House of Commons
Monday 21 November 2016
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I hope that colleagues in all parts of the House will want to join me in congratulating Andy Murray on winning the ATP world tour finals last night in London and on finishing the year as the world men’s singles No. 1.
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
May I, on behalf of the Government, echo the thoughts about Andy Murray? He is a great Scotsman who has made a great contribution.
There are more older people in employment than ever before, but we know that there is more to do. We recently appointed Andy Briggs, chief executive of Aviva UK, as business champion for older workers to promote the benefits they bring to employers.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. What more are the Government doing to build on the fuller working lives strategy that they launched in 2014?
My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of the fuller working lives strategy. We will be publishing a new strategy in the new year to build on the success of the fuller working lives strategy, and that will set out its future direction. I am particularly keen that it should be led by employers, because I think that employers are the best people to persuade other employers of the benefits of employing older workers. That is true for the employers themselves and for individuals, and it is particularly true for the public sector.
Many older workers have caring responsibilities, which can make it hard for them to remain in work or even to return to work. What is the Secretary of State doing to encourage employers to work responsibly with those very valuable employees?
I agree with my hon. Friend that those employees are often particularly responsible and have particular needs, if they have caring responsibilities. That is why the Government recognise the benefits of flexible working. We extended the right of workers to request flexible working from June 2014. We have also introduced older claimant champions in jobcentres, and we are working with employers to help to highlight the benefits of employing older workers. Aviva, which I have mentioned in the context of Andy Briggs, is launching a new pilot scheme this Friday specifically to support carers. I very much hope that other companies will follow its example.
A year ago, Ministers committed to publishing an annual report on progress towards full employment, for the benefit of older workers and others. Does that commitment still stand, and if it does, when will the first of those annual reports be published?
Yes, it does. We will be publishing one next year, and I am happy to report in the interim to the right hon. Gentleman that there are more older people in employment than ever before. There are 9.8 million workers aged 50-plus in the UK. That is an increase of 1.5 million over the last five years, and I think that that is one of the strengths of our labour market.
But is it not true that there has been a relative decline in the proportion of older women in employment? Is the reason for that just the increase in the pension age, or is it that the Government are not providing the support for carers and the other things that enable older women to work?
I am afraid I cannot agree with the right hon. Lady on that. Currently, there are 4.05 million women aged 50 to 64 in employment. That compares with just under 3.5 million five years ago. As a percentage, it has gone up from below 60% to more than 65%. The benefits of work for older people are being applied to women as well, and that, of course, gives them much more control over their own lives.
On the question about carers, it is now seven months since the minimum wage was increased, but the income threshold for carer’s allowance has not risen in line with the minimum wage. Will the Secretary of State act to raise it by just £5 a week to ensure that carers are not forced to cut their hours because they are caught in this loophole?
Notably in relation to older workers.
Indeed. Carer’s allowance applies to people other than older workers, as you will be aware, Mr Speaker. The hon. Lady will also be aware that carer’s allowance was increased significantly at the most recent announcement. We keep all benefits under review.
Older employees bring many benefits to employers, including turning up on time, taking pride in their appearance and passing on a wealth of life experience to their younger colleagues. We have national recognition schemes for innovation, technology and exports. Has the Secretary of State thought of introducing a national recognition scheme for those employers who employ a large number of older workers?
As so often, my hon. Friend makes an innovative and good point. We work with employers to see what the best form of recognition is for employers who are particularly good at ensuring that older workers can carry on in the workforce, but I will certainly consider his suggestion.
Many people aspire to be their own boss. Although the bulk of the growth in employment in recent years has been in employment, there are now 4.7 million self-employed people in the UK labour market, accounting for approximately 15% of everyone in work.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, but notwithstanding what he has said there is a growing issue of bogus self-employment. Trade unions such as the GMB have been at the forefront of exposing such practices, so will he commit to working with trade unions as part of the ongoing Taylor review?
Of course, what the hon. Lady refers to does not apply to the great majority of people in self-employment, but some concerns have been expressed. The growth of atypical employment was behind the Prime Minister quite rightly saying that there would be a proper review under Matthew Taylor. That review will look at a whole range of things, as its terms of reference are quite broad: rights, responsibilities, representation, training, representation of under-represented groups and so on.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are launching a test—face-to-face and on a voluntary basis, from Jobcentre Plus work coaches—for self-employed people currently in receipt of tax credits. A range of support material is also available at gov.uk.
Ordering presents online is now a normal part of Christmas for many people, but there have been disturbing reports recently of delivery drivers who are classed as self-employed working dangerously long hours for less than the national living wage. Those workers make a vital contribution to the functioning of the digital economy. Will the Minister commit to meeting Labour’s five tests for social security for the self-employed?
I join the hon. Lady in recognising the necessity of looking at these issues. National living wage enforcement is very important. That is why we have raised the budget for it, as well raising the maximum penalty. As for the exact definition of self-employment, she will know that there are variations in definition for tax purposes and employment law purposes. The Matthew Taylor review is looking at precisely these issues to make sure that the appropriate protections are in place while enabling more and more people to avail themselves of the opportunities in the new economy.
What is the Minister doing to help disabled people into self-employment?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. We know that many more disabled people want to get into work, and one route is through self-employment. I am pleased to be able to say that more than a fifth of the participants in the new enterprise allowance scheme are people with a declared disability, but there is a great deal more we can do.
Disabled People: Recruitment and Retention
We already support employers through the new Disability Confident scheme, Access to Work and the Fit for Work service. Other measures are planned. The Green Paper consultation will provide further insight into how we can support employers and their disabled employees.
What advice can my hon. Friend offer to people such as my constituent Jehanzaib Sabih, who is deaf, so struggles to speak on the telephone, worked hard to obtain a university degree and yet is really struggling to find employment in the financial sector?
A lot of our bespoke expertise lies in the partner organisations we work with. If my hon. Friend contacts Sarah Holtham, who is the work coach at the Northampton jobcentre, she will facilitate a meeting with Deafconnect for him and his constituent. It also does a huge amount of work getting placements in the financial services sector, in particular with Nationwide, whose headquarters are in his constituency.
Following numerous successful Disability Confident events, we launched the small employer offer directly to engage, encourage and signpost new employers to take advantage of this often overlooked wealth of talent. Will the Minister update the House on the progress of this vital pilot?
As part of the small employer offer, we will introduce over 100 employment advisers to small employers, and the feedback we have had is that that is very welcome—in particular, for organisations that do not have their own human resources departments.
Recalling the very happy days when my hon. Friend was training for her diving competition in Southend, will she join me in congratulating Southend Adult Community College and Poundland on leading the way in employing disabled people in Southend?
I am familiar not only with the diving boards at Southend but with that excellent college, which has done many things well, including understanding that the built environment has a huge, positive role to play in ensuring that people with profound and multiple physical and learning disabilities can achieve their full potential.
Very many individuals who previously received disability living allowance and who now receive personal independence payments are prevented from travelling to work—their Motability vehicles are being taken away because they do not qualify for the higher rate mobility component. This is a serious issue for people who are working, want to work and for whom the Government are making things more difficult. What is the Minister going to do about it?
I would point out that more people now have access to Motability than before, but I understand the problems that the hon. Gentleman raises, and we are looking at this in the Department.
May I put on record congratulations to Andy Murray on his magnificent achievement and also congratulate his brother, Jamie Murray, who will end the year as doubles world No. 1? What Scotland lacks in football prowess, we more than make up for in tennis, and we are immensely proud of both Murray brothers.
Last week, Members on both sides of the House made it clear to Ministers that cutting employment and support allowance for those who are in the work-related activity group by nearly £30 a week, with corresponding cuts to universal credit, is not acceptable when the Government are still consulting on their Green Paper on closing the disability employment gap and do not have adequate support in place. Has the Minister discussed the outcome of last week’s debate with the Chancellor ahead of the autumn statement and impressed on him the need to postpone these punitive cuts?
I point out to the hon. Lady that the support that needs to be in place for those members of WRAG will be in place, and I gave the detail of exactly when that would be in place—before new claims come online—but I must stress that, as well as enabling people to endure and cope with such situations and the associated costs of living, we have an obligation to help them to get out of those situations. I have given assurances to the House that we will do both.
The loss of the limited capability for work element of universal credit will mean that thousands of working disabled people will be about £1,500 a year worse off. Does the Minister think that slashing the incomes of working disabled people sends the right message about the Government’s commitment to those who are just about managing?
We are spending more money on disability benefits, and we are doing more in terms of support, so I do not recognise the position that the hon. Lady outlines.
Yes, I do, which is why we have brought forward a Green Paper, and we will be consulting on it until February. In the meantime, where we can make progress and foster the local connections and relationships between employment support and healthcare professionals and others those individuals will need support from, we will do so, and the flexible support fund, which goes live in December, will do that.
On behalf of Labour, I offer my congratulations to Andy Murray.
The prospect of a further £1,500-a-year cut in support to sick and disabled people found not fit for work, on top of the previous £28 billion of cuts, fills many with dread. Why is the Secretary of State touting the propaganda that the cut will incentivise disabled people to find work, when his Department’s own research says the opposite? Will he listen to MPs on both sides of the House who unanimously rejected his policy last Thursday, and stop the cut in the autumn statement?
As I pointed out at length, we will mitigate the financial cut to the WRAG group through several measures, including the flexible support fund, which will help with costs related directly to work, and through other measures to help with costs not directly related to getting into work. I have stated to the hon. Lady several times in the last week that we have to do both those things. We need to ensure someone’s liquidity and financial resilience, but we must also ensure that they have other kinds of support. We will not pause that support when it commences in April.
Women’s State Pension Age
The Government will not be introducing further transitional protection beyond the £1.1 billion already in place. Going any further could not be justified, given that the underlying imperative must be to focus public resources on those most in need.
That is a very disappointing response. There are 10,000 WASPI women in Hull, and with 4,100 names, Hull’s was the largest WASPI petition presented to the House last month. Labour has suggested changes to pension credit that could be financed by clawing back handouts to the wealthiest in order to help these women. Is it not about time that the Minister understood that these WASPI women will not go away until justice is done and they get a fair deal?
As the hon. Lady has mentioned, Labour proposed using pension credit as a transition mechanism for helping these women. This was discussed extensively during our debates on the Pensions Act 2011 as it went through Parliament, and it was decided that £1.1 billion would instead be used as transitional relief.
It is quite obvious from the Minister’s response that he is fed up with these questions, but I will keep asking them so long as I have women, such as my constituent Gillian Purcell, coming to me and saying, “I’m 60. I’ve worked all my life, but my body is telling me I can’t do it any more without a pension”. When will the Government do the honourable thing and start looking after the WASPI women?
The cost of reversing the changes varies depending on whom one asks. The different political groups have come up with different amounts, varying between £7 billion and £30 billion, and that is quite apart from the substantial practical problems, such as risk of legal challenge, deliverability and all the problems associated with such options.
I recently spoke to a constituent working in a care home who was incredibly distressed at the thought of having to work another seven years in an increasingly physically demanding job, especially as she had made retirement plans to look after her daughter’s children so that her daughter could go back to work. What assessment has the Department made of the implications not only for the women affected but for their families too?
As the hon. Lady implies, the Department has considered this matter long and hard. The current average age of exit from the labour market for women is 63.1 years, which is well above the previous women’s state pension age of 60.
I just want to make it clear that it is not just on the Opposition Benches that there are concerns about this matter. Of course we do not know what the autumn statement will say on Wednesday, but we ought at least to keep options open, because the current state of affairs is not very satisfactory.
As my hon. Friend knows, the public finances are very complicated, and I know that he intends to wait until Wednesday to hear what the Chancellor has to say, but this matter has been looked at long and hard and transitional funds of more than £1.1 billion have been allocated. The change to the state pension age was discussed and enacted in 1995. Since then, there have been further Acts and all this has been extensively discussed.
I understand that reverting to the 1995 state pension timetable would cost something in the region of £39 billion. Does the Minister agree that it is easy to criticise the Government over this policy, but more difficult to explain where the money would come from for any policy changes?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I totally agree with him.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the difficulty with Labour’s proposal on pension credit is that it does not reflect what is actually sought by the WASPI campaign, which goes right back to the Pensions Act 1995? That would almost certainly be illegal—[Interruption]—under the rules of fair progress for both sexes on pensions, and it would cost an absolute fortune?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I heard a Labour Member shouting, “Tell that to the destitute.” Well, we have a very good benefits system in this country, and I am sure that those people who are destitute are very familiar with it.
The Minister has made it very clear that the Government will not act further to help those affected by the ill-managed change to people’s pension age. Will he tell us whether he or the Secretary of State have had any discussions with the Chancellor ahead of the autumn statement about whether there might be additional help for those most affected?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I can do no better than repeat that the transitional arrangements have taken place and that Government policy is very clear. I would not want him to think or believe that there will be any change on this.
Clearly there have been no discussions with the Chancellor. In the Westminster Hall debate on the issue, we heard about many people who have been left destitute and are living in poverty as they care for elderly relatives who may be unwell, but not ill enough to qualify for employment and support allowance, and about many others who are in dire straits. The Government have no intention of doing anything to help them and they have rejected Labour’s first-step proposal of extending pension credit to both women and men who are being denied their state pension for years to come. I ask the Minister to think again. Assuming that his hands are tied by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, will he set up a dedicated proactive helpline for those affected so that they can access the social security benefits that the Minister says are sufficient to meet their needs?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, there is a very good benefit system in this country and people in every area are well aware of how to access it. There are Jobcentre Plus offices and help available in every local area. If right hon. or hon. Members wish to write to me about individual constituents, as they do, I will be happy to refer them to the places in their local areas.
I am happy to confirm that I work closely with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, and hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I will not be pre-empting what he will be saying in his statement to the House on Wednesday.
That is a shame. The Resolution Foundation has suggested that the best way to help the 6 million just-managing households would be to scrap the planned cuts to universal credit, including the reduction in work allowances that could see losses of up £2,800 for a working single parent. Does the Secretary of State agree that, on Wednesday, the Government need to move beyond the soundbites and reverse these cuts before low-income families pay the price?
No, I do not agree. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the tremendous successes we have achieved in getting people into work. We have employment at historic high rates. Very specifically, because of the introduction of the living wage, the latest Office for National Statistics data show that the group whose pay is going up the most—more than 6% last year—are the lowest-paid workers. I think that that is the system working exactly as it should.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that with the fall in the pound since the Brexit vote, prices are being pushed up by about 2.6%. This means that there could be a rise in inflation that would coincide with this Government’s benefit freeze, adding even more pressure on low-income families. Does not the Minister agree that in view of that situation, we should get rid of the benefit freeze in the autumn statement?
I am sure that we shall receive a list of bids from members of the Scottish National party. I repeat that it is not for me to pre-empt my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s autumn statement but, as I said to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), the purpose of the various benefit changes—and, indeed, the whole benefits system—is to enable people to get into work so that they can not only earn more money, but take more control over their lives. In that respect, the system is working historically well. We have more people in work, more women in work, and fewer children growing up in workless households than ever before, and that is a huge achievement.
Despite assurances from the Government that there would be no more austerity-driven benefit cuts, any family whose third or subsequent child is born after April 2017 will not qualify for child tax credit, which could mean a loss of more than £2,000 per child. Does the Secretary of State agree that to protect just-managing families, this repugnant measure must be abandoned on Wednesday?
As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said at the weekend, the House has already voted for certain benefit cuts. We do not intend to make any new cuts in benefits during the current Parliament, but Parliament has decided on various measures, including the one to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, and we shall be implementing those measures.
A great many families who struggle to get by each month do not receive universal credit; indeed, they do not receive any welfare payments at all. We should not fall into the trap of defining this issue solely by the benefits system, and we should therefore not commit ourselves to reversing those cuts. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that there is a strong case for sitting down with the Chancellor and looking into what more we can do to help people on low incomes, and to support families who struggle to get by month after month?
My right hon. Friend is right to say that this is not purely about the payment of benefits; it is about a system that enables and helps people to get into work, or back into work, and to make progress once they are in work. As I am sure my right hon. Friend will have observed, that is the thrust of the work and health Green Paper, which is specifically designed for people with a disability or long-term health problem who have often have found it particularly difficult to find work in the past. We want to find new, innovative ways of helping those people so that they can enjoy the wider success of the modern labour market.
Unemployment in Corby, in east Northamptonshire, has fallen by more than 50% since 2010. We have seen falls in youth unemployment, and record private investments that are coming on stream will bring thousands of new jobs. As well as ensuring that all the right support is being provided, will my right hon. Friend call on the Chancellor for more of the same when it comes to job opportunities?
