Wednesday 25 February 2015
[Hywel Williams in the Chair]
Careers Advice (14 to 19-Year-Olds)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Harriett Baldwin.)
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I appreciate the opportunity to debate what I and obviously the many others present in the Chamber consider a tremendously important issue. I chair the all-party group on further education, skills and lifelong learning, and believe that reforms and further improvements to careers advice for 14 to 19-year-olds are still needed. The matter is an important one, which will clearly shape future job sectors and markets in the UK for better or worse.
Many of us will have memories of the careers advice that we received. I am sure that today it is better than it was in my day, but it is an issue that comes up pretty consistently—only yesterday I was talking to some young people when I had a visit from my local college, Sussex Downs. Careers advice is one of those issues that MPs who have employed or hired people, or been hired, know is crucial. Yet we have known for a long while that it has not been as good as many of us think it should be. It is a profoundly important issue, particularly as we are clearly in an ever-more globally competitive society.
Good and appropriate careers advice is crucial and we are not where we should be yet. There have been pluses in the past decade, but I profoundly believe that there have also been weaknesses. As I shall explain, some of what the Government have done has improved things, but there is a need to go further. As we are approaching the general election I am waiting to hear also from our Opposition Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), whom I am delighted to see here. There are many colleagues in the Chamber and they will make suggestions, and this is an opportunity for both the Front Benchers to consider them and come up with further improvements to careers advice after the election.
We all understand that our children deserve comprehensive and fully informed careers advice, so that pupils can make informed decisions. That is more complicated now than in my day because there are many more jobs. Swathes of career opportunities exist now that did not when I was young; but that brings its own complexities. If young people are not informed properly and intelligently about the wide range of jobs, how can they make an informed choice? They cannot, and that is a terrible waste.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that young people be given access to the kinds of businesses they might be interested in, and that that applies particularly to engineering? Then, they can get the taste for it and choose the right subjects to study in due course.
I entirely agree. Engineering is a good example, not least from a gender perspective. I still find it astonishing that even in my constituency, despite the number of engineering firms there—particularly to do with pumps, curiously enough—applications are rarely received from young women in Eastbourne. That is simply because they are not told about the opportunity.
Clearly, more needs to be done for children aged 14 to 19 so that they are better aware of the choices available after secondary school and, subsequently, sixth form or college. At the moment, according to recent research compiled by the Association of Colleges, 63% of young people can name A-levels as a post-GCSE qualification; but few could name the other choices. I find it profoundly frustrating—as I have spent the past four and three-quarter years going on about it—that, for example, only 7% of pupils could name apprenticeships as such an alternative qualification to A-levels. That is ludicrous.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that Ministers should prioritise the introduction later this year of the proposed new UCAS-style one-stop shop for young people who do not want to go to university—a system to prevent their entering the category of “not in education, employment or training”?
I completely agree. Such initiatives can be a game changer for many young people and improve their understanding of the length and breadth of the opportunities open to them.
To return to apprenticeships, I repeat that the research showed only 7% could name them as an alternative qualification. The challenge is that the vast bulk of teachers will obviously have gone to university. They are graduates who have become teachers. They are skilled in that area and can talk about university and the advantages of a degree. For obvious reasons they are not skilled-up in the matter of apprenticeships. They often know little about them unless they are told.
I hear from young people in universities and further education colleges in Northern Ireland that they believe careers officers—not all of them, but a lot of them—are ill-equipped to do the job. We need to address that. Another comment is that we need a closer working relationship with industry and young people. It is said that the attitude of young people coming out of education to go into work is not what it should be. If there could be day release with companies, for example, at an early stage—from 14 onwards—it would make a difference.
I concur very much with that intervention.
There is an issue to do with careers advice that I find extraordinary. We all understand the importance of good careers advice and careers officers, and I have always found it slightly odd that Governments of either side have never made a song and dance about them, or applauded or provided incentives or reward programmes for very successful careers officers. A really good careers officer can play one of the most significant of roles in a young person’s career or future. Yet I have never seen in the paper a picture of Jane Smith or John Doe as the best careers officer in the south-west, rewarded by the Prince of Wales. I hope hon. Members see what I mean; the role should be much more of a career. We should get the best people, who should be rewarded. They should be financially rewarded even better than they are, but more importantly there should be a sense that it is desirable for talented and able people to become careers officers. If we could get to that situation, it would make a difference.
To move away from that theme slightly, does my hon. Friend agree that university technical colleges provide a good launch pad for careers? Getting that training, in engineering, for instance, with the support and involvement of businesses, is in itself a useful careers advice process.
Yes, I agree, with one caveat. The principle of UTCs is good, but I would like them to be clear about working closely with further education in their area. For decades, one of this country’s challenges with the issue has been that changes and improvements have often been fragmented. UTCs are a good example of that. I admire Lord Baker’s good work on them, but some of them already appear to be acting in silos without the local FE colleges and other training groups, and that is a mistake. I take on board my hon. Friend’s intervention, but, because he has good links with the UTCs, I ask to him to remind them to work closely in partnership with others.
Partnership was mentioned, which is crucial in careers. When partnership works, we can get young people into the right jobs and give them the right opportunities to understand what is available out there across the piece with FEs, UTCs, business and schools. That gets a successful outcome, but with fragmentation in silos we do not get that.
As MPs we are often told, and we recognise, that there is a growing skills gap in the workplace. A recent piece, I think in the Financial Times, highlighted that again and we know that is a problem and a challenge. When it comes to universities, everyone holds the same qualifications after graduating and a high proportion of young people compete furiously for the same jobs, while other sectors such as engineering, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) talked about earlier, struggle desperately to entice and recruit people into their profession.
My whole background was in business before I entered politics and I am convinced that, nine times out of 10, the problem is ignorance: young people simply do not know about the wide range of different opportunities and jobs. There are many ways to deal with that, but they come back to why I am holding this debate: clearly, the most important professional in that regard is the careers adviser.
Young people are often misled—that is a tough word, but it is true—to believe that the only, or superior, way into a job is to take A-levels and go on to university. After the general election, I was the first MP to launch “100 apprenticeships in 100 days,” because I had a plan. It was terribly successful in Eastbourne and we have had more than 3,500 apprenticeships since, but more importantly, that galvanised the whole town around apprenticeships. Businesses large and small all got involved and the success rate has been tremendous.
I was at Dominic Hill accountancy only last week, a small company of 10 or 11 people that has three apprentices. One started four years ago and she now has the Association of Consulting Actuaries qualification. Another is two years into his Association of Chartered Certified Accountants qualification, and the brand-new one started on his ACA apprenticeship three weeks ago. When those individuals qualify as accountants—one already has—they will not be loaded with tuition fee debt. They all have jobs and I am pretty darn sure that, after they have qualified, they will stay at Dominic Hill because it is a good company, but, because their accountancy qualifications are portable, they can go anywhere. Therefore, the conversion rate is not 90% or 80%, but 100%.
I had a meeting the other day with the chief executive of AIG, the big insurance company, which is now providing apprenticeships in insurance broking and underwriting, but the vast majority of people still do not know that. The key individuals who would have that information and be able to feed that on to young people in schools and colleges are the careers advisers. Therefore, they are an absolute game changer.
I appreciate that the coalition Government have tried to address these problems, and that is laudable. The Education Act 2011 put schools under a statutory duty to provide independent careers guidance to pupils since its implementation in 2012. I also welcomed the announcement in last year’s autumn statement about the £20 million to be given to improve careers advice, and I applauded the Department for Education’s announcement in December that a careers and enterprise company is to be created to work with employers to inspire and educate pupils. That highlights the Government’s recognition that more needs to be done to improve careers guidance. We are heading in a positive direction.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. One school in Pendle that has really embraced providing impartial careers advice is Marsden Heights community college. It set up a job junction that opens on Monday and Thursday lunchtimes every week, and students employed in the dream team deliver careers advice, including discussions of the current apprenticeship vacancies in Pendle, with their fellow students. Will he congratulate schools such as Marsden Heights that have listened to what the Government have asked them to do and used their initiative to go much further in providing impartial careers advice to students?
I do applaud that; that is a really good example of partnership working locally and of a school being proactive. The colleges play a key role—I am the chair of the all-party group for further education, skills and lifelong learning—but schools are crucial. I work closely with schools in Eastbourne and Willingdon in my constituency, so I would be interested in getting some more detail from my hon. Friend to downstream that locally.
I still retain some concerns about the Government’s announcements. Will the Minister shed any further light on what the £20 million will be spent on specifically? What will the remit be for informing young people about the range of apprenticeships in the programme? Will the company work with the FE sector as well? I wait to hear from him on that.
I also note that the Secretary of State for Education took part in a session run by the Select Committee on Education that looked into the state of careers advice. We await the Committee’s report and I look forward to seeing that. More still needs to be done to highlight pathways into vocational or academic education and training.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way for a third time. This time I want to talk about destinations from schools and colleges into workplaces and further and higher education. Does he agree that a better way of measuring the performance of schools is destinations, which would in turn stimulate more involvement in schools in promoting the right kinds of careers?
My hon. Friend has intervened frequently, but with very good points. I concur totally with him. I had a discussion with the head of Cavendish school a few months ago—he is a good guy at a really good school. He said, “Stephen, if I get my brightest youngsters really focused towards A-levels and university, I get a gold star from Ofsted,”—I am paraphrasing a wee bit—“but if I start pointing my brightest and youngest towards apprenticeships, I really don’t.” That is really important. He said, “But I do that anyway.” He is from the north, so he profoundly believes in apprenticeships even though he is in Eastbourne, but that was such an important point.
The Government have to find a way to ensure that the right outcomes for our young people are properly incentivised. Without that, we rely on individual heads and teachers to be brilliant and that is not good enough. I want our teachers to be brilliant, but I have been in business long enough to know that we need processes that underpin the teachers. Funnily enough, the next line of my speech is: how are schools to be incentivised to improve their careers advice provision? I look forward to hearing answers to that from both the Minister and the shadow Minister.
The Association of Colleges recently released a report titled “Careers Guidance: Guaranteed,” which uncovered some figures. They are not rocket science or surprising to the people here—otherwise, they would not be here—but 70% of young people turn to parents for careers advice and 57% turn to teachers. That is completely logical but mad, because, with the best will in the world, parents know only about their specific area unless they are careers professionals or they have a passionate interest in discovering about all of the extra 750 careers options that we seem to have today, compared with in my youth.
I have already explained about teachers. Great though they are, the challenge for teachers is that unless they have been trained, they will only know about their specific experience. We cannot change the fact that kids will go to their parents or teachers; it is logical. Whom do they trust most? They trust their parents. However, we need systematically and profoundly to improve the situation, and to pour focus and resource into improving the careers advice of teachers and improving the careers knowledge of parents, for example, through open days—I run apprenticeship initiatives constantly—so even parents know about the different careers. If we do not do that, in 10 years’ time we will be in exactly the same boat. We will be saying, “We are doing our best with careers advice. It’s not too bad, but—”. Thirty-five years ago, when I was starting out on my business career, the phrase could have been, “Careers advice is not too bad, but—”. Broadly speaking, that is still the case and it has to change. I look forward to the Minister and shadow Minister giving me an update on their proposals.
Recent research carried out by the Local Government Association shows that the drop-out rates cost the country over half a billion pounds. That does not surprise me at all. It will always happen a bit, but I am sure that a lot of that is related to poor advice.
I pay tribute to the National Union of Students, which has been very active and supportive on the issue. It is working closely with me on a separate apprenticeship initiative. It says that because the job market is so competitive these days, it is more important than ever for quality advice to be provided to 14 to 19-year-olds, as I am sure hon. Members would agree.
In my constituency, the unemployment claimant rate has dropped to 2.8%. A lot of the reason why is not just the national economy and the push we are doing locally, but the apprenticeship initiative that has been so successful in Eastbourne. The youth unemployment figure is now 325, which is almost 35% lower than at the height of the recession.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) talked about a school hub. I would like to share something we are doing in Eastbourne with the Chamber and the Minister, because it is another example of partnership and working together that is very successful. We have the Eastbourne jobs hub, which is slightly similar to my hon. Friend’s example, although not just from a school perspective. It has partners, including Sussex Downs college, Eastbourne borough council, the county council, the chamber of commerce—it is really important to get business right in the tent. We also have a dedicated manager, and I have match funding from each of the different groups, which means that even in a difficult economic climate, the funds can be provided to run it. There are also volunteers supporting the dedicated manager. I opened the hub myself about nine months ago. It is in the library, because having something like that in a central location is really important. It is all about careers advice, recruitment and helping to guide people into different job opportunities, and it is a really successful scheme.
For me, the key thing about schools, which is why I was interested in my hon. Friend’s intervention, is that that sort of scheme needs to be done much more in schools. It is a very good way of bringing businesses into the tent. A lot of companies, small and large, really enjoy going into schools, as long as there is a structure and they know what they are supposed to do. Equally, colleges can support schools on that, because my view is that young people need to start being informed about options around the age of 14, as they do in Germany. From a young age, kids begin to learn more about the different professions and different vocational and training opportunities that are available.
I want to mention a difficulty that is raised when we speak to industry in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman has spoken about apprenticeships; what more can we do to incentivise, if that is the right word, young people to stay the course? If 10 or 15 young people start an apprenticeship in whatever career it may be, perhaps only four will finish it.
That is very important. To my mind, there are a number of things to consider. We must ensure that the Government of the day, locally, regionally or nationally, focus on that area and applaud success. Nothing is truer in life than that success follows success. I would like to see more and more young people who have been through the process, either as apprentices or at university, as ambassadors going into schools and working with local companies.
I was talking to a constituent the other day about long-term youth unemployment, the challenges of NEETs and so on. As a constituent of mine, he knows that is something I am very focused on—it is one of things that got me back into politics, as it happens. I told him that there is no point in me, a middle-aged, posh bloke in a suit, going in and talking about apprenticeships—it just doesn’t work! Although I profoundly believe what I say, and a lot of young people in Eastbourne know me, so they know I am absolutely passionate about the issue, they would listen so much more to a 19 or 20-year-old who had been through the process and was really fired up. People hear so much better those who look like them and sound like them. That is something I would like to see much more of.
Improved access to careers hubs, where colleges, schools, universities, Jobcentre Plus, and local authorities come together—many of us have such hubs in our constituencies—is a very good way of working and lifting morale and energy locally. I urge the Government to keep making progress on that, and I look forward to hearing the views of both Front Benchers.
However, as good and necessary as hubs are—I use them a lot, as do many of my colleagues—I am convinced that one good, trained careers officer who is passionate about what they do can change the world of career opportunities for young people more than anything. A careers officer who offers a real career path, and who is incentivised to find people jobs or good solid training, can change people’s lives. One day, if I am still an MP in x number of years—
Who knows? I am an optimist. I am a Liberal. I would love to find that we hear more about careers officers who have transformed people’s lives. All of us here probably know one or two teachers who have done that, who have changed our lives in some way—I certainly do. I would love to be able to say in this Chamber, the House or at an awards presentation that people are talking about careers officers who have changed their lives, as they indeed can. A careers officer who has tremendous passion for their task and a comprehensive knowledge of the range of different opportunities can be a game-changer. It is our fault that that has not happened—we are the MPs; we are the Government—and it is about time we stepped up to the challenge. On that note, I look forward to hearing my colleagues’ contributions.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), who did well to secure this debate at an opportune time. Indeed, what better time could there be for game changing in relation to careers information, advice and guidance? Of all the things that need addressing urgently in the education landscape, this is it. I know that because the Humber local enterprise partnership asked me back in 2013 to chair a skills commission for it, and we interviewed businesses across the Humber. What they said—this was business people speaking to us, working on behalf of the LEP in the Humber—was that there was a universal need for better careers information, advice and guidance. I know from my lifetime in education that careers advice is more broken now than it has ever been, but it was interesting to hear that message coming from the business sector.
The hon. Gentleman is right in his analysis that we are in an education landscape that is more fragmented than ever, with free schools, UTCs and other things. In that fragmented landscape, created by the current Government, we need more than ever someone who holds the ring for young people and for UK plc and who is a resource of information, advice and guidance in an independent way.
The changes made in 2012 have upskittled what was there and made things much worse. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that employers are willing to get involved—by crikey they are! People working in education are also willing to get involved. There is great good will on both sides, but this will not happen until there is some resource in the middle. That is what has been taken out, what is missing. It will not happen unless there is some resource in the middle—careers advice or whatever we want to call it—that makes it happen, because people are looking at their bottom lines. The hon. Gentleman talked about the bottom line of accountability, in terms of results, Ofsted and all that, in the education sector. The bottom line of accountability for businesses is literally the bottom line of their profit and loss account. Unless we have something that will put those things together and we resource it properly, that will not happen, despite the good will on both sides, so it is crucial.
The National Union of Students captures the position in its statement that the provision of impartial, quality careers information, advice and guidance is of fundamental importance to individuals and society. It is a win-win situation. Why are we not investing in that? Why have we dismantled it?
As a result of the report produced by the Humber LEP, “Lifting the Lid: The Humber Skills Challenge 2013”, there have been good initiatives in the Humber area. There is the gold standard recognition for those parts of the Humber that are seeking to produce high-quality careers information, advice and guidance. That approach is bearing dividends. Also, as Anne Tyrrell, the principal of North Lindsey college, points out, the work that has been done on the Humber-wide portal for careers, Bridging the Gap, where information can be accessed, is making some difference. There is other good practice—for example, the work that Baysgarth school is doing with John Leggott college. Institutions are working together to make the provision of information, advice and guidance better. However, those initiatives are undertaken within a busy day, without being properly resourced from the centre.
Let us examine a few statistics from the University and College Union, to add to statistics that we have already had. Just 39% of learners surveyed said that they had spoken to a careers adviser. Less than half, 46%, of young people say that they have received group advice from a teacher at their school. Fewer still, 39%, said that they had had a talk from a local careers officer or careers adviser, and only 10% had spoken to a business professional. Those statistics paint the picture of where we are at the moment, and it is not good enough for our young people or our society.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one issue that we urgently need to address is the knowledge base of teachers themselves as to the industrial and commercial basis of their own hinterland? If some training days were devoted to acquiring knowledge of what is going on in their own territories—the industries, the commerce and the job opportunities available for the pupils they teach—surely that would pay dividends in terms of the destinations that our young people reach when they qualify.
It absolutely would and does. Schools, colleges, teachers and support staff up and down the land have undertaken that sort of activity and will recognise that it benefits them and the young people they teach or support. However, it needs to be resourced. If a teacher is going on a week’s placement in industry, someone else needs to be in front of the kids, teaching them. A cost is involved—this is not a nil-sum game. There are things to be gained and to benefit from, but resource is needed to make it happen. Good words and fine language do not make it happen. It needs to be properly resourced.
I was therefore pleased when the new Secretary of State for Education, surveying the landscape of wreckage and chaos that she had inherited from her predecessor, identified careers information, advice and guidance as one of the things that needed fixing. I felt that in her announcement on 10 December, she was making heavy weather of what needed to be done, but at least she was recognising that something needed to be there and she talked about a new careers and enterprise company being set up. I would be grateful if the Minister, in answering the debate, could update us on progress on that, because it has all gone rather quiet. What are the main priorities on which Government expect the careers company to focus? How will Government know whether the careers company is successful? What are the desired outcomes? What are the measures? What role will local enterprise partnerships have in relation to the careers company? LEPs are well placed to do the job of bringing education and the world of work together in a locality and making things happen. Properly resourced, they are absolutely in the right place to make that happen, so I would like to know how the new company will work with people on the ground so that things change for the better and we do not just see a lot of money going into the pockets of consultants and others without reaching and affecting young people on the ground.
