I beg to move,
That this House has considered the e-petition relating to holiday companies charging extra in school holidays.
I would like to start by referring to an e-mail I received a few minutes ago from a parent who hopes to take his three children to Turin next February half term, in 2015. According to his e-mail, the British Airways website gives a price of £54 for a single person on Tuesday 10 and Wednesday 11 February 2015. On the Thursday, the price goes up to £112, and on the Friday it is £344. That is for a one-way flight for a single person. My correspondent asks how on earth parents can ever afford to pay such prices. That is what this debate is about, in essence. The fact is that many parents across the country are having great difficulty in being able to afford to go on holiday with their children.
The e-petition that we are debating was initiated some time ago by Donna Thresher, although Paul Cookson has been campaigning to get signatures for it since he found that Center Parcs doubled its prices at half term. Donna has said:
“Firstly we the undersigned are grateful that our voice is to be heard. The news of the debate is welcomed by all of us as we feel this is a positive step towards an outcome that we deem extremely important to the well being of family life. For those of us that work hard, pay our bills and taxes, a family holiday is the only time off we get to spend QUALITY time with our families. The government are struggling to understand why we have ‘Benefits Britain’ and one of the reasons is simple, broken families. Parents need time off, they need to enjoy their children and have time together as a unit. With holidays being priced out to such a degree that makes them unobtainable and means families are not getting this important time together.”
The e-petition was tabled before the changes to the regulations came into force on 1 September 2013. I thank the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), for allocating time for this debate. The comments I am about to read were written after the new regulations, which are very relevant, came into force. Donna said:
“The original petition still stands in its own right but we do feel that the change in legislation has impacted the costs even further.
However, there are things to be considered—the petition was raised almost a year ago and the legislation with regard to the change in the discretionary rights of head teachers to allow pupils time of in term time had NOT at the time been made public.”
Donna’s thoughts since the change in legislation are:
“Holiday prices have increased even further. Schools will no longer know when children are being removed for a holiday as parents may decide to not say, this could constitute a safeguarding issue and end up with social service involved! The 10 days discretionary was working, why did it have to be changed? Fines are sought by the school and yet they don’t receive the money; it goes to the council and not back into the schools themselves. Therefore this seems to me to be another stealth tax.”
My hon. Friend may be right, but that has been changed anyway.
There is also the issue of the new regulations, which we discussed with the Backbench Business Committee. A group called Parents Want a Say was established following the introduction of the new regulations, and it has a website. A number of e-petitions relate to the issue of school holidays. E-petition 49640 is entitled “Reverse the changes to school term time family holiday rules”.
E-petition 53002 states that it is
“calling on the government to help British families manage the ‘Parent Trap’ of inflated holiday prices in summer by suspending or reducing the rate of Air Passenger Duty (APD) for the annual school summer-holiday period of July and August.”
E-petition 45247 states:
“Relax the strict rules on term time holidays for school children.
Give parents the right to take their child on holiday in term time if the holiday would benefit the child.
Respect the rights of the child and bring term time holiday regulations in line with UNCRC (specifically article 3,4,5 and 31).
Standardise the criteria for term time holiday approval to prevent inconsistencies.”
E-petition 46455 states:
“Family time is so much more essential in the current working world, but so many people cannot afford holidays in school holidays. A break at home is not the same as getting away from it all where there isn't any house work or DIY to get done, instead focus is on family. Its time to stop the holiday companies cashing in on school holidays and let parents have some guilt free family time! Enforce action that caps the percentage increase on holiday prices in school holidays.”
There are also e-petitions 55426, 51533, 42884 and 23709, which I am not going to read out. This debate is a very good example of how effective an e-petition can be in getting an issue of considerable concern to many constituents across the country raised and debated in Parliament. It looks to me like an example of the success of the e-petition system.
I apologise for not being able to stay for the entire debate, but I wanted to support my hon. Friend. I have received a lot of letters on this issue from my constituents in Shrewsbury. They feel strongly that the Government must show innovative thinking to resolve the situation for hard-working families who, on rare occasions, need to pull their children out of school for a holiday.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. As I talk about specific examples, we will see that different families have different circumstances, and a one-size-fits-all approach is not necessarily the best solution.
It is interesting that the tensions that have arisen beyond the initial problem of high prices during the holidays are the result of the new regulations, passed in statutory instrument 2013 No. 756. For those interested in procedural issues, as I am, I should say that the regulations went through Parliament under a negative resolution—that is, they would pass as long as Parliament did not vote against them. Parliament would have had an opportunity to discuss the regulations had anyone tabled an early-day motion praying against them, but no one did. There was no discussion.
The regulations were laid before Parliament on 4 April 2013. There was no request to debate them on the Floor of the House of Lords either. That House differs from the House of Commons in that it has a Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which looked at the regulations and decided not to comment on them. However, we have heard from our constituents that there are considerable problems across the country. That shows the strength of the e-petitioning process. Something went through Parliament on the nod, but constituents had a mechanism to express concerns. The issue has been raised and now everyone present is here to debate it.
I must disagree with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). The Department for Education website states that the regulations were changed from allowing up to 10 school days—not 10 school sessions—per year for holidays to allowing children to leave school only in exceptional circumstances. As I said, I will come to specific examples. Although there was some form of consultation on changes to the regulations, that did not get across to people and Parliament was not aware of constituents’ concerns when the changes were made. However, that has now changed.
How do we deal with the issue? Obviously, many of our constituents face a serious problem; that is evidenced by the number of people in the Chamber. Concerns have been expressed about the extent to which companies can be forced to charge the same price throughout the year. I do not think that that is a practical solution, particularly given that the market includes people visiting this country—we could end up with holiday touts and all sorts of things.
There are two solutions for dealing with demand. First, we could have flexibility in holiday periods: we could stagger holidays. Secondly, we could have more flexibility—moving back towards how things were previously, although not necessarily all the way—and allow people to take their children out of school in term time, in the right circumstances. I think that would be reasonable in some circumstances.
Looking further at how the issue is regulated, we already have Ofcom, Ofwat and Ofgem; I do not think we can have Offonholiday—that would not work. A reduction in air passenger duty has been proposed, but there would be problems with that. First, it would not benefit UK holidaymakers. Paul Cookson, who I referred to earlier, was worried about the doubling of prices at Center Parcs. As Center Parcs is in the UK, a reduction in air passenger duty would not have an effect on people going there. If the APD proposal reached the Treasury, it would go into a nosedive; we would find that it was not a flyer—[Interruption.] Sorry about that. I will give up on the jokes now.
We come to the question of what will happen as far as flexibility for holidays is concerned. I have found an interesting copy of Travel Trade Gazette from 1963, which reports:
“It was in the House of Commons on February 12, 1960, that approval was first given to the setting up of a committee to examine the question of extending the U.K. holiday season.
The subject was introduced by Mr. Robert Mathew, M.P. for Honiton, in a motion which read:
‘That this House, recognising the need to extend and adjust the holiday period so as to relieve congestion at the peak period, asks Her Majesty’s Government to set up a committee to examine this question urgently with special reference to the educational, tourist trade and transport interests concerned, and the problem of summer time, with the power to recommend early action.’ ”
We are now a good few years on; we did not have the early action. That was in 1963. In 1964, the heads of Germany’s regional governments, which are responsible for state education, were called together to stagger the summer holidays in such a way as to prevent all the region’s leisure seekers from leaving for and returning from their holidays at the same time, with the corresponding detrimental effect on traffic and demand for accommodation in tourist areas. They divided the country into five roughly equal population blocks, which were all to have different holiday periods that moved around. It is interesting that Germany managed to do something. In fact, I understand that the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland and France also have such a facility.
Interestingly, schedule 14 to the Deregulation Bill, currently being discussed, allows head teachers to decide when holidays are. The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Russell Hobby, said recently that the NAHT has been saying for some time that there is an argument for more flexibility over term times, to relieve the pressures that drive up holiday costs. However, it is important for schools to co-ordinate timings across a town or region; parents with children at different schools would not welcome the inconvenience and child care costs of different term dates. That is obviously sensible. We must also think of the teachers; those with children would not like their children’s holidays to be at a different time from theirs.
Staggering holiday dates can definitely be done, but it will need co-ordination; it will not be something to wash our hands of. It may be for the Select Committee on Education to consider, in conjunction with other people, how we might stagger holidays across the country so that we do not end up with everyone trying to go on holiday at the same time and prices rocketing.
That is one question. The more difficult question is when people should be allowed out of school during term time and what exemptions should apply. Again, I will quote from what people have said to me. One person says:
“This coming Tuesday is my uncle’s funeral in Folkestone…Our three children were quite close to him. We enquired of their schools (primary and secondary) whether they would be prepared to grant exceptional circumstance leave for one day only and in both cases they said they felt unable to do so under the new rules.”
There we have a specific example of children being refused permission to go to the funeral of their great-uncle. Personally, I think that is wrong.
Other parents do not have a choice as to when they have holiday. A lady who returned from maternity leave to her post as a staff nurse in a bone marrow transplant unit at a hospital put in an early request for annual leave during the Easter or summer half-term break. Her requests were not granted, as too many other nurses were off during those periods and the unit must remain adequately staffed. In addition, her husband has been unable to secure annual leave during the summer. They have always made their best efforts to book holiday time during school breaks, but the only week that they could secure together this year was in June, when there is no school holiday. That lady spends her time saving lives. She is committed to that, so she does not have flexibility in her holidays, and the new rules say that she cannot go on holiday with her children. I think that is wrong, too.
Does the hon. Gentleman also recognise the particular problems faced by members of the armed forces? Some schools have been pragmatic in allowing members of the armed forces, particularly if they are being deployed, to spend a holiday with their children. It is particularly shoddy when they are not given that opportunity, especially now that we have the armed forces covenant.
I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the situation of my constituent Amanda Wooding, who is a child care specialist. She, of course, finds herself particularly in demand during the school holidays, but she has children of her own, so she can never take them on holiday at other times because of her profession.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. The issue is all about considering individual cases. Perhaps the hardest case is that of the police, who not only often do not have any choice as to when they take holiday, but also can be fired if they are fined. That is a double whammy. Not only is taking holiday difficult; they also face losing their job. That is clearly unfair to those people.