I certainly will. I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend’s constituency is sharing so fully in the wider benefits of the more flexible, dynamic and innovative labour market that we have created over the past few years. I am sure he has found that for many of his constituents—along with other people throughout the country—work is absolutely the best route out of poverty, and they are benefiting from what has been done in the past. I assure him that we will continue to take such action.
I do think that the changes are fair. I also think that much of the problem with the various pieces of analysis that have been produced by a number of think-tanks is that they do not assess the effects of getting more people into work, or—I mentioned this earlier—ensuring that they make progress when they are in work. Both those actions help people’s family incomes, which is, I think, the way to give them more long-term security and to ensure that they do not just get out of poverty, but stay out of poverty.
The Government’s flagship universal credit programme has been in trouble almost since day one, which has undermined the important principle of always making work pay more than social security. Two and a half million people in low-paid work will be, on average, more than £2,000 a year worse off as a result of the Government’s cuts in universal credit work allowances. How can the Secretary of State justify his mantra that work is the route out of poverty when, under this Government, there are 7 million working families in poverty and the cut in their support will make the position worse? Why will he not honour his pledge to make work pay and ensure that the cut is reversed in the autumn statement?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s analysis of universal credit. The great thing about it is precisely that it does make work pay. We all remember the cliff edges that people were faced with: once they started to work more than 16 or 30 hours a week, they had to decide whether they would be better off in work or on benefits. That is a terrible choice to put before someone. The whole point of universal credit, which we are steadily rolling out, is that work always pays. People know that if they go into work, or if they work extra hours, they will always benefit from that. If she does not accept that, I am afraid that she and I fundamentally disagree about the fact that work is the best route out of poverty. She appears to be denying that fact.
Last week, we announced the remainder of the roll-out of universal credit full service through to September 2018. Universal credit is now being delivered in every jobcentre and local authority, with over 400,000 claimants now receiving it.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Given that one is more likely to be employed, to work more and to earn more on universal credit than on JSA, will he confirm, on the mechanics and progress of the roll-out, that the test-and-learn approach is enabling difficulties to be quickly identified and resolved so that the roll-out can be delivered smoothly in the next few months?
My hon. Friend is right to point out the technical aspects of the roll-out. We have always been clear that an undertaking of this size and scale would be bound to meet obstacles. That was precisely why we adopted the test-and-learn approach which, I am glad to report, has worked. We have listened to issues raised by our staff and officials, and by claimants and other stakeholders. We now have a solid foundation. Universal credit is delivered in every jobcentre and local authority area. As I said, 400,000 claimants are now receiving it and being supported to build a better future for themselves.
The UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is on 25 November. Universal credit is normally paid to a single person within a couple, but that can cause major problems for women or men in an abusive relationship, and asking for split payments could exacerbate the difficulties for someone in that situation. Will the Secretary of State consider automatically splitting payments for each partner in a couple?
I suspect that automatically splitting payments would introduce many technical difficulties and cause more problems than it solves. In individual instances, it is possible to split the payments to deal with problems including that which the hon. Lady rightly identifies. However, automatically splitting payments would probably not be practical.
If the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) can overcome his natural shyness, we will hear him.
I pay tribute to the Salvation Army for its work in my hon. Friend’s constituency, in my constituency, where it has just celebrated its 125th anniversary, and throughout the country. We have developed a personal budgeting strategy to ensure that claimants have access to money advice in the transition to universal credit. A small minority might need alternative payment arrangements, which can be set up in various forms. Particularly in the housing sphere, that is a necessary part of the flexibility that we have with universal credit, so that a small minority who may not be able to cope with the way in which it is normally delivered are helped.
I am dealing with a universal credit case whereby a constituent has been left near-destitute. Following his application, the DWP has alleged that he is not a British citizen, despite the fact that he has an English birth certificate and other proof of his citizenship. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this case to help my constituent and to stop this happening to anyone else as universal credit is rolled out?
I am always happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss individual cases. Alternatively, if she wants to write to me, I will ensure this is dealt with as quickly as possible.
The Government are committed to the creation of jobs and making work pay. We know that work is the best route out of poverty, and that is why our welfare reforms are focused on supporting people into work, rather than leaving them to rely on benefits.
It is interesting that that answer does not necessarily address the question that I asked.
Last week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies highlighted the impact that weaker sterling will have on the cost of many of the essentials for which welfare benefits pay—clothing and food. It estimates that inflation for those items could be 2.7% next year. These circumstances were neither known nor anticipated when the decision was made to freeze benefits, so should they not themselves be the catalyst for a review of the decision?
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that inflation was in fact down last month. What is really important is that we support people who can work into jobs, and into better jobs—that is the whole premise behind universal credit. We know that getting people into work lifts them out of poverty. Our reforms include increasing the national living wage to £9 an hour by 2020, cutting income tax for more than 30 million people and, of course, the roll-out of universal credit.
Jobcentre Plus and Food Banks
Jobcentre Plus district managers have discretion to work with food banks in their areas where those food banks are willing to work with them. This is part of the wider Jobcentre Plus outreach programme with community organisations.
In just six months the Trussell Trust has provided more than 2,000 children in Bristol with emergency food parcels, and east Bristol food bank has had to open another outlet in Fishponds. We know that changes to benefits or delays in payments account for nearly half of those cases, so will the Minister agree to the Trussell Trust’s simple request that a Jobcentre Plus hotline for food bank volunteers is provided?
First, I should say that 90% of out-of-work benefits are paid on time; of course, we always strive to make that better. On the question of whether the Jobcentre Plus network is willing to work with food banks, as I said, there is discretion locally to do that when it makes sense and if the food bank is happy to do so. There are plenty of examples of that happening around the country in terms of both signposting from Jobcentre Plus and work coaches going to food banks.
Personal Independence Payments
Our policy is designed by service-user panels, provision is strictly monitored and measured by independent audit, and the provider is held to account through our contract with it.
Citizens Advice and the mental health charity Mind told the Public Accounts Committee in March that private contractor assessors were comprehensively failing claimants with mental health issues, so what progress has been made since in the recruitment of registered mental health nurses by healthcare assessment providers to ensure that claimants with mental health issues get the support they need?
Since then we have introduced a number of new measures, including improved training and additional recruitment. We are also monitoring to ensure those doing assessments are referring to mental health services if they feel that that is required.
Fourteen-year old Olivia in North Cornwall is the primary carer for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis. PIP assessments create uncertainty for Olivia; no one else in her household is able to work or to care for her mother. Will my hon. Friend applaud young carers such as Olivia? In the light of the DWP’s proposed end to reassessment for people with long-term illnesses, will she consider extending this to people who rely on children to care for them until such time as those children have finished further education?
I certainly pay tribute to Olivia and the thousands like her who do a physically and emotionally demanding job for their loved ones. We recognise the principle. We have made changes to ESA reassessments and the Green Paper affords us the opportunity to look at how that principle could be applied to PIP. It might be to my hon. Friend’s constituent’s advantage to have further PIP assessments because her needs might increase, but there is an opportunity to have a much more streamlined process, which I hope the Green Paper will deliver.
Does the Minister not realise how wildly wrong some of these assessments can be? I had a constituent with cerebral palsy who was told that he would get no mobility component with his personal independence payment, meaning that he risked losing his car and therefore his ability to work. Are any financial sanctions imposed on the contractor for getting such assessments so wildly wrong and hence threatening people’s jobs?
I think the hon. Lady’s question related to PIP. We have also introduced other ways in which we can measure a contractor’s performance, including the use of clinical data. Whether in relation to PIP or to ESA, we need to ensure that the evidence needed to make these judgments is submitted early in the process. We are doing some work to ensure that that happens, and it is improving things considerably.
Supported Housing Sector
In his written ministerial statement to the House of Commons on 15 September, the Secretary of State confirmed that from 2019-20 we will be introducing a new funding model for supported housing. I can also confirm that the Department for Work and Pensions, along with the Department for Communities and Local Government, will today publish a consultation document to develop the details that will underpin the new funding model, and the evidence review of supported housing in Great Britain.
One in five people affected by severe mental illness rely on supported housing. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department of Health about the effect that these policy changes have had on those who suffer from a mental illness?
Colleagues from the DCLG and I have had extensive discussions with the supported housing sector since 15 September, and those conversations will continue now that the consultation document has been published.
Automatic enrolment will give about 11 million people the opportunity to save into a workplace pension scheme, all of which must meet qualifying criteria and minimum requirements. I am pleased to say that just under 7 million people have already been enrolled by more than 293,000 employers.
It is welcome that more people are joining pension schemes, but the Pensions Regulator issued 3,700 penalty notices in the quarter to September, up from 861. Does that perhaps suggest that this process is becoming a bit too cumbersome for small businesses?
The vast majority of small employers are meeting their automatic enrolment duties on time and without the need for any enforcement action. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the regulator has issued more fixed penalty notices this quarter, but this is proportionate to the number of employers now implementing automatic enrolment.
Since my appointment as Secretary of State, I have been determined to look at the benefits processes to ensure that they are working in a fair and proper way. As part of that ongoing work, I have announced an extension to the groups that can access hardship payments immediately following a sanction. Those groups now include people with a mental health condition and homeless people. This change will help to ensure that sanctions do not discourage those vulnerable groups from engaging fully with the welfare system, and that we have a system that is fair, that protects the most vulnerable and that supports people into work.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said to the House. The new figures from the Office for National Statistics show an increase of 590,000 disabled people in employment over the past three years, and I am particularly pleased that the employment rates for disabled people in my local authority areas of Hart and of Basingstoke and Deane are 16.3% and 14% above the national average. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming those figures? Can he also assure me that this Government will commit to building on this success by continuing to reduce the disability employment gap?
I am delighted to hear about the figures in my hon. Friend’s area, which reflect the national move that has narrowed the disability employment gap by 2.3% over the past year. There is an enormous amount still to do, which is why we produced the joint Green Paper with the Department of Health. It is a central task for this Department over the next three years, and we will pursue it with as much vigour as we can.
That particular criterion, of which I am very aware, is obviously not the sole criterion—many other factors are taken into account. I wish to do more on Motability, and we are looking closely at the whole area.
I can reiterate the fact that plans to expand auto-enrolment are happening, and hundreds of thousands of people are signing up, which is a significant improvement. As for the self-employed and other people who are not in the scheme, that is just the sort of thing that we should be looking at in our 2017 review of automatic enrolment.
I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with the figures, but I do not recognise what he says. We have actually expanded such schemes, and the Green Paper asks what more we can do. We want to ensure that everyone who wants to get into work has the necessary equipment and support to do so.
I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend does not work until he drops, but I take his main point that people are retiring later. As part of the policy of continually reducing taxation on people, I am sure that the Treasury will be looking at the matter in future. With pension freedoms and the tax-free element that pensioners enjoy, the good news is that there is much more scope for pensioners to do the kind of thing he mentions.
I call Kelvin Hopkins. Not here.
The IFS projects that child poverty will go up by 50% over the course of this Parliament. Why is that?
The IFS’s projections are for the IFS to explain, but I can give the hon. Gentleman the facts: the proportion of people living in relative poverty is near its lowest level for more than 30 years; and, since 2010, 300,000 fewer people, 100,000 fewer working-age adults, and 100,000 fewer children are in poverty. The whole House should welcome those figures.
I point my hon. Friend towards the joint Department of Health and DWP Green Paper that we have just published. It represents a key opportunity. If we want to, it is early enough in this Parliament to reform things such as the work capability assessment to ensure that support—whether from our services or from healthcare—gets to the people who need it.
By Wednesday’s autumn statement, it will be 505 days since the Government first announced the two-child policy and the rape clause in the summer Budget 2015. The Resolution Foundation estimates that that policy will put 200,000 children into poverty by 2020. The Government still cannot tell us how it will actually work, and there is a measly 38-day consultation in which the public can respond. When will the Government finally admit that the rape clause and the two-child policy are completely unworkable and scrap the policy?
Difficult decisions had to be made in welfare reform, and the vast majority of families with children have two children or fewer. This is one decision that had to be made, and it applies only to new cases and will not take money away from those already in receipt of help. On the exemptions that the hon. Lady mentions, these are some of the most difficult and sensitive topics. It is right that we have a full consultation and that we work closely with experts within the sector to ensure that we get the process exactly right.
Yes, I would be very happy to give those reassurances. In addition to discretionary payments that can be made through the work coach with the flexible support fund—[Interruption.] Yes, it has always been the case. Those payments are in relation to the costs that people incur from getting into work. As for those other costs that are not directly related to getting into work, we are looking at how we can reduce those outgoings, and there are a number of other national and locally administered schemes that would mitigate those costs. I am very clear that we have to do both things. We have to ensure that someone can endure and cope with the situation in which they find themselves, but we must also bring forward that support in April to enable them to get out of a situation.
With around £4 billion of child support debts still outstanding and DWP’s own figures to March this year showing that 90,000 non-resident parents have not paid child support in full, will the Secretary of State tell the House where extra resources can be found to ensure that those parents who are due child maintenance for the care of their children receive it in full and on time?
We encourage paying parents to pay their maintenance on time and in full and to avoid the accrual of arrears. However, if a paying parent fails to pay on time, we aim to take immediate action to recover the debt and re-establish compliance. We have a range of strong enforcement powers, including seizing property and commitment to prison. We attempt to re-establish compliance initially through a one-off card payment, or negotiated agreement, deduction from the paying parent’s earnings, or deduction directly from an individual’s bank account. We are currently in the process of responding to a consultation run earlier this year on using powers to deduct from joint bank accounts.
The DWP has long recognised the challenges that some claimants, particularly those with multiple or complex needs, may face in the transition to universal credit. That is why we have developed the personal budgeting strategy to ensure that claimants have access to suitable financial products and money advice. For the small minority who need them, alternative payment arrangements can be set up. All APA cases are dealt with urgently and the majority of cases are processed within the first assessment period and within a five-day average clearance time.
It was a long overdue victory for common sense that those people with chronic illnesses and long-term conditions will no longer be subject to the work capability assessment, but what about our brave veterans in receipt of war pensions? Why are they still subject to work capability assessments?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is one that I, as a former Armed Forces Minister, have discussed with the Department. That is why we have specific questions related to our armed forces in the Green Paper. It is a good idea.
The most challenging gap that we need to bridge in the disability employment statistics is the one relating to people with learning difficulties. In answer to a written question, the civil service was unable to break down the stats to show how many people with learning disabilities were employed. Does the Minister agree that those stats are vital to help us to provide policies and support for people in these circumstances?
I agree absolutely, which is why we are doing that at as local a level as possible. On 5 December we are holding a drop-in session to which every Member of this House will be invited. As well as giving them information about how they can run local events to encourage participation in the Green Paper consultation, we will be giving them some local data so that they can get that local focus on the people we are currently trying to help and the unmet need.
Why does the Secretary of State think that five of his colleagues voted for my motion last week calling on the Government to pause cuts to ESA and universal credit?
Hon. Members are entitled to vote in this House as they like. I am not sure that the Chief Whip would agree with me at all times, but it is a fact. I disagreed with the case that the hon. Gentleman made in that debate. As has been explored over the past hour in this Question Time, a balance clearly has to be struck between keeping the public finances in order and ensuring that our benefits system works as well as possible to help as many people as possible into work. That is what we have been doing successfully for many years now, and that is what we will continue to do.
Universal credit was rolled out in Waveney on 25 May. I am sorry to report that at present it is not going well and many vulnerable people are finding themselves in difficult situations. Can the Secretary of State assure me and my constituents that everything is being done to address these technical issues as soon as possible so that universal credit can play the role for which it was intended?
I am always happy to talk about any technical issues that arise as we roll out this important benefit, and if my hon. Friend wishes to bring them to my attention in detail, I will happily talk to him about them.
Should not those people who were damaged in the contaminated blood scandal by the NHS be passported on to the new PIP regime if they are already in receipt of DLA?
I do not know whether this is an issue that the hon. Lady has raised before. I am sorry if I am not aware of the previous correspondence that she has had with the Department. I would be happy to meet her to discuss that.
PIP continues to lead the way in identifying and supporting those with mental health conditions to a significantly greater degree than DLA, so what more can be done to signpost the people identified to additional support provided by the NHS, charities or the Government pilot?
We have been trialling a number of measures—for example, the mental health trailblazers, which combines employment support advice with psychological support delivered through the NHS, and we are going to roll that out nationally.
