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Commons Chamber

Volume 582: debated on Monday 16 June 2014

House of Commons

Monday 16 June 2014

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

Sessional Returns


That there be laid before this House Returns for Session 2013–14 of information and statistics relating to:

(1) Business of the House

(2) Closure of Debate, Proposal of Question and Allocation of Time (including Programme Motions)

(3) Sittings of the House

(4) Private Bills and Private Business

(5) Public Bills

(6) Delegated Legislation and Legislative Reform Orders

(7) European Legislation, etc

(8) Grand Committees

(9) Panel of Chairs

(10) Select Committees.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Careers Guidance

From September, new statutory guidance for schools will strengthen the requirements for schools to build relationships with employers to inspire and mentor pupils and deliver careers advice.

The fact that careers advice has been completely delegated to schools is leading to growing evidence of a postcode lottery in provision. Unfortunately, Ofsted appear to be inspecting that aspect of provision with a light touch. That is leading to light-weight and inappropriate advice, lacking in impartiality and independence, with many youngsters ending up on courses that will not properly help them fulfil their ambitions and, in some areas, to increased drop-out rates. How will the Minister ensure that young people have their needs met through access to good quality, independent and impartial careers advice and guidance?

It is true that in the past careers advice was not particularly well delivered as a policy, but the new statutory guidance, which will be in place from September, is all about strengthening the relationship with people in careers they are passionate about. Information is widely available: the issue is inspiration—

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but the evidence around the country is that more and more schools are getting in employers and those who have careers to offer, and lifting pupils’ eyes to the horizon.

What did the Wolf report, which was welcomed by the Opposition, have to say about work-related learning?

Work-related learning is an attempt to pretend that young people can be given a feel of what it is like to be in the workplace without putting them in the workplace. We care about high-quality work experience, because all the evidence shows that the more work experience young people do, the more likely they are to get a job.

Does the Minister agree that learning to network and to make connections is also important? He did agree to come to Hackney to see some of the best networking and careers advice, and I hope that he will honour that commitment.

I am keen to come to Hackney. We have been working on some dates, but we will renew our effort. I agree with the hon. Lady, not least because those who do not have natural networks through their family links often find it harder to break into high-quality jobs, and networking and mentoring can do an enormous amount to break down those barriers and improve social mobility.

Fairer Funding for Schools

2. When he plans to publish the results of the recent consultation on fairer funding for schools; and if he will make a statement. (904199)

Our consultation on fairer schools funding closed on 30 April. We are currently analysing the responses and will publish our final response next month.

The Government have been right to commit to delivering fairer funding and I welcome the first small steps that have been taken. Schools in Worcestershire tell me that they are facing major challenges from increases in national insurance and pension costs. May I press the Minister to listen carefully to the concerns of the F40 authorities, which want to see fairer funding sooner?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the strong lead that he has taken in arguing the case for fairer funding, which is long overdue. As he has acknowledged, schools in his area will gain to the tune of some £5 million from the proposals that we made a couple of months ago. I repeat the commitment that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have made on previous occasions: we are committed not just to this first big step towards fairer funding, but to a national fair funding formula, which should have been introduced many years ago but which the last Labour Government did nothing to address.

Head teachers in my constituency are concerned about their budgets for this year, and they tell me that the big effect will come with the Government’s changes to sixth-form funding. Will he look again at those changes?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have protected schools funding in the existing Parliament, and we have introduced a pupil premium to make sure that youngsters in more disadvantaged areas are also assisted. I agree with him that in the future we must make sure that education funding is as protected as possible across the system, and he will be aware of the announcement that the Deputy Prime Minister made on behalf of my party today. It is now up to other parties to make similar commitments.

The move towards fairer funding in Northumberland has been welcomed by all my teachers and those in the F40 who are likewise affected. Will the Minister remind the individual councils of the F40 local authorities that all the schools in previously underfunded local authority areas should benefit, not just some chosen few?

My hon. Friend is right that we want to see the money go from local authorities to schools. He will be aware that in his area the proposals that we consulted on involve a significant increase of some 6.4%, which is more than £10 million more for local schools. We want that money to go right through to the front line.

When will the Minister agree with the wish of the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) to have a much broader review of funding? Children attending reception class in Wandsworth have almost twice the amount of money of children attending in Birkenhead. Neither of those two authorities was in the review. Given that the Government have been in power for four years, that national review is long overdue.

I will not say gently to the right hon. Gentleman that, given that his party was in power for much longer than that, this could have been addressed by him. I will, however, accept the serious point he makes that we need not only to move to a national fair funding formula when we know the long-term spending plans, but that it will make sense for the next Government to consider all the different forms of deprivation funding, including a prior attainment area-based funding, to make sure that there is a coherent whole. I am very proud of what we have done on the pupil premium in this Parliament, but we ought to look in the round in the next Parliament.

On fairer funding, is it acceptable that, according to a London Economics report today, academies have approximately £1,600 more to spend per sixth-form student than sixth-form colleges?

The hon. Gentleman should know that, as part of the Government’s reforms to school funding, we are making sure there is consistent and fair funding across the system. Where there is not, we have been converging funding to ensure institutions are appropriately and fairly funded.

Children’s Social Workers (Training)

3. What assessment he has made of the recommendations of Sir Martin Narey’s report “Making the Education of Social Workers Consistently Effective”, published in January 2014, on the training of children’s social workers. (904200)

We welcome Sir Martin Narey’s report, and agree with both his analysis and approach to securing improvement. We are already putting in place some of his recommendations: the chief social worker, Isabelle Trowler, is leading work to define the knowledge and skills that children and family social workers need to practise effectively; and I announced last week that we are supporting a fourth cohort of the successful Step Up to Social Work programme.

I thank the Minister for his response. Sir Martin Narey’s report rightly recognises the importance of quality social work placements. Is the Minister therefore concerned by reports that trainee social workers are instead being used to plug gaps left by the Government’s cuts to children’s services and provide cover for fully qualified colleagues? Does he agree that that is neither good for social workers’ development, nor for at-risk children?

I am always concerned when newly qualified social workers find themselves in a difficult professional position, whereby they feel stretched by the case they are having to deal with. That is why we have provided a large amount of money to ensure that their first year is supported by the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment programme, and why we are making sure that the £239 million we have already invested in social work training will be supplemented by the work of Sir Martin Narey and the chief social worker.

We have had the reviews of Professor David Croisdale-Appleby and Sir Martin Narey, and we await the outsourcing report of Professor Le Grand. Do the Government think they know now what needs to be done to improve social work? If they do, when will they share their insight? Will they consult the profession on any intended changes, or simply seek to impose them?

All the work the hon. Gentleman describes has one pure motive: to raise the quality and status of social work right across the country. Part of that is making sure we take the profession with us. When I spoke to the British Association of Social Workers at its conference last week, I made it as clear as I could that whatever we do we will consult, review and ensure that any changes we make lead to the improvements that are our mission from the very start.

Free Schools

Free schools are proving tremendously popular. Approximately 24,000 pupils already attend free schools and many of those schools are already oversubscribed. Free schools are also more likely to be rated “good” or “outstanding” than other schools inspected under Ofsted’s new framework.

As my right hon. Friend knows, I am a keen supporter of free schools and I am delighted to hear about the success they are enjoying. However, it is also important that the Education Funding Agency finds the right sites for them, which is challenging in urban areas such as Reading and, in particular, Caversham. Will he therefore agree to meet with me and representatives from my local community to discuss the location of the Heights primary school? Further, will he agree that the community should have full transparency of information and related issues from the local education authority and the EFA?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and to do everything I can to ensure both that the need for a new school is met and that the concerns across the community that he highlights are properly addressed.

Can the Secretary of State explain exactly what “security grounds” means when used to turn down a free school application?

All free school applications go through a rigorous process that is policed by the Department’s due diligence and counter-extremism unit and will ensure that any inappropriate application that is put forward is not accepted.

