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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
14 November 2016
Volume 617

House of Commons

Monday 14 November 2016

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

GCSE Pass Rate (Northamptonshire)

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1. What the GCSE A to C pass rate was in Northamptonshire in (a) 2010 and (b) 2016. [907221]

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In 2016, 53% of pupils at the end of key stage 4 in Northamptonshire achieved five or more A* to C grades, including English and maths GCSEs. This is an increase of 1.1 percentage points from 51.9% in 2010.

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Although the figures are going in the right direction, educational attainment and performance in Northamptonshire are still below the national average. Through the Secretary of State, I thank the Schools Minister for meeting a delegation of county MPs last month and for agreeing to see us again next April. What are the main things that the Secretary of State thinks local schools need to do to get the figures to much improve over the years ahead?

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As my hon. Friend recognises, as a Department we have worked very hard with his local authority to try steadily to increase and improve results. In addition to the work that is already under way, we want to see stronger school improvement via schools collaborating more effectively and by ensuring that more of the UK or England-wide programmes, such as Mathematics Mastery, are properly rolled out in his local area.

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One way to improve GCSE attainment in schools in Northamptonshire is through school libraries. Is the Secretary of State as disturbed as I am by the report from the School Library Association about the collapse in the number of librarians and library facilities in our schools, and will she ask Ofsted to make school library provision one of the inspection criteria?

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Of course, this Government have spent much time and resources on improving reading and literacy in our schools. We have protected the core schools budget across the course of this Parliament and it is up to schools where they want to spend that money, but we certainly want to see continued improvement in literacy and reading results across England.

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Getting it right early is crucial to securing future success for our young people in Northamptonshire, so will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Woodnewton learning community on winning the Marjorie Boxall quality mark award for its brilliant nurture group and send her best wishes to Ellen Wallace, the headteacher, and her brilliant team?

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Yes, I congratulate Ellen Wallace and the team at the school that my hon. Friend talks about. They have done a fantastic job in achieving that award, showing that strong leadership in a school alongside collaboration between schools is a key way for schools to improve.

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The Secretary of State might have us believe that results in Northamptonshire have improved under this Government, but the fact is that the pass rate peaked immediately after the end of the previous Labour Government and has been falling since 2012. Nationally, this year saw the largest fall in GCSE results on record. If the Secretary of State had given us a breakdown of the data, it would have shown that those from disadvantaged backgrounds lost out the most. Last week, the Sutton Trust showed that people from white working class backgrounds face particular barriers at GCSE. Will the Secretary of State tell us which, if any, of the trust’s recommendations she will accept?

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I do not think that the Government need to take any lessons from Labour, who in government presided over grade inflation and young people leaving our education system who were simply unable to read or write. I remind the hon. Lady that, according to the CBI, on Labour’s watch the number of employers who were dissatisfied with school and college leavers’ basic skills remained stuck at around a third. In other words, it had not shifted at all. In fact, 42 % reported that they had had to provide remedial training for school and college leavers.

Work Visas

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2. What discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on reintroduction of the post-study work visa. [907222]

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4. What discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on reintroduction of the post-study work visa. [907224]

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18. What discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on reintroduction of the post-study work visa. [907238]

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The UK has an excellent offer for overseas students who graduate here. They can remain in the UK to work following their studies by switching to several existing visa routes, including tier 2 skilled worker visas. Visa applications from students to study at Scottish universities have increased by 10% since 2010, and the most recent year, to June 2016, showed a continued year-on-year increase.

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The truth is that the options open to students for staying on after their studies are a second-rate substitute for a proper post-study work visa along the lines of what the UK once had and what our competitor countries still have. As Scotland seeks to continue sustainable levels of population growth, will the Minister listen to the coalition of universities, students and businesses and champion a proper post-study work visa for the UK?

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We have a competitive post-study work visa. That is reflected in the fact that applications to our universities continue to rise and are up 14% since 2010. We continue to look for opportunities to support high quality institutions wherever they are in the country to recruit genuine students.

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When will the Government publish a detailed impact analysis of the academic and recruitment impact on Scotland’s universities of abandoning post-study work visas?

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The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this issue many times in Bill Committee in recent weeks. I point him to my earlier answer, which is that Scottish institutions continue to see year-on-year growth in the number of overseas applicants, which has increased by 10% since 2010, and we continue to look for opportunities to support them in recruiting genuine students.

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The Universities Minister is known for his affinity with India. When the post-study work visas were removed in Scotland, the number of Indian students at Scottish universities fell by two thirds. Would the Minister please consider including a Scottish university in the pilot scheme for the new post-study work visa?

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Yes, it was a successful visit by the Prime Minister to India last week, during which we were able to reiterate the long-standing Government policy that there is no limit to the number of genuine international students who are welcome to come and study at our world-class universities, and no limit to the number who can switch into work with a graduate job once they have finished their studies.

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The perception is that we are not encouraging students from abroad to come here to study and then to work. I am encouraged by what my hon. Friend has said about switching visas. We do not want to turn our backs on the bright young people from China, India and all over the world who would come to study and then, hopefully, work for a period. Who knows, when my hon. Friend gets to talk to his opposite number in the new Trump Administration, he might talk about encouraging young American students to come here to study and work.

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We certainly are not turning our back on genuine international students. We welcome them warmly. There are no limits on the number who can come here and no limit on the number who can switch into work after they finish their studies. We want to see more in the years ahead and we look forward to supporting our high quality institutions in recruiting successfully in countries such as the ones my hon. Friend mentioned.

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The Minister must know what is going on in the universities. They are in turmoil about the future of demand from foreign students to come here. Has he seen what the vice-chancellor of Sheffield University said about the Prime Minister’s visit to India? Why are students still classed as immigrants when they come here merely to study?

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I advise hon. Members to send out a positive message about how welcoming we are in this country. When we look at the statistics, we see that international students are still coming here in record numbers. Visa applications from non-EU international students to study at British universities are up by 14% since 2010, so let us not paint a completely misleading picture of what is going on. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Sheffield, which is a Russell Group institution. Numbers are up 39% at Russell Group institutions since 2010.

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The Minister is somewhat missing the point, which is that we want these international students to stay afterwards so that they can provide economic levers. We watched with interest when the pilot of the post-study work visa was introduced at four institutions in England. I have written to the Minister about extending that pilot to Scotland, but I have yet to get a response. Perhaps he can tell me now when we can expect to see the pilot of the post-study work visa extended to Scotland.

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The Home Office is conducting a successful pilot. It is under way with four institutions—Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London and Bath. This is a Home Office responsibility and I encourage the hon. Lady to direct her questions there.

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The Home Secretary told the Conservative party conference that a consultation would look

“at whether our student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution”.

Edinburgh University is currently ranked 27th in the Times Higher Education world rankings and Glasgow 88th, both significantly higher than Bath, which, although 200 places lower, was included in the pilot. Perhaps the Minister can explain to the Scottish higher education sector why it has been deliberately snubbed.

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The Home Secretary has announced that there will be a consultation that will look into non-EU work and study immigration routes. This will include consideration of what more we can do to strengthen the system so that institutions that stick to the rules can do more to attract the best talent.

Nursery Schools/Children’s Centres

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3. What assessment her Department has made of the potential effect of planned changes to the early years funding formula on the financial viability of maintained nursery schools and children’s centres. [907223]

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Maintained nursery schools are a small but very important part of the childcare market, and they do have costs that other providers do not, which is why we are providing £55 million a year in supplementary funding while we consult on how to ensure their future sustainability. The way in which we fund children’s centres gives local authorities the freedom to decide what services are appropriate to meet local need.

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Some 99% of maintained nursery schools are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, and 65% of them are in the 30 most deprived areas of the country, including in my constituency. Yet, across the early years sector, experts are warning that proposed changes to the funding formula will place many of these nurseries at risk of closure after the two years of supplementary funding run out. Will the Minister commit to a sustainable level of funding to enable maintained nurseries to continue their important work of providing the best possible start in life and addressing disadvantage?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point out that maintained nursery schools provide some good and outstanding care in the vast majority of their settings and in some of the most deprived parts of the country. That is why we have said that we are going to protect their funding for at least the next two years. We will say more about that funding shortly when we respond to the early years national funding formula consultation.

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20. Yesterday’s British Chambers of Commerce survey concluded that childcare should be considered part of our national infrastructure for keeping people in work. Nursery schools provide that service in some of our most deprived areas, while promoting social mobility, so why on earth are the Government stripping their resources away at this critical time? In two years’ time, we will still face the same challenges in terms of social mobility and education, and we will need nursery schools to be properly funded. [907240]

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I challenge all the things the hon. Lady said. We are not stripping funding from nursery schools; the supplementary funding of £55 million a year is part of the record investment in childcare of £6 billion a year by 2020. That is more than any Government have ever spent.

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With respect, I think the Minister is missing the point. This is not simply a question of childcare; it is a question of quality early education, and that is about narrowing the gap between the most disadvantaged and the rest. Could she go further and tell the House what maintained nursery schools, which employ teachers and other staff who want to carry on working for them, will do after this two-year period? It is no good schools knowing that they have security for two years—they need more than that.

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I would say that we have made 6 billion points about how important we regard the sector to be. The hon. Lady is right that it does need to know about its future, but it does not make sense to make decisions about the future funding of maintained nursery schools before we have consulted on what that future should be. We will be consulting on that future, and we will make an announcement shortly.

Nursery Schools

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5. What long-term funding plans her Department has for maintained nursery schools. [907225]

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17. What progress her Department has made on its planned consultation on the future of maintained nursery schools after the two-year supplementary funding arrangement. [907237]

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With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to link Question 5 with Question 15. Maintained nursery schools make a very important contribution to social mobility. We want them to be sustainable in the long term. We have already committed £55 million a year of supplementary funding for maintained nursery schools for at least the next two years, and we will shortly be consulting them on how to do this further.

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Forgive me, but I think the grouping is with Question 17 rather than Question 15—not that I wish to be pedantic; I just wish to be precise. [Interruption.] I think I have the advantage of being correct in this case, incredible though the hon. Lady may judge that to be.

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I met Jan Holmes, the headteacher of Walton Lane Nursery, and many other Pendle nursery headteachers recently. Further to many of the points that have already been made, will my hon. Friend commit to extending the funding for maintained nursery schools beyond the two years indicated in the consultation, as nursery schools really do make a difference to some of the poorest children in my constituency?

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Mr Speaker, I would never, ever accuse you of being wrong about anything. My hon. Friend is also right: maintained nursery schools play a vital role in tackling disadvantage. As I said, the £55 million commitment is for at least two years. We will say more about the funding of maintained nursery schools shortly, when we respond to our consultation on the early years national funding formula.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for preserving my Question 17. I am so pleased to hear that the Minister understands the real difference that local authority-funded nursery schools provide, and that a plan to fund them sustainably beyond two years is imminent. May I add my calls on behalf of Homerton Children’s Centre in my constituency? That announcement cannot come too soon. These children are vulnerable and they need a secure future.

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My hon. Friend is right to say that maintained nursery schools often offer very high-value education, with 98% of them rated good or outstanding and 80% of them in areas of deprivation. As I have said, we will say more about their funding very shortly when we respond to our early years funding formula consultation.

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The early years funding formula will detrimentally affect maintained nursery schools. There is a fantastic maintained nursery school in my constituency called Balham Nursery School that supports so many vulnerable families, and the thought that it needs to close in two years is absolutely unacceptable. There are three such schools in Wandsworth facing that fate. Will the Secretary of State meet me and these nursery schools to discuss securing their continued existence?

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First, we have consulted on the early years funding formula. We have not yet released the findings of that consultation, but they will be released shortly. In addition, we have said that we will support maintained nursery schools with an additional £55 million for at least the next two years. That is not saying that any maintained nursery schools are going to be shutting. I am more than happy to meet any nursery schools, and I have met a number from up and down the country—

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Will the Secretary of State meet mine?

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Of course I will meet them. I will reassure them that we value the amazing work that they do. They are very small in number, but they do outstanding work and we want to help them to do so.

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I have two maintained nursery schools in my constituency: Ellergreen and East Prescot Road, both of them rated outstanding by Ofsted. May I urge the Minister to listen to Members on both sides of the House today? This uncertainty is very damaging for the nursery school sector, and I urge her to reach a decision for long-term, sustainable funding for nursery schools as quickly as possible.

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As I have already said, I am more than happy to do so, but I want to consult the maintained nursery sector before I do that. There is no point in Government taking a high-handed approach and thinking that they know best. We need to consult the sector and plot the best possible way forward to maintain its outstanding future.

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The cuts currently planned by the Government will be crushing in the nursery sector. Does the Minister not realise that the current level of nursery provision will be unsustainable if these cuts are implemented?

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There are no cuts. The cuts are a figment of the hon. Gentleman’s imagination. We are putting an extra £6 billion of funding into this scheme by 2020. It is more than any Government have ever spent on early years childcare.

Social Mobility

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6. What steps she is taking to improve the social mobility of children and young people. [907226]

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We are driving up social mobility by levelling up opportunity. That is why it is so vital to drive up standards in education, in terms of both academic routes and technical education. Opportunity areas are also in the vanguard of our approach.

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I am interested in the Secretary of State’s answer to that question. Further education, which produced lots of apprentices and highly skilled people in industry—particularly in manufacturing—has been cut by 28%. How can the Secretary of State say that she is doing a lot for highly skilled education?

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware—or perhaps he has missed it—that we are bringing the Technical and Further Education Bill before Parliament on Second Reading later today. It matches the fact that we have aspirations to drive up standards in further education in the same way as we have done in academic education routes.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that lifting the ban on selective schools can create greater opportunity for the least advantaged, and that doing so would enable more children in Telford to realise their full potential and enter top professions such as medicine and law?

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I do, and what we should not do is to allow ideology to get in the way of giving parents greater choice. The reality is that boys on free school meal provision who go to grammars have got three times more chance of getting into Russell Group universities than their other counterparts.

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Nurseries and childcare providers in Wakefield are at breaking point, and over 50 have closed their doors since 2010. Will the Secretary of State set out how she will meet her manifesto commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare a week for three and four-year-olds, given that the average increase for childcare providers next year will be just 21p an hour?

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I am sure that the hon. Lady welcomes the Government’s ambition to double the amount of childcare from 15 to 30 hours during this Parliament, which is why we are putting in more funding. We have consulted on that, and we will respond to the consultation shortly.

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One of the social mobility issues is about encouraging teachers to get pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to Russell Group universities. What are the Government doing to encourage young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to apply to the top universities?

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I met the vice-chancellor of Exeter University only last week to talk about some of the work that he and, indeed, the broader Russell Group are doing. It is important that we push this even more in the future than we have in the past. Alongside the proposals on selective education, some of the work we are doing in specific areas, such as on areas of opportunity, will make a massive difference over time.

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If the Government were serious about improving social mobility, they would have a plan to reduce child poverty. With 3.9 million children living in poverty and the Institute for Fiscal Studies projecting that poverty among children will increase by 50% during this Parliament, what is the Secretary of State doing to reduce the appalling levels of child poverty we are experiencing in our country?

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First, we should all recognise that social mobility is a long-standing generational challenge that will not be fixed overnight. It has been present in our country for many decades. In the end, the route out of poverty is to have a strong economy, coupled with strong productivity. That is why the education agenda is not just about allowing people to reach their potential, but about enabling our country and our economy to do the same.

