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Commons Chamber

Volume 614: debated on Monday 12 September 2016

House of Commons

Monday 12 September 2016

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


The campaign against Daesh is making steady progress. With coalition support, Iraqi forces have freed Fallujah and, as part of preparatory operations for retaking Mosul, have liberated Qayyarah town. The Syrian Democratic Forces have taken Manbij and Turkish-backed opposition forces have taken Jarabulus and al-Rai, effectively denying Daesh its last border crossings into Turkey. As we approach the second anniversary of our military operations, I should like to pay tribute to the men and women of all three services, who work tirelessly to defeat Daesh and to keep Britain safe.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but given the announcement of a US and Russia-negotiated ceasefire in Syria, does he believe that Russia is now an unpredictable ally or an unwelcome threat in the fight against Daesh?

As my hon. Friend knows, Russian military activity in Syria has supported the Assad regime, a regime that bombs, tortures and starves its own people. While we welcome the latest ceasefire from tonight, it is Russia that must make it work by stopping Assad attacking Syrian civilians and moderate opposition groups, and by helping to get humanitarian aid into Aleppo and other cities that have been starved of food.

The G20 communiqué last week in China talked about terrorist financing. I know that we have done a lot in our military operations to try to degrade that, but will the Secretary of State say what more the UK can do to degrade the money that the terrorists are getting in from smuggling oil, from extortion and so on? What more can the UK military do to deny Daesh those sources of funding?

The infrastructure targets that the RAF has been attacking in recent months have included oil installations to reduce the revenue that Daesh has been getting from oil trading. Sealing the border, too, will help to stop the flow of illicit goods and, indeed, oil across the border. We continue to work with our international partners to reduce the access of Daesh to the financial system.

May I ask the Secretary of State why it took a year for us to supply ammunition for the heavy weapons that we supply to the peshmerga in Iraq? Can he assure the House that such delays will never happen again, and that we are doing everything that we possibly can to help the peshmerga in their fight against Daesh?

We have supplied, as my hon. Friend knows, not only heavy machine guns to the peshmerga but ammunition for those heavy machine guns. I announced earlier in the summer a fresh gift from us of ammunition for those heavy machine guns, and I am very pleased to tell him that that ammunition has now arrived and is being used.

The US-Russia agreement to tackle Daesh will clearly have an impact on British forces. Is the Secretary of State able to say anything about the deployment of our Air Force there, or indeed of our special forces?

We do not, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, comment in this House on the deployment of our special forces in any country in the world, but he raises an important point about de-confliction of the airspace. At the moment, we are party to the agreement between Russia and the United States, and that agreement ensures that there is minimum risk of collisions or misidentification of aircraft. That, obviously, will continue to be the case after the ceasefire, which we hope will take effect tonight.

24. May I ask my right hon. Friend to update the House on when the additional trainers that he has announced will be deployed to Iraq to support the liberation of the Iraqi people from Daesh? (906263)

I announced in June that we would be sending another 250 British troops to the al-Asad airbase in western Iraq to complement the Danish training programme, as part of what is called the building partner capacity effort. I am very pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the advance party from 4 Rifles arrived in the last few days at al-Asad airbase.

This is indeed a critical time for the future of Syria. May I add the voice of Scottish National party Members to those from across the Chamber in wishing the proposed ceasefire in Syria well? We echo the call for all sides in this awful conflict to observe the ceasefire.

Given that the ceasefire is vital to the campaign to defeat Daesh, may I ask the Secretary of State what discussions the UK Government have had with both the United States and the Russian Federation, and what role the UK Government played in helping to broker this ceasefire?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his earlier remarks. The UK Government have been involved in promoting this ceasefire all the way back from the original cessation of hostilities, which was announced at the Munich security conference. We have been part of the intense efforts to get and to keep moderate opposition groups around the table to negotiate a future settlement for Syria, and we have also been part of encouraging the ceasefire as well.

Talking of the moderate forces, what discussions have the UK Government had with the representatives of the 70,000 moderate troops, whom we were led to believe we were discussing ahead of last year’s decision to bomb Syria? Will the Secretary of State tell us what contact has been made and what assurances have been given by those moderate forces that this ceasefire will stick?

We have been in contact with exactly those moderate forces. Indeed, representatives from the different opposition groups in Syria were in London last week for precisely those kinds of discussions. We very much hope that the ceasefire will stick now. A large part of that will depend on Russia persuading the Syrian regime to back the ceasefire, but it is also important that it is properly respected right across northern Syria as well.

Challenging the death cult ideology of Daesh is vital if we are to tackle this type of terrorism. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the progress being made by the 34 Muslim nations, co-ordinated by Saudi Arabia, to defeat Daesh?

Yes, we welcome the efforts that are being made, led by Saudi Arabia. I visited the centre it has established in Riyadh to lead this effort to make it very clear that Islam is a religion of peace and to co-ordinate the various programmes of de-radicalisation that are already in force across the Arab world.

We all very much welcome the recent announcement of a ceasefire in Syria. As well as providing an opportunity for all sides to focus on defeating Daesh, it creates a space for further negotiations aimed at ending the conflict once and for all. The need for a negotiated settlement in Syria is as urgent as ever, particularly in light of horrifying reports of yet another chlorine attack in recent days. Will the Secretary of State tell the House a little more about the implications for the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians in Syria under the ceasefire details?

I am grateful to the shadow Defence Secretary for what he has said and for his support. Getting humanitarian aid into Aleppo and some of the other towns and cities that have suffered is a key part of the ceasefire. I think one of the tests of the ceasefire will be whether the regime is really prepared to allow in these much-needed convoys.

British Normandy Veterans: Légion d’Honneur

3. What discussions have taken place with the French Government on awarding the Légion d’Honneur to British Normandy veterans. (906241)

Since the extremely generous offer by President Hollande to confer the Légion d’Honneur on surviving veterans of the campaigns to liberate France in 1944, we have had a number of discussions with representatives of the French Government about the criteria and process for making the award. As a result, the French Government have presented more than 3,500 medals to British veterans. Officials in London and Paris remain proactively engaged to make the process as smooth as possible.

Three 94-year-old south Devon Normandy veterans—Ferneley Nankivell, Alan Carncross and Robert Barbour DFC—are still waiting for the award of their Légion d’Honneur, and other veterans have passed away during the past year without receiving it. Will the Minister join me in calling on the French authorities to resolve this issue as a matter of urgency, and to look at whether the honour can still be awarded to those who have passed away since July 2014?

The Légion D’Honneur is established by law in France, with set requirements for scrutiny and approval. Within those limits, the French authorities have done their utmost to expedite the issue of the awards. As in the UK, such honours and awards are generally not made posthumously. I can confirm that the cases of Mr Barbour and Mr Nankivell have been submitted to the French authorities. Unfortunately, there is no record of an application for Mr Carncross, but if one is submitted, I will ensure that it is expedited.

I do appreciate the efforts of the Minister and the Department to ensure that individuals get their Légion d’Honneur medals, but like the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), I still know of a large number of people who are qualified for the medal and have applied for it but have not received it. Is it possible for the Minister to carry out an audit of how many applications are outstanding in the United Kingdom, so that he can chase them up?

The French have awarded approximately 3,500 medals, and we have sent the French about 4,300 applications. At the moment, the process is taking between six and eight weeks. I appreciate that that is still a significant period given the age of the cohort in question, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman, who has pursued the issue persistently over the past year, that we have done everything we can to make the process as quick as possible given the circumstances and the age of the veterans involved.

Through you, Mr Speaker, may I say as chair of the all-party France group that the French embassy is doing its best in difficult circumstances, and that if anybody has a constituent who has a problem, they should write to me and we will get the Légion d’Honneur to them straight away? These people deserve better, and we will do our best for them.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman is too modest to reveal to the House that although he is not himself a Normandy veteran, as is demonstrably apparent, he does hold the honour.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the support that he offers. I can only repeat that we are keen to get applications expedited as quickly as possible. Although all of the cohort are of a certain age, if any hon. Member has a constituent about whom they are particularly concerned, I ask them to contact us and we will endeavour to get the Légion d’Honneur to them as quickly as possible.

Defence Spending: Small Firms

Small businesses are crucial for growth and innovation in this country, and we want them to take an increasing share of our growing defence budget. We are committed to achieving 25% of our procurement spend being with small and medium-sized enterprises by 2020. That target is 10% higher than the one set during the last Parliament.

May I say how nice it is to see my hon. Friend in her place? May I drill down a little and ask her what steps she can take to ensure that the Ministry of Defence’s largest customers use small firms to deliver their contracts?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is essential that we work on that not only in our direct defence procurement process but with our supply chains. I am delighted to be able to let the House know that the supply chain advocate network and the supply chain champions, which my predecessor announced, are well under way, and that last year the Ministry of Defence was able to have direct spend with almost 5,000 different companies.

