Tuesday 1 November 2016
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered apprenticeships funding.
I am pleased to bring this important debate to the House and I thank the 55 Members from six parties who helped to secure it. I speak, of course, as a former Universities and Skills Minister, and I am well aware of how important apprenticeships are across the country. There is a further education college in every constituency, so cuts in funding will directly affect thousands of young people all over the UK. It is therefore disappointing that the Government published initial details of those cuts in August without any parliamentary debate or scrutiny.
I do not want to be churlish, so I thank the Minister for the letter that I received from him at 26 minutes past 6 last night. I am grateful for that. That was 56 days after I first wrote to him about those cuts, 45 days after the Prime Minister said during Prime Minister’s questions that she does not recognise the cuts, 21 days after the Minister batted away questions on the cuts during Education questions, and a timely 15 hours before I opened this debate. Unfortunately, the letter says nothing that I did not already know.
It is important to acknowledge that the Government have listened to concerns raised by the further education sector and opposition from Labour Members of Parliament in particular. The written statement that the Government made last Tuesday goes some way to mitigating the worst effects of the cuts, particularly for 16 to 18-year-olds and disadvantaged areas, but that U-turn is a very different line from the one taken by the Department on 9 September in its response to my letter to the Minister, when it made no mention of a consultation or change of heart and stated that the cuts of up to 50%
“will help to ensure every young person, regardless of background or ability, has the chance to take their first step into work”.
As is always the case with funding announcements, the devil is in the detail. Despite the Government’s U-turn, areas such as my constituency of Tottenham will face huge cuts. Tottenham is rapidly regenerating, and with the Government apparently committed to building the homes needed to tackle the housing crisis, there should be opportunities for my young constituents to get skilled jobs in the construction sector, yet the Government are cutting funding for 16 to 18-year-old construction apprentices in Tottenham by a staggering 37%. According to the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London, funding will be cut by 28% for 16 to 18-year-olds in Tottenham in customer service, 38% for those wanting to go into business administration, 43% for engineering apprentices, and 45% for hairdressing apprentices.
I ask the Minister why. Why does he think that my constituents, who live in one of the country’s most deprived constituencies, should not be able to participate in the construction that is happening across the capital? Why should they not be afforded the opportunity to become engineers? Why do his Government prioritise the academic stream with their new scheme to expand grammar schools while cutting funding for those with vocational backgrounds who want to be construction or engineering apprentices? It is a simple question: why?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. The Institute of the Motor Industry described the original cuts as a “car crash”. I suppose a U-turn is not a bad idea when faced with a car crash, but that organisation is still warning that a lot of employers in the motor industry simply will not be able to cope with the existing shortfall in funding and the complexity of the existing frameworks. The Minister really needs to do more work on that if he is to answer the criticisms that have been levelled by both employers and potential apprentices.
I praise my right hon. Friend for his outstanding leadership on this vital issue. Apprenticeships transform lives. Warren Shepherd, an apprentice in Erdington, moved into the house of his dreams as a consequence of gaining an apprenticeship and becoming a time-served engineer in the Jaguar factory. Erdington is rich in talent, but it is one of the poorest constituencies in the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the ladder of opportunity is kicked away for people like Warren, the Government can talk until the cows come home about social mobility and building a strong economy in the midlands, but they will not be willing the means to deliver that?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has been pursuing this subject for a long time. Our hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) raised a real question about the Government’s boasts and commitments to west midlands manufacturing. They have made great play of manufacturing, but in Coventry, for example, further education funding has been cut by 24%. That raises serious questions.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Services now account for 80% of this country’s economy. If we are to build manufacturing and have young people who are able to construct wonderful buildings such as Coventry cathedral, which was levelled during the war, we need apprentices.
In my constituency, apprenticeships are booming. At the new Bridgwater and Taunton College, which is soon to become a university, the first nuclear apprenticeships have started to fuel training of young people in that booming new industry. For Taunton Deane, everything that the Government are doing is positive—particularly the levy that will come in next year and fuel many more apprenticeships.
I encourage the hon. Lady to get into the detail, because that may not be the picture after the cuts that are coming. She may also have seen that the axe is, sadly, falling heavily on disadvantaged areas. I do not know whether there are pockets of deprivation in her constituency, but that is an underlying theme in this debate.
I will not. I ought to make some progress, because I am conscious that many Members wish to speak.
The national picture is also worrying. Analysis by FE Week of the new funding rates found that children’s care, learning and development apprenticeships now face cuts of between 27% and 42%, compared with between 36% and 56% in August. Hospitality and catering funding will now be cut by between 34% and 45%, compared with between 41% and 60% in August. As the principal of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London told me, those cuts will only make it harder to get young people into apprenticeships.
Even after the Government’s U-turn, nine out of the 10 most popular apprenticeships still face cuts ranging from 14% to 51%. The best case scenario is average cuts of 27%; the worst case scenario is average cuts of 43%. The Department for Education was presented with that analysis last Thursday morning, less than 48 hours after it published details of the cuts on the gov.uk website, yet no response has been forthcoming. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about the detail of the range of those cuts—after all, he has had plenty of time to prepare.
I will not at this stage.
I now turn to the disadvantage uplift—the additional funding to support disadvantaged areas that I referred to earlier. That was quietly scrapped completely in the proposals published in August. Last week’s statement promised a
“simplified version of the current system of support for people from disadvantaged areas”,
yet the Minister has told FE Week that that is guaranteed only for one year, while the Department undertakes a review to work out how best to support disadvantaged young people to undertake apprenticeships. One year? Why does it take so long to work out what needs to be done for disadvantaged young people? It is clear: give them an opportunity! It is quite straightforward, and that requires resources.
What does this mean? Will Parliament be told what is going on or will Members of Parliament have to find out through the media? It sounds to me like more cuts will come in a year’s time. Will the Minister confirm today what will happen to support for disadvantaged areas in 12 months’ time? Will the support be maintained or cut? If it is to be cut, may I reassure him that I will be back here, along with many other Members of Parliament, to oppose that once again?
On Tuesday, the Secretary of State told Parliament:
“Apprenticeships transform lives and are vital in making this a country that works for everyone.”
Apparently, the changes made since August
“will ensure apprenticeships are high quality…and provide opportunities for millions more people.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2016; Vol. 616, c. 6WS.]
If the Government are serious about social mobility, will the Minister explain today why the Government are pushing ahead with cuts of anything between 27% and 45% for nine of the 10 most popular apprenticeships? Does he have a response for Paul Warner of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, who warned:
“It is completely self-defeating to cut funding, because that is just preventing disadvantaged young people from getting on”?
The apprenticeship levy will raise £3 billion from large employers and will replace all current Treasury funding of apprenticeships. If the Government are making a saving by passing the cost of funding apprenticeships to the private sector through the levy, why cannot the Treasury give some of that money back to reverse the funding rate cuts and provide support for disadvantaged areas? I hope the Minister will be able to explain.
It is also important to look at the context in which the cuts are happening. The Brexit vote was underpinned by people living in our post-industrial towns in the north and the midlands and in our seaside towns, who are feeling left behind and left out of economic growth. Youth unemployment stands at 13.7%, with 624,000 people aged between 16 and 24 unemployed; more than 100,000 of them have been unemployed for at least a year. The unemployment rate for 16 and 17-year-olds is a staggering 27.7%. It is interesting to look at other countries. Relative to population size, we are doing worse than Slovakia, worse than Hungary, worse than Ireland, Poland, Portugal, the United States, Canada, Australia, Estonia and New Zealand. We are doing four times worse than Germany, three times worse than the Czech Republic and twice as badly as Japan, Denmark and Sweden in terms of the proportion of our young people who are not in education, employment or training.
Last year, the Treasury found that
“the UK’s skills weaknesses…are of such long standing, and such intractability, that only the most radical action can address them.”
I ask the Minister: is this the radical action that his Treasury was talking about?
In fact, the national picture is that the youth unemployment statistics are down to 13.7%, which is down on last year, down from the height, and close to the lowest they have ever been, which was 11.1%.
Unless the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the figures I just quoted are wrong, we should not be happy with the picture of youth unemployment in our country. Many Members in the Chamber are well aware of the young people walking our streets literally because there is not enough to do. I might just remind him that I have seen two riots in a generation, so I know something about idle hands making very dangerous work indeed. We need to put these young people to work. We need apprenticeships for them. We need more than rhetoric from the Government, and we certainly do not need cuts in this part of the economy.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has warned that
“we are in the grip of our worst construction skills crisis in almost 20 years.”
That skills crisis will hold back big infrastructure and house building projects. Post-16 education was cut by 14% between 2010 and 2015 and last year the Public Accounts Committee warned of a “financial meltdown” in further education.
Further education is just about on its knees. Most of the Members in this House grew up in a period when they could go into an FE college that was open well into the evening, not just for young people but for adults—adults could also get into FE and skill up. I ask hon. Members to find me an FE college open past 8 o’clock in the evening where an adult can skill up and I will give them a beer. It is not happening! We should not be having a debate in Britain about grammar schools; we should be having a debate about night schools. Bring back night schools! Instead, we see cuts in funding for young people and no mention of the importance of adult education in an economy that will be more reliant on talent on its own shores in the coming years.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that vocational education is incredibly important for young people and the economy, but will he bring a little more balance into his argument and recognise that since 2010-11 vocational education has improved? The UK has made progress in international rankings such as PwC’s recently published young workers index and in 2020 we will spend double what was spent on apprenticeships in 2010.
I would rather not rely on PwC reports, if the hon. Lady will forgive me. I would rather rely on what I see happening in the country. We have a lot more to do. I gently remind the hon. Lady, who is a new Member, that having been Minister for Skills in the previous Labour Government I am well aware of how Labour lifted apprenticeships from their dismantling under the Tories. We were down to 5,000 apprenticeships across this country, and completion and success rates were on the floor. It was the Labour Government who lifted up apprenticeships, put all the effort in and grew them to a figure by the time we left office. Now, unsurprisingly, this Government are about to dismantle them.
The National Audit Office found that the Department for Education must do more to ensure that all apprenticeships meet basic quality requirements and that the Department had not even set out how an increase in apprenticeship numbers will deliver improvements in productivity. There are real concerns that some employers are hiring staff as apprentices to undercut the minimum wage of £5.55 an hour for 18 to 20-year-olds and pay them the apprentice minimum wage of £3.40 an hour. One in five apprentices reported that they had not received any formal training at all and Ofsted reports found that 49% of apprenticeship programmes require improvement or are inadequate. The Government’s own “Post-16 Skills Plan”, published in July, states that
“Reforming the skills system is one of the most important challenges we face as a country. Getting it right is crucial to our future prosperity, and to the life chances of millions of people.”
Why is further education and skills training more generally always the poor relation of higher education? Why did it take a huge campaign by the sector and Labour Members even to bring this debate to the House?
Announcements on higher education are pre-briefed to the Sunday papers, together with opinion pieces from the Prime Minister and TV interviews, while apprenticeships funding cuts are snuck out of the back door on a Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer recess in the hope that no one will see them. In a written statement placed before Parliament last Thursday, the Secretary of State committed the Government to a
“fundamental mission of social reform to deliver our vision of an education system that works for everyone”
as part of delivering on
“the Government’s vision for an economy that works for all”.—[Official Report, 27 October 2016; Vol. 616, c. 16-17WS.]
I therefore ask the Minister a simple question: can he explain today how cuts in apprenticeships funding of 30%, 40% or even 50% fit into that mission to deliver an education system and an economy that works for all and not just for the privileged few?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and also a real pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), whose first-hand experience and wealth of knowledge were apparent. He delivered his speech with passion—good luck to the shadow Minister following that. My hon. Friends and I can probably be grateful that the right hon. Gentleman is not on the Front Bench; it was an impressive performance.
For me, the importance of apprenticeships is summed up in the fact that 90% of those who complete one will go on either to work or to further training. That compares fantastically with the figures of 80%, which is the percentage of the working age population in work, and 48%, which is the percentage of people with a disability who are employed—up 4% but still considerably less than 90%. I will focus on people with learning disabilities, who in this country have a 6% chance of having a meaningful, sustainable career.
I know that the Minister is incredibly passionate about this subject. When I was the Minister for Disabled People, he was lobbying me to do something about it. My view was transformed after a tricky television interview in which I was told that Governments of all political persuasions have tried, tweaked and made changes, and made almost no difference, with the figure bobbing between 5% and 6%. I went on a visit to Foxes Hotel in Bridgwater—a working hotel, which took on young adults with learning disabilities who were taught independent living combined with practical working skills in the hotel and restaurant. That was done in conjunction with local restaurants, hotels and care homes. Of the young adults who completed the three-year course, 80% ended up with one of those employers, and half of them—about 46.6%—were paid, in contrast to that figure of 6%.
I was so impressed that I asked representatives to meet me at Westminster, and I asked them, “Why can’t we just have one of those in every town?” It would not necessarily be a hotel; the key is to identify the skills relevant to each town. In Bridgwater, tourism, care homes and restaurants are where the jobs are; in other towns it could be manufacturing or engineering. Our constituencies each have their own skills gaps. The reply I received was that the frustration lay in the work placement training. There was sufficient funding to take on almost as many students as they could fit into the hotel for the first two years, but the one year in a work placement was the bit that cost the money. I said, “But surely that is an apprenticeship?” They patiently train someone who will typically take a little longer to get the skills, but the advantage for employers is that, with that support and patience, they get someone who will probably continue in their role for the next 25 years—and will probably be the happiest person in the workforce. It is a win-win situation, but there was a problem, as I have explained.
I met the Skills Minister and we formed a taskforce chaired by the present Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). Knowing that a reshuffle was coming up and that potentially the two of us might no longer be troubling the Front Bench, we set a three-and-a-half-week time limit. I am delighted that the taskforce concluded, and we signed off to say that more would be done to make apprenticeships available for those with learning disabilities—in particular, exempting them from the grade C in GCSE maths and English requirement, which for too many of those young adults was a hurdle too great. In effect, it would give them a slightly different version of apprenticeships, but fundamentally provide the funding for which the Government will put in £2.5 billion per year by 2020, and give those young adults something real and tangible. My request of the Minister, who was so desperate for that to happen, is that he will personally champion it and push it as quickly as possible. I hope he will make sure that providers understand about the opportunity.
I have two other requests. There are still too many employers—particularly small employers—who do not know the advantages of apprenticeships. I was a small employer before I became an MP. That was in the years when there were only 5,000 apprenticeships a year. I do not recognise that because I took on apprentices. Too many small employers do not know about apprenticeships. We send out a business rate mail-out every year. Please can a leaflet be included in that, saying “This is how you recruit an apprentice and this is how you benefit”?
Finally, when the Minister meets Education Ministers, please will he lobby them about university technical colleges? It is ridiculous that we allow children to enter them only halfway through their secondary schooling, rather than at the beginning. Too many talented future engineers and mechanics who could go on later to apprenticeships stay at their existing school, because of the friends they have made. It is a silly age at which to bring them in. The Minister is passionate and focused, and I look forward to his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on securing this important debate.
I am proud to be one of the few MPs currently in the House who completed an indentured apprenticeship. I remember being offered a place as an apprentice bricklayer as a teenager and nearly dancing with joy. Back then, an apprenticeship was very much something to aspire to. It was a path that people chose because they, and especially their parents, understood the brand. In many families, young people were told, “If you get an apprenticeship, you’ll always have a trade to fall back on.” However, successive Tory Governments devalued their reputation. It was the last Labour Government who breathed new life into apprenticeships, with capital support for new buildings and substantial increases to vocational funding models. The Government claim that they want to create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. That is a laudable aim, but in this House I have repeatedly said that rather than having arbitrary targets on numbers, we need to assure quality. I do not want the House to get me wrong; if all the projected 3 million apprenticeships are at level 3 with a decent wage rate, I am in.
Faced with increased university tuition fee debt, young people are now choosing vocational routes into the workplace instead of academia, but the Tories have overseen one of the worst skills shortages in living memory. Research from the Liverpool city region apprenticeship hub suggests that the number of apprenticeship starts in Merseyside and Halton has fallen by almost 25% over the past five years. The Minister will know that construction sector output is vital to his Government’s macroeconomic policy; but the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians has warned that urgent action is needed to tackle the growing skills shortage, and the Construction Industry Training Board has forecast that the industry requires nearly 50,000 new entrants a year up to 2020. That far exceeds of the number of construction apprentices currently undergoing training, which is roughly half the figure given.
As a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, I realise how important apprenticeships are. About three weeks ago in Derby we opened the National Construction Academy, which offers valuable, meaningful apprenticeships for that vital industry. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the plans to extend that around the country are a good thing, and to be commended?
I said earlier that it is question of whether the apprenticeships are proper level 3 ones— high skill, high quality, and in high-demand areas. I would of course welcome any initiative to increase people’s opportunity to get a proper job at the end of an apprenticeship programme. However, the Minister is presiding over an exacerbation of the problem and not tackling the fundamental issue.
In the Liverpool city region, the number of national vocational qualification level 3 apprenticeship starts last year was a fraction of the total needed simply to backfill the numbers retiring or leaving the industry. That simply cannot be allowed to continue. The Tories have a track record of failing young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. They scrapped the education maintenance allowance, trebled tuition fees and took away maintenance grants for university students and replaced them with loans, saddling the poorest with ever more debt. That tells us all we need to know about Tory ideology; they want the best only for the privileged few, not for the many.
Our devolution deal, with an area-based review for our city region, at least provides us with the opportunity to shape training better, on the basis of local need—if the Government grasp the nettle. At this point I should declare an interest. Devolving the skills agenda further would allow the incoming metro mayor to implement a skills strategy that would train the next generation of tradesmen and women, equipping them for the high-skill, high-paid, high-aspiration jobs that we need to build and sustain our future economic growth. However, central Government have not devolved apprenticeship funding and delivery and they have full control over the new apprenticeship levy that employers are obliged to pay if their wage bill tops £3 million a year. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss how the metro mayor of the Liverpool city region will be able, as it states on page 8 of the devolution deal, to
“collaborate to maximise the opportunities presented by the introduction of the apprenticeship reforms (including the levy) and work together on promoting the benefits of apprenticeships to employers”?
What exactly does he believe that collaboration between the Government and the metro mayor will entail? How does he envisage us maximising those opportunities? Does he agree that it is imperative that, following the upcoming spending and apprenticeship reforms, metro mayors have local control over and are directly responsible for apprenticeship funding and influence over the employer levy? If not, will he explain how he believes it is possible for a metro mayor to achieve improvements and address skills shortages locally without those powers? Apprenticeships must be at the heart of that strategy.
If we are to do that, we must also provide our young people with the proper advice and guidance to make informed decisions. It was an act of civic vandalism by the Government to dismantle the Connexions service when they came to power, which has left us with a system in which vested interests give partial advice to young people about their career options. If elected as the metro mayor for the Liverpool city region in May 2017, I intend to develop an independent careers and advice service that serves the best interests of all of the young people in our area.
Devolution provides us with the opportunity to make funding allocations based on the knowledge of local leaders across the city region, which is better than guesstimates from Whitehall mandarins. Will the Minister specifically address the points I have raised, unlike his colleague, the Minister for School Standards, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), who shimmied and sidestepped last week like Philippe Coutinho?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on securing this important debate.
Apprenticeships provide a fantastic opportunity for young people to get on in life, while at the same time raising the productivity of the businesses that they join. On visits to schools around Bolton West, I hear concerns raised about getting that first job and having the required experience. That is obviously a great concern upon leaving school or university, but it is less so if someone chooses an apprenticeship because practical experience is built into the course. Businesses often raise the same concerns about people’s preparation for the world of work. Apprenticeships are key to solving that problem, because the potential employee not only will have the practical skills but will have been trained with a specific job role in mind, and will therefore be job or industry-ready.
It is really important that apprentices go into an improving and increasingly successful economy. The continuing economic recovery in Britain over the past six years is a fantastic achievement by the coalition Government and the present Government, and means that anyone doing an apprenticeship or any other course will have a job to go into afterwards.
Is it not also true that there is a significant return for the taxpayer—especially when compared with universities, where the return is much less—of £26 to £28 for every £1 that the Government put into apprenticeships? Promoting apprenticeships is a good thing for the taxpayer.
I agree entirely. Apprenticeships are a fantastic investment in the economy but also a great investment in the individual.
There is still a problem with the perception of apprenticeships; I sympathise with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) in that regard. We need quality apprenticeships. It seems that companies often find resistance within the school system when trying to recruit people for apprenticeships. That could be to some extent due to the recognition of apprenticeships—their reputation has become tarnished over a period of time—or to the fact that schools need to achieve academic targets to be recognised as successful, rather than targets on the number of people going into an apprenticeship.
Training providers and employers in my constituency, such as Alliance Learning in in Horwich and MBDA in Lostock, are working to change those negative perceptions with the delivery of superb apprenticeship programmes. MBDA delivers fantastic apprenticeships, but people are often unaware of the level to which they can be taken. For example, someone can be paid to study and gain a full bachelor’s or master’s degree in subjects such as advanced systems engineering.