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Parents in Dover and Deal want the choice of social mobility, with new grammar schools and new faith-based schools. They also want to thank the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills for his dogged support of higher and further education in east Kent.

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I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be very pleased to receive that compliment. I know that my hon. Friend has been a strong champion for his local community. Alongside all the other work we are doing, including in introducing the Technical and Further Education Bill later today, 3 million apprenticeships during this Parliament will be a step change in providing opportunities for young people in our country.

Schools: London

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7. What steps she is taking to improve funding provision for schools in London. [907227]

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We will introduce a national funding formula from April 2018, so that schools in all parts of the country are funded fairly and consistently. This significant reform will mean children with the same needs are funded at the same rate wherever they live. We will put forward our detailed proposals for consultation later this year, and make final decisions in the new year.

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Does the Minister accept, in looking at appropriate funding, that there is a great deal of complexity within London, that needs and demands vary within the capital and that, for funding, we currently deal with an artificial distinction between inner and outer London boroughs? That distinction goes back to the disappearance of the London County Council in 1966, and it is no longer relevant to the modern demographic and social pressures that our schools face.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, which I will take as a response to our consultation document. The proposals in the document for an area cost adjustment are about using either a general labour market methodology or a hybrid methodology with two elements: the four regional pay bands and a general labour market methodology for non-teaching staff costs. We will respond to the consultation shortly.

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I was not around in 1966, when that decision was taken. The reality of the Government’s policies in London is that schools are having to rationalise the range of choice in modern languages and are cutting back on subjects such as drama and music. The funding settlement for London does not currently meet the real needs of pupils in London today. Instead of mucking about with ideologically driven projects like grammar school expansion—there is no evidence that that will improve social mobility—why are Ministers not focusing on the bread and butter issues of the right funding, the right teaching and proper opportunities for all pupils across all parts of London?

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We are protecting core school funding in real terms. We can do that because we have a strong economy. The hon. Gentleman may not have been here when the last Labour Government were in power, but he should be aware that the number of students taking modern foreign languages plummeted as a direct consequence of a decision taken by Labour in 2004 to stop languages being compulsory up to GCSE.

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Notwithstanding the generally higher funding for London schools, will my hon. Friend update the House on the progress towards a fairer funding formula for the rest of the country?

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Yes. We are considering the consultation document we published in March. The consultation finished in April, and we are looking at the responses. We will respond to the consultation shortly.

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Far from core school funding being protected, as the Secretary of State said a few minutes ago, we know that schools are set to lose £2.5 billion by 2020. Headteachers in the Minister’s county are threatening a four-day week because of the funding formula. In that context, how will he secure fairer funding for schools, especially in London, which has had the additional benefit of the London challenge formula?

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The Secretary of State was right: we are protecting core schools funding in real terms. We are consulting on a range of factors such as deprivation, English as an additional language and sparsity, for which there is a flat figure per school. All those factors are part of the consultation document because we are addressing an historic unfairness in the funding system that Labour presided over for 13 years. This Government are taking action to address that. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman supported the consultation, rather than criticise it.

Higher Education

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8. What priorities her Department has identified for higher education in the negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. [907228]

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The Government are fully committed to ensuring that our universities get the best possible deal from the negotiations with the EU. We recognise the key issues for the sector as being the ability to recruit EU students, the student financial support to which they have access, EU programmes and funding streams and the status of UK students studying abroad. The future arrangements on all those issues will have to be considered as part of the wider discussions about our future relationship with the EU.

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As the Minister knows, the higher education sector contributes a massive £73 billion to the UK economy, including £11 billion of export earnings, yet the Department for Education has no representation on the EU Exit and Trade Committee or Sub-Committee. What reassurances can he give the House that the priorities for the sector, such as growing the number of students and sustaining research funding, are being identified and protected in the Brexit negotiations?

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The Department has moved rapidly to provide significant reassurances to the sector in a number of respects, particularly on the continuity of the funding arrangements for Horizon 2020 resources. The Treasury will make up the continuing obligations on payments that fall due after we have left the EU. We have made it clear that EU students will be able to access our loan book and home fee status for the duration of their course of study if they start in the 2016-17 or 2017-18 academic year.

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Some 15% of Scottish academics in higher education institutions are EU nationals. That rises to 25% in institutions such as Edinburgh University. Some universities already report having lost advance staff who were due to come from Europe. Will the Minister speak to the Home Secretary and try to get a guarantee of rights for EU staff before we lose any more talent?

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We fully value the contribution that EU staff make to the success of UK institutions. The higher education sector has a long-established tradition of attracting brilliant academics and students at all stages of their careers, and we are working hard to ensure that that continues. The Prime Minister has given assurances that she has every expectation of being able to guarantee the status of such academics, provided that other countries reciprocate for British nationals in their countries.

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The only way we will bring new jobs and industries to areas like the black country that have lost their traditional industries is if we have the skills that new modern and high-tech industries need. Will the Minister guarantee that the £50 million from the EU that is currently spent on skills in institutions such as Wolverhampton University and other organisations in the black country will be maintained after we leave? Will he use the rest of the money that we currently contribute to the EU to get behind brilliant institutions such as Dudley’s new institute of technology and to ensure that we have university campuses in areas like Dudley that do not have them at the moment?

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As I said in my earlier answer, the relationship we have with the EU will be the subject of a broad discussion, and among the important issues at stake in that will be the future of our access to funding streams that have been of value to institutions such as those the hon. Gentleman mentions.

Apprenticeships

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9. What steps the Government are taking in schools to promote apprenticeships. [907229]

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May I begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), and wishing him a speedy recovery?

We are transforming Britain into an apprenticeship and skills nation. We have ensured that schools provide high-quality careers guidance to pupils on their different options, and there is a legal requirement for schools to inform pupils about apprenticeships and other vocational options. We have also established the Careers & Enterprise Company to transform careers provision for young people, to inspire them and prepare them for the world of work.

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Sian Nixon, the modern languages teacher, is one of the many inspirational teachers at Haslingden High School. She has invited me and a local manufacturer to go into the school and talk about the value of modern languages before pupils make their GCSE choices. Will the Government say what can be done to encourage more businesses to enter schools, in particular to promote apprenticeships in areas of high manufacturing worth such as Rossendale and Darwen?

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I know that my hon. Friend is an incredible constituency champion on skills and careers. I hope that when he goes into that school he will talk about apprenticeships as well as modern languages. We have created the Careers & Enterprise Company, with £90 million of investment. It has 1,200 enterprise advisers to help more than 900 schools interact with businesses and have work experience and other career options.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 1MC.]

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At present, only 8% of young people finish apprenticeships with a higher level of qualification than they started with. Will the Minister set a target for young people starting higher level qualifications rather than just the target of 3 million starts that he has at present?

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I have very good news for the hon. Gentleman. The number of apprentices doing higher apprenticeships has gone up by 500%. If we include degree apprenticeships, in which we are investing millions of pounds, more than 28,000 people are doing higher apprenticeships or degree apprenticeships.

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I am delighted to hear the Minister speak so warmly of the Careers & Enterprise Company, and I know he will do a terrific job in his post. For schools to promote apprenticeships successfully the apprenticeship positions must be there for students to move into. He will have had a letter from IMPACT Apprenticeships and Loughborough College in my constituency about the latest announcements regarding apprenticeship training agencies and levy paying companies’ not being able to transfer funds to the agencies, as that will be delayed until May 2018. Will he meet me to discuss that further?

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I am very happy to meet my right hon. Friend and the apprenticeship training agency she mentioned. As she has said, from 2018 it will be possible for employers paying the levy to transfer up to 10% of the levy funds to indirect employers.

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A few months ago, the Secretary of State prayed in aid the Technical and Further Education Bill, which we will debate today, as a measure to help apprentices. That Bill changes the name of the Institute for Apprenticeships and includes vast numbers of provisions to deal with further education colleges and sixth-form colleges going bust. Will the Minister tell me exactly which part of the Bill does anything to promote apprenticeships, in schools or elsewhere?

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As I said, we are transforming our country into an apprenticeships and skills nation. The whole point of the Bill is to drive up standards to help improve our technical education offering. We already have an Institute for Apprenticeships, which will be up and running by April 2017.

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15. As the Minister is aware, developing skills through apprenticeships is key for today and for the future, and across my constituency businesses such as JC Payne are playing their part in creating apprenticeships. Will he reassure me, though, that, as we move forward and develop more apprenticeships, this will not just be about quantity but about quality? [907235]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is about quantity as well as quality. We made it a requirement that all apprentices have to be employed and have to do a certain amount of training. We tightened the definition of apprenticeships in law to ensure they are real apprenticeships. We are creating the new Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, and we are moving from frameworks to standards to improve apprentices’ qualifications. Everything we do—in addition to the 3 million apprentices and the 619,000 apprentice starts since May—aims to drive up quality as well as quantity.

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To promote apprenticeships in schools, strong careers guidance is critical. However, this month’s cross-party verdict from the two Select Committee Chairs who have looked at this, the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), is that

“Ministers appear to be burying their heads in the sand while careers guidance fails young people”.

Will this Minister—the third Minister to whom I have put this question—back the Select Committee’s recommendation to restore proper work experience in schools at key stage 4? Will he lift his head out of the sand?

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I suggest the hon. Gentleman stops being a doom-monger and becomes an apprentice-monger. We are providing the Careers & Enterprise Company with £90 million to boost career provision in schools, with £20 million for investment. The National Careers Service is getting £77 million to help people with careers. We have thousands of enterprise advisers in schools all over the country. This is what the Careers & Enterprise Company is all about. The Government are investing in careers, investing in skills and investing in apprenticeships.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 2MC.]

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Following the disability apprenticeship report by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), Scope and Mencap, which I set up with my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), will the Minister confirm that it is a priority to open up apprenticeships to those with learning disabilities?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his work as Disabilities Minister. That is exactly the case. We are ensuring significant financial support to encourage investors and providers to provide apprenticeships to those with disabilities and special needs. We are investing in a special £2 million fund to help to provide apprenticeships for those with mental health difficulties, and we have agreed to adopt the reforms suggested by the Maynard review in full.

Bullying

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10. What steps she is taking to tackle bullying in schools. [907230]

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This week is national anti-bullying week, an opportunity for us to come together in condemnation of bullying in all its forms and consider how best to tackle it, particularly in our schools. The Government are providing 10 organisations with £4.4 million to enable them to deliver effective anti-bullying projects, including for children with special educational needs and disabilities and the victims of hate-related bullying, together with support for pupils and parents to report bullying online.

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Do Ministers share my concerns that no platforming and other endeavours to shut out free speech at universities are becoming increasingly close to bullying? What discussions have Ministers had with universities about this highly disturbing trend?

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I think we can all agree that students should be able to challenge those they disagree with by means of open and robust debate. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are central to our higher education system. There is no place for intimidation to attempt to shut down open debate. Universities have a clear legal duty to secure freedom of speech for students, staff and visiting speakers, and they must have clear policies for how they will ensure that that can happen. Should my hon. Friend wish to discuss this further with either me or the Minister with responsibility for universities, I would be happy to oblige.

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Sadly, bullying occurs in most schools. In some cases, it leads to young people effectively self-excluding from school, which puts themselves and their parents in a particularly difficult position. Groups such as Red Balloon in my constituency do very good work. What support would the Minister give to such groups?

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We can safely say that every school will have bullying at some point in some form, and we need to ensure they have the tools available to tackle it in the best way possible, particularly with the additional threat of cyber-bullying outside the school gates. ChildLine, which the Government help to fund, is receiving more calls. This will remain a very high-profile issue for years to come. That is why we support organisations to help schools more effectively tackle these issues, but we need to be alive to the new ways that bullying will emerge in the future. We will continue to work on that with all organisations, including Red Balloon.

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After the EU referendum, teachers warned us of a disturbing rise in levels of racist bullying in schools, and now we are seeing the same following the election of Donald Trump in the US. In the spirit of Anti-bullying Week, will the Minister take this opportunity to condemn not only such bullying but the politicians whose hateful, divisive rhetoric has made some children think that this is acceptable?

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As I said, I think we all condemn all forms of bullying, from wherever it comes and for whatever its purported reasons, but we also need to make sure that we educate our children to understand the effects that bullying has on others, so that, as they grow older, they do not repeat the mistakes of those who have gone before them.

Education Provision: 16 to 19-Year-Olds

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12. What assessment she has made of the effect of recent changes in the level of (a) funding and (b) costs on the provision of education to 16 to 19-year-olds in England. [907232]

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16. What assessment she has made of the effect of recent changes in the level of (a) funding and (b) costs on the provision of education to 16 to 19-year-olds in England. [907236]

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We are committed to protecting the base funding rate of £4,000 per student for the rest of this Parliament. Moreover, the proportion of young people participating in education or training is now 81.6%, which is higher than ever before. Following reforms to qualifications, the system is delivering better quality provision to prepare young people for jobs and further study.

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Sixth-form colleges have suffered a 17% cut in their funding since 2011, which has had a real impact on the quality and breadth of curriculum they can offer. Will the Minister, with the Secretary of State, commit to evaluating how much funding is necessary for 16-to-19 education so that it is of the global quality we deserve?

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The important thing is that we have equalised the funding and that the money now follows the student, not the qualification, to ensure a fair balance between sixth-form colleges and further education.

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Winstanley College is one of the highest-performing sixth-form colleges in the country and won The Daily Telegraph’s Educate North college of the year award, but it estimates that by 2019 it will have seen a real-terms cut of 20% to its funding, which will fall to a level last seen in 2004. What measures is the Minister taking to ensure fair and equal funding for sixth-formers in England?

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It is good news about the performance of the hon. Lady’s college—I thank her for expressing it—but it is worth mentioning that we are investing £7 billion in 2016-17 to ensure that every 16 to 19-year-old has a place in education or training and that we have protected the funding base rate of £4,000 per student. It is also worth remembering that we have the lowest level of youth unemployment on record and the lowest number of those not in education, employment or training. This shows that our investment in further education is working.[Official Report, 20 December 2016, Vol. 618, c. 12MC.]

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Funding forms a chapter in an excellent report by the Headteachers Roundtable. Is the Minister willing to meet me and this group of heads to discuss their report in Parliament?

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Either I or the Minister for School Standards would be pleased to meet my hon. Friend.

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Over the next four years, funding for education is due to fall by 8% per head, although I note that Ministers have been describing this as “protecting” core funding, which is a funny use of language. So low is funding for sixth forms that schools that have formed academies are increasingly getting rid of their sixth forms because they are not profitable, thereby cutting off large numbers of opportunities for people, often in poorer areas.

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As I said, by 2020 we will be giving more funding to further education than at any time in our island’s history. It will have increased by 40%, which we should be proud of. Our investment is working. As I said, we have the lowest youth unemployment and the lowest number of NEETs on record. The hon. Lady should be celebrating that.[Official Report, 20 December 2016, Vol. 618, c. 12MC.]

Childcare

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13. What progress her Department is making on the provision of 30 hours of childcare to working parents. [907233]

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We are committed to ensuring that we have the high-quality affordable childcare that families need, and we are on track to deliver 30 hours of childcare to working parents. We announced a record funding of £1 billion extra per year by 2020; we have consulted on a fairer and more transparent funding system; and eight early implementer areas are already providing more than 3,500 places—one year early.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that the greatest potential impact of extending support for childcare is helping families to make the transition from being on benefits and into sustainable employment?

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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We must tackle the causes of poverty, and the Government have set out stretching ambitions to remove barriers to work and to increase employment. The 30-hours offer will contribute significantly, helping families with the cost of childcare.