Another constituent of mine says that they have one family holiday a year. Until this year they have been fortunate enough to take it for a week during the school term, always authorised by the school, but they cannot afford to take the same holiday during the school holidays, although their children’s attendance is otherwise excellent. That is my constituent’s point: they ensure that their children’s attendance is excellent and that they maintain their educational standards, do work and so on. Now, from a cost-effectiveness point of view, it is cheaper to pay the fines. It is not very good to have a structure in society that effectively encourages people to break the criminal law because it would cost them thousands of pounds not to.
I have another story from some people from Australia who have difficulty visiting family if there is no flexibility at all. They say:
“What is clear is that this ruling actually favours the rich. Those who can afford it pay the fine for taking their children out—I know of one family who recently took themselves skiing to do this—while those on low incomes who cannot afford the fine but feel they must go will get a criminal record. The ruling is draconian.”
Similarly, I have a constituent with links to Pakistan who has concerns that the ruling is damaging their family links as well. Those examples give us some idea of the exceptions that are now not being treated as exceptions.
On mechanisms for change, we should first look to the Taylor report itself, as that drove the changes. Recommendation 6 was that
“changes are made to the pupil registration regulations to strengthen the rules on term time holidays. While head teachers should continue to have discretion, holidays in term time should be the exception rather than the rule.”
Actually, they are not happening at all now. One obvious question in all this is what pressure Ofsted is placing on head teachers to reduce the numbers. The numbers were that 7.5% of absence in primary schools and 2.5% in secondary schools was related to holidays. Obviously, if head teachers are under pressure to reduce those numbers, there will be an effect.
We must consider the mechanisms for change. One is for the Government to produce guidance saying clearly that going to a great-uncle’s funeral, for instance, is reasonable. Secondly, the Government could introduce a new statutory instrument changing the regulations. The final question is whether a judicial review under article 8 of the European convention on human rights, or using the UN convention on the rights of the child—a point made in one of the other petitions—could have an effect.
There is undoubtedly a problem. The fact that so many constituents have highlighted the issue and so many people have signed online petitions about it demonstrates that. There are numerous solutions, including working with schools to stagger school holidays or changing regulations. We need to do something.
Thank you, Mr Turner, for calling me to speak in this important debate. I also thank my colleague on the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), for securing it. When the e-petition came to us, we recognised its importance, not only because it reached 100,000 signatures, but because of the number of constituents who talked to us about the issue. His comprehensive speech—I hope I do not repeat any of it—highlighted how this is about individual cases. A big national policy that is supposed to apply to every single case will simply not work. I want to use a couple of examples from my own constituency to highlight how a more sensible policy would look at each individual case—each individual child and each individual parent—and give schools far greater discretion to allow people out of school and for how long.
We all agree that education is crucial and that the more time a child misses from its education, the worse it is for that child. Nobody is arguing for taking children out of school indiscriminately just because it is a little cheaper to go on holiday. We are talking about the people who are least able to afford to go on holiday, who have already got the greatest pressures on them.
A constituent of mine, Tim Farmer from Dronfield, has written to me. He and his partner share child care. One of them starts work at 6 am and the other finishes work at 11 am. They cannot afford to take their children on holiday during term time, and not spending time together means that the family is put under pressure. Heaped on top of that, they work absolutely punishing hours and never get the chance to spend time together as a family. That puts additional pressures on family life, and we are seeing, especially at a time of austerity, more and more families breaking up. We must look at the costs of not doing anything about it.
I have a distressing case in which the school’s response illustrates how a national policy does not really work in individual cases. The case involves a man who is separated from his wife. His seven-year-old daughter goes to a school in the constituency; he lives 120 miles away and visits on alternate weekends. The girl has just been diagnosed with a brain tumour, and they do not know what will happen to the child. He has asked the school whether he can take the girl on holiday for a week. The school has cited Government legislation to say there will be no unauthorised absences. It sounds quite threatening, but the school has no option, because of the rules. The school wrote:
“As from 1st September 2013 any holidays during term time will not be authorised, unless there are exceptional circumstances, for which there are set strict criteria. This is Government policy and parents who take their children on holiday without permission will incur unauthorised absences for their child. These remain on the child’s record and will be monitored for further action by the Education Welfare Service. Parents could be issued with a fixed penalty notice and/or court action.”
That is quite threatening language, but it is national policy. If a child with a brain tumour does not fall under the category of a special case, I do not know what does.
Tim Farmer’s children have got 99% to 100% attendance at school. He wants the best for them, but he also says that going on holiday with the family provides a cultural experience, a broadening of horizon and a stability for the children that helps them. Education is much wider than what people get at school.
Absolutely, and the case is ongoing. I was citing it as an example of using a massive hammer to crack a nut. Everything is with good intentions. We all want the best education for our children. We all know that the less time a child spends at school, the worse its outcomes will be, and there are lots of different reasons for that. There are children from chaotic families and children who truant, but we are talking about looking at an individual child and the family’s circumstances and seeing whether it would be possible, not to have a week a year taken out of school time, but to have a week occasionally to make sure that that family can spend some quality time together. I am so glad that we are having this debate, and I am looking forward to hearing about other individual cases from constituencies, because they will highlight the fact that we do need to revisit the matter.
Obviously, we cannot force holiday companies not to raise their prices during school holiday times, but we do need to have a far more sensible and pragmatic approach. We need to give schools greater discretion to allow families to have holidays together.
I agree with many of the points the hon. Lady is making, but I have a concern about putting the onus on to head teachers without very good guidelines. Head teachers would find it difficult with parent against parent, and there would be inconsistencies across areas and across the country, so I think we need to dig into the criteria and guidelines that are issued.
That is an excellent point. I know the hon. Lady has a background in education, and she is absolutely right. All I am asking for is that we allow greater discretion. At the moment, there is not enough discretion, and that is why the issues are being raised with us as constituency MPs.
I think I agree with my hon. Friend, but does she agree with me that the problem is that there are at least three variables? There are those—including teachers—who, by virtue of their employment, would never have the opportunities that others are seeking. There are those—she gave some good examples—whose own employment makes it difficult for them to find space. And of no less importance is the requirement for schools to provide the entire curriculum to all the children, and co-ordinating that would be a problem. The idea of more discretion is good, but it needs to be underpinned by some basic principles about how all the different groups can be catered for.
I absolutely agree. Our problem at the moment is that we have one national policy that is supposed to apply to everybody, and it is not working in the case of teachers, police officers, and the armed forces. There are lots of individual professions that will have problems. However, the head teachers that I have met know the parents and their children. We do not want a situation in which it becomes too easy to take children out of school—there would be abuses of that—but in the case of families with the lowest incomes and the greatest pressures on family life, where a lot of the families are breaking up, that is far worse for a child than simply missing a couple of days of its education because it has gone on holiday. We need to look at that a lot more carefully. I agree with the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole that we need to look at the guidelines more carefully. We must not impose so harshly on schools and use such a threatening tone with parents. For people on a low income, the inability to ever go on holiday would be a great shame.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. As an MP who represents a constituency that relies on the tourism industry, I presume you will find this an interesting and topical debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) for securing this debate, which has managed to attract more than 200,000 signatures on petitions. I posted about this on Facebook and had 47 separate comments and suggestions from residents, with more than 3,000 views in just 72 hours. A lot of important things that we do in Parliament do not attract quite as much interest. That shows the strength of feeling in parents throughout the country on a real, live issue.
In my mind, this matter is split into three sections. First, it is about the holiday industry, which is why the Minister was selected to respond to the debate. Some have expressed concern about such a significant increase in costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley gave good examples of people going on holidays during school holidays and during term time. However, some parents said that they felt that was a bit of a red herring: it probably reflects supply and demand, because if a firm cannot sell the more expensive holidays, it would be forced to drop those prices. For example, Center Parcs relies on something like a 97% occupancy rate to be a viable business. Prices will reflect—
As a representative for Bournemouth East, my default position is to support the tourism industry. Like many colleagues, I have received letters on this subject from people who are concerned about the price of holidays. Does my hon. Friend agree with the point made by my hon. Friend for Birmingham, Yardley about co-ordination across the country? Is it really necessary for Dorset to have the same holiday timings as Yorkshire or Kent? Could we not stagger these a little bit, so that supply and demand is spread over a longer period?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) for giving way and to the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for his comment. We support greater flexibility for different authorities, but can we ensure that Derbyshire gets the warmest months?
Derbyshire is also a fantastic place to go on holiday. Let us champion every constituency. I think that we are on safe ground, with cross-party support, when championing the UK tourism industry.
We need to be 100% sure that there are not some unscrupulous operators, but predominantly we need to focus on the two other areas of discretion and flexibility. On discretion, there is already confusion among a lot of parents. A lot of parents have contacted me to say, “We have triggered fines. We feel that our decision to take our children out of school was justified, but the school came back and said, ‘Under the new rules, there is absolutely no discretion; you will be fined’.” As a Government representative, I have almost felt obliged to apologise on behalf of the Government.
At one school that has made the new rules clear, the chair of governors said, “No. Actually, there is discretion. We, through the pastoral team, will look at those parents whose children have excellent attendance records and are achieving well in school and we will look at why they might be taken out of school, for a funeral, say, compared to a holiday without educational benefits, and it would be weighed up.” Clearly, there is confusion and that needs to be resolved.
There is the assumption that there is pressure from Ofsted because it looks at attendance records when rating a school. If a school decides to say that, because of cost and work pressures, it will allow a good level of discretion, its attendance records do not look good. That also needs to be considered, because that would be a disincentive for a school to apply common-sense discretion.
I think that all hon. Members would agree that, perhaps, discretion should apply where children are doing well and where parents work during school holidays. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who is a champion for the armed forces, highlights one career, but I am sure that there many others, in all our constituencies, where parents can take their children on holiday only during school time. We have all noticed the cost of peak holidays.