I want to draw attention to the excellent Association of Colleges campaign “Careers Guidance: Guaranteed” to which the hon. Member for Eastbourne has already alluded. It does what it says on the tin. If we can guarantee careers guidance in a proper way for our young people, everyone will be a winner. The campaign that the AOC has been running is one that I hope everyone could sign up to. It talks about
“improved access in a locality where colleges, schools, universities, Jobcentre Plus and local authorities come together led by the LEP to form a clearly signposted careers hub. This would provide a single point of information”.
Alongside explanations of the benefits of an academic education and progression to university, those career hubs should provide young people with an opportunity to try their hand at various vocational options. They would provide that practical experience, but also provide other opportunities.
The hon. Gentleman talked about using ambassadors. I know that schools and colleges use ambassadors well, but, again, resource is needed to manage that, to make it happen, to draw people in, to lubricate the wheels. A careers information hub based within the LEP would deliver that. Together with all that, says the AOC,
“careers education needs to be introduced and embedded into the curriculum. This would give children and young people the right grounding to make informed decisions and the right choice for them. This education should include understanding different types of businesses, how stereotyping affects career decisions, the qualities needed to enhance employability and looking systematically at the choices available and what is required…for particular jobs. It should complement visits from local businesses and work experience placements.”
I shall end as I began. This issue is crucial. It is crucial to the young people in our schools and colleges, to their individual futures, but it is also crucial to UK plc; it is crucial to all of us. Let us game change, get it right and put things in place for a better future for us and for them.
Order. I hope to start the wind-ups at 10.40 am. There are four Members seeking to catch my eye, so I appeal to hon. Members to limit their remarks to about seven or eight minutes. I am not imposing a time limit, as such, but if we all discipline ourselves, everyone will be able to get in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate my coalition colleague the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) on securing the debate.
The report by the Association of Colleges and the statistics that it has published are interesting. During the past four and three quarter years working in South Derbyshire, I have made it a key priority to put businesses together with schools and the further education college. That was helped by the fact that I opened our further education college—until 2011, we did not have one, but we now have a good working relationship. I have also integrated the needs of businesses with future opportunities for young people by setting up a business breakfast club. I have teachers, heads and representatives from the colleges coming to my business breakfast club, because I want them to learn about what business wants pupils to learn at their schools, so that those pupils are—a phrase that I often use—oven-ready for work. That, apparently, is a novel concept. I cannot imagine why, because we had careers advice when I was at Grey Coat Hospital school, although it was not suggested that I become an MP. Fortunately, other people have sensibly suggested that their children should go there.
Many things are possible for the future. In my patch in South Derbyshire, where we have so much manufacturing, the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths links in terribly well with my manufacturing companies. They want to get involved with schools, because they want to urge them to encourage their pupils, particularly the girls, to take up those subjects and make those decisions early on at the age of 14 or 15, or 16 to 18. The whole mixture displays a can-do attitude.
I am disappointed by the statistics from the AOC. I understand why it felt that it needed to do that survey, because it highlights where we can do better. I have always tried to ensure that in the sunny uplands of South Derbyshire, we are not only a can-do area but a can-do-better area. When, for example, I get the Institute of Physics to give a presentation in schools, I do not encourage them simply to aim it at 17 to 18-year-olds, because they have more or less made their decisions about where they want to go; I try to aim such presentations at 14 and 15-year-olds, because I think that that is the key.
William Allitt school, which is in my constituency and which does not have a sixth form, is a finalist in the national science and engineering competition at the big bang fair, a massive engineering exhibition that goes on for three days in the national exhibition centre in Birmingham. It is tremendous that the school has become specialist in maths. It has sent kids over to Russia for a two-week space course. I think it is absolutely brilliant that kids in my area have such opportunities, and that they are truly reaching for the stars.
I finish by saying that careers advice is incredibly important. The announcement made by the Education Secretary in December gives us hope that there will be real changes and that careers advice will be improved. I congratulate my coalition colleague the hon. Member for Eastbourne on coming up with the brilliant idea that we need to have gold stars for careers advisers. People need careers advisers to give them the advice that enables them to say, “I could be a nurse or I could be a bank manager, but I actually want to be an engineer.”
The hon. Lady has outlined some excellent best practice in schools. She mentioned “can do” and “can do better”, but the difficulty is whether schools want to do those things, as they clearly do in the case of her schools, rather than having to do them. The problem is schools not having to do those things when it comes to the assessment of their own performance.
That is an incredibly important point. As has been mentioned, it is hardly surprising that teachers give recommendations to their pupils about going to university, because that is the route that those teachers came through. However, there are many young people who really want to go into apprenticeships. An interesting apprenticeship that has absolutely taken off is the accountancy apprenticeship, which is almost like going back to the old days of articled clerks. That is, in effect, what I did. I studied for my professional exams as an insurance broker through day release and evening classes. It was a great career. I spent 10 years in the City and thoroughly enjoyed it, living by the important moral principles of “My word is my bond” and “You don’t lie to people”. If someone can take those principles on to elsewhere in their career, that is great. Teachers perhaps are not the best people to provide such advice, but I applaud the initiatives that my schools are taking to talk to businesses and take on this new, über power-charged careers service for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Williams. I thank the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) for securing this excellent and important debate.
I come at the matter from two perspectives. My key priority is the people of Hartlepool. There is huge potential in my constituency. We have a nuclear power station providing well-paid jobs, and there is the prospect of an additional power station in the next 10, 15 or 20 years. We have got Nissan up the road. We have got Hitachi in Newton Aycliffe. We have the largest concentration of chemical engineering anywhere in western Europe, and we have the potential for carbon capture and storage. There is massive opportunity in my local economy, and yet the Office for National Statistics report from last year on young people in the labour market shows that Hartlepool, alongside Wolverhampton, has the largest number of young people unemployed and outside education or training anywhere in England and Wales. Why is that the case? Why is there such a mismatch between potential, skill shortages and the level of youth unemployment? Careers advice has a role to play in making sure that we address that mismatch.
My second consideration is that for the last 11 months of the previous Labour Government, I was the Minister in charge of 14-to-19 reform and apprenticeships, and I had responsibility for information, advice and guidance. I was conscious that in far too many cases, careers advice was seen as a secondary activity—often even a nuisance—that took time and attention away from the core business of learning. Careers advice was often delivered as a one-off event in a single afternoon. I was keen to see a new approach, which was the purpose of the new strategy for information, advice and guidance published in October 2009. I am not suggesting that there was ever a golden age for careers guidance, but as a Minister I was keen to push it up the agenda.
As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), the provision of careers advice to young people under this Government has got markedly worse. Reductions in funding and personnel, increases in fragmentation in the school system and organisational change, such as the dismantling of Connexions, have meant that young people often face real barriers to navigating what is on offer. Good careers advice can also be an important tool of effective social mobility. A young person should get good careers advice regardless of where they live, their background, who their parents are or who they know. That is often not the case, however, and it is a question of who they know and their connections when it comes to getting into a good career or profession.
The CBI has said that 93% young of people are not getting the careers information that they need, but good careers information, advice and guidance are needed more than ever, because the certainties of the past have gone. In my patch, my grandfather’s generation could leave school at the age of 15 on Friday and be working in the steelworks or the shipyard the following Monday, and they would stay there for 40 years. That certainty and that clear route have gone for ever. The futurist Thomas Frey has said that 60% of the best jobs in the next decade have not even been invented yet. At the same time, technology threatens a third of all UK jobs over the next 20 years, especially at the low-skilled end of the employment market. As Andreas Schleicher of the OECD has said,
“because of rapid economic and social change, schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t yet know will arise.”
In those circumstances, there needs to be much greater alignment between education policy and business and industrial policy, with effective careers advice and meaningful engagement between businesses and schools acting as the bridge, but the Government have to help. Government policy is not addressing the issue, and a narrowing of the curriculum by Ministers means that creative learning, problem solving and team building in the widest sense—enterprise education, in the widest definition, is required for the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century that will allow us to compete in the modern world—are not being championed, and careers advice is being downgraded.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there was no golden age. The careers system that he left behind at the end of the Labour Government was pretty weak. Does he agree that there has been a failure to change the incentives in order to ensure that all schools provide first-class careers advice and guidance, as a small number currently do? One of the major things is to ensure that, in places such as Hartlepool, young people get qualifications that add value. He will be delighted, as I am, to see the number of young unemployed people aged between 18 and 24 in his constituency go down from the 1,200 when he left government in 2010 to, I think, 615 according to the latest figures. That is fantastic news, and we are seeing that transformation across the country under this Government.
The hon. Gentleman will understand that we want a universal and properly resourced careers service that is staffed by committed and professional people with the necessary breadth of knowledge and experience to be able to say, “This is what the future looks like. The potential for you, as a young person, is huge. This is what’s on offer. Let me guide you through it.” That is not happening at the moment. I have six specific, brief points.
I will be brief, I promise. First, this debate is about 14-to-19 careers advice, but providing appropriate careers advice and information about the future world of work needs to come at an even younger age. We have a pressing need to encourage more women into engineering, but all the evidence suggests that girls are put off or are pushed into gender stereotypes or pigeonholes at primary school. Encouraging and motivating eight, nine and 10-year-olds is a vital prerequisite to good engagement and effective careers guidance for 14 to 19-year-olds. What is the Minister doing on that?
Secondly, work experience is not given the importance that it deserves, and young people from families who do not have connections at the golf club, or whatever, will miss out. I was lucky, because I had two weeks at a firm of solicitors when I was 16. Those two weeks were invaluable in convincing me that there was no way on God’s holy earth that I was going to have a career in law, but being able to dip a toe in the water and being able to try different things is important. The Government need to recognise that and ensure that work experience is given more priority.
Thirdly, as the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) mentioned, destination data and employment and training routes for young people should be considered a key part of school reporting and evaluation, and they should even form part of the remuneration packages of the head teacher and senior school management. We should ensure that a wide and impartial range of advice is given, rather than pushing pupils towards a certain end, but that is not happening at the moment.
Fourthly, face-to-face guidance is effective and wanted by young people. Online research is valuable, but it should not be seen as a substitute for face-to-face discussions, particularly with professionals. The Government need to address that.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that face-to-face advice should be a key thread running through young people’s education, evaluation and experience.
Fifthly, impartial advice is important, and it is not given in far too many cases, particularly for 11 to 18-year-olds. Schools may be pushing pupils towards the sixth form when they would rather consider a vocational or apprenticeship route.
Sixthly, we should value careers professionals. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne said, they are vital professionals who can navigate young people through a tricky and complex world. We should treasure them a lot more. For far too long, careers advice has been a secondary consideration, somehow as an add-on. In the modern world of work, we need a knowledge-based economy. We do not know what the future looks like, so careers advice needs to be much more central to this country’s education offer.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I strongly congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) on securing this debate on a crucial subject. I represent one of the youngest constituencies in the country. I can barely walk down the street, and I can certainly never visit a school or educational establishment, without young people directly raising their concerns and demands about the careers services that they want. I am here to speak for them.
I completely endorse the comments of most hon. Members who have spoken today. Young people tell me that they want face-to-face guidance when they need it. That is particularly important in my constituency because many young people do not have connections. They do not have parents with understanding and knowledge of the modern world of work. Many of them have come to this country, and perhaps their parents do not have good English.
On Monday, I was at the KPMG City academy in my constituency with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt). A year 12 pupil told us that she wants to be a doctor but that her mother is a single parent. She said, “I don’t have the connections that some of my friends in the school have.” The school helps to provide her with the connections that help to level the playing field. KPMG and the City of London sponsor the academy, and KPMG helps to provide her with support—other pupils also have mentors through KPMG. Those business links, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) said, are vital.
When I talk to businesses in the community and head teachers, one of the key things they mention is linking those businesses with individual pupil achievement in the school, as well as giving pupils a view of the world of work. That is more complicated than simply careers advice, but I have always supported embedding business connections in schools, and it is one of the reasons why I am broadly in favour of the academies programme.
On careers advice more specifically, I am delighted to have worked from the outset with the charity My Big Career. We found each other because I had been working to encourage professionals in my area to become the family for young people in Hackney who do not have their own connections. I got professionals and sixth-formers into networking events, where they shared notes and found each other. Those young people made their own connections.
The redoubtable Deborah Streatfield decided to set up My Big Career because she is a professional careers adviser working in the private sector and, as well as the private school that employs her, she is often privately commissioned by parents. She realised that the careers advice in many state schools was not of the same standard, so she set up the charity. Happily, I was able to secure office space in Cardinal Pole school in my constituency, which now has an outstanding sixth form. Deborah Streatfield has been offering face-to-face advice, and it is not just her. She has been getting in volunteer careers advisers and, crucially, professionals from business who are trained to give the right kind of professional advice to pupils.
The charity also offers a results day service, which was so effective last year. Shockingly, it was the first time in Hackney’s history that pupils received a results day service from volunteers trained to go in at 7 o’clock in the morning so that young people who had missed a grade could access discussions with universities. For example, four young people who would not have got on to their nursing degree did so because of that input, which should be standard. That happened because a professional, qualified careers team was there at that point.
Young people tell me that they want such advice. For many young people, face-to-face advice is so important because they are just not getting it through other routes. The key thing about My Big Career is the service’s high-level professionalism. I echo the point raised by other colleagues that we need good, properly qualified careers advisers.
I also echo the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) about ensuring that teenagers make the right choice early on. One of the things that My Big Career has discovered is that many young people are being encouraged, quite rightly and effectively, to get a good GCSE in maths, but for many a C grade was just not enough for the course they wanted to take at university. They needed a B grade, and even many heads of maths did not understand the significance of a B grade for the future career choices of their pupils. Bright, able and capable sixth-formers were finding that that one dropped grade in GCSE maths was limiting their future career options. That goes to show that the professional understanding of good, qualified careers advisers makes a difference throughout a school, not just at 14.
The Government have thrown money at careers advice. At one level, we should accept the £20 million that has gone to the careers company, but I have serious questions about how that has been tendered and whether it is really best at national level. There is no road map for how the careers company will deliver good quality careers advice throughout our educational establishments. I hope the Minister can give us more information, because we are all desperate to know how that will help people in Hackney, Hartlepool, Scunthorpe and around the country. I want to know how we will be monitoring the independent advice and guidance provided directly by schools, because the quality varies enormously, as we have heard.
I, too, have a list of asks for the Minister. First, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne described, we want a clearer set of requirements on appropriate and good guidance. We do not have a common set of standards at the moment, and it is vital that we do. It is not fair that a young person going through a school—sometimes a very good school—might have their future completely altered by the lack of quality careers advice. We want a common standard.
Crucially, we need really good evaluation of what works and quality control. The key thing is the bit in the middle, which my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe talked about—the broker between businesses and young people. The broker could be the careers adviser, but there could be work placements. Rather than young people just being thrown at work placements that have been brokered by a careers service, they could say, “I want to do this, and I need to know who I can speak to so I can go and do that particular role.”
I represent Shoreditch, which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor called “tech city”. It is a hub for future jobs and growth in this country, but most of the jobs in Shoreditch do not exist as such. They do not have job titles, because they are so new and emerging. I can sometimes broker the connections, because of the peculiarity of an MP’s role, where we see a lot of different things. We need to make sure that our teachers and particularly our careers advisers are aware of the opportunities and can make those links. That crucial bit in the middle is the broker. When the broker finds a young person with a particular skill, the broker will know how to make the two or three phone calls that will get the young person the connection to the career opportunity that they can really learn from. We also need to see greater stability of funding so that we can be sure there is a career path for good quality careers advisers.
I welcomed the Government’s decision to include outcome data as a key part of schools. We still do not have much of an update from the Department for Education on how it is going to work. Many schools in my area feel challenged about how they are going to deal with it. I believe—I represent Shoreditch, so I would—that good, well-worked-up software that would allow alumni to be tracked and, crucially, give alumni something back in terms of networking, could be very useful. I have been talking to UBS, the bank that sponsors the Bridge Academy in Hackney. There is a real opportunity to be grabbed, but it needs to be fleshed out. I hope the Minister will do so.
I have mentioned the issues about grade B maths. Such issues underline the need for clear understanding throughout schools of how early choices can affect careers and damage career options. The Government need to ensure that that is embedded through a set of standards.
I have set out my asks. Careers advice is crucial. My young people in Hackney want action. They want to see the best provided to all and I back them in that.
Thank you, Mr Williams. I will make a few comments in the short time I have. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) on securing the debate. It is good for us all to have an input. As a Northern Ireland Member of Parliament, I am conscious that we need to cater for access to careers advice that teases out options for every young person, so that they are not left feeling at sea about where life is going to take them. Everybody is good at something in life. My wife can provide a list of things that I am not good at around the house, but I am glad to say that when it comes to the issues for students we need to do something for them.
We have a nation of ambitious, driven and generally hopeful youths who have clear careers aspirations. There are two worries. First, there is still a group that is unsure about which path to take and needs guidance. Secondly, the access that we give to careers is not keeping up with the ambitious demands of young people, and, as a result, they are misguided or misled through a lack of information about the relevant qualifications and steps needed for them to succeed in their goals.
With young people today so impressively strong-minded, it is not necessarily true that the ambitions for their career paths were even founded through educational institutions or careers services advice. That is not to say that there are not young people under pressure from others about what they feel they should do, perhaps following the example of friends or expectations of family members. Although it is good to be encouraged and motivated to achieve, access to an individual, driven careers service can help avoid career paths that are not suited to the individual. We need to have the right direction for students to go in, which is the thrust of what has been said so far.
One of the local grammar schools in my area, Regent House, has implemented a career strategy whereby the mock results for exams were handed over to the children all at once in an envelope, and then the children were taken and given careers advice based on their results. That is the way forward. It has shown that there is a better way of doing things and perhaps a better way of encouraging greater study.
I believe that between the ages of 14 and 16 aspirations start to take full form. Access to careers advice should not rely solely on broad advice, but should be specific. A flaw that has been recognised is that young people are advancing down career routes when they are not fully aware of the qualifications needed. Some have no clear vision of where they want to go in employment, resulting often in an exit from the education system because they cannot see what it can do for them.
I am conscious of the time, but I will make this point. Within this particular group, the concern is that there is not enough advice pushing for these individuals to acquire work experience, interview skills and CV-building capabilities. Simply sitting down with someone and talking through their aspirations so that they are aware of the expectations and relevant qualifications needed would help.
For those leaving school and going to further education colleges, the route they see for themselves is often more vocational or based on learning a trade. In the Northern Ireland strategy for apprenticeships, we recognised that, through apprenticeships, we can ensure and enable mobility within a sector and across the wider economy by including a breadth of training beyond the specific needs of a job, through both on and off-the-job training. The South Eastern Regional college in my area gives great advice. The universities in Northern Ireland have been lucky enough to keep student fees low, but at the same time we need to be able to ensure that those who want scholarship programmes are aware of how to source funding.
