House of Commons
Monday 11 November 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—
Education Maintenance Allowance
By replacing the education maintenance allowance with the 16-to-19 bursary fund, we are saving £380 million every year and targeting help more sharply at the young people who need it most.
My local further education provider, West Cheshire college, is proving very effective at ensuring that the bursary fund helps those young people who most need it. What is my hon. Friend the Minister doing to ensure that the bursary fund is targeted at those most in need?
My hon. Friend’s local FE college is not only very good; it is also the FE college I went to. I am glad to say that the 16-to-19 bursary fund allows colleges to target support at those who need it most. The most vulnerable receive a bursary of up to £1,200, which is far more than they could have received from EMA.
The Merseyside Colleges Association told Merseyside MPs just this week that the bursary fund is nowhere near enough to deal with the need that it finds for food, travel, or books. Will the Minister seriously reconsider? It is not just the very poorest students who are missing out, but those just above them; colleges do not have the money to cover them.
It was found that the education maintenance allowance was paid to 10 times more people than needed it to access further education. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions food, because the Government are introducing free school meals for those who need them in FE colleges—something the Opposition never did.
Is the Minister aware that some people who attend college in Chester do get EMA? Those of my constituents who are from Wales get it, because the Labour Government in Wales provide it to all pupils. Will he accept that that EMA provision means that people stay on at school for longer, and improves their ability to learn at school?
No, because the 16-to-19 bursary fund is better targeted. It is typical of Opposition’s proposals that the shadow Secretary of State’s proposal to bring back EMA came with a measure to pay for it that would have raised just over £100 million, leaving yet another black hole.
On 8 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education issued a written ministerial statement announcing an amendment to the Children and Families Bill. For the first time, all young carers will have the right to an assessment of their needs for support as part of the consideration of the needs of the whole family. That amendment will help to achieve our aim of protecting young people from excessive or inappropriate caring roles.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Many of the young carers in my constituency and their families will be delighted with that news, but how will he ensure that this landmark law is backed up with the support that is necessary for it to be implemented successfully?
It is important to recognise that we are not coming at this from a standing start. Since April 2011, we have been funding work done by the Carers Trust and the Children’s Society to establish and share the best practice in supporting young carers that we know is already out there. To date, they have worked with more than 100 local authorities, and we hope that we can help to build that progress with them.
We have an excellent young carers project in Salford, but it can do its excellent work only if schools and teachers help to identify carers in the first place, so that they can get that help and support. Does the Minister agree that it is essential for schools, colleges and universities to have in place policies that can identify pupils and students who are young carers, and make sure that they are referred to that excellent source of advice and help?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She has been a strong advocate for young carers, not just in her constituency, but more widely. The Children’s Society has been awarded £1.5 million by the Big Lottery Fund to help ensure that teachers are better at identifying young carers in school, and that young carers are identified and get the support that they require. That is welcome news.
12. What recent assessment he has made of progress on inter-agency working for child protection; and if he will make a statement. (900994)
Professor Eileen Munro looked at inter-agency working in her widely welcomed review of child protection. We endorsed her conclusion that a strong culture of inter-agency working and information sharing is needed in child protection. That is why we have strengthened the statutory guidance, “Working together to safeguard children” 2013, setting out the core responsibilities and legal requirements for all who come into contact with children in order to keep them safe.
The Minister’s response goes some way to reassuring me but, like many colleagues, I find serious case reviews depressingly similar. We hear about the same failings time and again. What is the Secretary of State planning to do to make sure that reviews do not just examine what went wrong, but help us understand why?
The hon. Lady highlights an extremely serious issue which we have taken on board in relation to serious case reviews. It is important that we understand not only what happened but, as she rightly said, why that happened. We have seen in recent serious case reviews the need to get that analysis right so that in the future we see fewer of the problems of the past resurfacing. The Secretary of State will be making a speech later this week on precisely this issue and setting out his vision of what more we need to do to keep our children safe, but it is right that we keep that focus directly where it needs to be—on children—and that it remains our highest priority.
All too often serious case reviews feature a history of domestic violence in the family. What is the Minister doing across government to make sure that a range of professionals are properly trained in this area and are then able to identify and respond to domestic violence?
Before I came to this House and was practising in the family courts, it was a depressing feature of most cases that domestic violence was taking place in the presence of children and sometimes with children being the recipients of that violence. That is why we must be extremely vigilant in whatever work we do with children to make sure we root it out. The Home Office is doing work to try to address training and the understanding of domestic violence, and I know that that is one of the key areas on which the sexual violence against children and vulnerable people national group is working. I will encourage it to do so in collaboration with my Department.
Given the priority that the Government are quite rightly putting on child protection, can the Minister tell me what steps have been taken since I wrote in April to establish the name of the school attended by Adil Rashid, who defended himself against a serious sexual offence on the grounds that his school—his state-funded school—had taught him that women were worthless?
I have been able to identify the school and the steps being taken. I know that my hon. Friend has been in correspondence and the Secretary of State is aware of the issue. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and to write to him with those details so that we ensure that all that can be done is being done.
The new statutory guidance is crystal clear about the responsibilities of all those who work with children, including in schools, and if they have a concern about a child’s welfare, safety or care they should report that to the appropriate authority. We do not believe that making failure to report a criminal offence will improve the protection of children. There is international evidence that suggests that that can make children less safe, but of course we always keep these things under review.
Does the Minister agree that the Baby Peter case and the tragic event of the death of that little boy highlighted the need for inter-agency co-operation? Will he also associate himself with my view that we in this House should all be ashamed of the inappropriate hunting down and scapegoating of Sharon Shoesmith?
In the light of the recent tragic case of Daniel Pelka, we look carefully at what we could learn from the serious case review. It seemed clear to us that the most important focus of our work had to be on understanding what went wrong and why, as opposed to trying to single out individuals at that stage of the investigation. We want everyone to prioritise the protection of children, whatever role they have, whether it is at the level of director of children’s services or working on the front line. We need to send out the message, “We are there to support you in your work, but where you need to be challenged, where there are basic practice failures, we will do so and make sure we put it right.”
Primary School Places
We will spend £5 billion by 2015 on creating new school places across the country—more than double the amount spent by the previous Government in the same time frame. We have worked closely with councils on reforms to school place funding so that it is now more accurate than ever before.
Two years ago, Brent had a surplus of primary school places: this year, 614 children are without one. Has the removal of local authorities’ powers to plan and review school places impacted to more damaging effect in any other borough in the country than in Brent, where we now have a 12.5% shortage?
No, the hon. Gentleman has it completely wrong. What has done damage to place planning in large parts of the country is the removal by the last Labour Government of 200,000 primary school places, even after the Office for National Statistics reported the biggest increase in the birth rate since the second world war. I have some figures for the hon. Gentleman about his borough. Basic need funding for Brent in the last four years under Labour was £33.8 million, which I acknowledge is a lot of money. Under this coalition Government that has now risen to £114 million, an increase of 240%.
Of course the number has gone up, precisely for the reason that I gave: the Lady’s Government took out 200,000 places in primary education, even over a period when for seven years in a row the birth rate was rising. I also have good news for the hon. Lady. During the last four years of her Government, her area had a £3.1 million investment in basic need. Over a comparable period, that figure now is £11.7 million, an increase of 280%. She should be thanking us for that.
I thank the Minister for the recent funding that allowed a significant expansion of primary school places in my constituency. Will he confirm that the Government are spending twice as much on primary school places as the last Government?
I will confirm precisely that. Not only have we allocated £5 billion over this Parliament, more than double the amount that the Labour party allocated over the same period, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has succeeded in securing from the Treasury £7.1 billion of capital funding for basic need alone from 2015 to 2021.
In 2001-02, Labour-run Leeds city council forced through a raft of unpopular primary school closures against the wishes of the community. Now, Labour-run Leeds city council is saying that it does not have enough places and that it needs to spend lots of taxpayers’ money building more schools. How can we prevent such appalling planning in the future?
Now we have evidence from the ground, from Leeds, about the exact consequences of the last Labour Government and the mistake that they made by not investing properly in capital. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that the figures for Leeds are these: under the last Labour Government, £15 million over four years for basic need; under this coalition Government, £99.2 million, an increase of 560%.
24. The pressure on primary school places in north-east Leeds is so great that many parents do not even get their fifth choice. What advice would the Minister offer those parents who are forced to send their non-Jewish child to a Jewish primary school and their non-Christian child to a Christian primary school? (901006)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the shortage is the result of two factors: first, the loss of those 200,000 places; and, secondly, the unprecedented population surge resulting from the open borders during the second half of the previous Government’s time in office?
18. One of the issues in Corby, which has seen a 25% increase in the number of children in reception and has the highest birth rate in the country, is that we now have more provision through a free school at secondary level, where we already have a surplus of places, but insufficient primary school provision. I ask the Minister—in not too political a way, I hope—to look at that. (901000)
This morning I met the leaders of Tresham college, who have been able to announce a multi-million pound investment in my constituency that will include an education village, part of which will be a new primary school. Labour talked about it, but it never happened. Under this Conservative-led Government it is happening. Is not that a good thing?