There are some challenges. I have been contacted by teachers who say that they do not like being in the firing line and having discretion, because if they feel that the child should not be given time off they are the ones who are blamed. Sometimes there are reasons why that should not be so. I have also been told that, in the past, when there was discretion about 10 days or 10 sessions, some parents felt that it was an automatic right to have that every year, even if the child was struggling. There was never a case of a parent saying, “You’re absolutely right. I’ll now withdraw that request.” It would create heated discussion. If we are to consider discretions, clear guidelines, which were suggested earlier, are an absolute must.
We must also consider teachers, because although discretion can help pupils and parents, the teachers would not have discretion to take time off during terms. That is not necessarily a complete, one-size-fits-all solution.
I am a big fan of flexibility in this regard. One big suggestion is flexible term times. About a year ago I was contacted by a resident, Nicki Mitchell, on this issue. I suggested flexible term times and was asked, “What happens if you have a child in a primary school and another at a secondary school, and they have different term times? That will make it even harder.” A number of residents have contacted me and said that such flexibility exists in Europe and that it is done by county or region. We might decide that the south-east goes a couple of weeks earlier and the south-west goes a couple of weeks later. However, in Europe it is done in rotation, so it is not always the south-west or south-east first. Not only would that help parents and children, but it would probably help the tourism industry, because almost regardless of what it charges it can fill up at peak time, but the rest of year it faces a real challenge. Spreading that across the year would be helpful.
If we cannot manage flexible term times, another suggestion is extending the school year by two weeks and allowing everybody automatically two weeks’ worth of discretion throughout the year. That would probably be incredibly unpopular with teachers, who would then face an extra two weeks, but I thought that I would mention it.
That applies to general discretion. There is a plus and a negative with any suggestion, which is why my personal choice would be rotational, flexible term times, because that would help children, parents and teachers, and the tourism industry. To me that is a win-win, across the board. Long gone are the days when we all needed to be available for harvest time.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate, which has caught the public’s imagination. It is a serious issue. I do not think that we will necessarily get all the solutions today. I think that the key to this—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley mentioned it—is that the Education Committee should now pick up the baton after this debate, taking on board the speeches and comments that we have made, and we will happily forward all suggestions and comments from constituents who have contacted us. This can be looked at. The Government could, by looking at this proactively, innovatively and constructively, make a real difference to people’s lives.
I am grateful for the elevation implicit in your introduction, Mr Turner. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. As it was said earlier, you represent the Isle of Wight, which is one of the important tourist destinations in this country.
This debate has already covered a number of important subjects, including the importance of family life and family time, the value of an education, which people do without by missing part of education, the joy and the benefits of discovery through travel, and the health of the travel industry. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr Turner, if I restrict my remarks mostly to the topic of the e-petition, which is on whether to stop holiday companies charging extra in the school holidays.
In the current tough times, of course we are focused in this Parliament on affordability of everything for families and being able to spend time together away from home is one aspect of that. In the words of the petition:
“Family time is so much more essential in the current working world, but so many people cannot afford holidays in school holidays”
“break at home is not the same as getting away from it all where…focus is on family”.
Who could disagree with that?
I understand why people would say, “If holiday companies can make money charging price x in the winter, surely they must be able to make profit by charging the same price in the summer. By charging a higher price, they must be making huge profits on the backs of other people.” That is not correct. If the same is charged in summer as in winter for a popular sun-based tourist destination, those companies would be out of business and nobody would be going on those holidays. It is also worth saying that what counts as a peak period in the travel business is partly but not entirely determined by when school holidays are. Weather also plays a big part, and so does the timing of public holidays such as Easter, Christmas and, in this country, bank holidays.
A little Google research this morning revealed that for holidays on which presumably no children are involved, and therefore school holidays are not involved, there is also a big difference in price. The price for a Thomas Cook couple’s retreat in Negril, Jamaica goes up by 31% between June and August. As you will recall from when we were there together recently, Mr Turner, the price for an “Ibiza Rocks” clubbing holiday also rises by 31% between June and August. The differences in those prices are clearly not driven by the timing of school holidays.
I have a confession: I come here today as a sinner. Before coming to Parliament I spent about a decade in the travel trade. I am afraid that I was mostly involved in pricing and what the travel trade calls “revenue management.” I do not want to go into the technical detail, but revenue management is basically the discipline of deciding what prices to offer, to whom, when and under what conditions.
Yes, it is my fault. I worked mostly in the hotel business, but the same principle applies to airlines and most of the travel business’s wide range of products—basically anything with high fixed-cost assets, a perishable product and fixed or semi-fixed capacity. Hotels are also suppliers to holiday companies. Package operators buy in capacity from airlines, hotels, bus companies and so on. It is also worth bearing in mind that there is an international market, especially in foreign travel. Packagers are to some extent price takers. No one in this country decides the market rate of a hotel room in Spain in the high season. Even if we believed that British companies set the prices for holidays, no one would suggest that Spanish hoteliers are within the control of Her Majesty’s Government. Resort-based travel is international in nature. People have already mentioned the timing of German and French holidays, which are already factored into the price. If people from different countries are going to a resort, the demand is an amalgam of all the incoming traffic.
I come here as a sinner, but I have not come here to confess. I do not anticipate a popularity boost from my appearance in Westminster Hall this afternoon, but the simple fact is that to a large extent we are talking about the laws of economics. There is no single year-round market clearing price in holiday resorts.
I want to draw on the hon. Gentleman’s expertise. I accept that there is supply and demand and that, if we attempt to interfere too much, there will be touting and so on, but does his analysis include the reasons for the steep rises on particular days, which seem to coincide with school holidays?
The hon. Lady is correct that the rises coincide with school holidays. To some extent, the existence of those holidays creates those spikes, but the holidays themselves coincide with the high season. As I outlined earlier, the prices for holidays marketed to couples, older people, singles, groups and clubbers typically go up in late July and August because that is the most popular time of the year, particularly to visit European, sun-based resort destinations.
This debate is no place to start deconstructing the profit and loss accounts of holiday companies, but contribution to profit is a key concept. I will talk about hotels, but the same logic applies to airlines and other travel products. The direct marginal cost of someone staying in a hotel room is rather low. Globally, the figure is somewhere between $15 and $20. That is the cost of laundering towels and sheets, issuing soap and providing heat, light and power, and so on. On one level, a hotel will make a profit if it charges anything over $20. The problem is that there are other, fixed costs. For an airline or hotel, the biggest fixed cost is the building or aircraft—loan repayments do not go up and down. Taken together, the cost per night goes up from $20 to, say, $100, which is a big difference. In the off-season, a hotel room might be sold for $80, $70, $60 or $50 a night. In other words, a hotel might deliberately make a loss. Why would a hotel do that? It does it because as long as it charges more than $20 a night, which is the direct marginal cost, it is contributing to profit. If a hotel tried to charge the $100 profitable rate, it would not sell the room.
I fully appreciate my hon. Friend’s argument that the rich seasons help airlines and the tourist industry to function during the off-seasons. What does he think would happen if some flexibility were introduced so that schools in different areas took their school holidays at different times? Would he anticipate prices remaining low during those times, or would he anticipate the travel industry increasing prices to reflect such an expansion of the season?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The short answer is that such a measure would be welcomed by the travel business because it would extend the season, which would be good for capacity utilisation. There would be an effect, but the effect would not be nearly as big as many people anticipate. The season might be extended by a week or two, but those would still be shoulder periods. They would not be peak periods, so there would be a difference, but the difference would not be huge.
My hon. Friend makes an important point on the responsibility of the tourism industry as a whole to ensure that it sets its prices accordingly, but I recall that during the Olympics there was a concern that many hoteliers in London increased their prices too much, which put people off. Does he have any thoughts on whether that should be rationalised for one-off events such as the Olympics? I recall wanting to stay in Manchester during the party conference, but as soon as hoteliers found out that the party conference might be held in the city, the prices suddenly shot up.
My hon. Friend is correct in identifying price gouging as a problem. From a regulatory perspective, most countries have laws against price gouging, but brand owners and companies have an interest in not doing such things. Even worse than the Olympics, price gouging can occur when there has been a natural disaster. People absolutely have to stay in a hotel, so they are ripped off. That is a bad thing, which is why rack rates exist. Rack rates appear on the back of a hotel door, and it is the maximum amount that may be charged in law. Most European countries, the United States and most advanced economies have that system in hotels, but price gouging remains a problem.
In summary, leisure travel companies have to make more money in peak periods to cover the marginal cost losses incurred during the off-season. The definition of a peak period is when most people want to travel, which is partly, but not wholly, determined by the timing of school holidays. I am interested to hear from the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), but it is inconceivable that a British Government of any political persuasion would impose price controls on the British-based travel business. If such price controls were imposed, firms would go out of business—plenty of holiday companies go out of business anyway because margins can be thin across the year—and capacity in foreign resorts would not be made available to British tourists. Instead, capacity would be sold to people from other countries, which would have the disastrous consequence of more German towels on loungers, and we can all unite around wanting to avoid that.
What are the alternatives? I have spoken for too long, but I want briefly to address the debate on taking children out of school outside school holidays. I recognise the argument that times are tough and that people are struggling to go on holiday so want to take their kids out of school. One thing that has not yet come up in the debate is that education in this country is free, but that does not mean that education has no cost. The average cost of educating a child is some £4,500 a year, which covers 190 school days or 38 weeks. By my basic maths that works out at about £120-worth of value per child per week. If someone takes both their children out of school for a fortnight to go on holiday, £480-worth of value is forgone in the education of those children. That value cannot be transferred to the education of another child; it is value forgone for ever. The salary of the teacher and all the other things that go into running the school remain and the children miss out.
Children fall behind if they miss part of their education. In the context of a school term, even a week or two weeks is a reasonably big chunk of time. Multiplied over a lifetime, a child taking a fortnight out from school every year from year R to year 13 would be off for 28 weeks, which is three quarters of an academic year. To put that in physical terms, it is the equivalent of saying to that child, “You will do your GCSEs at the beginning of year 11 rather than at the end.”
