I beg to move an amendment, at the end of the Question to add:
“but respectfully regret that the Gracious Speech contained proposals to enable further increases in tuition fees; believe that there should be no further increases in tuition fees; and further believe that no good or outstanding school should be forced to become an academy.”.
I am reeling from the prospect of public hair playing and from considering whether we should have a rule against it in this House.
Last Wednesday, we saw the age-old ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament. It was all done with the usual pageantry, and it was timed and executed to perfection as we have all come to expect. The only flaw was the one thing over which Her Majesty has absolutely no control, and that is the actual content of the Gracious Speech. When the Speech was finally unveiled, after all the build-up and ceremony, it was yet another anti-climax. It outlined a mere 21 Bills—this from a majority Government barely one year into their five-year term of office. They are running out of steam before our eyes.
We could sense the dismay on the Government Benches. The Speech was hastily described as “sparse”, “bland”, “threadbare”, “pretty thin gruel”, “uninspiring”, “managerial” and “vacuous”, and that was the verdict of the Government’s own underwhelmed Back Benchers. Others were less diplomatic. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), so recently a senior Cabinet Minister, called it “watered down”, blaming a Government who have surrendered to the “helter-skelter” of the EU referendum campaign. Former Tory Cabinet Minister Michael Portillo was even more scathing about the first majority Conservative Government elected since 1992. He told Andrew Neil:
“After 23 years of careful thought about what they would like to do in power, and the answer is nothing.”
The introduction of the national living wage is a con, because it is not a living wage. An increase in wages is obviously welcome, but it does not apply to those who are under 25. The national living wage describes itself as something that it is not, so we have a healthy degree of scepticism about how useful it will be.
Does the hon. Lady consider as “nothing” fairer funding for our schools, which will affect many Members not only on the Government Benches, but on the Opposition Benches? The Labour party once supported this policy. What is its position now?
I certainly agree that quantity is not all. I will come on to some of the detail of those Bills as I make progress with my speech.
Michael Portillo went on to say:
“The Government is in total paralysis, because the only thing that matters to the Government now is the saving of the Prime Minister’s career”—
“winning the referendum.”
In what will be a damning epitaph of this Tory Administration, he said that the majority that the Prime Minister secured last year is “all for nothing”. He said:
“The Government has nothing to do, nothing to say and thinks nothing.”
We have this “nothing” Queen’s Speech before us. We have a few eye-catching announcements designed to distract attention from the emptiness of the Government’s programme. We were presented with the possibility of driverless cars on our roads in four years’ time and even private spaceports, but there is still no sign of a decision on the much more pressing issue of airport capacity for the travel that millions must now undertake.
We were told that there would be a legal right to access digital broadband, but there is no clear route to resolve the scandal of this Government’s total failure to provide adequate digital infrastructure for all. Despite being the fifth largest economy, we still languish at 18th in the world for broadband speed.
Perhaps it is a sign of just how toxic things are in the Conservative party that even this self-described “uninspiring, managerial and vacuous” legislative programme has already caused yet another Tory Back-Bench rebellion.
The Government have already caved in by agreeing to an amendment to the motion which will exempt the NHS from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. We on the Labour Benches have long called for the Government to exempt the NHS from trade deals, and we are glad that they have now agreed with us.
It is interesting to see what this divided shower of a Government are now able to agree on. The only things on which they seem to be able to unite are flogging off valuable public assets such as the Land Registry, which actually makes us money, and unleashing the full force of the market in higher education. This rebellion on TTIP follows other Government U-turns and defeats on areas such as: forced academisation; cuts to tax credits for the low paid; cuts to personal independence payments for the disabled; pension tax relief reform; the solar tax; the tampon tax; Sunday trading; watering down the fox hunting ban; closing the wildlife crime unit; scrapping their own criminal courts charge; welcoming some child refugees to this country; and housing. The list does not even include the Chancellor’s latest Budget fiasco, which remains unresolved, and seems to be a £4 billion hole in its arithmetic.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I am surprised that, six minutes into her speech on the subject of education, skills and training, she has failed to mention that the first paragraph of the Queen’s Speech was about life chances. Given that the Queen’s Speech talks about education in prisons, when we know that half of the young people in prison have no education at all, a fairer funding formula for schools and social care, it is clear that it has some real substance.
I will get on to those points, but this is a debate on the entirety of the Queen’s Speech, and I am entitled to say what I like about any little bit of it. The hon. and learned Lady can make her own speech if she catches the Speaker’s eye, and I will thank her if she lets me make mine. I am here to make the point that I want to make, and I intend to do so.
The emptiness of the current Conservative agenda outlined in the Queen’s Speech is apparent in the public relations hyperbole that accompanied its announcement. Once more, we have to “mind the gap” between rhetoric and reality. Although the Government boast about their credentials as a “one nation Government”, they are cutting support for working people and giving the richest a tax cut. They think £450,000 for a starter home is affordable, and they are doing nothing effective to solve the housing crisis or the problem of soaring rents. They boast of a life chances agenda, as indeed the hon. and learned Lady has just done, but this is what is happening in 2016 in Tory Britain: homelessness is soaring; millions are forced to resort to food banks just to eat; Sure Start centres are closing; the attainment gap is widening between different areas of the country; and millions more are struggling to see their doctor, and cuts to funding mean that that is likely to get worse.
The Prime Minister’s self-proclaimed life chances agenda is either a joke or a con. How do the Tories improve life chances by abolishing student maintenance grants for the poorest, increasing tuition fees and barely mentioning further education colleges in their plans? How do they create opportunity by underfunding education and constantly fiddling with school structures while ignoring low morale, the chronic teacher shortages and the growing pressure on school places? The Government’s proposals for improving life chances must be judged in the context of their funding settlements for education, as I mentioned earlier. The 16-to-19 age group has seen a real-terms fall of 14% in its funding provision since 2010, and education capital spend has fallen by 34%.
I hesitate to interrupt such an enthusiastic and positive speech. The hon. Lady is having a busy day. Perhaps she would be kind enough to rally a little support for the Hereford university project, which will deliver the life chances that I know that she and I can unite in supporting.
The hon. Gentleman should invite me to come and visit the university. We can go together so that I can see what is going on in Herefordshire.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that there is likely to be an 8% fall in funding per pupil between now and 2020 in the schools sector, after a modest 0.6% rise in funding per pupil in the previous Parliament. It cannot be said that I do not put the figures accurately on the record and give the Government credit where it is due—0.6% for the first five years of the coalition, and minus 8% for the next period. Both adult and part-time education have seen huge falls in numbers participating because people cannot afford to pay.
One of the things that this Government are trying to do through their new Bills is to introduce new universities, which will give so many more people an opportunity to get the education they need. Students across the country are concerned about the current threat to our universities, with unions going on strike and disrupting teaching and exams. One of my daughters is about to take her finals. Does the hon. Lady agree that such strikes are not acceptable behaviour?
The first thing to say is that some of the threats are from the so-called new providers, which are untried and untested. We will have to look closely at the detail of the Bill when it is debated, and I am sure we will talk about that aspect.
By the way, I would like to acknowledge the fact that the Minister for Universities and Science has taken the place of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who is on his way to Mumbai to help talk to Tata about the crisis facing the steel industry in our country. It is about time. I wish the Secretary of State all the best with the work that he is doing. It is a pleasure to welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box in his stead.
There is nothing in this Queen’s Speech on the growing funding crisis affecting schools. There is no mention of adult up-skilling, which is a particularly difficult omission. Without action in these areas, we will not tackle the critical skills emergency which is holding back our economy. Unfilled vacancies have risen 130% since 2011, with skills shortages accounting for over a third of unfilled vacancies in key industries.
I thank the hon. Lady, not least for once describing me on the Floor of the House as a Eurosceptic martyr. On skills and technical and vocational education, why does she think it has taken a Conservative Government to open a new university technical college in Peterborough—it is opening in September—whereas in benign economic times we saw under Labour massive increases in youth unemployment and the young people who did not want to go to university left on the sidelines?
I am glad to see that despite being a Eurosceptic martyr, the hon. Gentleman is still alive and kicking and doing his thing on the Tory Back Benches. It was the Labour Government who started university technical colleges, and I am glad that he will have one in his own area. He is being rather churlish in talking about our record, when we created the university technical college concept.
The Government have a very large target for apprenticeships, but 30% of those starting do not finish the course, and 96% are level 2 or 3 apprenticeships, with very low numbers attaining higher degree level apprenticeships. I understand and recognise that level 2 and 3 are very important to attain, but even more important for the future health and wellbeing of our economy is expanding the higher degree level apprenticeships, and quickly.
My hon. Friend will remember that in the previous Parliament I introduced a private Member’s Bill, the Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement Contracts) Bill. Is not a real opportunity being missed? With public procurement and major engineering projects in particular, we ought to be getting more bang for our taxpayers’ buck, with proper, decent, high-quality advanced and further level apprenticeships tied into those procurement contracts.
I could not agree more. I am an admirer of my hon. Friend, especially as I have seen the recent pictures of him abseiling down a very tall building, so my admiration has grown even more. His Bill was an extremely good one. It is important that the Government think much more carefully than they have done to date about how they can tie in the money that they spend on public procurement with skills creation. The Business Secretary will have to do that if he is to deliver a prosperous future for British steel, and he should think about doing it in many more areas. There is a taboo that needs to be broken.
I am afraid I do share that worry about the very large quantitative target that the Government have set and, by all accounts, want to pass. When I talk to business, which I do regularly up and down the country, that obsession with quantity rather than quality causes some real worries. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us today that he has ways of dealing with that. I have come across some extremely dubious practice, if I may put it that way, in relation to the term “apprenticeship”. I am glad that the Enterprise Act 2016 has closed that loophole. We now need to see pretty effective enforcement or we will carry on seeing misuse and abuse in that area.
Does the hon. Lady accept that social clauses within public sector contracts, which have worked very effectively in Northern Ireland and Scotland, could be used much more widely? They do not contradict EU rules so that excuse cannot be used, and they could be a way of ensuring that public money is used to ensure that the country’s skills base is increased.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. It is right that social clauses in procurement contracts have an important role to play. I make one observation, which I have made over my time in Parliament: those involved in public procurement can be very risk-averse. All too often they do not think about the extra things that they can get out of the money that the Government are spending and committing to particular projects, and they often use the excuse of EU procurement rules as a reason for not being creative enough in the way that they pursue procurement.
No one argues with the stated aim in the Higher Education and Research Bill of widening access and participation in higher education. That is what we all want to see. However, the Opposition object strongly to the approach that the Government have taken in both the White Paper and the accompanying Bill. The Business Secretary appears to believe that the solution to widening participation is to inject market forces into the provision of higher education, allowing new untried, untested providers to start up, achieve degree-awarding powers and secure university status, and he wants to force students to pay for it all through higher tuition fees.
My hon. Friend is making a really excellent speech. Does she agree that these reforms to higher education and this deregulation put at risk the excellent reputation of UK higher education institutions internationally—a reputation that helps us to attract so many international students to this country?
There is, if I may call it this, a “brand issue” with particular suggestions in the White Paper and the Bill. Again, the Opposition will want to study in great detail, and ask a lot of serious questions about, the potential consequences of what the Minister has suggested in the White Paper and the Bill.
There is absolutely no evidence that such competition will lead to higher standards or a better solution for students; indeed, it is likely to entrench privilege and elitism even more in the system. The proposal before us in the Queen’s Speech deregulates entry to what the Government clearly now see as a market in higher education. As my hon. Friend said, that is taking a gamble with the UK’s international reputation for providing the highest standards of degree education. It also means that any student studying at one of these probationary degree-awarding institutions—whatever they are going to be—will be taking a very personal gamble too. It is unclear what will happen if it all goes wrong or who will pick up the pieces.
After trebling tuition fees to £9,000 a year, the Government now wish to raise them again. They have chosen to remove the cap on tuition fees and to tie the capacity to raise fees to very dubious proxies for what they have called “teaching excellence”. Nobody objects to teaching excellence; it is like motherhood and apple pie, except that motherhood and apple pie are a lot easier to define. We can see motherhood, fairly obviously, and we can see apple pie—usually we have cut it open to check there are no blackberries in it—but it is a lot harder to know what teaching excellence is.
The Government have chosen various proxies, such as graduates’ subsequent employment records, student retention and satisfaction surveys. There are many reasons why people have good or bad subsequent employment records, and many of those have absolutely nothing to do with the teaching excellence of the schools or universities those people attended. For example, some people with disabilities are routinely discriminated against in our labour market, and is difficult for them to have a successful subsequent employment record. That may have absolutely nothing to do with the way they were taught or with the excellence of that teaching.
Likewise, many women have very different subsequent employment records from what they might have had if they had not left work early to have a family. It is also well documented that those from the black and ethnic minority communities are discriminated against in our labour market. When one looks at the figures, it is clear that many people from those communities who have exactly the same qualifications as others are discriminated against and have less successful subsequent employment records. So using subsequent employment as a proxy for teaching excellence already begins to break down.
I have talked to Universities UK, and it has grave concerns and reservations about the route the Government are taking—for some of the reasons I am outlining now. Of course Universities UK will work with the Government—it has a White Paper in front of it, and there will be a Bill on the Table of the House, which it will want to make the best it can be—but I would not take that kind of endorsement for blanket agreement.
Does the hon. Lady also agree that it will be difficult to sell the concept of higher fees for students when many universities have not got to grips with the inflation in salaries at their higher levels? Many students will simply see fees as a means to fund huge wage increases for people at the top of universities.
The hon. Lady is being very generous with her time. In circumstances where we know that one of the biggest single factors affecting the education of children and young people is the quality of teaching, does she agree with the principle that it is appropriate to ensure that we have excellence in teaching and that we improve teaching if we can?
Yes, but I am talking about how we measure excellence and what it means. If the hon. Lady were so concerned about the excellence of teaching, she would be looking at Sure Start and what is happening with early teaching. She would also be looking at the problems we have with teacher recruitment and at a range of other things. Nobody in the House disagrees with the concept of teaching excellence; the question is how one defines and measures it, and that is what I am trying to deal with now.
We have talked about subsequent employment. The other two proxies the Government have chosen are student retention—that is reasonable—and satisfaction surveys. Again, there are reasons why a student is not satisfied with an institution that may have nothing to do with whether it teaches in an excellent way. A lot more work will probably have to be done on these proxies if they are to have any meaning whatever. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, because the concept is very dubious at the moment.
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), many people have given evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee inquiry into the teaching excellence framework. Many of the university vice-chancellors who gave evidence were very clear that they wanted to work with the Government to make sure that they can prove and improve their institutions’ teaching excellence, but they need more time to make sure that the metrics that are chosen are the correct ones. Does my hon. Friend agree that that would be a more sensible way forward for the Government?
I do. The Select Committee report outlines the sector’s worry that the reforms are being rushed in keeping with a timetable that does not actually reflect best practice. A lot of vice-chancellors and others in the sector are extremely worried about the implications of that.
The hon. Lady has made an argument about teaching excellence. As someone who taught in university for six years, I can tell her that there was really very little ambiguity in student satisfaction surveys even 15 years ago as to whether someone was doing a decent job of teaching, and there is even less now, given all the other modes of feedback. Even if that was not the case, we would be able to tell what was happening from the aggregate of these surveys, quite irrespective of any particular anecdotes she might be able to tell. There really cannot be much doubt, therefore, that teaching excellence can be evaluated, and it is quite proper that, if it can be, it should properly be included in an evaluation for student fees.
I am saying not that it cannot be included, but that the proxies the Government have chosen have given cause for concern, and I have tried to explain why. We have to think about how this works through, and I will be interested in what the Minister has to say about that.
Well, let me finish this point first.
If the Minister is not careful, he could end up with a range of results he does not want. There could be paradoxical disincentives for excellence. People who always find it difficult subsequently to get a job in the labour market may become less attractive as students to certain institutions because of the way these measurements are used. That would be a really backward step for the opportunities and life chances of large numbers of people who are already suffering disadvantage in our society. The hon. Gentleman should at least recognise that that is a possibility with some of these measurements.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kindness. As a consequence of her argument, it would be impossible to assess the teaching at, for example, the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, because it teaches disabled people who may suffer in their future life chances, yet no one doubts that that institution can properly evaluate, and indeed it does an excellent job.
As I understand the White Paper, this also about competition between universities, and there are some paradoxical results there that I would be worried about if I were interested in widening, not narrowing, opportunities. I think the hon. Gentleman ought to accept that.
I am trying to follow the point that the shadow Minister is making. Obviously it is important that the metrics and the process of the teaching excellence framework is right and appropriate, but just as with the research excellence framework, we will go through a process of getting to that point. That is why the White Paper states very clearly that this will be phased in and piloted, and recognises that there will be an important process of consultation and feedback. It is therefore not entirely clear to me why she is expressing the concern that the TEF is going to be imposed with no consultation.
It is partly about speed. I think that the REF took six years to get into place, and this is all due to be done from a standing start in a couple of years. We have to get it right or there will be consequences that nobody on either side of the House would want to see.
I do not want to get into a Second Reading debate on the Bill—that is probably not wise. I want to get on and finish my speech. I have tried to take a lot of interventions, and it is only fair to those who want to speak in the rest of the debate that I get to the end of my speech.
Education should not be about shackling a generation with yet more debt but about unleashing their talents to build a brighter future. That is why Labour Members understand that while there is a cost to higher education, we cannot allow market forces to let rip through our world-leading universities. If these changes went ahead, it is likely that by the end of this Parliament fees will have risen to £10,000 a year and poorer students could face bills of up to £55,000 just to study for a normal three-year degree. That is unacceptable. Labour will oppose the lifting of the cap and continue to argue for a fairer settlement for students.
I now turn to the Government’s education for all Bill. We all know that this was not the education Bill the Prime Minister wished to include in the Queen’s Speech. Just weeks ago, he assured us that it would contain measures to force every school to become an academy against their wishes. Since then, we have witnessed a humiliating climb-down as the Government finally woke up to the fact that their plans were entirely unacceptable to parents, teachers, and the wider public. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) has done a fantastic job in her Front-Bench position in pointing that out to the Government. Labour Members welcome this U-turn, and we will continue to challenge the Government on their fixation with the forced academisation of good or outstanding schools.
We support the principle of moving towards a fairer funding formula, although it is essential that measures are put in place to assist the areas that are set to lose out. However, a new funding formula cannot disguise that fact that, over this Parliament, school budgets face the highest real-terms cut since the 1970s. It seems that the Government’s response is not to address the escalating shortage of teachers and school places in their Bill, but to continue down the path of forced academisation. This has nothing to do with improving life chances but shows a Government with a rather dangerous obsession with structures at the expense of standards—a Government who are ideological at the expense of our children’s future.
On the Children and Social Work Bill, we will of course support measures to protect and create opportunity for the most vulnerable children in our society. We will look closely at the detail of this Bill and the proposals the Government are putting forward. We need to ensure that when action is taken, it is high quality, has proper oversight, and has the needs of children at its heart. Labour Members are clear that child protection services should never be run for profit. So far, this Government have failed to provide adequate adoption support. Local authorities are being starved of resources, putting further strain on children’s services and social workers. Every child deserves a fulfilling upbringing that provides a path into adulthood—on that we all agree—and we have a moral duty to tackle abuse and neglect wherever we see it.
This is a Government who have ground to a shuddering halt just one year after they were elected. They are a Government becalmed by a referendum of their own making, too consumed by their own poisonous infighting to present a compelling vision for our country. The Prime Minister is contradicted by his own junior defence and employment Ministers, and the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) is taking time off from his “blunder-bus” tour to offer the keys to No. 11 to at least three different people. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the Minister for Universities and Science is one of them; we know of three, but there might be more. No doubt he will tell us whether the hon. Gentleman has approached him when he gets up to speak. This is a Government who resort to PR stunts and gimmicks, and we will call out their behaviour for what it is.
As the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) said, the Secretary of State is not with us today because he is in Mumbai, where we would want him to be, attending the board meeting of Tata and fighting for the interests of the UK steel sector. He would want to be here to champion this Queen’s Speech and to expose some of the shortcomings in the arguments we have just heard. I will not dignify the suggestion that the quality of a Queen’s Speech can be measured by the number of Bills in it. We are an avowedly deregulatory Government, and we legislate only when it is strictly necessary. Even if it were a reasonable benchmark, it is worth noting that 21 Bills is more than the average of 18 Bills per Session that we have seen over the past decade—but we are not going to go there.
This Queen’s Speech puts opportunity and life chances through education at the top of the legislative agenda. It ensures that every child goes to an excellent school and that schools are funded fairly, wherever they are; delivers high-quality, employer-led apprenticeships that provide a clear route to employment for young people. The hon. Member for Wallasey talked about quality, and it is worth noting that all apprenticeships must be paid jobs, with substantial training lasting at least 12 months, that develop transferable skills and lead to full competence in an occupation. A high-quality university place should be put within reach of everyone with the potential to benefit. We have made huge progress since 2010, with 1.4 million more young people attending good or outstanding schools, 2.4 million apprenticeships created, and record application rates to university. This Queen’s Speech is the next step in our long-term plan for our economy.
As I said, we are committed to a high-quality, employer-led apprenticeship programme in which apprenticeships must be paid jobs with substantial training opportunities that will equip people to take on the full responsibilities in that particular occupation.
In Macclesfield we were very fortunate, only last year, to see AstraZeneca, a major employer, take on 30 apprenticeships in some of the most important areas of life sciences in our constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that this approach, with colleges taking a keen interest in relevant local businesses, is the way to establish more apprenticeships and take this important initiative further forward?
