House of Commons
Monday 24 March 2014
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Major reforms in the Children and Families Act 2014 will help to speed up the legal adoption process for children, support quicker matching and ensure the earlier placement of children with foster families who may go on to adopt them. We have also implemented a new adopter approval process and, in 2012-13, the number of adopters was 34% up on the year before.
I thank the Minister for his reply and welcome improvements that have been made to the system, but may I draw his attention to a Canadian couple who have been trying to adopt a child from north-east Lincolnshire to whom one of them is related? The process started in December 2012 but has still not been completed, and the child is now three. If the complications have arisen because the couple are from abroad, can anything be done to speed up the process?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that some adoption cases take far too long. The average time from care to placement is 22 months, which is why we have streamlined the approvals process and introduced regular scorecard data to show local authorities’ timeliness with adoptions. It is also why we have put more than £200 million into the adoption system to try to rip out unnecessary red tape and ensure that everyone keeps their efforts firmly fixed on children who badly need stable homes.
Adults who become special guardians face the same difficulties as parents who adopt, yet receive less support. My experience is that overburdened social workers are more likely to pursue a special guardianship order because the process is less intensive, but sometimes that lack of rigour leads to breakdown. Will the Minister try to bring the processes for SGOs into line with those for adoption so that children are protected by arrangements that are appropriate for them?
Of course, any special guardianship order must be signed off and approved by the court in the same way as a placement or adoption order. There has been a significant increase in the number of SGOs throughout the country in recent years, which is why we have commissioned for the first time proper research not only into the prevalence of the orders, but into who is taking them forward and what the breakdown rates are, as well as what is available to ensure that children who find themselves in such permanent situations get the support that they need. If the hon. Lady wishes, I will be happy to talk to her about that further.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his astonishing record and success on expanding adoption, but may I echo the comments of the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) by saying that there is still more to be done to speed up the process? One of the easiest ways of determining where the blockages in the system are is to compare neighbouring authorities that have similar socio-economic bases, but very different adoption rates. We must get out the message that speed matters when dealing with young children.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we must bring as much transparency as possible to the adoption process, which is why we have introduced the scorecard data and a national adoption register that is more open and available to prospective adopters. It is also why we have put such a strong emphasis on ensuring that local authorities’ artificial barriers do not get in the way of children finding a loving, stable family home, if adoption is right for them. I welcome his support for what we are doing but, of course, we must continue to exert pressure so that all the 6,000 children who are in care and waiting to be adopted this very day get the opportunity that they deserve.
I also welcome the improvements, but may I remind the Minister that, in England alone, 16% of all children put up for adoption are black, Asian or from the ethnic minority communities, and that adoption still takes three times longer for a black child than for a white child? What steps is he taking to ensure that more prospective parents come from the ethnic communities and that that difference is brought to an end?
The right hon. Gentleman is correct to raise that issue, of which I am conscious from the statistics that he shared with the House. That is why we have made it clear—not only through the Children and Families Act 2014—that although ethnicity is an important consideration when matching for adoption, it should not be the single guiding principle that determines whether prospective adopters take on a child with a different ethnic mix from theirs. It is also why we are helping to fund local authorities, in partnership with independent fostering agencies, to examine how they can recruit more widely across our communities so that we ensure that we have a good cross-section of people coming forward to adopt.
We need to make people aware that some of the myths and barriers that they think prevent them from adopting do not exist. We want more people to come forward, so we should do everything that we can to encourage them to do so.
Register of Foster Carers
We have no plans to introduce a national register of foster carers. Foster carers are approved locally by their fostering service, which helps ensure a good match between the foster carer and children. Introducing a national register would add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and make the approval process less responsive to foster carers’ and children’s needs.
I thank the Minister for that response, but does he not agree that it seems somewhat counter-productive to restrict outstanding carers to one authority or agency, forcing them, in effect, to go through that additional bureaucracy and vetting procedure should they move? What plans does he have to make the system less bureaucratic so that, particularly in neighbouring authorities, they do not have to repeat that process, wasting a lot of time?
I agree that we need to make transferring from one agency to another, or from one local authority to another, as streamlined and as simple as possible. That is why we have changed the regulations to make it easier for new fostering services to access the foster carer’s record, including the training that they have received, and why, more recently, fostering services have also been required to share relevant information about a person’s suitability to foster.
We have seen a 6% rise in the number of approved foster carers, as well as a 9% rise in the number of approved foster placements, but we need to go further and do anything we can to ensure that those who want to foster and want to continue to foster really get the chance to do just that.
I recognise the Minister’s concerns, and I suppose that the issue depends on what the register is intended to achieve, but the Department has had to address issues over the adoption register very similar to those to which he just referred. That register is managed by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. How would a fostering register differ dramatically from the adoption register, on which the Minister has been rightly lavishing praise?
There are more than 71,000 approved foster carers, so there is already a scalability issue. We also have a much more deeply entrenched local system in relation to the recruitment of foster carers. That is why we have given the fostering network £250,000 to try to boost recruitment at a local level to try to meet local need, but we also need to do everything that we can to ensure that the latent capacity in fostering across the country is utilised. Hundreds of thousands of people would consider fostering and we need to find them. That is why we are also funding Fosterline—an independent, free advice line—so that people can get the guidance that they need to come forward and, hopefully, foster.
Holidays in Term Time
My Department has not issued any specific guidance on this matter.
There have been examples on the Isle of Wight, and I am sure elsewhere, of parents being told that the Government have banned all term-time holidays, which is particularly difficult for those who work during the holidays. Will the Minister confirm that the definition of exceptional circumstances is made by the head teachers, and not the Government, the council or even the governing body, and that the normal use of language should be sufficiently clear for heads to make those decisions?
As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: the decision as to what constitutes exceptional circumstances is a matter for the head teacher. It is important, however, to stress that children wherever possible should be in school and learning, and a drive to reduce truancy and push up the number of days and hours that children spend in school is at the heart of our long-term plan to raise standards in our state schools.
In 2013, Ofsted estimated that more than 10,000 children were missing from education—children more likely to have special educational needs and to be more vulnerable to child sexual exploitation. Will the Secretary of State look at ways in which the extent of the problem and the risk to the children involved can be better monitored, such as asking local safeguarding children boards to include in their annual reports information on children missing from school?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. The work that she has done on emphasising how much better a job we can do to help vulnerable children and young people has been exemplary, and I very much take her point to heart. I stress that local safeguarding children boards have had a bad press recently but it is important that we use all the agencies at our disposal to try to ensure that the most vulnerable are in school, where they can benefit from great education and appropriate pastoral support.
We are raising expectations in mathematics, in line with top-performing countries. We are strengthening the primary school curriculum to focus on core arithmetic and removing calculators from primary school tests this summer. We expect secondary schools to increase teaching time, with a more challenging maths GCSE that will, for the first time, be double-weighted in the performance tables. We are also providing £11 million to build a network of maths hubs across the country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent, Kevin Bennett. It is really important that young people understand not only how to do maths, but how it can be applied, from astronomy to business. We know that maths qualifications command the highest earnings in the workplace, and it is really important that all our young people understand how valuable they are.
The Minister seems to agree that our primary problem in maths education is pre-GCSE, not post-GCSE. Does she therefore agree that it is unfair and unwise to press students to take mathematics beyond GCSE if their pre-GCSE performance is not sufficiently strong?
I agree that we have a lot to do to improve our performance in primary schools mathematics, but we have the lowest proportion of students studying maths from age 16 to 18 in the developed world. We need to do something about that, because it affects all kinds of things, such as the future supply of maths teachers and the number of people going into business and industry. What people in business tell me is that everything, from fashion to farming, now depends on having a good level of mathematics.
It has been said that MPs can be divided into three groups: those who can count and those who cannot. Can my hon. Friend tell us whether the people now going into primary school teaching are people who have enjoyed mathematics and are good at it and can pass on their enthusiasm and skills to those they teach?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I am not proposing an entry requirement for Parliament, but perhaps that is something he might put forward. We have new maths and English skills tests for primary school teachers. We are also giving bursaries to maths teachers for primary school. One of the things we have been looking at in Shanghai is having specialist maths teachers in primary schools, which is an interesting model.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I think that we are at about 90% of our target for this year. It is vital that we get more people into maths teaching, so we have removed the cap on maths teacher recruitment and we are awarding the highest level of scholarships and bursaries to maths. Importantly, we also need more people doing maths at A-level, and we now have record numbers under this Government. We also have record numbers doing further maths at A-level and doing maths degrees. That will increase the supply of maths teachers in future.
