Thursday 23 November 2017
[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Anti-bullying Week.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Buck. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. Although parliamentary business meant that this debate could not take place last week, during Anti-bullying Week itself, I am delighted that this debate is now able to take place and that Parliament is debating Anti-bullying Week for the first time—I hope it will not be the last.
Anti-bullying Week is an annual event which aims to raise awareness of the bullying that far too many young people experience, and discuss ways in which schools and others can help end bullying. The Anti-Bullying Alliance defines bullying as,
“the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face to face or online.”
In Scotland, the main Scottish Government-funded anti-bullying charity respectme widens that definition to include bullying behaviour. It says:
“Bullying is both behaviour and impact; what someone does and the impact it has on the other person’s capacity to feel in control of themselves. We call this their sense of ‘agency’. Bullying takes place in the context of relationships. It is behaviour that can make people feel hurt, threatened, frightened and left out and it can happen face to face and online.”
In my experience that is an important point. There will be thousands of young people at the receiving end of this kind of behaviour, but who do not realise they are being bullied. I know this through personal experience. I do not want to overstate the bullying. I was not bullied violently, bar perhaps one time in primary school. I was not called a specific derogatory name in front of the whole school persistently, but I was constantly belittled by two or three individuals. Young people react differently to abuse of whatever level. My reaction, as a fairly socially-awkward 14-year-old, lacking in self-confidence, was to retreat into myself and essentially give up on school.
Over the first three years or so in high school I had largely 1’s—A’s, as it would be down here—across the board on report cards and was a pupil of high promise, but that changed almost overnight. I am sure that the raging hormonal imbalances of my teenage years, in conjunction with the bullying, had a big effect as well. I went from loving school, soaking up the information and learning all that I could, to avoiding school, but not in the traditional sense of “dogging it,” as we say in Scotland—that has nothing to do with car parks, I hasten to add. [Laughter.] We have to make light of it. I would kid on that I was going out to school and then hide under the bed until my mum left for work, and I would bin any letters about attendance. I still had to go to school more often than not, but my heart and mind simply were not in it any more. I ended up leaving school with some at best half-decent standard grades— the equivalent of GCSEs—and two average Highers. Consequently university was not a route open to me.
It is not hard to see why an individual being bullied will have a higher absence rate than children who do not experience bullying. Research from the National Centre for Social Research confirms that over 15,000 children aged between 11 and 15 are absent from school at any one time due to bullying. Children are not only absent from school, but are struggling to reintegrate once they have returned to the classroom. People who have been bullied tend to have less education and fewer qualifications by the age of 50 than those who were never bullied. That requires us to adopt policies that not only stamp out the bullying behaviour, but help the child who was bullied to integrate back into school once the bullying has ended. Our actions to end bullying do not stop when the behaviour has ended. We have a responsibility to children beyond that.
This period in high school had the most profound effect on my self-confidence for my life since then. It has impacted on almost every life choice I have made since. A longitudinal study into bullying by the Institute of Education at University College London backs that up, and found that the victims of childhood bullying had higher rates of depression and psychological distress at ages 23 and 50 than those who were never bullied. Those who were bullied frequently while they were growing up had higher risks of anxiety and were more likely to have thought about suicide by the age of 45 than those who were never bullied. The effects of childhood bullying on adults’ mental health remained even after taking into consideration related factors such as family, social class, parenting and behavioural problems.
A lot of people who bully do so in the name of “banter,” possibly not fully realising the hurt and pain that their behaviour is causing. I would strongly encourage any young person who suspects that they may be being bullied or carrying out this behaviour: speak to one of your classmates or one of your teachers.
In preparation for today’s debate I have been sent numerous briefing papers by fantastic organisations, all doing inspirational work to combat bullying behaviour. There are too many to name, but I thank them all. I will try to cover as many points as I can in the time available. Reading through these papers is a stark reminder of the scale of the problem. The Scottish anti-bullying charity respectme states that 30% of schoolchildren have experienced some form of bullying during a recent academic term. Research conducted by the Anti-Bullying Alliance found that 40% of children in England would hide aspects of themselves for fear of being bullied. Engender, in a shocking 2015 report which I have quoted before in this place, found that 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over a three-year period, including 600 rapes.
However, behind every statistic is a story of a young person who is living in fear due to the bullying behaviour of others, and behind every statistic is a story of a child who lives in fear of going through the school gates every morning or who is reluctant to go online due to the actions of others. Behind every statistic is a story of a young person being bullied due to others perceiving them as being “different.”
Children who have a disability are more likely to experience bullying than their peers, with Ditch the Label suggesting that 63% of disabled schoolchildren had experienced bullying, with 19% of these kids being bullied every single day.
An amazing organisation based in Renfrewshire are doing groundbreaking work to tackle the bullying that many disabled children face day-in, day-out. I Am Me Scotland work with pupils to design an innovative programme that raises awareness of bullying and help the young people to understand what they can do to help create a safe environment for their classmates. They work with Police Scotland and travel around Renfrewshire and across Scotland in their mobile cinema bus, delivering this innovative programme to local schoolchildren. To date, they have reached over 10,000 primary school children in Renfrewshire, creating a long-lasting change in our schools.
Over the summer, I Am Me Scotland launched their network of Keep Safe places across Scotland. Keep Safe places are premises across Scotland that provide a safe space for any disabled person who is being victimised while out and about. The scheme uses an app to let people know where their closest Keep Safe space is, and staff at the premises are fully trained to help that person, should they come into their premises looking for assistance. I cannot speak highly enough of I Am Me Scotland—I have met them two or three times now. They were awarded the title Scottish charity of the year just a few weeks ago. I would definitely encourage the Minister to meet the staff of I Am Me Scotland to learn more about their work. He would be amazed by their energy and drive, and it would give him the opportunity to spread their best practice around the UK.
Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is also widespread in UK schools. The School Report in 2017 found that 45% of lesbian, gay, bi and trans young people are bullied for being LGBT at school. LGBT+ students are hiding a central part of who they are, due to the fear of being bullied if their classmates found out about their sexual orientation. In research undertaken by LGBT Youth Scotland, less than half of the respondents said they would feel confident reporting homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying in schools, highlighting that pupils are not confident that teachers and schools will be able to deal with their bullying. LGBT Youth Scotland calls for a dedicated fund for initiatives to prevent and address homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools, including training for teachers. It is a no-brainer—they are right. We need to offer more support to these young people, and we can take inspiration from the work of Diversity Role Models, LGBT Youth Scotland and others who are working in our schools to eliminate this form of bullying.
Diversity Role Models provides a range of storytelling workshops to help schools create an environment where everyone feels safe. It encourages schoolchildren to celebrate being different and is achieving fantastic results; 96% of young people who have attended one of the workshops say that they would treat an LGBT+ person with more respect in the future.
Young women are also far more likely to experience bullying, especially sexist bullying, than other students. Children in Scotland reports that sexualised bullying has been described as a regular occurrence in our schools. That complements a poll of 16 to 18-year-olds that found that 29% of girls experienced unwanted sexual touching at school, and that a further 71% said they had heard sexual name-calling towards girls at school on a daily basis. Sexual harassment in our schools undermines the dignity and safety of girls. It negatively impacts on how these young women perceive themselves and contributes to gender stereotyping, which will sadly follow them throughout their lives. Unfortunately, in Scotland schools are not required to collect data on sexist bullying, unlike with racist bullying. Engender in Scotland believes that that should be a priority to enable us to understand better the problem that too many young girls are experiencing.
We also have to take a whole-school approach that tackles the gender inequalities in schools. School policies, management processes and teacher training must all specifically address the problem of negative gender stereotypes and sexist bullying. Not only will that help us to address sexual harassment in schools, but it will be an effective preventive approach in helping to stop those stereotypes growing and leading to violence later in life.
The Race Relations Act 1976 states that schools and governing bodies have a duty to ensure that students do not face any form of racial discrimination, including attacks and harassment. However, despite the positive intentions behind that legislation, too many children are still being targeted because of the colour of their skin or their ethnicity. Last week, a poll by the Diana Award found that 61% of school staff had witnessed bullying that resulted from racism. That is a pretty shameful state of affairs in 2017 and it highlights how far we have to go to create an environment where racism does not exist in our schools.
I want to expand on the prevalence of bullying behaviour, as I believe that if we want to pursue effective preventive strategies in combatting bullying we must fully understand this behaviour, which is causing real harm to young people throughout the UK. A 2015 research report by the Department for Education highlights that one child in every classroom will be bullied every day, unable to escape the torment, and that children who say they are bullied every day are three times as likely to be excluded from school as children who are not being bullied. I hope that when he sums up, the Minister can address that point head-on. Why, all too often, are we still failing those who are being bullied? Why are we excluding those who are being bullied from our schools? What can be done to prepare our schools better to support those who are being bullied rather than excluding them?
Some bullying behaviour is as old as formal education itself, but we need to be aware of the new opportunities to bully in today’s digital age. Cyber-bullying, usually through social media and messaging, means that bullying can now be extended beyond the school gates and into the safety of someone’s home. It is a relatively new phenomenon, but in practice it means bullying through the use of electronic means and includes the spreading of malicious rumours, sending hurtful texts, emails or post, sharing harmful pictures or video content, manipulation, bribery and impersonation. Bullying UK reports that the number of young people seeking assistance with regard to cyber-bullying is increasing all the time. More people are searching for that form of bullying on its website, with more than 2 million views in the last year alone.
Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and others all have a responsibility to tackle cyber-bullying. Although Facebook in particular has taken welcome steps of late, most social media responses are implemented to respond to problems once they have occurred, when often the damage has already been done, and are therefore of limited effectiveness. We must therefore look beyond social media companies for solutions, and harness the latest technologies to combat cyber-bullying, such as the SafeToNet app and others like it. That acts like a moderator, although it is exponentially quicker than any human moderator. Nevertheless, I am keen to learn what discussions the Minister has had with the major social media providers about what they are doing to create a safer online space for all our young people.
As I touched on earlier, there is a direct link between being bullied and the quality mental health. A study into users of child and adolescent mental health services in London found that more than 61% of participants reported being bullied earlier in their lives. Being the victim of bullying also significantly increases the chances of an individual experiencing depression later in life by well over 50%. Respectme points out that the impact of bullying can last even when the behaviour has stopped. That is particularly true when we consider some of the health difficulties that young people face because of the horrible and stressful experiences that they have gone through.
Sadly, there is a clear link between bullied teenagers and suicide. Ditch the Label, an international charity, published research in 2014 showing that one in 10 teenagers bullied at school had attempted to commit suicide, with a further 30% committing self-harm. Furthermore, studies have found that half of the suicides among young people were related to bullying. Will the Minister commission research into the impact that bullying can have on mental health at various stages in people’s lives?
Unfortunately, certain schools are better at recognising bullying and implementing effective prevention strategies than others, and quite frankly that is not good enough. I know this from my own local area, where it seems to me that some schools do not have a good enough level of preventive services or support. Every child who is being bullied and who is at risk of self-harm should receive the same high level of care and attention regardless of what school they attend. In relation to that, research published during Anti-bullying Week found that 36% of children do not believe they learn enough about bullying and what to do if they experience bullying themselves. I believe that government—I include all devolved Governments in this, given the devolved nature of education—has a key role in addressing what amounts to this postcode lottery in the approach to bullying. The Government must ensure that all teachers and support staff in our schools have the appropriate training and skills to recognise incidences of self-harm and to help those students. That is the absolute minimum level of care that we should be willing to accept for our children.
I hope that following this debate we, and more importantly the Government, realise that we are not dealing with bullying as effectively as we should be. I hope the Government listen to the variety of organisations that I have referenced, and many that I have not been able to, and formulate a more effective approach to bullying that can help us to deal better with it and its consequences. That includes undertaking large-scale surveys into the mental health and wellbeing of school-age young people, including specific questions on bullying. When summing up, the Minister should commit to reversing the Government’s cuts—he will probably disagree —to mental health services in England. Recent reports suggest that mental health spending is being cut by £4.5 million in five English regions this year. Ending bullying has to be a priority for this Government and the Governments across these islands, and that includes prioritising mental health services.
As I said at the start, Anti-bullying Week was last week. This year its theme encouraged us all to celebrate being different. I have spoken about the fact that schoolchildren who are perceived as different are more likely to be bullied. That creates a situation where more than half of teenagers worry about being seen as different, with 40% of those young people hiding aspects of themselves for fear of being bullied. We all tell our kids to celebrate diversity and to take pride in being different, but the reality on the ground is that young people are scared of being seen as different for fear of being bullied. To promote last week’s campaign, young people were encouraged to wear odd socks on the day as a way of celebrating diversity in our classrooms and across society.
No one is born destined to be a bully. No one sets out in life to target diversity and to see what makes us all different as a weakness. We are in a privileged position that enables us to influence younger children’s behaviour, and we should use that position of power to celebrate what makes us all different. Providing children with an equal chance to flourish in life is at the heart of everything we do and should do. However, the system is failing too many children from all backgrounds. We are failing to offer protection to our children, and the consequences of that are long-standing and often lifelong. None of us wants to live in a society in which kids are frightened about entering the school gates in the morning or logging in online.
Creating a society in which bullying does not exist will not be easy—at the moment, it almost seems like an impossible goal—but we as lawmakers have a duty to aim for just that. We have a duty to listen to young people about their experience and to do what can be done to create a safe environment for all our children. We have a duty to support policies that prevent bullying from occurring in the first place. We are currently failing in that duty, but with commitment, passion and cross-party support, I believe that we can improve the experience of all our schoolchildren.
Thank you for being in the Chair this afternoon, Ms Buck, and I thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for his very powerful introduction to today’s debate.
The reason why Anti-bullying Week is so important is that it creates a space for us to raise the issue of behaviours and provides the opportunity to reach a greater understanding of bullying, its impacts and the actions that need to be taken. Although the focus is on children and young people, bullying is clearly not exclusive to them. I want to broaden the debate to talk about bullying in a wider context. It is an important time for us here in Parliament, as we look at behaviours in our workplace, to assess the impact of bullying on all environments.