It certainly is a good thing that under this coalition Government we are seeing a massive increase in capital expenditure on basic need: £400 million was the pitiful amount spent in the last year of the Labour Government. Between 2013 and 2015 we are spending £2.4 billion.
Free School Meals
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has announced that every child in reception—year 1 and year 2—in state-funded schools will be entitled to a free school lunch from September 2014. The Government will say more about the detail of the policy over the next few weeks.
That is a very welcome announcement. On Friday I visited St Mary’s school in Broughton Gifford in my constituency, which does not have kitchen facilities and is no longer in a position to offer its pupils hot lunches. Will the Minister ensure that sufficient capital funding is available to enable small primary schools that do not have kitchen facilities to provide hot lunches to all their infants?
Does the Minister agree that the meals that are provided must be healthy? Some 31% of boys and 29% of girls between the ages of two and 15 are obese, and obesity leads to diabetes. Can we ensure that the meals provided actually help the nutrition for those children?
I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The challenge is to ensure not only that we expand entitlement right across the country by September 2014, but that the meals are healthy and are delivered effectively in every single school. We shall ensure that we do that exactly as set out in the school food plan published a few months ago.
Massive Open Online Courses
MOOCs present a huge opportunity for this country and are part of a technological revolution that we are seeing around the world. A student in Newcastle can now watch a lecture online from a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for free. I think that helps democratise education and open up knowledge.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Thanks to our new national curriculum and qualifications, which are much more flexible, we are seeing a rise in the number of MOOCs in this country. Cambridge university is developing a new MOOC for physics and there are online courses, such as our new core maths course for 16 to 18-year-olds, which is enabling students to study international baccalaureate maths online in their schools.
Special Educational Needs
7. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision of education for children with special educational needs; and if he will make a statement. (900989)
Many schools provide excellent teaching for pupils with SEN, but we know from reports by Ofsted and Brian Lamb that too often pupils are classified as having SEN but do not make progress. That is why our SEN reforms, including education, health and care plans, focus on the involvement of families and the agreement of concrete outcomes, so that parents are clear that their children are genuinely making progress.
I am grateful for the Minister’s response. The 17 October debate in this Chamber on funding support for deaf children and young people highlighted areas of excellence in deaf education across the country, but sadly that is not the case everywhere. What steps will the Minister be taking to support and promote best practice, and ensure that we can distribute best practice for deaf children across the whole country?
The hon. Gentleman has a huge personal interest in this issue, and he made an excellent contribution to that debate. He is right that we need to ensure that, where there is excellence, it can be spread as widely and deeply as possible. That is why we are providing £1.1 million of funding to the National Sensory Impairment Partnership, to help to benchmark local authority service and provide guidance on good practice to support sensory support services, in an effort to get more children to benefit from the excellence that we know exists.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will pay tribute to Dig-iT, the dyslexia group in Tamworth, which does great voluntary work for dyslexia sufferers in the town. Does he agree that we need a level playing field in the teaching of children with dyslexia and dyspraxia, so that they get the best possible chance of success?
I have no doubt that Dig-iT in Tamworth is doing some incredible work to support children with dyslexia and dyspraxia, and we recognise that we need to do more to ensure a level playing field for those families who require extra support. That is why, over two years, we are providing £5.5 million to a number of voluntary organisations, including the Dyslexia-SpLD Trust, so that they can give free advice and training on key aspects of SEN, to make that level playing field a reality.
I congratulate the Government on their education, health and care plans, which could make a real difference. The Minister will know that parents who are used to struggling for support are worried that the plans may be too difficult to access. Given the intention to suspend them in custodial settings and to abolish School Action and School Action Plus, there is a fear that the brave new world could be limited to too few. Will the Minister take those concerns on board? In fact, in this instance, why do we not try to work together and do what is right for those with special needs?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his co-operative spirit on this issue. It is important that Parliament and Government give a single, clear message on ensuring that all children with SEN get the support that they need and deserve. I am aware of a number of concerns that have been raised, by parents and others working with children with SEN, during the passage of the Children and Families Bill. The important thing to remember is that we are not reducing or diluting any of the existing protections or rights. In fact, we are expanding them in many cases, particularly for those young people over the age of 16. We will continue to work on some of the remaining issues as the Bill continues its passage through the other place.
8. What steps he is taking to ensure there is sufficient supply of child care places for the 40% most disadvantaged two-year-olds. (900990)
After only one month of the programme being available, local authorities have reported to us that 92,000 two-year-olds have received an early education place. That is well on the way to our ultimate goal. In fact, it is 70% of it, which is a tremendous achievement by the local authorities and child care providers that participated. We are doing more work to make sure that childminders, nurseries and school nurseries are able to offer places for next year’s expansion.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but is it not the case that the latest figures produced by her own Department suggest that the take-up of the offer for two-year-olds has been lower than intended? This is a flagship policy of the Government, so will the Minister confirm whether she is satisfied with the information that she has just given us, or will she try to make the programme work even better?
I think that 92,000 places is a fantastic achievement for local authorities. There are disparities across the country, and we are working with local authorities that are behind. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that 400 two-year-olds have places in his local area of Tameside. We are doing more to ensure that childminders can offer places. All good and outstanding childminders will be able to offer places from this September.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Unfortunately, the number of childminders halved under the previous Government. We are determined to see the number increase. We are allowing all good and outstanding childminders to offer early education. We are also enabling the establishment of childminding agencies, which will be a one-stop shop for new childminders who want to join the professions and will enable parents to find the home-based care that they want for their children.
The truth is that under the hon. Lady’s Government, the number of child care places has fallen. As a result, the costs are going up. Families who are already struggling to make ends meet cannot afford to work. When will she get a grip of the child care provision for two-year-olds and older children and tackle the child care crisis that is facing families across the country?
First, I welcome the shadow Minister to her new position and congratulate her on her well deserved promotion. I am delighted to be working with her on this issue. As I have pointed out, we reported today that 92,000 two-year-olds are in early education places. That compares with 20,000 two-year-olds in 2010. This Government have made massive progress.
To make a difference, the additional capacity must be delivered in high-quality settings. Will the Minister discuss with Ofsted the need to ensure that the inspection framework is sufficiently robust to ensure that those providers who want to expand their capacity are challenged to give those from poorer backgrounds the best start in life?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are ensuring that those places are delivered by good and outstanding nurseries and childminders. This year, the number of early years teachers entering the programme increased by 25%. Those teachers will have the same standards as primary and secondary school teachers. We are improving the quality of the work force, which will ultimately deliver better early education.
Special Educational Needs
Teachers tell us that the quality of their training in SEN has improved significantly, with 69% of primary teachers and 74% of secondary teachers rating their training as “good” or “very good” in helping them to teach pupils with SEN. That compares with as few as 45% in 2008.
Just over 1,900 pupils in my constituency have special educational needs. Those children need teachers who understand their unique requirements as learners and adapt their lessons appropriately. Does the Minister accept that such pupils lose out in schools that have unqualified teachers who have never undertaken any special educational needs training?
We have introduced a new duty on schools to secure independent and impartial careers advice. For the first time, we have a National Careers Service and Ofsted will judge a school’s leadership on how well they deliver.
Research conducted last month as part of professions week found that, of the 1,200 14 to 19-year-olds surveyed, just 40% had received any form of careers advice or guidance in the past year. In the light of Ofsted’s damning report earlier this autumn, will the Minister assure the House that further steps will be taken to ensure that the transfer of the duty to schools leads to an improvement in careers advice and guidance?
Yes, we are clear that we are going to strengthen careers advice. Ofsted’s statement that it will look into the quality of the advice that is given will ensure that schools deliver appropriate high-quality careers advice. That advice needs to be of a high quality, and it must be delivered by people who understand how to inspire and mentor young people to enter careers that will interest them.
The Government’s programme for school-based careers guidance has been slated by the OECD, Ofsted and the Chair of the Education Committee. Careers England found that the Government’s changes have caused a drastic reduction in careers services for some 80% of schools. What is the Minister going to do about that?
I am going to execute the plan that we set out last month. I welcome the hon. Lady to her post. The best way to solve careers advice is not to insist on a bureaucratic system of requirements, but to ensure that people in the workplace are closer to education and that schools communicate with employers, so that those who deliver careers advice understand the careers on which they are advising.
Does the Minister share my experience that it is quite unusual to hear someone of any age spontaneously talking about the excellent careers advice they received, and even rarer to meet someone who is in the job that they were once advised was for them? Is not the best advice often to keep one’s options open by choosing valuable, trusted subjects, hence the EBacc and TechBac?