Shakespeare Schools Festival
I am delighted to be able to support and fund the Shakespeare schools festival. We have provided nearly £500,000 to give students the opportunity to prepare and perform an abridged version of a Shakespeare play. More than 1,000 schools—over 62,000 students—have already benefited, and 50,000 more students should benefit this year.
In this special anniversary year, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s fantastic Shakespeare week has brought the works of the great bard to thousands of children across the country. Will the Secretary of State join me on 29 April to watch the talented students of Stratford-on-Avon mark the 450th anniversary of the bard’s birth in a special performance in the Speaker’s state apartments?
There is evidence that Shakespeare poorly taught can put children off English literature for a very long time. Do our children not need a broad diet, which might even include our famous poet John Clare this year, the 150th anniversary of his death?
Any author poorly taught can put children off for life, but more and more lessons are being taught well in our schools. As the chief inspector has pointed out, we have more good and outstanding schools than ever before. I had the opportunity recently to see children from a special school, a primary school and a secondary school—Burlington Danes academy—all perform Shakespeare productions in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s flat. I was blown away by the quality of their verse speaking. I believe that Shakespeare has the power to move and touch every child, and I know that John Clare would have thought exactly the same. That peasant poet understood that he stood in a tradition of great literary figures, of whom Shakespeare was another grammar school boy made good.
Apprenticeship reforms are putting employers in the driving seat of designing world-class standards for apprenticeships, and making it easier for them to offer apprenticeships in the future. I can announce to the House today that David Meller of the Meller Education Trust has agreed to become the new chair of the apprenticeship ambassadors network, with a brief of expanding and encouraging that network further and boosting apprenticeships once again.
I recently visited SMC Pneumatics in my constituency to meet its apprentices. It has an excellent apprenticeship programme, run in conjunction with Milton Keynes college. One suggestion made to me was that to get the most out of their apprenticeship, apprentices need a good mentor to support them. Will the Minister assure me that his Department will do all it can to facilitate a network of voluntary mentors?
Yes, I absolutely will. I have visited Milton Keynes with my hon. Friend and seen some of the excellent work on apprenticeships there. Of course, from time immemorial an apprenticeship has been not just a skills programme but a mentoring programme that shows people what it takes to work and succeed in a career. Modern apprenticeships do that too.
I have heard what the Minister has told the House, but in my area of south Yorkshire the number of apprenticeships available is down by 15% over the past year. Will the Minister consider taking special steps in areas where the number of apprenticeships is falling?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the number of apprenticeships has risen sharply over the past few years, but at the same time we have to drive up the quality of the programme. Of course, all steps that can be taken must be taken in all areas, and I will ensure that the issue of south Yorkshire is raised specifically at the next meeting of the apprenticeship ambassadors network.
A number of businesses in my constituency have been reluctant to take part in apprenticeship schemes, fearing that they are bureaucratic and do not address individual needs. Does my hon. Friend agree that the only way to bring true benefit to young people is to train them in the skills that business and industry actually need, which will also help to fill the skills gap?
The number of 16 to 18-year-olds undertaking apprenticeships dropped by nearly 14% in the first quarter of the 2013 academic year. With 900,000 young people out of work, is it not time the Minister admitted that his boastful rhetoric does not match his hopeless record of failure?
Funnily enough, I do not agree with that one, Mr Speaker. The number of full apprenticeships—those longer than a year—has more than doubled for under-19s. In 2010, a 17-year-old could claim that they had an apprenticeship when they had a three or six-month programme. We do not think that is a proper apprenticeship. Funnily enough, nor does the Labour party policy review, so perhaps the hon. Lady should talk to some of her colleagues.
Child Care (Norwich)
It was a pleasure to visit the Magdalen Gates pre-school with my hon. Friend and see Norwich two-year-olds benefiting from our programme. I am pleased to tell her that 1,537 children in Norfolk are now part of that programme. Across the country, by the end of February we had more than 100,000 two-year-olds in the programme, which represents 77% of available places.
I welcome those numbers and all the recent announcements on child care because they give parents choice and support. I welcome—as, I know, does my hon. Friend—good-quality early-years education, because it can help children develop social skills and vocabulary, as we heard at that pre-school. What is the Minister doing to raise quality for all the children we have just heard about?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question, and I congratulate Paula Watts and her team in Norwich on their excellent work. We have seen a 25% increase this year in the number of people enrolling to be early-years teachers, which I think shows the level of confidence in our programme. Those trainee teachers have to pass the same skills tests in English and Maths as primary school teachers, and we know that children, particularly those from low-income families, benefit from high-quality teacher-led provision at that age, which can help them close the gap with their richer counterparts.
A new Sutton Trust report states that 40% of children are missing out on the parenting they need to succeed in life. International evidence finds that under-threes who do not form strong bonds with a parent are more likely to suffer from aggression and hyperactivity when older, and they do less well in their education. In the light of that, is the Minister happy that parents are getting the full picture when making choices about the right balance of time spent in nursery and child care settings, as opposed to with their parents?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of parenting and early attachment, and that is why we increased funding for early intervention and child care from £4.3 billion to £4.5 billion over this Parliament. One of the key roles of children’s centres, which are being used by a record number of parents this year—more than 1 million parents are now using children’s centres—is to communicate best practice. Our new early-years teacher qualifications have a focus on attachment.
School Funding (Solihull)
Past school funding levels have been very unfair to some parts of our country, and we have announced that we will significantly boost funding in 2015-16 by more than one third of a billion pounds for the 60 least fairly funded local authorities.
My hon. Friend will know that funding after 2015-16 will be determined in the next spending round, and we cannot make precise commitments now about funding in that period. We have been considering the options for funding large programmes such as those containing five or more A-levels, the international baccalaureate, and large vocational programmes, and we plan to announce how those will be treated after 2015-16 in the near future.
I welcome enormously the real progress made on fairer funding, and I salute the Minister and the Secretary of State for delivering in this Parliament on an issue that went unaddressed for decades. May I encourage the Minister to keep on engaging with the F40 campaign, which includes Solihull, Staffordshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire, and to ensure that all areas that have suffered from unfair funding for too long can hope to benefit—as Worcestershire and Buckinghamshire already have—from fairer funding?
We will certainly remain engaged in that debate, and I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend on the leadership that he has given to this campaign over a sustained period. That has led to our recent announcement, which has sought to resolve the issue in those parts of the country that have traditionally been very badly funded.
Primary School Places
May I declare my interest as a student working towards a level 3 teaching assistant qualification? I am currently undertaking placements in Victoria junior school in Barrow, and Oasis Academy Johanna in Lambeth. Barrow is one of the few areas of the country that has a surplus of places as a result of population decline in recent years, yet too many pupils are still being denied their first choice of school. If the Government were serious about making the education system work for pupils, and not for the convenience of producers, would they not give parents the right to send their child to the school of their choice, and place a duty on that institution to expand?
We are so serious about this issue that we have doubled the amount of basic need funding going to the hon. Gentleman’s local authority compared with the period under the Labour Government. We are seeking not only to improve the quality of existing schools but to make sure that parents can exercise their choices effectively.
In Luton we are 630 primary places short of the number we require—a situation that would be much worse had a free school not been built by an arms-length council body that had to jump through all the hoops of the free school system. Is it not perverse that local authorities are not allowed to build schools?
I recently attended a meeting with all the head teachers from the Otley family of schools, which covers Otley, Bramhope, Pool-in-Wharfedale and Adur, and they expressed concern about the chronic shortage of school places at primary level. After the debacle of Labour-run Leeds city council closing schools a number of years ago, and now that we need some, what work is going on to have discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government about how this problem can be avoided in future?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. One of the reasons there are pressures in some parts of the country is that under the previous Government over 200,000 primary school places were eliminated after 2003. He will be aware that Leeds is one of the areas to which we have given significant amounts of basic need funding, and it is now using that money effectively. I will be happy to meet him if it would be helpful to discuss this in further detail.