As a national officer of Unite, I spent over a decade working with international experts in bullying and behaviours—with academics, leading experts, representatives and employers—on bullying in the workplace. In the sectors that I represented, bullying was the most prevalent issue that came to the trade union’s door, whether that meant a full case or a smaller part of one. As an MP, I have also dealt with many cases of bullying across all age groups, including children. Bullying can occur in all parts of our society. It is important to recognise that it goes beyond schools into the community—including in clubs and societies that young people belong to, the workplace and the home, and even in places such as residential care settings—and I am sure that Members from across the Chamber have much experience of that. Bullying is prevalent across our society and, as we have heard, it is incredibly isolating, so we need to address these issues urgently, which is why today’s debate is so pertinent.
I want to look first at the definition of bullying. That is important, and although it is not everything, we have to acknowledge that there is currently no formal definition of it. The Anti-Bullying Alliance says that it is about,
“the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face to face or online”.
ACAS goes into slightly more detail, teasing out harassment, as defined under the Equality Act 2010, as,
“unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”.
Bullying has no formal definition, yet ACAS defines it as,
“offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. Bullying or harassment may be by an individual against an individual (perhaps by someone in a position of authority such as a manager or supervisor) or involve groups of people. It may be obvious or it may be insidious. Whatever form it takes, it is unwarranted and unwelcome to the individual.”
An agreed definition would be incredibly helpful, not least for enhancing the legal protections. Having dealt with so many cases of bullying, it is absolutely clear to me that the framework across all sectors of our society is far too opaque to address people’s real needs. We need legal levers, as well as other forms of levers and frameworks, to ensure that good practice is put in place and that bad behaviour is mitigated against.
The current legislation is very hard to handle. Some cases have been brought under stalking legislation, whereas others have been under health and safety legislation. There is also the harassment legislation, but the system is completely inefficient. Some of the more progressive nations, such as the Netherlands, Australia, the Scandinavian countries and Canada, now have specific dignity at work legislation, which can really bring about change. I hope that the Minister will commit today to looking into good practice globally to see how we can bring about a real cultural shift, let alone provide the levers that are so urgently needed.
One thing that we do understand from the definitions of bullying is that it is about negative power being exerted over another individual. Although bullying can be about hierarchical, positional, relational, resource and knowledge power, it is definitely and most prevalently about psychological power—about identifying somebody’s vulnerabilities and then exploiting them to their detriment. Bullying can sometimes be without intent. That can be tested by the remorse shown by the perpetrator, but the consequences can be significant, whatever they may be. I am therefore really pleased that the academic world has moved on—as I believe the rest of society is moving on—in talking not just about bullying, but about unacceptable, unwanted and negative behaviours. That gives us a broader definition and recognises that small incidents have to be dealt with, as opposed to people waiting, under some definitions for six months, before intervention takes place. Clearly, we want a range of behaviours to be addressed.
A final word on behaviours: I am really pleased that academics and practitioners have moved the language on to talking about how important it is to institute positive behaviours—Anti-bullying Week addresses that through its campaigns—that counteract negative behaviours. It is therefore absolutely right that behaviours are taught in workplaces, schools and the home. We need to make sure that that happens to start changing our society.
We have heard about the real impact that bullying has on mental health. Given that the vast majority of mental health challenges begin in early life, we seriously need to address this issue in schools and ensure that the support is there. As we heard, the cuts are having a significant impact on support services. I know from my city of York the number of services that have disappeared, with only six people providing such services across the whole of our city. Schools say that that is nowhere enough to address the existing need. We also need to recognise that bullying impacts on physical health. It can cause physical sickness in people as well as resulting in mental health challenges. Unchallenged behaviours can be deeply wounding.
There is something I want to highlight, certainly for the public audience listening to today’s debate: if you are a target of abuse, that may just be because you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. None of us can predict the twists and turns of life that may confront us at any time. Although we have heard that disabled people, LGBTI+ people, and black and ethnic minority people have a higher risk of experiencing bullying, sometimes bullying just happens. Therefore, we need to have the framework to address that.
As a lifelong trade unionist, I say: if you are in a workplace, join a trade union. This is the work that trade unions do day by day. We often see the headlines about strikes, but holding people’s hands through bullying cases makes up the vast majority of the work that unions do. If you are in school, find a trusted person that you can talk to about mental health. Go and talk to your GP—that is what your GP is there for. Ensure that you have good lifelines with friends and family. It is so easy to become isolated at a time when you really need someone to believe in you and someone with whom you can walk through that difficult time, when you are feeling so powerless.
You might be a target of bullying and determine that you want to change your workplace, or even your school. I have been battling with a case in York in which we have not been able to get the children to move school. The perpetrator and their behaviours and the culture of the school obviously have to be dealt with, but we need the facility for children to continue their education in a safe environment. I ask the Minister to ensure that that can happen.
I want to say a couple of other things before I finish. It is really important to have mandatory audits, whether that is in a school or a workplace environment. Audits should be able to analyse in confidence to ensure that the issues being raised are addressed, appropriate action taken and sanctions brought where necessary. Training is also important. Often, people do not recognise such behaviours, and we could all be perpetrators unless they are brought to our attention. Training should include what negative behaviours are, and how important it is to display positive behaviours. I ask the Minister to comment on his support to ensure that every single school has training on bullying. We also want to see it across other environments.
In conclusion, I want to stress the importance of the bullying agenda and ask the Government to get to grips with the scale of negative behaviours across our society. Last week, as we heard, was Anti-bullying Week, and its focus was “All different, all equal”. I trust that society will seek out and celebrate our diversity, and we here have an important role in that. None of us is better than anybody else. Where there is power, we must demonstrate that we use it to dignify people.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing it. We have probably all been teased or made the butt of jokes at school— I should know; I am ginger, and it goes with the territory—but it does not take much for things to cross the line, and for us to start feeling intimidated or that we are being laughed at, not with. We start to feel uncomfortable and unsafe. That is when we get into the realm of bullying.
As other Members have commented, last week was Anti-bullying Week, which gave us all the opportunity to encourage young people to celebrate what makes them unique, to empower young people to be themselves without the fear of being bullied and to demonstrate to young people that diversity is to be welcomed and not something to be prejudiced against.
As the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned, the Anti-Bullying Alliance tagline for this year was “All different, all equal”. I was brought up on the simple premise: “You are no better than anyone else, and no one else is better than you.” Such a simple, defining message can go a long way in terms of how we treat other people. It is a high benchmark, but one that we must promote and meet if young people are to grow and learn throughout life. It is vital that children going into school do not worry about what the day has in store for them, but look forward to making new friends and learning new things.
The anti-bullying strategy in my constituency was changed in 2015. In the updated strategy, the local authority ensured that each type of bullying, whether targeting race or religion, or of other kinds, was categorised with solutions for dealing with each as they arose. Subsequently, research on prejudice-based bullying commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission cited East Renfrewshire’s anti-bullying policy as,
“a clear example of good practice…as it included suggested strategies for dealing with each form of prejudice to which it referred”.
Although that comment was welcome, and as much as we might like to congratulate ourselves on the progress that we are making, bullying is still a prominent problem throughout our schools. I am sure that we have all had distressed parents come into our surgeries or offices at their wits’ end about what to do with their child who is having a hard time at school, and who do not feel that they are being taken seriously. In one case of mine, a pupil who was badly bullied in primary 6 and 7 moved up to senior school, looking for a fresh start, but found herself placed in the same reception class as her bully, despite assurances from both head teachers that that would not happen.
Every year, Ditch the Label, a UK-based anti-bullying charity produces an annual bullying survey. This year more than 10,000 young people were surveyed, and the findings make for stark reading. It found more than half of respondents had been bullied and that one in five had been bullied in the past year, one in 10 in the last week. Of those who were bullied, half stated that it was down to their appearance, while 36% of those bullied developed depression and 24% had suicidal thoughts.
Bullying does not stop at the school gates. An ever more connected world brings ease of online abuse. I did not get my first mobile phone until I was in my third year at high school; my three-year-old daughter can already find her way around a tablet and likes playing with “smiley faces”, known to the rest of us as Snapchat filters. The world has changed, and mobiles are just one more thing that kids have these days.
It is an uncomfortable truth that suicide remains a main killer for anyone under 40 years of age, and there has also been a dramatic increase in suicides among 15 to 19-year-olds since 2013. We need to get to grips with that. Figures from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children show that Childline delivered 12,248 counselling sessions about online abuse in 2016-17, a 9% increase on the year before. Worse than that is a 44% increase in child sexual exploitation online.
As parliamentarians, we are no strangers to online harassment—or indeed harassment in more traditional forms, such as odd Christmas cards—but I can only imagine the emotional strain on our young people growing up in a world where they are expected always to be available, contactable and showing the best sides of their lives. A telling statistic from the annual bullying survey is that 71% of young people do not feel that social networks are doing enough to prevent bullying online, so it is essential that we create parity between both offline and online abuse. Nearly half of all respondents stated that they had been a victim of cyberbullying on Instagram. If social media outlets are to get serious about online bullying, that cannot continue.
What can be done? In Scotland, we have taken a slightly different approach from the rest of the UK. Organisations such as respectme, an anti-bullying service based in the west of Scotland and mentioned earlier, have helped to reshape how we define bullying. In Scotland, “bullying” is centred more around behaviour and impact than intention. We should also consider how we talk about it. I am not sure that labelling people as bullies and victims necessarily works. As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, people are not born to bully; they bully because of learned behaviour emanating from the current circumstances of their own lives. Compounding the issue with a “bully” label can degrade self-worth or have the reverse impact of becoming a strange badge of honour that people feel proud to carry around. Respectme believes that redefining bullying can bring about the cultural shift that the hon. Member for York Central mentioned in her remarks.
In conclusion, we must stamp out bullying wherever we see it, but we must also be flexible enough to take new approaches. We have entered the age of online abuse, and we are losing. We must put pressure on social media outlets to stamp out bullying, but we must also put pressure on ourselves to bring about the much-needed culture change that the 21st century requires of us.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for securing this debate, which is timely after the last week. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), whose comments were most pertinent. I would like to address two aspects in my speech, but first I would be grateful if Members noted that I am a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland and a council member of the General Teaching Council for Scotland.
Bullying among young people has been mentioned. Bullying is a strategy and a symptom of society; it is the visible result of behavioural activities among lots of people. Unfortunately, it is a very negative activity, and it permeates our society from top to bottom. I have had the dubious pleasure of dealing with people categorised as bullies in nurseries, all the way through to people rightly categorised as victims high up in primary education.
I would like to express what huge strength all victims of bullying have. They show, display and have internalised strength in standing up to, fighting and opposing behaviours that attack the very fibre of who they are. I pay huge compliments to all those who have suffered at the hands of others. It is an enormous thing to expect anyone to put up with, but most of all our young folk who are growing up to be members of our society.
It is interesting, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) pointed out, that at the moment the House is only too aware of what happens if we fail to deal with problems by pretending that they do not exist, pushing them to one side or ignoring them. Those problems come back, and they need to be dealt with, because they are there. If we deal with them properly, we can come out a stronger and better society.
I would also like to express my huge thanks for the support given to all the victims of bullying who are able to cry out and receive help. A significant number of worthy charities, third parties and local authorities have excellent practices; I mention Place2Be, a charity that works within schools and with which I have had the great pleasure of working in two local authorities. It provides sympathetic and supportive help to young children, both victims and those accused of bullying. It deals with it not as a matter of blame but as a matter of support—a way of looking forward to what can be achieved and what can be better as a result of what someone has suffered.
I echo the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire on labelling; whether it is right to call someone a victim or a bully is fundamental to how we deal with it. A significant number of parents will rightly come to me and say, “Such and such has happened. This person is a bully.” We lack an agreed definition of bullying and, as a result, many activities are labelled as bullying and many people make assumptions about situations that sometimes aggravate those situations. We need to be incredibly careful about the language we choose, and we need a huge amount of work to be done to decide what the appropriate language is. That will come from research, from notification and from pooling information from good practice and otherwise, so that as a society we can accept when people are victims of a situation and need support and when people have occasioned a situation. In so many cases, those people also need support because we frequently hear that bullies were bullied. Certainly, my experience as a teacher reflects that wholeheartedly.
I have spoken a number of times in Westminster Hall and in the House about social media and the pernicious effect that it is starting to have. For previous generations of children, bullying might have been restricted to the playground, the changing rooms and transferring between lessons. Now, a significant number of children never leave the bullying situation. They get home and are pursued on their mobile phone. They log on to the computer to do their homework and are instant messaged. In our community, that is driving a wedge between people who suffer at the hands of social media and people who use it to perpetrate hideous messages.
It was interesting that only yesterday, the coroner in the Ann Maguire inquest, Kevin McLoughlin, told the Wakefield coroners court that,
“he wanted social media companies to introduce contracts that would make parents responsible for their children’s online activity.”
That is an enormous call from a coroner judge about the dangers of social media companies. I have discussed with social media companies the fact that having social media accounts ought to occur only from the age of 13 because of data protection and allowing someone’s data to be out there. I have asked about the reality that so many children in primary schools—well under 13 years old—operate social media accounts. Their answer to that, on three different occasions, has been that that is the responsibility of the parent—the parent has authorised it. I question that because from a practical point of view, with so many children under 13 operating social media accounts—many perfectly lawfully and kindly, but some using them for other means—the data that social media companies push out to others who fund them are clearly incorrect.
More importantly, as a society, we should expect companies that benefit from the social media revolution to be responsible for adequately policing social media and for ensuring that it is not enough to expect a parent to say, “Yes, my child can have a social media account” or to freely accept someone entering a clearly incorrect date of birth. If it has got to the stage where coroner judges are demanding a contract between the parents and social media companies to be responsible for the children’s actions, we need to step up and do that now to protect everybody. Social media makes a positive offering to society, but it has a dark side, especially if people cannot escape it 24 hours a day. I find that very worrying and I will be interested in the Minister’s comments on that.
