House of Commons
Monday 6 January 2014
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Primary Schools (Academy Status)
I associate myself and those on the Front Bench, Mr Speaker, with your generous words towards Paul Goggins and his family. We all wish him a very speedy recovery.
In 2013, the proportion of pupils who achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics improved significantly more in sponsored academies than in local authority schools.
I wish you, Mr Speaker, and the whole House all the best for 2014.
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Having been judged inadequate by Ofsted in each of the past two years, Elton primary school in my constituency is now the subject of a consultation with a view to its becoming an academy. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me and those parents who have concerns that all the evidence suggests that such a move is more likely to be beneficial than detrimental to their children’s education?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Parents are naturally nervous whenever there is a change of management or leadership in any school and so they should be—they care about their children. The evidence points to the fact that when primary and secondary schools have been converted to academies, they have made significant improvements. One of the most controversial academy conversions happened in Haringey when Downhills school was taken over by the Harris chain. That met furious opposition from the unions and some Labour MPs, but children in that school are now flourishing at last, as are children in so many other academy schools.
Does not the evidence show that the most important factor is the quality of teaching in our schools? Thousands of schools around the country have chosen not to go down the academy route. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Ranworth Square primary school in my constituency, where the majority of children are on free school meals but where last summer 93% achieved at least a level 4 in English, maths and writing?
That is a significant achievement and I am delighted to be able to congratulate the head and the team of teachers at that school. Many schools that I hugely admire have chosen not to go down the academy route. Thomas Jones primary in west London is one of the most outstanding schools in the country—100% of its children reach the level to which the hon. Gentleman refers—and is not an academy. For schools that are foundering or facing difficulties, however, academy solutions have, in an overwhelming number of circumstances, brought the improvement in results that we would all love to see.
To facilitate expansion, we have made sure that all local authority schools receive additional support through the targeted basic need and basic need funding, which the Government have made available in more generous terms than any previous Government. We have also seen 174 new free schools open, giving parents a choice of new, high-quality schools to ensure that their children have the best possible start in life.
Without knowing the specifics of the case to which the hon. Gentleman alludes, I am cautious about venturing into too much detail. Whenever any school enters difficulties, whether it is run by an academy chain or a local authority, the Department for Education is always ready to ensure that an appropriate sponsor is in place to rescue that school.
There were just over 200 academies in May 2010—203, I believe—and there are now more than 3,000. As Ofsted reported in its most recent annual report, the biggest increase in the quality of good and outstanding lessons ever in the history of the inspectorate has occurred under this Government.
The Government received 1,103 applications to establish free schools in the first four rounds of applications and 27% of those applications were approved.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his response. Why has his Department been using all its legal might to prevent the release of free school applications and decision letters, even after the Information Commissioner ruled that there was a strong public information argument in favour of releasing them? Surely if public money is being used, in the public interest there has to be an absolute right for that information to be put in the public domain.
I note what the hon. Lady says, and we have extended the freedom of information legislation to cover academies, which was not the case before this Government came to power. It is, however, important that we protect those individuals who made proposals for schools that were not accepted, from the programme of intimidation that has been directed at many brave teachers by the National Union of Teachers and other extreme left-wing organisations. I make no apologies for protecting from intimidation those public-spirited people who wish to establish new schools.
One of the great things, however, about the free schools programme is that it implements Green party policy. In 2010, in the Green party education manifesto, the Green party leadership said that we should
“Move towards ending the need for private education by creating a programme of voluntary assimilation of private schools into the state sector.”
That is just what we have done.
I hope that the Secretary of State will shortly announce the approval of the Maiden Erlegh free school in my constituency, but is he as concerned as I am by Labour’s secret plan to review free school premises and buildings? Is that not simply a back-door way to destroy the free school movement? [Interruption.]
I share my hon. Friend’s concerns absolutely. We all know that, despite the occasionally brave forays into no-man’s land by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who has tried to defend parent-led academies, the majority of Labour Members—as we can hear from their catcalls and jeers—oppose free schools and greater parental choice and support the attempt of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) to undermine those schools. We will fight them every step of the way.
On behalf of the Opposition, I should like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for your words about our colleague, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), and his wife, Wyn. Our thoughts and prayers are with them for a speedy recovery.
In December, we learnt that the Prime Minister’s flagship Discovery free school will be closed. The failings of this episode have let down the people of Crawley, who will hold the Government to account. We know that the Discovery school was opened against the advice of the Montessori Schools Association, so will the Secretary of State tell the House how many free school applications Ministers have approved against the advice of Department officials?
That says it all, does it not? We in the Opposition are in favour of innovation and autonomy in schools, but all we ask is that that is underpinned by basic safeguards and standards. National Audit Office reports reveal that low-scoring applications were waved through by Ministers against official advice, so let me give the Secretary of State another chance to set the record straight. Did Ministers approve applications for the Al-Madinah free school, the Discovery free school or the Kings Science academy free school against the advice of officials—yes or no?
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would know that I answered the question that he has just asked first time round. I pointed out that the advice from officials was to open the Discovery school. It was also the advice of officials to back Kings Science academy and to back Al-Madinah school. In all three examples, we took the advice of officials, but let me make it clear that it is entirely appropriate for Ministers to overrule officials at any given point. Officials advise and Ministers decide. But in these three cases, we took the advice of officials and appropriate safeguards were in place. One of the problems that Opposition Front Benchers have is that they support free schools in the abstract, but when it comes to the tough decisions necessary to improve education in this country, at the first whiff of grapeshot, they shy away and surrender.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the delight with which the rebuilding of Newark academy has been greeted in Newark, yet the establishment of the free school at the same time seems to be competing for small numbers of students who are needed inside the maintained schools. How does he answer that charge?
There were 868,700 people undertaking an apprenticeship last year—more than ever before. We have already taken steps to increase standards and remove low-quality provision, and we will take further such steps.
I am pleased to hear that our Government are providing more support to young people who do not wish to pursue an academic course at university. Does the Minister agree that we need more participation in the apprenticeship scheme by small and medium-sized enterprises such as PK Automotive in Lincoln, which has joined larger firms such as Siemens in my constituency, and worked with local institutions such as Lincoln college and LAGAT, to help to deliver real opportunities for young people?
Yes, I do. I am delighted to say that 2,200 people in Lincoln are participating in apprenticeships. As is the case in many other places throughout the country, that is a record number. Of course apprenticeships are valuable in companies large and small. In fact, a majority of apprenticeships are in small businesses, but we need to ensure that the benefits of apprenticeships are communicated to all employers.
Sara Underwood, a higher apprentice with Rolls-Royce at Barnoldswick in my constituency, was recently awarded the Mary George memorial prize as part of the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s young woman engineer of the year awards. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Sara on her achievement and Rolls-Royce on its exceptional apprenticeship scheme?
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in recognising the work that Sara has done not only to win the prize that she so thoroughly deserves, but as a true ambassador for apprenticeships as she goes around explaining the benefits of apprenticeships to young people, employers and the wider economy.
A recent survey by The Times Educational Supplement showed that three quarters of young people did not receive information about apprenticeships in their careers lesson, so does the Minister still stand by the words of the Secretary of State to the Education Committee in December that the Government have no plans to address and amend careers guidance?
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said to that Select Committee, we will shortly publish new guidance on careers education. As we have set out many times, a far more important—if not the most important—thing for young people’s inspiration and motivation is people who themselves are successful in their careers, so that is what our careers advice policy focuses on.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his replies to these questions, but how does he propose to deal with the real dearth of engineering apprenticeships—female ones—when frankly there will not be enough role models to go around? We need good careers advice in classrooms, but it needs to be targeted so that we get young women, especially, into engineering and STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects.
Of course role models can be of either gender, and I am sure that many men can think of women who would be role models for themselves. Under this Government, the number and proportion of applications for apprenticeships in engineering are up, and the number of applications to study engineering at university is up. There is much more to do, but we are moving in the right direction.
I am a great enthusiast for UTCs, not least because they prepare people to go into not only apprenticeships, but an academic career. They can open up opportunities for young people, and we work hard in the Department for Education to ensure that as many people as possible get those opportunities.
Does the Minister believe that schools are providing adequate careers guidance about the availability of apprenticeships in the light of Sir Michael Wilshaw’s comments:
“It is worrying that the new arrangements are failing to provide good guidance or to promote vocational training options and apprenticeships”?
I am clear that the strength of guidance, inspiration and motivation needs to increase, and that the best place to get that motivation is from people who are in careers. We have inspirational apprentices such as Sara Underwood, who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who explain the benefits of apprenticeships. I explain the benefits of apprenticeships, and it should be incumbent on all of us in the House to explain that opportunities are available to allow people to prosper.