What are the options? One thing that nobody has mentioned is counter-cyclical travel. If people go to places in the summer that have most of their demand in winter or in business periods, they can get quite a good deal. We have those places—in particular, business-focused destinations—in this country. Travelodge, for example, has hotels in many places and families can find lots of fabulous things to visit within 40 minutes of any of them.
Yes, indeed. The big thing we are talking about is varying holidays, which is intrinsically attractive, but we will never be able to move them that far, because August is August—the warmest time of year in Europe—and Christmas is Christmas. There might be a little flexibility on whether the Easter holiday takes places at Easter, but a teacher will not want the first half of term to represent 40% and the second half to be 60%, because that has a number of implications for education. Varying could be done to some extent, but my recommendation is not to do it over big areas. Some of the other advantages of staggered holidays, such as changes to road capacity usage and train capacity usage, would be lost if everyone in a massive area had the same holiday. Varying could be done at a sub-regional level.
I am not sure that holidays need a big national plan, because schools increasingly have the freedom and ability to vary them under the Government’s reforms. There is nothing to stop schools getting together—there is, for example, the education improvement partnership in my area—and saying, “We are going to do it slightly differently to give parents in our area a bit more room.” That will not, however, solve the whole problem or make holidays in August cost the same as holidays in April. There is a limited amount of movement and, at the end of the day, we just cannot change when the sun shines.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) on securing this debate, but I also congratulate my generous hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), because she chairs the Committee that gave him this debate, which is on a serious problem.
I enjoyed the speech from the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), which was sensible and humorous, as well as logical and grounded, and that is the approach we should take. There is a problem, but two years ago we would not have debated it, because other problems were forcing their way to this place. What on earth has happened? The person in this room who I feel most sorry for is the poor Minister from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It has been seen as a BIS problem, but it is not; we have been forced here by a problem caused by the great Department for Education. If anyone should be explaining why we are going over all these problems, it is a Minister for Education.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley on the Select Committee point. This matter does not need or deserve a Select Committee inquiry. The Secretary of State for Education should just repeal the regulations that he slipped through when nobody was looking. They have genuinely caused so much pain across the country. I can see that some people are unhappy, so I accept the petition, but I do not accept the remedy. I hope the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley will forgive me for saying this, but it brings back memories of when Shirley Williams—she is Lady Williams now—was the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection. Are we actually suggesting that we could have a cap?
The Guardian took a snapshot of the seasonal price differences. This is free advertising for these institutions, but four nights in lodge accommodation at Center Parcs Woburn Forest, Bedfordshire, has a 51% increase between summer term time and the summer holiday. Disneyland Paris has a 7% increase. It is not about foreign flights and foreign people; it is about business and supply and demand. If we try to regulate prices, we will land ourselves in trouble. A King once said, “Bugger Bognor!” I do not know if I will get into trouble for saying that, but if the King can say it, I think I can say it. Four nights at the Butlin’s resort in Bognor Regis have a 99% increase in cost between the week before schools go off and the week after.
I agree that the regulations that the Government created to place fines on parents have exacerbated the problem, but does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Government have effectively strengthened the monopoly in the holiday period by making it increasingly difficult for parents to have any kind of flexibility? Often, we are not talking about parents taking their child out of school for two weeks year in, year out, but children missing a couple of days or even an afternoon to get a slightly cheaper flight. That flexibility has been lost.
I will catch the hon. Lady’s eye in a moment, if I may. My wife is a head teacher and has been a teacher since I married her. Every family holiday that we have taken has been at the most expensive time. We were both salaried, so we could afford it, but I understand what happens to families on the breadline or families struggling with their mortgage or short-term unemployment. If they have children and want to take a holiday—the figures show that it does not matter whether it is abroad or in this country—they will face inflated prices in the summer holiday.
We are talking about doing things for schools and how we would work out whether to give kids a week off and whether we would need regulations, but I do not know what regulations we would need to regulate prices. The Labour Government tried that in the 1960s and failed miserably. There are offshoots to the issue, because with railways, we have the choice of travelling at peak times or off-peak. The difference in prices is clear. If someone is booking a hotel in London, a Tuesday will have a different price from a weekend. That is business and supply and demand.
I thank both hon. Gentlemen for letting me intervene. We are all here because we know that the public are aggrieved by this issue and we want to do something to alleviate that. On the drive to attack the Department for Education, I can point to schools that have no problem exercising discretion under the regulations for members of the armed forces and all sorts of other exceptional cases. The real problem is those who do not have an exceptional case, but might have relatives living in a particular country. They might not have the choice that others have over their holiday destination. That is an issue for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. In particular, it should look at the costs of flights and whether the mark-up is reasonable.
I would not challenge the last part, but I still think that we would leave the regulators with a difficult job unless there was a specific factor—the Olympics were mentioned. We would have some difficulty. As has been suggested, we must take the issue in the round.
It is easy to criticise the people running the business, but they have to make a profit to stay afloat. If they are running below capacity in the other 46 weeks of the year, they have to even things out when they hit capacity, just to stay in business. Therefore I see some genuine difficulty in doing that.
I would like to come on to the Department for Education, because that is where I think the problem lies. I thank and congratulate the people who started the e-petition. Interestingly, the individual who is famous for starting the e-petition was not complaining about foreign holidays, but Center Parcs, in this country.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I want to flag with him another sort of case that has been raised by a parent in my constituency who has an autistic child. They struggle to go on holiday abroad when it is busy and when there are lots of other kids, so they are in a specific position. I am not sure whether that would be deemed to be exceptional, but that example makes the case that there needs to be more flexibility in the education system, as he has said.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we are to be proper in our analysis, while we must think of the cost that is lost from the amount being paid for a child’s education, we must also think of the opportunity cost of that child’s time with their parents?
I will answer my hon. Friend when I come on to the DFE. I was thanking the people who have signed the petition, because they have performed a great feat in putting the matter in the public consciousness and the political arena. However, we would be making a grave mistake if we chased after the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. From the answer it gave to the e-petition, I am sure that the Department would not bother if we chased after it, because its answer is quite dusty, but I have some sympathy for it, as the people who should be answering are in the DFE.
I am slightly conflicted over the whole issue. The hon. Gentleman made the point about people needing to save money. A constituent of mine, Joy Drake, took her children on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday and saved £1,000 on the air fares. Does he not agree that, if the issue is left to individual head teachers and schools, they will be put in an invidious position in deciding which families get to save on the air fares and which families do not? Therefore, should we not look at something that enables the general discretion to be applied—other than, of course, bereavements and similar things—as to when the holiday is taken by everyone, rather than just flexibility on an individual case by an individual head teacher?
[Mrs Annette Brooke in the Chair]
That is an important point.
One of the things that has come from this e-petition is a request from the travel and tourism industries to get together with the Government and local authorities to see if they can work something out to alleviate the problem. The option of regional staggering has been mentioned on more than a couple of occasions. That is one thing that the industry has suggested it wishes to talk about. It has asked for talks, and I look to BIS for an acceptance of that invitation and to get the industry around the table as soon as possible to start talks. I say that not because a quick solution would be forthcoming, but because it will take such a time to get a solution that the sooner they start, the better.
[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
Let me return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). In this place, roles are reversed at a bewildering speed. If I was standing here giving the education policy of a future Labour Government, I would be told, “You don’t trust the professionals. Leave it to the doctors and teachers”. When the solution—this is coming from a Labour MP—is about trusting head teachers, suddenly that is not enough.
I have discussed this matter—more than anything else this past week—with my wife, who is a head teacher, and all I get is common sense. None of us would be prepared to stand here and say this, particularly as two weeks ago, my wife had Ofsted in at 24 hours’ notice, but head teachers have great discretion, great judgment— on the whole—and great empathy. They have great relations with parents and know them. They can look at the attendance records and do all the things that have been suggested as a matter of common sense and as part of being a good head running a good school. I would be content to leave it at that.
I would like hon. Members to say if they had a problem with kids’ attendance when families could take an in-term holiday. Where were the letters about that? Where were the public complaints? They were not there—it was not a problem. What did the Secretary of State for Education do? I do not want to make the issue political; I have been gently asking him, for once in his life, just to act with a bit of humility and take the measure off the table, and I do not want to make it easy for him not to do it by being political. That is all he needs to do, because the situation was okay.
Due to the fuss that has gone on and the hurt that has happened, why should the Government not just take the measure off the table? The Secretary of State has caused it, so he has in his hands a remedy. If he wants change, he should get together with all the parties. Even the travel trade is saying that it has to lay people off because the measure is affecting its business.
What have the Government done? They have put through the measure without any real consultation. The first bad thing the Secretary of State did was to push through the measure to operate from last September, but people had already made their arrangements for holidays. They had taken the advice of the travel trade and got in quick, seeking the cheapest bookings. Suddenly, it was illegal to do so. There was no consultation. The measure was peremptorily introduced, smuggled through the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.
The second bad thing is that the Secretary of State will fine the parents £60 if they do it, and it could be £120 if they are late in paying.
I see you nodding, Mr Turner. It could get worse than that, because both parents could be fined, so the total fine could be £240.
For some of the parents of children in my wife’s school £60 or £120 is more than they have to keep their family fed, clothed and housed. If you think that that is bad, Mr Turner, the Secretary of State has made the action a criminal offence. Not only will parents get fined for taking the chance to bond with their kids on a beach somewhere, they can get a criminal record because of it. It is not just a case of what happens with picking chewing gum up off the floor, and neighbourhood wardens giving people a £60 fine: there is a criminal record. There is no easy solution. We need the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to get talks going, but the measure should also be withdrawn.
