House of Commons
Monday 12 May 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—
Scotland is an essential part of the UK’s defence. Our integrated approach protects us all, underpins our considerable international influence and clout, and sustains defence industries which employ around 12,600 people in Scotland. Together, our defence and security effort is truly world-class. Why would anybody want to unpick it?
My hon. Friend will know that the Scottish Government’s White Paper proposes that Scotland’s territorial waters should be protected by two warships and no submarines, and he will also be aware that Scotland comprises about 50% of the UK’s total territorial waters, currently protected by some 17 warships and five submarines. Does he agree, therefore, that the proposals set out by the Scottish National party in the White Paper represent a significant diminution in the protection of Scotland?
The Scottish Government claim they will spend £2.5 billion on defence, but their Finance Minister John Swinney’s leaked memo on Scotland’s budget says at paragraph 50:
“I have made clear to the Defence Workstream that a much lower budget must be assumed.”
I very much doubt, therefore, that the Scottish navy would have even the two complex modern warships to which the Scottish Government aspire. Moreover, their White Paper makes no provision for refuelling and reprovisioning at sea. It implies that they will leave that to the Royal Navy, underlining the point that we are indeed better together.
23. The Minister may or may not be aware that on the Glasgow coat of arms it says, “Let Glasgow flourish.” Does he agree with me that voting no in the Scottish independence referendum will mean that shipbuilding on the Clyde will flourish, and that Glasgow will be all the better for it? (903965)
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Some 12,600 jobs in Scotland are linked to the defence industry. It is impossible to imagine that the jobs to which he refers will be sustained in the event of independence, given the very small number of ships that the Scottish Government would purchase, and article 346 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, with which I know he is familiar.
18. Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), according to SNP plans, under independence the Scottish air force would have 12 Typhoon jets, if costed properly. Would that not be a considerable reduction in the number of jets that are currently based in Scotland, and a huge reduction in the total number of jets currently available to protect the air approaches to Scotland and, ultimately, what would be left of the UK? (903960)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Scottish Government tell us that they would have 12 Typhoons, which means four that are operational at any one time. That is no substitute for the Royal Air Force, and neither does it come close to what is provided by the allies, which the Scottish Government like to pretend they will match: Norway has 57 jets and Denmark has 30. The Scottish Government have also made no provision for air-to-air refuelling, without which the scope for covering Scotland’s extensive air space will be dramatically reduced.
The Ministry of Defence is responsible for ensuring that Scotland is a maritime nation with no maritime patrol aircraft and no ocean-going vessels. The MOD is also responsible for the closure of two out of three air bases in Scotland and the disproportionate cut to personnel and spending, while at the same time committing to Trident, which the majority of people in Scotland oppose. May I appeal to the Minister and the Secretary of State to come for more day trips to Scotland so that people can contrast the appalling reality of MOD decisions in Scotland with the ludicrous scaremongering of the UK Government?
The hon. Gentleman says that there are no ocean-going vessels, but he has forgotten the submarine service, which, for a Scottish MP, is a huge omission. He talks about maritime patrol aircraft, but he says nothing about how he would analyse the data that maritime patrol aircraft are designed to collect. He talks about two warships, yet he tells us in his White Paper that the only way he can refuel them, and thus extend their scope, is by relying on the Royal Navy.
As someone who was born in Glasgow and at one stage lived close to Yarrows, as it then was, my hon. Friend will understand that I have a particular interest in the future of shipbuilding on the Clyde. Were Scotland to become independent, improbable though that may be, can he conceive of any circumstances in which the Government of the rest of the United Kingdom would wish to place orders in what would then effectively be a foreign country?
We have not ordered warships from another country for 100 years, outside the two world wars. Article 346 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union makes the situation clear: it would not be possible to order such vessels in the event that Scotland and the United Kingdom became foreign countries to one another.
There is not a single costed commitment to build or purchase any defence equipment in the SNP’s manifesto—or “White Paper”, as they like to call it—over and above existing UK Government plans. In fact, a letter from the Deputy First Minister indicates that the frigates they refer to are actually four of the 13 that we expect and hope the UK to order later this year. Are not the jobs of those working in the defence sector in Scotland, which are reliant on UK contracts, some of the most at risk if Scotland becomes independent from the rest of the UK?
I am not sure about the figures that the hon. Lady cites, which I think are optimistic. What I would say is that £2.5 billion is 7% of the £33 billion to £34 billion that we currently spend on defence, and Scotland represents 8.4% of the UK population. I think we can all do the figures ourselves and realise that Scotland gets a very, very large chunk of the defence cake; furthermore, it benefits from every single pound of the £34 billion that we spend on defence every year. It is inconceivable that Scotland would be better defended in the event that it became independent.
The Afghan national security force has now reached 97% of its surge strength target and has the lead responsibility for security across the country. Despite persistent efforts and a number of high-profile attacks, the Taliban have failed to achieve a breakthrough and confidence in the ANSF among the civilian population is high.
Against this backdrop, nearly 7 million Afghans took part in provincial and presidential elections on 5 April, 36% of whom were women. On election day itself, the ANSF secured polling centres, effectively preventing any high-profile attacks. Last week, I visited Afghanistan and took the opportunity to congratulate the Afghan military commanders in Helmand on this truly remarkable achievement.
A secure Afghanistan needs the support and co-operation of Pakistan. Did the Secretary of State discuss that with Prime Minister Sharif on his recent visit to the United Kingdom, and what assurances did the Prime Minister give, as any future President would need that support?
I did discuss security with Prime Minister Sharif during his recent visit to London, and I congratulated him on the effective border security that Pakistan had provided during the recent Afghan presidential elections. He, in turn, reiterated his Government’s commitment to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, and to working with whoever emerges as President Karzai’s successor to confront the common challenges that both countries face.
On Saturday 26 April, five British servicemen were tragically killed in a helicopter crash, including Flight Lieutenant Rakesh Chauhan, whose parents have a business in my constituency and are widely respected there. Will there be an investigation and if so, can we have a timetable, and can we be assured that all support is being offered to the bereaved relatives?
First, I am sure that everybody in the House would wish to join the right hon. Gentleman and me in sending our deepest condolences to the relatives of those who died in that tragic accident. It is a poignant reminder, coming so close to the end of the combat campaign, not just of the risks our service people undertake every day in the face of the enemy, but of the intrinsically dangerous nature of what they do, day in, day out.
There is an ongoing review into the circumstances of the accident. At the moment, there is no evidence of any enemy action being involved in the incident. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a timetable for the completion of the review because it will take as long as it takes, but as soon as we have information that we can publish, we will do so.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the security situation. Does he agree that one of the highest priorities after the main withdrawal must be ensuring that we can still provide security for the teams from the Department for International Development that are carrying out essential social and economic work?
Once the UK forces have drawn down from the combat role in Helmand, we will still have a small security team, largely composed of civilian contractors, based in Kabul. We will work closely with the Foreign Office and DFID to ensure that their officials and the civilian contractors whom they employ in the ongoing aid effort, are properly protected.
On Pakistan, will the Secretary of State tell the House what discussions he has had recently with the Americans and other allies about how we can provide ongoing support to Pakistan to ensure a secure and safe border and that it is able to deal with insurgents and Taliban on its side of the border?
The UK has a close military-to-military relationship with Pakistan. When I met Prime Minister Sharif recently, I was able to reassure him about our intentions to continue in particular the excellent counter-IED work that we are doing with the Pakistan army and the Pakistan civil defence and police authorities. IEDs claim a huge toll in Pakistan, and that work is seen by the Pakistanis and ourselves, and by the Americans and the Danes—both of which countries intend, I understand, to contribute to our future programme—as key to Pakistan’s future.
Visits by MPs to Armed Forces Serving Abroad
All visit requests from hon. and right hon. Members are considered on a case-by-case basis and accommodated if possible. If an hon. Member wishes to visit our armed forces serving at home or abroad, they should write to my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary giving the purpose of the proposed visit. However, it has been the long-standing policy of the Ministry of Defence, including under the previous Administration, that visits by individual MPs are normally undertaken at their own expense.
Given the concern about the armed forces review and the prospect of many officers, soldiers and so on losing their jobs, is it not important that, under the military covenant, we do everything possible to resettle returning armed forces personnel? In such circumstances, would it not be appropriate for the Ministry of Defence to approach the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to see whether it will include MOD destinations among those designated in Europe for one trip a year by MPs?
May I begin by saying that I have a lot of time for the hon. Lady, having served with her on the Environmental Audit Committee several years ago? I wrote to her in late March about an issue in relation to a visit she had requested, but I am afraid that the position has not changed since then. The funding of individual Members’ travel is ultimately a matter for IPSA. I am willing to talk to IPSA about the matter, but Members will know that I cannot guarantee the outcome.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, however, who has shown consistent support for the Mercian Regiment and its predecessors, and that has been reflected back to Ministers by the regiment itself.
I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) about the usefulness of hon. Members visiting our armed forces overseas. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister not agree that there is one very useful mechanism for doing so—set up recently with your assistance, Mr Speaker—in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which was well founded by Sir Neil Thorne and continues. I hope that all hon. Members will consider joining that excellent organisation.
I am very happy, without recourse to IPSA, to pay tribute to the armed forces parliamentary scheme and the valuable work that it does in assisting Members of Parliament, particularly those who do not have previous military experience, to understand better the wonderful work that our armed forces do on our behalf. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all his work to update and upgrade the AFPS to ensure that it remains fit for the 21st century.
I will certainly raise the issue on our IPSA liaison committee, but can the Minister think of any other parliamentary fees office anywhere in Europe that would be, frankly, so mean and short-sighted as not to fund Members of Parliament to visit their armed forces abroad? That is so typical of IPSA. I very much hope that the whole House will join the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) in her campaign.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend is seeking to make. In fairness, neither I nor my ministerial colleagues are responsible for the decisions of IPSA. It sounds as if he is about to launch something of a flanking attack. If he does so, I suspect that some Members of the House may come to his aid.
The UK is committed, with other NATO allies, to delivering reassurance to the Baltic countries. I visited Estonia and Lithuania on 2 May and met my defence ministerial counterparts to discuss developments in Ukraine. I travelled out to Estonia with elements of 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, who are participating in Exercise Spring Storm in Estonia. I then visited the UK Typhoon deployment to the NATO Baltic air policing mission in Lithuania. In addition, my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for international security strategy will visit Poland and Latvia this week for further such discussions.
Our Baltic partners in NATO will be reassured by those visits and the demonstrable support we are giving them. Can the Secretary of State say anything about the illegitimate referendum held yesterday ahead of the further referendum in the eastern part of Ukraine next Sunday, given the Russian authorities’ comments this morning that they expect to see it implemented? The concern is that if we do not act firmly they will take irreversible action.