Does the Secretary of State understand that the dismissive answers that the Under-Secretary of State for Pensions, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), gave about the problems faced by WASPI women are a slap in the face to women who have worked all their lives and in many cases have retired to look after sick or elderly relatives, thus saving this country millions of pounds? It is time that Ministers recognised that those who have done the right thing ought to be looked at and their situation alleviated.
Since the original legislation was passed more than 20 years ago, and since the Pensions Act 2011, the Government committed £1.1 billion to lessen the impact of the changes for those affected. In the end, we have to address the issue that having the same pension age for men and women is fair, and that at a time when we are all living longer it is necessary, if we are to keep a credible pensions system going, for the pension age to go up gradually for both sexes. [Interruption.] I am sorry that many people in the Labour party do not seem to accept those basic facts of arithmetic, but they are basis facts and the mitigations that were put in place mean that no one has seen their pension age change by more than 18 months compared to the previous timetable—[Interruption.] For 81% of those women the increase will be no more than 12 months. Finally, for the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) who is shouting from the Front Bench, other countries have done this faster than the UK. In nine European Union countries, including Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, all of which run extremely sophisticated welfare systems, the state pension age was 65 for women as far back as 2009, so the Labour party will have to accept these basic facts.
I was hoping there would be time for the remaining two questioners. There is not, but it will have to be found anyway.
On Saturday evening, I met one of my constituents, who came to see me about PIP reassessments for those with deafness-related conditions. The question he wanted me to put to Ministers was whether, as part of the ongoing review of the reassessment process, they will look carefully at the situation relating to this group of individuals.
Yes, the Green Paper will afford us the opportunity to do that. Around certain disabilities, there are some very sensitive issues about how someone might need assistance provided—for example, they might prefer to use sign language, as opposed to assistive technology—which we also need to take into account, and we will do that.
I was recently contacted by a constituent who was asked to complete an evaluation form at the end of a PIP assessment and who alleges that the Atos healthcare professional who conducted the assessment stood over her and watched as she completed the paperwork. I am sure the Minister will share my alarm that people may feel menaced into giving favourable feedback. Will she agree to personally look into this as a matter of urgency?
If the hon. Lady can give me any more specifics about that, I would be very happy to look into it. In terms of the satisfaction reviews that are done, the satisfaction rating is high, and I do not think—[Interruption.] No, we need to give credit where credit is due. But if that kind of practice is going on, or if any Member of this House has evidence or further examples of it, I will be very happy to look into it.
Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the leadership, staffing, budget and structure of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse.
The inquiry was set up to look at the extent to which institutions in England and Wales failed to protect children from sexual abuse. We know the terrible impact that abuse has on survivors, sometimes for many years.
As the House knows, following the resignation of the previous chair, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary appointed as chair Professor Alexis Jay. She has a distinguished career in social work and a long-standing dedication to child protection. She led the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, where she scrutinised the work of social workers and proved her capability to uncover failings across institutions and professions. She is the right person to take this work forward.
Taking the work forward is vital for creating a sense of certainty for victims and survivors. The inquiry has set up 13 strands of investigation, and made 250 formal requests for information from over 120 institutions, with 164,000 documents having now been submitted. It has referred roughly 80 cases a week to the police. It has rolled out the truth project, providing survivors with the opportunity to tell the inquiry what has happened to them. More than 500 people have so far come forward.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 2MC.]
The inquiry has adequate resources to undertake its work, and we will support the inquiry with what it needs. The inquiry remains independent, which means it is not part of Government and is not run by a Government Department.
Professor Jay is mindful of the scale of the task and the need to move forward with pace. That is why she has instigated an internal review of the inquiry’s approach to its investigations, exploring new ways to develop its investigative work, while remaining faithful to its terms of reference. She has made it clear that, if any changes are proposed, the views of those affected will be sought.
We expect the outcome of this review soon. It is crucial that we now give the inquiry the space and support it needs to get on with its job—getting to the truth for victims and survivors—and I urge everyone in the House to do just that.
I thank the Minister for that statement, but where is the Home Secretary, and why has nobody from the Government sought proactively to come to this House to provide reassurance about the serious events that have unfolded over the past week as this inquiry has unravelled in front of our eyes?
Has the Home Secretary met survivors groups since last Thursday? What steps has she taken to establish that the chair and the panel have the expertise and the working relationships for this to succeed? Has anybody from the Home Office investigated why so many lawyers have cited concerns about competency and leadership? Does she expect further resignations? Has a new chief legal counsel been appointed? Is the former chief legal counsel, Ben Emmerson QC, still being paid, and if so, why? What action has the Home Office taken to establish that there was a disclosure of sexual assault, and is she satisfied that that disclosure was dealt with properly by the inquiry? Can she give me a personal assurance that the intelligence services are standing by the commitment to hand over all files and that that is not being obstructed? We heard about Professor Jay’s internal review for the first time in August—where is it?
This is the second time in recent weeks that I have had to ask Ministers to come to the House and account for these failings. They have lost seven senior lawyers, three chairs and several survivors groups, and it is now impossible to see that this inquiry is still operating effectively. This may be the last chance that the Prime Minister and her Home Secretary have to rescue from collapse the inquiry that the Prime Minister set up. Will the Home Secretary now stop hiding behind the smokescreen of independence, recognise that she has responsibility for this inquiry’s success, and get a grip on it?
I am absolutely delighted, as the Minister responsible for vulnerability, safeguarding and counter-extremism, to be here to answer this question. It is absolutely at the core of this Government’s priorities to safeguard children in our country. The Home Secretary was in this House as recently as 17 October answering questions in detail. The Home Affairs Committee has asked detailed questions of the permanent secretary to the Home Office. The hon. Lady is really quite wrong in asserting that there is some sort of smokescreen and hiding behind independence. It is absolutely essential that this inquiry is an independent inquiry. The terms of reference of the inquiry were shaped with the voices and the opinions of the victims, and it is very important that this independence is maintained.
The hon. Lady asked a series of operational questions, all of which are for the chair and the leadership of the independent inquiry. It would be totally wrong for me to answer those questions here, because we would be intervening in the independence of the inquiry. I am confident, as are the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, in the ability of Professor Jay to lead this inquiry. It is really important that we all get behind the inquiry so that it can get on and do its really important work in making sure that it gets to the truth and delivers for victims.
I do not for one moment undervalue the intentions of those who set up this inquiry and those who are working with it, although it has had a very rocky road since it was begun. Nor do I underestimate for one moment the trauma felt by those who have been affected by child sex abuse. I have acted in a number of criminal cases in which I have seen with my own eyes the terrible consequences for adults of what happened to them as children. I want to ask my hon. Friend a question from a slightly different angle. I have a constituent who, since the early part of this century, has been left in a hideous, Kafkaesque limbo. He does not know whether he is an accused person or a witness. What is his status in relation to this inquiry? He, like the victims, needs to be told when this is all going to finish, both for him and for the victims. Will my hon. Friend please make some inquiries of the inquiry to ensure that this man can either be prosecuted or set free?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the customary thoughtfulness with which he asked his question and reflected on the importance of this inquiry. As he quite rightly points out, child sexual abuse can have a devastating impact not just on the victims, but on the people caught up in such inquiries. He referred to a particular case that is an operational matter for the police. While I can understand why he wants to bring this matter to a swift conclusion on his constituent’s behalf, these are operational matters for the police, who, quite rightly, are independent of the Home Office.
This inquiry is on its fourth chair. Every time, Ministers have come to the House and asserted that the current chair is the right person to take the inquiry forward. Having said that for the fourth time, why do they expect the House, the public and, above all, the survivors to be reassured? As the Minister has said, this is of course an independent inquiry, particularly as to its conduct and findings, but that does not mean the Home Office can take no responsibility at all.
On the question of the Shirley Oaks survivors who were in the Lambeth children’s home, I have heard the Minister say that she will not answer operational questions, but she will know their concern about having a social worker as the overall chair of the inquiry. They have said they will accept a vice-chair for their strand who is not a social worker. Have Ministers put that to Alexis Jay? Above all—I hope the Minister will not dismiss this as an operational question—the Shirley Oaks survivors want to know what Home Office involvement there was in the monitoring and supervision of the Lambeth children’s home during the period when the historical child abuse occurred. Ministers cannot just let this inquiry run into the sand. The public expect better, this House expects better and the survivors expect better.
I absolutely assure the hon. Lady and every other Member in the House that we will absolutely not let this inquiry run into the sand. It is vital to the full protection of children in our country that we understand the failings of the past, seek remedies for the victims and use that intelligence to improve and have better safeguarding arrangements for children today.
The hon. Lady asked questions about operational details that she knows full well it would be completely inappropriate for me to answer. I can assure her that the chair of the independent inquiry regularly meets survivors groups, and I am sure that she will listen to the concerns raised by the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association. She is undertaking a review to make sure that the inquiry is properly focused to address the really serious concerns that are being raised.
I appreciate that this is an independent inquiry, but my hon. Friend must understand that the victims groups have become upset and disturbed about the nature of the inquiry and how long it is going to take. Will she at least assure me that the scope of the inquiry will not be reduced, and that whatever funds are required by the inquiry will be delivered by the Home Office?
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I quite understand that the victims, who have been abused, will feel disappointed at some of the issues that there have been with the inquiry. I quite understand that, but as he says, it is absolutely vital that the independence of the inquiry is maintained. The chair is meeting and engaging with the survivors organisations and individuals to make sure that the inquiry absolutely delivers on its terms of reference, which they themselves shaped. To go back to my initial response to the urgent question, the fact that 80 cases a week are being referred to the police and that over 500 people have come forward to participate in the truth project shows how valuable the inquiry already is to those victims.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 3MC.]
We all know that the inquiry has been dogged by setbacks and problems, so it is very disappointing to learn of further difficulties, namely the latest withdrawals and the concerns expressed by groups representing victims and survivors. I am sure that all right-minded people want the inquiry to succeed. We want it to meet its original purpose of investigating historical allegations of institutional child sexual abuse, and, wherever possible, we want, above all, justice for those people whose lives have been irreparably harmed by abuse. Yet, to do so we need to restore and secure confidence in the inquiry and its findings.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s reluctance to address what she considers to be operational matters, when does she anticipate that a suitable legal counsel will be appointed to ensure that the facts are well established throughout the proceedings? Following the resignation of the previous chair in August, does the Minister know whether internal procedures for resolving complaints about staff and panel members have been established? Most importantly—this is categorially not an operational matter—what does she plan to do to restore trust in the proceedings for those survivors of sexual abuse and to regain their support?
I thank the hon. Lady for her series of questions. I will take her last point first. On confidence, there is a huge amount that we can do in this House, and that is to get behind the inquiry. It is open for business. It is worth getting some perspective. Although I am really disappointed that one victims group has decided not to engage with the inquiry at the current time, I am hopeful that it will re-engage in the future. We must remember that it is one group. The inquiry is open for business and getting on with its work.
The question about the legal counsel is for the chair and the leadership of the commission. It is their responsibility to make sure that they appoint the people necessary to undertake the task. I am sure that the chair understands the concerns raised by Members and victims organisations regarding making sure that she gets on with resolving the issues so that the very important work that the inquiry is doing can come to a swift and really good conclusion.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the role of the Home Secretary, or any Secretary of State, under the Inquiries Act 2005 is to appoint the chair and the panel and to agree the terms of reference with that chair, and that for a Member to come to this House with an imperious and censorious list of questions, such as those we heard from the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), does not help the inquiry and totally fails to understand the law?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a lawyer, for asking such an insightful question. It is very disappointing that Opposition Members are coming to the House and making such censorious claims when what we really need to do is get behind this independent inquiry so that it can do the job for victims and make sure that we all learn what more we can do to keep children in our country safe.
It is not just my constituents who are members of the largest survivors group, Shirley Oaks, whose more than 600 members have said that they no longer have confidence in the chair of the inquiry. White Flowers Alba, Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors and lawyers representing numerous other survivors have also said that. On Friday, I was appalled that one response to Shirley Oaks’ withdrawal of support was a suggestion that it should be compelled to provide to the inquiry the evidence that it has gathered. Its members are survivors of child abuse—they are not criminals. Millions has been spent, there has been no public cross-examination of witnesses yet, and the most senior lawyers are resigning month after month. Does that not reinforce the need for a change in leadership, which is within the purview of Home Office Ministers? What we need is a senior judge of High Court standing or above to lead this inquiry. Why do the Government not act?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is an assiduous constituency MP and he is quite right to raise the concerns of the victims based in his constituency. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary could not have made clearer their confidence in the chairman of the independent commission. It is really important that we carry on with the inquiry and that we let it get on with its vital job of getting to the truth and making sure that we learn the lessons to keep children in our country safe.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if it is to have any degree of public confidence, no one should pre-empt the outcome of the inquiry?
My hon. Friend is quite right. We set up an independent inquiry so that it can get on with its work. It shaped the terms of reference with the victims themselves, and, as we have seen from my response to the urgent question, it is making good progress.
It is a bit rich for Conservative Members to call for patience, understanding and so on. Eighteen years ago in this House I had to bring business to a stop two nights running to get allegations about child abuse in my constituency put on the record. The Waterhouse inquiry was set up, and that took years. There have been subsequent inquiries, one after another. One of the children in my constituency committed suicide before we heard any results from an inquiry. It is absolutely essential that the survivors of abuse have those results and have confidence in what is being done.
In north Wales, for example, it has taken all these years for Chief Superintendent Anglesea to be put on trial and to be sentenced for his involvement in child abuse in north Wales. It was good investigative journalism, not inquiries, that got to the root of his case. I appeal to the Minister: do not ask for patience from the Opposition. We have been patient long enough, and it is just not good enough.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question, and I pay tribute to her for the work she has done in campaigning so assiduously for justice for her constituents. I reassure her and everyone who is here that those lessons have been learned from the past. The inquiry is an incredibly important part of what the Government are doing to learn lessons from the past and make sure that we are doing everything that we can to keep children in our country safe. As a result of people coming forward to the inquiry, as I said in my response to the urgent question, more than 80 referrals a week are being made to the police. Information and evidence gathered by the inquiry are being used to seek the prosecutions that absolutely need to be made, as the right hon. Lady described.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 3MC.]
This inquiry is doing incredibly important work. Does the Minister agree that the most important aspect is that it is independent of Government? “Independent” is the first word of its title. Does she agree, therefore, that the best thing that Members on both sides of the House can do to support its work is to give it the space it needs to do that work independently?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for absolutely hitting the nail on the head. As constituency MPs, we have all met victims of domestic abuse and violence and children who have been involved in child sexual exploitation, so we know how absolutely devastating this is. It is really important that we do everything we can to support those people and encourage them to come forward to the inquiry. Wherever the evidence takes us, we will seek those solutions and those prosecutions.
It has taken 35 years for Gordon Anglesea to face trial at Mold Crown court, where he was convicted last month and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment for historical child abuse offences. While recognising the inquiry’s independence, will the Minister tell the House when the first evidence sessions in public are likely to be, so that my constituents and others can give their evidence of that level of abuse?
If the right hon. Gentleman or his constituents have any evidence whatever, they should go to the inquiry right now. We are not waiting for the end of the inquiry to take action, as I have said before; more than 80 cases are sent to the police every week so that action can be taken. It is really important that people engage with the inquiry and support their constituents in doing so, so that we can seek justice for the victims.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 4MC.]
I would like to pick up on a point the Minister has already made. This inquiry plays a vital part in protecting vulnerable children for the present and for the future. Will she put it in the context of what else the Government are doing?
My hon. Friend is quite right. The inquiry is incredibly important, but is part of an overarching strategy. We want to do everything we possibly can to keep children in our country safe. We are seeing record levels of prosecutions and huge investment in supporting victims, making sure that we take apart the culture of secrecy and cover-up that contributed to the delays we have heard about from Opposition Members.
The inquiry was set up as a panel inquiry, then turned into a statutory inquiry. Was the biggest mistake not setting up a royal commission modelled on what is happening in Australia, which has had a royal commission for the past few years that is pursuing the issue very successfully and has the victims’ confidence, as well as having their interests at its heart?
Royal commissions can be very important, but they tend to take a very long time. The Government’s view was that an independent inquiry was the best way to learn the lessons and secure the justice that the victims were looking for.