I am delighted that the Government are continuing to support young people in moving into work by allocating £1 billion to the youth contract and ensuring that apprenticeships for under-25s incur no national insurance costs for employers.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree with my suggestion in the Public Accounts Committee that a UCAS-style system for young people would help them to navigate their way through the system? It could also help employers to receive young people, rather than young people having to send hundreds of applications themselves.
I am sympathetic to that idea. If someone goes down the academic route, they have the path laid out and guidance. Apprenticeships do not have that, and perhaps it would help if we had that system in place, but there is a huge range of different kinds of companies and organisations providing apprenticeships, so I can see there being significant problems with that that are perhaps not there with the more academic route.
Since 2010, my constituency of Bolton West has seen an increase of more than 4,000 apprenticeships. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that I have an apprentice in my office in Westhoughton. However, employers have raised concerns with me about the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017. The additional tax is being levied for the best of reasons, but it may disrupt existing training programmes as employers that currently provide excellent training will have to reconfigure what they do in order to recoup some or all of the levy.
We must also be cautious not to force companies to rebadge existing training programmes to hit the Government’s target of 3 million apprenticeships in this Parliament. What assurances will the Minister give to companies with existing training programmes that are anxious about the introduction of the levy, and that feel as though they have to contrive their courses in such a way as to recoup some of the money they will be losing?
I want apprenticeships to become an increasingly normal route for ambitious young people, as well as for employers that are dedicated to growing their own talent and increasing the skills base of the nation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on securing this important debate.
Apprenticeships are an important part of the labour market and should always be about employment and employability. Many young people are offered a precious route into the workplace that would be barred without the support offered by employers and the Skills Funding Agency in England and Skills Development Scotland. However, that route into employment must take into consideration the life experiences of the young person entering the workplace. Many of the young people are coming from supportive backgrounds, with parents who can help them into employment by doing simple tasks; any parent of a teenager will know that the toughest task in the day is getting them out of bed. If there is not a supportive parent there to do that, or to wash their clothes or make sure that there is food in the fridge, those barriers become much greater.
Years ago, I taught a young boy called Sean. His mother was not on the scene and his father had addiction issues, so Sean, as well as getting himself to school in the morning, took his five-year-old sister to school, and as a result was often late. Sean needed an understanding employer to enable him to move successfully into the world of work. For the first couple of years, he was much more time-intensive than other new starts, but through the perseverance and tenacity of that employer he is now one of their most valued and loyal members of staff.
It is well understood that employers would be unable to invest so heavily in intensive training without Government support, particularly for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Would the employer have taken on the extra risks associated with young Sean if that support were cut?
I also have particular concerns that there is not a strategic view of the skills being developed through the apprenticeship programme. According to a recent National Audit Office report, the Department for Education has not set out how it will use the increase in apprenticeship numbers to deliver improvements in productivity, or how employers will be supported to deliver the apprenticeships that offer the most value to the economy. We have a situation where an unscrupulous employer can take on an apprentice in an already saturated area of the labour market, so that when the young person moves on, there is no real prospect of employment. Meanwhile, areas such as science, technology, engineering, maths and digital continue to struggle with shortages. This levy does not seem to be taking that into account or delivering on it.
BAE Systems is a large employer in my constituency and it is committed to its apprenticeship programme. At the moment, it has 2,036 apprentices in full-time training, and 67 started in September this year. BAE is also using over-training as part of its strategic plan, so if it perceives it will need to fill 30 positions, it trains up 40 young people to ensure that the skills shortage in supply lines can be met. It is disappointing that the UK Government have been unable to have the same strategic foresight as many responsible employers.
The concerns raised by many Scottish employers are different from those discussed this morning. Although apprenticeship policy is devolved, the levy is UK-wide. Many employers in Scotland will be paying into the levy pot, but it is not yet clear whether all the revenue generated will find its way back to Scotland. Essentially, this employment tax has been introduced across the UK to deliver on the UK Government’s ambitions in England. The levy undermines the Scottish approach to modern apprenticeships, which, unlike what we are hearing about this morning, is not just about vocational jobs or vocational training; it is also about degree-level apprenticeships. Employers throughout the UK need Government support to train apprentices, but employers in Scotland need assurances that the levy paid in Scotland will come back to Scotland, to support our apprentices.
I thank the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for securing this debate. When we consider the skills gap in pretty much every vocation going, a debate on apprenticeships and on ensuring people have the skills they need is timely indeed.
With your permission, Mr Streeter, I would like to briefly talk about my own experience. I left school at 15 and served a traditional apprenticeship as a Cornish mason in the construction industry under a Conservative Government. That skill has enabled me to feed my family and build my home, and it has supported me during a very long journey to become an MP. The apprenticeship also enabled me to stay in west Cornwall, where I grew up. That can be a significant advantage of serving an apprenticeship.
During the previous Parliament, I had a small construction business and took on an apprentice site carpenter. While I enabled him to get a trade, I also saw how the modern apprenticeship programme works in practice. More recently, I have taken on an apprentice in my constituency office and, even in those few years, I have noticed an improvement in the advice and support available to employers.
As Members can tell, I am a big fan of the apprenticeship programme. It is an important part of our young people’s journey to skilled employment. In spring this year, I hosted an event with the Cornwall Apprenticeship Agency. Local employers could come along to my constituency office and quiz a representative of the agency to find out about the pros and cons of offering that form of on-the-job training. I was very pleased to hear the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). During his time as Minister for Disabled People, he encouraged me a great deal to look at how we can support people with learning disabilities, and I ran one of his reverse job fairs just two weeks ago, so I thank him for that.
In a rural part of the country such as west Cornwall, a modern apprenticeship really is an important part of a local young person’s career path. For so long, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly have suffered because our young people have found they must leave the county to find the skills and jobs they need. That has left us in a situation where we have a chronic shortage in many sectors, especially construction, farming and engineering. Quite often, these potentially well-paid jobs have disappeared because we have not had the people to fill the vacancies.
My hon. Friend is making a passionate case. I come from Somerset, which is not unlike Cornwall in terms of its skills shortages and gaps. We are below national productivity levels. It is important that businesses design these apprenticeships, and that is what the Government’s new scheme is all about. We do not want bland apprenticeships in any skill; we want them tailored to business, which is what my local businesses are all coming to me and saying. I, too, am going to run a course, because people want the knowledge to go forward.
That is a fantastic point. When I stood in the election and finally won, I met and worked with local businesses, and they kept telling me that they need courses provided by the college to provide the workers they need and the training their young people need. It is important that businesses lead the way in ensuring that they have the skills they need to move forward.
We have massive vacancies in Cornwall, and clearly we cannot continue like this. The modern apprenticeship programme, if communicated properly and successfully delivered, gives young people the opportunity to train locally, work locally, live locally, shop locally—in my part of the world, it is important that we look after our local retailers—and go on to raise a family locally. Rather than just welcome the Government’s ambitious target regarding the number of apprenticeships, it is essential that we meet it, simply because we do not have the people to do the jobs whom we need at the moment.
I heard the points that the right hon. Member for Tottenham made about funding. However, the great challenge we face is to engage more small businesses to take on apprentices. It makes sense that the Government are focusing on and prioritising funding, meaning that 90% of all funding for small businesses will be met by the Government. It makes sense that small businesses do not pay anything towards training people under 18 years of age. The real challenge is not so much the amount of money but how it is spent, as well as improving links between our schools and employers, so that young people and their families are aware of the opportunities available to them in the areas where they live. That would have a significant impact on the skills gap in west Cornwall and across the country. I welcome this debate, but I argue that we should concentrate on how we equip and enable young people to do apprenticeships, rather than fall out about the money available.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Streeter. May I first thank the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for presenting an excellent case? We are all here because we feel passionately about this issue. I have spoken about apprenticeships many times in this House—unsurprisingly, Mr Streeter—and when I was a Member of the Legislative Assembly in a previous life. There is a reason for that: apprenticeships are a vital part of our country’s future. It is essential that we do not leave ourselves with skills gaps and that we have knowledge, ability and opportunities at every age group and level.
I want to give a Northern Ireland perspective to the apprenticeships scheme and speak about something that is close to my heart—the Prince’s Trust. I often have pointed to the great apprenticeship schemes at Bombardier and other major employers throughout Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that the importance of this training has been recognised in Northern Ireland. In my constituency, there is an opportunity for everyone in pharmaceuticals, food processing, light engineering and agri-food, which is a growth industry.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on securing this debate. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need an investment of time and effort by Government and those in the hospitality industry to bring forward apprenticeships in catering to underpin that industry?
I thank the hon. Lady for that important comment. The tourism sector can, should and must grow. One way of doing that is through the apprenticeship scheme; she is absolutely right. I fully support that, as I am sure all of us here would.
Businesses and companies must step up to the bar and be prepared to take people on. That is why when the scheme was announced I openly welcomed the initiative to create provision for 3 million places—how tremendous to have help in ensuring that work schemes are available to young men and women alike. However, I was not so excited when I realised what exactly was happening with the scheme. That is why I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham on bringing this issue to the Chamber for consideration. What seemed to promise more help in fact seems to have the opposite effect, with the number of apprenticeships for perhaps the most vulnerable group—16 to 18-year-olds—being cut. I know that the changes impact all ages of apprentices, but time demands that I focus on only one strand, and that is young people.
I will never forget reading the dire statistics from research by the Prince’s Trust two years ago, which laid bare a direct link between joblessness and suicidal thoughts, as well as self-harming, alcohol and drug abuse. The figures do not make good reading but they are the reality for many people.
About one in three—35%—of youngsters in Northern Ireland experienced mental health issues, compared with the UK national average of 19%, which is almost one in five. The research also revealed that long-term unemployed 16 to 25-year-olds are twice as likely as their peers to have been prescribed anti-depressants and to believe they have nothing to live for. Over one in three—34%—young people said that they always, or often feel down or depressed, compared with a national average of 32%, with the long-term unemployed significantly more likely to feel that way. Over one in four—29%—said that they feel like an outcast, compared with 24% nationally, with the report finding that the long-term unemployed are significantly more likely to feel that way. Over one in five—21%—admitted that they feel like a waste of space, against the national average of 17%, with the long-term unemployed more than twice as likely to feel that way.
Those stats tell the story of young people and how they feel about their lives in Northern Ireland. They show why Northern Ireland Members are here today and why we are pleased to be able take part in the debate.
A point was made earlier about some schools perhaps looking at the content of skills and at keeping the level up, but surely careers officers in schools play a pivotal role in helping to advise young people to go down the vocational route.
My hon. Friend always brings a wealth of knowledge to these debates and I thank him for his intervention. Careers officers and school staff have an important role to play.
The correlation with the figures is clear, which is why, with others, I have fought and pressed for more apprenticeship schemes and why, with great respect to the Minister, I was so disheartened to see the details of the new scheme. I was pleased to hear of the so-called U-turn, but the Government must rectify the shortfall and do what they said they would do: create more apprenticeships and more training opportunities.
We will all have read the figures provided by Government and the figures, which are disputed in articles such as those by FE Week, that indicate that the introduction of two measures to arrest the decline—paying an extra 20% on the funding band limit for 16 to 18-year-olds, and promising £60 million of
“additional support in areas of disadvantage”—
has not and will not stop or address the shortfall. Indeed it is alleged that most frameworks will still feel cuts of 20% or more.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), who has just left the Chamber, has done exceptionally good work in his constituency for the apprenticeship schemes in Bombardier. I am conscious of the time, Mr Streeter, so I will hurry along. It was announced that the cuts to construction skills at level 2 would range between 27% and 50%. Later, it was announced that they would range between 14% and 37%, which could still devastate the sector. In sectors such as hairdressing—I do not have worry about that—and engineering, FE Week analysis revealed that at levels 2 and 3 there could still be maximum cuts of some 50%.
I stand firmly with the right hon. Member for Tottenham and thank the Government for the changes, but they are not enough. We already have a society in which too many young people feel worthless and they need the help and attention that these schemes provide. Let us do what we can for young people. They are crying out for help, support and particularly hope. Let us give them that hope today in this debate and from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who always manages to make a meaningful contribution to such debates. I am particularly pleased to have caught your eye, Mr Streeter, and to follow so many excellent speakers. I want to pick up one or two points made by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), whom I congratulate on securing this important debate.
I take a slightly different tack because I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to apprenticeships. Like the Minister and my hon. Friends, I, too, had an apprentice in my office shortly after the election in May 2015.
I am the chairman of the all-party group for youth employment. Every month, we look at the youth unemployment statistics. The former chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), sensibly changed the name of the group from youth unemployment to youth employment, which is a much more positive outlook. I fully applaud her decision and have continued with that tradition.
We looked at the unemployment statistics every month. We had the benefit during the last session of looking at the evidence in Impetus Private Equity Foundation’s youth jobs index and report. We looked in detail at the unemployment statistics and they are still too high; the right hon. Member for Tottenham is absolutely right. They are nearly three times overall unemployments, but in the last quarter the unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds was 13.7%, which is lower than a year earlier, at 14.7%. That is still too high and it is higher than its lowest level: 11.6%. However, its highest ever rate was 22.5%.
Next year, the all-party group will look at the pathways from education to employment, and apprenticeships will feature highly on the agenda. The Minister has been invited, or will be invited, to meet the group—he may not know it yet. We warmly look forward to him coming to the group, because I know his commitment in this area.
One point has not been made in the debate, or at least if it has, I have missed it. The apprenticeship levy has been much discussed, but funding must be sustainable. However, I know that smaller businesses will welcome the Government’s model because 98% of businesses will not have to pay the levy. They will pay 10% of the training costs and the Government will pay the balance—90%—so the majority of businesses in my constituency will welcome the funding arrangement and the fact that they have to contribute only a relatively small amount.
Time may not permit, but I am going to attempt to mention two businesses in my constituency and give examples of where they are going in relation to apprenticeships. First, PME Group is a marine engineering group. You will be interested, Mr Streeter, to know that it recently won the 2016 south-west national apprenticeships award in the small employer of the year category. I invite him the Minister to consider the model because almost 50% of its staff have completed or are in the process of completing an apprenticeship. Other businesses may also care to look at that model.
Secondly, TestLink, which is based in Upton in my constituency, repairs and services ATMs—the cashpoints we all rely on when we run out of money. It was recently named one of the 20 mid-market companies of tomorrow. A large number of its staff are on apprenticeships. Not all of them are young or would be in the age group covered by my all-party group for youth employment, but they are benefiting from an apprenticeship and the skills and qualifications that come from it.
Time also permits me to mention the Dorset young chamber programme, which was launched last month. I am part of the steering group that, I hope, will set it on the right course. It provides a link between schools and businesses in the area. So far, three schools have been linked up with local businesses. It is a great initiative under the chief executive, Ian Girling, and I am delighted to be part of it.
I want to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) in relation to the quality of apprenticeships. Both Members are right, but I strike a note of caution: quality does not necessarily mean a higher level. I believe we can have a quality apprenticeship even at level 2 and that those apprenticeships are perfectly valid and necessary, and that there is still a market for them. I agree that all apprenticeships must be of a high quality, but that does not necessarily mean of a high level.
Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for this very important debate. If my voice gives out in the middle of my speech, it is a sign of how important the subject is. I declare an interest as a former further education lecturer who helped to train many apprentices.
In his speech, the right hon. Gentleman described passionately the effect of cuts in his constituency and the effect of the proposed cuts on prospective apprenticeships for young people. Those in pockets of deprivation will suffer more. That is not the message the Prime Minister gave on the steps of Downing Street. Figures for those not in education, employment or training—NEETs figures—in the UK are much worse than they are in other developed countries, and skills shortages are holding back economic progress. That is a problem we have in Scotland, too. I appreciated his reference to idle hands making very dangerous work. Having taught young people, I know the difficulties in mental health and other areas when they are not gainfully employed in doing what benefits them, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) also mentioned.
The construction skills crisis is the worst in decades, as has been mentioned. Construction Industry Training Board figures are alarming. I came to London and had never seen so many cranes, but I do not know who is operating them. We need to look at that.
The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) spoke about apprenticeships for those with learning disabilities, and about hospitality training offered in Bridgwater, where workplace training cost money but was not recognised as an apprenticeship. I thoroughly commend his efforts towards getting the academic element reduced for those who will never pass it, but who could turn out to be the best employees a company has. I was at a Department for Work and Pensions event in my constituency on Friday asking employers to take on more people with disabilities of all kinds—the apprenticeship programme must take that forward.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) spoke about the drop in apprenticeships in Liverpool. He and many other Members touched on the lack of will from the UK Government to fund deprived areas. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) said that companies find resistance within the schools system. As a member of the Education Committee, I can confirm that we have spoken to various experts who say that it is very difficult for young people in schools to get good careers advice leading them towards apprenticeships because the focus in schools is on the academic side and on moving on to universities. Again, I can relate to that from my own experience. Not all schoolchildren want to progress academically, but they all want jobs. Apprenticeships could be the best route forward.
Does the hon. Lady agree that under the Labour party under Tony Blair, every child was encouraged to go to university? What is her view on whether that put a different focus on apprenticeships? I wonder whether that had an influence on the change of thinking within our schools.
I cannot entirely agree with the hon. Lady, but over the years there has been a focus on degrees. For example, nursing was not an apprenticeship but training. Everyone agrees now that that is not the best route for the entire school population and that we should look at improving our skills base. We are one of the best economically developed countries in the world but our skills base is falling behind that of other developed countries.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) spoke of the need for Government support. She also spoke about the National Audit Office report that pointed out that the Department for Education has not set out how it will increase apprenticeship numbers to deliver improvements in productivity, or how employers will be supported to deliver the apprenticeships that offer the most value for the economy, including in construction, digital and all the skills gaps.
The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) mentioned his experience of apprenticeships, both as an apprentice and as an employer. Modern apprenticeships are definitely the way forward and the message has to be got out that apprenticeships now are the not the same as the apprenticeships of 20 or 30 years ago. The one and only hon. Member for Strangford—to coin your phrase, Mr Streeter—gave a comprehensive view of Northern Ireland, focusing on the mental health issues faced by young people there. That is reflected in the mainland countries as well. We need to look after our young people and provide what is best for their futures.
The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), a member of the all-party parliamentary group on youth employment, said that the unemployment statistics are coming down. That may be the case, but we very much need to focus on what we offer young people. He also said that small businesses will welcome that initiative because they will not have pay the apprenticeship levy but will get 98% of their training costs back. He recommended that we look at the quality of apprenticeships and how they are managed. That subject is close to my heart. We should not just give out apprenticeships. I remember the youth training scheme. I taught YTS trainees, so how old am I? It was a way of getting people off the unemployment books, but it did not lead to long-term stable employment for many. The apprenticeship programme must not hark back to those days. I do not believe that it is trying to do so, but this is a warning that it must not.
Essentially, the employment tax is being introduced across the UK to deliver on the UK Government’s apprenticeship ambitions in England. The collection of the levy is a reserved matter, and Scottish Ministers are working to ensure that Scotland gets its fair share. Will the Minister tell us what progress is being made in that regard? The levy undermines the Scottish approach to modern apprentices and was introduced without any consultation with the Scottish Government, despite apprenticeships policy being devolved to the Scottish Parliament. That is not me raising a grievance. Those issues must be addressed. There is already a well-run, well-managed modern apprenticeship programme in Scotland, run by Skills Development Scotland in conjunction with employers. We want to ensure that things in Scotland improve what we have already started.
It is very important that Scotland’s share of the funding is used to support the delivery of the 30,000 modern apprenticeships by 2020 that the Scottish Government have mentioned. We have been working hard with employers and have had consultations. We have introduced new types of apprenticeships—a foundation apprenticeship and graduate apprenticeships—because apprenticeships should not be one size fits all. Yes, they should be for school leavers, and yes they should be for older people, but they should also be for graduates and young people still at school. That ties into the idea of careers, and of helping young people into careers in which they will be able to find work for many years to come, which would benefit the economy.
There is a strong focus in Scotland on doing more to tackle under-representation in modern apprenticeship programmes. A modern apprenticeship equalities plan published on 2 December last year includes specific employment and improvement targets for modern apprentices in relation to black and minority ethnic backgrounds, care leavers, disabled people and a gender balance. We need to get more young women into apprenticeships. That happens with science, technology, engineering and maths, but we need to look across the board at a gender balance in all industries, because that will prove to be best for all our young people. The Scottish Government with Skills Development Scotland are working with partners to develop foundation apprenticeships from schools, so that young people who are still in school can get work experience and then, possibly, leave school and move straight in to a proper, more advanced modern apprenticeship.
My final remarks, Mr Streeter, will be on another thing that is interesting in Scotland and does not seem to happen here. On the worth of qualifications, which has been touched on in the debate, it is important that apprenticeships are of quality and allied to a quality framework. Some doubt is being cast on some apprenticeships. Ofsted has already looked at Jaguar Land Rover and is cutting its marks—it is no longer good, in that sense, and will have to improve what it does. In Scotland, the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework is a unified framework that covers both vocational and academic skills. The Minister should look at having something similar in England to make absolutely sure that our young people get the best-quality apprenticeships possible, at whatever level they undertake them.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on an absolutely splendid speech and on the inspirational lead he has given in challenging the Government on these issues, with 55 Members across the House helping to secure this debate.