Indeed, I certainly agree. Employers are at the heart of the Government’s apprenticeship drive and are continuing to drive up quality by designing new apprenticeship standards that provide the skills that young people need. High-quality apprenticeships will be embedded further, with the future establishment of the institute for apprenticeships, and Ofsted will also ensure that providers continue to deliver the high-quality training expected.
I am going to make some progress.
In her White Paper, “Educational excellence everywhere”, my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary sets out this Government’s plan to drive up educational standards in England. The Government’s goal is to achieve a school system where every school is an academy by 2022, so that excellent teachers have the freedom to give their pupils the best start in life.
My right hon. Friend has made it clear that we have listened and will not take blanket powers to force good schools in strong local authorities to become academies, but we will include provisions to convert schools in the lowest-performing areas and where local authorities are unable to guarantee their continued success. We will consult carefully on how those local authorities will be identified, and Parliament will have further opportunities to debate our proposals. That is the basis of the important proposed legislation that my right hon. Friend will present to Parliament.
As somebody who has been involved in setting up two academies and who remains chair of governors of one academy, I know full well that academy status can be a powerful tool for school improvement, but it is not the only tool. Interim executive boards, investment in teaching and a new curriculum are all other tools. Why is the Minister so obsessed with one tool at the expense of all the others?
I point the hon. Gentleman to the White Paper, which has one chapter on structures, while all the others are on other relevant aspects of what makes for a great school, including teaching, management and governance.
Turning to our universities, in the last Parliament we put in place the essential funding reforms that have set university finances on a stable footing and enabled us to lift student number controls.
As well as increasing tuition fees, the Government propose to extend them to students of nursing, midwifery and allied health subjects. Given that this is the biggest shake-up in funding for those subjects since 1968, will the Minister give a commitment that those changes will be made in the higher education Bill, so that this House can have a full debate and vote on that specific measure?
We are delighted that we are able to put nurse NHS bursaries on the same footing as measures that have enabled a widening of participation in higher education in recent years. It will enable us to address the shortages that have arisen in the nursing profession as a result of the current system. Our funding reforms have enabled us to lift the number controls that have been affecting the nursing profession. We committed in our manifesto to ensuring the continued success and stability of those reforms. We also committed to ensuring that universities deliver the best possible value for money to students, and we said that we would introduce a new framework of incentives to recognise universities offering the highest quality of teaching. The Higher Education and Research Bill, which was introduced in the Commons last week, will deliver on those and other manifesto commitments.
Until this month, Suffolk was one of the only counties in the country without an institution that could technically be described as a university. May I, therefore, offer the Minister my profound thanks, and that of my county, for giving permission for the creation of a brand new University of Suffolk? Will he congratulate all those who have worked for it and join me in wishing them well for the future?
I happily join my hon. Friend in congratulating the new University of Suffolk. It is terrific that one of four counties in this country that did not have a full university now has one. There are three other counties and we hope to encourage new institutions of similar quality to the University of Suffolk to come to the higher education cold spots that we have inherited.
In that spirit, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on his great leadership on the new university project in Herefordshire, which is now under way? The aim is not only to transform higher education in my county and to create extraordinary economic potential, but to innovate across the country as a whole by tying together academic and vocational education, and by using resources to create greater employability. That is being done with the support of Warwick University and Olin College in America. Does my hon. Friend share my view that, in order to make that vision happen in cold spots, it is really important not just for central Government to give a lead, as he has done in the White Paper, but for local government grants, central Government guarantees and private money to come together as single whole?
We are delighted to support that great new venture—a new model in technology and engineering—in Herefordshire. It addresses several long-standing problems, including skills shortages in engineering. Herefordshire is an HE cold spot. We welcome the venture and its collaboration with world-leading institutions in the United States, such as Olin, and we want to see more such institutions. I applaud my hon. Friends the Members for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) and for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), who has left the Chamber, for their tireless work in championing the new institution.
England’s universities rank among the best in the world. They generate the knowledge, skills and attitudes that fuel our economy and sustain our open society. The world of higher education, however, has changed fundamentally since the last major legislative reforms of 1992 and our system needs to meet new challenges.
A rapid interest in jobs requiring higher-level skills has created a worldwide demand for more graduate employees and for greater diversity of higher education provision. Yet this country is still well below the OECD average for university attendance. We send proportionately fewer people to university to study at undergraduate level than our main competitors: first-time entrants in 2013 were just 48% in the UK versus 55% for the OECD average. We also lag behind when it comes to further study: first-time entry rates to masters courses are only 15% versus 20% for the OECD average.
We are also far from meeting our economy’s needs for graduate-level skills. Between now and 2022, more than half of job vacancies will be in occupations most likely to employ graduates. We have removed the cap on student numbers, but we need to remove barriers to entry for high-quality new entrants who will help to meet the demand for skilled graduates.
This country has a very successful international education exports sector. We have a global market share of more than 10%, which is holding. Our annual growth in international student numbers is between 3% and 4% a year. We are obviously attentive to the need to remain competitive, but we have a successful international education sector and we want to continue to support it by driving up the quality of the teaching and student experience on offer in all our universities.
On the skills gap, the south-west is below the productivity levels. A university would make a really big difference in my constituency of Taunton Deane and in wider Somerset, because it would help skill-up those young people whom I fear we are losing to other places such as Hereford.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Universities are a great driver of regional and local economic growth. A recent London School of Economics study demonstrates the strong correlation between opening new universities and significantly increased economic growth. The LSE academics estimate that doubling the number of universities in a region is associated with more than 4% higher future GDP growth per capita.
The right hon. Gentleman should wait a little bit longer to see the full fruits of the work of the Skills Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), and colleagues in the Department for Education led by the expert panel that is chaired by Lord Sainsbury.
To return to the question of why our higher education system needs to meet new challenges, the system needs to be more innovative to meet the diverse needs of learners of all ages and employers of all sizes. As promised in our manifesto, we will promote more flexible learning with the provision of, for example, two-year degrees and degree apprenticeships. We need the system to deliver better outcomes for those who go through it and for the taxpayers who underwrite it. While employers suffer skills shortages, especially in highly skilled STEM areas, at least 20% of graduates wind up in non-professional roles three and a half years after graduating. This graduate labour market mismatch is a waste of their potential and a brake on our economic productivity.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is also important to use our local enterprise partnerships to invigorate places where those needs exist and work out how we can meet them? My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) has mentioned the new University of Suffolk campus, and West Suffolk College, in my constituency, has just received an £8 million stimulus from our New Anglia local enterprise partnership.
We certainly agree with all that. Universities are at the heart of many of the most successful LEPs, and we want their good work to stimulate economic growth and relevant provision of higher education by universities in their local areas. That is why at the heart of the Bill are powers to make it easier for high-quality new universities and challenger institutions to enter the sector and award degrees, to drive up quality and to give applicants more choice about where and how to study.
Some say, “Close the door to new universities. Put the cap back on student numbers. Restrict the benefits of higher education to a narrow elite.” The same arguments have been made at every period of university expansion. In the 1820s, University College London and King’s were dismissed as “cockney” universities. Today, they are globally renowned. Those arguments were heard when the civic colleges in Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Bristol became red-brick universities before the first world war, and when the Conservative Government of John Major took through Parliament the 1992 legislation that created a wave of new universities from the polytechnics.
In a minute. We need more universities again today. Universities are great engines of social mobility and formidable drivers of regional economic growth. That is why I was so pleased to welcome the announcement of the new University of Suffolk, and it is why I am so supportive of the Hereford plans. Those are just two good examples of the challenger institutions that we have in mind to open up the sector to new, high-quality entrants.
We welcome support for our proposals from sensible figures, such as Lord Mandelson—now chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan, which is one of those institutions that gained university status, thanks to a Conservative Government, in 1992—who have recognised the essential contribution that a wide range of institutions can make to our economic success and to social mobility.
Thank goodness for that. Just to make it clear to the hon. Gentleman, Labour Members do not object to expanding the university sector. We do have questions, and rightly, about the speed with which that will be done, how probationary status will work and what kind of gamble that will represent. We will go on asking those questions, but the hon. Gentleman should not set up a straw man or woman and accuse us of being against expansion. We are not, but it has to be of high quality.
I am delighted that the shadow Secretary of State is supportive of new entrants and new challenger institutions. They are exactly what the sector needs, and I am glad that we have established the important point of principle that the Labour party is supportive of new entrants into the sector and believes in competition. That is a good thing, and I am delighted to hear it.
I caution my hon. Friend the Minister not to be so quick to assume that the Opposition will be as supportive as they say they are. We should take a lesson from the experience of the Labour party when it came to introducing competition with free schools. We faced extensive opposition from Labour councils at local level and from vested interests. Although they spoke sweet words about improving quality, they hated the competition that delivered choice to parents and that will, in this case, deliver choice to students.
I hope that my hon. Friend will be proved wrong, but I suspect that he may be proved right during proceedings on the Bill, as we discover the Labour party’s true colours and the reality of its desire to see competition injected into the sector, which I somewhat doubt.
The former Business Secretary is right. The Higher Education and Research Bill, which we introduced last week, represents an ambitious agenda for social mobility. Some, including Labour Members, said when we reformed student finance in 2011 that participation would fall. In fact, the opposite has happened. We have a progressive student loans system that ensures that finance is no barrier to entry, and it is working. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university at a record rate—up from 13.6% in 2009 to 18.5% in 2015. Labour Members were wrong then and they are wrong now. Individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds are 36% more likely to go to university than they were in 2009. If the hon. Member for Wallasey wants to come in on that point, I will happily take an intervention. No? Okay. We are not complacent. The Prime Minister has set us the rightly challenging goal of doubling the participation rate for the most disadvantaged students by 2020.
Has the Minister seen the figures from the Sutton Trust that show that only 3% of disadvantaged young people go to the most selective third of universities, compared with 21% from the richest neighbourhoods? Is he proud of that record?
Yes, indeed. That is why I have just written to the director of fair access, Les Ebdon, giving him all the political cover that he needs to drive further progress in widening participation at the most selective institutions.
We are strengthening the system of access agreements. They will now cover both access and participation, so that students receive the support that they need right the way through their courses, not just at the point of entry. We will give the new director of fair access and participation, who will be part of the new office for students, a greater set of sanctions to help to ensure that universities deliver the agreements they have made with him.
Some students face additional barriers to accessing higher education because their religious beliefs mean they are unable to take on interest-bearing loans. That is why, subject to Parliament, we will be the first Government to introduce an alternative student finance product that will support those students into higher education. That, combined with other measures, will help us to meet our goal of increasing the number of people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds—one third of whom are Muslim—who go to university. We are committed to an increase of 20% in the number of BME students by 2020.
The Minister will know that I have been writing to his Department since 2010 about sharia-compliant loans. The thing that is missing for students, who are absolutely put off by the failure to provide this product, is a timetable for making such loans available. He has committed to legislation, but will he now set out a timetable for when, if the legislation is enacted, students in communities such as mine in Walthamstow will be able to access these products?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her contribution to the campaign for this important alternative finance product. The coalition Government were the first to consult on the potential demand for such a product. We have a legislative vehicle with which to introduce it, and we are moving at full speed. The sooner Labour Members let this Bill through the Houses of Parliament, the sooner we will be able to crack on and deliver the alternative finance product that they want to see.
In the reforms we are already making to part-time and postgraduate study, we are sending a clear message to people that it is never too late to learn. The Government are transforming the funding landscape for part-time and postgraduate study. We are, for the first time, introducing maintenance loans for part-time undergraduate students, in addition to the tuition fee loans that were made available in the previous Parliament. We continue to reverse Labour’s restriction on studying for a second degree, so that people can get a student loan to take a second part-time degree in a STEM subject. For the first time, we are introducing student finance for postgraduate study, where people from disadvantaged backgrounds are even more under-represented than at undergraduate level. This one nation Conservative Government are giving people the opportunities they need to gain new skills at every stage of their lives.
I welcome the Minister’s support for the idea that it is never too late to learn. For some refugees, coming to this country will be their first chance to learn. Will the Minister outline the Government’s commitment to supporting their integration, not least in terms of English language courses, which are a crucial component of their learning?
We are committed to supporting refugees as they enter the higher education system, and we will look closely at whether there are any gaps in their support with respect to English language provision.
To turn to the Opposition amendment, we have been able to take steps to widen participation in higher education only because of the difficult decisions we have made as a Government to ensure that our universities are sustainably financed. [Interruption.] They are. Total funding for the sector has increased from £22 billion in 2009-10 to £28 billion in 2014-15, and is forecast to reach £31 billion by 2017-18. The OECD has said that our approach means that we are one of the few countries in the world to have found a sustainable approach to financing a modern system of higher education.
Our economy needs a world-class higher education system, and we cannot allow a situation to arise in which our universities are once again underfunded. The £9,000 tuition fee introduced in 2012 has already fallen in value to £8,500 in real terms. If we leave it unchanged, it will be worth £8,000 by the end of this Parliament. We want to ensure that our universities have the funding they need and that every student receives a high-quality experience during their time in higher education.
I am not the first Minister to note the variability of teaching quality, or indeed the imbalance between teaching and research in our higher education system. Labour Ministers in many Governments have made exactly the same point, but a Conservative Government will actually do something about it. We want to shine a spotlight on good practice, to give applicants more information about the type of teaching and graduate outcomes they can expect, and to raise the status of excellent university teaching. That is why we are implementing our manifesto commitment to introduce a teaching excellence framework to drive up the quality of teaching and spread best practice across our system.
In relation to the Opposition amendment, it is worth noting the irony that it was a Labour Government under Tony Blair who, in 2004, sensibly put in place the new legal powers that have allowed Governments to maintain university fees in line with inflation. For the 2017-18 academic year, I can confirm that the rate of inflation applying to maximum fees for institutions demonstrating high-quality teaching is 2.8%. The measure of inflation we are using is RPIX, as set out in regulations which, again, were introduced by Labour in 2006. The Labour party may have changed its views on that entire era and may no longer support the policy it introduced, but the Conservatives will refuse to allow students’ learning to suffer.
As Universities UK and GuildHE have made clear in statements ahead of today’s debate, allowing the value of maximum fees permitted by legislation to be maintained in real terms is essential if universities are to continue to be able to deliver high-quality teaching.
My hon. Friend is making a very credible case. Does he agree that if we do not fund better degrees and the growth of higher education through the current system, the only alternative will be to do so through taxation—or borrowing—levied across the whole populace, including those who do not necessarily benefit from higher education?
My hon. Friend makes the point perfectly. It is hard to improve on the way he put it. The alternative to what we are doing would be to place a greater burden on general taxpayers whose lifetime earnings will be lower than those of people who have benefited from a university education. In the case of women, graduates’ lifetime earnings will be £250,000 higher than those of non-graduates, and in the case of men, graduates’ lifetime earnings will be £100,000 higher than those of non-graduates.
I was beginning to get a complex, having been trying to grab the Minister’s attention for some time. It is interesting that the Minister accepts that there is a need to keep in line with the increasing costs in the university sector, but does not accept that the same is true for further education or for our school system.
Our FE budget has been protected at the £4,000 level, and we continue to prioritise apprenticeships. That is one of the most important Government policies, and we are fully committed to achieving our 3 million high-quality apprenticeships over the course of this Parliament.
I will make a bit of progress, if I may.
Universities UK and GuildHE are clear in their support for our intention to link access to the limited inflationary uplift to an assessment of quality, which is a principle we have long accepted for the funding of research in our universities. It was a Conservative Government who brought in the first research assessment exercise in 1986, and there is no doubt that our rigorous system of only funding excellence has driven up the quality of our research over the past three decades. Let us take a look at the statistics. The UK has recently overtaken the US to rank first among comparable nations for our field-weighted citations impact. With just 0.9% of the world’s population and 3.2% of its research and development expenditure, the UK accounts for 16% of the most highly cited articles. Now is the time to extend that principle and link funding to the quality of teaching —as assessed by the teaching excellent framework, not just student numbers—as we have long and successfully done in research.
There were two very interesting omissions in the speech of the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle). There was not one mention of what students want, which is higher quality teaching. The other huge omission was the fact that if teaching quality decreases, the fees of course decrease as well, which gives all universities a massive carrot to improve the quality of their teaching.
My hon. Friend is quite right. We are putting in place the reputational and financial incentives to drive and spread best practice throughout this sector, and the teaching excellence framework will be an important part of our doing so.
The inflationary uplift we are allowing to universities that demonstrate high-quality teaching is a £12 billion investment in the skills base of this country over the next decade. It is now for the Opposition to explain how they would make up for such a significant shortfall in university funding. To do so would either mean cutting resources from our universities, risking the sustainability of our world-class sector and leading to the reintroduction of aspiration-limiting student number controls, or the classic Labour response to any policy challenge—[Interruption]—we are already hearing it articulated: of more spending, more taxes, more borrowing and more debt. Labour Members might well heed the words of Ed Balls, who recently told Times Higher Education that Labour
“clearly didn’t find a sustainable way forward for the financing of higher education”.
He described that failure in the run-up to the last general election as
“a bit of a blot on Labour’s copybook”.
Indeed, it is, and the shame is that they clearly still have not learned the lesson
We are fulfilling our manifesto commitment to ensure the continuing success and stability of our reforms, balancing the interests of taxpayers and students. We have struck the right balance: numbers of disadvantaged students are at record levels; university funding is up; and research funding is protected. This is a one nation Queen’s Speech, from a one nation Government. Through our proposals, we are extending the benefits of a great education to school pupils and students across the country, and we must never let the Labour party put that at risk.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate on the Government’s legislative programme for the coming year. Given the subject of this debate, I should, before I begin in earnest, declare that my wife is a primary school teacher in Scotland.
I want to put on the record my welcome for the new Scottish Government team, which was announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last week; particularly new members of the cabinet, Derek Mackay and Fergus Ewing. I also wish to congratulate newly promoted Ministers, Jeane Freeman, Kevin Stewart, Mark McDonald and Shirley-Anne Somerville. I look forward to working with all my friends and colleagues in the interests of the people of Scotland.
It would be remiss of me at this stage not also to pay tribute to colleagues leaving the Scottish Government. Richard Lochhead, who was Scotland’s Rural Affairs Secretary for nine years, stood up for Scottish farming and fishing interests and the food and drink sector in an inspiring way. My constituency counterpart in Airdrie and Shotts, Alex Neil, was Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights from 2014, after driving the infrastructure and health portfolios in his typically imaginative and diligent way. I wish Alex and Richard all the best.
I now turn to the subject of today’s debate. So far, the successive days of debate on the Queen’s Speech have had far more substance than the Government’s programme in itself. It was an utterly vacuous Queen’s Speech, with very little cheer, and even less of relevance to the people of Scotland. The Scottish National party, as the widely acknowledged effective Opposition in this place, put forward an alternative Queen’s Speech—an alternative programme for government and an alternative to austerity. We have proposed 15 Bills that we believe the Government should have considered as part of their programme. They are Bills of substance that would have made a real difference to people up and down these isles who have been hammered by Tory austerity—a political and ideological choice, not an economic necessity.
Although the Bills in the Queen’s Speech on education, skills, training and access to employment—the subject of today’s debate—relate mainly to England or to England and Wales only, they serve to highlight the contrasting approach to these important matters between the SNP Scottish Government, who have independent powers over education, and the Conservative UK Government. The great spectre hanging over the higher education and research Bill is of students facing fees of up to, and now more than, £9,000 a year, while Scottish students access their university education without fees. I am sure that Members will be interested to note that the Chancellor of the Exchequer promised in a letter to a constituent in 2003 that when next in government the Conservative party would “scrap tuition fees altogether”. Oh, what a damascene conversion we have seen! He now wants fees to rise even further.
Following the elections in Scotland it is now clear that the Government’s Tory colleagues up the road are following suit, as they are all about backdoor taxes for students as well. Government Members and their colleagues in Scotland who benefited from free tuition now wish to pull the ladder up behind them. The SNP Government have guaranteed free university tuition in Scotland, and that they will maintain the principle that access to university education must be about the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. It is also worth noting that more of the population in Scotland is educated beyond school than in any other European country, with 46.5% educated at tertiary level, and that a higher percentage of young people in Scotland now leave school for a positive destination than at any time on record.
One area where the UK Government sadly retain control over education in Scotland is non-EU graduates’ right to remain and work in the UK after studying here. The abolition of the post-study work visa for students from outside Europe in 2012 was a regressive step that has reduced our ability to retain world-class talents for highly skilled and much-needed positions. It seems foolish to take the position that it is a good idea for those students to benefit from our world-class universities, but then disallow ourselves from benefiting from their skills and talents once they have finished their education here.
The Smith commission report stated that the Scottish and UK Governments should work together to
“explore the possibility of introducing formal schemes to allow international higher education students graduating from Scottish further and higher education institutions to remain in Scotland and contribute to economic activity for a defined period of time.”
At the time of the Smith commission’s discussions, representative organisations, including Universities Scotland and NUS Scotland, sent it a joint letter warning that the removal of the UK-wide post-study work visa in 2012 had resulted in a significant fall in the number of international students coming to Scotland. At a time when it is crucial—as we heard from the Minister for Universities and Science, who has left his place—that we address skills shortages in key areas of industry to improve productivity and economic growth, it is extremely disappointing that this Queen’s Speech makes no mention of the reintroduction of the scheme for Scotland.
In 2015 the Post Study Work working group— set up by the Scottish Government to provide a view from the business and tertiary education sectors on the impact of the removal of the post-study work scheme in Scotland and on how such a scheme should operate if reintroduced—concluded:
“Reintroducing a post study work route in Scotland would benefit both Scottish economic growth and business development, as well as enriching the learning experience for all students, by attracting more international students to Scotland.”