There was speculation over the weekend about the way an inquiry was taking place in Wiltshire. When events might have happened a long time ago, evidence is difficult to corroborate and high-profile figures are involved, there is always a significant risk that things might somehow just get left. Will the Minister assure the House that when victims give evidence, although that evidence might be difficult to corroborate and it might be about things that happened a long time ago, our chief constables and investigating officers up and down the country will go where the evidence takes them, as they should? Will she commit to ensuring that sufficient resources are available so that everyday policing is not affected when these serious matters happen in individual constabularies?
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. I can absolutely give him the assurance he is looking for—we must go where the evidence takes us. It can be very painful for people to revisit terrible things that happened in the past, but I encourage them, as I am sure he is doing, to come forward, go to the police and give that evidence.
The inquiry has been given the status of one of the most important police functions in our country. The police have the resources to support investigations into historical sexual abuse of children.
On the Opposition Benches there is no question but that the inquiry is and must be independent. But this is a question of confidence, and confidence is not an operational matter. There seems to be an attempt to dismiss the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association as just one group of survivors. I can tell the Minister that that association represents 600 survivors of abuse. It has undertaken two years’ worth of rigorous, detailed, exceptionally high quality research on behalf of survivors and has very powerful evidence. I have raised concerns on the association’s behalf, as have both my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and the Home Affairs Committee, but they have not been answered. I am afraid that it simply is not good enough for the Minister to demand our unswerving confidence when the legitimate questions we have raised have not been answered. I ask her once again: will she intervene to ensure that we can have the confidence in the inquiry that is necessary for it to do the job it needs to do on behalf of victims and survivors?
I absolutely want to put it on the record and correct any doubt in the hon. Lady’s mind that we take every victim’s story extremely seriously. Every victim’s voice must be heard. That is why we set up the inquiry. If I were to intervene, it would no longer be an independent inquiry. It is absolutely essential that it maintains its independence. Professor Jay has a long and established record. She did a really excellent job in Rotherham. If people were to speak to the victims in Rotherham, they would hear the confidence that they placed in her and what a really good job she did there. I would strongly encourage Opposition Members to go back to victims and their organisations and encourage them to re-engage with the independent inquiry and with its chairman, so that we can move forward.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on being granted the urgent question, but I do not think that it has been the best question: there has been a lot of noise from the Opposition and not a lot of clarity from them. [Interruption.] As they are proving, Sir, at this very moment. Does the Minister agree that one of the most important things is that we look after potential child victims of abuse now? Is not the simplest thing that the Government could do to take responsibility for child victims of sexual abuse, especially those who were internally trafficked, away from the Department for Communities and Local Government and make it an independent responsibility of the Home Office, because too many children are re-trafficked into sexual abuse while under the DCLG’s care?
I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful question. Bringing us right up to date with the incredibly important work that we are doing to ensure that we keep children safe in our country, while addressing historical issues, is very important and it informs what we do now, but we leave no stone unturned in our determination to make sure that children are safe, including those children, as he rightly points out, who might be trafficked or who are victims of modern slavery. We constantly keep under review our care for those children.
May I remind the Minister that the purpose of setting up this inquiry was to find out the truth and to allow the victims of child sexual abuse to get closure? To achieve that, they have to have confidence in the inquiry. If the inquiry alone cannot command the confidence of victims, the Government still has a role to play. She or the Home Secretary should be meeting the victims’ groups. She should be hearing their concerns directly from them and seeking their remedies if the inquiry is to do the job for which we set it up in the first place.
We have absolute confidence in the inquiry. I respectfully urge everyone in the House today to get behind the inquiry to make sure that it works for victims. More than 500 victims have come forward, and that is leading to cases going forward for the police to take action. It is really important that we send out a strong and united message from the House that we all think that this independent inquiry is vitally important for victims and survivors and that we will all do our best to support the inquiry’s work.
Over a month ago, when I brought up with the Home Secretary in this place the loss of survivor testimonies by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, she suggested that I engage with the inquiry in a slightly more positive manner and that I write to her about the incident. As I have yet to receive a response to the detailed letter that I subsequently sent, and as the Home Secretary is not here today, will the Minister update the House now on what investigation has since taken place into those lost testimonies?
I agree to make sure that the hon. Lady gets a response to her letter and the detailed concerns she raises.
There has never been an official Welsh representative on the inquiry, despite intense lobbying by Welsh Government Ministers, the then Health Minister, Mark Drakeford, and the Social Services Minister, Gwenda Thomas. Considering that this is an England and Wales inquiry, will the Minister give an assurance that there are open lines of communication with the Welsh Government, so that devolved aspects can be appropriately discussed? Will she confirm that the interests of Welsh victims are adequately protected?
Of course, it is really important that people living in Wales, like those living all over our country, can have their voices heard. It is an independent inquiry, however, so I respectfully ask that the hon. Lady makes those representations to Professor Jay to make sure that she is satisfied that victims in Wales feel they are being listened to.
For years, I worked supporting victims of sex abuse. It is absolutely clear to everyone in the House that the seemingly endless cover-ups, scandals and delays will be painful and traumatic for all the victims and survivors. How does the Minister intend to restore trust and integrity to the inquiry as soon as possible?
The hon. Lady draws on her work and personal experience. In working with victims, she made a huge contribution before she came to the House, and I am sure that some of them look at what has happened and feel disappointed, but I can assure her that we are utterly committed to seeing the inquiry through and that we utterly support the chair, Professor Alexis Jay, who we believe is the person to see this through. I encourage the hon. Lady to speak to the victims in her constituency and assure them that this is a top priority for the Government. We will support the independent inquiry to do its job so that the victims she worked with and those all over the country get the justice they seek.
In north Wales, where many offences of child sexual abuse took place, there is extreme scepticism about the Government’s commitment to openness. The Macur review, which reported recently, redacted the names of people in positions of responsibility, some of them Members of the House, because of continuing court proceedings. We now know that Gordon Anglesea has been convicted. If the Minister is committed to openness, will she go back to the Ministry of Justice and ask it to revisit the Macur review and to make open those redacted names to make it clear that there is openness in this inquiry and that, following their conviction for heinous crimes of child sexual abuse, those responsible will be openly put for consideration as part of reports issued by the Government?
The hon. Gentleman says there are concerns about a lack of openness and transparency, which I simply do not accept. This Government have done more than any other to make people accountable, to be more transparent, to open up processes and to make those in authority accountable for their actions.
Answer the question.
The question you are asking is about a specific case, but it would be completely inappropriate for me to comment on a case that is going through the courts. I have absolute confidence in our criminal justice system. The matters the hon. Gentleman raises should be raised with the justice system.
First, I should just point out that I was not asking any question, as the Chair does not do so. Secondly, notwithstanding the evident and audible frustration of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), I simply make the point that there has been a full exchange today, but these matters will inevitably be returned to on the Floor of the House, possibly on innumerable occasions, and either the hon. Lady or some other Minister will toddle along to the Dispatch Box to respond. The matter will go on and on. I feel sure of that.
Higher Education and Research Bill
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
Members will note that I have, unusually, selected some starred amendments. I have done so in the circumstances applying to this particular Bill—the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), following his point of order on this matter, will be conversant with the issues—because the deadline for tabling amendments had already passed when today’s business was announced last week. In those circumstances, it seemed to me sensible and helpful to the House to proceed in this way.
New Clause 1
Duty to monitor and report on financial sustainability
“(1) The OfS must monitor the financial sustainability of the following registered higher education providers—
(a) those who are funded wholly or partly by a grant, loan or other payment from the OfS under section 37 or 38 (financial support for providers),
(b) those who are not so funded but are eligible to receive such funding under section 37 or 38, and
(c) those who provide higher education courses which are designated for the purposes of section 22 of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 (financial support for students) by or under regulations made under that section.
(2) The OfS must include in its annual report a financial sustainability summary for the financial year to which the report relates.
(3) “A financial sustainability summary” for a financial year is a summary of conclusions drawn by the OfS for that year, from its monitoring under subsection (1), regarding relevant patterns, trends or other matters which it has identified.
(4) Patterns, trends or other matters are “relevant” if—
(a) they relate to the financial sustainability of some or all of the registered higher education providers monitored under subsection (1), and
(b) the OfS considers that they are appropriate to be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State.
(5) In this section—
“annual report” means the annual report under paragraph 13 of Schedule1;
“financial year” has the same meaning as in that Schedule (see paragraph 12(6)).”—(Joseph Johnson.)
This new clause, which is for insertion after clause 61, requires the OfS to monitor the financial sustainability of registered higher education providers who are in receipt of, or eligible for, certain kinds of public funding. It requires the OfS to include in its annual report a summary of conclusions which it draws from that monitoring regarding patterns, trends or other matters which it has identified relating to the financial sustainability of some or all of the providers monitored and which it considers are appropriate to be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 4—Committee on Degree Awarding Powers and University Title—
“(1) The OfS must establish a committee called the “Committee on Degree Awarding Powers and University Title”.
(2) The function of the Committee is to provide advice to the OfS on—
(a) the general exercise of its functions under sections 40, 42, 43 and 53 of this Act, and section 77 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992;
(b) particular uses of its powers under section 40(1) of this Act; and
(c) particular uses of its powers under section 77 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.
(3) The OfS must seek the advice of the Committee before—
(a) authorising a registered higher education provider or qualifying further education provider to grant taught awards, research awards or foundation degrees under section 40(1) of this Act;
(b) varying any authorisation made under section 40(1) of this Act so as to authorise a registered higher education provider or qualifying further education provider to grant a category of award or degree that, prior to the variation of the authorisation, it was not authorised to grant; and
(c) providing consent under section 77 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 for an education institution or body corporate to change its names so as to include the word “university” in the name of the institution or body corporate.
(4) The OfS must also seek the advice of UKRI before authorising a registered higher education provider or qualifying further education provider to grant research awards under section 40(1) of this Act.
(5) The OfS does not need to seek the advice of the Committee before—
(a) revoking an authorisation to grant taught awards, research awards or foundation degrees; or
(b) varying any authorisation to grant taught awards, research awards, or foundation degrees so as to revoke the authorisation of a registered higher education provider or qualifying further education provider to grant a category of award that, prior to the variation of the authorisation, it was authorised to grant.
(6) Subsection (4) applies whether the authorisation being revoked or varied was given—
(a) by an order made under section 40(1) of this Act;
(b) by or under any Act of Parliament, other than under section 40(1) of this Act; or
(c) by Royal Charter.
(7) In providing its advice to the OfS, the Committee must in particular consider the need for students, employers and the public to have confidence in the higher education system and the awards which are granted by it.
(8) The OfS must have regard to the advice given to it by the Committee on both the general exercise of its functions referred to in subsection (2) and any particular uses of its powers referred to in subsection (3).
(9) The majority of the members of the Committee must be individuals who appear to the OfS to have experience of providing higher education on behalf of an English higher education provider or being responsible for the provision of higher education by such a provider.
(10) In appointing members of the Committee who meet these criteria, the OfS must have regard to the desirability of their being currently engaged at the time of their appointment in the provision of higher education or in being responsible for such provision.
(11) The majority of the members of the Committee must be individuals who are not members of the OfS.
(12) Schedule 1 applies to the Committee on Degree Awarding Powers and University Title as it applies to committees established under paragraph 8 of that Schedule.”
This new clause would create a committee of the OfS which fulfils much the same functions as the current Advisory Committee on Degree Awarding Powers.
New clause 7—Automatic review of authorisation—
“(1) The OfS must consider whether to vary or revoke an authorisation given under section 40(1) if—
(a) the ownership of the registered provider is transferred,
(b) the owner of the registered provider has restrictions placed on its degree-awarding powers in relation to another registered provider under its control or ownership, or
(c) for any other reason considered to be in the interest of students enrolled at the institution or the public.
(2) A decision taken under sub-section (1) to vary or revoke an authorisation shall be carried out in accordance with section 43.”
This new clause would ensure that a review of a provider’s degree awarding power would be triggered if the ownership of a provider changes, if the owner of the registered provider faces restrictions to its degree awarding powers in another jurisdiction or if the OfS deems a review necessary to protect students or the wider public interest.
New clause 9—OfS report: international students—
“(1) The OfS shall, in accordance with information received under paragraph 8(1)(ba), produce an annual report for the Secretary of State on—
(a) EU (excluding from the UK), and
(b) non- EU
students enrolled with English higher education providers.
(2) A report under subsection (1) must include an assessment of—
(a) the number of international students, and
(b) the financial contribution of international students to English Higher Education providers.
(3) The Secretary of State shall lay the report produced under subsection (1) before each House of Parliament.”
New clause 12—Prohibition: use of quality of higher education when determining a visa application—
“An assessment made of the quality rating of a higher education provider in the United Kingdom under section 25 of this Act may not be used when assessing a person’s eligibility for leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom under Part 1 of the Immigration Act 1971.”
New clause 14—Post Study Work Visa: evaluation—
“(1) Within six months of this Act coming into force, UKRI must commission an independent evaluation of the matters under subsection (1B) and shall lay the report before the House of Commons.
(1B) The evaluation under subsection (1A) must assess—
(a) the effect of the absence of post study work visas for persons graduating from higher education institutions in the United Kingdom on—
(i) the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the higher education sector, and
(ii) the UK economy, and
(b) how post study work visa arrangements might operate in the UK, including an estimate of their effect on—
(i) the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the higher education sector, and
(ii) the UK economy.”
This new clause would require UKRI to commission research on the effects of the absence of arrangements for post study work visas and assess how such arrangements could operate in the UK and their effect on the higher education sector and the UK economy.
New clause 15—Standing Commission on the integration of higher education and lifelong learning—
“(1) The Secretary of State shall establish a Standing Commission on the integration of Higher Education and Lifelong Learning.
(2) The terms of reference of the Commission shall include the following purposes—
(a) to report on progress being made in respect of the opportunities available to individuals, employers and communities to integrate higher education with lifelong learning in England;
(b) to consider the potential to update and review the range of higher education qualifications available for mature students at all registered higher education providers;
(c) to evaluate current funding systems for registered higher education providers with respect to the opportunities available to individuals, employers and communities to integrate higher education with life-long learning, in England;
(d) to examine and report on the introduction of personal learning accounts to be used for higher education—
(i) funded on the contributory principle from employers, individuals and structures of devolved local and national government; and
(ii) on the arrangements that will operate to facilitate input from corporate or trade union bodies, which can be used to support lifelong learning and adult education;
(e) to examine and report on the potential to develop education and skills accounts (ESAs), including the possibility of a single lifetime higher education entitlement; and
(f) to examine and report on the establishment of a national credit rating, accumulation and transfer system as a mechanism to improve flexible learning in further and higher education, including for mature students, and on the feasibility of a digital credit system, which could also facilitate where appropriate the integration of work-based learning and higher education.
(3) The Commission will make the following reports on the matters set out at subsection (2) to be laid before Parliament—
(a) within 12 months of its establishment; and
(b) thereafter annually.
(4) When the report in respect of ESAs required at subsection (2)(e) has been made, the Secretary of State may authorise the OfS to work with higher education providers, employers and financial institutions to develop a framework for ESAs.”
New clause 16—Migration Statistics: students—
“When the Secretary of State publishes statistics on the immigration of people to the United Kingdom, the relevant publication must provide—
(a) the figures net and gross of those people who are students studying in the UK, or
(b) a note indicating how many students included in the total immigration figures are students studying in the UK.”
Government amendment 1.
Amendment 51, in clause 5, page 4, line 9, at end insert—
“(1A) Subject to subsection (1C), initial registration conditions of all providers under paragraph (1)(a) must include a requirement that every provider—
(a) provides all eligible students with the opportunity to opt in to be added to the electoral register through the process of enrolling with that provider, and
(b) enter into a data sharing agreement with the local electoral registration officer to add those students to the electoral register.
(1B) For the purposes of subsection (1A)—
(a) a “data sharing agreement” is an agreement between the higher education provider and their local authority whereby the provider shares—
(i) the name,
(iv) date of birth, and
(v) national insurance data of all eligible students enrolling and/or enrolled with the provider who opt in within the meaning of subsection (2A)(a);
(b) “eligible” means those persons who are—
(i) entitled to vote in accordance with section 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, and
(ii) a resident in the same local authority as the higher education provider.
(1C) Subsection (1A) does not apply to the Open University and other distance learning institutions.”
This amendment would ensure that the OfS includes as a registration condition for higher education providers the integration of electoral registration into the student enrolment process. Distance-learning providers are exempt.
Amendment 37, page 4, line 17, after “providers” insert “, staff and students”.
This amendment would ensure consultation with bodies representing higher education staff and students.
