister like to join me in congratulating the schools and their leadership?
I certainly would like to join my hon. Friend in congratulating those two schools, and I do believe that the combination of significant extra funds—after all, next year the pupil premium will be more than £1,000 per disadvantaged pupil—with scrutiny by Ofsted will make a big difference to the opportunities for disadvantaged pupils in the future, and narrow the totally unacceptable gap between the opportunities for young people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Results for pupils from deprived backgrounds vary dramatically in different parts of the country. Will the Minister continue to ensure that Ofsted’s monitoring of the way in which the pupil premium is spent feeds through into strong, effective action, with a particular focus on the parts of the country where the gap between rich and poor is biggest?
Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that, in holding schools to account for the use of the pupil premium, Ofsted will be looking not only at the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupil performance in particular schools, but at the performance of disadvantaged pupils in particular schools versus the national average, and that it will also be looking at the progress that is being made, so that, whatever school a disadvantaged youngster is in, they can be sure that there will be scrutiny of those who run it, to make sure this money is used effectively and the gaps are narrowed across the whole school system.
Schools are legally required to secure careers guidance for 13 to 16-year-olds. That requirement will be extended to 12 to 18-year-olds in school, and to young people in colleges, from September.
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, more than half of employers think that young people lack career guidance and work experience. There are some very good voluntary schemes, such as Work Discovery, which I saw in action with year 6 pupils at Wendell Park primary school last week. Why are the Government not supporting more projects such as that?
On Saturday, I had the pleasure of visiting a high-tech engineering company in Luton, and it was drawn to my attention, yet again, that we are having to recruit thousands of graduate engineers from abroad every year because we cannot train enough of them ourselves. When are the Government going to take real steps to encourage more youngsters to look for careers in engineering?
Our ministerial team, and, indeed, the superb team at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, take every opportunity to encourage young people to consider engineering as a career, but one of the problems we face is that the quality of the teaching of literacy and, in particular, numeracy and mathematics in science qualifications is often not good enough to give ambitious young people the chance to become engineers. That is why we are improving the quality of English, mathematics and science teaching, and reforming GCSEs.
Technical and Vocational Education
More than 60% of 16 to 19-year-olds now participate in vocational education. This Government have: raised the quality of vocational qualifications; expanded vocational education through studio schools and university technical colleges; and introduced tighter quality controls in further education and work experience. All those reforms build on Professor Wolf’s report on vocational education, which was welcomed across the board.
My hon. Friend makes a typically acute point. The way in which we can raise the esteem and prestige of vocational qualifications and vocational training is by making sure they are every bit as rigorous as academic qualifications and the academic pathway—I say “pathway” for want of a better word, although I am sure there is one. The way in which we do so is by making sure that the recommendations in Alison Wolf’s report are implemented—recommendations that were once accepted by the Opposition Front-Bench team but now seem to be rejected.
The SKIDZ motor project in my constituency helps children achieve vocational skills pre-16. Will my right hon. Friend make sure that for children who need some context to help them with academic skills some vocational framework is available before they reach 16?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and it is one reason we are consulting on changing the way in which schools are held to account for the way in which they provide for students up to the age of 16, in order to ensure that vocational and technical qualifications are genuinely considered to be equivalent to academic qualifications because they are as rigorous.
In December 2011, “Positive for Youth” set out, for the first time, an overarching vision for youth policy, a key principle of which is that local authorities are best placed to decide how to shape their services to meet the needs of local young people. Their duty to secure sufficient services is outlined in the revised statutory guidance issued in June 2012. This Government have also spent an additional £141 million in a network of 63 myplace youth centres to support local youth service provision.
In the aftermath of the appalling killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, the Prime Minister heard at first hand while visiting Woolwich about, among other things, the importance of a more proactive role for the youth service in providing constructive alternative options for young people at risk of being sucked into extremism or criminal gangs. Has the Department for Education yet submitted evidence to the Government’s taskforce on extremism? If not, will this be given priority by the Department?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important and serious point, which is all the more echoed around this Chamber today, as we will hear later during the Home Secretary’s statement. This is a priority for this Government and this Department. We have already submitted some evidence to the taskforce, and we will play a full and active role to make sure it achieves its objectives.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer Questions 15 and 17 together. We are reforming GCSEs to ensure that they stand comparison—
I apologise, Mr Speaker, and thank you. We are reforming GCSEs to ensure that they stand comparison with exams in the highest-performing jurisdictions. We are consulting on changes to subject content for GCSEs. Ofqual is also consulting on changes to the structure, grading and standard of the new qualifications.
I agree with the Secretary of State that many state schools do not stretch their brightest pupils enough to allow them to compete with pupils from private schools. In my constituency, only two out of seven schools reached the national average in GCSEs last year. I do not think there should be a school in the country in which fewer than 70% or 80% are getting five good GCSEs, including English and maths. Will he consider bringing back the black country challenge to boost standards in Dudley in the way the London challenge improved them in London?
That is a very acute point from a Member of Parliament who, I know, is passionate about education. I will do everything I can to ensure that all the elements that made the London challenge and black country challenge a success apply to schools in his constituency through collaboration and a culture of excellence. I look forward to talking with him about how we can work together to ensure that his championing of high educational standards can be extended across the black country.
Will the Secretary of State consider yet again the inclusion of British sign language as a GCSE subject? It is appropriate for those students who are less academic and is, after all, a language someone can use throughout the whole of their life.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) for making the point that British sign language was one of the few languages I learned when I was younger for family reasons. For that reason, I am committed to doing everything we can to encourage its take-up. We are working with Ofqual, the exams regulator, to see whether we can ensure that there is a qualification that is as rigorous as possible and that stands comparison with other GCSEs.