It is undoubtedly true that the two most important vocational subjects are English and maths and that the best insurance against unemployment as a young person is to study more English and maths. I will, however, take my hon. Friend slightly to task. Many people were mentored by those who inspired them and from whom they learned a lot. Ensuring that all children have such relationships with people in the sort of careers that they want to enter is an important part of strengthening social mobility.
Ofsted reports that three quarters of the schools that it visited were not carrying out the duty to give impartial careers advice. That confirms what everybody out there knows: careers advice, information and guidance are in a state on this Government’s watch. When will they do something about it and protect our young people for the future?
Yes, indeed, we are acting, having inherited a complete failure in careers advice. The Connexions service that the Labour party keeps talking about was well known to be a failing institution, and when it was taken apart, it was agreed across the House that that was the right thing to do because it was not delivering. Instead, we have put in place the sort of guidance and inspiration that will help and support people all the way through and into their careers. Ofsted will hold schools to account, and that is the right way to proceed.
The welcome growth in the number of academies has provided more freedom for more head teachers to raise standards for more students, especially the poorest.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Although a formal teaching qualification may be a bonus, with Ofsted’s rigorous new inspection regime and performance-related pay, does he agree that it would be dogmatic in the extreme to force heads to fire 15,000 teachers, regardless of their impact in the classroom, just because they do not hold a piece of paper?
That is a characteristically acute point from my hon. Friend. The most important thing we need to do is ensure that the quality of teaching in our schools is improving. Ofsted tells us that it is, and I am delighted to report that to the House. That is a result of our reforms.
There are certainly questions to be answered by those responsible for Kings science academy, but I stress that all academies and free schools are more rigorously audited and held accountable than local authority schools. I also stress that for many years the quality of education in Bradford has been appalling, yet it is only when new providers come in to innovate that we hear from Opposition Members. They are prepared consistently to turn a blind eye to Labour local authorities that fail, yet whenever there is any challenge to that complacency, all they can do is talk cynically about those idealists who are trying to improve state education.
The Secretary of State will be aware from the recent Defence Committee inquiry that the education statements contained in the armed forces covenant clash with the Education Act 2011 on admissions to school. With that in mind, should head teachers of Army-focused schools have more authority over whom they admit to their schools?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. One thing that he has done consistently in his time in the House is to ensure that schools in garrison towns such as the one that he represents take appropriate account of the need of our armed forces and their children, particularly at times of movement and redeployment. I would be happy to talk to him more closely about how we can ensure not only that admissions arrangements but additional support are there for those families. We have introduced the service premium for the children of those in the armed forces. I hope that the introduction of that additional cash will help his constituents and those of every other hon. Member.
Does the Secretary of State share my expectation that head teachers, when they exercise greater autonomy, take account of the needs of the area in which they teach and operate, which we are trying to achieve in Birmingham? Will he encourage them to do so?
I absolutely would encourage them to do that. Let me pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work in bringing teachers together in Birmingham to introduce the Birmingham baccalaureate, which is a perfect preparation both for the world of work and for further and higher education. One problem in Birmingham for many years has been a culture of underperformance in far too many schools, and that has been insufficiently challenged by the local authority. It should not have to fall to her to do the job that the council should have been doing, but if I would trust anyone to do that job instead of the council, it would be her.
Free schools and academies are held more rigorously to account than any other schools.
Well, that is a bit of a shock, because it is widely accepted that the democratic scrutiny and oversight of state schools is pretty intense but hardly exists at all for free schools. Does the Secretary of State not worry that that has led to the scandals of the past few months, which could well be the tip of the iceberg? We could see more scandals over the next few years because of that lack of democratic scrutiny.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was surprised by either the content or the brevity of my response, but let me spell things out in slightly greater detail. Academies and free schools have an accounting officer in the way that local authority schools do not; and academies and free schools have to file accounts every year in a way that local authority schools do not. The National Audit Office has pointed out that the scrutiny of schools by local authorities is not what we should expect. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are problems in individual academies and free schools, but there are also problems in individual local authority schools. We know what has gone wrong in academies and free schools because this Government have put in place an improved system of scrutiny for them.
20. Does the Secretary of State agree that the problems at the school in Bradford highlighted earlier are nothing to do with it being a free school? Will he comment on the One in a Million free school, which recently opened in Bradford? It was over-subscribed and is doing a fantastic job of providing the education that is much needed in that part of Bradford. (901002)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The highest-performing school in Bradford is, I believe, an academy. New free schools that have arrived in Bradford have, until recently, been welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Increased choice for parents and an increased range of schools have helped to drive up standards across the UK. It is striking that schools in England have consistently improved over the past few years in a way that schools in Wales have not. That is because we have not only parental choice, free schools and academies, but a rigorous inspectorate and league tables, which enable us to identify good practice and spread it more energetically.
I am pleased to hear what the Secretary of State has said on the rigorous oversight for financial purposes of free schools. The Ofsted report on the Al-Madinah school in my constituency has been published, but when does he expect to publish the report of the external funding agency?
The report is by the Education Funding Agency rather than the external funding agency, but I take the right hon. Lady’s point. We have published more about the Al-Madinah free school than has been published about other local authority schools in Derby. It is striking that she raises the weakness of the Al-Madinah free school when, as Ofsted has pointed out with respect to Derby, it is in one of the weakest areas of school improvement of any local authority. In consultation with the EFA, we will ensure that every piece of information necessary about the fate of that school is published at the appropriate time, in the appropriate way. However, it must be stressed that the action we have taken to deal with the Al-Madinah free school was taken faster than any action taken by Labour-led Derby council to deal with any of the underperforming schools in that great city.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Schools, including Sinfin school and Grampian school, were allowed to fail in Derby. When they were taken over as academies under this Government, they all saw real improvement in performance. Derby was among the 20% of local authorities that were the weakest when it came to school improvement. The right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) said nothing about that then, but she turns a Nelsonian blind eye to failure by Labour local authorities. When this Government take steps to improve state education, she has nothing to say.
The Secretary of State sat on the damning report on the Kings science academy scandal for more than five months. When was he planning to tell us that the school had been fined an additional £4,000 for refusing to implement the direction of the independent review panel? Why is there so much secrecy around these schools? Is it because, as he said earlier, he seems to think that fraud is acceptable as long as those responsible are innovators?
There is less secrecy around these schools than there is around local authority schools. We have published the internal audit report on what happened at the Kings science academy. We informed the Home Office of our concerns about that school, and the reason the hon. Gentleman knows so much about the school is that this Government have been far more transparent about institutional failure than the Government of whom he was a member. [Interruption.] However much he may prate and cry from a sedentary position, he knows that this Government have been more transparent about failure and more determined to turn schools around and generate success than his ever was.
Teacher Supply and Recruitment
The primary duty of the Secretary of State is surely to provide enough good school places and enough good teachers. It seems that he is failing on both counts. Why have the Government not published the 2014-15 teacher training number allocation by providers, subject and phase, as normal? What is he trying to hide?
We are not trying to hide anything. We have already published the headline figures for allocations to initial teacher training. The detailed allocations, including the breakdown by subject, will be published in the next few weeks, once they have been confirmed by universities and schools. I will be happy to ensure that the hon. Lady receives a full set of figures.
Next year, my Department will be joining the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that all children have the opportunity to learn from, and commemorate, the sacrifice of those who fell in the first world war. We will be building on the work of the excellent Holocaust Educational Trust, which ensures that children have the chance to travel to Auschwitz, so that children in all state schools have an opportunity to visit the battlefields of the first world war.
The Secretary of State will know that there is no requirement on schools to have a defibrillator on the premises. Is it not time for such a requirement, to ensure that all children and staff are protected? It cannot be right to leave it to parent teacher association fundraising and charities, which have so much else to do. What plans does he have to put that right?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) has been campaigning on this issue and I will be meeting him shortly. There is much to be said for supporting schools to ensure that defibrillators are in place. I want to work with the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole to do that in the most effective way.
T2. Last week, I was pleased to help launch “My Education”, a report produced by Teach First and Pearson, which surveyed 8,000 British teenagers on their education. The overwhelming majority said that more work experience and better careers advice would help them find the right future. Following that overwhelming response, can the Secretary of State assure us that the National Careers Service will be enabled to support the delivery of careers advice and guidance in schools to the betterment of our entire population? (901010)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is important to stress that we need to ensure more work experience opportunities for all young people, which is why we have changed how children are funded when they enter post-16 education to make it easier to offer the appropriate work experience. I also agree that we need to ensure that careers advice for young people is suitably inspiring and to see whether the National Careers Service or other institutions can help. In particular, it is important to work with businesses to ensure that young people have the opportunity to see and hear from the role models who will ensure they make the right choices in the future.
The Secretary of State is not aware of his own GCSE reforms. He has introduced the soft bigotry of low expectations into our education system. He might have enjoyed studying the works of Jane Austen and Wilfred Owen, but he is denying England’s pupils the same access to our national canon if they take only the English language GCSE. If it was all right for him, at Robert Gordon’s college, why is it not okay for kids in Harlow and Blackpool today? Will he now urgently review the changes to English GCSE, or will he continue to dumb down our syllabus?
