House of Commons
Thursday 29 January 2015
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Rivers and Waterways
11. What steps she has taken to improve the cleanliness of Britain's rivers and waterways. (907297)
We have made good progress and cleaned up more than 10,000 miles of our rivers. Pollution from sewage has gone down significantly. During this Parliament, phosphate pollution will fall by a fifth and ammonia by a sixth. This shows that a healthy environment goes hand in hand with a healthy economy.
The River Cherwell and the Oxford canal will soon appear proudly on Cherwell district council’s new coat of arms as being two of the most valued and precious amenities in the district. Am I right in thinking that the total of rivers whose water quality has improved under this Government now exceeds the length of the Amazon and the Nile combined? What more can be done to ensure that our rivers and canals continue to become cleaner?
My right hon. Friend mentions two fine rivers, and I have been on the River Cherwell, a very fine river. He is absolutely right. We have cleaned more than 10,000 miles of river and we will shortly put in place our new countryside stewardship scheme, which will enable farmers to get grants to improve water quality even further.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the River Thames. It is vital not only for London but for our whole country, and it is unacceptable that at present raw sewage is regularly pumped into the Thames. That is why we are taking action, through projects such as the Thames tideway tunnel, to reduce that vastly.
2. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on promoting pork exports. (907285)
I discussed this issue early this week with my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary. Since 2010, we have opened 600 new overseas markets and UK pork exports reached £309 million in 2013, up 26% from 2010. I am committed to boosting this even further and we made major progress on my recent visit to China.
As my right hon. Friend rightly says, and as regular watchers of “Have I Got News for You” know, she has recently been to China. Lincolnshire has first-class pig farmers. Will she update the House on her discussions in China to open up that market to my pig farmers?
It was fantastic to have representatives from major pork companies, such as Tulip, which has a plant in my hon. and learned Friend’s constituency, and from Cranswick, which sells great Norfolk pork, on my visit to China. We made progress on inward inspections—getting items such as trotters approved, which will open up more produce in this country—and we were also able to announce the appointment of our first ever food and agriculture counsellor, based in Beijing, Karen Morgan, which will help to drive further business. This is vitally important, because China will be the biggest importer of food by 2018.
According to the Soil Association, which is based in Bristol, in the past four years Dutch farmers have reduced antibiotic use by 58%, which means that British pig farmers now use more than three times more antibiotics than their Dutch counterparts. Would it not make our exports more attractive to overseas markets if we were to follow the Dutch example and set a similar 50% target for reducing UK farm antibiotic use?
I applaud the efforts of the Secretary of State to boost the sale of pigs trotters from Karro at the Malton bacon factory. Will she use her recent visit to China to expand dairy exports to help boost dairy production in this country?
My hon. Friend is right; there are huge opportunities for dairy in China. Chinese consumers currently consume a third of the dairy products that we consume in Europe, but that is expanding rapidly and the present generation of Chinese children are eating a lot of dairy products. UK products are particularly well respected and I took representatives of dairy companies, including Somerdale cheese, out with me. I want to see more companies out there and we are doing all we can to help the industry get its products into the Chinese markets.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work she did in this area when she was Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We launched the Bonfield report last summer, which is all about making it easier for our schools and hospitals to buy British. It opens up £400 million- worth of new markets for our farmers, and by 2017 all Government Departments are committed to sourcing locally. Of course, DEFRA has led the way: we now serve British bacon in our canteen, rather than the Danish bacon that used to be served.
In her discussions with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, was the right hon. Lady able to raise the issue of the supermarket adjudicator and her need to have powers to impose fines, and to extend her remit throughout the entire length of the food chain, rather than just between the last producer and the supermarket?
Although figures are not yet available for the current planting season, we estimate that since 2010 our rural development programme will have supported the planting of over 10 million trees through new woodland creation. At the same time, our Big Tree Plant project is set to meet its target of planting 1 million new trees in England’s urban areas.
Trees and woodland are a hugely important part of our landscape in Yorkshire, and I congratulate the Government on their work nationally to support tree planting. Locally too, many community groups in Harrogate and Knaresborough have planted thousands and thousands of trees. What steps are the Government taking to safeguard the health of trees from the threat of disease?
In April 2014 we published a tree health management plan alongside our plant biosecurity strategy, and we are implementing those, working closely with stakeholders. We take a risk-based approach to plant health and we have created a prioritised risk register to inform appropriate action against pests and diseases. For example, we have introduced movement restrictions or notification requirements for certain tree species, and we appointed a senior chief bio-health officer, Professor Nicola Spence.
Planting trees has been one of the great success stories over the past few years, but simply planting trees is not enough. We must manage our woodland, find commercial uses for wood products, and make sure that our forests are available for a wide range of uses. Can the Minister reassure me that the report of the independent panel on forestry and the subsequent strategy developed within the Department are very much ongoing business, and that we will see many of those ideas put into practice over the coming years?
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work he did in this area as Minister. Yesterday I met our stakeholder forum, which involves people from the commercial sector right the way through to local charity and voluntary groups. We can do much better on managing woodland in this country and we are taking the steps that will enable us to do that so that it can be more productive, better for biodiversity and better for local economies too, through initiatives such as Grown in Britain.
Badger Vaccination: Cheshire
The deadline for applications for the badger edge vaccination scheme, which supports privately-led vaccination in the edge areas of England, which includes much of Cheshire, is 27 February. Decisions will be based on published criteria such as the size of the area, the location, value for money and operational readiness.
Sadly, I must report an outbreak of bovine TB in Stockport in my constituency that is just north of the Cheshire area for which bids can be accepted. May I press the Minister to extend the area from which valid bids will be accepted, to take account of the northern spread of this pernicious disease?
We are aware that there is a particular problem in Cheshire, and that is why we have introduced six-monthly surveillance testing. The boundaries of the so-called edge area are reviewed regularly on epidemiological grounds. The TB advisory group last considered this issue at the end of last year and decided that there was not a case for increasing testing at that stage. The matter will be considered again later this year.
The Government keep on saying that there is no alternative to badger culling, yet the trials in Wales based on stringent cattle measures combined with vaccination show that there is a viable alternative to the Government’s mass slaughter of badgers. However, Ministers are obviously allergic to science-based policy and deaf to alternative approaches. Will there be an announcement on the further roll-out of the mass culling of badgers before the Dissolution of Parliament? The country needs to know.
I think the hon. Lady is reading too much into what has happened in Wales. The vaccinated area is a little more than 1.5% of the total area. There has been a reduction in the incidence of TB, as there has been in the UK, predominantly through the introduction of cattle movement controls. We have always been very clear that there is no example anywhere in the world of a country that has tackled TB without also dealing with the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population. We will stick to our 25-year strategy.
It is too early to give those figures. My hon. Friend is right, though, that anecdotally there are examples of farms that have gone clear since the badger cull commenced. The farm of James Griffiths, which I visited last year, had been under restriction for 12 years, and I understand that he went clear earlier this year. However, these are currently anecdotal reports and it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions.
The Secretary of State has been working with ministerial colleagues to implement the electricity market reform programme. This will deliver the greener energy and reliable supplies that the UK needs while minimising costs for consumers in the long term. Government planning guidance makes it clear that the need for renewable energy should not automatically override concerns about local impacts. When applications for wind turbines are determined, the impacts on matters such as ecology, noise, landscape, heritage and amenity are considered.
That is all very well, but 57% of applications for wind farms are rejected and a very large number are called in by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I note that Government Members are saying “Hear, hear.” None of us wants wind farms in the wrong place, but surely that is a vital question, because we need renewable energy in this country. It is about time the Minister worked with his colleagues to get a sensible way forward so that we can have alternative energy sources.
I am delighted to work alongside my Department of Energy and Climate Change colleagues on this issue. We have seen a dramatic increase in renewables such onshore and offshore wind. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that development has to be in the right place. It is only right and proper that local issues are considered, and we have to be very clear about the way it is done. He is welcome to come to my constituency and see that there has been an increase in onshore wind. However, this has to be taken forward through the proper planning procedure.
If the Minister wants good will towards these hideous and useless items of industrial furniture, then he really does need to have another word with his planning inspectors. There is no way, had he done so, that they would have overturned the decision of the local authority against three wind turbines in the village of Langho that are incredibly unpleasant. The whole community and all the councillors were against them, but now the community has to put up with them. Will he have another word with his inspectors?
Offshore wind has the potential not just to create green energy but to generate jobs, exports and research. Yet the support for offshore wind available through the current round of contracts for difference will not create the incentives needed for future investment. Frankly, this places in jeopardy the future of a fledgling industry. Will the Minister send a strong signal that the Government remain committed to offshore renewable energy?
We are having a fascinating discussion on an issue that is not at the core of what our Department does. However, I am happy to reassure the hon. Lady that this Department is committed to working with others to take forward the decarbonisation of our economy. Through the investments in local growth deals and so on, we have shown how we are working with people right across the United Kingdom to create jobs and to deliver the green growth that will help us to restore our economy and work towards a far more positive future.
In the case of the proposed extension to the Scout Moor wind farm near my constituency, my constituents are genuinely concerned that insufficient weight is being given to environmental considerations, such as landscape value, in the planning process. Does the Minister agree that, in considering such applications, sufficient weight must be given to the wishes and views of local constituents rather than to power and other matters?
As I said to other hon. Members earlier, it is important that such local factors are taken into consideration. That is why some developments are approved, and others are not. Such decisions have to be based on important planning considerations, including those raised by my hon. Friend.