20. Acre Hall primary school in my constituency is growing, and it is well placed to expand its offer of small specialist classes for special educational needs pupils. However, the school is in a very poor state of repair and is in desperate need of rebuilding. Will the Minister urge the Education Funding Agency to reach a decision at the earliest possible opportunity on its application for capital grants? (903217)
The Local Government Association recently warned that there is a need to create 130,000 new places by 2017-18. It also warned that because of the Minister’s ideological insistence that these places have to be in free schools and academies, they will not be created where they are actually needed. On what evidence does he believe that community schools and local decision making are always bad?
Regional School Commissioners
Regional schools commissioners will act on my behalf to support the national schools commissioner.
The Secretary of State will recognise that Al-Madinah and IES UK Breckland schools have not been the greatest advert for his policy agenda. How will these rather Soviet-sounding commissioners help to ensure that academy chains and free schools are properly overseen so that no more children have their education damaged in future?
I have nothing against anything that is redolent of a better past in Russia. In fact, the Office of the Schools Commissioner was introduced by the previous Labour Government. We are merely building on it to ensure that we have great head teachers and others who can ensure that the superb innovation that is occurring in academies, free schools and community schools across the country is supported, and that wherever school failure occurs we can take swift and rapid action.
Driving up the rigour and responsiveness of vocational education is a critical part of this Government’s mission to give everyone the education they need to fulfil their potential.
How does the Minister respond to the Government’s own consultation, which proposes that an employer’s contribution for a hairdressing apprentice should be about £1,700, whereas for science, technology, engineering and maths trades such as engineering it should be more than £5,000, and construction specialisms would cost £7,000? Will he rethink these mad proposals?
I do not recognise any of those figures, but I do recognise the need to make sure that apprenticeships are driven by the skills that employers need, so that they remain high quality and increasingly fill the skills gaps that have been left by an education system that was far too divorced from the world of work.
What would the Minister say to Richard Wright, who speaks on behalf of Sheffield business as chief executive of the local chamber of commerce and who wrote to the Secretary of State saying that the funding cut for 18-year-olds in further education would remove money from where it can have the most effect in equipping young people with maths and English, and with the technical and vocational skills that are modern and relevant, to ensure that they are work-ready?
The first thing I would say is that we have ameliorated the change so that no institution will lose more than 2% in the coming financial year. The second thing I would say is that we had to make this change because of the mess left in the public finances by the Labour party. [Interruption.] Labour Members do not like it, but it is the truth, and until they get used to admitting their fault, nobody will trust them with the economy again.
Which does the Minister think causes most damage to vocational education in Blackpool—his 17.5% cut in college funding, which is capped for only one year at 2%, or his abject failure to promote or offer any properly financially supported traineeships for young people?
In Northumberland we have doubled the number of apprenticeships and have outstanding vocational education at Northumberland college and at the Egger academy, which I opened last year. When I visited Release Potential in my constituency, people there stressed the success of traineeships and how they need to be promoted, not denigrated, as the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) has just done. Does the Minister agree that traineeships are part of the future that we need?
Absolutely. Traineeships are provided by good and outstanding institutions, because we want them to be a high-quality product to make sure that everybody gets the skills they need and the capability and character they need to hold down a job. They are filling a gap that was left before.
I regularly enjoy meeting the heads of our leading independent schools.
I take a close interest in the success of England’s independent schools. In particular, I reinforce the point that my hon. Friend makes. Those parents who support independent schools are supporting not just a great education for their own children. In many cases—for example, with schools such as Wellington and Eton college—they are also supporting improved state education by sponsoring free schools, which would not exist if Labour came to power. I stress that the head teachers of independent schools appreciate the changes being made to the state sector. Only this weekend the headmaster of King’s College school in Wimbledon pointed out that the state sector “has really improved” under this Government—so much so that it is totally different from the situation that prevailed 10 years ago under Labour.
I declare an interest as a governor of an independent school. Will my right hon. Friend in his various discussions promote the placing of looked-after and vulnerable children in boarding-school education, not least because this produces better results for them in examinations and better outcomes in life, and it is also considerably cheaper than the alternative?
I absolutely agree. The role that independent schools play in making sure that children from vulnerable backgrounds have access to boarding education is to be applauded, but it is vital that we stress that there are superb state boarding schools as well, and that there are a growing number of state schools providing excellent facilities for children from the most fragile of circumstances to flourish. It is important that we should recognise that whatever the type of school helping a vulnerable child, the actions of those who lead it should be applauded.
Engineering Apprenticeships (16 to 18-year-old Girls)
Since 2010, the number of women starting engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships has increased threefold.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers says that 92% of girls choose not to take triple science as a subject beyond the age of 14, which effectively disbars them from a career in engineering. EngineeringUK says that 83% of all young people do not have access to STEM-related work experience. How on earth do the Government’s policies of ending face-to-face careers advice and downgrading work experience help to encourage girls into engineering?
I recognise the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes as the situation of a few years ago. Fortunately, a record number of girls are studying triple science at GCSE and a record number of girls are studying physics. That does not mean that there is not more to do for the Government in sorting out the problems that were left behind. We must ensure that people are given inspiration and mentoring through careers guidance, which was not available in the past. We must promote the highest-quality careers to boys and girls, and ensure that everybody knows how to fulfil their potential.
I congratulate the Government on their work in the STEM sector, and particularly in engineering. How many women have finished engineering apprenticeships and how many girls go on to gain a job in engineering? Will the Minister join me in recognising that women engineers are climbing to the top of the tree, since we have had a female president of the Institution of Civil Engineers?
I will. A very high proportion of those who go into apprenticeships, and STEM apprenticeships in particular, stay on in a job or continue into a higher-quality apprenticeship. That progression is one reason why apprenticeships are such a valued institution.
19. We know that girls and young women like to try before they buy. They therefore need practical experience of engineering before they will apply for it. Among other companies, MBDA in my constituency has a great programme through which it goes into schools and takes pupils on work experience placements. What is the Minister doing to ensure that every young person has a similar opportunity? (903216)
I pay tribute to MBDA, which I visited to see its work on apprenticeships. The apprentice of the year was a young woman from MBDA. It does great work, but there is much more to be done so that all employers can engage in schools and colleges to show young people what they can do.
When I visit engineering and manufacturing companies in my Bury North constituency, they often say that not just girls, but boys find the idea of taking up trades off-putting because they are noisy, dirty and sometimes smelly. Does the Minister agree that the teachers in our schools need to do more to encourage people of both sexes to take up such jobs?
Absolutely. The very best people to do that are the people who are in those careers themselves and who can show what a modern engineering workplace looks like. They tend to be problem-solving institutions that are exciting and that pay well, which I find is a message that goes down particularly well with apprentices.
Child Care Costs
According to the recent Family and Childcare Trust survey, the cost of child care in England has started to fall in real terms for the first time in 12 years, whereas in Scotland, the cost of nurseries has gone up by 8% and in Wales, which is run by Labour, the cost of nurseries has gone up by 13%. That is because the Government are reducing red tape and enabling good providers to expand.
That was pure fantasy. One of the best and most effective child care solutions for working parents is Sure Start. Is the Minister ashamed that 600 Sure Start centres have closed under the Government and that some Tory councils, such as Hammersmith and Fulham, have cut their budget by half?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has got his figures wrong. In fact, Sure Start provides fewer than 4% of places. In London, which he represents, 45% of early-years places are in school nurseries. I suggest that he join the Mayor of London’s programme, which he is running with me, to encourage school nurseries to open for longer hours. What the hon. Gentleman says about children’s centres is absolute nonsense. We have increased the investment in those as well.
Unfortunately, the expansion of free places has resulted in the headmaster of Carterhatch children’s centre in Enfield asking fee-paying parents to take their children out of the centre to make way for those who are on the new scheme. What advice does the Minister have for the headmaster, who has chosen to discriminate against working parents, and for the parents who are fighting to keep their children at the centre?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We are working with London providers and local authorities to get them to expand the number of places. We have made it easier for private sector providers to expand without planning red tape, and we have made it easier for good and outstanding providers to expand without red tape. We also want to see school nurseries and children’s centres open from 8 am to 6 pm to provide flexible child care.