Academies and Free Schools
The Department monitors schools through scrutiny of performance data and Ofsted reports. All free schools are visited by an education adviser in the first and fourth term of opening. Concerns are investigated immediately. It is for an academy trust to ensure that appropriate action is taken to bring about rapid improvement. If it does not, we use the intervention powers in the funding agreement.
The recent action taken on Al-Madinah and the Discovery New School by Lord Nash, the Under-Secretary of State, followed his setting out in detail the requirements those schools had to follow in order to turn themselves around and required his personal supervision of those schools. What role will school commissioners have in future to ensure that we no longer have Ministers trying to run schools from a desk in Whitehall?
Inevitably, we inherited a situation in which funding agreements were the principal method of ensuring that both academies and free schools acted in conformity with the principles that all of us would expect. We are not intending to abandon the principle that it should be for Ministers to sign and, if necessary, revisit funding agreements, but a new system of regional schools commissioners working to the Office of the Schools Commissioner can ensure that we have the local intelligence that we need in order to respond more quickly, and that there is a greater number of high-quality sponsors to help drive school improvement.
Fulwood academy in Preston had a recent Ofsted report that stated that pupil achievement, quality of teaching and leadership and management were inadequate. The head teacher Richard Smyth has received extra funding for free school meals, disabled pupils and special educational needs. Why should that man remain in post when he has been at the school for three years and is himself inadequate?
The key point is how swiftly responses are made to those schools that are failing. Does the Secretary of State agree that the important thing is leadership and management, and that includes the role of governing bodies, which should contain fully skilled governors to do the job?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am grateful to him for his work not just on the Education Committee but more broadly in making it clear that we need to recruit an even stronger cadre of school governors. I pay tribute to the many thousands of superb school governors that we have in place at the moment, but we need to attract more people, particularly from business, to take on that role in what is an increasingly autonomous school system.
I was asked earlier by the shadow Secretary of State whether I would specifically refer to the three schools that have, understandably, been brought to the attention of the public because of their difficulties. I made it clear to him, as I am happy to make it clear to the hon. Gentleman, that in all of those cases, the advice from officials was clear that the school should open.
GCSE and A-Level
Since this Government took office, we have seen the number of students taking EBacc subjects, core academic subjects, rise by 60%. We are also seeing record numbers of students taking maths and science at A-level, which is good news because those are the subjects that universities and employers want to see students study.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s concerns. Under the previous Government, we saw a drop in compulsory languages in 2004 and a decline in the numbers of students taking languages. Over the past year, we have seen a 14% rise in the number of students taking languages at GCSE, and we expect that to feed through to A-level. From this September, we are introducing compulsory languages from the age of seven, so that all our children get the experience of learning languages and are able to build up a level of fluency that will help them in their future careers.
Does the hon. Lady agree that where it is right for a young person to pursue academic subjects it is good that they do so, but many young people in our schools are never given a full choice and the option to do more practical subjects? Is that not part of the reason why the excellent report “One System, Many Pathways” by the Skills Commission, which I co-chair, should be looked at closely by her Department?
I think it is good for students to be doing both academic and practical subjects. In countries such as Germany and Poland, which have improved their programme for international student assessment— PISA—scores, all students do a core of academic subjects, including languages, sciences, history and geography, until they are 16. It is an important principle that students need to do both, because that is what will help them to get good jobs when they leave school.
Given that the new primary maths curriculum no longer includes the chunking method in division calculations, will the Minister confirm that the revised key stage 2 assessments in maths will give credit for a pupil’s working only when the traditional long or short division methods are used, and not when the discredited chunking method is used?
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work he did on the maths curriculum, which is now a world-leading one. Some of our teachers recently went to Shanghai to see how maths is taught there, and they found that Shanghai is three years ahead of England in this regard. One thing they noticed was that the chunking method is not used in Shanghai—long division is used instead. When those teachers brought that back to England, pupils said, “This method is great. Why aren’t we doing this? This long division is much easier than the confusing strategies we have been taught.” So I can say that when we introduce the standard assessment tests with the new national curriculum, chunking will not be rewarded in method marks—long division will.
On the take-up of academic subjects at GCSE and A-level, does the Minister accept that we should all be careful about making a direct link between educational underachievement in our coastal towns and part of East Anglia, and recent high levels of eastern European migration, because there were educational challenges in those areas long before eastern Europeans showed up and children of immigrant descent can be some of the most aspirational in our schools system?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. I certainly notice in schools in my Norfolk constituency that emigrants from Poland have helped to improve results in some subjects, and I completely disagree with her leader, the shadow Secretary of State, in respect of making implications about the impact of migrants on academic performance.
Further Education (Funding)
6. What plans he has for future funding for students in the further education sector; and if he will make a statement. (901743)
We announced the 16-to-19 funding policy changes for the academic year 2014-15 last month, and we will confirm the allocation of funding for individual institutions by the end of March.
Oldham sixth-form college and Oldham college were notified, without any consultation, that their funding would be cut by 17.5%. That has a devastating impact on young people in our area and it is anticipated that 700 young people in Oldham will be affected. Long-term youth unemployment in Oldham has more than doubled since November 2010, and we know that the national figure is 1 million people. Given the Prime Minister’s pledge that our young people should “earn or learn”, is this move not another example of this Government’s hypocrisy?
Not only are unemployment and youth unemployment falling—thankfully—from the very high levels we inherited from the Labour party, but we have had to make savings in the 16-to-19 budget. We think it is fair to make this change affecting those who have already had two years of post-16 learning; many 18-year-olds in full-time education do not study as many hours as 16 or 17-year-olds. I also say to the hon. Lady that her Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), said on television earlier that she wanted the deficit to fall faster. I am not sure that she got the memo from the shadow Chancellor, but Labour has opposed every single cut, no matter how difficult.
College principals from around Southampton have been keen to emphasise the valid reasons why 18-year-olds may need an additional year at sixth form, which include ill health, their possibly suffering from disabilities, and, of course, the need to improve GCSE results so that they can go on to study their A-levels. What reassurance can the Minister give me that these young people, who are in need of the most support, are not going to be penalised? They are the most at risk of becoming NEETs—those not in education, employment or training.
When my hon. Friend sees the impact assessment, I think that she will be reassured on some of those points. As I have said, this is a difficult decision and not one that we will take lightly, but the alternatives are also difficult, and 18-year-olds have already had two years of study post 16 and, indeed, they often study for fewer hours than 16 to 17-year-olds. I look forward to discussing with her, once we have published the impact assessment, exactly why that decision was made.
I am afraid that the Minister has not answered the point that the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) raised. Some 71% of the over-18s in further education are on vocational courses and they are often the people who need a second chance and additional support, yet he is cutting funding for them by 17.5%. Why is he hitting those who need support?
My experience of the Banbury and Bicester job clubs is that young people who have dropped out of education or training often find it difficult to get back into education and training. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that those youngsters who have been NEETs but want to get into further education will be given support to do so?
Of course. The massive expansion of apprenticeships and the introduction of traineeships were designed to do precisely that. There is a huge focus on ensuring that those who are in education and those who are NEET get the opportunities to fulfil their potential. Raising the participation age is another part of the plan for dealing with the problem. There are many policies designed to have that effect. The changes across the piece are all about ensuring that, within the funds available, we give everybody the best possible opportunity.
Publicly Funded Schools (Oversight)
We have reformed Ofsted’s inspection framework to make it clearer, tougher and fairer. We are also introducing new, more intelligent accountability measures in school league tables.
The EFA is not the only means of oversight for free schools. As we know, Kings Science academy has been the subject of a specific investigation by the EFA. We also know that the Al-Madinah school, which has come to the attention of the Department and Ofsted, has also been facing a difficult scrutiny process.
My right hon. Friend, along with Lord Nash, has been assiduous in responding to colleagues’ concerns about academy chains. Will he consider changing some of the Education Funding Agency’s requirements so that in future pre-warning actions can be delivered when schools go into improvement status, not just into special measures?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that we are energetic in using the warning notices. More than half of local authorities have not used warning notices when schools have been underperforming, but where the best local authorities have used such notices, and indeed where the Department, on the advice of the EFA or others, has used them, we have seen real improvement.
I think that MPs deserve proper responses from all those charged with spending public money. I will look more closely at the specific case the hon. Gentleman mentions, but it is important to recognise that the principals of academies are more accountable than the heads of local authority schools—[Interruption.] “Facts are chiels that winna ding”. That is as a result of the greater accountability they face, and not just to the taxpayer through the EFA, but to the Charity Commission. We should be satisfied that the improved governance that academies and free schools have means that they are more directly accountable to taxpayers and elected representatives.