In February this year, the Holyrood devolution committee, made up of MSPs from the five political parties represented there, unanimously recommended that the Home Office change its policy on this issue. It is extremely disappointing that the UK Government seem unwilling to listen to the views of a diverse range of political parties and organisations in Scotland. In our alternative Queen’s Speech we have proposed a migration Bill, which would include the reintroduction of the post-study work visa. As was highlighted at Prime Minister’s questions by my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), and after Prime Minister questions by my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who is the family’s local MP, the disgraceful treatment of the Brain family shows the desperate need for the reintroduction of the visa.
There is also an urgent need for changes to the Government’s approach on access to employment, employment support, training and skills, which have all been run down by this Government’s actions and their reckless cuts to public spending. We want an emergency summer Budget, to boost investment in public services, stimulate GDP growth, support wage growth, increase tax receipts, support trade and exports, and boost productivity. For all the Tories’ rhetoric about the long-term economic plan, the Queen’s Speech contains no indication of how the Government will improve productivity, employment and growth in the long run.
Many Government Members will, I am sure, feel betrayed that there was no mention of the much-vaunted White Paper on health and work, which was supposed to compensate for the savage cuts to the work-related activity group element of the employment and support allowance and to universal credit work allowance. A number of Tory Back Benchers were promised jam tomorrow by their Ministers if they withdrew their opposition to those cuts, on the basis of the White Paper being published this year. Some were right to say, as I and others on the SNP Benches did, that the White Paper should have been published before the cuts were made, because of exactly the scenario that we now see unfolding.
The cuts to ESA WRAG and universal credit have been made, reaping all that social damage, and now the supposed replacement has been scrapped. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions used an appearance at the Work and Pensions Committee on 11 May to announce that he was scrapping the proposed White Paper and taking more time to consider a Green Paper. He said that he had made it clear in his first statement to this House as Secretary of State that he was looking to “push the reset button”. That statement was on 21 March; I asked him directly that day when the White Paper would be published, given that his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), had told me at his last appearance at the Dispatch Box that it would be “well before the summer”, and how much money would be committed to it. The new Secretary of State could not answer my questions, so he made a commitment from the Dispatch Box to write to me on the matter. As a follow-up, I wrote to him on 30 March to remind him of that and request a meeting, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford). I am still waiting for a reply, despite repeatedly chasing the matter up. Perhaps one will now be forthcoming.
The UK Government have wasted precious time by not publishing the White Paper. I urge the Secretary of State to come to this House with a date for the publication of the Green Paper. Any success in this matter will ultimately be determined by the Government’s willingness to engage with community and voluntary organisations, as well as experts, to help shape any new framework.
The new Secretary of State at the DWP hopes to have changed the tone of the debate, but what we really need is substance. He talks about pushing the reset button; why, then, has he not gone back to the brutal cuts to ESA and universal credit, or to the lack of assistance to women born in the 1950s regarding their repeatedly delayed and mishandled state pension entitlement—an issue that has been commendably spearheaded by the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—or to the immoral bedroom tax? Why has he not gone back to the much-needed reforms to work capability assessments for those with mental health issues and with long-term conditions, who face the stress of constant unnecessary reassessments, and to the waste of money and time, as well as additional stress to the claimant, because of decisions that should never have been made in the first place that are then overturned at tribunal? Why has he not gone back to the two-child rule, or to the rape clause, or to any of the other decisions taken by his predecessor? Of all those disastrous policy areas, why did he choose to review the White Paper?
We are concerned that valuable time to make progress on disability employment is being lost as a result of that delay, and believe that Ministers should bring forward proposals as soon as possible. The announcement of the Green Paper should be welcome, if it is brought forward with urgency, meaningful engagement with the community and voluntary sector, and with experts to shape the new framework. However, we remain sceptical that the Tories will rise to that challenge, and they cannot be allowed to kick this any further into the long grass. The Minister must formally make a statement of his intentions, and lay out the road map for the development of the new programme with a timeframe. With cuts coming down the line for disabled people, the Tories must act now. Tory Back Benchers will be interested—as we are—in why the Minister has abandoned the White Paper, and we hope that they will join us in calling for progress on the Green Paper to be introduced with haste.
Forty-nine DWP inquiry reports into the deaths of social security recipients were finally released after a long two-year freedom of information battle. Forty of those reports followed a suicide, and in 10 of those cases the recipient had been sanctioned. Peer reviews do not make a direct link between DWP policy and those sad deaths, but they do highlight the serious problems that are faced by claimants with complex issues, mental health challenges, or learning support needs. I hope that we can now see an end to the unwillingness of Ministers to accept that their policies, however well intended they may think they are, are having serious consequences and could be costing lives. There must be a full, urgent review that includes the impact of current work capability assessments, the punishing sanctions regime, and further cuts to disability support.
The SNP has proposed a social equality Bill to restore work allowances for low-income workers and single parents, to end maternity discrimination, to consider further shared paternity rights for individuals and employers, and to address barriers to employment for disabled people. That would bring matters in line with the principles on which the Scottish Government will found the new Scottish social security agency, by treating people with dignity and respect.
Although the Queen’s Speech did not have anything useful to say about those matters, at its tail end we were informed that the Government would hold a referendum on membership of the European Union which, despite the lacklustre campaign so far, will not have come as a revelation to many people. That was followed by the vaguest of sentences, notifying us that
“proposals will be brought forward for a British Bill of Rights.”
Given the vast differences that exist in the Cabinet and on the Government Back Benches about membership of the European Union and the European convention on human rights, with many people losing track of who is an in-out, an out-out, or an out-in, it is difficult to imagine how they could find enough common cause to agree on what such a Bill would contain, and the Queen’s Speech gave no further insight into that. For that reason, the Bill of Rights is as likely to be brought before the House this year as it was after being mentioned in last year’s Queen’s Speech.
The briefing notes for the Queen’s Speech on the Bill of Rights added only that:
“These rights would be based on those set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, while also taking into account our common law tradition.”
That suggests that although the Government are sensibly distancing themselves from the Home Secretary’s personal views on the ECHR, they have little of substance to say about the purpose or need for such a Bill.
Professor Mark Elliott from the University of Cambridge stated that in the Queen’s Speech,
“there is no hint of any developed thinking about how the perceived shortcomings of the HRA ought to be addressed, or of how reform in this area would be reconciled with the UK’s remaining a party to the ECHR.”
If the Government are unable to provide detailed answers to those points, they should question whether attempting to appease some of their own Back Benchers is worth more than having sensible legislation. For Scotland, the key concern is that the Government have shown little consideration about how that decision will affect the Scottish Parliament, and the other devolved legislatures of these isles.
Briefing notes for the Queen’s Speech addressed that issue—to pardon the pun—only briefly, and stated that:
“Revising the Human Rights Act can only be done by the UK Parliament, but we will consult fully before bringing forward proposals.”
Although it is true that the Scottish Parliament does not have power to alter the Human Rights Act, the Law Society of Scotland has argued:
“Under Devolution Guidance Note 10 (DGN10), when UK legislation will alter the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament or the Executive Competence of the Scottish Ministers the consent of the Scottish Parliament is needed. Repeal and replacement of the Human Rights Act 1998 would in our view, require the amendment of the Scotland Act 1998 in those respects which would affect the competences of both the Parliament and Scottish Ministers. Any change to the Scotland Act concerning the Human Rights Act 1998 which affects the competence of the Parliament or the Scottish Ministers will in terms of DGN10 require the consent of the Scottish Parliament.”
Therefore, not simply consultation with, but consent from the Scottish Parliament would be needed, and given that a clear majority in the Scottish Parliament do not support such a change, that consent is unlikely to be forthcoming.
President Theodore Roosevelt famously said that
“the credit belongs to the man who...spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly”.
Unfortunately, in this case, I believe that the Prime Minister and the Government have neither succeeded nor dared greatly, but instead have offered a weak and poor programme that will do little to address the needs of the people of these isles.
Although some measures are to be welcomed, such as the likely delivery of a universal service obligation on broadband, this Queen’s Speech is yet another missed opportunity from the Government to address the key issues. Instead of offering clear solutions and innovative ideas, I am afraid that in years to come, this Queen’s Speech will be remembered as an empty, vacuous and largely irrelevant sideshow from a governing party that is more concerned about patching over internal divisions on EU membership, and jockeying for who will be next Tory leader, than about delivering for the people.
Thank you for that splendid news, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I can only carry on as I normally do.
I want to talk about the actual Queen’s Speech, which is a one nation Queen’s Speech because it mentions opportunity for everybody and productivity for our economy. Behind those 21 Bills lies the demand for and interest in having more, fairer opportunities and a better economy that delivers more productivity.
I wish to mention two Bills in particular, including the Children and Social Work Bill. The Education Select Committee has done some work in that field, and I invite the Secretary of State to consider what it will say about social work—I will not let any cats out of the bag now because we have not yet published our conclusions, but they will be of interest to those who wish to consider the issue in more detail as the Bill develops. I am pleased that we will have a care leavers covenant, which is one thing that came out of the Committee’s early discussions about children in care who had mental health difficulties, and who felt that they were falling off a cliff edge. The covenant will clearly prevent that from happening.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in the Committee’s work on care leavers, it was not just those with mental health problems who felt that they were falling off a cliff? Many care leavers felt that the support that children might ordinarily receive from their own families was suddenly missing when they got to the age of 18.
I completely agree, and my hon. Friend was a member of the Education Committee when we did that early work. The whole point is to ensure that those children do not fall over that cliff edge. Children who are looked after by the state are particularly vulnerable to that, and we must do all we can to stop it happening. The Committee also covered regulation in its early inquiries. I will not comment in detail on what that framework should look like, but we agreed that we need an improved regulatory offering for social work.
On the education for all Bill, I first note that “for all” means for absolutely all children. However, there are some unregistered children in unregulated schools, and we need to think about them, too. How will the Secretary of State respond to the thought, expressed not least by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, that there are ineffective schools beneath the radar which are not doing a good job? We need to ensure that when we say education for all, we mean all.
The White Paper talks about a school-led system, as it absolutely should. Those of us who support the academies programme welcome its continued growth. Obviously, it is important to be sure that academies feel comfortable once they are out there. The Education Committee will be considering what a good multi-academy trust looks like precisely with that thought in mind. We need to encourage academies to come together to support each other in partnership and co-operation—schools taking the initiative to help other schools. I believe that combination will work to drive up standards, especially in areas—we know there are pockets—where standards are not high enough..
Is the hon. Gentleman therefore in favour of Ofsted inspecting academy chains? At the moment, the Government prevent it from doing so, so we do not know what their overheads are, we do not know how much they are putting into each school, and we do not know what they are spending on the chief executive’s salary. Is he in favour of Ofsted inspecting academy chains?
The Education Committee was quite forceful on this matter in the previous Parliament and I expect it will comment on it again. I am personally in favour of multi-academy trusts being inspected. The Committee will look into it when it conducts an inquiry and comment on it in due course. I will not pre-judge what that inquiry will say.
It is important to recognise that in some areas—for example, in Yorkshire—some local authorities have not delivered adequate education for young people. It would be helpful if the Department set out data and maps, so Members and others can see where the problems are and calibrate the need for more academies. That would be really useful.
We need an improvement on fairer funding. This is, rightly, implicit in the White Paper. Schools in Gloucestershire need to be confident about fairer funding. I say Gloucestershire because I represent Stroud, but the point applies to a whole range of shire counties and to urban areas, too. Fairer funding is essential. I am pleased that the Education Committee will have the opportunity to check the Department’s proposals. That is extremely helpful and we will conduct an inquiry in due course. It is very good of the Secretary of State to enable us to do that, effectively through the timescale she has set out, just as she responded when the White Paper was launched and there was something of a furore over the scale of ambition in relation to academies.
It is in the same vein that I make my next point about co-operation and the opportunity to consider the Bill. It would be really helpful if the education for all Bill is published soon, so that we can have pre-legislative scrutiny. It would be useful to look at the detail behind the definition of a failing local authority, one that is beneath capacity threshold and would be fined or cease to be a provider of schools. That opportunity would help all Members to understand more clearly the direction of travel and perhaps see a way forward. I invite the Secretary of State to consider that proposal. I know the legislative programme is tight and that there are few opportunities for delay, but I think this would be a good contribution to the debate.
I want to end on something I think is very important. I was reading with interest the thoughts of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an independent and authoritative organisation, on whether we should be in the European Union. It noted that if we left the EU our economy would be smaller by about £15 billion within about two years. These figures are bandied about frequently and understood by many, and the IFS is not the only leading authority to point out that our economy is doing well precisely because we are a part of the European Union. I mention this because the legislative programme set out in the Queen’s Speech depends on public expenditure. If we are to deliver an education system that is as ambitious and as successful as the Secretary of State intends it to be then we are going to have to pay for it. It will be harder to pay for it if we kick ourselves in the shins by leaving the European Union and reducing the size of our economy. That would make it harder to meet pledges on public expenditure in future.
I therefore suggest it is really important that we remain in the European Union, so that we can deliver our ambitions.
I have just realised that somebody must be trying to intervene, as an hon. Friend has helpfully informed everybody that I am completely deaf in my left ear. I can find that quite useful, certainly in family situations and often in politics, but not when my hon. Friend wants to intervene.
That must also be the reason why my husband sometimes does not respond when called. He is obviously deaf in one ear too.
It is important that we are a part of the European Union not only for the reasons my hon. Friend outlines, but to ensure that our young people have access to broader educational environments, such as the Erasmus programme.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. I am pleased to follow the Chair of the Education Committee. I agree with much of what he said—on our membership of the EU and on his invitation to the Secretary of State to publish the education for all Bill in time for the Committee to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny. That would be very valuable. It is on the education for all Bill that I want to focus my remarks.
I start by warmly welcoming the abandonment of the pledge of universal academisation by 2022. That is a very welcome U-turn. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) is in his place. He and I had a debate about this on the radio. I made the point that it was clear there was not the support on the Conservative Benches to get the proposed legislation through the House. He is the Secretary of State’s Parliamentary Private Secretary and he assured the listeners to the programme that it was all absolutely fine, but I am delighted that the Secretary of State recognised that I was right about this and her PPS was not. I pay tribute to her for at least executing the U-turn with commendable speed and not dragging out the agony over a long period, as we have sometimes seen in the past. I do not think it was ever her idea that we should force all schools to become academies by 2022. I am glad she has dropped it.
It is disappointing that the Bill still has the aim, according to the documentation alongside the Queen’s Speech, to move towards a system where all schools are academies. Ministers really should be listening, not least to headteachers on this very important subject. The National Association of Head Teachers said of that declared aim of the Bill that
“it will mean that good and outstanding schools can still be made to convert, regardless of the professional judgement of school leaders, the opposition of parents and the best interests of local communities.”
The Government ought to listen to headteachers, parents and local communities, rather than continuing with their view that every school should become an academy, regardless of whether it is in its interest. Academisation can be a good thing—there are plenty of examples of where it has turned around a school’s fortunes—but forced academisation is not.
Ministers have not been able to provide any evidence that academisation necessarily raises standards, because, in reality, it does not. Areas identified by Ofsted as having problems with low educational standards include areas where most of the schools have already become academies. It would be helpful if there were a panacea, such as academisation or some other reorganisation, to overcome the problem of underperforming schools, but there is not; raising standards is a long, tough haul. Ministers are looking for a shortcut, but there is not one. To quote the NAHT again:
“Targeted support is what’s needed, rather than forced, top-down reorganisation”.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does not the history of his part of east London, including Tower Hamlets and Newham, show that academisation, in and of itself, is not the answer? What transformed educational prospects in his community was the London Challenge and schools working together and collaborating to raise standards.
My hon. Friend is right about what happened in east London, where we have seen a remarkable transformation of educational standards over the last 20 years owing to the consistent application of the tools he identifies, including academisation, in some cases, as well as other levers. I am worried that that progress could now be at risk, but I will say a little about that in a moment.
There are costs to academisation, including legal costs. When the Government’s policy was one of forced academisation, we had a debate about how much it would cost, and the Secretary of State told the Select Committee that she would let it have the Department’s robust estimates of the cost of academisation. I checked this morning but I understand that the information has not been provided yet. I would be grateful if she could make sure that her Department delivers on the commitment she made.
As the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out, the role of multi-academy trusts will be very important. The Sutton Trust has pointed out that, on achievement among disadvantaged pupils, some multi-academy trusts are doing an outstanding job and delivering very high standards but that the majority are not. In fact, its analysis shows that the majority are doing less well than the average across the school system as a whole—they are underperforming—and a big part of the reason is that many have expanded too fast. Everyone in the House will recognise that it is difficult to maintain good standards while managing rapid expansion, and that problem will get a lot worse if, as appears to be the Government’s intention, many hundreds and thousands of schools are forced into multi-academy trusts over the next few years.
It is worrying that we are starting to see some of the practices we used to deprecate in poor local education authorities cropping up in some of the multi-academy trusts. Under the reforms of the last 20 years, local education authorities have been transformed. Maintained schools now enjoy a high degree of autonomy, whereas academies are frequently not allowed very much autonomy from their multi-academy trust. One primary headteacher told me that he did not want to academise specifically because the multi-academy trust his school would likely join would not allow the degree of autonomy for his school that his local education authority does. We are starting to see some bad old practices creeping into education administration through multi-academy trusts, and the Sutton Trust is absolutely right to point out that the speed of their expansion makes the problem worse.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s assurance to the Select Committee that multi-academy trusts should be allowed to expand only when they have a track record of success and improvement at their existing academies. I hope that that will be reflected in the Bill, when it is published, and that she will tell us that that will be the case. When she came before the Committee, she also recognised the importance of parents being able to secure an academy’s transfer to a different trust, where the existing trust has demonstrably failed to deliver adequate standards and improvement in a particular academy, as is starting to happen in some instances. If, with the appropriate standards, parents were allowed to do that, it would be an important protection. She fully recognised the value of such a provision in her evidence to the Committee. Will that be in the Bill as well?
Finally, the Bill will also deliver the national school funding formula. The House recently discussed the impact of that on schools in London in a debate initiated by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed). Ministers seem to have given exclusive access to their deliberations on this topic to a group of largely rural authorities, and I am worried that we might end up with an unfair formula as a result. In particular, no London authorities at all were included in that group. I am particularly anxious that the high rate of pupil mobility in some authorities should be included in the formula.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who as a Minister in the Labour Government was respected by Conservative Members as somebody who listened and engaged.
I support the Gracious Speech. It contains a good programme for the Government and plenty of important, decent Bills that we can support. I will start with the referendum. When I was first elected, I voted for a referendum on the Amsterdam treaty, and was defeated; then I voted for a referendum on the Nice treaty, and was defeated; and then I voted for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and was defeated, even though Messrs Blair and Brown had committed to having one. It is refreshing, therefore, to have a Prime Minister with the confidence to put one in his manifesto, win an election, legislate and give the British people a choice. I am 59. I voted in the referendum in 1975. I suspect there are very few people in the Chamber who voted in 1975, and it is right and proper that the British people consent to the future arrangements. I lean towards the leave side, but nevertheless it is a real “shock horror—politician does what he said” moment, so we ought to give the Prime Minister credit.
The education Bill will be a game changer, particularly because of the fair funding formula, which I know London Members are worried about. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who campaigned throughout the last Parliament to get the Government to look at this. It is not that we do not believe people in some urban areas should have more money; it is that when they sometimes have two, three or four times as much money, children in places such as Dorset and Poole are being undervalued by the nation. We need to move in a new direction while being aware that, as with all these things, there clearly are winners and losers and that it cannot be done quickly. Nevertheless, the Bill is a good start.
I am also pleased with the NHS charging Bill, particularly for visitors to the UK. As the Secretary of State for Health often says, we have a national health service, not an international health service. There are occasions when I think we should be more vociferous in pursuing people who use the service who should not. Part of the problem with recouping money from people is that the service is not really set up to do it. We need to think very carefully about how to recoup the £500 million a year that the Bill expects from those using the service who should not do so. We all know that people sometimes come to this country with the express purpose of taking advantage of the NHS. We all know that there are shortages of resources, and that in these tough times it is right and proper for the British Government to stand up for British interests by ensuring that people pay their fair share.
I believe a range of Bills in the Gracious Speech will make life chances better for people in the UK. As mentioned in the House yesterday, children in care are being given a higher priority. John Hemming, who used to be a Member of Parliament, spent a lot of time campaigning for the rights of children in care. Sometimes they get lost and their life chances can be somewhat less than those of others. It is right and proper for these sometimes forgotten children to be looked after and given the best start in life—at least a better start than could be expected in their circumstances.
I have a slight word of criticism. I visited one of my successful local companies, Sunseeker Yachts, which employs nearly 2,000 Dorset people and currently has 40 apprentices. It worked out that the apprenticeship levy would cost the company a quarter of a million pounds, but they have not yet seen how to claim any money back against that. It appears as a dead-weight loss in its forward plan. It is anxious for the Government to explain very soon the procedures and the criteria that will apply so that it can plan for the future. It exports well over 95% of its turnover, and the company is well regarded internationally. In common with many businesses employing apprentices, it is a little worried that the devil in the detail has not yet become known, and it needs more evidence to be able to plan.
I support a whole range of Bills. The modern transport Bill is innovative, and talking about driverless cars is better than having a leaderless Opposition. We have a good programme for the next four years. We will make people’s life chances substantially better. The Prime Minister has put forward a one nation progressive programme, which we can all rally around. It will lead to a better situation for our citizens and a Government that we can be proud of.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms), although I disagree with him not only about the contents of the Queen’s Speech, but about Europe.