We welcome the fact that finally families will receive some much needed help in meeting their child care costs. However, does the Minister accept that by the time the tax-free scheme comes into effect in 2015, the support that families have already lost plus the increases in costs over this Parliament will mean that the vast majority of families will still be worse off? Can she also tell the House what assessment she has made of the impact on price inflation, given the chronic shortage of places?
I do not think that the hon. Lady heard my first point, which was that prices are falling in real terms in England for the first time since the Family and Childcare Trust study began. Under Labour, they went up by 50%. On Thursday, I visited the excellent Medlock primary school in her constituency, which offers places to two, three and four-year-olds. Staff told me of their plans to open from 8 until 6 to provide parents with more care. That is happening across the country—[Interruption.] I hear what the hon. Lady says. At present, most nurseries in Manchester are open from 9 to 3. If they opened from 8 to 6, that would be more than 60% extra.
Thanks to the success of our long-term economic plan, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister were able last week to announce not just an extension of tax-free child care, but the extension of the pupil premium to the early years, marking a step forward in making this country not only more economically efficient, but more socially just.
We are consulting on exactly how we should distribute the additional cash in order to ensure that it goes to the very poorest families, but I am aware that in the west midlands generally—and in Solihull particularly—there are families in desperate need of support, and I hope we will be able to extend that to them as quickly as possible.
More and more research shows the importance of early-years development in a child’s education. The Labour party’s Sure Start programme was focused on supporting those vital infant years—a policy of prevention, rather than cure. We know that the Tories do not support Sure Start, but in 2010, the Secretary of State pledged to create 4,200 new health visitors. Can he tell the House how far he is from meeting that target?
That is exactly the problem with this Government—no cross-departmental thinking about having health visitors focus on early-years development. [Laughter.] The Tories may laugh at the impact that health visitors have on early-years education, but the Opposition think that the early years are vital. As the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) suggested, research published by the Sutton Trust on Friday reiterated the impact that good parenting has on school readiness, educational attainment and progression into continued education and work. Will the Government’s commitment to 4,200 new health visitors be matched this Parliament, or is it another broken promise, like Sure Start centres?
The early years are indeed very important. That is when children often learn to spell. It is important that the Secretary of State can tell the difference between education, e-d-u-c-a-t-i-o-n, and health, h-e-a-l-t-h. Responsibility for health visitors, like responsibility for doctors and nurses, is for the Secretary of State for Health, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman address those questions to my right hon. Friend.
T3. Last summer the Minister visited Northumberland, where schoolchildren have, historically, been chronically underfunded, compared with those in other areas, by central Government. May I welcome the 6.4% increase in early 2015 and the ongoing consultation, and observe that the case for fairer funding is absolutely overwhelming? The Minister should prepare for a lot of representations from my head teachers. (903185)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome of our announcement. I congratulate him on his robust campaigning over a period of time to ensure this fairer funding settlement. As he knows, under our plans Northumberland’s per pupil funding rate will increase by around £269 per pupil per year, which will mean over £10 million more for schools in his area.
T2. Following a special educational needs tribunal ruling that children were unsafe in January 2013, at a ministerial meeting in March 2013 parents of abuse victims told a Minister that Stanbridge Earls independent school remained unsafe. I wrote to the Secretary of State in the same month to warn him that the situation was urgent. Despite this, a further child was sexually abused in July 2013. The school has now closed. Ofsted has apologised for its failures. Will Ministers now urgently consider adequate research into the funding of mandatory reporting in regulated settings? (903184)
I take these issues incredibly seriously and I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising them. I have had the opportunity, in a different context, to talk to one victim of abuse who, I have to say, made a compelling case for mandatory reporting in a regulated setting. I had hitherto been concerned that mandatory reporting might create more work for children’s services departments than it would generate safety for children, but the specific case for reporting in regulated settings is one that we are actively reviewing.
T4. Ministers are to be commended for their work to drive up educational standards for pupils in receipt of free school meals, and in particular for the appointment of John Dunford as pupil premium champion, whom we saw on his recent visit to Peterborough. What further work are Ministers doing to focus on this area of work with children in receipt of free school meals? (903186)
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We are doing two things in particular. As my hon. Friend is aware, we announced in the Budget that we are extending the pupil premium into the early years, which I think has been widely welcomed. We are also ensuring, through Ofsted, that while schools have the freedom to spend that money in the most sensible way they think appropriate, they will be held to account and fully supported by Ofsted and the Education Endowment Foundation.
T5. The Minister is, I hope, concerned about the literacy levels of prisoners, 40% of whom have an average reading age of 11. Does he think that the policy of the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice to ban sending books to prisoners will make that better or worse? (903187)
I take a close interest in ensuring that we deal with the problem of literacy. I am hoping to visit the prison education programme in Wormwood Scrubs in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency next week. We should do everything possible to support literacy in prisons and in the justice system. If he looks closely at the work the Justice Secretary is undertaking to ensure that in secure settings for young people an appropriate emphasis is placed on education, he will appreciate that the Justice Secretary is more committed than anyone to ensuring that those who are incarcerated have the chance to educate themselves out of the path they have taken.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. It is incumbent on the Labour leadership of Lancashire county council to do as other enlightened Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat local authorities have done and support academy providers in turning around underperforming schools.
T6. In a reply slipped out on Budget day, Ministers confirmed the hitherto secret list of 14 academy chains that have been barred from taking on further schools, and other unnamed chains are causing concern. Does the Secretary of State agree that such secrecy not only wasted months of work by Woodlands school in Southampton in abortive discussions with Academies Enterprise Trust, but is damaging public confidence? Is it not time to allow Ofsted to inspect academy chains, as it does local authorities? (903188)
T9. Is my right hon. Friend aware that a very important event will take place in September 2014, namely the opening of Harlow’s Sir Charles Kao university technical college following millions of pounds of Government investment? Is he aware that the UTC is proving to be incredibly popular among pupils and their parents, and that it will increase the choice that is available to many people in Harlow? Will he come to Harlow to visit it, and to see for himself how it will improve the quality of education? (903191)
T7. Does the Secretary of State agree that every classroom in every school should contain a qualified teacher who is able to provide the best possible education for children, and that to deliver anything else is to deliver education on the cheap? (903189)
I agree that every classroom in every school should guarantee that children are receiving high-quality teaching, but I think it instructive to note that the hon. Lady’s attempts to breathe new life into the policy of her party’s Front Benchers has come a little too late. Nowadays, when the shadow Education Secretary is interviewed on the BBC, he is reduced to saying that our policies are a success, and when it comes to Question Time he cannot think of any education questions, and has to ask some health questions instead.
T10. This morning I attended the launch of “Get Tiptree Reading” at Tiptree Heath primary school in my constituency. This local reading initiative is led by some outstanding head teachers in the constituency, and is intended to inspire a love of reading among schoolchildren. Will the Secretary of State commend the leadership of that school and other local schools which are going the extra mile to support reading and literacy among the young? (903192)
Absolutely. I had the opportunity to visit Essex twice last week; sadly, I did not manage to make it to my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I hope to do so before too long.
The leadership being shown by primary head teachers, and teachers across the country, in helping us to eliminate illiteracy is inspiring. The introduction of the phonics check, which was the idea of my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), has really raised the level of ambition, and the new primary curriculum which will be introduced in September will help to reinforce that.
The chief inspector of Ofsted said some lovely things about me on the radio on Friday, and now I have an opportunity to say some great things about him. I think that the recent changes in Ofsted inspections that he had a chance to announce on Friday, in a wholly independent way, are wise and right, as he is himself in relation to every issue.
I welcomed last week’s announcement of an early-years pupil premium. Schools have benefited from access to the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit to use the pupil premium to best effect. Will the Department consider how best to make early-years pupil premium research available to providers?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We will ensure that early-years settings have the necessary information about interventions that make a difference, so that the new money that is going into the system can have an effect, especially for some of the most disadvantaged pupils.
