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Commons Chamber

Volume 608: debated on Monday 25 April 2016

House of Commons

Monday 25 April 2016

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

School Standards

1. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that standards in schools match those of England’s best international competitors. (904617)

I want to start by saying to all pupils, teachers and parents affected by last week’s cancellation of the key stage 1 spelling test how sorry I am that this has been necessary. I entirely share their anger and frustration. I know how hard everyone has worked to prepare for the tests. Initial investigations by the Standards and Testing Agency show that its internal processes did not sufficiently keep apart sample and live test questions, and human error led to live test questions being put on its website. The STA’s interim chief executive has apologised unreservedly for the error. The key stage 2 tests planned for this term are unaffected and will continue as planned.

Our reforms of the curriculum are about ensuring that our young people can compete not only with the best in this country, but with the best in the world.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but what is being done to find out what is being done in classrooms around the world so that our students can meet the higher standards and compete with the best?

Ministers regularly travel overseas and meet other Education Ministers to discuss our reforms and any reforms that they are introducing. In 2014 we introduced an ambitious national curriculum to match the best education systems around the world. We are reforming GCSEs, A-levels and primary school assessment to represent a new gold standard, and, as my hon. Friend said, to enable students to compete with their peers in the world’s best schools systems.

I hope that the Secretary of State gets this right, as we have made a lot of mistakes in the past by comparing our system of education with those of countries that are very unlike ours, such as Finland and parts of China. The fact is that the results from the programme for international student assessment can be very misleading, so will she be very careful about which systems she compares ours with as the best?

We are of course very careful, and we are very mindful of the fact that we want our children to have the best possible results in the world; that is what our reforms are all about. That is why, as well as getting our GCSEs and A-levels to a gold standard that is comparable with the rest of the world, we are making sure that we focus on things such as character education and the importance of good, strong mental wellbeing.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we really need to focus on science, technology, engineering and maths as a top priority? We will then be able to deliver a more effective and competitive workforce. The way to do that is by having strong leadership in our schools, academies and, indeed, multi-academy trusts.

I thank the Chair of the Education Committee very much for that question; I am looking forward to appearing before his Committee later this week. He is absolutely right to talk about the importance of STEM subjects. Of course, the EBacc includes modern foreign languages. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will have been pleased to hear the announcement last week about securing the future examinations of all modern foreign languages and lesser-taught languages, including Gujarati, biblical Hebrew and Japanese, which is very important for the future competitiveness of our country.

But I hope that the Secretary of State agrees that the critical thing in improving standards of education is good-quality teachers. Will she listen to the schools in Slough, 13 of which have been in touch with me about the fact that secondary schools in a small town have already spent half a million pounds in the past year attempting to recruit teachers, yet, as the head teacher at an excellent grammar school in Slough has said,

“we are now appointing teachers who we would arguably not have considered 5 years ago”?

What is the Secretary of State doing to help schools get high-quality teachers in front of children so that they can learn?

I agree that the most important thing is the quality of the teachers in our classrooms, which of course is why we have more teachers coming back into teaching. In the White Paper we mentioned that we want to set up a website to save schools the high recruitment costs so that they can reward excellent teachers at the frontline. The most important thing from the recent TES global recruitment survey is that 31% of teachers said that talk of a recruitment crisis was doing their profession down. We want to focus on the important things that make a difference, talking up the profession, not always talking it down.

Standards in schools can be raised by encouraging more schools to start breakfast clubs, such as the one at Purbrook Junior School in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State join me in encouraging more schools to start breakfast clubs and homework clubs?

My hon. Friend will be aware of the announcements in the Budget regarding the funding from the new sugar levy, which will be used in part to expand breakfast clubs in up to 1,600 schools from September 2017. Of course, the opportunities offered by the longer school day are also important in ensuring that our young people get the extracurricular activities that help them to achieve the highest possible standards.

Much of the quality assurance in schools is driven and carried out by local authorities. That means that self-evaluation and improvement is a continuous cycle, with only the occasional visit from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of education in Scotland, or Ofsted in England, to rubber-stamp the work already done. With the move to academies, how does the Secretary of State envisage quality assurance being monitored locally, and what budget has she set aside for the increased number of inspectors required to drive improvement?

Quality assurance will be measured in exactly the same way as it is now, by Ofsted, and, most importantly, by parents, who make the best possible choice for their children by choosing the strongest schools. It is worth noting that, in Scotland, 29% of schools in the most deprived areas are rated weak or unsatisfactory. The SNP has had nine years to raise educational standards in Scotland. What has it done about them?

Education White Paper

2. What progress she has made on implementing the proposals in the education White Paper; and if she will make a statement. [R] (904618)

Our education policy, including the White Paper, is about making sure that every child gets the best possible start in life to enable them to fulfil their potential. The White Paper is called “Educational Excellence Everywhere” because for us the “Everywhere” is absolutely non-negotiable. We are making progress on commitments in the White Paper. The first stage of our consultation on the national funding formula closed last week, moving us closer to a fairer system where every school’s funding is matched to the needs of the pupil.

Kelvin Hall School is outstanding without being an academy. That is due to its excellent headteacher and staff and its inspirational campus, which was built under Building Schools for the Future. Would Ministers not be better off focusing their time, energy and money on raising standards in poor-performing schools—the original purpose of Labour’s pragmatic and targeted academy programme—not pursuing the wasteful and disruptive dogma of imposing rigid structures from Whitehall?

I am delighted to hear about the excellent school the hon. Lady mentions. I want that excellent school not to hide its light under a bushel, but to go on to make the rest of the schools in the area as strong as possible and to work in collaboration. I am not going to be the Secretary of State who missed the opportunity to make sure we had a really good, strong school system across the country, offering the best possible education for all our pupils. I am not going to leave the job half done; we are going to finish this job.

My constituency is a rapidly growing new town, and that puts pressure on primary school places. Does the Secretary of State agree that academisation can put a good or outstanding primary in a better financial position so that it can build more classrooms and increase intake to meet parent demand?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the opportunities offered by schools becoming academies and by fairer funding, which will mean that more money gets to the frontline, that schools are in charge of their own destinies and that they can expand to take on more pupils. We also want local authorities to work with academies to secure more places, and also to secure more free schools—for example, to deal with parental demand.

The case for academisation so far rests either on the desire of an individual school to academise or on arguments around school improvement. However, that will not be the case in future, when schools will be required to academise even if they are good or excellent, which will see them risk losing the very features that made them good or excellent. As the Secretary of State considers legislation, will she consider an academisation model that allows such schools that wish to remain in the public sector to have a form of academisation whereby they may do so?

I was following the right hon. Gentleman’s question up until the last sentence, when he seemed to imply that, somehow, academies were not part of the public sector. He could not be more mistaken: they get their funding directly from the Department for Education, their teachers are trained in accordance with our guidance and they can follow the national curriculum. What does the right hon. Gentleman say to the headteacher who wrote to me after the Academies Show last week, saying that her colleagues were forgetting that children are the priority, change is the reality and collaboration is the strategy. How can it not be our moral responsibility to serve as many children as possible by working together? That is what we want to see.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a good argument for academisation is to get schools out of the control of loony left councils, such as Brighton and Hove, which is seeking information in relation to the gender assignment of four-year-olds?

The point about academies and academisation is that they are the vehicle for schools to innovate, make best use of the freedom to drive up standards and do the right thing for their children, which often does not happen under local authority control. That is what we want to see, and that is why we want schools to become academies.

The Secretary of State has intimated that good local authorities can form multi-academy trusts. Ironically, this would give local authorities more responsibility for running schools than they have now, although the Prime Minister has suggested that local authorities having such responsibility is holding schools back. Why is such a costly upheaval necessary for outstanding schools under good local authorities? Is it not time for her to smell the coffee and shelve her plans for forced academisation?

The hon. Gentleman perhaps knows that I am a caffeine addict, but he is missing the point, which is that good schools have much to offer the whole of the rest of the education system. What we see now in schools across the country is collaboration and partnership in clusters of schools, and that is what we want to continue right across the system. We know that actually the best people to run schools are those on the frontline—the heads, the teachers and the professionals—and that is what we want. The issue for the Labour party is that we never hear talk of the pupils, the children or the raising of standards; it is always about vested interests.

Over the past 11 months, one of the issues that has come to me time and again in the constituency has been the cost of the recruitment of teachers, so I was very pleased to see the proposal in the White Paper in relation to the national website that will be set up. Will the Secretary of State tell us how this will help to improve teacher recruitment across the country?

I thank my hon. and learned Friend very much, first, for raising this important issue, but also for spotting that only one of the eight chapters in the White Paper deals with school structures, while the rest tackle the issues that schools have been talking to us about, one of which is the high recruitment cost of teachers. We think that if we can work with the sector to provide a low-cost or no-cost website to enable schools to advertise vacancies, it will mean that more money gets to the frontline, which I think we all want to see.

Teacher Recruitment and Retention

We have record numbers of teachers in our classrooms, and retention rates have remained broadly stable for the past 20 years. I recognise that recruitment has become more challenging for some schools, which is why our White Paper sets out clear plans to boost teacher recruitment, build on the success of measures we have already put in place, such as the £67 million package to improve recruitment of STEM teachers, and generous training bursaries and scholarships.

Excessive workload is the top reason for teachers leaving the profession. Figures released by the National Union of Teachers show that three quarters of teachers say their workload has increased since the Secretary of State launched the 2014 workload challenge, which was supposed to address the concerns about increasing and excessive work. Why has her workload challenge failed to reduce the workload crisis, and will she agree to meet me and my Labour colleagues in Oldham and Tameside about our local challenges?

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady in her constituency or in Parliament. On the workload challenge, there were 44,000 responses to that survey. The top three issues raised were marking, data management and lesson planning burdens. We set up three working parties, which have now reported with very concrete proposals about how we can reduce the burdens. These are very real proposals that will actually, once implemented, reduce the burdens and workload of teachers.

The National Audit Office reports that the number of teachers leaving the profession has increased by over 11% in the past three years, and for the past four consecutive years the Government have failed to hit their own recruitment targets. Does the Minister agree that the plan to force all schools to become academies will do nothing to help this situation and may, in many cases, cause teachers to become more demoralised and more likely to leave the teaching profession?