21. The West Reading Education Network parents’ group is seeking approval to open a single academy trust secondary school next September. The same parents’ group set up the outstanding All Saints junior free school. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is exactly the type of excellent parent-led initiative that everyone in the House should be backing? It certainly enjoys cross-party support in Reading. (904218)

I absolutely do agree. It is important to bear in mind that the All Saints school in Reading was outstanding in every category when it was inspected by Ofsted. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend to ensure that the quality of education that Reading parents enjoy continues to improve.

Does the Secretary of State agree that what we need in education is a balance between free schools and academies and a role, as there surely must be, for local democracy? Is this the resistance that the Prime Minister has to the expansion of the free schools programme: that there is not enough local democracy in it?

I think it is important that there is a balance—I find myself increasingly in agreement with the hon. Gentleman. There is a role for greater autonomy—exercised by principals, driven by a sense of moral purpose—to improve education. It is also the case that there is a role for local authorities as well, not least when it comes to safeguarding children at risk.

Does the Secretary of State regret the weak scrutiny—and, indeed, evaluation—of applications for free schools that has led to what must be, for him personally, some extremely embarrassing examples of poor educational provision?

I do not mind embarrassment personally—[Interruption.] Just as well, some might say. What I do worry about is if any school, anywhere in the country, is not providing the highest quality education for children. One of the striking things about the free schools programme is that not only are schools more likely to be “good” or “outstanding”, but when schools have underperformed, we have moved rapidly to close them or replace the leadership of schools that have not been doing a good enough job.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the architect of the free schools policy, Dominic Cummings, was in the Department last week, despite the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) saying in a written parliamentary answer to me that there was no record of his visit? Could that be because he wrote last week, in typically bad taste, that he always signs into Government Departments, including No. 10, under the name of Osama bin Laden? What on earth is the Secretary of State doing still relying on this man’s advice?

The architect of the free schools programme was actually Andrew Adonis, not Dominic Cummings, as he himself has said. Free schools were a Labour invention—a point that was repeated by the former Prime Minister Tony Blair when speaking to The Times today. As for the hon. Gentleman’s points about former special advisers, all sorts of people from time to time seek to visit the Department for Education to exchange ideas with old friends and colleagues.

Links between Employers and Schools and FE Colleges

6. What steps his Department is taking to strengthen relationships between local employers, schools and further education colleges. (904203)

8. What steps his Department is taking to strengthen relationships between local employers, schools and further education colleges. (904205)

Order. Before the Minister gets ahead of himself, with characteristic enthusiasm and gusto, I think he will want to confirm to the House his intended grouping of Questions 6 and 8, which I think his briefing folder will tell him.

I would be absolutely delighted to do so.

As I was saying, more and more employers are engaging with schools and colleges to inspire young people. As discussed earlier, we have strengthened statutory guidance for schools so that those relationships can help to inspire students into their careers.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but a recent report from the university of Bath showed that 60% of school and college governors said that employers were not proactive enough about becoming school governors and thereby taking a formal role in education. Given the importance of employers in improving the employability of our young people, what are the Government going to do about that?

Absolutely—strengthening the role of employers in governance and on careers advice, and inspiring pupils are vital, and a whole programme of work is under way to encourage more employers. One thing we can do is make it easier and bring about a brokerage so that employers who want to get involved can do so without too much bureaucracy and with the support of their local schools.

Churchill community college has been judged outstanding by Ofsted, and the inspector said that the school prepares young people well for their future. Will the Minister say how his Department will get employers directly involved in curriculum support so that young people at Churchill—and elsewhere—can capitalise on their excellent education and be successful in the world of work?

Yes, absolutely. One example is the introduction of tech levels for those between 16 and 19 who want to go into vocational education, which will get them into a job. These qualifications have to be signed off as valuable by an employer before we will accept them as tech levels, thus demonstrating the line of sight from work that exists in all educational vocational education.

As the Minister said, it is vital for schools to forge strong links with businesses to ensure that school leavers are not just numerate and literate, but employable. Does he agree that organisations such as the Education Business Partnership can often play a significant role in building these links?

Yes, I do. There is a huge array of organisations. Only this morning, I was launching Careers Lab with Steve Holliday, who runs National Grid. That is another organisation, like the one my hon. Friend mentioned, that can help to broker links between employers and education, which are so important after the systems were separated for far too long.

Following on from that, one way to enthuse young people in engineering is to give them first-hand experience and use role models. What is the Minister doing specifically to encourage engineering companies to go into schools and enthuse young people?

I am delighted to say that there are over 20,000 ambassadors from engineering who go into schools under the STEMNET—the science, technology, engineering and mathematics network—programme. It is just one example of the organisations that can help to bring employment and education together.

Funding Formula for Schools

Our proposal to allocate £350 million to the least fairly funded local areas in 2015-16 is the biggest step towards fairer schools funding for a decade. This puts us in a much better position to introduce a national fair funding formula when multi-year spending plans are available.

The Minister may be aware that Warrington is ranked 137th for funding out of 152 authorities. As a comparator, Westminster, which is ranked 10th, receives £3,000—60% extra—more per child each year than Warrington. It was therefore disappointing that in this new allocation, Westminster received a big uplift and Warrington received nothing—perpetuating that differential, which is really unacceptable. Will the Minister explain the logic behind that, and does he agree that we need to move to a national formula very quickly indeed?

I would make two points. First, what we sought to do in the announcement of a couple of months ago was address the issues not just of low funding, but of unfair funding. It is still possible for some parts of the country that are not the lowest funded to be underfunded, as we saw in the announcement. As for comparing Westminster with Warrington, although traditionally thought of as an affluent area, Westminster has had something like 50% of its children entitled to free school meals over the last six years, so it benefits, quite rightly, from high levels of disadvantage funding. Secondly, I agree with my hon. Friend in that his points make the case for moving on from this allocation to a full national fair funding formula in the next Parliament, to which both our parties are committed.

The Education Select Committee heard evidence that secondary schools in areas that will not receive extra money under changes to the funding settlement will face a £350,000 a year shortfall due to increasing costs. Meanwhile, £400 million of basic need money has been used on free schools. Instead of spending it on them, would not that basic need money have been better spent on the schools now facing a shortfall in their basic needs?

I do not accept the premise of the question. Many schools whose areas are not benefiting from the uplift are in areas with high levels of disadvantage and deprivation that have benefited enormously from the pupil premium that we have introduced. As for basic need, we have allocated considerably more than the last Government, which is why we are able to have a very ambitious programme for new schools and extensions across the country.

North Yorkshire is a very sparsely populated rural county, and is one of the 40 least well funded. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the problem of funding small schools in rural areas of that kind—which includes the problem of sixth-form funds—and will he address it?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. As she knows, North Yorkshire is one of the areas that will gain from the measures that we proposed a couple of months ago. It was set to gain by £7.2 million under the proposals on which we have consulted. The sparsity issue is also extremely important in areas such as North Yorkshire, and we have therefore introduced a sparsity factor to allow local authorities to protect schools in areas where children would otherwise have to travel an unacceptable distance.

As was pointed out earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), it is the sixth-form sector that is really being hit by funding cuts. Is the Minister aware of the impact survey conducted by the Sixth Form Colleges Association, which was published today? I hear reports that officials have been asked to prepare further cuts, which will be announced in September. May I urge the Minister to think again? The sector simply cannot take any more cuts.

I understand the concerns of the 16 to 19 sector. Ministers are very alive to those concerns, and we will consider them carefully before we set our final spending plans for 2015-16. I do not know whether the Labour party has made any commitments on school funding into the next Parliament, but I suggest that the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends make the same commitment that the Deputy Prime Minister has made on behalf of my party today.

School Leavers

10. What steps he is taking to obtain data from HM Revenue and Customs to improve the development of destination measures for school leavers. (904207)

Data from HMRC can potentially help to show where young people go from educational institutions. We are consulting on how destination data should be used in the league tables, and we know that some of our changes will require changes to legislation.