The Under-Secretary of State rightly says that she is worried about the number of girls taking A-level maths, given that two thirds of A-level maths students are boys. Is she also worried about the fact that level 6 key stage 2 entrants are consistently more often boys than girls? She has announced changes in the maths curriculum, but what elements of that curriculum, or of teaching, will help to deal with this issue?
I agree that that is an issue. Information provided recently by the OECD’s programme for international student assessment showed that girls have as much confidence as boys at the age of five but begin to lose that confidence as they proceed through the education system, and that that contributes to feelings of anxiety about mathematics. One of the things that we must all do is end the culture in which saying “I am rubbish at maths” is acceptable, whereas it is not OK to say “I am no good at reading.” What is needed is a “can do” approach to mathematics. Our new maths hubs programme—there are 30 hubs across the country—will promote best practice in teaching, so that we can close the gap between girls and boys.
The Secretary of State recently saw basketball being taught in Mandarin at Bohunt school in my constituency. Will he join me in commending Bohunt on its immersion programme, and how can we get more people studying this strategically important language?
I hugely enjoyed my visit to Bohunt school, an absolutely outstanding school. When the Financial Times visited it, it said that it was easily better—like so many state schools—than independent schools. One of the great things I saw today when I visited Chobham academy in Newham was a year 7 class being taught Mandarin through total immersion. The transformation of modern foreign language teaching over the last couple of years is a wonder to behold, and the commitment of so many of our modern foreign language teachers to extending Mandarin, Spanish and French teaching is vital to ensure that this country escapes the insularity that, sadly, afflicted us in the Labour years.
The Secretary of State referred earlier to the reforms in Ofsted announced by the chief inspector last week. Does that mean he is now prepared to call the dogs off and reaffirm his support for a genuinely independent national inspectorate completely free from political interference?
In Bedford the transition from three-tier to two-tier education remains stalled, and there is still no coherent strategy to resolve it. In the circumstances, will my right hon. Friend take a particular interest in applications for funding from schools seeking to achieve coherent change for their pupils?
Earlier the children Minister talked about the increase in places at school nurseries. Is she aware of the challenge that faces many working parents who cannot secure more than the 15 hours a week they are guaranteed and cannot buy extra hours in a school nursery, which reduces the choices for working parents?
That is why we are making it very clear to school nurseries that they are able to charge for extra hours and they can open from 8 until 6 to provide parents with that service. As I said, 45% of all early-years places in London are in school nurseries. There is huge potential there to get better service from our existing assets.
I welcome the new advice on the summer-born starting school at age 5 in a reception class, but are Ministers aware of just how varied the response to parental requests is between different school admission authorities, and what action will they take?
We are keeping the matter under close review. If my hon. Friend has any information on the way in which schools are implementing their responsibilities, I would be keen to hear from her, because we will take action if we find that schools are not paying attention to parental demand.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Many people in east Northamptonshire are worried by a council consultation on a move from the three-tier system to a two-tier system. May I ask the Secretary of State to impress it on the county council that any changes, especially the disruptive closure of schools, must be driven by compelling evidence that they will lead to a better education for local children?
I am grateful for the point the hon. Gentleman makes. Education standards in Northamptonshire have been low in the past. Reform is necessary, but reform always needs to be driven by evidence. That principle governs every single decision the coalition Government make.
Inherited Social Housing Tenancies
Before I call the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), to ask his urgent question I would emphasise to the House that its terms are narrow. It relates specifically to the question of inherited tenancies and the treatment thereof. I am sure the House had not been planning on a Second Reading-style debate on the merits or otherwise of the spare room subsidy/bedroom tax, but that is not the subject matter. It is a narrow matter and will be treated accordingly, and we are, of course, time-constrained.
The issue raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is not a new matter, but is part of the 1996 provisions which impacted on the spare room subsidy legislation 2012, and which we have debated in the House before. Upon investigation early in the year, it would appear that some claimants have been unintentionally protected from the effects of the removal of the spare room subsidy, including those who have been in receipt of continuous housing benefit since 1 January 1996 and who have lived in the same property since that date unless the move was due to natural disaster such as fire and flood. There is a grace period of four weeks, or 52 weeks if the claimant or their partner is a welfare to work beneficiary. For example, housing benefit would be classed as continuous if the break is fewer than four weeks, or 52 weeks for a welfare to work beneficiary. Where a claimant dies, the partner or an adult child can inherit the protection, but it must be in respect of the same dwelling and they must qualify for housing benefit.
The issue of the inheritance of housing benefit has always formed part of the understanding of what the loophole meant, and this was part of the guidance issued to local authorities a few weeks ago. The loophole derives from a very narrow but complex set of regulations dating back to 1 January 1996, when the local reference rent rules were introduced. In January 1996, transitional protection was offered to existing claimants, which could, and still can, be inherited if the claimant dies: for example, by a partner or, where there is no partner, by an adult child. The protection applies only in respect of the same dwelling—therefore, partners or adult children must continue to live in that property—and only if they qualify for housing benefit. This protection ends if housing benefit ceased or they moved address.
With hindsight, the protection offered by the regulations could have been time limited. Because it was not, it has lain dormant for 17 years, the effect being that it has now unintentionally been applied to a group of people who were not financially affected by the local reference rent rules. During February’s debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), who was Secretary of State at the time the regulations were introduced, clearly stated that this exemption was never intended to come into force.
This matter was fully debated, and voted on, on 26 February 2014, to approve amended regulations to close the loophole. Clearly, the House has already spoken on this issue, and guidance was sent out a few weeks ago to inform local authorities. I am pleased to announce that most local authorities are following that guidance and delivering this policy.
That was all very interesting but not to the point, because this is actually about inherited social housing tenancies. The Minister just said that this only applied to the partner or the adult child of somebody who had been holding the tenancy, but in her advice to local authorities of January this year, she included the following highly ambiguous footnote:
“it may be the case”—
“that the transitional protection has been inherited by a claimant and if so they should be treated the same.”
Yet a separate e-mail from the Department for Work and Pensions includes
“any member of the claimant’s family”
“if the claimant is a member of a polygamous marriage”—
I am not making this up; this is actually what the Minister has written—
“any partners of his and any child or young person for whom he or a partner is responsible”,
a much bigger number, would be included.
In what circumstances does a tenant inherit the right to be exempted? Does that apply to any member of the claimant’s family or specifically just a partner, as the Minister referred to? How many people does that apply to now? What is the total cost of repayments of these illegal charges? How many people who have received refunds for being wrongly charged the bedroom tax have also received discretionary housing payments, and will they have to pay them back? The DWP advice suggests that in assessing whether someone is exempted, local authorities should
“err on the side of caution”.
What on earth does that mean: err on the side of caution to exempt, or not to exempt?
The bedroom tax always had the air of a policy dreamt up in an ivory tower. I know the Minister would love to put this sorry saga behind her, but she should know that before absolution there always has to be confession. So will she now confess that the bedroom tax has been a fiasco from the beginning, that the figures she has given the House were simply plucked out of the air, and that far more than 5,000 people will be affected? Should she not just repeal the bedroom tax? Because if she won’t, we will.
It is clear that the hon. Gentleman was not listening to the statement that I made and did not understand what the inheritance was or what he was voting for on 26 February. Obviously, we do not necessarily want to have to put this policy in place. It is something that we are having to deliver—
No. It is something we are having to deliver because of what we inherited from the previous Government, including a benefit, the cost of which had doubled in 10 years, and a policy that had left nearly 2 million people on housing waiting lists and 400,000 in overcrowded houses. It was a skewed policy under which people living in private rented accommodation could have their spare room subsidy removed but people who lived in the social rented sector could not. And as for people giving out wrong numbers, I would remind the hon. Gentleman that, when he plucked numbers from the air in the last debate, St Helens said that he had got his numbers wrong. Now, in response to his citing a figure of 2,100 cases, Birmingham has put up on its website this statement:
“We haven’t finished identifying them at Birmingham so can’t give you an exact number, but the number of possible cases has dropped substantially below the 2,100 that was reported in the papers”.