Amendment 52, in clause 8, page 5, line 35, at end insert—
“(ba) a condition that requires the governing body of the provider to provide the OfS with information on the number of international students enrolled on a higher education course at that institution and the fees charged to those students,”
Amendment 38, page 5, line 39, at end insert—
(d) an access and participation plan condition, as defined in section 12.”
This amendment would make access and participation plans mandatory for all higher education providers.
Government amendment 2.
Amendment 39, in clause 9, page 6, line 13, at end insert—
“(iv) age band,
(ii) people with disabilities, and
(iii) care leavers.”
This amendment would include the number of people with disabilities and care leavers, as well as the age of applicants, in the published number of applications.
Government amendments 3 and 4.
Amendment 46, in clause 25, page 15, line 25, at beginning insert “Subject to subsection (7),”.
See the explanatory statement for amendment 47.
Amendment 49, page 15, line 32, at end insert—
“(1A) The scheme established under subsection (1) shall have two ratings—
(a) meets expectations, and
(b) fails to meet expectations.
(1B) Each year, after the scheme established under subsection (1) comes into force the OfS must lay a report before Parliament on the number of international students—
(a) applying to, and
at the Higher Education Providers that have applied for a rating within the meaning of subsection (1).”
This amendment provides for a pass/fail only Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) rating, and requires the OfS to report on the number of international students applying to and attending Higher Education providers each year from the coming into force of the TEF.
Amendment 47, page 16, line 23, at end insert—
“(7) No arrangements for a scheme shall be made under subsection (1) unless a draft of the scheme has been laid before and approved by a resolution of both Houses of Parliament.”
This amendment and amendment 46 would ensure TEF measures were subject to scrutiny by, and approval of, both Houses of Parliament.
Amendment 50, page 16, line 23, at end insert—
“(7) In making arrangements under sub-section (1), the OfS must make an assessment of—
(a) the evidence that any proposed metric for assessing teaching quality is correlated to teaching quality, and
(b) the potential unintended consequences that could arise from implementing the scheme including proposals on how such risks can be mitigated.
(8) Prior to making an assessment under subsection (7) the OfS must consult—
(a) bodies representing the interests of academic staff employed at English higher education providers,
(b) bodies representing the interests of students enrolled on higher education courses, and
(c) such other persons as the OfS considers appropriate.
(9) The assessments made under subsection (7) must be published.”
This amendment would require an assessment of the evidence of the reliability of the TEF metrics to be made and for the assessment to be published.
Government amendments 5 to 11.
Amendment 40, in clause 40, page 23, line 22, at end insert—
“(c) the OfS is assured that the provider is able to maintain the required standards of a UK degree for the duration of the authorisation; and
(d) the OfS is assured that the provider operates in students’ and the public interests.”
This amendment requires the OfS to be assured about the maintenance of standards and about students’ and the public interest before issuing authorisation to grant degrees.
Amendment 41, page 23, line 47, at end insert—
“(9A) In making any orders under this section, and sections 41, 42 and 43, the OfS must have due regard to the need to maintain confidence in the higher education sector, and in the awards which they collectively grant, among students, employers, and the wider public.”
This amendment would ensure that the granting and removal of degree awarding powers would be linked to a need to maintain confidence in the sector, and with a view to preserving its excellent reputation.
Amendment 58, in clause 51, page 31, line 41, at end insert—
“(A2) The power described in subsection (A1) may be exercised so as to include the word “university” in the name of the institution only if the institution can demonstrate that—
(a) it offers access to a range of cultural activities, including, but not restricted to—
(i) the opportunity to undertake sport and recreation, and
(ii) the opportunity to access a range of student societies and organisations,
(b) it provides students support and wellbeing services including specialist learning support,
(c) it provides opportunities for volunteering,
(d) it provides the opportunity to join a students’ union, and
(e) it plays a positive civic role.”
Government amendments 12, 13, 18 and 19.
Amendment 36, in schedule 1, page 69, line 37, at end insert—
“(h) being an employee of a higher education provider, particularly in the capacity of teaching or researching.”
This amendment would ensure the Secretary of State had regard for the experience of higher education employees, teaching or research staff.
Amendment 48, page 69, line 37, at end insert—
“(h) representing or promoting the interests of employees in higher education establishments.”
This amendment requires that at least one of the ordinary members of the OfS has experience of representing or promoting the interests of employees in higher education.
Government amendments 21 to 34.
New clause 1 relates to the Office for Students, which is central to the Bill and has quality, student choice, equality of opportunity and value for money at its core. Through the creation of the independent OFS, the Bill will join up the currently fragmented regulation of the sector—essential to ensure that students are protected, and that students and the taxpayer receive good value for money from the system. The Bill will boost social mobility and promote opportunity for all. It will drive up innovation, diversity, quality and capacity in our world-class higher education sector, while protecting academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The Bill will also create UK Research and Innovation, a new body with strategic vision for research and innovation in the UK.
I am pleased that the Bill received such thorough scrutiny in Committee. I have reflected on the points made by Opposition Members and I am pleased to present some important amendments today. We made it clear in our White Paper that the OFS will have responsibility for oversight of the financial health of the sector, and will monitor the sustainability of individual institutions. It is absolutely essential that all providers who are eligible to receive some form of public funding have sustainable finances to ensure value for students and taxpayers.
We have listened to stakeholder evidence and to the Committee debates. Stakeholders including Universities UK consider the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s holistic oversight of the health of the sector to be an essential part of the regulator’s role. I understand the importance of this oversight in maintaining confidence in the sector and preserving its world-class reputation. The stakeholders share the desire to make our policy intention in the White Paper explicit in legislation. This role will include financial oversight of all the institutions’ activities, spanning teaching and research.
I understand the need for monitoring the financial sustainability of organisations, but the new clause does not say what actions will result if some of them are found to be financially unsustainable. Would my hon. Friend comment on that?
The duty of the Office for Students will be to ensure that it is monitoring effectively the overall financial health of the sector in such a way that it is able to inform the Secretary of State, so that the Government can take appropriate actions. It will not be the role of the Office for Students to bail out struggling institutions—if there are any such institutions. These are private and autonomous bodies, and it is important that the discipline of the marketplace acts on them. It will be the role of the OFS to assist them in transitioning towards viable business plans so that they can continue to provide high-quality education to their students in the medium and long term.
New clause 1 introduces a statutory duty for the OFS to monitor and report on the financial sustainability of all registered HE providers in England which are in receipt of or eligible for OFS funding or tuition fee loans.
Will the regulator have the power to ensure that there are good industrial relations within our universities? There is certainly a problem with industrial relations at Coventry University, particularly as regards subcontractors.
Higher education institutions are private and autonomous bodies that are self-organising. It is of course important that they provide a framework of governance that enables students to learn well in their institutions, and I am sure that that will include a healthy dialogue with their staff and employees. It is not for the Government to mandate particular forms of relations, given that these institutions are private and autonomous.
In performing its role, the OFS will have a clear picture of the number of international students and the income they bring—just as HEFCE currently does. I therefore do not agree that there is a need for an additional duty for the OFS to report on international students, as amendment 52 and new clause 9, tabled by the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), would require.
Similarly, I do not believe that the Bill is an appropriate vehicle for a requirement for the commissioning of research on post-work study, as proposed by the hon. Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin). The Bill focuses on the creation of the necessary structures that will oversee higher education and research funding for many years to come, and a short-term piece of research on an element of migration policy is not consistent with the scope and functions of UK Research and Innovation.
The Minister clearly does not believe that the Bill is the right vehicle for the issues under consideration, but does he understand why Members would pick this vehicle? His Department understands the importance of international students to UK higher education, and the Treasury understands their role, so why do the Home Office and the Prime Minister not understand it? Does the Minister not realise that, like him, we will be banging our heads against a brick wall at the Home Office?
The Home Secretary has said that in the coming weeks we will consult on a non-European economic area migration route that will benefit international students who want to come and study at our world-class institutions, and I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to wait until we see the details of that consultation before jumping to any conclusions.
The Minister referred to “an element”. The post-study work visa is not just the subject of “an element” of concern to universities in Scotland; it is of major concern, especially given that what the Home Office has proposed is a tiny and completely unrepresentative pilot. This is a matter of great importance to the university sector.
Indeed. The Government fully agree with the hon. Gentleman that international students bring a lot to our higher education system. They bring income, valued diversity, and many other benefits to our universities. We welcome them, and we have a warm and welcoming regime to accommodate them.
Let me now deal with Government amendments 1, 12 and 13. Academic freedom and institutional autonomy are keystones of our higher education system, and the Bill introduces additional protections in that area. In his evidence to the Bill Committee, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said that he particularly liked the implicit and explicit recognition of autonomy in the Bill. However, I wanted to make absolutely clear how important it is for the Government to protect institutional autonomy, which is why I proposed a further group of amendments to strengthen the protections even more.
I recognise the concerns expressed in Committee and in stakeholder evidence that allowing the Secretary of State to give guidance relating to particular courses might be perceived as leaving the door open to guidance calling specifically for the opening or closing of particular courses. One of the real strengths of our higher education system is diversity and the ability of institutions to determine their own missions, either as multidisciplinary institutions or as institutions specialising in particular areas such as the performing arts or theology. To avoid any confusion, I proposed the amendments to add an additional layer of reassurance regarding the protections given to institutional autonomy. They make it clear that the Secretary of State cannot give guidance to, or impose terms and conditions or directions on, the OFS which would require it to make providers offer, or stop offering, particular courses.
Our reforms place students at the heart of higher education regulation. I agree with Labour Members that it is important to build the student perspective into the OFS. Government amendment 21 clarifies beyond doubt that at least one member of the OFS board must have experience of representing or promoting the interests of individual students or students generally.
Labour Members tabled amendments 36 and 48, which relate to higher education staff representation. We share the view that the OFS board should benefit from the experience of HE staff. However, the Bill already requires the Secretary of State to have regard to appointing board members with experience of the broad range of different types of English providers in the sector. We are therefore confident that a number of OFS board members will be, or will have been, employed by HE providers, and we do not believe that we need to make an additional requirement in legislation.
Students make significant investments in their higher education choices, and it is right for them to be aware of what would happen if their course, campus or institution were to close. That is what Government amendment 4 will achieve. We expect all providers to make contingency plans to guard against the risk that courses cannot be delivered as agreed. The requirement for providers to produce student protection plans would be a condition of regulation. I listened to points made in Committee, and have reflected on the need to strengthen the power of the OFS to ensure that there is transparency in student protection measures, and that is exactly what the amendment does. It enables the OFS to require providers not only to develop student protection plans but to publish them, and we would expect providers to bring them to students’ attention.
The Government believe in opportunity for all and through the Bill we are delivering on that. We believe that transparency is one of the best tools we have when it comes to widening participation. Universities have made progress but the transparency duty will shine a spotlight on those institutions that need to go further. That is why I am pleased to propose amendments 2 and 3, which change the language in the Bill to make it clearer that the OFS can ask HE providers to publish and share with the OFS the number of applications, offers, acceptances and completion rates for students, each broken down by ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic background.
The Bill will also give the OFS the power to operate the teaching excellence framework. Thirty years of the research excellence framework and its predecessors have made the UK’s research the envy of the world but, without an equivalent focus on excellence in teaching, the incentives on universities have become distorted.
The Minister mentioned the TEF and the REF. Does he agree that the REF took several years to bed down and to become a measure of research, and that a lot of institutions feel that the TEF is being rushed through, particularly the link between teaching excellence and fees? I have been emailed by the University of West London, which has asked me strongly to oppose that. The TEF will be done on an institution-by-institution basis, not, like the REF, by department. Courses can vary widely in quality. Will he think again in relation to those points?
The TEF is not being rushed; it is being piloted for the first two years. Awards will not be differentiated until 2019-20, with effect from the 2019-20 academic year. That is a significant period for the reforms to bed in. The university sector has welcomed the link to fees. Universities UK has recognised that there is a need for such a link and that we need to fund on the basis of quality as well as quantity. There is no attempt by the sector to separate the link.
I applaud the Minister’s view that we should focus on quality in the sector, rather than just volume, which is one of the problems that has beset the higher education sector in the past 20 or so years. Is there any international parallel for the OFS? Does such a body exist in Canada, Australia or other big global higher education sectors? Are we taking a lead, or following elements of what has happened elsewhere?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. We have studied regulatory systems around the world in drawing up our proposals for the OFS. Our system is in line with several in the Anglophone countries that have moved towards a market-based system in which the student is the primary funder of his or her higher education experience. It is therefore incumbent on us to put in place a system of regulation that recognises that we are moving away from the classic funder model of regulation that was put in place by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which created the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
New clause 12 and amendment 47 seem to misunderstand the aim of the TEF. Changing the ratings, as proposed by amendment 49, would fundamentally undermine the purpose of the TEF by preventing students from being able to determine which providers are offering the best teaching and achieving the best outcomes. Amendments 46 and 47 would stifle the healthy development of the TEF, and amendment 50 ignores the reasoned and consultative approach that we have taken and will continue to take in developing the metrics.
Let me set out the reasons why amendments tabled by Opposition Members on our plans for degree-awarding powers are unnecessary—namely, new clauses 4 and 7, and amendments 40 and 41. Our reforms will ensure that students can choose from a wider range of high-quality institutions. If the higher education provider can demonstrate their ability to deliver high-quality provision, we want to make it easier for it to start awarding its own degrees, rather than needing to have degrees for its courses awarded by a competing incumbent. We intend to keep the processes on scrutiny of applications for degree-awarding powers, which have worked well so far, broadly as they are. That includes retaining an element of independent peer review for degree-awarding powers applications. Setting this out in legislation, as new clause 4 suggests, would tie this to a static process which would be inflexible. We intend to consult on detailed circumstances where degree-awarding powers and university title might be revoked, including changes of ownership, so there is no need for new clause 7. As for amendments 40 and 41, I can reassure Members that we will, as now, ensure that the very high standards providers must meet to make such awards will be retained. We are streamlining processes, not lowering standards, and these amendments are therefore unnecessary.
The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) has proposed amendment 58 on the criteria an institution should demonstrate in order to be granted university title. None of these are current criteria. Like now, we intend to set out the detailed criteria and processes for gaining university title in guidance, not in legislation.
This group also includes some technical amendments to ensure that the legislation delivers the policy intent set out in our White Paper. I know Opposition Members will be keen to talk about the amendments they have tabled, and I look forward to responding to any further points raised.
I rise to speak on new clause 7 and amendments 49 to 51, which are in my name. New clause 7 and amendments 50 and 51 cover ground we discussed at length in Committee so I will refer briefly to those points then talk a little longer on amendment 49.
New clause 7 provides for automatic review of degree-awarding powers where ownership of a university changes. This is rooted in experience of the sort of system the Minister is seeking to create in the United States, where a number of institutions with a reasonably well-established reputation changed ownership and fundamentally changed the product and service delivered to students. We need to learn from the mistakes made in the States by ensuring that, should we find ourselves in this new terrain with institutions in this country with degree-awarding powers changing ownership, that should automatically trigger a review of their status. I would welcome some reassurance from the Minister on how he intends to deal with that issue, if not through this new clause. Otherwise we could find ourselves in the same situation as the States, and not only have the reputation of the sector damaged, but students let down and still carrying a fee-debt. So this is a crucial issue that we need some clarification on.
Amendment 51 covers terrain I have discussed with the Minister on a number of occasions. It simply seeks to require universities to introduce the integrated student enrolment system with voter registration, which is recommended by Universities UK, supported by the Cabinet Office and was originally and very successfully piloted by—I have to get this reference in—the University of Sheffield.
The Minister and I share a common objective of trying to improve the levels of voter registration among students. This has been a demonstrably effective way of doing that where we rolled it out not only as a pilot in Sheffield, with the support of the Cabinet Office, but in other universities—Cardiff, de Montfort and many others, which have gone on to introduce it. This seems like a good opportunity, as we are looking at the registration requirements of universities, to roll it out across the country to achieve objectives we both share.
I have discussed this with the Minister and also his colleague from the Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore). There was due to be a roundtable at which we were going to discuss it further tomorrow, but that has been cancelled and kicked into the long grass of sometime in the new year, I was told last week. Given the shared objectives in this area, I would like to hear from the Minister why we cannot simply use this opportunity to get this matter sorted out.
Amendment 50 reflects concern over the reliability of the metrics used to measure teaching excellence. I emphasise, as I did many times in Committee, that we all welcome the Government’s focus on teaching excellence, and we can all work effectively together on the principle of the teaching excellence framework. However, the metrics on employment outcomes, on retention and on the national student satisfaction survey have been identified by the Government themselves as a proxy for teaching excellence.