During the last Session, an attempt at change was made in a private Member’s Bill. I hope that the Minister is telling us today that he will make it a Government priority to strengthen destination data, as the Select Committee recommended, so that we can give schools an incentive to take account of not just short-term exam results, but the long-term interests of the child.

The use of destination data in league tables is one of the biggest changes that the education reforms will bring about. It will require legislative change. The clauses that were proposed during the last Session are about to find their way into legislation, which will be published soon.

I thought that the hon. Lady was seeking to catch my eye. Never mind; there will be other opportunities I call Margot James.

In my borough of Dudley, young people leave school at 16 to pursue A-levels and other forms of post-16 education at local colleges. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need a system of destination measures that will enable us to track the progress of students back to the school that they attended before reaching the age of 16?

Holding schools and colleges to account for their exam results is important, but it is equally important to be clear about where young people end up. That, I hope, will give schools an incentive to provide a broader education, emphasising knowledge, skills and behaviour, so that school leavers will be able to do what everyone wants them to do, and fulfil their potential.

Admission Procedures (Academies and Free Schools)

11. What steps he is taking to ensure that admissions processes in free schools and academies are fair. (904208)

Free schools and academies must comply with the school admissions code. The criteria that are used to decide the allocation of school places must be “fair, clear and objective”. Anyone who considers that a school’s admission arrangements do not comply with the code can make an objection to the schools adjudicator.

What steps will the Secretary of State take to strengthen the code and the role of the adjudicator, as proposed by Labour?

The adjudicator is already capable of making binding determinations, and has already been clear about the schools—whether they are academies, free schools or other schools—that have not subscribed to the requirements for fair admissions. Let me add, in relation to the broader question of admissions in general, that it is this coalition Government who have ensured that schools can give preference to students from poorer backgrounds through the pupil premium, and have used the admissions code to advance social justice, which the last Government signally failed to do.

Priority School Building Programme

12. What provision has been made to fund the furnishing of new school buildings built under the Priority School Building programme. (904209)

The Priority School Building programme provides funding for fixed furniture and equipment. Where a school is increasing in size, the PSBP also provides funding for loose furniture and equipment, such as tables and chairs.

A school in my constituency, Ernesford Grange community academy, has just had a new school building built under the PSBP. However, the Education Funding Agency has informed it that there is no funding to cover furniture for the new building. That is presenting a serious problem for the school—and, I am sure, for many other schools. Will the Government try to find funding to help buy desks and chairs for the new builds, or meet me to discuss the situation?

Of course I will look into the issue or meet the hon. Gentleman. Where funding is needed to fix furniture and equipment, we provide that centrally. The hon. Gentleman has three PSBP projects in his constituency. All of them are going to be receiving some funding for fixed equipment—over £1 million in total. Where there is existing equipment that can sensibly be reused in the new buildings, we ask schools to do that, but if the hon. Gentleman thinks that is posing problems, I will be happy to look into the detailed circumstances.

This morning I visited the Holmesdale community infant school in Reigate, a very successful and popular school which is seeing a significant number of new places being provided under the new schools programme. However, with the doubling in school numbers over the past decade, there is chaos outside; there are enormous problems with traffic, which requires changes to the road structure. Is it possible to arrange some form of funding that covers the entire scheme of both setting up new school places and supporting them effectively?

Usually it is appropriate for the local authority to fund transport improvements from its transport budget, but if my hon. Friend sends me the details of the case that he raises, I will look into it carefully.

Although the Government’s commitment to rebuild the Duchess’s community high school in Alnwick is very welcome, the problem of furnishing a new-build school is arising there. Will the Minister discuss with me how we can meet that problem?

I will be happy to have those discussions with my right hon. Friend. I am sure he accepts that where there is furniture and equipment that can sensibly be reused, it should be—it would be ridiculous in these times to waste good furniture and equipment—but where there is a need for support, we will certainly consider that.


13. What progress his Department has made on increasing the number and quality of apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds. (904210)

We are on track to deliver 2 million apprenticeships over this Parliament. We will continue to focus on raising quality, insisting that all apprenticeships are jobs, have a minimum duration of a year, include on-the-job training and meet the needs of employers. As a result, the number of full apprenticeships—those with a planned duration of a year or more—for 16 to 18-year-olds has doubled.

Since 2010, an average of 433 workplaces in the Colne and Holme valleys and Lindley employ apprentices, many of which are supported by the excellent local Kirklees college. What are the Minister and his Department doing to support our wonderful further education colleges in helping to deliver these fantastic apprenticeships?

More than ever, companies are involved in delivering apprentices and having apprentices. Colleges are increasingly providing the training for apprenticeships, but it is also important that we raise quality by ensuring that employers write the training that is required for young people to learn the skills necessary to get a good job.

Sadly, some young people and their parents still see apprenticeships very much as an easy option, so what are the Government doing to better sell the benefits of apprenticeships, and to increase the number of higher and advanced-level apprenticeships, as an alternative pathway to that provided by degrees?

Our vision is that when young people leave school or college, they have the opportunity to go to university or into a high-quality apprenticeship. We have a programme of reform to increase the quality of apprenticeships, including offering more English and maths and a minimum duration. Undoubtedly, there is more to do to persuade people that apprenticeships are of high quality and that apprenticeships can get them anywhere.

24. For too long, young people have been encouraged to take vocational qualifications that are below par. Does the Minister agree that, to rectify that, we must focus on the quality of apprenticeships and vocational training, because that is exactly what employers are desperate for? (904222)

I agree very strongly with my hon. Friend. In fact, we have defunded more than 4,000 qualifications for under-18-year-olds in order to concentrate scarce resources on the qualifications that are valuable. Within apprenticeships, all the evidence shows that training while in work increases young people’s life chances, because it gives them the skills, as well as the knowledge and the behaviour needed to get a good start in a career.

Through care to work, we have a specific programme to support care leavers to get into apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are part of our programme of ensuring that every young person in our country has the opportunity to reach their potential.

If the Minister is looking for an example of best practice, I draw his attention to the scheme launched in Colchester earlier this year to recruit 100 apprentices in 100 days. Through a partnership of the Colchester Institute, the Colchester Daily Gazette, and the National Apprenticeship Service, 160 apprentices were recruited.

I pay tribute to the Colchester Institute and the Colchester Daily Gazette. Many local papers get involved in promoting apprenticeships, because they are part of a culture change in our country. When young people leave school or college they can go to university or into an apprenticeship, both of which can help them reach their potential.

Small and medium-sized businesses provide almost 60% of all private sector jobs, but they are saying that the Government’s reforms on apprenticeship funding will make it much harder to offer up-front training and create opportunities. With only 8% of all employers in the UK currently offering apprenticeships, when will the Government admit that their rhetoric does not match the reality on apprenticeships?

I am slightly surprised to hear that question. In the hon. Lady’s own constituency, the number of apprentices over the past few years has increased by 85%, giving more chances to people. Recently, representatives of half a million employers, mostly small employers, wrote in to our consultation to support the direction of travel, which is supported by the shadow Chancellor.

Child Care

14. How many disadvantaged two-year-olds received the 15-hour free entitlement to child care in the latest period for which figures are available? (904211)

In May 2014, 116,000 two-year-olds were in early learning places, which is 89% of the 130,000 allocation. That means that more two-year-olds are getting a good start in life, preventing a gap from emerging with their wealthier peers when they start school.

I do not think that the Sutton Trust feels that provision is that good or comprehensive. Oxford university research shows that the Government are failing to provide sufficient good-quality places for children already covered, and that they should get that right before expanding the scheme. Will the Minister accept its advice, or will she just push ahead with poor-quality provision, which will do our children little if any good?

Well, 90% of those two-year-olds are in good or outstanding places. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that, in June, very high-quality places opened in his own constituency of Stockton at Tilery primary school. We are making it much easier for schools to offer those places to two-year-olds, which typically have teacher-led provision.