The professional autonomy that comes with academy status does the opposite—it encourages the profession in a way that has not happened in the past. We have the highest number of teachers of all time in our schools—445,000, which is 13,000 more than in 2010. The National Audit Office acknowledged that despite the very large increase in numbers of pupils— 9% in the past few years—the number of teachers has kept pace. In terms of retention, 90% of teachers are still teaching one year after qualifying, 70% are still there after five years, and over half of all teachers are still in teaching 18 years after qualification. These figures are broadly in line with those in other professions.

One of the very best ideas that the previous Government had was the Troops to Teachers scheme. Given that personnel in Her Majesty’s armed forces are among the very best that Britain has to offer, what success is the Minister achieving in getting personnel from the Royal Air Force, Navy and Army into our schools to teach our pupils?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. This is a two-year scheme that started only in 2014, and the current cohort is the first to qualify. Applications by eligible candidates are up, and over 140 former troops are now working in schools across England as part of the scheme.

It is clear that teachers are not being listened to with regard to the fiasco over the forthcoming SATs—standard assessment tests—as two excellent teachers communicated to me. They also said that the Department for Education is putting children off learning English and maths properly. When will the Minister listen to teachers, listen to children, and change this approach?

We do listen to teachers, and we consulted very widely on the new primary school curriculum that was published in final form in 2013 and came into force in 2014. It is on a par with the best maths curriculums for primary schools from around the world. We have very high expectations and we do not apologise for that. We need to make sure that pupils leaving our schools are able to compete in a modern world—able to survive and thrive in a modern economy such as Britain’s. That is our ambition, and I wish the Liberal party would share it too.

At Education questions on 7 March I asked the Minister for Schools about the £35,000 income threshold for non-EU nationals and how it would impact on the recruitment and retention of STEM-qualified teachers. He told me that there was an ongoing consultation with the Home Office, but no new announcements appear to have been made on this issue. Will he answer my question today: what steps has he taken to ensure that qualified teachers will be exempt from the £35,000 threshold on earnings?

The consultation is ongoing and we will report to the hon. Lady and the House in due course.

There is undeniably a crisis in teacher recruitment in schools. I warn the Minister that it is not confined to schools but is starting to affect early years provision too, and hitting it hard because there is no coherent early years career pathway and no set pay scale, with some providers paying wages for only 35 weeks a year. How can the Government possibly hope to improve quality in early years when they are doing their level best to put people off joining the profession?

We are not putting people off joining the profession, and we are expanding the early years sector. We acknowledge that when we have a strong economy it is a challenge to recruit highly qualified and highly able people. That is the case in this country, and it is the same in other successful economies around the world. We are doing a huge amount to encourage more professionals to come into the profession. We have a very effective advertising campaign. We have very generous bursaries right across the system; we are spending £1.2 billion on those bursaries. This is working, because we recruited 94% of our target to teacher training last year and we have record numbers of people in teaching. What we do not do, as the hon. Lady and Labour Members are doing, is talk down the profession, because, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, teachers tell us that talk about a recruitment crisis helps to deter people from coming into the profession; it does not encourage them to do so.

Parental Involvement: Academies

5. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that parents have more influence in the running of their children's schools when those schools become academies. (904621)

11. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that parents have more influence in the running of their children's schools when those schools become academies. (904627)

Many parents are governors and make a significant contribution to our schools, and we want this to continue, but that is not the only way we want parents to engage in schools. That is why our White Paper outlined our intention to place a duty on academies to engage meaningfully with parents, introduce parental satisfaction surveys, and set up a new parent portal to help parents to navigate the school system.

I am extremely fortunate to have many parents in my constituency who are engaged in local schools. Many have approached me recently because they have been concerned by recent reports that their voice, position and influence may be diminished if all schools are turned into academies. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that that is not the case?

I pay tribute to the many thousands of parents who already play a valuable role on school governing bodies. It is vital that schools and governing bodies listen to the views and the voices of parents, and we want academies to engage meaningfully with them. I know that that is happening, for example, in my hon. Friend’s constituency at Crawshaw Academy, where parents are invited to half-termly information evenings to comment on academy policies and to share their views with senior leaders. In a recent parent survey, 78% of respondents reported that they felt consulted and able to contribute to the academy’s development.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the voice and the skills of parents are greatly valued in our schools? Will she further clarify how their voice and their skills will continue to play an important part in governing bodies when a school becomes an academy?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Involving parents in governance and really listening to the views of parents are not necessarily the same thing. That is why I want academy boards to appoint parents for their skills and experience, and to set up parent councils or other appropriate arrangements to engage parents meaningfully and to represent their views to governing bodies.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that she is rethinking her White Paper in relation to parents, and that she will reconsider whether they should be consulted over the academisation of our schools and their role as school governors?

I do not need to rethink, because we are very clear about the important role that parents play as governors, through parental surveys and through parental engagement. The hon. Gentleman also appears, in the second part of his question, to be fighting a fight that we fought in the Education and Adoption Act 2016, which is now part of the law and which set out the clear role for parents to be involved when a school becomes an academy.

Perhaps the Secretary of State can explain a little more clearly and slowly, particularly to some of her colleagues on the Conservative Back Benches, who are gently asking her to think again about this point. Parental accountability is quite an important part of school life. In what circumstances does she envisage that removing that role of governance in a school from parents will be a good thing?

First, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should be insulting Conservative Members, who perfectly well understand the important role of parents as governors. For the avoidance of doubt, let me speak slowly and clearly to him. We are not suggesting, and never have suggested, that parents should not be on governing bodies.

I have had many parents contact me about the key stage 2 SATs that are going to be examined in the next two weeks, and I have also been contacted by the headteachers of schools. Even though this has been in place since 2014, there is some concern. After the exams, will my right hon. Friend meet me and talk over any concerns that may come up?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter. As the Schools Minister has said, we have raised the bar in relation to the key stage 2 tests that are happening, but the important reason for that is to make sure that our young people have the basics of the reading, writing and maths that will help them to progress in life. We know the difference in GCSE results between key stage 2 pupils at the end of primary who get to the expected level in reading, writing and maths, and those who do not. That can hold people back for life, and that is not fair.

Children’s Social Work Sector

6. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy and quality of provision in the children’s social work sector. (904622)

May I begin by apologising if I am moving unusually slowly and gingerly to and from the Dispatch Box this afternoon? I have the excuse of having run the London marathon yesterday, along with seven other Members of the House and close to 40,000 other hardy individuals. I ask the House to put on record our collective gratitude to and admiration for them, in particular for the more than £25 million that they raised for hundreds of charities up and down the country.

It is the role of Ofsted to assess the adequacy and quality of provision in the children’s social work sector. All local authorities are currently being inspected under the single inspection framework, which assesses arrangements for child protection services for looked-after children and the leadership, management and governance of children’s social care. My Department intervenes to support improvement in services where they are judged to be inadequate.

The hon. Gentleman is a hero, but too modest to point out that he has run marathons on a number of previous occasions; because he is too modest I will do it for him.

I thank the Minister for his response. As he well knows, social work is a holistic profession. For example, when I qualified I had knowledge across all social work disciplines, such as mental health, child protection and adult social care, ensuring that I was able to fully grasp all the issues facing my clients. Will he therefore explain why his Government are investing in Frontline and Think Ahead to the detriment of traditional, more holistic university courses, and are creating specialisms in silos, which is bad for the profession and even worse for the clients?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady has given a distorted view of the work being done to improve social work practice across the board. Not only are the Government investing in fast-track graduate schemes such as Frontline and Step Up to Social Work, to which 151 local authorities have signed up, but we have the assisted and supported year of employment and the new knowledge and skills that every children’s social worker will now have to be accredited and assessed against. That is important because for the first time there is a relentless focus on high-quality social work practice rather than a simple theoretical understanding of social work. We need to get that balance right, and that will be at the heart of our social work reforms.

St Monica’s Catholic Primary School in my constituency has had five consecutive outstanding Ofsted reports. It has a fantastic headteacher, teachers, pupils and parents. Can the Minister tell me what benefit there is to forcing that school to become an academy?

I would answer the question, but I am not sure that it has any relevance to the original question asked by his hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck).

The hon. Gentleman wished to give the Minister his views, which he has done, but now that he has I am afraid his question is not really suitable for a ministerial answer at this time.

Special Educational Needs and Disability Services

The 2014 special educational needs and disabilities reforms represent the biggest change to the system in a generation, helping to transform support by joining up services across education, health, and social care, and focusing on positive outcomes for education, employment, housing, health and community participation. We have invested heavily in practical and financial support for implementation, including an extra £80 million in 2016-17, and from May 2016, all areas will be inspected by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but I have been contacted by a constituent who has raised concerns about the potential effect that forcing schools to become academies will have on her autistic son in terms of his being marginalised. Will the Minister tell me what assessment has been undertaken of how forcing schools to become academies will affect disabled children?

I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to give her a lot more detail about exactly how the system operates. I can reassure her that, under the Children and Families Act 2014 and the new special educational needs system, academies have exactly the same duties to pupils with special educational needs as all other schools, and must co-operate with their local council, whether in developing their local offer or publishing details of their SEN provision. That will not change. We are confident that it is the right approach so that every child gets the right school with the right support for them, irrespective of what type of school that is.

Does the Minister agree that one of the most egregious elements of today’s unfair and broken school funding system is that which affects children with special educational needs, and will he confirm that, like the schools block, the special needs block will be part of the review, so that we can have a transparent and fair system for all children?

My hon. Friend, the former Chair of the Education Committee, is right to point out that the high needs funding element of the dedicated schools grant has, over time, become extremely skewed with regard to finding the formula to distribute that important money for the support of children with special educational needs and disabilities. In December 2015 we announced an additional £92.5 million for the high needs element, but we need a fairer system so that every child has their needs met, irrespective of where they are in the country. That will be part of the consultation.

The ring-fenced nature of the schools block under the London schools funding proposals needs no flexibility. This year, the Hounslow schools forum agreed to transfer £7 million to the high needs block to address the needs of vulnerable children. The Secretary of State’s proposals for London will result in a huge funding shortfall for special needs. What will the Secretary of State do to address the very great concern of parents and headteachers?

I reiterate that we want a funding system based fairly and squarely on meeting children’s individual needs. We have consulted widely right across the sector, as well as through the public consultation, to ensure we achieve just that. I will certainly consider what the hon. Lady says about London—as well as the situation across the country—so that every child can benefit from the new system as we move forward.