While measures to improve the national citizenship scheme, to support donations to charities, to provide the right to broadband and to protect cultural property are welcome and laudable, the measures in the Queen’s Speech fail as a whole to address the huge challenges that the country faces. These include the huge problems of underfunding and marketisation caused by the top-down restructuring of the NHS. There is nothing to deal with the chronic shortage of doctors and nurses—never mind the investment in social care that is needed properly to protect and look after older people with the dignity they desire.
On education, there is nothing to address the chronic teacher shortages, the shortage of school places and the need for capital investment to create the 21st-century schools that our constituents need. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) said from the Front Bench, this is a Queen’s Speech with emptiness at its core. Some measures that are in it are deeply worrying, and I shall concentrate on two specific issues.
First, I have to say I am really disappointed by the higher education Bill. The measures in it could see fees climb even higher, saddling young people who want to go to university with even more debt. Some students are already coming out of university with £40,000 to £50,000 of debt—where will this end?
On the teaching excellence framework, we support a focus on teaching quality. However, if this is simply a framework with parameters already set to enable the removing of the fees cap, it is not something we should support. I say yes to the focus on quality in teaching, providing the metrics are right and the risks of doing so are properly managed, but why is there the link to higher fees? As I said, we need to be very careful about what we are doing because of its impact on the reputation of higher education. We are therefore concerned about the deregulation of the establishment of new universities and the lack of safeguards, which could undermine the excellence of our HE institutions.
I hope that the Minister recognises that this is not because we are against the expansion of higher education. I am very much in support of it and I would like to see more of our young people going to universities. However, we are simply not sure that the Government are going about expansion in the right way. We are not the only ones to have concerns about that. As million+ has said:
“Competition can undoubtedly promote innovation but lowering standards to help new, inexperienced or small, single-degree providers with no interest in being research active, to gain degree awarding powers and university title is not opening the market but lowering the bar”.
It emphasises the huge risk of the marketisation approach, and points out that UK universities trade globally on the basis of a national quality assurance system, high student satisfaction rates and high quality teaching and research. It states:
“The assumption that institutions with UK university title or degree-awarding powers should be allowed to fail and exit the market is potentially at variance with the Government’s ambitions to promote UK higher education internationally”.
We share that set of concerns, and Universities UK argued along the same lines in its briefing to Members. We will need to hear a lot more from the Minister when we reach this Bill’s Second Reading about what safeguards will be in place.
The Minister said quite a lot today about improving participation in our universities and increasing social mobility. However, a briefing from the Open University has pointed out that the Prime Minister’s target to increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university is likely to fail because the number of part-time disadvantaged students entering part-time HE is falling, not increasing. Part-time HE is often the most common way for people from disadvantaged backgrounds or places to enter universities. The Open University also pointed to the lack of clear opportunities for lifelong learning—another issue that the Minister will need to address. I am astounded that there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech to tackle the reduction in the number of part-time students, to promote lifelong learning or to promote upskilling and reskilling opportunities for adult learners. What we know is the budget for that has been massively cut by £335 million. One can only hope that the White Paper we are expecting in June or the autumn will address some of these issues.
Moving on, I want to comment briefly on the NHS measures. We know that the Government are ploughing ahead with the seven-day care objective, but I think they are refusing to accept the reality of what is happening in the NHS. Patients are waiting longer and therefore suffering longer. Waits are increasing and it is getting much harder to see a GP. Instead of providing measures to tackle this and the crisis in social care, we get more cuts to older people’s services. We also know of record visits to A&E, mainly because of the breakdown of services elsewhere, and £22 billion-worth of efficiency savings are not going to help. Over the last five years, my own local authority of Durham has had to make £43 million-worth of cuts to adult care, and is going to have to make a further £25 million over the next couple of years. I really want to hear from the Government what they are going to do to tackle this crisis in social care.
Lastly, I want to say a brief word about the northern powerhouse, which Ministers and, indeed, some sections of the media talk about as if it were a reality. Mine is one of the constituencies that should be benefiting from it, but I see absolutely no reality. The devolution deal brings with it very little money to promote the economy and skills development in the north-east. It would be great to know what the northern powerhouse is actually delivering, but, at present, I see nothing at all.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods).
I went into politics because I was that bored 16-year-old growing up in rural Norfolk, frustrated by the lack of opportunities and keen to do my bit to make things better. I had loving and supportive parents and encouraging teachers, but little access to people and places. Indeed, it could be said that, at that time, I did not even know what I did not know. However, I am a Conservative today because I believe that it is not where we are coming from that counts, but where we are going. That call can only be answered by opportunity: by ensuring that every person has a chance to make of themselves what they want. Conservatives believe fundamentally in people and their freedom, because people are enterprising and can choose their own course best of all, but those people need the opportunity to do so.
As has been argued by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, over the past few generations we have seen some incredible and dramatic changes in society. Never before has so much information been at the fingertips of so many, never before have we seen such a decline in social difference, and never before have previously elite preserves such as universities been a realistic option for millions; yet we are not living in a golden age of social mobility. Today, far too many people have their life chances determined before they have even had an opportunity to explore all that life has to offer. So I am proud that it is a Conservative Prime Minister, a guy from a council estate in Pembrokeshire and the capable Ministers who are here today who are proposing action that will span families, the early years, education, treatment and support, opportunity, and an end to discrimination.
We should listen carefully today, so that we hear the hopes and quiet wishes being expressed by mums and dads throughout the country—rich and poor alike—for their children, every minute of every day. We should seek to give all children the chances and the choices that they need to live their lives. That is why I welcome the Bills in the Queen’s Speech that promote life chances through better education.
Let me begin with the Higher Education and Research Bill and its further expansion of higher education. The origin of the university in my fine city of Norwich, the University of East Anglia, lies in the great university expansion of the 1960s, and I welcome the Bill’s emphasis on making it easier for more high-quality universities to enter the sector and boost choice for students.
Higher education is one of our greatest engines for social mobility, and we should celebrate the record application rates that we are seeing among students from disadvantaged backgrounds; but there is a great deal more to do. In January this year, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission identified the life chances of a poor child growing up in the Norwich City Council area as some of the very worst in the country. That is something that I am determined to confront as a constituency MP, for it is not something to be proud of, but I know that it is something that the Government are determined to confront as well. The provisions to ensure transparency of data provide a key tool. If we do not have data, we will be—in the words of the commission—trying to make progress blindfolded. We need evidence-based policies, and we need the data that will enable us to prioritise our efforts.
The Bill also provides for an access and participation plan. I welcome the broadening of the definition from “access agreements” to “access and participation plan”, which means that universities will be expected to welcome students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and take steps to support them throughout their courses. If we can do all those things, we will achieve the goals that the Government have rightly set out to ensure that more people participate in higher education.
I welcome measures in the Children and Social Work Bill, particularly the mentoring measure. The Bill sensibly requires local authorities to publish a local offer giving information about the support that is available to care leavers, and ensuring that they have access to a personal adviser up to the age of 25. I should add, however, that that must be done well. I recently heard about a personal adviser in my constituency who, it appears, was rarely able to meet his charge, and when he did so— unbelievably—the meeting usually took place at the side of the road or in a pub car park for 10 minutes. That is not what should be happening. The state must do better as a parent and a mentor.
I welcome measures in the Bill providing greater support for those at school, and I also welcome measures in the proposed national citizen service Bill to promote volunteering and social action. There is, of course, more that we can all do. We need to work together in the same way as Universities UK and its social mobility advisory group, which was formed following Green and White Papers. They are rightly bringing together people from the education and social sectors to take a proper look at the systemic issues relating to people’s chances and choices. In my constituency, I am doing the same in response to the social mobility index. Educationists and business representatives, local authorities and the voluntary sector are coming together to analyse what we can do locally. Much good work is already taking place, but we want to identify the extra actions that we can take in order to make a difference. We know that the factors involved are complex and deep-rooted, and that we can solve them only if we work together.
The proposed education for all Bill conveys the lesson that we must be willing to look at what works. I support the Government’s education reforms, because schools in my constituency must improve if our children are to have the best possible start in life. There is no room for complacency, given the evidence of the index to which I referred earlier. If children in the Norwich City Council area do indeed have some of the poorest life chances in England, the years spent at school must be absolutely crucial.
There is some improvement to be seen in the performance of schools in Norwich and Norfolk, but we must not rest there. I believe that the academy structure can help, I want the Government to focus on building capacity in good trusts and good leaders, and recruiting, retaining and developing good teachers. I also want local leaders in schools to continue to use pupil premium money in the most imaginative and ambitious ways to help the poorer students break out. I think that there is much good work to be seen in the Sutton Trust’s toolkit.
I welcome the promise in the Queen’s Speech to make school funding fairer. Schools with the same kind of pupils should receive the same kind of funding, and that brings me back to my starting point. Wherever people come from in this country and whatever background they start from, they should expect the same opportunities. Norwich children should have the same chances and choices as children from Newcastle, the New Forest or Nottingham. As I said at the beginning, that is what brought me into politics in rural Norfolk, and it is what inspired many of us into Parliament. It should spur us on afresh today to ensure that the chance of a decent life is universal, available in all communities, in all parts of the country and in every household—regardless of background, but especially for the poorest.
I always think of the first Queen’s Speech that you and I attended, Madam Deputy Speaker. That was the last occasion on which I spent any real time with my good friend Robin Cook. I think that most Members in all parts of the House would agree that he was a fine parliamentarian, and I wonder what he would make of this shambles of a Government today. A former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has described the Business Secretary as disappointing, his own Prime Minister as disingenuous, and his own Chancellor as nothing short of a liar, even calling him Pinocchio. Meanwhile, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the former Mayor of London and the former Defence Secretary are all saying, “Look out, look out, the Turks are coming!” , although 10 years ago they were saying, “We want Turkey in Europe.”
It is against that background that the most wasteful use of parliamentary time in history went ahead last week. It showed what we are used to in this place: contempt from the leader of this country towards the House of Commons. Worse, however, it showed contempt for our Queen to bring that woman here, in her record-breaking 90th year, to deliver such a piece of rubbish. And even worse than that, it showed contempt for the people who do not just send us here, but pay for the privilege of doing so.
It is that contempt that I want to reflect on now, in relation to something that will have a huge impact on the people in my part of the world. I refer to the ludicrous programme of English devolution. It is a farce, it is a joke, but sadly, it is deadly serious.
The Labour party is and always has been the party of devolution, in Scotland, in Wales, in Northern Ireland and in London, all of which have been given real powers, real democracy and real accountability. Crucially, all those arrangements were agreed through genuine engagement and democratic decision-making involving the people affected. What have we got now? Devolution drawn up on the back of a fag packet; decisions taken behind closed doors by Treasury officials, local government senior officers and leaders of councils; the imposition of elected mayors without asking the local people if they want one, often ignoring the voices of those who have already rejected mayors in their towns and cities; the cobbling together of geographical areas that bear little resemblance to each other; meagre resources being given to areas that have been coerced into signing up—areas where huge sums of money have been taken away from local government as austerity goes on and on; an insistence on getting full agreement on structures even before the legislation has been agreed by this House and the other place; a funding stream that has no basis in fairness or transparency; and locally elected representatives being cajoled into agreeing these poor deals as the only game in town, telling them, “You take this or you get nothing.” All this is being cobbled together under the crass PR tags of the “northern powerhouse”, the “midlands engine”—and God knows who is in the back of the car in the boot.
The people of England deserve better than this, and more and more people are recognising that, as are more and more politicians of all colours. Indeed, I have sat in amazement over the past few weeks as I have heard people I disagree with almost every day on almost every issue saying how concerned they are in their part of the world—in East Anglia, the south-west and the west midlands—about how this is going through the House. People are asking, “Why, oh why, is this happening in this way? Why must we in the north-east be told we can’t have this kind of authority without having a mayor, yet people in Cornwall can?” Why can we not have a proper consultation and a referendum, as has quite rightly happened everywhere else in the UK?
Why have we not got a fair funding system? I will give the House a great example of the need for one in my part of the world. Tees Valley, in the south of the north-east, has agreed to proceed with a mayoral combined authority, as is its right. The north-eastern part of the north-east has not as yet fully agreed to do the same. One of the sticking points is resources. We are asking why the Tees Valley, an area that is much smaller than ours geographically and with about a quarter of the population, is getting £15 million a year dedicated to its so-called powerhouse while we in the northern part are getting only £30 million. It might just be a coincidence that the Tees Valley contains the constituency home of the Minister responsible for the northern powerhouse. Surely that could not have anything to do with this decision. That would be almost as absurd as to suggest that the arrangements in the greater Manchester area have anything to do with the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer lives on the fringes of that area. Surely even Pinocchio would not want us to agree to that.
I have no doubt that the people of the Tees Valley should have that money; they deserve a lot more, given what they have gone through over the past 30 years. They have been through deindustrialisation in the 1980s and they have taken other hits lately, and £15 million is meagre corn for the people of the Tees Valley. I am in no way having a go at them. I am asking how it can be fair for a population of that size to get that amount when another area with a population four times the size does not get proportionally more.
I am a huge fan of devolution. I really believe that we in the north-east know what will work for us better than the old Etonians do. I also believe that we should be allowed the freedom to decide what is best for our part of the world, but to do that we need sufficient resources to match the responsibilities that are given to us. We need the funds to meet our needs. We need structures that are transparent and fully accountable, and this should not be negotiated by people with vested interests. The leaders of the council are decent honourable people, but they should not be the ones sitting around the table saying, “Yes, this is what we want and we will agree to it without any recourse to the people in the local area.”
In Gateshead, the council carried out a consultation of 200,000 people, but only 38 people replied. A poll was carried out in the north-east a couple of weeks ago and, out of a population of almost 2 million, only 511 replied. The majority of those who replied said that they did not really know enough about what was going on to make a valid choice. What on earth does that tell us about the way the Government are pushing through this programme, which has nothing to do with real transparency and real democracy? We need genuine buy-in and commitment from the people. Without that, this is going nowhere. We need a range of powers that recognise the vast differences between the needs of people living in, for example, rural Northumberland or the Durham dales and the people living in Tyneside tower blocks. They are different and they will have different demands.
None of these questions has been fully addressed to our satisfaction and, as I said earlier, people in other parts of England are similarly dissatisfied, including those in a number of places that have already signed up to these dodgy deals. I want to make it very clear in relation to my borough of Gateshead, which has refused to sign up to a deal that other people in our part of the world have agreed to, that we are not walking away from this. We want this to work, but we want it to work properly. There is nothing in this Queen’s Speech to make me believe that it will do anything to improve the situation we have been landed with.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), although I am afraid that I cannot agree with his every statement.
I would like to focus on the welcome emphasis on research and innovation in the Gracious Speech. Properly drawn, the Higher Education and Research Bill, the digital economy Bill, the education for all Bill and the modern transport Bill should work together to upgrade the very foundations of our knowledge economy, unlocking a UK robotics revolution, boosting our space sector, laying the infrastructure for our data-hungry economy and, crucially, underpinning all this with a pipeline of core science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM —skills, and investment in research and development.
I am sure Members will be devastated to hear that I cannot go into detail on all those Bills, but I hope they will be overjoyed to hear that the Science and Technology Committee will shortly be publishing its report on space and satellites, including its conclusions on a spaceport, and that we have just begun our inquiry into artificial intelligence and robotics, which will be looking at driverless cars. We will ensure that we report in time to inform the progress of the modern transport Bill.
Whether we are talking about artificial intelligence and robotics, about the space sector or about our digital economy, the scarlet thread running through the evidence that we are receiving is that we have a STEM skills crisis in the UK, especially in digital skills, which needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. So while I welcome the ambition of the education for all Bill and the infrastructure investment that will flow from the digital economy Bill, I urge the Government to produce their long-overdue digital strategy and to ensure that they not only take into account the findings of the Shadbolt and Wakeham reviews but meet the scale of the skills challenge that we are facing.
I know that the Minister is aware that the Science and Technology Committee has been taking a keen interest in the higher education and research Bill. I am glad to see that a number of the concerns raised by the community have been taken on board already. In particular, I am glad to see that the timetable for the teaching excellence framework has been amended and that the technical paper has been published alongside it, although, as we have heard, there will be a rigorous debate not only on the timetable but on the quality and metrics measures that will be appropriate to ensure that the TEF delivers what it is intended to deliver.
I also welcome the restatement of the Haldane principle and the Government’s intention to enshrine the dual support system into law, but bringing all funding into UK Research and Innovation—UKRI—will require a separation in practice as well as in principle if we are to preserve the excellence-based allocation on which our world-leading system is founded. The quality of leadership, not just at UKRI level but at research council level, will play a key role in delivering this, but we cannot leave the health of our science and innovation system to the whim of personality. We have to ensure that the structures we set in place safeguard the autonomy and the strong voices of our existing research councils while achieving the stated goal of better interdisciplinary working. With a single accounting officer, I fear that this will be challenging.
There has also been concern about merging Innovate UK into UKRI, some of which was based on the fact that Innovate UK’s budget is not ring-fenced and some on fears about annexation. Many have welcomed the renaming of Research UK as UKRI as it puts innovation right at the heart of the organisation’s agenda and, obviously, innovation funding has been hypothecated. In practice, however, questions still remain. How will Innovate UK retain a clear, separate, business-facing focus and not become research facing? In the new structure, how will we stimulate our innovation sector so that it comes to match our research sector for excellence and efficiency? To achieve that, we need to know where we are going. What is the vision for not only the Higher Education and Research Bill, but this clutch of innovation-driven Bills? How will we ensure that we join them up seamlessly against all the natural impetus of the Whitehall machine?
On higher education, the Government have been clear about their intent that competitiveness and the TEF will raise teaching standards, increase transparency and drive improvements in diversity. Few would argue with those aims. In research and innovation, however, the scale of change does not seem to be matched by the ambition of merging all research councils to improve interdisciplinary working. We can do better than that. Reform on such a scale is disruptive and requires buy-in. To get that buy-in, the Government need to articulate clearly their vision for the future of research and innovation and explain not only why the disruptive changes will be worth it in the end, but how we will safeguard our science and innovation ecosystem—a national treasure—from unintended harm during the process.
I welcome the fact that the proposed office for students will have oversight of the sustainability of HE, but given the effective removal of the structural link between teaching and research—one of our innovation systems’ key strengths—I would like to know who will have responsibility for monitoring the health of the whole system as we progress through the reforms. It is possible that that job is envisaged for the Council for Science and Technology in lieu of the ministerial committee, but I question its capacity to deliver in its current form. Sir Paul Nurse proposed that UKRI form closer links with the Government through a ministerial committee with a Government-wide perspective on research priorities, but the committee was supposed to be about not just horizon-scanning and health-checking, but high-level leadership and accountability for science and innovation across Government. It is not clear how the CST will be able to deliver that function.
The Chancellor has long prioritised science and innovation spending, even in times of austerity, because he recognises that the science and innovation budget is a strategic national investment, not a state subsidy. We now have a major programme of cross-Government reform to match that ambition. I congratulate the Government on recognising that we have no time to lose in backing science and innovation as a key strategic asset and a driver of our national knowledge economy, but we should be under no illusions. The Higher Education and Research Bill alone is the most far-reaching reform since the 1960s, which should not be taken lightly.
In this place, we often mention that the UK punches well above its weight in science and innovation and that we have four of the world’s top six universities, and we should be proud of our research base’s exceptional impact, but we should never forget the responsibility that that brings. As we contemplate new structures and regulations, it is our responsibility in this Chamber not only to guard jealously the health and vibrancy of our science and technology base as a strategic national asset, but to go further and ensure that our decisions do more than maintain the status quo. The decisions that we make with these innovative, forward-thinking Bills must ensure that we take this extraordinary jewel in our crown and supercharge it, matching infrastructure with skills and excellence with efficiency, and delivering in the process a science and innovation ecosystem that not only drives our economy ever more productively and creatively, but fuels the very discoveries that will unlock the great global challenges of our age.
I am grateful for being allowed to speak during this debate on the Queen’s Speech. It was a one nation speech, and I will be speaking mainly about my nation, Scotland, and my hopes to improve legislation here. This is a UK Parliament, I am elected as a Member of a UK Parliament, and—for the benefit of Government Members—I come from Scotland.
There are many things to welcome in the Queen’s Speech, but many more things could be improved on given our experiences in Scotland. It would appear that the Secretary of State for Education’s U-turn is complete and that there should be no forced academisation of schools in England, which is good. However, I have heard it rumoured that cuts to local authority education resource funding might mean that authorities do not have the cash that helps them to improve school services in their areas and that that would lead schools to become academies anyway. No proof has been provided that academisation improves educational attainment—I did not say that; Michael Wilshaw said that. The free schools model came from Sweden, where it has now been decided that such schools are a political failure. I am glad that we have neither academies nor free schools in Scotland.
Turning to the Higher Education and Research Bill, which is mainly for England, it at least has the laudable aim of improving access to higher education, which should be welcomed across the United Kingdom. However, I find it difficult to believe that widening access can actually happen under a Government that have systematically cut funding to poorer students since 2015 and before. Maintenance grants are being abolished. Disabled students’ allowances are being cut. The National Scholarship Programme has been abolished. The educational maintenance allowance, which helps poorer students in both schools and further education, has also been abolished. How can such students possibly move on and access higher education if they are crippled by debt? In England, the number of part-time students has been reduced by 38%, and there are 180,000 fewer mature students in higher education since 2010. As a former further education lecturer, I find that unconscionable. Mature students bring so much to higher and further education, so it is impossible to understand why any Government would want to reduce their chances.
