House of Commons
Monday 6 November 2017
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The national fostering stocktake is currently under way, and it will report to Ministers with recommendations by the end of the year. It is exploring a wide range of issues, including the recruitment and retention of foster carers, giving us a better understanding of the current situation. The House should be aware that we have invested £900,000 supporting local authorities to develop new and innovative ways to recruit and train foster carers.
I have had the privilege of meeting some of our Nottingham foster carers, and I know what an amazing job they do, often for very little monetary reward. However, local authority children’s services departments are under immense pressure—we have record numbers of young people in care, yet some departments have been forced to cut specialist support staff—and potential foster families are also under pressure, including from Government policies such as the bedroom tax. I welcome the national stocktake, but it is long overdue. What steps will the Government take to address the urgent need to recruit additional carers?
I certainly echo everything the hon. Lady says about the value of foster carers. Indeed, 74% of looked-after children are in foster care, and the stocktake will give us more information on which to base our future policy. I met foster carers last week to discuss some of the problems they face and, indeed, the support we can give them following the stocktake.
Does the Minister agree that, with the care system under increasing pressure, there is now a need for a root-and-branch, fundamental review of the care system in England, in the same way as there has been in Scotland?
Certainly, the stocktake is part of this, and one of the most exciting developments has been the way in which innovation has been brought forward in this area. We have invested £200 million in the innovation fund, and I recommend that right hon. and hon. Members have a look at the No Wrong Door policy, which is working very well in North Yorkshire, or the Mockingbird constellation, which is a hub-and-spoke system to support foster carers dealing with some of the more difficult children.
What steps is the Minister taking to address the 61% decline in total apprenticeships from May to July 2017?
In relation to foster carers, I assume. [Interruption.] Well, it will have to be.
The great thing about someone being a foster carer is that they do not need to carry out an apprenticeship, and I encourage people thinking about applying to do so. Although there is a surplus of fostering places, one of the problems we face is having foster carers with the right type of home—for example, large sibling groups are hard to place—and we have a lack of sufficiency in some parts of the country.
I pay tribute to foster carers for the amazing work they do for our looked-after children nationally. In my experience, foster placements can be challenging for the carers, depending on the needs of the children. Will the Minister outline what extra training can be provided to improve the quality of placements and of decision making?
Good local authorities do give their foster carers the support they need, and I have already mentioned the innovation funding that has helped them to do that more effectively. There are other ways in which we can help foster carers. For example, when an allegation is made against a foster carer, it can be treated it in a different way from one against a social worker or a teacher. I hope that that will be addressed by the fostering stocktake, which is being very ably run by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers.
Exam and Assessment Framework
In November 2013, Ofqual, the exams regulator, published a regulatory assessment of the potential cost and delivery impact of the reformed general qualifications. As part of its ongoing work, Ofqual is committed to overseeing the introduction of the new exams and to evaluating their effectiveness. I want to add that we have recently consulted on the future of primary assessment, setting out our plans to establish a settled and trusted system.
The new vocational exam framework assessment will need to change. Those who study tree surgery can fell trees only in the autumn. Harvesting is likewise seasonal, and animal husbandry assessment periods do not match the assessment framework. Such assessments should occur at a time when they are appropriate, and other sectors are saying the same. Will the Minister relax the tight assessment periods, so that colleges can assess their students’ skills properly?
We have to ensure that the assessment system is robust, so that students can be sure that their hard work is properly recognised and employers understand that the qualifications presented to them reflect the quality of their studying and the skills that they have acquired.
I wonder what the Minister’s reflection is on the fact that in the maths higher paper for this year’s GCSE, the pass mark was just 18 out of 100. Does he think that pupils sitting that exam would have been given the confidence to go on to do maths A-level? I can tell him that as a 16-year-old, I was the only girl in my sixth-form college to do further maths and maths A-level. Had I sat a GCSE paper that was impossible—not rigorous—I would not have chosen those subjects.
The new GCSE is significantly more demanding academically. That is to ensure that there is a better fit with maths A-level and more preparation for students to go on to study it. The comparable outcomes system ensures that roughly the same proportion of students achieve grades 1 to 9 as achieved A* to G last year. That is why students might get a lower mark for a C grade or grade 4 this year, but as the students and schools become used to the new curriculum, I expect that figure to rise in future years.
There is a lot of nodding and shaking of the Huddersfield head, but let us hear the words out of the mouth of the hon. Gentleman.
I tried for many years when the Minister was on my Select Committee to get him to be more pragmatic and less ideological about these things. On this day of all days—the 25th anniversary of Ofsted—will he talk to Ofsted about what is going on? We are silo-ing so many young people in further-education colleges up and down the country. They cannot get on with their lives and cannot get on to apprenticeships because they cannot get a GCSE in English and maths.
Maths and English are key skills that young people need if they are to get on in life. There is a direct correlation between the income young people and adults earn if they have those GCSEs and if they do not have those GCSEs. The rules say that those with a D or grade 3 in those GCSEs are expected to continue studying them. Those with lower grades can take stepping-stone qualifications in English and maths at further-education college. That is the best preparation for a long-term, successful career.
Apprenticeship starts for women have gone up from 52% to 53% approximately; for people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, they have gone up from 10.4% to 11.2%; and for those with learning disabilities or difficulties, they are up from 9.9% to 10.3%. There is a great deal of work going on to broaden participation. The apprenticeship diversity champions network and the Careers and Enterprise Company are both doing an excellent job. I could go on, but I will not try your patience, Mr Speaker.
I am glad the Minister agrees that people with learning disabilities can make a valuable contribution to the workplace. She has mentioned the numbers, but will she say what the Government are doing to increase the chances for those with learning difficulties and disabilities to access apprenticeships?
Indeed, I will, and I know that my hon. Friend has a particular interest in this. We have said that we will implement the Maynard taskforce recommendations in full. That includes introducing flexibility, so that the English and maths requirements can be adjusted for a defined group with a learning difficulty or disability. We have also made British sign language qualifications an alternative to English functional skills for those who have it as their first language. Of course, I am working closely with my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
I welcomed the announcement in July of a new apprenticeship procurement process for non-levy employers. What assurances can the Minister give that the Department is now better placed to award apprenticeship funding to those employers who are so keen to train our young people?
My hon. Friend is right that the procurement that was launched in July will ensure that there is good geographical coverage, stability of provision and high-quality apprenticeship training for small and medium-sized enterprises, but I accept that this has been an unsettling time. We are making £440 million available between January 2018 to April 2019 as an interim measure before employers get on to the proper apprenticeship system.
The Social Mobility Commission recommends that the application process for apprenticeships should be made clearer and simpler, and be better co-ordinated across institutions, so applicants can see what courses are available and what their outcomes will be—a bit like what happens when applying for university courses. Do the Government intend to introduce such a scheme?
We are looking at a number of measures. As the hon. Lady rightly says, clarity is very important. The long-awaited and eagerly anticipated careers strategy will set out some work on this, but a lot of other work is going on. We have to make sure that apprenticeships are easy to apply for and that it is easy to see exactly what they will give apprentices at the end of their apprenticeships.
The Young Women’s Trust points to a gender pay gap of 8% between women and men apprentices. What are the Government doing to close the gap?
I will not miss an opportunity to remind businesses that they have until April next year to report their gender pay gaps. [Interruption.] That includes unions and Departments. I am pleased that apprenticeship starts for women have gone up, but I recognise there are issues around pay. The bottom line is that we want to ensure access for all young women in particular, but older women, too, many of whom are taking up apprenticeships as a way of returning to the workplace.
Ofsted says that 37% of apprentice providers are not of good quality, and that does not include the 1,200 subcontractors. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that Ofsted should inspect subcontractors? Will she review the extent of subcontracting and ensure that all apprentices receive the quality training they deserve?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he did excellent work in this area in his previous role. What matters to me is that every pound spent produces a pound’s worth of good, high-quality training. We are looking at subcontracting to ensure money goes to where it is needed: producing high-quality apprenticeships that young people and employers value.
If we are looking to broaden apprenticeship participation, it helps to have as many people starting them as possible, but total apprenticeship starts in the three months since the levy came in, in spring, are down by a disastrous 61%. Why are Ministers not doing anything to promote traineeships, which can be game-changers for people accessing apprenticeships? With a 30% drop in traineeship starts by 19 to 24-year-olds this year and last week’s critical comments from the Education Policy Institute, is it not time they did something?
It is disappointing that the hon. Gentleman expresses dismay about apprenticeships. We need to talk apprenticeships up. There was a 47% increase between February and April 2017. We know there has been a fall in the number of starts, but that was anticipated because we have brought in a brand new system. He is absolutely right that traineeships play an important part in ensuring a path on which young people can travel to get on, but I urge him to speak up for apprenticeships and apprentices and to do everything in his power to encourage employers to take on apprentices.
Educational performance in primary schools is continuing to improve in England, with maths scores improving from 2011 to 2015, and science scores improving significantly, too. Japan is among the highest performers in international assessments. Our primary school pupils are outperforming their peers in Germany.
Given that we spend more than Germany and Japan per pupil in England, does it show?
My right hon. Friend is correct: our spending is above that of Japan and Germany. What is clear is that spending and investment alone are insufficient. We need the right strategy. Our work on an improved curriculum, investment in teacher development and new schools not just being council-run are key measures lifting up school standards in England.
Youth unemployment in Germany has long been significantly lower than here. What lessons are the Government seeking to learn from the German system, particularly about technical and practical education?
Youth unemployment rose by nearly 50% under the last Labour Government, and one of the best ways to make sure young people have opportunities is to have a thriving economy, but as the hon. Gentleman reiterates, a strong education system, including a strong technical education system, is critical, which is why we are introducing our reforms on T-levels.
An important measure of educational performance is employability. In Germany, youth unemployment stands at 6.4% and in Japan, 5.1%; in my constituency, it stands at 1.6%, down 80% since 2010. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating schools in my constituency on getting their pupils work ready?
I pay tribute to those schools; they are clearly doing an excellent job making sure that children are not only attaining academically but getting the skills they need to be successful in the workplace. That is not the case in the rest of the UK. In Wales, where Labour is in charge, standards are now falling.
One way to improve the educational performance of UK schools would be to allow the creation of more good school places. Will the Secretary of State provide some much-needed clarity on the 50% cap on faith admissions for new free schools, which is holding up a number of school places in the pipeline?
The hon. Lady will probably be aware that we have created 735,000 new school places since 2010, and we will make announcements on the faith cap in due course, but again I have to contrast our record with the reduction of 100,000 school places in the last six years of the last Labour Government.
I have no doubt that, in any assessment of the performance of UK, German and Japanese schools, schools in Harrow West would perform particularly well. Headteachers there are telling me, however, that we need more investment in our schools, so that they do not have to cut the number of teaching assistants or replace experienced teachers with newly qualified teachers. What assurances can the Secretary of State offer the House that the Chancellor has got that point as well?
Under the new national funding formula, all schools will get a cash rise in their budgets. As much as anything, the challenge now is finally to address the regional disparities that still exist in our education system.
University Church of England Academy
Ofsted judged University Church of England Academy to be inadequate in June 2017. The west midlands regional schools commissioner has been working with the University of Chester Academies Trust to help improve academic standards at the school, and an educational adviser visited the school in July to provide support. The trust has appointed a new chief executive officer and chair, and an application for emergency strategic school improvement funding and support from a local outstanding secondary school has been submitted.
This school, which his consistently failed to reach the required standard, has been letting down kids in my constituency for far too long. How long will the Minister give it before he steps in?
We always take swift action when either schools or academies fail—that has been the hallmark of this Government—which is why there are 1.8 million more pupils in good or outstanding schools today than in 2010.
The Minister, with his last answer, has widened the scope of the question somewhat. I would have argued that there was a rather long distance between Ellesmere Port and the hon. Gentleman’s constituency of Cambridge, but thanks to the Minister, the hon. Gentleman can expatiate.