If I may pick up on funding for special schools, Wyvern Academy in my constituency looks after children who are particularly physically and mentally disabled; so much so, in fact, that other schools that do the same work pass them on to this school. The funding, however, does not recognise the high level of care that is needed. Will the Minister consider this matter in any funding formula reform? If I write to him, perhaps he could help me to find out whether there is a pot of money somewhere to help this excellent school to continue to do a wonderful job.

We know that many children have profound needs. In making sure we have educational excellence everywhere, we must ensure that they have the opportunity to learn, grow and develop into successful adults. To do so, we need to ensure that they are well supported. That is why, through the new education, health and care plans, it is clear there has to be co-operation right across education, social care and health to provide the money and support those children need. I am, of course, happy to talk further with my hon. Friend to establish how the system is working in his constituency and how we can make it work better in the future.

Ever since the Government announced the ham-fisted academisation of all schools, there has been growing opposition, as we have heard, from parents, teachers, SEN charities, Tory council leaders, such as the leader of the West Sussex Council, and even Mr Goddard from “Educating Essex”. The plans will adversely affect the education of children with special educational needs and disabilities. Will the Minister further explain what the Government are doing to alleviate those concerns? Will he go as far as to say that parents of a child with an education, health and care plan will be able to name their school, and ensure that children with SEND do not go on to be excluded or fall through the gaps in the increasingly fragmented school system the Government are creating?

The hon. Lady knows I have a real fondness for her. We enjoyed our time together on the Children and Families Bill in those halcyon days of 2013, but I have to say—I suspect she has been put up to it—that this does not sound like her question. I am confident, as she will be, that the law we both helped to take through this House reflects properly what I said in an earlier answer: that academies have to abide by the same rules as other schools when it comes to children with special educational needs. The law is clear. This is why we are bringing in, for the first time, an inspection regime for special education needs, so we can see a really clear picture of how they are performing.

Maintained Schools

9. If she will make it her policy that maintained schools be given the choice of whether to become academies. (904625)

Academies reject the old one-size-fits-all approach, and are more dynamic and responsive to performance and the needs of local areas. In the next six years, schools will have time to make choices and to set in place arrangements that will work for them, either as standalone academies or in multi-academy trusts, including diocesan trusts and operating in local clusters.

It will by now be clear to the Secretary of State that Conservative Members, not just Opposition Members, believe schools should have some choice in whether they become academies. Headteachers of excellent primary schools say they have more autonomy with their local authority than they would as members of a multi-academy trust. Surely enforced compulsion from Whitehall of this change cannot be the right way forward.

Ofsted data for the latest inspection results of all schools show that 350,000 children now study in sponsored academies rated good or outstanding. Let us look at the example of an academy in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Langdon Academy, a special measures school in East Ham, opened as a fast-track sponsored academy on 1 January 2014. Over a year later, it has gone from 45% of pupils getting A* to C to 57%. Those are achievements that I want all young people to have access to.

Conversion to academies is improving the education of children throughout the country, and it is right that we make this opportunity available to all children. However, concerns have been expressed about the impact that this policy will have on small schools, particularly in a place such as Cornwall, where we have many small schools. Has my right hon. Friend considered that one of the ways of addressing those concerns would be to allow local authorities to be involved in the running of multi-academy trusts?

My hon. Friend will know that we published a White Paper in order to make sure that we talk to Members in all parts of the House, as well as to local authorities. Like my hon. Friend, I want all young people to have the best possible start in life. We know that academies make a difference. We also know that small schools can benefit from working together in clusters, including the 15 schools in Cornwall that converted to academies together as one group last week to provide mutual support. I look forward to continuing my conversations with my hon. Friend.

Luton has the highest-performing schools in the eastern region of England and most of the town’s schools remain in local authority control. When will the Government undertake an objective analysis of why some schools do better than others, and accept that this has nothing to do with academy status?

We know from the international evidence that the more autonomy those on the frontline have—heads, teachers and governors—the more they take responsibility for the results that are achieved. I want the good schools in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to share their expertise with other schools that are not yet so good. That way we have a strong education system, which is what I as Secretary of State for Education and this Government want to be available for everyone.

In Fareham, primary schools such as Hook with Warsash Church of England and St Anthony’s converted from maintained schools to academies and saw their results improve, surpassing the local authority average. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this policy represents an opportunity for Hampshire, which performs well as a local authority, to get involved and create a mass to enable more autonomy and improvement overall?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we can see that the results in primary sponsored academies, for example, which have been open for two years have improved by an average of 10 percentage points, which is double the rate of improvement in local authority schools. She is right to say that there are many talented individuals working in Hampshire local authority and I hope they will take advantage of the new system as well.

Post-16 Education and Training

10. What discussions she has had with education providers on area-based reviews of post-16 education and training provision. (904626)

I wish I could claim to have run the London marathon, like my hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families. I went on only a two-mile run this morning and it nearly finished me off. To answer the hon. Lady’s question, I have regular meetings with post-16 education providers about area reviews and all the issues that those throw up. I am also holding meetings with hon. Members once area reviews produce recommendations for any changes in provision in their area.

A particular concern of my constituents is mergers between colleges and the potential for young people in rural and suburban areas such as mine to be forced to travel long distances to get to college. What funding would be available from the Department for students forced to travel further as a result of closure or amalgamation of their courses? Would the Department consider reinstating the education maintenance allowance?

The hon. Lady will be aware, first, that any of the recommendations that come out of an area review that might include proposals for a merger have to be accepted by the colleges themselves. They are independent corporations. In my constituency I also have a very sparsely populated area with towns 25 miles apart so I understand full well the issues surrounding travel to course provision. Colleges can use funding, including the bursary funding, to contribute towards transport costs, but it is ultimately up to the college to decide whether it thinks that move is going to be good for it and its students.

Will my hon. Friend update the House on the position of area-based reviews of colleges which are in special measures? At the same time as colleges are being encouraged to merge, inspectors and the people involved are not allowing such mergers to take place.

I am not aware of the particular case that my hon. Friend refers to. If he wants to write to me, I would be happy to meet him to discuss it. In general, we do not want mergers to be rushed into before an area review has had a chance to look at the provision in a whole area, but we do not want to stop institutions making arrangements that help them address problems, so I am happy to look into the situation with him.

The Government want to promote apprenticeships in post-16 training and colleges, yet the proportion of apprentices with learning difficulties or disabilities decreased from 11% to 8% between 2010 and 2013. With the area reviews ongoing, an Ofsted report has just said that

“monitoring and evaluation of FE and skills provision for high needs learners…were ineffective.”

How effectively will the interests of young people in those positions, and those of children on the autism spectrum, be addressed, especially if area reviews force them to travel further to study in new environments? Will the Minister specifically guarantee decent outcomes for young people with disabilities?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important question. I recently had an excellent meeting, facilitated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller), with groups representing deaf people, and I will shortly be holding a round table with groups representing people with other kinds of disability. It is essential to ensure that everyone can benefit from the opportunity of apprenticeships and other forms of technical education, and we are determined to do that.

Academies

17. How she plans to implement the proposed requirement for all primary and secondary schools to become academies. (904633)

15. What steps her Department is taking to support academies through the creation of multi-academy trusts. (904631)

We expect all schools to be academies, or have plans in place to convert, by 2020 and all schools to be academies by 2022. By setting out our clear expectation for full academisation now, we can give schools, local authorities and dioceses the opportunity to plan effectively for a sustainable future and ensure that no school is left behind. We have set aside funding to support a high-quality, fully academised school system, including over £500 million available this Parliament to build capacity.

I support academies where people want them, but there is nothing worse than a top-down reorganisation of a public service for political, rather than sound policy, reasons. In response to a written question from me earlier this month, the Department confirmed that deficits for schools that convert will remain with the local authority. In my borough, over half of our schools will have deficits by 2017. How can the Government justify transferring this burden on to local councils, when it is their own funding of schools that is to blame?

I read the hon. Gentleman’s recent letter to the Ofsted lead for the north-west, Chris Russell, and I share his ambition to improve standards of education in Greater Manchester, but it is not a top-down reform; it is devolution in its purest form that gives control of schools to the professionals on the frontline. That is what this is about. He should be supporting the measures because they will raise academic standards right across our schools system.

This morning, I visited Springfield Primary School, in my constituency, which is run by the most dedicated professionals I have ever known—I had the privilege to teach there myself for the best part of a decade. They tell me that it is more than adequately supported by the Conservative local education authority in Trafford, and in Mike Freeman it has a brilliant LEA Labour councillor and school governor. Will the Minister join me in praising the school for all it does in my constituency and explain to it why its model, which is really good, needs to be changed?

We do not want the model under which that school operates to change; we want the school to take the model it uses to raise standards and teach children well, despite the loss of the hon. Gentleman as a teacher, and to spread that excellence to other schools in the area. That is the essence of the academies programme. It is about ensuring that every local school in every part of the country, beyond Trafford, has a good local school. That is the ambition. I hope he shares it.

I recently visited Jerry Clay academy, in my constituency, which has seen huge improvements under the leadership of the head, Tracy Swinburne. We should ensure that academies that have benefited from strong leadership are recognised and that they can support other schools through the creation of multi-academy trusts. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating her and the academy on their success and inform me what steps the Government are taking to ensure that those in leadership positions in trusts are strong and effective?

I am pleased that the headteacher of Jerry Clay academy is exploring the possibility of joining a multi-academy trust. The regional schools commissioner has discussed the matter with the school and continues to support it as it considers the opportunity. We are supporting leaders of trusts to succeed in their vital role through programmes such as the successful multi-academy trust chief executive programme and the academy ambassadors programme, which have resulted in over 190 experienced business leaders joining trust boards.

We have now exceeded the time available for the Minister’s exam, and we come now to topical questions.

Topical Questions

Last week, I had the pleasure of marking the 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, watching a live stream of “The Merchant of Venice” at Lings primary school in Northampton—a school serving a disadvantaged area with 55% of its pupils getting free school meals. The inspirational headteacher there has shown how all pupils, regardless of their backgrounds and experiences, can develop an appreciation of and a love for great literary works. We want to encourage more pupils to experience Shakespeare, as countless previous generations have before. That is why the national curriculum requires all pupils to study at least three complete Shakespeare plays while they are at school.

We Conservative Members all welcome the Government’s decision to introduce a fairer funding formula for schools. Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that the particular needs of our rural and coastal schools will form part of the new formula so that children in my constituency are not disadvantaged under the current formula simply because of an accident of geography?

