House of Commons
Monday 9 September 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—
Primary Schools: Sport
1. What plans he has to encourage sport in primary schools. (900158)
10. What plans he has to encourage sport in primary schools. (900168)
Making physical activity integral to every child’s life from an early age is the key to an enduring, active and healthy lifestyle. That is why the Prime Minister announced cross-Government funding of £150 million each year for 2013-14 and 2014-15, to go to every state-funded primary school. This must be spent on improving the provision of physical education and sport. Ofsted will review schools’ use of this funding, and PE will remain compulsory in the national curriculum at all four key stages.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he join me in welcoming the benefits of the FA Tesco skills programme for primary school pupils, which aims to coach 4.7 million children by 2014?
I am happy to welcome the benefits of the FA Tesco Skills programme, and to congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent appointment as the FA’s parliamentary fellow. I can see huge benefits in sponsors such as Tesco and other well-known supermarkets working closely with national governing bodies to improve children’s access to high-quality coaching in different sports, which Lord Coe believes is an important aspect of our strategy going forward.
Sport and healthy eating are vital in tackling childhood obesity. How does the Minister plan to encourage more primary schools to spend more time teaching those skills in a busy curriculum?
With a third of children leaving primary school with a problem with their weight, that is a concern for us all, and as I have said, the final national curriculum, which is due to be published shortly, will make PE compulsory at all four key stages. The status of cooking and healthy eating will reflect the recent school food plan, so it is right that we do that, but ultimately it should be up to individual schools to plan their own curriculum to ensure that ample time is available to cover all subjects.
Does the Minister agree that taking part in competitive swimming should be available to school pupils? Will he discuss with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government the unfair funding for my home town of Hull, because our swimming pools are being closed, including Ennerdale, which is the only competition-sized pool in the city?
I am happy to look at the particular situation that the hon. Lady has articulated, but it is up to local councils to make those decisions. Many councils are opening swimming pools around the country, and swimming will be a compulsory activity in the new curriculum, as we have seen the benefits that it can bring to a healthy lifestyle for many children across the country.
The Government were warned when they cut the money for school sport partnerships in 2010 that there would be fewer children in schools doing sport. Survey after survey has shown just that. The Taking Part survey, which was published last month, showed that there had been a 10% cut since 2009 in the number of children aged five to 10 doing sport in school. What are the Government going to do to turn that around?
It is disappointing to see the results of the Taking Part survey, but the Opposition and the hon. Gentleman have to make a decision soon about where they stand on school sport, and whether they are going to join the consensus that recognises that intervening early in a child’s life and making sport, through the work that we are doing with primary schools, an integral part of their life is the way forward. I am happy to discuss with him how he can join us to make sure that the huge amount of investment that we have made in school sports, which is ring-fenced and will be inspected by Ofsted, will have a real impact in the long term. I am open to those conversations, but he has to make a choice as to whether he is going to continue to carp from the sidelines or engage in the real debate.
Primary School Places
2. What steps he is taking to ensure a sufficient supply of primary school places; and if he will make a statement. (900159)
We are spending £5 billion in this Parliament on creating new school places—more than double the amount spent by the previous Government over the same time frame. We have worked closely with councils on the reforms to school place funding, so it is now more accurate than ever before, targeting money to the places where the demand is greatest.
The Department for Education will be well aware of the concerns of parents in Walthamstow about the lack of school places, 400 of them having written to the Department. The only new school which has opened on its watch, a free school, has no outdoor play space. Are the Government happy, especially given the previous comments about sport, that this is good enough for kids in my constituency?
We are very proud of our record, not just across the country, but in the hon. Lady’s area. I looked at the figures in preparation for today’s session, comparing the amount of basic need funding under the Labour Government with the allocations during this Parliament. Under the previous Government the allocations to her authority were £1 million, less than £1 million, less than £1 million, and so on—£11.2 million in total over the previous Parliament. Under this coalition Government the allocation will not be £11.2 million. It will be £126.7 million.
Does my right hon. Friend think the policy of uncontrolled immigration pursued by the Opposition has led to some of the pressure that we see on primary school places in areas such as Rossendale and Darwen?
There certainly are pressures from immigration, and there are other pressures on the birth rate too. These pressures have been known about since 2003, and in spite of that the Labour Government took 200,000 places in primary schools out of circulation, notwithstanding the warnings from those now on the Government Benches.
We have heard an incredibly complacent answer from the Minister. In 2010 the Secretary of State promised a new generation of good small schools with smaller class sizes. Since then we have seen a trebling of the number of very large primary schools, and in the past year a doubling in the number of infant classes of more than 30 children. Does the Minister not regret the decision in 2010 to cancel Labour’s primary school building programme?
The hon. Gentleman needs to acknowledge, in fairness, that this Government are allocating more than twice the amount his Government allocated for basic need. He needs to acknowledge that his Government made a mistake in withdrawing 200,000 places from primary education in the period from 2003. If he really is concerned about our capital expenditure on schools, perhaps he can tell me whether the Labour party is planning to increase it.
It is time that this Government took some responsibility for their own decisions. They have been in power for three and a half years and we have a crisis in primary school places. Last week the Secretary of State told us that free schools would solve this. Next year only one in three of the free schools that will open will be primary schools. How does that solve the problem? Will he change course even at this stage and give top priority in capital spending for new school places in areas that need extra school places?
If the hon. Gentleman were doing his homework, he would know that the vast majority of new free schools are in areas of basic need and that almost half the free schools that we have just announced are in places such as London. I gently say to him that I did not hear an answer to the question of whether he is really suggesting that we need additional capital expenditure. What many in the House and outside will detect is the Labour party, in the same way as it did over Syria, offering criticisms but no serious policy solutions.
Further to my right hon. Friend’s answer concerning the impact of free schools, can he assure me that those that are planned in areas where the need may not be as acute will remain under review, so that any further capital investment can be prioritised to deliver the places that we need?
I can absolutely guarantee that we will continue to prioritise areas of basic need for free schools, and that we will make sure that we have the allocations of money to deal with the basic need problems left to us by the previous Government.
Will the Schools Minister welcome the willingness of Rotherham council to add to the money that the Department is providing under the basic need funding to allow Cortonwood infants school and Brampton the Ellis junior school to expand their places? Why is it that half the free schools open already are in areas where there is no need for extra places?
The second statement is simply wrong. The overwhelming majority of free schools are in areas of basic need. On the first question, I would be very happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss his specific proposal. We want to be as pragmatic and helpful as possible to councils that face these pressures.
Following the recent Public Accounts Committee report, it is clear to me that we have pressure on primary school places because Labour was obsessed with building landlocked expensive private finance initiative schools and decided to remove a quarter of a million primary school places during a baby boom. What is the quickest way for local communities to respond?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that from 2003 onwards, the Office for National Statistics was pointing to one of the biggest increases in the birth rate for many generations. Those who are now on the Government Benches were warning the Labour Government that there would be a real crisis in primary school places. In spite of that, 200,000 places were removed between 2003 and 2010. Labour Members will be pleased to know that almost all the 200,000 places have been replaced by this coalition Government.
Ofsted Inspections: Free Schools
3. What assessment he has made of the outcome of Ofsted inspections of the first free schools. (900160)
The first 24 free schools to open have been inspected by Ofsted and three quarters were judged to be either good or outstanding. One school was judged to be inadequate and we expect it to take urgent action to bring about rapid improvement. It is being closely monitored by Ofsted and the Department.
What advice has my right hon. Friend given to Ofsted on the assessment of free schools, such as the Discovery New School in my constituency, given that they do not always meet the rigid national criteria of other schools?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Ofsted has, in its new revised handbook, taken account of the fact that more parents are exercising choice in a way that inevitably compels Ofsted to review its guidance, and explicitly it says:
“Certain types of schools (such as faith, Steiner and Montessori schools) exist as maintained or independent schools. When inspecting such…provisions, inspectors should familiarise themselves with the background information to these types of schools”.
We heard at Prime Minister’s questions last week about the impact of free schools on the cost of school uniforms. Whatever the rights and wrongs of free schools or uniform policy, may I give the Secretary of State a second chance on this, and will he explain what steps he has been taking, in relation to free or other schools, to keep the cost of school uniforms down for parents?
This is an important issue. Parents need reassurance that we are doing everything possible to keep down the cost of school uniforms. Clear guidance is issued by the Department for Education on how costs can be kept down. I subsequently read the report that was mentioned at Prime Minister’s questions last week and it referred to 13 schools, a small sample, but there were one or two worrying cases. I believe that those worrying cases may well be voluntary-aided schools rather than academy or free schools, but we shall keep the issue constantly under review.