The salutary example of such schools is a warning to schools such as St Philip’s Primary School in my constituency that are being forced into academisation. Extraordinarily, although there is a consultation, parents have been told that it is a foregone conclusion. Why is the Secretary of State so opposed to parental choice?
Actually, the academies and free schools programmes are increasing parental choice, because parents now have a choice of provider. It is not just the local authority providing schools; up to 500 new free schools have now been established, by parent groups, teachers and educational charities, and they are raising academic standards right across the board.
Given the broadening of the question, may I tell the Minister that I have met constituents who are parents at Freeston school, in Normanton, which has been hit by the shocking collapse of Wakefield City Academies Trust? They were promised a consultation on the school’s future—they are worried about the future of special educational needs provision and about the school losing its name, its identity, its uniform—but all they have been offered is a meeting in another school in another town. They will have to travel miles and book tickets online—or else they cannot go. Does the Minister agree that that is not proper parent consultation and that Normanton parents need consultation in Normanton, at Freeston, before the consultation ends, and will he urge the Education Secretary to honour the commitment she made to me to meet me and other affected colleagues, because this is very serious?
Wakefield City Academies Trust had taken over many schools that had been underperforming for years. We were not happy with the performance of that multi-academy trust, which is why we took swift action, and why the schools in that trust are being re-brokered to more successful trusts such as Tauheedul Education Trust, one of the most successful multi-academy trusts in the country. We will not stand still while schools underperform; we take action. We re-broker academies, or we turn failing schools into academies.
Mr Davies, you seem to be in a state of great excitement. I call Mr Philip Davies.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
May I follow up the question asked by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)? As the Minister will know, owing to the spending moratorium that Wakefield City Academies Trust imposed on High Crags Primary School, which is in my constituency, the school built up a surplus, or balance, of £276,000. In recent days that money has been transferred from the school’s account, without its authorisation and without its prior consent, and transferred to the trust. Surely the Government cannot stand aside and allow £276,000 to be taken out of the budget of a school in one of the most deprived parts of my constituency. Will the Minister do something to ensure that the money is reinstated for the benefit of pupils at that school?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. High Crags Primary School was put into special measures in June 2015, before it became a sponsored academy. In 2016, just 23% of its pupils reached the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, compared to a national average of 53%. The school is now being re-brokered to be supported by the highly successful Tauheedul Education Trust, and Wakefield City Academies Trust will not be able to retain any of the reserves that it holds at the point of dissolution. Schools, including High Crags, will receive the resources and support that they need in order to raise academic standards.
Last week the Minister told me in a written answer that he would not publish a report on Wakefield City Academies Trust by the Education and Skills Funding Agency because it would be
“obstructive to the process of ensuring all the schools are placed with new trusts.”
Surely any financial issues are being disclosed to potential new trusts. What on earth is in the report that is so damaging to schools that it cannot be disclosed—or is it just so embarrassing to Ministers that they would rather hide behind excuses?
The issue of Wakefield City Academies Trust was not about finances, but about academic standards in the schools in that trust. That is why we are re-brokering all the schools in WCAT to other, more successful multi-academy trusts in the area. We are concerned not with making party political points, but with raising academic standards in each of the schools that serve pupils in those areas.
Universities UK/Universities Scotland
I have regular contact with sector bodies such as Universities UK as part of our wider engagement with the sector. I met representatives of UUK in October and also in September, when I made a speech to its annual conference entitled “Embracing accountability and promoting value for money in Higher Education”.
“Scotland is losing out in the recruitment of international students…because the UK has one of the least competitive policies on post-study work in the English-speaking world.”
That is a direct quotation from the website of Universities Scotland. Will the Minister work with the Home Office and the Scottish Government to ensure that Scottish universities can make stronger post-study work offers to international students?
There is no cap on the number of international students who can come to study in Scotland, or in any other part of the United Kingdom. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that there has been a 24% increase in the number of international students coming to study at Scottish institutions since 2009-2010.
Despite any increases that the Minister may cite, the diversity of those students has narrowed dramatically. Higher education depends on the ability to attract and retain talent from across the world. The Minister will be aware that since 1998, Canada’s provincial nominee scheme has operated successfully, allowing provinces to vary immigration policy to suit their own requirements. I understand that the UK Government are anti-immigration, but Scotland is not. Will the Minister tell Universities Scotland what discussions he is having with the Home Office about the reinstatement of the post-study work visa?
The Government have commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to provide an assessment of the benefits of international students to the UK economy and our universities. As I said to the hon. Lady’s colleague, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), Scottish institutions have experienced a 24% increase in the number of international students coming to study at them since 2009-10.
Of course, it is not just students who are having problems. Dr Jessamyn Fairfield is a physicist originally from New Mexico, but now lecturing in Galway. In August Dr Fairfield arrived in Cardiff to do a science show. Her parking pass and entry to the festival were considered payment in kind and she was denied entry to the UK. Similar cases have been documented involving academics attending conferences. Ironically, Dr Fairfield is back in the UK this week to receive a prize for scientific engagement. So what assurances can the Minister give to academics like Dr Fairfield, who is in Parliament today, that the UK remains open for conferences and academic events?
We want the UK to remain the go-to place for scientists, tech investors and researchers in the years to come post-Brexit. We have given many assurances to EU researchers around the continent that they are welcome in the UK. We want their contribution to continue, they are hugely valued, and we have every expectation that that is going to continue to be the case.
I wonder if the Minister told Universities UK how the Department was funding the Prime Minister’s announcements on student finance. Can he confirm that those will cost the Department £175 million in this spending review period, and can he guarantee that this will not be funded by yet more cuts to the rest of the education budget?
I ask the hon. Lady to wait for the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget in a few days’ time, because all the details of the funding of those announcements will be set out then.
Special Educational Needs
The Children and Families Act 2014 heralded a transformation in support for children and young people with special educational needs. The transition period between the old and new systems, from statements to education, health and care plans, will end in March 2018.
In my area, there is a chronic shortage of special needs school places. In Kent, nearly 7% of students with statements or EHCPs are not educated in the school setting, which is well above the national average. Does the Minister agree that every child in the UK is entitled to a school education, and will he instruct the Department for Education to support local authorities who are struggling to meet that need?
I absolutely agree; we are on the same page on this. In Kent, schools have not been experiencing any reduction in high needs top-up funding in respect of pupils for whom they are receiving funding in the last academic year.
It is over three years since the Minister’s Department introduced significant changes to the special educational needs system. Two reports in the past month provide a damning indictment of how these reforms are going: Ofsted says there are significant areas of concern in one third of areas; and the local government ombudsman says families are suffering long delays in getting the right support. Does the Minister accept that these reforms are not working, and what does he intend to do?
The hon. Lady must have been looking very hard indeed to find a parent who does not welcome these changes. Unlike statements and learning difficulty assessments, the new plans run from ages 0 to 25 where appropriate, and bring together in one place an assessment and details of planned provision for a child or young person’s education, health and social care needs. The plans are driven by outcomes, have a strong focus on preparation for adult life, and include a section describing the views and aspirations of the child or young person themselves and their parents or carers.
One child in 100 is on the autistic spectrum, and 70% of those children will go to mainstream schools. The Government have a proud record in supporting autism; what more can be done to encourage best practice across the mainstream school sector?
Schools receive up to £6,000 for each child as part of their funding formula, and if they need to apply for additional money, that money is forthcoming. We are keen to ensure that children with particular problems, including autism, are quickly identified and given the help they need, and the new scheme does that.
Extracurricular activities including sport ensure a well-rounded education for all our students, and this is particularly important for those with special educational needs. Can the Minister tell me what support schools can get to provide those extracurricular activities?
It is absolutely true to say that all children benefit from better access to sports provision, not only physically but academically. I am pleased that we have doubled the primary sport and PE premium using money from the soft drinks levy. I am also a big fan of cadet forces, and we have used £50 million from the LIBOR fines to fund that activity. I would like to see more state schools with cadet forces.
We all support and recognise the need for additional funding for high needs grants and special needs. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have received £4 million under the review of the funding formula, but Stoke-on-Trent City Council has written to the Secretary of State asking for £3 million of that to be clawed back to fund high needs grants, taking it away from the schools it has been designated for. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) to discuss this? We have both written to the Minister asking him to ensure that the schools that desperately need that money can retain it.
Local authorities, including Stoke-on-Trent, can apply to disapply 0.5% of their funding and deploy it in that particular way.
The early intelligence that we are gathering about the autumn term is very encouraging. More than 216,000 parents have received eligibility codes for this term and more than 90% have found places. Independent evaluation of the early delivery areas found that a quarter of mothers and one in 10 fathers had increased their working hours. Providers are willing and able to deliver the offer to working parents.
I welcome the Minister’s reply, but has he seen the online campaign entitled “Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding”? The truth is that providers are really struggling to provide the 30 hours of childcare that the Government say they should. A woman in my constituency, Claire Gallagher, is rated outstanding as a childminder, but she has faced a 32% cut in her hourly rate from £6.05 an hour to £4.10, despite the Government’s claim that no provider would be more than 10% worse off. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Treasury to ensure that this policy is adequately funded in the upcoming Budget? If there have not been any such discussions, when will there be?
I was going to advise the hon. Lady to pursue an Adjournment debate on this matter, until I realised that in fact she had just had one.
We carried out detailed work using Frontier Economics, which reported in July 2017, and we have increased the funding to £4.94 on average from £4.56. I have met a number of nurseries that seem to be outliers that, unlike most, are unable to deliver for that price. We have asked them to supply detailed information to find out why that is. Is it because they are not working to the ratios that others are? Is it because they have high property costs? We would be keen to see that detailed information and to find out why they are outliers, so that we can work with them to ensure that they can deliver within the money, as the majority of providers are doing.
Constituents of mine who use or work in nursery facilities on both sides of the England-Wales border report the capacity issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) has just mentioned. The Minister says that 90% have found places. Will he tell us how many of that 90% have got the full 30 hours?
Well, it is certainly up to them. The evidence that I get when I visit nurseries up and down the country is that many parents are actually taking extra hours and paying for the wraparound hours. When I was at a nursery in Wolverhampton two weeks ago, parents there told me that they already had their children in the nursery and were having trouble finding the funding for that, but that when their children turned three in January, they would then get access to the 30 hours funding. So the vast majority of parents are accessing the full 30 hours. Also, they can mix and match between childminders, nurseries and other voluntary sector providers.
Last week, I met Cheryl Hadland, the managing director of Tops Day Nurseries, which includes the much-valued nursery at Musgrove Park Hospital, to discuss what the 30 hours of free childcare means for nurseries. The recruitment and retention of nursery workers is that organisation’s ongoing challenge, and staff account for 70% of its costs, which relate to the minimum wage and the living wage. I applaud this Government’s commitment to the 30 hours of free childcare, which has been welcomed by parents. However, will the Minister ensure that any increases in the living wage and the minimum wage are taken into account, so that nurseries can successfully deliver this service in Taunton Deane?
The hon. Lady’s eloquence has ensured that Taunton Deane makes Wavertree look like a model of pithiness.
We are of course well aware of the cost pressures that may fall upon nurseries, and we are keen to work with them to address some of the business management decisions that they may need to make in order to live within the funding that we are making available. As we have discovered, the mean cost of funding is £3.72 per hour, and our funding is £4.94 per hour and therefore allows for adequate funding, as the evidence has shown.
Local authorities make decisions about how best to address the needs of children from underprivileged backgrounds. Much has changed since 2010, including the early years pupil premium and the 15 hours of free childcare for those who would qualify for free school meals, for example. It is up to local authorities to decide how best to deliver that. Indeed, my local Sure Start centre raised with me the issue of the many children who should be at the centre who are not. That is a role for those who are going out to mentor people in their communities.