The fair distribution of funding is a priority for this Government. As we have already heard, fair funding will ensure that every school is allocated funding fairly and transparently according to need. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the formula we propose includes a lump sum payment for every school, with extra sparsity funding to support our smallest and most remote schools so that every child can access an excellent education.

This weekend, the Conservative-led County Councils Network added its very strong opposition to the Secretary of State’s plans to force all schools to become academies, adding to that already expressed by the National Association of Head Teachers, the Association of School and College Leaders, parents, the National Governors Association, leading names in the academies programme such as the chief executive of the Harris Foundation and the Freedom and Autonomy for Schools National Association, as well as a growing number of her own Back Benchers. It is hardly a list of what she might call—or, in fact, what she just called—the vested interests. Can she therefore clarify today for those who have these very serious concerns whether she will bring forward legislation to force good and outstanding schools to become academies against their wishes?

I have already set out very clearly our desire to make sure that every child gets the best start in life. We believe that academies, as the House has heard from other Conservative Members, are absolutely the right vehicle for innovation on curriculum, pay and freedom for headteachers. I wonder whether the hon. Lady in her vocal opposition has taken account of the writer on the Labour teachers blog, who said that

“we have people on the left describing thousands of schools, in fact a majority of secondary schools, and the hundreds of thousands of teachers who work in them, in terms that are so unjust as to be deceitful.”

Is that how the hon. Lady wants to be taken?

Order. I simply point out to the Secretary of State that she is not responsible for what is written on Labour blogs and that there is a shortage of time on topical questions. We must press on, without extraneous matters being introduced.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State may not appreciate what a huge amount of upheaval, uncertainty and, frankly, panic she has caused by her announcement. Headteachers are already facing huge challenges trying to work around her botched new SATs tests, her massively behind-schedule new GCSEs and her real-terms cuts to school budgets, and those heads need and deserve more clarity from the Secretary of State than we have heard so far. Let me remind the right hon. Lady that she already has powers to turn underperforming schools into academies and that good and outstanding schools can already choose to convert, so the only remaining power she needs to deliver her objectives is to force any good or outstanding school that does not want to become an academy to do so. Is it still her intention to ask Parliament for these new powers—yes or no?

I have been very clear that I will not be the Secretary of State who leaves undone the job of making our school system as strong as possible for the benefit of all pupils. I hope that as she visits schools up and down the country, the hon. Lady includes visiting those that are already taking advantage of the new academy freedoms. Amanda Bennett from the Greetland primary academy in Halifax said, for example:

“As an academy we have had the freedoms to explore the specific needs of the children in our care—so our curriculum progression, pitch and expectations are able to adapt when we want them to, to respond to our changing needs. This has allowed us to be consistently in the top performing schools nationally.”

Conservative Members are all for improving opportunities and life chances for all children. Is it not interesting that we never hear the hon. Lady talk about pupils or standards, because she is so obsessed with one chapter in the White Paper?

T2. Digital skills are fundamental to the success of our knowledge economy, but evidence given to the Science and Technology Committee during its inquiry showed that only 35% of ICT teachers have a specialist qualification, and more than half lack confidence when it comes to delivering the new computing curriculum. What steps are the Government taking to train ICT teachers, and to ensure that we are equipping young people with the skills that they need not just for today’s workplace, but for a jobs market that may be unrecognisable in a decade? (904643)

Digital literacy is, of course, a core part of the national curriculum, and computing is a statutory subject in all four key stages in maintained schools. We are training a cadre of specialists who can cascade the knowledge that teachers require in order to be able to teach that very important subject.

T8. Charles Dickens Primary School is an outstanding foundation primary school in my constituency, which, along with the London borough of Southwark, rightly has great expectations for all Southwark students. The chair of its governors has been in touch with me to express his concern about the enforced academisation of schools. Why is the Secretary of State ignoring the concerns of staff, governors, parents and pupils? Why is she insisting on dictating a structure that offers no choice, but only the academy approach, which could damage the standard of the education that is currently provided? (904649)

I had the pleasure of visiting Charles Dickens Primary School during the last academic year. It is an absolutely brilliant school, with an inspirational head teacher. I want that head teacher not only to help, support and inspire the young people in her school, but to spread the excellence of her school to other schools in the area that are struggling. That is what we want to see in the education system. I am surprised that Labour Members are not interested in raising standards for all children in all parts of the country.

T3. Dig-iT, the dyslexia group in Tamworth, tells me that while provision can be good, it is all too often uneven across local schools. What can the Government do to maintain not just the quality of dyslexia and dyspraxia provision, but its consistency in schools in Tamworth, Staffordshire and England? (904644)

I commend the work of the dyslexia group in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can reassure him that we are investing heavily in practical and financial support for SEND—special educational needs and disability—including funds for a project run by the British Dyslexia Association to address issues such as early identification and effective provision, and funds to enable the Dyslexia SpLD Trust to provide expert advice, information and training for schools and parents. I can also tell my hon. Friend that we are procuring a new contract in 2016-17 so that we can continue to support children and young people with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties—including dyspraxia—in schools and post-16 institutions.

T10. Last year I spoke to the Minister about the difficulty of recruiting and retaining teachers in my constituency, which is partly due to its remoteness. He has talked a great deal about the recruitment of teachers, but what specifically is being done to encourage them to come to remote areas such as west Cumbria? (904651)

The National Teaching Service was established to second high-performing teachers to parts of the country with a history of recruitment problems. When a remote rural school is part of a multi-academy trust, that helps to recruit teachers, because they know that they can move, within the trust, from a rural to an urban school and back again. That makes recruitment and retention far easier.

T4. According to Ofsted, the best educational settings in the country are maintained nursery schools, of which 58% are “outstanding” and 39% are “good”. Remarkably, they perform just as well in poor areas as they do in less affluent areas. What consideration has the Minister given to allowing them to become academies if they wish to do so, in order to ensure that these great institutions continue their work? (904645)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although maintained nurseries provide only 3% of the places in early years, they offer excellent early-years education and, over the past few years, we have seen the structure of maintained nurseries evolve as a number have federated or joined multi-academy trusts. I know that my hon. Friend has a special interest in this area, and I would welcome the opportunity to meet him to discuss how we can promote the excellent work that those nurseries do.

On 20 April, the Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir Amyas Morse, provided an adverse opinion for the second year running on the truth and fairness of the Department for Education’s group financial statements. Sir Amyas said:

“Providing Parliament with a clear view of academy trusts’ spending is a vital part of the Department for Education’s work—yet it is failing to do this.”

How will the Secretary of State ensure that Parliament will be able to see whether extending academies is giving the taxpayer good value for money, when that clearly is not happening now?

I utterly refute what the right hon. Lady has just said. We have a more rigorous system for the governance of individual academies when they become academies. The issue with the Department’s consolidated accounts is a technical and accounting problem caused by academies producing accounts covering the academic year to the end of August, rather than to the end of March. We have now agreed with Parliament a new methodology for the current financial year that will better reflect the situation.

T5. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the excellent headteacher, staff, students and governors at Barnsole Primary School in my constituency, which has gone from “requires improvement” to “overall: outstanding”? (904646)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I should like to thank the head, Sean McKeown, his staff and the pupils of Barnsole Primary School for an outstanding Ofsted judgment. It is an amazing achievement to move from “requires improvement” to “outstanding”, and I was pleased to read a report describing the high-quality teaching that leads its pupils to make accelerated progress in reading, writing and maths. I hope that the school will now consider sharing its experience and expertise by forming a multi-academy trust.

The vast majority of children entering the care system have experienced abuse and neglect and are particularly vulnerable in regard to their mental health needs. Will the Minister accept the concerns expressed by the NSPCC, which I share, that if the Department does not commit to counting and tracking abused and neglected children, those children will continue to be at risk of falling through the cracks and not receiving the mental health support that they need to rebuild their lives?

I had the opportunity to appear in front of the Education Committee during its inquiry into exactly this issue, which I welcome. The hon. Lady is right to highlight the fact that this area needs a better response. That is why we have set up a joint working group with the Department of Health to create new care pathways specifically for looked-after children to improve their mental health prospects. We also have the strengths and difficulties questionnaire for children who are looked after, which is collected every 12 months, but we need to look at what more we can do to follow their progress and ensure that they really achieve what they are capable of.

T7. At the end of last week, Tresham College, which has its headquarters in Kettering, announced draft proposals to end its A-level provision. I join local parents and students in opposing those plans but, should the worst outcome be realised, will the Minister make it clear to the college that it must do everything it can to ensure that those students who have already completed one year of their A-level course will be able to complete the second year at Tresham College? (904648)

I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that the college would have a clear responsibility to ensure that those students were able to complete their A-levels at another high-quality institution, and I would be happy to work with him to ensure that it lives up to that responsibility.

Does the Secretary of State accept that all the evidence shows that being an academy is intrinsically neither good nor bad for a school’s performance? With expert opinion now lined up from the County Councils Network to the Bow Group, it is surely time to revisit this flawed plan to force schools to become academies against their will.

The hon. Lady ought to take note of Andreas Schleicher, the deputy director for education and skills at the OECD, who says:

“What our data do show is that school systems which offer a greater deal of school autonomy tend to have higher performance, but they do not say anything about trends…I view the trend towards academies as a very promising development in the UK, which used to have quite a prescriptive education system, if you look at this through international comparison”.

I think we should take note of the international evidence.

As a school governor at the Bath Studio School, which is a member of a multi-academy trust, I must declare an interest. I have seen for myself the amazing performance that is being improved as a result of being a member of that academy chain. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the continued success of academies in Bath, and does she agree that having an increasing number of good and outstanding schools will ensure that our standards match those of our international competitors?

I had the pleasure of visiting The Bath Studio School with my hon. Friend, and it was excellent and inspiring for the young people there. Some 1.4 million more children are in schools rated good or outstanding than in 2010. We intend to push on with that.

Does the Secretary of State share the concerns of parents at Audenshaw School academy trust, which has withheld £40,000 a year of pupil premium money for the past three years? Is that not the wrong intention for that money?

I am of course concerned to hear about that. The hon. Gentleman and I have had conversations about academies and schools in his constituency. He can write to me with further details, but, yes, the pupil premium money has to be spent on those most in need and has to get to the frontline.

Teachers and primary headteachers in my constituency have contacted me about the additional workload that unexpected academisation could place on them. As a teacher, I share that concern. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that time, focus, energy and morale are not lost while the White Paper is discussed and that teachers continue to do what they do best—inspire young people and children?