Water Companies: Social Tariff
Eight water companies across England and Wales already offer a social tariff on top of the national, mandated WaterSure scheme, and we expect six more to introduce a tariff from April.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I am sure that he would join me in welcoming the announcement by Northumbrian Water in my area. After consultation with customers, it has introduced a social tariff, and it is working with debt charities to support vulnerable people in my area. However, only 25,000 people nationally benefit from social tariffs, so what practical steps is the Minister taking to encourage the scope and availability of social tariffs for vulnerable people?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in this matter. I share his views on what is being achieved to help bill payers in his part of the country. As a Government, we have worked with the industry to look at ways to ensure that bills are affordable for people. The regulator, Ofwat, which has the key lead on this issue, has of course now taken action, and its price review has led to a very good deal for customers. More companies are taking advantage of the option of social tariffs. There will be more this year and more the year after, which will deliver a deal for vulnerable people who need help with their bills.
Is not the big difficulty with water and sewerage bills separating those who cannot pay and need assistance from those who will not pay and need to be pursued? Is not the best way to reduce family water and sewerage bills to increase the spread of metering so that the volume of water consumed is less and the bill total is reduced?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. In areas where there is higher metering, people have perhaps focused more on what they can do to reduce their water usage. We have not seen a case made for compulsory water metering across the country. However, people have the option of talking to their water company about water metering to help to reduce their usage and their bills.
Emergency Food Aid
The provision of food aid ranges from small, local provision to regional and national schemes. Some keep records, some do not, but we do not want to create new regulations or reporting burdens for volunteers and charity groups providing food aid. The best way to address poverty is to help people off benefits and into work, and we have created 1.7 million jobs since 2010. Schemes such as free school meals will also help. Last week, the Secretary of State met retailers to encourage them to do more to redistribute surplus food to local charities.
According to the Trussell Trust, the food bank in the west end of Newcastle is the busiest in the country, feeding thousands every month. I hope that the Minister is not going to pretend that these people are just attracted to free food or that they do not know how to cook, because I have seen the tears in the eyes of my constituents at the shame they feel when forced to go to this food bank by this Government’s cruel and unfair policies. So what is he going to do about it?
Instead of harping on about what the Government might or might not be doing—and we are doing much to get people out of food poverty—I urge colleagues to do as I have done and visit their local food bank. I know that many colleagues have already done so. They should also emphasise to their constituents that what food banks require is not fresh food, but pasta, sugar and other goods that can be stored for some time.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I visited the food bank in Camborne in my constituency just before Christmas to support the work that it does. It is better for food banks to have predominantly non-perishable goods to support the great work that they do.
There is no shortage of food in this country, yet more than 1 million people are going hungry and relying on emergency food aid. There is no shortage of compassion from food bank volunteers, but there is a hunger of compassion in a Government who are taking us back to the 1930s in spending and to Victorian times in attitudes to the poor. The Secretary of State sat out the last debate on food banks. Will the Minister apologise for the Government’s staggering complacency in the face of a food crisis in which an advanced nation cannot feed its working poor and its vulnerable, or will he join again the collective chorus of denial in the dying days of this Government?
The Government have got 1.7 million people back into work and taken 3 million of the lowest-paid out of tax altogether. If the Labour party had had its way, it would have frozen energy prices at the top of the market, but we have seen energy prices continue to fall. Food prices have fallen for the first time since 2002 and are continuing to do so.
Habitats Directive (Bats and Newts)
DEFRA completed a review of the national implementation of the habitats directive in 2012. Although the review found that implementation was largely working well, it identified measures to improve things further, which have largely been delivered. In addition, the European Commission has started its own evaluation of the directive, which is due to conclude in the spring of 2016.
Before I receive any hate mail, may I say that I am a keen conservationist and that I like bats and newts? However, as my hon. Friend intimated, there are problems with the implementation of the EU habitats directive that are costing the taxpayer and private citizens huge amounts of money—millions and millions of pounds. I say gently to him that, during the review, Natural England and other agencies gold-plated the EU habitats directive to a great extent. Just to give an example, when I bought my semi-derelict house, there were 24 great crested newts in the cellar. If, heaven forfend, I had picked them all up and taken them outside, I would have been liable to spend 12 years in jail and pay a fine of £120,000.
My right hon. Friend is right. The Conservative party has a proud history of conservation. Indeed, we introduced the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I point out to him that since our 2012 review, the changes to Natural England’s licensing procedures have saved applicants an estimated £535,000 and 678 weeks of delay. DEFRA has assisted the Church of England to produce guidance to simplify the consideration of bats in churches and has funded research into bat deterrence. DEFRA will continue to work with stakeholders to address the problems that he has identified.
Food and Drink Exports
Food and drink is our largest manufacturing industry. The chain contributes more than £100 billion to the economy every year. Since 2010, we have supported 2,500 firms to get their produce into supermarkets, restaurants and pubs across the world. We now trade with more than 150 countries, selling wine and cheese to France, tea to China and chillies to Pakistan.
I am proud to have a meat producer in my constituency that makes chorizo sausage that it sells to Spain. Will the Secretary of State and the Department continue to work closely with all local food producers to get their products into supermarkets and new markets around the world?
I am delighted to hear about the chorizo. I look forward to coming to my hon. Friend’s constituency to sample it. I want people to buy and sell more British food here in Britain and overseas. That is why we produced the Bonfield report about public sector procurement. I have talked to the supermarkets about ensuring that they have good British labelling, so that we get British products into our supermarkets where possible. Strawberries are a huge success, with two-thirds of the strawberries sold in supermarkets being British. We are doing more to promote food and drink overseas through our food and drink export plan.
May I commend the Department and our embassies abroad for their work in expanding our exports? We also need to ensure that there is continuing access to markets abroad. What steps are being taken to ensure that the South African authorities accept regionalisation in the export health certificate for poultry, so that exports can resume following the outbreak of avian influenza in Nafferton?
Some exports were affected by the avian flu outbreak. We took action as swiftly as possible, and we had a Government vet on the premises on the day to ensure that we dealt with the situation. We are working with countries such as South Africa to open those markets as rapidly as possible.
The Secretary of State will be aware that there are now some 448 commercial vineyards in the United Kingdom, producing 4.5 million bottles of excellent wine a year, with méthode champenoise in particular renowned around the world. Is she aware that the UK pays two thirds of all the duty paid on wine in the EU—an average of £2.05 a bottle? Given the additional costs of producing wine in the UK, will she speak to the Chancellor about achieving a fairer tax treatment of this great British refresher?
The draft Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015 have recently been debated in both Houses and will come into force shortly. The regulations require that all keepers of dogs must, by April 2016, have their dogs microchipped. Welfare groups and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have already taken steps to raise awareness of that requirement, and DEFRA will continue to work closely with vets and charities to highlight the new requirement.
The first thing to note is that about 70% of dogs in this country are already microchipped under the voluntary scheme. Our judgment is that we now need to make it compulsory to get to the remaining 30%. We will take a proportionate approach to penalties. In the first instance, somebody will be given an enforcement notice, not a penalty, and 21 days to comply.
Charities are doing a great deal to raise awareness. Officials pointed out to me this morning that a recent edition of The Beano included a storyline put there by the Dogs Trust in which Gnasher had a microchip installed.
You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that I raised with the Prime Minister last week the plight of Murphy, a dog who had been stolen in Bradford—one of a spate of dog thefts in the local area. Does the Minister think microchipping will help to reduce the number of dog thefts, and what other steps is his Department taking to ensure that we see fewer of these terrible instances?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is very distressing for families when they have a loved pet stolen. Compulsory microchipping of all dogs will make it far easier to detect such crimes, and we will issue guidance to vets and others that if they suspect a dog might have been stolen, they should report that to the relevant authorities.
Flood and Water Management
Following significant discussions with local government and others and a formal consultation, the statement on 18 December by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government set out a simple way to clarify maintenance responsibilities for sustainable drainage systems, in response to Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendation. That comes into effect in April, but we will keep it under review. Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 remains available for implementation.
Many people in North East Derbyshire who are moving into newly built homes are finding themselves knee-deep in sewage every time it rains, because the drains cannot cope with the extra capacity. That is a direct result of the sustainable drainage systems part of the 2010 Act still not having been implemented. When does the Minister plan to implement it, and what has been the delay?
It is being implemented, and the provision to do so has been taken forward in collaboration with my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. We think it will make a real difference. If the hon. Lady has particular issues that she would like to raise with me about the situation in her area, I would be happy to hear from her.
Common Agricultural Policy Funds
The review of allocations of common agricultural policy funds between UK Administrations will take place during 2016 and 2017. DEFRA will first work with the devolved Administrations to decide on the data needed to facilitate a comparison of payments across the UK. I have made it clear that one area that will be examined in the review is a comparison of land types and payment areas. That task will be easier once all UK Administrations have made the transition to area-based payments.
I thank the Minister for that answer. If the review shows that farmers in any one part of the UK are being unfairly treated by the current allocation formula, it is obviously important that the outcome of the review is implemented straight away. I hope that the Minister will commit to supporting a speedy implementation.
We will consider implementation as part of the review. We have always made it clear that changing allocations before 2020—within the current programme—would have some legal difficulties, as well as practical difficulties for other Administrations. At the very latest, the changes will take effect from 2020.
DEFRA’s priorities are leading the world in food and farming; protecting our country from floods and animal and plant diseases; improving the environment; championing the countryside; and rural services. The British dairy industry is world leading, and we are doing all we can to make sure that our hard-working farmers are able to get through this tough period. That is why we are working with the banks and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to help farmers with any cash-flow problems and ensuring that payments to dairy farmers are prioritised by the Rural Payments Agency. We want to see more British dairy products being sold here and overseas and that is why I have been pushing for better country of origin labelling, why we launched the Bonfield report to get the public sector buying British and why we continue to promote exports, which are now at record levels.
Northamptonshire Action with Communities in Rural England does a fantastic job in support of local parish councils and other village communities in the borough of Kettering and across the county. What confidence can the Secretary of State give Northamptonshire ACRE and parish councils that the future funding for ACRE will be secure?
The Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), said on Monday in the House that the severely redacted report on the impacts of shale gas on the rural economy was prepared by a junior member in another Department
“and it was not appropriate for them to have done so”.—[Official Report, 26 January 2015; Vol. 591, c. 594.]
In view of those comments, will the Secretary of State tell us why it was done and which one of her Ministers was responsible for overseeing the production of the report? Or is that information to be redacted too?
The paper in question was not analytically robust and it was not signed off by Ministers. The responsibility for the economic impacts of fracking is a matter for the Department of Energy and Climate Change and it is looking at the issue. I am clear that fracking has a huge potential to provide jobs and growth and lower our energy costs. That is why it is so important that we proceed with this vital technology.
Ministers have responsibility for what is done in their Department. The report has been so heavily redacted that even the name of its author has been removed. Given that the Government have now caved in to Labour’s demand for extensive and robust regulation, without which there can be no fracking for shale gas, why does the Secretary of State not now publish the report, unredacted, in the interests of full transparency? Does she understand that refusing to publish it merely fuels suspicion that the Government have something more to hide than her junior Minister’s embarrassment at being asleep on the job?
The majority of the proposals the Government accepted were already Government policy and were being carried out voluntarily by the industry, the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive. We have agreed to accept the proposals to provide reassurance in law to give the industry the best chance of success in this important technology.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In December Council, the UK pressed hard for a commitment to protect bass stocks. We got a statement from the Commission and subsequently wrote to it. I can confirm that it has now implemented emergency measures to protect bass during the spawning season and ban the very damaging practice of pair trawling, which is a major step forward.
T2. My constituents who run rural businesses were very disappointed that the north Pennines LEADER bid for support was turned down. They think mistakes were made in the assessment. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that the bid is re-examined? (907308)
T4. The Secretary of State is already the toast of the people of Southwell after she gave them the flood grants they had so dearly asked for, but she could cement her reputation in this part of Nottinghamshire by helping us to export our greatest gift to the world’s tables: the bramley apple. As everyone knows, the bramley apple was created by Miss Brailsford of Southwell, although the name was ruthlessly taken by the local butcher, Mr Bramley. The bramley apple is of course ubiquitous in this country, but is virtually unexportable because it is not known in the rest of the world. Can the Secretary of State reassure us that, with the staff and expertise she is building in new markets, she is developing expertise in branding so that we can create great British brands, which is the key to export? (907311)
I am a huge fan of the bramley apple and I eat them on a regular basis. As well as exporting more bramleys abroad, I would like more to be sold here in Britain. Currently, we import two thirds of our apples, so there is a huge opportunity here in the UK. I completely agree with my hon. Friend on branding, which is why we are working with the GREAT Britain campaign to ensure we have clear British branding on our products, and that all our small and other suppliers across the UK have access to those opportunities.
T5. Super- markets are putting huge financial pressures on suppliers in the food industry. That is not benefiting the consumer, and it is driving wages and terms and conditions down for people who work in the industry. Is it not high time the Government considered regulating supermarkets? (907312)
As I mentioned earlier, last night we laid regulations to enable the Groceries Code Adjudicator to have the power to fine supermarkets. I have regular meetings with supermarkets. [Interruption.] It will be able to fine up to 1%, which is a significant sum.
T6. I very much welcome the Government laying the statutory instrument to enable the Groceries Code Adjudicator to issue fines. Dairy farmers in my constituency across the Blackdown hills and Exmoor are now producing milk well below the cost of production. Many big retailers are paying a good price for milk, but are keeping cheese prices artificially low, especially processed cheese. Will Ministers and the Secretary of State put real pressure on retailers to be fair to farmers? At the moment, they are using dairy products as loss leaders and driving the price down. (907313)
I understand that dairy farmers are in a very difficult position. We have very low prices. We expect prices to improve, but clearly there are severe issues for our dairy industry. We are doing all we can, working with HMRC and the RPA on cash-flow issues, to help in the short term. He is absolutely right: there is a big opportunity with our supermarkets. We meet the supermarkets regularly to discuss these issues and to ensure that we have proper British labelling. It is really important that, when consumers go into supermarkets, they can see whether a product is from Britain and is sourced from British milk.
T7. I am sure that, like me, the Secretary of State raised a toast this week to Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, with Scotland’s national drink. Exports of Scotch whisky are rising, with 1.3 billion bottles exported around the world in 2013, but will she talk to her colleagues in the Treasury ahead of the Budget about excise duty to ensure that the Scotch whisky industry is not penalised at home compared with other UK alcohol products? (907314)
I completely agree with the hon. Lady on whisky, and I was also pleased to celebrate Burns night with a Macsween haggis. We have seen fantastic exports of haggis, which are up; we exported £5 million-worth to 28 countries. It is a fantastic night to celebrate, and we are working with the whisky industry, and all other industries, to promote Scottish products.
T9. I thank the Secretary of State for her response on dairy farmers, but may I impress on her the damage that fluctuating and falling prices are doing to the industry and farmers in my constituency? Can she absolutely reassure us that she is treating this problem with the seriousness it deserves? (907316)
We are taking this issue very seriously and are working hard on it. We have just made the announcement about the groceries code adjudicator; we are working closely with HMRC and the Rural Payments Agency; and we are also working on our new countryside productivity scheme, which will be open to dairy farmers to help improve productivity and bring in the capital investment these farms need. We are working hard on this issue, because we know how difficult it is. I have met dairy farmers in Cornwall, Nottinghamshire and Norfolk to discuss it.
T8. Between April and September last year, nearly 500,000 people were referred to a Trussell Trust food bank—a rise of 38% on the year before. When will the Secretary of State, as the Minister responsible for food poverty, say to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor that it is targets for benefits sanctions and the failure properly to raise the minimum wage that are responsible for this dreadful situation? (907315)
On a successful trade mission recently, the Secretary of State saw at first hand the needs of the Northern Ireland agricultural industry in terms of export licensing. I invite her to visit Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity, meet those businesses and recognise that, in order to grow our most successful industry, we need more exports.
I was pleased to take a delegation to China that included Northern Ireland representatives, and we should shortly see inspections of Northern Irish plants taking place. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his invitation. I recognise that Northern Ireland has been a huge exports success story, and we need to support that.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
General Election Count
Provisions to ensure that returning officers begin counting at UK parliamentary elections within four hours after close of poll were introduced under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The Act requires returning officers for constituencies where counting did not begin within this time scale to publish a statement explaining the delay. They must send a copy of the statement to the Electoral Commission within 30 days of the declaration of the result, and the commission must publish details of those constituencies in its statutory election report.
It is really important that the number of ballot papers issued is reconciled with the number of ballot papers received before counting takes place. In constituencies where there are also local elections at district, borough, town and parish council levels on the same day as the general election, the four-hour time limit is going to put huge pressure even on the very best electoral returning officers. Where local candidates and agents are in agreement with a more relaxed time frame, should they not be allowed to proceed on that basis?
As usual, my hon. Friend raises an important question. He represents an area that has a strong reputation for delivering an efficient and timely count. In the end, it is for the returning officer to consider this matter carefully and to decide whether starting the count within four hours can be done. If it is decided in advance that that cannot be done, the matter should be discussed with local politicians and broadcasters and a statement should be issued, as was done by 45 constituencies in the 2010 general election.
The question of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) underlines the complexity of our current polling system. I was proud to be a member of your Commission on Digital Democracy, Mr Speaker, which recommended a move towards online voting. That, of course, would obviate the need for the counts. Will the Electoral Commission spokesman tell us its views on how fast we can move towards delivering on that?
It is a very important issue, but there are of course concerns about security in connection with online voting. These matters will have to be properly considered and looked at over the next few years; I do not think there is going to be any rush towards online voting in the UK.
It is always frustrating to me that the count in my constituency rarely comes before the sun rises, yet other constituencies are able to report within an hour or two. Why does he think that there is that differential? In this day and age, should we not be producing these results in a much more timely and efficient manner?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The British public are certainly very keen on their election night drama and are not keen on having too many constituencies counting on Friday. It is a matter for returning officers in every constituency to sort out their own procedures, to discuss them with local campaigners and to deliver and accurate an efficient account. The most important thing is that the count attracts public confidence and that it is returned accurately.
In most things, I want to move with the times, so I am in favour of the Commission on Digital Democracy recommendations. There is a long tradition in this country, however, that we count on the night of the poll. Increasingly, because of local government cuts, up and down the country, returning officers and chief executives—very often the same people—are deciding to count the vote the next day to save money. That is a retrograde step; what is the hon. Gentleman going to do about it?
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, cutting-edge, but he is five years out of date in relation to the point he has just raised. Just before the last election, Parliament attended to this matter. More and more constituencies are now counting on Thursday nights, and we are going to deliver to the great British public the election night drama—with a great outcome at the end, I am sure—that they demand.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The central argument of “On Rock or Sand” is that we should seek to enhance the well-being, and the personal and communal flourishing, of all in society, and to seek the common good—or the “common profit”, as the book calls it—and that no one should be left behind. These are principles entirely in accord with the objectives of the Church Commissioners.
I am sure the whole House would wish to congratulate my right hon. Friend on being made a lay canon of Christ Church cathedral, Oxford, this weekend. This is only the first or second occasion on which a Second Church Commissioner’s work has been recognised in this way. I heartily congratulate my right hon. Friend. May I ask him to turn his big gun on my question? [Laughter.] Does he agree that when money rules, we remember the price of things but forget their value, and that while retail therapy has a role to play, everything should be done in moderation?
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, but we have heard quite enough weightist comments. I note that Quentin Letts described me yesterday as some sort of human shield for Prime Minister’s questions.