During the past 20 years, many Ofsted inspectors have required schools to adopt particular teaching methods, which some would call progressive, but which the evidence suggests have failed. The new Ofsted inspection framework now makes it clear that
“Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of teaching or show preference towards a specific lesson structure.”
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that message is heard loud and clear by both inspectors and teachers, as he did in his excellent Policy Exchange speech on Thursday: that teachers who want to adopt a more effective teacher-led approach to teaching are now free to do so?
My hon. Friend is right. One of the many reasons why Sir Michael Wilshaw is proving an outstanding chief inspector is that he has moved away from the rigid prescription that forced methods of teaching on schools which were not in the best interests of children, and he has ensured that we now have an approach that encourages teachers to teach, and that once more says that direct instruction, and the pedagogy that concentrates on knowledge, should be at the heart of what happens in our schools.
It has been reported that the Durham free school has nine staff for 30 pupils. Does that, in addition to its unlimited capital, represent good value for the taxpayer or is it an act of political folly?
I think it represents excellent value, because for far too long, as the hon. Gentleman knows, schools in County Durham, particularly in the east of the county, have not been good enough. The fact that parents at last have a challenger school, helping to raise standards in an area where, frankly, working-class children have been let down for far too long by a complacent Labour party, is to be welcomed. A genuine progressive would welcome it instead of carping and reading from the NASUWT National Union of Teachers hymn book.
One in a Million free school opened last week in Bradford and was over-subscribed. I am sure that it will have excellent Ofsted inspections in the future. May I thank Lord Hill for the work that he put in to ensure that the school opened successfully, and will the Secretary of State confirm that either he or another Minister will visit One in a Million free school in the very near future?
My hon. Friend has been a great champion for the school. I will do everything possible to ensure that I or another Minister visits Bradford as soon as possible. It is instructive that in Bradford politicians of every party—including Respect—apart from Labour are backing free schools. Why is it that Labour stands out against them?
I call Theresa Pearce. Not here.
5. What his policy is on the use of unqualified teachers in schools. (900162)
Head teachers are best placed to make staffing judgments in individual schools.
Under Government changes, more than half of all secondary schools can now employ unqualified teachers on a permanent basis, yet the Tory manifesto of 2010 stated:
“The single most important thing for a good education is for every child to have access to a good teacher. We will take steps to enhance the status of the teaching profession”.
Is it not now clear that the Government are going in precisely the opposite direction?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to point out that the proportion of postgraduate trainees in every subject, including non-target subjects, who have a 2:1 or higher degree, or a comparable overseas degree, has risen in each of the last three years. Teachers in our state schools are better qualified than ever.
I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s robust answer. Does he agree that the people who are qualified to teach maths might in fact be those with good maths degrees, rather than teaching qualifications, and will he commend the university of Oxford for including teaching in schools as a possible module in its maths course?
The hon. Gentleman’s natural modesty prevents him from pointing out to the House that he is himself a distinguished mathematician, but that is now a matter of record.
My hon. Friend is a very distinguished mathematician and Member of this House, and he is absolutely right: we need to ensure that gifted mathematicians, both recent graduates and those who are changing career, have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation are introduced to the wonder and beauty of mathematics.
Does the question the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) just asked not emphasise the point that we need highly trained teachers? We need to get the best out of teachers. They might be good at their academic subjects, but I believe that teachers are made, not born. Is that not right? Will the Secretary of State disassociate himself from the statement by the head of Brighton college, who thinks the reverse?
It is difficult for me to disassociate myself from anything the headmaster of Brighton college says, because he was at the same college as me, in the year ahead, and is a much smarter guy. I owe almost everything I learnt at university to cribbing off him. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The whole point about teacher training is that it is not just a matter of one year of postgraduate study; it is a matter of continually refining one’s craft and profession collaboratively with other great teachers.
I recall enthusiasm being expressed in the past for retiring members of Her Majesty’s armed forces being recruited as teachers. Can the Secretary of State indicate how many people retiring from Her Majesty’s armed forces have become teachers?
I do not have the numbers in front of me, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact figures. Our Troops to Teachers initiative has ensured that a growing number of those officers, both non-commissioned and commissioned, who have left the armed forces are now entering teacher training.
I can assure the Secretary of State that I wish him no harm, but if later today he was taken ill and rushed to an accident and emergency department, would it be enough for him that the doctors and nurses were outstanding and talented individuals? Would he not expect them also to be qualified?
I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman wishes me no ill. The one thing that I would take comfort from would be if the school had been ranked good or outstanding by Ofsted. I am pleased that the national health service is adopting our method of grading schools and applying it to hospitals, and I am pleased that under this Government, according to the chief inspector today, we have seen an unprecedented rate of school improvement.
GCSE Results (South Essex)
6. What assessment he has made of the 2013 GCSE results in the south Essex area. (900163)
There have been some very good results at GCSE in south Essex. In common with the rest of the country, we have seen a big rise in the number of students doing core academic subjects, thanks to the English baccalaureate. We have seen a 16% rise in modern languages and a record number of girls taking chemistry and physics as GCSEs.
So will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Belfairs academy in my constituency on a staggering 21% increase in the number of pupils obtaining more than five A* to C grades and a 23% increase overall? Will she congratulate all Southend West schools on their wonderful results, which underline why Southend should have been named city of culture 2017?
I congratulate the students and teachers at the school, and across Southend, on their excellent results. I hope that some of those students will be the upwardly mobile political giants that my hon. Friend wants in the House of Commons in future.
19. Does my hon. Friend agree that exam results would improve even more in Essex and across the country if further education college students who were eligible for free school meals, got them? (900178)
We are rightly ensuring that all students who do not achieve a C in English and maths at GCSE continue to study them at FE colleges and beyond, so that they get the results that they need for their future careers.
7. What his policy is on academies; and if he will make a statement. (900164)
I am in favour of academies.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments. Academies have had freedom over the curriculum that they teach for some time. When is he going to extend that to all schools—and if he is not going to, why not?
It is perfectly possible for any school to apply for academy status, but we need to make sure that the leadership team are capable of taking advantage of all the freedoms. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for endorsing academies; I wish that more of his colleagues, such as the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), who is no longer in his place, would do so.
I hope that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) will recognise, as I and academy sponsors do, that it is not only freedom over the curriculum that matters, but freedom over staffing and freedom to pay good teachers more. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in condemning the strike by the NUT and the NASUWT, which his Front-Bench colleagues have so conspicuously failed to do.
Academy sponsorship is transforming education in Hastings. The Hastings and St Leonards academies have just been rated good by Ofsted, which represents the long journey they have been on. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming ARK, which has taken over the sponsorship of two of our other secondary schools in Hastings?
I am absolutely delighted that the number of sponsored academies is increasing in areas where educational performance has been too low for too long. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for being such a doughty champion of the children of Hastings, who were let down under the last Government and are being rescued under this one.
Further to the Secretary of State’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) earlier, I put it to him that the reason for the spiralling costs of school uniforms is that new free schools and academies are requiring branded items available only from special shops. That is the problem.
At one Manchester academy, the back-to-school costs were £302. I should say to the Secretary of State that, following last week’s question to the Prime Minister, I received feedback from all across the country that the issue was a problem. It could become a barrier to parents’ choice of schools. What action is the Secretary of State going to take?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for directing me towards the Family Action report, which I found interesting and sometimes sobering reading. The report identified 13 schools; they are not a representative sample. Those with the most significant additional costs for uniform tended to be voluntary aided schools rather than academies or free schools. There is no evidence that academies or free schools impose any additional uniform costs over maintained schools and there is no evidence that the overall increase in uniform costs has run out of kilter with other costs that families face. However, the Department is renewing its guidance to make sure that schools make the right choice for parents.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is particularly exciting for the academy programme when primary and secondary schools are brought together in the same academy structure, such as the Montsaye academy in Rothwell and the Kettering Buccleuch and Kettering Science academies in Kettering itself?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Northamptonshire has been one of the counties most transformed by academies involving a range of sponsors. I thank my hon. Friend for the energetic work that he has done on behalf of the children of Kettering, making sure that standards and expectations are increased.
8. What proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds were not in education, employment or training in (a) the UK and (b) Isle of Wight constituency in the latest quarter for which figures are available. (900166)
Some 9.1% of 16 to 18-year-olds in England were not in education, employment or training in April to June 2013. This is a fall of 1.4 percentage points on the same period last year and the lowest figure in a decade.