We have trebled the discretionary housing payments. We have also said that we will cover the differences involved for people who are exempt and that we will help local authorities with the administration charges. We have answered these points and we have voted on them. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman look again at the debate we had on 26 February.
The number so far, on best records, is about 5,000. However, the cases are having to be manually checked at the moment, because of a change of computer system, and everybody is going through that. Also, a person has to be in continuous receipt of housing benefit and has to have lived in the same home since 1996.
I know that the Minister can see Wales from her constituency, but has she discussed the matter with the relevant Welsh Assembly Minister? Can she tell me today how many properties and individuals in Wales are affected, and what will happen if any of those individuals have been wrongly charged?
Is it not a fact that we inherited more than 1,000 pages of regulations on housing benefit and that there would inevitably be some lacunae while we sought to simplify the system? The real question, which still has not been answered, is why Labour wants to treat people on housing benefit in the social rented sector differently from those on housing benefit in the private rented sector. We still have not had an explanation for that.
My right hon. Friend is quite right. At the moment, the Opposition say that they would like there to be a difference between the people in the private sector and those in the social rented sector. Actually, they had had discussions about introducing this policy too, so they were going to align the policies and do exactly the same as we have done. The only question that they have never asked, as they have sought to reverse what is happening in the social rented sector, is this: should there be a legal challenge by those in the private rented sector against whom they were discriminating, would they reverse the rules for those people too, so as to have fairness and equality for everyone?
Scottish ministers have written to Lord Freud five times since January regarding discretionary housing payments, including for those with transitional tenancies, but they have yet to receive a reply. The Deputy First Minister will be in London on Wednesday. Will Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions commit to meeting her to discuss these issues and will she give me that commitment today?
Given that we are talking about inherited social housing tenancies, may I urge the Minister to stick to her guns to ensure that the welfare state is about being a safety net for people in need and that it is rebalanced to make sure that it is just as fair for taxpayers as it is for people claiming benefits? May I also give some free advice to the Opposition? Given their lamentable response to the Budget last week, they need to do better than to keep flogging this particular dead horse.
As my hon. Friend knows, we are ensuring that welfare works and we have a benefits system that works for the 21st century. We know that we are reaping rewards from that: the number of people living in workless households has fallen; the number of people in employment is at a record level; and youth unemployment has fallen for six consecutive months. What the Government are doing is correct, and in the future the Opposition will no doubt follow.
Is not the crux of the problem that far too many families are waiting for social homes, that there is too much overcrowding in our social housing and that more than 400,000 houses were lost under the previous Government? Is not the answer to build more social housing for everyone who needs it?
My hon. Friend is correct; we have to look at those on housing waiting lists and those in overcrowded accommodation, not that the Opposition seem to care about those people. We have committed to £4.5 billion of spending to ensure that we have another 177,000 social homes by 2015.
We will be covering the costs—that is what we will be doing. So when we receive that, we will have it, just as we trebled discretionary housing payments to support people and just as we did when we put in an extra £20 million to support local authorities, which, in fact, they did not need—they needed only £13 million. We have been supporting them all the way.
Given that nearly 400,000 families in the social housing sector are overcrowded, can the Minister think of a single reason why any individual should be allowed to under-occupy simply because their tenancy is inherited?
My hon. Friend is right; no, I cannot. It is only when we meet people who are living in overcrowded accommodation, or who are on a waiting list with their children, and we look at the conditions they are living in, that we realise what a lamentable mess we had been left with and how we have to clear it up. How can we justify 1 million spare rooms when other people are sometimes crammed together in a room? So my hon. Friend is correct in what she says.
As the Minister has been able to expand on a possible policy area, I would point out that nobody in the private rented sector was ever expected to find £14 or £28 out of their pocket, each week, retrospectively. The Office for Budget Responsibility has said that housing benefit spend will continue to rise. Has the additional spending from this loophole been factored into that, or is that going to be another increase that is not in this Government’s forecast?
The money is obviously in the forecast; I mentioned that we put £20 million in place for local authorities but they did not need it—they needed only £13 million—and so that will come into play. As I also said, we all need to get the housing issues for people across the country right, and we are dealing with them in a way that is fair and proportionate.
I was surprised to read today in my local paper, The Oxford Times, that Oxford city council has spent only two thirds of its discretionary housing funds for 2013-14, leaving £200,000 meant for the most vulnerable unspent. May I therefore ask for the Minister’s guidance on how this fund can be better applied to inherited social housing tenancies and others?
A few moments ago, the Minister described this policy as “reaping rewards”. The people who are victims of the bedroom tax fiasco in my constituency would not consider that they are reaping rewards. Does she have any idea of how out of touch those on the Government Benches sound when they stand up at the Dispatch Box and tell my constituents, who have been plunged into poverty by their actions, that they are reaping rewards?
Unfortunately, the thing that Opposition Members never did was to look at this issue in the round, in the full 360°, including looking at those living in overcrowded accommodation and those on waiting lists. Yes, there are people who want to remain in their houses, and that is why discretionary housing payments have been made. Equally, there is support for people to move and to house swap. Many people have said to me, “Actually, downsizing is something that we should have done a lot earlier. We never did that, and by downsizing we have a house in which our bills are cheaper and the cost of keeping it tidy is cheaper. In fact, everything is cheaper. We can now live within our means, which is something that we never did before.” We can help people in many different ways.
If there is one thing that is clear, it is the sheer deficiency of the Opposition. They really do not know what to do with any of the benefit changes. Each time I pick up a newspaper, I read about something that they are doing or not doing, were thinking of doing or of reversing. If they have spent that tax once, they have spent it 20 times.
Has the Minister made any assessment of how much time local authorities, such as my own in Blackpool, will have to spend clearing up this mess, which the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) charitably referred to as “her lacuna”?
Does the hon. Gentleman know how much time local authorities spend trying to find houses for people who are either on a housing waiting list or in overcrowded housing when houses have not been freed up? We have said that we will pay for any extra administrative charges. What we now need to do is move this debate on and think about the families and the individuals who need to live in accommodation that suits their purposes.
Will the Minister write to me to tell me how many people in the metropolitan borough of Tameside are affected by the change? From the intimations given to the House so far, identifying these people sounds like quite a time-consuming process. What cost has she estimated to her Department of this announcement today?
I fear that I have answered this question many times, but people keep coming back to it. We know that a very small proportion of people will be affected by this. When the administrative work has been done and costed, we will provide the funds. That is something we will work on.
The past few days have brought important proposals to make the most of High Speed 2. They will help us to build the line better, bring benefits to the north sooner and support job creation and economic growth. I wanted to update the House at the first opportunity and I am sorry that, for unavoidable reasons, I was unable to do so last week.
The proposals are welcome, because HS2 is a vital project. It can do for future generations what the Victorian railways did for previous generations and what the motorways did for ours. That is why it has the strong support of the Government and why cities in the midlands and the north are calling for its benefits to be spread as widely as possible. We must heed that call, but if that is to happen, we must also get the basics right, stick to the cost, plan well, listen, respect the environment, build what really works and what we need for the future, and ensure that people get the benefits as quickly as possible.
I know, too, that HS2 is just part, although a vital part, of our long-term economic plan—one that will see better infrastructure for all parts of our country. It is a clear and ambitious plan that is already paying dividends, as shown by last week’s welcome decision by Hitachi, the company that invented the bullet train, to move its global rail headquarters to Britain. That is the sort of opportunity presented by HS2.
First, let me respond to the report by Sir David Higgins. He began work as chairman of HS2 in January and the first task I set him was to consider how to maximise the benefits of HS2 and manage the costs. Last year, Parliament backed the principle of a high-speed rail link to the north with 350 votes in favour and only 34 against. It is now up to us to make that happen and, given his great track record, there is no one better suited to the job than Sir David Higgins. Let me turn to his proposals.
First, on costs, Sir David has reviewed the cost estimates for constructing phase 1 and confirmed that they are realistic. The budget set by the Government in 2013 stands. As experience shows, in Britain we can build great projects on time and on budget, such as High Speed 1, Crossrail and the Olympics. At this early stage, however, before Parliament has considered the hybrid Bill, we must include a proper contingency. Of course, for popularity’s sake, one option would have been to slash the contingency and claim that as a saving. Sir David said that that would be wrong and I agree, but, as he also says, with growing certainty comes growing confidence. That will be the stage at which we can bring down the contingency.