Tragically, when I was a student at Robert Gordon’s college in Aberdeen, I was not able to take English GCSE, because I was in Scotland and GCSEs were not on offer at that time. As a historian, the hon. Gentleman could perhaps do with studying geography rather more.
Under our new accountability system, which I urge the hon. Gentleman to study and which his colleague, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), welcomed, English will not count unless students study both English language and literature, and the English baccalaureate, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) supports, will be conferred on students only if they study both English language and literature. He talks about Jane Austen. One of the tragedies about the current English GCSE is that fewer than 1% of students who sit it actually read a word of Jane Austen. Before he asks another question in the House, may I recommend to him one particular text of hers—“Pride and Prejudice”? A knowledge of both things would certainly help him to be a more effective Opposition spokesperson.
We have raised standards for early-years teachers so that they have to pass the same maths and English tests as primary and secondary school teachers, and this year we have seen a 25% increase in the number of students applying for those courses, so they are proving very popular.
Thank you. The hon. Gentleman is my hero.
As I have pointed out in speech after speech—I will send them to the hon. Lady—we must always seek to ensure that accidents of birth or circumstances never hold any child back. One of the great things about education is that children can constantly surprise us with their ability. To the historians on the Opposition Front Bench, I would recommend the words of my predecessor in my role as Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher: advisers advise, but Ministers decide.
T6. I welcome the Minister’s earlier commitment to healthy school lunches. Will he ensure that head teachers retain the autonomy to establish high standards in the provision of these lunches and are not, because of shared contracts, left at the mercy of one particular provider? (901015)
We will ensure that head teachers have proper flexibility and that they see the conclusions of the school food plan, which demonstrates precisely how head teachers and schools can not only deliver free school meals in the future, but do so in a way that ensures their high quality.
One of Labour’s greatest achievements was 3,631 Sure Start centres, such as Story Wood and Lakeside in my constituency, transforming the lives of children. At the last general election, the then Leader of the Opposition said:
“Yes, we back Sure Start. It’s a disgrace that”
“has been trying to frighten people about this.”
Since then, 566 have closed. Is not the real disgrace making a promise to our nation’s children and then breaking it?
Last week, we heard that a record number of parents and children—more than 1 million—were using Sure Start centres. In fact, we have increased the number of sites: there are 3,000 children’s centres and a further 2,000 linked sites. The hon. Gentleman is referring to where management efficiencies have been made, but more parents are accessing our centres than ever before, and I think he should congratulate the centres on their success.
T7. Last week, I was at the launch of the Sky academy in Osterley, which includes a Sky skills studio, scholarships for emerging talent, starting-out initiatives and living for sport. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can create similar initiatives in other sectors and establish a business ambassador for each school? (901016)
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. She failed to mention that David Beckham was also at that launch, which was no doubt an exciting moment. I pay tribute to the Sky academy and to the work that has been put in to ensure that people going into the media and the arts have not only the skills but the mentoring and inspiration to make the best of their lives. That is exactly what is needed if we are to see more people getting the chance and the inspiration to reach their potential.
Today sees the launch of Juice FM’s Knives Wreck Lives campaign in Liverpool, which aims to raise awareness among people on Merseyside of just how damaging knives can be. Will the Secretary of State welcome the campaign, and tell the House what he is doing in our schools and colleges to inform young people about the perils of knife crime?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing our attention to that exemplary campaign. I have campaigned against knife crime since before my time in the House. I worked with the widow of Philip Lawrence, who was the tragic victim of such a crime, in order to raise awareness of what could be done to tackle it in and outside schools. I also worked with two former Home Secretaries to ensure that combat knives were banned. I am delighted that head teachers in schools across the country are today using a variety of innovative methods and working with a variety of third sector groups to alert children to the dangers of carrying and using knives, but there is of course much more to be done and I look forward to working with the hon. Lady and other Members in that endeavour.
This is the first Government to use Government time and Government Bills to advance the cause and rights of carers. Having already taken the welcome step of ensuring that a whole-family approach is taken to young carers and the people they care for, will the Government consider what further steps they could take to extend that approach to parent carers of disabled children?
I know that my right hon. Friend worked hard on this issue in Government, and that he set up the carers strategy, which has done much to highlight this important area. We have made progress on young carers in the Children and Families Bill, and parent carers will benefit from the changes in our special educational needs reforms. I have met the Minister for Care and Support, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), and looked at the existing legislative framework relating to parent carers. We are satisfied that there is no evidence that it needs to be changed or strengthened, but I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss the matter further and to see what else we might be able to do to achieve the end that he seeks.
Following the abject failure of the Secretary of State’s free school experiment at the Al-Madinah school in Derby, will he now give the local education authority the ability to scrutinise the school and make it accountable to the LEA? If the school closes, will he ensure that Derby city council has sufficient resources to accommodate the children in council-run schools?
There are certainly serious issues at the Al-Madinah free school, as we all acknowledge, but it is important to put them in context. Of the first 24 free schools to be inspected, 75% were good or better, whereas in the first tranche of new local authority schools set up in the same period, only half reached that quality threshold. It is also important to recognise that the local authority in Derby has a poor record of helping to challenge underperforming schools, and that outside providers such as Barry Day of Greenwood Dale have done far more to improve education in Derby than the local authority has ever done.
Primary schools in rural communities face special challenges. In our recent report on rural communities, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee urged Ministers to give back to local authorities the flexibility to spend the most on those primary schools in the greatest need. Can we have that flexibility back?
There is flexibility in the current approach. There is a lump sum attached to every school that ensures that smaller schools that are doing a great job can continue to provide high-quality education for children in rural areas, but the changes we are making to introduce a national fair funding formula will go even further to meet my hon. Friend’s concerns.
Local head teachers tell me that Bristol city council is advising them to offer funded early education in just the mornings or just the afternoons so that they can avoid the cost of providing free school meals to eligible children. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that these children are missing out on their school dinners and that statutory guidance to offer education at times that best support the child’s learning is being breached?
Some 1.2 million children living within the Government’s own definition of childhood poverty do not get a free school meal. Why do the Government consider it a higher priority to give free school meals to all five, six and seven-year-olds, 1.3 million of whom can perfectly well afford to pay?
I am pleased to be in a coalition Government when the Deputy Prime Minister has made a commitment to the extension of free school meals to five, six and seven-year-olds. We should never make the perfect the enemy of the good. Let me take this opportunity to praise Liberal Democrat colleagues who worked with us in order to ensure that more children have the opportunity to enjoy high-quality lunches. Let me say, too, to the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey), with whom I normally agree, that on this occasion I have to part company with him and say that his leader has done the right thing, with which I am delighted to be associated.
The Secretary of State has said that circumstances should never hold any child back. How, then, does he plan to respond to this week’s Institute for Fiscal Studies report that showed that grammar schools are five times less likely to admit poorer children than their state counterparts?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. The introduction of academies and free schools is making sure that more children have the chance to attend academically excellent schools. For those living in areas where there are grammar schools who feel that the quality of education they enjoy is not good enough, we are providing choice through the growth of academies and choice through the growth of free schools. Through the pupil premium we are investing £2.5 billion for the very poorest children—a commitment to social justice of the kind to which I know Mr Speaker believes we should all be committed.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Matters of school uniform are rightly questions that head teachers should decide on, or college principals should be responsible for. I hope it is clear that the wearing of any item that impedes effective teaching or effective learning is something that we should all ensure does not happen in the classroom. I am working with both the chief inspector of schools and officials within the Department for Education in order to ensure that schools and individuals receive an unambiguous message about the vital importance of ensuring that cultural or other barriers do not impede the capacity to learn of children from whatever community.
Point of Order
I am most grateful to you for making an exception in this case, Mr Speaker. As you are aware, Lord Triesman gave evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee as part of our inquiry into the 2018 world cup bid. During his evidence, under parliamentary privilege, Lord Triesman made specific accusations of corruption against four named members of FIFA’s executive committee. In the subsequent review conducted by the Football Association, Lord Triesman was careful to say in answer to questions from James Dingemans QC, who was conducting the review, that he invited him to rely on the evidence that he had given to the Select Committee, and that he did not wish to add to it. In January 2013, one of those accused, Mr Makudi, brought an action for defamation against Lord Triesman, which was struck out. However, in June this year the Court of Appeal granted leave to Mr Makudi to appeal.
This matter goes to the heart of the privilege afforded to Members of Parliament and to witnesses who give evidence to Parliament. If witnesses to Select Committees cannot be confident that their evidence is covered by absolute privilege, and that if they do not repeat the allegations outside Parliament they are fully protected against legal action, that will severely damage the ability of Select Committees to obtain the information that they require. I should therefore be grateful, Mr Speaker, if you would consider what action you, or Parliament, can take to defend the principle of parliamentary privilege, which is a fundamental right enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who chairs the Culture, Media and Sport Committee with great skill, for his courtesy in giving me notice of his point of order.