The two-year-old offer is strongly welcomed by many families in my constituency, and there are around 3,600 two-year-olds in Norfolk eligible for that support. Will the Minister confirm that all local authorities have the name and address data from the Department for Work and Pensions so that they can contact eligible families to encourage them to take up their entitlement, just as Norfolk county council has done?

My hon. Friend is right that the local authorities have that data from the DWP. Furthermore, they have a role in promoting high-quality places. For example, we are giving school nurseries, through the small business, enterprise and employment Bill, the ability to offer places to two-year-olds. Local authorities have the ability to encourage their local schools to offer those places.

19. New analysis released by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) today shows that two thirds of councils do not have access to good-quality places for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. I asked the Minister about this in Westminster Hall in March, but we know that some families and children are still missing out. What guarantee will the Minister give me that all two-year-olds who are entitled to a good-quality place in Lewisham and across the whole of England this September have access to them? (904216)

As I mentioned, local authorities have a role in encouraging schools to offer places. We know that more than 30% of early education places are in schools for three and four-year-olds, but not yet for two-year olds. That is why we are working with local authorities such as Lewisham, which we have given part of an £8 million grant, to make sure that schools are opening from 8 am to 6 pm and offering provision for two-year-olds.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) has said, too many of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds are not in high-quality provision. In addition, the freedom of information request that I released today shows that nearly half of councils lack sufficient places to meet the extension of free child care provision for two-year-olds in September 2014. That is a shortfall of 44,000 places for this year. Added to the shortfall that the Minister has just announced, that makes a shortfall of 60,000 places in the Government’s flagship two-year-old offer. What is she going to do about that?

The hon. Lady should be aware that there are 300,000 available places across the country, and that it is the role of local authorities to make sure that they are open for two-year-olds. She might want to listen to comments made by the former children’s Minister, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), about the previous Labour Government’s role:

“The sensible policy direction would have been to locate more and more of our childcare offer in schools rather than build other buildings.”

This Government are doing what the previous Government did not, by enabling schools to offer those places. Very few school nurseries are currently open between the hours of 8 am and 6 pm. Why does the hon. Lady not work with local authorities to help them make that happen, rather than complaining about their failure to act?

Numbers Count Programme

I am in favour of any intervention that improves numeracy. Improving children’s numeracy is vital for life chances. OECD research shows that an adult with strong numeracy skills is three times more likely to earn good wages and be in good health. That is why we are raising expectations in maths right through the age range.

This area is vital, and I was impressed with the Numbers Count classes being provided at Staverton primary school in my constituency, which I visited recently. Those classes, it was feared, would be lost across the country under the comprehensive spending review. Is it not the case that only the pupil premium ensures that even in traditionally underfunded local authorities—areas such as Wiltshire—children are getting the dedicated, personalised interventions that they need at school?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are giving head teachers the power to decide which programmes are most useful for their students. That is why we are establishing 30 maths hubs across the country to provide advice and expertise and to look at top-performing places such as Shanghai and Singapore, where students are three years ahead of their British peers in maths by the age of 15.

Maths is an absolutely essential skill in today’s society. Does the Minister agree with me that we need qualified, professional maths teachers to inspire children with an understanding of, and a love and enthusiasm for, maths? Is she proud that thanks to this Government, an A-level student may be better qualified in maths than his or her teacher?

I agree with the need for very good teachers in maths, which is why we offer the highest levels of bursaries and scholarships in the subject. We have also set up a new programme of maths and physics chairs, sponsored by organisations such as Samsung and GlaxoSmithKline. I can report that a high number of people with PhDs in maths are already applying for the programme, and they will be in our schools from September.

Absenteeism in Schools

We have strengthened the rules on pupil absence and published clearer advice to schools. School attendance has improved significantly, with 7.7 million fewer school days lost in 2012-13 compared with 2009-10.

I have been approached by many parents in my constituency who work in the tourism industry and simply cannot afford to take holidays during the busiest time, school holidays. What can be done to help these small business owners take holidays with their families without fearing punishment or hurting their children’s education?

I know that this is a real issue in constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend. Indeed, last year about a third of all children in Cornwall’s primary schools missed school for a term-time holiday, a figure higher than the national figure for primary schools, which is about 20%. That is clearly not acceptable. I would say two things to my hon. Friend. First, head teachers retain the discretion to grant leave in exceptional circumstances. Secondly, and more significantly as regards the cases she raises, we are deregulating so that all schools control their own term dates from 2015. That might give schools in her area greater flexibility to make a judgment about when to have their holidays and about what the right time might be for them.

Primary School Places

17. What steps his Department has taken to increase the number of primary school places in a) Winchester constituency and b) England. (904214)

During this Parliament, the Department has allocated more than £5 billion in basic need funding to help local authorities in England create the additional places that will be needed.

I have campaigned throughout this Parliament to secure new primary places for my constituents. We now have a combination of additional places at existing schools and brand-new provision at the excellent new Westgate all-through school, which is the first in Hampshire. The Government should be very proud of it. Does the Minister acknowledge that Hampshire, like so many other areas, is using the additional funding he mentioned not to fund an ideological whim but to do the basics and secure new primary school places for families who need them?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who will be interested to know that the allocation of money to Hampshire for basic need has almost quadrupled between the time of the previous Labour Government and the present coalition Government. We have allocated £88.9 million to basic need in Hampshire between 2011 and 2015; that compares with just £23 million over a comparable four-year period in the previous Parliament.

Educational Attainment

18. What change there has been in educational attainment in a) Kettering constituency, b) Northamptonshire and c) England since May 2010. (904215)

Attainment has risen in all the areas mentioned from 2010 to 2013: in Kettering from 55.4% to 57%, in Northamptonshire from 51.9% to 58.1%, and in England as a whole from 55.3% to 60.8%.

Northamptonshire is one of the fastest growing counties in the country and Kettering is one of the fastest growing parts of Northamptonshire. What special extra help is Her Majesty’s Government giving to boost educational attainment chances in constituencies such as Kettering that have a high population growth rate?

I agree that there are challenges in Kettering and Northamptonshire, including from the rising pupil population. In that part of the world not only are we delivering the pupil premium and the additional interventions to support better school leadership, but we have almost doubled the allocation of money for new places for basic need from £29 million in the last Parliament to more than £55 million in this Parliament.

Topical Questions

At the weekend, Her Majesty the Queen was pleased to confer knighthoods and damehoods on a number of outstanding teachers. May I add my congratulations to those of others to Andrew Carter, Barry Day, John Dunford, Anthony Seldon, Nicola Nelson-Taylor and Erica Pienaar? There are many outstanding teachers in our schools today and we should celebrate their work. I am particularly pleased to acknowledge that there are teachers from the recently judged by Ofsted “outstanding” Warmsworth primary in Doncaster in the Gallery today, and I congratulate Mrs Marshall on her superb Ofsted.

The Secretary of State is right that there are many excellent teachers. Is he aware of the evidence that has been produced by the “too much too soon” campaign about play-based learning? What assessment has he made of the benefits of a sustained period of creative play-based learning before children are exposed to more formal learning environments?

Early years practitioners know that we need both structured play and appropriate introduction at the right time to more formal methods of learning to get the most out of every child. We are very fortunate that we have not just a revised early years foundation stage but more and more talented people teaching in the early years.

Order. It is of course disorderly to refer to the Gallery, but I feel sure that the occupants of it will be revelling in the praise that the Secretary of State has generously conferred on them. On this occasion, his disorderly conduct is readily excused, but only on this occasion.

I fully associate myself with such disorderly conduct in the House and congratulate those inspiring school and college leaders who have rightly been recognised by Her Majesty the Queen. Teaching is a moral mission, and it should be celebrated as such.