In conclusion, we cannot let our best, youngest and brightest be hindered in reaching their potential because they did not know how to get there. We must ensure that the best advice is available to the greatest number of children, and this is something that our education system must ensure is available as a right and not as a bonus. That is why this debate is so important.
Thank you for fitting me in, Mr Williams. I am afraid I was not originally down to speak because I was chairing the Education Committee this morning.
Careers advice and guidance is such an important topic. The Select Committee produced a report. People are listening to thoughtful speeches from many colleagues, but the heart of the problem is a simple one. It does not come out in myriad reports that have been produced on the subject, or indeed in enough speeches given by colleagues in the Chamber. The problem is that there are insufficient incentives for schools to take the matter seriously. That is why 80% of them do not. It is simple: they do not have to take it seriously. No one loses their job and no one gets fired or publicly humiliated for failing to do it properly, but they do if five good GCSEs are not achieved. We therefore have to change the accountability regime and have a high-stakes environment in which someone very easily gets publicly humiliated or sacked. That is the central problem.
We need a better balance—perhaps a nudge that does not simply add further burdens on leaders within schools and colleges, but addresses the central problem. The Committee did not have any perfect solutions, but we said—I will say this to the Minister—that schools should at least be made to publish their careers plan, so that parents and employers can have a look at it. Ofsted could check in advance. Hard-working Ministers could sit in Whitehall, as I know my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools often does late at night, and look at it on the website.
The Government helped to fund a quality in careers standard for schools. It exists, so we can make schools work towards it and keep to it. I know it is bureaucratic—a bit input-esque—but we have not got great destinations data yet and we do not have another solution, so we have to give it a nudge. Let us not have any more reports from the alphabet soup of organisations. Teach First has done one this week that has some good stuff in it, but the central issue is that schools are not incentivised to take the matter seriously, and they have perverse incentives such as filling their sixth-form places, which means they will not even let colleges in.
Let us address the incentives, get the framework right, stop faffing around with all the other talk, and we could make a real difference to the lives of children. It is worth looking at what happened under the previous Secretary of State, who, it is fair to say, was pretty dismissive of this agenda, but he was not dismissive of the need to raise standards in schools, to challenge the low standards that prevailed for too long, and to put in place a pressure on the system to get people to sit for qualifications and do a curriculum and syllabuses for exams that matter to people and were of some value. That is already starting to pay off. Combined with an economic plan that focuses on enterprise and growth, we see transformations.
I am sad to say that for those who are trying to be fair-minded, those transformations do not get properly reflected in speeches by Opposition Members. I admire enormously the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), as I do all the Opposition Members in the Chamber, but he does not mention that youth unemployment in his constituency has gone from more than 1,000 when the Labour party left office—there were more than 1,000 young people in his constituency who were scarred for life by unemployment, because we know that youth unemployment scars people for life—to 425 today. Similarly, in Hartlepool, about 600 young people’s lives have been transformed by a Government who are delivering and not just talking. The youth unemployment figure there has gone from 1,200 to 600, so another 600 young people have had their lives turned round. In south Hackney, the youth unemployment figure is down from 750 when Labour left office—750 young people just sitting there—to 250 today. That is all great news.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) on raising this important topic. I also congratulate all the hon. Members who have spoken; their speeches demonstrate the importance of this subject.
Careers advice is “broken”; it is on “life support”; and the Government show a “reluctance” to take it seriously. Those are not my words as an Opposition Member; they are the words of the CBI and the Skills Commission. Also, the Education Committee has been fairly critical; in 2013, it described
“the worrying deterioration in the overall level of provision”.
That is all pretty damning, because careers advice is absolutely vital, as I think we have heard from everyone who has spoken today.
Young people need to know what the options are—not only which A-levels to take or which university to go to but what training they may need to become an engineer or to work in IT. They also need to know what the emerging jobs market in their area is, and what they need in order to access the full range of education and training options, as the Association of Colleges has said in its excellent report. But what have the Government done? They have pushed the responsibility for careers advice on to schools and colleges.
Schools must provide access to impartial careers advice for young people aged between 14 and 19. They are told that this advice should be independent and involve outside providers. However, the schools have a vested interest in keeping up the number of students studying A-level courses, to ensure a viable number if they have a sixth form of their own; in some cases, the survival of a school’s sixth form depends on the school keeping those students. I have heard from some sixth-form and further education colleges that they are being denied admission to schools, and consequently they are not being allowed to give the full range of options to students.
Many teachers follow the academic route so they do not have experience of the world of work, know the local economic conditions in their area or understand the range of experiences that are offered by going down the “earn and learn” route. Indeed, I have heard from some young people about the pressure they are under to stay on at school and take A-levels, rather than starting apprenticeships. One young person told me that they were ostracised by the school when they said they wanted to do an apprenticeship. Another particularly savvy young person said to me, “I’m just seen as a walking pot of money.”
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the issue of apprenticeships. The TUC and Unionlearn have said—I think it was in the past few days—that they completely oppose the Labour party policy to abolish level 2 apprenticeships. Will the Labour party look at that policy again? Level 2 apprenticeships, where they transform income and provide high-quality training, should be retained; we must not lose this vital building block in providing support to young people.
I will not go into that issue too far, but I will say that level 2 will not be branded as apprenticeships, and the training will certainly not be going; it will be a pre-apprenticeship. However, that is a different issue.
It is no wonder, therefore, that careers advice is simply not being provided. Three quarters of schools that Ofsted visited were not providing adequate advice—so far, not so good. And what else has happened? We have heard about the new careers and enterprise company, and a number of questions have been asked about it. I wonder whether the job it will do is already being done. The Chairman of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), who is here today, has said:
“It is clear that the…new body replicates the very role and remit of the National Careers Service...and only the leadership and governance is different”.
I would like to hear more about what will happen with that situation.
The fact is that we need more than an unenforced duty on schools, which simply leads to buck-passing. One in three teachers say they do not have the right expertise and resources to adequately provide effective information, advice and guidance. We need a complete rethink about how we deliver careers advice to young people, and rebuilding the careers advice service will be an early and vital priority for a Labour Government. Fragmentation and short-term and unsuitable initiatives are absolutely endemic. We need a careers service that is modelled around what provides the best outcomes for the young person and for the country, because young people are our future work force, as we have heard today. We need a careers service that guarantees that face-to-face, one-to-one guidance is available for all young people who need it, and that ensures that businesses and employers are linked in with it, the importance of which we heard about from my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin).
Building closer links with industry is absolutely vital, but I would like to add my support for the face-to-face guidance, as somebody who has worked in providing face-to-face advice, even if it was not in this sector. Websites can help many young people, but many more will need face-to-face contact. The level of contact may well be different: it may just involve initial contact, or there may be contact that takes young people further through the process. As Centrepoint has said, particularly young people who have little parental support, as well as those with poor literacy or who have other support needs, may need more assistance.
Working together is the other watchword. That is why I support the idea of careers hubs, which we have heard about from a number of hon. Members today. I visited the Bristol campus of South Gloucestershire and Stroud college the other month. The college has an excellent careers hub, working with schools across the area—independent schools, academies, state-controlled schools and primary schools—and providing one-to-one advice from professional careers advisers, which it employs. The college is the point of contact for all employers, it works with the local enterprise partnership, and it is considering expanding its service. It is an excellent model for the careers advice of the future. If such hubs were rolled out across the country, they could provide a single point of information about careers advice and career options in each area and employ the professional careers advisers whose work is so valuable.
Careers hubs could also co-ordinate work experience. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) how important work experience is for young people. Currently, however, work experience provision is another postcode lottery.
A taster session of work experience is valued by young people and employers, but not enough employers are incentivised to provide them, even though they can provide real benefits, including introducing the reality of work to young people. My daughter found that out on her first day of work. Horrified, she told me when she came home, “The manager told me what to do, and d’you know what? It wasn’t sensible!” I thought, “That’s a good life experience for you.”
Taster sessions also allow students to consider a wider range of roles than they may have been told about. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool said, young people put their toe in the water and they might not like it. However, they might like it, especially if taster sessions give them a wide range of roles to consider. It is also indisputable that if people have an early experience of work, they are less likely to end up unemployed and more likely to get better jobs and earn more money. However, at the moment less than half of young people have access to high-quality work experience. We have really fallen behind countries such as France in this regard.
We also need to work more with employers to break down some of the barriers faced by young people who are perhaps harder to place than others, including those with disabilities, in order to dispel the preconception that the employers themselves may have that those young people cannot do the jobs that are on offer. A careers hub could help those young people, as well as others who are perhaps more in the mainstream.
We believe that destination tracking is another activity that should be taken further. Schools actually have a responsibility for their pupils that goes beyond simply where they go on leaving school. A young person who goes to university and drops out in the first term because the course is unsuitable for them is not a success; a young person who takes an apprenticeship and completes it is a success, and should be celebrated as such. We therefore need to track destinations for much longer than we do now. Also, there has been a worrying rise in the number of “unknowns” recorded by the local authorities. We not know where those people are, which is a concern from a safeguarding point of view as well.
Our young people are the work force of the future, as we have heard before; we rely on them to pay and look after our pensions, basically. They need to be given every opportunity to have a worthwhile and satisfying career, and to develop their skills throughout their working lives. If we do not give them access to advice at the beginning of their working life, when they are thinking about what work to do, in order to help them navigate the confusing landscape of the world of work, which is becoming ever more confusing, we are failing them. In fact, we are not only doing that but we are jeopardising our future economic success as a country.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. This has been an excellent debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) on securing it and congratulate all hon. Members on their contributions. However, I am clearly not able to respond to every question asked and every point raised.
I start by observing that, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) said, there has never been a golden age of careers advice and guidance. I think we can all agree about that. He is a former Minister in this field and took office at the end of a long Government full of largesse, so I think he will have noted that large Government budgets have not proved to be the solution to the lack of advice and guidance. He made a perfunctory reference to Connexions, but nobody has come up to me, either since I was elected to Parliament or since I was appointed to this job, and mourned the scrapping of that service. There may well have been good intentions behind it, but the reality is that it achieved very little, with a relatively large budget. When we faced the largest peace time budget deficit in our history, it was a right and proper economy to make to get rid of Connexions as it was then constituted.
There was never a golden age and, certainly, the previous Government did not manage to produce a system of careers advice and guidance that led to high-quality advice for young people throughout the country and in all schools. We as a Government have recognised that, thanks to the good work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), the Chairman of the Education Committee, and others, and have taken steps to ensure that schools are more focused on their responsibilities. Hon. Members have mentioned the introduction of statutory guidance requiring schools to provide independent advice and guidance. We certainly recognise that too few schools are doing so. There were many calls from Opposition Members for proper resourcing for this. However, there is a difficulty here, because proper resourcing means more money either dedicated to or ring-fenced for the provision of careers advice and guidance and the employment of more careers advisers. In that case, Opposition Members have to answer questions—I know they never like doing so—about what other things they are going to cut, what taxes they will raise or what borrowing will be increased to provide that resourcing; otherwise, that resourcing will have to come from within the existing schools budgets.
The reality is that good schools of all kinds—grant-maintained schools, academies, and all kinds of schools—realise that it is critical for them to make an investment from their budget and employ a careers adviser or co-ordinator. Lots of different models work. Good schools realise that this is a priority and there is nothing stopping any school deciding to invest some of their resource in proper advice and guidance.
Just for the record, the Committee did not call for additional money. It recognised that, in an ideal world, it might have been a good thing, but that the most important thing was to change the incentives for schools, because the fact that 20% of schools can find the budget—they tend to be successful schools delivering outstanding academic results as well—shows that it can be done. In fact, those things are mutually enhancing.
If the Minister wanted a crude proxy for the success of the education system—I remember saying this to the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) when he was a Minister in the Labour Government—it would be how many young people end up as NEETs. I am pleased that the number in the shadow Minister’s constituency has gone from 900 when Labour left office to 140 today.
Of course, I am always particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee. I will come on to his point on incentives, which is a good one.
Probably the most useful thing I can do for hon. Members who participated in this debate is to answer some questions about the new careers company, because I understand that although people are broadly and in principle supportive of it, they question how it will fit into the landscape and particularly what its relationship with or functions relative to the National Careers Service will be.
The key point about the new careers company is that we observed that there is no shortage of organisations offering high-quality activity. Straight after this debate I am meeting the people who run Inspiring Futures, which is an excellent programme with speakers for schools and any number of online resources. Of course, the National Careers Service provides high-quality advice to lots of young people as well as to adults. There is no shortage of provision, but schools face great difficulty understanding what is available, what is high quality and what would really meet the identified needs of their young people.
The point of the careers company, under Christine Hodgson, is to create a structure whereby every school has somebody it can ask to help it through this forest and identify the resources and the providers who will help provide a much better range of experiences and inspiration to young people. It will focus initially on mapping what is out there, because people have to know that before they can start offering guidance. It will then focus on Lord Young’s excellent idea, in his report to the Prime Minister, of appointing an enterprise adviser. That person will be a current or recently retired local executive from the public or private sector, who will be attached to a school and whose role will be to help it identify local businesses and employers that can come in to the school and provide work experience, and resources relating to programmes relevant for the school. A school will identify that local enterprise adviser with the help of their local economic partnership.
I agree with those who have said that local economic partnerships have an obvious role to play in helping schools understand who out there can help them deliver on their duty. I do not think many teachers or head teachers are failing to provide careers advice and guidance because they do not believe in it; it is because they are busy and not particularly qualified to do it. It is no criticism of them to suggest that. They need some help. As we have heard, a plethora of local business executives is only too willing to get involved. However, we need some structure of brokerage in that regard and some guidance to schools on how they can give better advice and guidance to their young people.
Those will be the two main priorities for the careers company. It will have a small pot of money of about £5 million—a small part of the £20 million—from which it will be able to back new ideas for new kinds of experience and advice and guidance. That will act more as a sort of seed fund or a venture fund. It will also work more long-term on Lord Young’s other idea, which is for an enterprise passport that would probably be an online record of all of the non-formal educational achievements of a young person—all the volunteering and holiday jobs they have done, all the clubs they have joined and all their other extracurricular achievements at school—so that employers have an objective record of the full range of a young person’s contribution to their community when judging their fitness for school.
In the final minutes of this debate I should like to focus on the point of careers advice and guidance, although I am happy to answer in writing any questions from colleagues about the careers company. The point of careers advice is to lead to a career, and the point of every career is to have a series of satisfying and fulfilling jobs. I hope that every hon. Member of every party will recognise the signal achievement of this Government, which is to have created more jobs in Yorkshire—as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment reminded us—than have been created in France, and to have created more jobs in the United Kingdom than have been created in the whole of the European Union.
The key to a career is having an economy that creates jobs—new jobs in new sectors, requiring new young people with new skills. Of course, they need advice and guidance, and of course they need clear data that help them understand which choice of qualifications leads to which possibilities regarding a career. However, ultimately, without an economy that is creating employment at the speed we have been doing so in this country, there is no point having even the best careers advice and guidance in the world. Right now, even with fantastic careers advice and guidance, someone who has the misfortune to be a young person in Spain will have a pretty small chance of having a fulfilling career because youth unemployment there is pushing 40%.
Let us remember the point of careers advice and guidance, which is to guide people on to a path that will give them a satisfying range of jobs in the economy, creating jobs like no other.
Police Widows Pensions
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, and a real pleasure to be able to speak on an issue that is important to Members from all parts of the House. The happiness of the many individuals involved and the reputation of the Government and the House for ensuring that, as far as possible, justice is done for those who for no reasons of their own find themselves in a difficult situation hinge to some extent on the decisions made on this matter by Ministers and, in due course, the Government.
I will sketch the background to how I came to bring this debate to the House, run through some of the examples I hope the Minister will consider, and summarise by making the argument that the Government should reconsider how police widows’ and widowers’ pre-1987 pensions are treated. Just before Christmas last year, I received an e-mail from the Police Federation outlining a situation of which I had until then been unaware. It pointed out that the Police Pensions Regulations 1987 did not allow a number of police widows and widowers to marry or cohabit without losing their right to a police widow’s or widower’s pension for life. The e-mail highlighted the case being made by PC Colin Hall’s widow, Cathryn Hall, who was widowed at the age of 24 in 1987 and left to bring up her four-year-old daughter alone.
Cathryn, who is with us today—as are some 15 other widows and widowers—was faced with a difficult decision: to keep her police widow’s pension or to move in with her partner, which would mean that she was no longer eligible to receive the pension. She set up a petition, which has more than 71,000 signatures. The campaign, which I was unaware of until Christmas last year, is one I would like the police Minister to consider. In the petition, Cathryn describes how her husband Colin died and life after his death, and she makes the case as to why she and other widows should be treated in the same way as those whose pensions are covered by the change in the 1987 regulations. She makes the point that the Minister is in a difficult position in balancing the sacrifices of police officers and their widows or widowers against those of members of the armed forces, for whom significant changes were made on Remembrance Sunday last year.
Since I have been in contact with Cathryn Hall, she has kindly introduced me to a number of other widows and widowers, including two from my county of Gloucestershire: Sharon Jones and Julie Shadwick, both of whom have sad stories to tell. Many others have been in contact with their MPs, but there is not time, alas, to read out all their stories. I will mention Sharon’s story. She was married to Ian Jones, a chief inspector in the Gloucestershire police force, who was killed in an accident in June 2005. She survived on the pension that the service provided and brought up three children on her own. She recently met another man and married him at the end of October 2014, which, as she writes,
“brings me a wonderful opportunity to start a new life. However, as a result of this, I have lost my pension entitlement which I object to most strongly. I am being penalised for finding new love after 10 years alone.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Because we ask police officers to put their lives on the line to keep us safe, does he agree that it is only fair that we do what the Government have done for the armed forces widows and retrospectively amend the rules to make them fair for such people as my constituent, Eileen Britton, and many more like her?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which was precisely the trigger that made me find the campaign so compelling. The changes made last November for the armed forces should apply in the same way, retrospectively. Despite the fact that Governments do not like retrospective legislation, the precedent has been set—he is absolutely right.
I will run through the technical issue to which my hon. Friend just referred. The campaign that Cathryn Hall is leading is to some extent about fairness. Before 2006, police widows, widowers or surviving civil partners automatically lost their pension if they remarried or lived with a new partner. That effectively compelled them and their dependents to choose between future financial security but loneliness at home, and the opportunity for happiness, but with the financial loss of the pension.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is not just the widows, but the children who are impacted by these decisions? As a Parliament, we talk a great deal about the importance of children being brought up within a loving family. If we are condemning widows and widowers to live alone and to have their children outside of a loving family, that is also wrong and something we should address and right.
As so often, the hon. Lady makes a good point. Children are often the people we do not mention when we discuss these issues, but they can suffer the most. I am grateful to her.
What changed in 2006 was society’s perception of fairness, and the new scheme in 2006 recognised that. All new recruits since 2006 and anyone who transferred to the new scheme—there were some who did not—now knows that should the worst happen, their loved ones will receive their pension for life, irrespective of whether the survivor remarries or forms a new partnership. That applies to unmarried but cohabiting partners, too. The new regulations did not apply retrospectively to those who had left the service before 2006 or had died before that date. For those who are penalised in that way, such as Cathryn Hall, the many who are here today and the other 800 to 900 widows and widowers—most of them are widows—it must be frustrating to have remarried and seen financial disadvantage relative to those who were widowed later. It is an issue of fairness.