Finally, I want to reflect on the messages that were shared so much last week for people who are suffering bullying. There was strong advice on the Anti-bullying Week website to:
“Show open body language. Try not to show your fear. Tell someone who will listen”—
which is very important, and:
“Keep eye contact with the bully.”
That advice is massively important in the playground, in the school corridor and, unfortunately, also in the workplace. On social media it is slightly different. The last piece of advice that was shared widely is something that we should all listen to and follow and that we should all become responsible for. That advice was:
“Do not be a bystander”.
Bullies only achieve what they do because other people stand by. As members of society, we owe a responsibility to everybody. Not being a bystander would lead to a great change in our society today.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck, as I have many times. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this debate. Two weeks ago today, I made a speech on the Floor of the House explaining what happened to me. I was bullied to the point where I was hospitalised after a violent attack. I spent seven years from the ages of 10 to 17 being physically and mentally assaulted on a fairly regular basis in school. That ranged from being kicked down flights of stairs to being held against my will and left to mess myself, if you will pardon the expression, Ms Buck, on the side of a school football pitch as a 14-year-old. I suffered enormously with my mental health. That started at the age of 14 when I had what would be considered to be a breakdown and continued until the age of 17 or 18 when I left school. University became my salvation and a place of great relief—not everybody I went through academic life with was a bully.
I have spoken at conferences, on the radio and on television about the experiences I faced in school, but the reason I spoke about it two weeks ago was to try to highlight that there is life beyond being bullied. We have heard from hon. Members who have been bullied and about the work of my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on bullying in the workplace. I am firmly of the view that if someone is bullied in school, they move on—there is lots of evidence to confirm this, but I know as someone who was bullied—to struggle in terms of relationships. That is not just in physical relationships but in the workplace and in friendships; we are naturally fearful of a joke—not something deemed to be bullying, simply something that can be humorous. Over the seven years that I was bullied, even when people were just trying to have an element of friendship with me, it became too complicated and difficult to keep that friendship going.
As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central said about going into the workplace, if people are bullies and they have never been challenged by anyone speaking out, they do not understand that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable. It is not acceptable in schools but it is certainly not acceptable in the workplace. Since I made that speech, adults have emailed me saying, “I was never bullied in school, but I am now being bullied in the workplace. I do not know where to go or how to tackle it.” Obviously, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for York Central about joining a trade union, but there is a real lack of understanding in the workplace that what to one person might seem to be a joke or a bit of light humour can actually be quite cold and calculated. That can cause all sorts of hurt in the workplace and indeed at home when people are having to deal with what has been said.
It is also deeply alarming how many young people from Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales have contacted me to say, “Thank you for speaking out. This is happening to me.” People have emailed me to say that they have been sexually assaulted in school but the school is not dealing with it. After I said in a Radio 5 Live interview that I was frequently kicked under the school desk until my shins bled, young people in school emailed me to say that that happens to them once or twice in a month.
These things are horrific, and we need far more positive action from the Government and schools. Third sector organisations are fantastic and do amazing work, and I offer praise to the Minister, too, but this issue is not just the UK Government’s responsibility; we also need to work with the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. I plead that we look at best practice for tackling bullying within institutions. I have had emails—the vast majority from people not in my constituency, but in other parts of Wales and large swathes of England—asking “Can you help?”, “Will you come and speak to my school?” or “Will you engage with our charity?” I will try to fulfil all those requests, but bullying has no borders; I have no doubt that the Minister understands that. No boundary between Scotland and England, or between England and Wales, affects how bullying works in schools.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) described best practice in his council, and I have been told about schools in north Wales that are using Scandinavian models to tackle bullying. We must examine best practice from the UK, Europe and beyond to tackle the scourge of bullying. As I have said before, when offences are committed we do not tackle them enough through the law, nor do we give enough support and defence to young people being bullied. I am eager for cross-party working, not just through the all-party group, but through commissioning work from Ministers in the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments, as well as in the Northern Ireland Executive once it is reconstituted and agreements are reached. We need cross-party working that engages with young people so that schools and Ministers understand what young people face every day.
The underlying theme of the emails I have received from young people has been that when they approach teachers, they are told that bullying is simply a part of life. I am not suggesting that that happens with matters as serious as sexual assault, but I have read emails from young people that say, “I tried to talk to a teacher, and they said ‘Oh, it’s simply part of growing up.’” These things are not part of growing up. As the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire said, suicide rates have increased among young people, particularly those who have been bullied. Bullying has social and mental health consequences for young people.
I praise the third sector. My constituency has a wonderful organisation called Stand Against Bullying; I march with its members every year. They did not know when I was marching with them that I had been bullied, so they were quite surprised to hear about my experiences. I know of many other organisations in the voluntary sector that also do amazing work.
We need more than just school bullying policies that no one checks. We need recording and reporting of what is happening to young people. I know I cannot insist on this to the Minister, but I hope we can work across Administrations to tackle bullying, examine best practice and learn from each other. Too many children are committing suicide, and too many children are in fear of going to school. I used to invent all sorts of reasons not to go to school until I became very unwell at the age of 14. We must do more to tackle the scourge of bullying.
I have compassion for bullies. They, too, need to be offered our support, because something deeply troubling must be happening if a young person thinks they can be abusive about sexual orientation or anything else. I was bullied for allegedly being gay, although I am not, and for being fat. I was bullied because I was simply the lowest common denominator for a group of boys and girls who felt that that those were suitable things to attack me for.
Bullying has no boundaries and no borders, no matter who or what someone is. Unless we tackle it, it becomes a problem in the workplace. As I said two weeks ago, part of the problem the House now faces is that if we do not challenge instances of bullying, people wrongly deem them to be acceptable. I am sure that the Minister will respond positively; I hope he takes my views on board.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Buck. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for securing this important debate. He spoke about his own experience of being bullied and its effect on him, which I am sure many people can empathise with; about many great organisations, including in the LGBT community; and about how bullying, which has historically been targeted within schools and workplaces, has now expanded into social media and become pervasive and extreme, 24/7.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke about the excellent advice and support available through ACAS. She promoted the systems being used in Australia, the Netherlands and Canada, and urged the UK Government to follow suit. She described the need to challenge abuse, and the importance of positive behaviour and celebrating diversity.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) highlighted the fact that parents often come to his surgeries because they feel that their complaints are not being taken seriously by schools. He also described the ease with which a younger generation can gain access to social media, with all that entails.
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) complimented those who have overcome bullying and gone on to become strong members of our society. People who are being bullied need to know that there is a positive way out; people doing the bullying need to know that they can change, too. He also encouraged us to look at the research and frame the discussion appropriately.
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) spoke about his distressing experiences at the hands of bullies and the salvation that he found at university. He asked for more positive action from all Governments across the UK, sharing best practice from the UK and beyond, including from Scandinavian countries, and cross-party work to engage with young people.
I recently read “Respect for All”, a new Scottish Government report that emphasises fairness, respect, equality and inclusion. It states:
“Bullying due to socio-economic status can take place in any community. Small differences in perceived family income/family living arrangements/social circumstances or values can be used as a basis for bullying behaviours.”
It lists a host of characteristics that may lead to bullying, including age, asylum seeker or refugee status, body image or physical appearance, disability, gender identity, a Gypsy or Traveller background, and sexual orientation. They are not reasons but excuses. Bullies simply look for an excuse to bully. It is bullying that is important to them, and the reasoning does not stand up.
Shockingly, the report also notes:
“Young carers are at risk of bullying for a variety of reasons. Depending on responsibilities at home, they may find themselves being unable to fully participate in school or after-school activities or ‘fun stuff’. This can make it difficult for them to form relationships; it can hinder successful transitions or lead to educational difficulties.”
Bullying happens not because of someone’s appearance, religion or sexual orientation, but because the bully gets something from being a bully. People being bullied do not have to justify themselves. Others may join in bullying because they do not want to be bullied themselves, or even because they are already being bullied at home or somewhere else.
This morning, I met pupils of Clydeview Academy, a secondary school in my constituency, who are visiting Westminster this week. I took the opportunity to ask them and their teachers how they approach bullying. The initial response was, “Tell a teacher, parent or guardian.” That is good advice, but ultimately if peer pressure is used to support the person being bullied, the bully fades away. Martin Luther King said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
So, let us consider this place, and the behaviour in the House of Commons. Members are constantly shouting over speakers; there are attempted putdowns and uncomplimentary remarks; and there are loud conversations designed to put speakers off. When parliamentarians behave in this fashion, it sends out a poor message to society at large, and too often in this place it is he who shouts loudest who gets heard.
Finally, while we must do everything we can to support schools, teachers and employers to eradicate bullying, we also have a duty to get our own House in order. We should be leading by example.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Buck.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this debate, and I thank all hon. Members and hon. Friends who have spoken so passionately here in Westminster Hall today. It was a particular pleasure to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), whose powerful speech will resonate with any child anywhere who is suffering from bullying.
The theme of this year’s Anti-bullying Week is, as we have already heard, “All Different, All Equal”. It was taken on board by the amazing children at Westoe Crown Primary School in South Shields, who this week made a cracking film about bullying. It is on YouTube and I urge everyone here to have a look.
Bullying can have a debilitating effect. For the victim, it permeates every minute of every single day, even when they are not in the presence of those causing them harm. When bullying happens in a school environment, it is intensified because—no matter what—in any given school day there will be times when a teacher or another member of staff is not present to spot that bullying is happening and stop it. However, bullying is not confined to physical space, with children reporting rises in cyber-bullying, where the bullying is all-pervasive and the victims are completely unable to escape from it.
I know that the Department for Education has produced guidance on preventing and tackling bullying for schools, headteachers, staff and governing bodies. That guidance reiterates:
“Every school must have measures in place to prevent all forms of bullying.”
However, in the context of what this Government have done to schools funding, does the Minister seriously believe that schools can give bullying the attention it needs? Cuts to education funding have led to schools in England losing more than £2.7 billion in funding since 2015. We have all seen the headlines about schools sending begging letters to parents, so that they can pay for essentials such as glue, paper, pens and other everyday items.
The Government’s response to this crisis was to introduce a new funding formula—one that led to 5,000 teachers endorsing a letter to the Chancellor to demand more money for schools, as well as warning of deep cuts to resources and soaring class sizes. Those teachers, including headteachers, will be greatly disappointed that their calls fell on deaf ears yesterday when the Chancellor, with much misplaced joviality, delivered a dire Budget that failed to acknowledge the crisis in our schools.
In light of the desperate situation that our schools find themselves in, can the Minister tell us what data the Department for Education collects on bullying in schools, such as prevalence levels and effectiveness of responses? I have a strong inkling that the Department does not collect such data, in which case I have another question. Can he explain how he thinks the Government can respond properly to an issue that they do not really have a full understanding of?
On funding, I will make a point about the pressure on funding for schools in Scotland, as Scottish councils have to make choices about where their reduced funding goes. In particular, there are the problems that Anti Bullying East Lothian, an award-winning service, has suffered as a result of cuts. If such cuts are being made, how can we support both the victims and the bullies?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The reality is that if austerity measures and cuts continue, we will fail all our children.
Those of our children who suffer from depression, low self-esteem, anxiety and self-harm as a result of bullying should be assured that when they need professional help it is available. However, this Government’s total hash of child and adolescent mental health services has left some children waiting more than a year for help, with 28% of those who apply for such services being turned away due to lack of funding.
Just yesterday, there was an opportunity in the Budget to address the deepening crisis in children’s mental health, but the Government chose not to do so. Instead, the Chancellor announced that there would be a Green Paper this December, setting out the Government’s plans to transform mental health services for children and young people. In short, there is no action and more discussion.
Can the Minister please assure us today that this Green Paper will be forthcoming in December? How long does he expect the consultation to take, and when does he expect that we will see some action? Will the Government explore schools-based counselling, as recommended by the Labour party?
I ask these questions because children in need of mental health support need it now, and every day they wait is a day that they will struggle with their mental health. Their problems become more entrenched. The sad reality is that some children who need mental health support as a result of bullying will leave school and move into adulthood without ever getting the kind of support they needed, which greatly damages their future prospects and even leads some of them to take their own life.
Looked-after children are reported to experience bullying at a much higher rate than their peers. Almost every single looked-after child has already endured some form of trauma, with at least 45% of looked-after children entering care with a diagnosable mental health condition. As this Government are now presiding over the largest number of children in care since the 1980s, with that number reaching 72,670 in March 2017, can the Minister explain what the Department for Education is doing in relation to providing specialist support for these children when they are subjected to bullying?
Another group of children who experience bullying at a higher rate than other children are those with disabilities or special educational needs. However, it is little wonder that children with special educational needs or disability, or SEND, are treated unequally in comparison with their peers, when the Government’s approach to children with SEND has been one of segregation, whereby many children with SEND are still placed in specialist schools or special units within mainstream education. It has been a long-held view, going right back to the Education Act 1981, and it is a view supported by Ofsted, that well-resourced mainstream schools are best placed to improve the learning and social environment for disabled and non-disabled learners alike. Children with special educational needs are increasingly being pushed out of mainstream schools, and they are grossly over-represented in exclusion figures. Indeed, many of them are self-exclusions, due to bullying.
As I am in a generous mood, Ms Buck, I am happy to talk to the Minister about Labour’s approach to education, which is based on inclusivity not exclusivity, and where every child should be given the very best opportunity to reach their true potential, whether they have an educational special need or a disability. That is because, much like this year’s anti-bullying theme, we believe that our children really are “All different, all equal”.