In 2010, the Department for Education was warned of threats to schools in Birmingham, but for four years, on the Secretary of State’s watch, his Department failed to act. The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is now urging the Government to provide greater public assurance that all schools in a locality, regardless of their status, will discharge the full range of their responsibilities. When will the Secretary of State accept that micro-managing schools from behind a desk in Whitehall does not work, and that we need a proper system of independent, local accountability?

I suspect that that question will be shown not only on BBC Parliament but on UKTV’s Gold channel, because it is a magnificent repeat. The hon. Gentleman asked precisely that question in his speech last week. The truth is that we took action to deal with extremism in schools, which the last Government never did. We have also taken action to introduce no-notice inspections, which will ensure that Her Majesty’s chief inspector has the powers, which he was denied under the last Government, to deal with the problems that started under the last Government.

The reason I am asking the question again is that we are still searching for an answer. Labour’s answer is absolutely clear: we need directors of school standards, independent of local authorities, to ensure a robust system of local oversight. The Secretary of State’s policy involves more Whitehall centralism, more unqualified teachers, and less collaboration and accountability. Is it not the case that even those on the Government Benches now realise that Birmingham has shown that his school model is bust?

I have to say that the hon. Gentleman did rather better at reading out his question this time than he did last week, so I suppose it really was worth that exercise in déjà vu all over again. The truth is that Labour’s policy is opaque and unclear. At different times, the hon. Gentleman has been in favour of free schools and greater autonomy, and against them. He is currently in favour of abolishing the national curriculum in all schools, but David Blunkett, the man who advises him on schools policy, is in favour of imposing it in all schools. As I have said before: inconsistency, thy name is Tristram.

Order. I think that the Secretary of State was referring to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett). I feel sure that he was.

T3. Last week, the Secretary of State described the safety of children as central to his Department’s mission. In March, prompted by information arising from the police investigation into Jimmy Savile, he ordered investigations into 21 schools and care homes. How will he co-ordinate that work with similar investigations in the NHS and report the findings to the House? (904225)

Clearly we remain committed to doing everything we can to learn from whatever happened in those cases. In his written ministerial statement in March, the Secretary of State set out the process for doing that. My Department will be working closely with the Department of Health, in conjunction with the work being done by Kate Lampard and the work that Lucy Scott-Moncrieff will undertake to provide independent oversight of the process. Discussions between the Departments have taken place, and we hope to be able to say more about the outcome of both the investigations in the autumn.

T2. Will the Minister tell us how many schools are being built as a result of his programme, and how many have had their conditions improved? (904224)

Yes, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are building, rebuilding and upgrading more than 900 schools during the course of this Parliament. We have also recently announced a Priority School Building programme to rebuild many of the schools that are in the worst condition, including many that were not even on the list for Building Schools for the Future.

T6. We are in the third year of phonics tests for six-year-olds, and I understand that the tests have shown an improvement in decoding skills. What action will the Minister take to ensure that we are stimulating the enjoyment of reading? (904229)

Last year’s results from the progress in international reading literacy study—PIRLS—showed that the number of children in this country who are reading for enjoyment is going up; it has resumed considerably over the past few years. We have fantastic schemes to encourage students to read, such as the summer reading challenge. This year’s challenge is the mythical maze, which will challenge children to find their way around a labyrinth and introduce them to fantastical creatures from the world of legend and mythology.

T4. Further to his somewhat unilluminating response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), will the Secretary of State tell the House—and if necessary write to me—on how many occasions his former special adviser Dominic Cummings has visited the Department for Education since he left the Secretary of State’s employment, and whom he met on each occasion? (904227)

I will consider carefully, as ever, the hon. Lady’s question, but it is instructive that with many educational challenges in her constituency, she chooses once again to disappear down the rabbit hole of Whitehall process, rather than seeking to stand up for her constituents.

T9. The Secretary of State will recall from our meetings in the Department that there is concern about the funding of the transition from three-tier to two-tier education, particularly in my constituency. Will he confirm that under this Government, funding for extra primary school places is nearly double what it was under the previous Labour Government? (904232)

I absolutely confirm that increase in funding, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has been as tenacious as a Doberman Pinscher with a bone between its jaws in ensuring that children in Bury St Edmunds and across Suffolk get the support they need financially and educationally.

Ambitious about Autism recently reported that some 28,000 children, or more, have been informally and illegally excluded from schools. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what action he will take to protect some of our most vulnerable children?

Children on the autistic spectrum often present with types of behaviour that can in certain circumstances lead to disciplinary and behavioural problems. The answer, of course, is to ensure that we are in a position to identify the needs of those children earlier. Later today the House will debate some of the consequences of legislation that we have introduced to improve identification and support of all children with special educational needs.

My constituent Jack Entwistle is a lively 11-year-old who suffers from autism. He is being denied education suitable for his needs by Lancashire country council, and unfortunately he is not alone. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to try to end the discrimination that Jack is suffering from the education department at Lancashire county council?

I will ensure that a Minister meets my hon. Friend, whom I thank for his dogged and determined work on behalf of his constituents. We have both had our frustrations with Lancashire county council over the years, but any vulnerable child in Burnley has a highly effective champion in my hon. Friend.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House exactly when Dominic Cummings ceased to hold the pass that allowed him access to the Department for Education?

I think it was Jimmy Carter who was once attacked by critics for worrying about exactly who was using the tennis courts at the White House. I am not responsible for the allocation of passes to the Department for Education, but I am always happy to welcome constructive critics such as the hon. Lady for an enjoyable discussion over a cup of tea whenever she wants to come to the Department.

The rise in the number of apprenticeships in my constituency has contributed to a 52% fall in youth unemployment since the last election. Will the Minister join me in congratulating local employers who are taking those youngsters on, and colleges such as Selby college and York college whose work in that area is doing so much to provide life chances and career prospects for those young people?

The increase in apprenticeships across the country is helping to tackle youth unemployment. There has been a sharp fall in youth unemployment in many parts of the country—including that of my hon. Friend— with a fall of more than 50% over the past year, which is seriously good news. There are many contributory factors to that, not least colleges that work extremely hard to ensure that young people get jobs, as well as employers who create that prosperity, thanks to our long-term economic plan.

What will the Government do about the fact that there are more than 4,000 infant school children in classes of more than 30 in the north-east and North Yorkshire?

That is precisely why the Government have doubled the allocation of money for basic need, by complete contrast with the previous Government who cut the number of places in primary schools despite the boom in the birth rate.

Thinking that it faces too many bureaucratic hurdles, the Local Government Association is looking for more powers to interfere in free schools and academies. All too often, local authorities are the bureaucratic hurdles, holding back inspired head teachers, inspirational boards of governors, and parents who want a better future for their children. Will my right hon. Friend resist these efforts by local government to take back controls?

My hon. Friend is a man after my own heart. There are some outstanding local councils, not least, for example, in the north-east and Darlington. They do a great job in supporting head teachers to raise standards and exercise a greater degree of autonomy. Sadly, however, there are those who want the creeping tendrils of bureaucracy once again to choke the delicate flower of freedom, and I am afraid that the Opposition Front Bench is a particularly rank unweeded garden when it comes to nurturing those tendrils.

Does the Secretary of State expect multi-academy trusts, which are significantly changing the way in which their services are delivered to their academies, fully to consult their head teachers and local governors before these changes are set in train?

I would expect all multi-academy trusts to do everything possible to ensure that the local community and those involved in the delivery of services were appropriately consulted. I look forward to chatting to the hon. Gentleman when the Education Committee next meets so that he can expand on that point.

The number of apprentices in Harlow has increased by more than 80% during the past year. Will the Minister look to increase the prestige of apprentices and create a royal society of apprentices, which would improve their status and encourage more people to do apprenticeships?

I am delighted that, like many other places in the country, the number of apprentices in Harlow is increasing, and the number of employers taking on apprentices is increasing. During the last year, the increase in those applying for apprenticeships through the apprenticeship vacancy website rose by 50% to 1.5 million, not all of them in Harlow, but many. The culture of apprenticeships is on the rise again in Britain.