Things have changed. The regulations on police pensions in Northern Ireland changed last year and, more significantly, a very similar rule was amended for the armed forces so that from April this year, all widows and widowers of our armed forces can remarry or live with a new partner without losing their pension. That change is retrospective, and it sets a precedent for further change. What is true for soldiers, sailors and airmen and women is also true for our police. Having to deal with the consequences of a husband or wife having died in the course of duty is no less ghastly if that happened on the streets of one of our cities, rather than a dusty path in Helmand province. I hope that the Minister, who has seen active service in uniform, will be sympathetic to the case being made. In an e-mail that he sent to Cathryn Hall fairly recently, he rightly highlighted that it is appropriate for Ministers to be able to make changes when a compelling case is made. I know that the Minister is a man who understands the duties of those who serve in uniform, and the responsibilities of Government to those who are left behind when they are either killed or die in accidents while on duty. I also know that his Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), is supportive of the case being made by the group of widows and widowers who care so passionately about the opportunity for happiness and to retain their pension.
I am sure we all appreciate very much the case my hon. Friend is making. I am grateful for the opportunity to make an intervention on behalf of an unnamed constituent of mine who is approaching his 70s and wants to change his position. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have a good record in seeking to put right the errors of the past? That is a further reason for looking at what now appears to be an anomaly in the regulations. The change he is seeking would be welcomed as being in the spirit of what the Government have sought to achieve in one or two other areas in order to correct past wrongs.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: the Government do have a good record of trying to right problems and issues inherited from the past—one could call them historical leftovers. It is to the benefit of many people when a Government are able to tackle such issues with the fairness and justice they deserve. That is why today’s debate is timely. It comes some three months after the Government rightly addressed what could be described as an injustice for the widows and widowers of members of the armed forces. Today’s debate gives the Minister for Policing an opportunity to spell out the challenges, in his view, in getting a similar injustice addressed for the widows and widowers of the constabularies of this country.
There are many such cases. This morning I have met widows from Scotland, Lancashire, Yorkshire and all parts of southern England, as well as two from my own county. I am wearing a badge on their behalf, and all the widows and widowers present are wearing it as well, as a symbol of their unity in trying to resolve the problems with the 1987 police pension scheme.
Yes; the hon. Lady has spoken for Wales.
I hope the Minister will address the fundamental problem. I understand that his dilemma is one of trying to balance different issues, not least that of cost, which is always on the mind of any Government—perhaps this one in particular, bearing in mind the huge debts that were inherited—but I want the Minister to consider one particular point today. In his letter of 11 February, he wrote to me:
“You mentioned in your letter the changes made in respect of Armed Forces widows’ pensions. The special circumstances of military personnel and their families presented a compelling argument for that change, supported by the Armed Force covenant. Armed Forces personnel have often been moved with little notice around the world and have been encouraged to take their families with them.”
Although it was certainly the case historically that armed forces personnel were often posted around the world with their families, the situation has changed considerably.
Police officers have been posted all around the country and, indeed, as the Minister knows, in Northern Ireland, in situations of difficulty. There is at least one widow present today whose husband was on duty with the police force in Bosnia, and there will be others in Cyprus and other parts of the world. If the argument in favour of armed forces widows’ pensions is about their being moved and so not being able to create a normal working life and build up a pension of their own, the same argument can be made—to a considerable extent, at least—for the families of serving police officers. I hope that argument will not be used to prevent the widows and widowers who have signed Cathryn Hall’s petition from receiving justice.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Is there not also the issue of the sacrifice these people have made in the service of our country, whether in the armed forces or the police service? I have had the pleasure of working with Karen Winterburn, whose husband Andy was killed in 2003. She has gone through very difficult anniversaries as she tries to rebuild her life. Is it not a shame that that sacrifice also means that she now has to think about the issue of finance as she moves on and rebuilds her life?
My hon. Friend is right. We should all share the belief that someone should not have to consider whether to remarry or cohabit on the basis of wondering whether they are going to lose so much financially that their happiness is somehow not so worth while. The situation is extraordinary; I think we all feel that and hope that the Minister will address it. He is a fair, reasonable and compassionate man and I am optimistic that today, we will hear of an opportunity for the Home Office to reconsider the current situation.
I reiterate the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham)—it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams.
I want to indicate from the outset that, although the debate is short, if anyone has not had an opportunity to contribute so far, I am happy to take interventions. My hon. Friend was very generous in taking interventions, but it is absolutely right that colleagues who have been present from the start of the debate and want to contribute should be able to do so.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, I approach the issue of police widows’ pensions not only as a former uniformed guardsman but as a former firefighter. I served alongside the police on many occasions—some of those situations were very dangerous and the police put their lives in danger—as well as with the other emergency services. My hon. Friend touched on the fact that, through its devolved powers, Northern Ireland has already acceded to the widows’ requests. I was the Northern Ireland Minister at the time and, although that matter is devolved, I can assure Members that I was lobbied very heavily in Northern Ireland. I hope that I was part of that decision.
Before I took on ministerial responsibilities for policing fairly recently, I was at the Department for Work and Pensions. My Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who is sitting behind me but is not allowed to speak because of protocol, was already lobbying me. We were already discussing the matter before fate decided that I was going to be the Minister with responsibility for policing in England and Wales.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Gloucester and for Winchester for their campaigns on behalf of not only their constituents but the constituents of Members from both sides of the House. I thank colleagues for writing to me—some of them many times; some because they wanted to know the exact position—and I congratulate the campaigners on their online petition, which is growing daily.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this debate. Does the Minister accept that, in many cases, such as that of my constituent, Mrs Penn, who has taken the issue up with me at a surgery, people are supporting the campaign on behalf of others? The pension might not be hugely necessary for them financially, but they are supporting the campaign on behalf of their colleagues for whom it is. I very much commend the public-spirited nature of the petition. It is about not only those who need the pension—we fully respect their needs—but those who are doing it on behalf of others.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The compassion that has been shown in the correspondence is remarkable. If people who are campaigning on other issues could look at how this campaign has been conducted, they might find that their campaigns receive not dissimilar support from across the House.
On a negative point, I want to take issue slightly with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester on the similarity to military covenant decisions. Perhaps I would do, as a former guardsman, but I was also part and parcel of the drafting of the military covenant in opposition. In my correspondence to colleagues, I have said that there is a difference, including because of deployment. Thank goodness most of our troops are now home from Iraq and Afghanistan, although some brave people are still out there assisting in training, but British armed forces are still deployed around the world—indeed, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) has been with me on trips to those places. British servicemen and their families are in Cyprus, the Falklands and other parts of the world, and such deployment is not of their choice.
The police use mutual aid. In Northern Ireland, we had to run the G8 summit at Lough Erne. We could not have done it without other forces in Great Britain helping us, but all those personnel volunteered. I am not saying that everyone volunteers in every case, but there is a difference between deployment under the military covenant and police deployment. That does not take away from the argument—the “compelling” argument, to repeat the word that I have used in correspondence since I have been the Minister with responsibility for policing—in the cases that we are discussing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester mentioned that there was scepticism, to say the least, because no matter what colour of Government are in office, when people talk about “retrospective”, the Treasury has jitters galore. The important thing now, however, since we acknowledged that the case was compelling and the Home Secretary and I asked our officials to look into things, is that the Treasury as well as the Home Office is involved. Home Office and Treasury officials are working together, which is very important, because we must ensure that any decision we make is not only right, but one without a huge impact on other aspects that might lead, for example, to people claiming judicial review of other schemes.
I come to the subject in a personal way. In my constituency, PC Frank Mason, who was off duty, walking his dog and minding his own business, saw a bank robbery taking place. He intervened and was murdered. Frank, like all police officers, was a warranted officer. In other words, when he was off duty he was really still on duty—he could be called in and his warrant was with him all the time. That is where the difference is and why the Home Secretary and I describe the argument as so compelling.
A full-time police officer in a force in England and Wales—I acknowledge the point made by the hon. Member for Bridgend and am as proud of being responsible for the police in Wales as I am for those in England, while those responsible in the other two devolved Administrations are also surely paying attention to the debate and the campaign—has a warrant in the service of the Queen and so is still responsible when off duty. Different terminologies can be used, but that is what I feel—police officers are still serving their community even when off duty. That puts pressures and responsibilities on them.
Recently, I raised the issue with the people from the Police Federation—no slight to them, but I raised it when they came to see me and it was not on their agenda, although they had lots of other things to talk about. I specifically wanted to talk about this, however, and I said, “We need to narrow down what we are talking about here.” What does “an officer on duty” mean? Is an officer on duty only when they are on shift, or could it mean someone in a similar situation to Frank Mason, who was assisting the public when off duty? I am adamant that, if a scheme comes through and if we make the changes, there should be help in cases of the likes of Frank Mason’s—should his widow so wish. If off-duty police officers were driving to work and were involved in a road traffic collision, I am afraid that I do not think that that would be a similar case, because they are not on duty. There is a difference, which I think most people would accept—the federation, too, accepted that point.
We are now at an important stage. We are analysing the implications in cost terms and any impact on other schemes that might be affected. For example, three months ago we did the right thing for the armed forces and now that case is being used for the police, so we have to be careful about whether what we do has implications for other schemes. The compelling case that has been put forward by colleagues today, as well as by others, and the nature, tone and empathy of the campaign, have been enormously helpful to me as a Minister and to the Home Secretary, enabling us to acknowledge the “compelling” case—the first time such language has been used.
I simply wish to associate myself and those in Montgomeryshire who have contacted me—about six people are in that position—with what has been said, to strengthen the argument. A number of other MPs wanted to be in the debate this morning, but could not be. They told me how much they would have liked to have been here, because this is a major issue of fairness. The campaign has pretty widespread support throughout the House.
There is empathy throughout the House with what my hon. Friend says. There are always reasons why such anomalies, as they were described earlier, are out there, and sometimes there are reasons why they cannot be addressed. That is always the case. When I was discussing the issues privately with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, however, I suggested that he put in for the debate. It is important. Members should be able not only to write to Ministers, but to hear them say something that has been in correspondence, such as what I have said in mine: because of the compelling arguments put forward, we have asked officials in the Home Office and throughout Government, in particular the Treasury, to look at the implications and at how things might be progressed. Once we get a report back, matters might be slightly above my pay grade, as we get so close to the Budget and to a general election. At the end of the day, with the language that I am using today, I am going as far as I possibly can without announcing what the officials have found and what the implications are.
The Minister is saying encouraging things in an encouraging tone and paying tribute to the great campaign run by the widows and widowers. He is absolutely right about the tone of the debate and the campaign. Is this not a wonderful opportunity to do something that is fair, even if we cannot always do things to right the injustices of the past, as he rightly said? With the Budget so close and a general election after it, would it not be a wonderful thing for the Government to tackle the problem now?
My hon. Friend—who is just about still a friend—is drawing me into Budget speculation, but I have been about long enough not to be drawn into it. The Chancellor, however, is speaking at the 1922 committee this evening, so perhaps there will be an opportunity to put questions to the mechanic, rather than to the oily rag, as the saying goes.
I have been lucky to be part of a Government in which I have had opportunities to make changes to correct anomalies such as those my hon. Friend mentioned. For example, I was absolutely chuffed to take through changes to the mesothelioma legislation. People who through no fault of their own had caught a terrible, horrible disease were left out of compensation arrangements because we could not track their employer or their insurers, but I am pleased that the compensation is now up to 100%, even though we originally thought we would not be able to achieve that budget.
I completely agree that we need to do what is right for our constituents. For the first time the issue we are discussing has reached the level it is at now, with analysis being done by the Home Office and at the Treasury. I look forward to getting those reports on my desk as soon as possible, but perhaps there will also be an opportunity to have a word with Chancellor about what will be in the Budget, although I am sure there will be no direct answer until Budget day.
[Mr Jim Hood in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, in particular because you are one of the few Members of the House who can properly pronounce my constituency’s name; I will say it now as a hint for any Members who wish to refer to it during the debate—East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow.
I am pleased to be having this important debate today. I was motivated to secure it by the Westminster Hall debate of 1 December 2014, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), on the subject of ending the conflict in Palestine. I re-read the Hansard report of that debate recently and was struck by how much common ground there was between the Members who contributed. I spoke in it, championing my belief that the two-state solution is the only way forward. It also struck me that that debate could be a foundation to build upon; that is what I want to try to do today.
I recognise that there are still significant problems. From my perspective, our problem in the UK Parliament is that far too many Members cannot separate the troubled history of that part of the world from the objective of a two-state solution; as a result, far too often, debates in this place become mired in a grisly, macabre and desperate pit, relying on the body count in the most recent conflict or on a selective part of history so as to condemn one side over the other. Whether the contribution of a fractured and weak Palestinian leadership or the lurch to the right in Israeli politics, both sides often fail to recognise properly their own weaknesses. In particular, when violence breaks out the rush in this place to condemn Israel is matched by a pedestrian-paced admonishment of the Hamas violence that has started that same trouble.
Although the debate on 1 December marked, for the most part, a coming together of minds on many issues, every proposal made was negative. It was an oxymoron of a debate: a positive start conjoined to a negative finish. The conclusion was that there should be boycotts and sanctions. But they will not solve the problems of Palestine and Israel; rather, they will pour diesel on an already blazing fire, and create more resentment and more obstacles to peace. The aim of this debate is to create an environment for peace, to recognise the plight of the people of Gaza and to identify how we can overcome the barriers and create a more successful outcome for everyone. I will also set out the very real threat that Gaza faces from within, and the internal struggles that beset the Palestinian leadership.
In the interests of transparency, I place on the record the fact that I am one of the vice-chairs of Labour Friends of Israel. I am also an unequivocal supporter of a two-state solution for two peoples, with Israel safe, secure and recognised within its borders and living alongside a democratic, independent Palestinian state. I will be clear from the outset that last summer’s war was a disaster and tragedy for the people of Gaza and the people of Israel. Six months on from the end of Operation Protective Edge, this debate presents a timely opportunity to discuss ways in which Britain can contribute to halting the recurring spiral of violence in Gaza.
At home and in this House the war caused both anger and division, but surely we should now be able to unite around one goal and single objective—to ensure that the death, destruction and suffering experienced by both peoples are not repeated. Let me be absolutely clear: the people of Gaza did not cause or start the war, nor did the people of Israel. The responsibility for it and for the destruction that followed rests squarely with Hamas, and has done so on each of the three occasions in the past six years when Hamas has launched indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israeli civilians from residential areas of Gaza.
The question today is what can be done to break the vicious cycle of violence, against a backdrop of Hamas’s ongoing efforts not to support the people of Gaza but to continue its war against Israel. Although Arab nations and international donors have pledged the enormous sum of $5.4 billion for investment in Gaza, not one thin dime has been spent, because Fatah and Hamas cannot agree on payments to Hamas’s civil servants and cannot decide who will control the Rafah crossing—those are the priorities in those discussions. Instead of taking the opportunity to invest resources in its people, Hamas is investing in rearming. Now, ominously, it has almost regained its full military capability. I will put on the record that Hamas is preparing for further attacks on Israel as this debate takes place.
That point leads me to my first positive contribution on the way forward to peace. The international community needs to put an end to the threat posed by Hamas and other terrorist groups by halting rearmament and urgently pursuing disarmament in the Gaza strip. Secondly, the lives of the Palestinians living in Gaza must be improved, not simply through reconstruction but through concrete steps to lift the restrictions on the movement of people and goods, imposed not only by Israel but by Egypt, that stifle Gaza’s economic development and future prosperity.
Let me be unequivocal: the second of those objectives has to be utterly dependent on the first. The reality of Hamas’s perpetuating of conflict and laying the groundwork for another bloody war must be confronted by everyone. In December, Hamas celebrated its 27th anniversary by burning effigies of Jews and parading trucks carrying long-range rockets through the streets of Gaza. At the celebrations, Hamas’s military spokesperson, Abu Obeida, thanked Iran and Qatar for supplying the group with arms and support. A month earlier, Iranian leaders had confirmed their good relations with the Islamist group; having already done so much to hamper the cause of peace between Israel and its neighbours, Iran has pledged to redouble its malevolent efforts with these words:
“West Bank will surely be armed just like Gaza”.
That was tweeted by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Hamas claims to be concerned about the welfare of the Palestinian people, but many of us have long known that that is a lie, as it is proving once again. As I mentioned earlier, instead of turning its efforts to rebuilding Gaza, Hamas has rebuilt its depleted arsenal of rockets and mortars. In addition, it is rebuilding its terror tunnels. It is also rebuilding its armed forces by recruiting a new so-called popular army of young men aged between 15 and 21. Last month, 17,000 teenagers spent their mid-term break at Hamas’s military camps being drilled on how to launch attacks through tunnels and how to kidnap and murder Israeli soldiers. That is Hamas’s education policy—teaching young people to kill.
Hamas also likes to tax and spend. That is the name of a policy that is sometimes the subject of debate in the UK, but Hamas’s tax and spend is slightly different. It taxes the people of Gaza so that it can spend the money on reconstructing its terrorist infrastructure. For example, in a list I saw recently, furniture imported to Gaza at a cost of 1,200 shekels faces an additional tax of 800 shekels. That is also true of many other goods that have to be imported into Gaza. Hamas says that Israel and Egypt should lift the blockade, but only two weeks ago we learned that the Israeli navy had intercepted a ship travelling from Sinai to Gaza. On board was liquid fibreglass, one of the many dual-use materials Hamas uses to build its weapons of war—in that case, booby-traps for houses with tunnels running underneath them. The reality of Hamas is clear: it does not care at all for the people of Gaza. The intentions of Hamas are also clear: it seeks to wage another bloody war against the people of Israel.
In the face of that reality and those intentions, there is only one solution: demilitarisation. The international community knows that and during last summer’s conflict, both the EU and the United States of America made it clear that demilitarisation of the Gaza strip rested at the heart of ending the violence. Moreover—this is a really important point—the Palestinian Authority support that.
The prevention of a new war requires an urgent drive towards demilitarisation of Gaza, but it needs more than that; it needs hope and opportunity for its people. There is real disappointment that despite last spring’s Palestinian reconciliation deal, the Palestinian unity Government have failed to establish control in Gaza, where Hamas operates what President Abbas calls a “shadow Government.”
To take the hon. Gentleman back to his comments on demilitarisation, given the Egyptian crackdown in Sinai and the recent evidence of increased smuggling of weapons into Gaza through the Mediterranean, does he think that the building of a seaport in Gaza—which we would all like to see eventually, but not in the current circumstances—would increase the likelihood of Gaza being demilitarised or increase the likelihood that weapons would be smuggled in?
I will come on to talk about a seaport and an airport, but my proposal for a route map to peace must be premised on demilitarisation. No one will invest that type of money in Gaza when the whole thing could fall apart and be destroyed again because of Hamas’s malevolent influence.
Given my hon. Friend’s opening comments, I am looking forward to what he will say about Israel’s responsibility and contribution, because so far his speech could have been written by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tel Aviv. Is he seriously suggesting that aid should be restricted and the reconstruction of Gaza refused without demilitarisation? Does he realise that most non-governmental organisations have said that that is not an appropriate way to behave?