Some 4.7% of 16 to 18-year-olds in the Isle of Wight were NEET at the end of 2012. That is a fall of 0.5% on the same period in the previous year. The progress is good, but there is much more to do.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he clarify whether schools and colleges are required to get young people a GCSE in English or maths at level C or above or whether that is an aspiration? What sanctions will be imposed on those that fail to achieve it?
It is a requirement on schools and colleges that students who have not achieved a C in English and maths GCSE will continue to study those subjects. From next year they will lose funding if they do not, because English and maths are the most important skills. They must study towards GCSEs but can take interim qualifications, such as functional skills, as a stepping stone.
Surely if we want post-16-year-olds to stay on in education, young people of that age who attend further education colleges should be eligible for free school meals in exactly the same way as if they were at school.
The question of free school meals post-16 is very important. However, schools are not funded to provide them after the age of 16, so making sure that we have a level playing field requires that we get the funding organised as well.
Ahead of tomorrow’s Ofsted report on careers guidance in schools, does the Minister agree on the importance of careers advice in schools? Does he also agree that it is not working well and that it would be much improved if the National Careers Service were funded to provide support and a challenge for schools in fulfilling their duty?
As my hon. Friend well knows, I am a passionate supporter of the inspiration and mentoring of children in schools and adults of all ages. It is important to make sure that the right people—pupils and students—get the right advice. I am looking forward to tomorrow’s Ofsted report. We will respond and make it very clear what we are going to do to ensure that as many people as possible have such inspiration, mentoring, support and advice.
9. How many free schools are open in England. (900167)
One hundred and seventy-four.
My right hon. Friend is aware that I am a huge fan of free schools, which not only offer extra school places but massively increase choice. As he will also be aware, there is great pressure on school places in Ealing. This week an application is going to his Department for a new free school, Ealing Fields, which has the support of the parents of 1,200 pupils, and counting. Does he agree that that application should be considered positively and favourably? We are all keeping our fingers crossed.
Of course we will look at this application as we look at all applications. Every time my hon. Friend has recommended that I meet a head teacher from Ealing, whether Lubna Khan or Alice Hudson, I have been overjoyed to do so. I am delighted that outstanding head teachers working in our schools are being celebrated by my hon. Friend, and that people such as Alice Hudson are providing the opportunity to open new free schools so that more children can benefit.
The Secretary of State and the shadow Education Secretary have visited and praised Cuckoo Hall academies in Enfield. Does my right hon. Friend share the frustration felt by me and by parents in my constituency that when there is the opportunity to spread the excellence of free schools in my constituency—for example, in the old Southgate town hall—it is repeatedly blocked by the Labour council?
I do share my hon. Friend’s frustration. It is incumbent on Labour Front Benchers to show leadership and to call out the local authorities, from London to the north-east, that are standing in the way of opportunity. Until they do so, I am afraid that we will have to conclude that Labour is still too weak to govern.
11. What recent assessment he has made of the relative achievement levels of boys and girls. (900169)
Girls outperform boys at key stage and at GCSE by about 10%, except in the subject of mathematics, where boys slightly outperform girls. As everybody is aware, that is the subject with the highest earnings premium. Girls are also less likely to study the high-value subjects of physics, maths and chemistry at A-level.
Our biggest educational problem is the long tail of underachieving boys in the system. What measurable progress, compared with international standards, have we made with this very stubborn problem?
Ultimately, schools are best placed to improve the attainment of low-performing students. From 2012, we have given schools extra information about the gap in performance between boys and girls so that they can address it. The introduction of the phonics check at age six means that we can identify boys, in particular, who are struggling with reading and give them extra help. The introduction of more focus on arithmetic in primary schools, with times tables and better testing, means that we can make sure that girls get up to the standard they need to be at before they reach secondary school.
The Children’s Commissioner has shown that black Caribbean boys are three times more likely than white pupils to be excluded from school. What is the Minister doing to understand the reasons for that disparity in school exclusions and to make sure that no injustice or unfairness is seriously impacting on the performance of those boys?
As I said in my previous answer, it is up to schools and teachers to identify underperforming students and groups. The important thing is that we focus on this as early as possible. That is why we are focusing on improving quality in early-years education in order to make sure that students get the basics in terms of vocabulary and counting, which will lead to better performance later on.
12. If he will make an assessment of the effects of the provision of study leave for students in years 11, 12 and 13 on exam performance. (900170)
On analysis of the absence data, we have found that when schools use study leave sparingly and ensure that students are doing the right thing, it can be beneficial for academic outcomes.
Study leave before key exams can help high-performing students reach their potential, but can be to the detriment of lower to middle-performing students. Some schools are therefore cancelling study leave for all students. Will the Government advise schools to tailor their study leave policy so that students who would benefit from study leave are able to do so?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right that some students benefit from greater independent study and that others need more support at school. The Department’s work indicates that teachers are making those decisions. They are offering supported study, learning opportunities and drop-in sessions at school for some students, while others have the benefit of study leave. We issued advice to schools in August to make that clear to them.
Study leave may well allow some pupils to develop independent study skills, but does my hon. Friend agree that ultimately it is for schools to decide the best policy for their pupils with regard to studying for exams?
Yes, I completely agree with my hon. Friend that it is the responsibility of schools. It is also in a school’s interest to make sure that students are given the best possible study opportunities. We think that schools should use study leave sparingly and make sure that there are opportunities to study at school when students do not have a home environment conducive to study.
When the Secretary of State said recently that every child should have a room of their own in which to study, was he deliberately undermining the Government’s bedroom tax policy or was he using his platform as Education Secretary to push back the frontiers of ignorance a bit further by giving us a practical demonstration of the concept of irony?
My Secretary of State was making an absolutely clear case for a better planning system in order to ensure that we have the homes we need across the country. As I have said, there should be opportunities available, both at school and in the home, for children to study.
13. What assessment his Department has made of the role of child guardians and their effects on the length of court proceedings in public law cases. (900171)
The length of care proceedings and the role of the children’s guardian were examined as part of the family justice review by David Norgrove. Factors such as the early appointment of a guardian to a case can be particularly important. Performance on this continues to be closely monitored. I am pleased to report that appointments are consistently taking place within the agreed two-day target, with the average appointment taking place in half a day.
In my experience it is often the case that, despite the best intentions, children’s guardians add another layer of complexity to an already cumbersome court process, causing delay and introducing children to yet another unfamiliar face. What action is the Minister taking to improve the effectiveness of guardians in putting the interests of children first?
I spent the best part of a decade working in the family courts on exactly these sorts of cases, and many people, including myself, value the independent voice that the guardian gives to children who are in care. We know from the public law outline, which has recently been updated, that since the publication of our Children and Families Bill the length of care proceedings has already fallen from 56 to 42 weeks and that the quality of the reporting from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service has continued to improve, as has its timeliness. I will listen to what the hon. Lady has to say about the role of the guardians, but at the moment I believe they play an extremely important role.
I am aware that the Government are trying to reduce the length of the court proceedings for care orders, but is my hon. Friend mindful of the fact that when a parent wishes to maintain custody of the child and there are circumstances that the court has to investigate, the case will take as long as it takes?
Our reforms to the family courts system do nothing to undermine the discretion of the judiciary in ensuring that cases are considered justly. No decision is made without the best interests of the child being at the forefront of their minds and that will continue to be the case. I reassure my hon. Friend that the issue that she raises has been very much addressed.
Young Apprenticeship Starts
14. How many young apprenticeship starts there were in the latest period for which figures are available. (900172)
There were 129,900 apprenticeship starts by those aged under 19 in 2011-12.
Given that the number of young apprenticeships is going down, has the Minister given any thought to the proposal of the Institute of Directors that there should be an adjustment in favour of young apprenticeships to take account of how difficult the job market is for under-19s?
The number of apprentices in that age group is 10% higher than it was. I saw that report and it makes an attractive argument. We pay twice as much for the training of apprentices who are under the age of 19, but I will certainly pay regard to that report.
15. What plans he has for Sure Start children’s centres. (900173)
The Department issued guidance in April to make it clear that the core purpose of children’s centres is to support families and improve outcomes for children. We want to see a greater emphasis on evidence-based policies. Ofsted has also sharpened its focus on outcomes for children.
I thank the Minister for her response. However, the Government’s own figures show that there are 562 fewer children’s centres than at the time of the last election. How many more community assets does the Minister want to see lost?