I am conscious of the time, so I will not detain Members much longer. However, before I make my closing comments I will press the Minister on a very serious issue. Back in January 2017, I withdrew an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill on the basis that the then Minister assured me that guidance regarding peer-to-peer sexual abuse in schools would be updated. Bullying is insidious in all its forms, but imagine being a young girl in a school, having been raped by one of your classmates. Despite that allegation of rape being upheld, you have to go back into that classroom, day after day, lesson after lesson, and sit next to the boy who raped you. We would never force anyone in the workplace or in any other scenario to go through that, but it is happening in our schools.
Children contacting ChildLine have described being subjected to inappropriate sexual touching in school, and to verbal threats on the bus, in the playground, in toilets, in changing rooms and even in classrooms during lessons. Many young girls have reported feeling vulnerable, anxious and confused as a result of being pressurised for sex by boys at school. Some feel they should consent, as their peers talk regularly about being sexually active. Others are threatened with physical violence if they refuse to have sex, and they have rumours and lies spread about them.
As with adult-perpetrated abuse, the victim often thinks that the act was normal, as they do not know about healthy relationships or assume that all children are being similarly abused. Often, they do not have the language to tell anybody what is happening to them and they fear they will get into trouble if they try to disclose it. Sometimes, they also think that they were the initiator and may have gone through the act voluntarily. They are left with unimaginable feelings of guilt, which no child should ever suffer on top of the harm they have already suffered.
It is safe to say we all agree that we have a responsibility to keep children safe, yet the current iteration of the “Keeping children safe in education” guidance lacks the detail to support schools where incidents of peer-on-peer abuse occur. Moreover, many schools do not have the appropriate processes in place to support children returning to school following a serious incident. We cannot just leave it up to schools to formulate their own policies and procedures, as that leaves the response to a potentially serious, life-ruining act at the discretion of an individual school.
Abuse is never the fault of the victim, yet in too many cases children are left isolated with no avenue of escape. I was recently advised that the public consultation on revising “Keeping children safe in education” would be launched later this autumn. Autumn is coming to an end, so will the Minister explain why the consultation has not begun? The delay here, like the delay in implementing personal, social, health and economic education, is beyond unacceptable. There has been a long fight for PSHE. All the evidence already exists on the positive impacts it will have on all children, so it should not be taking until 2019 to implement.
Just last year the Government were examined by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in relation to their compliance with the UN convention on the rights of the child. It found the Government failing children across the board in 150 areas. I have repeatedly asked for the convention to be in domestic law. That commitment was in Labour’s manifesto.
It is estimated that one child in every single class is experiencing severe bullying. I know the Minister will agree that that is one child too many. I hope he will acknowledge that to tackle bullying, the Government need to have a more holistic view and stop operating in these monolithic ways. I hope he will share with us today how he intends to do that. I hope that in summing up the Minister can answer all my questions and those of other hon. Members, because we are asking these question not for us, but for every child who felt physically sick this morning because they could not bear to go to school, for every child who sat in the toilet though their dinner break because being alone is safer than being with others, for every child sat right now in a lesson unable to concentrate because what follows is that terrifying journey home where the protection of the teachers disappears and it is just them and the bullies, and for every child sat at home tonight alone, scrolling through hateful messages from their peers on their phone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this debate and on making a powerful speech with an honest and moving personal story. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on making another powerful speech with another moving story. I pay tribute to him for his speech and his activities here and elsewhere, using and highlighting his own experience of being bullied as a child to help others and to drive change. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) made the important point that people should not be bystanders when they see bullying occurring. That was a key message of the Diana Awards last week. The hon. Member for Ogmore also pointed to the damage that many of the bullies may have suffered. As one anti-bullying campaigner said last week at the Diana Awards, “Hurt people hurt people.”
The hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) raised the important issue of peer-on-peer abuse. “Keeping children safe in education”, which was revised in 2016, sets out that all schools should have an effective child protection policy that minimises peer-on-peer abuse and sets out how incidents will be investigated and victims supported. We are going to revise and update that guidance. To ensure that we are doing all we can to assist schools and colleges, we will also be publishing interim advice this term specifically on peer-on-peer abuse.
Every individual instance of bullying is important. It can be a barrier to children achieving their potential and taking advantage of the same opportunities as their peers. Bullying can make a child feel isolated and alone when they should be enjoying the companionship of their close friends. As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, bullying can undermine a child’s confidence, and that can last a lifetime. New generations of pupils face different challenges in relation to bullying, and we recognise that. Last year he tabled an early-day motion that highlighted the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s figure of 16,000 children absent from school because of bullying. He mentioned that figure again today. There is a very clear process that parents should follow if they have concerns about their child being bullied at school. All schools are required by law to have a behaviour policy that includes measures to prevent bullying among pupils. Parents can then raise direct concerns with the headteacher and governing body, and if those are not resolved, a formal written complaint to the Secretary of State for Education and the local authority team can be made.
In the light of the debate we have had, there is clearly a mismatch of power between those in authority and children. Will the Minister reflect on that in his comments? Clearly it is difficult to raise concerns about bullying when there is such a mismatch of power and when someone is already experiencing a diminution of their power.
The hon. Lady raises an important point, and I do not disagree with anything she said. It is why we need to make it absolutely clear what the complaint procedures are. We need to ensure that the guidance that we have about keeping children safe in school is as clear as possible and kept up to date to reflect modern forms of bullying, so that changes in modern society are reflected in schools.
The local authority has a duty to put in place education for any child of compulsory school age, and that includes finding them an appropriate school place. Recent research suggests that the amount of bullying in schools has reduced in recent years, which is welcome. The longitudinal study of young people in England published in 2016 compared bullying among two cohorts of 14-year-olds from 2005 and 2014. In 2014, approximately 30,000 fewer children said that they had been bullied in the previous 12 months. There was a drop from 41% in 2005 to 36% in 2014, although 36% is still unacceptable—as the Opposition spokeswoman said, even one child bullied in a class is one too many.
Different generations of pupils face different challenges, however, and we recognise new and different types of bullying. Each individual instance of bullying is important. It can be a barrier to children achieving their potential and taking advantage of school. That is why Anti-bullying Week is an important event in the school calendar. It shines a spotlight on the issues surrounding bullying and provides an opportunity for schools, children and young people and society in general to talk openly about the effects of bullying on children and young people and take collective action against it. We have seen two examples of that openness in today’s debate.
We know from the Anti-Bullying Alliance that more than three quarters of schools in England take part in Anti-bullying Week, which is welcome. Good schools recognise the issues around bullying, record incidents and review whether the action they are taking is effective. Last week I attended two events run by organisations that we help to fund to run anti-bullying initiatives in schools: the Diana Awards and the Anti-Bullying Alliance. I met many pupils, teachers and organisations committed to tackling bullying. Pupils were keen that, alongside supporting those who are bullied, schools should help to identify the issues that may be contributing to the negative behaviours displayed by those who bully.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) said, the theme of Anti-bullying Week this year is “All different, all equal”. That theme is particularly important to pupils. We know that some groups of pupils suffer disproportionately high levels of bullying because of the attitudes and behaviours that some other pupils show towards those who are different from themselves. For example, the longitudinal study of young people in England in 2014 found that 46% of respondents with special educational needs reported bullying, compared with 36% of respondents without SEN. That should not be the case. That is why the Government are providing £4.6 million of funding over two years for 10 anti-bullying organisations to support schools to tackle bullying. That funding includes projects to tackle bullying of particular groups.
The Anti-Bullying Alliance’s project is focused on tackling bullying related to special educational needs and disability. It includes face-to-face training for teachers, including trainees. It also provides helplines and online information for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities. The Anne Frank Trust’s project encourages young people to think about the importance of tackling prejudice, discrimination and bullying using film clips as a catalyst for discussion. Those projects work alongside a project to report bullying online and projects to specifically tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North referred to Stonewall’s 2017 survey, which showed that 45% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people had experienced bullying as a consequence of their sexuality or the perception of their sexuality. In Stonewall’s 2012 survey, that figure was 55%; in 2007, it was 65%. That is a welcome fall, reflecting how attitudes in society have improved over the last 10 years, but it remains unacceptable that 45% of LGBT young people still suffer HBT bullying.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) raised the important issue of workplace bullying. We also know from the Stonewall survey that in 2014, 13% of schoolteachers reported homophobic bullying. That figure, too, has fallen, from 25% in 2009—but again, 13% is too high. Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment. They are liable for any harassment suffered by their employees. Anti-bullying policies can help, and ACAS’s advice covers that for employers and employees.
Last year’s inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools highlighted the scale of the problem. We want schools to be safe, disciplined environments where teachers can teach uninterrupted, and all pupils can thrive academically and embrace who they are. That is why it is important to create a culture of respect in schools. By creating that culture across the whole school, pupils can enjoy the knowledge-rich education they deserve in a safe and supportive environment, which allows them to embrace who they are.
Schools already have a range of legal duties that frame the positive action that they can, and should, be taking. We have already updated our anti-bullying guidance to ensure that all types of bullying and harassment are taken seriously, and to signpost schools to support in tackling different types of bullying. Creating a whole-school culture of respect is also reflected in Government advice on behaviour and discipline. The Tom Bennett review of behaviour in schools makes it clear that having a whole-school policy, consistently applied, with clear systems of rewards and sanctions, is central to achieving good behaviour. Tom Bennett argued for the importance of a whole-school culture that is clearly communicated to all staff and pupils. He stated that the best behaviour policies balance a culture of discipline with effective pastoral support. The combination of clear boundaries and known sanctions for poor behaviour in a caring atmosphere is crucial to promoting good behaviour and wellbeing for all pupils. We have put in place a set of measures to ensure that schools have the powers they need to address bullying, in the context of our overall behaviour measures, such as giving teachers new disciplinary powers and holding schools to account through Ofsted inspections.
Bullying of any kind can, however, now just as easily occur online as face to face. As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North pointed out, cyber-bullying is increasingly becoming a means by which face-to-face bullying is extended beyond the school day, following the young person home. The Government have already put in place a number of powers that enable schools to prevent and tackle cyber-bullying, which includes making how to behave online part of the computing curriculum. Headteachers have the power to regulate pupils’ conduct when they are not on school premises and under the lawful control or charge of a member of school staff. When bullying outside of school is reported to teachers, it should be investigated at the school and acted on.
We have ensured that schools have the power to ban or limit the use of mobile phones and other electronic devices in school. We have also given staff greater powers to search for prohibited items such as mobile phones and, if necessary, to delete inappropriate images or files on electronic devices. The Government Equalities Office funded the UK Safer Internet Centre to develop cyber-bullying guidance for schools, and an online safety toolkit to help schools to deliver sessions about cyber-bullying, peer pressure and sexting. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport recently published the Government’s safer internet strategy. One of the questions that pupils asked the Department during last week’s anti-bullying events was whether tackling bullying should be part of the curriculum. Of course schools can play an important role in teaching about relationships. The Department is committed to help schools to deliver high-quality relationships education, and relationships and sex education, ensuring that pupils are taught about healthy and respectful relationships—both online and offline—and have the knowledge and confidence required to prepare for adult life.
To help to give effect to that, we included provisions in the Children and Social Work Act 2017, which the hon. Member for South Shields referred to, to place a duty on the Secretary of State for Education to make relationships education mandatory at primary school, and RSE mandatory at secondary school, through regulations. The Department has begun a process of engagement with stakeholders to develop the regulations and guidance for relationships education and RSE, and to ensure that subject content is age-appropriate and inclusive for all stages. We expect the regulations and guidance to be subject to public consultation next year.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire asked what is being done to ensure that children do not remain in the same class as their bully. As I said, we will be consulting on revisions to statutory guidance—the “Keeping children safe” education guidance—shortly. As I said in response to the hon. Member for South Shields, we intend to issue interim advice to schools this term.
I am grateful for the support that hon. Members have given to this agenda. It has helped to raise awareness of some important issues and concerns. The steps that we have taken highlight the importance of taking a strong stance on bullying, both online and offline. The Government have made a financial and legislative commitment to tackle the issue. We must now continue to work closely with schools and our partner organisations to ensure that the momentum behind progress in this important area continues.
I thank all the contributors to today’s debate. We have heard some extremely powerful testimony—none more so than from the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who spoke of his harrowing experience. I think I speak for all of us when I say that he is a credit to himself for coming through that and reaching where he is today. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke of the various definitions of bullying; I agree wholeheartedly that it is time to draft a legal definition. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) leant his experience to today’s proceedings, which was very welcome. He made an excellent point about the problem with labelling bullies, or indeed their victims. I certainly empathised with the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) when he spoke of his three-year-old’s skills on an iPad. I have two young daughters with similar skills.
To conclude, we all want the best for our children, and to ensure that they are all viewed equally and given an equal chance in life. On that basis, I urge the Minister to meet with anti-bullying organisations and to draft a new, properly-funded anti-bullying strategy to take the issue forward. I thank all Members, and you, Ms Buck. I certainly hope that this is not the last time that we debate Anti-bullying Week. I hope that this becomes an annual debate, to check our progress towards removing the scourge of bullying from our schools.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Anti-bullying Week.
Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917
[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the 100th anniversary of the Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Henry, and it is an honour to have secured this debate, as we are heading into a year of celebrations in 2018 to commemorate the centenary of the Royal Air Force. I would like to use this debate today to celebrate the contribution that the Air Force has made to our national life, to mark some of its sacrifices and achievements over the last 100 years and to mark how far we have come. I would also like to spend some time looking at the reasons why we have an independent Air Force, as well as the development of air power.
Today, we mark a slightly earlier anniversary than the centenary of the Royal Air Force, which is the centenary of the Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917. It received Royal Assent and became law on 29 November 1917, and its centenary is next week. That Act created an Air Force and the Air Council and was a recognition of the growing importance of air power in defence, with the Air Force itself—the world’s first independent air force—coming into being on 1 April 2018. Of course, this is of particular significance to a number of hon. Members who have Air Force bases or Air Force contingents in their constituencies. I am honoured to represent Royal Air Force Brize Norton, which is the largest base in the Royal Air Force, the sole embarkation point for British troops and the centre of the Air Force’s transport fleet.