I thank the Secretary of State for cantering through the questions. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) that we need to drive up standards. What are the Secretary of State’s proposals for practical and vocational subjects? It is important that children who excel in those areas are given the reward they deserve.
I absolutely agree. One of the recommendations from the Wolf report is that instead of simply having a pass/fail mark for practical and vocational qualifications and allowing students to pass purely on the basis of what a teacher rather than an external assessor has assessed, we should have a more sophisticated grading system and more rigorous external testing to ensure that vocational and technical qualifications are seen, rightly, as equivalent. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the steadfast support he has shown for state schools in his constituency, including the outstanding comprehensive, Thomas Telford.
Academies are open to greater accountability and scrutiny than other state-funded schools. Performance data including exam results, inspection reports and financial accounts are published for each academy. Academies are also accountable through analysis from the Education Funding Agency, and through greater data transparency and an improved inspection system academies are more open to public scrutiny than ever before.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response, but schools such as Byrchall High in Wigan are refusing to provide written responses to MPs’ inquiries. Is it not clear that the Secretary of State needs to act if there is to be public accountability on spend in those schools and public accountability on policy?
It is absolutely regrettable if any principal or head teacher declines to respond to a request from an elected Member of Parliament. I will look into the case, but I should stress that academies are subject to freedom of information. The previous Government did not allow that, but this Government brought it in.
My Department published destination data last week that showed how many schools are very successful in encouraging young people to go on to universities and into satisfying apprenticeships, but it is still a matter of regret that for one fifth of comprehensive schools not a single student makes it to a Russell Group university.
In the light of the recent conclusion of the Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment that children are more vulnerable than adults to an equivalent asbestos exposure, what reassurances can the Secretary of State provide that his Department’s policy on asbestos in schools will be reviewed rigorously, transparently and in a timely fashion?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and I have been discussing today exactly what we can do to ensure that the arguments made in the committee’s report are taken on board and to ensure that when we think about how to invest in the future fabric of schools and about the state of the estate we take appropriate steps. I hope, following on from the spending review, we can be clear that the money we spend on maintenance will be spent in a way that takes account of the arguments made by my hon. Friend.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that, over the past year, the number of infants in classes of more than 30 has increased by more than 25,000—an increase of 50% in just 12 months? What proportion of free school places go to primary-age children in areas where there is a shortage?
I think the hon. Gentleman is right about those figures for infants, but I also think that the increase in the number is less in percentage terms than was the increase under Labour. [Interruption.] I think it is, actually. I have answered the question of substance; the rest of it was rhetoric, so over to you.
Three years ago, in the first comprehensive spending review, the Secretary of State got a truly terrible education capital spending settlement. His free schools programme fails to focus on areas where there is a shortage of places but opens new schools in areas with existing good schools with places available, and of course it allows unqualified people to teach. Is it not a policy driven by dogma, not by the best interests of children?
No, not at all. In these matters, I often pay close attention to what Lord Adonis, a former schools Minister, says. He argued last week that we need more free school places in areas where there is a lack of high-quality school places. That is a different view from the one taken by the hon. Gentleman. I take the view that Lord Adonis is right—we need to give parents a choice where schools are poor—and therefore, not for the last time, the hon. Gentleman is wrong.
T3. Tudor Grange is a good non-faith-based secondary school in my constituency, but the governors have angered many parents in the school’s catchment area by attempting to introduce a faith school as a feeder school, whose children would take precedence for admittance over children in the local authority catchment area. Will my right hon. Friend advise me on whether this would constitute indirect discrimination under the Equality Act 2010? (160876)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I know Tudor Grange and its outstanding head teacher, Jennifer Bexon-Smith. She is committed to helping children in difficult circumstances and is sponsoring an academy in Worcester, I think, so I cannot believe that she would take a decision that would discriminate against children in need of high-quality state education. The admissions code is clear about these matters, and I look forward to talking with my hon. Friend to make sure the public are reassured.
T2. In 2011-12, there was a 10% fall in the number of graduates applying to teacher training programmes; there has also been a 17% rise in the number of schools using supply teachers, and we see reliance on unqualified teachers. How will those approaches raise standards and improve the outcome for children? (160875)
I am pleased to be able to say that the statistics the hon. Gentleman quotes come from a period before the introduction of our school direct programme, which has achieved a dramatic increase in the number of highly qualified graduates entering the profession. In addition, thanks to the work we have done with the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, there are more graduates in shortage subjects with 2:1s and firsts coming into the classroom. The more people with great degrees from great universities, such as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), we have teaching in our schools, the happier I am—even if it runs contrary to Labour policy.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. They are not bound by the civil service code, but they do have to have regard to the civil service code. I believe the question was raised in a Westminster Hall debate and he secured a partial answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss)—
T9. Teachers in my constituency tell me that teaching assistants make a huge contribution to their schools. Their work not only means that teachers have more time to teach, but has a big impact on things such as attendance and student discipline. In the light of recent press speculation, will the Secretary of State put on the record his support for teaching assistants and pledge to keep them in our schools? (160883)
T5. Academy@Worden in my constituency is now the highest achieving school in South Ribble, with the percentage of pupils who gain at least five A* to C grades increasing from 76% in 2010 to 100% last year. As a trustee of the school, which became an academy this year, I am pleased to ask my right hon. Friend if he will join me in congratulating Academy@Worden on its achievement, and if he will accompany me on a visit to the school, which is a great success story of the academies programme. (160878)
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. It sounds like a fantastic result from that academy. Sponsored academies have improved their results at a faster rate than local authority-maintained schools, and I am sure that someone from the Department for Education would be delighted to visit the school.