The reality is that the vast majority of those centres have been merged or have seen their management restructured. Only 1% of children’s centres— that is 45 children’s centres—have closed outright. The hon. Gentleman is using a misleading figure. The fact is that Labour Members would rather have bureaucracy and management than outcomes-based front-line work. Are they seriously saying that they would reintroduce the managers and the bureaucracy?
That is 562 fewer children’s centres already. [Interruption.] Those are your figures. Another 23 children’s centres are scheduled to go in Tory Kent. According to last week’s report from the Children’s Society—[Interruption.] The Children’s Society is rubbish—is that what he has just said? According to the report by the Children’s Society, which is anything but rubbish, there will be a budget cut of more than 50% over this Parliament. While millionaires enjoy their tax cuts, vital public services such as Sure Start are left to wither on the vine. When will these Ministers admit that their choices will cost all of us much more in the long run and apologise to the parents who have lost such valued services?
I do not think that the hon. Lady listened to my previous answer. Those centres have not closed. The Government and local authorities have been saving money by reducing bureaucracy and management and running things more efficiently, which is what Conservative-led Governments do. She will be pleased to hear that our recruitment of early-years teachers is above trajectory, so there will be even more quality personnel in our children’s centres and nurseries.
16. If his Department will publish a strategy setting out plans for children in the care system; and if he will make a statement. (900174)
Early last year, Ministers considered whether to develop an overarching strategy for children in care. It was decided that, as there was general consensus about what needed to improve, it would be better simply to get on and drive a programme of change. Since then we have set in place reforms to ensure that all children have strong and stable placements, achieve good educational outcomes, and receive ongoing quality support when they leave care.
On strong and stable placements, when children in care are in social housing, foster carers still have to pay the bedroom tax. The Secretary of State says that he wants children to have a room to study in, but that just cannot happen however many houses there are and however strong the planning system. Will he urgently encourage his colleagues to provide an exemption from the bedroom tax for all children in foster care?
The hon. Gentleman will know that, prior to taking on this position, I worked closely with the Fostering Network to ensure that the exemption already in place for foster carers came to fruition. I reassure him that, through the work I am doing across Departments with Lord Freud and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, we will continue to review the matter carefully through a proper evaluation of the impact that the measure may be having. I have that reassurance and will continue with that work.
I am grateful that the Minister is getting on with doing things rather than writing reports. One thing the Government could do for child victims of human trafficking who go into local authority care is identify them as victims of trafficking, so we can see whether they are re-trafficked. That is a flaw in the system at the moment.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes an important and serious point about a problem that still blights too many children, and which continues in our communities, often under the radar when it needs to be more prominent. I will look carefully at what he says and I am happy to discuss the matter with him further to see what more we can do.
Ministers’ plans to outsource children in care placements to private companies such as Serco were recently blocked by the House of Lords after an evaluation of similar trials under the previous Government raised serious concerns about the impact on children, questioning the continuity of knowledge, skills and care in the private sector. Will the Minister tell the House in whose interest he is pressing ahead with these plans, and say why he does not consider it reckless to remove at the same time essential independent checks on those companies?
We must be honest about the fact that the current system is failing too many vulnerable children, and it cannot continue. The previous Government introduced in legislation exemptions to the status quo to allow social work practices to develop, which is outsourcing some of the children’s services functions. We think that that is an encouraging way to look at innovative ways of bringing people into working with vulnerable children, so that they get the best possible care. The hon. Lady should look carefully at what we are doing, because it is in the interests of children. That is why we need it to go forward.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (900198)
Today Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools reported that his inspectors have recorded a rate of improvement in our schools that was “unprecedented” in Ofsted’s 21-year history. He said figures show that 600,000 more children
“are now getting at least a good standard of education”
when compared with the beginning of the last academic year. He records his thanks to the best generation of head teachers ever for that improvement in our schools, and I would like to record my thanks as well.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. To give
“every parent access to a good school”
was the Tory party manifesto commitment to parents, but the reality could not be more different for many of those parents, given the Secretary of State’s crisis in primary school places. Given his obsession with spending money on free schools in areas where there are already enough school places, meaning that class sizes are at bursting point in other parts of the country, does he accept that that policy is denying many children the good start they deserve?
The chief inspector’s words stand by themselves. Never in the history of Ofsted over the past 21 years have so many children been enjoying a good education. I hoped that the hon. Gentleman would have wanted to congratulate teachers on that.
The other point is that we are spending more than twice as much on providing new school places in primary schools as the previous Government. They were warned repeatedly by Conservative Members of Parliament, but they did nothing because they were recklessly committed to a programme of spending and borrowing in a wasteful fashion, which betrayed a generation. Now Opposition Members may mewl and puke as they wish, but I am afraid the guilt is written all over their faces and is there in the National Audit Office report.
T2. I was shocked to learn that the London School of Economics made only four offers to students in the entire borough of Dudley this year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that secondary schools should be doing more to encourage students with academic potential to choose courses at GCSE and A-level that will enable them to apply to our top universities with a reasonable chance of success? (900199)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—I was delighted to visit an outstanding sixth-form college in her constituency that is leading the way. In a spirit of bipartisanship, her commitment to higher standards in education is shared by the Labour Member of Parliament for Dudley North, Mr Austin, who has worked hard with her and with Chris Kelly to ensure that we can persuade children to read the subjects in university that will give them a better chance to get great jobs. That is why the English baccalaureate, which Labour Front Benchers so denounced, has been such a good thing.
Order. The Education Secretary’s study will be complete when he recognises that it is not appropriate to name Members in the Chamber. I know he has been here only eight years. He will get there eventually.
Nearly 1 million young people are unemployed in this country and school leavers are desperate to make the right decisions about their futures, yet, as the Chair of the Education Committee has pointed out, the Government are overseeing the destruction of professional careers advice for 14 to 16-year-olds. Why does the Government’s National Careers Service make 17 times as many interventions for adults as it makes for young people? Does the Secretary of State really believe that his careers strategy is delivering for today’s schoolchildren?
May I give the hon. Gentleman some careers advice? When his boss’s job is under threat and in jeopardy, asking a question of that kind is ill-advised. The truth is that more young people than ever before are studying subjects—physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics—that guarantee a great future for them. The single most powerful intervention to ensure that young people are studying the right subjects was the introduction of the English baccalaureate, which he supported, but which all the other Labour Front Benchers opposed. They are divided on aspiration and, I am afraid, weak when it comes to rigour.
T3. The Government have introduced a variety of initiatives to support small and medium-sized enterprises to take on apprentices, which are welcomed by Lowestoft college in my constituency. However, there is a concern that a postcode lottery is developing, in that a number of different schemes and levels of support are available across the college’s catchment area. Is the Minister aware of that, and does he agree that local enterprise partnerships could have a role in co-ordinating such schemes? (900200)
As my hon. Friend knows, I am a passionate supporter of small businesses and of apprentices in them. The majority of apprentices are in small businesses and the Government do what we can to encourage that. In some places, local authorities top up the support we give. I am thrilled when they do so, but if we can do more to ensure that provision is consistent across LEP areas, we should do it.
T8. Both the Minister for Schools and the Secretary of State completely failed to address the question they were asked about free schools policy. Fifty-one per cent. of all free schools have been built in areas where there are surplus places while there is a crisis in primary school places elsewhere. Is not the point that free schools policy has failed to deal with the shortage of places where they are most needed? (900206)
No, the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. The vast majority of places in free schools are in areas of basic need. As I indicated earlier, of the recent free schools announced, around half are in the London areas where the pressure is greatest, so the figures he gives are simply inaccurate.
T4. In the past four years, Windsor high school, Earls high school and St Michael’s high school in my constituency have opened excellent sixth forms, adding to the excellent work done at Ormiston Forge academy and the local further education college. What is the Secretary of State doing to allow high- performance schools to set up sixth forms and to give them the necessary resources to expand? (900201)
I welcome all schools that wish to set up sixth forms. One of the easiest ways to do so is to acquire academy status.
The Schools Minister was confident that the money set aside by the Government to meet rising demand for primary places will be sufficient, but parents in Lewisham do not share his confidence. Will he meet me and a representative from the borough to explore the significant shortfall it has identified in its primary capital programme?
I would be delighted to do that. I just gently point out to those in local authorities who have been raising fears recently, that the statistics they put out a few days ago included projections of future increases in the primary population, but without giving consideration to the additional places that will be created beyond 2012 from the additional capital we have allocated. Local authorities need to be very careful with the information we have given, but I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady.