I have followed these matters very closely, and the possible implications give me cause for grave concern. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the matter is awaiting determination by the Court of Appeal, so I will not of course comment on the substance of the case; but I will say to the hon. Gentleman, and to the House, that I consider these matters to be of such importance for the House and for its Members, and to the protection of free speech in our proceedings, that written submissions have been made to the court on my behalf by Speaker’s Counsel. I shall of course be following developments closely, as, I know, will the hon. Gentleman. I am extremely grateful to him.
Iran and Syria
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on developments in the Iran nuclear negotiations, and on our work to bring together a peace conference on Syria.
I returned yesterday from E3 plus 3 negotiations with Iran in Geneva. This was the third round of talks in the last month, and it began last Thursday at official level. On Friday and Saturday, E3 plus 3 Foreign Ministers joined the Iranian Foreign Minister at the negotiations.
The threat of nuclear proliferation in the middle east is one of the greatest dangers to the peace and security of the world. That is why we must build momentum behind the Geneva negotiations, and why we and Iran must ensure that the opportunity of making progress does not slip away in the coming weeks.
We had two days of intensive negotiations with Iran, which finished in the early hours of yesterday morning. These were complex and detailed discussions, covering every aspect of Iran's nuclear programme. Our aim is to produce an interim first step agreement with Iran that can then create the confidence and space to negotiate a comprehensive and final settlement. The talks broke up without our reaching that interim agreement, because some gaps between the parties remain. While I cannot go into the details of the discussions while the talks continue, I can say that most of those gaps are now narrow, and many others were bridged altogether during the negotiations. As we concluded the negotiations on Saturday night, all six E3 plus 3 Foreign Ministers presented the same united position to Iran, which provides an extremely strong foundation for the next round of talks on 20 November.
I pay tribute to Baroness Ashton and my Foreign Minister colleagues, including Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. He is a tough but constructive negotiator, who displayed a sincere and open approach throughout the talks. He and I took the opportunity to discuss further the bilateral relationship between Britain and Iran, and today both our Governments have formally appointed our new chargé d'affaires. I expect the new UK chargé to make his first visit to Iran this month.
The Government are firmly in favour of reaching an interim agreement with Iran, as an essential step towards a comprehensive settlement. But given the extensive nature of Iran’s programme and the history of its concealment, the detailed terms of any agreement matter greatly. An agreement has to be clear and detailed, cover all aspects of Iran’s programme, and give assurance to the whole world that the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran is fully addressed. Such a deal is on the table, and there is no doubt in my mind that it can be reached. I am convinced that the agreement we were discussing would be good for the security of the entire world, and we will pursue it with energy and persistence.
An interim agreement would involve offering Iran limited, proportionate sanctions relief. In the meantime, however, we will be vigilant and firm in upholding the international sanctions which have played an indispensable part in creating this new opening with Iran. Sanctions are costing the Iranian economy at least $4 billion a month and this cost will be maintained until we reach an agreement. Until such a moment, there is no question of our relaxing the pressure of sanctions in any way. We are determined to take every opportunity to reach a diplomatic settlement to the Iranian nuclear crisis, because the alternatives—nuclear proliferation or conflict—could be disastrous for the peace and security of the world, including the stability of the middle east.
That stability is being severely undermined by the deepening crisis in Syria. Our objectives there remain to reach a political settlement to the conflict, thereby also protecting UK national security, to alleviate the desperate humanitarian suffering, and to prevent the further use of chemical weapons. On 22 October I hosted a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the 11 countries of the core group of the Friends of Syria, as well as the president and senior leadership of the Syrian National Coalition. We gave our united support to the UN-led Geneva II process, which should establish a transitional governing body with full Executive powers, formed by mutual consent. There was unanimous agreement that Assad and his close associates can play no role in a body formed by mutual consent. We also agreed to provide the National Coalition with additional political and practical support to give the Geneva conference the best chance of success, and urged the Coalition to commit itself to taking part in it. It has now done that, which I strongly welcome. Last night, its members agreed by consensus at a general assembly to attend the Geneva II talks, on the basis that this meant that Assad and those with blood on their hands would have no role in a transition. They also rightly called for humanitarian access and the release of detainees ahead of Geneva II. We continue to push for a date for a peace conference to be agreed, and UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has reiterated that he is still trying to convene a conference before the end of the year.
In the light of this decision by the Coalition, we will provide practical and political support to help it prepare to lead the opposition delegation. I will shortly lay before Parliament a proposal to increase our non-lethal support to the supreme military council of General Idris. This life-saving equipment will take the form of communications, medical and logistics equipment. There can be no peaceful settlement to the conflict in Syria without a strong role for the legitimate, moderate opposition. I also welcome the vote last night by the National Coalition to confirm the inclusion of the Kurdish National Council in its ranks, which adds further to its broad representation of Syrian people.
We are also particularly determined to ensure that the peace talks include a direct role for women’s groups, in accordance with Security Council decisions on women, peace and security. It is vital that women participate fully in the future Government and institutions of Syria, as they have an indispensable role to play in rebuilding and reconciling Syrian society. We are ready to work with Mr Brahimi, his team, international NGOs and other countries to make this a reality. We will also work with the UN and its agencies to ensure that we give the women’s groups the support they need to participate effectively. In addition, we are encouraging the Syrian National Coalition to include women members in its delegation.
So far we have committed over £20 million to support opposition groups, civil society, human rights defenders and media activists in Syria. This ranges from training and equipping search and rescue teams to providing up to £1 million to help survivors of sexual violence gain access to justice, and we will develop this assistance further.
The humanitarian situation in Syria is one of unimaginable distress and suffering. Well over 100,000 people have died, and 11.5 million people—more than half of Syria’s population—are now in desperate need of assistance, either inside the country or as refugees in the region. The UN estimates that 2.5 million people are trapped in areas in Syria that aid is not reaching, including an estimated half a million men, women and children living under siege conditions. Severe acute malnutrition is emerging among children, and polio has reappeared, 14 years after the country was certified free of the disease.
Appalling human rights violations are being committed, including the use of incendiary bombs against civilians, torture, rape, massacres and summary executions, and attacks on hospitals, schools and aid convoys. The regime has shown that it can facilitate access to chemical weapons inspectors when it wishes, and it could do so for humanitarian relief if it showed a shred of humanity and wished to do so. We need to address this crisis to save lives, and also to improve the prospects for the Geneva talks. On 2 October, we helped to secure a UN Security Council presidential statement which said that humanitarian aid must be able to reach all Syrians. That statement is clearly not being implemented. I spoke last week to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov urging his Government to try to persuade the regime to stop blocking the delivery of aid, and we would like to see stronger action in the UN Security Council, including a resolution, if necessary.
In the Security Council, and through all other avenues available to us, we will press for: full humanitarian access and freedom of movement for trapped civilians; the evacuation of civilians from besieged areas; safe passage for medical personnel and convoys; the creation of hubs for the delivery of aid; cross-border assistance; and the lifting of bureaucratic burdens imposed by the regime. We will also work with the Coalition to improve access to aid in areas under its control. The UK is contributing £500 million to relief efforts, much of it to assist neighbouring countries, and the international community has provided $3 billion in funding for this year. But the fact that the existing UN appeal for this year is still nearly $2 billion short underlines just how extreme the humanitarian crisis is, and we call on all countries to do more.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed that the destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons production, mixing and filling equipment is now complete. But some warheads and all of the bulk chemical agents and precursors remain, and must be eliminated. The UK has provided £2.4 million of support to this process, and we will continue to support the mission until Syria’s chemical weapons capability is eradicated.
Diplomatic progress on all of these issues often seems intractable and difficult, but it is vital that diplomacy succeeds, and we will persist undeterred by the frustrations and delays. At the same time, we will strongly support the middle east peace process, which remains central to international peace and security. We do not underestimate the challenges, but firmly believe that if Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas show further bold leadership, a negotiated two-state solution is possible. We are working with European partners to provide practical support to both sides, including bilateral assistance to the institutions of a future Palestinian state.
We are likely to face a long period of turbulence in many areas of the middle east in the coming years, and if we do not succeed in diplomatic solutions in these three crucial conflicts and potential conflicts, the outlook would be dark indeed, for the region and for the peace and security of the world. In the coming weeks, we will maintain every possible effort to succeed.
May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it this afternoon? On Iran, may I echo the tribute he paid generously to the efforts of Baroness Ashton, who played a crucial role in driving forward these latest talks, and pay tribute to the clear commitment shown by all the P5 plus 1 Ministers in attendance at Geneva? I admit that I was somewhat perplexed to see the Foreign Secretary here at 9.30 am on Friday, but he was right then to make the journey to Geneva.