What measures can the MOD take to reduce the regulatory burden on small firms such as those in my constituency when they make applications for defence equipment procurement?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight ways in which we can make the process easier for small and medium-sized businesses. For example, this year we removed the turnover requirement in the pre-qualification process, and we are working towards simplifying the contract terms and reducing them to just three pages.

I welcome the Minister to her new position. Will she take notice of what happens in Huddersfield, where we have David Brown Gear Systems and many other fine companies making things that our defence forces want? Will she dissociate herself from the term “fat and lazy”, which was used about British businessmen? We have no fat and lazy businessmen in Huddersfield.

Those were certainly not my words, and I pay tribute to the many businesses in Huddersfield and South Yorkshire that do such wonderful work in supplying the Ministry of Defence.

On Wednesday I raised the issue of an engineering company in my constituency that had gone into administration. I place on record my appreciation of the Minister, who, at very short notice, scrambled around and rearranged her diary to meet the administrators, who are in the Gallery today. We thank her very much. In advance of that meeting, will she agree to work with me and the administrators to leave no stone unturned, so that we can do our best to save valuable jobs and engineering experience at Penman?

The hon. Gentleman is working hard to represent the interests of his constituents; not only did he raise this case last week at Prime Minister’s questions but I am pleased to say that we will be able to meet him and the administrators later today.

In Rugby we are very proud of the contribution that GE Power Conversion is making to the Type 26 global combat ship programme; it is also important to recognise its contribution to the local economy through the orders it places with subcontractors and through local small businesses.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that earlier this year we were able to announce contracts for some of the long lead-time items as part of that programme, and also to highlight the way in which small and medium-sized businesses play such an important role in that supply chain.

It is interesting to listen to the Minister. I greatly support the aim of 25% of defence expenditure being with small and medium-sized enterprises by 2020. However, figures published last month showed clearly that only 2% of spending went to companies assessed as SMEs. The SME status of suppliers is determined by independent verifiers. Why has there been no assessment of new MOD suppliers since 2014? Is the Department resorting to creative accountancy?

I do not recognise the figures that the hon. Lady cited. I can confirm that in 2014-15 we spent 19% with small and medium-sized businesses. She will be aware that, as she highlighted, the contract with Dun and Bradstreet for evaluating the characteristics of different firms, which is a Cabinet Office contract, ended in 2014. We are in the process of discussing with Cabinet Office colleagues what the successor framework will be like.

Litigation Against the Armed Forces

We are determined to meet our manifesto commitment to ensure that our armed forces overseas are not subject to persistent legal claims that undermine their ability to do their job. I am continuing to explore the work that my predecessor did, working across Government to bring forward proposals in the very near future.

I welcome the Minister’s statement and urge him and the Government to press ahead with reforms in this area, in particular with regard to the extraterritorial jurisdiction of human rights laws and civil law limitation periods, so that we have accountability for rare acts of wrongdoing, but do not subject those risking life and limb for their country to vexatious litigation by ambulance-chasing lawyers.

My hon. Friend was in the same Department as me before I had the honour of taking on this role. It is very important that those who have done wrong are dealt with, but it is really wrong that tax-paid lawyers are chasing around the country trying to prosecute other people.

Our armed forces are the best in the world and we must do everything to protect them, both on and off the battlefield. Many soldiers are based in barracks at Sennybridge and Brecon in my constituency; will my right hon. Friend assure them and me that the Iraq historic allegations tribunal will look very carefully at the claims made against British forces personnel and whether to reject those allegations, particularly following the demise of Public Interest Lawyers?

I think we all welcome the demise of Public Interest Lawyers. It is for the regulatory authorities to look closely at what it did and how it earned its income. I trained at Sennybridge many years ago. I assure everyone in the armed forces that these Ministers and this Government are behind them and will make sure that we protect them as much as possible.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place, and especially welcome his stance on this matter. He may have to spread his net even wider than he thinks. Is he aware that Phil Shiner, who has made so much money out of this situation, is trying to conceal his ill-gotten gains by threatening those editors who are threatening to expose him with recourse to the Independent Press Standards Organisation on the basis of so-called mental health problems?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work—not just as Minister for the Reserves but ever since he came to the House—for the reserves, in which he has served honourably, as well. Let us let the regulatory bodies do their work first and see what comes out of the other side, and then see whether any other processes, including perhaps even legal action, are needed.

Defence Procurement: Steel Industry

7. What steps he is taking to ensure that the British steel industry and its workers benefit from current and future defence procurement. (906245)

We positively encourage bids from British companies to ensure they are in the best possible position to win future steel contracts. We have issued new policy guidance to address the barriers which might prevent UK steel producers from competing effectively in the open market.

Now that Government Departments are mandated to provide information about the proportion of UK steel used in the Crown Commercial Service, will the Minister please tell the House what percentage of UK steel is used in current defence projects and what percentage will be used in future?[Official Report, 11 October 2016, Vol. 615, c. 4MC.]

The hon. Lady rightly speaks up for steel production in her constituency. She will be very pleased to know that, for the largest project that the UK Government have ever procured that uses steel—she will be aware that that is the carrier programme currently under construction on the Clyde—the vast majority comes from Tata Steel. I believe it is 94%.

I wholly support the increasing use of small firms for defence procurement, but will the Minister undertake to encourage those small firms to use British steel wherever possible?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is a process of encouraging competition not only within the procurement process, but where there are long lead-time items. In our strategic defence and security review, we clearly set out the largest programme of investment in ships for some time, and there will be a lot of long lead-time items. Small business and producers will be able to work with those who are procuring contracts with prime contractors to find a place in that supply chain.

Recent defence procurement decisions have failed to take into account the benefits to the UK economy gained by manufacturing domestically. A growing number of products, particularly steel, are procured abroad. Will the Minister therefore commit to assess the wider economic and social benefits derived from building the three new solid support vessels in the UK with British steel, and to share that information with the House?

The hon. Lady is right again to highlight the fact that, in our strategic defence and security review, we set out a programme in which we are investing in more ships and more aeroplanes, and there is more cyber-investment. She mentions the solid support ships. They will not be procured until later in the Parliament, but I assure her that we will do everything we can with those long lead-time items and the programmes that have been set out in advance to ensure that British companies, including British steel companies, have all the information they need to be successful.

Defence Procurement: Single-source Contracts

8. What recent assessment he has made of the value for money obtained from single-source defence procurement contracts. (906246)

Competition remains the best way of securing value for money but sometimes we need to place single-source contracts. We therefore established a new regime backed by statute with an independent regulator to ensure contract costs and profit rates are both reasonable and transparent.

I thank the Minister for that answer. If the Single Source Regulations Office to which she refers seeks to proceed with its current proposal to reform the profit rates on those contracts, will she commit that those changes will this time have the Government’s support?

Yes, in March this year we reduced the profit rate on single-source contracts from 10.6% to 8.95%. The regulator will then recommend a rate for 2017, which we will consider carefully, along with its recommendation on multiple profit rates.

What steps will the Minister take to ensure that, where single-source contracting is placed abroad with, say, American companies, there are appropriate levels of set-aside, so that apprenticeships and the seed-corning for future capability in British defence companies are protected and facilitated?

The hon. Lady will be aware that that is an ongoing subject of discussion, and of the commitment that General Dynamics has made in Wales in the part of the world she represents to create 250 jobs in the supply chain for the Ajax vehicles.

Whether contracts are derived from single source or open competition, unnecessary costs can be incurred when design specifications are changed after the contract has started, for example with the Type 45s. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that late changes after contracts have started no longer occur?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight one of the major themes that came out of the review into how we can improve defence procurement. As he rightly points out, there were problems with the design of the Type 45, which was ordered at the beginning of the previous decade, that have subsequently been costly to rectify. That is why we now take such care on design: to prevent such things from happening in future.

I welcome what the Minister said in answer to an earlier question about targets that are in place to ensure small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK benefit from defence procurement. When she is considering value for money and single-source contracts, can she assure the House that value for money includes British jobs, British skills and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said, investment in apprenticeships?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning apprenticeships and our commitment to continuing to work with our single-source suppliers. We can clearly see that they are some of the lead providers of apprenticeships across the defence procurement area.

Military Research: Commercial Applications

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s support for commercial applications of UK military research. (906247)

We aim to maximise the benefit for the UK from new technologies and know-how developed through defence research. Our science and technology organisation, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, DSTL, exploits those results through its technology transfer company, Ploughshare Innovations Limited, which we estimate will have contributed over £200 million to export value by 2018 and generated over 500 jobs. On Friday, I will launch our plans for a new approach to further exploiting innovation in defence.

During the recess, I spent some special time with the Government Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), and the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) visiting the Signal Regiment at Stafford barracks. As we continue to draw down from Germany, Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire are enjoying an influx of highly trained personnel and, with them, the potential growth of telecoms businesses. May I urge the Secretary of State to hold a meeting with the Stoke and Staffs local enterprise partnership to see how the Ministry of Defence can help to ensure that local businesses enjoy some input to their growth from the arrival of highly trained personnel and their military research at Stafford barracks?