We have set out that schools will have six years, from now until 2022, to become academies. However, the point is that teachers should be doing what they do best, which is teaching in the classroom. Support is available for schools that want to become academies, and the heads and governors of schools will be driving that process.

Shipbuilding on the Clyde

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the Government’s plans for shipbuilding on the Clyde.

Before I answer the hon. Lady’s question, I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Captain David Seath, who tragically died after collapsing during the London marathon on Sunday. This was of course not an operational casualty, but given the interest that many hon. Members take in raising funds for charity through the marathon, as do many members of our armed forces, I thought that it was appropriate to start my response in that way. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this difficult time.

I welcome the opportunity to outline our plans for building complex warships. The Type 26 global combat ship programme is central to those plans. The strategic defence and security review restated this Government’s commitment to the Type 26 global combat ship programme. The ships are critical for the Royal Navy, and we are going ahead with eight anti-submarine warfare Type 26 global combat ships. The SDSR also made it clear that build work on Type 26 would be preceded by the construction of two additional offshore patrol vessels and that we would launch a concept study and then design and build a new class of lighter, flexible, general purpose frigates. The construction of the additional offshore patrol vessels will provide valuable capability for the Royal Navy and, crucially, will provide continuity of shipbuilding workload at the shipyards on the Clyde before construction of the Type 26 begins.

Nothing has changed since the publication of the SDSR, and over the next decade, we will spend around £8 billion on Royal Navy surface warships. We continue to progress the Type 26 global combat ship programme, and we announced last month the award of a contract with BAE Systems valued at £472 million to extend the Type 26 demonstration phase to June 2017. That will enable us to continue to work with industry to develop an optimised schedule for the Type 26 and OPV programme to reflect the outcome of the SDSR, to mature further the detailed ship design ahead of the start of manufacture, to invest in shore testing facilities and to extend our investment in the wider supply chain in parallel with the continuing re-baselining work.

Overall, the SDSR achieved a positive and balanced outcome, growing the defence budget in real terms for the first time in six years, delivering on our commitment to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence and, in the maritime sector, setting the trajectory for expansion of the Royal Navy’s frigate fleet. That growth in numbers will be achieved through the introduction of a more affordable light general purpose frigate—GPFF. The GPFF reflects a shift in the Navy’s focus and posture to delivering the strategic defence outputs of continuous at-sea deterrence and continuous carrier capability with our unique high-end warships: six Type 45 destroyers and eight Type 26 frigates. A large range of other naval tasks will be undertaken by the GPFF.

To deliver the SDSR, we must improve and develop our national shipbuilding capability to become more efficient, sustainable and competitive internationally. To that end, we announced the intent to have a national shipbuilding strategy, and I am delighted that Sir John Parker, a pre-eminent engineer and foremost authority in naval shipbuilding, has started work as the independent chair of that project. I look forward to receiving his recommendations, which will address, among other things, the best approach to the GPFF build.

I understand the strong interest in the timing of the award of the contract to build the T26 global combat ship, and I also understand that reports of delays create anxiety, but let me assure the shipyard workers on the Clyde that this Government remain absolutely committed to the Type 26 programme and to assembling the ships on the Clyde, and that we are working closely with BAE Systems to take the Type 26 programme forward, ensuring that it is progressed on a sustainable and stable footing.

More broadly for Scotland, our commitment to the successor programme will sustain 6,800 military and civilian jobs there, rising to 8,200 by 2022. As the programme progresses, an additional 270 personnel will be based at Her Majesty’s naval base Clyde. Extending the Typhoon until at least 2040, and upgrading it with the active electronically scanned array radar, will benefit RAF Lossiemouth and continue to benefit Selex ES in Edinburgh. Our new maritime patrol aircraft will be based at RAF Lossiemouth, which is ideally placed for the most common maritime patrol areas and is currently used as a maritime patrol aircraft operating base by our NATO allies. This will also lead to significant investment, and our current estimate is for some 200 extra jobs in Scotland.[Official Report, 3 May 2016, Vol. 609, c. 1MC.]

Order. I am most grateful to the Minister for his words, but I gently point out that he took more than twice his allotted time. I felt that he had germane information to impart, so I let it go on this occasion, but I cannot do so on a subsequent occasion; there are rules in this place and they must be observed. In recognition of how long it took the Minister, the hon. Lady now has slightly longer, if she wishes to take it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I, on behalf of the Opposition, also extend our condolences to the family of Captain David Seath?

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter in an urgent question, although I am deeply disappointed that the Minister had to be dragged to the House this afternoon to explain what on earth has been going on with the Government so far. The Secretary of State cannot be seen for dust. After three days of considerable uncertainty over the future of British shipbuilding, during which the Government have remained completely silent, the Secretary of State has, unfortunately, failed to clear the air. This is about a commitment to our Royal Navy and the national defence of the UK.

As a maritime nation, it is bad enough that our Navy has had its surface fleet cut by a sixth since this Government came into office. We have been promised that at least 13 new frigates will be built, but if the timetable for delivering the new frigates has slipped, the Government’s promise to maintain the Navy’s fleet at its current size is put at risk. Can the Minister answer a simple question: will construction begin this year, in line with previous commitments? He claims that the orders for the new frigates will proceed as set out in the SDSR, but it says nothing about the timetable—and the timetable is vital. The unions are now being told that this could be delayed by up to a year. Is he saying that that is not the case? Does he also deny the claims made by unions that the start of Type 26 construction has already been delayed?

The issue is not just about the Type 26 frigates. Over the past two years, the Government have repeatedly promised that all 13 of the Navy’s new frigates would be built on the Clyde—not only the eight Type 26s, but “at least” five lighter frigates announced in the SDSR as well. Can we have confirmation that that is still true today? What about the budget? There are rumours that the next two offshore patrol vessels will now come out of the same budget as the frigates, meaning that the overall budget is almost certain to fall—is that right? Has nothing changed, as the Minister says? If that is right, why has BAE Systems not denied press reports that there will be redundancies at the shipyards? If that is not the case, why are the unions being told that there will be redundancies? This is a matter of national importance for the United Kingdom. The future of hundreds of people in Glasgow hang on the Minister’s words this afternoon. Will he please answer my questions about delay, as this is a very important matter?

The Government say that they are publishing a shipbuilding strategy later this year. We have been waiting 16 months, and we are now told that a chair has been appointed. That is good, but will we get the shipbuilding strategy this year, because, frankly, at the moment, it looks like a shambles? This is not the time for weasel words such as “optimised schedules”. We need clear-cut assurances from the Government that they will honour the commitments that they have made both to local communities and to our national defences. If they do not honour those commitments, this will be yet another Tory betrayal of Scotland, which the SNP will not be able to fix. Only a British Labour Government will be in a position to safeguard the future of Glasgow’s shipbuilding industry.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for your advice at the end of my opening remarks. I will keep my response brief.

The hon. Lady is seeking to make party political capital out of a routine meeting between BAE Systems and the trade unions that took place last week and that happened to come nearly two weeks ahead of the election for the Scottish Parliament. As I said in my opening remarks, the commitment of this Government to the Royal Navy is crystal clear. We have a 10-year forward equipment plan, in which we will be investing more than £8 billion in surface ships. Where is her party’s commitment to the Royal Navy? What percentage of GDP will her party commit to spend on defence in this country? We hear nothing about that.

Let me turn to the hon. Lady’s specific questions. She asked whether construction will begin this year. As I said earlier, we placed a contract last month for a further £472 million, which takes our contract on this programme up to some £1.6 billion. That is paying for equipment sets for the first three vessels; long lead items; and shore-testing facilities. The programme therefore remains on track. We have confirmed before, and I have done so again today, that there will be eight Type 26 frigates built on the Clyde. As I have said, this is a multi-year programme that extends beyond the equipment plan. The Type 23s will be replaced by a combination of the Type 26s and the new GPFF.

The hon. Lady asked when the national shipbuilding strategy will be published. We have invited the independent chairman to ensure that his work is completed before the end of the year, and I fully expect that it will be. She asked when the timeframe for the general purpose frigates will be determined. As that is a principal part of the national shipbuilding strategy, the answer will be apparent once that strategy is published.

Since 1997, the total number of frigates and destroyers has declined from 35 to only 19. Does the Minister recognise that the lighter general purpose frigates could offer a great opportunity to reverse that decline in numbers and to create not only more platforms for the Royal Navy, but more work for the shipyards and possibly even export opportunities if the frigate is designed in the right way, which should be modular, adaptable and capable of being upgraded in service, rather than having all the accoutrements put on it from day one?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He is very knowledgeable about matters naval. He is right to draw attention to the fact that the introduction of a new and lighter class of frigate raises the prospect not only of more surface platforms for the Royal Navy, but of more exports. As far as I am aware, there has not been a complex warship exported from Clyde yards to other navies around the world for some decades. This provides us with the opportunity, through the general purpose frigate and the additional offshore patrol vessels, to give the Royal Navy, in due course, a larger physical presence and therefore to reverse the decades of decline.

I am sure that those watching will be disappointed that this urgent question descended so quickly into a Tory-Labour bun fight. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), whose question exposed the revised timetable. The reply he received confirmed what we have suspected ever since the strategic defence and security review was published last year: that this Government are creating the conditions in which to betray workers on the Clyde once again. Earlier today, Scotland’s First Minister met the unions at BAE Systems, and they expressed their grave concern that the UK Government are set to renege on the promise they made, along with the Labour party, before the independence referendum, that there would be a steady stream of work coming to the yards on the Clyde, guaranteeing employment. Just three years ago, the Prime Minister said:

“Scottish defence jobs are more secure as part of the United Kingdom.”

Given that, can the Minister confirm today that there will be no redundancies at BAE Systems in Glasgow, and will he confirm that the Ministry of Defence will stick to the timeline that has been agreed and set out?

What I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman is that, had the independence vote gone the way that he and his colleagues would have liked, no warships would have been built on the Clyde, because the United Kingdom Government would not have chosen to build them there; we made that very clear. As it is, as I have just confirmed to the House, we will be proceeding with the construction of eight complex Type 26 warships on the Clyde as and when the programme is ready.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the shadow Defence Secretary’s refusal to commit her party to the NATO target of spending a minimum of 2% of GDP on defence is a threat not only to our national security, but to key equipment programmes and investment for the Type 26?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that obfuscation on the part of the official Opposition. I draw to his attention the backlog of work ahead of shipbuilders in this country as a result of our equipment plan and our commitment to build the eight Type 26 vessels. No warship yard in Europe has the prospect of eight warships to look forward to. From that perspective, those working in those yards in Scotland can take considerable heart from the fact that they are working in our yards, rather than those elsewhere in Europe.