T5. It was recently reported that the Government taskforce on tackling extremism was looking at encouraging Muslim soldiers to visit schools to improve community cohesion. How far has the scheme got? (900202)
This is an excellent idea put forward by my noble Friend Baroness Warsi. We want to ensure that we use the commemorations of the beginning of the first world war, in which so many empire and Commonwealth soldiers fought so bravely, and other opportunities in which we can affirm the strength of modern multicultural Britain, to do what she has outlined.
Further to the questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), and the recent report that one in four parents are having to borrow to pay for school uniforms, the Secretary of State will be as shocked as I was to learn today that food banks, including in Liverpool, are now having to distribute uniforms to parents who cannot afford them. I listened carefully to his responses earlier concerning the report and guidance, but what more can he and his Government do to ensure that no students turn up to school embarrassed because they do not have the right clothes?
The hon. Lady and her colleagues raise an important point. I had a look at the Family Action report, which details some of these concerns. As I said, the examples it used were not entirely representative. I had the opportunity to visit a food bank in my constituency on Friday. I appreciate that there are families who face considerable pressures. Those pressures are often the result of decisions that they have taken which mean they are not best able to manage their finances. We need to ensure that support is not just financial, and that the right decisions are made.
T6. I listened carefully to the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), in response to a question from the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who raised the issue of Sure Start children’s centre closures in Kent. One of those centres is Woodgrove children’s centre in one of the most deprived areas of Sittingbourne. Will my hon. Friend take steps to reassure herself that Woodgrove’s closure is justified, and will she persuade Kent county council to change its mind if it is not? (900203)
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of local authorities to ensure that parents get the support they need and that children get the right outcomes. We are refocusing the system on outcomes and quality, and that is what Kent county council should be looking at.
How many civil servants at the Department for Education are working on the free schools programme?
More than 100 civil servants are working on the free schools programme—a testimony to its popularity. Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to talk to them and share a drink—in my case, apple juice—to congratulate them on their work. I was overjoyed to discover that this has been one of the most successful and inspiring things they have done in their distinguished careers in public service.
T7. My right hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of the extra costs of funding rural school places. Will he tell the House what steps the Government are taking to ensure that school places in Lincolnshire are adequately funded? (900205)
My hon. and learned Friend raises an important issue. For too long Governments have been aware that there is not fair funding of schools throughout the country, yet in the past no action was taken. That is why the Chancellor announced in the spending review that we will be holding a consultation into a fair national funding formula for schools, which will deal with precisely the issue my hon. and learned Friend raises.
Given the further squeeze on the funding of education for 16 to 19-year olds, is it not now the time for the Government to give sixth-form colleges the same freedom on VAT that is enjoyed by universities, technical colleges, free schools, academies and maintained schools?
I am highly aware of the pressures on sixth-form college budgets, and of the work they do to ensure standards are very high. I am in constant dialogue with sixth-form college leaders to explore all options to ensure that they can continue to deliver the very high standards they achieve today.
T9. A recent National Audit Office report showed an encouraging 10% rise in adoptions. What is being done to help even more potential adopters to have the confidence to come forward and to support them through what can be a trying process? (900207)
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the encouraging rise in the number of people who want to adopt coming forward and the number of adoptions taking place. However, we still need to do more to ensure there are no barriers in the way of anyone who wants to come forward and give a child who needs the best possible start in life that permanent future, and we are determined to see it through.
The Secretary of State said last week that poor children who do not have their own room to do their homework in do not achieve their full potential. Can he explain the policy implications of that statement, and can we assume that he will be arguing against the bedroom tax?
The policy implications are clear: every Member of this House should support the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), in his planning reforms, which will ensure that the price of houses falls and that more big family houses are built. It is shameful that the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has taken the Labour party into a position where it is the party of nimbys, the party opposed to opportunity and the party opposed to growth and development. That is an example of how weak the Labour party is: it blows with every wind instead of standing up for the next generation.
Last week, I had the pleasure of welcoming to Parliament Brad Hodgson from BAE Systems, who is currently north-west young apprentice of the year. Does the Minister agree that driving up the quality of apprenticeships is every bit as important as increasing the numbers, if they are truly to have parity with universities?
Next week, I am looking forward to going to see BAE for myself, because it has one of the best apprenticeship systems in the country. A higher quality of apprenticeships is undoubtedly just as important as the number of people going through them, and that is what we will continue to focus on.
The youth service has always been the fourth arm of education. Now that responsibility is transferred to the Cabinet Office, how will the Secretary of State ensure a robust educational curriculum in the youth service and youth work?
I am absolutely delighted that my gifted colleagues, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), are now leading on youth policy. The huge success of the National Citizen Service, which has seen more and more young people from every community working together in the spirit outlined by the Prime Minister, shows that the right men are leading the right policy for our country. What a pity that Labour will not back it.
The patience and politeness of the hon. Lady are now rewarded: I call Annette Brooke.
Support for bus travel is not available to my constituents in sixth forms or similar in rural Dorset—a problem added to when they now stay on for an extra year—which is placing a great burden on hard-working parents. Will the Secretary of State discuss that issue with Ministers in the Department for Transport?
I have received representations from the hon. Lady on that issue. Ensuring that the costs of transport are represented in the bursaries available to young people is an important issue that we are looking at closely. I will ensure that the right representations are made to the Department for Transport, and I am happy to meet her to take that forward.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the G20 summit in St Petersburg. The meeting focused on two vital issues: the crisis in Syria and the core business of the G20, which is the future of the global economy.
Let me take Syria first. The G20 was never going to reach unanimity on what action is needed on Syria, but the case made by those countries who believe in a strong international response to the use of chemical weapons was, I believe, extremely powerful. Britain supported a statement, sponsored by the US and signed by 12 members of the G20, that condemns the horrific chemical weapons attack, points to the clear evidence of the Assad regime’s responsibility for that attack and calls for a strong international response to this grave violation of the world’s rules. This statement from St Petersburg was reinforced on Saturday, when the 28 EU Foreign Ministers unanimously condemned the chemical weapons war crime and called for a strong response that demonstrates that there will be no impunity for such crimes.
I am clear that it was right to advocate a strong response to the indiscriminate gassing of men, women and children in Syria, and to make that case here in the Chamber. At the same time, I understand and respect what this House has said. So Britain will not be part of any military action, but we will continue to press for the strongest possible response, including at the UN. We will also continue to shape more urgent, effective and large-scale humanitarian efforts, and we will work for the peaceful, political settlement that is the only solution to the Syrian conflict. Let me just say a word about each of those three.
On chemical weapons, we will continue to gather evidence of what happened and make it available so that those responsible can be brought to account. Along with 11 other G20 countries, we have called for the UN fact-finding mission to present its results as soon as possible. We support efforts by the United States and others to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, and we will continue to challenge the UN Security Council to overcome the paralysis of the last two and a half years and to fulfil its responsibilities to lead the international response.
In terms of the humanitarian response, Britain is, I believe, leading the world. This is the refugee crisis of our time. A Syrian becomes a refugee every 15 seconds. That is 240 fleeing during the hour of this statement alone. Inside Syria, 6.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. At the same time, aid convoys simply cannot get through to areas under siege because of the fighting, and most major routes between large populations are too insecure to use.
So in St Petersburg, I organised a special meeting with the UN Secretary General, the EU, Japan, Turkey, Canada, France, Australia, Italy, Saudi Arabia and America. We agreed to work together through the UN to secure unfettered humanitarian access inside Syria. We agreed to increase the focus of that humanitarian assistance on dealing with the dreadful impact of chemical weapons, including providing medicines and decontamination tents. And we challenged the world to make up the financial shortfall for humanitarian aid by the time the United Nations General Assembly meeting takes place later this month. Britain, Canada, Italy and Qatar have made a start with contributions totalling an extra £164 million.
Syria still needs a political solution, however, and that requires the Syrian opposition to stand up for the millions who want democracy, pluralism and freedom from terror and oppression. So we will continue to assist the moderate Syrian opposition with political support, non-lethal equipment, technical advice and training. The Foreign Secretary convened a meeting with Syrian opposition leaders in London last week to continue this work, and he has discussed all these issues with the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, today. As I discussed with several G20 leaders, including President Putin, Britain will also lead efforts to get both sides to the table to shape a political transition, building on last year’s agreement in Geneva. That is because, as I have said, a political settlement is the only way to a stable, inclusive and democratic Syria.
Let me turn to the global economy. When I went to my first G20 summit as Prime Minister in Canada three years ago, Britain had the most indebted economy, the most indebted households and the most damaged banking system of any country around the table. We had also fallen out of the top 10 places in the world for the ease of starting a business. I vowed then that this Government would take the tough action necessary to deal with our debts, repair our broken banking system and, most importantly, help to deliver a private sector-led recovery.