The Minister’s colleague, the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), wrote to a constituent stating that the funding of the 30-hour entitlement is based on the premise that 15 hours was for educational provision and the additional 15 hours was just for general care without an educational focus. However, the Conservative party has always promised high-quality early education, so was his colleague correct or not?
No, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) was not correct. Indeed, she made that clear when I spoke to her about it; she had misheard something that was said to her. The hon. Lady keeps falling into the trap of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Indeed, she has also lured some journalists into that trap. Will she finally admit that the policy is working successfully and that children are receiving the childcare they need?
We are reforming GCSEs and A-levels to make them more knowledge based and academically rigorous, to match the best education systems in the world and to keep pace with the demands of universities and employers. The reforms are intended to ensure that pupils, employers, colleges and universities can have confidence in the qualifications.
A teacher came to my surgery on Saturday to say that while she was determined to provide the best teaching of the new history course, which has a tougher exam, she was finding it hard to do that when asked by the school to cover for a colleague on maternity leave whom the school did not feel that it could replace. Is there any help that can be given to schools as they face the twin challenges of budget pressures and the introduction of a completely new history course?
I am pleased to tell my right hon. Friend that help is available. While core school funding has been and is being protected in real terms, we understand that schools are facing cost pressures due to higher employers’ national insurance contributions and higher contributions to teachers’ pensions. We will continue to work to deliver the initiative set out in the schools buying strategy to help schools get the best value for their non-staff expenditure, such as through regional purchasing hubs, and we will support schools in managing their staff and workloads by implementing flexible working and by deploying support staff effectively.
There is no single model for rigorous assessment. I recently held a series of meetings with year 12 and year 13 students in schools across my constituency, and one issue of concern to them all was the move away from coursework to closed exams. They believe that such exams provide an incomplete assessment of their abilities, discriminate against those who are unwell on the day of an exam, and are a contributory factor in the growth of mental health problems. Will the Minister agree to look at those concerns?
We looked carefully at that issue. We found that controlled assessments were consuming vast amounts of teaching time and a culture of resits was taking up more teaching time. Ofqual said that the controlled assessment system was not the most reliable way of assessing pupils.
We have been very clear that, with the additional £1.3 billion we are investing in our schools, overall funding will be maintained in real terms per pupil for the next two years, as the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed. Of course, if parents want to check the actual funding for their school, they can see it on the Department for Education website, which has to comply with Office for National Statistics standards, unlike some of the websites that put up inaccurate data.
Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the additional £3.7 million that we have secured for Shropshire will ensure that there are no cuts to any of our schools? Will she do more to ensure that websites such as School Cuts are confronted about the erroneous information they are putting out, which is causing a lot of concern among parents?
Indeed, it is very much scaremongering. The Department for Education’s published formula illustrations show, as my hon. Friend says, that his Shropshire schools are gaining an additional £3.7 million by 2019-20, of which £2.6 million will be allocated in 2018-19. The websites he mentions are fundamentally misleading, and their claims are based on flawed calculations. They say that money to schools is being cut when it is increasing, and they say that teacher numbers will go down although they are going to go up. Of course, that is all contrary to the Leader of the Opposition’s claims last week, but the national funding formula provides cash gains for every school.
Yesterday it was revealed in The Sunday Times that, on just one day in January, there were more than 50 classes of 50 pupils. The head of one of the schools affected said that that was due to trying to save money on supply teachers as a result of huge budget cuts. Does the Secretary of State agree with that head?
The story was based, I think, on misleading facts. For example, some of the classes were of choirs or restructured PE classes, which would be expected to have more children. The bottom line is that the average primary class size is just 0.7 of a pupil higher than in 2010, despite there being 506,000 more primary school pupils. In fact, the average secondary school class size in 2018 will be some 0.3 of a pupil higher than in 2010. In other words, the figures are broadly stable. In spite of the fact that we have many, many more pupils in the system, we are making places available.
My Department has been working to identify the efficiency savings that will ultimately result in a cash boost for schools and put £1.3 billion directly into the hands of headteachers. That means that, across the country, funding will be maintained in real terms per pupil over the next two years.
I cannot say that that was a terribly revealing answer, but the Minister for School Standards did better in a recent letter, in which he said that, over three years, the Department will cut about £1 billion from the free schools programme, which he was lauding a second ago, and 37% from the healthy living project. Is that how the Secretary of State is trying to compensate for the cuts she has made to the core schools budget?
Most parents would be staggered that the hon. Gentleman is so against my looking across my Department to make sure that I challenge it and its officials to work as efficiently as we are now challenging schools to be. That is quite right, and I am now able to put the fruits of that initiative into the hands of headteachers, providing them with more money on the frontline. We will be making effective savings, which is actually the way to get more out of our education budget.
Can the Secretary of State confirm the National Audit Office assessment that £2.7 billion has been cut from the schools budget since 2015, and that the £1.3 billion she mentioned earlier will protect budgets only until 2020, after which she will either need new money from the Treasury or she will need simply to deliver another cut to school funding?
As the hon. Lady should know, the next spending review process is yet to get under way. Of course school budgets, alongside every other budget across government, will be agreed as part of that. We had a question earlier about the fact that money and results are not necessarily correlated, and I have to say that if there is one part of our United Kingdom where a Government are failing their children, it is Wales—where Labour is in charge—not England.
The free school and academy programmes are helping pupils from all backgrounds to achieve their potential. Pupils in converter academies are achieving top GCSE results and, together with pupils in free schools, are making on average more progress than pupils in other types of schools. Secondary sponsored academies have also improved, often from difficult circumstances, with more pupils achieving good GCSEs in English and maths this year.
I thank the Minister for his response. Crowborough’s Beacon Academy, which is in my constituency, has been named as the best school in East Sussex. It is in the top 3% in the country, with 77% of its pupils achieving five or more passes at GCSE. The headteacher, Anna Robinson, has taken this academy to the top of the league tables. Will the Minister join me in congratulating her and the schools’ students on a great job? Is this not another example of the Government’s education policies enabling our children to reach their full potential?
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Beacon Academy on its GCSE results this year. The provisional 2017 figures show that 56% of its students are entered for the increasingly important EBacc combination of core academic GCSEs. The pupils’ progress puts it in the top 12% of schools nationally on that measure.
I have been independently advised, and I can confirm, that today both questions and answers are notably long.
The Minister mentioned children of all backgrounds. What is the funding allocation for the coming academic year for counselling services and help for transgender children, which the charity Stonewall describes as being in a seriously bad state?
The Government Equalities Office has allocated £3 million for a programme to tackle HBT—homophobic, biphobic and transphobic—bullying. That programme is already in 1,200 schools up and down the country, and it is very successful.
One of the first things we did when we came into office in 2010 was to double the amount of capital for basic need funding compared with what Labour had spent. Basic need funding for school places is based on a local authority’s own data, and we fund every place that councils say they need to create. Local authority forecasts include key drivers of increased pupil numbers, such as rising birth rates and housing developments. Hertfordshire has already received £197 million for new places between 2011 and 2017, and it is allocated a further £57 million for the next three years.
Relationship and Sex Education
We are pressing ahead with our engagement process with relevant groups and interested individuals. We will be including parliamentarians over the coming months, and we will also seek the views of young people and parents. As has just been announced, Ian Bauckham, the chief executive officer of the Tenax Schools Trust and an executive headteacher, will advise on this work. He has considerable experience that will help us to ensure that schools teach a quality curriculum. Of course, following the engagement, we will consult on draft regulations and guidance, and we will then have a debate and a vote on the regulations in Parliament.
I do not think that anybody in this place would disagree that the last couple of weeks have shown us the power of teaching our young people to respect each other and to treat each other with respect. With 25 sexual assaults reported in our schools every day, will the Secretary of State please fast-track the policy on what schools should do if a report is made to them? This was promised months and months ago, and it is now urgent. I have a case in my constituency, and I know of others—this is too important to wait.
We will issue interim guidance this term, but the hon. Lady is quite right that if we are to make a longer-term change in the sort of attitudes that drive unacceptable behaviour in workplaces, we have to make a start in schools, which is why we are now updating the relationship and sex education guidance for the first time since 2000. We all recognise the need and we will approach this responsibly.
In October, I had the pleasure to go back to Rotherham to visit my former school, which is now called Oakwood High School. It was absolutely inspiring to meet the students there now, as I was many years ago. I also helped to launch the new DFE-supported Institute for Teaching in Manchester, which will help to drive up standards and produce excellent teachers. Recently, we had the flexible working summit at the DFE to ensure that teaching is a profession for the modern workplace, thereby helping to drive recruitment and retention.
Questions and answers in topicals really must be much shorter from now on. They have become increasingly long over a period and it is not helpful to the House or to the number of contributors.
A survey published today by the Sixth Form Colleges Association shows that funding cuts have caused one third of providers to drop courses in STEM subjects. We know that colleges are also dropping vocational qualifications. Does the Secretary of State agree that this month’s Budget must provide increased funds for colleges and sixth forms so that all forms of 16-to-19 education are on an equal footing for funding?
I am, of course, always bidding for additional funding for education across the board, including technical education. The hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that maths is now the most popular A-level.
Indeed, and there are now almost 400 free schools. I very much congratulate the Nova Education Trust on opening the Suthers School. I know that, as the chair of the governors, my hon. Friend will ensure that that school provides young people in his constituency with an excellent education.
We have given clear guidance to schools that uniforms need to be affordable, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right that this is an important issue. It is certainly a cost that many parents worry about, and I assure her that making further progress to address it is on our agenda.
New housing developments in my constituency are coming on stream quickly, but the necessary infrastructure, including school places, must be in place to support that growth. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the new funding formula will help to address this issue and ensure that such infrastructure is in place?
Under the new formula, money will follow the child and it will be flexed if they have additional needs. Of course, we work hand in hand with local authorities to make sure that basic need capital funding is available to ensure that we keep up with the need for school places. As I said, there have been 735,000 new school places since 2010. This Government are planning ahead and will continue to do so.
The hon. Lady will welcome the fact that when we recently published the results of the race disparity audit, a key part of the launch was the announcement of a review of exclusions, because we want to make sure that they are dealt with effectively by schools. That sits alongside announcements on improving the quality of alternative provision.
What steps are being taken to include marriage in relationships education?
This is exceptionally important. At the heart of this is the fact that we are trying to help young people to understand how commitments and relationships are very much at the core of a balanced life that enables people to be successful more generally. That is why we are looking to update the guidance, alongside the fact that the world in which young people are becoming adults is, frankly, now a much more difficult one. There are all sorts of challenges, not only in communities but, critically, online, so there are lots of reasons to do this.
I take the hon. Lady’s point. It is important that we work with schools—and indeed parents —to ensure that they get all the benefits and support to which they are entitled. I assure her that work is under way to ensure that children and schools are not underfunded, and are receiving what they should receive.
Page 50 of the Conservative party manifesto says:
“We will replace the unfair and ineffective inclusivity rules that prevent the establishment of new Roman Catholic schools”.
It did not promise an interminable review. When will my right hon. Friend implement Conservative policy?
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend responded to that review, but we certainly had a number of responses. We are looking through them carefully and I will update the House in due course.
That letter was sent not by the Government, but by an MP acting in an individual capacity. The Government have made it clear that they fully support academic freedom and have recently entrenched that further in law through the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.
Under the new national funding formula, West Sussex schools are set to have a funding increase of 10.7%. However, the county has been historically one of the lowest funded. Are there any other measures that can be brought forward to ensure that that historical underfunding is righted?
As my hon. Friend says, the national funding formula aims to address the inequity that has been baked into our funding system for many, many years. That sits alongside the pupil premium investment and the work that increasingly takes place in our schools to make sure that they operate in a way that maximises the educational impact that they get for every single pound. That means a focus on efficiency.
When I used to mark A-level economics scripts, a key aspect of getting a higher grade was knowing the difference between a real-term increase and a cash increase. Why does the Secretary of State choose to set such a bad example to our students by deliberately muddying those two concepts?