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I note the Minister’s earlier response, but I am sure she is aware that of the nurseries that responded to her very own consultation on free childcare half said that they were desperately in need of funding and a quarter said that they were not receiving enough money to cover their basic costs. In the run-up to the general election, the Conservative party promised millions of people in Britain that they would receive 30 hours of free childcare. Given that nurseries are struggling to meet even their basic costs, more money is needed—not just to fulfil this pledge, but to fight off the threat of closure. Will the Minister join me in pushing her Chancellor to include in the autumn statement next week the vital extra funding needed to ensure that our nurseries are protected?

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As I have pointed out on numerous occasions today, we are investing an extra £6 billion in this, and the sector has already demonstrated its ability to meet growing demand in the near universal take-up of our current childcare offer. We are now backing this with record investment.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [907246]

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This Government want to ensure that all children and young people in our country, whatever their background, can go as far as their talents will take them. We set out plans to deliver more good school places in more parts of the country, and I am pleased to say that work on the first opportunity areas is under way. We are already legislating to strengthen our world-leading university sector even further, and now we have introduced a Bill to help deliver consistently high-quality technical and further education. Together with the Government’s commitment to create 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020, these are part of our drive to improve dramatically the skills base in our country, and make it work for everyone—not just the privileged few.

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I thank the Secretary of State for her response. The Government’s proposed apprenticeship funding changes for young people in deprived areas is of great concern across the House. Given that some 625,000 young people between 16 and 24 remain unemployed, can the Secretary of State explain what is going to happen to the disadvantaged uplift after one year, and provide an assurance that it will be maintained in the long term?

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As the hon. Lady has pointed out, we are making sure that the funding is there to maintain the investment that is going into 16-to-18 apprenticeships, particularly in disadvantaged areas. I simply say to her that this is the first time our country has had a broad-based strategy on apprenticeships that is about not just Government investment, but employers investing too. I think the whole House should welcome that.

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T6. East Cambridgeshire ranks as the 14th worst area in the country for social mobility. Given its location so close to Cambridgeshire businesses that can help to improve aspiration and standards, does the Secretary of State agree that the area would benefit hugely from the opportunity fund so rightly being promoted by her Department? [907251]

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As my hon. and learned Friend points out, one of the underlying principles behind opportunity areas is getting businesses to work with schools and provide opportunities that are good not only for developing the life skills of young people but for setting higher aspirations. I have no doubt that it could work most effectively in East Cambridgeshire, which, as she set out, was recently ranked very low on the Social Mobility Commission index.

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Despite investment, the National Audit Office has judged child protection services to be “unsatisfactory and inconsistent”, which suggests systemic rather than local failure. Six years of Tory tinkering, rebranding and outsourcing has resulted in too many children’s services being deemed simply not good enough. Can the Minister tell us how much longer children will have to suffer because of his Department’s failures?

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I realise that the hon. Lady wants to press the Government to do right by vulnerable children, but I am sorry that she has tried to create a division on something about which we agree. In fact, over the past six years the Government have intervened in 60 failing local authorities, 34 of which we have turned around, and we are now investing more than £300 million in an innovation programme to ensure that we can do right by children in our care and provide them with the best possible outcomes. I hope the hon. Lady will agree that we should never, ever settle for second best for children who are vulnerable. The work that we are doing is intended to ensure that we give them everything they deserve.

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T7. During my visit to The Morley Academy, Michael Cornfoot, the senior assistant principal, inquired about the new nine-to-one grading system for GCSEs. He would like more clarity on how to assess performance against a grade. What work are my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her Department doing to clarify the system and to ensure that students are assessed accurately? [907252]

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The purpose of the grade descriptors is to give an idea of average performance at the midpoints of grades 2, 5 and 8. The descriptors are not designed to be used for awarding purposes, unlike the descriptions that apply to current GCSE grades A* to G. The descriptors were, of course, developed with the input of subject experts.

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T2. Last week I visited Tech for Life in Newcastle. It provides science, coding and electronics sessions for teachers, but schools say that they do not have the money or the time to take up those opportunities. We currently have a huge, devastating digital skills gap. What are the Government doing to provide, incrementally, additional funding and time so that teachers can become digital champions? [907247]

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It was, of course, this Government who transformed the computing curriculum in our schools. We removed the ICT curriculum, which had become outdated and dull, and replaced it with a computing curriculum. We have also provided funds for the training of a whole cadre of teachers who will be able to teach that very difficult subject.

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What steps is the Secretary of State taking to improve financial management and accountability in multi-academy trusts and academies, especially academies that were established in some haste before 2010?

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We are bringing more transparency to academies’ financing. As my hon. Friend will know from a recent Education Committee session, we are also improving our annual accounts to increase transparency. They will appear alongside the “Academies annual report” that we published previously.

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T3. None of the amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill that were tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) were accepted by the Government in Committee. What guarantees can the Minister give members of the Scottish research community that they will be fully represented in UK Research and Innovation? [907248]

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The Higher Education and Research Bill will provide mechanisms, through UK Research and Innovation, to ensure that our science and innovation system stays at the cutting edge for decades to come. It will, of course, also ensure that the excellence and expertise that exist in all parts of the United Kingdom are fully reflected in decision-making structures.

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Some parents and teachers in my constituency find it frustrating that if Cheltenham’s schools simply received average funding per head, funding pressure could be dramatically alleviated. Can the Secretary of State assure me that fair funding is on the way?

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Yes, I can. As my hon. Friend knows, we are going to launch the second stage of our consultation. Ensuring that we have a fair formula which makes our funding follow need involves an incredibly complex calculation, but that is what we are doing. I know that he will look forward to and, no doubt, respond to that second stage of consultation.

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T4. When it comes to school improvements, Ministers talk least about what works best, which is getting the best teachers into the schools that need them the most. When will schools in coastal towns be able to count on having the same proportion of outstanding teachers as those in London? [907249]

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We have a record number of teachers in our school system—15,000 more today than in 2020—and UCAS’s figures for the 2016-17 intake show that 27,000 graduates are coming into teacher training. We have very generous bursaries—£1.3 billion-worth—to attract the best graduates into teaching.

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Last week I visited the excellent Eastleigh College, which is delivering 5,000 apprenticeships and would love the new Minister to come to Eastleigh. It was noted that apprentices gained the maths qualification but were struggling to get through the English qualification. Will the apprenticeships Minister help in this area?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work she does. I will be very pleased to meet her to discuss these matters and to come to see her college.

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T5. In 2014-15 the EU-funded Erasmus scheme meant that 1,600 students from Scottish higher education institutions were able to enrich their learning and gain greater understanding of different European people and cultures by studying abroad. What assurance can the Minister give to young people across Scotland that they will be able to continue to benefit from the Erasmus scheme following the UK leaving the EU? [907250]

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We welcome student mobility schemes in both directions: the ability of international students and EU students to come to this country and the ability of our students to go and experience the higher education systems of other countries. Clearly, our membership of Erasmus will be part of the broader discussions on our future relationship with the EU.

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On Friday I met Futureworks Yorkshire, which has been successful in supporting apprentices through shared apprenticeships, particularly in small and medium-sized enterprises in the construction industry. It seeks assurances about what provision has been made for that in the levy. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and Futureworks to make sure that this successful scheme continues?

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Of course I will be pleased to meet my hon. Friend and the organisation he mentions. We are investing heavily in skills and construction and doing everything we can to improve the quality and quantity of apprenticeships.

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T8. Nursery providers have been contacting me because they are very anxious about the changes that are likely to result in reduced funding per child. The Minister has been very clear today that that will not happen. Will she meet my local providers so that we can have an exchange of information? [907253]

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I will be more than happy to.

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Splendidly succinct.

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Ministers may have noted that earlier this month I introduced my ten-minute rule Bill highlighting the issue of school admissions for children suffering from autism. Will the Minister confirm that he will work with me to deal with the situation and improve the present lot of many families?

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My hon. Friend will know that in the code of practice, which all schools must adhere to, the rules on school admissions for children with special educational needs and disabilities are very clear. I was present for his ten-minute rule Bill and heard what he had to say, and am very happy to discuss it with him further to see what more we can do to make sure that these children do not miss out on the places they require.

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T9. What discussions is the universities Minister having with his Treasury colleagues about their proposed cuts to widening participation funding for higher education? How are we going to get more people with disabilities and from poorer backgrounds into higher education while that money is being cut—by 50% by 2020? [907254]

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The amount spent through access agreements by our universities has increased substantially, from about £400 million to over £800 million in the last year. That is a significant amount of resource that universities can put towards widening access and participation. By bringing the Office for Fair Access into the future office for students we will have a more strategic ability to manage our widening participation funds, the student opportunities funds and the access agreement money to the best effect for the use of all young people from disadvantaged backgrounds seeking to benefit from higher education.

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T10. The Secretary of State has talked about the fair funding formula she wishes to introduce. Analysis by the National Union of Teachers says the Government’s proposals will mean that Hull schools will lose £13 million and 370 jobs by 2020. Is that correct: yes or no? [907255]

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No, it is not, and indeed we have not set out the second stage of the consultation, so there are no figures to base that analysis on.

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I have just spoken to a headteacher in my constituency who has already had to let four teachers go and not replace them, whose budget is already in the red and who has told me that further cuts will impact on their ability to deliver top quality education. Can the Minister assure me and that headteacher that fair funding will not come at the expense of schools in Batley and Spen?

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As I have said, we have protected the core schools budget and, in addition, we are bringing forward a new national funding formula that will ensure that the funding is spread fairly across schools in England.

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Parents and children at the Minerva free school in Westminster were horrified to discover that the temporary lease on their building will expire at Easter next year, and that their new building will not be ready until the autumn of 2018. That means that the children will have to be educated in three separate school buildings over the course of 15 months. Is that acceptable?

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The hon. Lady has set out those challenges and I would be very happy to meet her directly to see what we can do to ensure that they will be dealt with effectively.

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Encouraging children to take an interest in current affairs can also boost literacy. Will the right hon. Lady welcome the Let’s Read: Leeds initiative organised by the News Foundation and supported by the Yorkshire Evening Post?

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Yes, I do welcome that initiative. Whatever works to get children into reading should be encouraged. For some, it will be fantastic novels and books; for others, it will be an interest in what is happening around the world.

Under-occupancy Charge

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make a statement on the Supreme Court’s ruling of 9 November on the under-occupancy charge.

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The removal of the spare room subsidy was introduced in April 2013 to all working-age claimants in the social rented sector as part of this Government’s plan to create a welfare system that is fair for those who use it and those who pay for it. Under the previous system, the taxpayer had to subsidise benefit claimants to live in houses that were larger than they needed, despite the fact that people renting in the private sector were receiving housing benefit on the basis of the number of people in their household rather than the number of bedrooms that they had, which has been the case since 1996. Since we introduced the policy, it has saved over £1.5 billion, and the number of households affected by it is going down.

We, of course, operate a number of exemptions to the policy, and they include: all pensioners; households with a dependent child receiving the middle or higher rate care component of disability living allowance; households in which an overnight carer is allowed for the claimant or partner; households in which the claimant or partner is a foster carer; and households with an adult child who is in the armed forces and deployed on operations. In addition, we provide local authorities with funding to provide discretionary housing payments to claimants whom they evaluate as needing additional support with housing costs.

Turning to last week’s Supreme Court judgment, it was welcome that the Court found in our favour in five of the seven cases. These cases related to a panic room, a claimant with mental health issues and those requiring an extra room to house medical equipment, as well as cases involving shared care and adapted properties. The Court also agreed with our view that discretionary housing payments are generally an appropriate and lawful way to provide assistance to those who need extra help. In the two cases in which the Court did not find in our favour, we will take steps to ensure that we comply with the judgment. In most cases, local authorities are best placed to understand the needs of their residents, which is why we will have provided them with more than £1 billion to offer that support by the end of this Parliament. This ensures that people in difficult situations and those who are vulnerable do not lose out.

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The Supreme Court’s judgment on Wednesday clearly stated that the bedroom tax is discriminatory, as Labour Members have repeatedly highlighted. The Court upheld the claim of Jacqueline Carmichael, who is disabled and cannot share a room with her husband, Jayson; as well as that of Paul and Susan Rutherford, who care for their severely disabled grandson, Warren. I pay tribute to them, as well as to the other families, for their courage, tenacity and determination in pursuing these cases.

The ruling states that housing benefit regulations allowing claimants to have an additional bedroom when children cannot share a bedroom because of a disability should be extended to adults. Likewise, adults who need an extra room for an overnight carer have been exempt from the bedroom tax, but children such as Warren have not. Those anomalies, the judges ruled, were “manifestly without reason”.

The Department’s spokesperson indicated that the Government accept the Supreme Court’s ruling. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether his Department also unequivocally does so? Will he tell the House how much taxpayers’ money has been spent on legal fees in the attempt to defend the Government’s bedroom tax policy? How many families does the Department calculate have been affected by the Government’s unlawful imposition of the bedroom tax on disabled people and their carers? When and how will the Government inform the families affected by the judgment? How quickly will the Government comply with the Supreme Court’s judgment and revoke the bedroom tax for those families? Will such a revocation be backdated and, if so, to when? Will the Government now formally apologise for the pain and suffering inflicted on disabled people and families caring for a disabled child? Finally, will the Government undertake to look again at their policy on safe rooms for victims of domestic violence, which affects a relatively small number of incredibly vulnerable women who live their lives in fear and are being punished by the Government for heeding security advice and being safe in their homes?

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I am happy to repeat what I said in my statement. We of course accept the Court’s view and, to answer some of the hon. Lady’s subsequent questions, we will take the appropriate action as soon as we practicably can. She said that the removal of the spare room subsidy was unlawful, but it patently is not, because the Supreme Court found in the Government’s favour in five of the seven cases before it. It is interesting that those involved in every one of those cases—all seven—were receiving discretionary housing payments, which are the best way to ensure that those who are affected can be helped if they need it.

Discretionary housing payments are up fivefold since 2011-12 and the Government are committed to a further £870 million over the next five years—[Interruption.] I am surprised that the hon. Lady complains about the payments, because her local authority received the best part of half a million pounds for discretionary housing payments this year, which makes it clear that people in her area find them useful. She might also be interested to know that 63% of those who are affected and unemployed have decided to look for work, which shows one of the policy’s effects.

I hope that the hon. Lady will address the basic issue of fairness. Without these measures, neighbouring households could be treated differently, which many people would regard as unfair.

On the hon. Lady’s point about those receiving disability benefits, all seven cases involved people receiving discretionary housing payments. Four of the five people involved in the cases won by the Government have a disability, so the policy is clearly not unlawful. Her basic analysis is wrong. The Government are spending £50 billion a year on disability benefit, which shows that we want a practical system that cares for people with a disability. This court case does not alter that at all.

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I remind the Secretary of State that the real anger is not from Opposition Members, but from the 241,000 families in overcrowded accommodation who are desperate to access family homes. It is those families, not Opposition Members, to whom the Secretary of State should be listening.

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My hon. Friend, who knows a huge amount about this subject, is absolutely right. The Government are indeed taking steps to try to alleviate housing problems, but he is quite right about the indignation among Opposition Members.

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Last week’s Supreme Court ruling is a damning indictment of the Government’s willingness to make disabled people and their families bear the brunt of austerity cuts. The ruling follows hard on the heels of a report by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was also published in recent days. Among other conclusions, the report notes that the Government’s measures

“have caused financial hardship to persons with disabilities resulting in...arrears, debts, evictions and cuts to essentials”.