The amendment simply seeks to add to the Bill a requirement that the metrics used by the Government to determine teaching quality should have a demonstrable link to teaching excellence. This was the unanimous recommendation of the then Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, of which I was a member. We all agree that employment outcomes do not necessarily demonstrate teaching excellence. There are also enormous regional variations in employment outcomes and salary levels. The Minister will know that someone who comes from the right family and goes to the right school and university could have an awful teaching experience but still get a decent job. The converse is also true. People who do not come from the right family and who do not go to what many see as the right university could have an excellent teaching experience but not command such high salary levels. So employment outcomes are a crude and almost perverse proxy measure of teaching excellence. I would therefore welcome the Minister’s observations on why this simple amendment to introduce a demonstrable link between the metrics and teaching excellence would not strengthen the Bill and will not be accepted by the Government.
Should the demonstrable link involve a recognition of the experience and qualifications of lecturers? What does my hon. Friend have in mind when it comes to proving that teaching quality exists?
Measuring teaching quality is difficult, but if we are going to do it, and if we are going to link fee increases to it, we should do it well rather than badly. For example, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is piloting some work on value added to determine how it can be demonstrated that good teaching has contributed to students’ learning outcomes during a particular period. That is the kind of research we should be looking at before we rush into establishing a teaching excellence framework that might end up measuring everything but teaching excellence.
Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree with Professor Jack Dowie’s view that the teaching excellence framework measures what it measures but does not measure the quality of teaching excellence?
The hon. Gentleman has expressed my concern exactly. This is the reason behind my amendment. There should be agreement across the House that the teaching excellence framework should measure the quality of teaching. That does not seem controversial to me, and I am therefore disappointed that the Government were unable to accept the unanimous recommendation of the BIS Committee. I want to press the Minister further today to find out his reasoning for this.
Amendment 49 raises new concerns that became clear only as the Bill progressed through Committee. It is apparently the Government’s intention—although I recognise that it might not be the Minister’s wish—to link the visa regime for international students to quality measures. There are Members present on both sides of the House who share my concern, so let me put it in context. The Minister will agree that international students are hugely beneficial to this country and to our universities. They enrich the learning environment of our campuses. In an even smaller world, in which we need to understand each other better than ever, it is a huge advantage for British students to learn in our classrooms and laboratories alongside students from around the world. International students add hugely to our universities’ research capacity, also strengthening local businesses, as I know from my experience in Sheffield.
We should add to that the huge benefits of the lasting relationships that we build with those who study here. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, 55 world leaders from 51 countries studied here. That leads to the sort of soft power that is the envy of other countries—political influence, commercial contracts, and so on.
I am loth to interrupt my hon. Friend because he is in full flow and making a powerful point, but does he agree that the Bill was conceived before Brexit and that the world has changed since then? I am holding a Westminster Hall debate on this subject on Wednesday and have received emails from academics and students from all over the country saying that this entire thing should be scrapped because the context is so different and everything has changed for higher education since the decision on 23 June.
I look forward to joining my hon. Friend in Westminster Hall on Wednesday, because she makes a valid point—one that a number of us made in Committee. This pre-Brexit vision should have been parked and rethought as a result of the decision on 23 June because the challenge facing our universities is fundamentally different and of enormous proportions. We need to reconsider the proposals.
On that point, many mainland European universities now offer courses in English. Our leaving the European Union will significantly disadvantage British universities in attracting foreign students, because degrees in some European countries are now offered in English, not necessarily in French, German or the native language.
My hon. Friend highlights a new dimension to the challenge facing our universities as a result of Brexit. My wider point about international students existed before 23 June, but we now face a situation in which the 185,000 international students, of some 500,000, from EU countries may no longer choose to come here. However—this is crucial in relation to my hon. Friend’s intervention—30% of the non-EU students who were polled before 23 June said that the UK would be a less attractive destination if we chose to leave the European Union. Our competitors in Europe, adding to the competition that we already get from Australia, Canada and the United States, are seizing the opportunity to teach English-language courses, which will become very attractive.
Coventry has two universities. A big concern following Brexit is that international students, in particular from countries such as India, are now looking at north America, given the difficulty they will have in coming to this country when they are treated as immigrants. They should be removed from immigration figures, because the benefits amount to just under £10 billion coming into this country. I hope the Government are taking that seriously.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is certainly testing my patience. It is one thing to come in and then ask a question, but it is another thing to stretch it into a speech. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central is being generous with interventions, but we do not want to get into a Brexit debate.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I appreciate the intervention of my hon. Friend, because he is a strong champion of the two universities in Coventry and he makes, on every occasion, this strong point about the importance of international students. He is right. Many universities around the country will be in crisis if there is a significant drop in the number of international students. It will mean not only that their incomes will drop, but that many of their postgraduate taught courses, which are viable only because of the levels of income that are brought through our international students, will cease to be viable, cease to exist and cease to be available for UK students. It is a hugely important issue.
The hon. Gentleman will know that I entirely accept his last point about a number of these postgraduate courses. In an ideal world, as he knows, I would not have students in the immigration figures, but we are where we are and they will remain in those figures. Surely one of the lessons of Brexit is that this issue is of massive concern to many of our fellow countrymen. Therefore, it is incumbent on universities to ensure that we get high-quality students from abroad, and that is really the focus of what the Government are trying to achieve here. We need to ensure that those students who come here are the crème de la crème and will add the sort of experience to which he referred earlier in his contribution. By having a group of high-quality students, we will command the confidence of the public that we are getting only the brightest and the best, rather than a volume operation in our universities.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He and I have worked closely on a number of these issues, and we do agree that international students should be taken out of net migration targets. On the point that he raises, I disagree with him. I know that we would come together in saying that our universities are a great British export industry, but I am genuinely puzzled why the Government do not see them as an industry in other terms. We do not put in measures to seek to discourage the automobile industry from selling cars; we try to encourage it to sell more cars. Similarly, on the point that he raises, we do not say, “Well, we just want you to sell Rolls-Royce cars. We don’t want you to sell Minis.” It is nonsense economically for our country and for the local economies that we all represent. That is the nub of the problem.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the way in which these issues are viewed by the public. International students are not viewed as a threat or as an issue on which the Government should be taking action. A recent poll showed that 75% of people wanted to see the numbers of international students either stay the same or go up, but the Government strategy, as he knows, is moving us in the other direction.
The Home Secretary, albeit against her will, made a speech to the Conservative party conference in which she put international students at the centre of her plans to cut migration—I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that she was wrong to do that. She introduced a new tool, to which he has alluded, with which she planned to do it. It is by linking visa approval to the quality of courses. We need to reflect on that, because it is a very significant development, as we now have a policy objective of reducing international students—the Government did it by default in the previous Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman should remind himself that international student applications have gone up 14%.
Well, I would be interested to hear the Minister intervene again and say over what period, because he will know that, over last Parliament, the numbers flatlined and we lost market share.
The answer is since 2010.
We will probably disagree on those figures. I think I have heard the Minister say previously—if it was not him then it was his predecessors and previous Immigration Ministers—that there was no damage from the measures that were taken in the last Parliament, because numbers flatlined. From my point of view, flatlining in a growing market is a defeat. We would not say that the world is buying 20% or 30% more cars, but the great news is that our exports are flatlining. It does not make sense. However, I am sure the Minister will agree that international students are an extremely good thing for our economy. It is therefore deeply worrying that the Home Secretary put international students at the centre of her plans to cut migration.
I strongly agree with everything that my hon. Friend is saying. Can he imagine a scenario where higher education institutions are recruiting UK students on to courses, but sending a message to people from overseas that the courses are not good enough for them? What conclusion will UK students draw? If the courses are not good enough for international students, surely they are not good enough for home students.
My hon. Friend makes the point that I was about to make. If we were looking at a teaching excellence framework in parallel with our competitors around the world, and if we were together saying that we think the world market in international education needs such a tool and that in that world market it would be helpful to have institutions ranked as gold, silver and bronze, that would be one thing; but for us unilaterally to declare to the world that we are differentiating our institutions and saying that a good two thirds of them, perhaps, are less good than others, that can do nothing other than damage our ability to recruit international students and to earn the money that we do from them, as well as the jobs and support for our economy that that brings.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there may be not just reputational damage at home, but consequences abroad? My own university, Bangor, takes a large number of Chinese students, but its good name in Bangor enables it to have a site in China and a very successful operation there. There would be reputational damage of that sort as well.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is not just the recruitment of students but the brand strength of UK universities, which is extraordinarily high, that is put at risk by the measure.
Last week in Westminster Hall I sought assurances from the Immigration Minister as to whether it is the Home Office’s intention to use the teaching excellence framework measurement of quality as a basis for its visa regime in an attempt to cut down the number of international students. I got no reassurance. I gave the Minister a couple of opportunities to say that the Government did not intend to use the TEF for that purpose and he failed to do so.
The amendment says that until we are clear about the Government’s intention in relation to differentiation by gold, silver and bronze grading, and following a proper economic impact assessment of what that might mean for our universities, we should not seek to differentiate the teaching excellence framework in this way and we should simply have meeting expectations or not meeting expectations ratings. I accept that it is not the Minister’s intention to damage our universities by the introduction of this differentiation, but it could be the unintended consequence of the actions of the Home Office, so we need reassurance on the issue.
As we have heard, these are challenging times for our country. Charting our post-Brexit place in the world will be a big job. We need to win friends, not alienate them. The prime ministerial trade mission to India recently demonstrated that many of those friends will put access to our universities at the heart of any discussion of our future relationship, even on the issue of trade. We will not be able to separate those. We cannot afford to put the sector and the export earnings that we get from international students at risk in this way. I therefore ask the Minister to think again.
I rise to speak to new clause 14 on post-study work visa evaluation, and I reserve the right to push it to a vote, if required.
The SNP continues to press for the reintroduction of the post-study work visa. The new clause would ensure we had an evaluation of how the absence of this key visa has affected the UK economy and how a new visa may be implemented.
As we have heard, the post-study work visa is an important lever for attracting the best international student talent. There is consensus in Scotland among business, education and every political party represented at Holyrood that we need a return of the post-study route to allow these talented students to remain and to contribute to the Scottish economy.
The outcome of the EU referendum makes it even more important that the UK Government honours the recommendation in the Smith report to explore a potential post-study work route to ensure that Scotland continues to attract and retain talent from around the world. The longer we wait for the Government to move on this, the more damage is being done socially and economically.
The current post-study work offer is not adequate for Scotland. We have offered to discuss the reasons behind that with UK Ministers and Home Office officials, but, disappointingly, UK Ministers appear to rule out a return of the post-study work visa— without meeting Scottish Ministers or the cross-party steering group that has been set up at Holyrood.
The current immigration policy poses a significant risk to Scottish universities. Data published in January show that Scotland saw a 2% increase in international entrants in the academic year 2014-15, compared with the previous year. On the face of it, that may appear positive, but by comparison, from 2013-14 to 2014-15 the number of international students entering higher education in the United States increased by 10%. Rather than being able to take advantage of this growth sector and use it to create economic growth locally, our numbers are expected to remain stagnant, which is simply not good enough.
The Home Office released details of a low-risk tier 4 pilot in July this year, which was—maybe “welcomed” is not the correct word—viewed with some interest. However, we are troubled that it was introduced without any consultation with the Scottish Government, Scottish institutions or, indeed, institutions from across the UK. Universities Scotland said:
“we’re disappointed that the opportunity of the pilot has been framed so narrowly to only four universities none of which are in Scotland. We’d argue that a broader pilot, involving a wider group of institutions, would have provided more meaningful lessons from which to build.”
The hon. Lady has made a strong case for why she feels post-study work visas should be reintroduced. Does she accept that one of the main reasons for a clampdown by the UK Government is that a number of people come in on these visas and then simply go to ground, and they cannot be removed from this country even though they are here only on a student visa? In making the case that these visas should be reintroduced, will she tell us a little about the further obligations she thinks should be on the universities granting them? They surely cannot simply get students in, take the money and then wash their hands of any responsibility.
Certain rogue institutions—particularly private FE colleges—have in the past not complied with visa regulations, but there is little evidence that the HE institutions in the scope of this Bill have any record of non-compliance, so I do not accept the points the right hon. Gentleman makes.
In last week’s Westminster Hall debate, I specifically challenged the Home Office Minister to name any institutions in Scotland that could be said to fall into the behavioural category the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) suggested, and he said he could not name one.
The 19 higher education institutes in Scotland have a strong record in attracting international students and a strong record of compliance, so I agree 100% with my hon. Friend.
The Scottish Affairs Committee has been looking at some of the issues that the hon. Lady has mentioned, and we found evidence that the Government need to look at the situation in Scotland differently from that in the rest of the country. Scotland has a declining population, so we have to find an anchor to keep the talent in Scotland to develop the Scottish economy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is well documented that in Scotland our issue is emigration, not immigration, so this is a key lever for allowing us to trigger economic growth in Scotland and something that would make a massive difference to our local economy.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No—I have given way enough for the moment.
Last month, Professor Timothy O’Shea, the principal of Edinburgh University, addressed the Scottish Affairs Committee and warned that future restrictions on free movement would have a damaging impact on the sector. He said:
“Yesterday the Prime Minister said helpfully that perhaps a special relationship might be necessary for workers in the City, for the car industry. But God help me if the City and the car industry deserve a special deal, then the universities...they are more dependent on the mobility of highly skilled labour than any other sector.”
As we move towards Brexit, we have the potential for a much wider pool of international students who may wish to come to study in our universities, and we need to think very seriously about the visa solution for that. For example, there is the situation of Ireland. Under the Ireland Act 1949, Ireland is stated not to be a foreign country. What special arrangements will be in place for Irish students who want to come and study in our institutions?
I want briefly to discuss the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden), for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) that deal with their concerns about the proposed metrics in the teaching excellence framework. There was much discussion in Committee about this. As the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said, there is concern that the metrics being used give no indication of the quality of teaching. In Committee we mentioned the Scottish enhancement-led approach, which is a far more thorough and possibly better method of determining quality. Apparently, however, the metrics proposed by the Government are being pushed ahead with. We are happy to support the amendments tabled by Labour Members.
Amendment 51 would require automatic voter registration in universities. That looks like an extremely innovative idea—and for once, I have to admit, it has not come from Scotland. Perhaps we can start to consider it in Scotland.
We are short of time and there are later amendments that my hon. Friends are keen to press, so I conclude by saying that we will support the amendments I have mentioned and that I hope we can have some movement on new clause 14.
I want to speak to new clause 16, which draws on some of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) made in relation to amendment 49. In essence, the new clause seeks to remove students from the net migration figures. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether the Government have that on their agenda.
I also want to comment on how damaging it would be for the university sector if the number of international students that can be recruited in any one institution is related to the traffic light system in the TEF.
As we know, international students are important not only to higher education but to our economy. The contribution of international students to UK GDP is almost certainly in excess of £10 billion, and they support about 170,000 full-time equivalent jobs. Many of the students go on to do postgraduate work, and they are involved with and drive forward world-leading research and innovation in this country. They are therefore very much to be commended and supported.
While international students are in this country, they not only get to know the UK but develop an affinity with it. They develop links with staff, and they contribute massively to soft diplomacy, as we have already heard. It cannot be overemphasised that they improve Britain’s standing in the world, so it is very important that the Government do not put the recruitment of international students at risk. Once they are in this country, such students also enrich our society and contribute to its diversity. I know that from my Durham constituency, where international students very much add to the whole cultural experience of the local population.
I concur with my hon. Friend on the contribution of international students and the very good experience they get. My local university, the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, has many thousands of foreign students, who very much enrich the city and bring it to life. Once they leave the UK and go back to their countries of origin, these students become some of our best ambassadors and, whether they go into industry or government, their experience in the UK always makes them very positive about the future.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Government should take on board his point about that ambassadorial role.
We can only be bewildered at the mixed messages the Government are giving international students. One message is coming from the Department for Education, another from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and another from the Home Office. I do not yet know whether the Department for International Trade has a view on international students, but, if it does not, it really ought to. Its view should be one of promoting an important industry, as hon. Members have said clearly this afternoon.
Instead of supporting an increase in the number of international students, the Home Office seems to be giving the message that we need to reduce the numbers, and that is having an effect. The figures I have for the number of international students and the trend are very different from those read out by the Minister. It appears that the number of new entrants has fallen by 2.8%. Indeed, one study has put the reduction as high as 5%. The Minister must know that the British Council has stated that the UK is beginning to lose market share to our competitors. Again, the Government should be very concerned about that.