Labour remains of the view that a nuclear-armed Iran poses a real threat, not just to Israel, but to regional and international security. Therefore, we believe that the United Kingdom Government should continue to pursue the twin-track approach of sanctions and diplomacy. President Rouhani campaigned, and was subsequently elected in June, on a platform of taking the necessary steps to ease the pressure of the sanctions that are currently putting the Iranian economy under strain, so I do believe that sanctions have been effective and continue to be important. However, alongside continued sanctions sustained diplomatic engagement remains key, so I welcome the news of the Government’s announcement that a chargé d’affaires has now been appointed and hope that the British embassy in Tehran will be reopened as soon as it is safe and practical to do so.
The Foreign Secretary said that he cannot go into the details of the negotiations while talks are ongoing, so today I will focus my questions on the outcome of the talks rather than the substance of the deal under discussion. Reports emerging over the weekend described a French veto that prevented any deal from being signed, yet Secretary Kerry was quoted this morning as saying:
“The French signed off on it, we signed off on it, and everybody agreed it was a fair proposal…Iran couldn’t take it at that particular moment; they weren’t able to accept.”
In the light of the somewhat conflicting reports, will the Foreign Secretary set out whether there was unity among the P5 plus 1 and say a little more about the basis on which he has just told the House that such a deal is on the table and that there is no doubt that it can be reached?
It is inevitable and, indeed, understandable that as the outline of such a deal begins to emerge it will increasingly be called into question by those parties that have so much at stake. In the light of that reaction, will the Foreign Secretary set out what assurances have been offered to regional partners, particularly Israel, who are concerned that the principle of an interim deal will, by definition, not provide sufficient guarantees that Iran will cease all activity that could contribute to it developing a nuclear weapons capacity?
Let me turn to the issue of Syria. The humanitarian situation in Syria remains desperate and continues to deteriorate. Clearly, the most effective way to ease the suffering in Syria is to end the war, but while efforts to broker a peace deal continue it is vital that the international community lives up to its responsibility to protect those most in need. I welcome the important work that the UK Government have been doing, but despite the UK’s contribution, the UN appeal is still less than half-funded. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore set out what steps the Government will be taking to try to help ensure that other donors deliver on their unfulfilled pledges?
Since the last time the Foreign Secretary addressed the House on the issue, the OPCW has confirmed that Syria’s declared equipment for producing, mixing and filling chemical weapons has now been destroyed. Syria now has until mid-2014 to destroy the remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons. Given that the OPCW team confirmed that it was not able to visit two of the 23 chemical weapons sites in Syria, as they were simply too dangerous, will the Foreign Secretary say what assurances are being sought for the protection of OPCW personnel who are due to carry out further work in conflict zones across the country?
The biggest breakthrough that is needed to most improve the situation on the ground is a diplomatic initiative. As the Foreign Secretary stated, women will have a key role to play in peace talks and in rebuilding and reconciling Syrian society as the conflict concludes. It is welcome that the SNC has today voted to accept the invitation to attend Geneva II as the representative of the Syrian opposition, but that acceptance is, as the Foreign Secretary has just told us, conditional on Assad and those with blood on their hands having no role in a transition and on the provision of humanitarian access and the release of detainees ahead of the conference being convened. In the light of those specific conditions, will the Foreign Secretary set out his assessment of the likelihood of those conditions being met according to the timetable of the year’s end set out by Lakhdar Brahimi?
In the light of his most recent discussions with representatives of the Iranian regime, will the Foreign Secretary also tell us the British Government’s policy on Iran’s participation in any Geneva II conference before the end of the year? Geneva II still offers the best prospect for securing a more stable future for the people of Syria, so the Government will have the Opposition’s support in their efforts to try to bring about this long-delayed but much-needed conference.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s overall support for our twin-track approach on Iran and our efforts to ensure diplomatic success in bringing together a peace conference on Syria.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about the Iranian nuclear negotiations. It is not right to speak of any veto on the negotiations by any of the E3 plus 3, or P5 plus 1, countries. The position put to Iran by all of us together in the final hours of the discussions on Friday and Saturday had been amended in the light of comments from various of the parties concerned, but it is entirely permissible for members of the E3 plus 3 to put forward their own comments, amendments and positions. There are six sovereign nations involved—as well as the Iranians, who will put forward their positions, of course. A completely united position was put to the Iranians at the close of our discussions, so reports of vetoes by one country, or of obstruction by any country, should be seen in that light. We were all arguing for the same position and the same deal.
The right hon. Gentleman asked what assurances we had given to other countries, and referred to Israel’s concerns about the concept of making an interim deal, rather than going straight to a comprehensive final settlement. We have discussed that. During the talks, I spoke to the Israeli Minister responsible for international relations and security, Mr Yuval Steinitz, and this weekend, the Prime Minister spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu, to give them our assurances and state our confidence in this kind of agreement.
It has to be faced that attempts to go straight to a comprehensive final settlement would be dramatically more difficult than even this process, and it is quite evident from events over the weekend that this process is difficult enough. An interim agreement would be designed to give us the time and space to negotiate a comprehensive final agreement—time during which Iran would take concrete actions in relation to its nuclear programme, in order to give greater assurance and confidence to the international community, and we would offer proportionate and limited sanctions relief in return, but the pressure would still be there to conclude a comprehensive final settlement. There are concerns about this, but all of us in the E3 plus 3 countries believe that this is the most effective and practical way to reach a settlement with Iran.
On the question about humanitarian relief, the UK has been very active, as the House knows, including through the meeting that the Prime Minister convened at the G20 and all our diplomatic efforts around that, in getting other nations to step up their humanitarian assistance. About $1 billion of additional assistance has, one way or another, been associated with the efforts that we have made. We will continue to make those efforts, but that appeal is $2 billion underfunded for this year, and of course we are in the middle of November and approaching the time for another UN appeal. We will strongly support the donor conference that has been called in Kuwait for the middle of January. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who was in the Chamber a moment ago, is working very hard to help bring that together.
The chemical weapons inspectors have now, one way or another, inspected all 23 sites, but of course their security during the continuing work is important. That has to be taken into account in the decision that the OPCW executive council needs to adopt by 15 November —this Friday. The decision is still under negotiation, but it is expected to set out the detailed requirements, including intermediate milestones, for the complete elimination of chemical weapons in Syria in the first half of 2014.
On the stipulations made by the National Coalition regarding their support for the Geneva II process, I do not believe that they need to be obstacles to assembling a Geneva II peace conference. The statement—it is a view that we share—that Assad cannot be part of a transitional authority formed by mutual consent is not surprising. Any authority formed by mutual consent in Syria is unlikely to include those whom the other side regard as having very extensive blood on their hands. The calls for humanitarian assistance and humanitarian access, and for prisoners to be released, are calls that we should all be able to support in any case, so I do not think that those things should be seen as making a Geneva II conference more difficult. We now need the regime to respond in the same spirit.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about the inclusion of Iran in the talks. We believe that the starting point for a Geneva II conference is the outcome of Geneva I last year, and that all parties to the talks should be able to accept that. I continue to urge Iran to adopt that position; it would make it much easier for the rest of the world to embrace it in the talks.
I welcome the statement made by my right hon. Friend in respect of both these difficult issues, but may I invite him to return to the question of refugees? Is he aware that the refugee camp on the Jordanian side of the border with Syria is now the fourth largest city in Jordan, and that there are reports that within a few months medical services in Jordan may simply collapse under the weight and impact of the refugee problem? Does my right hon. Friend understand that if irreparable damage is done to Jordan, it is in no one’s interests, particularly not the United Kingdom, because Jordan is a very important ally of ours in the middle east? Will he give the House an assurance that the particular issue of Jordan and other neighbouring countries is within the contemplation of those with whom he is discussing Syria?
Yes, absolutely. My right hon. and learned Friend is quite right. Of the assistance that we have allocated so far, £175 million has been allocated for the neighbouring countries, and the largest single slice of that goes to Jordan. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the middle east was there last week, and visited some of the affected areas. My right hon. and learned Friend is right that the refugee camp of which he speaks is now the fourth largest city in Jordan and the second largest refugee camp anywhere in the world. That is the scale of what we are dealing with. I discussed the position with His Majesty the King of Jordan two weeks ago. We regularly say to the Jordanians, “Is there anything else that we can do to assist?”, and we will continue to provide additional assistance as they need it.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that although his hard-headed but constructive response to the Iranian negotiations is the right one, if they do not succeed and the Iranians go back to Tehran without a deal, that will strengthen the Ahmadinejad-type hawks in Iran, so every opportunity must be taken to get that agreement while preserving the vital interests at stake? May I also ask about the Syrian situation? I worry about an apparent veto in advance as a precondition being struck by the opposition. Yes, they are willing to take part, but they seem to have imposed a precondition on that. Whatever the transition agreed—if there is one—I find it inconceivable that there will not be some elements of the existing regime in place, like it or not, in order to get an agreement.