Three years on, that is exactly what we have done. We have cut the deficit by a third, and cut the structural deficit by more than any other G7 country; we have reformed our banks so that they serve the economy, rather than the other way round; and we have delivered that private sector-led recovery, with the OECD forecasting that Britain will be the fastest-growing G7 economy in the fourth quarter of this year and the International Monetary Fund predicting that we will have the strongest growth of any major European economy in 2014.
This G20 summit recognised our progress and explicitly singled out Britain’s return to growth in the communiqué. More importantly, the G20 has endorsed our priorities for economic recovery. All 20 have signed up to the St Petersburg action plan, which contains all the features of the plan that we have been following in Britain since the coalition Government came to office. In particular, it emphasises the importance of dealing with our debts, the role of monetary policy to support the recovery, and the need for long-term reforms to boost growth and trade, and cut the red tape that too often holds back the business investment and job creation that we need in our country.
The summit also took forward the agenda that I set at the G8 in Lough Erne on what I call the three Ts: tax, transparency and trade. On tax, the whole G20 adopted the Lough Erne vision of automatic sharing of tax information, with a single global standard to be finalised by February next year. On transparency, the whole G20 is now taking forward international standards on company ownership. This means that companies will know who really owns them and that tax collectors and law enforcers will be able to obtain that information easily, so that people will not be able to avoid taxes by using complicated and fake structures. Britain has led this initiative, and let me welcome the progress made by our Crown dependencies and overseas territories, each of which has now published an action plan.
On the third of the three Ts—trade—we also made some good progress, not just maintaining the commitment to resist protectionist measures, but extending it by a further two years to the end of 2016. This is a vital and hard-fought achievement, which opens the way to more British exports, more orders for British companies and ultimately more British jobs.
Finally, strong global growth also depends on helping the poorest countries to lift themselves out of poverty, and the G20 welcomed the vision for eliminating world poverty set out in the report from the UN high-level panel that I co-chaired together with the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia.
From humanitarian aid in Syria to the plans for growth right across the G20, and from tax, transparency and trade to the fight against global poverty, Britain—now an economy turning the corner—made a leading contribution to this summit. As I said, we may be a small island, but we are great nation, and I commend this motion to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for his characteristically modest statement this afternoon. We can certainly agree that we are a small island, but a great nation—it is just a shame about the Government.
Let us start with the G20 discussions on the global economy. We agree on the importance of trade, tax and transparency, and we welcome the final communiqué recommitting the world’s leading economies to free trade. We also welcome the commitment to strong global growth and the importance of helping the poorest countries to lift themselves out of poverty.
On the issue of transparency, what is the Prime Minister doing to ensure that other countries follow through on their G8 commitments to introduce a register of real owners of companies and make these public? Can they be extended to the rest of the G20? When is he going to consult on making the register public in the UK?
On the economy, the Prime Minister mentioned that the communiqué talks about the UK’s return to growth, but he did not mention the rest of what the statement said about the overall economic situation, which was that
“unemployment, particularly among youth, remains unacceptably high…recovery is too weak, and risks remain tilted to the downside”.
It goes on to talk of a
“need for more inclusive growth in many economies”.
For 1 million young people out of work in Britain and millions more who see their living standards falling, the G20 communiqué is absolutely right. Does this not suggest that, rather than the Chancellor claiming to have saved the economy, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor should be far less complacent and far more focused on how we prevent this from being a recovery just for a few people at the top of our society?
On Syria, the vast majority of the international community rightly shares the widespread revulsion of all Members of this House at the use of chemical weapons there. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the likely timetable for the reporting by the UN weapons inspectors to the UN Security Council, and on whether he expects a further resolution to be tabled at the UNSC?
On the UK role, we agree that it is right to use all the humanitarian, political and diplomatic means at our disposal to help the Syrian people. Nobody doubts that this is one of the most pressing humanitarian crises the world has seen. For this reason, I welcome the vital extra funding to which this Government committed during the G20 summit. Indeed, in his remarks after the summit, the Prime Minister echoed the remarks of Ban Ki-moon that the relief fund set up by the UN has only 40% of the money it needs. What does the Prime Minister believe are the prospects for other countries to meet their responsibilities, and will he tell us how he believes we can use the UN General Assembly later this month not just to expand humanitarian aid, but to expand the vital humanitarian access to those who need it?
Let me also ask the Prime Minister about the enormous pressures that the large Syrian refugee populations are placing on neighbouring countries—Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—which are seeing their populations grow by hundreds of thousands of people. What actions beyond humanitarian aid were agreed at the G20 summit to help those countries? While humanitarian aid is essential, it is insufficient to end the suffering. As the Prime Minister said, the only long-term solution is a political and diplomatic one, to which our energies must be directed.
On the prospects of a political solution, there will be deep concern about the comments of the joint special representative for Syria, who has said:
“Geneva II is now in danger”.
Will the Prime Minister update the House on discussions that took place at the G20 to progress the timetable for the vital Geneva II peace process? Will he also say something about what came out of the Foreign Secretary’s discussion with the Syrian National Coalition regarding its involvement in the Geneva II summit, which is absolutely essential? In the light of the obstacles in the way of Geneva II, will he now back the establishment of a Syria contact group including countries that are sponsoring the Assad regime on one hand and the rebels on the other, with the aim of renewing pressure for a peace process?
Whatever disagreements were revealed at the G20, attempts must continue to build the strongest possible international coalition in order to ensure that every diplomatic effort is made to end the violence and push for that political solution in Syria. That is ultimately the only way to end the bloodshed and the mounting horrors faced by the wider region. Over the past few months, the Prime Minister has failed to carry the House on the issue of arming the rebels, and again, 10 days ago, he failed to carry the House or the country because people were not willing to go along with a rush to war. However, he will undoubtedly carry the House and the country as he takes the necessary diplomatic, political and humanitarian action that is needed for a long-term solution to alleviate the suffering of the people of Syria.
Let me deal first with the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about Syria. We do not have a date for the inspectors’ report, but we are pushing for an early report. I think that that would be useful. We should not overestimate what the inspectors can do, because they are not there to apportion blame but simply to add to the picture of what we already know, which is that a war crime took place.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the prospects of further humanitarian aid between now and the United Nations General Assembly meeting. I think that they are good. The European Union, the United States and others are all seeking to increase their contributions, in the knowledge that at present we are fulfilling only—I think—44% of what the UN has said is necessary. Britain wanted to get the ball rolling, and that is why we ensured that some money was pledged at the meeting in order to get things going in time for the UN General Assembly meeting. As for access to humanitarian aid, if it is necessary to sponsor a UN Security Council resolution, we can consider that in the weeks ahead.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the neighbouring countries: the pressure is immense. The increase in, for example, the Lebanese population is the equivalent of 15 million people coming here to the UK. We are providing aid and support; for instance, we are providing support for the Lebanese armed forces and sending to Jordan specific pieces of equipment that it has requested.
The right hon. Gentleman asked what was discussed about Geneva II at the G20. In the margins of the dinner that took place, there was a general debate about Syria. Obviously there is enthusiasm for getting the process going, and I think it encouraging that in spite of the different positions that countries took on the immediate chemical weapons crisis, the support for a Geneva process is very strong. He also asked about the opposition. They are, of course, in favour of political transition and the steps that are necessary.
The right hon. Gentleman asked again about the issue of a contact group, neighbouring countries and the role of, I suspect, Iran. Let me remind the House that Iran has not yet signed up to the principles in Geneva I. I think it is important for people to remember that.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the economy, and specifically about transparency. He asked about the follow-up from the G8 and the G20. All the G8 countries agreed to have action plans on beneficial ownership in place, and they are all doing that. The G20 has now endorsed the overall approach on transparency, an issue that the G20 had never really considered properly before. We will be consulting shortly on whether to make a register of beneficial ownership public.
The right hon. Gentleman went on to make a few remarks about the economy. He said that the recovery that was taking place in the UK was simply for the few. I would say: what about the 1.3 million private sector jobs? What about the fact that there are almost a million extra people in work? What about all the small businesses that are being set up? What about all those people who are in apprenticeships? The fact is that under this Government, growth is up, exports are up and manufacturing is up. What is down and out is his economic policy and reputation.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that quite the most harrowing aspect of the humanitarian crisis is the impact on children? When he goes to the General Assembly of the United Nations in a few weeks’ time, will he put the alleviation of the suffering of the children of Syria at the top of his priorities?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to raise this point. When you visit one of the refugee camps, as I have, in Jordan and see the children being taught in enormous temporary classrooms under canvas in tents, you realise that their whole childhood, in some cases, will be spent in these camps. We have to alleviate their suffering and we have to help them, but above all we need a political solution as well.