The hon. Gentleman might have marked those exams, but I ended up getting a first-class economics degree at university—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] I can tell him that the difference between what we are proposing under the national formula is the fact that under our approach, schools will get a cash increase, but under Labour’s approach, they would have had their cash absolutely frozen. [Interruption.]
Order. I do not know why the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) is hollering from a sedentary position. I always had him down as an academic, indeed a rather cerebral fellow, who is capable of somewhat statesmanlike behaviour, from which he seems to be departing this afternoon—not to be repeated.
Ryders Hayes Primary School in my constituency recently opened a new teacher training facility—it is in a fantastic wood cabin. What are Ministers doing to promote teacher training opportunities and to encourage more participation?
I congratulate the school in my hon. Friend’s constituency. More than half of teachers are trained through school-led systems, which means that schools have more control over the quality of the training that their teachers receive, and that schools can look for graduates and undergraduates to join their staff in the most effective way.
The Support Our Sixth-formers funding impact assessment, which was published today, shows general sixth-form education under real strain. Bearing in mind that each sixth former is funded at £4,500, compared with £5,700 for a pupil aged between 11 to 16, will the Secretary of State take the opportunity of the Budget to use last year’s underspend and uplift funding by £200 for each student aged 16 to 18?
We have maintained that rate across the course of this spending review. It is probably not for me to pre-empt what will be in the Budget.
Will the Minister update the House on the progress of the introduction of the T-level in catering and hospitality? It is eagerly anticipated by the tourism and hospitality sector, and is essential for providing the skilled staff that the sector needs for the future.
T-levels are long-awaited. We are starting down that road—the first few will come online in 2020, and there will be more in 2021 and 2022. I know that there is a great deal of interest in them, particularly from that sector.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that £1.5 billion has been taken out of school budgets since 2015, leading to a real-terms cut in per-pupil funding, which is contrary to what the Conservatives promised in their 2015 manifesto?
There has never been more money flowing into our schools system. The schools budget has risen year on year. Over the next two years alone, it will rise from £41 billion a year to more than £43 billion a year.
Last Friday, I held the Wiltshire festival of engineering, inspiring more than 3,000 children and involving more than 35 businesses and organisations. The Schools Minister kindly attended. The event highlighted that Wiltshire really is a hub of engineering. Will the Minister confirm that the new careers strategy will encourage a better link between schools and businesses, and prioritise sectors with severe skills shortages, such as STEM?
It was a real pleasure to join my hon. Friend at the engineering fair and I pay tribute to her for creating such a wonderful occasion. It was attended by thousands of pupils from years 6 to 9, who will be inspired to take up STEM careers. A-level maths is now the single most popular A-level choice for the fourth year in a row.
The Secretary of State has said a lot about extra money going to schools and classrooms, but Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which is run by the Conservatives and independents, is trying to claw back £3 million of the additional £4 million, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) alluded to. Will the Secretary of State meet us so that we can work together to ensure that the money destined for our classrooms and children actually gets to them?
We have put in place clear rules regarding the extent to which councils are able to switch money between the key funds. There is potential for them to go beyond that, but they would need to make an exceptional case.
The Secretary of State will be aware that Paignton Community and Sports Academy does great work for my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). However, it is hampered by the fact that some of its buildings are from the 1940s. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how we can deal with those old buildings?
Either the Schools Minister or I will be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that.
Some 50% of schools and colleges, including Huddersfield New College in my constituency, have dropped modern foreign language subjects from their subject choices, citing funding as a reason. What is the Minister doing to reverse this trend?
The hon. Lady raises a very real concern, which is why the EBacc is such an important performance measure for schools. There was a significant drop in the numbers studying foreign languages due to the last Labour Government’s decision to end compulsion at key stage 4. Under this Government, the percentage of individuals taking a modern foreign language has increased from 40% to 47%, but we need to go further.
I call Rebecca Pow—a second Pow.
Contact with nature can provide tremendous spin-offs for schoolchildren’s mental and physical health. Will the Secretary of State indicate whether any formal assessment has been made of projects such as the Forest School project at King’s Hall in Taunton Deane? Might she be inclined to encourage green learning in schools?
As well as being an economist, I am a keen gardener, so I think it is important for our children to learn about the environment around them—not just why it matters, but how to take care of it. We will talk to my hon. Friend about what more we can do.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on the Government’s actions to curb aggressive tax avoidance schemes in the light of the Paradise papers revelations.
The Government believe in a fair tax system where everyone plays by the rules. It is this Government who have taken decisive action to tackle tax avoidance and evasion and to improve the standards of international tax transparency. The UK has secured an additional £160 billion in compliance revenue since 2010—far more than was achieved under the last Labour Government. Under this Government, the UK now has one of the lowest tax gaps in the world. We have provided Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs with tough new powers. In 2015, HMRC received £800 million in additional funding to go on tackling tax avoidance and evasion.
Let me turn to recent events. Yesterday evening, several international news organisations, led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, reported on an information leak regarding the financial affairs of a large number of individuals. I should remind the House at this stage that Ministers do not intervene in the tax affairs of individuals or businesses, as to do so would be a breach of taxpayer confidentiality. However, I can inform the House that, on 25 October, HMRC requested that the ICIJ, The Guardian and the BBC share the leaked data so that this information can be compared with the vast amounts of data that HMRC already holds due to the initiatives this Government have undertaken. They have yet to respond to this request.
Nevertheless, since these data were retrieved in 2016, the Government have implemented international agreements that have changed the game for those seeking to avoid and evade their taxes. HMRC is already benefiting from the automatic exchange of financial account information through the common reporting standard—an initiative in which the UK has led the world, with over 100 jurisdictions signed up. The Crown dependencies and overseas territories are among those signed up to this initiative, and have been exchanging information with HMRC for over a year. The Crown dependencies and overseas territories have also committed to holding central registers of beneficial ownership information, which the UK authorities are able to access.
It is important to note, and I quote the ICIJ’s disclaimer here:
“There are legitimate uses for offshore companies and trusts”
and the ICIJ does
“not intend to suggest or imply that any people, companies or other entities included in the ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly.”
So, notwithstanding the generalised aspersions made by the Opposition, the use of offshore accounts or trusts does not automatically mean dishonesty. But this House should be assured that, under this Government, HMRC will continue to bear down with vigour on any tax avoidance or evasion activity, wherever it may be found.
Unless there is a critically overriding reason, I believe the House will consider it unacceptable that the Chancellor is not here to address the biggest tax scandal of this generation.
The Minister’s response today was the same bluster. He cites a figure for additional tax revenues that cannot be verified from any publically available data. He refers to a tax gap that does not include the likes of Apple, Facebook, Google and others. He boasts of this Government’s efforts to address avoidance, yet last week they voted to protect non-doms in the Finance Bill. Last month, the European Parliament accused this Government of obstructing the fight against tax avoidance evasion and even money laundering. Does he not appreciate the outrage in our community at this tax dodging? Every pound in tax avoided is a pound taken away from our NHS, our children’s education, and care for the elderly and the disabled.
Given that the chairman of the Conservative party and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is responsible for administering
“the estates and rents of the Duchy of Lancaster”,
has the Chancellor or any Minister discussed these revelations with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), and will the right hon. Gentleman be apologising to Her Majesty for the embarrassment this episode has caused her?
With regards to Lord Ashcroft, a major funder of the Conservative party who reportedly contributed half a million pounds to the Conservatives in the general election campaign, will the Minister tell the House what information he has had about the domicile status of Lord Ashcroft between 2010 and 2015, and whether Lord Ashcroft was paying taxes on his overseas wealth?
The Chancellor now has an immediate opportunity to tackle tax avoidance. Can he assure the House that in the forthcoming Budget he will adopt Labour’s proposals to remove exemptions from non-doms and secure full transparency of trusts? Will he now also agree to Labour’s proposals to establish an independent public inquiry into tax avoidance? I tell the Government this: if they refuse to act, the next Labour Government will.
The right hon. Gentleman raises the veracity or otherwise of our figures. We have collected £160 billion through clamping down on avoidance, evasion and non-compliance. That is a figure that he will find broken down and indeed published in Her Majesty’s Treasury’s annual report and accounts.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to Lord Ashcroft. As I said in my opening remarks, I am clearly not going to start getting into the individual tax affairs of any particular individual, regardless of their political allegiance or whoever they may be.
The right hon. Gentleman raises non-dom status and non-doms, and the measures that he and his party put forward for the most recent Finance Bill. Can I remind him of two things? It is the Conservative party that has put an end to permanent non-dom status, and it was Labour that sought, by voting against that Bill on Third Reading, to stop that from happening.
There seems to be an extraordinary misunderstanding on the part of the shadow Chancellor about the difference between avoidance and evading. Evading is wholly illegal; avoidance is normal. People who put their money into an ISA are avoiding tax—that is completely legal. There is a moral issue. If you happen to be a political party that spends £1 million a year on rent in a tax-exempt company, that is what people are upset about. It is not avoidance; it is morally wrong avoidance. Is that not what your party does, sir?
Order. My party does not do anything. As people know, I do not have a party. I am just the leader of the good order and fair play party, or I try to be.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which I take to be directed at me, Mr Speaker. It is of course for the Labour party to account for any situation in which its headquarters may or may not be owned by an overseas trust.
It may well be that sheltering from our tax authorities sums of money greater than the GDP of many countries is not illegal, but does the Minister agree that that is precisely the problem? Does he also agree that the Paradise papers revelations, and the massive sums involved, now offer no hiding place for those who would deny a public register of beneficial ownership of funds and trusts, as well as businesses?
This tax avoidance is a driver of global inequality that runs to the very top of business, politics, entertainment and the establishment, in many countries, but these papers also shine a light on the hidden ownership of large corporations by foreign state institutions and individuals. To allow the public, customers and small investors to know who is really behind the most trusted of brands, will the Government now throw their weight behind not just local but global transparency on the beneficial ownership of businesses through offshore trusts, funds, and other opaque devices?
The hon. Gentleman will know that this Government have been at the forefront of clamping down on international tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance through the OECD’s base erosion and profit shifting project, which we have been in the vanguard of, and through the work on common reporting standards that we have been introducing among our Crown dependencies and overseas territories. He will find that we are no slouches when it comes to grappling with the items that he raises.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that this country is now leading the world on tackling tax avoidance? How does the action of consecutive Conservative Chancellors compare with the non-action of consecutive Labour Chancellors?
As my right hon. Friend knows, one of the measures of how on top or otherwise the country is of its tax affairs is the tax gap, which is at an historic low of just 6%. Under the last Labour Government in 2005, the tax gap was 8%. If it were at the same level today as it was under Labour, we would be £11.8 billion of tax short—enough to employ every policeman and woman in England and Wales.
The real problem with all the action that has been taken so far is that it has not got to the heart of the issue, which is that we need to have openness and transparency about who owns what company and where, and who owns what trust. There is a very simple action that the Government could take without any legislation, and that would immediately slice through a lot of the problems that we have seen in the Paradise papers, the Panama papers, the Falciani leaks and the Luxembourg leaks. Why will the Government not insist now that our overseas territories—our tax havens—have public registers of beneficial ownership?
As the right hon. Lady knows, there are many good reasons why, for perfectly honest and decent purposes, individuals use trusts. She also knows that we have made a great deal of progress on the common reporting standard across 100 different countries, including those to which she alludes. We are also bringing forward the registers of beneficial ownership across those jurisdictions so that HMRC has the information that it requires.
Will the Minister use the latest leak as a spur to the publication of certain things for which we have been waiting for a while? The anti-corruption strategy was promised for last December, but it got lost when the then champion stood down at the election. We are still waiting to know whether we will have a public register of the ownership of properties here by overseas companies. Can we move forward with those things, to give people confidence that our regime is robust?