The so-called referendum that took place over the weekend was illegal. It did not meet any standards of objectivity, transparency or fairness and it was not properly conducted as a public referendum or election. Indeed, its organisers did not even pretend to meet any of those standards. In short, it was a sham and a farce. We do not recognise any outcome that might follow from it. The important decision-making point will come at the elections on 25 May, and we will watch very carefully to see which countries support progress towards those elections and which countries seek to impede it.
The latest news in the east of Ukraine marks a continuation of the salami-slicing tactics of Russia. In the course of my right hon. Friend’s discussions, has a red line been identified or can we expect to see Poland with a Russian border at some point? In light of these recent threats, are there any plans to review the national security strategy, given that the doveish Lib Dem view of the world has evaporated since the document’s publication in October 2010?
We are sending clear signals through the reassurance mechanisms that we are delivering to our Baltic partners in particular, that NATO members take very seriously their mutual obligations to defend each other. An attack on any NATO state would be considered an attack on all NATO states and nobody, including in the Kremlin, should ever forget that important fact. As for the national security strategy, the proper point for that to be reviewed will be in 2015, along with the 2015 SDSR. I am certain that the changing context will inform that review.
24. Given the real concerns of our allies in the Baltic states and eastern Europe about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, can the Secretary of State give any further clarity on what engagement with Russia is expected at the Wales NATO summit later this year, and whether any such engagement is appropriate, as things stand? (903966)
The agenda for the NATO summit is a matter for NATO members, not for the host country, to determine. From the discussions I have had with my NATO ministerial colleagues, I do not think there is any appetite for a NATO-Russia meeting during the course of the summit in Wales.
20. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with US Secretary of Defence Hagel to assess the threat posed by Russia to eastern and southern Ukraine? Might those discussions encompass the deployment of a NATO maritime force, as I have advocated for some time, with the specific purpose of deterring the Russians from taking Odessa? (903962)
As the House would expect, we have regular discussions at ministerial and official level with American counterparts. As the House will know, the US is taking some bilateral actions alongside the actions being taken by NATO. The UK is focused at the moment on contributing to the NATO reassurance agenda, and it is not proposed that that will include the sending of warships into the Black sea.
A productive meeting was held on 21 February between MOD officials and representatives of North Yorkshire county council, Harrogate district council and Ripon city council to discuss Claro barracks. The MOD will remain engaged at this level.
On Saturday, the Royal Engineers celebrated their freedom of the city of Ripon with the most incredible display of kit and personnel, and the corps band played brilliantly at the beating of the retreat. If there is any opportunity to keep the Royal Engineers in Ripon for a minute longer, for half a year longer or for decades longer, we will take it. May I urge Ministers to keep thinking of Ripon as they look at the rebasing strategy?
May I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Royal Engineers on their achievements overall and, in particular, on gaining the freedom of the city of Ripon? He knows, because we have discussed it, that I plan to visit Ripon shortly, and I look forward to that very much. I would like to be able to give him some comfort on his question, but the Army basing plan is a highly credible document that will right-size the Army for the future and so I want to manage his expectations.
Type 26 Global Combat Ship
The Type 26 global combat ship programme is in its assessment phase; its basic capabilities and design were announced in August 2012. My hon. Friend is a keen student of this planned state-of-the-art frigate, so he knows that it is being designed for flexibility in mission and capability for the Royal Navy. The final design, equipment fit and build programme will not be set until the main investment decision has been taken when the design has been fully matured. That decision is now expected towards the end of this year.
It has been said that a ship can be in only one place at a time, and the same applies to the helicopter on board. Given the increased reliance on rotor systems at sea, which significantly widen the footprint of influence on operations, ranging from humanitarian to kinetic, will the Minister look seriously at increasing the deck space to accommodate not one but two Merlins, or indeed four Wildcat helicopters, to give Britain’s next ship greater flexibility?
I can assure my hon. Friend that the Type 26’s flexible mission bay is just that: it will accommodate a broad range of manned and unmanned surface, air and underwater vehicles, and be adapted on a tailored mission basis to the changing needs of its deployment. The use of both the hangar and the large flight deck will enable the platform to operate the Wildcat, Merlin or Chinook helicopter, in addition to the ship’s permanently embarked helicopter.
We outlined in the 2013 White Paper the improved offer we are making to reservists. We have introduced a paid leave entitlement, occupational health checks and improved medical support, and from April next year reservists will become eligible for the new armed forces pension scheme. To further encourage individuals to join the Army Reserve, a number of new and revitalised schemes offering financial incentives to individuals to join were announced in March.
I am holding a jobs fair in Holmfirth on Friday 20 June, which the Royal Navy and the RAF have confirmed they will be attending. I hope that, as well as recruiting for regular positions, they will be spreading the word about our reserve forces. Does the Minister agree that we all have a big role to play to make sure that employers understand the benefits of employing reservists?
I do agree with that. In order to garner employer support, we have worked with businesses to create the corporate covenant, which is a way for businesses to demonstrate their support for the armed forces community, including reservists. I signed the corporate covenant last June, along with representatives from the main business and trade organisations, including the British Chambers of Commerce, the Business Services Association, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors. More than 100 corporate entities, including Liverpool football club, have now signed the corporate covenant. I must also pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is clearly doing his bit to encourage the reserves, and we all wish him absolute success for the forthcoming jobs fair in his constituency.
May I remind the Minister that reservists and the reserve force have to have local roots? There is no prouder tradition in the Army than the relationship with the county of Yorkshire, but there are severe worries about premises closing and, thus, there not being local meeting places and local roots. These things are being diminished and it is worrying to our forces and reservists in Yorkshire.
As someone who has commanded reservist soldiers, I understand very clearly the importance of local roots and regiments having a basis in their own community. We have said that we will look carefully at the basing announcements that we have made with regard to the reserve. In particular, we will analyse those units that are especially well recruited. If we see units that are recruiting well, we may be prepared to take that into account before final decisions are made.
One of the reasons why many of us opposed the Government’s reservist reforms was the prospect of false economies. Given that the financial incentive to ex-regular reservists has recently been doubled because of poor recruitment and that other costs have increased, will the Minister update the House on the financial cost of this initiative, if not now then in writing subsequently?
It is true that there have been a number of financial incentives designed to encourage ex-regulars to join the reserves, although those incentives generally operate in a way such that those regulars have to commit for a number of years in reserve service and do not necessarily get all of that money up front. It is still highly cost effective to have reserves that can be mobilised for operations. In addition, I was at the Ten Tors Challenge on Saturday on Dartmoor, which was supported by a number of Army Reserve units. I spoke to a number of Army Reserve commanding officers, including Major-General Ranald Munro, the Deputy-Commander Land Forces and the senior reservist in the British Army. They are absolutely confident that we can hit our targets, and so am I.
I am very well aware of the campaign that my hon. Friend has doggedly run in an attempt to maintain a platoon of 6 Rifles in Truro, not least because of the proud heritage of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry—the DCLI. She may take close interest in my earlier answer to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) where I said that those units with a particularly strong recruiting record will find that we take that into account.
Ukraine (UK Defence Policy)
As I have already said, the situation in Ukraine is very serious. We are responding to it through a series of activities, working together with NATO allies. In terms of UK policy, the emphasis at present is to support NATO's reassurance measures, both in the short and longer term. The events of the past few months have reminded the world that Russia remains a significant military power and cannot be trusted to abide by the rules of the international system. NATO members will need to take the lessons of the Ukraine crisis into account in determining the future posture of the alliance.
I am sure that nobody wants to see sabre rattling, but the accelerated withdrawal of all British troops from Germany was a decision taken during the rather hasty defence and security review of 2010. Given all that has happened since, is there not a case, as Lord Dannatt recently suggested, for a bit of a rethink on this?
No. From the point of view of military effectiveness, the presence of large numbers of British troops in Germany, which is now well behind the front line of NATO’s border with Russia, is no longer appropriate. Those troops will return to the UK where they will be able to operate more efficiently and effectively as part of integrated UK forces based here, but appropriate units will of course be ready to deploy should they need to do so.
Ten years ago, the peoples of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia made free and democratic choices to be under NATO’s collective security. What assurances can the right hon. Gentleman and the other NATO Defence Ministers give that the territorial integrity of those states will be protected and that acts of aggression from other states will be actively dissuaded?
I have reasserted, and my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have reasserted regularly, the commitment of the United Kingdom and of all the NATO allies to the principle of collective self defence under article 5 of the Washington treaty. However, it is not just our words but our actions. Stepping up our engagement in exercises taking place in the Baltic states and deploying four Typhoon aircraft to take part in an additional rotation of Baltic air policing are tangible demonstrations of our commitment to the people of the Baltic states. I can tell the House from my meetings the week before last in Lithuania and Estonia that those tangible demonstrations are very much appreciated not just by the Governments but by the populations of those countries.
Will the Secretary of State clarify what steps he is taking to develop non-nuclear options for deterrence to prevent a repeat of what Russia has done in Ukraine? Economic sanctions are clearly insufficient. Will he and our international partners investigate, for example, the use of cyber-attacks as a potential deterrent?
As I have previously announced, we are developing our cyber capabilities, and they form a part of our overall armoury. The trick here is to provide clear reassurance and to deter any moves by anybody against NATO states in any mistaken belief that our resolve is in any way lacking, while not provoking in a way that would be unhelpful. I hope that we are getting that balance right at the moment, and we shall endeavour to continue to do so.
I think we are getting that balance right, but does the Secretary of State agree that the greatest possible threat to peace and security in Europe would be if modern-day Russia’s success in using old-style Soviet tactics against a non-NATO country were to be replicated against a NATO country? It is not just a question of reassuring the NATO countries: it is a question of making it clear to the Kremlin what they must not do.
My hon. Friend is right, but let us be clear. What they must not do is perpetrate acts of aggression against independent sovereign states such as Ukraine. Because we have special commitments, through our obligations under the Washington treaty, the red line around NATO is even clearer, and we must emphasise it at every opportunity to avoid any danger of miscalculation in the Kremlin or elsewhere.
Ongoing events in Ukraine show the continuing tensions in the region and the potential for further actions by Russia that could be destabilising for the wider region. Can the Secretary of State confirm what steps NATO has already taken, what the British involvement in those has been, and what additional steps are being considered?