My hon. Friend is typically acute in getting to the heart of the matter. The change to judging schools on how well each student progresses from the moment they arrive until the moment they take their GCSEs, across a broad range of eight GCSEs, will mean that not just academic excellence but creativity and technical accomplishment will be counted in determining how well each school has improved—and of course we will move away from the distorting impact that a focus on the C-D borderline has had in the past.
Child Care Costs
First, we are increasing the supply of child care to bring down costs, reversing the decline in childminders by giving top childminders automatic access to Government funding, enabling the creation of childminder agencies which will be a one-stop shop for parents and childminders, and getting better value out of school sites by encouraging schools and nurseries to open from 8 am to 6 pm to support working parents. Secondly, we are supporting parents with costs through tax-free child care, which will be available from next year and give working parents up to £1,200 per child.
Despite budget cuts of £100 million since 2010, Salford council is aiming to provide 25 hours of nursery care for our three and four-year-olds. This extra funding for our nursery schools will make a great difference to hard-pressed families. However, 56 out of 76 schools in Salford will lose out from September because of Government changes to their funding allocations. Why are the Government acting to undermine the attempts we are making in Salford to support our hard-pressed parents who need child care?
I assure the hon. Lady that we are in fact increasing spending on early intervention and child care across the country. We have increased early intervention spending from £2.1 billion to £2.5 billion, and we are increasing the funding for two, three and four-year-olds as well. The reality is that under this Government the costs of child care have stabilised, whereas under the previous Government they went up by over £1,000 a year.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s urgent drive to ensure that parents get the places to which their children are entitled. I welcome it in Norfolk, where £33 million is allocated for more school places. I also welcome it in terms of child care, for which 500 more two-year-olds in my constituency will be eligible. Will she join me in getting more information to parents on how they can access that flexibly?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are keen that school nurseries, which typically operate two sessions a day, do it more flexibly to help to support working parents so that they can take up three five-hour slots a week that may fit in with their part-time jobs. At the moment, too many school assets are empty between the hours of 3 pm and 6 pm or before school. We can use them better and get better value for money.
Given that under the hon. Lady’s Government the cost of child care has risen by 30%, or five times faster than wages, and by a staggering £304 on average in the past year alone, what help with these costs is she providing to parents during this Parliament?
The hon. Lady is cherry-picking her statistics. Many studies show that costs have stabilised under this Government, and they are in line with inflation. Her colleague in the House of Lords, Baroness Hughes, admitted that she got it wrong when Labour was in power, when costs went up by £1,000 a year. We have upped the amount of free child care for three and four-year-olds from 12 and a half hours a week to 15 hours a week, supporting hard-working families, but we are not making unfunded promises such as spending the bankers levy 11 times.
The PISA results for 2012 showed that England’s performance has stagnated in the league tables, with no improvement over the entire period of the previous Government’s time in office. In contrast, Germany and Poland reformed their education systems and saw a significant improvement in their results, and east Asia also moved ahead. That is why this Government are learning from the success of those other countries by increasing school freedom and accountability and focusing on core academic subjects.
The PISA results also showed that things in Wales have not only stagnated, but gone backwards, and that educational standards in England are still far higher than they are in Wales, where the Welsh Assembly’s Labour Minister recently had to make a fulsome apology on the front page of the Western Mail for his party’s abysmal failure. Why does my hon. Friend the Minister believe that educational standards in England are so much higher than those under the Labour-run Welsh Assembly?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and the Welsh Minister was right to apologise for letting children in Wales down. The reality is that the Welsh Government caved in to the unions and abolished national tests and league tables, and their results in maths have plummeted to lower than 40th in the PISA tables. That shows how vital it is that we increase accountability in this country and keep up the pace of our reforms to make sure that we push ahead like countries such as Germany and Poland, rather than fall behind like Wales.
We absolutely encourage collaboration, which is one of the reasons why we sent 50 teachers over to Shanghai to see how they do things there and to put that in place in our classrooms. We have already seen the results in some of our schools in England, including improved practice in the classroom and improved teaching results.
Education Attainment (Disadvantaged Pupils)
According to research recently published by the Department, more than 23,000 disadvantaged children in the east of England are entitled to, but are not claiming, free school meals. What steps is the Minister taking to increase take-up and to ensure that schools do not miss out on valuable pupil premium funding?
My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise this very important issue. It is a concern that the take-up of free school meals varies so much across the country. That is why the Department has now introduced an eligibility checking service to make it easier and quicker to check which families are entitled to free school meals. I can tell my hon. Friend that under-registration for the east of England has actually fallen from 23% to 18% over the past year.
Children from disadvantaged homes and those with special educational needs are most likely to be hit by the cuts to 18-plus funding. When the Secretary of State met the Education Committee just before Christmas, he told us that he regretted the cut, but that it was the best worst option. These children are the closest to being not in education, employment or training; are they really the ones who should be hit hardest and first?
The Minister for Skills and Enterprise, who covers this area, has already responded to this point. These are very difficult decisions that we are having to take as a consequence of the budget deficit we inherited from the previous Government. It is a difficult decision, but I believe that the analysis will show that it is justified.
21. Obviously, the pupil premium plays a great part in providing help for disadvantaged children, including those at Woodrow First school in one of the most deprived areas in my constituency of Redditch. Will the Minister congratulate head teacher Richard Kieran, who provides an imaginative curriculum due to the pupil premium? (901760)
I am delighted to be able to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the head teacher of Woodrow First school. I was particularly pleased to be able to visit that school with my hon. Friend at the end of last year to see the fantastic work that is being done, and I was also encouraged by the strong support she is giving to all the schools in her area.
Kings Science Academy (Bradford)
Responsibility for a principal’s performance rests of course with the governing body of an academy, not the Department for Education. One thing I should say is that, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there is an ongoing police investigation, which I have to be careful not to prejudice.
That is disappointing, because of course the head of a maintained school would have been on his bike long ago. May I ask the Secretary of State about a comment made by a spokesperson for Alan Lewis who said:
“At no time has Mr Lewis had responsibility for the financial management or governance of the academy”?
If, as I have been told, the report by the auditors recommended to the school by Mr Lewis was presented directly to him and amended as a result of his comments, does the Secretary of State agree that that provides evidence of involvement in both financial management and governance within the school?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, and for the dogged and persistent way in which he has sought to ensure that we can improve the situation at Kings science academy. I would say that Mr Lewis was responsible for commissioning a report, to which the hon. Gentleman quite rightly draws attention, that has played a part in helping to ensure that Kings science academy moved from a difficult position to a better one, but I must stress that I do not want to say anything that might prejudice an ongoing police report.
I can understand why the Secretary of State wants to protect his flagship policy, but we have had mismanagement, nepotism and fabricated invoices. Mr Lewis is not just a benefactor; he is a landlord who will receive £12 million in rent in years to come from the school, as well as a vice-chair of the Conservative party and a major Tory donor. Is that anything to do with the fact that the Secretary of State has refused to take any action whatsoever against anyone since this scandal broke?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. It is important to place on the record the fact that Mr Lewis is receiving for the property an appropriately guaranteed market rent—less than he was receiving for it beforehand. It is important to stress that, and it is also important to state that as soon as my Department was made aware of allegations of the misappropriation of public money, it contacted Action Fraud and a police investigation is now ongoing as a direct result. I should also add that my Department was in touch with the economic crime unit of West Yorkshire police to ensure that appropriate steps had been taken; it was reassured that those appropriate steps had been taken. The law must follow its course. It is entirely right for the hon. Gentleman to raise questions in Parliament, but it would be entirely wrong for me to prejudge the police investigation.
Tablet Devices (Use in Schools)
Technology, well used, can be a powerful tool to help teachers drive up standards, and evidence shows that the use of technology can have the biggest impact on those most disengaged from learning.
Technology such as tablets can be very beneficial in the classroom, but it can also put huge strain on parental finances. What support can the Government offer to make sure that all children, irrespective of their family circumstances, have access to the technology that they need in the classroom?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In fact, during the past year the number of tablets in secondary schools has gone up by 50%, and the number in primary schools has more than doubled, while we also have a special capital fund for colleges to fund such IT. However, this is about more than physical resources; it is about changing the way teaching is done to make the best use of this tool to drive up standards.
It is important that I draw to the House’s attention the fact that Ofsted, the Government’s school inspectorate, has changed its guidance to clarify the vital importance of not favouring one style of teaching over any other. In the most recent guidance that Ofsted has issued, it stresses that inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style.
I use the opportunity that you have given me at the Dispatch Box, Mr Speaker, to emphasise that point in order to stress to all teachers that we want them to deploy their creativity, skill and intelligence to raise standards for all children, and not to stick to any outdated rubric in doing so.