May I ask the Prime Minister about the tax and transparency conclusions of the G20? They are welcome, but does he agree that so long as Austria and Luxembourg refuse even to sign up to the EU tax guidelines, the work of the G20, welcome as it is, will be undermined from within the EU itself?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. For many years, Luxembourg and Austria have held up progress on this issue. They have often tried to get round that by pointing to the overseas territories and Crown dependencies of the UK, which have now put their house in order, so we can turn back to Austria and Luxembourg. They are under a huge amount of pressure, because the agenda of tax and transparency is growing fast. They have made some moves in the European Union, but we need to do more.
The Russians have been stalling for some time on Geneva II peace talks. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is revealing that faced with the threat of military action, Russia is now calling for diplomatic negotiations? Far more importantly, the BBC is reporting that the Russians are saying that the Syrians are now prepared to attend such talks. Can he confirm the accuracy of that report?
My hon. Friend is right that minds have become much more focused in recent months. There is an argument, which the Russians make, that the Syrian regime would be content to attend talks, but it is very important that we have some things set out about what those talks aim to achieve. In order to have proper transition, there is a need to know what we are going to get out of those talks. We need to know who is going to take part and who could be part of a transitional Government before those talks begin. Those issues are as important as an in-principle agreement to turn up.
Can I take it from the Prime Minister’s statement that he now agrees that the Syrian civil war can only be ended not by military action but by a negotiated settlement, however difficult, involving the Iranians, the Russians and, yes, Assad too? Will he use his influence with the opposition forces, which have so far been unwilling to come to such a negotiation, to say that they must have ceasefires locally and access to humanitarian relief, and nominate people who will serve as Ministers alongside existing Government Ministers in a Government of transition to prepare for elections?
We would certainly encourage all parties to take part in the Geneva II talks when a date is set and they get moving. It is obviously in all our interests to see that political process work. The only point that I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that at the same time it is absolutely right for the British Government and other like-minded Governments to stand up for the millions of people in Syria who want a future free from terror—a future free from Assad. We need to make sure that there is a Syrian opposition who are strong enough, both on the ground as well as diplomatically and politically, to do that.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on the lead that he has taken on the humanitarian effort in Syria and neighbouring countries. Is he aware that Save the Children is struggling to get aid to people suffering in Government-controlled parts of Syria, and what, if any, reaction was there from Russia to this despicable state of affairs?
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely key point. Having the available resources is part of the solution, but it is no good unless we can get the aid to the 6 million people in Syria who need it, which requires access. As I have said, if that requires us to go to the UN and seek a Security Council resolution, that is an option that we can undertake. The Russians say that they want to see this aid go through, but we need them to put pressure on the regime to make sure that access is granted.
On the day of the recall, it was the will of the House, surely, that the issue of Syria go to a full United Nations examination, rather than an early military intervention. Why has that not been the emphasis of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary since? The Prime Minister appears, while saying that we will not be a participant, to continue to urge the Americans to get on with it?
The motion that we put before the House spoke specifically of there being a UN vote—a UN process—and not then some sort of rush, as the right hon. Gentleman likes to say, to military action. It specifically mentioned that there would have to be another vote, but he voted against that motion. It did say that there would be another vote, but the point he makes is important. Of course we always favour taking things to the United Nations, but in the end we have to make a decision in this House and the Opposition have to make a decision too: do we think it is right to confront those who use chemical weapons? I think it is.
I read reports that the Prime Minister had a very welcome meeting with the German Chancellor to discuss member states of the EU having more control over economic migration and benefit systems. Is this true, and is there any news about the timetable for this welcome work?
I have many discussions with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. At the G20, most of our discussions were about Syria rather than about reform of the European Union, but we have had good discussions about the reform of the European Union. The stance that the German Government have taken is very helpful and I will continue to discuss that with her.
Surely it is time to obtain unfettered access in Syria and for the international community to bite the bullet and start speaking positively with Iran? On humanitarian aid, with the honourable exception of Kuwait and Qatar, some of the richest countries in the world—the Gulf states—have markedly failed to step up to the plate. Given that the Government are continually saying that those countries are our friends and allies, will the Prime Minister use his best offices to encourage them to put their hands into their exceptionally deep pockets?
To be fair to Gulf countries, we can add to Qatar and Kuwait, which have been generous donors, Saudi Arabia, which has given $345 million. We are leading by example and we encourage all countries to step up to the plate and help to fill in the shortage of money. On the Opposition’s seeming obsession with Iran, of course we should strive for good, strong, positive relations with all countries around the world and we do, but I ask the Opposition to remember that Iran has not signed up to the Geneva peace principles. Also, it is currently funding, helping, supporting and arming Assad.
Given that the core purpose of the G20 is the global economy, will the Prime Minister confirm that the agenda for global free trade is of extreme and first importance at this time, and that he will work within the G20 to promote that agenda beyond 2016?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s question. He is absolutely right. One of the important aims of the G20 is to maintain clear rules for the success of the global economy. Nothing is more important on that front than maintaining free trade. The G20 has had a prohibition year after year on further protectionist measures, and this time we managed to push that from 2014 out to 2016. The next G20 chair will be Australia. I am sure the House will want to welcome the election of Tony Abbott, and I am sure Prime Minister Abbott will want to lead the charge for free trade.
Is it not a bit premature to be talking about the real recovery? Does the Prime Minister not realise that that is insulting to those 4 million people who do not have a full-time job, all those people on zero-hour contracts, and those people without money who are borrowing from Wonga, which is lending more money than many of his beloved banks? This Government would not recognise the truth if it was sprayed on their collective eyeballs.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman cannot welcome the 1.3 million extra private sector jobs, the fact that almost a million more people are in work, and the record number of small businesses. If he is so against zero-hour contracts, he might want to have a word with all the Labour councils that currently provide them.
This country has contributed more in humanitarian aid to Syria than the rest of Europe put together, and in the world is second only to America. I am glad to learn that the Prime Minister has had some success in persuading other G20 countries to step up to the plate. Can he estimate what the shortfall will still be once those commitments have been made?
To be fair to the European Union as a whole, it is the largest donor, with over $1.1 billion; the USA is next, with $1 billion. We are the second largest bilateral national donor. UN appeals are currently only 44% funded, so even with the extra money that was pledged at St Petersburg we are still about that amount short.
Among the G20, was there any discussion about or condemnation of some of the terrible atrocities carried out by the rebels in different parts of Syria, particularly at the weekend, where Christians were thrown out of areas that had just been taken over by the rebels, or is everyone just obsessed with Assad?
There was a very robust discussion at the G20 dinner of the Syrian situation, and many people raised atrocities carried out by the opposition. Let me put on the record that an atrocity is an atrocity. It is as serious if carried out by one side or the other side. As I said in the debate, if the opposition was responsible for such large scale chemical weapon use, I would be condemning it from the Dispatch Box and urging others to take action. This was discussed, but we should be focused on the millions of Syrians who want a free and democratic future, so we should support those parts of the opposition, and the Syrian National Council does support those people—those people who speak up for them.
My right hon. Friend has rightly taken a lead in calling for unfettered humanitarian access to Syria. When does he anticipate it will be possible for the United Nations to agree a resolution to give effect to unfettered humanitarian access, and can he think of any justifiable reason why any country, either at the General Assembly or on the Security Council, could possibly oppose a motion to give effect to unfettered humanitarian access to Syria?
I would very much hope that countries would not oppose such a motion. Baroness Amos gave an extremely clear message when she visited the region recently. She set out the specific things that needed to change for proper access to take place. Let us see how the authorities in Syria or on the borders respond to her very clear message, and if there is no success we will have to look at the next action, which, as I said, could conceivably be a Security Council resolution.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on raising LGBT rights with Vladimir Putin —that must have been an interesting conversation. We are coming up to the fourth anniversary of the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, who was working for a British bank, and far from the Russians pursuing those who murdered him, they have pursued him in the courts in a posthumous trial, which is preposterous. Did the Prime Minister make it clear to Putin that we object to this, and that the people who were involved in Magnitsky’s murder and the corruption that he unveiled are not welcome in this country? If he did not make that clear last weekend, will he make it clear now?
I certainly commend the hon. Gentleman for his consistency in raising these cases with me. I hope that he will commend my consistency—
The hon. Gentleman did.