As a member of the Select Committee on International Development who visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories and saw first hand the tragic circumstances that the Palestinians face, I hope that the Palestinian leadership want to take all steps necessary to improve the plight of their people. Goodness, surely that would be immeasurably improved if the people who are causing the problems and violence stopped doing that.
Demilitarisation should be a prerequisite, because as my hon. Friend knows, until that is done, there will not be a willing partner in the state of Israel to participate in talks. It strikes me—perhaps he missed the first part of my contribution—that we continually look backwards at the problem and do not look forward. In my coming words I hope to look in that forward direction and make a positive contribution to a proposal for peace.
As I mentioned, President Abbas calls Hamas a “shadow Government” and the renewed tensions between Hamas and Fatah since last autumn are ominous. When Hamas’s reconciliation agreement with Fatah was under pressure in June last year, it responded by kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teenagers, which was a precursor that provoked the war. Reconstruction and the political and security environment are inseparable issues and I cannot fathom anyone who says otherwise. I have received correspondence from charities and NGOs who work in the area and, based on my visit to the area and witnessing such events first hand, they are deluded if they think that investment can be put in without dealing with the military and security issues.
The people of Gaza have been the casualties of those failures. The lives of the Palestinians living in Gaza must be improved through reconstruction and by the lifting of restrictions on imports and exports, as the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said a few moments ago. The blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt restricts not only the movement of people and goods in and out of the territory, but any prospect of much needed economic development and prosperity, and any prospect of the alleviation of poverty. If poverty is the breeding ground of terror, cannot prosperity be a catalyst for peace?
While the Palestinian Authority and Hamas argue over salaries and who controls what, the Israelis have kept Gaza supplied, and while Hamas has concentrated on guns and bombs, and with access to Egypt completely closed, Israel has allowed 43,000 residents from Gaza to purchase building materials for personal use. It has also allowed students to cross the border to study and, contrary to what was said in contributions made in the 1 December debate, people have been able to travel to the al-Aqsa mosque and visit their families in Israel.
I completely recognise that there is a massive journey still to be undertaken, but for Israel and Egypt to open up Gaza crossings further and to allow the maximum amount of material in, they must be given credible guarantees about their own security, with assurances that Gaza will no longer be used as a base for terrorist activity. I will be happy to take any interventions from hon. Members who want to condemn or make that point.
I did not really want to intervene, but I must quickly challenge my hon. Friend on a number of issues. I listened to a Palestinian last night in the room adjacent who was denied access to the Gaza strip to visit his dying father, who was denied the opportunity to transfer from Gaza to a specialist hospital. Perhaps he died because of that. Is my hon. Friend seriously supporting the blockade, which predates Hamas’s control of Gaza, as a collective punishment? Surely all the United Nations agencies and charities—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Hood. Unlike some people who contribute in these debates, I will give a direct answer. I believe that the blockade of Gaza is unsustainable and cannot be continued, but if I was part of the Palestinian leadership, the argument that I would be taking forward in those debates is: we must ensure that there is demilitarisation so that we have security for our own people as well as the other people who live beside us in the borders to ensure that we can get reconstruction and development and traffic in and out of Gaza to allow people to get treatment.
I will not take an intervention at the moment, because I am still dealing with one. In terms of the tragic circumstances that my hon. Friend the Member for Easington relayed about the individual who was prevented from getting medical treatment, I also heard such tragic stories when the International Development Committee spoke to people in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but I find it difficult to understand that hon. Members would seek to refute my contention that the way forward on all of these issues is demilitarisation and taking the weapons out of Gaza.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for what needs to happen. Does he agree that the stumbling block is Hamas control in Gaza and that, unless Hamas gives up its power, we will almost certainly have the same problems in the years to come?
Hamas continues to reject the Quartet principles. It has publicly condemned any peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and it continues to reject the two-state solution. By contrast, the Palestinian unity Government have committed to the Quartet principles and they are the legitimate interlocutor in Gaza, both for the international community and for Israel. All sides must do their best to enable that Government to govern in Gaza.
I think we could hope for even better than that. In terms of a normalisation process, we can hope for the rights of Palestinians to be restored completely and for them to live in freedom and peace alongside their neighbours, the state of Israel. I very rarely hear those words said by people who propagate the type of view that the hon. Gentleman holds—[Interruption.] Someone says, “Nonsense” from a sedentary position, but I am sick and tired of coming to debates in this House where we hear about people dying, about the blood, and about the disaster of buildings being destroyed and hospitals being destroyed. I am sick and tired of coming to debates like that. I am trying to move forward with a positive proposal for peace.
A Labour Government were responsible for proscribing Hamas’s military wing. I commend the Government for their work to ensure that it remains listed by the European Union. However, I also urge the Minister—perhaps he can address this in his contribution—to assess the increasing evidence that Hamas’s political and military wings are contrapuntally linked, and they should also be looked at in terms of their contribution to peace or war.
Britain can contribute to preventing another war in Gaza. I have set out the practical steps: first, demilitarisation and initiatives to stop Hamas’s rearmament, with additional reassurance that the British Government must also pledge that the push to secure a nuclear deal with Iran does not lessen the pressure on it to cease its destabilising policies in the region.
Secondly, Britain can show leadership at the United Nations Security Council by proposing an initiative that would impose sanctions on UN members caught attempting to transfer weapons to Hamas and other militant groups. Such a resolution would provide a clear signal that the international community is committed to preventing a return to hostilities in Gaza. However, it should also go further by providing for disarmament inspectors on the ground who would oversee the destruction of rockets, mortars and other heavy weaponry in Gaza.
Thirdly and crucially, a robust staged disarmament mechanism in return for economic development must be designed to open up Gaza and reconnect it with the world. Together, Israel, the Palestinian unity Government, the Quartet, Egypt, Jordan and the Arab League should present Hamas with a clear choice: let the disarmament inspectors into Gaza and let them do their job; and in return, the international community, Israel and the Palestinian unity Government will immediately begin the work needed to ensure Gaza’s reconstruction and future prosperity.
I remind hon. Members that that $5.4 billion investment has not been prevented by Israel or the international partners. It has been prevented because the two competing elements of the Palestinian leadership cannot agree on a way forward. Most importantly, with our place in the European Union and our seat on the Security Council, Britain can lead an international effort to stop the inevitable next step without demilitarisation, and therefore the inevitable next step and next debate in this House—perhaps led by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Easington or another hon. Member—in which we talk about another bloody war in Gaza.
I suspect people may not agree with this point, but nothing in my contribution today should divide us. If some hon. Members want to go over the history of who is right and who is wrong, count me out. If people believe that what Hamas is doing can be justified, please will they have the honesty to stand up and say so in their contributions? However, unlike the solutions—
No, I will not, because I am coming to my peroration, and I want to ensure that other people have the opportunity to contribute as well. Unlike the solutions offered on 1 December 2014, when my hon. Friend the Member for Easington led the debate, my solutions are positive and realisable. They combine the need for the people of Israel to be secure with the needs of the Palestinians to have the rights that they are entitled to.
I finish with this challenge for those who will follow in this debate: if their motivation is a desire to seek a resolution, I welcome that, but they must also consider whether their motivation is a desire to be a proxy for the status quo.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I give my full congratulations to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) who introduced the debate, for whom I have admiration on this issue. He speaks with incredible wisdom.
I want to focus on five myths that hinder the reconstruction of Gaza, and through that, the peace process in the middle east. I will examine the occupation of the city, the blockade on aid, the border closures, the Israeli military operation and finally, the issue of settlements and how it affects the debate.
It should not be forgotten that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, implemented in 2005 by Prime Minister Sharon, was one of the most painful political decisions to have been taken. It led to the split of his Likud party and the complete restructuring of the Israeli political landscape. Behind that plan, there was a real impulse to mend Israeli-Palestinian relations. The greenhouses were meant to stimulate the Palestinian economy, and if that had worked, further steps would have involved Israeli withdrawal from much of the west bank, just as they had had the courage to withdraw from Gaza.
That is why there must be no doubt, when discussing Gaza’s occupation today, that it is not an Israeli occupation, as it has been described. Since 2007, the people of Gaza have been oppressed by Hamas who, after literally throwing Fatah officials off the roofs of the city, have spent the last eight years subjugating the population and forcing civilians to act as human shields when launching indiscriminate attacks against the Israeli population. Therefore, the first steps towards reconstructing Gaza should be ensuring that Hamas no longer divests international aid for a reconstruction purpose to the armament of a city they occupy, and recognising the crucial role of Israeli aid in the reconstruction of the city.
There is also criticism of the aid blockade that is supposedly in place. Since September 2014, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the UN have agreed to a trilateral mechanism of reconstruction for the Gaza strip, following the summer’s Operation Protective Edge. That would facilitate the rebuilding of 60,000 homes in Gaza, and the use of materials would be supervised by the UN, thus ensuring that Hamas would not be able to appropriate those resources.
There have been millions of tonnes of aid from Israel into Gaza. A few hundred trucks go from Israel into Gaza every week. To talk about an Israeli blockade on aid would be to negate the 62,000 tonnes of construction supplies that have entered Gaza since the beginning of the plan, and wilfully ignore the crucial role of Hamas in stripping the people of Gaza of the resources they need. Let us not forget that it was a Hamas rocket that took down the Israeli electrical power plant that gives Gaza electricity. It is worth noting that the Palestinian territories receive more humanitarian aid per capita than any other country on earth. So much of it has been taken away by Hamas and abused and used for corrupt purposes. We know about the secret tunnels that cost $3 million each. Why do we have those when that money should be spent on helping the Palestinian people in Gaza?
The attempt to find justice where there are just preconceptions must be extended to this summer’s war. There can be no peaceful Gaza without a recognition of the mandate of self-defence that Israel had to take on when Israeli civilians were indiscriminately targeted by Hamas. We should remember that the Israelis suffered from 19,000 rockets fired by Hamas on to Israeli towns after Israel withdrew from Gaza. We remember the 3,360 rockets fired in just under a month. There can be no reconstruction if we allow Hamas to carry on rearming and carry on training its terrorists.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that Hamas was recently judged to be the second most wealthy terrorist organisation after ISIS, and would he like to say something about what the UK Government should be doing to ensure that more pressure is put on the funders in Iran and Saudi Arabia so that the reconstruction that he wants can happen?
My hon. Friend makes the exact point that so much of the money that goes into Gaza is being used for terrorist purposes—to fund weaponry. Palestinian economists have estimated that about 2,000 Hamas operatives have made $1 million each from the smuggling that goes on in the tunnels. We need to look at what goes on in the other countries. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Taking account of the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), does my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) agree that British aid should be tied to proper reconstruction and peaceful means, and that that should be guaranteed so that none can be used for military purposes?
My hon. Friend again hits the nail on the head. British aid that goes to the Palestinian Authority should not be used to pay the wages of Palestinian prisoners, for example. Aid should be used for exactly that—to help the poorer Palestinian population, so neglected by the people who rule them, particularly Hamas.
When we look at the situation in Gaza, we need to remember that this is an area that has fallen, tragically, to a terrorist organisation, one that has the authority but not the will to implement a peace process, while the more moderate Palestinian Authority have the will but not the authority.
I will not, because I have given way twice.
We will not get a Palestinian state until we decide which Palestinian state it is going to be. Is it the one in Gaza, ruled by Hamas, with its terrorist network, its determination to throw every Jew into the sea and its continuing desire to fire missiles indiscriminately at Israeli territory? Is it the one in the west bank, with the more moderate Palestinian Authority?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He talks about the west bank, but we know that more than half a million illegal settlements have been carried out there. As an hon. Member said earlier, even if we really believe in a two-state solution, that is not going to happen, is it?
I congratulate my hon. Friend who secured the debate. I spent four years with him on the Select Committee on International Development trying to avoid having to pronounce the name of his constituency. I will not mess that up by making another attempt now.
I have to say that I was a little confused by my hon. Friend’s contribution, because he started off talking about the need to move forward and not talk the language of boycotts, sanctions and so on, but I was listening carefully to what he said, just as I read carefully the article that he wrote on Left Foot Forward, and it seemed to me that the conclusion he drew was that there was a need for boycotts and sanctions on Hamas. I agree with a number of the things that he said about Hamas. It is a pretty reprehensible organisation in many ways, but the idea of saying that because there is an organisation in control of Gaza not only that we disapprove of but that commits some heinous crimes—it does—that justifies, excuses or places as something to be dealt with at a later date the situation facing the ordinary people of Gaza is one that I just cannot go along with. The reason is a moral one, but there is also a legal one. It is called collective punishment. Collective punishment is illegal under international law, and that is what has been happening to Gaza. It has been happening in a very extreme form since 2007, but it was going on from 2005; actually it was going on before that, before the Israeli withdrawal, as well. Were it not going on before that, why was there ever a need for an agreement on movement and access in 2005?
My hon. Friend says that it is wrong to count the bodies, and that is true. Often, debates just get stuck on that, but when we look at the horror of what is going on in Gaza, some figures do bear repeating. The last big military conflict there, Operation Protective Edge, left 2,205 Gazans dead; 1,483 were civilians and 521 were children. The reason I say that is not just to give the statistics, but to pose the question: what if that happened here? In the UK, it would have meant that 76,800 people were killed; 51,456 would have been civilians and 18,000 would have been children. One quarter of the population of Gaza is still displaced to this day. It would have meant 16 million people in the UK displaced.
I certainly regret the loss of human life in Gaza, but is my hon. Friend aware that the work conducted by the Meir Amit intelligence and terrorism information centre has shown that 52% of those who died were actually terrorists? Forty-eight per cent—a regrettable figure—were civilians, but 52% were terrorists.
I am not aware of that particular organisation. I am aware that the Israeli Government have queried the figures compiled by a number of respected international organisations. I assume that that is what my hon. Friend is referring to.
Operation Protective Edge and the war last year was an appalling thing, but the real tragedy of Gaza is what goes on. It means that farmers can be shot and are shot just because they approach a border fence. Let us think about what the response would be if Hamas said it was entirely legitimate to shoot people in Sderot because they were getting too close to the border with Gaza. If it works one way, it should work the other. Let us imagine what it is like. My hon. Friend who secured the debate referred to the sea. There is a blockade by sea. Actually, what we have had recently in the waters outside Gaza is the interception of fishing boats. That happens regularly. In one case recently, three children on a fishing boat were required by Israeli gunboats to leap into the sea without their clothes on while the fishing boat that they had been occupying was sunk.
No, there is no time to take any more interventions.
That to me means that we need something a bit more than saying that Hamas must demilitarise if we do not want to allow these things to carry on. If my hon. Friend is right to say that Hamas uses the population of Gaza as pawns, as playthings, what on earth would be the incentive to demilitarise in that situation? What would cause it to do that if, as he is saying, it plays and thrives on the current situation?
To resolve the problem, we need to lift the blockade. Of course, there can be security around that. In fact, there was. There was a major border crossing at Karni, with sophisticated equipment to ensure that the wrong things did not come in. That does not operate now. Why? Because Israel has demolished the Karni crossing. Why is it, when we talk about restrictions in and out of Gaza, that Israel has even put restrictions on the export of strawberries between Gaza and the west bank? How can that be justified on any kind of security grounds? The idea that somehow we can get a solution in Gaza without addressing the issue of the west bank and settlements in the west bank is, frankly, fanciful.
If my hon. Friend thinks that there should be sanctions against Hamas—I think that there are; there is international co-operation on stopping arms getting to Hamas—perhaps he could also consider sanctions against other breaches of international law. How about sanctions against people who aid and abet the illegal construction of settlements in the west bank? How about saying to Israel, “If you expect to receive the privileges under the EU-Israel association agreement, you also have to accept the responsibilities under that”?
How about my hon. Friend joining me and other hon. Members here in telling the Israeli Government and the Israeli embassy to let parliamentarians into Gaza? That could contribute to solving some of these problems, as we could speak with some knowledge about what is going on there. I and other hon. Friends here were the last ones allowed into Gaza to see what was happening, and that was after Operation Cast Lead in 2009.
On several occasions, I have asked the Israeli embassy, “Why do you not let us in?” Each time, it has said, “We are surprised you are not let in.” However, every time we try to get in, the co-operation disappears and the walls go up. As far as I know, my hon. Friend has not been to Gaza, and I imagine he would have the same problems as me in getting in.
Let us, therefore, speak with some knowledge. MPs from this country should be given access to Gaza so that we can see for ourselves whether the international organisations that operate there are right or whether my hon. Friend is right that this is all some kind of Hamas plot.
It is customary in these debates to ask the Minister for answers or information, but I want to ask him not to do something: not to tell us how he has urged this or condemned that. I ask him and the Government to be agents of change, because unless we do something differently, no change will be brought about. The UK can be an agent of change.
We all know that the Balfour declaration was conditional: it was clearly anticipated that conflict could arise, and a future home in Israel was conditional on the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities being protected. We all know that, and we also know that there has been a clear breach of that contract.
What has disappeared from our TV screens is the daily reporting of numerous rockets being fired from Gaza. That has disappeared, of course, because it is not happening. That is good news, and we all welcome it. We all condemn the firing of the rockets, and we are pleased that innocent Israelis can go about their lives free from fear. We wish that for everyone.
What has also disappeared from our screens, however, is the daily suppression of the Palestinians in Gaza. It has disappeared not because it is not happening, but because the world has largely moved on to other issues. That suppression is still taking place, and, as I have said many times, the absence of bombing in Gaza is not the only determinant of whether there is peace.
Having visited the west bank with the hon. Gentleman a couple of years ago, I agree wholeheartedly with the points he is making. Last week’s UNICEF report showed the systematic and widespread ill treatment of Palestinian children detained on a military basis. That is still going on, but, again, it has been absent from our news reporting.
That is the very point. I assume other Members will refer to the living conditions in Gaza, so I will leave that to them, but we know the situation that people face. Schools, hospitals, water treatment plants and homes are not being bombed at present by the Israelis, but can we really call the conditions in Gaza peaceful?
The international community would allow no other country to treat anybody the way Israel treats the Palestinians. Such a country would be ostracised and treated as a pariah state; at the very least—as in the case of Myanmar, Russia and South Africa—we would impose sanctions. I have an online petition with more than 80,000 names calling on the Government to be an agent of change and to consider sanctions as part of bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
The truth is that, until we engage in an honest debate about why Israel is given special protected status, we will never resolve the conflict.
Of course. The long-term solution is peace for both sides. Although those who support Israel are called friends of Israel, I would argue that they are the enemies of its long-term safety and security because they defend the indefensible actions it takes every day against the Palestinians.
What is apparent to anyone visiting Gaza is the tremendous contribution that countries around the world make to support the Palestinians. However, I have to ask how much of what is contributed is the result of genuine concern for the suffering of the Gazans and how much is donated by nations with a guilty conscience because of their failure to take action against the country that destroyed the very buildings they are helping, yet again, to rebuild. Too often, it is the easy way out for those nations to say they are supporting the Palestinians by helping them to rebuild and to reconstruct, when the damage would not have occurred if those countries had had the courage to take action against Israel.
The debate is not about our contribution to the important life support machine of international aid for a stricken patient, but about our contribution, as an agent of change, to ensuring that the Palestinians and Israelis can live in peace as neighbours. Unless something changes, things will stay the same. The urging and the condemnation do not work; something new needs to happen, and I would argue that that will come through sanctions.