I welcome the Government review of less well-funded local education authorities, such as North Yorkshire, but there is a very urgent problem with transport for 16 to 18-year-olds attending sixth-form or higher education colleges. Will the Secretary of State address that problem as urgently as possible?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. We are looking not only at how we can better support all schools in sparse, rural areas, but specifically at how disadvantage funding for institutions that educate 16, 17 and 18-year-olds can better take account of transport costs.
Has the Minister had any recent discussions with ministerial colleagues about the law on child neglect? Is he giving any consideration to updating what many professionals argue is an outdated law that can hamper their ability to intervene and protect vulnerable children?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question, if for no other reason than that I get to answer a question. This is an extremely important issue. I know that he agrees with me about the utmost need to make further inroads into eradicating child neglect in our society. There are two definitions of child neglect which relate to criminal law and civil law. I assume that he is talking about the criminal aspect and the work that is being done in the Ministry of Justice, with which I have had discussions. This is an ongoing issue and I am happy to discuss it with him further.
T2. What steps is my hon. Friend taking, working with the Treasury, to equalise the VAT treatment of sixth-form colleges, such as the outstanding Mid Cheshire college in my constituency, to bring them in line with school, academy and free school sixth forms? (901809)
I am a passionate supporter of sixth-form colleges. I recognise the work that they do, in particular Mid Cheshire college with its outstanding status. I have regular discussions with the Treasury. However, we do not think that we will be able to find the resources in the current spending round to solve the problem with VAT that my hon. Friend raises. I will continue to work with the Treasury to try to find a solution.
T3. Ofsted inspections often critique, but usually deliver only advice from a small bag of short-term fixes, many of which have failed before. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how Ofsted can be given the power to deliver 10-year strategic interventions to help schools deliver school readiness at four and 11, so that improvements are sustainable, unlike Ofsted’s short-term fixes? (901810)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I believe that we will have an opportunity to meet and talk tomorrow. I met some great head teachers from his constituency last year and their direct testimony weighed heavily with me. I know that he has talked to them about how we can ensure that Ofsted provides even more support in the future. Other schools have noticed a significant change in the way in which Her Majesty’s inspectors provide support after an inspection, which is sometimes necessarily tough and stringent.
T5. There is a theme to my questions today. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Arrow Vale RSA academy in my constituency, which he also visited recently? It has gone from strength to strength since it converted. Will he commend Guy Shears, the principal, for being an outstanding leader and for leading it into being an outstanding school? (901813)
I am delighted to do so. Again, I was delighted to join my hon. Friend in visiting that school. It was impressive to see how rapidly that head teacher and his senior leadership team have turned around a school whose performance was previously extremely disappointing.
T4. The Association of Colleges has said that young people from disadvantaged areas and black and minority ethnic groups will be hardest hit by the cut of 17.5% in the funding for 18-year-olds. That is borne out by the assessment that has been carried out by my local college, Greenwich community college. Why have the Government not issued an impact assessment on this proposal, given the severe impact that it will have on disadvantaged groups? (901811)
As I said in my earlier answers, we will publish the impact assessment very soon. The crucial question is how, in the context of getting the country out of the budget deficit mess that was left by Opposition Members, we can make decisions that will have the best possible impact on the ground. Is it fair to fund 18-year-olds, who usually take fewer hours of education per week, at the same rate, or should we reduce the funding for all 16 to 19-year-olds instead?
T6. Does the Minister agree with the shadow Secretary of State that Labour failed on vocational education, and does he agree with me that the Government’s rectifying of that mistake means that we now have more employer-led apprenticeships than ever before? (901814)
I try not to be partisan at the Dispatch Box, as you well know, Mr Speaker, but it is absolutely true that we are driving up standards in vocational education across the board and in apprenticeships. It was a real pleasure to visit McDonald’s in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which does a brilliant job on vocational in-work education. The previous Government made the intellectual error of thinking that just because people have not attained yet, we should not have high expectations of them. We are reversing the consequences of that error.
T7. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), will the Secretary of State tell the House now which free schools were approved against the advice of officials? Will he commit to publishing a full list of them? (901815)
I pointed out that three schools had been the subject of concern for the Education Funding Agency and others, and as I pointed out to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), the overwhelming majority of schools put forward for approval were turned down. Something like 17% of the lowest-scoring schools were approved, but no school that has subsequently caused concern to the EFA or anyone else was approved against the advice of officials.
T9. I thank the Secretary of State for listening to North Yorkshire MPs about the sparsity factor in the schools formula. Will he meet me about Upper Wharfedale school, deep in the Yorkshire dales, which is suffering from cuts in bus services for out-of-catchment parents and high demand for special educational needs places? (901817)
T8. When does the Secretary of State expect that builders will start on site rebuilding Carr infant school in York, which he wrote to tell me about last June? The school asks whether it will now get a dining room big enough for all 320 pupils who will become eligible for free school meals under the Deputy Prime Minister’s proposal. (901816)
A feasibility study is being undertaken, and building work should commence within 12 months. I should say that thanks to the reforms introduced in our free schools programme, schools are being built more cheaply and faster than ever before under this Government.
We will look at any proposition to open a free school to ensure that it will provide welcome additional capacity. The decision that we took with respect to Discovery was difficult, but it emphasises one thing about this Government: we acknowledge that some schools will fail and some will fall into difficulties, but we have been faster and more determined than any previous Government in turning around or closing failing schools. The fact that things will go wrong in the education system is an inevitability, but having an Education Secretary who is prepared to act quickly and determinedly to deal with that is not an inevitability, it is the dividing line between the Government and the Labour party.
Is the Secretary of State aware that since his decision to make school-based work experience placements optional rather than compulsory, an estimated 64,000 school pupils have missed out on work experience in the past year? Will he explain why he is taking opportunities to access the world of work away from young people, particularly when we have almost 1 million young people unemployed?
We have not abolished work experience, we have removed work-related learning at key stage 4. That was a recommendation of Alison Wolf’s report on vocational education, which the Opposition Front Benchers welcomed 100%. If the hon. Lady has a problem with that policy, she should take it up with them instead of merely reading out a question from a Whip who has not bothered to do his research.
British success in the north American war of 1812 to 1814 was as important to this country as the victories at Trafalgar in 1805 and Waterloo in 1815. Does the Secretary of State agree that it should be part of the history curriculum, particularly as this August will be the 200th anniversary of when the White House was burned down by the East Essex Regiment?
On all the visits that I have made to my hon. Friend’s constituency, I have always had cause to thank people not just for the superb way in which history is taught in Colchester and across Essex but for the distinguished contribution that public servants in Essex, both in uniform and out of it, have made to this country. The war of 1812 to 1814 was a cousins’ war, and it is only appropriate that we remember that as we attempt to—[Interruption.] I see that one of my ain folk is objecting to that. All I would say, brother mine, is that in the shadow of Burns week, we should extend the hand of amity, as I do to my American cousins. Even as we remember their valour, we should also celebrate the fact that we work together in the brotherhood of man today.
The Minister for Skills and Enterprise is struggling desperately to understand the impact of his policy on the most deprived 18-year-olds, so let me tell him about the impact of that policy in Chesterfield. It means that 655 students in this year’s cohort would not get the funding, which the principal of the college in Chesterfield tells me will directly impact on those students who do not achieve well in GCSEs, and clearly be very divisive. The principal told me that the assumptions made for this policy are alarmingly naive and fundamentally incorrect—
I think much as I thought about five minutes ago when I last answered that question. This is a difficult decision, but the impact assessment—which, of course, I have studied—is very clear about taking difficult decisions to deal with the catastrophic mess left by the Labour Government. We are having to take decisions, and we will take them to put this country on the right track.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that he intends to visit Northern Ireland very soon, and that he will meet educationists there and convince them and confirm that A-level and O-level students will not be wrongly or poorly affected because of their A-level qualifications or transport ability, regarding qualification to colleges and universities on the mainland UK?
I absolutely will. It is vital that we reassure students and teachers in Northern Ireland that the qualifications they sit will be valued, and that access to universities in the rest of the United Kingdom will be upheld. I am proud that our kingdom is united, and that there are students in Northern Ireland who see themselves as part of a family of nations and a community of learning across these islands. I will uphold their right to equal access to institutions of higher and further education in these islands as long as I hold this office.
Proposals and actions for a royal college of teaching continue apace. Although I am sure the Secretary of State would agree that it is not for politicians but for teachers to drive that potential body, can he provide assurance that the Government will give all appropriate support and as fair a wind as possible to the proposal, which could be a game changer for teaching and, of course, ultimately for our children?