The Secretary of State for Defence has stated in the past that UK warships are only built in UK yards, but what percentage of the total contract value will flow to British companies, and what specific work will be given to the British steel industry from those contracts, with regard to not only the value of the orders in the supply chain, but the swift timetabling for the awarding of contracts, to help the beleaguered British steel industry now?

That is a good question, and I wish that I were in a position to give the hon. Gentleman a full answer. What I will say is that the vast majority of the contracts that have been placed thus far have gone to UK contractors. In relation to the systems and long-lead items that have been placed thus far, the contracts have gone primarily to BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce; in relation to the gearboxes, they have gone to David Brown. As far as the steel content is concerned—I know this is a matter of great interest to the hon. Gentleman—I have made it very clear previously in the House that UK steel mills will have the opportunity to bid for steel tenders that are put out by the prime contractor over the course of this programme. It will be up to the British steel industry to see whether it is in a position to match those orders for the specification and the timelines required.

Does my hon. Friend have any information on when the designation of the GP frigates will be confirmed? Will it be a Type 31, as has been rumoured in the press, and will it, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, be directed to exports? Will we be building it, or will we get ideas from outside on what the exports should be?

My hon. Friend pushes me to pre-empt the Royal Navy’s normal routine on the making of designations and, indeed, the naming of vessels—she did not ask about that, but I am regularly asked about it by colleagues in the House, who rightly like to express an interest on behalf of their constituents. I am afraid I cannot currently give her any comfort on the designation of the vessels. She is right to ask whether they will be designed with export prospects in mind. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, that is something we intend to look at, but the priority will be to meet the requirements of the Royal Navy, rather than of other navies, so the vessels will be designed to Royal Navy specifications, but with an eye on the possibility of exports to other navies.

Does the Minister have an estimate of the percentage of work on the frigates that will be carried out in Scotland? Has that changed over the last 18 months, and do the Government have an estimate of how many fewer shipbuilding-related jobs there would be in Scotland if the Scottish National party got its wish to carry out its obsession with taking Scotland out of the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman is a doughty champion of English shipbuilding capability in his constituency, which is across the border from Scotland. I do not have a figure for him—he asked what would happen with the Type 26 programme in Scotland—but our intent is to build the ships on the Clyde, in Scotland, so I do not foresee any direct change from the position we were in last year. As far as his comment on independence is concerned, he is absolutely right that there would have been an enormous reduction in the jobs in Scotland had the Scottish people decided to follow Scottish National party advice and vote for an independent Scotland. [Interruption.]

Order. Some people need to calm down. Mr Blackford, you are an extraordinary individual; you do become very excitable. I prefer your cerebral side. If you feel you can find it before the afternoon is out, the House would be greatly obliged to you. I call Tom Pursglove.

Order. We can come to points of order later. I say to Carol Monaghan that I do not know what has exercised her, but we cannot deal with the matter now. We will have points of order afterwards, when I will happily hear her. [Interruption.] There is a certain amount of gesticulation going on. Members on the Labour Benches and the SNP Benches should calm down. I will come to the point of order at the appropriate time if it is still germane. Now, we must all unite in hearing Mr Tom Pursglove.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Hartlepool, has any specific assessment been made of the impact of any delays in the programme, particularly on the British steel industry?

We have made it very clear that British Government procurement policies are being adopted by the Ministry of Defence. In all our contracts where steel is involved, we are looking to provide for contractors to ensure that British steel manufacturers have an opportunity to bid. In that respect, the only change is that there are perhaps greater opportunities since we implemented that new policy than there were before.

The workforce on the Clyde are highly skilled and motivated men and women, and I really do wish that the focus of the House this afternoon could be on preserving their futures and livelihoods, instead of on other considerations. With that in mind, will the Minister assure me that, between the end of the construction of the offshore patrol vessels and the start of work on the Type 26 frigates, everything will be done to ensure continuity, because it is in our national strategic interest to ensure that the workforce is maintained?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for focusing his question on that important subject, and I agree that the workforce on the Clyde are highly skilled; indeed, I make a point of meeting the trade union representatives of shipbuilders on the Clyde, and I did so last month. The short answer to his question is yes. The five offshore patrol vessels—three of which are in build, and two of which we added as part of the SDSR—do provide continuity between the Type 45s and the aircraft carrier blocks, as they finish being produced on the Clyde, and the beginning of work on the Type 26s.

I welcome the news of the new-build ships. We still do not have enough, but we are going in the right direction. May I ask that no HM ships currently serving be withdrawn before and until any new ship is built and commissioned?

I think my hon. Friend is referring to the Type 23 class of frigates. The Royal Navy’s intention is that the new vessels replace Type 23s on a like-for-like basis as they come out of service.

When the Prime Minister visited BAE in February last year, he stated that the contract for the Type 26 frigates would secure jobs on the Clyde for the next 30 years. The delays in this contract now threaten the very jobs that the contract should secure. Will he tell the workforce when they should expect to cut steel on the first Type 26?

I can tell the workforce that, as I have told their trade union representatives—I also said this to the hon. Lady when she visited me last month—we have a programme for the Type 26, the offshore patrol vessels and the subsequent general purpose frigate that will secure jobs for the shipbuilding workforce in this country, especially on the Clyde, for decades to come. This is the biggest shipbuilding forward programme we have had in this country for a number of years, and that should reassure the highly skilled workforce that they will have jobs for decades to come.

With quality jobs and apprenticeships being secured at David Brown engineering in Huddersfield, which is producing the gears for the Type 26 frigates, will the Minister assure me that as we move forward with the general purpose frigate programme the northern powerhouse will be a major part of that programme?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the gear box work for David Brown, which, as I said earlier, has secured long-lead contracts last month. The benefit of the Royal Navy shipbuilding programme is not confined to Scotland; it affects constituencies right across this country, which is just as it should be. When contracts are placed, we will seek to highlight to hon. Members the work we will be providing in their constituencies for their constituents.

Amid the politics, perhaps the House could remember the estimated 800 families for whom, with their livelihoods at risk, this is a very worrying time. Will the Minister confirm that the promised investment in upgrading the shipyards will still go ahead?

I hope that some of the remarks I made earlier will provide some reassurance to the families of those who work on the Clyde. Part of the contracts we have already signed with BAE Systems will help to provide shore test facilities both on the Clyde and through the supply chain, so some investment is going into facilities. The overall level of facilities investment will be part of the overall contract, so I cannot update the hon. Lady further at this point.

Our Type 45 destroyers have world-class capability, but they cost £1 billion each. One of the reasons they cost more and took longer to build than we thought they would is that they kept being redesigned after construction had started, and we now learn that there have been major problems with the power plant. Will the Minister assure the House that these mistakes will be avoided with the Type 26 frigates?

My hon. Friend makes a really valuable point. There is no doubt that before starting the construction of a complex warship, it makes an enormous difference if the design is more complete than otherwise. He is right to point out that the Type 45 programme began with a less advanced design than the Type 26 will have, and we hope we are learning lessons from that. We have certainly learned lessons in relation to the power and propulsion, and we will have a different system.

As someone with the privilege of representing the Govan shipyard, may I first tell the Minister that a meeting between an employer and trade unions, with 800 jobs at risk, is not “a routine meeting” by any standard? I hope he will reflect on his earlier remarks. Will the Minister confirm that the original date for cutting steel for the Type 26 was May 2016, and will he explain the reasons for the delay? Finally, what message does the Minister have for the trade unions and the workforce on the Clyde, who view the national shipbuilding strategy with suspicion and as an attempt to reduce the role of shipbuilding on the Clyde? Are the fears of the workforce unfounded, or is that another betrayal that is still to come?

It is very unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman, who represents his constituents well—I have been pleased to meet him at the yard in the past—uses words such as “betrayal”, because that does not characterise what is happening. We are making commitments to build the Type 26 for several years ahead. I cannot, I am afraid, give him an update on the date for cut steel, as that will emerge from the programme work that is yet to be finalised. It is wrong to suggest that people should be fearful of the outcome of the national shipbuilding project, which seeks to put the rollercoaster ride of shipbuilding in this country in recent years on to a firm and stable footing so that there is clarity for the next decades. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says, “That is what they think”, so perhaps I can help him by saying that the objective of the national shipbuilding strategy is to align the Royal Navy’s requirements, which stretch out for many years ahead, with the capability to maintain in this country the high-quality engineering skills that, at present, reside primarily on the Clyde in his constituency.

I very much second the comments made about the importance of using UK steel in these products, unlike in many recent Ministry of Defence projects. I want to ask the Minister two very specific questions: will there still be five general purpose frigates, and where will they be built—on the Clyde or elsewhere?

The hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see what emerges from the national shipbuilding strategy. The intent is that by having a more affordable design we are able to do some of the less high-tempo tasks that the Type 26 will undertake. That should allow the Royal Navy to have more than five frigates. I can confirm that the intent is to replace the Type 23s on a like-for-like basis as between the Type 26 and the general purpose frigate, with the potential for there to be more. He will have to wait to see what emerges from the national shipbuilding strategy with regard to the timetable and the location.

As ever at this time of year, there is much reminiscing over the UK’s defeat of Argentina. Given that that took a taskforce of 42 Royal Navy ships, does the Minister really expect us to believe that a fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers is sufficient for a Navy with the strategic ambitions outlined in the 2015 SDSR?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that part of the strategic ambition is fulfilled by the two primary battlegroup capabilities: continuous at-sea deterrence and the continuous carrier capability. I can absolutely reassure him that the military assets in place on and around the Falklands are of an order of magnitude greater than they have been in previous times, particularly compared with 1982, so the notion of having to send a flotilla of the type that was sent at that time would not be required in the event of a threat to the Falklands today.

Shipbuilders on the Clyde are very skilled, as are those on Merseyside, and they share having experienced the threat of redundancy over many years. Will the Minister confirm that the Government’s now-delayed shipbuilding strategy, once we have it, will cover the supply chain in all parts of this country, wherever marine engineering skills reside?