I am happy to help to facilitate that meeting with the defence procurement Minister. I am aware there are a number of companies in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency that have already submitted proposals to the Centre for Defence Enterprise. I think they have received some feedback. We are as anxious as he is that we capture that know-how for the future.

I welcome the Government’s recent partnership agreement with Leonardo’s helicopters division on research into unmanned aerial vehicles. Will Ministers work with me to help to maximise the effect this will have on supporting design and engineering jobs in Yeovil?

We are very happy to do that. My hon. Friend will recall that at Farnborough we announced the signing of a 10-year strategic partnering arrangement with Leonardo, one of the most important defence companies based in Britain. I hope that that will help to enhance jobs in his constituency through further export success, and through the right technology and innovation that also meet our defence requirements.

Army Recruitment

We continue to invest in recruitment to attract the diverse and talented workforce we need now and in the future for our armed forces. Over 8,100 new recruits joined the regular Army last year, an increase on the previous year. In July, the trained strength of the Army reserve was 23,400, which is very close to matching the 30,000 we need. We will continue to work very closely with all parts of the country, in particular Northern Ireland.

I thank the Minister for that response. I understand that this is the first time that a boy soldier or someone from the ranks has risen to the position of Minister of State. I think that that is worthy of note in the House. As a help to Army recruitment, reserves in Northern Ireland have met their targets. Can the number of reserves in Northern Ireland be increased to take into account our positive recruiting environment?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. We were close when I was a Northern Ireland Minister, and I visited his constituency on more than one occasion. I shall visit the Province in the near future when I meet 38 Brigade. The ceiling we have is not a ceiling in the sense that we do not want any more people from Northern Ireland; it is a question of whether the operational units are able to take them. I shall look closely at whether Northern Ireland can take more, and I would like to congratulate Northern Ireland on serving the Crown so well over so many years.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to address the shortfall to the Royal Navy, particularly among engineers? Has he had any discussions about providing short-term secondment to engineers from industry to serve on Navy ships?

That is exactly what we are trying to do—to be as flexible as possible with the contracts to allow short-term and long-term secondment from industry. We are also talking closely with other navies, and particularly the American navy. There is a shortfall in specific areas. What we need to do is make sure that the offer we make, whether it be for marine engineers or any other part of the armed forces, is suitable for the 21st century. That is something I am determined to do.

I welcome the Minister to his post. One big issue he is taking on is how to assist the Government to achieve the Conservative election manifesto pledge for the Army not to fall below 82,000. He has spoken a bit about recruitment, but does he also recognise the huge issue of retention in the British Army? Does he think that what he is saying recognises the scale of the challenge the Government face in achieving that manifesto pledge? At the moment, it looks unlikely that they will achieve it.

We are determined to fulfil the manifesto pledge, not only because it is a manifesto pledge, but because it is right for the Army in particular. I know how difficult retention can be because I purchased my discharge from the Army myself. I shall be looking carefully at what is making people leave. Are we offering them the right sort of service? Are we being as flexible as we can? For instance, when I left the Army all those years ago, I received a letter a couple of months later asking me whether I wanted to re-enlist. Let us make sure that that sort of thing continues to happen—when we have people in uniform, let us keep them in uniform.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to an inequalities audit across the public sector. Given that the younger demographic from which the Army recruits is increasingly ethnically diverse, will my right hon. Friend the Minister commit to pay special attention to the recruitment, retention and promotion figures for black and minority ethnic service personnel?

I would like to pay tribute to my hon. and gallant colleague for his service to Her Majesty when he was in uniform. If the armed forces are to work in the 21st century, they must represent the community from which they come. Whether we are talking about more BME people or more women in the armed forces—we have a 15% target for women, which is a very high level—we must be careful to make sure that we promote the armed forces to those people, whatever part of the community they come from, so that they feel comfortable working in the armed forces. That is something I am absolutely determined to do.

I add my voice to those who have welcomed the Minister to his post. He is, I think, in the hot seat on this particular issue. This Government might not be very good at meeting their own targets, particularly on Army recruitment, but Ministers at least deserve points for creativity. Their plan to grow the trained strength of the Army by changing the definition of “trained” might help with cooking the books, but it will not do a thing to address the actual problem. Will the Minister tell us whether he believes it is appropriate for personnel to be deployed on operations before completing their full training and, if so, how he can be confident that they will be adequately prepared?

Let me say that I know from experience that some duties can be done once people have passed their phase 1 training. That certainly was done back in my time in 1974 when there was a Labour Government. If we are trying to recruit people, we need money, but Labour wants to cut money, and we need to be part of NATO, but the Labour party leadership wants to take us out of it. That is something that we would never do, but if they want to undermine our armed forces, they should do just that.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place, and I would like to touch on Navy recruitment, if I may. Will he quash these rumours that we will not have enough trained sailors to man both our aircraft carriers when they are launched?

We have not hidden the fact that it is very difficult to make sure that we do everything we possibly can, but we will do that. I was on the Queen Elizabeth only the week before last and I watched our other aircraft carrier being built. When the particular moment comes, we will have the crews and these carriers will be the pride of the Navy.

Defence Procurement: Type 31 Frigate

12. If he will make it his policy to co-operate with NATO members at the concept and assessment stage of the procurement cycle for the Type 31 frigate. (906250)

While we must maintain the UK’s freedom of action to operate independently, interoperability with our NATO allies is fundamental to virtually all UK defence capabilities. For the general purpose frigate, the Royal Navy is already exploring how that could be delivered, and considering how the ship will operate within NATO.

Does the Minister agree that opening up more of the procurement process to a broader range of suppliers, and avoiding any hint of protectionism, may make it possible to keep the cost of replacing our frigates low?

The hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in defence procurement issues, and I know that, like the rest of the House, he will be eagerly anticipating Sir John Parker’s national shipbuilding strategy, which he has committed himself to publishing before the autumn statement. In that context, the hon. Gentleman will obviously be aware that complex warships can only be built in the United Kingdom.

When can we expect an announcement on the building of the Type 31s? We have the capability, we have the skills, and presumably we have the budget. Scotland expects!

Let me gently remind the hon. Gentleman that we are building these ships because we all decided to remain part of the United Kingdom. We are in the process of providing our armed forces with more ships, more aircraft and more equipment than ever before. As soon as we have a concrete timetable to announce to the House, we will do so.

Type 26 and General Purpose Frigates

13. What changes have been made to the timetable for building Type 26 and general purpose frigates on the Clyde. (906251)

The cost and production schedule for the Type 26 global combat ship will be decided at the “main investment decision” point of the programme. Negotiations are ongoing with BAE systems to deliver a contract that will give value for money to both the Navy and the taxpayer. The general purpose frigate programme is in its very early stages. Decisions on build location and timetable will take advantage of the recommendations of the national shipbuilding strategy.

The Secretary of State is well aware that his Department promised 13 frigates on the Clyde in 2014, and a huge part of the Scottish independence referendum case for the Union rested on that promise. Given that the number has already dropped to eight, why can the Secretary of State not answer a simple question: when will the Type 26 design be approved?

There will still be a large number of new frigates, but there will specifically be eight new anti-submarine warfare ships, designed to protect the deterrent that the Scottish National party voted against just a few months ago. I hope that the timetable will be set out shortly, when the design continues to mature and the negotiations with BAE Systems have been completed.

Is it not a fact that BAE Systems is ready to start cutting steel right now, and all that is holding things up is a lack of funds in the MOD’s budget? If we do not start building these ships on time, we will doubtless end up with the same old story: we will drop below the already inadequate total of 19 frigates and destroyers, or else we will have to pay a lot more money to keep old ships in service for longer than they should be kept in service.

Let me reassure my right hon. Friend. We have already invested more than £1.8 billion in the Type 26 ship, and I announced a further £183 million in July for the guns to go on the ship. Much of the design work has been completed, but I am not prepared to sign a contract with BAE Systems until I am absolutely persuaded that it is in the best interests of the taxpayer and, indeed, the Navy, giving value for money to both.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the shipyards are in my constituency. The clear message from the workforce might best be conveyed by my paraphrasing Darth Vader: we want these ships, not excuses. Will the Secretary of State explain why, although the original timetable for the cutting of steel was May this year, it has not yet happened? May I ask him to speed up the process, so that ships can be built on the Clyde?

We would not be ordering any ships from the Clyde if Scotland had become independent last spring, because complex warships are only built in the United Kingdom. Let me be clear: this contract must be in the best interests of the taxpayer. I am aware of the need to sustain employment on the Clyde, which is why, last December, the strategic defence review announced the construction of two further offshore patrol vessels, in addition to the three that are currently being built on the Clyde.

Is it possible for the MOD to consider positioning Gibraltar as a home port for at least one of the Type 26 offshore patrol vessels, where the facilities are superb for them and they are in a very good position to operate?

That is a suggestion I will certainly consider. Gibraltar is a key base for the Royal Navy. I think last week we had two, possibly three, ships from the Royal Navy calling in on Gibraltar, and Gibraltar of course retains its affiliation to the Crown despite the recent referendum.