We have had an excellent, positive debate across the Chamber today, with individuals offering their experiences, the range of which I have been particularly impressed by. I warmly thank my hon. Friends from Birmingham—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey)—and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) for their interventions, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), who had very important things to say about how we should take forward apprenticeship budgets in future.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham really hit the nail on the head when he talked about the glacial pace of the Government’s response. We know this matter was left in the Minister’s in-tray to deal with when he took office, but, as my right hon. Friend said, the elephant in the room remains adult skills and night schools. The Minister will have to confront those issues, as well as clearing up the mess he was left to deal with in the first place.
I wrote to the Minister at the beginning of August when the original proposals were made, underlining then what the problems would be. I said that
“these changes have the potential to cause catastrophic consequences for young people in the most deprived areas,”
and that they
“offer a damaging lack of support for young apprentices and further weaken…attempts to widen participation and increase social mobility”.
I also said that, as a Blackpool MP as well as shadow Skills Minister, I was really concerned about getting small employers on board.
With apprenticeships—my goodness me! If wishes and exhortations and five-year plans from this Government could move mountains, we would have not 3 million apprentices by 2020, but 6 million. However, as we know, the devil is in the detail, and the Government’s attempts to use a one-size-fits-all approach have not worked.
The Minister was present at the FE Week campaign event that I hosted on 14 September. I have seldom heard in a packed Committee Room in this House as uniform a chorus of concern across the piece. Concerns are shared not only by me and my right hon. Friend but by leading figures across the sector, including the Association of Employment and Learning Providers. Those expressions of concern and the investigative work done by FE Week in putting this process together have driven the partial U-turn.
I congratulate the Minister and give him full credit for having shaken up his officials—and perhaps even shaken a few extra coppers out of the Treasury’s pockets—and for listening to the concerns. It was said of Julius Caesar that he came, saw and conquered; the Minister has come and seen but he has not yet conquered, because the devil is in the detail, as my right hon. Friend said. Plenty of questions about the proposals remain unanswered.
Let me give an example from the analysis done by FE Week since the U-turn on Monday. Before the U-turn, cuts of 27% and 50% to construction skills at level 2 were calculated; after it, the cuts still ranged from 14% to 37%, so there is little to be complacent about. Those cuts could still devastate the sector, as we have heard. In other areas, such as hairdressing and engineering, it is not necessarily good news either. The Government are struggling post-Brexit to orchestrate an industrial strategy. FE Week analysis has revealed that at levels 2 and 3, there could still be a maximum drop of 49% to 51% respectively. There is huge potential and a pressing need for high-quality apprenticeships in the service sectors, social care, leisure and visitor services, yet we know from the analytics that children’s care, learning and development—an absolutely crucial social care issue—could be cut by 42%, and hospitality and catering by up to 45%. No one has told me where the tablets from Sinai are saying how the funding will be delivered beyond year one. There are big questions about that, so will the Minister tell me what conversations he has had with the Treasury in advance of the autumn statement?
I am sure the figure of £3 billion—or £2.5 billion for England—that will eventually be raised by the apprenticeship levy will continue to be bandied around, but as we know, only £1 billion of that is new funding; £1.5 billion is going to the Treasury. I ask the Minister, when he is looking at the money we will need beyond year one, what is he already doing to knock on the Treasury’s door?
The cuts are going to hit a wide range of employers and providers, including in the third sector. I remind the Minister of a letter that he had from YMCA Training, which said that despite the disadvantage uplift, there is the loss of youth contract funding, which will not help support for the most hard-to-reach young people. Mark Dawe, the chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, also remains to be convinced, even about the details of the current proposals. He recently commented online:
“I hope…we review the deprivation payments, as…committed”
“Personally I can’t see how a system allocating £600, £300 and £200 just on frameworks can equate to a system that was paying up to 32% on”
“funding cap…ie over £8.5k in this scenario for one learner compared to £600.”
The Minister has to address those really important issues.
We all want to know what the situation will be at the end of the year. Will we revert to the situation as it was last Monday? Will the Minister pass on to his right hon. and hon. Friends the message that it is not too early to be thinking about what they do when they have spent the £60 million? A 20% uplift for 16 to 18-year-olds is a necessary step to replace valuable funding that would have been lost under the previous proposal, but will the Minister tell us how that compares with previous measures?
As someone who, like so many in this House, has always been keen on supporting people with disabilities to progress in the world of work, I welcome the learning disabilities taskforce that was led by my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), but it is important to stress that these issues have to be taken forward to completion, because we know that on completion disabled people will do a lot better.
The Government’s equality assessment included the aim to achieve gender parity in the working population by 2030, but I see little detail on how that is likely to be done in terms of what the Government are doing on apprenticeships funding. The Minister may want to comment on that.
For the last few months, we have, with a wide range of stakeholders, been pressing the Government for more detail on the levy. Despite last week’s revised paper, there are still issues, particularly about the digital apprenticeship delivery, that I remain to be convinced on. The Confederation of British Industry certainly is not. It said that
“six months out… major questions remain about its readiness.”
The EEF said that the
“Government must carefully prepare a final implementation plan…mindful that employers as well as Government need time to prepare for the sea change”.
How is the Minister going to reassure businesses and providers on that detail?
What is the Government’s capacity to deliver all this? As Paul Warner, the policy director of the AELP said, the Department faces “capacity challenges”. The head of the Skills Funding Agency’s technical and professional education admitted to a workshop last week that she was unsure of capacity and resources. The Government have scrapped the UK Commission for Employment and Skills; staffing levels at the SFA are down 50% from 2011; and now the Government, with their hastily thrown together Technical and Further Education Bill, are saying that the Institute for Apprenticeships will have responsibility for all technical education. That makes considerable sense, but where will the money and other resources come from?
Just last week, the Minister was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) what budget would supply funding for the costs of the Institute for Apprenticeships. He was told:
“It is expected that part of its budget will be provided by funding freed up from savings across the Department.”
Well, that is a vague response. It does not show us the money or give us the confidence to believe that the Minister will be able to take these things forward in the way we need.
Just six months out from the implementation of the levy, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education still has a shadow chief executive working two days a week. We know that there are worries about rebadging and the unintended consequences of forcing employers to reduce investment in other areas; and there are still substantial worries about small and medium-sized enterprises. The Minister still has to address those big concerns. We need to look into how large employers can help to retrain, reskill and supply a lot of those surplus apprenticeships.
In conclusion, the Government need to look at other issues, as well as this short-term stopgap. They need to look into the performance of careers and enterprise, as a lot is needed on that. They also need to look into devo-max, giving some power back to the people and areas of the country to produce the apprenticeships that our people deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on securing this important debate and on the work he has done, but I was disappointed that he did not feel that it was right to mention the £13.4 million spent by the Government in his constituency on the new digital college, which I was proud to open with him only a couple of weeks ago; the 920 apprentice starts in his constituency over the past year; the Government’s doubling of apprenticeship spending to £2.5 billion by 2020; the 619,000 apprentice starts that we have had since May 2015; or even—dare I say it?—the record on people not in education, employment or training. The previous Government left us with 1 million unemployed young people. Between 2014 and 2015, the proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds in education or work-based learning increased to 90%, which is the highest figure on record, and the proportion of 16 to 18-year-old NEETs fell to 6.5%, which is the lowest rate since records began. I was also disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman did not mention the 500% increase in higher apprenticeships since 2010, the £7 billion to be spent on further education and training, and the extra incentives given to the frameworks. His speech was partial and disappointing given his record in standing up for apprenticeships and skills.
I congratulate my many hon. Friends, and hon. Gentlemen and Ladies of all parties, on their thoughtful speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) was a brilliant Disabilities Minister. We are very supportive of the work done by him and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) to encourage more disabled people into apprenticeships. We fully accept their recommendations and we are implementing them.
On the levy, we are increasing the incentives to employers and providers by £1,000 each for those on a healthcare plan or those from care homes; specific disabilities providers will get an extra £150 a month, and up to £19,000 will be provided for adaptation. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon will know about the £2 million that we put by for support for mental health apprenticeships; that money supports roughly 2,000 participants. It is worth mentioning traineeships, on which something like 19.7% of those with learning disabilities are represented. That has not been mentioned in this debate.
I am very happy to meet with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), and I am meeting him on Thursday about another issue. There are no existing plans to devolve the levy funds to specific areas. We are creating a system that simplifies funding across England, making it easier for employers to navigate. We will be reviewing how the disadvantage funding works over the next 12 months.
There were some thoughtful speeches, including from the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). I say to her and to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) that the devolved Administrations will get a fair share, and we hope to make the announcement shortly. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West made important points about apprentices getting real jobs. It is good that 90% of apprentices stay in work. Surveys show that the satisfaction of those apprentices is incredibly high.
I could talk about many of the issues raised today, but in the time available I want to go through those raised by the right hon. Member for Tottenham and Labour’s Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden). Hon. Members have to see what the Government are doing in the overall context of the £2.5 billion increase by 2020. A huge amount is going towards increasing funding rates for STEM frameworks—that too was not mentioned by Opposition Members. Just under half of 16 to 18-year-olds will attract more funding thanks to the uplift in STEM frameworks. Huge amounts of money are going into support for disadvantaged apprentices, as was acknowledged by the right hon. Gentleman and others today. A significant amount is going towards helping small employers, as those with below 50 employees will pay no training costs at all. There are all kinds of other incentives. Some 25% of frameworks will be replaced by the new apprenticeship standards by the end of the year.
I am sorry, but I cannot give way because very little time remains.
More money will be spent on standards. A huge amount of money is going into the system to ensure that 16 to 18-year-olds and those who are socially disadvantaged are properly represented. Many of the frameworks that apply to adults are the same as those applied to 16-year-olds, yet the ones for 16 to 18-year-olds can cost double the amount. The surveys and the evidence show that they do not need to cost as much, and that, often, only a few hundred pounds would make a difference.
We are moving into a new world. The apprenticeship levy is changing employer behaviour. Businesses will choose different kinds of apprenticeships because of the move to standards, and would-be apprentices will choose different kinds of apprenticeships. The way the discussion has gone among some Opposition Members, it is as if we were comparing apples with apples. However, the world is changing and we are now comparing apples with pears.
I will not, because I only have a few minutes left to speak, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman had a fair crack of the whip.
We are putting a huge amount of money into FE funding, guaranteeing that £7 billion will be spent on FE funding and training. We have put money into a transition year and traineeships. Of those who do traineeships, 60% are aged 16 to 18 and 50% go on to get work, apprenticeships or education. Some £50 million has been spent on traineeships thus far—again, that was not mentioned in the debate.
Of course, we are doing a lot of work on welfare reform to help with jobcentres and so on. An enormous amount of money is going towards helping 16 to 18-year-olds and people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. To use some frameworks as a way of saying that the Government are not helping the poorest is entirely wrong. I have five priorities for apprenticeships.
On a point of order, Mr Streeter. The Minister is reliant on the new standards, which only just over 3,000 apprentices have taken up. More than 99% are on the current frameworks, which is the subject of the debate, and the Minister has not addressed that at all. He is trying to hoodwink the House.
The right hon. Gentleman should check his statistics. There have been more than 4,000 starts on standards, and 400 standards are in development. Many frameworks are going up, and we are putting a huge amount of money into uplifting the STEM frameworks. That is what employers want, and we are designing an employer-led system.
We are raising the prestige of apprenticeships, helping the socially disadvantaged, and introducing the levy to change behaviours and so that the cost is borne evenly throughout society. We will reach the target of 3 million; as I said, we have had 619,000 since May last year. We are raising the quality of apprenticeships through the Institute for Apprenticeships and through degree and higher apprenticeships, which many thousands of people have taken up.
The Government are transforming the country into an apprenticeship nation. I am proud of the work that has been done, and of the officials who have worked hard to ensure that we listen to employers, as we said we would when we first announced the levy.
Martin Luther King’s 1967 Visit to Newcastle
I beg to move,
That this House has considered commemoration of Martin Luther King’s 1967 visit to Newcastle.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank everyone who has come to this important debate.
Like most, if not all, MPs, I make no secret of my pride in representing my constituency, the area in which I was born and grew up, and this debate is about a day in Newcastle’s history that is a particular source of pride to me. On 13 November 1967, Newcastle University awarded Dr Martin Luther King an honorary degree. It was no accident that Newcastle was the only university outside the United States to honour King in his lifetime. From the trade union movement to the co-operative and fair trade movements, we have a long and active history in the struggle for social justice.
The university’s historic decision was made all the more remarkable by Dr King taking the time to come to Newcastle to accept the award. He was accompanied by his secretary, Andrew Young, who went on to be a Congressman, a mayor and an ambassador for the US. Rev. Gerald Durley, who was an aide to Martin Luther King at the time, told me that Dr King was absolutely exhausted. He had been imprisoned just two weeks earlier for five days, and he was suffering from a serious cold. He was in the UK for a mere 24 hours, a short break from his busy schedule that included, among other things, campaigning for Carl Stokes in his successful bid to become the first black mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. Dr King was assassinated five months later in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was speaking in support of striking refuse workers. His decision to come to Newcastle must be seen in that context.
In accepting his award Dr King broke with Newcastle University tradition by giving an acceptance speech, which was to be his final public speech outside the United States. Dr King’s “I have a dream” speech is rightly famous across the world, but few people are aware of the powerful speech he gave that day in Newcastle. He held the audience spellbound as he spoke of his struggle for racial justice and against the
“three urgent and indeed great problems that we face not only in the United States of America but all over the world today. That is the problem of racism, the problem of poverty and the problem of war.”
I will be quoting from Martin Luther King a number of times today and, of course, I cannot aspire to his eloquence, but I hope that by recording some of his words the House will gain an impression of how powerfully he spoke and of his impact that day. Dr King was right that our world
“will never rise to its full moral, political or even social maturity”
until racism, poverty and war are eradicated. The struggle for humanity is a continual, day-by-day battle to defend and enlarge the territory of social justice. We must passionately, unrelentingly work in that struggle, whether in the UK, the USA or anywhere else in the world.
King’s work had huge impacts, and not just upon the legal and political rights of black people. His life is an inspiration for individuals across the world, including me. My earliest memory of him is of reading the “I have a dream” speech for the first time. I remember exactly where I was—Boots in Eldon Square, Newcastle. My eye had been caught by a poster of an African-American woman with doves flying out of her huge afro. I remember wondering whether that look would work for me. [Laughter.] Black women and hair.
After being drawn to the poster, I was caught even more powerfully by the words:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I was about nine or 10 at the time, and I was really moved. I was struck by the power of those words, and of course I identified with Dr King’s little children. I hoped his words would come true not only for them but for me. That was at a time when the only black people on TV seemed to be singers, dancers or African despots. Only someone like Martin Luther King could help inspire me to dream that I could one day be the Member of Parliament for my hometown.
When the three great problems of racism, war and poverty are still all too real for millions of people, we all have a responsibility to take forward Dr King’s legacy. To mark the upcoming 50-year anniversary of the degree ceremony, Freedom City 2017 will be celebrated across Newcastle and Gateshead. It takes its inspiration from Dr King and the themes of his speech at Newcastle University. The landmark event will launch a three-year cultural programme of international artistic and political significance. World-renowned artists and local communities will come together to produce new artworks responding to Dr King’s iconic speech and legacy.
Working with local delivery partner Northern Roots, Newcastle University and community, faith, civic, artistic, business and academic organisations from across Newcastle and Gateshead, Freedom City will have dozens of events, programmes and workshops so that everyone in the community can get involved. I cannot emphasise the scale of Freedom City enough, but I will mention a couple of events about which I am particularly excited.
A bronze sculpture of Dr King, incorporating a quotation from his acceptance speech, will be installed on the university campus in November 2017. There will also be a day of celebration and remembrance of those who risked and lost their lives in the march for freedom, called “Freedom City on the Tyne.” It will pay tribute to all those who marched with King, either physically or spiritually: from the Jarrow march to Sharpeville, Peterloo and especially the famous Selma confrontation between Dr King, his marchers and state troopers on the General Pettus bridge.
The Freedom City project will be launched on Friday of next week, ahead of the 49th anniversary of King’s degree ceremony, with community groups, schools and citizens from Newcastle reflecting on King’s legacy ahead of next year’s celebrations. The American embassy gave £30,000 to support Freedom City in its initial stages; I pay tribute to it for that. The American ambassador, Matthew Barzun, who is coming to the end of his term, has been a particular champion of this project and friend of Newcastle, and I would like to record my gratitude to him. This great festival also owes a debt of gratitude to Arts Council England, which has given us an award of £595,000 from its Ambition for Excellence fund in recognition of the festival’s ability to
“stimulate and support ambition, talent and excellence across the arts sector in England.”
Freedom City will take forward the legacy built around the creative case for diversity, changing the way artists and organisations present diverse arts in participatory, programmed and presented work. It will go further, too: it will educate and inform young people on the themes of Martin Luther King’s speech and will encourage reflection on how those themes relate today to our social history and our future.
The lives of those who fought for an end to racism still play a role in inspiring citizens today, and not just in Newcastle. Hull has chosen to honour William Wilberforce in its city of culture celebrations, which will also take place next year and will complement Freedom City. What are the Government’s plans to follow these great northern cities in taking forward King’s legacy? They have a responsibility to every child to make sure that, in King’s words,
“they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I ask the Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to visit Newcastle during the celebrations and discuss how King’s legacy can be taken forward. Will the Minister accept that invitation?
Newcastle was lucky enough to host Dr King during his lifetime, but the memory of his work should be kept alive to inspire every British citizen. Black History Month, which is a fantastic celebration of black achievement, has just ended, but there are still many stories to bring to light. Dr King’s visit in 1967 was all but forgotten—I myself growing up in Newcastle was not aware of it—until Professor Brian Ward of Northumbria University rediscovered the film of his speech. I recommend it to everyone; it is a fantastic speech and the film is available on the Freedom City 2017 website. Other materials are now coming to light, including fantastic footage of the first black newscaster in Britain, Clyde Alleyne, interviewing Dr King for Tyne Tees Television during that visit.
I hope and expect that the Government, along with the people of Newcastle, will continue to champion the men and women—women’s voices are too often overlooked—who struggle against inequality throughout the world and in this country. We must also set our own house in order. Parliament is yet to truly represent the country it seeks to speak for. Have the Government considered an annual event to mark the struggle for diversity in politics? Freedom City 2017 will be officially launched here in Parliament on Martin Luther King day next year, but we would be happy to share that important date with the Minister, the Government or official parliamentary commemorations.
The battle against injustice is by no means over. Some 50 years after Dr King came to Newcastle, it is still the wealth and status of a child’s parents that will determine his or her potential to a greater extent than almost anything else. That is why Freedom City is so important. I want every child in Newcastle and beyond to know not only that Martin Luther King came to Newcastle, but that he came for them, to speak to them. Those three themes of poverty, racism and war not only speak to them but are to be answered by them—by every child and every adult in Newcastle and throughout the country. Everyone in every generation has a role to play in addressing those great challenges. Just as Martin Luther King saw the struggles around the world as part of the struggle for civil rights in America, there should be no limitations to our horizons. We still cannot say that every child in Newcastle and the rest of the country has the opportunity to be judged by their character and not by their race or their background. I certainly believe that it is my job as an MP to work to achieve that. When we can say that that has happened, I believe Dr King’s legacy in Newcastle will truly have been fulfilled.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing this important debate here in Westminster Hall on an important and powerful subject. As she said, Black History Month has just finished, and Martin Luther King’s words are still as valid and poignant today as they were at the time. He said:
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
The letters in our mailbags and the daily emails we get resonate with that.
I support my hon. Friend’s call for an annual event in this place, and I am pursuing that idea. It is important that one of the oldest democracies in the world should talk about how far we have come with race relations but also acknowledge how far we still have to go. I cannot believe that she was lucky enough to have had Martin Luther King in her constituency; it makes me quite envious. When he received his award—I watched that speech over and over again, and it became more powerful every time—he said:
“I can assure you…that you give me renewed courage and vigour to carry on in the struggle to make peace and justice a reality for all men and women all over the world.”
When the Opposition fight for equality laws and ask the Government to re-implement the equality assessments that they have said they no longer need because they are a tick-box exercise, people in this place often wonder why we push for those things so much. Martin Luther King put it beautifully:
“It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can restrain him from lynching me”.
That is why we push so much for equality legislation: to move forward and continue to move forward until we have true equality in the world.
My hon. Friend talked about her journey here as a Member of Parliament representing Newcastle. Lots of little girls and boys and young adults who look at representation in the House and see people such as her and me will feel that they too can make it anywhere they like, as long as they have the drive, ambition and support—and the right legislation to help to make it happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing this debate? It is important that we commemorate one of the greatest African-Americans, Martin Luther King, and his visit to Newcastle nearly 50 years ago. He came to Newcastle on 13 November 1967 to accept an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law from the university. As we heard from the hon. Lady and her Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), it was an extremely powerful speech that captured the mood at the time and still endures today.
Britain today can claim to be a successful multi-ethnic and multi-faith country. In recent years, members of African and Caribbean communities have achieved in many different areas, such as business, sport, the arts and government, as well as in this House. We know that we still have a very long way to go, but we believe in a United Kingdom by every definition, which means that the Government will stand up against injustice and inequality. It is only by doing so that we can make the country work for everyone, not just a privileged few.