What is there to worry about in this? Ofsted inspectors can go into schools—the professionals, no matter how good they are, are frightened stiff of Ofsted—and see all the records. They can go through every one and look at whether the parents of a child with an exemplary attendance record will be fined because, to go away together, they must take the time during term. Ofsted has attendance and performance figures. All the necessary machinery is available to enable a responsible head to take the decisions in the full knowledge of what happens in the school and, most importantly, to be answerable to Ofsted for which youngsters have been given permission. I hope that BIS will get talks going, and that the Secretary of State for Education will withdraw the statutory instrument.
I thank my constituency next-door neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), and the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), for today’s debate, which is important for parents throughout the UK.
There is no dispute in any corner of the House about the importance of education. It is a long time since I was at school, but I do not recall my parents ever taking me out of school, and I never took my children out of school. We were fortunate enough to scrape together enough money to take them on holiday. It was generally just for a week, but we had that benefit. Taking children out of school should be avoided, but there are circumstances in which it is warranted, and many hon. Members have mentioned those that might arise.
The sinner—my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds)—talked about holiday companies’ pricing. Companies set the prices that the market will stand. We may disapprove of their charges, and there are great disparities between the amounts by which companies hike up their prices in school holidays, but we cannot order them to restrict their charges. Those are matters to do with competition rules. However, restricting the number of children who can go on holiday outside normal times leads to a rise in demand in the school holidays, and that is an excuse for companies to hike the prices even further, which is regrettable.
Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will clarify something. In September 2013, the ruling was that head teachers could grant leave only in exceptional circumstances. Various hon. Members have spoken about what would constitute exceptional circumstances, and whether the definition has been laid down. Will my hon. Friend explain what is meant by the term? The statutory instrument was based on a review carried out by Mr Charlie Taylor. Will my hon. Friend confirm that parents and businesses were not consulted in advance?
I will not repeat all the instances that have been given of suitable circumstances for holidays during term, but seasonal workers are one relevant group. Not many people must be available for the harvest but nevertheless there are all kinds of seasonal workers in the economy. We heard about the armed forces, children with disabilities, and businesses. That is a matter for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, because businesses employ parents. If a business employs many parents, can they all be away on holiday at the same time? That is a problem in my own constituency office.
The hon. Lady makes an important point about consultation, and I should be interested to hear whether there was any. Can she add to her list the situation in which parents have family overseas? Constituents have explained to me that it is important to see their family who are abroad, and that it is difficult when there is no flexibility about it, particularly when they are on the other side of the world.
I should be delighted to do that. There is a large element of the Asian diaspora based in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley.
Maintained school and academy heads could previously authorise 10 days’ leave, but there is no jurisdiction over the private school sector. Academies normally work for 190 days a year, and private sector schools work, on average, 165 days. There is a measure of irony about that. The children with the wealthiest parents get most choice about when they can go on holiday.
I hope to mention the issue of the 10 days in my speech, but the hon. Lady will recognise that the regulation makes allowance for “special” as opposed to “exceptional” circumstances, as set out in the previous regulations. What does she consider “special” circumstances?
What is “special” and what is “exceptional” is a semantic point. I remind the House of what the hon. Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) said about allowing head teachers to use their common sense about the family circumstances of each child in their care. They should have more autonomy. It seems slightly ironic to me that, while the coalition Government try to repatriate to schools powers over the curriculum, management and control, we are in the present case removing discretion from them. That does not seem right.
Does the hon. Lady accept that there is discretion for head teachers to define what counts as special? Several of my constituents who contacted me about the debate said that they wanted to take their children out in circumstances that would be educational for them—to see other cultures and go to places that could help to inform their education. Does she accept that special circumstances might include those cases, and that it should be at the discretion of head teachers to make that interpretation under the regulations?
I do, indeed, and I do not think that anyone is better qualified than the head teacher to make those decisions. It is clear from hon. Members’ comments that some head teachers are cowed by the definition of exceptional circumstances. Guidance from the Minister on that would help them.
On the statistical evidence, the measures in question are a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Before the rules changed, authorised family holidays accounted for 7.5% of all absences in primary schools, which works out at 0.4% of all sessions missed. This has been mentioned before, but the figure goes down to 2.5% when a child goes to secondary school, because parents recognise the additional importance of their children’s education as they progress—that translates into 0.1% of all sessions missed. Are those therefore the families whom we should be penalising?
Absence for family holidays is lower among those who are the parents of persistently absent pupils. That is another thought—the family holiday parents are not the same as the irresponsible parents who allow their children not to attend school. We need to have some sense of proportion.
In conclusion, will my hon. Friend the Minister provide some kind of definition of “exceptional”? Can more precise, balanced and sensible advice be given to guide head teachers in their decision making? Finally, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Leeds East that heads know their pupils and how to exercise common sense, so can we ensure that the guidance given to head teachers reflects the sensible responsibility that we give them in so many other areas of running school life?
It is a great pleasure to contribute to this debate. I had not planned to do so at 4.30 pm, but have been motivated by some of the speeches. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), who was right to take up the debate, which is important, as recognised by so many parents signing the e-petition. It deserves time in Parliament.
With respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), in the closing paragraph of her speech she said that she wanted head teachers to have discretion, but she also wanted guidance from the Department on what constitutes “exceptional”. That is part of the issue, although a little bit of history might explain some of the situation.
The hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) is still in his place, and he might be aware that section 23 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 introduced the power for education authorities to issue penalty charge notices in cases of unauthorised absence. To avoid confusion, I was mistaken in what I said earlier about 10 days, because the power is automatically triggered when there are 10 sessions—in effect, five days—of unauthorised absence. That is what triggers the penalty charge notice. That was the case before the more recent statutory instrument was introduced last year.
That takes us back to the idea of what is “special” and what is “exceptional”. The 2006 regulations refer to 10 days of leave—up to 10 days—to be granted by the head teachers in their consideration of what constitutes “special circumstances”. The 2013 regulations removed all the references to when people could be away, saying that the head teacher is the person who can grant leave of absence in “exceptional circumstances”. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, the difference between “special” and “exceptional” is largely one of semantics. I am not sure that it is right for the Department for Education to define one word or the other, but as has been said consistently, it is appropriate for the head teacher to define whether people may take their child out of school.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Notwithstanding the principle, part of the problem with making the change through a statutory instrument is that there was not the debate that there would have been otherwise—for example, if there was primary legislation with a proper consultation, or even informal debate in the Chamber—on the meaning of the terms. That would have been critical for head teachers and Members in understanding the statutory instrument and its effect.
I do not profess to be an expert on parliamentary procedure or on why certain bits of legislation are introduced under the negative or the affirmative resolution procedures. That tends to be defined in the original Act—in this case, I do not know who was responsible for the very original Act and whether it was 1944 or 2006. The original Act is when the process for the introduction of future secondary legislation is decided, but the hon. Gentleman is aware, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley pointed out, that any Member of the House or of the other place may trigger a stay on any regulation on negative resolution by signing an early-day motion. That is a mechanism available to us all. I recognise that MPs therefore have to be even more on the ball about checking what statutory instruments are up for affirmative or negative resolution. That information, however, is made available to every Member of the House in the vote bundle.
On “exceptional” or “special”, I do not have children, so I do not pretend that I have to face the issue. I have, however, had six parents contacting me, four of whom cited cost. In one of those situations, incidentally, teachers had given activities for the children to do while away from school. Another case involved getting time for the children with the other parent. The sixth person who contacted me did so about parental choice: it is for parents to decide when their children go on holidays, not schools, because teachers could make up the time, with the children given special projects. I am not sure that that is necessarily acceptable behaviour. I fully understand the issue about cost, but I have no idea why “special” versus “exceptional” makes a difference for the head teacher in assessing such a decision.
In my time, I have been involved in children’s education as a school governor in two different schools. I will not say which school, because it would be unfair on the head teacher, but in one we discussed the issue in lengthy detail. Parents had almost come to see it as a right to request the time off, and the head teacher would be given a hard time by the parents unless up to 10 days of leave were given. We felt that that was wrong, because it put pressure on the head teacher, as well as on the classroom teacher, who had to cope with the child missing 10 days of schooling.
There is no doubt of the strong link between a school’s attendance records and attainment at the school. That cannot, of course, be proved for every single child, but it is fair to say that, in the schools in my constituency where attendance rates are significantly below the average, I see a significant difference in the attainment of the children. We need to stand up for that consistently: it is not necessarily simply about the individual child—although that child’s education is important—but about all the children in the classes. We need to remember that.
I had not planned to speak and I do not wish to extend the debate unduly, but the regulations introduced last year still leave the head teacher with appropriate discretion. In cases of children with military parents, or those whose parents wish them to attend a funeral, the situation remains the same. There is no automatic right for parents to remove a child in such a case, unless they wish to go down the unauthorised absence route, but by changing the focus and putting in regulation that circumstances must be exceptional, the right expectations are set for parents. It is not therefore a right to take a child out of school for up to 10 days of holiday, as referred to in regulation. What is allowed is exactly what is said: if there is no other opportunity for a particular situation to happen, head teachers may use their discretion. Frankly, if MPs hear of cases in which that is not being applied, we should take them up on behalf of the parent.
Does my hon. Friend agree, as she probably does, that a funeral would be a valid use of exceptional circumstances? Perhaps we should be concerned about Ofsted possibly putting pressure on head teachers to reduce the numbers to such a low level that they cannot even take into account exceptional circumstances.
[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]
I am not aware that Ofsted is applying that particular pressure. I agree on one aspect, however. I would be surprised and disappointed were a head teacher to refuse a request in the case of a funeral. As a slight aside, however, I was disappointed when a Whip initially refused me permission to be away to attend a funeral—when I made my representation directly, he changed his mind.
We need consistently to support our teachers, who want to give children the best education possible. We should remove unnecessary pressures on head teachers. I welcome any talks there might be on seasonal pricing, but I encourage us to stand firm and ensure that we put education first.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. You have only just joined us; I assure you that you have missed an excellent debate. I will attempt to do some sort of justice to it, in my own modest way, but you might chose to read Members’ words for yourself later.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) on bringing the issue for debate and on the way in which he presented it. The strength of opinion that has been articulated in the debate, the size of the petition and the testimony we have heard from hon. Members clearly show how important the matter is and how right he was.