New clause 16 also seeks to find out whether the Minister or the Home Office has any notion of introducing a system in which the number of international students that any institution can recruit is linked to what happens to it in the TEF and, in particular, to where it is in the traffic light system. To give the Minister an example, if the institution is given a gold rating, there may be no cap whatsoever on the number of international students that it can recruit, but if it gets a bronze rating—oh, dear—a cap might be put on the number of students it can recruit. To use the automobile analogy that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central used earlier, that is like telling Nissan, “You can sell as many cars as you like,” while telling Vauxhall, “We’re going to put one of your hands behind your back and limit the number of cars you can sell.” That is clearly nonsense. We need definite reassurances from the Minister that the Bill will not be used to link the TEF to the number of international students that can be recruited.
Given that the Government are supposed to believe in markets, it is bizarre that, when Times Education Higher produces university rankings across the world, they should choose to intervene and say which students should go where when students clearly have a choice in a market-based system.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. International students are central to the business model of every higher education institution in the country. In addition to the possible reputational damage that could be done to our universities, we do not want a message to go out that international students are not welcome. The Minister, the Home Office and other Departments could deal with that by saying that students are temporary visitors, which is what our international competitors do in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. That means removing students from the net migration statistics, which would be a very simple thing for the Government to do, and I hope that the Minister will tell us that he is going to do that. We should be ambitious for our universities. We should enable them to grow, particularly in international markets such as Canada, Australia and other countries, and not limit their international potential.
As the Minister will know, he has a mandate to do that. A recent ComRes study—my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central mentioned this—showed that 75% of people who expressed a view would like to see the same number or more international students in the UK. The poll also revealed that the overwhelming majority of the British public think that international students should be able to stay and work in the UK for a period of time. A very clear case has been made and I hope that the Minister will respond positively.
The Minister has referred to amendment 58. There is huge concern in the higher education sector about enabling bodies to call themselves universities even when they do not provide the range of student services and support that most of us would expect from a university. The reason that there is no particular guidance is that we have not needed it. Most of this country’s universities provide a system of student support and access to sport and recreational opportunities. They also provide wellbeing services and volunteering opportunities, enable students to join a students’ union, and play an important civic role.
The reason that I tabled amendment 58 is that the Bill will allow a series of higher education institutions to call themselves universities even though we as yet have no idea whether they will have to offer a range of basic services to students. Will they be able to join a students’ union and sports clubs? Will they play an important role in the local community, as is the case with existing universities? Will they have an important role in the local economy? We have heard nothing yet from the Minister except that there will be some guidance, so I am minded to press amendment 58 to a vote. I would like to hear from the Minister what will be in the guidance about how we describe universities, what the Minister’s understanding of a university is and when the guidance will be made available. In particular, will it be available before the Bill is considered in the other place?
A university is an establishment where higher-level study, education and research are done. It is not somewhere where one would necessarily avail oneself of volunteering experiences, for example, or of the other things that the hon. Lady has listed. I contend that as we move into longer lifespans within which we may take degrees at different times, we may be looking merely to access a degree to enhance our careers rather than making it part of our lifestyle.
The hon. Lady was on the Committee, and I am sure that she will recall that the things in the amendment are in addition to what we might call the core business of a university, which is to enable people to study for a higher-level qualification. The amendment is designed to ensure that we do not get a whole series of institutions that can use the title of university but that offer only a single course of study and a single qualification, because we think that that will dumb down the sector not only for UK students but, in particular, for international students. The hon. Lady will know that the sector is a highly competitive one internationally, and we want to ensure that our universities compete with the best in the world.
We have huge concerns about allowing an institution to say that it is a university when it does not have to provide any access to sports, recreation, cultural activities, volunteering opportunities, work-based learning experience or any of the other things that our universities do right across the piece. I hope that the hon. Lady is as proud as I am that our universities do so.
I concur, up to a point. I am hugely proud of universities, and I am hugely proud of what they deliver into our economies. But I would also argue that we have other great institutions; BT in Suffolk, for example, hopes to have a specific degree around research, learning and so on, and such things should be enabled for a future workforce that is fit for purpose. They should not just be wiped away because an institution does not offer the chance to play five-a-side football.
I, too, think that BT has a number of strengths as a company, but it is yet to be determined whether it is very good at running a university. We will only know that in due course. If BT runs a university, I want to ensure that it is a university as we would commonly understand it, not simply a company that offers a degree course.
The hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) picked out the issue of five-a-side football, but does my hon. Friend acknowledge that there is a wider issue? This is the first major Bill on higher education for a generation, and it provides an opportunity to extend university title quite widely. Is not the nub of the problem the fact that no attempt is made to define what a university is?
I concur exactly with my hon. Friend. In Committee, the Minister said that he was setting
“a high bar that only high-quality providers will be able to meet.”––[Official Report, Higher Education and Research Public Bill Committee, 11 October 2016; c. 410.]
Unfortunately, at this point in time we have absolutely no idea what is meant by that high bar. I am hoping we will hear from the Minister exactly what he means by a university and what will be in the guidance, and that the quality and breadth of offer of our universities will be protected and will not be got rid of by this Government.
I am grateful to colleagues for raising so many points that came up in Committee which particularly exercised me with regard to part 1 of the Bill. Because of the shortness of time, I will restrict my remarks to two issues concerning students and staff in higher education.
I welcome Government amendment 21 on student representation on the board of the Office for Students and the fact that the Minister has listened to the huge number of representations he has received from members of the Bill Committee, from student unions and from higher education sector leaders, who really value the contribution students make and want to see students on the board. It would have been perverse to have a regulator whose purpose was to protect the interests of students and that had the word “students” on its door and headed paper but did not have students around the table on its board. I am glad the Minister has moved on that particular point.
As the Bill progresses to the other place, I hope the Minister might consider moving further on the issue of student representation. In Committee we raised the issue of having student representation on the board of the designated quality provider and in drawing up the quality code, and also ensuring that students have representation in what, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) pointed out, could be a wide range of private providers. Whether an institution is a traditional university, a modern university or one of the new private providers, it is absolutely crucial that students’ rights are protected and their voice is represented at the top of the institution.
I also ask the Minister to address how he sees the issue of student representation playing out on the board of the Office for Students. The wording in Government amendment 21 is not quite what I proposed in Committee —that was slightly more prescriptive, specifying that the representative should be either a student, a sabbatical officer of a students union or an officer of the National Union of Students. I am slightly cautious about the amendment the Secretary of State has tabled, because we could define someone with “experience of representing … students” quite loosely. For example, a number of Members of this House, myself included, have experience of representing students, but I am sure that we would not expect to find ourselves, years later, on the board of the OFS. Perhaps the Minister will sketch out what that representation might look like.
Will the hon. Gentleman define what he considers a typical student to be, so that I can gauge his idea of someone who could represent, for example, me—I went to college as a mature student—or a lifelong learner, or whatever? We must not be too tight with the definition. The wording in the amendment gives us scope to have a looser definition and might be more appropriate.
I certainly do not think that we will be able to find a typical student to sit on the board of the OFS because, as others have said from their perspectives, no such thing exists. That leads me on to where I wanted to direct the Minister, in as far as I can. We should value the skills and expertise that representatives of students develop through their roles in student unions, precisely because there is no such thing as a typical student or a typical student experience. We should value and champion the role that the officers of student unions play in developing their skills and experience as representatives to make sure that student unions champion the broad diversity of students at their institutions; whether students are full time or part time, or are doing part of a course on a credit-based approach, whether they are living at home and commuting to university or have moved away from home, there are a wide range of student experiences. The challenge for anyone who seeks to be a representative is to make sure that they genuinely draw on that broad range of experiences, just as we have to as constituency MPs.
I hope that, when the Minister appoints one of these representatives, he appoints one who is a students union sabbatical officer, for example, because we are lucky in this country to have a means by which students can develop a good base of skills and expertise. Many of the country’s leading chief executives of voluntary sector organisations have been students union sabbatical officers, as have many Members of Parliament and people in all sorts of professions, because the experience and skill sets that it gives them are genuinely valuable beyond the scope of representing students during their time at university. I hope that that is the sort of person the Minister has in mind and that we will not drag people back from beyond to dust themselves off from retirement.
Although I agree with everything that my hon. Friend is saying, I think that the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) was perhaps referring to distance learning students, mature students and people who follow a less usual course to obtain qualifications. Certainly, when I have met the presidents of my students union over the years, they have been sympathetic to the needs of such students. Will my hon. Friend perhaps address the hon. Lady’s point?
I absolutely agree with that point, which brings me back to the skills and expertise that student union sabbatical officers develop in that role. The Open University students association or Birkbeck students union are institutions almost entirely dedicated to part-time students, people from non-traditional routes and people who often work alongside their studies who have returned to learning later on in life. It is important that that broad range of experience and perspective is represented on the board of the Office for Students. I hope that the Minister will appoint someone to that position who can represent the broad interests of students.
I want now to deal with staff. I should probably declare that I am a member of the trade union Unison, which represents a number of staff in higher education, and I should draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests on that point, too. Amendment 48 picks up the theme that I have been discussing—student representation on the board of the Office for Students—and makes the case for having staff on that board.
Staff are absolutely crucial to the success of our higher education sector, whether they are academic staff directly engaged in teaching and learning or the wide range of support staff, whose contribution to the student experience is often unheralded. Thinking back to my student experience, the first member of staff I spoke to at my university was not an academic; it was Gina Vivian-Neal in the admissions office. When I was at university, I spoke to staff such as Bill Simmonett, who was involved in catering and conferencing, because of my role as the students union entertainments officer. When I had a particularly small room in my second year and a larger one became available, Sue Jeffries made a substantial difference to my learning environment. Margaret Hay, who, I believe, recently retired from her role in the tutorial office, was absolutely central to the experience and welfare and care of students.
Bearing in mind what other hon. Members have said about the role that international staff play in our institutions, it is important that people on the board of the Office for Students have experience of representing the interests of staff. Many of our trade union colleagues, particularly in the University and College Union, have made a powerful case about the impact that the casualisation of contracts, for example, is having on our ability to recruit and retain good staff and their ability to deliver a good student experience.
Other trade unions, such as Unison and Unite, represent those staff who, while perhaps not directly engaged in teaching, often provide essential support functions that can make the difference between an excellent or a poor student experience. I hope that their voice and interests are represented on the board of the Office for Students. Given where we have taken our country in the debate about our ability to attract and retain excellent staff from around the world, we could leave ourselves in a vulnerable position in a sector such as ours that is so world-leading in its performance and reach, and we need to champion and protect the interests of staff.
I hope that the Minister will take those points on board. I thank him for the movement that he has shown since the Bill Committee. I had almost given up hope by the end of the Committee that we would see much progress, but, to give him credit, he has moved. I hope that he will listen to the points that we make today, and perhaps they can be addressed in the other place.
I apologise to members of the Public Bill Committee: I did not make the cut, so they have the advantage over me, but I assure them that I read the entire transcript, cover to cover, in one fell swoop—and riveting reading it was.
New clauses 9 and 12 deal with overseas students. The Minister tried to suggest that they would widen the scope of the Bill, but the new clauses, like Labour’s amendments, are in order, and we get very few opportunities to talk about this issue. The key point is that overseas students are very much part of the viability of the university sector, and if the Bill is about anything, it is about the viability of the university sector. We are in a brave new world, post-Brexit, and universities clearly wanted a very different outcome. I have been to many events where the Minister has tried, valiantly, to reassure a traumatised sector. It is easy to see why the sector needs reassuring: the loss of good students; the loss of opportunities for UK students; and the severe outcomes for the research sector. I recently polled a range of vice-chancellors and found that 86% of them thought that the impact of Brexit on their research programmes would be severe. The impacts are financial, cultural and academic—in the sense that it could lead to the collapse of undergraduate courses—and the impact on the research conducted by universities will be profound.
Some things are certainly true—the Minister repeats them from time to time—and nothing changes in the short term. As other Ministers have said to me, we had international students before we were ever in the EU and when Erasmus was thought to be a Dutch humanist, rather than an EU programme, but EU membership makes it a whole lot easier for British universities, and there has been a big increase in their number for as long as we have been in the EU. There is a case for following the numbers, therefore, and that is all new clause 9 endeavours to do. Numbers affect viability, and if the OFS does not do it on an independent basis, who will?
New clause 12 deals with something equally worrying, and something alluded to by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield): nonsensically, we include student numbers in net immigration stats, but the Government—certainly in the form of the Minister—welcome international students. I have heard him on many occasions, at many events, say how welcoming we are supposed to be to international students. As has been established through polling, the public also welcome international students, even when worried, at the same time, about immigration in general. Including them in the net immigration statistics, therefore, is clearly a nonsense.
What really worries the Government is when higher education is used as a stepping stone to employment and residence. This clearly bothers the Home Office. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central has already talked about the Home Secretary’s comments, which I found worrying, but also worrying is the suggestion from the Prime Minister’s senior adviser—regarded as her brain—that the Government’s post-qualification leave to remain should depend on whether someone qualified at a Russell Group university. This is obviously silly because the Russell Group is essentially a self-selecting group and slightly snobbish.
Another way of doing it, as suggested in last week’s Westminster Hall debate, is to depend on the teaching excellence framework of a student’s institution. In my view, that would be sillier, because the teaching excellence framework is in its infancy and not suited to the task, because not all universities buy into it anyway and because an individual’s ability and utility cannot be predicated simply on the institution he or she attends. Few of us would like to be judged by the quality of the teaching we have received. Actually, surviving poor teaching is a considerable and entirely marketable skill; it is slightly easier to profit from good teaching. There are good and valuable courses in institutions that may well pan out with a poor teaching excellence framework in general. This will clearly affect the ability of some institutions to attract overseas students, and valuable courses will collapse as a result—certainly many valuable courses in the capital. Further, if overseas applicants concentrate their applications on universities with good TEFs, it could make it more difficult for UK students to access them. Universities might, in despair, simply shun the TEF if it is used for those purposes.
The list goes on. Welding together Home Office policy and education policy seldom works, but we should clear this up. The Minister has an opportunity to do so from the Dispatch Box later, but so far the Government view and the Government take on this issue has been less than clear. That is certainly the case when it comes to the Home Office. Last week in Westminster Hall, the Home Office had an opportunity to say, “Categorically, this is not going to happen,” but we do not know categorically whether it will or not.
I may not get support for my amendment, and I would be happy to support other amendments that travel in the same direction. This issue, however, will not go away because it is important to the sector.
I rise to speak to our amendments, but also to comment on others, including the Minister’s new clause 1. Let me start with that and the Minister’s other remarks to make a general observation.
Of course we welcome the move to include a student representative on the body, as has been described. I have to say, however, that it is relatively thin gruel by comparison with the range of positive amendments that would involve employees and students in respect of some of the key issues that the OFS will have to face, some of which we debated in Committee. If the Government want to calm suspicions about the OFS, they need to do more to ensure that as a body, it has sufficient powers directly defined in the Bill. I have always said that we have to work on the assumption that we will have the worst and the naughtiest Secretaries of State, not necessarily the best ones and not necessarily the best Minister with responsibility for universities. That means that we need to build things directly on the face of the Bill. We have not had the ability to do that, and it is not helpful that the ability to tease out these issues should be confined to one day’s discussion of 113 clauses and 12 schedules. Other Members who might have been able to attend today know perfectly well that many of the issues that need to be discussed will have to be dealt with in the other place.
Let me begin by speaking briefly to our amendments, particularly those relating to staff and student involvement. Amendment 37 deals with consultation regarding ongoing registration conditions. It might sound very techy, and I know that there is some consultation with bodies or informal groups representing HE staff and students at the moment. Some of the new providers that the Minister wants to see coming into the marketplace may be relatively small, and may have relatively informal groupings, so it is important that the position of their staff and students is taken into account.
Let me move on to amendments 36 and 48. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) has already mentioned the latter. The Government must get into the right mind-set with HE and realise that it is not all simply about vice-chancellors, however excellent they are. It is not simply about business managers either, however excellent they are. It is about the support staff, who live in the local communities where the universities are situated; and it is also about excellent teaching, social mobility and student choice. Sometimes cleaning staff can be the first point of contact for live-in students who face isolation and need someone to talk to. The Government need a cultural step-change in the way they address these issues, and should not put some of these groups in as an afterthought. We believe that these modest amendments would take us down that route.