Several measures have already been taken, including increasing the scale of exercises in the Baltic states and stepping up the level of Baltic air policing. A discussion is going on about proposals from Supreme Allied Commander Europe—SACEUR—on a menu of further measures of reassurance, and the United Kingdom expects to play a full part in helping to implement them.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Russia’s effective annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory and its threat to others in the European sphere is the sort of activity that we thought had been consigned to a bygone age. Given that the core of UK defence policy is based on stability in Europe, what impact does the Secretary of State think that the ongoing situation will have on our defence policy and that of NATO, and to what extent is it informing discussions in advance of the forthcoming NATO summit in the UK?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Some might suggest that our eyes had wandered away from the potential challenge from Russia—a militarily very powerful nation, with which we do not always enjoy an alignment of interests. The consequences of the crisis will be to focus NATO member states clearly back on the potential challenge from Russia, among other challenges that NATO has to be prepared to deal with in the future.
Some 20,000 service personnel leave the armed forces each year. The majority transit into civilian life without any difficulty, but housing is a problem for some. As a result, we have made £40 million of LIBOR funding available to charities and other organisations so that they can address the problem.
I welcome the money that the Minister has just outlined, but more than 4,000 British veterans find themselves in housing need each year. Will she join me in welcoming the work of Homes for Heroes, and meet me and representatives of that organisation to see what more can be done to tackle this issue?
Indeed. I pay tribute to all our charities and other organisations, which are doing great work to make sure not only that when people leave the forces, they have somewhere to live, but that those veterans who have slipped through the net, some of whom, unfortunately, have ended up homeless, are assisted. I will check my diary and get back to the hon. Gentleman.
Is the Minister aware that a proportion of those homeless veterans also have mental health problems? Given the reports that we have seen today about a steep rise in Afghanistan veterans with mental health problems, what are Ministers doing to support veterans in that position?
We all take very seriously all those who suffer from mental health problems by virtue of their service. It is worth saying that the incidence of mental health problems among our veterans is the same as in the population at large. We have ploughed around £7 million recently into making sure that services are available. I pay tribute to Combat Stress, for example, for the outstanding work that it has done. It has had £2.7 million, for example, of LIBOR funding and other funds made available to it. The problem is a serious one, but we have to get it into proportion. Mercifully, the overwhelming number of members of our armed forces do not suffer from mental health illnesses, but when they do, we take that very seriously.
When we came into office, the major projects report for 2009 identified procurement overruns of £1.2 billion and delays of 93 months in the top 15 defence equipment programmes, after 13 years’ of inaction by Labour. By contrast, we have taken decisive action and made considerable progress in improving the efficacy of defence procurement. The latest major projects report from the National Audit Office for 2013 showed that the cost of 10 of our 11 largest equipment programmes had been reduced by almost £50 million in the last year, and some 98% of our key performance measures are set to be achieved.
In December, as the Government abandoned the process to find an external contractor to manage Defence Equipment and Support procurement—the so-called GoCo approach—the Secretary of State said that the Bechtel bid in particular had contained knowledge capital which would be useful going forward. Can the Minister confirm that this has happened and that best practice is being assimilated?
On 1 April we established DE&S as the first bespoke Government trading entity with wide ranging freedoms from central Government controls, details of which I look forward to publishing before the House prorogues. We are introducing global best practice to the new DE&S through three work package contracts for managed service providers. We are today issuing the invitation to negotiate for the first work package for project delivery to eight world-class companies which have passed the pre-qualification questionnaire process, and we plan to award contracts for the four domains this autumn.
25. I congratulate the Minister unreservedly on winning these freedoms for DE&S. In the absence of a proper contract with a contractor, how can he maintain his opposition to the Treasury’s natural instincts to abhor freedom and seize back power to itself and the centre? (903967)
I applaud my hon. Friend for the pioneering work he did in helping us take this reform of DE&S through. We are convinced that the work that we are doing in the new bespoke trading entity will bring significant benefits to defence procurement for the long term, but as he knows, we have retained in the Defence Reform Bill, which should shortly receive Royal Assent, the power for a future Government to introduce a GoCo, with suitable parliamentary scrutiny, should this be necessary to transform DE&S further in the years to come.
The Ministry of Defence has been working very closely for a number of months with several organisations, including the Normandy Veterans Association, the Royal British Legion, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the French Government to ensure that our veterans are at the very heart of the D-day commemorations in June. So far we know that 500 of our veterans will be attending, with some 4,000 of their friends, carers and supporters.
As my hon. Friend will know, many of my constituents and others around the country—elderly veterans who hope to go to northern France for the D-day commemorations—will have difficulty paying for things such as travel insurance and accommodation. Can she update the House on how the lottery can help with some of that financing?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. The Big Lottery Fund effectively provides the funding and has worked with the Royal British Legion to make sure that the money available will include, most notably, the high cost of insurance. If there is any difficulty, I am sure that my hon. Friend will come to see me about that, because it is imperative that there are no bars to our great veterans being able to attend these D-day commemorations.
19. This 70th anniversary might be the last chance to celebrate with veterans what they did in fighting on D-day, given that there are fewer of them and it is harder for them to travel. As it is so vital to recognise the service and sacrifice given on D-day, can more be done to support veterans and their families in attending various events in this country? So many of them will find it hard to travel to Normandy. (903961)
I am absolutely assured that everything has been done with all the relevant authorities that one would expect to be done to ensure that our veterans can attend. The funding allows family members, carers and supporters, not just the veterans, to attend. That is presumably why 500 veterans have already told us that they are attending, with 4,000 of their carers and friends. There has been some publicity about a form that people have to fill in. They do have to fill in a form, of which I have seen a copy, and it is very sensible. It is not lengthy or complicated, and it will provide us with excellent information so that we can ensure that our veterans take a full part in the commemorations. Unfortunately, as we know, for many of them this may be their last opportunity.
Appropriately, plans to commemorate the first world war are far advanced, but it is right and proper that the anniversary of the D-day landings is also commemorated. As my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) said, veterans of 1944 are advancing in years and many will find it difficult to travel long distances, even with the support of their carers. Has the Minister had discussions with veterans organisations and other local groups to ensure that there is a national commemoration service, and also local events? What plans are there to publicise these events, so that everyone can attend an event should they wish to do so?
Apart from the various events that are planned in France, the most significant one in this country is in Portsmouth on 5 June, from where many of our troops sailed. The hon. Lady makes a good point, but it is right that the spotlight falls over in France on the beaches, with all the services in that place. I have talked to veterans of the D-day landings, so I know what a terrific effort they make to get there, because it means so much to them, and rightly so.
Service Complaints Commissioner (Annual Report)
I pay tribute to the work of Dr Susan Atkins and all that she has done in her time as the Service Complaints Commissioner. She has identified continuing problems, but overall we have been making excellent progress. There is more that we can do and we have identified that. For example, we know that we need a service complaints ombudsman. We also need to change the system, which will require legislation, and we will do all of that as soon as we possibly can.
I thank the Minister for that reply, which shows that she understands the seriousness of these problems. The Service Complaints Commissioner’s report finds that the Army manages to resolve only a quarter of complaints within its target of 24 weeks. How will the move to a service complaints ombudsman prevent, in the words of Dr Atkins,
“a fundamental breach of duty of care and of the Armed Forces Covenant”?
The ombudsman will play a huge part in making sure that all our services, notably the Army, now really do improve their statistics, but there are other measures that we need to introduce by way of legislation. The system needs to change, and I am confident that the sorts of proposals that Dr Atkins has come up with, many of which, if not all of them, I support, as do others, will make the sort of progress that we really now must see.
I add my thanks to Susan Atkins, who has done a great job in establishing the service complaints ombudsman. The Minister mentioned the ombudsman, and it was welcomed across the House when the Government announced that they would go down that route. Can the Minister tell me the exact time scale? Will legislative time be found in the next Session to ensure that the ombudsman is in place before the next general election?
My first priority remains our operations in Afghanistan and the successful completion of the draw-down of our combat role by the end of this year. Beyond that, my priorities are maintaining budgets in balance, rebuilding our reserve forces, reinforcing the armed forces covenant and reforming the defence procurement organisation so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped.
Supporting the small but significant group of veterans who leave the armed forces and then struggle in civvy street is of paramount important. The excellent Veterans Contact Point in my constituency provides support for such veterans in the Warwickshire area. What more can the Government do to support such excellent organisations, and will the Secretary of State or one of his team visit it?
I think that my hon. Friend was trying to plug a visit, and he has done a good job, because I would be more than happy to go and see that organisation. Often it is those small, local charities that can deliver the best—I certainly have one in my constituency. We have made available millions upon millions of pounds in LIBOR funding for exactly those sorts of organisations to deliver those much-needed services.
Today’s report from Combat Stress flags up the increasing awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and the increasing willingness of people to seek help earlier, which is a thoroughly good thing. The Combat Stress community outreach team provides those vital services and benefits from the existing funding, as the Minister has highlighted. Will she confirm that it is her intention that that level of funding will continue beyond the end of this financial year?
What I can say is that we have given £10 million of LIBOR funding, effectively in perpetuity, to support our excellent charities. Combat Stress, for example, has received £2.7 million from that, and the outreach team, which the hon. Lady mentioned, received £2 million. May I also make a correction? I think that earlier I said that about £7 million of LIBOR funding had gone into mental health, but it was actually £13 million. We also have many other measures to combat this very concerning condition.
T3. As a graduate of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have seen at first hand the excellent contribution that men and women make to our armed forces. What steps is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State taking to encourage the recruitment of women into our armed forces? (903970)
Women play an important role in our armed forces. Just recently we passed a seminal moment in the history of the Royal Navy, with women officers being assigned to duties in the submarine service for the first time. However, we want to make further progress, and to that end, as has been widely reported, I have asked the Chief of the General Staff to bring forward the next review of the question of women in combat roles in the Army and to report back to me by the end of the year on the opportunities such a move would present and the challenges that would have to be addressed.
T5. The Secretary of State will be aware that Dudley is home to A Squadron The Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry, a brilliant reserve unit that is well supported and has deep roots in the local community. Will he join me in congratulating it on the brilliant recruitment day it organised a few weeks ago, which I was privileged to be invited to attend? Is that not exactly the sort of initiative we need if the reserve forces are to help Ministers meet their targets? (903972)
I am familiar with the dispositions of that well-respected regiment, because B Squadron is recruited from its base in Telford, which is adjacent to my constituency. I am delighted to hear the good recruiting result that the hon. Gentleman refers to. I have further good news for Dudley residents: as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces indicated, reserve units can recruit beyond their structured liability in the event that they have success in recruitment, and we intend for the Dudley and Telford squadrons to be able to continue to recruit to up to 125% of their strength.