14. What steps he is taking to ensure support for quality apprenticeships and training programmes through current and future defence procurement. (906252)

The MOD is proud to be one of the largest providers of quality apprenticeships in the UK, and indeed the largest in Government, having delivered over 150,000 apprenticeships. We work closely across both Government and industry to develop apprenticeship standards, helping to build and maintain key defence skills across the country.

With major defence and infrastructure projects on the horizon, now is the wrong time for the Government to be cutting funding for apprenticeships. What guarantees can the Minister give that quality apprenticeships will be protected by his Department going forward?

We stand by our record. We have delivered over 150,000 apprenticeships. Any new recruit joining the armed forces is enrolled on an apprenticeship scheme, and that will continue.

The Minister knows that logistics is an incredibly important area for the military and armed forces. It is also vital for other parts of the economy, and essential in refugee work. Will the Minister increase apprenticeships in logistics and ensure their quality?

The MOD offers a number of logistics apprenticeships including driving goods vehicles, roadside assistance and recovery, and international trade and logistics. However, I recognise the importance of logistics to the armed forces and efforts to address skills shortages in this area need to be balanced with other areas, but I will certainly look at what my hon. Friend says.

23. I am sure the Minister would agree that participation in one of our cadet forces is one of the best apprenticeships available through the MOD. We have a wonderful sea cadets group in the Rhondda. Now that the MOD is vacating Pentre barracks in the Rhondda, why on earth is it putting it up for auction on the open market rather than simply giving it to the sea cadets? (906262)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will support this Government’s programme to extend cadet forces to 500 by 2020. Equally, he will appreciate that we have very strict rules when it comes to the disposal of defence property, but I am happy to look into what he says.

Topical Questions

My immediate priorities remain success in our operations against Daesh and implementing our strategic defence and security review. Last week I hosted the first ever United Nations peacekeeping ministerial, the largest meeting of Defence Ministers in Britain since the Wales summit, where I underlined that the UK is stepping up its global commitments, backed by a rising defence budget and including additional troops to peacekeeping in South Sudan.

I am tempted just to ask the Secretary of State if he can name the French Foreign Minister and the South Korean Prime Minister, but can he confirm that, contrary to what he told the “Today” programme last week, it does in fact matter which budget conflict and security spending comes from, and if he is so strapped for cash perhaps he should be scrapping Trident rather than raiding the Department for International Development’s aid budget?

The French Defence Minister is Monsieur Jean-Yves Le Drian, whom I met last Thursday—I think it was the 21st time I have met him in two years—and the South Korean Prime Minister is Madam Park, whom I met during her most recent visit. The difficulty facing the shadow Defence Secretary is that none of my Defence Ministers know who he is.

However, on the budget, this is an increasing defence budget; we are committed to meeting the 2% target and the defence budget will also rise in real terms for every year of this Parliament.

T3. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to assist current and former personnel who are concerned about the health effects of being prescribed Lariam anti-malarials when deployed overseas? (906206)

The Ministry of Defence takes the health and wellbeing of its personnel seriously and acknowledges its duty of care to provide the best possible support to them. I am delighted to be able to confirm today that, as part of that care, we have introduced a single point of contact providing information on mefloquine and signposting a range of services to help those who have concerns having taken Lariam. Further details are available on the website.

I am sure that Ministers are fast learners and will get to know my name soon enough. Last week the MOD was accused of a terrifying error after accidentally publishing the details of 20,000 people online. Following a number of recent high-profile security breaches including the attempted abduction of an RAF airman based at Marham, many service members will understandably be concerned about their personal safety. What reassurances can the Secretary of State provide to those men and women in regard to the security, particularly online, of any personal information about them?

We have been doing everything we possibly can to protect people’s personal details online. I went to Marham myself two days after that incident took place—the police investigation there is ongoing—to give reassurance not only to the serving personnel but to their families that we will do everything we possibly can to protect them.

British military personnel in Saudi Arabia include a number of liaison officers stationed within the military headquarters of Saudi-led operations in Yemen. According to the Government, those officers are deployed to gain insight into those operations and to advise the Saudis on how to comply with international humanitarian law. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether any communications from those British officers—as opposed to reports from the Saudi authorities themselves—have revealed any concerns about the conduct of operations in Yemen, including the possibility that humanitarian law has been violated?

Let me make it clear that the United Kingdom is not a member of the Saudi-led coalition, and UK personnel are not involved in directing or conducting operations in Yemen or in the target selection process. We have not assessed that the Saudi-led coalition is targeting civilians or is in breach of international humanitarian law.

T6. During the EU referendum campaign, the Government said that voting to leave would put the security of the UK and western Europe at risk, so will the Secretary of State tell me by how much the Government are increasing the defence budget as a result of the referendum’s outcome? Or was that in fact an example of scaremongering that we can add to the ever-growing pile entitled “Utter cobblers that the Government were spouting during the EU referendum campaign”? (906209)

My hon. Friend will know that the defence budget is increasing in any event, and it will go on increasing in each year of this Parliament because of our commitment to meeting the 2% target in NATO. I know that he will join me in reminding our allies that although we are exiting the European Union, we are not abandoning our commitment to European security, which is why we are leading a battalion in Estonia next year, why we have committed extra troops to Poland, why our Typhoons were policing the Baltic airspace this year and why we will be leading the very high readiness taskforce next year.

T2. Easat Radar Systems in Stoke-on-Trent is a cutting-edge business supplying coastal-based radar surveying UK waters and exporting round the world. This is the kind of British-based defence manufacturing we need as Russia continues to test our defences and security concerns about breaches to our coastline grow. The Minister for Defence Procurement is already coming to Stafford. I invite her to come to Stoke-on-Trent afterwards to visit Easat Radar Systems to give the business the support it deserves. (906205)

The hon. Gentleman is a doughty champion of businesses in Stoke-on-Trent. I know that the Secretary of State has already offered a meeting with businesses in that constituency, and I look forward to hearing more about the particular one he mentioned in his question.

T8. Will the Minister support the recent application by the Magnus Church of England Academy for a new cadet force? Does he agree that schools such as that academy, situated within a deprived area and with a persistent problem of white working-class boys, are exactly where new cadet units will make a difference? (906211)

The Government have committed £50 million of LIBOR funding to increase the number of cadet units in schools to 500 by 2020. That manifesto commitment will establish some 150 new units in state schools across the UK and we have made it a priority to focus on cities and areas of high deprivation. I welcome my hon. Friend’s championing of the cause. Any school that wants to open a cadet unit through the cadet expansion programme should submit an expression of interest through the website.

T4. People in my constituency are worried about the UK Government’s plans for the army base at historic Fort George, which supports around 750 local jobs. Unhelpful comments from the Secretary of State for Scotland this weekend about the base’s condition have not helped that speculation. Will Ministers do the right thing, back Fort George and end the unhelpful speculation now? (906207)

The MOD continues to review its estate to ensure that it is smaller and more sustainable, allowing us to focus on delivering future defence capability and enabling considerable investment in sites such as Lossiemouth and Faslane. While no decision has been made on Fort George’s future, Scotland will continue to be a vital home for our armed forces. However, Scotland, like the rest of the UK, must expect some sites to close and some investment in other locations.

T5. Research from the Fraser of Allander Institute found that the number of defence jobs in Scotland is plummeting despite promises to the contrary in 2014. There are almost 3,000 fewer MOD employees and the number in military roles has gone down. In 2008, there were 23% more jobs in uniformed and MOD civilian roles. Can the Secretary of State tell us how Scotland is better off in the union given that reality? (906208)

I certainly can. Scotland is getting additional investment at Faslane, and Lossiemouth will be the home of the new Typhoon squadron. Faslane will continue to be the base for all the Royal Navy’s submarines. Scotland is playing a key part in the construction of our new Navy with the new aircraft carriers, the Type 26 global combat ship, and the offshore patrol vessels, all of which will contribute to more jobs in Scotland.

T10. Kurdish fighters, in part supplied with small arms from this country, have been among the most effective ground forces against Daesh, yet they find themselves under attack from our NATO ally Turkey. How can that circle be squared? (906213)

My hon. Friend is right that the situation is complicated, in particular in north Syria. We continue to urge the opposition groups in Syria to combat Daesh—although they are of course also under pressure from the regime. As a result of the ceasefire coming into force tonight, I hope that all the moderate armed groups in Syria can now concentrate their fire against the murderous ideology that is Daesh and allow humanitarian aid into the towns and cities that have been so long denied it.

T9. Our military charities do phenomenal good in Northern Ireland, and one, Combat Stress, has just received £400,000 to help it carry out its vital work. However, its plan to move to using triage nurses to handle calls, rather than the admin staff experienced in handling mental health cases, is what really worries me—those callers need sensitive handling. Will the Minister meet representatives to discuss how we can do that better in future? (906212)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the success of recent LIBOR funding bids from Northern Ireland. The issue he raises is of course important and I would be delighted to meet to discuss it.