In Committee, we talked a great deal about the whole issue of social mobility. The Minister waxed lyrical on the subject—genuinely, I believe—but those who want to walk the walk must do something about putting the beef on to the talk. That is why we tabled amendment 38, which
“would make access and participation plans mandatory for all higher education providers.”
The Government have plenty of angles on the Bill, but two that are raised continually are competition and consumers’ rights. In fact, competition must go hand in hand with consumers’ rights. I am perfectly happy for the pool of new providers to be expanded—I spent 20 years working for an organisation, the Open University, which was once a new provider—but I am anxious to ensure that, if there is to be a competitive market, providers bring to the table a proper sense of the responsibilities that they will have to meet. That is why it is so important to ensure that an access and participation plan is at the heart of what the new providers do. There may be circumstances in which the numbers that that produces are relatively modest, but if the Government want the process to go ahead, providers must accept those responsibilities.
It is in the same spirit of inclusion that we tabled amendment 39, which
“would include the number of people with disabilities and care leavers, as well as the age of applicants, in the published number of applications.”
A number of Members have emphasised the importance of the issue of mature and older students, and indeed part-time students, about which I shall say more when I talk about new clause 15. Amendment 39 demonstrates that emphasis. If we want to have realistic expectations of where those groups are going and know what the Government need to do—and this has already been raised by several Members in the context of international students—we must have that evidence, and the amendment stresses the need to broaden the parameters.
New clause 4, which would establish a “Committee on Degree Awarding Powers and University Title”, is actually modelled on provisions in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which we want to passport into this Bill. The Government, rather curiously, do not want such a committee, although one might have thought that they would welcome a backstop. After all, we know that Ministers are bedding down, inevitably slowly, in a new Department with further and higher education responsibilities. Again, the Government cannot be surprised if people think that they want as little outside scrutiny of the new providers as possible.
New clause 4—which, I might point out to the Minister, is supported by all the university groups that have spoken to us—was tabled because, as the Bill stands, the OFS could revoke degree-awarding powers or university title without consulting a committee. The current arrangements for conferring degree-awarding powers require HEFCE to seek the advice of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education—the Minister made great play of that—but it is vital for the OFS to seek advice from a designated quality body prior to any conferring of degree-awarding powers and/or university title.
Amendments 40 and 41 are designed to underline points that were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) in a hugely important intervention about her own amendment 58. We need to shine a light on and distinguish between broad-based new providers and those that could go for opportunist, fast-buck courses, or those that are inefficiently structured or financed to do the things that my hon. Friend talked about. As she and others have said, there is huge concern in the HE sector about single-course universities. What has not been mentioned much—we talked about it in Committee—is the huge amount of public money that will go into those new providers, providing they jump through the hoops that the Government are putting in front of them. We contend that those hoops are inadequate. Because of that, we want to press the matter further. Amendment 40 requires the OFS to be assured about the maintenance of standards, students and the public interest before issuing authorisation to grant a degree. That is important. I give notice that we will press amendment 40 to a vote. Whatever the outcome, I assure the Minister that the issue is unlikely to go away and that he and his team will face further questions on it after the matter goes to the other place.
I have spoken against something that the Government want to do. I want to speak now about new clause 15, which would set up a standing commission on the integration of higher education and lifelong learning, and to thank the Minister for the small but important movement there has begun to be in the Government on that issue and on the issue of part-time loans, which is being looked at and is an important part of that process. We should look—we discussed this at great length in Committee, so I will not go through all the statistics—at the dire situation that adult learners have been in since 2010 and the way in which so many of those learners have been disadvantaged, when we should be arranging for them to be reskilled and retrained to meet our economic and social objectives in the 21st century.
In a speech in the House of Lords, Lord Rees said that we needed to have a revolution in the way in which we formalise the system to more readily allow for transfers between institutions and between part-time and full-time study. The demand for part-time and distance learning will grow, speeded of course by the high fees now imposed on students at traditional residential university. Lord Rees, a former president of the Royal Society, is absolutely right. The time for action is now. That is why the Labour party and the Labour Front-Bench team have tabled that significant new clause. The standing commission on the integration of higher education and lifelong learning would set the course that was originally laid out by David Blunkett in “The Learning Age” Green Paper in 1998. That issue has been sadly side-lined until now, but lifelong learning and higher education are not a nice optional extra. They are fundamental to our economic productivity, to competing in a post-Brexit world, to our social cohesion, to rebuilding a belief in the value and dignity of work and to offering personal and practical fulfilment to ordinary working people and their families, opening doors to them—often opportunities have evolved for the middle classes and professional people —rather than their being stuck on the first rung of the ladder. That is what we want to do. We want to think about how we deliver these things locally and nationally.
We are not claiming that the structure that we want to put in the Bill is perfect. We have taken wide soundings from all sorts of groups—city and guilds, Unionlearn, the Open University, the Learning and Work Institute—and considered our own thoughts on these matters. I say to the Minister, “Go away, look at the new clause, which would do some of the things that you are talking about in terms of social mobility, and take it on board.” If the Government do not take it on board, we will do so; we will take it through to the House of Lords, we will take it out into the country, and we will put this issue of proper lifelong learning in higher and further education right at the top of the agenda.
On our amendments 46 and 47, much of what I would have said about why we need in particular to make sure the TEF is taken out of the hands of Whitehall and put far more centrally into the hands of Parliament has been illustrated in the excellent speech this afternoon from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) with his interventions, the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and others. We do not trust the Government with the TEF as it is because they have demonstrated ever since they introduced this Bill that whenever they had an opportunity to do something to keep control of the process and try and get things through that would not require legislation in detail, they have turned to the TEF as an automatic link with raising tuition fees. The Home Office has turned to the TEF, too, and is currently holding a sword of Damocles over the Government and all of us on the issue of international students. They have not turned to putting on the face of the Bill in any shape or form whether the TEF is going to be done on the basis of a whole university or school or subject area, and we have also heard from my hon. Friends of the many significant issues around the metrics in this area. It is a question of confidence and trust and parliamentary scrutiny, and that scrutiny is being denied under the present process.
My hon. Friends are right to say the vast majority of people in this country do not regard students as migrants, yet we could have a situation, as we have heard with the gold, silver and bronze issue, where these things are smuggled in, with dire consequences for our social cohesion, economic productivity and so many of the things we will need post-Brexit.
This move is vehemently opposed by the sector, and the Government seem to have managed to achieve an extraordinary conjunction in the way they brought the TEF forward by having annoyed and alarmed virtually every sector of the university world, whether it be the people employed in universities, those who study in them, those who manage them, the vice-chancellors who are at the head of them, or indeed their relatives, families and everybody else, who are now worried. We had a discussion about this in Committee, and the Minister talked about my views in I think about 2002 on teaching excellence. I have not changed my views on the importance of teaching excellence and a teaching excellence framework, but the teaching excellence framework which started out in this Bill as bad enough has now been malformed and deformed by the way in which it has been used, and is threatened to be used, to be not simply something that is completely useless but something that could be an absolute danger in all the ways I have described, right at the heart of our university system.
We had to use some ingenuity to get even a discussion of the TEF in respect of the Bill, so cleverly had the Government gone about trying to keep it off the face of the Bill, but I am sure those issues around the TEF will be returned to, and with some significance and in no short order, when it goes to the other place. I therefore want to again place it on record that we will be pressing our amendment 47 on the need for these measures to be continually subject to scrutiny by, and approval of, both Houses of Parliament to a vote.
This has been a good debate and I am glad to have the chance to respond to some of the points made. Many points were made this afternoon, and I will not be able to address all of them, but I will do my best.
The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) spoke passionately about amendment 51. We debated it in Committee, as he mentioned. He met my colleague, the Minister for the constitution, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), after the Bill Committee, and we also met my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett), who is not in the Chamber at present, to discuss this issue. That is because we share the hon. Gentleman’s aim of increasing the number of younger people registered to vote. We demonstrated our commitment to that cause by supporting, and contributing financially to, the pilot project at the University of Sheffield, in the city he represents. That is why when we met him we undertook to encourage take-up of the initiative by other institutions by writing to describe the outcome of the pilot to vice-chancellors. We also agreed that he should attend a formal roundtable meeting on student registration, and the Minister for the constitution promised to consider other ways registration could be increased. I regret that owing to a scheduling issue with one of the external stakeholders—not the Minister—we were unable to hold the meeting as planned, and we are actively looking to rearrange it, to fulfil the commitment we made to the hon. Gentleman at that meeting following the Bill Committee.
Amendment 37 seeks to widen the base of those the Office for Students should consult before it determines or changes the initial and ongoing registration conditions, to include staff and students as well as those representing the interests of English higher education providers. The Office for Students will take the views of students into account in all of its activities. It will consult on the initial and ongoing registration conditions as part of its wider consultation on the regulatory framework. Clause 68 makes it clear that bodies representing the interests of students, and other such persons it considers appropriate, as well as bodies representing the interests of English higher education providers, should be involved in that consultation. It is my clear expectation that the Office for Students will strongly encourage providers to engage with and consult their key stakeholders, including staff and students, as a matter of good practice. The Office for Students itself will always listen to representations from students and staff if it thinks that that would add value. The amendment is therefore unnecessary.
Hon. Members made a number of points on new clause 9 and amendment 52 relating to international students. I recognise that the number of international students our higher education system attracts and the income they provide are key issues for the sector, so I understand the motivation behind this amendment. However, I do not believe that the Bill is the appropriate vehicle for commissioning annual reports on the number of international students in UK higher education institutions and their economic impact. As I have set out, Government new clause 1 requires the Office for Students to monitor and report on the financial health of the English higher education sector in the round. To do that, the Office for Students will have a very clear picture of the number of international students and the income they bring, as the recent Higher Education Funding Council for England report did. In addition, clause 8(1)(b) requires all registered providers to give the Office for Students the information it needs to perform its functions. That will allow the Office for Students to gather information on international student numbers and income in the context of its duty to monitor financial health. In effect, new clause 1 and clause 8(1)(b) already achieve the policy intent of the amendments.
A wide range of information is also already in the public domain. The Higher Education Statistics Agency, for instance, already collects and publishes data on international students. Further to that, the Department for Education will shortly be publishing statistics on the value of education exports. As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, the Home Office also publishes data, and its data show there has been a 14% increase in the number of international students coming to study in the UK since 2010.
Regarding new clause 14, I thank hon. Members for bringing this issue back to the House after it was raised in Committee, but I still do not believe that this Bill is the appropriate vehicle for commissioning research into post-study work. The Bill is focused on creating the structures needed to oversee higher education and research funding for many years to come. The scope of what this amendment proposes—a short-term piece of research on an element of migration policy—is not consistent with the scope and functions of UK Research and Innovation.
The UK has an excellent offer for overseas students who graduate in the UK. International graduates can remain in the UK to work following their studies by switching to several existing visa routes, including tier 2 skilled worker visas. There is no cap on the number of students who can switch to a tier 2 skilled worker visa. Home Office figures show that, under our current provisions, more than 6,000 international students switched from a tier 4 to a tier 2 visa in the UK in 2015, up from 5,500 in 2014 and from around 4,000 in 2013. Britain remains the second most popular destination in the world for international students after the United States.
We have heard a lot of debate on the teaching excellence framework, and I will now respond to some of the points raised. First, on the question of the TEF and migration, I urge Opposition Members carefully to calm down and consider the Home Secretary’s party conference speech. We want our universities to continue to attract genuine students from around the world. We have no plans to introduce any cap on the number of non-EU students who can come to the UK to study. No decisions have been made on tailoring or differentiating non-EU student migration rules on the basis of the quality of the higher education institution, or on how that might be achieved. As the Home Secretary announced in her speech, we will shortly be seeking views on the study immigration route, and we encourage all interested parties to participate to ensure that every point of view is heard. New clause 12 is therefore unnecessary and premature, as the Government intend to seek views on the matter.
I entirely accept the Minister’s bona fides and commitments on this issue, but is it true that Home Office officials accompanying the Prime Minister on her visit to India were openly talking to people about using the bronze element of the TEF as a way of reducing the migration numbers for students?
The visit to India, which I was honoured to be part of, was a big success in that it gave us numerous opportunities to reiterate our strong message that we welcome genuine students. There is no limit on the number of genuine students who can come and study at our world-class institutions, and there is no better place than the UK to receive a higher education. We want to see more such students coming to study here.
I assure the Minister that we are very calm about this issue, but he could calm us further by explaining what the Home Secretary meant when she talked about the use of quality in relation to the visa system, and in particular when she said that she would be
“looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses.”
What does that mean?
High-quality institutions are compliant institutions. We want compliance to be a strong feature of our system. It is important that the sector should do all it can to be compliant with Home Office regulations. The ability to bring students in on tier 4 visas is a privilege, not a right, and it comes with an obligation to ensure that students who come to this country to study follow the terms of their visas. The sector should welcome that because it wants a high-quality system of international study. The Government will be bringing forward a consultation paper in the coming weeks that will enable everyone across the sector, including the hon. Gentleman, to contribute their views on how best this can be achieved.
The Minister talks about compliance. Why did the Home Secretary not talk about compliance? She talked about
“tougher rules for students on lower quality courses”,
but there was nothing about compliance. What did she mean by that?
If the hon. Gentleman reads the Home Secretary’s speech carefully, he will see that she did mention compliance. She mentioned compliance and quality. High-quality institutions are compliant institutions; they are one and the same.
High-quality institutions could offer poor-quality courses, just as institutions with a bronze rating could offer extremely high-quality courses. How is the distinction going to be made?
I urge the hon. Lady to wait for the consultation document. She will be able to assess the Government’s proposals in due course when the Home Office is ready to publish them.
Amendments 46 and 47 would require greater parliamentary scrutiny of the TEF, but I do not believe that the content of the amendments is either necessary or proportionate. As I have said, the development of the TEF has been, and will continue to be, an iterative process—as the research excellence framework was before it. Requiring Parliament to agree each and every change to the framework would stifle its healthy development. The REF scheme is not subject to that level of oversight by Parliament, and nor should it be.
Hon. Members have talked about the “gold”, “silver” and “bronze” descriptors as though they were new inventions from this Government. They are in fact familiar to the sector through their use in other areas. Such terminology is already used, for example, in the Athena SWAN awards and by Investors in People in many universities. In every case, bronze is still recognised as a high-quality award, while gold is reserved for the highest quality.
Amendment 49 would not add any value to the TEF framework that we have developed. Changing the TEF ratings would fundamentally undermine the purpose of the TEF by preventing students from being able to determine which providers were offering the best teaching and achieving the best outcomes. It would simply allow for a pass/fail assessment. The teaching excellence framework assesses excellence over and above a baseline assessment of quality, and our proposed descriptors will allow students, parents, schools and employers to distinguish clearly between providers. We have consulted on the proposed metrics and considered the evidence, and we still feel that these metrics represent the best measurements for assessing teaching. They are widely used across the sector.
Turning to amendment 50, we have consulted extensively on the metrics, as I have said, and made significant improvements. Setting out the requirement to consult in legislation would be unnecessarily burdensome. We have taken, and will continue to take, a reasoned approach to the metrics. Given the co-regulatory approach I have described, we would expect the OFS to take a similar approach.
I shall now address the points made on degree-awarding powers and university title. Let me be clear that only those providers that can prove they can meet the high standards associated with the values and reputation of the English HE system can obtain degree awarding powers. If a higher education provider can demonstrate their ability to deliver high-quality provision, we want to make it easier for them to start awarding their own degrees, rather than needing to have the degrees for their courses awarded by a competing incumbent. Maddalaine Ansell, the chief executive of the University Alliance, has said:
“These plans strike a healthy balance between protecting the quality and global reputation of our country’s universities, whilst also encouraging innovation.”
The Minister might wish to comment specifically on new clause 4, but will he tell us why the Government are so reluctant to allow a process that has served the HE sector well since 1992 to be read across into the new arrangements for the OFS? I refer to the degree-awarding powers committee proposed in the new clause.
In relation to new clause 4, we intend to keep the processes relating to the scrutiny of applications for degree-awarding powers—which have worked well to date—broadly as they are. That includes retaining an element of independent peer review for degree-awarding powers applications. I said as much in Committee. The processes are not currently set out in legislation to avoid being tied to a static process, and we intend to keep it that way. We have published a technical note on market entry and quality assurance that sets out more detail on the operation of the quality threshold.
Turning to new clause 7, our policy is that degree-awarding powers cannot be transferred or sold for commercial purposes, and we do not see that changing. If the holder of degree-awarding powers were involved in a change of ownership, or if complex group o