Given its legacy across the region, the UK can and should provide leadership. The same old responses from a UK Minister will not help—they will simply not take us anywhere, and they will not bring about change. We are no longer waiting for banal responses; we need action from the Government to show that they are on the side not only of the Palestinians but, in the long term, of those in Israel who seek to live with the Palestinians in peace, side by side and in a neighbourly way.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann). For the record, I am the parliamentary chair of Labour Friends of Israel.
All of us around the Chamber have really good instincts about what needs to happen. We want peace for the Palestinian people and the Israelis. It is a tragedy and a blight on the international community that, six months after the end of last summer’s Gaza conflict, people in Gaza are still suffering as a result of a humanitarian crisis.
I would not often say this, but I want to recognise the British Government for continuing to support humanitarian efforts. However, I have one or two questions for the Minister. When he replies, will he comment on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s recent statement that only $135 million in pledges have been received from donor countries, leaving a shortfall of nearly $600 million? That means that assistance programmes have been suspended. All of us want a quick response to the crisis facing the people of Gaza, although hopefully it is only a short-term one.
Efforts to reconstruct Gaza in the longer term throw up greater challenges, some of which have been addressed today. I would like the Minister to comment on the remarks made not by the Israeli Government or any other country in the area but the UN Under-Secretary-General, Mr Feltman, who expressed alarm at the reports of Hamas rearming. He said that there were “dangerous developments” in the area. Given the general acceptance that under the Oslo accords there should be a demilitarisation policy, will the Minister comment?
I want the cycle of violence to be broken. I will not be in the next Parliament; but Members cannot return again and again to discuss the aftermath of yet another conflict in Gaza. Given what the UN Under-Secretary-General said, there is potential for that to happen. I hope the Minister—or, indeed, my hon. Friend the shadow Minister, when, as I hope, he assumes a ministerial role—will continue working with the UN to deter the continued arming of the Hamas regime.
Britain has much to do. It is a question of encouraging Israel and President Abbas; looking towards work with Egypt, the Quartet and the Arab League; and coming together to make Hamas face the real choices it has if it wants to open up Gaza in the best interests of its people. Even the Arab League secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby, said on Sunday that the dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority was hindering efforts to reconstruct in Gaza. He told the London-based paper Al-Hayat that the Arab League was holding consultations with donor countries. However, he also said:
“The internal differences and the absence of cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are behind the delay in reconstructing the Gaza Strip”.
This morning I listened to an interview on Radio 4 with two mothers, one Gazan and one Israeli. The astounding thing was that, regardless of their views on the particularities of the current situation and what caused it, they both identified what it was doing to their children—Israeli and Gazan children. They both talked about its traumatic impact, even while there is supposed to be a ceasefire. Peace is not easy. It is really difficult, and we all, as people of good will, must play our part in it. That includes the UK Government.
I have taken part in probably most of the debates on Israel and Palestine in the past 10 years. Some have been uplifting, such as the one on Palestinian recognition introduced recently by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris); some have been quite testy, because there are strong views on the subject; and some have been quite constructive, particularly when they were about aid. I have no pleasure in saying that I found today’s debate to be premised on an entirely cynical proposition, and quite disrespectful of the human rights of the Palestinian people. Listening to hon. Members on either side saying that Israel has kept Gaza supplied, I think people must be living in a parallel world.
My hon. Friend the Member for Easington referred to the delegation from the General Union of Palestinian Students, some of whom come originally from Gaza. They came here to acknowledge the contribution made by Members of this House to the recognition of a Palestinian state, and told us their personal stories, which included that of a young man who could not see his dying father because, like the 30,000 people trapped and waiting to go in at the moment, he could not get into Gaza. Almost certainly his father died because he could not be given the aid he wanted. That is a common story.
Despite the encouragement of my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann), I am not going to stop talking about the body count. That is not because I do not regret every Israeli death just as much as every Palestinian one; but the fact that 15,049 Palestinian and four Israeli civilians died has significance, because of the disproportionality and because of the weapons used by Israel against Palestinians, consequent on the blockade. The bombing of schools full of refugees, the shelling of hospitals, the contamination of water supplies and the reduction of Gaza, such that according to the UN it will not be habitable by 2020, are factors that have not so far been mentioned in the debate.
Leading NGOs have commented on the situation. The United Nations Relief and Works agency says:
“You can’t punish freezing children because of the actions of armed groups.”
Amnesty International says the blockade
“is unlawful and should be lifted immediately and unconditionally i.e. it should not be contingent on any other possible processes, including demilitarisation.”
“Humanitarian assistance and reconstruction must be provided based on need and cannot be contingent upon political developments or demands, including the demilitarization of Palestinian armed groups.”
I ask hon. Members who support that proposition to reflect on what those organisations have said; on the fact that Israel has a responsibility, just as Hamas and other organisations do; on the fact that war crimes are committed by Israel and that collective punishment and the blockade of Gaza are major contributory factors to what we are dealing with; and on the fact that Israeli forces, often unprovoked, fire on people in the Gaza strip.
The blockade should be lifted now, under international law. That could be done, and supplies could go into Gaza with monitoring and verification to make sure that arms do not get in. An entirely false and unworkable premise has been put forward, as I am afraid its sponsors know. Let us have genuine dialogue and reconstruction. Let us prevent arms from going to Gaza; but let us not punish the children and civilians of Gaza for what is happening there.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) on securing this important and timely debate. It is true that the rehabilitation and restoration of Gaza following Hamas’s attacks on Israeli civilians last year has been slow, and it is important that the barriers to that rehabilitation be removed; but what is happening now is far from that, and it is vital to be alert to Hamas’s current activities in preparing to launch a new war. It is doing that by reconstructing the terror tunnels; rebuilding its arsenal of rockets and mortars and, indeed, trying to beat Israel’s defence system, the Iron Dome; and recruiting an army which it describes as having been set up for the purpose of “liberating Palestine”.
I agree. Israel was right to defend its citizens from attack in 2014 and if necessary it will defend itself again, but a new round of violence started by Hamas aggression cannot bring a solution to a peace for Palestinians and Israelis any nearer. I call on all those who genuinely care about peace to take whatever action they can to stop a new war. That means recognising the threat posed by Iran, which is already saying how it supports a new war, and threatening, as the Ayatollah Khamenei did in a tweet in November:
“The West Bank will surely be armed just like Gaza”.
We should recognise the problems that Iran poses with respect to the lack of peace in Gaza, and the current nuclear talks with Iran should not stop pressure being applied for it to cease destabilising the region. The United Kingdom should urge the UN Security Council to pass a resolution preventing the rearmament of Hamas and starting a process of demilitarisation. Demilitarisation and the rehabilitation of Gaza are not alternatives to reaching a comprehensive agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, but they are an essential step towards that goal. Hamas aggression started a horrendous war last year with deplorable loss of life.
I have no time to give way. Hamas has now embarked on a new course, preparing for renewed attacks targeted on Israeli citizens. That will make the prospect of peace even more distant. To all those who seriously want to secure peace, I say this: do all that is possible to stop Hamas rearming, prevent a new war and work for a peace that brings a new and fulfilled life to Israelis and Palestinians, including the long-suffering people of Gaza.
It would be churlish of me not to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) on securing the debate. However, I feel that, in many respects, it is a counsel of despair, because of the propositions that some hon. Members have put forward, and because of the failure to look at the historical facts and properly analyse the way forward.
I will divide my much-curtailed contribution into two parts. Of course, every hon. Member and every person with a conscience wants to avoid a repeat of last summer’s catalogue of horrors. We have heard the figures for the appalling loss of life and the destruction of residential areas and United Nations facilities. Ordinary Palestinians in the Gaza strip are being made to pay the price for the conflict. We must look at the root causes of the situation. We are talking about a day-to-day, grinding occupation. The occupying power is Israel, which maintains an illegal and unjust iron grip on the territory and its inhabitants. The hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who has unfortunately left the Chamber, suggested that Israel has disengaged, but that is a false premise. The international community recognise that the situation in Gaza is an ongoing occupation, because of the restrictions on trade, employment, movement, access to medical supplies and medical treatments, and so on.
I refer Members to article 154 of the fourth Geneva convention, which refers to the responsibilities of the occupying power under belligerent occupation. Of course, the closure of Gaza is part of a long process that predates the rise of Gaza. Members who support the Israeli Government often use that fact as some kind of justification, but it is quite incorrect to do so. The punitive nature of the blockade, although it is denied by those who strongly support the Government of Israel, is acknowledged by those who administer it as an act of collective punishment. If we believe in anything as parliamentarians, we believe in the rule of international law in upholding international conventions, and collective punishment is forbidden under international law.
There are some really important lessons to be learned internationally, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland and the peace process in South Africa. There are issues that must be addressed with Egypt, and I do not think that its position is awfully helpful. The fundamental point is that all interested parties must come together and actively participate in a meaningful process.
Time is short, so I turn to the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow that Hamas would voluntarily disarm on the basis that Israel would, at that point, end the blockade and its illegal settlement enterprise and allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. The parties in Israel are opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, so that premise is deeply flawed. In the west bank, the Palestine Liberation Organisation adopted non-violent resistance to the occupation in 1988. In the years since, what has been its reward? House demolitions, the expansion of illegal settlements, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of illegal settlers, continued oppression, the arrest of children and the subjugation of military occupation. My hon. Friend’s suggestion is not conducive to peace, because it proposes only to remove Hamas’s weapons. It would not address the factors that lead people in the west bank towards violence. Let us learn from the peace process in Northern Ireland. We are treating the symptoms and not the cause. We must address the blockade, and rather than undermining Palestinian political institutions that seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict, we should strengthen them.
Any proposal for ending conflict between Gaza and Israel that does not prioritise the upholding of international law and a just settlement between Israel and Palestine is bound to fail. Indeed, the failure of the international community to halt the colonial theft of Palestinian land and to broker a just peace is the greatest provocation of further unrest.
The Oslo dynamic, which has persisted for more than 20 years, has demonstrably failed. In conflict resolution, victims of conflict sometimes abandon their right to seek justice for past crimes and transgressions in the hope of building trust and strengthening a political process that is designed to resolve the broader conflict. We need only look to Northern Ireland to see how that principle has worked in practice. Importantly, the dynamic assumes that the parties to the conflict are sincerely interested in resolving the situation in a way that is both legal and acceptable to the other party. Sadly, that is not the case in the virtually non-existent middle east peace process. Rather, Palestinians have been asked to sacrifice almost every conceivable right or claim to justice at the altar of negotiation. That has afforded the Government of Israel unparalleled impunity for its many crimes against the Palestinian people. With each unpunished transgression, those on the Israeli right are encouraged to continue to act as they like, however immoral or illegal their actions, safe in the knowledge that there will be no adverse consequences.
Palestinians are told that they must negotiate for their rights, their statehood and their freedom from occupation. Meanwhile, the party with which they must negotiate changes the facts on the ground day by day to make the realisation of those rights an ever more distant prospect. For those who seek to deny the Palestinians their rights, it is worth noting that the Israelis were not expected to negotiate with the Palestinians for the same rights. It is both impractical and wrong to expect a successful peace process to emerge from a dynamic in which there is such a disproportionate imbalance of power and in which the rule of law has been totally abandoned.
Most of the current Israeli Government—those with whom the Palestinians are told they must negotiate to obtain their rights—are on record as saying that they fundamentally oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state. Last summer, Binyamin Netanyahu, who is on the left of his right-wing coalition, spoke his mind:
“I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”
For the past two decades, negotiations have served as little more than a fig leaf to cover Israel’s expansionist aims so that it can consolidate what it has already taken by force of arms.
If the situation is to end and space is to be created for a meaningful peace process, the UK must push to make Israel accountable for its breaches of international law. That means that we should be prepared to pull whatever levers exist, whether economic or diplomatic, to ensure that the Israeli Government understand that continuing to annex Palestinian land, collectively punishing 1.7 million people with an illegal blockade and systematically denying a people their fundamental rights will not be tolerated by the international community. We should also do what we can to strengthen the voices of moderation inside Palestine and to demonstrate that it is the path of politics and peace, not the path of violence, that leads somewhere. Our Government should respect the will of Parliament and immediately recognise Palestine as a state. We must also do all we can to support the unity Government, in which Hamas is to take a back seat. In fact, the announcement of the unity Government that preceded this summer’s assault on Gaza was widely seen—
Does my hon. Friend recognise the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) that Hamas would disarm in return for economic development? That would make a hostage of all those peace-loving people in the Palestinian population who neither hold arms nor hold any brief for those who hold arms.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and it involves doing all we can to support the unity Government in which Hamas is to take a back seat. The unity Government was welcomed by everyone, save only for Israel.
Critically, we should understand that the realisation of Palestinian rights and the success and security of Israel are intertwined. There will never be justice for Palestinians while the occupation continues and their rights are denied. Peace and security will be unobtainable for Israel so long as Palestinians live with such injustice.
Thank you, Mr Hood. I appreciate that. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann)—I hope I pronounced his constituency correctly.
My last visit to Gaza was in March 2009 as part of a Foreign Affairs Committee delegation. The visit included opportunities to see the post-war situation in both Israel and Gaza following Operation Cast Lead, but owing to security considerations only four members of the Committee were allowed to cross the border. In Gaza, the delegation witnessed at first hand the destruction caused by Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli military operation waged to stop Hamas’s indiscriminate launching of missiles from Gaza against Israeli towns and cities. In Israel, we visited towns, including Sderot, that had been most greatly affected by the Hamas terror rockets. Those rockets were constructed from the metal pipe work that was sent by Israel to reconstruct the sewage treatment works in Gaza but was instead cut up into rocket-sized tubes, packed with explosives and rocket fuel and sent back across the border to Sderot in order to inflict as much civilian damage as possible. In fact, the police station in Sderot had piles of spent missiles with Hebrew writing still stamped on the cut-up lengths of metal pipe. Sadly, it feels as if little has changed since my last visit to Gaza in 2009.
In the time I have left, I will briefly mention what life under Hamas means for the people of Gaza. One of the things we hear most about are the summary executions with no hint of due process. Hamas publicly executed 25 people in just over 48 hours last August, allegedly for collaborating with Israel. Those executions cannot be explained away as the excesses of war. Among those executed by Hamas in 2013 was a juvenile offender, despite what Amnesty International termed
“serious concerns about the fairness of his trial, including allegations he was tortured to ‘confess’.”
Hamas regularly uses torture. According to the recently published annual report of Human Rights Watch, not a body that anyone could describe as a stooge of the state of Israel:
“The Internal Security Agency and Hamas police in Gaza tortured or ill-treated”—
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) on securing the debate. As others have said, more than 2,000 people were killed in the conflict last summer, many of them civilians, including more than 500 children. Many more were injured, including more than 3,000 children. As a result of their injuries, more than 1,000 of those children are likely to have physical disabilities for the rest of their lives.
Last summer’s conflict was, of course, the third since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, and the cycle of violence was grimly reminiscent of the events that led to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012. On all three occasions, it was obvious that a sustainable solution will not be found through violence and that a political solution is necessary. The human cost of the failure to negotiate a lasting and sustainable settlement to the middle east conflict is all too apparent in the continued trauma, devastation and insecurity not only in Gaza but in the west bank and Israel. My hon. Friend is right to warn that the international community must now do all it can to avoid further conflict in Gaza, and that a complex mix of pressures in Gaza, Israel and the wider middle east must be thought through and understood to avoid further bloodshed, and over the medium term, to move towards a more comprehensive negotiated settlement that secures the two-state solution that I suspect everyone in the House wants.
An immediate priority must be to address urgently the severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Almost 20,000 homes have been completely destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, and many others have been damaged, and more than 100,000 Palestinians are still displaced. Some 19,000 displaced people are still living in United Nations Relief and Works Agency shelters, such as school buildings. Those whose homes remain habitable struggle to cope with the scheduled power cuts of up to 18 hours a day, and basic services such as access to water and sanitation can best be described as dysfunctional. That already grim situation has been exacerbated by recent winter storms, which resulted in further deaths and affected those in emergency shelters or damaged homes.
In that context, the $5.4 billion pledged by the international community at the Cairo conference last October is welcome, but it is deeply worrying that UNRWA had to halt a $720 million project that aimed to give rental subsidies to people whose homes have been damaged and are inhospitable, and cash to people to repair and rebuild their properties. UNRWA has stated that it has been left with a shortfall of almost $600 million, as the money pledged by international donors has yet to be translated into actual disbursements.
It was recently reported that just $300 million of aid pledges have so far been transferred. The UK pledged some £20 million at the Cairo conference to support the reconstruction effort in Gaza, and the Department for International Development announced the disbursement of $4.7 million just before Christmas, bringing the total amount it has disbursed to some £7.8 million. Will the Minister update the House on when the next disbursement is planned? How much will be disbursed, and for what services will that aid be delivered? Why has progress on disbursing our aid appeared to be so slow?
What discussions have the Government had with other international donors to ensure that they fulfil their pledges? The Minister will know better than the rest of the House which donors have not so far met or begun to come close to meeting their expectations on delivering aid. Does he believe that a further international effort is needed to facilitate progress? What role, for example, might the EU’s new High Representative, the Quartet or the Gulf Co-operation Council play in helping to facilitate progress on reconstruction?
As has been mentioned in the debate, donors appear to have become concerned about the failure of the technocratic unity Government, agreed by Hamas and Fatah in April 2014, to take control of Gaza, where Hamas remains the de facto Government. What is the Minister’s assessment of the scale of difficulty faced by that technocratic unity Government? What progress are the Arab League and the UN making on their consultations to put in place a Palestinian authority to govern Gaza? My hon. Friends are right that the blockade of Gaza must end.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I will not give way because of the time.
The blockade of Gaza must end with the co-operation of Israel. What recent action has the Minister taken to press the Government of Israel on that critical issue? No one wants to see a repeat of last summer, and clearly a crucial element of preventing another conflict must be for the international community to stop Hamas rebuilding its arsenal and tunnels so that it cannot again fire thousands of rockets into Israel. There can be absolutely no justification for the conduct of Hamas and other organisations that fired rockets into Israel and sought to infiltrate civilian areas. We are unyielding in our condemnation of Hamas both for the indiscriminate killing of Israeli civilians and for the disruptive role it has played when others have tried to secure the two-state solution that we all want.
Ultimately, we have to help the Palestinians and the Israelis to get back to the negotiating table. It is surely the responsibility of all of us in the international community—certainly the UK, but also countries across the international community—to use the leverage that we have to encourage again the conditions so that negotiations can begin on a peaceful, lasting solution. Such a solution needs to involve the peoples of the occupied territories and of Israel, as well as their leaders. Progress on violence, on respecting human rights and on illegal settlements will be critical to building the conditions for such negotiations to take place.
I come back finally to the urgency of the situation in Gaza. The humanitarian crisis there demands that the international community steps up its efforts to get the construction of homes and access to basic services going again. I look forward to hearing what further role the Minister thinks the UK can play in helping to achieve that.
I shall begin, as others have done, by congratulating the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) on securing this important debate. I thank hon. Members for the tone and the manner in which we have discussed this very important issue. I share with hon. Members and hon. Friends my frustration in having only nine minutes or so before the Division bell rings to answer all the points. I have written pages of notes in order to respond in detail, and I feel frustrated because of the limitations of the debate. May I ask the powers that be, if they happen to be listening, that we have a longer debate on a more regular basis, such is the importance of the issue? I will do my best to get through the points. If I do not, please forgive me. I will do my best to write to hon. Members and respond to their points.