In Scotland, we do not charge fees. We still pay the education maintenance allowance. We actively encourage students to move forward in higher education. We do not simply ask universities to publish information on the types of students from deprived backgrounds who are accessing their services; we have actually legislated that universities must show that they are improving access for our most disadvantaged students. That is an absolute must, and I encourage the Government to look at what Scotland has done. It is important that they not only ask, but tell universities to encourage people from BME backgrounds, disabled people and those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
One reason why many disadvantaged students do not go to university is the cost. In Scotland, we believe that students should access university based on ability, not the ability to pay. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) has had that sentiment carved into a rock in Edinburgh at Heriot-Watt University—my alma mater. It is a subject with which the majority of people in Scotland totally agree.
I most certainly will, but I remind the hon. Lady that the First Minister, who has been re-elected on a huge mandate, has put education at the heart of her Government and has asked to be judged on her progress.
Many people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would agree with me that university fees are a huge barrier to higher and further education.
I have great respect for the hon. Lady as she has taught within this system. However, it does not seem like a good one nation system, because if my son were to go to university in Scotland, not only would he have to do a four-year course rather than a three-year one, but he would have to pay whereas his Scottish colleagues would all be going for free.
If Scotland was independent, that would not happen, because we would be members of the European Union. So the answer is: give us our independence.
Although I welcome a lot of what is in the Bill, it is important to say that encouraging mature disadvantaged people to go to university only increases the standing of any country within the UK. Everyone from across the Chamber should agree with that. Education does not just benefit the person who gets it. I stand here as someone who went to university in 1967, at a time when women did not go to university and when women of my background did not get a chance; I had very far-sighted parents who actively encouraged me to make the best of what I could. As a result of that, I have been able to contribute back to Scotland greatly. As I have said, I ended up working in further education. I do not want to name names, but for someone in this Chamber to say that education benefits only those who get it is a total piece of nonsense.
I totally agree with the hon. Lady that having more and more of our fellow citizens in higher education is good for the whole nation, which is why we are here to promote that. Does she therefore welcome the fact that the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education has increased from 13.6% in 2010 to 18.5% in 2015-16?
I welcome any increase in access for people from poorer backgrounds, but I do not think accessing education should come at the risk of being in debt for the remainder or quite a long part of someone’s adult life.
The National Union of Students in Scotland and in England has said that it is really likely that higher education fees will rise yet again here, and that just underlines my point.
Government is about choices. May I suggest that the Government get rid of Trident and plough the money into education? That is a simple choice, and it is the obvious choice for me. It may not be the obvious choice for Conservative Members, but there are other things that can be done. Being in government is about choices and this Government need to look at the choices they are making by increasing the likelihood of higher fees for university students.
Let me discuss another of the Bills in the Queen’s Speech—the Children and Social Work Bill. The Chair of the Education Committee has alluded to the fact that our Committee has a report under commission, although it is not yet ready to be published and so I have to be careful about what I say. A former report examined the situation of looked-after children and their mental health needs, and that was quite an eye-opener for me. Everything I do on the Education Committee tends to be an eye-opener, because a lot of what I do I do not understand until I have gone through the process of writing a report with the Committee, as I am dealing with a totally different situation. In Scotland, we have a system for looked-after children, and all children in fact, called “Getting it right for every child”. Our system is very child-focused and is based on an understanding of the wellbeing of the child. It tackles inequality and—[Interruption.] Sorry, I realise that I have run out of time, but thank you for allowing me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have to say, however, that prior to your arrival you missed a parade of relatively churlish speeches from Opposition Members, which I found surprising, as the Queen’s Speech appears to be a smorgasbord of legislative delights. It is a legislative Milk Tray, filled with hard and soft centres, from which one can take one’s pick—perhaps the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) was worried that he would get the coffee cream. In the Speech that he described as “rubbish” I found a huge amount of value, and I wish to take the opportunity today to run through some of the issues that will be important in the months to come.
The Children and Social Work Bill, to which the hon. Lady referred, is possibly the most important Bill in this Session. In his conference speech from October of the year before last—I believe it was then—the Prime Minister electrified the room by painting a fairly bleak picture of the lives of children in care. They are four times more likely to commit suicide, and 70% of all prostitutes in the UK have been through the care system. He told us all then that the care system shamed us all as a nation, and he was quite right. It is therefore a tribute to him and to the Minister for Children and Families that this Bill has appeared. That Minister said at the outset that his mission was to put children in care front and centre of the political debate, and he appears to have achieved that.
The Bill contains many measures that will be vital to those children’s lives in the future, but let me mention two in particular. The first is the focus on getting local authorities to realise that they are corporate parents—that these children are their charges and should not necessarily be competing for attention and resources with other issues, be it potholes, refuse or whatever it might be. We would not put our own children second to other requirements in our house, so why would we put children in care second, third or even last on the list in the priorities for a local authority? Defining more clearly for local authorities what their responsibilities are to those children, what their obligations are and the fact that they have to publish those and consult on them locally with people will be vital in creating transparency on the way these children live in all our communities.
The second measure is the concentration on leaving care. It may well be that we are not looking after these children terribly well or that we are looking after them patchily in the care system, but when they leave care our obligation to them does not cease. Providing each of them with an adviser up to the age of 25, improving leaving care services and, in particular, getting local authorities to publish their plans for leaving care and to consult on them, allowing local people to see what is being done in their name to all of our collective children, will be vital to driving standards up.
I would, however, like to see two areas added to the Bill, so I put the Minister on notice here. First, if it is right that children leaving care should have an adviser up to 25, surely it is also right that we look earlier in their lives at how we might be able to influence their outcomes in their adult life. In particular, I am thinking about what happens where educational attainment is extremely low. It strikes me that a sensible thing to do for those children who are underachieving—this is what any parent would do—is to try to look for assistance outside of school. In London, there is this strange phenomenon whereby parents of underperforming children who are entitled to free school meals are still managing to scrape together the money to pay for a tutor. I do not understand why officials in local authorities do not look at children in care as they would their own children and say, “If they are underachieving, we should be providing them with tutors.”
The Government have done lots around designated teachers, and there is more to come in this Bill, and lots around virtual headteachers, but there is no substitute for one-to-one assistance for children in care as they go through education, particularly the early years. Four, five, six and seven are critical ages for setting the foundation for future life. If those children were to get one-to-one tuition, as the most privileged kids—and often non-privileged kids—do in our society, it would make a big difference.
Order. I am really sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but now that we are in the second Session of this Parliament, I cannot allow Members to use the word “you” when they mean the hon. Gentleman. If one says “you”, one means the Chair. We were quite easy on that during the first part of this Parliament, but from now on, Members must observe these niceties correctly please. The hon. Lady may finish her intervention.
Madam Deputy Speaker, may I say that you make an exceedingly good point? I am suitably reprimanded. The point that I was trying to make is that these suggestions in relation to the care system link very well with our reforms of the prison system. Too often, people in prison have gone through many care systems themselves.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come on to some of those points a little later. Incidentally, Madam Deputy Speaker, “youse” is a term of abuse in Liverpool, so you absolutely should not allow that in the Chamber.
Secondly, private schools have charitable status, and I wonder whether there is more we can do to encourage them to take on children in care. By my maths, if each private school were to take about 20 children, which is not a huge amount in a school of 400 to 600, it would mean that every child in care could go to a private school. Given that those schools benefit from charitable status, they should look a little further than their local community and consider allowing some of our more disadvantaged children to take advantage of the facilities that they provide. I look forward to helping that Bill through its passage, as it will be incredibly valuable.
Let me rattle through some other issues. The initiatives that are proposed on prisons, courts reform, and policing and crime, which allow for greater innovation, will be vital. As a famous Labour politician once said:
“I bear the scars on my back”
from trying to do a moderate amount of innovation in the criminal justice system at Feltham. We attempted to look at youth offending from a different point of view. It was an incredibly difficult and bureaucratic process. In the end, the attempt foundered in a morass of something like 19 organisations that were required to agree and a Ministry of Justice that was broadly reluctant. Getting innovation into the criminal justice system and giving people on the ground the ability to create and design their own solutions to the problems that we face, such as education in prisons, will be absolutely key.
The Digital Economy Bill is incredibly exciting for those of us who have rural constituencies, as it recognises that 25% of all small businesses—that is half a million small businesses—are registered in rural area. Allowing people to have the right to demand a universal service obligation of 10 megabits for their internet is absolutely critical. Twelve per cent. of GDP now comes to the internet in the UK, so, if we are to grow as an economy, it is vital that we connect up all the people.
Many of us have neighbourhood plans in our constituencies. I have several going to referendum this year, and one is going through already. If the Government are to get people to take up their planning policy, it is vital that neighbourhood planning is strengthened and protected. I understand that the neighbourhood planning Bill is designed to do that. In particular, it will allow local authorities greater scope to protect their own five-year housing supply figures, so that developers cannot constantly challenge them, or wear them down by a war of attrition in the courts and with the planning inspectors, to get their way on speculative developments. There will be many Members from rural communities and elsewhere who will be watching that Bill with care.
The modern transport Bill is very exciting. If we are to be at the forefront of developments, we need to grab this technology for ourselves, rather than, as the British normally do, allow the Japanese to miniaturise it and the Americans to consumerise it. We should take some of the things that we have invented and try to exploit them. Although modern transport is largely focused around autonomous cars, I urge Ministers to look at the hydrogen economy. There is absolutely no doubt that the fuel cell is coming. In California, Toyota has already launched the Mirai, the next generation Prius. It is a hydrogen fuel cell car. Powered by hydrogen, the car emits only water. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and holds out the option of extremely cheap power for all of us, and so using this Bill to accelerate our adoption of that technology is key.
Finally, the better markets Bill holds out enormous promise for consumers, in particular those who want to shift banks. I have one plea: please may we use the Bill to get rid of the requirement to produce utility bills wherever we go? For those of us who pay by direct debit and are paperless, those things are anachronistic, and the foresters of Britain will rejoice at the trees that will not be required to be felled as a result.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse). I agreed with much of what he said. It is also good to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), who made a powerful speech about the current devolution offer from the Government. He is right to raise concerns, but the deal that has been presented must be a stepping stone to the real devolution that the north-east deserves. I hope that Gateshead can find its way back to rejoin the process, as we are much stronger together as a region.
I, along with many Members on both sides of the House, cautiously welcomed the climbdown that appeared to have taken place from the nonsensical idea of forcing all schools down the path of academisation by 2020. It is true that the education for all Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech did not include the wholesale forced academisation of our schools through legislation, but the Government continue to state that the Bill is being brought forward
“to lay foundations for educational excellence in all schools, giving every child the best start in life”—
an aim which every Member in this Chamber shares—but that this will be done by moving
“towards a system where all schools are academies, and all schools are funded fairly.”
Despite there being no evidence that academisation leads to improved performance, we are informed that one of the main “benefits” of the Bill will be to
“convert schools to academies in the worst performing local authorities and those that can no longer viably support their remaining schools, so that a new system led by good and outstanding schools can take their place.”
Given that the education services grant, which funds local authority spending on school improvement services, the management of school buildings and the tackling of non-attendance, was cut by £200 million, or 20%, in 2015-16, and is to be cut by £600 million, or 75%, from 2016-17 to 2019-20, it would be helpful if the Minister could clarify which councils the Government expect will still be able to support their local schools viably in such financial circumstances.
As the National Association of Head Teachers has pointed out, the Bill will mean that
“good and outstanding schools can still be made to convert, regardless of the professional judgement of school leaders, the opposition of parents and the best interests of local communities. Schools have had the chance to convert over many years, and many have considered and rejected this as a way forward.”
Of course, we know that many other schools are already “choosing”—I put that non-modal verb in inverted commas—to go down the path of academisation because they would rather jump before they are pushed. Many will have started down that path following the announcement of forced academisation of all schools at the Budget, and will continue down it because they can see that the Government’s professed U-turn and promises of having listened to everyone’s concerns are clearly not all that they are cracked up to be.
The education for all Bill also promises to make school funding fairer, with a national funding formula that will ensure that
“schools with the same kinds of pupils get the same funding.”
Can the Minister clarify whether the Government intend to go ahead with the area cost adjustment multiplier to the formula, which would see schools in my region, the north-east, losing out?
As the Director of Schools NorthEast commented:
“Ironically, the Government risks fuelling the North-South divide in education by proposing to fund schools with similar characteristics differently, based on their location. This means that our region will be losing funds to the south, where most high-cost areas are located. The rationale behind this is flawed.”
These concerns are extremely timely, given the findings of an IPPR North report earlier this week that secondary schools in the north of England—or the northern powerhouse, to give us our correct title—are receiving £1,300 per pupil less than schools in London. The situation needs rectifying, and quickly, if the northern powerhouse is ever to become anything more than an empty announcement.
The Children and Social Work Bill seeks to shorten the time it takes for children to be placed in a secure, stable, loving family, as well as placing additional duties on local authorities to ensure that children and young people leaving the care system are provided with support. Again, there is not a Member in the House who would not support those aims.
We have only to look at the Prison Reform Trust report by Lord Laming, which was published this week, to be reminded that too many of our children in care are being let down. The report found that up to half the children in custody in England and Wales have been in the care system at some point. Indeed, 23% of the adult prison population have been in care, which suggests that something has gone badly wrong in our system.
As Barnardo’s has highlighted, the Bill is the second piece of legislation to address adoption in as many years, so the Government’s rhetoric really must now be translated into action on the ground. However, as Barnardo’s also made clear, this is a complex challenge. Three thousand children in the UK are waiting to be adopted, and they are waiting an average of two years, although some wait as long as three and a half years if they are older. I therefore strongly welcome any measures that will genuinely and sustainably help to speed the process up.
For those leaving the care system—about 10,000 young people in England each year—the Government pledge to ensure there is greater support, as well as the right to a personal adviser up to the age of 25. Everybody would welcome both those moves because current service provision simply does not meet demand, and I would argue that that is because one crucial piece of the jigsaw is missing. The “It’s time” campaign by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has powerfully highlighted that almost two thirds of children and young people entering the care system have experienced abuse and neglect, and they are more likely to have mental health needs. However, we are not properly counting and tracking abused and neglected children, including those in the care system, so we do not know whether they are receiving the correct therapeutic support, at the time they need it, to rebuild their lives.
The findings of the Education Committee’s inquiry into the wellbeing and mental health of looked-after children, which was published last month, were truly stark, and they simply must be addressed if the Government are serious about tackling this issue. The Committee heard incredibly powerful evidence from a 16-year-old woman, who told us she had been waiting for child and adolescent mental health services for more than two and a half years but that she had been unable to access them because she had not been in a stable placement—indeed, she had been moved 13 times during that period. CAMHS are often unwilling to treat a child if they move placement, even if that is within the same local authority area. That is clearly unacceptable and, indeed, counterproductive.
It is no good pledging support to children and young people leaving the care system if they are not provided with the support they need on entering it. That is why the Education Committee rightly recommended that all children should have specialist mental health assessments on entering care and regularly throughout their time in care and that they should receive timely and appropriate advice before they reach crisis point. We need to see that key change if we are to increase the number of successful adoptions and long-term placements and to improve the outcomes for those leaving the care system. That is a fundamental building block in achieving the aims I have set out—it is not an added extra—and I strongly urge the Government to consider including it in their reforms.
Education is the building block of our society; it is the foundation of all opportunities. That is why I am delighted the Government are putting at the heart of these proposals the objective of achieving greater social mobility and of ensuring that we have a fine education standard for all.
Delivering on the Conservative party’s manifesto pledge of a new national funding formula is something I am proud of and something that will ensure that all schools in Chippenham get the money they deserve. A fairer funding system is something I have campaigned for for a long time—from well before the election—and I pay tribute to all the members of the fairer funding campaign f40, as well as to the thousands of pupils, parents and teachers in my constituency, and in constituencies up and down the country, who put pressure on the Government to achieve a fairer system early.
For too long, school funding has been extremely unfair towards pupils, particularly in rural areas and market towns. Successive Governments have done generations of children a disservice and, fundamentally, an injustice. The effects have been exacerbated in rural areas, where services are far more expensive to deliver.
The most important aim of the new education Bill is to close the productivity gap between the UK and other countries. The skills plan represents an ambitious reform of technical education to ensure that young people are equipped with the skills they need to succeed. The simple fact is that an under-skilled workforce limits a company’s growth and prospects, and, in turn, the prospects of the country. If our labour supply does not match our jobs market, companies are forced to locate elsewhere, or to close. This threat is real and pertinent in my constituency, and I hear of it week in, week out.
The UK is the 11th-biggest manufacturer in the world, and I was delighted to hear measures in the Queen’s Speech to support the electric car industry. That is a massive opportunity for us that I hope will help Wiltshire businesses. I hope that we can capitalise on it, as can other areas of the country.
Investment in research and development is certainly welcome, but it will be successful only when it is coupled with a further improvement in our education and when we address the skills gap to ensure that we remain competitive in research and development. We must not forget about our severe shortage of engineers. According to the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the country will need almost 2 million extra engineers over the next seven years. This shortage could severely limit our ability to make the most of the Government’s investment.
There are, yes, more teachers with degrees and more pupils studying maths and sciences, but there are still massive shortages. The number of females and those from socially deprived backgrounds in STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—careers remains drastically low. The proportion of women in engineering is just 6%. Something needs to be done to address this, and I hope that the new education Bill will go some way towards that.
We need to improve our career education system. I am delighted by what the Government have already done to join up the link between business and schools. Sheldon School in my constituency, which I visited last week, has just launched an excellent and innovative scheme that focuses on a membership of local businesses that support career education, advice and opportunities for young people, in turn funding their work experience programme. This is the blueprint of what we should be doing up and down the country. I would like to invite the Minister, or the Secretary of State if she has the time, to the opening on 5 July of this programme, which we could utilise elsewhere. It would place an emphasis on local labour market intelligence and inform young people about the local jobs available. Informed education and career choices will ensure that areas such as Wiltshire retain some of its young so that we can reverse the draining away of youth that is happening in constituencies like mine and safeguard our high-tech and engineering hub to ensure that young people have the skill sets to do the jobs available.
It is quite simple, really: to make our economy productive we need to have an education system that is productive. The Minister will know full well that I have regularly campaigned to get design and technology made part of the EBacc. For too long, design and technology and engineering subjects have been misunderstood, stigmatised and stereotyped. If we are to plug the ever-growing skills gap, we need to address this, and the widely acknowledged productivity crisis, head on. We must listen to business and take urgent action. I am confident that the education Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech will take some good steps towards addressing our productivity crisis.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very important that we look to all businesses? I have been approached by bakers and clockmakers in my constituency who find that the apprenticeship scheme needs a little more flexibility in order to cope with small business needs as well as those of the large ones she has mentioned.
I am delighted by my hon. Friend’s excellent point. We do indeed need to make sure that we are supporting all businesses. Bakers, plumbers, electricians and so on are the backbone of our economy, and very important to constituencies like ours.
The Government are rightly pushing ahead with ensuring that education is rigorous and that students get the key skills and core skills that they need in the workplace. I fully support this, and I would never, ever suggest that it is anything but a robust and clear plan. However, the push towards the EBacc in its current form threatens to undermine the progress being made and does not address the stigma against design and technology and engineering. I hope that the new education Bill will address this. I would like the vastly improved, highly academic, highly scientific design and technology GCSE that we now have to include the option of a science element. There is huge support for this within the business community, who are crying out for change. Let me be clear: this would not represent a U-turn on policy but would be a minor change to strengthen, improve and safeguard the Ebacc. Given the scientific and academic nature of the new design and technology GCSE, which this Government have invested heavily in and done a great deal of work on, there will be no outcry from other vocational subjects, because this is a totally different matter.
There is also a precedent with computer science, which was introduced to the EBacc because of shortages in the field. Yet that does not make a lot of sense when the shortages in design and technology, manufacturing and engineering are far greater than those in the digital industries.
What I am proposing is that design and technology be included as a science-based option, just like computer science, but that there should be an either/or choice so that students can pick between the two. That would ensure that it does not water down the EBacc or its academic rigour; instead, it would enhance it. It would also enhance the status of the excellent route into research, development, design and manufacturing provided by design and technology, as well as highlight that this Government have yet again listened to the business community and acknowledged the needs of our future economy.
Design and technology is the only subject that puts maths and physics to practical use, and there is no comparable IT-based course for a career in the industry. In fact, design and technology is one of the only subjects that produces a clear pipeline to a career in that sector. We all believe in giving students a choice and the best opportunities for their future.
The simple change I am proposing would be about what businesses, the economy and, if we are honest, students need. It would highlight that the Government understand the need to align our education system more with the economy and give the young the best opportunity in life. If we are to remain at the forefront of global product design, we must take action. I believe that bolstering the design and technology GCSE for inclusion in the EBacc would be an important step towards addressing the skills shortage, safeguarding the future of the subject and supporting skills and British businesses.
As I have said to the Prime Minister in Prime Minister’s questions, the skills shortage is a ticking time bomb. In my constituency, it is one of the key challenges that we face, and I am confident that the measures announced in the Queen’s Speech will take some significant steps towards addressing the skills gap and boosting our productivity. I hope that the measures in the proposed Bill will go far enough to tackling this very important issue.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who made passionate speeches about the importance of our young people.
It is difficult to discuss skills and education and the Queen’s Speech, given what is going to happen on 23 June —which is not so much the elephant as the circus in the room—and the effect it will have on the choices we make, but I am going to give it a go. It is remarkable to hear this Government now saying that increasing the life chances of the most disadvantaged is a priority for them. Given the choices they have made over the past five years, that is like a dentist offering someone anaesthetic after he has taken out their wisdom teeth for no reason.