The Royal Air Force has a long and illustrious history in Wales and the connection has been fostered and maintained by volunteer gliding schools. The MOD’s decision to denude Wales of such schools and make air cadets travel many hours to England has had nothing less than a devastating effect on young people and adult volunteers. What steps are being taken to return such schools to Wales?

I commend my hon. Friend’s tenacity in pursuing this issue. He knows that significant challenges surround the viability of aerodromes and former aerodromes in south Wales for future cadet gliding, but following his persistence and that of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) I am looking to see whether other sites are financially viable. I hope to be able to update them shortly.

Does the Minister welcome the establishment of veterans’ breakfast clubs up and down the country as a way of providing support from veterans to veterans? Will the Minister ask his officials why these clubs have been denied the right to use the veterans’ logo on their official literature, as the only person who ever turns up to the Chester veterans’ breakfast club who is not a veteran is me?

I am a great fan of veterans’ clubs and I have visited several. They are a fantastic thing, which I am keen to encourage, and I am happy to look into the matter the hon. Gentleman raises.

As my hon. Friend knows, last week it was announced that the MOD was going to dispose of Stonehouse barracks in my constituency. Can he clarify the criteria to keep 3 Commando Brigade and the Royal Marines in my constituency?

The decision to close up to 30% of the defence estate is based on military capability; it very much is a military decision, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss it, if he would like to do so.

May I thank the veterans Minister for meeting Hull resident Dereck Johnson, who set up the Hull veterans’ breakfast club, and may I ask what progress has been made in rolling out these breakfast clubs across the country, as they meet such a real need in that community?

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the hon. Lady’s constituent and I thought it was an excellent breakfast club. I have also met the national chairman and we are in discussions about how the Department can support this excellent initiative.

Thank you, good Speaker. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the service provided by BBC Monitoring to open-source intelligence is of vital interest to the MOD? Does he agree that it would be totally unacceptable if the BBC inflicted swingeing cuts in the Monitoring service, as is proposed, including the closure of Caversham Park?

It is always good to be able to find common ground with my right hon. Friend on a defence matter. I certainly confirm the first part of his question, and I will do what I can to convey the gist of the second part to the BBC, too.

An article in The Times today on the welcome news of the ceasefire in Syria states:

“The US and Russia have agreed to work together to target Islamic State and the FSF”.

Will the Secretary of State provide more detail on how that would work in practice, how the UK will be involved and how we can ensure that such co-operation results in no civilian casualties?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome the ceasefire, belated though it is, that we hope will come into force tonight. The situation in Syria is complex and we have continued to urge Russia to use all its influence on the Syrian regime to get humanitarian aid in and to stop the regime targeting particular opposition groups. As he knows, we do not have combat troops deployed in Syria, but the strikes we carry out on behalf of the coalition will, obviously, also now have to reflect the new reality on the ground.

The British Royal Navy is now smaller than the flotilla that we sent to take back the Falkland Islands. When will we have a date for Type 45 destroyer engine repairs and replacements, which are desperately needed, so that we can at least maintain the 19 ships of the line that we currently have?

I hope that the hon. Lady, who knows a lot about this, is not confusing number with quality or power. The ships we are now deploying—the aircraft carriers, the Type 45 destroyers and the forthcoming Type 26 frigates—are of course much more powerful than the ships that sailed to liberate the Falkland Islands. I know she will join me in welcoming the new missions of the two Type 45s, HMS Diamond and HMS Daring, which sailed in the past few weeks.

A serious issue for recruitment policy is service family accommodation, and I am sure the Secretary of State and the Department agree with the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee report on service family accommodation. Will he update the House on how they are dealing with CarillionAmey and its dubious failings for service personnel, and on how we make sure that this does not happen again?

I am delighted to say that as a result of the recent “get well” plan, CarillionAmey is now meeting all but two of its key performance indicators. However, let me assure the House that I do not take this recent improvement for granted. I am utterly determined that the poor standard that our service personnel received in recent years will not be repeated.

I do not want the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) to be sad or to feel isolated or excluded. Let him have a go.

Thank you; very kind. A few moments ago the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), said that we were procuring more warships and aircraft than ever before. That is far removed from reality. In setting the record straight, can she confirm whether such information is part of the induction into the Ministry of Defence team, or did she come up with it all by herself?

I recommend that the hon. Gentleman read the strategic defence and security review. He can see that we are increasing defence spending every year and we are investing in more ships, more planes, more troops who are ready to act, better equipment for our special forces and more for cyber, in contrast to the Labour party, which wants to scrap our nuclear deterrent, withdraw from NATO and abolish our Army. Labour cannot be trusted with our security.

Schools that work for Everyone

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s consultation published today, ‘Schools that work for everyone’, copies of which I have placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, this Government are putting the interests of ordinary working-class people first. We want this country to be a truly meritocratic country, where what matters most is a person’s individual talent and their capacity for hard work, so we need to build a schools system that works for everyone, not just for the privileged few. The various proposals set out today in this consultation document all drive towards one simple goal: increasing the number of good school places for all children.

Over the past six years we have made great strides forward, with more than 1.4 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010. The flagship academies programme has unlocked the potential in our schools. This Government are committed to helping all schools enjoy academy status freedoms and school-led system improvement through multi-academy trusts. The reforms carried out by my right hon. Friends the Members for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) have had a transformational effect on education in our country. Now we need to build on the “Educational Excellence Everywhere” White Paper—our dedication to good teachers in every school, world-class qualifications and reforming school funding—and put an end to the underperformance that has blighted too many children’s education and that still exists in pockets throughout our country.

We need radically to expand the number of good school places available to all families, not just to those who can afford to move into the catchment areas of the best state schools, those who can afford to pay for private education, or those belonging to certain faiths. We need to give all schools with a strong track record, experience and valuable expertise the incentives to expand their offer to enable even more pupils to go there, driving up standards and giving parents greater choice and control. We have sought to do this already through, for example, university technical colleges and specialist subject schools.

The reality is that demand for school places only continues to grow, but too many children still do not have access to a good or outstanding school. In some areas as many as 50% of children do not have one locally. In fact, 1.25 million children attend schools that are not good or outstanding, in spite of all the progress that has been made. That is unacceptable.

The Government make sure that schools have the resources to help the children most in need—for example, through the pupil premium—and of course that will continue, but the Prime Minister is right when she says that disadvantage can often be hidden in this country. It is not just about those children who receive free school meals; we want to come up with a broader definition and look at ordinary working-class families just managing to get by, who are too often forgotten.

This consultation deliberately asks big, open questions about the future of education in this country. The plans set out in “Schools that work for everyone” focus on how we can unlock four existing parts of the educational community so that they can have a bigger impact for all children.

The first part is the independent schools that give wealthier parents the option of an outstanding education for their children, often sending a high proportion to the best universities and guaranteeing access to the best career outcomes. Many of these schools already make a contribution to the state sector—some even sponsor or run state schools. While we recognise that work, we want independent schools to do more, so we want stronger, more demanding public benefit tests for independent schools to retain the benefits associated with charitable status. We want independent schools to offer more places to those less able to afford them, and to sponsor or set up schools in the state sector. For smaller schools we will, of course, look at an proportionate approach, and we are seeking views on how they can make their facilities available to state schools and share their teaching expertise.

The second part is our world-class universities. They need funding, of course, in order to maintain that status, and under this Government’s approach to access agreements, we have made sure that we have seen steady investment, while at the same time making sure that university is not out of reach for disadvantaged people. We want the huge talent base in our universities to do more to widen participation and to help more children to reach their full potential. We therefore want universities to open or sponsor schools in exchange for the right to raise their fees. This will ensure that they are not just pulling in the most qualified applicants—some of whom might have had an educational head start—but playing a bigger role in increasing the numbers of students with the GCSEs and the A-level grades that open doors to degree courses in the first place.

Thirdly, when we talk about selection in this country, we have to acknowledge that we have selection by house price already—for those who are able to buy a house in the catchment areas of the best schools. [Interruption.]

We know that selective schools are in high demand, as are specialist art, music and sports schools. Selective schools are good for pupils, particularly the most disadvantaged ones who attend them, yet for most children the chance to attend a selective school simply does not exist, so we want to look again at selective schools and how they can open up excellent places to more children, particularly the most disadvantaged. We will therefore look at how we can relax the rules on expanding selective schools and allow new ones to open and non-selective schools to become selective where there is a demand. At the same time, we have to challenge ourselves, and selective schools, to raise attainment much more broadly.

It is really important that I am clear about how we ensure that all schools improve. We do not want to see a return to the old binary system of good schools and bad schools. Every child deserves a place in a great—[Interruption.]

Order. The Secretary of State must be heard. Everybody, I think, on both sides of the House knows that, when ministerial statements are delivered, I, almost without exception, allow everyone who wants to contribute the chance to do so, and, believe me, today will be no exception—I am very sensitive to the differences of opinion in the House. Everyone will have a chance to question the Secretary of State, but meanwhile she should and must be heard with courtesy.