Lilian Baylis school, an outstanding secondary school in Kennington in my constituency, will this month receive the dubious award of taking the longest time to become an academy—it is now more than 22 months—because of a dispute between the local authority and the Department over the fact that it is a private finance initiative, along with legal costs. In the meantime, the school is suffering, as it wants to get on with becoming an academy. Will the Secretary of State try to get that sorted out? Only a small amount of money is needed from someone, but clearly we need to get it sorted.
The hon. Lady is a brilliant campaigner for higher quality schools in her constituency, and we will do everything we can to help. I am afraid that her question lays bare the fact that there are some really good MPs on the Labour Benches who want their schools to become academies, but an insufficient number of Labour local authorities that are prepared to stand with us against the enemies of promise.
T6. Bewsey Lodge primary school is a very good school in a difficult part of Warrington. It has a large special needs unit that, although it is high quality, reduces the overall performance metrics, which affects morale. Better school comparability could be achieved if metrics were produced with, and without, special needs units. (160880)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his keen interest in schools in his constituency that provide important and excellent special educational needs provision. It is important that we have an accountability system that recognises the achievements of all pupils, which very much chimes with Sir Michael Wilshaw’s comments last week, as well as the strengthening of the SEN element of inspection from September 2012. We will launch an accountability consultation shortly, and doubtless my hon. Friend will want to contribute to it on the very point that he has just made.
It is absolutely the case that the principals of academies are tightly bound by a set of rules about how governing bodies or boards of trustees should operate. If there are specific cases about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned but which, for understandable reasons, he does not wish to raise on the Floor of the House, perhaps we can meet to discuss what is giving him concern.
T8. Does the Minister agree that making financial education a formal part of the national curriculum should ensure not only that every child leaves school with a basic understanding of personal finance but that those who seek to start their own businesses are better equipped with the skills that they need to succeed? (160882)
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We have improved financial education in maths through the better study of interest rates, loans and mortgages. We have also included the subject in citizenship classes and, furthermore, we are participating in the PISA —the programme for international student assessment— comparison between different countries on financial literacy. We can therefore compare the capabilities of our 15-year-olds with those in other countries.
In response to a cross-party amendment to the Children and Families Bill proposing a continuation of funding to foster carers until care leavers reach the age of 21, the Minister said that he was reviewing the current arrangements and was prepared to legislate if necessary. Will he give the House an indication of the time scale for that review?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, both for his continued and passionate support for children in care and care leavers, and for his instrumental work in securing the junior ISAs—individual savings accounts—which have proved to be a great success, with over 30,000 in operation. We want to enable care leavers to continue to live with former foster carers where it is right for them to do so. I know from my own family experience that it can be a hugely beneficial part of their transition to adult life.
Although staying put policies have been clearly set out—and I wrote to all the directors of children’s services in October to lay out the terrain so that they can do more to support foster children in that situation—we want to see further improvements. More figures will be published later this year on the staying put pilots and how they are beginning to spread more widely. We will look at those keenly, as we want more progress more quickly.
School governance is an increasingly topical issue. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important to ensure that our school governing bodies are strong, courageous and capable of making sure that all schools provide decent education for all their pupils?
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), both the think-tank Reform and the Treasury have raised questions about the efficacy and value for money of teaching assistants. Will the Secretary of State give his view?
The Harris academy in Beckenham, like all Harris academies, is performing significantly better than its predecessor school. May I place on the record my gratitude for the visionary leadership shown by Lord Harris of Peckham, Sir Dan Moynihan and those Members of Parliament from Mitcham and Morden to Beckenham who have championed Harris academies, often in the teeth of opposition from the National Union of Teachers, the NASUWT and other unions that have acted as the enemies of promise?
Does the Secretary of State agree with his own chief inspector of schools that over the past 15 years standards across the urban population of this country have risen remarkably? Will he give the House the opportunity to hear him say, “Well done, teachers. You’ve done a good job. You could do more but you’ve done pretty well over these past 15 years”?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as he is increasingly becoming, for giving me this opportunity to underline that point. Let me first of all praise those politicians from the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) to Lord Adonis who, in the teeth of resistance from trade unions and others, pressed forward the case for reform. Let me praise the former Prime Minister Tony Blair for his courage in doing so. Let me regret that the momentum for reform was lost under the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), but let me above all praise teachers for the fantastic job that we are doing. We have the best generation of young teachers and the best generation of head teachers ever in our schools, and I had the opportunity of seeing some of them when I visited the constituency of Buckingham just over a week ago. In both schools that I visited, Buckingham school and the Royal Latin, I was privileged to see brilliant teachers doing a wonderful job for an MP who believes in the very best of state education.
In September this year in my constituency, a free school will be opening in one of the most deprived wards in Wolverhampton, providing an invaluable ladder for social mobility. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that a future Conservative Government will provide free school places and free schools to meet the needs of local people?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his consistent championing of greater choice for his constituents. It is absolutely the case that if a Conservative Government or indeed a Conservative-led Government are returned after the next election we will make sure that parental choice and higher standards are at the heart of everything we do.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the case of Geoffrey Bettley, who was a teacher at St Mary’s in Menston on the border of my constituency, who downloaded child porn images, was rightly sacked by the school and was put on the sex offenders register. Bizarrely, the Secretary of State appears to have allowed this gentleman to start teaching again. Surely he appreciates that people convicted of those offences are not welcomed back into the classroom by parents. Can he explain how he arrived at that decision, and what he will do to try to reverse it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that very serious issue. Mr Bettley is not teaching at the moment and will not be teaching in future. The process we arrived at for ensuring that the National College for Teaching and Leadership reviewed cases was not as good as it should have been, to put it mildly. I do not put the blame at anyone’s door other than my own, but one of the things I have been anxious to do following the Bettley case is to make sure that we have new guidance in place to ensure that the decisions taken in future are appropriate to keep our children safe.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the latest allegations concerning the use of undercover officers to smear the reputations of Doreen and Neville Lawrence and Duwayne Brooks. These allegations follow several serious claims about the activities of police officers engaged in undercover operations, and I would like to update the House on the several investigations and inquiries into the conduct of those officers.