One of the discoveries in the OECD PISA research is that Britain is one of only five countries in that study where a child’s achievement in reading is more closely connected to their parents’ education and achievement than to any other factor. What will the Secretary of State for Education do about the poor achievement in reading by children of poorly educated parents?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and that is one reason why we are working with schools across the country to ensure that children have the chance to decode fluently through the phonics screening check highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb). That is why I have encouraged every primary school to expect that children will read at least 15 if not 50 books a year, and why I believe we must ensure that the scandalous level of educational inequality to which the hon. Lady draws attention is at the heart of everything the Department for Education does. Whether it is the pupil premium, which was drawn up and brought into Government by my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and the Deputy Prime Minister, or the academies and free schools programme that we are highlighting, everything we do is intended to erase the scandalous level of educational inequality that we inherited and to which I know the hon. Lady objects.
I wish you a happy new year, Mr Speaker. With your permission, I should like to make a statement about flooding over the Christmas and new year period.
I chaired a further meeting of the Cobra committee a short while ago. I am sure that the House would appreciate an update on the latest position on the severe weather that affected parts of the country over the Christmas and new year period, which caused extensive damage. Our thoughts are with all those who have been affected and whose homes and businesses have been damaged. Tragically, seven fatalities in England between 23 December 2013 and 5 January 2014 are associated with the severe weather conditions. The House will want to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to their families and friends.
Late December saw a number of rain bands crossing the country in quick succession, accompanied by strong winds. Their cumulative effect meant that, by the start of Christmas week, the ground was saturated and river levels were high. On 23 and 24 December, there was widespread rainfall across the entire country—there was more than 100 mm on Dartmoor, 90 mm in Cumbria, and 70 mm in parts of the south-east—resulting in a number of rivers bursting their banks.
The band of rain was accompanied by gusts of up to 90 mph in southern coastal areas. The strong onshore winds and large waves, combined with high spring tides, led to a surge that brought coastal flooding to parts of the south and west coasts. Further bands of rain moved across the country over the subsequent week and into the new year. The latest rainfall is still working its way down some of the slower-responding rivers, such as the Thames, and more rain is expected this week. There is a risk of groundwater flooding in Dorset and Wiltshire for some time to come and we need to remain vigilant.
Approximately 1,700 properties have been flooded in England so far, with Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset particularly affected, although there were also impacts in the midlands and the north-west. In Wales, 140 properties were flooded, and there was also flooding in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
High winds led to many trees being uprooted, causing further problems, particularly for transport and electricity networks. Around 750,000 properties were left without an electricity supply, but electricity companies restored power to 90% of those within a day. A number of properties remained disconnected for longer in some cases owing to dangers connected to flooding and the complexity of the faults.
There was severe disruption to important transport links. Ferries were unable to dock at cross-channel ports and rail services were disrupted. A number of flights were diverted and Gatwick airport experienced severe disruption after losing the electricity supply to its north terminal.
Although it will be of little comfort to those affected by the recent floods, more than 220,000 properties were protected over the Christmas period. When added to the more than 800,000 properties that were protected during the coastal flooding in early December, our flood defences have protected around 1 million properties in total in England during the last month alone.
The Government are grateful for the excellent response from our front-line emergency services throughout the UK, and I pay tribute to the community spirit of all those who have rallied round to help their neighbours everywhere in difficult times. As far as England is concerned, I particularly praise the work of the Environment Agency, the local councils, and the transport and energy companies, whose teams worked tirelessly throughout Christmas and the new year period. The Environment Agency has deployed many hundreds of staff over the past six weeks to support communities.
The joint Environment Agency and Met Office flood forecasting centre consistently provided high-quality forecasts to predict accurately flood risks to allow for timely action on the ground. Some 147,000 homes and businesses have received flood warnings and advice since the beginning of December, enabling both individuals and organisations to take effective action before the storms struck.
More than 100 specialist flood rescue teams were on standby across the country as part of the national asset register managed by the Fire and Rescue Service National Co-ordination Centre. I am also grateful to members of Kent and Surrey fire and rescue services for calling off their planned strikes on Christmas eve, which coincided with peak river levels in those areas. I would also like to thank the military personnel deployed at very short notice to assist with flood defence preparations at Maidstone in Kent. The Thames barrier has been raised nine times in the past five days to safeguard more than £200 billion- worth of property in the capital.
There is still a complex picture across the country. Some areas are now focused on recovery, while others remain at significant risk of flooding, and, in many cases, repeated flooding. The Government are working closely with local councils, the insurance industry and others to ensure that people can receive the help they need quickly.
Today’s Cobra meeting agreed that, while we must remain ready to respond to further bad weather and the risk of surface-water flooding, our focus must turn to getting back into their homes the people who have had their Christmas and new year ruined and to supporting local communities with recovery. Tomorrow, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) will be chairing a ministerial recovery working group. People who have had their homes damaged should contact their insurance company for advice about claims and seek assistance from the local authority where necessary. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has triggered the Bellwin scheme to help local authorities with immediate costs caused by flooding, and the Government are in active discussions with Kent and Surrey councils.
The Government emergencies committee, Cobra, has met eight times through the Christmas and new year period. I have held meetings with relevant ministerial colleagues and officials across Government Departments and the Environment Agency on a daily basis. Those meetings ensured that all relevant agencies and organisations were doing everything possible to support affected households. We will undertake a full assessment in the coming weeks, but initial reports have identified a number of positive aspects, as well as some areas where lessons need to be learned.
The majority of local councils and utility companies responded effectively, but the response of a few left room for improvement. All received early warning from the Met Office and the Environment Agency that severe weather was on its way. The Government contacted all local authorities in England to ensure that all possible action was taken to support affected households and to ensure local emergency plans and out-of-hours help were in place to provide immediate assistance. My Department contacted the Association of British Insurers and was assured that the CEOs of all member companies would get loss adjusters to affected properties rapidly. The ABI has ensured that guidance on what those affected should be doing about their insurance has been provided.
People have a right to a reliable energy network. Despite the sequence of major storms that have hit the country in the past few months, the electricity network operators deserve credit for their hard work in reconnecting an unprecedented number of properties—some 700,000—within hours and in time for Christmas. There are, however, lessons to be learned about how customers are supported and informed during power cuts. We welcome the additional compensation some operators have announced and acknowledge that the response of some companies could have been better. The best performing companies set a high standard, which I would like all companies to be able to meet. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is meeting with distribution network operators and Ofgem to discuss how the response can be improved for future events.
Flood management is a real priority for this Government. It has a vital role to play in protecting people and property from damage caused by flooding, and in delivering economic growth. Over the current spending review period, more is being spent than ever before. In addition, from 2015-16 onwards we will be making record levels of investment in capital projects. We will invest £370 million in 2015-16, and then the same in real terms each year, rising to over £400 million in 2020-21—a record investment. That will reduce the risk of flooding to a further 300,000 households, on top of the 165,000 households protected during the current spending round.
I would like to express the House’s sympathy to all those affected by the floods, and I convey my profound thanks to all those involved in responding across the UK. I can also reiterate the Government’s commitment to continue to invest in our flood defences to help us to continue to respond effectively to any future flooding.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for updating the House at the earliest opportunity following the recess on the latest situation regarding the floods. I join him in expressing our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those who have died. Our thoughts are also with the thousands of people affected. This is the worst series of winter storms to hit Britain in more than 20 years, so I also join the Secretary of State and I am sure Members on both sides of the House in thanking Environment Agency staff and the emergency services for their work over the past fortnight, since this period of extreme weather began.
Despite all the efforts of agencies and local government staff, however, it is clear that some communities have faced delays and difficulty in securing the help they need. The Prime Minister heard the criticisms for himself when he visited Yalding in Kent, which suffered severe flooding and where more than 100 homes had to be evacuated. One resident told him:
“We were literally abandoned… We had no rescuers, nothing for the whole day… The Environment Agency said it was up to the council and when I did get through to the council they said if you need sandbags, get your own. On Christmas Day we saw absolutely no one.”
Another resident said:
“The people he’s talking to, the Environment Agency and so on, weren’t here… I swam this road on Christmas Day pulling people out on my own. There was no one here on Christmas Day or Boxing Day.”
The Prime Minister was filmed next to an inflatable boat on his visit, but journalists reported that it had been ferried in 10 minutes before and departed soon after he left. Those affected by these floods do not need stunts or the buck-passing we heard from the Environment Secretary when he put the blame on staff absent over Christmas. They want to know that lessons are to be learned about why some communities faced significant delays in securing the help they needed, and they want to know why lessons do not appear to have been learned from previous flooding incidents, despite all the promises from Ministers at the time.