My hon. Friend will know that we are examining several areas. He will also know that in June of this year—very recently—we brought in the money laundering regulations to make sure that banks, lawyers and accountants are properly focused, in real time, on ensuring that corrupt practices are identified and borne down on as appropriate.
Is not the Minister worried about the tangled web of Russian money that appears to be involved at very high levels, as shown by these leaks? Will he not agree that there is now a great public interest in having transparency of ownership and getting these registers published as soon as possible? Why do not the Government just make an announcement that the overseas territories are going to do that, and get on with it?
As I have already explained to the hon. Lady and the House, the register of beneficial ownership is now an element within these tax jurisdictions. It is accessible by HMRC, which is, after all, the authority that we rely on to bear down on tax avoidance. As to her comments about Russian money, I have no doubt that if HMRC can get the information that it has requested from the BBC, The Guardian and the group of journalists, it will be even better prepared to clamp down on such issues where activity is found to be inappropriate.
When he looks at these issues with the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, may I urge the Minister to bear in mind the states in the US that have worse standards? Standards need to be raised globally, not just in some of these island paradise states.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to work with our international partners, which is why, as I have said, we have been working closely with the OECD on the base erosion and profit shifting project. We are well ahead of the pack in implementing those recommendations.
What sanctions have the Government taken, and what sanctions do they propose to take, in respect of British overseas territories that pursue tax policies that are damaging to Britain?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are engaged in a variety of discussions with our international partners—not least with the European Union, in terms of the so-called blacklist—and we are looking closely at the concerns that they and others have, in order to strike an appropriate balance between protecting services that are very important to those particular jurisdictions and making sure that tax is paid fairly and as it should be.
Does the Minister agree that this is not just a question of countries such as the Caymans, Bermuda and other territories, but of countries in the European Union such as the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands, which are regarded as jurisdictions where tax advantages may be set up? Does he also agree that rather than singling out such jurisdictions, we should recognise that in a global environment in which capital is free to move around, the important factor is the effect of the UK tax structure on wealth—something that this Government have definitely got right?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. To put it simply, it is not just the tax rate in a particular regime that is pertinent to the issues we are discussing—he mentioned the Republic of Ireland, where the rate is just 12.5%—but the other factors we need to look at in coming to such judgments.
How many more “Panorama” programmes and leaks should we expect until we see full and proper action on tax avoidance and tax evasion in this country? As a starter for 10, may I suggest to the Minister that the Government reinstate the thousands of tax officer posts they have cut in Liverpool and right across the country?
As the hon. Lady will know, this Government have brought in £160 billion in relation to tax avoidance since 2010, including £2.8 billion in respect of individuals attempting to hide funds overseas. She raises the issue of HMRC. As is quite right and proper, it is going through reconstruction and reassignments at the moment, so that we have a series of hubs with a critical mass of individuals in them and the right technology and infrastructure to go after those who, as assessed on a risk basis, are avoiding taxation.
I welcome the lead the Government are taking internationally in tackling tax avoidance, because this is clearly not a problem that we can solve on our own in isolation. Will my right hon. Friend advise us what the Government are doing to use transparency to make sure individuals, trusts and companies pay their fair share to the Treasury?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. As I have pointed out a few times already, we are currently looking at reporting standards. We are also looking at various recommendations coming out of the BEPS regime, some of which were covered in the Finance Bill, to stop flagrant tax avoidance, sometimes on the part of some of the largest corporations in the country. As I mentioned earlier, the Labour party sought to kill that Bill on Third Reading.
When I asked officials at the Department for International Trade whether tax transparency was required in our trade treaties, they said that this was a novel idea, and it was certainly not included in the text of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. It is exactly this kind of secrecy that lets the rich hide billions while the people pay. Will the Minister ensure that we demand and insist on tax transparency in every single trade treaty presented to this House in the future?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, we are committed to country-by-country reporting, which we will push forward with multilaterally. As for our future trade treaties, they are for the future and for the Department for International Trade.
Low rates of tax and growing tax revenues depend critically on every penny of tax due being paid. What is the position if someone receives a fee, then sends it to a trust fund in Mauritius only to receive the money back as a loan?
I cannot comment on a specific tax structure put to me in these questions, other than to say that if it falls foul of our very rigorous disguised remuneration arrangements—some of them are being put in place by the latest Finance Bill—the people involved should clearly expect to receive a hand on the shoulder from HMRC.
Does not the publication of these papers show us that this Government are more concerned with hounding disabled people applying for PIP and ESA and taking their disabled motors away from them than with concentrating on the real people dodging paying tax who, as revealed in these papers, are close to the Conservative party? Sort it out!
The hon. Gentleman overlooks a simple fact: this country has one of the most progressive tax systems in the world, with the wealthiest 1% of income tax payers paying no less than 28% of all income tax. As I mentioned earlier, £2.8 billion has been raised from the wealthy who may have been trying to avoid paying their tax. That is a far stronger record than that of the Labour party.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that by far the biggest threat to UK tax revenues is the run on the pound and the flight of capital predicted by the Labour party should it ever get into government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One measure that the Opposition have said a future Labour Government would take is to stick the corporation tax rate up to 26%, which would do nothing to create jobs, nothing to create wealth, nothing to improve our economy and, most importantly, nothing to raise the vital taxes that we need to support our vital public services.
Given what the Paradise papers reveal about the industrial scale of tax dodging, together with the shaming fact that some of the UK’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies are the largest tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions in the world, will the Government drop their morally indefensible blocking of the development of a credible and meaningful EU blacklist of tax havens?
The hon. Lady is simply wrong. The discussions on the blacklist at the European Union are ongoing and the United Kingdom Government have done nothing to attempt to block them. We are firmly and deeply engaged in them and expect them to conclude by the end of this year.
In a world of increasingly global businesses, it is the reality—whether the Labour party likes it or not—that we have to tackle this issue on a global scale. Is that not why it was right that David Cameron used the G7 as a crucial method to tackle it and why it is right that we continue to take an international approach?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We seek to move forward on the basis of unity with our overseas partners. That is why we have played such a full role with the OECD.
Like me, two thirds of British taxpayers are taxed at source through PAYE. They just cannot understand why anyone would want to put money into a small island like Bermuda, the Cayman Islands or Jersey. The Minister says that there are legitimate reasons for doing so. Will he educate me: what are the legitimate reasons?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there are many reasons why individuals use trusts. It may be that I want a trust for my children and I do not want it to be known publicly exactly how that trust will operate, for reasons of confidentiality. People may use overseas trusts because they are looking at dollar-denominated trading and need a jurisdiction in which that occurs. There is a whole variety of reasons. The idea that every time the word “trust” is mentioned it suggests something grubby or illegal is plain wrong.
With the tax gap at a record low and corporation tax in this country among the lowest in the industrial world, does it not confirm that we have achieved the key balance of a tax system that is both competitive and fair?
My hon. Friend is correct. We have brought the corporation tax rate down from 28% to 19%, and it will go down further to 17%. The consequence is that we are raising twice as much corporation tax as we did in 2010.
Will the Minister confirm what justification there was for voting against Labour’s amendments to the Finance Bill last week that sought to curb the number of individuals claiming non-dom status and improve transparency with regards to offshore trusts?
If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the trust arrangements for those who become deemed domiciled as a consequence of this Government deciding to put an end to permanent non-dom status—something that his party never did in its 13 years in office—he will know that all is not quite as the Labour party presents it. Any funds coming out of such trusts will, when they are remitted, fall due to tax by the deemed domiciled individual exactly as they would for any other UK citizen.
Is it not the case that, with the Criminal Finances Act 2017, the Government have created a new criminal offence for firms that do not stop staff facilitating tax evasion?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is just another example of the 35 additional measures the Government are taking between now and the end of this Parliament to ensure we clamp down on tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance.
After nearly a decade of austerity, and with living standards facing their biggest squeeze in nearly a century, the public will, quite rightly, be outraged by the most recent revelations. The Treasury cannot run with both the foxes and the hounds on this, so will it back either the ordinary working people or the super-rich? Which will it be?
The hon. Member talks about our having to live within our means, and it is, of course, right that we do that. He talks about the amount of money we need to bring in. What has been most unhelpful is that the previous Labour Government were so ineffective at bringing in tax, the tax gap became so high they cost our country over £40 billion. If they had had the same average level of tax gap in their last seven years in office as we have had in our seven years, we would be about £45 billion better off.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition are being disingenuous? They had 13 years and did nothing. They voted against measures to close loops, confirming that only this Government will act to tackle avoidance.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We hear a lot of talk from the Opposition, but I am afraid that the results of what they did—or, rather, what they did not do—when they had their turn in office speak for themselves.
Does the Minister not recognise that it is obscene that rich people should seek to get even richer by salting away their billions in offshore bank accounts, while working people suffer the longest stagnation of wages for 150 years?
The hon. Member will know that the wealthy of this country pay their fair share. The 1% most wealthy income tax payers pay 28% of all income tax. What was the figure under the previous Labour Government? It was below 24%, so I will take no lectures from him.
When I sat on the Public Accounts Committee, we used to hear about mechanisms such as the “double Irish” and the “Dutch sandwich”, neither of which are UK jurisdictions. Does the Minister agree that measures such as the diverted profit tax will help to put to an end to some of the tricks that can be used to move profits from this jurisdiction into lower tax jurisdictions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The diverted profits tax works every day of the week. It works where HMRC has to step in and sort out the companies that fall foul of it, but it works even better than that: it prevents and deters many, many companies from behaving in an inappropriate fashion.
The Minister says that HMRC is now seeking to investigate this matter. Ahead of the Budget, when I suspect the Government may wish to make some public spending commitments, will the Minister commit to a moratorium while this matter is being investigated on any public contracts going to companies that have offshore trusts?
I am not going to get into the business of providing moratoriums on any particular matter at the Dispatch Box, tempting though the hon. Lady’s suggestion may be. That is not a path I am going to go down.
I want to highlight the new criminal offence we have created for firms that do not stop their staff facilitating tax evasion. For the first time, under the Criminal Finances Act 2017, companies will be held criminally liable if they fail to stop their employees facilitating tax evasion. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this truly demonstrates that the Government take tax avoidance extremely seriously, and, indeed, have done more than our colleagues on the Opposition Benches have ever done?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is but one further example of making companies criminally responsible where their employees try to facilitate tax avoidance. That is the right way to go and is just another measure the Government have brought in.
Does the Minister accept that the scale of aggressive avoidance exposed by these revelations shows that the general anti-abuse rule introduced in 2013 is not working and that what we need is general anti-avoidance legislation so that there is no room for doubt and no room for manoeuvre?
The hon. Gentleman talks about the amount revealed by these disclosures, and I assume he is centring his remarks on the half-hour television programme last night. The reality is that we do not yet know exactly the extent of what will be revealed, which is why HMRC has asked those with the data to make it available—so that we can use it to get on with the job of cracking down on those who might not have behaved as they should.
The Minister has confirmed that we have one of the lowest tax gaps in the world, yet the Labour party still complains. How does today’s position compare to the one we inherited in 2010?
My hon. Friend is right to point out the difference. The tax gap today is 6%, which is about the lowest in the world and the lowest in the history of our country. As I said earlier, if we had had the same average tax gap as Labour during its term in office, we would be more than £40 billion out of pocket—less money, as the shadow Chancellor put it, for the nurses, the doctors, the paramedics, the police, the Army and the others in our public services.
There are some things we do know, however: some large accounting firms are being investigated for poor practice that assists and colludes in tax avoidance and evasion. Will the Minister clarify what will be done to clamp down on those who collude with those who do not want to do the right thing?
The Finance Bill, which has just gone through the House, contains important provisions to clamp down on those who enable tax avoidance—the category of individual and company to which the hon. Lady refers—and those are some pretty stiff penalties.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm my understanding that the profits of the Duchy of Lancaster are used exclusively for official purposes, that its investment board is at arm’s length from the Government and that if anyone wants to question who was overseeing the investment board at the time of any suspicious transactions, they should go and see the Labour Ministers at the time?