Before I do so, I know that the whole House will want to convey its support for the Lawrence family. They experienced an unspeakable tragedy, their pain was compounded by the many years in which justice was not done, and these latest allegations, still coming 20 years after Stephen’s murder, only add to their suffering. I also know that the House will agree with me about the seriousness of allegations concerning police corruption and wrongdoing. We must be ruthless in purging such behaviour from their ranks.
As Members of the House will remember, in February I announced that the commissioner of the Metropolitan police had agreed that Mick Creedon, chief constable of Derbyshire constabulary, would investigate allegations of improper practice and misconduct by the Metropolitan police’s special demonstration squad, which for around 40 years specialised in undercover operations. Mick Creedon took over a Metropolitan police investigation called Operation Herne.
In addition to these latest allegations about the Lawrence family, Operation Herne is also looking into claims about the use by police officers of dead children’s identities, the conduct of officers who had infiltrated environmentalist groups, and other serious matters. Given the nature of those allegations and the many years the special demonstration squad was in existence, we should not be surprised if further allegations are made. I want to be clear that all such allegations will be investigated. Operation Herne is led by Chief Constable Creedon and elements are supervised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Today the Metropolitan police are also referring details of the new set of allegations to the IPCC, meaning that this aspect of the investigation will also be supervised. I know that some Members have suggested that the IPCC should take over Operation Herne completely, and that is an understandable reaction. I spoke with Dame Anne Owers, the chair of the IPCC, earlier today. She does not believe that a greater degree of IPCC control would enhance the investigation, but I can confirm that where the Creedon investigation finds evidence of criminal behaviour or misconduct by police officers, the IPCC will investigate and the officers will be brought to justice.
I have also spoken today with Chief Constable Mick Creedon. He told me that the first strand of his work, which relates to allegations about the identities of dead children, will report before the House rises for the summer recess. At present there are 23 police officers working on the case, with a further 10 police staff working in support. In the course of their investigation they have already examined in the region of 55,000 documents and have started to interview witnesses, including police officers who worked in the special demonstration squad.
I want to emphasise that undercover operations are a vital part of protecting the public, but they need detailed supervision and constant reassessment to ensure that what is being done is justified. For obvious reasons, members of the public cannot know the details of the police’s undercover operations, but we need to have the assurance that this work is conducted properly and in accordance with a procedure that ensures that ethical lines are respected.
In February last year, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary reported on how forces go about undercover policing. That work was undertaken partly in response to allegations about the conduct of a police officer named Mark Kennedy, who had been tasked with infiltrating an environmental protest group. HMIC’s report made a series of recommendations designed to improve the procedures that police forces have in place for managing and scrutinising the deployment of undercover officers. Among other recommendations, HMIC said that the authorisation arrangements for high-risk undercover deployments should be improved and that additional controls should be put in place where a deployment is intended to gather intelligence rather than evidence.
Since March this year, HMIC has been working on a further report that will check on how the police have implemented its recommendations, and I can tell the House that this report is due to be published on Thursday. I can also tell the House that Tom Winsor, the new chief inspector, plans to undertake a further review of undercover police work later this year.
Last week, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Policing and Criminal Justice told the Home Affairs Committee that the Government intend to bring forward legislation to require law enforcement authorities to obtain the prior approval of the Office of Surveillance Commissioners before renewing the deployment of an undercover officer for a period exceeding 12 months. In future, authorisation should also be sought under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 for any activity to develop a cover persona.
I want to turn now to the allegations regarding the Lawrence family. The investigation into Stephen’s murder has cast a long shadow over policing, especially in London. That is why, in July last year, I asked Mark Ellison QC to investigate allegations of deliberate incompetence, and corruption, on the part of officers involved in the original investigation into the murder.
Mr Ellison was the lead barrister in the successful prosecutions of Gary Dobson and David Norris and he is supported by Alison Morgan, junior counsel from the prosecution. I have spoken to Mr Ellison today, and I encouraged him to go as far and wide as he would like in his investigation. I have also spoken to Mick Creedon to make sure that Mr Ellison will have access to any relevant material uncovered in the course of Operation Herne. We must await the findings of the Ellison review, which, given the latest allegations, will be published later than originally intended. When the review concludes, a decision will have to be made about whether its findings should lead to any formal police investigations.
I am determined that we should have zero tolerance of police corruption and wrongdoing. That is why the Government are beefing up the IPCC, making the inspectorate more independent, and it is why we asked the College of Policing to establish a code of ethics for police officers.
As the House knows, I have also launched a panel inquiry into the murder of Daniel Morgan, and I am determined that we get to the bottom of all of these latest allegations. We must do so to ensure public confidence in the police and the criminal justice system, not least for the sake of Doreen and Neville Lawrence, and for the memory of their son Stephen. I commend this statement to the House.
I join the Home Secretary in expressing support for the Lawrence family, who have indeed endured great tragedy. I also pay tribute to them for the work that they have done to pursue justice and reform over very many years. The whole country has been appalled by the allegations that police officers were involved in spying on or attempting to undermine the Lawrence family and their friends when they should have been supporting them to get justice done. It is vital that we get to the truth about what happened.