I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has promised a review to ensure that lessons are learned, but can the Secretary of State assure the House and those forced from their homes that it will begin as soon as the current severe weather has subsided, and will he set out a clear time frame for when it will be concluded? Will he commit to returning to the House to make a further statement on its conclusions? Will he confirm that the review will focus specifically on preparedness for days such as Christmas day and Boxing day, including appropriate staffing levels, especially when storms are predicted?
Will the Secretary of State ensure that the review looks at whether there is sufficient clarity in the division of responsibilities among councils and the Environment Agency? Will the remit be wide enough to look at the performance of the energy companies? As he said, some companies clearly have serious questions to answer about the unacceptable delays in reconnecting homes, which ruined Christmas for many families, and it is also not clear that the Government acted with as much speed and firmness as they should have done in pressing those companies to act.
Will the Secretary of State ensure that the review looks specifically at decisions taken on flood defence expenditure since 2010? His Department’s own figures, verified by the House of Commons Library, which I have here, show that expenditure on flood protection has fallen in real terms from £646 million in 2010 to £527 million this year and will be £546 million by 2015, meaning that we will be spending £100 million a year less at the end of this Parliament than at its start. Will the review therefore look at whether the right choices were made over how best to implement reductions to the Department’s budget, particularly in the light of the Environment Agency’s estimate that every pound invested in flood defences saves the country as much as £8 in flood damage?
Does the Secretary of State still believe that no other areas of his Department’s budget or those of its 28 arm’s length bodies were a lower priority than flood defences when it came to making decisions on reducing spending? Does that include, for example, the £7.3 million he spent in recent months on his failed unscientific cull of badgers—£4,100 for each animal killed?
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the review will consider the warning from the chief executive of the Environment Agency that
“Flood risk maintenance will be impacted”
by further planned budget and staffing reductions? In the meantime, will he reassure those living in areas at risk of flooding that, despite these warnings, he is confident that he can deliver the cuts in a way that will not reduce the Environment Agency’s ability to protect homes and businesses and respond when floods hit?
Will the Secretary of State reassure us that his failure to protect flood defence expenditure over other potential cuts has nothing to do with his personal scepticism about climate science? Has the Secretary of State listened to Sir David King, the Government’s special envoy on climate change, who has today again warned that
“storms and severe weather conditions that we might have expected to occur once in 100 years, say, in the past may now be happening more frequently....and the reason is—as predicted by scientists—that the climate is changing and as the climate changes we can anticipate quite a radical change in weather conditions.”
In the light of that clear warning, does the Secretary of State stand by his view that climate change will benefit the UK because of warmer winters? Will he now listen to the advice from his own independent advisers—the adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change—who wrote to him towards the end of last year to express concern that his flood reinsurance scheme misses simple measures that would reduce cost, increase value for money and cope with increasing flood risk?
Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman look again at Labour’s amendments to the flood reinsurance scheme, which Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members opposed in Committee?
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for her expressions of sympathy and her thanks to those who worked so hard in the Environment Agency and local councils through this difficult period.
The hon. Lady asked four questions about the review. She will have heard me say that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) is meeting tomorrow to work on recovery, and I shall work across Government with my colleagues to look at some of the lessons learned. The hon. Lady justifiably touched on one area which is, I think, a weakness. Although the Environment Agency and the Flood Forecasting Centre have put out very accurate short-term forecasts and although an efficient system was in place for distributing that information right across those on the ground—district councils, power companies, other utilities, transport companies—we saw a patchy take-up of some of that information and a patchy reaction to it. Some reacted very rapidly and were very effective; others had to be accelerated in their actions after a succession of Cobra meetings. The hon. Lady has touched on an area well worthy of investigation.
On expenditure, the hon. Lady is, sadly, simply wrong. Since I have been in this post—
I will tell the hon. Lady; the chronology is very simple. I met her former colleague, the noble Lord Smith, at a tremendous flood scheme in Nottingham, where £45 million had been spent, protecting about 12,000 properties. What was really revealing was not only the 8:1 gain on the properties protected, as she mentioned, but the huge gain in land on the far side of the river that had been blighted for decades. So there is no stronger enthusiast in this House for flood detection schemes than me. I agree with Lord Smith that if we had a programme of projects that we could press on with rapidly, I would do my best to get money from my colleagues in central Government. [Interruption.] All those Opposition Members chuntering have to get back to some pretty basic figures. When we came into office in 2010, this country was borrowing over £300,000 a minute, and we had to take some pretty difficult decisions. In the light of that and the dire economic circumstances, reductions in revenue inevitably had to be made. Following my meetings with the noble Lord Smith, we got an extra £120 million for capital and have consolidated that into an extended scheme that will see 165,000 properties protected up to 2015. What is absolutely unprecedented is our clear programme of a further £2.3 billion up to 2021 to protect a further 300,000 properties. For all the blather from the Opposition, the simple question for the hon. Lady is whether she will nod now and say that the Labour party will go along with our proposal to spend £2.3 billion on capital up until 2021. Mr Speaker and colleagues, it is very noticeable—[Interruption.]
Order. There is a cacophony of noise. It seems invidious to single out individuals, but I confess a degree of disappointment as I had always envisaged the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) as a future rather cerebral statesman, but at the moment that point seems to be some way off to judge by the cacophony he is generating. The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) took a little longer than her allotted time, and I allowed for that, but it is only fair to allow the Secretary of State to give proper replies. The House will make its own assessment of those replies, but the right hon. Gentleman must be heard.
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker, and I will be quick.
The shadow Secretary of State has very publicly not endorsed our programme to increase spending on capital to £2.3 billion up until 2021, so the facts are that in this spending round this Government are spending more than any preceding Government and we propose to spend more up to 2021. That is something on which she needs to reflect before making further criticisms.
The Government believe in the value of flood protection schemes. They deliver a huge advantage for those in private properties and in business and they free up blighted land, and we will continue our programme. It is noticeable, however, that the news today is that the Labour party will not endorse our increased spending programme.
May I add my congratulations to the Environment Agency and the emergency services, including the lifeboat crews and coastguards who rescued those who put themselves at risk? It is noteworthy that the flood defences held firm and protected the properties that the Secretary of State has highlighted. Will he commit to reviewing his Department’s maintenance budget to ensure that the flood defences that held will have proper maintenance? Will he allow drainage boards to use their own engineers to ensure that the main water courses are kept clear in the future, as the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recommended? Will he give the House some examples of imaginative partnership approaches, such as the Pickering pilot project, which is building a reservoir, starting tomorrow, to keep Pickering safe from future floods?
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for her supportive comments. Emphatically yes, we want spending on maintenance to continue. That is why I added a further £5 million to that budget for 2015-16. For further information, although there was a 1% reduction in budgets across DEFRA, I have not passed that on to the flood budget. Again, that shows our absolute determination to protect flood schemes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to praise partnership schemes. I have been around the country to look at tremendous projects, and only today I was on the Thames where there are prospects of extending the Jubilee river scheme that would require partnership spending by six local councils.
Is it not the case that the sum being spent is way below what the Environment Agency said in 2009 would need to be spent to keep pace with climate change? Is not the real fact that, as the adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change’s report states, the
“extreme events seen in recent years will become the new normal”
and that we need to do far more? We need urgently and immediately to review the cuts being made to the Environment Agency.
I thank the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee for her comments. Emphatically yes, we have reacted—look at what we are doing. I agreed a whole range of projects with the noble Lord Smith and we got them passed in a difficult spending round. We have agreed extra funding, as I have just told the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, for revenue spending and we have agreed, unprecedentedly, a programme of increased spending on capital up until 2021. We are spending more money in this spending round than in the previous four years, we have brought in partnership funding and we have set out an ambitious programme. We are reacting—the hon. Lady needs only to look at what we are doing on the ground.
Not unusually, a large part of my constituency is under water at the moment, and many people who live on the levels say that the situation is the worst that they can remember. I know that the Secretary of State understands this, but will he push the Environment Agency very hard to go ahead with the plans to clear the waterways and the rhynes and particularly to dredge the Parrett, the Tone, the Brue and the Axe, because if we have not got the capacity to get that water away, it will stay there for a very long time?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He and I worked closely on this matter when he was my colleague in DEFRA. Together, we have come to a number of schemes that are being piloted—seven across the country—allowing local farmers and landlords to clear their own low-risk waterways, under supervision from the Environment Agency; but obviously, if that work is to go ahead and be meaningful, there must be proper dredging of rivers, and we will work on that with the Environment Agency.