This is an excellent book. I commend it to every colleague as Lenten reading, and I shall put a copy in the House of Commons Library. I think that colleagues should read it because many of the commentaries were written by people who had not read the book, but were simply commenting on what other commentators had said. That started with one journalist quoting from it selectively. I think that everyone in the House wants no one to be left behind, and that the essays in this book are well worth all of us reflecting on.
I certainly hope to avoid the right hon. Gentleman’s big gun when he answers my question. I know that he referred to selective quoting, but the archbishops said in the book that Britain had been “dominated” by “rampant consumerism and individualism” since the Thatcher era, and described our economy as
“a tale of two cities”.
The latter comment is certainly true of Bristol, where we still see huge economic divides. What work is the Church of England doing with politicians to try to rectify that?
The Church of England is working hard to develop the common good in every community, including the diocese of Bristol. I think that we all owe it to ourselves, our families and the communities in which we find ourselves to promote the common good, and that that is a responsibility for all of us. However, if the hon. Lady thinks that the book argues in favour of a larger welfare state and more state dependency, I must tell her that it most certainly does not. That is why I suggest that every colleague read it properly and in full.
Investment: Pharmaceutical Companies
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there should be a better understanding of the implications of the proposed mitochondrial donation regulations, and that the outstanding experiments relating to their safety should be completed and reviewed—as has been recommended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—before they are approved by the House?
I think that, in due course, the House will have to consider some quite difficult issues relating to both the start and the end of life. The Church of England accepts that embryo research is permissible if it is undertaken to alleviate human suffering, but there are, I agree with my hon. Friend, concerns that there has been insufficient scientific study of, and informed consultation on, the ethics of mitochondrial transfer, not least in respect of the role that mitochondria play in the transfer of hereditary characteristics.
It is extremely important for people to understand investment. The Church has made great progress in setting up credit unions, but what is being done to encourage young people and children to develop a betting understanding of the importance of saving?
We seem to have skipped the question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), and to have skipped the hon. Lady’s preliminary question, so I shall reply to her question as if it were a supplementary.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s task group on responsible credit and savings has received £150,000 funding from the Treasury for a trial of savings clubs known as “life savers” in six schools located in various parts of the country. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady’s point about the importance of financial education. If the trial works, the Church of England intends to extend the programme to more than 100 Church of England schools over a four-year period, which will benefit more than 30,000 children.
Anglican Communion Tour
The Archbishop of Canterbury will have encountered widespread concern in the Church of England about the difficulties faced by Christians in other parts of the world. What is the Church doing to help those in other countries, particularly in the middle east, who are persecuted because of their religious beliefs?
My hon. Friend raises a very serious issue which I am sure the House will treat seriously. The Archbishop of Canterbury has observed:
“Not a day goes by without something which should break one’s heart at the courage and the difficulties involved”
for such people. I think the fact is that the hostility Christians are facing is now on a far more serious level and we are reaching the point where the word “persecution” no longer adequately describes the treatment of Christians in many parts of the world. Religious cleansing and a type of cultural genocide—which is a crime against humanity—is a more accurate description, and we are now seeing that in Iraq, Syria, parts of Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia and Pakistan. The goal of Islamic extremists such as ISIS is total Islamicisation, and this has nearly been achieved in Iraq, for example, which a decade ago was home to one of the four most robust Christian communities in the Arab world. Sadly, that is no longer the case.
First Female Bishop
I think it will not just be cutting-edge MPs like the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) who will welcome this, but the whole House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in four or five years’ time we will—rather like with women newsreaders—take the appointment of a woman bishop as a matter of course?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It was fantastic seeing 100 bishops at the consecration of the Bishop of Stockport earlier this week, but I am quite sure that within two or three years it will be commonplace and, quite rightly, unremarkable when a woman is consecrated as a suffragan or diocesan bishop, and I think everyone will soon start to wonder what all the fuss was about as we get excellent women bishops in the Church of England ministering in dioceses across the country.
I know that my right hon. Friend is very concerned about this as well. Those of us who like bats also know they should not be desecrating our extremely valuable architectural heritage, as they are doing, as he knows, in a church on the edge of my constituency, St Nicholas’s in Stanford on Avon.
I think the sensible thing to do is for me to ask the chair of Natural England if he will come with me to visit St Nicholas’s in Stanford on Avon, because it is obviously a church with many difficulties. When I stand down from this House in March, at the request and invitation of the archbishops I am going to take on the role of chair of the Church Buildings Council, and I hope that then I can add my substantial weight to trying to ensure that the problem of bats at St Nicholas’s in Stanford on Avon is resolved.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
The Electoral Commission has worked with the College of Policing to publish detailed guidance to police forces on preventing and detecting electoral fraud. Additional measures are also being put in place by returning officers and police forces in areas where there have been allegations of electoral fraud at previous elections. The Electoral Commission has worked with political parties to agree a code of conduct for campaigners and is developing a simple guide for voters about how to protect their vote and report electoral fraud.
I commend the Electoral Commission on asking the universities of Manchester and Leeds to produce a report on electoral fraud in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in this country in particular. We have had problems with that in the Bradford district in the past, I am afraid to say. One of the recommendations was that some kind of identification be taken into the polling stations when people vote. I think that that would be a massive step forward. Is this something the Electoral Commission will progress?
My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to the important report released by the Electoral Commission this week, which is the first of its kind. The Electoral Commission has separately recommended that additional identification be taken by every voter into the polling stations, but that is a matter now for this House and for Government to decide, and it is therefore perhaps something to come back to after the 2015 election.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be:
Monday 2 February—Second Reading of the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill, followed by motion to approve the draft Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Schedules 4 and 5 and Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers etc.) Order 2015.
Tuesday 3 February—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Insurance Bill [Lords], followed by motion to approve a money resolution relating to the National Insurance Contributions Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the National Insurance Contributions Bill, followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to mitochondrial donation, followed by general debate on rural phone and broadband connectivity. The subject for this debate has been determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 4 February—Opposition Day (16th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on 18-25 apprenticeships, followed by a debate on electoral registration. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.
Thursday 5 February—Debate on a motion relating to building sustainable GP services, followed by general debate on improving cancer outcomes. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 6 February—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 9 February will include:
Monday 9 February—Motions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Up-Rating Order 2015 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2015, followed by motions relating to the draft Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payment (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 and the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment Of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2015.
Tuesday 10 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports, followed by motion to approve a money resolution relating to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill.
Wednesday 11 February—Opposition Day (17th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion including on a debate entitled “Labour’s job guarantee”—[Laughter.] I kept a straight face while reading that out, Mr Speaker. That will be followed, if necessary, by consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 12 February—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 13 February—The House will not be sitting.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 5 February will be:
Thursday 5 February—Debate on the fourth report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on voter engagement in the UK, followed by debate on the first report from the Work and Pensions Committee on employment and support allowance and work capability assessments.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business and for giving us a hint of what might follow thereafter. This week, we marked Holocaust memorial day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The sheer scale of the evil perpetrated by the Nazis almost defies belief. Does the Leader of the House agree that the testimony of the survivors will help us to ensure that that obscenity is never repeated? Will he join me in welcoming plans for a new holocaust memorial in this country that will honour the memory of all the victims? Does he also agree that this anniversary must motivate us to redouble our efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice, including racism, homophobia and religious hatred, which are on the rise across the world today?
I notice one thing missing from this week’s business is any reference to plain packaging for cigarettes. After the Government had supported it, the House then backed it. The Government then changed their mind and opposed it, but last week the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) U-turned on the U-turn late at night in an Adjournment debate, presumably when she thought tobacco lobbyist Lynton Crosby was not looking. Given the reports that more than half of Conservative Back Benchers are willing to rebel against the Government and oppose plain packaging—
That has just been confirmed. Given those reports, will the Leader of the House acknowledge that he is going to have to rely once again on Labour votes to pass the measure? Will he also confirm that he will bring this debate to the Floor of the House before Dissolution?
I notice that, just in the nick of time, the Government yesterday appointed someone to review the impact of their gag on free speech in the run-up to the election. But the man they have chosen to review the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 is a Conservative peer who did not once vote against the Government on the Bill and who voted with them on some of its worst aspects. Yesterday, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the deputy leader of the Labour party, was forced to write to the Culture Secretary about the disgraceful and overt political bias of another Conservative peer, the supposedly impartial deputy chair of Ofcom. This morning I have been reading about the extent of this Government’s pork barrel politics, abusing public money to prop up their candidates in marginal seats, and refusing to admit how much they are spending on it. So will the Leader of the House now arrange to publish full details of Government spending in marginal seats? Will he also arrange for a statement from the Cabinet Secretary on this Government’s widespread neglect of the Nolan principles for public appointments, as these appointments seem to have little to do with impartiality or integrity and much more to do with membership of the Conservative party? Given that Ofcom has today said that Baroness Noakes’s comments were clearly inappropriate, will the Leader of the House explain why she is still in her job?
Yesterday, we saw the Prime Minister refusing to acknowledge that all the hospital units he stood outside and promised to save before the last election have been closed or downgraded while he has been Prime Minister. More than 1,000 ambulances a day are now queuing outside accident and emergency units, overstretched hospitals are cancelling 1,500 operations a week and all the Government have done is make it harder for hospitals to declare major incidents. The Tories’ pledge to protect the NHS is now in tatters. They promised they would put patients first, but instead they gave us a £3 billion top-down reorganisation and an NHS in crisis. They promised they would cut the deficit not the NHS, but borrowing has soared and they have missed every target they ever set themselves on the economy. They promised a recovery for everyone, but they gave us queues at food banks, record insecurity at work and tax cuts for their millionaire mates. I am not the only one who is glad there are only 98 days left of them.