T4. Iran’s position as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism was highlighted once again in March when Israel intercepted the Gaza-bound Klos-C ship with a deadly cargo of advanced long-range rockets. What estimate has my hon. Friend made of Iran’s continued support for terrorism and the effect that that has on our security and strategic interests in the middle east? (903971)
Iran’s known support for militant groups across the middle east remains cause for grave concern, and it rather undermines President Rouhani’s stated desire to improve Iran’s relations with its neighbours. The UK will continue to work with allies to ensure a suitable response to Iran’s destabilising activities.
The UK has excellent relationships with the Ukrainian armed forces, and we have worked with them over a period of years. We have received a request for additional equipment from the Ukrainian armed forces, and we are considering carefully how to respond to that request.
T8. In the light of Sir John Holmes’ review, will the brave aircrew who were involved with bomber aircraft that were not part of Bomber Command but still flew sorties over Germany—such as my constituent, Theo Eaves, who was then based in southern Italy—be recognised with the Bomber Command class? (903975)
The entire nation should have enormous admiration and respect for the contributions made by our RAF crewmen during the second world war. Such matters are part of Sir John Holmes’s continuing military medals review, which is independent of the Ministry of Defence. He is aware that those who flew on bombing missions with other elements of the RAF outside Bomber Command have made a case for further recognition, and he is considering that as part of his review. I am told that he will report back shortly.
Defence Munitions Beith in my constituency employs 236 people and maintains and services complex weapons systems. Has the Department been involved in any discussions about what would happen to Defence Munitions Beith in the event of a yes vote in September?
I pay tribute to Defence Munitions Beith, which does a hugely important job and is right at the very centre of defence in the United Kingdom. The straight answer to the hon. Lady’s question is no, because to pre-negotiate would place the Scottish and UK Governments in an invidious position. We do not intend to prioritise one part of the UK above another in advance of the referendum on 18 September.
T9. Further to the exchange that the Minister and I had in the House on 16 December, can he confirm that he would expect that an MOD objection on the grounds of low- flying aircraft in the area of a proposed onshore wind farm, such as Bullingdon Cross in my constituency, would be taken extremely seriously by any planning authority and by the Planning Inspectorate? (903976)
My hon. Friend and I have discussed this matter in the past. He knows that the MOD is working hard to find a solution to mitigate the effects of onshore wind turbines on the things that we do. In the meantime, it is important that the MOD does object to planning applications that may get in the way of its defence deliverables.
We are particularly keen to get former reservists to re-enlist, not least because of the experience they bring to the role. My hon. Friend practises what he preaches. He served as an Army reservist in Afghanistan, left what was then the Territorial Army, has clearly missed military service, and has recently joined the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. On behalf of the whole House, I would like to wish Officer Cadet Lopresti the best for the future.
Our military are increasingly subject to a legal regime that is increasingly costly, both financially and operationally. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Defence Committee’s recommendation that the next strategic defence and security review must examine the legal framework within which they operate and have less regard to human rights law and more regard to the law of armed conflict?
It is essential that when we deploy our armed forces in combat, they are able to operate without having both hands tied behind their back. An increasing spate of costly actions are being brought against Her Majesty’s Government by contingent fee lawyers on behalf of foreign nationals. We are spending £31 million on the Al-Sweady inquiry, the principal allegations of which have collapsed. A number of legal cases are under way and it is not clear that the legal situation will have been clarified by the time of the next strategic defence and security review. The legal processes are very long-winded. The commitment I have made is that if the legal situation is unsatisfactory when those cases come to their final conclusion, we will take further measures, whether by legislation or other means.
On placing orders for Royal Navy ships, including fitting replacement engines, does the relevant Minister agree that the national security importance of guaranteed ongoing servicing in the UK must be the determining factor, instead of a foreign deal that weakens Britain’s long-term defence interests?
As the hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished member of the Defence Committee, knows, this Government believe in open procurement to get the best value for the taxpayer, not only in procuring equipment initially, but in sustaining and supporting it, including diesel turbine engines for Her Majesty’s royal naval ships.
The Minister has referred to the important project of the Type 26 frigates. He will know that the first HMS Gloucester was launched in the Commonwealth in the 1650s and that the 10th HMS Gloucester was decommissioned only a couple of years ago. Does he agree that nothing would be more appropriate than for the 11th HMS Gloucester to be a Type 26 frigate?
Both my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister have called for early publication of Sir John Chilcot’s report. I voted against the Iraq war, but served in Iraq in 2003 and I, too, would rather like to see this publication in my lifetime.
Provision of “care and support services”
I beg to move,
That this House does not insist on its amendment 11 and agrees with Lords amendments 11B and 11C in lieu.
With this it will be convenient to consider the following:
Lords amendment 32A to Commons amendment 32, and consequential Lords amendments 32C and 32D.
Commons amendment 40, Government motion not to insist, Lords amendment 40B in lieu, amendments (a) and (b) thereto, Lords amendment 40C in lieu, amendment (c) thereto and Lords amendments 40D and 40E in lieu.
Commons amendment 42, Government motion not to insist and Lords amendments 42B and 42C in lieu.
Commons amendment 46, Government motion not to insist and Lords amendments 46B to 46E in lieu.
I would like to start by placing on the record my sincere thanks to all right hon. and hon. Members for a real spirit of collaboration that has existed throughout the Bill’s consideration and for the constructive criticism that has characterised both our formal and informal discussions leading up to this moment. Many of the suggestions have been taken up, and I believe we now have a better Bill as a result. This scrutiny has influenced not only the Government’s amendments, but the surrounding policy, and our proposals for forthcoming secondary legislation and guidance. Indeed, the approach we have taken so far of working collaboratively with those in the sector will continue throughout the consideration of the secondary legislation and guidance.
Hon. Members may recall that some weeks ago on Report I undertook to consider further the matter of the application of the Human Rights Act to social care. Government amendments 11B and 11C represent the fulfilment of that promise. They respond to the excellent report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and follow discussions that Earl Howe, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for quality, and I have had with a number of Members of the House of Lords and with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow). I am grateful to the Joint Committee and to those parliamentarians with whom we have had such constructive discussions.
As has been said in this House and in the Lords throughout the passage of the Bill, this Government need to send out a strong message to the sector not to allow abuse, neglect or harm. Our priority must be preventing harm, abuse and neglect from happening in the first place. We very much believe that there are already, as a result of the steps this Government have taken, strong deterrents to abuse and neglect, and many of the Care Quality Commission’s fundamental standards will include human rights dimensions. The standards will apply to all registered providers of health and social care, and failure to comply with these standards which relate to harm could be a criminal offence. We are, however, aware of the strength of feeling on this matter, which is why Earl Howe offered a Government amendment in the Lords.
The amendment does not extend the scope of the Human Rights Act into the purely private sphere, where there is no state involvement, which clause 48, removed in the Public Bill Committee, did. It would, though, make it explicit that care providers who are regulated by the Care Quality Commission in England, or by equivalent bodies in the rest of the United Kingdom, when providing care and support arranged or funded in whole or in part by local authorities, are exercising a public function for the purposes of the Human Rights Act. In welcoming the amendment, Lords Members agreed that it meets the objectives of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The amendment has also been welcomed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The amendment makes it clear that providers of publicly arranged or funded care and support—both residential and non-residential—provided on behalf of a local authority to an individual are bound by the Human Rights Act.
As hon. Members may recall, I was unable to accept the JCHR amendment, in the way it was drafted, for technical reasons. The Human Rights Act is an entrenched enactment, which the devolved legislatures cannot modify, but its application should be the same across the UK. The Government’s amendment therefore applies the legislative clarification to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is important to bear in mind that the scope of application of the Human Rights Act matters to lots of other people beyond the care sector. The Government believe it is not appropriate to pick and choose which people or bodies are expressly made subject to the Human Rights Act; it should always be based on clear principles. That is why I want to make it clear that this amendment would not set a precedent for any future occasions where there are perceived to be gaps in the coverage of the Human Rights Act. The House of Lords warmly welcomed this amendment, and I hope that this House will do the same.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has recently reported on the amendments made by this House to the Care Bill. It made two recommendations, which, I am pleased to say, the Government have accepted. Amendment 46B addresses the first recommendation and ensures that the first set of regulations establishing the care and support appeals process—something that in itself has been very much welcomed—will be subject to the affirmative procedure. The remaining amendments are minor and technical and address a concern from the Committee about confusing drafting.
On Lords amendments 40A to 40E, and 42A to 42C, I am sure everyone will agree that there is an urgent imperative for the trust special administrator’s regime to be clear, workable and effective, and I commend the scrutiny undertaken by this House and the other place of clause 118. It has led to sensible, further improvements in the way in which the regime will operate. In particular I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam for raising on Report the issue of commissioner parity.
The Government agree that all affected commissioners and the essential NHS services they commission must be placed on an equal footing during the TSA regime. For that reason we tabled these amendments in the other place, which would ensure that recommendations by an administrator at a foundation trust that affect other trusts do not harm their essential NHS services. We are pleased that the amendments were accepted in the other place, and that they were so warmly welcomed outside Parliament.
The legislation already requires the trust special administrator to obtain from each commissioner of a foundation trust in administration their agreement that the administrator’s recommendations achieve his or her legal objective to secure the continuation of essential services of the failing trust. Clause 118 would extend that to each affected commissioner of other trusts.
The Lords amendments will require any commissioner of affected services provided by another trust to agree that the recommendations will achieve that legal objective and do so, critically, without harming essential services at the other affected trust. Therefore, essential NHS services will be equally protected under the regime irrespective of where they are provided.
As now, in default of all local commissioners agreeing, the TSA must seek agreement from NHS England. Under our amendments, its decision would, additionally, be based on whether the recommendations harmed essential NHS services at other affected trusts, taking into account the views of all the commissioners.
My hon. Friend is setting out the important changes that have been made in the Lords on the trust special administration process. He might consider giving further emphasis to the point that Earl Howe made in relation to all the steps that would be taken prior to the consideration of a trust special administration process being put in place, not least the intervention powers of Monitor and others.
Given that time is tight, I simply confirm that I strongly support what Earl Howe said in the other place, and reinforce the points that my right hon. Friend has made.
For NHS trusts, clause 118 already requires the Secretary of State to produce guidance on seeking commissioner support and involving NHS England, and we will ensure that the key principles of parity between affected commissioners and the essential services they commission are captured in the guidance. I urge the House to support the Lords’ amendments.
Our amendments to Lords amendments 40B and 40C are designed to protect patients, improve transparency and decision making, and ensure that health service reconfigurations do not result in a restriction of access to services for patients. I give notice that I wish to press amendments (a) and (b) to Lords amendment 40B to a vote.