—in raising these cases with the Russian President. On this occasion, we did have a discussion about lesbian and gay rights in Russia and the concerns that many people in this country, including me, have about the lack of freedoms and about potential discrimination against lesbian and gay people in Russia. On this occasion, we did not raise all the other cases, many of which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned in the past, but I believe that the British-Russian relationship is strong enough to mention all these problems and issues, but at the same time to recognise that it is in both our countries’ interests to have a good and strong bilateral relationship. That is what I hope to achieve.
The Prime Minister is absolutely right to talk about a political settlement, but I urge him to go the extra diplomatic mile. It is precisely because we do not agree with the Iranians and that they are participants in this conflict that we need to engage them in any forthcoming peace talks. Will he update the House on the extent to which our reluctance to engage with the Iranians is matched by that of other countries within the G20?
As I explained to the House during last week’s Prime Minister’s questions, we have effectively reached out to the Iranian Government after the recent elections, and I have written to President Rouhani, so we are prepared to start trying to have a relationship with them. My hon. Friend talks about the reluctance of some countries, but there is a slight holdback on our behalf because we still really have not had proper redress for the fact that they smashed up our embassy and residence. So we do have to enter these talks and discussions with a clear head. But my hon. Friend is right to say that a long-term peace solution for Syria has to involve everybody, including all the neighbours. No one for a minute denies that, but we have to get the process going in the right way.
Why, when 492 out of 577 Members of this House supported, or did not rule out, the potential use of force in Syria, has the Prime Minister been so categorical in ruling it out, including refusing even to contemplate bringing the matter back to the House, whatever the circumstances?
The figures the right hon. Gentleman gives are interesting. The point I would make is that I put into the Government motion the fact that we should listen to the weapons inspectors, have a process at the United Nations and have a second vote before action. I included everything that his Front Benchers wanted—every single thing—so the fact that they did not vote for it shows me that they are not serious about the issue; they are serious about political positioning. As Prime Minister, it is very difficult to deal with that. That is why I believe the House spoke quite clearly.
In the discussions, did the Prime Minister get the impression that President Putin was speaking as a mouthpiece and defender of the Assad regime, or that he was prepared to use Russia’s immense power and influence over Assad to persuade him to come to the table and enter into serious negotiations for transition?
From all my discussions with President Putin—not just at St Petersburg, but at Sochi, No. 10 Downing street and the G8 summit at Lough Erne —I believe that he wants to see a stable Syria and a stable middle east. He is very concerned about instability and terrorism. We have a profound disagreement about the role the opposition could play and, obviously, about what happened with the chemical weapons, but there is some long-term commonality of purpose: wanting a peaceful and stable Syria for the future. That is what we have to work with.
When the Prime Minister discussed the Syrian refugee camps, was there any agreement that all leaders should visit them to see for themselves the unfolding horrors?
There was not an agreement on that front, but certainly those of us who have been to the camps referred to them, and a number of other leaders made exactly that point too.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on ensuring that the vote does not mean that we are somehow abandoning our moral obligation to the Syrian people. I encourage him to ensure that Britain now takes the lead in developing and expanding international conventions on chemical weapons, encouraging emerging countries, such as Brazil and India, to play a more vocal role, and thus protecting not just the Syrian people, but other populations worldwide.
I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. I think that he is absolutely right that these conventions, and ensuring that everyone lives up to them, are directly in the British interest. If any good could come of these ghastly events, it is to wake the world up again to the importance of rules against the use of chemical weapons and to encourage more countries to take them seriously.
There was an interesting article in The New York Times over the weekend outlining how the Assad regime had amassed its chemical weapon arsenal. Central to the strategy has been the purchase of precursor chemicals from various states around the world. During the G20 summit, did the Prime Minister make the case for global action to limit the export of those chemicals to despotic regimes, and will he be investigating why his Government awarded licences to the Assad regime before and after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about precursor chemicals. In this country we have a very strict licensing regime for the export of those sorts of chemicals, and on this occasion it worked effectively. When the arms ban on Syria was brought in, we were able to revoke those licences, so from what I have seen to date our system worked well.
Are international banking and other financial sanctions in place to prevent the Assad regime from acquiring further weapons of mass destruction or “ordinary” weapons? If there is none, is that not something we should be thinking about?
My hon. and learned Friend makes a good point. There are obviously international agreements made about not selling arms to Syria, but tragically the regime has been able to get hold of weapons, not least from the Russians and the Iranians, and that is one of the problems we face today.
I welcome the announcement of additional humanitarian aid for the Syrian refugees. Was there any discussion at the G20 about the situation in Yemen? Since the Prime Minister appeared at the Dispatch Box to discuss Syria, there has been an attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister of Yemen. I know that the right hon. Gentleman and Ministers have done a great deal of work to have face time with the Yemeni authorities. We must not allow Yemen to slide into civil war because our focus is on Syria.
The right hon. Gentleman makes important points about a country that has deep problems, and it is in our interests that it resolves them and that we secure a stable Yemen. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be chairing the Friends of Yemen group in New York in a couple of weeks’ time. Britain continues to engage diplomatically, and in terms of humanitarian aid and advice, with the Yemeni Government.
In the margins of the G20, did the Prime Minister manage to collar the representative from Spain to have a word about Gibraltar and the representative from Argentina to have a word about the Falklands, and make it clear to both that those territories are British and will remain so?
I did not need to have those two meetings because I do not think the President of Argentina or Prime Minister of Spain are in any doubt about my views.
Specifically on Gibraltar, I am sure that everyone in the House will want to welcome the fact that it will be Gibraltar national day tomorrow; I know that a number of colleagues will be there to celebrate 300 years of great relations between Britain and Gibraltar and the fact that we share a sovereign and a future together. On the issue of Gibraltar, I did meet the Spanish Prime Minister to try to look at issues where we can try to de-escalate the war of words that has taken place. We have not made any progress, but we should not only continue to defend absolutely to the hilt Gibraltar’s right to decide its own future; we also want to see good and strong relations in the region as well.
The Prime Minister’s narrative seemed to suggest that the two motions before the House over Syria were broadly the same. In the interests of clarity, will he confirm that there was no reference to a vote in the Security Council in the Government’s motion, in stark contrast to the Opposition motion?
I am very happy to read the hon. Lady the Government motion. It said this:
“Believes that the United Nations Security Council must have the opportunity immediately to consider that briefing”—
from the weapons inspectors—
“and that every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution backing military action before any such action is taken”.
The fact is that Opposition Front Benchers are wriggling and quibbling because they know they had a choice. They could have done the difficult thing and the right thing for the country; instead, they chose the easy and simple thing that was politically convenient. They have to live with the consequences.
Was there an opportunity at the summit to discuss the emerging evidence that sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war in Syria?
Many of the issues around the appalling nature of the Syrian conflict were raised. The Foreign Secretary has taken international leadership on the issue that my hon. Friend speaks about, to say how unacceptable the use of sexual violence is as a conflict weapon.
During their meetings with President Obama and Secretary Kerry, did the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary have an opportunity to say to Secretary Kerry, “Stop spending all your energies flying desperately around Europe and north Africa looking for allies in a war that nobody wants. Instead, put them into bringing about a diplomatic peaceful solution that must include Iran, Russia and all the neighbouring countries, most of whom do not support a war anyway”?
I would make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, it is hard to think of anyone who has made greater efforts than Senator Kerry to try to bring about a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis. He has worked incredibly hard to do that. He knows something else—if chemical weapons are used on that scale and the Americans have drawn a red line, not to act would send an appalling message to the world.
I also pick up the hon. Gentleman on another point. This whole language of saying “start a war” is put about by some to try to paint the American or other positions into something like Iraq. This is not about starting a war; it is about responding to the appalling use of chemical weapons. When we see on our television screens children being gassed by chemical weapons, that is the outrage that we should feel.
I very much welcome the strength of the moral stance that my right hon. Friend has taken on the issue of chemical weapons use in Syria. I was glad that Pope Francis made an intervention on world leaders calling for peace; it is not the first time that, as a member of a different denomination, I have been of one mind with the Pope. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the Pontiff’s intervention? Just as it is idealistic, it must surely, ultimately give us the route to a peaceful and lasting settlement.
We should always listen to and respect faith leaders when they make these statements, and they should always make us consider and think about the consequences of actions, but we also, as politicians, have to think of the consequences of non-action and try to be guided by what the outcomes will be if we either act or do not act. Examining the morality of those decisions will provide us with the best answer.