Last December saw the 50th anniversary of the Race Relations Act 1965, which historic legislation opened the way to all the subsequent equalities legislation. We can all be proud of the UK’s world-class equalities legislation, but we know that it is not enough on its own. We must all champion equality and recognise and challenge discrimination.
We have in place a strong legal framework that protects all individuals against racial and religious discrimination, and against racially and religiously aggravated hate crime. Following the spike in hate crime and racist incidents taking place in communities after the vote to leave the EU, the Government stepped up efforts to tackle the scourge of hate crime. We have published a new hate crime action plan, which focuses on reducing hate crime, increasing reporting and improving support for victims. The scenes and behaviour we saw over the summer—including offensive graffiti and abuse hurled at people because they are members of ethnic minorities or because of their nationality—were absolutely despicable and shameful. We must all stand together against such hate crime and ensure that it is stamped out wherever it happens.
Fighting disadvantage and extending opportunity is the surest way to build strong and cohesive communities. My Department’s current integration programme is focused on bringing communities together and celebrating what unites us rather than divides us, through projects such as Near Neighbours, Holocaust Memorial Day and Mitzvah Day.
In Newcastle, over two years between 2012 and 2014, we funded Show Racism the Red Card to deliver a programme of work designed to combat the influence of the far right on young people’s attitudes and behaviours. With the Arts Council and the British Library, we funded the Enterprising Libraries project, which in Newcastle helped to create 385 new businesses and more than 660 jobs over a two-year period to 2015. Of those who have started a business using the Newcastle Business & IP Centre services, 11% described themselves as black, Asian and minority ethnic, against a national average of 6% of businesses being led by members of a minority ethnic group in 2014.
The Government are committed to creating a fair society in which all people, of whatever ethnic origin or background, are valued and able to participate fully and realise their potential. The Prime Minister could not have been clearer about her determination on this issue from the very moment she arrived in Downing Street. We are making real progress, with black and minority ethnic employment rates at their highest levels for 15 years, but there is clearly more to do.
We are certainly not complacent, which is why the Prime Minister launched a race disparity audit in August to look at the racial disparities in our public services. It will stretch right across Government and highlight the differences in outcomes for people of different backgrounds, including in health, education, childcare, welfare, employment, skills and criminal justice. Gathering and publishing such information has been shown to have an effect on improving public services and outcomes for certain racial groups.
By looking at how racial grouping affects treatment in public services, the audit will be comprehensive and, where possible, linked to geography and income. This is the first time that a Government rather than an independent body will carry out an audit of racial group disparities in public services. The audit will inform the Government’s approach to ending the injustices that many people experience. Work on the audit has already begun. We envisage that the large and ambitious programme of data collection and interrogation will take some months, but we hope to have the first tranche of data published before summer 2017.
I thank the Minister for his kind and entirely true words about Newcastle earlier. The audit he is talking about is of great interest. Will he give a little more detail on what data will be collected on the users and/or deliverers of public services? I was pleased to hear that it might be separated by region. In addition, I hope he will not forget to respond to my invitation.
The hon. Lady’s invitation did not escape my attention and I will address it in a moment.
On the audit, the Prime Minister has been clear that she does not want there to be disparities in how our public services are provided. The audit will look comprehensively across the range of public services, and we will look in depth at the challenges and barriers in the treatment of people from BME groups. As I said, it will be linked to geography and income where possible. I hope that, in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to provide further information on how the audit is progressing. It will inform the work not only of the Government but, we hope, of other Members of the House.
We are continuing to work towards the ambitious goals set in 2015 to improve opportunity for BME people, such as on take-up of apprenticeships, employment and university places, and recruitment in the police and armed services. We have stretching and challenging targets but are absolutely determined to meet them.
Two reviews started earlier this year: the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) is looking at the treatment of and outcomes for BAME individuals in the criminal justice system, and Baroness McGregor-Smith is examining the obstacles faced by businesses in developing BME talent, from recruitment right through to executive level.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central mentioned the Freedom City 2017 events. It is fantastic to hear about such an initiative and it is great to see that the Arts Council is supporting it significantly. It is also good to hear about the support being provided by the US embassy. I understand that the initiative will involve not only several world-renowned artists but many local artists from the Newcastle area, and that it will focus on the values of freedom, togetherness and empowerment.
I very much look forward to seeing that work come forward, and can certainly give the hon. Lady my commitment to come up to Newcastle. My sister currently lives in Northumberland, but she is moving to the edge of Newcastle, hopefully in the next few weeks. I am sure she will be glad to see me when I go up to Newcastle, so I really do look forward to that event next year.
I apologise that I did not cover that point in my speech. I shall certainly look into it. I would be grateful to hear more information from the hon. Lady about what she envisages such action would look like. If she can please provide that information, we can look to see what might be achieved in the House.
In conclusion, I thank the hon. Lady again for securing the debate. We should take this opportunity to remember the huge contribution made by people from Africa and the Caribbean, many of whom gave their lives fighting for this country in the first and second world wars. As a Government, we reiterate our commitment to standing up against injustice and inequality, making this a country that works for everyone and not just the privileged few.
Question put and agreed to.
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered global biodiversity.
A number of colleagues have applied to speak in this debate, but unfortunately they cannot all be here today to take part. In particular, Zac Goldsmith—I think we can refer to him by name at this stage—is unable to be with us today. However, since he originally applied to speak in the debate, I thought it would be nice to record that. I am also grateful to colleagues who have signed early-day motion 624 on global biodiversity to support this debate today. If other colleagues have not yet had the opportunity to sign that early-day motion, I would be grateful if they did so.
The catalyst for this debate was new research, conducted by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, that shows that the global wildlife population fell by more than half between 1970 and 2012. According to the report, global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles have declined by 58% since 1970. Within that figure, the fish population declined by 36% and mammals by 38%, but the biggest decline, at 81%, was in the amphibians population, which shows how vulnerable they are to the challenges that we face, not least climate change, which further threatens their habitat.
The facts suggest that we face a global biodiversity crisis: without urgent action, by 2020, these vertebrate populations will have declined by 67% since 1970. The international community has agreed that by 2020 declines in biodiversity should have been halted. Frankly, these things do not compute—the international community is way off target when it comes to meeting its commitments.
When I was Environment Secretary, I had the great privilege of representing the UK at the United Nations conference on biodiversity loss in Nagoya, Japan, in 2010. It took place just after the climate change talks in Copenhagen had failed, after which people were very pessimistic—they did not think that a UN agreement would be achieved in this area. However, to everyone’s surprise, we did it. The agreement achieved in Nagoya states that we should take effective and urgent action to halt the loss of habitats and species in order to ensure that by 2020 our natural environment would be resilient and continue to provide the essential environmental services that we otherwise take for granted. To that end, a series of targets was agreed to, known as the Aichi targets.
The reality is that most of our planet’s biodiversity is not in developed nations such as ours, where we have already destroyed many natural habitats, but in the most remote and least developed areas of our planet. So the big challenge is how to protect these vulnerable areas and their endangered species, while trying to regenerate our own natural capital and lost species.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this very important debate. She has mentioned the agreement. In the recent Paris discussions on climate control, not all countries signed up and not all of them turned up. What more can be done to influence those countries that are causing some of the major difficulties that we have?
We have clearly made some progress in the climate change talks, and climate change is one of the things that definitely threatens, or aggravates the loss of species. There has been a significant breakthrough between some of the big players over climate change. For a long period, large countries such as America and China just would not engage, so we have made some progress on that issue, but, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, we need the rest to be as good as the best. I am sure that the Minister heard what the hon. Gentleman would like the UK Government to be doing to encourage that to happen.
In fact, 90% of the biodiversity on UK territory is situated in our overseas territories, precisely because they are less heavily developed. The Government made the groundbreaking decision to create the largest marine reserve in the world around the Pitcairn Islands and are on their way to doing the same for Ascension Island, South Georgia, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha, in a blue belt strategy around the world’s oceans. If all those are achieved, the area offering some form of protection will be greater than the size of India. That would make a significant contribution to Aichi target 11, which is on marine protected areas.
That points to the clear value of helping less developed parts of the world to protect vital species. Frankly, the cure to some disease that is currently a scourge of human society could be deep in the Amazon jungle. We have every interest in helping the poorest.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that the UK Government often sign up to agreements that are worthy in principle, but the overseas territories that then become subject to those agreements do not always receive reciprocal finances to implement them? I know that in places such as Anguilla particularly and the Cayman Islands, that is placing an undue financial burden on their Governments.
My hon. Friend and I were members of the Environmental Audit Committee together. He has recently rejoined the Committee and I know that he looked closely at the predicament of overseas territories such as the Cayman Islands which would not naturally be in receipt of funds to help them to address this kind of issue. It is clear that we all have an interest in their being able to do so. I am sure that his comment was heard by the Minister.
The approach of helping the world’s poorest countries to reduce and halt the loss of species was at the heart of our agreement in Nagoya. It inspired 193 countries to agree unanimously to own and solve this problem together. So everybody was present and did sign that Nagoya agreement. However, there were lengthy discussions about access to, and the benefits arising from, the world’s most biodiverse populations. That was the heart of the matter. The world’s richest nations wanted to be able to access some of the most biodiverse parts of the world, perhaps to find a cure for cancer, but in return the developing nations wanted to share in those benefits and for us to help to resource them in protecting those areas. That was the nature of what we agreed to, which was a genuine example of a negotiated deal.
Historically, the UK has provided international leadership on this approach and there are many examples of how we have done so. The most recent is the opening of the new David Attenborough building in Cambridge, which will become the new global focal point for research and practice to transform our understanding about the conservation of biodiversity.
Even before I became Environment Secretary, the UK was providing resources to prevent deforestation under the so-called REDD-plus scheme, which stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. If one is going to try to reduce deforestation in very poor countries, it is important to find a way to support those people who have not known any way of sustaining themselves other than by cutting down trees. If they are paid to maintain and look after the trees and to sustain the forest, deforestation will be reduced.
It is worth noting that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will spend more than £300 million of official development assistance by 2019-20, including funding to help to tackle the serious criminal industry of the illegal wildlife trade, which definitely threatens endangered species, and to deliver projects to conserve biodiversity and to reduce poverty worldwide, including in the UK’s eligible overseas territories and in developing countries, which will help developing countries to phase out ozone-depleting substances. When it comes to global biodiversity, no man is an island.
I have seen for myself how paying farmers in places such as the Amazon not to cut down their trees but to manage their forests can help us all, for the Amazon is the world’s largest carbon sink. However, the next challenge in Latin America is to prevent the adjoining native savannah, the forest of the Cerrado in Brazil, from being ploughed up to grow soya. Over half of that area has been converted to agriculture since 1950. At present, the Cerrado shelters 5% of total global biodiversity and one in 10 of every Brazilian species. Almost half of its 10,000 plant species are found nowhere else on our planet and wild animals that are threatened by the loss of the habitat include the jaguar, the maned wolf and the giant anteater. I saw there an extraordinary plant, the like of which I had never seen, called the shauvarinho, which captures water droplets on tiny fan-like leaves that have adapted to survive drought. It is not, therefore, just the plough that destroys species on that savannah; the area is also very vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
As I have highlighted, we now have the tool accurately to measure the rate at which we lose species and the cost to the economy of that loss: the national ecosystem assessment. For example, bees, should they die out and should we have to replace what they do, would cost the country £400 million a year. These days, we can put an economic value on the loss of vital species.
The right hon. Lady was talking about projects in Latin America. She might be aware of the Yasuni national park in Ecuador. The Government there tried to raise money internationally, so that there would be no oil drilling in what is one of the most biodiverse places on earth—an absolutely pristine area. They could not get the international sign-up, however. Does she agree that that is something we all value, on a global level? Ecuador obviously needs to feed its people and boost economic growth, so in the end it was forced to go down the drilling route.
That speaks absolutely to the heart of the current debate on how we use international development assistance. The truth of the matter is that the issue is an increasingly difficult one, as people experience hard times themselves. I am disappointed to hear it vocalised that charity begins at home and that we should not be helping people abroad. I certainly do not share that view, but it is incumbent on us all as politicians to explain why helping people in very poor countries benefits everyone in the end. We must all work harder at getting that message across.
To come back to the bees, the fact that if they took their pollinating brushes home we would face a very big bill for substituting what they do underlines the importance of the debate about the demise of pollinators and explains why it is such an active one. The principles we agreed to in Nagoya bind us to reverse the trend of species loss, and that will take time and resources. The wealthy nations that signed up to the Nagoya agreement are the ones upon which it is incumbent to bring resources to the table to help poorer nations, if we are to arrest that decline.
The sequence of meetings known as the conference of the parties, or COP, has seen some progress in agreeing, in principle, to double biodiversity financial flows. I say in principle, because at COP 13, the next in the series—due to take place in Cancun in December—there will no doubt be more discussion about the amount of resources we need and who precisely will bring them. At that meeting, countries will discuss the practical delivery of the targets agreed following Nagoya. The excellent analytical work that is being undertaken by non-governmental organisations, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to measure the level of ambition of, and the practical progress being made by, the signatories to the original agreement will be published to coincide with the meeting. It is the Ministers who go to Cancun who will have to face up to the reality of whether they walk the talk, so I hope that the UK Government will continue to provide the international leadership they are known for in this area by sending a Minister to the meeting.
Our efforts to halt the loss of species in our own country are going to come under close scrutiny. The reality is that most of the world’s most precious biodiversity is not on UK territory. The very fact that the British Isles has been developed has forced nature into retreat, but that does not mean we should not continue to strive to protect the species that are endangered here and to restore the lost natural capital. For example, a key action is to implement an intelligent and forward-looking biodiversity offsetting strategy for major infrastructure works. There are many infrastructure plans in the making, so there will have to be an awful lot of offsetting.
One of those plans is on my doorstep. High Speed 2 will go straight through my constituency and there is the opportunity to restore the polluted River Tame and enhance the Blyth river valley so that the urban populations of the west midlands conurbation can enjoy the green space and appreciate what nature has to offer. We know how important that is for overall wellbeing. I hope that the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will consider carefully proposals being put forward by Birmingham City University to regenerate the lost natural capital in the area.
The UK has made good progress on marine protection. It is committed, under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, to deliver an ecologically coherent network of well-managed marine protected areas within UK waters. However, critical gaps in the network remain, including protection for mobile species, such as seabirds. The third and final tranche of the English marine conservation zone designation is due to come forward next year and it is those critical gaps that I hope the Government will now be able to fill.
I have some key requests for the Government. I welcome the statement of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in response to the “Living Planet Report 2016”. It is encouraging that she has emphasised her commitment to protecting and restoring our natural environment for future generations. She has also called on us all to play our part. Indeed, every individual can play a role in arresting the loss of species. I certainly advocate that anyone who has not done so take part in the RSPB’s bird count once a year. The count will enable us to have some sense, against a baseline, of whether the common species we all grew up with are thriving or declining. That is particularly important when it comes to the demise of farmland birds, and everyone can do their bit.
The Secretary of State has highlighted two key areas in which the UK has been successful, one being the blue belt protection for our overseas territories and the other helping to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State will attend the next IWT conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, next month, providing the kind of leadership for which the UK is known. However, as I have already mentioned, it is critical that we send high-level ministerial representation to December’s conference of the parties in Cancun. I cannot stress enough how important it is that a Minister is there—193 countries are present at the meetings. We often underestimate the capacity that the UK has, because of its heritage and the leadership it has provided on the issue, to be involved as a facilitator, in particular between countries that are dragging their feet a bit, and to get their agreement. I really hope that a Minister will be able to attend.
We must be visible and vocal as a leader on the world’s stage, and establishing a clear presence in December will be an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to continuing as an environmental leader. That will underline that the UK still wants to be at the forefront of the fight against biodiversity decline.
It is evident that tackling biodiversity loss will require a multisector approach, and in that we are helped by the fact that since the Nagoya agreement we have the framework of sustainable development goals—SDGs—which provides a context for our actions and our approach. The SDGs have the power to create a safer, fairer world, but we must now implement them ourselves, with careful cross-Government co-ordination and a clear focus on the challenges outlined in the report.
Goals 14 and 15 are directly connected to the convention on biological diversity and the Aichi targets, and they address reducing biodiversity loss on land and in the marine environment. Many of the targets are due for completion in 2020—in less than four years’ time. However, at the current rate of progress, those will be the first of the sustainable development goals the UK will fail to meet. As we know, the deadline for most of the SDGs is 2030. So there is real pressure, and an urgency to get on and implement what we can to achieve the targets.
It is important that DEFRA and the Department for International Development work closely together on implementation. I found, as Environment Secretary, that DFID was extremely helpful to the cause; indeed it gave me the money to be able to provide assistance in very poor countries where species were endangered. I sincerely hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that DEFRA continues to work closely with DFID in that area.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that it is welcome that the Natural Capital Committee reports directly to the Chancellor? That ensures that policy is accompanied by finances and reinforces and reiterates to us that nature does not come for free.
My hon. Friend is completely right. I should have said that it is not only about DEFRA and DFID working together; the Treasury holds the purse strings. He is right that the Natural Capital Committee—its chair, Professor Dieter Helm, provides outstanding leadership—reporting directly to the Chancellor is the best way of reminding the Treasury that nature comes at a price and that we need to reflect that in the decisions we make and the resources it gets.
I hope that we will shortly see a clear plan from the Government on the sustainable development goals. DEFRA’s forthcoming 25-year plan for the environment is also a key opportunity. I hope that Ministers will use it to set out how they will work to reduce the UK’s international carbon footprint, as well as to protect nature at home. Ministers will need to carefully weave together the domestic and international dimensions. We must emphasise intergenerational accountability and include mechanisms to assess the impact of policy on nature and the natural capital we wish to leave for our children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I forgot that pleasantry in yesterday’s heated debate on grouse shooting.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on her excellent opening speech. She emphasised the need for Departments to work together on these issues, but I think it is also incumbent on all parliamentarians to work together, too. They are not party political issues and there is consensus in the House on them. We should all continue to press the Government as hard as we can to deliver and halt the declines in biodiversity. It is refreshing to see debates in this Chamber being led by former Secretaries of State who have stayed loyal and interested in their briefs. That is not always the case, but when we get that expertise and experience coming back it enriches and strengthens our debates.
If we do not act soon to halt the declines in our biodiversity, it could be too late. The World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Planet Report 2016” shows the scale of the task. As was pointed out earlier, although I will repeat the figures because they need repeating, global vertebrate populations fell on average by 58% between 1970 and 2012 and freshwater species such as amphibians and fish have declined by a shocking 81%. We are facing a global biodiversity crisis, and the need for action is urgent.
The problem should not be analysed by contrasting the performance of developing countries with that of advanced economies. I have seen that recently in print and in the media, and it is not helpful to describe the declines we have seen in that way, suggesting in some way that richer countries are doing better because they can afford to deal with the problem. It not does not help us at all and it is not accurate, because wildlife in the UK is far from thriving. If Victorians took a walk in our countryside today, they would be shocked at how sparse our wildlife really is. I have listened to my parents talk about that frequently; they say that the decline has been dramatic since their childhood, 50 or 60 years ago. We have seen huge declines in biodiversity, even since then.
Our planet’s biodiversity—or to put it another way, the natural capital that we depend on—is on the verge of collapse. If we are not careful, we could see the demise of the global environment we all depend on—the quality of the air we breathe, the quality and range of the food we eat, or the water we drink. In the final analysis, there will obviously be a negative impact on the global economy, too. It is becoming apparent that we could be entering a new epoch: the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which the size and scale of human activity is affecting our most important environmental systems on a planetary scale. The list of endangered species is never-ending, and if action is not taken soon, many species will disappear before our very eyes.
Declines in our ocean biodiversity are of particular concern. The living planet index shows that marine species have declined by 36% since 1970. That cannot be allowed to continue. It is estimated that our oceans provide annual economic benefits of up to $2.5 trillion a year—it is an international index, so it measures things in dollars. If we manage oceans effectively, they could help to underpin the relevant sustainable development goal and provide food security for many millions living in developing coastal and island states. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that because of poor management, including the over-exploitation of fisheries, that ambition will not be met. While Governments understand the importance of our marine environment, evidence is growing that their critical role in securing future resilience is still not given sufficient priority.
The UK can and should be playing a key role in taking forward and implementing sustainable development goal 14, which relates to our oceans. The right hon. Lady repeatedly stressed that point. We have strong economic and cultural ties to the sea—I grew up in a coastal community, so I understand that well. I am not originally from an inland community, as Sheffield is. Even though many of our communities have secured livelihoods from our seas, we import a huge volume of seafood from many developing nations. We have international trading links that give us even more of a responsibility to work collaboratively on these issues. Our strong marine research expertise could help the Government in prioritising the actions needed on this specific aspect of global biodiversity. We also need to play our part internationally by building strategic partnerships with developing countries. Those partnerships are incredibly important when it comes to ensuring international resilience for our oceans.