The objective of the national shipbuilding strategy is to look at the manufacture of complex warships. As part of that, there are, as the hon. Lady says, significant capabilities across the country through the supply chain. We are not expecting a detailed review of all elements of the supply chain, but I take her point and will reflect on it in my conversations with Sir John Parker.

I asked in July about the building of Type 26 frigates, when it had been reported that the order process could be fragmented to bring to it what the Government called “realism”. With this uncertainty, exactly what kind of realism are the Government looking to bring? Does the Minister not think that the workforce on the Clyde deserve to hear, specifically and clearly, exactly what work will be available and when?

The hon. Lady will have to have a little more patience. The way in which major procurements of this nature take place means that it is not appropriate to set hares running or, frankly, to be alarmist about the prospects for individual companies or locations. Until such time as a contract has been signed, there is not the clarity that the hon. Lady seeks to achieve.

The 2015 SDSR gave an explicit commitment to the eight Type 26 frigates being built on the Clyde. Given that the workers at Govan and Scotstoun also heard that there would be 12 Type 45 destroyers, and then that there would be eight, before finally being given work for six, does the Minister wonder why the Clyde workforce are unsure about MOD promises? On that basis, can he categorically confirm that eight Type 26s will be built there?

The hon. Lady needs to speak to those who were in post when the decisions were taken to reduce the Type 45 class. That was certainly not done under this Government. We made it crystal clear in the SDSR that eight Type 26 global combat ships would be built on the Clyde. In response to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), may I say that that is the reassurance that the workforce on the Clyde need? This is a forward programme, the like of which, during the past six years under the previous coalition Government, we had not been able to implement: now we can.

The Minister has spoken about the role of steel in the frigates and other key pieces of procurement that the MOD will be undertaking, but I was not particularly comforted by his comments on the role that procurement will play in this case. Can he confirm that local content and local value will play a key role when decisions are made about procuring steel?

As the hon. Gentleman knows—he may well have been an expert on the subject for a long time, but he is certainly something of an expert now—steel of the specification and standards required for naval warships is not available in many of the routine runs of, for example, plate steel provided by UK suppliers. That is why there have been different proportions of UK steel content in different types of military platforms. The offshore patrol vessels, for example, have a thinner plate than that which is currently available from any of the mills in the UK, which is why no UK mills chose to bid for the steel content that has been contracted thus far. I cannot tell him whether there is capability at this stage for the Type 26 steel requirements, but I have made a commitment that we will invite steel manufacturers to understand what those capabilities are and give them an opportunity to bid.

The Minister said earlier that he is still confident that the Department’s orders will provide job security for decades to come, but that will be of little benefit to anyone who is made redundant between now and when the Department makes up its mind what it is going to do. May I ask him again the question that he has not so far answered: will he give a commitment that there will be no compulsory redundancies on the Clyde as a result of these delays?

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman and to the workforce on the Clyde is that we have, through the SDSR and again today, made a commitment to build eight Type 26s on the Clyde. That will provide work for the highly skilled workforce on the Clyde for many years.

There is a growing sense of anger and frustration on the Clyde, and many of those hard-working and highly skilled workers are starting to feel as though they have been used as constitutional pawns. What does the Minister say in response to the secretary of GMB Scotland, who said that the UK Government’s recent actions in the Clyde are

“a total betrayal of the upper Clyde workforce”?

I find it hard to characterise a commitment to build eight complex warships on the Clyde as a betrayal. That is what we did in the SDSR and it has not changed.

Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, has today written to the Prime Minister saying:

“The BAE yards on the Clyde require a cast iron commitment from your government that you will deliver the contract as promised, with the full scale up of the workforce without any risk to employment at the yards.”

Will the Minister recommend that the Government reply positively to that request?

I am sorry to have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the risk to employment on the Clyde would have arisen if the people of Scotland had followed his advice and chosen to vote for an independent Scotland. Thankfully, they did not, and as a result hundreds of people are still working in shipbuilding on the Clyde.

In a debate such as this, language is extremely important. In his response, the Minister has stated that ships would be “assembled”, and, at one point, “constructed”. To clarify and put it beyond doubt, will he tell the House, and those in my constituency who work in the shipyards and those represented by my hon. Friends, that that will include fabrication, and that the process will be in the yards from beginning to end, not somewhere else?

I encourage the hon. Gentleman to spend a little more time in the yards on the Clyde to understand how components and systems are an integral part of the capability of building a complex warship. Fabrication is an important part, but much of the value and content comes from introducing weapons command and control systems, which are not built on the Clyde. Fabrication is done there, as is integration, and that will continue to be undertaken there.

On 4 April 2013, the Prime Minister said that Scottish defence jobs were

“more secure as part of the United Kingdom.”

Does the Minister realise how ridiculous that now sounds?

I have to repeat to the hon. Gentleman that we have committed to build eight Type 26 complex warships on the Clyde. Had the people of Scotland voted for an independent future, we would not have made that commitment.

Order. After a little time to simmer down, I hope that the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has now acquired the poise, gravitas and serenity to which he should aspire.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, but perhaps, like the workers on the Clyde, we on the Scottish National party Benches are beginning gently to simmer. I reflect on the Minister’s words: he said that the demonstration phase is now going to continue to June 2017. Is the cat not now out of the bag—he is putting back the construction process? Why does he not give a guarantee to the workforce that their jobs are safe? We can all now reflect on what Better Together meant—duping the people of Scotland once again.

I am not sure that the simmering has really calmed the hon. Gentleman down. As I have said, we have made a clear commitment to build eight Type 26s on the Clyde, providing high-quality jobs. That would not have been the case had the people of Scotland voted for independence.

Points of order come after statements, and there are a number of statements. That is the way in which we deal with these matters, and that is how it will be handled today.

Junior Doctors Contracts

We have many choices in life, but one thing over which we have no control is the day of the week that we get ill. That is why the first line on the first page of this Government’s manifesto said that if elected we would deliver a seven-day NHS, so we can promise NHS patients the same high-quality care every day of the week. We know from countless studies that there is a weekend effect showing higher mortality rates for people admitted to hospital at weekends. The British public know that, too. Today, we reaffirm that no trade union has the right to veto a manifesto promise voted for by the British people. We are proud of the NHS as one of our greatest institutions, but we must turn that pride into actions. A seven-day service will help us to turn the NHS into one of the safest, highest-quality healthcare systems in the world.

This week, the British Medical Association has called on junior doctors to withdraw emergency care for the first time ever. I will update the House on the extensive measures being taken up and down the country to try to keep patients safe. But before I do so I wish to appeal directly to all junior doctors not to withdraw emergency cover, which creates particular risks for A&Es, maternity units and intensive care units.

I understand the frustration that many junior doctors feel that, because of pressures on the NHS frontline, they are not always able to give patients the highest quality of care that they would like to. I understand that some doctors may disagree with the Government about our seven-day NHS plans and, in particular, the introduction of a new contract. I also understand that doctors work incredibly hard, including at weekends, and that strong feelings exist on the single remaining disagreement of substance: Saturday premium pay. However, the new contract offers junior doctors who work frequently at weekends more Saturday premium pay than nurses, paramedics and the assistants who work in their own operating theatres, and more than police officers, firefighters and nearly every other worker in the public and private sectors.

Regrettably, over the course of this pay dispute 150,000 sick and vulnerable people have seen their care disrupted. The public will rightly question whether this is appropriate or proportionate action by professionals whose patients depend on them. Taking strike action is a choice. If they will not listen to the Health Secretary, I urge them to listen to some of the country’s most experienced doctors—Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, Professor Dame Sally Davies and former Labour Health Minister Lord Darzi—who have all urged doctors to consider the damage it will cause to both patients and the reputation of the medical profession.

Let me today address some of the concerns raised by junior doctors: first, that a seven-day NHS might spread resources too thinly. The Government’s financial commitment to the NHS has already seen a like-for-like increase of 10,700 more hospital nurses and 10,100 more doctors. Despite the pressure on national finances, last year’s spending review committed the Government to a £10 billion real-terms increase in the annual NHS budget by 2020. I can today tell the House that by the end of the Parliament the supply of doctors trained to work in the NHS will have increased by a further 11,420. While it is true that pressures on the NHS will continue to increase on the back of an ageing population, we are not saying that the current workforce will have to bear all the strain of delivering a seven-day service, even though, of course, they must play their part.

Secondly, there is a concern that the Government may want to see all NHS services operating seven days a week. Let me be clear: our plans are not about elective care, but about improving the consistency of urgent and emergency care at evenings and weekends. To do this, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has prioritised four key clinical standards that need to be met. These are: making sure patients are seen by a senior decision maker no more than 14 hours after arrival at hospital; seven-day availability of diagnostic tests with a one-hour turnaround for the most critically ill patients; 24-hour access to consultant-directed interventions, such as interventional radiology or endoscopy; and twice daily reviews of patients in high dependency areas such as intensive care units. About one quarter of the country will be covered by trusts meeting these standards from next April, rising to the whole country by 2020.

Thirdly, there is the concern that proper seven-day services need support services for doctors in the weekends and evenings, as much as doctors themselves. Less than half of hospitals are currently meeting the standard on weekend diagnostic services, meaning patients needing urgent or emergency tests on a Saturday or Sunday, such as urgent ultrasounds for gallstones or diagnostics for acute heart failure, face extra hours in hospital at weekends or even days of anxiety waiting for weekday tests. Our new standards will change this, with senior clinician-directed diagnostic tests available seven days a week for all hospitals by 2020.

Finally, there is a legitimate concern that a seven-day NHS needs to apply to services offered outside hospitals if we are properly to reduce the pressure on struggling A&E departments. So, as announced last week, the Government’s seven-day NHS will also see transformed services through our GPs. We are committing an extra £2.4 billion a year for GP services by 2020-21, meaning that spending will rise from £9.6 billion last year to over £12 billion by 2021—a 14% real-terms increase. Thanks to this significant investment, patients will see a genuine transformation in how general practice services operate in England. By 2020, everyone should have easier and more convenient access to GP services, including at evenings and weekends. We will not be asking all GP practices to open at weekends to deliver this commitment, but instead using networks of practices to make sure that people can get an evening or weekend appointment, even if not at their regular practice. We have committed to recruiting an additional 5,000 doctors to work in general practice to help meet this commitment, and we will support GPs in this transformation by harnessing technology to reduce bureaucratic burdens.