Stephen Lawrence was the victim of a terrible racist murder, yet it took 19 years for any prosecutions to succeed. We knew already about the failings of the initial investigations and prosecutions and what the Macpherson review identified as both incompetence and institutional racism at the time. We knew already about the failure to support and listen to the Lawrence family at the time, as chronicled in the Macpherson review, and we know, too, that immense work has been done since then, including reform of policing and the work by Clive Driscoll’s team in the Met to secure the two successful prosecutions last year.
However, these latest allegations must be taken very seriously because they suggest that the full information was not given to the Macpherson review at the time—a concern that we raised last year in the House over corruption allegations, where still we have no answers. Most disturbingly of all, the latest allegations suggest that police officers were working undercover to undermine victims of crime when the very job of a police officer is to support and get justice for victims of crime. That is why people across the country—including police officers, who do vital work each day—will be appalled by these allegations.
I welcome the work that the Home Secretary has set out today on undercover policing; it is vital that there should be much stronger oversight and control of the important work that police officers do but that nevertheless needs strong control. I also welcome the commitment of the Home Secretary to ensure an independent look at the allegations about undermining the Lawrence family. I am glad that she has gone further than the Prime Minister’s call this morning for the Metropolitan police to investigate; clearly, the investigation needs to be independent. However, it remains unclear whether she expects the lead on getting to the truth of the allegations to be taken by Mark Ellison QC, by Operation Herne under Chief Constable Creedon or by the Met under the auspices of the IPCC. It would be very helpful to have clarification on this.
Mark Ellison QC is indeed a well-respected independent person to review these allegations and report back to the Lawrence family, but he does not, of course, have the powers to instigate criminal or disciplinary proceedings. At the same time, Operation Herne is a wide-ranging report with a far wider remit looking into undercover policing, especially in the environmental movement, over very many years. The Home Secretary set out the huge scope of that investigation in her statement. May I suggest that we need a specific independent investigation into these allegations, given their seriousness and the significance of the Lawrence investigation and the Macpherson review for policing and confidence in policing? We need a clear timetable for getting to the truth. The investigation will also need to look at whether the Macpherson review was misled. Would it not be better to set out a clear and focused independent investigation into these allegations with a precise remit and the powers to pursue both criminal and disciplinary proceedings?
The Home Secretary said that any conclusions that the Ellison review comes to would still have to be handed to the IPCC or to another police force to pursue a further investigation. Given that these allegations already refer to events of 20 years ago, surely this would risk creating significant further delays. Has she considered giving the Ellison review additional powers or combining it with independent police or IPCC investigations in order to allow it to pursue the truth and trigger further investigations where necessary?
The vital work that police officers do every day to investigate crimes, bring offenders to justice and support victims relies on public confidence. As we saw with the Hillsborough review, we can never ignore any case where there is evidence that police officers may be involved in undermining victims or investigations rather than supporting them. For the sake of victims of crime and the excellent work that police officers do each day, there must be a proper, swift and effective system to investigate when things go wrong and when concerns like these arise.
I hope that the Home Secretary can assure the House that there is a clear remit for the review and that she will make sure that it is clear and independent, with the focus, the powers and the timetable it needs to get to the truth and pursue the investigations. It should not have taken 19 years for the Lawrence family to have seen some justice for the murder of their son, and they should not still have to fight for answers about the way they were treated and failed so many years ago.
I thank the shadow Home Secretary for the approach that she has taken to this very serious issue. We all agree across this House that these allegations are appalling and need to be looked into properly.
The right hon. Lady raised a number of issues about the independence and timeliness of any investigation, the proper form of the investigation, and bringing people to justice. She asked specifically whether the allegations that have been revealed in relation to the operation of the SDS and the Lawrence family would be investigated under Operation Herne, by Mark Ellison, or by the Met under the auspices of the IPCC. Operation Herne was originally set up by the Metropolitan police, but it is now being led by Chief Constable Creedon. Although Met officers are still involved in that investigation, Chief Constable Creedon has also brought into it officers from his own force and elsewhere. The investigation by Chief Constable Creedon will look specifically at the tasking of officers in the SDS. That was part of the operation’s original remit. It is one of the issues that was raised by Peter Francis in the interview that he gave to the programme that will be shown tonight.
On Mark Ellison’s review, the right hon. Lady asked whether the Macpherson inquiry was misled. Another specific part of the remit of Mark Ellison’s review is that he looks into whether all the evidence that was necessary to be given to the Macpherson inquiry was indeed given to it. Obviously, the fact that Peter Francis has suggested that he and others were told not to give evidence to the Macpherson inquiry is a matter of particular concern, but that will be investigated by Mark Ellison. Having spoken to Mark Ellison and Chief Constable Creedon this morning, I am clear that they are working together; there has been a degree of interaction between the two. They are working to ensure that nothing falls between the two stools of the review and the investigation.
It is right that investigations into whether there has been misconduct or criminality are the remit of a police investigation—the Creedon investigation—with reference to the IPCC, as has been the case today, with the Met referring these allegations to the IPCC. There must be a proper pursuit of justice so that people can be charged with criminal offences or so that appropriate action can be taken for misconduct.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comment about police officers. It should be said in this House that the vast majority of police officers in this country are honest and act with integrity to keep the public safe, reduce crime and catch criminals. They will be as concerned as we are by the allegations that have appeared in the media over the past 24 hours.