That brings me neatly on to the EU’s common fisheries policy, which provides a multilateral forum for taking action to rebuild resilient fishing stocks in European waters and a sustainable fishing industry. I know I will upset the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) with that point, but fortunately she is a Parliamentary Private Secretary, so she cannot respond on this occasion. The Government must remain actively engaged in the CFP for as long as we remain in the EU. I say that as the daughter of a fisherman and as someone who grew up in the biggest fishing port in the world. I feel strongly about the issue.
We must also start putting in place plans for continuing engagement and action on illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing once we leave the EU. We therefore need assurances from Ministers that once we leave, the protections against unethical fishing, if I can put it that way, afforded by membership of the CFP will be embedded into UK fisheries policy. If we are going to build our status globally as a soft power on biodiversity issues, we need to continue the best practice established in the European Union. Whatever Brexit provides for the future, we must as a country remain committed to the policy of maximum sustainable yield and must retain fishing quotas in the form of total allowable catches by species. Not to do so would be wrong and would risk a return to the days of over-fishing and the consequences that that brought down upon all of us. I therefore ask the Minister to give assurances in her closing remarks.
Marine protected areas are a critical tool for conservation. It is estimated that protecting just 30% of the world’s oceans could result in net benefits of between $490 billion and $920 billion over 35 years. Currently, just 3.9% of the world’s oceans are designated for protection, despite a global commitment to achieve 10% by 2020. Many of the marine protection areas that do exist lack effective management plans. We need to play our part in addressing that weakness. The Government must continue designating an ecologically coherent network of marine conservation zones around our shores, as the right hon. Member for Meriden pointed out. We also need to continue the creation of a blue belt around our unique overseas territories by putting into place large-scale marine protected areas overseas, which will contribute to delivering on our 10% target.
Will the Minister commit to delivering a truly comprehensive and ecologically coherent network of marine conservation zones around the UK, with the management plans to match? That is the key weakness in our implementation of the Marine and Coastal Access Act so far. We need effective management plans for that network and we need them quickly. Also, will the Minister commit to the 10% target for MPAs around the UK’s overseas territories?
Although the world’s oceans face huge pressures, there is evidence that sustainable management and conservation work can reverse biodiversity declines and bring life back to the world’s seas. For instance, North sea cod stocks are now on an upwards trajectory because of the strong management measures implemented through the EU’s cod recovery plan. It is worth putting on the record that the decline in those stocks was not caused by the European Union. It never was. Those stocks were heavily depleted before the EU’s management regime came into effect. Nobody ever asks why the fishing fleets of the east coast, where I come from, went to Iceland to catch fish. Why go all that way? Why face all those dangers? It was because they had depleted the North sea stocks. The measures needed to put that right have started to work and the UK has a responsibility to continue on that trajectory. The experience of working with the European Union and internationally, as we have over all those years, also underlines the importance of the UK Government continuing to work co-operatively with other Governments, both in the EU and more widely, to ensure that our fisheries are sustainably managed.
A key opportunity for the Government to set out their own stall will be the forthcoming 25-year plan for the environment. The Minister could use the opportunity of the plan to reduce the UK’s international footprint by setting out a trajectory and a clear strategy for how we will achieve that, as well as protecting nature at home. At this point I will refer to yesterday’s debate and hope sincerely that the plan will include measures to deal with the decline in the health of our blanket bog and upland environment in the UK, which is a source of particular concern to me.
When might this extremely important plan be published? Are the rumours that it is being reviewed because of Brexit true? If that is the case, what exactly is being reviewed in the plan? Are we going to see more ambitious plans for improving the environment as a result of Brexit, or are we going to take Brexit as a chance to reduce our environmental standards? The House deserves some clarity on that point.
We are at a crossroads both as a country and as a planet. We need action and we need it now. The UK needs to play its full part and lead from the front internationally in reversing the decline in our biodiversity not only for our generation, but for the many generations yet to be born. Let us not forget that the environment is our legacy to future generations. The world belongs to our children. If we forget that legacy and forget the important fact that the world belongs to our children, we will never be forgiven for abdicating our responsibilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing the debate on global biodiversity today.
The report laid before us by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society paints a bleak picture of wholesale ecocide on a scale unseen for aeons. Faced with such catastrophe, it would be easy to retreat into complacency and mourn while the web of life unravels. An article on the rapid decline in species in last Thursday’s Times on 27 October was very interesting. It stated:
“Human activity is driving many of the planet’s species dangerously close to extinction.”
It is predicted that
“Global vertebrate populations...are likely to have declined by an average of 67 per cent on their 1970 levels by 2020.”
This is the here and now, and yet this does not have to be the case.
One of my favourite quotes comes from the great American politician and civil rights activist, Harvey Milk. He once said,
“If you want to change the world, start in your own neighbourhood.”
As a “neighbourhood”, Scotland possesses a natural environment that retains some of its richness and diversity even after centuries of degradation. Scotland’s Government recognise that the importance of biodiversity goes far beyond majestic wildlife and bonnie glens. Carbon sequestration, the health of pollinator populations, water purity, which has been mentioned, and human health and wellbeing are just a few of the things that are dependent on resilient, diverse ecosystems. In recognition of the essential role that biodiversity will play in ensuring Scotland’s future sustainability and success, the Scottish Government are committed to placing it at the heart of their economic strategy. All Governments should do that. The fruits of these efforts have already started to show.
In 2010, Scotland’s biodiversity assessment concluded that biodiversity loss had slowed where targeted action had been applied, but that halting it would require renewed and sustained effort over a long period. In 2013, a route map was published, which set out the actions necessary for the country to meet the challenges set by the UN convention on biological diversity’s targets for 2020: the so-called Aichi targets—I hope I have pronounced that correctly.
For example, target 11 aims to have at least 17% of freshwater bodies and 10% of coastal and marine areas under protection by 2020. Target 15 aims to enhance ecosystem resilience and the contribution of biodiversity to carbon stocks through the conservation and restoration of at least 15% of degraded ecosystems. Its first progress report, published in 2015, shows that we are starting to turn this juggernaut around: 16% of our seas are now part of our marine-protected area network, exceeding the 10% stipulated by the UN. We are restoring twice the area of peatland that is required of us and exceeding our required area of protected land and fresh water. There are still actions that need to progress faster, but we can take heart from the fact that although in the second half of 2015 there were still some areas that showed no progress, or even a continued decline, progress was made on all of our actions in the first half of 2016.
Driving the strategy is the realisation that biodiversity loss is a problem that must be tackled at scales beyond the remit of a single area, organisation or even, as has been mentioned, Government. That realisation is as true here as it is in Scotland or anywhere else. Integrated, co-operative forms of management involving multiple Departments and other stakeholders are needed to form the backbone of actions and projects.
The natural world must no longer be seen as something desirable but expendable. The question “Can we afford that?” has an ecological answer that is at least as important as its financial and political answers. We face choices that will manifest in the near future. As individuals, we tend to be myopic; we prefer to deal with present outcomes at the expense, often, of future ones. That is a given. Our choice is to consider the long-term loss and decline of our wildlife, and decide on the best course of action to prevent the continuation of that decline.
To end on a somewhat brighter note, I will mention that, although the picture is bleak, there is still some ecological resilience left. The vast majority of species are not yet at the point of no return. If we act, we can reverse what is happening. If there is a concerted international effort, we can turn it around globally. Let us not create a global extinction event as our legacy.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to see you in the Chair, Mr Evans. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing the debate; as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said, she has very much retained an interest in the issues that she dealt with as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We have often had conversations in passing, in the corridor—particularly about marine conservation zones. I appreciate that in her new role as Second Church Estates Commissioner she has adopted a more conciliatory approach to bats in churches than her predecessor; we had some run-ins in our time. I am sure the bats appreciate it, too.
Today’s debate is timely, given the publication of the excellent “Living Planet” report by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Zoological Society of London. I urge everyone to read it. Biodiversity has intrinsic value, but our survival also depends on it. It is a key indicator of the health of the planet, and we should treat it as seriously as climate change. It was frustrating for me, both during the Brexit campaign and the Paris talks, that the focus was always just on climate change and energy policy. There was not the discussion of the natural environment that there should have been, particularly given that so many of our protections stem from the EU.
The “Living Planet” report makes disturbing reading, but that should not come as a surprise. Year on year we have heard reports of mounting evidence of the decline of biodiversity. Each report adds to the imperative for action by Governments around the world. We have heard that we shall fail to meet the Aichi biodiversity targets by 2020, and that global wildlife populations fell by 58% between 1970 and 2012. On current trends, our vertebrate populations would decline by two thirds by 2020.
It is disappointing that public funding for biodiversity fell by 32% from 2008 to 2015. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge highlighted, that is potentially even more of a threat with Brexit on the horizon. I hope for reassurances from the Minister today. The Government have, through the Natural Capital Committee, recognised the potential economic value of the natural environment, and are trying to do work that builds in the costs, financial or otherwise, of damaging it. However, there is a lot more work to be done if that is really to be embedded in policy making.
There is a tendency for most attention to be paid to iconic species such as pandas, tigers and killer whales, which are under serious threat. There is a lot of talk about them, and there have been some successes. As the WWF highlighted, the giant panda has been removed from the list of endangered species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, thanks to China’s efforts to protect habitats and re-establish forest. Tigers are still critically at risk, but their population has increased by 20% since 2010, thanks to collaborative efforts by Governments, communities and conservationists. The Government have been very committed to the agenda of the convention on international trade in endangered species, with respect to the shark population, for example. However, species that we have never heard of—and, in some cases, can barely see—are also in dire need of attention. In his foreword to the “State of Nature” report, David Attenborough said:
“If we and the rest of the backboned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well.”
However, if invertebrates were to disappear,
“the land’s ecosystems would collapse.”
We need action to protect all biodiversity, whether vertebrates, invertebrates or plant life. All of those have suffered from human activity. Poaching, and the international wildlife trade, are an obvious cause, with elephant populations in Tanzania falling by 60% between 2009 and 2014. I, for one, would welcome further action to stem the global ivory trade that contributes to that—even the historic ivory trade.
Less visibly, as the global population has risen, our use of fertilisers, pesticides and transport, greenhouse gas emissions, our reliance on medicines and our water use have all increased. They all have a negative impact on biodiversity. It is the human population that has caused so much habitat loss for other species, whether through pollution, intensive agriculture, climate change, building or resource use that exploits natural resources.
As I mentioned, in Ecuador the Government were very committed—probably top of the league when it came to biodiversity and the beauty of the country—but they face pressures, in a country struggling to make ends meet, with the knowledge that such a wonderful site as the Yasuni natural park is home to oil reserves. As the right hon. Member for Meriden and I have said, there is a global role to be played in helping such countries to protect their wonderful biodiversity. We need international co-operation and the UK to take a lead in talks, rather than turning its back on the world, which some might think the referendum result would lead us to do.
As part of that, we need a commitment from the Environment Secretary, or the Minister who is present today, to attend December’s conference of the parties to the convention on biological diversity taking place in Mexico. We need to lead by example. There has already been mention of the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on the British overseas territories; only a tiny fraction of DEFRA spending goes to them, although they are home to 90% of the biodiversity for which the UK is responsible. As the report revealed, DEFRA did not at the time have a single staff member dedicated to working full time with the overseas territories.
We had a private meeting of the Environmental Audit Committee today, with some overseas territories representatives, to talk about some of those issues. I do not think I am betraying any confidences if I say that, in particular on the subject of the blue belt or the marine protected areas, there were pleas for things to be territory-led. Some of the people who attended were very happy with what has happened, because it was led by the people in the territories, but in some cases there are still issues to do with not being compensated for loss of income from fishing licences. Money may be going in, but it goes to the marine protected areas and does not compensate the Administrations—of Ascension Island in particular. I hope that the Minister will consider that. The overseas territories appreciate that they have a role to play in protecting the wonderful marine environment, but they need the resources to do it without suffering as a result.
When we discussed the EAC report a couple of years ago, I think about 0.3% of the biodiversity conservation budget was spent in the overseas territories. As I said, they are home to 90% of the biodiversity, so that suggests quite an imbalance. More than 32,000 native species have been recorded in the overseas territories and more than 1,500 of those are found nowhere else in the world. The territories are home to at least 517 globally threatened species. Our lack of knowledge and attention risks those species becoming extinct. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office works closely with the overseas territories on some issues, particularly business, but we need a closer relationship on environmental issues as well. The marine protected areas are a very welcome contribution but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge said, we need to complete the network of English marine conservation areas and ensure that they guarantee the robust protections that our marine life needs.
We have been talking about overseas, but the latest “State of Nature” report found that 53% of the UK’s wildlife species declined between 2002 and 2013 and 15% of our native species are under threat of extinction. The report’s launch was very well attended and the Secretary of State spoke but, as so often with these things, the warnings are taken to heart in the short term but very quickly forgotten. I hope the Minister will tell us a little about how the Government intend to take those concerns forward. The report said that insects and invertebrates were under particular threat, despite being crucial for pollination and healthy soils, and concluded that the UK is
“among the most nature-depleted countries in the world”,
having lost significantly more than comparable western European countries such as France and Germany.
I understand that we may get a framework for the much anticipated 25-year environment plan in the next few months, but we will not see the plan until later next year. That plan must rise to the enormous domestic and international challenge we face. The signs are not encouraging. The “State of Nature” report identified policy-driven agricultural change—the intensification of farming—as the most significant driver of declines.
I know that Ministers have taken on board the need for more links and connections between the two plans that we have, but when the Environment Secretary gave evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on Brexit only a couple of weeks ago, she implied that one plan was about the economics—the selling of food, farming and food production—and the other plan was about the natural environment. I do not think that that is good enough, as the two are so interconnected, even with footnotes explaining the connection. I am sure that the Minister has heard these representations many times before and I hope she is listening again. If the Government are genuinely interested in protecting biodiversity, DEFRA must commit to the EU birds and habitats directive and pollution reduction targets post-Brexit.
I want to conclude by bringing the debate down to a local level. Bristol is fortunate to have the Avon gorge, which has been designated a special area of conservation under the habitats directive. It is home to Bristol whitebeam and Wilmott’s whitebeam, which are not found anywhere else in the world and—I found this out only in the past couple of days—we also have the Bristol onion. The Avon gorge is the only place where it is found in mainland Britain. It is very pretty, with big purple flowers, but it is under threat from invasive species.
My favourite Twitter account, NoExtinctions, looks at attempts on obscure islands to stamp out invasive species that put particular species under threat. Lundy island did a very good job recently stamping out the rat population. NoExtinctions is a great account to follow to see what is going on in very obscure, unheard-of places around the world.
Bristol has developed its own pollinator strategy. Urban pollination strategies are incredibly important as there cannot be a divide between the town and city. “Get Bristol Buzzing” plants nectar and pollen-rich flower meadows in public spaces, in parks but also on roundabouts and wherever there is a spare piece of land.
I am also a species champion. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Buglife has asked a number of MPs to be species champions and now have about 30 or 40 MPs. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) is one.
I would just like to say that I am the bittern species champion and I am proud to say that bittern babies are booming, so that is good news.
I am glad. If anyone is not a species champion, I should say that more are needed, so Members can sign up.
I am a swift champion. It is urban habitat loss that is responsible for the decline in swift numbers. The RSPB told me last week that in Exeter they are introducing a planning requirement for new-build developments to include swift bricks or boxes—a really simple measure that will increase the number of places where swifts can nest and could be replicated across the country. I will certainly be urging Bristol council to take that on board, and I hope others will too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. You will not know this, but you are actually one of my favourite MPs, based on the image on your magnificent Christmas card of you casually leaning on the Terrace with your mug. It is etched in my memory and is one of my favourites from last year.
I look forward to it. I should get my act together and one-up you on it—I will get my thinking cap on.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing this debate and kicking it off with a very well informed contribution. I confess that at first I was worried it was going to be a little bit too self-congratulatory regarding some of the things that had gone before, but it was not at all. There were some very good suggestions and proactive ideas for the Government to take forward. I congratulate her on bringing the subject before the House.
I thought the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) was particularly bold in bringing up the issue of fishing until I realised that the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) was not able to contribute to the debate, and suddenly it became an inspired move. I shall note that move for myself in future. Although there was much discussion about the blue belt, the hon. Member for South East Cornwall is a black belt when it comes to defending her local fishermen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) gave a lovely speech about the Scottish hills and bonnie glens that we are all so proud of, but as he rightly said it is about so much more than that. He gave a very honest report card on the Scottish Government’s efforts—some that we are very proud of and some that we need to work harder at.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) is a redoubtable champion of this whole issue. I hear she even braved yesterday’s Westminster Hall grouse debate to put forward an alternative view. Although I may not agree with her on that subject, it is really important to have voices on all sides that provide balanced argument. I thank her for her contribution today and for joining the fray yesterday. She made some excellent points. Throughout the debate, the importance came across of the Government joining up the dots of all the different plans to create the right picture for the future.
I googled the Bristol onion, which Members may be interested to know is also known as the round-headed leek. It is beautiful, with purple flowers.
The phrase I always use is that God only made so many heads perfect; the rest he covered up with hair.
The hon. Lady mentioned swifts. I was looking at my front lawn recently and my front grass is looking a little the worse for wear—I am sure all MPs can relate to that, unless they have a gardener—apart from one little, very green patch, which is underneath where the swifts nest, so they are also good for fertilising the front lawn.
As someone relatively new to politics, one of the reasons why I have liked this debate so much is that I cannot help but observe that we are all in some way guilty of living in the present, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk said, and not projecting forward to consider the longer term implications of our decisions. MPs’ inboxes are full of short-term issues that need fixing, so it can be all too easy to ignore longer-term challenges. At times, we struggle to think beyond the five-year parliamentary term but, as we have heard today, the WWF’s “Living Planet Report” claimed that we are potentially facing the first mass extinction of species in 65 million years. If that is not a wake-up call, I do not know what is.
The scale of the challenge must not deter us. We have a duty to our children and their children not to be deterred from this enormous task. All efforts to focus the minds of policy makers in this place are welcome. If major declines in biodiversity continue, we risk nothing less than the collapse of the life-support systems that sustain us all. There is no synthetic alternative to those precious natural ecosystems. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the economy that underpins our standard of living all ultimately depend on biodiversity.
These problems reach far beyond DEFRA’s remit. This ought to be a common policy concern across all Government Departments, but let us be honest: we have very little sense of what approach the Government will take to the environment after Brexit and all its potential impacts on regulation and conservation programmes. I hope the Minister will give us a perspective on that today. Let me give one example of the Government’s approach. In a recent study, ecologists found that 65% of the areas earmarked for potential shale gas extraction have an above average level of biodiversity. I would be interested to learn how the Government think they can square such roughshod policies with their headline claim that they want to leave the natural environment in a better state than they found it.
In contrast, Scotland is a global leader on climate change. The Scottish Government have already achieved their target to reduce emissions by at least 42% by 2020. At the last count, Scotland generated the equivalent of 57% of its electricity consumption from renewables, and we aim to generate 100% equivalent of Scotland’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The UK Government’s recent contribution has been to slash support for renewable energy, much to the exasperation of the sector. I do not want to dwell too much on the differences because nature does not have any regard for national borders. I would much rather use the remainder of my time to talk about programmes under way in Scotland to protect our remarkable natural environment.
Scotland provides the major part of the UK’s contribution to the EU’s Natura 2000 programme. More than 15% of our land is designated for a wealth of habitats and species. Natura 2000 is the largest co-ordinated network of protected areas in the world, offering a haven to Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats. Scotland remains a stronghold for a number of species, such as the Atlantic salmon and the freshwater pearl mussel, which are now threatened or extinct elsewhere in the EU. Additional conservation efforts include the network of sites of special scientific interest, targeted conservation efforts for species such as the red squirrel and reintroduction programmes for species including the white-tailed eagle, the red kite and the beaver.
After Brexit, there will be no compulsion on the UK to set targets for energy saving or green energy, which are both essential for meeting Scotland’s ambitious climate targets. On top of that, we face losing the protection that European courts offer if the UK Government fail to meet their commitments to the environment.
In conclusion, preventing the potential mass extinction of species due to the impact of human activity is about nothing less than keeping the only planet we have habitable. No country can tackle these challenges in isolation; they demand transnational co-operation, binding commitments and mutual trust. Given the Government’s claim that Brexit will revive Britain’s role on the global stage, let us hope that they choose to take a long-term view and put our duty to protect the planet and the diversity of life upon it at the heart of all they do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. This has been a fantastic and detailed debate. I start by thanking the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) not only for bringing her interest and expertise to the debate but for championing the relationship between natural capital and development, and its importance to the sustainability of this planet.
I first want to make an interjection about the species that I champion in York, the Tansy beetle. This year, its number grew substantially, despite York’s being under floodwater for several months. We have so much to learn about the behaviour of these species and what happens there. I am trying to grow the Tansy plant at home to help that species be even more productive in the future.
Last year was a very important year for us all. Not only were we signatories to the UN sustainable development goals, but we had the agreement in Paris on climate change. Both are very important indeed for challenging the real issues facing our planet at this time. Often in this place, we involve ourselves in debating the minutiae of operational processes, as opposed to taking a step back and looking at the big issues of our time and the global crises we are facing in this era. Therefore, it is a shame that there are not more parliamentarians here. I trust that this is the beginning of a process, not the end.