“Life chances” is one of those phrases that we often use but seldom define, but definition and detail matter, as does determination—the determination to do what it takes to ensure that every person from every background has every opportunity to achieve their potential. I want to set out my fears about how, in today’s ever-changing world, we are running out of time to acknowledge that that means doing things completely differently.
Everyone in this House is proud of the young people we represent. We see their ability and the factors that make the difference between them realising it and wasting it. I do this job because I think that somewhere in my community is a kid who could cure cancer, if only they had the right opportunities to unlock their talents. Imagine how we would all benefit if that happened. That is where we come in: our job is to make sure that they have those pathways to be the kinds of people they can be and change all our lives.
That is where this Queen’s Speech misses the mark. We act as if opportunity is the ladder we have all known and that, to improve life chances for all, we simply need to get more of the next generation to repeat the same steps we took—go to school, go to university and settle into a career. If we are honest, we will admit that it was not that simple or open for us. Most of us can point to the points in our lives when we had a helping hand up that ladder, including good parents, good teachers and good networks. They all opened doors closed to others, by which I mean not just schools and universities, but internships and job interviews, too. The world is changing so quickly that if we are really to change the life chances of today’s 15-year-olds, we need to do more than open up the old boys’ or old girls’ network. We need to see opportunity as less a ladder than a maze, with many different doors, directions and routes to take.
Is it not the case that to give young people opportunity we really need more good and outstanding schools, producing fantastic standards, so that they can go on and fulfil their dreams? That is what we need, and that is what the Government are delivering, is it not?
If the hon. Gentleman will let me continue, I hope I will convince him to think bigger. When I was involved in the scouts, we always said that the key to understanding youth work was to recognise that although everybody has been a 15-year-old, not everybody has been a 15-year-old in today’s world. If we really want to improve the life chances of today’s young people, they do not just need our help to get them a job. They do not seek an industry or a profession. They live in a world in which, it is predicted, they will hold seven different careers, two of which are yet to be invented.
Each generation has faced change, but this generation will see it not just in their lifetime, but within a decade. The real challenge to their future prospects is not Romanian immigrants, but robots. Just as Friends Reunited was overtaken by Facebook, so technology is replacing not just manual labour but skilled labour—prescriptions filled, legal forms checked, cars driven and retail services replaced. It is a time of peril and potential: adapt or fall behind. There is little certainty to be had and little time to catch our breath. But the fact that the world moves so quickly means that people can keep learning new skills or reapplying those that they have to the new opportunities that arise. There are more second chances than ever before.
Not only are we failing the next generation by not acting to help them to navigate the world that is to come, but I fear that the measures in the Queen’s Speech could reinforce the inequalities that already define life chances for so many. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has demonstrated that graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more than their less wealthy counterparts, even when they take similar degrees from similar universities.
That is not just happening at university. Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research shows that even at good and outstanding schools, there are large attainment gaps between rich and poor students. The OECD states that of all the countries it surveyed, the UK has the biggest gap in literacy and problem-solving skills between 16 to 19-year-olds who are not in education or employment and young employed people. Our failure to teach skills that can be transferred and that are relevant in the modern world means that too many of our young people are struggling not just in their home territory but against their European, Chinese and south American counterparts. That is not because we are members of the European Union, but because of their very British education.
As many of my colleagues have pointed out, we face the biggest skill shortage for 30 years. We have growing inequality and an outdated idea of what would fix these issues. The choices made in this Queen’s Speech about what to offer our young people give them little to prepare them for the world to come. At best, those choices will work for only a minority of young people unless they are independently wealthy—beneficiaries of the bank of mum and dad.
The education Bill is a case in point, with its obsession with turning every school into an academy, rather than turning every young person into an achiever. It works against partnership, isolating schools rather than linking them with local businesses and local communities. The Higher Education and Research Bill will put more resource into the “ladders” approach just when young people need more access—to apprenticeships, to further education and to paid internships—to open other doors. The Bill comes at the same time as the area-based review of further education seeks to close down those institutions.
Although the Government’s restatement of their commitment to sharia-compliant loans is welcome, if we fail to deal with the inequalities in resource that affect the poorest in our society in the early years, those people will continue to get a worse deal than their more affluent counterparts even if they make it to the same schools and universities.
My hon. Friend makes a compelling case for tackling some of the inequalities in our education system. She will know of the huge benefits that were derived from the London challenge. Does she recognise that that model ought to be replicated outside London, in places such as Greater Manchester? Indeed, a Greater Manchester challenge was created, but one of the first acts of this Government was to scrap it.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that there are good opportunities to create a change in results to the benefit of young people, but the Government seem to have missed them. The student loan book is bust, and university is not the only door in the maze that our young people can open to unlock their potential. We should be asking the difficult question: why, in a time of tight resources, are young people who make it through their A-levels offered a loan to go to university, but we have nothing to offer those who have a great business start-up idea? When 30% of Britain’s young people want to start a business, perhaps wanting to be the Jay-Z or the Jamal Edwards of their time, we ignore their potential—the doors they want to be opened—at our peril. This Government are focusing on the 50% of kids who do the things we see as important, not the 100% of kids who need access to the bank of mum and dad to succeed.
Money and contacts matter, as does flexibility, but none of these pieces of legislation will fundamentally tackle the inequalities that too many in our country face in accessing such skills and real-life work experience. We need to bring together not just the institutions, but the networks that can help our young people to thrive in the world to come. Ministers may tell me that the answer to the first point is their savings plan in the Queen’s Speech and all such proposals. It is certainly true to say, “Save more and you can make more choices about studying”, but lifetime ISAs will mean nothing to families who have no savings at all—those who have no spare money in the week, let alone the month.
In 2010, I stood in the Chamber and fought for the child trust fund to be saved. It was a scheme proven to help those from the poorest income backgrounds the most. In 2020, the first of them will mature, giving all 18-year-olds something—perhaps not much, but something. Instead, with the lifetime ISA, such inequalities in wealth will become even more about the difference between having money to spare and having no money at all.
Recent research shows that the bank of mum and dad bails out grown-up children an average of four times, to the value of £6,000, even after they have left home. Indeed, one in three parents have been left cash-strapped after lending money to their children. One in seven parents have had to borrow money themselves to bail out their grown-up children. This Government are reinforcing inequality, wasting potential and failing one generation while locking another into debt to try to help them. If we want to stop lagging behind our counterparts, if we really want to give our children more life chances, if we want to benefit from their potential, we have to learn to compete in the global economy, not to capsize, and that means taking a completely different approach.
Instead of what this Government are doing, we need to bring different services together. We need to link universities, businesses, schools, further education colleges and communities, not segregate them. We need to break down the old divisions between education and working life, and between conventional academic achievement and lifelong employability. We need to move away from teaching functional skills that are outdated almost as soon as they are learned. Instead, our young people need real-world learning experiences and transferable talents, such as complex problem-solving and team-working skills, much as the hon. Member for Chippenham set out. We need fundamentally to rethink how we spend resources and share them, offering loans and support not just to 50% of young people, but to 100% of them. That will end their need to have the bank of mum and dad on their side if they are going to survive the 21st century.
I therefore urge Ministers not to assume that their own life choices should define the life chances we offer all young people, but I fear that plea will fall on deaf ears. That is why this Queen’s Speech proves that, under this Government, we will always be a nation playing catch-up with our present, not shaping our own future—getting the public further into debt to keep going, not to get going, and making the bank of mum and dad the only hope to the detriment of too many and to the cost of us all.
Addressing issues with the skills base will be key to tackling the productivity gap to ensure we have a long-term successful and sustainable economy. Ensuring our young people are equipped with the skills to succeed in life needs to underpin the entire education system—schools, colleges and universities. Our young people need this, and so do our businesses. We need to ensure that our young people have the skills to contribute to our economy.
It is not our education system alone that can help to improve our young people’s life chances. The National Citizen Service is a fantastic programme that, to date, has enabled 200,000 15 to 17-year-olds to benefit from new and different life experiences. During the past couple of years, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to see at first hand the benefits gained by young people in Cannock Chase from the NCS programme delivered by Coachright. I have joined them in planning their community projects, and we have packed bags for customers in Sainsbury’s and filled boxes for the Cannock and District food bank.
The outward bound part of the programme is a great start and a real favourite with the participants. One can see how many of them have overcome a lot of fears. I have not attended that part of the programme yet, but I know the Coachright team are quite keen for me to take part to overcome one of my own fears—a fear of heights. Another blonde Member of this House is well known for experiences on a zip-wire; I only hope that if I find myself on one, I do not get stuck.
At graduation ceremonies I have seen how participants have grown in confidence, learned new leadership and team-building skills, and been truly inspired. I welcome plans to extend the scheme so that more young people from a variety of backgrounds can benefit from that life-changing experience. I also welcome the duty on schools, colleges and local authorities to make young people and their parents aware of the scheme.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is huge benefit to our young people from the last part of the programme—the social action part—under which some 6 million hours of volunteering have been invested not only in the young people themselves but in the broader economy? That is of huge benefit in teaching them several valuable life lessons.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not just about young people—the local communities really gain. As I said, we were packing bags in the local Sainsbury’s to raise money for a local charity. A wide range of community groups and charities benefit from the scheme.
Making sure that young people are aware of the different options and opportunities available, whether qualifications or career paths, is absolutely essential. I am therefore pleased that there is a new requirement on schools to inform students about apprenticeships and other vocational qualifications—after all, university is not the right option for everyone.
We must ensure that those who want to go to university get the best value from their experience, and do not graduate into non-graduate jobs. The lifting of the artificial cap on student numbers means that many more university places are being made available and record numbers of students are going to university. That is excellent news. However, the number of graduates going into non-graduate jobs is concerning. All too often, we hear students, parents and businesses ask a very worrying question: is a degree really worth it? The Higher Education and Research Bill gives us a blueprint for making what is already a great university sector even better. To date, the higher education sector has been too heavily geared towards academic research. The Bill will sharpen the focus in universities on quality teaching and on getting students into good graduate opportunities.
Alongside the Higher Education and Research Bill, the new teaching excellence framework will put in place incentives designed to drive up the standard of teaching in all universities and provide students with more clarity on where teaching is best and on the benefits that they can expect to gain from their course. That will create more competition, ensuring that all universities raise their game. The link between the TEF and tuition fees is crucial, as it provides a mechanism for ensuring that universities can remain financially sustainable, but only if they continue to drive up the quality of their teaching.
The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee looked carefully at the plans for the TEF earlier this year in our inquiry into teaching quality in higher education. Our report recognised the role that the TEF could play in ensuring that universities meet student expectations and improve on their leading international position. However, we urged the Government not to rush the TEF’s introduction, so I am pleased that the White Paper confirmed that 2017-18 will be a trial year. I am sure that the sector will welcome the opportunity to have further input into the TEF technical consultation that the Department has launched.
Our report also called on the sector to work with the Government to help develop the TEF. I hope it does so, because it is important for the sector’s future, its financial sustainability and the employment and career opportunities of our graduates, as well as for our economy. We will scrutinise the details of the Higher Education and Research Bill in the coming weeks, but it is increasingly clear—not least from their amendment—that the Opposition do not have a credible plan for higher education other than to threaten the financial sustainability of our world-class higher education sector.
Addressing the skills of our young people will be key to helping us solve the productivity puzzle. That is why I welcome the many measures set out in the Queen’s Speech that are designed to ensure our young people have the skills to get on in life.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), and I enjoyed picturing her as a blonde on a wire. I am sure she will not get stuck, and I admire the gusto with which she undertakes her role as a constituency MP. However, she did make me reflect on the introduction of the National Citizen Service, alongside the demise of our youth service. I wish the NCS well, but I regret that my local community no longer has a targeted, effective resource to deal with real and immediate problems, not just for young people, but for the wider community.
It is also a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), although I wish we had conferred a little earlier because I found myself scratching out large segments of my speech. She did a great job of explaining why the credibility of the life chances strategy will be questionable when it emerges, given the Government’s record.
I find myself pondering the term “life chances”. It is a much better term than “social mobility”, which is not particularly widely understood. I looked it up, and found that “life chances” was initially coined by Max Weber, the famous sociologist, and it is a positive thing that the Tories are taking reference from his work. My concern, however, is that the term “life chances” will become rubbished because the Government will mess things up, and will not deliver any meaningful improvement in life chances to most people in the country. The term could well go the way of “localism”, “the big society” and—increasingly in my part of the country—“the northern powerhouse”. That term is treated with utter derision and contempt, and I would hate that to happen to “life chances”. I am no one’s class warrior, but I am Labour, and we are about life chances and widening equality of opportunity. That is what we are here for—all Labour Members are in the Labour party because they are interested in life chances. [Interruption.] I am happy to take an intervention if someone wishes to make one.
It is difficult to see how the Government intend to proceed with improving life chances. They are still paying for a social mobility and child poverty commission, which writes excellent, first-class reports and commissions superb research, yet there is precious little sight of that in any Government policies. The commission makes specific recommendations that relate directly to the issues under consideration, but the Government ignore them.
We have heard from many Members who are worried about the quality of apprenticeships—I know I am, and I have seen extremely questionable examples of short, poor-quality apprenticeships that do not lead anywhere. According to the commission, we should have a target of around 30,000 higher level, level 3 apprenticeships. Life chances differ depending on what someone does when they are 16. The decisions they make then determine their life chances for the rest of their life. If they take a non-academic route, their chances of doing well later in life are greatly diminished.
My hon. Friend reminds me of the Aimhigher scheme that operated in my constituency in 2010. It was all about encouraging young people from deprived backgrounds to think that higher education was something for them—basically, it did the things that my mum and dad did to encourage me to go into higher education. Is it not a travesty for those young people that one of this Government’s first actions was to scrap Aimhigher?
It is. Our universities do not do nearly enough to encourage a broader range of people to attend their institutions. There are little schemes—I am sure there are some lovely pockets of good practice around the country; I have seen some gorgeous things with primary school children wearing hats around local universities—but their long-term impact is very weak.
We find that the life chances of non-graduates, the people who do not go on to university, are limited. Some 42% do okay: they find themselves in the top half of occupations, are relatively well paid, and receive further training and progression throughout their careers. However, men in lower-half occupations are low paid, with no progression. They make up 16% of non-graduates. They are mostly younger men and they work in lower-paying occupations. There are then the skilled but stuck. Generally, they are women in part-time work. They, too, make up 16% of non-graduates. They are mostly mothers working in low-paying occupations, such as sales and customer service, because they are unable to retrain, get childcare or part-time work in occupations for which they may well be qualified.
About 26% of non-graduates are young, tend to have children and have low qualifications. Again, they are mainly women. They are at real risk of getting stuck. They may have messed up and not done so well in their GCSEs. Perhaps they did not get any advice on what was best for them and made a poor choice. They may have ended up doing hairdressing, beauty therapy or going into another low-paid profession because their friends were doing it and the alternatives were not explained to them. It is now almost impossible for them to get out of that profession and into something with a real chance of progression. If we are talking about life chances, it is this stage in education—if I could fix one thing—that really needs to be addressed. It is underfunded and ignored. There is no decent advice for young people before they make these decisions.
One recommendation from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission is for a common access point. For young people going to university there is the UCAS system. They make their application and are supported through the process. There are deadlines and they understand the process. There is a whole host of information about the outcomes, routes and destinations available on the internet. There is nothing like that for those trying to get on a further education course and that needs to be addressed.
The hon. Lady is making an extremely interesting and apposite speech. As the father of five children who have gone through the age of 16, your point—sorry, the hon. Lady’s point; forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I deserve to be hanged—about the age of 16 being a crucial time for decision making is so very important. I just want to reinforce that point, having watched five children go through the age of 16. It is so incredibly important. People should recognise that 16 is the golden age.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is great to have support across the House on this point.
On GCSE and A-level results days we send out tweets congratulating young people, schools and parents. In our constituencies and nationally, there is a sense of an event. There is nothing like that attention, celebration or recognition for non-academic, post-16 qualifications. We do not have the same sense of a nation coming together to recognise the achievement of our young people when they receive their NVQ level 3 in whatever it might be.
Such an inequality of status in qualifications at that age is wrong and something we need to address if we are serious about promoting non-graduate routes into the professions. Let us be honest: most of us will be encouraging our children to take a certain route, involving A-levels and university, because we know that that is how a person gets the best chances. Until non-graduate or non-academic qualifications post-16 bring with them the same opportunities, life chances, employment opportunities and pay, life chances will remain desperately unequal and how well someone succeeds will have nothing to do with what they know but will depend on who they know, who advises them and—even worse—who their parents know. We will not have equality of life chances until we address that simple issue.
It is a great pleasure to follow the considered tone of the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), whose speeches I always greatly enjoy.
Every year since I was elected in 2010, I have been overwhelmed by the pageantry associated with the Queen’s Speech, particularly the horses and the evocative sights and sounds that accompany the occasion. For a variety of reasons, however, I have never been able to speak in the Queen’s Speech debate, so I am pleased to do so today.
I welcome the legislative programme, especially the focus on life chances, which has featured so much in today’s debate. The focus on the life chances of the most disadvantaged is widely welcomed across the House. In some ways, it is becoming a competition to see which party can be the most progressive, which is a terrific way to proceed. I particularly welcome the proposed Bill on prison reform. Clearly, time in prison is designed to punish, but just as important is rehabilitation, as we are acknowledging more today than ever before, so that Bill will be hugely important.
The theme of today’s debate is education, skills and training, but because those policy areas are devolved in my constituency, they are not matters on which I want to contribute directly. It is logical, however, that I speak about the Wales Bill, which will cover education in Wales. The House might have observed the growing tradition of having a Wales Bill in every Queen’s Speech—pretty much every Queen’s Speech has had a Wales Bill since I have been here. We do not know what will be in the Wales Bill, but we have a fair idea, because the last Parliament considered a draft Wales Bill in great detail. We can hazard a pretty good guess, therefore, about what will be in this one.
We expect to see the Bill fairly soon—the rumour is that it will be finished before the summer—and that its aim will be to deliver a stronger, more stable and financially accountable devolved settlement in Wales. The journey towards the institution of government in Wales began many decades ago, but the first major step was the 1997 referendum on whether to establish it. I did not support the idea of a Welsh Assembly in 1997—I campaigned against it—mainly because I thought we were being sold a pup: an unstable and illogical institution that, as it stood, was doomed to failure. But Wales voted yes by the narrowest of margins.
I was driving home from the count in the early hours of the morning on 19 September 1997 and I did what Conservatives tend to do; I came to terms with the new situation—something that some of us might find ourselves doing on 24 June. It was decided that there would be a Welsh Assembly elected by the additional member proportional representation system, which virtually guaranteed a Labour or Labour-led Administration. I committed to the Assembly and became a Member. I was a Member for eight years and probably would still be, had it not been for how the PR system works. I sometimes look on serving as an MP as compensation for losing my position in the Welsh Assembly.
I look forward to participating in the debate on the Wales Bill, and I know there will be many differing opinions, including within my own party. Fundamentally, my position on what change is necessary is that we need devolution of responsibility for income tax. That is the main reason why I want to speak in today’s debate. I believe it to be crucial to a stable Welsh Government.
When I first began raising this viewpoint, perhaps two or three years ago, I recall gaining very little support for it and I felt quite isolated, but that is not the case today. My view is informed by my experience as a Conservative spokesman for finance in the National Assembly for Wales. Every year we went through what we referred to as a “budget process”. It was not really that, however; it was a spending plan. A budget needs consideration on both sides of the ledger—how to raise money and how to spend it. That is where I want the devolutionary process to move so that we can reach that position.
One proposal in the Wales Bill will be to rename the National Assembly as a Parliament—“the Welsh Parliament”. I agree with that and I am supportive of it, but it cannot be called a genuine Parliament if it does not have responsibility for raising part of the money it pays in spending. We have just had a Welsh general election, in which parties other than the Conservative party were basing their campaigns on attacking the Conservative Government at Westminster for not providing enough money for what they wanted to do. That is fine, but it is not what a Welsh general election should be based on. Both sides of the ledger need to be available.
My personal view—quite a strong opinion that I have expressed before—is that unless the Wales Bill includes granting the Assembly the responsibility for levying income tax, and a significant amount of it proportionally, the Bill will deserve to fail. Without financial accountability for the Welsh Government, not one iota more of power should be transferred to the Welsh Parliament. That is absolutely my view.
There will be other red lines when the Wales Bill comes before us. I hope that all parties will come together—this will be necessary—to consider positively how to take the Bill forward. We know that significant changes will be made to the draft Bill, and that the number of powers reserved to Westminster will be far fewer than we were expecting on the basis of the draft Bill. The necessity tests that were in the draft Bill and caused a great deal of concern, particularly on the part of the Welsh Government, are now gone. There are two changes, but there will be other disputed areas where we will need good will to come up with an answer.
The establishment of a Welsh jurisdiction is one area. Over the last three or four years, a body of Welsh law has been developed. Do we need a separate Welsh jurisdiction to deal with it? I think not, but all parties will have to come together to decide how to take that forward in the Bill. What of policing? Should it, along with other emergency services, be devolved? There will be a big dispute about that, so we will have to come together to think about how to deal with it. The same applies to broadcasting. Many people think broadcasting should be devolved, but equally, many people do not.
Delivering a new Wales Bill will not be easy. It is going to be a big challenge for a new Secretary of State for Wales. It is going to need Members of all parties to look positively about how to reach a new agreed position. This will mean working positively here in Westminster and indeed in Cardiff Bay if we are to deliver the stable government in Wales that we all want.
I apologise for missing the Minister’s opening peroration. I am sure it was very impressive and persuasive.