This week, the Liberal Democrat Transport Minister, Baroness Kramer, turned up in Taipei on a rail mission with a very special gift. Local journalists looked on in horror as she gave the city’s mayor a watch, which is taboo in local culture because it suggests that the recipient’s time is running out. She should have given it to her party leader. The mayor was less than impressed, saying:
“I can just re-gift it to someone else or take it to a metal dealer and sell it for cash.”
I just wish we could get as much use out of other Lib Dem offerings. Someone else who has been struggling with timepieces is the invisible man, the Tory Chief Whip. In Cabinet, he inadvertently interrupted the Chancellor with a sudden musical outburst. His Cabinet colleagues looked on in horror as Beyoncé’s latest hit began blasting from the Chief Whip’s new smartwatch. Any watch that is smart enough to play Beyoncé should surely be able to tell him when business questions is.
I absolutely share the sentiments expressed by the hon. Lady about the commemoration of the holocaust and the importance of the testimony of survivors. We had an excellent presentation at the Cabinet meeting this week from Mr Mick Davis, who chaired the commission on commemorating the holocaust and came up with excellent proposals, which the Government have adopted and which have support from all across the House. She is absolutely right about the need to redouble and intensify all our efforts to counter not only anti-Semitism, but racism, homophobia and religious intolerance and hatred of every kind.
The hon. Lady asked about parliamentary business and plain packaging for cigarettes. I explained the position on that last week. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) announced that the Government are committed to laying regulations. These draft regulations will be laid in good time before the end of the Parliament. The regulations cannot be made until after 2 March, under the EU technical standards directive. To correct what I said last week, they can be laid before then but they cannot be made until after 2 March. So that is the constraint.
The hon. Lady asked about spending. A statement will be made later today about local growth deals, and the Minister responsible for those will be showing how the Government work with local authorities across the country to spend money a great deal more productively in supporting local infrastructure and local economic growth than ever happened under the previous Government.
The hon. Lady asked about hospitals. Of course health has been extensively debated in the House over recent weeks. As of today, we have almost 9,500 more doctors and 6,300 more nurses since the last election. Rather inconveniently for her argument, the survey of satisfaction with the health service was published today showing that satisfaction has gone up to 65%, which is the second highest level in 30 years, and that it has fallen in Wales, which is something that the Labour party is often unwilling to discuss. We will doubtlessly talk about health further before the dissolution of Parliament.
The hon. Lady talked about the gift of a watch in Taipei, but the Leader of the Opposition received an even greater gift this week, which was the gift of being defended by the noble Lord Kinnock. That is a sure sign of impending disaster. Lord Kinnock’s belief that the Labour party is following the right election strategy is a great comfort to all of us on the Government Benches, and we hope that he will express it regularly. The hon. Lady neglected to ask about the good news, which is that, at 2.6%, we have the fastest economic growth in the G7.
The background today is one of collapsing credibility on the Labour Benches after a former Labour Health Secretary said that
“Labour’s position on the health service becomes almost an emblem for Labour showing an unwillingness”
to learn. When the Leader of the Opposition tried to weaponise the NHS, he never expected that it would be a boomerang that would come back and hit him so hard.
Added to that collapse in credibility, the Labour website still has a “freeze that bill” page. I can give the House more details. Gas and electricity bills under Labour’s energy plan will be frozen until 2017. There is even a little calculator to work out how much a consumer can save, which is presumably now showing negative results for everybody. I might try it out to see what the results are. That is the sort of chaos that we are seeing. There has to be something desperate about casting around for a future coalition with parties that want to break up the United Kingdom, and something intensely desperate about doing so with parties that do not actually vote in this House, such as Sinn Fein. That is the very definition of desperation, and that is what the Opposition have reached this week.
Last week, the Government honoured their commitment to the people of Scotland by publishing the draft Scotland Bill. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how that Bill will be scrutinised? Will there be a Joint Committee of both Houses, or will the work be done by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, or some combination? When will that consideration be completed?
Four Committees have an interest in the matter. We expect the Scottish Affairs Committee to be the lead in looking at the package as a whole. But the Government also welcome the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s scrutiny of clauses with constitutional significance. It is important that there is engagement not only in Parliament but with civic Scotland, the Scottish Government, and the Opposition to translate the draft clauses into a Bill, ready for introduction at the beginning of the next Parliament. Of course it is up to each Committee when it reports.
I have been contacted by a whistleblower from Her Majesty’s prison in Walton—the old Walton prison in my constituency—who claims that low staffing levels are endangering both prison officers and prisoners. Will the Leader of the House consider a debate in Government time to look at the effect of the cuts on the prison service?
The hon. Gentleman will be able to raise that matter directly with the responsible Ministers next Tuesday, if he catches your eye, Mr Speaker, because it is questions to the Justice Secretary. That is the most immediate opportunity to raise such matters further on the Floor of the House, and to add to the points that he has already made today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), Tom Pursglove, the national director of Together Against Wind, and I were waiting to go in Downing street last week, and my hon. Friend said that in his constituency, unemployment had gone down 50% since Labour lost power. I said that in my constituency it had gone down 55%. Then Tom said that in Corby, it had gone down 60%. Was I right in thinking that the Leader of the House announced a debate called “Labour’s job guarantee”? Is that some sort of joke?
Well, my hon. Friend and I might think that it is some kind of joke, but such a debate will give us the opportunity to talk about the huge fall in unemployment since the last election, including in Corby, to which my hon. Friend draws attention. Employment is now up by 1.75 million, which is a remarkable record. We are creating more jobs in this country than in the whole of the rest of the European Union put together.
Last week the all-party suicide and self-harm prevention group published a report that showed that one third of local authorities in England did not have a suicide prevention plan; they did not have the funds for such a plan and had not produced one. Last year, 4,500 people took their lives in England. May we have a debate on the importance of local authorities meeting their responsibilities and preparing and publishing plans to prevent unnecessary deaths in England?
This is an important report on an important subject. What the hon. Lady has said in the House today will help to draw the attention of local authorities to the matter, and I add to that. It is a wholly legitimate and important subject for debate, and exactly the sort of debate that can be held through the work of the Backbench Business Committee, so I encourage the hon. Lady to take that forward.
May we have a debate on the responsibilities of householders for contaminated land since the removal of contaminated land grants? An elderly couple in Langport in my constituency are facing crippling bills for the removal of contamination from the land on which their house stands—contamination for which they were not responsible, and which they had no idea was there when they bought the property. The local authority has to require the removal of the contamination and cannot provide any grant aid. This is a gross injustice. May we please debate it?
My hon. Friend has just now done a very good job of raising the matter in the House. Questions to the Department for Communities and Local Government Ministers are next Monday, and this is an obvious subject for an Adjournment debate, so while there is not a debate scheduled on these matters in the coming weeks, I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to find other opportunities to pursue this important issue.
Fuel smuggling is at epidemic proportions in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and it is a serious crisis that affects all these islands, while criminals are on the make. The Treasury appears to be doing its best to resolve the issue, but for whatever reason—something sinister—there is frustration at trying to solve the issue of identifying a new fuel marker for Northern Ireland. Will the Leader of the House schedule a full and frank debate to sort this matter out once and for all and prevent criminals getting their way on our islands?
This is also an important issue. I know that the Government Departments work together to ensure that the problem is dealt with effectively. We must never rest in our attempts to make sure that criminal gangs cannot make profits in this or any other way. I cannot offer a debate about it in the near future, but I will draw the issue that he has raised to the attention of my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office and all the other relevant Departments.
May we have an urgent statement on the role of private car park owners such as NCP? My constituents have been fleeced by NCP, which has signposted restricted areas improperly and then fined people who innocently park in them. Furthermore, it has fined people for allegedly displaying their ticket in the wrong place on the car’s dashboard. Will my right hon. Friend contact the Secretaries of State for Transport and for Business, Innovation and Skills and call for an urgent inquiry into this disgraceful behaviour by NCP?
My hon. Friend is an ardent campaigner on behalf of his constituents and he will understand that in such car parks—for example those owned by train operators—the charges are a commercial matter. It may aid him and his constituents to know that it is for the Office of Rail Regulation to consider any complaint that a car parking charge at a station is excessive. It has issued guidance, setting out the circumstances in which it will investigate, but I will let my ministerial colleagues know of his concerns, and they may contact him to guide him further on it.
All of us in this House will be appalled, on the 70th anniversary of the holocaust, when we remember how many children were gassed in those terrible camps. Is it not right that we have a debate on the efficiency of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child? Worldwide, we are seeing children killed in wars. In Pakistan, whole classes of children—150—were killed. In Nigeria—all over the world now, it seems that the life of a child is not valued. May we have a debate on children and childhood and how we protect them?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and there would be all too many terrible situations in the world to refer to in such a debate, as he has described, including the fate of children in so many conflicts, such as those in Syria and Iraq, as well as the victims of terrorist attacks in Nigeria and Pakistan. That would be a welcome debate. Of course, it is primarily for the Backbench Business Committee to consider, but I think it would be welcomed across the House.
In the past week, at a planning inquiry in Huddersfield, the excellent Save Butterley Spillway group has been fighting Yorkshire Water’s plans to rip out the unique Victorian heritage of a listed spillway in Marsden in my constituency and replace it with a concrete monstrosity. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the work of Diane Ellis, David Preston, Ian Ladbrooke, Tom Lonsdale and the many members of the group who have been campaigning to save the spillway and hoping that the inquiry will say that it can be made safe and our Victorian heritage preserved?
As a Minister, I cannot comment on the individual case, but all decisions on such applications need to take into account the national planning policy framework, which is clear that heritage assets are an irreplaceable resource and sets out clear policies for cases where a proposal would harm a heritage asset. I certainly join my hon. Friend in praising local people who have engaged in the planning inquiry to make sure their views are heard, and I know he will be, as ever, a very strong spokesman for them.