This is probably the final piece of health legislation that will come before this Parliament. To date, this Bill marks four years of chaos and confusion in the NHS—chaos inflicted on the service by the Prime Minister and his two Secretaries of State for Health. What a four years it has been! The Prime Minister promised no top-down reorganisation of the national health service, then introduced the biggest and most chaotic, expensive and wasteful reorganisation that the service has seen in its entire history. He promised a bare-knuckle fight against hospital closures—a fight that not only never appeared, but was knowingly untrue from the outset. We have seen Ministers admit that the 111 service was not ready to be rolled out, but who went ahead, scrapped NHS Direct and rolled it out anyway. We have seen one of the most important schemes for the future of the country and the NHS in the shape of the care.data scheme being bungled, botched and brought to the brink of collapse by ministerial incompetence. We have seen military hospital field tents outside accident and emergency units and police cars being used as makeshift ambulances, queuing outside hospitals for hours on end.
My hon. Friend mentions the supposed attack on bureaucracy by the Conservatives. Is he aware that since their reorganisation there is actually more bureaucracy? Many of the people who have been sacked, and who received redundancy payments, are now working in the commissioning support organisations.
My hon. Friend is entirely right, and the Lords amendments will only make that situation worse.
Now, as this zombie Parliament limps towards the finishing line, we are asked to consider a Frankenstein Bill—a badly stitched together Bill—which began with good intentions, but which, for the most part, will not end well. The Care Bill should have remained just that. On the face of it, part 1, building on the work of the last Labour Government, makes some modest improvements which we welcome, but let us be under no illusions. For all the Government’s bold claims, this Bill is a modest Bill. We support the rights for carers and many of the provisions and principles contained in part 1. Even though we believe that these could have gone much further towards the creation of a properly integrated model of whole person care, the real issue is that the Government have hijacked the Bill to push through a back-door reconfiguration tool that undermines the principle of local commissioning by centralising hospital closure and service removal decisions. It exposes as a sham the Government’s rhetoric about local clinical commissioning over the last four years.
Before I address the trust special administrator clause in more detail, let me touch on Lords amendment 11B, relating to human rights. Hon. Members may remember this issue from our debates on Report. The amendment will ensure that all users of publicly funded or arranged care have direct protection under the Human Rights Act 1998. Under the law as it stands, the fundamental protection and access to individual redress offered by the Act are not applied equally in all care settings.
This measure has a long history. In the other place, Lord Low tabled and passed a new clause which sought to close the loophole. But the Government removed it in Committee in this House, and then voted down an Opposition amendment on Report that would have restored it. The Minister did, however, say that he would go away and look at the issue again. The result is the amendment that we have before us today. For our part, we welcome the Government’s U-turn on this. It is good that Ministers have seen the light, having voted against this kind of protection at every previous stage of the Bill’s passage.
The amendment is clear that any care that is paid for out of public money
“directly or indirectly, in whole or in part”,
or which is arranged by a public authority, will now be covered by the Human Rights Act. However, I have a couple of questions for the Minister. First, he knows that personal budgets are absolutely critical in giving people greater choice and control over their lives, and enabling people to make their own decisions about how their care is delivered. It is important that personal budgets are covered by the amendment. Will the Minister confirm that that is the case, and that social care provided by a regulated provider and paid for by direct payments is included?
Secondly, it would be good if the Minister could clarify for the House whether so-called non-personal care is covered by the amendment. The definition of care used in the Lords amendment is that used in the Health and Social Care Act 2008. This is quite a narrow definition, and it is possible that it could exclude some very important types of care for people with learning disabilities or mental health problems, such as assisting them to participate in activities or to get to appointments. The Opposition amendment tabled on Report, which was drafted by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, would have covered this non-personal care, but as the Government’s amendment contains a narrower definition, we are concerned that they may be excluding quite broad categories of publicly provided social care services that may not be defined as personal care. We would be grateful if the Minister could allay our fears on that point, and confirm that those extremely important types of care for some very vulnerable people will be covered by this amendment. I look forward to his reply.
This is an important point for disabled adults in residential care, for example, who may receive care from one private provider, but access other services and facilities through another provider. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that all activities, including going out to participate in social and learning activities, need to be covered by the Lords amendment?
Indeed. My hon. Friend knows about these issues in detail. That is why we have asked the questions that we asked and tabled our amendment on Report.
With reference to parts 2 and 3 of the Bill, the insertion of the hospital closure clause—the Lewisham clause, clause 119, formerly clause 118, call it what you like—is extremely regrettable. It is because of this that the comparison with Frankenstein’s monster has been made, and because of this that we have tabled further amendments today. This House, the people of this country and every hospital league of friends, local hospital action group or other such groups working for the benefit of health services local to their area—and I include in that the magnificent campaigners in Millom and around the West Cumberland hospital in Whitehaven —will never forget the genesis of the major policy change that this clause represents, namely Ministers’ attempts to close good services at a well performing hospital against the wishes of the locally affected public, patients and local clinical commissioners.
On attaining office, the Government made a series of grand promises about future changes to hospital services. The coalition agreement stated:
“We will stop the centrally dictated closure of A&E and maternity wards, so that people have better access to local services.”
GPs were meant to be placed in decision-making roles and given the power to shape local services. As with so much that this Government do, the rhetoric could not be further from the reality, and far from stopping centrally dictated closures, they are now legislating to make it easier to close local hospitals and remove hospital services.
Clearly, a failure regime is essential and when things go wrong, they must be put right, but to attempt to short-circuit the existing reconfiguration framework, and to actively seek to disfranchise patients and the public, is not the way to improve services. Riding roughshod over local commissioning in order to reconfigure an area’s health services is not the way to build support for change. Deliberately ignoring the voices of local patients is a recipe for more expense, uncertainty and delay.
Take the example of Lewisham. Much has been said in this place about the process, the legal judgments and the amazing work undertaken by local campaigners there, so I shall not go into too much detail. Suffice to say that the Government’s attempts to use the law for a purpose for which it was never designed were described as “strained and unnatural” by Lord Justice Sullivan when dismissing the Government’s appeal against their original defeat. I would be grateful if the Government could explain why they believe the most effective way to deal with a failing trust is to alienate local commissioners, the local community and local health professionals. Rather than bringing stakeholders to the table to form a solution with regard to Lewisham, the Secretary of State dragged them through the courts and lost, twice.
Having been beaten by the law, the Secretary of State has decided to change it. The simple truth of the Government’s hospital closure clause is that a successful local hospital, the type that the Secretary of State enjoys getting his photograph taken in, can be closed without due process, simply because the one down the road is in trouble. It is as logical as removing a patient’s leg to cure a headache. Despite their valiant defence of the clause as it stood on Second Reading, the Government have been forced to make what they call major concessions, which are in reality very minor concessions.
Lords amendments 40B to 40E seek to ensure that “essential services” are not harmed. We are told this would mean that if a local commissioner believed that the trust special administrator’s recommendations would harm essential services, they would not be implemented—unless, of course, NHS England overruled the local commissioner. Our amendments to Lords amendments 40B and 40C would ensure that any recommendations would not be able to go ahead if they in any way restricted access to services, and that all correspondence between commissioners and the trust special administrator would be made public. Making it harder to use services is the very antithesis of the principles underpinning the NHS, which the Government claim to support—but only when it suits them.
We should judge this Government not by their words, but by their actions. They promised no top-down reorganisation. They delivered the biggest, most wasteful, most expensive and chaotic reorganisation in the history of the service. They promised a bare knuckle fight to protect local services. They delivered a back-door reconfiguration tool that could facilitate the largest ever hospital closure programme. They promised that local decisions would be made by local commissioners. They delivered a power for the Secretary of State and NHS England to overrule local commissioner vetoes. All this was done against the advice of medical professionals, against the wishes of the public and against every pre-election promise, and therefore without a shred of legitimacy.
The TSA process was introduced in 2009 and was intended, as the High Court ruled, to be used to make quick changes to management structures in order to address financial failures, not to make widespread service reconfigurations possible without public input.
I will make some progress.
The only way to build sustainable services is to have widespread ownership of changes and a robust process of community engagement. The Government’s disfigurement of the TSA process will mean that they have to give no regard to patients’ wishes, and in practice it will mean that they can disregard the views of local commissioners. If the Secretary of State wants to close a hospital, it will be done. It is as simple as that.
In 2003 Labour created the independent reconfiguration panel, a non-departmental body to advise on service change. The IRP’s terms of reference when reconfigurations are proposed state:
“The panel will consider whether the proposals will provide safe, sustainable and accessible services for the local population, taking account of:
1) Clinical and service quality
2) The current or likely impact of patients’ choices and the rigour of public involvement in consultation processes, and
3) The views and future referral needs of local GPs who commission services, the wider configuration of the NHS and other services locally, including likely future plans.”
Why does the Minister think reconfigurations of whole health economies should not be subject to independent scrutiny by the IRP? Why does he think that this should be bypassed without local agreement? Given that quality issues are subject to a number of investigations before a TSA would be appointed, such as Care Quality Commission investigations and being placed in special measures, why cannot a thorough investigation of reconfiguration options be put to the IRP and the public?
If the point of centralising a reconfiguration decision is to provide a quick solution, why are not the Government open to consultation with the public on the future of their local health services during the process of inspection by the CQC or the extended period of time during which a trust is in special measures? Speedy resolution of care failures is essential, but to go along with the Government’s proposals would be to suggest this sense of urgency appears only after months of work trying to address the problem. That is wrong, and it is little wonder that so many hospitals and so many communities believe that this legislation is setting them up to fail.
The Government’s position on this is intellectually dishonest. In reaching the conclusion that the TSA process should be hijacked to provide a back-door reconfiguration tool, they have wilfully ignored professional, legal and medical advice, and have disregarded existing procedure. They have cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds in defending their decision in the courts and they have added to the chaos into which they have already plunged the NHS. On Report we offered to work with the Government on a cross-party basis to produce a reconfiguration process and a TSA process that would have commanded broad public and political support. This offer was rejected.
The Opposition’s amendments seek to make a bad law slightly better, but the truth is that more lifeboats on the Titanic would not have stopped it sinking. In case any Government Members ever actually believed the coalition agreement, a vote against our amendments today is a vote against that agreement. At their heart, our amendments are an attempt to help the Government to help themselves, but more importantly, to help all of those communities who expect to have a say in the future commissioning of their local hospital services. The next Labour Government will ensure that their voice is heard.