Politicians are, generally speaking, good talkers but poor listeners. However, I and many others listen carefully to the Queen’s Speech. I also try to listen to the Minister for Schools, the Secretary of State for Education and the Department. Indeed, I listened carefully to their avowed policy aims: excellence, opportunity, development and employability—and I applaud them. It is the explanation of their methods, their solutions and their prescriptions that I have a problem with: the restructuring, the tinkering and the arbitrary diktats. Frankly, that is what most people have a problem with when it comes to this Government’s particular policies, but I still try to listen carefully to the arguments even for this. I have picked out three features of their standard arguments that trouble me—what I would call three persistent fallacies, or three repeated mantras—which I shall briefly sketch. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond, because I mean this to be a helpful critique.
First, I do not know whether the Minister is familiar with the great Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, but he drew a distinction between good and bad theories. Good theories are testable and, in principle, falsifiable, while bad theories can never be tested, and are never falsifiable. Mindful of that, I have listened when the Minister has cited learned or professional opinion in support of Government policy, and I have heard good evidence and good support; but I have also listened when the Minister has declared that the total absence of any learned or professional backing for some policies is sure evidence that the Government are doing something challenging, difficult, important and, of course, right. Either way, the Government are correct, and the policy is simply unfalsifiable.
The second fallacy follows on from that. When Government policy prompts howls of protest from professionals and teachers—as it often does—that tends to suggest to the Government that the provider interest is being challenged in the interest of the pupils. Recently, they have talked darkly of “vested interests”. That assumes, erroneously, that it is, or could be, in the interests of teachers not to deliver lessons that are relevant, appropriate and interesting to pupils, and aligned with pupils’ development and capabilities. Well, just try doing that—not delivering good lessons—if you are a teacher. Teachers who try not to do it, in any educational context, generally crash and burn. The conflict of interests is simply an illusion.
The third fallacy to which I wish to draw the Minister’s attention is the tendency to announce a policy with a laudable objective, which is designed to solve a problem but which is of doubtful efficacy, and then to suggest that rather than its being subjected to proper assessment, it is necessary to press on with it immediately and imperatively. That was the language that surrounded the “coasting schools” debate. No day could be lost, it was said, or the pupil would suffer irrecoverably and would never catch up. Unevidenced policy must be applied forthwith. We can imagine how much harm would be done if the same policy were applied in medical circles.
I have invented none of that. Those are the standard arguments that I have heard put by a beleaguered Department from the Government Front Bench—and I do, genuinely, try to listen.
Let us forget the dogma and the prejudice behind the policy for a moment, and look only at the logic. The logic of the Government’s position is quite troubling. Dark talk about specific vested interests—I do not know whether that refers to the unions, the teachers, the parents or the academics—or talk of what used to be known as “The Blob” smacks of paranoia rather than rationality and critical thinking, of which the Government are supposedly in favour. Always seeing critics as enemies is the mark of a zealot, not a feature of sane, leisured policy making. Let me impress on the Government that I am in favour of sane, leisured policy making, and of buying in from as many stakeholders as possible.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), although I cannot say that I agreed with all his analytical comments about logic.
Unlike many Opposition Members, I find much to recommend in the Queen’s Speech, given the cornucopia of Bills that it contains and all the opportunities that they will engender. I am delighted to see that education is at the heart of the Speech. As many Members have said, we owe it to our children to give them the very best education that we possibly can, and the Government are transforming education by extending the principles of freedom and accountability, particularly in the Higher Education and Research Bill. One of the key roles of higher education is, of course, to equip our young people with the tools that they need to enter the working world, thus benefiting businesses and enabling those young people to earn a good living—and, even better, a fulfilling living.
In Taunton Deane we have a number of excellent higher education institutions, including Richard Huish College, which is among the top 10 sixth-form colleges in the country, and Somerset College. Despite their excellent contributions, however, it is clear from my many discussions with businesses and with students themselves that there is something of a skills gap in Taunton Deane. The same point has been raised by many other Members, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan). Too often, we are losing the brightest and best of our students. They are going elsewhere, despite Taunton Deane being a lovely place to live. This is affecting the productivity of the area, which is slightly below the average for the country, and we need to address that. How are we going to do this? The idea is to get a university, to retain our young people and even to draw others in from elsewhere.
So I welcome the provisions in the higher education and research Bill to aid the establishment of new universities, to provide opportunities for people of all backgrounds. A university education is one of the best ways of improving the life chances of young people. I was delighted to raise this with the Prime Minister last week on the opening day of debates on the Queen’s Speech, and to get a resoundingly positive response from him. Hon. Members will have guessed that I have just the place for a university. It is of course the county town of Taunton. I am not just making this up; many discussions have already taken place with the various stakeholders.
The essential thing will be to ensure that a university provides the courses that will give the students the skills that are required. I suggest that it could focus on such subjects as health training and community health, given that we have the excellent Musgrove Park Hospital just down the road. The local college is already running some courses of that kind. Similarly, there could be an emphasis on nuclear or low-carbon energy, as we have Hinkley Point just over the way. A university could also build on our aeronautical strengths, given that we have a number of such businesses in the area. It is early days, but I am optimistic that we might be able to move this forward under this exciting new Bill.
While I am on the subject of universities, I must add that I support the Bill’s endeavours to make universities and, particularly, lecturers more accountable for what they deliver. I declare an interest: I have two daughters who have been through the university system, and the amount of input they got from their lecturers was often a subject for discussion around our dinner table. I shall not name any names, but they told me that they were sometimes getting as few as one or two lectures a week, even though they were paying hard-earned money for their courses—or they will be later, when they start paying it back. I therefore absolutely support that measure. We must ensure that our universities are delivering what our students need and that that is aligned to what business requires.
I shall turn now to the proposals on the education of younger children in the education for all Bill. Last week, I had a lovely visit to North Town Primary School, a beating heart in the centre of Taunton. It is surrounded by houses, but it was a lovely visit not least because the school has an excellent garden. I shall digress slightly here but I want to say that children can learn a great deal by being taught about gardening. It is good for their mental health and for health education, and they can learn about pollinators and about where their food comes from. I urge the Minister to tweak the arrangements so that we can get this into schools’ curriculums if we can.
Praise must go to the hard-working headteacher of the school, who is leading by example, and he has a team of very enthusiastic teachers. Fairer funding for schools was at the top of his agenda when he spoke to me. Many other Members have mentioned that today, and I am delighted that this Government are going to move the fairer funding issue forward. Our students in Taunton receive £2,000 less per pupil than those in the best-funded schools, which is clearly ridiculous. Our schools are doing a grand job, but just think how much better they could do if we sorted the system out. I applaud the fact that the Government are going to do that.
I want briefly to mention academisation. Madam Deputy Speaker, did you know that that word is not in the dictionary? It is not a real word, yet we are talking about education. Perhaps it will get into the dictionary now that we have mentioned it so often. Academisation really is the way forward. North Town is a primary academy and it is working really well. The staff are very pleased with their ability to take charge of their own budget and to drive their own ideas forward. Almost all the schools in Taunton Deane are now academies, and they are good models. I would just like to bend the Minister’s ear and say that an injection of capital would not go amiss for many schools, because some would love to update their facilities or indeed just have a lick of paint.
To return to my starting point, a sound and well-planned framework for education will ensure a positive, productive and fulfilling future for students, whatever their background, with the consequent benefits to the economy. With the education for all Bill and the Higher Education and Research Bill, I am confident that we will move forward and sort out the skills gap and productivity issues in Taunton Deane.
I have a few more seconds, so I will just mention the neighbourhood planning and infrastructure Bill. So many people have come to me because they want more say in local planning, so I applaud what is coming through. I am told that the Bill will enable us to sort out the legal framework that will enable us to set the precept on our council bills to fund the Somerset Rivers Authority. We are waiting for that and very much look forward to it being brought forward. I do not know whether we can get a view on that, but my people in Somerset will be delighted if we can move it forward. I commend the Bill and all its excellent opportunities.
It is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate, which provides an opportunity to make observations and comments on the entire Gracious Speech. I was pleased to see that the Government intend to bring in legislation to deal with reform of the prison system and bring forward provisions regarding adoption and children in care. Previous Labour Governments spent billions and billions of pounds on the education and health sectors, and put money into rehabilitation programmes and detoxification centres, so I am pleased about these provisions, which should help to tackle some of the issues and challenges in our prison system.
I am disappointed, however, that several things are not included in the Gracious Speech, and I will touch first on a couple of international issues. All Governments, irrespective of their political complexion, have systematically failed to deal with two of the oldest historical disputes that followed the collapse of the British empire after the second world war. On Palestine and Israel, the Prime Minister has accepted that the state of Israel has undertaken half a million illegal settlements and the collective punishment of the people of Gaza. It is one of the biggest festering wounds in the middle east, and it needs to be resolved properly. On Kashmir, a UN resolution from 1948 states that Jammu and Azad Kashmir should be restored democratically through a free, impartial plebiscite, encouraging both the nuclear states to come together to deal with the issue. As a state that was involved with the two countries, we should be able to bring the two parties together and help to find a resolution.
I was concerned, and perhaps dismayed, when I heard about the counter-terrorism proposal and how the Prevent strategy will become even harsher. The way in which the strategy has been rolled out over the past few years has shown it to be ineffective and counter-productive. It has traumatised many young people who have been subject to it, and 90% of referrals have had no follow-up action. Even when such action has happened, it did nothing much apart from traumatise young children. The Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who is present, must have heard about the numerous examples of young people being taken into the system. For example, one young person called a terraced house a “terrorist house” and another was carted off for talking about Palestine. Young children of six, seven or eight are completely traumatised by the experience of having to sit with intelligence officers and police officers. Even if they were not thinking about anything, they will certainly start thinking something after that.
I am not saying that radicalisation, of any sort, should not be dealt with or that it should be ignored, but it can be dealt with under the rubric of internet safety and teaching about online dangers, such as sexting, online bullying and child predators. One component of such training could be on violent extremism. It is a safe, sensible way of dealing with the situation, rather than trying to criminalise people. Even Sir Peter Fahy, the former chief constable of Manchester and head of Prevent, has said that Prevent is a waste of time, and the National Union of Teachers has also passed a motion to that effect. I therefore urge Ministers to re-examine the whole of Prevent, how it is being rolled out and how it is being dealt with in schools and universities. We all want to be safe. I was out of the country when the July bombings happened in London, but I used to take that bus route frequently when going to my chambers and I travelled at about that time of day. If I had not been out of the country, I could have been directly affected by that bombing. Obviously, the safety of people in this country is paramount to me and to everybody else, but the things we put in place to deal with these issues have to be effective.
I was also disappointed that the Queen’s Speech contained no mention of house building; the abolition of the current system for personal independence payment assessments; whether steps are going to be taken to get more GPs and nurses into our NHS system; and reversing the rules on pension rights for women in their 50s. There was also nothing to address the situation of pensioners who live abroad. There seem to be two sets of pensioners, with one getting inflation-linked pensions and the other not getting them, despite having paid in about the same amount. In addition, no constructive proposals have been made as to how to get children out of poverty.
I welcome the U-turn on forced academisation, but this approach of having everything academised by a certain date should also be dropped. As has been alluded to by other Members, it should be left to individual schools, along with the parents and the community, to decide whether they go for academisation. The Labour Government introduced academies, but that was for schools that were struggling; it was not brought in for schools that were already successful. Essa Academy, in my constituency, was one of the first to become an academy under the Labour Government. Its students speak 46 different languages and it has new international arrivals, yet it has been a pioneering school in the United Kingdom in the use of mobile technology in its education system. Schools from across the UK have come to see its practices, and countries in Scandinavia, such as Sweden and Denmark, are following its systems. This school is producing interactive textbooks, and that allows for the accelerated cognition of complex processes. These books will become free to the whole world. I have an invitation from the acting chief executive and the principal, Dr Chohan, for the Secretary of State to visit the school, because he feels that if it was in London, all the Ministers, shadow Ministers and so on would be visiting it. This invitation is for our shadow Secretary of State as well.
Finally, I ask the Government to consider some targeted funding for schools in socially deprived areas. What do I mean by that? I am talking about extra provision for young children who are struggling in maths and English, and who will need extra help outside the classroom. I am talking about extra money for teaching English as a foreign or second language for mothers and parents of some of these children who struggle with English. That would be a constructive step towards helping those people whom we say should be helping their children. I am talking about more provision to help schools identify issues of bullying, drug addiction and gangs bullying young people into committing crimes. A lady came to my surgery recently crying and saying that she did not know what to do about her young son, who was being pushed by gangs into criminal activity. That is not an isolated incident, and we need more targeted resources. When a child gets into trouble schools do try to deal with it, so we are reactive, but we need more proactive policies in place so that we can identify and look at the concerns, challenges and dangers.
Finally, I wish to mention something that has nothing to do with education. I want to make a plea to the Chancellor: can I have a pot of money for my constituency so that I can get the roads repaired, as they have loads of potholes in them? I am happy to send a full costing of that to him.
It is certainly a pleasure to take part in this debate on Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech. There is much that I welcome in the programme of government, and many of its measures will benefit the residents of Romsey and Southampton North.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi). I am sure that she and I agree on several measures to do with the care system and prison reform. I also wish to congratulate her because she managed to keep off the subject of the European referendum, as I shall do.
I wish to focus on education, training and skills, by which I mean all types of education and training. Sometimes I worry that we concentrate too narrowly on higher education and on those young people who are following a path to university. We must be conscious that education can happen at any age and, pretty much, in any place.
We should celebrate the fact that a teenager today might have as many as seven different careers in their lifetime and each one of those will require learning, change and an ability to adapt. Those essential life skills are introduced at school, but carry on throughout our lives. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science say that it is never too late to learn, and in this place I am sure that every single one of us can say that every day.
One of my constituents, Paul Brinklow, whom I met at one of my surgeries, is a powerful advocate for post-16 education, by which he means not just FE colleges and universities, but the learning that goes on throughout life. People have to update to use new technology, to change careers, to do apprenticeships, to take part in remote learning, and to attend language schools. The list goes on and on. Very little attention is given to that aspect of learning, and there is too little understanding of it. It does not matter whether it is a jobseeker undertaking retraining, an elderly person learning to use the internet, or a prisoner learning new skills on the path to rehabilitation, it is all part of the learning journey.
My constituent Jim Davidson does amazing work with his charity Care after Combat, specifically working with former service personnel within the prison system to enable them to be rehabilitated. He helps to find them useful and productive work, somewhere to live, and someone to mentor them, and he helps to put them back on the path to being part of society. He has worked with several prison governors. Specifically, in my local prison in Winchester, the governor, David Rogers, was one of the early pilot champions of Care after Combat’s work. When combined with education, this sort of initiative can and does have a real life-transforming impact. The success rate of the charity is quite phenomenal, and I commend the Justice Secretary for the support that he has given it. The charity is involved in a new scheme, the Road to Logistics, which helps ex-offenders who have been service personnel gain new skills and HGV licences with the haulage industry. That is all part of training and education to help them become a productive part of the workforce.
The Justice Secretary has plans to transform the prison estate, to increase the work opportunities for those in prison, and to make sure that an effective rehabilitation programme combined with educational opportunities will help to equip former prisoners for employment opportunities when they are released. Forty-six per cent. of people entering prison have literacy skills no higher than those broadly expected of an 11-year-old child. We have to use their time in prison to improve their skills and life chances—just like the 25% of prisoners who have been through the care system.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is in her place today and has heeded the concerns that some of us expressed to her about forced academisation, especially in places such as Hampshire where the local authority provides a great service to our local schools, which is recognised and appreciated by teachers, parents and governors alike. She will know that one of Romsey’s headteachers described the education White Paper as the best he had ever read. She will also know that I support academies and that the two highest performing schools in my constituency are both academies. They do a brilliant job of supporting bright young people to fulfil their potential. They collaborate with local businesses, foster talent, and encourage students to learn music and languages, to travel and to play competitive sport. That does not mean that the schools in my constituency that are not academies do not do the same. I welcome the fact that they are to be given more time to make choices about whether to academise.
I welcome the freedoms regarding the school day, and the plans to make it longer. Many private schools provide a much longer school day than those in the state sector, and they use those additional hours for sport, music, art, the combined cadet force and the Duke of Edinburgh award. They are the sort of enrichment activities that give their pupils an advantage on their UCAS applications and an advantage in life. Heather McIlroy, headteacher of The Mountbatten School, is always challenging herself and her school to provide every advantage for her pupils that they would find in the private sector. The longer day will provide more chances and is part of that picture.
Finally, I want to talk about the other end of the age spectrum. If we are talking about education for all, it is important that we look at the life chances of our pre-schoolers. A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting Chilbolton Pre-School, a typical small village pre-school with a professional staff, but in effect run by a team of incredible and dedicated volunteers. We all know that the first 1,000 days after conception are the most important in a child’s life, so we must look at early years provision and how we can make that most effective.
The set-up at Chilbolton is similar to many pre-schools up and down the country. Run out of the local cricket pavilion, it operates five days a week, but with set-up and take-down required at the beginning and end of every week. In many ways it is better off than the pre-schools that operate out of village halls, which have that burden every day. The school’s challenge comes in finding staff, especially when many of the villages are not easily accessible by public transport; finding volunteer chairmen and women and treasurers; and being able to offer the hours and flexibility needed to cater for the needs of children and parents, and also to meet the quite proper rigours of Ofsted.
I welcome the extension of free childcare to 30 hours. I know it is a good thing for parents seeking to return to work, and that it is good for children to be in a stimulating environment. Things like the forest school and the outdoor learning at Chilbolton are great for the local children, so I have a very simple comment to make. At 15 hours a week the pre-school is coping; at 30 hours, under the current funding arrangements, it will struggle. We do not want to lose such provision. Village pre-schools have been the lifeblood of communities for generations. I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make sure that the 30 hours is sustainable not just in large-scale nurseries, but in small rural locations, and with her commitment to educational excellence everywhere, to make sure that rural provision, which is where we are nurturing the life chances of the next generation in some of the most incredible environments, is looked after.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate on the Queen’s Speech and to follow the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). I agree with her about the importance of early-years education. She made an important point.
There was a major omission from this Queen’s Speech. Following the Government’s U-turn on forced academisation, we will have a Bill
“to lay foundations for educational excellence in all schools,”
whatever that may mean. We had the promise of legislation to support the establishment of new universities and
“to promote choice and competition across the higher education sector.”
Yes, following the Government’s failed £9,000 a year tuition fee experiment, which was never intended to have the result that all universities would charge the maximum £9,000, this Government are now going to give universities the freedom to charge even more, making a university education even more inaccessible to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Does the hon. Lady not recognise that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have a much greater opportunity to go to universities in England and Wales than in Scotland, where the fee system means that it is a subsidy for the middle classes and not for poorer students?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that is certainly not what is going on in my constituency, which I will elaborate on. The number of part-time students and mature students applying to go to university has plummeted since the introduction of tuition fees.
I cannot let the comment about Scotland pass. It is true that if we look at direct routes into university, Scotland has slightly lower numbers going from disadvantaged backgrounds, but if we look at more interesting routes into university through further education, Scotland is doing extremely well with children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I will go on to talk about further education, which is a key part of my speech.
The Minister for Universities and Science is no longer here, but I would like to point out that Labour is not opposed to new universities, despite the Minister’s assumption. For his information, it was the Tory press that dubbed University College London “cockney college”, not anybody from the Labour Benches.
What was missing from the Queen’s Speech was the vital link between schools and universities—further education. Not a mention of it, yet it provides a vital service to our young people, giving them opportunities, skills, training and the possibility of using FE as a stepping stone to higher education. Hopwood Hall College in my constituency, which serves Heywood and Middleton and the wider borough of Rochdale, has its own particular issues, none of which were addressed in the Queen’s Speech. The lack of literacy and numeracy skills is a massive issue in the borough, and some students require an extra year at Hopwood Hall to improve on English and maths, but funding reduces once the learner hits 18, with no allowance made for that catch-up year.
The borough of Rochdale was one of the most affected by the cut to education maintenance allowance and by reduced payments to disabled learners. At this stage, I should declare an interest: my partner used to teach at Hopwood Hall College. When the coalition Government scrapped EMA, my partner had students coming to see him to say that, although they were enjoying the course and the opportunities it gave them, they simply could not afford to keep attending—without EMA, they could not afford the bus fare to college. What a lamentable state of affairs to leave our students in—denied an education because of the cost of a bus fare. With the area review of post-16 education, the problem is likely to be exacerbated, as courses are forced to combine. Some students could find themselves having to travel 30 to 40 miles to access their college courses.
The Greater Manchester area review is causing great concern in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education because of ongoing delays. The chair of the steering group—the chief executive of Tory Trafford Council—warned that the process would lead to
“a fragmentation of the colleges in Greater Manchester”.
The borough of Rochdale also has one of the lowest rates of people going to university. Replacing maintenance grants with loans, and the thought of a £50,000-plus debt, have served as a massive deterrent. Students in England leave university with more debt than students anywhere else in the English-speaking world. They now owe an average of £44,000 on finishing, while Americans run up half that debt, and Canadians a third of it. When maintenance grants are abolished, the poorest students will end up owing more than £50,000, or over half the average price of a terraced house in my constituency.
How many working-class parents will talk their children out of ending up with such a huge debt? Well-off parents, who can afford to pay private school fees, will simply see the cost of a university education as a continuation of those fees, and their children will continue climbing the ladder, untroubled.
While we are talking about student debt, I would like to mention the proposal in the BBC White Paper to close the so-called iPlayer loophole. Doing that will force students living away from home who do not have a television but who access online BBC content to spend yet more money purchasing a yearly TV licence—as if our students were not in enough debt. A Change.org petition against the proposal, which was started by a student at Loughborough University, has now reached a staggering 16,847 signatures. I have asked the Culture Secretary to consider the particular situation students are in; so far, he has evaded my questions, but the petition shows the strength of feeling among students and their families, and I hope he will agree to be bound by it.