On whether something similar could happen today, the special demonstration squad was disbanded more than a decade ago after operating for about 40 years. Since it was disbanded, there have been a number of changes to the way in which undercover and covert operations are undertaken. We are determined to look constantly at whether further changes are needed to enhance the oversight of undercover operations and the procedures under which such operations take place. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice made the announcement last week about the Office of Surveillance Commissioners.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the Macpherson inquiry was instigated by failures in the initial investigation by the Metropolitan police. It was effectively an investigation into the Metropolitan police, so the idea that it was hiding information from the inquiry beggars belief. Sir Paul Condon, who was the Metropolitan Police Commissioner at the time, said that he knew nothing about the SDS in the Metropolitan police, which I believe was funded by the Home Office. Someone in the Metropolitan police decided not to provide this information to the Macpherson inquiry. Can we be clear: people are not satisfied with the police investigating the police? The public will be satisfied only by a fully independent, publicly held inquiry with oversight of all these matters, including the suggestions of corruption and the smearing of the family of Stephen Lawrence.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s level of concern. He is right that the Macpherson inquiry was an investigation into the way in which the Metropolitan police had handled itself. It went wider and looked at the Metropolitan police as a whole, including its attitudes in such cases. No information should have been hidden from the Macpherson inquiry and the allegation that it was is shocking. I set up the Mark Ellison review last year with the support of and after full discussions with Doreen Lawrence and the Lawrence family. I asked Mark Ellison to look specifically at whether information had been withheld from the Macpherson inquiry, so that is already part of his remit. I assure the hon. Gentleman that Mark Ellison is independent in the work that he is doing.
Like many colleagues, I have been privileged to support Doreen and Neville Lawrence over the years, as well as Duwayne Brooks, who is a friend and colleague. I am sure that the whole of south-east London and beyond is appreciative of the Home Secretary’s quick response. However, I put it to her that it is not just the Lawrence case that gives rise to the suspicion that in those days and for quite a long time, the Metropolitan police had institutional bias against black and minority ethnic communities in London. I would like her reassurance that the independent investigation will look not just at one famous and dreadful historical case, but at what some of us suspect was a much wider problem that covered many more families over many more years.
My right hon. Friend is right that it is important that the investigation into the special demonstration squad covers other cases. That is exactly what Chief Constable Creedon is determined to do. Although there is a specific allegation about the work of the SDS in respect of the Stephen Lawrence murder, it is important that the investigation covers a wider range of activities. Its remit will allow it to do just that.
If I may correct myself, I said that the SDS was disbanded more than a decade ago. In fact, it was disbanded in the late 2000s, which is not quite a decade ago.
I welcome the prompt and positive action the Home Secretary has taken this morning in light of these revelations. I am sure they will be welcomed by the Lawrence family, who may be forgiven for believing that they have been punished twice over for the fact that they inconveniently allowed their son to be murdered while he stood innocently at a bus stop in south London in 1993. Does the Home Secretary accept that I, as Home Secretary, and the Metropolitan Police Authority knew absolutely nothing about the allegations, notwithstanding that it was well known that I established the Macpherson inquiry and wanted to know everything there was to know about the Metropolitan police’s conduct of that investigation? That conduct alone is reprehensible, as is the fact that we now understand that such information was kept from Lord Condon, the then commissioner of the Metropolitan police. Does she agree that finding out why we were kept in the dark, and, more importantly, why the Macpherson inquiry was kept in the dark, should be a focus of the investigation?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. As he says, he established the Macpherson inquiry and was in office when it published its report. At the time, there were some very concerning issues regarding the way the murder was investigated, both originally and later on, and the attitude, which the Macpherson inquiry looked into, of the Metropolitan police. He is right that we should be very concerned if information was deliberately withheld from those who should have been given it, which is why I asked Mark Ellison to look specifically at the issue of the information that was given to the Macpherson inquiry. The remit of Operation Herne, now under Chief Constable Creedon, includes looking at reporting mechanisms within the SDS, and at how information was disseminated.
Is the Home Secretary aware of the growing concern regarding the actions of the police in some instances and the inactions of the police in others? Can she comment on the reports at the weekend that the police have uncovered widespread use of private investigators to hack telephones not just by journalists, but by lawyers’ firms and other corporations? Can she say why it appears that the police thought it right to tell Lord Justice Leveson about that, but not pursue any action against those who committed criminal offences?
My hon. Friend will be well aware that decisions on whether the police investigate individuals and alleged offences are an operational matter for the police, and that it is for the police, with the Crown Prosecution Service, to decide whether those investigations lead to charges and prosecution. However, I recognise the degree of concern that he raises. Phone hacking by some aspects of the press has caused disquiet in this House for some time. Suggestions that it could have been more widespread are, of course, equally worrying.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and join her in condemning the shocking revelations that were made in relation to the Lawrence family. The Select Committee on Home Affairs published its report on undercover police officers on 1 March. It expressed deep concern that Operation Herne had taken 20 months, cost £1.2 million and involved 23 officers, and yet nobody had been arrested. Chief Constable Creedon is a full-time serving chief constable. Frankly, with 50,000 documents to look through it will take years to resolve this matter. We need a timetable. What words of comfort does she have for the families whose dead children’s identities have been used by undercover agents? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) that the time has come to look seriously at a public inquiry into the use of undercover agents.
I recognise the concern that the right hon. Gentleman and the Home Affairs Committee have raised about the timetable for Operation Herne, but I would make two comments in response. First, Chief Constable Mick Creedon expects to be able to respond on the issue of the use of dead children’s identities before the House rises for the summer recess. That is one part of the inquiry. Where possible, his intention is to report on issues as they arise, rather than waiting until the end of all the investigations, but obviously that will be done where appropriate and depending on what has been found and what he is able to report on. Secondly, it is also fair to say—the right hon. Gentleman is right about this—that the Metropolitan police had been conducting Operation Herne for some time before Chief Constable Creedon was brought in, but sometimes it is easier for somebody coming into an investigation from outside the home force being investigated to interview people and get the evidence required.
I refer the House to my entry in the register.