Listening to the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed), it struck me that the Care Bill could be described as a Bill that was full of ideas that were proposed by the Labour party when it was in government, but was a modest measure. In some ways, I find those two positions contradictory, unless of course the last Government were not the bold, revolutionary Administration whom they often told us they were when they were in office. If we are indeed in a zombie Parliament, that is characteristic of the languid nature of opposition offered by the Labour party.
I hope the hon. Lady will forgive me, but I will make some progress, just as the hon. Gentleman did earlier.
Amendment 11B concerns the Human Rights Act, and I thank Ministers for keeping an open mind and for listening seriously to the concerns raised by Lord Low and others, and to me and other hon. Members who were concerned that an opportunity was being missed to close a gap. Legislation under the previous Government partially but not completely closed the gap, as a result of which those cared for in their own homes did not have the benefit of Human Rights Act protection. The amendment, which was agreed without a vote in the other place, gives that protection. It is the end of a story of seven years of dealing with a gap in the law that was opened by a court judgment. I am grateful that, notwithstanding the difficulties of our bicameral parliamentary process, it has worked at its best on this occasion, because it has meant that concerns raised through the Joint Committee that I chaired, through the Joint Human Rights Committee’s report and by Members in the other place, have now been comprehensively addressed.
Having said that, will the Minister confirm that a person who avails themselves of provisions in the Bill that allow them, as a self-funder, to ask their local authority to arrange their care at the point at which they start to benefit from the means-testing arrangements, and therefore have some support from the local authority, will then be covered by the Human Rights Act?
I would also like to thank the Minister for listening carefully to what has been said at each stage in the passage of the Bill, in both Houses, in respect of the trust special administration regime. It is important to emphasise that the approach set out by the previous Labour Government recognised that trust special administration was a last resort. Earl Howe has emphasised that in the other place. He was very clear that there are powers available to the Trust Development Authority and to Monitor to intervene as necessary in order to avoid trust special administration ever being triggered in the first place. I commend to Members the passage in House of Lords Hansard in which he sets out clearly all the steps that would need to be taken:
“Trust special administrators would be appointed—and I make this point emphatically—only when all other suitable processes to develop sustainable, good healthcare have been exhausted.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 May 2014; Vol. 753, c. 1496.]
It is worth picking up on the point made by the hon. Member for Copeland. Having been given the opportunity to chair a committee looking at the guidance, I think that some of the points he made in his amendments today are exactly the sort that ought to be given proper consideration in the guidance. I hope that he, other Front Benchers, and indeed other hon. Members who have experience of the only two trust special administration processes that have taken place to date, will offer the committee their views and insights so that we can ensure that the advice we give the Government on guidance is as good and as clear as possible.
As was made very clear in the other place, we are not talking about a power that will effectively enable a wholesale reorganisation of the health economy. The Bill is very clear that this is about those matters that might require necessary and consequential changes. The amendments that were agreed in the other place, without a vote, make it clear that the essential services of trusts that find themselves drawn into a trust special administration process will be a proper consideration in the decision-making process.
It is curious that the Labour party now seems to want us to look at access in a different way from the way in which the trust special administration process that it put in place provided for. In other words, why was there no test on access with regard to the trust that was in special administration under its arrangements? Why did that not matter then but does matter now?
I think that the Government have listened very closely to what has been said and changed the Bill in a way that reflects the concerns that I described on Report. We will have the chance to comment further on the guidance—I hope that the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and others will offer input into that—which will give us another opportunity to ensure that it is as tight and effective as possible on those very rare occasions when it is used.
I hope that consideration of the Bill will be concluded today and that it will make the difference to well-being, as a central principle, and to parity between those who receive care and those who give it. That is what the Bill does, and they are great things, and it is about time that they were on the statute book.
My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) has already set out the case for the Opposition’s amendment in lieu of their lordships’ amendments regarding the TSA regime, and I wholeheartedly agree with all that he said.
I would like to focus my remarks on why I believe that their lordships’ amendments do not undo the damage that lies at the heart of clause 119. While some people—I would probably include the right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) in this—seem to think that their lordships’ amendments are something of a cause for celebration, in my view the changes fall far short of what is really needed, which is the complete deletion of clause 119. Even with these latest amendments, clause 119 removes the legal protection for hospitals that face the axe because they happen to be located next to a failing trust that has been placed into administration. We know that this legal protection was vital in the case of Lewisham. The Government, having been told by the courts that they broke the law, are now simply changing the law so that in future they can close much-needed services in successful hospitals to deal with financial problems in others.
It has been suggested that the Lords amendments to clause 119 arose from discussions sparked off during debate on Report in this place. Yet the new clause we discussed then, which was tabled by, but then not supported by, the right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam was very different from what is before us today. Of course, we all remember what happened last time: the Lib Dems were simply bought off with the offer of chairing a committee. It is therefore worth comparing what we discussed on Report and what we are debating now. If I recall correctly, the new clause that the right hon. Gentleman had in his name a month or so ago proposed that the commissioners of services in hospitals that fall outside a trust in administration should have, in effect, a power of veto over recommendations put forward by an administrator.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I pressed him on this very point on 11 March, when I asked whether his new clause
“would provide a direct veto to commissioners of services at a hospital located outside the trust to which an administrator has been appointed.”
“That is the intention, so the new clause has been drafted to have that effect.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 244.]
The new clause proposed in March—we had a full debate and discussion about it—suggested that if the commissioners were content with the proposals put forward by a TSA, full public and patient consultation would kick in, whereas if the commissioners were not content, they would call a halt to the process. As I said, I pressed the right hon. Gentleman on that, and he was clear in the remarks that he made at the time.
That is not what we are debating now. The amendment that was passed in the other place last week gives statutory consultation rights to commissioners of services in hospitals that fall outside the trust to which an administrator has been appointed. It suggests that changes to essential services that are proposed by the administrator but delivered outside the failing trust should not be caused harm, while seemingly leaving the definitions of “harm” and “essential services” to NHS England. The amended clause states that, should there be a difference of opinion between commissioners, NHS England will act as some sort of referee and have the final say.
I contend that what we have before us today is very, very different from what was mooted in this place on Report. The changes to the Bill that the Government have introduced in the Lords are minor at best, and confusing and irrelevant at worst.
The right hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, and I can see that he disagrees with me about this, so let us look at the committee which has been set up and which he is chairing. Is it actually going to make any difference? My fear is that it is just camouflage for the fundamental damage that will be caused by clause 119. The committee will supposedly look at the rules that govern the use of the trust special administration regime. The most important rules that govern the use of the TSA regime are being set today, in this House and by this Bill.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being very gracious. The reason the Lords amendment is important is that it makes it clear that essential services in other trusts are now relevant to the guidance at which my committee will be looking.
One person’s definition of “essential” might not be the same as that of another person.
The Lords amendment tinkers at the edges of clause 119. Although it offers some marginal improvement on the Government’s original clause, it does not go far enough. I would vote for deletion again if I could, but parliamentary procedure does not afford me that opportunity. There is no doubt in my mind that this clause, even with the latest amendment, will allow more fast-track hospital closures in future. It removes the protection that existed in law, which allowed Lewisham council and the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign to take a case against the Government and win.
The latest amendment may guarantee another layer of consultation, but it contains no overall guarantee that services will not be closed at successful hospitals to balance the books elsewhere. Is the Minister or the right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam able to say unequivocally that had this amended clause been on the statute book at the time of the TSA regime in south London, the future of Lewisham’s A and E and maternity service would have been secure? They cannot, because it is not the case.
In conclusion, I do not accept that their lordships’ amendment provides the protection that some believe it provides. The amended clause still extends and augments powers for TSAs and NHS bureaucrats. Even with the increased checks and balances contained within their lordships’ amendments, the TSA process is still a chaotic and rushed mechanism for closing hospital services. It plunges local health economies into desperate uncertainty and takes power away from the public and clinicians.
I do not believe this is the way to make the sorts of changes our health service requires to meet the challenges of the 21st century. I have maintained that position throughout the passage of the Bill and I make no apology for sticking to my convictions to the end. The public do not want more fast-tracked hospital closures, but this Bill legislates for them.
Before I turn to the amendments, I want to put on record my thanks to hon. Members for their contributions to today’s debate. I also want to express my thanks once again for all the contributions made by hon. and right hon. Members throughout the passage of the Care Bill and, indeed, for the contributions made by noble Members of the other place.
The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) made a characteristically robust contribution in standing up for her local health care services. I also pay tribute once again to the contribution made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), not only today, but at the Bill’s inception, during its scrutiny by the Joint Committee and throughout its passage through this House and the other place. He has done a tremendous amount of work to ensure that the Bill is much better than it used to be. He deserves considerable praise for what he has done and the help he has given the Government in securing a Bill that is not just fit for purpose, but which will make significant changes and improvements to our health care system.
It is worth bearing in mind that the Bill represents the most significant reform of care and support in more than 60 years, putting people and their carers in control of their care and support for the first time. The Bill will also put a limit on the amount that anyone will have to pay towards the costs of their care. It is a very big step forward and one that was long overdue. The Bill also delivers key elements of this Government’s response to the terrible events that took place in Mid Staffordshire and the recommendations of the Francis report by increasing transparency and openness and helping to drive up the quality of care across our NHS and social care system. I am pleased that the Government were able to table amendments that have been accepted in the other place, and I hope that those amendments will enjoy support in this House today.
Before I turn to the substantive amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed), I want briefly to address the points made about human rights legislation and the issue of direct payments. It is important to highlight that like clause 48 of the Bill, as originally drafted, and section 145 of the Health and Social Care Act 2008, which was the preceding provision, Lords amendment 11B relates to providers of social care registered with the Care Quality Commission, covering personal care provided at home and in residential care settings. The amendment covers physical assistance—for example, prompting someone to take their medication, dress, eat, drink and perform activities of daily living—but not non-personal care. To answer the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, I am happy to confirm that when self-funders start to receive support from the local authority, they will indeed be covered by the Human Rights Act 1998.
To turn to the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Copeland, it is worth highlighting to the House that, contrary to what he asserted, the TSA regime—let us remember that the regime was laid down by the previous Labour Government—has been substantively improved by the amendments made to the Bill. In particular, clause 118, which has been debated as clause 119 at various points, will extend the requirements on the trust special administrator to consult not just the public, staff of the failing trust and its commissioners, but other provider trusts, their staff and their commissioners, local authorities and local healthwatch organisations. There is therefore a comprehensive duty of consultation and engagement in the TSA regime, and that will be further strengthened by the amendments we are now discussing.