Has the Secretary of State noticed the groundswell of opposition to the proposal that the Government might privatise child protection services in local authorities? Has he clearly got the message from people as diverse as Professor Eileen Munro and Caitlin Moran in The Times that that is an unacceptable place for privatisation?

I have enormous respect for both Eileen Munro and Caitlin Moran in The Times, and I have been influenced by both of them in different ways. I should stress that we are not proposing the handing over of services that are there to protect vulnerable children to people who are after a fast buck. We have an innovation programme that has been endorsed by many leading organisations, charities and third sector organisations that work with the most vulnerable children. The problem at the moment is that far too many local authorities either require improvement or are very poor in the way in which they look after these vulnerable children. We need to work with external organisations to ensure that those children have the best possible future.

Prison Overcrowding

(Urgent Question): To ask the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the Government’s response to the prison overcrowding crisis.

Let me start by challenging the premise of the question posed by the right hon. Gentleman. We do not have a prison overcrowding crisis. Today’s prison population is 85,359, against a total useable operational capacity of 86,421, which means we have more than 1,000 spare places across the prison estate.

By next April, we will also have opened an additional 2,000 places. That includes four new house blocks, which will start to open from the autumn. We also have a number of additional reserve capabilities to cope with unexpected pressures. At the time of the election next year, we will have more adult male prison places than we inherited in May 2010, despite having to deal with the financial challenges that the last Government left behind.

Since last September the prison population has started rising again. This has happened for a number of reasons, including the significant increase in the number of convictions for historic sex abuse. These are people who committed appalling crimes and probably thought they had got away with it. I am delighted to find the space for them behind bars.

As that increase has been greater than expected, I have agreed to make some reserve capacity available to ensure that we retain a sufficient margin between the number of places occupied and the total capacity of the system until the new prison buildings come on stream later this year. That means in reality that in a number of public and private prisons a few more prisoners will have to share a cell for a few weeks. We might not need those places, but I would rather they were available in case we did need them.

I am also taking steps to address what I believe is a weakness in our prison system: the fact that we have no access to the kind of temporary or agency staff routinely found in our health and education systems. I am establishing a reserve capability among former staff to give us the flexibility to adapt to short-term changes of population by bringing reserve capacity into operation. We currently have some staff shortages in London, particularly because of the rapid improvement in the labour market, and this step will help us to cover any gaps.

Let me also set out for the House how we are managing the prison estate. My objective is to bring down the cost of running the prison estate while maintaining capacity levels. An important part of that is replacing older, more expensive prisons with new or refurbished capacity that is less expensive to run. For example, in the past two years we have opened 2,500 new places, with a further 2,000 places due to open in the next nine months. That has enabled us in that period to close a little over 4,500 places in older prisons, saving us a total of £170 million during the current spending review period.

In addition, we have launched a benchmarking programme across the prison estate to bring down costs. I introduced this programme in the autumn of 2012 as an alternative to privatisation, at the request of the Prison Governors Association and the Prison Officers Association. Indeed, the leaders of the Prison Officers Association sat in my office and described my decision to do so as a “victory” for them. I am grateful to our staff for their hard work in taking these difficult changes forward.

The programme of change has been praised by the National Audit Office and by the Public Accounts Committee and its chairman. The National Audit Office said recently:

“The strategy for the prison estate is the most coherent and comprehensive for many years, has quickly cut operating costs, and is a significant improvement in value for money on the approaches of the past.”

We will end this Parliament with more adult male prison places than we inherited, more hours of work being done in prisons than we inherited, more education for young detainees than we inherited, and a more modern, cost-effective prison estate than we inherited. That is anything but a crisis.

The complacency of the Justice Secretary and the extent to which he is out of touch are breathtaking. He appears to think there are no problems in our prisons and that MPs can be kept in the dark about the fact that Ministers are demanding that already overcrowded prisons squeeze in another 400 inmates over the next few weeks. For example, Wandsworth prison in my constituency, which should have 943 inmates, currently has 1,597 and is operating at 169% capacity. But that is not the worst of it. This Justice Secretary has asked it to provide even more spaces.

MPs are kept in the dark about the fact that over the past five months 600 emergency places have been bought from G4S, Serco and Sodexo—at what cost we do not know. We are kept in the dark about the fact that prison staff who were made redundant and paid off are now being paid to return to work owing to the chronic shortage of staff—at what cost we do not know.

The Justice Secretary seems to think that there are no problems in our prisons. The NAO and the PAC do not agree with him. The chief inspector of prisons disagrees, as we heard this Saturday, and as he has said in every report he has written over the past two years. We disagree, prison governors disagree, prison staff disagree, experts disagree, and bereaved families disagree. Last month alone there were 11 self-inflicted deaths in our prisons. The Education Secretary may laugh; those families do not laugh. Can the Justice Secretary confirm that that was the case last month? Can he also confirm that last year self-harming, suicides and assaults on staff in adult male prisons went up?

Since May 2010, this Government have closed 18 prisons and cut 6,000 staff, yet the prison population remains broadly the same. This crisis is of the Government’s own making. Does the Justice Secretary think that there is any link between that and the 60% rise in the use of the riot squad to deal with serious disturbances in our prisons last year? Does he accept responsibility for the fact that it is his policies that have led to the wrong sorts of prisoners being sent to open prisons and released on temporary licence? Does he agree with the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), in whose constituency Ford prison is located and from which 90 offenders are currently on the run? He said on Saturday:

“It’s becoming a pattern…the wrong people are being sent to Ford.”

When did the Justice Secretary’s officials first warn him about the need to take emergency measures to deal with the most recent shortage of prison places? How many prisons are currently operating on half regime because of staffing shortages, meaning that prisoners are not working or going on courses, as they should be? What additional contingencies does he intend to put in place to deal with the possibility of disturbances in prisons?

On this Government’s watch our prisons have become unsafe warehouses, rather than places where offenders can be rehabilitated. It is important that we get answers to these crucial questions if the public are to have confidence that prisons will continue to punish and reform while keeping prisoners, prison staff and the public safe.

Having listened to those comments, Members might never know the truth. Prison overcrowding is lower under this Government than it was in the last four years of the previous Labour Government. Let me walk the right hon. Gentleman through the operational capacity for adult males in our prisons: in May 2010 it was 80,269; today it is 82,395; and in 2015 it is predicted to be 85,133. That means the capacity for men in our prisons is increasing. The tornado squads, which deal with serious incidents, have dealt with half the level of activity seen in 2007.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman needs a little bit of a lesson in what a prison capacity crisis really is. It is having to introduce a special scheme to let prisoners go home after serving a quarter of their sentence because there are not enough places to keep them in. That is what Labour did. It is deciding to shorten everyone’s sentence by a few weeks because they did not plan for the places needed. That is what Labour did. They let out more than 80,000 people early, and 1,500 of them committed suspected crimes when they should have been in prison. That is my definition of a prison overcrowding crisis, and it happened under Labour. Now they have the nerve to call sensible contingency planning a crisis, even though they were the ones who were forced to rent out thousands of police cells across the country because they ran out of space.

I make no apology for the fact that under this Government more people are going to prison, and they are going to prison for longer. I have a strategy in place to ensure that we will always have the space for them.

Why should Britain find it necessary to have a higher proportion of its population in prison than almost any other western European country?

Of course, we have a much lower proportion of our population in prison than many other countries, but I would like it to be smaller. That is precisely why I believe that the reforms to the way in which we rehabilitate offenders—for example, supervising offenders who go to jail for less than 12 months, who currently get no support, guidance or mentoring—will make the kind of difference that enables us to bring down our prison population in future. That is a goal we should all share.