Every child deserves a place in a great school; it is not just what they deserve, it is what our country deserves. What is clear is that selection should be part of the debate about how we make sure that the right number of good places exist. Selective schools will be expected to guarantee places for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and, far from tainting the standards of education in schools around them, we will explore ways for selective schools to share their expertise. We want them to raise standards in every part of the schools system—for example, by opening excellent feeder primary schools or by sponsoring local non-selective schools.

Finally, let me turn to faith schools. I am sure that many colleagues will have children who go to high-quality faith schools. The current rules to promote inclusion mean that when new faith free schools are oversubscribed, they have to limit the number of pupils they admit on the basis of faith to 50%. The reality is that this has not worked to combat segregation, and indeed also acts as a barrier to some faiths in opening new schools. We want to remove that barrier so that new places can be created, but at the same time consult on more effective ways to ensure that all new faith free schools are truly inclusive. We will look at new requirements on proposers of free schools to demonstrate that they are attracting applications from other faiths, and to establish twinning arrangements with schools not of their faith, and consider sponsoring underperforming non-faith schools and bringing members of other faiths, and none, into their governing bodies.

The Government want to build on the progress made over the past six years and make the schools system truly fit for purpose in the 21st century. The “Schools that work for everyone” consultation is about engaging with as many views as possible so that we can design policies that make the most of the expertise that we already have, and widen access to good and outstanding school places for all. Government Members believe in building a true meritocracy. We think that every child deserves a school place that will best serve their individual talents, and not to be limited by where they live or by how much their parents earn. There is so much potential in our country, and that talent base needs us to ask the big questions, leaving no stone unturned so that we can build a schools system that truly works for everyone. I commend this statement to the House.

If I may, I would like to start by offering some advice to the Government:

“Stop your silly class war.”

[Interruption.] That reaction is very interesting, because it was not my advice but that of the last Prime Minister—who is still currently, I believe, the right hon. Member Witney—when asked about Tory MPs wanting to return to grammar schools. He went on to say:

“I think it is delusional to think that a policy of expanding a number of grammar schools is either a good idea, a sellable idea or even the right idea”.

He was the future once, but the current Prime Minister wants to hark back to the past. Where once, under Labour, we had “Education, education, education”, this Government’s mantra is “Segregation, segregation, segregation” .

Perhaps the Secretary of State can start by telling us when the Prime Minister told her what her education policy was going to be. When the Secretary of State came to this House last Thursday, she told us that there was nothing to announce. She said:

“we have not yet actually made any policy announcements; they will be made in due course.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 470.]

She assured us that she was looking into “a range of options”. Yet, lo and behold, just 24 hours later the Prime Minister unveiled their policy in full. Apparently it did not take that long to look at those options. This is not a surprise. The Prime Minister’s plan seems to be that we need grammars, secondary moderns and technical schools. This is a line taken directly from the Conservatives’ 1955 manifesto—hardly an education policy for the 21st century. Was the Secretary of State unaware of the Prime Minister’s speech or did she forget to tell the House—or perhaps the dog ate that bit of her answer?

Today’s statement is another sorry excuse, so I have some serious questions that the Secretary of State has yet to answer. Will she confirm that the new Prime Minister has absolutely no mandate for this policy? Not only was no such pledge in their manifesto, but the former Prime Minister, as Leader of the Opposition, promised precisely not to bring in new grammar schools. He said: “It is not something we would do if elected.” We will hold the Government to account, and the country will hold the Government to that promise.

When the Prime Minister’s predecessor was asked whether he would cave in to his Back Benchers over grammar schools, he said:

“I lead. I don’t follow my party; I lead them.”

He was able to do that for more than six years, but his successor has hardly managed six weeks.

It is not just the former Prime Minister who opposes the plans; the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) has said of the creation of new grammar schools:

“I believe that an increase in pupil segregation on the basis of academic selection would be…a distraction”

from the serious efforts to narrow the attainment gap.

The Conservative Chair of the Education Committee said last night:

“We have serious issues about social mobility…and I don’t think that having more grammar schools is going to help them.”

He went on to say:

“I think that the creaming off of the best is actually detrimental to the interests of the most.”

Will the Secretary of State now apologise for dismissing all opponents of her plans by placing dogma over pupils and opportunity? All the major research shows that where there are grammar schools today, access to them is limited to the most well-off. It also shows that educational attainment in grammar areas for those who fail to get into grammar schools is below the national average. Given the overwhelming academic evidence that grammars fail to improve the standards of the majority of children, what research is the Secretary of State basing her decision on, and will she lay it before this House?

Will the Secretary of State explain just how this policy is going to work? She seems to be saying not only that every new school can be a grammar, but that every existing school can convert to a grammar as well. I may be a comprehensive girl, but even I can see the flaw in thinking that it is possible to let every school in the country select through an exam. Will the Secretary of State tell us just how she will decide which schools will be allowed to segregate pupils and which will not?

We are told that the new grammars may be free schools, but free schools are not free to the taxpayer. How much of the schools budget will be put aside for these new grammar schools? Has the Secretary of State received any extra funding from the Treasury, or will it have to be taken from existing schools, which are already facing the first real-terms cut in decades?

Page 25 of the Government’s consultation document says that for schools to become grammars, one requirement that they may have to meet is to establish a new, non-selective secondary school, with capital and revenue costs paid by the Government. Perhaps the Secretary of State can reassure the House that that will be paid for by new funding arrangements that she has reached with the Treasury, rather than being squeezed out of school budgets that are facing a real-terms cut.

Order. I think the shadow Secretary of State is bringing her remarks to a close. I have been generous, but she is a little over her time and I think she has either finished or is approaching her last sentence—a pithy one.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister promised on the steps of No. 10 to govern for the many and not the privileged few, and to be led by the evidence when making decisions, yet now we have a policy that is aimed at not just serving the privileged few, but entrenching that advantage over the rest of society. This is a disgraceful attack on opportunity and inclusion, and we will oppose it. I appeal to every single Member in this House to oppose it, too.

I reiterate that this is the beginning of a consultation that sets out a debate that we need to have in our education system if we are going to make sure that we deliver on our manifesto commitment, which is to have an excellent school place available for every single child in our country. We set out very clearly that that would include more places at grammar schools.

The hon. Lady had nothing to say about how we can make independent schools play a stronger role in raising standards or how universities can play a stronger role in raising attainment. In spite of all the challenges and issues that she raises from a Labour perspective, it is worth pointing out that the leader of the Labour party, as I understand it, wants to scrap existing grammars. Is that correct? I cannot see a flicker of recognition of that policy from the Leader of the Opposition; perhaps he has been distracted over recent weeks.

In spite of all the challenges and issues that the Labour party raises over grammars, and in spite of the fact that the party was in power for 13 years, it took no steps when in government to ensure that grammars played a stronger role in raising attainment in their broader communities. What did we actually see under Labour in government? It was not education, education, education; it was grade inflation; children leaving school without even the most basic skills of reading, writing and adding up; a university system that had a cap on student numbers and aspiration; and youth unemployment that went up by the best part of 50%. We need no lectures from the Labour party on how to deliver opportunity for our young people.

If we are going to ensure that ours is a country where everybody can do their best, wherever they start, we have to be prepared at least to have a debate about how we will make that happen. It seems to me that the only distraction in this Chamber for the Labour party is, yet again, its own leadership contest. In the meantime, the ideas and the initiative to drive opportunity across Britain will come from Conservative Members.

I warmly welcome the motives behind my right hon. Friend’s statement, which appeared to be to try to restore some of the best of the 1944 Butler Act—with its amazing opportunities for bright working-class children—while avoiding some of its serious downsides, such as the great damage that it did and the poor alternatives that it offered to the majority of pupils who did not pass the exam. Does she accept that the devil lies in the detail? Does she accept that, as she develops the policy that she is setting out for consultation today, it will be tested by how far she can, in specific ways, ensure that this change does not damage the opportunities for pupils in other schools and does not distract priority from raising the standards of all schools for all pupils, which has been the objective of this Government?

May I also ask my right hon. Friend to reconsider pretty fundamentally the announcement she has made about faith schools? We need to live in a society where we reduce barriers and improve contacts and integration between people of all faiths. If the system has been imperfect, we need to know why it has not worked. It may be right to modify it, but will not simply removing the cap altogether lead us into considerable danger?

My right hon. and learned Friend went back some time to talk about the 1944 Butler Act. I do not personally recall it, having not been born at the time. The point is that the education system in our country is in a radically different position from when we effectively had a binary system, which that Act did not intend, of secondary moderns and grammars. Our education system has been transformed out of all recognition. This proposal is about improving choice for parents, wherever they are in the country; it is about building capacity in our school system; and it is about continuing with the reforms that have already seen 1.4 million more children get into good or outstanding schools. Those reforms are absolutely critical, alongside this work, to making sure that we improve opportunity.