Amendment (a) to Lords amendment 40B and amendment (c) to Lords 40C amount to wrecking amendments and, as I shall outline, amendment (b) to Lords amendment 40B is unnecessary and unworkable. Amendment (a) to Lords amendment 40B and amendment (c) to Lords 40C would mean that the recommendations of a trust special administrator could not restrict access to any services of another affected trust. Like previous ones, they are in effect wrecking amendments that would make it impossible for the administrator to do their job.
Both Houses recognise that the NHS is a network and that no hospital is an island, and have already agreed that clause 118 must allow the administrator to take a holistic view of the local health and care economy to find the very best solution for a failing trust. That is of course in the best interests of local patients. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam outlined in Committee, it is right that a trust and its patients in particular are not thrown to the wolves when the quality of care is unsustainable or letting patients down, but that a holistic and broader view of the local health care economy can be taken. That was the previous Government’s intention in setting up the TSA regime, and it is our intention now. The previous Government were not the first Government who did not necessarily make their legislation accord perfectly with the intentions they outlined in impact assessments for the TSA regime. That is why we are now in the position of having to correct and improve the regime through the Bill.
The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Copeland would undo the effects in relation to the trust special administrator’s regard to the wider health economy, and they would reverse the effect of clause 118, such that the administration regime would not be able to create a complete and workable solution to intractable problems or failures of patient care in the NHS. I am sure hon. Members will agree that that would be entirely undesirable, and that it would not be in the best interests of NHS patients, who must be protected where a hospital cannot deliver safe or sustainable care.
Amendment (b) to Lords amendment 40B would give the trust special administrator significantly less time to finalise his or her draft recommendations about the future of a failing trust by requiring the publication of all correspondence between the administrator and commissioners at least 10 working days before publication of the draft report. Hon. Members will be aware that we have extended the time for the trust special administrator to draw up the report from 45 to 65 days and for the consultation from 30 to 40 days, because those processes need to be done properly.
I remind hon. Members that transparency is already built into such processes at every stage. The administrator is required to publish the draft report submitted to Monitor and is expected to include in it the commissioners’ statement in agreement or disagreement to the report. Following consultation, the administrator’s final report is submitted to Monitor for a decision. That report, which Monitor must publish and lay before Parliament, again needs to present to the regulator the views of all affected commissioners. The administrator is required to attach to the final report a summary of all responses to its draft report that were received during the statutory consultation. That would include the views of all affected commissioners as respondents and explain what consideration was given to those responses. There is full transparency at every stage of the process. Quite apart from being wrecking amendments, the Labour amendments are therefore completely unnecessary.
The administrator, working closely with all affected commissioners and providers, may need to communicate in writing in the 10 working days before the draft report is published and submitted. Amendment (b) would therefore significantly reduce the time available to the administrator to develop and finalise the draft report and seek commissioners’ agreement. The hon. Member for Copeland said that he was concerned about that process, but his amendment would make it more difficult.
Clause 118 will extend the time that is available to the TSA to develop the draft report. Amendment (b) would reverse that. That is irrational, undesirable and goes against the very point the hon. Member for Copeland made about having time to consider the best interests of commissioners and the local health economy. I thought that that was an unintended and unwanted consequence of the amendment, but having heard the comments of the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), I am not so sure. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press the amendments.
In conclusion, the Government are committed to a TSA regime that is workable, transparent and in the best interests of patients. In cases of exceptional and significant care failure, lives are put at risk if a problem is not dealt with swiftly and effectively. It is for that reason that we are strengthening the regime in the Bill. I am very proud of the Bill and the opportunity that it offers to improve the health of and, the quality of care for, many people, particularly the frail elderly, those with disabilities and those with long-term care needs. It represents the most important step forward in integrating and better joining together health and social care for well over a generation. I hope that hon. Friends and hon. Members will support the Bill and the amendments that have been made to it.
Question put and agreed to.
Lords amendments 11B and 11C in lieu of words left out by Commons amendment 11 agreed to..
Lords amendment 32A to Commons amendment 32 and consequential Lords amendments 32C and 32D agreed to.
Powers of administrator etc.
Amendment (a) proposed to Lords amendment 40B.—(Mr Jamie Reed.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83G).
Lords amendments 40B to 40E in lieu of Commons amendment 40 agreed to.
Lords amendments 42B and 42C in lieu of Commons amendment 42 agreed to.
Lords amendments 46B to 46E in lieu of Commons amendment 46 agreed to.
Free Schools (Funding)
I am delighted to be able to update the House on progress in providing new school places. Just last week, the Public Accounts Committee congratulated the Department on the clear progress that had been made in delivering new school places through the free school programme, with costs significantly lower than under the last Government’s school building programme.
Free schools cost about half what schools built under Building Schools for the Future cost. Thanks to the savings we have made, and thanks to the success of our long-term economic plan, we have been able to invest far more than the last Government in creating new school places, especially in areas of need.
We are investing £5 billion over the lifetime of this Parliament in giving money to local authorities for new school places. That is more than twice what the last Government spent over the equivalent preceding period, despite repeated warnings that the population was increasing. We plan to invest even more in the new Parliament, with £7 billion allocated in the next Parliament for new school places. As a result, we have delivered 212,000 new primary school places between 2012 and 2013, and we are on course to deliver another 357,000. Thanks to the efforts of many great local authorities, we now have fewer pupils in overcrowded primary schools than we had in 2010.
As well as the expansion of existing local authority provision, we have also, on top of that, created 83,000 places in new free schools. The budget for these schools has been just under 10% of the Department’s total capital budget, but free schools are so far outperforming other schools inspected under our new and more rigorous Ofsted framework. Schools such as Dixons Trinity in Bradford and Canary Wharf free school in Tower Hamlets have been ranked outstanding within months of opening. Free schools are now over-subscribed, with three applications for every place. Indeed, the longer that free schools are in place, the more popular they are, with schools such as the West London free school and the London Academy of Excellence becoming the most over-subscribed schools in their area.
It is important to remember that while we have met the demand identified by local authorities for new school places, we have also set up seven out of 10 free schools in areas of significant population growth. Indeed, as the National Audit Office has pointed out, £700 million of the £950 million spent on free schools so far opened has actually augmented the money given to local authorities for new school places. Other free schools have been set up to provide quality provision where existing standards are too low, or school improvement has been too slow.
We should never be complacent about educational standards, but we should today take time to thank good local authorities and all our school leaders and teachers, because no child in this country is without a school place, fewer children are in overcrowded schools and Ofsted reports that more children are being taught good and outstanding lessons by more highly qualified teachers than ever before. In short, thanks to the rigour with which we have borne down on costs, the innovation unleashed by the academy and free schools programmes and the success of the Government’s economic strategy, we have been able both to provide all necessary school places and to drive quality up across the board. I commend the free school programme to the House.
This afternoon, young people are sitting their exams, and we wish them the best of luck. They will be showing exactly the kind of self-control and focus so woefully lacking in Education Ministers. Indeed, the Minister for Schools has not even deigned to turn up.
The question today is: when we face enormous constraints on the public purse, how do we best prioritise spending for new school places? For every parent wondering why their child is taught in a class size of over 30 and for every parent angry that they cannot get their kid into a good local school, we now have the answer: the coalition—both parts—has raided the schools budget to pay for pet political projects in expensive, half-empty and underperforming free schools.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has reallocated £400 million from the targeted basic need programme to fill a black hole in the free school programme? Does he accept National Audit Office data showing that more than two thirds of the places created by the free school programme have been created outside areas of high and severe primary need? Why has the free school programme been so heavily weighted to secondary places during a time of national crisis in primary places? Does he agree with the Treasury that spending on this programme, like his leadership of the Department, is spiralling out of control?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. He asks where responsibility lies for a shortage of school places. The responsibility lies with the previous Government, whose Chief Secretary to the Treasury left a note to his successor saying that there was no money left. The responsibility lies with the Labour Government who, when they were in power, cut primary places—cut them—by 200,000 between 2003 and 2010. The responsibility lies with the Labour Government who cut funding for new school places by £150 million, or by 26%, between 2004 and 2009. The responsibility lies with the previous Labour Government, whose primary capital programme told local authorities to cut primary places, not to increase them.
This coalition Government have increased spending on primary school places and local authority need and, at the same time, we have provided excellent new provision through the free school programme. I note that the hon. Gentleman was silent on Labour’s position on the free school programme. Where is the consistency of Labour’s position on this policy? In May 2010, he said that free schools were a
“vanity project for yummy mummies”.
In May 2013, he reversed his position, saying that he wanted to put “rocket boosters” under the programme. In October 2013, he reversed again, saying that free schools were a “dangerous ideological experiment”. Later the same month, he said, “If you are a parent interested in setting up a free school, we will be on your side.” He has had more contorted positions on free schools than some Indian sex manuals that I could name.
The truth is that the hon. Gentleman has betrayed his inconsistency on free schools and the inconsistency in his support for the additional money that we have put in to provide not just local authorities but free school sponsors with the places that our children need.
I wonder whether we can clear this matter up, because the Minister for Schools appeared before the Education Committee during the school places inquiry. He said:
“We have got £12.5 billion or more for basic need that we are going to spend over the 2010 to 2021 period, which is absolutely massive. The Treasury have been very clear with us and we have been clear with them that basic need is the top priority. If we thought jointly that we couldn’t fund the basic need because of the free school programme, we would have to reduce the free school programme. But the free school programme is additional; it does not compromise our basic need objectives.”
Is the evidence that was given to the Committee correct or is what we heard in anonymous whispers over the weekend correct?
Surely the point of this urgent question is to ask the Secretary of State to clear up the unholy row not with the Opposition, but between members of the coalition. What is being lost is the right of children to have a decent education. Primary school places must be delivered where they are needed, not where they are not.
I have enormous respect for the hon. Gentleman and he makes three important points. First, as we have just heard from the Chairman of the Education Committee, the Minister for Schools has confirmed to the Committee that the hon. Gentleman once chaired that spending on free schools augments basic need funding. Secondly, he is absolutely right that we both share a desire to ensure that there are more good school places where they are needed across the country. Free schools are playing a part in that. As I pointed out in my statement and as I know he welcomes, free schools, academies and communities are all contributing to the fact that our teachers are delivering more good and outstanding lessons than ever before, and that no child is without a primary school place.
The Secretary of State will be as aware as I am—it has been communicated to me over the weekend—that many areas of greatest need are not getting free schools and need places to be provided. What is he going to do to ensure that the areas that have the need but no free schools get the places that they need?