My constituents in Clydebank, particularly in Whitecrook, are affected by loud noise from aircraft in the Glasgow flight path overhead. In the past few years I have been round the houses, contacting the UK Department for Transport, the Scottish Government, our local council and, of course, the airport itself, but all are unwilling or unable to do anything about it. Might we have time for a debate about exactly whom my constituents can hold accountable and look to for mitigation measures?
That is also an entirely legitimate subject for a debate, particularly given that many different Departments may have an interest. It sounds like a wholly suitable subject for an Adjournment debate, and I recommend that the hon. Lady pursues the matter in that way.
With regard to the idiotic nanny-state proposal for plain packaging—why on earth we need plain packaging for a product that is already behind shutters, Lord only knows, not to mention the fact that it will put many good jobs in Bradford at risk—will the Leader of the House promise that when the matter is further considered, it will not be passed through some Committee upstairs and so sneaked through, but will be debated on the Floor of the House, and that there will be a vote at the end of it, and that that vote will be a free vote for Ministers as well as Back Benchers?
My hon. Friend always states his case very clearly and moderately. I explained earlier the time constraints on this, and that such regulations cannot be made—they can be laid, but not made—before 2 March. No decision has been made on how both Houses of Parliament consider the regulations—both will need to do so. That can be done on the Floor of the House or in Committee; a decision will have to be made about that in due course. Decisions about whipping will of course be made by other authorities sitting not far from me.
The Leader of the House earlier expressed concern about the welfare of children around the world, in places such as Nigeria. Last Friday, the Home Office deported to Nigeria two people who lived in my constituency, a Mrs Bola Fatumbi and her five-year-old son, Rafeeq Atanda. When they landed in Nigeria, they found that the cash card with which they had been provided did not work, and they were stranded in the airport for two days before trying to walk into the city. I know that there are rights and wrongs in this situation, but for the life of me I do not know what a five-year-old child, who has never set foot outside this country, has done to be treated like that by this Government. We need an urgent debate in Government time about the rights of children in deportation cases.
As the hon. Gentleman says, without much more detail none of us can know the merits of individual cases, but he is clearly concerned about this case, and he could pursue it with Home Office Ministers, not only through correspondence but at questions. The next Home Office questions will be on Monday 9 February, so I encourage him to raise it directly with them, but I will inform Home Office Ministers of the concerns that he has expressed today.
I welcome the news that the regulations empowering the Groceries Code Adjudicator to levy fines have been laid. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ask the Prime Minister to clarify his welcome remarks, in response to a question, on extending the adjudicator’s remit to, as I understand it, the whole dairy industry chain, so that processes will be brought within the supply chain? That will be a very welcome move indeed.
I know that those remarks by the Prime Minister were warmly welcomed in different parts of the House, and the Government are considering how to take that forward. My hon. Friend is quite right that the relevant related regulations have been laid. The Ministers responsible, particularly at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will be able to expand on this when the decisions have been made.
The Secretary of State for Health refuses to meet me and Hartlepool borough council to discuss the growing uncertainty about the future of Hartlepool hospital and how services can be returned to the town. Does the Leader of the House think that the refusal by Ministers to meet elected representatives is appropriate? In the light of that snub to Hartlepool, may we have a debate on the matter?
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has many meetings with Members of Parliament, and has been very much available in recent months to discuss concerns from different parts of the country; but the hon. Gentleman says that no meeting has taken place with him. I will tell my right hon. Friend of his concerns, so that the Department of Health can further respond to him directly about this.
In the United Kingdom, 2.7 million people have diabetes, half a million have it and do not know they have it, 700 a day are being diagnosed with it and it is costing the NHS £1 million an hour. It is sometimes referred to as a ticking time bomb, but I think the bomb has gone off. If we do not want the next generation of young people to be the fallout from this, may we have a debate about the education of young people within schools about what they need to do to reduce the possibility of getting diabetes?
There would be very good arguments for such a debate; indeed, my hon. Friend has just made a good argument for such a debate. This is an increasing strain on the NHS, an increasingly serious disease in this country, and even more so in some other countries, so there is a good case for more discussion of the education that is required. Whether it will be possible to have a debate before the dissolution of Parliament I do not know, but it is exactly the sort of issue on which a cross-party approach to the Backbench Business Committee can be made.
Following the urgent question to the Health Secretary yesterday, may we have an early debate or statement on the issue of election purdah in relation to health bodies? Since they are not run by the Government, and the Secretary of State is clear that he does not want to see any political news management of the health sector, it seems logical that they are exempt, yet many bodies are proceeding on the basis that election purdah applies to them. To ensure that no one is tempted to accuse the Government of deliberately fudging the matter, may we have an early debate or statement to clear it up?
I am sure no one would accuse the Government of deliberately fudging the matter and the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that, but he raises an interesting point about the application of purdah. I do not have the instant answer to his question, but I or other Ministers will write to him about how we understand the situation, so that there can be clarity on the matter.
Considerable uncertainty continues to surround the current status and future of the independent panel on historical child sex abuse, and the Home Secretary undertook to make an announcement before the end of this month about the appointment of a new chair. No announcement has been scheduled, today is 29 January and now there is some doubt about the ability to appoint a judge or not. As a matter of urgency next week, will the Home Secretary make a statement to the House about the situation, and before Dissolution may we, in the House and in Government time, have a full debate on the nature of the inquiry going forward, as it will need to sit after March when the House is no longer sitting and it has important business to get on with?
I will certainly tell the Home Secretary of the points that my hon. Friend has raised. She answered an urgent question on the matter just a week ago and spoke about the appointment of the chair of the inquiry. It is Home Office questions a week on Monday, on 9 February, so the Home Secretary will come back to the House then, but of course it is possible that she will want to make an announcement before then, in line with what was said during the urgent question. My hon. Friend is right about the importance of the matter. We are determined that appalling cases of child abuse should be exposed, so that perpetrators face justice and the vulnerable are protected. The work of the inquiry will have to go on through the period of Dissolution, so there will be a very powerful case for the House to be able to consider this further by means of a statement or debate.
The Government consultation on the draft guidance to be issued under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, known as the Prevent duty, closes tomorrow. Last week I met representatives of the Muslim community in Bristol, who are very worried about certain aspects of that consultation. In the light of the responses received, may we have a debate, which we were not able to have during the debate on the Bill, so that we can discuss some of those concerns?
I am not sure whether we will be able to have a further debate, in addition to the debates on the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill. The Bill will come back to the House from the Lords, so there will be some debates on related subjects. I will, of course, pass on these concerns to the Home Office Ministers, but we have reformed Prevent significantly, as the hon. Lady knows, to make sure that it tackles all forms of terrorism. We have introduced new procedures to make sure that we work only with organisations that respect British values. We have changed the objectives so that it deals with non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism. These have been important and positive reforms, but I will draw the attention of Home Office Ministers to what the hon. Lady said.
Thirty miles north of my constituency sits the greatest building in Europe that no one has ever heard of, Wentworth Woodhouse, the original northern powerhouse. I say no one, but my right hon. Friend knows it well because he grew up beside it. Wentworth Woodhouse is now for sale and a campaign has been launched cross-party and across conservation organisations to raise £7 million and much more to restore it and regenerate the former coalfield area that surrounds it. Will my right hon. Friend consider supporting the campaign and holding a debate on what the Government could do to save the building and the area around it?
Although I cannot immediately offer a debate, I am very familiar with the house, as my hon. Friend says, having grown up just over the wall from it. It is a splendid, grade I listed country house. In the 18th century it was known as the Whitehall of the north, being the seat of the Marquess of Rockingham, who was Prime Minister, as the House will recall, in 1782. The Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust has a number of proposals to find sustainable uses for it. To date Save Britain’s Heritage and the preservation trust have generated pledges of about half their target sum. My hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy spoke at an event last week to help raise funds for the acquisition of the house, so I am sure that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will continue to support efforts to protect this wonderful building as quickly as possible.
Earlier today at the Dispatch Box, an Environment Minister said that he had no responsibility for the issue of offshore wind farms, which quite surprised me, as a former Environment Minister. It made me wonder who is now dealing with environmental regulations and permissions in offshore. May we have a debate on ministerial responsibilities, so that this House and the public know who does what in Government, and, more importantly, Ministers know what they should be doing as well?
I do not think a debate will be required to be clear about that. There will be opportunities to question other Ministers who have an interest in these things. Next Thursday we have Department of Energy and Climate Change questions, and of course those Ministers have a major interest in these matters. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman continues to ask about these matters in the House, he will find a Minister who will give him the necessary answers.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will provide a debate on whether the party of Labour is any more the party of the working man or the party of welfare. It is very important for historical reasons—I know that he is a historian—that we look at these things.
These matters can be brought up in other debates. As I said, the Opposition have scheduled debates on apprenticeships and on so-called jobs guarantees, and my right hon. Friend may well want to make these points then. More than 100 years after the Labour party was founded by trade unions for working people, it has become the party of welfare, while the party of hard-working people sits on the Government side of the House.
The Government—indeed, all parties here—have a very strong commitment to tackling homelessness. Harrogate homeless hostel, which my right hon. Friend will know, is directly next door to my constituency office and does an excellent job. I was very pleased that Harrogate borough council and North Yorkshire county council supported it with grants of £30,000 each. May we have a debate to explore what more we can do to support the organisations that tackle homelessness every day as we strive to eliminate it?