The chief inspector stated in his report on Oakwood prison that it was easier to obtain an illegal drug in prison than to obtain a bar of soap. He also stated that one of the main reasons for that is prisoners refusing to be tested for drug use. There is not a single prison in this country that is free from illegal drug use. When can we expect at least one to be cleaned up?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the proportion of positive drug tests in our prisons has fallen sharply in recent years; that is to be encouraged. I am confident that Oakwood’s upcoming inspection report will show a significant improvement. The hon. Gentleman is, of course, a Welsh MP; one of the Welsh prisons—Parc, a large new prison that had some teething problems—has turned into one of the best performing prisons in the estate. I am confident that the same thing will happen to Oakwood.

My right hon. Friend should be commended on the energetic way that he, in an unprotected Department, has sought to contribute to meeting the Government’s wider economic objectives. He is entirely right that the overcrowding crisis was inherited in 2010, but is it not about time that we started thinking about the long term—about addressing the issue of the 20,000 prisoners who are in overcrowded conditions—and began to look properly at reconstituting a privatisation programme, so that we can have better-manned prisons with more efficiency for the taxpayer?

The approach that we have taken on privatisation has been to privatise individual services in the way that was recommended by the Prison Governors Association, because we needed to drive through savings quickly across the whole estate, rather than across part of it, but my hon. Friend’s point is sensible. I do not want a prison population the size of the one we have, but nor do I ever want a court to be unable to send an offender to prison when it believes that it should do so. That is why our rehabilitation strategy is so important. The way we will bring down the population of our prison estate is by preventing people from coming back to it, rather than by not locking them up in the first place.

What consideration has the Secretary of State given to treating drug addiction as a health issue, rather than a criminal issue? If he did that, he would have far more space in his prisons.

My Department and the Department of Health have jointly launched an integrated drug rehabilitation service in north-west England, which will ensure that rehab continues beyond the prison gate and is afterwards delivered by the same people. I am very much of the view that we have to tackle drug addiction, but we have to make the best use of the time in which we have people in custody, so that we ensure that they do not come back because of their addiction, that we get them off drugs, and that they do not reoffend.

I do not lie awake at night worrying about prisoners being in overcrowded conditions; if they did not want to be in overcrowded conditions, they should not have committed the crimes that got them sent to prison. Will the Secretary of State do more to encourage the Chancellor to find more money for prison building? If he is looking for suggestions as to where the money could be found, perhaps it could come from the £20 billion a year we give to the EU in membership fees, or from the overseas aid budget. When it comes to tackling any prison overcrowding issue, will he pledge not to do what the last Labour Government did in letting out prisoners before the end of their sentence?

This is what baffles me about the Opposition’s questions and challenges over this issue, because I am precisely not letting out people who should be in prison. I am simply taking sensible precautions to bring on additional capacity. I have to say that if prisoners have to share a cell, I do not regard it as a great problem. I think that the courts should be able to send people to prison if they want to, as does my hon. Friend.

In early 2010, when the Prime Minister first took office, he promised to take an axe to the number of foreign national prisoners in prisons. The figure then was 11,135. Will the Secretary of State tell me what progress has been made, because by my calculations, the number has reduced by about 40 a year?

The figure is, of course, now coming down. It is lower than it was when we took office, and it is roughly proportionate to the number of people in the population who were not born in the UK. We have to bear in mind that one of the reasons why we have a high proportion of foreign national offenders in our jails is that when the Labour party was in government it had a reckless policy on the number of people allowed to migrate to this country.

I have three excellent custodial institutions in my constituency: Rye Hill and Onley prisons, and the secure training centre at Rainsbrook, all of which have fantastic staff and do a brilliant job. I welcome the answer to the urgent question, which was spurious at best, but will there be a recategorisation of prisons? Her Majesty’s prison Onley is heading down the track of being fully made up of sex offenders, and it perhaps deserves recategorisation.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am in favour of greater specialisation within the prison estate; it allows us to concentrate expertise in particular places. Of course, the biggest change in the estate will be the shaping of a system of resettlement prisons—that will begin later this year—to accompany our rehabilitation reforms, so that some prisons specialise in particular needs, as is the case in his constituency, and others are very much geared to preparing people who are in the last few months of their sentence for release, to try to reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

Swansea prison is the most overcrowded prison in the whole of England and Wales: it is at nearly double its capacity. What particular measures is the Secretary of State considering to alleviate the situation in Swansea?

The overcrowding levels at Swansea jail have barely changed in the past four years. Clearly, I would like to bring down the number of people in overcrowded jails, which is why we are increasing the capacity of the adult male estate and why I will bring new capacity on stream this autumn. Of course, two years down the track we will open the first new prison in Wales for a very long time. It will be the first since Parc prison and the first to be located in north Wales—it will be in Wrexham—which will ease pressures on the system in Wales and allow us to detain prisoners closer to home.

When I was a shadow prisons Minister and Labour was in government, I visited about 70 of the 140 or so prisons, young offender institutions and secure training units throughout England and Wales. Despite the best efforts of the staff, those prisons were almost universally overcrowded and full of people who were unable to get educated or rehabilitated while in prison. My right hon. Friend has set in train a programme of rehabilitation which will ensure that those who are currently in prison will not go back. Will he push on with that programme with vigour?

Yes, I absolutely will. We will work on rehabilitation reforms post-prison and look to improve the level of work in prisons. We will also look to continue to expand education and training in prisons. We have, for example, set in train plans to double the amount of education in the youth estate. Those things simply did not happen under the previous Government. Labour Members accuse us of warehousing offenders, but I think they were the ones who were guilty of that.

The Secretary of State has quoted the Prison Officers Association. He is not a man who would want to mislead or confuse the House, so may I tell him what the POA has said today? It has said:

“The decision by NOMS”—

that is, himself—

“to further ‘crowd’ the already overcrowded public sector estate by an additional 440 undermines the commitment that prisons will be safe, secure and decent”.

The POA describes that as

“the perfect storm of a rising population, a lack of staff and too few prison cells.”

Could the Secretary of State start listening to the prison officers themselves, for a change?

When we set about the current programme of benchmarking, I did precisely that: I listened to our staff and governors and accepted their recommendation, and I am implementing their recommendation thanks to the hard work of staff at all levels across the prison estate. The hon. Gentleman talks nonsense when he suggests I am not listening to the staff.

This is an old story. Twelve years ago, the then Labour prisons Minister tried to defend a situation in which 20% of prisoners had to double up in a cell meant for one, saying this situation was only very limited. The problem is that there are twice as many people in prison than there were in 1993, costing £2.2 billion a year. Will the Secretary of State make it his aim to have fewer people in prison, particularly on short sentences, especially when we know that other sanctions are better at reducing reoffending and are preferred by victims?

My hon. Friend and I share the same objectives, and that is what our rehabilitation reforms are about. The truth is that approximately 95% of the people who end up in prison have already been through community sentences and probation work. We have to improve what happens at that stage and rehabilitation post-prison, but what we cannot do is simply not send to prison people who have committed serious crimes and are found guilty by the courts.

The Secretary of State may know that I, too, have three prisons in my constituency. Just last month, the chief inspector’s report on Durham prison noted that it faced huge challenges and stated clearly that cells designed to hold one prisoner should not be used for two. At the time of the inspection, a prison designed for 597 prisoners was accommodating 940. Why is the Secretary of State not doing more to alleviate this appalling overcrowding, rather than seeking to exacerbate it?

I do not think the hon. Lady has been listening to what I have been saying. Today, despite the budget cuts we have had to push through, a smaller proportion of prisoners are being forced to share a cell than was the case under the Labour Government, who were in office until 2010. We are delivering a better performance for less money and in difficult circumstances. I am proud of that and Labour should be ashamed of itself.

What impact is investment in IT having on the ability of the Department and prison management to manage the movement of prisoners, and will it in effect deliver better rehabilitative services in education for prisoners?

The IT work that is being done across not just the prison system but the criminal justice system is enormously important for the future not only in improving efficiency, but in ensuring a really joined-up approach from the time somebody is first arrested, through the court system and prison, to the support we provide post-prison and our probation work, and in understanding, should they reoffend, where they have had issues in the past. It is enormously important and it is already improving efficiency, but there is a lot more we can do.