On faith schools, let me explain the situation more succinctly. The existing 50% rule was put in place with the best of intentions, and it kicks in when new faith schools are oversubscribed. The issue is that that very rarely happens, so in spite of the fact that it was designed with the best of motives, the rule does not operate effectively. Some new faith schools are overwhelmingly comprised of children with one faith, because the school did not have to go and seek more children of other faiths and no faith. The consultation document therefore sets out a number of different proposals. For example, proposed new faith schools would have to demonstrate more clearly that there was a broader community desire for places at that new school, not just from parents of that faith but from parents of no faith and other faiths.

The Secretary of State has expressed concern that the opponents of this policy have nothing to say. I can reassure her that I have plenty to say, but, unfortunately, I have only two minutes in which to say it.

For any Government to be truly progressive, their education system must do all it can to tackle inequality. Only in this way can our young people reach their true potential. Only in this way can we close the attainment gap, which the First Minister has made the mission of her SNP Government in Scotland. There can be no doubt that grammar schools encourage educational inequality. That is why there will be no grammar schools in Scotland. Instead, the SNP Government are doing everything possible to ensure that all children have access to the same opportunities, no matter their background. If the mistake of reintroducing grammar schools in England has any financial impact on Scotland, we in the SNP will fight tooth and nail in our opposition to this policy.

Instead of this backward step, the Government should be working to close the attainment gap. The SNP Government in Scotland are committing an additional—targeted—£750 million to close this gap, with a new, fair and transparent funding formula for schools that will ensure additional resources go where they are needed. Does the Secretary of State not think that she could learn something from this strategy? Will she explain how this Government can trumpet their credentials of so-called social mobility when there is clear evidence that such selective admissions policies in schools are not to the benefit of all children? This Government say they believe in a meritocratic society, so can she explain how grammar schools promote that when they fly in the face of such an ideal, creating social divisions between children at a very young age?

The hon. Lady sets out the SNP’s approach to education, but it does not bear comparison with the dramatic improvements in our English education system during the past six years, which we absolutely aim to continue to drive forward. We have seen a stronger focus on school leadership and teaching standards. We have seen a more rigorous curriculum that truly enables our children to have the knowledge and skills they need to be successful. Critically, we have seen schools working far more closely together in order, collectively, to raise attainment standards across the board. I am saying today that I want some parts of our education system that have played less of a role in doing so than I think they can to step up to the plate and to do much more.

The hon. Lady asked about attainment. The reality is that disadvantaged children who get into grammar school come on in leaps and bounds. In fact, the attainment gap between them and better advantaged cohorts has dramatically closed by the time they leave school. Fundamentally, the difference between us and the opposition parties is that we believe that that is a good thing, and that we should therefore look at how to make such an opportunity available to more children. The opposition parties believe we should have a levelling down. That is the difference, and that is why we do not accept their approach.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on the clear moral purpose that runs through every word of her statement? Her commitment to ensuring that every child in this country receives a high-quality education and that we narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor is the driving mission she has brought to the role of Education Secretary, and I for one am delighted to see her at the Dispatch Box.

In particular, the Secretary of State is absolutely right to say that two of the highest performing education sectors in this country—independent schools and universities—still have not done enough to help disadvantaged children to do more. Do not the examples of the Harris Westminster free school, supported by a great independent school, and King’s maths school, supported by a great university, show that institutions that select at the age of 16 can ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds can do more? Will she reassure the House that, in the face of the opposition to all reform and all debate by the dogmatists on the Opposition side of the House, she will be driven entirely by data and what works, and that she will press ahead with the cause of reform?

I can assure my right hon. Friend of that, and I thank him for his comments. He was a Secretary of State who was willing to press on with difficult decisions to get the best outcome for Britain’s children, and he was absolutely right to do so. Failure comes from failing to address the difficult questions that we need to ask ourselves to improve England’s education system. We are prepared to address those questions, and we are putting our proposals out in a consultation document, which is effectively a Green Paper.

As my right hon. Friend says, innovation is happening across the system. We can look at the maths school that King’s College London has set up, or at the Harris Westminster college, or further afield at the work of the University of Brighton and the University of Exeter, which are truly showing how they can work with their local school system and more broadly to raise attainment. We should learn from them and expand the impact of universities, not contract it.

Let us have the debate, but let us have it based on evidence. What evidence does the Secretary of State have that the reintroduction of selection would work? All the evidence that I can find shows that it would not. Areas that have selection have a wider attainment gap than those that do not, disadvantaged children do not get into grammar schools and poorer kids do worse. In contrast, the highest-performing areas, where the gap has closed dramatically, particularly under the Labour Government, are comprehensive areas. Perhaps the Secretary of State would do better focusing her efforts on how we can spread the good practice of places such as London rather than on importing the much poorer practice of somewhere such as Kent.

It would be helpful if the Labour Front Benchers, and maybe individual Labour MPs, set out exactly where they stand on removing existing grammars. That is not clear to me, but as I understand it, that is the Labour party’s proposal. From the hon. Lady’s comments, perhaps we can assume that she wants to end all existing selection. If she is not prepared to make that argument, it is hard for her to argue against the status quo while simultaneously saying that we are wrong to consider reforming it. I think that is her position.

The reality is that many grammar schools, such as Bournemouth school, are doing important work to prioritise getting children on the pupil premium into grammar schools. We know from evidence from the Sutton Trust that when children on free school meals get into grammars, they do disproportionately well. The same evidence also showed that there was no discernible lessening of attainment among children outside the grammar system.

Of course, we are not in a binary system now. Our schools have overwhelmingly improved over the past six years, and many more schools of all kinds are now good or outstanding. The sense that children not in a grammar are somehow consigned to an education system that is failing them is simply wrong, but in some schools in some parts of the country, children do not have access to a good school place. We should not accept that. Our proposals today and the debate that we are starting are aimed at looking at how we can tackle it, and they sit alongside a much broader series of policy reforms. We will push on and change those circumstances, unlike the Labour party, which does not even seem to want to have a debate in the first place.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said today about having greater collaboration between universities, independent schools and schools in the state system. I also agree with her about faith schools, which need to be looked at.

Over the past six years, the Conservative party has consistently challenged the soft bigotry of low expectations—the idea that an academic education is not available to all. My right hon. Friend is right that we have great schools and great teachers, but we do not have them everywhere. Will she explain, now or in the course of the consultation, how the Green Paper proposals on selective education will benefit pupils in areas where expectations are still too low and results are too poor? When will she announce the first of the “achieving excellence” areas?

My right hon. Friend is right to point out that too often, in the past, Governments have not had high enough expectations for children growing up in more disadvantaged parts of our country. That is totally unacceptable. Talented children are growing up all over our country and we should make sure that they have an education system that can enable them to make the most of their talents. She is also right that if we want new grammars to open we have to work with local communities. I would very much like some of the most disadvantaged communities to have the chance now to have a grammar. At the moment there is simply not that opportunity for them, even if local parents want it. We know that 20% of children at grammar schools come from outside the immediate catchment area, which clearly suggests that parents in those broader areas also want the choice of a grammar for their children.

Finally, my right hon. Friend set out points in the White Paper that I thought were quite right. The achieving excellence areas are about looking systematically at places where children are systematically let down and do not have access to good school places, to see what it will take—not just inside schools but outside—to change that over time. I assure her absolutely that all that work will continue, and pay tribute to her for that White Paper, which put in place the building bricks for what I hope will be a successful approach.

It is simply not true to say that the Opposition are in favour of levelling down. Having schools that work for everyone and for all families is exactly what we are in favour of. I want to press the Secretary of State on the question of evidence. Where is the evidence that any of the improvement we have seen in the past 15 to 20 years has come as a result of selection? In particular, can she name a school system elsewhere in the world that succeeds on the basis of selection at 11?

Our proposals are clear on the fact that we do not want a test at 11 to be the principal way that children get into grammars. We want much more flexibility in the grammar system. This is about having a 21st-century education system and a 21st-century approach on grammars. It is wrong to say that we should just freeze grammars in time, and never come back to look at how they can work more effectively. The test is surely the fact that 99% of grammars are judged good or outstanding by Ofsted. Those schools have outstanding leadership and teachers, and a strong, stretching and rigorous curriculum. They deliver for children of lower prior attainment and disadvantaged children, but also stretch those of better attainment. That is why they are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. It would be wrong not to look at how we can pull those features into the broader school system. Many of our reforms have been doing that. Where it is the choice and there is the demand we should be enabling more grammars to open.

Back in 1944, three types of school were proposed—grammars, secondary moderns and technical schools—but by 1959 only 2% of any year group could expect to get to a technical school. The problem is sometimes in delivery and the mechanism for implementation. What plans does the Secretary of State have to make sure that the changes in the Green Paper will be implemented in such a way that we reach every community and every child, and can be sure that we are giving every child the best possible opportunity, either in a grammar school or some other, different type of school? The mechanism—brokering it and checking that it is working—will count for a lot with this policy.

I very much pay tribute to all my hon. Friend’s work as Chair of the Education Committee. This is about building capacity; fundamentally, it is about having more good school places for children around Britain. The test of its success will be a continued improvement in attainment—very much following on from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has said—focusing in particular on those children who do not get as far as they should and have not been able to enjoy and benefit from the broader reforms that so many more children are now benefiting from.