Surely we need to be clear that the police’s role is to investigate crime, not to smear the victims of crime. Given that in this case it has taken a long time for these details to emerge, is the Home Secretary satisfied that if a junior police officer is given an instruction by a more senior colleague to do something that he or she thinks is clearly inappropriate, there is the appropriate mechanism for that junior officer to do something about it?
I am absolutely clear that any junior officer asked to do something that they should not be being asked to do by a senior officer should be able to report that and ensure that appropriate action is taken. Any former officer in the special demonstration squad or anybody who has any information or allegations about the squad should come forward so that Operation Herne can have all the information available to it in the investigations that we all agree it must undertake.
Can the Home Secretary think of a more grotesquely perverted case of police priorities than one where, instead of hunting down and prosecuting those responsible for the vicious racist murder of a talented British youngster, they infiltrate an undercover agent into the campaign to secure justice? Will she assure the House that she will look personally at every undercover operation and check that nothing so dreadful is going on today?
It is of course right that we have changed the arrangements in order to put in place a stronger procedure for the deployment of undercover officers and that the Office of Surveillance Commissioners has been brought in to consider cases where it is suggested that an undercover officer should be in place for more than 12 months. Of course, the House will be concerned about the allegations made over the operation of the SDS and the Lawrence family, but as to the suggestion that the Home Secretary should be responsible for deciding on undercover operations—
Does the Home Secretary agree that it now appears that the Macpherson report, which was so controversial at the time, actually understated the scale of the problem, and that the response that Neville and Doreen Lawrence received when their son was brutally murdered fell so far short of what they had a right to expect that it is almost beyond belief? Given that the Metropolitan police cannot do their job unless they have the support of all London’s communities, is it not essential that we get to the bottom of what has happened as soon as possible and that anyone found guilty of wrongdoing feels the full weight of justice?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Neville and Doreen Lawrence had every right to expect that the police would do nothing less than hunt down those who murdered their son Stephen. Sadly, as we have seen, it was many years before anyone was brought to justice and there were issues with how the investigation was conducted and with the Metropolitan police, as was shown in the Macpherson report. He is right that if the police are to do their job, they need the confidence and support of the community, which is why it is imperative that where there is wrongdoing, it is identified, and that those who have committed wrongdoing, be it misconduct or criminal activity, are brought to the appropriate justice.
In February, the Home Secretary announced to the House an expansion of the powers of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. A key issue that my constituents raise with me is the timeliness of the decisions by the IPCC. Is she confident that the commission is sufficiently resourced to give quick, timely turnarounds when serious allegations are made against the police?
As part of the work that we are doing to expand the remit of the IPCC so that it can look into all serious allegations against police officers, we are discussing with the commission the extra resources that will need to be made available in order to ensure that it can do that. There is of course always a tension between the need for a timely response to an allegation and the need to ensure that the investigation has been conducted properly. We shall be discussing with the IPCC the level of resource that it needs to ensure that it can undertake the extra duties that we require of it.
The Home Secretary referred in her statement to last year’s report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, which made a number of recommendations about the authorisation arrangements for undercover operations. On several occasions, she has mentioned new legislation in relation to operations lasting more than 12 months, but does she have any measures in mind that would strengthen the arrangements for serious operations lasting less than 12 months?
Yes, we have been looking at this, and HMIC will be reporting on the extent to which there is better management of those deployments of officers. One of the issues that came up in the Mark Kennedy case, which initiated that HMIC report, related not only to the length of time an individual had been operating in a particular undercover operation but to whether there had been proper management of the deployment during the course of the operation. That is something that we and HMIC will be returning to.
Mick Creedon found that the use of dead children’s identities by undercover officers had been commonplace. Does the Home Secretary recognise that until such time as the parents of all children whose identities have been stolen in that way have been informed, any parent who has lost a child will, having grieved, be left to wonder what deception might have been carried out in their child’s name? How long will it be before this matter can be resolved and those parents can be given the reassurance that they need?
Chief Constable Creedon has indicated that he hopes to be able to respond on that issue before the House breaks for the summer recess. I cannot say what his response to the available information will be, but I hope that Members will welcome the fact that he has put a priority on that particular issue.
The full implications of the Home Secretary’s statement are truly shocking, and I share the reservations about the remedies that have been expressed by those on the Labour Front Bench. One thing that the Home Secretary could do now is address the issue raised with her by the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), and confirm to the House that the report he referred to exists. Will she get a copy of it and place it in the House of Commons Library? Will she also give a copy to the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who should have been given it some years ago?
Undercover work requires exceptional personnel and thorough controls. Selection and training are vital components to ensure that such operations as have been reported to us today do not happen again. Will my right hon. Friend look at training across the country to ensure that the training of undercover officers is of the highest standard and that the training of senior police officers ensures that they understand the very important need for control throughout an operation, whether it be a short-term or a long-term one?
My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance not only of training for individual officers, but of the need to ensure that senior officers properly manage any deployment of undercover operatives. That is indeed one of the issues that, as I mentioned earlier, was raised in the HMIC report last year. HMIC will, of course, look at the implementation of its recommendations, and will be reporting this Thursday. Having set up the College of Policing, we now have a body that is responsible for ensuring that for police operations across the board, appropriate training is given and to the right and correct standards.
Another of the allegations that have been made is that an undercover police officer was one of the co-authors of the leaflet that led to what became known as the McLibel court case, and that another undercover police officer had a two-year relationship with one of the defendants in that case. Will the Home Secretary ensure that this is also thoroughly investigated?
I can assure the hon. Lady that the remit of Operation Herne in relation to the SDS goes very wide. It is not focused just on a limited number of cases; it looks at the whole operation of the SDS, including the reporting lines, as I indicated to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), and a number of other matters. It has a wide-ranging remit.