I am sorry that it is necessary to remind the Secretary of State today that, according to the Government’s own impact assessment, around two thirds of the households affected by the bedroom tax include a disabled adult. In Scotland, the proportion is a massive 80%, and I am proud that the Scottish Government have taken action to protect all affected families. Will the Government recognise that the bedroom tax has failed in its objectives and continues to harm disabled people? Will they finally call time on this destructive, discriminatory experiment?

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I do not agree with the hon. Lady about that, and nor does the Supreme Court. As I said, it had seven cases before it, and five of them were found in favour of the Government, so she is wrong to say that the policy has been in any way found unlawful. She will have seen my response to the UN report, which I thought was out of date. It took completely the wrong approach by measuring the effectiveness of a policy towards disabled people purely according to the amount of benefit spend, because this is about the amount of practical help that people can get. The fact that 300,000 more disabled people have gone into work in recent years shows the success of the Government’s policies in helping disabled people. I hope that Opposition Members will also welcome the recent Green Paper, which will provide more practical help for disabled people.

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Will there be any retreat from a fairer and rational allocation of housing?

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No, there will not. I am happy to reassure my right hon. Friend that the fair and rational allocation of housing is not only sensible but fair housing policy because, as I have said, it is clearly sensible that people in the social rented sector and those in the private sector should be treated as equally as possible in terms of benefits.

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In 2014, I had the privilege of meeting Paul and Sue Rutherford and their grandson, Warren. That meeting left a profound impact on me. They are heroes in our community, and they should be treated as such by the Government, rather than being penalised with policies such as the bedroom tax. When they were first charged the bedroom tax, they applied for a discretionary housing payment but were not granted it—they got it only on appeal—so the idea that discretionary housing payments are helping all the families is just wrong. After the Court verdict, Paul Rutherford said that he was happy but “exhausted”. He should never have had to go through what he went through. May I ask the Minister how many more families have been illegally charged the bedroom tax, and when will they stop being charged it?

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I appreciate that the hon. Lady has campaigned very effectively with the Rutherford family for a long time. As she said, they received discretionary housing payments, and such payments are the main tool that we are using to make sure that people are given appropriate help. Obviously we are still looking at the number of people who may be affected as a result of this case, but I can only repeat that we will take steps to make sure that we comply with the Court judgment.

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Does the Secretary of State find it strange, as I do, that Labour Members are protesting, given that in 2008 they introduced exactly the same changes in the private rented sector? [Interruption.] Does he agree that there should be equality for tenants receiving housing benefit, be they in social housing or the private rented sector?

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I do agree with my hon. Friend about that. The fact that Opposition Members tried to shout her down rather than listening to her question suggests that she has hit the mark.

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This Secretary of State is no improvement on his predecessor. Is he aware that there is one advantage of the bedroom tax: it is a constant reminder of a Tory vendetta against social tenants, particularly those on low incomes? He should be thoroughly ashamed of himself for coming out with the same Tory line as his predecessor. This illustrates that the Tory Government have not changed at all as a result of a new Prime Minister.

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I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman asked a question, but his idea of a vendetta against tenants in social housing is completely bizarre, given that under the previous Labour Government, whom he supported, the number of social rented homes fell by 420,000 while waiting lists increased. In addition, more than twice as much council housing has been built since 2010 than was built in the previous 13 years, so this Government and the predecessor coalition are proving a much better friend of those tenants than the previous Labour Government[Interruption.]

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Order. Mr Opperman, you are a cerebral figure in the House. You now occupy high office as a Government Whip. Chuntering from a sedentary position and gesticulating—even under provocation—is not quite the statesmanlike posture that we have come to expect from a man of your exalted status. I call Mr James Cartlidge.

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I am reassured to hear my right hon. Friend say that the number of claimants for this subsidy is actually falling and that part of that is due to the fact that people are moving into work from benefits. There are always difficult cases in the welfare system—cases that fall outside the normal rules—but the big picture is that worklessness, which is the biggest cause of poverty, is at an all-time low, and that the spare room subsidy has played a part in delivering that.

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I agree that the subsidy has played a small role. It is also consistent with the rest of our welfare policy, which is about making sure that, as work is the best route out of poverty, as few people as possible face worklessness and that they are helped better than ever before. We have helped more people to get into work and progress in work. [Interruption.] I am afraid that the Opposition do not understand any of that.

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The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) is also a proud product of the University of Buckingham in my own constituency, which is another consideration to boot.

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The bedroom tax has always hit disabled people especially hard. More than any other single measure, it has driven the increase in food bank use and in penury that we are seeing in communities up and down the country. Surely it is now time, finally, to abandon this hated measure.

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I just do not agree with the underlying analysis of the right hon. Gentleman. I know that he has considerable expertise in this area, but the fact is that, across the social rented sector as a whole, approximately two thirds of claimants are disabled. It was initially estimated that under two-thirds of those potentially affected by this measure could be considered disabled. That fact shows that there is no disproportionate impact of the type he claimed.

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Will my right hon. Friend make sure that local authorities are clearly marking and marketing discretionary housing payments to constituents, particularly disabled constituents? In my surgeries, I have had to explain this process to people who are worried about this matter. Local councils can do better.

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My hon. Friend is right that some local authorities are not taking up their full allocation of central Government funding for discretionary housing payments. On top of that, they are allowed, if necessary, to increase by two and a half times the amount given by central Government. Considerable sums are available under discretionary housing payments, and I join her in urging local authorities to use them.

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The Secretary of State has just talked about getting people back into work. The pay-to-stay scheme will probably mean a hike in rent for tenants of £87 a month. Is it really fair for the Government to be talking about making work pay when they are attacking people who are striving to get back into work through schemes such as pay to stay?

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I do not think that the scheme has the effect that the hon. Lady fears. I can stand here and recite figures to her if she likes, but it is patently the case that more people are in work than before. We have more women in work than ever before in our history and unemployment is at its lowest level for more than 10 years. Our welfare policy has had a huge success in getting people into work. If we accept that work is the best route out of poverty, then that is the best measure that any Government can take to alleviate poverty in the long term.

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I declare my interest as a member of Kettering borough Council. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm to the House that disability spending will be higher in each year of this Parliament than was the case in 2010?

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I can, and my hon. Friend makes his point using his particular expertise in dealing with these cases not just as a Member of this House, but as a local councillor as well. I mentioned the figure for disability spending earlier, and it is indeed rising.

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It is not only councils, housing organisations and charities that have made it clear that the people who are now exempted through the court case should have been exempt all along; the Secretary of State also realises that he failed to listen to the will of this House when it passed the Affordable Homes Bill. Will he now listen and ensure that when people cannot find homes because there are no suitable homes to move to they are also not penalised?

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I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman and I think that this Government have a good record on affordable housing—we certainly have a considerably better record than the previous Labour Government. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has announced more money that will be used in part for affordable housing to ensure that we deal with what is absolutely a genuine issue.

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May I invite the Secretary of State to come to Liverpool and see the impact that the bedroom tax has had, particularly on some of the poorest communities, including those in my constituency? His remarks today will ring hollow to some of the poorest families in my constituency. May I urge him to think again about the whole policy and suggest that the best way to implement the Court ruling is to repeal the bedroom tax?

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I am always delighted to visit Liverpool, but I can only repeat that the Court ruling in five of the seven cases was in favour of the Government. I cannot sensibly draw the conclusions that the hon. Gentleman draws from the judgments.

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My local authority, Cyngor Gwynedd, has used discretionary housing payments year on year, helping about 1,000 of the 1,400 people affected by this charge, many of them disabled, and effectively protecting this Government from the consequences of their own folly. Will the Minister accept that these wasteful churning bail-outs cannot continue indefinitely?

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As I have said, the use of discretionary housing payments by local authorities is proving successful. Inevitably, some local authorities are using them differently from others but, as the Court confirmed, they are a sensible and practical way to proceed to ensure that those who need help will get it.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm how much it would cost to exempt victims of domestic abuse from the bedroom tax, and how does that compare to how much money the Government have spent defending the bedroom tax in court?

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I do not think that that first figure is available. If it is, I will certainly write to the hon. Lady with it. She will be aware that one of the seven cases specifically related to that issue and the Court found in favour of the Government. Obviously, the Government are very proud of our record on domestic violence and domestic abuse, and there have been many initiatives taken. It is certainly an area that I keep under constant review.

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When the Prime Minister said on the steps of Downing Street:

“I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours”,

did that apply to everybody who is struggling except those struggling with the bedroom tax?

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I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has absorbed the words of the Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street, which were indeed memorable and correct. All Government policies are related to achieving what she set out to achieve.

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I cannot stress too highly the pain that has been caused to families in my constituency living with a family member who is disabled. Many of them have got into debt to pay the bedroom tax. When can those families expect to get back the money that the Government have taken from them illegally?

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I am not sure whether the hon. Lady heard me when I said that all the cases—those that the Government won and those that they lost at the Court last week—were in receipt of discretionary housing payments. It is not a question of the money—they were getting money—but of the structure of the policy, which is what the Court has challenged. The discretionary housing payments have been paid to those people.

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In trying to present the Supreme Court judgment as a 5-2 result, could the Secretary of State take more care not to imply that the Court found that discretionary housing payments were necessarily the best or only way of helping those in extra need? In taking steps to comply with the two judgments, will not the Secretary of State take the opportunity to have a wider and more fundamental recast of this controversial policy?

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I can only present the facts, which are that there were seven cases, five of which were won by the Government and two by other people, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the wider policy. We look at all our policies all the time to ensure that they are delivering what they set out to achieve.

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In what can only be described as coalition fervour, my Liberal Democrat predecessor voted for the bedroom tax eight times, despite a severe local impact. Based on the court decision, how many of the 4,238 people hit by the bedroom tax in Southwark should not have been affected?

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I do not have figures at that level of detail. I hope that Southwark Council has been assiduous in using discretionary housing payments to make sure that people have not lost out financially, because those DHPs are available.

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Instead of standing here saying that he welcomes the fact that five judges found that a woman with a panic room should be subject to a bedroom tax, should not the Minister go away and review his entire policy? Instead of attacking the people on the demand side, the Government need to look at the supply side of housing. The Government should end the right to buy, where a quarter of houses end up on the buy-to-let market, further pushing up the housing benefit bill, and they should target the right areas.

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No, I do not think I should stand at the Dispatch Box and challenge the Supreme Court. The hon. Gentleman is right: the supply side is as important as the demand side. That is why this Government are spending huge amounts of money to help the housing market generally, and the affordable housing market specifically. I wish that previous Governments had done the same.

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Can the Minister tell us how much the Government have spent on legal fees defending one of the most hated policies, the bedroom tax?

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I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. The Department has spent approximately £206,000 in legal costs in respect of the Supreme Court proceedings.

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My constituents Ann and Kevin Gresham, who live in a two-bedroom flat, are unable to share a room owing to Ann’s various disabilities. They successfully fought the bedroom tax in court but this caused them significant heartache and stress. When will this Government finally stop punishing the disabled, admit that the cruel bedroom tax just is not working, and axe it?

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As I said in response to previous hon. Members, I do not agree that the overall policy is not working, and we have no plans to change it.

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My constituency has the highest number of bedroom tax cases in the country, with more than 3,000 families affected. I want to raise the case of Mr Tony Gunning in my constituency. He needs regular kidney dialysis and he does not get a discretionary payment because he lives in Tory Trafford. If he had lived in Labour Manchester in my constituency, he would have got the discretionary payment. He has been hit twice by the Conservative party.

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I have said that I hope local authorities will claim the discretionary housing payments that are available to them, and I say that to all local authorities.

Croydon Tram Incident

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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the tragic tram derailment in the early hours of Wednesday 9 November, close to Sandilands junction in Croydon.

The tram was running from New Addington to Wimbledon via Croydon town centre. Sandilands junction is the point where inbound trams from the Beckenham Junction, Elmers End and New Addington routes converge shortly before they arrive at Sandilands tram stop to the east of Croydon town centre. Trams approaching from New Addington have to negotiate a sharp, left-hand curve with a speed limit of 12 mph before reaching the junction. The derailment occurred on the curve and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch says that initial indications suggest that the tram was travelling at a significantly higher speed than is permitted.

Seven people lost their lives—Dane Chinnery, Robert Huxley, Philip Logan, Dorota Rynkiewicz and Phil Seary from New Addington, and Donald Collett and Mark Smith from Croydon. A further 51 people were injured and a number are still in hospital. Our thoughts at this time are with the families and friends of the bereaved, and the injured.

I visited the scene with the Mayor of London and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on Wednesday, and again on Thursday and Friday. I would like to take this opportunity to express my profound thanks to staff from London’s emergency services, Transport for London and the RAIB for their professionalism and dedication in the most difficult circumstances. I would also like to thank staff from our local NHS hospitals—Croydon University and St George’s—who treated the injured. Without these amazing public servants, more people would undoubtedly have lost their lives.

Croydon Council has set up a centre at Croydon Adult Learning and Training New Addington, on Central Parade, which is being staffed by council officers, the British Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Victim Support, rail care teams, and local church and community groups to provide support, counselling and advice to anybody affected. My officials have participated in the council’s recovery co-ordination meetings, and we have offered the Government’s help, if that is needed. We stand ready to deal with any requests promptly. People can also obtain help from the Sarah Hope line, which was created to provide specialist support to people affected by fatal or serious injuries on London’s transport network. Run by TfL staff, it provides practical, financial and emotional help, and can also make referrals for counselling and specialised support.

The tram was removed from the site in the early hours of Saturday morning and has been transported to a secure location. Work is now under way to repair the damaged track so that tram services can resume as soon as possible.

The RAIB immediately began a major investigation to ensure that the relevant lessons are learned to improve safety and prevent a similar accident from occurring. This investigation is being run independently of, but in parallel with, the British Transport police’s investigation, as well as that of the safety regulator, the Office of Rail and Road. The BTP’s investigation will consider whether there were any breaches of criminal law. The ORR’s investigation will consider whether there were any breaches of health and safety law, which it is responsible for enforcing.

The RAIB intends to publish an initial report into the accident later this week. Its final report will take months to produce, but if urgent safety learning comes to light during the investigation, this will be published without delay. As much as we are all desperate for answers, we need to give the professionals time to do a thorough job. The victims deserve no less.

Our rail and tram services have had a good safety record in recent years. I know I speak for not just the Government but the whole House and the industry when I say we are determined to maintain this. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will give urgent and careful consideration to recommendations as he receives them, and I am confident the industry will do the same.

When we say goodbye to our loved ones each morning, it never crosses our mind that we may not see them again. Seven families are now having to face that terrible reality, and other people will return to their loved ones only after a lengthy stay in hospital and with life-changing injuries. They will need support in the days, weeks and months ahead, and the Government will work with the Mayor of London and Croydon Council to make sure they receive it.

I have made this statement in my capacity as Minister for London, but hon. Members may be aware that the accident took place in my constituency and that six of the seven people who were tragically killed were my constituents. The last few days have been the toughest in my six and a half years as a Member of this House, but I have been sustained by the way in which the people of Croydon have supported the emergency services, as they have carried out their difficult work, and the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured. We are a strong community, and we will support each other in our grief.