A couple of hon. Members have reflected on the fact that the Minister is from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and I am responding as a shadow BIS Minister. The initial petition looked very much at the business aspect of the matter, but the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley was right to say that the whole aspect of the debate has changed since the initial petition first went on to the e-petition system. That was reflected in the debate, which did not dwell much on the business aspect but focused much more on educational policy. That perhaps leaves me at a slight disadvantage.
The issue is of great concern for my constituents, many of whom have taken the opportunity to raise it with me at my weekly surgeries, by e-mail and at the school gate. I did a summer survey in which I raised questions about the changes, which demonstrated powerfully to me how strongly people feel about the matter. We all know how desperately difficult it is to get that balance between the fact that we want our children to be in school at all the right times and the huge increase in the cost of holidays during the school breaks. It was therefore no surprise to me that 150,000 people across the country took action by signing the online petition and demanding that MPs discuss the issue. That is why we have had so many valuable contributions from Members on both sides of the House. I will touch on those in a moment.
A situation has been created in which many families who have not previously faced the dilemma of how to afford an annual summer holiday now find themselves financially squeezed and wondering how to do so. All of us know how important holidays together can be for a family. We are an incredibly time-poor nation, and, often, many people are stretched. We struggle to have time with our families given the huge number of pressures on us, so family holidays are incredibly important. It is tremendously difficult for people when they feel that their opportunity to go on those holidays has been removed. We all recognise how important the issue is.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley was right to say that this is another demonstration of how powerful e-petitions can be. It has shown how issues that we do not immediately see as significant can have their significance powerfully demonstrated to us by our constituents. The response of people to the e-petition demonstrated the importance of this issue.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of staggering holidays, something to which many hon. Members referred. That is an important part of the whole equation. Colleagues in the Department for Education have been looking at that issue and exploring how greater flexibility can be given to schools. The point was made powerfully that we do not want a parent such as myself, with one child in secondary school and one in primary school, to find that their children’s schools have holidays at different times. Perhaps we can try to stretch out the holiday season on a more systematic basis, recognising that although we are not blessed with sunshine all year round in this country, as some areas are, we could none the less stagger holidays to take a bit of pressure off.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the fact that this issue has been debated in this place since the mid-1960s. It is interesting to question why people feel so strongly about it now. The broader pinch that people are feeling at the moment and how the holiday market has changed in recent years, as well as the recent changes to Government education policy, are perhaps some reasons why what has been to an extent a hoary old chestnut for 40-odd years is now being raised powerfully.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) suggested that discretion does exist—a point repeated a moment ago—and the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) raised the important question of what constitutes exceptional circumstances. We heard examples of circumstances that have not been considered exceptional. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) spoke about a child with autism whose parents might have specific reasons for not wanting to be on holiday when resorts are most crowded, and asked whether such a case would be considered exceptional.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) highlighted the case of someone whose child had a brain tumour; that was not considered by the head teacher to be an exceptional circumstance. The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) highlighted the case of someone who was exceptionally busy during school holidays because of the kind of business they ran, but their circumstances were not considered exceptional.
It is clear that there has been a change of policy. The Government have communicated that quite deliberately, and it is their right to do so. However, exercising that right has had an impact because of how the policy has been implemented. One aspect of today’s debate that I have found interesting was that no contributions have been made by any hon. Members from Scotland—unless we count Corby as representative of that nation. That is not entirely surprising, because Scottish schools have holidays at a different time of year and Scottish people probably benefit quite nicely from the fact that they all go on holiday in July, when prices are cheaper than they are for us in England. That is an interesting observation.
I will now reflect on some of the other contributions to what I think has been an excellent debate. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire said something that was repeated by many colleagues: across the House we all agree about the importance of children being in school, and recognise the disadvantage there is to children when they are out of school, for whatever reason, for any sustained period. None of us is saying that we think it is good for children to miss huge amounts of their schooling. We are all always conscious of our responsibility in this place to ensure that our children have the best opportunity to be successful at school. However, we also have to recognise that there is a cost of living crisis, with families feeling the pinch, and that we need to do what we can to support them in those circumstances. My hon. Friend powerfully highlighted the reality faced by time-poor, financially stretched families at this time, and the difficult circumstances that they face.
The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) spoke about the strength of feeling and support on this matter, and he was right to do so. He also raised the issue of whether there will be a greater amount of discretion for a child who is going to a funeral than for someone who wants a holiday without educational benefits; how the policy is being applied shows that there is a difference between such cases. He also touched on one of the devilishly difficult parts of the judgment call on the matter when he called for clear guidelines but more discretion. That is what we all want to an extent, but we should recognise the central contradiction in that.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) spoke up for the tourism industry, as we would expect. He spoke about the escalation in cost for popular events, referring to the London Olympics and the fact that in attempting to maximise their opportunities some people potentially priced themselves out of business and ended up falling victim to what they thought would be good times, as they had been too ambitious about what they could charge. I do not know whether he has turned his attention to the frankly extortionate cost to hon. Members of bed and breakfast accommodation in Manchester at the time of the Labour party conference. I have recently tried to make a booking and discovered that Manchester in September is far more expensive that one would expect.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on repeating my suggestion.
It is usual during winding-up speeches to talk about what has been mentioned during the debate, but I will talk about what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley did not talk about: the tourism industry. An important point that some colleagues mentioned is that holiday accommodation is available for 52 weeks a year, or slightly less, and there is pressure to push the customer base into a shorter and shorter period. The petition refers to profiteering holiday companies exploiting people, but that is not the reality. If a crude cap were introduced, they might retain the current price in August but they would be unable to reduce the price in April. The important question is whether people would be better off or whether those who can go away at different times would not get cheaper holidays.
The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) confessed his sins—it is always good for a Member of Parliament to do that. If he did not quite ask for forgiveness, he at least offered mitigating circumstances. The debate involves the many people who cannot go away during school holidays, as well as the many who can go away only during school holidays—for example, teachers and anyone who works in the education sector and so on. If we increase the pressure, we will push up the cost of their holidays too. The debate started 18 months ago, or 40-odd years ago, depending on how people look at it, but certainly prior to the proposed changes, which, if anything, will push prices up further. What was a problem 18 months ago will be an even bigger problem in a year or two.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) asked why we are talking about the matter now and why it has become so important. I will touch on that, but in his broader view of the debate he said that he supported the petition but not necessarily the proposed remedy. That reflected what many other hon. Members said.
The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) focused on the semantics of “special” and “exceptional” and seemed to question whether there has been a change in policy. The previous Government introduced fines for people who took their children out of school without authorisation. The Secretary of State was clear that he wanted his direction following the statutory instrument to be seen as a change of policy. Head teachers saw it as that, and many in my constituency wrote to parents saying that the policy had changed and that there would be no discretion other than in narrow and exceptional circumstances. That was clearly the intention of the Secretary of State’s policy.
The debate has been consensual and sensible. It has shown that we all believe strongly and passionately that it is vital for our children to be in school for the maximum amount of time, that standards should be resilient and that parents should recognise their responsibility. We recognise that the present situation is desperate because prices have risen faster than wages in 41 of the last 42 months, and families are feeling the pinch. We are discussing another aspect of that cost-of-living crisis. I intended to give some examples of how prices have increased, but many hon. Members have alluded to that so I need not do so. However, the extent of price differences during the high and low seasons is huge and the success of the e-petition calling for swift action is not surprising.
The Association of British Travel Agents has made it clear that price fluctuations are the commercial reality of running a business in a seasonal market, and we understand that. The hon. Member for East Hampshire asked whether the Labour party is proposing a crude cap and rightly gave some reasons why that would be difficult. We do not have a price control policy at a macro level, but that does not mean that there is never a reason to look into whether there is a properly functioning competitive market. I will touch on that.
Many parents believe that they are exploited by the holiday industry, which uses the tight limits on when they can travel to overcharge them, and the huge cost differentials reflect that. However, there have been no thorough studies of the issue in recent years, so it is hard to get to the bottom of the problem and the extent of exploitation. The lack of such a study seems at odds with the Government’s intention of addressing consumer protection concerns. I should be grateful if the Minister commented on whether the apparent contradiction of one group of consumers apparently paying over the odds to subsidise another group is questionable under our consumer protection laws.
Consumer law has strong protections to ensure that the public are charged a reasonable price for a service. That presumably includes arranging a holiday, and does not exempt the law of supply and demand. That is an interesting question for the Government. The purpose of the Consumer Rights Bill is to make those rules clearer, but there is a glaring omission because it does not give consumers or consumer groups any power to access the information they need to check whether that is the case. Does the Minister accept that the only way to resolve that confusion more broadly is to have a proper analysis of holiday prices, and do the Government plan to conduct such research? Was there any research prior to the change of policy?
The situation demonstrates the consequences when there is no organisation to stand up for the rights of consumers as a group. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley suggested that an Offonholiday regulator might not be the answer, but it might be worth considering a broader consumer rights body to act as a useful brake on exploitative practices. Most people accept that the rules of supply and demand will ensure that prices are higher at peak times, but many believe that the extreme divergence in prices is unfair.
That is a valid question. A broader study would provide better information to establish whether that is the case. In July 2012, the Office of Fair Trading concluded a two-year investigation and found that two travel giants had struck deals with a hotel group to restrict smaller agents’ ability to offer discounted hotel rooms. Expedia admitted afterwards that it had
“engaged in cartel conduct in breach of the law”.
In 2013, a discount hotel site alleged that it was forced out of the market after attempting to undercut rivals by offering cheaper prices. There have been allegations of cartel-like activities, and those involved should be investigated and pursued rigorously. Only when we have open, competitive markets can consumers have faith in the prices that they are paying. That is important and entirely legitimate. At the same time, although we recognise that market forces exist, we do not say, “There is never anything to look at”, in the context of whether those markets are being fairly operated. We stand absolutely resolutely on the side of consumers and would be willing to investigate whether action is necessary to ensure that they get a fair deal in the travel market.