The accounts of the Duchy of Lancaster are readily available, transparent and audited in the normal fashion, and there has been no suggestion to date, as far as I am aware and certainly not in the television programme last night, of any mischief related to any aspect of its dealings.
Will the Minister confirm that according to the latest figures available there are 420 employees in HMRC’s high net worth unit and 3,765 employees in the Department for Work and Pensions chasing social security fraud? Does he agree with many of us in the House—if those figures are correct—that if the same resources were applied to tax evasion we would have billions of pounds more for our vital public services?
I can confirm that in 2015 an additional £800 million was made available to HMRC for the purposes of bearing down on tax avoidance and evasion, and that that is expected by 2021-22 to bring in more than £7 billion in additional revenue.
My constituents are rightly angry about tax evasion and avoidance, but they are also angry about the avoidance of action, as exemplified under the last Labour Government, who talked tough but did very little. Will the Minister remind me how many times this Government have acted and how many more times they are likely to act?
My hon. Friend is right. We know how much we have brought in through clamping down on avoidance and evasion: £160 billion since 2010. We also know that we have about the lowest tax gap in the world and that it is far lower than it was under the last Labour Government. Those figures speak for themselves.
Further to the Minister’s response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), will he explain why he thinks people saving for their children’s future would need to make use of accounts in Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands, when my constituents seem to manage it with the use of local building societies?
I think that if the hon. Lady checks my answer to the question from her right hon. Friend in Hansard, she will see that that was not the totality of my response, and that I also referred to dollar-denominated trading and the complexities thereof. She may then be able to answer her own question.
According to the Government’s assessment, how many UK citizens and how many UK-registered companies have these offshore accounts, and how much money has the UK, as represented by those two entities, got salted away in them?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, those are not figures that I have at my fingertips. As he will also know, confidential arrangements are rightly in place in many of the structures to which he refers; indeed, he, and perhaps even the headquarters of his party, might even be held within one of those arrangements. Of necessity, that particular information is not fully available.
Will the Minister clarify his understanding of the position in respect of non-doms donating to political parties in the UK? In the interests of transparency, will he arrange for all parties to publish lists of non-doms who have donated to their parties?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there are requirements relating to transparency and donations to political parties, and the Government have put an end to permanent non-dom status.
My constituents in the Colne and Holme valleys pay their tax in the usual way. Can the Minister explain to them why their public services are being cut while the rich are using tax havens to avoid paying their fair share?
The hon. Lady may know from my earlier comments that the wealthiest 1% in the country pay 28% of all income tax. She should also be aware that in 2010, during her party’s time in office, the proportion was only about 23%. Ours is the party that is standing up for the poorest and the least well off in our society, and as part of that process we have taken almost 4 million of the lowest-paid out of tax altogether.
Will the Minister, and the Government, consider writing a letter to all those mentioned in the Paradise papers news leaks, gently reminding them of not only their financial obligations but their moral obligations to all citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman that everyone has a moral obligation to pay their fair and legally due share of tax, and when it is found as a consequence of these disclosures that some have failed to do so, HMRC will be on their case.
Last year my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) led work in the Public Accounts Committee, and called for country-by-country reporting in an amendment to the Finance Bill, to which I think the Minister has alluded. The Government can now lead the way throughout the world in implementing that provision, while still pursuing multilateral provisions.
The Government are leading the way in exactly that endeavour. As I said earlier, a very important point to note is that we have a multilateral approach to this issue, and we are working hard at delivering on it.
Most people have not heard of dollar-denominated trading, but they look at this matter and see one rule for the rich and powerful and another for the weak and vulnerable. Surely the way to lance this boil is to provide full transparency, which means making information publicly available rather than people having to ask about British overseas territories.
I have explained about the transparency that we need. We need to ensure that HMRC obtains the information that it requires to satisfy itself that the dealings in those territories are being carried out appropriately, and that is exactly the position that we are working towards at present.
Last week I met some of the representatives of our overseas territories. A number of them said that their governance was not working for them, and that they had little say in defence and foreign affairs. Is there not a win-win here? Could we not give our overseas territories representation in this place, and then enforce tax and public transparency in those territories? Taxation with representation, all equal under the law: surely that is a clarion call for all of us here today.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not start to opine on the constitutional settlement we have with our overseas territories and Crown dependencies, but I will make one important point that relates to the issue he has raised: we must not forget that they do not have representation in our Parliament, and we therefore have particular responsibilities in listening to them and co-operating with them, rather than, as he perhaps suggests, coercing them.
Will the Minister arrange for full details of the merits of sending money offshore to be published, so that my constituents in Hull, many of whom are low-paid but pay their taxes, can see whether it would be appropriate for them to go offshore?
The most important message for the hon. Lady’s constituents is the merits of getting on top of tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance, which is exactly what this Government have done, and which is in turn raising the vital taxes for our public services so we can have the kind of public services that are a hallmark of a civilised society.
We probably need a time-out for a fact check on the £6 billion tax gap figure that the Minister is consistently quoting. May I refer him to the private Member’s Bill promoted by the former right hon. Member Michael Meacher, which set out detailed plans for a general principle on tax avoidance? We can get around a rule, but we cannot get around a principle; that seems to me to be a solid and sensible way forward.
The hon. Gentleman referred to a £6 billion tax gap, but the figure is not £6 billion; it is 6% of all tax that should be collected. On his suggestion that there should be a general principle or general rule, there is already a general anti-avoidance rule for exactly the purpose to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded.
Over 100,000 properties in the UK, worth over £122 billion, are owned by overseas-registered UK companies in the British Virgin Islands and the Channel Islands, and that represents a conservatively estimated £2 billion in tax avoidance a year, enough to close the benefits fraud gap in one fell swoop. That is just a conservative estimate, however, and a third of the properties in the Land Registry do not even have property transaction data. Does the Minister agree that now is an opportune moment to grip the Land Registry and ensure it has compulsory registration of land and property in the UK, with the full structure of ownership and their value, so we can understand the full scale of the exploitation of UK land and property for tax avoidance purposes?
This Government have brought far more property into the scope of taxation than the hon. Gentleman’s party ever did in 13 years in office, so I will not take any lectures on that point from him. [Interruption.]
Order. I would not want the hon. Member for Eltham to get uber-excited; I call Mr Clive Efford.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The Minister has set out the reasons why the eye-wateringly rich would benefit from a tax haven, but how would my average taxpayer in Eltham benefit from a tax haven and why should they tolerate this in overseas British territories?
The hon. Gentleman characterises those involved in overseas trusts as eye-wateringly rich, but I do not think all of them are; there are many pension funds, and there will be many who rely on those pension funds to live, and many of them might, indeed, live in his constituency. I think this general characterisation of it all being about super-wealthy people and all being about tax dodgers and so forth is rather crude, and, frankly, not worthy of the Opposition.
Some 130,000 UK companies have not completed their persons with significant control registers, and not one of them has been fined. If we cannot get our own house in order, how can we credibly ask others to act on transparency?
I am happy to look into the specific point the hon. Gentleman has raised and will come back to him on it.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In oral questions earlier today, the Secretary of State for Education told the House about her first-class degree in economics. She went on to state that Labour’s spending plans would lead to school budgets being “absolutely frozen” in cash terms. I might not have an economics degree, but I am sure that those at the Institute for Fiscal Studies have a few between them, and they have said that our spending plans would
“reverse real-terms cuts to spending per pupil since 2015 over the course of the next parliament”
with an increase of about £4.8 billion. I am sure that the Secretary of State did not intend to mislead the House, Mr Speaker, but can you advise me on how I can seek a retraction or correction of that remark for the record?
I would say to the shadow Secretary of State that every Member of this House is responsible for the veracity of what he or she says to it. If a Member believes that he or she has made a mistake, that Member has a responsibility to correct the record. However, I would point out, both for Members of the House and for all others interested in our proceedings, that sometimes these matters are, let me put it this way, notably political and that there are issues of interpretation and of argument—notwithstanding the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), shaking her head and frowning at me in a mildly censorious manner. That nevertheless remains the case. If I did not know the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) better, I would think that she was using the device of a point of order in a rather bogus way to continue the debate that had been taking place in Education questions. However, because I know her as well as I do, I cannot believe that she would be guilty of such impropriety and opportunism.
I am saving the hon. Gentleman up; he is too precious to waste at this early stage of the proceedings.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During the urgent question just now, I asked the Financial Secretary to the Treasury for some information pertaining to the levels of usage of offshore accounts. He said that he was unable to put his hands on that kind of information immediately. Is there a mechanism whereby I could prevail upon him to find that information and to put it in the Library? Or is there perhaps a way in which you might assist us to enable that to happen?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken his opportunity. If the Minister genuinely did not have the information to hand, but would otherwise be willing to provide it, he might think it a collegiate thing to do to provide it, either to the hon. Gentleman or to all Members by a deposit in the Library of the House. But the Minister is not under any obligation to do that. He has always struck me as an agreeable fellow, however, and he might well think that that is an agreeable thing to do, but if he does not, it is not a matter for Chair sanction. The hon. Gentleman has an indomitable spirit, and I sense that if he does not get what he wants, he will be beetling into the Table Office and tabling a flurry of questions to the Minister, which the Minister might find it rather irksome to have to answer. The Minister might therefore think that the simpler course would be to lob the material in the hon. Gentleman’s direction, and that that might provide due satisfaction.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following last week’s passing of a motion of unopposed return relating to the sectoral impact assessments carried out by the Department for Exiting the European Union, the Secretary of State has this afternoon written to the Chair of the Brexit Select Committee to say that
“it is not the case that 58 sectoral impact assessments exist.”
This is despite the fact that the Government have published a list of those 58 sectors. He adds in his letter that
“it will take my Department…time to collate and bring together this information in a way that is accessible and informative for the Committee.”
Mr Speaker, you made it clear last week that precedent suggested that the motion was binding and effective, but I am concerned that the Government are not treating that motion or the House with the required respect or seriousness. Is it still your opinion that this is a matter that should be deliberated on over a period of days? If, as appears to be the case, the Government are going to take weeks to provide the information, what more can the House do to expedite the matter? Finally, is it your opinion that there is a case for the Secretary of State coming to the House tomorrow to explain the Department’s handling of this matter?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of it. The motion passed on Wednesday obliges Ministers to provide the Exiting the European Union Committee with the impact assessments arising from sector analyses. That should be done very promptly indeed. Failing that, I expect Ministers to explain to the House before we rise tomorrow evening why they have not provided them and when they propose to do so.
I should say, and will out of courtesy to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and for the information of the House, that the Secretary of State has contacted me to say that the Government will comply with the ruling from the Chair and, by implication, with the outcome of the uncontested vote by providing the material. Moreover, before I had even contemplated whether to ask for it—I had not asked for it there and then—the Secretary of State offered me an indication of likely timescale. That was by way of him informing me, but informing me of an outline plan is one thing—I do not cavil at the Secretary of State for doing that—but informing the House is another, and the obligation is to the House.
The House’s interest in this will be protected by the Brexit Committee, which is chaired by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who was elected by the whole House. I know that if he considers that his Committee, and by extension the whole House, is not being treated with due respect, he will not be slow to alert the House and to seek redress. We may have to return to this matter very soon. My feeling is that the best course of action is for the Government to set out in terms and in public their intended modus operandi and timescale. As I say, that must happen before we rise tomorrow.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Would it be in order for Members of this place to see a copy of the letter to compare it with Hansard? Although I did not sit in for the entire debate, I sat in for 90% of it, and I do not recollect any Minister saying that there were not 58 papers or that it would take them a long time to collate them in any event. It would help us to compare Hansard with the contents of the letter.