Let me turn to Sir David’s second proposal. I have heard many hon. Members asking why we cannot build in the north sooner. I agree, and we can. Sir David’s report suggests opening the new line to a new hub station in Crewe six years earlier than planned. Direct trains will of course be able to run off HS2 lines to serve places such as Stoke, Liverpool, Manchester, north Wales and Scotland, and faster too, and the line to Crewe sooner would mean journeys that are shorter than they would be under phase 1—journeys that are quicker to Manchester, quicker to Liverpool and quicker to Scotland. That is a welcome proposal and I am commissioning HS2 Ltd to undertake the work to allow it to be considered in detail, but that must be an acceleration of phase 2 and not an alternative. Sir David says that we must make the most of this investment so that as many towns and cities as possible benefit. I agree, and we will make sure that that happens.
Let me turn to Sir David’s third proposal, for the south-eastern end of the line. Our priority must be to get the benefits to the midlands and the north as soon as possible. In short, we must put the money and time where they can do the most good. Sir David is clear that he does not think that the existing proposals for a HS1-HS2 link meet the test. The HS1-HS2 link proposed in the hybrid Bill has not secured consensus. It requires too many compromises in terms of its impact on freight, passengers and the community in Camden. I therefore intend to remove the link from the hybrid Bill and withdraw safeguarding as soon as possible. I will also commission a study of options for ways to improve connections to the continent, which could be built once the initial stages of HS2 are complete.
I also agree with the report that much more can be made of Euston station, not just to build something of which we can be proud but to maximise the economic potential of the line, to use a site that has been neglected and to generate private sector investment that can reduce the overall burden on the taxpayer. I will therefore ask HS2 and Network Rail to develop comprehensive proposals for the redevelopment of Euston.
Our ambitions for Euston must not, however, conflict with our commitment to control costs. I want to see a substantial private sector investment to ensure that. Let me therefore turn to the report from the HS2 growth taskforce, published last week. It comes from an impressive panel including business leaders such as Sir John Rose, Alison Nimmo and Ray O’Rourke, city leaders such as Julie Dore from Sheffield and the general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady. I thank everyone involved, and especially the commercial secretary for his committed leadership. Their message is clear: we need HS2, and we need to act on how to squeeze the most jobs, skills and growth from it. The taskforce’s recommendations are plain common sense. They are things that business, the Government and cities can do together, and must start doing now: on skills, proper training to make sure that our young people get the best jobs on the project; on planning, ensuring that the line brings new strength to our cities; and, on transport, making sure that we link the existing road and rail network properly to HS2 and plan investment to bring them together.
Regeneration and economic growth are vital parts of HS2. City leaders have already started to put plans in place, but the Government have a role to play, too. That is why I am asking HS2 Ltd and London and Continental Railways, which developed the King’s Cross-St Pancras site, to come forward with proposals for a regeneration company that will respond to the growth taskforce’s recommendations on regeneration. This matters because, as I have said before, HS2 is a project that will be built over many Parliaments—and no doubt Governments, too—and will serve many people through the generations. It is not the only answer to our transport needs, but it is a central part of the answer, and that means designing it carefully and building it right. It is about something that works, something of which we can be proud, and something that benefits as many people and places as possible at the lowest cost.
We are on schedule to open the line in 2026 which, by the way, is exactly the date that the previous Government set in 2010, or ahead of time in the case of the Crewe proposals. The Government are keen to rise to the challenge and I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will do the same.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice and early sight of the statement. May I also congratulate Sir David Higgins and Lord Deighton on their substantial and thorough reports?
Transforming rail capacity south of Birmingham and improving connectivity north of Birmingham are vital and will transform our great cities. We support HS2 because of the capacity constraints that too many commuters on our railways face. We will continue to hold the Government to account for keeping costs down on the project. We will vote in support of the hybrid Bill when the Government finally bring it to Parliament.
David Higgins has made it clear that there are significant savings to be made if Ministers get a grip of this project and stop the delays. He says:
“a lower budget for Phase One could be set at some point...but only when the legislative timetable becomes clearer and more certain.”
What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the phase 1 hybrid Bill is put before the House as soon as possible? The Government must now act so that the scheme can be delivered under budget.
Sir David recommended, and the Secretary of State has acted, scrapping the link between HS1 and HS2. That is welcome because the link was set to cause huge disruption to large parts of Camden. At Euston, Sir David proposes central London’s biggest regeneration site, with a mix of retail, office and residential units. Given the acute affordable housing crisis in Camden, a significant proportion of any new housing must be social housing. Does the Secretary of State agree that the community and council must be fully involved in those plans?
At Old Oak Common, where significant regeneration is planned, there is as yet no decision from the Government about the relocation of the First Great Western and Heathrow Express train depots. When can we expect a decision about linking HS2 and Crossrail into the west coast main line at Old Oak Common? That is key to maximising the development potential of the area and to improving the capacity for commuter services into Euston, which is crucial if there is to be a longer construction phase at Euston. When will those three important decisions be made? What contact has the Secretary of State had with the Mayor about setting up a development corporation to take regeneration plans for Old Oak Common forwards?
Sir David has listened to concerns from cities such as Milton Keynes, Northampton, Rugby, Stoke, Leigh and—yes—my city of Wakefield about how the line will connect to the current railway network and how their services into London can be improved. When can we expect the Government’s response to those significant issues in Sir David’s report?
On phase 2, we are glad that HS2 will link to future Network Rail classic rail investment and that the connections between our great northern and midland cities that we have called for have replaced the Government’s previous take-it-or-leave-it approach. We want a coherent transport plan for the north and the midlands, which have been historically underfunded, and for proper east-west links between Liverpool and Manchester and Leeds and Hull. A rebalancing of railway investment into the regions to close the economic divide: that is how we maximise the benefits for the whole country from this project.
We welcome the faster construction of phase 2 to bring benefits more quickly to the northern cities and north Wales. Will the Minister tell the House when the hybrid Bill for phase 2 would need to be completed in order to get to the north-west by 2026, as Sir David recommends? Sir David also recommends that discussions between council and business leaders and the Government should be conducted on a regional rather than a bilateral basis. When do the Government envisage such meetings starting, given the imperative to work fast to reduce costs? When will the Government announce their response to the phase 2 route consultation in order to get it started more quickly?
I turn to Lord Deighton’s growth taskforce report. He is correct that HS2 must become the spine for jobs, growth and regeneration in our country. His report wants cities to set up locally led delivery bodies to maximise the regeneration that High Speed 2 will bring. He warns:
“Even the very best authorities will be stretched to manage a project as complex and large as HS2”.
What help will the Government give councils whose budgets have been cut by 40% over this Parliament in order to do that? He says that land for development should be bought early before land prices rise and to reduce blight around the station sites. When will the Secretary of State set out which costs will be included in the costs of the High Speed 2 railway and which are excluded, so that councils can budget accordingly?
On transport, Lord Deighton wants the Government to set out their plans for commuter rail in non-high speed areas by the end of the year. Will the Secretary of State undertake to publish such a plan?
On skills, Lord Deighton warns that the railway work force are ageing. Some 10,000 new people are needed to work on the railways in the next five years alone, and he also states:
“Railways have an image problem.”
How does the Secretary of State plan to transform that image to entice young people of both sexes to work on the railways?
When will the site of the High Speed 2 skills college be announced? Wherever it is located, it must not be a stand-alone institution; it must reach out to cities and towns across the UK that have young people who want to work on High Speed 2. Which Minister is overseeing that skills work and how can procurement processes drive up the number of apprentices on the project?
On small and medium-sized enterprises procurement, the Minister must learn lessons from Crossrail, where SME contract numbers are high on volume, but the total value of those contracts is uncertain. We must ensure that the High Speed pound reaches all parts of the UK. It is vital that we maximise the opportunities that the new north-south line brings to our country. We are behind the project. We wait for the Government to rise to the challenge.