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Order. I am most grateful to the Minister for his statement, in terms both of the content and the way in which he delivered it. I feel a duty to inform the House that two commis chefs in the service of the House were among those injured in the tram incident last Wednesday. On behalf of all colleagues, I have written to both to express the hope that they will enjoy a full and, if possible, speedy recovery.

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Hear, hear!

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May I begin by thanking the Minister for London for his statement and for giving me early sight of it? This is the first time we have debated London matters across the Dispatch Box, and I am sorry that it happens under such tragic circumstances. These have been the most difficult days for him and his constituents, and particularly the victims of the derailment—the injured and their families, and the families and friends of the seven people who died. Let me associate myself and everyone on the Opposition side of the House with the Minister’s closing words: to lose a loved one is the hardest thing at any time; when disaster strikes from nowhere, and someone is taken away without warning or the chance to say goodbye, it is even harder to bear. The whole House will echo the Minister’s thoughts for all who have been touched by this accident and will join him in expressing sympathy for the bereaved.

All Members will, at some point, experience tragic events to which they and their communities have to respond. In my experience, such events bring out the best in all of us and bind us closer in solidarity. They also bring out the best in our emergency services. Let me add my thanks to the London ambulance service, the London fire brigade and the Metropolitan police. Of course, we all know and value our emergency services, but it is at times such as these that we truly comprehend their professionalism and heroism.

Let me turn to the aftermath of the accident. Staff from Transport for London, the NHS, Croydon Council and many other statutory and voluntary bodies have worked, and continue to work, tirelessly to resolve the practical, emotional and physical consequences of the derailment. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has taken the lead in expressing the sorrow and sympathy of all Londoners at this terrible tragedy. His officers are working closely with Croydon Council to provide immediate specialist help and support for those most affected by the crash.

Finally, let me turn to the investigations into the derailment and the lessons to be learned. We await the reports of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, the British Transport police and the Office of Rail and Road. Clearly, it is too early to expect answers to questions about what caused or contributed to the accident. In any event, there is a criminal investigation under way. However, I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is imperative that the operator and those conducting the inquiries ensure that even interim findings are translated into immediate action to provide the necessary reassurance that any further such incidents can be averted.

Trams are a very safe form of public transport, but incidents such as this reinforce the fundamental principle that when it comes to our public transport systems, there can never be any compromise on safety. It is essential that the investigations examine whether there were any organisational, as well as individual, errors or omissions that contributed in any way, and whether there was any prior evidence or concern that such an event was possible or likely. In such circumstances, it would be critical to understand why and how any such prior warnings were not recognised and acted on.

There have been calls from some in the transport industry for the introduction of automated braking systems on trams, similar to those used on the docklands light railway. May I ask the Minister to raise that specific matter as part of the inquiries? The Minister may be in a position to say when tram services in Croydon will resume; I believe that there is a test tram running today. In any event, could he say what interim steps will be taken to reassure passengers that this service and similar services around the country—in Nottingham, Sheffield, Edinburgh and Manchester—will be safe to use for the foreseeable future?

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I am hugely grateful for, although not at all surprised by, the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s response. It is good to have the support of the Official Opposition for the work that we are undertaking. I have paid tribute to the agencies, but I would like, on a personal level, to thank the Mayor of London for the support that he has provided to Croydon Council and for the detailed briefing that he has ensured that I, as a constituency MP, have had at every stage of the process.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we should not speculate about the causes of the accident. Three investigations are under way, and it is important that we give the professionals the time to do their work thoroughly. The victims of this terrible tragedy deserve the whole truth, and that will not be served by too much speculation at this stage. I want to reassure him on two points. First, the RAIB has been very clear that if anybody has any evidence—either specific to the accident that took place on Wednesday morning or, more generally, concerns about the operation of the system—it wants to hear that evidence, and I encourage anybody who has such evidence to put it forward. Secondly, the investigation will be very thorough.

The hon. Gentleman asked about automation, and lots of constituents have already raised that issue with me. Essentially, trams are buses on rails. Because they run part of their route on rails and part of it on roads, trams have to rely, at least for part of the route, on drivers driving according to the conditions in front of them. Therefore, trams cannot have the same kind of signalling systems as trains. However, there is a legitimate question about sections of the route where trams run on rails and are akin to trains, and I am sure that that will be one of the issues addressed in the investigation.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that the record of this system over the history of its operation shows that it has been extraordinarily safe. As and when the system reopens, people will obviously be looking for reassurance, but they can look at the safety record and have confidence in that regard. I also give him the assurance he was looking for that if recommendations are made during the course of the RAIB’s work, the Government will of course give them urgent and very careful consideration and make sure that all necessary steps are taken.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the track has now been repaired and that TfL is running test services today, so I anticipate a decision about when the service can reopen fairly imminently.

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Communities across Croydon are certainly united in their grief and sympathy for the families of the seven victims. From attending remembrance services in Croydon South yesterday, I know that the hearts of people there have gone out to the families who suffered so tragically on Wednesday. I associate myself with the comments of the Minister and the shadow Minister in paying tribute to the emergency services, who responded so well in very difficult circumstances.

I want to tell the Minister that many of my constituents who also use the line, part of which runs along our constituency border, have contacted me in the past four or five days to say that they have felt in the past—not on Wednesday, but in general—that trains approaching the Sandilands junction from the tunnel to the south have been running at very rapid speeds. Will he confirm to the House that the investigations will cover that? I believe tram users would find it reassuring if there was an opportunity to install either a warning system or automated braking in other trams, as the shadow Minister said, as well as in the ones in Croydon, to prevent any repetition of this accident.

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Like my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, the Remembrance Day services in Croydon at the weekend obviously took on a special poignancy, with people taking the opportunity to remember those who gave their lives in the past to protect our freedoms in this country, but also those who lost their lives in this tragic accident.

Like my hon. Friend, I have had people contact me with their concerns about the operation of the system over a period of time. I assure him that the investigation will look into those issues. As I said in answer to the shadow Minister, I do not think we should prejudge what needs to happen at this time. Clearly, the investigation will look into such issues, and the Government will take very seriously any recommendations from that investigation.

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May I add my condolences to those expressed by the Minister to those who have suffered injury or have lost loved ones in this tragic incident? I reiterate his gratitude to the emergency services, NHS staff—particularly those at the hospital—and the council, whose speedy professionalism undoubtedly saved lives after the incident. Croydon is an extremely tightknit community, and tragedies like the one we have just experienced have brought that community closer together. The shock and sorrow about what has happened has been felt in every part of the borough.

We need the inquiry to conclude as quickly as is reasonably practicable, because once the tram system starts moving again, people will need absolute reassurance that it is safe. Will the inquiry look at other recent incidents on the tram network, such as the impact between a car and a tram near to the Sandilands tram stop a few weeks earlier? That flags up that there have been other incidents that will cause concern to people using the system.

I thank the Minister for the work he has carried out. In conclusion, may I commend the people who have set up a fund to support the victims of this tragedy? Families that have now been hit with funeral expenses may not have the finances at hand to deal with them, and the fundraising that is going on will help to ease the financial strain, which comes on top of the emotional strain they are already suffering.

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The hon. Gentleman, who is a constituency neighbour, is right to draw attention to the work that the council and the Mayor have done in setting up the fund, which will prove invaluable to some of the families. Given the nature of the communities from which they come, some of them will face costs that will be difficult to bear. He is quite right to draw attention to that issue.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman, as I have reassured my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), that the investigation will look at all the evidence on the safety of the system that is drawn to its attention. If constituents contact the hon. Gentleman, I encourage him to direct them to submit such evidence to the inquiry.

On the speed of the inquiry, I reiterate that an interim report will be published this week. There may well be issues that the RAIB can draw to the attention of the regulator, the operator and the Secretary of State. Experience suggests that the full report will take 10 to 12 months to produce. However, as I said in my statement, if issues emerge during its work, it is able to make recommendations in the interim. Our constituents should rest assured that any issues that come out of the investigation will be drawn promptly to people’s attention.

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Many of my constituents travel to or through Croydon, as do I, so we join my hon. Friend in sending our deepest condolences to all those who have been adversely affected. I appreciate that three investigations into the incident are ongoing and must take priority, but a broader concern that constituents have raised with me is the safety and speed of trams at transport interchanges, such as East Croydon station. I wonder whether, at a later date, consideration can be given to those broader safety issues.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words on behalf of his constituents. A number of hon. Members have contacted me over the past four or five days, and I am very grateful for the support they have expressed.

My hon. Friend is right that the tram network, by its nature, runs on rail on parts of the route but also on main roads through the centre of Croydon, where there are clearly risks in relation to motor traffic and pedestrians, including right outside East Croydon station, which is one of the country’s busiest railway stations. Again, I say that if people have concerns, they should draw them to the inquiry’s attention.

The tram system has a very good safety record. My colleagues from Croydon who are in the Chamber will confirm that thousands of our constituents use it to get to work or school every day. It is one of the best things about the town, but everyone will want reassurance that its operation is safe.

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On behalf of the SNP, I pass on our condolences and sympathies to the bereaved families. It was poignant that the Minister said that six of his constituents were among those who were killed. As he said, when we say goodbye to our loved ones in the morning, we expect to see them at night and to spend time catching up on the day, rather than to go through the trauma of what happened. I thank those in the emergency services who were involved.

It is clear that we need to understand what happened. That is why the three investigations are very important. I look forward to the initial interim report of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch. Other Members have touched on the speculation, which is clearly not helpful. Unfortunately, I have read three variations in newspapers, apportioning different types of blame to the driver. That does not help us to get to the bottom of the matter and it does not help the bereaved families. I imagine the Minister will share those concerns.

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The hon. Gentleman touches on one of the most difficult issues with such disasters, which is the media’s reporting of them. We all understand and respect the job the media have to do, but I can report that the families of the victims whom I have met have found the media intrusion at a time of terrible grief very difficult to come to terms with. One family sat down to watch the news of the US election, only to see a photo and the identity of their loved one revealed on a TV news bulletin. They had not been told in advance that that was going to happen. I am sure all hon. Members understand how distressing that might be.

We all understand the vital role the media play in our society in disseminating information. It is natural that a day or two afterwards, attention turns to what caused the accident, and that naturally leads one into speculation, but the most important thing is to allow the three investigations to run their course, because that is the best way to make sure we get the facts about what caused the accident and understand what each of us needs to do to ensure that it does not recur.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his statement and for the way in which he has conducted himself, both as a Minister and as a constituency MP, in dealing with this episode. There seems to be a general view that the tram was going too fast at a sharp left-hand bend. Will he reassure the House that the investigators will take advantage of all the international experience in preparing the report, as there are lots of trams around the world? However, I think he and his constituents would be surprised if the final report need take 12 months. Surely, it can be done quicker than that. In a city the size of London, with a growing number of people using the tram network, most people would expect a comprehensive final report well within that 12-month time period.

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I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. If I may make a generic observation, in my three to four months as a Minister my reaction to nearly everything I have been told has been, “Can’t we do it quicker than that?” I am sure that he is right that most of my constituents would want to see the final report as quickly as possible, exactly as the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) said; none the less, I do not think that it is my job, or our job in this House, to rush people who have a very difficult job to do. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, I had the opportunity to see just what is involved in gathering the kind of evidence needed for an inquiry of this kind. I have the utmost respect for the work that those individuals are doing.

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I thank my friend the Minister for his statement and echo his condolences to the families. I also echo your comments, Mr Speaker, about the members of House of Commons staff affected—I have the honour of speaking on behalf of the Commission, and wish to log my sympathy for what happened to them. I thank the emergency services, the local hospitals, Croydon Council and others who have played a significant part in ensuring that the aftermath of this was addressed properly, and also Transport for London for keeping Members informed. The tramline comes through my constituency of Carshalton and Wallington, and clearly many of my constituents will have been affected.

I wish to make two points. Following on from the point made by the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), I welcome the fact that previous incidents will be looked at as part of this inquiry; perhaps it should look as well as what action happened as a result of those incidents—whether there were technical measures that needed to be taken or training issues that were addressed. Is there a clear mechanism for passengers to report concerns if they believe they are on a tram that is travelling too fast—is it clear what action they can take to ensure that that information is logged somewhere?

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I am very grateful to my friend the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. As he says, part of the network passes through his constituency and there is a long-standing ambition on behalf of the people of Sutton to extend the route down to Sutton town centre, which I am very keen to support—in my constituency capacity, I should hasten to add.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about previous history. I will add that the operator is required by law to notify the RAIB immediately of any incident that, had circumstances been only slightly different, could have had a serious outcome. I am sure that the investigation will look into whether there have been any notifications of that kind over a period.

Without in any way casting any doubt on the concerns raised with me, as I have felt them myself on the tram, I would observe that we are not as individuals necessarily the best judges of speed on trams, in particular on this route, which passes through a tunnel where the tram gets up to its top speed before coming to the bend and having to slow down. I am informed that the operator does regular speed checks, so there should be a body of data that will provide good evidence about the record over a period of time. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing that matter to the House’s attention.

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May I associate myself with the eloquent and compassionate words of the Minister and the shadow Front-Bench team, and with your words, Mr Speaker? Will the Minister promise that any learning from this tragedy will be disseminated to all tram networks in the UK and in particular to those of us who have huge tram network infrastructure in our patches?

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Those of us who have tram networks in our constituencies are aware of what a fantastic contribution they can make to our transport policies. They are quick, efficient and environmentally friendly modern methods of transport, and I am sure we are all keen for them to be expanded. The Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), are both sitting alongside me. I am hugely grateful for the support given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in coming down to Croydon on Wednesday to see the scene for himself. I know that they will want to ensure that any lessons that can be learned from this tragic event are applied not just to the Croydon system but to light rail right across the country.

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On behalf of the all-party group on light rail, I would like to express my condolences to all those affected, in particular to the families of those who died and those who were injured, as well as to the whole community and to the Minister, the constituency MP, for the burden he has had to shoulder over these awful few days.

What is particularly shocking about this awful tragedy is that light rail is such a safe form of travel, with 300 million passengers every year. The last passenger killed on a tram in this country had been in 1959. It is clear that this was one incident on one part of track. I am not asking the Minister, in looking at the incident and finding out what went wrong, to speculate on whether there was an engineering error, a human error or both. However, will he assure the House that he will make it clear to colleagues that light rail remains a safe form of travel and encourage his constituents and others to keep using the wonderful tram system that has, on this rare occasion, failed people badly?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. He makes a very powerful point. Last year was the ninth consecutive year in which there were no passenger fatalities as the result of an accident such as that we saw last Wednesday in Croydon on any railway in the UK. That was testament to the hard work of the industry, the regulator and the Government to ensure we learned the lessons from tragic accidents such as Potters Bar, Hatfield and Ladbroke Grove more than a decade ago. He is right to point to the safety record of tram systems across the country overall.

What we need to do now is support the families of the victims of this tragic accident and ensure that the professionals are given the time to carry out their investigations, so that we can learn the appropriate lessons. I think that it is clear from these exchanges that we all share a determination to ensure that our transport systems are safe for the people who use them.

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As I once represented the constituency, may I take this opportunity to express my own deepest sympathy to all those involved?

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I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that expression of sympathy. I think I am right in saying there are six living former Members for my seat, with reflects either its attractiveness as a place to live or its hyper-marginality.

Point of Order

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It is customary in this place for Ministers to make announcements here, rather than in the press. Would you be able to comment on whether, if an announcement has been made in a different place—for example, in the media—you would expect Ministers to respond immediately, even if it was not an announcement made by a Minister? I have in mind the King’s Fund report, which today seems to suggest that my local hospital, St Helier, or at least some of its services, may be under threat of closure. Clearly, I think that is a matter of great import, which I would have thought Ministers would want to present themselves, at the earliest opportunity, to explain precisely what is going on.