Hopwood Hall College provides many innovative courses to help students who aspire to go to university. However, while students continue to face ever-mounting debts, there will be no answer to the social mobility problems in my constituency. The formation of new universities is not the solution, and the Government’s own assessment shows that the number of FE college students applying for higher education will be lower than it is at present.
Further education is sandwiched in the middle of schools and higher education, with key stages 4 and 5 massively underfunded. Yet Hopwood Hall College and many FE colleges like it continue to succeed, seemingly against all the odds. We have 4,000 people in the borough doing vocational courses or A-levels who would previously have travelled outside the borough. We also have a lower level of NEETs—people not in education, employment or training—than neighbouring boroughs. Demand for courses in science and technology, and in health and social care, is increasing, and the college is responding to this, but there is a real challenge across the FE sector in attracting good teachers, especially in maths.
It really is time that this Government recognised the essential role of the FE sector and took some genuine action to address gaps in funding and the problems of recruiting and retaining good-quality teachers in order to achieve their stated aim of educational excellence for all—and that includes for my constituents in Heywood and Middleton.
It is pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who are both great champions of their constituents. It is a great honour to speak in this debate on the Gracious Speech.
Many hon. Members have spoken passionately about education, skills and training. It is absolutely vital that, as a nation, we get these elements right if we want to build up a cohort of our fellow citizens who are ready to face the world of work at 18 or 22, but also later in their lives as lifelong learners, because our workforce is changing, and our economy is changing, in a profound a long-lasting way.
I pay tribute to the Federation of Small Businesses for its excellent report, “Going it alone, moving on up: Supporting self-employment in the UK”, which provided many of the statistics that I will use in the next few minutes. Today 15% of the workforce is self-employed, compared with 8% in 1980. To support this strong and growing economy, we, as legislators, need to be as nimble as those entrepreneurs—that 15% of our constituents. There is always a balance between laissez-faire and red tape, and in our legislative programme we need to adapt to the changing economy.
I have great hopes of some of the Bills in the Gracious Speech, but I also have some questions for Ministers, and some suggestions on three Bills in particular. I would like to begin by speaking briefly on the better markets Bill. Competition law is always one step behind the market; I speak as somebody who spent part of my training in a competition law department. I very much welcome this Bill to keep pace with the changing markets. I welcome the “faster switching” principle for energy suppliers. I have done that myself, as have many other right hon. and hon. Members, I am sure. I particularly welcome the clarification of the roles of economic regulators. We are dealing with very adept businesses—people who are highly lawyered—and if, as legislators, we want to protect consumers, we need strong measures in place.
I want to speak briefly about the regulation of one market that is quite unsexy but utterly vital—the water market. Last summer, my constituents in South Ribble, along with another 300,000 households in Lancashire, had no drinkable water for one month. The contamination of cryptosporidium in our drinking water had a massive effect on consumers and, particularly, on small businesses in the catering industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) has spoken about this because, of course, he has many cafés and restaurants in his constituency. That incident highlighted very clearly the monopolistic nature of the water market.
I am therefore happy that from April next year a new non-household retail water and waste water market will be opening up. However, I am concerned about the implications of this new regime for small businesses and sole traders, because after the cryptosporidium outbreak many small businesses found it hard to access the compensation—the process was not quite as simple as for domestic consumers. Ofwat has clearly stated that part of its remit in this new water market is to ensure that the market operates effectively. It has made representations to DEFRA Ministers that the guaranteed service standards should cover all non-household customers in the market. Unfortunately, there are no Business, Innovation and Skills Ministers present, but I am sure we will be told whether anyone from that Department has discussed the issue with DEFRA and whether the guaranteed service standards will be rolled into the better markets Bill.
From one unsexy subject—water and sewerage—to another, namely savings and pensions. Our national statistics on savings are woeful compared with those of our EU neighbours. The French save about twice as much as we do.
Does the hon. Lady agree that, if we are to address that issue, it is extremely important that financial education on both savings and financial management is taught at school?
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. Some 21 million people in this country do not even have £500 of savings. As she has said, part of the reason for that is lack of financial education. I welcome the lifetime savings Bill, which will provide a flexible product that enables young people to save for a home and for their retirement, and the increase in the individual savings account limit.
The statistics on savings for the self-employed are even worse than those for the nation as a whole. Only 31% of respondents to the FSB survey said that they are saving into a pension, compared with 59% of people who are employed. The remaining respondents intend to rely on their business and existing savings, and about 15% of them have absolutely no savings or pension plan. The lifetime ISA is welcome, but are there any plans to adapt it to suit the new and growing cohort of the self-employed? The age restriction limits it to the under-40s and there is growing evidence that more of the self-employed are aged 45 or over. I hope that the Government will consider finding ways of encouraging and normalising savings for the self-employed, because they do not get the same nudges that auto-enrolment gives people who are employed.
On the pensions Bill, I will not repeat the statistics of self-employed people who have no pension or savings plan, but I urge the Government to consider carefully the needs of the self-employed. The Work and Pensions Committee has made submissions about the issue, particularly in relation to the National Employment Savings Trust auto-enrolment scheme, to which MPs have signed up our own employees. It is very good, but it also needs to include a solution for the self-employed.
In an ideal world, the self-employed will go on to become micro-employers, or perhaps even large employers, and set up their own pension fund. There needs to be adequate communication with micro-businesses about their obligations under auto-enrolment, which can be burdensome. Once small businesses do set up pensions, robust regulation needs to be in place to ensure that such funds give good returns and are adequately protected.
The Bills on which I have touched briefly are welcome in adapting to our changing workforce. I look forward to seeing the detail as they progress through this place.
The Prime Minister told the House that, at its heart, the Queen’s Speech has bold reforms to remove all barriers to opportunity for our young people. Let us see whether his rhetoric matches the reality.
Nearly 4 million children are growing up in poverty, and 500,000 of them live in London. In my constituency, 42% of children live in poverty—the highest rate in the country. Social mobility is in reverse, with young people suffering from what the Equality and Human Rights Commission says are
“the worst economic prospects for several generations”.
More than 850,000 young people remain not in education, employment or training. The reality is shocking, given that the UK is the fifth richest country in the world. Fighting inequality is not just about social justice; it is also in our economic interests.
If we look at the Government’s record over the last six years, we see that they have cut work experience entitlement and independent careers guidance and advice, and they have cut further education budgets by 24% since 2010. As my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) highlighted earlier, that has devastated the lives of many people. Some 4 million people study in further education, and a high concentration of those are from working-class backgrounds. The cuts have hit ethnic minority students from London extremely hard, because of the disproportionate concentration of those groups in further education. In view of the work that the Minister for Universities and Science is doing on monitoring, transparency and tackling inequality, I ask him to look at the impact of those cuts on the FE sector. Many further education colleges, including Tower Hamlets College, have had to shrink student numbers and courses that many of my constituents attend.
The Government have tripled university fees and scrapped the education maintenance allowance. The Secretary of State and Ministers heard earlier about the devastating impact of those measures over the years and across the country on some of the poorest students, including those in my constituency. Student nurses’ bursaries have been slashed, as have maintenance grants for poorer university students.
The focus in the Queen’s Speech on life chances will prove to be meaningless without a parallel attempt to eradicate child poverty. Tired, hungry children cannot learn effectively, and it is shocking that millions of children come from families who rely on food banks. Poverty is not inevitable, and the Government have the tools to fix the problem if there is the will to do so. The last Labour Government cut child poverty by almost 1 million to the lowest level since the 1980s, but increases over the past six years under this Government have undone much of that progress. I call on the Schools Minister and the Secretary of State to continue to pay attention to this important issue, because it will affect educational attainment and the achievements of young people.
Let us look at the education for all Bill. As my hon. and right hon. Friends have mentioned, real-term cuts will be about 8% of funding per pupil by 2020, despite the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment that funding would not be cut for schools and children. That is a betrayal of that manifesto commitment. Last year, more teachers quit than entered the profession. Almost 50,000 teachers quit—the highest figure since records began. Applications to teach are falling in every region, and they are down in key subjects such as English, maths and IT.
London’s schools face unique challenges. London has some of the highest levels of inequality and child poverty in the country, and school budgets and classrooms are at breaking point, with one in five London secondary schools full or overcrowded. Yet London shows that it is possible to create outstanding urban schools in demanding circumstances. Thanks to the work of the last Labour Government, nine out of 10 schools in London are now good or outstanding. That is a huge achievement, which took a generation. The changes to the funding formula put that achievement at risk, so I ask the Schools Minister to look carefully at the funding formula to make sure that we do not go back on those achievements. London schools will lose nearly £240 million a year under the proposals. Schools in the midlands and the north of England will also be hit hard by the changes. We need to look at the needs of children in those schools and ensure that fairness genuinely means fairness.
On academies, the Government’s obsession with structures rather than attainment is wrong-headed. The climbdown is welcome, but it is clear from what the Universities and Science Minister said earlier that the attempt to academise all schools still exists, although it will be done via a different route. That is likely to cost £1.3 billion—money that could be focused on tackling underachievement rather than obsessing with structure. Where there is a problem and a need for innovation, of course that innovation should happen, but it should not be a wasteful process.
Any improvement in attainment is welcome, but I am making a point about London, where huge amounts of work has been done to improve schools. When I was at school in the east end of London in the 1980s and 1990s, most schools achieved a rate of less than 20% for GCSEs. It took over a decade to transform schools, and that was not just in Tower Hamlets. In Tower Hamlets, we have only four academies, which shows that there are different models of improvement.
I call on the Secretary of State to look at how such improvements have been achieved through different approaches, including collaboration, investment in teacher quality and standards, and training and leadership. She knows very well that the model used in Tower Hamlets and across London is recognised around the world, and I hope that the new funding formula will not put that at risk.
My point is not that schools in need of support in rural areas—there is poverty in rural areas as well—should not get support, but that we should not set schools and areas against each other or create divisions. The Government should look at where we need to target resources to improve schools, but should not turn regions or schools against each other. That is one of the major risks, as has already been reflected in this debate. We need to consider how to improve standards across the country without damaging the achievements of schools in London. We still need to raise the attainment of 40% of school kids.
I want to move on to the universities Bill. The Sutton Trust recently unearthed the fact that our young people leave university with the highest levels of debt in the English-speaking world. The Chancellor wrote to one of his constituents in 2003 that fees are “a tax on learning” and “very unfair”. Yet he has since tripled university fees to £9,000 and scrapped the student maintenance allowance. He now wants to lift the fees cap even higher, which will reverse some of the achievements of the past and saddle poorer students with huge amounts of debt. We all know that people from asset-rich families are more likely to take risks and more likely to be secure when they enter the labour market, and that the outcomes for graduates in the labour market differ according to social class and ethnic background. Saddling poorer students with debt therefore has real consequences for what they will go on to do.
Will the Minister for Universities and Science therefore look carefully at such outcomes? The data he is collecting will be useful only if he matches them with action to tackle the fact that inequalities are built in by students being left in debt. The Government have ignored the evidence published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2014 showing that a £1,000 increase in maintenance grants led to a 4% increase in participation. The Minister says that participation is increasing, and when that happens, it is welcome, but I ask him to look at this area to see how to increase participation further.
I welcome the aim of increasing the number of apprenticeships to the target of 3 million, but there is a question, which has been raised by several of my hon. Friends, about the quality of those apprenticeships. I appeal to the Minister to look carefully at how we can make sure the system works well by focusing on quality. A sizeable number of young people are still on courses at level 2 and level 3, for which they have parallel qualifications. We need to make sure that they genuinely progress and that apprenticeships are a genuine alternative.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali).
I welcome wholeheartedly the programme on life chances —not only the measures on education, skills and training that we are debating, but the interconnectivity between the other Bills. In proposing the Humble Address, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) reminded us that bringing up children is an inexact science, with a definite beginning but certainly no definite end date. There is also no guarantee of success, however that might be measured, and there most certainly is not a handbook. My children have attended their state schools and are now at university, acquiring debt. I hope that we, as parents, have instilled in them an aspiration for a better life. That is why I believe that life chances are so very important.
We have an excellent education system in this country, which helps parents and carers through the minefield that we hope will level the playing field for all our children to ensure that every child reaches their full potential. The 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds—with the caveats outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes)—the 1.4 million more children now taught in good and outstanding schools, and the measures to drive aspirations and skills, coupled with 3 million apprenticeships, mean that this is a coherent lifetime learning package, and much more than is being put to us by the Opposition, who as yet still have space to come forward with their bright ideas. The Sutton Trust and others have noted that one of the most important parts of education is good quality feedback. That might be something for them to take on board.
I welcome the announcement of a Bill to lay the foundations for educational excellence in all schools. Early years education is vital to ensure readiness for school. A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to open the excellent Guildhall Feoffment Pre-school and Nursery in my constituency, and I have spoken with other providers of excellent early years education in towns and in rural locations such as Bacton. Sadly, despite the best efforts of skilled early years teachers it is estimated that in some areas up to 25% of children starting in reception are still in nappies and lack many communication and manual dexterity skills. I am glad that we are trying to seek solutions to those problems, but I urge us to make bold plans, using speech therapists and other professionals to support parents as their children grow.
Like many hon. Members, I welcome the news that a fairer funding formula will be addressed. Unfairness is inherent in the current formula. I apologise to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow if she felt that my intervention was creating an adversarial tone on this issue. I very much do not feel that way, but my children received £260 less funding than the national average, which is considerably less than children in London have received for many years. It is important that that anomaly is addressed.
Although the new policies on schools are most welcome, they must allow for the fact that schools in largely rural constituencies such as mine will struggle on several levels. Rurality and sparsity are just two. The issues are not insurmountable, but they need to be acknowledged, and I thank the Secretary of State for being in listening mode recently on academisation. I hope that we can move forward to provide the right solution for all children.
Children in rural areas suffer from the vagaries of rural transport systems, meaning that they are isolated from choices given to their urban-dwelling peers. Although after-school clubs are to be truly welcomed, there is less opportunity for them to run if there is a solitary bus service that leaves five minutes after school ends. We have to consider carefully how rural school transport will fit into the overall plan alongside academies, which are masters of all aspects of their own planning. I ask Ministers to do a rural test when asking questions about education, to ensure that, whether rural or urban, schools can offer the same to their students so that they are all well served.
As our children proceed through their education, we must ensure that we value and nurture the different skills and abilities they display. While supporting the rise in standards, we must keep the ability to problem solve in our education system. At a visit this week to Vapourtec, a high-tech company in my constituency, we spoke about the need for people to use intuition and other such elements of their learning, which is not necessarily always about ticking boxes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) spoke about a joined-up strategy on science for the Bills presented, which is of huge importance. My four daughters constantly remind me that academic excellence is to be applauded, but we must also cherish practical skills in our children, as well as a softer skill set. I have been fortunate to visit two schools in the past couple of weeks. At Stowmarket High I saw excellent “resistant material” skills, and the fantastic boats and beds that were produced for their exams.
West Suffolk further education college does not display some of the problems that I have heard about this afternoon. It is innovative and works closely with local organisations, the local enterprise partnership, and local businesses in being an achiever, rather than something that presents me with problems. With the newly opened campus of the University of Suffolk on its premises, it is one of only two FE colleges that are paired with leading arts institutions in London. Only last Friday I spoke to young people who are off to the Central School of Art and Design and the London College of Fashion. Education is about building aspirations that are not limited by background, gender, age, accessibility or disability. I alluded earlier to the fact that we must recognise that attainment is not purely from an academic standpoint.
The hon. Lady spoke about the difference between rural and urban, and I fully support aspects of her outlook on the rural negativity that sometimes exists. She mentioned the joined-up approach, and we should consider the proposed legislation on adoption for looked-after children. Would it be a positive move if the Government were to introduce that adoption Bill in conjunction with educational projects?
I totally concur. The ability to look cross-departmentally at all the different issues that challenge people from the beginning to the end of their life would enhance us all.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) mentioned excluded children, and those who struggle with formal educational attainment. Before I came to this place, I worked on a “Solutions 4” programme with excluded children, and we must remember all our children when introducing these Bills. With a background in the construction industry and a love of life sciences, I believe that apprenticeships are important in helping all children to lift their abilities and attainment rates. For some apprenticeships, however, we must recognise that more functional levels of core subjects should be acceptable, and we run the risk of losing able youngsters who cannot cross the C-grade barrier in maths and English. I am delighted that a Government taskforce has been set up, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), to consider apprenticeships for those with learning difficulties.
I recently met a lovely young woman who had been part of a very innovative scheme. When I asked what it had given her she said, “It’s given me confidence and a job”, and then she whispered, “a boyfriend as well, but please don’t tell my Dad”—that is probably too late. It struck me that a basic entitlement for all young people leaving education is, perhaps not the boyfriend, but the right to feel valued and equipped for the workplace. I applaud the work that we are doing to ensure that employment and apprenticeships are accessible to all, but we should also consider young people’s mental health as we drive these Bills forward, since such issues put a huge strain on our schools. West Suffolk College reckons that 70% of pastoral care time is spent considering the resilience and mental health of its young people. That is an enormous burden for schools and colleges to take forward, and we must do more work in that area.
Finally—and quickly—my daughters have been participants and mentors in the National Citizen Service, which provides young people with challenges through which they grow in confidence and team build. It attracts children from every walk of life, including those who might have had the odd brush with the law or started down the road to addiction, looked after children, and those from all types of educational background. Over four weeks they complete outward bound training, visit higher education establishments—
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) and the many other hon. Members who have spoken about their concerns and problems relating to education. The same problems exist in Northern Ireland and I can learn a great deal by listening. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken.
It is a pleasure to be able to respond to the Gracious Speech. Earlier, one Member, when trying to choose what to speak about, described it as a cornucopia. Another, rather closer to my heart, described it as a box of chocolates—that might explain why I have to wear a double-breasted jacket. There are so many things I want to talk about and welcome, but I will start by saying that if we are looking to increase fees for universities, it is vital that we ensure—this was raised earlier—that students receive a quality education. I have four children. One is through university, two are at university and one is about to go. The same issue comes up again and again: how do we ensure value for money while keeping the costings right so that everyone has the chance to go to university?
In Northern Ireland, we have had a major battle on STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths. We want to get these subjects into the education system, so that science is a part of pupils’ lives right from the early days. It is not working well in Northern Ireland at the moment. This leads me to another point. Hon. Members know that I passionately believe in holding the Union together, and in working together and learning from each other. There is very good education on STEM here for teachers; indeed, we send one or two from Northern Ireland to that college. We need more. We need to all start working together.
When we look at the difference in cost of different universities, what worries me is that in Northern Ireland something like 46% of students do not want to leave Northern Ireland. That is lovely from the point of view of not having a brain drain, but it means that no one moves away from home. I want the Union to work so that we all share and all thrive and people can move to different parts, whether to England, Wales or Scotland. It is essential that people get used to moving and having independence while at the same time being at home.
The same sort of thing happens with the exam system. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland all have different exam systems, so people are judged in different ways. Can we put something in place to make our education systems all talk to each other and all learn from each other? Fantastic things are happening in education in Scotland. I know that because I went there with the Northern Ireland Committee for Education. There is so much we can share. Let us put something in place that means we do all learn from each other.
I watched the plans on academies to see how they work and many of the things going through here. That is what we should all be doing: we should be learning from each other. Academies seem like terrific ideas, but we have to be careful how we put them together to make sure they allow everyone to achieve.
Hon. Members discussed a fairer funding formula. We have exactly this problem in Northern Ireland and we have debated it twice in the past five years. I want to share with the House a huge problem we have at the moment, so Members realise that in Northern Ireland, although we have a great education system, things are not working particularly well. In my patch, 19 of the top principals came to see me the other day. All were complaining that they have to deal with an 8% cut or increase in costs. They are being told they must come up with new budget plans for one year and for three years. They cannot do it. They are refusing. They are looking at stopping special needs teaching, removing classroom assistants, moving office staff and having bigger classes—all the things that are just wrong. We need something to change. What I found most frightening is that the principals are not taking their pay rises so that the school can afford other things. Even worse, funds raised by parent-teacher associations are being used to pay for the normal things in schools. I go back to my main point: let us start sharing and learning from everyone. There is a change today in Northern Ireland: there is no longer a Sinn Féin Education Minister. As from today, the Education Minister is a Unionist. I hope things will change.
I turn now to a passion of my heart. Last year, I led a debate on how Stormont was not working. I was proud of my party leader for then moving into opposition at a time when opposition did not really exist. Opposition now does exist, as part of the Stormont House agreement, and I am proud to say that the Ulster Unionists, under my party leader, have moved into opposition, as has the SDLP, which I am pleased to have with us. Our devolved system of government does not work well, and I need support from the UK Government and everyone in the House to get the opposition system working and resourced. To give one simple example, in this place, on which we model our Assembly, the Chamber is laid out so that we oppose each other, but Sinn Féin and the DUP, although working together, refuse to sit on the same side, for obvious reasons. We have to learn and improve. I hope we can get somewhere but we need the House’s help.
I was always annoyed to hear the Secretary of State say that all parties agreed to the Stormont House agreement. That was not the case. They talked to us at the beginning but only the two major parties were really involved. We must all start working together and helping each other. We can push and coax to make things work, but I need the UK Government to listen, not to bury their head in the sand. We still have problems—we have the troubles—but we want a level playing field. Certain things came through in the Belfast agreement, and we thought we were moving forward with consensus, bu