The abolition of the Office of Fair Trading, which would have looked at this issue, has highlighted the fact that a gap now exists. There is not another appropriate body that can do what the OFT did. The Competition and Markets Authority is focused on competition and not on outcomes for consumers, and therefore does not complete the same work. Does the Minister share my concerns about the lack of an appropriate body? Does she think that that makes it more likely that consumers will get a raw deal in future?
Other things can be done to support the tourism industry. We recognise that the issue is not only about tourism overseas, but very much about tourism here in the UK. We know that the VAT increase to 20% placed our tourist industry at a competitive disadvantage compared with many of our European competitors, and that the huge increase in business rates over the past three years has had a big impact on many small businesses in the hospitality and tourism industry.
I apologise to my hon. Friend for missing the beginning of his speech, but I had a previous engagement. On the point he just made, does he agree that just as small travel businesses are disproportionately affected by some of those issues, particularly in terms of VAT, small businesses in the hotel and guest house industry can be as well? That is another facet of a complicated debate. I have had representations in my constituency from hoteliers and guest house owners who are concerned about the issue.
My hon. Friend makes the important point, exactly as one might expect of a Member of Parliament for Blackpool, that the tourism industry is not immune to what is happening in the wider economy. It struggles when people do not have money in their pockets. The industry recognises that people are facing a cost-of-living crisis, but it is also facing a cost-of-doing-business crisis and paying ever higher business rates and ever higher energy prices. That impacts on the prices that people have to charge to make a profit. My hon. Friend makes an important point, which fits in precisely with the one I was making.
To reinforce my hon. Friend’s point, I should say that many small hoteliers want to offer cheaper deals but are held back, not only because of the costs of doing business, but because their cash flows are impeded by large travel websites they supply to. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) has highlighted the totally outrageous way in which large organisations, effectively through being perpetrators of paying late, force small businesses to bankroll them. The issue of late payments is incredibly important and has a real impact on the tourism industry and the cost we end up paying as consumers.
The previous Labour Government created an interest rate penalty for large firms that delayed payment to their small suppliers. The next Labour Government will further tackle the issue of late payments, which will be very important to small businesses in the tourism industry here in the UK, and will hopefully also be part of easing that cost-of-doing-business crisis.
In conclusion, I strongly welcome this thoughtful, useful debate. We must ensure that markets are fair. We also have a responsibility in this place to respond when our constituents tell us that the Government’s policies are causing problems. In this debate, each of us has reflected on the difficult decisions that we face, between wanting to make sure that all children are in school for the maximum amount of time and recognising that people are feeling the pinch, that there is a cost-of-living crisis and that we need do all we can to help people, not exacerbate the problem.
As everyone has today, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) on leading the debate in the wake of a very significant number of signatures on the e-petition.
It is interesting that this was an issue in Parliament long before I was born—I do not know whether that is a good or a bad thing, but it has clearly been an issue for many decades. I have listened with great interest to the points that have been made. There have been a variety of speeches, coming, in a number of cases, from slightly different perspectives. I agree with the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) that it has been a very good debate, which on the whole, has been fairly consensual; there is a reasonable amount of agreement across the Chamber. As a constituency MP, constituents have been getting in touch with me about the subject, and I have a personal interest, as my children are heading rapidly towards school age. Along with a lot of other people, this issue is close to my heart as well.
I would like to put my comments into context at the start and make it clear that the Government do not regulate the price at which goods or services are offered for sale. We have heard from a number of Members that most people would agree that that is the way it should be. We feel that it is a commercial matter for the businesses concerned and that the Government should not intervene. It is not for the Government to dictate to any particular market how it should charge for its services, or to intervene unless there is evidence of market distortion or market failure. That is when Ministers and the Government would get involved.
As we have heard today, and as I hope hon. Members would agree, the UK holiday sector is one of the most competitive markets in the UK, if not Europe. That has made the sector not only one of the most responsive to consumer demands and preferences, but one of the most innovative. It has driven change very much over the years. It is not so long ago—only a few decades—that only the wealthy could contemplate having a holiday abroad, and even holidaying in the UK, which was more popular and much more affordable, was certainly not the norm for many people. That was the situation not that long ago. With the development of cheaper package holidays and so on, far more people have found that they can afford a foreign holiday, but the sector has developed rapidly over the past few decades and expanded in many respects.
An almost endless variety of offers are available for people, which meets the demand from consumers for more choice, flexibility, value and so on. The dynamism and innovation that is shown in this diverse sector is evidence of keen and persistent competition in the market, so the Government feel that there is no market failure and therefore no reason for the Government to intervene to impose price limits. I got the feeling today from colleagues across the House that most would agree on that point.
As the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) said in his confession, prices charged across the year reflect demand, availability and the need to attract consumers in a competitive market. It is common to all competitive markets—it is especially acute in fluctuating markets, such as the travel sector—that prices rise and fall according to demand and supply. That is the way in which markets work in general. When demand is high and supply is limited, prices invariably increase to the point at which demand moderates. It is the level of demand that dictates the prices in a competitive market, so if demand increases, so do prices.
Demand appears to remain high in the travel and holiday market, despite the economic difficulties that many people are facing—it has been a very difficult time for many across the economy over recent years. The industry reports that the holiday market is buoyant and consumers are prepared to pay the prices being asked for the services on offer. If people were not prepared to pay the prices being asked, demand would drop and prices would come down, so it is being driven by the fact that people are prepared to pay the prices that holiday companies are demanding.
Given that the issue is about supply and demand, the regulations that the Government introduced affected the demand by focusing it more on one place. Is my hon. Friend as surprised as me that the Department said in the explanatory note to that statutory instrument that an
“impact assessment has not been provided for this instrument as no impact on businesses or civil society organisations is foreseen”?
I shall come back to the point about the schools regulations if my hon. Friend will bear with me. If he is not satisfied with my comments, he can come back to me.
There is another important element to consider in respect of the prices in this sector, and it was mentioned by the hon. Member for East Hampshire. During peak periods, the UK industry is in fierce competition with those of other countries, whose consumers want to go on holiday to the same destinations. That competition for limited facilities means that costs rise—it is not all being driven by consumers in the UK—and those costs are reflected in the price put to the consumer. As this is a Europe-wide market, consumers are similarly affected in other countries across Europe. As a result, Governments across Europe have decided that protection is needed for consumers in the package holiday sector over and above that provided by general consumer protection law.
I hope that what I say now answers a point made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield. One of the key protections in the package travel directive is the requirement that those arranging and selling package holidays and package tours have in place protection for consumers against their insolvency. That additional protection is an area in which we in the UK were leaders. The air travel organisers’ license—ATOL—system was brought in before the European regime as a result of the huge growth in the UK of the package holiday market in the 1970s and 1980s.
The extra protection is considered necessary because those operating in the package travel market are deemed to be more at risk of insolvency than businesses in other sectors. That is because the business model in the holiday industry is based on predicting demand and committing to those predictions in advance. I mention that because it is further evidence of the extent and level of competition in that market—the industry is forced by those pressures to price as competitively as it can. There is considered to be a higher risk of insolvency in that sector because the margins are thin and because the market is so competitive.
The Minister describes the pressures on the market, and we have heard that there was no impact assessment because it was considered that there would be no impact on the industry. Given that the change was introduced after people had booked their holidays and after the holiday companies had set their prices, does she think that it was right to say that there would be no impact whatever on the industry from the change?
I cannot comment on the impact assessment done by the Department for Education, but I will come back to the point about the regulations. I think it is wrong to say that the 2013 change was a significant change in the law, but I will come back to that in a minute.
Hon. Members will have gathered from what I have said that I am not convinced that businesses in the holiday market are treating consumers unfairly in the way in which they price their products. It is pressures in the market that cause the fluctuation in prices that some have concluded is unfair. However, the hon. Member for Chesterfield raised allegations of cartel-like behaviour. If hon. Members come across allegations of that nature, they should be referred to the Competition and Markets Authority for investigation. That is what it is there for, or at least it will be from 1 April. Cases like that involving Expedia, which the hon. Member for Chesterfield mentioned, were dealt with by the Office of Fair Trading, but will in the future be dealt with by the Competition and Markets Authority. However, the CMA will also have a role in keeping markets under review for breaches of competition law and consumer detriment, so it has a broader remit. It will also have a role in dealing with consumer enforcement issues when an issue has nationwide implications. This would be an area where that could be considered.
The hon. Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) asked about discussions between travel agents, the holiday industry and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. BIS is in regular contact with the holiday industry on a very wide range of issues—that is the relationship—and my officials will of course raise the points that have been raised in today’s debate when they next meet representatives of the industry, so we will ensure that hon. Members’ views are fed back.
Having said that, I am very sympathetic to those who struggle to afford a holiday in peak season. I appreciate that the difference in price between off season and high season can be very significant. If people have children, it becomes increasingly expensive and difficult to take holidays, and I appreciate that the problem places an extra burden on families. I also completely agree that family holidays are enormously important. They give children opportunities to relax and unwind and create lasting memories, as well as building family relationships and broadening the experiences of children. I have very fond memories of taking holidays as a child with my grandparents and parents and I am sure that everyone in the room would say the same. It is important that children are able to have those experiences and benefit from them.
Clearly, in all of this, the dates of the school holidays are critical. It has been suggested that pressures on the industry might be alleviated by extending the periods during which families can take a holiday, thereby spreading the demand over a longer period. We have heard that idea mentioned today, and it is put forward not only by those who want cheaper family holidays; it is also supported by many in the industry. We have also heard it said a lot today that the rules on school attendance are too strict. Almost every hon. Member who spoke discussed that. People have suggested that schools should be able to approve families going on holiday during term time. Others believe that it would help if schools had different term dates. I shall come back to that point, but, on the issue of absence, despite the clear value that a family holiday can have for children and also for parents, the Government’s view is that a good education is more valuable for pupils in the long run and that getting a good education depends on regular school attendance throughout the school year.