On the latter point, let us remember that what is envisaged in the communiqué of Geneva I is a transitional authority formed from the opposition and the current regime, but by mutual consent, so when the right hon. Gentleman refers to elements of the regime in a transitional Government, yes, that is accepted in the transitional Government, but the composition has to be by mutual consent. As I was just saying to the shadow Foreign Secretary, I do not believe that the opposition, in setting out their view of that, are setting preconditions or an unreasonable position ahead of Geneva. It would be very, very surprising if they adopted any position different from that in the run-up to these negotiations.
On the first part of the question, I do agree broadly that there is a window of opportunity here for negotiations with Iran to succeed. That is why we are maintaining this pace of negotiations. With three meetings in the past month and another one planned for next week, we are not losing time in pursuing these negotiations.
My right hon. Friend is setting out a degree of progress with the Iranians that would have seemed very unlikely just a few short weeks ago, and we should not miss the significance of what has happened. However, he will be aware that the nuclear file is not the only issue with which the international community has problems in relation to Iran. In his bilateral conversations, did he get any inkling from the Iranians that they understood the problems caused by their sponsorship of international terrorism, their participation in Syria and their appalling human rights record? Will this be addressed as a matter of urgency by our new chargé d’affaires?
Yes, My right hon. Friend is quite right that the sort of constructive meeting that came even close to an interim agreement at the weekend would have been hard to envisage a few months ago. That represents an important diplomatic advance. It is not, of course, good enough to have nearly got there; we have to really get there, but it is a big change in the atmosphere. My right hon. Friend is also right that we have many other difficulties with Iranian policies. I referred to those in my opening meetings with Mr Zarif. Certainly, our newly appointed non-resident chargé will be approaching all these issues across the full range of our relations.
May I first thank the Foreign Secretary personally for the efforts that he has made to improve the bilateral relationship, which is crucial, both for our direct relations with Iran, but also in facilitating this kind of negotiation?
On the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain), there is a danger, which I saw myself some years ago, that negotiations quite close to a deal lose momentum, and it is not only the hard-liners in Tehran who then get in on that, but, bluntly, those in Israel and in Washington, of both parties, and I think now in France, who start to undermine the pace and substance of those negotiations. May I offer the right hon. Gentleman full support, as my right hon. Friend has done, in resisting those clarion calls, for example from some elements in Israel, and some in Washington, which will have the effect of undermining the best chance that we have had for decades to secure a proper deal with Iran?
Yes, we will remain very much committed. The right hon. Gentleman can hear from what I am saying that we are very committed to maintaining this momentum. It is a pity that we did not secure agreement on an interim agreement this weekend, because even losing 10 days implies some loss of momentum here. But as the right hon. Gentleman can gather, we will pick that up as quickly as we possibly can. We have scheduled another meeting immediately. It is important for everyone when they think about this to understand that the pressure is on all of us to reach an agreement—it is on Iran, because the sanctions are really biting and having a very serious impact on it, but it is on all of us if we want to see an agreement on this before the Iranian nuclear programme passes further very important stages in its development. We all have to bear that in mind. That means that an interim first step agreement is in the interests of the whole world.
On Iran, no deal is better than a bad deal, and I wish my right hon. Friend well in bringing the Iranians back to the negotiating table. On Syria, as we are witnessing complete deadlock, does he agree now that the danger is the break-up of the region’s national boundaries, established after the first world war, as the different entities compete for territory and resources and build alliances along ethnic and cultural grounds?
That is one of the dangers, yes. That is absolutely correct. There are many dangers here, but the conflict in Syria becoming more sectarian in its nature and then exacerbating such tensions in neighbouring countries, with a greater and greater disregard for national boundaries, is absolutely a central danger here. That is why it is so important that we give the support to neighbouring countries, including the support that we give to the Lebanese armed forces, which I have described on other occasions, and it is the urgency behind the efforts to come to a political solution to the conflict before it does even greater damage to the entire region.
The situation in Syria is indeed appalling, and everyone will endorse what the Foreign Secretary said and the need for humanitarian aid. On the talks with the Iranian Foreign Minister, is it not a fact that the Israeli Prime Minister has been very active in trying to gather opposition, including hard-line elements in the United States? Is it not essential that, despite such efforts to undermine what could be a great achievement for peace and security, the talks should succeed?
It is important that the talks should succeed. It is very important that we pursue a steady course through this to an agreement that is demanding, of course, and which gives the necessary assurances and brings about concrete actions in Iran’s nuclear programme. We should not be surprised that in different countries people have different opinions about this. That is what we have to deal with as politicians and Ministers. We have to persuade other countries as best we can. We will continue to be very active, talking to Israel and other countries with concerns, not being at all surprised that people have concerns, but putting the case for what we think is right.
Hard-liners in both Iran and the west, including Israel, will want the talks to fail. Given their historic nature, if successful they could lead to other talks on a range of issues in the middle east. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any move by Congress to increase sanctions would be counter-productive and could scupper the talks before they finish?
The US Congress will make its own decisions—it does not necessarily do the bidding of the US Administration, let alone the UK Administration, so I will not lay down what it should and should not do. It is currently debating further sanctions against Iran. I think that it is very important for the Iranian authorities to understand that there will be pressure for greater sanctions, or an intensification of sanctions, unless an agreement is reached on these matters, so they need to be fully aware of that pressure.
As we edge towards a deal, albeit an interim one, on the nuclear issue with Iran, will the Foreign Secretary underline for the House the fact that this country will in no way shrink from standing by Iran’s neighbours, and Israel, against threats and state-sponsored terrorism, either now or in future, because there are bound to be concerns about that, as the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) mentioned earlier?
Those are very serious concerns. As the right hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) have mentioned, it is important to keep up the momentum in addressing the nuclear programme, but that does not mean that we do not have other disagreements. The state sponsorship of terrorism and, in particular, the heavy Iranian involvement that is exacerbating the Syrian conflict and supporting a regime that is perpetrating such murder and abuse of its own people are malign activities in the wider region, but that should not deter us from trying to solve the nuclear issue.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on re-engaging with Iran, which could play an important role in bringing peace, particularly to Syria. It would be helpful if he could enlighten us on his discussions with the Iranian Foreign Minister on what critical path the Iranians see to bringing peace in Syria and, on the flip-side of that coin, what conversations he has had with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which still seem to be supplying Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, ISIL and other jihadis who are already preventing peace in the region.
On the question about Saudi Arabia and other states, those countries are part of the core Friends of Syria group and among the 11 countries that came to London at my invitation a few weeks ago. I discuss the situation regularly with His Royal Highness Prince Saud, the Saudi Foreign Minister, and we have all agreed that our support should go through the supreme military council of General Idris and the Syrian National Coalition. Those 11 countries have agreed that we should not support other groups in Syria, particularly extremist groups, so we look to our partners in the group to live up to those commitments. On the question about Iran, our discussions on Syria have been centred, as I mentioned earlier, on Iran supporting the outcome of Geneva I as the basis for a political settlement in Syria, but it has not yet given that support.
Of course it is important to prepare for peace and useful to talk about mutual agreement, but right now there is a civil war in Syria. Given that we have clearly stated that President Assad and those close to him will have no role in that future, what incentive is there for Assad not simply to fight to the bitter end?
This is not a position that we have just adopted in this country. The Geneva I communiqué of June last year sets out plans for a transitional authority formed from regime and opposition, as I pointed out earlier, and by mutual consent. It therefore does not exclude everyone in the current Syrian regime, but it would clearly be impossible—on the basis not only of Geneva I, but of any practical political consideration—to unite Syria again around an Administration centred on President Assad. After so much blood has been spilled and after a country has become so divided, it is inconceivable that that could happen. This is only the practical politics of the matter, and that is something that needs to be faced up to.
But if there is no sign that the opposition will be able to overthrow President Assad, is not what the Government are doing and proposing rather unrealistic? Would it not be more practical, in terms of helping to stop the suffering, to try to negotiate a ceasefire between both sides without any preconditions?
Neither we nor other members of the Security Council would be opposed to a ceasefire, but my hon. Friend is aware of the history of these things in Syria. If it were possible to negotiate and enforce a ceasefire, it would be possible to do a great many other things as well. We are not even able to secure humanitarian access to areas at the moment, let alone negotiate an agreed ceasefire, so I do not think it is unrealistic to try to assemble a peace conference, based on a communiqué that all the permanent members of the Security Council and many of the regional countries were prepared to support last year, and to get a process going on that basis, which of course could include ceasefires, if we could only sit down and start deliberating on these things together.
Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there will be a warm welcome for his statement, particularly on Iran, and great support for his robust and positive attitude towards the negotiations? He paid a warm tribute to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javid Zarif, and he will recall that a similar opportunity arose back in 2005—my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the then Foreign Secretary, will recall this very clearly—but it was torpedoed by elements on our side, particularly in America. We know there are difficulties, but clearly it is important that Zarif is given the chance to succeed. Given that he is obviously a man we can do business with, we wish him well in concluding that business.