It is only right to use this anniversary to reflect on the illustrious history of the Royal Air Force, how its role has changed and what role it will continue to play in the future. The RAF is holding many events over the next year to celebrate the anniversary and I would like to think that this debate might be a start point, or a launch pad, if you will, Sir Henry. Without the work that went on in the years preceding 1918, we would not have had the Act or the Air Force that we now have.
One of the things that is quite striking is how quickly air power became important. It was only nine years before the Royal Air Force came into being that an American named Samuel Franklin Cody made the first officially recognised aeroplane flight in Britain. He went a staggering distance of 1,390 feet in a bamboo and canvas biplane known as British Army Aeroplane No. 1. As any hon. Member who has flown in a light aircraft —certainly anyone who has flown in a Tiger Moth, which I have had the honour of doing—will realise that these were true pioneers. The technology was very unsafe in the early days; there were not really any safety requirements at all. The casualty rate was very high. The bravery of those early pioneers cannot be overstated.
That rapid period of innovation, attracting the technological white heat of its day, was undoubtedly sped along by the first world war, which gave the opportunity that warfare often sadly does for practice and experimentation in aviation and technology. Without that, it is possible that the development of military aircraft would have been set back many years.
In the late 1880s various countries had experimented with balloons, but very few were convinced of their promise in warfare. The French had used some in their revolutionary war, but even then it was only for observation. Even the great Napoleon had not foreseen the effect that aircraft would later have. In 1878, the first Army Balloon School was established in Woolwich, and the balloon factory, which went on to become the Royal Aircraft Factory, was founded four years later in Farnborough. Although there were early adopters in Britain, which is something that we should all be proud of, they were slow to recognise the full potential of air flight.
Balloons were soon overshadowed by aircraft. Heavier-than-air flight was slow off the ground in Britain—if hon. Members will pardon the unintentional pun—and requests for funding, such as from the Wright brothers, to continue experimentation were denied by the Treasury, which at the time could not see the application of the new technology. However, individuals continued to push forward, design aircraft and push the envelope of what was then technologically possible.
In 1911, the War Office changed its thinking and expanded the Balloon Section into the Air Battalion, creating Britain’s first military unit equipped with heavier-than-air craft. It was not its own branch—at the time there were only 11 men in the Army and eight in the Navy. Even with the creation of the Royal Flying Corps in 1912, many remained sceptical about the practical applications of air power.
There is a famous quote from those early years just before the outbreak of the first world war, when General Haig is alleged to have said:
“I hope none of you gentlemen is so foolish as to think that aeroplanes will be usefully employed for reconnaissance purposes in war. There is only one way for commanders to get information by reconnaissance, and that is by the cavalry.”
To be fair to Haig, at the time it was probably a fair statement. They were dealing with incredibly unreliable aircraft that could only fly in good weather and had very short endurance. Clearly, their limits at the time were significant, but that view quickly changed, because the Royal Flying Corps made a critical contribution to the early stages of the first world war.
As early as 22 August 1914, Captain Charlton and his pilot, Lieutenant Wadham, observed, crucially, the 1st German army’s approach towards the flank of the British Expeditionary Force, which allowed Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal French to realign his front and save the Army around Mons. The next day, the RFC found itself fighting in the battle of Mons; two days after that, on 25 August, it gained its first air victory, when a German Taube reconnaissance aircraft was shot down. In the great retreat from Mons, the Corps fell back to the Marne, where the RFC again proved its value by identifying von Kluck’s 1st army’s left wheel against the exposed French flank, which enabled French forces to make an effective counter-attack at the battle of the Marne.
So it is clear that, within years, the contribution of the Royal Flying Corps was hugely significant and contributed to the saving of the British Expeditionary Force in the early days of the war and to the stabilisation of the front. Of course, the war degenerated into trench warfare, but at the time it was a saving grace from an advancing and apparently nearly victorious German army. That is shown by the first official dispatch from Sir John French, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, on 7 September, which said:
“I wish particularly to bring to your Lordships’ notice the admirable work done by the Royal Flying Corps under Sir David Henderson. Their skill, energy, and perseverance has been beyond all praise. They have furnished me with most complete and accurate information, which has been of incalculable value in the conduct of operations. Fired at constantly by friend and foe, and not hesitating to fly in every kind of weather, they have remained undaunted throughout. Further, by actually fighting in the air, they have succeeded in destroying five of the enemy’s machines.”
All of that was only years after the first powered flight.
With the advent of trench warfare, the development of air photography and the development of air-to-ground wireless technology, the reconnaissance role for aircraft was established and was invaluable. The role evolved into aerial fighting once it was realised that it was possible to stop the enemy carrying out similar reconnaissance.
At that time there were two branches of the military air force—the Royal Flying Corps, which was Army, and the Royal Naval Air Service, which was, as the name suggests, part of the Royal Navy. Broadly put, the Royal Flying Corps concentrated on supporting the Army in France, while the Royal Naval Air Service concentrated on defending fleet bases, from which evolved the requirement of home defence—taking on the Zeppelin airships and, later in the war, the German Gotha bombers.
The weakness of that disjointed approach was highlighted in 1917, and we can see how quickly events moved from the military events of 1917 through to the Act we are commemorating today and the formation of the Royal Air Force 100 years ago next year. In the summer of 1917, 72 tonnes of bombs fell within a one-mile radius of Liverpool Street station, and the aircraft of both the RFC and the RNAS were unable to take the fight to the German Gotha bombers. Around the same time, there was a great loss of life in Folkestone caused by the use of the same bombers.
Questions were asked here in the House. The Prime Minister at the time, David Lloyd George, asked the South African General Jan Smuts to study the problem and come up with a report to the Cabinet, which became the famous Smuts report.
The problem was fairly easy to understand when we look at what Jan Smuts found. Fighter defences were provided by the RFC and the RNAS. The Army provided the heavy anti-aircraft and the Royal Naval Air Service provided the small mobile ones. Local authorities provided air-raid warnings and civil defence measures. Clearly, there was inefficiency when there were two branches of the military actively competing with each other for aircraft types and engines at a time of scarce resources. There was clearly a need for a unified approach.
Extraordinarily, a Joint Air Committee had been established just before the war, but it ceased to meet when the war broke out, at a time when perhaps it ought to have been meeting more often rather than less. In 1916 a Joint War Air Committee was formed, but again made insignificant progress, which led to the Smuts report of 1917. In due course the Act made its way through the House, resulting in the 1917 Act, which we commemorate today and next week.
It was the public outcry after attacks on domestic areas of Britain in Folkestone and London that provided the political impetus for the formation of the Royal Air Force, but at the same time we saw the growth of the concept of air power, which is another thing I want to highlight today. The Army had seen the Flying Corps, as Haig’s comments suggest, as a form of airborne cavalry, there for moving quickly, for reconnaissance and for light, quick attacks. The Navy had largely concentrated on home defence to protect its bases, but little thought was given to how air power might be used in a strategic context: to attack the enemy’s ability to make war or to attack formations before they came into battle, or to attack industrial capacity and target supply lines.
The Royal Naval Air Service had made some strides during 1916 and 1917, but there was no overall strategic concept, which is precisely what was needed. An independent Air Force that was not pulled towards the Navy’s or the Army’s priorities, but was able to look at air power in a strategic, independent context was what was needed, and that is what we had—the first independent Air Force in the world, and also the most powerful, with more than 290,000 personnel and 23,000 aircraft in 1918. In a stark shift to the words of General Haig before the war, General Jan Smuts said:
“There is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use.”
From world war one to today we have had an incredible, almost unbelievable speed of technological advance. The days of dogfights over the trenches are long gone, but the years immediately after the first world war saw intense political pressure to break up the Royal Air Force and to reabsorb its constituent parts into the Navy and the Army—something that the Air Force understandably resisted. It did so in two ways by showing its relevance. The first was to be almost a colonial policeman. Whereas in the past the Army would be sent out to go and visit far-flung parts of the empire, the Air Force could do that more cheaply and more quickly. That enabled people to say that politically there was still a purpose to the Air Force. The second, which I will come to in a moment, was the concept of strategic bombing, which is still the most controversial aspect of the second world war from the allied perspective.
Of course, the RAF’s finest hour was also Britain’s. I pay tribute to what was not only an extraordinary military force, but perhaps the most strikingly multinational force in military history. There was rapid expansion of the Air Force prior to and during the second world war. British Commonwealth countries sent enormous numbers of people to be trained to fly in the RAF, either within existing squadrons or within their own. By the end of the war the Royal Canadian Air Force had contributed more than 30 squadrons to serve in RAF formations and a quarter of Bomber Command’s personnel were Canadian.
The Royal Australian Air Force represented about 9% of all RAF personnel who served in the European and Mediterranean theatres. Famously the United States, before entering the war, sent personnel who served as part of the Royal Air Force’s Eagle squadrons. They were people who volunteered to come to fight for the cause of freedom in democracy’s hour of need. It is an extraordinary record.
It is most striking when we look at the statistics for Bomber Command: approximately 55,000 were lost in the second world war, which is the same as the number of officers lost in the British Army in the first world war. Of those 55,000, 72% were British, 18% were Canadian, 7% were Australian and 3% were New Zealanders. The example of New Zealand is extraordinary when we consider the size of that then newly independent country. The sacrifice made by the people from New Zeeland serving in the Royal Air Force was absolutely extraordinary given the size of the country.
Famously in the Battle of Britain in 1940, the RAF, supplemented by two Fleet Air Arm squadrons along with Polish, Czech, French and many other pilots from countries all over the world, defended the skies over Britain in their Spitfires, Hurricanes, Blenheims and Defiants against the numerically superior German luftwaffe. In what is perhaps the most prolonged and complicated air campaign in history, the Royal Air Force contributed decisively to the delay and ultimate cancellation of Operation Sealion, which was Hitler’s plan for an invasion of these islands. This was an extraordinary feat of bravery against incredible odds, but what is often overlooked is the fact that Fighter Command offered the finest opponent that Nazi Germany had then faced. I am keen to make this point now: the lessons of 1917 had been learned, so there was a unified command structure, early warning, radar, a proper battle plan, and the Royal Air Force Fighter Command that defended Britain in 1940 was a first-rate military fighting machine, a league away from what we had in 1917. It is an extraordinary story.
The force was also strikingly egalitarian. The Auxiliary Air Force squadrons were supplemented by the Volunteer Reserve, in which I am proud to say my grandfather served, with sergeant pilots and officers promoted from the ranks, the Air Force being then, as it is now, an extraordinary engine for social mobility and a vehicle for those whose ambition was limited only by their skill and determination.
In the House of Commons on 20 August, prompted by the ongoing efforts of the Royal Air Force, Prime Minister Winston Churchill not only sealed his own rhetorical reputation, but coined the epithet that will perhaps be the Royal Air Force’s for as long as men fly:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”—[Official Report, 20 August 1940; Vol. 364, c. 1167.]
I must mention the bombers at this stage, because it is a common misconception that Churchill was referring only to the fighters. He was, of course, referring to those who had taken the fight to the enemy. I mentioned my grandfather, who was in the Volunteer Reserve. He was called up at the beginning of the war and while the fight was going on above the skies of where we stand now, he was navigating his Wellington to bomb invasion barges along the ports of northern Europe and later took part in the first raid on Berlin, which caused Hitler, in a rage, to direct Goering to take attacks away from Fighter Command’s airfields and on to London. Although that was a tragedy for the civilian population, it meant that Fighter Command had a chance to get back to full strength. That is a good example of how someone from any walk of life could play a great role in history.
Throughout the rest of the war, the Air Force carried out every role imaginable: coastal defence, convoy protection, resupply, and the mostly hotly contested issue of the war years—the strategic bombing campaign. Perhaps today is not the time to debate that, but from a military perspective it is undeniable that for many years only the RAF had the ability to take the war to the enemy at a time when Britain was at bay. From a political perspective, the need for a strategic bombing force grew out of the way that the Air Force was created, through the parliamentary debates leading up to 1917, to prove that there was a need for an independent, strategic Air Force, rather than a tactical air support force.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Will he also reflect on the fact that the Air Force developed one of the first precision bombing missions in the form of the Dambusters raid? Of course, the last surviving British Dambuster, Johnny Johnson, was once a Torbay councillor.
I am grateful for that excellent intervention; I was not aware that Johnny Johnson was a Torbay councillor. He was the pioneer of what would, once the technology was there to do it, become the way that the RAF operated—through the precise targeting of strategic objectives. Of course now that is entirely the way the RAF operates, but what is striking about his time is that whereas now we have technology, the technology used by the Dambusters was extremely basic—it was essentially basic geometry and physics.
Post-war, the RAF was called on to go to the aid of people against whom it had fought only shortly before—the besieged people of Berlin, in the Berlin airlift. It is moving, in reading about the Berlin airlift, to realise what gratitude there was to the RAF only a few years after that most terrible of conflicts. In the ’50s and ’60s, the RAF was the carrier of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, with the V-Force, and the famous fighter types, such as the first Lightning, showcased the very best of British engineering, much as the Red Arrows and the Tornado, Typhoon and F-35 Lighting II do today.
The RAF today is the world’s first and most famous independent air force. It has a brand that is recognised throughout the world as signifying quality, courage, adaptability, bravery and innovation. Next year gives us a wonderful opportunity to commemorate 100 years of extraordinary skill, sacrifices and achievement, to celebrate the professionalism and dedication of today’s RAF and to inspire future generations by telling its unique story. The RAF 100 campaign kicks off next week on 29 November, commemorating the Royal Assent to the Act with a reception in Speaker’s House. The national “Never Such Innocence” arts competition has been launched, along with the RAF Youth/STEAM programme for science, technology, engineering, arts and design, and mathematics this autumn.