There are 169 targets that came from the 17 sustainable development goals, addressing issues such as climate action, life above the water—on land—and life below the water. What we have learned from these processes is that we alone in isolation will not make a difference. It is in the strong global partnerships we form that ambition can be realised.
The most important reason for staying in the EU is that it gives us an influential voice. Now that we have a determination to take another path, it is important for the Government to make sure we have that voice in the future. I call on the Minister today to say how we will have a voice on that global stage to ensure sustainability in the longer term. That was the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) was making with regard to fishing policy. Fish do not stay static in waters; they move. Therefore, it is so important that we have a seat at the table and a voice in that debate.
As we look at the global challenges that we face, we know that the environment is often at the heart of those issues—whether it is about population migration, for instance, or what is happening to our planet at this time. Our population has multiplied five times since the start of the last century. We know that we have got to address how we are consuming our planet at this time. We are using up 1.6 planets-worth of resources every year. That is not sustainable. We have to take a different direction if we are to be sustainable into the future.
I have to question the Minister again about the policies that are being pursued by her Department—for instance, over trade. Why, rather than focusing locally, are we trotting halfway around the world to build stronger trade relationships with emerging economies, as that increases our carbon footprint and therefore the damage that can be done to our planet? We need to ask challenging questions about what we are doing at the moment.
Biological diversity is a huge global asset. The interlinking of each element is so delicately balanced, as we have heard in today’s debate. The lack of prioritisation of the importance of this issue is seen as a serious threat to specific species and the whole ecosystem. That is why, 24 years ago, the convention on biological diversity moved things forward, acknowledging that we need to be putting things in order. That is why the Aichi targets, of which we have heard so much today, have set out the global framework for moving biodiversity forwards and are so important to ensure sustainability in future. Those 20 targets drill down to another 114 more specific actions—again, targets and actions coming out of global plans. We need to respond with our UK biodiversity action plan.
Around the globe, nations have put together their plans—high on ambition, but delivery makes the difference. It is so important for us to ensure that we can deliver and, obviously, we have heard about the serious risks that we will not now deliver on the plans by 2020. That is deeply concerning in a developed country, that we cannot put that in order. That is why the report that stimulated today’s debate, the “Living Planet Report”, by WWF and ZSL, and earlier this year the “State of Nature” report made startling reading. We do not have time to waste, we cannot delay and we cannot say that we missed our targets because we did not do the right actions, because the next generations will not forgive us for that. Therefore, it is so essential that we move forward.
We have been failing the targets. We want to know how we will complete the network of marine protection areas. How will we ensure that we have planted enough trees? What is happening to our air quality, with 50,000 people in our own country dying each year from poor air quality? And our soil has only around 32 harvests left to sustain the future. So we have real concerns moving forward.
The fact is that where we are, the analysis has been done, the reports have been made, the targets have been set and monitoring processes are being put in place, but the issue is political ambition and delivery. That is where my concern sits. If we are honest, this House saw the movement towards the Climate Change Act 2008, put forward by Labour, which was really momentum building, moved the whole issue forward and delivered a world-changing agreement on the back of it. That legislation was leading the world, but we have not seen the same on biodiversity and we are certainly not seeing the same importance being placed on that agenda by the Government.
That really concerns me, and my biggest call today is that this agenda is mainstreamed into every area of departmental and Government work. We may look at issues in their silos, when it is very easy to say, “That’s a DEFRA issue,” but as the right hon. Member for Meriden said, this one links in with development, industrial strategy and, as we have heard, energy strategy. It is so important that we mainstream this agenda into the future.
The reality, and another concern I have, is that we are a consumerist society, which is a focus of what I am looking at. How do we address consumption? We cannot keep consuming our planet, living our lives and saying, “These are our rights!” without serious consequences for generations to come. We therefore have to look at how we take that forward. That is why I was disappointed that the Minister did not embrace issues such as the circular economy when she appeared before the Select Committee. We have to move these issues forward—it is so important.
I have been heartened, I have to say, by the Welsh Labour Government addressing the issue of how we change behaviour and move things forward in their Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. This Act is about improving the social and economic environment, as well as cultural wellbeing in Wales. It is the first serious attempt to see driven changes in behaviour towards the wider environment. We have also heard today about Scotland and about putting these issues at the heart of economic strategy.
Loss of natural capital impacts on so many things—not just our air, land and sea, but our health and wellbeing, and our communities and livelihoods. With poor air quality and 5.5 million people dying prematurely, we also know that 663 million people do not have access to clean and safe water. In the UK, soil degradation is leading to 2.2 million tonnes of lost soil every year and, across the globe, only 15% of soil provides the quality needed to grow our crops. Therefore, we have to drive change forward.
In concluding, I want to say first, as many colleagues have already said, that the 25-year plan has been delayed and that, although we know a framework is on the way, what my hon. Friends have said is absolutely right: the integration with farming is absolutely essential. There is no point having two parallel plans. We need to move the plans into one, so that we get the balances right and so that we understand what the real issues are. That is a first step that the Government could take towards mainstreaming such issues as biodiversity.
Secondly, I want the Minister to give feedback on how she is mainstreaming this issue right across Government. If she has not been to date, how will she take that forward?
Thirdly, also called for across the House today, we can work together across the House on moving our biodiversity system forward. The reality is that the planet is so fragile, and the Government do not have a monopoly of wisdom on these issues, but if we work together we might just have the solutions needed to change behaviour. If change of behaviour starts at home, then every single parliamentarian has a responsibility back in their constituencies to lead things to a new place. We have even more responsibility in this place. Will the Minister therefore be prepared for a cross-party working group to look specifically at how we move the whole agenda around biodiversity forward to ensure that we do not miss our targets? If Government miss their targets, we are all affected, and the next generation is too. On those three requests, I would like an answer from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) for securing the debate. She has great experience in this field, as she eloquently illustrated. I also welcome back several hon. Members who were in this Chamber yesterday. Large elements of that debate covered biodiversity, and in particular we discussed actively managed heather moorlands, which I learned are rarer than rain forest.
Which I am sure is why the hon. Lady will welcome our strategy to tackle the matter.
As referred to extensively, last week WWF and the Zoological Society of London published the “Living Planet Report”, which included specific data and conclusions about the direction of travel and certain species being in decline. That is clear, but we need to be slightly cautious in extrapolating to a global scale from the detail of specific datasets in the report.
Biodiversity loss is a global problem that needs a global solution. Through schemes such as the Darwin initiative and the international climate fund, the UK supports projects that directly help developing countries to protect their biodiversity. Over the past 12 months, we have seen the agreement of a range of measures at international level, from the adoption of the Paris agreement on climate change last December, to which the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) referred, through to last week’s agreement to create the world’s largest marine protected area in the Ross sea in the Antarctic. As part of that landmark decision, countries also agreed to a proposal by the United Kingdom to protect areas after ice shelf collapse and retreat.
The global community has adopted targets to drive action on key areas of concern, most recently in 2010 under the convention on biological diversity, on which my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden was herself instrumental in reaching a final deal. Last year, those targets were reflected in the global goals for sustainable development. At the CBD meeting in December, we will hear that while there has been significant progress towards some of the 2010 targets, without further action many will not be achieved by 2020. The UK’s core aim for the meeting is to promote effective international action to halt the loss of biodiversity. We will work to agree strategic actions to mainstream biodiversity across other sectors, as well as to gain recognition for the important links between biodiversity, climate change and the global goals.
Our scientific expertise is globally recognised. UK scientists led the vital assessment of pollinators that will be presented to the CBD meeting and that provides the evidence to end up in international action. As we have heard, the December meeting will centre on the theme of mainstreaming, which is about taking on an integrated approach and putting conservation in the broader context of long-term prosperity and sustainability.
Our 25-year environment plan will help us to achieve mainstreaming in the United Kingdom—certainly in England and perhaps in other parts of the United Kingdom—and will put in place the foundations to ensure that everyone has the chance to become responsible stewards of the natural environment.
To answer Members’ specific direct questions, it is not possible for Ministers to attend all such meetings, which means that it is necessary to take strategic decisions about whether to attend. I confirm—I have already made this clear to the House in other ways—that a Minister will not be going to Mexico this December, but a considerable amount has already been achieved and our officials are clear about the levers that they can pull to achieve our strategic objectives.
No, I will not. There is an option for a PPS to accompany a Minister, but PPSs are not Ministers and therefore cannot represent the Government in that way.
I will give some examples of levers that can be pulled. DEFRA has invested £140 million of international climate finance and committed a further £200 million to forestry projects that protect the world’s most biodiverse rain forests. For example, in Brazil, which is home to 12% of the world’s forests, our investment is protecting biodiversity by helping farmers transition to low-carbon technologies. By working with other Departments, such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for International Development, we can deploy international climate funding as part of our climate change efforts, which help biodiversity.
I assure Members that the Government take global biodiversity loss seriously, as demonstrated by the strong UK presence at several significant international meetings this year that have addressed that subject. Between September and December, there will have been four major international meetings: the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meeting, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources congress, the Vietnam conference on the illegal wildlife trade, and the CBD meeting. DEFRA will continue to be a strong influence at those meetings.
I attended the CITES meeting and the Secretary of State will attend the IWT meeting later this month. At CITES, we adopted measures that will protect critically threatened species such as pangolins, opposed the resumption of commercial trade in ivory, adopted enhanced global rules on hunting trophies—the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) correctly pointed out that that is about much more than just the iconic big animals—and in particular made groundbreaking moves on rosewood. I learned at the conference that more than two thirds of what CITES protects is flora rather than fauna. While in South Africa, I visited Kruger park specifically to see UK Government-funded tracker training to help stop rhino poachers. [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.
To reiterate, while in South Africa, I visited the Kruger national park specifically to see UK Government-funded tracker training, which is intended to stop rhino poaching. It is extraordinary to think that success is measured by the fact that, instead of two to three rhinos being poached a day, it is down to one a day. I am pleased to say that the canine unit is particularly successful. It has a dog called Killer, who has managed to get more than 100 poachers—it does not kill them; it just stops them—and in the 24 hours I was there seven poachers were found. Well done, Killer and the trackers.
To talk about the UK, in January, we published our latest assessment of UK progress with national and international commitments on biodiversity. As at the global level, our indicators give a mixed picture, but I do not think it is quite as bleak as painted by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith). There are many areas in which we are doing well. We are world leaders on natural capital accounting. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), who is no longer in his place, referred to the fact that the Natural Capital Committee reports to the Chancellor; it does so through the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Economy and Industrial Strategy.
We lead the way in protecting our marine environment and have delivered on the commitment to create a blue belt of marine protection across the UK’s overseas territories, announcing new areas of protection around Pitcairn, St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. Seventeen per cent of UK waters and 21.8% of English waters are now designated as marine protected areas.
We have announced plans to ban the sale and manufacture of products containing microbeads, which can cause harm to the marine environment. Since the publication of the Government’s “Biodiversity 2020” strategy in 2011, an additional 15,000 hectares of our most important wildlife sites have been restored to a fully healthy state. More than 90% of our most important wildlife sites are in a healthy or improving condition, hitting our goal for 2020 already.
Our new countryside stewardship scheme is more targeted at our most important habitats and species and includes, for the first time, a wild pollinator and farm wildlife package as well as support for farmers, through the facilitation fund, to work together beyond their own farm gates. Some of our water companies are actively managing upstream habitats and so reducing their costs in purifying water, while conservation groups have found innovative ways of funding habitat management, such as providing cut reeds as biomass for bioenergy plants, as seen in the Waveney valley.
We have set in hand the creation of nearly 115,000 hectares of priority habitats such as meadows and traditional orchards, which is well over halfway towards the 200,000 hectare “Biodiversity 2020” target. We have achieved 63.45% of priority habitat in favourable or recovering condition. Woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th century and I am confident that our manifesto commitment to plant another 11 million trees over the course of the Parliament is on track.
There are now otters in every county in England, and we have improved the fortunes of the bittern, the curl bunting and the greater horseshoe bat. A comprehensive national strategy has been in place since 2008 to tackle the threats posed by invasive non-native species and we have championed the introduction of the EU invasive alien species regulation to bring other member states up to UK standards.
However, it is clear that there are definitely still areas in which we need to do more, which have already been highlighted—for example, we need to reverse the negative trends on farmland birds, butterflies and pollinators. One way we hope to achieve that is through our 25-year environment plan, which will build on our successes and, together with the food and farming plan, set the direction for policy. We are consulting on a framework in the next few months to help us to develop the 25-year environment plan. We will set out what my officials say is a game-changing approach—a new approach to managing the environment, building on already good pillars of success.
Extensive reference has been made to the overseas territories. The UK is custodian of precious and unique environmental assets, including in the overseas territories, many of which are small islands that are highly vulnerable to environmental challenges, in particular through human activities and the introduction of invasive species. I am pleased that leaders and representatives of the overseas territories are in London this week to meet the Government to discuss a range of issues, including climate change and the environment, and I look forward to my meetings tomorrow.
I will take away the point made by the hon. Member for Bristol East about dedicated officials and compensation not going directly to the overseas Administrations. We know that the Darwin Plus fund, which was established in 2012, brought funding for environmental projects into one place to support the implementation of agreements such as the convention on international trade in endangered species and the convention on biological diversity. So far, 70 projects have been funded across 14 overseas territories, including Anguilla and the Cayman Islands, totalling well over £400 million.
During the last minute of my contribution I will try to address some of the other specific points raised. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden referred to the critical gaps that need to be filled in marine conservation zones. We will be consulting on that next year. I clearly do not know the geography of her local area as well she does, but I know that the biodiversity off-setting strategy for HS2 is being carefully considered in the work between my Department and the Department for Transport.
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge spoke of fishing. I point out to her that the UK has led the way in marine conservation, for which I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). Let us be clear: we want to ensure that, in any future co-operation scheme, there is no sliding back by any party on the important marine conservation progress that has been made.
The hon. Member for Bristol East referred to the Avon gorge and the Bristol onion—I wonder whether that is as tasty as it looks. She also referred to swifts, urban habitat loss and the innovative planning requirements in Exeter. That is a good example of local action, and it shows how local nature partnerships can work really well. I am sure that her mentioning it in the House today will bring it to the attention of other local nature partnerships.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr), ably supported by the hon. Member for Falkirk, reminded us of Scotland’s contribution to helping the UK achieve its international commitments. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked a bit about trade around the world. The country has to earn its living, and there are huge opportunities for environmental services. Air quality is a personal priority of mine that I wish to take forward. On the circular economy, let me be clear: I support the principles, I just do not like the name. In fact, many companies are already leading the way on that, and I assure her that the UK is actively involved in the negotiations.
The decision to leave the EU means we now have a unique opportunity to design a set of policies specific to the needs of Britain, its species and habitats. We will continue to provide strong international leadership on biodiversity and to work with the EU. Our goal is to leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it for future generations. I thank all hon. Members who participated in the debate.
I am delighted that you have been able to join us for the latter stages of the debate, Mr Bailey. I am sure you will have picked up in that short time how important this issue is for the future of our countries and for future generations. I thought it was put incredibly neatly by the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), who said of our generation, “Let us not create a global extinction event as our legacy.” I cannot underline that more. The debate has been an important contribution to making sure that, as far as possible, we leave a really good legacy for the next generation. I thank all hon. Members who took part.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered global biodiversity.
Coeliac Disease and Prescriptions
I beg to move,
That this House has considered coeliac disease and prescriptions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am grateful for the opportunity to hold a debate that raises awareness of the problems facing those who suffer from coeliac disease and of access to gluten-free food prescriptions. It would be remiss of me not to thank the work of Coeliac UK, the national charity that represents people with coeliac disease, for not only supporting the campaign around the prescription of gluten-free food, but for its work to support sufferers.
Coeliac disease affects one in every 100 people in the UK. I declare an unwelcome interest: I actually suffer from coeliac disease, although I do not get prescriptions for gluten-free food. It is also worth noting that there are some half a million people in the UK who are completely undiagnosed, according to Coeliac UK.
Coeliac disease is a serious medical condition in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissue when gluten is eaten. The only medical treatment currently available for sufferers is a strict adherence to a gluten-free diet for the rest of their lives. In the late 1960s, gluten-free food was first prescribed to prevent long-term health complications. However, that rationale has now been challenged by some clinical commissioning groups, despite the fact that their position lacks supporting evidence for withdrawing such prescriptions.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing such an important debate on an issue that affects so many people. Does he agree that it is absolutely wrong that David Lissaman, a pensioner in my constituency, who thus far has been able to get gluten-free food on prescription, now faces the prospect of losing that as a consequence of the clinical commissioning group’s review? He is a good man who served his country well. In his own words, he will “have to find ways” of significantly reducing the amount of food that he eats, which, because of his other health problems, could put him at risk.
I agree, and I shall refer to certain demographics—pensioners being one—that are particularly affected by these proposals.
Some 40% of CCGs in England are now choosing to restrict or remove support for patients with coeliac disease, which is leading to increasing health inequalities and, basically, a postcode lottery for NHS care, depending on where someone is diagnosed. The CCG’s rationale for going down that route seems to be justified on cost grounds alone. Indeed, Coeliac UK has made a number of freedom of information requests to try to get more details on why CCGs are changing their policies.
I will take a moment to read an example of a response to Coeliac UK’s FOI request, which came from North East Essex CCG, where sweeping assumptions have been made that are completely devoid of any systematic research. That CCG stated:
“We appreciate that there is a large cost-differential between supermarket value brands and GF [gluten-free], but many people within the CCG buy their bread from bakers or do not buy the supermarket value brands and the cost differential is therefore much reduced.”
That type of anecdotal evidence, used by CCGs to justify their decisions about patient care, is in direct conflict with a paper produced in September last year entitled “Cost and availability of gluten-free food in the UK: in store and online”. It said:
“There is good availability of gluten-free food in regular and quality supermarkets as well as online, but it remains significantly more expensive. Budget supermarkets which tend to be frequented by patients from lower socioeconomic classes stocked no GF foods. This poor availability and added cost is likely to impact on adherence in deprived groups.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The issue does not apply only to elderly people. I have had a number of young people write to me about this, who are very concerned that they may not be able to get gluten-free foods on prescription any more. Has he looked at the possible costs for people who are at the lower end of the earnings scale?
To reinforce the point, my constituent Sheryl Rees has drawn my attention to the fact that her son was diagnosed with coeliac disease when he was two. He is now 11. She pointed out the cost of gluten-free items. For example, a small loaf is £3. A pizza is £4. Pasta is £2 a pack. Basically, she is paying double. She has a family of six. This is really impacting on her family’s budget.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, especially in terms of families with children. There is also a question of availability in some rural areas. Larger supermarkets stock some of these products at the prices he mentioned and higher, but in other areas the products are not available.
I will make a bit more progress.
We have a situation where, in places such as east Essex, the needs of patients are being discounted despite a complete lack of any type of research. I am concerned that more CCGs across the country will begin to use inadequate justifications as a precedent and follow a similar path. That leads me back to my earlier point about the big problem of under-diagnosis. I am afraid we will see a bigger problem if gluten-free prescriptions are not made available to those on low incomes.
On the specific point of failure to diagnose, until 20 years ago I had never heard of coeliac disease, and then I went out with a young lady who, as a teenager, had repeatedly gone to her GP knowing something was wrong. Coeliac disease was never diagnosed until she suffered something analogous to a stroke, which left her permanently all but unable to read. Although she has bravely developed coping strategies over the years, there is no doubt that her life and career have suffered, and she should never have been put in that situation.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a serious point about the life-changing effects that coeliac disease can have. I was only diagnosed by accident, in my 30s; my mother was not diagnosed until she was over 70. Early diagnosis is important, but it is not uncommon for people to live a long time without one being made.
The Health and Social Care Act 2012 included a duty on CCGs to have regard for National Institute for Health and Care Excellence quality standards, but NICE guidance on prescribing gluten-free food for the management of coeliac disease has only recently been published. It says:
“Gluten-free products are more expensive and are usually only available from larger retailers, making access more difficult for people on low incomes or with limited mobility. As coeliac disease can affect more than one member of a family it can also be an additional burden on the family budget”—
as the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) said.
“To address this, healthcare professionals should help people who may need support to find suitable gluten-free food products on prescription to enable them to maintain a gluten-free diet.”
I declare an interest, having been diagnosed in my late 20s. My cousin and all my second cousins are exactly the same. In fact, at university I was diagnosed with ME because I was so unwell and unable to work at various points.
This debate is an opportunity also to talk about the low incomes and limited mobility that can affect people’s access to these basic items. We must also make a plea through Coeliac UK to supermarkets to ensure that what they provide, which is very expensive, is of better nutritional quality, with lower levels of salt and fat. Although these foods are gluten-free, they might be full of some awful stuff as well.
The hon. Lady raises an interesting point, but I assure her that the products available today are completely different from when I was first diagnosed. The bread then was like cardboard, and today it is very much different.