We have heard a lot about the change in regulations in 2013. The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) gave a very useful summary of the legal framework. I found it quite illuminating and am sure that a number of other colleagues did as well. What the Government did in 2013 was remove the misconception held by some parents that pupils were entitled to 10 days’ absence for holidays per year. There was actually no entitlement in the previous regulations—that was not what they said. We have clarified that school heads should accept a request for a leave of absence only in exceptional circumstances.
We have heard a number of examples of cases in which requests have been turned down by head teachers. Many of them are very distressing, but I clearly cannot comment on individual cases, not knowing the full details. Let me make it clear that the Government have not said that any absence is not possible. We have given head teachers the discretion to make that call. In addition, we have not specified what constitutes exceptional circumstances, as we believe that cases need to be considered individually. A number of hon. Members mentioned the need to trust head teachers, and that is exactly what the Government are trying to do—we want to ensure that head teachers have the power and discretion to look at the individual circumstances of an application and take them into account.
Obviously, it is difficult being a Minister in a different Department. Will the Minister ask the Ministers in the Department for Education to write to me and the other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate about what pressures Ofsted is putting on schools to reduce the number of absences? I ask because if Ofsted is driving down the numbers, that affects what is considered to be exceptional and what is not. Obviously, some of the cases that I would consider exceptional, such as funerals, are not being considered as such by the schools.
I am happy to ask colleagues to write to my hon. Friend, because clearly I haven’t got a clue about that. As a Minister in BIS, I do not know what discussions Ofsted and the Department for Education have had, but I am happy to pass the request on to colleagues in the Department for Education.
Could the Minister ask the relevant Education Minister to tell the people who have attended the debate whether a child who has an excellent attendance record can have a holiday with the rest of their family only outside term-time? Can the fact that they have a perfect attendance record and so on be accepted as exceptional? That is the dilemma that heads face: the problem is not exceptional events such as funerals, but the year in, year out problem of those who cannot afford a family holiday unless they take it outside term time. Will the Minister reassure heads that that can be regarded as exceptional?
When we contact colleagues in the Department for Education, I am sure that we can send them a copy of Hansard so that they can respond to the hon. Gentleman and others who have raised that point. When head teachers decide whether to grant absence, they must be able to take into account individual circumstances such as the examples raised today of parents in the military or the police, or cases in which a close relative has died. We cannot legislate for such instances; they must be left to the head teacher’s discretion.
Several hon. Members have asked for head teachers to be given clearer guidance on what constitutes exceptional circumstances, and the point has been made that it is difficult to balance the provision of clearer guidance with allowing head teachers discretion and trusting them to make the right call. I will refer that matter to colleagues in the Department for Education.
A number of participants in the debate think that head teachers are making the wrong decisions. If Ofsted is putting pressure on numbers, guidance would help us to analyse that in more depth. Prior to the changes, less than 10% of parents took advantage of the process in primary schools and less than 3% in secondary schools, so it did not affect many people. Those were clearly special circumstances, but for some reason they were deemed not to be acceptable. Guidance would give head teachers strength to argue with Ofsted.
My figures on the number of parents who took their children out of school are slightly different from my hon. Friend’s. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) also said that most parents do not take their children out of school for holidays, and my figures show that in 2011-12, some 90% of secondary school pupils and 80% of primary school pupils did not miss school for a family holiday. Although the overwhelming majority of pupils are not missing school to go on holiday, therefore, a significant number of pupils are. The Department for Education was sufficiently concerned about the matter to want to tighten up the rules. I understand that in some areas, parents thought that they were entitled to 10 days’ absence a year for holidays, which was not the intention of the original regulations. The regulations introduced last year were designed to correct that misconception and clarify that schools should authorise absence only in exceptional circumstances.
That may well be the case, but it does not undermine the argument that we must ensure that parents do not take their children out of school for holidays unless there are exceptional reasons for doing so. As the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) said, family holidays taken during term time disrupt the education not only of the individual student but of other pupils. The hon. Member for Leeds East, whose wife is a head teacher, said the same thing. Such absences create additional work for teachers who have to try to help pupils catch up on their return while looking after the other students in the class and ensuring that their progress is not disrupted. Removing a child from school has significant implications for other pupils in the class and for teachers. The Government do not want to change the rules on permitted absences, because the effects on a child’s education and a school’s ability to teach pupils effectively are significant.
Another suggestion has been to introduce more flexibility into school term dates. The holiday industry argues that making the peak period longer would spread consumer demand, and because holiday companies could make the same amount of money over a longer period of time, they would be able to reduce prices a little for families. The spreading of demand would also reduce competition for facilities and allow them to be used more efficiently. Although there would still be competition with organisers of holidays from other countries, it would be spread over a longer period of time.
The staggering of school holiday periods may well lengthen the period of peak demand and help to lower prices. I completely understand the suggestion that the Government should arrange for holiday periods to be spread, but currently local authorities, not the Government, set the term and holiday dates for community and voluntary-controlled schools. Academies, free schools and voluntary-aided schools—including some church schools—set their own dates. The Deregulation Bill, which is currently before the House, will extend the power to set term dates to all schools by 2015. The Government believe that term dates should be dealt with locally, through negotiation and co-operation across an area, to take into account the educational needs of students and the practicalities of varying the school year. I cannot remember which hon. Member raised the fact that someone with a child in a primary school and a child in a secondary school wants their holiday dates to line up.
I raised that point. I accept that schools can lead locally, but the reason why the system works so successfully in Germany is because the dates are set by regions, which ensures that children in primary school are not off at a different time from those in a nearby secondary school. Although I accept that the decision should be made locally, I think that the Government might guide regions to pick the dates.
It is clear that such a decision will have to be made across a local authority area, or more broadly. When the Deregulation Bill becomes law, we will look at how that can be done most effectively, and with the minimum disruption, to help schools and families.
I am sorry to press the matter, but I think it is an important takeaway from the debate. As my hon. Friend has just said, some co-ordination will be required. I am sitting next to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), and we know that it is quite a challenge to get Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch to co-ordinate. It does happen, but it takes time. It will be tricky to get all local councils to co-ordinate. I encourage the Government, or at least the Department for Education, to consider the leadership role that may be necessary. Whether the decision is taken on a county or regional basis is something for a later date.
As I have said, free schools, academies and some church schools can set their own dates. There is already some co-operation, or at least awareness, between some local schools regarding what others in the area are doing. When the Deregulation Bill gives more schools the power to set term and holiday dates, we will encourage schools to collaborate more widely to take into account the needs of families and other schools in the area. I am confident we can ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s views are fed into the process and taken into account by the Department for Education.
On that point, schedule 14 to the Deregulation Bill will give schools the power to set term and holiday dates, but in constituencies such as mine, one family may have children in a primary school in the Birmingham local education authority and children in a secondary school in the Solihull local education authority. I would propose bringing in the Education Committee to look at the country as a whole and suggest sub-regions wherein local education authorities could co-ordinate. A parent would not want their children in a Birmingham primary school to have different holidays from their children in a Solihull secondary school.
I cannot really comment on what the Education Committee should or should not look at, but I am sure that its Chairman, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), will have noted my hon. Friend’s comments. Perhaps my hon. Friend and anyone else present with views on that matter might wish to take it up with the Chairman directly and suggest that his Committee initiates such an inquiry.
I just want to make the Minister aware that not everyone present wants Parliament, the Education Committee or Ministers to determine schools’ term dates. We really should leave such decisions to be made locally. Schools currently manage to cope quite well. Different parts of the country already have different holiday dates for different traditions—for example, places such as Leicestershire and Wigan. We should allow local authorities to work with schools to recognise what is best for their areas.
I must confess that as an MP representing a Welsh constituency, I benefited significantly last week when Parliament was in recess because it was half term in England. When I went home to Cardiff, all the places I took my small children were mercifully empty because half term in Wales is this week. There is already a difference between some areas, and it is possible to enable that on a broader basis in order to extend the peak period, which would hopefully bring down prices across the sector.
To conclude, the Government are not convinced that higher prices in school holiday periods are the result of market abuse by the holiday industry. Rather, they reflect market forces in a very competitive sector, and are made worse by the fact that there is international competition as well. I recognise the fact that family holidays can be incredibly valuable, but they should not be at the expense of a child’s education. School attendance throughout the school year remains critical—we know that pupils who stay at school for longer do much better in their final exams.
I absolutely agree with the Minister, but although we know that school attendance is important, we also know that parents are not daft. A constituent of mine who is a governor at a primary school in Winchester said to me that the changes to the rules are an insult to his intelligence and discretion—he would never dream of taking a child out of school at a crucial time. I find it perplexing that a Conservative Government are meddling in this area full stop, but we should think especially about the early years—reception and year 1. Does the Minister have a view on whether there should be more discretion during a child’s early years in primary school? Do we really need to come down on head teachers and question their integrity in the way that we appear to be doing?
I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government are actually ensuring that head teachers have the discretion to make a decision in exceptional circumstances. Clearly, the decision that a head teacher makes will involve looking at the child’s age, the circumstances under which the parent has applied and so on. The point of the regulations that the Government have put in place is that we are leaving it to the discretion of head teachers to take into account individual circumstances and make a judgment. That is exactly the reverse of Government meddling. However, the issue is not just the effect on a child’s education. As I and a number of other Members have already said, when a child is taken out of school in term time, that does not just affect that child’s education; it has a broader impact on the school, the teacher and other pupils in the class. We must take that into account as well, and I am sure that head teachers will consider that when making decisions.
Finally, I congratulate the House on this very lively debate. It has been a really good example of a debate in which a number of different views have been put forward but the tone has remained extremely pleasant. I have an awful lot of points to feed back to the Department for Education, and I am sure that Ministers have been listening carefully and will respond to Members’ concerns. Thank you very much, Dr McCrea, and I congratulate Members again on a really good debate.
I thank you, Dr McCrea, for your chairmanship, Mr Turner for his able work, and all the contributors to the debate. I do not think that there is any advantage in repeating what everyone has said, but there are some issues that must be sorted out, so let us get on with it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the e-petition relating to holiday companies charging extra in school holidays.