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As a former Deputy Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman is a very ingenious Member, well-versed in the mechanisms available to him to register his constituents’ concerns. He has just used one of them. If I were to engage with his point directly, I would say only that Ministers must judge when it is proper to come to the House to make a statement. In fairness, I do not think it is incumbent upon a Minister to do so immediately after the publication of a report that might comment on, or even have implications for, Government policy. There are probably dozens or even hundreds of such reports produced within the course of a month. They do not necessarily require an immediate oral response, but some might do so and the right hon. Gentleman will use his powers of discernment to conclude, at least for himself, which merit a response and which do not.

Technical and Further Education Bill

Second Reading

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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The background to the Bill is that the Government have worked tirelessly over the past six years to embed our school reforms so that we can raise standards and ensure that an excellent academic route is open to all students. That work continues. Thanks in no small part to the hard work of the teaching profession, over 1.4 million more children are now being taught in schools rated as good or outstanding compared with 2010. This is vital if we are to be a country in which everyone not only has a level playing field for opportunity, but has their potential unlocked and can thereby do their best. This transformational progress has been great news, particularly for those young people who choose to build on their time at school by pursuing an academic route through Britain’s world-class universities on their way to joining the workforce and making a contribution to the economy. The truth is, however, that half—last year, most—of our young people, often those from disadvantaged backgrounds will choose not to go to university, but to follow a less purely academic route, or perhaps one that plays to their individual strengths, talents and interests.

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The Secretary of State will know that we are failing nationally to train enough graduate engineers to serve our own needs. One reason is the teaching of mathematics and the failure of young people to acquire skills in that subject. A lot of effort has been put into improving the quality of mathematics teaching in schools. Are we now starting to see the fruits of that extra effort?

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I believe that we are. Not only have we seen investment in more effective mathematics teaching—through some of the Mathematics Mastery work, for example—but we have tried to widen participation by making sure that girls do maths and science courses, thereby better balancing our engineering careers between men and women. Alongside that—this is why the Bill matters so much—we must recognise routes into such professions that are not purely academic which, for many of our young people, will take the form of technical education.

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Do the Government still want young people who do not achieve a C or above in maths and English to repeat their GCSEs, rather than having a more useful level 2 post-16 qualification?

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We have been clear that we do not want children to be left behind by not getting a GCSE in maths or English when they could have achieved one, so we want those who score a D to take resits. For others, however, there is the option to study for functional skills qualifications, and it is important for employers that we make sure those functional skills qualifications work effectively.

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rose

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I will make a little more progress. I will definitely let the hon. Gentleman intervene but, as he will know, I have some way to go as I introduce the Bill.

I was setting out how most young people will not necessarily go down an academic route, but choose more a technical educational route. Despite that fact, the technical education route open to those young people for decades has often lacked sufficient quality and failed to offer a proper pathway into the world of work. That is not acceptable. If we are to create a country that works for everyone, it is time that we gave technical education the focus its deserves, alongside our school and academic education reforms, so that people who choose to pursue this route have as good a chance at getting a high-skilled career as someone taking an academic route.

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I think that everyone applauds the direction of travel for technical education. In response to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) about GCSE maths and English, the Secretary of State focused on functional skills. Is she saying that those functional skills will remain as an equal qualification in the future, because I do not think that that is being said to institutions or students?

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What we are saying is that we want an education system, particularly at the primary and secondary level, that really stretches our young people to get through their GCSEs and to come out with GCSE qualifications that are well recognised and respected by employers. Alongside the resit policy, we want strong functional skills qualifications that can, in conjunction with a broader offer for technical education, enable young people to demonstrate their attainment in both maths and English. No young person should leave our education system without something to show for all their time spent on maths and English. It is important that they are able clearly to demonstrate their level of attainment to employers. At the same time, we need to make sure that people achieve as high a level of attainment as possible to recognise their potential in maths and English. STEM subjects, especially maths and English, have been a strong push for this Government so that we ensure that we give young people the critical building blocks that are important not just for their future careers and work but, much more broadly, so that they have a chance of being successful in life.

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The Secretary of State is being generous with her time. There is still quite a lot of confusion about this point. She says that she wants to make sure that GCSEs are well understood and that they have a certain status, so will she clarify whether those who will take the new maths and English GCSEs next year will be required to resit if they get a 4 or if they get a 5? Will that apply thereafter, or is it a transitional arrangement?

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Of course, a level 4 broadly equates to a C grade. We will make sure that the resit policy aligns with the new way of grading GCSEs that will come through next summer. I hope Members recognise that the most important thing is to ensure that young people come out of our education system with adequate skills, particularly in maths and English, as well as—dare I say—adequate digital skills, which are also important.

The aim of the Bill is to ensure that there is a genuine choice between high-quality academic and technical education routes. The Government want to build on what exists in the further and technical education sector and steadily create a gold standard of technical education for the first time so that students can be confident that if they commit their time and effort to a course, they will be building towards a successful career. We will unlock those opportunities only by addressing the challenges facing further education. We need to get to the root causes of poor-quality provision, including weak employer engagement, ineffective training methods, the proliferation of qualifications that are not highly valued and, of course, institutions with uncertain finances.

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Is collaboration between local institutions part of the process? Will my right hon. Friend commend the work of Kingston College in leading the way by federating with Carshalton College to provide a much better offer to local students?

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That work shows that colleges acting collectively can provide not only a higher-quality offer, but a broader one. We hope that through the local area review, other colleges will steadily make sure that they are co-ordinating their local provision for young people. Wherever young people are growing up, it is vital there is a strong further education offer on their doorstep if they want to follow a technical education route.

The good news is that much of the work is already well under way. Lord Sainsbury’s report on skills in this country led to the skills plan, which was published in July by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles). Let me take this opportunity to wish him well, as will Members on both sides of the House, following the recent announcement about his health. I am sure that all Members look forward to seeing him back in the House as soon as possible.

The vision that my hon. Friend outlined in the skills plan involves streamlining technical education so that, despite the plethora of career opportunities, there are clearly identified routes into work that students can easily understand and that enable them to make informed decisions about their futures. The skills plan also explains how important it is for employers to play a big role so that the qualifications that young people obtain equip them with the skills and knowledge that they need to enter the jobs market successfully and start their careers. I shall come on to how the Bill will help us to deliver that.

Some 2.4 million apprenticeships were created during the previous Parliament. We want to build on our commitment to increasing both the quantity and quality of apprenticeships, and we remain committed to our target of creating 3 million more by 2020.

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I accept that the Secretary of State is determined to ensure that enough students and other young people take up apprenticeships, but will she commit herself to a target for completing them, as well as a target for starting them?

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We do want to ensure that students complete their apprenticeships. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Higher Education and Research Bill commits us to widening our review of how inclusive and open higher education is, taking account of not just the number of young people who embark on courses, but the number who finish them, particularly if they are from more disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds.

As part of last year’s spending review, we announced that we would provide more than half a billion pounds this year alone to help further education colleges and sixth forms to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those with low prior attainment. Moreover, we are already committed to future funding levels. Those assurances will give the sector the security that it requires to deliver the skills that young people need if they are to succeed in modern Britain. We are committed to doubling the 2010-11 spending on apprenticeships, in cash terms, by 2019-20, and to protecting the national base rate of £4,000 per student in 16-to-19 education for the duration of this Parliament. By 2019-20, our funding for 19-plus skills participation will be £3.4 billion, which represents a cash increase of 40% on 2015-16. The steady progress of the Government’s programme of area reviews for the further education sector means that we have taken another important step towards giving institutions the opportunity to put themselves on a secure financial footing.

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rose

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I will give way once more.

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I thank the Secretary of State for her generosity. I welcome the fact that further education funding streams have stabilised recently, but does she accept that the pernicious and deep cuts that the Government imposed on further education and technical education budgets during their first five years in office had a long-lasting and difficult impact on further education, and that that is why we are now so far behind our international comparators when it comes to post-16 funding?

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I do not accept the picture that the hon. Lady presents. In the long term, our technical education offer for young people has not met the ambitions that all of us should have had for it. However, when we went into government in 2010, we asked Alison Wolf to look into further education. Her report said that at least 350,000 young people had been let down by courses that had

“little to no labour market value.”

She said that those courses were not valued by employers and did not prepare young people for further study. Perhaps as damagingly, she also said that students had been “deliberately steered” away from challenging qualifications—that

“funding incentives have deliberately steered institutions, and, therefore, their students, away from qualifications that might stretch (and reward) young people and towards qualifications that can be passed easily.”

I make the point about what Alison Wolf said about the further and technical education system to demonstrate why the body of work undertaken over the last six years is so important. It has at its heart the Sainsbury review that was undertaken alongside Alison Wolf’s work, and what came out of that was the skills plan. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will now swing in behind the skills plan and, indeed, the Bill, which is part of how we will develop it.

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What steps are being taken to address the continuing gender imbalance in our apprenticeships?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. We want to make sure that young girls get exactly the same opportunities as young boys. We know that part of the challenge relates to the kinds of industries that might offer apprenticeships. The hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) asked me about the engineering profession. It is important to ensure that the technical education route is as desirable for young women as it is for young men, and among the ways we will do that is by steadily changing its image, by ensuring that it is of high quality, and by making sure that people know that if they follow this route, they will come out with experience and qualifications that employers truly value. That is why part of the Bill’s purpose is to put employers at the heart of our technical education strategy.

University technical colleges have also been established to address skills gaps in local and national industries. They provide technical education that meets the needs of modern businesses. Indeed, they also give a much different offer to young people who are interested in specialising through a technical education route.

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rose

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I would like to make a little more progress. I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s long-standing interest and expertise in this area, but let me get on to the Bill itself.

Alongside our wider education reforms, the Government’s work on technical and further education over the past six years represents a firm foundation on which we can now build a really strong technical route in this country. The Bill serves to do exactly that. Part 1 focuses on technical education. It extends the role of the Institute for Apprenticeships to give it responsibility for classroom-based technical education in addition to apprenticeships. It will be renamed as the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. The measures take forward and support the reforms set out in Lord Sainsbury’s report and the skills plan so we can truly streamline the technical education system and ensure young people can follow clear routes to skilled employment. That will ensure that we have strong standards as part of an employer-led approach on technical education so that courses and apprenticeships develop knowledge, skills and behaviours in individuals that meet the needs of employers and improve overall productivity.

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The right hon. Lady may well know that those of us who have worked in factories and in similar jobs realise that often the people at the chalk face, as it were, know at least as much as employers about what skills are needed. How will we ensure the revamped institute includes workers or their representatives—as well as employers, of course—so that there is a rounded view of what is needed and what is appropriate for a particular skill?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have talked significantly about our plans to make sure that workers have more representation at the higher echelons of business. As the Institute for Apprenticeships becomes responsible for technical education, it will of course have employers at its heart, but it will also work with other stakeholders including, importantly, further education colleges themselves. We will make sure that the institute can truly deliver on our ambition for it to be at the heart of how we drive forward and improve standards in technical education.

Part 2 of the Bill puts in place protections for students for the first time and provides greater certainty for institutions by introducing an insolvency regime for further education and sixth-form colleges. It applies normal insolvency procedures to colleges. At present it is not clear whether or how colleges are covered by existing insolvency law, and the resultant uncertainty is bad for colleges and for students. The Bill will remove the uncertainty for all parties by putting in place a regime that allows for an orderly process in the very unlikely event of a college becoming insolvent. As I have said, we need to rectify the lack of protection for students. Crucially, chapter 4 of part 2 will put in place a special administration regime that will have the special objective of minimising or avoiding disruption to the studies of existing students at affected colleges. These measures will ensure that students can be protected if a college becomes insolvent.

As I mentioned earlier, the current programme of area-based reviews is already putting the sector on a sustainable financial footing for the future. Part of the review process is to encourage colleges to consider needs and provision locally. That will help to ensure that the right provision is available in the right places. The proposed insolvency regime and technical education measures also require certain delegated powers, and we will be providing more information about those to the House before the Bill goes into Committee.

Part 3 of the Bill, the title of which is “Further education: information”, includes a measure to amend existing legislation to ensure that, after the devolution of further education functions and the adult education budget to a combined authority, FE providers and others will continue to submit relevant information to the national data system. This will ensure the continued availability of relevant data that are needed to make intelligent and strategic policy decisions about investment in further education.

Six years ago, we inherited a system from Labour in which too many young people—often those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds—left school or college without the skills and qualifications that they needed to build a successful future. Our wide-reaching reforms have had a transformational effect on the education system in this country, and it is important that we now build on the work of my two immediate predecessors in this role, my right hon. Friends the Members for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan).

We know that there is still so much more to do, which is why we are doubling free childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week. We are also working hard to put our first-class universities on an even stronger footing so that they can continue to compete with the very best in the world. We are starting work on opportunity areas to ensure that the education system as a whole can work better to drive social mobility in those parts of the country where it has been stalled for generations, and we have doubled the previous Labour Government’s spending on school places and set out plans to make more good and outstanding school places available to more families all over the country.

The newly broadened remit of the Department for Education, with skills and further education back under one roof alongside schools, gives us an exciting opportunity to build on the excellent work that has already been done over the past six years, both in FE and in the wider education sector. In the end, education underpins how this Government want to create a country that works for everyone so that, irrespective of their background, people can get the skills that they need to take advantage of the opportunities in our country. This is not only good for individuals, but will ensure that we have the skills that our businesses and our economy need so that we can drive up prosperity across the country. The Bill will allow us to take the next steps to give the technical and further education route the status and the spotlight it deserves so that it can flourish as a genuine, high-quality alternative to the academic route, and one that leads to successful careers for those who choose to pursue it. I commend the Bill to the House.

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I start by associating myself with the well-wishes for the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles).

The Opposition do not intend to oppose the Bill’s Second Reading, but many questions remain for the Government to answer during its passage. We accept that the provisions on insolvency are necessary, but their necessity is a sad reflection on the circumstances facing providers under this Government. Further education helps 4 million people a year, playing a vital role in giving our young people the skills they need and supporting older learners into retraining and learning new skills. Since 2010, however, the sector has suffered a real-terms budget cut of 14%. I am sure that the Secretary of State will have seen the National Audit Office report on “Overseeing financial sustainability in the further education sector” and will know that 110 colleges had recorded an operating deficit by 2013-14—more than double the number that had done so in 2010, when her party took office—and that the number of colleges judged by the Skills Funding Agency to have inadequate financial health has more than doubled. However, in the face of that financial crisis, the Government’s solution is not the investment that the sector needs, but is simply a way to sweeten the bitter pill of insolvency.

I needed a second chance at education, and many of my Opposition colleagues have experienced the transformative effect that technical and further education can have on young people’s lives and on learners at all stages in their lives. That is why the Opposition see the Bill as a missed opportunity. Britain needs a highly skilled, highly trained workforce to succeed in the economy of the future, particularly following Brexit and given the productivity gap that we face.

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Does my hon. Friend share my bemusement at the Secretary of State standing before the House this afternoon extolling the transformational—that was the adjective she used—changes brought about by her Government and the previous coalition Government and extolling the high-quality work that has been done? Does my hon. Friend share my bemusement that, despite apparently hordes more skilled workers as a result of the changes introduced by this Government and the previous Government, this country’s productivity is still absolutely rubbish? If technical and further education were so fantastically transformed, productivity would have improved a whole lot, but it has not.