How does the Secretary of State expect people to believe his claims that flood management is a priority for the Government when, in addition to the Environment Agency cuts, he has seen the decision to slash DEFRA’s team working on climate change adaptation from 38 officials to six and when the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has scrapped the obligation for councils to prepare for the impacts of climate change? Will the Secretary of State not acknowledge that that illustrates an incredibly reckless approach to the risks that extreme weather presents? Will he confirm whether he has found time to hold even one meeting with his Department’s chief scientific adviser on this matter—something that he had failed to do until a few months ago?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I cannot blame her for the economic mess that we inherited, but sadly, when we were borrowing £300,000 a minute—[Interruption.] Opposition Members are still chuntering. They are still in denial, and they are not apologising to the British people. When we were borrowing £300,000 a minute, we had to make difficult decisions. The hon. Lady must acknowledge, because she has been here while I made these decisions in the past 16 months, that we have increased spending in this round up to 2015 and that we have an ambitious programme of £2.3 billion, as I have just said. Hon. Members should therefore look at what we are doing on the ground and look at the benefits, with 1 million properties protected over Christmas.
I am sure the Secretary of State would like to clarify for the House that the Opposition’s claim that they could identify savings from arm’s length bodies falsifies the fact that when this Government took office, there were 91 arm’s length bodies under DEFRA’s wing, which I reduced to 28, and that those savings were directed precisely to help to improve flood defences.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and predecessor for her comments. She is absolutely spot on. By the very difficult decisions that she took and by reducing the number of bodies that were not absolutely key, she has enabled me to come forward with a programme under which this Government will be spending more in this round than any preceding Government.
Significant damage was done in Crosby and Hightown during the December floods. As a result, council officers told me this morning that we were very lucky to avoid further significant flooding this weekend. Cuts to flood defence funding since 2010 mean that many communities have now been left vulnerable to further flooding, so will the Secretary of State ensure that funding is made available for the early repair of the flood defences that have been damaged?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. Of course, his local council can now work with the Environment Agency on partnership funding. I am not sure of the exact physical circumstances, but if there is a possible scheme, there is now a real chance of getting that scheme over the wire. He makes a good point about the maintenance of schemes, and that has been a daily question in our Cobra meetings and our DEFRA meetings to make absolutely sure that any breaches were mended. I pay tribute to the Environment Agency for the rapid manner in which it worked through the night, certainly in early December, to put right those breaches.
Prevention is undoubtedly better than cure, and I wonder whether the Secretary of State agrees that, in addition to wonderful flood prevention schemes, education is critical. In my constituency, one of the fatalities involved a misguided rescue attempt. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that we should ensure that councils work with parishes to make sure that plans are in place? No plans were in place in some of my coastal villages, and that was exactly where we needed them.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting and valid comment, and I hope that she will contribute to our review. She points out that several absolutely tragic deaths in recent weeks were really unnecessary—if only people had paid attention to the warnings. One cannot fault the Environment Agency for putting out a huge number of warnings using every possible medium, and we need to ensure that those warnings are heeded.
The high tides and strong winds of recent days have caused real problems on Walney island, which is home to about 13,000 of my residents. We have had a long struggle to try to get adequate protection against coastal erosion, which threatens many homes on Earnse bay, so will the Secretary of State put a rocket up the Marine Management Organisation so that it issues a licence without further delay to enable such work to begin? Experts say that if we do not act, Walney could be split into two or three separate islands within 20 or 30 years.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He makes a valid point, and it would be appropriate if he put it in writing to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), so that we can take it up
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He will be aware that the river that gives my constituency its name flooded and devastated the north of my constituency, as well as the north of the adjacent constituencies to the east and west. The actions of the utility organisations and councils and neighbours in many areas were terrific and offset some of the damage, but the effects will take a long time to overcome. I am delighted that he talks of a review and more money, but I am cautiously aware that we in Surrey usually do not get a decent slice of what is available, so I am putting in a direct bid now. I will be asking the leader of Surrey county council to work with me, the Environment Agency and the utilities to put together ideas for a report. Will the Secretary of State accept that report and agree to meet a small deputation that will push the report?
My hon. Friend tempts me with his question, but I commend his plan to talk to his local council. The partnership mechanism that we have introduced has enabled several schemes that had previously stalled to get over the bar, so if there is a suitable scheme for his local rivers I strongly recommend that he work with his council to draw up a bid with the Environment Agency. Such a proposal will be assessed alongside all the other schemes.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He referred to the fact that certain areas in Northern Ireland were flooded. As the representative of such a constituency, may I ask him to hold immediate discussions with the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that any cuts to coastguard services will not have an impact on coastal communities in Northern Ireland that were greatly affected by coastal flooding and surges?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that important point. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), is in the Chamber, and as the question is about a transport matter, it is probably more appropriate for the hon. Lady to write directly to him.
I commend the Secretary of State for his personal commitment and energy over the Christmas and new year period; while many of us were enjoying our holidays, he was working in his Department. I should also, of course, mention the hard work of the emergency services and the Environment Agency. What discussions has he held with the Association of British Insurers to ensure that those affected by floods will be reimbursed as quickly as possible?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments and for reflecting the tremendous work of those in the Environment Agency and the other services. We raised this matter early after the first flood, and ambassadors of the Environment Agency went to check that members of the public were getting satisfactory responses from their insurance companies. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, spoke to the ABI on several occasions to ensure that that was being followed up, and the matter was raised at Cobra this morning. I am pleased to say that, at the moment, we have not heard of any complaints that insurance companies are being slow in sending out assessors. However, at that very difficult time when someone’s property has flooded, the one thing that they want is to get their insurance sorted out, so we would obviously welcome hearing from hon. Members about any cases where there have been problems.
In the early hours of Christmas eve, 35 homes in Westhorne avenue in my constituency suffered an avoidable flood when a grill in the Quaggy river became completely blocked. It was only a few hundred yards away from a multi-million pound flood alleviation scheme, but, sadly, the water did not reach there because the Environment Agency had failed to ensure that the grill was kept clear. This has left my constituents in a difficult situation. What they need now is for the Environment Agency to ’fess up and accept its responsibility for the incident so that they can start to make their claims. Will the Secretary of State contact the Environment Agency on my behalf?
The hon. Gentleman reports on an unfortunate case. The appropriate measure is for him to send the details to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, and we will take the matter up with the Environment Agency.
Does the Secretary of State agree that a number of small schemes to improve the capacity of ditches, culverts and streams could make a lot of difference? My constituency has had huge development on flood plain, and every time we have these situations we always get too many properties flooded because of defective maintenance or because the ditches and culverts are not big enough.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. A big difference can be made by micro-management of micro-problems, such as the one cited in the previous question. Not everything can be done by central Government, national institutions, local councils or even parish councils. In rural areas, we are setting up pilots to allow local landowners the right on the ground to maintain low-risk areas and to clear out small rivers.
At the end of last week, high-sea surges and high winds brought water over the coastal protection in Porthcawl, both at West drive and in Newton. Local council staff were out quickly, clearing up the debris along the roadways. The Environment Agency was excellent. None the less, there are huge financial consequences because we have to repair the sea protection and pay for the staff coverage during the clear-up. What money will be available to the Environment Agency and local councils in devolved Administrations to ensure that repairs can be done and compensation paid so that councils can carry on with the much needed flood protection works?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Nearly all the issues that she raised are devolved responsibilities for Ministers in Cardiff. However, if she wants to write to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), we will see whether we can help.
No one in my constituency of Gloucester or in neighbouring Tewkesbury will ever forget the devastation caused by the floods of 2007 and the remarkable reaction and community spirit from our constituents to deal with it. However, the recommendations of the Pitt report took a long time to implement under the previous Government, and it was not until 2010 that the Environment Agency spent significant sums of money to build up flood prevention measures in the city of Gloucester, notably the Horsbere Brook relief pond, which was opened by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) in 2011.
Although the floods in 2012 and this year have affected Gloucestershire—anyone who lives by the River Severn should expect some consequences—none of my constituents’ houses have so far been flooded, though I stress the words “so far”. I pay tribute to the work of the Environment Agency, the city and county council, Severn Trent, which spent £15 million on a project to improve drainage and sewers, and many other agencies. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Environment Agency’s work and advance notice and warnings have been significantly improved by better technology which shows where the flooding is likely to impact much more effectively than it did six years ago?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous comments. I can confirm that we have implemented nearly all the recommendations of the Pitt report. One of the most important ones was the establishment of the flood forecasting centre, which brings together the Met Office and the Environment Agency. I pay tribute to the centre, whose work I have seen at very close quarters in recent days, for its great accuracy. I also pay tribute to the Environment Agency for the rapid manner in which it got the message out. My hon. Friend touches on one of the most important recommendations that came out of Pitt.