There is a general duty for GPs to prescribe treatments for health conditions via the FP10 prescribing system where treatment is available, and in the case of coeliac disease that is a gluten-free diet. There is also a duty in legislation for CCGs to reduce inequalities with respect to patient access to services and outcomes, but because of the lack of explicit recommendations on prescribing from NICE, CCGs are being given a fairly free hand to make decisions that run contrary to reducing health inequalities.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Prescription of gluten-free food as medication clearly needs to be regulated by the NHS across the United Kingdom. One of my constituents said to me this week:
“The disease is antisocial and can lead to isolation.”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the supply of food on prescription can have social benefits, as well as mental, physical and emotional benefits?
It can. There is some anecdotal evidence about the connection between coeliac disease and mental health. The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point.
This situation is creating considerable uncertainty for those who rely on access to gluten-free staples on prescription, and it is the vulnerable who are most adversely affected. Individuals with the disease are not eating gluten-free food out of choice or because it is some type of fad or Hollywood diet. They do so because they have to. It is people on fixed incomes or on benefits who receive free prescriptions and those whose households rely on deliveries from community pharmacies who will suffer most if prescriptions are withdrawn.
A number of people have written to me ahead of this debate, and I would like to draw Members’ attention to their cases. Patricia said:
“The diet I and many others follow is not a fad. It is necessary as it will affect my health and wellbeing if not followed, and might actually result in my admission to hospital—an extra strain on the NHS.”
That is the main point. What some CCGs are doing is a false economy, because one hospital admission will cost more than the annual cost of prescriptions for an individual who adheres to a gluten-free diet.
Another person living with coeliac disease, Janice, who is a constituent of mine, wrote to me saying:
“I strongly believe that these plans will cause more expense to the government when coeliac patients can’t afford shop priced gluten-free foods and don’t stick to their diet and end up with cancer of the bowels”,
as well as other conditions. She went on:
“I am a pensioner and find it increasingly hard to afford luxuries like biscuits and cakes. If I have to add gluten free bread, pasta and cereals to my shopping list this will cause more stress. I cannot have any form of gluten, even in small doses, as I am violently ill.”
As well as a failure to consider the evidence before making decisions to withdraw gluten-free prescriptions, there is also evidence of a lack of public consultation by CCGs. Coeliac UK has been doing a good job of holding CCGs to account. One example it provided is of Trevor, who told Coeliac UK that he has never received confirmation in writing that the policy had changed; he was informed only when Coeliac UK told him. He was diagnosed 10 years ago and has only ever had bread on prescription. He is unable to work and has ongoing medical problems. His nearest shop is a Co-op, which does not stock gluten-free products, and the nearest shop that does is some six miles away. That creates problems for people such as him.
The CCGs that have already removed access to prescriptions for gluten-free products have not outlined or implemented policies that offer alternatives to safeguard patients, such as access to specialist dietary or nutritional advice. When a coeliac patient is taken out of a CCG’s responsibility because their gluten-free food prescription has been withdrawn, that CCG can no longer monitor them or determine the changed policy’s impact on that patient’s health. This is an important factor, and I am concerned that it has not been taken into account by a number of CCGs.
In areas where gluten-free products are not prescribed, there is now no opportunity to encourage dietary adherence nor a prevention strategy for long-term management of people with coeliac disease. Effectively, patients who suffer the condition in these areas will be offered no support by the NHS. Although CCGs are engaged with local authorities and wellbeing boards to explore alternatives, none has yet been put in place.
The NHS has a good track record of involving the public in consultation, but the lack of consultation on the decision to withdraw prescriptions for gluten-free products is a disgrace, added to the fact that charities such as Coeliac UK are not consulted before such decisions are made.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The point he is making is direct and correct. The nine-year-old daughter of my constituent, Helen Frost, has coeliac disease and Helen is worried that prescriptions for gluten-free products may be taken away. The uncertainty is adding stress to a situation that is already difficult to manage.
That is not even taken into consideration, as my hon. Friend says.
My concern is that cutting prescriptions for gluten-free products is a simple and easy target for CCGs under financial pressure. The entire prescription cost to the NHS in 2014 was £26.8 million or 0.27% of the total prescription budget—£194 per patient. The procurement system that the NHS has in place is not working. The market for gluten-free products in the UK in 2014 was some £211 million, but the annual NHS budget was around £27 million or 13% of that total market. I do not know why the NHS cannot negotiate contracts with some commercial companies. Failure in procurement will clearly have an impact.
I turn to the issue of pharmacists. Back when we had primary care trusts, some pharmacy-led supply pilot schemes were set up in a handful of regions in England. When a patient was diagnosed with coeliac disease, the pharmacy-led scheme allowed patients to access gluten-free food and to manage their coeliac disease. However, with the establishment of CCGs, that seems to have gone out of the window—except in Scotland, which has a national gluten-free food service: a pharmacy-led scheme based on pilots in the UK.
Will the Minister seriously consider introducing such a scheme in England? It would save time and money and be a better way of managing people with coeliac disease. It is worth noting that the annual cost of gluten-free food is lower than the annual cost of items that the NHS provides that cost less over the counter—for example, paracetamol and so on. I beg the Minister to consider that, if properly done, what I suggest would save money.
I know the Minister has been in post for only a few months and I am sure he receives many demands for things to be provided by the NHS, but I am also sure his officials have briefed him on the principles of the NHS: that it is a comprehensive service available to all with access to NHS services based on clinical need, not individual ability to pay, and that it aspires to put patients at the heart of everything it does. This issue is about limiting choice because of cost.
In conclusion, the issue needs urgent intervention. It is not fair to individuals and there is a postcode lottery. A pharmacy-led system could be delivered better and more effectively. At the of the day, the people affected have no choice but to have a gluten-free diet. We should not ration care for some of the most vulnerable in our society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on leading the charge on this subject. There is clearly consensus in the Chamber on the direction the Government should take. I will make a few points about where we are and what I think we need to do, and leave time for him to sum up.
Thank you, Mr Bailey.
As the hon. Gentleman said, one in 100 people in the UK suffer from coeliac disease. Interestingly, I was not aware of it until a year ago, when I was tested for the disease—fortunately I was negative. It is a significant disease that benefits from early diagnosis, and the points made about diagnosis were valid. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition: gluten damages the small bowel and the immune system feeds on it, resulting in a range of symptoms including diarrhoea, iron deficiency, tiredness and weight loss. It can exacerbate, if not cause, osteoporosis and mental health issues.
As we have heard, the only treatment is a gluten-free diet, which has two components. Meat, fish, fruit and vegetables do not contain gluten and generally do not need to be prescribed, but staple foods such as bread, pasta and flour and non-staple food such as biscuits do contain gluten. Since the 1960s, when the medical community was becoming more aware of the disease, those staple and non-staple foods have been prescribed pretty much, it is fair to say, without limit until recently. We spend something like £28 million a year on these prescriptions and in the great scheme of NHS costs that is not huge when considering the cost of cancer drugs and so on. It is true that we are now seeing a postcode lottery emerge, and I will say a little about why.
The other thing that has happened since the 1960s—I think the hon. Gentleman will concede this—is that the supermarkets and the retail trade have begun to get their act together in selling these products, although of course they are not available to everyone. Many supermarkets now have areas with gluten-free products, including bread and pasta. The products are more expensive than the equivalent non-gluten-free products, but they are certainly more available than in the past and a real alternative. Added to that, the fish and meat part of the diet, which is the same for sufferers and non-sufferers, is available to both.
The Minister is making valid point about supermarkets. Will he suggest to CCGs such as Torbay in south Devon that there is a halfway house and that instead of scrapping the prescription of gluten-free products they could provide vouchers that could be taken to a local supermarket?
Is the Minister aware that the annual cost per diagnosed patient of prescribing gluten-free food is £180 per year? Weigh that up against the cost of avoiding infertility, bowel cancer and osteoporosis. What is the obvious conclusion for any NHS professional?
I made the point earlier that one in 100 people suffer from coeliac disease, and that £28 million is not a huge amount of money in the context of the entire NHS. I am sure the hon. Lady’s arithmetic stands up to that, and those are fair points.
If I may, I will set out the postcode lottery that has emerged. So far, 11 out of around 200 CCGs have ended all gluten-free prescriptions; 27 offer only bread and flour; 20 offer only bread, flour and pizza; 92, which is still by far the majority, broadly follow the Coeliac UK guidelines and offer a full range based a little on age, gender and other restrictions; and only four CCGs now have no restrictions whatsoever. The arguments about this are clear. Many poorer people, in particular—low-income people—are affected by the need to source their gluten-free products in different areas. CCGs are under pressure—the whole of the NHS is under pressure—and choices have to be made. It is true that £28 million is not a huge amount of money, but with £28 million here and £28 million there, we are soon talking about real money. It is true that choices have to be made, but it is not clear to me that this is an area in which the right choice is always being made.
In the couple of minutes available, I want to set out the actions that I think we should take. First, the hon. Member for North Durham correctly said that the community pharmacy sector has a role in this and is not so far being utilised as much as it could be. I think that he was wrong to say that it has stopped doing this in the transition from PCTs to CCGs. Something like 200 community pharmacies—15% of the total—do stock and sell gluten-free products. We are doing a review into the community pharmacy sector, trying to get it more focused on services. This is a very clear example of the sort of thing that we should be paying it to do, and when the Murray review is complete, I will—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will hold me to account on this—endeavour to make sure that that happens.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned consultations. CCGs should not withdraw gluten-free products without a consultation. My understanding is that in all cases where that has happened, a consultation has taken place. If he can provide me with evidence of that not being so, I will follow up and take action. The information I have been given is that consultations should always have taken place.
Finally, there is the issue of the postcode lottery. It is true that we give CCGs a lot of power in our system, in terms of making clinical decisions. The idea behind that is that they look at local considerations and balance the various options that they have. However, I will see to it that a review is done, hopefully within the next six months, of prescribing policies, and we will endeavour to come together with something that is more consistent, in a way that means we can actually make progress on this. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, and I thank everybody that has made an intervention in this debate. It has been a good debate, and a useful one for us to have had.
Question put and agreed to.
National College for Wind Energy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the National College for Wind Energy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I wish that this debate was not necessary, but with the autumn statement in just three weeks’ time, once again the Government look set to omit a deal for the proposed national college for wind energy, meaning that the project will stay stalled. The college was first announced in December 2014 by the then Business Secretary, the former Member for Twickenham. Three other colleges were aimed at addressing existing or forecast skills shortages in particular industries, and the policy included £80 million of Government funding to be matched by employers. However, difficulties at the due diligence stage of developing the bid with the private sector meant that the funding application could not be submitted in time, and the project was not included in last year’s autumn statement.
The original proposal was for a hub-and-spoke model. The college located in the Humber area would deliver training, allow partners to use the site for expertise that was not available elsewhere, and act as a co-ordination point for other skills providers located elsewhere in the country in order to maximise access. Following the failure to develop a funded plan for that before the deadline, alternative proposals were suggested, including one whereby there would be no physical college, but merely a national college badge for training providers as a guarantee of quality. I am glad that that idea no longer seems to be under consideration.
I will come to the various barriers that are preventing the deal, but it is important to note that this proposal was a pre-election promise by the coalition Government to invest tens of millions of pounds into the Humber region and to boost our local offshore wind industry. As it stands, that is a broken promise, which can be added to a pile of pre-election northern powerhouse funding commitments that quickly unravelled after last May.
Clearly the Government need to take the wheel if the college is ever going to be delivered, but I am now really concerned that the new Government are neglecting this proposal. When I and colleagues representing constituencies in the Humber, who I am delighted have joined me here today, met the previous Ministers for Business and Energy—the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) and the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom)—back in March 2016, they assured us that they remained committed to delivering the college, but now it simply does not seem to be on the Government’s radar. Following the appointment of the current Cabinet in July, I wrote to the Secretary of State for the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, calling on him to work with the Education Secretary to ensure that a suitable proposal for the college was ready in time for this year’s autumn statement. I am still waiting for a reply.
The Prime Minister sent an awful signal to the energy industry when in one of her very first acts she scrapped the Department for Energy and Climate Change. She now has to show the industry that she is serious about giving it the attention that such an important sector of our economy requires. The day after my application for this debate was granted, my office received a call from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It wanted to know whether it or the Department for Education needed to send a Minister to respond today. That suggests that there has been absolutely no communication between the two Departments on this subject for four months, and that is incredibly disappointing. I say to the Minister here today that when he goes back to his office, he should pick up the phone to his colleagues in the BEIS and get to work on delivering what was promised.
When the college was first announced less than two years ago, the then Business Secretary said:
“The UK can no longer afford to lag behind countries like France and Germany, which have invested heavily in technical skills at the highest level for generations. The National Colleges will function on a par with our most prestigious universities, delivering training that matches the best in the world. They will help build a strong, balanced economy that delivers opportunity across all regions in the UK.”
That all remains true today: skills provision in this country does not match its ambitions and there is still a need to support industries such as offshore wind that provide good jobs outside London and the south-east. As a relatively young and fast-growing industry that demands high levels of skills, it is no surprise that offshore wind sites have sometimes struggled to find workers already equipped with the necessary capabilities for the jobs. Mike Parker, who was chair of the Humber local enterprise partnership’s employment and skills board, said that the national college would be
“a major step forward in helping the UK bridge that gap.”
RenewableUK, the trade body for renewable energy, has highlighted some of the challenges specific to offshore work in training employees. Personnel need to receive training in real working environments, and it has to be done safely; such conditions are difficult to replicate. That accounts for the need for advanced skills training in the construction and operation of turbines offshore. It takes four years of training to become a wind turbine technician.
A RenewableUK study from two years ago found that more than a third of wind and marine energy firms were having difficulty filling certain positions. The TUC argued in its “Powering ahead” report that the skills gap in renewables requires training to be given equal weight to what are currently described as the three pillars of energy policy: security, affordability and sustainability.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The Humber local enterprise partnership has prioritised skills and training and it has done a good job. Does she agree that a Government commitment to deliver and complete their promise on wind energy, by agreeing to get the college moving forward, would be a real, much-needed vote of confidence in the Humber LEP and the Humber region?
I could not agree more. The significant skills gap across many industries has been noted and recognised in the local area. The Humber region is particularly eager to capitalise on the growth in the offshore industry, whether we are talking about Siemens, DONG Energy, E.ON, Centrica—I could go on. The number of international companies that are choosing to base themselves in the Humber area is increasing by the week and we must have the local workforce skilled to meet the requirements of industry.
The report argues that not only are apprenticeships and further education courses needed to provide opportunities for young people to access the renewable energy industry, but we need institutions such as the national college in order to give workers in the oil and gas industries the skills to transfer over, as high-polluting industries are gradually replaced by those in the green economy. I do not think that the issues that made the college necessary two years ago have altered that much in the past two years. I would argue that the only major changes we have seen since 2014 make it more important that the college is developed.
As foreign companies are looking at whether to invest further in the UK, the uncertainty over future immigration policy makes it vital for the UK to be able to offer workers with the necessary skills and training to do the job. Following through on the national college for wind energy would be a commitment to the future of the industry, assuring energy companies that Britain is committed to the offshore wind sector for the long term and therefore providing the certainty they need to continue investing in our economy.
Developing the college is also of regional and local importance. The Humber region was due to be the location for the college under the original plans for a really good reason: thousands of people across the energy estuary are employed to work on the wind farms and in the supply chain, with the Hornsea, Race Bank and Triton Knoll sites all set to employ hundreds more in the near future.
Organisations within the region have welcomed the new industry with enthusiasm. The Humber LEP, for example, set an ambition in 2014 to make the region
“the national centre of excellence for energy skills.”
We have already seen investment in training and opportunities for young people. Indeed, an apprentice from a local firm was at an event in the House of Commons today, so apprentices I have met in Grimsby are making the journey to champion their organisations here in Parliament. They have the opportunity to take advantage of the fantastic new £10-million training facility that AIS Training built last year. That investment shows the confidence that local business has in offshore wind.
An apprentice I have had the pleasure of meeting is Michael. I have told his story a number of times but I am going to do so again, because it made a significant difference not only to me and the way I view the offshore wind industry, but to hundreds of people in a room at a skills fair that I held earlier in the year. Michael was 19 at the time, and his ambition was to be a skipper on one of the North sea service boats that go out and maintain the turbines. I invited him along to the skills fair; he thought he would be telling a small group of young people in a classroom a little bit about his job, so having never spoken to an audience before, he was rather surprised to be in front of an auditorium of about 200 people, who were all very keen to hear about how he found his way into an apprenticeship in the wind industry.
The significant thing about Michael, in his own words, was this:
“Seven months ago I was on jobseeker’s allowance, and had no plans and nothing to bring to the table. North Sea Services didn’t judge me for all my tattoos and took me on. Seeing the wind turbines close up is mind-blowing. The work that goes into them is unbelievable. I’m trying to show them that I’m worth keeping on.”
Happily, North Sea Services did keep him on, and Michael was part of the vessel crew that took my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and I out to visit the Humber Gateway turbines in June. His story shows why it is so important that this industry continues to grow and that the college is developed: so more young people in towns such as Great Grimsby have a chance to make something of their lives, and to have a job they can be proud of.
Great Grimsby was one of three sites in the Humber region that were originally touted to host the college. I want to say why it would be so important for the development of my town, and I hope that my neighbouring colleagues will excuse me for championing my town as the host town for the college. For more than a century, Great Grimsby was a one-industry town. Fishing not only employed thousands of local people but gave them their identity, their community and their pride, and we are still feeling the effects of its decline. My constituency has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and because of the lack of opportunity one in three of our children grows up in poverty.
I have said it before, but it is true: offshore wind has brought a renewal of hope to Grimsby. It is playing an important role in redefining what my town offers not just to our own people, but to the rest of the country. We are already the renewable energy capital of England and being home to the national college for wind energy would be vital for the same reason. It would also give more local people the opportunity for a proper career, with high-skilled work—something that until recently young people felt they would have to go to the big cities to find.
The Prime Minister said last month that the Government’s industrial strategy was
“about identifying the industries that are of strategic value to our economy and supporting and promoting them through policies on”,
among other things, “training” and “skills”. She also spoke about the importance of economic revival in parts of our country that have lagged behind London and the south-east for too long. If this Government are to live up to the Prime Minister’s conference speech, they need to show leadership and get this project moving again. If industry is now reluctant to commit funds to the project, citing greater risk, lower growth, and a lack of clarity on skills policy, the Government should assuage those concerns by committing to support the industry.
We have seen in the past week that the Government are willing to support specific industries and even individual companies, as with Nissan. It is good news that Nissan’s future in Sunderland is secured, but it is just as important that the Government meet their commitments to the wind energy industry. The Government should also remind the energy companies that they have a stake in this. They have received large subsidies from taxpayers and have a responsibility to ensure that their business benefits the towns and cities in which they operate, and it is in their interest to build a workforce for the future. I hope that the Minister gives us, at the very least, an assurance that the Government have not given up on this project and will set out how he plans to move forward with it.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn)—my Member of Parliament—on securing the debate and on outlining the importance of such a college to the Humber region and, even more important, to the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area, which is very much dependent on the development of the offshore renewables sector for the local economy to succeed and develop. In order to do that, as she pointed out, the correct training facilities are essential. We want to get local people, particularly younger people, trained up so that they can take advantage of the new industries.
At the moment, too many highly-skilled workers are being imported from Denmark, Germany and the like. We must get to a situation in which our younger people develop skills so that they can move into those jobs in the near future. As has been pointed out, the companies have a duty. I think that the hon. Lady was a bit too critical of the Government. I have never been shy of criticising the Government when necessary, as my Whip would happily confirm, but on this occasion we have seen a commitment, certainly from the coalition Government when the original announcement was made, and subsequently.
The hon. Gentleman said that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) was critical of the Government. Does he not agree that it is a bit damaging, to say the least, that the Prime Minister—within a few minutes, apparently, of taking office—scrapped the Department that everybody, including all those investors, were looking to in order to make things happen?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I do not agree. There is an obvious synergy between the various Departments that were merged into the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—BEIS, as I think we are supposed to call it. What matters is that there are spokesmen such as my right hon. Friend the Minister who are determined to develop skills and the energy aspects of the Department, so I will sweep aside the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby knows, there are facilities in our region. She, like me, will have visited the Grimsby Institute. I know that she has visited HCF CATCH, the training facility at Stallingborough in my constituency. We also have the newly established Humber University Technical College in Scunthorpe. There has been a clear and positive contribution from the Government and some parts of the private sector.
The hon. Lady is right that we urgently need to develop the college in the Humber region, preferably on the south bank and, even more preferably, in the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area. I am even prepared to support her bid to have the college in Grimsby, because it is in danger, in some respects, of being one of the left-behind towns to which the Prime Minister has referred. Grimsby is in urgent need of regeneration, which, in part, has to come from the public sector. The private sector will get on board, but the Government need to show willing. The hon. Lady and I have been supporting each other in trying to develop and bring forward a number of other projects in north-east Lincolnshire, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.
I think, to be very local, that the east marsh area and perhaps the Freeman Street area, with such proximity to the docks, would be ideal locations if there were a new build. From my conversations with the LEP, I know that there are discussions about whether the college should be a new build or whether we concentrate too much on new builds. However, locating the college on such sites would be particularly helpful with regeneration.
I am very happy to support the hon. Lady. As I mentioned a moment ago, the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area, particularly the rundown areas of Grimsby, are definitely in need of regeneration, which has to come from a public sector-led development.