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I absolutely agree that this Government have done nothing to provide technical skills. Colleges have faced dramatic budget cuts. It is audacious for Ministers to stand at the Dispatch Box and say what they have done when they have failed. In fact, the Government included the word “technical” in the Bill only as an add-on—it was not there in the first place.

I would be the first to say that an excellent academic education must be provided to all pupils from all backgrounds, but given that many will not go to university, other educational routes remain vital. That is why it is so important that further education is put on a sustainable financial footing. It is not too late for the Government to do that and to bring forward the changes that the sector needs. Next week, the Chancellor will stand at the Dispatch Box and deliver his first autumn statement. The Government could take that opportunity to ensure that the hundreds of millions of pounds that has been cut from the further education sector since 2010 are reinvested in colleges across Britain, in our future and in our best and most valuable asset: the people.

The Secretary of State could get the Chancellor to bring back the education maintenance allowance, which helped hundreds of thousands of young people from low and middle-income backgrounds to stay in education. The Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed that the EMA represented value for money for the taxpayer, boosted the rates of young people staying in education and improved attainment. I fear, however, that we will be left disappointed once again. After all, this Government have struggled to match warm words with policy when it comes to education.

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The hon. Lady is listing a litany of failures, but would she like to take this opportunity to welcome the massive boost in apprenticeships, which I am sure many of her constituents, like mine, have enjoyed?

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I will come on to that, because although I welcome some of the Government’s proposals on the Institute for Apprenticeships, some of the substance is lacking—let’s be honest, it is not in the Bill. The Government have struggled to match their warm words, and were planning to push ahead with cuts to apprenticeship funding that would have been devastating to those in disadvantaged areas. It was only the concentrated opposition in this House, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), along with many other Labour Members, that forced the Government to do a U-turn.

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rose

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I will make progress and let the hon. Gentleman in again later.

Even then, the Government did not announce new investment, nor did they abandon the cuts. Instead, cuts of 40% have become cuts of 20%, and cuts of 50% have become cuts of 30%. So although we welcome the Institute for Apprenticeships, now to be renamed the “Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education”, we are concerned that changing the name is the extent of the progress made in the Bill. For example, there is no role for apprentices or learners on the institute’s board. First, the Government gave us an office for students with no students, and now we get an Institute for Apprenticeships with no apprentices. There is no inclusion of further education providers, colleges, universities, the relevant trade unions or local authorities either, and I cannot help but wonder whether anyone in the sector will actually be allowed on the board. Despite that, we have long welcomed the institute in principle, as the body to implement a plan to improve both the quality of apprenticeships, and access to and participation in them. We will now have the institute, but where is the plan? Why is there so little mention of the institute’s need for a strategy to promote participation among care leavers, learners from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, and learners with disabilities? Why have the Government not used the Bill as an opportunity to enshrine in law the recommendations of the Maynard review on apprenticeship accessibility? We simply know too little of the Government’s plans for what the institute will do, and how it will help providers and students in the years to come.

However, that is not really a surprise. After all, the Government do not seem to know what the capacity of the institute will be. In a recent written answer, the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills said:

“We are currently developing the detailed structure of the Institute for Apprenticeships, and therefore we are not yet able to set out initial staff numbers”.

So the Secretary of State and the Minister can come to this House with a Bill to set up this institute, but they cannot tell us how it will be structured, staffed or operated. We can only hope that the institute will fare better than every other body this Government have set up to help them deliver their policies in further education.

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Is my hon. Friend also aware that the Minister for School Standards, having said at the Dispatch Box that the royal college of teaching was up and running and had full Government support, has said in answer to my parliamentary questions that there have been no meetings with the Secretary of State, no meetings with Ministers of State, and no effective funding? The royal college of teaching is something we should all support in this House, and I would hope those on the Treasury Bench were behind it. [Interruption.] That is what the parliamentary answers said.

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I will be interested to see what the Secretary of State has to say about that. I find it absolutely shocking—

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Shocking.

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Absolutely shocking. We have seen the Skills Funding Agency lose nearly half of its staff since 2011, and we have seen continued and accelerating decline in the staffing of the National Apprenticeship Service and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. Of course, all those bodies were threatened with further cuts under the “BIS 2020” project, which was overseen by McKinsey for the former Secretary of State. We found out about the details of that not from any ministerial statement, but through internal documents leaked to my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) in April. Perhaps the Secretary of State can take the opportunity today to clarify that that process is no longer ongoing, and what her plans are for the staffing of bodies transferred from the former Department.

Given that businesses will contribute to the apprenticeships programme through the levy, it would help if the Minister reassured them that they will not be short-changed or end up just paying in to cover for cuts rather than for a genuinely new and improved level of service. As welcome as the institute is, there is concern that it will not deliver if it is not resourced for the job. With all the challenges facing the further education sector today, with the hundreds of millions of pounds of funding lost, and with the sky-rocketing number of providers facing deficits or requiring direct intervention of the Government, now is the time for radical action to ensure that our further education sector is able to continue on a sustainable footing in years to come.

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The hon. Lady could at least welcome the apprenticeship levy, which her party considered so radical that it would not even include it on its platform for the last election.

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It is always a pleasure to take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman. I will come on to that point.

I have no doubt that the Secretary of State read the same National Audit Office report that I did on the growing financial crisis in further education. It was that report that recommended the creation of an insolvency regime. That recommendation is in the Bill, but it would be alarming if that were the only response on offer. The Secretary of State seems to be aware that dozens of providers are reaching crisis point, but instead of deciding that something needs to be done about it, she seems to think that we should be helping that process along. While Labour Members call for investment, Government Members offer insolvency.

This Bill offered the Government an opportunity to improve the situation faced by providers and students. Instead, they seem content with managed decline. We should make no mistake that the decline of a sector that helps more than 4 million people every year will fail not only them, but the needs of our economy and society as a whole. For that reason, I urge the Secretary of State to look again at the opportunities that may have been missed in this Bill. We will not oppose the Bill tonight, but we will most certainly seek to improve it.

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It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I very much welcome the Bill and pay tribute to the ministerial team who are rightly focusing on providing opportunity for all. I speak as somebody who went to a school that was bottom of the league table in Worcestershire and who employed many young people in the 10 years that I ran a business. I recognise the absolute importance of equipping all young people, regardless of background, with the necessary skills to fulfil their potential in their working lives.

I wish to focus on a very narrow part of the Bill, which is to do with the opportunities for young disabled students, particularly on the apprenticeship programme. Typically in this country, non-disabled people have an 80% chance of being employed. If a person has a disability, that figure drops to 48%, which is still up 4% on 2010—an extra half a million more disabled people in work. If a person has a learning disability, they would typically have only a 6% chance of having meaningful and sustainable careers. All Governments of all political persuasions have tried their very best to look at different initiatives and different programmes to try to boost that figure, but, by and large, it has stuck rigidly at 6%, and we all desperately want to see huge improvements in that area.

I had the pleasure of visiting Foxes Academy near Bridgwater. It has taken over a former working hotel and takes on young adults with learning disabilities in a three-year programme. For those first two years, their time is split between learning about independent living, slowly progressing up the floors of the hotel as they become more independent, and more skilled and confident. They learn real-life tangible skills within the hotel, which can be transferred to local employers in the restaurant trade, the care homes and other local hotels. On this visit, I was absolutely staggered to see that, at the end of that three-year course, 80% of those students—not 6%—remain in work. That was because of that three-year, constructive and patient approach to learning to give them those skills. They spent the final third year in supported training with local employers, patiently being taught the skills that are needed. It was no surprise that those employers, having invested in training and support, were then keen to keep on those young adults.

I was so impressed that I invited people from the academy to come to see me in Parliament when I was Minister for Disabled People. I asked them why we could not have one of those projects in every town. They said that in the first two years they could take on as many students as they could fit in the hotel, but the challenge was the cost of the supported training in the third year. I said, “Well, surely this is just an apprenticeship by another name. Why can’t we call it an apprenticeship? You can access the funding for the Government’s commendable pledge to have 3 million more apprentices by the end of this Parliament.” They said, “We can’t, because most of our students wouldn’t get the grade C in maths and English that is the typical entry requirement to access an apprenticeship.”

We agreed that we would look into this as a matter of urgency and I met my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who was the skills Minister at the time. He shared with me that he thought this was both a frustrating situation and a real opportunity to make a difference. We commissioned my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), Scope, Mencap and many other experienced colleagues, to look at what we could do. As part of this Maynard review—we only gave him three and a half weeks, as we had a suspicion that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford and I might no longer be in a position to sign things off after that, and it is a credit to him that he rushed it through—they identified that if we made an exemption for those with a learning disability, we could offer real, tangible opportunities for those young people through the apprenticeship programme. I am delighted that the Government have been so positive in welcoming that. In the Minister’s closing remarks, I would be keen to hear what steps need to be taken for this to happen, how quickly we can do this and how we can advertise it to local employers.

The other key lesson was that there were many local employers who were willing to engage and offer that opportunity. They were not doing that to tick a box, or as a favour because they wanted to feel good. They did it because these young adults, after patient training, proved to be excellent employees who would stay with their organisation year after year. I was sent photographs of many of these young adults on their first steps into a career, and every one of them had a huge beaming smile because of their pride in having the opportunity to work. They were not always full time—some were part time—but they felt proud, as did their parents.

I have one other slight request, to do with university technical colleges. I am very proud that Swindon has its own UTC; I am a huge fan. In fact, our party launched its election manifesto from the Swindon UTC, which mixes modern technology and Swindon’s proud railway heritage in one wonderful, fantastic building.

UTCs could go much further if entry was at the beginning of secondary school, not at 14. I have talked to many of those students and they chose to go there not always because it was the right route for them but because they were unhappy in their secondary school. I have also talked to people who should have gone to the UTC and have a natural aptitude for the courses it offers—in higher engineering or computer programming; in the sorts of roles in which we have desperate skills shortages in this country—but who were already settled in their secondary schools with lots of friends. They did not want to break away from that, so they missed out on taking advantage of the opportunity of going to a UTC. If we could change the entry age to the traditional entry age for secondary school, UTCs would compete on an even footing and those who would most benefit from this opportunity would be more likely to take it.

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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as well as talking to young people about the time at which they can enter the UTC, parental knowledge is important in influencing that choice? The lack of information for parents, particularly from many local authorities, stops the progress of the UTCs.

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I thank the hon. Lady for making that important point. When we talk to the heads of UTCs, they say that one of the biggest challenges is that secondary schools, when seeking to recruit students, go into neighbouring primary schools and get involved in assemblies, have displays and make contact with parents. The primary schools work with those secondary schools to advertise those opportunities, but, obviously, UTCs are seeking to take students away from secondary schools—and with those pupils comes the funding—so the secondary schools are not always receptive to opening their doors and saying, “Look, there’s an alternative. Why not take the funding that follows you to another organisation?” If we put it back on an even footing by having the same entry point as secondary schools, primary schools will be able to engage with those parents and provide those opportunities.

UTCs are training those young adults with the skills we very much need, and we need to do far more to get businesses to support UTCs by providing mentoring, work experience and expertise. Too many local businesses are not yet up to speed with the great links they can get with UTCs. If they invest early in those students, they will be their next generation of staff. We can use things like the business rates mailer—all businesses, whether they like it or not, will get one every year—to send out information about apprenticeships and UTCs. Local businesses will then know that by investing a little time and support they can help to fill those skills gaps in the future.

I welcome the Bill, which is a positive step in the right direction to deliver opportunity for all.

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It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson).

I do not see many exciting opportunities arising from the UK’s decision to exit the European Union, but if we are feeling optimistic, as I always try to be, a rebalancing of educational provision and opportunity is one of the elements that we need to look to as we think about a new political economy for the United Kingdom, and part of that has to be a more effective technical and vocational education system.

In his great work “Our Kids”, which I urge the Secretary of State to read if she has not already done so, Robert Putnam charts the decline of social mobility in rust belt America, hinting at what has happened in recent days. He is clear that if people are interested in tackling inequality and promoting social mobility, the two areas to focus on in respect of Government provision are high-quality early years support and an excellent system of technical and vocational education. Those are the two elements that really make a difference in terms of inequality.

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My hon. Friend mentioned Brexit. Since the referendum, the pound has depreciated to a much more sensible level, such that manufacturing is starting to grow. Does he agree that it is vital that as manufacturing returns to its previous strength, as we hope it will, we have a good technical education system so that we can provide industry with all the skills it needs?

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I knew I would not get away with my Brexit comment with my hon. Friend sitting there. Yes, we need to provide the human capital to revive our manufacturing industry and to make sure that we succeed, but in the modern era of manufacturing, with components coming from across the single market, we are going to take a hit on inflationary pressure in relation to some of the manufacturing competitors—

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rose

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But we are not going to go down that road too quickly.

I welcome large parts of the Bill. It is good to see the focus on technical and vocational qualifications. I pay tribute to the work of Lord Sainsbury, and in so doing alert the House to what is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. He has been a passionate supporter of technical and vocational education, and his time as science Minister taught him that one of the blocks for achieving excellence in British science was making sure that we have not just top-flight research chemists, physicists and biologists, but high-quality technicians in our science-based industries. We are not producing those level 4 or 5 qualified technicians who are fundamental to the success of the science base.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) pointed out, productivity and economic growth demand that we invest more effectively in technical and vocational education. We should also see it as an opportunity. The Edge Foundation has shown time and again that we are going to see a huge growth in jobs in science, engineering and technology, and we need to provide the professionals to fulfil those opportunities. Much of our education system works against that. Whether we think of Progress 8, EBacc or the Ofsted inspection requirements, we have on the one hand a demand for an education system almost on the model that the British set up in Germany to provide our technical and vocational system, and on the other hand every element of incentive in our education system working strongly against that.

I am excited by the addition of the technical component to the Institute for Apprenticeships. I urge the apprenticeships Minister to visit the institutes of technical education in Singapore, which are doing a phenomenal amount on cutting-edge technical and vocational education, as that economy, too, begins to think about the kind of provision it needs to fill the skills gap and about the very demanding requirements on the sector.

My reservations are as follows. First, having the divide at 16 is a missed opportunity. My passion in the next few years will be to see whether we can create a consensus in this House on committing ourselves to ending GCSEs by 2025 and to getting rid of a school leaving qualification for people who do not leave school. We should strip out an examination that is an anomaly across Europe and America and that is not providing our education system with the academic or technical, vocational learning it requires. I urge the House to think much more creatively and imaginatively about having a 14-to-19 framework that includes an academic baccalaureate and a technical baccalaureate. That would get over some of the criticisms levelled at the Bill about having too narrow a focus on educational provision from 16 to 19. A broadly constituted baccalaureate between 14 and 19 would work, so I urge the Secretary of State to think big and to set up some kind of bipartisan thinking about how we—in exactly the same way that countries such as Singapore and Finland manage their education systems—can reach a national consensus in a decade that the GCSE model, having served its time, is no longer necessary. The introduction of differing pathways at 16 in the Bill is interesting, but I urge us to think now about how we put that upstream and have some of those differing pathways from 14 to 19.

Secondly, following on from my comments to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), careers guidance is so important in this. When we think about accessing UTCs or further education colleges, having decent and effective careers guidance is really significant. The last Secretary of State had a clever plan —a sort of careers guidance and business thing—that was going to work. I do not know what has happened to it, or whether it is coming under review by the new Secretary of State, and I more than accept that there was no great golden age of careers guidance, but if we want technical and vocational education to work, we must have effective careers guidance. We have to make sure that parents and young people not only have the career immersion in primary school, but have effective careers guidance early on in secondary. That is the way they can access FE and UTC provision.