Absolutely. He is a tough negotiator. I do not want anybody to think anything other than that, because he represents his country very ably and very frankly. He does not hold back from telling us when there is a serious problem. Those are all hallmarks that one would expect from a good negotiator. Yes, we will continue to work closely with him, knowing that he has to keep, or win, the full confidence of the Iranian system, just as we have to maintain confidence in western and Arab nations and in Israel that we are doing the right thing.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s policy of vigilance towards Iran. May I suggest that it is extremely desirable that any eventual agreement with Iran leaves it standing nowhere near the threshold of becoming a nuclear armed power, because that would be very bad news for the region and for this country and the rest of the world?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is totally right about that. Of course, the purpose of our negotiations is to ensure that concrete actions are taken, even as part of an interim step, to give necessary assurances to the international community and to then allow us to negotiate a comprehensive settlement of this issue. That, of course, means dealing with all the concerns about what the International Atomic Energy Agency calls the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that his strategy and that of the other allies around the table is for a nuclear weapon-free middle east? Is it not odd that in a very long statement he did not mention that Israel actually possesses nuclear weapons and a delivery system? Does he envisage a conference on a nuclear weapon-free middle east that will include, obviously, Iran and other countries, but in particular Israel? Otherwise, it would simply make no sense at all.
I do envisage such a conference taking place. I did not mention that in my statement because there were many new things to report, but we have often discussed it in the House. We argued that there should be such a conference during the non-proliferation treaty review in 2010. There has been a small amount of progress in preparing the way for that in the past couple of weeks. I hope that we will have more to say about it in the next month or so.
I commend my right hon. Friend’s position on Iran and wish him well on that. I also congratulate him on the work in Lebanon and Jordan. What discussions has he had with Foreign Minister Lavrov about the peace process? Where do the Russians stand on the pre-conditions that we have set out for the ultimate goal of that process?
I have had many discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov. The Foreign Ministers of all five permanent members of the Security Council, including Russia, agreed in New York at the end of September to use our best efforts to bring a Geneva II peace conference together. As the House has heard, we are working hard on our side of that agreement to bring the opposition, the national coalition, to Geneva. We look to Russia to use its influence to bring the Assad regime there on the same basis, which is to work from the Geneva I communiqué. That involves a transitional authority formed by mutual consent.
That is very much something that we discuss with the Arab League and its individual members. When we are looking for greater contributions to humanitarian support, it comes bilaterally from the individual Arab nations. Many of them are substantial contributors to humanitarian assistance, although not always through UN channels. We will encourage them to do more. The fact that Kuwait is holding the next donor conference in the middle of January is a strong signal of the commitment of Gulf states to assist. Of course, we will encourage that hard over the coming weeks.
May I commend the Foreign Secretary for his efforts to normalise relations with Iran? How much support does he think there is for the Syrian National Council among the Shi’a, Christian and Alawite minorities? Does he agree that, without their support, no future Government will be stable?
The Syrian National Coalition represents many groups, communities and political persuasions. For instance, I mentioned in my statement that the Kurdish National Council will become part of the national coalition. The coalition has Christian representatives, not only among its membership, but among the leaders of the national council, which is a component of the national coalition. It has to be said that most Alawite support in Syria sticks with the Assad regime. However, I believe that it is important for Alawites to see that a political solution, along the lines of a transitional Government, is necessary for progress to be made.
It has been announced in Tehran and confirmed in Vienna that a framework agreement has been reached between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran on recent nuclear activities. Will the Foreign Secretary give some background on that agreement and confirm that it is a good sign that diplomatic progress can and will be made?
Absolutely. That happened just this afternoon, after my statement went to press, to be printed for the House. The International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran have agreed this afternoon
“to strengthen their cooperation and dialogue aimed at ensuring the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme”.
We welcome that agreement. It is another positive sign, provided that the verification activities that have been agreed allow us to resolve all the past and present issues that have been raised by the IAEA. It is important that Iran addresses the substance of the agency’s concerns over what it calls the
“possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme”.
Twenty-one years ago, I was ordered to take a British force under United Nations command into the Balkans. There was no ceasefire; we acted under a United Nations mandate. Is there no possibility that the Security Council might pass a mandate suggesting a humanitarian mission into Syria, even though the present Government do not agree to that? That would definitely encourage the present Assad Government to approve it.
Realistically, there is unfortunately no prospect of the Security Council agreeing a mandate for any military mission into Syria, as that would undoubtedly be resisted and blocked by Russia and China. I hope that, if this situation continues, they will at least agree to a resolution in the Security Council, requiring the Assad regime to comply with presidential statements issued by the Security Council and therefore greatly increasing legal and diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime. I think that is the next step that will become necessary on current trends.
Further to the Foreign Secretary’s earlier exchange with the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) about state-sponsored terrorism, will he perhaps go a little further and agree that it is both unacceptable and counter-productive for the Iranians still to sponsor Hezbollah?
Yes, I do agree with that. Close Iranian links with Hezbollah are one of the reasons Iran sends such active and enormous assistance to the Assad regime, because that is the physical connection with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Such support does not contribute—far from it—to international peace and security. I hope that in due course we will address all those issues together, but the right hon. Gentleman will understand that we must first take on the nuclear programme.
Despite last month’s UN Security Council presidential statement, the Assad Government are still blocking aid to Syria. During the Foreign Secretary’s discussions last week with the Russian Foreign Minister, did the Russian Government make any firm commitment to put pressure on the Assad Government to allow humanitarian relief into Syria?
Russia has not made new commitments to secure such humanitarian aid. Russia is in favour of the presidential statement agreed at the Security Council; we could not have passed it as a presidential statement had it not been. Russia agrees in principle and is signed up to what we are all saying to the Assad regime and opposition groups in Syria, which is to permit humanitarian aid to go to badly affected areas. We would like to see Russia put the Assad regime under greater pressure. I hope that will happen, but so far I have not received a commitment that it will do so.
I, along with others, welcome the approach taken by the Foreign Secretary. On humanitarian aid, I understand that £90 million of Syrian assets are in banks in London. Other EU countries have used such assets in their countries to pay for humanitarian aid. Will the Foreign Secretary speak to the Chancellor to see whether we can also access that money to supply more humanitarian aid to the people of Syria?
We are looking at that and at related issues. We are making a huge contribution to humanitarian aid, but our biggest difficulty is getting the aid through, even if it can be financed. On the matter raised by the right hon. Gentleman, there can be considerable legal difficulties, as well as the additional difficulty of ensuring that, if aid is passed to various groups, it really goes for humanitarian purposes. We are looking at such issues, however, and I will undertake to update him about them.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware of national coalition statements that President Assad can have no role to play in the transition. The Foreign Secretary will also have seen a recent statement from the regime, which says that it will attend the conference “in principle” but will not negotiate with “terrorists”, referring to the opposition. The regime also says that any political solution will not involve Mr Assad’s departure. In the light of those comments, how optimistic is the Foreign Secretary about the success of Geneva II? Finally, he says that the six countries in Geneva had different opinions on Iran. Out of those six countries, which one had the greatest reservations about Iran’s concessions?
To be clear on the six countries, I have said that they presented the same united position to Iran. I pointed out that they are entitled to put forward their views and amendments and so on, but the end product was that all six countries put the same united position to Iran. It is important that the House bears that in mind.
My hon. Friend’s points on a Geneva II conference on Syria illustrate the formidable difficulty of bringing such a conference together. That difficulty is widely acknowledged. It would be unrealistic to expect that the parties to the conflict will arrive at Geneva II stating similar positions. The regime will of course say that approaching negotiations does not imply that President Assad will go, and the opposition, when their people are suffering so much at the hands of Assad, will of course say that, in a transition by mutual consent, he will have to go. It would be absolutely astonishing if either said anything different from that.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary and E3 plus 3 Foreign Ministers on getting Iran to the negotiating table and on getting as far as they have, but would it not have been better to get the E3 plus 3 together before meeting the Iranians to get a united position, rather than letting the Iranians negotiate differences between the six countries and ending up with the failure in discussions that we currently face?
The E3 plus 3 meets regularly. The round of negotiations that we have just had is the third one in the past month. We also met as Ministers in New York. When there are new developments in proposals on the table, they must be discussed. As I have said, the E3 plus 3 is six sovereign nations, so of course there must be such discussions, but the end product of this weekend’s negotiations was that all six nations put the identical deal to Iran. When one considers that that includes Russia, China, America and the three European countries—we have put forward an identical position—one concludes that it is a remarkable degree of international unity. We should see it that way around.
I strongly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s report that the Syrian national coalition will participate in the Geneva talks and that it will reach out to national minorities. That is important. Will he expand on what more we can do to support, both inside and outside the negotiating chamber, the moderate Syrian opposition, who are opponents both of the murderous Assad regime and of al-Qaeda and its local allies?