The rehabilitation of offenders and the control of their behaviour in prison occur best when they are close to family and friends who can influence their rehabilitation. How many prisoners are currently housed in prisons more than 60 miles from their home community?

I cannot give an exact figure, but I can say that as we introduce resettlement prisons in the last part of this year, the vast majority of offenders—not absolutely all, but almost all offenders—will spend at least the last few months of their sentence in the geographic area into which they will be released, which will help with precisely the links the hon. Gentleman talks about.

Will the Justice Secretary confirm that there are more offenders in jail now than there were under the previous Government, and that crime is lower now than under the previous Government? Will he also confirm that there will be absolutely no repeat of the shambolic early release scheme, which saw 80,000 prisoners let out early, meaning that we had to prosecute hundreds of them, including for murder and other serious violent offences?

I completely agree. To be frank, I would like to have the capacity to unravel some of the residual schemes that I inherited, such as the home detention curfew scheme, which in my view should not have been introduced in the first place and which people struggle to understand. I will not be able to do that until resources are available, but it is certainly my ambition.

In the light of what he has said, perhaps the Justice Secretary would like to spend the night at Swansea prison. It is the most overcrowded prison in Britain—I guess he would say it is the most popular—with two prisoners for every place. They are crammed in cells, with shared toilets, in sweltering heat, staying there day and night. Will he at last accept responsibility for the closure of 18 jails, the loss of 3,500 prison officers and the ever-escalating increase in the prison population that has led to an increase in assaults on prison officers and the deaths, suicides and self-harming of prisoners? Will he stand aside for someone who will not put at risk the public, prisoners and prison officers, and resign for his heartless, mindless incompetence?

Mr Speaker, sometimes you hear contributions in this House that are beyond parody. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he was not in the House during the last Parliament because he lost in 2005, but I do not recall that he called for the resignation of previous Labour Ministers when levels of overcrowding were higher.

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what I have done in Wales. I have recognised the fact that that the prison system in Wales has a problem because north Wales does not have a prison, which means that prisoners from north Wales cannot be housed close to home. What have I done? I have won from the Chancellor £250 million-plus to build a new prison in north Wales. That is doing the right thing for the people of Wales.

On prisons and overcrowding, according to a written answer to a question I asked, prisoners were given additional days for bad behaviour on 11,550 occasions in 2009. Will the Secretary of State clarify that this Government have done a lot to address the issue of bad behaviour, thereby affecting capacity in prisons?

We have introduced a tougher and more spartan regime in our prisons, as well as tougher penalties for those who abscond post-prison and break their licence conditions, who can now go to jail for much longer. Interestingly, the penalty that staff appear to believe is most valuable in dealing with troublesome prisoners is the removal of prisoners’ television sets from their cells when they behave badly.

Rehabilitation is important, and purposeful activity is particularly important, including the learning of musical instruments. Will the Justice Secretary ask his prisons Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), to approach with an open mind the meeting that I am having with him and Billy Bragg on Thursday, with a view to giving a positive response to our proposals if we can show that such rehabilitation will be of benefit?

I will of course ask my hon. Friend to approach that meeting with an open mind. However, although we want to encourage positive activities within prisons, there is a genuine issue for discussion about whether metal strings or metal ligaments should be made available, given that some people of course want to cause trouble in prisons.

I welcome the increased prison capacity that has been announced today. One reason for the huge increase in the prison population is the reoffending that takes place. Labour identified that and spent £9 billion on it, but there has been little change. Will the Secretary of State say what is being done by this Government to ensure that prisoners do not reoffend when they leave prison?

That is at the heart of our reforms to the probation service, which will mean, crucially, that later this year we will begin to provide support, supervision and mentoring to short-sentence prisoners when they leave prison. At the moment, they get nothing at all and are left to their own devices, and nearly two thirds of them reoffend quickly. That is the biggest blot on our criminal justice system. Unlike the last Government, we are doing something about it.

In a spirit of openness, perhaps the Justice Secretary will tell the House how much the emergency prison places that he has bought from private prisons are costing the public purse, so that we can ascertain whether they are more cost-effective than the prison places that he has closed.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the marginal cost of an additional place within a prison is much lower than the overall cost of running a prison.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government’s focus on mentoring, rehabilitating and reducing the reoffending of short-term prisoners is one of the key drivers in reducing the prison population, and that it is a far better alternative than letting thousands of serious offenders out on the streets, as the last Government did?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We have to bear it in mind that nearly 60% of the 50,000 people who are released on to the streets after short sentences each year reoffend. If we can bring that level of reoffending down so that it is closer to the level for those who go to prison for longer periods, it will significantly increase our success in reducing reoffending and, as my Liberal Democrat colleagues have said, bring down the prison population.

Last year’s inspection of Bristol prison found that the prison was dirty; that prisoners could not get clean clothes, clean bedding or cleaning materials; that it was easy to get drugs; and that about half the prisoners spent all day locked in their cells. How does the Secretary of State think such conditions help the rehabilitative process?

We are working as hard as we can to increase the number of hours that are worked in prisons, and the number is rising steadily. We have a very energetic team that is looking for new business opportunities. Of course, in a prison that is dirty, the most readily available work force to clean it are the prisoners themselves. In many prisons that I have been around, they are doing a first-rate job of that.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his robust response this afternoon and over the weekend in the media. I urge him to redouble his efforts to ensure that foreign prisoners are returned to their home countries as quickly as possible to serve their sentences, which relieves pressure on space and budgets.

I assure my hon. Friend that that remains a major priority. I pay tribute to the prisons Minister, who has successfully completed one prisoner transfer agreement and is discussing others. We need to do everything we can to return people to their country of origin as soon as possible, because it reduces the pressures on the prison population.

I remind the Secretary of State that the urgent question is the result of a report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, which is independent, not of some political plot against him. I also remind him that when I was Chair of the Education Committee, we found that education, skills and rehabilitation in prisons were the first things to go to the wall when there was overcrowding.

There was no report from the independent inspectorate about this matter. We are increasing the amount of education in prisons where we can. I have just announced a doubling of the amount of education that is done by youth offenders in the youth offender estate. We are also launching a new secure college, which will have an education-focused curriculum. For reasons that completely escape me, the Opposition oppose replacing a prison-type institution that has bars on the windows with something more akin to a school or college that does positive skill building. I think they are bonkers.

The fact that crime is down suggests that reoffending rates are coming down too. Will my right hon. Friend set out the coalition Government’s progressive, forward-looking rehabilitation measures that will reduce reoffending rates still further?

If I may, I will correct my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that crime is falling. The number of first-time entrants into the criminal justice system is dropping as well. The challenge for us is that the level of reoffending has barely changed. That is the next frontier. That is why we are reforming the way we support and rehabilitate offenders, why there is a greater focus on education in the youth estate, and why there is mentoring and support for those who get short sentences. That is the way to take crime reduction to the next level.

I expect to recruit about 80 to 100 temporary staff, and of course we have a recruitment process all the time. Like any big organisation with tens of thousands of employees, we have a constant process of people moving on and people being recruited and trained. As I outlined earlier, we need some 80 to 100 officers, but I want to build up a much larger reserve so that if we get fluctuations in future we have a pool of people we can draw on, in the same way as the health service and education system do.

I agree entirely with the thrust of policy from the Secretary of State and, of course, the excellent prisons Minister. In Wellingborough, we have a prison that is, rightly, temporarily closed, but which could be opened very quickly. The problem is not capacity across the nation; it is overcrowding in London. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the possibility of reopening the prison in Wellingborough?

I assure my hon. Friend that I am well aware of the situation in Wellingborough, and I do not intend to take any steps to dispose of that prison, because it is sensible for us to have reserve capacity available. I have no immediate plans to change the status of Wellingborough from being a mothballed site.