We have played a key role in support of Gazans. During the summer, the UK was one of the biggest donors to Gaza, providing more than £17 million in emergency assistance to deliver life-saving food, clean water, shelter and medical assistance to tens of thousands of people affected by the fighting. We have also played a vital role in supporting Gaza’s reconstruction. The UK pledged more than £20 million at the Gaza reconstruction conference, which I attended in October, to help kick-start the recovery and get the people of Gaza back on their feet. A quarter of our pledge has already been distributed, and we urge other donors to disburse theirs. The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) was right to say that there have been problems, and we need to make sure that the bottlenecks are sorted out.
DFID’s long-term programme of support in Gaza is focused on relieving the humanitarian impacts of the occupation, supporting the provision of basic services, including health and education, and helping local businesses to grow and provide jobs.
I cannot give way because I need time to answer the questions. Let us have the debate in the Chamber, give me half an hour to reply, and I will be happy to give way.
We are still deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation, which has continued to deteriorate, as hon. Members have implied. Thousands of families still do not have homes to return to. The UK is working closely with international partners to support the work of the Gaza reconstruction mechanism, which was created to facilitate the importation of vital construction materials, and is providing £500,000 in support.
We continue to stress to the Israeli authorities the damage that their restrictions are doing to ordinary Palestinians in Gaza. We are clear that supporting legal trade for Gazans is firmly in Israel’s long-term interests. We are concerned about the closure of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Indeed, let us open the other crossing. The Rafah crossing is a pedestrian crossing that needs to be converted into a wider one for vehicles. The Kerem Shalom crossing could be expanded, and Erez is another one that needs to be widened. We continue to raise those important points not only with the Israelis, but with the Egyptian Government, who are central in bringing together the parties to get the negotiations restarted.
We firmly believe that ending the cycle of violence in Gaza is in the interests of all parties. Last summer, Israelis lived in fear of indiscriminate rocket strikes and terror attacks. That is clearly not acceptable and we deplore the terrorist tactics of Hamas. The people of Israel have the right to live without constant fear for their security, just as the people of Gaza have the right to live safely in peace. We are deeply concerned by reports that militant groups within Gaza are re-arming and re-digging tunnels. That will not deliver peace to the people of Gaza. Only a durable ceasefire can offer that. The UK will do all that it can to support efforts towards that goal.
Last year, we worked hard with international partners to bring a ceasefire about, and we came close before things unravelled in April. We urge the parties to resume negotiations to reach a comprehensive agreement that tackles the underlying causes of the conflict. Such an agreement should ensure that Hamas and other militant groups permanently end rocket fire and other attacks against Israel, and that the Palestinian Authority—not just a technocratic Government—resume control of Gaza and restore effective and accountable governance. An agreement should also ensure that Israel lifts its restrictions in order to ease the suffering of ordinary Palestinians, and allow the Gazan economy to grow.
In response to some of the comments that have been made today, we are lobbying Israel on the transfer of goods from Gaza to the west bank. We want an increase in the fisheries zone from six miles to the 20 miles that was in the Oslo peace accords. We want further movement of people out of Gaza at some of the crossing points that I mentioned. We also want Israel involved in longer-term strategic measures such as power, water and exports.
I have personally lobbied Federica Mogherini. She and others in the European Union could promote the idea of getting the marina working. Let us have an umbilical cord going from Gaza to the EU via Cyprus, which is secure, with the agreement of the Israelis. Such an EU contribution would be very helpful indeed. Unfreezing the tax revenues, which are causing such problems with funding at the moment, would also help.
We are lobbying the Palestinians. We are certainly disappointed about the political stalemate between Fatah and Hamas, and we would encourage the Palestinian Authority to increase their footprint in Gaza. It does require their being able to get there, so we call on Israelis to allow the movement of people, particularly the politicians, to be able to exert their leverage. We are also emphasising the need to resume talks on a long-term ceasefire to achieve stabilisation.
Egypt plays a crucial role. We want to facilitate the contacts towards reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. We want Egypt to resume its important role in hosting the talks that began in Cairo.
I am afraid I will not give way. I hope the hon. Gentleman understands why.
In the short time that I have left, I will try to respond to some of the points that were made. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) took a step back and talked about the general plight of what is going on in Gaza. What we see is a tragedy in one of the most populated areas of the world, with 57% of the population suffering food insecurity and 80% reliant on aid. Such numbers suggest that that is exactly where terrorism can be incubated, when so many people are so poor. It must be in everybody’s interest to make sure that we tackle that.
The hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) talked about events that are no longer on our television screens. He is right to say that. They are not on TV at the moment, but we do not want to go around this buoy again. We do not want to see another Operation Cast Lead or another Operation Protective Edge. We do not want to see such conflicts again. Yet, what we are not seeing on our TV screens—this has been illustrated today—is the tunnels being built, the salaries not being paid and the taxes not being collected. It also seems that settlements are still being built. We have seen on previous occasions that those ingredients could be leading us into a very dangerous place. We need to recognise that and work together to prevent repeating history.
The right hon. Member for Stirling (Dame Anne McGuire) talked about funding, which I have touched on. It is important to get the funding streams working. The UN representative talked about the re-arming and dangerous developments that are taking place. I met Nabil Elaraby, Secretary-General of the Arab League, last week in Washington.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Transport Infrastructure (West and South Cumbria)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I am reassured that this Minister is responding to the debate and feel completely assured of a sympathetic hearing. I know he understands the issues at hand and I look forward to his response.
The issues that I wish to raise are incredibly and genuinely important. Plenty of my constituents will currently be sitting in their cars on congested roads not fit for purpose or be crammed into trains that are full to bursting. This is a daily occurrence for many in west and south Cumbria who are simply trying to get to and from work.
West Cumbria and the whole Cumbrian industrial economic crescent, which stretches north to south, has the potential to be an engine for substantial economic growth for the region and for the country as a whole, but the current infrastructure is already creaking under the strain. Nowhere is this issue more visible than on the A595 from Barrow to Carlisle. This key artery for the economy of the north-west is simply not fit for purpose in its current state. I shall set out the irrefutable case for significant Government investment in the A595 to ensure that Cumbria’s economic potential can be realised.
Earlier this month, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport outlining these issues, and I want to expand on them. I should be grateful if the Minister outlined the Government’s position on investment in this critical piece of road infrastructure.
The A595 is an 85-mile carriageway extending from the Dalton-in-Furness bypass in the south to Carlisle in the north. The vast majority of the road is single carriageway, with only a few examples of dual carriageway along the route. The road around Whitehaven, which is also served by the A595, was designated a trunk road in 1946, but was de-trunked in 1998, apart from an 18-mile section between Clifton and Calderbridge, and from Sellafield to the A66. The road carries over 10,000 vehicles each day, including those on a large number of inevitable, unavoidable work-based trips. It is the main route for people travelling to and from Sellafield, a site of incredible national importance. At shift change, twice a day, it is not unusual to see around 10 miles of tailbacks, with people sitting in their cars for hours. The chaos this causes to emergency services, schools, and more, is palpable and clearly understandable to all hon. Members here.
The road simply cannot cope with the volume of traffic it currently carries, and this situation will only get worse as our local economic plans accelerate. One section of the road to the south of Whitehaven is ranked as the 10th least reliable road within the north Pennines route, and according to the Highways Agency three sections of the A595 rank in the 100 least reliable roads in the whole country. There is also a large number of collisions on the A595. The route is in the top fifth of routes with the highest rates of injury from collisions.
Given the rurality of the region, with pockets of urban populations linked by the A595, many people rely on the road, but it just is not fit for purpose. On 14 April 2014, the then Minister of State for Disabled People, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), following a visit to Sellafield, wrote to the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), decrying the state of the A595, saying:
“This congestion causes significant issues for the site, its employees and the local community alike and will only get worse.”
“I would encourage the Department for Transport to facilitate action in this area.”
That Minister’s letter represented an unusual, unexpected, but welcome intervention and he has my full support on this issue. I have not seen the Government’s reply to the Minister, but I should be grateful if the Minister undertook to furnish me with a copy of that response.
In his letter, the Minister stated:
“We have seen the potential of major transport infrastructure projects to promote economic regeneration in east London following the 2012 Olympics.”
The incoming investment to west and south-west Cumbria is on an Olympic scale—potentially greater—and it demands Olympic ambition for the infrastructure that will serve it. As I have set out, the current infrastructure is woefully inadequate.
A technical annex to a Highways Agency report estimates that by 2031 there will be substantial growth in the area. In Allerdale, Barrow-in-Furness and Copeland combined, 14,000 new jobs will be created, with an additional 12,000 new homes created as a result. Local economic development agencies, such as Britain’s Energy Coast, estimate that many more thousands of jobs will be created, in excess of the 14,000. In any event, there will be an influx of tens of thousands of new workers, with the associated increase in vehicle trips and strain upon the road network. The increased industrial activity will see more freight on the roads. Without improvements, the network will grind to a halt.
The Highways Agency’s “North Pennines Route Strategy Evidence Report” states:
“Certain specific developments provide specific operational challenges, for example on the A595 in Copeland”—
“traffic associated with operations at Sellafield, which directly employs around 10,000 people, causes significant congestion outside the normal morning and evening peak periods. The lack of alternative routes and viable alternative travel options, such as local bus and rail services, combine to result in rapid build-up of congestions when incidents occur.”
It also states:
“The A595 and A590 in Cumbria are likely to be the major focus for economic development on the route with the expansion of activities related to energy generation along the ‘Energy Coast’ including the construction of a new nuclear power station at Moorside.”
I expect that my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness will talk about stress on the roads in relation to the huge development that he has helped to secure in his constituency, too.
I fully support the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. Cumbria desperately needs some real infrastructure spending internally, although we have good communications going out. Does he agree that the A595 going up to Carlisle is equally important for the development of Carlisle? If there were better connectivity between the east and the west, that would be good not just for economic development but for the health economy.
It is absolutely in the best interests of Carlisle to develop the A595. Considering that we have all worked on a cross-party basis for many years to try to get the airport developed there, it needs to be served by good road infrastructure, otherwise the benefits from it will be not what they should. I will come on to the health service in due course.
In reality, more than 10,000 people work on the Sellafield site, and it will soon be one of the biggest construction sites in Europe as decommissioning progresses, whether or not new missions are secured. The report goes on to state:
“Without any interventions, planned development is likely to result in further deterioration in network performance.”
The case for investment to upgrade the A595 is overwhelming. It is undeniably in the national interest, and the Government should recognise that fact and act accordingly. In less than a fortnight, a petition arranged by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness has gathered well over 1,000 signatures. It calls for investment, and more people add their support daily. A few testimonies from the many people who have signed the petition show just how much of an impact the A595 has on their daily lives. One person said:
“I am the manager of a health centre and cannot get to work by any other road. When it blocks, we cannot get essential staff to work. When this happens, our patients are affected.”
“Every day my travel to work of 17 miles exceeds one hour, ten minutes.”
I would like to see people in London put up with that kind of delay. Another simply added:
“Something needs to be done.”
My constituents rightly demand that the Government take a lead on this matter. As I have repeatedly said, this infrastructure is of national importance and the economic case is indisputable. West Cumbria can be a world leader when it comes to the creation of skilled jobs, and we are already hugely significant in that regard. Imminent inward investment from around the world means that our position as a global centre of excellence will be not only maintained but enhanced. Our vision is to become a global centre of nuclear excellence and through that to diversify and grow the economy through spin-outs, but the only way we can realise that potential is to have the infrastructure in place to support the growth and make it stick. It is a clear example of where a return on investment would greatly outweigh any initial costs and would improve the lives of many thousands of people.
So far I have spoken mainly about the economic benefits of new investment in the A595 and the economic cost of inaction, but a failure to invest would have wider ramifications, not least for health care, as the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) pointed out. There is great strain on ambulance services in the region, but North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust envisages more patient transfers in the coming years. The journey time between West Cumberland hospital in Whitehaven and the Cumberland infirmary is already upwards of two hours bed to bed. As congestion worsens, that travel time is set to deteriorate further. Without investment in the A595, there will be serious ramifications for the health of my constituents, and that is unacceptable. It is also a key reason why patient services should not be further stripped from the West Cumberland hospital. This is not the place to air those issues, but let me be absolutely clear: there must be no further erosion of services at the West Cumberland hospital and no more unjustifiable transfers of services from Whitehaven to Carlisle. Not even the best road in the world would be capable of shortening the 42 miles between the two hospitals. No road upgrade could ever justify further service erosion.
In west Cumbria, we are building a 21st-century economy on 19th-century infrastructure. By failing to act, any Government would be knowingly acting against the economic interests of the region and the country as a whole. Cumbria simply cannot reach its full potential if we do not have the roads to enable us to achieve our ambitions and to make the unprecedented investments coming our way stick. The ambition of west Cumbria is there. It is manifest in our community spirit, our ambition and our determination, all of which bind our local economic ambitions—north, east, west and south.
Will the Minister make a commitment to undertake a feasibility study of what improvements will be necessary to cope with future economic developments in the area and future demands on the road network? The scope of that work need cover not simply road improvements but how more Sellafield workers, for instance, could be located away from the Sellafield site in Whitehaven town centre and right across Copeland in new office buildings, thereby achieving town centre regeneration and reducing site risk and road congestion. Will he also give a commitment to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness to discuss the issues in more detail? The Minister is usually amenable, and I know that he is a committed and passionate public servant when it comes to dealing with requests from all parts of the House.
In west and south-west Cumbria, we are about to receive the single largest private sector investment we have ever seen. It has been hard won over many years, and it has not happened by accident. These are once-in-a-generation investments, and every opportunity must be seized. West Cumbria’s best days are ahead of us, but we can only reach our true potential if significant improvements are made to the A595. These are not tiresome partisan issues, but issues of national strategic importance. Will the Minister back our drive for growth?
Thank you for your forbearance, Mr Hood. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I know that you must particularly look forward to these debates on A roads. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on securing this debate and on leading the campaign on the A595 with such energy. It is an urgent issue. My hon. Friend put the case so well, but for a couple of minutes I will add a few brief points.
Nearly 400 people travel from my constituency to Sellafield every day. As the area realises its ambition to become a global centre of nuclear excellence alongside the building of a new nuclear submarine fleet in Barrow-in-Furness, it will become an extraordinary powerhouse of nuclear expertise. As the travel-to-work area spans that geographic footprint, there will be much greater use of the A road in both directions, yet parts of it are barely worth calling a road. There is an infamous bit in my constituency that is literally a farmyard. If the Minister has time, I urge him to watch the videos that intrepid safety campaigners in the Kirkby area have made. For drivers on this stretch of road, it is an almost daily occurrence to see huge juggernauts coming towards them with, at points, no way around.
We have seen 18 deaths and 550 injuries on the road in the past five years, but there has been no upgrade in spending, which is vitally needed. We need better public transport and transport infrastructure investment that matches both the scale and ambition of the growth and the amount of value that will be added to the UK economy—not just the economy of our area. I want much better engagement from the train companies and the Government for park and ride schemes in Askam or Broughton going up to Sellafield and the new Moorside sites, but that cannot come at the expense of the investment that is so clearly needed. We are not asking for all the money up front, right now. All we have asked for in writing is for the Government to pay for the feasibility study. Will the Minister confirm that they will do that? If his view is that there should be a bridge across the Duddon, say that now. We need an option, and it needs to be properly looked at. We need the money for the study.
It is a great pleasure to be able to respond to this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on securing it. I worked with him when I was an energy Minister, particularly on nuclear issues, given his commitment to and expertise in that area. That is not irrelevant to this debate, as he made clear in his contribution. The growth in demand from the investment in Sellafield will undoubtedly have an effect on the volume and character of traffic. It is important that the infrastructural investment in nuclear power be matched by infrastructural investment of other kinds to make that economic regeneration as meaningful as it can be. I welcome the contributions of the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), who have highlighted the wider effect that such investment might have on their localities.
Given that we are discussing a part of the country that boasts our splendid Lake district, some may have expected me to quote one of the Lake poets, but I am not a predictable Minister. The only thing predictable about me is that I will quote a poet, but it is not going to be a Lake poet; it is going to be W. B. Yeats. When I think of the Lake district, I think of Yeats and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”:
“I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”
As the hon. Member for Copeland spoke, I thought of that glorious part of the country. Because it is glorious, it attracts a considerable volume of traffic, not only from the locality and not only for the economic reasons he described, but because many people choose to go there for all kinds of other reasons. I have been there to enjoy the scenic beauty of that part of the country.
With its industrial heritage, the glorious landscape is also a vibrant and dynamic place, as the hon. Gentleman made clear. I mentioned Sellafield, which is a modern powerhouse and deserves to be treated as such. As the hon. Gentleman indicated, we are planning to build three new nuclear reactors at Moorside, near Sellafield, which will create very many jobs—more than 20,000. That will have a big effect, particularly when one adds in the 10,000 jobs at the reprocessing site. In the early part of this Parliament, before I was an energy Minister, I was the Minister responsible for apprenticeships, so I am delighted to be able to celebrate the fact that there are going to be 121 apprenticeships as well.
There has been a lot of interest from companies that want to mine the extensive coal deposits that still lie under the Irish sea. Such developments are welcome. The road investment strategy we have set out is the most ambitious road-building programme since the 1970s and the first time a Government have committed long-term funding to such a strategy, and it is important for Cumbria. We will invest £15.2 billion in more than 100 major schemes to enhance, renew and transform the network between now and 2020. That will take 69 new road schemes into construction over the next six years, as well as completing existing projects and delivering on our previous commitments.
All the infrastructure I have described will support economic growth of the kind I have briefly amplified, and to which all the hon. Gentlemen who spoke drew the House’s attention. It is really important that the work we are doing, the investment we are making and the plans we are devising and delivering in those principal arterial routes are supported, as the hon. Member for Copeland said, by route strategies. I will share a secret with all those present, although it is not a secret to you, Mr Hood, as you so ably chaired the Infrastructure Bill Committee. I insisted that that Bill be amended to take account, on its face, of the significance of route strategies. As I considered the matter and discussed it with shadow Ministers, it seemed to me that unless we got the strategy right for the roads that feed the main arterial routes, we would not succeed in providing the extra capacity required to benefit areas such as the hon. Gentleman’s and, by the way, my own, as well as those of many other Members.
The hon. Gentleman rightly said that, working with all agencies, which of course includes Cumbria county council, the local highways authority, we must now ensure that the decisions made are consistent and coherent between all authorities. I was in a meeting yesterday with council leaders from the south-west, and we were discussing the A303, another of those key arterial routes, on exactly that basis. I intend to encourage and, indeed, to ensure further consultation with local authorities, local communities, stakeholders, businesses and others to make sure that the route strategies actually match the same kind of ambitious thinking, are built on the same sort of empiricism, and commit the funds required to deliver the infrastructure outcomes that service the economic demand described by the hon. Gentleman. That goes for the areas immediately adjacent to the main arterial routes, but also for the areas adjacent to those areas—a point made by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle.