The Government’s new flood insurance scheme excludes properties built after 2009, properties bought under the Government’s Help to Buy scheme, and small businesses and leaseholders. So can the Secretary of State confirm that the Prime Minister’s review will look at, and publish details of, the number of properties that have been flooded in recent weeks and those that will not be covered by the Government’s new insurance scheme?
We have already had the Committee stage of the Water Bill, which comes back to the House immediately after this statement and that would be the appropriate moment to raise these issues. We have said that we have to have a cut-off point, and it was 2009, when the last Government firmed up on the whole idea of building on floodplains. There has to be a firm cut-off point, and the longer this goes on, the bigger the burden will be on other hard-working families who are helping to pay the cross-subsidy.
My constituency has suffered from two sorts of flooding over this period, and some residents in Calstock and Lower Kelly are almost cut-off because the road collapsed into the river. The council has been really good in working with the local residents, but Cornwall suffers under the Bellwin scheme because a unitary authority was foisted on it by the Labour party, against the wishes of the people of Cornwall. Will my right hon. Friend speak to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to see whether something can be done about the disproportionate way in which the Bellwin scheme works against Cornwall?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I am pleased to say that only this morning the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth met the leader and chief executive of Cornwall council to discuss the impact of the Bellwin scheme on Cornwall.
As the former chair of Flood Risk Management Wales, which is charged with investing in flood defences and flood risk-management systems across Wales on behalf of the Environment Agency and the Welsh Government, I am very aware that although the Welsh coastline is more than a quarter of the size of the English coastline, we get only 5% of the money, because that is allocated on the basis of population. Given the severity of the conditions we face, will the Secretary of State look at the case, with the Treasury, for some contingency funding to deal with the damage caused in Wales and review that balance in the light of the growing risk from climate change?
My right hon. Friend referred to the transport disruption caused by the weather conditions, and I should advise him that high winds have led to the closure of the Dartford-Thurrock bridge on three occasions during this period. Will he ensure that Cobra reviews the resilience of the road network on such occasions, so that that can inform future transport investment decisions?
Obviously, we had Department for Transport Ministers at every Cobra meeting. It is safe to say that, generally, the strategic road network worked extremely well, but my hon. Friend mentions high-profile routes that are exposed to winds, and my colleagues in the DFT will be examining that as part of the review.
My sympathies are with all those who have lost loved ones during this period, and I am sure the Secretary of State has said the same. May I tell him that Wirral organisations worked incredibly hard to keep going and to get back to normal during the adverse weather conditions? Unfortunately, their efforts, which should have been supported by the council, have been hampered somewhat by the extremity of the cuts that Wirral council faces at this time. He says that tomorrow the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) will be chairing a meeting of a ministerial recovery working group. Will that discuss how to assist the councils that have dealt with the biggest cuts this Government have doled out?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and thank her for her expression of sympathy for all those who have suffered over the past few weeks. The Bellwin scheme is there to help exactly the sort of council she is talking about. She should work with her local council and encourage it to put in an application to the Department for Communities and Local Government. She can write to the Under-Secretary of State any time she likes, because he will take it up.
The Environment Agency’s flood-alert service is a valuable early-warning system, but unfortunately it is not available to many households in Littlehampton and Bognor Regis. Given the serious flooding in my constituency in June 2012 and the fact that it is on a low-lying coastal plain, will the Secretary of State use his influence with the Environment Agency to ensure that the service is available to all my constituents?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that useful point. I think that the best thing for him to do would be to write to the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, so that we can put that in the mix and work with the Environment Agency on it.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and add my thanks to the many agencies and staff in Northern Ireland, particularly the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which led the battle against the elements over the past few days and weeks. I congratulate him on ensuring that there was a good state of preparedness on this occasion, as people were warned when floods were imminent, in stark contrast to what had gone before. I hope that that vigilance will be maintained for the future. I ask that he continues to share information with the devolved regions so that that awareness is maintained. Will he condemn those people who took it upon themselves to steal sandbags from parts of the river bank in east Belfast, putting more houses at risk, and then sell them to vulnerable pensioners, which was utterly disgraceful? Will he also keep an especially watchful eye on Rathlin island, which remains cut off from sea transport? If that situation continues over the next few days, will he ensure that my constituents there will continue to receive attention, and hopefully a drop of supplies?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am as shocked as anyone else in the House by the revelation that people were stealing sandbags at such a difficult time. We all saw on our television screens the extraordinary conditions in Belfast. There is probably no bigger an admirer of the PSNI in this House than me, so I happily endorse his comments. As far as Rathlin island is concerned, I received a communication on new year’s day from the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who wished me a happy new year from her cottage there. I am sure that we will hear from her if she gets stuck. Seriously, if people on Rathlin are having problems with transport, Members should take that up with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who can then take it up with colleagues in the Department for Transport.
I join the Secretary of State in praising the emergency services that helped and protected communities in the face of flood and storm damage. In Wales those were mostly coastal towns that depend on tourism for their living. He has already said that it is a devolved matter, but will he work with his ministerial counterparts to ensure that there is a Barnett consequential for the Bellwin formula so that local authorities can reinstate the infrastructure and the towns can be ready to welcome tourists later in the year?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises an important Welsh point that we heard earlier. Obviously the Welsh Government were represented in the meetings of Cobra, and I talked with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales only this morning. I think that the appropriate route would be to write to him, because clearly consequentials have been cited in relation to the large Welsh coastline.
I remind the Secretary of State that when there has been flooding in my constituency it has been an awful experience, but it can also be months, and sometimes years, before homes are habitable again. It is a miserable process. Does he agree that the Environment Agency has come out very well from the recent troubles with flooding and inclement weather. Should he not now do something to restore morale in the Environment Agency, which he is well known to dislike, because its staff are very unhappy about the way they have been treated by his Government over the past three years?
I am grateful for some of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I honestly have to disagree. I have been to see people from the Environment Agency on the ground. Last week I was in Addington, where they were manning the control centre. Only this morning, I was near Maidenhead looking at the Jubilee river, in absolute pouring rain. Those guys have been working all over Christmas and their morale was absolutely tremendous. They are, quite rightly, really proud of what they have done. They have worked their guts out under very difficult conditions, and they have delivered. We estimate that approximately 1 million households are protected through the work of the Environment Agency and all those working in local councils. I am always struck by the real spirit among people in the Environment Agency and their determination to deliver, whatever the conditions. That also goes back to what happened at the beginning of January, when they were working overnight filling breaches on the east coast. I have the deepest respect for the hon. Gentleman, who has been in this House for a long time, and I do not like disagreeing with him, but on this occasion I honestly think he is wrong, and I am pleased to tell him so. I really do think that morale among people in the Environment Agency is tremendous—and of course they are buoyed up by the prospect of our very significant long-term programme for flood defences.
Twelve months ago I visited the Environment Agency to thank people for their work over last Christmas, and I visited many of the flooded homes, particularly those of farmers on the Somerset levels, who were mentioned by my hon. Friends the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) and for Wells (Tessa Munt). We were able to do much to support them. However, we are left with the importance of remembering that the first two years of this Government were spent dealing with drought and the last two years have been spent dealing with really severe floods. It is right that we are encouraging investment in resilience in the water sector, and it has to be right that we continue to prioritise flood spending. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is worth reminding the House that the previous Government’s so-called Darling plan would have made 50% cuts in capital spending across the Government, which would of course have had an impact on precisely the things that Opposition Members are complaining about today?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. I would like, on the record, to thank him, and my predecessor, for the tremendous work that they put in during their time working on these long-term programmes. What is fascinating about this statement is that it has flushed out the fact that the Labour party will not match our very ambitious long-term programme for flood defences.
The statement of principles, which was the ad hoc arrangement left by the previous Government, was always going to end on 30 June last year, and I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues had done very little to prepare the ground for a replacement. After very detailed negotiation with the ABI, we have come to an agreement on a new programme. The relevant measure is going through the House as we speak, and he will have an opportunity to comment on it in the debate on the Water Bill later this afternoon.
Lowestoft in my constituency was badly affected by the North sea storm surge at the beginning of last month. In the past three and a half years the Government have made significant commitments to flood defences in terms of increasing funding and promoting innovative ways of carrying out works. As a result of the recent and ongoing floods, a considerable amount of additional work has been created in relation to preparing damaged defences, working up new schemes that had previously been regarded as long-term projects, and improving risk management procedures. In the light of what has happened in the past four to five weeks, will the Secretary of State be reviewing the funding arrangements for the Environment Agency and local authorities to ensure that they have the necessary resources to carry out this additional work and that local communities can get back on their feet as quickly as possible?