Returning to the strikes, the impact of the next two days will be unprecedented, with more than 110,000 out- patient appointments and more than 12,500 operations cancelled. However, the NHS has made exhaustive preparations to try to make sure that patients remain safe, and I want to thank those many people in NHS England, NHS Improvement and every trust in the country who have been working incredibly hard over this weekend to that effect.

I have chaired a series of contingency planning meetings, bringing together the operational response across the entirety of the NHS and social care systems. From this, NHS England has worked with every trust to ensure that they have plans in place to provide safe care, with particular focus on their emergency departments, maternity units, cardiac arrest teams and mental health crisis teams. As part of their duties for civil contingency preparedness, trusts also have major incident plans in place which are ready to be enacted if required. NHS England has also asked GP practices and other primary care providers in some areas to extend their opening hours so that patients can continue to get the important but non-emergency care that they need, such as follow-ups and assessments.

Finally, we have set up a dedicated strike page on the NHS website to provide as much information as possible to the public on local alternatives to hospital care, where these alternatives are, and when they are open. This website is now live and can be reached at www.nhs.uk/strike. The NHS 111 system will also work as normal during the strike, and has been provided with additional staff to cope with expected increased demand. We would encourage people who are concerned that they may need urgent care to visit this website, and call 111 in advance of showing up at an A&E department.

The NHS is busting a gut to keep the public safe. However, we should not lose sight of the underlying reason for this dispute, namely this Government’s determination to be the first country in the world to offer a proper patient-focused seven-day health service. To help deliver this, the NHS will this year receive the sixth biggest funding increase in its history. But it is not just about money, as we know from the mistakes of previous Governments. It is also about taking the tough and difficult decisions necessary to make sure that we really do turn our NHS into the safest, highest-quality healthcare system in the world. This Government will not duck that challenge. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Health Secretary for the advance copy of his statement.

Tomorrow’s strike is one of the saddest days in the history of the NHS, and the saddest thing is that the person sitting opposite me could have prevented it. Yesterday the Health Secretary was presented with a genuine and constructive cross-party proposal to pilot the contract. That would have enabled him to make progress towards his manifesto commitment on seven-day services and, crucially, it could have averted this week’s strike. Any responsible Health Secretary would have grasped that opportunity immediately, or at least considered it and discussed it, but not this one. Yesterday morning he tweeted “Labour ‘plan’ is opportunism”. That was a deeply disappointing and irresponsible response.

Let me remind the Health Secretary that the proposal was not a Labour plan, but was co-signed by two of his respected former Ministers, the Conservative hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) and the Liberal Democrat right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), and the Scottish National party’s health spokesperson, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). Let me also remind him that it had the support of several medical royal colleges, including the Royal College of Surgeons, and, crucially, that the BMA had indicated it was prepared to meet the Government to discuss calling off Tuesday and Wednesday’s action.

The Health Secretary claimed yesterday that a phased imposition was the same as a pilot. Will he explain how imposition on a predetermined timescale, with no opportunity to right the wrongs of his proposed contract and no independent assessment of its impact on patient care, is the same as a pilot? Why is he so afraid of an independent evaluation? Why does he not want to know how changing the contract contributes in practice to meeting his aspirations for more consistent emergency care across the seven days of the week? And why is he so determined to railroad this contract through, with all its associated implications, instead of road-testing it and working with junior doctors and hospital bosses to bring about the changes in patient care and outcomes he wants to see?

The Health Secretary claims that any further delay means it will take longer to eliminate the so-called weekend effect, but he has failed to produce a shred of evidence to show how changing the junior doctors contract alone will deliver that aim. He will know that the very person he appointed to lead his negotiations, Sir David Dalton, has said that the staff group that needs to change its working patterns the least to deliver seven-day care is junior doctors—because they already work weekends, nights and bank holidays.

The Health Secretary rightly talked about safety. NHS England’s update today said the NHS was pulling out all the stops to minimise the risks to the quality and safety of care this week. We know that in many cases senior staff will be stepping in to provide cover and ensure the provision of essential services, but there is no escaping the fact that this is a time of unprecedented risk, and he should have thought about that yesterday, before dismissing a plan that could well have averted the strike.

The Health Secretary wants to be remembered as the person who championed patient safety, but safety is not just an issue this week; it will be an issue in the months and years ahead. Long after his tenure in Richmond House is up, it will be the people who work in the NHS who will be picking up the pieces of this dispute, and they are rightly worried about the long-term safety implications of the proposed contract. How can it be safe to impose a contract when no one knows what the impact will be on recruitment and retention but everyone fears the worst, and when he is running the risk of losing hundreds of female doctors, given the contract’s disproportionate impact on women? Even if just 1% of junior doctors decide enough is enough and leave the NHS, they will be people we can ill afford to do without.

How can it be safe to impose a contract that risks destroying the morale of junior doctors, given that the NHS does not just depend on the good will of staff going the extra mile but survives on it? The Health Secretary is breaking that good will. How can it be safe to introduce a contract when there is no guarantee that effective and robust safeguards will be in place to control hours worked and shift patterns? A pilot could have addressed these issues, which is precisely why it had the backing of so many people.

I suspect that when the Health Secretary gets back to his feet, he will launch another attack on me and the Labour party to detract attention from his culpability for tomorrow’s action. I know this because last week, instead of working to resolve this dispute, the Health Secretary was busy writing me a two-page letter that he briefed to The Sun, asking whether I would be on a picket line.

Let me deal with this matter now in the hope that we can get some constructive answers from the Health Secretary. No, I will not be on a picket line tomorrow or on Wednesday, but that is not because I do not support the junior doctors’ cause, and it is certainly not because I feel even an ounce of sympathy for the Health Secretary. It is because I think patients affected by this dispute want to see politicians working together to find a constructive solution—and that is exactly what I was doing last week, while the Health Secretary was penning his pathetic political attacks.

I am flattered that the Health Secretary attaches such significance to my actions, but the truth is that it is his actions, and his actions alone, that can stop this strike: not me, not the Labour party, but him. If he ploughs on, I warn him now that history will not be kind to him. It will show that when faced with a compromise, the Health Secretary chose a fight; that when presented with a way out, this Health Secretary chose to dig in; and that when asked to put patients first, this Health Secretary chose strikes.

The way in which the Government have handled this dispute is the political equivalent of pouring oil on to a blazing fire. Even if we put to one side the legal question about his authority to impose a contract and the detail of the contract provisions, the simple truth is this: there is no trust left between the people who work in the NHS and this Health Secretary. He can barely show his face in a hospital because he ends up being chased down the road. This is a deeply, deeply sad day for the NHS, and even at this eleventh hour, I urge him to find a way out.

The shadow Health Secretary can do better than that. She talked about the judgments that I have made as Health Secretary, so I will tell her what is a judgment issue—it is whether or not you back a union that is withdrawing life-saving care from your own constituents. Health Secretaries should stand up for their constituents and their patients, and if she will not, I will.

The hon. Lady also talked about the trust of the profession. The Health Secretary who loses the trust of the profession is the Health Secretary who does not take tough and difficult decisions to make care better for patients—something we have seen precious little evidence of from the hon. Lady or, if I may say so, her predecessors.

The hon. Lady also talked about putting oil on a blazing fire. What, then, does she make of the shadow Chancellor’s comments recently when he said:

“We have got to work to bring this Government down at the first opportunity…Whether in parliament, picket line, or the streets, this Labour leadership is with you”?

Yes, it is with the strikers, but also against the patients. Labour should be ashamed of such comments from the shadow Chancellor.

Let us deal with the substance of what the hon. Lady said. She talked about her proposal for pilots. If this was a genuine attempt to broker a deal between all the parties, why was it that the first the Government knew about it was when we read The Sunday Times yesterday morning? The truth is that this was about politics, not peace making. If she is saying that we should stage the implementation of this contract to make sure we get it absolutely right, I agree. That is why only 11% of junior doctors are going on to the new contract in August. She says she wants more independent studies into mortality rates at weekends, but we have already had eight in the last six years, pointing to the weekend effect. How many more studies does the hon. Lady want? Now is the time to act, to save lives, and to give our patients a safer NHS.

The hon. Lady talked about legal powers, which we discussed in the House last week. The Health Act 2006 makes very clear where my powers are to introduce a new contract, either directly or indirectly, when foundation trusts choose to follow the national contract.

I have given very straight answers today. Will the hon. Lady now tell us yes or no? Will Labour Members now tell us yes or no? Do they or do they not support the withdrawal of life-saving care from NHS patients? Last week, the hon. Lady’s answer was “no comment”. Well, “no comment” is no leadership. Labour used to stand up for vulnerable patients, but now it cares more about powerful unions. It is the Conservatives who are putting the money into the NHS, delivering a seven-day service for patients, and fighting to make NHS care the best in the world.

There are only losers in this bitter dispute, but those who have the most to lose are patients and their families. Tomorrow people will visit hospitals to see those whom they care about more than anything in the world, and will ask themselves why the doctors on the picket line are not inside looking after the people they love. May I ask the British Medical Association directly whether it will show dignity, put patients first, and draw back from this dangerous escalation? May I ask all sides, whatever provocation they may feel, to put patients first in this dispute?

My hon. Friend has spoken very wisely. She recently wrote, in The Guardian, something with which I profoundly agree: she wrote that there could have been a solution to this problem back in February, when a very fair compromise was put on the table in relation to the one outstanding issue of substance, Saturday pay.

I understand that this is a very emotive issue. The Government initially wanted there to be no premium pay on Saturdays, but in the end we agreed to premium pay for anyone who works one Saturday a month or more. That will cover more than half the number of junior doctors working on Saturdays. It was a fair compromise, and there was an opportunity to settle the dispute, but unfortunately the BMA negotiators were not willing to take that opportunity. I, too, urge them, whatever their differences with me and whatever their differences with the Government, to think about patients tomorrow. It would be an absolute tragedy for the NHS if something went wrong in the next couple of days, and they have a duty to make sure that it does not.

I welcome the absolute commitment that the Secretary of State has given today that this is only about seven-day emergency care, because in the past he has often seemed to move between elective and emergency care. However, Sir Bruce Keogh has criticised the imposition of the contract, and has said that what has lost consensus across the profession has been the conflation of the need for a robust emergency service over seven days with the junior doctors’ contract, when junior doctors already work seven days.

I think that people have also been upset by the use of statistics without analysis. It is not a case of extra deaths at the weekend, which suggests poor care, but a case of extra deaths among people who were admitted at weekends within 30 days.