I thank the hon. Lady for her support. I am not sure how many questions she asked me, but I will try to answer the vast majority of the points she raised. There will be other points on which I shall respond to her in due course.
The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) has been a long-time critic of the HS1-HS2 link. It is right that we needed not only to listen to what local communities said, but to look at how we get a better link between the two stations of Euston and St Pancras. We are talking about a fundamental redevelopment of the whole of Euston station, which I think is the right thing to do. Anybody who has looked at those three stations over the past 20 years will have seen stations, particularly St Pancras and King’s Cross, where one would not really have wanted to spend any time at all. Today, they are destinations in their own right and show what can be done with proper work and careful consideration. That is why I think that a complete regeneration of Euston is necessary. I hope that we can address those problems. With regard to Old Oak Common, the Mayor has already announced his intention to set up a development corporation. I have regular meetings with him. In fact, I have one coming up this week.
It is right that we look at the overall cost, which of course is an important consideration. There is a £14 billion contingency built into the current budget of £42 billion. It has been left in place because at this early stage that is thought to be the right thing to do. One of the reasons why costs have gone up—it is important to reflect on this—is that we have taken exceptional steps to try to meet some of the environmental concerns that have been raised by many hon. Members, their constituents and communities. I do not apologise for that, because it is right that something that will be there for the next 150 years is built correctly and properly, as it will be.
The hon. Lady made an important point about skills development and the opportunities that that can bring, for example through apprenticeships. I will be looking at Crossrail, which I think has done incredibly well in trying to spread the benefits across the country, even though it is a London project. It benefits London in particular, but it also brings great benefits to the United Kingdom and the regions. I will also be looking at how Crossrail has tried to improve apprenticeships and develop skills across the industry. By the time it ends, the shovels will be on the sites for HS2, so hopefully there will be some cross-over.
This should send out a message to young people that the railway industry has a great future. What has happened to the industry over the past 20 years, with the number of passenger journeys rising from 750 million to 1.5 billion and continual growth each year, shows people who want a long-term future that the industry certainly offers good opportunities and work prospects. That is why it is important. I will write to hon. Lady in due course on the other points she raised.
The Higgins report is excellent and fully justifies Sir David’s appointment. However, can my right hon. Friend give the House a categorical assurance that the money that is to be spent on High Speed 2 will in no way affect the record billions being spent in control period 5 on the conventional railway and what is likely to be spent in control periods 6, 7 and 8?
May I first put on the record my appreciation for the contribution my right hon. Friend made to this project? He was also the last Minister to meet Hitachi in Japan and so might have had a great influence on its decision to move its rail headquarters to the UK. I congratulate him on that. He is absolutely right: some £38.5 billion will be invested in the rail network over the next five years, excluding the money being spent on HS2. It is absolutely essential that we make that long-term investment in our railways.
The reports from Sir David Higgins and the taskforce are very important documents. However, following the question from the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), how can the Secretary of State demonstrate that investment in High Speed 2 will go together with investment in the existing classic line so that the whole network benefits?
The hon. Lady, as Chair of the Transport Committee, has spent a lot of time looking at that, and indeed has taken evidence from me, Network Rail and Sir David Higgins over recent months. She will know that there is huge investment. In her city, for example, in May this year we will see the first express train running from Liverpool to Manchester, which I welcome. It is part of the northern hub, with over £500 million of investment linking Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and, eventually, Hull.
It is a reflection of the poor genesis of the project that, four years down the line, the Secretary of State is still making fundamental adjustments to the plans for HS2. It does not matter how many studies or justifications he puts forward, he needs to understand that for many of my constituents, it is like putting lipstick on a pig. However glossy the lipstick, HS2 is still a pig.
I am sad that the Secretary of State can stand at the Dispatch Box and say that he respects the environment when we are still not to have full tunnelling under the whole area of outstanding natural beauty in the Chilterns and when neither Front-Bench team has had the decency to talk about compensation. My constituents, and many people up and down the line, still do not know what the compensation package is, and it is about time that he came to the Dispatch Box and announced the generous and fair compensation that the Prime Minister promised.
I hope very soon to be able to make announcements about the Government’s proposals for compensation. I would just say to my right hon. Friend that on the one hand I am attacked for listening to people, and then on the other hand I am attacked for not listening to people. I suppose that is just one of the problems of dealing with big infrastructure projects—wherever we take them, there will always be people who are directly affected, and they will not be convinced of the necessity of them. However, I am convinced of the necessity of high-speed rail for our cities in the north.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to abandon the ridiculous proposal for the High Speed 2-High Speed 1 link across Camden Town, and I also welcome Opposition Front Benchers’ support on that matter. However, I cannot say the same about the proposal to go ahead with an even bigger redevelopment of Euston than was proposed before. It will mean that the homes of more than 500 people will be destroyed, and that the lives of about 5,000 people will be subjected for a decade to the noise, filth and disruption of the biggest engineering project in Europe. I hope that, even at this stage, at a time when looking back, looking forward and coming to different decisions is apparently still on the cards, the Government will at least consider having the initial London terminus at Old Oak Common.
The right hon. Gentleman has been consistent on the HS1-HS2 link. I do not need to tell him about the difference that has been made to the area around King’s Cross and St Pancras in his constituency—it is plainly there for all to see. Those of us who use St Pancras station faced a lot of inconvenience at the time when that development was going on, but given what we see today, it was worth it.
My right hon. Friend will know that Lichfield will be badly affected by HS2, with phase 1 ending and phase 2 beginning in the constituency. As a consequence, a line running from east to west will join what was to be the end of phase 1 with the west coast main line. That work will transform the leafy lanes of Lichfield into the marshalling yards of Lichfield. What hope can he give my constituents that the temporary east-west line will no longer have to go ahead, and that there will be significant improvements in the environmental plans proposed for Lichfield?
I am always ready to listen to my hon. Friend’s comments and points on these matters. I believe that, overall, HS2 will bring great benefit to the midlands, including Birmingham, which is an important city close to his own city of Lichfield. It is a matter of ensuring that areas such as his can also benefit from high-speed rail.
The Higgins report specifically highlights poor east-west connectivity as a problem on the rail network, such as that between Manchester and Leeds, to which I would add that between Manchester and Sheffield, which is directly relevant to Stalybridge and Hyde. Will the Secretary of State go into more detail about how he plans to integrate Network Rail’s existing investment plans with the relevant phase of HS2, specifically to address the east-west connectivity issue?
The hon. Gentleman mentions the rail line that goes through the top end of my constituency, so I am familiar with his points. Our plans for the northern hub will greatly enhance the services he receives, as will ensuring that we build them in to benefit from HS2, which is possible. On Thursday a number of parliamentary colleagues will come on the high-speed Javelin line. It goes to Ashford and continues to service other parts of Kent, and it has been very successful.
I thank my right hon. Friend for making the statement to the House. My constituents and residents in the London borough of Hillingdon look forward eagerly to the statements on compensation. As I am sure he is aware, the borough of Hillingdon still has some outstanding matters, and the most pressing—which I ask him to look at urgently—is the relocation of Hillingdon outdoor activities centre. That is a valuable asset, and we must resolve its future shortly.
These are two excellent reports, and the Secretary of State is right to talk about ensuring that rail links help to provide the economic benefits from the high-speed links. When lines in the north of England are electrified, can he guarantee that, following the fiasco of the TransPennine Express, there will be electric trains to run on them?
Before we start talking about fiascos and the TransPennine Express, I chide the hon. Gentleman for not pushing a bit further and getting more electrification when he sat on the Government Benches, and getting more rolling stock—[Interruption.] He says he did, but he did not succeed. We are doing it, we are succeeding, and we will order the rolling stock.
I support linking our northern cities with high-speed rail, but does the Secretary of State understand the concerns on the east side of the Pennines about the announcement of the Crewe hub? All along we were given assurances that the link to Sheffield and Leeds would happen at the same time as that to Manchester. Will he commit to looking at the “High Speed UK” proposal that links more cities more quickly and for considerably less cost?
There is a recommendation on the Crewe hub and I have not made a full decision on it yet. A consultation is going on about the Y section from Birmingham to Manchester and Birmingham to Leeds. It is important I do that properly, which is exactly what I will do.