Last week there was a well-attended debate in Westminster Hall about homeless young people—an issue of great interest around the House. We have introduced a range of initiatives and projects to help rough sleepers, to prevent single homelessness, and to help those who have been homeless to find and sustain accommodation. Government spending to prevent and tackle rough sleeping and homelessness has increased; we have made over £500 million available. It is extremely important when authorities such as Harrogate and North Yorkshire come in to support that. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to do all he can to tackle this issue in Harrogate and the surrounding area.
I bring good news from Kettering. This year there have been 860 apprenticeship starts in the borough, with 3,680 in the past four years. I welcome the forthcoming debate on apprenticeships for 18 to 25-year-olds that is to be held on the Floor of this House. During that debate, there will be an opportunity to highlight the success of Tresham college in opening up a further 100 apprenticeship starts this year at its open day at its Kettering campus on Saturday 28 February. We can also highlight the very welcome and ambitious plans in the Conservative manifesto to spend £1 billion on creating 3 million more apprenticeships up to 2020—a very real jobs guarantee.
We are enjoying each week the bulletin of good news from Kettering. I have no doubt that that bulletin will continue on a regular basis, because there is plenty of good news to draw attention to. What my hon. Friend talks about is part of a very important national trend. It is an important national policy for many of us in this House to introduce 3 million apprenticeships in the next Parliament to abolish youth unemployment. I am pleased to say that long-term youth unemployment is already down by 53,000 on the year and is lower than it was at the time of the last general election.
With permission, I should like to update the House on progress in implementing the recommendations contained in Peter Clarke’s report on Birmingham schools.
The Government have accepted every one of Peter Clarke’s recommendations, and I am today placing a document in the Libraries of both Houses outlining the progress that has been made on each. I am pleased to report that since I last updated the House in July, all the recommendations have been implemented or are on track. As a result, I am confident that if the events we witnessed in Birmingham were repeated again, they would be identified and dealt with more quickly and far more effectively.
However, let me be clear that there is no room for complacency either in the specific case of Birmingham or more generally. We must always remain vigilant. There is no more important responsibility than keeping children safe, and giving them the chance of a first-class education that prepares them for life in modern Britain. That is why I am determined that we should not only act when and where we receive information of concern, but build resilience into the system to ensure that it is more able to withstand attempts to undermine or subvert it. We are addressing both concerns.
On the specific issue of Birmingham, a significant amount has been achieved. The job is not done—the problems we encountered in Birmingham arose over a number of years and will not be resolved overnight—but we have already made considerable progress. We have acted quickly in the schools most affected by the issues in Peter Clarke’s report. New trustees are in place at all the academies, led by outstanding and dedicated head teachers who are able to tackle the troubling legacy of previous trustees. I am enormously grateful to them for their work.
There has been good progress at two of the three Park View academies. More needs to be done at Park View academy itself, where the significant number of suspended staff has hampered progress, but through the regional schools commissioners network my Department has supported the trustees to find new staff, and it will consider all reasonable requests for additional funding if and where it can help.
In respect of Oldknow academy, the trustees have voted to bring in Ark, a well-established multi-academy sponsor with the capacity and capability to turn the academy around. I am confident that that arrangement will deliver the right results for the children at that school.
I am pleased to report that yesterday the trustees of the Park View Educational Trust announced that Golden Hillock will also join the Ark network. This decision is a significant step along the road to ensuring that its pupils get the best possible chance to fulfil their potential.
In April 2014, Ofsted judged that Saltley school and specialist science college required special measures. The governing body resigned in June, and an interim executive board was appointed. Since 1 September, leadership at Saltley has been the responsibility of Washwood Heath academy, which was praised by Ofsted last year for its
“strong lead on issues of religious extremism.”
It is now sponsoring Saltley’s application to convert to academy status, which will happen on 1 March.
Peter Clarke recommended that my Department should consider the case for taking formal action against individual governors or teachers who may have breached their teacher standards. The two academy trusts at the centre of concerns have already suspended a significant number of staff pending disciplinary hearings. I can confirm that the National College for Teaching and Leadership is investigating a number of teachers and that officials are considering formal action against other individuals involved. We must take prompt and decisive action, but we must also follow established and fair processes. I expect to see further progress in this area very shortly, but it is important to note that all cases will be judged against the strengthened advice that I have issued to the NCTL.
Some key people involved in Birmingham schools were leading figures in the Association of Muslim Schools UK, which performs some statutory functions in state-funded Muslim schools. They have now been removed from their positions, and AMSUK now has a new constitution that recognises the importance of member schools upholding and promoting fundamental British values. The Department will continue to monitor closely how AMSUK implements that constitution to be sure that it is suitable for its statutory role.
We have acted swiftly to turn around the academies mentioned in Peter Clarke’s report, but his investigation also recommended that Birmingham city council should review the systems, processes and policies for supporting maintained schools in the city. For that reason, I appointed Sir Mike Tomlinson as education commissioner for Birmingham last September to work with the council and oversee the necessary reforms. I would like to thank Sir Mike and his deputy, Colin Diamond, for their invaluable work to date.
The House will also be aware that Sir Bob Kerslake published his review of governance in Birmingham city council in December. That showed the scale of the challenge. I am pleased that Sir Bob recommended that Sir Mike and Lord Warner, who continues as children’s social care commissioner in Birmingham until March, should be ex officio members of an improvement panel that will oversee the much needed reform.
The council now has an education services improvement plan, which I welcome, but it has much more to do to put it into practice. Schools need to be confident that any concerns they raise with the council will be tackled quickly and effectively. I met the leader of the council earlier this month, along with the cabinet member for children’s services and senior council officers. I told them that I was concerned that the reform was too slow, and that I wanted to see much stronger leadership. If the council does not take urgent steps to improve its leadership capacity, I am prepared to use the powers available to me to issue a statutory direction to the council. I will continue to keep that under review. I can tell the House that I have extended Sir Mike Tomlinson’s appointment to March 2016 to oversee the council’s delivery of the plan it has developed.
As I said earlier, we need not only to act on individual cases, but to build greater resilience into the system. As Peter Clarke recommended, I have increased my Department’s capacity and expertise in counter-extremism by dramatically expanding the due diligence and counter-extremism group in the Department and placing it under the leadership of a full-time director. We will make further changes in the Department in response to my permanent secretary’s report, which was laid before the House on Friday 16 January. For example, we will establish a counter-extremism steering group to ensure that the whole Department recognises and acts on its responsibilities in this area.
Since Peter Clarke’s report was published, my Department has strengthened the process for converting to academy status or joining a multi-academy trust. New checks are now done on prospective trustees, and regional schools commissioners decide on convertor applications using local intelligence, with help from local head teacher boards. Academies must also publish registers of trustees’ interests and inform the Education Funding Agency of changes of trustees. We are consulting on similar requirements on registers of interest for governors of maintained schools. We have made important changes and clarifications to the governors’ handbook, with clear expectations about skills and capacity, and the information that governors need to provide. We are also responding to the recommendations on Prevent training by changing the statutory safeguarding guidance.
I want school staff and the public to feel confident about reporting safeguarding concerns, including about extremism, to the Department. I intend to extend the scope of legal protections to school staff who make whistleblowing allegations. Ofsted is also reviewing its arrangements for handling complaints to ensure that they adequately capture concerns about extremism.
On 25 November, Ofsted published an advice note on no-notice inspections, having indicated that it would broaden its criteria for considering when to conduct them. There were 35 unannounced inspections in the autumn term. Although the chief inspector has confirmed that Ofsted will not routinely inspect schools without notice, it does so where concerns arise. That was the case with a number of inspections in Tower Hamlets in October. That has proven to be an effective approach.
Other important changes that have been made over the last six months, including to the inspection handbook for publicly funded schools, respond partly to the lessons from Birmingham. The handbook makes it clear that inspectors should assess how schools keep children safe from the risks of extremism and radicalisation, and how they promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.
I want to be clear that all schools of whatever type should promote those values. They lie at the heart of our country and society. They help to open young people’s minds, making them into citizens who respect difference, welcome disagreement and challenge intolerance. They are the attributes that have, in this century and the last, made our country one of the greatest forces for good. They are the values that bind us together. They are the values that mean that, despite the many differences in our nation, we can find a way to move forward together.
These values unite rather than divide, so I say again that no school should be exempt from promoting them, just as no school should be exempt from promoting rigorous academic standards. There is not one rule for some and another for the rest, but a fair and transparent system that has the best interests of children at its heart. Every school should be promoting fundamental British values, not just because they act as a bulwark against extremism, but because it is the right thing to do.
The Government will not tolerate extremism of any kind. It turns one against another, warps minds, and causes harm and division in communities. It can ultimately lead to support for terrorism. The battle against it begins at school, where young people learn to be active, resilient and tolerant citizens who are ready to seize the rich opportunities of modern Britain. That is why I am proud that no Government have done more to tackle extremism in schools than this Government, and we shall continue to do so in the years to come.
I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for advance notice of it.
It is well to begin at the start of this unfortunate episode. In 2010 the then Schools Minister, Lord Hill, was told by the Birmingham head teacher Tim Boyes of serious concerns about attempted takeovers of Birmingham schools by activists and governors with a radical Islamist agenda. The Government did nothing with that information. In the words of the permanent secretary, the Department showed a sustained
“lack of inquisitiveness on issues relating to potential extremism or destabilisation of schools by external interests.”
Meetings were not followed up, warnings were ignored. Only when the so-called Trojan horse affair hit the newspapers did Ministers think it would be a good idea to act to safeguard the children of Birmingham. It is all very well for the Secretary of State to come here and say “We have acted quickly in the schools affected,” but for four years they did nothing at all.
The Clarke report found that messages circulated among some of the school staff concerned included
“explicit homophobia; highly offensive comments about British service personnel; a stated ambition to increase segregation in the school; disparagement of strands of Islam; scepticism about the truth of reports of the murder of Lee Rigby and the Boston bombings; and a constant undercurrent of anti-western, anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment.”