The hon. Member for Copeland will know that the document to which he referred, the north Pennines route strategy, helped to inform our road investment strategy—our macro document, one might say—which underpins the plans that I have outlined. I will ensure that the north Pennines route strategy will be used as a basis for future investment decisions. The second part of the route strategy, which details the proposed solution, has not yet been published but will be. It will be published on the basis of that kind of stakeholder engagement—that consultative approach—informed by the hon. Gentleman and other local representatives, along with the other interested parties, which will of course include major local employers.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would make available the response that originated from the visit of a previous Minister to his neck of the woods. We will look to see whether a response was made. If it is on record, I will happily make it available to him and, if it would be helpful, to other contributors to this debate, so that they can be as informed as possible.
At this point, it seems that I should return to the script that has been prepared for me. I do not like to do that with too much regularity, because it makes one’s contributions to debates such as this altogether less interesting and less of a response to what has been said before one rises. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman can look forward to a concentration of resource and expertise from central Government, working with the relevant partners to try to bring about some of the things he set out.
The hon. Gentleman will know that Cumbria county council has received £13.7 million for integrated transport improvements over the past four years, and £109 million for highways maintenance. Picking up the point made by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness, I accept that maintenance is not the principal concern in respect of the road of which he was speaking, but clearly it is a concern. Until we reach the point where we can make major new investment, it is important that we make good the highways that people use day to day. We certainly would not want to delay the necessary maintenance and repair work just because we intend to do more.
Over the next six years Cumbria county council is set to receive more than £13 million for integrated transport improvements and more than £141 million for highways maintenance. That money is not ring-fenced and the council is free to spend it as it wishes. Having said that, the more co-ordinated we can be and the more that the joint working I have identified can take effect, the more success we are likely to have in ensuring that the money is allocated properly.
Finally, I could speak about the need to integrate with rail as well, because that is a pressing concern in the locality we are discussing. I know that it was not the basis of the speech by the hon. Member for Copeland, but he has raised the matter previously. I pay tribute to him and, in order to conclude, I will commit to writing to all hon. Members present with any further information that is useful. Once again, I assure the hon. Gentleman that he has paid us a service in drawing these matters to our attention.
Bullying on School Buses
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I am pleased to have been able to secure this debate as I wish to raise the issue of bullying on school buses once more before I retire from the House. I have raised the case of Ben Vodden in the House on a number of occasions, most recently on 5 November 2013, when I led an Adjournment debate on bullying on school transport. I shared the story of 11-year-old Ben, a young student who, in 2006, after being bullied persistently on a dedicated school bus in Sussex, took his own life. As I said at the time, the incidents of bullying that led to his tragic death were reported on a number of occasions, yet, for whatever reason, they were ignored.
The heartbreaking case of Ben Vodden shone a light on the role of dedicated school bus drivers. The driver of Ben’s bus not only failed to intervene, but was complicit in the persistent bullying that took place on the bus. In the view of Ben’s parents, that took the situation to a whole new level. Bullying by peers is, as we know, incredibly difficult to deal with, but adding to that bullying by the person seen by a child as a responsible adult is difficult even to comprehend. Since the tragic death of Ben in 2006, his father, Paul Vodden, has dedicated a great amount of time to tackling the issue. He has campaigned tirelessly for greater protection for children from bullying, worked closely with United Kingdom charities and met me and various Ministers from both the main parties to draw attention to the problem.
Back in August 2010, a year after the Government released their guidance on tackling bullying on school journeys, a survey conducted by 4Children and me showed that most local authorities did not have any kind of safer travel policy in place. From the survey we discovered that of the 67 local authorities spoken to, 60% did not have a safer travel policy; of the 40% that did, only half said that the policy covered all forms of bullying and 38% said that all forms of journey were covered.
As I outlined in my previous speech, the situation on dedicated school buses is naturally unique and consequently problematic. Where else would we suggest that an untrained and unqualified person be solely in charge of dozens of children while undertaking another task at the same time? The facts of the matter are that when children are put on a school bus there is no formal supervision as in a school playground, there is no way to avoid conflict situations and, often, the children have absolutely no choice as to the composition of the group by whom they are surrounded.
In August 2013 Mr Vodden carried out his own online survey to assess more closely the issue of bullying on dedicated school buses. He wanted to discover the extent to which bullying on buses was a universal problem and to understand what role, if any, the driver had. The report made it clear that many of the problems persisted and that the issue needed urgent attention. I shared the methodology of Mr Vodden’s study with the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), then the Under-Secretary of State for Education and the responsible Minister.
Mr Vodden and I have both now carried out further surveys. In his latest study, Mr Vodden focused on school bus drivers. He has not finalised his report, but is permitting me to quote some of the preliminary results today. I shall refer to his first study as Vodden report No. 1 and the latest study as Vodden report No. 2. As a former teacher, I realise that this will require concentration as I proceed with my speech. I will not spend too much time talking about Vodden report No. 1 today, as I shall focus more closely on my second survey, which I carried out last year. Some key conclusions from Vodden report No. 1, however, provide a good context in which to assess whether progress has been made.
Vodden report No. 1 found bullying on school buses to be a significant problem. Thirty of the survey’s respondents reported self-harming, 24 had considered suicide and 97 simply wanted to hide away. The research indicated that bullying on school buses starts in year 7, highlighting the difficulties of making the step up to a large secondary school, perhaps from a small village primary school. In fact, in response to my previous speech, the Minister at the time acknowledged that that was concerning and needed exploring. Will the Minister today update me on what steps have been taken?
Vodden report No. 1 also revealed that only six of the respondents knew about the safer travel policy that all local authorities are required to have. To hear that 69 respondents were aware that their school had an anti-bullying policy was promising, but, equally, it was worrying to find out that the same number were not so aware. Many of the respondents did not know whom to turn to in the event of bullying or whether their school actually had a system in place to deal with it. Concerns were expressed about the role of the driver and the need, in four instances, for a driver to intervene to prevent bullying. By stark contrast, in 41 incidents the driver failed to act, while in an alarming 17 cases the driver joined in.
As I have mentioned, last year I carried out a second survey to discover whether any progress had been made on the implementation of safer travel policies by local authorities. Given the findings in Vodden report No. 1, I felt that it was necessary to discover the extent to which local authorities had introduced such measures and whether perhaps any innovative and successful anti-bullying systems had been introduced. The survey was sent out to 152 local authorities in England, and 109 responded in time to be included in the report.
I think it is fair to say that the responses to last year’s survey have been varied. A number of the local authorities made great strides in tackling bullying on dedicated school buses. Some authorities have displayed fantastic examples of best practice in dealing with the problem, but others have failed to act, with some local authorities convinced that no action needs to be taken because they are sure that bullying is not an issue in their area. I shall talk through a few of the key findings of the survey, celebrating the progress that has been made, but also outlining areas that still require much improvement if we are to tackle bullying on school buses and to learn lessons from the sad events of 2006.
To discover that 64 local authorities had a clear safer travel policy in place was refreshing; a further 24 had policies specific to the safe transportation of children on school journeys. Unfortunately, and in spite of the 2009 publication of the Government guidelines, 18 councils still reported not having a safer travel policy, nor any policy resembling one. Given the unique circumstances of the dedicated school bus journey environment, does the Minister agree that at the very least it is important for all local authorities to have such a policy in place?
When the authorities were asked if there were contractual requirements on bus companies to ensure the safety of their passengers—in this case, the children on the buses—108 out of 109 answered yes. I acknowledge the point made by the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk in the previous ministerial response on the issue that local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children under the Children Act 2004. For that reason, however, I find worrying my survey’s finding that still only 40 of the responding local authorities require contractors to follow an anti-bullying policy. That is in spite of all the findings of previous studies, the Government’s published guidelines and the previous Minister urging such a policy on the contractors in the 2013 debate.
Potentially, the aspect of my survey to display the most worrying lack of progress or success was the finding concerning the provision of training for drivers on how to deal with bullying. Only 16 of the 109 local authorities responding answered yes when asked if that was included as a contractual requirement. Given the clear message from the Vodden report No. 1 about a risk of school bus drivers acting inappropriately towards young people in their charge, as well as my emphasis on that in my previous speech on the subject, I am disheartened. Again, I make a plea for a requirement for at least some training to equip drivers with the necessary skills to deal with the array of inevitably childish incidents that occur on dedicated school buses.
Corroboration is also provided in the preliminary results from Vodden report No. 2. Only 25% of the responding school bus drivers said that they had received training on working with children, while 78% had not been given any advice on how to handle bullying or behavioural issues. In a follow-up meeting with the then Minister, we talked about the necessary cultural change, but we also stressed the point that when contracts were let there should be a requirement for training for drivers.
In my recent survey, only one local authority said that displaying prominent anti-bullying messages such as posters was a requirement inside school buses. However, promisingly, a few councils currently in the process of updating their anti-bullying policies mentioned that they had not thought of that as an option before and that as a result of the survey’s drawing their attention to it they were going to review the idea with the intention of including it in future plans. That highlights the importance of sharing best practice among local authorities: if one council has seen success with a particular anti-bullying scheme or policy, it should be made readily available to other councils, enabling a more coherent nationwide approach to tackling bullying.
Nine local authorities reported over 21 cases of bullying in the 12 months prior to the survey, with 62 reporting between nought to five cases in the same period. One could be forgiven for assuming that the nine areas with the highest reports of bullying would be where we would find the worst anti-bullying policies; on the contrary, those local authorities often had the most detailed and wide-reaching policies in place. That is a really positive discovery: facing up to the fact that a problem exists and tackling it means that local authorities will find out more about it. Further research in this area will be really helpful.
I suspect that the actual process of reporting is confused, to put it mildly. Some reporting will be to schools and some will be directly to local authorities, and it is not clear whether all the data ever get collected together. If we bring academies into the equation, it will probably get even more complicated. Then, of course, there is the definition of bullying. I accept that it is really difficult for anybody to distinguish between high spirits and bullying, but that is something that we have to work through.
It is clear that over the past eight years important steps have been taken to get a better grasp on the issue of bullying on dedicated school buses. From the research I carried out in 2010 with 4Children, from findings of the Vodden reports and from my recent survey of 109 local authorities it is clear that much more needs to be done to ensure further progress.
There must be accredited and appropriate training in how to behave when dealing with children, how to respond in the event of bullying and how to avoid becoming involved in the bullying itself, and it should be a requirement for all contractors of school transport to give such training to their school bus drivers. In addition, all school bus drivers should have an assessment to see whether they are suitable and safe to transport children. Clear reporting procedures need to be set up and followed. In Vodden report No. 2, only 33% of respondents said that the bus company had a clear procedure in place for reporting incidents.
Ideally, properly trained adult chaperones should be provided for all dedicated school buses, particularly on longer journeys, so that the driver does not have to compromise the safety of the children in order to resolve disputes on the bus. Another possibility is having dedicated school bus monitors—older students who step up to the role of monitoring the bus and reporting any incidents to the school; one local authority reported great success with that method. A further possibility could be to install CCTV. More protection and support need to be given to students in year 7, the group that Vodden report No. 1 identified as the most susceptible to bullying. The psychological effects of bullying in that age group are particularly significant.
There should be a comprehensive transport management approach by local authorities. It should be made clear to all students which agencies and individuals are directly responsible for resolving incidents on the school bus, and those people must be properly trained. That would ensure that children suffering from bullying, and their parents, knew exactly where to go to access help. The responses to my survey indicated a lack of joined-up thinking between the relevant agencies when dealing with bullying. Even when systems are in place to deal with bullying, they can be ineffective: I know from personal experience that local transport departments can be quite separate from local education departments, and I have intervened on occasion to make sure that departments talk to each other.
I very much welcome the progress that has been made on the issue over the course of this Parliament. My survey alone has shown some excellent illustrations of good practice across the country. Schemes such as Suss the Bus and Buswise, and the creation of safer travel teams, are excellent, innovative steps towards tackling the problem. However, we must pay attention to what the survey suggests are areas for further improvement. If we do so and continue to take action to create an environment where students feel safe and comfortable talking about bullying, to promote more holistic bullying policies that are acknowledged and understood and to improve communication between all the parties involved, we really will reduce bullying on school buses.
We can always do more to tackle bullying in all contexts. The limited time available today has meant I have focused on one particular area where we can and should make further efforts to protect our children. I hope that the Minister has been convinced by the research that Mr Vodden and I have carried out, quite separately, that his Department should look at the issue in more depth, with, perhaps, a more rigorous research base. It is a moving picture, with improvements already in place, but I am convinced that more needs to be done.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this debate. I know that bullying on school transport has been a key concern of hers for many years and that she has raised the issue before, both in the House and at meetings with Ministers, including my predecessor in this role, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Bullying in any form or for any reason is totally unacceptable and should never be tolerated. No child should have to suffer the stress and indignity of being bullied at school or on the way to school. It is tragic beyond belief when bullying results in a child taking his or her own life. I have had the pleasure of meeting Mr Vodden in the past and admire the fact that he has devoted so much time and energy to looking into these matters, with a view to ensuring that no other child or family should have to go through what he and his family have had to suffer.
The response of schools to bullying should not start at the point at which a child is being bullied. Schools that excel at tackling bullying have created an ethos of good behaviour, in which pupils treat one another and school staff with respect because they know that that is the right way to behave. Respect for staff and other pupils, an understanding of the value of education and a clear understanding of how our own actions affect others should permeate the whole ethos of schools and should be reinforced by staff and all pupils.
To ensure that teachers have the powers that they need to maintain discipline and enforce school rules, we introduced a number of reforms in 2011-12. Tackling bullying and ensuring good behaviour in our schools is right at the heart of our education reforms, which are designed to raise academic standards in our schools.
I apologise for not being here in time for the start of the debate; there are many demands on our time. This is an important issue, including in my constituency, and I am sorry that I did not hear the contribution by the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. In Northern Ireland, including in my constituency, we have addressed the issue by working with the police, schools and transport companies, as well as with individual parents. In that way, it has been possible to address bullying on buses going to and from schools. The issues that had to be addressed were clear, but it took a combination of all those bodies to make that happen.
I am grateful for that intervention. I could not agree more with that approach. The agencies—schools, local authorities and bus companies—have to work together to tackle the problem. We revised the home-to-school travel and transport guidance last July; I will come back to that.
To tackle the specific issue of bullying on school buses, we have to track back and raise standards of behaviour in the whole school system. That has been a key focus of this Government’s approach to education policy. We have given teachers stronger powers to search pupils, removed the requirement to give parents 24 hours’ written notice of after-school detentions and clarified teachers’ powers to use reasonable force. We revised and updated advice to schools on promoting good behaviour and maintaining discipline—that advice includes the Charlie Taylor checklist on the basics of classroom management—and simplified advice on how to prevent and tackle bullying. We introduced anonymity for teachers accused by pupils of criminal offences until such time as they are actually charged with an offence. We changed the system of independent review panels to ensure that a school’s decision to exclude an unruly pupil is not undermined by an appeal process that can force the reinstatement of a permanently excluded pupil against the best interests of the school and its pupils.
In the light of evidence that showed that one in three secondary schools were still not confident in using their powers to discipline pupils, we updated our advice in February last year to make it clear that tough but proportionate sanctions for misbehaviour are permissible. Such sanctions range from verbal reprimands to loss of privileges, writing lines or essays or providing a school-based community service such as picking up litter or weeding the school grounds.
We expect each school to promote appropriate standards of behaviour by pupils on their journey to and from school by rewarding positive behaviour and using sanctions to address poor behaviour, and we have clarified our advice to make it clear that teachers have the power to discipline pupils for misbehaviour outside the school premises to such an extent as is reasonable. That can relate to any bullying incidents that occur anywhere off the school premises, such as on a school bus or public transport, outside the local shops or in a town or village centre.
When bullying outside school is reported to school staff, that should be investigated and acted on. The head teacher should also consider whether it is appropriate in extreme circumstances to notify the police or the antisocial behaviour co-ordinator of their local authority. In all cases of misbehaviour or bullying, the teacher can discipline the pupil on school premises or elsewhere only when that pupil is under the lawful control of the staff member.
We have strengthened Ofsted’s power. We reduced the number of criteria for inspections from 27 to four, and one of those four is behaviour and safety of pupils in the school.
I understand that my right hon. Friend’s constituent, Mr Vodden, has been impressed by the work undertaken by the anti-bullying organisations the Diana Award and Kidscape. They do excellent work to tackle bullying, which is why we are providing funding to them. I have been involved with the awards ceremony of the Diana Award, where I have met many inspiring young people genuinely tackling bullying in our schools up and down the country. We are providing £4 million of funding to several organisations to tackle bullying, and we are considering bids for further projects. Many parents are concerned about cyber-bullying, so we have issued guidance to parents and to teachers on how to identify and tackle it.
Local authorities can play a part. My right hon. Friend touched on this: when they contract to provide school transport, they can instruct companies to include anti-bullying procedures as part of their tenders. The statutory guidance I referred to earlier on home-to-school transport, which was revised in July 2014, requires local authorities to ensure the safety of pupils on school buses. Paragraph 44 talks quite explicitly about the training of bus drivers, which she referred to. It says:
“All local authorities should ensure that all drivers and escorts taking pupils to and from school and related services have undertaken appropriate training, and that this is kept up to date.”
Paragraph 47 says:
“The Department expects each school to promote appropriate standards of behaviour by pupils on their journey to and from school through rewarding positive behaviour and using sanctions to address poor behaviour.”
It cites the Education and Inspections Act 2006, which, it says,
“empowers head teachers to take action to address unacceptable behaviour even when this takes place outside the school premises”.
That guidance, which is extensive, needs to be adhered to, because local authorities have a statutory duty to make suitable travel arrangements for eligible children in their area and to promote safe and sustainable travel to school.
I thank the Minister for his general points on bullying and for focusing on what happens inside the bus. I accept that there are clearly lots of guidelines, but I am concerned that they are not being implemented by all local authorities. Absolutely, there is good practice, but what checks will he carry out among just a sample of them to ensure that the guidance is being implemented?
I will reflect on my right hon. Friend’s point. A number of local authorities have adopted a policy of withdrawing transport either temporarily or permanently in more serious repeated cases of misbehaviour. There are examples of good practice up and down the country, but I will reflect on her comments and this debate to see whether we can do more to ensure specifically that bullying on buses is being tackled by local authorities.
I should make the point that bullying on school transport is a symptom of a deeper malaise in schools where poor behaviour exists. I could cite the survey from schoolteachers today that says that three quarters of teachers report better behaviour now than they did in 2010, and when schools have exemplary behaviour policies and behaviour is right in the school, that extends beyond the school to the pupils’ school bus environment and to town centres. We are trying to have that in all our schools up and down the country, because as a Government we place a high priority on improving standards of behaviour in our schools.
I conclude by reiterating my opening point and that of my right hon. Friend: what Ben Vodden suffered on that school bus should never have happened. It should not have happened to him and it should never happen to any child going to or from school. Tackling bullying outside schools is more challenging than tackling bullying in schools, but we have been clear on teachers’ powers to discipline pupils for poor behaviour, including bullying outside the school gates. However, if a school’s approach to behaviour is as good as in the best schools in the country, that good behaviour will extend to the behaviour of pupils on school transport as much as in the schools. As I said, teachers are now reporting much better behaviour in our schools than in 2010, but until we have exemplary behaviour in all our schools and every pupil can feel safe and secure from bullying, work on that challenge will continue.
Question put and agreed to.