The answer to the right hon. Lady, to whom I am grateful for her further point of order, is that that matter is in the hands of the Secretary of State. He wrote to the Chair of the Brexit Committee and, perfectly courteously and properly, copied me in on that correspondence. Whether the Secretary of State wishes to furnish a copy to the right hon. Lady is a matter for him. Now, he may readily do so, as the Secretary of State is a fearless fellow, ex-SAS and all the rest of it, but he may view the right hon. Lady—I say this in all courtesy and as a mark of respect—with considerable trepidation. I do not know. That is a matter for the Secretary of State to judge. He may wish to release the letter, but I rather imagine, knowing the right hon. Lady, she will discover the contents of that letter by one means or t’other. I think we will leave it there for now.
If there are no further points of order and if the appetite has been satisfied, at least for today, we come to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and his statement.
Grenfell Recovery Taskforce
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the independent recovery taskforce that is working with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in the wake of June’s tragic fire at Grenfell Tower.
The people of North Kensington have been failed by those who were supposed to serve them. They were failed by a system that allowed the fire to happen. They were failed once again by a sluggish and chaotic response in the immediate aftermath. It was clear that if RBKC was to get a grip on the situation and begin to regain the trust of residents, it would have to change and change quickly. That started with a change in leadership of the council, new senior officers, and new support brought in from other councils and from central Government.
To ensure that that translated into a better service for the victims and for the people of North Kensington and to assure myself that the council would be capable of delivery, I announced on 5 July that I was sending in a specialist independent taskforce. The taskforce is made up of experts in housing, local government, public services and community engagement. I deliberately appointed independent-minded individuals who will not hesitate to speak their mind.
I have now received the first report from the taskforce, reflecting on its first nine weeks on the ground. The report has been shared with the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). I will be placing copies in the Library of the House, and the report will be published in full on gov.uk.
It is clear from the report that progress is being made, that much-needed change has happened and continues to happen, that the council today is a very different organisation from the one that failed its people so badly back in June, and that the taskforce is satisfied that RBKC, under its new leadership, recognises the challenges it faces and is committed to delivering a comprehensive recovery programme. For that reason, the taskforce does not see any practical advantage in further intervention at this time as it would risk further disruption.
Although there are green shoots, the report pulls no punches about the fact that there is still significant room for improvement. The taskforce has identified four key areas in which the council needs to step up. The first is pace. The speed of delivery needs to be increased, and more work needs to be done more quickly. The second is innovation. The scale and impact of the fire was unprecedented in recent history, but RBKC is relying too much on tried and tested solutions that are not up to the task. The council should be much bolder in its response.
The third area is skills. Too many of the officers and councillors working on the response lack specialist training in how to work with a traumatised community—that needs to change. The final area, and arguably the most important, is the need for greater empathy and emotional intelligence. The people of Grenfell Tower, Grenfell Walk and the wider community have already suffered so much, yet the taskforce has heard too many accounts of that suffering being compounded by bureaucratic processes that are not appropriate when so many deeply traumatised men, women and children have complex individual needs. A greater degree of humanity must be put at the heart of all RBKC’s recovery work.
I have discussed those recommendations with the council’s leadership, which accepted them all without question. Culture change is never quick or easy to achieve in any organisation, but I am in no doubt that the leadership and staff of RBKC genuinely want to do better. It is their community, too, and they desperately want to help it heal. I am particularly encouraged that the council is now drawing on NHS expertise to secure specific training for the frontline staff responsible for providing direct support to survivors.
I have assured the council that I will continue to support it in building capacity. However, I have also made it clear that my support will not be uncritical or unqualified. I expect to see swift, effective action to deal with all the issues highlighted in the report. I am not taking any options off the table if progress is not made, and I will continue to monitor the situation closely.
Until now, one aspect of the monitoring has involved weekly meetings, chaired by me, bringing together Ministers from across Government and senior colleagues from RBKC. Although the meetings have proved effective, the taskforce expressed concern that meeting so often is beginning to become counterproductive and that the time required to prepare properly is cutting into the time available for frontline work. As a result, the report recommends that we meet less often, and I have accepted that recommendation. However, I reassure the House that that does not mean our priorities are shifting elsewhere or that the level of scrutiny is being reduced. It is simply a matter of ensuring time and resources are focused to the maximum on those affected by the fire.
One area to which the House knows I have been paying particularly close attention is the rehousing of those who lost their home in the fire. Although I have always been clear that rehousing must proceed at a pace that respects the needs, wants and situations of survivors, I have been equally adamant that bureaucratic inertia must not add delay. Clearly some progress is being made. The latest figures I have received from RBKC are that 122 households out of a current total of 204 have accepted an offer of either temporary or permanent accommodation. Seventy-three of those households have now moved in, of which 47 have moved into temporary accommodation and 26 have moved into permanent accommodation.
However, the report is also clear that that the process is simply not moving as quickly as it should. RBKC’s latest figures show that 131 Grenfell households are still living in emergency accommodation. Behind every one of these numbers are human faces. There can be no doubt that there are families who desperately want a new home but for whom progress has been painfully slow. Almost five months after the fire, this must improve. Responsibility for re-homing ultimately lies with RBKC. However, in central Government we cannot shy away from our share of the responsibility. I expect the council, in line with the taskforce’s report, to do whatever is necessary to ensure households can move into settled homes as swiftly as possible. I will continue to do all I can to ensure that this is done.
When I announced the creation of the taskforce, I said it would stay in place for as long as it was needed. Based on this first report, there is still much more to be done, so the taskforce will remain for the foreseeable future. I have asked the taskforce to ensure that proper action is taken on all the fronts it identifies, and to come back to me in the new year with a further update, which I will, of course, share with this House. I must, of course, thank the four members of the taskforce for their tireless efforts so far: Aftab Chughtai, Javed Khan, Jane Scott and Chris Wood.
This weekend, I read the Right Rev. James Jones’s excellent report on the appalling experiences of those who lost loved ones in the Hillsborough disaster. It is a sobering piece of work, reminding us that
“the way in which families bereaved through public tragedy are treated by those in authority is in itself a burning injustice”.
We saw that all too clearly in the hours and days after the Grenfell fire. The clock cannot be turned back; the woeful inadequacies of the early response cannot be undone. But I can say, once again, that as long as I am in public life, I will do all I can to ensure that the failures of the past are not repeated, and that the people of Grenfell Tower get the help and support they deserve. The Hillsborough families had to fight for a quarter of a century to get their voices heard, to be taken seriously, to be treated properly by those in authority—we cannot allow that to happen again. I will not allow that to happen again. The public inquiry established by the Prime Minister will play the major role, but, for its part, I am confident that the continued work of the taskforce will also help ensure that the survivors receive the support and respect they deserve.
I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement this afternoon. I also wish to join him in thanking the members of the Grenfell taskforce for producing this report. On all sides of the House, we recognised the totally avoidable tragedy at Grenfell and an official response that was just not good enough. The support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours was not provided by the council. The council was too distant from the residents it serves, which meant there was little effective and structured support from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea at a time when its residents needed it the most. Instead, support came from the many volunteers, charities, emergency services and aid workers. As we all know only too well, without them the situation would have been much worse.
For many survivors, the situation is far bleaker than the information provided to us today by the Secretary of State would suggest. First, will he confirm that the figures that have been presented do not include people from the properties surrounding the tower, in the three walkway buildings? Residents of Barandon Walk, Hurstway Walk and Testerton Walk did not run out of a burning building, but they still lived through an unimaginable tragedy and they still saw unspeakable things. My understanding from the council’s figures is that if we are to include these additional people made homeless from the fire, we find that: 376 households were made homeless —comprising 857 people; 311 of these households are in bed and breakfast accommodation; and 87 households are in temporary accommodation. In future, will the Secretary of State provide the full data when he updates the House, including a full account of the numbers made homeless and the progress made in rehousing the survivors?
There are additional issues for those in the walkway blocks, because under the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s suggested rehousing policy, tenants would not be given priority for rehousing while they remained in bed and breakfast accommodation. Residents have accused the council of insensitivity, and I agree with them. The policy would mean that they would be required to move either into temporary accommodation or back into their old home overlooking the tower, where they would have to relive the tragedy every day. Even then, priority for housing would be removed if residents reject two offers. That has left some residents fearing that they will be made intentionally homeless. Hotel accommodation is not a substitute for a home, especially after such a traumatic event, and there are growing concerns about people beginning to lose hope.
Dr John Green, the clinical director of the Grenfell Tower NHS mental health response team, said last week that he had found that 667 adults were in urgent need of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Three hundred and sixty are undergoing treatment. The capacity issues in the NHS that we often see nationwide are amplified locally at times of tragedy such as this, as the taskforce notes, describing support services as “stretched”. Survivors have reported issues with appropriateness, accessibility and lack of cultural and faith sensitivity. Fundamental problems remain, with NHS staff unable to get timely and accurate location lists from the council. Will the Secretary of State recognise that the effects of this tragedy go beyond those who were in the tower and ensure that steps are taken to make sure that severely traumatised people have the support they need and do not face an unnecessary burden in finding somewhere safe to live?
The Government conceded that the failure of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was real and sent in the taskforce, yet they also left the council in charge—something that the Opposition strongly cautioned against. We welcome the taskforce’s four key findings as a way to begin to rebuild public trust in the council. The Secretary of State says that he will continue to monitor the situation closely, but although I understand the reasons why he has announced that there will be fewer meetings between his Ministers, the council and the taskforce, how will he then ensure that the level of scrutiny that is so desperately needed will not be reduced?
It is worth noting that, by contrast with the taskforce’s findings and the Secretary of State’s comments today, the leader of the council, Councillor Campbell, last week praised the council’s response, describing its efforts in the immediate response as “incredible”. Frankly, I find that comment incredible. Notwithstanding the taskforce’s view of a significant change in the senior leadership team, it appears that little has changed in the gap between the council leadership and the communities it seeks to represent. The council is still far too distant.
Children are still being failed by the council. Two hundred and twenty-seven children are still in temporary accommodation following the fire. Although not all of them will have been there for nearly five months, some will have been, and the Secretary of State will of course be aware of the six-week legal limit on emergency bed and breakfast accommodation for families with children. The taskforce recognised as much in its report, describing a
“distinct weakness in the response”
of the council. Will the Secretary of State please clarify whether it is his view that the council has failed in its statutory obligations to its residents, and to the 227 children still in emergency accommodation? If he does, what further action will he be taking against the council and, more urgently, to help families?
We are 145 days on since the dreadful fire, yet it still appears that many of the promises that were so hastily made are still not being actioned quickly enough. Without the full use of the Secretary of State’s powers to rectify the inadequate governance arrangements at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, there is still a long way to go before the local community will feel any trust in its council again.
First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and welcome his support for the members of the taskforce?
The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues. Let me begin with rehousing. He talked about the walkways. I am sure that he will understand that, from day one, the priority for rehousing has been the victims—those who have permanently lost their homes—of Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk. At the same time, work has been going on with many of those in the walkways whose homes were initially uninhabitable. Many of them also required other support, including emotional and mental health support.
The council and others have been working with people in the walkways, providing them with whatever support is needed. The hon. Gentleman said that a number of people from the walkways are still in emergency accommodation —hotel rooms and so on. The latest information that I have is that there are currently 161 hotel rooms being occupied by residents of the walkways. There were many more—I think that, at one point, it was closer to 300 rooms—so, thankfully, the number is coming down. Many people have moved back to their homes. Some have said that they are not ready to move back, or, in some cases, that they do not want to move back. The council has quite rightly said that, if anyone from the walkways does not want to move back to their previous accommodation, they should be listened to. No one should be forced to move back. The council is working with many others to get them into temporary and permanent accommodation as quickly as possible.