These allegations are very shocking, but for those of us involved in campaigning around those issues at the time, they are not entirely surprising. It was era when, for instance, there was a death in police custody and negative information very quickly found its way into the public domain. I was the first Member of Parliament to raise this case on the Floor of the House and I was close to the Lawrence family at the time. I remember that the reason why Doreen was so angry, so upset and so determined was that she felt that the police were not even trying. Now, it seems clear that they not only were not trying, but were actively trying to denigrate and smear the family. Does the Home Secretary appreciate that this was a totemic case for a generation and that she owes it the Lawrence family, but also to the wider community, to get to the bottom of what happened, who knew and who authorised this operation?
I can assure the hon. Lady that I fully understand the seriousness of this case and the allegations made around it. The Operation Herne investigation will get to the bottom of this; it is the whole point of having that investigation, and also the Mark Ellison review to look at issues around the Macpherson inquiry and other matters. We will get to the bottom of this, find out what was happening and how the SDS was operating, how it was being tasked and so forth.
The hon. Lady is right to say that this is a case about which many people were concerned. As she says, she was the first Member of Parliament to raise it in this House—and appropriately so. I can only join the shadow Home Secretary in paying tribute to Doreen Lawrence and the Lawrence family for the work they have done over the years not to take no for an answer and to carry on campaigning until they have seen at least a degree of justice in relation to Stephen’s murder. But as we have seen from these allegations, there is still more to be done.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I thank the Home Secretary for the statement she has given today. It is something beyond disgusting that, when many of us thought that Macpherson was a moving-on stage in the whole area of public policy in relation to the black community and to policing, we find out that whole elements of the Metropolitan police had not moved on at all, and indeed were busy smearing and obstructing justice in exactly the way they had beforehand. The Guardian reported at great length on Saturday the behaviour of two undercover police officers, Bob Lambert and John Dines. Bob Lambert is known to some of us in this House and is a very clever operator—there is no question about that. It is also clear that during the undercover operations used against the Lawrence family and in the McLibel case and a number of other cases, senior officers in Scotland Yard must have known who was doing what and known of the disreputable personal behaviour of such people, and must still know. I hope the inquiry is not restricted within the police force but, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), is open and public, and that heads roll at a high level in Scotland Yard for those who have covered up the truth and allowed smearing and injustice to go on for a very long time. Unless that inquiry gets to the bottom of these matters, there will be no credibility and no public confidence in policing.
The investigation is, of course, looking into allegations that attempts were made to smear the Lawrence family, is looking widely at the operation and tasking of the special demonstration squad, and is looking at how reporting was undertaken, which I assume will include the question of who was aware of what was being done. It is clear that a number of cases are already under the supervision of the IPCC because they relate to the conduct of officers, which it is appropriate for the IPCC to consider, but I am clear, as are those involved in the investigation, that they should follow the evidence, and we must ensure that those who are guilty of wrongdoing will be brought to justice.
In view of the latest allegations of disgraceful conduct, as well as the names of dead children being used by police agents, and previous misconduct relating to Hillsborough—for which the Prime Minister has apologised—the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, was there not something rotten at the heart of policing for many years?
The hon. Gentleman has referred to a number of issues other than the operations of the special demonstration squad—of course, the House has debated the events that took place at Hillsborough, which are also being investigated by both former Chief Constable Jon Stoddart and the IPCC—and it is right that we get to the bottom of such matters. What is as important is that we ensure that lessons have been learned from how things were done in the past, and that changes have taken place. As I said in relation to the deployment of undercover operatives, we are clear that we need to continue to ensure that appropriate procedures are in place and that where those operatives are working—they do good work in many cases to keep the public safe—they do so according to ethical lines, and appropriately.
It seems that a host of different organisations is involved in looking at the allegations—Chief Constable Creedon, the IPCC, Mr Mark Ellison QC—but would it not be better to have one properly resourced investigation with clear timetables, preferably led by the IPCC?
The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that there are several strands to the work that is taking place; it is being done in that way for very good reasons. The investigation of Operation Herne, now led by Chief Constable Creedon, with some aspects supervised by the IPCC, is looking at a wide remit in the operation of the special demonstration squad, but also at whether any criminal activities took place, and whether any appropriate action must be taken in relation to such criminal activities or misconduct by police officers. The Mark Ellison review was set up to look at the information available, to see whether specific corruption was taking place around the investigation into Stephen Lawrence’s murder and whether all the information that should have been given to the Macpherson inquiry was given to it. In due course, there may be a need for investigations to come out of that review, but I suggest we wait until the review is completed before making that decision.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Over the weekend, the Foreign Secretary received a great deal of coverage for his visit to Qatar and his involvement in a conference about the future relationships of the western countries with Syria. Has there been any request for a statement by the Foreign Secretary on the outcome of the conference and the possibility of British arms sales to any of the opposition forces in Syria?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Staying with those “ears” of the Foreign Office, I believe that, during Foreign Office questions last week, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), praised President Santos of Colombia for what he had done in respect of the Colombian peace process. On Friday, that same President accused peasant protesters in Catatumbo, in north-east Colombia, of being linked to the terrorist FARC group, which resulted in Saturday’s killing by the army and police of two innocent civilian protesters.
The Colombian Defence Minister is coming to the United Kingdom this week, and will meet Ministers. Has there been any indication that either the Secretary of State for Defence or the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will make a statement to the House? I believe that one of them should do so, in order to explain why they have not roundly condemned the behaviour of the Colombian Government in—far too frequently—naming people with whom they disagree as terrorists, after which those people are “disappeared” or killed.