Let me tell the Secretary of State that this country has made steady progress on education over the years, under all parties. There has been real improvement in our education system; is she aware that sending a message that that is a history of failure is not very encouraging to teachers and the people who deliver education? I beg her not to start what we have already seen in the Chamber, namely a bitter turf war about comprehensives against grammars. If she likes grammar schools, she should provide the evidence. Provide what is best for our students and our kids in this country, but do not start an ideological turf war that will be very damaging to our country.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to open up a measured debate that is based on evidence on what it will take to improve our school system, and particularly on what it will take to enable those who do not have access to a good school place to have one. We believe that selection can play a role, and that we should look at how that can be done more effectively.

The hon. Gentleman was at the urgent question on Thursday. I recognise how emotive the issue is on both sides of the House—it is emotive because it matters for all of our children. The wrong thing to do would be simply to see the concerns that Labour Members express and put them in a box, unprepared to look at how we can make grammars work more effectively for disadvantaged children. We should recognise that every child is different. Those who are academic need schools that can help them stretch themselves.

My anxiety with some of the proposals is this: the Secretary of State rightly focuses on areas of economic and educational disadvantage, but without any kind of local catchment area how can we guarantee that new selective schools will benefit the communities in which they are situated?

We are setting out a number of conditions that new grammars would have to meet for them to be able to open in the first place. Part of that would be working with local communities and demonstrating local demand. It could also involve setting up a non-selective school or sponsoring one that is already there, or setting up or sponsoring a primary school in a more low-income area that feeds the grammar school, so that it absolutely reaches into some of those communities that we want to benefit most from the good or outstanding grammars that are established. I encourage my right hon. Friend to look at the consultation document, which opens a lot of questions about how we can do that effectively. I will no doubt be interested in her response.

I have listened to the Secretary of State carefully and am quite sorry for her in a way, because I am sure this policy is not directly hers. Could she tell us confidentially whether she was as surprised as hon. Members when we found out the chaotic nature of future Government policy, and when she was informed of it by Government Spads in Downing Street?

On behalf of children in Britain, that was a totally pointless question. In fact, I will not bother answering it.

I do not want any child to have to go to the sort of school I went to in the last five years of my secondary education. Hartland comprehensive was many times more like a borstal than a school. Unfortunately, there are still too many comprehensives like that in our country but—it is a big “but”—schools in my constituency have done so well, notably George Spencer, which has become an outstanding academy because of the academy programme. There is no desire in my constituency for us to have selection. Will the Secretary of State therefore assure me and my constituents that the academy programme, which is delivering, will still be supported by the Government?

Yes, of course I will. The proposal is about providing more choice but, as my right hon. Friend sets out, in many parts of the country we have seen academies transform prospects. Her local community might be happy with those existing schools and want to continue to see them get better.

When discussing education with parents and teachers, the issues that come up time and again are the need for more primary places, teacher workload and recruitment, and the north-south funding gap. Not one person has ever raised new grammars with me. Where is the evidence that the continued obsession with structures will resolve the real issues facing our education system?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the need for more primary places and we have put billions of pounds into ensuring them. Part of the challenge is that that demographic bulge is gradually passing into our secondary school system, and we need to ensure that it has the number of places our children we need. We need to ensure that they are good places, which is why we want to open up the debate on selection and ending the ban on grammars. As she says, this is not to say that we do not need carefully to push on with the rest of the agenda in education. She mentioned teacher recruitment and ensuring that education funding is fair around the country. I will continue to focus on all those things.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to greater freedom for faith schools, including Yavneh in my constituency, which is the best performing comprehensive in the entire country. It forms part of a diverse mix in Hertsmere that includes part-selective schools. Does she agree that it is that diversity that is driving up standards, and is she committed to maintaining that diversity?

My hon. Friend sets out the case very well. Parents have more and better choices in his local community. That is important and part of how we see standards rising. We are committed to that continuing.

I, too, listened very carefully to the words of the Secretary of State and she did say that we do not want to see a test at 11 for access to grammars. Is it her intention to abolish the 11-plus for existing grammar schools? If not, why not?

The point I was making to the hon. Gentleman was that many people feel there is a cliff edge in terms of entry into grammars, as it stands, at age 11. We are consulting on children having the chance to go to a local grammar, perhaps at an older age. Indeed, if they are particularly capable at one or two subjects, they could perhaps go to a grammar to study them. I am sure he will read the consultation document with interest.

Does the Secretary of State agree that by lifting the statutory bar we are not returning to the two-tier system of the 1950s? Our education system has moved on. We have the choice of university technical colleges, free schools and academies, as well as apprenticeships. When striving for educational excellence, we must continue to look at all the best forms of education for our children.

My hon. Friend is quite right. We have moved from a system where there was a one-size-fits-all approach to schools for children. We now have a system where there is so much more diversity and choice. We think it is wrong to have one kind of school within the system that is unable to respond to parent demand—that is the need for more grammars. We want to open up the debate and look at what we can do to enable parents around the country to have more of a choice.

When it comes to schools that work for everyone, the Secretary of State says she wants views from everywhere. She will be aware that the exam results from schools in Northern Ireland for GCSE were some of the best in the United Kingdom. Has she had the opportunity to strategise those results for the benefit of the UK mainland?

I know the system of grammars in Northern Ireland is one that people would point to and say that, on average, attainment has increased. During the urgent question last week, I was invited to Northern Ireland to look for myself. I am sure I will be able to visit Northern Ireland shortly.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s Green Paper on the wider aspects of education. I have to say that I have severe reservations about introducing more grammar schools. I was at a grammar school 50 years ago. I have often wondered where I would be if I had failed the 11-plus. I certainly would not be here today. I know the education system has moved on, but I have to say it is a question not of introducing more grammar schools—if people want grammar schools, that is fine—but what is happening in the main part of the system. The main question we have to deal with is not just about access to schools; it is about the poverty of many parents and dysfunctional families. I am sure my right hon. Friend will be looking at that. Could she perhaps give me some reassurance that that is going to be done?

Very much so. As I just replied to my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), looking at specific areas where there is a persistent and long-term lack of educational attainment and a gap in good school places absolutely has to sit alongside this consultation document. The rest of the Government reforms are now well under way and have delivered so much for children in Britain. They absolutely need to continue.

The Secretary of State’s statement is deeply divisive. Will she tell us the difference between the selection criteria for a grammar school and for a free school? What evidence base is available to her for not prioritising the needs of the young people who are not going to be selected?

I would encourage the right hon. Gentleman to look at the Green Paper consultation document that we have published today. It not only talks about how we think grammars and selection can play a stronger role, particularly for improving the prospects for disadvantaged children who are academically able, but sets out our expectation that grammars can do a lot more to raise attainment more broadly in their local communities. As I said to the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), the challenge is that we have not engaged much in the reform of grammars before. Now is the time to ask them to do more, but in return we should also be prepared to enable them to open up in other parts of the country.

I have no ideological hang-up about letting the brightest children do well, but it is crucial to let the poorest come through to do so. I welcome this as the beginning of a debate and as one method by which we can increase the diversity of the school system. I particularly welcome my right hon. Friend’s mention of the role that universities can play. We can see the results of poor social mobility in my Norwich constituency, but universities, as well as existing teachers, are addressing the problem hard and should be encouraged in doing so.

I think Norwich provides an excellent example of a place where we could see attainments raised by the University of East Anglia doing more in local communities. I would like to pay tribute to the work my hon. Friend is doing locally with her young people to help to ensure that that happens. We are at the beginning of understanding how universities can work effectively further back in the education system. The more we can work out how to do that successfully, the more we will see how it can dramatically improve children’s prospects so that they can reach the levels of educational attainment that make going to university become an option.

If the Government were serious about social mobility, they would focus on the early years and on technical and vocational provision. The one thing I welcome is the Secretary of State’s acceptance of the Labour party’s 2015 manifesto commitment on independent schools. Of course they should be doing more to earn their charitable status. I think we are entering into a consensus view on that. Rather than going down the blind alley of the Charitable Commission, I urge the Secretary of State to amend the Local Government Act 1988 so that the business rate relief of private schools is dependent on a hard partnership, as determined by the independent schools inspectorate. It remains a scandal that our sixth-form colleges are paying VAT and private schools have business rate relief. That has to end.

As I understood the hon. Gentleman’s policy, it was simply to scrap charitable status, but what we want to do is to make sure that our independent schools actually earn that charitable status and truly deliver more public benefit taps than some are currently doing. It is fair to say, however, that the overwhelming number of independent schools already do much in their local communities.

As a comprehensive schoolboy, may I commend my right hon. Friend for her bold new departure? Will she ensure, however, that at all times the language used by the Government focuses on people’s aptitudes rather than solely on their academic ability? I believe that, in that way, there are no losers; instead, all talents are championed and pupils are fulfilled.