In conclusion, I urge the Minister to give a positive lead. From previous discussions with him, I know how committed he is to training, apprenticeships and giving every support to our young people. It would be a real bit of encouragement to those in our area if he could give a positive lead and answer the questions raised by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and me.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing the debate and on putting forward a compelling case for why the proposals for the college should go ahead. I am not going to get involved in the discussion about whether it should be in Great Grimsby or Cleethorpes, largely because I do not know what I am talking about when it comes to that—not that that has ever stopped me in the past.
Education is devolved in Scotland, so that side of the debate has no implications for Scotland. However, the industrial side of things, including the ability to provide the marketplace with enough skilled folk, very much resonates with Scotland. Energy policy, which is a reserved matter, also has an impact on the general attractiveness of the whole United Kingdom as a destination for investment in renewable energy. In the past few weeks, we have slipped further down the Ernst and Young rankings for countries with renewable energy attractiveness—from 13th to 14th—after not being out of the top 10 for a decade or so. That is regrettable.
I will not talk about the educational merits. National colleges are not a model that we have used in Scotland; our investment is through existing educational providers. However, I will talk about the message sent to the investment community, young people and the whole industry by announcing something like the college and then not funding it once it has gone ahead. This is another of the substantial number of announcements that the Government have made in the realms of renewable energy that have been unhelpful and that have probably added to the UK’s diminished investment attractiveness.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned that it was unfortunate—I do not think that that was her exact word, as it is probably worse than that—that the Department for Energy and Climate Change has been abolished. I share that frustration. The justification for abolishing the Department was to put industrial strategy back into the political lexicon. Well, taking climate change out of the political lexicon was particularly short-sighted. The biggest challenge facing us as a species perhaps deserves a bit of recognition by the Government.
I understand the argument made by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) about the synergies that can be created by bringing the two Government Departments together. Unfortunately, it does not sound as though those synergies are working well, if the hon. Member for Great Grimsby cannot get a response to a letter for several months. I have also found that letters are going unanswered, and colleagues in the Scottish Government are having incredible difficulty getting proper information out of the new Department. We all understand that putting new Departments together takes time and will cause confusion for a while. We also understand that Brexit is eating up an awful lot of the Government’s time—for their thought process and to think about what can be done—but there is a day job that needs to be done properly, particularly when it comes to the investment and skills for vital industries that have a four-year lead-in time, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned.
The joined-up approach that is supposed to come from BEIS needs to come quickly, and the college is a particular example of where that could happen. The proposal is on the table. Put the money into it. Provide that incentive for others—a vote of confidence in an industry that will require significant investment in skills. We have huge question marks on the electricity supply in this country, which will get harder as a result of Brexit.
I am interested by the TUC’s argument, which the hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned, on adding the skills shortage as a fourth pillar of the trilemma. I have not previously heard that argument, but I think it is key. We have teased out that there are skills shortages in this area. Can the Minister provide us with more up-to-date figures on the skills shortage in the renewable energy industry, particularly in offshore wind? The problem is not going to get any easier with the expected restrictions to free movement of labour as a result of the Brexit process. As well as failing to attract folks from Germany or Denmark, whom the hon. Member for Cleethorpes mentioned, we are already losing skilled personnel from the industry. Skilled people are losing their jobs in the onshore wind sector—there are clearly significant synergies between onshore wind and offshore wind—because of the Government’s lack of investment.
The hon. Members for Great Grimsby and for Cleethorpes both touched on this but if I have one plea on the development of an industrial strategy, it is that Government expenditure, particularly in areas of deprivation—the Humber is not an area I know well, but I understand that there are issues of historical unemployment—boost the economy and provide long-term economic and societal benefits. Money spent by this Government need not just be seen as money going out the door; it needs to be seen as an investment in the future and in communities that need help from their Government for whatever reason. There will be a return on that investment. There will be a benefit if we invest, as a country, in areas such as Great Grimsby and in technologies and industries such as offshore and onshore wind. If we do not do those things, either the jobs will go unfilled or we will have to bring people in from Germany, Denmark or wherever. Electricity will still be needed if we do not build onshore or offshore wind, but we will get it from Norway, France or Holland.
Let us think about a joined-up approach, as BEIS is meant to do. If we invest in skills and provide certainty that we will build x amount of offshore wind and y amount of onshore wind, the money, the jobs and the energy security will follow. It is a pretty simple proposition, but it is one that the Government must get right.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I warmly congratulate and applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing this debate. As she said, she has a long track record on this issue. It is extremely disappointing that, almost two years after the proposed national college for wind energy was first announced, the Government still have not finalised the funding or the strategy and still have not given an open date for developing a college that would help to address the skills shortages in the industry and the wider region.
I obviously listened with great care to my hon. Friend’s speech, but I also listened to the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and what he said about the importance of seeing the whole area as a forcing point for these technologies. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig) spoke a great deal of sense about the need for a holistic approach.
In a way, the little episode that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby described, about the Department that never was, indicates the issue. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South and I were both relocated, if I can put it like that, in the summer period, and I am no stranger to changes to the machinery of government. I remember the issues that were discussed in 2007 when the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, as it was called, was split from the Department for Education.
When we have such changes, such necessary disruption, it only becomes more important that things that have been sitting in the filing tray, virtual or actual, should be looked at with greater urgency by the incoming Department. That is not too much to ask when we know that offshore wind presents a great opportunity for expanding our low-carbon generation profile and can play an important role in helping us to decarbonise the power sector and meet our climate change targets.
In August 2016, a strategic review of east coast port facilities identified the offshore wind sector’s enormous potential to accelerate economic growth on the east coast of Britain. It found that east coast ports have the capability to support the ambitious pipeline of offshore wind projects that will be built out on the North sea in the decades ahead. The construction of such major infrastructure projects will stimulate economic activity in some of the most economically deprived areas of the UK.
As we have seen in other industries, such as the nuclear industry or the aerospace industry—I am particularly familiar with the aerospace industry, having BAE Systems only a few miles down the road from me in Blackpool—supply chain companies would serve projects in British waters and export goods across the world. We all know that jobs created directly in an industry are often exceeded two or threefold by the jobs created in the supply chain. The secret ingredient in that process, of course, is skilling and training, particularly high skilling and training. That is one of the reasons why the college that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby is so strongly advocating would be essential.
My hon. Friend has said that the Humber area is an ideal location for the college. Grimsby is the renewable energy capital of England, not least because of the involvement and investment of Siemens in the region since 2014. Siemens has announced its decision to invest £160 million in wind turbine production and installation facilities across two locations, and its port partner, Associated British Ports—ABP—is investing a further £150 million in the Green Port Hull development.
In my first spell as shadow Minister for further education and skills, I was privileged to visit Hull to meet the local enterprise partnership and other stakeholders about their hopes and expectations for this project. We spoke about how crucial it is for the area’s wellbeing and the local enterprise partnership’s strategy. When I moved across to become shadow maritime Minister, I was lobbied on the issue by the excellent port group, ABP, because it was keen to see progress. Now that I have returned to shadowing the Department with responsibility for further education and skills, I find that the same issue has cropped up again in my new portfolio, which shows how important and widespread the project is. We need to cut across the silos of Government to get the results that my hon. Friend wants.
The then chair of the Humber LEP employment and skills board, Mike Parker, welcomed the project in 2014:
“Our economy is growing; building on their Grimsby presence, Siemens are set to locate in Hull, and E.on, Centrica, Vestas and Dong Energy have chosen the south bank of the estuary as their preferred sites. Supporting the generation companies is a growing supply chain of maintenance and facilities management. Wind energy generation is still relatively new and demands higher level skilled employees, the lack of an able qualified workforce has led to the sector facing a serious challenge in filling vacancies.”
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes made that point when he spoke about generating skills locally, rather than importing them from Germany and Scandinavia.
Does the shadow Minister agree that growth and new investment from DONG Energy, which has decided to establish its operations and maintenance base in Grimsby, make it even more vital that we have enough young people and skilled local people able to take on jobs at the site when it is built?
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend makes a critical point: there has to be a synergy—a symbiosis, if I can put it that way—between the timing of the creation of these new initiatives and the supply chain of skills to feed them. Getting that wrong would not only cause great disruption in that supply chain but send out a message to other potential investors that this is not an area in which to risk their money.
Let me quote again from the former chair of the Humber LEP skills and employment board:
“Having a dedicated National College will be a major step forward in helping the UK to bridge that gap.”
The need to tackle skills shortages has not shrunk but increased over the past two years. One has to ask why the Government have still not committed to the college.
In response to the strategic review carried out earlier this year, the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), commented:
“The UK is the world leader in offshore wind and it’s important that we make the most of the many jobs and business opportunities that arise from this growing industry.”
What more appropriate way to achieve that than by taking action on this project?
When the college was first announced in 2014, it was envisaged that it would open its doors in late 2016. A significant feature of the college—not least in view of some of the issues that the Minister and I discussed in an earlier debate in this Chamber today about the balance of skills and apprenticeships—is that it would offer new and mature students professional qualifications and short courses in addition to bespoke programmes directed and sponsored by employers.
Beyond the specifics of this project in Grimsby, that would help to address the bleak situation that many adult learners face in further education and higher education. As the Opposition argued when we debated the Higher Education and Research Bill, we really need to put the same emphasis and passion that have been put behind the apprenticeships programme into the expansion of adult learning and skills. Those are the areas in which we have lost big time over the past four or five years, especially in comparison with our continental counterparts.
The TUC’s report “Powering ahead”, which my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby has already mentioned, states—rightly, in my view:
“The TUC believes there should be a fourth pillar of energy policy: skills…It is…essential that if today’s workers are to become tomorrow’s workers, using new technology, they will need the skills for this change. Upskilling must become a normal and regular part of a worker’s life.”
That is crucial. We will have more than 13 million job vacancies over the next 30 years, but only 7 million school leavers to fill them, so reskilling adults is paramount. That growing skills gap has to be at the heart of the agenda to bridge the gaps and shortages appearing across the workforce. There is so much potential in lifelong learning, but unfortunately the Government are still moving too slowly and letting the sector down.
Wind energy is a growing industry. Employment is expected to increase and engineers, technicians and other specialist roles will therefore be in greater demand. Many of those roles can and should be filled by young people starting their careers. However, there are other roles, including at other levels, in which experience will be extremely important, particularly in coastal environments. We know that there are already large skills gaps across the wind energy sector and that 37% of vacancies are found to be difficult to fill. A national college in Grimsby would go a long way towards providing a strategy on addressing those shortages and would help new and mature students to advance their skills.
I have great sympathy for Grimsby in this case. Like me, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby represents a coastal constituency that has seen challenges. Second-level towns, particularly seaside and coastal towns, have been particularly challenged in recent years by the decline of traditional industries and traditional sources of income. They are the towns that particularly need regeneration and the benefits that come with it—skills, jobs and potential spin-offs—especially given all the unknowns and uncertainties that their communities face, whatever happens as a result of the 23 June referendum.
Opposition Front-Benchers, alongside the TUC and others, have been pushing for a review of the increasing demands on adults to take out advanced learner loans to fund vocational upskilling. As the TUC report “Powering ahead” states:
“In light of the fact that the bulk of funding for apprenticeships will switch from government to employers in the coming years, there is a strong case for government providing more direct subsidy for retraining and upskilling of adult employees in priority areas as the economy transitions to a sustainable industrial scenario.”
If funding for the college is an issue, the Government really ought to give their attention to it. They have to rebalance their skills basket to focus on adult workers as well as on those starting out. The message of the Leitch review, which is now nearly a decade old, is still very pertinent: because of the democratic demands, new technologies and new skills cannot simply be left to the young.
The take-up of advanced learner loans is not very good: only about 50% of the money allocated is being used and the rest is being sent to the Treasury, so the Government need to find a way to incentivise adults to take out loans. Initiatives such as the potential national college for wind energy would offer a fantastic opportunity for people over the age of 24 or 25 to gain new skills and a path into employment in a fast growing, vital industry. As well as dealing with today’s skills, a college such as the one proposed for Grimsby could also promote cutting-edge research into new skills for generation 2.0 and 3.0 of these innovative new technologies.
I sat on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee when it did a report on renewables in the late 2000s. We spoke in that report about the lost opportunities for UK plc to capitalise on the expanding renewables markets, and about the dangers of relying on assemblage outside the UK for our renewable technologies. Sadly, some of the Committee’s fears have come to pass, but that is why it is even more important that we take the initiative now that we have the opportunity. Frankly, the Government have delivered enough knocks to renewables initiatives in the past couple of years—first with the problems in trying to decide whether to have nuclear as well as renewables, and then by encouraging subsidies for solar power, knocking them back and dithering over onshore wind. The signals that that approach sends out are not encouraging.
In Blackpool, our own energy college, Blackpool and the Fylde College, is going to look at renewables. When I look out from Blackpool towards Liverpool bay, I have a particular interest in seeing those new renewable energies offshore continuing to flourish. The national college for wind energy in Grimsby that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby has promoted so valiantly today would be an important part of that strategy. We hope the Minister will be able to say some positive things today to get it moving on its course.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing this debate; she is a brilliant advocate for her constituency. I also pay tribute to my genuine hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and thank him for his remarks.
It is clear from the hon. Lady’s interest in this subject that she rightly wants to ensure that people of all ages in Grimsby have access to high-quality further and higher education to acquire the technical skills that employers are increasingly demanding. The Grimsby Institute is already helping to meet those needs as one of England’s largest providers of higher education, providing a wide range of training at a variety of levels. The hon. Lady spoke movingly about the apprentice she met. She will know that there were 840 apprentice starts in her constituency last year, and there were more than 5,210 between 2010 and the end of 2015. I know she would like to see more; hopefully, the impact of our commitment to deliver 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 will be felt in her constituency.
The hon. Lady raised important issues about the skill needs of the energy industry, which is timely because it allows me to set out what the Government are doing to address the skills needs across all sectors of the economy in England. It is a key priority of the Government to ensure that we have the skilled workforce required to support development and growth in all areas of the UK economy. The country has all the ingredients required to compete with other skilled nations, but we have to create an education system that can harness and develop that talent, starting at school and going right through to the highest levels of education and training.
We are making progress. Many more of our young people are now taking up high-quality apprenticeships and training, leading to good jobs and careers in their chosen profession. Our post-16 skills plan will build on that, creating a more streamlined system of high-quality technical education that truly delivers the skills that industry need, but the Government cannot do the job by ourselves. We want to work with employers and colleges to unlock the potential in this country. There are already good examples of colleges and employers working in close partnership to create world-class facilities and teaching, but there is more to do.
I am not afraid to acknowledge that our education system does not always deliver the high-level technical skills in the volumes that our economy demands, especially at levels 4 to 5—the bit between A-level and graduate level. The fact that only 10% of people in England hold higher-level technical qualifications has contributed to a chronic shortage of highly skilled technicians. The OECD estimates that we will need around 300,000 trained technicians entering the labour market by 2020. Every year, the UK produces only around a third of the number of people trained at technician level that Germany produces. Higher apprenticeships are beginning to address that, but we are growing from a low base. Things are not going to get any better in a system in which only 4% of students are studying further education at level 4. Although there is good higher-level technical provision in some areas, it is spread too thinly across the country overall.
National colleges, which we have heard about this afternoon, will play an important role in helping to meet the gaps, within the context of the wider reforms set out in our 16-plus skills plan, which outlines the most radical shake-up of post-16 education since the introduction of A-levels almost 70 years ago. It will transform technical education for most young people and adults into an education that is world class, with clear pathways to skilled employment. It will build on the success we have already had by investing in apprenticeships, with the aim of creating a skilled workforce that is the envy of every other nation and that meets the needs of our growing and rapidly changing economy.
National colleges will have an important place in the new technical skills landscape, helping to define and deliver the routes required. They provide specialist facilities and training and lead the way in the design and delivery of higher level technical skills in industries or sectors that are critical to economic growth—industries that currently rely heavily on imported skills to meet the skills gaps at higher levels.
The Minister is setting out some of the Government’s new proposals in this policy area, on which we will no doubt touch again as part of our discussions of the new Further Education and Technology Bill, which was announced last week. Regarding the hopes of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) for the college at Grimsby, does the Minister accept that there needs to be a recalibration in Government to ensure that older people who have experience and skills participate in the new set of national colleges as well as younger people? It seems that too often the Government’s rhetoric has excluded them.
I would like all people to participate if they need the skills. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman: our apprenticeships, skills offerings and national colleges are all open to all ages.
The Government are investing £80 million to support the development of five national colleges, and we expect that money to be matched by investment from industry in the respective sectors. The ambition is for the colleges to train up to 20,000 learners by 2020. I recently visited the new Hackney-based National College for Digital Skills. The facilities, the enthusiasm of the staff, the passion of the students and the strong support from employers such as Google will make it the success that I know it will be. Employers in other industries are crying out for higher-level skills, and particularly for technicians who combine deep knowledge of technology with up-to-date experience in industry.
National colleges will be set up only in those sectors where there is a clear gap in skills and where employers have clearly demonstrated their support and willingness to contribute to the operation of the colleges. Those that have been successful so far have had a clearly defined scope and sector focus, with evidence of strong employer support—High Speed 2, nuclear and the creative and digital industries—and wind energy is no exception. An industry-focused skills solution would need to demonstrate strong employer commitment and willingness to contribute capital, equipment, senior management time and access to facilities.
I am encouraged by the considerable work done to date by key partners to develop a proposal that meets the existing and future needs of the energy sector. Officials from my Department have been in discussion with the local enterprise partnership and others to provide advice on what we would want to see from a national college for wind energy. I understand that the LEP and RenewableUK are working with industry to identify skills gaps and to build a case for a viable national college model. The latest proposal has changed, but it is still very much consistent with the original vision of a national college. I am encouraged by the work that is going on, and look forward to further progress on the national college proposal. It will follow, as it must do, the same robust assessment process as for every other national college that has been agreed. Widespread employer buy-in and engagement will be a critical factor.
Might this be an opportune moment for the Minister to throw his full and forceful weight behind accelerating the programme as much as possible and encouraging all the agencies in the area to provide a blueprint so that we can all receive some assurance? My original concern was about the problem of the timing, in advance of the autumn statement; perhaps he can comment on that as well.
As I have said, as long as the same propositions that others who have set up national colleges are followed—it looks as if a lot of work is being done to do that—I will of course support and work with the relevant bodies, such as the LEP, as well as with the hon. Lady and others. Nevertheless, the detailed plan must be produced, and it has to meet the conditions that the plans for other national colleges had to meet. There is no doubt that, as I have said, this industry is vital to the economy and that, as I have also said, we need a skills training system that can deliver the skills needed to fill these jobs.
During the Commons debate on the Humber energy estuary in February, the Government set out our ambition to have a strong industrialised UK supply chain with the capability and capacity to win even more orders. We are working with developers to see how we can attract further investment and promote rejuvenation in areas such as Hull. We want UK companies to be able to benefit from offshore wind development, by ensuring that they are in the best possible position to compete for business.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby for raising this important issue today and I know that she will work hard to try to help establish the national college in her area.
I will take the Minister up on his offer to work together, because the only way that this project can be achieved is through significant political championing. I look forward to many an exchange of correspondence with him; hopefully, he will visit my area, which may assist him in gathering ever-increasing enthusiasm for my vision—not only for the college, but for my constituency.
I thank the hon. Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig) for their very considered contributions to the debate. Obviously, the local knowledge that the hon. Member for Cleethorpes brings to the discussion highlights how keen local MPs are to see our constituencies benefit from all of the projects available in the local area. I also recognise the contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who are no longer in their places.
Some of the skills that need to be developed go beyond those of a wind turbine technician. Only a finite number of wind turbine technician vacancies will ever be available in this industry, but the skills required in the industry go beyond those of such a technician. There are maritime skills, operational skills, mechanical skills, digital skills and technical skills, as well as the engineering side of things. A vast range of skills is required, all of which need to be taught up to a very significant level.
I recognise the commitment of companies that have based themselves in the Humber area to try to secure as many local people as possible—they are trying to employ the local workforce—and to assist with local training facilities by having a direct input into the development of training, so that they do not have to send their staff to Denmark or Germany to access training when it can be accessed locally. Nevertheless, it would be an enormous boost to our area to have a centre of excellence that everybody in the whole country could be proud of, with high-level provision of skills for a really exciting and fast-moving industry. We are already behind on skills training.
Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that, although we have spoken a lot about getting our young people trained up for these industries, there are many people who have past experience in the offshore oil and gas industry and require only modest retraining? If the retraining courses were available, that would open up new opportunities for them.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; in fact, I briefly referred to that issue in my speech and obviously my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden), the shadow Minister, has been very keen to focus on adult skills.
However, such training should have been provided when the investment was being made, because we are already playing catch-up. This is advancing technology, so we should be looking at the research and development side of things as well as providing the basic skills, because 15 years ago turbine blades were 16 metres long and now they are over 80 metres long. This industry has developed rapidly in the last 15 years and in my view every delay leaves those of us in the Humber area even further behind in getting the very best out of the offshore wind industry. So I urge the Minister to take a particularly keen interest in this issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the National College for Wind Energy.