The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the issue of emotional support. That is one of the most important areas of support for people—whether they were from Grenfell Tower/Grenfell Walk, the walkways or the larger community. That is where the NHS, the clinical commissioning group, other councils and voluntary groups have been involved. He will know that there has been considerable support on offer: a 24/7 dedicated NHS hotline; a number of outreach efforts in which almost 4,000 contacts have been made; emotional support in 13 hotels, much of it available throughout the night; and funding for community groups, including religious groups and others, to ensure that support can be provided in all ways to all members of the community.
A couple of weeks ago, I requested that we set up a roundtable meeting with voluntary groups, the NHS and others who have been providing support to ensure that we looked at all options of support and provided it in every way that we could. That meeting was held and a report came back to me last week through the ministerial taskforce that I chair. We have taken up any recommendation that was made to make sure that we are providing all the emotional support that we possibly can.
The hon. Gentleman was quite right to highlight support for children. He will know that, in its rehousing policy, the council consulted survivors and set up a consultation process. A priority system is in place. I am sure that he understands that the priority for permanent homes are those families who have been bereaved—whether or not they have children—and then those families with children. There is also support for educational services. He may know that the Kensington Aldridge Academy, which had been affected by the fire, was rebuilt as a temporary building and reopened again, on time, in September. As far as I know, that is the fastest school building programme that has ever been achieved. I just mention it as a demonstration of how far we need to go to ensure that we are doing everything we can to support the council, the Department for Education and others in helping the children.
Lastly, the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the findings of the taskforce report and specifically asked me how we maintain scrutiny. Let me make it clear that all members of the taskforce were independent and therefore independently-minded in their approach. It was important to listen to the taskforce’s recommendations and, most importantly, to act on them. The council is publishing a report today, and I am glad that it is making it clear that it has accepted every single recommendation from the members of the taskforce. I have also accepted every recommendation that applies to central Government.
One recommendation was that the ministerial taskforce I chair should meet less frequently for the reasons that I outlined in my statement, and I have accepted the reasons given by the taskforce. To ignore it would not have been the right approach. Having said that, it is absolutely right that we maintain scrutiny so the ministerial taskforce will continue to meet, but the hon. Gentleman knows that Department for Communities and Local Government officers are also working with the council, taskforce members and others. The work of the taskforce continues, as it regularly meets the council, council officers and community representatives. The hon. Gentleman will know that the fire Minister is also the Grenfell victims Minister and meets the victims almost weekly, and that the Minister for Housing and Planning has regular surgeries with the victims.
I chair the board of a housing association in the west midlands, so fire safety is clearly at the top of my agenda. I recently met Brian Sofley of ASSA ABLOY UK to talk about his recommendations to improve fire door safety. Will my right hon. Friend update us on the progress of the independent review into building regulations and fire safety?
The review’s work has begun, and there was a call for evidence from Dame Judith Hackitt, the leader of the review. I believe that she has received almost 300 responses to that call for evidence, much of which will be about fire safety. I have not seen any of that work at this point—rightly, because it is an independent review—but I know that Dame Judith is looking very carefully at the issues, including fire doors.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I join him and the shadow Secretary of State in thanking the taskforce members for their work. The report rightly recognises that the people of Grenfell and north Kensington were utterly failed, including by a sluggish and chaotic response in the aftermath of disaster.
I have questions on two issues, the first of which is rehousing. I share the utter dismay at what the report calls a “painfully slow” speed of progress. The Secretary of State has rightly recognised that his Government must not shy away from a share of responsibility, so is he satisfied that there are sufficient staff working on, and sufficient resources being invested in, rehousing? Are families having sufficient opportunities to meet staff face to face to discuss options, rather than being left alone to search for possible opportunities? What support will the Government provide for increased housing costs, if that is what is takes to find and secure suitable accommodation? The Secretary of State will be aware that there have been criticisms of the nature of some housing offers. Will he tell us how many offers have been refused because properties were located too far from a family’s previous home, and how many have been refused as being unsuitable?
On the immigration amnesty, it is welcome that the Home Office has strengthened what was previously a miserly offer to now include at least the prospect of indefinite leave. But why not simply allow for indefinite leave right now? Surely that is the only way to ensure that all undocumented survivors feel able and safe to take up the support that they so desperately need. Surely that is, quite simply, the right thing to do in these tragic circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether I am satisfied that there are enough resources and staff for rehousing. All the resources that the council needs for rehousing are in place, including support from other councils and from the Government. It is not an issue of there not being enough people on the ground to work on housing needs. Cost is also not an issue at all. The council has already made some £230 million of its reserves available to acquire new properties. It has significantly increased the number of new permanent properties it has acquired—the figure is now more than 300—and it will continue to add to that list for the foreseeable weeks and months ahead.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the immigration system changes that we announced to help the victims of Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk. The Immigration Minister’s recent announcement was welcome. It is the right and proportionate response, which gives the families certainty and comfort.
Hopefully, the tragedy at Grenfell Tower will provide us with opportunities to learn some serious lessons. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the lessons learned about the immediate response and about working with volunteers, as well as the lessons that the taskforce harvests, are circulated to other local authorities via London councils and the Local Government Association and to the London Resilience Forum and other local resilience forums, so that we never have such a sluggish response again to a tragedy of this scale?
I agree very much with my hon. Friend—when it comes to London governance, he speaks with great experience. One of the lessons learned from this tragedy will certainly be the need to help all councils—not just those in London—with their resilience and response in any civilian emergency they might face, and that process is certainly going on.
The Secretary of State is rightly concentrating on the human face and the human cost of this tragedy, and I pay credit to him for that. However, the structure is also important. Every day, thousands upon thousands of people on the Hammersmith and City line and on Western Avenue have to see this smoke-blackened vertical charnel house—this modern Gormenghast—jutting into the sky. Some local people are saying to me that they would like the building to be dropped and for some sort of memorial park to be built there, perhaps. Others are saying that when the building is no longer a crime scene it must be made habitable again. Does the Secretary of State have a view, and, more importantly, does he intend to consult the local community on the long-term use of the site of Grenfell Tower?
What happens to the site is a very important, but also very sensitive, issue. What ultimately matters is not my view—or the hon. Gentleman’s, if I may say so—but the views of the community, and particularly the survivors. The survivors are being consulted, and that consultation will continue. My view is that nothing should happen to the site until survivors far and wide have been consulted and their views properly taken into account. There is a difference of views among survivors—that has come out recently in some engagement the council has had—but it is important to keep up that engagement and to listen to the survivors carefully.
First, I applaud the meticulous approach that the Secretary of State has taken and the insightful report he has brought to the Chamber today—a great deal of work has gone into it. One area that is highlighted is the need for better skills in the council. Will he outline what skills ought to be used to deliver and to help in the aftermath of this tragedy and what the Government are doing to help?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. She is right that one of the key recommendations of the taskforce’s members concerns skills. They talked about skills in some detail: they highlighted not just having appropriate skills training for the officers of the council, but making sure, for example, that councillors, as well as some of their key officers, have had training in emotional support services. That is one of the most important takeaways from this report, and I am pleased that the council has fully accepted this and the other recommendations.
It breaks my heart that many of these people—over two thirds of them—will not be housed by Christmas. Given that the taskforce has found the council to be so inept, is it not right that the Secretary of State should have brought in commissioners? What guarantees can he now give these families that they will be housed? The general tone of today’s statement has lacked the urgency and compassion that are still required.
The right hon. Gentleman raises the importance of housing and rehousing, and that is absolutely right—those are a priority here. If I may say so, I do not agree with his recommendation. To have brought in commissioners would have made what is already a tough situation even more difficult in terms of helping the victims of this tragedy. I ask him to reflect on the fact that whatever happens in terms of housing, it must be led by the victims.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there were 151 households in Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk, and there are now 204 households to deal with because many of them have wanted to change their family structure, and that has been listened to. It is very, very important that the rehousing is done at the pace of the victims, that they are given choices, and that if they are not happy with any of those choices, they are given more choices. That process continues. No family should be forced to leave emergency accommodation; they should leave it only when they are happy with what has been offered. It is right that we listen to the victims during the whole rehousing process.
I was very pleased to hear that the council has accepted the taskforce’s recommendations in full, but how quickly will those recommendations be implemented, and what oversight will there be?
The council accepted the recommendations very quickly; it did not take too much time to consider them. It had a meeting, went through them, and accepted every single one. That is a good start. As for how the implementation will be monitored, first, the taskforce itself will help to oversee it and report back to me again in the new year, but also, through my Department and my officials, I will oversee each one of the recommendations and make sure they are fulfilled.
Will the Secretary of State outline what is being done for those suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder following this tragedy and explain how they are being fully supported?
Psychosocial support—emotional support —is one of the most important things being offered, through the NHS, voluntary services and other organisations. I wanted to make sure that everything that is being done is appropriate and being offered at pace. That is why I held a recent roundtable attended by a Health Minister and by the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, who is the Grenfell victims’ Minister, to make sure that we are reaching out in every way we possibly can. This needs to be kept under review because needs change over time, and I am determined to do that.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that those affected directly and indirectly by the tragedy are being properly listened to? Are Ministers in regular contact both with individuals and groups?
Yes, I can confirm that. Of course, those people must be listened to by the council and by any other providers of public services, including central Government —my Department and others. My hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service is the Minister for Grenfell victims and regularly meets victims in the wider community. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning also regularly meets community members and others on rehousing needs, and I regularly have such meetings myself.
I welcome the Secretary of State saying, “as long as I am in public life, I will do all I can to ensure that the failures of the past are not repeated”, but had we learned the lessons from the Lakanal fire, we would have done so before this tragedy happened. One of the recommendations is that where fire safety officers recommend it, sprinklers should be retrofitted. We have the Budget coming up in a couple of weeks’ time. Will the Secretary of State make representations to the Chancellor to make funds available to local authorities to fit sprinklers in tower blocks?
I have already told the House that in terms of the fire safety work that is required for other social buildings, whatever work is deemed essential by the respective council or housing authority should be carried out, and the Government will provide support and flexibility to make sure that it is.
My right hon. Friend was right to say that the victims of this terrible fire were let down by the system, but that is potentially also true of those who still reside in high-rise blocks that may have been fitted with substandard cladding. Will he update us on the very important building regs review and explain how that is going to help us understand how these inappropriate fittings took place in the first instance?
In the first instance, we have been getting advice from the expert panel, which was set up days after the tragedy, on any immediate action that we need to take. That has included the work that has already been done to test buildings and to test some of the systems panels. The wider lessons for building regulations and fire safety are the subject of the work being done at the moment by Dame Judith Hackitt. I expect an interim report within weeks, and we will look to act on that report before we receive her final report.
I note that the Secretary of State did not update us today on the progress of the testing regime. Will he provide a further update on that, in terms not just of our important high-rise residential blocks, but of other public buildings including hospitals, schools and perhaps shopping centres?
The reason why I did not cover that in my statement is that it was about the response to the taskforce report, but I am happy to give the hon. Lady some more information now. As far as social housing buildings—that is, social housing towers of more than 18 metres high—are concerned, 169 have been tested through the building safety programme, and 162 of those have failed the test. I believe that that is the last update; nothing has changed since the previous update that I gave to the House. She also asked me about other public buildings. Fifteen public buildings, 60 private buildings and 26 student residential buildings have been tested and failed.
Sir Martin Moore-Bick asked the Government to look at wider social housing issues, and I am pleased that the Government accepted that recommendation. To build on his answer to the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), will the Secretary of State tell us a little more about what the Government are doing to identify problems with social housing, which potentially go far wider than the area that immediately surrounds Grenfell?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight that area. There are many lessons to learn from this terrible tragedy, on matters including the quality of social housing and the treatment of residents who have legitimate complaints. That is one reason why I announced the social housing Green Paper, on which we have begun work. In preparation for that Green Paper, I have asked the Housing and Planning Minister to meet as many social housing residents as he can, across the country and in different types of social housing accommodation, so that we listen carefully and learn the lessons.