Thirdly, the Secretary of State valiantly defended retakes for English and maths GCSEs. I want English and maths to continue in education until 18, but—I see this in my constituency, and I think colleagues see it in theirs—young people are retaking and retaking GCSEs on a highly academic syllabus, which the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) introduced. We can debate its merits, but it is really not useful or effective in terms of young people’s career pathways. What these young people need is a good level 2 post-16 qualification that gives them the English and maths skills they need, but does not give them an academic syllabus that they do not necessarily require. I am all for people pursuing the academic pathway, just as much as the technical, vocational pathway, but if we are forcing them to do that at great expense, and causing them to be frustrated about their learning, that is one element of the previous Secretary of State’s system that the current Secretary of State might want to think about.

When it comes to technical and vocational education, we create a lot of institutions: UTCs, FE institutions and career colleges. As I understand it, UTCs were not part of the FE review, so we have divided up the review of further education colleges without taking account of UTC provision, even though there is a lot of crossover between UTCs and further education colleges. In Sheffield, for example, the further education college sponsors the UTC. If the Secretary of State is looking for savings, overprovision and institution-building are prevalent in the English education system, and a bit of co-ordination among those institutions would be a good idea.

That leads me to my final point, which is that the best way to achieve that aim is to devolve educational provision. We are beginning to devolve skills policy to combined authorities and directly elected mayors, but we need to think much more creatively about devolving schools policy to directly elected mayors and combined authorities. The needs of the Cornish economy are different from the needs of the Birmingham economy, which are different from the needs of the Northumbria economy. If we devolve some of the authority to a local level, we will end up with a more effective technical and vocational education system.

I admire some of the principles in the Bill, and I admire the direction of travel, as we now say. I urge the Secretary of State, as she begins to think big, to push this upstream and think about the 14-to-19 technical and vocational pathways.

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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I am going to talk about the local experience of further education in Kent. I welcome the independent report of the panel, chaired by Lord Sainsbury, that conducted an important review into the post-16 skills system. The panel was right to advise on improvements that could be made, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) has just said. Improvements were needed after flaws were spotted following changes made in the last Parliament. The system is over-complex, with a confusing array of courses and qualifications that are insufficiently linked to the world of work and the needs of employers. Lord Sainsbury and the Government were right to accept the panel’s recommendations in July 2016 and publish a post-16 skills plan setting out their vision.

The proposals are about boosting technical education to make sure that it is of high quality and responds to employer needs, and the introduction of a new insolvency regime to protect students’ interests. Such things matter. In Kent, we have long had a problem with an institution that has variously been called K College and South Kent College. It suffered from debt problems and, frankly, ate principals. The problems were so deep-set that every now and again the principal would be sacked and the college would be renamed, but the whole thing would continue. The fundamental problems were the big debt overhang and the teaching of courses that employers did not want—courses that did not have the relevance to learners that is completely necessary. That is why the focus on good-quality technical education and information sharing between colleges and local authorities is so important. It is important for everyone—local authorities, employers and educationists—to work together and make a good job of it, because when they do so, learners benefit.

K College finally collapsed in a heap of debt, and it had to be sorted out during the last Parliament. It basically had to be broken up. Part of it was taken over by Hadlow College and part of it by East Kent College. We were able to reset and restabilise the whole situation, but doing so was difficult and took a long time. There was no real process for doing so, because there was no proper insolvency reconstruction mechanism. That is why this Bill is important. It will put in place a proper process, rather than haphazardly trying to make everything work and gluing it all together, and it will ensure that there is a focus on the kinds of skills that learners need.

In my constituency, the East Kent College campus in Dover was threatened with closure as part of the reconstruction. I fought against that for the very simple reason that many people have a low capital base, low household wealth and low aspiration, and they simply would not travel further out of Dover for skills education. That is a real concern, and we made the case for keeping the Dover campus because the skills it taught were more in keeping with the jobs available in the local economy.

The most important thing we can all do for our young people and our learners is to provide ladders in life—to raise the bar of aspiration and to tell people, “You can succeed and achieve, and you can do really well in life. If you go to college and learn some skills, you will do better, and you will achieve and succeed.” The most important thing to do, particularly for this Conservative Government who are so committed to the new meritocracy, is to allow people to climb ladders in life at any time.

Much has been said about whether we should have skills education from 14, 16 or 19, but we need skills education to be available at any point in life. We need the ladder to descend at any time. Many people with a difficult home life are not able to achieve and succeed in the usual exams—in school at 16, with A-levels at 18 or for a degree course at 21—and many people who have simply been slow to grow up have spent their teenage years less formatively than they might have done and with people who have not necessarily been a good influence on them. For those who have had such a life, but who suddenly wake up at 21 and 25, a ladder should descend for them to climb. Skills education is not just about the teenage years, but about lifelong learning because everyone should be able to climb the ladder of prosperity and success at any time.

For me, it was important to make sure that we kept the Dover campus of K College, which is now part of East Kent College, and to make the case for a new FE college in Deal—I also represent Deal—which suffers from so many of the same issues of low aspiration. In such ways, we can raise the bar and give people greater aspiration and life chances. That will enable them to find it easier to climb the ladders in their home communities —to get more skills and get better-paid jobs in the areas in which they live—without having to move away, as so many do. I am very passionate about such things, because we need more further and technical education in our towns, particularly coastal towns such as Dover and Deal, which too often suffer from less aspiration than they should.

I feel very strongly that we must focus on and do more about building an aspiration nation, with such ladders in life and life chances, and with proper processes for when things go wrong. That is why I think the Bill is fundamentally a good thing.

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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). It is a rare treat for us to agree on something, but I did find myself shouting, “Hear, hear” about his comments on adult education. All of us in the House would applaud that, but I urge him to look at what has happened to adult education during the past six years, because I am afraid that that ladder has been well and truly kicked away for many of the people wanting to get such skills later in life.

It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt). I entirely agree with much of what he said, especially about how we should tackle some of the deep-rooted causes of inequality and of the lack of social mobility in this country. To the issues he raised about the quality of early years education, which is so critical, and technical and vocational education, which we are discussing today, I would only add that we need enough quality teachers teaching all our children, but especially the most disadvantaged.

It is worth pondering for a moment, if you do not mind, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we should have been in the Chamber this evening to discuss a different education Bill—the education for all Bill, which was going to force all good and outstanding schools to become academies against their wishes. The Technical and Further Education Bill was only meant to be a small part of the bigger education for all Bill. I am glad we are not discussing that Bill, because it would have been a terrible mistake to force good and outstanding schools, against their wishes, to become academies, when we simply do not have the capacity, oversight and accountability in the system to tackle such a change. We all have to admit that in its place, we are left with a much-reduced education Bill. None the less, it contains some important principles, as others have said. I welcome the extra focus on post-16 vocational and technical education and the extra support the Government are giving it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central said, we should all welcome the direction of travel.

I want to raise a couple of issues with the unintended consequences of the Sainsbury review and how it is being implemented, including through measures in the Bill. I worry about the idea that, at 16, someone should choose either an entirely technical education or an entirely academic education. That is more akin to the grammar school era of the 1950s and ’60s than today’s world of work and modern economy. Most of the jobs that we need today and will need in the future involve a blended mix of academic and vocational education. They require general applied qualifications, where those two streams come together. As many Members have commented, that is exactly what the best university technical colleges and further education colleges provide—highly academic and highly technical education alongside one another.

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My hon. Friend mentioned joint pathways being undertaken by the same further education institutions. She might like to know that the secondary school where I am chair of governors has a construction academy attached to the main academy. We do everything from elite sport right through to construction and vocational pathways. It is all prestige and all rooted in academic and vocational attainment, all under one roof. We can do it from the beginning right through to further education.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. It sounds like just the sort of institution we should explore further and support.

As I said, many of the jobs that we need today and will need in the future require both types of education. The pathways into professions such as nursing, engineering, health and social care and many more require a blend of general applied and academic education, as well as technical and vocational education. That will be especially true in post-Brexit Britain, where the supply of such workers is likely to be reduced further, particularly in nursing, social care, health and engineering. Closing down those pathways at this point in time could have serious unintended consequences.

It is a well-trodden pathway for people to go to university to study nursing, health and social care or engineering with an applied general academic qualification and some technical BTEC qualifications alongside it. That pathway is highly regarded by universities. We should be careful about closing down that pathway, because if Ministers look they will see that the vast majority of the tens of thousands of undergraduates who come into the system through that route have that blended mix of academic and vocational qualifications.

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My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. We need to think about technical education not just for the jobs of tomorrow, but for the jobs of the day after tomorrow. I am considerably older than her and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) is a little older than me. When he entered the workforce, let alone when I did decades ago, many skilled jobs existed that do not exist now, such as in printing. Typesetting basically does not exist now. The world has changed and we have to equip the coming generation with not only the skills they need now, but the flexibility to adapt to what the workforce will look like, inasmuch as we can foretell that, in the next 30 years.

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My hon. Friend makes a great point, although I do not want to get into the relative ages of Members here. But I look at my own children and think of the world of work ahead of them. We perhaps have an old-fashioned view of jobs such as engineering—engineers come in all shapes and sizes now, from digital engineers, sound engineers and construction engineers to the other types of engineer that we may know about. A key issue with the productivity gap we are facing in this country is the problem we have in applying technology and technological advances in small and medium-sized companies.

I want children from Manchester Central to have exactly those types of skills; they will therefore need literacy, numeracy and other academic qualifications but also education in digital engineering and many other technical areas. The combination of the two will be the route for so many, and for all jobs in the future—I firmly believe that. I look at my own son, who I think will want to be an engineer one day; he is highly technically able—he has great skills there—but is highly academic as well. I want him to have the option to do both right through till 18.

The Minister seems to recognise the issue here, as he has recently the launched degree-level apprenticeship scheme, which I welcome. However, the tiny numbers involved in that scheme can in no way make up for the tens of thousands already going through the university vocational pathway. I hope that he is not falling foul of the same ideological dogma that his colleague the Minister for Schools and a previous Secretary of State for Education perhaps fell for in trying to cut away entirely the university professional pathway into teaching. As the Minister will know, that has in no small part caused the recruitment crisis in the teaching profession; stripping away the university pathway to teaching has meant that teacher supply is now at crisis point. I know the Minister, and so know that he is a lot more pragmatic than some of his colleagues; I urge him to watch the situation carefully, and make sure that these well-trodden routes—both academic and vocational—into professions remain very much open for our young people.

I will touch on a couple of other points that have already been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central raised resits. I concur with him entirely. We have to look again at the enforcing of required resits post 16. In many cases, less than 50% of children are passing those GCSEs the second time around. Many FE and post-16 institutions are struggling to get in the teaching skills needed to get children through GCSEs, as that is not something they are used to doing. The size and nature of the maths and English curricula make them increasingly difficult for some children to pass, and they are not necessary for the types of careers those children may want to go on to.

Like my hon. Friend, I entirely support the notion that children should do English and maths right through to the age of 18, but the Minister should clarify what will be required for resits. Will it be a level 4 or a level 5? I understand that it is a level 4 this year and next year, and will then go to level 5. We do not know what is happening; never mind parents and children, what are employers to make of that?

Finally, we should not have this debate without looking at the international comparisons for our funding levels for 16-to-19 education in this country. We compare really badly with our OECD competitors: we do well in terms of funding from five to 16, but then there is a significant dip in per-pupil funding. After that, funding goes through the roof for those who make it to higher education. We need a better and more consistent funding stream. The transformation we need in this area will be achieved only when we couple this sort of reform with funding.

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For too long, technical and vocational education has been seen as the poor relation to academic education, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment, in her speech last week, to bring the “same lens and focus” to the technical education routes that most people follow. Perhaps more than many hon. Members, I know the importance of technical education because my constituency sends fewer of its young people to higher education than any other, although we have a lot of young people in further education and on apprenticeships. That is the genesis of my interest in, and passion for, this issue and the Bill.

I want the Government to succeed with their ambitious target of 3 million apprenticeships. I also want the Government to succeed with the Bill because I believe its spirit is well placed. Its basis is sound, too, and I welcome the fact that it aims to deliver the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Technical Education, chaired by Lord Sainsbury, but—it is important for an Opposition party to have a “but”—I am concerned about a number of issues. I want the Bill to work for the people of Bristol South, so I want to use this contribution to seek some clarity from the Government.

The Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education will have a huge remit. I support its aims and will help to support its success, but I would like more detail about how it will deliver its remit in such a short timescale, especially as the Institute for Apprenticeships is currently operating without a permanent chief executive. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which looked at proposals for apprenticeships, I believe that there is a danger that the reform could suffer if the new institute’s remit also includes sweeping changes to technical education. Will the Minister assure us that such fears are groundless and that the institute’s “lens and focus” will remain rigorous?

As the Secretary of State acknowledged last week, the way in which we as a country help young people to fulfil their potential and use their talents will become more important than ever in post-Brexit Britain. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) considered the positives that Brexit might bring in this area, but they will be something of a challenge. We all know that in any period of change and transition there is a danger of focusing only on future beneficiaries and neglecting those already in the system, especially if the existing system is flawed. I would therefore like assurances that my constituents who are going through the system will not lose out in the transition to the new framework.

It is important to consider those who stand to gain in the future: young people who are currently in school, and their parents and carers who want to help them to navigate and plan for their futures. What are the Government doing to ensure that those who will encounter the new system receive the guidance and advice they need now so that they will not lose out when the new frameworks and assessments are introduced? My concern stems from a number of new provisions, particularly in relation to university technical colleges. Parents are not involved in these discussions. As a parent of three boys in secondary school, it has been eye-opening to find out how little information gets to parents and how little we understand about the future of our own young people. We cannot allow those who lack the necessary prior knowledge to navigate the system to flounder, so will the Government please provide proactive support and guidance? How will they do that?

I take issue with the idea in the Bill that employers should be at the heart of the system. Surely it is students—young people themselves—whose interests must be at the heart of any Bill that seeks to improve their opportunities.

On social mobility, I have explained that my constituents’ interest in this matter runs deep, not least due to our low take-up of higher education, but there is more to it than that. I welcome the introduction of the 15 vocational pathways but, given that I represent a constituency in which 80% of apprentices are on schemes with the lowest wage differentials, I want to know how the Government will ensure that young people are doing vocational training, including apprenticeships, in the right areas, and that that training gives them greater earning potential and more career opportunities.

I also want to know how young people will access opportunities in areas where local providers struggle to improve quality, alongside dealing with their financial difficulties. As the Minister is aware, the Public Accounts Committee has looked closely at the sustainability of the FE sector and how apprenticeships can work when providers are struggling. Some of the 15 routes appear to be apprentice-only openings but, as we know, many employers will not countenance taking on a 16-year-old apprentice. Additionally, what careers advice will be available to young people in my constituency to ensure they are best advised on which pathway to follow? I would welcome more clarity on the process for switching between academic and the technical routes, which I raised with the Government last week.

Finally, I appeal to the Government to make the revised system as easy to navigate as possible for young people, and their parents and carers. Much work has been done in recent years to make academic pathways easy to navigate, but we need to take the chance the Bill presents to ensure parity of transparency and ease of navigation for those pursuing this all-important technical route.