We can look forward to a full programme of events next year, all over the country. I encourage all hon. Members to look for their nearest one. There will be a tour of historic aircraft and a centenary service in Westminster Abbey, followed by a parade in the Mall and mass flypast, which I am promised will be a spectacle unparalleled in modern times, with a global audience of millions. That will do what the Air Force has always done—it will reinforce the UK’s position at the forefront of defence aviation excellence and inspire the next generation.
The event will show us just how far we have come. Where once we had canvas and wood, we now have high-tech composites. Where once the skill required for flying was horsemanship, now a degree in engineering is perhaps more helpful. Where once we had an all-male service, now the RAF is the first service to allow women to serve in all branches. It is a service where everyone, from all walks of life, is welcome and is helped to fulfil their potential. We have an Air Force where training is conducted jointly with the Army and Navy, where appropriate, and where the F-35 Lightning will be operated jointly by the Army and Navy alike. Above all, where once an air arm was a novelty, now no commander would countenance a contested battle space without the control of the air. In the past 100 years the RAF, and the understanding of the practice of air power, have come of age; and that all began 100 years ago, here in Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I shall keep my remarks rather brief, as I must return to the Chamber in the not-too-distant future. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing the debate. There is of course a link between our constituencies, in that Torbay has just offered the freedom of the borough to RAF Brize Norton, in recognition of the long links between the RAF and Torquay and Paignton—in particular, going back to world war two, when many of our hotels were requisitioned as hospitals for those injured in the fighting.
As I mentioned in my intervention, there are other links. As a teenager I met Johnny Johnson, who has been given an honour to recognise him and that whole generation, and in particular that squadron of heroes who trained hard and operated in absolute secrecy before taking on the most famous and iconic mission that the RAF—or certainly Bomber Command—engaged in during world war two. There is a story about one of his comrades being carpeted for having rung to tell a girlfriend he would not be able to make the cinema that night. When he asked “What should I have done?” the answer was “Simple. You should have left them there. They would have worked out after about an hour that you weren’t coming. When you next met them, you should have told them, ‘There’s a war on,’ and that you cannot tell them why, and that’s it.” That was the sort of sacrifice that all of them were making, and the sort of professionalism that they had to show.
The RAF today is as relevant as it was in 1917, when Parliament voted to create it. Yesterday the first RAF aircraft to land in Argentina for some time took vital equipment there, in the hope of being able to help to rescue the submariners who may be trapped at the bottom of the sea. That shows the adaptability of the RAF—it has the ability to get resources to a country where they are needed. Similarly, they provided support to our overseas territories where, after an airport had effectively been destroyed by a hurricane, they could land, secure the base and make it ready to receive further shipments.
The RAF is a force that epitomises the highest level of professionalism, but it is not only a question of the force that serves—there is a whole RAF family. I know from dealing with the Royal Air Forces Association group that meets at the Raffles Club in Torquay, and its chairman Steve Colhoun, that although people may leave the Air Force, it never really leaves them. There is that sense of duty and dedication, as well as the skills that they have learned, and the sense of family; there is support for those who have served, and for their families.
I hope that we can look forward to further development of the Air Force, and to its playing a key role in the next 100 years. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney talked about the change from canvas and wood to composites. It will be interesting to see what happens with a change from manned aircraft being the usual thing, to systems that are not autonomous but unmanned. What challenges will that present? We regularly hear discussion of what drones can do, in terms of being able to hang over targets, and their surveillance and strike capabilities, but what will be the opportunities as technology moves forward? If in the future there is something like the massed formations of world war two, it is likely that many of the aircraft will be based on a mother ship and that many will be completely unmanned. That new technology will bring challenges for policy makers, including for future space policy. In the same way, our forebears had to struggle with the fact that big guns at the mouth of the Thames would no longer protect London from enemy attack, if a roof for the fortress was not provided by the air force.
This debate is a welcome chance to recognise all those who have served, and I am pleased to have had a few moments to make a brief tribute to the many people who have served our nation with such distinction in the last 100 years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing this important debate.
It is my great privilege to represent a constituency with a long and distinguished association with the Royal Air Force, which continues to this day. I was honoured to be present earlier this month, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), at a ceremony at RAF Lossiemouth in Moray. The First Secretary of State unveiled a frontline Typhoon jet, which was renamed Sir Roderic in honour of an RAF tradition born of one family’s tragedy in 1941. I am sure that many hon. Members present for the debate who have an association with the RAF will be aware of the story of the MacRoberts, but I shall tell it briefly, as I think it is important to mention it today.
In 1941, Lady MacRobert lost two sons who flew with the RAF within six weeks of each other. Roderic was only 25 when he was killed leading a Hurricane aircraft attack on German positions in Iraq. Iain, aged 24, was declared missing in action after his Blenheim aircraft failed to return from a mission flown over Shetland. His body was never found. Their older brother Alasdair had been killed in a civil aviation accident in 1938. The response of Lady MacRobert was to buy a £25,000 Stirling bomber for the RAF, stipulating that it be called MacRobert’s Reply. In 1942, Lady MacRobert donated a further £20,000 to purchase four Hurricane fighters, which were sent to RAF operations in the middle east. Three were named after her three sons and the fourth was named after her. A succession of RAF aircraft have carried the MacRobert name ever since. I had discussions with the MacRobert Trust in Lossiemouth earlier this month, and it continues to do excellent work to this very day.
RAF Lossiemouth was on the frontline during the second world war. For instance, one officer and two aircrew members were killed on 26 October 1940, when Lossiemouth was attacked by the Luftwaffe for the first time. Several aircraft were destroyed and three hangars were damaged, and the resultant holes from the cannon fire are still visible today. The famous Dambusters squadron, which we heard about earlier, launched its raid on the battleship Tirpitz in November 1944 from Lossiemouth. The squadron returned to the base the year I was born—1983—flying Tornado aircraft, prior to being disbanded from service in March 2014.
In addition to RAF Lossiemouth, we have RAF Kinloss, which was commissioned in 1939 and served as a training establishment during the war. It provided the aircrew that defended our islands and took the fight to the enemy. More recently, Kinloss served with great distinction as a base for the Nimrod fleet, and before that the Shackletons, which patrolled our shores for many decades. Although the RAF has since departed from Kinloss, its tradition with the armed forces continues—39 Engineer Regiment has found an excellent home there.
Since the war, Lossiemouth has been a major base for the RAF, apart from a gap between 1946 and 1972 when the Fleet Air Arm operated from the base, during which time it was known as HMS Fulmar. It distinguished itself during the Gulf war in the 1990s, when Buccaneers flew regularly over Iraqi airspace on pathfinding missions. The Buccaneer force became known as the “Sky Pirates”, in reference to the maritime history of the Buccaneer. Each aircraft had a Jolly Roger flag painted on the port side, along with nose art featuring female characters. In recognition of the plane’s Scottish roots, the Buccaneers were named after famous Speyside Scotch whiskies, including Glenfiddich, Glen Elgin and Macallan—I am sure many will be happy that the Chancellor of the Exchequer continued the freeze on whisky duty yesterday—which ensured that two great Moray traditions were combined: service in our armed forces and an appreciation of some of our finest malts.
Lossiemouth is now one of the two main operating bases for the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 in the United Kingdom, and is home to three frontline units that operate the Typhoon, each of which contributes to the quick reaction alert capability, which provides continuous protection for UK airspace. The UK Government plan significant investment at Lossiemouth to accommodate the RAF’s new fleet of Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft, which are expected to enter into service in 2020.
In October 2016, when I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I was delighted to become the first ever UK politician to be offered the chance to fly in a Poseidon P-8. The predecessor of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney had been in a P-8 at the Farnborough air show but had never got into the skies in one, so I had the accolade of being the first ever UK politician to get up in the skies in one and to see at first hand the new aircraft’s capabilities. It was a great experience to see Moray from the skies and the flight deck, and to hear the RAF aircrew’s excitement at bringing that new type into service and back to RAF Lossiemouth.
So many people who come to RAF Kinloss and Lossiemouth want to stay in Moray, and a great thing for people who stay in Moray to do is to celebrate our history. There is no better way of doing that and showing how much we appreciate our connection with the Royal Air Force than through our excellent visitor attraction, Morayvia. Morayvia is a charity set up in 2011 by former RAF officers and civilian enthusiasts who wanted to preserve the last remaining Nimrod at Kinloss—the XV244. Since then, the group has grown from the original board, and now has more than 150 members from around the world. The project goes from strength to strength. A visitors centre has been established at the former primary school at Kinloss, and it has been transformed into an outstanding visitor attraction for local people and visitors. Its four-star rating from VisitScotland is testament to the many members and volunteers of Morayvia, who have supported that active organisation, and an extremely active board of directors led by chairman Mark Mair.
Morayvia has many fantastic exhibits, including Sea King, Wessex and Dragonfly search-and-rescue helicopters. They sit alongside an Antonov An-2 biplane and cockpits of Canberra, Vampire and Jet Provost aircraft, which visitors can sit in and experience. Visitors are shown around by former aircrew who either flew in or worked on them. Those former servicemen are Morayvia’s greatest asset. They share their interest, enthusiasm and passion for the aircraft and the RAF with future generations who visit in significant numbers every year.
The pride that all of us in the UK have—it is fitting that we describe our pride as we come to the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force—in our connection with the Royal Air Force is shared by all of us in Moray, given our historical association with the RAF. It is clear that there is great satisfaction to be had in knowing that our relationship with the Royal Air Force not only has been great in years past but will continue for many decades to come.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for organising it. I grew up a few miles from RAF Cosford in Shropshire. My childhood was spent looking up to the Shropshire skies and seeing the aircraft training, and visiting the wonderful museum that the RAF created at Cosford.
I have the privilege of representing Newark, a border town between Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. In our part of the world, although we do not have the hills of the Welsh marches, we have big skies—“big skies and big hearts”, as local people say in Lincolnshire. When we look up to those skies today, we see all sorts of aircraft representing the full history of the Royal Air Force, from the battle of Britain memorial flight that visits our fairs and fetes in every village over the summer, to the Red Arrows down the road at Scampton, to training flights from RAF Syerston in my constituency and Cranwell—one of the homes of the Royal Air Force. Typhoons and Tornadoes train at RAF Coningsby but are also on active service, keeping the United Kingdom safe.
Newark has been at the heart of the RAF story from its very beginnings. When T. E. Lawrence was a young trainee officer down the road at Cranwell, he would come cycling for a good night out in Newark. There is an excellent exhibition at Newark Civil War Centre at the moment, where people can see the motorbike on which he cycled into the town. He used to give money to a local lady—Ruby Bryant—for looking after him and his various love interests in the town. Over the years, things have not changed. Officers, cadets and members of the Royal Air Force over in Lincolnshire like to come a few miles down the road for a good night out, which Newark continues to offer.
Today, we have RAF Syerston—a station operating Wellington, Manchester and Lancaster bombers—which was once part of Bomber Command. Thanks to a £15 million fund from the Ministry of Defence, it will be the hub for training air cadets throughout the United Kingdom. Newark, like many other towns, has a proud tradition of air cadets: they were out on parade only the other day for Remembrance Sunday.
During the second world war, we had many RAF bases—at Balderton, Newark, Ossington, Newton and Winthorpe. Some of them remain; some are merely part of our rich local history. Winthorpe is now an excellent air museum, which I thoroughly recommend for anybody who happens to be in the Newark area.
Newark today is also the home of the national Polish airmen’s memorial. Anyone who comes to Newark cemetery, which has been beautifully preserved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, will find the graves of 397 brave Polish airmen. Also buried there for many years was General Sikorski, who was the general in charge of the Polish forces and, of course, one of the great heroes of the Polish people. He died in 1943 and was buried in Newark. His return in state to Poland in 1993 after the fall of the Berlin wall was one of the great occasions marking Poland’s return after an era of sad decline under communist rule. We retain those connections and the close links with the Polish community.
For us in Newark, with such a large Polish community, that war graves cemetery—only the other day we celebrated the annual All Souls’ Day service there—is a living memorial of the ties that will always bind the United Kingdom and Poland. In my constituency we will always maintain—I hope—good relations between the two integrated and respectful communities.
We have also heard today about Johnny Johnson, who was for many years a teacher in Newark and is often still seen at the Collingham agricultural show on his buggy, whizzing around and getting as much excitement and applause as the battle of Britain memorial flight always does at the end of the show. Only a couple of years ago it was my privilege to meet Johnny when Lord Hague was in Newark promoting his excellent book. I was delighted to see on 7 November that Johnny received his perhaps belatedly awarded MBE.
The community in Newark has always supported the RAF and has borne costs for doing so, such as bombings during the second world war. On 7 March 1941 a bomb was dropped on the giant Ransome & Marles factory in Beacon Hill, killing 41 local people, mostly women working in the munitions factory and producing parts for the RAF, and injuring 165 others. That was a big blow to what was then a small agricultural town.
Today hundreds if not thousands of my constituents are veterans, people who worked on the many RAF bases in Lincolnshire, loved our area and came back to settle. Many of the doors I knock on belong to people who were in the RAF—a veteran, perhaps the widow of someone who served in the RAF or a young couple, one of whom is working in the RAF.
I am in this debate on behalf of the people of Newark to salute the people and the serving men and women of the Royal Air Force. I say to the gents who prop up the bar of the Royal Air Force Association club in Newark, the memories cast of T. E. Lawrence and the servicemen and women of the past, the young cadets who are the lifeblood and future of the RAF and, above all, the thousands of men and women serving today who call my constituency their home or spent parts of their lives in it: we salute you, we thank you for your service and we wish you another 100 years to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry.
I thank the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for securing the debate. I am sure that everything he said will be welcomed by many RAF personnel, past and present, and their families. If any of my young constituents want a quick precis of the history of the RAF, I will point them in the direction of today’s Hansard. The background he gave us was a tour de force for where the RAF has been and comes from—it was something to behold.