My right hon. Friend makes a characteristically good point. I should declare an interest because at one point, he and my mother served on the governing body of the same school in Aberdeen. His point about the need to ensure that we have more good free school applications in those parts of the country that need school places is a very good one. Unfortunately, some local authorities—they tend to be Labour—are standing in the way of good new free schools. I am encouraged by the support that I have had from a number of Liberal Democrat colleagues, including the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle), who have backed free school applications when Labour local authorities have stood in their way.
The Secretary of State has confirmed that the evidence that was given to the Education Committee by the Minister for Schools was accurate. Would the Minister for Schools, had he bothered to attend today, agree with that statement and confirm that he still holds the same position?
The hon. Gentleman is asking whether the Minister for Schools agrees with the Minister for Schools. I can confirm that he does. I can also confirm that there is good news for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Under the last Labour Government, only £33 million was spent on providing new primary school places in his constituency. Under this coalition Government, £40 million is being spent. I am sure that he will welcome that additional investment, which has been secured by this coalition Government.
Clive Glover is leading a group of parents who hope to have a free school on the Harperbury hospital site. A feasibility study is happening now. What worries me, given that this might happen in 2015, is the lack of clarity about the position of the Labour party. It does not seem to have the same commitments. With local elections happening, I think that residents should know what the Labour party thinks about free schools.
The Secretary of State uses the phrase “quality and rigour” in relation to free schools. Will he look at the recent Ofsted report on Hartsbrook E-ACT free school in my constituency? It found inadequate reading, writing and mathematics, that it was inadequate in all classes, a school body that needed improving, inadequate safeguarding, and that it was inadequately and poorly organised. Is that quality and rigour, and does the Schools Minister agree with that report, and does the Secretary of State as well?
Obviously, we both agree with that report because it is an Ofsted report and we place an enormous amount of weight and confidence in the chief inspector’s scrutiny of underperforming schools. While there are free schools that underperform, it is only fair to say that there are also local authority maintained schools that are underperforming. It is sad that even as standards increase overall, every day that schools are open two local authority schools go into special measures. If we put that in the frame, we can recognise the context in which school improvement work is taking place.
Although Hartsbrook E-ACT free school was underperforming, in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency the Harris academy, which took over from the failing Downhills school—the right hon. Gentleman, of course, was sceptical about that takeover and forced academisation—is now flourishing. That shows that after initial teething problems, school reform under this Government has worked. I hope that we can work together to ensure that Lord Harris and other high-quality sponsors continue to create the academies and free schools that will help to bring young people in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency additional hope for the future.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am obviously a keen supporter of free schools. The Secretary of State will know that some free schools are keen to adopt approaches commonly found in the most successful independent schools, but some fear Ofsted inspectors brought up in progressive education. Will the Secretary of State ensure that Sir Michael Wilshaw’s statement that there are no Ofsted prescribed forms of teaching is adhered to by the thousands of inspectors engaged on the ground?
I take my hon. Friend’s point, and I read with interest and appreciation his article in The Daily Telegraph today. Sir Michael Wilshaw is an outstanding chief inspector—the best ever to hold that post—and he inspects without fear or favour. He has also been responsible for ensuring that the quality of inspection during his time has increased. He has led an academy and seen the benefits that academies and free schools can bring to parts of London, so I know that Sir Michael will bear in mind my hon. Friend’s words and ensure that Ofsted continues to do a highly effective job inspecting all schools and holding them to the highest standards.
I am surprised by the Secretary of State’s description of this report as “praising” his free school programme, because it raises more questions about that programme than he implies. I represent a town with many free schools. I have welcomed them because, as mums who were visiting Parliament said to me today, what we need is enough school places. The problem with the free school programme in a town as diverse as Slough is that it lacks planning and a community cohesive approach to free school places, to ensure that every community in my town has sufficient educational places. What will the Secretary of State do about that?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and she is right to say that Slough is one of the hot spots in the country where a significant increase in the population has placed pressures on the local authority. We have been able to fund the local authority’s school provision, and augment it with the provision of free school places. It is also striking that many of the applications for free schools in and around Slough have come from different communities, who at last have an ethos and a level of aspiration for the schools that they felt had not existed before. If the hon. Lady wants to bring me any specific examples of inconsistencies of provision, I will of course look at them. I am grateful to her for pointing out that she, like many Labour MPs, welcomes free schools in her constituency and is prepared to work with the Department for Education in the interests of young people.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that Stour Valley community college, a first-wave free school in my constituency, is achieving outstanding academic and other results, while pursuing a very inclusive admissions policy? Not surprisingly it is heavily over-subscribed, and the view of people in Suffolk is that the best possible use of the Department’s money is spending on free schools, and we look forward to the day when private as well as public money can be invested in those schools.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making the point that in Stour Valley we have a school that is providing education of outstanding quality. He has been a consistent champion of providing new provision in the local authority of Suffolk, which has not always had the best schools in the past. The new schools provide not just choice but challenge, and have helped to drive up standards in Suffolk overall. I am grateful that Suffolk local authority has taken an enlightened approach to driving up school standards.
May I gently remind the Secretary of State that he has not answered the question put to him by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State? The National Audit Office report suggests that two thirds of the places provided under the free schools programme were diverted away from areas of high and severe primary need. Does the Secretary of State reject those findings or not?
The first point is that no money was diverted away. It is clear that free school spending augments spending on providing local authority school places. It is clear also that local authorities have sufficient funds. Under the previous Labour Government, the hon. Gentleman’s own local authority of Birmingham received £45 million to provide additional school places. Under this coalition Government, it has received £65 million. Some 87% of new primary school places through the free schools programme are in high or severe areas of need, so they are augmenting—adding to—the provision that those areas need. I should also point out that the hon. Gentleman is fortunate enough to be in a city that enjoys, in the Perry Beeches chain, one of the best performing chains of academies and free schools anywhere in the country. Thanks to the success of head teachers such as Liam Nolan, children in Birmingham are at last enjoying a high quality of comprehensive education of the kind that I know he and I want to see spread across the country.
As I am sure you will be aware, Mr Speaker, when I was elected to be the Member of Parliament for Watford at least half of the initial constituency inquiries and complaints were about the shortage of school places in the west Watford area. Since then, the excellent Reach Free school, which I have visited, has opened. Parents are impressed with it and so are the students, and there are two more in the pipeline. Given that this is clearly an area of need and that free schools are cheap and easy to operate, what possible complaint can the Opposition have?
Once again my hon. Friend makes a very fair and reasonable point. He also provides me with the opportunity to remind the House that in Hertfordshire, under the previous Government, £25 million was allocated for new school places. Under this coalition Government, £122 million has been allocated for new school places, and that is in addition to the free schools programme. This Government’s approach to fiscal discipline and greater efficiency, with school places costing less than half what they cost under the previous Government, means that we are able to meet need and to raise standards in every part of the country.
The Secretary of State may already be aware that Croydon has the biggest shortage of school places in the country. Before he quotes figures at me, the Tory council’s own papers say that funding
“only partially meets the costs…of places needed.”
Is it not perverse to deny places to children in Croydon, while funding new schools in areas with no shortage of places?
Again, I have to emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that it was the previous Government—I know he was not part of it—who cut spending on new school places and told local authorities to cut surplus places at primary. It is this coalition Government who have increased spending in Croydon on new school places: under the previous Government it was £17 million and under this Government it is £142 million—eight times as much. Before the hon. Gentleman asks for more funding, he should apologise to his constituents for the reckless profligacy and inefficiency of the previous Labour Government.
In September, for every place in a free school there will be three applicants. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should trust parents and pupils? They clearly like free schools and we should fund them accordingly.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is important that we do not just ensure sufficient school places everywhere in the country; we need to ensure that they are high-quality school places. One of the reasons why the free schools programme is succeeding is that it is both adding to the number of quality school places and providing an appropriate challenge and support to existing schools to raise their game.
One of the things I have learned from Sweden is that their free schools outperform other schools in Sweden; the more free schools there are in the municipality, the stronger the educational performance of it. Sadly, Sweden has not benefited as we have from the full panoply of educational reforms needed to drive up standards. Sweden does not have an independent and authoritative inspectorate like our Ofsted under Sir Michael Wilshaw’s leadership; and Sweden does not have the programme of externally set and externally marked assessments such as those we have at the ages of 11 and 16 in order to ensure that all schools are held accountable.
Given that eight out of 10 new free schools have opened in areas where there is a shortage of places or areas of deprivation, does the Secretary of State disagree with the shadow Secretary of State’s view that these are simply a
“vanity project for yummy mummies”?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and he is not alone in backing free schools. Andrew Adonis has pointed out that free schools are actually a Labour invention. He, a genuine reformer, said that
“the issue for Labour is how we take them forward, not whether we are for or against them.”
The problem is that when we listen to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), we do not know from one day to the next whether Labour is for or against free schools, taking us backwards, not forwards.
The four non-executive directors of the Department for Education board demonstrated to the Education Select Committee their total lack of knowledge about children’s services and about the transfer of vast sums of money from children’s services to other education budget headings—even admitting that they had not even discussed our questions on the matter. In the light of their lack of understanding and failure properly to scrutinise the executive, will he review their appointments and find some people who do have the necessary knowledge and know what is expected of them?
I notice that the hon. Gentleman, recognising that the previous line of inquiry about free schools and basic need has been exhausted, has changed the subject to children’s services. Let me say that the non-executive directors of the Department for Education include Mr Paul Marshall, the founder of the Lib-Dem think-tank CentreForum; David Mellor, one of Britain’s most successful businessmen; Jim O’Neill, one of the most authoritative economists in this country; and Dame Sue John, an outstanding school leader. If one looks at their record and compares it with the hon. Gentleman’s, I know who I would prefer to have with me in the Department for Education pushing reform forward.
May I encourage the Secretary of State in his zeal for free schools? They are, after all, hugely popular with Conservative voters and they are all about Conservative thinking. If some Liberal Minister does not want them, he can always resign.
I am always grateful for my hon. Friend’s interventions. He, of course, was Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee when it pointed out that, under the last Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme, we had a degree of profligacy and waste that was a genuine scandal. My hon. Friend will know that it is not just Conservative voters who find free schools attractive. Like so many free schools opening in Labour areas, the Derby Pride free school, an alternative provision free school backed by Derby County football club—congratulations to them on making it to the play-offs—is outstanding in its provision for disadvantaged children in a Labour area, despite the fact that the Labour local authority did not want it to open. The truth about free schools is that they provide high standards for children who have been failed in the past.
May I take the Secretary of State back to the answer he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy)? If a free school is lamentably not performing—failing its children and failing the community—does he agree that it would be much better if that free school were within the orbit of the local authority, which could observe and spot what was going on, give the necessary support and bring the school back into the accountable public sector?