I agree with the Secretary of State that there can be no place for such intolerance in British society, and especially not in our schools. Recent events in Paris and Peshawar and heightened concerns over anti-Semitism make that all the more important. We welcome the teaching of British or enlightenment values as part of the syllabus and the Government’s new commitment to a broad and balanced curriculum as part of the school inspection system, not least because it has long been Labour party policy.
However, the Clarke report also revealed that the speed of the Government’s academisation policy and their aggressive fragmentation of the schools system had increased the risk of radical takeover. Peter Clarke heavily criticised the Government’s policy
“by which single schools are able to convert to academy status.”
He found that there was no
“suitable system for holding the new academies accountable for financial and management issues”,
and concluded that the Government’s accountability policy amounted to “benign neglect”. It was the pupils at Golden Hillock, at Nansen primary school, at Park View, at Oldknow and at Saltley school who suffered because of that neglect.
Although the Opposition fully accept that the challenge of dealing with minority achievement in high-poverty inner-urban areas, the growth of conservative Islam and faith and identity in a state education system are issues beyond party politics, we do hold the Government to account for a chaotic and disjointed schools policy that has increased the threat to child safety and attainment.
Sadly, the Government’s response has fallen short. The Secretary of State still thinks it is possible to run thousands of schools from behind a desk in Whitehall. She is confident that if the events that we witnessed in Birmingham were repeated today, they would be “identified and dealt with”. I hate to say it, but the Government’s chaotic reforms offer no such certainty. The structures and systems for that are not in place, and we have a fragmented and chaotic schools landscape with no system of oversight and accountability, not least in Birmingham.
Can the Secretary of State explain the difference between the functions of Ian Kershaw, Bob Kerslake, Mike Tomlinson, Colin Diamond, Lord Warner, the regional schools commissioner and the regional Ofsted inspector? Who is in charge of schools in Birmingham? Where do parents go if they have a concern? If the Secretary of State thinks we need a middle tier in Birmingham, why not in Bradford? Why not in Plymouth? Why not in Newcastle? Why not introduce some system back into our schools?
We welcome the arrival of the Ark academy chain, but in the light of the problems with Park View academy trust, will the Secretary of State explain why she still refuses to allow Ofsted to inspect academy chains? What oversight will we have of future academy chain problems?
Like me, the Secretary of State has received reports about private faith schools and allegations of discrimination. Is she satisfied that she is doing everything she can to prevent radicalisation and discrimination in private faith schools? What resources in her Department are dedicated to that? Is she satisfied with the inspection regime for these schools?
What reform mechanism has the Secretary of State proposed for Ofsted? What lessons has it learned from taking a school from outstanding to special measures almost overnight? Does she think that Ofsted inspectors currently have the capacity and the skills to judge schools in the difficult terrain of British values?
The events in Birmingham that were discovered last year are deeply worrying. They showed a school system atomised, fragmented and unable to deliver for the parents and pupils it serves. The Government’s chaotic schools policy exacerbated the risk, and nothing the Secretary of State has said today will convince the people of Birmingham that she has a proper plan for Britain’s second city or for safeguarding and attainment across England’s schools.
I welcome the support from the shadow Secretary of State for the fact that there is no place for extremism or intolerance in our schools, and for the teaching and promotion of fundamental British values. Let me turn to the points that he made in response to my statement. He will be aware that the permanent secretary did not only review the events of the past four years; in fact, he went back much further, including to times when members of the hon. Gentleman’s party—including the shadow Chancellor—were Secretary of State for Education.
The permanent secretary’s report found that the Department had not missed any warnings—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman would stop talking, he would be able to hear the answers—[Interruption.] He is clearly not interested in hearing the answers even though he said that the issue was not about partisan politics. He talked about our policies, but they have delivered improvements than mean 1 million more children are in good or outstanding schools since 2010. That is thanks to this Government’s reforms.
The permanent secretary’s review concluded that Ministers from both sides of the House had not missed warnings but had shown a lack of inquisitiveness, and we are putting procedures in place. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Peter Clarke’s report set out compelling evidence of a determined effort by people with a shared ideology to gain control of the governing bodies of a small number of schools in Birmingham, but he is wrong to say that that is down to Government policy or the reforms that we have put in place since 2010. Given that the hon. Gentleman is a historian, I am surprised that he has not gone back to look at the history of these events. The problems started much earlier, before this Government, and even before the conversion of schools to academies. This Government have had to react, to listen to the accusations in the letter and to work with members of the hon. Gentleman’s party on Birmingham city council. Academies are more accountable under the new system, and we have improved the education of 1 million children in this country.
The hon. Gentleman completely overlooks the role of the regional schools commissioners, who are extremely active in relation to the schools in Birmingham. He asks who is in charge in Birmingham. I am surprised that he does not know the name of his own party’s lead member for children’s services. In my statement, I made it clear that the leadership capacity of Birmingham city council left much to be desired. The hon. Gentleman does not appear to understand the difference between children’s services, the Bob Kerslake review of the governance of Birmingham city council—which should worry him, given that it is his party that is in charge in Birmingham—and the education of children in Birmingham.
In relation to the inspection of academy chains, I have made it very clear, both in evidence to the Select Committee and in the House, that while we fully support the way in which Ofsted talks to academy chains and the support that it offers to schools, looking at a head office will never give it any experience.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned private faith schools and supplementary schools. Local authorities have a duty in relation to the safeguarding of all children in their local areas and we continue to look at any other regulations or protections that are needed.
As I said in my statement, we are putting in place whistleblowing provisions so that those who are aware of, and concerned about, what is going on in a school will have an easy mechanism to report their concerns to the Department. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware of the evidence that Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, gave to the Select Committee yesterday on training put in place for Ofsted inspectors to inspect on the issue of British values.
We have made it clear that there is no place for extremism in any school. We have made strong progress, as Members will see from the documents I am placing in the House of Commons Library today, on the recommendations in the Peter Clarke report. We are tackling this problem at both ends: taking determined action where we find areas of concern and building resilience into the system—a resilience that was lacking under the 13 years of the previous Labour Government.
The Ofsted report into Birmingham schools that came out in June found that
“Often, the curriculum, culture and values now promoted in these schools reflect the personal views of a small number of governors.”
I welcome the measures the Secretary of State has announced. She touched on whistleblowing, which is a specific recommendation of the Ofsted report. Will she provide more detail on how that is going to work, particularly in relation to governors and parents who might want to whistleblow? She mentioned legal protections for members of staff only. Why does she think the system will be more effective than it has proved in the past in what are, in many cases, very closed communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. As he says, we are working with Ofsted to improve procedures for schools on whistleblowing. We are also strengthening the way anyone can contact the Department to raise concerns. I mentioned the strengthening of the due diligence and counter-extremism group—I think my hon. Friend was a Minister in the Department when the group was set up by the previous Secretary of State for Education—in order to take these issues extremely seriously and to tackle them. Concerns can be raised by parents, governors and members of the general public. We are also considering extending legal protections in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 for school staff making whistleblowing allegations. We continue to work with local authorities and regional schools commissioners. The wider point is that, until the Clarke report was published last year, there was perhaps a general disbelief that these sorts of things could be going on in our schools. We are now very well aware of the risks to our children.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and her offer of additional resources to Park View school to get the teachers who are needed. I know that she would want to recognise a number of parents, including Sabina Kauser, Waheed Saleem and Arshad Malik, who helped to rebuild the governance along with Adrian Packer, Bev Mabey and the extraordinary group of teachers who came in to help restore the schools and ensure that, thanks to their work over the summer, they opened on time in September.
I very much welcome the emphasis that the Secretary of State put on the teaching of British values, in particular democracy and the rule of law. She will agree, I know, that it is important that we practise what we preach. It was therefore regrettable that parent members of the trust were not able to be elected by parents at the school. Instead, the trust took a decision to go through the most mind-bending process of selection to hand-pick parents to serve at trust level. I hope she will now encourage the trust to revisit that decision and ensure that democracy prevails.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the tone and spirit of his remarks. He has worked incredibly hard with the schools in his constituency and the wider Birmingham area in the aftermath of the reports from last year. He is absolutely right. We do not want the message to go out that we do not want people from Muslim communities or any other community to stand as governors of their schools. I am happy to look at the particular issue he has raised. I join him in thanking all those who worked so hard last summer to get the schools open. At the end of the day, this is all about making sure that the young people at the heart of those schools get the best possible education to fulfil their potential.
Teachers, governors, pupils and parents should be focused on promoting rigorous academic standards and not on pursuing particular agendas, whether relating to extremism or anything else. With regard to the role of school governors, is there no commitment or undertaking they have to sign to say that they will be committed individually to the promotion of British values, so that we can hold errant governors and teachers to account?
Although we do not ask them to sign something, all governors are subject to the governors handbook, which was updated last September with some important changes and clarifications. In particular, one paragraph mentions the need for governors to ensure that a school’s ethos promotes the fundamental British values I mentioned in my statement. We could give the matter some consideration, but as my hon. Friend will know, just because someone signs a piece of paper does not necessarily mean that they have taken onboard all that it requires. One thing this matter has taught us is the need for cultural change as well.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in our country do not want to take over schools and are not extremists, but just want a darn good education for their children?
The Secretary of State’s remarks have disappointed me, because there is a systemic failure. For whatever reason, the Government have bypassed local authorities’ power to exercise authority over, and supervision of, schools. We all know that is true. I am in contact with people who rushed to save the Birmingham situation, and they say that the problem is a lack of power locally. Everything has to go through the Department for Education, which rushes in to help, but it does not have the capacity either. If senior advisers, including Ofsted, are saying that there is systemic failure with the academy model, surely she should recognise that and do something about it.