The RAF has always been at the forefront of technology and we can only imagine what it must have been like in 1918 when flying was a great novelty and aircraft design was very much in its infancy. Despite huge strides in that period, the RAF was still very much seen as an ancillary service to land and sea operations during the first world war. Nevertheless, it played a vital role in securing victory. The second world war, however, brought air power to maturity. The aeroplane became a decisive weapon and the outcome of land and sea operations depended on the command of the airspace and having air superiority.
Between 1939 and 1945, the RAF was at the forefront of all operations and, as we all know from our second world war history, it prevented the invasion of Britain, and supported our armed forces in north Africa, Italy, north-west Europe and the far east. The RAF fought continuously around the coast of Britain and over the north Atlantic to protect convoys, as well as in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, while carrying out countless bombing missions into the heart of the then enemy and now—for the time being—European partner, Germany.
The RAF has been on active service in, for example, the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq and has supported our ground troops. The level of support that we have had over the years has been second to none during all those campaigns. Through its expertise, the RAF has protected the lives of many of our troops. We can also celebrate the innumerable instances in which the RAF has provided humanitarian support in areas throughout the world under threat of famine or flood.
The RAF is moving into a new era with the American-built F-35 fighter jets and the recently ordered Boeing P-8 reconnaissance aircraft, and the technology of those aircraft is at the cutting edge of flight. The same can be said of the technology that enhances RAF firepower and capability in the air. That, too, is something to behold.
I cannot help but think, however, that the RAF has been let down badly by the Government, especially in that vital area for Scotland of maritime patrol aircraft. I am sure that I am not alone in the Chamber today thinking that the Government’s decision to scrap the Nimrod fleet, which operated out of RAF Kinloss, was a huge mistake and an error of judgment. In the intervening period since then we have seen a greater number of Russian submarine incursions off the north coast of Scotland—in fact, more than we had during the cold war.
I did not intervene on the hon. Gentleman earlier because we seemed to be having an extremely consensual debate. I will not dwell too much on the point, but will he also accept that despite the disappointment in 2010 about the Nimrod being scrapped, there were safety concerns? Those valid concerns about the Nimrod were expressed by aircrew and their families. The P-8 is a modern aircraft that will do a great job, as the Nimrods did previously. Now we will be covered by that important aircraft based in my constituency at RAF Lossiemouth.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about the safety of the aircraft, but we have been left with a capability gap. When the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), gave evidence to MPs last month, he described the “extraordinary increase” in submarine activity off the north of Scotland.
In the meantime, since the Nimrods were scrapped in 2010, the RAF has unfortunately had to watch from the sidelines as our coast and seaways have been protected by maritime patrol aircraft from Canada, the USA, France, Norway and other NATO allies. The Nimrods have performed that vital role since 1971, after taking over from the Shackleton aircraft. Anyone who takes pride in the RAF will be disappointed that the new P-8s, which the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) spoke of, will not be in service until beyond 2020, meaning that we will not have had full air superiority in and command of our airspace for a period of 10 years. However, this is more of a plea to the Minister, rather than a criticism, given that we are all here to celebrate the RAF in its full glory. We must be attuned to some of the threats that face us and make sure that we have continuous capability over all those areas.
Finally, we have many serving and retired personnel from the RAF in our constituencies. On behalf of the Scottish National party, I thank them all for keeping the whole nation safe for the past 100 years. I hope that decisions can be made to prepare the RAF for the times that lie ahead, keeping it at the cutting edge of technology.
I apologise once again for being a little late this afternoon, Sir Henry, thanks to the train service from Birmingham.
This has been an important and timely debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for securing it when there is much to celebrate about the past 100 years of the Royal Air Force. He made an important contribution to the debate, reminding us of the importance of the RAF in winning the battle of Britain, about which I will say more in a minute. He also reminded us that by the end of the first world war —by 1918, the actual centenary of the formation of the Royal Air Force—there were 290,000 personnel and a staggering 23,000 aircraft in the RAF.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who reminded us that the RAF is as relevant today as it was in 1917-18. Of course, he is absolutely right. The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) told us about the Lossiemouth base, which is one of the most important bases for the RAF, about the Scottish roots of the RAF—I am sure that whisky is important to the RAF—and the fact that the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft are based at Lossiemouth. Then we heard from the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), who spoke with great knowledge, representing a constituency that has huge roots and an important role in the RAF. He told us of the crews and personnel who live in his area and that the Red Arrows were just down the road. I remember those English Electric Lightning aircraft from my youth, in the 1960s. I think that RAF Coningsby is very nearby, and Newark is at the heart of the RAF’s story, he said. Many thousands of veterans live in his constituency.
Labour welcomes this debate and the chance to highlight the work of the RAF during its hundred-year history. We would like to thank all those who have served or are serving in the RAF for the sacrifice and contribution that they make and have made to the defence of our nation.
On 29th November 1917, the Air Force Constitution Act received its Royal Assent. Today is the 24th, I think, so in just a few days we have the hundredth anniversary of Royal Assent.
Today is the 23rd.
My apologies; it is the 23rd—so in just six days’ time. I do not even know what day of the week it is.
It was a long train journey.
That’s Virgin Trains for you. But I should not advertise.
On 1 April next year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force actually coming into existence. It was the threat of war with Germany in the 1930s that resulted in the rapid expansion of the RAF. New stations were built, new aircraft were ordered and the strength of the RAF increased from 31,275 personnel in 1933 to 264,346 by 1939. At the end of the second world war, the strength of the RAF stood at more than one million. By 1948, of course, that had dropped to less than 250,000, and two years later it was less than 200,000. By 1979, the strength of the RAF was just over 86,000 personnel. The end of the cold war and the reconfiguring of the RAF for expeditionary warfare saw a further reduction in manpower.
I will turn to one of the most important points that the hon. Member for Witney made in his opening remarks, which is the battle of Britain. As I said earlier, I am a child of the ’50s and ’60s—and probably one of the older Members in this room—and I remember many of the films of the period, such as “366 Squadron”. We were brought up on those movies. “The Dam Busters” was slightly before my time, being born in ’55, which was the year it was made, so I do not remember it opening.
Sir Henry, if you will permit me for one minute, I will share a couple of personal recollections. “The Dam Busters” was about Operation Chastise, on 16 to 17 May 1943. We all remember that it was Sir Barnes Wallis who invented the bouncing bomb, but how many of us remember some of the other people involved? I am very privileged to have as one of my closest friends the grandson of Sir Benjamin Lockspeiser, who was the co-inventor of the bouncing bomb, and who died just months before his 100th birthday in 1990. He was one of the most influential inventors of the time, and with Barnes Wallis he invented a weapon that brought the war to an earlier close than it might have had. These are the people who are often forgotten.
Benjamin Lockspeiser was honoured after the war for his role, but there are many like him who worked hard to ensure that we could win the war and stop Hitler’s Operation Sealion, which started in July 1940, from invading Britain and therefore removing the last democratic obstacle to his domination of Europe. In order to do that, he had to destroy the RAF’s ability to attack his forces. We should never forget that the RAF was outnumbered 5:1 by the Luftwaffe in both machines and men. It was the first significant strategic defeat suffered by the Nazis during the second world war. Of course, the war was to last another five years.
My late father was at that time a pupil at Brentwood School, in Essex. It was a boarding school; he had come to the country as a 12-year-old from continental Europe to escape the fascist persecution of the Jews. He was on fire duty one night in 1940 as the battle of Britain was taking place over Brentwood. Hon. Members present probably do not know that area of Essex; Brentwood School is on hill, and Warley barracks is on the next hill. The Luftwaffe used to bomb Warley barracks regularly, but sometimes it got confused and bombed the school instead. When they dropped a bomb on the cricket pavilion, the deputy headmaster said to my father, who was on duty at the time, “Let it burn; we need a new pavilion.” That was one of the stories I best remember from my father’s wartime exploits. He ended up in the RAF himself in 1945. He never told me exactly what his duties were, but I know that at one stage, after having volunteered, he was parachuted into occupied France. That is a direct, personal connection.
Many of us who are children of that era remember building the Airfix kits. I do not know how many hon. Members in this room remember those Airfix kits— I am looking round to the boys.
And the girls. Surely, the hon. Lady is not old enough to remember such things. I remember building the kits of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mosquitos out of balsa wood. I think the real aircraft were built out of balsa wood as well—those Mosquitos were very flammable, but they were extremely fast. The technologies of that time enabled the RAF to be so superior, in spite of the fact that it had fewer personnel and fewer machines —the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was the engine that powered the Spitfire. Indeed, when the film the “Battle of Britain” was made in 1968, I think, they re-enacted with original Spitfires and Hurricanes the battle over Brentwood School, which I was a pupil at, too, during that period.
The RAF is an important strand in the lives of all of us who grew up after the war in the ’50s and ’60s, and subsequently. The cost of the battle of Britain was very high. Of the nearly 3,000 air crew who fought, 544 lost their lives and of the remainder, a further 814 died before the end of the war. We should remember that not all those fighters were British. Fighter Command was a cosmopolitan mix, and some reference has been made to that this afternoon. There were 141 Poles, 87 Czechs, 24 Belgians and 13 Free French killed, who swelled the ranks of those who died fighting in the RAF as pilots and other crew in the battle of Britain and throughout the second world war.
As of October 2017, the RAF consists of 30,560 full-time, trained personnel, against a 2020 target of 31,750. The RAF as we know it today—reference has been made to this already—is at the centre of the UK’s fight against Daesh. In fact, in March this year I was privileged to visit RAF Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus with the shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). Akrotiri was the staging point for Operation Shader, the UK’s military campaign against Daesh. We saw just how brilliantly well the RAF works today in spite of the many pressures on it.
Another point I want to make is about equality, which other hon. Members have referred to. The Women’s Royal Air Force was formed in 1918. Although the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was disbanded in the 1920s, it was reformed in June 1939 as a result of the outbreak of the second world war. On 1 February 1949, the permanent service came into being, under its old name of the Women’s Royal Air Force. The RAF has been at the very forefront, integrating its women’s service in a meaningful way. In 1994, the WRAF ceased to exist as a women’s service when it merged with the RAF and female personnel were fully integrated on the same rates of pay and subject to the same regulations as their male counterparts.
The RAF has been consistently praised as an excellent employer for women and has been named in The Times top 50 list of employers for women on more than one occasion. Not only that, but the RAF has the largest proportion of female officers: 16.9% of regular officers and 22.7% of reserve officers are women. The current target for women in the armed forces is 15% by 2020, but the RAF plans to raise its target to 20% by 2020. The RAF also created the first female two-star military officer. Air Vice-Marshal Elaine West was the first woman since the second world war to become a non-honorary air vice-marshal or equivalent in the British armed forces, and the first to achieve that rank in the regular forces. The RAF currently has three female officers of two-star rank, compared with one in the Army and none in the Royal Navy. In September, the RAF became the first service to accept women in all roles, including close combat roles.
We have had a very good debate, and I wait to hear what the Minister has to say in conclusion. I thank the hon. Member for Witney once again for bringing this important anniversary to public attention. I hope that this is the first of many celebrations.
It is a real pleasure to respond to this interesting and informative debate. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts). I am afraid there is an expectation that the hon. Member who has the job of representing Brize Norton will have to deal with and support the RAF and the armed forces as a whole. My hon. Friend does so not simply because it is his duty, but because he is passionate about it. That is reflected not only in the fact that he secured this debate but in the manner in which he illustrated his points and invited us to look at the contributions made by people in all our constituencies and across Britain in the past 100 years. The 100th anniversary of the Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917 marks the beginning of a series of 100th anniversaries that I am pleased to say we will be able to enjoy over the next year and about which I will share some details.
My hon. Friend mentioned the pioneering spirit of the era, which was very much reflected in the formation of the RAF. These were dangerous forms of transport. They were really prototypes of the day. The flash to bang time—the time between the things being created as prototypes and being put into operational use—was very short indeed compared with the procurement process that we endure today, hence there were so many accidents of one form or another.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the forebears who laid the ground for our air capability and dominance. Those included the people involved in the balloon factory that was opened in 1878 and the Air Battalion, and even the generals who initially refused even to incorporate and understand the benefits of the tank. They were certainly not going to look at the skies and say, “We really need something else,” yet when the era of photography began and intelligence could be gleaned from the skies about what the Germans were up to on the battlefield, it became evident that air capability would have an interesting use. That was even before the kinetic aspect of the Air Force came into being.
My hon. Friend and others spoke about the huge loss and sacrifice that was made, and about the stoicism of individual pilots. In some cases, they paid their mess bills before they left, not knowing whether they would return the next night. Because of their commitment to duty, crews were unable to grieve and appreciate the loss of their friends until the war was over. He also mentioned Operation Sealion—that huge threat that Britain would face. Eventually, although the Air Force had lesser forces, its professionalism, capability and determination not to allow the skies to fall forced Hitler to look at other theatres of operation, namely Barbarossa in the east. By protecting UK airspace and, indeed, our land, which the Americans were able to use as a base, the Air Force allowed us to bring the war to a close. It is important to recognise the huge contribution and sacrifice that was made from the air in relation to the other components of the second world war.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), too, paid tribute to the Air Force capability in his constituency. He invited us to consider what will happen next with unmanned aerial vehicles and autonomous aircraft. We are in an exciting, if perhaps curious period. We can now see those aircraft. They are very much on the horizon—they are coming. Drones are operating now. I will come on to that, but what happens to pilotless planes in the theatre of operation? The Chancellor did not mention them yesterday—he did not venture too far beyond pilotless cars—but they bring into question the ethics of warfare and the rules of engagement, given their operators’ distance from the activity. Our love of flying and the need to use the mark 1 eyeball as opposed to a camera lens mean that it will always be necessary to have manned capability—if nothing else, to show presence, status and ownership of the skies from a human perspective.
My hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) spoke about the MacRobert Trust and shared an interesting story from his neck of the woods, which we will benefit from. He also mentioned RAF Lossiemouth in his constituency, which has a wonderful history and continues to make a great contribution to the armed forces as a whole. I look forward to visiting his constituency in the near future. RAF Lossiemouth is now a significant base. The quick-reaction Typhoons are there, and the P-8s will be there to provide maritime capability. I am pleased that as we reconcile the defence estate across the United Kingdom—Scotland does very well out of that—Lossiemouth will continue to be an important military hub.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) paid tribute to a variety of the historical connections of his constituency and its surrounds. He was the only hon. Member to mention the importance of air cadets. As we talk about the anniversary and the last 100 years, we must think about the next 100 years. The air cadets ensure that we embed that acorn of desire in people—that we encourage them to participate and make them want to put the uniform on. I am pleased that our cadet programme in the United Kingdom is growing, and I am very pleased that my hon. Friend raised it. He touched on Remembrance Day, where the air cadets also come in. That is our opportunity to pay tribute to and to thank, in a reverent manner, those who have fallen for our today.
My hon. Friend also spoke about General Sikorski and our commitment with our NATO allies, and about the huge contribution not just of the Polish but of other nations to us working together in the war effort. He also mentioned the Red Arrows, who are wonderful ambassadors for what our armed forces do. They operate not just in Britain, at the various air shows and displays and on commemorative days, but abroad, too. They were recently in the Gulf and elsewhere, demonstrating the capability, determination, professionalism and high standards of our pilots. Long may that continue.
A consensus had built up during the debate, but the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) just grazed the edge of that consensus in teasing us with his views on Nimrod. I remember coming into Parliament and discussing that matter. The Nimrod replacement programme had gone on for a long time. It was based on the old Comet framework; it was not working. There were then accidents, and my hon. Friend the Member for Moray is absolutely right that that aircraft needed to be looked at. Where I take issue with the hon. Gentleman is with his suggestion that we somehow lost operational capability. We continue to ensure that we keep our skies and these islands safe. If we lose one capability, it is replaced by other assets, including Type 23s, submarines, Merlin helicopters and, yes, our allies. This is part of a NATO effort, from an intelligence perspective, to keep us aware of what is happening in the Nordic seas. We therefore do work with our allies. I am pleased—and grateful that he recognised—that the P-8s will be coming online in a couple of years’ time, and they will operate from Lossiemouth.
I turn to the Act we are recognising here today, which created the Royal Air Force. It was born with a meeting of minds between two prominent political figures at the time, Prime Minister David Lloyd George and General Jan Christiaan Smuts, in response to the seemingly unopposed German air raids taking place over London in the summer of 1917. In ensuing reports, General Smuts provided a vision of a central body, independent of the Navy and indeed the Army, of professional qualified airmen, able to advise and direct operations from an air arm.
With the assent of Cabinet, the vision was enshrined in the Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917, which is what we are discussing, debating and recognising here today. With the amalgamation of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps on 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force was established. From the Royal Air Force’s infancy, it was clear that the creation of the world’s premier independent air force was an inspired decision. The new service helped to seal the victory in the first world war.
Hon. Members will know of the RAF’s many crucial interventions during the second world war—we have discussed many of them today. One of those heroic endeavours in defence of the United Kingdom was during the battle of Britain, as well as in other battles. We rightly commemorate those. The few, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney mentioned, and those who supported them delivered a decisive victory and paved the way to ending a war that had gripped the world for so many years.
The RAF has always had an overseas element, and its contributions to the world stage continued during the cold war, following the second world war. The Berlin airlift is a great example of that, when it delivered essential supplies to the people of West Berlin in the first major humanitarian exercise in modern history. The RAF would go on to do many aid missions, flying around the world to provide humanitarian support.
Let us not forget what happened in 1982, in the Falklands campaign. Many of us of that age, understanding what was going on in the world, can still see those incredible pictures now of the Vulcan going down there, punching holes in the runways, and then the fantastic flotilla being able to go down. Against the odds, but because of our professionalism and the combined effort from air, sea and land, we were able not only to liberate the Falklands but to continue to defend them. That, I believe, sent a message across the world that, when we were required to do so, we would protect ourselves and our sovereign territory—and, in that case, the Islanders’ right to govern.
More recently, we have had frontline jet squadrons operating in areas across the Gulf, first in the Gulf war in 1991 and most recently against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. It is clear that they played a pivotal role, working with the coalition in the skies and training the armed forces on the ground, which allows us to look at those two countries now and say that they are free from Daesh extremism. That does not mean that it is all over in any sense, but we can be proud of the role that the RAF provided.
More recently, this September the RAF was again in operation, in the hurricane season, carrying important freight and humanitarian aid—water, rations, shelters and so on—helping to support the people and islands of the Caribbean caught up in the hurricanes. History has shown that, whether employed in campaigns or providing vital aid around the world, time and time again in the past 100 years the UK has called on the RAF’s service, and the RAF has delivered.
It is important for us to thank and recognise all those who have been involved, whose tireless endeavours have cemented the RAF’s reputation as dedicated and professional—indeed, it is exactly what the 1917 Act envisaged a hundred years ago. It is fair to say that other air forces rate themselves by comparison with the RAF—certainly the Americans do, as do our NATO allies.
I turn to the commemorations that mark the anniversary. The capstone event of the centenary celebrations will take place on 10 July 2018 in London. That will allow us to both reflect on and commemorate the sacrifices made by our brave service personnel as well as to celebrate what the Royal Air Force stands for today. A memorial service, a parade and a flypast involving more than 100 aircraft, supported by more than 1,300 service personnel, will make it a truly unforgettable event.
We should not forget that the celebration is not just by the RAF for the RAF. It is for all generations of all walks of life across the UK to participate in. From a touring display of influential RAF aircraft involving six cities across the UK, to celebratory concerts and a baton relay, historic events will take place, including that taking place at Brize Norton, which I understand my hon. Friend is already involved with.
It should be mentioned that once service personnel have done their flying, packed up and handed over their uniform, they still need to be looked after. I am pleased that that concept is not new today as we ensure that we take care of our veterans; it is something that the RAF recognised needed to be done 100 years ago as well. I pay tribute to all armed forces charities, but today particularly those connected to the Royal Air Force. The RAF Benevolent Fund was set up in the early days by Lord Trenchard in 1919 to assist airmen following the end of the first world war. Charities provide integral support to the men and women of the Air Force. Much has been said about the role of women. We should not forget that while society prevented women from taking on a combat role, because they were pilots moving aircraft to and fro as well as instructors, and they were competent in what they did, they played a vital role. On reflection, society saw their contribution in the two wars, and that changed attitudes, providing greater opportunities for employment and for parity with men in what they could do.
Of course, the RAF played a role in delivering those incredibly brave women who operated as part of the Special Operations Executive in occupied Europe. While society at the time did not think it was right for them to be on the frontline, many of them held some of the most dangerous roles in the war, and many paid the ultimate price for doing so.
One of the most moving places to go to is the Special Forces Club. It is difficult to get into, as one needs to know someone in the Special Forces to get in. However, once in there, there is a staircase where every picture that has a certain type of frame on it is of someone who was killed. The number of women in those portraits on that staircase is truly phenomenal. I therefore absolutely concur with my hon. Friend. The contribution they made to our society, doing the most difficult of tasks in another country, completely alone, is truly phenomenal. We owe them a massive debt of gratitude.
To turn to the future, we have touched on where things might go for the next 100 years and I am pleased to say that, thanks to investment—£178 billion of procurement is coming though over the next decade—we will have some state-of-the-art equipment that the RAF will be very proud of. The first 13 F-35Bs have been delivered and will become operational in 2018. We are upgrading the Typhoon so that it can take the Brimstone mark 2 missile. We have Protector, the UAV upgrade from the Reaper and Predator coming online. Watchkeeper is also proving to be a formidable asset. We have already mentioned the P-8A, a maritime aircraft that will be in Scotland in the very near future. There are exciting times ahead for the RAF and its service personnel.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) made clear, giving interesting numbers that I will not repeat, the role that women are taking on. That is worth mentioning. The RAF leads in that. We want the brightest and the best in our armed forces, and that includes the RAF. We have a target to see an increase in women in the armed forces to 20% by 2020; and it is in the RAF that they are excelling and going beyond those numbers, and that should be recognised.
I recall, during the start of the coalition against Daesh, that one of the images we received across the desk at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was of a pilot from the United Arab Emirates in the cockpit of an F-16, refuelling from an American tanker over Iraq—a female pilot. If that is happening, given all the sensitivities of that in the middle east, it shows us that there should not be a single role that women should be prevented from applying for. That is now the case right across our armed forces, but the RAF is leading the game on that and it is to be congratulated. Moving forward, we want to see not only more women in the armed forces but more people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. We should be trying to reflect the society that supports our armed forces.
Throughout its 100 years, the RAF has also sought to exploit its technological advantage. That is why we are looking to see the Lightning, the F-35, take its role at RAF Marham and the P-8 aircraft take its place at Lossiemouth as well. Allying the expertise of the RAF to state-of-the-art technology will give the RAF capability and influence far exceeding what simple numbers would imply. It is therefore fitting that we use the RAF’s centenary to focus on and support science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and to deliver the largest STEM programme of any Government Department. I stress that because it will include STEM projects across the country and offer dedicated STEM residential courses at RAF bases. The Government’s commitment to championing an interest in science and engineering in schools is clear, and the RAF is ideally placed to show young people of the United Kingdom how they can be applied in practice to deliver a modern Air Force.
Finally, the RAF recognises that the years that follow will be no less important to the Air Force than the 100 years we have discussed and reflected on today. We need to make sure that the legacy is carried forward. To ensure that it is, the RAF will build on Lord Trenchard’s founding principles of training, education and excellence to create an RAF training, education and apprenticeship system for the next century, so that we are able to deliver the next generation Air Force. Training academies are planned for RAF Cranwell and RAF Cosford to make sure that that actually happens.
I hope all hon. Members will join me in wishing the RAF well in its centenary year, and I hope all will have the opportunity to support the events around the country commemorating its sacrifices, celebrating its achievements and inspiring future generations. I was very moved by a comment made by one hon. Member about the brand itself and when we mention somebody who has served in the RAF or an event that took place in the first or second world wars. As Minister for Defence People, it has become clear to me that it is the people who matter the most in our armed forces. If we do not have the professionalism of the people, if we cannot attract the best to come in and provide the best pilots and the best people to serve, we will not have the hard power that we strive for. If we do not have the hard power, then we do not have the soft power to do what Britain does best: play a role on the international stage. Extrapolating backwards, it is critical that we keep doing our best to recruit the best to join all our armed forces. Today, we pay tribute to the RAF, what has happened over the last 100 years and what will happen over the next.
I call Robert Courts to wind up; I would be grateful if he could try to finish by 4.30 pm so that the Question can be put.
I will certainly do that, Sir Henry. I am very grateful indeed to every hon. Member who has come along and made a contribution today. I wanted to have a wide-ranging debate that looked at every aspect of the Air Force, from its foundation 100 years ago, through history, to today and indeed to the future. I think we have done so, and I am grateful to everybody who has made such wide-ranging contributions, any one of which we could have turned into an entire debate. If hon. Members will pardon me, I will spend one or two moments picking out some things that I found particularly moving.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) mentioned the whole RAF family; we must not forget the dedication and duty not only of those who serve but of their families as well. That is particularly important today as we look at the whole force concept, which is not necessarily only about people in uniform who are serving but is much wider. He also mentioned the recent visit of a Voyager to Argentina for the first time since the Falklands war, which, of course, flew from Brize Norton in my constituency.
Of course; where else?
Where else? It very much marked one of the most moving things: old adversaries becoming friends. As the Minister said, the Air Force has a real soft-power role in making that very clear. He also talked about manned and unmanned aircraft, which is very much the debate of the future.
My admiration for my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) is unbounded after he managed to raise whisky and aviation in the same debate. They are not normally a pair that team up with happy results—or at least not when paired at the same time. I shall have to visit Morayvia, which sounds a wonderful place. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick)—that border town between those Air Force counties—is almost at the heart of the Air Force. He quite rightly mentioned air cadets, who are very much the future, and the role of the Polish community. I am very happy to hear how strongly commemorated that still is.
I thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) for bringing us up to date with some of the current controversies, which, of course, there will always be in such important matters. I was moved by the references of the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) to films and Airfix. Although those were light-hearted comments, he made very clear how the Air Force has become part of the nation’s psyche and emotional make-up and I am grateful to him for making that clear in the way he did. He also referenced technology and the Mosquito—the old, wooden aircraft—which was at the forefront of technology and was, for a time, the fastest aircraft in the world. That was the technology then; we have different technology now.
I am grateful to the Minister for dealing with a large number of very important things, including the importance of STEM, humanitarian input—not only in Argentina but with the recent hurricane relief, which, again, came from Brize Norton in my constituency—and the professionalism and dedication shown in the battle of Britain, with the incredible disparity in numbers, which was displayed then and always has been since. It was also shown in the Vulcan raids on the Falklands—the Operation Black Buck raids, which were the longest-ranged bombing raids in history. That incredible professionalism is on display today as it was in the 1980s and the 1940s.
I am also grateful to the Minister for rightly reminding us of the multi-layered aspects of defence, with regards to Nimrod and P-8A procurement, and for his comments about ownership of the skies, confirming the view that there will always be a need for a manned presence, in some aspects at least, although we accept and welcome the presence of unmanned aerial vehicles as well. He took us from the past all the way through to the present and on to the future, and I am grateful to him for doing so.
We all display our communities’ enormous pride in our armed forces personnel. We have all spoken of those today, and very movingly, too—everything from Brize Norton to Newark to Lossiemouth and all over the entirety of the UK. We are all on the same ground here: we have the finest Air Force in the world and we speak very much of our assets. In military terminology, assets tend to be platforms or aircraft, but they are of course not really the main asset. The main asset is the men and women of our Air Force. They have always made the Royal Air Force what it is and what it always will be in the future. We salute all the serving men and women of our Air Force—past, present and future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the 100th anniversary of the Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917.